Otskey’s Observations: Episode XIVPosted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on February 26th, 2014
Each week throughout the season, RTC columnist Brian Otskey (@botskey) will run down his observations from the previous week of college basketball.
Wichita State Deserves a Number One Seed
There is a vocal group out there making it known that Wichita State should not receive a top seed in next month’s NCAA Tournament. They argue that the 30-0 Shockers “haven’t played anyone” and that alone should disqualify Gregg Marshall’s team from landing on the No. 1 seed line when the brackets are released two and a half weeks from now. We can debate the merits of the RPI all we want, but the fact is it remains one of many important selection criteria. Wichita State’s non-conference schedule ranks No. 34 in that metric, which is actually pretty good. By comparison, it is only four spots lower than Georgetown, a middling Big East team about whose schedule people have been raving. Perception is indeed a funny thing.
Wichita State cannot control the strength of its own league, which also happened to lose Creighton to conference realignment this season. There is something to be said, however, for taking every team’s best shot each and every night and still winning with relative ease. The Shockers beat the second best team in the Missouri Valley, Indiana State, in convincing fashion in Wichita and won the return meeting in Terre Haute comfortably. Out of conference, the Shockers challenged themselves with games at Saint Louis, Tulsa and Alabama, along with a visit by Tennessee to Wichita (Note: Game was played off campus and not at the Roundhouse). Wichita State also played BYU in a two-day event at the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City. The Shockers have certainly not faced a murderer’s row type of schedule, but at 30-0 with a top 35 non-conference slate, that is good enough to be rewarded with a No. 1 seed. In the next two weeks you will hear a lot of pundits talk about tournament resumes, good wins and bad losses. Just remember, Wichita State doesn’t have any bad losses. It has NO losses, period. Dear Selection Committee: Do the right thing and give this team a No. 1 seed!
Jim Boeheim’s Meltdown Masks Syracuse’s Real Issue
Say the word “Syracuse” this week and most people will immediately think of Jim Boeheim’s classic meltdown at Cameron Indoor Stadium where the iconic Orange coach was ejected from a regular season or postseason game for the first time in 38 years as a head coach. While that was certainly a memorable moment, it masks the nosedive that Syracuse’s offense has taken over its last four games. Over the Orange’s first 24 contests, they recorded an offensive efficiency below 102.1 points per 100 possessions just twice (in wins over Miami and North Carolina). Over the last four games, Syracuse’s offensive efficiency has been 92.5, 94.3, 99.6 and 88.6. Ironically the 99.6 number was in the loss to Duke, but the Blue Devils are the best offensive team Syracuse has faced all season.
I am certainly not lumping this all on one player but Tyler Ennis has not been the Tyler Ennis we have come to expect. He is a freshman after all, but the last few weeks have proven that he is also mortal. Ennis is 20-of-55 (36%) from the floor over his last four games and has committed 11 turnovers (2.75 per game) after averaging 1.5 miscues per game in the 24 games prior. With Ennis in a bit of a funk, Syracuse’s offense has clearly suffered. Trevor Cooney’s production has taken an even deeper turn for the worse as he is only 5-of-25 (20%) from three-point range over the same four games. Syracuse needs its guards to play well because when they aren’t, an incredible scoring burden then falls upon C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant. Both have continued to play fairly well but they can’t do it all for a team with struggling guards and no offensive presence at the five position. Ennis and Cooney combine to form an incredible duo that can open up the offense and space the floor. Ennis can do it through passing and dribble drives, while Cooney does it by making threes. When those guys are playing well, the Orange are as good as any team in America. However, they have to snap out of their slumps in order for Syracuse to contend for a national championship.
Iowa is Underachieving
Ordinarily you would say a team that is 19-8 overall and 8-6 in a loaded Big Ten coming off an NIT season would be having a good year. While Iowa is technically having a good year, it has become abundantly clear that the Hawkeyes are underachieving. This team is loaded with talent from Roy Devyn Marble on down but just cannot get over the hump in big games. Iowa is currently tied for fifth in the Big Ten standings along with Nebraska but Fran McCaffery’s team is just 4-8 against the RPI top 50 and has only two wins over ranked opponents. The offense continues to hum along nicely, but it is defense that has let Iowa down this season. In its eight losses, Iowa has given up an average of 80.5 PPG, including Tuesday night’s 95 to a Minnesota team that had surpassed 80 points only twice in Big Ten play. The efficiency metrics still love Iowa but the Hawkeyes have lost five of their last nine games since starting the season 15-3. Three home losses in conference play are particularly perplexing, because the Big Ten, perhaps more than any other conference, is where you really need to protect your home court. The venues and crowds are as raucous as any other league and it has always been extremely difficult to win away from home in that league even though this year as a whole has been wacky in the Big Ten.
Some internal strife has emerged from Iowa lately as McCaffery has said he wants his team off of Twitter until the end of the season. This is in response to Zach McCabe tweeting out a vulgar statement directed at some Iowa fans who had been blasting him on message boards and social media. The sad reality is this is a brave new world and players are going to be targets of fan criticism on the Internet whether it is right or wrong. McCabe would have been better off staying quiet, but remember, these are college kids and the human instinct to defend yourself will always be overwhelming. I don’t blame McCabe for getting angry but he could have handled the situation better. Hopefully Iowa fans get off his case and just let him play basketball because he has earned that right as a scholarship-athlete at a high-major school. Iowa can still do some damage but it has to become mentally tougher and recommit itself to playing quality defense in order to bring postseason success to Iowa City.
Have We All Been Caught Napping on New Mexico?
One year ago, New Mexico was 23-4 overall and leading the Mountain West with a No. 14 national ranking. That Lobos team would go on to win the Mountain West Tournament before being upset in dramatic fashion by Harvard in the “second” round of the NCAA Tournament. Steve Alford left town for UCLA after that and assistant Craig Neal took over the program. Lo and behold, New Mexico is 22-5 overall and 13-2 in the league in late February. However, the Lobos just cracked the Top 25 for the first time since November (ranked No. 25 this week). Where is the love? You could make an argument that this year’s New Mexico squad is better than last year’s, even if Ken Pomeroy’s system disagrees. For starters, New Mexico’s offense is more efficient this season thanks in large part to the play of Cameron Bairstow. The 6’9”, 250-pound senior Aussie is one of the nation’s most underappreciated players and the textbook definition of a beast in the post. Averaging 20.2 PPG and 7.3 RPG on 55.7 percent shooting, Bairstow has taken the Lobos’ offense to new heights this season. New Mexico has jumped 143 spots over last year in two-point field goal percentage (46.1 percent to 50.6 percent), while focusing its offense more around Bairstow and Alex Kirk with Kendall Williams as a great scorer and facilitator in the backcourt. While the Mountain West is clearly down this year, Neal’s team has won 15 of its last 17 games and recently beat San Diego State in highly impressive fashion. While New Mexico remains vulnerable to a team who takes and makes threes (just like Harvard last year), Bairstow and Kirk also combine to form one of the strongest interior defenses in the entire country. Opposing offense are shooting just 41.1 percent inside the three-point line against New Mexico, making it the fourth best defensive percentage in the nation. This is a team I like a lot, and it is not just Bairstow, Kirk and Williams. Hugh Greenwood is a terrific glue guy for this group, while Cullen Neal (Craig’s son) can provide a perimeter spark from behind the arc even as an undersized freshman. I have to say I like this team’s prospects in March, provided it doesn’t run into a team that can blitz it from three-point land and bounce the Lobos from the Tournament right away.