Otskey’s Observations: Episode III

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on November 27th, 2013

While looking through the most recent Pomeroy ratings this morning, I was intrigued when I saw Pittsburgh at No. 2. The Panthers, who are 6-0 after thrashing Stanford in Brooklyn last night, have looked great so far in the young season but have not played anyone of note aside from the Cardinal. Pitt has won every game by at least 19 points but it has come against a putrid schedule. This has become the norm for head coach Jamie Dixon over the years and his team will not play another quality opponent until it meets Cincinnati in New York on December 17. While the Pomeroy ratings are a nice gauge of where teams are relative to each other, they are not the be-all and end-all. Pitt’s No. 2 ranking is no doubt inflated, but there are reasons for optimism.In the past, the best Pitt teams have been those that defend well (specifically inside the arc) and dominate the offensive glass. So far this year, Pitt is doing those things at a very high level. Some of that perception is inflated by the weak schedule but this already appears to be a better team than the one that was a #8 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament. So long as senior Lamar Patterson and junior Talib Zanna keep playing at a high level, Pittsburgh will be in the mix as one of the better teams in the ACC.

Pittsburgh scheduled weak again but has looked great in the early going. (Photo: pittsburghpanthers.com)

Pittsburgh scheduled poorly again but has looked great in the early going. (Photo: pittsburghpanthers.com)

Perhaps no team has been more impressive in the first few weeks of the season than Massachusetts. Now in his sixth year at the helm, Derek Kellogg finally has it going in Amherst. The program achieved its first AP top 25 ranking in 15 years this past Monday thanks to a 6-0 start. The Minutemen just won the Charleston Classic and have built a very impressive resume along the way. Five of UMass’ six wins have come against teams in the top 100 of the Pomeroy ratings and four of those have been away from the Mullins Center. This team is no fluke. Kellogg has them playing at a high-flying pace and the roster is as talented as ever, including go-to guys Chaz Williams and Cady Lalanne. Williams is a fantastic senior point guard who can dazzle you on any given night while Lalanne has been a beast in the low post. Lalanne’s offensive rebounding percentage ranks eighth in the nation among individuals and he has averaged a double-double over the first six games. UMass’ schedule does not let up with quality games against BYU, Ohio, Florida State and Providence still to play before Atlantic 10 battles begin. Their resume is already impressive but the Minutemen have a terrific opportunity to build perhaps the best non-conference resume in the nation over the next few weeks.

I attended Michigan State’s win over Oklahoma this past Saturday and came away with a cautiously optimistic view of the Spartans. While I think Tom Izzo’s team is the best in the land right now and was my preseason pick to win the national championship, a few concerning items emerged from this game. Most glaring was how Oklahoma trimmed an 18-point deficit to four points in a matter of eight minutes after it appeared the Spartans had finally taken control of the game. Why it happened was simple. Lon Kruger had his team go to a zone defense and the confusion on the part of Michigan State was obvious. Over that eight-minute period, Sparty was 2-of-10 from the floor, turned it over six times and missed all four of its free throw attempts. Gary Harris and Keith Appling were on the bench for an extended period (cramps and foul trouble, respectively), but Michigan State still has other players more than capable of running the offense and maintaining a comfortable lead. Izzo’s teams traditionally have gotten off to slow starts so maybe this represents some growing pains. The problem is that this is a veteran team loaded with upperclassmen. I’m not too alarmed by what I saw there because Izzo is one of the best pure coaches in the land, but Michigan State’s performance versus zone defenses is something to keep an eye on as we move deeper into the season.

Michigan State needs to run better zone offense. (Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

Michigan State needs to run better zone offense. (Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

This time of year always brings about a number of blanket statements and overreactions from those in the national media. While it’s perfectly fine to make observations and point out areas of concern or optimism, November is not the time to say a team is a bust or will be a shoe-in for the Final Four. Every year people fall into this mindset. I am sure part of it is we are just coming off seven months without college basketball so people are excited to see actual games again and then rush to judgment. However, it’s a long season and the teams you see today won’t look quite the same come February and March. Teams evolve over the course of a season. Some get better, some get worse, and some stay the same. Players can get hurt. The point is that lots of things can and will happen between now and March. Don’t get caught up in making silly statements about teams and players with 20+ games still to play.

A great example of an early season overreaction took place on Sunday when North Carolina knocked off Louisville. UNC had lost to Belmont a week earlier and given some of the stuff that was written, you’d think Carolina was terrible and Belmont was one of the worst teams in Division I. Obviously, neither is true. It blew my mind that respected writers and columnists spoke of the Belmont result as a bad loss for Roy Williams’ team when that is anything but the case. Belmont is a solid team and no pushover for any squad in the country. When North Carolina dominated Louisville for 40 minutes, people acted shocked. Did they not realize Louisville had yet to be tested and is trying to figure out a new rotation after losing Peyton Siva to graduation and Gorgui Dieng to the NBA? I have been watching college basketball for long enough now to realize that no result is guaranteed. Anything can happen on any given night. It turns out that Marcus Paige went off for 32 points and Carolina outshot and outrebounded the Cardinals over the course of the game. My RTC colleague Brian Goodman came up with the perfect tweet to summarize the situation. This is North Carolina, one of the greatest basketball programs of all-time. Did people really think they had no chance and were going to lie down and take a beating at the hands of Louisville? Foolish, to say the least.

Brice Johnson had 13 points off the bench in Carolina's win over Louisville. (credit: collegebasketball.ap.org)

Brice Johnson had 13 points off the bench in Carolina’s win over Louisville. (credit: collegebasketball.ap.org)

If you thought Iowa State wasn’t for real after beating Michigan, its win last week at BYU should probably change your mind. The Cyclones went into a notoriously difficult place to play and came away with a big time non-conference road win. The Marriott Center in Provo is one of the nation’s toughest home courts. It’s the perfect storm because of altitude, the raucous fans, a BYU team that almost always shoots the ball well, and some would say a little home cooking from the officials over the years. Iowa State overcame all of that in addition to the late ejection of DeAndre Kane and came away with the 90-88 victory. Fred Hoiberg’s team validated its win over Michigan and has the potential to be right there alongside Baylor in competition for the No. 3 spot in the Big 12 standings. This is a team that gets up the floor at lightning speed but also plays terrific defense. Usually you don’t see that with teams who play up-tempo offense. Six players are currently averaging double figures for Hoiberg, who has a deep and talented rotation to work with. Kane provides a heady floor presence and great rebounding ability for his size. The return of Melvin Ejim sparked the Cyclones against Michigan and he will continue to be the go-to guy throughout the season. Between Kane’s experience, Ejim’s great talent, and guys like Georges Niang and Naz Long running alongside them, Iowa State has a team capable of doing a lot of damage. It’s hard to find a major fault with this team right now because it is scoring and defending at a high level. If that continues, the Cyclones will have a great Big 12 season.

Brian Otskey (238 Posts)


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