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December 21, 2009

Weekend in Hoops: No one looks better than Texas

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:21 pm

Texas beat North Carolina 103-90 on Saturday in the first basketball game ever played at Jerry Jones‘ new $1.3 billion Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, and to my eyes what inside-the-Beltway types would call “the optics” of this game took some serious getting used to. This year I’ve seen Carolina outplayed and schematically frustrated by Syracuse, and I’ve even seen them matched athletically by Kentucky. But I literally can’t remember the last time I found myself bestowing mid-major-variety “You poor overmatched dears” pity upon a Tar Heel team. Next to a physical specimen like Dexter Pittman, Ed Davis looked like John Henson. (Don’t ask me what Henson looked like.) To see a Roy Williams team operate at a clear horespower deficit is, to say the least, rare.

Damion James wasn’t particularly efficient, missing 14 of 22 shots, but he recorded a 25-15 double-double for Texas, while freshman Avery Bradley revealed speed and confidence on offense that he hadn’t shown before on his way to 20 points. (The efficiency prize goes to J’Covan Brown, who scored a quiet 21 points, if such a thing is possible, coming off the bench.)

In an exceptionally fast-paced game (87 possessions) where the Longhorns didn’t shoot as well from the field as did the Heels, Rick Barnes‘ team won rather easily anyway by getting to the free throw line and, especially, by beating Carolina to a bloody pulp on the glass. I have promised never to speak of the unicorn stat known as “rebound margin” again. However if I had not made that promise, I would point out here how this game perfectly demonstrates how useless said stat is. The 60-41 advantage on the boards posted by Texas, as impressive as it may look, in fact doesn’t begin to capture the degree of abject domination that the ‘Horns inflicted on their opponent.

Keep in mind North Carolina actually shot pretty well, and, more to the point, they shot significantly better than Texas. Which means there were fewer opportunities for the ‘Horns to haul down defensive boards. So for this team to get 19 more rebounds anyway means their work on the glass had to be absolutely absurd. Indeed it was: the Longhorns got to fully half of their own misses and rebounded 72 percent of Carolina’s missed shots.

Give Pittman most of the credit for UT’s stellar showing on the offensive glass. The big guy recorded 12 offensive boards in just 26 minutes of playing time. From my chair Pittman’s performance in this game (he recorded a 23-15 double-double) marked something of a return to 2008-09 form. I realize he’s been garnering headlines this year for his unbelievable shooting (he is making 79 percent of his twos on the season), but what had interested me about that shooting was that these are not just put-backs he’s recording. Before he saw Carolina blue, Pittman’s offensive rebounding was actually down from last year. But after what I saw him do Saturday against a frontline stocked with future NBA players, I know that Pittman has the potential to achieve DeJuan Blair-level domination in any game against any team, up to and including Kansas.   

Ah, yes, Kansas. ESPN made the Jayhawks the victims of what we in the trade call an invidious comparison on Saturday, kind of like when it’s December and you hear John Lennon‘s totemic classic “Happy Xmas, War is Over” played back-to-back with Paul McCartney‘s singularly unfortunate and synthesizer-riddled piece of dreck, “(Simply Having a) Wonderful Christmastime.” On this day Bill Self‘s club was clearly McCartney to the Longhorns’ Lennon, as the Jayhawks limped along to a lifeless 75-64 win over previously struggling Michigan in Allen Fieldhouse, a game which provided the lead-in to North Carolina-Texas on ESPN. Cole Aldrich in particular, a preseason All-American according to this writer, looked synthesizer- and skinny-tie ready, scoring five points on 0-of-3 shooting from the field against a defense that for the year has allowed opponents to make no less than 52 percent of their twos.

An off game for the big guy and his team? Absolutely, and off games do happen, even for Teams of the Decade. I’m just surprised that the team I ranked number one in the nation in the preseason has such unimpressive “quality” wins at this point. Kansas beat Memphis by two on a neutral floor; Saturday night the Tigers lost at UMass, a fate Cornell, for one, managed to avoid. The Jayhawks also won by 12 at UCLA, a feat that would have meant a lot in any year prior to this one, when Cal State Fullerton also won at Pauley Pavilion. Cal hasn’t exactly been a juggernaut this year or anything, but Self’s team may want to improve on what they showed against the Wolverines to be extra double-sure that they keep that gaudy home winning streak in tact tomorrow night.  

Your reaction to the Butler-Xavier game reveals your comfort with Rawls. Discuss.
Unless you were entombed in a shopping mall all weekend, one buried underground and impervious to cellular reception, you know that Butler beat Xavier 69-68 in Indianapolis on Saturday thanks to a highly controversial last-second lay-in by Gordon Hayward. When Hayward hit his game-winner the clock showed 1.2 seconds remained in the game, time enough for the Musketeers to have one last chance to win. After a lengthy review of the tape, however, officials determined that the clock had been stopped incorrectly for 1.3 seconds on the Bulldogs’ final possession and that time therefore “should” have expired right after Hayward’s shot cleared the net. The officials therefore declared the game finished.

To say first-year Xavier coach Chris Mack was not thrilled with this ruling would be putting it mildly. He shouldn’t have been thrilled with this ruling. No one in his position would be. I would not have been, had I been in his position. Then again I’m not in his position. The officials spent ten to 15 minutes trying to figure out what the outcome of this game would have been if the clock had been operated correctly. The 40-minute time-limit we put on games is of course arbitrary and it can never truly be measured accurately down to the tenth of a second. But it’s all we have.

If (I stress if) it’s correct that 40 minutes had come and gone by the time Hayward made his shot, then it was incumbent upon the officials to rule game-over, incumbent upon Mack to go nuts, and incumbent upon the rest of us to say “Man, tough break” and nothing more, certainly not “Xavier should have had one more shot.” For if you had asked Mack before that game if his team “should” be given 40 minutes and 1.3 seconds to beat Butler, he would ignored your silly question entirely. He would have been right to.

Fast becoming a weekly feature! These Are Not Upsets….
This top-25 thing that some people apparently actually pay attention to in December is fast becoming a problem. Last Monday I was wondering why in the world people were running around screaming with their hands above their heads just because Temple won at home against Villanova, and the problem was quickly traced to an ersatz and indeed meaningless “3” that had previously been appearing next to the Wildcats. 

Alas, there was even more misplaced noise this weekend, which is too bad because there were indeed surprises enough happening around the country, goodness knows (see below). But Wichita State beating Texas Tech 85-83 in Wichita is not a surprise, even if the Red Raiders were in the top 25. Richmond beating Florida 56-53 in suburban Fort Lauderdale is not a surprise, even if the Gators were in the top 25. Even Old Dominion beating Georgetown 61-57 in the Hoyas’ 2500-seat on-campus venue, McDonough Arena, is way less of a surprise than you’d think. The Monarchs’ 7-4 record is highly misleading for a team that, albeit in still-murky December, appears to have one of the best defenses in the nation. Should this level of D continue, don’t be shocked if Blaine Taylor‘s group wins the CAA this year. 

Now then, for your running-around-and-screaming-with-your-hands-above-your-head-but-accurately purposes, here are your actual weekend surprises in no particular order:

Duke absolutely pummeled Gonzaga 76-41 in Madison Square Garden. I realize that in recent years the Blue Devils have on occasion looked really impressive in December and January, only to have the impression fade in March. Still, to do this against a team with wins over Wisconsin, Cincinnati, and Washington State was undeniably striking.

USC absolutely pummeled Tennessee 77-55 in L.A. I’m on the record as thinking Bruce Pearl‘s club will be able to surmount last year’s horrible three-point shooting with the sheer wealth of experienced personnel on hand. Maybe so, but it sure didn’t look like it Saturday, as the Vols went 2-of-22 on their threes. Give the Trojans’ newly-eligible Mike Gerrity all the praise and attention you want, but Tennessee won’t win many games scoring 0.79 points per trip. 

Georgia edged Illinois 70-67 in a quarter-filled Gwinnett Center (sorry, “The Arena @Gwinnett Center”–please)  in suburban Atlanta that, if anything, tilted toward the Illini in terms of crowd support. Fans of the orange and blue should have no illusions as far as the magnitude of this surprise. This is a bad loss. The Bulldogs entered this game the functional equivalent of Iowa in terms of Pomeroy Rating. Maybe it was the Dawgs’ tenacious D on ball screens. All I know is scoring 67 points in 70 possessions against this defense is a surprise. Kudos to Mark Fox for registering what is clearly a nice program-furthering win.     

Don’t just mutter ineffectually; email me!

Using this nomenclature, Duggar Baucom is truly maniacal
John, I loved your piece on rebounding. One thought: I have taken to referring to team pace as “manic” or “deliberate.” If you use “fast” and “slow” people tend to think of fast as good and slow as bad. Perhaps manic is also bad, but it takes people a while to think about it before forming an opinion.

Bruce B.

Yeah, I plead guilty to saying “fast” on occasion when I should say “fast-paced.” Then again the “slow” stigma will fade when a, uh, deliberate team wins it all. Georgetown came darn close to doing so in 2007.     

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