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January 12, 2010

Redd Ramifications

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 5:15 pm

Two weeks short of a year after tearing his left ACL and left MCL on Jan. 24, 2009, Milwaukee Bucks guard Michael Redd suffered the same injury Sunday against the L.A. Lakers. The Bucks made it official yesterday, announcing that Redd is out from the season.

Here’s what Prospectus injury expert Will Carroll, co-editor of The Carroll Guide to Sports Injuries, had to say about Redd tearing the same ACL for a second time:

Same knee common? It’s … well, its just lightning striking twice. He obviously taxes it and there should be strength. We’ll assume he rehabbed right and came back with clearance. It’s pretty unusual. It’s not common, but I bet it’s almost a mathematical pattern. If 1 percent of all players tear their ACLs, then 1 percent of all ACL returnees tear it again. Bad luck.

From a physical perspective, Carroll indicated the fact that it is the same knee should not necessarily complicate Redd’s rehabilitation, which seems to render talk of this injury being career threatening premature. Of course, the mental angle is a little different. For Redd to have worked so hard to come back only to suffer the same injury again is a tough blow, as he made clear during an interview before last night’s Milwaukee game in Phoenix.

Of course, playing again is not the same as returning to the same level. Redd was already struggling this season. He was shooting 30.0 percent from three-point range, down from a previous career low of 35.0 percent. His two-point percentage plunged even more dramatically to 37.3 percent from a previous worst of 46.3 percent. It’s easy to imagine Redd, for whom quickness will be an issue, remaking himself as a shooting specialist off the bench like Dale Ellis at the tail end of his career, but his days as a star player are almost certainly over–if they weren’t already.

Gasaway reviews evidence, declares Gasaway right

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:38 pm

On Sunday night Oregon State won at Oregon for the first time since 1993, and I conveyed my wonder at this turn of events in real time as a tweet and the morning after as a bottom-feeder bullet point in a customarily unwieldy “Weekend in Hoops” post. Then (insert “Jaws” music here) Kevin Pelton came from out of nowhere, twirling his Snidely Whiplash mustache, laughing wickedly, and dropping the graph-fueled-gotcha on yours truly:

Normally, John Gasaway and I are almost always on the same page. However, I must disagree with my esteemed colleague from the state of Illinois on the matter of the Oregon State Beavers.

Hey, my birth certificate might say Memorial Hospital, Springfield, Illinois, but I’ll put my state of Oregon chops up against anyone’s! I’ve received horrifically bad customer service from a walk-up coffee place in Lincoln City; savored the food and wondered about the name at that city’s most popular breakfast spot; passed one of my favorite New Year’s Days ever in Coos Bay; spent a dismal business-mandated week at what for leisure purposes would have been a beautiful downtown Portland hotel; frolicked in unseasonably warm temperatures in that city’s exquisite Washington Park; retrieved a balloon for my kid at the Red Robin in Medford; thrown snowballs in June at Crater Lake; and dropped in on the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. My hoops analytical Awakening occurred during my left coast years and, by Godfrey, I will not be out-West Coast Biased!    

I’m not sure Kevin and I are truly disagreeing about Oregon State. He thinks the Beavers are inconsistent, a well nigh incontestable description of a team with their resume. I just happen to think additionally that OSU has to date performed at a level equivalent to a fairly bad inconsistent team. 

Let us acknowledge that there is Bad Oregon State and Good Oregon State. Bad Oregon State, obviously, is one of the five worst teams in D-I. But even Good Oregon State is no world-beater. Far and away their best win of the year was their victory in Eugene, which, at the risk of being tautological, is precisely why I was surprised as I watched said victory unfold. Kevin himself seemed to be a little caught off guard by the Beavers’ unprecedented effectiveness as he watched the second half of that game. I dare say he was right to be.         

The Inconsistent Beavers

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 4:41 am

Normally, John Gasaway and I are almost always on the same page. However, I must disagree with my esteemed colleague from the state of Illinois on the matter of the Oregon State Beavers. In this same space this morning, John wrote about the Beavers’ upset win last night over the rival Oregon Ducks.

Last night while I was watching Oregon State lead Oregon the whole way in Eugene, I opined that this was pretty remarkable. (The Beavers ended up winning 64-57.) Craig Robinson’s team had, after all, just lost to Seattle by 51 points. Nevertheless my opining resulted in responses from knowledgeable and savvy Pac-10 types assuring me that this wasn’t so remarkable after all. OSU is inconsistent and so, apparently, are the Ducks. “I refuse to listen to such radical talk!

One of those aforementioned responses came from yours truly. To try to back up my contention that the Beavers are unusually up and down, I went to the numbers on Actually, inconsistency probably isn’t right to explain what is unusual about the way Robinson’s charges play. The real issue is that Oregon State seems to be unusual in its lack of sensitivity to opponent quality. The following graph plots the ranking of each OSU opponent in the Pomeroy Rankings against the margin of the game for the Beavers.

The points in black are 2009-10 games, while orange includes games from last season. While the Seattle U game–the 51-point loss at the bottom near the middle–is an obvious outlier, there isn’t a real strong relationship between rankings and outcomes outside of that. The correlation between the two is 0.325 this season and was 0.464 last year; by contrast, the 2008-09 Washington Huskies had a 0.687 correlation between Pomeroy Rankings and outcomes.

Last year’s Beavers did in fact tend to struggle against the elite of the elite, going 0-6 with an average differential of -22.5 points per game against teams in the Pomeroy top 25. However, against teams ranked between 26 and 100, Oregon State was 12-6. Move outside the top 100 and OSU went just 4-6, including a loss at No. 330 Howard. (This does not count wins over Seattle U and Seattle Pacific University, neither of whom was ranked because they did not play full D-I schedules.)

This year’s results, Seattle U aside, aren’t quite as dramatic. Still, the Beavers are 4-4 against opponents ranked 110 or better, with all four losses coming by single-digits. In other games, Oregon State is just 3-4, including a 25-point loss to No. 155 Texas A&M Corpus Christi and a home loss to No. 292 Sacramento State.

Now, one theory is that this really is an issue of the Beavers starting slowly, since most of their games against lowly teams have been played in November and December while the schedule has picked up after entering conference play. That certainly seemed to be the case last year, when Robinson was making drastic changes to Oregon State’s schemes at both ends of the floor. This year, it’s less convincing given the Beavers’ entire starting five and sixth man Omari Johnson are all returning. It also doesn’t explain the loss to the Redhawks, which was sandwiched in between two solid road efforts at the Washington schools (losses by a combined 11 points) and the win at Oregon.

Is there something about Robinson’s Princeton-style offense and 1-3-1 zone defense that creates more problems for quality teams than poor ones? I don’t know about that, but I will say that whenever the Beavers take the floor, neither side should consider the game a guaranteed win regardless of the disparity between them.

January 11, 2010

Weekend in Hoops: A new spirit of Volunteerism!

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:45 pm

Tennessee beat number one-ranked and previously undefeated Kansas 76-68 in Knoxville yesterday, despite the fact that Bruce Pearl had just kicked Tyler Smith off the team for good and suspended three other players. The Volunteers played this contest with just six scholarship players, and they were facing arguably the deepest roster in D-I. Go figure, the home team won anyway, in no small part because of walk-on Skylar McBee. With under a minute left to play and Tennessee clinging to a shaky three-point lead, McBee found himself beyond the arc with the ball but without any earthly idea that the shot clock was at “2.” You could literally hear the long vowels as the crowd yelled “Shoot!” Which he did, suddenly, awkwardly, and successfully. The shot put the Vols up six with half a minute to play. Which brings me to what I love about college basketball.

No, it’s not the sport’s relative openness to the occasional Ollie-the-manager-turned-hero type like McBee, though of course there’s nothing wrong with that. Rather it’s the way that McBee’s improbable discrete episode on one possession was balanced perfectly by 69 other hard-earned possessions of superior play by his team. Tennessee deserved to win–and they needed a little highly-memorable help from McBee to close the deal. What drives me up the wall about college football, conversely, is that its improbable discrete episode-to-justice balance can often be out of whack. In that other sport the nation’s elite teams don’t play each other nearly enough to gain a sense that there’s really a champion. And even in a “national championship game” (ha) the outcome can hinge on something as quixotic as reserve Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert throwing a shovel pass in the waning seconds of the first half. Yay, college hoops.  

And boo, Kansas! Let the recriminations begin! Bill Self‘s phrasing was particularly lapidary: “I don’t know if Tennessee was a team until this past week,” he said after the game. “I don’t know if Kansas is a team yet.” Whoa, condign modesty from an immodestly talented figure in an epigrammatic parallel construction. Self may not be on the same bleachers as La Rochefoucauld yet. (“We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.”) Still, that ain’t bad. Call Bartlett’s!

Self has to say stuff like that, of course. He coaches a team that just lost to an opponent with six scholarship players! He can’t just tell his players, “Hey, we’re still good. Be satisfied with where we are.” But the rest of us outside the locker room would do well to remember that KU, hiccups and all, is one of the two or three best teams in the country, period. I will not go into my spiel here about how great teams always but always play the occasional terrible game. But, well, they do. Kansas played one of theirs yesterday. There will be one or even two more of these terrible games. Get your basketball-as-self-actualization soundbites ready in advance. You will have the opportunity to use them, I assure you.

A recurring feature: Unbeatens beaten
The day before Kansas fell off the unbeaten perch, Purdue lost at Wisconsin, 73-66. In other words this weekend two of the nation’s four unbeaten teams had to play road games against ranked opponents. They both lost. When are Texas and Kentucky scheduled to play road games against ranked opponents, you ask? The Longhorns meet Kansas State in Manhattan next Monday night. UK, conversely, may have to wait until at least February 16 (Mississippi State) or even beyond. Not that the Wildcats’ game at Florida tomorrow night will necessarily be a cake walk, mind you.

Time for a presidential blue-ribbon commission: The foul-plagued Big 12
Missouri beat Kansas State 74-68 in Columbia on Saturday, in what was far and away the most unwatchable great game I’ve seen this year. The Tigers and the Wildcats combined to shoot 73 free throws in, symmetrically enough, a 73-possession game. Even during crunch time in the final four minutes of the game, virtually every possession resulted in a foul call, meaning there was no flow whatsoever to what should have been a savory collision between two very good teams. (Zaire “Big Shot” Taylor‘s huge three for Mizzou with 33 seconds left was an exception to the rule. Incredibly, no foul was called on the entire possession. I rubbed my eyes and shook the remote.) An event that was advertised in advance as a basketball game was instead a glorified free throw contest, a state of affairs that has been attributed to the officials working this particular game.

Those officials weren’t shy, to be sure, but this was hardly an isolated instance. In fact the problem here is much more systemic. Last year the Big 12 was easily the most whistle-happy major conference in the country. 

Way past time for an intervention for the Big 12’s refs
Major-conference FT rates, 2009: conference games only

Big 12     0.39
ACC        0.34
Pac-10     0.34     
SEC        0.34
Big East   0.33
Big Ten    0.32

Note that last year KSU’s Big 12 opponents posted an incredible 0.52 FTA/FGA rate. So, granted, it’s not all the officials’ doing. Frank Martin‘s team is certainly no stranger to fouls.

Still, K-State is but one team. While the rest of the country has reached an unconscious but nevertheless clear consensus on how many of these things should be called, the Big 12 is drowning in fouls. Whistles pose an existential threat to the entertainment value of the conference’s hoops. The league office needs to get on this.

Wainwright: Good coach, better guy, tough gig
By the time you read this DePaul will have officially parted ways with coach Jerry Wainwright, whose team is currently mired in a 22-game Big East regular season losing streak. In more salubrious economic times and/or at an institution with some football revenue, the coach likely wouldn’t have lasted this long. And after last week’s sideline collision with Villanova‘s Corey Fisher left Wainwright with a fractured tibia and torn MCL, whatever perseverance still lingered with either the coach or the administration may have withered in favor of a David Allen-style focus on progress via the next required action.

I’ve never met Wainwright but what I hear from peeps who have predisposes me to like him. (He’s a regular at weekday Mass: “If you want to feel young at my age, go hang with the old ladies at weekday Mass.”) He had good runs at UNC Wilmington and Richmond, but, alas, the resurrection of Blue Demon hoops proved a bridge too far. The similar struggles at St. John’s, another big-city Big East program whose glory days in the 80s are often invoked but as yet have never been repeated, suggests that the challenges faced by Wainwright were not his alone. Those challenges will be surmounted at both schools someday (Jim Calhoun has built a dominant Big East program in Storrs, Connecticut, of all places), but when that day comes history will show it took more than one coach’s best effort to do so.

Everyone is wrong except me: Oregon State winning in Eugene was indeed a big deal
Last night while I was watching Oregon State lead Oregon the whole way in Eugene, I opined that this was pretty remarkable. (The Beavers ended up winning 64-57.) Craig Robinson‘s team had, after all, just lost to Seattle by 51 points. Nevertheless my opining resulted in responses from knowledgeable and savvy Pac-10 types assuring me that this wasn’t so remarkable after all. OSU is inconsistent and so, apparently, are the Ducks.

I refuse to listen to such radical talk!” Forget Seattle aberrations, my Pac-10 friends too easily lose sight of a natural evaluative advantage they enjoy with respect to other conferences. Oregon and Oregon State, just like the four other geographically-determined rivalry pairings in this admirably Euclidean league, entered last night having just played the exact same conference schedule. Those wholly non-Seattle numbers pass my desk in real time and they were telling me the Beavers had no chance last night. None.

Bear in mind that I devote no small amount of my typing to telling people to stop running around and screaming with their hands above their heads every time a highly-ranked team loses on the road to a good team. But in this instance a nominally pretty good team lost at home to a team that has played really poorly so far this year. There are times when it is in fact correct to run around and scream with your hands above your head. I stand by my astonishment. 

Don’t just mutter ineffectually; email me!

Ivy League: Now home to just too darn many great sporting events!
Last week I remarked that the two upcoming contests between Harvard and Cornell hold the potential to be the biggest games the Ivy League has seen in years. The readers respond!

The strange thing about the February 19 Cornell-Harvard game is that it’s been scheduled literally at the exact same time as the Cornell-Harvard hockey game, which is a big enough event to have its own Wikipedia page.

Of course, Harvard’s hockey team has been miserable this year (2-10-2), so maybe some Crimson fans will decide to watch some hoops.

David S.

Thanks, David! So it shall be: 2010 will be remembered as liftoff for resurgent Ivy hoops mania. You heard it here first.     

January 8, 2010

Coming March 8: Top 25 Freshmen of 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:46 pm

I am writing this post for one reason and one reason only. Its existence will force me to do a year-end version of the Top 25 Freshmen list that I unveiled this week. (There was an addendum too.)

Last year I said I’d update my January 2009 list with a final one at the end of the season but, minus an insultingly specific yet obviously necessary paint-me-into-a-corner headline like the one above, it never happened. In my defense March is a busy time here at the luxe Google-style campus that the Prospectus Family of Networks maintains for its hoops types. Be that as it may, this year I vow to make it happen. Watch for it. 

Meantime allow me to exult in the avalanche of responses I’ve received that were of an almost intoxicatingly high quality. If this week’s emails and tweets are any indication, the day is fast approaching when my tedious tempo-free proselytizing will have been relegated to the dustbin of history. And please join me in giving a standing O to the notably dedicated fans of Wake Forest and the incredible astroturfing they’ve done this week on behalf of C.J. Harris.

Note additionally that the list was linked promiscuously enough for me to receive a like number of responses from folks who are apparently new to the Prospectus party. To all the new arrivals, a word:

Welcome! Here’s the deal. For better or worse this list was intended to be all-performance and no-hype. That doesn’t mean my choices are apodictic, of course. Merely that this is the particular window we’re looking through. It’s practically our shtick. After all, you hardly need Prospectus to come up with a list of the biggest freshman Names at high-major programs. You can do that yourself rolling out of bed. 

The above paragraph will resurface as Terms & Conditions on March 8. Click “agree.”     

Zone D: Forcing an extra three every 10 minutes

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:49 am

Yesterday I was reading Luke Winn‘s rationale for naming Kansas the top team in the country when I came across this:

The Jayhawks seem to be the elite team that’s least likely to see zone defenses this season. Of the members of the Undefeated Club, I’d zone Texas because it ranks 205th in the country in three-point shooting at 33.2 percent, and I’d zone Purdue because it’s even worse than Texas from long-range, ranking 262nd at 31.4 percent. Although Kentucky shoots the trey quite well (at 40.6 percent, 20th in the country), I’d consider zoning the ‘Cats just to contain point guard John Wall in dribble-drive and screen-and-roll situations. But why even try to zone Kansas? It ranks third in the country from distance (at 43.1 percent), and when it uses its “gunner” lineup, with Sherron Collins at the point, either Tyrel Reed or Brady Morningstar at the two, and Xavier Henry at the three, it’s scary against a 2-3 defense.

Here Luke is voicing one of the unquestioned verities of hoops, one that I myself use all the time: A zone defense forces the opponent to shoot more threes. But for some reason seeing this assumption spelled out so explicitly sent me running to my laptop to see if I’ve been right all this time.

Fortunately we have Syracuse. The Orangemen have been known to play a little 2-3 for, what, 87 years now. Does Jim Boeheim‘s team really force opponents to shoot more threes than they otherwise would? You bet!

How to win possessions and influence opponents 
Syracuse opponents: % of shots that are threes
Conference games only

       3FGA/FGA (%)    Big East avg.
2009      37.8             31.6
2008      39.5             33.2
2007      37.4             34.9

Syracuse opponents are indeed consistently more three-happy than your run of the mill Big East offense. And given that a conference game will feature about 60 field goal attempts from each team, these numbers mean that on average a ‘Cuse opponent will attempt four additional threes per 40 minutes.

That’s appreciable, but to me it underscores the extent to which even Syracuse will, like any defense, rise or fall largely according to how well they defend twos. Across three seasons where the Orangemen were consistently forcing opponents to take an extra three every ten minutes or so, the 2007 defense clearly stood out as exceptionally stingy because it was so good at making those same opponents miss their shots inside the arc (take a bow, Darryl Watkins).

Forcing an opponent that doesn’t like shooting threes to shoot four additional threes is a good thing, but it is of course just one factor in the mix. I happen to think the zone is weirdly under-utilized nationally; the very fact that it’s so seldom glimpsed means you can discomfit your opponent, at least momentarily, by wheeling it out. But even a relative zone-advocate like me will concede that good defenders will play good D no matter what scheme you use.

January 7, 2010

The Most Amazing Result of the Season

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:31 am

While the upset-minded portion of the nation (including our John Gasaway) focused its attention on Lawrence, where Cornell was taking top-ranked and undefeated Kansas nearly to the buzzer, one of the more improbable results you will ever see in NCAA basketball was taking place in Corvallis, where Seattle University earned its first win over a BCS opponent since returning to Division I by beating Oregon State on its home floor.

Back in November, I suggested that the Redhawks might have a chance to upset the Beavers. Little that had happened since then, however, backed up that notion. Oregon State seemingly righted the ship after a 1-3 start and lost by a combined 11 points on the road against the Washington schools late weekend. Seattle U, meanwhile, had lost seven of its last nine games since opening 4-2. As it turned out, I watched both teams play last weekend in person, and the Redhawks did not seem to be in the Beavers’ class. Ken Pomeroy‘s number-crunching computers gave Seattle U a 13 percent chance of pulling the upset and made Oregon State a 12-point favorite. Given all that, a Redhawks win was a modest surprise. But it was the margin of that victory–a 99-48 win that was worse than any loss suffered by the Beavers when they were winless in Pac-10 play two years ago–that was virtually unthinkable.

But wait, there’s more! Knowing that the Redhawks played so well, you might guess they were led by their NBA-bound star, Charles Garcia. Instead, Garcia spent virtually the entire evening in foul trouble and played just 15 minutes, most of them inconsequential to the outcome. There was something of a Ewing Theory effect at play. Without Garcia, Seattle U was forced to go small and become more balanced on offense. The result was passing that stretched out Oregon State’s zones and created open looks on the perimeter. Heretofore a mediocre shooting team, the Redhawks got hot and made 12 three-pointers in 20 attempts, more than making up for the loss of Garcia’s production. The undersized group was also quick to long rebounds, grabbing half of their available misses.

At the other end of the floor, the Beavers were as cold as their opponents were hot, shooting just 4-of-22 from downtown. Seattle U’s pressure also forced 20 turnovers, and the Redhawks drew at least five charges by reading Oregon State’s desire to drive the basketball.

Logically, all of that should have added up to a comfortable Seattle U win. That’s where the game seemed to be headed at halftime, with the Redhawks leading by 14 but plenty of time still remaining for a Beaver comeback at home. But in one of those oddities that happen in the course of a single game, Seattle U got confident, Oregon State’s players hung their heads or some combination of the two. The Redhawks went on a 19-0 run just after halftime and the game quickly became a laugher. Ultimately, I’m not sure the margin says that much about where either of these two teams are going given how much it stands out from their recent performance. Still, that doesn’t take away from what Seattle U accomplished on a night that was magical or awful depending upon your point of view.

January 6, 2010

Two honorable mention freshmen

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 6:05 pm

Now that I’ve posted my choices for the nation’s top 25 freshmen, allow me to tack on a couple honorable mentions. First, I want to be clear that I did not consider Maurice Creek of Indiana for inclusion, since he is out for the year with a knee injury. If he were healthy would he have made my top 25? Of course. Should I have noted that in my piece? Yes, I probably should have.

Second, Tyler Haws should be happy that so many BYU fans have championed his cause to me. I can honestly say that Haws was one of about three players who were the last to be cut from my list. (No, I’m not going to name the other two. Then I would have to do a follow-up post on the three or four players who didn’t quite make that group.) It’s tough to hold the line at just 25 players. 

Speaking more broadly, however, the pro-Haws groundswell has pleased me immensely. Surely this wacky “efficiency” stuff has come a long way when fans are so (correctly) enamored of a player averaging 11 points and seven shots a game. I think I’m going to like this decade.

January 5, 2010

What hath tempo-free conference play wrought

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:08 pm

I’m pleased to announce that this year at Basketball Prospectus we’ll be expanding our coverage and tracking per-possession performance in league play for no fewer than 126 teams in 11 conferences. Which raises the question: Why track per-possession performance in league play?

Over the next eight to nine weeks these 126 teams will play over a thousand possessions each. Half of those possessions will take place at home, and half of them will occur on the road. All of that basketball will be played against opponents that by conference affiliation have been designated as nominal equals in terms of programmatic resources. (Though, granted, a league like the A-10 certainly exhibits some notable diversity in terms of member heft.) And, not least, all of that basketball will take place in increasingly close temporal proximity to the NCAA tournament.

In other words, with all due allowance for injuries and funky scoring distributions, I look at these thousand-odd possessions very closely. And in leagues featuring true round-robin scheduling (Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Pac-10, and WCC, among others), per-possession performance in conference play tells me exactly how surprised I should be in mid-March when the league’s best team in tempo-free terms loses in first round of the NCAA tournament.

I toyed with the idea of pulling a Ken Pomeroy this year and posting these numbers right from day one, but then I took one look at Louisville‘s current conf-only profile (dominating the Big East by 0.32 points per trip–um, probably because their conference slate at this point has consisted of one home game against South Florida) and ran the other way. Fortunately there is one conference that’s already played enough basketball for us to take a cautious “It’s only January 5” peek.

The Missouri Valley after three games apiece 
Conference games only, through January 4
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession    Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

                     Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP   EM
1.  N. Iowa          62.9    1.11    0.92   +0.19
2.  Wichita St.      64.2    1.03    0.93   +0.10
3.  Illinois St.     62.2    1.09    1.00   +0.09
4.  S. Illinois      66.8    1.08    1.00   +0.08
5.  Missouri St.     62.2    1.17    1.11   +0.06
6.  Indiana St.      64.5    0.94    0.93   +0.01
7.  Creighton        66.3    0.94    0.97   -0.03
8.  Bradley          68.1    1.06    1.11   -0.05
9.  Evansville       62.9    0.90    1.12   -0.22
10. Drake            65.3    0.73    0.96   -0.23

So far Northern Iowa, regular season MVC co-champ in 2009, has pretty much picked up where they left off. And is this the season where no longer newish coaches like Gregg Marshall at Wichita State and Cuonzo Martin at Missouri State break through, so to speak? Stay tuned! Lastly note that former Purdue great Martin has received or soon will be receiving a curmudgeonly but proud “nice team, now start guarding people” phone call from Gene Keady, a la Bob to Pat Knight.         

Diametrically-opposed surprises: Pitt & Carolina

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:50 am

Mondays are usually relatively sleepy in college hoops terms, but last night a couple of final scores actually succeeded in deflecting a modicum of attention away from the gadget-play and marriage-proposal engine that is Boise State football.

First Pitt won at Cincinnati, 74-71. Coming off their 82-72 win on Saturday at Syracuse, the Panthers now stand at 3-0 in the Big East, with two of their wins having come on the road against quality opponents. Not bad for a group that was supposed to take a step back this season after having said goodbye to DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, and Levance Fields.

Actually, even at 3-0, they have taken a step back. Jamie Dixon‘s surprising Panthers are outscoring Big East opponents by 0.13 points per trip. That’s outstanding but even that level of play takes a back seat to the Blair-fueled 2009 team, which was 0.16 points better than their conference foes on each possession they played.

Speaking of that 2009 team, I spent the balance of last year yelling and waving my arms in an effort to convince people that the old Pitt stereotypes (rugged D, points scored with more brute force than skill) no longer applied and that this was one incredible offense. Indeed it was, but this year it might be time to move one step back toward the good old Panther preconceptions of yore.

You could make a case that this 2010 team is comprised of a strong defense that for the past three games has been momentarily joined by an offense that is hitting shots like crazy (e.g., sinking 45 percent of their threes in conference play). Sophomore Ashton Gibbs has said thank you very much for the available minutes and rather quietly emerged as one of the more impressive pure shooters you’ll find anywhere. For the year Gibbs is hitting 94 percent of his free throws (against the Bearcats last night he went 10-of-11) and 41 percent of his threes while taking the bulk of the shots for this offense. Pitt’s not as good as they were last year, but right now they’re much better than expected.

North Carolina, conversely, is not meeting expectations at the moment, as seen in their 82-79 loss in OT on the road last night to College of Charleston. This bit of man-bites-dog can be traced to: 1) a spirited rally by the Cougars in the final four minutes of regulation (keyed by eight straight points from Andrew Goudelock); 2) the absence of two UNC starters (Marcus Ginyard and Will Graves); and 3) the person in Chapel Hill who had the bright idea of playing a road game against College of Charleston. Keep in mind that Jim Boeheim gets yelled at every year without fail for keeping his Syracuse team in the safe cocoon of the Carrier Dome (albeit with occasional forays to neutral floors) until conference play drags his Orangemen kicking and screaming downstate. Well, right now Boeheim looks like Jim Caldwell to Roy WilliamsBill Belichick.

Occasionally when a mid-major brings down a blue-chip opponent it falls to yours truly to note that This is Not a Surprise because the plucky underdogs are actually very good at X and the big-name team is vulnerable there, etc. This is not one of those occasions. The outcome here officially qualifies as a Surprise, even if UNC was down two starters. To be sure, Bobby Cremins has a fine team on his hands but the Cougars wouldn’t appear to be the SoCon favorites this year. More to the point one might have thought this team would have been beaten to a pulp on its defensive glass by the Tar Heels. In fact that is exactly what happened–and Carolina lost anyway because they couldn’t make twos (26-of-65) and didn’t try threes (1-of-6).

Funny thing is, the Tar Heels’ problems in this game do not necessarily loom largest as their likely problems going forward. If I’m a Carolina fan I’m more worried about turnovers the next eight weeks than I am about shots going in. (Shots from the field, that is. This is one mediocre team at the line. Where have you gone, Psycho-T?) And while Williams’ team faces a relatively kind intro to ACC play (four of their first six contests are at the Dean Dome and the two road games are at Clemson and NC State), we are now 14 games into what was supposed to be this young team’s learning curve. In their 14th game the team learned about improbable upsets on the road.          

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