ATB: Terps Dump Duke, Cowboys Edge OU in OT and Kentucky Fails First Post-Noel Test…Posted by Chris Johnson on February 18th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The Weekend’s Lede. A Not So Special Weekend. Not every Saturday is a jam-packed day of must-see top-25 matchups and earth-shattering upsets. This season has deluded us otherwise with an immaculate set of weekend slates, so when you get a day like this Saturday, where – with a few exceptions; college basketball is never actually boring – big-time matchups are hard to come by, disappointment is inevitable. This weekend was not as fun as most in 2013, but at this point in the season, as teams labor for resume points and RPI upgrades, most every game is hugely important. A multitude of teams either buttressed or damaged their NCAA hopes, while others remained in neutral. If those general descriptions aren’t enough (and, really, they shouldn’t be) follow along to get the all the gritty details.
Your Watercooler Moment. Terps Talk The Talk.
Must-win is a fuzzy qualifier this time of year. Can any game honestly be termed a “must” when the conference Tournament always providing a final safety net? What if the bubble unexpectedly softens up, and your previously unqualified resume starts trending in the right direction by virtue of other teams’ misfortunes? Those are always possibilities, sure, but you never want to rely on other teams crafting your NCAA Tournament fate. So Maryland took control of its own by picking up its biggest win of the season over No. 2 Duke Saturday, a win it sorely needed (there, I said it) after an uninspiring 11-point home loss to Virginia last week seemed to suck dry the final remnants of its improbable at-large hopes. The Terrapins have been one of the biggest disappointments in the ACC this season. After loudly and persistently clamoring for national poll recognition throughout November and December based on a gaudy 13-1 record that lacked anything resembling a good win, the Terrapins dropped five of their first eight ACC games, including a three-point home defeat to Florida State. Mark Turgeon’s eminently talented team – Dez Wells and Alex Len are surefire pros, and the complementary pieces are credible assets – looked vastly underprepared (or overrated) for the rigors of ACC play, the Terrapins’ Tournament hopes were evaporating and that hot start UM fans eulogized throughout the nonconference season felt like nothing more than a schedule-crafted mirage. With the exception of a home win over NC State, Maryland had basically played its way out of national relevancy. Canning the Blue Devils will help; storming the court is always fun, right? And I’d love to pencil Maryland in for an at-large berth, or at least provide some assurance with a comforting percentage projection. I just can’t, and I won’t, because I don’t know what to expect from this team in its final six conference games. The next four (at Boston College, Clemson, at Georgia Tech, and at Wake Forest) have to be wins. Get through this stretch, and the Terrapins could (could, not will) be inching toward tourney inclusion.
Your Second Watercooler Moment. Big East Movement.
At the outset of Big East play, it was easy to look at Marquette and Georgetown and see two good but flawed teams. The Golden Eagles run one of the most efficient offenses in the Big East; even after losing Darius Johnson Odom and Jae Crowder, Buzz Williams’ team gets the most out of every possession by leveraging the superb interior precision of Davante Gardner and the intuitive creativity of Junior Cadougan. The only problem? Marquette isn’t nearly as good on the other end of the floor(The Golden Eagles ranked eighth in the Big East in defensive efficiency heading into Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh). The Hoyas are the complete opposite of Marquette: they play top-five efficiency defense, but rank just inside the top-100 in offense. Offense-defense splits are not uncommon – most teams are demonstrably better at scoring or preventing points. Only the elite of the elite can master both. But as we enter the final five or six games of conference competition, the Golden Eagles and Hoyas (along with Syracuse) find themselves on top of one of the most competitive leagues in the country. How exactly did they get there? The most recent set of results shows Marquette handling Pittsburgh at home Saturday and Georgetown delivering another home loss to Cincinnati (its fifth of the season) Friday night, but both have been playing steady if not spectacular hoops for most of the league schedule. Marquette and Georgetown butted heads last week, with the Hoyas’ superior defense besting Marquette’s superior offense. Which team reaches a higher perch on the Big East pecking order by season’s end, I don’t know. Based on last week’s outcome and empirical results from over the weekend, I’ll cast my lot with Georgetown and that suffocating defense.
Also Worth Chatting About. The New Belle Of The Big 12.
I’m not sure Oklahoma State could have picked a more opportune moment to rattle off seven straight momentous victories. Saturday’s win over Oklahoma, which came thanks to another eye-opening effort from freshman guard Marcus Smart, was the latest chip in the Cowboys’ growing bag of league excellence. For all its resume-win goodness, the streak probably wouldn’t have received its proper due had Kansas not simultaneously plunged into an unexpected three-game losing skid. The Cowboys’ work wouldn’t have gone unnoticed, but with the presumed league overlord struggling, the quality and breadth of wins was greatly amplified. In that aforementioned stretch, Travis Ford’s team knocked off West Virginia, Iowa State, Kansas (at Allen Fieldhouse), Baylor, Texas (without Myck Kabongo), Texas Tech and the Oklahoma. The Cowboys are glowing with talent – Smart and Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown can light you up in a hurry. This was obvious to pretty much anyone who watched the Cowboys at any point this season. Only we couldn’t be sure all that offensive firepower added up to anything substantial, because up until this recent streak, the Cowboys’ best win came against a clearly overrated then-No. 6 North Carolina State on a neutral-court all the way back on November 18. Their data set has since confirmed what a previously KU-dominated Big 12 masked for most of this season: OK State is veritably qualified to contest and win the regular season conference crown. And with home games remaining against the two Kansas schools, the Cowboys’ chief competition, don’t be surprised if they finish up on top.
This Weekend’s Quick Hits…
- The Happy Tobacco Road Members. The biggest result Saturday in the ACC was Maryland’s upset over Duke. The Blue Devils had won six in a row heading into College Park, and Maryland put out one of its most complete two-way efforts in a potentially season-saving two-point win. Two other games – UNC’s win over Virginia, and NC State’s over Virginia Tech – will get overlooked, but neither was insignificant. The Tar Heels, despite losing their last two games at Miami and Duke, are starting to harness their young roster in newly positive ways, and moved closer to at-large security by beating the consummately bubble-residing Cavaliers. NC State, meanwhile, continues to underwhelm. The Wolfpack’s talent and depth roster screams “elite”, while the on-court product is plainly mediocre. On Saturday, Mark Gottfried’s team needed overtime to close the door on Virginia Tech. Neither of these teams is making make Duke or Miami sweat in the league title chase. What they are doing is winning, which is always important this time of year.
- Wildcats Staying the Course. Humbling would be an understatement when describing Kansas State’s 21-point obliteration at Kansas last Monday. Bruce Weber’s team had the Jayhawks right where it wanted them – losers of three straight, undergoing a mini mid-season crisis, a chance to deliver a major confidence blow to the historic in-state hoops monolith that’s long reduced the Wildcats to a subsidiary subject. K-State whiffed for the second time this season, but unlike the first loss to the Jayhawks, the Wildcats got up off the mat and spanked Baylor Saturday. When Kansas won at Bramlage Coliseum a few weeks back, K-State stumbled four days later at Iowa State. This time, they showed the type of resiliency that helps teams push through these grueling final weeks of conference play.
- Villanova Gets A Third Resume Chip. Other than that remarkable late-January two-game winning streak over Louisville and Syracuse, Villanova hadn’t shown anywhere near the level of consistency needed to warrant at-large consideration. Getting those two top-five wins was heady stuff, but what else did the Wildcats have to offer? An 18-point home loss to Columbia? Saturday’s win over UConn isn’t a season-changer, but it’s not nothing. It’s something to make the selection committee believe Villanova’s resume is more than two wins and vast expanse of mediocrity. At the very least, it’s the Wildcats’ first semi-good road win of the season. Winning away from home is better than winning at home, and Villanova’s best road victory prior to Saturday was South Florida (or Vanderbilt?). UConn is better than South Florida.
- Big Ten Home Teams Hold Court. When you set aside Northwestern’s unsightly 41-point outing against Illinois, home teams held serve with minimal difficulty Sunday in the Big Ten. Wisconsin delivered a trademark Kohl Center beatdown of Ohio State, aided by the Buckeyes’ ice-cold 37.5 percent shooting, while Iowa routed Minnesota to surge back into the bubble conversation. And Michigan fought off a commendable road challenge from Penn State. In and of themselves, these wins are not earthshattering by any stretch; home court advantage in the Big Ten, or any other league, is undeniable. Wisconsin isn’t 22 points better than Ohio State, and Iowa isn’t 21 better than Minnesota. It’s just that, given these teams current trajectories, and the obvious hometown boost, games can get out of hand from time to time – even in the nation’s most competitive league.
- A Predictable Mountain West? If you looked at Saturday night’s Mountain West slate (Colorado State at Air Force, Boise State at New Mexico, Fresno State at Wyoming and San Diego State at UNLV) and expected anything other than wins for Colorado State, New Mexico, Wyoming and UNLV, I won’t hold it against you. The Mountain West has been a crazy place all season. But on Saturday night, for maybe the first time this year, my MW instincts were totally prescient. All four games fell in line with my most basic assumptions about this league. The best win of the four, in my view, is Colorado State’s. Not only did the Rams win in at a Clune Arena that’s already dropped Boise, SDSU and UNLV this season. They also overcame 45 points from Falcons guard Michael Lyons.
- A Reinvigorated Horizon Race. Just this week, it appeared Valparaiso had the Horizon league under control. The Crusaders took care of Wright State on the road, held a two-game lead on Detroit in the loss column (plus the head-to-head advantage) and could basically plan on wrapping things up with a home win over the Titans on Saturday. Detroit erased any faint hope of an easy ride to the finish line by beating Valpo on the road and moving within a half game of first place. Here’s where things get interesting. The Crusaders have three conference games remaining (Loyola, Youngstown State and Green Bay) against Detroit’s two (Loyola, UIC). Any slip-up from either side could be lethal. Presuming these teams finish first and second in the league standings, the chances they meet in a winner-takes-all conference tourney final are very real.
- Shh…Providence Is Winning. I won’t condemn you for mostly discounting Providence’s existence for the lion’s share of the conference season. It’s ok: I haven’t given the Friars due credit either, because up until their recent our-game win streak, there wasn’t much to celebrate. Speaking of that win streak, it’s not as if Providence merely fattened up on Big East cupcakes. Road wins over Villanova and South Florida, plus a home win over Cincinnati and Saturday’s rout of Notre Dame is arguably the nicest compilation of uninterrupted Ws from any Big East team this season. Providence has underperformed all season, and will get a huge boost from partial academic qualifier Rick Ledo when he gains eligibility next year. Put him alongside forward Sidiki Johnson and highly-touted guard Kris Dunn, and Ed Cooley’s team could conceivably scare the top half of a weaker (no Syracuse or Pittsburgh) next season. It’s probably too late for the Friars to step into at-large contention this season, but the future is promising.
- UK, Sans Noel, Falls Hard. All eyes were on Kentucky Saturday as it attempted to make a favorable first impression on an NCAA selection committee whose evaluation of the Wildcats will be heavily skewed towards what they do after losing freshman center Nerlens Noel to a season-ending ACL injury. First impressions aren’t everything. They can be a lot of things, actually, and on Saturday, Kentucky’s impression was unflattering, to say the least. The Wildcats didn’t just lose their first game without Noel. They self-combusted in a 30-point rout, and in the process got just two points from primary Noel replacement Willey Cauley-Stein. Whether Noel was an indispensable gluey force barely holding the Wildcats together, or John Calipari’s team just happened to play a terrible game, this was not the best way for Kentucky to flaunt its Noel-less merits.
- Missouri Doesn’t Do Road Games. The perils of conference road games are well-chronicled. Every week, teams leave the comfort of their own home courts to face grueling road gyms, animated student sections and unfamiliar sight lines and court structures. For some, especially young teams, it’s a lot to digest. Trying to deflect all the off-court distractions, while making sure you’re following all your on-court responsibilities, is a huge challenge for 18-to-22-year-old kids. And when you’re facing these road variables for the very first time, as Missouri is in its first season in the SEC, the adjustment process can be slow and painful. Missouri’s has been extremely painful – and Saturday’s two-point loss at Arkansas isn’t the only reason why. The Tigers have now lost all of their conference road games, the one exception a blowout over league doormat Mississippi State. I was willing to look past Missouri’s road struggles early in the conference season, but The “first-year” excuse is running then. The Tigers need to go out and beat someone of substance before they can be considered anything more than a slightly-above average outfit in a gutless SEC.
- Coach K Takes Shot at Maryland’s Conference Switch. In the emotional aftermath of an upset loss, it’s not uncommon to see coaches say things they’d rather save for off-the-record conversations. The conference season is a grind, and Duke had been playing nearly flawless basketball (the Wake and BC wins were admittedly ugly) since losing at Miami on January 23, and there could be any number of reasons why Coach K took the podium after Saturday night’s upset loss feeling frustrated, or exhausted or some other emotional or psychological lean that could help explain why he dropped this harsh take on Maryland’s impending move to the Big Ten. Maybe Krzyzewski just felt like getting even after a hard-fought loss with a little post-game snark. He’s been vocal about conference realignment in the past, so it’s not like this is anything new. The Terrapins won’t rejoice over his comments – that’s for sure. Duke may not acknowledge the Terrapins as a rival right now, and they certainly won’t when they bolt for Big Ten country. For at least one night, with Krzyzewski firing back through the media after Maryland settled things on the court, rivalry sounds like an apt description.
- Sycamores Lose Again. We’re going to look back on Indiana State as having one of the more baffling at-large profiles to miss the NCAA Tournament. I said it – the Sycamores played themselves off the bubble Saturday by losing to Bradley, just four days after losing at Missouri State. You can’t not get excited about the quality wins on this profile – Miami, Ole Miss, Creighton, Wichita State, Northern Iowa twice – but the persistent road hiccups are too glaring to ignore. In better leagues, dropping a couple of road games isn’t a death sentence. In the MVC, most losses are absolute RPI leeches. Defeats at Bradley and MOSU, on top of Southern Illinois and Illinois State (not a terrible loss, but not a good one) are bound to sink ISU’s resume. The Sycamores are on razor thin at-large ice right now; It might be Arch Madness or bust.
- Sayonara Stanford? Getting over Thursday night’s crippling home loss to USC with a counterbalancing at-large profile notch would have required Stanford to beat UCLA at home Saturday. The Cardinal missed that opportunity, too, and now have to play three of their final five games on the road, including tough tests at Cal and Oregon (a home game against Colorado is no guarantee, either). I don’t really see how Stanford can even make a legitimate argument at this point; It has missed on far too many big chances in league play and has only one real “good” win to speak of (Oregon). Nothing is out of the question, sure, but as it stands, the league Tournament may be the Cardinal’s only path to salvation.
Dunkdafied #1. The timing and precision required for an alley-oop of that distance is just incredible. Even better? Beating UConn on the road to patch up a spotty tournament resume.
More Notes From Around the Nation…
- Ok, Temple. Trying to figure out the middle of the A-10 is like building a house of cards. You build up a consensus about some team, only to have it completely torn down at a moment’s notice. Earlier this season, it felt like a pretty safe bet that Temple was one of the favorites to represent the A-10 in the NCAAs. The conference season has destroyed that presumption, but I would be remiss not to at least acknowledge Saturday’s one-point road win at UMass. Let’s see what the Owls can do against Tournament hopefuls La Salle and Charlotte this week.
- A-10 Power Brokers Hold Firm. The three premier outfits in the A-10 faced variously challenging games Saturday. Only Butler’s – a five-point road win over Fordham – was semi-interesting. Saint Louis held Charlotte to 58 points, VCU dropped 84 on an offensively-limited George Washington and the top of the A-10 finished the day with nothing new to report on.
- Gameday Dud. ESPN’s scheduling brains trust couldn’t possibly have seen this coming… Kansas bullied the Kabongo-emboldened Texas Longhorns for 40 minutes in a 26-point laugher. If you’re a Kansas fan, beyond the normal comfort of a home win – something Jayhawks partisans couldn’t so easily guarantee in certain stretches this season – watching KU drop 73 points on a top-25 per-possession defense gives added hope that the Jayhawks are starting to clean things up on the offensive end.
- On Top of the Summit. In his final college home game, Nate Wolters scored 28 points to lead South Dakota State over Western Illinois and into first place in the Summit League. The Jackrabbits will need to win the league Tournament to get back to the NCAAs, and they can clinch the No. 1 seed with a win over Nebraska-Omaha in the season-finale.
- New NEC Leaders. The first-place reign of the Bryant Bulldogs, who won just two games last season, ended Saturday when a loss at Wagner, coupled with Robert Morris’ win at Sacred Heart and LIU Brooklyn’s win against Fairleigh Dickinson, pushed them out of the NEC’s top spot. This has been a remarkable turnaround for Bryant coach Tim O’Shea’s team – irrespective of whether or not the Bulldogs can jump back into first place before the season is out. They’ll have an excellent chance when the Colonials come to town February 28.
- Cal Coach Mike Montgomery Shoves Crabbe. The talk of Cal’s come-from-behind win over USC Sunday will focus on this confrontation between star guard Allen Crabbe and coach Mike Montgomery. It is not the first time we’ve seen a coach and player get into a heated exchange this season, and it probably won’t be the last. Crabbe seemed to respond well; he finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds to help keep the Bears in bubble striking distance.
- Murray Not Okay. The Racers didn’t follow typical trap-game behavior by losing their first game after beating Belmont. They handled Tennessee State, which is a solid win in itself, then proceeded to lose road games at SIU-Edwardsville and Eastern Illinois (Saturday). The Racers have a two-game cushion in the OVC West, so this two-game skid isn’t all that concerning – at least not yet. Building some goodwill before the conference tournament in upcoming games against Morehead State and South Dakota State is advisable
- Rutgers Guard Out For Season. When Carter took a hard fall early in the second half of Saturday’s game against DePaul, the potential for lasting damage was clear. Confirmation broke over the weekend when Rutgers announced Carter, who had been averaging just under 15 points per game, will miss the rest of the season with a fractured fibula. Tough break.
- Oregon Gets By. The Dominic Artis-induced three-game losing streak ended last weekend with a home win over Utah. Now the Ducks are getting results on the road without their freshman point guard. Saturday’s overtime survival of Washington State capped a successful Washington school sweep (Oregon won at Washington Wednesday).
- ASU Wins At The Buzzer. If Arizona State sneaks into the NCAA Tournament, it will have this moment to look back on as a major turning point. Not only did Herb Sendek’s team pull out a miraculous conference win on the road, it also canned a top-20 RPI outfit in its own building. Translation: selection committee likey.
- Big 5 Bout Doesn’t Surprise. The only real takeaway from Saturday’s Big 5 showdown at the Palestra between La Salle and Saint Joseph’s was a forceful reminder that the A-10 preseason poll – which had St. Joe’s slotted to finish first and La Salle seventh – missed the mark. Explorers guard Tyreek Duren had 29 points in a game that lacked all the usual competitiveness of inter-Philly hoops. La Salle hasn’t lost in four games.
- Miami looked…Mortal. The way Miami has bossed pretty much every one of its ACC games, a one-point win at NC State and six-point win at FSU the lone exceptions, it must have brought at least some sort of encouragement to the rest of the league to see the Hurricanes labor on the road at Clemson Sunday. A Kenny Kadji three inside the final minute pulled the Hurricanes through, but it begs the question: did Clemson discover the blueprint to bring an end to Miami’s undefeated conference record?
- Service Academies Draw Even. When looking at the two non-Air Force service academies, Army is marginally better than Navy. The Black Knights were no doubt disappointed after losing round one at home three weeks ago, so they returned the favor by winning at Navy Saturday night after rallying from a seven-point second-half deficit.
- First-place Patriot Bout Looms. Regardless of whether or not C.J. McCollum returns for the Patriot League Tournament, Bucknell – who fell at Lafayette Saturday – isn’t a sure thing to lock up the league’s auto Tourney bid. In fact, I wouldn’t put it past Lehigh (who won at Bucknell on January 23, and also lost Saturday at Colgate) to take down the Bison when they meet in Bethlehem Monday, the winner of which will lay claim to first place in the league standings.
- Phew, Creighton. The story on Creighton for most of this season has been glowingly positive: the Bluejays were the shiniest car in town, one tick above the rest of a tough MVC. A recent three-game losing streak (along with Wichita’s unexpected surge) threw that image into severe doubt, and a fourth-straight loss to Evansville Saturday would have caused a real panic in Omaha. Creighton pulled through against the Purple Aces, at least temporarily defusing at-large uneasiness, and star forward Doug McDermott sweetened the occasion by scoring his 2000th point
- Sorry, SFA. If Stephen F. Austin was going to make a case for an at-large NCAA bid on pure win aggregation – the Lumberjacks were 21-2 before the weekend – they needed to win out. Saturday’s loss to Southeastern Louisiana ended that possibility.
- Crimson Pull Clear In Ivy. The Ivy League’s regular season is the best regular season in college basketball. Why? Because There’s no conference Tournament, so the teams battle for the league’s automatic with a more comprehensive and democratic format. Harvard made a big move in the league race Saturday by downing second-place Princeton, one day after drubbing Penn.
Dunkdafied #2 I’ve always believed 360 dunks are a lot harder than they look. Ben McLemore makes it look too easy.
The Weekend’s All-Americans.
- Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State (NPOY) – Court-storming etiquette aside, Oklahoma State picked up a big win against in-state rival Oklahoma Saturday. Smart’s 28 points, seven rebounds and four assists were instrumental in the act.
- Trey Burke, Michigan – A season-high 29 points from Burke powered Michigan past a surprisingly feisty PSU at the Crisler Center Sunday.
- P.J. Hairston, UNC – If/When UNC and Virginia are sitting on the bubble come selection sunday, Hairston’s 29 points in the head-to-head win could be the tipping point.
- Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga – I don’t see Olynyk getting a whole lot of buzz for various national player of the year awards. After Saturday’s 26-point, nine-rebound master class added to an already sterling junior campaign, he should be.
- Doug McDermott, Creighton – It feels like it’s been a while since McDermott earned an All American nod. Saturday’s 21 point, 10-rebound performance against Evansville did the trick.
- Marshawn Powell, Arkansas – The Razorbacks are a brutal out at Bud Walton Arena. Missouri discovered why Saturday, when Powell scored 24 points in a two-point win.
- Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova – Watching Arcidiacono take control of Jay Wright’s system in just his first year on campus points to a bright future. In Saturday’s road win over UConn, he had 25 points and shot 5-for-8 from beyond the arc.
- Angel Rodriguez, Kansas State – It was important that K-State bounce back after last week’s bludgeoning in Lawrence. Rodriguez helped that cause by scoring 22 points and notching 10 assists in a rout of Baylor.
- Alex Len, Maryland – What sticks out more than Len’s 19 points and nine rebounds was the way he dominated fellow projected first-round NBA draft pick Mason Plumlee.
- Kyle Anderson, UCLA – I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a freshman with Anderson’s combination of length, versatility, high basketball IQ and shrewd creative intuition. He added 18 points with 13 assists in helping the Bruins take care of Stanford in Palo Alto.
Tweet of the Weekend. There are benefits to playing and winning at a high-profile basketball school like Maryland. Sophomore guard Nick Faust experienced one of them Saturday night.
#Terps Nick Faust on swarming fans after Duke win:“They grabbed me, pulling my hair …Girls were trying to kiss my jersey.”
— Jeff Barker (@sunjeffbarker) February 17, 2013