Sunday, January 22, 2012
Here's what we learned on Saturday night
By Eamonn Brennan
As good as the afternoon was, with exciting upsets and huge road wins over top-five teams, the evening may have matched it in the vital FOPM statistical category. (FOPM stands for freak outs per minute. It's a tempo-adjusted metric, naturally.) Let's lead with what may be the result of the day -- Syracuse's very first loss of the season, at Notre Dame.
What we learned: Nobody's perfect. OK, yeah, Murray State is still perfect, but you get the drift: Everyone loses eventually. Sooner or later, the Orange were going to have a particularly bad shooting night. Sooner or later, they were going to struggle on the road. Sooner or later, they were going to do these things against a coach and a team that had designed the perfect gameplan to take advantage of this opportunity. As it happens, that coach was Mike Brey. That team was Notre Dame.
Of course, the Fighting Irish don't have a tenth of the talent available to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. What do the Irish have? The Burn. That's what Brey calls his team's intentionally slow, clock-killing offense, and while it isn't always the preferred strategy in South Bend, it is something the Irish keep in their back pocket when they find themselves facing a bigger, stronger, faster, more skilled, pretty-much-all-around-better opponent.
Indeed, as ESPN's Doris Burke noted late in the game, the Irish played a sort of semi-burn Saturday night. They lulled the Cuse into seven fewer possessions (61) than its average adjusted tempo (68) on the season (including a handful of late heaves when the game was out of reach), but ND was also opportunistic: When it broke SU's press, it didn't always pull out and set up the halfcourt offense. It was a clinic in opportunistic decision-making. (At one point, it ended in a contested fast-break dunk by Jack Cooley. Jack Cooley? Jack Cooley!)
Syracuse, being Syracuse, still managed to force a mess of turnovers. At several points in the second half, as Notre Dame forward Scott Martin struggled time after time to inbound the ball on his own baseline, it appeared the Irish were just a few possessions away from a late collapse. But the Orange's poor shooting (they posted a 40.0 effective field goal percentage) and ND's solid free throw shooting sealed this game in the closing moments.
Burke called it a "masterful" gameplan from Brey and, as usual, she was dead on: Notre Dame knew exactly what it needed to do to take a walk through any door Syracuse left ajar. When the time came, it executed.
Going forward, this loss may knock Syracuse out of the top spot in the rankings, but it shouldn't change the perception of this team much. First of all, the absence of leading rebounder and shot-blocker Fab Melo (due to an unresolved academic issue from the fall semester) was a blow to this team's inherent interior advantage. Second, Syracuse didn't shoot the ball well. Frankly, it didn't play well. Overreact if you like, but it's the opinion of this writer that, well, hey, these games happen.
For Syracuse, it was bound to go this way eventually. When it did, the Irish were ready.
What we learned: The Commodores will struggle with capable frontcourts. They struggle late in close games. They struggle on the defensive end. They are, in other words, the same Vanderbilt Commodores we've come to know and love in each of the past three seasons. Their recent improvements created the notion that this team had turned some vague corner, that it was finally ready to assume the top-10, Final Four-worthy preseason expectations foisted upon them.
Instead, on Saturday, we saw the team that led us to doubt that status in the first place. Vandy yielded a 12-point second-half lead, allowed Mississippi State to score 1.14 points per possession and got vastly outrebounded on both ends of the floor. In the end, even with very good chances to win the game -- particularly the final shot in regulation, which ended up being an uncontested four-foot shot for Festus Ezeli (which he missed) -- Vanderbilt just couldn't make the key defensive plays.
In the meantime, Mississippi State deserves credit for a major road win. Forward Arnett Moultrie was brilliant (21 points, 14 rebounds, three steals, one block) and guard Dee Bost was just as good (24 points, five rebounds, four assists and a handful of key second-half shots). Even Renardo Sidney, who struggled for much of the game and suffered an injury in overtime, got in on the act, hitting a monster 3 with 1:22 remaining in the second half.
Three days ago, the Bulldogs went to rival Ole Miss and lost and looked vulnerable -- even downright overrated -- throughout. Their ability to rebound from that loss with a win on the road against a streaking Vanderbilt team, one that had won its past eight games -- including on the road at Alabama -- is to be commended. Surprising stuff, to say the least.
What we learned: UNLV is still the Mountain West favorite. Yes, yes, San Diego State certainly has a claim to that distinction, too, especially since its first two conference results -- a two-point home win over the Rebels and an incredibly impressive road win at New Mexico -- were among the most impressive back-to-back performances we've seen from any team in any league this season. New Mexico is no slouch, either. Before Wednesday's loss to SDSU, the Lobos had won 13 in a row. There are three very good teams in the MWC, folks. That much we know.
Then again, I'd say we knew that already. The main takeaway from Saturday night's best late-night matchup -- and this is a good old-fashioned eye-test thing to say, but I'm doing it anyway -- is that UNLV just looks like the best team in this league. The Rebels have few, if any, holes in their attack. They have talented players at every position. Their guards push the pace; their forwards run to the rim; their wings hit 3s with ease. Anthony Marshall, Chace Stanback, Mike Moser, Oscar Bellfield and even reserves like Carlos Lopez and Justin Hawkins -- these players are perfectly suited to Dave Rice's new emphasis on uptempo basketball, and when you watch them play, it shows.
The Mountain West race is going to be fascinating, and we'll hear more from the Lobos -- and, of course, the league-leading Aztecs -- before the season is out. Sure, I'd take UNLV as the favorite. But whatever happens, if two of these three teams are playing, it promises to be very entertaining.
A few more observations from the Saturday evening that was:
Pitt lost its ninth game Saturday, matching the highest season loss total of Jamie Dixon's tenure.
Bad times got worse for Pittsburgh on Saturday night, as the Panthers fell to No. 21 Louisville at home, 73-62. In case you're counting, that's Pitt's eighth straight loss and seventh in a row in Big East play ... for the first time in Pitt hoops history. Ouch. Even worse? According to ESPN Stats and Information, this is the first time Pitt has lost four straight home games since 1999-2000. The loss is also Pitt's ninth this season. Jamie Dixon-coached Pittsburgh teams have never recorded more than nine losses in a regular season. There are myriad issues afflicting the Panthers right now, chief among them defense, but it's hard to see any major improvements coming any time soon. If this wasn't a lost season already, it is now.
Neither VCU nor Old Dominion are likely to end up with a chance at an at-large bid come March, but their meeting tonight was still full of implications for the CAA title race. Before Saturday, ODU was 6-1 in conference and VCU 5-2, both right there hanging around with George Mason and Drexel in the Colonial standings. In other words, Virginia Commonwealth got a rather massive 61-48 win, handling the lackluster Monarchs rather easily at home. Shaka Smart's team is still rebuilding after last year's miracle NCAA tournament run, but they're not nearly as far down as most would have expected. Keep your eye on the Rams.
The C-USA race is going to be interesting. Marshall appeared to have the best odds to challenge Memphis' purported superiority, with Southern Miss a notch or two below -- a dark horse at best. After Saturday -- when Southern Miss topped Marshall and tied the Thundering Herd at 4-1 in league play -- it seems clear things aren't quite that simple. There are no remaining unbeaten teams in the league, with UCF at 5-1 and Memphis, Marshall and USM all now residing in second place at 4-1.
I don't know if we'll call the Pac-12 race "interesting." "Mystifying" feels more appropriate. Either way, consider what went down in the conference Saturday: Cal fell at Washington State (not an unforgiveable loss, given how well Wazzu has played at home, but still) just as the Bears appeared set, thanks to a blowout Stanford loss at Washington, to create some separation between themselves and the rest of the league. Meanwhile UCLA -- which keeps struggling, week after week, to sort things out -- fell on the road at Oregon, which is now 6-2 and tied atop the league standings. Elsewhere, lowly Utah not only didn't lose, but actually blew out Arizona State in Salt Lake City; and Colorado held on for a one-point home win over Arizona. Those Pac-12 power rankings are going to be a bear to write. I can't wait.
Two results from the West that shouldn't be dismissed. Long Beach State, a team that played perhaps the most grueling nonconference schedule in the country, continues to see the dividends from that gauntlet. On the road Saturday night, LBSU went into the Thunderdome and absolutely obliterated chief rival UC Santa Barbara, 71-48, the talented squad that's beaten the 49ers in the Big West final in each of the past two seasons. And in Laramie, Wyoming beat rival Colorado State -- which had won eight straight -- 70-51 to improve to 16-3. Yes, 16-3. What a job by first-year coach Larry Shyatt. And what a performance by USC transfer Leonard Washington, who set career highs in points (32) and rebounds (14).
As for the momentum Nebraska created with that dramatic victory over Indiana on Wednesday? Ohio State did not seem to care. Buckeyes 79, Huskers 45. So much for that.