ATB: The Debate Over #1, Duke’s Comeback Win and Creighton’s Defense…Posted by Chris Johnson on November 29th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Don’t Get Worked Up Over #1. Over the past two nights, the two best teams in the country stated their case for #1 by knocking off quality opponents in nationally televised games. Indiana’s 83-59 win over North Carolina prompted an onrushing of praise for the Hoosiers’ high-powered offense. The debate was settled – Indiana was the best team in the country. That was the prevailing consensus heading into Wednesday night’s showdown at Cameron Indoor, where Ohio State outplayed Duke for 30 minutes yet ultimately succumbed to a blistering second-half run led by Mason Plumlee and Rasheed Sulaimon. It was an impressive win to add to an already impressive resume. So who’s #1 today? It’s anybody’s guess, frankly. When you have two teams playing as well as Duke and Indiana, the distinction need not matter. The ups and downs of a 30-game season have a way of parsing the upper crust of elite teams. We may not know who the #1 team in the country is right now. And you know what, it really doesn’t matter, nor will it matter in March. My recommendation: Soak in every last minute of Duke and Indiana basketball, watch Plumlee and Cody Zeller dominate the paint, observe Sulaimon’s precocious maturity, and Jordan Hulls’ deadeye three-point marksmanship. Take it all in. These are two excellent teams playing at the highest level. The difference between them is a matter of degree, not type.
Your Watercooler Moment. The Year’s First RTC!!!!….Was Uncalled For.
There are no universal guidelines or restrictions for court rushes. The criteria are unique to each school, influenced by circumstance. The true bluebloods of the world – the Dukes, Kansases, Kentuckys and so on – do not rush the court, because doing so requires an implicit acknowledgement of reverential respect for the visiting opponent. They don’t excessively celebrate big victories, because victories are nothing to celebrate. It really is that simple. For schools like Miami, with diffuse basketball histories and tradition, on-court celebrations are totally within bounds. That’s not to say the act doesn’t require a special occasion. Beating an opponent of exalted stature, in comparative terms, is a fundamental precondition. Hurricane fans may have violated that Wednesday night after Miami’s 67-59 victory over Michigan State. The Spartans are a very good team; they beat likely Big 12 champion Kansas on a neutral floor earlier this year to prove it. That said, this Miami team – which, given how wide-open the top of the ACC looks with NC State and North Carolina taking its lumps in non-league play – does not lag far enough behind the Spartans to grant them that level of deference. Thing is, the Hurricanes didn’t beat Michigan State on some fluky sky-high shooting percentage. They beat the Spartans because the talent disparity between these two teams isn’t all that far off. Beating Michigan State is a praiseworthy cause, particularly in light of the Hurricanes’ not-so-hot start to the season. But it does not fall into the “special” category. Fuzzy and unclear and vague as the stipulations may be, court rushes happen because they feel right. It’s a carpe diem exercise; you do it when you know. Wednesday night was not one of those nights.
Tonight’s Quick Hits….
- Another Solid Win For Illinois. In most years, an 8-0 team coming off a championship run at the Maui Invitational would have solidified a spot in the top 10 of both major polls. With Illinois, voters remain merely impressed, but hardly floored by its exploits to start the season. There are good reasons for this. For one, given the relatively easy path it strode en route to the tourney crown – beating USC, Chaminade and Butler isn’t your typical Maui title-winning slate – you can’t help but mark down the Illini’s victory in the Islands. But there’s no denying that this team is vastly improved over the group who quit on Bruce Weber down the stretch last season. They stated their case with another solid win Wednesday night, this one coming over a rising yet green Georgia Tech squad at Assembly Hall. John Groce has his guys playing faster, harder and an overall more effective brand of basketball than last season’s lame product.
- Rebuilding? Yes, But Don’t Sleep on Purdue. Surveying part deux of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge schedule, I glanced over this Purdue-Clemson match-up without much rhyme or reason. It’s not that I’m not interested in watching these teams play, but relative to the big-time games taking place in other venues across the country, I assumed my selection was a wise one. The transitioning Boilermakers made me eat my words. Clemson isn’t challenging for an ACC title any time soon, but considering the massive turnover Matt Painter is dealing with and the team’s struggles earlier this season at the 2K Sports Classic, the Boilermakers scored a valuable win Wednesday night on the road. Purdue not only lost most of last year’s lineup. It lost its heart and soul, Robbie Hummel, and its sure-handed lead guard, Lewis Jackson. The Boilermakers won’t sniff the top of this year’s Big Ten, but getting this win is a positive step – if nothing else.
- Utah State Proves Its Chops on Road. All three of Utah State’s victories had come within the cozy confines of the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, where one of the most raucous fan bases in the country, led by Wild Bill, gives opponents 40 minutes of nonstop heckling and poking and prodding and any other annoying sights or sounds you could ever imagine while playing a basketball game. The Aggies took their act on the road, and left their crazy fan base back home, toppling Santa Clara on its home floor in overtime. Utah State is headed for the WAC next season. Performances like this – Santa Clara is likely to give Saint Mary’s a fair run for second place honors in the WCC (assuming Gonzaga, as expected, claims first) – show they’re more than novelty act, that their success is not a product of an insanely-tough-to-play-in home environment. It’s probably best for the Aggies get out of the WAC, too: Yesterday, the league announced its addition of Grand Canyon University. No further comment.
- Arizona Quietly Dusting Off Its Non-conference Competition. The quietest undefeated top-10 team in the country rolled again Wednesday night, and this time, the Arizona Wildcats flexed their balance and versatility. With four players in double figures – guards Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson, forwards Solomon Hill and Angelo Chol – Arizona made easy work of Northern Arizona. If you’re wondering why Arizona hasn’t made any noise on the national scene so far, Wednesday night was a perfect example. They take care of business, albeit against extremely weak competition, and leave no rocks unturned. Lyons, arguably the biggest question mark heading into the season, is acquitting himself well at point guard. Super-hyped recruits Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jarrett arrived as advertised. Make no mistake, this is a dangerous team, but we probably won’t know how dangerous it truly is before conference play (save for a December 15 date with Florida). Their schedule simply isn’t up to par when it comes to early marquee non-conference games.
- Defensive Woes Doom Creighton. The ceiling to Creighton’s dream season – an MVC regular season and tournament crown, deep NCAA Tournament run, and national POY honors for Doug McDermott – is defense. In its first six games, which included wins over Wisconsin and Arizona State in the Las Vegas Invitational, the Blue Jays made a real effort to clean things up on that end of the floor – their 94.6 defensive efficiency rating, which ranks 67th nationally, proved as much. Time to scrap that narrative and reconsider whether Creighton’s defensive improvements were ever legitimate to begin with. Granted, Boise State shot 10-of-19 from three and 60.7 percent overall in upsetting the Blue Jays at home Wednesday night, but if you’re a good defensive team, you don’t give up nearly 1.3 points per possession to Creighton. You just don’t. Until Creighton can avoid outcomes like this, the stigma will remain: good offense, no defense.
- Badgers Lose Unusual Slugfest. When you think of slow, plodding basketball, you think Wisconsin. Under Bo Ryan, the Badgers have perfected a tempo-averse style of play. It’s frustrating – not just for opposing teams, but also for viewers – and it works. It’s even more effective in the Kohl Center, where Wisconsin has been virtually unassailable during Ryan’s run of dominance. In Wednesday night’s Big Ten/ACC matchup, the Badgers met their strategic equal in Virginia. Using much of the same pack-line defensive principles, and a similar grinding half-court style, the Cavaliers out-Badgered the Badgers. Unless you’re a defensive purist, or a sucker for low-scoring games, this game probably wasn’t last night’s greatest viewing desire. Whatever the case, really nice win for the Cavaliers. Wisconsin, on the other hand, got beat at its own game.
- Did We Overestimate North Texas? In the preseason, there was plenty of talk about North Texas’s Tony Mitchell, and his insane NBA-level talent and athleticism, and how he would lead the Mean Green on a victory tour through the Sun Belt and into the NCAA Tournament. The possibility of an at-large bid has long since exited the window of opportunity. North Texas will almost certainly need to win its conference tournament to broach the field of 68. After Wednesday night’s loss to Texas-Arlington, which dropped the Mean Green to 3-4 on the year, it’s starting to look like North Texas isn’t even one of the best teams in the Sun Belt, let alone mid-major nation at large. Mitchell had just 12 points in 28 minutes. It’s risky business to expect a team to just “flip the switch” for the league tournament, and North Texas doesn’t hold that prerogative, either. Mitchell and Co. need to get things figured out by the time conference play rolls around.
- A Blow to Stanford’s Tournament Hopes. The Pac-12 is looking better than the historically-awful 2012 version. Arizona, UCLA, Colorado and even Oregon, have more than a fair shake at crafting passable at-large portfolios. With a little luck, and continued growth from guards Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright, Stanford could find itself in that mix by season’s end. Their road to NCAA Tournament viability was hit with adversity Wednesday with the news that junior guard Anthony Brown, who started two games and averaged 3.0 points and 2.3 rebounds this season, will miss the rest of the year with a hip injury. That ho-hum statistical profile makes Brown’s loss seem like nothing more than a minor hiccup. That’s the best-case scenario. If Randle and Bright’s struggles persist into conference play, Brown’s injury could prove damning to the Cardinals’ postseason desires.
- Scheduling Karma. Weak non-conference scheduling serves a specific purpose. It allows bad or rebuilding teams to get fat on cupcake wins and build confidence along the way. Case in point: Houston. The hardest opponent on the Cougars’ schedule is TCU. Prairie View A&M was one of the weak points of their super-soft slate, so they probably didn’t expect to walk into the William Nicks Center, located in Prairie View, Texas, and come out with a loss. But that’s exactly what happened on Wednesday night, Houston’s first loss of the season. This is totally unfair, and probably off-base unless you believe in the immaterial, but I’d like to thank the non-conference scheduling Gods for cracking down on the conservative Cougars. Justice is served.
Before the Buzzer. If you’re late to the Nate Wolters party, step right in. Wolters and the Jackrabbits are a story unto themselves. On Wednesday night, it was Chad White stealing the show for South Dakota State. The best part: White hit a buzzer-beating three less than two weeks ago.
Wednesday Night’s All-Americans
- Derrick Marks, Boise State (NPOY) – Thanks to Marks’ 35 points (and somewhat puzzling 1-for-2 shooting from beyond the arc), the Broncos helped Leon Rice get his first win over a ranked team as a head coach.
- Mason Plumlee, Duke – The early leader on everyone’s National Player of The Year Awards Watch List, Plumlee played big in another big spot, this time rolling out a 21/17 effort to thwart Ohio State at Cameron Indoor.
- Deonte Burton, Nevada – If the Wolf Pack are going to make a run at San Diego State, New Mexico, Colorado State and UNLV at the top of the MW, Burton – who finished with 25 points, seven rebounds and five assists in Wednesday night’s win over UC Davis – will play a huge part.
- Mike Moser & Anthony Bennett, UNLV – Speaking of the Rebels, if Moser and freshman phenom Bennett are going to combine for 35+ on a nightly basis, UNLV will be tough to beat. Moser had 19 points and nine rebounds in Wednesday night’s win over UC Irvine, while Bennett had 19/6.
- Justin Edwards, Maine – The Black Bears needed all of Edwards’ 30 points and five rebounds to hold off Northeastern, 76-73.
Tweet of the Night. Andy Glockner is always good for an end-of-game quip that hits home in the right way.