ATB: The ACC’s Second Best Team, Conference USA Doldrums and Providence’s Roster Reinforcements…Posted by Chris Johnson on December 19th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. ACC Contenders Make Statements. If you’re still questioning Duke’s status as the No. 1 team in the country, that stance is at least somewhat tenable. There are other teams – Michigan or Arizona, to name a couple – that have looked equally impressive in the context of easier schedules, but if “who-beats-who” isn’t your main barometer for gauging teams, and you feel Duke simply hasn’t looked as complete or well-rounded as the Wolverines or the Wildcats or Louisville or any other team, well, that’s your prerogative. But if you’re still questioning Duke’s position atop the ACC, there’s no logical explanation for your premise. You’re wrong (sorry!); it is just that simple. With that in mind, two teams (Miami and NC State) made strong claims to the No. 2 spot in the suddenly top-heavy league, and while a final verdict won’t be delivered for a few months, tonight’s events provided a nice early measuring stick for the league’s upper tier.
Your Watercooler Moment. Who’s Better: Miami or NC State?
The preseason top-five buzz on NC State always felt like a huge stretch. A couple of talented freshmen don’t instantly elevate an 11-seed to national contender status. Using last season’s NCAA Tournament success as a baseline for predictive measures is always a risky endeavor. When the Wolfpack were run off the Puerto Rico Tip-off floor in a 20-point bludgeoning at the hands of Oklahoma State, my inclinations were confirmed. Miami didn’t carry nearly the same level of hype into this season, though an early season loss at Florida Gulf Coast cratered the Miami-as-ACC-contender bandwagon before it ever got rolling to begin with. Both teams have since recovered, and both proved their early season stumbling points are very much in the rear view Tuesday night. The Wolfpack’s 88-point output against a team as defensively sharp as Stanford – the Cardinal entered Tuesday ranked 15th on a per-possession scale – is without doubt the best we’ve seen Mark Gottfried’s team look thus far. I’m ready to revise expectations for the once vastly overrated Wolfpack. Even so, I’m even more impressed by Miami’s thorough dismantling of UCF, who boasts a future NBA big man in Keith Clanton and – this counts double in my vague which-win-is-better grade book – was playing at home, riding a three-game winning streak. Both wins provide credible non-league resume heft, and while I’m eager to anoint an ACC No. 2, it’s simply too early to make subjective judgments when league play has yet to begin. Here’s what I know, though: Miami and NC State stumbled early, got back on their feet and appear to be rounding into form at just the right time. The ACC season will parse out the specifics. For now, the Wolfpack and Hurricanes belong in the league’s upper echelon, with Duke living a distinguished existence inside its own category.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Big Ten Powers Struggle With Cupcakes. The scheduling powers-that-be set up Ohio State and Michigan State’s slate with putative guarantee games before big non-conference tests against Kansas and Texas, respectively (Texas isn’t the team most envisioned heading into the season, but the Longhorns are no pushover). The Buckeyes faced Winthrop, who hadn’t picked up its first win over a Division I opponent until it beat Ohio three days ago, while the Spartans had a slightly trickier road game at Bowling Green on their hands. These set up perfectly as two tune-up games for two Big Ten frontrunners. In the end, Ohio State and Michigan State got tougher tests than they probably expected, although both managed to come away with victories. Whether these struggles were a mere product of a common case of look-ahead syndrome or something more concerning that bears watching heading into the weekend remains to be seen.
- Hints of Collective Growth From UCLA. Progress was evident in UCLA’s two-point win over Texas, however small or ugly or difficult to watch though it was. Then the Bruins trounced Prairie View A&M, which told us next to nothing about this incoherent yet immensely talented roster. Tuesday night’s 19-point win over Long Beach State, whose 4-7 record is deceiving thanks to one of the nation’s most difficult schedules, gives more reason to believe UCLA is finally starting to figure things out. The 49ers don’t match the kind of challenge UCLA will face from the Pac-12’s upper crust — the Arizonas and Oregons and Colorados of the world. Were we looking at UCLA without taking into account what took place earlier this season, beating Long Beach State is a minor accomplishment for a team as talented as the Bruins. Within the context of UCLA’s tumultuous season, which has included two sudden personnel departures, this is a considerable step in the right direction.
- Mid-Season Additions Boost Providence. The NCAA’s ruling last summer that highly touted freshman Ricky Ledo would be forced to sit out this season as a partial academic qualifier was a discouraging but altogether acceptable verdict (given the alternatives of transfer, ineligibility, etc). Ed Cooley’s team figured to offer more talent and scoring potential than it had in years, even without Ledo on board. That’s because fellow freshman Kris Dunn and Arizona transfer Sidiki Johnson were expected to enter the Friars’ rotation at various points of the season. Both made their debuts Tuesday night in a comfortable win over Colgate – Johnson finally gaining his eligibility after sitting out the customary transfer year and Dunn recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Providence remains a long shot to make the NCAA Tournament, but the influx of talent should make it a tough out during league play.
- Allen Fieldhouse Overwhelms Richmond. It was easy to chalk up Richmond’s 9-2 start to a forgivable schedule. The Spiders hadn’t beaten anyone of note before Tuesday night’s trip to Kansas, and they needed double overtime to put away both William & Mary and James Madison. The Jayhawks revealed Chris Mooney’s team to be exactly what most had already concluded: an improved, but hardly elite group that’s not ready to return to the Sweet Sixteen-level perch it inhabited in 2011. Kansas was hitting on all cylinders, particularly during an 18-0 first half run, which is exactly the type of momentum Bill Self needed to build in preparation for Saturday’s trip to Ohio State.
- If You Think C-USA Is Bad Now, Just Wait Until Next Year. There’s no debate over the best team in Conference USA. The answer is clearly Memphis. In fact, Josh Pastner’s oft-critized team is the only thing keeping this league from entering the one-bid morass at the bottom of the sport’s conference power structure. When the Tigers move on to the Big East next season, C-USA will be reduced to a powerless consortium of football-centric schools with flimsy hoops track records. One of its “better” teams, East Carolina (7-2), was stuck in a free throw sudden death match in the final minute of Monday night’s home date with Gardner-Webb before eventually winning, 62-60. Southern Miss, last year’s second place finisher behind Memphis, was almost undone on the road by Georgia State but also managed a two-point victory. And league bellwether UCF fell by 22 at home to Miami. It is really that bad. The Big East’s realignment-related decline is a time-tested narrative, but C-USA’s gradual deterioration is no less jarring.
- Sooner Woes. There was reason to be optimistic about Oklahoma in the early part of the season. Wins over Oral Roberts, West Virginia and a totally respectable three-point loss at Arkansas comprised an encouraging non-conference portfolio. Then the Sooners went out and lost (at home!) to Stephen F. Austin, which really isn’t as bad as what meets the eye – the Lumberjacks entered Tuesday night ranked 39th in defensive efficiency (91.6), seventh in turnover rate (27.1) and 36th in offensive rebounding percentage (27.7%) – but is nonetheless a major drag on the Sooners’ inspiring start.
- Shades Of Last Season’s UIC. Of all the pleasantly surprising early storylines in college hoops, perhaps none was more impressive than Illinois-Chicago, who after posting eight total wins last season (and just three in Horizon League play) had bolted out to a 9-1 start and picked up several quality wins, including a couple over Northwestern and Colorado State. Tuesday night’s loss at Western Illinois (7-3) is a setback, but it does little to discredit UIC’s vastly improved outfit. Winning college basketball games on the road, no matter the opponent, is hard. UIC is mortal. Upcoming games at Miami (OH) and Toledo will prove whether the Flames’ blip is a minor trough in an otherwise booming early start to the season, or a sign of regression towards last year’s harsh mean.
More Notes From Around The Nation.
- Winthrop Coach Holds Court on Newtown Shooting. We saw Jim Boeheim leverage his national spotlight Monday night into a platform for political debate by advocating more stringent gun control. Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey offered some powerful words of his own on the subject.
- Purdue Ends Two-Game Skid. Consecutive losses to Eastern Michigan and Notre Dame left Purdue in dire need of a positive result prior to its January 2 Big Ten opener with Illinois. Beating Ball State won’t turn heads in Selection Sunday deliberations, but the Boilermakers overcame an 11-of-31 first-half shooting effort to shake and outlast the resilient Cardinals. Heady stuff from a team undergoing a standard transition season.
- Western Kentucky’s Murderers Row. I’m always enamored by mid-majors who go out of their way to load up on powerful high-major competition in the non-conference slate. Long Beach State is notoriously adept at this tactic. Western Kentucky has adopted the strategy as well this season; Tuesday night’s 32-point undressing at VCU came sandwiched between trips to Murray State (a five-point loss) and a neutral court date with Louisville. That is a rough three-game stretch.
- Georgia…Wins! After losing seven of eight games, including its last three contests, Georgia wouldn’t lose to in-state foe Mercer, would it? The headline leaves no room for suspense, but any win is a big win for the Bulldogs these days. Let’s see what Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and company can muster when USC comes to town Saturday.
- Utah Better Than Expected. Not even the whip-smart Larry Brown could halt Utah’s budding momentum. The Utes have vastly exceeded expectations to date, with wins over Boise State and a formidable SMU team (which came Tuesday night). A three-point loss at BYU (not a terrible result for any team, let alone a hated rival), is the only dent in Utah’s December ledger.
- Wildcats Avoid Trap. The celebratory emotions of Saturday’s Florida win harbored trap game potential for Arizona as it looked to take on visiting Oral Roberts just three days later. Five Wildcats reached double-figures as Arizona avoided a potential pitfall to remain unbeaten.
Dunkdafied. Last night’s video bit was reserved for Jim Boeheim’s on-court interview following the Syracuse coach’s 900th career win. Timeliness is a guiding principle of my nightly dunk search, but Doug Anderson’s six throwdowns at the Carrier Dome Monday night could not be overlooked.
Tuesday Night’s All Americans.
- Jeff Withey, Kansas (NPOY) – I doubt Withey can reprise his triple-double magic from earlier this season, but a 17-point, 13-rebound double-double is an impressive showing all the same.
- Rodney McGruder, Kansas State – The Wildcats’ two losses this season (Michigan and Gonzaga) are not exactly what you’d call resume killers. The Wildcats are more than capable of contending in the Big 12 this season; if they do, McGruder, who had 26 points in a nine-point win over Texas Southern, will be a central figure in the process.
- Lorenzo Brown and Richard Howell, NC State – the Wolfpack point guard notched 24 points and five assists while low-block enforcer Howell fell one rebound short of tying Withey’s 17-13 double-double. Two nice performances in an even nicer win for NC State.
- Jordan Adams, UCLA – I’m not sure anyone predicted Adams, not Shabazz Muhammad, would emerge as UCLA’s leading scorer. He finished with 24 points on 8-of-11 shooting in Tuesday night’s win over Long Beach State.
- Mark Lyons, Arizona – After Saturday’s emotional win over Florida, Lyons helped the Wildcats stay grounded with 17 points and seven assists in a 25-point home win over Oral Roberts.
Tweet of the Night. As the nation recovers from last Friday’s tragic shooting of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the college hoops world continues to pay tribute to a truly harrowing event. UConn’s touching memorial service and visual tokens of gratitude were heartfelt; New England neighbor Providence followed up with a powerful emblem of appreciation during tonight’s game against Colgate. Not only are the Friars paying homage to the tragedy, the message – that remembering the victims trumps the importance of individual names on the back of uniforms – is clear and well-received. Providence also sealed off 26 seats to commemorate the 26 students and staff lost in the massacre.
— Mike Higgins (@Mahigg07) December 19, 2012