Tonight’s Lede. BIG and SEC Are Main Attractions.Two of the so called power conferences assumed the national spotlight Tuesday night. One of those leagues, the SEC, resides at the bottom of the power six food chain. The other is the Big Ten, which has produced some of the most entertaining and hotly-contested hoops these eyes have seen in years. The intra-league disparity could not have been greater, but the chasm in conference quality is where the differences end, at least as far Tuesday night’s schedule goes – for both leagues showcased two pre-eminent teams on big stages, with each game carrying conference title and NCAA Tournament implications. Those match-ups, plus a couple of other sneaky-good fixtures, filled your Tuesday college basketball quota.
Your Watercooler Moment. MSU Bullies Its Way Into First Place.
It was an eye-opening performance from Michigan State Tuesday night in East Lansing (Photo credit: Getty Images).
By the time Michigan and Michigan State finished the first top-10 rendition of their heated rivalry, only one team looked like it merited that elite numerical tag. The Spartans shredded Michigan at the Breslin Center with suffocating defense, balanced offense (four Spartans finished in double figures), and a resounding reminder about the state of Michigan’s recent basketball hierarchy. MSU has been the better program over the last decade-plus, was better Tuesday night, and has all the pieces to be better down the stretch in conference play. The win pushes it into first place in a clustered B1G top tier, with Indiana sitting a half game back and Wisconsin one and a half back. The Wolverines have some major catch-up work to do, and they do get both the Spartans and Hoosiers at the Crisler Center in March, but it’s not crazy to suggest – and I’ll probably (almost certainly) regret typing this, what with the shifting paradigms about who’s who in the Big Ten this season – that Michigan is just a bit undercooked for this brutal league race. There’s no crime in losing to good teams on the road – especially not Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin and MSU, all fearsome outfits in their own right. It’s just that Michigan was brimming with national championship potential not so long ago, and for as fuzzy and baseless as this may seem, I just can’t get behind projecting a team that loses by 30 in a critical intrastate rivalry game to cut down the nets in April. This being the Big Ten, I reserve the right to pivot on that hard line later this season. On Tuesday, Michigan State inherited Big Ten frontrunner status. Next week, when the Spartans host Indiana, who knows what happens.
Tonight’s Quick Hits.
Florida’s Fine. I address the biggest takeaway from Tuesday night’s Florida-UK tilt below. Nerlens Noel’s knee injury, needless to say, is disconcerting. If you can decompress and divorce that sad topic from the game itself, hear me out on this Gator-focused blurb. It was easy to panic and scrutinize and work up a lather over Florida’s convincing loss at Arkansas last week. The Gators had dismantled practically everything their schedule had to offer leading up to it, and Arkansas reciprocated that treatment by dominating Florida from the tip. But when you remove the inconsequential subjective noise and dig up exactly why the Gators fell into such a big hole – they didn’t make shots in the first half – what you get is a team that walked into a rabid Bud Walton Arena, stuffed to the gills with a geeked-up fan base, and a Razorbacks team that played some of its best basketball of the season. Questioning Florida’s rebound credentials – its SEC title control and NCAA Tournament seed – is petty and myopic. As of this writing, Florida tops Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ranks, counts one of the most balanced and versatile roster constructs to its name, and has racked up a stable of quality wins so far (both in and out of league play). The Gators beat Kentucky Tuesday, and that’s a nice win. It is not definitive proof that Florida has finally regained its stride after that “questionable” Arkansas loss. The Gators are one of the three or four best teams in the country. One road setback didn’t change that. Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday the match-ups for the last BracketBusters were announced and given the lack of enthusiasm generated by the announcement we can understand why the event is ending. In the past it seemed like there were at least 3-4 games that we could point to as “can’t miss” games. This year the only game that measures up to that is Creighton at St. Mary’s. The game is bigger for St. Mary’s in terms of getting an at-large bid since most would consider Creighton a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament, but a road win would be a big boost for the Bluejays in terms of their NCAA Tournament seeding. On the other end of the spectrum is Wichita State, who is scheduled to play at home against Detroit in a game that would be huge for the Titans if they could pull out a win, but it could also be potentially devastating for the Shockers if they were to lose at home and might push them on the wrong side of the bubbble on Selection Sunday. Outside of that there are a few moderately interesting game, but nothing that we would plan our day around.
We have covered some of the recent legal proceedings in the San Diego sports betting case and now we can provide you with an update on the Toledo point-shaving scandal (a case we first discussed back in 2008). Yesterday, Mitchell “Ed” Karam pleaded guilty to bribing basketball players to shave points in several games played between 2004 and 2006 as well as fixing horse races and defrauding others in Detroit real estate deals. Karam along with his partner, Ghazi “Gary” Manni, bet approximately $331,000 on the basketball games, but as Karam’s attorney claims his client was the unlucky individual who happened to associate himself with Manni. With Manni set to go to trial on March 12 we suspect that his attorney will be telling a vastly different story than Karam’s attorney did.
Murray State guardZay Jackson, who was suspended from the team for this horrific hit-and-run incident in September, pleaded guilty yesterday to second-degree assault and wanton endangerment with a sentence of 60 days in jail of which he still has 49 more days to serve before being on probation for three years. Before the plea deal was reached Jackson was looking at five years in jail before he entered the plea deal. In addition to the jail time and probation Jackson will pay for the victims’ medical expenses. Interestingly, Jackson had originally been sentenced to 30 days in jail by a previous judge who subsequently admitted to having ties to Murray State before recusing himself from the case. While we find it hard to believe it is expected that Jackson will return to the team next season. We are guessing this will be brought up by more than one group of opposing fans.
We have all heard plenty of stories about unsavory scouts so it is refreshing to read The New York Times‘ profile on Tom Konchalski, a New York City scout who is well-known in recruiting circles for his HBSI Report which he bought from Howard Garfinkel after initially working for Garfinkel. Konchalski’s knowledge of the high school basketball scene in the New York City metro area and beyond borders on encyclopedic and as the article notes on several occasions Konchalski can recall meeting players and the circumstances of their meeting almost instantaneously when meeting them again even it was over 30 years ago. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Konchalski is that we have never heard his name mentioned in any scandals (or maybe that fact that we find it refreshing is reflective of the state of scouting). If you are looking for a more in-depth profile on Konchalski check out this 2010 feature from New York Magazine, which is goes into his life and passion in more detail.
We focus almost exclusively on men’s college basketball, but on certain occasions we will venture over to the women’ game for particularly notable events. Unfortunately this time the reason is a sad one as Monica Quan, an assistant coach at Cal State Fullerton, and her boyfriend were killed in their apartment late on Sunday night. As of late Monday night no leads into the double-murder had become public. We don’t know much about Quan or the women’s program at Cal State Fullerton, but we want to send our condolences to the family members of these two individuals and any others who may have known them as this appears to be yet another senseless act of violence.
Walker Carey is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Wednesday night’s game between Detroit and Wright State. You can follow him at @walkerRcarey.
While Detroit represented the Horizon League in the NCAA Tournament last season, prior to this season Butler had long maintained a virtual stronghold on the top position in the conference. Luckily for the current members of the Horizon League, Butler is no longer around as the Bulldogs bolted after the 2011-12 season to join the Atlantic 10. With the Bulldogs’ departure, teams who had long played second fiddle to Brad Stevens’ program were now given the opportunity to make themselves known as serious contenders. The following is a breakdown of the four teams who currently possess the best chance of taking home the conference crown this year and represent the Horizon League in the NCAA Tournament.
Broekhoff Leads A Dangerous Valparaiso Team
1. Valparaiso – 16-6 overall (6-2 in Horizon League) – Bryce Drew’s Crusaders are not only in first place in the conference, but they are also one of the hottest teams in the league. After dropping their conference opener, a home match-up with Loyola, the Crusaders have notched wins in six of their last seven games. Valpo is led by a duo of foreign-born front line standouts. Australian senior forward Ryan Broekhoff – last season’s Horizon League Player of the Year – leads the team in scoring (17.2 PPG) and rebounding (8.5 RPG), while fellow senior forward Kevin Van Wijk, a native of the Netherlands, trails only Broekhoff for the team lead in scoring (13.5 PPG) and rebounding (5.2 RPG). While the Crusaders dropped their most recent contest – a road setback to Youngstown State on Wednesday – the remainder of their schedule is manageable enough for the team to remain the favorite to earn the regular season crown and the top seed in the league tournament.
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Top Teams Battle Quick Turnarounds. Basketball played at the highest levels, both professional and Division I, is an all-encompassing enterprise. Games are but a small fraction of the athlete experience. There’s a laundry list of team workouts, weight-lifting sessions, post-workout ice baths and rehab, nutrition management, sleep monitoring, all among other minutiae — all of which influences how a player feels when he’s out on the court. One of the toughest parts about playing in front of jam-packed stadiums and millions of eyeballs is that half of the time, you’re doing it away from the comfort of your own home/campus/stadium. Teams travel around the country to various arenas, sleeping in hotels and braving late-night flights. Even for non-athletes, that stuff wears on you. Imagine having to jump off a plane, get a half-night’s sleep, then wake up for a morning shootaround and play a game in a foreign place later that night. This is the reality these players face, and it’s even more daunting when games are stacked in close proximity, and more so when you’ve just ground out the biggest win of the season to date. To wit: Syracuse, fresh off Saturday’s toppling of No. 1 Louisville at the Yum! Center, faced a 3:30 PM ET tip with Cincinnati, one of the toughest, persistent, and most physical teams in the country. Getting up for a two-day whirlwind is difficult against any team. Against Cincinnati? It’s outright brutal. A few other big-name teams stared down similar time constraints, including one with a huge asterisk. I don’t want to give too much away. This is, after all, a lede.
Your Watercooler Moment. Orange D Wears Out Cincinnati.
A tough two-game stretch couldn’t stop the surging Orange (photo credit: Getty Images).
You couldn’t help looking at this match-up, and the two teams comprising it, and not come to the basic conclusion that this was a strength-on-strength battle. Both teams entered Monday touting defenses ranked in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s metrics. Syracuse’s defense is slightly better, efficiency-wise, and the disparity – the Orange have allowed 0.84 points per trip thus far, compared to 0.86 for Cincinnati – and that disparity bore out on the court. It might not seem like much, but over anywhere between 65 to 75 possessions (give or take), it makes a difference. On Monday, that margin came in the form of Jim Boeheim’s patented 2-3 zone grinding and harassing and forcing star Bearcats guard Sean Kilpatrick into an inefficient 21 points on 6-of-16 shooting. Syracuse’s ability to stunt Cincinnati by zoning in on one or maybe two really talented guards is why there’s so much skepticism about the Bearcats as any sort of sustained threat at the top of the Big East. You know Mick Cronin’s team is going to defend. You know they’re going to play some of the most physical hoop in the country. But unless they can remake their offense to lessen the load on their esteemed guard trio (Kilpatrick, JaQuon Parker, Cashmere Wright), Cincinnati is going to run into teams it simply can’t put away. Defense is important, but it is also only half of the equation.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
More Big 12 Muck. The glimmers of hope offered by Kansas’ shaky play in recent weeks — neck-and-neck home wins over Temple and Iowa State, an uninspiring effort at Texas Tech, a grind-it-out victory at Texas — are nothing to worry about. Presuming a safe passage through Bramlage Coliseum Tuesday night, the Jayhawks will win the the Big 12 going away. That’s because the rest of the league just isn’t very good. Oklahoma State lost again Monday night. Texas guards like crazy but can’t keep up with anyone on the offensive end. Baylor is as inconsistent as it is talented. And Oklahoma (who handled Texas on Monday night), for all its recent buzz at the Big 12 watercooler, hasn’t beaten anyone remotely good. The point is, however much you quibble with Kansas’ unflattering conference form, and however critical your reviews on the Jayhawks’ secondary offensive weapons — the idea, misguided perhaps, that Ben McLemore is the only thing Kansas has going for it on the offensive end — the fact of the matter is the Jayhawks have not lost in Big 12 play, and if they can get by the Sunflower State’s little brother on the road tomorrow night, it’ll be smooth sailing to another KU Big 12 crown. This is not new territory for Bill Self’s program. Read the rest of this entry »
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.