ATB: Some Kind of Kemba-ssance…

Posted by rtmsf on February 17th, 2011

The Lede.  Wednesday nights are always chock full of action from coast to coast, and there was no shortage of storylines across the hoops landscape this evening.  From Kemba blowing up to Tai’s rim-rattler to Jenkins’ late explosion to celebrating the first conference champions, it’s all here tonight.  Let’s jump right in…

Kemba Felt Great Tonight, As Did UConn Fans (H-C/J. Wolke)

Your Watercooler MomentThe Kemba-ssance.  Tonight you witnessed the reason why UConn should be a darkhorse pick to go to the Final Four.  This was the Kemba Walker who slashed, dashed, shot and fought his way to the Maui Invitational title three months ago.  This was the player who literally picked his team up, placed it squarely on his back, and carried it to bucket after bucket down the stretch using any means possible.  Such as… finding himself stuck in a spot 18 feet from the basket and nobody to pass to nor a decent look to shoot.  Instead, using the self-assist method, he simply rifled a pass to himself off the backboard, caught it, and laid it in the hole.  We’ve all tried this play in pickup ball, but you rarely see it in games outside of the And-1 Mixtape Tour because it’s simply too risky.  Nevertheless, Walker successfully executed the play, and several others with a high degree of difficulty, which reminds us all that when this player finds a groove, there’s nobody tougher in the country to contain off the bounce.  His 31/7/10 asst night on 13-23 shooting was his best all-around performance since before Christmas, and it makes us wonder if he’s found the lifeblood that made him so spectacular in November and December.  Even if Kemba plays well, the Huskies still need the others to step up consistently — players such as Alex Oriakhi (10/8) or the suddenly effective Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (23/6); but he sure can erase a whole bunch of mistakes, can’t he?  A quick note on Georgetown: the Hoyas’ eight-game winning streak came to an end tonight, but it wasn’t going to go on forever.  They’re still in good position to finish strong and get a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

That Backboard ThingTai Wesley Shatters Glass at Halftime.  It’s a shame that it wasn’t during the game, but USU’s Tai Wesley broke the backboard during halftime warmups this evening in a worthless game against NAIA team Montana-Western.  Luckily nobody was hurt, but arena officials managed to break a second one while trying to replace the first, resulting in a 45-minute delay of the game.  With breakaway rims and triple-reinforced stanchions, you hardly see these sorts of things at the D1 level anymore; still, we kinda wish it had happened during the game!

Tai Wesley, USU Halftime Legend (AP/J. Urquhart)

Tonight’s Quick Hits

  • Illinois, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Memphis & Duquesne.  All four of these teams either on or near the bubble with 24 days left until Selection Sunday helped themselves this evening.  The Illini are clearly the safest of the three (#7 seed in our latest RTC bracketology), but Bruce Weber’s team came into tonight having lost six of nine and really couldn’t stand another loss to a mediocre team like Michigan.  Tennessee is relatively safe (#8 seed), but the Vols needed a win in a big way after three Ls in a row.  You never know what to expect with this UT team, so even a simple home win over South Carolina shouldn’t be taken for granted.  Cincinnati and Memphis, on the other hand, are legitimately on the cut line (#12 seeds) and although the Tigers have never appeared to be an NCAA quality team this season, they’ve done just well enough to remain in the discussion.  Beating second-place UAB tonight to take over the top spot in Conference USA both amazes us and scares us at the same time.  Conversely, Cincy has at times appeared to be a decent candidate for an NCAA bid, but having lost three of four coming into tonight, the Bearcats really needed a nice win over a ranked team for its resume.  Mick Cronin’s team got that win over old rival Louisville tonight.  Duquesne is on the outside looking in in our latest bracket, but with a solid win tonight at UMass the Dukes got off a two-game schneid and are now 9-2 in the Atlantic 10 with a chance to make a strong finish.
  • John Jenkins Wakes up Dores.  Georgia led Vandy 53-40 with about ten minutes left to play, but it was all Commodores the rest of the way, especially one who goes by the name John Jenkins.  The sophomore guard had 21 points in the final 13:15 of the game, including five three-pointers that allowed Vanderbilt to finally gets its sea legs under it and finish strong for the road win in Athens.  Georgia completely fell apart offensively down the stretch, befitting of a team who probably had expectations placed somewhat too high on it prior to the season.  Vandy has a favorable schedule to finish second in the SEC East the rest of the way.
  • Conference Dominance.  Pitt and Texas continue to dominate their respective conferences, as the Panthers went to 12-1 with another efficient offensive performance and the Longhorns moved to 11-0 with another efficient defensive performance.  Both of these teams are simply running away with their leagues, and each seems a near-lock for a #1 seed at this point.  Pitt continues to win without star Ashton Gibbs in the lineup, while Texas has yet to be seriously challenged once in the entire Big 12 slate.  Jamie Dixon’s team has a couple of tough games remaining, but we expect his squad to end up at 16-2 in the Big East, while Rick Barnes’ guys really have no excuse to finish at less than unbeaten in the Big 12 this year.
  • Fairfield and Vermont.  Congrats are due the Stags and Catamounts, the first two teams to clinch a regular season conference title this year.  Fairfield beat Marist, 61-54, to win the MAAC, while Vermont knocked off Maine, 73-57, to win the America East.  This guarantees each team at minimum an NIT appearance this season, not to mention the best opportunity to get to the NCAA Tournament as the top seed in their respective conference tourneys.  Congrats, fellas.  We hope to see you both dancing on Selection Sunday as the ultimate reward for an outstanding season.
  • Horizon League Race Tightens.  We mentioned this possibility last night, and Butler got some help tonight in that HL-leading Valparaiso lost at Milwaukee this evening to drop to 11-4 while Cleveland State beat Wright State to move to 12-4.  The Bulldogs, who have won five in a row, sit threateningly one game behind CSU now at 11-5, and only a half-game behind the Crusaders.  It’s particularly important in this league to earn one of the top two seeds in the conference tournament because the Horizon League uses a double-bye system that slots the #1 and #2 seeds into the semifinals, and the top overall seed plays its two games at home.

…and Misses.

  • St. Mary’s No-Show.  In the modern era of bracketology by the numbers including RPI, strength of schedule, and so on, it’s amazing how one huge win or loss can impact your prospects far more than a bunch of ‘regular’ wins or losses can.  That’s what St. Mary’s will face after losing to the worst team in the WCC tonight, and legitimately one of the worst teams in the country, 74-66.  San Diego came into tonight’s home game with SMC with a record of 5-21 overall (1-10 WCC), with two wins over non-D1 opponents this year, so naturally they go out and beat the best team in the WCC, right?  Ken Pomeroy had given the Toreros a 4% chance of winning tonight, while Vegas had them as a 17.5-point home underdog.  The problem is that SMC never showed up — the nation’s fourteenth-best offense from behind the arc (39.9%) could only muster a 2-15 stinker, and a sense of indifference enveloped the Gaels up until the last few minutes of the game, and by then it was too late.  With upcoming games against Utah State, Gonzaga and Portland at home, SMC will have a chance to make up for this loss — but this defeat tonight could have single-handedly cost them two seeds tonight.
  • Kyle Singler’s Backslide.  It’s difficult to fault a guy who is going to be an all-ACC performer and probably still make some All-American teams this year, but Kyle Singler’s two-point, five-turnover performance tonight against Virginia may have been his worst in three seasons.  Singler’s numbers are down across the board this year, most notably in terms of his shooting percentages.  This may suggest that he’s simply not getting the same looks he got last season when Jon Scheyer was running the show, or he’s pushing a little too hard as many seniors tend to do.  Either way, the ascent of Nolan Smith as the de facto NPOY candidate from Duke has taken much off the focus off Singler, but there’s no question that if Duke wants to cut the nets down again, they’ll need the talented Oregonian to play much better than tonight.
  • Cade Davis’ Buzzer Beater.  It’s been that kind of a year for Oklahoma.  Down three with the final shot against Nebraska in Norman tonight, Davis stepped into the left corner and fired a three as the buzzer sounded.  The shot was good, the crowd went wild, annnnnnnd… Davis’ toe was on the three-point line.  The refs went to the monitor and made the right call — the shot was only worth two points, meaning Oklahoma lost the game, 59-58.  Just another disappointment in a season full of them for Jeff Capel’s squad.

Tweet of the Night.  Well, if you don’t know, now you know…

RTC Live.  Only one game in RTC Live-world tonight, but it was the return of Kemba Walker in a big way this evening…

Connecticut 78, Georgetown 70.  Connecticut looked like the team from Maui again in its 78-70 win at the XL Center.  Georgetown reverted to the poor defense that characterized its struggles.  Kemba Walker was the story of the game, as he notched another outstanding game after struggling the last week or two.  Walker finished with 31 points, ten assists and seven boards.  Lost in Walker’s virtuoso performance was the play of Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel, who went eight for eleven from the floor for 23 points.  Connecticut utilized ball screens perfectly throughout the evening getting Walker to the rim, where he’s one of the best finishers in the country.  Early in the second half Walker lobbed the intentional miss off the backboard and finishing the lay-up in a halfcourt set.  It was obvious Walker had his player of the year swagger back as he came back down the court.  Georgetown didn’t play terribly, especially on the offensive end of the floor.  Chris Wright had a terrific game and answered every time Connecticut looked like they would pull away in the second half.  Austin Freeman on the other hand struggled mightily, finishing four for thirteen from the floor.  As Freeman said after the game, “I was taking good shots; they just weren’t going in.”  Early in the game, Georgetown utilized a very physical defense that put Connecticut on its heels, but once the Huskies warmed up about halfway through the first half they scored with incredible efficiency.  Not to lose sight of the forest through the trees, there is a real logjam behind Pitt in the Big East: Notre Dame has three losses, followed by five teams with five losses and another three with six.  Georgetown, Connecticut, Louisville, Villanova and St. John’s are all looking for some separation heading into the conference tournament.  This was a huge win for Connecticut to stay in the hunt for those top four bids that get two bye games.

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