ATB: The Original No. 1 Returns, Phog Allen Defiled and More Mountain West Craziness…Posted by Chris Johnson on February 4th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The Weekend’s Lede. One More Month. Passage into February is a temporal marker for college basketball’s great postseason. Talks of preparing for “next month” are fair game now. Bubble discussion will rage on a daily basis. Each win will be scrutinized not just by the box score, but for its RPI and strength of schedule effects. The next monthly calendar flipping will bring even more excitement, but as the large masses who casually check in on the sport after the Super Bowl conveniently forget, the race to the dance can be just as tantalizing as the dance itself. From here on out, the competition will be fierce, the pressure will mount, and each and every day will bring us closer to our final destination: the NCAA Tournament. With another weekend in the books, time to revisit the first February action of this college hoops season.
Your Watercooler Moment. Another Slow Start Dooms Michigan.
Everybody loses games. What separates the great from the merely good, is the ability to learn from those losses, eliminate the bad tendencies, keep the good ones and readjust your memory bank. Michigan knows the perils of getting out to a slow start on the road in Big Ten play. In its lone loss of the season prior to Saturday’s eight-point defeat in Bloomington, the Wolverines allowed Ohio State to storm out to a 16-3 lead in Columbus. Michigan clawed back to make a real game of it, but in the end, Ohio State held on. The Wolverines’ early sluggishness put them in too large a hole to climb out of. Michigan should have come away from that loss with a stern appreciation for how to handle the opening minutes of high-level conference road games. Against Indiana, managing the early possessions without letting things get out of hand was the foremost hurdle to knocking off the No. 3 team in the country in its own super-packed, deafening, red-and-white filled building. Michigan didn’t – the Wolverines allowed the Hoosiers to bust open a 28-13 advantage by the 10-minute mark in the first half, ignite a delirious Hoosiers crowd and force the Wolverines into a massive uphill climb from that point onward. Michigan responded with excellent point guard play from Trey Burke and solid bench production from freshman big man Mitch McGary, but much like the Ohio State game, the Wolverines couldn’t quite make it all the way back.
Other factors – Victor Oladipo’s energetic defense, Cody Zeller’s easy looks in the post, the natural benefits of playing in one of the nation’s fiercest home gyms, Michigan’s numerous chances to win the game later on – need to be considered before pinning this loss entirely on Michigan’s slow beginning. And I don’t doubt John Beilein counseled his team on the dangers of a slow start at a hostile hoops fortress like Assembly Hall. But it just felt like Michigan came out with a tentative, almost rattled mindset – that once Indiana started hitting shots, the Wolverines had no power to settle the game down, collect themselves and dictate the flow on their terms. The comeback effort was strong, again, but it doesn’t disabuse the fact that Michigan played into the Hoosiers’ home-crafted momentum advantage, and had a much, much better shot at leaving with a W if not for that poor opening stretch. An eight-point loss at Indiana is not the end of the world; Michigan will rebound, and when these teams meet again on March 10, you can expect another high-paced, high-intensity, high-stakes battle.
Also Worth Chatting About. Um, Kansas?
After surviving Iowa State and Baylor and Oklahoma at home, Texas and Kansas State on the road and a hairy early-week test at Morgantown, running the table in a watered-down Big 12 started looking like a very real possibility for a Kansas team that, but for a three-point neutral court loss to Michigan State all the way back on November 13, had navigated a tough non-conference schedule and mild league slate without error. The rest of the schedule looked manageable enough. In fact, the biggest remaining hurdle, at least at this stage in the Big 12 season, was a February 20 visit to Oklahoma State (along with a February 9 trip to Oklahoma), where Marcus Smart, Le’Bryan Nash, Markel Brown and a frenzied Gallagher-Iba Arena would test the boundaries of Kansas’ Big 12 lordship. The Jayhawks could still lose that game, but the Cowboys nipped Kansas at their place, first. That loss, powered by 28 points from Brown and 25 from Smart, snapped the Jayhawks’ 33-game home winning streak. More than that, it removed the aura of invincibility hovering about KU throughout its recent spell of close escapes: Temple and Iowa State at home, Kansas State and West Virginia on the road. One conference loss shouldn’t deter Kansas from winning a downtrodden league, nor will it eliminate the Jayhawks’ one-seed aspirations. The Jayhawks are going to be fine – that’s a safe assumption based on what we’ve seen over the entire season. The biggest take from OSU’s upset is more symbolic than anything else. Kansas isn’t some unbeatable team of destiny existing in an untouchable realm above the rest of the league. The Jayhawks can lose, and they can lose at home.
This Weekend’s Quick Hits…
- ACC Front-Runners Stand Tall. The pre-Saturday stasis atop the ACC, with Duke and Virginia sitting two games back of first-place Miami, was a tentative arrangement. That was the basic expectation with the Hurricanes traveling to NC State – unbeaten at home in league play – and Duke voyaging to Florida State, itself coming off an emotional two-point win over Maryland on Wednesday. Both teams survived, albeit in whole different fashion. The Blue Devils feasted on the perpetually-disappointing Seminoles thanks to 21 points from Seth Curry, with only eight needed from NPOY candidate Mason Plumlee. It was as complete a performance as Duke has had since Ryan Kelly went down with a foot injury. Up the coastline, the Hurricanes got a game-winning tip-in from long-injured big man Reggie Johnson to stay unbeaten in league play. As it stands, Miami is well-positioned to snatch first place and stage a deep run in the NCAAs. But right now isn’t what we should be looking at — Duke is a different team with Kelly on the floor. Until then, measuring these teams in relative terms is pointless, or at least incomplete.
- Air Force Is No Fluke. A skimpy non-conference slate and a couple of losses to open Mountain West play shelved Air Force to the outer rim of relevant MW discussion. The Big Four (San Diego State, Colorado State, UNLV and New Mexico) were the talk of the town, with Boise State and Wyoming not far off. Air Force was one of those offensive novelties, a team you can’t stand playing on the road, and not much else. Contending in an ocean-deep MW was a pipe dream for a team allowing opponents to shoot 52.5 percent inside the arc and post a 51.4 effective field goal percentage, both among the worst in Division I. The Falcons had beaten Boise at home and Wyoming on the road, but until Saturday, there was nothing to suggest Dave Pilopovich’s team could break into the league’s upper tier. Air Force seized a huge opportunity by knocking off San Diego State at home and moving into second place. At this point, Aiming for a conference title is not far-fetched; neither is an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament.
- The A-10 Is A Puzzle. Even the most competitive leagues typically have some sense of delineation at this point of the season. Butler, Saint Louis and VCU are pretty good, I think. Other than that, trying to sort out the Atlantic 10 is like recounting, in perfect detail, every plot twist of the Manti Te’o saga. The logical puzzles are mind-numbing. To avoid any needless confusion, I’ll throw out the following results, and let you handle the implications: Saint Louis 81, Dayton 52; Charlotte 66, UMass 65; Richmond 73, Xavier 71; Saint Joe’s 70, Temple 69; La Salle 80, George Washington 71.
- Zips Go Social. NCAA rules prohibited Akron from wearing the team’s official Twitter handle on the back of its jerseys for Social Media night. The Zips stuck the @ZipsMBB handle on warm-up jerseys instead. The Twitter advertisement mandate didn’t stop Akron from claiming sole possession of first place in the MAC by dismantling Ohio, 86-72. In a league known mostly for its parity, Akron and Ohio were making easy work of conference play, nary a loss between them entering Saturday’s tilt. The Zips took this one, the on-court window dressing to a social media celebration, but a return game in Athens looms at the end of the month. Avoiding any losses before then is key.
- A Tight Big 12 Second Place Bout. The biggest winner from Saturday’s Big 12 action is Oklahoma State. Beat the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse, and it’s going to be enormously difficult for any team to come away with a better win on the same day. Kansas State’s victory at Oklahoma is a close second. Not only had the Sooners moved into second place with recent wins over Baylor and Texas, they were quietly playing some of the best two-way hoops in the Big 12; entering Saturday, Oklahoma owned the third best offense and fifth best defense, per KenPom’s efficiency rankings, among conference opponents. The Wildcats were still recovering from consecutive losses against Kansas and Iowa State, even if a home win over Texas midweek removed some of the sting. Handling OU in Norman serves notice that KSU is, until a March 9 trip to Oklahoma State says otherwise, the clear No. 2 in the Big 12. And with 10 games remaining in conference play, and the Wildcats sitting just one game behind KU, well, you never know.
- Woah, Florida. The hyperbolic comparisons placing Florida on the same level as some of the all-time great teams – 1996 Kentucky chief among them – felt kind of silly for a while. After seeing Florida dump-truck Ole Miss – an extremely balanced and talented group in its own right, with an NCAA Tournament trajectory to boot – at home Saturday, the Gators have me convinced. All of Florida’s wins in SEC play have come by double figures, and none of them have been particularly close. The Gators aren’t just beating teams. They are sending real, competitive, well-funded D-I programs into utter basketball oblivion with an efficiency margin in conference play that’s just downright mystifying (+0.46 points per possession). To give you a feel for where that stands in the context of recent hoops dominance, last year’s national champion Kentucky Wildcats finished with a margin of +0.26 in SEC competition. There’s no getting around it: Florida looks like the best team in the country.
- Not an Upset. Call it an upset, if that’s your thing. I’ll call it just another case of a top-10 Big East squad losing at the Peterson Events Center. Saturday’s toppling of Syracuse pushed the Panthers’ record against top-10 teams at the Pete to 13-1 (13-1!). Upset? More like historical conformity. And this Pittsburgh team, for all its early Big East woes and ho-hum non-conference work, is pretty good. The Panthers ranked Saturday with the nation’s sixth most efficient offense, and a defense that’s held opponents to 0.80 points per trip. Jim Boeheim doesn’t need numbers to describe the obvious: “They’re the best team we’ve played. It’s not even close,” he said in the postgame press conference. The Orange are going to run into their share of problems scoring without James Southerland, and when you’re facing an elite defensive group like Pitt, those problems are greatly amplified. So, yeah, Syracuse fans can be “upset” about the loss, but the game itself? Not an upset.
… and Misses.
- Wichita State Falls Again. Playing top-30 efficiency defense and grinding opponents into close wins is a reliable formula. It allows less-talented teams to force opponents to play an ugly style. The Shockers worked their physical advantages in a three-point home win over Creighton two weeks ago, and entering Saturday sat tied atop the MVC standings with the Bluejays. Here’s the problem: When that hard-nosed defense doesn’t come with at least competent offensive work, you’re just not going to win many games. The Shockers took a loss at Northern Iowa Saturday, and – just like Tuesday’s loss to Indiana State – failed to score more than 60 points for the second straight game. Unless Wichita can generate more productive offense down the stretch, trying to hang with Creighton in the league title race is a lost cause.
- Buffaloes Fading. A bad road loss to Utah Saturday puts Colorado in dicey NCAA Tournament standing. Wins over Colorado State and Baylor are nice, but having beaten no one of real consequence in league play, the Buffaloes are in danger of slipping onto the wrong side of the bubble. I just hope Colorado’s fate doesn’t boil down to that would-be road win at Arizona, where referees revoked Sabatino Chen’s apparent game-winner and sent coach Tad Boyle into a verbal harangue on instant replay. Colorado has plenty of chances over the next month and change to add much-needed resume insurance. The most important matter at hand is ensuring the Utah loss is a minor blip, and not the start of a larger downward spiral. Securing at least a split of the Oregon Pac-12 roadie (Oregon Thursday, followed by Oregon State Sunday) is pivotal.
- Come on, UNLV. There may be no bigger mismatch of talent and winning this season than UNLV (maybe NC State). The Rebels are the most talented team in the MW. It’s not even a real debate. Khem Birch, Anthony Bennett and Mike Moser comprise the best selection of frontcourt talent on any team in the country. Not talented enough, apparently, to overcome the various challenges of Mountain West competition. The Rebels fell at downward-trending Boise State Saturday night, which in itself is not a terrible loss. Taken alongside two other conference defeats, plus the grim reality of staring up not just at New Mexico but also Air Force and Colorado State in the league standings, it’s a bad look. There’s so much promise in Dave Rice’s team; we just haven’t seen enough to believe the Rebels can put it all together before March.
- Pac-12 Road Trips Are Tough. In the Pac-12, a typical road trip includes two games against nearby schools, bookended around a weekend. Arizona State, for example, just finished up a swing around the Washington schools. After winning at Washington Thursday, they stayed in the area for Saturday’s test at Washington State. Opponent strength aside, that is a daunting three-day itinerary. All that travel and hotel lodging can wear a team out. That’s the only conclusion I can draw from ASU’s four-point loss to the Huskies. The Sun Devils have been playing some of the Pac-12’s best basketball of late, racking up three consecutive wins over USC, UCLA and the Cougars. Keeping the string alive at Washington to close out an enervating road slog was too much to ask. The Huskies are one of the most perplexing teams in the country, and maybe Saturday, we saw the good side of Lorenzo Romar’s team. I’m willing to buy that, as long as we can also agree that travel weariness didn’t make things any easier for Herb Sendek’s team.
- UVA Has Four-Game Win Streak Snapped at Georgia Tech. I don’t doubt Virginia can and will play its way back into safe NCAA territory. The Cavaliers have yielded an average of 0.86 points per possession, they keep opponents off the offensive glass, and they protect the rim better than all but a handful of teams in the country. Winning with that defensively-sound game plan, despite a dearth of pure scoring talent, is nothing new for Tony Bennett. Here’s where things get weird: Bennett’s team lost at Georgia Tech Sunday, a team whose offensive and defensive weaknesses play right into what Virginia does best. The Yellow Jackets are playing the worst offense in the ACC (89.6 points per 100 possessions) and rank eighth in offensive rebounding percentage. They’re the type of team Virginia should grind and batter into a comfortable win. It didn’t, and so now the Cavaliers have some work to do to get above NCAA cutline waters.
- Artis Injury Bites Oregon. Winning at Cal, just three days after being blown out at Stanford, was already going to be a tough game for Oregon. Without freshman point guard Dominic Artis, on the back end of a grueling Bay Area road trip (see Arizona State blurb for more on P-12 roadies), the Ducks walked into a thorny spot Saturday at Haas Pavilion. They left, as you might expect, with their second loss in as many games. The biggest culprit? Backup point guard Johnathan Loyd, who scored seven points but turned it over six times, along with missing Oregon’s final shot at the buzzer. Heaping blame on Loyd isn’t fair, I suppose, but the reality is that Oregon needs Artis to play its best basketball. Upcoming games against Colorado and Utah offer a perfect opportunity to go home, recover and capitalize on two get-right fixtures against struggling Pac-12 opponents. With or without Artis, taking those two is crucial.
Dunkdafied #1. Watch NC State frosh Rodney Purvis begin his run-up right as C.J. Leslie releases a mid-range jumper, take off on one leg just outside the semi-circle under the basket, then sky over Miami forward Julian Gamble for a spectacular tip-slam.
More Notes From Around the Nation.
- Wildcats Get Revenge on Texas A&M. There’s something about Kentucky that brings the best out of Texas A&M senior guard Elston Turner. After dropping 40 in an eight-point win in Lexington three weeks back, Turner pushed the Wildcats to OT Saturday with 21 points. Only this time, the Aggies gave out in overtime.
- Resilient Crimson. One day removed from a gritty three-point win over Yale, Harvard notched its second big victory of the weekend by topping Brown in overtime. The Crimson have absorbed the losses of senior leaders Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey to academic scandal without missing a step; Harvard stands alone in first place in the Ivy at 4-0.
- Big East Bottom-Dwellers Spook Cincinnati, Notre Dame. The Big East is tough, top to bottom, and winning on the road is even tougher. That doesn’t make Notre Dame’s overtime win at DePaul or Cincinnati’s six-point escape at Seton Hall look any better.
- Anytime Now, Illinois. The Illini didn’t win at Michigan State earlier this week, but they came awfully close, and more than that they recaptured the early-season three-point magic that propelled them to a 12-0 start and top-10 AP Poll ranking. For all the positive signs, Illinois still lost that game, and they lost Sunday at home to Wisconsin, dropping its Big Ten record to 2-7 and adding more doubt to an already shaky NCAA profile. The Illini get Indiana at home Thursday, in a game feels everything like – cliché alert – a must-win.
- Surging Sycamores Tripped Up On Road. The Missouri Valley should produce three at-large NCAA bids. Wichita State and Creighton are virtual locks. Indiana State has the best shot to claim the third, even if they lost at Drake in OT Saturday. The Sycamores have enough quality wins to bounce back, and compose a sturdy conclusion to MVC play. ISU can take another step toward at-large lockdom by beating Creighton at home Wednesday.
- The Almost Best Dunk Of The Year. The most athletically scintillating play of the weekend was one that didn’t register on the scoreboard. Victor Oladipo’s clanged alley-oop generated more buzz than any single shot, block or dunk. I just wish it didn’t rim out.
- Concerns Still Exist For Minnesota. Any winning streak in this year’s Big Ten is an accomplishment. When the teams comprising that streak are Nebraska and Iowa, both of which came at home, you’re not walking away feeling completely at ease about the four-game losing streak that came before it. That’s where Minnesota finds itself Sunday after edging the Hawkeyes at the Barn. The Gophers are winning, and that’s always nice, but to think they’ve completely erased whatever ailed them during their recent skid is ambitious.
- Iowa State Picking Up Steam In League Play. It took a while for the Cyclones to hit the national hoops consciousness, but Saturday’s win over Baylor should do the trick. Fred Hoiberg’s team now owns Ws over Kansas State, Texas, West Virginia and the Bears. What’s more, the Cyclones have big home opportunities on the horizon, with Oklahoma at home Monday and at K-State Saturday.
- No More Magic For Villanova. Go back to last week. Villanova was the Big East and national flavor of the week, fresh off a monumental two-game sweep of Louisville and Syracuse. Since then, the Wildcats lost at Notre Dame, which is fine. Falling to Providence at home, and shooting 28 percent in the process, is not. Seven days ago, the NCAA Tournament talks were valid. On Sunday, they may have reached their expiration date.
- Georgetown Better Without Whittington? Losing your second-leading scorer to academic ineligibility is never fun, and I can only assume Georgetown would very much like to get Greg Whittington back on the court. But it’s hard to quibble with the results: since losing Whittington; the Hoyas are 6-1, with wins over Notre Dame and Louisville. Georgetown vanquished St. John’s at home Saturday.
- See? Louisville’s Fine. Anytime you lose three games in a row, panic sets in – especially if you’re gunning for a Big East title, a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and quite possibly a national championship. It was perfectly reasonable to feel unnerved about the Cardinals dropping three straight games, even if two of them – Syracuse at home and Georgetown on the road – came against top 20-level competition. But after seeing the Cardinals take care of Pittsburgh and Marquette at home (Sunday), two solid wins over Big East challengers, anxiety about Louisville’s long-term prospects should be squashed just as quickly as it was ever raised in the first place.
- Momentum Building in Chapel Hill. Drawing back to the 2009-10 post-championship NIT finalist team – the last UNC squad to miss the NCAAs – was the instinctive impression. UNC was scuttling, their roster had major holes and James Michael McAdoo wasn’t anywhere near the All-American hopeful we was built up to be. By holding on against Virginia Tech in overtime Saturday, UNC moved to 5-3 in the ACC, having won five of its last six games. After an early panic, it’s safe to say that UNC is not about to go down that dreaded path of three seasons ago.
Dunkdafied #2. This dunk is disgusting. It’s sublime. It’s Vince Carter, Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan melded into one slice of dunkdafied heaven. JUST WATCH.
The Weekend’s All Americans.
- Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, Oklahoma State (NPOY) – The 28-point effort from Brown was impressive, but not quite in the same realm as Smart’s 25 points, nine rebounds, five steals and three assists. Smart and Brown get an extra tip of the cap for ending Kansas’ lengthy (33 games) home unbeaten streak.
- Nerlens Noel, Kentucky – The defensive side of Noel’s game is well-chronicled. If he develops offensively, and Saturday’s 19-point, 14-rebound effort points towards major progress, we could be looking at one of the nation’s best all-around big men.
- Jack Cooley, Notre Dame – The Irish don’t defend well. They do feature a glass-cleaning savant in their starting frontcourt capable of gobbling up 16 boards to go along with 26 points and three blocks. His name is Jack Cooley.
- Joe Rahon, Boston College – Conference wins have been hard to come by for BC (2-6 in ACC) this season, so when the Eagles snag a nice home victory over Clemson, and Rahon scores 26 points, you’re going to hear about it.
- Cody Zeller, Indiana – With UM defensive stopper Jordan Morgan only logging two minutes, Zeller controlled the paint and finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
- R.J. Hunter, Georgia State – Any instinctual mental list of this year’s elite freshmen won’t include Hunter. Maybe it should — on Saturday, he scored the most points (38) of any first-year player this season.
- Reggie Hearn, Northwestern – The final line is praiseworthy – a career-high 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting. But the best part about Hearn’s day was the 9-of-9 game-opening shooting streak he used to help the Wildcats drill Purdue at home.
- Earnest Ross, Missouri – Not only did Ross score 23 points and convert 5-of-6 from beyond the arc. He did it against his former team, Auburn, in a 91-77 winning effort.
- Shabazz Napier, UConn – It’s been a long time since using the words “impressive” and “win-streak” in conjunction with Providence and South Florida made any real sense. UConn, who knocked off the Bulls at home Sunday for its second straight OT win, deserves that praise, and Napier was paramount throughout: 24 points, eight rebounds, four assists.
- Lenzelle Smith Jr., Ohio State – More than anything, I’m astonished to see Ohio State win a close game on the road without DeShaun Thomas as the leading-scorer. On Saturday, that distinction went to Smith, who finished 6-of-6 with 21 points.
Tweet of the Weekend. The days spent debating Travis Ford’s “questionable” job security are officially over (at least for now). Ford snagged the biggest prize you can buy in today’s Big 12. Knocking off KU is a monumental task in your own building. Doing it at Allen Fieldhouse, particularly when so many others had tested but ultimately failed, is the highest degree of college hoops achievement.