ATB: Duke Makes Statement, Gonzaga Rolls Through Old Spice, and Rethinking Officiating Fundamentals…Posted by Chris Johnson on November 26th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC National Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The Weekend Lede. Battle 4 Atlantis Caps Terrific Set of Early-Season Tourneys. It is always a treat when two top five teams meet this early in the season. The high drama is typically saved for March, but the increasingly tasty match-ups served up by various exempt tournaments during Feast Week whet our appetites for the thrillers five months down the road. Saturday night brought us our first true marquee clash, with No. 2 Louisville meeting No. 5 Duke in the Battle 4 Atlantis final. The showdown in the Bahamas emanated a Tourney feel, and the backdrop – the sleek blue tridents, enveloped in darkness, overlooking the dim courts – only tacked on more intrigue to the proceedings. As these early-season tournaments wrap up, let us celebrate this season’s wonderful slate, and hope for a similarly tantalizing selection next season. And in case you somehow got the impression the B4A was the only big event around, think again: the nation is peppered with sneaky-good match-ups and draws. Shall we dive into the weekend’s tourney festivities?
Your Watercooler Moment. Did We Overestimate Louisville?
In the wake of Saturday night’s events, it’s certainly a legitimate question. Just as he did in that mostly forgettable 1992 meeting between Kentucky and Duke, when some Laettner dude hit some “shot,” Coach K got the best of Rick Pitino in the Blue Devils methodical deconstruction of the Cardinals hounding defense. Duke was no doubt the better team on the floor – Mason Plumlee has officially entered the National POY discussion; Quinn Cook proved he can be the perimeter sparkplug Duke needs him to be; Rasheed Sulaimon is a better fit system-wise than Austin Rivers was last season. There are plenty of things to like about this Duke team, and all systems were a go throughout their run in the Bahamas. Which is why I’m loathe to downgrade the Cardinals after the championship loss. The Cardinals clearly have some tinkering to do on the offensive end (it also doesn’t help when your defensive anchor and swatting connossieur, Gorgui Dieng, is sidelined with a wrist injury). Backcourt mates Peyton Siva and Russ Smith were out of sync. Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear were non-factors. Transfer Luke Hancock still needs to find his role. All of these are problems that need to be addressed – and they will be. Pitino’s Final Four team of last season wasn’t nearly the same team in November, and I expect a similar gradual development from this year’s bunch. It won’t be long before Pitino will iron out the kinks, find an optimal rotation and have his team firing on all cylinders. The Cardinals are taking their lumps early, and growing through tough losses against good teams. Saturday night’s result was more about Duke’s potential, and less about Louisville’s shortcomings.
This Weekend’s Quick Hits…
- Mark Few’s Best Team Yet? Reclaiming sole possession of the WCC crown was an expected achievement for Gonzaga this season. But after six wins to begin the season, including two over Big 12 foes Oklahoma and West Virginia and one over reigning SoCon champion Davidson in the Old Spice Final Sunday, it’s time to set a new bar. Gonzaga has talent at every position, from floor operator Kevin Pangos to versatile forward Sam Dower to the recently eligible Kelly Olynyk. And if they can sustain this intensity into the league season, they’ll peak just in time for Tournament play. Let’s not rush to judge: The Bulldogs have Illinois, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State on tap before they enter WCC play. Beginning with a home date with the Illini on December 8, the turn of the calendar will reveal the depths of Gonzaga’s potential.
- Big East Race More Complicated Than Once Believed. There are no eye-popping wins that elevate Cincinnati’s 6-0 start to the season above its Big East brethren. Mick Cronin’s team has simply taken care of business, and looked great doing so. But Saturday night’s Global Sports Classic triumph is the finest notch on the Bearcats’ nonconference belt, and they needed to beat a clearly improved Oregon team to get there. The backcourt is one of the best in the country, so it ‘s no longer a surprise to see the Bearcats dominate that phase o the game. The bigger takeaway from the weekend was junior Titus Rubles, who contributed 10 points, including eight during a defining second-half stretch, to pace the Bearcats in the victory. If Rubles can develop into a viable scoring threat on the inside, the Bearcats have can bank on a solid complement for their workmanlike guard trio.
- Badgers Shatter the Mold to Beat Razorbacks. The score line from Wisconsin’s win over Arkansas Saturday night might make you do a double-take. Don’t worry: It’s not everyday you see the pace-averse Badgers putting up 77 points. But that’s precisely what B.J. Young and Arkansas – who love nothing more than to run, run and run some more under Mike Anderson – forced Wisconsin to do. That kind of adaptability will be of great help later in the season. Another encouraging note for Badgers fans: super-prospect Sam Dekker officially announced his arrival to the college hoops world, with 19 points to help the Badgers overcome an 11-point halftime deficit.
- Creighton Looks the Part. Few teams have looked as formidable as Creighton this season, and the Blue Jays kept alive their undefeated season with a comfortable two-game swing through the Sin City to claim the Las Vegas Invitational. After toppling Wisconsin and Arizona State, Creighton has handled the toughest part of its non-league schedule with relative ease. With the exception of a December 15 matchup at Cal (the Blue Jays should be slight favorites), Creighton could very well head into MVC play with an undefeated record. And who knows that happens if they get there unscathed. The Blue Jays’ offensive prowess is no secret. It’s their defense that remains in doubt. If they can clean things up on that end of the floor, the Dougies’ will be a nightmare draw come March.
- Duke Not The Only Winner In the Bahamas. The ultimate prize went to the Blue Devils. Coach K’s team opened more than a few eyes at the B4A. But the rest of the field gained valuable experience going up against some of the nation’s best teams. Missouri left the Islands with two resume wins over Stanford and VCU. Minnesota likewise downed the Cardinal and also picked up a credible nonleague data point by knocking off Memphis. Even VCU, who came away with two losses after beating Memphis, got some quality run against two national contenders (Duke and Missouri). This is just one reason – along with the viewer’s satisfaction of having eight quality opponents squaring off in a competitive setting, among others – why stocking early-season tournaments with quality matchups is the best thing for college basketball. Not only does one team make a statement by picking up several quality wins. The other teams gain valuable experience, too. Plus, it never hearts to start propping up that RPI figure with RPI and SOS-boosting competition in the nonconference.
- Officiating Woes. The textbook back-to-the-basket post moves include some variation of the following sequence: establish position, set feet, seal lane, catch, power dribble, power dribble, pivot, explode finish. It’s simple and effective. And it’s exactly what Creighton center Greg Echenique did in this drive to the hoop. The officials waved it off with an offensive foul call. The misjudgment didn’t affect the outcome, but if the zebras are ringing up this textbook scoring move, we need to fundamentally readjust the parameters of low-block contact. What follows, if you care to watch, is an affront on big men around the world.
- UCLA Needs Time. Last week’s Legends Loss to Georgetown was a setback, but an understandable one — the Hoyas are a legit top-20 outfit with an All-American-level talent in Otto Porter. Squandering an 18-point lead in the final 12 minutes and allowing Cal Poly — yeah, really — to soil the newly refurbished Pauley Pavilion. That’s reason enough to sound the alarms in Westwood. The Bruins were never going to be a finished product in November. With a highly-touted recruiting class coming in, the congealing process would take place over the course of the season. But when you lose to Cal Poly (Cal Poly!), all bets are off. Ben Howland’s hot seat is scorching. Sure, he can make it all go away if he pulls this team together in time for a deep tourney run. But after Sunday night’s bed-wetting, the problem appears far greater than textbook growing pains. This team needs to hit the re-set button and recalibrate its gameday mindset before moving forward.
- Is Lorenzo Romar’s Time Running Thin? Let’s be clear: Colorado State is a very good team, with a fair chance at competing for a Mountain West title, and an NCAA Tournament appearance well in its sights. But for a team that regularly hauls in NBA talent, and has more than a few high-end talents on this year’s roster, Washington was straight worked on its home floor Saturday night. It’s a shame, too, because the Huskies wasted a sterling 28-point effort from C.J. Wilcox, their best player. Romar’s never lacked in the recruiting department; it’s the on-court thing – which, you know, is kind of important – that’s felled his tenure. Unless the Huskies undergoes a remarkable turnaround to sneak into the NCAAs, it’s hard not to imagine the Huskies at least keeping a close ear on the coaching market.
- Consistency And Baylor Do Not Make a Match. In its last three games, Baylor dropped a two-point decision to Colorado, throttled Saint John’s by 19, then lost to College of Charleston at home. There’s a strong argument to be made this is Scott Drew’s best Baylor team. With an All-Conference level point guard running the show (Pierre Jackson), one of the nation’s best pure shooters in A.J. Heslip and a freshmen frontcourt duo that looks more NBA-ready than any other pair in the country, the Bears are a bona fide Big 12 contender, and based on talent well capable of challenging Kansas for the league crown. But if the Bears want to be considered amongst the elite, they need to stay focused, take care of easy opponents, and seize key nonleague opportunities. Hopefully the CofC spawned a fair amount of introspection and self-evaluation, because Baylor’s next game – at Rupp Arena to face Kentucky on Dec. 1 – will be its toughest to date.
- Struggles Continue for Two Teams in Transition. Preseason expectations for Boston College and Villanova revolved around the same basic concept: improvement. Neither of these teams harbored legitimate hopes of competing for a conference title, and only one (Villanova) had even a puncher’s chance at an NCAA birth. But the two teams in transition are underperforming their modest goals. The Wildcats fell to La Salle (that’s not a bad loss, but if you’re Villanova, you win that game) just five days after losing to Columbia, while the Eagles scuttled a home test with Bryant. Boston College has lost four of its last five games, the one win coming over a downtrodden Auburn team. Villanova hasn’t fared much better. The short-term prognosis is dim for both squads. Major improvements are in order before either can even think about making some noise in league play.
Dunkdafied. I wonder, what would happen if Josh Pastner’s players could run crisp offensive sets and lock down defensively as well as they can dunk?. Get out of Tarik Black’s way, Andre Ingram.
- C.J. McCollum, Lehigh – Hats off to the Patriot League’s new all-time leading scorer. McCollum has a chance to extend his mark to untouchable heights. Something tells me no one will sniff his mark, where it should be at season’s end, in the near future.
- Otto Porter, Georgetown – The spotlight win over UCLA in last week’s Legends turned Porter into a household name. He legitimates that praise with efforts like he had Saturday night in a win over Mount St. Mary’s — 17-points and 13 rebounds in 36 minutes.
- Doug McDermott, Creighton – This won’t be the last time you see McDermott grace this section. The 29 points was pedestrian; McDermott’s nine boards in the Blue Jays’ win over ASU is what caught my eye.
- Stan Okoye, VMI – The high-scoring exploits of VMI are not a new revelation. Whether or not Okoye amassed his 30-points and 16 rebounds as a natural byproduct of the Keydets’ system, those numbers are worth a mention.
- Elias Harris, Gonzaga – The long-awaited breakthrough for Gonzaga (the Bulldogs haven’t cracked the Elite Eight since 1999) may be upon us. If that’s true, Harris – who had 24 points and 10 rebounds in Gonzaga’s Old Spice Championship win over Davidson – will lead the charge.
Tweet of the Weekend. This one comes to you via Troy Machir at NBCSports. We all know Shabazz Muhammad is NBA bound, but after Sunday night’s loss, perhaps he should have considered skipping the college game altogether.