ATB: Mountain West Battles, Maryland’s Questionable RTC and Miami Stays Unbeaten in ACC…Posted by Chris Johnson on January 17th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. The MW Rocks. On a night when San Diego State confirmed its allegiance to the Mountain West, further cratering any hopes of Big East survival, the league gave us two huge examples of why it is as exciting and high-quality as just about every other hoops consortium this side of the Big Ten. Four teams, all riding NCAA Tournament trajectories, met in frenzied campus gyms, and on both occasions the road team held on for close wins. New Mexico (at Boise State) and UNLV (at San Diego State) will walk away smiling from two brutally demanding match-ups on nights when they could have just as easily flailed under the heat of road stop in a perilous league. Beating conference rivals is one thing. Doing it on the road is another step of achievement. Tonight’s results don’t tell the whole story. These four teams, along with a crop of other solid outfits, will bang it out over the next two months, frequently shaking up the standings along the way. It’s way too early to nominate a league front-runner, because as impressive as UNLV and New Mexico’s wins were, the conference road is far too hazardous to survive unscathed. Each of these teams will probably lose before conference play concludes. And that’s what makes this year’s Mountain West the league’s best version in years. The quality depth, combined with a bona fide upper-tier, gives the MW everything any “power” league could ever want and more. It has national contenders bound for high seed-lines, plus a nice mix of bubble aspirants, and a bottom echelon that, when you really dig in, doesn’t offer any true “guarantee” wins (Nevada?). This has the feel of a golden age in in the West Coast’s best league, and the best part is, we’re just getting started.
Your Watercooler Moment. A Win Maryland Couldn’t Afford To Squander.
For NC State, the last four days have been a polarizing tour on the court-rushing circuit. On Saturday, the Wolfpack sacked then-No. 1 Duke at home. A frivolous celebration ensued, a wheelchair-tethered legend was born, and the Wolfpack’s season-long overrating was henceforth marked a misnomer (or at least an exaggeration). The celebration was short-lived, for a tough match-up at Maryland loomed, not to mention a nasty history of post-Duke/UNC upset failures (chronicled by the Charlotte News and Observer Wednesday). And NC State wasn’t just walking into any Maryland team. It was walking into a Maryland team reeling after a two-game losing streak and a national piling-on against its cushy non-conference schedule, which the Terrapins devoured for 13 straight wins prior to ACC play. The Terrapins had a gaudy record, but with no wins of substance to speak of, this was as big as home league opportunities come in mid-January. Roughly two hours after tip, a different breed of red swarmed the NC State players, this time to celebrate the Wolfpack’s defeat, and Alex Len’s improbable game-winning dunk/volleyball spike at the buzzer that caused it. Losing in College Park is no sin – the Terrapins, desperate circumstance aside, are a big, long, athletic team with talent all over the floor. Just because NC State took a tumble on the road in league play doesn’t mean its shining moment in Raleigh four days prior is in anyway diminished or marginalized. The Wolfpack remain a very real challenger at the top of the ACC, which after Duke remains murky and undecided. NC State belongs near the top, even after Wednesday night’s loss.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Canes Survive. It is unreasonable to expect Miami to stroll unbeaten through ACC competition without its star center. That’s what it has managed to do though, stacking wins over Georgia Tech, UNC and Maryland, and it continued the trend Wednesday night at Boston College. This game was different than the others in that Miami was forced to scratch and claw and go all out for 40 minutes, needing four Durand Scott free throws to push them past the Golden Eagles, but the result is no different. Miami won, and that’s the bottom line. Any league road trip is a dangerous proposition; that Miami survived, despite not playing anywhere near its best basketball, says a lot about this team’s late-game poise. Let’s focus more on what Miami avoided, and less on the optics of a “close” win over an ACC bottom-feeder. The Hurricanes continues to impress, and with a week off before welcoming Duke to Coral Gables, you can bet Jim Larranaga’s team will be ready to go.
- Hall Returns for Wichita State. The biggest game of Wichita State’s regular season comes at the perfect time. The Shockers, Creighton’s chief threat in the Missouri Valley, gave second-leading scorer Carl Hall his first slice of court time since injuring his thumb in late December. Hall played 23 minutes and scored two points to go along with 10 rebounds and one block in a 12-point win over Illinois State. It was not one of Hall’s textbook interior-dominant performances. Rather, it was a necessary preparatory step on the way to being as healthy and comfortable as possible for Saturday’s showdown with the Bluejays. With Hall back in the fold, Creighton will find it much more difficult to facilitate its lethal inside-out attack. If you’re going to watch one MVC game all year, make it this one.
- Gaels Have Life In The WCC. Missing a huge opportunity at Gonzaga (thanks in large part to a lame jump ball call) opened the door for BYU to claim runners-up status in the WCC. The Cougars were undefeated in WCC play, and came upon an excellent chance to create some distance by beating the Gaels in Provo. BYU blew that chance, or at least allowed Mathew Dellavedova to seize it. St. Mary’s wily point guard continues to shine with an underwhelming supporting cast (though he did get 22 points from junior guard Stephen Holt). Dating back to December 1, the Gaels have won 10 of 12, their two losses coming at Northern Iowa and at Gonzaga. If they can stay on solid footing over the next month and pick off Gonzaga at home (Feb. 14), there might be enough for a solid at-large profile there. More realistically, the Gaels will be left with the conference tourney as their only vehicle for NCAA inclusion, which means another potential matchup with Gonzaga. It’s a rough road, but Randy Bennett’s team is playing the best is has all season. Keep this up, watch the bubble get softer and softer over the next few weeks, and who knows. Oh, it probably bears mentioning that Dellavedova did this.
- SEC Goes to OT. The two words/names most frequently associated with SEC basketball this season are as follows: 1) awful; and, 2) Elston Turner. Wednesday night’s relevant league action concerns neither of those topics. The two best games featured a bunch of bad teams and one mediocre one – Auburn vs. Arkansas, South Carolina vs. LSU. Both contests went to overtime (the former to double-OT), with the Razorbacks and Gamecocks pulling out wins. As you can tell, I’m starting to run out of ideas for this blurb. I’ll tell you why: When the SEC is this dull and uninteresting (for lack of using byword number one), you look for other items of note, little storylines that don’t so much spark the national interest as they do quirky hoops writers like yours truly. These teams, with the possible but massively improbable exception of Arkansas, aren’t joining the at-large discussion, but they still play close, hard-fought, entertaining basketball. That’s good news.
- Xavier, La Salle or Charlotte: Take Your Pick. The A-10 regular season championship race is a province of newcomers, population two: Butler and VCU. The next tier of candidates, Temple and Saint Louis, can work their way into the race. Then you scan the rest of the league and start figuring out who belongs where in the league pecking order. You scratch your head, wonder why I put you through this inane mental exercise and you calmly move on to more something more worth your time. Three teams (La Salle, Xavier and Charlotte) belonging to that murky middle tier took the floor Wednesday night, and all three came out with wins, which only complicates an already messy conference picture. Each group has its share of flaws and bonuses, having gone through various ups and downs. For now, I’ll take Xavier – more often than not, the Musketeers are one of college basketball’s most predictably good outfits – and shelve this topic for a later date.
- In A Horrendous CAA, Northeastern Thrives. It’s been hard to keep tabs on the CAA this season. Having lost VCU to the A-10 in the offseason, the league is in a bad place right now. Part of it has to do with the natural recession following the loss of one of the best mid-major programs in the country – the Rams are irreplaceable. The other part: Many of the league’s preseason favorites – Drexel, Old Dominion, Delaware, George Mason – slogged through brutal non-conference seasons, and have shown little capacity to turn things around in league play. Which brings us to Northeastern, who pushed its league-best conference record to 5-0 with Wednesday night’s win over Hofstra. Just in case you’re thinking about writing off the Huskies this early in the season (healthy skepticism is reasonable), know that Northeastern’s hot start may not be totally fluky. Their 1.2 points per trip in conference play is tops in the league and their adjusted offensive efficiency ranks #57 nationwide. In a down year for a flimsy league, Northeastern might just do enough.
- Undefeated To Ugly. Last week, just as the nation started catching on to one of the more unlikely hoops successes of the season, undefeated Wyoming was gearing up for a huge home test with Boise State. The Cowboys lost that game, which is no injustice against this year’s road-seasoned Broncos, who also beat Creighton at Creighton earlier this season. People were still rightfully bullish on the Cowboys. Then, the narrative changed. The lurid details of suspended point guard Luke Martinez’s bar fight was a bad look. It was the kind of story that can seep into a team’s psyche. The fallout from Martinez’s brutality may or may not have played a role in the Cowboys’ Wednesday night game at Fresno State. It would certainly help explain how Larry Shyatt’s team managed just 36 points on 12-of-50 shooting and made just 7-of-20 attempted free throws. This is a tough loss, sure, but more concerning is the manner and timing in which it occurred. Shyatt needs his team to regain the optimism and confidence of its season-opening 13-game winning streak, or else this team – and the off-court concerns hovering over it – could spiral into disarray.
- Colorado’s Slide Continues. The Sabatino Chen shot controversy wasn’t just a devastating loss to a then-undefeated team, the completion of which would have given the Buffaloes a major linchpin for resume purposes. It was an emotional drain that threatened to linger into Colorado’s next few games. By the looks of the Buffaloes’ performance since that loss, they appear to be heading in the wrong direction. The ‘Zona loss, followed by a loss at Arizona State, at home to UCLA and Wednesday night’s hiccup at Washington amount to a disappointing four in five-game losing streak. None of those losses is particularly damning, which is to say Colorado isn’t getting beaten up by Pac-12 also-rans. Arizona is the class of the league. Arizona State and Washington are nice surprises. And UCLA has the means and the will to give the Wildcats a run for their money in the league title chase. But Colorado is entering dangerous territory. With four of its next six games on the road, it can’t afford to lose again at Washington State Saturday. The Buffaloes built up some bubble breathing room with a respectable non-conference body of work, but it’s going to take more than a tight loss at Arizona (fair or not) and a home win over USC to ensure a tourney berth.
Dunkdafied. Like most dunk enthusiasts, I’m a sucker for the high-risers. Mouphtaou Yarou’s dunk couldn’t be more low-rising. It’s almost as if he never leaves the floor. Instead, he bunny hops in the charge circle, waits to clear the cylinder, then almost punches the ball through the hoop. It’s ugly, no doubt, but it’s different.
Tonight’s All Americans.
- Otto Porter, Georgetown – The ineligibility of forward Greg Whittington means Porter will take on even more of the offensive workload. He stepped right up with 20 points and eight rebounds against Providence.
- Adreian Payne, Michigan State – Overshadowed in the Big Ten by the likes of Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana of late, Michigan State gets a big show-me game Saturday at home against Ohio State. If Payne churns out another 20 point, seven-rebound game, the Spartans should feel confident about the weekend.
- Joe Jackson, Memphis – After a horrific Battle 4 Atlantis, Jackson has settled into a nice scoring-passing balance, and is one of the biggest reasons behind the Tigers’ seven-game winning streak (a pillowy schedule helps, too). Not only did Jackson register 13 points in Wednesday night’s win over Rice, he grabbed 12 boards, roughly nine more than his season average.
- Anthony Marshall, UNLV (NPOY) – Winning at Viejas is a huge ask. Marshall’s 20 points and eight rebounds helped the Rebels secure a huge road win. Are the Rebs turning the corner?
- Mike Muscala, Bucknell – The C.J. McCollum injury gives Bucknell an easy path to the Patriot League regular season crown. But the Bison, more likely than not (their at-large hopes are not totally out of the question), will need to win the league tourney to make the Big Dance, and Muscala (25 points, 10 rebounds) is their X-factor.
Tweet of the Night. There seems to be a good bit of debate swirling about whether or Maryland’s court-rush following Wednesday night’s home win over NC State was warranted. On the one hand, it’s not like there’s a crater of basketball ability separating these two teams. Maryland and NC State operate on fairly level planes (with NC State a slight notch above), and for all of the Wolfpack’s recent success – in particular their Duke win – this won’t go down as some enormous, season-defining “upset.” Few ACC fans will come away shocked with this result. On the other hand, the Terrapins so badly needed this win, and the way they got it was so very climactic and so captivating, that you can understand the emotions of the moment naturally spilling onto the floor. That is, after all, the natural urge after a big win. College hoops’ best celebratory tradition has been dissected on a case-by-case basis. This one’s tough to critique; each program has it’s own court-rushing standards. So let’s step back, consider the circumstances at hand, and appreciate a fervent fan base sharing in its favorite team’s glory.
I renounce my court storming commissioners throne… Someone else can do it now…
— Scott Van Pelt (@notthefakeSVP) January 17, 2013