ATB: Wolverines Assert B1G Dominance, Florida Rolls and Illini Plummet Continues…Posted by Chris Johnson on January 18th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. The Grind Of League Play. The non-conference season came and went. November and December whizzed by, but it gave us a solid look at who’s who in certain leagues and where various teams stand among conference challengers. Playing teams from different leagues provides a large enough sample size to draw minor conclusions on certain teams. Others are more difficult to figure out. Conference play creates order amid the uncertainty, but at the beginning – in early January – teams are still getting used to the nightly grind of top-flight competition. Some teams, accustomed to soft schedules, struggle to make the transition, so there are some wacky results during the first two or three weeks. Things even out over time, and now, with most teams having played at least three or four conference games (depending on the league), the intra-league mentality has set in. Teams are locked in for conference play. The initial adjustment period is gone; if teams are still easing their way into the conference portions of their schedules, they’re too late. Bubble watches and at-large considerations are in full effect. It’s time to bog down, meet your fellow league mates on the court and move your way up the standings.
Your Watercooler Moment. A Confirmation Of The Big Ten Pecking Order.
Last weekend’s Big Ten action – Michigan’s loss at Ohio State and Minnesota’s loss at Indiana – created an interesting proposition for two of the league’s best outfits. Neither of those losses truly shook anyone’s understanding of the Big Ten elite; Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan are all really good, close losses or not. The Gophers’ second-half surge at Assembly Hall was a convenient talking point for Thursday night’s clash at the Barn, and many afforded (rightly or wrongly) some kind of unspoken momentum advantage to Minnesota based off Saturday’s “moral victory” performance. Michigan’s weekend loss didn’t look as pretty, mostly because Ohio State hadn’t played anywhere near its capabilities to date, so the consensus – and more formally, Vegas bookies, who spotted Minnesota 2.5 points – leaned toward the Gophers, if ever so slightly. That wasn’t a misguided stance or anything, but what Michigan’s win Thursday night said more than anything else, was that the Wolverines are, at least right now, the best team in the best league. Maybe the best in the country. It’s not just the gaudy tempo-free metrics, or the flashy non-conference work. It’s John Beilein’s trademark system, slightly tweaked, readjusted and retooled with some of the best athletes and freshman talents in the country. It is the pinnacle of Big Ten hoops in 2012-13. If you haven’t seen it yet, trust me: these guys can play, man – whatever Indiana and Minnesota are, Michigan is a step above. That gap, believe it or not, really shined through at the Barn Thursday night.
Also Worth Chatting About. Texas A&M Transitivity Reflects Poorly on Kentucky.
Five days ago, Elston Turner had the game of his life. His 40 points were brilliant not only because they spearheaded Texas A&M’s upset of the defending national champions, but because of where he did it: Rupp Arena, the sanctified home of so many great UK teams, and a fan base made livid by Turner’s career day. When you beat Kentucky on the road, people take notice, no matter where Kentucky stands in the national picture, and when you took a clear look at Texas A&M’s body of work (specifically the Arkansas win that preceded the Lexington triumph), the upset wasn’t as incredulous or fraudulent as the initial shock factor may have suggested. Maybe this A&M team wasn’t all that bad… Right. Florida brought the Aggies, and Elston Turner (four points, 1-of-10 shooting), back to earth in College Station Thursday night on the strength of Erik Murphy (16 points), Patric Young (18 points) and Mike Rosario’s (19 points) efficient offense. What this game really says to me has nothing much at all to do with the Gators – we all know how balanced and scary good this team can look on both ends of the floor. It’s about the implications for Kentucky, and the fact they allowed Florida’s hapless blowout victim to embarrass the Wildcats at their unassailable home fortress. In the week since Kentucky’s loss, analysis of the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament prospects painted a gruesome portrait. Most observers are unanimous in mandating a win over Florida or Missouri for Kentucky to seal a favorable postseason fate. The transitive property, using Texas A&M as the common unit of analysis, doesn’t give Kentucky much of a chance against the Gators. Those types of chain-link conclusions typically doesn’t jibe, but hey, neither does Elston Turner scoring 40 points in Rupp Arena.
Your Quick Hits…
- Horizon League Produces Favorite. It is rare that a team wins or loses a conference race over a two-game stretch. After Thursday night’s victory at Detroit Valparaiso is in position to accomplish this, with a home date against undefeated Wright State awaiting on Saturday. If the Crusaders win that game, they will have beaten their two chief league competitors in a two-day span. Without Butler, the league doesn’t have a clear favorite, but Valpo is the closest thing, and now that Detroit’s out of the way (Ray McCallum can ball), beating the Raiders at home is the only logical hurdle to a regular season title. That’s assuming Bryce Drew’s team doesn’t slip up the rest of the way – a road trip to Wright State in early February could cause problems. The bottom line is that in a pool of mediocre teams, Valpo gives the Horizon some sense of hierarchy and order.
- Bruins Primed For Key Stretch. Back in the dark days of Ben Howland hot seat rumors, Josh Smith weight problems and Shabazz Muhammad ineligibility, UCLA endured a fracas of national scrutiny – not just for the off-court drama but also its inability to actually win games. The Cal Poly loss was the lowest of lows. The Bruins, of course, have long since figured things out on the court, and the locker room hearsay (Tony Parker’s attention-grabbing nonsense notwithstanding) has faded into the periphery. Winning makes things better, and UCLA – who fought off Oregon State at home Thursday night – will keep getting better if it can extend its current 10-game win streak through a crucial slate of Pac-12 competition. Over the next nine days, the Bruins will take on Oregon at home, followed by a road trip to the Arizona schools. If Ben Howland’s team can plow through that stretch unbeaten, or even with one loss, a Pac-12 championship is very much in play.
- Rams Pushed To The Brink. After 40 minutes of thoroughly exhausting VCU press defense and manic perimeter harassment, St. Joe’s was spent. The Hawks couldn’t summon the energy to hang with the Rams into the overtime period, but their grinding effort served notice. It showed that the team picked to finish first in the A-10 preseason poll is no joke – that the Hawks’ 1-2 league record does not tell the entire story. Phil Martelli’s team played the two toughest games on its league schedule (home against Butler and at VCU) and lost both. If you’re going to lose games in A-10 conference play, there’s no shame in falling to the league’s top dogs. The Hawks hit a soft patch of schedule over the next couple of weeks, including games at Penn and Fordham and home against Saint Bonaventure. By the end of the month, their conference record should be more in line with what coaches and media projected before the season. The Hawks aren’t the A-10’s best, but they’re not far behind those who are.
- OVC Divisional Alignment Offers Intriguing Matchups. For the first time this season, the Ohio Valley Conference has implemented eastern and western divisions to reorganize its conference schedule. With Belmont’s move into the OVC, the divisional switch couldn’t have come at a better time. The Bruins would carry the flag in the West while Murray State anchored the East for an equal balance of the league’s two best overall teams. Cross-divisional play allows Belmont a shot at the Racers (February 7), but the real intrigue lies in the West, where the Buins, Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee State all entered Thursday night’s games with undefeated records. Belmont edged EKU at home (and TSU edged Jacksonville State), but because division members are guaranteed to play home-and-homes, all three of these teams will slog it out on their respective home courts over the course of the season. Thursday night was the appetizer; the next two months promise to be just as good.
- What’s Happening To Illinois? No team had a more pleasantly surprising non-conference season than Illinois. John Groce’s team rolled through Maui, trounced Butler in the championship game, then pulled out a miraculous win at Gonzaga before staying neck-and-neck with Missouri for most of the Braggin’ Rights showdown in St. Louis. For a team that basically threw in the towel down the stretch last season as Bruce Weber lost his coaching touch and the Illini flailed into a 12-of-14 losing skid, Illinois looked re-energized, refocused and primed for big things in its new coach’s first season. The Big Ten season, with the exception of a blowout home win over Ohio State, has flipped the script. No longer is Illinois the product of Groce’s transformative touch. Instead, the Illini are starting to look like last season’s team. Losing to Purdue on the road is one thing. Dropping four of five conference games, three of which came at home — and one of which came to Northwestern, of all teams — is seriously disconcerting.
Dunkdafied. Of all of Michigan’s promising first-year players, Glenn Robinson III is by far the most athletic. Little Big Dog one-upped noted dunking specialist Rodney Williams in said noted dunking specialist’s own house.
Thursday Night’s All Americans.
- Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan (NPOY) – When Trey Burke and Hardaway Jr. are getting out on the break, delivering pinpoint passes and knocking down perimeter shots, this is the best backcourt in the country – no holds barred. Hardaway poured in 21 points, five rebounds, two blocks and three steals to help topple the Gophers in Minneapolis.
- Kevin Van Wijk, Valparaiso – If Detroit’s Nick Minnerath is going to go out and score 36 points, keeping pace is a real burden. Van Wijk fell just five points short of Minnerath’s total.
- Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA – This Bruins team complements Muhammad’s individual scoring talents in tangibly beneficial ways: Kyle Anderson’s a-positional point forward play, Travis Wear’s improving post offense, Larry Drew’s conservative, turnover-averse point guard play. It’s coming together at the right time. Muhammad remains UCLA’s go-to scorer, and he posted a modest 21 points and six rebounds against Oregon State to help the Bruins prolong their winning streak, which is now at 10 Ws and counting.
- Darius Theus, VCU – As long as VCU continues to bring suffocating defense, and the offense keeps shooting the ball at acceptable rates, Theus (22 points, 10 assists, four steals) and the Rams are out in front of the league title race.
- Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga – Anyone want to explain to me how Elias Harris, and not Olynyk, made it onto the Wooden midseason watch list? Anyway, Olynyk provided yet another reminder of why he belongs in that conversation – 21 points and eight rebounds in a win over Portland.
Tweet of the Night. Back when Eric Maynor was running the show and upsetting Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, VCU was a plucky mid from the CAA. Don’t get me wrong: VCU was the class of the CAA (with George Mason a worthy adversary), and no team welcomed the idea of dealing with Anthony Grant’s hard-nosed defensive philosophy in a tournament setting. But the program operates on a different competitive plane these days. Now the Rams are a nationally-feared program with a widely-coveted head coach. They’ve moved up the hoops food chain, made a run to the Final Four and are trending upward under Shaka Smart’s passion and recruiting acumen. Next on the agenda: winning the A-10.