ATB: Louisville Ends Skid, Kansas Stays Clean and Grambling State Remains Winless…Posted by Chris Johnson on January 29th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Two Games, and That’s About it. When college basketball gives you two good games, you watch them. That’s what ESPN’s Big Monday night promises to serve up over the next month or so, and on evenings when there’s literally nothing else of note going on, you study those two games from every angle, every statistical nuance – and if you’re me, you write about them. So if you’re interested in what happened when Pittsburgh visited Louisville and Kansas embarked on its first ever conference road trip to West Virginia, and not much else, you’ll find this post meets that interest quite well. Or maybe you’ll reject my analysis and stop reading altogether. It’s cool; I’ll never begrudge a critical approach. However you go about it, take comfort in the fact that the rest of the week, leading into Saturday’s massive Indiana-Michigan game (and that other football game being played Sunday afternoon), promises more enticing match-ups.
Your Watercooler Moment. A Win Is A Win Is A Win.
Using the term “must-win” for teams who fell out of the No. 1 spot in AP Poll just two weeks ago feels wildly irrational. Seasons aren’t won and lost in January, and Louisville still withdraws the right to whip out one of the most fearsome defenses of the 21st century, a deeply stocked frontcourt, a stable of effective complementary pieces, and a Final Four pedigree to boot. But if the Cardinals didn’t need a win Monday night against Pittsburgh, per se, it was at the very least strongly advised that they get one. Lest we forget that just over a week ago, Louisville – long owners of an historically efficient defense and burgeoning National Player of the Year point guard – was on top of the college basketball world. And not just in every major poll of note; the Cardinals were the national title favorite flavor of the week. The week that followed, which included three consecutive losses to Syracuse, at Villanova and at Georgetown, was not what everyone had in mind when they pegged Louisville as the nation’s best team. After all, national championship favorites just don’t lose three in a row. Louisville’s plunge in the polls (Monday’s AP Poll had the Cardinals ranked #12) reflected this fallout, but the Cardinals had a pretty favorable opportunity on their hands Monday night.
That’s when the efficiency-buoyant Panthers, winners of four Big East games in a row, traveled to the Yum! Center to pour salt on Louisville’s three-loss wound. Any reasonable observer would have looked at this game, noted Pittsburgh’s recent improvements, the shoulder injury to Wayne Blackshear and suspension of Kevin Ware, and surmised the Panthers had a legitimate shot to not only hang tight with Louisville but seize a huge road opportunity against a confidence-bereft team in the midst of a three-game skid. Pittsburgh nearly got there. The Panthers’ stormed back to cut an 11-point deficit to just two inside the final minute, and were it not for a few clutch free throws from Gorgui Dieng and Russ Smith, Jamie Dixon’s team could well have walked out with a massive win. Final outcome aside, Pittsburgh played to its adjusted, per-possession bona fides – the Panthers entered Monday ranked seventh in KenPom’s ratings – and that’s something we’ve been waiting to see for much of this season. Poor free throw shooting (the Panthers finished 3-of-12 from the stripe) was the difference. Louisville’s performance was hardly the work of the Final Four contender so widely bandied about just over week ago, and that’s something we may not see from Rick Pitino’s team until March. The point is, the Cardinals picked up where they left off before becoming No. 1 – they won a basketball game, and they did it against a veritably good team.
Tonight’s Quick Hits.
- No Problems For Jayhawks. The Big 12 road may throw an unexpected wrench in Kansas’ unbeaten path to another sparkling league championship. Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Baylor are all tough places to play in any given year. New member West Virginia can turn road trips into 40-minute headaches for visiting teams; Morgantown was long known as one of the Big East’s most ruthless venues. And In future years, once the Mountaineers settle into their new league, the environmental rigor of the Coliseum could well push the Jayhawks over the edge. But this Kansas team isn’t losing to this WVU team in any gym, court, arena or Harlem Park-esque street ball set-up anytime this year. The Jayhawks are the No. 2 team in the country for a reason. Actually, there are several. Ben McLemore is a unique perimeter scoring force. Jeff Withey not only blocks shots but keeps them in bounds to jump start possessions the other way. Travis Releford is as stingy as lockdown defenders get. When you put it all together – and there are a lot of talented pieces to consider here – the Jayhawks are as viable a national championship contender as there is in college hoops right now. No measure of crowd intensity, without a solid team to back it up, is enough to jeopardize their position.
- Golden Eagles Keep Rolling In Big East. With three home games and two overtime wins built into the early part of its conference season, it would have been easy to take those fortuitous cues as obvious signs that Marquette was overrated. And really, a Monday night home win over South Florida isn’t going to move the needle, perception-wise. But it did remind me of one thing: The Golden Eagles, believe it or not, are currently tied with Syracuse for first place in the Big East. Buzz Williams’ team owns the third most efficient offense in the league, it keeps opponents off the offensive glass, limits possession giveaways on their end, and features one of the nation’s best-kept big man secrets in Davante Gardner. Winning at Louisville Sunday will be an uphill climb, and the Golden Eagles may not be ready for that kind of challenge just yet, but if you ever thought Marquette might fade out of league contention after losing stars Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, think again. Insofar as Big East teams are defined by tough-nosed defense and superb coaching – you know, the old hallmarks of this once-proud league – Marquette certainly belongs.
- The Worst Division I Team of All Time? Just two weeks ago, Deadspin posed an interesting question on the topic of college hoops ignominy: Are the 2012-13 Grambling State Tigers the Worst Division I college basketball team of all-time? Ken Pomeroy chimed in with the following: “Yes, I believe they have a good case.” In the interest of avoiding further paraphrasing of a really-well done analytical and historically-contextualized post, I advise you to run through Dom Cosentino’s fine work. But I bring up Grambling for a few reasons: 1) Monday night hoops schedules, on the whole, stink; finding relevant topics on the first weeknight is an exercise in creative determination; 2) the Tigers took their 18th L of the season, this one a 15-point defeat at home to 3-16 Mississippi Valley State. I don’t know if this is the worst team in NCAA history. Frankly, I really hope not, because no one wants that distinction, however subjective its connotation. Going an entire season without winning a game is one thing. Drawing dishonorable attention from the college hoops watching public for your historic woes is a whole new level of embarrassment.
Swat of the Night. You know better, Talib Zanna. There are few plays more demoralizing than being on the wrong end of a glass-pinning block. A deflection or clean swat doesn’t come off well, but having your feeble shot attempt nestled against the backboard for thousands to see, jeer and heckle – not to mention a whole army of .GIF-savvy Twitterati ready to disseminate your infamy across the web on a moment’s notice – is humiliating.
Monday Night’s All Americans
- Vander Blue, Marquette (NPOY) – Keep downplaying Marquette, and Blue will keep churning out 30-point, six-rebound efforts. Bat or no bat, Buzz Williams keeps doing it.
- Russ Smith, Louisville – It’s no coincidence that two of Louisville’s three losses came with Smith scoring under his season average (18.4 PPG). On Monday night, he topped his mean with 20 points and five assists.
- Gorgui Dieng, Louisville – Don’t believe two players from the same team deserve All-American slots? I respectfully apologize, but when Dieng goes for 14 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and five blocks, it’s awfully tough to ignore.
- Jeff Withey, Kansas – It wasn’t quite the triple-double we saw from Withey back in November, but the seven-footer contributed a tidy 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists in Monday night’s win at WVU.
- Venky Jois, Eastern Washington – OK, I’ll come straight out with it: The main reason I’m including Jois in tonight’s AAs doesn’t really have much to do with the fact he scored 20 points and 13 rebounds. It’s the name — Venky sounds like some weird niche, sub-culture adjective I’m not cool enough to know about.
Tweet of the Night. The general feeling after Louisville’s win is that the Cardinals needed to win this game, however and by whatever means necessary, even if that meant grinding out a really ugly low-scoring tilt on their home floor. No one is going to re-anoint Louisville atop whatever poll or national “power rankings” system you have in mind, but the biggest take from Monday night’s game is a simple one. The Cardinals needed to put an end to whatever losing malaise had fallen over them over the past week. And on that much, they were successful. Good news.