Ten Tuesday Scribbles: On Duke, Title Contenders, USC and More…Posted by Brian Otskey on January 15th, 2013
Brian Otskey is an RTC columnist. Every Tuesday during the regular season he’ll be giving his 10 thoughts on the previous week’s action. You can find him on Twitter @botskey
- Over the last week we have seen the number of undefeated teams reduced to zero. Now that every team has a loss, the speculation about which team should be #1 is heating up. Those who adhere to the résumé argument will say that Duke deserves to stay atop the polls despite its Saturday loss to NC State and they are absolutely right. The problem is, in my opinion, that ranking teams based on their résumé alone is the easy way out. We have a NCAA Tournament Selection Committee who does that for us every year in mid-March. There is more to ranking a team than who it has beat and who it has lost to. There are other factors to consider including statistics and extenuating circumstances. When it comes to the Blue Devils as they are currently constructed, I can’t say they are the best team in the country. Duke is a potent offensive team, but there are other areas for concern. While acknowledging that the efficiency numbers say otherwise, I don’t believe Duke is an elite defensive team. The Blue Devils have allowed 70+ points on only four occasions, but all have come against good competition–Minnesota, Louisville, Santa Clara, and NC State. That tells me when the chips are down against good teams, Duke might not be able to get the stops it needs to win a close game away from Cameron Indoor Stadium. Rebounding is also a concern for Mike Krzyzewski’s team despite having Mason Plumlee in the middle. But perhaps the more immediate concern is the injury to Ryan Kelly who is out indefinitely with a foot injury. Duke has been quiet about it, with Coach K only saying it could be a long-term recovery. This only creates more doubt about a player who is very important to the team’s success. Duke is certainly among the top three or four teams in the country right now, but with Kelly’s uncertainty, some defensive concerns (especially compared to say, Louisville), and the rebounding Achilles heel, I have a hard time saying Duke is the flat out best team in the nation.
- Watching Connecticut take it to Louisville in the first half of last night’s Big Monday game probably created some doubt about the Cardinals among those watching. Of course, there are two halves to a basketball game and Louisville showed why it was ranked #1 in this week’s poll with a dominant second half against the Huskies. There are two main keys to Louisville’s success: Peyton Siva and team defense. Siva was on the bench for quite some time in the first half with foul trouble, but came back and took over after intermission. Louisville’s defense, after giving up 54% shooting in the first half and likely enduring the wrath of Rick Pitino at halftime, held Connecticut to 24 points on 26% shooting over the final 20 minutes. Louisville’s ability to lock you down is second to none. There is not another team in the nation that combines the quickness and ball pressure of two all-conference guards, tall and agile forwards, depth, and an eraser with a massive wingspan on the back line. If the Cardinals are to win a national championship in Atlanta this April, defense will be the reason why. While Louisville is certainly better offensively than it was last season, I still have some concerns on that end of the floor. Louisville could have a tough time against a team with a good interior defense (Kansas for example) because three-point shooting it a major weakness. Can the Cardinals score in a halfcourt game (as tournament games usually are) against strong competition when they absolutely have to come up with a bucket? In my view, that is still to be determined. If the answer is yes, Louisville will be your national champion.
- I have already discussed my current thoughts on two national title contenders, Duke and Louisville, but who are the others? While this year’s NCAA Tournament will be as wide open as any in recent memory, I really feel only six to eight teams are capable of going all the way. In addition to the Blue Devils and Cardinals, I see Michigan, Indiana, Florida, and Kansas as sure-fire championship contenders. Others such as Syracuse and Arizona could be in the mix but I am not ready to put either of those two clubs in the same category as the other six. After that the quality of college basketball begins to drop off. You can never rule anything out, but I’d be surprised if the last team left standing at the Georgia Dome isn’t one of those eight, specifically the first six. Michigan and Indiana are similar teams. Both have elite offenses, but defense can be a concern, especially with Michigan. Indiana has piled up impressive defensive statistics against inferior competition so I will be very interested to see how the Hoosier defense looks in Big Ten play. That was Indiana’s problem last year and it needs to be fixed in order for Indiana to win its first national title since 1987. Kansas has perhaps the highest ceiling of any of these teams because of Ben McLemore’s immediate impact, Jeff Withey in the middle, experience (four starters played in last year’s championship game) and, of course, Bill Self. I worry that Florida has peaked early but there’s still a long way to go for the Gators to make a run. Florida will run roughshod over a down SEC and enter the tournament with a gaudy record. The Gators are well-balanced and do so many things well. Don’t underestimate them just because they have two losses. Florida is the real deal.
- USC’s firing of Kevin O’Neill on Monday comes as a surprise because of the timing but given the Trojans’ play on the court, we shouldn’t be all that surprised. My RTC colleague Andrew Murawa wrote a solid, detailed take on the situation on the Pac-12 microsite. O’Neill always had a reputation at being difficult to get along with and there would seem to be little incentive to keep an abrasive coach who doesn’t win and doesn’t recruit the local area very well. The speculation as to who will be the next USC coach is sure to attract a lot of attention and plenty of big names. Chief among them should be Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon. A Southern California native, this seems like the perfect time for Dixon to come back home. With Pittsburgh transitioning to the ACC next season and the program not on as solid footing as it is accustomed to, he may be eager for a new challenge rather than playing for third, fourth, or even fifth place every year in the new look ACC. Plus, the chance to go head-to-head with former boss Ben Howland across town at UCLA would be enticing (provided Howland remains employed with the Bruins). Another high-profile name sure to surface is St. John’s coach Steve Lavin. No stranger to California, Lavin would blend in well back in downtown Los Angeles. The question is, does he leave St. John’s and New York without finishing the project? It will be a tough choice for Lavin this offseason. St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett could also be on the radar for USC AD Pat Haden.
- The last week was very good for Ohio State basketball. The Buckeyes rebounded from a blowout at Illinois and took down Purdue on the road before beating rival Michigan on Sunday, handing the Wolverines their first loss of the season. Aaron Craft was Aaron Craft again, locking up star Michigan point guard Trey Burke while scoring 15 points on 6-7 FG against Purdue. Thad Matta still needs a reliable scorer alongside Deshaun Thomas (Lenzelle Smith can be that guy), but this team has the toughness and defense needed to finish high in the Big Ten. Ohio State certainly has its flaws, but still has two months to figure it all out before the NCAA Tournament. It would be foolish to sleep on Ohio State especially given the teams they are competing against in the 10-15 spot in the rankings. The Buckeyes have a very good chance to climb their way back into the top 10 and be a major threat in the NCAA Tournament.
- Aside from Kansas, most people would not be impressed with the Big 12 when they look at the standings. Kansas State has moved into the #2 spot for now, but I’m not sure how high its ceiling is. Oklahoma State has hit a rough patch after starting hot and Baylor just can’t seem to put it all together. After that, there isn’t much. But take a look at who is tied with Kansas State for second in the conference: Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma Sooners. After three consecutive sub-.500 seasons since Blake Griffin left for NBA riches, the Sooners haven’t been relevant. That is quickly changing this year as Kruger has his team off to an 11-3 start after knocking off rival Oklahoma State in the “Bedlam” game on Saturday. Oklahoma still struggles to shoot the ball but has improved defensively, allowing 70+ points only three times. A solid inside presence, anchored by Romero Osby and Amath M’Baye, does a good job hiding this team’s inability to consistently make jump shots. Senior Steven Pledger is a good leader and is a pretty good three-point threat despite his teammates’ outside shooting struggles. Oklahoma isn’t going to blow anyone away, but in a down Big 12 where everyone is playing for second place, the Sooners have a chance to make a statement this winter in only Kruger’s second year on the job.
- One of Oklahoma’s former Big 12 competitors in a similar situation is Texas A&M, now 12-3 and 2-0 in its first SEC season after winning at Rupp Arena on Saturday. Elston Turner stole the show with 40 points and the Aggies now enter a Thursday night showdown with Florida in College Station with a chance to make the country take notice. A&M has won two SEC games against solid competition (Arkansas and Kentucky) by an average of 15 points. In a conference where arguably half of the 14 teams are not any good and only two are considered top 25 worthy, Billy Kennedy and his team have a great opportunity to pile up a bunch of conference wins and get into the NCAA Tournament. The key will be taking care of business against the bad teams and defending home court against some of the better teams in the league. Beating Florida may be asking too much but there’s no reason to believe Texas A&M can’t beat any of the other teams in the SEC on its home floor. If the Aggies do beat Florida though, look out. Texas A&M’s non-conference profile isn’t very good so it does need 10 to 12 SEC wins in order to have a chance at the NCAA Tournament.
- Two teams out west that aren’t getting the publicity they deserve are Boise State and Utah State. Boise State has seemingly been buried by the coverage received by Mountain West foes San Diego State, UNLV, New Mexico and even Wyoming, but the Broncos have the best non-conference win of any team in their league, a 13-point victory at Creighton on November 28. Boise State also took Michigan State to the brink in East Lansing eight days before that. Leon Rice’s team won at Wyoming last week with four suspended players (including leading scorer Derrick Marks) ahead of a big home date with New Mexico tomorrow night. Marks and two others will return against the Lobos. Get that one and Boise has to be considered a contender in this league. Boise State needs work defensively, but Marks and Anthony Drmic headline an offense that can put up points in a hurry. Four and a half hours southeast of Boise you will find Utah State. While not nearly the team Boise State is, the Aggies once again have a group to be reckoned with in the WAC. Stew Morrill just completed his usual non-conference schedule full of cupcakes, but the Aggies still have to be taken seriously at 14-1. After all, Utah State has won two of the past four WAC tournaments and three of the past four regular season titles. While the loss of Danny Berger was incredibly unfortunate, Utah State still has the pieces to make a run at another WAC title. This is a well-oiled machine offensively by mid-major standards, averaging 73 points per game in a very low possession system. Jared Shaw is a strong rebounder in the middle while Preston Medlin leads the team in scoring and represents a strong perimeter threat. Utah State has good depth but stiffer competition from Denver, Louisiana Tech, and New Mexico State will make winning the WAC harder this season. One thing is for sure, it will be a fun race for the conference title.
- For the second time in as many seasons, Syracuse again faces the prospect of one of its important players dealing with eligibility concerns. Last year it was Fab Melo, this year it’s James Southerland who is out indefinitely with an undisclosed eligibility issue. A 6’8” senior forward, Southerland is Syracuse’s third-leading scorer and an important piece on the back line of the 2-3 zone. Head coach Jim Boeheim called the situation “troubling” according to a report on Syracuse.com, but also said the situation could be “resolved.” Southerland, the Orange’s most consistent three point shooter, is a valuable piece for an offense that struggles to shoot the three point shot to begin with. Without him in the lineup, Syracuse will have to make some adjustments on both ends of the floor. The cloud of uncertainty surrounding the situation certainly doesn’t help either. While this shouldn’t impact the Orange as forcefully as Melo’s situation last year, it will hurt their production and depth. Brandon Triche and C.J. Fair will bear the brunt of the scoring load with Southerland out but this is also an opportunity for Michael Carter-Williams to get out of his shooting slump. MCW is a great assist man but he hasn’t shot the ball well at all. With opposing defenses locking in on Triche and Fair while trying to slow down Carter-Williams, he may have to look to score more in Southerland’s absence. Syracuse’s first test without Southerland will be against #1 Louisville this Saturday, assuming he remains ineligible. We will know right away how much his loss impacts Syracuse.
- Winners of five straight games since a disappointing loss to Green Bay, Marquette is sitting pretty at 12-3 and 3-0 in the Big East. With three of their next four games at home against three of the bottom tier conference teams beginning tomorrow night, the Golden Eagles are in prime position to enter February at or near the top of the Big East standings. A key game will be a winnable road contest at Cincinnati. If Marquette gets that one, it may be time to look at Marquette as one of the top teams in the Big East after a slower start to the season than it is accustomed to. Davante Gardner has emerged as a reliable low post threat for Buzz Williams while Vander Blue is beginning to blossom as the go-to guy and a leader on this team. Marquette has a lot of complementary players, hard-working “lunch pail” type of guys, who embrace the team concept. That’s a credit to Williams, who has built upon what Tom Crean left him five years ago. Trent Lockett’s adjustment period has taken longer than expected and Todd Mayo’s problems have been a distraction, but this team has had the mental toughness to overcome almost anything throw in its way. Consistency, effort and hustle are Williams’ calling cards in Milwaukee and it looks like Marquette will once again contend for a top five finish in the Big East and win at least 20 games for what would be the eighth consecutive season.