Otskey’s Observations: Episode VPosted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on December 11th, 2013
Baylor’s win over Kentucky late Friday night in Arlington was encouraging in many ways. The Bears picked up another quality win against what has been a fairly strong schedule (minus the two non-Division I opponents). Baylor scored 1.12 points per possession against a good Kentucky defense by utilizing classic pick-and-roll action all game long, much to the dismay of John Calipari. The Wildcats never got comfortable defending Baylor’s sets and went down in defeat as a result. Kentucky’s rotations and closeouts came very late and it seemed it was bothered by a team of comparable length. Perhaps the most important thing in this game was Baylor’s offensive rebounding. Overall, that was what won the game for Scott Drew’s team. I was particularly impressed with Isaiah Austin. Given the strength of the competition, the sophomore big man played his best game of the season. Austin put up an efficient 13 points, six rebounds and five blocks against the strong Wildcats’ frontcourt. Kentucky made some nice adjustments on him in the second half but overall it was great to see some aggressiveness from a player who can be really good if he remains assertive.
One team that is flying way under the radar has to be Missouri. This past week served as a reminder that the Tigers, holders of the nation’s longest home court winning streak (24 straight wins at Mizzou Arena), are still a team to be reckoned with. Mizzou dispatched West Virginia and UCLA in Columbia and looked impressive in doing so. In addition to the overall home court winning streak, Frank Haith’s team has now won 79 consecutive non-conference games at home. While I’d like to see this team go on the road and beat a quality opponent before I fully buy in, there are some encouraging signs that Mizzou may not be a fluke. The Tigers shoot the ball well overall and excel inside the arc where they’re shooting nearly 57 percent. Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson has taken his game to the next level but his play is bolstered by the balanced scoring of Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross. This three-headed monster accounts for two-thirds of Missouri’s scoring and they’re incredibly hard to match up with given their height. All three players are listed at 6’5” so most teams can’t guard the trio effectively at the same time. So far, Haith has done a nice job incorporating the newcomers with some returning players. We’ll see if it holds together but make sure you keep an eye on the Tigers. Two interesting tests await with the annual Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois and a road trip to NC State.
You have to give it up for Roy Williams and North Carolina. The Tar Heels went to East Lansing and punched Michigan State in the mouth right away and never looked back. What was most surprising was the Heels dominating the glass against a Spartans’ team that prides itself on working hard and owning the boards in the years under Tom Izzo’s leadership. Marcus Paige has done a fantastic job running the offense for a team that’s still trying to figure out its identity without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald in the lineup. With just two losses on the resume and two phenomenal wins over Sparty and Louisville, Carolina is in a great position heading into this Saturday’s tilt with Kentucky in Chapel Hill. What I’ve really enjoyed this season with UNC is the growth of Brice Johnson. He put on some weight in the offseason and has become an effective presence in the post for this team. His defense and rebounding are a big reason why North Carolina is rated the No. 7 team in defensive efficiency (as of Tuesday) but Johnson is also second on the team in scoring. Given UNC’s struggles with shooting the ball from deep, he has become arguably the most important player on the team to date. Opposing defenses can pack it in on North Carolina but Johnson has continued to produce. For Saturday’s game, I’d like to see Johnson involved in a lot of pick and roll action when you consider how poorly Kentucky has defended it this season. UK’s length will be a challenge for Johnson but Williams would be wise to go over the tape of Baylor’s win over the Wildcats, something that should give the big man some confidence against an imposing interior defense.
How about a little love for the top teams in the Ivy League? Harvard and Princeton have been impressive in the early going with a combined 15-2 record. Each team has lost just once, with the Crimson falling at Colorado and the Tigers coming up just short at Butler last month. Can you believe Tommy Amaker is already in his seventh season in Cambridge? The former Michigan and Seton Hall coach has found a niche with Harvard and has built a longtime irrelevant program into an Ivy powerhouse. Amaker will be looking for his third consecutive NCAA trip with the Crimson, which has their sights set on winning more than just a game in the Big Dance this time. Amaker has been to one previous Sweet Sixteen (2000) but this year’s squad is the best he has put on the Lavietes Pavilion floor. Down at Princeton, Mitch Henderson has made great progress in only his third year at the helm. The Tigers rely heavily on the three-point shot and are terrific on the defensive boards. Teams that attempt a lot of threes and make a good percentage are highly dangerous in March and this Princeton team fits that description perfectly. If senior guard T.J. Bray can get fully healthy, this will be another Ivy League team that can win a game or two in March. The all-important Ivy regular season title (and automatic NCAA bid) should come down to these teams but Harvard is in the best position to receive an at-large bid should it fail to win the league. A win over a solid Green Bay club is its best to date but four more road games will test the Crimson outside of league play, including a huge opportunity at Connecticut on January 8.
Staying in the New England area, one team that looks ripe with potential is Providence. Although the Friars are dealing with personnel issues and injuries (ed. note: reports surfaced early Wednesday that Kris Dunn will have season-ending shoulder surgery this week), the players they have on the floor have been producing quite well. Head coach Ed Cooley has infused a ton of much-needed energy into a program that had been twisting in the wind for far too long. None of the Friars’ wins jump off the page at you but they’ll have a very nice chance for a quality win later this month when they head to Massachusetts. Win that game and Providence will be set up quite well entering play in the Big East. The Friars really struggle to shoot the basketball but they play very hard, defend well and have some good athleticism. Depth has been a continuing issue for this program over the last few years but the talent is clearly getting better. With Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock still sitting on the sidelines due to disciplinary issues (and Cooley showing no sympathy for them), there is the potential for Providence to immediately become a factor if all of these players can manage to suit up sometime in the next month or so. The Big East is there for the taking and a finish in the top half of the league is certainly not out of the question for the Friars.