Otskey’s Observations: Episode IXPosted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on January 22nd, 2014
Each week throughout the season, RTC columnist Brian Otskey (@botskey) will run down his observations from the previous week of college basketball.
Losing Streaks Not Uncommon This Time of Year
It is almost a yearly tradition: fans and the media freaking out over a previously undefeated or one-loss team losing a game or two, or three, or sometimes four, in January. This season has been no exception as the last few weeks have seen teams such as Ohio State, Oregon, Iowa State, Georgetown and Wisconsin hit the skids. The Buckeyes and Ducks have each lost four straight games after starting the season a combined 28-0. Iowa State was 14-0 before losing three straight over the course of the last week-plus. Georgetown was 3-1 in Big East play before suffering three consecutive defeats. Last but not least, Wisconsin, which had run out to an impressive 16-0 start, has suddenly dropped two in a row. There are a number of reasons why this happens. The first is statistical correction. Ohio State is a good team with a woefully inefficient offense; opponents were bound to begin figuring out the Buckeyes and hand them a few losses.
The same can be said for Oregon and its “Swiss cheese” defense getting exposed. The Ducks can score the ball for sure but it doesn’t matter much when you can’t stop quality opponents. Wisconsin is in the same boat, but not nearly to the same degree. The Badgers have not been defending nearly as well as they usually do and it cost them in recent losses to Indiana and Michigan. Speaking of scheduling, that is another reason why hot teams are prone to January slumps. As conference play takes hold, the opponents get better and there is so much more video to scout and expose teams. The schedule has caught up to Iowa State, which encountered a huge match-up problem in the frontcourt against Kansas and lost two road games to surprise Big 12 teams Oklahoma and Texas. Winning on the road is never easy, especially in conference play, as the Cyclones have found out. As for Georgetown, an injury to Jabril Trawick and an academic issue for Joshua Smith have picked apart the Hoyas’ rotation and made depth a major issue late in games. The Hoyas have blown second half leads in all three of their most recent losses.With all of that said, these teams should not close up shop so early in league play. There is plenty of basketball yet to be played and some recent history tells us that January losing streaks are not the end of the world by any stretch. The 2011 NCAA champion Connecticut went just 9-9 in the Big East that year and had three losing streaks of two games each that season. Let us also not forget last year’s champion, Louisville. The Cardinals lost three straight games in a one-week period last January before winning 19 of their last 20 contests en route to the national title.
California Flying Under the Radar
If you take a look at the Pac-12 standings, you’ll find a familiar name sitting at the top with a 5-0 record — Arizona. But look just below the Wildcats and you’ll find the California Golden Bears at 5-0 in the league and 14-4 overall, two games clear of the rest of the pack in the loss column. Mike Montgomery’s team has quietly put together a six-game winning streak and has won eight of its last nine games. Its only loss in that period? At Creighton, a place where road teams almost never win. The Golden Bears have been taking care of business at home against the lesser teams in the Pac-12 while going on the road and picking up some quality wins. Cal has won at rival Stanford and Oregon in the month of January. This team has a great blend of talent and experience with seniors Richard Solomon and Justin Cobbs leading the way, and freshmen Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews making terrific contributions in their first year with the program. Cobbs has been fantastic at the point guard spot after suffering a broken bone in his foot last summer. That hasn’t slowed him down one bit as he has played every game while averaging 14.9 PPG and 6.4 APG. Cobbs and Solomon combine to form one of the nation’s best guard-big man tandems. Solomon has been a beast in the post, scoring 12.1 PPG and ranking No. 8 nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. Cobbs and Solomon are just two of five Golden Bears who average double figures in scoring. Cal’s offense has also been tops in the league in conference play, even besting undefeated Arizona by 3.8 points per 100 possessions. Cal’s best non-conference win was against Arkansas at the Maui Invitational, but this team now seems to be hitting its stride. Assuming Arizona wins the league, I have a feeling the Golden Bears will be right there with UCLA for the second spot in the Pac-12 come March.
What to Make of Memphis?
The more Memphis games I watch, the more confused I become. Just what is the identity of this team? Is it a contender in the American or just a decent team with a lot of talent? Perhaps finding that identity is a major problem for Josh Pastner’s group. The Tigers have shown some signs of progress this season. They knocked off Oklahoma State in November, competed hard against Florida in December, and won at Louisville in January. Two wins against Top 25 teams is more than Pastner accomplished in his previous four seasons as head coach (zero) but home losses to Cincinnati and Connecticut have also been setbacks. I do think that this is a pretty good basketball team but it has to improve on the defensive end to become outstanding. Memphis gets a lot of extra possessions by forcing turnovers, but gives them right back thanks to porous interior defense and bad defensive rebounding. Memphis was outrebounded in losses to Florida and Connecticut, the latter being almost inexcusable. To be outworked on the glass at home by a team that hasn’t been able to come up with big rebounds for a couple of years now is unacceptable. I have liked what Geron Johnson has brought to the table but I think he needs to be more aggressive if Memphis is going to string some consistent play together, as his athleticism can be a major asset when opposing defenses shut down the Tigers’ guard penetration. Memphis gets 61.7 percent of its point production from two-point range so it has a hard time winning if an opponent can cut off penetration by Joe Jackson and company. Memphis still has opportunities for big wins with a game against Gonzaga coming up along with rematches against Connecticut, Louisville and Cincinnati.
Virginia Beginning to Play Like the Team Most Thought It Would Be
November and December were rough months for Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers but 2014 has treated his team much better. Virginia is 5-1 since the calendar flipped to January with all of those games coming in ACC play. Even more impressively, all of the Cavs’ wins have come by at least 12 points with the only loss in a close game to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. As you might expect, Virginia has done it with defense. Bennett’s team ranks fifth overall in adjusted defensive efficiency and has been the best ACC team on that end of the floor in league play. The offense has improved as well, ranking third in ACC games on the strength of 41.7 percent three-point shooting. Joe Harris has expectedly led the way for this team but a quartet of sophomores — Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill — have pulled more than their share of the weight as well. I liked this team a lot coming into the year and actually thought it would finish in the top three of the ACC behind Duke and Syracuse. That may still turn out to be the case after all, as the Cavaliers benefit from a slower, methodical pace in this year’s ACC. Virginia recently completed a sweep of Florida State, something that could be very important in terms of tiebreakers. The unbalanced schedule in the ACC means Bennett’s team gets Syracuse at home and avoids the Carrier Dome, but does have to make a trip to Pittsburgh as well as upstart Clemson. It is incredibly hard to put up points against this team and that is something that should carry it to a strong finish in an ACC that is much weaker than many originally thought.