Ten Tuesday (Wednesday) Scribbles: On Underwhelming Teams, Soft Schedules, Wisconsin and More…Posted by Brian Otskey on February 6th, 2013
Brian Otskey is an RTC columnist. Every Tuesday during the regular season he’ll be giving his 10 thoughts on the previous week’s action. You can find him on Twitter @botskey
- The Super Bowl marks the beginning of a two month stretch where college basketball dominates the national sports scene. From now until April 8, the focus will be squarely on our terrific sport. Sure it can be frustrating for the diehard fans that have been following every game since early November but the attention of the casual fans is what drives coverage and television ratings. The unfortunate reality is that without casual fan interest, college basketball would exclusively be a niche sport. We all have had that NCAA Tournament pool experience where the person who starts watching in February or March and knows very little other than team names and rankings wins the pool while the person who studies the efficiency metrics and knows that Travis Trice is a great three point shooter but awful inside the arc (h/t Luke Winn) finishes near the bottom of the pool standings. Nevertheless, it is an exciting time of year as bubble talk, last four in and last four out quickly creep into the daily sports conversation. Games like Tuesday night’s Ohio State/Michigan classic are what drive interest in the sport. We’ve been treated to plenty of great games this season but this one couldn’t have come at a better time, a time when most of America is now squarely focused on college basketball. Strap in, it’s going to be really fun as we head into the part of the season where every game is so big and teams make their final push towards March.
- As we move into this crucial part of the season, the issue of teams peaking early can become a concern for some. The season is a process, an evolution if you will, and not every team is playing its best basketball come March. As I look across the nation, there are a few teams that may have already peaked or are peaking right now and may not be able to sustain their current level of play into March. Oregon, NC State, Miami and Butler come to mind. Two losses to the Bay Area schools have put a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Is it a short term blip or a sign of things to come for the Ducks? Their ability to score and propensity for turnovers are causes for concern but Oregon’s defense is surprisingly solid. NC State’s issue is just the opposite. The Wolfpack certainly can score, although their offense was shut down in losses to Maryland and Virginia. However, defense has been a problem all year and NC State’s efficiency, ranked #141 in the country, is simply not at a level where you can win games consistently. Chances are the Wolfpack have already peaked and their inability to stop teams will catch up to them eventually. Miami is a case of a team that may be peaking as we speak. The Hurricanes have won 10 consecutive games in a variety of different ways. This fact (meaning they can play different styles/speeds) combined with a defensive efficiency ranked fourth in the country suggest Miami can sustain this level of play. Concerns for the Hurricanes include three point shooting, free throw shooting and offensive rebounding but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Miami hold steady, at least for the next few weeks. Butler is an interesting case. The Bulldogs are 18-4 (5-2) but have lost two of their four games since the emotional win over Gonzaga on January 19 while also struggling through a win over lowly Rhode Island. Butler’s league isn’t as tough as the other teams mentioned here so it will likely enter the NCAA Tournament with a very strong record. Of concern is the BU defense which is not at the elite level it was when the Bulldogs first went to the national title game three years ago. However, it would be foolish to doubt Brad Stevens and his group. With a soft schedule down the stretch, there is still time for Butler to pile up wins and gather confidence heading into the tournament. I would say Butler has not peaked yet despite some major wins already on its resume. Look out for the Bulldogs next month.
- As we head into February and the regular season begins to wind down, I figure this is a good time to look at a few of America’s underwhelming teams. There are teams out there with gaudy records but few quality wins or those who just haven’t gotten on track relative to preseason expectations. Notre Dame, UNLV, UCLA and Missouri come to mind immediately. Notre Dame is 18-5 and 6-4 in the Big East which appears good on the surface but this was a team many thought would finish third in that rugged conference. However, a closer inspection reveals the Irish have just two quality wins on their resume (Kentucky (maybe) and at Cincinnati). In Big East play, Notre Dame has lost twice on its home court, something that has been almost unheard of over the years in South Bend. Notre Dame has never been a defensive juggernaut under Mike Brey but this is arguably his worst defensive team in 13 years at the helm. UNLV is a team with lots of talent that always leaves you wanting more, always following up a stretch of good play with a disappointing loss. The Rebels struggle away from Vegas which is understandable but you would still like to see them beat a few good teams on the road. They have failed to do that. UNLV can still turn it around but I feel like we’ve seen this movie before. Three consecutive first round NCAA flameouts show that UNLV isn’t quite ready for primetime. In fact, the Rebels have not won a postseason game since a first round victory over Kent State in 2008. UCLA is still a work in progress but there is no denying it has been underwhelming. The Bruins have lost three of their last four games since winning 10 straight games after a disappointing 5-3 start. Defense has been a concern all season long but it’s the offense that has scuttled of late. Five of UCLA’s final seven games are on the road and one of the home games is against Arizona. Things could get a little dicey down the stretch for the Bruins. Missouri is the team I feel is the most overrated of all. Despite a resume that lacks one single freaking SEC road win and non-conference wins over fading Illinois and mediocre Stanford, the Tigers continue to be ranked in both major polls. Missouri is not a good defensive team and has given up a lot of points to pretty much every good team it has played. Phil Pressey can be a great distributor but he’s also a turnover machine and a poor jump shooter. Mizzou will probably make the NCAA Tournament but an early departure is highly likely.
- There are also plenty of teams whose records are products of very soft schedules indicating they may not be as good as you might think. Let’s start with Mississippi. The Rebels are 17-4 (6-2) but have just two wins over teams currently ranked in the Pomeroy top 100. Ole Miss is not a shoe-in for the NCAA Tournament despite a gaudy record. Out west, St. Mary’s is 19-4 (8-1) but has just one top 100 win thanks to Matthew Dellavedova’s last second heroics at BYU last month. The Gaels are a solid team but it’s very difficult to pinpoint just how good they really are. Chances are they aren’t as good as their record indicates. We’ll get a better indication in the coming weeks as five of St. Mary’s last eight games are against teams ranked #61 or better. How about Southern Miss over in Conference USA? Donnie Tyndall’s club has just one top 100 win (Denver at home) and has two non-D1 wins on its resume. Unfortunately the Golden Eagles have only two games (both against Memphis) to give us a good indication of where they’re at. Two teams in the Big East are 6-4 but have beaten up on the bottom of the league. Those teams are Notre Dame (one win vs. the top half of the league) and St. John’s (beat Notre Dame plus a win at Cincinnati). Luckily both teams schedules ramp up a notch down the stretch. Out west, two teams caught my eye. Air Force is 5-2 in the Mountain West with just one quality win (San Diego State). In the Pac-12, Arizona State is 6-3 with its best win coming at home over a Travis Wear-less UCLA. The Sun Devils have definitely improved in Herb Sendek’s seventh season in Tempe but let’s pump the brakes on this 17-5 team. Five of the final seven on the road could be a reality check or an opportunity for an unexpected NCAA berth.
- Indiana’s win over Michigan on Saturday night was an incredibly high level game and 40 minutes of pure entertainment. Indiana did a number of things well and took advantage of Michigan’s lackluster defense right out of the gate, something Michigan couldn’t recover from despite its best efforts. Don’t get me wrong, Michigan is an elite team. But some of its weaknesses were exposed in this one. Defense is one but there are some other areas of concern for Michigan. Trey Burke got jump shot happy and didn’t create enough for the rest of his team’s dynamic offense. Michigan doesn’t get to the free throw line all that often to begin with and you can forget about it when it settles for jumpers. Indiana took 25 free throws as opposed to Michigan’s seven. Indiana did a great balancing act of letting Burke shoot rather than create but not letting him go off at the same time. Defensively, Indiana did a great job of shadowing and frustrating Nik Stauskas and preventing Glenn Robinson III from becoming a factor. Both teams have so many weapons offensively but Indiana had more playing in top form on this night. Indiana doesn’t get enough credit for its defense, probably because its offense is so potent. But IU’s defense is what will be the deciding factor in whether or not the Hoosiers are able to go all the way.
- Kansas’ 33-game home winning streak was snapped on Saturday by upstart Oklahoma State as the Cowboys exploded for 85 points at Allen Fieldhouse. This is a win that should not be underestimated. If not the best win of any team this season, it is certainly in the discussion. Quite simply, nobody wins there. The Jayhawks had won 102 of their last 103 games at the Phog and the Cowboys had not won there since 1989. It’s a remarkable win, the signature win for Travis Ford in his fifth season as headman in Stillwater. Oklahoma State did a great job limiting Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson and received huge games from Markel Brown (7-10 from deep) and Marcus Smart (25 points, 8 offensive rebounds). The Cowboys have been competitive in every game they’ve played and look to be getting better as the season progresses. Oklahoma State previously had a neutral court win over NC State and a home win over a solid Iowa State team before the victory in Lawrence. Second place in the Big 12 is wide open (assuming Kansas wins as usual) and Oklahoma State is right in the mix at 5-3 after this massive win with lots of winnable games left on the schedule.
- Speaking of Iowa State, it’s about time the Cyclones got some love. Fred Hoiberg as his team in the Big 12 race at 16-6 (6-3) one season after losing three starters from a team that made the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005. The Cyclones appear to be headed back to the dance with wins over BYU, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma already on their resume. Although all of those wins are at Hilton Coliseum, it would seem Iowa State just needs to get to 11-7 in conference play to be solidly in the field of 68. The Cyclones are 2-5 in true road games (but almost beat Kansas at the Phog) and 1-1 on neutral floors but undefeated at the place where “Hilton Magic” regularly occurs. Hoiberg’s leading scorer is Utah transfer Will Clyburn, a rugged 6’7” guard who also is second on the team in rebounding. Michigan State transfer Korie Lucious has stayed out of trouble and done a solid job running the point despite a high turnover number. Iowa State has six guys who it can count on to score if needed, a luxury for any team. However, the Cyclones are vulnerable because of their lack of height. Only two players on the roster stand taller than 6’7” and they combine for 10 PPG in only 27 minutes of action. Because of the lack of height, Hoiberg likes to play up-tempo and shoot a lot of threes. Iowa State is a good team but can be beat by a team that can keep it in the half court and force them to make shots against a physical defense with a lot of length. That’s what made the near upset at Kansas remarkable and a big reason why I think Iowa State is for real in the Big 12 and team that can win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament.
- Over in the Big Ten, one team that continues to confound is Wisconsin. The Badgers are 15-7 (6-3) with quality wins at Indiana and home against Minnesota but they also have their share of puzzling losses. Wisconsin lost out of conference at home to Virginia and suffered a tough defeat at Iowa almost three weeks ago, the game immediately following the Indiana win. Bo Ryan’s team will always be solid because of its style of play but the other side of that coin is the fact that there will always be a ceiling with Wisconsin as it is currently constructed. Perhaps more than any team in the nation, Wisconsin’s success is dependent on matchups. Ryan takes the (predominately) good with the bad. The Badgers simply don’t turn the ball over which keeps them in most games but they don’t force turnovers because of their methodical pace. Wisconsin has capable three point shooters who can single handedly win a game but its over-reliance on the deep ball can shoot them out of games in a hurry as well. Wisconsin doesn’t get to the free throw line often (and is uncharacteristically bad when it does get there) but does keep opponents from getting there at a high rate despite a defense built on physicality and toughness. The best thing the Badgers do defensively is take away the three point line. In the win at Indiana, Jordan Hulls was held to one attempt for the entire game. One! In two games against Illinois, a team that averages 24 three point attempts per game, Wisconsin limited the Illini to a total of 27 attempts from beyond the arc. The best measure of perimeter defense is how many attempts your opponent takes and Wisconsin is among the best in the nation at denying the three point line. Combined with the so many of their own shots coming from deep, the Badgers usually enjoy a significant edge on the arc. Ryan’s team will meet its match against a team that doesn’t back down from its physical, bruising style of play and is comfortable running offense in the half court. Teams that don’t rely on the three ball and have strong frontlines are also difficult matchups for the Badgers. Personally, I love Ryan’s system and the willingness of his players to buy in and excel at it. Ryan has led his team to the NCAA Tournament in each of his 11 seasons in Madison and another berth in his 12th year is very likely at this point in the season. Wisconsin has been an NCAA Tournament fixture every since the late 1990’s, one of the more remarkable runs of success in modern day college basketball. It’s not always pretty basketball but the job gets done. That’s all Bo Ryan cares about.
- Over the last few years, elite shot blockers in college basketball have received a lot of attention. It goes without saying that having a dominant force in the paint changes the game in so many ways. It isn’t just the number of shots an elite defender blocks but simply his presence is arguably the strongest defense a team can have. Having an elite shot blocker in the middle makes opponents hesitate, alter and take worse shots than they otherwise might have. It’s a valuable part of defense, one I feel isn’t talked about enough given how significantly it can impact a given game. When you look at the top shot blockers in the country this season, they all come from teams that rank at least in the top 40 in two point percentage defense. Nerlens Noel, Jeff Withey, Chris Obekpa and Jordan Bachynski are the top four in my mind, ranking high in block percentage and all averaging at least four rejections per game. Noel had huge shoes to fill after Anthony Davis’ departure and he has done the job for the most part on the defensive end. Nobody will ever be the complete player Davis was but Noel has come very close to matching him defensively. Opponents are only shooting 1% better inside the arc this year against Kentucky than they were last year and the Wildcats rank #6 in two point percentage defense. At Kansas, Jeff WIthey has picked up right where he left off. Kansas leads the nation in interior defense, allowing only 37.8% shooting inside the arc. Obekpa and Bachynski have transformed their team’s defense. St. John’s has moved up almost 100 spots in defensive efficiency over last year and Obekpa is the main reason why. At a surprising 6-4 in the Big East, the Johnnies are flirting with another NCAA Tournament bid for Steve Lavin. Bachynski has increased his block percentage by an astounding 6% over last year and his improvement has helped Arizona State move from #233 in defensive efficiency last season to a respectable #84 this year. ASU’s two point percentage defense has improved by 3.7%, part of an across the board improvement in the Sun Devils defense. Having the luxury of a great shot blocker changes the game in more ways than one and these four teams are reaping the benefits.
- News that the ACC may consider moving its tournament to New York should surprise nobody. With the pending additions of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Notre Dame to the conference, this is a no brainer. The move would expand the ACC’s footprint into the lucrative New York market despite not having a league team based in the city. As we’ve seen every year at the Big East Tournament, these schools (especially Syracuse) have no problem drawing fans to Madison Square Garden. A report last Friday on ESPN.com indicated that the ACC is interested in moving its tournament to the Big Apple. While we are likely far away from anything official, it’s only a matter of time before this happens in my opinion. If Madison Square Garden decides not to continue with the Big East Tournament (a distinct possibility given the state of the league’s membership) and doesn’t fully embrace the “Catholic 7” and their new league, all bets are off. In addition, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn is always a possibility for the ACC if MSG decides to continue with the Big East or the Catholic 7. Traditional ACC folks will resist moving the tournament away from Tobacco Road but the revolutionary forces of conference realignment should win out in the end. I would be surprised if the ACC doesn’t hold at least one tournament in New York at some point over the next 10 years.