ATB: What’s Wrong With Sparty?Posted by rtmsf on February 3rd, 2011
The Lede. Groundhog Day came and went and it was another interesting night across the college basketball landscape. There were the obligatory upsets, the blowouts, the disappointments, and The Jimmer. But it was a somewhat obscure result between two unranked teams tonight that caught our attention the most.
Your Watercooler Moment. Are the Spartans Kaput? After a holy crapola-inducing beatdown of Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans by twenty points this evening, we have to wonder if the wheels have completely come off in East Lansing. Otherwise, how else can you explain going to one-win Iowa (they beat Indiana) and allowing a team that has trouble scoring the ball to put up a 41-point first half and shoot 58% from the field for the game? Somewhere in Europe Mateen Cleaves is rolling over in his pfennigs. Tom Izzo characterized the performance as the worst he’s ever experienced as the head coach at MSU, a “total letdown… everybody’s hitting shots against us and I don’t know why.” We wrote earlier this year that Spartan fans shouldn’t fret too much by early losses to UConn, Duke and Syracuse — it’s been the tendency for Izzo teams to take some hits during the regular season only to overachieve come March. But the recent three-game stretch where MSU lost to rival Michigan at home, came dangerously close to losing to Indiana, and just dropped another one tonight against Iowa, is not representative of an NCAA Tournament team (in fact, Sparty is three overtimes from having lost eight in a row right now). With the talent that Tom Izzo has at his disposal — even considering the loss of Korie Lucious — those should have been three easy wins. Instead, standing at 13-9 (5-5), the Spartans are running out of time to ensure they’ll be back in the Dance for the fourteenth consecutive year — two of their next three are at Wisconsin and Ohio State, and there are three other ranked teams left on the schedule. The MSU offense always comes and goes, but Izzo can usually rely on his defense to keep his team in the game — not so lately. In the last five games, Michigan State has allowed a minimum of 1.04 points per possession, and four of the Spartans’ worst six performances on the defensive end have come in the last six games. When players stop guarding and picking up for each other, it’s a sure sign that there are chemistry problems on the team. If anyone can bring a squad out of such a tailspin, it’s Tom Izzo, but even we’re starting to wonder if this reclamation project is too big for even his talents. The way we’re viewing it — even with the nation’s #1 ranked schedule, Wisconsin on Sunday in Madison is about as close to a must-win as it gets in early February.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Syracuse Ends Losing Streak. We have much more on Syracuse’s big win at Connecticut below in the RTC Live section, but let there be no doubt that SU played like a desperate team tonight in order to get the much-needed victory. Maybe it was all the point-shaving rumors going around (ha), but the Orange showed a focus that they haven’t had in the last couple of weeks, especially on the defensive end, and managed to put the four-game losing streak in the rear view mirror. The Orange zone gave up eight threes tonight, but only thirteen other field goals, a far cry from the pathetic defensive performances of the last two weeks.
- DJ Gay’s Fadeaway. If you’re like us, you’re secretly harboring hope that both San Diego State and BYU will get through the rest of their Mountain West schedules to set up a blockbuster showdown for the conference title in San Diego on February 26. One of the tougher tests that SDSU was going to face was the trip to Colorado State, and had it not been for DJ Gay’s step-back jumper with 1.8 seconds that found all net, our MWC dream game rematch hopes might have already been dashed. These are the kinds of game-winners on off nights that occur during special seasons, and Steve Fisher’s Aztecs are well on their way to a spectacular 29-2 type of regular season.
- Justin Brownlee’s Left Hand. After a huge win over Duke on Sunday, it wouldn’t have surprised us in the least to have seen St. John’s have an even bigger letdown this evening at home against Rutgers. And while the Johnnies clearly didn’t play with the same passion and intensity that they had against the Blue Devils, they were able to sneak past RU with a two-point win, courtesy of a lefty layup by Justin Brownlee. The forward used the same hand that was fitted for a splint because of a broken thumb yesterday to lay the ball off the glass with 3.5 seconds remaining to earn the win for his team.
… and Misses.
- Kemba Sputtering. NPOY candidate Kemba Walker had his worst game of the season against Syracuse tonight, continuing a streak of bad-to-worse performances over the last two weeks. He’s shooting a measly 31% from the field in those five games, and not coincidentally, the Huskies have lost their last two. Unless things change quickly for the mercurial point guard, it’s looking more and more like a two-horse race between everybody’s favorite Cougar, Jimmer Fredette, and Jared Sullinger at Ohio State. Duke’s Nolan Smith is making a darkhorse run so long as the Devils keep winning, but Walker’s eight-point, 3-14 FG performance tonight puts him on the second tier until he comes out of this slump.
- Maryland’s Lack of Quality Wins. With Duke’s strong game tonight in College Park to take down Maryland, the Terps are more and more looking like a team capable of beating anyone without, you know, actually doing so. Their best win on the season to date is still probably the ACC/Big 10 Challenge victory over Penn State, and the realistic opportunities to win more are dwindling. The problem, of course, is that the Terp guards are generally unreliable, and 6-18 FG, seven turnover performance from the three starters is all too common. They have upcoming road games at Boston College, Virginia Tech and UNC — if they want to be taken seriously as an NCAA team, they probably want to win two of those three.
Tweet of the Night. Well, duh.
RTC Live. We had a couple of big-time conference games tonight.
Duke 80, Maryland 62. The Blue Devils needed this win tonight, but not necessarily because they needed to make a statement after losing in embarrassing fashion to St. John’s on Sunday. The final margin — 80-62 — doesn’t do justice for how well the Terps competed. No, Duke needed this game to play out the way it did because they needed their role players to develop a swagger. Nolan Smith was in foul trouble in the first half and played far from his best game. Kyle Singler scored 22 points, but other than a stretch where he scored 11 straight points, the Terps did a pretty good job containing him. Duke needed this game because they needed to prove that they were more than just a two man team. The Plumlee brothers were fantastic tonight. Coach K called Mason’s effort the best game he has played at Duke. He finished with a double-double, and he and his brother combined to outplay Maryland’s star sophomore Jordan Williams. Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry were terrific as well. Dawkins provided the two biggest shots of the game — two threes with about six minutes left that squashed Maryland’s second half run — while Curry was instrumental in a 23-7 first half run that gave the Blue Devils control of the game. Singler carried Duke for a stretch and Smith closed the game out, but it was the performance of the ‘other guys’ that allowed the Blue Devils to win this game. For Maryland, the issue is now that this team has not beaten anyone, and unless they get another crack at the Blue Devils in the ACC Tournament, they will head into Selection Sunday without a marquee win. Sure, the Terps have played everyone tough, but the committee doesn’t count moral victories on a tournament resume. Maryland’s issue is the same that it has been all season long — they don’t have a point guard. Terrell Stoglin, Adrian Bowie and Pe’Shon Howard are all talented kids, but none of them are capable of running a team. Maryland should consider themselves lucky the bubble is so weak this year. Its the only reason they have a chance at earning themselves an at-large bid.
Syracuse 66, Connecticut 58. Just two weeks ago Syracuse was 18-0, number four in the country and on track to earn a one-seed on Selection Sunday for the second year in a row. Then the wheels fell off. Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph lost themselves offensively, and the Orange lost four straight games. Experts quickly likened Jim Boeheim’s team to fool’s gold a la Texas from last season. Suddenly Boeheim’s claims early in the season that his undefeated squad was “terrible” started looking more and more prophetic. This was the team that drove to Hartford to take on a streaking Connecticut team that has wins against Villanova (who beat Syracuse), Marquette on the road (who beat Syracuse), Texas on the road (who looks like the best team in the country) and Kentucky. All of this made the game a must-win for Syracuse. The game started slow for both teams: Syracuse was held scoreless for the first five minutes thanks to horrific jump shooting and a very effective double team the Huskies draped on Rick Jackson every time he touched the ball. But from the get-go it was clear the Syracuse zone was flummoxing the Husky facilitators. The first possession was probably the best play they ran against the zone all night, throwing the ball to Alex Oriakhi in the high post where he looked to pass the ball out before draining the open mid-range jumper. Rather than continuing to run the ball from the hole in the middle of the zone, Connecticut spent more time passing the ball around the perimeter and hoping for jump shots. Syracuse was having more success getting good looks but couldn’t buy a shot from outside two feet. Specifically Scoop Jardine struggled a lot, even when Boeheim would try to isolate him against the much smaller Napier. Then the game turned around with a needless shot clock violation from Connecticut up 23-16 with around five minutes left in the half. Syracuse went on a 6-0 run on three successive layups, before Rick Jackson hit the baby hook with time expiring to take a first half lead.
Kemba Walker didn’t look like himself after the first few minutes. It was clear Syracuse refused to leave him alone, but he still never did much more than a jab step before taking the ball back out to reset. After the game, Jeremy Lamb noted that Walker “let referees get in his head. Once he didn’t get certain calls, he got a little frustrated.” Regardless of the reason, Walker was a virtual non-factor on offense. In the second half Syracuse finally found the basket when Brandon Triche hit a couple jumpers to open the half. The Orange never looked back, while Connecticut never made a real run. Jeremy Lamb single-handedly kept the Huskies in the game with 22 points and five steals (he was the only Husky in double figures). Mentally it was clear Syracuse wanted the game more. They played inspired defense in both halves, shutting down the best (or second best) playmaker in the country. You could see the urgency after Charles Okwandu cut the Orange lead to two with just under five minutes remaining. The next possession, Syracuse was going to get Brandon Triche a shot no matter what it took (in the end it took a little Jardine push-off), and he drained a three to kill the Connecticut rally. That was when the Huskies needed Walker to take over the game, but he didn’t look for his shot at all. Even without Walker’s help, Connecticut had a chance when Syracuse lost focus on the inbounds. Then the game fell apart for the Huskies. Jeremy Lamb was the only guy willing to make a play down the stretch. Especially, the veterans lacked purpose. Syracuse took advantage and hit the free throws that mattered.
Syracuse desperately needed to win this game. More important than your resume is your confidence, and it’s tough to stay confident on the heels of a five game losing streak. Everyone is going to lose their share of games in a conference as deep and talented as the Big East, but the key to success is keeping your head up. It wasn’t pretty but a win is a win. But for all the talk about Syracuse needing a win, Connecticut is dangerously close to where Syracuse was a week ago: they’ve lost two straight games at home to good teams with Seton Hall waiting in the wings. Starting three freshmen, Connecticut cannot afford to harbor significant doubt. As Jim Boeheim said after the game, “that’s just the way it is… It’s that type of league.” Look up and down the Big East results and you’ll see he’s right: only Pittsburgh has less than three conference losses (and even the Panthers needed a couple huge plays in the last minute to beat Rutgers and Providence).