ATB: Spartans Soar, Noel’s Future In Doubt and Indiana State’s Inconsistency…Posted by Chris Johnson on February 13th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. BIG and SEC Are Main Attractions. Two of the so called power conferences assumed the national spotlight Tuesday night. One of those leagues, the SEC, resides at the bottom of the power six food chain. The other is the Big Ten, which has produced some of the most entertaining and hotly-contested hoops these eyes have seen in years. The intra-league disparity could not have been greater, but the chasm in conference quality is where the differences end, at least as far Tuesday night’s schedule goes – for both leagues showcased two pre-eminent teams on big stages, with each game carrying conference title and NCAA Tournament implications. Those match-ups, plus a couple of other sneaky-good fixtures, filled your Tuesday college basketball quota.
Your Watercooler Moment. MSU Bullies Its Way Into First Place.
By the time Michigan and Michigan State finished the first top-10 rendition of their heated rivalry, only one team looked like it merited that elite numerical tag. The Spartans shredded Michigan at the Breslin Center with suffocating defense, balanced offense (four Spartans finished in double figures), and a resounding reminder about the state of Michigan’s recent basketball hierarchy. MSU has been the better program over the last decade-plus, was better Tuesday night, and has all the pieces to be better down the stretch in conference play. The win pushes it into first place in a clustered B1G top tier, with Indiana sitting a half game back and Wisconsin one and a half back. The Wolverines have some major catch-up work to do, and they do get both the Spartans and Hoosiers at the Crisler Center in March, but it’s not crazy to suggest – and I’ll probably (almost certainly) regret typing this, what with the shifting paradigms about who’s who in the Big Ten this season – that Michigan is just a bit undercooked for this brutal league race. There’s no crime in losing to good teams on the road – especially not Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin and MSU, all fearsome outfits in their own right. It’s just that Michigan was brimming with national championship potential not so long ago, and for as fuzzy and baseless as this may seem, I just can’t get behind projecting a team that loses by 30 in a critical intrastate rivalry game to cut down the nets in April. This being the Big Ten, I reserve the right to pivot on that hard line later this season. On Tuesday, Michigan State inherited Big Ten frontrunner status. Next week, when the Spartans host Indiana, who knows what happens.
Tonight’s Quick Hits.
- Florida’s Fine. I address the biggest takeaway from Tuesday night’s Florida-UK tilt below. Nerlens Noel’s knee injury, needless to say, is disconcerting. If you can decompress and divorce that sad topic from the game itself, hear me out on this Gator-focused blurb. It was easy to panic and scrutinize and work up a lather over Florida’s convincing loss at Arkansas last week. The Gators had dismantled practically everything their schedule had to offer leading up to it, and Arkansas reciprocated that treatment by dominating Florida from the tip. But when you remove the inconsequential subjective noise and dig up exactly why the Gators fell into such a big hole – they didn’t make shots in the first half – what you get is a team that walked into a rabid Bud Walton Arena, stuffed to the gills with a geeked-up fan base, and a Razorbacks team that played some of its best basketball of the season. Questioning Florida’s rebound credentials – its SEC title control and NCAA Tournament seed – is petty and myopic. As of this writing, Florida tops Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ranks, counts one of the most balanced and versatile roster constructs to its name, and has racked up a stable of quality wins so far (both in and out of league play). The Gators beat Kentucky Tuesday, and that’s a nice win. It is not definitive proof that Florida has finally regained its stride after that “questionable” Arkansas loss. The Gators are one of the three or four best teams in the country. One road setback didn’t change that.
- Nice, Valpo. The final stretch of the Horizon League season could have been epic. Detroit could have avoided a loss Saturday at Green Bay, and thus stayed within one half game of first-place Valparaiso entering Tuesday’s road matchup at Wright State. The Crusaders could have lost that game; Wright State is 8-5 in Horizon league play, and came in having won three straight. Neither part of that equation proceeded as desired. Valpo held firm on the road to stay 1.5 games up in the league standings, providing more proof that Butler didn’t leave behind a completely barren league. We’ve searched long and hard for a team ready to rise out of the post-Butler morass, and Valpo has given every indication it is ready to be that team. One big hurdle remains: On Saturday, Detroit (who beat Cleveland State at home Tuesday night) visits Valpo with a last-ditch attempt to steal the conference title squarely on the line. The Titans need that game. Anything less would allow Valpo to cruise to a conference title.
- Virginia Rivalry The most consequential state showdown Tuesday night took place in East Lansing, Michigan, but let’s not lose sight of the Virginia-Virginia Tech match-up that saw the Cavaliers add to their two-game winning streak and still-frail Tourney portfolio with a comfortable home victory. Only one of these teams is playing for an at-large bid at this point, and beating the Hokies will do nothing for UVA’s resume. What Tony Bennett’s team needs is to use Tuesday night’s rout as a springboard to plow through a pivotal upcoming two-game road stretch at North Carolina and Miami (FL). Getting at least one of those games is important, given where UVA stands in the murky bubble picture. This team has a handful of nice wins (at Wisconsin, UNC, NC State) and bad losses (Old Dominion, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Delaware, George Mason). This far away from Selection Sunday, it is a complicated bunch to predict. All I know is that the next two games could give Tony Bennett’s group that extra bump it needs to get through the bubble threshold, and the Cavaliers, based on Tuesday night’s performance (and the two convincing wins that preceded it) are poised to make them count.
- Noel Goes Down. From John Calipari’s comments to various eye-witness accounts on Twitter to this gruesome image, nothing about the knee injury Nerlens Noel suffered in Tuesday night’s loss at Florida sounds innocuous or minor. After blocking Gators guard Mike Rosario’s shot with eight minutes remaining in the second half, Noel crumpled to the floor after running into the basket stanchion. He lay on the court writhing in pain for several minutes before being carried off by teammates. I can only hope Noel’s knee injury is not as serious as it looked, and that the 6’10” center and likely top-three pick in this year’s NBA Draft can return at some point this season. If not, this is a brutal twist for a remarkable talent. The worst part? Noel was starting to develop into one of the greatest natural defensive talents of recent memory, and his offensive game was slowly but surely turning him into a complete two-way player. Noel is entering the most crucial stage of his basketball development; a major knee injury is not only an impediment to his draft prospects, but a potential major hindrance on the qualities that make him such an electrifying defensive player: athleticism, fast-twitch explosiveness, leaping ability. Terrible, this.
- Dicey Stuff For the Sycamores. The NCAA Tournament at-large picture was starting to really open up for Indiana State. Non-conference wins over Ole Miss and Miami along with league triumphs against Wichita State and Creighton had the Sycamores in strong position to claim the Missouri Valley’s third NCAA Tournament bid. I’m not ready to discount ISU’s chances after Tuesday night’s loss at Missouri State, as one bad night doesn’t negate all those big RPI wins. But the selection committee is going to have a hard time getting past ISU’s growing list of ugly defeats: Southern Illinois, Drake, Illinois State (not bad, but not good), and now Missouri State. I’m inclined to believe Jake Odum and company are still in manageable tourney shape, but the margin for error in five remaining conference games – which includes dates with Wichita, Iona, Drake and Evansville – is minimal.
Dunkdafied. There are two ways to go about evaluating Florida forward Will Yeguete’s injury. On the one hand, the Gators could use his versatility and athleticism on the defensive end. The down side? Yeguete’s replacement, Casey Prather, wouldn’t get as many opportunities to do things like this.
Tuesday Night’s All-Americans.
- Gary Harris, Michigan State (NPOY) – Don’t let his experience fool you, Harris, a freshman, is for real – he finished with 17 points and zero turnovers against Michigan.
- Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati – As cringe-worthy as the Bearcats can be offensively at times, when Kilpatrick is hitting his shots like he did Tuesday night when he went for 19 points and eight rebounds, Cincy is tough to beat.
- Scottie Wilbekin, Florida – Scoring isn’t Wilbekin’s foremost priority on the court; he directs traffic, swings passes and manages the game. On Tuesday against Kentucky, he fell two dishes short (14 points, eight assists) of a double-double.
- Joe Harris, Virginia – The Cavaliers need to keep winning. If Harris can approach 26 points more frequently, they certainly will.
- Nick Minnerath, Detroit – The name most people associate with Detroit is point guard Ray McCallum. The Titans have another player you should be talking about: Minnerath. He scored 34 points and snared 12 boards against Cleveland State.
Tweet of the Night. A former Wildcat offers a perspective presumably shared by anyone who watched Noel screaming in pain and clutching his knee following a high-speed collision with the basket stanchion.
Praying for a speedy recovery for Noel. I hate to see anyone go down to injury. #BBN
— Eloy Vargas (@EVargas30) February 13, 2013