Monday, December 22, 2008

College Basketball Week in Review: Redemption Week

What We Learned This Week: Do you remember a couple of weeks ago when we told you that the Big Ten was better than people were giving them credit for? They proved it on Saturday, as three teams from the Big Ten landed big time victories over ranked teams: Michigan State beat Texas, Purdue rolled over Davidson, and Minnesota hung on against Louisville.

Those wins were huge for all three teams. Minnesota is now 10-0, and while Louisville looks like they were overrated in the preseason, it is still a win that lends some legitimacy to their undefeated record.

The wins by Purdue and Michigan State were even more important as they redeemed the preseason Big Ten favorites from a sluggish start. No one expected Minnesota to be where they are right now. If they had lost to Louisville, every writer in the country would have said "hey, these guys are getting better and Tubby Smith is doing a good job turning the program around". They weren't exactly playing under pressure.

But for Michigan State and Purdue, they are trying to defend the hype they had as top 10 teams in the preseason. If either of these teams had lost, it would have brought on an onslaught of over rated chatter.

Take a look at the Big Ten now. They should have five ranked teams come Monday (throw Ohio State and Michigan in with the previous three), and when you consider Wisconsin and Illinois, there are seven teams that can make a run at the NCAA's. Still the weakest power conference?

While it isn't quite March yet, there is still plenty of Madness to be had around the country. One thing we learned this week was that you can never assume anything until the end of a game. And even then, it may not be over. Syracuse can attest to that. As can Gonzaga.

Perhaps the toughest loss of the week happened to BYU. The Cougars dominated the Sun Devils for the entire second half, leading until a James Harden free throws put ASU ahead 76-75 with nine seconds left. On the ensuing possession, Jonathon Tavernari airballed a three, but Charles Abouo was johnny-on-the-spot for the tip-in at the buzzer.

Or was he?

The officials reviewed the play, and determined that the ball was still on Abouo's finger tips as the buzzer sounded, giving Arizona State the victory. Forgive me for rubbing it in BYU fans, but this loss is magnified when you look at BYU's schedule. They are now 10-1, but Arizona State was the first team they played of any substance. They get one more chance at a ranked opponent when they host Wake Forest in January, but Wake is excellent this year. If BYU loses to Wake, goes, say, 13-3 in the MWC but doesn't reach the tourney finals and ends up on the bubble, do they get in?

Michigan State 67, Texas 63
Great game in Houston on Saturday. It was a defensive struggle as neither team could really put together a run. Texas was in control for most of the game (case in point, Michigan State didn't lead by more than one until a Durrell Summers jumper with 18.6 seconds left). An 8-2 spurt by the 'Horns on three straight Connor Atchley jumpers put them up five with 12:49 remaining. Michigan State battled back to take a 56-55 lead on a Goran Suton and-one. The teams traded scores until this series with under a minute left:

Michigan State would miss a front-end, but Justin Mason threw up a three that badly missed before two Spartan free throws with .1 on the clock ended it.

As I said before, a huge win for the Spartans. They were widely considered a top 10 team in the pre-season, and picked by many to reach the Final Four. The biggest reason for this seeming resurgence is the return of Suton. He had knee surgery a few weeks ago and still is not back to 100%, but it is clear why he is so important for the Spartans. He is so good at cutting to the basket and sliding to the rim off of screens, which is an effective weapon for the Spartans because they have a ton of guys that can put the ball on the floor. I only got to see the last 11:00 of the game, but in that span there were three times the Spartans found Suton near the rim for a bucket. He finished with 18 points on 7-8 shooting.

The other big story of this game was the defense that was played on AJ Abrams. Travis Walton did a tremendous job following him through and around screens and getting a hand up when Abrams shot. There may not be a player with a quicker release in the country than Abrams, and he still did not get many looks at the rim.

AJ Price, UConn and Tony Crocker, Oklahoma
Sticking with the redemption theme, both of these guys have played way below expectations so far this year. For Crocker, it was a 26 point performance against VCU where he finally found his stroke from deep, hitting 5-of-6 from beyond the arc. It was more than the fact that he was just making shots, it was that he was making them at crucial moments. VCU was up 32-31 near the end of the first half when Crocker converted an and-one to give OU the lead. He then hit two more threes before the end of the half, and another two triples as the Sooners opened up a 63-46 lead early in the second. In a game when Blake Griffin struggled (18 and 8 in foul-plagued 26 minutes), it was a good sign for Oklahoma that Crocker was able to break out of his slump. If Crocker can return to the 42% shooter from last year, and OU can surround the Brothers Griffin with him, Cade Davis, and Willie Warren (all better than average shooters) it will open up a lot of space on the interior.

AJ Price has struggled all season with confidence in his surgically repaired knee. You want evidence? I'll give you evidence. Last season, he was getting to the line 4.5 times a game and using his penetration the create shots for himself and teammates. Prior to this game, he took 11 free throws in eight games (making just four) and was averaging just 4.0 apg (down from 5.8). He was playing so poorly and so timidly that Calhoun was ready to start Kemba Walker over him against Stony Brook. But in the Gonzaga game, the old Price returned. He finished with 24 points and 10 assists, hitting big shot after big shot (including a three to send it to OT). His penetration, which created open shots and lay-ups for his team, is a major reason why Gonzaga had to get out of the zone which had slowed the Huskies down. I think it is safe to say that UConn is the second best team in the country on paper, but without AJ Price playing up to his ability, this is not a team that can make the Final Four. But if this game can help Price restore confidence in his knee and continue to drive into the paint, then this is a team that has a shot of bringing home the title.

Playing for the first time in ten days, Minnesota picked up their biggest win in recent memory as they remained undefeated after surprising Louisville. It is a big win for the Gophers because prior to the Louisville game, their best wins consisted of Cornell, UVA and North Dakota State. What's more impressive is how they are doing it. This isn't exactly a roster overflowing with talent. Unless you are from Minnesota, I doubt you have heard of any of these guys outside of Blake Hoffarber (for this and this) and Ralph Sampson III (for, well, his father). They have nine guys averaging between 5.0 and 12.8 ppg, eight different players have started, and three of their significant contributors have missed a total of nine games. This is a balanced squad that plays some tough defense (opponents score 61.8 ppg and shoot 38%) and really seems to buy into a team mentality. It's nice to see Tubby Smith doing well.

12/23 - Butler @ Xavier: Xavier came back down to earth a little bit on Saturday, but is still very good, while Butler has been flying under the radar a bit this year. Expect a defensive battle.

12/23 - Texas @ Wisconsin: This game held much more intrigue a few weeks ago, but the Badgers are still a solid defensive team that will be tough enough to handle Texas inside.

12/23 - Kansas @ Arizona: Would be a huge win for either team as they both look destined for the bubble.

12/27 - West Virginia @ Ohio State: Ohio State will be without David Lighty, but West Virginia has yet to really play up to there potential.

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