Ten Tuesday Scribbles: On Virginia, North Carolina, National COY, and More…Posted by Brian Otskey on March 5th, 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
- If there is one team that personifies this rollercoaster season of unpredictability, it is probably Virginia. Last week was the Cavaliers’ season in a nutshell as they toppled Duke in Charlottesville before laying an egg at Boston College on Sunday. At 20-9 (10-6), Virginia sits squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble with two regular season games to play. In my heart of hearts, I believe this is a tournament-quality team. Virginia has impressive victories against aforementioned Duke as well as NC State, North Carolina and a huge road win at Wisconsin earlier in the season. Additionally, the Cavs sport wins over bubble buddies Tennessee and Maryland (on the road). Unfortunately for Virginia, the story doesn’t end there and turns sour rather quickly. Tony Bennett’s team has lost a stunning seven games to sub-100 RPI opponents, six of them coming on the road or at a neutral site. The loss to #315 Old Dominion is particularly puzzling. With just a 2-6 road record in conference play, an RPI in the 60s and an embarrassing non-conference strength of schedule, Virginia is not in a great spot despite its good wins. Joe Harris and the Cavs need to take care of business against Florida State and Maryland before putting together some kind of ACC Tournament run. This is one of the more bizarre NCAA resumes I’ve ever seen and one sure to create a lot of debate in the committee room.
- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s comments after his team’s loss to Virginia created a stir throughout the college basketball world over the last few days. Coach K complained about his team not being able to safely get off the floor while Virginia’s students rushed the court after their team’s big win. While the video does show the Duke team unable to enter the tunnel and head to the locker room, I feel Krzyzewski is out of line. His team was protected by multiple arena security personnel who formed a human wall between the Duke team and the Virginia students. At no time were the Duke players in any danger. I understand why things this man says get noticed, after all he is the sport’s winningest coach. But why does everything Coach K says have to be taken as gospel? Let the kids have some fun and stop with the “get off my lawn!” attitude. Unless your team is in danger of being hurt, comments like these serve as a distraction and quite honestly look like sour grapes to me.
- After suffering the loss to Virginia, Duke rebounded in a big way by taking down Miami and exacting a measure of revenge for the blowout loss earlier this year in Coral Gables. It was a struggle though as the Blue Devils needed a career-high 36 points from Ryan Kelly (in his first game back since January 8) just to win by three on their home floor. While Kelly clearly sparked Duke offensively in this game, he makes a bigger difference on the other side of the basketball. Kelly is an outstanding defender because he’s a tall, agile forward who can get up into a player on the perimeter and force him to shoot over or pass around Kelly, often going east-west instead of north-south. Kelly’s presence on the floor did not make a huge difference in this particular game when it comes to Miami’s offensive efficiency but he did frustrate the Hurricanes from the three point line. Miami shot just 6-21 from deep and a big reason for that was Kelly and his length. As we head into postseason play, Kelly’s return will make a huge difference on the defensive side of the ball for Duke. Anything he does offensively is gravy for this team. Duke is undefeated with Kelly in the lineup and that bodes well for the Blue Devils as they look to grab a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and make a run at the program’s 16th Final Four appearance.
- Another team on Tobacco Road showing signs of improvement is North Carolina. The Tar Heels have won 11 of their last 14 games since a rather pedestrian 10-5 start to the 2012-13 campaign. During that stretch, their only losses have been on the road to three of the top teams in the ACC (Miami, Duke and NC State). This team is peaking at the right time and Roy Williams has to be thrilled with the way it is defending, particularly over the last four games. With James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston starting to get it and become more consistent, UNC has the makings of a sleeper team in your bracket. It also helps greatly when Reggie Bullock hits shots as he has been doing lately but the big difference on this team is the emergence of Marcus Paige. The freshman point guard has recorded 29 assists to just 9 turnovers over his last five games, is effectively picking his spots to shoot and is getting to the free throw line more often than earlier in the season (an 85% shooter). Paige’s increased confidence and experience gained through 28 games as a point guard for a powerhouse program will pay dividends for North Carolina down the stretch. Watch out for the Tar Heels in a few weeks.
- College basketball fans love to identify title contenders before the tournament begins and this year there are more than a handful to choose from. One team that I feel is surprisingly flying under the radar is Louisville. It seems everyone forgot about the Cardinals when they lost three straight games back in January but since then Louisville has won nine of its past 10 and it would have been 10 straight had Jerian Grant not gone bonkers in the final seconds of regulation in that 5-OT classic in South Bend. Questions remain about Rick Pitino’s club, including whether they can score enough in the half court. It’s a valid concern but Gorgui Dieng’s ability to hit the mid-range jumper and Peyton Siva’s creativity allay that concern for now. Russ Smith is the wildcard and that won’t change. He could carry Louisville to a national championship or cause the team to bow out much earlier than expected. The good news for Louisville is that NCAA Tournament games are often grinders and no team excels in that situation more than the Cardinals. This team has toughness and enough athleticism to thrive in those types of situations. Pitino’s defense is the best in the country and the most efficient defensive squad of the entire Ken Pomeroy era, which dates back to the 2002-03 season. Louisville has held each of its last 11 opponents (since a 73-64 loss at Villanova) to 61 points or less in regulation time. Only one team in the KenPom era has won the national title with the nation’s best defense (2008 Kansas) but the Cardinals are so far ahead of any team in this time period, surrendering just 0.809 points per possession entering last night’s win over Cincinnati. Louisville is a legitimate national title contender and one of the top five teams in the nation.
- The news out of Moraga, California was not good last week as St. Mary’s was put on four years of probation for “failure to monitor” its basketball program. However, I’m going to use this space to talk about the Gaels’ performance on the court this season. St. Mary’s finished the regular season with a 26-5 (14-2) record and will not have to play again until the semifinals of the West Coast Conference Tournament this Saturday in Las Vegas. While the Gaels are not a lock for NCAA Tournament selection, I feel they should be. St. Mary’s does have a pair of bad losses to Pacific and Georgia Tech but has only lost twice since December 23, both coming at the hands of the nation’s #1 team this week, Gonzaga. St. Mary’s ran roughshod over the West Coast Conference (except the Zags), dominating Santa Clara twice while also sweeping BYU, two of the better teams in the league. Knocking off Creighton in Moraga in the BracketBusters event was an important win as well as it gave folks a positive impression of this team after a tough home loss to Gonzaga nine days prior. Randy Bennett’s team would be wise to win its semifinal game against either BYU, San Diego or Pepperdine but in a year where so many teams have piled up losses, St. Mary’s should stand out despite a weaker schedule than some of the other teams on the bubble.
- As the regular season winds down, the National Coach of the Year discussion heats up. There are quite a few frontrunners from Jim Larranaga, John Thompson III, Bill Self and Mark Few to Steve Alford and Buzz Williams but how about some love for Bruce Weber, Travis Ford, Jim Crews and Pat Skerry? Weber and Ford have led their teams towards the top of the Big 12, competing neck and neck with a Kansas team most thought was a shoe-in to win the league yet again. Crews has done an outstanding job in an interim role at Saint Louis, leading the Billikens to a 23-5 record after Rick Majerus passed away late last year. As for Skerry, you may not have heard of him but he has led Towson to an 18-13 record in only his second year at the Colonial Athletic Association program. 18-13 isn’t much, right? Not at Towson, which finished a miserable 1-31 last season. Turnarounds like this don’t usually happen this suddenly and Skerry deserves credit for making it happen. Towson won’t be winning any big games this season but the Tigers fell just one game short of Northeastern in the Colonial standings. Who would I vote for? Probably Larranaga. Some thought he was taking the Miami job to pave the way to a respectful retirement but he has turned this Miami team into a likely ACC champion and a strong contender to make a run in a few weeks.
- Purdue’s victory at Wisconsin on Sunday has little if any effect on the NCAA picture but it did raise some eyebrows. As for me, it got me thinking about how Wisconsin’s dominance at the Kohl Center has faded over the last two years. The aura of invincibility has been stripped away as the Badgers have lost seven games in Madison over the last two seasons. That’s not terrible by any stretch but when compared to the standard Wisconsin had set at home over many prior seasons, it’s a bit concerning. It took Wisconsin nearly six years to lose seven home games, from January of 2006 to December of 2011. Now it has just taken 15 short months to lose the same amount of games in the same arena. Wisconsin has been a model of consistency under Bo Ryan but the arms race in the Big Ten is starting to put some cracks in the foundation. I’m not saying Wisconsin will start to decline (Sam Dekker is Ryan’s most talented recruit ever after all) but I don’t think Big Ten teams fear going into the Kohl Center anymore.
- News that the so-called “Catholic 7” Big East schools would retain the Big East name (and very likely Madison Square Garden as their conference tournament site) and begin play next season assuming an agreement can be reached in short order has to come as phenomenal news for any fan of these seven institutions. For too long these schools have been bullied around as football dominates the conference realignment circus but these programs stand to benefit in a big way once all of this shakes out. This has the potential to be a strong league with a lot of fluidity from year to year. These programs no longer have to compete with large land grant institutions with unlimited recruiting budgets and superior fan bases. A level playing field will re-ignite dormant rivalries, add a lot of juice to existing ones and forge new ones amongst like-minded colleges and universities. While it’s a shame a school like Connecticut is left out in the cold, I’m sure the Huskies will eventually find a good home once realignment finally dies down.
- One of the Catholic 7 schools is having a terrific year in its final season in the “old” Big East. At 16-12 (8-8), Providence sits in ninth place and has put itself in position to make an unlikely (but not impossible) run at the NCAA Tournament. Providence has struggled through some lean years of late with no NCAA appearances since 2004 and only one winning Big East season since then. The Friars have won six of their last seven games since starting the year 10-11 (2-7) and feature the Big East’s top scorer, guard Bryce Cotton. Ed Cooley’s team has a quality win over Notre Dame as well as a victory over Cincinnati and a sweep of Villanova on its resume but a host of bad early season losses to the likes of Brown and Penn State put a damper on PC’s NCAA hopes, at least for now. Early season injuries could change the committee’s thinking about those losses but the Friars still can make things interesting on their own. If they can take care of business and win out (getting to 10-8 in the league), they’ll enter the Big East Tournament with 18 wins, likely needing a trip to at least the semifinals to have a shot at a bid. Providence has already clinched a first round bye and will need to win two games to get to the semis. Chances are one, if not both, of those games would be against quality competition. It’s a bit of a long shot but the Friars must get to 20 wins to have a chance in my estimation. They need quality wins away from home (Villanova is their best) and could get a couple down the stretch by beating UConn this Saturday and getting another in New York next week. Regardless of what happens, this has been a terrific year for Cooley and his Providence team. This group was picked dead last in the preseason Big East coaches poll and has wildly exceeded expectations. It’s something to build upon as PC enters the “new” Big East with more talent on its roster thanks to Cooley’s success on the recruiting trail.