From now until the first tip in Dayton March 17th on the Road to the F4 in Detroit (ugh), roughly 150 or so teams are realistically jostling for position to be selected as one of the Chosen 65. As we nestle into the familiarity of conference play (only the Ivies have yet to begin) and America once again wakes up to our game, weaknesses will be exposed, experienced teams will try to avoid complacency and young teams will start to figure it all out. Come Selection Sunday, many of these prospective bracketeers will have fallen by the wayside, but there will be 50 or so at-large teams holding NCAA-caliber resumes, even though only 34 will be taken. Before we jump in with both feet into the fun that the next two months will bring, let’s take a look back at the first two months to see what we’ve learned.
Carolina is Not Unbeatable, but Are the Heels Still the Favorite? A mere month ago we wrote that North Carolina was playing like a team with plans to lose no more than a couple of games (if that many) all season. Then the last eight days happened. First, UNC lost at home to an underwhelming BC team, followed by a road loss at Wake Forest last night to start 0-2 in the ACC. So what’s going on – how can this juggernaut of a team with nearly everyone returning look so… mortal? It’s easy, really. So far, UNC’s defense hasn’t been up to snuff. It’s more efficient as a whole than last year’s version, but their statistical profile is elevated on the defensive end by forcing turnovers which in turn fuels their lethal fast break. In a halfcourt set, as Wake and BC repeatedly and effectively showed, UNC can be penetrated and exposed. The key to playing with the Heels is limiting those TOs that Ty Lawson turns into the quick strikes that overwhelm teams. Is it a fatal flaw? It could be (how’s that for a hedge?). Teams that can’t consistently make stops don’t win championships, but we really don’t see why UNC’s defense shouldn’t be able to make the commitment to improve over the next two months. The 2005 title team only became legit once Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May got serious about stopping people in addition to outscoring them. Can the 2009 Heels – specifically, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Deon Thompson – do the same? Stay tuned.
They’re Putting It Together. Now that Tom Izzo once again has a full complement of players with Goran Suton back in the fold, Michigan St. has looked much better since their abysmal performance in the ACC/B10 Challenge against UNC. They’ve run off nine in a row with wins at Texas, at Minnesota and Ohio St. – everyone wrote this team off after that UNC game, but they’ll be heard from in March. UCLA is also quietly going about its business, also reeling off nine in a row (including a 3-0 start in road games in the Pac-10) since their loss to Texas in mid-December. Ben Howland is getting production from eleven players, and if anyone really thought the Bruins were going to have a ‘rebuilding’ season, they need to have their head checked. This team will win close to 30 games again. It’s amazing how a series of close games that go your way can make or break a team’s confidence. After Louisville had dropped tight ones to Minnesota and UNLV in late December, everyone was ready to write off the Cards. Now that they’ve won three of their lost four on the last possession, they sit at 3-0 in the Big East (with two road wins) and appear to be in relatively good shape compared to some of the other Big East contenders (UConn, ND, and Georgetown in particular). We’ll see just how good they can be when #1 Pittsburgh visits on Saturday.
Pleasant Surprises. Obviously, Wake Forest is a pretty big surprise – we expected them to be pretty good, but nobody saw a top five team coming from Dino Gaudio this year. What about Syracuse? – at 16-1 and the lone loss to Cleveland St. from 75 feet, Jim Boeheim’s crew has as much talent as just about anybody in the country. Clemson is pulling its annual ridiculous start, but there are signs that this Tiger team is legit – they have a balanced attack, they’re strong at both ends of the court, and they have good road wins at Illinois, South Carolina and Miami (FL) so far. Butler is a HUGE surprise, although we shouldn’t ever be surprised with that program. The Bulldogs sit at 14-1 and two of their top three players are freshmen, yet they once again appear to be the class of the Horizon and a top mid-major. Tubby Smith has Minnesota playing great ball, and the Gophers are on a fast track to the NCAA Tournament at least a year ahead of schedule. Coaching matters – Mike Montgomery also has California playing hard for the first time in a decade. The Bears look like a top three team in the Pac-10 at this point.
Disappointments. Since the Q1 update, Gonzaga has done nothing but crap itself, losing games to Arizona, UConn, Portland St., and Utah. They did get a key OT win at Tennessee last week, and their defense is still stronger than in recent years, but for some reason or another, the Zags are having trouble putting it all together. USC is destined to become this year’s NC State (a preseason ranked team that won’t make the NCAA Tourney). The SEC – Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky – have all been various shades of disappointing. Between the cream of the SEC East, there’s what, three quality wins? On the other side of that conference, only Arkansas has even been mildly interesting, with big home wins over Oklahoma and Texas. At the mid-major level, Southern Illinois (6-8 ) and Wright St. (9-8 ) have a long way to go before they’ll turn their seasons around.
RTC Midseason All-Americans. We’ll take some heat for not putting defending NPOY Tyler Hansbrough on our first team, but his numbers, particularly his rebounding average, are off from last season. Granted, he’s still probably recovering from a stress reaction injury, so he’ll have time to recover his (rightful?) place on the 1st team, but for now, we like Griffin (obvious choice) and Harangody in our frontcourt. Curry and Harden are also easy choices in the backcourt, but we’re making a leap of faith choosing Teague – his last two games against BYU and UNC were very impressive performances (he averaged 32/5/4 assts on 59%) and we’re riding on the Wake bandwagon right now.
- Jeff Teague, G – Wake Forest (21/4/4 assts on 54%/54% 3fg shooting)
- Stephen Curry, G – Davidson (29/4/7 assts/3 stls on 45%/37% 3fg shooting)
- James Harden, G – Arizona St. (23/6/5 assts on 56%/42% 3fg shooting)
- Blake Griffin, F – Oklahoma (23/14/3 assts on 65% shooting)
- Luke Harangody, F – Notre Dame (25/13 on 51% shooting)
Knocking on the Door (2d Team).
- Tyler Hansbrough, F – North Carolina (22/8 on 54% shooting)
- Patrick Patterson, F – Kentucky (19/9/3 assts on 71% shooting)
- Dejuan Blair, F – Pittsburgh (15/13 on 61% shooting)
- Manny Harris, G – Michigan (19/8/5 assts on 44%/31% 3fg shooting)
- Ty Lawson, G – North Carolina (15/3/6 assts on 53%/42% 3fg shooting)
All-Freshman Team. Al-Farouq Aminu (Wake Forest), Jrue Holiday (UCLA) and Gordon Hayward (Butler) were tough to leave off this list.
- Greg Monroe, C – Georgetown (14/6/3 assts on 57% shooting)
- Sylven Landesberg, G – Virginia (19/6/3 assts on 49%/30% 3fg shooting)
- Tyreke Evans, G – Memphis (16/6/4 assts/3 stls on 45% shooting)
- Seth Curry, G – Liberty (20/4 on 45%/40% 3fg shooting)
- Paul George, F – Fresno St. (16/7 on 54%/46% 3fg shooting)
RTC Greatest Hits (Q2).
- John Thompson, Sr., gave his son, JT3, some unsolicited advice to cure Georgetown’s rebounding problems.
- Ray Floriani related a hilarious story about Richard Codey, a state senator in NJ, while officiating a youth basketball game.
- Rick Pitino invited his maligned PG Edgar Sosa to transfer, then lauded him for staying the course at UofL.
- RTC asked the question – is Stephen Curry’s hype a little greater than his actual performance?
- John Stevens outlined the rules for when rushing the court is appropriate.
- Former Hoosier Eric Gordon threw the rest of his team under the bus for drug use.
- John Wooden’s grandson saw some action in the John Wooden Classic – isn’t that nice?
Big Games (Q3). Here are the top 10 games of the next month.
- Syracuse @ Georgetown – 01.14.09
- Pittsburgh @ Louisville – 01.17.09
- Georgetown @ Duke – 01.17.09
- Wake Forest @ Clemson – 01.17.09
- Texas @ Baylor – 01.27.09
- Duke @ Wake Forest – 01.28.09
- California @ UCLA – 01.29.09
- Connecticut @ Louisville – 02.02.09
- Duke @ Clemson – 02.04.09
- Michigan St. @ Minnesota – 02.04.09
- Notre Dame @ UCLA – 02.07.09
Extremes. This won’t last much longer, as we fully expect all three of the unbeatens to have a loss by this time next week, if not sooner. That’s what conference play does to you. NC Central will get a win against a D2 squad soon, but poor little NJIT has no relief in sight. They’re sitting on 49 in a row and, according to KenPom’s projections, 60+ in a row is within reach. Memo to NJIT coach Jim Engles – take a page from the NC Central playbook and schedule some JV High School D2 teams.
Unbeaten (next possible loss)
- Pittsburgh (Big East): 15-0 (@ Louisville 1/17)
- Wake Forest (ACC): 14-0 (@ BC 1/14)
- Clemson (ACC): 16-0 (v. Wake Forest 1/17)
Winless (next possible win)
- NJIT (Ind): 0-16 (Bryant 1/21)
- North Carolina Central (Ind): 0-18 (D2 Central St 1/16)