North Carolina beat Michigan State 89-82 last night in Chapel Hill, and frankly at this point I’m a little unsure of what to call the relationship between these two teams. “Rivalry” is incorrect, of course, because over the course of three losses within precisely one calendar year the Spartans have been a “rival” of the Tar Heels about like Colgate is a “rival” of Syracuse. No, it’s more like Carolina has become the moral equivalent of a bar exam that eager young attorney-in-waiting MSU keeps trying--and failing--to pass, each time insisting that this time really truly definitely will be different.
Well, this time was a bit different. When you’ve already lost to a team by final scores of 98-63 (2008 ACC-Big Ten Challenge) and 89-72 (2009 national championship game), 89-82 represents progress. After UNC laid down its now-obligatory 50-some first-half points (yawn), Tom Izzo’s team played far and away its best half of this particular three-game series. Indeed State itself scored an almost Carolina-like 48 points after intermission, thanks in no small measure to heroic exertions from Raymar Morgan (18 points on 7-of-10 shooting). A first half that had been merely normal would have put victory within the Spartans’ reach.
Alas, that first half was not normal. For one thing it was jarring and indeed categorically disconcerting to see what until three days ago was the putative number two team in the country placed in a mid-major’s schematic conundrum, one where solid players displayed textbook defensive footwork to double-team Ed Davis on the low block…only to see Davis simply rise up, shoot over the double-team, and score yet again. For the evening Davis scored 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field. While Dan Shulman and Dick Vitale were speaking of impish identity swaps pulled off in high school by identical Tar Heel twins David and Travis Wear, a much more improbable switch was taking place before our eyes. For one night Davis became John Henson (the unstoppable scoring machine that, we are told, Henson will become any day now) and Henson became Davis (recording four blocks in just 14 minutes).
If Davis enjoyed playing against this diminutive front line, teammate Larry Drew II, he of the 6-of-7 shooting and 18 points in 27 minutes, was no less happy to face this backcourt. Mind you, I’m of the opinion that it’s fruitless to indict, say, Kalin Lucas or Durrell Summers on one count of not being Travis Walton. Of course they’re not, and they never will be. Izzo knows that and he’s cast his lot this year with a lineup that will score a ton of points. What Izzo might not have known until last night, however, are the precise contours of this particular trade-off. On defense last night Lucas in particular looked like a guy who had the luxury of playing alongside Walton for the first 74 games of his career.
It’s much too soon for definitive statements, of course. After all, it’s only been a few days since North Carolina fans were fretting about this very same Tar Heel offense. No, December merely sets the agenda for what coaches are worrying about in the near term. Tom Izzo is worrying about his D. Florida and North Carolina combined to make 57 percent of their twos against the undeniably feisty but nevertheless vertically challenged Spartans.
In other ACC-Big Ten happenings last night:
Purdue 69, Wake Forest 58. William & Mary may be the second-oldest institution of higher learning in the country, but never before in its illustrious 316-year history has the school been the recipient of as much bewildered adulation as it was last night at about 8 Eastern, during halftime of the Purdue-Wake Forest game. Bewildered as in: “Wow, William & Mary must be really good.” Last Saturday the Tribe traveled to Winston-Salem and beat the Demon Deacons rather soundly, 78-68. Then last night this very same group of Deacs outplayed the number six team in the country rather soundly on said team’s home floor, taking a 31-29 lead into halftime.
Like Michigan State, Purdue found itself playing a preposterously tall opponent in a game where it was painfully clear that their own threes were never going to fall. (For the evening Matt Painter’s team went 1-of-15 from beyond the arc. The Spartans were 2-of-20.) Unlike their conference rivals, however, the Boilers had it within their power to make the opponent look just as ugly. The Deacons gave the ball away on very nearly one in every three trips, giving Purdue the raw possession material it badly needed on a night when they missed no less than 42 shots from the field.
It may not have been a thing of beauty, but join me anyway as I dole out hearty fist bumps to the Boilers’ Robbie Hummel and the Deacons’ Ishmael Smith. Hummel is plainly suffering the hoops equivalent of the yips at the moment, shooting just 22 percent on his threes thus far on the young season and looking palpably uncomfortable every time he launches yet another miss from out there. But he notched an 11-11 double-double anyway, thanks to some of the most fundamentally sound defensive rebounding I have seen in a long while. If he can do that against Wake Forest, a long and athletic foe that attacks the offensive glass in waves, his defensive board chops are officially formidable.
For his part Smith looked no less formidable, and given the senior’s uniquely circuitous bio that qualified as something of a surprise. When last we saw Smith as a starting point guard he was a precociously talented freshman who attacked opposing defenses, dished a ton of assists, and committed a ton of turnovers. Then two years ago he became the first sophomore in D-I history to lose his starting job to a freshman (Jeff Teague) and not transfer. With Teague now safely locked away in the NBA, Smith has reemerged as a precociously talented point guard who attacks opposing defenses, dishes a ton of assists, and, um, commits a ton of turnovers. Bear in mind Chris Kramer gives Painter the functional equivalent of 1.5 defensive players and the Purdue coach had his specialist making life miserable for Al-Farouq Aminu. That left Smith free to run amok and the longer he did so the more it became plain that Painter was sticking with his choice with Keady-like pugnacity. Turns out he was right to. It all worked out in the end.
Northwestern 65, NC State 53. You’d have to be almost pointedly misanthropic to look at the Wildcats’ surprising 6-1 start and think “What if?” but, well, I confess to having had a temporary bout of pointed misanthropy last night while watching Bill Carmody (now serenely tieless--Tony Bennett take note) lead his team to a comfortable win in Raleigh. What if this team had Kevin Coble? They would be on a trajectory to lock in an uncommonly momentous NCAA bid by February. As it is maybe they’ll get it done anyway.
Elsewhere the traditional bugbear of the Big Ten in this annual Challenge, the impotence of the conference’s lower tier against lower-tier ACC teams, raised its head once more last night, as two home teams went down to defeat:
Maryland 80, Indiana 68. Greivis Vasquez travels to Bloomington and makes just 4-of-14 shots from the floor but wipes up that mess by making 13-of-14 attempts from the line. As for the Hoosiers, they have been unable to make twos this season against opponents that are not Howard or Northwestern State. The recurrence of this fact last night is a little unsettling for Tom Crean, given that the Terrapin front line won’t be confused for North Carolina or Wake Forest anytime soon.
Virginia Tech 70, Iowa 64. The Hawkeyes are currently navigating the same programmatic oxbow that Indiana reconnoitered last year, the one where even when they lead in a game you find yourself unselfconsciously thinking “Great effort” instead of entertaining any fanciful notion that they might actually win.
The next time Carolina scores 50-some points in the first half against MSU, John will again opine in real time on Twitter: @johngasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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