ATB: Referees Deny Colorado At The Buzzer, USC Upends Stanford and The CAA’s Wretched State…Posted by Chris Johnson on January 4th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Pac-12 Takes Center Stage. Last season, the Pac-12 made history by becoming the first Big Six conference not to send its regular season champion to the NCAA Tournament via an at-large bid. The downward spiral that lead to this unfortunate circumstance began in non-conference play, where the league squandered nearly all of its big match-ups, which deflated the Pac-12’s RPI and set up a vicious cycle whereby teams had no shot of upward movement on the NCAA bubble shuffling line. This year, the league is marginally better. The high-end quality, starting with UCLA and Arizona, is light year’s ahead of where it was last season, but the league as a whole isn’t all that much improved. Three momentous Pac-12 matchups – Cal at UCLA, Colorado at Arizona and Stanford at USC – highlighted tonight’s slate, each of which allowed for valuable observation and analysis. Without giving away the rest of tonight’s ATB, I’ll reveal this much: the Pac-12 isn’t horrible!; which is to say, the regular season champ, whoever that may be, should be on solid footing come Selection Sunday.
Your Watercooler Moment. Apparent Buzzer-Beater Waved Off To Deny Colorado Huge Road Win At Arizona.
In truth, I’d love to discuss the way Colorado went out and fought Arizona for 40 minutes (and OT), the way Tad Boyle’s team got five players in double figures and played remarkably resilient hoop against the No. 3 team in the country in a tough road environment, the way the Buffaloes proved the Pac-12 race is far from the foregone conclusion many envisioned after the Wildcats’ veritably peerless non-conference work. But I just can’t. The biggest talking point is unavoidable – Sabatino Chen’s buzzer beater that wasn’t. Debate will rage on for days about whether or not Chen’s banked-in three was released before the buzzer, and whether the officials had enough evidence to overturn the initial ruling (a made bucket, a Colorado win). For a closer look, assuming you’re not satisfied with the real-time footage provided above, check out this GIF segmenting Chen’s release into discrete steps. The controversy will intensify if this ultimately leads to Colorado’s NCAA Tournament denial. But seeing as Colorado took the undefeated Wildcats to the absolute brink – and did so without a productive scoring night from star forward Andre Roberson (nine points on 3-of-7 from the floor) – this team looks very capable of making noise in the Pac 12 title chase and earning an at-large bid without sweating Selection Sunday. Besides, an event as controversial and contentious as this often has a galvanizing effect on a team. This could springboard Colorado into a substantial winning streak; the opposite effect – a demoralizing defeat that leads to a downward losing spiral – is a possibility, but I’m not betting on Colorado feeling sorry for itself. Tad Boyle will have his bunch playing inspired basketball when they take the floor at Arizona State in three days. Fairly or unfairly officiated, it’s a total drag to see such a tight game come down to an official’s whistle. When two of the Pac 12’s best teams meet up, I think we can all agree the teams, not the referees, should be the ones settling the final score.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Wolverines Dispel B1G Road Game Theory. The common perception about this year’s Big Ten is that every road game, save a few locales, will be a chore. That’s been the look of things so far, with Illinois losing to Purdue Wednesday night, and Indiana just barely hanging on at Iowa on New Year’s Eve. Michigan had no such trouble on its trip to Northwestern. The Wolverines trounced Bill Carmody’s team on the strength of 44 combined points from backcourt duo Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Burke got anything he wanted, whenever and wherever he wanted it. The Wildcats, already without defensive specialist JerShonn Cobb (suspension) and perimeter weapon Drew Crawford (injury), were without leading scorer Reggie Hearn, which turned an already undermanned lineup into coterie of inexperienced freshmen and marginal role players. Whether or not Northwestern was at full strength, Michigan wasn’t losing this game. In fact, I’m not sure there’s a team in the country that can beat the Wolverines when they shoot 59 percent from beyond the arc and just under 60 percent overall.
- USC Gets The Win It Needed. Last season, USC’s struggles could be attributed to a litany of unfortunate injuries. Those excuses don’t apply to this year’s team, and so far, the Trojans have not made the leap many expected. But after Sunday’s overtime win over Dayton and Thursday night’s Pac-12-opening victory over Stanford, Kevin O’Neill’s team is on the rise. The Trojans fell on hard times during November and December, missing every one of their big nonconference chances (Illinois, Marquette, San Diego State, New Mexico, Minnesota), which means they have a razor thin margin of error in the Pac-12. Beating the Cardinal is a step. Now let’s see where this team goes from here. Upcoming games against Cal and at Colorado are crucial.
- Another WCC Contender Emerges. Few league championships in any conference, from the lowly WAC to the Dominant Big Ten, are as preemptively sealed as the WCC. Gonzaga conceivably could miss out on a regular season championship, but If you were to give me one of those “X or the Field” line bets, I’m putting my college tuition on Gonzaga (maybe). They are that much better than the rest of the league. The important question is not who will dethrone the Zags, but who will finish in second. For all of Saint Mary’s potential with Mathew Delladova orchestrating a high-powered offense – the Gaels are averaging over 115 points per 100 possessions, and have posted the nation’s fourth best effective field goal percentage to date – I think the team best positioned to slide in behind Gonzaga when all is said and done is BYU. It’s not just that they have three highly-skilled scorers in Tyler Haws, Matt Carlino and Brandon Davies. The Cougard are finally realizing their potential on the floor. They followed up Saturday’s dumptrucking of Virginia Tech with a royal beatdown (90-52)of a highly underrated Loyola Marymount team and are rounding into form at the right time. It may be a while before we get an accurate read on Dave Rose’s team – it gets Saint Mary’s at home January 16, and plays at Gonzaga January 24 – but for the time being, the Cougars look the part of foil for the indomitable Zags.
- The Colonial Is Really Down. Losing VCU was always going to be a brutal hit not only to the league’s reputation and pride, but also for RPI purposes (and the small chance of another team securing an at-large tourney bid). The Horizon is going through a similar crisis after watching Butler bolt to the A-10. Almost no one disputed the CAA’s projected decline. What’s come as a huge shock is the rest of the league’s brutally poor nonconference work, particularly at the top of the league, where Drexel, George Mason and Old Dominion have all labored. GMU extended its recent skid into league play Thursday with a home loss to Northeastern, its fourth defeat in six games. Whatever glamour points were left from the Patriots 2006 are officially exhausted. For a team that was being tossed around as a potential addition to the Catholic 7, George Mason isn’t helping its chances. I don’t mean to pick on the Colonials – other teams merit a stern downward reevaluation, too – it’s just that Thursday night’s loss provided an easy target for verbal scolding.
- Something’s Not Right With Wisconsin. By this time of year, Wisconsin has typically settled into a sound defensive and offensive balance. The Badgers are normally unbeatable at home. And they’ve already notched a big nonconference win or two. This is not a normal year. I won’t count out Bo Ryan’s team just yet, but to think Wisconsin can extend Ryan’s ridiculous streak of getting the Badgers to a fourth-or-better finish in the Big Ten in all of his seasons is getting harder by the game. Wisconsin was never in danger of losing to Penn State Thursday night, but when you’re playing a team as unimposing as the Nittany Lions (without Tim Frazier, they are patently bad), style points count. The Badgers held a small lead for most of the second half until finally putting Penn State away thanks to two thunderous dunks from forward Jared Berggren. The top of the league is far too strong for Wisconsin get by on uninspiring performances like these.
Dunkdafied. Here’s a good look at one of the aforementioned Berggren dunks. It’s not just the powerful finish that makes this throwdown special. It’s the accompanying spin move and priceless bench reaction. Whenever you have guys holding each other back, yelling and jostling and waving white towels, you know something big just went down. In this case, the Badgers reserves had every right to get geeked up about Bergrren’s slam.
More Notes From Around The Nation.
- NEC Shakeup. The offseason turmoil at LIU opened a window for Robert Morris to steal the Northeast Conference crown. The Colonials beat Ohio earlier this year, and are well-positioned to stroll on to a first-place finish, but Bryant University – who? – isn’t going down without a fight. The Bulldogs won at Lehigh last week and kept the winning vibes alive Thursday night at RMU. Strap yourselves in for a heated battle atop the NEC standings.
- Temple Win Looks Like Canisius’ Lone Moment In the Sun. The 10-point win at Temple was a huge boost when it happened, and an even greater feat three days later when the Owls knocked off No. 3 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden. It has not given Canisius the lasting momentum it would have liked; the Golden Griffins have since dropped three of four, lowlighted by Thursday night’s mystifying 21-point home loss to Fairfield.
- Sun Belt Showdown. The Sun Belt is not a great league. Middle Tennessee is the best it has to offer, and the Blue Raiders lost to Arkansas State in OT Thursday night. In the end, MTU should bounce back to regain top status in the conference standings. At the very least, the Blue Raiders should cruise to an East Division title (Arkansas State pays rent in the West).
- Bruins Hold Serve Against Cal. This is exactly the type of game UCLA would have lost earlier in the season, when Shabazz Muhammad had yet to integrate himself into the lineup, when the Wear twins weren’t doing anything beyond eating up space defensively and getting in the way of productive offense, and when Josh Smith’s attitude was a constant negative influence for a young and maturing team. Now the Bruins, having beaten Missouri and Cal, have put the dramatics in the rearview and are focusing on what they can control. No need to tinker with what’s working, but if Howland can get his team to buy in on the defensive end, there’s room for major growth and real potential for a Pac-12 title push.
- Summit League Powers Dominate. The Summit League will feature a Dakota State school as champion. The question is which one: North or South. The Jackrabbits, commonly identified with mid-major demigod Nate Wolters, lost Saturday at NDSU but bounced back Thursday by spanking UMKC on the road. The Bison upped the ante by handling South Dakota. Both teams will keep a wary eye fixed across the state border from now until March. This here Summit race is going to get interesting.
Thursday Night’s All Americans.
- Anthony Bennett, UNLV (NPOY) – The Freshman of the Year race is getting out of hand. Barring a late push from Shabazz Muhammad (or possibly Marcus Smart, and less possibly Nerlens Noel), Bennett – who had 22 points, 11 rebounds and three steals in Thursday night’s rout of Chicago State – will come out on top.
- Trey Burke, Michigan – It’s official: Burke is the best point guard in the country. His 23 points and five assists didn’t convince me as much as his masterful control of Michigan’s offense – the way he facilitates his teammates and generates offense in so many different ways.
- Jio Fontan, USC – When USC needed a bucket to sink Stanford in the closing moments, it put the ball in Fontan’s hands and watched him drive on Stanford guard Chasson Randle, draw a foul and sink the conclusive game-winning free throws. Fontan finished with 15 points off the bench.
- Kyle Anderson, UCLA – If true point forwards exist in college basketball, Kyle Anderson is a textbook example. He had 19 points and 12 rebounds in helping the Bruins topple Cal at home.
- Mark Lyons, Arizona – Don’t let the Chen controversy distract from Lyons’ 24-point night. Without the transfer point guard, the Wildcats wouldn’t have been in a position to win in the first place.
Tweet of the Night. From start to finish, as Michigan punctuated its advantages on both ends of the floor swiftly and with almost no resistance, existentialist dread was a common feeling for most Northwestern fans on Twitter. The Wildcats didn’t belong on the same floor as the No. 2 team in the country, and that was something almost any rational observer – even the most bullish NU fans – could agree on.