ATB: UK Rises Up in Oxford, Ohio State Fights Off Wisconsin, and Another Road Miss from NC State…

Posted by Chris Johnson on January 30th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Bubble Unpredictability. The NCAA Tournament bubble is a nebulous thing to gauge. Predictions are laid out with RPI figures and relevant strength of schedule numbers over these early months, and all of that gets compiled into individual “resumes” – the digestible team units used by the NCAA selection committee to construct its preferred field of 68. The best way to improve your “resume” goes without saying. Win good games against good teams, and you’re helping your chances of inclusion. Sometimes, all it takes is one or two big wins to launch a team into the bubble conversation, or to provide that definitive RPI boost to send it over the cut line. In the end, all final decisions are reached in a secretive board room, and for as accurate as bracket models have become in recent years – and as ostensibly similar as the esteemed media mock selection event has become — we’re all fooling ourselves if we think we know exactly how the committee evaluates teams. One team won a monstrously important game tonight – the kind of thing that really shakes up that selection process. Care to find out who it was?

Your Watercooler Moment. You Needed That One, UK. 

If Tuesday night is a sign of things to come, Kentucky could be a scary good team come March (Photo credit: AP Photo).

If Tuesday night is a sign of things to come, Kentucky could be a scary good team come March (Photo credit: AP Photo).

There are Kentucky fans, illogical or not, who will come down hard on 2012 national championship-winning coach John Calipari if he’s unable to lead Kentucky to the NCAA Tournament this season. Wildcats fans are some of the most relentless partisans in college sports. They expect the best, roster turnover and relative recruiting down year be damned. Whether or not UK ultimately gets there, I can’t say for sure. There’s a lot of season left to be played, and UK has plenty of work to do before locking up a bid. Here’s what I know: Kentucky is in much better shape, Tourney-wise, after Tuesday night’s win at Ole Miss. In almost any other year, that sounds more like some deranged Rebels fan’s perverse joke. This season, it’s not even a small stretch. Andy Kennedy’s team has evolved into a real SEC title contender, thanks mostly to the huge impact (physical and emotional) of Marshall Henderson, the SEC’s leading scorer, and a set of quality complementary frontcourt players. But for a few spots – a road loss at Middle Tennessee, a near-loss at Auburn – the Rebels have looked appreciably better than John Calipari’s team all season. With all that considered, there remained some suspicion about whether Ole Miss, long a doormat for the likes of UK and Florida in the SEC, could seize the opportunity against the worst team of Calipari’s UK tenure to cement its mantle as the league’s surefire No. 2 (Florida is absolutely napalming anyone it comes into contact with; the Gators are No. 1, and it’s not close). Henderson gives the Rebels an offensive spark unlike anything Kennedy has ever worked with in Oxford, and Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner are as solid as any non-Patric Young SEC bigs. This is Ole Miss basketball’s year to shine, and Tuesday night was its night to drill the young Wildcats. It had all the momentum and clear advantages it needed, but the Rebels couldn’t quite size up Calipari’s team. But let’s not let this be about some newly-discovered flaws in the Ole Miss formula. Kentucky deserves the credit for this win, because this Kentucky team was nothing like the incoherent mess we’ve seen for large stretches this season.

The “switch” everyone’s been waiting Kentucky to “flip” may or may not have, you know, flipped Tuesday night, but when you look at Kentucky’s 87-74 win, there are few times this season when the Wildcats have looked as good, or even half as good, as it did in Oxford. Not only did UK outwork and thoroughly outplay a vastly improved SEC contender, they went into a blaring environment, stuffed with a legion of vitriolic Rebels fans ready to coronate their home team’s triumph over a historic program, and exited with a resounding W. They did it with Kyle Wiltjer scoring and defending like he never has before, with Archie Goodwin snapping his conference play swoon, and a whole bunch of really encouraging developments that, if sustained, will erase any doubts UK fans ever had about the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament chances.

Tonight’s Quick Hits…

  • Guard DeShaun Thomas. Most good college teams feature one really good scorer along with a few above-average to mediocre ones. The best of the best can throw three or four elite offensive threats at you, guys capable of manufacturing points in various ways with little assistance from facilitative teammates. Ohio State defines one polar end of this single-scorer dynamic. There’s DeShaun Thomas – the preseason All American forward who uses an average of 26.4 percent of available possessions and 32.4 percent of his team’s shots – and there’s everybody else. Thomas is as adept as stretchy hybrid post scorers come; he’ll face you up on the perimeter, catch and finish on the high post, bury mid-range pull-ups. His wide arsenal of skills is enough to get the Buckeyes through a brutal Big Ten slate, but if Thomas doesn’t get the offensive assistance he needs, the Buckeyes will remain highly vulnerable to defense-savvy teams able to zone in on him and force offense out of OSU’s thus-far-ineffective subsidiary weapons. Wisconsin is a good defensive team (per KenPom, the Badgers rank 10th in per-possession defense). It was not smart or strategically-disciplined enough to stop Thomas Tuesday night, when he went off for 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting in a home win. The next time the Badgers face OSU (February 17), they would do well to stop Ohio State’s best player.
  • A New MVC Contender? The usual breakdown of this year’s Missouri Valley Conference hinged on a basic assumption that Creighton and Wichita State, number one and two in the league standings, respectively, were basically untouchable. The rest of the league wasn’t terrible, but Ilinois State and Northern Iowa’s season-long struggles drowned out most everything non-Shockers-and/or-Bluejays-related. One team has emerged from the middle of the pack, though, to threaten the MVC’s elite duo. Indiana State owns wins over Ole Miss and Miami, but Tuesday night’s upset at Wichita was its biggest triumph yet. Defending was never a real concern for the Shockers; the offensive side of the ball has limited them in spots this year. And on Tuesday, when Gregg Marshall’s team shot just 27 percent from the floor and endured a nearly nine-minute second-half scoring drought, scoring was in short supply. The Sycamores took advantage, moving to 7-3 in conference play in the process, and get both Wichita and Creighton at home before the league season runs out.

…and Misses.

  • NC State’s Road Woes Continue. To beat Virginia is to solve the Cavaliers’ maddeningly slow brand of basketball, to unlock Tony Bennett’s pack line defense, to stay cool and composed for 40 minutes and, above all else, to play efficient half court offense. The problem for NC State Tuesday night in Charlottesville was simple: Once Lorenzo Brown went down with an ankle injury after playing just 10 minutes, the Wolfpack’s transition offense stalled out. Backup Tyler Lewis couldn’t get Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie and T.J. Warren easy looks, Virginia frustrated Mark Gottfried’s team throughout with pace-controlling deliberateness, and Mark Gottfried’s team lost another road game in conference play, its third of the year. On a nationwide talent scale, NC State ranks among an elite handful of teams, but the Wolfpack have exhibited a glaring inability to deal with hostile road environments this season. Losing at Virginia isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to NC State this season; the Cavaliers are a brutal out. The bigger point here is that until NC State learns to deal with adverse conditions – stylistically, tough road spots, etc. – this immensely talented team could go down as a tantalizing sum of its parts, and nothing else.
  • Heels Win, But Hairston Goes Down. Aside from an eight-point loss at NC State over the weekend, when the Tar Heels gave the Wolfpack a real fight after falling behind early, things have been improving for UNC over the past couple of weeks. Recent wins over Florida State, Georgia Tech and Maryland aren’t moving the needle far, but the Tar Heels have at least shown the toughness and mental fortitude to challenge more capable opponents – even if the talent and depth isn’t quite at the usual Tar Heel standards. What they absolutely can’t afford, just a week away before hitting the teeth of their league schedule, is a major injury. Thankfully, P.J. Hairston’s concussion suffered in a collision in Tuesday night’s win over Boston College isn’t anything serious. He is expected to miss just one game, and the Tar Heels – who welcome Virginia Tech to Chapel Hill Saturday – probably won’t need him in that one, anyway.
  • Two MVC Aspirants Fall Short Again. The preseason prediction cycle is a dangerously inaccurate staple of not just college basketball media but any major sports’ coverage team specializing in season projections and breakdowns. A constant of this year’s preseason MVC coverage praised Illinois State and Northern Iowa as very real NCAA at-large candidates. And in the early part of the season, they didn’t abuse that praise. Now those late-summer forecasts – plus the official preseason media poll, which pegged ISU to finish second and UNI third in the league – just look flat-out wrong. In conference play, neither team has lived up to expectations, and Tuesday brought the latest dose of reality-checking defeat. UNI and ISU both took road losses (at Evansville and at Bradley, respectively), both of which were pretty understandable – when mediocre MVC team A plays at mediocre MVC Team B, you give the edge to the latter. We learned nothing new about either team Tuesday night, just a new level of confirmation to what has been a truly disappointing season on both ends. The good news? There’s always the MVC Tournament. Arch Madness isn’t a bad place to turn your disappointing season into something special.

Dunkdafied. The primal scream Archie Goodwin uncorks after completing a thunderous two-hand jam elevates this play beyond sheer physical prowess. Goodwin uses his temporary post-jam spotlight for a cathartic exclamation point.

Tuesday Night’s All Americans.

  • Nerlens Noel, Kentucky (NPOY) – His offensive game is still coming along, but Noel’s defense is hard to ignore. You can add the UK single-game block record (12) to his list of accomplishments.
  • Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky – Without Wiltjer’s 26 points, the Wildcats don’t come away with Tuesday night’s massive win.
  • Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee – Another big game for Stokes, who followed up Saturday’s 18-point, 15-rebound performance with 19/11 against Vanderbilt. 
  • James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina – Any chances UNC has of not just making but advancing in the NCAAs rests on McAdoo’s ability to make good on his massive preseason hype. How about a line of 17/10 for UNC’s tweener forward in a win over Boston College.
  • DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State – This honor should be something of a dual-edged sword for Buckeyes fans. Yes, seeing Thomas score 25 points is always fun. You want to know what’s more fun? Winning Big Ten and NCAA Tournament games, which will almost certainly require a non-Thomas OSU player to make this list at some point this season.

Tweet of the Night. We could go another decade before another player like Anthony Davis – blessed with unique physical dimensions and accompanying sharpened instincts and diverse array of skills – steps onto the college hardwood. Nerlens Noel was never going to replicate Davis’ unique game-changing qualities, and Davis will always have a special place in UK fans’ hearts, but Noel is carving out his own spot in UK history.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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