Ten Tuesday Scribbles: On The Mountain West, Ole Miss, Villanova and More…Posted by Brian Otskey on January 29th, 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
- A lot of people are pumping up the Mountain West Conference this season and rightly so. Trailing only the Big Ten and Big East in the Pomeroy ratings, the Mountain West has seven of its nine teams in the top 100. Two Mountain West teams made the AP top 25 this week (New Mexico and San Diego State) while another (UNLV) is knocking on the door. That said, I don’t believe there is a single elite team in this league. The parity in this league makes for great action night after night but I would be surprised if any of these teams makes a legitimate run at the Elite Eight or Final Four. San Diego State and UNLV probably have the best potential to advance in the NCAA Tournament but each has too many flaws to make a serious run in my opinion. San Diego State does a number of things well but I question its ability to score against good competition and get a bucket when it is really needed. I think the Aztecs are the best in the Mountain West but their lack of size and occasional scoring issues will be their downfall. As for UNLV, it may have the most talent of any team in the league. But talent doesn’t always equal wins. Anthony Bennett is a flat out stud but the Rebels struggle against teams that can match their athleticism but also against teams that can slow it down and make it a half court game. UNLV’s turnover issues and shaky play away from Las Vegas are also major causes for concern. It always seems that whenever the Rebels look like they’re about to turn the corner, they lose. The win at San Diego State was a positive but UNLV gave it right back by losing to Colorado State three days later. This has been a trend for UNLV over the years as it just can’t seem to sustain a high level of play. A questionable or disappointing loss always seems to follow a nice win. New Mexico is an interesting team. Steve Alford has built a nice program in Albuquerque but I have been down on this team for the better part of the season despite its record. The Lobos really struggle to score, as evidenced by the putrid 34 points they put up in Saturday’s blowout loss at San Diego State. It’s disappointing because they have talented guards and a solid big man in Alex Kirk. Similar to UNLV, New Mexico often has a letdown after a period of strong play. The Lobos started 12-0 then lost at home to South Dakota State. Then they went on the road and beat Cincinnati, only to lose the next game in uncompetitive fashion to St. Louis. Then they won four straight (including at Boise State and vs. Colorado State) before getting blown out by the Aztecs. Until New Mexico proves it can consistently beat good teams, I will have my doubts. The Mountain West is really fun to watch but don’t get carried away about the league’s postseason prospects.
- One team out west that I feel does have the potential to go deep is Gonzaga. I do have a few concerns about the Bulldogs but I really do believe this is the best team Mark Few has ever assembled in Spokane. The Zags have the perfect balance with talented guards and strong players around the rim. Kelly Olynyk is having a spectacular season coming off a redshirt year and he anchors a strong frontcourt that also features the uber-athletic Elias Harris. Gonzaga is tough to match up with because it can score in so many different ways. If you zone the Zags, you risk Kevin Pangos dropping a ton of threes on you while giving up a lot of offensive rebounds. If you play man-to-man, Pangos can penetrate and dish to the big men at will or Gonzaga will run him off ball screens for plenty of good looks from deep. Gonzaga, with the nation’s fourth-ranked offensive efficiency, is incredibly difficult to contain on that end of the floor. The Bulldogs have been held under 70 points only five times in 21 games. The way to beat Gonzaga is to be physical and take advantage of its very average defense. Few’s team struggles to defend ball screens and is vulnerable against teams with a rugged style of play. You often get a lot of rugged, slow it down games in the NCAA Tournament and Gonzaga is going to have to sure up its defense by March in order to survive. That said, Gonzaga’s offensive prowess is a huge asset and one that should carry it to at least two NCAA Tournament victories in a perfect world. Of course, the world isn’t perfect and basketball games, more than any other sport, are often determined by match-ups.
- If there was any doubt about whether or not Miami was for real before last week, those questions were answered in resounding fashion. The Hurricanes, owners of the nation’s fourth-ranked defensive efficiency, dismantled Duke and Florida State in Coral Gables and now have a two-game lead in the loss column atop the ACC. Miami has proven it can win in a variety of different ways, with or without Reggie Johnson. Johnson returned to action against Duke but wasn’t much of a factor in either game this week. Still, his presence energized the Hurricanes and he grabbed some important rebounds. As good as its defense is, Miami’s offense isn’t bad either. Jim Larranaga has five players averaging double figures in scoring and a team that scores almost 70 PPG playing at one of the slower paces in the country. The emergence of Kenny Kadji and Shane Larkin as well as Durand Scott’s consistency have made Miami a legitimate threat to win the ACC crown, especially now that it has a win over Duke in its back pocket. Miami still has to go to NC State and Duke but the Hurricanes are in the driver’s seat at this point. I would still like to see Miami go on the road and win a big game (NC State this Saturday?) but with a stingy defense and a respectable offense, the Hurricanes have the pieces to sustain this level of play and put a strangle hold on the conference as we head into the stretch run.
- Marshall Henderson gets all the headlines for the surprising Mississippi Rebels as the leading scorer and because of his theatrics but Murphy Holloway is arguably the most important player for Andy Kennedy’s team. Averaging a double-double, Holloway has been the main reason why Ole Miss has surprised the nation by winning 17 of its first 19 games. As a senior, the South Carolina native has taken on a leadership role on the court as a workhorse on the glass and a threat in the low post. How far can Holloway, Henderson, and company go? I’m not sure. It’s hard to get a solid read on this team because of the poor schedule it has played. Ole Miss is undefeated in Oxford but its best home win has been against a Missouri team that has been scuffling without Laurence Bowers. Away from Oxford, the Rebels haven’t beaten anyone of note and also suffered two losses to Middle Tennessee (true road game) and Indiana State (neutral floor). There’s nothing to be ashamed of in losing those games to two solid mid-major clubs but I’d like to see Mississippi grab a quality win on the road before I fully buy in. The problem is that the SEC is putrid. Of their 12 remaining games, only four are against teams ranked in the Pomeroy top 100. Can Mississippi win at Florida or Missouri? Florida is an incredibly tall order but a win at Missouri would convince me that the Rebels are for real. Kennedy and his team deserve credit for beating who they are supposed to beat but the schedule has not allowed us to see the true Ole Miss Rebels. In the end, this is a team that should make the NCAA Tournament and will have the chance to win a game. Despite its record, I don’t think you can expect this team to do anything more than that.
- Monday night brought the end to Louisville’s three game losing streak but it wasn’t easy. The Cardinals let Pittsburgh hang around most of the game and did not exactly close the game out in a solid fashion. Had Pittsburgh made free throws even at just an average clip (3-12 on the game), this would have been Louisville’s fourth consecutive loss. The Cardinals shot the ball better but still did not take advantage of their pressure defense. Louisville’s turnover margin hasn’t been lopsided of late (as it usually is) and its defense isn’t where it was two weeks ago. Without a true go-to scorer on the team, Louisville has to win games with its defense. I’m confident the Cardinals can get back to the level of defense displayed earlier this season but after this losing streak, questions about them will linger deep into March. It is foolish to write off Louisville as a championship contender based on three games. Remember, Louisville was not a good offensive team last year and made the Final Four. Despite the poor play of late, this year’s edition is much stronger on the offensive end despite the lack of a go-to player.
- When Villanova knocked off Louisville last week, people took notice but dismissed it as fluke. After all, the Wildcats were still the same team that lost to Alabama, Columbia, and Providence among others. After knocking off Syracuse this past Saturday, Villanova is no longer an afterthought at 13-7 and 4-3 in Big East play. After a trip to Notre Dame tomorrow night, the schedule breaks in Villanova’s favor with games against Providence, DePaul and South Florida (two of them at home). If the Wildcats go 3-1 over the next four games, they will be 7-4 and in the thick of the Big East race with seven games to play. Villanova is not a great offensive team but ironically found a spark against two of the best defensive teams not only in the Big East, but in the nation. Villanova shot the ball well and was able to get to the free throw line, something the Wildcats have done well all season long. Villanova leads the nation in free throw rate and converts nearly 72% of the time from the stripe. What has to be encouraging for Jay Wright is the fact that his team won both games in different ways. It beat Louisville with its best defensive performance of the season and got by Syracuse with a strong offensive game. The Wildcats did a great job on the boards in both games, holding their own against Louisville before dominating Syracuse with nearly 50 rebounds, 17 of them on the offensive glass, including Mouphtaou Yarou’s strong board that set up Ryan Arcidiacono’s triple that sent the game into overtime. Villanova is working its way into the NCAA Tournament picture but can’t let up now. With the schedule turning in its favor over the next week and a half, the Wildcats have to take care of business and prepare themselves for a final seven game stretch that includes four road games and five contests against top 50 competition.
- Another Philadelphia team that has been confounding, to say the least, is Temple. The Owls have been up and down to the point where you could almost describe them as bipolar. With a marquee win against Syracuse and a very competitive loss at Allen Fieldhouse against Kansas, the Owls have the chops to compete with anybody in the nation. The problem is Temple has also shown the ability to lose to almost any team. Home losses to Canisius and St. Bonaventure as well as missed opportunities at Xavier and Butler put a damper on what has been a decent season for Fran Dunphy and his team. Temple’s problems lay in its defense which is not at the level we’re accustomed to seeing under Dunphy. Temple also doesn’t shoot the ball well but does a great job protecting it, meaning the Owls often take more shots than their opponents and can overcome a poor percentage. However, the inconsistency on both ends is preventing Temple from contending in the Atlantic 10 at the moment. Still, the Owls are only two games back of league leader Butler and have a very favorable schedule down the stretch. Temple needs to become more consistent but don’t write off the Owls in late January. They have plenty of time to turn it around.
- First place in the Big Ten will be on the line this Saturday night in Bloomington when Michigan travels south to meet Indiana in what will be one of the best games of the year. It’s not often when we get a game like this featuring two conference foes, the top-ranked team in the nation, another national title contender, and one of the very best venues the sport has to offer. Both teams are incredibly efficient on the offensive end which will make for a highly entertaining game. Each club has some defensive questions and that’s where I think the game will be decided. Does Tom Crean stick Victor Oladipo and his outstanding defense on Trey Burke? Does Cody Zeller finally have a big game against a team without a massive interior presence? Who makes more threes: Nik Stauskas or Jordan Hulls? All of these questions will determine the outcome of the game in one way or another but one thing is for sure, this will be one game you simply cannot miss. Get yourself in front of a television this Saturday night for what could be an epic showdown as we enter the month of February. It’s only Tuesday and I’m already counting down the hours.
- One team that has fallen off the national radar but has a very respectable record is Baylor. At 14-5 and 5-1 in the Big 12 heading into a big Wednesday night game with Oklahoma, the Bears have taken advantage of a soft schedule and find themselves just a game and a half back of first place Kansas. Now we all know it would be almost unthinkable for Kansas to lose the Big 12 race but Baylor is a team worth watching. Scott Drew’s team has won nine of its past 11 games since an embarrassing home loss to Northwestern on December 4 that took the Bears off the national radar screen. Cory Jefferson has continued to have an outstanding junior season and Isaiah Austin has proven to be a consistent scorer in the paint. There’s a ton of talent on this team and I didn’t even mention Pierre Jackson until now. Baylor has not played a difficult conference schedule to date and we’ll learn a lot more about this team in the coming days, starting on Wednesday night. If Baylor can get through this three game stretch against Oklahoma, Iowa State and Oklahoma State (the latter two on the road) at 2-1 or better, the Bears will have to be considered legitimate. Second place in the Big 12 is wide open and Baylor is a prime contender to finish in that spot.
- One Big 12 team trending in the opposite direction is Kansas State. The Wildcats have lost two straight games after starting the season 15-2 overall. While losing games to Kansas and Iowa State (at Hilton Coliseum) wouldn’t normally be a cause for concern, I’m starting to become worried about Kansas State. This is a team that really struggles to score the basketball which will lower the ceiling of any team. Kansas State also doesn’t play the knockout defense we have gotten used to seeing over the last five years or so. In fact, Frank Martin’s “worst” defensive team at Kansas State was ranked #42 in efficiency. Do not take this as an indictment of Bruce Weber because it isn’t. Far from it in fact. I have been a fan of Weber for a long time but this is not an elite defensive team. Kansas State is decent defensively but it needs to be better on that end to overcome its offensive issues. The Wildcats will be in games because of their ability to rebound the basketball and keep teams out of transition. However, I don’t know how long Kansas State can sustain the level of play that allowed it to jump out to a 15-2 mark. It remains to be seen if this is the start of a prolonged losing streak but things may need to turn around quickly for Kansas State to stay relevant. Three of the next five games are on the road and the two home games aren’t exactly easy as Texas (a strong defensive team) and Iowa State (just beat K-State) visit Bramlage Coliseum over the next week and a half.