Posted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on February 11th, 2014
We’re in the back stretch of conference play and, as we have expected for the past couple months, we now have clear separation between the top two teams in the conference – San Diego State and New Mexico, which have combined for only one conference loss – and the rest of the pack. Nevada dropped a pair of road games; UNLV lost on the road; and Wyoming dropped a pair as well, giving the second place Lobos a three-game lead in the loss column over the third-place team. Even more clearly, this looks like a two-bid league come March, barring a big surprise in the conference tournament. The third highest-rated team in the RPI is Boise State, checking in at #68 following a heartbreaker against the Aztecs.
A Dagger Of A Three From Dwayne Polee Leaves Boise State In Dire Straits. (Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman)
Let’s play a fun game of “let’s pretend” and say that the Broncos catch fire, win out in conference play and get to the championship game in Vegas before bowing out to either San Diego State or New Mexico. Never mind that this team hasn’t shown any indication that its capable of that type of streak, but that would put them at 24-10 with a win over New Mexico in the regular season and a win over the Lobos again (although possibly San Diego State) in the MW Tournament semifinal. That would give them two wins over New Mexico as by far their best wins of the season, with Utah – currently ranked #103 in RPI – ranks as their next best win. Not exactly the resume of an NCAA Tournament team.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – In a week where three conference schools scored a road win as part of a 2-0 week, the Aztecs had the most impressive road win by going to Boise State, roaring back from a 13-point deficit in the middle of the second half, then getting a big go-ahead three-pointer from Dwayne Polee with five seconds left to break the Broncos’ spirit. The Aztecs followed that up by coming home and handing it to Nevada in workmanlike fashion while in the process tying a school-record 20-game winning streak.
Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 8th, 2014
After the slowdown around the holidays, the Mountain West is back in full swing. Conference play is underway; everybody has played at least one game against a conference opponent; and San Diego State ended non-conference play on a big high, scoring a thoroughly impressive win at Kansas over the weekend. There’s a lot to get to, so let’s jump right in, after recognizing that right now we have Air Force and Nevada – two teams we have been making fun of all season – tied atop the conference standings with 2-0 records.
Team of the Week
Behind Player Of The Week Xavier Thames, The Aztecs Are Outperforming Their Expectations (Kent Horner, Getty Images)
San Diego State – The Aztecs got conference play underway well by going on the road to Colorado State, getting a good early start, and then maintaining a solid lead the rest of the way. Then on Sunday, they capped off a dream day for San Diego sports fans, backing up the Chargers’ playoff win with a win of their own at Allen Fieldhouse. They’re not a perfect team, but this squad likes each other, works exceedingly well together, and Steve Fisher is getting every last drop out of it in what is turning out to be yet another masterful coaching job. While we maybe have been a step behind on fully believing in this team, those days are over; the Aztecs are the clear favorite in the Mountain West.
Posted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on November 19th, 2013
Last year about this time, the Mountain West’s record as a collective was 27-3. Sure, there wasn’t a large number of top shelf wins among those 27, but they were wins. This year the teams are a combined 19-12. UNLV lost by 21 at home to UC Santa Barbara. Colorado State got drilled by 32 at Gonzaga. Nevada lost at home to Pacific. Fresno State lost by 21 at Pitt. Air Force has lost to Jackson State and VMI. And newcomer San Jose State has lost to everybody it has faced, and that certainly hasn’t been a murderer’s row. Last year, the conference as a whole rode its strong RPI numbers, built up by a collection of a mostly good teams, to a best-ever five NCAA Tournament bids. This year, it remains to be seen just how good teams the teams at the top are, while the middle of the conference seems significantly weaker than it was last year, and the bottom of the conference even worse. Too long, didn’t read? The takeaway is there isn’t a chance in a million that the Mountain West sends five teams dancing this year.
Team of the Week
Utah State – The Aggies are one of the newcomers in the conference, but they’re off to a fine start, having won all three of their games including one over USC and another over that UCSB team that beat up on MW heavyweight UNLV. Behind veteran trio Spencer Butterfield, Preston Medlin and Jarred Shaw, Utah State looks like it will have an easy transition to its new conference.
Bairstow Has Been On Fire Out Of The Gate For the Lobos (Eric Draper, AP Photo)
Player of the Week
Cameron Bairstow, Sr, New Mexico – There may not be a player in the country who has improved as much as Bairstow in his four years in Albuquerque. As a freshman, he was notable only for his below-the-rim, scrappy style, as he averaged fewer than 10 minutes per game and fewer than three points per outing. But thus far this season, the 6’9” Aussie has been almost unstoppable, averaging 25.5 points, eight rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game, all while shooting 78.3 percent from the field. Oh, and not to be outdone, his frontcourt mate Alex Kirk has double-doubled in both his games on the way to 20 points and 12 rebounds per game averages.
Newcomer of the Week
Paul Watson, Fr, Fresno State – The 6’6” freshman out of Phoenix doesn’t have the type of body yet to lead you to believe he would succeed playing up front in major college basketball. But out of necessity, Watson has been forced to play the role of a big man for the Bulldogs. And, so far so good, as he’s averaged five rebounds a night, has scored both around the basket and from deep, and has eaten up minutes. There’s a big future for this Dog.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
Another week down the drain and we’re now officially four weeks away from the start of the Mountain West Tournament (well, three weeks and six days by the time this gets published). And, as time passes, some things are becoming more clear and some things are just as confusing as they were weeks ago. For instance: quick, who’s the best team in the conference?
New Mexico’s got a claim on first place as of now, but they’re coming off a season-series-evening loss to UNLV and they’ve already put up a horrendous 34-point offensive (in more than one way) output against San Diego State. The Rebels, for their part, have looked really good in their home win against New Mexico and their road win at San Diego State, but this is a team that just this week lost at Fresno State, the worst team in the conference. The Aztecs? Their backcourt is beat up and their still facing road trips to Colorado State, UNLV, New Mexico and Boise State. Oh, and they’re entering that stretch already a game back of the Lobos and a half-game behind Colorado State. And as for the Rams, despite the fact that they made the AP Top 25 for the first time in just under 60 years, they’ve still got plenty to prove themselves, with a history of struggling away from home, especially against quality opponents. But, for now, I’m going to go out on a limb and put CSU at the top of the pack, based on a whim. But hey, give me credit at least for not taking the easy way out and declaring this a four-way tie for first atop my power rankings.
Who’s The Best Team In The Mountain West? I Dunno, But Colorado State’s As Good Of A Guess As Any (Dawn Madura/AP Photo)
So, that’s the clear as mud part. What parts of this conference are starting to round into understandable shape? Well, that pipe dream back a few weeks ago about six teams making the NCAA Tournament? Yeah, well, that’s not gonna happen. Wyoming and head coach Larry Shyatt have done great things over the past two seasons in Laramie, but they’re getting eaten alive in conference play (2-7 so far) and it would take a complete 180 for them to have a prayer of NCAA consideration come March. Meanwhile, Air Force, which had been so hot the last time we talked, just got done dropping a couple of road games, most damningly to Nevada on Saturday. They needed a lot of stuff to break their way, and while they’re certainly not completely dead yet, I’ve got to see them make some serious noise, especially on the road, in order to think they belong even on the periphery of the conversation. And that leaves Boise State as the potential fifth Mountain West team. There isn’t a lot of room for error for the Broncos, but I, for one, have a hard time believing they won’t be among the field of 68 when the brackets get announced.
Elsewhere, you can start engraving Anthony Bennett’s name on the Freshman of the Year trophy, if you want to get a head start. And the list of serious Player of the Year candidates are limited as well; right now Jamaal Franklin has to be the odds on favorite to defend his title, with Bennett maybe his strongest competitor. As for Coach of the Year, that one is still wide open and will likely be determined in part by how the race at the top of the conference shakes out.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – The Aztecs didn’t leave Viejas Arena this week, but they also didn’t lose, something that only one other Mountain West team (Colorado State, who played just one game) can say. The Aztecs dodged a bullet against Boise State, but then came out and put away Fresno State with a dominating second-half performance. While still not back to full-strength (Xavier Thames, for one, remains limited, although Chase Tapley nears 100%), the Aztecs find themselves just a game back of first place with a chance this week to take a couple huge steps towards a conference title. Of course, those huge steps include going on the road to Colorado State and UNLV, but let’s put it this way: if SDSU wins these games, they’re in very good shape.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
When tonight’s games wrap up, we’ll officially be halfway through the conference season. The Super Bowl is over, all eyes are on college hoops, there will be just eight games remaining on all the team’s schedules and we’re all starting to think about the madness that awaits in Vegas in early March. For the longest time this season in the Mountain West, we’ve figured there were a pool of six teams in contention for NCAA Tournament bids. And, as we get ready to round the turn, it looks like we’ve still got six teams in the mix; the surprise, however, may be which six teams those are. After we take care of our weekly honors immediately below, we’ll take a look at where each team stands as we near the halfway mark in terms of their NCAA Tournament viability.
Team of the Week
Air Force – It was “only” a pair of home wins, but they were an impressive, and an important, pair. With wins over Fresno State and San Diego State, the Falcons put themselves within striking distance of the conference lead, all with a shot at that first place New Mexico team next up on the schedule. The former win was more a matter of just taking care of business, while the latter was truly impressive. Despite the fact that the Aztecs were hampered by injuries, Air Force withstood the full brunt of Jamaal Franklin attempting, and largely succeeding in his attempt, to take over the game. After giving up a 12-point second half lead, the Falcons had the wherewithal to answer every Aztec run and in the final seconds, they dodged a couple looks at game-tying threes, earning the Academy their very own RTC, even if it was small and relatively orderly. After weeks and weeks of having everybody overlook them, it is now time to give this team its due: with Colorado State, UNLV and New Mexico all coming to Clune Arena in the back half of conference play, the Falcons have a chance (even if it is still a slim one) to win this thing.
Michael Lyons and Air Force Have Reeled Off Five Straight And Are Within A Game Of The Conference Lead (Rhona Wise, AP Photo)
Player of the Week
Hugh Greenwood, Sophomore, New Mexico – Before we get to Greenwood, a quick mention of Colorado State’s Pierce Hornung, who made this week’s decision a tough one. Hornung averaged 17.5 points and 12 rebounds per game this week, double-doubling each night and even knocked down all three three-pointers he attempted against Boise State on Wednesday, bring him up to eight-for-15 on the season from deep. But, as versatile as Hornung was this week, versatility is Hugh Greenwood’s middle name (yup, Hugh Versatility Greenwood – it’s an Aussie thing, I think). The Lobo sophomore made ten of the 13 shots he attempted from the field this week, including five-of-six from deep, averaged 14 points per game, 8.5 rebounds and five assists. Oh, and during the Lobos’ trip to Laramie on Wednesday, Greenwood saved the day by knocking down the go-ahead jumper with eight seconds left and sealing the game with a pair of free throws later. After winning multiple Player of the Week awards from us last year, this is Greenwood’s first nod this year.
We know that all of you like us have spent the last couple of weeks waiting with bated breath to hear the official explanation as to how Julius Peppers‘ depressing UNC transcript ended up on an NC State message board. We now have our answer. According to North Carolina administrators, the saga began 11 years ago when a staffer made a test record of a de-identified copy of Peppers’ transcript and placed the original file on a secure server. Subsequently, during a 2007 technology migration to a new system, Peppers’ original transcript file came over with it and ended up on an unsecured server. It sat there for five years until some enterprising Wolfpack fan exhumed it a few weeks ago. UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp said on Thursday that he personally apologized to Peppers for the privacy transgression, but it wasn’t clear from his statement whether that phone call came before or after Peppers made a massive scholarship donation of $250,000 to the school.
There was some big player movement news on Thursday as Memphis announced that junior college superstar Geron Johnsonhas matriculated at the school and is eligible to play immediately. Johnson has spent a career moving around and getting arrested rather than playing basketball — he was dismissed from both of his junior college teams, as an example — so this should make for an interesting situation under Josh Pastner next season. With a strong group of Tigers returning, the addition of a player the caliber of Johnson on the perimeter could potentially convert Memphis from a Sweet Sixteen team into a Final Four team. On the other hand, history has quite clearly shown that Johnson does not know how to avoid becoming a distraction. As a parallel, former Tiger Jelan Kendrick caused all sorts of headaches for Pastner before he was finally dismissed from the team on the eve of the 2010 opener, so the head coach clearly isn’t afraid to cut a trouble-maker loose. All in all, it’s probably worth the risk to Pastner to see how Johnson handles the first half of the fall semester and first few weeks of practice before making a final decision on whether he’ll wear the uniform next season.
We can’t say that we’ve every actually made it over to Terre Haute, Indiana, but if we ever had, you can rest assured that the very first thing we would have done was to make a beeline to the Indiana State campus and ask directions for the statue of Larry Bird. Imagine our surprise when our fake-traveler self would have learned that, alas, there is no such thing. At least not at ISU. Our next question,”how is this possible,” probably would have been met with a shrug and a “good luck,” but when we learned Thursday that Bird’s alma mater was finally making plans to build a 15-foot bronze statue of the Legend, we made a mental note to do a visit there eventually. Here is a short list of big-time basketball schools who cannot claim one of the top 10 basketball players to ever walk the earth: Duke, Kentucky, Syracuse, Georgetown, Indiana, Connecticut. But you know who can? Indiana Freakin’ State. How can it take 34 years to get this done — astonishing.
What might be even more astonishing is when schools claim national titles that the simply do not have. Our disgust over treating Helms Titles in the same way as national championships won on the court is well-documented, but how should we feel if a school begins claiming that other (non-NCAA) tournament titles are also “national championships?” Can Pitt claim a national title for winning last year’s CBI? Does Mercer have one for winning the CIT? Well, Louisvillehas pushed forward with a new adidas t-shirt suggesting that the school (who, incidentally, has won NCAA championships in 1980 and 1986) has won four national titles. A little deeper research performed by Kentucky Sports Radio (who else?) shows that the Cards won a tournament called the NAIB in 1948 and the NIT in 1956. Is this trend of claiming national championships from whole cloth marketing genius or shameless deception disguised as celebration? We’re tending toward the latter. Don’t do this, Louisville.
Uh oh. The only true point guard on Oklahoma State’s roster, Cezar Guerrero, announced this week of his intention to transfer closer to home. His mother is sick in Los Angeles, so the decision is perfectly reasonable. However, the point guard position continues to plague Travis Ford. He lost two point guards to transfer last winter, and Keiton Page — already playing out of position there a year ago — graduated. Although that article actually claims the coaching staff may have wanted to play Guerrero off the ball in 2012-13, he was the only player on the roster with true point guard skills. Freshman Marcus Smart will probably have the ball in his hands a lot, and Markel Brown might get a chance to run the point too. But they’re a lot more effective as scorers, and it would have been a whole lot easier for Guerrero to take the reins and facilitate the offense. Now that he’s gone, it’s also important for Ford to get JuCo point guard Kirby Gardner cleared. He’s entirely unknown at this point and his signing came out of nowhere, but he does seem like more of a natural point.
Make that seven freshmen now for Bill Self. Less than a month after the NCAA cleared Milton Doyle to play for Kansas, the freshman decided to leave the school before ever playing a game, which cuts a dent in Self’s abnormally-sized 2012 recruiting class. Although Self and Doyle’s mother, Lisa Green, both spoke in vague terms about his departure, it appears as though Doyle wanted to earn more minutes and make more of a major impact right away instead of waiting his turn. Neither Self nor Green spoke ill of each other, though, so it’s now time for Doyle to find another school — it’ll be his third already after originally committing to Florida International before the firing of Isiah Thomas. From the Jayhawks’ standpoint, they’re already loaded, especially after learning of top-100 freshman guard Rio Adams’ eligibility for 2012-13 earlier this month.
We’ve written at length about Cameron Clark on this microsite, odd considering he’s never even averaged double figures in scoring during his first two years at Oklahoma. But we’ve written about him because his potential is so obvious to the naked eye, and he’s the type of sleeping giant that could take the Sooners to the next level in Lon Kruger’s second year. Everything about Clark screams “big-time scorer.” He’s got the size and wing skills at 6’6”, and he’s simply the kind of guy that has the ability to get the ball in the bucket on any given night. That consistency has not yet materialized, which is why we’re often writing about Clark’s potential as opposed to his actual production. With Wyoming transfer Amath M’Baye joining the team this year and the return of every key scorer from a year ago, there’s still not a ton of pressure solely on Clark. Still, his growth as a junior could be a critical piece of Kruger’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
Poor Kansas State. Scheduling conflicts forced the Wildcats to return home early from their trip to Brazil, meaning its now back to reality after a vacation in South America. First-year coach Bruce Weber still got an early look at his new team, even if it wasn’t all that encouraging. Kansas State finished 2-2 on the trip, including a loss in which the referees ejected Weber from the game. It’s hardly the time to freak out about a few exhibition losses, but it’s at least encouraging that point guard Angel Rodriguez led the team in scoring on the trip. He was one of Frank Martin’s favorites last season, and he’ll likely earn that same sort of praise from Weber as long as he continues to progress.
The legal process may have ended in the Darrell Williams rape case this summer, but the questions still linger about the former Oklahoma State forward. A jury convicted Williams based on the testimony of two women who said he groped them at a party, and he’ll now face serious prison time for the offense. As Mary Mitchell points out, though, prosecutors had no physical evidence to show the jury, and the identification was also troublesome because several other players had the same OSU warmup suit on at the party. The Huffington Post also called out the jury for convicting Williams, claiming 80 percent of errors in sexual assault cases happen because of misidentification. And there’s another aspect to this, too: “So let’s summarize. Williams, an honors student with an unblemished record, was convicted by a jury with no black people on it of an interracial crime that lacked independent witnesses or physical evidence and was based on a notoriously flawed method for identifying suspects.”
In an effort to remind you that college basketball does in fact exist during the summer, Big 12 microsite writer Danny Spewak (@dspewak) will roll out three summer updates per week during the next month. The goal is to compile every bit of news and information from the summer months for each team and package it into neat, easy-to-read capsules for your convenience. The final team on the list — Oklahoma State.
2011-12 record: 15-18, 7-11 (7th place, Big 12)
While his peers in the coaching community were chasing recruits this summer and lounging by the pool, Travis Ford took the stand during a rape trial to testify on behalf of a former player. This wasn’t about basketball anymore. This was about the life of Darrell Williams, facing a prison sentence after two women at a party accused him of groping them in 2010. The soaring expectations in 2012-13, thanks to the arrival of freshman star Marcus Smart and the return of sophomore Le’Bryan Nash, would have to wait. Ford argued for Williams’ innocence on the stand, and several former teammates attended the trial. The defense argued that the two women may have misidentified Williams, but that didn’t convince a jury. It convicted the forward on two counts, sending him into an uncontrollable sob as police escorted him out. Williams was never a star, and he had not played since February 2011. Still, this is not your average legal situation. That kind of thing happens all the time — like this weekend, when police arrested Cowboys’ center Philip Jurick for marijuana possession. In those situations, programs discipline, suspend and move on. When a former player heads to prison on a rape conviction, though, it takes a little while to recover. So that’s where Travis Ford sits with this Oklahoma State program right now. After a traumatic whirlwind of a summer, he must now find a way to recover from the graduation of heart-and-soul guard Keiton Page and transform this collection of individually talented parts into a winning team. It’d be nice, too, if he could find a viable point guard.
For All The Criticism, It’s Easy To Forget Nash Won Freshman of the Year Honors in 2011-12
Summer Orientation: Everybody knows Marcus Smart. Just ask Billy Donovan and Mark Few about the OSU freshman, who wowed them at the U-18 Championships this summer. “He was our leader from the moment the players introduced themselves,” Few told CBS’ Gary Parrish. “He’s one of the best kids I’ve ever been around — and that includes all the Zags I’ve coached.” That single quote from Few sums up Marcus Smart at the most basic level. He may be a McDonald’s All-American with NBA talent, and he may be a scoring guard with ungodly physical gifts and slashing ability. That’s all great, but it’s not even what Smart is known for. He’s known as a leader. Clutch. A playmaker. The kind of guy who prides himself on his instincts, defensive prowess, smarts and basketball savvy rather than his point-per-game average. These are the qualities that have Travis Ford gushing about his freshman, to the point where he’s already anointing Smart as a team leader after he excelled in individual workouts this summer. Perhaps we’re reading too much into the Rivals.com star rankings and the spectacular performance at the U-18 games, and maybe all of this talk of early leadership and the “ultimate teammate” is overkill for a guy who hasn’t stepped on the court yet. The beauty of the situation for Smart and the Cowboys, though, is that he’s not necessarily counted on to carry this team. Le’Bryan Nash often had those expectations as a freshman a year ago, but his decision to return for his sophomore year means the two highly-touted talents can feed off each other.
Oklahoma State hardly looked like a team missing two key contributors on Wednesday night. Even without the injured Le’Bryan Nash and Philip Jurick, the Cowboys managed to pull away from a pesky Texas Tech squad 76-60 thanks to a second-half burst from Cezar Guerrero and Brian Williams. Despite briefly trailing by a point early in the second half, OSU regrouped by attacking the basket and forcing the Red Raiders to jack up bad shots from beyond the arc. Within minutes, that deficit turned into a double-digit lead, and from there Oklahoma State punished the young Red Raiders by working the clock and clamping down on defense. It all happened with major personnel adjustments — with Williams playing the four position and Markel Brown running the point. “Words really can’t describe how proud I am of our basketball team,” coach Travis Ford said. “For these guys to continue to play as hard as they are, they’re fun to coach.”
Texas Tech's season ended with a 76-60 loss to Oklahoma State on Wednesday.
Why the Cowboys Won: Cezar Guerrero really exploded in the second half, burying back-to-back three-pointers after his team’s brief one-point deficit. “I felt like I just needed to bring energy and get these guys going again,” Guerrero said. “Luckily, my teammates just got me open and I hit the shots. I was really feeling it today.” Texas Tech also struggled on the offensive end, looking every bit like the team that finished 1-17 in Big 12 play under first-year head coach Billy Gillispie. Even a strong effort from Jordan Tolbert could not overcome the Cowboys, who had four players score in double figures. Senior Keiton Page couldn’t find his shot early, but he heated up in garbage time to finish with a team-high 20 points. The key statistic to take note of here is Texas Tech’s performance from three-point land: 4-20. That’s your ballgame right there. That, and a 16-16 team mark from the free throw line for Oklahoma State.
What’s Next: Oklahoma State advances to play second-seeded Missouri, a team it defeated in Stillwater this year but could not compete with on the road. If Nash can’t go, though, the Cowboys have little to no shot. Nash put his team on his shoulders in that game, scoring important basket after important basket to announce to the national stage that he was a legitimate star. Without him, it’s important for Williams to keep playing as aggressively as he did against Tech. “We didn’t exactly play the way we wanted to up in Columbia,” Williams said. “We’ll just get to the film room and start studying Missouri.”
With just a handful of scholarship players on the roster, Travis Ford can only afford to make a statement for so long. After the Oklahoma State coach suspended point guard Cezar Guerrero for Saturday’s loss against Baylor, he reinstated the freshman last night by rewarding him with four minutes of playing time. As the season progresses, though, don’t expect Ford to keep Guerrero in the doghouse for too long. Without another true point guard on the roster, Guerrero needs to play for this team to make a late-season push. He may have committed the mysterious “violation of team rules” transgression, but Ford has no other options right now. At this point, it’s amazing Ford has even crafted five Big 12 wins out of the Cowboys. Point guards Reger Dowell and Fred Gulley already transferred this winter, J.P. Olukemi’s torn ACL cost him his season and now big man Philip Jurick is battling an injury. Against the Bears, Ford played with six scholarship players– and he almost won.
Cezar Guerrero's Suspension Did Not Last Very Long (credit: streetball.com)
Guerrero may be the only natural point guard on the team, but he’s not consistent enough right now to make an impact at that position. He’s had his moments — take a heroic 29-point effort to single-handedly knock off UTSA in November — but his playing time has diminished as the season has progressed. With seven games to play, though, there’s time for Guerrero to turn his freshman campaign around. With a little more focus after the suspension, perhaps Guerrero can seize more court time at the point, which could shift Keiton Page to the off-guard spot. And with Le’Bryan Nash finally heating up, the point guard spot is the missing piece of the puzzle right now. The NCAA Tournament may not be in the cards, but the Cowboys aren’t going to fall quietly in February.
With holiday bowl games and a national showdown between Louisville and Kentucky on New Year’s Eve, there’s not a whole lot of Big 12 basketball to talk about this weekend. But six league teams will still compete during the next two days, and most notably, undefeated Missouri will hit the road for the first time in 2011-12. And if you’re not interested in watching John Calipari and Rick Pitino scream at each other for 40 minutes on CBS this Saturday, Oklahoma State will host Virginia Tech on ESPN2 during the same time slot.
Missouri (12-0) at Old Dominion (6-6), Friday 6 PM CT (ESPN2)
Kim English and the Tigers Still Need to Prove They Can Win on the Road
Eight days ago, Missouri showed its human side for the first time this season. After obliterating the likes of Notre Dame, California and Villanova, the Tigers nearly blew a double-digit lead to Illinois in the second half before recovering for a 78-74 victory in the Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis. That second half stretch, which featured poor passing, forced shots and turnovers by every player on the floor, marked the first time Missouri had ever looked rattled in a basketball game this season. Though half of the arena was wearing black and gold, the Illinois crowd came alive late in that game, and it was the Tigers’ first experience in a hostile environment. For a team that finished 1-7 on the road in Big 12 play last year, this is the last major concern for Frank Haith to tackle: Can his team win on the road? Old Dominion may be 6-6, but don’t write this off as a down year for Blaine Taylor‘s program. For the uneducated basketball fan, losses to Northern Iowa, Vermont, Fairfield, UCF and Richmond may not look very good, but we know better than that. All six losses for ODU (also including Kentucky) have come against league front-runners with at least outside shots to win their respective conferences. Hosting one of its most important non-conference games in recent memory, Missouri will have to deal with a rowdy and electric crowd in Norfolk. Yes, the Tigers are much quicker, and they obviously have much better guards. There’s a reason Mizzou blasted an even stronger Old Dominion team in Columbia last season. It’s a new season, though, and again, Missouri has no reason to be confident in a road setting until it proves it is not the same team as 2010-11. The formula for an upset here is simple: The Monarchs need to slow the tempo and let their defense go to work. Kent Bazemore is arguably the best defender in college basketball, so expect him to hound Marcus Denmon all night, and ODU has a couple of decent shotblockers in Nick Wright and Chris Cooper. ODU isn’t nearly as big or physical as it was a year ago, but it is still a sound rebounding team that won’t let MU get many second chances. This is a Blaine Taylor team we’re talking about here, after all. If Missouri stays hot from the perimeter, it won’t need to dominate the boards to win. Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon need to initiate the offense like they did in the first half against Illinois, as opposed to that disastrous second-half stretch. If that happens, the looks will be there for Denmon, Kim English and Ricardo Ratliffe.
The news broke yesterday that point guard Reger Dowell has transferred out of the Oklahoma State program, leaving coach Travis Ford with just one true point on the roster (Cezar Guerrero). Today, a Tulsa newspaper astutely pointed out that this particular recruiting class has now lost six of seven newcomers — only Matt Pilgrim actually finished his career under Ford. That’s the kind of stuff that can set a program back years and result in mass firings. Luckily for Ford, he’s not at that point yet. He still has a star in LeBryan Nash to build around, and he’s enjoyed a decent amount of success since arriving at OSU. Right now, though, he needs Guerrero and senior Keiton Page to run this team in the backcourt. Ford built this team around athleticism because that is his preferred style of play, but someone’s just got to get Nash, J.P. Olukemi and Markel Brown the ball in the open court.
Ben McLemore isn’t playing this season for Kansas because of eligibility issues, but he made headlines earlier this month for a “minor in possession of alcohol” charge. Police found him in November engaging in some extracurricular activities, but he never told his teammates or coaching staff that he’d been charged with anything. His trial has now been delayed, which means we won’t get closure on this case for quite some time. McLemore is expected to practice with the team later this season, so we’ll have to see how this delay affects his time on the court.
It’s that time of the week again: breaking down the numbers for the Texas Longhorns. Last week, the young Longhorns unraveled against North Carolina, but this article actually shows us that UT did a decent job on the offensive glass. That’s at least one positive for Rick Barnes, but there wasn’t anything pretty on the offensive end. Texas’ “true shooting percentage” was low, and the writer claims it was due to UNC’s pressure defense and UT’s inability to run any of its stuff on the offensive end. After losing five starters, these roadblocks aren’t surprising. Freshman point guard Myck Kabongo has to take the reins for this team, and he’s still trying to find his way in his first season in Austin. Until he breaks out of his shell, this team may not improve much. He’s that important.
Texas’s problems are nothing compared to Texas Tech. Billy Gillispie says he’s just trying to get his team better on every possession, and it’s an understatement to say the Red Raiders have struggled in his first season. TTU improved to 6-5 with a win over Cal State Bakersfield last night, but it also just lost to a good Oral Roberts team last weekend by 16 points, thanks in large part to the team’s inability to hold onto the basketball. One of Gillispie’s pre-game quotes was especially telling: “Messages don’t usually work, I don’t think.” Gillispie is a fiery guy, but even he isn’t trying to make some grand statement with any kind of showmanship this season. He knows he has a young team building in progress, and we’ll have to see if he can work his magic in Big 12 play.
Frank Haith has certainly worked a little magic at Missouri, and ESPN’s Andy Katz even listed the Tigers as the 6th most impressive team in the nation. MU got national headlines for romping both Notre Dame and California in the CBE Classic, and it is still undefeated after holding off a surging Illinois comeback last week. Still, we have to see if this team can win on the road before we give Missouri any awards. This team finished 1-7 on the road in conference play last season, getting a lone win in Ames against cellar dwellar Iowa State. When Missouri faces off with a solid Old Dominion program on Friday night in Norfolk, Haith’s team can answer a lot of those pesky “road warrior” questions.