Tracking The Four: Conference Play Begins

Posted by EJacoby on January 10th, 2012

Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist and contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. TT4 will cover four selected teams of interest – Syracuse, Indiana, Murray State, and UNLV – by tracking their ups, downs, and exciting developments throughout the course of the season.

Welcome to Tracking The Four! This new series reads just like it sounds, as we will be following four buzz-worthy teams across the country. Those lucky teams are Syracuse (current #1 team and a title favorite), Indiana (a feel-good contender), Murray State (undefeated dreams), and UNLV (the best of the West). With TT4, we hope to provide readers with interesting insights about each of the featured teams that helps capture the atmosphere of the programs throughout the rest of the season. Look for a full TT4 piece every Tuesday, as well as a shorter update later in the week. Each post will be loaded with highlights, lowlights, and tidbits about each team, as well as recaps from their recent play and a look ahead at their upcoming games. Conference play is well underway and there’s plenty of news to get to this week:

Kris Joseph & Syracuse are All Smiles Right Now (Getty Images/A. Lyons)

Syracuse Orange

  • Trending UP Because… – They’re looking like national title favorites. The undefeated Orange (17-0, 4-0 Big East) remain number one in every national poll, including the RTC Top 25, with its consistently dominant play. They’ve beaten their four conference opponents by an average of 16.5 points, which includes two road games and two home games against ranked teams (Seton Hall & Marquette). Seton Hall has proven to be a solid and cohesive offensive team, yet the Pirates were blown out of the gym by Syracuse in a 75-49 thrashing. The Orange are the deepest team in the country with 10 meaningful contributors, and their patented 2-3 zone is as strong as ever. Jim Boeheim‘s team is now making bigger headlines on the court than off it (the Bernie Fine sexual harassment allegation was a big story), a refreshing trend for the sake of all its fans.
  • This Week’s Key Cog – Brandon Triche. The junior guard led the team in scoring last week, going for 16 points at Providence on Wednesday and another 16 at home against Marquette on Saturday. He hit four three-pointers in each game with an impressive line of 16/7/4 assts and two steals in the victory over Marquette.
  • Play of the Week – Point guard Scoop Jardine finds his go-to guy Kris Joseph in transition for a thunderous dunk from several feet away from the basket against Providence.
  • Talking Point – Guard Dion Waiters, who comes off the bench, had this to say after the win over Providence: “I’ve never been on a team with subs like this. It’s crazy. We continue to get better and make each other better in practice every day. We’ve got some of the best guards in the country.’’
  • Stats Central – Syracuse leads the nation with 37.5 points per game from its bench, further proving that they’re the deepest team in America. Also, their zone defense has been truly elite this season, as the Orange lead the country in steals (10.9 per game), are third in blocks (7.4 per game), and fifth in forcing turnovers (18.7 per game).
  • What’s Next? – The Orange play at Villanova on Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia (7:00 PM ET, ESPN2) against a struggling Wildcats team, but it’s still a rivalry game in which the Villanova crowd should be fired up and looking for the upset. Then, Cuse gets its second matchup with Providence, this time at home on Saturday (6:00 PM ET) as heavy favorites.

Indiana Hoosiers

  • Trending UP Because… – They’ve won three straight conference games, including one road victory and two home wins over Top 15 teams (Ohio State & Michigan). The Hoosiers (15-1, 3-1 Big Ten) were picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten by conference media members, and as of January 9 they are the No. 6 ranked team in the entire country. No team has been a bigger surprise this season, and the fact that it’s happening for the historic basketball program in Bloomington gives this team even more buzz. Tom Crean‘s team has one of the most potent offensive attacks in the country and is doing it with balanced contributions from nine or ten players per night. Cody Zeller continues to be a difference-maker as perhaps the country’s most productive freshman, Christian Watford has developed into one of the conference’s top scorers, and different role players have stepped up every night. No home court is as loud as Assembly Hall these days, and Hoosier Hysteria is back in Bloomington.
  • This Week’s Key Cog – Matt Roth. As has been a recurring theme all season, Indiana had different key players in each of its two victories during the week. But the sharp-shooting Roth poured in 22 points at Penn State on Sunday on 5-6 three-point shooting, and he hit both his field goals against Michigan on Wednesday including a deep three-pointer to give the team a momentum swing after its opponent was making a second half run. The senior missed just one field goal attempt all week in an efficient performance.
  • Play of the Week – Twenty seconds into this video, watch Cody Zeller finish a nifty ‘and-one’ basket falling down from inside the paint to give his team a 10-point lead in the second half at PSU.
  • Talking Point – Junior guard Jordan Hulls talked about the mental state of the team heading into its game against Penn State: “Our mindset is next man up.  We know that a lot of different people at different times can step up and make a play that helps us win games on either offense or defense.  We have done a good job of being unselfish and worrying only about getting the win.”
  • Stats Central – Indiana leads the nation with a 47.6% three-point field goal percentage, which has helped carry them to the fifth-ranked offensive efficiency (118.1) and eighth-most points per game average (82.4) in all of Division I. Jordan Hulls’ true shooting percentage of 72.8% is the second highest number of any player in the nation, thanks to his incredible shooting from behind the arc (58.2% on 67 three-point attempts).
  • What’s Next? – The Hoosiers have a huge test this Sunday at Ohio State (4:30 PM ET, CBS) in a rematch of the New Year’s Eve game which saw IU take down the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes at home. This time, Indiana will be playing in Columbus with OSU looking for major revenge. Before that contest, IU will have a home game against struggling Minnesota on Thursday (8:00 PM ET, Big Ten Network). The Golden Gophers are 0-4 to start conference play.

Murray State Racers

  • Trending UP Because… – They’re still undefeated. Murray State (16-0, 4-0 OVC) just completed its most difficult week of the season with two wins over its biggest challengers to halting their perfect season. The Racers knocked off previously unbeaten-in-conference Eastern Kentucky at home by nine points on Wednesday, followed by a 12-point win at Austin Peay on Saturday night. Talks of an undefeated season are starting to get serious, as Murray will be strong favorites in each of its remaining games. Led by the Ohio Valley Conference’s best player, Isaiah Canaan, the Racers are looking to become the first team since St. Joseph’s in 2004 to finish the regular season without a loss, and they even may have a shot to become the first undefeated team heading into the NCAA Tournament since UNLV in 1991, if they can win their conference tournament as well. These are all major ‘if’s’, but coach Steve Prohm‘s team has the talent and schedule opportunities to possibly make history.

Isaiah Canaan and Murray State Have Fended Off All Opponents This Season (AP Photo/S. Dennee)

  • This Week’s Key Cog – Isaiah Canaan. No surprises here. Canaan, who ranks second in the Ohio Valley in scoring at 18.6 points per game and third in the conference with 4.1 assists per contest, averaged 25.5 points and four assists in two games this past week. The junior guard played the best half of basketball I’ve seen all year on Saturday, when he shot 7-7 from three-point range with 27 points at halftime against Austin Peay, before he finished with 35 in the road win.
  • Play of the Week – Watch junior Stacey Wilson complete a sick Euro-step move for a layup in transition after a steal.
  • Talking Point – After the win over Austin Peay, Coach Prohm had this to say about his star guard Canaan and his special performance in the win: “I chased him everywhere in AAU basketball. He’s a special player, he’s a gamer, he plays big, the bigger the game the better he plays. The first half, he was tremendous. I think he’s one of the elite guards in the country.”
  • Stats Central – Murray State continues its red hot shooting from deep, where they rank fourth in the nation with a 44.6% three-point shooting percentage.  The Racers are the only team in the Top 100 of the RPI that has played three games against non-Division I opponents, which may be hurting their rating in that index a bit (currently #20 in RPI).
  • What’s Next? – Murray State plays two winnable homes games this week against Jacksonville State on Thursday (8:00 PM ET) and Tennessee Tech on Saturday (6:00 PM ET). JSU is 1-4 in conference play while TTU is 3-1 in conference and could put up a strong fight. But expect the Racers to remain undefeated by the time the next TT4 update is posted next week.

UNLV Runnin’ Rebels

  • Trending UP Because… – They’ve rebounded strong from losing two out of three games in early December. UNLV (16-2, 0-0 MW) has not yet played any games against Mountain West opponents, but the Rebels head into competitive conference play on a seven-game win streak and as strong favorites to win the league. They have compiled several big non-conference wins, most notably the smackdown of then-No.1 North Carolina in Las Vegas in November that put the Rebels on the national radar early. With nine players averaging at least 14 minutes per game, and five players at 9.5 points per game or better, this is a deep, veteran team that’s playing well for its new head coach Dave Rice. In Chace Stanback and Mike Moser, UNLV has a dominant duo of forwards and two of the best players in the Mountain West.
  • This Week’s Key Cog – Anthony Marshall. Since the Rebels only played one game last week, we’ll extend this segment for another week back to include a total of three games. The junior guard Marshall has contributed across the board recently, tallying an average of 13.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game in the past three contests. These games include road tilts at Cal-State Bakersfield and Hawaii, and a home game against Central Arkansas, all of which were blowout victories.
  • Play of the Week – Since there wasn’t much highlight footage of the Rebels’ past three games, we’re cheating a bit again and going back three weeks this time to provide you with a pair of nasty reverse-dunks by Mike Moser against Louisiana-Monroe. See the video below.
  • Talking Point – After the win against CS-Bakersfield on Thursday, Coach Rice attributed the team’s strong second-half play to its conditioning: “We felt like our depth and our conditioning took a toll on them in the second half. That’s one thing about our team. We play nine or 10 guys. Depth and conditioning is one of our strong suits. We’ve always been a second-half team.”
  • Stats Central – Not only are the Rebels deep on the bench, but they also spread the ball around to all of the contributors on the floor. They rank fifth in the nation with 18.8 assists per game. Also, UNLV has jumped all the way up to No. 12 in the AP poll this week, which is the Runnin’ Rebels’ highest ranking in the poll since February 8, 1993! On that day 19 years ago, UNLV was also ranked 12th.
  • What’s Next? – After playing just one game last week, it’s another slow week for the Rebels as they play  just once in the next seven days. However, that game is a huge one. UNLV will play at San Diego State on Saturday (4:00 PM ET) to open conference play, against last season’s conference tournament winner and their biggest challenger this year. The eight-team Mountain West should be a fun conference standings to track, though SDSU and UNLV are the frontrunners, and this Saturday’s game will be the early indicator of the conference favorite.
EJacoby (198 Posts)

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5 responses to “Tracking The Four: Conference Play Begins”

  1. Matt says:

    You forget about UNM? 12 game winning streak heading into conference

  2. rtmsf says:

    We can’t do every good team in America; so, these are the four we chose.

  3. EJacoby says:

    rtm, I think Matt is simply referring to the fact that we did not mention New Mexico when discussing the contenders in the Mountain West as it relates to UNLV.

    In which case…. you’re right, UNM certainly cannot be forgotten in the Mountain West discussion. I just mentioned SDSU because that’s who UNLV is playing this week, and I think the Aztecs are their biggest competition. New Mexico is a very good team, The Pit is tough place to play in, but as of now I’d go with UNLV and SDSU as the best bets to win the conference. UNM plays both teams next week and could prove me wrong if they come out with W’s

  4. rtmsf says:

    Gotcha. Certainly UNM is in that conversation.

  5. Matt says:

    I would agree that UNLV is the fav at the moment, but I’m currently watching SDSU struggle massively against winless Chicago state at home right now. Not the greatest recipe heading into conference play.

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