ATB: February Parity Turns to March MayhemPosted by rtmsf on February 28th, 2011
The Lede. It was the last weekend in February, and as we come out of it, we’re less clear about who the favorites are to cut down the nets in early April than we have been at any point this season. RTCs went down in Blacksburg, Boulder, Springfield and more, befitting the stress, pressure and expectations of a season reaching its regular season terminus. As usual, after a weekend like this, there’s a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in with some of the major moments…
Your Watercooler Moment. Parity is This Year’s Dominance. It was another weekend where many of the top teams came away with losses. #2 Duke (#1 AP/#1 ESPN) went to Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Virginia, on Saturday night and left with a lighter load. #3 Pittsburgh (#4 AP/#6 ESPN) dropped a tough Big East road battle at Louisville for the second straight weekend. #4 Texas (#5 AP/#5 ESPN) suffered a ridiculously bad second half at Colorado and headed back to Austin with two Ls in its last three outings. #5 San Diego State (#6 AP/#4 ESPN) suffered the ignoble embarrassment of getting Jimmered in its own building by the only team to have proven it can beat the Aztecs this season. Shuffle the deck for another week and repeat. The only top teams to come out unscathed this weekend were #1 Ohio State (#2 AP/#3 ESPN), #6 Kansas (#3 AP/#2 ESPN) and #7 BYU (#7 AP/#7 ESPN) — and both the Buckeyes and Jayhawks were part of last week’s poll carnage. The point we’re making is a simple one: the field is completely wide open this year. It wouldn’t surprise us nor should it surprise you if none of the eventual #1 seeds make it to the Final Four — the difference between the top seven named above and the next tier of teams is not large. The four teams we would put on our top line as of tonight — Ohio State, Pitt, BYU and Kansas — are all strong candidates to lose at least one more game between now and Selection Sunday, now only fourteen days out. This kind of parity among the top teams makes for an exciting NCAA Tournament, but it shouldn’t shock anybody if the seeds that make it to Houston in April add up to a total well into the teens (e.g., 2, 3, 6, 8).
Your Watercooler Moment, Pt. II. That Stupid Louisville Cheerleader. If Rick Pitino were a little younger and brasher (say, the Knicks or early Kentucky eras), the Louisville cheerleader who grabbed the ball and tossed it up into the air after what appeared to be Kyle Kuric’s game-sealing dunk would already be encased in concrete in the Ohio River locks. Instead, the older and somewhat more forgiving head coach will likely only have a horse’s head delivered to the cheerleader’s bed for making his gaffe with 0.5 seconds remaining on the clock. The sophomoric ball-toss resulted in two technical FTs for Pitt taking a five-point lead down to three, and the Panthers put up a decent half-court heave at the buzzer that would have tied the game. We can understand a little confusion with respect to the last half-second of time running off the clock, but why touch the ball at all? That should be the province of the players and game officials, nobody else, and the cheer people should understand that better than most. Here’s the question on everyone’s mind, though: will Cheer Dufus be back in action or will Pitino have him removed (we’re not sure what “The male cheerleader is coming to an end” means exactly)?
Your Watercooler Moment, Pt. III. Tyler Trapani Shuts Down Pauley With an Assist From the Ghost of John Wooden. It was the last game in Pauley Pavilion, the House That Wooden Built, before it undergoes massive renovations over the next year-plus to bring the building seemingly mired in the 1960s into the modern era. UCLA was throttling league-leading Arizona and the Bruin partisans were rocking out with every Reeves Nelson dunk, Josh Smith twirl and each long-range brick from Arizona. With just a few seconds remaining in garbage time, UCLA’s Jack Haley, Jr., missed a corner three badly short; standing directly under the basket to catch it and lay it in as the final points scored in the “old” Pauley was walk-on Tyler Trapani, The Wizard of Westwood’s great-grandson. The bucket represented his only two points of the entire season, and it seemed a fitting tribute to finishing off the old barn in its current state. Pauley Pavilion is one of the temples of the sport, so we’re glad to hear that UCLA is finally updating it — it’s our opinion that modernizing a terrific old venue is much preferred to building an austere and lifeless new one.
This Weekend’s Quick Hits…
- Virginia Tech and Colorado’s RTCs. Coverage of the court was quick, complete and rowdy, befitting how you should RTC when you take down a top five team in your building. Virginia Tech’s crowd was fantastic the entire evening, as the below video clearly illustrates (move ahead for the RTC, and here’s a bird’s eye view if you’re into that). As the second video shows, Colorado’s was also quite good (here’s another from within the maelstrom at center court). Perhaps more importantly, the huge wins keep both teams’ hopes alive for an at-large NCAA bid in two weeks. Much was expected from both of these schools prior to season tipoff, but they’ve had myriad ups and downs along the way. These two huge wins will go a long way toward finding the right side of the bubble in fourteen days.
- The Big East’s Muddled Mess. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, and we’re fascinated by the massive glut of good-not-great teams in the Big East this year. Villanova, Syracuse, Georgetown, West Virginia, Marquette, St. John’s, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Louisville, Notre Dame — every one of these teams is a good team, but are any of them Final Four threats? How many are Sweet Sixteen threats? If the conference as predicted gets eleven teams into the Dance, how many will need to make the second weekend in order to justify their inclusion? Five? Six? What if none of the eleven makes the Final Four (a strong possibility in our eyes)? Pittsburgh is the only potentially great team in the entire league, and the Panthers have never made a F4 and sometimes lack the offensive firepower to get themselves out of trouble in elimination games. It’s an interesting thought process — for such a loaded conference, the NCAA Tournament may end up being a disappointment for this league.
- Missouri State’s First MVC Championship. The Missouri State Bears are a great story, winning their first-ever Missouri Valley Conference regular season title on Saturday with a win over Wichita State, 69-64. When Adam Leonard’s three found bottoms in the last minute, the party was pretty much on in Springfield (as you can see below), giving MSU the top seed at next weekend’s Arch Madness in St. Louis. Head coach Cuonzo Martin, having defeated non-Hodkgins lymphoma a decade ago, is a great rags-to-riches story that everyone would like to see celebrated next month. No disrespect intended toward Wichita State, a fine mid-major program with a great history, but the Bears are our favorites for coming out of the MVC this year.
- The Jimmer’s Playmaking. Everybody knows he can score in bunches, but with double- and triple-teams running at him all day against SDSU on Saturday, Jimmer Fredette used his playmaking abilities to burn the Aztecs in their own building. In addition to his 25 points, he dropped nine dimes, and the nine FGs as a result came in only eleven shots. Six of eight of those were three-balls, meaning that the defense designed to keep him from going for 40+ ultimately led to 24 points, more than enough to account for the difference in the game. The Jimmer shot 8-23 from the field, but unlike his popular comparison player, JJ Redick (a comparison we hate), Fredette can do other things to beat you. He’s extremely dangerous. Pick your poison, right?
- The Vaunted Longhorn Defense. The reason that Texas has catapulted up the rankings from a middling Big 12 team to a top five juggernaut this season has been a direct result of its sticky defense. Jordan Hamilton and company run hot and cold shooting the ball, but when you’re holding teams to around 55 points per game, you’re still going to have a great chance to win most nights. In fourteen Big 12 games prior to Saturday’s 91-89 loss to Colorado, the Horns had held its opponents to 58 points or fewer in eight of them — yesterday, in the second half alone, the Buffs put up 58 points against Rick Barnes’ team. We understand that sometimes a hyped-up home team will catch fire and hit everything they throw up at the rim, but having it happen to UT twice in three games against middling bubble teams is cause for concern in Austin. Is Barnes losing his players’ focus again?
- San Diego State’s Kryptonite. In without question the biggest home game in program history, Steve Fisher’s team didn’t perform any better in its second loss to the visiting BYU Cougars than it did in the game in Provo. We thought Steve Kerr in his new role as collegiate analyst nailed it when he candidly stated that BYU was simply the more effective offensive team. When things broke down for the Cougars, they had answers, whereas SDSU had none. Don’t get us wrong, we laud the Aztecs for the incredible season that they’ve had so far, but we’re getting a sneaking suspicion that they’re going to get figured out by more teams than just BYU next month. One thing we really don’t like is how the Aztecs don’t have consistent three-point weaponry to come back from deficits. In yesterday’s game, SDSU hit 6-20 from deep but while watching we never had the sense that they were going to put a string together in order to cut the increasingly large deficit.
- Georgetown Without Chris Wright. The Hoya offense has put together three of its worst halves of the year since point guard and leader Chris Wright’s injury in the second half of its mid-week game against Cincinnati. All too often during its 59-51 home loss to Syracuse on Saturday, the Hoyas had trouble developing things, with Hollis Thompson taking Wright’s place in the starting lineup and nobody capable of stepping up and running the show. The unofficial word is that Wright will be back before the NCAA Tournament starts in two-plus weeks, but John Thompson, III, really needs to use this upcoming week to find a way for his team to execute so as to beat Cincinnati in its final regular season game and avoid the dreaded opening round of the Big East Tournament.
Photo Fav. It didn’t turn out so hot for these guys, but representing before one of the game’s best rivalries is always worthwhile.
RTC Live. Several good games on Saturday where RTC Live was there on site.
St. John’s 81, Villanova 68. Both Villanova and St. John’s came to the Wells Fargo Center to shed reputations and quiet the whispers. Villanova’s demon has been a late season fade, in 2008, 2010 and again this season as the Wildcats had gone 5-6 after opening the season 16-1. For St. John’s, the whispers were that the Red Storm could not win outside of the friendly confines of Madison Square Garden and away from their resurgent fan-base. The fans of St. John’s can rest a bit easier as their Red Storm, led by Dwight Hardy’s career-high 34 points, beat Villanova 81-68 today in the Wells Fargo Center in downtown Philadelphia. Senior guard Dwight Hardy has become a legitimate candidate for Big East Player of the Year and was described by Villanova coach Jay Wright as “Awesome…he did not turn over the ball” and by senior guard Corey Stokes as “a killer…he just killed us. ““We don’t think about that,” replied Corey Stokes when asked to assess Hardy’s chances of earning the award, but offered his own assessment of him as “a very good player.” St. John’s used two scoring runs, the first, a 20-7 burst in the game’s first three and a half minutes and the last, a 16-4 run when the Wildcats closed the score to 65-64 at the 4-minute mark to close out the game. The first run was sparked by three-point baskets from senior guard Dwight Hardy, senior wing Paris Horne (12 points) and senior forward Justin Brownlee (11 points). The second run was powered by 12 made free throws by DJ Kennedy (12 points), Hardy and Horne to go with two runners. Corey Stokes, back for his second game after sitting with a turf toe injury, paced Villanova with 20 points on 7-11 shooting that included six made threes. Sophomore guard Maalik Wayns scored 19 for the Wildcats, while Dominic Cheek chipped in 11 points. St. John’s opened the game with the aforementioned run that included an uncharacteristic three treys in the first four minutes of the game. Normally the Red Storm will attempt around ten three point shots in a game, but Saturday the St. John’s guards attempted 18 in the first half alone. After going down 13, Villanova, led by Stokes and Cheek, countered with their own barrage of threes mixed with drives into the lane by Wayns, to cut the St. John’s lead to five, 41-36, at the half. With this win Steve Lavin’s team goes to 19-9 overall and 11-5 in the Big East, currently in sole possession of third place. Villanova drops to 21-8 overall, 9-7 in conference play, falling to eighth place. St. John’s closes the season with a road game at Seton Hall and a home game versus South Florida. Villanova takes to the road to play Notre Dame, then Pittsburgh.
Colorado 91, Texas 89. Despite a 48-33 halftime deficit, the Colorado Buffaloes rallied in the second half of Saturday’s contest against No. 5 Texas to improve to 7-7 in Big 12 play and snap a six-game losing skid against the Longhorns. Sophomore guard Alec Burks had the performance of the day, scoring 33 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out four assists. Texas blew a 17-point second half lead as the Buffs answered with a 14-0 run spearheaded by Burks. In addition to the sophomore, the Buffs were led by bench players Andre Roberson and Levi Knutson who played crucial roles in the come-from-behind victory. Roberson added nine points and 11 rebounds, while Knutson made three consectuive threes to finish with 21 points, the second highest on the team. Texas left the Coors Events Center stunned. The team made a late comeback behind Jordan Hamilton and J’Covan Brown, who each finished with 21 points in the contest. However, poor free throw shooting plagued Texas as the team shot a pathethic 20 of 34 from the charity stripe (58 percent). Although they scored 41 points in the second half, the Longhorns had recorded only 19 points and were down 78-67 with under five minutes to play. With the win, CU improves to 14-2 at home this season, tying a school record and moves to 18-11 overall, boosting their NCAA tournament resume. Texas shot 11-23 from three point range, but couldn’t capitalize due to the double-digit deficit.
Notre Dame 60, Seton Hall 48. Trailing Seton Hall 27-21 with just seconds to go in the first half, Notre Dame knew that they had to get a basket for momentum purposes. After senior guard Ben Hansbrough missed a jumper from the corner, senior forward Tim Abromaitis gathered the loose ball and tossed up an off-balance three that went in just as the buzzer sounded. When the second half began, the Irish and the Pirates battled evenly for the first few minutes, but eventually Notre Dame went on a 13-0 run to gain control of the game. However, Seton Hall was able to pull the score to 44-43 with just six minutes remaining. At that point, consecutive three-pointers by Abromaitis and senior forward Scott Martin provided the knockout punch that the Irish were searching for. Notre Dame was led by Abromaitis, who finished with 22 points, and Hansbrough, who finished with 21 points and 7 rebounds. In a losing effort, Jeff Robinson contributed 16 points and 5 rebounds for the Pirates.
Missouri State 69, Wichita State 64. How did the students at Missouri State celebrate the program’s first Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship after knocking off Wichita State Saturday? They rushed the court, of course, and with ferocity. Adam Leonard’s tie-breaking three-pointer, a deep, contested attempt off a screen with 48.6 seconds remaining, will go down as one of the most important shots in MSU history. Leonard bailed his team out after it blew a double-digit lead in the second half, as Wichita State rallied behind the red-hot David Kyles. A former starter now relegated to the bench, Kyles single-handedly brought his team back into contention, and he drained a wild three-pointer with just more than a minute remaining to pull even and cap a whirlwind of a comeback. Wichita State will need to recover quickly for Arch Madness next weekend, as there’s a strong possibility these two teams could meet again in St. Louis next Sunday for a reward even greater than a regular season title–a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Syracuse 58, Georgetown 51. Georgetown is going to be in trouble as long as they don’t have Chris Wright on the court. Its not an issue of effort or leadership. They had plenty of that on Saturday. Syracuse jumped out to a lead as big as 12 early in the second half, but Austin Freeman and Jason Clark helped lead the Hoyas all the way back, taking a 45-43 lead. No, Georgetown’s issue is that they simply do not have enough offensive creativity or firepower without Wright on the floor. I said this numerous times during the live-blog, but without Wright Georgetown is just about forced to score within the confines of their offense. If they don’t, they have to rely on Austin Freeman to try and create a shot for himself at the end of a clock. That’s not his strong suit. They need Wright to get healthy. As far as Syracuse is concerned, this win only reinforced the fact that this is not a team that you can trust in March. They won on Saturday because of Scoop Jardine, who made a couple of huge shots down the stretch. And if there is anything that Scoop’s career has taught us, its that he’s not the most trustworthy player. Kris Joseph and Brandon Triche were essentially no-shows on Saturday as well.