Ten Tuesday ScribblesPosted by zhayes9 on February 1st, 2011
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court.
– As we head into the crucial weeks of February, three groupings of teams will likely emerge: one group that’s been playing over their heads through the first couple months and will quickly take a nosedive down the rankings as their flaws become more evident and exposed, one that has likely hit their peak and will consistently maintain their current ranking for the remainder of the season and, the most intriguing group, the teams that will continue to improve, develop and progress before hitting their crescendo right around March Madness. Some possible candidates for the third group include Texas, Missouri, Washington, Connecticut and North Carolina. The most obvious possibility for rapid improvement as we head into the stretch run, though, has to be Kentucky. One could make an argument they’ll be a top five team in the nation by tournament time as their trio of ultra-talented freshmen — Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and the incredibly undervalued Doron Lamb – see their comfort level rise and their overall floor games advance. Regardless of the personnel upheaval that John Calipari welcomes during his recruitment of one-and-done players, his team’s always defend. This Kentucky team, led by the lockdown length of DeAndre Liggins and the wily experience of junior Darius Miller, has proved no different, ranking tenth in the nation in overall defensive efficiency and fourth in opponents two-point FG%. Before you point out that last year’s Kentucky team led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins – a team that was probably more talented with five first round selections – flamed out in the Elite 8, remember that this Wildcats squad can do what last year’s version could not: make perimeter jump shots. Kentucky is shooting 40% from three as a unit this season, good for 17th in the country.
– Jimmer Fredette has become the face of college basketball. Due to his dynamic scoring prowess, cult-like following and unusual name (seriously, if Chris Smith was doing this, would this fad be quite as viral?) my Twitter feed was flooded last Wednesday night with everything Jimmer from friends that I never knew had a real interest in the sport until their post-Super Bowl hangover was complete. With every Kemba Walker misfire, it’s more and more clear the frontrunner for National Player of the Year is currently starring in Provo. Walker is mired in a prolonged slump over his last four games, shooting a porous 23% from the floor in 74 attempts including a 7-for-23 performance in Saturday’s home loss to Louisville. Fortunately for Walker, the emergence of his young supporting cast, notably Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, hasn’t caused the Huskies to dip into a considerable funk. Despite Walker’s post-Maui craze and his repeated heroics late in games against Texas and Villanova, Fredette has cleared usurped Walker as the talk of the college basketball world. What ultimately matters, though, is team success, and I still feel the undersized Cougars, who are increasingly over-dependent on Fredette late in games as they were Saturday at the Pit, have a much lower ceiling than Walker’s Huskies.
– What can I possibly say about Texas that hasn’t already been said? Never did I expect to be outwardly commending Jordan Hamilton’s effort on the defensive end at any point in his collegiate career, but the work he and Dogus Balbay did last night against A&M leading scorer Khris Middleton was phenomenal. Hamilton even said after the game he was going to “guard him as hard as I’ve ever guarded before.” We all know the Longhorns have scoring weapons – from the smooth operating of Hamilton to the mid-range game of Gary Johnson and the post ability of Tristan Thompson – but it’s the Longhorns unwavering commitment at the defensive end against capable Big 12 opponents that has college basketball fans bullish about Texas’ prospects of cutting down the nets in Houston. Texas has climbed the defensive efficiency rankings to tops in the nation and also rank first in effective FG% against. They’re third in the country in both two-point and three-point defense and can throw out A-plus perimeter defenders in Cory Joseph and Dogus Balbay and lengthy, shot-blocking, interior weapons like Thompson, Johnson and even Alexis Wangmene off the pine. The Big 12 totals are stellar- no opponent of Texas has scored more than 63 points and they’ve held their last four opponents to 33% shooting from the field and 20% from three. And they’re doing it on the road against ranked teams. If you appreciate aggressive, tenacious, inspired, man-to-man defense, there’s no better team to watch than Texas.
– The Big 12 may be the only conference in the land that boasts two teams that have legitimate shots at winning the national title in early April in Houston: Kansas and Texas. That doesn’t necessarily indicate that the overall league has been a ravishing success, though. Even more so than the Big Ten with Illinois, Michigan State and Northwestern performing well under expectations, the Big 12 has seen the depth of their conference tarnished in the past couple of weeks. Kansas State and Baylor’s morbid seasons are two of the most glaring examples. Curtis Kelly’s disappointing senior campaign continued on Saturday night when his coached benched him for the entire second half at Kansas, a snapshot of how the Wildcats once-promising season has deteriorated so miserably since their top three ranking in November. Baylor, meanwhile, boasts one of the Big 12’s all-time leading scorers and the potential #1 overall pick and has fallen out of most projected NCAA Tournament fields due to severe turnover woes. It has also been the freefall of Colorado losing four consecutive games and Iowa State falling from frisky upset candidate to puzzling home defeats at the hands of Oklahoma and Texas Tech that have played a factor. Oklahoma State, another team that garnered some NCAA buzz a few weeks ago, has fallen on hard times, and Texas A&M is starting to be exposed for their scoring deficiencies. While the Big 12 still appears formidable at the top, teams in the league expected to set up camp in and around the rankings throughout the season have sorely disappointed, sending the conference’s overall standing down a few notches.
– Northwestern’s strategy heading into their matchup with #1 Ohio State on Saturday was well planned and well executed. Along with utilizing a form of Notre Dame’s “burn” offense to limit possessions against a superior opponent, Bill Carmody elected to show a variety of defensive looks to an Ohio State offense that can beat an opponent in so many different ways. The ultimate dilemma when preparing for the Buckeyes is this: double Sullinger and it leaves capable shooters like Jon Diebler, Aaron Craft and William Buford open for threes (Matt Painter can attest to this) or single Sullinger and don’t allow the perimeter weapons any room to operate (didn’t work out so swimmingly for Bruce Weber). Carmody’s plan was to mix and match, often times doubling Sullinger based on where the talented big man caught the ball on the floor, but also frequently allowing his post defenders to handle Sullinger one-on-one. By changing up his looks, Carmody didn’t allow Sullinger to feel comfortable in a certain mindset of either a) drawing the defense and using his exemplary court vision to find open shooters or b) taking matters into his own hands and springing for 25 points and 15 rebounds. Each possession Sullinger had to make a split second decision to pass or shoot. Sullinger is so special he completed a workmanlike 21/8 anyway, but look for future Big Ten opponents and NCAA Tournament foes to watch how Northwestern, who held Ohio State to 58 points, handled the Buckeyes’ plethora of weapons.
– Prior to the season, Illinois was a sexy pick by prognosticators and experts to challenge at the top of the Big Ten. With all five starters back in the fold, including all-league guard and assist machine Demetri McCamey and a recruiting class highlighted by Illinois Mr. Basketball Jereme Richmond, the Illini figured to deliver Bruce Weber his first NCAA Tournament victory since the national runner-up brigade in 2005. While the tournament win still may occur, it’s been a disappointing season for Illinois relative to sky-high expectations, the latest setback a stunning 52-49 loss to Indiana in Bloomington. Illinois has dropped four out of five conference meetings and the main reason for that has been the inconsistent play of McCamey. Over his last five games, McCamey is shooting 26% from the floor and has turned the ball over 18 times. His no-show against #1 Ohio State (2-11 FG, five points, five assists, four turnovers) was incredibly concerning. Like many point guards, McCamey is the barometer for how his team performs and I haven’t been thrilled with his body language during the last few contests. Last season’s campaign tanked when McCamey’s leadership wavered and his selfishness began to resurface, culminating in a visible tongue-thrashing by his coach in a crucial March game against Wisconsin. It’s his job to start playing the type of inspired and heady basketball that boosted the Illini to their promising early season start before things truly spiral out of control.
– If only UCF head coach Donnie Jones had a time machine. On January 5, not even one month ago, his program was one of the surprises of college basketball, emerging from relative obscurity to a national ranking and 14-0 record with victories over Florida and Miami. Since those glory days, the Knights have completely fallen apart, losing six straight Conference USA games, including defeats at the hands of mediocre squads like Houston, East Carolina and Rice. What led to such a reversal of fortunes? For one, efficiency followers will attest that UCF was always playing over their heads. Their offensive efficiency has dipped to 144th in the nation, ahead of only Tulane and Houston in Conference USA. Marcus Jordan has also slowed from his torrid pace, scoring 15+ points just twice during the Knight six-game skid. Also, defenses have noticed UCF’s inability to make outside shots (34% as a team from beyond the arc) and have dared Jordan and his backcourt mates to attack the basket against sagging defenses. It’s likely that the Knights true colors lay somewhere in the middle of the dashing 14-0 start and 0-6 losing streak. Their miserable collapse has done damage to Conference USA’s hopes of getting multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament as teams continue to beat up on each other and parity reigns supreme. In my latest bracket, UAB is the last team in the field as CUSA’s second qualifying team.
– I really do believe this is the year that Penn State reaches the NCAA Tournament, but I’m going to hold off on guaranteeing such a proclamation until the Nittany Lions navigate through a treacherous second half conference schedule that includes visits to Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northwestern and home visits from Minnesota and Ohio State. Ed DeChellis’ team has overcome puzzling non-conference losses to Ole Miss by 13, Maryland by 23 and Maine by 10 to knock off three ranked Big Ten teams at home in the last month and they’ve really come together as a unit since Taran Buie was suspended indefinitely by DeChellis. The difference this season is that all-league guard and Jimmer-esque scoring weapon Talor Battle finally has help from a trio of drastically improved seniors Jeff Brooks, David Jackson and Andrew Jones. This is the primary reason why I firmly believe Penn State will have their name called on Selection Sunday. There are few stronger motivators than a group of deprived seniors trying desperately to reach their first NCAA Tournament. Unlike Colorado, who was the flavor of the month in the Big 12 before falling off the face of the earth, I expect Penn State to have staying power.
– One of the more interesting cases on Selection Sunday might very well be Duquesne. The Dukes have been the surprise team of the Atlantic 10 en route to their 7-0 start complete with home wins over Temple and Dayton. The senior tandem of Bill Clark (45th nationally in effective FG%) and Damian Saunders (13/8/3 plus outstanding defense) have played standout basketball this season and freshman point guard T.J. McConnell (2.69 A/T ratio) is orchestrating the offense brilliantly. Unfortunately, their best OOC win was at Green Bay, sending the Dukes’ RPI down to #75 overall, although losses to Pittsburgh, George Mason, West Virginia and Penn State were all competitive. Due to the lack of quality wins outside of the Atlantic 10, the Dukes must ride their current wave of momentum to at least a 1-2 record in games against Xavier, Dayton and Richmond that still remain while taking care of business against inferior in-conference competition in order to avoid the NIT.
– Some conference races to keep an eye on that will change with this week’s action: George Mason (9-2) welcomes both Hofstra (8-3) and Old Dominion (8-3) to Fairfax on Wednesday and Saturday that will go a long way in determining who gives VCU a scare at the top of the CAA, a league that may gain multiple bids to the tournament this season. On Thursday, Valparaiso travels to Cleveland State in a battle of the top two teams in the Horizon. Winning the regular season championship is especially vital in that conference where the winner hosts the tournament and the top two teams earn an automatic bye to the semifinals. On Friday and Saturday, Harvard embarks on their most difficult back-to-back of the season at Princeton and Penn. Without a conference tournament, these games are make-or-break for the Crimson and their competitors at the top of the Ivy. It’s also a crucial week for both Indiana State and Murray State. The Sycamores face off against Wichita State in Terre Haute on Tuesday before going to Missouri State over the weekend while last year’s Cinderella Racers travel to surprise Tennessee State on Thursday and go to Ohio Valley frontrunner Austin Peay on Saturday. Those two programs have won 16 of the last 24 OVC titles.