Ten Tuesday ScribblesPosted by zhayes9 on January 11th, 2011
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court.
If I had to compile a midseason All-American team, the first four choices seem fairly obvious: Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette and Nolan Smith at the three guard spots and Jared Sullinger manning the frontcourt. The final selection is up for debate and valid arguments can be made for JaJuan Johnson, Jon Leuer, Terrence Jones and Derrick Williams. Due to his invaluable status relative to his team, Williams takes the cake. His importance to the success of the Wildcats is immeasurable and the idea that Arizona is barely an NIT team without his presence isn’t far fetched. Williams is compiling a monstrous season not only as far as basic statistics are concerned (19/7 on an incomprehensible 66/75/71 from the floor) but also in most advanced metrics you can dig up (24th in offensive rating, third in effective FG%, second in true shooting% and second in fouls drawn per 40 minutes). Walker spurted ahead of Sullinger to reclaim frontrunner status for National POY following his heroics late in Austin on Saturday, while Fredette is a must-see spectacle every time he takes the floor. His scoring display against the normally rugged UNLV halfcourt defense was a sight to behold and the 6’2 guard now only trails the aforementioned Walker atop the scoring charts in college basketball. Sullinger has exemplified why it’s preposterous for people to criticize freshmen inclusions on preseason All-American teams. In the one-and-done era where the premier high school talents are forced to play a season on the collegiate level, the last five or so years have shown freshmen are more than capable of making this type of dramatic impact. We just pegged the wrong rookie in early November. Finally, if it’s possible to play for Duke and be underrated, Nolan Smith fits the bill. His seamless transition to point guard in the absence of Kyrie Irving should be applauded. Striking that delicate balance between scoring and distributing is a challenging one. Prior to struggles against Maryland, Smith was playing the best basketball of any player in the nation.
It’s too early to make any broad, sweeping statements about which teams are definitely elite and separating themselves from the pack. Remember, at this point last season, Texas was the #1 team in the nation with North Carolina and Connecticut also setting up camp in the top 15. At the same time, Saturday’s action gave us a glimpse into that pecking order possibly starting to take shape. Four of the five remaining unbeaten teams- Duke, Ohio State, Kansas and Syracuse- all survived hard-fought, competitive, high-intensity games over the weekend, while, with the exception of unblemished brethren San Diego State, the rest of the top 25 experienced quite the upheaval. One of the discernable traits of Final Four-caliber teams is the ability to win games despite not playing their best basketball, especially on the road. Nolan Smith shot just 5-18 from the floor, Duke as a team only made 6-21 from three and the Blue Devils still found a way to edge past ACC rival Maryland. The Buckeyes shot just 39% from the floor, blew a double digit second half lead and still managed to survive Minnesota. Kansas shot an ugly 36%, including 4-24 from behind the arc, yet outlasted upstart Michigan in a true road game. The same applied to Syracuse on Saturday in their low-scoring affair with Seton Hall. Elsewhere, ranked teams like Missouri, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, Kansas State, Michigan State and UCF succumbed to losses, the majority coming on the road against conference competition. If the season ended today, it’s clear that undefeated Duke, Ohio State, Kansas and Syracuse would be the four #1 seeds. If those squads can continue their habits of winning despite not playing their best basketball, we could see a hierarchy start to take shape. As for the rest of the rankings, be prepared for a jumbled mess for the next two months.
Speaking of Kansas, the more things change, the more they stay the same in the Big 12. The job Bill Self has done with that program cannot possibly be overstated. The depth he has been able to assemble is remarkable. How many teams can lose two lottery picks and their senior point guard and not miss a beat? Self has reached an enviable position in Lawrence: recognizable and historical program, energized fan base, top-flight recruiting and a winning expectation. The reason why Kansas has won the Big 12 every season since 2003-04, and the reason why they’re the prohibitive favorite once again this year, is their ability to play at any tempo, any pace and in any type of game in any environment. Missouri is widely considered a threat to KU in the conference this time around, but their stunning defeat at the hands of struggling Colorado is the perfect example of the contrast between Missouri, and other Big 12 programs to an extent, and rival Kansas. The Tigers are only successful against competitive challengers (North Alabama doesn’t qualify) when they force turnovers and turn the game into a chaotic marathon, and Missouri has historically struggled away from the friendly confines of their home arena. While Kansas enjoys home cooking as much as any program, they’ve shown a much greater propensity to win away from Allen Fieldhouse. They can win games in the 50’s or games in the 90’s. Their offensive and defensive efficiency are both equally top notch year in and year out under Self. Here’s a rule of thumb: until Kansas doesn’t win the Big 12, they should be picked in the preseason. Every single year.
The biggest win over the weekend may have been Georgia’s handling of Kentucky in Athens. The Bulldogs picked up a much needed quality win after close defeats at the hands of Temple and Notre Dame left Mark Fox without a bragging point on the slate thus far, although victories over Colorado, Georgia Tech and UAB could hold varying degrees of importance in March. Preseason SEC POY Trey Thompkins is finally 100% healthy and delivered with 25/7 against the UK frontline while Travis Leslie filled it up with 15/8/4 along with his usually stellar defense. The real key to the Bulldogs reaching their first Dance since the miracle Dennis Felton-led run of an under .500 Georgia team in 2007-08 is the presence of a third scoring weapon. Tennessee State transfer Gerald Robinson is providing stability at the point, a position that is absolutely crucial in the college game. Robinson is averaging 12.9 PPG and 4.5 APG, presenting Fox with scoring punch and also the ability to find Thompkins in ideal scoring position in the post. Georgia ran numerous isolation plays, including a key bucket late against the Wildcats, by isolating Thompkins in the post. If you recall last season, Georgia actually had a handful of noteworthy wins despite finishing 14-17 (5-11) overall, defeating Illinois, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida. But losses to Arkansas at home, at Auburn and at LSU ultimately derailed their NCAA chances. Beating Kentucky is significant, but if Georgia wants to make true inroads in the SEC, their challenge will be taking care of business against the downtrodden portion of their conference.
I realize the Missouri Valley doesn’t quite have the same reputation as five years ago, but what Missouri State has done in the early part of their conference schedule cannot be overlooked. The Bears are sitting atop the league at 5-0, but what is so extraordinary is the fact they’ve already played their three most difficult MVC games, winning on the road at Northern Iowa, at Creighton and, most recently, at preseason Valley pick Wichita State on Sunday. The biggest challenge looming is a January 19 visit to 4-1 Indiana State, but the Sycamores are just 9-7 overall and lost to Eastern Kentucky, Loyola Chicago, Ball State and Wyoming by 30 in the pre-conference slate. I’m not suggesting Cuonzo Martin’s team will go undefeated in MVC play, although that seemingly preposterous idea just three weeks ago is all of a sudden not totally out of left field, but the Bears clearly have paved the way to a convincing conference title if they can just take care of their inferior competition. Martin has done a phenomenal job rebuilding the Missouri State program from the depths of the MVC just three years ago to their place atop the league at 13-3 (5-0) today. The building blocks were set last season with a 24-win campaign and a CIT championship behind Kyle Weems, Will Creekmore and Adam Leonard. All three returnees are now buoying the way for a Missouri State team that could snag a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament with a 16-2 run through the Valley.
Speaking of teams that have conquered difficult parts of their conference schedule, Washington received devastating news last week when Abdul Gaddy tore his ACL in practice. The much-improved former top recruit was a steadying presence in the Huskies backcourt alongside Isaiah Thomas and provided Lorenzo Romar the luxury of bringing defensive pest and human energy boost Venoy Overton off the bench. In their 103-72 romping of Oregon State, Romar elected to start Overton, but it is freshman Terrence Ross that’s making an even more considerable impact to the Huskies cause lately. The Portland native is starting to find a comfort zone on the collegiate level, a scary proposition for the rest of the Pac-10 and a welcomed development for Romar in light of the Gaddy news. Ross has scored in double figures in three of the last four games, including a 25-point outpouring against Oregon. He’s shot 27-48 during this stretch, including 10-21 from three. Ross and teammate Matthew Bryan-Amaning have been phenomenal lately, and the Huskies have already disposed of the dreaded LA swing through UCLA and USC with two statement road wins. Although a concerning investigation is reportedly underway reportedly dealing with a UW basketball player, the Huskies appear to be clearly the class of the Pac-10.
Another season, another battle atop the WCC between St. Mary’s and Gonzaga. While the Zags have been labeled the favorite in this budding rivalry during the past few seasons, I actually expect the Gaels to win the regular season title this time around. Randy Bennett’s team certainly hasn’t allowed the departure of Omar Samhan to affect their offensive performance. St. Mary’s ranks sixth in the nation in offensive efficiency, first in effective FG% and eighth in turnover%. The Gaels are also shooting a stellar 42% from three and 57% from the floor as a unit. Along with the backcourt duo of assist machines and sharpshooters Matthew Dellavedova and Mickey McConnell, secondary players like Rob Jones and Mitchell Young have stepped into prominent roles in nearly seamless fashion. As of today, Ken Pomeroy projects the Gaels to finish 13-1 in the WCC with their lone loss on the road at Gonzaga by a single point, giving St. Mary’s a 45% chance to win that crucial contest.
I’ve been overly cautious regarding my excitement for Villanova after last year’s fall from grace. The Wildcats finished 5-7 in their last 12 games largely because they couldn’t defend anyone and were sending opponents to the free throw line at a historical rate. Their undying habit of fouling opponents sent their overall defensive efficiency nosediving to a lackluster 62nd in the country and was a major factor in Villanova’s early Big East and NCAA Tournament exits. Villanova ranked 329th in Division I last season in defensive free throw rate and opponents sunk 71% of their attempts from the charity stripe against Jay Wright’s team. That adds up. This season, these staggering totals have improved markedly. Villanova is up to 21st in defensive efficiency largely because their defensive free throw rate has climbed to 112th in the country and opponents are shooting 67% from the line. Whether these improvements hold true in February and March will be the true test, but it’s a welcomed change for fans around the Main Line.
Two Big 12 programs entered the season with considerable expectations and have been nothing short of flops thus far in the campaign- Kansas State and Baylor. Talent lines both squads’ rosters, yet a combination of lagging offenses, chemistry/leadership problems and attempts to make up for backcourt defections (Tweety Carter and Denis Clemente come to mind) have lingered in the season’s first couple months. Kansas State has fallen to Duke, Florida, UNLV and Oklahoma City, leaving lone semi-quality wins against Virginia Tech, Gonzaga and Washington State and a top-25 ranking that’s largely undeserved. Baylor has fallen from the top ten to completely out of the polls and have only a win over Arizona State to tout. The Wildcats can hope to improve once Jacob Pullen finds an offensive groove and Curtis Kelly returns, but the free throw and turnover issues may remain. The Bears have oodles of talent, but have turnover issues of their own, inconsistent play at the point and are utterly befuddled when they have to play against a zone defense. There’s plenty of opportunity in Big 12 play to right the ship, but right now it appears we drastically overrated both programs.
An under the radar game of tremendous importance is the WAC duel between Boise State and Utah State on Thursday. These two teams sit atop the conference at 4-0 and 3-0, respectively, with the upstart Broncos coming off a classic 4OT road win at San Jose State before heading to the islands to thrash Hawaii by 24. It’s no surprise that Stew Morrill’s Aggies are a presence near the top of the WAC. After all, Morrill has compiled the fourth best winning percentage in Division I over the last 11 seasons (I know, I know, soft schedule, but still). Boise State needs a big game from star swingman Robert Arnold in front of what should be a raucous crowd. The football team isn’t the only act in town anymore.