ATB: Cal Edges Oregon, a Bleak Outlook For Cincinnati and a Major Big 5 Match-up…Posted by Chris Johnson on February 22nd, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Preparing For A Packed Weekend. Tuesday night and Wednesday night stole most of this week’s college hoops goodness. They brought us the Kansas-Oklahoma State double-overtime nailbiter, Indiana’s show-me victory in East Lansing and an expected and enthralling Mountain West showdown at UNLV. Thursday night didn’t feature as diverse a selection of intriguing games or storylines, but one bad night of hoops – taken alongside a loaded weekend slate, which includes the last-ever BracketBusters event – is probably not going to fly over the high-level hardwood drama that played out over the past two nights. If anything, a one-night dose of relative mediocrity (at least schedule-wise) will whet your appetite for the weekend ahead.
Your Watercooler Moment. Justin Cobbs Lifts Cal.
The national media spotlight directed at Cal coach Mike Montgomery following a controversial second-half sideline encounter with star guard Allen Crabbe dwarfed the positive aspect of the Golden Bears’ eight-point win over USC. Cal was winning, and winning against solid Pac-12 competition (USC regained its competitive edge since getting ride of Kevin O’Neill; they are unequivocally a nuisance to play). Their three-game winning streak, which began with an eye-opening eight-point victory at Arizona, was extended Thursday night by a gutsy two-point win at Oregon, who had only lost once beforehand at Matthew Knight Arena. The Ducks were without freshman point guard Dominic Artis, and Cal’s superior guard play only magnified Oregon’s shaky backcourt. But for as much as Artis’ absence may or may not have altered Oregon’s backcourt functionality, you can’t disabuse the fact that Cal picked up another huge win in a late-season surge full of them. This team’s recent rise has been a steady climb into the thick of Pac 12 contention; as of Thursday night, the Bears sit just one game back of Arizona and Oregon (and 0.5 games back of UCLA), with a manageable closing schedule that should allow the Bears to close the gap should the Duke or Wildcats slip the rest of the way. Justin Cobbs’ last-second heroics are just the latest evidence; right now, Cal is the best thing the Pac-12 has to offer, full stop. The only question is, why didn’t we see this the first, I don’t know, three months of the season?
Also Worth Chatting About. This Could Get Ugly For Cincinnati.
Let me start by saying this: I don’t envision any realistic scenario where Cincinnati misses the NCAA Tournament. Entering Thursday night’s game at UConn the Bearcats owned a top-40 SOS and RPI figure, nonconference wins over Oregon and Iowa State and commendable league triumphs against Marquette and at Pittsburgh. There are bubble teams that would give anything for that collection of wins and computer power. The Bearcats remain in decent bubble shape, but Thursday night’s overtime loss in Storrs brought to the surface a potentially grim reality for Mick Cronin’s team. Dating back to a February 6 loss at Providence, the Bearcats have now dropped four of their last five, the lone win coming against Villanova. Looking back and rattling off the factors (individual and schedule related) behind the losing skid is simple. It’s what most optimistic fans would do after watching their once-formidable Big East favorite endure the toughest portion of its conference schedule. Here’s where that logic falls flat. If you look at Cincinnati’s remaining games, the only one that you can honestly qualify as anything remotely resembling “easy” is the season-finale against South Florida. In the meantime, Cincy has to play at Notre Dame, a revenge game with UConn and at Louisville. Best case scenario: Cincinnati splits the final four, carries a totally respectable .500 Big East record into the league Tournament, and reboots for a postseason push. The Bearcats have already damaged their seeding prospects beyond what anyone could have reasonably imagined. Botching this final stretch could really diminish their stature in seeding and locational committee discussions.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Woah. As halfcourt shots go, this takes the cake. This comes to you from William Carey University cheerleader Ashlee Arnau. She also plays soccer at Carey, which may help explain why her flip-and-throw halfcourt trick looked so very routine. Her technique draws parallels to the rare “flip-throw” maneuver you see in youth soccer games from time to time (professionals, at least at the highest levels, typically stick to standard throw-ins). It’s one thing to flip and launch a spherical object in a general direction. It’s entirely another to generate enough force, with enough attendant accuracy to net a halfcourt shot.
- Temple Isn’t Done. The streak is over. Temple’s run of one-point decisions, one of them a one-point home loss to Duquesne, came to a close in positive fashion Thursday night in a seminal Big 5 matchup with this season’s Non-VCU/Butler/Saint Louis A-10 darling, La Salle. The Owls needed the win more, because after that one-point Duquesne loss, any and all sense of at-large security went out the window. Fran Dunphy’s team was riding a thin line, winning (and losing) all those games by the smallest possible measure – opening up a bigger margin, and sinking a decades-old rival along the way, portends positive things for Temple. Sunday’s road trip to Charlotte looms large. The Owls are on the bubble thin and narrow from here on out.
- Is Middle Tennessee An At-Large Entity? The selection committee has not been kind to win accumulators from lower leagues. They prioritize stronger competition from more prominent leagues, even if it means more losses. Middle Tennessee, if it finishes the season unbeaten, will be an interesting test case. The Sun Belt’s undisputed king eviscerated second-place South Alabama Thursday to move to 15-1 in conference play and 23-4 overall. The Blue Raiders have been nearly untouchable in league play, and their nonconference work actually isn’t half bad! Wins over Ole Miss and UCF, the RPI boost of games against Florida and Belmont (30) – everything checks out. The caveat here is that MTU cannot risk blowing a game to one of the three RPI landmines remaining on its schedule. If they finish out unscathed, the Blue Raiders could be a hot subject of debate right up until the bracket release.
- Gaels Stay Alive. It is all or nothing now for St. Mary’s as it attempts to scour as much at-large good will as possible over the final weeks of the season. Getting by BYU Thursday night was a nice baseline. The next test is a Bracket Busters visit from Creighton, which the Gaels absolutely must have. Anything short of that, along with a clean finish in WCC play will leave the Gaels on the outside looking in come selection sunday, no doubt about it. Even an undefeated final stretch may not be enough — beating Gonzaga in the WCC Tourney could be the only way to generate enough late momentum to get over the top. The picture will become clearer as the bubble competition crystallizes, and other squads fall and rise around the them. The Gaels walk away Thursday night in a tenuous position: Saturday will make or break their postseason fate.
- Duke Moves Forward. As we storm towards the finish line of conference play, and standings hierarchy and title favorites become clearer and clearer, you get a comprehensive feel for the macro orientation of each league. Take the ACC. The bottomfeeders (Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Boston College, Clemson and Virginia Tech) are woefully inept, and only marginally formidable at home. The middle pack is an indeterminate jumble of underperformers: North Carolina, NC State, Virginia, Maryland, Florida State. There is no such confusion at the top, where Miami and Duke have governed the conference crown discussion all season long. The Blue Devils reinforced these arbitrary dividing lines by punishing VA Tech in its own building. In a college basketball season filled with upsets and craziness, Duke can still walk into a Blacksburg on a nondescript Thursday night in February and thrash the Hokies into oblivion. See? College basketball is predictable….sometimes.
- Drexel Got Jobbed. There hasn’t been much to report in the CAA this season. The league is appreciably down after losing flagship VCU, preseason frontrunners like Old Dominion (HA), Drexel and George Mason have failed to meet expectations and the conference RPI figure (25th) sits below the Southland, America East, MAAC, Big West and other leagues at the bottom of the conference food chain. The CAA has lost all of its cache – for one season, and maybe many more. It hasn’t lost its proclivity to produce exciting games, and Thursday night birthed a hotly-contested double-overtime fixture between Drexel and Delaware. With his team down two points on the final possession, Dragons guard Franz Massenat floated a layup at the buzzer, which careened off the backboard and fell harmlessly onto the court. Game over, right? Wrong. On second glance (skip to :45 mark for the debated call), you see Delaware’s Jarnelle Higgins tip Massenat’s layup after reaching its apex and beginning a downward trajectory. There’s no controversy here: the refs missed a blatant goaltend, and a chance for Massenat to send his team into triple OT with an important road win squarely on the line.
Seth Curry Spotlight. The dual-edged sword of shot-blocking smited Virginia Tech forward Jarell Eddie during this utterly disheartening sequence in Thursday night’s loss at Duke. After inciting the hometown crowd with a thundering swat of one of the ACC’s best scorers, Eddie is forced to watch Curry, collect his miss near the sidelines, set his feet and bury a three in his face from the corner.
Tonight’s All Americans.
- Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, Temple (NPOY) – In one of the biggest games of Temple’s season, Hollis-Jefferson uncorked a 23/18 double-double and added five assistst for good measure.
- Shabazz Napier, UConn – The Cincinnati win was UConn’s third in its last four games. Napier’s play has been crucial throughout, but Thursday night’s 27-point effort was particularly important (just two points under his season-high).
- Seth Curry, Duke – After a two-point loss at Maryland, Curry led Duke with 22 points in routing the Hokies in Blacksburg.
- Andre Roberson, Colorado – A pesky Utah squad didn’t allow Colorado to pull away until late in the second half, a game the Buffs eventually won thanks in part to Roberson’s 10 points and 13 rebounds.
- Mathew Dellavedova, Saint Mary’s — Knock his 6-of-14 shooting all you want, Delly manufactured enough points (20) to help get his team a mandatory league win.
Tweet of the Night. The book on UConn’s 2012-13 season will focus on two things: 1) interim-made-permanent coach Kevin Ollie’s capacity to motivate a transfer-riddled group without postseason incentive; 2) the players who chose to stay, to swallow a year of NCAA Tournament ineligibility – players like Shabazz Napier, who has elevated his game to a whole new level this season. His offensive numbers are up across the board, but Napier’s biggest influence isn’t quantifiable. The intangibles (leadership, maturity) Napier provides are just as instrumental to this team’s success as any points, assists or ankle-breaks he created. When UConn needed an on-court presence to supplement Ollie’s stewardship, Napier obliged. The Huskies are having a remarkable season, and Napier deserves a large heaping of the credit.