ATB: Hoosiers Slip at the Barn, Late Season UT Tournament Push Redux, and Memphis Folds at Xavier…Posted by Chris Johnson on February 27th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Big Boys Stumble. At various stages of this season, Indiana and Florida have been called the best team in the country. Both efficiency statistics and on-court observations confirmed the hype. Over weeks of grueling competition the season has spotlighted weaknesses on both outfits – Florida can’t win on the road, Indiana tightens up in the second halves of close games. Top teams get picked apart endlessly; it’s part of the reason why this sport, and its subjective polls, are so fun to talk about. With both going down on Tuesday night, I won’t even begin to imagine what will be said Wednesday morning about these teams. Some of the talk may be more optimistic than I’m leading on. Equally possible is a scathing revival of the “No Best Team” debate, and the attendant tirades about the quality and quantity of NBA talent in this year’s draft class. We, of course, will leave that for other people. Don’t worry: These upsets receive plenty of love in the space below. But if you expect a mainstream screed on the state of college basketball, on the evils of the one-and-done system, the ultimate vanity of the regular season, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Your Watercooler Moment. Don’t Rue IU.
The rare multi-week placeholder of the number one ranking in the AP Poll lost Tuesday night. We should have seen this coming; the top spot in the rankings has been a dangerously ephemeral place since Duke fell from its No. 1 perch around the turn of the New Year. Indiana’s reign felt* like the most sustainable thing since, with not only the star power of Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo mounting a strong case for their team’s unquestioned dominance. The results on the court were piling up quite nicely, too – the Hoosiers withstood a devastating last-second loss at Illinois, perilous road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State, all while keeping that coveted numerical distinction. What IU was doing in the Big Ten – living and thriving on the road, what every team has tried and failed to do at time or another – was remarkable. It was also too good to be true. In this historically fierce Big Ten, was there anyone who reasonably believed Indiana could rip off eight straight wins, including trips to Minnesota and Michigan, to finish the season as a Kentucky 2012-like favorite heading into the NCAA Tournament? The Gophers ended that conversation Tuesday night at the Barn. Indiana lost one in a number of tricky Big Ten road games, and now, inevitably, the No. 1 debate will rage on for another week. This feels like a perfect juncture to salute the Hoosiers for an inspiring run of dominance unseen in any other league by any other team this season. After braving the road rigors of Big Ten country, Indiana, despite Tuesday night’s loss, can at least claim to have lived up to its preseason front-runner status. Reputational merits aside, the Hoosiers made a fine go at keeping No. 1 locked up in B-town. And given their body of work to date, they just might keep it (*see what I did there?) through next week.
Also Worth Chatting About.Deja Vols.
This is not a new story. Last season, Tennessee won eight out of nine games to finish 10-6 in the SEC race. The Volunteers, powered by then-freshman wunderkind Jarnell Stokes, pushed hard for an at-large bid, and if not for an overtime loss to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament, their late surge would have given the selection committee a long and hard decision to make. UT is pressing yet again as the conference season plays out, and it might just be in better position to leave Selection Sunday with more than an NIT one-seed this time around. Because when you snag the biggest kid on the SEC block, as the Volunteers did in Knoxville Tuesday night by beating Florida, the resume-changing potential is boundless. Tennessee is in the discussion now, no doubt, and the way Cuonzo Martin’s team is playing lately, and the soft tail end of the SEC schedule (at Georgia and Auburn, home against Missouri), things are looking up in Knoxville. The late-season Tournament surge is on, the Volunteers are playing their best basketball of the season, and in a year where the SEC boasts two decent teams and not much else, UT has a place in the at-large jumble. It also helps when the aforementioned Gators, the best NCAA chip available in this league, cannot, under any circumstance, beat quality teams on the road. The Gators’ road hiccups are of no big concern to UT. Right now, the Vols have their sights set on the prize they fell just short of last season. Their bubble stock is on the rise, that’s for sure – which is a lot more than you can say about most bubble-dwellers these days.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Old Memphis Critiques Won’t Go Away. Since taking over for John Calipari at Memphis in 2009, the general opinion on Josh Pastner among Tigers fans has been consistent. Pastner is a great recruiter, they say, but he can’t coach the players he gets. From the outside those criticisms seem sort of silly – Pastner has led the Tigers to consecutive C-USA regular season titles, regularly brings in some of the best high school players around the country, and has learned to handle the frequent harangues of a fervent fan base with poise and aplomb. Coming from Memphis supporters, the harsh viewpoint is expected. Fans don’t typically vet coaches on the totality of their coaching responsibilities. They want simple, discrete things to hang their hat on, like wins. And on Tuesday night, when Memphis traveled to the Cintas Center to face a down Xavier team (down that is, by the Muskateers’ recent standards), the Pastner-led Tigers missed on another opportunity to win a big game. Until Pastner starts seizing the moment in brand-name non-conference match-ups, until he gets his team through one (just one!) NCAA Tournament game, the cynical reception to Pastner’s coaching tenure and his ability to lead this program in the right direction will shine through.
- Crimson Tide Stay Alive. Nothing about Alabama’s recent conference work will make the selection committee think twice about leaving the Crimson Tide out of the field. Since February 9, the Crimson Tide have mopped up pretty much every piece of SEC detritus you can think of, and also managed to lose at LSU in triple overtime. This team’s at-large chances will come down to what it does in its next two games: at Florida and at Ole Miss. Following Tuesday night’s easy handling of Auburn, the Tide will put their season on the line against a vengeful Florida team in Gainesville Saturday. Let’s just say Alabama’s chances aren’t as good as Tennessee’s of swinging an upset; Florida is a different team inside its own building.
- Who is Georgia Southwestern? I’m all for scheduling non-conference games in February. It spices up the monotony of the conference routine. Tuesday night gave us an excellent example, with Memphis taking its vaunted C-USA stature to what’s customarily been viewed as the place where A-10 teams go to die, the Cintas Center at Xavier. Then you get match-ups like this one – Central Florida hosted Division II member and Peach Belt Conference denizen Georgia Southwestern – and the idea of late non-conference scheduling takes on a whole different flavor. If you’re going to schedule out of league this late in the season, make the occasion a worthy one. There’s a place for games like this – late NCAA Tournament pushes, for example. Match-ups like this instead cast a negative light on the whole enterprise. Non-conference scheduling in February should be meaningful and exciting – not bland and uncompetitive. Oh, and yeah, Central Florida won.
Dunkdafied. The ramifications of a thunderous dunk in the midst of a run are unquantifiable. Just look at that electric Barn crowd. Joe Coleman’s dunk put the emotional seal on the Gophers’ big win over Indiana.
Tuesday Night’s All-Americans.
- Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota (NPOY) – Neutralizing Cody Zeller was the first order of business; adding 21 points and 12 rebounds glossed Mbakwe’s upset-leading performance.
- Jordan McRae, Tennessee – Eighty-four points combined in the last three games (including Tuesday night’s 27 and seven rebounds against Florida) is, needless to say, a positive trend.
- Travis Taylor, Xavier – The NCAA Tournament is a long shot for the Musketeers, and it will take a few more 18/10 double-doubles from Taylor to even entertain the conversation of XU making a late push, but the schedule does set up quite nicely: Saint Louis at home March 6, and at Butler three days later. XU probably can’t get in, but denying the possibility, however faint, is dumb. There are opportunities here is what I’m saying.
- Trevor Releford, Alabama – It’s not easy to maintain focus against a string of really bad teams that you’re expected to beat. Releford helped pull Alabama past rival Auburn at home with 21 points.
- Ray McCallum, Detroit – The sting of Saturday’s Bracketbusters loss to Wichita State may have lingered into Tuesday night’s game against Loyola (Chicago), when Detroit needed McCallum to score 22 points and inspire his teammates to a one-point victory.
Tweet of the Night. In the dog days of February, when games tighten up and outcomes are won and lost on intangibles and mental focus and execution, confidence is key. UT Center Jarnell Stokes apparently has a heaping of the sort, and he’s not afraid to let everyone know about it.
Vols’ Jarnell Stokes after win over Florida: “I’m not really even celebrating, man. I mean, we expected to beat these guys.”
— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) February 27, 2013