ATB: Illini Come Up Huge, Wolters Drops 53 Points, and Missouri’s Plight…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 8th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Stay Away From Number One. My best advice for teams trying to avoid losses: stay out of the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll. Every team should take the floor on a given night with that underlying objective – winning games is a generally good thing, I’d wager – which makes that logic a really interesting counterfactual. The only way to reach the top is by winning games, but if every team to inherit No. 1 dating back to January 7 (when Duke opened up the week at No. 1 for the fourth consecutive week) has gone on to surrender the ranking in the seven days that followed, it begs the question: are teams better off avoiding the coveted weekly AP crown? Of course not. That preamble was, in essence, a roundabout way to introduce you to the latest slain No. 1. On Monday, upon the AP poll’s customary afternoon release, it will be official – especially if Indiana falls at Ohio State Sunday. The Hoosiers were the main storyline from Thursday night, but they weren’t the only one.

Your Watercooler Moment. A Win Illinois Needed.

There is only one way to go about discussing Illinois’ win over No. 1 Indiana Thursday night. It is a season-defining moment. The Illini were fading fast in Big Ten play, descending into NIT territory far quicker than anyone could have imagined after an excellent nonconference season, but as we’ve seen time and again this time of year, one win can change everything. This win – which saw Illinois rip off a 13-2 run with under four minutes remaining after being down by double digits for most of the second half – changes the conversation around Illinois. It brings renewed optimism to a conference season that, up until Thursday night, had done more harm than good to the Illini’s Tournament chances. The road ahead doesn’t get any easier, and Illinois will need to improve its still-lacking 3-7 league record. But with a win of this magnitude in your back pocket, Illinois’ view on the rest of the season changes considerably. The final eight regular season games and Big Ten Tournament are no longer about hunting upset wins. The Illini got that Thursday night. From here on out, John Groce’s team needs to handle business against equal-to-inferior competition (Purdue, at Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, at Iowa), watch the bubble soften up around them and sit back as its solid computer figures and stable of marquee wins carry them over the finish line. Those above games aren’t guarantees – such games don’t exist in this year’s Big Ten. But Illinois is more than capable of handling all of them. Few wins will mean more on Selection Sunday than this one; Illinois is back in the discussion, at the very least, and depending on how the at-large picture shakes out over the next month, the Illini could look back to Thursday as the night they sealed their Tournament fate.

Your quick Hits…

  • Wolters Goes For 53. Few mid-to-low major players in today’s college game hold as much national appeal as Wolters. Not to the casual post-Superbowl Hoops crowd; rather, he is something of a college hoops nerd’s cult fascination, for reasons understandable and not. On Thursday night, he did something memorable. Something that will stick with Wolters for the rest of his basketball-playing career. He scored a Division-I season-high 53 points. He converted nine three point shots, and 17 total field goals. He expanded the Wolters legend into a tangible and largely appreciable concept for college hoops fans previously unaware of his brilliance. Wolters is an excellent basketball player, but no one – not even the most ardent Wolters’ supporters – saw this coming.

It was a banner night in Fort Wayne for the Summit League Star (photo credit: AP Photo).

It was a banner night in Fort Wayne for the Summit League Star (photo credit: AP Photo).

  • Kelly-Less Duke Making It Work. The 27-point beat down Duke endured at Miami raised some red flags. The biggest, and most pressing in terms of the Blue Devils’ entire season, was their altered frontcourt rotation, caused by the indefinite absence of versatile senior forward Ryan Kelly. Losing at NC State, Kelly’s first missed game, was disconcerting, but it had nothing on the evisceration in Coral Gables. Many college hoops fans around the country – particularly the nearby Tobacco Road partisans – perked up, eager to see the Blue Devils fall out of ACC contention, blissfully unaware that betting against Coach K’s ability to push his team to a strong finish probably wasn’t the best idea. Duke is a better team with Kelly than without him, but it’s finding ways to adjust for his loss, and Thursday night’s revenge win over NC State (Duke’s fourth in a row) is more evidence to that point.
  • Pac-12 Minutiae. We’re reaching a point where the Pac-12 is losing any semblance of hierarchical distinction. Besides Arizona, which continues to scrape off close wins, itself not looking like a clear No. 1, there isn’t a whole lot of separation between these teams. UCLA and Arizona State stayed strong at home Thursday night, but only barely (the Bruins beat Washington by two on a Larry Drew buzzer beater; the Sun Devils beat Cal by four). I’m going to go ahead and assume UCLA and ASU are in fact two of the conference’s more capable squads, but I fully expect each to take another loss or three before the season is out. This league is thickly bunched, and the confusion is only likely to increase over the next month as the league race tightens and teams like ASU, Stanford, Washington, Colorado and Cal scramble for late wins. Speaking of Colorado: huge win Thursday night at Oregon (see below).
  • The OVC Game Of The Year. Just in case you needed a reminder of the longstanding kingpin of the OVC, Murray State handled newcomer Belmont at home to stifle the mounting hype over the Bruins’ seamless transition into their new league. After piling up a solid batch of nonconference wins, running off a 10-0 start to conference play, the Bruins were casually granted the “best team” label. The Racers were right there, but for most people’s money, Belmont was, on balance, the better team. And in the wake of Thursday night’s loss, the Bruins might still be a notch above the Racers. But Murray now owns the head-to-head advantage, formal and informal, and because these teams won’t meet in the regular season, a potential OVC tourney final matchup – quite possibly with the league’s sole tourney bid on the line, depending on whether or not Belmont can take the at-large route – would be thrilling.
  • Coaching Change Propels Old Dominion to First Conference Win. Two days after Old Dominion fired longtime coach Blaine Taylor, the Monarchs sealed their first conference win of the season at Drexel. Before Thursday night, ODU had lost 10 straight, and won just one game (a truly baffling neutral-court win over Virginia that the Cavaliers will deeply regret come selection Sunday) since November 10. One nice win at Drexel doesn’t promise any sort of miraculous midseason turnaround for the Monarchs. But because it coincided with coach Jim Carrigan’s debut, and because ODU had looked so utterly inept in most of its games this season, winning one – whoever the opponent – is good news. The Monarchs have a new leader pulling the strings from the sidelines; on Thursday night, he pulled the right ones.
  • Summit Movement. Any early-season hopes that South Dakota State could somehow cobble together a viable at-large tournament profile were squelched before the Jack Rabbits entered Summit League play. And to date Wolters and Co. have not dominated their so-so league. On Thursday, SDSU moved into a tie for first place with Western Illinois after Dakota rival North Dakota State took a three-point loss at Oakland and the Jackrabbits took care of IPFW. Again, SDSU needs to win the Summit Tournament to clinch its second consecutive NCAA appearance, but I would be remiss – even if this wasn’t a huge individual night for Wolters (more above) – to withhold a relevant piece of Wolters-related information form this space. SDSU can move into sole possession of first place February 16, when the Leathernecks travel to Brookings for a huge league showdown.

…and Misses.

  • Not Good, Missouri. When Missouri was blown out on the road by Ole Miss and Florida, Tigers fans has a convenient crutch to explain away the ugliness. Star forward Laurence Bowers was missing time due to a knee injury, the Tigers couldn’t run Frank Haith’s high-speed offense without his inside presence and everything would be all hunky dory upon his return, the line of thinking went. Bowers is back, has been back for more than a week now, only his intended effect – to unleash the Tigers’ offensive potential in a soft scheduling patch – hasn’t materialized. Since Bowers returned on January 30, Missouri has dropped two of three, including Thursday night’s two-point loss at Texas A&M. Their only win since Bowers’ reinsertion into the lineup was by 14 points at home over Auburn. I’m not going to sit here and act like Missouri is better off without its senior leader and premier frontcourt player, or that the Tigers can’t turn things around before the end of the season. What I will say is this: Missouri needs to get things rolling with Bowers on the floor sooner rather than later. Two of its next three games are against Ole Miss and at Arkansas.
  • A Crippling Loss For BYU. Provided BYU could knock off one of Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s near the end of the WCC season, the Cougars had a shot at getting an at-large bid. That chance may have been lost by Thursday night’s road loss at San Diego. The Cougars are best off setting their sights on the WCC Tourney, but even that’s a huge stretch at this point – Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga are far and away the paramount squads in this league. BYU is in real trouble now; the only way to get out of it, would be by winning out, including games over the Gaels and Zags. And even that might not be enough to break the bubble threshold.
  • Third Straight Loss For Oregon. The selection committee will have a puzzling situation on its hands in deciding how to vet Oregon’s three-game losing streak, which was extended Thursday night thanks to a one-point home defeat to Colorado. Oregon clearly isn’t the same team it was earlier this season without point guard Dominic Artis, and tourney decision-makes will no doubt recognize the Ducks’ temporary weakness, but at what point do these losses, even without Artis, start reflecting not so much Oregon’s changed lineup construction, but the more alarming downward trend the Ducks are currently riding. All three of Oregon’s losses (at Stanford and Cal, then Colorado) are games the Pac 12’s first place team – the team that beat UNLV on a neutral court, Arizona at home and UCLA on the road – should have won. Losing Artis didn’t help, and maybe that’s it. Maybe Oregon’s team operation is fundamentally altered by Artis’s absence. Or maybe this is about more than just Artis. Maybe Oregon’s slide, preceded by a remarkable rise to Pac-12 supremacy, is a natural part of this young team’s maturation and development.

Jumper Of The Night. Poking fun at Larry Drew II is one of many common critiques you see college basketball writers toss up on occasion. They mock his sour attitude, or at least the perception of it, and his messy divorce from North Carolina, and they especially loathe his passive point guard play. Say what you want about the blandness and often-restrictive conservatism present in Drew’s game, his controlling influence has helped UCLA jell into a cohesive unit. Drew did much more than that Thursday night. This shot isn’t as important as Tyler Griffey’s last-second layup to beat Indiana, or as long as Marist’s double-OT winner against Iona, but Drew deserves some recognition for this ice-cold pull-up.

Thursday Night’s All-Americans.

  • Nate Wolters, South Dakota State (NPOY) – Isn’t it obvious? 53 POINTS.
  • Isaiah Canaan, Murray State – Forget the teams: Canaan (26 points) and Belmont guard Ian Clark was a gem of a matchup.
  • Mason Plumlee, Duke – In some ways, Kelly’s absence has foist greater offensive and defensive responsibilities on Plumlee. He’s handling them just fine; Plumlee had 30 points and nine rebounds against NC State.
  • D.J. Richardson, Illinois – Netting 23 points in an upset of the No. 1 team in the country will earn you a spot on here any night.
  • Andre Roberson, Colorado – Talk about a big profile win – Colorado’s upset of Oregon, thanks in part to Roberson’s 10 points and 13 rebounds, was huge for its Tournament hopes.

Tweet of the night. The combined quality and quantity of Illinois’ wins gives it a huge trump card over other bubble candidates. The breadth of the Illini’s profile isn’t pretty, but I can’t imagine the selection committee looking at those four wins and keeping them out of the field. Let’s be clear: all of this is fleeting and relative – there are plenty of games left to be played. Illinois can just as easily hurt as help its chances. A couple of bad losses, and Illinois may need another big win before it can feel safe heading into Selection Sunday. But let’s save that argument for another day. As of this writing, Illinois is in decent tourney shape.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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