ATB: Oklahoma State’s Freshmen Rise Up, Ohio State’s Scoring Imbalance, and Colorado Flexes Some Muscle…Posted by Chris Johnson on November 19th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC National Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Your Weekend Lede. Nonleague Tournaments Offer Raw But Exciting Brand of Hoops. The best teams don’t peak in November. They use the non-conference season as a testing lab to kick around various formations and tactical tweaks. They fashion early judgments on rotation splits and playing time allotments. The college basketball season is a process that involves building and maturing over a four-month period, rounding into form around late February, then peaking in time for the postseason. Most squads are far from finished products. So the basketball you see being played in exempted tournaments across the country in recent days isn’t nearly as crisp or fundamentally sound as the fine-tuned brand of tourney hoops. Think of early-season tournaments as more as barometers for improvement: Based off its performance, each team gets a decent sense of the progress of its development, and how much tweaking needs to be done before conference play. Sloppy or not, nonleague play gives us no shortage of storylines. Here are a few that stuck out over this pre Feast-Week weekend.
Your Watercooler Moment. Another Big 12 Contender Throws Its Hat In Ring.
Talent is the primary governing force of college basketball. It is the lifeblood of any successful team. Sure, you can do without it, but a marginally-talented team will only get you so far. We saw the tremendous implications of talent with last year’s Kentucky team, when three preternaturally-gifted freshmen carried the Wildcats to a national championship. And we saw it Sunday night, when Oklahoma State – led by sophomore forward Le’Bryan Nash and freshman guard Marcus Smart, both top-10 recruits in consecutive years – routed NC State to take first prize in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Much was made this preseason about NC State’s talent, and without doubt, the Wolfpack have it in droves. What separated the Cowboys Sunday was their defense. Travis Ford’s team held C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, Rodney Purvis and the rest of the Wolfpack to just 35.5 percent shooting. Leslie, a likely future first-round draft pick and a popular choice on preseason All American lists and top-player rankings, finished just 1-for-5 from the field with two points. Poor shooting helped doom the Wolfpack, to be sure, but for a team that entered this game missing several key players due to injuries (Brian Williams, John Paul Olukemi) and/or unsuspected departures (Cesar Guerrero), this counts as a massive victory over an ACC contender that the Cowboys can bank for the rest of the season. I’m not sure Ford could have drawn up a more favorable start to his tenure-defining season. If Nash and Smart continue to connect on this level, and the Cowboys can replicate Sunday’s defensive effort to any effect, the Big 12 title race could be more undecided than once believed.
Weekend Quick Hits…
- Can Ohio State Find Scoring Outside of DeShaun Thomas and Aaron Craft? No one’s making any bold proclamations after Ohio State waltzed through the Hall of Fame Tip Off Tournament over the weekend and made easy work of a transitioning Washington team in the Championship game. We knew this team had Final Four potential. And we knew DeShaun Thomas, with Jared Sullinger and William Buford gone, would get more opportunities to score this season. Let’s move past those obvious truths and discuss whether the Buckeyes can find enough scoring from outside their main duo, Thomas and Aaron Craft, who combined for 49 points Sunday. Don’t get me wrong: Ohio State has a deep Tournament Run in its sights, and it could very well get there. The challenge is finding ways to account for the unexpected: when Craft and/or Sullinger go cold, or when opposing defenses find ways to shut them down. The two next best options, guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. and forward Sam Thompson, combined for zero points on 0-for-10 shooting Sunday.
- Florida State Officially Back To Normal. Throw away all the laments and criticisms you aimed at Florida State following the Seminoles’ season-opening home loss to South Alabama. That early defeat seems to have invigorated the Seminoles, who have now rattled off three straight victories, each more impressive than its predecessor. The latest came Saturday night in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic Final against St. Joseph’s who entered with all kinds of positive momentum after a nine-point win over Notre Dame in the semifinal. Michael Snaer and Okaro White dominated on both ends, but the best confirmation of the Seminoles’ rebound was its defense. The Seminoles made life difficult for the Hawks – and even more so for BYU, who they romped in the semis – by closing out on shooters and contesting shots with purpose. I still worry whether this team will be able to score enough points in league play (especially on the road), but the weekend proved Florida State is going to do what Florida State has done in recent years under Leonard Hamilton: defend like mad in the half court.
- Colorado a Legitimate Threat in the Pac-12. If there’s a Pac-12 team capable of challenging UCLA and Arizona at the top of the league, Colorado sure looks the part. After laying waste to #16 Baylor Friday, the Buffaloes handled Murray State in the Charleston Classic final Sunday, in the process banking In the Pac 12 preseason media poll, the Buffaloes were pegged at sixth. As we learned over the weekend, that was probably a mistake. With Andre Roberson controlling the paint, supplying an active defensive presence and a developing offense game, and a promising backcourt featuring Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker (who notched a career-high 24 points in the win over the Racers), Colorado has the talent and depth to go toe-to-toe with the Bruins and Wildcats. The Buffaloes showed flashes during last season’s Tournament run, which ended with a third-round loss to Baylor. This time, the Bears didn’t have an answer for Tad Boyle’s promising outfit. But here’s the most encouraging part: Colorado hardly played its best basketball. The Buffaloes finished 4-for-22 from the free throw line and Roberson, its best player, shot just 3-for-11 from the field. This team hasn’t reached it’s ceiling, and Colorado’s already snatching quality wins.
- Villanova Improved, But Not Yet Back to Normal. Getting blown out in the championship game of an early-season Tournament at Madison Square Garden, no matter the crowd size, hurts. But Villanova should walk away from this weekend’s 2K Sports Classic feeling good about their chances of pursuing a middle-of-the-pack Big East finish and a potential Tournament birth. Freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono is the perfect facilitator for Jay Wright’s four-out offense. Sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston posted 16 points in the Wildcats’ come-from-behind victory over Purdue Friday night, 17 against Alabama’s lockdown defense in the Championship game and flashed a diverse inside-out offensive skill set throughout. That is a solid young core – one that with experience and coaching and development – can coalesce into something special. The Wildcats won’t break into the upper-tier of Big East competition this season – they’re not ready yet. This team’s long-term trajectory is promising, though, and that’s more than you could say during last season’s 13-win campaign.
- McAdoo Can Carry The Load. The presumption James Michael McAdoo could embrace UNC’s lead scoring role after playing sparing minutes behind Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes dominated all UNC-related preseason storylines. Well, the early results are in: good news UNC fans, McAdoo is the real deal. It’s now clear why McAdoo considered jumping to the NBA after getting such little run last season. NBA scouts saw what college basketball fans, players and coaches across the country are seeing unfold in front of us. McAdoo is a supremely talented player that, if not for the frontcourt logjam that defined UNC’s forward rotation last season, would have started on any team in the country. He’s that good; we just couldn’t conclude as much until now. McAdoo submitted 18 points and nine rebounds in Friday’s win over Long Beach State to lower his season averages to 21.0 pints and 11.3 rebounds. Another promising development for UNC: freshman point guard Marcus Paige and sophomore backcourt mate P.J. Hairston arrived worth every bit the hype. This is a reality we’ve come to accept with UNC — reload and reboot. McAdoo, Hairston and Paige could have the Tar Heels competing for a league title as early as this season.
- A Regretful Tournament Invite. This past offseason, South Florida rewarded coach Stan Heath with a three year contract extension. It was well-deserved: Heath had taken a program with practically zero tradition or relevant history, developed a universally-respected identity built on relentless half court defense, and rode that aesthetically rotten style to two NCAA Tournament wins. What’s more, last season birthed the rise of point guard Anthony Collins, who grew into the Bulls only truly viable offensive threat. Sunday’s loss to Western Michigan, in USF’s own Tournament, the South Florida Invitational, no less, is an embarrassing setback. The confusing part is that USF played this game in its comfort zone: the final score, 58-53, typifies so many of last season’s wins. The Bulls slow the pace to a halt, burn shot clock and win grind-out low-scoring games. They had Western Michigan right in their wheelhouse. More than anything, this loss hurts from a pride standpoint. Losing your own tournament against an inferior opponent – that stings.
- An Inauspicious Start for Wake Forest. Realistic expectations for Wake Forest in 2012-13 revolve around improvements at the margin. At best, the Demon Deacons are a 20-win team, which would be a seven-win improvement from last season. The chances of reaching that mark were slim to begin with. They look even more remote after Saturday’s 94-68 undressing at the hands of Iona, a game that saw the Gaels jump out to a – wait for it – 41-5 first half lead. Head coach Jeff Bdzelik may have run his course at the program and losses like this won’t help his chance of keeping his job. Wake Forest is young and in a state of transition. That said, you can’t get blown out by MAAC teams, no matter how talented, and expect to inspire confidence in the progress you’re trying to make. Bdzelik’s coaching hot seat burns on.
- Auburn’s Rebuild Hits A Roadblock (s). A highly-touted recruiting class and promising group of transfers raised provided hope Auburn after a disappointing 15-win season. Any hopes of an improved season took a major hit over the weekend, when Auburn fell to Dayton just three days after getting manhandled by Murray St. To be fair, those are two quality mids, each harboring legitimate aspirations for NCAA at large bids. Auburn is not an NCAA Tournament team. Not yet. Still, even in this early stage of Tony Barbee’s rebuild, you’d expect a stronger effort in nonleague competition, where wins are likely to come easier than conference play. Based off recent performance, the Tigers will be hard pressed to find a way out of the SEC cellar this season.
- The Battle 4 Atlantis Won’t Offer Relief for the Cardinal. Tough to decide whether to chalk this one up as a bad loss for Stanford, or as proof of Belmont’s legitimate Tourney-bound ensemble, which controlled the Cardinal in Palo Alto and secured a valuable non-league win to presage their first season in the OVC. Belmont has been one of the nation’s most consistent mid-majors in recent years, and while Stanford locked into NCAA tunnel vision following last season’s NIT win — and rightfully so, considering the return of Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright, as well-rounded and dynamic as most any Pac-12 backcourt — it’s clear Johnny Dawkins’ teams still has some work to do before it can consider itself a viable force in an arguably top-heavy Pac-12. This is not a terrible loss for the Cardinal, but it’s not exactly the best momentum-builder before next week’s first-round date with Missouri in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
- The Wolfpack’s Silent Stars. The preseason was cluttered with talks of NC State’s presumed rise atop the ACC. This year would witness the revenge of the Tobacco Road Triangle’s little brother, the pundits said – the Wolfpack’s long-awaited coup d’etat of UNC and Duke’s stranglehold over the top of the ACC. NC State can still get there. If it does, it’s going to need its stars – Brown, Leslie and forward Richard Howell – to live up to the hype. The Wolfpack’s big three was virtually nonexistent against Oklahoma State Sunday. Leslie scored two points and fouled out early in the second half. Brown finished with just six points on two-for-nine shooting. And Howell matched Brown’s lowly total. That can’t happen during ACC play – not with Duke and UNC and Maryland all looking better than expected so far.
Dunkdafied: Archie Goodwin, you have the floor…
- Devon Collier, Oregon State – You’re almost guaranteed to find yourself on this list when you rip off 48 points and 20 rebounds over two games. If Collier keeps this up, the loss of center Angus Brandt to injury won’t feel quite as dire.
- Jud Dillard, Tennessee Tech – Whether Tennessee Tech can challenge Murray State and Belmont for an OVC title this season will depend on how Dillard, who poured in 59 points and 22 rebounds in consecutive wins, matches up with the Racers’ Isaiah Canaan and the Bruins’ Kerron Johnson.
- Lamont (MoMo) Jones, Iona – In a losing effort, Jones dropped 40 points on Quinnipiac despite going 2-for-7 from beyond the arc. He took his foot off the gas against Wake Forest two days later, finishing with a modest 21, this time in a Gaels win.
- DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State – News flash: Thomas flat out gets buckets. We knew this much after last season, but if he’s going to keep up this pace (56 combined points in wins over Rhode Island and Washington), a scoring title is very much within reach.
- Mike Muscala, Bucknell – We’re not punishing Muscala for a relatively down effort (14 points, 5 boards) Sunday against West Alabama, not after putting up 18 points and 16 boards in a win over Niagara Friday and 24 and 9 to help knock off New Mexico State Saturday. The Bisons are 5-0, people.