Ten Tuesday ScribblesPosted by zhayes9 on March 1st, 2011
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
Some bad news for those of you expecting the bubble to shrink in the next two weeks: the number of potential bid stealers is smaller than I can ever remember. The most likely candidates in previous years were out of Memphis-dominated Conference USA, Butler-dominated Horizon or WCC-dominated Gonzaga, but this season none of those three perennial powerhouses are locks for the dance, rendering each conference a one (or two in the WCC with Saint Mary’s) league. In fact, all three likely need to win their respective tournaments to feel safe on Selection Sunday. The Missouri Valley is also shaping up as a one-bid league for the fifth straight year and BYU, San Diego State and UNLV (playing the tournament at their home floor in Vegas) are so far ahead their Mountain West competition it’s highly unlikely any major upsets come to fruition. The same theory applies to Utah State in the WAC. One team that I do feel could snag a bid from a mediocre bubble team is Southern California out of the Pac-10 in a replay of 2009 when the #6 seed Trojans at 9-9 in the league rode DeMar DeRozan, Daniel Hackett and Taj Gibson to a surprising automatic berth. With 12 losses overall on the season – including black marks against Rider, Bradley and TCU from early in the campaign– Kevin O’Neill’s squad clearly needs to complete a sweep of the conference tournament to go dancing. Depth and consistent scoring has been a recurring issue all season, but the talent is in place with a frontcourt duo of Nikola Vucevic (17.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG) and Alex Stephenson and the growing comfort level of point guard transfer Jio Fontan, who tied a season-high with 21 points in Thursday’s upset win over Arizona. USC also has the highest defensive efficiency in the Pac-10 and limited Arizona star Derrick Williams to just eight points. Watch out for the Trojans in two weekends as a sneaky candidate to turn the Pac-10 a four-bid league.
A tip of the cap is in order for Frank Martin and his Kansas State Wildcats. Most skewered the hard-nosed coach for losing control of his program during K-State’s numerous low points –from the loss in Kansas City to UNLV sans Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly to the embarrassing blowout at rival Kansas with Gameday in the house to once-heralded recruit Wally Judge leaving the team – but it’s my opinion that Martin’s demanding style may have actually kept this team afloat while coaches that run their program with a softer hand may have had a total implosion on their hands. The combination of Martin’s constant yearning for focus, effort and execution out of his players and a senior in Pullen who flat-out refused to let his team hit rock bottom has led to a resurgence that would have been unfathomable three weeks ago. If you told me in early February that Kansas State, amidst all their turmoil and turnover, would win in Austin against what appeared to be a powerhouse Texas squad, I’d never have believed you. The Wildcats now shape up extremely well not only to make the NCAA Tournament – stellar RPI/SOS, wins over Kansas, Texas and Missouri and an ascent up the Big 12 standings – but also to make a Sweet 16-type run behind Pullen, the improving play of Curtis Kelly and the underrated contributions of Rodney McGruder.
BYU doesn’t exactly have the most glowing NCAA Tournament history. In fact, their first round victory over Florida last year was BYU’s first tournament win since 1993. The same reprieve is often played out under the bright lights of March: the softer, finesse, untested Cougars face a tough, physical, athletic opponent from a power six league and go into the fetal position. My admiration for Fredette was the singular reason I chose BYU as my second round upset pick last year to beat K-State. After an opening 10-0 run, BYU was thoroughly dismantled by the springy Wildcats and Jacob Pullen outplayed his counterpart Fredette. This trend was precisely why I believed San Diego State would take care of business last Saturday. Sure, the Cougars took care of business in a building they rarely ever lose in late January, but the Aztecs are that nightmarish matchup – a team full of bouncy, athletic, board-banging skilled players like Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas – that give the Cougars fits historically. Then BYU came out and blocked seven shots. They were barely out-rebounded. Thomas scored nine points and Leonard was limited to six field goals. Along with Fredette’s wizardry and the jump shooting ability of his teammates, I was doubly impressed by BYU’s attitude and toughness in such a raucous environment against an opponent I perceived as a matchup problem. Their zone defense was fantastic and their offensive execution – both in the halfcourt when Fredette was constantly doubled off of ball screens and in transition opportunities – was picture perfect. I’m a buyer.
If you had to pinpoint one factor as the overriding reason why Minnesota has fallen off so dramatically – and losing seven of eight games to beatable opposition qualifies as an unmitigated collapse – it would be the loss of starting point guard Al Nolen. Nolen was the engine that sparked the Gophers on both ends of the floor with his tremendous passing ability and lockdown defense on the other end. The loss of Nolen created a ripple effect as not only did Minnesota lose their floor general, but this subtraction forced 2-guard/shooter extraordinaire Blake Hoffarber to run the Gophers halfcourt offense, a task he’s clearly uncomfortable performing. Minnesota was simply unable to generate any offense in the last four minutes of recent Big Ten losses to Michigan State and Michigan. Devoe Joseph’s transfer, the maddening invisibility of Rodney Williams and the inability of Minnesota’s bigs to create their own offense are also key components to the total erosion of this team. While I applaud brutal honesty in a world where political correctness so often prevails, Tubby Smith pretty much conceding his teams NCAA Tournament chances after another head-scratching loss to Michigan at The Barn, as correct as he may have been, is the exact wrong message to send to your team during such trying times. Unless Minnesota can pull off another miracle and advance to either the Big Ten Tournament final by scalping Ohio State or Purdue, their at-large hopes have indeed disappeared. Still, this isn’t something for Smith to say publicly. With jobs likely opening at Georgia Tech and NC State this spring, one wonders if Smith, between the constant personnel battles and on-court challenges, will be looking to bolt for greener pastures.
Will Gonzaga ever finish below first place in the West Coast Conference? If there was ever going to be a season where Gonzaga was dethroned atop the WCC by Saint Mary’s, it was this year when Mickey McConnell’s game-winning floater found the bottom of the net and the Zags sat three games behind their bitter rival in the standings. On the first day of March, following Gonzaga’s gritty road win in Moraga last Thursday, both teams will share the WCC title, the 11th consecutive season where Gonzaga has shared a piece of the title pie. News to the rest of the WCC: you just blew your best chance to knock Gonzaga down a few pegs. The Zags do lose lone senior Steven Gray, but a backcourt of Demetri Goodson, David Stockton, Marquise Carter and two hyped freshmen in Gary Bell and Kevin Pangos is formidable. Pair those guards with Robert Sacre, Elias Harris, Sam Dower and Kelly Olynyk up front, and Gonzaga is surely a preseason top-25 squad for 2011-12. BYU is entering the league next season, but it could be a 2-3 year rebuild for the Cougars with Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery departing and the Gaels won’t have the services of McConnell after this season. Saint Mary’s had their arch rivals in their home gym with a chance to end their conference title streak and, in all likelihood, clinch an NCAA Tournament bid. That opportunity was squandered.
Speaking of opportunities squandered, Michigan State had a tremendous chance to move closer to locking up an NCAA Tournament bid on Sunday. The setup was perfect for Tom Izzo: RPI top-10 opponent but one that has lost four true road games this season and is certainly beatable, a team riding the momentum of four straight quality outings behind the resurgence of Kalin Lucas and a rowdy Izzone/Breslin Center ready to celebrate a signature win that’s alluded the Spartans on numerous occasions during a frustrating campaign. Instead of following the lead of Virginia Tech or Colorado or even UCLA, Michigan State went down with a thud, definitively out-played by a Purdue team behind their two superstars and an underrated supporting cast. Face it, folks: it’s just not happening with this Spartans squad. We all expect Izzo to concoct another tournament miracle, but those State teams of years past had much more to offer than this season’s version. This is a two man team right now. The enigmatic Durrell Summers appears to have completely checked out, another chapter in the ongoing soap opera of his collegiate career. Keith Appling shows spurts, but he’s an undersized two-guard not quite ready for prime time. The rest of Izzo’s rotation outside of Lucas and Draymond Green cannot contribute against high quality opposition on a consistent basis. I’m about to commit a cardinal sin and doubt a Tom Izzo-coached team in March, but here’s my proclamation: Michigan State is headed for a first round exit.
As I wrote glowingly in last week’s Scribbles, I LOVE Derrick Williams. Other than Kyrie Irving, I think Williams is the only other bona fide guaranteed stud in a weak draft class. He can jump out of the building, can knock down shots anywhere on the floor, rebounds with an unbridled ferocity and is nearly unstoppable in isolation situations. His game is tailor-made for the next level. His production at Arizona, though, hasn’t always been as consistent as, say, Kemba Walker or Jimmer Fredette. The main reason is that Williams doesn’t begin with the ball in his hands. As a 6’8 forward, he already has less control over each possession. Williams attempted just 22 shots during Arizona’s recent two-game slide in Los Angeles, far too little for a future lottery pick and potential first team All-American during two contests in which Arizona obviously struggled to score. This is why I fear hitching my wagon to Arizona come NCAA Tournament time. Their guard play is just too shaky for my liking. Neither Lamont Jones nor Kyle Fogg possesses that distributing mentality and not one guard on the Arizona roster averages three or more assists per contest. Their turnover rate is also sixth in the conference. As a result, will Williams receive enough touches in prime scoring position to fully maximize his talents? I’m going to be watching Arizona intensely during the Pac-10 Tournament to receive more clarity on this exact question.
After St. John’s stunned Pittsburgh to collect yet another quality win at Madison Square Garden, Steve Lavin made a pointed effort in his postgame interview to tout the credentials of his star guard Dwight Hardy in the ever-changing Big East POY race. Early in the season, Kemba Walker was a lock. Rick Jackson started to gain some steam as Syracuse came out of the gates smoking hot. Then Austin Freeman, the preseason selection, emerged. Ben Hansbrough’s name has been thrown around. Brad Wanamaker might be the second most valuable after Walker. These five have all had fantastic seasons, but Hardy’s recent stretch in the all-important February stretch run may have given him a slight edge, unimaginable as recently as one month ago. The case for Hardy is simple: he’s taking over games against high-quality opponents during Big East play, putting the Johnnies on his back and locking up an NCAA Tournament bid, while Walker has faded since his remarkable run early in the season. The Bronx native is averaging 25 PPG since their statement win over Duke on January 31, a stretch that includes 32 points on 13-24 FG at UCLA, 33 points on 10-17 FG vs. Connecticut (Walker scored 15 points on 4-16 FG on this night), 28 points on 7-16 FG in a road win at Marquette, the game-winner and 19 points vs. Pitt and 34 points on 9-16 FG and 5-9 3pt in the latest stunner at Villanova. Shouldn’t the fact that Hardy is peaking in February count for more? Coach Lavin has me convinced.
It’s easy to overreact after Notre Dame put on an offensive display for the ages last night against a struggling Villanova squad. After all, Notre Dame scored 1.45 points per trip, made 20 out of 32 threes and posted an effective FG% of 75.0. Keep in mind that Villanova is a team reeling right now, pulling off a fall from grace eerily reminiscent to last year’s late season descent. The Wildcats have lost five of seven heading into their game with Pitt on Saturday and those two wins were a 3-point squeaker at Seton Hall and an OT win at bottom feeder DePaul that was only possible after Corey Fisher hit a game-tying three at the end of regulation. Also remember that Notre Dame, historically, is Jekyll at home and Hyde on the road. This is not the first time under Mike Brey they’ve run the table in South Bend. Lest we not forget that the Irish lost by double digits to Kentucky, Syracuse, Marquette, St. John’s and West Virginia away from home. Overall, though, I like the makings of this Notre Dame team. They’re experienced, efficient, versatile and boast a multitude of weapons, plus Ben Hansbrough seems like the type of determined players that simply won’t let his teams’ season end. Still, let’s pump the breaks for a second and not overreact to one game against a reeling opponent on national television.
Two conference tournaments that have my interest piqued this week are the Horizon League and the Missouri Valley. Not only do they feature a handful of well-known former Cinderellas and marquee mid-major programs (Butler, Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Valparaiso) and high-major caliber players (Norris Cole, Matt Howard, Kyle Weems, Gregory Echenique), but the fields are as wide open as ever. There’s no ranked team playing on their home floor as has been the case with Butler in the Horizon the last few seasons. In fact, due to their sweep of the Bulldogs, Milwaukee, a team led by seniors Anthony Hill and Tone Boyle that hasn’t lost in league play since January 21, earned the #1 seed and will host the tournament. Butler obviously has the firepower to win in Milwaukee with Howard and preseason conference POY Shelvin Mack, while Cleveland State can pull it off if Cole receives enough help from his supporting cast. Detroit’s plethora of transfers are very talented, Valparaiso has an outstanding guard in Brandon Wood and Wright State the same with Vaughn Duggins. The MVC is a one-bid league this season which will make the tournament even more intriguing. Missouri State and Wichita State are the favorites going in, but don’t count out Northern Iowa, Indiana State or Creighton.