ATB: Another Big Upset in the Big Ten, the Still-Undefeated Zips and Some Pac-12 Drama…Posted by Chris Johnson on February 28th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Because Big Ten Upsets Come In Pairs. Right when the Big Ten churns out one massive upset, number one Indiana’s four-point loss at Minnesota Tuesday night, the league got bored, went back to the drawing board, and said – in the most demonic voice possible – hey, Michigan, your time has come. The Wolverines went down on the road, at the house of a traditional basketball doormat, and on most nights, that story in itself would block out the rest of the night’s schedule. Not so – the Michigan loss was merely an icebreaker for a long and thorough evening of big-time matchups. Your humble nightly ATB writer compiled a sampling of the biggest headlines. Alas:
Your Watercooler Moment. A Very Happy Valley.
The conciliatory retort to any mildly surprising loss in the Big Ten season has gone a little something like this: it’s ok to lose on the road in the Big Ten, because you know how hard those Big Ten road games are, right? Wednesday night’s shocking result in Happy Valley, where Penn State won its first conference game in 18 tries after a blistering 15-point second-half comeback, was a huge exception. Most road games are difficult to win in this league, no question; from Mackey Arena to the Crisler Center to the Barn, the Big Ten lays claim to some of the nation’s most raucous campus environments. Teams lose, like Indiana at Minnesota, and it’s tough to get too caught up in the result. Any team in this uber-deep league can rip off a big upset win on any given night, it is widely and frequently said. We would have been rolling out the same logic had Michigan lost at, say, Illinois or Minnesota. Instead, the Wolverines elected – willfully or not – to suffer their worst loss of the season against the worst team in their league. And the weird part is, the final score really isn’t that crazy at all. To the passive onlooker, yes, Michigan had no business losing this game. But for anyone who paid mind to Penn State’s eight-point loss (ahem, moral victory) at the Crisler Center just 10 days ago, seeing Michigan bite the dust at State College was insane, but it wasn’t some Kansas-TCU-level revolution. The point in all of this is not to disparage Penn State by way of condemning the unlikelihood of Michigan’s loss. The Wolverines have some real issues to sort out in the final weeks, particularly on the defensive end. With two of their final three games coming against Michigan State and Indiana, Michigan needs to shake this off, address whatever issues ailed them at PSU and rally for an important concluding schedule in advance of what’s shaping up to be an utterly chaotic Big Ten Tournament.
Also worth Chatting About. Pac-12 Competitiveness.
Unlike the 2012 version, this year’s Pac 12 is sort of ok. In fact, it’s more more than that. The league could, believe it or not, birth as many as six NCAA Tournament squads this season. Four of those Tournament hopefuls took the court Wednesday night, and the most significant result (Arizona’s loss at USC) is probably something we should have suspected all along. USC has won five of its past seven without fired coach Kevin O’Neill and are quietly playing their best basketball of the season; meanwhile, Arizona’s last three road games, including tonight’s loss, read as follows: a blowout loss at Colorado, a four-point win at Utah and a loss at USC. In other words, the Wildcats’ squeaky road ways were a dangerous way to life live in the Pac 12. In the other two marquee P12 games of the night, UCLA held serve against Arizona State and Colorado hung tough and gutted out a road win at Stanford. Most of these teams, with a few exceptions at the bottom, are competitively intriguing, and Wednesday night was the latest example. Not even the possibly one-seed bound Wildcats are safe against the likes of a middling if inspired USC. The league may not be great at the top — much like every power league this season, there truly is no “dominant team” — but the considerable growth in the middle regions has added substantial girth to a conference that sent just one at-large team to the NCAA Tournament last season and saw its regular season crownholder, Washington, miss the field altogether. Change is undeniable. The preeminent western conference is back on its feet, and the on-court product it doles out keeps getting better and better as the season closes in on the most crucial stretch.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Kabongo-Equipped Texas Keep Rolling. All season long, in constant and utterly repetitive fashion, a common motif began to emanate after every Texas loss. Without start point guard Myck Kabongo, the Longhorns were rudderless and woefully inept on the offensive end, even if their defense – ranked 44th in the country on a per possession basis as of Wednesday night – held its side of the bargain. That excuse is no longer on the table. Kabongo is back in the lineup, liberated from the thorny clutches of NCAA eligibility surveillance, and his uplifting impact is hard to refute. To wit: the Longhorns have won three of five since Kabongo’s return, including Wednesday night’s overtime victory over Oklahoma, the only two losses coming against the first place Kansas duo of KU and K-State. His coming out party happened against the Hoosiers, and it wasn’t just limited to the ridiculous overtime-forcing runner linked above. Kabongo finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists. The Longhorns are making a move with Kabongo back on the premises – I’m willing to concede that much.
- The Legend of Otto. After Saturday’s ridiculous 33-point outburst at Syracuse, it was perfectly reasonable to think we had seen the very best Otto Porter has to offer this season. That has not changed – The Hoyas ran just 60 possessions in that game, and scored just 57 total points, and an army of 35,000 antagonistic Orange fans bellowing their disapproval. Porter’s performance in the Carrier Dome remains incredible, one of the best this season. His encore wasn’t quite as phenomenal, but it wasn’t far behind. With the Hoyas’ nine-game win streak on the line at UConn, Porter came through with 22 points and the game-winning layup in double-OT to seal the win. The more Georgetown plays, and the more upper-tier chaos that ensues around them, the more it feels like the Hoyas could fall on the top seed line this March.
- Mountain West Kings. Compared to Saturday’s brutal road trip to Colorado State, in which the Lobos needed 46 points from guard Kendall Williams to hold on for a win, the Lobos weren’t sweating their matchup with San Diego State Wednesday night. The Pit is the Pit, and San Diego State – despite owning one of the nation’s most versatile all-around players in Jamaal Franklin, and a solid set of subsidiary pieces that fit almost perfectly around him — doesn’t have the toughness or interior strength to compete with the Lobos on the glass. As they’ve proven on numerous occasions this season, the Lobos are the class of the Mountain West. The league has degenerated into a few hectic stretches here and there, but the Lobos have maintained a steady pace throughout. There wasn’t any conceivable scenario in which UNM would relinquish its hold on a hard-earned regular season title (it’s not official, but with remaining games against Wyoming, Nevada and Air Force, you can just about lock it up) in its own unassailable fortress. Steve Alford’s team passed its biggest test of the conference season on Saturday. Wednesday night was standard operating procedure.
- An Unlikely CAA Champ. The accomplishment Northeastern secured Wednesday night, the CAA regular season title, might (probably not) never have happened without the VCU’s contentious early departure to the Atlantic 10 this offseason. I suspect that caveat, along with Northeastern’s overall perception, will be propped up as evidence of the CAA’s deteriorating quality. The Colonial is not at its historic mid-major perch, but that does not discount what the Huskies accomplished in morphing from a 14-17 league middler last season to a conference champion in 2013. This is one of the better stories in college basketball. Let the deleterious league optics be what they may, Northeastern pulled off a remarkable turnaround to win its league. Great stuff.
- “Zipping” To an Undefeated League Record. The last thing standing in the way of Akron’s undefeated MAC season was a road trip to Sweet 16 participant and 11-1 league combatant Ohio. This was the place where Akron’s magical run would come to die, where Keith Dambrot’s team would finally fold under the pressure, where its at-large aspirations would come crashing down. The alternative result was a 13th conference win for Akron and a remaining conference schedule that not only sets up perfectly for an unbeaten conference record but also places the Zips in position to not even have to worry about the winning the MAC Tournament Championship. I don’t know how the selection committee will evaluate Akron’s resume, now that it has beaten a quality team on the road and will likely finish without dropping a game in a historically wild league. What I do know is that Wednesday night’s loss is the biggest triumph of Akron’s season, and their at-large stature will be adjusted accordingly.
- A Good but not Great Road Win. In any other year, a three-point win at West Virginia in late February might serve as that final resume credential, the concluding road result that makes the selection committee stand up and take notice. This year, it’s nothing to brag about. Baylor beat the Mountaineers in Morgantown Wednesday night, and that’s good news for Scott Drew’s team. The Bears are living on the edge right now as it pertains NCAA Tournament admission. A loss at West Virginia this late in the season, with a road trip to Texas and home games against the Kansas schools still on tap, would have been tough to stomach. So Baylor survives, its three-game losing streak expires and the Bears’ survival on the outer fringes of bubble discussion is valid, for now.
- Goodbye, Arkansas. If anyone was still entertaining the idea of Arkansas sneaking its way into the NCAA Tournament, it is high time to give up on those dreams. The Razorbacks have never been particularly good on the road this season. True story: all seven of their conference losses have come away from Bud Walton Arena. There was no evidence to suggest the Razorbacks could handle a low profile voyage to Baton Rouge, so it should bring you no amount of bewilderment to learn that Mike Anderson’s team lost to LSU, and quite possibly their last shard of NCAA Tournament hope.
- Another Terrapins Bummer. Whatever adjective you use to describe Arkansas’ conference road performance this season – or any other team that goes winless away from home in league play, for that matter – the same goes for Maryland. The Terrapins’ loss at Georgia Tech Wednesday night brought their ACC road record this season to 1-6. Last week’s loss at Boston College partially negated the emotional Duke win (which, naturally, came at home); losing at Georgia Tech eliminates any remaining positive effects. Wait, there’s more bad news! Maryland still has to play at Wake Forest (a brutal place to play these days, apparently) and at Virginia, sandwiched around a home date with UNC. Let’s say they win one, maybe two of those games? Does that leave the Terrapins with any sense of encouragement heading into Selection Sunday? I think not.
- Shockers Shocked At Home. During Creighton’s recent four-of-six loss skid, conversation conveniently pointed towards the Shockers as the chief competition in the Missouri Valley. The timing was optimal, or something close to it. As Creighton sank further and further towards bubble uneasiness, Wichita pulled out of its own three-game losing streak to rip off five straight victories. The last of those was a national Bracketbusters dumptrucking of Detroit. What followed was a two game schedule, one half mellow (Evansville at home) the other challenging (at Creighton). The latter, in light of Creighton’s competitive motivations, could be the game of the year in this league. That is what happens when two good teams move into a tie for first place with one final grudge match remaining between them. The three-point home loss poorly on the Shockers, but the fans won’t complain: Saturday’s meeting in Omaha won’t just be a really competitive game between the two best teams in the MVC. It will decide first place, along with seeding supremacy in Arch Madness. I can’t wait.
- More MVC Movement. The reason behind Indiana State’s rapidly declining NCAA Tournament stature over the last two months was blatantly obvious: the Sycamores couldn’t avoid RPI-leeching road losses in conference play. If their at-large hopes had a pulse before Wednesday night’s defeat to Drake, it was murmuring. The loss, which came, unlike the others, at home and extended ISU’s conference losing streak to four games, may well have extinguished the once-thriving Sycamores once and for all. A few weeks ago, Indiana State was viewed as a likely recipient of the MVC’s third NCAA bid. Now we’re legitimately debating whether the league can produce two, and Indiana State is an afterthought in the at-large picture.
Dunkdafied. To sum this up as appropriately as possible, there’s a narrow selection of words that can be used to describe something as violent and forceful as what Chane Behanan unleashed on 5’11″ Depaul guard Worrel Clahar (poor, poor soul). I elected to go with the following: murder. Not literally – but in dunk parlance, Behanan’s knee-smiting throwdown is about as murderous as it gets.
Wednesday Night’s All-Americans.
- Myck Kabongo, Texas (NPOY) – A team that’s lived under the Big 12 radar for most of the season suddenly has some buzz. That’s thanks in large part to Kabongo, who had 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists against Oklahoma.
- Jermaine Marshall, Penn State – The winless Big Ten season that never happened might still be alive if not for Marshall’s 25 points.
- Eric Wise, USC – The quiet post-Kevin O’Neill revival of USC basketball – if you can call it that; effort, cohesion and more effective sounds like a better description – now includes an upset over the No. 11 Arizona Wildcats. Wise led the way with 22 points.
- Colt Ryan, Evansville – Against one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, Ryan dropped 29 points to drop Wichita State in its own home gym.
- Alex Kirk, New Mexico – Having a true seven-footer to defend and rebound and, on some occasions, score, has been a huge luxury for UNM. Kirk showed off his offensive abilities by scoring 25 points to help fend off SDSU.
Tweet of the Night. Did I mention the Big Ten Tournament is going to be absolutely, positively, 100 percent screwy, the fitting conclusion for a league deep on upsets and high drama like the stunner Penn State pulled off Wednesday night?
— Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina) February 28, 2013