ATB: Bruins Win On The Road, Richmond Gets VCU, and Marshall Henderson is Awesome…Posted by Chris Johnson on January 25th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Good Hoops, But Not Like Wednesday Night. There were so many good games last night, so many wacky outcomes and thrilling finishes, asking for a repeat performance was as unreasonable as it was delusional. Nights like Wednesday don’t come around on a weekly, monthly, perhaps even yearly basis – the number of stunning upsets, in the time frame in which they went down, was not something me, you, nor any obsessed college hoops observer was ready for. If March Madness exists in January, it was Wednesday night. By necessity, the clock ticked, the calendar flipped and Wednesday became Thursday, where – you got it – more games were played in campus gyms across the country. I’ll be honest right off the bat: Thursday night’s slate has nothing on what you witnessed Wednesday. Even so, it was still college hoops, and it was still Gonzaga-BYU and Ole Miss-Tennessee and VCU-Richmond and UCLA-Arizona. It was still a good night. Here’s what stuck out.
Your Watercooler Moment. Bruins Defense Overlooked.
The key to UCLA’s December revival, when the Bruins ripped off 10 straight wins, five of which came in Pac-12 play, was widely diagnosed as a product of offensive firepower and a correspondingly poor attention to defensive detail. It was all about Shabazz Muhammad’s offensive explosion and Jordan Adams’ continued development and Larry Drew’s stewardship at the point – or some fuzzy mixture of positive offensive growth. Ben Howland was eschewing tradition, it was widely and casually assumed, as if the Bruins were a fundamentally flawed, offense-only team that couldn’t defend a lick. Tempo-free enthusiasts knew better; UCLA, in fact, ranked first in the Pac-12 in adjusted defensive efficiency heading into Thursday night’s crucial road test at Arizona. The Bruins have been giving up 0.94 points per trip in conference play, compared to Arizona’s 0.98, good for fifth among league counterparts. So when the Wildcats got off to a ghastly 1-of-10 shooting start, and UCLA blew open a 17-3 lead in the first half, the Wildcats couldn’t find a way back. It was smooth sailing in the second half, despite Arizona’s and a super-geeked fan base’s best efforts to rally for a comeback push. UCLA wouldn’t be here without its offense – without the natural talents of Muhammad, the Wear Twins’ old-school finesse and Kyle Anderson’s instinctive play-making. The Bruins are and will continue to be identified by what they do on that end of the floor. But their improved defense brings UCLA to a whole different level. Without it, they are a high-flying, explosive, fun team to watch – something like the college analog to the Los Angeles Clippers (yes, the Clippers defend; I’m speaking strictly in terms of offensive visuals). Now that Howland has gotten his team up to par defensively, the Bruins are able to do some pretty good things – things like beating the No. 6 team in the country on the road in the biggest regular season game UCLA has played in the last five years.
Also Worth Chatting About. Another A-10 Newcomer Goes Down.
On Wednesday, Butler had its undefeated conference record ruined on a full-court drive and finish at the buzzer from La Salle guard Ramon Galloway. It was karmic justice for the Bulldogs, who just days earlier rushed the court after knocking off Gonzaga at Hinkle Fieldhouse thanks to Roosevelt Jones’ last-second runner. The road to VCU’s downfall followed a similar narrative. One week ago, the Rams fended off a feisty St. Joes’ team in overtime. The Hawks played Shaka Smart’s team down to the final possession, but they fizzled out in the extra period, overcome by the Rams’ high-paced style. Then came Thursday night’s rivalry game at Richmond. A win at the Robins Center would have sealed the Rams’ temporary spot atop the A-10 standings. Instead, the Spiders coughed up a modest 11 turnovers, dealt with VCU’s HAVOC full-court pressure and smothering half-court D, and after 40 minutes of hanging tough and keeping within striking distance, Richmond leveled the score in the final seconds to send the game to overtime. VCU was not as fortunate in the extra period this time around. It’s a great win for the Spiders. For VCU? Sigh. Beyond the coincidence of the league’s two best teams falling on back-to-back days, the Rams won’t come away from this loss doubting its ability to compete for a league title. Teams lose road games in conference play, and even more so against bitter city rivals. This is a tough, tough league, and the Rams – like every team at some point or another – hit a wall they couldn’t break through.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Michael Snaer Beats Clemson At The Buzzer. Few teams have disappointed through the first three months of the season more than Florida State. In the preseason, the Seminoles were touted as ACC contenders. They’ve taken bad loss after bad loss, and have shown no signs of engineering their customary New Year’s turnaround. At this point, they look purely average. It’s moments like these that make you forget their current state of mediocrity (off glass).
- You Should Watch Marshall Henderson More Often Say what you want about the SEC this season, but Ole Miss is making the most of the opportunity on offer. The Rebels picked up another conference win Thursday night to move to 5-0 in the SEC. This one didn’t come as easily as those before it: The Rebels needed 24 second-half points, including six threes, from hyper-demonstrative guard Marshall Henderson, to fight off Tennessee at home. The story with Andy Kennedy’s team always goes back to the NCAA Tournament, because Kennedy (as you probably already know) has yet to get the Rebels over the hump since he arrived in Oxford. At this stage, Ole Miss is on solid ground. The challenge from here on out will be avoiding bad losses. And in this year’s SEC, RPI deflaters and resume trolls (Auburn, Mississippi State, Georgia, etc.) litter the league schedule.
- Rebels Find Comfort At Home. Playing Colorado State – the best overall rebounding team in the country – is a nuisance for any team, even UNLV’s supremely talented lineup. They lost at CSU earlier this week, and no one came away questioning UNLV’s toughness or defensive commitment – you know, the usual losing postgame explanations. There are two reasons for this: 1) winning at Colorado State is something no team has pulled off this season (and, quite possibly, no team will pull off this season) and, 2) UNLV remains one of the best teams in a really good league. All it needed was to return home, get its runnin’ offense firing away, and let the wins start piling up. The Rebels handled Wyoming, one of the MW’s improved outfits this season, with minimal fuss.
- OVC Headed For Two-Team Race. The divisional realignment in the OVC, in its first year of existence, already has the looks of an excellent competitive framework. Murray State fronts the east side, while Belmont – who bolted the Sun Belt last offseason – heads the West. As it stands, the Bruins hold a one-game edge over Isaiah Canaan and company. Both teams won Thursday night, and both remain on top of their respective divisions. And for the sake of the college hoops world being treated to a huge mid-major game with championship implications in early February — one game to make sure the OVC gets its proper due — I can only hope Belmont and Murray stay within a game of one another until they face off in Nashville for a de facto conference championship game.
- Cougars Aren’t Catching Gonzaga The weekend loss to Butler was a nationally-televised spectacle that, mentally, physically and emotionally, didn’t leave Gonzaga with much to smile about on its trip home from Indianapolis. The good news is that the loss didn’t count against the Zags’ WCC record, so they entered Thursday night’s date with BYU in a commanding position to open up a two-game lead on one of the WCC’s better teams. The Cougars are talented, with guard Tyler Haws and forward Brandon Davies working a fantastic inside-out dynamic, but Gonzaga is a notch beyond what BYU – or, frankly, anyone else in this league save (maybe) St. Mary’s – is ready to handle. Losing at Hinkle didn’t change anything about Mark Few’s team; it remains one of the best in the country. BYU entered Thursday with slim hopes of scoring its biggest win of the season, but at the Kennel, with Gonzaga coming off a gut-wrenching loss, unless Haws had another 40-point game up his sleeve, this was a longshot from the beginning.
- Virginia Rivalry Game. The margin of victory (74-58) was nothing to gawk at. Virginia smoked the Hokies – who afford an unhealthy share of possessions (30.7%) and shots (31.5%) to senior guard Erick Green, a skewed balance susceptible to good defensive teams – in Blacksburg to move over .500 in the ACC. Not even Virginia’s relatively high point total (74 points, the Cavaliers’ highest in ACC play) is much of a surprise, seeing as the Hokies rank #254 nationally in per possession defense and the Cavaliers’ offense, though slow and aesthetically distasteful, is not anywhere near as inept as its often made out to be (#131). Virginia is the better team in the state of Virginia, and with the way Tony Bennett’s defense forces so many opponents into offensive disarray, the Cavaliers have the formula to trip up at least one of the ACC’s best over the stretch run of conference play.
… and Misses.
- Injuries Derailing Utah State. When Utah State lost junior guard Prestin Medlin and senior forward Kyisean Reed to variously-lengthed injuries in last week’s loss to New Mexico State (Reed is expected to miss the rest of the season; Medlin could return in 6-8 weeks), the Aggies’ short-term outlook was bleak. Their long run trajectory ends in the WAC, where USU will enter a booming Mountain West next season. That’s an enticing proposition to build up for, and the Aggies have every right to be excited about their new conference digs, because the present doesn’t look all that good. Without Medlin and Reed, Utah State dropped its third straight game Thursday night at home against Texas-Arlington. The prospect of riding out on the WAC sunset, league trophy in tow, is looking less and less likely by the game. Losing two players of this consequence – both Medlin and Reed posted offensive ratings above 118.0 and shot percentages above 19.9% – requires a massive in-season adjustment. By the looks of it, it’s one Stew Morrill’s team isn’t prepared to make.
- What’s Happening To Stanford? When Stanford beat Northern Iowa and battled Missouri and Minnesota at the Battle 4 Atlantis, the message was clear: Stanford was good, if not fully formed. Above all, with natural development, there was definite potential for serious noise-making capability in a tenuous Pac-12. The Cardinal had an excellent guard tandem in Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright, and in Dwight Powell, an athletic big man with plenty of room to grow. It’s time to re-assess. Either the non-conference season was a fluke, or Stanford just isn’t very good. The Cardinal lost their fourth conference game Thursday night; and they didn’t just lose to Colorado, they were bludgeoned by 21 points and scored just 54 total in the game. Stanford has been one of the biggest disappointments in college hoops this season relative to expectations, and it’s only going to get worse with upcoming games against Oregon and at the Arizona schools.
Dunkdafied. What separates this Michigan team from John Beilein’s other groups over the years is having athletes like Glenn Robinson III. He is one of the most exciting players to watch in college basketball.
Thursday Night’s All Americans.
- Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss (NPOY) – Hitting six second-half threes, scoring 28 points, and leading your team to a comeback win along the way is enough to warrant an All-American spot.
- Andre Roberson, Colorado – If Roberson works on a consistent post game, he could really take off as an effective interior scorer level at the next level. He rebounds pretty well, too, with 12 points and 20 rebounds against Stanford.
- Allen Crabbe, California – Another team along with Bay Area rival Stanford that hasn’t played to expectations in the Pac-12: California. Good thing Crabbe (23 points) was there to help the Bears get by Utah.
- Michael Snaer, Florida State – Had Snaer (11 points) not hit that game-winning shot, he’d have no business making this list. But if FSU does manage to turn its season around, I get the feeling the Seminoles will look back on that moment as a transformative moment.
- Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga — Box scores this clean don’t show up every day: 26 points on 9-of-9 field goals, 8-of-8 from the line, zero fouls, five assists, nine rebounds, all in 31 minutes.
Tweet Of The Night. The rest of UCLA’s conference schedule is manageable. The Bruins have already played most of their toughest opponents, excepting a return visit from Arizona on March 2. If they can stay within themselves, keep up the winning culture Howland has implemented and sustained, and brace themselves for every team giving the Bruins their very best knockout punch, this team could reach its presumed conference destination. Oregon is on top of the Pac-12 as of this writing, and the Ducks did beat UCLA in Westwood, but after Thursday night’s performance, can you honestly say you know for certain who the better team is? I can’t.