I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
After a one-week hiatus, we are back and just in time for a veritable orgy of great college hoops matchups today. Yes, there is Louisville v. Syracuse, Florida v. Missouri, Oregon v. UCLA, and Ohio State v. Michigan State. But things get no less interesting as you move down to the mid-major level, where several compelling matchups featuring conference contenders will unfold. Before we get to the Top 10, let’s take a look at what’s on tap today:
Gonzaga at Butler — The nation’s two Cinderella darlings will square off at the storied Hinkle Fieldhouse in a made-for-TV (yes, ESPN College Gameday will be in the house) contest. It will be the final game of Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule and, arguably, its toughest. The loss of Rotnei Clarke to a frightening neck injury will take some of the luster off of this matchup, as Butler will be playing without their leading scorer. The task will be no easier on the other end of the Court, as the Bulldogs will have to contend with a potent Gonzaga frontcourt, led by 7-footer Kelly Olynyk, who has emerged into a bona fide All-American candidate. But as we all know, being the underdog suits Brad Stevens just fine.
Creighton at Wichita State — Doug McDermott has wowed the nation over the past week with a pair of 30-point games, and between his dominance and Creighton’s three-point shooting, the Bluejays’ offense has become quite difficult to stop. But if there’s a team in the MVC who can do it, it’s Wichita State. The Shockers have the best defense in the league, which will have the added boost of a raucous home crowd for this premier matchup. The Shockers’ strong, quick guards will challenge Creighton at the other end, and Cleanthony Early might prove a tough matchup for McDermott. Carl Hall is also back in the lineup for the Shockers, so both teams will be at full strength.
Siyani Chambers Is Having An Outstanding Freshman Year (Anthony Nesmith/CSM/Cal Sport Media/AP Images)
Harvard at Memphis — With Conference USA muddling through a down year, this could be be Memphis’ toughest opponent of the 2013 calendar year. The Crimson have turned in a quality season despite the unexpected one-year withdrawals of senior leaders Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey due to an academic cheating scandal. Much of the credit for that goes to freshman point guard Siyani Chambers, who is fifth in the country in minutes per game. Tommy Amaker has put a great deal of faith in the young man, but he has rewarded him with a 31% assist rate, 50% three-point shooting average, and 88% FT shooting average. Chambers will lock horns with Joe Jackson, who has steadied himself this season to become a reliable scorer and team leader. The senior point guard has hit double-digits in points in 12 straight games, the longest mark of his college career.
Western Illinois at North Dakota State — North Dakota State has been one of the great underreported stories of the season, rolling up a 16-3 record and supplanting South Dakota State as the Summit League’s favorite. But Western Illinois has also creeped to the top of the league standings, just a game behind NDSU at 6-1. The Leathernecks are led by an inside-out combo of big man Terrell Parks (13.9 ppg, 9.4 rbg) and do-everything senior guard Ceola Clark. Clark is an excellent defender, and he’ll need to be at his best to help stop a North Dakota State that is a well-oiled, methodical, efficient machine. Marshall Bjorkland, the Bison’s 6-8 junior, is arguably the most efficient scorer in the country. He leads the nation in effective FG percentage (72.4%) and is fourth in true shooting percentage (71.2%).
Utah State at Denver — Louisiana Tech remains at the top of the WAC standings after holding off Idaho on Thursday night, but these two squads are just one loss behind them. So tonight’s game has a lot riding on it. Expect a low-scoring contest between two of the lowest tempo teams in the country. Royce O’Neale and Chris Udofia lead Denver’s Princeton offense, which wears down opponents with movement and relies heavily on the three-point shot. Utah State will look to Preston Medlin, who leads the team with 16.3 points per game, and center Jarred Shaw who gets lots of touches in Stew Morrill’s offense.
College of Charleston at Davidson — Charleston will have a chance to move into a tie atop the Southern Conference South standings with a win at Davidson. They’ll be led by their backcourt combo of Andrew Lawrence and Anthony Stitt, while their hosts will rely more heavily on their frontcourt tandem of De’Mon Brooks and Jake Cohen. Davidson can fall in love with the three-point shot to their detriment. They’re better when they get the ball to the versatile Brooks and Cohen. Getting the ball in the basket won’t be easy against Charleston, which has a pretty good defense anchored in the middle by Adjehi Baru.
Belmont v. Tennessee State – You would think that this game between the OVC’s two undefeated teams would lose its luster with the absence of Tennessee State’s star big man, Robert Covington, except for one thing — they’ve won every one of their six OVC games without him. Covington went down with a torn meniscus in a December 18 trip to Middle Tennessee State that the Tigers went on to lose by 38 points. At that point, they were 5-7 on the season but they’ve reeled off seven straight since and now sit atop the OVC East standings. But they may need more than the Ewing Effect when they travel across town to face off with Belmont. The switch from the A-Sun to the OVC hasn’t dimmed the Bruins’ ability to dominate their conference competition.
So there it is, a day-long feast for the glutton who craves mid-major hoops. We move on, now, to the updated Top 10 rankings, our weekly (starting this week) Honor Roll, and a few more games to keep an eye on as the week unfolds.
Tonight’s Lede.The Grind Of League Play.The non-conference season came and went. November and December whizzed by, but it gave us a solid look at who’s who in certain leagues and where various teams stand among conference challengers. Playing teams from different leagues provides a large enough sample size to draw minor conclusions on certain teams. Others are more difficult to figure out. Conference play creates order amid the uncertainty, but at the beginning – in early January – teams are still getting used to the nightly grind of top-flight competition. Some teams, accustomed to soft schedules, struggle to make the transition, so there are some wacky results during the first two or three weeks. Things even out over time, and now, with most teams having played at least three or four conference games (depending on the league), the intra-league mentality has set in. Teams are locked in for conference play. The initial adjustment period is gone; if teams are still easing their way into the conference portions of their schedules, they’re too late. Bubble watches and at-large considerations are in full effect. It’s time to bog down, meet your fellow league mates on the court and move your way up the standings.
Your Watercooler Moment. A Confirmation Of The Big Ten Pecking Order.
In a loaded Big Ten, Michigan Exists On the Mountaintop (Photo credit: Getty Images).
Last weekend’s Big Ten action – Michigan’s loss at Ohio State and Minnesota’s loss at Indiana – created an interesting proposition for two of the league’s best outfits. Neither of those losses truly shook anyone’s understanding of the Big Ten elite; Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan are all really good, close losses or not. The Gophers’ second-half surge at Assembly Hall was a convenient talking point for Thursday night’s clash at the Barn, and many afforded (rightly or wrongly) some kind of unspoken momentum advantage to Minnesota based off Saturday’s “moral victory” performance. Michigan’s weekend loss didn’t look as pretty, mostly because Ohio State hadn’t played anywhere near its capabilities to date, so the consensus – and more formally, Vegas bookies, who spotted Minnesota 2.5 points – leaned toward the Gophers, if ever so slightly. That wasn’t a misguided stance or anything, but what Michigan’s win Thursday night said more than anything else, was that the Wolverines are, at least right now, the best team in the best league. Maybe the best in the country. It’s not just the gaudy tempo-free metrics, or the flashy non-conference work. It’s John Beilein’s trademark system, slightly tweaked, readjusted and retooled with some of the best athletes and freshman talents in the country. It is the pinnacle of Big Ten hoops in 2012-13. If you haven’t seen it yet, trust me: these guys can play, man – whatever Indiana and Minnesota are, Michigan is a step above. That gap, believe it or not, really shined through at the Barn Thursday night.
Also Worth Chatting About. Texas A&M Transitivity Reflects Poorly on Kentucky.
After showing up Kentucky in Lexington, the Aggies absorbed a humbling blow from Florida at home (photo credit: AP photo).
Five days ago, Elston Turner had the game of his life. His 40 points were brilliant not only because they spearheaded Texas A&M’s upset of the defending national champions, but because of where he did it: Rupp Arena, the sanctified home of so many great UK teams, and a fan base made livid by Turner’s career day. When you beat Kentucky on the road, people take notice, no matter where Kentucky stands in the national picture, and when you took a clear look at Texas A&M’s body of work (specifically the Arkansas win that preceded the Lexington triumph), the upset wasn’t as incredulous or fraudulent as the initial shock factor may have suggested. Maybe this A&M team wasn’t all that bad… Right. Florida brought the Aggies, and Elston Turner (four points, 1-of-10 shooting), back to earth in College Station Thursday night on the strength of Erik Murphy (16 points), Patric Young (18 points) and Mike Rosario’s (19 points) efficient offense. What this game really says to me has nothing much at all to do with the Gators – we all know how balanced and scary good this team can look on both ends of the floor. It’s about the implications for Kentucky, and the fact they allowed Florida’s hapless blowout victim to embarrass the Wildcats at their unassailable home fortress. In the week since Kentucky’s loss, analysis of the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament prospects painted a gruesome portrait. Most observers are unanimous in mandating a win over Florida or Missouri for Kentucky to seal a favorable postseason fate. The transitive property, using Texas A&M as the common unit of analysis, doesn’t give Kentucky much of a chance against the Gators. Those types of chain-link conclusions typically doesn’t jibe, but hey, neither does Elston Turner scoring 40 points in Rupp Arena.
Your Quick Hits…
Horizon League Produces Favorite. It is rare that a team wins or loses a conference race over a two-game stretch. After Thursday night’s victory at Detroit Valparaiso is in position to accomplish this, with a home date against undefeated Wright State awaiting on Saturday. If the Crusaders win that game, they will have beaten their two chief league competitors in a two-day span. Without Butler, the league doesn’t have a clear favorite, but Valpo is the closest thing, and now that Detroit’s out of the way (Ray McCallum can ball), beating the Raiders at home is the only logical hurdle to a regular season title. That’s assuming Bryce Drew’s team doesn’t slip up the rest of the way – a road trip to Wright State in early February could cause problems. The bottom line is that in a pool of mediocre teams, Valpo gives the Horizon some sense of hierarchy and order.
Bruins Primed For Key Stretch. Back in the dark days of Ben Howland hot seat rumors, Josh Smith weight problems and Shabazz Muhammad ineligibility, UCLA endured a fracas of national scrutiny – not just for the off-court drama but also its inability to actually win games. The Cal Poly loss was the lowest of lows. The Bruins, of course, have long since figured things out on the court, and the locker room hearsay (Tony Parker’s attention-grabbing nonsense notwithstanding) has faded into the periphery. Winning makes things better, and UCLA – who fought off Oregon State at home Thursday night – will keep getting better if it can extend its current 10-game win streak through a crucial slate of Pac-12 competition. Over the next nine days, the Bruins will take on Oregon at home, followed by a road trip to the Arizona schools. If Ben Howland’s team can plow through that stretch unbeaten, or even with one loss, a Pac-12 championship is very much in play.
Rams Pushed To The Brink. After 40 minutes of thoroughly exhausting VCU press defense and manic perimeter harassment, St. Joe’s was spent. The Hawks couldn’t summon the energy to hang with the Rams into the overtime period, but their grinding effort served notice. It showed that the team picked to finish first in the A-10 preseason poll is no joke – that the Hawks’ 1-2 league record does not tell the entire story. Phil Martelli’s team played the two toughest games on its league schedule (home against Butler and at VCU) and lost both. If you’re going to lose games in A-10 conference play, there’s no shame in falling to the league’s top dogs. The Hawks hit a soft patch of schedule over the next couple of weeks, including games at Penn and Fordham and home against Saint Bonaventure. By the end of the month, their conference record should be more in line with what coaches and media projected before the season. The Hawks aren’t the A-10’s best, but they’re not far behind those who are.
OVC Divisional Alignment Offers Intriguing Matchups. For the first time this season, the Ohio Valley Conference has implemented eastern and western divisions to reorganize its conference schedule. With Belmont’s move into the OVC, the divisional switch couldn’t have come at a better time. The Bruins would carry the flag in the West while Murray State anchored the East for an equal balance of the league’s two best overall teams. Cross-divisional play allows Belmont a shot at the Racers (February 7), but the real intrigue lies in the West, where the Buins, Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee State all entered Thursday night’s games with undefeated records. Belmont edged EKU at home (and TSU edged Jacksonville State), but because division members are guaranteed to play home-and-homes, all three of these teams will slog it out on their respective home courts over the course of the season. Thursday night was the appetizer; the next two months promise to be just as good.
What’s Happening To Illinois? No team had a more pleasantly surprising non-conference season than Illinois. John Groce’s team rolled through Maui, trounced Butler in the championship game, then pulled out a miraculous win at Gonzaga before staying neck-and-neck with Missouri for most of the Braggin’ Rights showdown in St. Louis. For a team that basically threw in the towel down the stretch last season as Bruce Weber lost his coaching touch and the Illini flailed into a 12-of-14 losing skid, Illinois looked re-energized, refocused and primed for big things in its new coach’s first season. The Big Ten season, with the exception of a blowout home win over Ohio State, has flipped the script. No longer is Illinois the product of Groce’s transformative touch. Instead, the Illini are starting to look like last season’s team. Losing to Purdue on the road is one thing. Dropping four of five conference games, three of which came at home — and one of which came to Northwestern, of all teams — is seriously disconcerting.
Dunkdafied. Of all of Michigan’s promising first-year players, Glenn Robinson III is by far the most athletic. Little Big Dog one-upped noted dunking specialist Rodney Williams in said noted dunking specialist’s own house.
Thursday Night’s All Americans.
Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan (NPOY) – When Trey Burke and Hardaway Jr. are getting out on the break, delivering pinpoint passes and knocking down perimeter shots, this is the best backcourt in the country – no holds barred. Hardaway poured in 21 points, five rebounds, two blocks and three steals to help topple the Gophers in Minneapolis.
Kevin Van Wijk, Valparaiso – If Detroit’s Nick Minnerath is going to go out and score 36 points, keeping pace is a real burden. Van Wijk fell just five points short of Minnerath’s total.
Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA – This Bruins team complements Muhammad’s individual scoring talents in tangibly beneficial ways: Kyle Anderson’s a-positional point forward play, Travis Wear’s improving post offense, Larry Drew’s conservative, turnover-averse point guard play. It’s coming together at the right time. Muhammad remains UCLA’s go-to scorer, and he posted a modest 21 points and six rebounds against Oregon State to help the Bruins prolong their winning streak, which is now at 10 Ws and counting.
Darius Theus, VCU – As long as VCU continues to bring suffocating defense, and the offense keeps shooting the ball at acceptable rates, Theus (22 points, 10 assists, four steals) and the Rams are out in front of the league title race.
Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga – Anyone want to explain to me how Elias Harris, and not Olynyk, made it onto the Wooden midseason watch list? Anyway, Olynyk provided yet another reminder of why he belongs in that conversation – 21 points and eight rebounds in a win over Portland.
Tweet of the Night. Back when Eric Maynor was running the show and upsetting Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, VCU was a plucky mid from the CAA. Don’t get me wrong: VCU was the class of the CAA (with George Mason a worthy adversary), and no team welcomed the idea of dealing with Anthony Grant’s hard-nosed defensive philosophy in a tournament setting. But the program operates on a different competitive plane these days. Now the Rams are a nationally-feared program with a widely-coveted head coach. They’ve moved up the hoops food chain, made a run to the Final Four and are trending upward under Shaka Smart’s passion and recruiting acumen. Next on the agenda: winning the A-10.
The Weekend’s Lede. Embrace a New National Champion. The hustle and bustle of conference play boils down to one of two objectives: 1) scramble and fight and scrap your way into the NCAA Tournament; or, for the elite teams, 2) pile up enough evidence to be deemed worthy of a favorable draw and seed. The goal that ties those two together is reaching the championship game and, ideally, winning it. Kentucky made it look easy last season, and based on the way Calipari reloaded with another top recruiting class (albeit less heralded than the 2011 group), it was not unwise to believe he could do it again. That avenue remains open, in the crude sense that the Wildcats are still eligible for postseason competition. In actuality, the fate of their title defense season was sealed this weekend, when Kentucky allowed Texas A&M – a low-rung team in an uncharacteristically weak SEC – to deliver the Wildcats’ second home loss of the season. Given the talent at his disposal, and his experience in grooming, molding and motivating said talent, John Calipari could well propel his young team back into the national conversation. I just don’t see it. Saturday’s loss marked the unofficial retirement of UK’s faint repeat hopes. But don’t worry, next season’s rejiggered squad, anchored by what some are calling the greatest recruiting class of all time, can bring everything full circle. The championship trophy will not return to Lexington in March. That’s not official; it’s what my eyes tell me. There will be a new champion in 2013, and the weekend’s action shed more light on the race for that top prize.
Your Watercooler Moment. Number One Goes Down. (Wheelchair, Ahoy!)
The hyperbolic reviews surrounding Duke’s sterling nonconference performance were completely warranted. The Blue Devils navigated a minefield of ranked opponents, including three top five teams in a two- week span, and the conquest of an absolutely loaded Battle 4 Atlantis Field. Few teams have ever pieced together a November and December stretch with so many quality wins against so many good teams – wins that, in regard to Minnesota, VCU, Temple, Clemson and Santa Clara, are looking better and better by the week. The totality of accomplishment is almost immeasurable. The Blue Devils were thrust atop the polls and praised for their offensive efficiency. Mason Plumlee seized the early lead in the National Player Of The Year race. Seth Curry’s toughness (he has battled chronic leg pain all season) and resolve was eulogized. The outpouring of national praise almost made it feel like Duke was the only real team that mattered in the ACC. UNC had fallen off the map. NC State got tabbed with the “overrated” tag. Florida State was a sinking ship. What many seemed to conveniently forget was that the Wolfpack – the same team that (gasp!) lost to Oklahoma State on a neutral floor and at Michigan, causing large swaths of college hoops fans to write them off as a specious product of the preseason hype machine – were selected by the coaches and media in separate preseason polls to win the league outright. Those two early-season losses threw everyone off the Wolfpack bandwagon, which, come to think of it, might just be the best thing that ever happened to NC State’s season. While the nation fawned over Duke’s top-50 RPI wins and Plumlee’s double-doubles and Rasheed Sulaimon’s youthful verve, the Wolfpack were slowly, surely, methodically rounding into form. When the opportunity presented itself Saturday, as a Ryan Kelly-less Blue Devils team strolled into Raleigh, the Wolfpack did what every coach and media member predicted they’d do before the season began. They took care of the gaudy Blue Devils, and afterward, in the midst of a delirious post-game court-storming, the Wolfpack reveled in the culmination of their roller coaster season.
Also Worth Chatting About. Take Your Pick: Indiana or Michigan.
The Hoosiers’ offense didn’t miss a step in Saturday’s home win over Minnesota (Photo credit: AP Photo).
It required less than two weeks for conference competition to slay college basketball’s remaining unbeaten teams. Michigan had looked flawless in its first two Big Ten games, blowout wins over Northwestern and Iowa, generating all kinds of national championship hype along the way (the home win over Nebraska wasn’t as pretty, but it didn’t discredit the Wolverines’ glowing stature). Ohio State, meanwhile, exposed real flaws in a 19-point blowout loss at Purdue earlier in the week. Their faint hopes of pulling an upset at home against Michigan were, well, exactly that: faint. Michigan’s seeming invincibility, Ohio State’s disproportionate offense – any discussion of the Buckeyes invariably panned to a common concern over a lack of complementary scorers to supplement DeShaun Thomas – and the matchup advantages that implied, conveniently glossed over the fact that the Big Ten is a ruthless, rugged, unforgiving road, particularly when rivalries are involved. Ohio State’s victory proved, if nothing else, that the most extreme evaluations of each team to date – that Michigan is the best team in the country, and Ohio State a middle-pack-to-lower-tier Big Ten outfit – were a bit ambitious on both ends. In fact, the former trope may have been discredited before Michigan even took the floor Sunday, because Indiana, in its first real test since losing to Butler in early December, reminded everyone why the national consensus settled so firmly on the Hoosiers as the preseason number one team in the country. The final score at Assembly Hall Saturday will skew the reality of Indiana’s home toppling of Minnesota. The first half showcased an overwhelming offensive onslaught, fueled by rapid ball movement, aggressive and attentive defensive work, can’t-miss shooting aggressive and a booming home crowd. It was the epitome of Indiana’s basketball potential, bottled up into a 20-minute segment, unleashed on one of the nation’s best and most physical teams (Minnesota). An informal poll measuring the Big Ten’s best team following this weekend would favor Indiana, but I’m not so sure we can make that assumption based off two critical games. The conference season is a long and enduring grind. We’ll gather more evidence and draw that distinction later this winter. Deal?
Early in the season, one of the things that the 2012-13 Syracuse Orange seemed to have on the 2011-12 edition was reliable three-point shooting. James Southerland and Trevor Cooney can both act potentially as knock-down shooters for Jim Boeheim. Syracuse has struggled to score recently, and poor outside shooting is one of the main reasons for this lull. The Orange are now shooting 32% from behind the arc this season, and are just 5-of-33 since halftime of the win over Detroit. Boeheim acknowledges this issue, but doesn’t offer up much in the way of a detailed solution after Syracuse’s win over Alcorn State: “Well, it is what it is… Whatever the stats are, they don’t lie. Shooting stats don’t lie. Some people think they do. But they don’t.”
With a dwindling lead against archrival Kentucky, Louisville’s Russ Smith started doing what he’s done all season – he made huge plays. Pat Forde describes how strange it is for Cardinals fans to think of Smith as their star, even this far into the season: “The improbable rise of Russ Smith as a s-s-s-star (hard to type with a straight face) has keyed everything Louisville has done last March and so far this season.” Louisville is right about where most people expected they would be, but Smith’s breakout has shifted the focus off of Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng, the players that people expected to lead the Cardinals to a great 2012-13 season. Siva, Dieng, Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear, and a slew of other Cardinals are still very dangerous college players, and when combined with the dynamo Smith, who is averaging a shade under 20 points per game, Louisville is set to make major noise come March.
GoLocalProvsports writer Scott Cordischi thinks that Providence coach Ed Cooley needs to ‘cool’ it down with regards to calling out his players after games. When asked a question about LaDontae Henton’s stretch of 24 straight points for the Friars in a loss to Brown, Cooley ignored Henton’s offensive outburst and put down his defensive performance, calling it “awful.” Cordischi also notes that Cooley alluded to the team as soft with regards to Bryce Cotton’s injuries, and earlier in the year diminished a 13-assist effort by Kris Dunn in his first collegiate game, calling it “gross.” While many coaches in all sports use the media to motivate their teams, I can see where Cordischi is concerned that Cooley is being too negative with respect to his players. Losses to teams like Brown are frustrating, but those thing will happen with a young, raw team like Providence.
The transfer of Malcolm Gilbert from Pitt to Fairfield may be disconcerting to some Panthers fans, but it isn’t coming as a huge surprise to Jamie Dixon. Gilbert has always wanted to play with his brother Marcus, who is a freshman forward for the Stags, and he will have a chance to do that next season by leaving between semesters. Pitt fans may worry about this becoming a trend for Dixon’s program after losing Khem Birch last season, but the guys at Pitt blog Cardiac Hill don’t seem to be too worried, as this transfer seems to be more about an opportunity elsewhere rather than an issue with Dixon or the Panther program.
USF star Anthony Collins was taken off the floor on a stretcher after being kneed in the head while diving for a loose ball during a 61-57 win over George Mason. After the game, Stan Heath said that Collins had feeling in all of his extremities, which is obviously a positive sign, but it is always jarring to see a player taken out of a game like that, especially in today’s sports world where concussions and head injuries are so prominent in the public consciousness. The Bulls also lost Victor Rudd to a concussion in the second half, and are very banged up heading into Big East play.
Maybe we should have seen this coming just five days after Syracuse blew a 20-point second-half lead against Detroit and only won by four points, but everyone was too enamored with the story of the 900th win for Jim Boeheim and the meteoric rise to stardom of sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams to realize that the Orange were not without their warts. On Saturday afternoon, playing its first worthwhile opponent since its season opening win against San Diego State, some of those warts were exposed as Temple rebounded from an ugly loss to Canisius to upset the No. 3 Orange, 83-79. To be fair to Syracuse, Temple is a veteran and talented basketball team that will absolutely be playing in March if they can survive a brutal conference slate in the Atlantic 10, and senior guard Khalif Wyatt was abnormally brilliant in a winning effort. But the Orange had plenty of chances to take control of this game and just seemingly got outhustled and outplayed at every turn by the gang from Philadelphia.
Syracuse Struggled With the Changing Temple Defense
The Orange came into the game with the second-most efficient defense in the country thanks to imposing length and athleticism at every position, but you would not have known it by watching the Owls get to the free throw line at will and hoist uncontested three-pointers for most of the game. For whatever reason, their lock-down zone defense took the afternoon off. Give the Owls credit for consistently finding the high-post pass to set up a number of options and executing an excellent zone offense. But while Syracuse still created a number of turnovers, they also committed a lot of fouls, were often out of position trying to help defend dribble penetration, and were very nearly outrebounded by a much smaller and less physical team. Most of these issues are easily correctable and some could be attributed to a lack of effort or focus rather than inability, but the Orange have enjoyed a very easy non-conference slate, and if they cannot achieve some consistency on the defensive end, conference opponents will be able to take advantage of those lapses much easier than Eastern Michigan or Monmouth could.
The system that Buzz Williams has put into place at Marquette has generally done a good job of preventing major letdowns after the Golden Eagles lose significant contributors. However, this year’s Marquette squad has struggled at times, especially during Wednesday’s loss to Wisconsin-Green Bay. What looked to be a solid core that includes Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan, Davante Gardner, Jamil Wilson, and Chris Otule has really struggled to score this year, with only Blue and Gardner averaging double figures in points at just over 12 per game each. The Eagles are 162nd in the country in scoring this season, at 68.6 points per game
Many coaches contend that some of the best games for a developing team are the ones that count in the win column but feel like losses. Jim Boeheim’s 900th career victory sure felt like a loss in many ways, and he will find plenty of teachable moments inSyracuse‘s near-collapse against Detroit. This was the first game all year where the Orange really had their backs against the wall, and that situation provides good feedback to Boeheim and his coaching staff. “These are things that usually you don’t learn from games that you win, but usually players almost need to lose a game to really think about things such as ‘this is what we have to do’ and I think this game feels more like a loss. It’s good to get one that feels like it but isn’t and I think we’ll be able to look at some plays.”
The Kevin Ollie situation seems to be wearing on UConn, as evidenced by comments made by Shabazz Napier following a Thursday practice: “Warde (Manuel), our AD, we all know what he’s doing… After (beating) Michigan State, I felt like he was going to get this job, but sometimes it doesn’t seem that way. I’ve kind of come to terms that, no matter what we do, it’s not going to be in our hands. We can win as many games as we want, I still don’t believe it’s going to be in our hands where he’s going to give him a job.” With no postseason prospects to look forward to, the chance to win long-term job security for Ollie is one of the tangible things that the Huskies have to play for this year; but if new athletic director Manuel is really that difficult to win over, it will be interesting to see how the team reacts.
According to Blue and Gold Illustrated‘s Wes Morgan, Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant has a bruised back and may miss the Irish’s game against Niagara tonight. After scoring 14 points the last time out, Grant left Notre Dame’s game against Kennesaw State after a collision with an Owls player. Grant, who is second on the Irish in scoring this year, would be a big loss if he misses extended time, but Mike Brey’s squad should not have any issue with a 5-6 Niagara squad tonight with or without him in the lineup.
The writing was on the wall long before the announcement was made but Saturday marked the end of the Big East conference as we all knew it. As expected, the league’s seven catholic schools — Villanova, Marquette, Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, and DePaul — announced they were leaving the conference together with the assumed departure date tentatively set as June 30, 2015. Although the announcement should sadden any Big East basketball fan now staring at a shell of the conference, the move makes perfect sense for the seven considering none of the group fields a FBS football program and football is the sport that has dictated all of the money-grabbing and maneuvering. Once it became clear that the conference cared less about its basketball pedigree and more about salvaging its standing in the football community, the Catholic Seven were all but gone. There is still much to be played out, however, as many wonder whether the seven will form their own conference and try to recruit other basketball schools like Xavier and Butler, or whether they will try to latch on with another conference. Needless to say, this is huge news in our corner of the blogosphere and rest assured we will have plenty more analysis, memories, and news to share as the weeks progress.
One Big East player who was probably happy to see the conference realignment news take center stage was Syracuse‘s sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams, as he got to watch news of his shoplifting incident slip into the background amidst all the conference realignment chaos. Rumors of the incident spread last week as photos of what appeared to be Carter-Williams being led down a mall escalator in handcuffs circulated around Twitter, and the Syracuse Post-Standarddid the rest of the legwork. The gist of it is that Carter-Williams was caught trying to shoplift a bathrobe and gloves from a Lord & Taylor outlet at the mall. He was caught, worked everything out with the store, and the police did not have to get involved. I have seen some rip into Carter-Williams for this and while there is no denying his judgment (as well as his thieving ability) were poor, I am tempted to give him a break here. By all accounts he acknowledged his error, cooperated with the store, and reimbursed them and then some from what he was trying to steal. That sounds like the actions of a kid who knows he did a dumb thing and accepted his punishment. Given all the other sorts of mishaps that college players make news for, I will refrain from calling Carter-Williams a criminal who needs to be suspended and just say this was a kid who made a dumb decision and is still paying for it.
The news surrounding Syracuse basketball isn’t all negative, however, as legendary coach and quote Jim Boeheim is set to win his 900th career game tonight, assuming his Orange can handle a middling Detroit team. If he wins, he will join Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight as the only coaches in Division I history to reach that plateau. The fact that a coach can win 900 games in a career is impressive in and of itself, but its his longevity and loyalty that make this feat so remarkable. Unlike Krzyzewski and Knight, all of Boeheim’s wins have come at his alma mater, as he hasn’t coached at any other school in his long and storied career. We are also talking about a coach who, since taking over the program in 1976, has failed to reach 20 wins in a season just twice and has never won fewer than 16 games in a single year. You can scour the Internet on your own if you are looking for more in-depth celebrations of Boeheim’s achievement, but Boeheim has cemented his legacy as one of the greatest collegiate coaches in any sport, as if there was ever any doubt.
The move out of the Big East could pay additional dividends for Providence coach Ed Cooley as the university’s president, Rev. Brian J. Shanley O.P., indicated that the school would be looking into extending Cooley’s contract to ensure he is at the helm for the foreseeable future. Cooley’s recruiting prowess is well-documented, but his ability to produce winning teams at Providence is not. That is not to say he can’t do it, it is just to say that he has barely gotten his feet wet at the school, and so handing him an extension at this juncture may be dangerous if the team fails to live up to expectations over the course of the next three or four years. That said, Providence doesn’t have the luxury of being an elite job and the current conference instability doesn’t make it any more appealing. In order to ensure Cooley doesn’t jump ship if things go wrong, the university is willing to extend him now. It is a risky move but the right one as the Friars search for stability and a new home to continue their rebuilding efforts.
Tim Sullivan, a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal, hit the nail on the head when he called the Louisville basketball team a “roller derby”. Saturday’s gritty win against Memphis was all the evidence that Sullivan needed as the Cardinals let the Tigers jump out to a huge early lead only to claw back into the game in the second half and eventually emerge victorious. The offense and even the defense for stretches was not a pretty sight, but Rick Pitino’s bunch forced 24 turnovers and drew 33 free throws, scratching out a quality win any way they could against the high-flying athletes of Memphis. The game was so intense that even Pitino couldn’t resist a last-minute jab at a heckler after the Cardinals had won the game. It doesn’t take a basketball expert to see this is going to be a theme for the Cardinals all season long. Some teams have smooth offensive players and tons of NBA talent; the Cardinals have some streaky shooters, a penetrating point guard, a formidable frontcourt, and nearly unmatched competitiveness. That is how they are going to win games this season and I bet if you asked Pitino, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
While Big East basketball is always a spectacle, this conference season has even more added juice with the impending departures of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and (eventually) Notre Dame. However, before we get to conference games, the Big East is involved in some really intriguing non-conference games this season. Big East teams will be playing all over the United States, Germany, and on a few aircraft carriers. Let’s take a look at the best that the Big East has to offer in the non-conference slate this season.
Syracuse and San Diego State tip off the season on the deck of the USS Midway this Sunday (AP)
25. Pittsburgh v. Oakland, November 17, 7 PM
The Panthers have a rather light non-conference slate this season, but don’t expect them to look past the Golden Grizzlies. Oakland has a history of playing tough schedules, and won’t be intimidated by the Zoo. Oakland is coming off of a bit of a down year in 2011-12 when they finished 20-16 (11-7), but made the NCAA Tournament in both 2009-10, when they were knocked out in the first round by Pittsburgh, and 2010-11.
24. DePaul @ Auburn, November 30, 9 PM
Look for DePaul to try to do the conference proud when they head down to take on the Auburn Tigers as part of the SEC-Big East Challenge. This DePaul squad should be better than it has been in years past, returning dynamic forward Cleveland Melvin and dangerous guard Brandon Young. Auburn is coming off of a poor 15-16 season, and could be ripe for a big non-conference road win for the Blue Demons.
23. Rutgers v. Iona, Madison Square Garden, December 8, 9:30 PM
One of these New York metropolitan-area teams is coming off of a great season that ended in a heartbreaking NCAA tournament loss to BYU. The other is continually striving to build its program, and aspires to have such success. It almost seems backwards that Iona is the more accomplished team at the moment, but isn’t that what makes college basketball so great? A big performance by the Scarlet Knights at the Garden could go a long way in setting the tone for a run at a tournament berth in the Big East.
22. St. John’s v. Detroit, November 13, 2 PM
The Johnnies tip off their season against a very dangerous Detroit squad led by superstar Ray McCallum. St. John’s has a number of impressive young players themselves, and head coach Steve Lavin will return to the sideline after battling cancer last season. While many look forward to what should be a fun match-up between McCallum and D’Angelo Harrison, the St. John’s star was recently benched in the team’s final exhibition for disciplinary reasons. If Lavin continues to have issues with his top guard, it could prove very problematic for the Red Storm next week.
While they are still missing a big piece of the class that was supposed to make them relevant again, UCLA received some huge news yesterday when the school announced that incoming freshman Kyle Anderson has been cleared by the NCAA to play for the Bruins this season. After an investigation into the relationship between Anderson’s father and an NBA agent, the NCAA must have agreed with the family that the relationship existed before Anderson became a highly touted recruit. Anderson may not be as talented in as many facets of the game as Shabazz Muhammad, who still sits in NCAA limbo, but there aren’t many 6’8″ guards who can distribute the basketball that well, particularly at the college level. The Bruins may still be a piece short of making a NCAA title run, but with Anderson added to the mix they should be a legitimate threat to win the Pac-12 this season.
It won’t get anywhere near the attention that the news that Kyle Anderson got, but Oklahoma State also received some good news from the NCAA when they cleared J.P. Olukemi to play for the Cowboys this season. At issue was Olukemi’s decision five years ago to enroll at a junior college after his prep school’s team stopped playing. According to NCAA rules that technically started his eligibility clock meaning that he could have only played during this fall semester and had to sit out the spring semester. However, the NCAA granted Olukemi (9.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last season before having his season cut short by a knee injury) a waiver that will make him eligible to play the entire season. It is a decision that will not have nearly the same impact on a national level that the Anderson one did, but it could help lift the Cowboys to another level in the Big 12 and potentially into the NCAA Tournament.
Let us start by saying that we don’t really put much stock into players getting suspended for exhibition games, but when you have a team that could very easily be in the Sweet Sixteen or beyond and your starting point guard gets suspended for a “violation of team standards,” that is never a good thing. Such is the case for Michigan who suspended preseason AP First Team All-America point guard Trey Burke for its exhibition opener for some nebulous offense. We have no idea what this violation was and frankly we don’t care as long as it was not something criminal, but it raises a question about the leadership capability of the rising sophomore. For the Wolverines and their fans, we hope that Burke sorts out whatever issues he is dealing with before the season starts.
When high-level officials resign abruptly we usually know that something very bad happened, but of course, we typically know what that bad thing was before the resignations. That is not the case at Detroit this week where Keri Gaither, the school’s Athletic Director, and Derek Thomas, an assistant on the men’s basketball team, announced their resignations within a few hours of each other. That might sound suspicious enough, but it was the last day of October. On a Wednesday. Clearly, something significant happened at the school — whether it was personal or a power struggle — but whatever it was could create a significant ripple in a program that was becoming one of the best in the Horizon League. As we said last night on Twitter we have no idea what just happened in Detroit, but we are pretty sure that it is not good.
Whenever someone comes out with some “objective” ranking of programs it always creates a mini-firestorm and generates a ton of page views from the author (we are not above it), but sometimes the methodology is questionable at best and possibly suspicious (we’re trying to be very careful here if you haven’t noticed). The most recent version of these “objective” rankings comes courtesy of Basketball Times, which endeavored to rank the top current men’s college basketball program (it had to win at least 2/3 of their games in the past 10 years to even qualify) using the following criteria: winning percentage, number of former players currently in the NBA, coaches, federal graduation rate, academic reputation (based on US News & World Report ranking), and perceived cleanliness. The first two criteria are certainly reasonable, but the last four are much more questionable. Still we were willing to look past that if the rankings weren’t so… well, we will let you draw your own conclusions on a list that goes like this (in order): Duke, North Carolina, Gonzaga, Davidson, Wisconsin, Butler, Michigan State, Kansas, and BYU/Creighton (tied). The last two national champions, by the way, rank #19 and #30, respectively. We can get behind four of those 10 programs as being among the top programs in men’s college basketball, but there is something peculiar about the other six (to be fair, all solid programs in their own right) and we are pretty sure you can figure out what we are getting at without having to explicitly call out another publication. Ok, only eight days left now…
The AP on Monday released its All-America squad and there were no surprises with this year’s group. Indiana’s Cody Zeller received all but one vote (64) for the first team (queue the Gary Parrish outrage article), while mid-major stalwarts Doug McDermott (62), Isaiah Canaan (43) and CJ McCollum (16) joined fellow Big Ten stars DeShaun Thomas (26) and Trey Burke (16) on the squad. There are six players on this year’s team because McCollum and Burke tied for the last spot — not because the AP has, like many conferences, forgotten how to count. Keep this and all preseason All-America lists in the proper context, though — of the five players chosen to last year’s preseason team, only Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger ended up on both the preseason and postseason first team. Three others — Connecticut’s Jeremy Lamb, UNC’s Harrison Barnes, and Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor — finished as Honorable Mention postseason winners, while Kentucky’s Terrence Jones didn’t even earn that distinction. The two season-long NPOY candidates from last year — Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson — were among the others receiving votes in last year’s preseason list. Caveat emptor.
Tis the season for preseason rankings, selections, lists, and all sorts of fun but ultimately meaningless analysis. Still, until the first games tip off just over 10 days from now, this is all we’ve got. Basketball Prospectus‘ Dan Hannerhas produced his preseason analysis of all 345 Division I teams, and as he notes, some of the results of his model may well surprise you. For example, the model loves UCLA and all of its incoming talent but isn’t nearly as high on Louisville and all of its returning talent. It seems to think that the Big 12 conference race is going to be one for the ages with eight teams at .500 or better, but it’s not buying into the hype that NC State is ready to overtake one of its rivals to win the ACC. If you’re a numbers geek who gets off on efficiency analytics, it will be interesting to do a cross-tabbed comparison between Hanner’s preseason rankings and the Ken Pomeroy preseason rankings which are due to release sometime later this week.
For non-stat geeks, there’s always the controversial RPI, which despite its myriad shortcomings, remains the “organizational tool” of choice for the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Building off of SI.com writer Luke Winn’s previous work examining several power conference schools gaming the RPI by playing (and beating) good mid-majors in the non-conference slate, TSN’s Ryan Fagan takes the next step and reviews a number of mid-major programs that have figured out the best way to prepare a team in terms of both the RPI and its corresponding mental toughness is to play those kinds of games, often on the road in places like Lawrence, Durham or Pittsburgh. He mentions that Davidson, Lehigh, Detroit, Belmont, UNC Asheville and Long Beach State (what else is new?) have all taken this tack with their non-conference scheduling this season. We’re certainly not complaining — these are some of the best games of the November and December months of the schedule.
Iowa State’s transfer project keeps right on truckin’, with the weekend news that USC point guard Maurice Joneshas matriculated there and will become eligible in the 2013-14 season. While Fred Hoiberg has picked up another talented piece for his backcourt — Jones did everything but serve fajitas to the fans in the Galen Center last year — there is a degree of oddness about his departure from the Trojan program. According to a September statement released by the school, Jones was declared academically ineligible at USC and would be forced to miss the season as a result. Jones disputes this characterization, stating unequivocally that he “just got suspended from the school for a year, but it wasn’t because of my grades. […] It was something that happened at the school. I can’t really say what it was, but it wasn’t my grades.” It would seem somewhat unusual for a school to suspend a player for a different reason while using academic issues as a cover story, so we’re not sure what exactly is going on with this one — what we do know is that Iowa State has picked up a talented waterbug of a player who should seamlessly move into a starting role to replace Korie Lucious (another transfer) next season.
With Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky all populating the preseason top five lists, this is as good a time as any to make sure that you’re regularly reading the WDRB.com College Basketball Notebook from Eric Crawford and Rick Bozich. Based in Louisville, the duo is perfectly situated to report on many of the anecdotes, rumors and tidbits that come out of this basketball-crazed Fertile Crescent on a daily basis. In this week’s version, for example, Crawford and Bozich discuss the numerous suitors for Andrew Wiggins, Tom Crean’s threat to use his bench productively, Calipari’s naysaying about his latest batch of fabulous freshmen, and Pitino’s verbal merengue around his contract extension with the Cardinals. Trust us, you’ll learn something new every time you stop by — make it part of you weekly reading.
Ethan Back is the Horizon League correspondent for RTC.
The Departure of Butler: It’s pretty crazy to think that the Horizon League has produced two of the last three runners-up in the NCAA Tournament, but Butler did indeed reach the final game of the season in both 2010 and 2011. The Bulldogs have been the reason why the conference receives the national attention that it does, but they are now members of the A-10. What does this mean for the conference? Wright State head coach Billy Donlon and Cleveland State head coach Gary Watersdon’t seem to think much of the departure, as the former noted that Butler finished fifth in the conference a season ago, and the latter speculated that the Bulldogs would not have been the favorites this season. Despite this, Butler’s departure has been covered extensively by the national media, and we will be able to see its effects in the seasons to come.
Will Valparaiso Dominate Conference Play? Results from the Media Day polls would seem to indicate that Valparaiso will indeed dominate the Horizon League, as the Crusaders received 40 of the possible 44 first-place votes this preseason. Valpo went 14-4 in conference last year, and returns reigning Player of the Year Ryan Broekhoff and first team all-Horizon League forward Kevin Van Wijk. Reaching the NCAA Tournament will be the goal for the Crusaders, as this was a feat they were unable to accomplish one season ago.
Will The McCallums And Detroit Step Up To Fill The Void Left By Butler? (AP)
Few programs in the country went through the adversity that St. John’s found itself facing last season. Head coach Steve Lavin underwent surgery to treat prostate cancer in October of last year, and he was only able to coach four games in early November before deciding to sit out for the rest of the season. Multiple key players left during the season for various reasons, and at times the Red Storm were only able to play with a six-man rotation of scholarship players. This year should prove to be a challenge for the Johnnies, especially after the departure of Moe Harkless following last season, but they return a solid nucleus and add a number of talented freshmen who look to continue the restoration project that is Steven Lavin’s St. John’s basketball program.
2011-12 Record: 13-19, 6-12
2011-12 Postseason: None
Steve Lavin returns to the St. John’s bench in 2012-13. Can he bring back the success of the 2010-11 campaign?
St. John’s non-conference schedule is fairly light. The Storm open with Detroit and the ever-dangerous Ray McCallum at Carnesecca Arena before heading to Charleston, South Carolina, for the DirecTV Charleston Classic. In the opening round of the tournament the Storm take on host College of Charleston before facing either Auburn or Murray State. The field also features Big 12 power Baylor, Boston College, Colorado, and Dayton. St. John’s will also host South Carolina in Queens in the Big East/SEC Challenge. St. John’s plays one non-conference game in Madison Square Garden, against Fordham, and will play one game in Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center against St. Francis. In the Big East, the team opens at Villanova on January 2, and has home-and-homes with Rutgers, Georgetown, Notre Dame, and DePaul.