Ten Tuesday Scribbles: On Florida, Illinois, Surprising Conference Leaders, and More…Posted by Brian Otskey on January 22nd, 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
- Saturday night’s epic Gonzaga vs. Butler game was everything college basketball is about and then some. The game had all the trappings: two great basketball teams, a national TV audience, a historic venue, two terrific (and classy) coaches, an electric atmosphere, 40 minutes of competitive action, and an indescribable finish to the game. This was college basketball in its purest form. Everything you could ask for in a game. The kind of game you would show someone who has never watched college basketball before. It was the game of the year to date, one that will be nearly impossible to top in the regular season (we know what the Tournament can do). This was a high-level game between two teams that have the potential to make deep runs in March and the top two “mid-major” programs of the last decade. Roosevelt Jones’ game-winner will be the lasting memory from this game but I hope people remember just how well it was played on both ends. In the final minute and a half, I don’t think either team missed a shot in those final 90 seconds and the only mistake was Alex Barlow’s turnover which, ironically, set up the memorable ending. Dick Vitale said it was one of the top five games he has seen since he started working for ESPN 34 years ago. I wouldn’t doubt it. The game was that good.
- An important result from last week in the Big Ten was Wisconsin taking down Indiana on Tuesday night in Bloomington. That’s now 11 straight Badgers’ victories over the Hoosiers and it’s safe to say Bo Ryan owns Tom Crean. Even when Crean was at Marquette, he only won three games against Ryan’s Badgers in their annual intra-state rivalry making him 3-13 against Ryan in his career. “Tommy Basketball,” as Ryan once called him, didn’t have an answer for Wisconsin last week. The Badgers controlled the pace of the game from the opening tip and got physical with the more athletic and talented Hoosiers. Once again, Ryan overcame a talent disadvantage on the road to score a huge victory. He’s one of the best pure basketball coaches in the nation and it shows year after year no matter who is on his roster. Wisconsin let Cody Zeller do his thing in the first half but the Badgers really clamped down on him after halftime. A big key to the win was limiting Jordan Hulls. With Ben Brust glued to him most of the game, Hulls could only manage one three-point attempt. That’s outstanding defense and a great game plan against one of the best shooters in the country. Wisconsin limited everyone not named Zeller to 28.2% shooting, a remarkable accomplishment against one of the best offensive teams in the nation. It was a great win for the Badgers but, unfortunately for them, they followed it up with a road loss to Iowa on Saturday night. Nevertheless, Wisconsin is getting better. Never count out Bo Ryan.
- It’s hard to call a team in the top 10 underrated but there is one out there: the Florida Gators. Billy Donovan’s club is ranked #8 in this week’s AP poll (#6 here at RTC) but I believe they are a legitimate national title contender and a top three team at this point in time. Did everyone forget how Florida demolished everyone it played in November and early December? Maybe because it has lost two games since but lately the Gators have been playing like the team we saw a month and a half ago. The scoreboard says Florida lost to Arizona but in reality, the Gators were the better team for the vast majority of that game. They did lose to Kansas State too but the Wildcats have proven to be legitimate in Bruce Weber’s first year in Manhattan. Florida is the top ranked team in the Pomeroy ratings thanks to a stifling defense and a terrific offensive system. Florida has the ideal combination of guards who can drive or make shots, a pick-and-pop big man and a beast in the low post. With a coach on the sidelines who has won two national championships, I’m amazed this team isn’t getting more hype from the media. This team is the class of the SEC and it’s conceivable that it may run the table. Pomeroy gives the Gators an astounding 41.2% chance of going 18-0 in SEC play with 14 games still to play. Is the schedule tough enough to prepare Florida for bigger games in the NCAA Tournament? Probably not, but I’m not sure this team needs to play tough competition in order to be ready for the rigors of March. Florida went to the Elite Eight in each of the past two seasons and a return trip (or even more) is a distinct possibility yet again in 2013. Do not sleep on the Gators. They’re just as much of a title contender as Michigan, Duke and Louisville.
- One team going in the opposite direction is Illinois. After starting the season with a Maui Invitational title and a 12-0 record, the Illini have lost three consecutive games and five of their last seven overall. It was clear to most observers early in the season that Illinois was a one-trick pony (three-pointers) but the win at Gonzaga shut up the doubters, myself included, for the time being. You know they say your first instinct is often right and that has proven to be true in the case of the Illini. Illinois is headed for a bottom-tier finish in the ultra-competitive Big Ten unless things change and change quickly. What has caused such a change in fortune in just over a month? Two things, mainly. First, the threes have stopped falling. With little inside presence, Illinois needs its guards to make shots. Illinois is 26-of-116 (22.4%) from deep in its five losses and that includes a solid 38.5% performance in a loss to Purdue. Take that away and the percentage becomes an anemic 17.8% in four of Illinois’ five losses. The second reason why Illinois is struggling is its defense. In its 12 consecutive wins to start the season, John Groce’s team was averaging a defensive efficiency of 91.4 which would rank in the top 50 nationally on its own. Instead, Illinois has averaged a defensive efficiency of 107.4 over its seven games since then (2-5 record). That would rank #298 nationally on its own. It’s a stunning reversal and one that has to be corrected immediately if Illinois is going to make a run at the NCAA Tournament. The Illini have a strong non-conference resume. It’s not time to give up because it may only take an 8-10 or 9-9 Big Ten record to make the Dance. With home game opportunities against Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana coming up over the next five games, this would be the ideal time for the Illini to get back on track.
- With the season at or just past its halfway point and conference play well underway, I thought it would be a good time to look at some surprising conference leaders around the country. Miami, Kansas State, Oregon and Mississippi all sit atop four of the so-called “power six” leagues as of Monday night. All have done it in impressive fashion suggesting that none of those four teams is a fluke. Three of Miami’s four ACC wins have been on the road and all came without Reggie Johnson in the lineup. Kansas State took care of business with two road wins against the bottom of the Big 12 in addition to knocking off both of the Oklahoma schools in Manhattan heading into a gigantic clash with Kansas this evening. If the Wildcats get that one, they’ll be alone at the top of the Big 12 for the time being. Oregon has sweeps of the Arizona schools and LA schools on its resume, along with a Civil War victory in Corvallis. The Ducks are as athletic as any team in the country and sport a surprisingly strong defense, the most efficient in the Pac-12. Perhaps the biggest power six surprise is Mississippi. Andy Kennedy’s team is 4-0 in SEC play with two road wins and a home thrashing of Missouri already in the books. The Rebels have a favorable upcoming schedule before going to Florida in two weeks. In the non-power leagues, Northeastern is by far the biggest surprise. Picked to finish fifth in the preseason CAA poll, the Huskies are 6-0 (with four road wins) in league play with four consecutive home games at Matthews Arena coming up before hitting the road for five of the final eight contests. With a win on the road over George Mason already under its belt, Northeastern is in the CAA driver’s seat. Bill Coen’s club doesn’t play much defense, although it does force turnovers at a pretty high rate. Coen has Jonathan Lee back from an injury, adding depth to a strong offense that already features sophomore star Quincy Ford and senior guard Joel Smith. Northeastern puts up 68 PPG playing at the 30th-slowest tempo in the nation. That combination is going to win you a lot of games at the mid-major level.
- It seems like we say this every year but parity in college basketball is at the highest level I have ever seen. Many have said it and it is true: There is no truly great team in college basketball this year. The so-called elite teams are very good but there is no team close to the level of some of the more recent national champions like 2012 Kentucky, 2009 North Carolina, 2008 Kansas (and 2008 Memphis) or the back-to-back championship Florida teams in the mid-2000s. Many people say the quality of play has diminished. I’d agree with that, but I don’t believe it is the only cause. Teams at the “mid-major” level are better than ever while many power conference programs are stuck in neutral and/or continue to struggle. A big reason why there is parity (or, if you prefer, mediocrity) is the one-and-done rule. Top talent is heading to the NBA after a quick stop at one of the elite programs like Kentucky instead of sticking around for a few more years. This is also the main reason why mid-majors are better than ever because those programs keep kids for four years and develop them. Experienced juniors and seniors are a rare breed at the high-major level but commonplace on good mid-major teams. This is a good consequence of the rule but overall, I’m a strong opponent. What would improve college basketball? A shorter shot clock to create more possessions in a sport that has seen scoring dip to low levels would be one thing I’d do immediately. To address the one-and-done rule, I’d implement the so-called “baseball rule” where a prospect can choose to go professional after high school but must stay three years if he chooses to enroll in college. This gives the freedom of choice to all players coming out of high school and if they’re smart, they will decide to go to college and develop. Only the best of the best will choose to go pro right out of high school and that’s the way it should be.
- As we head into late January and early February, the Player of the Year race is starting to take shape. Preseason POY Cody Zeller has been good but most would say he is not the favorite at this point. If I were putting five names on the table for consideration at this point, I’d go with Michigan’s Trey Burke, Creighton’s Doug McDermott, Duke’s Mason Plumee, Louisville’s Russ Smith and Kansas’ Jeff Withey. Of those, my pick would be McDermott and it wouldn’t be all that close. Despite playing in a conference rated well below those of the other contenders, McDermott is second in the nation in scoring (24.1 PPG) for a ranked team despite being the focal point of every defense he sees every single night. He shoots an eye-popping 56.5% from the floor overall and 52.5% from the three-point line. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that McDermott is the best pure scorer college basketball has seen since Kevin Durant played one season at Texas. McDermott isn’t a one dimensional player either. His defense has improved and he is second on his team in rebounding at 7.1 per game. After going for 39 points and 10 boards on 15-of-19 shooting against Missouri State, he followed it up with 31 points against Northern Iowa. In my opinion, McDermott is the best player in the nation and it isn’t all that close.
- Freshman of the Year has also become a hot topic in recent years as the one-and-done rule has drawn elite freshman talent into college basketball. This season isn’t as strong as past years but the contenders are top-notch. My top five midway through the season would be as follows: UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, Kansas’ Ben McLemore, Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas, and UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad. In a close race between Bennett and McLemore, I’d go with Bennett. The 6’8”, 240-lb Canadian is by far the main reason UNLV is in the Mountain West race. McLemore has had a tremendous impact on Kansas and probably has the better NBA Draft stock but Bennett is a dominant force for a UNLV team that really needs one. Averaging 18.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG while shooting 56.2%, Bennett has carried his team to a 15-4 start. Aside from his last two games, he has scored in double figures every game. Also a threat from deep, Bennett keeps defenses honest which opens up a lot of space for his teammates to do their thing elsewhere on the floor. There’s a lot of time for things to change and McLemore may end up being the last one standing. As of right now though, I’d give the award to Bennett.
- When you look at potential national championship contenders, great offense often stands out. But as the old saying goes, defense wins championships. In the era of Pomeroy ratings (2002-03 season to the present), no national champion has finished outside the top 20 in defensive efficiency. Syracuse, the champion in 2003, was the lowest rated at #19. Of the 10 national champions in the Pomeroy era, only four finished outside the top 10 in this statistic yet only one (2008 Kansas) was ranked #1. When you look over this year’s contenders and their defensive efficiency, a few stand out on the negative end. Michigan, widely considered to be a championship favorite and the current #1 team in the RTC Top 25, ranks #39 in defensive efficiency. The Wolverines have the top offense in the country but they are not elite on the defensive end. By contrast, a team most wouldn’t consider strong defensively has improved dramatically over last season. Indiana is ranked #15 in defensive efficiency after last year’s 64th-ranked campaign. Other top teams such as Gonzaga (#75), Creighton (#59) and Arizona (#24) rank outside the championship threshold. But the biggest red flag belongs to NC State. The preseason ACC favorite ranks an awful #140 making it hard for me to take the Wolfpack seriously come March. Of all these teams, Michigan is the strongest contender. Let’s see if the Wolverines make an improvement on the defensive end as we head down the stretch run. It’s not that Michigan is bad defensively (it isn’t), it’s just that history tells us the Wolverines may not be good enough defensively to go all the way. This is something to pay attention to as we get closer to the NCAA Tournament and the statistics continue to evolve.
- Last week it was announced that Georgetown sophomore forward Greg Whittington would be suspended indefinitely because of an academic eligibility issue. Whittington’s suspension is a major loss for the Hoyas, who struggle offensively but are very good on the defensive end, although they have somehow managed to go 3-1 in his absence (including last night’s thrashing of Notre Dame in South Bend). Whittington saw the most minutes of any player on the team (35.2 MPG) and now an already-thin rotation will be cut even further. A strong defender and the second leading scorer on the team, Whittington was having a terrific year for John Thompson III (12.1 PPG, 7.0 RPG). Jabril Trawick will see more minutes in his place and the Hoyas will be forced to become a bit smaller. At 6’8” tall, Whittington was one of four Hoyas in the regular rotation who are at least that height. Despite a slip-up at South Florida on Saturday, Georgetown has done a great job in his absence. After a home game with Louisville this coming Saturday, the schedule eases up a bit. It is unknown when Whittington will be back, if at all, but the opportunity is there for Georgetown to stay afloat or even make progress without him on the floor.