ATB: Easy as 1, 2, 3…Posted by rtmsf on March 1st, 2010
Syracuse Poised to Move to #1. Remember the paucity of insanity we were lamenting in this space last weekend? No longer. Although the calendar still officially says February, March arrived in earnest on Saturday. In what was probably the single best weekend of the entire college hoops season (and hopefully portends a month of craziness), the top three teams in the media/coaches polls were vanquished. By 2:15 pm Saturday afternoon, #2 Kentucky had lost in Knoxville; four hours later, #1 Kansas had dropped its second game of the year in Stillwater; and by the same time on Sunday evening, #3 Purdue had joined the others with a loss. In an 0range-themed weekend with Tennessee and Oklahoma State doing damage, it is literally the Orange, as in #4 Syracuse, who stands to move to the top of the polls for just the second time during the regular season in its long and illustrious history (SU held the top spot for six weeks in 1989-90). And why not? The beatdown that Jim Boeheim’s team put on #8 Villanova on Saturday night was downright clinical in its division of labor and efficiency. Six of Boeheim’s seven “starters’ contributed double figure points; five of them grabbed seven or more rebounds; and, four offered three or more dimes for their efforts. If you focus on stopping Wesley Johnson, Arinze Onuaku (17/9/3 blks) burns you. If you take away Andy Rautins, Scoop Jardine (16/7 assts) picks him up. Rick Jackson? Kris Joseph (16/9/3 assts). Syracuse has an answer for every problem, and their zone, while perhaps not the best in college basketball history as Bob Knight said, is awfully good. The Orange have met every major challenge thrown at them this year, and when you take a look at their two losses (Pittsburgh and Louisville at home) you start to think that maybe they weren’t as mentally prepared for those games as they should have been, because in every one of their “big” games this year, they’ve been virtually flawless.
As For the Top Three… We’re not going to read too much into the losses that #1 Kansas and #2 Kentucky took on the road this weekend. Even great teams lose road games once in a while, and both Tennessee and Oklahoma State are good enough teams to do some damage in March (more discussion on both games in the conference recaps below). However, #3 Purdue isn’t getting off so easily. We already knew that Matt Painter’s team would continue to fight and claw in their inimitable style without the services of Robbie Hummel, but the Boilers got completely pushed around today (-28 rebounds) by the bigger, stronger Michigan State Spartans and their offense was a complete disaster without the versatile forward in the lineup (30% from the field; 22% from deep). How does the NCAA Selection Committee fairly evaluate this team? They’re likely to win their final two games against Indiana and Penn State, which would put them at 26-4 overall and 14-4 in the Big Ten with a 3-1 record sans Hummel. But Ohio State and Michigan State are likely to also finish at 14-4 in the Big Ten, which means that the winner of the Big Ten Tourney will have the inside track on a #1 seed, or at worst, a top #2 seed. But what if Purdue loses in the B10 quarters or semis? Are they a #2 seed or a #3 seed or lower? The resume is strong, but they’re just not the same team as they were with Hummel in the lineup. Honestly, we would wager that the Committee is secretly hoping that Purdue drops one or both of this week’s games to the bottom-feeders of the conference to make their decision to demote them more defensible.
- ACC. Maryland continues to play in and win exciting games, as the Terps’ double-overtime victory in Blacksburg on Saturday attests. Greivis Vasquez is quite literally shooting himself up the ladder of ACC and national POY contention with games like such: 41 pts, 7 rebs, 6 assts. Malcolm Delaney did his best to give his team a chance with 27/5 and the game-tying basket with 0.9 seconds remaining in regulation, but the Hokies lost for the first time at home all season and are now in a somewhat precarious spot with respect to the NCAA Tournament with three straight losses. Another team with three straight Ls is Wake Forest, who somehow managed to lose to two of the league’s worst teams last week (NC State and UNC on Saturday). Combined that with yesterday’s Georgia Tech win over BC and today’s nice Clemson road win at Florida State, and you have virtual gridlock among those five teams vying for the NCAAs in this league. Assuming no epic collapse among any (we’re watching you, Hokies and Deacs), the league is in position to get seven NCAA bids, but in reality only Duke and Maryland (the two title contenders) have the ability to play deep into March. The Terps will host Duke in College Park on Wednesday in the game of the year in the league.
- Big East. We covered Syracuse-Villanova above, Pitt-St. John’s and Notre Dame’s upset win over Georgetown below, but there were a few other games with interesting results this weekend. On Saturday, West Virginia overcame Cincinnati to move to 11-5 in the Big East and position themselves well with a split this week for a double-bye in the Big East Tournament. The next two teams on their flank are Marquette and Louisville at 10-6, and they actually play each other so one of them will eliminate themselves from contention. Both the Golden Eagles and Cardinals had huge road wins on Sunday, with the Cards in particular putting the burgeoning UConn train on hold since Jim Calhoun’s return from illness. In the battle of point guards from NYC, Kemba Walker was the electrifying player, going for 28/4/3 assts, but it was his counterpart Edgar Sosa (6/6 assts) who was able to come through with a clutch drive to win the game while Walker could not get his subsequent drive to go down. Louisville should be relatively safe at this point, but the Huskies at 7-9 in the conference really need two big road wins at surging Notre Dame and South Florida this week to make sure they’re NCAA-bound. Marquette, on the other hand, is playing great basketball right now, as they outlasted Seton Hall in yet another overtime game — their third straight, all wins — to move to 10-6 in the conference race. The ability of the Marquette team to gut through these close games and come out with wins is a sign of maturation after a season full of them. MU started the season 1-7 in close games of five points or less, but they’ve now won their last five.
- Big Ten. The Big Ten is a three-horse race and it’s likely at this point that all three of Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue will finish at 14-4. OSU has the toughest remaining game at home against Illinois, but it’s their only one; both MSU and Purdue have two left. On Saturday, OSU used a strong second half and another ridiculous game from NPOY front-runner Evan Turner (18/11/7 assts/4 blks, but 8 turnovers) to get past Michigan, while the Spartans were able to get back into the race with their win over Robbie Hummel-less Purdue today (see above). Among the three other teams realistically seeking NCAA bids, Wisconsin did not play this weekend, but Minnesota got an absolutely essential road win at Illinois to help make up for the devastating loss to Purdue earlier in the week. The Illini are probably safe at 10-6, but they’ve now dropped three of four and their two remaining games (@ OSU, vs. Wisconsin) are not easy Ws. The Gophers, in fact, are poised to catch Illinois with games versus Michigan and Iowa this week should Bruce Weber’s team drop both. Northwestern was already a longshot, but they lost to Penn State again on Sunday, effectively making it the Big Ten Tourney or bust for the Wildcats’ NCAA hopes this year.
- Big 12. Kansas finally saw its own blood in the Big 12 race, as Travis Ford’s OSU Cowboys jumped all over them in the first half and never looked back resulting in a well-executed RTC (see below). Where was the Jayhawks’ vaunted defense on Saturday? It sure wasn’t in Stillwater, as Oklahoma State shot a scorching 60% from the field and 10-19 from deep in a game where it was apparent which team had more to play for. James Anderson continued to make his case for national honors with a 27/8/3 asst night, and although Sherron Collins and Xavier Henry were ok, none of the rest of the Jayhawks looked particularly interested. Maybe this is the game that Bill Self needed to get his team’s attention as the calendar turns to March. With a RPI of 29, OSU was probably already safe, but this marquee win undoubtedly ensured it. K-State took care of Missouri in Manhattan, Baylor got a key road win at Oklahoma and Texas A&M helped Texas along on their death spiral. So much for our J’Covan Brown theory about him helping the UT offense — the Horns shot 37% from the field and he has only eleven points in his last two games. From our perspective, there is such a clear delineation between the good and bad teams in this league that we think this is a seven-bid conference.
- Pac-10. The only game that really mattered in the Pac-10 this weekend took place in Berkeley on Saturday afternoon, when the Bears won their first regular season title in a half-century in defeating Arizona State. With an RPI of 23, we’re not really understanding why Cal is so far down the bubble list, but perception is reality, and the reality is that the national media has excoriated this league this year. The only real question in our minds is whether Arizona State (with an RPI of 58) can position itself in the final week and Pac-10 Tournament to make a realistic at-large case. ASU hosts the SoCal schools this week, and two wins would put the Sun Devils at 22-9 (12-6) with an RPI probably in the ~50 range. What then would Herb Sendek’s team need to do to get there? Two more wins to get to 24-10? Is it possible a 24-win BCS team could ever be left out of the Dance, regardless of what the computer numbers say? The other eight teams in the Pac-10 are situated within three games of each other between 9-7 and 6-10, so the reality is that anybody can beat anyone else in this conference, and home court doesn’t seem to matter. Removing the Cal-ASU game from consideration, all four of the other games this weekend resulted in a road victory, none as dramatic as the ending in Palo Alto. Arizona freshman guard Momo Jones banked in a shot to win at the buzzer after a fantastic rejection by his teammate Derrick Williams at the other end. If not this year, the future appears bright for Sean Miller’s team with these young players and his coaching ability.
- SEC. With one exception, the teams that needed wins over the weekend in the SEC got those wins. Tennessee once again knocked off a highly-rated team visiting Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, using an 18-0 first-half run to knock #2 Kentucky back on its heels and a late game-ending 9-0 run to close out the game. In typical Bruce Pearl fashion, he got contributions from everyone on his bench, and when UK made its inevitable run to tie things behind John Wall’s late brilliance, his team didn’t panic. Instead, the Vols notched yet another victory over a title contender and secured another good NCAA seed in the process. Ole Miss and Mississippi State also notched key wins that will help their NCAA cases, as both teams have RPIs in the mid-60s right now. Winning more games never hurts, though, and one would imagine that if MSU wins the SEC West at 10-6, the NCAA would probably be inclined to punch their ticket. The team that didn’t help itself over the weekend, though, was the confounding Florida Gators. As soon as you think they’ve turned a corner, they lose a game that makes little sense, this time dropping one to Georgia to move to 9-5 in the SEC East. With an RPI in the 50s, and games against Vandy and Kentucky this week on the schedule, the Gators are far from a lock at this point. It says here they need to win at least one of those two games.
- Other. The game of the year in the A10 resulted in a double-overtime epic that allowed the home team Musketeers to keep the pace with Temple at 12-2 for the A10 regular season title. XU definitely has the easier last two games (@ Fordham; vs. St. Bonnie), but they’ll need some help from St. Louis against Temple on Wednesday night to win it. Otherwise, Temple holds the tiebreaker. In the CAA, Old Dominion snuck past VCU to win the regular season title and will take the top seed into this coming week’s CAA Tournament in Richmond. Northeastern got a two-point win at George Mason to lock up the second spot in that conference. In CUSA, UTEP continues to roll and will win the conference outright with one more win or a Memphis loss. The Tigers, UAB and Marshall are all still in contention for the second seed, though. In the Mountain West, the big game was New Mexico going into Provo and beat BYU by two. Steve Alford’s Lobos are now 6-0 this year against ranked teams, which is a little misleading considering that teams like Cal and Texas Tech are no longer ranked. A home win over TCU will win the regular season title for UNM. In the WCC, Gonzaga wrapped up their tenth straight regular season title with a tough win over San Francisco, but more importantly, St. Mary’s continued to build its resume by earning its 24th win and getting a double-bye to the WCC Tournament semis. You almost think they’d have preferred to have the extra game to help build more wins, though.
RTC Live. We had the privilege of covering three games this weekend. Here are the recaps.
- #16 Pittsburgh 71, St. John’s 64. It was a day for upsets, just ask Kentucky, Kansas or Georgetown. But the Pittsburgh Panthers filled their quota for upsets earlier this week in South Bend as they lost to the Fighting Irish. Yesterday in Madison Square Garden there would be no upsets as the Panthers played St. John’s, a team with a grind-it-out reputation to match their own. No fear of long range artillery barrages or lightening quick guards who can score consistently 3.5 seconds into their possession. This game would be played in the halfcourt with each team swinging the ball side to side as their low post players dashed back and forth across the lane. A quick crosscourt pass to the weak side when the defender fell asleep and then into the lane or a low post pass to a 6’11 giant waiting to finish. And if the clock was running down, bring the big up to set a pick and try to turn the corner and get into the lane to finish. Both teams understood how to play this type of basketball game, it is the kind their coaches taught them to play. And until St. John’s gave up six or seven possession fouls at the end of the second half, that was the kind of game they were playing. The Panthers and Red Storm had about 28 possessions apiece in the first half. The second half yielded just eight possessions more – 36 per team, about average for D1 teams this season. The Red Storm could not catch up if they could not get opportunities. After tying the game at the 14:55 mark, St. John’s could not prevent Pitt from going on a 20-8 run over the next ten minutes that gave the Panthers control of the game. And Pitt nursed that lead through the last 24 minutes, allowing the Johnnies to close to six, but no more, in the second half. Ashton Gibbs played like the most improved player, and Gilbert Brown well enough to warrant a long look as sixth man of the year.
- Notre Dame 78, #17 Georgetown 64. With Austin Freeman battling a stomach virus (he received an IV of fluids before the game), Georgetown’s offense just could never get going. Notre Dame jumped out to a 11-4 lead on the Hoyas before eventually heading into the break up 31-27. After the half, Tyler’s little brother took over. Ben Hansbrough scored the first ten points of the half for Notre Dame as they opened up a 41-30 lead on the Hoyas. Georgetown would get it as close as four, but could never get any closer. Hansbrough finished with 21 points, while Tim Abromaitis added 19. Georgetown’s inconsistency is becoming incredibly troubling. Everytime they put together a big win, they seem to follow it up with a disappointing loss. The latest? Overcoming a double-digit deficit to beat Louisville on the road before failing to show up against Notre Dame at home. For the Irish, it is their second big win in a row, after beating Pitt at home on Wednesday. The win likely puts them in the dance as of Monday morning, but the Irish still need to win at least two games if they want to earn a bid.
- California 62, Arizona State 46. Students rushed the court and confetti rained down as California celebrated its first Pac-10 basketball championship in 50 years Saturday with a 62-46 win over Arizona State. With the win, Cal goes to 12-5 in the conference and 20-9 overall, assuring itself of at least a tie for the regular season championship. Cal last claimed that honor in 1960, led by All-American Darrall Imhoff, and went on to contend for the NCAA national title before losing in the finals to Ohio State. On Senior Day at Haas Pavilion on the Cal campus, three Cal seniors led the scoring: Guard Patrick Christopher and forward Jamal Boykin with 14 points each, and forward Theo Robertson with 13. Cal’s other senior stalwart, guard Jerome Randle, contributed nine points. Cal broke open a 42-39 defensive struggle halfway through the second half with a 10-3 run that put them up 52-42 and settled the matter. The burst was led by super-sub Jorge Gutierrez, the 6’3 sophomore guard whose slashes down the lane led to either baskets by himself or dishes to Boykin or Robertson.