Ten Tuesday Scribbles: On Notre Dame/Louisville, Kansas, Creighton and More…Posted by Brian Otskey on February 12th, 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
- At 10:54 PM on Saturday night, with Louisville up comfortably over Notre Dame late in the second half, I tweeted the following: “This might be the worst Saturday prime time game ever.” Alas, college basketball found another way to make me look stupid. Jerian Grant’s insane final minute lit a fire underneath what was until then quite a boring game. We know what happened in the end. It was one of the more bizarre games I’ve ever seen and turned into an edge of your seat thriller in the blink of an eye. The longest regular season game in Big East history, in addition to being supreme entertainment, taught us some important things about both teams. The most important takeaway for me was how bad Louisville is in late game one possession situations. I wasn’t stunned by Russ Smith’s antics but the fact that Rick Pitino refused to call a timeout not once, not twice but three times when his team could have won the game with a basket absolutely shocked me. This is not the first time Louisville has played poorly down the stretch of a close game. Against Syracuse, the Cardinals folded in the final minute and the Orange took advantage in a big way. Even in a win against Pittsburgh, Louisville didn’t exactly put on a clinic on how to close out a game. This is a pattern of sloppy play and could come back to bite Louisville in the NCAA Tournament. As for Notre Dame, the fight it showed in overtime was sensational. The Irish never quit despite being out-manned up front after foul trouble forced Jack Cooley and reserve big man Tom Knight out of the game. Garrick Sherman made his case for more minutes and could be a valuable player off the bench down the stretch for Mike Brey’s team. Notre Dame isn’t a great team but the Irish proved in the overtime periods that they can hang around the top 25 and win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament.
- The Notre Dame/Louisville game was just one of many fantastic finishes this week. It all got started last Tuesday night with a high level thriller between Ohio State and Michigan that went to overtime. Wisconsin had two crazy finishes, the first a double OT win over Iowa and the second was a fantastic game against Michigan on Saturday highlighted by Ben Brust’s half court heave to force overtime. Oklahoma State and Baylor went to an entertaining OT session while Indiana and Washington lost on buzzer beaters. Illinois had no business winning that game but it just proves how wacky college hoops is this year. I believe Indiana is the best team in the nation but the Hoosiers aren’t head and shoulders ahead of anybody. They’re simply the best of a large group of very good teams. Parity in this sport is at an all time high. I shake my head when I hear someone say the regular season doesn’t matter or they don’t even watch college basketball because the level of play isn’t great. Those people will never get it, although they will get to see a nutty NCAA Tournament if the regular season is any indication. I have never seen such a wide open year than this one. You know who might have had the best week? NCAA referee John Gaffney. He worked Michigan/Ohio State, Illinois/Indiana and then did two games on Saturday, one of which was Notre Dame/Louisville. That’s one heck of a week.
- You would be hard pressed to find a team that had a better week than Illinois. The Fighting Illini began the week at 2-7 in Big Ten play, losers in six of their last seven games with games against Indiana and Minnesota coming up. John Groce’s team turned it on at the right time and came away with two huge wins for their NCAA Tournament chances. Even at 4-7 in conference play, Illinois looks to be in the tournament as of now thanks to the two wins last week along with victories over Butler, Gonzaga and Ohio State. It was the D.J. Richardson show against Indiana as he almost singlehandedly brought them back late in the game. Illinois was able to make shots against the Hoosiers and turn them over, resulting in extra possessions. It was a different recipe against Minnesota as Illinois used strong three point shooting and solid defense, the two primary reasons for their January meltdown, to knock off the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis. That was in was arguably just as big as Indiana because Illinois needed to get a quality road win in conference. It remains to be seen where the Illini will go from here but they have a great chance to get back to .500 in league play with games against Purdue, Northwestern and Penn State upcoming before a big time showdown with Michigan on February 24. Four of Illinois last six games are on the road so it would be well advised to take care of business over this softer stretch.
- Speaking of Minnesota, Tubby Smith and company have now lost two in a row and four of their past six games to fall to 5-6 in Big Ten play. The Golden Gophers also play four of their final six games away from the Barn and have to face upstart Wisconsin and Indiana in Minneapolis. Aside from the win over Michigan State, Minnesota has a collection of good but not great wins. It is still in the NCAA mix but things have to change quickly to stay there. A brutal four game stretch awaits before a softer close to the season but by then it may be too late. What has gone wrong? For starters, Minnesota isn’t defending nearly as well as it was earlier this season. Six of its last eight games have featured defensive efficiency ratings in excess of 100, well above the Gophers’ season average of 90.3. Rodney Williams’ injury and absence against Illinois certainly didn’t help matters but he was around for three other recent losses. The game with Wisconsin on Thursday night is very, very important for the Gophers. With two tough road games on tap at Iowa and Ohio State to follow, Minnesota could be looking at a five or six game losing streak heading into March if it doesn’t manage to beat the Badgers later this week.
- It has sure been an interesting month of February for the Kansas Jayhawk program. KU got back to its winning ways last night against Kansas State in impressive fashion, routing their “rival” Wildcats and tying them at the top of the Big 12 standings with the tiebreaker in hand. Before last night, Kansas had lost three consecutive games for the first time in eight years. This is not a vintage Bill Self team but it remains one that can make a run at the Final Four. I’m not sure this Kansas team can win a national championship because it lacks the consistent scoring punch that many previous editions have had. The KU offense hit the skids in a mind-blowing loss to TCU but the Jayhawks did show some improvement in Saturday’s setback at Oklahoma. Turnovers have been a major problem and Self even said they were still turning the ball over too much when interviewed at halftime of the Kansas State game last night. KU has turned the ball over at an alarming rate in Big 12 play (only good for seventh in a 10 team league) and that is keeping other teams in games. Inferior teams can win by limiting possessions and Kansas is playing right into their hands by turning the basketball over. Elijah Johnson has been the main culprit but what was most encouraging on Monday night was the play of Naadir Tharpe. The sophomore guard tallied 8 assists to just 1 turnover and set up stud Ben McLemore for many of his 30 points. This losing streak was likely a blip on the radar screen for an otherwise solid Kansas club. In a year where anyone can win it all, Kansas still has a legitimate shot to get to Atlanta.
- I have been hard on Arizona all year long, believing its gaudy record was somewhat of a fluke. Lately, I’m becoming more confident in that belief. Arizona lost at home to a mediocre California team at McKale Center on Sunday night, dropping the Wildcats to 20-3 on the year. Normally you’d look at a record like that and think instant national championship contender but I beg to differ. While Allen Crabbe went off for 31 points, Cal shot 59% as a team for the game. Arizona has a tendency to take nights off defensively and that’s simply not going to cut it in March where the games are played at a slower pace and getting stops when the chips are down is paramount. The bottom line is this. While Arizona does have 20 wins and deserves credit for that, it has been extremely lucky in more than just a game or two. The Wildcats should have lost to Florida and Colorado while barely getting by San Diego State and Utah. Interestingly enough, Arizona is not playing well at home. Two of its three losses have come in Tucson and the Florida, Colorado and Utah games were also played there. Arizona could easily have five home losses if the ball bounces the other way or, in the case of the Colorado game, the refs make the right call. Arizona can be beaten by a physical man-to-man team that slows the pace and keeps them off the free throw line. A team like Wisconsin would be a matchup nightmare for the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament.
- Another team headed in the wrong direction as we enter the stretch run is Creighton. The Bluejays are locked in a three way tie with Wichita State and upstart Indiana State atop the Missouri Valley at 9-4 after losing their last two games and four of their past seven. The Sycamores shut down Doug McDermott and blew out the Bluejays last week in Terre Haute. Creighton’s defense had been showing dramatic improvement earlier this season but it looks like the Bluejays are starting to revert to their old habits which prevented a Sweet 16 appearance last season. Creighton has allowed at least 70 points in four of its last six games. By contrast, the Bluejays had allowed that many points in only five of their previous 19 games before this recent stretch. A three game losing streak this time last season eventually cost Creighton the MVC title as it was overtaken by Wichita State down the stretch. With four of its final six games on the road (including a tough BracketBusters game at St. Mary’s), Creighton could be setting itself up for a similar disappointment. Tomorrow’s game at Northern Iowa looms large.
- Old Dominion’s decision to fire Blaine Taylor after nearly 12 seasons at the CAA school was largely met with skepticism and disappointment from the national media. However, I thought it was the right decision given the information that has come to light. I’m not going to speculate on what was going on with Taylor but it’s clear that more than just wins and losses played the primary role in relieving him of his coaching duties. Old Dominion’s 2-20 record this season probably made the decision a bit easier for athletic director Wood Selig. In a statement, Selig said there were “a number of factors” involved in the decision to terminate the winningest coach in Old Dominion history. Taylor was 239-144 and let the Monarchs to four NCAA Tournaments but the good times had to come to an end at some point. That point was this season and the team responded immediately by winning at Drexel in its first game under interim head coach Jim Corrigan. The Monarchs then pushed Colonial leader Northeastern to the brink before losing in overtime. The coaching change has instantly provided a spark in an otherwise lost season for Old Dominion.
- One team creeping up the national rankings after a dismal 2011-12 campaign is the Pittsburgh Panthers. Jamie Dixon’s squad has moved to #16 in the national rankings with a 20-5 record and is in the thick of the Big East title race in its final season in the venerable conference with a tiebreaker over Syracuse in its back pocket. Pittsburgh suffered through an uncharacteristically bad season last year, going 5-13 in Big East play. This year, the Panthers are healthy and have gotten back to what Dixon has preached for the last decade in the Steel City: defense. Pitt’s offense has improved slightly over last year and Tray Woodall is healthy for the most part but the real difference is on the defensive end. Last season, the Panthers ranked an abysmal #151 in defensive efficiency. This year they rank #7 and boast the second best efficiency number in the Dixon era. In addition to getting back to its trademark physical play, Pittsburgh has benefited greatly from Steven Adams’ presence in the middle. The big Kiwi is ranked #18 among individuals in block percentage and has singlehandedly improved Pitt’s interior defense. The Panthers have improved their two point percentage defense by 5.1% over last year and are top 40 overall in block percentage. Pitt is this year’s darlings of the efficiency metrics but the national polls are starting to fall in line with the advanced statistics. Beware of Pittsburgh over the next month because the Panthers are a dark horse candidate to make it to the Final Four given the right matchups.
- Look who is back in the AP top 25. After an 11-week absence, Kentucky is back in the national rankings. Everybody said it back in November and December, just wait until February and March for John Calipari’s team to start clicking. Well, here they are, right on time. The Wildcats have won seven of their past eight and nine of their past 11 since a competitive loss to Louisville on December 29. Taking it even further back, UK is a strong 13-3 since a 4-3 start to the season. Yes, the SEC is very weak. However, the Wildcats are taking care of business where they should. The win at Mississippi was particularly good given it was the biggest home game at Ole Miss in some time. It was ugly but UK put the hammer down in the second half. A home and home with Florida and a tricky road trip to Arkansas is all that stands between the Wildcats and a 14-4 or 15-3 SEC record. Kentucky is still a work in progress on both ends of the floor but it is a lot better than earlier in the season. This is still a team that can do well in March and one nobody wants to see. Imagine getting Kentucky as a 6 seed in a 3/6 second round game or as a 5 playing a 1 in the Sweet 16? “Yeah, I’ll sign up for that,” said nobody.