ATB: More Uncertainty Atop the Big Ten, a Mini-Brawl at Purcell Pavilion and DJ Cooper’s Immense Achievement…Posted by Chris Johnson on March 6th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Conference Tournaments, Y’all. The first conference tournament of 2013 slipped under the radar. If you missed it – and no one’s scolding you for passing on the opening round of the Big South Tournament – you can be forgiven. The smallest minnows of the mid-major world are long conditioned to early-round negligence in their conference tournaments. Just promise me one thing: When the mid-major tourney bombardment begins in earnest tomorrow, for the rest of the week and leading up until the Power Six tourneys, you will at least pretend like you know what you’re talking about when automatic bids are cashed in remote little gyms around the country and the at-large bubble pool inevitably shrinks. This stuff, whether it interests you or not, directly affects your teams’ NCAA hopes. On to the recap…
Your Watercooler Moment. Buckeyes Raid B-Town.
First things first: Indiana is not invincible at Assembly Hall. Just this winter, Wisconsin went into the vaunted Hoosier Dome, controlled the pace of play and imposed its trademark trodgy style to excellent effect. The Badgers left with a five-point win and a frustrated Hoosiers fan base. Things have changed since, obviously. Indiana quickly righted the ship with five straight wins, building confidence and national acclaim by the week, and amidst all the madness at the top of the college hoops landscape this season, the Hoosiers had built something of a consensus as the number one team in the country (sorry Gonzaga, but this isn’t about you). All that was left in the final week of the regular season, which Indiana – thanks to Michigan’s win over Michigan State on Sunday – began having already claimed at minimum a share of the regular season title, was a home-and-away two-game finish. Those games commenced Tuesday with a visit from Ohio State and finished Sunday at Michigan. The latter was viewed as the biggest road block, and with good reason. Tuesday’s matchup was perceived as a stepping stone of sorts, a tune-up for the regular season finale. The offense would hum, Victor Oladipo would infect the game with positive energy and Indiana would ride a boisterous crowd to a comfortable victory. It was practically a formality.
Ohio State did not take well to the idea of a Hoosiers victory party. The Buckeyes used the stifling perimeter D of not only Aaron Craft but also bouncy sophomore Shannon Scott (who had four steals) and got another big scoring effort from Craft (15 points) to complement one of DeShaun Thomas’s habitually-high scoring marks (18 points) to pull out a nine-point win. As encouraging as it is to see Craft put together another high-scoring effort (he had 21 against Michigan State), the Buckeyes’ key to victory was their defense. Like the Badgers in early January, Ohio State took Indiana out of its offensive comfort zone, and the Hoosiers were too shaken to adjust. Ohio State didn’t just spoil Indiana’s senior night and presumptive full-regular season title clinching. It quite possibly unveiled a defensive blueprint to shut down the nation’s hottest offense.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Bubble Game of the Week. A cursory scanning of this week’s collection of games reveals an odd an utterly mystifying fact: there is only one game between two teams who truly classify as quote-unquote bubble inhabitants. Ole Miss was in danger of falling out of the conversation completely after losing to not just the worst team in the SEC this season, but one of the worst groups in league history: Mississippi State and its ghastly 227 RPI figure. The Rebels needed Tuesday night’s home game against Alabama just to stay in the picture; they got it, and probably dashed Alabama’s fading NCAA aspirations along the way. So Ole Miss isn’t totally dead, I suppose. Not yet. Winning at LSU Saturday would be a good place to start.
- D.J. Cooper’s Achievement. In two of the past three seasons, fans partial to a team matched up with Ohio in the first round of the NCAA Tournament have come away from opening-round play with nothing left to root for. Those teams are Georgetown (2010) and Michigan (2012), and both were stunned in tourney openers thanks an Ohio team lead by a diminutive 6’0’’ guard who turned down major-conference offers for the chance to star at an ascendant mid-major program. Cooper has done that and more: On Tuesday night, upon the netting of a deep three midway through the first half of a win at Buffalo, he became the first player in NCAA history to record 2,000 points, 600 rebounds, 900 assists and 300 steals. Of all the great players to pass through the college ranks, none has met those statistical marks. The craziest part for me is the rebounds. 600 boards? A 6’0’’ guard? Really? Really. Cooper isn’t just a dreaded name you hear thrown when guys talk about upset picks in office pools. He is one of the most complete and well-rounded players at his position. Ever.
- Rebels Hold Firm at Home. Four Mountain West teams are getting into the NCAA Tounament. That’s not up for debate. When the bracket is released, you’ll find San Diego State, Colorado State, UNLV and New Mexico in one of the four regions, assigned an arena and seed. Promise. There’s no mystery here. Less certain is whether the Mountain West can produce a fifth Tourney team. If such a team is to broach consideration, that team is Boise State, who lost at UNLV Tuesday night. My first reaction is that a loss at a surefire tourney squad like UNLV, who hasn’t fallen at home all season, can’t possible be considered anything remotely close to “bad”. But at this point of the season, if you’re waffling on the bubble, aren’t all losses sort of “bad” in their own way? This won’t ding Boise’s RPI all that much or anything; I’m referring to something much simpler: time. Boise State now has one game left (before the MW tourney) to prove it belongs in the NCAA Tournament. Tuesday night was a missed opportunity. Call it what you want – resume-neutral seems ok, I guess – but what Boise managed to do (or not do) is not going to boost its Tournament prospects. It is really that simple. Time is running out.
- Too Little, Too Late for Iowa. All but two of Iowa’s Big Ten losses this season have come on the road. The two exceptions? Indiana and Michigan State, both of whom are very much in play for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes toppled Iowa State and Northern Iowa in the nonconference, Wisconsin and Minnesota in Big Ten play. All told, this is a solid if imperfect team. Ken Pomeroy ranks the Hawkeyes among his top-35. And still – even after Tuesday night’s home win over Illinois – I just don’t see how Fran McCaffery’s can sneak into the field without pulling off at least one or two upsets in the Big Ten tournament. If the Illini win serves as a springboard for a hot tourney run, more power to them.
… and Misses.
- Fight Mars Notre Dame Blowout. There is no place for this type of garbage at the end of a dominating 26-point win. Having guaranteed an 11th conference victory, the Irish prepared to wind down the final two minutes in victory formation, substituted senior forward Jack Cooley out of the game for a senior celebratory moment and rationally expected a heartfelt appraisal for a special player. That’s when Saint John’s guard Sir’Dominic Pointer lost it. He connected with the face of ND freshman Cameron Biedscheid and triggered a mid-court brawl. The ensuing melee was quickly subdued before it escalated into a #ZIPEMUP-type fiasco. Even so, the resolution doesn’t erase the ugliness of the scene; a moment of blind rage and irrationality stained an otherwise nondescript Big East beatdown (not to mention ruining Cooley’s special moment).
- C-USA Tournament Desperation. A conference Tournament with one obvious favorite breeds a common competitive goal for the rest of the league. Everyone wants to knock down the league kingpin. It is their chance to prove a regular season’s worth of evidence can be nullified in the span of 72 hours of single-elimination basketball. This description couldn’t fit a league better than Conference USA, where Memphis is the clear frontrunner to celebrate its final year in C-USA with a tournament trophy. The biggest challenger is Southern Miss, and their level of urgency spiked Tuesday night after a lost to Marshall drained an increasingly dour at-large outlook of even more late-season ambition. The Golden Eagles now have no choice but to win the conference Tournament. Doing so will probably require going through the Tigers.
- A Huge Miss for Arkansas. The last week of March is characterized by bubble talk and resume griping and seeding positioning – you know, the usual pre-tourney banter. What often gets underplayed in the selection room, mostly because it’s just about the fuzziest and most unquantifiable criterium involved, is the eye test. This subjective measure matters for a few reasons. For one, when the selection committee picks its teams, and it falls upon two profiles whose numerical credentials line up at the smallest margins, a decision needs to be made. Members grow tired after a grueling day of parsing SOS numbers and other numerical minutae and at the end of it all, when two resumes are too similar to vet any longer, something needs to break the tie. Fair or not, sometimes the tipping point is pure visceral aesthetic quality: does this look like a Tournament team? There are obvious answers in any year’s field, and in this year’s batch of at large aspirants, Arkansas – by virtue of Tuesday night’s 30-point dumptrucking at Missouri, along with a season suggesting home toughness but sheer ineptitude in road environments (1-8 in SEC play) – does not pass the eye test. They don’t even merit second consideration.
Swat of the Night. I continue to be amazed by Victor Oladipo’s knack for running down fast breaks. Tuesday night was not his best effort of the season, but he leaves you with plays like this – plays that make you reflect on the remedial limitations of your athletic capabilities.
Tuesday Night’s All-Americans.
- Aaron Craft, Ohio State (NPOY) – The 15 points and four rebounds were big, but it was what Craft did on defense that helped OSU stun Indiana on senior night in Bloomington.
- Jerian Grant, Notre Dame – You don’t hear about Grant often in arguments about the best guards in the country. And don’t get me wrong, he’s not there yet. Not even close. But he does stabilize the Irish’s backcourt quite well, and he did score 21 points and dish out eight assists before all hell broke loose towards the end of regulation in South Bend.
- Kadeem Batts, Providence – There are things to like about Providence’s future under Ed Cooley. Batts, a junior, has just one more year of eligibility, but he can still help the Friars make a run at the NCAAs next year. He had 27 points and 12 rebounds in a win over Seton Hall.
- Laurence Bowers, Missouri – I have a natural aversion to road-weary teams in NCAA Tournament environments. But if I do pick Missouri to advance past the first weekend, Bowers (24 points, 11 rebounds) will be a major factor.
- Seth Curry, Duke – On senior night, Curry commemorated his Cameron send-off with 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting, including 5-of-9 from three.
Tweet of the Night. On the one hand, Jeff Eisenberg makes a good point. If Tuesday night showed us anything, it’s that engagement and concerted activity on the defensive end can flummox even the nation’s best offense. But what happens when Ohio State runs into a team it can’t hold down for 40 minutes? When Craft, Thomas and Lenzelle Smith are forced to beat a hot-shooting team in the 70 to 80-point range? Defense is basic check box for any national title contender, and Ohio State could very be one, but I’m hesitant to go all in on the Buckeyes based off one really nice road win. OSU beat IU on pure defensive grit, which is a huge accomplishment, no doubt. I’d just like to see the Buckeyes’ offense break through it’s usual low-to-mediocre-scoring limitations. The Big Ten Tournament should give us a better clue.