ATB: Gators Swamped at Arkansas, Michigan Edges OSU and Wichita in a Freefall…Posted by Chris Johnson on February 6th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Even The Mighty Fall On The Road. Every so often, we make logical assumptions about a team’s upcoming schedule. We assume – based on opponent strength, home/road splits and a handful of other variables – that team A will win or lose, and usually, we feel pretty good about it after the fact. There are times when those assumptions make us look pretty silly. Tuesday night, when AP Poll No. 2 and SEC punisher Florida was drilled at Arkansas, was one of those times. It is never wise to jump ahead two or even a single game in the midst of conference play – no matter how lopsided the match-up, and Florida-Arkansas is the best recent example why.
Your Watercooler Moment. Florida just got Florida’d.
What Florida was doing in SEC play before Tuesday night’s blowout loss at Arkansas wasn’t just impressive in the context of this season. The Gators were setting all-time marks for victory margin, broaching new levels of per-possession dominance and generating serious discussion, rightly or wrongly, whether they could in fact beat one of the most dreadful teams in the NBA. If Florida can’t beat a mediocre team in a downtrodden league, it certainly can’t beat an NBA team. But the larger point here is not about untenable cross-sport comparisons. It’s about tweaking the prevailing belief about Florida’s presumed invincibility in league play. Billy Donovan’s team was embarking on one of the most impressive conference seasons in recent memory, steamrolling through any team it encountered with minimal fuss and showing major improvements throughout. From Patric Young’s improved rebounding and offensive contributions to Scottie Wilbekin’s lockdown defense, this team had the looks of a real national championship challenger. And if we’re being completely honest, the Gators are still all of that – it’s just stunning, really, to not only see them stumble, but stumble in such decisive fashion. The Razorbacks jumped all over the Gators early, at one point opening up a 23-point lead, and never losing a firm grip from then on. You would have expected a team so seasoned on both ends of the court to take that initial punch, absorb the damage and settle down for a big second half. The Gators closed the gap to 11 but never matched Arkansas’ intensity on both ends. I’m not inclined to peg Florida for some massive decline in SEC play, or even expect the Gators to lose many games from here on out. Most teams lose in conference play; we just thought Florida – and rightly so, because the evidence was compelling – was formidable enough to make it through unscathed.
Also Worth Chatting About.Wolverines Begin Four-Game Gauntlet.
I haven’t seen a four-game stretch as brutal as the one the Wolverines are currently rolling through – the one that had them battling to the final possession in overtime against Ohio State just three days after losing at No. 1 Indiana. Michigan snagged the two-point win it needed, but it didn’t come as easy as some might have expected. Aaron Craft hounded Trey Burke for 40 minutes, LaQuinton Ross gave the Buckeyes a real lift off the bench with 16 points, and Michigan needed every last ounce of effort to scrape out a two-point victory despite shooting 58 percent from beyond the arc. The Buckeyes play the best defense in the Big Ten (0.90 points per possession), and as we saw Tuesday night, the offense is coming along. If Ross, Lenzelle Smith Jr. or Sam Thompson can develop into a reliable second scorer – or at least produce like a reliable No. 2 guy in the aggregate – alongside DeShaun Thomas, the Buckeyes are something like a threat to make a dark horse run at the Big Ten title. They delivered one of the better performances all season against one of the best teams in the country; losing is no knock on the Buckeyes’ progress to date. For Michigan, beating OSU was just as much a singular triumph as it was a tune-up fixture: Within the next week, John Beilein’s group faces a brutal Wisconsin-Michigan State road double.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Snaer Does It Again. There’s no player I’d rather give the ball to in the final moments with the game on the line than Florida State’s Michael Snaer, who kissed a finger roll off the glass to beat Georgia Tech at the buzzer Tuesday night. Snaer has hit game-winners in FSU’s last three wins. That’s special.
- “Bubble” Bluebloods Handle Business. The airquotes serve a simple purpose — deflating the momentum building around the idea of North Carolina and Kentucky missing the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels and Wildcats are two of college hoops’ most rabidly-followed programs, so when turmoil stirs and things don’t go according to historical precedent, and both teams are undergoing relative down seasons, the natural impulse is to dramatize the situation with worst-case conclusions. Neither team is locked in for an at-large bid, but it’s not like we’re looking at two fringe bubble teams here – if the NCAAs began today, UK and UNC are firmly in the field. It’s that simple. Just because both programs aren’t living up to recent standards, doesn’t mean we need to turn each UK/UNC game into a 40-minute proving ground for at-large prospects. Kentucky pummeled South Carolina at Rupp Arena Tuesday, while North Carolina handily took care of visiting Wake Forest. Those wins don’t say much about NCAA Tournament positioning, so let’s leave it at that and move on.
… and Miss.
- Time To Worry About Wichita State. Lose at home to Indiana State? No big deal. Follow that up with another L at Northern Iowa? Anxiety is setting in. Travel to 9-14 (2-10 MVC) Southern Illinois, shoot 50 percent from three, and suffer your third straight conference loss? Wichita State is at the point where a largely forgivable two-game drought, which featured two tough opponents in ISU and UNI, has turned into something far more pressing. It was two weeks ago that Gregg Marshall’s team sat atop the MVC standings after grabbing a signature win against Creighton. Things have headed south in a big way, but the Shockers get a slight reprieve with two very winnable home games (Missouri State, Drake) on the horizon. Either Wichita just happens to be caught in a major rut, or the general expectation about a team that lost its top five scorers from last season – that the Shockers would slide back to the mean – is becoming reality.
Dunkdafied. Tip-slams are deceptively rigorous: You have to time your jump, account for errant rim clanks, collect the ball in mid-air and collect yourself in time to throw the ball through the cylinder. Sam Thompson did all that – and he saved time to embarrass Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III.
Tuesday Night’s All Americans.
- Trey Burke, Michigan (NPOY) – In past match-ups, Aaron Craft has given Burke all kinds of problems. Craft pestered Burke in Ann Arbor Tuesday night, but the season NPOY candidate (16 points, eight assists) still made enough big plays to pull the Wolverines through.
- Nerlens Noel, Kentucky – If there was a reliable “shot-alteration-per-possession” statistic, Noel might own the No. 1 mark in the nation. He had 10 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks against South Carolina.
- BJ Young, Arkansas – Even if his team attracts a lot of deserved attention, Young is one of the nation’s most explosive point guards. His 13 points and five assists led the Razorbacks to the win of the night.
- Reggie Bullock, North Carolina – The ceiling on the Tar Heels this season isn’t as high as most of Roy Williams’ teams, but Bullock has risen to his increased offensive demands. He finished with 23 points in an easy win over Wake Forest.
- Rodney McGruder, Kansas State – A subjective hierarchy of Big 12 guards: Marcus Smart, Ben McLemore, Pierre Jackson, McGruder. The K-State guard got it done Tuesday night against Texas Tech at the hoop (18 points) and on the glass (eight rebounds).
Tweet of the Night. So many things go into how a team performs on the road in conference play. When you’re winning games in high-style, blowing through a weak SEC and ranked No. 2 in the major media polls, every road game is a battle of emotional damage control. The Gators need not only to win a basketball game, but to beat back the mental urge to let crowd banter disturb their mission on the court. All of Florida’s conference road games, with the possible exception of Kentucky (Wildcat fans have unconditionally high expectations), have and will feature electrified fan bases hoping to boost their team to a signature win. When the Gators come to town, at least this season, it’s so much more than a normal conference home game. For those teams playing host, it is a huge chance to turn their season around with one massive win and inherit the coveted upset-king mantle. When everyone’s throwing their best punches anytime you step into their home gyms, slippage is almost inevitable.
I don’t get the sense that this Florida team was full of itself before tonight. But this is a GREAT reminder to stay humble.
— Alligator Army (@AlligatorArmy) February 6, 2013