Otskey’s Observations: Episode XPosted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on January 29th, 2014
Each week throughout the season, RTC columnist Brian Otskey (@botskey) will run down his observations from the previous week of college basketball.
Michigan Proving the Doubters Wrong
No team in America had a better month of January than the Michigan Wolverines. Since the calendar flipped to 2014, Michigan has reeled off seven consecutive wins to start Big Ten play and has won nine straight since a two-point home loss to No. 1 Arizona on December 14. Of those seven wins, an astounding four have come on the road in ridiculously tough environments. Seriously, who wins at Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State in just over a three-week span? Michigan has established itself as a Big Ten contender with a pretty favorable schedule the rest of the way. How have the Wolverines done it? Offense. Believe it or not, Michigan’s 2013-14 adjusted offensive efficiency is greater than the number posted by last year’s Trey Burke-led squad that reached the national championship game. A lot of that can be attributed to the increase in fouls called this season, but it is impressive nonetheless. The Wolverines are shooting the ball fantastically, putting up at least 71 points in all but one of their Big Ten games. Derrick Walton Jr.’s growth has been fun to watch, encapsulated in the and-one that essentially won the game at Michigan State last Saturday. Nik Stauskas’ game speaks for itself and he should be in the running for the National Player of the Year award. Yes, national. (Side note: I love how a guy like Stauskas can back up his trash talk and swag with his game on the court. There are some guys who just run their mouths for the heck of it but Stauskas actually backs it up on the floor. I have no problem with that whatsoever.) Glenn Robinson III has emerged as a steady presence and a fairly reliable scorer behind Stauskas, something that needed to happen for Michigan to take the next step.
I am a bit concerned about Michigan’s defense which is allowing an adjusted 105.3 points per 100 possessions in Big Ten play, good for eighth in a 12-team league. The Wolverines’ interior defense is not good at all and that’s the place where they miss Mitch McGary the most. That said, all the talk about McGary having such a negative effect on this team was a bunch of hot air from the media who became obsessed with him after last year’s NCAA Tournament. The fact is McGary bogged down Michigan’s offense (without Trey Burke feeding him) in addition to being not 100 percent healthy. We’ve seen the results without him and you cannot tell me Michigan isn’t better. Michigan has been criminally underrated all year long because of the McGary injury combined with a few close losses to very good teams. May I remind you of what I wrote in this very column a week before Christmas. Michigan has always been a factor and it has hit its stride against a strong schedule. The Wolverines are here to stay but really, they never went anywhere. Michigan has been at least top 20 good all year long, now it is a top 10 caliber team.
Do Not Sleep on Louisville
The team that beat Michigan to win last year’s national championship is also starting to find itself. While this isn’t nearly the same Louisville team that went all the way last April, there are pieces here for another deep run. Rick Pitino’s defense has picked up considerably in conference play to log a phenomenal 89.1 points per 100 possessions. This is Pitino’s hallmark, having had a top 10 defensive team in all but one of the last seven seasons, a remarkable achievement. Defense can carry this team a long way despite lacking the elite rim protector that it had last year in Gorgui Dieng. Holdovers Russ Smith and Luke Hancock have been productive as you would expect, while Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell have expanded their games with another year of experience under their belts. With Terry Rozier and Chris Jones still not having reached their full potential, there is room for a lot of growth on this team. Louisville has won six of its past seven games since losing to rival Kentucky at the end of December, and has only lost twice since falling to North Carolina when the season was in its infancy. The Cardinals have changed a lot since then, having not allowed more than 76 points in any game since surrendering 93 to the Tar Heels at Mohegan Sun Arena. How much of that can be attributed to a relatively soft schedule? Some of it, surely, but there is no doubt Louisville is making strides on that end of the floor. The offense is pretty darn good as well, ranking No. 22 nationally. Louisville may get through the rest of its conference schedule with just one or two more losses and enter the postseason with 25 wins. I’m not sure the Cardinals can go all the way again but this is a good value for a sleeper Final Four pick. With a coach with the track record of Pitino, it would be foolish to count them out entirely.
San Diego State Impresses on the Road Again
I will be the first to admit it, I was not too high on San Diego State even after its win at Kansas earlier this month. Quite honestly, I thought that was just a bad night for Kansas and a favorable match-up for SDSU given its elite defense. I am still sure there is some truth to that but my opinion of the Aztecs skyrocketed after watching them defeat Utah State in front of a raucous crowd in Logan on Saturday night. Yes, I know the Aggies are just No. 101 in the Pomeroy ratings but they have had plenty of success under Stew Morrill despite struggling a bit in their inaugural Mountain West season. That said, winning in front of that crowd where the opponent is going to give you its best shot is very impressive. Xavier Thames’ three to essentially win the game was so pure and absolutely cold-blooded, as many on Twitter remarked. It was a good week for Steve Fisher’s club as they won at the Spectrum and blasted San Jose State along the way. This team hasn’t lost since November 14, and that was to No. 1 Arizona of all teams. SDSU hasn’t played anyone great outside of the Wildcats, Creighton and Kansas, but that three-game sample size is enough to keep them in the discussion for a fairly high NCAA Tournament seed, provided it keeps winning. Am I still concerned about this team’s offense? Of course, but its offensive rebounding (Josh Davis, take a bow) keeps it in games and minimizes the impact of all the missed shots. Expect the Aztecs to enter the Tournament with a gaudy record while hoping to improve on last year’s “third round” (err… second) exit.
What is Providence’s Staying Power?
One of the more intriguing developments in the new Big East has been the play of the Providence Friars. Ed Cooley’s club opened Big East play 0-2 after suffering a double-overtime home loss to an improving but still somewhat mediocre Seton Hall team followed by a 30-point blowout loss at Villanova. Since then, Providence has reeled off five consecutive wins (including versus Creighton and Xavier), vaulting all the way up into a share of third place with the Musketeers at 5-2 in league play. The Friars, which are not a great shooting team, have done it with offensive rebounding and free throw shooting. Providence is tops in the conference with a 35.1 percent offensive rebounding rate and a 48.2 percent free throw rate, where the Friars can use the nation’s best free throw percentage (79.2%) to their advantage. Another factor that has broken Providence’s way has been the Big East schedule. Four of PC’s first six conference games were at the friendly confines of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, but now the road (literally) gets tougher. Providence has 11 Big East games remaining and seven of them are away from home, including four of the next five starting Thursday night at Marquette with the only home game coming against an improving St. John’s team that nearly toppled Creighton in Omaha on Tuesday (and lost by just one point to the Friars in the first meeting). Just how long can Providence keep this up? I get the feeling it may have already peaked when you look at how it struggles offensively and the upcoming schedule; their depth issues have to catch up to the team at some point. Coach Cooley lost Kris Dunn to a season-ending shoulder injury, along with freshmen Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock to season-long suspensions. Providence employs a six-man rotation with a couple of seniors deep on the bench for help in a dire situation. Bryce Cotton has played an incredible 94.9 percent of available minutes, which ranks second in the nation only behind Canisius’ Billy Baron. Junior swingman LaDontae Henton is also among the nation’s top 60, averaging 36.9 minutes per game himself. While these are college athletes in prime physical condition, it would be hard to see them sustaining this level of play every night for the rest of the season. Until now I haven’t even mentioned foul trouble as something that can go wrong either. The bottom line is this: Providence has put itself in contention for its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2004, but the question is, can it stay in the race for the long haul? We shall see but the smart money is coming up negative.