ATB: Revival of Tennessee’s Offense, Belmont’s Place In the OVC, and Anthony Bennett’s FrOY Candidacy…Posted by Chris Johnson on December 14th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Finals Week Is Nearly Gone. On a night dominated by talks of revolutionary conference transformation and the impending destruction of one of the sport’s proudest and most successful leagues in the past quarter century, paying any real attention to games – outside of a few noteworthy outcomes – was hardly anyone’s first priority. The good news is, thanks to the college hoops fan nightmare we like to call finals week, there weren’t many games worth watching in the first place. If you’re looking for big storylines or massive statement-making wins, Thursday night’s slate provided none of the sort. Instead, we witnessed the denouement of finals week torpor, and can now officially start looking ahead towards the biggest non-conference game of the season: Saturday’s Florida-Arizona showdown in Tucson. Tonight’s recap will underscore the recent scheduling lull, which only means you’ll feel doubly excited for Saturday’s big-time sampling. So here’s to the final remnants of college hoops’ weakest offering of games. May you rest in peace… at least until next season.
Your Watercooler Moment. Tennessee’s Offense Has Sparked To Life.
The only thing more impressive than Tennessee scoring 69 points at home to knock off undefeated Wichita State is that the Volunteers did it despite star big man Jarnell Stokes logging just 18 minutes. Even if Stokes hadn’t gotten wrapped up in foul trouble, the Volunteers’ 69-point output is encouraging for several reasons. For one, Wichita State has put to rest any notion that losing four starters from last season’s five-seed would prevent another MVC title challenge. The Shockers have quality wins over VCU and Iowa, and are defending like a top-30 team, to the point where last season’s 18th-ranked defensive efficiency is within one percentage point of this year’s mark (89.8) to date. For another, Tennessee had failed to break the 50-point threshold in its past two games, consecutive losses to Georgetown and Virginia. Granted, both teams rank among the nation’s top 10 teams in per-possession defense, but when you boast one of the top five-or-so centers in the country, along with a bevy of talented guards to provide a capable perimeter scoring complement, there’s no excuse for getting held under 50 points. It’s really that simple. The Volunteers were a trendy pick to broach the SEC power triumvirate – Florida, Kentucky, Missouri – but had failed to substantiate that praise with anything resembling a quality win thus far. Knocking off Wichita State, a Top 25 team in its own right, is a good sign, but I’m loath to acknowledge the Volunteers have officially put their scoring woes in the rearview mirror. Upcoming tests against Xavier and Memphis before entering SEC play will serve as a barometer of whether Tennessee has finally unlocked its offensive quagmire or whether tonight’s performance was a minor positive blip that can’t be sustained over the long term.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Anthony Bennett: Best Freshman In the Country? The silver lining in Mike Moser’s month-long injury-related absence is that UNLV’s frontcourt rotation will benefit from more minutes and greater opportunities to carve out bigger roles over the long run. Most importantly, we’ll see even more Anthony Bennett, who Thursday night lead the Rebels with 27 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in a comfortable win over La Verne, and who thus far is making as strong a case as any for Freshman of the Year. The vast majority of preseason freshman big man hype was directed towards Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel and Baylor’s Isaiah Austin. Neither player has underperformed expectations – Noel’s offensive game needs work, but we knew as much coming in; Austin has been as lanky, stretchy, and, at times, flimsy as advertised – but there’s no disputing Bennett has been the best of the three. When Pitt big man Khem Birch becomes eligible on December 17, he’ll slide in alongside Bennett to form one of the nation’s most talented frontcourt duos. That’s a ridiculously long, athletic, rangy interior. And we’re not even considering what Moser brings to the court; talent-wise, no team in America matches that vaunted trio.
- Belmont Will Challenge Murray State in OVC. Most conference realignment moves these days are about two things: football and money. Here’s a purely basketball-motivated move that just makes sense for all parties involved — Belmont to the Ohio Valley Conference. The Bruins make an excellent fit in the league’s geographic footprint, and are well-positioned – boasting a history of talent-rich teams, a strong resource base, and an undying commitment to hoops – to make the leap to an altogether stronger, better-funded, higher-profile league. What’s more, Rick Byrd’s team has the chops to challenge for the OVC crown in its inaugural season in their new stomping grounds. The Bruins handled a feisty Middle Tennessee State team on their home floor Thursday in preparation for Saturday’s seismic test at Kansas. Belmont probably won’t win that game – I have a hard time picking any team in honest faith to win at Allen Fieldhouse – but they’ve shown enough early on to at least put a scare into league juggernaut Murray State. If anything, it should be an excellent conference race, with many more to come down the line.
- A Massive Imbalance in Washington State’s Shot Distribution. Tonight is no time to pick on Washington State. The Cougars picked up their seventh win of the season, albeit at home against winless Jackson State. And for the statistical purposes of this blurb, tonight’s win is an even more untimely occurrence. But on a day where there’s very little in the way of intriguing on-court storylines, my long-held interest in Brock Motum’s proportional scoring splits will have to suffice. Entering tonight’s win, Motum, who scored a modest 14 points (nearly six below his season average of 19.7 PPG), has commanded 36.1 percent of his team’s shot attempts in 2012-13. Only six players own a larger percentage, meaning Motum, for better or worse, is a massive part of anything Washington State does on offense. But really, can you blame them? Their best perimeter scorer from last season, long-troubled guard Reggie Moore, was kicked off the team in September and, coincidentally, revealed Thursday he has found a new home at D-II Western Washington.
More Notes From Around The Nation.
- Sunshine State Mid-Majors Fight To The Wire. FIU Coach Richard Pitino nearly upended Atlantic Sun frontrunner Florida Gulf Coast, ultimately falling by three. His next game, at Louisville on December 19, where old man Rick will try and teach his son a few lessons, isn’t a fair fight, but should be interesting for other reasons.
- The Lingering Effects of CofC’s blowout loss. No one expected CofC to trip up Louisville last week, but after a home loss to Anderson, its second straight at TD Bank Arena, one can only assume the Cardinals’ 80-38 obliteration had a sobering effect on one of the SoCon’s preseason title contenders.
Dunkdafied. Uncontested dunks are never as impressive as players hurtling through and over defenders to finish at the rim. Rodney Williams’ dunking exploits are well-chronicled, and while I’m reluctant to award breakaway trick dunks – Just throw it down and be done with it – this two-handed 360 is worth tonight’s dunk spotlight.
Thursday Night’s All-Americans.
- Trae Golden, Tennessee (NPOY) – It’s unreasonable to expect Golden to have nights like Thursday (25 points, five assists) on the regular, but if he can do just enough to divert attention from Jarnell Stokes and (when he returns) Jeronne Maymon, the Volunteers may be able to coast by the SEC’s barren middle-tier.
- Kerron Johnson, Belmont – He’s got nothing on Isaiah Canaan when it comes to name equity, but Johnson will make himself known by season’s end – and he could do so at Canaan’s detriment in OVC competition. In the Bruins’ five-point win over Middle Tennessee State, Johnson contributed 17 points and five assists.
- Anthony Bennett, UNLV – Get a good look at Bennett while you can; chances are he won’t be around for much longer. NBA scouts don’t gloss over 6’ 8’’, 240-pound forwards with refined post moves and range out to the three-point line. Bennett’s line in tonight’s win over La Verne: 27 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks.
- Brock Motum, Washington State – The Cougars are headed for another rough going in the Pac-12, weak and diluted as the league is. Motum will put his head down, keep on scoring while retaining a low profile, all the while improving his draft stock. He finished with 14 points and five rebounds in tonight’s win over Jackson State.
- Scott Suggs, Washington – When you’re as inconsistent as Washington, any win is a good win. Suggs helped the Huskies hold off Seattle at KeyArena with 24 points and five rebounds.
Tweet of the night. With so much left to be resolved in regards to the non-football Catholic schools’ Big East rupture – Where does Madison Square Garden stand on hosting a “Big East” Tournament featuring a vastly transfigured and watered-down league lineup? What’s the time table for the new league’s formation, and which new schools will leave their respective leagues to join the new alliance? There’s been no shortage of name-guessing for the conference’s new title. And I have to agree with Forde, what better way to mix religious affiliation and retributive borderline brand-name infringement than by rhyming your league’s new moniker to the one whose confounding lack of leadership and football-slanted vision ruined the basketball supergroup you once called home.