Some college basketball thoughts from the end of February, just before we turn the calendar to the most exciting month on the sporting calendar:
It’s a sad fact about the current state of college basketball that there are not a lot of teams with distinctive styles. This was lamented by Iona coach Tim Cluess in a terrific New York Times article yesterday. Cluess had great thoughts on the topic of pace of play (with the exception of his advocacy or a 24-second shot clock, which would do take a big chunk out of the exact diversity in the sport that he is in favor of), and it is clear he is a rare coach in the sport who is not afraid to think about the sport and play it in a different way.
That said, the sport as a whole is not completely “unwatchable”, a generalization that has been applied broadly too often by too many this year. There are still a good number of teams that do have distinguishing features, as well as characteristics that make for appealing matchups. With that said, here are five matchups we’d love to see in this year’s NCAA Tournament:
1) Virginia-Wisconsin A misnomer about both of these teams is that they are “slow.” The correct term is “patient.” Both teams work for good shots, and if it takes five, six, seven passes to get it, so be it. There is a big difference between that and teams that just dribble away time before running a ball screen near the end of the shot clock. Whether you like the pace slow or fast, when these teams play, you should enjoy and appreciate it.
2) Virginia-Northern Iowa We’ll go to the well on the Cavaliers twice. The Panthers are a team that plays slow. But they are deep, and if you want a testimony to that, consider that Virginia transfer Paul Jesperson actually played more as a sophomore at UVA two years ago than he does this year as a junior at UNI. It’s also quite possible Northern Iowa would have the best player on the floor in Seth Tuttle. The Wahoos are the more athletic team, but much like Kentucky-Wichita State last year, this would be a legit Elite 8 or Final Four level game.
3) Oregon-Boise State Not sure if these teams are both that fast or if it’s just us, but both of them look like they are playing on fast-forward whenever we watch them. Oregon’s Joseph Young against Boise’s Derrick Marks is about as good a matchup of scoring guards as one could ask for. And while the Ducks are the more athletic team inside, the Broncos have improved in that area.
4) West Virginia-Arkansas It may not always be pretty, but there would be more full-court defense played in this game than any other in the country this year. You could also match either of these teams against VCU and it would be fascinating.
5) Murray State-Notre Dame Or North Carolina. Or Duke. We hear so much about how slow the ACC is, but all three of those teams rank in the top 17 in scoring nationally. The Racers do, too, living up to their nickname in averaging just under 80 points, and both Murray and ND rank in the top 10 nationally in field goal percentage as well. This would be a magnificent game in the second round of Sweet 16, though if the Racers don’t receive the seed they deserve for their 23-game winning streak then it’s possible these two could meet in the first round.
- It feels like it’s been a while since college basketball had a good shake-and-bake guard, but Maryland’s Melo Trimble fits the bill. How good would he have looked playing on a team like the 1990 Georgia Tech “Lethal Weapon III” Final Four squad or another of those squads from an era when players were allowed to cut it loose more? Trimble may not quite be Kenny Anderson, but he’s a lot of fun to watch.
- Wisconsin’s 59-53 loss to Maryland should not overly concern anyone. The Badgers were bound to lose at least one more game the rest of the season, and the Terps have a track record of beating highly ranked opponents at home, even with considerably less talented teams than this year’s Maryland squad. Slightly troubling, though, might be the fact that Wisconsin does shoot quite a bit better at home than away (four of its five worst shooting performances this season, all below 40%, are away from the Kohl Center, though it should be noted the team didn’t shoot poorly at the neutral site Battle 4 Atlantis). The Badgers also have shot below 40% in four of their last six games, so perhaps it is just a late-season slump for what is still a team that is a Final Four favorite.
- Likewise, Dayton’s 83-73 loss at Duquesne last weekend shouldn’t be of too much worry. The Flyers are going to be in the NCAA Tournament and will be a dangerous opponent because of their experience winning in March but also because of their unique style of play. As much as Dayton is a team that will face mismatches defensively, it also can cause mismatches on the offensive end for opponents, pushing the ball up the court constantly and featuring five players who are capable of hitting the three-point shot. UD also has quality-if undersized-post players in Dyshawn Pierre and Kendall Pollard, and the Flyers are terrific at working to get good shots against the zone. Dayton also looked like a tired team against the Dukes, playing for the second time in about 40 hours, and is a better defensive team than it showed in that game.
One more note from that game: the past two seasons now Duquesne under coach Jim Ferry has become a tough out by the end of the season. Ferry is starting to accumulate some talent-Micah Mason is an elite shooter who can also put it on the floor and pass and rebound too (nearly a triple-double against Dayton) but point guard Derrick Colter also is very, very good. The game against Dayton also was the Dukes’ lone appearance this year in Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center, home of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, and Duquesne took advantage and played lights-out offensively in the second half against the Flyers.
- Some years everything goes right for leagues to get a boatload of NCAA tourney bids, perhaps even more than a conference’s overall strength would suggest it should get. It’s happened in the past to the Big East, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, right down to the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West. Clearly, the SEC is having one of those years this year. Kentucky is the best team in the league and, while far better than anyone else, is also the only squad in the SEC that is an obvious top 20 team. Arkansas has hung around the back of the polls for a couple weeks now, but the Razorbacks showed their vulnerability in nearly blowing a huge lead at home to Texas A&M.
LSU, Mississippi, A&M and Georgia all are probably going to get to the NCAA tourney, and all will likely end up in that 7-11 seed range with toss-up first round games. The key for the SEC getting so many bids, just like it was the key for all of those other conferences, is separation. The top six SEC teams have generally taken care of business against everyone else in the conference-a huge change from the league the past few years, it should be noted. Add in a couple road wins against each other-such as Texas A&M winning at LSU, Ole Miss winning at Arkansas, Georgia winning at Ole Miss-and all of these SEC teams are doing enough to earn bids. How much they do with those bids will be the big question in March.
- Dan Hurley has led Rhode Island to a really nice year in his third season at the school. Unfortunately, barring an Atlantic 10 tourney title, the Rams look like they’re going to max out as a top-level NIT team. It’s really nothing to be ashamed of, as this year’s team was widely considered a year away. URI has been so close in so many of its losses, though-of its seven losses, five have come by a total of 14 points-that undoubtedly the team will wonder what might have been if it does miss out on the big dance.
- A few weeks back saw Kent State play at Buffalo in what was, frankly, one of the worst performances have seen on TV this year by what was supposed to be a good team. The Golden Flashes lost 80-55 against Bobby Hurley’s Bulls on Jan. 30, and the domination was every bit as complete as the final score. Kent State couldn’t score, couldn’t defend, and was already a bad free throw shooting team, making this one hard to watch. Then the team lost leading scorer and rebounder Jimmy Hall for three weeks due to mono, making one wonder exactly how the team would stay afloat. It says a whole lot about the team’s resiliency then that the Golden Flashes are 5-3 since that point in a rugged MAC, including winners of 5 of their last 7. Even after a disappointing overtime loss on Tuesday to Miami (Ohio) in a game in which it blew a 19-point second half lead, Kent State is still tied for the top spot in the MAC East and is a very real contender for the league’s automatic bid. Much more real than it looked on national TV against Buffalo.
- Boy, this freshman ineligibility idea being floated by some of the BCS commissioners has some people cranky, huh? A sign of how distorted college sports at the highest levels has become (and just how jaded so many covering it are) is that none of the debate is centering on whether or not it’s the best thing for student-athletes. Anyone who has spent much time around freshmen college students knows it’s a fact that the adjustment academically and socially can be a huge one for many. Considering how much D-I football and basketball players spend in the public eye, it’s reasonable to wonder if they are better off with a year to acclimate to school. Frankly, it could be a great idea at every level and for every sport. Of course, it may not be financially feasible for a number of schools…which may be exactly why the ol’ BCS conferences are pushing for it, as another way to explore their “autonomy.” If there’s anything we should’ve learned over the past 15 years, it is that anything these conferences do always has a financial component to it first, and much of that which is disguised as “student-athlete welfare” is actually intended to be a) a competitive advantage or b) to keep lawyers off the backs.
- Don’t be surprised if Old Dominion slips back into the NCAA tourney discussion yet if it can close the regular season with three more wins. The Monarchs won at Rice 63-54 on Thursday and are now 6-2 against the RPI top 100, though also possessing four sub-100 losses and a meek 4-5 road record. Per usual, Conference USA has eaten its own, with an ODU team with wins over VCU and LSU losing five times in league play, but there still is a chance to make a case with a late run. Few bubble teams will be able to hold up two better wins.
- Whoever wins the automatic bid out of the Southwestern Athletic Conference is likely going to be a tougher out in the NCAA Tournament than many suspect. That will particularly be the case if Texas Southern or Alabama State is representing the league. Both teams feature the size inside and the moxie to compete against quality teams. Texas Southern notably won at Michigan State and Kansas State and played close on the road in a whole host of other games in the non-conference season. Alabama State, meanwhile, is an experienced team that rebounds well and also has four different players who can hit the 3 ball.
- The next time UNC-Asheville is on TV, you would be advised to tune in. The Bulldogs feature one of the most explosive scorers in the country in Andrew Rowsey, an entertaining 5-10 sophomore guard who plays with a little Pistol Pete in his game and can score outside and in. When Rowsey heats up, there are few more exciting players anywhere, and twice now in UNCA’s last three appearances on ESPNU he has erupted for huge games. He scored 41 last year in a 102-92 loss to Radford, and on Thursday he scored 39 in a 75-71 loss to Big South-leading High Point, hitting eight three-pointers.
- Conference tournaments haven’t even started yet, but already going to declare a sentimental favorite here. St. Francis (N.Y.) has had a terrific year, wrapping up the Northeast Conference title two weeks ago and currently sporting a nine-game winning streak after a 74-69 overtime victory over rival LIU on Thursday. At 21-9 overall, winners of 21 of their last 25 and four games better than their nearest competition in the NEC, it would be a shame if the Terriers don’t win the conference tournament and at last break the drought of being one of five original NCAA Division I members (since the division’s formation in 1948) to never reach the NCAA Tournament. In fact, it has been more than 50 years since the school’s last bid to the NIT, a 71-70 loss to Miami (Fla.) in 1963, back when the NIT still held some cachet. The last time the school was on the doorstep of an NCAA bid was in 2001, when it blew a 19-point second half lead and lost to Monmouth in one of the most painful conference tournament final losses have ever watched on TV (the USA Today recently had an excellent article that touched on this game, and how tough it still is now 14 years later for former coach Ron Ganulin). Even with all games hosted by higher seeds, the NEC tourney is one that frequently does not go according to Hoyle, so St. Francis will have work to do. But if the Terriers can get there, they should be one of the more popular low seeds in the tourney in some time.