The Other 26: This Is Not Mark Few’s Best Team… Yet

Posted by IRenko on February 16th, 2013

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 17-point win at St. Mary’s on Thursday night pushed Gonzaga’s record to 24-2 and cleared its biggest hurdle to a regular season record tainted with just two losses, some are wondering whether this is the best team that Mark Few has put together in his 14 years at the helm. It’s a fair question, given the way they’re playing. But the best ever? Sure, not since Adam Morrison was dragged off the court after a heartbreaking loss to UCLA ended his college career, have the Zags had a player with the combination of star power, All-American credentials, and curious hairstyle that Kelly Olynyk has brought this year. And, true, moreso than the Morrison-led team of 2006, this squad is a well-balanced offensive machine, with a multitude of frontcourt and backcourt options. They proved that on Thursday, when Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, who have deferred most of the scoring load this year to Olynyk and Elias Harris, dropped a combined 38 points on St. Mary’s.

This Gonzaga Team is Good, But Not Mark Few’s Best … Yet (James Snook / USA TODAY Sports)

This Gonzaga Team is Good, But Not Mark Few’s Best … Yet (James Snook / USA TODAY Sports)

But Few’s best team ever? They have a ways to go before they can claim such an honor. Take, for example, the 2004 team, which also dropped just two contests heading into the NCAA Tournament.  That squad was led by All-American senior guard Blake Stepp, and like Olynyk, he had lots of help. Junior Ronny Turiaf, sophomore Morrison, and senior Cory Violette shared the scoring load, with all four players averaging in double-digits. They coasted through league play undefeated, never winning a game by less than double digits, and ended the season on a 20-game win streak en route to a 2 seed in the Tournament, Gonzaga’s best ever. Their two pre-Tournament losses were to St. Joe’s and Stanford, both of which went on to earn 1 seeds that year. By contrast, this year’s Gonzaga team lost to Illinois, a bubble team, at home by 11 points.

Of course, this year’s squad could prove itself a superior to the 2004 team — or any team that Few has coached — if it can get past the Sweet Sixteen. Since Gonzaga burst onto the college hoops scene 14 years ago with a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight, they’ve yet to get reach the brink of a Final Four, much less a Final Four itself. The ballyhooed ’04 squad was upset by 10th-seeded Nevada in the second round, the ’05 team squandered a 3 seed with a second round loss to Texas Tech, and the ’06 Zags memorably collapsed against UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen (a game to which one cannot refer without remarking that it was perhaps the finest moment of Gus Johnson’s illustrious career). This Gonzaga team stacks up well with those predecessors, but unless it breaks through to the second game of the second weekend, it won’t prove to be their clear superior.

What’s undisputed, however, is that the Zags have been dominant enough to remain at the top of this year’s Top 10.  On to that, our Honor Roll, and this week’s games to watch  . . .

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ATB: Two Pac-12 Heavyweights Go Down, Zags Pass Big Test and Minnesota Nips Wisconsin…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 15th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. West Coast Stand Up. The West Coast staged the best of Thursday night’s games. For those who enjoy the spoils of the Pacific Time Zone, that’s entirely positive. Nighttime hoops is a normal occurrence. West coast denizens are exposed to these teams and players as part of their usual television viewing habits. And for the diehard fans out there living on central and eastern time, staying up a few extra hours to either a) watch or b) write about college basketball isn’t the end of the world. The masses aren’t so willing, by and large, which means many of the nation’s best conferences and leagues are something like foreign entities. Getting caught up by reading, watching highlights or studying these teams isn’t difficult, but the national audience is doubtless downsized for these West Coast-heavy nights. This isn’t a personal problem – I’m speaking in generalities. I have no qualms eschewing sleep for the best of the west, which is nice, because otherwise you’d be left without a tidy nightly recap of all that late-night cant-miss hardwood drama.

Your Watercooler Moment. Hey Now, Pac-12.

A late-push from the Golden Bears could shake up the Pac 12 race (Photo credit: AP Photo).

A late-push from the Golden Bears could shake up the Pac-12 race (Photo credit: AP Photo).

I could spill boundless quantities of digital ink on the frustrating development of the UCLA Bruins – the inconsistency of Ben Howland’s team, the perplexing reality of his team playing better defense (0.95 points per-possession in conference play) than offense (1.00). Or I could rip the Arizona Wildcats, a team I staunchly defended against early-season claims of specious success and smoke-and-mirrors late-game fortune. I’ll stay off both subjects, because on Thursday night the floor belonged to Cal and Colorado. Huge bubble-shifting opportunities were on offer for both clubs – Cal getting UCLA at home and Colorado welcoming Arizona – and neither failed to pull through. I wouldn’t call this a revenge game for the Buffaloes (Arizona players didn’t waive off Sabatino Chen’s should-be game winner; referees did), but Tad Boyle’s club played with purpose and grit throughout, to the point where last-possession bank-shot heaves were completely beside the point. Cal’s win was similarly uninteresting, scoreline-wise, and it gave it another big Pac-12 win to go alongside recent victories over Arizona and Oregon. The Bears need every sliver of profile-boosting juice they can get; they missed on pretty much every big opportunity in the non-conference, and hadn’t beaten anyone of note before the February 2 win over the Ducks. Beating UCLA is another nice chip, and Mike Montgomery’s team is looking more and more like an at-large worthy group. Colorado’s win is icing on an already solid portfolio – but, boy, must it feel nice to get even with the Wildcats, even if that loss had as much to do with a blown lead and faulty officiating as it did Arizona itself. Anyway, the Pac-12, somewhat insanely (remember last year?), has some real, actual depth: Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, Cal, Stanford (eh), Arizona State (eh) and Colorado are all at least relevant talking points in the NCAA Tourney discussion.

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College Basketball By The Tweets: Cameron Crazy Chants, Notre Dame, Nerlens Noel, and Nate Wolters

Posted by Nick Fasulo on February 13th, 2013

bythetweets

Nick Fasulo is an RTC correspondent who writes the column College Basketball By the Tweets, a look at the world of college hoops through the prism of everyone’s favorite social media platform. You can find him on Twitter @nickfasuloSBN.

When NC State beat Duke in Raleigh back in January, fans rushed the court, C.J Leslie was deemed a hero, and we were all supposed to think it was an ACC power-shifting victory for the Wolfpack. Then Mark Gottfried’s club took a return trip to Durham, and were beaten decisively, restoring reality and balance to the top of the league. Following the game, this was the scene at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Yes that’s right, just another day in the office for the Blue Devils

A Faux Chant About Tyler Lewis’s Grandmother

There’s nothing worse than a baseless rumor that lives and dies on Twitter… but when one occurs in the college basketball world, we have to at least trace its arc. Following said loss to Duke last week, NC State Wolfpack fans, or alumni, or beat writers, or maybe just Blue Devil haters, started something nasty declaring that the Cameron Crazies started a chant about Tyler Lewis’s grandmother, who passed away just days before. Totally awful, right? Absolutely, but ultimately something totally awful that likely never actually happened. The seeds were planted after it got in front of a former Wolfpack star with a bit of clout and a few thousand followers.

Within minutes many had immediately jumped at how horrible it sounded, while some took a second to think that it was probably not true.

Checking their timelines, and neither seem confident enough to deliver an earnest and clear response. So from there, all the Dookie fans got defensive, and rightfully so, and pretty quickly it was clear that this was a Twitter troll with a very short life span.

And finally.

Sigh. Oh and, by the way. Rodney Purvis checked Twitter, saw what was going on, posted his thoughts completely based on hearsay, looked like a clown, then deleted his tweet. All in the span of 45 seconds.

Let’s face it, NC State was just bitter. This did not happen or it would have had legs in the general media over the following days.  The Cameron Crazies have hurled some not-so-flattering chants at opponents over the years, but rarely have they leapt over the line like this.

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The Other 26: It’s Nate Wolters’ World, and We’re Just Living In It

Posted by IRenko on February 9th, 2013

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.

It wasn’t that long ago when we were musing in this space about whether an early December ankle injury was hindering Nate Wolters’ performance. After missing two games, Wolters registered three straight games with a sub-100 offensive rating (per Ken Pomeroy), decidedly mediocre performances by Wolters’ high standards. But those would be the only three games this year where Wolters fell below that mark, as he emerged from his funk with a 28-point performance in a big win over New Mexico. Since then, Wolters has been as productive as ever. But none of us could have expected what happened on Thursday night. Wolters exploded for an incredible 53-point performance.

Nate Wolters Owned the Court on Thursday Night (South Dakota State Athletics)

Nate Wolters Owned the Court on Thursday Night (South Dakota State Athletics)

Wolters shot 17-of-28 from the floor, including 9-of-14 from three-point range. He added 10 points from the free throw line. He outscored the entire opposing team, IPFW, in the second half, 38-37. He scored in every which way — step back threes, drives through the lane, catch-and-shoot threes, drives along the baseline, threes off ball screens, pull-up jumpers … you name it, he did it.

Wolters is now averaging 22.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game. He commits just 2.3 turnovers a game despite using more than 30 percent of the Jackrabbits’ possessions. He shoots over 80 percent from the free throw line and over 40 percent from the three-point line. And perhaps most important of all, he has led his team on an eight-game winning streak that has buried an uneven start to the conference season and put the Jackrabbits in a first-place tie with Western Illinois. If you’ve yet to catch the Wolters show, fret not as there are some high-profile opportunities in the coming weeks. Next Saturday, the Jackrabbits welcome Western Illinois to Brookings, and you can bet that the joint will be jumping. And a week later, Wolters will take his talents to Murray, Kentucky to square off against Isaiah Canaan and the Racers in a premier Bracketbuster matchup.

On to this week’s Top 10, our Honor Roll, and the games to watch this week …

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ATB: Illini Come Up Huge, Wolters Drops 53 Points, and Missouri’s Plight…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 8th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Stay Away From Number One. My best advice for teams trying to avoid losses: stay out of the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll. Every team should take the floor on a given night with that underlying objective – winning games is a generally good thing, I’d wager – which makes that logic a really interesting counterfactual. The only way to reach the top is by winning games, but if every team to inherit No. 1 dating back to January 7 (when Duke opened up the week at No. 1 for the fourth consecutive week) has gone on to surrender the ranking in the seven days that followed, it begs the question: are teams better off avoiding the coveted weekly AP crown? Of course not. That preamble was, in essence, a roundabout way to introduce you to the latest slain No. 1. On Monday, upon the AP poll’s customary afternoon release, it will be official – especially if Indiana falls at Ohio State Sunday. The Hoosiers were the main storyline from Thursday night, but they weren’t the only one.

Your Watercooler Moment. A Win Illinois Needed.

There is only one way to go about discussing Illinois’ win over No. 1 Indiana Thursday night. It is a season-defining moment. The Illini were fading fast in Big Ten play, descending into NIT territory far quicker than anyone could have imagined after an excellent nonconference season, but as we’ve seen time and again this time of year, one win can change everything. This win – which saw Illinois rip off a 13-2 run with under four minutes remaining after being down by double digits for most of the second half – changes the conversation around Illinois. It brings renewed optimism to a conference season that, up until Thursday night, had done more harm than good to the Illini’s Tournament chances. The road ahead doesn’t get any easier, and Illinois will need to improve its still-lacking 3-7 league record. But with a win of this magnitude in your back pocket, Illinois’ view on the rest of the season changes considerably. The final eight regular season games and Big Ten Tournament are no longer about hunting upset wins. The Illini got that Thursday night. From here on out, John Groce’s team needs to handle business against equal-to-inferior competition (Purdue, at Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, at Iowa), watch the bubble soften up around them and sit back as its solid computer figures and stable of marquee wins carry them over the finish line. Those above games aren’t guarantees – such games don’t exist in this year’s Big Ten. But Illinois is more than capable of handling all of them. Few wins will mean more on Selection Sunday than this one; Illinois is back in the discussion, at the very least, and depending on how the at-large picture shakes out over the next month, the Illini could look back to Thursday as the night they sealed their Tournament fate.

Your quick Hits…

  • Wolters Goes For 53. Few mid-to-low major players in today’s college game hold as much national appeal as Wolters. Not to the casual post-Superbowl Hoops crowd; rather, he is something of a college hoops nerd’s cult fascination, for reasons understandable and not. On Thursday night, he did something memorable. Something that will stick with Wolters for the rest of his basketball-playing career. He scored a Division-I season-high 53 points. He converted nine three point shots, and 17 total field goals. He expanded the Wolters legend into a tangible and largely appreciable concept for college hoops fans previously unaware of his brilliance. Wolters is an excellent basketball player, but no one – not even the most ardent Wolters’ supporters – saw this coming.

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The Other 26: Niagara Rushes Forth

Posted by IRenko on February 2nd, 2013

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.

When you hear the word “Niagara” you’re not likely to think of basketball. But in the shadow of one of the world’s natural wonders, something is percolating on the hardwood. After a thrilling 93-90 overtime win over Iona that included a rally from a late 15-point deficit and a buzzer-beating three-pointer to win the game, Niagara sits atop the MAAC standings at 10-1. A win over Loyola today would cap a tremendous week for the Purple Eagles, giving them a perfect 3-0 record against the next three teams in the standings — Iona, Loyola, and Canisius — over the past seven days.

Juan'ya Green Capped Niagara's Thrilling Win Over Iona With a Last-Second Three-Pointer  in Overtime (James P. McCoy / Buffalo News)

Juan’ya Green Capped Niagara’s Thrilling Win Over Iona With a Last-Second Three-Pointer in Overtime (James P. McCoy / Buffalo News)

Last year, Niagara finished 14-19, the first time in head coach Joe Mihalich’s 10-year tenure that he suffered consecutive losing seasons. Mihalich had taken the Purple Eagles to the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and 2007 and to the NIT in 2004 and 2009, but the team had fallen behind the pack in the MAAC in the three years since. The seeds of a resurgence were planted during last year’s losing campaign, as a host of young players started to find their footing in Division 1 college hoops. Having lost no one to graduation, Niagara was predicted to finish fifth in the MAAC in the preseason coaches’ poll. That seemed a fair, perhaps optimistic, assessment, but the clear light of hindsight makes a mockery of it.

What accounts for the turnaround? Mostly the maturation of Niagara’s all-sophomore backcourt: Juan’ya Green, Antoine Mason, and Ameen Tanksley. Last year, the trio showed that they had talent. This year, they’re showing that they can channel it into efficient offense.  Green is actually averaging fewer points (16.5) than he did as a freshman (17.6), but that’s in part because he’s managed to corral his considerable talents and become a more effective facilitator. Coming out of high school, Green was known for his prodigious scoring ability, but questions lingered about his ability to create for his teammates. He’s answering those questions this year, increasing his assists (5.2 per game) and decreasing his turnovers (2.8 per game). With Green deferring more to his teammates, Mason, the son of former NBA player Anthony Mason, has stepped into the role of lead scorer. He’s upped his per-game average from 15.1 to a team-leading 18.7, but more importantly, he’s become a much more efficient scorer.  He’s increased his field goal percentage from 38.2 to 44.6. He now shoots almost 80 percent from the free throw line, after shooting less than 65 percent last year, a significant development because of his knack for getting to the charity stripe. Tanksley, for his part, has also boosted his field goal percentage, from 38.6 to 45.7 and upped his scoring average into double-digits.

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Award Tour: Fabulous Week For Freshmen; Jim Larranaga Is New No. 1 Coach

Posted by DCassilo on February 1st, 2013

awardtour

David Cassilo is an RTC columnist who also writes about college basketball for SLAM magazine. You can follow him at @dcassilo.

What a couple of days it was for our freshmen across college basketball. On Tuesday, there was Nerlens Noel, who provided one of college basketball’s best performances of the year by blocking 12 shots in Kentucky’s win over Ole Miss. Meanwhile, his teammate Archie Goodwin posted 24 points, six rebounds and four assists. A day later it was Baylor’s Isaiah Austin stealing the show with 19 points and 20 rebounds. Elsewhere in the Big 12, Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart had 21 points, six rebounds, seven assists and four steals. Anyone who believes talent is down this year for the freshman class just hasn’t been paying attention.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

10. Anthony Bennett – UNLV (Last week – 8)
2012-13 stats: 18.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG

After starting the season on fire, Bennett has not been nearly as dominant in the Mountain West Conference. He clings to a spot this week after averaging 15 points and seven rebounds over his last two games. This week: February 2 at Boise State, February 6 at Fresno State

9. Cody Zeller – Indiana (Last Week – 9)
2012-13 stats: 16.1 PPG, 8.2 RPG

Zeller has drawn a lot of criticism this season, mainly because of expectations that were too high in the first place. When the dust settles, he’s still the top scorer and rebounder on the third-best team in the country. This week: February 2 vs. Michigan, February 7 at Illinois

8. Kelly Olynyk – Gonzaga (Last Week – 7)
2012-13 stats: 18 PPG, 6.9 RPG

Kelly Olynyk is Making Waves For More Reasons Than His Haircut This Season

Kelly Olynyk is Making Waves For More Reasons Than His Haircut This Season.

With the below-average competition in the West Coast Conference, Olynyk isn’t posting monster numbers lately because he really doesn’t have to. He’s coming off a week in which he averaged 14 points and seven rebounds, while the Bulldogs cruised to two victories. This week: February 2 at San Diego, February 7 vs. Pepperdine

7. Ben McLemore – Kansas (Last week – 6)
2012-13 stats: 16.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG

Early foul trouble against West Virginia on Monday had McLemore destined for his worst game in ages. But he still found a way to finish with a solid 13 points and four rebounds. It must be nice to have a freshman that you can pencil in for at least those numbers every night. This week: February 2 vs. Oklahoma State, February 6 at TCU

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CIO… the Summit League

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 24th, 2013

CIO header

Eli Linton is the RTC correspondent for the Summit League.

Top Storylines

  • All Eyes On Wolters: Nate Wolters is still on pace for the improbable back-to-back 20-5-5 season. Wolters (as of 1/23) is averaging 20.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game this seaon. It’s only happened five times in NCAA history, and he already owns one of those five seasons. If he keeps the pace, Wolters will be the only player in Division I history to average those numbers twice. Although there are questions about his ability to play at the next level, Wolters is having a historic college career, and it’s mostly gone unnoticed in the mainstream. Wolters is also one of 20 finalists for the Naismith Trophy, and he became the first player in SDSU history to reach the 2,000 point mark in a win over Western Illinois on January 17.
There Aren't Many Chances Left To Catch Nate Wolters In Action.. (AP Photo)

There Aren’t Many Chances Left To Catch Nate Wolters In Action. (AP)

  • The Summit League Rising: The Summit League has reached #16 in conference RPI as of January 22. With North Dakota State, Western Illinois and South Dakota State all reaching the mid-major Top 25 rankings, the Summit League seems to have been able to preserve the mid-major clout they had worked so hard to build in recent years despite realignment. We’re still looking for that Cinderella team to break through and get a win in March. This conference has had a strong candidate every season, and now it looks like the Summit has three strong contenders emerging from the ranks.

Reader’s Take

 

Power Rankings

  1. North Dakota State (16-4, 7-1): Taylor Braun is having a fantastic season, averaging 15.2 points and five rebounds per contest while shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc, but it is the Bison defense that has improved drastically to propel them to the top of the Summit League. NDSU is  holding opponents to 56.2 points per game and under 38 percent shooting on the season. Their last loss was against Minnesota on December 11 before falling on Saturday to a very good Western Illinois team on the road. This team is doing its best to ruin the repeat party for South Dakota State. Read the rest of this entry »
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Nate Wolters Continues To Flourish With His Jackrabbits Back Under The Radar

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 4th, 2013

Brian Goodman is an RTC editor. He filed this report from Municipal Auditorium, home to more Final Fours (nine) than any other NCAA site, and where Nate Wolters continued his high-level play as one of the country’s top guards Thursday night.

South Dakota State head coach Scott Nagy lined up a challenging non-conference schedule for his Jackrabbits with road games at Minnesota, New Mexico, Alabama, Belmont, and Hofstra this season. Senior guard Nate Wolters shined through it all, scoring and assisting in nearly every way imaginable despite steep competition and big audiences. While the start of conference play means more nationally meaningful games for power league teams, the opposite is true for the toiling Summit League in which SDSU plays, a perennial one-bid conference, but that isn’t an excuse to let Wolters return to obscurity for the 10 weeks between now and March Madness. In fact, if his recent play is any indication, he may be nearing the peak of a storybook career worthy of more attention than ever.

Wolters Is Still Recovering From An Injury, Which Should Scare Opponents (Credit: thesummitleague.org)

Wolters Is Still Recovering From An Injury, Which Should Scare Opponents (Credit: thesummitleague.org)

Wolters came into Thursday’s game against UMKC on the heels of two 25-point games, a win at New Mexico and a loss to North Dakota State. He continued his high-efficiency play with a marvelous night against the Kangaroos. The Jackrabbits led wire-to-wire and left Municipal Auditorium with a 77-61 win that wasn’t even that close, and it was during a big run in the final minutes of the first half when Wolters went to work on his nightly highlight reel.

The Jackrabbits ignited an 18-0 run over the last 5:28 of the first half, with Wolters having a hand in all but three of those points. Whether it was finishing through contact, turning defense into offense with steals and dishes in transition, threading the needle, hitting set shots from the perimeter, or converting from the line, he made all of it look easy. Perhaps most impressive was Wolters’ demeanor. The arena’s sparse attendance made sneaker squeaks, bench banter, and coaches’ instructions easily audible, but there was hardly a peep by Wolters all night despite the fact that he plays a position where communication is hugely important. He let his game do all the talking, and it roared on Thursday night. By the time the game was finished, Wolters had a sterling, stat-stuffing line: 23 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four steals, and just one turnover in 36 minutes of action.

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ATB: Referees Deny Colorado At The Buzzer, USC Upends Stanford and The CAA’s Wretched State…

Posted by Chris Johnson on January 4th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Pac-12 Takes Center Stage. Last season, the Pac-12 made history by becoming the first Big Six conference not to send its regular season champion to the NCAA Tournament via an at-large bid. The downward spiral that lead to this unfortunate circumstance began in non-conference play, where the league squandered nearly all of its big match-ups, which deflated the Pac-12’s RPI and set up a vicious cycle whereby teams had no shot of upward movement on the NCAA bubble shuffling line. This year, the league is marginally better. The high-end quality, starting with UCLA and Arizona, is light year’s ahead of where it was last season, but the league as a whole isn’t all that much improved. Three momentous Pac-12 matchups – Cal at UCLA, Colorado at Arizona and Stanford at USC – highlighted tonight’s slate, each of which allowed for valuable observation and analysis. Without giving away the rest of tonight’s ATB, I’ll reveal this much: the Pac-12 isn’t horrible!; which is to say, the regular season champ, whoever that may be, should be on solid footing come Selection Sunday.

Your Watercooler Moment. Apparent Buzzer-Beater Waved Off To Deny Colorado Huge Road Win At Arizona.

In truth, I’d love to discuss the way Colorado went out and fought Arizona for 40 minutes (and OT), the way Tad Boyle’s team got five players in double figures and played remarkably resilient hoop against the No. 3 team in the country in a tough road environment, the way the Buffaloes proved the Pac-12 race is far from the foregone conclusion many envisioned after the Wildcats’ veritably peerless non-conference work. But I just can’t. The biggest talking point is unavoidable – Sabatino Chen’s buzzer beater that wasn’t. Debate will rage on for days about whether or not Chen’s banked-in three was released before the buzzer, and whether the officials had enough evidence to overturn the initial ruling (a made bucket, a Colorado win). For a closer look, assuming you’re not satisfied with the real-time footage provided above, check out this GIF segmenting Chen’s release into discrete steps. The controversy will intensify if this ultimately leads to Colorado’s NCAA Tournament denial. But seeing as Colorado took the undefeated Wildcats to the absolute brink – and did so without a productive scoring night from star forward Andre Roberson (nine points on 3-of-7 from the floor) – this team looks very capable of making noise in the Pac 12 title chase and earning an at-large bid without sweating Selection Sunday. Besides, an event as controversial and contentious as this often has a galvanizing effect on a team. This could springboard Colorado into a substantial winning streak; the opposite effect – a demoralizing defeat that leads to a downward losing spiral – is a possibility, but I’m not betting on Colorado feeling sorry for itself. Tad Boyle will have his bunch playing inspired basketball when they take the floor at Arizona State in three days. Fairly or unfairly officiated, it’s a total drag to see such a tight game come down to an official’s whistle. When two of the Pac 12’s best teams meet up, I think we can all agree the teams, not the referees, should be the ones settling the final score.

Tonight’s Quick Hits…

  • Wolverines Dispel B1G Road Game Theory. The common perception about this year’s Big Ten is that every road game, save a few locales, will be a chore. That’s been the look of things so far, with Illinois losing to Purdue Wednesday night, and Indiana just barely hanging on at Iowa on New Year’s Eve. Michigan had no such trouble on its trip to Northwestern. The Wolverines trounced Bill Carmody’s team on the strength of 44 combined points from backcourt duo Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Burke got anything he wanted, whenever and wherever he wanted it. The Wildcats, already without defensive specialist JerShonn Cobb (suspension) and perimeter weapon Drew Crawford (injury), were without leading scorer Reggie Hearn, which turned an already undermanned lineup into coterie of inexperienced freshmen and marginal role players. Whether or not Northwestern was at full strength, Michigan wasn’t losing this game. In fact, I’m not sure there’s a team in the country that can beat the Wolverines when they shoot 59 percent from beyond the arc and just under 60 percent overall. Read the rest of this entry »
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ATB: Bluegrass Battle Produces Drama, UNC Steps Up Against UNLV, and One Excellent Day For Kevin Ollie….

Posted by Chris Johnson on December 31st, 2012

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The Weekend’s Lede. Commonwealth Rivalry Lives Up. It doesn’t get any bigger than Louisville-Kentucky. There are little rivalries that make for great shows of organic competitiveness and bitterness, but they have nothing on what took place Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center. Each year, no matter the disparities in talent or experience, these teams come to play in this rivalry game. The emotional baggage makes the Commonwealth clash an event in itself. When you get two Top 25 sides trading jabs, two coaches with well-established personal gripes – one of whom has navigated the delicate balance of a blue-to-red partisan conversion – there’s added drama to throw on top of the natural hatred. One side (Louisville) entered with more talent, experience and depth, but as is the case in most rivalry games, the final outcome was decided based on who could execute better in crunch time (and who could convert from the free throw line). Whatever your allegiance, or if your viewing interest was of the impartial variety, it’s hard to begrudge the sheer quality and entertainment factor of Saturday’s contest. Louisville-Kentucky was the massive event overshadowing the rest of the weekend, but there were a few other interesting games on tap. Time to wrap up the final weekend of non-conference play.

Your Watercooler Moment. Harrow Doesn’t Break Under Pressure.

Considering he was facing the most relentless ball-pressuring backcourt in the country, Harrow managed the big stage with unexpected poise (photo credit: Getty Images).

Considering he was facing the most relentless ball-pressuring backcourt in the country, Harrow managed the big stage with unexpected poise (photo credit: Getty Images).

The biggest question mark looming over Kentucky’s slow start was the comfort and progression of point guard Ryan Harrow. No one ever said he was going to be Derrick Rose, or even Marquis Teague – the Calipari point guard dynasty is a tough standard to maintain – Harrow simply needs to operate at a level that allows the Wildcats to maximize the talents of Kyle Wiltjer, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin on the perimeter, and enable Nerlens Noel to capitalize on easy lobs and putbacks. Even that seemed like a pipe dream for Harrow following a mysterious four-game absence in November. He’s made huge strides over the past three weeks, and had his best game (23 points on 10-of-17 shooting) just over a week ago in an 82-54 win over Marshall. That was a small step. In Louisville, Harrow was walking into one of the best defensive backcourts statistically-speaking in NCAA history (its 80.0 adjusted defensive efficiency entering Saturday’s game ranks among the best marks in Ken Pomeroy’s database, dating back to 2003), and few believed he was ready to handle the type of pressure Russ Smith and Peyton Siva were going to throw at him. Harrow jumped into the biggest spotlight of his career and performed like a point guard of Calipari’s recent vintage. Not only did Harrow score 17 points and help spearhead a furious second-half rally, but he committed zero turnovers, found ways to ward off the active hands and smothering pressure of Siva and Smith, and commanded Kentucky’s offense with aplomb. The scoreboard reflects a Kentucky loss, a short-term disappointment. In the long term, if Harrow’s performance is a barometer for his development and maturation in Calipari’s system, Saturday was a huge win. With a capable point guard puppeteering the offense, the future is bright for Kentucky.

Also Worth Chatting About. Don’t Count Out UNC Yet.

The Tar Heels Looked locked-in defensively against the talented Rebels (photo credit: Getty Images).

The Tar Heels Looked locked-in defensively against the talented Rebels (photo credit: Getty Images).

If any team needed a statement win heading into conference play, it was North Carolina. Besides a puzzling loss at Texas (and even that, given the Longhorns’ defensive chops, is not a fatal misstep) The Tar Heels hadn’t exactly dropped the ball in non-conference play – they lost to two very good teams from the state of Indiana, one an offensive juggernaut (IU) and one a vaunted perfectionist (Butler) in the art of sizing up and beating down more talented opponents – but they hadn’t exactly looked like the ACC front-runner many expected them to be. The visiting UNLV Rebels offered a prime opportunity to hold court against a top-20-level outfit, and build some serious momentum for ACC play in the process. UNC’s stifling defense and balanced scoring overwhelmed the Rebels, who suffered a brutal five-minute field goal-less streak in the second half and received an uncharacteristically inefficient showing from freshman wunderkind Anthony Bennett (15 points on 6-of-16 shooting). Neither team was at full strength – Mike Moser played just 12 minutes in his return from an elbow injury, and Reggie Bullock was scratched with a concussion – but UNC seized its last big chance to make a splash before ACC play. And with a brutal six-game stretch featuring games against Virginia, Miami, Florida State, Maryland and NC State up next, the Tar Heels needed a momentum boost in the biggest way. The proud fans in Chapel Hill can breathe, for now, and feel better about this season not mimicking a 2009-10 campaign that saw the Tar Heels follow up the Hansborough-Lawson-Green-Ellington supergroup with an NIT appearance.

Your Quick Hits….

  • Santa Clara Tests Duke. It is a fundamental truism of the 2012-13 college hoops season that Gonzaga will win the West Coast Conference. In fact, I’m willing to go ahead and bet the Zags will have created enough distance from other challengers by February 1 to have rendered the word “race” completely and utterly moot. The rest of the league is far less certain. St. Mary’s is the logical favorite to claim the No. 2 spot. Loyola Marymount is always a tough out. And you can never discount BYU and the daunting road trip that is Provo, Utah. Time to insert a new name in the conversation: Santa Clara. The Broncos went into Cameron Indoor Saturday night and put a scare into the No. 1 Blue Devils, their upset bid powered by 29 points from senior guard Kevin Foster. That’s the kind of confidence-building performance that pays dividends in conference play, when you can rest assured Santa Clara will ride into any road environment exuding confidence and poise.
  • Ollie Gets First Win With New Job Title. Hours before Cincinnati’s Saturday night tipoff with visiting Washington, ESPN’s Andy Katz reported UConn had signed Kevin Ollie to a five-year contract extension, thus eliminating the interim tag and granting the long-term security most believed Ollie had earned after leading the Huskies to a 9-2 start and creating a smooth transitory bridge from Jim Calhoun’s fiery coaching style to a new era of UConn basketball. Losing your first game after receiving a big financial commitment from AD Warde Manuel would have been a bad look. The Huskies’ talented backcourt trio of Shabazz Napier, Omar Calhoun and Ryan Boatwright ensured their new coach had a win to back up his new job title, with each posting double-figure scoring totals in an eight-point victory over Washington. UConn may not have postseason motivations on its side, but what it does have, thanks to Saturday’s extension, is a huge incentive to help lay the foundation for Ollie’s tenure and a return to national relevance. Read the rest of this entry »
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The Other 26: The Mountain West Enters the Spotlight

Posted by IRenko on December 29th, 2012

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.

The action was light during this past holiday week, but the Mountain West’s finest took advantage of the lull to thrust themselves into the spotlight with two exciting contests, a pair of one-point games against top 10 teams decided by last-second blocks. In the final of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, San Diego State fell just short against third-ranked Arizona, losing 68-67 when Xavier Thames’ potential winning shot was blocked by Arizona’s Nick Johnson as time expired. Two days later, New Mexico visited eighth-ranked Cincinnati and emerged with a hard-fought 55-54 victory that was sealed by a last-second block from sophomore Alex Kirk. What was most impressive about these hard-fought contests is how both teams showed that even if you take away some of their key weapons, they are deep and versatile enough to compete.

(Getty Images)

Alex Kirk Led a Tough New Mexico Performance Against Cincinnati (Getty Images)

The Lobos distinguished themselves not just with a victory, but the way they earned it. They are accustomed to racking up points at the free throw line, but reached the charity stripe at only a 20 percent rate, far below their season average and good enough for just six points. But they gritted out the win by patiently moving the ball against Cincy’s high-pressure halfcourt defense to find open shooters and cutters. Junior point guard Kendall Williams turned in a performance befitting of a team leader, stepping up to hit several big three-pointers and finishing the game with a team-high 16 points. But it was Kirk who set the tone with his lunch bucket performance, fearlessly hurling himself into battle against Cincinnati’s imposing frontline and surviving with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds, and three blocks, including a game-clinching rejection of a Sean Kilpatrick three-point shot.

The Aztecs, too, can be proud of the fight they showed in Honolulu despite coming up short. Leading scorer Jamaal Franklin was held to just nine points, his lowest output of the season.  But Franklin found other ways to contribute, pulling down eight rebounds and dishing out six assists. And San Diego State found other players to carry the scoring load. Chase Tapley, who had already poured in 46 points in the first two games of the tournament, dropped 19 against Arizona to push his season scoring average to 15.8 PPG. And the Aztecs showed how strong their defense is, holding the Wildcats to 37.3 percent shooting.

This Saturday, UNLV will have a chance to intensify this week’s spotlight on the Mountain West when they travel to North Carolina. In a year when the conference seems as deep as any in the country, the only lingering doubt heading into this past week was whether they had the heavyweights to compete with the nation’s best teams. But as the final week of non-conference play comes to a close, the conference’s top teams are leaving little doubt that they can.

Top Ten Rankings

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