Ten Tuesday ScribblesPosted by zhayes9 on February 8th, 2011
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
Isn’t it fantastic that Duke-North Carolina means something again? Last year’s Blue Devil dominance coupled with a bleak NIT season from their Tobacco Road rivals produced a lackluster two-game set between these hated competitors culminating in a Senior Day thrashing for the ages at Cameron. With Kyrie Irving buoying a seemingly unstoppable Duke attack and UNC still figuring themselves out, it looked to be more of the same refrain during non-conference play, but obviously much has transpired since then: Tyler Zeller has grasped a go-to scorers role, Kendall Marshall has supplanted the now-departed Larry Drew at the point and, most importantly, Irving suffered a toe injury that’s kept him on the sidelines and Duke has had to change their style once again. The last point could loom large during Wednesday’s meeting in Durham. I fully expect Duke to win, but the pressurized, relentless, full-court attack that Duke employed with Irving was going to pose a challenge for Marshall setting up the Tar Heel halfcourt offense and containing the much quicker Irving defensively. Given Duke’s adjustment to a halfcourt-oriented offense with an emphasis on screening for Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, the Blue Devils won’t provide as much of a headache for the inexperienced Marshall. Thus, I expect a closer-knit affair on Wednesday, and any tight Duke-UNC game is a victory for college basketball.
It might surprise you to know that Arizona has 20 wins already. The quick-fix rebuilding job Sean Miller has orchestrated in Tucson is nothing short of extraordinary, but it’s appropriate to point out that none of it would have been possible if not for the Tim Floyd disaster at USC. Most forget that Pac-10 POY frontrunner Derrick Williams and Arizona starting point guard Lamont Jones were both USC commits under Floyd until the O.J. Mayo situation surfaced, Floyd resigned and the two talented recruits signed on with Miller at Arizona. Williams (19.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 63% FG) has molded into a lottery pick as a sophomore and Jones’ heroics down the stretch at California provided the Wildcats with a breathtaking road victory and propelled them to first in the Pac-10. To claim Miller’s reloading effort as mostly luck is doing the fantastic coach a disservice, though. Miller’s coaching acumen was displayed during his 120-47 run at Xavier and his recruiting has already produced a 2011 recruiting class that rivals Lute Olson’s top efforts. Where this Arizona program stood two springs ago during their frantic and humbling search for a head coach to their position today atop the conference and with a bright future ahead is staggering.
The road ahead is treacherous for Baylor, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, the resuscitated Bears have an ample amount of opportunities to collect quality wins down the stretch with trips to Austin, Columbia and Stillwater and a return trip from the Longhorns on the docket. On the other hand, good luck winning those games! The fact that Baylor is even in the discussion (their best non-conference win is Pac-10 bottom feeder Arizona State at home) shows the current state of the bubble in a 68-team environment. Regardless, the development of Perry Jones should give Bears fans hope that a late season surge could be approaching. The multi-talented future lottery pick is making tremendous strides lately. He’s scored in double-digits every game in Big 12 play including 24 points against Oklahoma State and a banner performance on Saturday at A&M where he scored 27 points on 9-16 FG and 9-9 FT. Jones is becoming much more comfortable knocking down a smooth mid-range jumper, attacking the glass and playing within Scott Drew’s offense. At 14.7 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 57% FG in over 33 MPG, Jones has quietly posted a stellar freshman campaign in the shadow of Sullinger, Jones and other prominent diaper dandies.
Pittsburgh may have an edge over West Virginia in terms of depth and overall talent throughout their roster, but both teams employ that physical, bruising, max effort style that tends to even the playing field, especially in a bitter rivalry game. It’s no fluke that both Pittsburgh and West Virginia rank in the top five in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and sport positive rebounding margins overall on the season. With the game played in Morgantown and Pitt minus the services of sharpshooter Ashton Gibbs, the team that did their best Kenneth Faried impression on the glass was likely going to emerge victorious. Predictably, Pitt out-rebounded the Mountaineers 39-25 and squeaked by with a 71-66 road win that confirmed their status as the best team in the best conference in the land and a frontrunner for a #1 seed. Jamie Dixon’s team is now set up nicely to win the regular season title and, as a result, claim territory on the top seed line. The game at Villanova on Saturday is now being played with house money following the West Virginia win and without Gibbs’ services. The only roadblocks remaining for Pitt are road games at St. John’s and at Louisville, two road ventures where the road-perfect Panthers should be favored. Pitt already holds a two-game lead in the loss column over Notre Dame, a team that shocked Pitt a few weeks ago but still has to travel to Connecticut.
Out of the three Big East teams that shouldn’t yet feel safe about making the NCAA Tournament – Marquette, St. John’s and Cincinnati – the Bearcats should probably be feeling the most vulnerable. The committee won’t be fooled into just looking at a #109 SOS clearly boosted by the rigors of the Big East while ignoring the #280 non-conference SOS that has actually climbed in recent weeks from the depths of Division I. If we learned anything from Virginia Tech last season, this number is a major factor. Mick Cronin’s decision to inflate his record for job security could loom ill-advised in March. While the win at St. John’s may prove vital, the jury’s still clearly out on the Bearcats with visits from Louisville, Connecticut, Georgetown and St. John’s and road trips to Georgetown, Marquette and a frisky Providence team that performs admirably on their home floor. The Bearcats chances likely hinge on if Yancy Gates returns to the fold after his suspension at Pittsburgh over the weekend. Cronin may have sent a message to Gates for a game he knew was unwinnable, and I’d fully expect the Cincinnati big man to return to the hardwood sooner than later. Unlike most that assume one or two of these Big East teams will drop out of the field in the weeks to come, I wouldn’t be surprised if all 11 to punch their ticket to the Dance.
Should former Michigan State guard Korie Lucious join friend and fellow discarded Spartan Chris Allen in Ames next season, the Cyclones of 2011-12 are going to be utterly fascinating. Resigned to the fact that contending with local Big 12 and even Big 10 foes for heralded recruits is often a lost cause, Hoiberg has effectively turned Iowa State into a haven for transfers and players searching for second chances. Allen had a tumultuous relationship with Tom Izzo and was finally dismissed over the summer for failing to meet certain obligations. Former Minnesota recruit Royce White has found a home in Ames after run-ins with the law ended his short stay in Minneapolis. Lucious was nabbed over the summer for DUI and Izzo recently suspended him for the remainder of the season. Former Penn State guard Chris Babb and Southern Illinois forward Anthony Booker are also transfers into Ames. There’s possibly more talent on Iowa State’s ineligibility roster than their playing roster, all making for an intriguing concoction of players that could either turn into a Mississippi State-like dumpster fire or contend for an NCAA bid as soon as next season. Rather than build a program slowly and steadily recruiting high-character freshmen, Hoiberg is taking a riskier, less patient route that could either backfire miserably or bring The Mayor dangerously close to impeachment. I can’t wait to see how it plays out.
Florida had a huge week. The Gators needed to hold serve during a crucial two-game home stretch against Vanderbilt and Kentucky and barely accomplished that goal with two manicure-destroying wins that came down to the wire. They now boast a resume full of true road wins and stellar computer numbers. Although Florida did edge Kentucky, the Wildcats were able to eliminate a double-digit second half deficit and briefly take the lead by employing a zone that enticed the Gators into their clogged toilet offense of chucking up horrendous, ill-advised threes rather than attacking the teeth of the zone and feeding Vernon Macklin inside. We know this already: Florida is NOT a strong outside shooting team; in fact, the Gators rank 198th in the nation in that category, but succumb to stretches during the game where they play as though they’re Saint Mary’s. Any opposing coach in the SEC or into the NCAA Tournament should take a look at John Calipari’s zone and employ that very defensive look against the Gators and force them to take threes. The only reason Calipari had to ditch the zone late in the half was because his team was struggling to rebound as Chandler Parsons’ two heady offensive rebounds demonstrated. Florida is as vulnerable as any top-four seed right now to a first round stunner.
It’s hard to fathom that George Mason’s captivating run to the Final Four was five years ago next month. Their unforgettable march through North Carolina, Michigan State and Connecticut that spring means the question “who is this year’s George Mason?” has become a popular refrain during this time of year in the last half decade. The answer in 2011 might very well be George Mason. Led by the double-digit scoring of Cam Long, Ryan Pearson and Luke Hancock, Jim Larranaga just completed an all-important home stretch with two resounding victories over Hofstra and Old Dominion. The Patriots, boosted by surprisingly strong #26 RPI, have emerged as the CAA favorites and could actually prove a formidable contender for an at-large berth should they slip in the conference tournament. Consistency across the board has been a staple for Larranaga’s team. The Patriots rank in the top 40 in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, effective FG%, turnover%, three-point shooting, two-point shooting and even three-point FG defense. Two upcoming contests at VCU and at Northern Iowa will give us a much better idea if George Mason has a chance to pull off another miracle March run.
Two tremendous coaching jobs that deserve attention: Fran McCaffrey at Iowa and Dana Altman at Oregon, who have already won double the amount of conference games that most fans expected heading into the season. McCaffrey took over a program from Todd Lickliter absolutely devoid of talent and propelled the Hawkeyes to wins over Alabama, Northern Iowa, Michigan State and at Indiana with competitive losses to Illinois and Ohio State sprinkled in. Freshman big man Melsahn Basabe has a chance to be a legitimate star in the future. Oregon witnessed a max exodus from their program following the Ernie Kent firing, but the former Creighton headman has the program on the right track, culminating in a stunning sweep of the Washington schools over the weekend. The equally fabulous and controversial Matthew Knight Arena has provided the team with an undeniable boost. With highly touted freshman shooting guard Jabari Brown and Minnesota transfer Devoe Joseph joining E.J. Singler and Malcolm Armstead in 2011-12, the Ducks are clearly ahead of schedule in their quest to contend once again at the top of the Pac-10.
I want to use my scribble normally reserved for some assorted mid-major games to give a shout out to an entire league: the Horizon League. Growing up in Milwaukee during the Bruce Pearl era when I’d skip school on Friday for the quarterfinals of the conference tournament downtown at the U.S. Cellular Arena (I have blurry memories of Detroit’s Willie Green springing for 40+ back in the day), this league has always reserved a special place in my heart. While there may not be a standout team this season, Butler taking a step back has opened up a wave of welcomed competitiveness and parity throughout the Horizon and, as a close follower of both the Panthers and the rest of the conference, the unpredictability of each contest has resulted in a really enjoyable league to track. If you’re looking for a mid-major conference to immerse yourself in for the last month of the season, take a gander at the Horizon. The tournament in early March should be absolutely phenomenal with five or six teams potentially taking the crown. From Norris Cole to Matt Howard to Anthony Hill and Vaughn Duggins, there’s some high-end talent throughout the Horizon. It deserves more recognition and attention.