Some brief college basketball thoughts as we near the end of February and now March and tournament time is just around the corner:
One of nation’s best-kept secrets continues to be just how much of a treat it is to watch Iona offensively. The Gaels are so unselfish, so good at finding the open player, and so free to play offensively, and it’s a joy to watch. Tim Cluess has done an outstanding job at the school, which is poised for its third NCAA bid in the last four years. Despite missing defensive stopper and hustle player Isaiah Williams for the past 10 games, Iona has taken the lead in the MAAC again and at this point is the clear favorite to represent the league in the NCAA Tournament. David Laury and A.J. English are combining for 40 points per game, and freshman Schadrac Casimir is also averaging 15.4 points and is absolutely fearless. Iona has developed into a program that is annually among the nation’s leaders in scoring, three-pointers and assists, which should make it incredibly attractive to recruits.
- While everyone agrees that Wayne Tinkle has done an outstanding job at Oregon State, it’s easy for people to not know just how incredible it has been. The Beavers have been playing with a very thin roster with just a seven-man rotation, including in that unsightly 47-37 loss to Utah that was their first loss at home after a 14-0 start at Gill Coliseum. OSU has jumped right past that ‘learning to win’ stage (a 5-2 record in games decided by single digits), but it’s just a team that may be running out of gas. The loss of second-leading scorer Victor Robbins to multiple suspensions has hurt severely, and even Tinkle himself was wondering aloud after the Utah game if the team is wearing down. Whether it is or not, even an NIT bid for the Beavers this year would be a major victory for a program that has been so down for so long.
- It’s starting to feel like reporting on this whole shot clock thing is rigged. As reported on by the popular media or referred to by many of the most popular coaches, the issue is blissfully simple: shorter shot clock=more possessions=more points=superior game. Anyone who has truly thought this through should understand it is not remotely that rudimentary, that it’s a deeper discussion that requires a lot of consideration, and that there are plenty of good reasons to keep the shot clock at 35 or even put it back to 45 (more variety in the sport; shot clock never kept teams in the 1970s from scoring 100 points per game; unintended consequences of shorter shot clocks favoring defenses and exposing poor offensive teams even more, which is backed up by statistics). Yet you aren’t going to find those reported on by many of this sport’s main media sources.
Doing some searches in recent days, found some excellent articles that do look at the issue from various sides. Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News wrote a terrific analysis two years ago about exactly what has led to the sport getting where it is, and where it likely would go, though no doubt its title would scare off the agenda movement on this issue. On his kpisports.net website, Michigan State University Director of Basketball Operations Kevin Pauga did an analysis of exhibition games by the Atlantic 10 and ACC the past two years, in which a 30-second shot clock indeed was experimented with (Why haven’t we heard more about this analysis??? Shouldn’t this be critical information for people discussing this issue?), and if one compares the numbers, scoring went down quite a bit this year, possessions were actually longer with the shorter clock, and scoring was up only slightly from season averages. And this came in the equivalent of guarantee games, where the teams were far from equal and the more athletic teams are more likely to run and gun or get easy baskets than they do when playing quality Division I competition. Basketball Times magazine has also been a frontrunner on the issue for a number of years and on issues of the game in general. The point is: this is an issue that needs to be carefully investigated from all angles, and the concerns need to be given thought. The fact is, many of the loudest voices in favor of a shorter shot clock are the same ones whose teams (or favorite teams) will benefit from it. If we’re going to turn college basketball even more into an NBA Lite, the rule makers need to understand just how much the “Lite” part of that will stick out even more.
- Something else that needs to be remembered: there is nothing wrong with some teams playing slowly. Variety in this sport is a good thing. And there is a difference between “slow” and “patient.” Wisconsin and Virginia are patient, teams that work for a good shot and have proven they can play fast if the opportunity presents. Teams that just bleed the clock with false motion or wasted dribbling, or teams that are so stationary that one can’t tell if the defense is playing man or zone, are slow. That is the play that needs to be eliminated from the sport. We’ll look more at possible rule changes after the season, but perhaps one way to do that is to extend the distance defenders can be back to draw five-second closely guarded calls. Of course, then we’re getting into asking officials to reconsider how they call the game, and we know how that went last year…
- Valparaiso has a glittering record (24-4, including 11-2 in the Horizon League) but has had some bad luck with injuries at the point guard spot this year, losing returning starter Lexus Williams to an ACL tear in September and then seeing the in-season starter Keith Carter go down in early January with a toe injury. Bryce Drew came up with a creative solution, going with 6-foot-8 senior E. Victor Nickerson at the point. Nickerson obviously has a big size advantage against most point guards defending him, and began using it increasingly more frequently to post up or drive on smaller guys as he got more comfortable in the role. One thing that helps is Valpo runs a lot of ball screen offense, so Nickerson wasn’t being expected to be a penetrator and distributor so much as someone to just get the team into its plays. Good news for the Crusaders is that Carter returned on Sunday in a win over Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
- One of those cool breakout team picks before the season, Georgia State kind of slipped off the radar in the non-conference season. There were early losses to Colorado State and Iowa State and then not much for real name opportunities. If the Panthers (18-8 overall) can win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, though, they’re a team that has a real chance to cause some trouble in the NCAA Tournament. Few teams anywhere will have a better 1-2 punch for firepower than Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter, and GSU is developing a good third option in Markus Crider, a 6-6 driver averaging 14.6 points over his last five games. Also, the Panthers play a lot of zone-both a 2-3 and a 1-3-1-and have a lot of length at the front and on the wings of the zone, as well as 6-10 Curtis Washington inside to defend near the rim. Often times the teams that pull upsets in the tourney are ones whose regular seasons don’t necessarily mark them as an obvious threat, and the Panthers qualify.
- We’ve had them on our radar all season, but it’s time to start talking about UC Davis. The Aggies are having nothing less than a banner season, with their first 20-win season as an NCAA Division I members. The team has broken away from the pack in the Big West and is closing in on the regular season title, and almost certainly has the Big West player of the year in Corey Hawkins, the son of former Bradley and NBA great Hersey Hawkins who should ace out stars Mike Caffey at Long Beach State and Alan Williams of UC Santa Barbara. The Aggies are another quality offensive team that ranks fourth nationally in field goal percentage and first in three-point percentage. The team has a big man who can step out and nail the triple (Josh Ritchart), a three-point sniper (coach Jim Les’s son Tyler) and a jet of a point guard who pushes the ball at every opportunity (Darius Graham). It’s a team that is a lot of fun to watch, visually but also because it is doing things never done before by the school at the D-I level.
- Keep an eye on IPFW in the Summit League. Once just 8-11 after an awful 82-53 loss at South Dakota State, the Mastodons have won their last seven games to rise up the charts into a tie for third in the Summit. IPFW won 25 games last year under former coach Tony Jasick, who left for Jacksonville, and it has taken time to find the right formula under first year coach Jon Coffman. The Mastodons are a good shooting team, having shot 50% or better 14 times this year, including in six of their last seven games. Their recent upswing has coincided with the reinsertion of Max Landis in the starting lineup. A transfer from Gardner-Webb and aggressive offensively, Landis was at 6.7 points per game through 18 games but is averaging 13.9 points over the winning streak.