Tracking The Four: Cuse Get Juiced and Leaves One Unbeaten Team StandingPosted by EJacoby on January 24th, 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.
Welcome back to TT4, where the lowest ranked team of the four in this week’s RTC Top 25 also happens to be the only undefeated squad left in the country. Will Murray State lose a game before the Big Dance? They continue to win in impressive fashion and are now getting a key cog back in the lineup for the stretch run. Meanwhile, our two major-conference teams are coming off poor weeks and UNLV keeps quietly handling their business. All four TT4 teams remained ranked in the Top 20 and have important games this week. Let’s look at what’s new:
Murray State Racers
- Trending UP Because… – They are the only undefeated team left in the country! After being down at halftime, the Racers climbed back to defeat Morehead State on Wednesday, 66-60, in a huge road win that was their toughest remaining test. Please raise your hand and leave a comment below if you had Murray State as the last team to lose this season. Not only is MSU unbeaten but they are getting their third-leading scorer Ivan Aska back any day now, as the senior forward has been cleared to play by doctors. All things are looking up for the Racers (20-0, 8-0 OVC), and all of their remaining games have suddenly become must-watch, or at least must-follow action as they try to make history.
- This Week’s Key Cog – Isaiah Canaan. The star guard was named Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Week after going for 20 points in the win at Morehead State and 21 points, five rebounds, three assists, and two steals in a road win over SIU Edwardsville on Saturday night.
- Play of the Week – The Racers were down by one against Morehead State until Canaan hit this deep three-pointer with 3:58 left to give Murray State a lead they would not relinquish.
- Talking Point – The head coach of SIU-E, Lennox Forrester, was thoroughly impressed by the Racers on Saturday, and thinks they may have a special season ahead: “They carry a swagger about them. They’re at least a Sweet Sixteen team and maybe Elite Eight. They could be a so-called Butler.”
- Coaching Tree of Life - The last time Murray State was ranked before this season (1998), Mark Gottfried was the head coach. The last Racers’ rookie head coach to win 20 games was Mick Cronin in 2003-04, and the in-jeopardy MSU single-season wins record of 31 came under Billy Kennedy’s watch in 2009-10. Gottfried, Cronin, and Kennedy are all major coaches at NC State, Cincinnati, and Texas A&M, respectively, today; perhaps coach Steve Prohm is next in line for a big-time job. Then again, Prohm could also be deserving of a major raise and extension there in Murray.
- Stats Central – They’ve earned praise for proficient three-point shooting, but an underrated aspect of Murray State’s offensive game is their attacking prowess. The Racers have a season-long free throw rate (which measures FTA/FGA) of 45.1%, which ranks 19th nationally. But they’re even more outstanding in conference play, with a rate of 52.8% that ranks third in the country amongst all teams in their conference games.
- What’s Next? – The Racers have just one game on tap for this week, at home against Eastern Illinois on Saturday (8:00 PM ET). EIU is 2-4 in OVC conference play and coming off three straight losses.
UNLV Runnin’ Rebels
- Trending EVEN Because… – They took care of business this week by thrashing TCU at home before then opening up a big second-half lead and defeating New Mexico at home as well on Saturday. The Runnin’ Rebels continue to look the part of a consistent, elite team and they’ve even slid into the Top 10 of this week’s RTC Top 25. UNLV (18-3, 2-1 MWC) has only lost on the road to three teams that are either ranked (SDSU) or receiving votes (Wisconsin, Wichita State) this week. They are ranked sixth in the RPI and should get a very strong look at a top three NCAA Tournament seed if they continue to play this well.
- This Week’s Key Cog – Anthony Marshall. Marshall was named co-Mountain West Player of the Week after averaging 20.0 points and 9.0 assists in the two home wins. He also added 5.5 rebounds, 3.0 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting 54.8% from the field in the victories.
- Play of the Week – If you want to know how the Rebels play, just watch the first two minutes of this video, where you’ll find explosive offense in the form of high-paced, transition three-pointers and drives to the basket. All five starters score while the team opens up a 19-point lead in under seven minutes against TCU on Wednesday.
- Talking Point – Marshall delivered the defining line of UNLV’s season after the win over New Mexico by saying, “You can never score too many points.” He also added that, “We wanted to come out and be aggressive – we wanted to put pressure on them. We turned it up a notch in the second half.”
- Top of the Mountain - No team can run with the Rebels in the Mountain West Conference, at least not statistically. On the season, Oscar Bellfield’s 5.1 APG leads the conference, and Mike Moser’s 11.3 RPG also leads the MWC. In conference play, Marshall is averaging 22.0 PPG, which, of course, leads the conference. Chace Stanback’s 47.7% three-point field goal percentage? You guessed it, the best in the (Mountain) West.
- Stats Central – Continuing the theme of offensive production, the Rebels are among the top 10 in the nation in points per game, assists per game, and three-point field goals made. They’re in the top 25 in steals per game, blocks per game, rebounds per game, and offensive efficiency as well. You’re going to want to watch this team play when you get a chance.
- What’s Next? – Two road games for UNLV this week, beginning with Boise State on Wednesday (10:00 PM ET) followed by Air Force on Saturday (9:00 PM ET). Both teams have struggled this season and are a combined 1-5 in MWC play, but Boise State is 8-1 at home on the season and road games in this, or any, conference are never easy. Both games are televised on The Mountain TV Network.
- Trending DOWN Because… – Their pursuit of an undefeated season came to a screeching halt on Saturday. The Orange were pretty much dominated from the tip at Notre Dame, as they went down 11-2 in less than three minutes and never came closer than six points behind in the second half. Even more shocking was the pre-game ruling that Fab Melo was not with the team on the road trip due to academic issues, and it’s still unclear why he was suspended or when he’s coming back. Melo’s absence was huge in the loss, as the Orange got outrebounded by 13 and recorded just two blocks in the game (Melo averages 3.0 blocks in conference play alone), and Jack Cooley dominated in the paint for the Irish. The team recovered with a big win at Cincinnati on Monday, and assuming Melo returns shortly then their slip-up in South Bend should not be all that significant down the line.
- This Week’s Key Cog – James Southerland. He had 15 points on Saturday and his outside shooting was the sole reason why Cuse got within six points late in the game. The junior forward then finished with seven points, seven boards, and two blocks in Monday’s win over Cincinnati. Most impressive was his +19 plus/minus ratio in the seven-point victory, meaning the team played exceptionally better when he was on the court.
- Play of the Week – Sportscenter anchor Steve Levy (although he’s great) decides not to make a call on this play, but it didn’t go unnoticed by us. Watch Kris Joseph drive baseline and slam over Cincy’s Yancy Gates on Monday.
- Talking Point – Jim Boeheim never holds back his thoughts and compared his team’s effort on Saturday to the one put forth against Cincinnati: “I watched the tape twice because I couldn’t believe what I was watching – seniors making defensive errors, missing easy shots. It was just an awful experience. If we’d have played that way here tonight, we would have gotten beat by 30 points.”
- Front-Row RTC Seat - Perhaps the Orange were motivated by what they saw on Saturday, as they got to watch Notre Dame’s students and fans deservedly rush the court after the Irish’s monster upset victory. It begins at the 3:35 mark on the video below:
- Stats Central – After Dion Waiters played just 12 minutes on Monday, the Orange now have four players averaging between 22.3 and 22.8 minutes per game (Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, Melo, and Waiters). Syracuse still leads the country in steals per game (10.3) after their full-court pressure recorded several late swipes in the comeback attempt at Notre Dame.
- What’s Next? – Syracuse plays just one game this week, at home against West Virginia on Saturday (1:00 PM ET, ESPNU). We’ve heard rumors that Melo’s suspension may be lifted by this weekend, but it’s still unclear. Either way, the Orange will be in for a dog fight against the tough Mountaineers (5-2 in Big East), but should win at home or else there will be more serious questions to ask about team.
- Trending DOWN Because… – They suffered a bad loss by blowing a big second-half lead against Nebraska in the waning minutes on Wednesday, which led to an RTC in Lincoln and completed a three-game losing streak for the Hoosiers. Indiana (16-4, 4-4 Big Ten) bounced back with a dominant win over Penn State on Saturday, but Tom Crean’s team has been figured out a bit and needs to beat someone on the road to gain some confidence back. The Hoosiers sit in seventh place in the Big Ten and are allowing a 109.8 defensive efficiency in conference games that ranks in the bottom 50 nationally.
- This Week’s Key Cog – Cody Zeller. Indiana’s recent losses are certainly not the fault of their freshman forward. Zeller averaged 18.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks on 70% field goal shooting this week. He continues to be very productive and shoot an extremely high percentage from the field, which makes us wonder if the Hoosiers need to start feeding him the ball more and more inside.
- Play of the Week – Against Penn State, Jordan Hulls makes a nifty spin pass to Verdell Jones III for a layup after a steal in transition.
- Talking Point – The freshman Zeller kept a mature, positive attitude after IU lost their third straight game against Nebraska: “I think we’ll be all right. We’ll get back to work, watch the film. We played better than we did the last two games. But we can’t be satisfied with moral victories.”
- Rank and File – Voters have slotted Indiana #16/17 in the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls, respectively, this week. Perhaps we’re all overreacting to the Hoosiers’ latest losing streak a bit too much, or at least the argument can be made. On the season as a whole, Indiana is still ranked 10th in Ken Pomeroy’s team rankings, 11th in Sagarin’s numbers, and 20th in the RPI. They came in at #14 in the RTC Top 25 after all the shake-up from the crazy weekend.
- Stats Central - During conference play, the Hoosiers rank in the bottom half of the Big Ten in every major defensive statistic, from defensive rebounds to turnovers forced to points per possession. If IU can take solace in anything, they are coming off their best performance of the conference season by holding Penn State to 34% shooting in the 73-54 win on Saturday.
- What’s Next? – It’s a big week for Indiana with a road date at Wisconsin on Thursday night (9:00 PM ET, ESPN2), where the Hoosiers are seeking a confidence-building road win to prove that they are still a contender in this conference. Wisconsin has slipped up three times at home this year, a rarity in the Bo Ryan era, and the Badgers need this win badly as well. It should be a fun one to watch. Then, Indiana gets Iowa at home on Sunday (6:00 PM ET, Big Ten Network), a game that cannot be overlooked. The Hawkeyes are a surprising 3-4 in conference already with road wins at Wisconsin and Minnesota.