Otskey’s Observations: Episode I

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on November 13th, 2013

Each week RTC national columnist Brian Otskey (@botskey) will evaluate the state of college basketball from the comfort of his couch. 

How good was the Champions Classic last night? This event has been fantastic to begin with in its three years of existence but this year’s event was on another level. Michigan State’s performance was terrific and it was even more impressive that the Spartans, a program notorious for slow starts to the season, were in mid-season form. Now healthy, Gary Harris looks poised to meet the lofty expectations some, including yours truly, have placed on him. I was particularly impressed with his quickness and athleticism and the same goes for Adreian Payne. I saw some moves out of Payne that I’ve never seen before. He has all the tools necessary to take on the leadership role (along with Keith Appling) for a team that clearly is on a mission to reach Arlington this April. One area of concern for the Spartans? Rebounding. The Wildcats absolutely dominated the boards and it kept them in the game, even when they were down by as many as 15 points. As for Kentucky, I wouldn’t be too concerned. Sure, the Wildcats made plenty of freshmen mistakes but that is to be expected in only this group’s third collegiate game. Kentucky is not that far away and the bottom line is it wins that game with a few more free throws made or a few less turnovers committed. Julius Randle is the real deal and Kentucky will keep getting better. I’m not sure there is anyone in the college game who can effectively guard this freshman superstar. Randle will command a double or even triple team every time he touches the ball. If there is one lingering concern for John Calipari’s team from last night, it has to be transition defense. It was poor all night and ultimately cost the Wildcats the game.

Gary Harris and Michigan State knocked off No. 1 last night

Gary Harris and Michigan State knocked off No. 1 last night

In the nightcap, Kansas used a 15-4 run to pull away late from Duke, highlighted by Andrew Wiggins’ filthy step-back jumper and dunk in transition. Duke was nearly a unanimous pick to win this game but the young Jayhawks proved yet again why their program is among the very best in the nation, consistently churning out a contender year after year. Despite a brand new starting five, Bill Self’s club didn’t miss a beat. I was particularly impressed with Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden. If Self can get that kind of production out of those players on a consistent basis, Kansas will be primed for another Final Four run. To those of you who think Oklahoma State can top the Jayhawks in the Big 12, I hear you, but you are wrong. The Big 12 runs through Lawrence, as it has for the last nine years. Jabari Parker and Duke were highly impressive offensively but I have some concerns about the Blue Devils’ defense and rebounding. This is one of the more athletic Duke teams in quite some time but it lacks a true center. That has an impact defensively because opposing guards can drive at will and get wings like Parker and Rodney Hood into foul trouble, just like what happened last night. Duke played pretty well overall but don’t ignore these red flags as the season progresses. The Blue Devils did not play elite defense last season and they aren’t off to a hot start in that regard in 2013-14 either. That has to improve if Duke is to advance deep into March.

A game that won’t get the attention it deserves because it was going up against Michigan State and Kentucky was VCU’s important road win at Virginia. This was a big-time early season win for Shaka Smart’s Rams. I thought VCU would have a very difficult time adjusting to the new foul rules (more on that later), especially against a team that loves to play a half-court game. Fear not. Yes, VCU was whistled for 27 fouls leading to 33 Cavalier free throws but the Rams overcame that by doing what they do best, forcing turnovers. Nineteen Virginia turnovers led to 20 VCU points and the Rams won the battle between the two best teams in the Commonwealth. I didn’t like Treveon Graham setting for a deep triple as the final seconds ticked down, but hey, he made it. Kudos to him. VCU held Virginia under 40 percent shooting but the key was letting Joe Harris get his and holding the rest of the team down. It’s a blueprint going forward for other Virginia opponents, although I still think Tony Bennett has a team that contend for the second or third spot in the ACC this season. It’s important not to make proclamations this early in the season but these games do provide some insight as to what we can learn about these teams going forward. The bottom line is it is a huge resume-building win for the Rams, one that could help bump their seed line up a notch or two come Selection Sunday.

Boston College’s 0-2 start is concerning. The Eagles fell in overtime to Providence on Friday and lost again to Massachusetts on Sunday on a neutral floor in Boston. Many had jumped on the BC bandwagon in the preseason but allow me to pump the brakes a bit. The Eagles do have a fairly potent offense but remember, their coach is Steve Donahue. Donahue has always been allergic to defense whether that was at Cornell or here at Chestnut Hill. Since Ken Pomeroy began keeping tempo-free statistics in the 2002-03 season, Donahue has never coached a team that finished better than No. 174 in defensive efficiency (his 2009-10 Cornell team that made the Sweet Sixteen). Olivier Hanlan, Joe Rahon and Ryan Anderson make up a terrific triple threat on the offensive end but if the Eagles don’t play defense, they won’t move up the ACC ladder. A difficult non-conference schedule remains with games against Connecticut (and then either Indiana or Washington), Purdue, USC, VCU and Harvard but that also presents an opportunity to turn it around. Remember, it’s only November 13. But an 0-2 start, against teams BC is at worst equal with, is not good.

Olivier Hanlan and Boston College need to defend better. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

Boston College needs to defend better. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

Given its talent level, Baylor’s inconsistency is maddening. The Bears underachieved last season to the tune of an 18-13 regular season record before pulling it together and winning the NIT. Scott Drew’s team began the 2013-14 campaign with an encouraging win over Colorado last week but followed that up with a near-disaster against South Carolina yesterday. Baylor survived but it wasn’t easy. The Gamecocks hung around all game and were a few tenths of a second away from going to the free throw line with a chance to send the game to overtime. I like the talent on this team but with the Bears that is never the question. Can this team execute as a unit instead of a collection of talented athletes? I’m not convinced, although there are some positive signs. Cory Jefferson is fantastic and Kenny Chery has played pretty well in his first two games with the program. I’m afraid we won’t know more about Baylor until we get well into Big 12 play. Aside from a match-up with Kentucky and the Maui Invitational, Baylor has a weak non-conference slate ahead of it.

I was very impressed with Oregon’s play against Georgetown on Friday night. Playing without point guard Dominic Artis as well as Ben Carter, the Ducks took it to the Hoyas in South Korea.  It is amazing how Dana Altman has built his program on transfers, similar to what Fred Hoiberg has done at Iowa State. More importantly, Altman has succeeded with this approach. Joseph Young, who just recently received word that he would be eligible this season, was Oregon’s best player in this game but Johnathan Loyd did a terrific job filling in for Artis at the point. Oregon didn’t shoot particularly well but played a fearless style of basketball, getting up and down the floor and going right at Georgetown. Oregon’s fast pace and aggressiveness was rewarded with 44 trips to the free throw line, converting 36 of those. It is no small feat to take a team of newcomers halfway around the world without arguably your best player and knock off a quality team like Georgetown. Major credit to Altman and his team for winning a game which no doubt has given Oregon fans lots of optimism as the season heats up.

The major changes in the way college basketball games are officiated have already taken full effect. Players, coaches and fans have already logged multiple complaints regarding the number of fouls called and the season is just five days old. I have watched more than a handful of games on TV over the past five days in addition to attending one in person. The changes are evident, but I actually don’t think they have been too bad overall. For example, the Champions Classic games had a relatively high number of fouls called but I didn’t think it affected the flow of the games all that much. Ironically, the one game I attended was Niagara at Seton Hall on Saturday night, a two and a half hour regulation game in which an astonishing 73 fouls were whistled and 102 free throw were attempted. The game was as painful to watch as you might imagine. The two teams couldn’t get into any kind of flow and literally could not go more than two or three possessions without a whistle. I thought the officials were overzealous but there was definitely a lot of illegal use of the hands by both teams while defending. I am fearful of different officiating crews with wildly different interpretations of the rules but I have come around on this issue. I am now generally on the side of those who say this will clean up the game and make it better in the long run. This transitional period will be painful at times but eventually coaches and players will adjust. I did not feel this way as recently as last month but after watching a few games and having an interesting Twitter back-and-forth chat with ESPN’s Jay Bilas on Sunday, I have changed my mind. Here’s to hoping the adjustment period only takes a month or two.

Brian Otskey (269 Posts)

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