ATB: Indiana Shocked at Home, Rebels Win a Thriller at Vandy, and Notre Dame Falls Again…Posted by Chris Johnson on January 16th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. I Can’t Predict This Stuff. It is never wise to judge college basketball teams on one game; you need a comprehensive data set to make an accurate assessment. Teams win and lose games out of character. It’s the common denominator that underpins college hoops competition: unpredictability. There are a variety of reasons for this – energy levels wax and wane, road trips bring unfamiliar sight lines and the environmental pressures. Some are unexplainable. Often times, shots just don’t fall, defense fails and game plans are picked apart. If you were to watch the first half of Indiana’s game against Minnesota Saturday, you would have fairly called the Hoosiers the best team in the country. And if you happened to flip on Wisconsin’s 47-41 slog at Nebraska, or pretty much any other game the Badgers have played this season save a recent blowout win over Illinois, you would have come to the reasonable conclusion, based on a reliable body of work, that the Badgers aren’t destined for the same good fortune they have enjoyed so long so consistently under Bo Ryan.
You would have been even more shocked to learn that the low-scoring, defense-minded, grinding Badgers not only kept pace and challenged No. 2 Indiana, but straight flummoxed the Hoosiers into a five-point loss at a supercharged Assembly Hall. That’s the thing with conference play: you just don’t know. At this point in the season, it’s a trite rhetoric, but it bears repeating. Before laying down any proclamations about league races or contenders, remember to account for the whims of 18-to-22 year old college students, the natural ups and downs, energy highs and lows and everything else that goes into making conference competition – particularly in a year without any single dominant team – an enduringly spectacular winter thrill ride.
Your Watercooler Moment. Starting To Look like “That Kind of Year” For Ole Miss. The SEC would very much like to send four teams to the NCAA Tournament this season. Florida and Missouri are virtual locks. Kentucky is teetering on the margin. Ole Miss, after 11 years of missed tourneys, might be the league’s saving grace. If it continue on this path, Andy Kennedy’s team will saunter its way into the Big Dance, no late-February/early-March bubble anxiety included. When you get players making shots like this, the type that avoids those brutal in-league losses that pile up in the spiteful regions of the selection committee’s collective mind, you start to get the sense that maybe, just maybe, the Tournament gods are here to offer some assistance. Vanderbilt isn’t any good (except on nights where they are knocking down a ridiculous 17 three-pointers including 11 in the first half), but escaping pitfalls is just as crucial as toppling giants. But for a late-season collapse, the Rebels are on their way to the NCAA Tournament. It’s games like this that help secure that road.
(A Note: Marshall Henderson has drawn his share of criticism (fair) for having a loose trigger. I won’t try and impeach that claim. But hey, if Henderson can make that 35-footer with any type of regularity, cease the shot selection critiques and let him fire away.)
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- All Systems Go For Wichita State. On Saturday, Creighton will travel to Wichita State, where it will take on its chief competition in the MVC, a revamped but wholly formidable Shockers team expecting to get its best player, Carl Hall, back on the floor for the first time in weeks. Without a doubt, this will be Creighton’s most difficult game in the league – if anyone’s going to beat the Bluejays, it’s going to happen on the road, and Wichita State is the most likely to pull it off. Rest assured the Bluejays realize the perilous potential of Saturday’s trip, and on Tuesday night, they ensured they would head into Wichita with as much momentum and goodwill as possible by fending off Northern Iowa at home. For Creighton, this win came like so many others before it this season – you expend loads of energy just trying to keep up, fighting and defending and attacking the rim to the point of exhaustion, only to eventually confront the harsh reality that Doug McDermott is a much better basketball player than you will ever hope to be. That about sums it up.
- Dismal Bracket Projections Leave Little Margin For Error In Lexington. Since the beginning of conference play, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of bracket projections and “bubble” discussion on the web. This is by design: fans love getting an early sense where their teams sit on the tournament selection S-curve. And believe it or not, Selection Sunday is only a couple of months away. A common feature of this week’s brackets: Kentucky sitting in uncomfortable 10-or-11-seed territory, only a bad loss or two away from a rare NIT run, needing at least one marquee win in the SEC to ensure a spot in the field. Tennessee isn’t a marquee win, but it’s one Kentucky can bank for the rest of the season. And besides, this team (and increasingly nervy fan base) will take any win it can get right now. Saturday’s Elston Turner debacle is a painful memory. Beating the plainly mediocre Volunteers can help Big Blue Nation move on from that ego trauma.
- Bearcats Back On Track. Losing three consecutive gamest does things to a team’s confidence and momentum. Bad things. After falling to New Mexico, Saint John’s, and Notre Dame at Fifth Third Arena, Cincinnati had clearly and painfully fallen off its top-10 perch, right at the turn of the Big East season. Saturday’s win at Rutgers was nice, followed by a comfortable handling of DePaul on the road Tuesday night. That’s two wins in a row, neither of which came at home. So, the question remains, are the Bearcats back? As feisty as Rutgers can be at the RAC, and as sporadically intriguing as Cleveland Melvin and co. have shown themselves, to me the Bearcats aren’t out of the mid-season mini-crisis cloud until they get something done at home. Saturday, when Marquette comes to town, should reveal much. Mick Cronin’s team is showing all the signs of a speedy road rehabilitation. Now they need to reclaim home court.
… and Miss.
- Time To Worry About Notre Dame. When Notre Dame lost to UConn at the Joyce Center Saturday night, I was genuinely shocked. The Irish never lose at home, and for as hard and spirited as UConn has played all season, Notre Dame had all the elements of an upset-proof outfit (veteran guard play, glass-picking bigs, and a cadre of perimeter shooters). It was one of those score lines that makes you do a double-take, and throws your most basic conception of home-road advantages into complete disarray. Weird game. Knowing Mike Brey, and the experienced corps leading this team, I fully expected the Irish to get back on track at St. John’s Tuesday night. The Red Storm are athletic and talented an all, but whatever they offer in tantalizing potential they lack in leadership and experience – the very qualities Notre Dame specializes in. This loss, like the UConn game, is sort of dumbfounding. When you try and consider the teams Notre Dame would lose to, St. Johns and UConn are peripheral thoughts. Notre Dame is built to throttle teams like this. That they’re not – and now having dropped two straight in the softest part of their league schedule – gives some reason for pause.
Dunkdafied. Sometimes you wonder why post defenders essentially nominate themselves for the nightly dunk highlight reel with late and/or feeble rim contests. Devin Thomas, a freshman guard from Harrisburg, PA, should have avoided needless embarrassment. He could have backed away, absorbed the two points, grabbed the ball through the cylinder, and taken the ball out for the next play – and that would have been that. Instead, he fouls the dunker, gives up a freebie at the charity stripe, and suffers the ignominy of having his naïve defensive gesture (and the rattling jam that ensued) saved in the annals of dunking lore.
Tuesday Night’s All-Americans.
- Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss (NPOY) – It wasn’t just the last-second buzzer beater to force overtime that made Henderson’s night special. He also added 26 points.
- Doug McDermott, Creighton – In a home game against Northern Iowa, McDermott’s 31 points was plenty enough to get the win. He may need to equal or eclipse that to overcome Wichita State on Saturday.
- Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky – The most “experienced” player on Kentucky’s roster was also its best on Tuesday night, when Wiltjer connected on 6-of-10 field goals for 17 points.
- Cashmere Wright, Cincinnati – On a team chock full of efficient scoring guards, Wright is the most efficient. His 20 points and seven assists (with just two turnovers) helped get Cincinnati its second straight Big East win.
- Ryan Evans, Wisconsin – The offensive numbers (13 points, eight rebounds) aren’t glowing, but Evans did the equally important little things – jostle for positioning under the hoop, dive for 50-50 balls, frustrate Cody Zeller on the low block – really well.
Tweet of the night. The wins are piling in, Marshall Henderson is everything his illustrious juco career made him out to be and if the Rebels can prey on lowly league competition and avoid too many bad losses, the 11-year tourney drought will come to an exuberant close. Rebels fans have every right to celebrate tonight.