ATB: Hoosier State Bragging Rights, Arizona Defends Home Court, and Anthony Grant’s No-Fun Welcome Home Party…Posted by Chris Johnson on December 17th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
This Weekend’s Lede. College Hoops Arrives In A Big Way. It is only fitting that the driest week on the college basketball calendar preceded a weekend of riveting hardwood action. It began, naturally, with Butler being Butler, and by that I mean knocking off a team that, from a talent standpoint, the Bulldogs had no business challenging. After years of watching Brad Stevens build his team on hard work, discipline and hard-nosed defense, the Bulldogs’ giant-killing tendencies are no revelation. Even by Butler’s standards, taking out the No. 1 team in the country with a Hoosier-dominated crowd taking in the scene, is remarkable. The drama escalated later that night with Florida’s come-from-ahead loss at Arizona, an excellent road win squandered away thanks to poor late-game management and a flurry of untimely mistakes. And let it be known, Mark Lyons (the inefficient, turnover-prone, shot-chucking, pass-averse Lyons) converted a high-difficulty running layup with 7.1 seconds remaining to complete the Wildcats’ home court defense. Those two games far outstrip any other contests that took place over the weekend, but there were plenty of fixtures of note, most of which we’ll delve into in the space below.
Your Watercooler Moment. Don’t Try To Explain Butler. Just Appreciate It.
If the Catholic 7 are still going back and forth on potential additions to complete the new league, Butler is as sure a thing as any team – from Gonzaga to Xavier to Saint Louis – it may consider. Over the past four seasons, the Bulldogs have showed uncanny poise and pluck on the grandest stage – the NCAA Tournament. Saturday’s coup proved the Bulldogs’ Tourney magic is not merely a postseason phenomenon; they’re just as capable of rattling and tripping up high-major heavyweights in the regular season too. With state bragging rights on the line, and a Bankers Life Field House rife with Hoosiers’ anticipation, the Bulldogs spoiled Indiana’s chance to cement its state supremacy and national No. 1 ranking. What’s more impressive than the result itself – which, as I’ve reiterated, is yet another testament to what Stevens has built this program into over the past five years – is the way Butler got there. Just over a week ago, sitting in the press conference after Butler’s win at Northwestern, a reporter asked Stevens about why he may have missed on Wildcats’ walk-on and Fort Wayne, Indiana native (and leading scorer) Reggie Hearn. He responded by noting that, similarly, no one had recruited Alex Barlow, and Stevens gushed on about the sophomore’s will and dedication and hard work. Naïve and conditioned to jaded coachspeak as I am, I interpreted Stephens’ praise as a savvy way to deflect a potential recruiting miss (Hearn) and channel it into something positive – Barlow’s development. Doubting Stevens was a bad choice, because Barlow, as you now well know, went from nondescript walk-on to hoops folk legend thanks to a game-winning floater in overtime to KO the Hoosiers once and for all. It was a fantastic culmination for a player whose background is, well, exactly the type of storybook tale you might expect.
Also Worth Chatting About. Nothing New On Florida; Big Win For Arizona.
Framing Arizona’s victory in the context of Florida’s mistakes is a disservice to what the Wildcats accomplished in the final minutes Saturday night. There’s no doubt the Gators could and probably should have left Tucson with another impressive victory, but this game says less about Florida than it does Arizona. The Gators turned it over 14 times, many of them coming in crucial stretches in the second half, and that’s something Billy Donovan’s team needs to remedy going forward. It’s also completely understandable. This was the first time all season Florida really needed to bear down, run its sets, and execute – almost all of its other wins came by way of blowout, the final result decided well before the final whistle. On Saturday, the Gators tightened up (few teams go an entire season without experiencing this), and Arizona took advantage. This is nothing we haven’t seen before. The Wildcats’ talent was never in question, nor was their frontcourt depth or scoring aptitude. What remained something of a mystery was their mettle and resolve, their ability to tough out dicey situations. Arizona needed all the moxie and fight it could muster against Florida, who controlled the game for large stretches but could never quite create enough distance to put the Wildcats away for good. Arizona hung around, bade its time, and with the game on the line, got the bucket it needed from arguably its most commonly-raised flaw all season: point guard Mark Lyons. It’s a statement for Arizona, but it does nothing to qualify the Gators stand-alone status atop the SEC.
Your Quick Hits…
- Paying Tribute To An Historic Game. Scheduling ingenuity and Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis are synonymous links to some of college basketball’s most innovative non-conference events. Last season, Hollis pioneered the Veterans Day Carrier Classic, a commemorative event staged aboard the USS Carl Vinson, which spawned this year’s (attempted) naval ship barrage. He followed that up by organizing a game against UConn at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. One of his lesser-known projects took place on Saturday, and while it lacked all the hype and aesthetic pizazz of an aircraft carrier honoring our nation’s troops, the Game of Change’s 50-year anniversary merits a grand celebration all the same. I strongly recommend Dana O’Neil’s fantastic background piece for some insightful context, but the basis of Hollis’ motivation stems from a game played five decades ago between Loyola of Chicago and Mississippi State that produced massive rippling effects for the integration of African-American players into major college basketball. It was overshadowed Saturday by a number of other important games, along with the tragedy in Newtown, but there’s no understating the lasting impact of what took place a half century ago in Jenison Field House, and any event designed to pay homage to the Game of Change deserves its own special mention.
- Encouraging Start on SDSU’S Three-Game Litmus Test. There was a sneaky good game out in Missoula Saturday night, as two Tournament-level teams (South Dakota State and Montana) used two overtimes to produce a winner. The Jackrabbits secured their best victory thus far, but two difficult challenges lie ahead at Belmont (December 19) and New Mexico (December 22). Wolters’ NBA prospects are no secret, and SDSU looks overall better-equipped for the throes of high major competition this season, but the next two games will give us a better read on whether this team is ready to make the leap into elite mid-majordom, or if Wolters and the Jackrabbits will remain a fun but ultimately non-impactful outfit this spring.
- Does Michigan Jump Indiana As the B1G’s Best Team? With Indiana falling to Butler and Ohio State already having taken its early lumps at Duke, it’s fair to ask whether Michigan should climb the Big Ten’s putative pecking order and don the “frontrunner” label heading into league play. To me, these Wolverines – owners of respectable wins against Pittsburgh, Kansas State, NC State, Arkansas and on Saturday, West Virginia – have very much earned that rep. Not only has John Beilein adjusted to having more size and athleticism than ever before work within the confines of his perimeter-heavy system, he’s maximized his personnel by making shrewd tactical judgments and emphasizing defense more than any UM team in recent memory. Until conference play proves otherwise, Michigan is the Big Ten’s best team.
- Zags Brush Off Illinois Loss. The early buzz of Gonzaga’s 9-0 start was swept up in Brandon Paul’s 35-point fireworks display during last weekend’s Illini win in Spokane. The Zags got up off the mat, licked their wounds, and worked on perfecting their errors over the week that followed, and responded Saturday with a resounding “we’re back” statement win over Kansas State in Seattle. It was exactly the sort of encouraging rebound effort Gonzaga needed after its torrid start was thrown into question last weekend. And in case you haven’t noticed, seven-foot center Kelly Olynyk is 100 percent real: dude finished with 20 points, three rebounds and four thunderous dunks in Gonzaga’s 16-point win. Thanks to Mark Few’s scheduling chops, we’ll see Gonzaga in two more high-profile match-ups (against Baylor on December 28, at Oklahoma State on New Year’s Eve) before the non-conference season is all set and done.
- The Best Non-Power Conference Team In The Land? At this point, talking about Creighton’s offensive firepower and Doug McDermott’s diverse scoring repertoire are college basketball clichés. The undertold side of Creighton’s 10-1 campaign is the massive defensive improvements it has made since last season. In 2011-12, the Blue Jays were flawed, an offensive juggernaut who couldn’t guard anyone, didn’t get stops, and relied far too heavily on McDermott outscoring the opposition. This season, Creighton’s offense is yet again transcendent, but its defense isn’t all that far behind – the Blue Jays rank 37th nationally on a per-possession basis, according to Kenpom.com. If they can keep that balance, a top-four NCAA seed is not out of the question. One of RTC’s correspondents was on hand for the Blue Jays’ 10-point win at Cal Saturday.
- Anthony Grant’s VCU Homecoming-Gone-Wrong. Were it not for contractual obligations mandating Grant take his new team of employment back to his old stomping grounds, I struggle to believe the Alabama coach would have jumped at the opportunity to make the trip to VCU to take on Shaka Smart and the Rams. VCU’s three-loss record (Wichita State, Duke and Missouri) belies the product on the floor – a lesson Grant learned Saturday as Alabama, one of the better teams in this year’s watered-down SEC, fell victim to VCU’s HAVOC defense, turning it over 11 times and shooting 39 percent in the loss. In a vacuum, losing at VCU is not a terrible result in the least, but when you take into account Alabama’s two losses that preceded it (at Cincinnati, against Dayton), a host of injuries, and their lack of a truly venerable non-league win, there’s an additive effect to the Tide’s recent slide that demands concern. Alabama needs to right the ship before SEC play, which opens January 8 with a tough road date at Missouri, followed by a home visit from Tennessee.
- Another Huge Opportunity Slips By Memphis. The common laments of Josh Pastner’s coaching ability – that he’s a glorified recruiting coordinator riding John Calipari’s momentum to minimally-acceptable success – are not getting any quieter. Not after Memphis failed (again) to capitalize on a prime opportunity for a big non-conference win. Not after the Tigers led by 16 in the first half, all elements of momentum in tow, only to commit 24 turnovers and watch their lead wither away in the second half. The worst part is that Memphis, after a disappointing showing in the Battle 4 Atlantis, has run out of chances to boost its resume before conference play, which means the Tigers will likely head into March with a #6-#8-seed-caliber resume. That’s exactly the spot they found themselves in last season, one brutal matchup with St. Louis away from a tourney exit. The Tigers should roll through C-USA competition, but the lack of depth in that league will do little to help its season portfolio come Selection Sunday.
- The MCW Shoplifting Scandal Is Not Jim Boeheim’s Favorite Topic. At the postgame press conference following Syracuse’s home win over Canisius Saturday, Syracuse Post-Standard columnist Bud Poliquin probed Boehim about the reports surrounding Michael Carter-Williams’ alleged shoplifting incident at a local mall. Boeheim turned icy on the topic, questioning the paper’s sourced report and name-checking Zach Tomaselli, one of the accusers cited in the Bernie Fine sexual molestation scandal who recanted then later reaffirmed his allegations against the former Orange coach. Boeheim appeared to be drawing a connection between the misinformation that ultimately overcame Fine and the anonymous observers sourced as Carter-Williams’ accusers. Boeheim also intimated that Carter-Williams’ status as a prominent SU athlete makes him an easy target for any casual onlooker. Here’s the full transcript. Boeheim can reach 900 career wins with a victory Monday over Detroit.
- MAC Tournament Or Bust. Six weeks into the season and the Ohio Bobcats have not resembled the fiery upstart bunch that gave North Carolina everything it wanted and more in last year’s Sweet Sixteen. It reached a new low on Saturday, allowing Winthrop to earn its first win over a D-I team on its home floor, its third loss in four games. Jim Christian, who earned his fame at Kent State for most of the past decade and knows the MAC landscape and recruiting circuit better than most any potential candidate, was viewed as a perfect replacement for John Groce. It’s much too early to render a verdict on the merits of Ohio’s hire, but the Bobcats may have squandered their chances at an at-large bid at this point. Upcoming tests with UMass, Oklahoma and Marshall may help their chances, but Ohio will likely be left to fend for itself in the dangerous waters of the MAC Tournament in order to pave its way to the field of 68.
- It’s December 17 And Georgia Has Two Wins. There’s nothing worse than seeing a star-caliber player stuck on a terrible team, unable to showcase his skills on the sport’s highest stage. That’s the situation Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is staring at after Georgia took its seventh loss of the season to Iona Saturday. When Caldwell-Pope, a McDonalds All-American, committed to Georgia two years ago, it was seen as a massive turning point for the program. Instead, KCP has toiled in obscurity as the Bulldogs have withered in the SEC cellar. The good news is, the bottom of the SEC is about as weak as any major conference’s lower-tier this season, so Georgia could very well finish above the likes of Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi State. Glass half-full.
Dunkdafied. Who cares if Cincinnati won the game. Marshall junior Elijah Pittman made a play that no one will soon forget. Even more impressive: Pittman’s slam came at the expense of Cincinnati’s 7’1’’ rim-protecting center David Nyarsuk (his 7.8% block percentage ranks in the top 100 nationally).
More Notes From Around The Nation.
- Wiltjer Breaks Out. The most experienced returning player on Kentucky’s roster, sophomore wing Kyle Wiltjer, has not made the offensive leap most expected this season. Saturday’s 7-of-9 three-point shooting display in a win over Lipscomb could spring a major uptick in performance.
- LIU Brooklyn Loses Star Forward. Two-time defending NEC champion LIU-Brooklyn, who picked up its fifth win of the season Sunday against Manhattan, will have a go at the three-peat without 6’7’’ forward and reigning conference POY Julian Boyd, who was averaging 18.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game on the year. Tough blow.
- Virginia Tech Comes Back To Earth. The Hokies’ hot start, powered by senior guard Erick Green, was one of the more pleasantly surprising storylines of the young season. A one-point loss at West Virginia last week was forgivable. Allowing Georgia Southern to beat you at Cassell Coliseum is most definitely not.
- Hawkeyes Complete Iowa Sweep. Three teams from the state of Iowa entered this season with legitimate claims to state supremacy. Iowa’s beaten both in succession, with Saturday’s triumph coming against Northern Iowa following last week’s win over Iowa State. It will now enter Big Ten play – provided it takes care of business in guarantee home games against South Carolina State and Coppin State – with two respectable wins and two not-so-awful losses (Wichita State, Virginia Tech).
- Crossroads Classic Round Two. The second bout of Indiana’s high-school-state-title-ish two-game round robin didn’t match the first in excitement or national relevance, but Notre Dame is a very well-coached, disciplined, even-keeled ensemble. The rebuilding Boilermakers were no match for the Irish.
- Not so fast, Charlotte. We needed to see more from Charlotte before deeming their 9-0 start as anything more than a product of a soft early schedule. Friday night’s 31-point obliteration at Miami was enough proof to confirm our early inklings. The resilient 49ers withstood that reality check to beat Kennesaw State on the road two days later. All told, not a great weekend for the 49ers.
- Kansas’ Star In the Making. There’s been plenty of hype surrounding Anthony Bennett and Marcus Smart, and understandably so. Here’s another viable choice for way-too-early Freshman Player of the year: Ben McLemore, who finished with 17 points and five rebounds in Saturday’s 29-point drubbing of Belmont. McLemore’s point totals over his last three games: 21, 24, 17. Not bad for a, you know, freshman.
- Part I of the New Mexico Rivalry. It’s like European Soccer!… only this matchup concerns New Mexico and New Mexico State. After handling the Aggies at home Saturday, New Mexico travels to NMSU for part deux Wednesday.
- Broncos Not Going Anywhere. Last week’s blowout loss at Utah tempered high-end projections on Boise State. They toppled then-undefeated LSU by 19 points on Friday night, which only serves to cement what we already thought about this year’s Mountain West: It’s an extremely deep, talented, pitfalls-on-any-given-night type of league.
- UNC Survives Scare. Winning is the most important objective, it is widely and casually said. That’s true, but when you don the powder blue threads of UNC and you’re expected to challenge for an ACC crown, you don’t go out and just squeak by East Carolina and expect to hear nothing of it. Crisis averted, but questions linger about UNC’s season prospectus.
- Bison’s Frontcourt Not One-Dimensional. Any discussion of Bucknell almost inevitably turns to NBA-hopeful Mike Muscala, a 6’11” forward with excellent scoring touch. Saturday’s impressive win over La Salle witnessed a breakout performance from senior frontcourt mate Joe Willman, who finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds. These Bison are legit.
This Weekend’s All Americans.
- Doug McDermott, Creighton (NPOY) – This is becoming all too repetitive. McDermott’s 34 points against Cal Saturday was a run-of-the-mill performance for McDermott. The highlight: 10-of-10 from the free throw line.
- Devyn Marble, Iowa – The Hawkeyes have high hopes for Marble, who has shown flashes throughout his time in Iowa City but has never quite put it all together. He notched 30 points in Saturday’s battle for state bragging rights against UNI.
- Greg Whittington, Georgetown – Last season, Whittington posted averages of 4.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game. Saturday’s 25-point, 11-rebound line pushed his season marks to 12.5 points and 7.7 rebounds (in 35.5 minutes per game), respectively.
- Trey Burke, Michigan – It’s about time we stand up and recognize Trey Burke for who he really is: the best pure point in the country. Michigan’s engine dropped 27 points and eight assists against West Virginia Saturday.
- Ryan Anderson, Boston College – The Eagles nearly suffered another bad loss at home to New Hampshire over the weekend, but Anderson’s 23 points and 19 rebounds helped BC prevail in overtime.
- Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA – Expecting Muhammad to play up to his No. 1 recruiting ranking after a summer spent languishing in NCAA limbo was probably unfair. Now that he’s had some time to integrate himself into the college game, it’s time we see that lottery pick talent live up to its billing. Saturday’s 25-point effort on 8-for-14 shooting is what we envisioned all along.
- Richard Howell, North Carolina State – Slowly, quietly, progressively, the Wolfpack are working their way back into the national spotlight. Howell had 12 points and 19 boards in Saturday’s win over Norfolk State.
- Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky – The Wildcats are going to need Wiltjer to score like he did Saturday – 23 points, 12 rebounds – on a more consistent basis in order to compete with the likes of Florida and Missouri in the SEC.
- Roosevelt Jones, Butler – I’m tempted to go with sophomore guard and last-second hero Alex Barlow, but Jones, who submitted 16 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists while playing smothering defense throughout the game, deserves it.
- Jackie Carmichael, Illinois State – The Redbirds will need to go the conference tourney route to reach the NCAA Tournament, and it might require a string of performances from Carmichael within the realm of Sunday’s 30-point, nine-rebound output.
Tweet of the Weekend. It featured familiar giant killer Butler, No. 1 Indiana and likely lottery pick center Cody Zeller. It gave us Rotnei Clarke’s cold-blooded deep three in overtime and Alex Barlow’s game-winning shot bouncing around th erim. It was the best college basketball game of the season, and I have a hard time believing we’ll see anything top it until March. Then I read this tweet and my happiness receded almost immediately. As an analyst, I enjoy Greg Anthony’s keen takes and learned perspective. But this commercial cannot be replayed, rehashed or reconstituted in any shape, form or variation.