ATB: Illini Fall At Purdue, Officiating Dominates Big East Clash and Creighton Survives Big Road Test…Posted by Chris Johnson on January 3rd, 2013
*Editor’s Note: This version of the ATB covers games played Tuesday and Wednesday night.
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. New Year Means New Opportunity.The first day of every new year is dominated by upper-tier college football bowl games. It is a timeless tradition that leaves little room for meaningful basketball. A few games tipped off in the January 1 twilight, and one was about as controversial as they come, but it wasn’t until Wednesday night that a full slate cropped up to lead us out of the Holidays with a hearty portion of hoops consumption. With the calendar flipped, there’s vast opportunity for teams to set new upward or downward trends. Some will wilt under the pressure of conference play. Others will amp up their efforts and springboard into prominent national standing. Nonconference play was just the beginning. Here’s where the Darwinian forces of college basketball weed out the weak links and where the strongest, fittest, most-balanced outfits emerge for the long haul. The NCAA Tournament remains a distant endpoint, but from here on out, the opportunities for improvement grow leaner as the calendar nears March. In the new year, margin for error is minimal. That’s what makes conference play so critical.
Your Watercooler Moment. Officiating Blunder Mars Big East Thriller.
The complex sequence of events that denied UConn a basket at the beginning of overtime in the Huskies’ 82-76 loss at Marquette is complex and long-winded. I’m still trying to figure out exactly where the officials went wrong. From what I can glean, it boils down to this: UConn was robbed two points for the referees’ failure to reorient each team to the proper scoring goal following erroneous tipoff positioning; players lined up facing the wrong direction at the tip, and officials botched a potential goaltending call, in which UConn should have been awarded two-points. The Huskies had plenty of opportunity to make up for whatever the officials may or may not have unfairly revoked, but when you lose a valuable possession at the beginning of overtime, it’s a devastating blow not only for momentum purposes. It effectively negates one of a finite number of possessions in a crucial timeframe where every trip down the floor can swing the final outcome. The game was not lost because officials have some unspoken personal vendetta with UConn’s basketball program, or because it fell victim to the Golden Eagles’ home court influence. Referees make mistakes. This one happened so late in the game, and in such mystifying fashion, that it inevitably draws the brunt of the blame for UConn’s defeat. I’m not minimizing the effect of the referees’ blunder – to reiterate: mistakes hurt, especially in overtime. I’m merely emphasizing the downside of a third-party blip looming over what was a truly entertaining Big East battle between two solid teams.
Your Quick Hits…
- Another Boeheim Milestone. Historical benchmarks have defined Syracuse’s season as much as anything else, and Jim Boeheim made another step in the all-time wins pantheon Wednesday night by securing his 903rd W to pass Bob Knight and move into 2nd place behind Mike Krzyzewski. Buckets of praise, and an almost near-equal amount of pushback, erupted following Boeheim’s passing into the vaunted 900 realm a few weeks back, so it’s best we not revisit the coach’s career achievements. Boeheim’s career is a curious test case on the valuation of wins vs. postseason accomplishment. Perseverance and longevity in the coaching profession is Boeheim’s defining trait – 903 wins, no matter the rate of accumulation, requires an eternity of year-long dedication and grinding commitment. The controversy stems from Boeheim’s thin postseason credentials relative to career length. With just one national championship and three Final Fours to his name over 37 years of sideline time, where does Boeheim rank in the pecking order of coaching legends? I don’t know, and neither do you – not until he finally decides to call it quits.
- Is Georgia Tech Tournament-caliber? At 10-2, the Yellow Jackets have beaten virtually nobody (Saint Mary’s on a neutral court? Georgia at home? keep dreaming). But Georgia Tech is doing an excellent job locking down opposing offenses, ranking 9th in per-possession defense, and they’re especially stingy inside the arc, where teams are converting just 37.9 percent of field goal attempts. If they can clean up their offensive execution, and get some more consistent three-point shooting, Brian Gregory’s team is as qualified as any to crash the ACC’s upper tier. A visit from Miami later this week will speak volumes about Georgia Tech’s potential going forward.
- Creighton Survives MVC Litmus Test. If Creighton can skid by arguably its biggest challenger in the MVC with Doug McDermott lagging behind two teammates in scoring output, the Bluejays’ path to a league title is going to be easier than once believed. Stopping McDermott is a huge burden in itself, but if you can limit the Bluejays’ crafty forward, you should have a decent chance at pulling an upset. Or Ethan Wragge can come off the bench to score 18 points on 6-for-9 from beyond the arc, Grant Gibbs can throw in 16 points and seven assists and Redbirds forward Jackie Carmichael suffers a rare off-night and Creighton emerges from Redbird Arena with a huge conference statement win. If the Redbirds couldn’t topple Creighton with McDermott laboring (15 points and nine boards, a productive showing for most players, counts as a down night for Dougie), what are the chances any team can stop the Bluejays on one of McDermott’s typical 25-or-more scoring nights?
- USF PG Collins Returns In Fine Form. After a nasty second-half collision in Saturday’s win over George Mason forced South Florida point guard Anthony Collins to a hospital bed, the Bulls welcomed Central Florida for their final nonconference tuneup before entertaining Syracuse in Thursday’s Big East opener. Collins was back, and from the looks of it, the weekend injury had no ill effects on his scoring and playmaking abilities; Collins turned in 16 points and 10 assists to help overshadow UCF big man Keith Clanton’s 18-point, 14-board double-double. Consecutive wins over George Mason and UCF is the best stretch of work we’ve seen USF put together to date. That said, I’m loathe to buy into Stan Heath’s squad until it regains the defensive intensity that proved so vital to last season’s success.
- Neutral Court North Carolina Battle Brings No Surprises. In the preseason, this looked like one of the more interesting matchups on Duke’s nonconference schedule. 2012-13 was supposed to be Davidson’s best shot at a substantial resurgence in the post-Stephen Curry era. But by the time Bob McKillop’s team entered Time Warner Cable Arena to have a go at the nation’s No. 1 team Wednesday night, the Bobcats had already taken five losses, and had really struggled on the defensive end, to the point where its 177th ranked efficiency mark – coupled with Duke’s No. 1-ranked offense – made this one of the more predictable challenges Duke had faced. There were no surprises here. Davidson hung around for the first 20 minutes, only to watch the Blue Devils come alive in the second period with a 12-0 run and 18 points from Ryan Kelly. The way Coach K has his group operating on both ends of the floor, there was no reason to expect anything less than a comfortable 17-point victory.
- Horizon League Up For Grabs. I was all ready to hand Valparaiso the early edge in the Horizon League title chase after the Crusaders’ win at Murray State and UIC’s simultaneous three-game skid. But after Valpo dropped the ball at home against Loyola Chicago Wednesday night, and UIC held serve against Youngstown State, there’s nothing suggesting the Crusaders’ gutsy road win will carry into league play. And so we’re back right where we started: the Horizon league is a barren landscape of middling mid-majors. This is a one-bid conference, and that’s all there is to it. Valpo may have a few bright spots, UIC is vastly improved over last season, and Detroit looks good in spots, but the abrupt departure of Butler this offseason left the Horizon without a dominant team and no one is stepping up to fill that power gulf.
- Stop Waiting For Florida State To Come Around. The season-opening loss to South Alabama looked bad, but the Seminoles erased most doubts by following that up with four straight wins. Then came a three-game losing streak, two of which were at home to top-20 teams (Florida and Minnesota), so the quality of competition kept the panic meter at stable levels. Besides, another four-game winning-streak meant Florida State was back on track – that the Seminoles were just feeling themselves out until their usual stingy defense rounded into form. It’s time to rethink this wait-and-see approach. I’m going to come out and say it: Florida State is not an NCAA Tournament team. Wednesday night’s loss to Auburn tells me the earlier stumbles – South Alabama, Mercer, the 25-point home drubbing against Florida – were not hiccups so much as accurate portrayals of the Seminoles’ lackluster defense and disjointed offense. Maybe FSU just is what it is: a mediocre-to-bad ACC team. The Seminoles have the talent, athleticism and depth to engineer a midseason about-face. I’m just not counting on it.
- Concerns Arise For Illini. The fear with Illinois’ hot start was that its huge reliance on three-point shooting was far too unpredictable an offensive staple to base your attack, and its come back to haunt the Illini in a recent loss to Missouri. That was entirely forgivable: Missouri is the best the SEC has to offer, and the Braggin’ Rights game is an annual toss-up affair. Choking up at Purdue is a more concerning defeat. The Illini hit 10-of-26 three-point attempts, which is slightly above their 36.7 percentage on the season. So Wednesday’s loss isn’t as directly attributable to poor three-point shooting as the Mizzou game, where the Illini posted a woeful 8-for-32 mark from three. It had more to do with meek interior scoring; Purdue scored 36 points in the paint to Illinois’ 18. Any Big Ten road game this season will be an absolute bear, save for maybe two or three locations. Illinois is going to take its lumps. The aim for John Groce’s team is to prevent a larger decline from the blazing early-season start that saw it shoot up the national ranks.
- A Rare Down Year For Xavier? Since 2001, Xavier has missed the NCAA Tournament once. It has been to five Sweet Sixteens and two Elite Eights. Chris Mack has constructed a booming hoops powerhouse, defined by remarkable consistency and resilience to yearly roster turnover. But the Musketeers lost basically every major contributor of note from last year’s team, and even as Mack’s squad bolted out to an impressive 6-1 start that included wins over Butler, Purdue and Robert Morris, it didn’t feel all that sustainable or convincing. The Musketeers lost an emotional Crosstown game to Cincinnati two weeks back, and have since snowballed into a four-game losing skid, punctuated by Wednesday night’s loss at scuttling Wake Forest. Maybe the Musketeers will turn it around. After all, if any program can overcome obvious personnel disadvantages, it’s Xavier. I won’t bet against the Musketeers. Not yet.
More Notes From Around The Nation.
- Brutal Opening League Stretch For UNI. Here’s UNI’s schedule dating back to a December 8 win at George Mason: at GMU, Iowa, at UNLV, Saint Mary’s, at Wichita State, Illinois State. Wednesday night’s loss to ISU brought UNI to 2-4 in that rigorous patch, and with games at Illinois State and Creighton on tap in the next two weeks, things could go downhill fast.
- ‘Canes Survive First Game Without Reggie Johnson. This Miami team is not the same without Reggie Johnson. The Hurricanes need to find ways to stay afloat while their dominant big man rehabs a broken thumb over the next six-to-eight weeks. Holding serve against an improving La Salle team is an encouraging first step.
- Wyoming Is No Joke. I’ve stayed off the Wyoming bandwagon long enough. The Cowboys beat SMU Wednesday night at SMU without senior guard Luke Martinez. That’s heady stuff. But not only is Larry Shyatt’s team undefeated with laudable wins over Illinois State, Colorado and Denver, it also rates well in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted rankings: 33rd in offensive efficiency, 51st in defensive efficiency and 31st overall.
- VCU Steamrolling Everything In Its Path. I’m starting to think this VCU team is worlds better than the 2011 Final Four squad. The loss of Bradford Burgess aside, Shaka Smart’s team is flatly massacring anything and everything it meets on a basketball court. On Wednesday, the Rams scored 109 points, forced 24 turnovers, shot 54.8 percent from the field and watched senior guard Troy Daniels set a school record with 11 three-point makes. VCU is experienced, disciplined and locked-in; they leave no loose ends on defense, turn you over on nearly one of every three possessions and are sneaky accurate from beyond the arc.
Dunkdafied. The immediate impulse after seeing Victor Dukes’ escalator-esque slam: Tom Chambers over Mark Jackson. In both cases, the dunkers use standstill defenders as mid-air springboards to propel themselves towards the rim. Chambers was an NBA player when he executed his dunk; Dukes is a HIGH SCHOOL SOPHOMORE. He could quite possibly go on to have a long and fruitful basketball career, but he will never, ever do anything to trump this meteoric dunkface.
Tonight’s All Americans.
- Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova (NPOY) – The Wildcats need to win games against Big East bottom-dwellers like St. Johns in order to stay on the periphery of at-large considerations. Arcidiacono spearheaded the 12-point OT win with a season-high 32 points, 21 of which came by way of the three-point shot.
- Gorgui Dieng, Louisville – It’s not a mind-blowing offensive display, but 11 points represents progress in Dieng’s recovery from a broken wrist. He also had 11 rebounds and four blocks.
- Troy Daniels, VCU – In a vacuum, 11 threes and 33 points (to go with 10 rebounds) is a highly productive game. Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but considering Daniels needed 20 attempts to get there, I’m not overly impressed. Sorry. (besides, in a game where the Rams scored a total of 109 points, someone is bound to go off for at least 30. Daniels happened to be that guy.)
- Terone Johnson, Purdue – It was going to take a big scoring effort to sink Illinois, and Johnson obliged with 25 points. Add in nine rebounds and four assists, and your have an upset recipe in the making. (D.J. Byrds warrants a mention for 15 points and making some key plays down the stretch.)
- Carrick Felix, Arizona State – That is how you grind out a win in conference play. Felix powered the Sun Devils to a one-point OT win over Utah with 17 points and 13 rebounds.
Tweet Of The Night. A fitting way to summarize a strange course of events that ultimately hurt UConn’s chances at clinching Kevin Ollie’s first Big East win. The OT officiating scandal won’t come back to bite UConn’s postseason chances, because the Huskies are ineligible for the postseason thanks to academic penalties, but it hurts all the same.