Otskey’s Observations: Episode IIPosted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on November 20th, 2013
Is there anyone out there who still thinks Marcus Smart made a poor decision in returning to Oklahoma State for his sophomore season? Smart is the star player on a team capable of making the Final Four and showed last night that he’s taking his commitment to improve all aspects of his game seriously. Remember, Smart was just a 40 percent shooter overall last season and an anemic 29 percent from three-point land. His talent is obvious but fine-tuning those skills are imperative if he wants to be successful at the next level of basketball. Consider last night’s 39-point performance against an overwhelmed Memphis squad a terrific start. Smart and his Cowboys blitzed the Tigers from the opening tip while the OSU guard enjoyed perhaps the hottest 10-minute stretch of basketball I have ever seen. Smart still has to prove he can hit jumpers with regularity and work on making better decisions, but he made significant progress last night, despite some ill-advised, quick shots and a couple of poor passes. Don’t forget about him: College basketball is not just all about Wiggins, Parker and Randle.
It was interesting to note that John Beilein benched freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. down the stretch of Michigan’s 77-70 loss at Iowa State on Sunday. Instead, Beilein went with sophomore Spike Albrecht at the point as the Cyclones managed to pull away and pick up a big win. Beilein is a highly-regarded coach but this was a questionable decision. In a November game in a tough environment, I’d prefer to see the freshman in there to get that experience, good or bad. Nobody is going to be Trey Burke so what’s the harm of seeing what your young point man can do in a pressure spot? Yes, Albrecht is still young too but Walton Jr. seems like the point guard of the future for the Wolverines. I don’t think this decision cost Michigan the game but it was something I noticed immediately. Beilein should have let it ride with his promising freshman in that situation.
It was thought that the new foul rules, with the idea of creating greater freedom of movement, would hurt a team like Wisconsin. After all, the Badgers have a reputation for physical, grinding games where their defense bumps and checks ball-handlers and cutters all game long. What has happened instead is an offensive revolution in Madison. Through four games, Bo Ryan’s historically low-scoring team has averaged 79.3 PPG and received a most unlikely 43-point breakout performance from seven footer Frank Kaminsky in last night’s win over North Dakota. Wisconsin has flipped the script on those who thought it would suffer given the way the game is called. In reality, freedom of movement has allowed the Wisconsin offense to grow to new heights. This team has three very good wins over St. John’s, Florida and a solid Green Bay team on the road. Three more key non-conference tests against St. Louis, Virginia and Marquette await, starting next week. It will be interesting to see if the Badgers can keep their strong offense rolling against three high quality defensive teams in those match-ups.
After its ugly loss to Ohio State on Saturday, some major question marks have emerged for Marquette. The Golden Eagles managed only 35 points in 40 minutes against the stout Buckeyes. Their lack of outside shooting is the biggest immediate concern for Buzz Williams’ club as the team is shooting only 20 percent from deep in three games this season. However, this is no different from last season when Marquette was one of the nation’s worst three-point shooting teams but still made the Elite Eight. Williams’ offense is predicated on dribble penetration and “paint touches.” The problem is without anybody like Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan or Trent Lockett on the roster this year, it has been harder for the Golden Eagles to penetrate and create opportunities. That makes it easier for athletic teams like Ohio State to defend the middle and pack it in against them, almost daring them to shoot a jump shot. It’s a simple defensive equation and Marquette will have a hard time changing it unless Jamil Wilson steps up his game or Todd Mayo and JaJuan Johnson open things up from the outside. The return of freshman point guard Duane Wilson will help, whenever that may be. Even so, Marquette has a lot more questions in the backcourt than some may have thought. It’s too early to do a re-evaluation on the Golden Eagles’ status as a favorite in the new Big East, but this game will stick in the back of my mind until proven otherwise.
While all of the attention surrounding the Duke program has been focused on the fascinating performances of Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, a deeper, more subtle issue has begun to emerge with the Blue Devils. Yes, Duke has played only five games (4-1) but its defense is concerning. This is a highly athletic and versatile team but it lacks a number of key ingredients normally found on elite defensive units that contend for national championships. First, and most obvious, Duke lacks an eraser in the paint. Last year’s team was far from an elite defensive club but it did have Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly to provide a presence that would cut off opposing drivers. This year it is the gaping hole in Duke’s defense. When you dig a little deeper, though, you find that there are even more question marks. While Duke’s offensive versatility creates advantages, it’s hard to ask a bunch of 6’8” wings to guard shorter, quicker players. Matchup problems ensue and Duke’s defense against dribble penetration suffers. We saw this last night against East Carolina as the Pirates had their way in the paint for most of the night. In addition, Duke’s guards have to become tougher on the perimeter. This is more crucial than ever with no big man to back them up. If offensive players get by the Blue Devil guards, they have a much easier time getting to the basket. Duke’s guards have to become stronger when fighting through screens. This is not the first time I have raised these questions about Mike Krzyzewski’s team and he will have his work cut out for him over the next few months. Luckily for him, he knows a little bit about coaching and winning national championships.
It has not been a banner start for the new-look ACC, a conference some said would be the greatest collection of basketball schools ever. Through Tuesday’s action, ACC teams have already lost 12 games in as many days as the season is old. In my view, anyone who looked at this league before the season and thought it would be the best league was living in a fantasy world. Sure, the league has some very good teams in Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, Virginia and possibly Pittsburgh at the top but the depth is really not that good. Notre Dame is decent but not a sure-fire Top 25 club and teams like Georgia Tech, NC State and Florida State are caught in the muddled middle. You have a Miami (FL) team that lost everyone and then teams like Wake Forest and Virginia Tech who just aren’t good, period. The ACC is not a bad league by any stretch but anyone saying it is the greatest ever has to come to grips with reality. In the long run, the ACC absolutely has the potential to rival any conference in the history of college basketball but let’s not go crazy just yet. It will take some time for the ACC to establish itself as the best conference given all of the movement within its ranks.
One soon to be departed ACC program that has been marooned in mediocrity for the past few years is the Maryland Terrapins. The Terps are 1-2 on the young season after dropping Sunday night’s game in very weak fashion to Oregon State at the Comcast Center, in front of the President of the United States, no less (although we know he wasn’t rooting for them). It’s concerning to begin with that Maryland lost at home to the Beavers but the way they lost raised a red flag for me. It seemed like Mark Turgeon’s just showed up and thought they could win the game without trying. The effort was as dismal as I’ve seen in a while from a major conference program with great tradition such as this one. Maryland’s defense was absolutely awful and you can make a direct correlation to the effort of the players. It was non-existent from the beginning of the game as Oregon State came out and dictated the pace to the Terrapins in front of their home crowd. Sure, the loss of Seth Allen (foot injury) is tough for this team but that’s no excuse for a poor effort. Maryland should be taking care of Oregon State with or without Allen in the rotation. Turgeon is now in his fourth season with the program and he has shown very marginal progress and zero NCAAs in his time there as the Terps prepare to move into the Big Ten next season. If this season continues along the same path, Turgeon’s seat should justifiably begin to heat up.