Otskey’s Observations: Episode IV

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on December 4th, 2013

Over the last 10 days I have been lucky enough to see multiple national contenders in person, specifically Arizona, Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky. Of those four teams, Arizona impressed me the most. While T.J. McConnell certainly adds another dimension to Sean Miller’s offense as a true point guard (something they sorely missed last year), the most convincing part of the Wildcats’ performance against Duke was their defense. That is the kind of effort that will enable Arizona to get to the point where it is playing championship-level basketball. Arizona still needs to find a consistent shooter (Nick Johnson or Gabe York could be that guy), but I really like its potential. As for Duke, I am actually optimistic that it will turn its defensive problems around (the Michigan win was a great start in that regard), but I am not sure the Blue Devils can get to the level needed to win a national championship. I really liked what I saw out of Michigan State when I saw it play against Oklahoma. Keith Appling led the way for the Spartans and I just love the blend of talent and experience on this roster. Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine seemed primed to take another step forward while Tom Izzo has three All-America candidates in Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne leading the team in scoring. One area of concern for Michigan State is its offensive rebounding, which has been uncharacteristically poor in the early-going. It’s something to keep an eye on, but remember, Izzo’s teams always get better as the season goes along. This one shouldn’t be any different. Of the four teams, Kentucky has the most room for growth. What I saw from Willie Cauley-Stein on Sunday night against Providence was something that makes the Wildcats very scary going forward. UK has NBA length up front and the talent to dominate inside the arc on both ends of the floor. Kentucky’s defense is not at an elite level just yet but this game provided us with a glimpse of what it can be. Mid- to long-range jump shooting is not a strength of this team but as long as it controls the paint and limits turnovers, John Calipari will have even more options to turn to.

Nick Johnson's Arizona team impressed in its win over Duke.

Nick Johnson and Arizona impressed in its win over Duke.

After taking the Battle 4 Atlantis title, Villanova rightly earned a spot in this week’s Top 25. The Wildcats have been the most impressive team in the Big East to date, a conference that has struggled as a whole out of the gate. While I did slot the Wildcats in my rankings at No. 19, I’m not ready to fully buy in just yet. I love this team’s toughness and chemistry from what I saw in Atlantis but there are some clear limitations that I have noticed, even in its wins. The turnover problems that plagued this team all of last season are still there, albeit not to the same degree. Turnovers absolutely kill offensive efficiency and Villanova simply cannot afford it on a continuing basis against better teams. Another red flag is their three-point shooting, currently at 31.4 percent. For a team that relies heavily on triples (44.7 percent of field goals attempted), that can lead to a lot of hit-or-miss games. The old saying of living and dying by the three certainly applies to Villanova, which was on the good side of that equation in Atlantis. I would like to see JayVaughn Pinkston become a better presence on the low blocks, something that would immediately open up Villanova’s offense and make it more versatile. Jay Wright’s squad is clearly a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it’s not like it lacks talent. The Wildcats have put themselves on the map but I need to see more of this team before I jump on board. A stern non-conference test at Syracuse (how weird is that to say regarding these old Big East rivals?) will give the Wildcats a great test. From the looks of it, it’ll be bombs away from three-point land.

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Otskey’s Observations: Episode III

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on November 27th, 2013

While looking through the most recent Pomeroy ratings this morning, I was intrigued when I saw Pittsburgh at No. 2. The Panthers, who are 6-0 after thrashing Stanford in Brooklyn last night, have looked great so far in the young season but have not played anyone of note aside from the Cardinal. Pitt has won every game by at least 19 points but it has come against a putrid schedule. This has become the norm for head coach Jamie Dixon over the years and his team will not play another quality opponent until it meets Cincinnati in New York on December 17. While the Pomeroy ratings are a nice gauge of where teams are relative to each other, they are not the be-all and end-all. Pitt’s No. 2 ranking is no doubt inflated, but there are reasons for optimism.In the past, the best Pitt teams have been those that defend well (specifically inside the arc) and dominate the offensive glass. So far this year, Pitt is doing those things at a very high level. Some of that perception is inflated by the weak schedule but this already appears to be a better team than the one that was a #8 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament. So long as senior Lamar Patterson and junior Talib Zanna keep playing at a high level, Pittsburgh will be in the mix as one of the better teams in the ACC.

Pittsburgh scheduled weak again but has looked great in the early going. (Photo: pittsburghpanthers.com)

Pittsburgh scheduled poorly again but has looked great in the early going. (Photo: pittsburghpanthers.com)

Perhaps no team has been more impressive in the first few weeks of the season than Massachusetts. Now in his sixth year at the helm, Derek Kellogg finally has it going in Amherst. The program achieved its first AP top 25 ranking in 15 years this past Monday thanks to a 6-0 start. The Minutemen just won the Charleston Classic and have built a very impressive resume along the way. Five of UMass’ six wins have come against teams in the top 100 of the Pomeroy ratings and four of those have been away from the Mullins Center. This team is no fluke. Kellogg has them playing at a high-flying pace and the roster is as talented as ever, including go-to guys Chaz Williams and Cady Lalanne. Williams is a fantastic senior point guard who can dazzle you on any given night while Lalanne has been a beast in the low post. Lalanne’s offensive rebounding percentage ranks eighth in the nation among individuals and he has averaged a double-double over the first six games. UMass’ schedule does not let up with quality games against BYU, Ohio, Florida State and Providence still to play before Atlantic 10 battles begin. Their resume is already impressive but the Minutemen have a terrific opportunity to build perhaps the best non-conference resume in the nation over the next few weeks.

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Otskey’s Observations: Episode II

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on November 20th, 2013

Is there anyone out there who still thinks Marcus Smart made a poor decision in returning to Oklahoma State for his sophomore season? Smart is the star player on a team capable of making the Final Four and showed last night that he’s taking his commitment to improve all aspects of his game seriously. Remember, Smart was just a 40 percent shooter overall last season and an anemic 29 percent from three-point land. His talent is obvious but fine-tuning those skills are imperative if he wants to be successful at the next level of basketball. Consider last night’s 39-point performance against an overwhelmed Memphis squad a terrific start. Smart and his Cowboys blitzed the Tigers from the opening tip while the OSU guard enjoyed perhaps the hottest 10-minute stretch of basketball I have ever seen. Smart still has to prove he can hit jumpers with regularity and work on making better decisions, but he made significant progress last night, despite some ill-advised, quick shots and a couple of poor passes. Don’t forget about him: College basketball is not just all about Wiggins, Parker and Randle.

Marcus Smart was terrific against Memphis last night.  (AP Photo).

Marcus Smart was terrific against Memphis last night. (AP Photo).

It was interesting to note that John Beilein benched freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. down the stretch of Michigan’s 77-70 loss at Iowa State on Sunday. Instead, Beilein went with sophomore Spike Albrecht at the point as the Cyclones managed to pull away and pick up a big win. Beilein is a highly-regarded coach but this was a questionable decision. In a November game in a tough environment, I’d prefer to see the freshman in there to get that experience, good or bad. Nobody is going to be Trey Burke so what’s the harm of seeing what your young point man can do in a pressure spot? Yes, Albrecht is still young too but Walton Jr. seems like the point guard of the future for the Wolverines. I don’t think this decision cost Michigan the game but it was something I noticed immediately. Beilein should have let it ride with his promising freshman in that situation.

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Otskey’s Observations: Episode I

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on November 13th, 2013

Each week RTC national columnist Brian Otskey (@botskey) will evaluate the state of college basketball from the comfort of his couch. 

How good was the Champions Classic last night? This event has been fantastic to begin with in its three years of existence but this year’s event was on another level. Michigan State’s performance was terrific and it was even more impressive that the Spartans, a program notorious for slow starts to the season, were in mid-season form. Now healthy, Gary Harris looks poised to meet the lofty expectations some, including yours truly, have placed on him. I was particularly impressed with his quickness and athleticism and the same goes for Adreian Payne. I saw some moves out of Payne that I’ve never seen before. He has all the tools necessary to take on the leadership role (along with Keith Appling) for a team that clearly is on a mission to reach Arlington this April. One area of concern for the Spartans? Rebounding. The Wildcats absolutely dominated the boards and it kept them in the game, even when they were down by as many as 15 points. As for Kentucky, I wouldn’t be too concerned. Sure, the Wildcats made plenty of freshmen mistakes but that is to be expected in only this group’s third collegiate game. Kentucky is not that far away and the bottom line is it wins that game with a few more free throws made or a few less turnovers committed. Julius Randle is the real deal and Kentucky will keep getting better. I’m not sure there is anyone in the college game who can effectively guard this freshman superstar. Randle will command a double or even triple team every time he touches the ball. If there is one lingering concern for John Calipari’s team from last night, it has to be transition defense. It was poor all night and ultimately cost the Wildcats the game.

Gary Harris and Michigan State knocked off No. 1 last night

Gary Harris and Michigan State knocked off No. 1 last night

In the nightcap, Kansas used a 15-4 run to pull away late from Duke, highlighted by Andrew Wiggins’ filthy step-back jumper and dunk in transition. Duke was nearly a unanimous pick to win this game but the young Jayhawks proved yet again why their program is among the very best in the nation, consistently churning out a contender year after year. Despite a brand new starting five, Bill Self’s club didn’t miss a beat. I was particularly impressed with Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden. If Self can get that kind of production out of those players on a consistent basis, Kansas will be primed for another Final Four run. To those of you who think Oklahoma State can top the Jayhawks in the Big 12, I hear you, but you are wrong. The Big 12 runs through Lawrence, as it has for the last nine years. Jabari Parker and Duke were highly impressive offensively but I have some concerns about the Blue Devils’ defense and rebounding. This is one of the more athletic Duke teams in quite some time but it lacks a true center. That has an impact defensively because opposing guards can drive at will and get wings like Parker and Rodney Hood into foul trouble, just like what happened last night. Duke played pretty well overall but don’t ignore these red flags as the season progresses. The Blue Devils did not play elite defense last season and they aren’t off to a hot start in that regard in 2013-14 either. That has to improve if Duke is to advance deep into March.

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