Ten Tuesday Scribbles: On Illinois, Undefeated Teams, A Blown Call Nobody Noticed, and More…Posted by Brian Otskey on December 11th, 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.
- Illinois fans, here is my mea culpa. I was wrong not to rank your team. On Saturday night, the Fighting Illini ventured up to Spokane and walked out of the Kennel with the best win of any team to date. Yes, better than Duke’s wins over Louisville and Ohio State. Why? There has not been a road win of this magnitude by any team through this early point in the season. The Illini proved they’re for real with a dominant second half against a very strong Gonzaga team. After taking the opening punch and falling behind 8-0 right out of the gate, John Groce’s team didn’t panic and made fantastic adjustments. Gonzaga’s game plan was clearly to feed the ball inside and try to dominate a less than imposing Illinois front line. Illinois’ defense suddenly picked up later in the first half, swarming the Gonzaga big men and forcing the Bulldogs into an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers. Illinois was able to speed the game up a bit and prevent Gonzaga from setting up its half court offense effectively. The Zags attempted 18 threes which is right about their season average but a lot of them were rushed and not something the game plan should have called for against an Illinois team without a significant inside presence. Brandon Paul looked like an All-America candidate with his performance not just on the offensive end but defensively against Pangos and the Gonzaga guards as well. Can Illinois keep this level of play up? I’m not sure but I know one thing: The Illini are way better than I thought. This team’s over-reliance on the three-point shot is concerning and is bound to catch up with them at some point, but Illinois has already proved it will be a factor in the loaded Big Ten.
- Another impressive performance played out in a different fashion on Saturday night in Clemson, South Carolina. Trailing Clemson by six points midway through the second half, Arizona absorbed the hit and put the pedal down in impressive fashion with a 26-5 run down the stretch to come out of rowdy Littlejohn Coliseum with a sneaky good road win. It was an impressive showing because this Arizona team had been highly touted but untested coming into the game. The Wildcats passed that test with flying colors as they head into a Saturday showdown with Florida in Tucson. Mark Lyons took control in the final minutes for Arizona but contributions from Nick Johnson (13 points, five steals) and Solomon Hill (10 rebounds despite an awful shooting night) illustrate the talent and depth of Sean Miller’s team. Although he didn’t have a great game, I was thoroughly impressed with the physique of freshman Kaleb Tarczewski. It was the first time I’ve seen him play and his body appears mature beyond his age. He’ll be a load for any opponent in the post. Arizona is clearly the best team in the Pac-12 and has the pieces to make a deep run in March. With the gritty Miller at the helm and a boatload of talent, this team will keep getting better as the year moves along. Make sure you watch the Wildcats take on Florida this Saturday night in what could prove to be the best non-conference game of the season.
- Another week, another confounding loss for Baylor. Just when you thought the Bears were turning the corner after winning at Kentucky, they put together an absolute stinker of a loss at home to a mediocre Northwestern team that had just suffered back-to-back home losses to Maryland and Illinois-Chicago. Baylor was dominated on the glass by a Northwestern lineup that isn’t all that physically imposing and allowed the Wildcats to shoot 51% for the game. It is inexcusable for a team with Baylor’s talent to have three losses at this point in the season but you know what I like to say, nobody does less with more than Scott Drew. When you look at the statistics, Baylor appears to be a pretty good team. But the chemistry and focus clearly is lacking, otherwise this team wouldn’t have lost to Charleston and Northwestern on its home court. Baylor is a highly talented team and has actually improved its turnover numbers significantly from previous years. Pierre Jackson is playing like one of the best point guards in America and Drew has seen junior forward Cory Jefferson take a huge step forward. Baylor has two more non-conference challenges before Big 12 play begins, against BYU in Waco and a tough trip to Gonzaga in back to back games at the end of this month. Even if the Bears enter Big 12 play at 8-4, I still believe this team is good enough to eventually earn a Top 25 ranking and fit solidly in the NCAA Tournament. At this point however, Baylor just isn’t there yet.
- One of the 14 remaining undefeated teams is Larry Shyatt’s Wyoming Cowboys. After knocking off a very good Illinois State team on the road last week, it is time to take Wyoming seriously. Are the Cowboys a contender in the Mountain West? I doubt it, but this is a team that can win nine to 11 games in the league and contend for an NCAA Tournament bid. In the Illinois State win, Wyoming limited Jackie Carmichael (16 PPG) to five points on only five field goal attempts. Senior forward Leonard Washington has done a terrific job for Shyatt this year, including a 22-point effort in another impressive Cowboy win over Colorado. Washington is a very good shot blocker, an important factor when going up against other talented big men in the Mountain West like Mike Moser, Anthony Bennett and Alex Kirk. Washington is one of three senior starters who all just happen to be the leading scorers on this team. Luke Martinez and Derrious Gilmore are the other upperclassmen and they’re both snipers from long range. Wyoming attempts a lot of threes (Billy Donovan’s influence on Shyatt on display) and those two guys represent the greatest perimeter threats. The Cowboys also get to the foul line often and convert at a high percentage, something that won them the game against Illinois State (22-24 from the stripe). Wyoming does have to do a better job guarding the three point line and clearing the glass but the Cowboys have the look of a solid team that can do some damage in the Mountain West. Laramie is a tough place to get to and to play at so you can rest assured Wyoming will slay some good opponents in conference play. Whether they can do the same on the road remains up in the air but the convincing win at Illinois State gives us an indication of what this team can do when it’s playing well.
- Back east, Charlotte is another surprise member of the undefeated fraternity. At 9-0 with a win at Davidson on their resume, the 49ers aren’t quite as polished as Wyoming but should not be ignored. Charlotte will be put to the test with a visit to 5-1 Miami this Friday followed by a date with Florida State on December 22. With a record of 23-37 in two seasons on the sidelines, head coach Alan Major hasn’t exactly found success but Charlotteans may actually have something to look forward to this winter in the Queen City. Major plays only one guy over 6’7” senior big man Chris Braswell, who has been very productive in only 23.5 minutes per game. Braswell’s 14.3 PPG and 7.0 RPG project out to 24/12 over 40 minutes, no doubt impressive totals for the amount of time he plays. The 49ers are an awful three-point shooting team but they do get to the free throw line fairly often. Major’s team is winning games with its defense and not a single opponent has put up 70 points in any game to date. The schedule hasn’t been difficult so it’ll be interesting to see if Charlotte can sustain these numbers when the competition ramps up. The smart money says no but it is something to watch. This team has pretty decent depth and an outstanding rebounder in freshman Willie Clayton. Coach Major clearly has a better team this year and it’ll be interesting to see how far he can take it. The 49ers have a chance to be a solid middle of the pack team in their final season competing the muddled Atlantic 10 before moving back to Conference USA next season.
- While filling out my RTC Top 25 ballot this Sunday night, I couldn’t help but notice how difficult it is to rank teams in the second half of the poll. The top of the poll is relatively easy with a group of about six to eight teams with cases that blow away anyone else in the poll. After that, it gets a bit blurry. Teams like Georgetown, Creighton, Illinois and Gonzaga have all proven to be very good but they all have flaws that prevent them from being elite. Once you get past the top teams and the very good teams, it gets real messy. When you have a Michigan State team with two losses that hasn’t looked great ranked at #14 like I do, you know the bottom of the poll is relatively weak. Some people may look at my poll and give me heat for ranking Pittsburgh and NC State over the likes of New Mexico and Wichita State but to that I say, is there really that much of a different between team #15 and, let’s say, team #35? I really don’t think so, at least at this point in the season. There are so many teams worthy of a Top 25 vote right now (nine additional teams were under consideration for me this week) that determining the last few spots is essentially a guessing game. With the increased depth of talent (and the P-word, parity) across the nation and a smaller collection of elite teams, it is safe to say this trend will only continue to grow over the next five years.
- Watching West Virginia’s win over Virginia Tech on Saturday, I couldn’t help but notice a critical missed call late in the game that has not been talked about. With nine seconds remaining and Virginia Tech up 67-66, West Virginia’s Gary Browne was inbounding the ball on the baseline near the basket. When Browne had trouble finding an open man, he moved along the baseline and found Juwan Staten, who proceeded to drive to the rim and make the game-winning layup for the Mountaineers. The problem is, of course, that a player cannot run the baseline unless it is after a made shot. If the officials saw this and made the proper travelling call, Virginia Tech would have received possession while holding onto a one-point lead. There is no guarantee that the Hokies would have won the game but this missed call deprived them of a great chance to pick up a nice road win and keep their undefeated record intact. Instead, West Virginia moved above .500 on the season and earned its first quality win of the season. It was a huge play that almost nobody noticed, one that directly impacted the outcome of an important game.
- I attended the Jimmy V Classic in New York last Tuesday night and came away greatly impressed with NC State senior forward Richard Howell. Leading his team in scoring and rebounding, Howell is the glue that keeps this talented bunch of players together for Mark Gottfried. Howell came to Raleigh as part of former head coach Sidney Lowe’s 2009 recruiting class and struggled at times to earn minutes and establish consistency during Lowe’s final two disappointing seasons at the helm of the Wolfpack program. When Gottfried took over last season, Howell’s minutes and production jumped, culminating in a 22-point effort in NC State’s win over San Diego State in the NCAA Tournament. This season, Howell has taken the next step and is a full-fledged senior leader on a very good basketball team. Averaging 14.4 PPG and 8.4 RPG while ranking among the nation’s leaders in field goal percentage (68.1%), Howell is a steady and calming presence on a team not used to being among the hunted. While C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown and Gottfried’s talented freshmen class get most of the hype, Howell may be the most important player on the team. Without him, NC State would lack a force in the paint and an on-court leader who takes a lot of pressure off of Leslie and others. NC State has the potential to do a lot of damage this year and Richard Howell will be a major reason why.
- One team that always seems to disappoint is the Washington Huskies. Now in his 11th year in Seattle, Lorenzo Romar is once again struggling to find his way through non-conference play. This is not one of Romar’s most talented teams but U-Dub fans surely wouldn’t expect to lose three home games to the likes of Albany, Colorado State and Nevada by mid-December. At 4-4 with its best win coming at home against Saint Louis, Washington is looking at another underachieving year. One difference with this year’s team is tempo. Romar’s club is playing at a much slower pace and not forcing the turnovers that athletic teams like his feast on. Washington is also giving up a ton of rebounds and is arguably the worst defensive team in the Pac-12. This combination of bad defense and not creating enough extra possessions is killing the Huskies. While C.J. Wilcox has been playing great, Scott Suggs has been in and out of the lineup with injury issues (concussion and a foot problem) and the team simply hasn’t grasped the ability to defend. Washington has allowed 70+ points in five of its eight games and has a 2-3 record in those contests. One thing this team does well is shoot the three-ball but that is not going to be enough to overcome all of its deficiencies. Husky fans will likely remind you that last year’s Pac-12 championship team started 4-4 as well but that team faced a much tougher non-conference schedule and lacked any semblance of a signature win despite coming out victorious in 21 games by the end of the season. Last year, Washington lost to a good Saint Louis team, Marquette, Duke and at Nevada at this point in the season. This year’s losses are indicative of bigger problems.
- Reading about Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis’ proposal this week made me want to vomit. College basketball has been looking for ways to jumpstart its season and increase fan interest in November for years but playing four games simultaneously at Cowboys Stadium is not the solution. Hollis has been the impetus behind stunts like the Carrier Classic, which was nice the first time around but now has become overkill, but this takes the cake if it comes to fruition. Does anybody realize how silly this would truly be? You’d have four games playing at once with whistles blowing, horns sounding and fans cheering. It would be like a Saturday afternoon at an AAU event (not exactly the image college basketball wants to project), not to mention incredibly awkward for the players and coaches on the floor. How would a player know if a whistle was blown in his game or the game on the court next to him? Would a referee hear a whistle from another game and think it was one of his crew members who blew it? Things like this don’t sound like much but can be an incredible inconvenience during the course of a game. Thankfully this idea is not a done deal by any means and hopefully the people who study the feasibility of it come to the same conclusion that I have. Hollis should be commended for thinking outside of the box but his ideas should not be taken as gospel. College basketball doesn’t need any more stunts like this, it needs real solutions. Four games at once at Jerry Jones’ palace is definitely not the way to go.