ATB: Pac-12 Contenders Fall, Indiana and Michigan Eye Huge Showdown and La Salle’s Magic Ends…Posted by Chris Johnson on January 31st, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Saturday. Bloomington. Be There. If you needed a reminder for why Saturday’s Indiana-Michigan game might be the biggest conference game we see all season, the two participants did nothing to deflate the hype Wednesday night. Michigan stomped Northwestern at the Crisler Center. Indiana torched state rival Purdue at Mackey. Both wins were streamlined dismantlings of supreme quality. No surprises. Expecting anything less than convincing wins, even in this year’s tough Big Ten, would have been underselling these two teams’ current value. IU and Michigan are on a crash course for Big Ten title rights, and Saturday’s game is the first installment of a two-part rivalry (they meet in Ann Arbor on the last day of the regular season) that should produce some of best and most hotly-contested hoops any intraconference match-up has produced in years. Wednesday night provided a glimpse of what’s on tap for Saturday. Superbowl? Pshaw – There’s nothing bigger this weekend than Michigan’s visit to B-Town.
Your Watercooler Moment. Michael Snaer Does It Again.
Tempo-free hardliners will cringe at any mention of late-game savvy, or a certain player being “clutch” or any other intangible assessment of basketball merit. I love using statistics. They make watching, evaluating and writing about the game I love much, much easier. Used alone, statistics are nice quick touch-points on the general contours of a team’s stylistic, defensive and scoring tendencies, but the real reason they’re so useful goes beyond crude number-crunching. Metrics allow me to take what my eyes tell me, and confirm/deny any conclusions I reach based on those observations. You see something on the court, glean a visual trend, pop open the handy kenpom.com efficiency ratings, and determine whether your game-watching wisdom matches up with what the numbers say.
The point of that mini-preamble was not to bore you nor give you a window into how I watch and think about college basketball games (though I’m pretty sure I achieved both). My purpose relates to one player, Florida State’s Michael Snaer. You probably heard a bunch about Snaer last season, and for good reason: He lit up the ACC while playing some of the nation’s best perimeter defense and carrying Florida State to an ACC Tournament championship. Snaer eschewed the NBA to return for one last season, but his individual performance – he has experienced minor dips in effective field goal percentage and offensive rating – has slipped (if only slightly), while his team’s performance has fallen well short of preseason expectations. Snaer isn’t having a great year – or at least not the breakout All-America campaign many predicted. What he is doing, is making game-winning shots. Wednesday night’s game-sealing three against Maryland was Snaer’s fourth game-winner over the past two seasons (h/t CBT), and his second in the past week.
Sure, there is no quantifiable trait that defines “ability to make game-winning shots.” But if we’re going to sit here and act like Snaer’s remarkable late-game prowess is a product of chance, that “the numbers” don’t register his ability to make big shots, that because his four daggers are isolated and situationally different that they have no real place in educated basketball analysis – I’m going to respectfully disagree.
Also Worth Chatting About. Two Big Pac-12 Defeats.
Through UCLA’s remarkable season-long transformation, and Oregon’s unlikely rise to the top of the Pac-12, it was easy to forget one simple thing: Arizona isn’t going away. The depth of the Wildcats’ non-conference work is matched or exceeded by only a handful of teams, but despite all the nice wins (Florida, Miami, San Diego State), it was sort of easy to dismiss the Wildcats from the national championship conversation. Why? First off, Sean Miller’s team could have easily lost two of its biggest victories (Florida and San Diego State). If not for a few costly last-minute decisions by the Gators, and Nick Johnson’s incredible weakside block on Chase Tapley, the Wildcats could well have entered Pac-12 play with two losses. Then there’s Arizona’s efficiency profile – 15th in offense, 19th in defense – which falls a notch below the nation’s other top teams. When Sean Miller’s team lost two conference games, one at Oregon and the other at home to UCLA, the general resistance to embrace the Wildcats as a championship challenger was confirmed. Many were quick to fix their Pac-12 interests toward Eugene, where the Ducks entered Wednesday night undefeated in league play; or Los Angeles, where the Bruins were finally figuring out how to leverage all that freshmen talent into a cohesive unit. What we all seemed to gloss over was that Arizona’s only two losses came against the very two teams that caused much of the nation to turn away from the Wildcats in the first place. While Pac-12 title talk featuring Oregon and UCLA swirled, Arizona stayed the course, kept on the winning track, and waited for Wednesday night to happen. With Oregon getting dump-trucked at Stanford, and UCLA suffering an inexplicable home loss to USC, the Wildcats moved into second place in the league standings, just one game behind the Ducks. Arizona won’t face Oregon again this season, which is unfortunate. It does face UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in March, and that game could go a long way toward sorting out the top of the Pac-12 standings.
What I’m really getting at here is that Arizona is still playing the same consistent if statistically non-appealing basketball that powered its initial rise to the top of the Pac-12. UCLA and Oregon aren’t going away, but they aren’t ready to outpace Arizona either. Both teams are vulnerable to ho-hum conference losses, and the Wildcats could meet their demon in any number of mediocre league tests down the stretch. But after a wild Wednesday night at the upper levels of league competition, it’s important to look back and remember what the Wildcats have accomplished to date. Oregon and UCLA are nice stories to follow. The green uniforms are a natural aesthetic draw; the Bruins’ freshman class is something to watch. Arizona is Arizona. And they’re still the best the Pac-12 has to offer.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- OU Mans Up. There is nothing particularly flashy about what Oklahoma has accomplished this season. The Hoosiers have mostly kept to the lower levels of college hoops consciousness, picking up solid wins throughout but never really making a forceful case for the default runner-up prize in the Big 12. Wednesday night’s win over Baylor elevated the Sooners from relative obscurity to the top of the non-Kansas Big 12 food chain. Baylor is a volatile bunch, prone to home flameouts and shocking road wins all the same, but the Sooners didn’t win this game by luck or chance or customary Bears’ inconsistency. Oklahoma ripped open a 16-point lead, got 20 points from Stephen Pledger and Amath M’Baye, and held on for an appreciably big conference win. This is no doubt a big step for Lon Kruger’s team, and we’ll get a clearer perspective over the next 10 days when the Sooners host home games against the Kansas schools and visit Iowa State.
- Turmoil In The Horizon. The casualty of top-end quality hoop in the Horizon League was not one of this year’s surprise storylines. The loss of Butler was a huge blow. From a reputational standpoint, the league is undoubtedly worse off. The upside is less difficult to grasp, but Wednesday showed why an imperceptible league front-runner is conducive to a generally more entertaining brand of league play. Valparaiso, winner of six straight games, was breaking away from the rest of the pack until it ran into Youngstown State, who pounded the Crusaders at home and shook up the top of the standings. Second-place Detroit secured a big win at Wright State as well, which moves the Titans just a half-game behind Valpo for first place. Even if these teams were not to meet (again) down the stretch – they do, on February 16, at Valpo – the Horizon should feature one of the nation’s most entertaining conference stretch runs.
- Cowboys Sharpen Up Before Kansas. After waxing on about Oklahoma’s quiet rise into the Big 12 elite, I couldn’t help but touch on the other Sooner State team’s performance Wednesday night. Oklahoma State’s home win over Iowa State didn’t reveal anything new about the Cowboys. But in case you weren’t aware: Marcus Smart can really play. He went for 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting, seven assists and six rebounds. There was some early buzz pushing for Smart’s inclusion not just in the FrOY discussion, but also the overall NPOY race. That’s distant territory for Oklahoma State’s wunder-frosh, but Smart remains one of the best overall first-years in the country, the type of lethal perimeter scorer and natural leader capable of taking OSU to Lawrence Saturday and delivering the Jayhawks’ first conference defeat. That last part was a bit of hyperbole, but hey, when Kansas is so clearly dominant, and with the rest of the Big 12 not living up to its preseason billing, drumming up improbably storylines is the next best thing.
- Mountain West Normalcy. The defining characteristic of Mountain West basketball in 2013 is, above all else, brutality. Not like in a realistic, blood-and-gore sense, but in the way teams play grindingly tough games on any given night. There are plenty of surprises and barely any easy contests. At this stage of the game, I have a strict grading curve when it comes to MW hoops, and I have to admit, Wednesday night was a pretty disappointing run of action. Not only did Colorado State predictably thrash Boise State at home, but New Mexico, who scored just 34 points its last time out at San Diego State, bounced back from its ugly offensive night to handle Wyoming on the road. What’s worse? Both Boise and Wyoming are now slipping from the NCAA Tournament picture. This league is probably the third or fourth best conference in the country, but if the Broncos and Cowboys fall out of the picture, and Air Force’s nascent tourney profile doesn’t materialize, we could be left with only four MW teams in the field. With the league’s crazy deep lineup, from top to bottom, I’d like to see more.
- Panic Meter Leveling Out In South Bend. Go back nine days. Notre Dame was coming off its third loss in four games, two of which had come at home. The win was no relief to the Irish’s declining stature – a three-point home survival of Rutgers. On Wednesday, though, the Irish handled USF at home for its second straight conference win. Notre Dame isn’t back if you define being back by “legitimate Big East contender with one of the nation’s most well-rounded veteran backcourts and a NPOY-level big man.” That was our perception of the Irish before the recent skid, and winning consecutive games against South Florida and Villanova – for all the Wildcats’ recent upsetting exploits – doesn’t stand the test of time. I’m not saying this to knock the Irish. I spent much of November and December pushing the Irish dark horse Final Four campaign, rightly or wrongly. And you know what, that distant endpoint still isn’t out of the question! I just want to see more before I jump back on the bandwagon. That’s all.
- Alleged Robbery Forces Postponement Of Ohio-EMU. An armed fugitive on the loose at Ohio University forced the cancellation of Wednesday night’s home game against Eastern Michigan. The Bobcats currently sit at 6-0, first place in the MAC East, with a monster match-up at Akron awaiting on the weekend. You always hope law enforcement can keep deviant individuals like this from causing mass disruption in everyday life. Weapon-wielding individuals are scary things to deal with on college campuses (See: the Virginia Tech shooting, among many others), and with thousands of people expected to pack the Athens, Ohio, Convocation Center Arena Wednesday night, President Roderick J McDavis’ decision is completely warranted. There is no need in risking another public confrontation with criminal intent in a year that’s already seen multiple horrifying shootings.
- Bowers Can’t Help Mizzou. What started out as an excellent day in the Mizzou basketball offices – when the Tigers learned injured forward Laurence Bowers would make his return to the team in a road game at LSU – turned decidedly worse by nightfall, when the Tigers suffered their first truly bad loss in conference play at LSU. Missouri’s high-flying attack had stalled out in recent games at Ole Miss and Florida, and Bowers was seen as the veteran presence who, upon return, would reinvigorate the Tigers’ attack with its full range of uptempo effectiveness. Instead, Phil Pressey hoisted 21 shots and made only nine of them, the Tigers knocked down 28 percent of their three-point attempts, and Frank Haith’s team fell upon a new SEC gym it couldn’t handle. Bowers was supposed to be the antidote. On Wednesday, his return only added more question marks to a team that has yet to win on the road in league competition.
- La Salle’s Run Comes To An End. But for Villanova’s historic dual top-five toppling week, no team made a bigger positive leap than La Salle over the past seven days. Beating Butler at home was nice. Winning at VCU, while minimizing giveaways against the nation’s most turnover-inclined D, was seismic. The Explorers put themselves squarely in the at-large conversation with two wins; on Wednesday night, they jeopardized that position with a home loss to UMass. The Minutemen do one thing really well — run. Entering Wednesday, UMass had the nation’s 12th-fastest offense in terms of average possessions per game (72.2). La Salle averages just 67.9 possessions per game. That may not sound like a lot, but when a 40-minute game boils down to one point off one Chaz Williams game-winning layup with eight seconds left, tempo differential can’t be dismissed. They’ll want this one back, those Explorers, but if the last week was anything more than a temporary surge – before Wednesday, I was really starting to buy in – La Salle can recover quickly in upcoming games at George Washington (tough, tough game), home against Fordham, and at St. Bonaventure.
Dunkdafied. The finish is nothing special, just a simple two-hand slam. I guess I’m more enamored by Titus Rubles’ no-look dish.
More Notes From Around The Nation
- Northeastern: No longer Unbeaten in CAA. It was fun while it lasted, and this NBA-commercial knock-off video was a good laugh, but Northeastern couldn’t extend its unbeaten streak in CAA play Wednesday night, the result of a five-point home loss to Georgia State.
- Wildcats Handle Business At Home. The first losing streak of the season came and went for Kansas State, as the Wildcats destroyed Texas in the Little Apple Wednesday night to stay tied with Oklahoma in second place. Bruce Weber’s team has not played its finest basketball since that demoralizing KU home loss, but it can right the ship and claim sole possession of the No. 2 spot by winning at Oklahoma Saturday night.
- The Lopsidedness Continues. When a rivalry game headline includes the phrase “28 straight wins,” is it still considered a rivalry? Xavier beat Dayton at home again Wednesday night. The Flyers haven’t won in Cincinnati in 33 years. The Musketeers are clinging on to faint NCAA aspirations – I have a hard time putting away a Chris Mack-coached XU team in January – while Dayton (2-4) has fallen completely off the bubble map.
- No Safe Passage Through Wake Forest. Just last week, NC State allowed Wake Forest to score 86 points in a two-point upset win. It was, by all accounts, a terrible loss for the Wolfpack. The Demon Deacons haven’t been very good this season – or any other season under Jeff Bzdelik, truth be told. But you can’t knock Wake’s effort, at least not during this two-game home stretch against NC State and Duke (an away loss at Georgia Tech came in-between). The Blue Devils needed 32 points from Mason Plumlee to escape Winston-Salem Wednesday night. It wasn’t the most encouraging showing from the No. 5 team in the country, but compared with NC State’s visit one week ago, the Blue Devils will bank the W and walk away on satisfied terms.
Tonight’s All Americans.
- Mason Plumlee, Duke (NPOY) – Not the game the Blue Devils had in mind, coming against a really down Wake Forest team. Plumlee did his part with a career-high 32 points and nine rebounds.
- Doug McDermott, Creighton – I’ve run out of creative ways to describe McDermott’s multifaceted offensive game. How’s this: 29 points and 10 rebounds in a comfortable win over Missouri State.
- Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State – Insofar as Oklahoma exists as an NCAA Tournament team, Smart will lead it there. The freshman had 21 points, seven assists and six boards against Iowa State.
- Trey Burke, Michigan – I have no doubts about Indiana’s offensive capabilities. My concern is in the Hoosiers’ defensive match-ups and how they plan to deal with Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. on the perimeter. Burke had 18 points and eight rebounds in leading the Wolverines to a rout over Northwestern.
- Shane Larkin, Miami – Despite Erick Green’s 30 points, Larkin (25 points) and company held off Virginia Tech on the road.
Tweet of the Night. More than anything else, Purdue’s home undressing was a case of two programs hitting opposite ends of the growth curve. When the Robbie Hummel era ended after last season, Matt Painter entered a major rebuilding phase. This is the first year of that process. At the same time, Indiana has finally, mercifully reached its rightful throne atop the college hoops world after going through one of the messiest coach-related NCAA scandals in recent history. The Hoosiers are back on top. Purdue will get back to the point where it can make this rivalry game an annually competitive fixture, but right now, Painter’s focus is more on developing young talent, building for the future and less on beating the No. 3 team in the country.