Tuesday, December 20, 2011
TMA: Monday night is upset night
By Eamonn Brennan
The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of the night's best basketball action. It needs to start getting more sleep.
Davidson 80, No. 11 Kansas 74: You just kept waiting. Eventually, Kansas would take control of this game. Davidson would fade. I thought it would come at the 9:43 mark, when Elijah Johnson and Thomas Robinson combined for a huge alley-oop dunk off a gorgeous curl screen set, one Robinson finished with gusto. Bob McKillop's Davidson team had put up an admirable, canny fight to that point, but Kansas had cut the lead to three and seemed to be gaining the momentum it needed to finally shake the Wildcats off their backs.
Instead, Davidson only got stronger. McKillop called timeout after Robinson's stuff — we should start calling those "T-Rob TOs" — and though they allowed Kansas to tie the game at 55 a few plays later, they quickly built a 62-56 lead that had the Jayhawks fans in the Sprint Center in Kansas City audibly squealing in horror. Every time KU looked like overtaking the Wildcats, someone coolly canned two free throws or made a big shot, none bigger than the 3-pointer Nik Cochran sank with 1:36 remaining. That moved the Davidson lead to six points yet again, kept Kansas out of immediate striking distance, and gave Davidson the room it needed to calmly kill the game at the free throw line.
Perhaps that was the most impressive thing about Davidson's win last night. It's not like the Wildcats snuck up on an apparently better team, or got hot in the closing minutes and blitzed a team they had rightfully trailed all evening. This didn't feel like a shocker. That's not how it looked.
No, for long stretches of the evening McKillop's team looked like the better outfit. Its defense was especially impressive, holding Kansas to exactly one point per possession and an effective field goal rate of just 45.2 percent. In the end, this one was pretty simple. That forced the Jayhawks into 23 3-point field goal attempts. The Jayhawks made six, two of which came after the game was out of reach in the final minute. It was just one of those nights. If you're facing a packed-in defense and settling for 3s, you better make sure they fall. When they don't — when Elijah Johnson goes 3-for-10 and Connor Teahan shoots 2-for-8 — those late surges, which always felt just around the corner from Kansas Monday night, tend to come far less frequently.
LSU 67, No. 10 Marquette 59: So Kansas drops a game to Davidson in Kansas City. That's probably your upset of the night, what with the whole "small-budget mid-major takes down a moneyed blueblood in enemy territory" thing. Wherever you rank Davidson's upset of Kansas, this one can't be far behind. Or are the Tigers actually -- wait for it -- pretty good? Gasp! J'accuse!
The answer, at least on the defensive side of the ball, is a resounding "yes." LSU now has the No. 37-ranked defense in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings; after Monday night's win, it is allowing just .91 points per trip to opposing offenses. That defense shone through against Marquette, which shot at a 43.1 effective percentage clip, which isn't even their lowest figure of the season. (They actually shot worse -- and won! -- at Wisconsin. Go figure.)
The Golden Eagles were stifled by LSU's athletic pressuring defense, which didn't force many turnovers but did force Buzz Williams' team to settle for more outside jumpers (8-of-23 from beyond the arc) than he would have probably preferred. LSU's offense suffered no such woes, finishing the night with a 61.6 effective field goal rate. When LSU got a stop, it usually got a good look at a bucket of its own. And there you have it.
Perhaps the biggest surprise -- more so than the win, more so than LSU's offensive excellence, a rare trait for the previously brick-happy Tigers this season -- is indeed how much Trent Johnson's team appears to have improved from last season. LSU finished the 2011 season ranked No. 227 in adjusted efficiency, among the handful of serious contenders for "worst high-major team in the country." In 2010, they weren't much better. It was safe to wonder whether Johnson had lost this program to decay, whether the Tigers could again even be competitive in the SEC, let alone contend to win it. That may not happen this season. LSU's offense has a lot of work to do. But considering how far this team has come since last season already, there may be room for hoops optimism in Baton Rouge. Hey, football season can't last forever.
Everywhere else: Illinois narrowly avoided joining Marquette and Kansas among the ranked teams to suffer an upset Monday night, and the Illini's -- at home vs. a clearly inferior 4-4 Cornell team -- would have been the most unforgivable. The Illini were awful defensively for much of the night, disjointed and haphazard, and Cornell carved them up. But guard D.J. Richardson came on late, the Illini defended well -- OK, not well, but better -- and snuck off with a 64-60 win. Phew. ... Indiana scored the highest number of points per possession (1.45) in the Tom Crean area, continuing its scalding-hot offensive ways with a merciless 107-50 blowout of Howard. ... Doug McDermott scored a career-high 35 points as Creighton easily handled a potentially tricky road test at Tulsa, 83-64. ... Cleveland State's at-large chances took an early hit with a loss to South Florida at the St. Pete Times Forum. ... and Marshall survived a thrilling one-point 87-86 win over Belmont, which may come in handy in March. Even if it doesn't, it's still worth pride. That Belmont team can play.