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March 2, 2009, 10:37 AM ET
Weekend in Hoops: Champs Clinching Everywhere

by John Gasaway

Nobody went 0-for-17 from the field or anything but it was still a lively couple of days….

Congratulations to this season’s first major-conference champion: LSU
The Tigers actually clinched at least a share of the SEC title last Tuesday night, with their 81-75 win over Florida in Baton Rouge. How does this tie in with what is nominally a post about the “weekend” in “hoops,” you ask. Well, on the ensuing weekend Trent Johnson’s team visited Rupp Arena in Lexington and beat Kentucky 73-70, giving LSU the SEC title outright. The game-winner came with 9.8 seconds left when Tasmin Mitchell hit a three off a pick-and-pop with Marcus Thornton.

The Wildcats are getting a modicum of grief (even from potential U.S. Senate candidates!) for leaving Mitchell open on such a decisive–and basic–play. While of course you don’t want to leave anyone wide open in a tie game with ten seconds remaining, keep in mind that Thornton has made 64 threes this year and Mitchell, when the pick-and-pop was being executed, had at that moment made nine. Well, now he’s made ten.

And kudos as well to this season’s second major-conference champion: Washington
The Huskies clinched at least a share of the Pac-10 regular season title at about 5 Eastern on Saturday with their 83-78 win over Arizona in Seattle. For a Pac-10 champion, though, Lorenzo Romar’s men aren’t inspiring a lot of fear from potential NCAA tournament opponents, are they? I think I see the problem.

Actually Connecticut’s offense had much the same PR problem last year but with those Huskies it didn’t matter because everyone just assumed they were great on D. (Which UConn was not last year; they are this year, though. Off-topic. Never mind.) The problem is this: when you watch the Washington offense, you probably think to yourself, “Great Caesar’s ghost these guys miss a lot of shots. This can’t be a very good offense.” Au contraire! While it’s true U-Dub is not a good shooting team (ninth in the league in effective FG percentage in Pac-10 play), they are in fact a good offense (second in the league in points per trip in-conference). Offensive rebounding man-weapon Jon Brockman sees to that. It may not look pretty but offensive boards and free throws are the oxygen that this offense breathes. The 6-7 Brockman takes care of the former, and he and 5-8 freshman Isaiah Thomas both contribute to the latter endeavor.  

But wait! Order now and we’ll send you another conference champion: Michigan State
Speaking of conference champs who don’t need something as bourgeois as “good shooting” from “the field,” meet Tom Izzo’s Spartans, assured a share of the Big Ten title after defeating Illinois 74-66 in Champaign yesterday. On offense, State is a virtual Washington clone (or maybe vice versa): shaky shooting offset by tremendous offensive rebounding and frequent trips to the line.

That being said, the big difference between last year and now in East Lansing is on defense. Izzo, whose very name is synonymous with defensive rebounding, is blessed with the best defensive rebounding team he’s had in years. This group has secured 75 percent of their Big Ten opponents’ misses. Izzo has no fewer than five players who each get to at least 18 percent of the other team’s misses during their minutes: Goran Suton, Raymar Morgan, Delvon Roe, Marquise Gray, and Draymond Green. If you’re a fan of strength on strength, pray for an Elite Eight game between Pitt’s otherworldly offensive rebounding and this group. That would be one spectacular collision.

My streak of consecutive posts without a pun on Bill Self’s name continues!
Allow me to offer the following controversial and indeed purposely incendiary opening statement: If you lose your entire starting five one year and then win your conference the following year, you’re a pretty good coach.

Technically Kansas hasn’t clinched anything. In the reality where we all must live, however, the Jayhawks stand an excellent chance of finishing the Big 12 season at 15-1 and as outright champions after yesterday’s 90-65 disemboweling of Missouri in Lawrence. Cole Aldrich, he of the 19-14 double-double against the Tigers, really needs to sue Blake Griffin for loss of public attention or some such thing. Put it this way: Aldrich would be Player of the Year in at least one and possibly two major conferences this year. He combines shot-blocking and defensive rebounding better than anyone in the country except two notably underrated players: Jerome Jordan of Tulsa and John Bryant of Santa Clara. Aldrich also makes 62 percent of his twos while taking a share of the shots second only to that absorbed by Sherron Collins.

There is however one concern for Self going forward into the NCAA tournament. For the first time in three years he has a team on his hands that is really turnover-prone. On the other hand, let’s look at this glass as half-full. If KU can suddenly learn to take care of the ball, they can repeat. Seriously.

Villanova’s seed is dropping
Last seen in this space exploding for 100-plus points in back-to-back wins against quality Big East teams, Jay Wright’s Wildcats have actually been outscored over their five post-explosion games, up to and including Saturday’s 56-54 loss at Georgetown. Which of course might make you say: Well, it’s the Big East, murderous schedule and all. Yes but keep in mind ‘Nova’s murderous five-game schedule here included a home game against Rutgers, a road game at DePaul, and zero encounters with any of the league’s top four teams (Connecticut, Pitt, Louisville, and Marquette). That’s not good.

The downturn has made itself felt on both sides of the ball but particularly worrisome has been something of a mini-collapse on defense, where Villanova has allowed its last five opponents to make a whopping 59 percent of their twos. (Again, keep in mind a full 40 percent of those opponents were Scarlet Knights and Blue Demons.) Tonight the Wildcats play at Notre Dame, where one Luke Harangody has been known to shoot the occasional two. Wright’s team may be well advised to hit 100 one more time.   

Throwing some love to an obscure player at an out-of-the way program
Why am I not hearing more about the year Ty Lawson is having on offense for North Carolina? I realize the NBA believes that Tar Heel point guards are capable of operating at one speed only (high), which tends to depress their draft stock. Since a given player’s buzz factor is in part draft-stock-driven, a net decrease in talk results.

But if you measure a player’s performance according to how well they fill the role that is given to them, you could ask if there’s any player in the country who’s had a better year on offense than Lawson. He has his usual insane assist rate (even higher than last year), along with minimal turnovers (lower than last year). That goes without saying. This year, though, he’s making 49 percent of his threes and 58 percent of his twos. Meaning he’s a threat to hurt an opposing defense at all times and in a number of different ways.

Lawson may not be what you’d call a Chris Kramer on D. But when a player performs at this kind of off-the-charts level on offense, the impolitic truth is you’re going to outscore the opponent anyway. 

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No coach wants to get really good at winning OT games
My piece on luck prompted the following:

Are there any good predictors for figuring out whether a team will overperform or underperform in overtime?

William S.

Overtime is to hoops roughly what the divisional series is to baseball: a contrived and highly abbreviated environment where the team that “should” win can in fact lose due to an exceedingly small number of more or less random occurrences.

A less wordy answer to the same question would be: foul trouble. Who’s still available after 40 minutes have been played?  

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