ATB: UConn Remains Relevant and Other Assorted Thoughts

Posted by rtmsf on January 25th, 2010

This Weekend’s Big Games.  This wasn’t an exceptional weekend of games, but there were three that, at least on paper, held significant hope.  Two of the three turned out pretty well, but the third was a disappointment.  Let’s see if you can figure out which.

Good to See Ya Back, UConn...

  • #22 Connecticut 88, #1 Texas 74.  If you haven’t beaten a ranked team all year long, then what better place to start than to take out the team on top.  True, Texas was a lame-duck #1, having lost to Kansas State earlier in the week, but let’s not quibble.  For the Huskies, this wasn’t exactly a great time for a possible NCAA Tournament top seed to show up in town; so far this year, UConn had underachieved their way to an anemic 12-6, dropped three of their last four, fallen out of the AP Top 25, and their coach — a man known for his toughness as much as his two titles — was going to miss his second straight game because his doctors told him to get away from basketball for a while.  It’s not a matter of talent on the team, that’s never been questioned.  It just hasn’t been there for UConn; they’ve shown nothing close to the confidence and will to win that they’ve possessed for so long.  Sure, Texas had lost on Monday and was probably going to lose the top spot in the polls, but they were still a potential #1 seed come March, and the K-State loss wasn’t exactly a shocker.  After a half, this looked exactly like the game everyone expected.  Connecticut was listless and turnover-prone.  Texas looked like so many fine teams coming off a loss — angry, and wanting someone to pay.  The Huskies were down 42-34 at the break and showed no signs of a likely second-half charge.  And then — they found something.  Hard to say what it could have been — did they suddenly realize how talented they were?  Did they rally around a “Let’s do it for Coach Calhoun!” mentality?  If you’re a Connecticut fan, do you even care?  Because a different Connecticut team came out of the locker room.  Suddenly, you saw UConn players getting down in defensive stances instead of standing straight up.  They seemed three times as quick and hundred times as interested as their first half doppelgangers.  Like it so often is, defense was the trigger.  Runs of 13-0 and 9-0 paced the Huskies to a second half that saw them outscore the ‘Horns by 22, shut down Dexter Pittman, and frustrate Texas into a game total of 30 fouls.  The offense flowed through Jerome Dyson, whose 32 points (on 12-32 shooting) often came courtesy of Kemba Walker’s 10 assists (not that his 19 points and six steals didn’t help) on possessions started by one of Stanley Robinson’s (17/12) 12 rebounds.  For Texas, Damion James’ 23/7 and Avery Bradley’s 15 points simply couldn’t match whatever transfused into Connecticut at halftime.  Lots of questions, now, mostly on the UConn side.  We know Texas hasn’t peaked already, but what of Connecticut?  Can they continue to summon whatever it was that visited them at halftime of this game?  If they can, the Big East just got even more interesting than it was 48 hours ago.
  • #6 Duke 60, #16 Clemson 47.  This was what you call a defensive lockdown by the Devils.  Taking a page from the way they played Gonzaga earlier this season, Duke allowed do-it-all Clemson forward Trevor Booker to go to work (22/6), but other than Demontez Stitt’s 10-point effort, the rest of the Clemson starters had a grand total of one field goal.  The openings just weren’t there, and with no three-point shooters on the court to help instigate a prolonged run, the Tigers couldn’t get enough consecutive buckets to ever threaten Duke in the second half.  Nolan Smith (22/3) continues to play impressive basketball, as he shot 8-13 yesterday and is showing an aura of confidence that well suits a player shooting lights-out this season (49% FG, 51% 3FG).  It was his nine points during an 11-2 Duke run early in the second half that broke open the game and quieted the combustible Littlejohn faithful.  If you want to know one reason of many that Duke is playing so well this year, look no further than how well the Duke backcourt holds onto the ball.  The trio of Jon Scheyer, Andre Dawkins and Smith all rank among the top 315 players in the country in turnover percentage, with each turning it over less than 15% of the time.  As an example of this, Duke had twelve TOs yesterday in a hostile road environment against a team in Clemson that ranks in the top in forcing them — the Duke backcourt only had three.  We still have concerns about the Duke players wearing down over the course of the season, as both Kyle Singler and Scheyer played the full forty minutes and Smith logged thirty-seven.  But for now, Duke has avoided the injury bug and Coach K is very good at providing his players spot rest during games when needed.  As for Clemson, it’s back to the drawing board for Oliver Purnell’s team.  The Tigers are going to have to figure out how to find more offense beyond the consistently good play of Trevor Booker and the occasional good night from Demontez Stitt and Tanner Smith.

  • #12 West Virginia 71, #25 Ohio State 65.  There’s a dangerous pattern developing for West Virginia.  Last weekend, they dropped a home game against an admittedly fine Syracuse squad because the Orange came to play for 40 minutes and the Mountaineers only acted interested in the final five.  On Wednesday, they played an underrated Marshall team in what was technically a road game though it was actually played at a site one hour away from the Herd’s home floor.  Up by just two points with only 21 seconds left in that one, they barely got out alive, winning by eight after cranking up the defense in the second half and hitting free throws late.  It was another slow start as the Buckeyes came calling on Saturday — not a great tactic against a team looking for revenge from a 28-point whoopin’ WVU laid on them in their own arena last year.  Still, WVU came out sluggish and out-of-sorts, and OSU tap-danced all over them to a 40-28 lead.  Payback looked imminent.  Evidently, though, Bob Huggins got it across to his fellows that it was indeed time to play some D, hit the boards, and maybe hit a few shots in the process.  Da’Sean Butler complied the best to that directive, shooting 2-8 from the field in the first half and then 5-7 in the second half, finishing with 21/8/5.  Kevin Jones was listening, too — pulling down 11 boards at the front of the second-half WVU rebounding effort that ended up producing a 35-23 margin on the glass.  The Mountaineers showed Evan Turner (18/11/4 asst/2 stls) better defense from multiple defenders in the second half and prevented him from scoring a single second half field goal, all five of his points coming on free throws in the second 20.  We’ve said this before — when WVU shows up mentally, they’re still one of the top six to eight teams in the country.  If they play for just half a game in the NCAA Tournament, though, we know what will happen.  One of those little teams who’s waited all year long for a major conference squad to cut their teeth on will get hot and dispatch them in short order.  Ohio State, though, has just as big of a problem.  Evan Turner actively tries to get other guys involved — just ask William Buford (22 pts, 9-13 FG) — and he wants the ball in crunch time.  But it seems like, as much as Turner tries to distribute the wealth, the other Buckeyes are quite happy to quickly pass it back and watch him work.  And you can’t play three guys (including Turner!) for 40 minutes — and just seven players total — and expect there to be a lot left in the tank late in these close games.

46 is the Number.  You may have heard about Dominique Jones’ 46-point explosion for South Florida in its OT win over Providence on Saturday night, but did you know that he wasn’t the only player this weekend to reach that outstanding mark?  Nicholls State’s Anatoly Bose also dropped 46 in a double-overtime loss to Northwestern State where he, like Jones, played every minute of the game.  Both of these players did more than just chuck the ball at the basket while on the court, though, with Bose grabbing fourteen rebounds and Jones corralling ten boards and eight assists.  These two high-scoring performances are only behind Rotnei Clarke’s 51 points for Arkansas (Alcorn State) on November 13 and Jimmer Fredette’s 49 (Arizona) on December 28 this year.  What are the odds of these two guys hitting the same number on the same night?

Conference Wraps.

  • ACC – Other than the Duke-Clemson game discussed above, the rest of this league was fairly compelling this weekend.  The Wake Forest-Virginia game may have shown that UVa has been the recipient of a favorable early-conference schedule, as the Deacs completely controlled the Cavs on the boards and defensively in this one.  Wake’s defense has been just short of dominant so far this season, and is a very interesting team to keep an eye on the rest of the way with road trips to UNC and Duke already behind them.  Maryland predictably gutted the still-celebratory Wolfpack to move to 3-1 in the league, with Greivis Vasquez continuing to show signs that he’s put his early-season slow start behind him.  Today Florida State beat Georgia Tech for the second time this season, exhibiting once again that the Yellow Jackets are an impossible team to figure out this year.  Virginia Tech also got a home win over BC in a Butler-Xavier style ending on Saturday, where the refs took time off the clock after the last bucket to put the home team ahead (in this case, BC still had time to try to win, however).  As for the league as a whole, Duke is clearly still the favorite, but they’re not indomitable, and you could probably throw about six teams into that next tier vying for second place in the league this year.
  • Big East – Most of this league is covered elsewhere this week, with UConn and West Virginia’s big nonconference wins over Texas and Ohio State discussed above, and Villanova’s win over St. John’s discussed below in the RTC Live section.  Louisville snuck past Cincinnati, Georgetown obliterated Rutgers and Notre Dame had three players with dub-dubs in a win over DePaul, but the two other games over the weekend that really struck our fancy was Seton Hall’s upset win over Pittsburgh and Syracuse’s close victory over Marquette.  In the former, Pitt lost for the second time of the week after seemingly forcing everyone to take notice of the Panthers after getting off to such a hot start.  Of course, nobody really thought Pitt was a top 12 team, but many people did believe that Seton Hall could make a run at the rankings this year and had before this week done very little to justify those notions.  The wins over Louisville and Pitt today may have given Bobby Gonzalez’s team the confidence to turn the corner on this season.  As for Syracuse, the Orange gave up ten threes to Marquette, but they owned the glass and continue to dominate everyone they play on the inside with Wes Johnson dropping 22/15.  We can’t wait until Monday’s game at home against Georgetown, as along with Villanova, those three teams appear poised to battle for the Big East title the rest of the year.
  • Big 12 – Tyshawn Taylor didn’t find time to tweet or Facebook status update his feelings after the latest game, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the Jayhawks clowned Iowa State in Ames to move to 18-1 overall and 4-0 in the league.  Other than Texas’ loss at UConn, the rest of this league had a predictable weekend — Texas A&M, Missouri, Baylor and Texas Tech all won at home.  The one exception to the predictability was Kansas State coming off its big home win over #1 Texas with a lethargic effort that allowed Oklahoma State to beat a top ten team on the road for the first time in 52 years.  How is that possible?  OSU has had some very good teams over the years.  James Anderson lit up the Wildcat defense for 30 points, and Oklahoma State at 3-2 is now looking like a serious wildcard candidate for the third position behind KU and Texas in this conference.  Can you distinguish between the Cowboys, Baylor, K-State, A&M and Missouri?  Yeah, it’s not as easy as we once thought either.
  • Big Ten – The Big Ten may have been the most topsy-turvy major conference this weekend.  How else to explain the tremendous comeback wins for Michigan State and Wisconsin, not to mention Northwestern getting a much-needed home win over Illinois (another comeback) and much-maligned Iowa going into Bloomington and ripping the Hoosiers.  The Spartans were down eight points with six minutes left in Minneapolis, but managed to get big-game plays from Kalin Lucas and Raymar Morgan to move to 7-0 in the league.  Wisconsin found itself down sixteen points in the mid-second half to winless Penn State, but rode Jordan Taylor’s 20/6 assts to a thrilling overtime win in the Kohl Center.  Northwestern used a late second-half 15-2 run to keep the Wildcats in reasonable contention for its first-ever NCAA bid, using 22 points from Jeremy Nash and 19 from John Shurna to exact some revenge on Illinois for a loss in Champaign last month.  In one other game, Purdue got another big game from JaJuan Johnson (21/7), which means they won against the Manny Harris-less Wolverines.
  • Pac-10 – Could this league finally start to make a little bit of sense?  From our view of the world, Cal and Arizona are the two teams to beat, even though Cal sits at 5-2 in the conference race and five other teams are at 4-3 (Arizona, ASU, Stanford, USC, UCLA).  Both Cal and Stanford swept the Oregons, although it was surprising that the Bears had to struggle to beat OSU (see RTC Live below).  The story of the conference right now is Washington getting swept at UCLA and USC over the weekend.  The defending regular season champs who brought back a significant portion of its team this year cannot win a road game (now 0-5 this year).  The UCLA game was a bit of a fluke (losing on a game-winner), but USC put all five starters in double-figures while emasculating the Huskies.  At 3-5, not all is lost, but there’s no sign yet of the team we saw last season from Seattle.  Arizona also destroyed ASU in Tempe, which signals to us that Nic Wise and Derrick Williams are buying into Sean Miller’s principles and may end up being the best team in this league.
  • SEC – Florida’s Chandler Parsons may have singlehandedly put UF into the NCAA Tournament this year with his late-game heroics: first at NC State on a full-court heave, and yesterday with a wing three to beat South Carolina (see below video).  Not sure which was more impressive, though… Devan Downey’s one-on-five foray to put the Gamecocks ahead, or Parsons’ dagger to win it.  Presumptive #1 Kentucky at one point led Arkansas 75-30, and that’s all we need to say about that game.  There were two significant upsets in this league this weekend, though.  The lack of quality depth finally caught up to Tennessee at Georgia, as Mark Fox’s Dawgs out-energized and out-played Bruce Pearl’s team behind Trey Thompkins’ 21/8.  What was somewhat surprising about this one was that Georgia got a double-digit lead and held it comfortably throughout.  Mississippi State also lost at Alabama because the Bulldogs couldn’t hit a three (2-18) and, as such, suffered miserable shooting nights from the backcourt players of Dee Bost, Ravern Johnson and Barry Stewart.  Ole Miss also took care of LSU, as the bottom of the SEC West is just miserable this season.

  • Others – In the A10, Temple continues to roll, winning at Fordham to move to 5-0 in the league, while Northeastern, Old Dominion and George Mason all moved to 8-1 in the crowded top tier of the Colonial.  In CUSA, Tulsa and UAB moved to 5-0, with the Blazers getting a huge road win at 4-1 Marshall.  Memphis also destroyed visiting Houston to move to 4-1 in that conference.  In the Valley, Northern Iowa also moved to 8-1, while the rest of that league appears to be a garbled mess behind the Panthers.  In the Mountain West, BYU used Jimmer Fredette’s 33/5 assts to move to 20-1 and 5-0 in the conference by hanging on at SDSU.  In the WCC, Gonzaga easily handled LMU as they continue to hold a grip on that conference race.

RTC Live.

  • #4 Villanova 81, St. John’s 71. #4 ranked Villanova entered Madison Square Garden and with the encouragement of a surprising large contingent of fans, overcame two St. John’s runs, one in each half, to take an 81-71 victory home to Philadelphia. Enabled by turnovers from the Red Storm backcourt and powered by guard heavy barrage of field goals from Scottie Reynolds, Maalik Wayns and Corey Fisher (who, with a faster start than earlier games, pleasantly surprised) and power forward Antonio Pena the Wildcats cruised to a nine-point lead in the first six minutes of play. The Johnnies stormed back with a barrage of their own, coming largely in the form of three point conversions, from their JUCO wing Dwight Hardy. The St. John’s fans roared their approval when Hardy hit the first of three pointers he would convert during the St. John’s 24-4 run, but they filled the arena with noise when Hardy converted his third three-pointer in four St. John’s possessions to give them their largest lead of the first half, 29-18, at the 8:30 mark. Then it was Villanova’s turn. The Wildcats launched a 19-9 run to close out the last eight minutes of the first half, leaving St. John’s with a lead of a single point going into halftime.  The Red Storm took the court coming out of the break, and after 90 seconds of exchanging misfires, they managed to push the lead to three with a field goal by Sean Evans. Corey Fisher responded 15 seconds later with a three point shot to tie it up, again. St. John’s and Villanova spent the next 4 and a half minutes in a tug-of-war for the upper hand. The game saw eight ties and lead changes over that period. When, at the 13:55 mark Maalik Wayns hit a layup to cap a fast break, Villanova took the lead and did not relinquish it for the rest of the game. St. John’s battled, grabbing rebounds off of missed field goal attempts, and fouling Wildcats to stop breakouts, but over the course of the next two minutes a deficit of a single point grew into 11 points as Villanova’s freshmen low post players, Mouphtaou Yarou, Isaiah Armwood and Maurice Sutton each scored a bucket and Scottie Reynolds chipped in four free throws. DJ Kennedy stopped the bleeding with two free throws on an Isaiah Armwood foul to reduce St. John’s deficit to nine. A 4-0 mini-run over the next minute and a half cut the deficit to six, but that proved to be the Johnnies’ last hurrah. The Villanova players slowly retook the game as the Villanova fans retook the Garden crowd. The Johnnies’ fans grew quiet and discouraged as the clock ticked inside of five minutes and Villanova’s lead grew back to 10.  With 19 points apiece, VU’s Scottie Reynolds shared the scoring honors with St. John’s Dwight Hardy. Sean Evans led the Johnnies with nine rebounds, while sophomore transfer Taylor King paced the Wildcats with six.
  • California 65, Oregon State 61. Cal solidified its hold on first place in the ever-shifting Pac-10 Saturday afternoon with a 65-61 win over the last place Oregon State Beavers. The Golden Bears broke open a close game midway through the second half to open a 15-point lead, but Oregon State used an aggressive full-court press to unnerve the Bears and cut the lead to 63-61 with less than a minute left. Cal held on to notch the win behind a strong second-half performance by Theo Robertson, who tallied all his team-leading 14 points after the break. Oregon State was led by guard Calvin Haynes, who tallied 25 points, and his backcourt mate, Jared Cunningham, a rangy, 6’3 freshman, who scored 18.  The win propelled Cal to 5-2 in the conference race, good enough for a full one-game lead over five teams coming out of the weekend.
  • Butler 84, Illinois-Chicago 55.  Butler easily handled UIC to move to 9-0 in conference play on Saturday. If the Bulldogs win their two games on the road in Wisconsin this weekend they’ll have a legitimate chance of finishing undefeated during the regular season in conference. During the game Willie Veasley and walk-on Nick Rodgers became the two all-time winningest Butler Bulldogs in the history of Butler basketball. It was a preeminent sophomore talent though that led Butler as Gordon Hayward scored 25 points, grabbed 8 boards and pretty much did whatever he wanted on the court. The Flames are quickly falling apart and head coach Jimmy Collins knows his team is struggling. Zavion Neely and Jeremy Buttell both scored 13 points to lead UIC.
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