Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Lost Art? The Two Point Jumper Beats Purdue

As Basketball Prospectus has said from the beginning, Duke’s defense is predicated on denying three point shots and dunks and forcing teams to make intermediate jumpers. Few teams are equipped to win by taking two point jumpers, but the 2008-09 Illinois team might be the rare team that can win with this strategy. Illinois is dead last in free throw rate among BCS schools, shoots many more twos than threes, but is finding a way to win.

And thanks to two lanky big men in Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis, the jump shot is here to stay in Illini country. I don’t know that Illinois can win on a consistent basis with this strategy, but on a night where the shooters couldn't seem to figure out where the three-point line was on Purdue’s floor, (it was the blue line, not the white line), Illinois surprised the Purdue defense scoring 46 of its first 47 points on two pointers. (And thanks to ESPN for catching this stat-geek gem).

Again, I hardly recommend this strategy. In the long haul, I think Illinois needs to learn to draw some fouls. But don’t think that great teams can’t employ the two point jumper in their arsenal. I’ve been watching some of the 2005 Illini season on the Big Ten Network’s Greatest Games feature, and we tend to forget that Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and Luther Head were not just great three point shooters, they all had a solid intermediate game as well. You saw it in big games against Wake Forest, Gonzaga, and at Michigan St. where the 2005 Illini squad shocked the other team by pulling up short of the paint, and knocking down wide-open 8 foot jumpers.

Update: Big Ten Geeks actually predicted this in the pre-game. Yep, that earns a LHS link. And Spartans Weblog had a nice graphic of the tempo free stats showing that Illinois should not be a surprise team. Note to self: Read more of other blogs.

Here we go again. But not this time.

Illinois was the unluckiest team in the nation last year, losing numerous close games. But further analysis revealed it was not just bad luck. Illinois couldn’t make free throws and therefore couldn’t finish any of the close games last season. This year, most of the poor free throw shooters are graduated, (and as noted above, Illinois isn’t taking any free throws this year), but Illinois still had a major chance to blow a late lead against Purdue.

After committing a foul in the final seconds to allow the game to be tied, and after giving up the first 4 points in overtime, Illinois could have easily hung their heads and lost again.

After Demetri McCamey (an 89% free throw shooter) missed three foul shots, Illinois could have easily caved in and kept the streak of close losses intact.

But not on this night. Illinois was playing too smooth. (See 6 turnovers.) Illinois was playing too unselfishly (See 21 assists.) And on back-to-back nights, a conference favorite went down at home. UConn, Purdue, who's next? This is college basketball.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Georgetown defeats #2 Connecticut

Over a decade ago, Minneapolis North product Khalid El-Amin, one of the most exciting high school guards in Minnesota high school basketball history, decide to attend UConn. He helped win a national championship for Jim Calhoun in 1999 and I spent much of the next decade resenting UConn basketball. Like most people, I cheered when George Mason upset the Huskies a few years ago, and after a mass exodus of UConn players left for the NBA, I was happy to watch players like Jeff Adrien suffer through a 17-14 season just two years ago.

But as much as I’ve become obsessed with college basketball over the past few years, I’ve learned you have to respect quality coaches. And Jim Calhoun has not only put UConn on the map, he’s earned my respect. Yes, his teams still go for too many blocks instead of making the simple defensive play. But there is something to be said for a team that thinks dunk first and not lay-up. Jim Calhoun’s teams not only win basketball games, they do it with style.

And the more I’ve respected Jim Calhoun, and seniors like AJ Price and Jeff Adrien, the more a victory like this one is all the sweeter. Here was a game where AJ Price ended an early Georgetown run with a pair of threes, where Jeff Adrien would not be denied in the second half, where Hasheem Thabeet was diving on the floor for loose balls, and where much-maligned Stanley Robinson was making a crazy put-back dunk. And yet Georgetown would not be denied.

UConn fans will blame the fouls, (see the early steal by Greg Monroe which followed a clear bump by Monroe), or the lack of effort on backdoor cuts. But this was not about a lack of effort by UConn.

This was about Georgetown flat-out refusing to lose. There was Chris Wright hitting multiple buzzer beating jumpers. There was Austin Freeman with his new-found aggressiveness taking it to the basket earning numerous lay-ups and free throws. There was DaJuan Summers hammering home the offensive rebound dunk. There was Jesse Sapp hitting a clutch three pointer to extend the lead in the second half. There was Jason Clark making a pair of key free throws. There was Julian Vaughn coming in and playing defense on Hasheem Thabeet.

But there was only one Greg Monroe.

Freshman are not supposed to go on the road and dominate the number 2 team in the country. Freshman are not supposed to have this kind of all-around game. At the end of the day, heck at the end of the year, the PPG stats aren't going to be the best because Monroe is a team player. But Greg Monroe showed on Monday why he is one of the most talented freshmen in the country, opening the game with a three pointer, a hook shot over Hasheem Thabeet, 3 assists, and 3 steals. (Oh, and did I mention that he leads the Hoyas in steals, as a forward?) Monroe's performance in the first 6 minutes of the game, not only gave the Hoyas a 15-1 and then a 18-3 lead, it proved that there still are a few freshman worth watching this year.

Look Greg Monroe might cool off under the grind of Big East play. He may get schooled by DeJuan Blair on Saturday. But it is games like this one that make a Georgetown fan want to bask in the moment. Enjoy this season while you can Hoya fans, because if Monroe wants to go pro, he’ll have that option.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Final Old Spice Post

With no college basketball on Christmas, I decided it was time to clean out my notebook with some final thoughts on Thanksgiving's Old Spice Classic.

Inside Wichita St.

The Shockers didn’t have the most fans in Orlando (more like 4th most), but the fans they brought sure seemed to know how to make the most noise. The Key: the mid-major foot-stomp. On bleachers, this creates much more noise than clapping.

Against Georgetown, Sienna, and Michigan St. in the Old Spice Classic, Wichita St. had a simple strategy: Slow the pace down, lull your opponent to sleep, and hope that Clevin Hannah can get hot and win the game at the end. It worked against Siena (in the biggest comeback in the tournament), and the strategy certainly gave Georgetown and Michigan St. a big scare. But will it work over the course of a season? It is hard to say. I’m still big on Gregg Marshall who did wonderful things at Winthrop, but it is a lot harder to win on a consistent basis in the MVC. Huge game this Sunday (Dec. 28th) when Wichita St. takes on Creighton.

Random Thought: It looks like former Missouri Tiger Stefhon Hannah and Wichita State’s Clevin Hannah are not related. I thought with Missouri and Wichita St. being in close proximity that they both might be local, but Stefhon was from Illinois and Clevin is from Mississippi. Trust me, you wonder these things when you watch 12 games live in 4 days.

Inside Michigan St.

Spartan fans like to claim they have lots of depth, but in the case of Michigan St. seniors Marquise Gray and Idon Ibok, what they really have is two warm bodies. To be fair, Gray is off to a decent start this year, but no one thinks the team is getting to Ford Field this year on the backs of its senior forwards.

The result in Orlando was that Tom Izzo rushed Delvon Roe back into the lineup. I was very excited to see Roe in person, and in warm-ups I could see why people are excited about the redshirt freshman. He seemed big, mobile, athletic, and a force to be reckoned with. But he was tentative when he got in the game, and the injury seems to have taken away some of his aggressiveness. With mostly Roe and Gray in the lineup (Sutton – injured, Morgan – fouls), Michigan St. lost the opener of the Old Spice Classic to Maryland. So maybe Michigan St. isn’t quite as deep as we thought.

Certainly, Michigan St. proved against Texas that if Sutton is healthy, and if one of the emerging guards (Allen or Summers) can make plays in the half-court, Michigan St. can be one of the best teams in the country. But the main feeling I got from Michigan St. fans in Orlando was that of impatience. The fans want the team to be dominant now, and while watching Roe develop sounds good on paper, it sure isn’t as much fun as winning right now.

Inside Tennessee

I’m going to be honest, it is hard for me to evaluate Tennessee vs Georgetown from a non-Georgetown perspective. Going into the game, I was wondering if Georgetown would even be able to compete with a Top 25 team, especially a run-and-gun team, on day 2 of a tournament, when Georgetown doesn’t have much depth beyond the starting five. But despite this lack of depth, despite facing tough full court pressure, Georgetown overcame several runs and the Hoyas were in position to knock off Tennessee. But that’s when the Vols hit some late threes to take the lead. Tennessee was 10-15 on 3’s in the game. Were it not for that fabulous outside shooting, I don’t think Tennessee wins. But that’s not really fair to Tennessee. The Vols deserve a lot more credit than that, and Bruce Pearl deserves every bit of praise he’s getting in Knoxville. Sometimes, it is just hard to write that you got beat by the better team.

By the way, the Tennessee fans were easily the nicest fans we met at the tournament. They were humble, gracious, and excited to be part of a new winning era in Knoxville.

Random Notes

-On Sunday of the Old Spice Classic, there was a rain delay due to rain blowing in an exhaust vent in the building. This reminded me of the time Michigan St.’s ACC-Big Ten challenge game was cancelled due to a wet floor, and it reminded some nearby Tennessee fans of last year’s SEC tournament.

-I spoke to some Volunteer fans who remember Georgetown’s Omar Wattad from high school. Wattad has yet to win me over, but he had a career day against his home state school, hitting 3 three pointers.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Zags Down

I’m still in shock that Gonzaga lost to Portland St. last night. My initial reaction is that this is the kind of loss that could cost Gonzaga 3-4 seed lines on selection Sunday. This is particularly devastating for Gonzaga because the Zags are not going to be able to make a standard argument for a 1 or a 2 seed. They’ll have a nice record against the RPI top 50 and 100, but they won’t have nearly as many quality wins as the runner-up in the Pac10 or Big 12.

But Gonzaga was still going to have a shot at a top seed because a number of smart college basketball people would have made the argument that Gonzaga has too much talent to be seeded lower. And people who saw Gonzaga in person against UConn or in the Old Spice Classic would have had plenty of ammunition to argue that Gonzaga’s top 6 players are as good as any team in the country, with the exception of UNC. But a loss like this just cripples those “other” arguments. Would the third place team from the Big 12 or Pac 10 lose at home to Portland St? Certainly not. Washington has already beaten them, and Baylor probably will next week. And that’s why I think this loss pushes Gonzaga down 3-4 seed lines at the end of the year. Make no mistake about it, this was an absolutely devastating loss.

The only good news for Gonzaga is that Portland St. is actually a pretty good team. Last year Portland St. won the Big Sky conference regular season title by 3 games and won the conference tournament. And they’ll probably be the favorite to win the conference again this year. So maybe if Portland St. can keep their RPI in the top 100, this loss will be “explainable” for Gonzaga. But you never want a loss like this near the end of the non-conference schedule.

Elsewhere on Tuesday

Wisconsin scored 5 points in the final 6:45 of the game against Texas. I said it before, but it is still true. Who is going to be the star for Wisconsin when they need a bucket?

Sorry no comments on the Bragging Rights game between Illinois and Missouri. I have it on tape. I was watching Georgetown double up Florida International 76-38 at the Verizon Center. The Hoyas have clearly figured out how to dominate smaller schools with absolutely relentless eFG% defense, but now comes the hard part. Here is the upcoming schedule along with the Pomeroy ratings of the teams. Georgetown is at #6 Connecticut, vs #3 Pittsburgh, at #23 Notre Dame, vs #89 Providence, vs #35 Syracuse, at #4 Duke, and vs #7 West Virginia. Oh, and then they go on a three game road swing. Good times.

Hats off to Clint Sargent of South Dakota St. for leading the victory over Iowa St. The sophomore guard is averaging 14.6 PPG with an ORtg of 119.5.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

8 Thoughts on a Great Saturday of Basketball

1) My wife’s call of UConn’s AJ Price taking the shot at the end of regulation against Gonzaga, “Bad shot, bad shot. Oh it went in.” Look, I’m done ragging on Jerome Dyson. Dyson is a fabulous defender and a fantastic full-court player. But against a tough half-court defense, if you want someone to make a play to win the game, you want the ball in AJ Price’s hands.

2) Is Steven Gray the best 6th man in the country? Gray’s best two games came against ranked teams (Tennessee and UConn). Gonzaga might fall out of the top 10, but this is clearly at least a 2 seed at the end of the year. And if they go undefeated in WCC play, I’d give them a 1 seed. They had no shot in OT once Austin Daye, Micah Downs, and Matt Bouldin fouled out.

3) With about two minutes to go in the Michigan St. vs Texas game, Durrell Summers was starting to take over. He had just knocked down a big three to pull Michigan St. within a point, and he had found Kalin Lucas at the top of the key to give Michigan St. the lead. And after Gary Johnson had taken the lead back for Texas, it was a no brainer. “Get the ball to Summers!” Of course, he immediately drove into the lane, lost control of the ball and turned it over to Connor Atchley. Rats. But wait. There was another chance at glory. After Atchley missed a three, Summers was once again standing in the corner when Raymar Morgan found him for the game winner. Yep, that’s why I watch this stuff.

4) Rick Pitino has forgotten more about coaching than I’ll ever know about coaching, but what was he doing yelling at his team to play full court pressure with 4 minutes to go in the Louisville vs Minnesota game? Louisville had just cut the Minnesota lead to 4 points, and I think he should have played it straight up and saved his player’s energy for the offensive end of the court. Minnesota was starting to look tentative, and I’m not sure the Gophers would have been able to make a basket against a half-court defense. But we’re never going to know. Because Louisville kept fouling Minnesota and allowed the Gophers to score their final 14 points from the free throw line.

To me, the key problem with this strategy is that Earl Clark, Terrence Williams, and Samardo Samuels weren’t buying it. They kept giving Pitino looks like, “Are you serious?” Minnesota had been playing a rotation of 11 players, and while Louisville had also been rotating 12 players, the three key Louisville players had played virtually the entire game. Plus those key Louisville players had just played a game on Thursday, while Minnesota had been off for 10 days. There was no way Louisville was going to wear down Minnesota at that point in the game. I could understand using full-court pressure when they were down 10 or 12, but down 4 with 4 minutes to go? All Pitino did was foul out Samuels and piss off his best three players.

5) During the Memphis vs Syracuse game, Tyreke Evans had the ball on a 3 on 1 break. Rather than pass the ball to his open teammates, he drew a charge. Dick Vitale commented: “I wouldn’t say he was selfish, I’d just say that was bad freshman decision making.” OK, sure.

6) Seton Hall, which holds wins over USC and Virginia Tech, lost to IUPUI.

7) Alex Legion debuted for Illinois. He made his first two shots, both three pointers, before missing his next 4 shots. I think Illini fans are under-estimating how much time it will take for Legion to fit into the offense and defense, but there was still reason to be excited.

8) Last year Chris Kramer was 18th nationally in steal rate and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the year. All I remember was that he was really irritating. Stephen Curry knocked my Georgetown team out of the NCAA tournament last year. Stephen Curry meet Chris Kramer. Meet 5 of 26 shooting.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

McDonald’s All-American Watch

I’ve been putting this off, but the time has come.

First, a look at the school’s with the most MAA’s this year:
8 North Carolina
7 Duke
3 UCLA, Georgetown
2 Arizona St., Georgia Tech, Kansas, Louisville, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma St., Syracuse, Villanova

7 of Duke’s top 8 scorers are MAAs, with the only exception being Brian Zoubek.

North Carolina is getting production from some non-MAA players, but they have so much talent to burn, it isn’t even fair. Imagine if Ellington, Hansbrough, and Green had left early last year. How much time would we be spending talking about Tyler Zeller and Ed Davis? Instead, I’m guessing a large segment of fans don’t even know who those players are.

For the first time in a long time, Texas is missing from this list. And Texas, Pittsburgh, Xavier, Purdue, and Michigan St. are the only teams in the AP top 20 without a MAA. In fact, the Big Ten is virtually without any of the country's premiere recruits.

MAA’s by Conference
21 ACC
13 BigEast
9 Pac10
7 Big12
3 Non-BCS
2 Big10

And given the Ohio State’s two MAA players, William Buford and B.J.Mullens are not dominating, this is quite likely the weakest group of MAA’s in Big Ten history.

Let’s take a look at this year’s freshman. ORtg is from Kenpom.com and gives a sense of the efficiency of the scoring.

Productive and Efficient
PPG - R - A - ORtg - Name - School
19.1 - 6.1 - 2.3 - 119.4 - Sylven Landesberg - Virginia
17.0 - 6.1 - 1.1 - 126.6 - Samardo Samuels - Louisville
14.9 - 7.3 - 1.5 - 107.6 - Luke Babbitt - Nevada
13.9 - 1.6 - 2.6 - 113.2 - Willie Warren - Oklahoma
13.3 - 5.8 - 2.1 - 123.9 - Greg Monroe - Georgetown
11.1 - 3.7 - 3.2 - 113.5 - Kemba Walker - Connecticut
10.8 - 3.9 - 2.9 - 121.8 - Jrue Holiday - UCLA

With Virginia sitting at 4-3, no one realizes what a great season Landesberg is having. Between Blake Griffin and Willie Warren, Oklahoma would be nowhere without its two MAAs.

Not as efficient, but still good
16.1 - 5.8 - 3.8 - 95.4 - Tyreke Evans - Memphis
15.9 - 3.4 - 0.9 - 101.7 - Mike Rosario - Rutgers
11.5 - 6.4 - 0.4 - 101.0 - Michael Dunigan - Oregon
11.4 - 4.1 - 6.3 - 97.7 - Iman Shumpert - Georgia Tech
11.3 - 8.8 - 1.9 - 99.6 - Al Farouq Aminu - Wake Forest
9.8 - 4.3 - 1.0 - 86.3 - Demar DeRozan - USC

Evans has had a few bad shooting days. Rutgers probably needs Rosario to keep shooting given the amount of talent on the team. Only DeRozan’s production can really be considered detrimental to the team at this point.

Limited role in offense
10.0 - 1.5 - 0.5 - 109.9 - Tyler Zeller - North Carolina
9.7 - 7.1 - 0.8 - 102.0 - Chris Singleton - Florida State
8.9 - 8.7 - 0.6 - 106.4 - Ed Davis - North Carolina
8.7 - 1.6 - 0.8 - 106.5 - Scotty Hopson - Tennessee
7.6 - 6.4 - 0.7 - 101.6 - JaMychal Green - Alabama

Limited role and limited efficiency
6.0 - 3.6 - 0.1 - 91.2 - B.J. Mullens - Ohio State
5.9 - 2.3 - 0.7 - 90.2 - William Buford - Ohio State
4.2 - 2.0 - 0.8 - 83.7 - Malcolm Lee - UCLA
2.9 - 2.8 - 0.9 - 74.5 - Elliot Williams - Duke
2.2 - 1.7 - 3.2 - 91.7 - Larry Drew - North Carolina

And here are the rest of the MAA’s who have stayed in college. Most are off to tremendous starts, although many of them have yet to face top competition.

PPG - R - A - ORtg - Name – School - Class
23.7 - 6.9 - 3.9 - 126.9 - James Harden - Arizona St. - SO
23.1 - 15.1 - 2.5 - 120.5 - Blake Griffin - Oklahoma - SO
22.8 - 7.2 - 0.6 - 133.1 - Tyler Hansbrough - North Carolina - SR
19.1 - 10.3 - 0.5 - 103.6 - Gani Lawal - Georgia Tech - SO
18.8 - 6.1 - 3.1 - 122.6 - Chase Budinger - Arizona - JR
17.9 - 2.6 - 4.8 - 113.9 - Sherron Collins - Kansas - JR
17.6 - 9.1 - 3.0 - 130.8 - Patrick Patterson - Kentucky - SO
17.5 - 2.4 - 4.8 - 117.2 - Johnny Flynn - Syracuse - SO
16.8 - 11.4 - 1.1 - 111.9 - Jon Brockman - Washington - SR
16.6 - 7.8 - 3.5 - 117.9 - Kyle Singler - Duke - SO
16.3 - 2.2 - 6.9 - 143.6 - Ty Lawson - North Carolina - JR
15.8 - 5.6 - 1.9 - 118.8 - James Anderson - Oklahoma St. - SO
15.0 - 4.0 - 6.7 - 115.2 - Nick Calathes - Florida - SO
14.1 - 10.4 - 1.7 - 128.7 - Cole Aldrich - Kansas - SO
13.9 - 3.2 - 4.6 - 111.5 - Scottie Reynolds - Villanova - JR
13.8 - 4.6 - 2.6 - 117.6 - Austin Freeman - Georgetown - SO
13.4 - 4.2 - 2.4 - 122.7 - Wayne Ellington - North Carolina - JR
13.3 - 4.8 - 3.1 - 133.7 - Danny Green - North Carolina - SR
13.3 - 3.8 - 2.3 - 116.1 - Jon Scheyer - Duke - JR
12.8 - 6.9 - 1.8 - 121.0 - Tasmin Mitchell - LSU - SR
12.4 - 3.4 - 3.8 - 118.2 - Chris Wright - Georgetown - SO
12.3 - 3.5 - 1.1 - 130.6 - Corey Stokes - Villanova - SO
12.3 - 2.5 - 2.2 - 118.5 - Nolan Smith - Duke - SO
11.6 - 8.1 - 3.4 - 110.4 - Earl Clark - Louisville - JR
10.7 - 4.3 - 1.8 - 114.6 - Gerald Henderson - Duke - JR
10.0 - 3.5 - 3.0 - 121.1 - Tweety Carter - Baylor - JR

All of the above players are having incredibly efficient starts with the possible exception of Gani Lawal at Georgia Tech. But again, when you look at Georgia Tech's offense, it isn’t clear to me that he should be shooting less.

How good is the sophomore class? Corey Stokes, was one of the only disappointments last year, but he is off to an incredible start this year, knocking down 49% of his threes.

9.9 - 5.5 - 1.4 - 105.5 - Micah Downs - Gonzaga - SR
9.1 - 5.4 - 1.6 - 108.0 - Mike Williams - Cincinnati - RSR
8.2 - 3.9 - 0.5 - 124.4 - Lance Thomas - Duke - JR
7.2 - 5.0 - 1.0 - 114.8 - Luke Zeller - Notre Dame - SR
5.8 - 1.3 - 1.9 - 104.6 - Greg Paulus - Duke - SR
4.8 - 5.1 - 0.2 - 108.1 - James Keefe - UCLA - JR

I like to poke fun at the above players for having a smaller role on their team, but all of them have been solid role players. Also, Mike Williams has returned from multiple injuries so I really shouldn't expect more out of him yet.

13.9 - 1.1 - 3.4 - 102.7 - Eric Devendorf - Syracuse - SR
13.6 - 6.3 - 0.2 - 89.6 - Korvotney Barber - Auburn - SR
13.0 - 8.4 - 2.1 - 97.7 - Brandon Costner - NC State - SR
11.9 - 3.6 - 6.6 - 97.5 - Byron Eaton - Oklahoma State - SR
2.6 - 1.2 - 2.0 - 84.2 - Bobby Frasor - North Carolina - SR
1.3 - 1.3 - 0.3 - 86.3 - Eric Boateng - Arizona St. - SR

You know, the class of 2005 had a surprising number of busts.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fifteen Ties, Eighteen Lead Changes, No Lead Bigger Than Six Points

You know when both Jim Burr and Ed Hightower are refs for your game, that you have a good game in front of you. (And that most of the country is off for finals.)

First off, Dana O’Neil’s recap of Georgetown vs Memphis is a must read. And the always entertaining Hoya Saxa recap opens with a great quote from John Calipari. “There were times we had a chance to get [the lead] to eight or ten and [Georgetown] just said, 'Nope, not happening'.”

But despite all this good stuff, I still have more to say on this game. First, I don’t think the recaps were fair enough to Memphis. Calipari isn’t searching for answers. He might have been searching for a few more points, but I thought he had an absolutely perfect game plan in this game.

Despite an absolutely horrid shooting percentage, horrible three point shooting, a shocking free throw disparity, and an incredible tendency for the refs to call traveling, carrying the ball, and offensive goaltending, Memphis still almost won on Georgetown’s home floor. Given that almost all the above factors are beyond the coach’s control, let’s look at exactly what Calipari was able to get his team to do in this game:

1) Memphis played by far the best half-court defense Georgetown has seen all year. The AP recap said it well. Basically every shot was contested in this game. Chris Wright may have claimed that the Memphis size wasn’t a deciding factor, but it clearly prevented him from initiating the offense the way he normally does. Memphis was disciplined enough to prevent backdoor cuts, persistent enough to stay out on perimeter shooters, and physical enough to prevent Monroe from dominating in the lane.

2) Memphis did not fear Georgetown’s fast break and Calipari had his team crash the boards with a 3rd or 4th person on almost every possession. Georgetown often has trouble with offensive rebounding, especially when they played zone, but this didn’t seem to be a case of Monroe or Summers not boxing out. This was a case of Memphis sending perimeter players to the glass and coming in from unusual angles. Memphis also clearly pushed it a little, touching a number of balls that were close to being on the cylinder, and earning two offensive goal-tending calls, but those were a small price to pay for 20 offensive boards.

3) Georgetown’s defense holds opponents to an incredibly low shooting percentage in large part because they almost always “help” in the post. It doesn’t matter if they are playing zone or man-to-man, Georgetown will send a weakside post man over to double team the ball and stop an inside basket. But Memphis was perfectly prepared to exploit this. Throughout the first half, Memphis would get deep position but instead of taking the expected shot, would pass to the weakside big man for an easy lay-up or alley-oop dunk. My wife pointed out that you could see the frustration on JT III’s face because he knew what Memphis was doing, but he wasn’t able to get his team to adjust until halftime.

So basically, Calipari had his team ready to defend, and exploit the two key weaknesses in Georgetown’s defense. And his team almost pulled off the victory. If you ask me, that’s not a coach that is looking for answers. That’s a coach who is looking for better production.

Unlikely Hero

Having watched the Hoyas eek out close victory after close victory last year, you just felt incredibly confident any time a game was close. (This made the Davidson loss all the more painful.) But now there was no Jonathon Wallace to sink a big three or Roy Hibbert to take a big hook shot in the lane.

And instead of flourishing with the crowd on their feet, Georgetown actually had several turnovers down the stretch and went the final 5 minutes of regulation without a FG.

With 2:45 left in OT, Georgetown had officially gone over 7 minutes without a made basket and I was really starting to panic. And that’s when Georgetown found an unlikely hero.

With the shot-clock running down, Georgetown needed an answer. Wright tried to drive, but was cut-off. Freeman tried to drive, but was cut-off. And that’s when freshman Jason Clark drove into the lane and with one second on the shot clock hit a pull-up jumper to give Georgetown a three-point lead. It was a lead Georgetown would never relinquish. And in my opinion, a freshman hit the biggest shot of the game.

Oh, DaJuan Summers was incredible in this game. And Georgetown needed every one of Summers’ 21 points. But if you hit an over-time shot-clock expiring shot, I don’t care if that’s your only basket all day. Jason Clark gets my game ball.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Basketball’s Quiet Week

A Long Intro for a Single Baseball Link

I’ve said this many times before so I’ll keep it short. In baseball, statistics can tell you virtually everything about a game, with defensive range being perhaps the only exception. In football, statistics are virtually meaningless. Games are often decided by offensive and defensive line play, and there are few good measures of the size of holes made available for RBs or the level of pressure put on the QB. The nice thing about basketball is that the stats tell part of the story, but you need to watch the games to get the full context. Were they playing zone defense? Was the team missing wide open threes or taking too many contested shots?

As a result, baseball people consider statistics to be sacred, while fans of the other sports are not nearly as obsessed. Also sacred is the Baseball Hall of Fame, despite all its obvious flaws. The shear need to fill hours of airtime during baseball games certainly must contribute to these endless discussions of sacred stats and unfathomable oversights.

You can’t even waste that much time talking about other games during the baseball season, because no outcome is truly shocking. If Kansas City beats the Yankees, no one’s jaw hits the floor. But if Santa Clara knocks off North Carolina or the Bengals tie the Eagles in football, we’ll be talking about it for months.

And as we enter the quiet period in college basketball, otherwise known as “Finals Week”, perhaps the only cure to the dearth of big games is the fact that on a nightly basis you can still talk about a BCS team going down.

-Hey, Charlotte beat Mississippi St. last night. Wow the SEC has problems.

-Hey Drake beat Iowa St. on Tuesday. Boy does Iowa St. hate that state law that they have to play Drake and Northern Iowa every year.

But even I realize that this can be somewhat unsatisfying after Feast Week and the ACC/Big10 and Big12/Pac10 showdowns. So, in the event you like to argue about meaningless things, here’s an article by Joe Posnanski about the Baseball Hall of Fame. And if Posnanski’s blog isn’t on your reading list, you’re already behind the curve.

More on the Old Spice Classic

After some throw away comments on Siena and a column on Oklahoma St., here are two more entries on Old Spice Classic teams.

Inside Maryland

Sometimes you miss the obvious unless you watch the games in person. But it seems like everyone in the Maryland lineup is the same height. With tall guards in Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes, and no primary rotation players above 6’8”, Maryland seems to have a lineup of five wing players.

Sometimes this works. I didn’t hear anyone complaining about the interchangeability of Purdue’s players last year.

Sometimes this gets over-analyzed. I now must immediately change the channel anytime someone talks about the limited number of big men on Duke’s roster.

And sometimes height matters. Ken Pomeroy had a nice piece a few years ago about how height is correlated with defensive production.

But in a tournament where all three Maryland games were blowouts, it was hard to get a real read on this team. Perhaps the best thing to say is that Maryland has a very young team that played three top 25 teams in four days. They need to be more consistent, but they showed some promise.

Random side note: Two Maryland fans spent the Michigan St. game discussing Jin-Soo Kim. He is apparently one of the few Korean born players to play college basketball. Apparently he scored 20 points in an exhibition game to the shock of everyone. Kim’s huge offensive outburst earned him extra playing time to start the season, but the team soon learned that it might have been a fluke, and he is no longer in the primary rotation.

Kim played mostly in garbage time in the Old Spice Classic, but from what I observed I can see why he scored 20 points in a game. He’s clearly an aggressive player who can create his own shot. He’ll need polish to do that against ACC competition, but he could be a fun player to watch in future years.

Inside Gonzaga

Courtesy of the wife of this blogger, “Does Gonzaga have a rule that they always have to have a shaggy-haired kid?”

Indeed, I believe Matt Bouldin was given the Adam Morrison memorial scholarship.

Austin Daye might be Gonzaga’s most talented player, Josh Heytvelt may be the most quietly dominating big man in a non-BCS conference, and Jeremy Pargo may be the silky smooth PG who makes it all work, but in the Old Spice Classic Matt Bouldin quickly became my favorite Zag. His ability to dribble the ball inside and back his man down in the paint put a tremendous amount of pressure on the opposing defense.

One thing that is often frustrating is how good players are not aggressive enough with the basketball, (see Roy Hibbert last year), or how players are too aggressive given their abilities, (see Byron Eaton). But Bouldin seemed to have the good type of aggression. When teams would try to double team Heytvelt and force the ball out of Pargo’s hands, Bouldin was always there to make the defense completely break down.

The other interesting player on Gonzaga is Micah Downs. The former McDonald’s All-American who transferred from Kansas has never really seemed comfortable as the primary offensive option, but with 4 other stars in the Gonzaga starting lineup, he has plenty enough talent to fill the fifth starting spot. Perhaps a good analogy for Downs is Andrei Kirilenko of the Utah Jazz. He’s not as good as Kirilenko, but he’s a similar enigma. Downs is a 6’8” player, listed at guard, who doesn’t really seem to have a natural position. But just when you are willing to write him off he comes up with a big block, steal, or dunk.

Given Gonzaga’s starting five, it is hard not to love this team in the NCAA tournament. Like Georgetown, they may have a significant drop-off when they go to the bench, but when a player like Steven Gray can come in and score 19 points as he did against Tennessee, or when Josh Heytvelt can hit a pair of three pointers as he did against the Volunteers, it is hard to pick against this team.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Better to Lose Now than Never Win

I promised more on the Old Spice Classic, and after the recent story about Ibrahima Thomas leaving Oklahoma St., I want to start with a little more discussion on the Cowboys.

Oklahoma St. has been a team in transition for several years. First, there was the embarrassing quest to get Eddie Sutton to 800 wins despite his not being present on the sideline. Then Sean Sutton took over, and despite the presence of two McDonald’s All American guards (Byron Eaton and James Anderson), Sutton’s team posted back-to-back losing Big 12 marks and failed to make the NCAA tournament.

Perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin for Sutton was the Cowboys 19-game road losing streak. While the Cowboys were good enough to beat good teams at home, (including Texas and Kansas), questionable road losses to struggling teams like Nebraska and Iowa St. ultimately cost the younger Sutton his job.

In the off-season, the team made a large play to bring Bill Self home, but was largely rebuffed. Ultimately the team hired Travis Ford from UMass. At the time I questioned the hire. Travis Ford had clearly had a good season at UMass (the team was runner-up in the post-season NIT), and Travis Ford clearly had UMass moving in the right direction, but I still thought he could use some more seasoning in A-10 play before moving on to a tough job in the Big 12 South. But the last few weeks have given me reasons for optimism in Stillwater, although perhaps not this season.

The main thing I noticed in Orlando was how some players on the Oklahoma St. team seemed to run the offense and how some players were still focused on doing their own thing. Even a junior college transfer who was injured much of last season, Anthony Brown, looked like a decent player when the team would run their offense and move the ball. But as usual, my favorite target, Byron Eaton was not interested in running Ford’s offense. Eaton posted terrible numbers in the tournament (including 0-10 against Siena), but the biggest disappointment was the Gonzaga game. In a game Oklahoma St. could have easily won, Eaton was 2 of 15 from the field and 1 of 7 from the free throw line. And while he contributed 10 assists, he also coughed up 6 turnovers. Basically, I spent the opening game against Gonzaga laughing at how bad things would happen every time Eaton touched the ball and how crisp the Oklahoma St. offense looked when he didn’t have the ball. (According to Jimmie Tramel Eaton has lost his Mojo.)

But as the tournament progressed, I began to see some reason for optimism for both Eaton and his role on the team. In particular, when 5’10” Keiton Page was on the floor which allowed Eaton to move to an off-guard position, the offense really seemed to run smoothly. The key for Eaton’s role is to understand what he can and cannot do for the team. Eaton has spent 4 years learning different systems, or trying to score without a system. And at this point he is basically a one-on-one player. Most of the time Oklahoma St. should be running the offense and getting the ball to its playmakers, Obi Muonelo and Terrell Harris. But in situations where Harris and Muonelo are shut down and when the playclock is running down, that’s when you want the ball in Eaton’s hands. Eaton won’t necessarily get you the highest percentage shot, but he can make things happen in pressure situations and against good defenses, and that is incredibly valuable.

To the extent that Page and the other guards can run the offense, and limit Eaton’s role, I think Oklahoma St. may actually be slightly under-rated. But to the extent that the Cowboys continue to let him pad his stats and ignore what is good for the team, the team could be in for a long season.

But how does this all relate to the team’s release of center Ibrahima Thomas this week? Was he one of the players who didn’t know how to run the offense in Orlando? The reality is that I don’t know. I didn’t see much of him on the floor. Thomas seemed to be on a personal mission to foul out for most of the Old Spice Classic.

But I like the bigger statement that Travis Ford made by releasing Thomas from the team. He basically said that if you aren’t committed to helping us get better, if you aren’t committed to the principles that will lead us to win, then I’d rather play without you. Certainly this will hurt in the short-run. Oklahoma’s lack of size may be catastrophic in Big 12 play. But in the long-run, it should send a message to the rest of the team that the old lackadaisical approach is over. The days of going one-on-one, and ignoring what is good for the team, are over. Next year and down the road this will make Oklahoma St. better. And maybe even this year, if the team learns to accentuate Eaton’s strengths, maybe he can still make the key play they’ll need late in the season.

Certainly, absent the facts, I do not wish harm on Ibrahima Thomas. If I had more information, I may not condone his dismissal from the team at all. But given the need for Travis Ford to not only change the system, but also to reinstate a winning culture in Stillwater, I applaud the move.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Incomple List of College Basketball Obsession

After attending the Old Spice Classic, I have come to the definitive conclusion that all crazy college basketball fans should at some point in their life attend at least one of these marquee eight team early season tournaments. Here is an incomplete list of things a true college basketball fan should do. 1 is rookie, 10 is obsessed fan.

1) Take off work to watch the Thursday and Friday afternoon games of the first round of the NCAA tournament.

No, I’m not saying sneak away at lunch to watch a few minutes, or leave at 3:30 for a “doctor’s appointment”. Take the day off. If you don’t do this, I cannot respect you as a college basketball fan.

2) Get season tickets for a local team. In February, obsess about your team’s RPI ranking.

The true joy of following a college basketball team is that by February almost every game matters. You root for your own team. You root against teams above your team. You root for teams that you played in the non-conference schedule. You root against Duke. (Well, after the Olympics, I’m not rooting against Coach K as strongly as I did in the past, but most people include that last one.)

3) Attend an NCAA tournament game in person.

I was tempted to say, “Attend the first or second day of the NCAA tournament in person”, since seeing 4 games in one day is an experience everyone should try once. But a lot of people love to watch the opening weekend on TV since you can see four games at once, so I’ll let it slide if you prefer to attend the Sweet Sixteen.

But you haven’t lived until you’ve shown up and seen a stadium half full of crazed Kentucky fans wearing blue. (My favorite is still the old farmer looking guy with the overalls and the blue Kentucky shirt underneath.)

You haven’t lived until you’ve had a chance to grade the quality of the celebrity alumni in attendance. Hey, there is Nick Lachey for Cincinnati. Hey, there is Bill Murray for Illinois.

You haven’t lived until you can grade the skill level of the different bands and cheerleader squads.

You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a higher seeded team upset a lower seeded team in person.

4) Attend the Final Four

Chances are, unless you live in Missoula, Montana, that you can see an NCAA tournament game without much effort. And while attending the Final Four may take a little more work, it is incredible to see how the Final Four descends on a city and takes over. Much like the Super Bowl, there are streets blocked off for block parties. And you can always find the ESPN set where Digger Phelps is prognosticating. But don’t forget to look for the under-the-radar events. In 2005, when Illinois went to the Final Four, Missouri and Illinois held an alumni game at the Savvis Center a few days earlier.

5) Take time off work to watch the conference tournaments.

Every game has huge NCAA implications. Every game is win or go home. Often 3-5 games are on at once and accessible by a standard cable package. Championship week is the whole reason I created this blog.

6) Greet your team at the airport after a huge road win, or attend a pep rally scheduled at the last minute because of an NCAA tournament win.

This one could be easy so perhaps it should be closer to the top of the list, but it assumes the team you are following is actually good enough to celebrate something. That part may be hard.

7) Attend a major conference tournament in its entirety.

On paper, this may seem pretty similar to attending an NCAA tournament event. But it isn’t even close. Attending a conference tournament requires a tremendous amount of stamina.

If you attend the first and second round of the NCAA tournament, you’ll see four games, get a day off to regroup and then go back and see two games. Certainly this requires effort, but this is nothing like seeing the ACC tournament in person. Four games one day, four games the next day, two games the next day, and then the title game?! Trust me, only a truly obsessed fan can make it through the second day without their eyes glazing over.

8) Attend a mid-major conference tournament.

Find out why fans from Hempstead, NY are willing to travel all the way to Richmond, VA to see the Hofstra Pride in action. Find out why fans from Northern Iowa say “Anyone but Southern”, referencing the overwhelming number of Southern Illinois fans that descend on the MVC tournament every year.

9) Read what other writers say and start a blog to document your own experience.

I’m often guilty of being too busy to read and quote other blogs, but that doesn’t mean I don’t read some of the great sports writers who are out there. Along those lines, I was very saddened to return from my trip and hear that Paul Zimmerman, Dr. Z of Sports Illustrated, recently had a stroke. My thoughts are with Dr. Z and his family and I certainly wish him the best.

Dr. Z is one of the few people to keep his own game notes on football games and as such often has the most important All-Pro ratings of any NFL writer. But perhaps the most touching thing he wrote occurred earlier this year. In one of his columns, Dr. Z wrote that he fell asleep during the fourth quarter of a game and woke up to find his wife’s arms around him, continuing to tally his numbers on his personal scorecard. We should all be so blessed to find someone we love who can accept the passion we have for college basketball.

But the other thing that caught my eye was how Bill Simmons referenced Dr. Z’s stroke and how Bill indicated how influential Dr. Z had been on his writing. I’m not sure if it was big picture things: Did Dr. Z’s mentions of his "beautiful redhead" influence Bill to include his wife’s mini-column? Maybe Dr. Z's influence was more subtle than that, but if you are starting out with a blog, there is nothing wrong with learning your style and craft from those who have come before. Today’s column could be called a patented Bill Simmons’ "list column".

Even if only a handful of people read “Yet Another” column, who cares? If you care about college basketball, share your obsession.

10) Attend an eight team early season tournament (Maui, Anaheim, Old Spice, ect.).

This takes an even greater level of stamina because early in the season, the neutral fans don’t know who to cheer for. There is no “seeding” to allow fans to cheer for the clear underdog. But when you can watch a tournament like I just watched where:

i) Wichita State, Michigan St., Tennessee, and Gonzaga brought enough fans to create an NCAA tournament level neutral court atmosphere

ii) The “worst” team, Sienna has three clear stars (Edwin Ubiles, Kenny Hansbrouck, and Alex Franklin) and was incredibly fun to watch

iii) At least 8 of the 12 games were exciting

iv) You get to see a 250 pound high school tuba player dance to “Joy to the World” and end the song by doing the splits

Well folks, you’ll have a great time. I’ll be back with more details on the Old Spice Classic later in the month. For now, my vacation is over and it is time to catch up on the real world.