Sunday, January 18, 2009

“There wasn’t anything remotely dirty about that play”

I would not want to be Keno Davis right now. Leading by 11 on multiple occasions in the second half, the most experienced team in a BCS conference blew the lead and the game to the Marquette Golden Eagles. And if Keno Davis isn’t careful, Providence may blow the season. You could see it in the eyes of Geoff McDermott at the end of the game. He had 15 points, 17 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and a block. He had seemingly done it all. Providence played as well as they could play. And they still couldn’t beat an elite team in the Big East.

“When is it going to be our year?” I said last weekend that no team has more experience than Providence. The Friars have an 8 man rotation consisting of 5 seniors, 2 juniors, and 1 sophomore (Marshon Brooks). For Weyinmi Efejuku, Geoff McDermott, Jonathon Kale, and Jeff Xavier, this is now or never. Providence has gone 6-12, 8-8, and 5-11 in Big East during their careers. And after starting 3-1 this year, players like Geoff McDermott had hope.

Sure the efficiency stats weren’t any better. I showed that on Sunday. Providence looks offensively and defensively almost exactly the same as last year. And for all the little things he does, Geoff McDermott has never had an Ortg over 100. Even when his eFG% has broken 50%, he’s always turned it over too much to be considered a dominant offensive player. But what if they could just win the close games? What if they could just avoid blowing the lead this year? Isn’t fate supposed to be a little more kind to a veteran team?

“The Friars are experienced at losing.” I’ve seen that quote written and heard it said, and you could see it in Geoff McDermott’s eyes at the end of the game. Here we go again.

-We can’t even win when we shoot the lights out. Providence had shot 56% in the first half and started the second half 8 of 10, but the lead was only 6 points. And in the final 8 ½ minutes, Providence only scored 10 points.

-We can’t even get an emotional burst from Jeff Xavier getting injured. In the second half, Jeff Xavier took the ball to the basket and ran into Joseph Fulce’s elbow. “There wasn’t anything remotely dirty about that play” said Bob Valvano, but apparently someone disagreed. In one of the truly bizarre moments of the year, a “relative” of Xavier went out onto the court to have a discussion with the officials. He was escorted out in calm fashion, but Jeff Xavier went nuts. It isn’t clear whether Xavier was mad about the non-foul call or about his “relative” getting arrested.

-And the team couldn’t even win for Weyinmi Efejuku. If I heard Valvano correctly, Weyinmi attended his father’s funeral earlier in the day and it was unclear if he would even make it to the game to play. Weyinmi played 32 minutes, but was not as dominant as he can sometimes be.

Basically, this was a loss that killed Geoff McDermott’s hope. And it probably ruined the hope of a lot of Providence fans. Providence still has a chance to rebound from this with upcoming games against Cincinnati and Seton Hall. Providence still has a chance to have a good season. But Keno Davis has a lot of work to do this week, and none of it has to do with X’s and O’s.

Sports are a funny thing. Not everybody wins in the end, even if they give their heart and soul and dive for every lose ball.

And now on to a team experienced at winning

On the flip side, this was an equally critical comeback for Marquette. I said a few weeks ago that even though the non-conference Pomeroy Rating was not that impressive, there was still plenty of reason for optimism for this team. And in conference play, Marquette has completely turned things around for its senior trio. At 5-0, first place in the Big East, the schedule is only going to get tougher, but Marquette is playing “no excuses” basketball. Certainly if they had lost at Providence, that loss would have been “explainable”. But Marquette doesn’t just want to make the tournament this year. They want to compete for a Big East title and make a deep tournament run. And to achieve those things, you have to beat Providence. Marquette came back and won, no excuses necessary.

Other Random Games

-I have no idea if the Arizona Cardinals will pull off another upset on Sunday, but Kurt Warner’s alma mater Northern Iowa scored a huge win on ESPN2 to start the day. Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson is in his third year with the school, and the first two years were nothing to write home about. Despite having the best defensive rebounder in the nation last year in Eric Coleman, Jacobson couldn’t get Northern Iowa above .500 in MVC play and with Coleman graduated, Jacobson started this season at 6-6. That included losses to Wyoming and a terrible Indiana St. team at home. At this point, it seemed pretty safe to pencil Northern Iowa in for a 7th or 8th place finish in the Valley. But all of a sudden the team has been on fire, winning 6 in a row to take over first place in the MVC standings. For Northern Iowa to go on the road and beat defending champ Drake is a surprise. But for them to completely dismantle the Drake defense in a game where Pomeroy gave them only a 25% chance of winning? That’s a dream outcome for a TV game.

- I’ve written enough negative columns on Oklahoma St. where I’d really love to see them get a huge road win and I’d love to see Byron Eaton have a special moment. But just when I tune in to see it, it doesn’t happen. Case in point: Oklahoma St. which had been up by 7 on the road at Baylor, blows the lead in part due to Eaton missing the front end of a one-and-one and fouling out. Now back-up point guard Keiton Page comes in with the team down 4 points, and immediately scores 5 points to give Oklahoma St. a one point lead. It is stuff like this that makes me think Eaton is cursed. Page was arguably no better than Eaton on the day, but in the final minutes, Page = good things, Eaton = bad things.

Also, Baylor still has “The Greatest Offense of All Time in the Final Minute of a Game”. So of course they tied the game and won in overtime. Seriously, they need to find a way to trick the players into thinking the opening five minutes is really overtime. I know I shouldn’t take a team seriously that can give up 90 points on a regular basis, but I still think Baylor is going to play in the most entertaining second round game in the NCAA tournament this year.

-What’s up with Nebraska? After they lost to Oregon St. and UMBC, I figured they were good for an 12th place finish in the Big 12. OK, maybe 10th place. Texas Tech and Colorado are pretty bad. But now Doc Sadler’s team has beaten Missouri and crushed Kansas St. (who have Pomeroy ratings of 11 and 26 respectively) at home to start the season. The key against Missouri was that they drew fouls. The key against Kansas St. was that they forced turnovers, something they seem to do better than anyone in the nation.

-Finally, I'm sure at some point I'm going to do a longer post on Michigan St., but Spartans Weblog said everything I would have said about the Illinois vs Michigan St. game. I'd argue that the Illinois offense actually looked better at times than the guard-shooting would indicate. I remember one key sequence where they ran a back-door play, followed by a motion jump shot play, followed by a high-low pass and I was practically jumping out of my seat at how exciting the offense was. But I think it says something when a team down 6 to a team that can't make its free throws gives up on fouling at the end of the game. Illinois couldn't make a three against the tough Michigan St. defense so there was no point in extending the game. You have to give Michigan St. credit for doing the little things better (rebounding and drawing free throws). It seems like that was how Tom Izzo's teams won when they won Big Ten Championships, and maybe that's the best sign for the Spartans.