Tracking The Four: And Then There Were Two (Unbeatens)Posted by EJacoby on January 17th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is an RTC contributor & correspondent. 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.
In this second full edition of TT4, two of our teams have taken a step backward while the other two continue to roll along as the only unbeaten teams remaining in the country. Do Murray State and Syracuse both have a good chance to go undefeated in the regular season? All four of our teams remain ranked in the Top 20 of the major polls. Let’s take a look at the juxtaposition between the two pairs of teams that are making headlines for different reasons:
Murray State Racers
- Trending UP Because… – They’re still without injured starting forward Ivan Aska, who has a broken hand, and the Racers continue to take care of business. MSU (18-0, 6-0 Ohio Valley) remained undefeated after knocking off Jacksonville State and Tennessee Tech at home over the past week. The Racers’ unbeaten start extends the school record to open a season, and improving to 18-0 also set the school record for longest win streak overall at any point.
- This Week’s Key Cog – Donte Poole. The senior guard has been the perfect complement to Isaiah Canaan all season, but it was Poole who did the heavy lifting this week. He averaged 24.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.5 steals in two games last week, including a career-high 28 points versus Tennessee Tech, to propel his team to those victories. The prolific three-point shooter was more aggressive attacking the basket, getting to the line a total of 23 times in the two games, converting 21 of those shots.
- Play of the Week – Twenty-five seconds into this video clip, watch star guard Canaan split defenders on a high pick-and-roll before a crafty finish at the rim. The announcer pronounces his name wrong, so just let the highlight do the talking.
- Talking Point – Steve Prohm on improving to 18-0 despite missing their best forward: “Credit our guys’ resiliency. We’re having to play a lot of different ways and we’re just trying to figure things out and they’re doing things on the fly and making adjustments and I couldn’t be prouder of them.“
- Best Read – ESPN’s Dana O’Neil sat down with coach Steve Prohm for an interview Tuesday that discussed how the first-year coach has dealt with success, amongst other issues.
- Stats Central – According to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, the only currently ranked teams that played a more challenging non-conference schedule than Murray State were Duke, Kansas, and Gonzaga. The Racers were actually picked to finish third this season in the OVC by conference coaches in the preseason poll, behind Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech. Those two teams now don’t have as many wins combined (17) as the Racers currently do on the season.
- What’s Next? – MSU has two road games this week against conference foes dreaming of ending a perfect season. First is a test at Morehead State on Wednesday (7:00 PM ET) against the defending champions of the OVC. Morehead, 3-3 in conference play thus far, is a tough team whose five best players are all upperclassmen. The Racers then head to play at SIU-Edwardsville against a Cougars team that is also 3-3 in conference. Murray will look to continue their undefeated streak again without their best big man as Aska has been ruled out for these games.
- Trending EVEN Because… – Already at the top of nearly every poll and rating, there’s not much higher to go. Syracuse remained undefeated and improved to 20-0 (7-0 Big East) after beating the three teams at the bottom of the Big East conference last week. The Orange handled their toughest task at Villanova last Wednesday without a problem, and it’s been weeks since SU played a game in which the outcome was ever in doubt after the first 10 minutes. Fast starts are becoming a staple of this team, and it holds leads easily with the most talented bench in the nation. Jim Boeheim’s team is beating Big East opponents by an average of 15.7 points per game, although five of their seven games have come against the bottom four teams in the conference.
- This Week’s Key Cog – Dion Waiters. Who else? Waiters averaged a team-leading 16 points per game in three games last week. He also recorded ten rebounds and nine steals in the three games. The sophomore guard is now within 0.6 points per game of matching the leading scorer on the team (Kris Joseph, 13.7 PPG), despite coming off the bench.
- Play of the Week – C.J. Fair made #1 on Monday night’s Sportscenter Top Plays and victimized Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna for a future wall poster. See the facial dunk below:
- Talking Point – Jim Boeheim tied the legendary Adolph Rupp for fourth on the all-time wins list after beating Pittsburgh, but the coach completely downplayed the milestone when asked about its significance: “None whatsoever. None. The only thing I care about is this year, what we’re doing this year.”
- Off The Court – Unfortunately, Syracuse still remains in the public spotlight for the sexual allegations against former assistant coach Bernie Fine. The most recent news development is that one of Fine’s accusers admitted to lying about the claims he made. It doesn’t appear that this story is going away anytime soon.
- Stats Central – Two reasons why the Boeheim 2-3 zone defense has been especially strong this season? Waiters has a steal rate of 6.0%, which is the third-highest rate of any player in the country. Fab Melo has a block rate of 15.1%, which ranks fifth amongst all players. Great defensive players in a great defensive scheme have wreaked havoc on opponents. Fair and Waiters average the second and third most minutes on the team, respectively, despite neither starting a single game this season.
- What’s Next? – The Orange have two road tests this week to try to preserve perfection. They play at Notre Dame on Saturday (6:00 PM ET, ESPN), which is never an easy game in South Bend. But then things really get tough with a matchup at Cincinnati on Big Monday (7:00 PM ET, ESPN), which could be the team’s toughest challenge of the season to date. The Bearcats are 4-1 in conference, though they play two difficult road games this week leading up their matchup with Cuse.
UNLV Runnin’ Rebels
- Trending EVEN Because… – They lost their first conference game of the season last week, but it was about as close a game as you’ll see. The Rebels (16-3, 0-1 Mountain West) lost on the road to conference rival and fellow ranked team San Diego State on a last-possession bucket by the Aztecs. UNLV was this close to a massive road win to boost their profile, but instead must bounce back from the heartbreaking late loss. The largest lead by either team at any point was eight points in a hard-fought Mountain West battle.
- This Week’s Key Cog – Anthony Marshall. In what was the team’s only game of the week, Marshall led the way with 26 points as the only Rebels player in double-figures against SDSU. He added eight rebounds and two blocks, but it wasn’t enough to get the road win.
- Play of the Week – After a steal, Chace Stanback gets a pass in transition and throws down a ferocious slam over an SDSU defender. This clip is long, but the video will start when the highlight begins.
- Talking Point – Coach Dave Rice, in his first year at the helm, on the team’s morale after losing to the defending conference champions to begin Mountain West play: “The way we look at it, we’re 0-1 in the league and they’ve beaten us one time. It’s different players, it’s just a situation where they have a good basketball team and they held serve on their home floor. And that’s to their credit.”
- Recruit Me – Last week, former McDonald’s All-American Khem Birch announced he would be transferring to UNLV after being displeased with his experience at Pittsburgh in his rookie season. Birch is a super-talented power forward that will be eligible next year, and he hopes to persuade the current #1 high school recruit to join him next season. Shabazz Muhammad is from Las Vegas and has the Rebels on his short list of consideration. Another top recruit, forward Anthony Bennett, has UNLV on his short list, as well. Fans are anxiously waiting for these guys to declare their commitments.
- Stats Central – UNLV came into conference play shooting over 48% from the field with nearly 19 assists per game, but SDSU held the team to 35.3% shooting with nine assists during the ballgame. The Runnin’ Rebels remain ranked in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls for the sixth time this season, the most for the team since the 1992-93 season when they were ranked every week.
- What’s Next? – UNLV looks to start a new winning streak with two home games this week, first on Wednesday against TCU (10:30 PM ET). Then, the Rebels get a matchup with New Mexico on Saturday (10:00 PM ET, CBS Sports Network). The Lobos are another MWC title contender and have won 13 straight games, including a tough road win at Wyoming in their first conference test. UNLV needs this win at home to make an early statement in the conference race.
- Trending DOWN Because… – They lost twice last week. The Hoosiers (15-3, 3-3 Big Ten) have some major team weaknesses that were on display in losses to Minnesota at home and Ohio State on the road, most notably on the defensive end. IU is out of the AP Top 10 and barely hanging on to a top spot in the RTC Top 25 this week, tying for #10 with Georgetown. The good news is that star freshman forward Cody Zeller is getting more paint touches every game and looks more comfortable as a go-to offensive player. Indiana will have plenty of chances to regain their confidence if they can solve some defensive issues.
- This Week’s Key Cog – Cody Zeller. As mentioned earlier, the freshman is starting to take over offensively, which is something we didn’t see enough of early in the season. He led the team in scoring in both games last week, averaging 19.5 points and 7.0 rebounds, while staying out of foul trouble against tough matchups.
- Play of the Week – Zeller shows off his versatile skills in this clip, beating everyone down the floor for a transition dunk followed by a steal of the inbounds pass and dishing for an assist.
- Talking Point – After getting upset at home by Minnesota, reserve guard Matt Roth spoke on what happened: “We have done a good job throughout the year of communicating and helping on defense and for whatever reason, we did not do that as well last game. It’s something to learn from and take with us as we move forward.” Unfortunately, they didn’t take much with them to Ohio State in the blowout loss.
- Historic Hoosiers – While Indiana struggled mightily in the past three seasons, never has there been a truly extended lull in the program. Now that the team is ranked this season, every four-year Hoosier player since 1950 will have played on a nationally-ranked squad at Indiana.
- Stats Central – Becoming a bigger part of the offense in every game, sophomore Will Sheehey has the highest scoring average of any non-starter in the conference, at 10.4 points per game. IU is the first Big Ten team since Minnesota in 1952-53 to defeat the top two ranked teams in the same season, after they knocked off both Kentucky and Ohio State at home in December.
- What’s Next? – Tom Crean and his team head to Nebraska on Wednesday (7:00 PM ET, Big Ten Network) for the first time in 70 years, as the Cornhuskers are in their inaugural Big Ten season. The Huskers are just 1-5 in conference but lost by only five points on the road to both Illinois and Wisconsin. They’re tough to play in Lincoln and could very well extend Indiana’s losing streak to three straight if the Hoosiers do not sure up their defensive intensity. IU follows that game up with a home tilt versus Penn State on Sunday (12:00 PM ET, Big Ten Network). The Nittany Lions are conference bottom-feeders at 1-5 thus far.