Ten Tuesday ScribblesPosted by zhayes9 on February 22nd, 2011
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
– I deemed Saturday’s Washington-Arizona game appointment viewing with the specific intent of watching Derrick Williams for 40 minutes. I had seen Williams play multiple times this season, but mostly for small snippets against weaker competition in the Pac-10. Williams is an absolutely outstanding collegiate player that flashes moments of brilliance on the basketball court. He attacks the glass with ferocity, can face up or back an opponent down and is outstanding in isolation situations. I’m not sure Williams has the personality or the attitude to completely take over long stretches of a game like Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette or Nolan Smith, but nobody utilizes his possessions with more proficiency than Williams. When he chooses to enter another gear, as he did for the majority of the final five minutes of an Arizona win that effectively clinched the Pac-10 regular season title, he’s impossible to contain. If I were the Cavaliers GM – although I shouldn’t assume they’ll win the lottery based on that city’s tortured sports past – I’d snag Williams #1 overall over the likes of Kyrie Irving, Perry Jones, Jared Sullinger or any other entry. You think Williams is a special prospect now, just wait until he’s playing with an NBA-caliber pass-first point guard. His all-around excellence in isolation situations and ability to knock down shots anywhere on the floor are tailor made for the pros. I see him developing into a better David West. The only area Williams needs to shore up is avoiding foul trouble. Arizona must have their superstar on the floor for more than 29.2 PPG in the NCAA Tournament if the Wildcats want to advance. Williams has picked up four or more personals in eight Pac-10 games this year.
– Duke shouldn’t be #1 in the nation. I think most of us agree with that sentiment. Thankfully, we adore a sport where these kinds of things are irrelevant, especially in late February. What bothers me is that most have Duke pegged as a #1 seed over Kansas and BYU, two candidates much more deserving of this honor than the Blue Devils. The Cougars resume is actually incredibly impressive, more so than their MWC brethren San Diego State. The Fightin Jimmers have five wins vs. the RPI top-30 and Duke has two. BYU beat San Diego State, Arizona, Utah State, Saint Mary’s and swept UNLV. Duke’s best win after North Carolina is Kansas State followed by UAB (currently out) and Michigan State (bubble). The Blue Devils have yet to beat an NCAA Tournament team on the road. Sure, this has plenty to do with the fragile state of the ACC, but don’t overlook Duke’s annual resistance to play true road games out of conference. Plus, since when do we provide Duke a scheduling excuse over a MWC team? The overall records are identical. The reason Duke is first in the polls is basically because they didn’t lose during a week they played Virginia and Georgia Tech. Vaulting Duke on the back of those two wins over the entire body of work of, say, Ohio State and Pittsburgh, is ridiculous enough in itself. Handing them an undeserving #1 seed at this stage in the season is an even worse idea (luckily we still have 20 days till Selection Sunday, so this is largely irrelevant as well, but it sure is fun to debate, no?).
I’m hearing plenty of candidates thrown out there for National Coach of the Year, and none of them are egregious. Coaches like Mike Brey, Steve Fisher, Matt Painter, Jim Calhoun, Steve Lavin and Sean Miller have all done outstanding jobs this season leading their teams to unforeseen heights. To me, the coach of the year is a runaway and his name hasn’t been mentioned: Rick Pitino. I was initially hesitant to buy into the Cardinals, especially after they won all their non-conference games in the comfort of the KFC Yum Center and both Butler and UNLV underachieved relative to expectations. Now that I’ve watched Louisville sweep Connecticut, edge Syracuse and West Virginia, pull off an epic comeback against Marquette and down St. John’s, the magic act Pitino has pulled in the face of tremendous adversity is becoming more and more evident. All five starters from last year’s #9 seed squad left. His top freshman didn’t qualify. His leading returning scorer hasn’t played a minute. Still, by pulling out his old tricks of a relentless full-court press, switching defenses and an abundance of threes, the ‘Ville has jumped from likely NIT team to a #4 seed in my latest bracket. Say what you want about his forays into the back of Italian restaurants or his failed NBA coaching stints, but in case anyone forgot, this season was a definite reminder: Rick Pitino can motivate, prepare and instruct college athletes better than anyone in the business.
Speaking of coaching maneuvers that deserve applause, let’s give Mick Cronin credit for how he handled a toxic situation involving Yancy Gates in the last two weeks. In case you’re not familiar, Gates, Cincinnati’s most talented player and post presence, was suspended for the Bearcats February 5 visit to Pitt for arguing with an assistant coach. Cronin, secretly knowing his team would have a minimal chance of winning in the Pete anyway, found it the perfect opportunity to send an immediate message of no tolerance. When Gates attitude failed to improve, culminating in his pouting at the end of the bench during Cincy’s crucial home loss to St. John’s last weekend, Cronin kept Gates glued to the pine. He even mistakenly ran to the scorer’s table to check in amidst a flooding of boos from the home crowd before being instructed to head back to the bench. The entire situation was ugly and embarrassing. It appeared Cronin’s risky decision making, especially in a year where his future status at Cincinnati is up in the air and during a stretch that would make-or-break the Bearcats NCAA Tournament hopes, has officially paid off. Gates got the message and played 65 productive minutes in two Cincinnati wins this week over Louisville and Providence. Mock Cronin for his laughable non-conference schedule all you want, but commend the Cincinnati headman for sticking to his guns regarding the insubordinate Gates.
A question oft-asked to me this season from friends is regarding the legitimacy of San Diego State. Is their one-loss record inflated by a creampuff schedule? Their #44 SOS and #55 non-conference SOS would suggest otherwise. Do they have any high-major athletes that can hold their own come NCAA time? Likely lottery pick Kawhi Leonard and athletic specimen Malcolm Thomas fit the bill. Is their coach some inexperienced young kid that will melt under the pressure? Steve Fisher won the 1989 national title with Michigan and coached numerous big games with the Fab Five Wolverine teams of the early 1990s. Who have they beaten? Most folks think Saint Mary’s, UNLV, Wichita State and Gonzaga are solid teams. What’s their ceiling? This is the tough question, one that usually gives me pause. Can this team really make a Final Four? As we learned from Duke’s draw last year – claiming this was the sole reason is selling them short, but one can’t deny it made an impact – it usually comes down to matchups. I say why not? The Aztecs are noticeably better at two areas they were miserable in a season ago, improving both their free throw line and three point line totals. Their offense and defense are top-25 in efficiency. They rebound. They’re athletic. They have a senior point guard and a versatile lottery pick. Their two-point and three-point defense are top-20 in the country. This team has all of the ingredients to reach Houston. While my fellow tournament pool participants doubt the caliber of San Diego State because they play in the Mountain West or can’t recite one player on their roster despite the impressive seed that will likely accompany the Aztecs, they have my trust to make a deep March run all the way to Houston. Let the money roll in.
The most confounding result of the weekend had to be Baylor, a squad that is sitting firmly on the bubble and could not afford to lose many more Big 12 games, falling at home to bottom feeder Texas Tech. Baylor’s season has been a bitter disappointment after the program had so much goodwill gained from the Perry Jones/Isaiah Austin recruiting coups and the magical Elite 8 run last March. Most had the Bears pegged for the top 15 this season with Jones entering to replace Ekpe Udoh, A.J. Walton taking over point guard duties from Tweety Carter and record-breaking scorer LaceDarius Dunn back on the wing. The underlying numbers early against lackluster competition showed vulnerability, their one true test at the Diamond Head Classic ended with a 1-2 mark and now Baylor, despite their plethora of talent, face a daunting last four games – at Missouri, Texas A&M, at Oklahoma State, Texas – in which they likely need to win three to have a legitimate shot at an NCAA berth. How did this all happen? The main reason is point guard play. Scott Drew clearly misses Tweety Carter, an experienced senior that ran the offense, set up Dunn for open looks and found Udoh and Quincy Acy in the post for easy scoring opportunities. Carter’s replacement, sophomore A.J. Walton, has struggled mightily and it’s created a snowball effect. Baylor overall ranks 316th in the country in turnover percentage. Not only are Walton and the other BU guards flubbing too many possessions, but their inability to find teammates in ideal spots on the floor has dipped Dunn and Acy’s shooting percentages (it doesn’t help that the talented Jones lacks the personality to utilize his talent to the fullest; there’s no excuse for him to take four shots in 38 minutes on Saturday). Walton is only a sophomore and should improve, but this year has certainly been a learning experience.
Believe it, folks: George Mason is back. The Cinderella program of 2006 is a lock to return to the NCAA Tournament with a #20 RPI and two easy games left on the CAA docket to close out a regular season conference title in a league where three bids is attainable. I’ve watched Mason a few times this year and the Patriots pass both the eye and efficiency tests necessary for me to truly buy into a team. Capitalizing from recruiting momentum following their Final Four run, Jim Larranaga has built a unit well balanced with multiple weapons and a focus on team defense and sharing the basketball. Cam Long gives them a senior leader in the backcourt that can really shoot. Andre Cornelius is another perimeter option and double-digit scorer that drained five threes on Saturday in a win at Northern Iowa. Ryan Pierson is my favorite of the pack, a versatile 6’6 forward that rebounds at a high rate. Mason’s RPI and RTC Top 25 ranking are backed up by their spot ahead of teams like Notre Dame, West Virginia, Louisville, Missouri, Vanderbilt, Connecticut and Florida in the efficiency rankings. If the Patriots win the CAA Tournament title, they could garner as high as a #6 seed in the Dance.
Utah State went a long way towards securing an NCAA bid with their win at Saint Mary’s in the premiere contest of Bracket Buster Saturday. In case there was any lingering doubt, the Aggies are 100% deserving of a spot in an expanded field as one of the best 68 teams in the country. If Utah State had fallen in Moraga and were stunned in the WAC Tournament in the same fashion as New Mexico State shocked the Aggies one year ago, they probably were destined for the NIT. In my view, that would have been a shame and inherently unfair. As Stew Morrill will happily point out, it’s extremely hard scheduling quality high-major opponents because none of them want to travel to Logan, Utah – an arena where the Aggies boast one of the best won-loss records in the nation the last decade – with everything to lose and nothing to gain. Give credit to Morrill for dropping his insistence on a return game and traveling to D.C. to take on Georgetown. Morrill made his step also knowing his team would have to travel to BYU and the BracketBuster opponent. The last point here is totally out of the control of Morrill and that’s the pathetic state of the WAC. This once-proud conference is literally and figuratively coming apart at the seams. After Utah State, the next best RPI is New Mexico State at #132 overall. It’s not Utah State’s problem that their league, the opponents they depend on for assorted quality win chances, has fallen this dramatically. I’m relieved that Utah State took care of business in Moraga on Saturday because, whether you think highly of their NCAA chances or not, they deserve a shot.
Two Saturday’s ago following a 40-20-9 performance by Cleveland State’s Norris Cole, a remark made by Doug Gottlieb at halftime of one of ESPN’s games made a brief stir around the Twitterverse and interwebs. Gottlieb, someone who knows a little bit about playing point guard at the Division I level, tabbed Cole the best point guard in the country. At first, I viewed that as a total stretch. I’ve seen Cole play a couple of games and one can’t deny his immense talent, but the competition Cole faces on a game-by-game basis is weaker than most. When you dig a little deeper, though, it’s not as ridiculous. Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette play off the ball with enough frequency where one can argue they’re more undersized shooting guards than pure point guards (finding these percentages seems like a job for SI’s Luke Winn in this week’s power rankings). Nolan Smith is a natural 2 but is now relegated to point guard duty following Kyrie Irving’s injury. That leaves the only other true competitor as Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor and, suddenly, Cole holds his own pretty well. The 6’2 CSU playmaker is tenth in the nation in offensive rating for high usage players (28%+ of teams’ possessions) and is the only player in Division I averaging 21/6/6 while shooting 45% FG and 39% 3pt. He’s scored in double digits every single game and just notched 35 points on Sunday against Old Dominion’s stingy defense. Sure, Gottlieb may have been a little anxious with his designation of Cole ahead of Walker, Fredette and/or Smith, but isn’t it closer than you may have expected?
I’m not necessarily supposed to be in the rooting camp as an unbiased RTC scribe, but I’m going to selfishly pull for some teams come conference tournament time. Why? Like Stephen Curry or any other mid-major shining star that captured your heart in March, I want to see these players under the bright lights that the NCAA Tournament has to offer: Charleston’s Andrew Goudelock and his in-the-gym range, Long Beach State and the offensive prowess of Casper Ware, the jet quickness of Fairfield’s Derek Needham, rebounding record-breaker extraordinaire Kenneth Faried and Morehead State, the versatility and athleticism of matchup nightmare Keith Benson and his Oakland Golden Grizzlies, Cole and his Cleveland State squad, and, finally, Saint Mary’s three-point gunner Mickey McConnell, who made a handful of shots against Utah State that would make Jimmer blush.