ATB: Nebraska’s Improvement, San Diego State Wins Sixth Straight, and Michael Carter-Williams’ Near Triple-Double…Posted by Chris Johnson on December 4th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. The Big Ten Reaffirms Status as Nation’s Best League. One of the prevailing truths surrounding the beginning of the 2012-13 college basketball season was the Big Ten’s unquestioned status as the nation’s best conference. However you measure conference strength –whether by top-to-bottom depth, high-end quality, or somewhere in between – the Big Ten’s No. 1 perch was not up for debate. The first five weeks of the season has done little to debunk that trope. If anything, the Big Ten’s proven stronger than once believed. The latest testament to the heartland conference’s incredible lineup came Monday night from an unlikely source. Perennial bottom-dweller Nebraska, energized by the arrival of head coach Tim Miles and a newfound commitment to upgraded facilities and financial support from school administrators, made easy work of USC in Lincoln. In a vacuum, that win won’t spawn any grand proclamations of NCAA Tournament potential or league contention. What it will do, on a night best described as a black hole of hoops intrigue, is make people stand up and take notice. It’s not only a statement for Nebraska’s improvements under Miles, but of the incredible depth of the best league in the country.
Your Watercooler Moment. MCW Takes Syracuse To A Whole New Level.
Every year, I find myself glued to one player through the early months of the season. Last season, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist captured my undivided attention. He epitomized practically every natural quality I hold dear in the college game: hard work, toughness, leadership, a never-say-die attitude, the willingness to attack the rim with impunity, and in the same breath guard the opposing team’s best player on the defensive end. I can go on, but I’d like to think many of you can empathize with my MKG mancrush. Several candidates made strong cases for my personal fascination early this season – Yogi Ferrell handles the point guard position better than any freshman I’ve seen outside of the John Calipari dynasty line; Otto Porter is as versatile as they come; Marcus Smart just flat out knows how to play – but I’ve reached a verdict. It’s Michael Carter-Williams. On Monday, MCW nearly notched a triple-double in the Orange’s 84-48 win over Eastern Michigan, but my growing attraction to his game began long before his most recent spout of brilliance. MCW is far and away the biggest breakout star on the national scene. Forget his unparalleled vision and passing accuracy, his ability to guard different positions, his penchant for cutting in the land and crafty scoring touch. The biggest reason why MCW has gripped my attention is the massive rippling effect he has on his teammates. He makes everyone around him better, whether through setting up open looks or drawing defensive attention or providing timely defensive insurance. Typically, players with these kind of transcendent skills foist massive responsibilities upon themselves and end up forcing shots and frustrating their teammates. MCW does just the opposite. If you haven’t seen him this season, get to a TV set and DVR the next Syracuse game. MCW is a special player, and he probably won’t be around much longer, so observe while you can.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- What To Make of Nebraska?. Beating USC does not make Nebraska a legitimate challenger in the Big Ten. It achieves a more modest purpose. Miles has clearly invigorated the program with a new sense of urgency and purpose. The USC win one week after a win at Wake Forest in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge is tangible proof of that improvement. It is a positive step in the massive rebuild Miles inherited when he accepted the head coaching job knowing full well Nebraska fans typically treat basketball as little more than sideshow attraction for when things calm down before spring football. The Huskers aren’t about to rattle off some Duke-like blitzkrieg of power conference juggernauts (I challenge you to find a team in the past decade that had a better month than Duke’s November). In fact, Nebraska will probably lose its next two games (a home date with Creighton; then, at Oregon). The big takeaway here is that Nebraska is clearly playing more focused, team-oriented basketball. Miles has this team moving in the right direction and his work is clearly paying off.
- San Diego State A Step Above the Rest in the MWC. Subjective measures of conference placement are useless jabs at making substance out of insubstantial non-conference fluff. Devising a pecking order for most any conference is a risky endeavor at this stage. But if we’re using the eye test – and minimizing win-loss resumes and freshmen potential – San Diego State stands out in the disproportionately top-heavy MW. Don’t get me wrong: New Mexico, Colorado State, UNLV, Boise State, and even Wyoming deserve have an empirical leg to stand on in this debate. But to me at least, Jamaal Franklin and Co. seem to have a certain aura about them, something intangible, something that elevates them above the rest and will keep them in contention for a top-half NCAA Tournament seed come March. Their 12-point win over Texas Southern Monday was yeomen’s work for the Aztecs.
- Kentucky’s AP Poll Free Fall. For the first time in John Calipari’s four-year tenure, Kentucky was left out of the Associated Press Top 25 Poll on Monday. The Wildcats were ranked eighth in last week’s edition, but consecutive losses at Notre Dame and at home to Baylor apparently convinced our designated AP balloters the Wildcats no longer belong among the nation’s best teams. This should not come as a huge shock; UK has legitimate problems on its hands – from Nerlens Noel’s raw offensive tool set to a total lack of leadership and experience to all the general rigors most normal freshmen have trouble dealing with but Kentucky’s recent one-and-doners have hurdled with unprecedented ease, which only serves to punctuate this year’s struggles. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: This team won’t reach last year’s national championship level, not now, and probably not ever. And in the grand scheme, the Top 25 does little, if nothing at all, to quantify Kentucky’s true value in the national pecking order. It is a symbolic disappointment for a fan base conditioned to excellence for the past three seasons. Nothing more, nothing less.
…. and Miss.
- Texas Southern’s Schedule. Looking for an easy non-conference opponent? Are you a Top 25 team with legitimate NCAA Tournament aspirations? Do you prefer playing home games? Perfect. Texas Southern is coming to a college gym near you. The Tigers are 1-7 this season, but it’s not entirely their fault. I can’t imagine any team in the country surviving the eight-game gauntlet they’ve plowed through so far. Texas Southern has already played Boise State, Northwestern, Michigan State, Middle Tennessee, Colorado and San Diego State. Their one win, Louisiana-Lafayette, also happens to be one of only two home games to date. At a time when the NCAA Tournament’s emphasis on non-conference schedule strength is all too often the decisive measuring stick in bubble discussions, Texas Southern is taking that strategy to a whole new level. The Tigers won’t come close to a Tourney berth, but you can’t say they didn’t give it their very best effort.
Dunkdafied. This precursor to Tuesday night’s Jimmy V Classic Double header — Texas-Georgetown followed by NC State-Connecticut — didn’t fail to deliver from an aerial aesthetics perspective. You have to think there’s a certain level of added motivation to throw down, and in the process humiliate, your lowly in-state rival. Devin Booker made sure Frank Martin’s team knows who owns the state of South Carolina, at least for the time being.
Monday Night’s All Americans.
- Ray Gallegos, Nebraska – After redshirting last season “to add strength and refine his offensive game” (according to Nebraska’s athletic department), Gallegos is a player reborn. He averaged just 2.8 points while playing marginal minutes in 2010-11. This year, he’s raised those numbers to 13.0 PPG and 34.5 MPG. He hit six of 10 three point attempts Monday and finished with 20 points in the key win over USC.
- Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse – The Orange got a near triple-double from MCW (11 points, 11 assists, and seven rebounds) in a comfortable win over Eastern Michigan.
- Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State (NPOY) – It’s time we start tossing around Franklin’s name in casual All-America projections. He followed up Saturday’s 28-point effort against UCLA with an 18-point, 15-rebound performance to help down Texas Southern.
- Ed Waite, Monmouth – Going 9-of-10 from the field and 5-of-5 from the free-throw stripe – Waite finished with 23 points and nine rebounds in a win over Binghamton – merits recognition.
- D.J. Covington, VMI – It’s never a surprise to see someone from VMI light up a box score. Their breakneck pace is a stylistic breeding ground for offensive explosions. Covington had 26 points and 10 rebounds in helping the Keydets drop 102 points on VU of Lynchburg.
Tweet of the night. The Myck Kabongo eligibility quandary continues. I’ve long wondered how the NCAA could clean up Shabazz Muhammad’s troubled past yet leave Kabongo – whose case seemed far less entangled than Muhammad’s – rotting in eligibility purgatory. The opaque procedural nonsense has reached the point of no return; it’s time the NCAA clean up Kabongo’s case the same way it did when faced with the burden of public pressure over Muhammad’s inane holdout. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster is projecting a lengthy sideline sojourn for Kabongo. Hopefully his forecast is overshooting reality; Kabongo is an excellent player and an integral piece in Texas’s offensive and defensive calculus.