Ten Tuesday ScribblesPosted by zhayes9 on January 18th, 2011
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
– Outside of Duke, if there’s one team in the ACC that I’m not concerned about, it’s Maryland. The Terps are sitting at a pedestrian 11-6 on the season, but Gary Williams challenged his team on numerous occasions in the non-conference and that strategy should pay off as we head into February and March. Despite losing three senior starters and integral pieces in Greivis Vasquez, Eric Hayes and Landon Milbourne, Maryland hasn’t lost by double digits yet this season, a list of competitive contests that includes Pittsburgh, Duke, Illinois, Villanova, Temple and Boston College. The blown 12-point second half lead at Villanova last Saturday had to be the most heartbreaking for Gary and his staff, a true road game against a top ten team squandered when the jump shot evaded them and their guards forgot that Jordan Williams is their best player for about a six minute stretch. Williams continues to play phenomenal basketball and has to be second behind Jared Sullinger as far as true back-to-the-basket post presences are concerned in college basketball. He’s rebounding at a sky-high rate, drawing fouls with great frequency, shoots 56% from the field and rarely makes bad decisions. The Terps currently rank first in the entire country in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to shoot just 40% from inside the arc on the season. Other than road trips to Virginia Tech and North Carolina, along with a visit to College Park from Duke, it wouldn’t stun me if the Terps ran the table during the rest of ACC play. At 22-9 (11-5) or 21-10 (10-6) with a stellar RPI/SOS, Williams won’t be sweating come Selection Sunday.
– Speaking of Selection Sunday, I released my first Bracketology of the season on Monday and what stood out had to be the Big East garnering 11 bids to the NCAA Tournament out of 16 conference representatives. That is a staggering total and not necessarily controversial. The team that was closest to the bubble in this week’s edition from the Big East was Marquette, who, like Maryland, posted a plethora of competitive losses to elite teams. Had the Golden Eagles just hung on to an 18-point lead late in the second half at Louisville last Saturday, they would be a shoe-in for the bracket. It’s truly been the perfect storm for the Big East this season in terms of collecting bids with the ACC, SEC and Pac-10 experiencing lackluster campaigns and overachievers relative to preseason expectations like Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame and St. John’s all throwing their names into the ring for possible berths. I expect the Big East to collect an absolute minimum of nine teams into the NCAA Tournament this season. The most likely squads to sink into NIT status are probably Cincinnati and St. John’s, but the former has collected such a breadth of victories already and the latter has quality wins at West Virginia and home against Georgetown and Notre Dame with plenty more opportunities ahead.
– This surprising statistic was pointed out during the North Carolina-Virginia Tech contest last Thursday and bears repeating: if Harrison Barnes just made one more field goal per game (these stats compiled before the Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech games), his numbers jump to 14.1 PPG, 47% FG and 40% 3pt. To put that into context, Kentucky’ s Brandon Knight, who has been viewed publicly as putting together a respectable freshman campaign, is averaging 17.5 PPG, 46% FG and 41% 3pt. The pressure placed on Barnes’ shoulders as a preseason All-American and savior of such a heralded program was considerable, and despite his perceived struggles, most believe that this kid’s basketball future remains extremely bright. Barnes is still considered by most NBA scouts and general managers as a top five pick in next year’s Draft. While not the near-consensus number one selection he was anointed months ago, nobody would blame Barnes if he left Carolina after this season to make millions as a lottery pick. Despite all of that, it’s my personal opinion that remaining at Chapel Hill for a sophomore year would do wonders for Barnes. If John Henson and Tyler Zeller elect to return, Carolina will contend for an ACC title. As a second-year player, the pressure and spotlight would wane dramatically from this season. Barnes would also have another year at school to refine, perfect and develop his game and he’d still receive boatloads of publicity and attention playing at a premiere basketball institution. If the stigma wasn’t so strong today for star freshmen staying another season, this decision would seem obvious. I’d like to think a kid with the awareness and intelligence of Barnes will ignore that noise.
– During the first half of Pittsburgh’s game at Georgetown last week and in the midst of a captivating 19-0 spurt to start their showdown with Syracuse yesterday, both Bob Knight and Dick Vitale beamed about how the Panthers were the most impressive team they’d seen in person this season. While certainly high praise coming from two Hall-of-Famers that, as Vitale likes to say, have combined for 980 wins, I can’t help but feel they’re a bit late to the party. Pitt’s credentials have been discussed on this site for weeks now. The fact the Panthers corral 46% of their misses is astounding. Their offensive efficiency behind the workings of an Ashton Gibbs-Brad Wanamaker backcourt tops the nation. Jamie Dixon’s team shoots 39% from three and 52% from two, both top-40 in the country. The Panthers also rank near the top of the nation in turnover percentage and effective FG%. Aside from the raw numbers, just watching Pitt gives you the notion that this is how basketball should be played– effective screen-setting, heady shot selection, methodical offensive production and interior passing that I’ve personally never seen with such efficiency and intelligence at the collegiate level. If I had to pick a national title game today, Pittsburgh vs. Ohio State is the choice.
– If Kyrie Irving returns for Duke, I reserve the right to amend that last thought. Without their star freshman point guard, though, the Blue Devils are vulnerable. His absence forces Nolan Smith to play the point and find that delicate balance of shooting and distributing when he’s much more comfortable focusing on scoring as a 2-guard. The Blue Devils have a difficult time creating open shots in the halfcourt when they’re unable to create turnovers and get into transition, and they’re failing to create second shot opportunities with as much abundance as last season without Brian Zoubek. Florida State is one of the elite defensive teams in the nation and their length and athleticism stifled Duke in the halfcourt. When Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins fail to knock down outside shots, their contributions are limited. And while he does continue to collect rebounds at a high rate, it’s becoming more evident that Mason Plumlee’s production was due in large part to the deliveries of Irving. Plumlee has scored in double digits just once since Irving went down and the sophomore is averaging a meager 2.5 PPG in ACC play. Is Duke still a #1 seed? Absolutely, especially with the current landscape in the ACC. Are they head and shoulders above the rest without Irving in the fold? The obvious answer to that is no.
– Is it possible for a team that has wins over likely #1 or #2 seeds Pittsburgh and Villanova to save their season on January 16? As far as the ongoing saga that is Tennessee basketball is concerned, their come-from-behind triumph over Vanderbilt last Saturday acted as the defibrillator on their roller coaster ride of a campaign. Lose at home to the Commodores and the Vols drop seven of ten, including two home SEC games and a regrettable defeat at Arkansas. The team then sits at 0-3 without Bruce Pearl and the vitriol surrounding his absence would only escalate as the pressure on Tony Jones mounts. With a tough road swing through Georgia and Connecticut this week that may produce a 0-2 mark, Tennessee’s season appeared to be crumbling when Rocky Top trailed 30-13 with just minutes remaining in an ugly first half. Now, if the Vols can find a way to split these next two challenging road games (and given how their season has progressed, they may just sweep), the schedule becomes a lot more forgiving: LSU, at Ole Miss, at Auburn and home to Alabama before Pearl returns. The smart money’s on this team still finding a way to march into the 68-team field if the effort from players like Scotty Hopson and Brian Williams are sustained.
– Other than the ascendence of Texas A&M to the top of the standings with Kansas and Texas, the story of early Big 12 play has to be Colorado’s resurgence under new coach Tad Boyle to a surprising 3-0 start. The Buffaloes team that has already secured a road win at Kansas State and downed top-ten Missouri in Boulder is a far cry from the unit that was blown out at Harvard early in the season and also dropped contest to San Francisco and New Mexico. Alec Burks’ heroics against Missouri (12-19 FG, 9-11 FT, 3-3 3pt, 36 points, 8 rebounds) were legendary, and followers of this conference already know all about the capabilities of teammate Cory Higgins, but it’s the supporting cast of Marcus Relphorde, Levi Knutson and Austin Default that must alleviate some of that pressure of the Buffs’ dynamic duo in order to sustain this type of success in the rugged Big 12. If Colorado can take care of business at pesky Nebraska tonight and at bottom feeder Oklahoma over the weekend, it sets up the 5-0 Buffaloes welcoming Kansas to Boulder for the biggest home game since Chauncey Billups donned the CU jersey in the late 1990s.
– San Diego State has done some pretty remarkable things so far this season. They marched into the Kennel– Gonzaga’s home arena where the tenants almost never lose– and Billy White’s career performance propelled the Aztecs to the national radar. They took care of business in relatively easy fashion against expected NCAA Tournament teams Wichita State and Saint Mary’s. Steve Fisher’s team even throttled California and downed TCU and Utah in MWC play on the road before returning to San Diego for a defeat of borderline top-25 UNLV. But the most impressive win to date was their calculated win in the Pit against New Mexico last Saturday where the Lobos were working on a 16-game home winning streak. Behind D.J. Gay’s 30 points, the Aztecs made it look easy. It’s extremely difficult to play on the road against talented conference foes when everyone is gunning to end your undefeated season. Just ask Gonzaga or Butler how it feels to enter arenas and have their opponent play as if it’s their own personal Super Bowl. What the Aztecs did against a New Mexico team flush with talent, from Dairese Gary to Alex Kirk to Kendall Williams and Drew Gordon, stood out to me as the most impressive victory over the weekend. It’s looking more and more like San Diego State’s visit to BYU is the one major roadblock standing in the way of an unblemished season.
– Utah State will be an interesting case come Selection Sunday. The Aggies have the easiest path to a bid of just about any team in the country. The WAC is at an all-time low in terms of challengers to the conference’s banner basketball school and annual representative in the Dance, ranking 14th in conference RPI this season. New Mexico State has been depleted by injuries, Nevada remains in a rebuilding process and Boise State has already fallen on their home floor to the Aggies. An undefeated or one loss romping through the conference slate wouldn’t shock me. The problem for Utah State repeats itself every year: a glaring lack of quality wins in the non-conference. Utah State played two challenging games at BYU and at Georgetown and lost them both. Their best win outside of the WAC will in all likelihood turn out to be Big West favorite Long Beach State and Utah State’s non-conference SOS sits at #237 with only two wins against the RPI top 150 (LBSU and 8-10 Utah). Stew Morrill did challenge his Aggies with two true road non-conference contests against quality opponents, but it’s still not enough. Some of this is out of their control: nobody wants to play in Logan where the Aggies are nearly unbeatable at home and the WAC has fallen on hard times. As a result, their seed will suffer, no matter the gaudy win-loss record.
– Some under-the-radar games to keep an eye on this week: On Wednesday, Missouri State takes their undefeated MVC record to another tough challenge at Indiana State. The Bears have already passed three road tests in conference play, collecting wins at Wichita State, Creighton and Northern Iowa. Southern Mississippi has bounced back from a 30-point throttling against Marshall to emerge as the temporary CUSA favorite. They welcome Memphis to Hattiesburg for their second straight marquee home game after downing UCF on Saturday. Belmont has been thrashing all Atlantic Sun foes, leading by 20+ at halftime in their last three conference games. Saturday’s visit to East Tennessee State promises to pose the toughest test of the A-Sun slate. St. Mary’s will try to back up their newly minted ranking with an unusual mid-January visit to Vanderbilt on Saturday in a sneaky important resume-builder for the Gaels.