Otskey’s Observations: Episode VIPosted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on December 18th, 2013
Battle For Iowa Lived Up To Its Billing
For my money, the best game in recent days was Iowa State’s thrilling win over Iowa on Friday night at Hilton Coliseum. This game was the true essence of what college basketball is all about. It was a heated in-state rivalry between two quality teams in a crazy atmosphere, smack dab in the middle of a basketball-crazed state. It is simple: This was a fun game, period. Although Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones came away victorious, you may be somewhat surprised to find out that my biggest impression taken from this game was just how good Iowa is. I actually thought the Hawkeyes were the better team for most of this contest. Don’t get me wrong, Iowa State played really well. After all, it beat a team I thought was very impressive so that should tell you something about the Cyclones as well. I thought Iowa had a terrific game plan and evidence of top-notch coaching and scouting was present throughout the game.
One specific example of great scouting came late in the first half when Roy Devyn Marble got in the middle of a dribble hand-off by Georges Niang and broke it up, leading to two Iowa points on the other end. Marble read the play perfectly and it paid off for his team. Fran McCaffery’s squad excelled in transition and got almost anything it wanted offensively on the low block with Aaron White leading the charge. Iowa ran some beautiful half-court sets that resulted in plenty of clean looks, especially for White and Marble. The Hawkeyes dominated the glass (but did not take full advantage of it) and answered the bell nearly every time Iowa State put together a charge, except for the final minute where it wound up costing them the game. Iowa simply didn’t make the plays it needed to win late, highlighted by Mike Gesell’s two missed free throws. McCaffery and his team can learn a lot from this game but in the end it is on the players to step up and lead down the stretch. Whether that’s Marble (most likely), White, Gesell, or someone else, Iowa needs someone to be “the man” in order to take the next step and contend at the very highest level in the Big Ten.
Michigan Back On Track?
I was disappointed to see so many people jump off the Michigan bandwagon over the last couple of weeks. Yes, the Wolverines are 6-4 (which looks rather ordinary on paper) but a more in-depth analysis of just how they got there shows a team still highly capable of success in 2013-14. Of Michigan’s four losses, three (two of which were on the road) have come to teams that are better than the Wolverines. If you want to ding John Beilein’s team for losing to Charlotte, be my guest. That should not have happened and Michigan didn’t play all that well in Puerto Rico. However, losses to Iowa State at Hilton; Duke at Cameron; and No. 1 Arizona in a game in which they led for the majority of it are not causes for concern. Beilein scheduled up in the non-conference this year and Michigan is experiencing some growing pains as it adjusts to life without Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., two players whose usage accounted for just over half of Michigan’s total possessions last season.
This year’s edition of the Wolverines lacks a creator at the point guard spot but part of that is being spoiled by Burke for two years, Spike Albrecht not being ready to take the reins as a sophomore, and, most importantly, Beilein’s lack of trust (so far) in freshman Derrick Walton Jr. Walton’s minutes have fluctuated greatly in 10 games and he has not been able to get into any kind of a rhythm as a result. He played only 14 minutes against Arizona on Saturday and was benched down the stretch in the loss to Iowa State last month. Walton is the point guard of the future for Michigan and I am not sure why Beilein doesn’t trust him enough yet. He is a smart man and has his reasons but I’d like to see Walton play more. Michigan also lacks a consistent inside presence. Mitch McGary is a nice player but is nowhere near an All-American (I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one). He lacks a go-to move in the post and gets most of his points on second chances thanks to his terrific motor. Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan have not stepped up either, but let’s be fair. Michigan is taking many more three-pointers this year than it did last season, a fact that greatly contributed to its run to the national championship game. It’s hard to be a factor when the offense doesn’t incorporate you all that much. Michigan does have plenty of positive signs, though. Nik Stauskas has expanded his game but may not be 100 percent healed from his ankle injury. I love the improvement and potential shown by Caris LeVert. However, Glenn Robinson III may be the key to this team. His field goal percentage is down significantly this season and that must improve for Michigan to get past its growing pains. I think the Wolverines will get better as the season goes along and figure out their collective identity. I expect them to be back in the national rankings in relatively short order, although I still have them there at No. 20 on my RTC Top 25 ballot for this week.
Buckeyes Soft Schedule Diminishes Quality?
Staying in the Big Ten, a lot has been made of Ohio State’s 10-0 start against a soft schedule and whether the Buckeyes deserve their lofty ranking. Full disclosure: I ranked Ohio State #3 on my ballot this week. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have some concerns about the staying power of Thad Matta’s team. Ohio State has a nice road win (its only game away from Columbus) against a Marquette team still trying to figure itself out, but aside from that, there isn’t much beef on its resume thus far. Ohio State’s defensive efficiency is tops in the nation and Matta is certainly no stranger to elite defense regardless of the competition level. As the competition stiffens, however, it is natural to expect Ohio State to take a step back. Scoring remains a concern with only two legitimate three-point threats on the roster (Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross), along with an extremely thin frontcourt. On a team that attempts a good amount of triples, that can be an issue. Amir Williams is the only presence in the paint for the Buckeyes, and, as you might expect, they don’t rebound the ball particularly well. Aaron Craft does a great job running the offense so I wouldn’t expect a big dropoff there, but always bear in mind the competition level. Ohio State has yet to be challenged by any of its 10 opponents and Big Ten teams will scout it well once conference play begins. Craft and Shannon Scott form a lethal defensive combination on the perimeter and that will clearly be the team’s strength for the entire season. With six of their first 10 Big Ten games on the road, I think the Buckeyes may be in for a few losses. Ohio State will always be near the top of the standings because of the talent it has and the culture Matta has established in Columbus, but I’m not yet sold on the Buckeyes as an elite team or a contender for the national title.
Donahue Struggling To Put It Together
Now in his fourth season at the helm of the Boston College program, Steve Donahue has fallen on extremely hard times. Boston College is 4-7 overall and already 0-1 in ACC play after losing to Maryland last week at Conte Forum. In his three-plus years, Donahue has posted a 50-59 overall record (20-30 ACC) with only a single NIT bid (2011) to show for it. When you look at BC’s scouting report on Ken Pomeroy’s website, one thing clearly stands out: all of that red on the defensive side of the ball. The Eagles rank near the bottom of all of Division I in nearly every defensive metric. Unfortunately for Donahue, this is anything but a new phenomenon. Since Pomeroy began tracking advanced statistics in the 2002-03 season, Donahue has never had a team rank better than No. 174 in overall defensive efficiency. As of this writing, his BC team ranks a putrid No. 298 this season, the worst of Donahue’s coaching career. In fact, eight of Donahue’s teams since 2002-03 have ranked over No. 200 in this metric, including this year’s squad. With a disastrous season already in progress and absolutely no buzz surrounding the program, it may be time for Boston College AD Brad Bates to make a coaching change at the end of this season. Bates was named AD 14 months ago but the time for action is quickly approaching. If the apathy and empty seats in Conte Forum don’t tell the story, Donahue has yet to receive a commitment in the pivotal 2015 recruiting class. Boston College will return every rotation player next season, meaning plenty of scholarships will be available for the 2015 high school class. Yes, Boston is absolutely a pro sports town and it is tough to generate interest in that kind of market, but a change of coaches with pretty much all of the team coming back next year may be what this program needs. The new coach can step in right away and try to get this group to defend somebody. Given Donahue’s long track record of defensive ineptitude, that isn’t going to miraculously happen under his watch. It may be worth the risk but it will eventually be up to Bates and Rev. William P. Leahy, the school president, to make that decision.
Change At The Top For Golden Eagles
An interesting development late last Friday (the perfect time to dump bad news) was the resignation of Marquette VP/AD Larry Williams. In two years at the helm of Marquette’s athletic department, Williams’ teams saw great success in nearly every sport. Of course, the flagship program of the Golden Eagles is men’s basketball. It was no secret that head coach Buzz Williams feuded with his AD at times but the relationship was professional for the most part. The fantastic Marquette blog Paint Touches ran a great article on Williams which you should check out. AD Williams ruffled some feathers when he criticized Buzz Williams for dancing on the court at West Virginia two seasons ago, and you have to think Buzz now has some more freedom in running the program how he wants to. The timing was interesting because Williams had spearheaded the assembly of the new Big East Conference, often serving as the spokesperson for the nine other Big East athletic directors as a whole. He was a leader in putting together the league’s contract with Fox Sports 1 so it won’t just be Marquette’s athletics programs taking a hit with his departure. Back in October, Marquette’s president (Rev. Scott R. Pilarz) also resigned after roughly two years leading the university. Combined with the news of Williams’ resignation, it is an interesting development. Is the university sending a signal to Buzz Williams that he will have free reign in order to prevent him from moving on to another job such as Texas if Rick Barnes is let go? It is certainly a possibility and it bears watching who Marquette will hire to replace Larry Williams. Former longtime Marquette AD Bill Cords will serve in the interim until a successor to Williams is hired.