Ten Tuesday ScribblesPosted by zhayes9 on January 25th, 2011
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
– The last second Cory Joseph-led triumph over North Carolina in Greensboro opened some eyes to the legitimacy of the Texas Longhorns, but it was directly following their evisceration of Michigan State at the Breslin Center when I pegged Rick Barnes’ squad as my official Final Four sleeper. Following a dismantling of Texas A&M on their home floor and a stunning come-from-behind win in Allen Fieldhouse against previously unbeaten Kansas—for my money the single most impressive win of the season to date – I think it’s time we elevate the Longhorns from Final Four contender to justifiable national champion candidate. It’s difficult to believe that this same program is just eight months removed from a historic and embarrassing collapse that saw a #1 Texas team in the nation in mid-January fall out of the rankings to a #8 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round flameout, but the infusion of heady, intelligent and talented freshmen, the maturation of Jordan Hamilton, the cleansing of players with varying agendas and a severe rotation trimming has convinced most followers of the sport that last season’s disintegration is no longer relevant to discuss. Trying to discover a weakness on this Texas squad is a challenging task; even the free throw headaches that plagued last year’s team have improved from the depths of Division I to the point where it in all likelihood won’t single-handedly cost them a game. Their team defense is tenacious and hounding, ranking second in the nation in efficiency and in the top ten in both two-point and three-point field goal defense with stoppers in the paint (see: Tristan Thompson’s length and athleticism forcing Marcus Morris to become a three-point chucker) and on the perimeter (Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph are two of the best). With capable scorers that line the roster and a scoring extraordinaire that will take and make any shot in the gym, the Longhorns have jumped from the unranked to the second best team in the nation in many evaluators’ eyes, the polar opposite of a downfall last season that’s long in the past.
– The biggest basketball game in the history of the Mountain West conference will take place Wednesday night when top-ten foes BYU and San Diego State clash at the Marriott Center in Provo. Even though ESPN isn’t broadcasting the game, the hype surrounding this showdown will build considerably in the hours ahead until Wednesday night’s late tip off. The atmosphere should be absolutely electric and the stakes are considerably high: a win over an RPI top ten foe, a leg up in the race to win the fourth ranked RPI conference in the nation, a number one seed and potential undefeated campaign for the Aztecs and a jump to the second seed line for the home Cougars, to name a few. What’s so fascinating about this matchup is the contrast in styles. BYU, led by the captivating Jimmer Fredette and his capable sidekick Jackson Emery, is more backcourt-focused, a team whose guards generate steals and fast break opportunities, shoot 37% from deep, rank third in the nation in turnover percentage and has a member of their backcourt (Fredette) that uses 33% of his teams’ possessions. San Diego State, meanwhile, features an abundance of depth in their frontcourt, led by the explosive trio of Kawhi Leonard, Billy White and Malcolm Thomas. The physical and bruising San Diego State frontline boosts the Aztecs to first in block percentage, eighth in two-point field goal percentage and 23rd in offensive rebounding percentage in the nation. BYU has crumbled in the past when facing superior athleticism and it’s a legitimate concern as to whether the Cougars have the horses up front to match Leonard, White and Thomas. Playing in front of their raucous home fans in an arena where BYU rarely falters should help tremendously.
– So, raise your hand if you had Kansas and Pittsburgh both losing at home in a span of three days. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention/discuss Notre Dame’s jaw-dropping win last night at a place where Pittsburgh is normally invincible just two days following Kansas surrendering their nation-pacing 69-game home winning streak. It’s especially remarkable when you consider that in Notre Dame’s previous two Big East road games at St. John’s and Marquette, two teams that may not make the NCAA Tournament, the Irish lost by a combined 40 points. Give Mike Brey and his team tons and tons of credit for executing and believing in a “burn” gameplan that exhausted the shot clock continuously, limited possessions (ND totaled 37 of 56 points with 11 seconds or fewer on the shot clock) and trusted Ben Hansbrough to create his own shot under enormous pressure. Pittsburgh insisted on switching ball screens and pick-and-roll situations which left Nasir Robinson and the less-than-agile Gary McGhee trying to front Hansbrough in space. The progress that Hansbrough has made improving his conditioning and all-around repertoire from perimeter gunner to capable penetrator, floor general and three-point marksman since his Mississippi State days has been staggering. Although Hansbrough donned the Superman cape late, it was matchup nightmare Carleton Scott that kept the Irish within striking distance by knocking down critical shots all night long. Scott is truly an X-factor and difference maker for Brey, a weapon the Irish didn’t have during those two blowout losses to St. John’s and Marquette.
– I’m starting to really buy into Connecticut. The sweep in Maui was incredibly impressive and equally surprising. The fashion in which Kemba Walker put the youthful Huskies on his broad shoulders and dominated that tournament was a sight to behold. But didn’t we all expect UConn to slowly fade further and further back into the rankings, maintaining their status as an overachiever but simultaneously start to play at the level a team that trots out so many unheralded (at least compared to, say, Kentucky) freshmen and sophomores should perform. Two months following Maui and Connecticut isn’t going anywhere. In fact, the Huskies are only improving, and Jim Calhoun has vaulted himself into National COY frontrunner status. The wins at Texas, against Michigan State and Kentucky and home vs. Villanova and Tennessee will all carry significant weight come seeding time, but it’s the fashion in which Walker’s supporting cast is making incremental improvements that should really have Connecticut fans beaming with confidence. Jeremy Lamb is emerging as Walker’s go-to option for open perimeter jumpers when the defense doubles and collapses on him in the lane. Alex Oriakhi provides a double-double threat from the post when he can refrain from succumbing to foul trouble or an occasional lapse in focus (four double-doubles in five games since his donut in South Bend). Shabazz Napier is even a capable enough point guard that Calhoun can play Walker off the ball where he’s extremely dangerous coming off screens. Throw the National POY into a mix with these quickly-advancing young guns and the Huskies have a recipe for brewing up one of the most unlikely Final Four runs of the last decade.
– One coach that I regret not writing about at length in my best/worst coaching jobs of the season article is Chris Mack at Xavier. Mack is the next of seemingly an assembly line of quality coaches to run the Xavier program, but the difference between Mack and his predecessors is that the current headman appears intent on remaining with the Musketeers as long as possible. Xavier, with current streaks of four consecutive Atlantic 10 regular season titles and three straight Sweet 16 appearances, is one of those non-BCS programs that perennially contend among the college basketball powers. Those impressive streaks appeared in serious jeopardy when the injury bug crippled Mack’s depth. The A-10’s second leading three-point shooter Brad Redford tore his ACL before the season. Starting forward Jamel McLean missed time with a fractured eye socket. Impact freshmen Justin Martin (academics) and Jay Canty (stress fracture in right foot) are on the shelf. Despite such significant adversity and the depletion of Mack’s planned rotation, here Xavier stands on January 25 at 13-5 and a perfect 5-0 in the Atlantic 10 following their 35th straight conference home win on Saturday over fellow contender Temple. Mack rewarded last year’s backcourt sidekick to Jordan Crawford, 6’0 guard Terrence Holloway, with permission to change his first name permanently to Tu. The junior guard (20.4 PPG, 5.4 APG, 4.6 RPG) has rewarded his coach with a season that surpasses what even the one-dimensional Crawford provided Xavier last season. Give Mack credit for keeping the ship upright during turbulent times, but now the challenge is whether the X-men can hold up through February and March playing six or seven guys.
– A competitor to Tu Holloway for Atlantic 10 POY honors is Richmond’s Justin Harper, a model of efficiency, versatility and production who has been running roughshod on all opponents since the beginning of conference play. Harper isn’t just averaging 18.1 PPG on the season and around 25 PPG in A-10 play, but he’s also shooting an astounding 58% from the floor, 80% from the line and 50% from three. Did I mention he’s a 6’10 stretch forward with a huge wingspan that also snatches nearly seven rebounds per outing? Harper’s complete game—the ability to extend the defense to the perimeter, a comfort putting the ball on the deck to drive against bulkier forwards, a knack for the backboards and his ability to take and make good shots – separates Harper from his peers and makes him one of the most productive and efficient players in the country. It’s time that the Richmond native receive more national publicity and the perfect opportunity awaits this week with a trip to Dayton and a visit from Xavier in two crucial contests.
– Florida has certainly been a mystery team this season. Most predictors pegged the Gators to win the SEC and set up camp near the top ten in 2010-11, mostly due to the anticipated improvement of sophomore guard and former ballyhooed recruit Kenny Boynton, who struggled shooting the basketball during his debut campaign but was expected to make the usual freshman-to-sophomore leap enjoyed by Jordan Hamilton, Jordan Williams and a host of other players. Unfortunately for the Gators, not only has Boynton’s numbers remained stagnant, but his unit as a whole is shooting just 34% from long range, good for 171st in the nation. Following their 5 for 26 performance from three in a 45-40 win over Auburn that temporarily sent the sport back to the peach basket era, Billy Donovan may finally have his team believing that the recipe for success is utilizing the post play of Vernon Macklin, Alex Tyus and even Chandler Parsons. During their 75-43 drubbing of Arkansas over the weekend, Florida’s first few offensive possessions ended like this: Vernon Macklin made two point jumper, Vernon Macklin made two point layup, Vernon Macklin made two point layup, Kenny Boynton missed two point layup, Vernon Macklin made two point layup, Alex Tyus made two point jumper, Chandler Parsons missed two point jumper, Kenny Boynton missed two point jumper, Alex Tyus made two point dunk, Patric Young made two point jumper, etc, etc. The Gators didn’t even attempt a three until Boynton made an open look ten minutes into the game and Florida nursing a 17-8 lead. Using Macklin and Tyus in the post as the Gators’ first option over long NBA-range threes from Walker and Boynton should be the focus for Florida if they want to win a wide open SEC.
– Could we possibly have an NCAA Tournament without Cinderella darlings Gonzaga and Butler? Admittedly, that term doesn’t appropriately apply to these schools anymore, not with the Zags riding one of the longest NCAA Tournament appearance streaks in the nation and Butler reaching the title game last March. At this stage in the season it’s genuinely possible, although somewhat unlikely, that both programs will be making NIT reservations about seven weeks from today. Usually Gonzaga stumbles on the road once during their WCC trek where every visit to an opposing gym is the other team’s Super Bowl, but twice in one road swing to mediocre teams like Santa Clara and San Francisco? Although Butler went through the Horizon unscathed last season, normally the same applies for the Bulldogs in conference play once or twice, but swept by a .500 team like Milwaukee? Both Gonzaga and Butler lie dangerously close to the bubble right now with limited opportunities for tournament-boosting victories ahead and formidable contenders dotting both leagues. Luckily for Gonzaga, the emergence of St. Mary’s gives the Zags two games, along with a clash with Memphis in February as a third, to enhance their portfolio. Who knows: in a little over a month, Gonzaga and Butler may both have to win their respective conference tournaments to go dancing. Who foresaw that scenario?
– Arizona head coach Sean Miller was vociferous in his praise for Washington point guard Isaiah Thomas following the Wildcats loss in Seattle, calling a perceived lack of coverage for Thomas an “injustice for our conference and a total lack of respect for him” and calling Thomas one of the elite point guards in the nation. The way Thomas has been performing, especially since backcourt mate Abdul Gaddy went down with a torn ACL, it’s awfully hard to refute Miller’s feelings. Thomas has remade his game since the diminutive guard burst onto the national scene two years ago as an explosive scorer but somewhat selfish and lacking the qualities to make his teammates better. As a junior, Thomas has more than doubled his APG (2.6 as a freshman to 5.8 today) and his assist/turnover ratio from 0.99 to 2.29 over the same span. Since December 29, his assist totals per game read as follows: 9, 9, 8, 7, 13, 10, 8. Thomas is now in charge of spearheading a quick-tempo yet superbly efficient offense. I’d have to agree with Sean Miller that the Tacoma native is up for the challenge.
– Normally I end the column with a positive story about a mid-major story or player, but I have to ask: what happened to Western Kentucky? The Hilltoppers were pegged to pose a real threat out of the Sun Belt as a mid-major with high-major talent. Instead, at 7-11 (2-4) with losses to Troy, Denver, Arkansas State and Davidson, the season appears to be a lost cause despite the talented trio of Sergio Kerusch, Juan Pattillo and Steffphon Pettigrew. The problem is the Hilltoppers’ offense is, well, offensive. They rank 223rd in offensive efficiency, 262nd in turnover percentage, shoot 31% from three and an appalling 61% from the free throw stripe.