ATB: Kansas Survives Cyclones, Rebels Fall Into the Pit and Butler/VCU Win Conference Openers…

Posted by Chris Johnson on January 10th, 2013


Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Hello Conference Play. The college basketball season hasn’t been all that much to celebrate through its first two months. For the most part, it’s been pretty nondescript. Memorable moments have come in short supply. My favorite, and I’d like to think I’m not alone, was Butler’s December upset of then-No. 1 Indiana at the Crossroads Classic. It had all the elements of a storybook hoops upset – the Hoosiers’ huge bankroll and administrative base, less-monied Butler and its walk-on hero Alex Barlow, the in-state hatred dynamic, the subtle but very real implication that Brad Stevens took Tom Crean and his blue-chip recruits to school with half of his starting lineup sitting on the bench in crunch time – and it anchored the non-conference season with a classic David and Goliath takedown. It happened on a Saturday, which is the day most fans attach to high-quality hoop. Nothing that happened Wednesday night topped Butler-IU. What took place featured an entirely different brand of basketball: It was the first truly tantalizing weeknight slate of league play, and it was pure bliss. We’re not just talking close games between equally-matched teams. There were pivotal showdowns pitting league contenders, upsets, tricky road trips, incredible individual scoring performances. You know, conference play. ‘Tis the season.

Your Watercooler Moment. Jayhawks Find A Way.

The Jayhawks Just Got By Another Upset-Minded visitor at Allen Field House (Photo credit: Getty Images).

The Jayhawks Just Got By Another Upset-Minded visitor at Allen Fieldhouse (Photo credit: Getty Images).

For the second straight game, a rare emotional grip has clenched the hearts and stirred the pulses of Jayhawk fans deep into the second half of a game at their favorite arena, Allen Fieldhouse, featuring their favorite team, Kansas. On Sunday, Temple – who earlier this season knocked off then-undefeated Syracuse at Madison Square Garden – came within a few possessions of toppling another huge national contender before finally bowing out in the waning moments. The Jayhawks probably expected an easier time with visiting Iowa State Wednesday night. The Cyclones can really score the ball and they clean up their own misses, but no one suspected they had a chance against one of the best teams in the country in one of its toughest venues. Not only did they prove they had a chance, Fred Hoiberg’s team very nearly did the unthinkable, and were it not for Ben McLemore’s 33 points and banked three-pointer inside the final minute to force overtime, the Cyclones would have left Lawrence with one of the best true road wins of any team in the country. Any discussion of this year’s Big 12 title chase begins and ends with Kansas. They are the biggest championship lock of any high-major conference – that is the perception, at least. It is not a false one, either, even after tonight’s close call against the Cyclones. If anything, the Jayhawks are showing they can scrap out wins in a number of adverse situations. Bill Self’s team has come exceedingly close to bursting at the seams – and bursting the Jayhawks’ home win streak – in consecutive games, and they’ve survived on both occasions. And if McLemore can do what he did Wednesday night with any measure of consistency, then this Big 12 race really is a fait accompli.

Tonight’s Quick Hits…

  • Face Off Between Two Of The Mountain West’s Best. Looking at UNLV’s talent and its absolutely loaded frontcourt, you would expect this team to be a constant in the top-10 of every national poll, ranking, power-ranking and per-possession evaluation system. Instead, the Rebels have run into some difficulty sorting out their interior rotation, watched Mike Moser go down with a serious elbow injury, and lost two games against good-but-not-great opposition (Oregon, North Carolina). This team is eminently more talented than New Mexico, but the Lobos are an absolute nightmare at the Pit, and they too, feature a balanced and potent lineup. New Mexico isn’t going to lose many games in its treacherous home gym, and the Rebels, for all their five-star talent and firepower, still have some tinkering to do before they’re ready to seize the league title. These teams – along with San Diego State, and to a lesser degree Boise State, Colorado State and Wyoming – will push each other in the conference standings all season long. I can’t wait. 
  • Big East Favorites Survive Road Trips. If this is the last year of the Big East as we know it, its champion will celebrate the regular season championship as a going-away party. Louisville and Syracuse are a level above the rest of the league, and both survived interesting pit stops along the eastern seaboard – Syracuse at Providence and Louisville at Seton Hall – with varying levels of difficulty. Both teams drew the soft underbelly of conference competition in the early part of league play, which is good news, because Syracuse and Louisville should enter their January 19 match-up at the Carrier Dome without a conference loss. The Cardinals look to have the upper hand as of this writing, and that’s unlikely to change over the next nine days. It’s probably the biggest game of the year for both teams…. besides the March 2 meeting in Louisville, of course.
  • Two Big Ten Wins: One More Significant Than The Other. Any time Michigan takes the court this season, you expect them to win. Their adjusted per possession numbers say elite, their resume is substantial, and their play on the court reflects a bona fide national contender. The Wolverines took care of Nebraska at the Crisler Center Wednesday night, but the only surprising part of Michigan’s 15-point win was the scoreline – based off the way Michigan has obliterated other Big Ten foes, Nebraska did well to keep it that close. The other game was billed as a toss-up, or at least a near-even match-up of legitimate top-15 teams. The thought that Illinois’ newfound rebounding prowess and transformed lead guard Brandon Paul plus a revitalized Assembly Hall crowd could rattle Minnesota on the road was a plausible one. I’m not sure an Illini win would have even qualified as an upset. The Gophers made that a moot point. They unleashed Trevor Mbakwe on the Illini’s feeble frontcourt, extended their defense out to the three-point stripe to contest shots, and humbled Illinois with a balanced offensive attack. After conquering one Assembly Hall, Minnesota gets the treat of a massive match-up on Saturday in Indiana’s version. That just might be the best game of championship contenders from any league through this point of the season.
  • Another Undefeated Goes Down. Once you get past the Big Ten, the next best league could very well be the Mountain West. UNLV and San Diego State are proven NCAA Tournament entities. New Mexico will physically grind you into submission, and it claims one of the toughest home gyms in the country. What makes this year’s version of the league special is its breadth of contenders. Boise State, Colorado State and Wyoming could all wind up in the at-large discussion when all is said and done. The Cowboys held the unique distinction of taking no losses to date, but that streak was bound to come to an end sooner rather than later in this viciously competitive league. Boise State delivered the initial blow Wednesday night, its second big road win of the season (The Broncos beat Creighton in Omaha in November). This is a disappointing loss for Wyoming in that it marks the end of a remarkable streak, but it doesn’t crush the Cowboys’ Tourney hopes in any way, nor does it eliminate them from the league title chase. This game featured two quality outfits slugging out a highly competitive game. That’s what we’ve come to expect with the Mountain West: quality.
  • Butler Ready For A-10. On average, the most Butler ever had to worry about in the Horizon League was the occasional road upset, or a sporadically prominent Valparaiso, Milwaukee, Detroit, or Cleveland State sneaking into the title picture in a given year. The Bulldogs’ move to the A-10 entailed their official entry into a conference grinder. The A-10 is no sanctuary for plucky mid-majors, so Butler is going to get tested every time it takes the floor. That’s doubly true on the road, and Butler got its first taste of a league road game at St. Joseph’s Wednesday night. The Hawks have faded quickly from their lofty preseason perch, but they (and their devoted fan base) made sure their league newcomer had an extremely hard time in its road debut. For all the hype and excitement they could marshal for a possible season-changing win, Phil Martelli’s team fell short to the Bulldogs. Butler can renounce its days of settling for upsets in March. In the rough and tough A-10, the Bulldogs are the hunted. Judging by tonight’s performance, this team is ready for that perception shift.

…and Misses. 

  • Hot Start Cooled In Blacksburg. There were reasons to be very excited about Virginia Tech’s 8-1 start. The Hokies throttled Iowa, handled Oklahoma State and watched Erick Green morph into a nationally-renowned scoring star. The tides have turned in Blacksburg over the past few weeks as the Hokies have stumbled through a 2-6 skid that featured losses to Georgia Southern and, on Wednesday night at home, Boston College. The most recent loss isn’t all that shocking: Virginia Tech had just six scholarship players available, and the Eagles have quietly ripped off a 6-1 surge dating back to early December. What’s alarming here is the drastic change of direction on a season that started with so much potential. Not even Green’s nightly box score-filling – he had 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting – can end this rut.
  • Not Last Year’s Murray State. As impressive as Murray State’s 23-game winning streak was last season, it foist an unreasonable standard on returning star guard Isaiah Canaan and his teammates to duplicate that unprecedented success. The Racers are not the same team. They are vulnerable, even to fellow OVC competitors. A sneaky good Eastern Kentucky team beat Murray on its home floor Wednesday night, and given what we’ve seen from the Racers to date (and the plucky Colonels), I wouldn’t exactly classify this as a huge upset. Isaiah Canaan remains lethal, and Ed Daniel provides a reliable interior component, but the fact remains that the Racers aren’t defending like they did last season, they don’t turn you over nearly as much, and the collective talent simply isn’t where it was in 2012.
  • Ugh. Virginia. Conference play is a puzzle. Rational thinking is not advised. Expect wacky and wholly unpredictable results. I can’t think of a two-game sequence that better typifies the volatility of conference play than Virginia’s recent conundrum. On Sunday, they held a talented UNC squad to 52 points in a perfect execution of Tony Bennett’s defense-first philosophy. Then the Cavaliers traveled to Wake Forest for what looked like a surefire beatdown of one of the worst high major teams in the country. But no matter how hard now-healthy point guard Jontel Harris pushed, or how smothering the Cavaliers’ defense can be, the Demon Deacons hung around, bade their time and pulled out a three-point win. I don’t know what to make of Virginia (losses to Old Dominion, Wake Forest; wins over Wisconsin, Tennessee, UNC). They are one of college hoops’ great puzzles.
  • This Is Why Maryland Didn’t Deserve To Be Ranked. There was nothing special about what Maryland accomplished in the non-conference portion of its schedule. The Terrapins lost to Kentucky, beat a lowly Northwestern team on the road, and edged George Mason on a neutral floor. Terrapin fans took to message boards and Twitter to clamor for national recognition, believing their team’s 13-game winning streak, regardless of competition, merited inclusion in the Top 25. I capitulated in this week’s version of the RTC Top 25, impressed by the Terrapins’ consistency, even if there wasn’t all that much to get excited about on their resume. Now I know I was premature in giving Maryland the status it never deserved. Four days removed from clobbering Virginia Tech at home, the Terrapins fell to Florida State. If there’s anything redeemable about this loss, it’s that Florida State has looked better lately, with a convincing win at Clemson under its belt. That’s no consolation for what should have been a big statement win for Mark Turgeon’s team. I know one thing: Maryland’s flirtation with the Top 25 is over until further notice.

Dunkdafied. Backboard lobs are typically reserved for dunk contests and outdoor hardcourt games. You just don’t see guys streak down the floor, run into a crowd of three defenders, then set-up a perfect self-oop high off the glass (especially not in a six-point game that was still very much in doubt). Jamaal Franklin is special (in the interest of sparing a spot in the All-American list, consider that the two points you see Franklin dispense below make up only a mere fraction of his 20 point, 18-rebound,five-assist line.

More Notes From Around The Nation.

  • Maybe Rutgers Is OK. Any number of logical factors could explain Rutgers’ Big East home-opening win over Pittsburgh. The Panthers were slumping coming in, and college basketball – more than any other sport – is skewed to the home team’s advantage. But now the Scarlet Knights are 11-3 and 2-1 in the Big East. They beat a solid St. John’s team at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night and seemed to have moved past coach Mike Rice’s early-season violent practice outbursts. With Cincinnati coming to Piscataway on Saturday, can Rutgers cash in on another quality conference win?
  • Conference Opener Poses No Challenge For VCU. When VCU announced its intention to bolt the CAA for the A-10, there was concern about the Rams’ ability to assimilate into a bigger and more-challenging league. Those were stupid concerns. If VCU isn’t the best team in this league, it’s right near the top, and on Wednesday night, they made Dayton – a top-half A-10 competitor – look like just another easy night in the CAA.
  • The Vexing MVC. I was convinced UNI had turned a new page when it toppled Illinois State on the road by 10 points. The Panthers need to pile up some Ws in league play to keep pace with Creighton, Wichita State, Indiana State and other league competitors. Losing at home to Evansville – a very good team in its own right – is not going to help that cause.
  • Mountaineers Salvage Road Win. The transition to Big 12 country hasn’t gone as smoothly as once projected, but the Mountaineers can still salvage their conference season. After dropping the Big 12 opener to Oklahoma at home, losing on the road against a stingy but extremely young Texas would have been another blow to a disappointing season. This team is going to struggle against the Big 12’s best, but West Virginia needs to pick its spots against lesser foes. Wednesday night was a good spot.
  • Poor SEC. One of the more positive developments in SEC country in recent weeks was Arkansas’ five-game win streak. The Razorbacks were blessed with an easy early league schedule (at Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Auburn, at Ole Miss, Mississippi State, at South Carolina), but it appears they’d prefer not to seize the forgiving slate in front of them. Don’t let Texas A&M’s gaudy record fool you, this is a bad loss for Arkansas.
  • Villanova Starting To Get It Together. A mid-November three-game losing streak sparked all sorts of negative projections and diatribes on Jay Wright’s recent lapse and talent scarcity. All the Wildcats have done since is win (save a December 5 loss to Temple), and they moved to 2-0 in Big East play Wednesday night by picking up a very respectable win at South Florida. I don’t know if this team has what it takes to push for an at-large berth, but the Wildcats are trending upward.
  • Horizon League Faceoff. The two best teams in the Horizon League traded jabs in Chicago Wednesday night, a massive opportunity for UIC to spring out of its current slide (the Flames had lost four of five coming in). Valpo showed why it’s the best the Horizon has to offer this season by handing the Flames their second conference loss. Its only real obstacle in the league is Detroit, where the Crusaders will travel January 17 for a crucial league match-up.
  • Is Cal Any Good? The Golden Bears missed on all of their big non-conference opportunities, lost to Harvard at home, UCLA on the road, and squeezed out an eight-point win at USC last week. Naturally, they fell to Washington at home Wednesday night. I’m loath to draw any conclusions from this result; let’s file it away for now. Cal’s true identity will be revealed over the course of the Pac-12 season.
  • Not A Moment Too Early. The Shockers may have waited until the final minutes to finish off Southern Illinois, but junior forward Cleanthony Early had it going from the tip. Not only did Early score more points in a Wichita State uniform than any player in the past 72 years, he did it while helping the Shockers avoid a potentially big home upset.
  • Wolfpack Gaining Steam For Duke Matchup. It’s tough to gauge Georgia Tech. They didn’t beat anyone in the non-conference slate (St. Mary’s is OK), got throttled by Miami in the ACC opener, and look to be a year or two away under Brian Gregory. So it’s not a huge shock to see NC State dominate the Yellow Jackets at home, especially when they’re tuning up for the biggest game of their season, Saturday’s match-up against Duke.
  • Ole Miss Shines In A Terrible League. Beyond the NCAA Tournament certainty represented by Missouri and Florida at the top of the league, the SEC is short on at-large qualifiers. Kentucky should get there. Ole Miss is making a strong case, but still has a ways to go. Wednesday night’s rout of Tennessee (on the road, no less) was a big step.

Wednesday Night’s All Americans.

  • Ben McLemore, Kansas (NPOY) – I can’t remember the last time an individual scorer as skilled and versatile as McLemore donned a KU jersey — perhaps Paul Pierce 15 years ago? His 33 points and clutch bank-three were key in the Jayhawks’ victory. 
  • Briante Weber, VCU – There is no better individual embodiment of Shaka Smart’s HAVOC defense than Weber, who picked off Dayton ball-handlers nine times in Wednesday night’s win.
  • Joe Coleman, Minnesota – The Gophers have enough offensive weapons as is. Add Coleman, who had 29 points against Illinois, to that mix.
  • Rotnei Clarke, Butler – If you’re putting together a short list of the best pure shooters in the country, Clarke surely belongs. His 28 points helped the Bulldogs overcome St. Joe’s on the road.
  • Cleanthony Early, Wichita State. – Until they reach full strength, the Shockers are on upset alert in the MVC. Early made sure Wichita avoided a huge one Wednesday night by scoring 39 points and grabbing six rebounds.

Tweet of the night. The breadth of quality match-ups and number of surprising results made Wednesday night the single best weeknight of college hoops so far this season. Here’s to hoping we enjoy more of the same throughout the winter.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site and a freelance contributor to

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