ATB: Two Pac-12 Heavyweights Go Down, Zags Pass Big Test and Minnesota Nips Wisconsin…Posted by Chris Johnson on February 15th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. West Coast Stand Up. The West Coast staged the best of Thursday night’s games. For those who enjoy the spoils of the Pacific Time Zone, that’s entirely positive. Nighttime hoops is a normal occurrence. West coast denizens are exposed to these teams and players as part of their usual television viewing habits. And for the diehard fans out there living on central and eastern time, staying up a few extra hours to either a) watch or b) write about college basketball isn’t the end of the world. The masses aren’t so willing, by and large, which means many of the nation’s best conferences and leagues are something like foreign entities. Getting caught up by reading, watching highlights or studying these teams isn’t difficult, but the national audience is doubtless downsized for these West Coast-heavy nights. This isn’t a personal problem – I’m speaking in generalities. I have no qualms eschewing sleep for the best of the west, which is nice, because otherwise you’d be left without a tidy nightly recap of all that late-night cant-miss hardwood drama.
Your Watercooler Moment. Hey Now, Pac-12.
I could spill boundless quantities of digital ink on the frustrating development of the UCLA Bruins – the inconsistency of Ben Howland’s team, the perplexing reality of his team playing better defense (0.95 points per-possession in conference play) than offense (1.00). Or I could rip the Arizona Wildcats, a team I staunchly defended against early-season claims of specious success and smoke-and-mirrors late-game fortune. I’ll stay off both subjects, because on Thursday night the floor belonged to Cal and Colorado. Huge bubble-shifting opportunities were on offer for both clubs – Cal getting UCLA at home and Colorado welcoming Arizona – and neither failed to pull through. I wouldn’t call this a revenge game for the Buffaloes (Arizona players didn’t waive off Sabatino Chen’s should-be game winner; referees did), but Tad Boyle’s club played with purpose and grit throughout, to the point where last-possession bank-shot heaves were completely beside the point. Cal’s win was similarly uninteresting, scoreline-wise, and it gave it another big Pac-12 win to go alongside recent victories over Arizona and Oregon. The Bears need every sliver of profile-boosting juice they can get; they missed on pretty much every big opportunity in the non-conference, and hadn’t beaten anyone of note before the February 2 win over the Ducks. Beating UCLA is another nice chip, and Mike Montgomery’s team is looking more and more like an at-large worthy group. Colorado’s win is icing on an already solid portfolio – but, boy, must it feel nice to get even with the Wildcats, even if that loss had as much to do with a blown lead and faulty officiating as it did Arizona itself. Anyway, the Pac-12, somewhat insanely (remember last year?), has some real, actual depth: Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, Cal, Stanford (eh), Arizona State (eh) and Colorado are all at least relevant talking points in the NCAA Tourney discussion.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Hurdle Hurdled. Everyone pointed to Thursday night’s trip to Saint Mary’s as Gonzaga’s biggest remaining challenge of the conference season. The Gaels gave Gonzaga a real go in Spokane earlier this season, and could well have exited with a win if not for a questionable jump ball call. That chance may come back to bite Saint Mary’s, especially if it costs them an NCAA Tournament appearance. Round two was less interesting; Gonzaga brushed off Randy Bennett’s team in Moraga. It won’t go down as the biggest win of Gonzaga’s season — the non-conference season is littered with venerable results — but it’s the latest reminder of where this team stands in a constantly shifting national landscape. As teams consolidate their cases for top-seed lines and bracket location privileges, Gonzaga has the benefit of a practically flawless track record and a thus-far undefeated conference record. And in the one WCC game where the Zags were expected to slip, they thrived. Survive BYU on the road at the end of the month, and Gonzaga will walk into the WCC Tourney with a pretty convincing case for a No. 1 seed.
- Big Win For the Gophers. Amid all the doom and gloom of Minnesota’s recent six-of-eight losing streak, concerns were raised about the possibility of the Gophers falling into murky bubble territory – that looming unease and uncertainty that lingers right up until Selection Sunday. Losing six of eight is, after all, not the most at-large friendly path to take during the most crucial stretch of your conference season. The panic was well-understood. It was also premature – Minnesota still boasts gaudy computer numbers, a collection of respectable non-conference wins and the unspoken RPI benefits of playing in the toughest league in the country. The Gophers were never in grave danger of falling out of at-large contention, and they’re certainly not in danger after Thursday night’s overtime win over Wisconsin ended a two-game losing streak.
- Some Clarity On Top of the A-10. Coming into the season, I thought Saint Louis, VCU and Butler (and, HA, Temple) were the dignified class of a deep and enticing A-10 field. Turns out, as of February 14, after the Rams whooped UMass at home, the standings reflect my vaguely defined preseason preferences. VCU and Saint Louis are tied in first while Butler, La Salle and Xavier share the No. 2 spot. I won’t even attempt to predict how this elite tier sorts itself out over the next three weeks. The A-10 is a perpetually confusing league, with unexplainable results popping out left and right, and any number of permutations ruining the most basic assumptions. At least I can honestly say that, for one night, I was right; the A-10 makes actual sense (I don’t envision myself typing those words again this season).
- NEC Up For Grabs. When Bryant stumbled at Mount St. Mary’s Thursday night, Robert Morris had a huge opportunity on its hands. The Colonials, by beating Quinnipiac, could have taken over first place in the NEC with just five games to go. RMU couldn’t hang on, putting its first place aspirations on hold and giving Bryant the breathing room it needs to squeeze that half-game advantage into a regular season title. If standings hold, Bryant and RMU will meet in Rhode Island on February 28 for a de facto conference crown bout. That’s a huge step for a Bulldogs team that finished 2-28 last season. It’s also worth mentioning LIU here: The Blackbirds are knotted up with RMU in second place and have won nine of their last 10 (after losing six straight before that).
- Summit Showdown. Last week, Nate Wolters delivered the most prolific offensive performance of the season in a game that few people actually saw – neither on TV nor in the stands. His 53 points against IPFW were efficient, timely and singularly brilliant. What may be even more impressive (nah), is his team’s performance since the beginning of January. After a three-point loss at South Dakota, the Jack Rabbits embarked on a nine-of-10 win stretch that continued Thursday night with a blowout victory over IUPUI. It’s the kind of streak that gets overshadowed by 50-point games, and by the fact that Wolters is all anyone ever talks about when discussing Summit League Hoops. Here’s what else you should be talking about: the Jack Rabbits welcome first place Western Illinois, who beat North Dakota State Thursday, to Frost Arena Saturday. This could and should be the most important Summit League game of the season; expect the Jackrabbits (and, yes, Wolters) to bring his best.
- Frank Martin Is Not Happy. Five straight losses in a down SEC and a 46-point effort against LSU would make any coach blow a fuse. This is what it did to South Carolina boss Frank Martin.
- I Don’t Get Temple. This team is good. Then it’s not. It loses to Canisius at home, then turns around and beats Syracuse on a neutral court three days later. It loses to Saint Bonaventure, but beats Saint Louis and takes Kansas to the wire at Allen Fieldhouse. The Owls may have one of the most perplexing season bodies of work out there; making order out of the confusion is a losing proposition. I’m done trying to anticipate what Fran Dunphy’s team will do next. On Thursday, Duquesne (8-16, 1-9 A-10) bested the Owls in Philadelphia. What does this mean? Is Temple one of the worst teams in the A-10? A capable group having a bad night? After what we’ve observed thus far this season, I just don’t know.
- Ah, Belmont. It wasn’t all that long ago when Belmont finishing undefeated in its first year in the OVC didn’t feel like a crazy projection. The Bruins had beaten every OVC-bound entity in front of them and looked extremely poised while doing it – both at home and on the road. The two biggest remaining hurdles, at Murray State and at Tennessee State, were scary but not unconquerable. Rick Byrd’s team was once again good, and on the verge of ripping through its new league unbeaten in year one. Isaiah Canaan killed Belmont’s undefeated quest and the Tigers gobbled the remains, vulture-style, by downing the Bruins at home Thursday night. Belmont can atone for this unfamiliar two-of-three lull with a home matchup against Ohio later this month.
- Bye, Bye Undefeated League Record: Montana. What, don’t act like you weren’t aware of the Big Sky’s best kept secret – the Montana Grizzlies and their undefeated conference record. That undefeated record was defeated Thursday night at Summit rival and former Damian Lillard playpen Weber State, who toppled the Grizzlies at home to pull within one game of first place. What makes this loss even worse for Montana is that its next four games, including a February 23 bracket busters date at Davidson, are on the road. More potential losses are on the horizon.
Dunkdafied. Sometimes you need to watch a play develop to appreciate its conclusion. This Rodney Williams dunk is nothing to look at without the Andre Ingram swat that preceded it, and the Andre Hollins fast break that serviced it.
Thursday Night’s All-Americans.
- David Kravish, Cal (NPOY) – The nation’s 148th-ranked two-point field goal percentage, owned by UCLA, allowed Kravish to record an 18/13 double-double.
- Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado – For the Buffaloes to reach their potential, Dinwiddie, who scored 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds against Arizona, needs to build on Thursday night’s effort.
- Andre Hollins, Minnesota – It wasn’t easy, but the Gophers dampened the mounting panic in Minneapolis Thursday night thanks to Hollins’ 21 points and three assists to help knock off Wisconsin.
- Sam Prescott, Mount St. Mary’s – Big win for the Mountaineers over Bryant. Even bigger night (44 points) for Prescott.
- Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga – The heated WCC rivalry game between St. Mary’s and the Zags comes down to this: Gonzaga has All America-level big men like Olynyk (17 points, seven rebounds). The Gaels don’t.
Tweet of the Night. Call it what you want, whether or not Minnesota “needed” this game is a blurry subject. The Gophers spared us the debate, and the post-game RPI haggling that would have followed, by holding on in overtime. Good deal.
We won a must win? Pinch me.#gophers
— Jonathan Foster (@FromTheBarn) February 15, 2013