ATB: North Texas Struggles, Duke Wins on Back-to-Back Nights, and Memphis Gets Pushed To The Brink By Lipscomb…Posted by Chris Johnson on December 21st, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Holiday Break Brings Another Scheduling Dry Spell. Last week, we lamented the scheduling lull brought about by final exams. Players were off studying for those pesky calculus or English or economics exams, writing Shakespeare papers and completing voluminous problem sets, and viewers were left with – gasp! – professional basketball, or Thursday night football or that episode(s) of Homeland you happened to miss during the show’s scheduled airtime. Some even resorted to holiday shopping. Games of interest were few and far between. Then came Saturday’s spate of excellent action, which brought us Butler’s upset of No. 1 Indiana and Arizona’s thrilling win over Florida, and a host of other interesting results. Just one week later, another stretch of boredom is upon us, as teams play out their final games before heading off for holiday break. Saturday’s slate features plenty of enticing fixtures, but the next few days, right up to Christmas, are a barren landscape of hoops nonexistence. If you thought tonight’s offering was inchoate – and it most definitely was – just wait until early next week, when Christmas music and shopping obligations will consume your daily activity, and college basketball won’t be there to offer a convenient diversion. First, let’s savor what did take place Thursday night, and hope that Saturday’s schedule brings enough quality matchups to hold us over through the holidays.
Your Watercooler Moment. McCollum-less Mountain Hawks Add To North Texas’ Misery.
It was easy to buy into the idea of North Texas making a run at the at large pool this season. Not only was future lottery pick and multifaceted forward Tony Mitchell returning for a sophomore season, but the Mean Green returned a capable cast of characters around him. Provided they could handle business against Creighton, Saint Louis, Virginia and Lehigh – winning two or three of these games, depending on league play, would have sufficed – North Texas had a clear shot at a Tournament entry. Creighton destroyed the Mean Green on college hoops’ opening night, which – given the Blue Jays’ impressive season to date – was not all that foreboding. Consecutive defeats at Virginia and Saint Louis all but erased their at large hopes. A home matchup with Lehigh, who announced Thursday afternoon that an ankle injury would force star guard C.J. McCollum to the sidelines (and thus trolling the livelihood of the reported 57 NBA scouts expected to attend), offered a perfect chance for North Texas to get back on track and build some momentum before Sun Belt play. Lehigh picked apart North Texas without its most recognizable stud, thanks primarily to 28 points from senior forward Gabe Knutson and 25 from junior guard Mackey McKnight. Give credit where credit’s due: this is a nice win for the Mountain Hawks. It’s also a huge disappointment for North Texas, who has completely underperformed thus far this season, and isn’t close to the Sun Belt favorite we expected to see heading into the season. Mitchell is an extremely talented player with a bright future, but the pieces around him simply aren’t clicking right; as a result, North Texas will need to brave the vagaries of the Sun Belt tournament to broach the tourney field. That is not what most had in store for the Mitchell-led Mean Green.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Two Days, Two Games, No Problem. Playing its second game in as many days, Duke welcomed Elon to Cameron Indoor, got 21 points and 15 rebounds from All America hopeful Mason Plumlee and ensured a comfortable victory to set off a nine-day holiday break and tie a bow around one of the most impressive early nonconference bodies of work in recent memory. Unless Duke botches its Jan. 2 neutral court date with Davidson, the Blue Devils should enter ACC play with the No. 1 record intact. One development of note: redshirt freshman Marshall Plumlee, the youngest family big man, was resigned to the sidelines after playing just two minutes in Wednesday night’s game against Cornell thanks to reported discomfort caused by the orthotics in his shoe. If Plumlee gets right, the Blue Devils can throw another talented frontcourt player alongside Ryan Kelly and older brother Mason.
- Triple-Double Helps UCF Move On. Two nights ago, UCF had an excellent chance to get a statement win over Miami at home and announce their intentions to challenge Memphis in a wide open Conference USA. One 22-point loss later, and the Knights were a humbled group. Isaiah Sykes’ 16 point, 11-assist, 10-rebound triple double diverted attention, if only for one night, from Tuesday night’s drubbing. There are few better ways to move on from a discouraging loss than by filling up the stat sheet with one of the sport’s most vividly recognizable statistical milestones. Winning helps too: UCF handled Stetson at home to move to 7-3 on the season.
- Tough Schedule Masks SEC Challenger. The Razorbacks have four losses on the season. None of them – Arizona State, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Michigan – are irretrievably harmful marks on Arkansas’ early-season body of work. Mike Anderson’s aggressive scheduling hasn’t paid off in the win column, but that doesn’t mean the Razorbacks can’t make noise in a top-heavy SEC this season. Thursday night’s win over Robert Morris, the NEC frontrunner, was a positive step for a team that had yet to be rewarded for its daunting nonleague slate. Arkansas gets three guarantee games at home before SEC play. I’m reluctant to place this team among the Kentuckys and Missouris and Floridas of the world, but a top-half finish in a league that lacks substance beyond the aforementioned three and at-large consideration is very much within reach.
… and Miss.
- Lipscomp Tests Memphis At Home. Besides UCLA, is there a bigger soap opera in college hoops than Memphis? The insanely talented roster, missed expectations, the local pride in grooming and winning with hometown players, one of the most criticized coaches in the sport, you name it. A six-point win over visiting Lipscomb won’t quiet Josh Pastner’s mounting wave of complaints. In all likelihood, Memphis will roll through C-USA, build considerable momentum heading into March, and secure a middle tourney seed. Only that’s exactly the kind of situation that pitted Memphis with a hard-nosed defensive outfit like Saint Louis, and the resulting first-round Tourney knockout Rick Majerus brought upon Tigers fans. Pastner has long held the reputation of a coach whose on-court tactical work is far less promising than his ability to corral talent on the recruiting trail. He’s also 0-11 against top-25 opponents in his tenure. That second figure won’t change this season – there are no top-25 teams in C-USA, and it’s highly unlikely any of the league’s teams will broach the top-25 at any point this season – unless Memphis knocks off a ranked team in Tournament play.
- USC Not Inspiring Much Confidence. The 2011-12 USC Trojans were, in short, awful, but it was not difficult to figure out why. The Trojans endured a rash of costly injuries that made competing in the Pac-12 — historically horrific though it was — extremely difficult. There are no caveats this season, no injury crutches to fall back on. The Trojans have enough talent and depth in point guard Jio Fontan and forwards Omar Oraby and Dewayne Dedmon, to make a serious run for the NCAAS. Nearly two months into the season, the Trojans don’t look all that much better than last year’s wretched outfit. The lowest point came Thursday night, when USC fell at home to UC Irvine. Unless USC reverses course and blitzes through conference competition, Kevin O’Neill could find himself squarely on the coaching hot seat — that is, if he’s not already there.
More Notes From Around The Nation.
- Nice Start For LaSalle. The A-10 is stronger than its been in years. VCU, Butler and sit atop a deep and talented league. LaSalle hasn’t done enough to join the conference’s upper-tier, but a bounceback win over Iona Thursday night – following a 12-point loss at Bucknell Tuesday – pushed its early-season mark to 7-2. A Jan. 2 trip to Miami will be a solid litmus test for the promising but unproven Explorers.
- Balanced Scoring Powers Michigan over Eastern Michigan. Stopping the Wolverines is a difficult ask on any night. When John Beilein’s team has five guys in double figures, as was the case in Thursday night’s rout of EMU, it’s nigh impossible to contain.
- Boise State Shows Toughness, Grit Against Idaho. The Broncos faced a six-point deficit with under 13 minutes to play before gaining control and sealing a win at home. Boise continues to provide reason to buy into its chances in this season’s loaded Mountain West.
Dunkdafied. On a day when the No. 2 player in the class of 2013 cemented his college choice, I thought I’d use this space to remind you that 2013’s No. 1 player – Huntington Prep product Andrew Wiggins – is undecided (though reportedly leaning towards either Kentucky or Florida State). Wiggins finished with 31 points tonight, 10 of which came off five dunks.
Thursday Night’s All Americans.
- Isaiah Sykes, UCF (NPOY) – The Knights don’t need Sykes to go off for triple doubles (16 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) every night. They need him to provide a reliable scoring compliment for do-it-all forward Keith Clanton.
- Mason Plumlee, Duke – Until Duke loses, Plumlee is my favorite for National Player Of The Year. Thursday night’s easy win over Elon produced another gaudy double double for the Blue Devils’ dynamic big man: 21 points, 15 rebounds
- Ramon Galloway, LaSalle – Get to know the Explorer’s senior lead guard. He poured in 21 points to go along with 10 assists in helping LaSalle take care of Iona at home.
- Gabe Knutson and Mackey Mcknight, Lehigh – No C.J. McCollum, no problem. Knutson’s 28 points and McKnights 25, as well as seven assists, helped Lehigh get a win at North Texas.
- BJ Young, Arkansas – Controlled chaos is the best way to describe Young’s game. His ability to run while keeping his dribble is thrilling to observe. The Razorbacks needed his 23 points, five rebounds and five assists to outlast Robert Morris.
Tweet of the Night. This is why, contrary to popular opinion, McCollum is not some kind of one-night Tournament upset creation. Lehigh’s superstar is leading the nation in scoring (24.9 ppg) and flying up draft boards for good reason: he’s sustaining All-American-caliber production over a veritable sample size. Plus, as the below tweet illustrates, he’s durable; which is even crazier when you consider the crazy scoring workload he contributes on a nightly basis.