ATB: The Real Number One, Saint Louis’ Ascendance and What Did Maryland Just Do?…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 20th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Fun, Fun Night Of Hoops. The night began with a top-five match-up of seismic proportions. Indiana-Michigan State didn’t just have conference bragging rights on the line, nor was it just another hard-fought Big Ten game. It was arguably the biggest regular season game in any league this season, and it fully met the wildly attendant expectations. That game, and its crazy finish, will dominate Tuesday night’s headlines, but the schedule was flush with intriguing fixtures. Were there a stat for nightly scheduling intrigue efficiency, Tuesday night – with its stable of appealing match-ups and only 30 total games – would set the bar awfully high.

Your Watercooler Moment. No. 1 Has Arrived, I Think.

Excluding last season's Kentucky win, there's an argument to be made that beating Michigan State on the road is the most important victory of Crean's IU tenure to date (Photo credit: AP Photo).

Excluding last season’s Kentucky win, there’s an argument to be made that beating Michigan State on the road is the most important victory of Crean’s IU tenure to date (Photo credit: AP Photo).

Another grand referendum on the nation’s No. 1 team, one of many in a season defined by near-constant alpha-dog flux, took place in East Lansing on Tuesday night. In this year’s revolving door of number ones, over the past two weeks Indiana had looked as sure a thing on top of the polls as Duke, back when the Blue Devils were smiting elite non-conference foes with Ryan Kelly in the lineup and Mason Plumlee leading the NPOY chase. The Hoosiers were good, and no one was going to question that. Whether they could maintain their grip on the top spot through Tuesday night, where a physical, deep, hard-nosed, trademark Izzo MSU stood on the brink of a major national breakthrough, was the ultimate test of No. 1 worthiness. Winning at Ohio State earlier this month was probably Indiana’s best win at that point in time, but because it came three days after a two-point loss at Illinois, no one could be completely sure exactly how the Hoosiers would handle their next huge road challenge. Now we know. The details of the game – Victor Oladipo’s tireless two-way contributions, Jordan Hulls’ three-point shooting, Cody Zeller standing tall against MSU’s bruising bigs – are just as important as the implications, I’d wager, because not only is Indiana now the clear-cut favorite to win the conference title and claim a number-one seed. It also earned itself the inside track on a highly desired spot at the Lucas Oil Stadium NCAA Tournament regional hosting site in Indianapolis. And for as long and as unstable as that fuzzy No. 1 label has felt all season, for as many weeks and words we’ve spent debating the topic, Tuesday night brought some finality to the matter. I’m willing to go ahead and throw it out there (with the caveat that IU could lose their last game of the season at Michigan): Indiana is the best team in the country.

Tonight’s Quick Hits…

  • Move Over A-10 Newbies. For much of this confusing and utterly mystifying A-10 season, that would seem like a totally unreasonable claim to make. Butler and VCU had taken the league by storm, each with a unique stylistic strength. VCU had its smothering press and turnover-prying defense, whereas Butler had toughness and Rotnei Clarke and — let’s just be honest — a coach with the prime time chops to elicit the very best from his team against bigger, stronger and more talented opposition. Saint Louis has something else. It has the extra emotive urge to give everything and anything on any given night for fallen coach Rick Majerus. Aside from a two-game losing streak in mid-January, the Billikens are unbeaten since Majerus passed away. But Saint Louis has a lot more than an emotional drive to win in Majerus’ honor. The Billikens have held opponents to fewer points per trip (0.90 PPP) in conference play than any other A-10 squad, and scored more than all but one of them. They stomped VCU at home Tuesday night, nearly three weeks removed from delivering the same brutal treatment upon Butler. This team, who in beating the Rams jumped into first place in the conference standings, is just as good as any shiny new toy the A-10 inherited as part of this past summer’s realignment add-on. Read the rest of this entry »
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ATB: A Low-Scoring Battle at the Pete, More Despair for WVU and Payback in the Patriot League…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 19th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Beautiful, Monday Night’s Hoops was Not. The idea of playing Monday night games, in most cases two days removed from a Saturday game, is – for lack of a better word – hard. Teams are exhausted from their weekend exploits, have limited time to prepare for Monday’s opponents and are often stuck under a national spotlight, such as ESPN’s Big Monday, with not as much energy or precision or pregame preparedness as they might like. The quality of basketball can sour. That much was clear in Monday night’s Pittsburgh-Georgetown game; the encore, Kansas State-West Virginia, wasn’t all that great, either. There were a couple of other games to speak of on another nonchalant evening, which should make this recap at least somewhat more interesting than most Monday wrap-ups.

Your Watercooler Moment. Notre Dame Didn’t Lose.

The ability to shake off poor shooting, as Notre Dame evinced at Pittsburgh Monday night, is crucial in March (Photo credit: AP Photo).

The ability to shake off poor shooting, as Notre Dame evinced at Pittsburgh Monday night, is crucial in March (Photo credit: AP Photo).

No team that opens a game missing 18 of its first 19 shots and scoring just three points over the first 13 minutes of play rightfully deserves to come away with a win. Notre Dame began Monday night’s trip to the Peterson Events Center with a clearly discerned offensive hangover from Saturday’s blowout loss at Providence, sparking cynical Twitter commentary calling for assistance from football coach Brian Kelly, inducing a wave of channel-flipping activity and leading some to question whether the Irish were still feeling the effects of that grueling five-overtime win over Louisville nine days ago – all of which dissipated quickly once Notre Dame rattled off a 16-3 run to close out the first half. From then on, the Irish went out and did what few teams have customarily been able to at the Pete during Jamie Dixon’s tenure. They dominated the glass (for all the criticism and incongruities of rebounding margin, Notre Dame’s 36-22 edge says something), dictated a pace-averse style (54.2 possessions) and watched their much-maligned, 14th-best-in-the-Big-East defensive efficiency hold Pittsburgh’s typically hyper-efficient offense to 42 points at just under 0.80 points per trip. It wasn’t the most satisfying offensive performance from either side, but if you’re Mike Brey, it’s hard to not walk away from this game feeling objectively stoked about the Irish’s stingy efforts on the other end. Pittsburgh didn’t shoot it particularly well (the 0-of-8 mark from three won’t help), and the Panthers have been known to lay an offensive egg every now and then (see the Cincinnati loss or Duquesne win), but as a rebound to what was pretty clearly Notre Dame’s worst all-around game of the season at Providence, beating the No. 20 team in the country in its own rowdy building – one efficiency wonks have been doing backflips over ever since November – is not a terrible consolation. 

Monday Night’s Quick Hits…

  • Patriot League Showdown. As an NCAA Tournament measuring stick, Bucknell’s trip to Lehigh Monday night didn’t have much to say. The Bison’s at-large hopes were, for all intents and purposes, dashed before conference action thanks to losses against Penn State, Princeton and Missouri. Even so, Bucknell – who hasn’t really taken advantage of the C.J. McCollum injury-created void atop the league standings – needed this game to pull clear of the Mountain Hawks, who had already beaten Bucknell on the road without McCollum. Any big Bucknell win, the 2012-13 mid-major hoops logic goes, should include a big performance from NBA prospect Mike Muscala. Think again: The Bison got 19 points from guard Bryson Johnson (Muscala finished with 12 points and nine rebounds, well below his season averages), and held Lehigh to just 1-of-15 from beyond the arc to hold on for their biggest win of the season to date. The next time these teams meet could be in the Patriot League Tournament final, with McCollum’s return by then a distinct possibility. Read the rest of this entry »
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ATB: Terps Dump Duke, Cowboys Edge OU in OT and Kentucky Fails First Post-Noel Test…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 18th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The Weekend’s Lede. A Not So Special Weekend. Not every Saturday is a jam-packed day of must-see top-25 matchups and earth-shattering upsets. This season has deluded us otherwise with an immaculate set of weekend slates, so when you get a day like this Saturday, where – with a few exceptions; college basketball is never actually boring – big-time matchups are hard to come by, disappointment is inevitable. This weekend was not as fun as most in 2013, but at this point in the season, as teams labor for resume points and RPI upgrades, most every game is hugely important. A multitude of teams either buttressed or damaged their NCAA hopes, while others remained in neutral. If those general descriptions aren’t enough (and, really, they shouldn’t be) follow along to get the all the gritty details.

Your Watercooler Moment. Terps Talk The Talk.

Must-win is a fuzzy qualifier this time of year. Can any game honestly be termed a “must” when the conference Tournament always providing a final safety net? What if the bubble unexpectedly softens up, and your previously unqualified resume starts trending in the right direction by virtue of other teams’ misfortunes? Those are always possibilities, sure, but you never want to rely on other teams crafting your NCAA Tournament fate. So Maryland took control of its own by picking up its biggest win of the season over No. 2 Duke Saturday, a win it sorely needed (there, I said it) after an uninspiring 11-point home loss to Virginia last week seemed to suck dry the final remnants of its improbable at-large hopes. The Terrapins have been one of the biggest disappointments in the ACC this season. After loudly and persistently clamoring for national poll recognition throughout November and December based on a gaudy 13-1 record that lacked anything resembling a good win, the Terrapins dropped five of their first eight ACC games, including a three-point home defeat to Florida State. Mark Turgeon’s eminently talented team – Dez Wells and Alex Len are surefire pros, and the complementary pieces are credible assets – looked vastly underprepared (or overrated) for the rigors of ACC play, the Terrapins’ Tournament hopes were evaporating and that hot start UM fans eulogized throughout the nonconference season felt like nothing more than a schedule-crafted mirage. With the exception of a home win over NC State, Maryland had basically played its way out of national relevancy. Canning the Blue Devils will help; storming the court is always fun, right? And I’d love to pencil Maryland in for an at-large berth, or at least provide some assurance with a comforting percentage projection. I just can’t, and I won’t, because I don’t know what to expect from this team in its final six conference games. The next four (at Boston College, Clemson, at Georgia Tech, and at Wake Forest) have to be wins. Get through this stretch, and the Terrapins could (could, not will) be inching toward tourney inclusion.

Your Second Watercooler Moment. Big East Movement.

The Golden Eagles are on the rise in the Big East (Photo credit: AP Photo).

The Golden Eagles are on the rise in the Big East (Photo credit: AP Photo).

At the outset of Big East play, it was easy to look at Marquette and Georgetown and see two good but flawed teams. The Golden Eagles run one of the most efficient offenses in the Big East; even after losing Darius Johnson Odom and Jae Crowder, Buzz Williams’ team gets the most out of every possession by leveraging the superb interior precision of Davante Gardner and the intuitive creativity of Junior Cadougan. The only problem? Marquette isn’t nearly as good on the other end of the floor(The Golden Eagles ranked eighth in the Big East in defensive efficiency heading into Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh). The Hoyas are the complete opposite of Marquette: they play top-five efficiency defense, but rank just inside the top-100 in offense. Offense-defense splits are not uncommon – most teams are demonstrably better at scoring or preventing points. Only the elite of the elite can master both. But as we enter the final five or six games of conference competition, the Golden Eagles and Hoyas (along with Syracuse) find themselves on top of one of the most competitive leagues in the country. How exactly did they get there? The most recent set of results shows Marquette handling Pittsburgh at home Saturday and Georgetown delivering another home loss to Cincinnati (its fifth of the season) Friday night, but both have been playing steady if not spectacular hoops for most of the league schedule. Marquette and Georgetown butted heads last week, with the Hoyas’ superior defense besting Marquette’s superior offense. Which team reaches a higher perch on the Big East pecking order by season’s end, I don’t know. Based on last week’s outcome and empirical results from over the weekend, I’ll cast my lot with Georgetown and that suffocating defense.

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ATB: Two Pac-12 Heavyweights Go Down, Zags Pass Big Test and Minnesota Nips Wisconsin…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 15th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. West Coast Stand Up. The West Coast staged the best of Thursday night’s games. For those who enjoy the spoils of the Pacific Time Zone, that’s entirely positive. Nighttime hoops is a normal occurrence. West coast denizens are exposed to these teams and players as part of their usual television viewing habits. And for the diehard fans out there living on central and eastern time, staying up a few extra hours to either a) watch or b) write about college basketball isn’t the end of the world. The masses aren’t so willing, by and large, which means many of the nation’s best conferences and leagues are something like foreign entities. Getting caught up by reading, watching highlights or studying these teams isn’t difficult, but the national audience is doubtless downsized for these West Coast-heavy nights. This isn’t a personal problem – I’m speaking in generalities. I have no qualms eschewing sleep for the best of the west, which is nice, because otherwise you’d be left without a tidy nightly recap of all that late-night cant-miss hardwood drama.

Your Watercooler Moment. Hey Now, Pac-12.

A late-push from the Golden Bears could shake up the Pac 12 race (Photo credit: AP Photo).

A late-push from the Golden Bears could shake up the Pac-12 race (Photo credit: AP Photo).

I could spill boundless quantities of digital ink on the frustrating development of the UCLA Bruins – the inconsistency of Ben Howland’s team, the perplexing reality of his team playing better defense (0.95 points per-possession in conference play) than offense (1.00). Or I could rip the Arizona Wildcats, a team I staunchly defended against early-season claims of specious success and smoke-and-mirrors late-game fortune. I’ll stay off both subjects, because on Thursday night the floor belonged to Cal and Colorado. Huge bubble-shifting opportunities were on offer for both clubs – Cal getting UCLA at home and Colorado welcoming Arizona – and neither failed to pull through. I wouldn’t call this a revenge game for the Buffaloes (Arizona players didn’t waive off Sabatino Chen’s should-be game winner; referees did), but Tad Boyle’s club played with purpose and grit throughout, to the point where last-possession bank-shot heaves were completely beside the point. Cal’s win was similarly uninteresting, scoreline-wise, and it gave it another big Pac-12 win to go alongside recent victories over Arizona and Oregon. The Bears need every sliver of profile-boosting juice they can get; they missed on pretty much every big opportunity in the non-conference, and hadn’t beaten anyone of note before the February 2 win over the Ducks. Beating UCLA is another nice chip, and Mike Montgomery’s team is looking more and more like an at-large worthy group. Colorado’s win is icing on an already solid portfolio – but, boy, must it feel nice to get even with the Wildcats, even if that loss had as much to do with a blown lead and faulty officiating as it did Arizona itself. Anyway, the Pac-12, somewhat insanely (remember last year?), has some real, actual depth: Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, Cal, Stanford (eh), Arizona State (eh) and Colorado are all at least relevant talking points in the NCAA Tourney discussion.

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ATB: Spartans Soar, Noel’s Future In Doubt and Indiana State’s Inconsistency…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 13th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. BIG and SEC Are Main Attractions. Two of the so called power conferences assumed the national spotlight Tuesday night. One of those leagues, the SEC, resides at the bottom of the power six food chain. The other is the Big Ten, which has produced some of the most entertaining and hotly-contested hoops these eyes have seen in years. The intra-league disparity could not have been greater, but the chasm in conference quality is where the differences end, at least as far Tuesday night’s schedule goes – for both leagues showcased two pre-eminent teams on big stages, with each game carrying conference title and NCAA Tournament implications. Those match-ups, plus a couple of other sneaky-good fixtures, filled your Tuesday college basketball quota.

Your Watercooler Moment. MSU Bullies Its Way Into First Place.

It was an eye-opening performance from Michigan State Tuesday night in East Lansing (Photo credit: Getty Images).

It was an eye-opening performance from Michigan State Tuesday night in East Lansing (Photo credit: Getty Images).

By the time Michigan and Michigan State finished the first top-10 rendition of their heated rivalry, only one team looked like it merited that elite numerical tag. The Spartans shredded Michigan at the Breslin Center with suffocating defense, balanced offense (four Spartans finished in double figures), and a resounding reminder about the state of Michigan’s recent basketball hierarchy. MSU has been the better program over the last decade-plus, was better Tuesday night, and has all the pieces to be better down the stretch in conference play. The win pushes it into first place in a clustered B1G top tier, with Indiana sitting a half game back and Wisconsin one and a half back. The Wolverines have some major catch-up work to do, and they do get both the Spartans and Hoosiers at the Crisler Center in March, but it’s not crazy to suggest – and I’ll probably (almost certainly) regret typing this, what with the shifting paradigms about who’s who in the Big Ten this season – that Michigan is just a bit undercooked for this brutal league race. There’s no crime in losing to good teams on the road – especially not Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin and MSU, all fearsome outfits in their own right. It’s just that Michigan was brimming with national championship potential not so long ago, and for as fuzzy and baseless as this may seem, I just can’t get behind projecting a team that loses by 30 in a critical intrastate rivalry game to cut down the nets in April. This being the Big Ten, I reserve the right to pivot on that hard line later this season. On Tuesday, Michigan State inherited Big Ten frontrunner status. Next week, when the Spartans host Indiana, who knows what happens.

Tonight’s Quick Hits. 

  • Florida’s Fine. I address the biggest takeaway from Tuesday night’s Florida-UK tilt below. Nerlens Noel’s knee injury, needless to say, is disconcerting. If you can decompress and divorce that sad topic from the game itself, hear me out on this Gator-focused blurb. It was easy to panic and scrutinize and work up a lather over Florida’s convincing loss at Arkansas last week. The Gators had dismantled practically everything their schedule had to offer leading up to it, and Arkansas reciprocated that treatment by dominating Florida from the tip. But when you remove the inconsequential subjective noise and dig up exactly why the Gators fell into such a big hole – they didn’t make shots in the first half – what you get is a team that walked into a rabid Bud Walton Arena, stuffed to the gills with a geeked-up fan base, and a Razorbacks team that played some of its best basketball of the season. Questioning Florida’s rebound credentials – its SEC title control and NCAA Tournament seed – is petty and myopic. As of this writing, Florida tops Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ranks, counts one of the most balanced and versatile roster constructs to its name, and has racked up a stable of quality wins so far (both in and out of league play). The Gators beat Kentucky Tuesday, and that’s a nice win. It is not definitive proof that Florida has finally regained its stride after that “questionable” Arkansas loss. The Gators are one of the three or four best teams in the country. One road setback didn’t change that. Read the rest of this entry »
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ATB: The Usual Kansas, Georgetown Grinds Out Marquette and The Game That Shall Not Be Played…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 12th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.  

Tonight’s Lede. Hey, Kansas. Of Kansas’ three most recent losses, the only one that made Monday night’s home match-up with Kansas State feel even somewhat dubious was the inexplicable TCU slip-up. The other two are concerning, but only by Kansas fans’ warped standards – a product of Bill Self’s remarkable string of excellence in Lawrence. Oklahoma State is a solid all-around team, with a set of explosive scorers and one of the best and most versatile point guards in the country making everything work. Oklahoma is brutally physical, extremely well-coached, and an absolute bear to play on the road. Those losses aren’t bad, per se, as much as they are out of character for a Kansas team most believed had another conference title sealed up at the turn of the New Year. Kansas is not the unparalleled Big 12 demigod it was billed to be, but that’s OK. It doesn’t have to be. Kansas can and probably will wind up winning the Big 12, again. This team has warts, and things can get ugly on the offensive end every now and then, but when these Jayhawks get going in their own building, few teams have what it takes to keep up. Monday night was one of those nights.

Your Watercooler Moment. Kansas Ends the Speculation.

A blowout win over Kansas State ought to ease concerns about Kansas' after a three-game losing streak (Photo credit: Getty Images).

A blowout win over Kansas State ought to ease concerns about Kansas’ after a three-game losing streak (Photo credit: Getty Images).

Because Kansas has been so consistently dominant under Self, and because this Jayhawks team looked nigh-unstoppable for much of this season, questions about this team’s long-term health were a major discussion point heading into Monday night’s contest with intrastate rival Kansas State. Not only did the Wildcats have the upper hand in the latest AP Poll, they were also riding the momentum of a four-game winning streak along with the added confidence of a reeling KU team seeking to end a three-game skid. The way both of these teams were headed – Kansas State rising higher and higher, with Kansas sinking into a mid-season rut – Monday night felt like one of the only times during Self’s tenure when picking against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse didn’t sound like such a horrible idea. Forty minutes and 30 Ben McLemore points later, whatever suspicions arose in the past week about Kansas’ ability to legitimately contend for a Big 12 and national championship were effectively silenced. The Jayhawks punked their basketball step-brother; Kansas State was rarely even competitive from the opening tip. Kansas bossed the game from start to finish, just the way we saw it impose itself during the first few months of the season. It was the kind of game Kansas so often conducts in its own building: dominant, efficient, smothering, deafening. On Monday night, Kansas played like Kansas, Allen Fieldhouse was Allen Fieldhouse, and the natural order of things seemed to fall back into place. Concerns about the Kansas offense, especially point guard Elijah Johnson, won’t go away, and the Jayhawks might well take a few losses the rest of the season, but for 40 minutes Bill Self’s team looked like the conference juggernaut we’re so accustomed to seeing under his tutelage. It looked like a team incapable of going on a three-game losing streak.

Tonight’s Quick Hits….

  • Offense vs. Defense in DC. It’s not every day you get drastic strength-on-strength match-ups with teams from the same conference. Leagues typically breed a certain style of play or tactical focus. The Big Ten, for example, is a physical, bruising conference known for its toughness, defensive discipline and pace-averse offense. Not every league can be so easily defined – some conferences feature a wide spectrum of different styles and strategic emphases. Georgetown and Marquette brought the polar opposite ends of the offense-defense balance into their Big Monday night game, and when a great offense (Marquette owns the nation’s 17th best O, per KenPom) meets an even better defense (The Hoyas are 10th in defensive efficiency), the outcome is simple and predictable. Georgetown held Marquette to 55 points, leaned on Otto Porter Jr. for another All American-worthy performance (21 points, seven rebounds), and finished the night with Big East win number eight, its sixth straight.
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ATB: Illini Come Up Huge, Wolters Drops 53 Points, and Missouri’s Plight…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 8th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Stay Away From Number One. My best advice for teams trying to avoid losses: stay out of the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll. Every team should take the floor on a given night with that underlying objective – winning games is a generally good thing, I’d wager – which makes that logic a really interesting counterfactual. The only way to reach the top is by winning games, but if every team to inherit No. 1 dating back to January 7 (when Duke opened up the week at No. 1 for the fourth consecutive week) has gone on to surrender the ranking in the seven days that followed, it begs the question: are teams better off avoiding the coveted weekly AP crown? Of course not. That preamble was, in essence, a roundabout way to introduce you to the latest slain No. 1. On Monday, upon the AP poll’s customary afternoon release, it will be official – especially if Indiana falls at Ohio State Sunday. The Hoosiers were the main storyline from Thursday night, but they weren’t the only one.

Your Watercooler Moment. A Win Illinois Needed.

There is only one way to go about discussing Illinois’ win over No. 1 Indiana Thursday night. It is a season-defining moment. The Illini were fading fast in Big Ten play, descending into NIT territory far quicker than anyone could have imagined after an excellent nonconference season, but as we’ve seen time and again this time of year, one win can change everything. This win – which saw Illinois rip off a 13-2 run with under four minutes remaining after being down by double digits for most of the second half – changes the conversation around Illinois. It brings renewed optimism to a conference season that, up until Thursday night, had done more harm than good to the Illini’s Tournament chances. The road ahead doesn’t get any easier, and Illinois will need to improve its still-lacking 3-7 league record. But with a win of this magnitude in your back pocket, Illinois’ view on the rest of the season changes considerably. The final eight regular season games and Big Ten Tournament are no longer about hunting upset wins. The Illini got that Thursday night. From here on out, John Groce’s team needs to handle business against equal-to-inferior competition (Purdue, at Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, at Iowa), watch the bubble soften up around them and sit back as its solid computer figures and stable of marquee wins carry them over the finish line. Those above games aren’t guarantees – such games don’t exist in this year’s Big Ten. But Illinois is more than capable of handling all of them. Few wins will mean more on Selection Sunday than this one; Illinois is back in the discussion, at the very least, and depending on how the at-large picture shakes out over the next month, the Illini could look back to Thursday as the night they sealed their Tournament fate.

Your quick Hits…

  • Wolters Goes For 53. Few mid-to-low major players in today’s college game hold as much national appeal as Wolters. Not to the casual post-Superbowl Hoops crowd; rather, he is something of a college hoops nerd’s cult fascination, for reasons understandable and not. On Thursday night, he did something memorable. Something that will stick with Wolters for the rest of his basketball-playing career. He scored a Division-I season-high 53 points. He converted nine three point shots, and 17 total field goals. He expanded the Wolters legend into a tangible and largely appreciable concept for college hoops fans previously unaware of his brilliance. Wolters is an excellent basketball player, but no one – not even the most ardent Wolters’ supporters – saw this coming.

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ATB: The Biggest Upset of the Season, Oklahoma State Stays Hot and Cincy Slips at Providence…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 7th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. That Happened. A handful of interesting conference matchups littered Wednesday night’s slate. Upset potential was thick. NCAA Tournament at-large considerations were on the line. And like most college basketball games in 2012-13, there was a healthy heaping of unexpected outcomes – from Creighton’s blowout loss at Indiana State to UConn’s loss to Rutgers to…well, I’ll let you find out for yourself. After all, revealing everything in the lede would sort of defeat the purpose of writing this nightly column. It was a super-packed Wednesday night in February; by now, you well know what to expect. On second thought, one loss in particular may cause you to reconsider the fundamental basis of what you’ve come to “expect” about college basketball.

Your Watercooler Moment. Kansas Lost to TCU……No, Really.

Go back and check out who TCU has beaten this season. Putting aside the obvious for a second, who is the Horned Frogs best win to date? UAB? Rice? That question was answered in Fort Worth Wednesday night, in what arguably amounts to the biggest upset of the college hoops season. My take on TCU up until tonight was harsh, maybe unfairly, but not entirely inaccurately. I fully believed the Horned Frogs were the worst team from a Power Six league. Trent Johnson’s team was 9-12 coming in, with absolutely zero quality victories on its plate, an 0-8 Big 12 record, a home loss to Texas Tech, and a host of other ugly data points that makes Wednesday night’s takedown of Kansas all the more miraculous. Kansas hadn’t been playing its best basketball of late, and Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma State exposed a few unknown warts, but to think the Jayhawks couldn’t overcome TCU on sheer talent alone, or that Ben McLemore couldn’t lead his team back by playing Kobe-like “heroball,” or that the seniors – Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson, Jeff Withey, Kevin Young – couldn’t lift the Jayhawks out of a terrible one-game funk, just to save the ignominy of a horrible road loss? I have to admit, I didn’t see this coming. Losing on the road in conference play is nothing new – even the most hardened veteran groups get a rude wakeup call every now and then. When it happens while on the road at arguably the worst team in high major college hoops, with a sterile (reportedly split crowd) atmosphere and an opponent so far below your capability you can practically sleepwalk your way to a victory, the blame falls on Kansas, and nothing else. It’s still too early to push the panic button. The Jayhawks can and almost certainly will recover to secure a top-two tourney seed. In the meantime, KU has some serious self-introspection to do, and a Saturday road game at Oklahoma, followed by a home date with Kansas State, are prime opportunities to leave this ugly stain in the rearview.

Also Worth Chatting About. Creighton Not What We Thought.

Another conference loss prompts more skepticism about Creighton's chances of making a deep March run (Photo credit: AP Photo).

Another conference loss prompts more skepticism about Creighton’s chances of making a deep March run (Photo credit: AP Photo).

I spent a good part of the nonconference and early conference seasons screaming from the mountaintops about how good Creighton is – how the Bluejays, with NPOY candidate Doug McDermott leading the troops and a renewed commitment to defense, would walk through a strong but unworthy MVC. The Bluejays had it all; not only McDermott, but rebounding force Greg Echenique, shrewd assist specialist Grant Gibbs and three-point gunner Ethan Wragge. My presumptions felt pretty reasonable at the time. But for a late November home loss to Boise State, Creighton had run through its non-league schedule without breaking a sweat, and made it all the way up to No. 12 in the AP Poll. Fast forward to Wednesday night, where the Bluejays took their third conference loss on the road at Indiana State.

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ATB: Gators Swamped at Arkansas, Michigan Edges OSU and Wichita in a Freefall…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 6th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Even The Mighty Fall On The Road. Every so often, we make logical assumptions about a team’s upcoming schedule. We assume – based on opponent strength, home/road splits and a handful of other variables – that team A will win or lose, and usually, we feel pretty good about it after the fact. There are times when those assumptions make us look pretty silly. Tuesday night, when AP Poll No. 2 and SEC punisher Florida was drilled at Arkansas, was one of those times. It is never wise to jump ahead two or even a single game in the midst of conference play – no matter how lopsided the match-up, and Florida-Arkansas is the best recent example why.

Your Watercooler Moment. Florida just got Florida’d.

Even teams as dominant as Florida have to take heed of tricky road games (Photo credit: AP Photo).

Even teams as dominant as Florida have to take heed of tricky road games (Photo credit: AP Photo).

What Florida was doing in SEC play before Tuesday night’s blowout loss at Arkansas wasn’t just impressive in the context of this season. The Gators were setting all-time marks for victory margin, broaching new levels of per-possession dominance and generating serious discussion, rightly or wrongly, whether they could in fact beat one of the most dreadful teams in the NBA. If Florida can’t beat a mediocre team in a downtrodden league, it certainly can’t beat an NBA team. But the larger point here is not about untenable cross-sport comparisons. It’s about tweaking the prevailing belief about Florida’s presumed invincibility in league play. Billy Donovan’s team was embarking on one of the most impressive conference seasons in recent memory, steamrolling through any team it encountered with minimal fuss and showing major improvements throughout. From Patric Young’s improved rebounding and offensive contributions to Scottie Wilbekin’s lockdown defense, this team had the looks of a real national championship challenger. And if we’re being completely honest, the Gators are still all of that – it’s just stunning, really, to not only see them stumble, but stumble in such decisive fashion. The Razorbacks jumped all over the Gators early, at one point opening up a 23-point lead, and never losing a firm grip from then on. You would have expected a team so seasoned on both ends of the court to take that initial punch, absorb the damage and settle down for a big second half. The Gators closed the gap to 11 but never matched Arkansas’ intensity on both ends. I’m not inclined to peg Florida for some massive decline in SEC play, or even expect the Gators to lose many games from here on out. Most teams lose in conference play; we just thought Florida – and rightly so, because the evidence was compelling – was formidable enough to make it through unscathed.

Also Worth Chatting About.Wolverines Begin Four-Game Gauntlet.

After losing at Indiana, Michigan bounced back at home with a huge win (photo credit: AP Photo).

After losing at Indiana, Michigan bounced back at home with a huge win (photo credit: AP Photo).

I haven’t seen a four-game stretch as brutal as the one the Wolverines are currently rolling through – the one that had them battling to the final possession in overtime against Ohio State just three days after losing at No. 1 Indiana. Michigan snagged the two-point win it needed, but it didn’t come as easy as some might have expected. Aaron Craft hounded Trey Burke for 40 minutes, LaQuinton Ross gave the Buckeyes a real lift off the bench with 16 points, and Michigan needed every last ounce of effort to scrape out a two-point victory despite shooting 58 percent from beyond the arc. The Buckeyes play the best defense in the Big Ten (0.90 points per possession), and as we saw Tuesday night, the offense is coming along. If Ross, Lenzelle Smith Jr. or Sam Thompson can develop into a reliable second scorer – or at least produce like a reliable No. 2 guy in the aggregate – alongside DeShaun Thomas, the Buckeyes are something like a threat to make a dark horse run at the Big Ten title. They delivered one of the better performances all season against one of the best teams in the country; losing is no knock on the Buckeyes’ progress to date. For Michigan, beating OSU was just as much a singular triumph as it was a tune-up fixture: Within the next week, John Beilein’s group faces a brutal Wisconsin-Michigan State road double.

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ATB: Carrier Dome Brings Orange Comfort, Iowa State Climbs and What’s Happening to Old Dominion?

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 5th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Mondays Are Slow. If Friday is the worst weeknight for quality college basketball games, Monday isn’t far behind. You have your two ESPN Big Monday match-ups, and those are typically fun, but beyond that, the schedule is as dry as can be. There were a few notable exceptions tonight. Seton Hall-Pittsburgh was entertaining. Oklahoma State-Iowa State was a promising commentary on the Cyclones’ future. Grambling State lost… again! I’m gasping for air here. We’re better off saving the prelude and jumping into the night’s action.

Your Watercooler Moment. Offense Coming Along For Syracuse.

Signs of Improvement on offense were visible in Syracuse's win (Photo credit: AP Photo).

Signs of Improvement on offense were visible in Syracuse’s win (Photo credit: AP Photo).

Snapping an offensive downturn, especially when that downturn is at least partially thanks to the ineligibility of key reserve shooter James Southerland, is not the easiest thing to accomplish in the midst of conference play. Offensive problems are intrinsically harmful; if you can’t score, then by and large you can’t win games. And those intrinsic problems may still exist for Syracuse after Monday’s win over Notre Dame at the Carrier Dome. We just don’t know, because for as good as the Orange looked in shooting 48.9 percent from the field, and as effective as C.J. Fair (18 points) and Michael Carter-Willliams (eight assists, one turnover) can be even without Southerland around to spread the floor, the fact of the matter is Syracuse just played a team that’s surrendered an average of 1.07 points per possession this season. That mark leaves Notre Dame tied with Seton Hall for the Big East’s worst defense (before Ken Pomeroy’s rankings adjusted for Monday night’s games). That doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of positives to take away from the win. The Orange held Notre Dame to 35 percent from the field, and the Big East’s most accurate three-point shooting team to 6-of-20 from beyond the arc; Rakeem Christmas chipped in 12 points and blocked four shots on the other end; Jerami Grant (14 points on 6-of-8 shooting) continues to make a case for next year’s MCW breakout candidate. After losing two straight road games, it has to feel good to return to one of the nation’s most unassailable home venues. The Orange’s offensive questions won’t go away, not quite yet. First, they have to prove they can beat a capable defensive squad (that Louisville win was nice, but it came before Syracuse put up 57 and 55 points, respectively, against Cincinnati and Pitt), preferably on the road.

Tonight’s Quick Hits…

  • Big 12 Home Teams Stay Strong. Of the two winning teams Monday night from the Big 12, only one (Iowa State) is actually worth talking about. West Virginia held on against Texas at home, in a game I didn’t personally watch but can only imagine was one of the most ugliest conference games we’ll have all season. On to more important matters: Iowa State is slowly but surely creeping up the Big 12 ladder. Monday night’s win over Oklahoma might not sound like much, but it did push Fred Hoiberg’s team into third place in the league standings, and the Cyclones have a huge chance to ascend further when they travel to Kansas State Saturday. Iowa State has some nice wins in the run of conference play – KSU, Baylor, pushing Kansas to overtime (even if it was a loss, it is nonetheless worth mentioning) and OU. Winning in the Little Apple would top them all. Read the rest of this entry »
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ATB: The Original No. 1 Returns, Phog Allen Defiled and More Mountain West Craziness…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 4th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The Weekend’s Lede. One More Month. Passage into February is a temporal marker for college basketball’s great postseason. Talks of preparing for “next month” are fair game now. Bubble discussion will rage on a daily basis. Each win will be scrutinized not just by the box score, but for its RPI and strength of schedule effects. The next monthly calendar flipping will bring even more excitement, but as the large masses who casually check in on the sport after the Super Bowl conveniently forget, the race to the dance can be just as tantalizing as the dance itself. From here on out, the competition will be fierce, the pressure will mount, and each and every day will bring us closer to our final destination: the NCAA Tournament. With another weekend in the books, time to revisit the first February action of this college hoops season.

Your Watercooler Moment. Another Slow Start Dooms Michigan.

A poor start hurt Michigan's chances Saturday in Bloomington (Photo credit: Getty Images).

A poor start hurt Michigan’s chances Saturday in Bloomington (Photo credit: Getty Images).

Everybody loses games. What separates the great from the merely good, is the ability to learn from those losses, eliminate the bad tendencies, keep the good ones and readjust your memory bank. Michigan knows the perils of getting out to a slow start on the road in Big Ten play. In its lone loss of the season prior to Saturday’s eight-point defeat in Bloomington, the Wolverines allowed Ohio State to storm out to a 16-3 lead in Columbus. Michigan clawed back to make a real game of it, but in the end, Ohio State held on. The Wolverines’ early sluggishness put them in too large a hole to climb out of. Michigan should have come away from that loss with a stern appreciation for how to handle the opening minutes of high-level conference road games. Against Indiana, managing the early possessions without letting things get out of hand was the foremost hurdle to knocking off the No. 3 team in the country in its own super-packed, deafening, red-and-white filled building. Michigan didn’t – the Wolverines allowed the Hoosiers to bust open a 28-13 advantage by the 10-minute mark in the first half, ignite a delirious Hoosiers crowd and force the Wolverines into a massive uphill climb from that point onward. Michigan responded with excellent point guard play from Trey Burke and solid bench production from freshman big man Mitch McGary, but much like the Ohio State game, the Wolverines couldn’t quite make it all the way back.

Other factors – Victor Oladipo’s energetic defense, Cody Zeller’s easy looks in the post, the natural benefits of playing in one of the nation’s fiercest home gyms, Michigan’s numerous chances to win the game later on – need to be considered before pinning this loss entirely on Michigan’s slow beginning. And I don’t doubt John Beilein counseled his team on the dangers of a slow start at a hostile hoops fortress like Assembly Hall. But it just felt like Michigan came out with a tentative, almost rattled mindset – that once Indiana started hitting shots, the Wolverines had no power to settle the game down, collect themselves and dictate the flow on their terms. The comeback effort was strong, again, but it doesn’t disabuse the fact that Michigan played into the Hoosiers’ home-crafted momentum advantage, and had a much, much better shot at leaving with a W if not for that poor opening stretch. An eight-point loss at Indiana is not the end of the world; Michigan will rebound, and when these teams meet again on March 10, you can expect another high-paced, high-intensity, high-stakes battle. 

Also Worth Chatting About. Um, Kansas?

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ATB: Butler Stumbles, Arizona Underwhelms and Illinois Shows Flashes…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 1st, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Top 10 Teams Hit The Road. Two top 10 teams hit the road Thursday night with disconcerting challenges on tap. One team, playing and succeeding beyond expectations in its first year in a new league, ran into a defensive death trap it couldn’t overcome. The other did what its been doing all season – what has caused many to doubt its merits as a real national or (even conference) favorite. If you haven’t figured it out by now, the first team is Butler. The second is Arizona. On a night packed with boring match-ups, the above two – Butler at Saint Louis and Arizona at Washington – stood out. The Big Ten also gave us something to talk about, even if the end result fell in line with the most basic team assumptions about the nation’s best conference. Thursday was a little light on intrigue, but don’t fret, a promising weekend awaits. 

Your Watercooler Moment. Encouraging Signs From Illinois In East Lansing.

Another conference loss wont lift the spirits of Illini fans, but Illinois flashed the three-point shooting that made it one of the most dangerous teams in the country in the nonconference (Photo credit: USA Today Sports Photo).

Another conference loss wont lift the spirits of Illini fans, but Illinois flashed the three-point shooting that made it one of the most dangerous teams in the country in the nonconference (Photo credit: USA Today Sports Photo).

They weren’t going to stay cold forever. We had plenty of evidence suggesting otherwise. The Illini built a reputation in the non-conference season on three-point shooting. John Groce’s team not only shot a bunch of threes, for a good two-month stretch it also sank a high percentage of those long-range shots. Illinois stormed through the Maui Invitational, picking up a blowout win over Butler in the process, then barraged Gonzaga in the Kennel with – what else? – 11 threes and 35 points from Brandon Paul in an 11-point win. At the time, Illini fans were rightfully thrilled about their newfound offensive explosion and about Groce’s ability to unlock the upper reaches of his team’s offensive parts in just his first year on campus. Illinois was winning, times were good in Champaign, but all the while the Illini’s hot start was taken with a token of skepticism. Devoting so many possessions and shot attempts to three-pointers is fraught with risk, and once the conference season arrived, Illinois was swiftly introduced to the repercussions of that strategy by losing five of its first seven Big Ten games. Entering Thursday night, the Illini had posted the Big Ten’s worst three-point field goal percentage in conference play (24.5%). A little bit of three-point fall-off was a realistic expectation, what with all the rigorous defenses throughout the Big Ten. But 24 percent? The worst mark in the conference? Something had to give.

The Illini lost their sixth conference game at Michigan State Thursday night, but unlike most of its other league losses – the majority of which were downright ugly – Illinois had a brief re-encounter with its nationally-relevant self of 2012.  The Illini stroked five three-pointers in the first half and committed just one turnover to stake a 10-point lead at the break, kept it close throughout the second half thanks in part to Tracy Abrams’ three-point shooting, and hung around long enough to very nearly spring one of the most surprising upsets of any team in any league. Keith Appling’s season breakout – 24 points, eight rebounds, seven assists – stemmed the tide in the waning moments, and the Spartans, a legitimate Big Ten contender, held on at home. Taken together, despite leaving the Breslin Center with another conference L, John Groce and his staff can’t walk away with any real complaints. To the absolute contrary, he should be measurably encouraged. A hot-shooting Illini team is a dangerous one. The Illini may never recapture their lights-out form of November and December, but anything close would be good enough to turn around the Illini’s thus-far ugly league season.

Also Worth Chatting About. For Arizona, Winning Isn’t Enough.

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