Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. The MW Rocks. On a night when San Diego State confirmed its allegiance to the Mountain West, further cratering any hopes of Big East survival, the league gave us two huge examples of why it is as exciting and high-quality as just about every other hoops consortium this side of the Big Ten. Four teams, all riding NCAA Tournament trajectories, met in frenzied campus gyms, and on both occasions the road team held on for close wins. New Mexico (at Boise State) and UNLV (at San Diego State) will walk away smiling from two brutally demanding match-ups on nights when they could have just as easily flailed under the heat of road stop in a perilous league. Beating conference rivals is one thing. Doing it on the road is another step of achievement. Tonight’s results don’t tell the whole story. These four teams, along with a crop of other solid outfits, will bang it out over the next two months, frequently shaking up the standings along the way. It’s way too early to nominate a league front-runner, because as impressive as UNLV and New Mexico’s wins were, the conference road is far too hazardous to survive unscathed. Each of these teams will probably lose before conference play concludes. And that’s what makes this year’s Mountain West the league’s best version in years. The quality depth, combined with a bona fide upper-tier, gives the MW everything any “power” league could ever want and more. It has national contenders bound for high seed-lines, plus a nice mix of bubble aspirants, and a bottom echelon that, when you really dig in, doesn’t offer any true “guarantee” wins (Nevada?). This has the feel of a golden age in in the West Coast’s best league, and the best part is, we’re just getting started.
Your Watercooler Moment. A Win Maryland Couldn’t Afford To Squander.
For NC State, the last four days have been a polarizing tour on the court-rushing circuit. On Saturday, the Wolfpack sacked then-No. 1 Duke at home. A frivolous celebration ensued, a wheelchair-tethered legend was born, and the Wolfpack’s season-long overrating was henceforth marked a misnomer (or at least an exaggeration). The celebration was short-lived, for a tough match-up at Maryland loomed, not to mention a nasty history of post-Duke/UNC upset failures (chronicled by the Charlotte News and Observer Wednesday). And NC State wasn’t just walking into any Maryland team. It was walking into a Maryland team reeling after a two-game losing streak and a national piling-on against its cushy non-conference schedule, which the Terrapins devoured for 13 straight wins prior to ACC play. The Terrapins had a gaudy record, but with no wins of substance to speak of, this was as big as home league opportunities come in mid-January. Roughly two hours after tip, a different breed of red swarmed the NC State players, this time to celebrate the Wolfpack’s defeat, and Alex Len’s improbable game-winning dunk/volleyball spike at the buzzer that caused it. Losing in College Park is no sin – the Terrapins, desperate circumstance aside, are a big, long, athletic team with talent all over the floor. Just because NC State took a tumble on the road in league play doesn’t mean its shining moment in Raleigh four days prior is in anyway diminished or marginalized. The Wolfpack remain a very real challenger at the top of the ACC, which after Duke remains murky and undecided. NC State belongs near the top, even after Wednesday night’s loss.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Canes Survive. It is unreasonable to expect Miami to stroll unbeaten through ACC competition without its star center. That’s what it has managed to do though, stacking wins over Georgia Tech, UNC and Maryland, and it continued the trend Wednesday night at Boston College. This game was different than the others in that Miami was forced to scratch and claw and go all out for 40 minutes, needing four Durand Scott free throws to push them past the Golden Eagles, but the result is no different. Miami won, and that’s the bottom line. Any league road trip is a dangerous proposition; that Miami survived, despite not playing anywhere near its best basketball, says a lot about this team’s late-game poise. Let’s focus more on what Miami avoided, and less on the optics of a “close” win over an ACC bottom-feeder. The Hurricanes continues to impress, and with a week off before welcoming Duke to Coral Gables, you can bet Jim Larranaga’s team will be ready to go. Read the rest of this entry »