Saturday promises to bring us the two best games of the college basketball season to this point. We should learn almost as much about the nation's elite teams in a few hours as we've learned so far in the entire season.
Georgetown vs. Memphis
Memphis has been seeing a lot of everything besides man-to-man from opposing defenses so far this year. USC famously played a triangle-and-two and took the Tigers to overtime before falling 62-58. In their most recent game, Memphis saw the latest in a series of zones, this time from Cincinnati in a game the Tigers won by ten points. The only quality opponent so far this year that's dared to play man defense has been Connecticut. Bravo, Jim Calhoun. You gave us the opportunity to see the dribble-drive-motion offense in action.
Joey Dorsey is really fun to watch when Memphis gets to run their offense. His role on offense is different than that of just about any other player you'll see. In the game against UConn, Dorsey made no pretense at all of calling for the ball, posting up or getting what would ordinarily be termed "good post position" for a five on offense. Instead, Dorsey positions himself between his defender and the basket, usually on the opposite side of the court from the ball. In effect, he boxes out on offense, as Memphis spreads the floor and either Chris Douglas-Roberts or Derrick Rose drives into the paint. Dorsey's sole function is to gather in the misses. Last year he posted the second-highest offensive rebound percentage in the nation. This year, however, Dorsey's offensive rebounds are down and the Memphis offense as a whole has been merely good.
It's a good thing that the Memphis defense has been outstanding. The Tigers are creating turnovers, forcing misses, and grabbing boards. Now they're about to get a severe test. Georgetown is making 60 percent of their twos. That's a team we're talking about, mind you, not a player. Yes, it's early. Still, that level of effectiveness inside the arc is unreal. Given that no major-conference team posted a higher two-point FG percentage in-conference last year, it would appear John Thompson III has something systemic going on here.
He sure does--it's called Roy Hibbert. The relative lack of attention given to this first-team All-American continues to confuse me. When he has the ball, he doesn't turn it over. When he shoots, the ball goes in. When his teammates miss, he gets the rebound. When the opposing team shoots a two, he's likely to block it. That's a pretty good profile.
The Hoyas pose a challenge to opposing defenses because they're so balanced. Efficient scorers are everywhere on the floor and the only player in the regular rotation who won't shoot is Patrick Ewing. Jessie Sapp, in particular, has been on fire (when he doesn't turn the ball over). Still, multiple Hoyas can hurt you: Hibbert, Sapp, Jonathan Wallace, DaJuan Summers or Austin Freeman, to name a few. This should be a great collision between a machine-like Georgetown offense and a punitively effective Memphis defense.
One last thing: this game will involve two of the worst free-throw shooting teams in college basketball. If it's close late, fans of both teams should be nervous.
Texas vs. Michigan State
Texas has been doing things this year that give new meaning to the term "offense." No opponent this year has held them to less than a point per possession. Not UCLA, arguably the best defensive team in the nation. Not even Oral Roberts, which held the Longhorns to a mere 66 points in what everyone agreed was an ugly 10-point Texas win.
The secret to the Longhorns' success this year is simple: no team in the nation has done a better job holding on to the ball. Texas ends 85 percent of their possessions with a shot. That's a tribute to A.J. Abrams and Damion James in particular, two players who take on a lot of possessions and never turn the ball over. (D.J. Augustin, conversely, is merely normal where turnovers are concerned, while being otherworldly in all other departments on offense.) No one ever watches a possession, of course, and thinks what a great job a team did not turning the ball over. The cumulative effect, however, of all those turnover-less possessions is undeniable: Texas has the best offense in the nation right now.
Michigan State isn't too shabby where offense is concerned, either, but they go about things in an entirely different way. The Spartans turn the ball over. They did last year, they do this year, they probably will next year. Marquise Gray, Travis Walton and Drew Naymick in particular are walking turnovers. Squint at them and they'll give you the ball.
Then again, Tom Izzo's team shoots pretty well and attacks the offensive glass like crazed beasts. Goran Suton has never exactly been lionized in East Lansing, but say this for the big lug: when he's on the floor he's getting to 18 percent of his team's misses so far this year, making him one of the best offensive rebounders in the nation. More to the point, Suton's team is the best offensive rebounding team in the nation, hauling in 48 percent of their own misses. That could be a key factor Saturday, because Texas is merely average on the defensive glass. In other words, MSU will almost certainly cough up more turnovers but they'll get more offensive rebounds.
The shots in the Michigan State offense come from Drew Neitzel and Raymar Morgan, period. Neitzel should be appreciated for what he is: an outstanding college player. He will never replicate what he's doing now "at the next level." So what? Let's appreciate what we see now: Neitzel is a true combo guard, one who sees the defense and can exploit it with either a make or an assist. Moreover, Neitzel is the one Texas-like player in Spartan green: he never turns the ball over. Ever. Morgan, conversely, coughs up an occasional turnover, but so far this year he's shot better from the floor than even Neitzel, making a Hibbert-like 63 percent of his twos. One way or another, there will be points scored on Saturday.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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