Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cover to Cover Saturday: 12/11 Part III - Welcome Back, Indiana

-The NHL has its "Original Six" and so does college basketball, for all intents and purposes.  There's just a different air around UCLA (who it's easy to remember is less than five years removed from back-to-back Final Fours and, for as bad as it is this season, isn't even playing at home), North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and - yes, Indiana.  Wake up the echoes of Knight and Alford and Smart (even though none of them are dead yet) and add a place in Hoosier basketball lore for Christian Watford, who showed up to play for Tom Crean in 2009-2010, a year in which the team went 10-21 and lost to Boston University and Loyola (MD) among many others after the team was completely stripped down in light of Kelvin Sampson's recruiting violations.  Today, as I'm sure you know if you're reading this blog, he hit the game winning three from the left wing to topple top-ranked Kentucky in a game where the Hoosiers survived 55.6% shooting (30/54) from their opponents thanks to scorching the nets with 60% shooting from three point range (9/15.)  Watford's three was one of a team-high four with fellow junior Jordan Hulls sinking three but arguably the biggest yeoman's effort of the day belonged - as it was going to in pretty much any possible Indiana victory - to Tyler Zeller who won the battle of the superstar freshmen big men with 11 points and 7 rebounds, 5 of them offensive, and just 2 personal fouls in 37 minutes.  His opposite number, Anthony Davis, played over a quarter of a game less, logging 6 points on 3/4 shooting and 9 rebounds in only 24 minutes on the floor thanks to his four fouls.  But despite their big man being a virtual non-factor, the Cats STILL should have won if they could just make.  their.  free.  throws.  It's been the running joke-that's-not-really-a-joke: John Calipari teams cannot shoot free throws, particularly not in big moments and it has cost them games far bigger than this one and will continue to cost them games until it changes.  On the bright side for the Cats, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has asserted himself as the second-best player on the team (at worst) with an 18 point effort on a whopping 9/12 shooting day while also tying Davis with a team-high 9 rebounds.  For much of the day, he looked like the only player worthy of being on a top-ranked team, with Doron Lamb's play patchy - including that missed free throw with 5.6 to go that, had converted, would have meant that Watford's shot only forced an overtime the Wildcats quite frankly most likely win if they keep Davis on the court.  Rarely does a game and/or a rivalry live up to the hype but this one did.  Bravo to both teams.  From the Journal-Gazette:

"I'm proud of my team," UK coach John Calipari said afterward. "I'm proud of the way they played, how they gutted it out."
Hoosiers coach Tom Crean was probably a little prouder.
"I got my first Gatorade bath," he said. "Our fans deserve that. They deserve to storm the court. They deserve to stand on tables and chairs."
They did that and more. Jubilation spilled out onto the streets and spread across campus as IU improved to 9-0 for the first time since the 1989-90 season, delivering a potential program-changing upset for itself and the first loss of the season for Kentucky (8-1). The deafening atmosphere - with almost every one of the 17,472 in attendance screeching for the home team - mirrored the one in Rupp Arena a week earlier.

-Oh look.  Penn State embarrassed itself again.  I'm still not sure how every underclassman at that school hasn't submitted transfer papers already (for reasons far beyond sports obviously) and it's hard to imagine this team getting much worse with the effect that all the Jerry Sandusky controversy will probably have on recruiting but that might be where we're heading.  For this season, they could be the Otelul Galati to the Big Ten's Group C.  Well, on second thought - there's always Iowa too.  No, the Dukes don't get to be taken seriously until they show us some real results in Atlantic 10 play like they've failed to in previous years.

-If college basketball gave out bids for effort against adversity, Long Beach State would be in the top overall seed conversation.  Much has been made about their treacherous nonconference schedule but it bears repeating just how impressive it is for a Big West school to compete hard at Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday then turn around and fight 4th ranked UNC to the wire at the Dean Dome today but that's just what "The Beach" (brilliant uniforms, by the way - that's a school that "gets it" in regards to recruiting, no wonder overlooked studs like the picture Casper Ware want to play there.  Well, that and the fact that it's Long Beach, CA) did this week.  These performances should matter in March in terms of seeding (coupled with the win at Pitt, of course) should the 49ers make no mistakes in the Big West tournament (or get an at-large if they do - too soon to tell if that's possible but beating Xavier on the 22nd would be a big help) where UC Santa Barbara looks to be the only serious competition unless Dan Monson's boys go freezing cold on the wrong night against Cal Poly but after hanging in until the final whistle at two of the toughest places to play in the sport, the Gauchos and Mustangs surely aren't as imposing.  And as for the Heels...there was the UNLV slip up, then the disaster of an offensive night in the win against Wisconsin, then Anthony Davis swatting John Henson last weekend and now this unsatisfying win.  I know, I know, first world problems and all that but for a team that was everyone's preseason pick to win the ACC going away (and very possibly the national title) to not even look like a Final Four outfit is a bit disappointing.  Luckily, the ACC is just as bad if not worse than expected so the Heels should be able to still skate through it with 2 or 3 losses or fewer.  Unluckily, two of those losses might be to Duke, who should definitely pose more of a challenge than previously thought, and those games might cost UNC the conference title and a # 1 seed if the Heels don't improve like last year's version did at the turn of the new year.

-And in the side of Baltimore that "The Wire" didn't show you, UMBC took out Towson to win its first game of the year and keep its county rivals winless.  If the Tigers don't win one out of their next three at Coppin State and versus Manhattan and Vermont, they will go 365 days without a win (their last one was December 29, 2010 at La Salle in overtime.)  And Sunday December 11 marks the one year anniversary of their last regulation victory - in this very same matchup last year (yes, Braxton Dupree was the best player on the floor, which shows you just how bad both teams are/were.)  Needless to say, the Ravens definitely have some city pride to restore (even though neither school is part of Baltimore City, which is different than Baltimore County but this isn't a Maryland geography lesson.)

-After getting unexpectedly pushed by Marshall in midweek, about-to-be-top-ranked Syracuse is back to its cruising ways, easily dispatching of George Washington.  Controversial, considering the ongoing Bernie Fine case?  Absolutely.  But even though he coached them for a time, Fine has nothing to do with this, er, fine basketball club.  Their first true road game comes next Saturday at N.C. State - not exactly the classiest crowd around either.  There might not be a deeper, more experienced team in the country inside and out and it's a team that shouldn't have a problem still being unbeaten when also-perfect Marquette comes to the Carrier Dome on January 7.

-66-59.  64-61 in double overtime.  56-54.  42-36.  65-62.  66-55.  63-60.  56-35.  55-40.  And now 44-41.  That's the list of the final scores in the University of Southern California's ten basketball games so far this season.  They're 4-6 with today's loss to a New Mexico team that went the final 14 minutes and 16 seconds without a field goal but converted 11 free throws in that time span.  USC, by comparison, attempted 5 free throws the entire game.  Here's the fun part.  KenPom STILL projects the Trojans to win seven - SEVEN - Pac-12 games.  Seven!  A team that has hit 65 points all of twice this season - and has scored below 50 in HALF OF ITS GAMES - should be favored to beat at least Arizona State, UCLA, Colorado, Utah and Washington State at home and could beat the Sun Devils, Bruins, Cougars and/or either Oregon school on the road.  What an awful, awful excuse for a "power" conference.  The Lobos should just be thankful they survived such a miserable offensive performance with a W and now go to Oklahoma City next Saturday to play an Oklahoma State Cowboys team that lost a tough one to Pitt in the MSG game nobody cared about today.  They could really use the victory - Missouri State is a far less sexy "marquee win" (particularly when the Pokes won at SWOMO this week) than OK State would be, but a home shot at Saint Louis on New Year's Eve might be the real catch for the resume of Steve Alford and his boys.

-Quietly, Seton Hall is putting together a nice season - and a decent resume for NCAA tournament consideration.  The Pirates handled Wake Forest to get to 8-1 and while the Demon Deacons are no marquee win, it still means something to say you handled an ACC team with relative ease and it now goes in to the pile with Auburn, St. Joseph's and VCU - the latter two coming in the Charleston Classic, in which the Pirates lost in the title game to a good Northwestern team by 7 in a respectable effort.  Herb Pope is an absolute monster down low and with no Bobby Gonzalez and no (known) internal problems, this might finally be the year the Pirates make the NCAA tournament.  Particularly considering that they have a real shot at finishing in the top half of the Big East.  I grant you that Syracuse, UConn, Louisville, Marquette, Pitt and Georgetown are better than Kevin Willard's boys.  But who else in that league are you clearly taking over the Pirates right now?  No matter the pecking order, the league probably won't top out at only six bids.  That means the Pirates marquee win chance at Dayton on December 21 is important - and why their Big East opener at Syracuse exactly one week later is even more important.

-Giving up 56 points in the second half is probably an act that shouldn't be repeated but Wichita State continues to cruise along, handling Utah State to win its fifth in a row.  The Shockers went a disappointing 1-2 in the Puerto Rico tipoff, losing tight games to Alabama and Temple, but they've made up for it in the past week by throttling then-unbeaten-and-# 18 UNLV last Sunday before winning by 10 at C-USA bubble hopeful Tulsa on Wednesday before today's win over an NCAA tournament regular who's admittedly struggled mightily to start 2011-2012.  Round 1 of a possible two round Missouri Valley title fight comes on New Year's Eve when Doug McDermott and Creighton come to Charles Koch Arena - but Northern Iowa should have a say as well.  Nevertheless, Gregg Marshall's boys look like an NCAA tournament team and today's victory was a building block in the resume of one.

-And in the final noteworthy game of the day, I successfully called (I wish I had a betting slip to hyperlink to!) Michigan State winning at Gonzaga.  I like Gonzaga and I really like the inside-out combination of Robert Sacre and Kevin Pangos/David Stockton.  But I don't like how Gonzaga has underachieved massively this season, losing to Illinois, struggling against inferior in-state programs like Washington State and Eastern Washington and even having their problems taking over 30 minutes to put away a mediocre Notre Dame.  Though McCarthy Athletic Center may bear the nickname and has earned the reputation, it's not what it used to be - it's not "The Kennel" anymore.  At least not for a team that has Draymond Green scoring 34 for it in a magical 11/13 performance from the floor that included hitting 4 of 5 threes and 8 out of 9 free throws for good measure.  It also helps when that team can hold the opponent to 43% shooting (19/44) including just 40% (12/30) on twos.  Gonzaga actually out-rebounded Michigan State - always an accomplishment - 27-20 and shot 50% from three (7/14) but it wasn't enough to avoid its seventh loss ever at the new building.  I'm still unsure as to why the Spartans (a) weren't ranked to begin the season and (b) still aren't ranked, seeing as how they haven't lost since opening with surprisingly-competitive losses against UNC on an aircraft carrier and Duke at MSG for Coach K's record breaking win.  I expect that to change on Monday afternoon.

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