The Week That Was: Dec. 28-Jan. 3Posted by jstevrtc on January 4th, 2011
David Ely is an RTC Contributor
Happy New Year everyone! TWTW hopes that you all had a great and safe NYE and then had a better time recovering on your couch over the following couple of days with some college hoops on the flat screen. And TWTW won’t judge if your condition forced you to watch said games on mute — that’s just a casualty of the season.
What We Learned
It looks like Kentucky is headed toward another 14-2 type run through the SEC this season, and a perfect 16-0 record in conference play isn’t out of the question. That statement isn’t as much based off of how the Wildcats are playing (though TWTW was very impressed with how UK dismantled Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center on New Year’s Eve) but it’s a reflection of just how putrid the rest of the conference seems at this point. The Wildcats are the only SEC team ranked in the AP Top 25. Tennessee’s reputation has dropped faster than Goldman Sachs’, going from a chic dark horse Final Four pick to a team on the bubble. Losses to Oakland, Charlotte and College of Charleston coupled with unimpressive wins over Belmont and Tennessee-Martin will do that to you. Now the Vols face Memphis in their last game before Bruce Pearl’s eight-game suspension. Cross Tennessee off your list of possible teams that could challenge Kentucky. That leaves us with Florida and Vanderbilt as Kentucky’s top competition. TWTW is not a fan of Florida, who recently lost to Jacksonville, so if we were to circle a possible first conference loss for Kentucky we’d have to choose Feb. 12 at Vanderbilt. That game is the last of a three-game stretch in which the Wildcats travel to Florida and host Tennessee. Vandy took Missouri down to the wire in an overtime loss on Dec. 4 and the Commodores beat North Carolina during the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Don’t be shocked if Vanderbilt hands Kentucky its first conference loss that night.
Voters love them some Duke Blue Devils. Despite being without stud freshman Kyrie Irving for a month now, Duke remains undefeated and the unquestioned #1 team in the country. How tight is the Blue Devils’ grip on the top spot in the AP poll? The Blue Devils have been the unanimous #1 team in the nation every week except for one since Nov. 29. The lone time they didn’t receive all 65 first place votes came in the Week 7 poll when Ohio State took one vote, and whomever deemed the Buckeyes #1 for some reason changed his mind the following week as the Blue Devils have swept the voting in the last two polls. While TWTW understands voters’ inclinations to side with the defending national champions until they’ve lost a game, we have to put Duke behind Ohio State and Kansas in our own personal power rankings. TWTW stated its admiration for the Buckeyes last week, and Kansas similarly boasts a multifaceted attack with no shortage of playmakers. And while Duke has been forced to adapt to life without Irving, Kansas is enjoying the addition of its own sensational rookie – Josh Selby.
TWTW would like to issue a formal apology. Notre Dame, we’re sorry. We’re sorry we called you a fraud after you lost to Kentucky. And we’re sorry we claimed the Irish had a substandard defense. Notre Dame certainly made us look foolish with its 14-point takedown of Georgetown in which the Irish held the perimeter-heavy Hoyas to just 55 points on 4-22 shooting from three. That performance was so impressive that TWTW is all-in on the Irish despite their ensuing loss at Syracuse. While Notre Dame’s offense is usually the start and end of any conversation on its bona fides as a top team, should the Irish finish near the top of the Big East, it will be because of their improved play on the defensive end. The Irish do a great job of limiting possessions by crashing the boards (they ranks #10 in opponent’s offensive rebounding %), and they don’t give up easy points (the Irish are #3 defensive FTRate). Those two traits should pay off for Notre Dame in the rough and tumble Big East where games are won with offensive execution in the half court. And few teams are better in that setting than Notre Dame. ND’s offense checks in at #13 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric, #2 in A/FGM and #8 in turnover %.
If a team dominates the Pac-10, does anyone in the college basketball world notice? Washington should be an interesting case study in how a bad conference can impact a team’s March Madness seeding. The Huskies have flown under the radar this year despite that their only losses are to three of the top 18 teams in the country according to the latest AP poll (#10 Kentucky, #16 Texas A&M and #18 Michigan State). The downside is that those are the only ranked teams the Huskies have played and will play this year (and the Aggies weren’t even ranked when the two teams played). It’s going to be hard for them to build momentum in the polls because their conference commands such little respect. Washington scored two impressive wins on the road this past week – an overtime win at USC and an 11-road win over UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. The Trojans came into their date with UW riding momentum from wins over Texas and Tennessee in addition to a two-point loss at Kansas, while the Bruins were winners of six in a row, including a when over BYU. But Washington only jumped from unranked to #23 after its LA sweep. Right now the Huskies are a projected 5-seed in both ESPN’s and SI.com’s bracket projections. It’s going to be hard to imagine anything better than a 3-seed for Washington even if it goes 16-2 in the Pac-10.
TWTW doesn’t know what to make of Purdue. Back in November following the Boilermakers’ loss to Richmond and their overtime win at Virginia Tech, TWTW wrote that it was concerned about Purdue. Specifically, we were concerned about the Boilermakers’ ability to score enough to be competitive in the Big Ten. All Purdue has done since then is rip off seven-straight wins, and while the Boilermakers haven’t exactly lit up any scoreboards, their top two offensive games came at the start of conference play. Purdue scored 80 points in a win at Michigan and 82 in a home win over Northwestern. Key for Purdue has been how E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson have thrived in their roles as team leaders. Both Moore and Johnson are averaging at least four more points a game compared to last year, while Moore’s assists are up and Johnson is rebounding at a higher rate. The only thing that makes TWTW reluctant to place Purdue in its list of Final Four contenders, is the Boilermakers’ lack of a quality win outside of their one over the Hokies. Purdue has been able to build momentum because of a soft schedule, after opening Big Ten play against Michigan and Northwestern, Purdue now faces Penn State and Iowa. We won’t know for certain where the Boilermakers stand until this murderer’s row beginning Jan. 13: at Minnesota, at West Virginia, vs. Michigan State and at Ohio State.
The three pieces of news to know if you’ve been living in complete isolation all week.
What is Mississippi State thinking? The school announced in a release Monday that both Renardo Sidney and Elgin Bailey were reinstated to the program after they were suspended indefinitely for their part in a pregame brawl on Dec. 23. While Sidney seems committed to being a Bulldog for the time being, Bailey intends to transfer to another school. This is a ridiculous turn of events to what already was an absurd story. MSU coach Rick Stansbury was quoted in a release saying, “Hopefully, by sending Sid and Elgin home following the incident, a strong message was sent that this type of behavior is unacceptable.” Whatever message sent by the initial punishment has been undermined by a reinstatement a whopping 11 days later. What does a player have to do to get kicked out of Mississippi State’s basketball program? Apparently sending roundhouse after roundhouse to your teammate’s face doesn’t cut it – at least not when you’re an NBA prospect.
Kyrie Irving’s toe will be evaluated this week, said Mike Krzyzewski after Duke’s win over Miami this past Sunday. This evaluation will help determine whether or not Irving returns to the court this year. Irving has been out since a Dec. 4 win against Butler. Irving’s father, Drederick Irving, discussed the injury in the Durham Herald-Sun, and his quotes don’t necessarily reflect a man confident that his son will play again this year.
“We’re still not really sure,” Drederick Irving said. “Right now, we don’t have anything. We’re going to wait until they do X-Rays, more X-Rays, and do a comparison.”
This next bit isn’t as much a story as it as a glimpse at the St. John’s schedule through the end of the month. It’s only a schedule in the loosest sense of the word. Death March is more like it. The Red Storm have seven straight games against ranked teams, and that comes right after their win Monday against Georgetown. So in reality, it’s eight games in a row against a ranked foe. That’s insane. Most teams don’t play eight ranked teams in an entire season, and the Johnnies will do so in less than a month. St. John’s’ win over Georgetown was pivotal for preserving momentum gained from a 2-0 start in the Big East. It will be tough for the Red Storm to make it through this stretch with their NCAA hopes still intact, but a win over the Hoyas was a good first step. Pause for a second, though, to think about the progress already made under first-year coach Steve Lavin. The fact that we’re talking about St. Johns and the NCAAs in January means that he already has this program heading in the right direction.
Pour This Man a Drink
Poor Kemba Walker. The clubhouse leader for National Player of the Year is quickly discovering that being the only guy on his team who can create his own points is a far greater burden during conference play – and that it’s a formula that doesn’t lend itself to much team success in the Big East. After storming out to a 10-0 record, the Huskies got their tails handed to them in a 15-point loss at Pittsburgh and then needed overtime to beat South Florida at home on New Year’s Eve. In both games, points were hard to come by for Walker. While he scored 31 and 24 points against Pitt and USF, respectively, he needed 27 shots from the field and 11 free throws to get there in the Pitt loss and 18 and 11 in the win over the Bulls. Walker has shot under 50% in his past four games, and he’s 4-16 from beyond the arc in Big East play. UConn needs Walker to be as efficient with the ball as possible if it hopes to sustain its early season success. Walker currently takes 34.5% of the Huskies shots (14th in the nation) and he’s involved in 31.5% of their offensive possessions (18th). Given his 6-1, 172-pound frame, you have to wonder if Walker can sustain that kind of workload. Jim Calhoun’s #1 priority right now has to be finding a reliable second option to lighten Walker’s load, but the question is, to whom does he turn. Alex Oriakhi (11.3 ppg) is an option, but as a forward he needs someone to get him the ball down low. Someone in the Shabazz Napier/Jeremy Lamb/Roscoe Smith trio needs to step up.
KenPom vs. the AP
Here we address one team whose ranking in the KenPom and AP Top 25 polls* doesn’t match up. Then we try to determine which ranking more accurately reflects where the squad in question should be placed in the nation’s hoops hierarchy. (*Disclaimer: The rankings are based off the AP Top 25’s Week 9 poll, while KenPom’s is through games played through Jan. 2).
This week’s team is San Diego State. The Aztecs currently are #6 in the AP but #20 according to KenPom.
Why San Diego State should be #6: The Aztecs have replaced Butler as everyone’s favorite mid-major team this year. The bandwagon took off when they eked out a win at Gonzaga in their second game of the year. San Diego State hasn’t slipped since then. They’re 15-0 and have steadily climbed up the rankings as other squads have endured their first or second losses of the season. The Aztecs have one of the most efficient offenses in the nation when you look at the stats. They’re #15 in adjusted efficiency, #3 in field goal percentage, #5 in two-point field goal percentage and #1 in percentage of shots blocked. Few teams in the nation would have a fun time matching up down low with the Aztecs, who boast NBA-prospect Billy White and 6’7 forward Kawhi Leonard.
Why San Diego State should be #20: Who have the Aztecs beaten this year? Not anyone worth getting excited about. Their marquee win is over a Gonzaga squad that started off the year 4-5 before reeling off six-straight Ws to end its non-conference season. San Diego State has unimpressive wins over Cal Poly (51-45), San Francisco (62-56) and IUPUI (56-54).
Our verdict: The Aztecs just don’t seem like #6 material right now. It’s not their fault that their schedule isn’t overly impressive, but they also have had a couple of close calls against some bad teams that leaves TWTW wondering how SDSU will fare against UNLV and BYU. Plus Billy White has slowed down considerably since his epic 30-9 against Gonzaga. White has scored in double figures just once in his past five games, and he missed the Aztecs’ win over Occidental because of an ankle injury.
Your Seven-Day All-Americans
Dwight Hardy, guard, St. John’s – Hardy has been the catalyst in the Red Storm’s 3-0 start to Big East play. He’s scored at least 20 points in wins over West Virginia, Providence and Georgetown, and his drive to the basket led to the Johnnies’ game-winning bucket in their upset over the Hoyas.
Marcus Denmon, guard, Missouri – In blowouts wins over Northern Illinois and Old Dominion, Denmon scored a combined 46 points and shot 10-15 from three. Denmon is averaging 17.6 PPG and his hitting 50.6% of his shots from three this year for the Tigers and is another example of a player making the leap after his sophomore season.
Kaylon Williams, guard, Milwaukee – After a so-so performance in the Panthers’ 68-44 loss at Wright State, Williams responded with 17 points in a win at Detroit and then one of the coolest triple-doubles ever in a win over Bulter. While not the most impressive night from a basketball perspective, Williams’ 10-10-10 would make any mathematician drool.
Josh Harrellson, forward, Kentucky – Harrellson came out of nowhere to post a 23-14 in the Wildcats’ win at Louisville, and then he followed that up with a 12-11 against Penn. When Tyler Zeller and John Hensen ran wild in Kentucky’s December loss at UNC, the Wildcats looked like a club vulnerable to team’s with talented big men. If Harrellson can be a presence down low, watch out.
Matthew Bryan-Amaning, forward, Washington – The Englishman made his homeland across the pond proud this week averaging 19.5 PPG and 9.0 RPG in wins at USC and UCLA. MBA’s ascent (he’s averaging six more PPG this year) is a big reason the Huskies are the class of the Pac-10.
Feb Melo, center, Syracuse – Melo continues to be a disappointment for the Orangemen. He’s scored a total of 11 points in his past seven games and hasn’t played more than eight minutes of a contest since Dec. 20. After Syracuse’s win over Notre Dame, Rick Jackson didn’t speak highly of Melo’s defensive abilities, either. “Our two young centers were in there and [the Irish] were able to get some easy shots. I knew coach was going to put me in [at center] and made up my mind that I wasn’t going to let [easy shots] happen.”
Matt Pressey, guard, Missouri – While he’s technically a junior, this is Pressey’s first year at a D-I school, and if he’s eligible for the Big 12’s Rookie or the Week honors, then he can make TWTW’s Frosh Watch. Pressey scored in double figures in two straight games for the first time as a Tiger when he scored 18 against NIU and 15 against ODU.
Brandon Knight, guard, Kentucky – Knight won SEC Freshman of the Week honors yet again. It’s the third time this year that Knight was named his conference’s top rookie. Knight scored a career-high 25 points in the Wildcats’ win at Louisville.