Ten Tuesday Scribbles…Posted by zhayes9 on January 5th, 2010
RTC contributor and bracketologist Zach Hayes will deliver ten permeating thoughts every Tuesday as the season progresses.
1. More than the countless Big East tournament runs at the Garden, or the contention for conference regular season titles on a yearly basis, or reaching upper-echelon status in college basketball playing with no flashy All-American recruits, Jamie Dixon is proving his worth as a coach this year more than ever. Few teams lost as much talent, leadership, and production as senior point guard Levance Fields, dominating big man DeJuan Blair and outside threat Sam Young. The departure of these three mainstays plus two projected starters for 2009-10, Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown, beginning the year MIA prompted many preseason prognosticators (including myself) to deem Pittsburgh a non-contender in the rugged Big East. My mistake, Jamie. The Panthers just finished one of their most difficult Big East road stretches of the year with two statement victories at previously undefeated Syracuse and at fringe-ranked Cincinnati. Sophomore Ashton Gibbs is taking his experience from playing under Dixon at the U19 Games to good use, running the Pitt offense with superb efficiency, shooting the ball lights out from deep and breaking the all-time Pitt record for consecutive free throws made in the process. Brown has his academics in order and used his athleticism to make a few back-breaking baskets against Cincy last night. Dixon provides stellar defense and outside shooting. It remains to be seen whether Pitt can stay at the top of the Big East with less talent than the other squads, but we do know that Dixon’s team will play smarter and tougher than any opponent. And that always gives them a fighting chance.
2. The most significant win this New Year’s week had to be Purdue running away from West Virginia to remain unblemished and surpass the Mountaineers as a projected #1 seed at this stage of the season. Purdue and coach Matt Painter have constructed their program unlike many of their other counterparts atop the rankings on a weekly basis. There’s no Xavier Henry, Avery Bradley, Devin Ebanks or John Wall walking through the doors of Mackey Arena to play for the Boilers for one or two years; instead, their 2009-10 highly ranked squad features a group of players that have been together for three straight seasons, such a rarity in the age of one-and-done players and the glorification of NBA riches. This specific group of players- Robbie Hummel, Chris Kramer, JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore, Keaton Grant– have practiced and played together for three straight years now, stepping up the ladder slowly but surely in the college hoops landscape. They took the Big Ten by surprise in 2007-08 before falling in the second round to Xavier and climbed up another step by reaching the Sweet 16 a season ago. This year they hope to reach the top and cut down the nets in nearby Indianapolis with a group of kids that have been through the ups and downs of a college basketball season together more than once- a group of lightly-recruited but tough-minded individuals that will utilize defensive intensity and offensive efficiency to reach the ultimate goal Hummel, Johnson, Moore and others been striving for since arriving in West Lafayette.
3. Think about this for a second: Despite losing three four-year starters that all played 30+ MPG and notched 10+ PPG, Marquette coach Buzz Williams would probably tell you that his Golden Eagles should be staring at a 12-2 (2-0) record with wins over top-ten Villanova and West Virginia and another top-25 team in Florida State. Typical of young, inexperienced squads, Marquette has simply been unable to close games this season against stellar competition. If Darius Johnson-Odom and Jimmy Butler don’t miss two front ends of 1-and-1 opportunities, Da’Sean Butler’s game-winning shot never happens and Marquette has the second most impressive road win in the country this season (just behind Pitt stunning Syracuse). Up two Saturday against Villanova, Johnson-Odom again stepped to the line up two points and 2:35 left on the clock. Both of those attempts bricked, and, couple that with a bunny missed by Butler at the buzzer, the Golden Eagles again fell just short. Rewind back to November in the Old Spice Classic where Marquette held a 30-18 lead at half against FSU and a 10-point cushion midway through the second half, but squandered the lead. I haven’t even included the NC State game where Marquette lead by 11 at the intermission. Closing out games has been a devastating problem for Buzz Williams’ squad this season, and these close losses could very well cost Marquette a spot in the field come March if they’re sitting on the bubble.
4. There are three teams I’m still trying to figure out as we head into conference play. Two reside in the ACC with a combined record of 28-2: Virginia Tech and Miami. While the records are surely impressive, I can’t help but still project both of these teams to finish in the lower five in the ACC standings. The Hokies boast a solid three with Dorenzo Hudson, Jeff Allen and Malcolm Delaney, but their wins in non-conference play have been less than thrilling- at Iowa, at Penn State, Georgia and Seton Hall. Miami’s schedule has been even more pathetic, ranking #333 in all of Division I. The only wins of note are Minnesota in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and collapsing South Carolina on a neutral floor, while their lone loss to Boston College is looking worse and worse (Harvard and Maine have both won at BC). So pardon me if I’m not getting all hot and bothered about two ACC teams with padded records that simply have not been tested by any elite competition. The most intriguing team is Baylor at 11-1 with wins over Xavier on a neutral floor, at Arizona State and convincing wins at Arkansas and South Carolina. Again, that non-conference resume doesn’t blow anyone away, but the Bears have pieces like Ekpe Udoh (averaging a double-double) and double digit poppers LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter. Out of these three question marks, I’d say Baylor has the best chance of dancing come March.
5. All I keep hearing about nationally is how improved Conference USA is compared to previous years. While there are surely more teams capable of giving elite squads a fight to the finish with programs such as UTEP, Tulsa and Marshall showing more life, only UAB has truly been able to capitalize on their opportunities for marquee wins out of conference. While the Virginia loss and struggle against Arkansas was a step back, the Blazers sweep last week over Cincinnati and Butler will prove enormously important as the season progresses. Other than UAB, the conference has whiffed on other golden opportunities. UTEP is the perfect example: Their best out-of-conference win is over an NIT-bound Oklahoma team on a neutral floor. Given a chance to beat two top-30 teams on their home floor- Mississippi and Texas Tech- the Miners blew second-half leads and lost each game in heartbreaking fashion. Memphis played two outstanding teams in Kansas and Tennessee and lost both; now they head into C-USA play with their best non-conference win against Oakland. Tulsa went to Vegas for a competitive four-team round robin and left 0-2 with losses to Nevada and Nebraska while a loss at Missouri State in late November could linger. Conference USA may be more “competitive” from top to bottom with Memphis down a few pegs, but let’s not include them in the same breath as the Mountain West and Atlantic-10 as of now.
6. Any doubts about whether Kansas deserves their #1 ranking were answered Saturday in the thumping of Temple in their first true road win of the season. To put into context just how badly Kansas abused Temple’s stingy defense, remember that the Jayhawks surpassed Temple’s PPG allowed to that point at the 12-minute mark of the second half and ended up scoring 84 points in the contest. Temple had only allowed 70 points or more to an opponent once this season prior to Saturday. Kansas is also an extremely efficient team on both ends of the floor. We know that Sherron Collins, Xavier Henry, Cole Aldrich, Tyshawn Taylor and company can light it up on the offensive end, but coach Bill Self has to be thrilled that his team currently ranks third in defensive efficiency in the nation to this point (aided by a poor non-conference slate relative to other top teams, but still). In fact, Kansas and Duke are the only two teams currently top ten in offensive and defensive efficiency in the nation as the Jayhawks rank second in that category. In case you’re wondering, Duke is first in offense and sixth in defense while Big 12 rival Texas is first in defense. Maybe we shouldn’t chalk up the February meeting between Kansas and Texas as a barnburner just yet.
7. My top five most disappointing teams in the nation in order from most to least: Oklahoma, Michigan, Oregon State, South Carolina, Creighton. Not to strut my stuff or anything, but it was pretty clear to me folks were overrating the Sooners in the preseason. But I still expected Jeff Capel to incorporate two McDonalds All-Americans into an offense constructed around Willie Warren and Tony Crocker that lingers around the top-25 and contends in the Big 12. Instead, Capel has had to call out Warren publicly on his lack of leadership on and off the floor and OU is staring at 9-5 after a disappointing football season to boot. Maybe losing two games up in Alaska to San Diego and Houston should have been a warning sign, but the swoon hasn’t been contained since then. Michigan has also been a royal disappointment despite beating rival Ohio State at home Sunday. For the Wolverines, it’s quite simple: they take a lot of threes and miss a lot of threes (30% as a team). It’s a two-man team at this point with Manny Harris an established star and DeShawn Sims showing up one night (Ohio State) and disappearing the next (Indiana). Just when it seemed like Oregon State was turning a corner as a program under Craig Robinson, the Beavers have fallen to some grossly inferior opponents in non-conference play and appear destined to miss out on any postseason play. South Carolina has a slight excuse with Dominique Archie’s injury, but losing three of four to Wofford, Boston College and Baylor with the dismissal of starter Mike Holmes (11.0 PPG) has put a fork in the Gamecocks. I still get the vibe Creighton has a run in them, but 6-8 (1-2) is discouraging for Dana Altman.
8. There was some hope this season that the three New York-area schools in the Big East- St. John’s, Seton Hall and Rutgers– would turn the corner and contend for serious postseason play. It now appears like 2009-10 may be another lost year for three disappointing programs that play in a recruiting hotbed and once featured proud basketball traditions. St. John’s hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2002 and current coach Norm Roberts has a 64-85 record as the headman despite playing their home games in the most famous arena in the world. Following a total collapse at home against middling Providence, the Johnnies sit at 10-4 (0-2) with an important trip to vulnerable Louisville ahead. Seton Hall rolled to an 8-0 start but have lost four of five with their best non-conference win at Cornell; Bobby Gonzalez is still looking for his first trip to the dance as head coach. Rutgers didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament once this decade and are once again floundering under Fred Hill. Losing big man Gregory Echenique for the season stung and Rutgers appears destined for the bottom of the Big East. Three schools in an area so basketball tradition-rich, you’d think at least one might be able to contend on a yearly basis.
9. Don’t look now, but Oregon may have the juice to start 5-0 in the Pac-10. The most stunning development over the weekend has to be the Ducks sweeping the Washington schools on the road, even walking into a difficult arena in Seattle and wiping the floor of the ranked Huskies. The Ducks scored 90+ points in both wins under Ernie Kent’s high-powered offensive attack led by speedy quick guards Tajuan Porter and Malcolm Armstead. Throw in a paint presence in center Michael Dunigan and a promising freshman in Jamil Wilson and it’s quite possible the Ducks could have some staying power atop the weak Pac-10. With three home games approaching against Oregon State, Arizona and Arizona State, a 5-0 start is extremely realistic heading into a showdown January 21 at California. After non-conference losses to Montana, Portland and a 37-point defeat to Missouri, who ever thought this was possible?
10. Despite a New Year’s Eve marathon packed with action and an entertaining slate of games this past weekend, it was off-the-court turmoil that dominated the headlines surrounding the sport we love. Following an emotional rivalry win at Memphis Thursday, four of Tennessee’s most vital players- senior Tyler Smith, sharpshooter Cameron Tatum, backup point Melvin Goins and big man Brian Williams– were pulled over in a car containing marijuana and guns with altered serial numbers inside. Coach Bruce Pearl immediately suspended the four players indefinitely and apologized profusely over the weekend for his players’ actions. He wouldn’t specify whether any or all of these players in question would play this week against Charlotte or Kansas, but knowing Pearl’s ultra-competitiveness, why do I get the itchy feeling he’s going to do all he can to have these players on the court this Sunday against the top-ranked Jayhawks? Although an agitated Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton did say that “for me it means we start at dismissal and work our way backward. It doesn’t mean we start at one game and work our way forward.” One of Tennessee’s two non-conference losses came at the hands of USC, a team that was informed Sunday that they wouldn’t be able to participate in the Pac-10 or NCAA Tournaments this season. It’s sad and unfortunate that current players have to be punished for these transgressions that occurred two years ago, especially because the Trojans may have been headed for a top-three Pac-10 finish and a NCAA berth. USC boasted wins over Tennessee and UNLV and were finally playing at full strength. It’s hard not to feel terrible for seniors Dwight Lewis, Mike Gerrity and Marcus Johnson. In light of the Reggie Bush situation, maybe it’s time for the USC AD to look himself in the mirror and resign.