Ten Tuesday ScribblesPosted by zhayes9 on February 15th, 2011
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
The Bob Cousy Award for the best point guard in college basketball released their finalists last week. The majority of the selections are uncontroversial and fair, from Kemba Walker to Jimmer Fredette and even Cleveland State’s Norris Cole. The biggest problem I have with the list has to be Illinois’ Demetri McCamey over Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor. This may sound like an easy argument to make after Taylor’s heroic second half to dethrone Ohio State on Saturday, but this was a glaring mistake as early as last Thursday when Illinois coach Bruce Weber benched McCamey for the start of the Minnesota game. The issues involving McCamey are festering and his production has dramatically declined. The senior point guard has scored in double figures just twice in his last six games and Illinois is 2-4 during that stretch. McCamey has notched 25 assists and 21 turnovers during that six-game stretch while Jordan Taylor leads the nation in the category. It’s also the peripheral comments that have stood out involving Weber and his point guard, an on-and-off feud dating back to late last season when his frustration with McCamey extended to the bench in a crucial late March contest with Wisconsin. Weber ranted that runners, agents and third-party people are in McCamey’s ear telling him he should be a pro and, following a 1-10 shooting performance against Purdue, said in his postgame comments that the offensive difference in the second half for the Boilermakers was “all dribble penetration” by Lewis Jackson and that some players “don’t give quite the effort on the other end” when they don’t make a shot. Keep an eye on this developing situation in Champaign. The Illini should feel fairly safe about their NCAA Tournament chances, but their seed is dipping quickly and McCamey is at the epicenter of this slow collapse.
Two championship programs, two legendary head coaches, two separate issues with zone defenses. Both Syracuse and Connecticut have slipped a bit from their quick starts to the season and the main reasons are both related to zones. Syracuse’s best offensive lineup is with C.J. Fair and Kris Joseph at the forward spots and Rick Jackson at center, but this leaves them vulnerable in their patented 2-3 zone because it’s such a small lineup. The Orange also miss the length and defensive IQ of Andy Rautins at the top of their zone and Big East teams are shooting 47% from three in Syracuse’s losses as a result. As Casey Mitchell, Kyle Kuric and Jeremy Hazell have shown in recent games, getting open looks from beyond the arc isn’t quite the challenge at it was a season ago. The effort on close-outs, rotation and communication of the 2-3 this year has been inconsistent and could lead to the early demise of a Syracuse team that really only has three quality wins this season – Notre Dame, at St. John’s, at Connecticut. The Huskies have their own issues with a matchup zone and it was glaringly obvious during that loss at home to the Orange. Unlike Pittsburgh who utilized Nasir Robinson around the free throw line to attack holes in the zone through passing, shooting or penetration, Connecticut doesn’t have a forward who’s comfortable in this spot – Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu looked lost at times vs. the Orange — and they haven’t been a particularly good outside shooting team since Kemba Walker’s slump began. Teams are noticing UConn’s struggles against a zone defense. Jim Calhoun better prepare to see it plenty come March.
Kansas State’s season was on the line Monday and it showed. Falter last night and, with a game in Austin still on the slate, the best case scenario for the Wildcats is 8-8 in the Big 12 provided they beat Missouri. Although the NIT remains a respectable tournament that any team should be proud to participate in (contrary to what you may hear from Jacob Pullen), a program ranked #3 in the nation preseason slipping to that type of depth is unacceptable. Last night confirmed one of my longstanding beliefs about the sport: motivation has the power to surpass any other factor – from talent disparity to coaching to home court atmosphere – when it comes to college basketball. With the #1 team in the nation both in the polls and in the RPI coming to Manhattan, along with the emasculation those same Jayhawks put on their in-state foes a few weeks ago in Lawrence, motivation was at a fever pitch. For one night, Jacob Pullen backed up the preseason All-American hype, notching the second most points ever against a #1 ranked team, barely trailing Elvin Hayes’ legendary performance for Houston against #1 UCLA in 1968. The 62nd most efficient offense in the country shot over 50% and notched 84 points against a top ten efficient defense. They dominated points in the paint and neutralized the Morris twins. Frank Martin has been telling anyone who will listen that his team is making strides. Last night was an enormous leap, and with another top-50 win opportunity in Missouri coming to Bramlage on February 26, Pullen may not have to worry about the torturous NIT after all.
The team with the most opportunity in the week ahead may be Purdue. The Boilermakers are safely in the NCAA Tournament, but they have a great chance to boost their seed one or two lines when next Monday’s Bracketology is released if they can pull off a two-game sweep against RPI top-15 opponents Wisconsin and Ohio State. Both games will be played in Mackey Arena and the Boilermakers should expect to emerge victorious in both contests. Sure, the Buckeyes destroyed Purdue in Columbus a few weeks ago, but if we learned anything from last night’s Kansas-Kansas St game, you can fairly confidently throw out previous meetings in a two-game season series involving rivals. Purdue garnered a #4 seed in Monday’s Bracketology and has a chance to vault themselves comfortably to a #3 seed with two wins this week. JaJuan Johnson receives most of the accolades and attention for Purdue, so I’d like to use this space to credit guard E’Twaun Moore for another stellar campaign. The 6’4 guard from East Chicago has been a steady contributor throughout his Boilermaker career, playing 30+ MPG and averaging at least 13/4/3 every season in West Lafayette. This year, Moore has improved his three-point shooting tremendously, rebounds at a high rate for a guard and, along with Ryne Smith, prevents defenses from doubling Johnson in the post without fear of Purdue’s guards going to work.
An incredible stat from the past week: in Pittsburgh’s two wins over West Virginia and Villanova, the Panthers made a grand total of one three-pointer. In today’s college game where teams routinely shoot 20+ threes on a given night, for Pittsburgh to waltz into two daunting Big East road atmospheres and emerge with wins making one triple is absolutely remarkable. Oh, and their leading scorer didn’t play. Both Pittsburgh and Wisconsin’s big weeks put two programs in the spotlight that are wildly impressive in mostly the same ways on a yearly basis: hard-nosed defense, home court dominance, freshman-to-senior constant improvement and development, off the charts regular season success, phenomenal coaching. The criticism with both Pitt and Wisconsin, though, has been a perceived lack of NCAA Tournament success. On one hand, Jamie Dixon has made two Sweet 16’s and one Elite 8, yet that Final Four drought lingers for a program that’s garnered such high seeds in the last decade. Bo Ryan has two Sweet 16’s and an Elite 8 on the resume, as well, but he’s beaten a grand total of two single digit seeds in the NCAA Tournament since he took the helm in Madison in 2001. The careers of these two coaches are incredible and should be lauded tirelessly. Still, it’s fair to point out that the March resumes contain some holes that have yet to be filled. Those are facts.
On Saturday night, without knowing the draws or specific matchups that dictate these kinds of things, I threw out my Elite 8 on Twitter: Pittsburgh, Ohio State, Texas, Kansas, San Diego State, Georgetown, North Carolina and Vanderbilt (calm down, Duke fans, this isn’t the same thing as my top eight teams in the country, I couldn’t go all chalk!) The one team in that grouping that I just can’t seem to ditch is Vanderbilt. I watched their victory over Kentucky on Saturday and was once again roped into the possibilities of the Commodores going on a magical run to the regional final. Heck, my infatuation with Vandy dates back to last season when I talked a friend into picking them over Butler to the Sweet 16, which turned out tremendously well. They have the pieces to do some real damage: a heady junior point guard with a 2:1 A/T in Brad Tinsley, a three-point marksman in John Jenkins, a lockdown defender and improved shooter Jeffrey Taylor and the SEC’s most improved player Festus Ezeli. Then they go and lose at South Carolina or blow a huge lead at Tennessee or fall to Arkansas in a reprehensible loss at Memorial Gymnasium. I maintain that the Commodores have the weapons to be one of the top ten squads in the nation, a truly complete team with a good mix of upperclassmen and talented youngsters that bring varying positive traits to the table. I’m already preparing myself to pick them deep in the NCAA Tournament regardless of their seed and I beg they don’t let me down again.
Maybe he doesn’t get as much attention due to his West Coast residence, but one of the most disappointing players in the country this season has to be Gonzaga’s Elias Harris. It doesn’t seem too long ago we were infatuated with this kid when he sprang for 31/13 at Saint Mary’s or 24/12 against Washington State as a ripe freshman. During that stellar campaign, Harris averaging 14.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG, shot 55% from the floor and 45% from deep while displaying unique versatility and ability from all over the floor. This season, hampered a bit by nagging injuries, the German import has dropped his production to 11.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 51% FG and 34% 3pt. As a result, the latest mock draft at NBADraft.net has Harris #51 overall when, as recently as last spring before he opted to return to Spokane, scouts had Harris pegged as a first round selection. It’s no coincidence that Gonzaga’s streak of WCC titles will end in 2010-11 and it’s no stretch to suggest the Zags need Harris to boost his game during the WCC Tournament during their final push for an NCAA bid.
Most people reading this column are not your run-of-the-mill, casual college hoops fan that picks up the sport in February post-Super Bowl. You’ve probably heard of Belmont and know of their fine work. If you fall under the casual side, though, here’s a bit of advice: the Bruins from the Big South are a first round Cinderella squad to throw your support behind in March. They possess all the makings to be a high-major slayer and someone no #3 or #4 seed wants to see their name beside on Selection Sunday provided they win the Atlantic Sun Tournament (it’d be a shame if they were upset). The Bruins boast the efficiency numbers – #51 offense, #24 defense, #13 effective FG% — to show their bloated record isn’t a fluke. They shoot 47% from the field, 73% from the line and 38% from three as a team, suggesting they have the capabilities to shoot the lights out on a given day in March. Depth is what’s most attractive about the Bruins, though. Ian Clark leads the pack at an unspectacular 12.1 PPG and Trevor Noack is ninth on the team in scoring… at 5.4 PPG. This team has tremendous balance and a number of scoring options to rely on should a few in the pack go cold. Their defense also forces a ton of turnovers. Belmont ranks ninth in the country in steal percentage and second in turnover percentage.
The Utah State-Saint Mary’s clash is the highlight of this Saturday’s BracketBuster slate, and rightfully so. These are two of the best mid-majors in the country and the winner likely clinches an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, removing a heap of pressure once conference tournament time comes around. The game with the biggest impact, though, is VCU at Wichita State, two teams sitting squarely on the bubble at this time. The Rams enter a crucial home game against George Mason tonight with a #58 RPI, #171 SOS and two quality wins vs. UCLA in November and at Old Dominion. The Shockers have a #54 RPI, #112 SOS, a 20-5 (12-3) record and zero wins vs. the RPI top-50 (their best win RPI wise is Northern Iowa). Normally, VCU and Wichita State wouldn’t be close to the bubble, but this year’s expanded field and diluted bubble opens the door. The loser is going to find it nearly impossible to earn an at-large berth, so this game takes on tremendous importance. This matchup is precisely what BracketBusters should be all about.
The Big East is going to receive some fantastic seeds when the brackets are released roughly a month from today. Here’s all you really need to know: Louisville is ninth in the Big East in RPI and 23rd in the country. Since we’ve become so accustomed to judging wins based on opponents RPI ranking, the gross number of RPI top-25 and RPI top-50 wins for the expected 10 or 11 Big East representatives in the Dance are adding up quickly. Maybe Mick Cronin was on to something when he scheduled cupcake after cupcake in the preseason knowing that his Bearcats would assemble enough quality games in conference play to boost their RPI to respectable heights. As of yesterday, Notre Dame had the most top-50 wins in the nation. Now they’re tied with Georgetown and two other teams. Pittsburgh climbed Texas and Kansas in Monday’s bracket largely because they had six wins against the RPI top-25, while the Longhorns and Jayhawks had a combined three, and they play in a pretty darn good conference themselves.