RTC Rewind: Virginia Survives, Others Not So Lucky…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on January 5th, 2015

Last Tuesday, in the first Weekly Primer of conference play this season, I wrote the following: “The beginning of conference play is important, not just because attention ratchets up and the momentous games come in droves, but because these first few weeks are full of realizations. This is when we start to get a true feel for individual teams.” A little later on, I concluded the paragraph with this: “We’ll learn a lot these next few weeks. Or at the very least, we’ll think we have.” With one week in the books – for some, two games; for others, one game; for still others, none – it’s time to start making decisions. What do we think we know? Which 2-0 conference starts are flukes? Which upsets are signs of bigger and better things to come? Which conference races are starting to take shape? Which are still complete crapshoots? These are the types of questions to consider.

Headliner: Virginia 89, Miami 80 (2OT)

Virginia Got All It Wanted from Miami, But Had the Last Laugh on Saturday (USA Today Images)

Virginia Got All It Wanted from Miami, But Had the Last Laugh on Saturday (USA Today Images)

Virginia is still undefeated… but barely. After controlling much of Saturday’s contest at Miami, Virginia’s usually-stout defense was carved up late, and the Cavs eventually needed a clutch Justin Anderson three to stave off their first loss of the season. But while this was a game that should have been more comfortable for the defending ACC champions, this shouldn’t reflect negatively on them. In fact, it further drives home the point that Virginia isn’t just a defensive juggernaut. The Cavaliers can score, too, which is what makes them a top-five team in the country. But what originally looked like smooth sailing for Tony Bennett’s team turned into a perfect example of just how hard it is to go unbeaten in college basketball. Virginia escaped in Coral Gables, but the alarm bells that were sounding during overtime once again alerted the nation that anything can happen in conference play. Miami entered Saturday’s game having lost three of its last five contests by double figures, including a 28-point defeat to Eastern Kentucky. But when conference foes meet, they are generally in the same ballpark athletically. That means all it takes is an outstanding performance here, a subpar one there, sprinkled with a little underdog luck, and an upset is brewing. Louisville almost proved that point as well late Sunday at Wake Forest. Virginia and Duke are both really good teams, but neither will run the table. Kentucky might be a different story in the SEC, but the ACC is just too murderous this season.

And then there were three…

While Virginia scraped by Miami, Saturday wasn’t nearly as kind to three of the six remaining undefeated teams. For Colorado State and TCU, that’s probably no surprise. TCU had feasted on the nation’s weakest schedule, and the Horned Frogs are still a bubble outsider until they show they can win games in the Big 12. Colorado State had won an unsustainably high number of close games, and a trip to New Mexico proved to be its tipping point. The big name that fell over the weekend, though, was Villanova. The Wildcats traveled to Seton Hall on Saturday, but their lack of a true go-to scorer — the generally reliable Ryan Arcidiacono was dreadful — did them in. As a result, Villanova far too often settled for three-pointers outside of the natural flow of its offense, and, as other teams with similar makeups can attest – I’m looking at you, Iowa State – that is a recipe for an upset. Villanova can’t change the composition of its lineup, and that’s why the Wildcats will remain a step or two below the top tier of teams nationally.


  • Seton Hall as a top-eight seed – What a week for the Pirates. After a statement win over St. John’s to open Big East play on New Year’s Eve, Seton Hall knocked off Villanova over the weekend. And although much of the postgame focus was on what went wrong with the Wildcats, this game was just as much about the victors. Sterling Gibbs is playing at an All-Big East level, and let’s not forget, the Pirates are doing so without diaper dandy Isaiah Whitehead, a gritty scoring guard from Brooklyn. This is undoubtedly the best team that Kevin Willard has had, and with two wins that most teams won’t even be able to match by season’s end, Seton Hall is in really good position from an NCAA seeding perspective.
  • Temple as an AAC contender – After turning heads with an RTC-worthy blowout of Kansas and a conference-opening win over UConn, the Owls took care of business against UCF on Sunday to conclude a 2-0 week. Temple has a couple of not-so-great non-conference losses on its resume, but with transfers Jesse Morgan and Devin Coleman now eligible, Fran Dunphy has a stable of typical, tough Philly guards surrounding its star, Jaylen Bond. In an AAC that looks weaker by the day, that might be enough for the Owls to push SMU, Cincinnati and UConn for a league title.
  • Michigan’s demise – Ironically, Michigan basketball fans are facing the exact same situation that Michigan football fans faced this season. The Wolverines are supposed to be better than this, and we all thought they would at least be decent. But at some point, just like with the football team, we have to admit to ourselves that Michigan just isn’t very good. Outside of Caris LeVert, there’s not a lot of talent left here, and John Beilein has no depth whatsoever. In Saturday’s disappointing loss to Purdue, Michigan’s offense was horrid, and there isn’t much to indicate that it will improve anytime soon.

Not Buying

  • DePaul’s supposed resurgence – Who would have thought that after two games, the Blue Demons would be one of two unbeaten league teams atop the Big East? If you’re pointing to yourself, you’re a liar. Saturday’s win over Xavier was particularly surprising, but more than anything else we saw this weekend, DePaul’s conference record is a fluke. This is still the worst team in the league, and that statement shouldn’t even require much of an explanation.
  • Maryland as a Top 10 team – After a big week that included an overtime win at Michigan State and a convincing home win over Minnesota, the Terps are primed to jump into the nation’s Top 10. And while they belong there based on a strong résumé to this point, I’m still not sold on them. Admittedly, this is based more on gut feel than anything else, but Jake Layman isn’t going to be nearly as effective throughout Big Ten play and Dez Wells is still just an above average offensive player. Melo Trimble has opened many eyes, but there are still a bunch of questions about the pieces surrounding him. The Terps’ offense, which hasn’t yet ranked among the top 90 in efficiency under Mark Turgeon’s direction, just isn’t as good as this year’s numbers so far suggest.

Other Weekend Takeaways

  • South Carolina might be kind of good. One of your “huh?” moments of the weekend came when South Carolina knocked off Iowa State in Brooklyn. The Cyclones, of course, might also be the most erratic team in the country – they shot 1-of-18 from three-point range on Saturday – but South Carolina’s sticky defense had a lot to do with their offensive struggles. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks have quietly announced themselves as an NCAA Tournament contender. They trounced Oklahoma State a month ago, and now have cracked KenPom’s top 30 with the big weekend win. Nearly all of their improvement can be attributed to the defensive end of the floor. While at Kansas State, Frank Martin routinely developed stingy defensive squads — his last three teams there ranked among the top 25 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. When he took the South Carolina job in 2012, he didn’t have much to work with. His first team ranked 223rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, but in year two, the Gamecocks jumped to 115th. Now, through half of season three, Martin’s group is all the way up into the top 10, landing at sixth. Might South Carolina in fact be the second-best team in the SEC?
  • The Big East is a mess… in a good way. And not only is it a mess in a good way, it’s going to be that way all season long. While DePaul and Seton Hall both jumped out to 2-0 starts, St. John’s fell to Butler on Saturday and is now 0-2. Elsewhere, Xavier beat Georgetown thoroughly but then lost to DePaul; Georgetown responded to that loss by beating Creighton; Providence knocked off Creighton before losing to Marquette; but Marquette had already fallen to DePaul. As I wrote in the lede, there are some conferences that are still complete crapshoots. This is one of them. Get prepared for a wild ride over the next two months.

Play of the Weekend – Jerian Grant’s Dunk

Oh my…

Co-Players of the Weekend – Kellen Dunham, Butler and Chasson Randle, Stanford. Dunham shot Butler past St. John’s on Saturday, going 6-of-7 from beyond the arc and finishing with 28 points. The junior sharpshooter kept the Bulldogs in the game with the Red Storm throughout the afternoon, before hitting a massive three-pointer late to push Butler over the hump. Randle, meanwhile, actually didn’t shoot the ball all that well, but he earns co-player of the weekend honors for his late heroics against Washington. He scored 14 of his 24 points in the final nine mintues of regulation and overtime, and came up with the game-tying bucket with 2.2 seconds to play that pushed the game into the extra period. There, Randle turned into a provider, notching two of his five assists to lead Stanford to the key victory.

Henry Bushnell (39 Posts)

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