RTC Weekly Primer: At Long Last, It’s Basketball Season

Posted by Henry Bushnell on February 3rd, 2015

It’s basketball season. At long last, it’s basketball season. It’s a shame that the general sports-loving public takes so long to realize that’s the case, but regardless of their failures and inadequacies, it’s time to look ahead. Football is finally and definitively over, and it’s time for the roundball and the hardwood floor to take center stage on the American sports landscape. The Super Bowl was awesome — one of the greatest of all-time, and a phenomenal advertisement for the competitiveness of the NFL — but as always, it was a bit anti-climactic. After two weeks of buildup, it’s all over; and just like that, there is a major void on the sports scene.

There's No Better Environment That Those in College Basketball (USA Sports Images)

There’s No Better Environment That Those in College Basketball (USA Sports Images)

College basketball must fill that void. For the dedicated fans, it undoubtedly will. But a frequently posed question in recent years has been whether college basketball has become a “niche sport”? According to a recent Harris poll, the game has indeed declined in popularity. Currently only three percent of American sports fans identify college hoops as their go-to game — down from five percent in 2011, and 10 percent in 1989 — and only a seismic shift in popularity could see the sport return to its peak levels in the 1980s and 1990s. Does that matter? For those who attach themselves to the overall health and growth of the game, yeah, it does. But at least in the short run from now until April 6, no poll will inhibit the joy we derive from the on-court action of college basketball. “Niche” can be viewed as a demeaning word when it is used in this context, but niche is fine so long as it can produce compelling games like Duke-Virginia in Charlottesville on Saturday and atmospheres like Kansas-Iowa State in Allen Fieldhouse last night.

Three for the Money

  • West Virginia at Oklahoma | Tuesday, 8:00 PM EST, ESPN2. After an explosive Big Monday of important (if not competitive) games, it’s a rather slow work week in the world of college hoops. But before we jump ahead to the weekend’s action, let’s not lose sight of this one on Tuesday night in Norman. It’s time to focus on the season that West Virginia is putting together. All of a sudden, the Mountaineers at 6-2 appear to be the biggest threat to Kansas in the Big 12 race. Bob Huggins has done a spectacular job in rebuilding this team after a couple of down years. He has possibly the conference’s best player in senior Juwan Staten but his true value with this year’s group has been molding them into a new identity featuring pressure defense all over the floor. Four West Virginia players rank among the nation’s top 100 in steal percentage, and the team prides itself on turning opponents over and getting out in transition. Tonight’s game could go either way. Oklahoma could get sucked into West Virginia’s traps and come out on the wrong end of a helter-skelter contest; or the Sooners could constantly be in attack mode, using the fast tempo and a raucous home crowd to play right into their hands.

  • Notre Dame at Duke | Saturday, 1:00 PM EST, CBS. Yep, these two will go at it again, this time in Durham. You probably recall the last time the Blue Devils and Fighting Irish squared off because it was just under a week ago in South Bend. On that occasion, Jerian Grant took over the game down the stretch and snatched a come-from-behind victory for his team. Then, at the final whistle, he single-handedly prevented a burgeoning court rush, implying through his actions that bigger and better things than a victory over Duke were on the horizon. But the Irish fell at Pittsburgh over the weekend in a classic letdown game, and now probably need Saturday’s win at Duke to stay in the conference race. The bigger story here, however, is about the Blue Devils. Having just rudely interrupted Virginia’s run at perfection with a late offensive explosion of its own, Duke has effectively pulled out of the short-lived funk it found itself in. The Blue Devils remain incredibly shallow on its bench after the dismissal of Rasheed Sulaimon – Coach K has only eight scholarship players – but if Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook continue to play excellent offensive basketball, that won’t be a big deal. Are the Blue Devils back in position as one of the nation’s foremost contenders? If they are, they should handle Notre Dame comfortably in Cameron Indoor Stadium this weekend. Certainly Notre Dame will have something to say about that.
  • Georgetown at Villanova | Saturday, 2:00 PM EST, FOX. We could continue our entertaining stroll through the ACC for the third of three games, but instead we turn to the Big East to answer a very pressing question: Just how good is Villanova? The Wildcats haven’t dominated the Big East to the extent of last season, but they are still 6-2 and sit atop the leaderboard heading into the turn. More startlingly, Jay Wright’s team was completely embarrassed by second-place Georgetown just two weeks ago and there’s a sense around the country that the Wildcats are a good but not great team. Despite a core group of productive and experienced players, Villanova lacks a transcendent player that every top team can rely upon. They’re still poised to make some noise in March, but can they utilize the team concept to beat some of the nation’s elite? Saturday’s rematch against Georgetown allow for a statement to be made. Villanova needs to make one to quiet its dissenters.

Evaluating the Big East

To continue on the theme, the Big East has become a mishmash of disorder after drawing rave non-conference reviews. Potential NCAA Tournament teams like St. John’s, Xavier and Seton Hall have all mixed and matched quality wins with troubling losses. Reviews of the depth of the conference have remained generally positive, but one of the biggest conundrums at the moment is what to make of the league as a whole. Is it Villanova plus a host of above-average teams? Or is it Villanova, one or two more teams like Georgetown and Butler followed by a bunch of mediocrity? From a résumé standpoint, the conference still looks great because it’s members represented extremely well in non-conference play. But it would behoove the league to have the trio of Red Storm, Musketeers and Pirates separate themselves from the bottom tier of DePaul, Marquette and Creighton.

Upset Alert – Kentucky

Will John Calipari Be Smiling This Time Next Week? (AP)

Will John Calipari Be Smiling This Time Next Week? (AP)

This could be the week! Or at least I think it could be. Call me crazy, but I think this could be the week that the Wildcats fall from the ranks of the unbeaten. However… it says here that it won’t be the game drawing all the national media attention that will be the stage for their downfall. ESPN’s College Gameday and the eyes of the college hoops nation will be trained on Gainesville Saturday night when Kentucky visits Florida, but the argument against an unbeaten season for Jon Calipari’s crew has always been that the Wildcats will lose a seemingly innocuous game to a middle-of-the-road SEC team. Could that game and that team be Tuesday night’s home tilt against Georgia? This is the definition of a trap game. The Bulldogs play solid defense, get to the free throw line well, and have enough shot-makers on the squad to spring a surprise. Of course, the weekend match-up with a desperate Florida team is also a tough spot, but either way, I’ll say that the Wildcats drop one of the two.

You might not have realized, but quietly… 

  • The American is a two-team league… and those two teams are Tulsa (9-0) and SMU (9-1). The pair square off on Saturday for conference supremacy.
  • Texas is, uh, not very good. The Longhorns only have a single KenPom top-40 win all season, and are down to a #8 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology. Texas really needs another solid win when it hosts Oklahoma State on Wednesday.
  • Meanwhile, Providence has FOUR KenPom top-25 wins on the year, and sits at 6-3 in the Big East. However, the Friars have a huge upcoming stretch ahead of them. They will travel to Georgetown and Xavier this week followed by home dates with Villanova and Seton Hall next week. Those next four games will probably make or break Providence’s season.

Crunch time for…

  • Louisville – The Cardinals aren’t desperate or anything – far from it, in fact, after that huge comeback win on Saturday against North Carolina – but they face two huge road games this week. Rick Pitino’s team still doesn’t have a road win over a KenPom top-100 team, but it is at Miami tonight and at Virginia on Saturday. Cards fans should expect to get at least one win on this road trip, and hope for two.
  • Cincinnati – Opportunities for big time wins in the AAC aren’t exactly plentiful, but the most clear-cut example of one is presented to the Bearcats this week. A win at SMU on Wednesday would be massive.
  • Iowa – The Hawkeyes are at Michigan on Thursday followed by a home game against Maryland on Sunday. It’s potentially a classic ‘avoid a bad loss, get a quality win’ week for Iowa, which is again slipping perilously toward the bubble.
Henry Bushnell (39 Posts)

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