ATB: The Biggest Upset of the Season, Oklahoma State Stays Hot and Cincy Slips at Providence…Posted by Chris Johnson on February 7th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. That Happened. A handful of interesting conference matchups littered Wednesday night’s slate. Upset potential was thick. NCAA Tournament at-large considerations were on the line. And like most college basketball games in 2012-13, there was a healthy heaping of unexpected outcomes – from Creighton’s blowout loss at Indiana State to UConn’s loss to Rutgers to…well, I’ll let you find out for yourself. After all, revealing everything in the lede would sort of defeat the purpose of writing this nightly column. It was a super-packed Wednesday night in February; by now, you well know what to expect. On second thought, one loss in particular may cause you to reconsider the fundamental basis of what you’ve come to “expect” about college basketball.
Your Watercooler Moment. Kansas Lost to TCU……No, Really.
Go back and check out who TCU has beaten this season. Putting aside the obvious for a second, who is the Horned Frogs best win to date? UAB? Rice? That question was answered in Fort Worth Wednesday night, in what arguably amounts to the biggest upset of the college hoops season. My take on TCU up until tonight was harsh, maybe unfairly, but not entirely inaccurately. I fully believed the Horned Frogs were the worst team from a Power Six league. Trent Johnson’s team was 9-12 coming in, with absolutely zero quality victories on its plate, an 0-8 Big 12 record, a home loss to Texas Tech, and a host of other ugly data points that makes Wednesday night’s takedown of Kansas all the more miraculous. Kansas hadn’t been playing its best basketball of late, and Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma State exposed a few unknown warts, but to think the Jayhawks couldn’t overcome TCU on sheer talent alone, or that Ben McLemore couldn’t lead his team back by playing Kobe-like “heroball,” or that the seniors – Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson, Jeff Withey, Kevin Young – couldn’t lift the Jayhawks out of a terrible one-game funk, just to save the ignominy of a horrible road loss? I have to admit, I didn’t see this coming. Losing on the road in conference play is nothing new – even the most hardened veteran groups get a rude wakeup call every now and then. When it happens while on the road at arguably the worst team in high major college hoops, with a sterile (reportedly split crowd) atmosphere and an opponent so far below your capability you can practically sleepwalk your way to a victory, the blame falls on Kansas, and nothing else. It’s still too early to push the panic button. The Jayhawks can and almost certainly will recover to secure a top-two tourney seed. In the meantime, KU has some serious self-introspection to do, and a Saturday road game at Oklahoma, followed by a home date with Kansas State, are prime opportunities to leave this ugly stain in the rearview.
Also Worth Chatting About. Creighton Not What We Thought.
I spent a good part of the nonconference and early conference seasons screaming from the mountaintops about how good Creighton is – how the Bluejays, with NPOY candidate Doug McDermott leading the troops and a renewed commitment to defense, would walk through a strong but unworthy MVC. The Bluejays had it all; not only McDermott, but rebounding force Greg Echenique, shrewd assist specialist Grant Gibbs and three-point gunner Ethan Wragge. My presumptions felt pretty reasonable at the time. But for a late November home loss to Boise State, Creighton had run through its non-league schedule without breaking a sweat, and made it all the way up to No. 12 in the AP Poll. Fast forward to Wednesday night, where the Bluejays took their third conference loss on the road at Indiana State.
I don’t want to go in on Creighton too hard without mentioning how big of a win this could be for the Sycamores. If ISU can minimize bad losses the rest of the way, their at-large profile is a winner, at least in my book. That’s no relief to my optimistic evaluation of Creighton, who – let’s face it – doesn’t guard anywhere near the level of this year’s top contenders. The Bluejays have the best offense in the MVC, and the fourth best on the country. Things aren’t so flashy on the other end, where Creighton allows an average of 0.94 points per-possession. By MVC standards, that is not bad. In fact, it’s the fifth best in a conference not totally bereft of tough defensive squads. But since when did we start evaluating Creighton on the same subjective plane as the rest of the MVC? Dating back to the beginning of the season, when Creighton was stockpiling impressive nonconference wins and flashing booming potential, the Bluejays were casually thrown into the national championship debate. Even if that enthusiasm was, in hindsight, premature, the discussion took place, and I (not alone) naively found a seat on the Bluejays’ bandwagon, eager to watch McDermott lead his team to a top-three tourney seed and who knows what else. Creighton is still the class of the MVC, for now, but other than that, I’m not sure what kind of long-term postseason projections you can reasonably make at this point.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- OSU Keeps Rolling. Looking at Wednesday night’s home matchup with Baylor, I foresaw great danger for the Cowboys. Managing the post-Kansas emotional roller coaster, against a desperate Baylor team that had lost two straight coming in, is a monumental challenge for a team as young and inexperienced as Oklahoma State. But then I replayed bits and pieces of Saturday’s upset in my mind, came to my senses and reached a simple conclusion: Baylor can’t guard Marcus Smart. Few players can, of course, but on Wednesday night Smart finished 4-of-21 from the field (though he did record eight rebounds and seven assists), and with the game knotted up at 59 at the end of regulation, the Cowboys got two huge plays not from Smart, but from Mike Cobbins and Markel Brown to seal a two-point win. Everything is going right for Travis Ford’s team right now, and unless the Cowboys completely nosedive, Ford’s job security – so hotly debated in the preseason – is a moot talking point.
- St. John’s Exists. After living on overtime-thin ice in its past two games, wins at Providence and against South Florida, the Huskies met a Big East opponent it couldn’t match. It may surprise you to learn that St. Johns, the fourth youngest team in Division I according to Ken Pomeroy’s “experience” metric, is one of just five Big East teams with seven wins. Two of those victories came against Notre Dame and Cincinnati, and Wednesday night’s toppling of UConn is another nice chip on one of the nation’s most underplayed at-large candidacies. My impression – just a general pulse on college hoops fandom in general – is that the Johnnies are mostly unknown to fans outside the Big East. If they can unseat Syracuse or Louisville on the road over the next week, St. John’s will no longer be an unknown commodity.
- Things Happened In the A-10. Once you get past Butler, VCU and possibly La Salle, the A-10 is a hodpodge of decent but not great teams, all of whom have taken ugly losses and scored notable wins at various stages, and none of whom are worth parsing out at this point in the season. Temple held serve against Charlotte Wednesday night, while Philadelphia cohabitant fell at Dayton. My best analysis? Temple is happier after Wednesday night’s game than it was before it. St. Joe’s is exactly the opposite. Those conflicting emotions parallel, in a roundabout way, these two teams’ recent win-loss histories. Just four days ago, St. Joe’s won at Temple; on Wednesday night, Temple got a nice win against a solid team, and is feeling much better because of it. The Hawks fell to one of the A-10’s lower-rung squads, and is probably lamenting another hit to a withering at-large profile. If all I did was confuse you by drawing an obscure logical bridge, don’t worry: that’s how I feel whenever I think about A-10 basketball.
- Injuries Piling Up For Michigan State. In one of the best years of Big Ten basketball, Michigan State falls right behind the league’s two obvious contenders, Indiana and Michigan. The Spartans beat Minnesota at the Breslin Center Wednesday night, which is another nice win, even if it gets swept up in what’s becoming a growing problem for MSU: backcourt injuries. Travis Trice missed Wednesday’s game with concussion-like symptoms, Gary Harris labored through nagging back spasms and the latest hit came when star guard Keith Appling went down with a shoulder injury in the first half. The extent of the injury is unknown, and Appling returned to the bench a short time later. Those details don’t add up to anything serious, but it’s too early to say – all we know at this stage is, combined with Trice and Harris’ ailments, the Spartans’ backcourt is deteriorating quickly. There’s a lot of physical Big Ten basketball left, and MSU will need its full complement of guards to stay near the top of the conference.
- Tide’s Tournament Chances On Life Support. Playing in this year’s SEC is a natural drag on RPI and Strength of schedule figures. No conference games against teams not named Ole Miss, Florida, Kentucky or Missouri will discernibly improve your computer numbers. That applies whether you win or lose. If it’s the latter, you’re RPI is cooked. Alabama took that road Wednesday night, falling at Auburn, scoring 37 points in the process and driving a stake into an already morbid tourney CV. The Tide get a string of SEC much before road games at Florida and Ole Miss in March. I don’t see how Alabama gets in without winning one (or both) of those games, with at least one or two SEC tourney win added on.
- Vegas Loses Again. The Mountain West is a grind. No game – especially on the road – is anything remotely resembling a given. This is a trite storyline at this point, but it bears repeating, because I don’t think UNLV got the memo. The Rebels lost their second straight on the road Wednesday night. The first, at Boise State, is forgivable, even when you take into account the huge talent discrepancy between the two teams. Wednesday night’s flop at Fresno State is cause for concern. The Rebels are one of the most baffling teams in the country, largely because their vast talent reserve – Anthony Bennett, Khem Birch, Mike Moser, and on down the line – doesn’t match the product on the court. And it doesn’t get any easier here for Dave Rice’s team. UNLV’s next four games: New Mexico, at Air Force, San Diego State, Colorado State. Yikes.
- Bearcats Nipped At Providence. I’m of two minds with Cincinnati. On one hand, the Bearcats play some of the best defense in the country. They batter you with a stable of physical guards, protect the rim with shot-swatting big man Cheikh Mbodj and slowly but surely wear you down over the course of a 40-minute game. The offense is where Mick Cronin’s team loses me. The Bearcats are scoring a measly 1.02 points per trip in conference play, which casts real doubt on their solid 1.01 season-long figure. Sean Kilpatrick, JaQuon Parker, Cashmere Wright can only shoulder so much of the offensive workload; the Bearcats have no means to spread the wealth on that end of the floor. That inability to diversify will limit Cincy’s postseason potential, but it’s just as great a concern in the present – Mick Cronin’s team fell at Providence Wednesday night, and besides Kilpatrick’s 13 points and Parker’s 12, the next-highest total (Mbodj and Wright) was six. That’s not going to work against the best of the Big East, let alone the bottom-dwelling Friars.
Dunkdafied. Watching Russ Smith play basketball is fun – we know this. You never know what’s coming, and on Wednesday, as the ball rolled into his hands near the foul line, Smith streaked down the court, undeterred, uncontested, and delivered one of the more forceful running dunks of the season.
More Notes From Around the Nation.
- Nice Rebound For San Diego State. Since we’re already on the subject, the inherent tumult in the Mountain West leaves demands a level of resiliency few teams can exude on a consistent basis. San Diego State, by bouncing back with a one-point win over Boise after losing at Air Force over the weekend, knows the ropes in this brutal conference. And Chase Tapley gets a major salute for hitting the game-winner.
- AZ Wins, but you won’t hear about it. As Oregon struggles without Dominic Artis and UCLA continues to ride its season-long wavelength of up and downs, Arizona keeps winning games, and earning very little attention after the fact. A hard-fought battle with Stanford ended in another Wildcats victory Wednesday night, and Sean Miller’s team gets the second half of the Bay Area travel tag team (CAL) on Sunday.
- The Steady Lobos Contradict A Wild League. With so many good teams, and so many scary road trips, the Mountain West is a wild place. New Mexico brings order to the hysteria: the Lobos held down surging Air Force at home to move to 7-1 in league play.
- Almost, Iowa. It’s starting to get shaky for the Hawkeyes on the at-large front. Iowa took Wisconsin to double-OT at the Kohl Center Wednesday, but couldn’t do enough to score the big road win it so desperately needs to buttress a lackluster at-large portfolio. The Hawkeyes have two more chances to impress the selection committee (Minnesota, Feb. 17 and at Indiana, Mar. 2), and my hunch is they’ll need both to feel good about their chances on Selection Sunday. Failing that, the Big Ten Tourney is always there, I suppose.
- Wrong About UT. Maybe it was the freakish athleticism of Jarnell Stokes, or Jordan McRae’s sound guard play, or the Volunteers’ promising finish, but I think we can all agree on the fact that – after Wednesday night’s home loss to Georgia – Tennessee was vastly overrated to begin the season.
Wednesday Night’s All-Americans.
- Garlon Green, TCU (NPOY) – I’m going to go ahead and assume Green has never scored a more rewarding 20 points in his entire basketball-playing life.
- Mark Lyons, Arizona – On a night when Arizona got its 20th win of the season, Lyons outstripped his team’s total with 25 points.
- Jake Odum, Indiana State – The Sycamores needed a big individual effort to knock off Creighton. Odum, who had 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting, gave them just that.
- Greg Smith, Colorado State – One of the reasons the Mountain West is so good at the top this season: Colorado State, who got 28 points and 12 boards from Smith in a road win at Nevada.
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Georgia – It’s Caldwell-Pope and nothing else. The Bulldogs have KCP take 32.4 percent of available shots, and he made 9-of-12 attempts for 24 points Wednesday night in a win at Tennessee.
Tweet of the Night. An excellent point from the putative overlord of college hoops’ most widely-used tempo-free database. Whatever the Jayhawks do between now and March, nothing can erase this indelible black mark. And knowing the dignified pride of most KU fans, the staying power of this loss, at least mentally, stretches far beyond the end of this season.