ATB: Upset Night in the Mid-SouthPosted by rtmsf on December 15th, 2010
The Lede. Is there such a thing as an RTC Jinx? Some might think so after a couple of our recent feature articles. On Monday, we wrote a piece discussing how a couple of coaches who endured fairly miserable offseasons have turned water to wine with their teams so far this year — Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl. On Tuesday, Zach Hayes split the difference with his Contenders & Pretenders article, putting the Vols as a top contender while categorizing the Cards as a pretender. Of course, the thematic logic behind these articles still hold — Pearl and Pitino are having good seasons and UT is still a contender — but with both teams suffering pronounced home upsets against true mid-majors tonight, we’re starting to wonder if the RTC jinx is in effect.
Your Watercooler Moment. The Burden of Expectations Doesn’t Suit Bruce Pearl. There’s no doubt that Bruce Pearl is a phenomenal coach. The fact that he’s made Tennessee basketball (on the men’s side) relevant in the sport is all anyone really needs to say. He’s won 133 games in six years, put up a banner for an SEC regular season championship, gotten the Vols to an Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, and repeatedly knocked off elite teams in regular season matchups. But he’s at his best when little is expected of him and his team. During his first year in Knoxville, with UT coming off a 14-17 season the year before, the Vols throttled #2 Texas in an early-season matchup in Knoxville. A couple of years later, his team went into #1 Memphis’ house and knocked the cocky Tigers off their perch. Just last year, mere days after his team imploded as a result of the Tyler Smith guns/drugs fiasco, Tennessee knocked off #1 Kansas. On Saturday, as we all still have fresh in our minds, the Vols blew up #3 Pittsburgh in their own backyard. When Pearl can convince his team that they’re their backs are up against the wall, that nobody believes in them, that they’re the plucky little underdogs from down south… he’s fantastic. When instead his team is suddenly thrust in the role of The Hunted, as the Vols are every time they defeat one of the above list of teams, they fall, and they fall hard. Whether Oklahoma State, Vanderbilt, a bad Kentucky team or Oakland, Tennessee just isn’t comfortable playing the part of alpha dog. And until they shed that mentality, they’ll never become a serious contender for the national championship.
Upset of the Night #1. Oakland 89, Tennessee 82. Obviously, any time a top ten team loses to a mid-major, even one with an NBA draft pick such as Keith Benson on its roster, it’s a major upset. This had all the makings of a trap game, with Tennessee coming off its huge upset victory over Pittsburgh last weekend, and the Golden Grizzlies entering Knoxville as a two-time NCAA participant having already played the likes of Michigan State, West Virginia, Purdue and Illinois. They hadn’t actually beaten any of those teams, although Greg Kampe’s team came painfully close over the weekend against MSU. Oakland wasn’t fazed when they found themselves down eleven at halftime tonight, nor did they get rattled when Benson cooled off after a 20-point first half (he finished with 26/10). Instead, they actually got better, using the quickness of Ledrick Eackles and Larry Wright to break down the UT defense and get easy looks for everyone else. A 13-0 Oakland run in the late second half put the GGs ahead for good, as a shocked Tennessee crowd endured both the men’s and women’s teams losing on the same dark, cold evening. There are several reasons for this upset win on both sides, but if you wanted to point fingers at something other than the dreaded Letdown, try looking directly at Scotty Hopson. The UT star who was transcendent on Saturday must have been reading about himself in the interim, because he played more like the same old inconsistent player of old (1-7 for seven points) than this year’s new, improved version. The other issue tonight was Tennessee’s defense — the swarming spaghetti monster of arms and legs that we saw over the weekend looked frozen in place tonight, and Oakland exploited the Vol statues, hitting for 54%, the season high against the UT defense by far. As UT’s Melvin Goins said after the game, “the hunger wasn’t there as much [as against Pitt].” And therein lies the difference between a very good and a great team — the great ones stay hungry, even against schools named Oakland.
Upset of the Night #2. Drexel 52, Louisville 46. Rick Pitino’s team was due for a stinker, and a big steaming pile of organic material was unleashed on the KFC Yum! Center crowd tonight. We weren’t really sold on the Cards coming into tonight as they’ve yet to leave the friendly confines of their new arena this season and the talent they’re putting on the floor just isn’t up to typical UL standards. Still, we’re not sure we saw them losing to Drexel, a team marked by inconsistency during Bruiser Flint’s tenure in Philly. They did it by addressing the Cards’ primary weaknesses — dominating the backboards (+20), forcing Louisville into a halfcourt game, and pressuring a Cardinal (any Cardinal?) to take on a leadership role down the stretch. With Louisville firing up bricks at a 32% pace (or, 68%, if you want to be literal about it), all Drexel needed to do was wait for its opportunity in the last five minutes. A couple of key offensive rebounds on rough possessions led to additional opportunities for the Dragons, who then did just enough to hold off the Cards and get the big win. If Drexel has any notions about legitimacy this season, they’ll have another chance to prove themselves soon with a trip to Syracuse on the slate next Wednesday.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Larry Wright’s Shot Fake/Dagger Three. Just a phenomenally poised shot by the Oakland guard, and somewhat reminiscent of the dagger thrown by Ali Farokhmanesh last March against Kansas. Obviously not as big of a stage or at quite the same moment of the game, but definitely ballsy. When that went down… game over.
- Mississippi State’s Stamina. The Bulldogs won their third game in four days tonight against Alabama State, 67-46, and did so without leading scorer Ravern Johnson who was suspended for the game (see Misses below). Unbelievably, they’ll actually play a fifth game in five days tomorrow night, but it will be an exhibition game against something called Belhaven. Let’s hope that Rick Stansbury has enough sense to rest his starters and let Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney run wild with some of the bench guys (both are eligible to play in exhibitions).
- “Biggest in School History.” Greg Kampe’s quote about the Golden Grizzlies’ huge win at Tennessee tonight, and he would know. He’s been coaching at the school in suburban Detroit for 27 years and has led the program from D-II also-ran to powerhouse to D-I bottom-feeder to (now) annual NCAA participant. As he put it, beating the #7 team in the country on their own floor “isn’t part of the process.” Well said, sir. Enjoy this moment.
- Cincinnati’s Still Unbeaten. Mick Cronin’s team won’t play anybody of consequence until New Year’s Eve (we’re not counting Oklahoma), but there’s something to be said for beating all the teams on your schedule, even if they’re not particularly good. Many teams can’t even do that. The Bearcats are doing it with strong defense (led by the big front line of 6’9 manchild Yancy Gates and 6’11 Ibrahima Thomas) and balanced offense (with six players averaging between eight and twelve points per game). Again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but UC is now 9-0 for the first time in the Cronin era, and they have a reasonable shot of getting to Big East play at 13-0.
- Scotty Hopson. Where did you go, All-American? Hopson picked tonight to have his worst game of his junior campaign, shooting only 1-7 for seven points in a frustrating evening all too reminiscent of the ups and downs of his freshman and sophomore years. When Hopson is on top of his game, there are few wings in the country that can play with him; but then there are too many nights like this where he floats through the proceedings like he’s an independent observer. It’s frustrating to us; we can only imagine what UT fans feel about him, as this season gave them hope that he had gotten over some of those poor habits from the past.
- Louisville on the Glass. We’re not sure we’ve ever seen a top-tier Big East team ever get dominated on the glass as forcefully as Bruiser Flint’s Drexel Dragons did to Louisville tonight. In an ugly, low-scoring game, Drexel pulled down 45 boards to Louisville’s 25, and the UL frontline was dominated 28-12. Rebounding is often, but not always, a function of hustle, so something tells us that Pitino will not appreciate the effort of his guys in that regard tonight.
- Ravern Johnson’s Class Attendance. Really, Ravern? Your team is playing its fourth game of basketball in four days, and you can’t afford any more losses to nobodies before Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost return from suspensions. So what do you do? Skip class. That’s a tremendous team-first decision there. It’s a good thing your teammates had enough in the tank to carry you tonight against Alabama State, because that’s the kind of selfish decision-making that really has no excuse for a senior leader.
Tweet of the Night. Well, if you can’t make fun of yourself…