This weekend marks the end of the decade-long Bracketbuster era — or experiment, depending on your perspective. Sadly, if appropriately, it looks like the event will go out with more of a whimper than a bang. Not a single game features a top 25 team, resulting in little hype for this year’s slate. But for true mid-major basketball fans, no top 25 ranking, or lack thereof, is going to dissuade them from devouring the late season, inter-conference action among the country’s best, under-the-radar-until-March teams. Here’s a preview of the five Bracketbuster games we’re most looking forward to, followed by an updated Top 10, our weekly honor roll, and the most compelling non-Bracketbuster games of the coming week.
Can Matthew Dellavedova And His Prominent Mouthpiece Lead the Gaels to a Much-Needed Win Over Creighton? (Las Vegas Sun / Sam Morris)
Creighton at St. Mary’s (6 pm, ESPN) — Both teams enter what is perhaps the premier Bracketbuster matchup with a great deal to prove. Creighton’s hot 17-1 start has given way to a rough 5-5 stretch, as the depth of the MVC has taken its toll. In four of those five losses, Creighton’s once unstoppable offense slowed to a pace of less than a point per possession. An at-large Tournamentbid remains a safe bet, even with a loss to St. Mary’s, but the Bluejays are no doubt looking to this game to reignite their offense and their season. St. Mary’s, on the other hand, is in desperate need of a quality win for its Tournament resume. Having been swept by Gonzaga, Saturday’s matchup is a virtual must-win for the Gaels. Both teams have highly efficient offenses that rely heavily on the three-point shot. Whichever defense can step up its game may emerge with the win.
Ohio at Belmont (10 pm, ESPN) – This should be a really entertaining game between two teams who love to run and gun. But for the colors of their jerseys, it may be hard to tell the two apart, as the Bobcats and Bruins have remarkably similar statistical profiles. Both are high-possession squads that shoot more than 40 percent of their field goals from three-point range and rank in the top 20 nationally in forcing turnovers. Both have high effective field goal percentages, but rebound poorly and allow their opponents to shoot far more free throws than they do. Toss in a great point guard matchup between seniors D.J. Cooper and Kerron Johnson, and you have the ingredients for a great nightcap to the day’s action.
South Dakota State at Murray State (8 pm, ESPN2) – Neither team is as good as it was last season, but both returned their star player. And it’s their matchup at the point guard spot, with Nate Wolters squaring off against Isaiah Canaan, that makes this a must-see game. The two players are the heartbeats of their respective team’s offenses. Each uses roughly 30 percent of all possessions, ranking them in the top 50 in the country. Wolters has been on a particularly nasty tear of late, averaging more than 33 points over his last five games, though two of his 30-plus efforts in that stretch were in defeat. Canaan, meanwhile, is coming off his own 35-point outburst in a win over Morehead State.
Detroit at Wichita State (4 pm, ESPN2) — Wichita State has bounced back from a recent three-game swoon with a four-game win streak that includes two close victories over Illinois State and Indiana State this past week. They’ll be the favorites against Detroit, but his game has definite upset potential. Detroit is on the upswing, winning six of their last seven, and developing a potent offensive attack with a multitude of options, from Ray McCallum’s attacking ability to Jason Calliste’s three-point shot to Nick Minnerath’s versatile inside-out game to Doug Anderson’s physical interior play. The Titans will try to push the tempo, while the Shockers will try to slow things down and pound the ball inside to their big men Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall, who may find success against Detroit’s mediocre interior defense.
Denver at Northern Iowa (8 pm, ESPN3) — After a rough 4-6 start to MVC play, Northern Iowa has righted the ship and fought its way back to where we thought it would always be — at the top of the league standings, just a step behind Wichita State and Creighton. They face a Denver team that has flown a bit under the radar, recovering from a slow start to the season to win 13 of their last 14 games. A trip to Cedar Falls will be a test of just how far the Pioneers have come. Expect a low-possession, halfcourt-oriented game, with a steady barrage of three-point shots. The Panthers have a balanced attack, with five players averaging between 9 and 13 points. Denver will turn primarily to Chris Udofia, the versatile forward who is the hub of their Princeton offense.
And now on to our updated Top 10 rankings, weekly honor roll, and the (other) games we’re keeping an eye on …
The Weekend’s Lede. A Not So Special Weekend. Not every Saturday is a jam-packed day of must-see top-25 matchups and earth-shattering upsets. This season has deluded us otherwise with an immaculate set of weekend slates, so when you get a day like this Saturday, where – with a few exceptions; college basketball is never actually boring – big-time matchups are hard to come by, disappointment is inevitable. This weekend was not as fun as most in 2013, but at this point in the season, as teams labor for resume points and RPI upgrades, most every game is hugely important. A multitude of teams either buttressed or damaged their NCAA hopes, while others remained in neutral. If those general descriptions aren’t enough (and, really, they shouldn’t be) follow along to get the all the gritty details.
Your Watercooler Moment. Terps Talk The Talk.
Must-win is a fuzzy qualifier this time of year. Can any game honestly be termed a “must” when the conference Tournament always providing a final safety net? What if the bubble unexpectedly softens up, and your previously unqualified resume starts trending in the right direction by virtue of other teams’ misfortunes? Those are always possibilities, sure, but you never want to rely on other teams crafting your NCAA Tournament fate. So Maryland took control of its own by picking up its biggest win of the season over No. 2 Duke Saturday, a win it sorely needed (there, I said it) after an uninspiring 11-point home loss to Virginia last week seemed to suck dry the final remnants of its improbable at-large hopes. The Terrapins have been one of the biggest disappointments in the ACC this season. After loudly and persistently clamoring for national poll recognition throughout November and December based on a gaudy 13-1 record that lacked anything resembling a good win, the Terrapins dropped five of their first eight ACC games, including a three-point home defeat to Florida State. Mark Turgeon’s eminently talented team – Dez Wells and Alex Len are surefire pros, and the complementary pieces are credible assets – looked vastly underprepared (or overrated) for the rigors of ACC play, the Terrapins’ Tournament hopes were evaporating and that hot start UM fans eulogized throughout the nonconference season felt like nothing more than a schedule-crafted mirage. With the exception of a home win over NC State, Maryland had basically played its way out of national relevancy. Canning the Blue Devils will help; storming the court is always fun, right? And I’d love to pencil Maryland in for an at-large berth, or at least provide some assurance with a comforting percentage projection. I just can’t, and I won’t, because I don’t know what to expect from this team in its final six conference games. The next four (at Boston College, Clemson, at Georgia Tech, and at Wake Forest) have to be wins. Get through this stretch, and the Terrapins could (could, not will) be inching toward tourney inclusion.
Your Second Watercooler Moment. Big East Movement.
The Golden Eagles are on the rise in the Big East (Photo credit: AP Photo).
At the outset of Big East play, it was easy to look at Marquette and Georgetown and see two good but flawed teams. The Golden Eagles run one of the most efficient offenses in the Big East; even after losing Darius Johnson Odom and Jae Crowder, Buzz Williams’ team gets the most out of every possession by leveraging the superb interior precision of Davante Gardner and the intuitive creativity of Junior Cadougan. The only problem? Marquette isn’t nearly as good on the other end of the floor(The Golden Eagles ranked eighth in the Big East in defensive efficiency heading into Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh). The Hoyas are the complete opposite of Marquette: they play top-five efficiency defense, but rank just inside the top-100 in offense. Offense-defense splits are not uncommon – most teams are demonstrably better at scoring or preventing points. Only the elite of the elite can master both. But as we enter the final five or six games of conference competition, the Golden Eagles and Hoyas (along with Syracuse) find themselves on top of one of the most competitive leagues in the country. How exactly did they get there? The most recent set of results shows Marquette handling Pittsburgh at home Saturday and Georgetown delivering another home loss to Cincinnati (its fifth of the season) Friday night, but both have been playing steady if not spectacular hoops for most of the league schedule. Marquette and Georgetown butted heads last week, with the Hoyas’ superior defense besting Marquette’s superior offense. Which team reaches a higher perch on the Big East pecking order by season’s end, I don’t know. Based on last week’s outcome and empirical results from over the weekend, I’ll cast my lot with Georgetown and that suffocating defense.
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)
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 . . .
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 »
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.
David Cassilo is an RTC columnist who also writes about college basketball for SLAM magazine. You can follow him at @dcassilo.
The two players I have the most trouble with every week are Russ Smith and Michael Carter-Williams. With Smith, it’s because his on-ball defense, arguably his biggest strength, doesn’t show up in box scores or highlights, so I need to watch his entire games to stay up to speed. And I have to be honest, his reputation sometimes gives him credit in games he doesn’t deserve it. Couple that with a streaky jump shot, and he falls short of the top-10. As for MCW, I have a real problem ranking him because he’s a terrible shooter and a turnover machine. People say he makes the big shots, but if he made them in the first half or didn’t keep giving the ball away, there wouldn’t be big shots to make. So like it or not, that’s why those two guys aren’t on the list at this juncture.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
10. Otto Porter Jr. – Georgetown (Last week – NR)
2012-13 stats: 14.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG
Since the Hoyas’ second-leading scorer, Greg Whittington, was ruled ineligible, Porter has raised his game to another level. Over his last four games, he’s averaging 19.8 PPG and 9.3 RPG and played a full 40 minutes in Georgetown’s upset win at Notre Dame. This week: January 26 vs. Louisville, January 30 vs. Seton Hall
Cody Zeller has a lot of work to do to get back up the rankings. (AP Photo/D. Cummings)
Zeller did not register a single field goal on Wednesday against Penn State, but prior to that, he had back-to-back games of at least 20/10. While people have made the case that Victor Oladipo is more valuable to the Hoosiers, I still think Zeller will dictate the big games. This week: January 27 vs. Michigan State, January 30 at Purdue
Against Wyoming on Thursday, Bennett’s scoring finally returned, as he finished with 17 points. But the rebounding has disappeared. Bennett has just 13 boards over his last three games. Once a double-double machine, it will be interesting to see if he gets it back. This week: January 29 vs. Nevada
For those who didn’t see it late Thursday night, Olynyk had a night to remember against BYU. He went 9-of-9 from the field and 8-of-8 from the free throw line en route to 26 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Make sure to catch him next time he’s on TV because he’s fun to watch. This week: January 26 vs. San Francisco, January 31 at Loyola Marymount
Since breaking out against Iowa State to start Big 12 play, McLemore has been a steady contributor for the Jayhawks. Although teams are devoting more defensive attention to him, he finds a way to get his points. This week: January 26 vs. Oklahoma, January 28 at West Virginia Read the rest of this entry »
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?
Who Won the Week? is a regular column that will outline and discuss three winners and losers from the previous week. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), an Oregon-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.
Mason Plumlee has led Duke in rebounding 10 times in 11 games as the Blue Devils are 11-0 while ranked third in strength of schedule. (AP Photo)
The week couldn’t have gone much more perfectly for the Blue Devils than it did. Achieve top ranking? Check. Land a top recruit? Check. Win both games handily? Check and check. Yes, Duke should probably send some flowers to Butler for knocking off preseason favorite Indiana, but who would have looked at the two teams before Saturday and thought the Hoosiers were better? Outside of the state of Indiana, I’m guessing few would. The Blue Devils (11-0) have the nation’s best body of work, and have dominated it in such a fashion that they look to be the nation’s top team convincingly, and this is before prized prospect Jabari Parker picked Mike Krzyzewski’s squad over Michigan State and BYU. On the court, Mason Plumlee, who has led Duke in rebounding 10 times so far, carried his team to an 88-47 win over Cornell with 18 points and nine rebounds Wednesday and followed that up the next night with 21 points and 15 boards in a 76-54 win over Elon. And as an added bonus, the youngest Plumlee, freshman Marshall, already made a brief return to the court against Cornell coming back from a foot injury.
(Related winners: Mason Plumlee, Butler. Related losers: Indiana, Michigan State, BYU, Cornell, Elon, and especially North Carolina – more to come.)
LOSER: Eastern Kentucky
The Ohio Valley’s Colonels started their season off hot, winning nine straight games before a weekend matchup at also-undefeated Illinois. The major-conference team expectedly pulled Eastern Kentucky apart, winning 66-53, but it was what happened next that wrapped up a bad week in Richmond, Ky. On a rare road trip to a MEAC school, the Colonels were tripped up by North Carolina A&T, who pounded the ball inside while shooting 55 percent from the field and stifling Eastern Kentucky’s guard-oriented offense by holding it to 40 percent shooting. The Bulldogs also nearly doubled up the Colonels on the glass, sealing the game. So much for a hot start.
(Related winners: North Carolina A&T, the 457 Bulldogs fans who watched the game in person. Related losers: Murray State and the Ohio Valley Conference, which both need every break they can get come March.)
Ethan Back is the Horizon League correspondent for RTC.
The Departure of Butler: It’s pretty crazy to think that the Horizon League has produced two of the last three runners-up in the NCAA Tournament, but Butler did indeed reach the final game of the season in both 2010 and 2011. The Bulldogs have been the reason why the conference receives the national attention that it does, but they are now members of the A-10. What does this mean for the conference? Wright State head coach Billy Donlon and Cleveland State head coach Gary Watersdon’t seem to think much of the departure, as the former noted that Butler finished fifth in the conference a season ago, and the latter speculated that the Bulldogs would not have been the favorites this season. Despite this, Butler’s departure has been covered extensively by the national media, and we will be able to see its effects in the seasons to come.
Will Valparaiso Dominate Conference Play? Results from the Media Day polls would seem to indicate that Valparaiso will indeed dominate the Horizon League, as the Crusaders received 40 of the possible 44 first-place votes this preseason. Valpo went 14-4 in conference last year, and returns reigning Player of the Year Ryan Broekhoff and first team all-Horizon League forward Kevin Van Wijk. Reaching the NCAA Tournament will be the goal for the Crusaders, as this was a feat they were unable to accomplish one season ago.
Will The McCallums And Detroit Step Up To Fill The Void Left By Butler? (AP)