Ten Tuesday Scribbles: On Kentucky, Florida, Minnesota, Canadian Imports, and More…Posted by Brian Otskey on December 4th, 2012
Brian Otskey is an RTC columnist. Every Tuesday during the regular season he’ll be giving his 10 thoughts on the previous week’s action. You can find him on Twitter @botskey
- When the AP Top 25 was released Monday afternoon, Kentucky wound up unranked for the first time in the John Calipari era after a blowout loss to Notre Dame and a home setback to Baylor, UK’s first loss at Rupp Arena under Calipari (UK remains ranked at #20 here at RTC). Kentucky’s drop from #8 to unranked was the largest in AP poll history since the poll expanded to include 25 teams in 1990. Now we all know college basketball polls don’t really matter (unlike a certain other collegiate sport) so this is just something to discuss among basketball junkies. But seriously, do people really believe this isn’t one of the Top 25 teams in the country? I guess it depends on your philosophy when it comes to filling out a ballot. If you’re going purely by record, sure the Wildcats shouldn’t be ranked at 4-3. But a deeper inspection reveals a team with a win over Maryland, one that could turn into a very good win if the Terrapins sustain their early season level of play, and three losses to very good basketball teams (Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor). The Wildcats aren’t anywhere near last year’s juggernaut but until they lose to a bad team or the losses to good teams keep piling up, I’ll continue to rank Kentucky and won’t overreact. What are the issues Calipari faces? Number one, Ryan Harrow has proven not to be the answer at point guard. Archie Goodwin has been forced to be the primary ballhandler and is turning the ball over more than three times per game. Second, Kentucky’s rebounding and defense has taken a dip from last year but who didn’t expect that? Anthony Davis is in New Orleans now, not Lexington. Third, the team is relying exclusively on freshmen, one sophomore (Kyle Wiltjer, who does need to pick his game up) and two transfers. There is no veteran presence who has been through the SEC wars like Doron Lamb and Darius Miller had been last season. While Cal’s teams have had tremendous freshmen talent, the presence of Miller and Lamb pushed the team over the top last year. Without that crucial element, Kentucky will continue to struggle with immature plays and poor decision-making. However, I’m sure that Calipari will find a way to make things work eventually. Let’s not panic in early December because Kentucky lost three games to Top 25 teams.
- With Kentucky struggling to find its way right now, Florida has emerged as the early favorite in the SEC. The Gators are 6-0 with a pair of blowout wins over Wisconsin and Marquette and a nice “neutral” court win over a good Middle Tennessee team. It’s pretty clear that Florida is for real but the schedule ramps up in a big way this month with tomorrow’s road trip to rival Florida State followed 10 days later by a visit to Arizona and a quasi-road game against Kansas State in Kansas City on December 22. Everyone knows about Florida’s high-powered offensive attack but the most astonishing thing about this team has been its defense. This could very well be Billy Donovan’s best defensive team in Gainesville. Florida leads the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 48.5 PPG to date. The Gators are fourth in defensive efficiency and have also improved their rebounding from a year ago with Patric Young and Will Yeguete doing most of the work on the boards but even UF’s guards are contributing to that effort as well. Florida is just as efficient on the offensive end of the floor with balanced scoring and depth. Seven Gators are averaging at least seven points per game, led by Kenny Boynton. Donovan has to be thrilled with senior Erik Murphy, someone who is an absolute match-up nightmare for almost every opponent because of his length, versatility and ability to stretch defenses. When Murphy hangs out on the perimeter he can hit shots or open up gaps for his teammates to drive and score, or get to the line as Florida has done so well this year. His numbers don’t jump off the stat sheet at you but he’s such a valuable asset to this team. Murphy has had his share of off-court problems and here’s to hoping he’s learned from that and takes on a leadership role for his team as a senior. He’s off to a great start and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Florida in the top 10 all year long.
- One of college basketball’s early season surprises has been Minnesota. Tubby Smith and the Golden Gophers are off to an 8-1 start with the only loss coming to Duke in Atlantis. With three wins away from home against Memphis, Stanford and Florida State, Minnesota is building a sneaky-good resume. Although there was some controversy about his status, Trevor Mbakwe is back on the court after missing all but seven games last year with a torn ACL. However, that’s not the story as to why Minnesota has looked so good in the early going. Rodney Williams has polished up his game and displayed a consistency so far in his senior year that hasn’t been there previously. Williams had a great run in last year’s NIT and, so far, it has carried over to this season. He’s always been a guy with a ton of potential and this may be the year he realizes it in Minneapolis. This team has an interesting statistical profile. Minnesota’s interior defense is fantastic as the Gophers are blocking eight shots per game. Offensively, Smith’s group is aggressive inside the arc by getting to the line and dominating the offensive glass. That’s a recipe for a lot of high percentage shots and plenty of points, which hasn’t been a problem so far. Despite all that good stuff, Minnesota has some flaws. The Gophers are turning the ball over too much and lack a threat from deep, two things that can be exposed greatly in Big Ten play if they don’t shore them up over the next month. For as good as it is on the offensive glass, Minnesota is equally as bad on the other end. Giving up second chance rebounds and buckets negates any advantage gained, especially against top flight competition. Despite the promising start, I believe the jury is still out on Minnesota. With a weak upcoming schedule, this team should get to 12-1 without any issues. Keep in mind this is the same record they entered conference play with last year and ended up going 6-12 in the Big Ten, losing eight of their final 11 regular season games, and missing the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota is better than that this time around but a top three or four conference finish still seems unrealistic given the strength of the Big Ten. If the Gophers finish at least .500 in conference play and make the NCAAs, this season will be a success. They are well on their way towards doing that with a fairly impressive non-conference resume to date.
- Minnesota went down to Tallahassee last week and took it to Florida State, handing the Seminoles their second loss at the time. Leonard Hamilton’s club followed that up with a stunning home defeat to Mercer this past Sunday and now stands at 4-3 ahead of a huge meeting with Florida tomorrow night. Florida State’s offensive numbers remain relatively unchanged from a year ago despite numerous personnel losses. The real issue for the ‘Noles is defense, something that has been a staple of Hamilton’s tenure at the school. Florida State is giving up 69.3 PPG (+6.4 from last year) and ranks a pedestrian 76th in defensive efficiency, a far cry from the elite numbers we’re used to seeing from Hamilton’s teams. Let’s delve a bit deeper into the issues this team faces on the defensive end of the floor. Florida State is fouling more and isn’t as active on the ball as in the past. A huge part of this team’s defensive success over the last four years was Luke Loucks and Delvidas Dulkys pressuring the ball and preventing opponents from getting good shots. Loucks and Dulkys were both 6’5” guards who used their length to frustrate opposing guards. They aren’t around anymore and the results have not been good for the Seminoles. In the paint, Hamilton relied on Bernard James and Xavier Gibson to protect the rim and block shots. The Seminoles were in the top 10 in block percentage each of the last four seasons. Guess what, they’re both gone too and that ranking has fallen all the way to #92 this year. While FSU hasn’t changed all that much offensively, the defensive issues this team is experiencing can be directly attributed to who they lost to graduation. Those four players were all seniors and their combination of size, length, skill and experience is what made Florida State an elite defensive team for the better part of Hamilton’s time in Tallahassee. The only senior this year is Michael Snaer, a fine player but someone who doesn’t have the on-court support system he had last year. Snaer still has plenty of time to figure it out but it’s clear that Florida State won’t be nearly as good on the defensive side of the basketball. It seems to be a different story this season but remember that FSU was 5-3 at this point last year and wound up 12-4 in the ACC and won the conference tournament.
- Speaking of the ACC, is it fair to say the conference is having a bit of a resurgence? Duke is the only elite team but the league has a collection of good teams on the fringe of the Top 25 right now. The Blue Devils are coming off a November to remember, putting together the best early season resume I have ever seen in such a short time period. North Carolina was picked apart by Indiana but the Tar Heels still have a solid team and should get better as the season progresses. NC State faltered early against Oklahoma State and avoided a disaster by escaping UNC Asheville but showed signs of life in the latter stages of the Michigan game last week. The Wolfpack have a test tonight against Connecticut in the Jimmy V. Classic at Madison Square Garden but have appeared to stabilize things after the OSU loss. Miami beat Michigan State, Virginia won at Wisconsin and Maryland nearly beat Kentucky all in the first month of the season. Not to mention Virginia Tech is undefeated with a win over Oklahoma State. Florida State is still to be reckoned with as well despite its early season struggles. With the exception of Boston College and Wake Forest, every ACC team is in the KenPom top 100. Only the Big Ten (stronger at the top) and the Big East (only one team outside the top 100) can claim they are better leagues right now. The Big Ten had won the last three ACC/Big Ten Challenges but the ACC was able to force a 6-6 tie this season. While that’s not a conclusive measure of a conference’s strength, it’s an indication that the ACC is emerging from some pretty lean years. With the additions of Syracuse and Pittsburgh next year followed by Notre Dame and Louisville in the years to come, the ACC is quickly on its way to becoming the preeminent basketball conference in America once again.
- I mentioned that Virginia Tech was undefeated in the last scribble. The chief reason why is senior Erick Green, averaging 24.9 PPG for the 7-0 Hokies. New head coach James Johnson has installed an up-tempo system in Blacksburg, allowing Green to attack the rim and get more shots. He has taken advantage of his new coach’s system from the start, getting to the foul line 73 times in seven games and converting 88% of the time from the stripe. Quite frankly, this wasn’t something Green could do under Seth Greenberg who preferred a slower pace and grind-it-out games. Green is getting to the foul line an average of six more times per game than last year. Among players used on at least 28% of possessions, Green is the top-rated offensive player in America by the Pomeroy ratings. The schedule hasn’t been all that challenging except for the game against Oklahoma State but it’s great to see a senior who had been a contributor for three seasons take the next step and become the go-to guy in his final go-around. Green reportedly was all but checked out of Blacksburg after Greenberg was let go but he gave Johnson, who had recruited him out of high school, a chance and so far it’s paying off for both Green and his team.
- One team that isn’t being talked about much but is highly ranked is Arizona. With a schedule filled with cupcakes, the Wildcats haven’t been challenged yet. That’s about to change with games against Southern Miss, Clemson and a showdown with Florida in Tucson on December 15. Sean Miller seems to have the ideal mix of veteran leadership (Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill) and top young talent. Arizona is a strong offensive team but keep in mind their gaudy 85 PPG has been put together against a schedule that has featured 3-4 Long Beach State as the toughest opponent. The big change to this team has been their obvious gains in rebounding. Miller’s recruiting class, highlighted by Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley, has made Arizona a very good rebounding team. The improvement in offensive rebounding percentage over last year has been substantial while defensive rebounding has also gotten better. Given UCLA’s struggles, Arizona looks to be the class of the Pac-12 this season. One statistic that caught my eye and bears watching through the rest of the season is Arizona’s three-point defense. Miller’s teams have always defended the trifecta well and ranked #3 in that metric in each of the last two seasons. This year it has been a different story with the Wildcats ranked #236 (35.7%). Against the schedule Arizona has played to date, that’s a major red flag. Keep an eye on that as the season moves along.
- Is anyone sure of what to make of Kansas? It seems like blasphemy to doubt this team but the Jayhawks haven’t exactly blown the doors off of their opponents so far. With a loss to Michigan State and struggles against the likes of Oregon State, Chattanooga and San Jose State, is there cause for concern in Lawrence? Maybe, but I’m not ready to go there. Why is Kansas struggling to dismantle inferior competition? The Jayhawks are shooting 30% from long range and not doing a good job defending the three-point line either. This is a partly a product of the amazing defense provided by Jeff Withey inside (5.7 blocks per game) which consequently forces opponents to the perimeter. However, Kansas isn’t strongly contesting threes and opposing teams are hitting at a 35.5% clip through seven games. This has to change as the competition stiffens this month. Offensively, Ben McLemore should figure it out and connect on more deep shots once Big 12 play rolls around. Another important factor to KU’s success will be Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson stepping up and getting used to leadership roles on this team. Kansas has a good blend of experience (Withey, Releford, Johnson) and talent to work everything out. With Bill Self, who I think is the best pure coach out there at the helm, I’d expect Kansas to remain the favorite for the Big 12 title.
- Coming into the season there were a few teams I thought were overrated, thoughts that go through virtually everybody’s head before the games actually begin. One of those teams was Michigan. Boy was I wrong. The Wolverines look like a legitimate national title contender in John Beilein’s sixth season in Ann Arbor. Michigan already boasts wins over Pittsburgh, Kansas State and NC State, three teams that should be firmly in the NCAA Tournament come March. The schedule isn’t all that challenging between now and Big Ten play so we could be looking at a massive Michigan/Ohio State game on January 13 in Columbus with Michigan potentially at 16-0 and the Buckeyes at 14-1 or 13-2. Before I get that far ahead of myself, let’s look at why Michigan is so good. Dating back to his years at West Virginia, Beilein has employed a low-possession system heavily reliant on ball movement and the three-point shot. Last season, 44.2% of Michigan’s shots were three pointers (#8 in the nation). The Wolverines connected on 35.1% of those attempts, a good percentage but far from elite. This year, Michigan has added interior weapons with Trey Burke’s ability to penetrate, dish, and/or score, Tim Hardaway Jr.’s versatility and Glen Robinson III’s talent to go along with holdover Jordan Morgan. Recognizing this, Beilein has tweaked his system so that Michigan attempts a three 34.6% of the time, ranked a much more balanced 141st. This makes the Wolverines even harder to defend and they are taking advantage. Great coaches know what their personnel does best and make adjustments as necessary. Beilein is certainly in that class. That’s not to say Michigan doesn’t attempt threes. With gunners like freshman Nik Stauskas, it would be foolish not to. Stauskas, a 6’6” Canadian, is 18-29 on the year from deep (62%). He won’t keep that pace up all season but he is such a perfect fit for Beilein’s system. Stauskas can get his shot off over almost anyone and is as talented of a shooter as there is. Michigan has also improved defensively. While this team likely won’t be among the best in the country on that end of the floor, the Wolverines are doing a nice job keeping opponents off the free throw line and cleaning the glass. There’s a lot to like about this Michigan team and its evolution from a one-dimensional offense a season ago to one laden with a multitude of weapons is a scary proposition for the Big Ten.
- Reading about Nik Stauskas got me thinking about the influx of Canadian talent to the college basketball ranks over the last decade. Texas coach Rick Barnes seemed to have a monopoly on this for the longest time with guys like Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph (and now Myck Kabongo) but Canadian players now appear on the rosters of many teams. New Mexico State, for example, has four Canadians playing significant roles. Stauskas at Michigan, Kevin Pangos at Gonzaga and Brady Heslip at Baylor are examples of absolute snipers from long range. These three guys can fill it up with anyone and they’re all playing prominent roles on very good teams. Pangos’ teammate, Kelly Olynyk, is from British Columbia and a major part of Gonzaga’s frontcourt. Anthony Bennett, a star freshman from Ontario, has taken Las Vegas by storm, leading UNLV in scoring. He’ll have teammate Khem Birch (from Montreal) eligible for the second semester alongside him in UNLV’s potent frontcourt. The Pac-12 has a handful of talented Canadians with Dwight Powell looking for a breakout junior season at Stanford and the Bachynski brothers (Dallin and Jordan) roaming the paint at Utah and Arizona State, respectively. Melvin Ejim (Iowa State) and Negus Webster-Chan (Missouri) are making their mark in the Midwest and Junior Cadougan runs the point for Marquette. Down at Texas Tech, Desan Kravic is Chris Walker’s second leading scorer. Out east, Olivier Hanlan (Quebec) is second in scoring as a freshman at Boston College while Bryson Johnson is shooting 43% from three-point land at Patriot League favorite Bucknell. All of these ballers from north of the border are playing important roles for their teams, most of them contenders in their respective conferences. I doubt most people think of Canada as a basketball hotbed but the number of players coming from our northern neighbor seems to increase every year. With the successes of Steve Nash in the NBA and all of these players in the college ranks, Canadian basketball figures to continue to grow.