ATB: The Real Number One, Saint Louis’ Ascendance and What Did Maryland Just Do?…Posted by Chris Johnson on February 20th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Fun, Fun Night Of Hoops. The night began with a top-five match-up of seismic proportions. Indiana-Michigan State didn’t just have conference bragging rights on the line, nor was it just another hard-fought Big Ten game. It was arguably the biggest regular season game in any league this season, and it fully met the wildly attendant expectations. That game, and its crazy finish, will dominate Tuesday night’s headlines, but the schedule was flush with intriguing fixtures. Were there a stat for nightly scheduling intrigue efficiency, Tuesday night – with its stable of appealing match-ups and only 30 total games – would set the bar awfully high.
Your Watercooler Moment. No. 1 Has Arrived, I Think.
Another grand referendum on the nation’s No. 1 team, one of many in a season defined by near-constant alpha-dog flux, took place in East Lansing on Tuesday night. In this year’s revolving door of number ones, over the past two weeks Indiana had looked as sure a thing on top of the polls as Duke, back when the Blue Devils were smiting elite non-conference foes with Ryan Kelly in the lineup and Mason Plumlee leading the NPOY chase. The Hoosiers were good, and no one was going to question that. Whether they could maintain their grip on the top spot through Tuesday night, where a physical, deep, hard-nosed, trademark Izzo MSU stood on the brink of a major national breakthrough, was the ultimate test of No. 1 worthiness. Winning at Ohio State earlier this month was probably Indiana’s best win at that point in time, but because it came three days after a two-point loss at Illinois, no one could be completely sure exactly how the Hoosiers would handle their next huge road challenge. Now we know. The details of the game – Victor Oladipo’s tireless two-way contributions, Jordan Hulls’ three-point shooting, Cody Zeller standing tall against MSU’s bruising bigs – are just as important as the implications, I’d wager, because not only is Indiana now the clear-cut favorite to win the conference title and claim a number-one seed. It also earned itself the inside track on a highly desired spot at the Lucas Oil Stadium NCAA Tournament regional hosting site in Indianapolis. And for as long and as unstable as that fuzzy No. 1 label has felt all season, for as many weeks and words we’ve spent debating the topic, Tuesday night brought some finality to the matter. I’m willing to go ahead and throw it out there (with the caveat that IU could lose their last game of the season at Michigan): Indiana is the best team in the country.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Move Over A-10 Newbies. For much of this confusing and utterly mystifying A-10 season, that would seem like a totally unreasonable claim to make. Butler and VCU had taken the league by storm, each with a unique stylistic strength. VCU had its smothering press and turnover-prying defense, whereas Butler had toughness and Rotnei Clarke and — let’s just be honest — a coach with the prime time chops to elicit the very best from his team against bigger, stronger and more talented opposition. Saint Louis has something else. It has the extra emotive urge to give everything and anything on any given night for fallen coach Rick Majerus. Aside from a two-game losing streak in mid-January, the Billikens are unbeaten since Majerus passed away. But Saint Louis has a lot more than an emotional drive to win in Majerus’ honor. The Billikens have held opponents to fewer points per trip (0.90 PPP) in conference play than any other A-10 squad, and scored more than all but one of them. They stomped VCU at home Tuesday night, nearly three weeks removed from delivering the same brutal treatment upon Butler. This team, who in beating the Rams jumped into first place in the conference standings, is just as good as any shiny new toy the A-10 inherited as part of this past summer’s realignment add-on.
- Canes Get By, Again. As Miami was ruthlessly plowing through its ACC schedule, obliterating Duke, UNC, Florida State and anything else standing in its way, the possibility dawned: Could Miami finish undefeated in the ACC? It sure looked that way after a 16-point blowout of the Tar Heels on February 9, and the Hurricanes still look plenty capable of pulling it off. Recently, though, the margins of victory have narrowed, and Miami has looked – gasp! – quite beatable. After barely sneaking away from Clemson Saturday, the Hurricanes were lulled into a pack-line defensive slog with Virginia from which they escaped with a four-point win. Whether this two-game trend merits further concern isn’t clear, not yet. From here on, Miami will be judged on what it does March 2, when the Hurricanes’ undefeated hopes will meet their trickiest proposition yet at Duke.
- Hello T.J. Warren. The three-game losing streak the Wolfpack fell into earlier this month was utterly predictable: at Virginia, home to Miami, at Duke. NC State isn’t at the point where it can rightfully expect to beat even marginally good teams consistently on the road in conference play. The Wolfpack can beat Clemson away from Raleigh, turn around and hold off Virginia Tech in overtime and build enough of a lead to prevent Florida State from unleashing Michael Snaer on a final possession game-winner to cap a three-game winning streak. That last bit came Tuesday night, and it might have been NC State’s all-around best offensive effort of the ACC season. In particular, it was a show-me evening for freshman T.J. Warren, who finished with 31 points and 13 rebounds. His name will be included in the below All-America section, rest assured.
- The Upset After The Upset. The floor was rushed, Mark Turgeon was fist-pumping and slapping his assistants’ hands, Coach K was mocking Maryland’s Big Ten exit, and the Terrapins were laughing their way home after a massive upset over No. 2 Duke lifted them into a favorable at-large position. What could have possibly changed since? The absolute worst possible post-upset scenario, that’s what. Maryland lost at Boston College – the Eagles are 13-14, 3-9 against league competition, lost at College of Charleston, got drubbed by Harvard at home, and ranked #147 in the RPI before Tuesday night’s game. The last thing Maryland could afford after a resume-enhancing win like Saturday night was to follow it up with its worst loss of the season. The latter won’t outweigh the former – this is completely anecdotal and something that warrants deeper study, but my general sense is that massive wins (and Duke, with it’s No. 1 RPI, was exactly that), depending on the magnitude involved on either side, tend to outweigh bad losses – but we can agree that the optimistic proposition that was Maryland’s profile just three nights ago absorbed a major blow.
- Home/Road Strengths Play Out As Expected. The biggest critiques of Florida and Missouri so far this season was that their play on the road didn’t validate what we saw at home. The Gators’ three losses entering Tuesday had all come away from Gainesville, and Missouri had yet to beat an opponent on the road not named Mississippi State. The Tigers were more than happy to stage their SEC showdown with Florida in Columbia, and the Gators — not at all unsurprisingly — couldn’t hang on in a tight road spot. Unlike their blowout loss at Arkansas, Billy Donovan’s team led much of the entire game, right up until the three-minute mark, when a Phil Pressey layup and assist, a couple of missed Kenny Boynton jumpers, and an off-target Mike Rosario desperation three sealed the Gators’ second road loss in SEC play. The Arkansas loss was startling; this one less so, because Missouri – despite all its road warts – is really tough in its own building. Even so, if Florida is all that its gaudy efficiency stats make it out to be, you would like to see some road confirmation as proof of numerical fact.
- Nice Knowing Ya, ISU. The at-large tea leaves have been napalmed: Indiana State must prepare for a life without at-large assurance. I’m not saying this as some kind of knee-jerk reaction to the Sycamores’ four-point home loss to Wichita State Tuesday night. Their at-large doom has been brewing for weeks, with road losses at Southern Illinois, Illinois State, Drake, Missouri State and Bradley all coming before Tuesday night. ISU has a handful of wins the selection committee can’t ignore (Miami (FL) and Ole Miss on neutral courts, a sweep of Northern Iowa, Wichita State on the road, Creighton at home, however many “eye test” bonus points an overtime loss with New Mexico gets them), but the RPI-draining losses have piled up so quickly and in such close proximity that all those commendable victories can no longer gloss over the negative aspects of this resume.
Dunkdafied. I can’t imagine Maryland fans will enjoy this. In fact, they probably won’t even watch it – or anything else college basketball-related, for that matter. Boston College forward Eddie Odio’s slam highlighted the Eagles’ upset win, and Maryland’s corresponding misery.
Tuesday Night’s All-Americans.
- Victor Oladipo, Indiana (NPOY) – There are a lot of talented basketball players on Indiana’s roster. If Oladipo isn’t the best, or the most important, he’s close. His 19 points, nine rebounds and five steals stole the show in East Lansing.
- T.J. Warren, NC State – Of the crop of highly-touted freshmen Mark Gottfried lured to Raleigh this season, Warren is making a name for himself with 31 points and 13 rebounds Tuesday night against Florida State.
- Jordan McRae, Tennessee – In his past two games before Tuesday night, McRae scored 15 and 14 points, respectively. He dwarfed that composite sum with 34 points against LSU.
- Laurence Bowers, Missouri – There were rumblings, factually-grounded and mostly legitimate, that Bowers hasn’t been the same player since returning from a knee injury in late January. After he scored 17 points and 10 rebounds in leading Mizzou to a win over Florida, those rumors have just about run their course.
- James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina – The talent is undeniable. Exhibiting that talent from game to game is where McAdoo has struggled this season. He had no such issues with 22 points and 11 rebounds in a win Tuesday night at Georgia Tech.
Tweet of the Night. Strong superlatives like this are standard operating procedure when the best player on a highly-ranked team pulls off a monster win. And yes, Oladipo is a strong (probably the strongest, when taking Tuesday into consideration) candidate for the various NPOY awards. But a lock? Or even an “almost lock?” Maybe. The season isn’t over, nor are the impressionable minds of voters mandated to send in their ballots by Wednesday morning. Oladipo deserves his plaudits, especially after what he did Tuesday night, and he could wind up with the coveted honor. All I’m saying is, it’s too early to stamp approval just yet. It’s February 19 – not March 19.
Victor Oladipo’s performance tonight has almost locked up National Player of the Year! #iubb
— #IUBB (@BtownBanners) February 20, 2013