ATB: Butler Stumbles, Arizona Underwhelms and Illinois Shows Flashes…Posted by Chris Johnson on February 1st, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Top 10 Teams Hit The Road. Two top 10 teams hit the road Thursday night with disconcerting challenges on tap. One team, playing and succeeding beyond expectations in its first year in a new league, ran into a defensive death trap it couldn’t overcome. The other did what its been doing all season – what has caused many to doubt its merits as a real national or (even conference) favorite. If you haven’t figured it out by now, the first team is Butler. The second is Arizona. On a night packed with boring match-ups, the above two – Butler at Saint Louis and Arizona at Washington – stood out. The Big Ten also gave us something to talk about, even if the end result fell in line with the most basic team assumptions about the nation’s best conference. Thursday was a little light on intrigue, but don’t fret, a promising weekend awaits.
Your Watercooler Moment. Encouraging Signs From Illinois In East Lansing.
They weren’t going to stay cold forever. We had plenty of evidence suggesting otherwise. The Illini built a reputation in the non-conference season on three-point shooting. John Groce’s team not only shot a bunch of threes, for a good two-month stretch it also sank a high percentage of those long-range shots. Illinois stormed through the Maui Invitational, picking up a blowout win over Butler in the process, then barraged Gonzaga in the Kennel with – what else? – 11 threes and 35 points from Brandon Paul in an 11-point win. At the time, Illini fans were rightfully thrilled about their newfound offensive explosion and about Groce’s ability to unlock the upper reaches of his team’s offensive parts in just his first year on campus. Illinois was winning, times were good in Champaign, but all the while the Illini’s hot start was taken with a token of skepticism. Devoting so many possessions and shot attempts to three-pointers is fraught with risk, and once the conference season arrived, Illinois was swiftly introduced to the repercussions of that strategy by losing five of its first seven Big Ten games. Entering Thursday night, the Illini had posted the Big Ten’s worst three-point field goal percentage in conference play (24.5%). A little bit of three-point fall-off was a realistic expectation, what with all the rigorous defenses throughout the Big Ten. But 24 percent? The worst mark in the conference? Something had to give.
The Illini lost their sixth conference game at Michigan State Thursday night, but unlike most of its other league losses – the majority of which were downright ugly – Illinois had a brief re-encounter with its nationally-relevant self of 2012. The Illini stroked five three-pointers in the first half and committed just one turnover to stake a 10-point lead at the break, kept it close throughout the second half thanks in part to Tracy Abrams’ three-point shooting, and hung around long enough to very nearly spring one of the most surprising upsets of any team in any league. Keith Appling’s season breakout – 24 points, eight rebounds, seven assists – stemmed the tide in the waning moments, and the Spartans, a legitimate Big Ten contender, held on at home. Taken together, despite leaving the Breslin Center with another conference L, John Groce and his staff can’t walk away with any real complaints. To the absolute contrary, he should be measurably encouraged. A hot-shooting Illini team is a dangerous one. The Illini may never recapture their lights-out form of November and December, but anything close would be good enough to turn around the Illini’s thus-far ugly league season.
Also Worth Chatting About. For Arizona, Winning Isn’t Enough.
In yesterday’s ATB, in a long-winded reaction to UCLA and Oregon’s respective defeats, I spotlighted Arizona to highlight the contrast between the general national opinion on the Wildcats – that Arizona is good, but way, way overrated – and their season results. Arizona owns two losses this season. Both of them (home to UCLA at Oregon) are entirely forgivable. They also claim wins over Florida, San Diego State and Miami, part of a complete resume that stands among the nation’s best. And after Thursday night, they have a road win at Washington. For most teams, winning on the road in conference play is generally good news – Lorenzo Romar’s team is sporadically dangerous, and Alaska Airlines Arena is not a fun place to play. So after beating the Huskies to move to 6-2 in Pac-12 play, just one game behind Oregon, the bigger takeaway – however unimposing Arizona looked against a mediocre Pac-12 opponent – is an obvious plus: A win’s a win, right? It’s not that simple with these Wildcats. Because Arizona was so “unimpressive” and so “underwhelming,” grinding out a tough road victory is only likely to bring more scrutiny to the Wildcats’ season success. NBCSports.com’s lead college basketball writer Rob Dauster jumped right in.
I said this the other day and got blasted for it. They’re just not that good RT @danwolken Arizona is so underwhelming.
— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) February 1, 2013
His claim may or may not be true. But until Arizona provides credible supporting evidence, who is to say the Wildcats aren’t one of the best teams in the country? They’re winning games, notching the ones UCLA and Oregon couldn’t, and in the end, isn’t that the most important metric for team evaluation? Aesthetically-pleasing or not, Arizona isn’t hurting itself by not blowing teams out of the water – just its reputation. Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- A Rare Buzzer-Beating Lob From Middle Tennessee. The Sun Belt doesn’t get a lot of national attention. If I had to guess, I’d say more than half of the loyal RTC readership didn’t know Middle Tennessee was 10-1 and in firm control of the Sun Belt East division. Let me backtrack: the Blue Raiders are 10-1. Before this game-winning inbounds lob-and-lay-in to cap a 17-point comeback win against Florida International, they were 9-1.
- Updating the MAAC Race. MAAC games don’t get much bigger than what went down at Niagara Thursday night. The first place Purple Eagles welcomed Iona with a one-game lead in the win column, having suffered their only conference loss at the New Rochelle Center earlier this season. All sorts of conference title implications boiled down to one, high-drama, back-and-forth overtime period. Eagles’ guard Juan’ya Green was the star, but he’s only one part of a Niagara team that also features 18.1 PPG scorer Antoine Mason, son of former Knicks standout Anthony Mason. Any hopes of an NCAA Tournament appearance will be decided in the conference tournament, but the rest of conference play should bring provide some of the most thrilling mid-major hoops around.
- Fighting Huskies. In the softest stretch of its conference schedule, UConn is stashing away as many victories as possible. The Huskies beat Rutgers at home earlier this week. On Thursday, they needed overtime plus a missed three from Bryce Cotton to escape Rhode Island with a win. Kevin Ollie’s team – as an aside, I can’t begin to tell you how nice it is to not have to type “interim” next to Ollie’s name; adding that modifier was becoming a real nuisance – is 4-3 in the Big East, with plenty of room for improvement on the Horizon: home against South Florida, at Saint John’s, at Seton Hall. Win those games, and you’re looking at a 7-3 UConn team. With no postseason to look forward to, this group could have mailed it in weeks, even months ago. Ollie’s extension provided a perfect opportunity. The reaction couldn’t have been more different, and in an obviously positive way. The Huskies continue to scrape out tight road games and fight for an empty postseason reward. Any questions about Ollie’s credentials about a head basketball coach (or as a pure motivator) should by now be put to rest.
- Another League Loss For Butler. If there’s a manual for how to attack and break down Butler, Saint Louis penned a Pulitzer Peace Prize-winning version Thursday night at Chaifetz Arena. The Billikens forced Brad Stevens’ team into a frenzy with suffocating defense, and the Bulldogs committed 16 first-half turnovers (23 overall, the most cough-ups of any game this season). Saint Louis bullied Roosevelt Jones and Khyle Marshall on the low block, kept Rotnei Clarke in check (17 points, but on 5-of-12 shooting) and made the typically unflappable Bulldogs feel uncomfortable throughout. For St. Louis, beating the No. 9 Bulldogs is huge – both resume-wise, and in the larger context of the program’s Rick Majerus-initiated growth curve (the last team ranked as high as Butler to play at Saint Louis was No. 2 North Carolina in 2006-07). The Bulldogs could have used another big road win, I suppose, but when you look at Butler’s other data points in conference play – wins at Dayton and St. Joe’s, home against Temple – one road loss against a hardened defensive force won’t deflate much confidence in this team’s potential going forward.
Dunkdafied. I don’t know what’s better about this dunk: Denzel Valentine’s sweet lob, or Adreian Payne’s forceful finish and fatigued jog back on defense?
Thursday Night’s All Americans.
- Keith Appling, Michigan State (NPOY) – With Appling (24 points, eight rebounds, seven assists) at his very best, Michigan State stands as good a chance at knocking off Indiana and Michigan as any team in the Big Ten.
- Ryan Boatwright, UConn – Ugly Big East games, like the one UConn found itself in Thursday night at Providence, often require a big individual performance to decide the victor. Boatwright helped UConn avoid an upset with 19 points and seven assists.
- Jordair Jett, Saint Louis – Besides having the best dreads in college basketball, Jair is a pretty integral piece of the Billikens’ backcourt. He matched his career-high of 19 points against Butler.
- Aaron White, Iowa – It’s going to take more wins and more 27-point efforts from White to push Iowa onto the right side of the bubble.
- Antoine Mason and Juan’ya Green, Niagara – It took a combined 56 points from Mason (30) and Green (26) to sink Iona at home.
Tweet of the Night. The immediate success of Butler and VCU took away some of the preseason buzz about the A-10 being one of the most thoroughly competitive and balanced leagues in the country. The newcomers were taking the A-10 by storm, and no one seemed capable of keeping up. In the last few weeks, which included Butler losses at LaSalle and Saint Louis, and VCU losses at Richmond and home to the Explorers, the Bulldogs and Rams have been humanized. The concerns about Butler and VCU’s respective transitions, the ones about dealing with the grind of a brutal league schedule, are starting to get to the previously-untouchable newbloods. That it, at least, my general impression. Butler and VCU will continue to compete at the top of this league. They’re also going to lose games. And the A-10, loaded as ever, will be better because of it. The dreamy, uber-competitive league title chase we all dreamed about in the offseason is coming to life. Butler and VCU are mortal.
If #Butler loses, there will be seven teams in A-10 with two conference defeats each.
— David Woods (@DavidWoods007) February 1, 2013