Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

November 21, 2008

Classing Surprises: Michigan, Seton Hall, 167 points, etc.

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:44 pm

Michigan beat UCLA 55-52 at Madison Square Garden last night and will face Duke tonight in the title game of the 2K Sports Classic. Let that sink in. 

To class this outcome as a mere “surprise” won’t do. Last year this same Michigan team, after all, lost at Harvard by 11 points. Last year this same Michigan team, playing at home, gave Northwestern its only conference win. Last year this same Michigan team finished 10-21.

All true enough, but that was last year. The young Wolverines will still face their share of struggles this year, of course, quite possibly as soon as this evening. But let it be fairly said of last night’s game that it had the clarifying effect you sometimes grasp even in murky November. John Beilein‘s team is better than I thought they’d be. And Ben Howland‘s is worse.

Yes, there had already been intimations of mortality where the Bruin offense is concerned. I had already seen UCLA struggling to score enough points merely to beat Miami of Ohio in Pauley Pavilion. Indeed it would seem that an ode should be penned to Kevin Love (and, perhaps, Russell Westbrook). See how halting and ineffective the Bruin offense now appears despite being outfitted not only with a full kit of Final Four mainstays (Darren CollisonJosh Shipp, and Alfred Aboya), but also by smooth freshman Jrue Holiday, who despite his youth appeared singularly well-prepared for and unperturbed by the Wolverines’ 1-3-1 defense.   

Get ready for a fair amount of pundit love for said 1-3-1, of course, but beware: the aforementioned Miami precedent suggests that the Bruins’ struggles last night said a lot more about the UCLA offense than they did about the Michigan defense. Sure, the 1-3-1 is a pain for opponents who have to prepare for something they see once a year. But during Beilein’s time at West Virginia, at least, the actual results of this particular D were below (the Big East) average. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course–it’s the offense that gets it done for Beilein. It’s just that spending time and oxygen on the 1-3-1 where the subject under study is Beilein is a little like obsessing over fielding where the subject is Manny Ramirez or special teams where the subject is Mike Leach. It’s just not where the juice is.

One last finger-waggle. Let’s cool the Manny Harris-for-Big-Ten POY talk. Sure, he could win it. Stranger things have happened. But all we know of the young man so far is that he’s an excellent free throw shooter who had a disastrous (I’m talking Rutgers-level) season shooting the rock from the field last year.   

Speaking of Big Ten teams who hurt your eyes last year. You needed ESPN Full Court to see it, but Illinois can now say they’ve won a true road game against an SEC opponent. (Then again so can Mercer. Har!) The Illini prevailed 69-63 against a suddenly young-looking Vanderbilt team. Even more strange, Illinois got the job done with good perimeter shooting (10-of-19 on threes).

Speaking of ranked Pac-10 teams laying eggs. If you’re looking for hoops outside the continental U.S., November is for you. In Puerto Rico Seton Hall beat USC 63-61. The Trojans, variously ranked as number 19 or 20, led by 15 at the half but an 18-point second half sealed their doom. Big win for the Pirates, surely. And yet….Verily, I say, in the Gonzalez era it has been much more difficult to be impressed by the Hall after February 1 in any given season. Stay tuned.

BONUS Unified Theory of Paul Westhead! On January 5, 1991, Loyola Marymount scored 186 points against U.S. International. Fast forward almost 18 years: former LMU head coach Paul Westhead is now an NBA assistant in Oklahoma City. Apparently he’s been making the 83-mile trip to Ada, OK, to offer stylistic pointers to East Central University. For you see last night Texas Tech came within a mere 19 points of Westhead’s old record, registering 167 points in a 119-possession game against the Division II Tigers. You will be able to watch literally years of college basketball before you again see a game where committing 18 turnovers is actually a good result. Such was indeed the case last night for the Red Raiders, however, who in fact gave the ball away on just 15 percent of their possessions. And if a team that’s scoring a once-in-a-season 1.40 points per trip in a once-in-a-generation 119-possession game can only come within about 20 points of LMU’s record, the question might fairly be asked whether said record belongs to the ethereal and untouchable realm of 56-game hitting streaks and such.

Absolutely. No surprise there.

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