Ten Tuesday ScribblesPosted by zhayes9 on January 4th, 2011
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
– Connecticut is facing a daunting week ahead, one that will give us a clearer picture as to whether their November ascendancy in Maui with wins over Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky was a blip on the radar screen rather than the emergence of a bona fide contender. The Huskies and their multitude of underclassmen will face Notre Dame and their roster full of fifth-year seniors tonight in South Bend before embarking on an equally-daunting true road game at Texas on Saturday. Connecticut will be underdogs in both contests and don’t necessarily need to win either game. What the goal should be for Jim Calhoun is twofold: stay competitive for 40 minutes and receive contributions from players not named Kemba Walker. If the Huskies can scratch and claw with Notre Dame and exploit their mediocre defense and follow that up with the same type of effort in Texas, the questions over whether Connecticut will have to rely on those Maui victories to propel them to an NCAA berth will be tempered. Calhoun also needs Alex Oriakhi to put his disappearing act in Pittsburgh behind him and contribute as he did against Michigan State and Kentucky when the 6’9 sophomore posted double-doubles of 15/17 and 18/11, respectively. Calhoun will especially need Oriakhi to stay out of foul trouble against the long and athletic Longhorns frontline of Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson. That Saturday duel in Austin is worth the price of admission to watch two of the top perimeter defenders in college basketball work their craft- Shabazz Napier likely gluing himself to fellow freshman Cory Joseph and Dogus Balbay chasing Walker.
– Most expected Purdue to move down a few pegs with the loss of Robbie Hummel during preseason practice, but the Boilermakers have done a commendable job persevering through that demoralizing road block in their season and beginning the 2010-11 campaign at 13-1. JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore have been everything Matt Painter could have asked for out of his senior leaders and top players. Both have played a large bulk of Purdue’s minutes and are filling up the stat sheet in every way imaginable. Johnson’s ability to score with his back to the basket or facing his defender and his constant contributions defensively and on the boards makes him indispensable. Moore has been the go-to scorer, a crafty and smooth operator around screens who is now averaging over 20 PPG. The senior guard poured in 31/7/3 on 11-20 FG in the Big Ten opening win against Northwestern. Still, the real key to the Boilermakers success has been their true identity since the Hummel-led recruiting class arrived in West Lafayette four years ago- aggressive, physical, man-to-man defense. Some anticipated the defensive effort would slip with Chris Kramer departing. Truthfully, it has slipped, from third in efficiency to fourth in efficiency. If Painter can just receive scoring punch from one of his secondary players on any given night, whether Ryne Smith, Terone Johnson, Kelsey Barlow or a few other candidates do the honors, Purdue remains a top-ten team and Elite 8 threat.
– The story of the early part of conference play thus far has to be St. John’s. We discussed their triumphant win over Georgetown Monday night in ATB and in a separate post, and I want to look ahead at the daunting route the Johnnies have to navigate to remain atop the Big East. Starting with last night’s win, St. John’s does not play an unranked team the rest of January with two games on the docket against Notre Dame and clashes with Syracuse, Georgetown, Louisville and Cincinnati. The Johnnies did schedule a quick Big East breather on January 30 with a non-conference visit from…#1 Duke. The Georgetown win, coupled with surprising road victories at West Virginia and Providence, is certainly getting this brutal stretch off on the right foot for Steve Lavin. But if St. John’s merely wants to tread water over the next three weeks, they’ll need to improve on a defensive efficiency that ranks ninth in the Big East and a team three-point percentage hovering around 32%. Lavin also needs his three primary weapons D.J. Kennedy, Dwight Hardy and Justin Brownlee, all of whom played 40 minutes against the Hoyas, to keep up their tremendous level of play. Luckily for Lavin, he has one of the most experienced teams in the nation at his disposal, a group of seniors that have navigated through these treacherous Big East waters in past seasons, albeit with minimal success. After their win over Georgetown, Lavin’s Red Storm are the talk of college basketball in and around the Big Apple. Survive this stretch and they’ll have lasting power in the Big East as a legitimate contender for a respectable NCAA bid.
– The news came down yesterday that Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury has lifted freshman Renardo Sidney’s brief suspension stemming from that fight in the stands at the Diamond Head Classic with teammate and team captain Elgin Bailey, who is supposedly electing to transfer. Sidney will be able to play for the Bulldogs when they open SEC play on Saturday against Arkansas. Only the truly delusional didn’t see this result transpiring. Stansbury has spent way too much time and effort first trying to clear the way for Sidney’s eligibility and then acclimate him to the Mississippi State program to give him the boot after one incident, albeit a public and unbelievably embarrassing incident. Stansbury had way too much invested in this enigmatic, immature and troublesome player, from waking up early every morning with Sidney to work out together or even altering their entire schedule so Sidney and suspended point guard Dee Bost would be able to play after the New Year, including a stretch where Mississippi State played five straight days before traveling to the Bahamas, Hawaii and Las Vegas in what turned out to be the road trip from hell. Stansbury had a golden opportunity to take a stand in this instance and give Sidney the heave-ho, sending a strong message that favoritism towards one player over another in his program simply would not stand. Instead, he gave Sidney yet another chance to reclaim the trust of his teammates and make a positive contribution on and off the floor. Couple this with his altercation at practice with a walk-on teammate trying to encourage him and Sidney now has two strikes. The realistic scenario that Stansbury hopes to never have to face with regards to Sidney: three strikes and you’re out.
– One team that’s crept into the rankings that I feel folks are not talking about is Texas A&M. Mark Turgeon can flat out coach, and the fact he has his team one missed Dash Harris layup away from potentially being undefeated (and considered an NCAA Tournament team) one year after losing his top three scorers and senior leaders is extraordinary. The Aggies have non-conference wins over Temple and Washington that will stand out on the resume come March and should have plenty of chances to pick up RPI top-25 wins when Big 12 play gets underway. Sophomore Khris Middleton has really improved from a standstill, one-dimensional three-point shooter to more of a complete package and A&M’s leading scorer while senior B.J. Holmes adds leadership, court vision and tenacious on-ball defense at the point guard spot. With solid role players like Nathan Walkup and David Loubeau also chipping in, it’s hard to not like the makeup of this A&M unit. Their roster may not be flooded with eventual lottery picks and their ceiling is relatively limited, but can the Aggies remain on the periphery of the top 25 all season? I don’t see why not.
– Fans of a team in rebuilding mode often focus on the performance and potential of the freshmen and sophomores that, two or three years down the road when the team is back contending near the top of their conference, will be the centerpieces of an eventual challenger. For a program like Michigan that sits in this precarious position, sophomore point guard Darius Morris is providing a sense of stability and optimism for the near future in Ann Arbor. Morris has piled up staggering assist totals for someone playing with a lackluster supporting cast. He ranks third in the nation behind only Dayton’s Juwan Staten and Ohio’s D.J. Cooper in assist rate while playing 86% of his team’s minutes. Morris has also boosted his scoring average from 4.4 PPG to 15.6 PPG and is hitting over 50% of his field goal attempts. The popular concept that a player makes his greatest strides from freshman to sophomore campaign certainly rings true for Morris and his 3.03 A/T ratio. John Beilein now has a program face he can build Michigan around. The matchup on Sunday at the point between Morris and Kansas’ Josh Selby isn’t one to miss.
– If you believe in the transitive property and root for Cleveland State, last night gave you even more hope this is the year that Butler could be supplanted atop the Horizon League. The reigning national runner-ups were outplayed in every way possible by Milwaukee to snap the Bulldogs 22-game conference winning streak on Monday night, falling in blowout fashion 76-52. Guess what happened when Cleveland State traveled to Milwaukee in early December? The Vikings blew out the Panthers by nearly the same margin, 82-59. With do-everything guard Norris Cole, the early frontrunner for HL POY who ranks ninth in efficiency among high-usage players, and adequate efficiency numbers across the board, Cleveland State has staying power. In fact, according to Basketball Prospectus, CSU is out-performing even last year’s 18-0 Butler team on a per-possession basis, numbers that are unsustainable but nonetheless eye-popping. Last night was a combination of Milwaukee’s red-hot outside shooting and stellar inside play from Anthony Hill and Butler’s deficiencies coming to light. Matt Howard was suckered into three early second half fouls that forced a benching, Ronald Nored was continuously dared to take outside shots and Shelvin Mack was chased off screens and harassed from his preferred shooting areas on the floor. Most importantly, Butler’s defensive efficiency has plummeted from fifth last season to 78th and both their rebounding and turnovers forced totals are down. Much like Kansas in the Big 12, until Butler doesn’t win the Horizon, I’m not going to predict their demise into (gasp) second place. Still, there are plainly evident signs it could be the year.
– Last week, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi predicted that Kentucky would grab a #1 seed roughly two months from now. While the lack of quality wins available in SEC play throws a wrench into this bold statement, there’s not much disagreement to the notion that the Wildcats ceiling is about as high as any team in the country not named Duke, Ohio State and Kansas. Brandon Knight is more of a scoring 2-guard, but his composed performance against chaotic Louisville and zero turnover outing vs. Penn last night shows he’s making strides. He’s the engine that runs John Calipari’s dribble-drive offense and the most important player in SEC play for Kentucky, even more so than Terrence Jones. The unsung hero for this team is actually DeAndre Liggins. The versatile Billy Gillispie holdover shut down Louisville point guard Peyton Siva last Friday and has taken pride in his role as a scrappy, hustling, shutdown defender surrounded by superior offensive talents.
– As a mid-major aficionado and someone who appreciates a high-stakes non-BCS matchup with just as much enthusiasm as an ACC, Big East or Big Ten game, the Missouri Valley has long been one of my favorite leagues to follow because of its strength from top to bottom and ability for its banner teams to go toe-to-toe with almost any major conference team in the nation. This year, though, the expected MVC contenders- Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Missouri State and Creighton– whiffed on a large majority of its opportunities to collect marquee non-conference victories. As a result, unless two teams separate themselves from the pack and lose only one or two games in conference play, the MVC will once again be a one-bid league. Wichita State lost a golden opportunity in Maui by losing to Connecticut by four. Emerge victorious and the Shockers have Michigan State on their resume instead of Chaminade. Their best non-conference wins are now against Virginia, LSU and Tulsa, three teams unlikely to be playing in any type of meaningful postseason. Missouri State fell to Tennessee and Oklahoma State and didn’t collect one RPI top-100 win out of conference. Northern Iowa’s best win will turn out to be New Mexico and Creighton blew all their opportunities, falling to Iowa State, Northwestern, BYU and Nebraska. The MVC is a far cry from the league that sent four teams dancing (and some argue it should have been five with Missouri State’s top-25 RPI snub) as recently as 2006.
– Two losses that are going to be NCAA Tournament portfolio anchors come March have occurred in the last two nights to teams that have second weekend aspirations. Arizona’s loss to Oregon State late Sunday night is a head-scratcher on both accounts. The Beavers are one of the most bipolar high-major teams in the country. They stunned the nation two years ago by finishing 18-18 and winning the CBI in a year the program wasn’t expected to win a conference game, experienced a letdown campaign in 2009-10 and this season have already fallen to teams like Seattle, Texas Southern, Utah Valley and George Washington. Naturally, they dispose of Arizona State and Arizona in a four-day stretch to kick off Pac-10 play. If the Beavers turn out to be a sub-200 RPI squad, this loss could be a black mark for an Arizona team expected to contend with Washington for the conference crown. Even more deplorable was the loss Florida State sustained last night against an Auburn team that could realistically finish 0-18 in the SEC. The Tigers’ embarrassing OOC losses are too numerous to even list. The Seminoles shot 35% from the floor, 19% from deep and 50% from the line, continuing their disturbing offensive woes (137th in efficiency) that are certainly puzzling for a team with as much highly ranked and regarded talent as Florida State has at their disposal.