Ten Tuesday Scribbles: On the Big East Race, Duke, Michigan and More…

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 19th, 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

  1. As we hit the stretch run of the college basketball season, tight conference races begin to captivate the nation. There are terrific regular season title races going on in a bunch of conferences, including the Atlantic 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten but the best race is happening in the Big East. In the conference’s final season as we have come to know it, three teams are tied atop the league standings at 9-3 heading into Tuesday’s action with three more nipping at their heels. It’s only fitting that two of the Big East’s heavyweight rivals, Syracuse and Georgetown, are among the group at 9-3. Joining them is an upstart Marquette team, picked seventh in the 15-team conference. Right behind the leaders is a team some seem to have forgotten about at 9-4, the Louisville Cardinals. Notre Dame at 9-5 after an important win at Pittsburgh last night and 7-5 Connecticut round out the teams within two games in the loss column. The great thing about this race is the best games are still to come. Syracuse and Georgetown hook up twice down the stretch, including on the final day of the regular season. The Orange have the toughest schedule with the aforementioned games against the Hoyas plus a trip to Marquette and a visit to the Carrier Dome from Louisville still on tap. Marquette plays four of its final six games on the road beginning this evening but gets Syracuse and Notre Dame at home where the Golden Eagles have won 23-straight games since a loss to Vanderbilt last season. Luckily for Marquette, its four road games are against a hit-and-miss Villanova team, St. John’s and two of the teams near the bottom of the league standings. It’s never easy to win on the road but Marquette has a somewhat favorable schedule. In the end, my money would be on a 13-5 logjam between Syracuse, Georgetown and Louisville with tiebreakers determining the team that gets the top seed at Madison Square Garden next month.

    Otto Porter and Georgetown will have a say in the Big East title race (M. Sullivan/Reuters)

    Otto Porter and Georgetown will have a say in the Big East title race (M. Sullivan/Reuters)

  2. For the final time this Saturday, ESPN’s BracketBusters event will pit non-power league teams against one another, some in major need of a resume-building win as the regular season begins to wind down. Denver against Northern Iowa and Ohio at Belmont are solid matchups but the best game by far is Creighton visiting St. Mary’s on Saturday.The Bluejays have lost five of their past nine games heading into tonight’s game with Southern Illinois, one they should win, after a 17-1 start to the season. Quality non-conference wins against Wisconsin, Arizona State and California (all away from Omaha), plus a good home win over a solid Akron club, have Creighton in a pretty good spot for a bid relative to other teams in the mix. The problem for Greg McDermott’s squad is that it hasn’t done much of anything in calendar year 2013. The good news for Creighton is the NCAA Selection Committee says wins in November and December mean just as much as February and March. As long as Creighton splits its upcoming games with St. Mary’s and Wichita State, I feel that should be good enough to merit an NCAA berth no matter what happens in the Missouri Valley Tournament. As for St. Mary’s, it is even more desperate. The only semblance of a quality win on the Gaels’ resume are wins at BYU and Santa Clara, the former coming thanks to Matthew Dellavedova’s miracle buzzer beater in Provo. To have a chance at the NCAA’s I feel St. Mary’s has to beat Creighton and run the West Coast table while making the finals of the conference tournament. There just isn’t enough meat on its resume to justify a bid despite having one of the nation’s strongest offensive attacks.
  3. The 2012-13 college basketball season will be remembered for the lack of a truly great team. In a way, the same can also be said for the players. In prior years the nation has been captivated by one or two star players. This year there is a bunch of very good, even great, players but no one player jumps out at you the way some former college stars did over the years. Think about it. Not one player this season has the buzz and charisma of guys like Anthony Davis in 2012, Jimmer Fredette and Kemba Walker in 2011, John Wall in 2010, Blake Griffin and Tyler Hansbrough in 2009, Michael Beasley in 2008, Kevin Durant in 2007 or J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison in 2006. All of these players brought that extra level of attention and excitement to every game they played in. Guys like Trey Burke, Doug McDermott, Mason Plumlee, Victor Oladipo and Kelly Olynyk are fine players but none of them have the bona fides of their predecessors.
  4. California was down by 12 points early in the second half against USC on Sunday night when head coach Mike Montgomery made a highly controversial move in shoving star Golden Bears player Allen Crabbe for his lack of hustle. Crabbe did not take the tough love well and left the bench for a time in order to compose himself but returned to the game shortly thereafter and played well. There are differing views on this issue but I have to side with those who think Montgomery crossed the line. In my mind, there is absolutely no reason a coach should lay a hand on a player in a malicious fashion under any circumstances. If Crabbe wasn’t playing as desired, you take him out and sit him down, give him a stern talking to and let him think about it for a few minutes while his team continues to struggle without him having his head in the game. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott did not suspend Montgomery but did reprimand him in an undisclosed fashion. Montgomery apologized for his actions but then told reporters that the shove worked anyway because California came back and won the game by eight points, avoiding what would have been a bad loss in its quest for an NCAA Tournament bid. Coaches have done far worse over the years than what Montgomery did on Sunday but that doesn’t excuse it. It was the wrong move and I feel Montgomery should have paid the price in the form of a one game suspension.
  5. Ryan Kelly’s prolonged foot injury is hurting Duke in a number of ways but a closer look at the numbers reveals just how big of an impact the 6’11” senior’s absence is having. When you look at these numbers, you will likely be convinced that Duke cannot win a national championship without Kelly in the lineup. Duke was 15-0 in the games Kelly played and is 7-3 in the 10 games since. The three losses have come in the three toughest games the Blue Devils have played since Kelly’s injury (at NC State, at Miami and at Maryland) but they have also struggled mightily in wins over lowly Boston College, Wake Forest and an up-and-down North Carolina team. Offensively, Kelly is Duke’s third leading scorer and a solid three point threat. Duke’s offensive efficiency has dipped from 1.14 points per possession to 1.10 without him. That is a noticeable fall off but get a hold of the defensive numbers. Kelly’s injury is having a massive impact on Duke’s defense, going from a strong 0.87 PPP with Kelly to a mediocre 1.03 without him on the floor. All told, Duke’s scoring margin on a per possession basis has gone from +0.27 with Kelly to +0.07 without him. In an average Duke game (68-69 possessions), that means opponents are scoring about 11 more points per game. The raw numbers bear that out: Duke gave up an average of 60.3 PPG before Kelly’s injury. In the 10 games since, Duke is allowing 72.2 PPG. That’s hard to overcome, especially on the road where Duke has suffered all three of its losses. Kelly is one of Duke’s stellar defenders who can turn this around if he comes back but with his status still unknown, it’s time to pump the brakes on the Blue Devils’ chances.

    Ryan Kelly's absence is hurting Duke defensively (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)

    Ryan Kelly’s absence is hurting Duke defensively (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)

  6. Another team who found out what it is like to lose a star defensive player is Kentucky. In their first full game since losing Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL, the Wildcats were shellacked by 30 points at Tennessee on Saturday, allowing 88 points to a Volunteers team that doesn’t even average 65 PPG. Cuonzo Martin devised a perfect game plan as his team attempted only five three pointers (they made all five by the way) and drove the ball inside all day long. Tennessee shot 53% inside the arc, a far cry from where Kentucky’s stout interior defense was with Noel in the lineup. Tennessee also got to the free throw line 31 times as it showed no fear of going inside against the shorthanded Wildcats. It was a dominating performance with the Volunteers also enjoying a 33-20 edge in the rebounding battle. Willie Cauley-Stein was not the answer for UK, fouling out in only 23 minutes of action while grabbing only two rebounds and committing four turnovers. Playing without Noel is night and day for Kentucky but luckily it has three home games coming up to try to right the ship in time to make the NCAA Tournament, something that is no sure thing for the young Wildcats.
  7. A 20-1 start to the season and a #1 ranking had Michigan fans thinking big just two and a half weeks ago but all of a sudden the Wolverines have lost three of their last five games as the rigors of Big Ten play begin to take their toll. Michigan hasn’t lost to bad teams mind you, just road games against the best the Big Ten has to offer (Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State) proved too much to handle. John Beilein’s squad is still a legitimate national championship contender but the alarm bells are starting to go off. Michigan has not played well in February, even struggling to put away Ohio State and a dreadful Penn State team (both at home) in its two wins during this slump. This team’s offensive efficiency has noticeably dipped since a torrid start to the season because of the struggles of Tim Hardaway Jr. (4-of-22 combined FG against Michigan State and Penn State) and Glenn Robinson III (7-of-24 FG in February before a 21 point effort against Penn State). However, I’m not as concerned about Michigan’s offense as I am about its defense. Michigan’s three worst defensive games from an efficiency standpoint have come during this 2-3 slide. Michigan was never an elite defensive team to begin with and this only raises more questions about this team’s ability to defend against good competition when the chips are down. Unless Michigan gets its defense up to par, it won’t be hoisting any trophies in Atlanta in April.
  8. Down in Ohio, Michigan’s major rival is also enduring struggles of its own. Ohio State has lost three of its past four games, including the hard fought overtime game at Michigan two weeks ago. The Buckeyes played well in the game but did not respond well at all after it. Ohio State was blown out by Indiana and Wisconsin and even struggled against Northwestern at home in Columbus. Deshaun Thomas has been a rock for this team but the problem is the same as it has been all year: not enough scoring consistency from Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith, LaQuinton Ross or Sam Thompson. Even more concerning however is Thad Matta’s defense. Ohio State has been awful on that end of the floor over this four game stretch, allowing every opponent to shoot at least 46% for the game. The Buckeyes are still a good team but they lack the scoring punch and are not an elite defensive team like the last two Matta outfits. Ohio State has played one of the nation’s strongest schedules but has little to show for it. Aside from home wins over Michigan and Wisconsin, the Buckeyes have not beaten anyone of note.

    Deshaun Thomas can't do it all offensively and the Buckeyes need to improve their defense

    Deshaun Thomas can’t do it all offensively and the Buckeyes need to improve their defense

  9. One of the nation’s more intriguing bubble teams is bound to be the Virginia Cavaliers. At 18-7 (8-4) heading into tonight’s massive opportunity game at Miami, UVA is squarely on the bubble thanks to four bad losses and an atrocious non-conference schedule ranked #319 by the RPI. It doesn’t help matters that Virginia has played the easiest ACC schedule per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. The Cavs don’t have to go to Duke and have six of their nine conference road games against the worst teams in the league. Virginia ranks highly in the efficiency metrics but a lack of quality wins and the bad losses, including a horrific defeat at the hands of 3-23 Old Dominion, are blows Tony Bennett’s team may not be able to recover from. Virginia does have a couple of things going for it though. UVA won at Wisconsin, a win that continues to look better with each passing day. This team also won at Maryland, something Duke can’t say it did. That said, Virginia is just 2-4 against a not so difficult ACC road slate. If Virginia can somehow hand Miami its first conference loss tonight, that becomes a game changer. The Cavaliers need to go 2-1 in games against Miami, Duke and Maryland down the stretch while taking care of business against the teams in the bottom half of the league. If they do that, they’ll be in position for a bid. Anything less than that would make it very hard for this team to make the NCAA Tournament.
  10. Bruce Weber is having quite the season at Kansas State. The Wildcats lead the Big 12 on February 19 with a 10-3 league mark (21-5 overall) and only five games to go in Weber’s first season after taking over for Frank Martin. K-State has won six of its last seven games since a two game losing streak back in January. Somewhat surprisingly, the Wildcats are the best three point shooting team in Big 12 play at 39.3% but are just in the middle of the pack in offensive rebounding, one of Martin’s staples while roaming the sidelines in the Little Apple. Kansas State is still a solid offensive rebounding club though and that, combined with great turnover margins, gives Weber’s team many looks at the basket. Weber is allowing this team to play more freely and its offensive efficiency numbers have been particularly good during this recent stretch of good basketball. Angel Rodriguez is really stepping it up as a sophomore, especially of late. He is scoring well and has dished out 23 assists over his last three games. The Wildcats ran into a buzz saw at Allen Fieldhouse last week with Kansas coming off three straight losses but they still have a legitimate chance to win the Big 12, something almost everyone would say was unthinkable for a team that was picked fifth in the preseason coaches poll in a league where rival Kansas has won eight straight regular season titles.
Brian Otskey (269 Posts)

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