ATB: Another Unbeaten Falls, Gonzaga Consolidates WCC Supremacy, and Hurricanes Continue To Roll…Posted by Chris Johnson on January 11th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Winning the NCAA Tournament requires a fortuitous boost of momentum. Getting hot at the right time is just as important as crafting a gaudy NCAA Tournament resume. The tourney is a sprint, not a long-winded journey, the very essence of the regular season. Teams face 30-game gauntlets of varying difficulty, but getting through unscathed – regardless of schedule strength – is immensely difficult. To go undefeated in the regular season is to survive dozens of potential pitfalls and enormous mounting national pressure. You’re pestered with constant questions about “the streak” and “the goal.” Coaches dedicate extra hours to engineering the foolproof game plan that will slay the giant. Student sections get geeked up beyond reason in the hopes of helping their favorite teams spring the upset. Only special teams can make it without bowing to those pressures. There are no special teams in 2012-13; no one is running the table this year. There are no dominant teams, no 2012 Kentuckys or 2009 North Carolinas – two all-time great teams who couldn’t make it through the regular season without taking at least one loss. Three undefeated teams entered Thursday night’s games, all nationally prominent programs from high major conferences. Two now remain, and the other two will meet their unbeaten doomsday sooner rather than later.
Your Watercooler Moment. A Close Game Arizona Couldn’t Win.
A universal theme in advanced statictical analysis at the team level is skepticism over narrow margins of victory. Over time, close wins balance out, luck turns into late-game misfortune, and all those last-possession victories stacked up early in the season are joined by a near equal number of nail-biting losses. Four of Arizona’s best wins this season – at Clemson, vs. Florida, vs. San Diego State and vs. Colorado – came down to the final moments. It’s most recent closer-than-close triumph against Colorado was the best reminder of the fine-tooth comb that is late-game management. The difference between winning and losing hotly-contested fixtures can be a missed jump shot, a pass thrown out of bounds, an errant dribble off one’s leg, a clanked free-throw. Or, an outdated replay monitor can blur the referees’ review efficacy and rob one Sabatino Chen of a classic buzzer-beating upset. Arizona had the looming specter of karmic reprisal hanging over its heads as it traveled to Eugene to take on a quality Oregon team. The stage was set for the Ducks to dethrone Arizona on the final possession and end the Wildcats’ streak of late-game fortune. Instead, Oregon battled Arizona from the start with physical defense, a hyper-athletic frontcourt, a couple of really intriguing freshmen (Dominic Artis and Damyeon Dotson can really play) and a balanced offensive attack. The victory wasn’t sealed until Nick Johnson committed a crucial turnover near the three-point line with Arizona down just three and less than 10 seconds to go, but the Ducks held double-digit leads for large stretches in the second half. This wasn’t a fluky, home-crafted upset. Oregon was every bit the better team tonight.
Tonight’s Quick Hits.
- About That “Crushing” Reggie Johnson Injury. The prevailing view on Reggie Johnson’s thumb injury was that Miami was really going to miss its senior big man. Johnson isn’t the most skilled or the most athletic frontcourt player around. What he is – and I mean this in a totally positive, not-Josh Smith way – is massive, an immovable force who eats up space and hoards prime positioning under and around the basket. Plus, Johnson really gets after it on the offensive and defensive boards, protects the rim and physically dominates whoever enters the painted area. Since Johnson went on the mend around Christmas, Miami has won four of six games, its only losses coming against Arizona and Indiana State at the Diamond Head Classic. None of its wins (Hawaii, LaSalle, Georgia Tech) really cemented the belief that Miami could thrive without Johnson in the lineup, but Thursday night’s triumph over North Carolina did exactly that (UNC is no world-beater, but a solid win nonetheless) especially because forward Kenny Kadji – an extremely talented but inconsistent frontcourt piece – was excellent. Once Johnson returns, throw him into a frontcourt rotation with Kadji, and this team is as qualified as any to make a run at Duke for league bragging rights.
- Another Big Win For Gonzaga. The non-conference season brought few surprises from Gonzaga. The only blemish on its resume was a home loss to Illinois. The Zags picked up big win after big win, and ripped off five Ws against Big 12 teams. For as strong as Gonzaga looked in November and December, the creeping suspicion that league foil St. Marys could jeopardize the Zags’ seeming stranglehold on the WCC (even in Spokane) was very real. Randy Bennett’s team nearly handed Gonzaga its second defeat at the Kennel to date. Some questionable officiating — namely a mysterious jump ball call that flipped possession to Gonzaga in the final minute — combined with another starring performance from Kelly Olynyk put Gonzaga over the top. There’s no comparing the talent or depth or athleticism of these two teams: Gonzaga is stronger in every respect. But the Gaels remain plucky and extremely well-coached, and when you roll out the best pick and roll point guard in the country (Mathew Dellavedova), no team is safe from your upset-minded goals. The Gaels may have fallen short on Thursday night, but they have what it takes to get Mark Few’s team at McKeon Pavilion (February 14).
- The SEC Road Won’t be Easy For Kentucky. The problem with having such a young team, no matter how talented, is that the natural shortage of experience creates all kinds of problems in true road games. Players tighten up; they aren’t used to having thousands of fans heckle and berate and harass them all game long. Upperclassmen can block out the noise. Freshman let it seep into their focus, and it invariably affects their singular aim, which is winning an important game. Those obstacles threatened to undo Kentucky at Vanderbilt Thursday night, but the Wildcats – thanks in part to 16 points from Ryan Harrow and 13 points and seven rebounds from Nerlens Noel – fought off the Commodores on their quirky, visually-perplexing, elevated home court. The Wildcats are going to run into pressure-packed situations in hazardous campus gyms throughout the SEC season. And when Kentucky comes to town, fans are even more eager to rail on the defending national champions; it’s Kentucky, after all. It comes with the territory. The Wildcats need to learn how to deal with the natural rigors of a conference road game. That’s arguably the biggest hurdle in getting where they want to go – the top levels of the SEC and the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
- Saint Louis Is Rolling. The early-December passing of Rick Majerus was the culmination of a long health-related decline for one of the sport’s great coaches. It was particularly hard on Saint Louis and all the players Majerus left behind. All to often we try to spin correlation into causality, and in this instance, I’m not sure which term applies, but the Billikens have ripped off nine straight wins since Majerus’ death, including games over Valparaiso, New Mexico and Thursday night’s defeat of UMass. Coach Jim Crews has handled the emotional fallout with tact and unflappable poise, and he has Saint Louis playing just as well, if not better, than at any point last season under Majerus. The Billikens remain an absolute nightmare to play. They dictate a slumbering pace, smother and extend and pack the lane on defense, and hand the ball to Kwamain Mitchell on the other end of the floor. The formula works, just as it did when Majerus was pulling strings from the sidelines. The way this team has put that tragedy behind them and continued to give every indication of A-10 title contention is one of the better undertold storylines of the first half of the season.
- Time To Acknowledge Stephen F. Austin. The only way Stephen F. Austin can reach the NCAAs is by winning the Southland Tournament. The Lumberjacks are 12-1 (3-0 Southland) but have beaten next to nobody (Oklahoma is somebody). The Southland does not breed hoops powerhouses, and Stephen F. Austin probably won’t break the mold this season. But when you dig into the Lumberjacks’ adjusted per-possession numbers, you realize this team isn’t all smoke and mirrors. They defend at an elite level; SFA’s effective field goal percentage defense, turnover percentage, steal percentage, three-point defense and defensive efficiency all rate in the nation’s top 15. On Thursday night, SFA picked up another league win (Central Arkansas). Skepticism is encouraged, by all means. This team could fizzle out over the final two months of the season. This hot start could be a mirage. Or we could take the Lumberjacks’ glowing defensive metrics and as a sign that this team is for real, and a force to be reckoned with if they sneak into the Big Dance.
- Not The Best Start For Iowa. There was plenty of preseason buzz about Iowa fighting for a top-half finish in the Big Ten and an NCAA Tournament berth. The optimism was understandable: The Hawkeyes are deep and athletic, they get up and down the floor, and Fran McCaffery has more talent at his disposal than ever before during his tenure in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes looked good in non-conference play, notably sweeping state rivals Northern Iowa and Iowa State in back-to-back games, and they entered the Big Ten season on a seven-game winning streak. Their first three games would be enormous challenges – vs. Indiana, at Michigan and vs. Michigan State. But with the way Iowa rolled on through its non-league schedule, and with the benefit of home court in two of those contests, exiting that stretch with at least one victory in tow was a reasonable expectation. Thursday night’s home loss to the Spartans, the most eminently winnable of the three games, certified an 0-3 opening to league play. That’s disappointing, and a huge buzzkill after a promising start. Upcoming games at Northwestern and home against Wisconsin are now musts.
- The Enigmatic Temple Owls. OK, so Temple goes to Allen Fieldhouse and falls one possession short of upsetting one of the best teams in the country, then travels to 7-6 Xavier and loses handily? I could talk about how shocking a loss this is for a team of Temple’s caliber, one coming off an extremely impressive road performance (even in a losing effort), but in truth, this wasn’t unpredictable at all. It was reverse deja vu. Three weeks ago, three days before upsetting then-No. 3 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden, the Owls lost at home to Canisius. The difference here is that Temple’s puzzling loss came after a really nice game against a top-five team. What does all of this mean? A conservative diagnosis is that Temple has a nasty habit of playing down to its competition. Another idea: the Owls simply overlook lesser opponents when scheduled around games against really, really good teams. Neither problem is going to help them win an arguably top-heavy A-10.
Rush the Court. The best part about Oregon’s post-game celebration is the way the fans congregate to the brightest spot of the court’s horribly-conceived paint design. From this birds-eye view, it’s almost as if a colony of ants are climbing some kind of oddly-colored sand pyramid. Other than that, this was a well-earned triumph for a basketball program that has gone through a rough stretch in recent years.
More Notes From Around The Nation.
- Bruins Survive. It could have been smoother, cleaner and less hectic, but UCLA is winning games, which is not something you could say back when the Bruins were tripping on the likes of Cal Poly. Thursday night’s win over Utah pushed UCLA’s Pac-12 record to 3-0. If they can upend Colorado in Boulder on Saturday, and continue this impressive turnaround, the Pac-12 title is a realistic goal.
- Tough Loss for Santa Clara. The WCC regular season will produce an obvious champion: Gonzaga. Mark Few’s team is a well-oiled beast. The race for second place remains interesting, and Santa Clara had emerged as one of the likeliest candidates but Thursday night’s four-point loss at Loyola Marymount was a tough blow. The Broncos have some work to do after taking their second loss in the WCC.
- Wins Hard To Come By For Seattle in the WAC. Four games into the conference portion of its season and Seattle has yet to pick up its first WAC win. It flirted with victory for more than 40 minutes Thursday night before losing in double overtime to New Mexico. The WAC is an awful league; there are plenty of winnable games in its contents, even for Seattle.
- Sun Devils Look Real. It feels premature to label Arizona State as a legitimate Pac-12 contender, but it’s official — this team is vastly improved over last season. The Sun Devils handled Oregon State on the road Thursday night to move to 14-2 (3-0 Pac-12) on the season. Hometown product Jahii Carson has given Herb Sendek’s team the offensive spark it needed, and for now, Arizona State is something to watch. Beat Oregon in Eugene on Sunday, and the Sun Devils will have a legitimate place in the league title chase.
- Buffaloes Bounce Back. The Sabatino Chen game – let it forever be known as such – is the type of emotionally and physically exhaustive defeat that lingers. It may or may not have influenced the Buffaloes’ ensuing loss at Arizona State, but the only way to move past that disappointment is winning. USC’s horrid offense (177th in adjusted efficiency, 241st in EFG) helped Colorado bank a Pac-12 win. Its next one could be huge, as UCLA visits Boulder next.
Thursday Night’s All-Americans.
- Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga (NPOY) – The best way to prove your 33-point game wasn’t an aberration is to follow it up with another 30-point outing. After pouring in 33 points in a win over Santa Clara, Olynyk dropped 31 and snared eight rebounds, this time in the act of helping Gonzaga stave off Saint Mary’s at home.
- Rob Loe, St. Louis – The A-10 is top-heavy, but non-sealed. St. Louis has a real shot at snatching the league crown. Loe helped the Billikens move closer toward that goal with a season high 20 points and seven rebounds in an eight-point win over UMass.
- Trevor Noack; Ian Clark, Belmont – 30-point games are nice. Two 30-point games on the same night is rare, and it can only mean one thing: a triple-digit scoring total. Surprise, surprise, Belmont notched 107 points in a rout of SEMO.
- Kenny Kadji, Miami – Without Johnson, Kadji needs to stabilize Miami’s frontcourt. He did that and more in helping the Hurricanes topple UNC with 18 points and nine boards.
- Carrick Felix, Arizona State – With Carson handling backcourt responsibilities and Felix scoring, crashing the glass and defending the low block, Arizona State has a credible inside-out combo. Felix registered an 18-point, 14-rebound double-double at Oregon State.
Tweet of the night. It is starting to get ugly at UNC. The offense isn’t clicking. James Michael McAdoo hasn’t made the leap. Freshman point guard Marcus Paige isn’t ready for the spotlight. Reggie Bullock is not a true number one scoring option. I could waste words on words on words talking about UNC’s various tactical and personnel weaknesses. Lottery pick and two-year UNC semi-star Harrison Barnes is taking a more optimistic approach.