Tracking The Four: Perception vs. Reality

Posted by EJacoby on February 10th, 2012

Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. 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.

Public perception dictates a lot in all sports — suits in Las Vegas determine which teams are favored to win games. Players are often labeled as ‘clutch’ or ‘not clutch’ based on arbitrary public sentiments that take no data into account. With much of the college basketball season already completed, players and teams have already developed reputations that become a part of the season narrative; Murray State has ‘played nobody’, Indiana is ‘soft’, Syracuse is the ‘deepest team’, and UNLV ‘can’t win on the road’. But are these sentiments really accurate? This week’s TT4 Wildcard takes the court of public opinion on trial and tries to separate what’s false from what’s reality. All four of our teams remained ranked in the polls, so they’ve been plenty exposed to public chatter:

Indiana Hoosiers

Indiana is Trying to Shake the Label that They're Soft on Defense (AP Photo/T. Ding)

Biggest Misconception – This team is soft defensively

The Hoosiers have certainly had their defensive struggles during Big Ten games, and the results were ugly for a while. They still average a 109.0 dEfficiency in conference play, which is much too high. But soft? That label needs to go, as Indiana has shown much improvement and is starting to fight back when they get hit in the mouth. In their last four games against Wisconsin, Michigan, Purdue, and Illinois, they are allowing just 64.3 points per game. They’ve improved their Big Ten rebound rate to 51.9%, which is fourth in the conference. Defense is still an issue, but give them credit for making strides after beginning the Big Ten with an extremely tough schedule.

Biggest Truth – They are extremely balanced offensively

The word ‘balanced’ gets thrown around with this team, but it’s looking more and more true. Cody Zeller is their clear best player, but they don’t exactly use the freshman as a go-to guy offensively. Consider this: in their last five games, Indiana has had four different leading scorers and seven different players have scored in double-figures at least once. Not only that, but IU ranks in the top 30 nationally in three-point percentage, free-throw percentage, true shooting percentage, and points per possession during conference results. They are an effective offense that attacks in several different ways.

The Unknown – The Hoosiers are a product of their home-court advantage

IU has certainly played much better at home than on the road, which is true of many teams. But there was a feeling that their Assembly Hall home-court was the catalyst to everything this team does, and that argument is starting to fall apart. They’re coming off a 17-point win at Purdue in their latest road game, and their offensive style has translated to opposing arenas. The jury is still out, though, whether they are a strong enough team to win multiple games in a row away from home. The Big Ten Tournament should be a good indicator, as well as their final two winnable road games at Iowa and Minnesota.

Murray State Racers

Biggest Misconception – This team is headed for the bubble

After last night’s home loss to Tennessee State, fans have been overreacting and thinking that Murray State is a fraud. Even ESPN analyst Andy Katz noted that Murray State would be on the bubble if they lost to St. Mary’s and failed to win their conference tournament. So a three-loss team, one coming to a top 20 opponent and one during the conference tournament, would potentially be left out of the NCAA Tournament? I think that’s crazy. Their seeding will most definitely take a hit as a result of a home loss to an opponent of #180 RPI, but they are heading for an at-large bid unless things completely fall apart down the stretch. A one-loss team with the 109th-ranked non-conference strength of schedule is not in jeopardy of missing the NCAA’s.

Biggest Truth – The Racers are becoming a two-man team

This is the bigger issue for Murray State. Isaiah Canaan is having an All-American kind of season at point guard, and Donte Poole is his shooting sidekick, but the role players on the team are just not being utilized offensively. Take a look at the team’s last five games in which they were truly tested by their opponent. In last night’s loss, Canaan and Poole combined to take 23 of the team’s 50 shot attempts from the field. Against Tennessee Tech – they attempted 35 of the team’s 61 shots. At Austin Peay, 26 of 55 shots; against SEMO, 25 of 57; and at Morehead State, 19 of 44. There is no offensive balance here, and the team just does not have confidence in any other players to score during tight games. 

The Unknown – Lack of size will be this team’s downfall

Again, we think it’s premature to write this team off just because they got tense and lost a game. Did they need to be the only team to go undefeated before the Big Dance for the first time in 21 years in order to be taken seriously? That’s ridiculous, and they’re still a tough bunch with a star leader. But in the end, the Racers just might be too small to make any noise when it counts. They start two forwards that are 6’7” and three guards at 6’3” or shorter. They have been outrebounded in six of their last nine games, and that’s against Ohio Valley Conference competition. Once they match up against a major opponent, they could get easily exploited in the paint and on the boards. Then again, strong guard play can get it done in the NCAA’s and Murray can try to gameplan to that strength.

UNLV Runnin’ Rebels

Dave Rice is in His First Year as Head Coach for the Rebels - Will This Hurt Their Chances? (Getty Images/E. Miller)

Biggest Misconception – UNLV can’t win away from Vegas

This has become a great misconception. The Rebels are 5-4 on the season in true road games, which is not only a lot of games but also has consisted of very tough environments. They’ve won at Illinois, Hawaii, UCSB, Boise State, and Air Force. They lost at Wisconsin, Wichita State, and San Diego State, all current top 25 teams, as well as at the difficult environment in Laramie against a solid Wyoming team. Six of these nine road games were decided by six points or less. All in all, the Rebels have been tested away from home more than most ranked teams, and they’ve been in tons of close battles that will have them prepared for the postseason.

Biggest Truth – The Rebels need to play at a fast pace to win

Unfortunately, all evidence thus far has proven this idea true. An average UNLV game consists of 71 possessions, one of the 30 fastest paces in the country. Their last three conference home games have averaged 70.3 possessions, and all three were victories of 15 points or more. But the Rebels’ most recent game, at Wyoming, was a 62-possession game and a two-point loss. Overall, their four losses to Wichita State, Wisconsin, San Diego State, and Wyoming have been games with an average of 63.5 possessions. If you want to beat UNLV, you want to slow the pace down and force them to defend for a full 30-35 seconds of the shot clock.

The Unknown – Lack of experience will hurt them in the postseason

This is a team with a first-year head coach and whose star player is a first-year transfer from UCLA. Even though this is a deep roster of upperclassmen, nobody on the team has ever won an NCAA Tournament game. Will all of these factors end up hurting them? It’s really anyone’s guess right now. Don’t be surprised if analysts are completely torn on this team on Selection Sunday in terms of how far they can go.

Syracuse Orange

Biggest Misconception – They don’t have a go-to guy

Can we put this issue to rest yet? Kris Joseph is the team’s senior leader and leading scorer, can create his own shot, and went for 29 points in the win over Georgetown on Wednesday including the game-winning three in overtime. Not only that, but Dion Waiters and probably Scoop Jardine, as well, have the confidence and ability to make big shots down the stretch. They might have three go-to scorers, and this narrative about the lack of a late-game player is getting old.

Biggest Truth – Syracuse is the deepest team in America

They play 10 players at least 12 minutes per game, they lead the nation in bench points per game, and they’ve had five different leading scorers in their past six games. The two players that average the fewest minutes in the rotation (Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams) are McDonald’s All-American freshmen that are efficient contributors in their limited minutes. What else needs to be said?

The Unknown – Defensive rebounding will be this team’s fatal flaw

Unfortunately, they’re headed down this path right now. They nearly lost at home to both Georgetown and West Virginia because they gave up so many offensive boards, and they lost at Notre Dame for this very reason. Even with Fab Melo in the lineup, the Orange suffer the same inability to box out from this year’s zone setup. In fact, Syracuse ranks third worst in the entire country in offensive rebounds allowed at 14.5 per game. That is a major red flag, and Jim Boeheim knows it. But Boeheim also won’t stop until he finds a way to fix this, and the team is still 24-1 and doesn’t allow nearly as many second-chance points as you’d expect because of their shot blocking prowess at the rim. You’ll have to stay tuned to see how this story unfolds.

EJacoby (198 Posts)

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