Sunday, February 12, 2012
What we learned from Saturday night
By Eamonn Brennan
Saturday afternoon transitioned into Saturday night as smoothly as Kentucky transitions from an Anthony Davis block to the fast break. In the process, we saw Michigan State defend like crazy at Ohio State, Creighton take a beatdown by Wichita State and the aforementioned Wildcats again assert their dominance, this time at Vanderbilt. That and more in the evening edition of What We Learned.
[Editor's note: For recaps of all the afternoon games, click here.]
No. 12 Michigan State 58, No. 3 Ohio State 48: As far back as August, Tom Izzo -- in typical Izzonian fashion -- proclaimed far and wide how much he loved his team. Not necessarily because he knew the Spartans would be good or because he knew they would keep getting better (although he often seemed to assume as much), but because this Michigan State team, perhaps more than any other in recent years, does the two things Izzo seems to value most: It rebounds. It defends.
The Spartans began Saturday allowing the fourth-fewest points per possession in the country (adjusted, per Ken Pomeroy). They also ranked in the top 10 in both relevant rebounding categories, chasing down 39.9 percent of their misses on offense and yielding second chances on just 26.1 percent of opponents' possessions. Throw in the focused vocal leadership of forward Draymond Green, the back-from-the-dead reclamation of Derrick Nix, one of the toughest point guards in the country in Keith Appling and a batch of dedicated supporting pieces, and, well, no wonder Izzo loves this team. Compared to last season's incoherent, apathetic bunch, he must occasionally feel like he's coaching an entirely different game.
For as consistently as Michigan State has demonstrated those qualities throughout this season, never have they been more clear than Saturday night. Izzo's team held the third-ranked Buckeyes -- in Columbus, mind you -- to a mere .75 points per trip. How? How do you stop a team with so many weapons, with one of the best forwards in the country anchoring it all, in a building where it has won 39 in a row? The Spartans know how: You scrap. You claw. You fight. You make everything difficult for that team's best player. You frustrate him at every turn.
Jared Sullinger was, of course, the focal point of MSU's defensive strategy, and it worked. Sullinger still scored 17 points and grabbed 16 boards, but he needed a 5-of-15 performance to get there, and he committed 10 turnovers in the process. (The 17-16-10 is the first turnover-laden triple-double of the college basketball season, per ESPN Stats & Info. Former Buck Evan Turner had two of them in his final season. The Evan Turner Special lives!) Sullinger was noticeably frustrated throughout the game, arguing for fouls (sometimes rightly, oftentimes wrongly) and forcing shots into the teeth of State's interior defense, anchored brilliantly by forward Adreian Payne (who was also 6-of-6 from the field).
The performance reminded me of Ohio State's loss to Kentucky in last season's Sweet 16, when UK forward Josh Harrellson harassed and harangued Sullinger into a performance far below his usual standards. Harrellson was one of the few players in the country with the size and strength to hold his ground against Sully's girth. Nearly a year later, Payne and Nix demonstrated the same abilities. It's a testament to Sullinger's ability that he still grabbed 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive, but every putback was challenged, every touch contested, every dribble met with reaching slaps.
Sullinger didn't get much help from his teammates. William Buford and Deshaun Thomas combined to shoot 4-of-24 (!!), Aaron Craft was 3-of-7, and all told, the Buckeyes shot 2-of-15 from beyond the arc and 26 percent overall -- its third-worst shooting performance of the past 15 years. Yikes.
The Spartans weren't great on offense (.91 points per trip). Ohio State's defense is its best quality, and the Buckeyes were again good on that end of the floor. But Michigan State didn't have to light it up to get this victory. When you defend this well, when you execute your defensive game plan this perfectly, when you thoroughly dominate one of the nation's elite teams in its own building, you don't have to put up points in bunches to get the job done. No team in the country this season has posted 40 minutes of defense this strong against a team this good.
So, yeah, Tom Izzo loves this team. Can you blame him?
That's the biggest positive Kevin Stallings' team can draw from this loss. From the opening tip, UK's brilliant defense was again, well, brilliant. As late as the 4:42 mark in the first half, Vanderbilt had scored just 13 points. The Commodores finished the first half with a whopping 23 as Kentucky led by 13. Terrence Jones was engaged. Anthony Davis was dominant. As it has so often in the past three weeks, John Calipari's team appeared ready to roll to another very impressive SEC victory. Ho and hum.
Then, only a few moments into the second half, things just sort of ... opened up. The Dores not only started finding open shots, they started making them. Brad Tinsley, Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins came alive on the perimeter, while Festus Ezeli started finishing things down low. Soon -- almost before you knew it -- what "GameDay" host Rece Davis called Kentucky's "aura of invincibility" fell away. By the 8:26 mark in the second half, the Commodores led 55-51, the culmination of a 32-17 run.
They would score just eight more points the rest of the game. No one could have known it at the time, but Tinsley's jumper at the 4:09 mark would be Vanderbilt's last bucket of the day. Just as soon as VU had opened the game with solid man offense, crisp passing and accurate shooting, Kentucky shut it down. Davis recorded four blocks in the final seven minutes of the game; he finished with seven total. One of the major themes of the broadcast was Calipari's stated desire to see his team challenged, to see how it would respond. The Wildcats were. Vanderbilt kept swinging. Kentucky took Vandy's best punch. It absorbed a combo or two. And then, as all great fighters do, it emerged stronger and stronger as the game wore on. If Calipari wanted to see how his team would react to a challenge, he had to be thrilled with the result.
Kentucky played a solid, experienced team. It played said solid, experienced team in said team's unique building, with its weird sight lines and elevated court and baseline benches. It did so in front of a crowd that had spent all day goosed by "GameDay," hyped for the glorious chance at knocking off No. 1, something this school has done six times over the years. It didn't matter. Kentucky went 3-of-14 from 3. And it still emerged unscathed.
If Christian Watford's last-second shot doesn't fall in Assembly Hall on Dec. 10 -- back when Kentucky was still figuring things out -- the Cats are undefeated and we're talking less about this sudden surge of brilliance than whether UK could make it to the NCAA tournament with an unbeaten record. This team is one shot -- one 10-second defensive breakdown -- away from legendary comparisons.
Oh, well. As it is, Calipari's team is rounding into one of the most complete -- if not the most complete -- of his career. Davis is a transcendent force anchoring a team with zero defensive holes. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the best two-way players in the country. Jones can dominate when he wants. Doron Lamb is a lights-out shooter. Darius Miller is an underrated offensive presence and an all-around glue guy extraordinaire.
There's a reason this team is awash in that so-called aura of invincibility. The Wildcats aren't actually invincible, of course. But right now, they're the closest thing going.
Wichita State 89, No. 15 Creighton 68: When you've got a national player of the year candidate ripping through each and every opposing defense he sees with a rare blend of volume and efficiency, it's easy to disguise your team's warts. After Wichita State's end-to-end dismantling of the Bluejays on Saturday, those warts are now fully exposed.
The score line tells the story here, but it's nothing new: Creighton is, at best, a fairly mediocre defensive team. The Bluejays entered this Valley showdown ranked No. 119 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. They force turnovers on just 16.3 percent of their defensive possessions, which ranks them No. 336 out of 345 Division I teams. This so-so defense has been hidden well all season because Creighton outscores everybody. Doug McDermott and company have the nation's highest effective field goal percentage and its sixth-most efficient offense overall. But in the past three games -- losses to Northern Iowa, Evansville and now Wichita State -- the Bluejays' offense has suddenly cooled off. Creighton's effective field goal percentage figures in its past three games are 46.5, 44.2 and 44.7 percent.
And therein lies Saturday's problem: Wichita State is not a one-way team. Rather, Gregg Marshall's squad combines excellent defense (KenPom rank: No. 26) with efficient offense (KenPom: No. 11), tops in MVC play in both metrics. Despite their hugely impressive per-possession stats, the Shockers have flown below the radar recently thanks in large part to that triple-overtime loss at Drake in late January. But in basically every other Valley affair, even the 68-61 loss at home to Creighton in this series' first game, the Shockers have been comprehensively good.
Does that mean Wichita is 21 points better than Creighton, home, away or neutral? No. Is its offense as good as the 1.4 points per trip it poured in Saturday night? Probably not. But this lopsided result in front of a huge crowd in Omaha does reveal some notable truths about both teams. For Creighton, it laid bare just how important the Jays' offense is to their chances of making a run in the NCAA tournament; it's no coincidence this three-game losing streak came in three mediocre shooting performances. Greg McDermott's team can't afford to miss shots, because it can't get the stops it needs to keep things close.
For Wichita State, well, if you didn't know, now you know: The Shockers are good. Not "dangerous." Not "plucky." Just flat-out good.
Temple 85, Xavier 72: If you're still waiting for a team to round into its full form on Feb. 11, there's a good chance you'll still be waiting on March 11. That appears to be the case with Xavier. The Musketeers haven't been bad in Atlantic 10 play -- they ranked fourth in A-10 efficiency margin as of this week -- but they haven't been particularly good, let alone their usual brand of good, the one that led them to a 15-1 league record last season. Instead, these Musketeers are just sort of, well, mediocre.
Which is to take nothing away from Temple, which blitzed Chris Mack's team early and never looked back. Guard Ramone Moore went off, scoring 30 points on 9-of-16 from the field, while Khalif Wyatt put up 18 points, four assists and three steals, and Micheal Eric contributed 11 points and 16 rebounds. The Owls' backcourt is the undisputed strength of the team, and Fran Dunphy's squad continues to look more and more like the A-10's clear favorite each time that backcourt makes life so difficult for opponents on both ends of the floor. Temple is alone atop the league at 8-2.
The contrast between these two teams is glaring. One is whole, complete, playing its best basketball at the right time. The other is scattershot, struggling, not bad but far worse than it has any right to be, given its talent. The temptation to connect X's continued struggles to the Dec. 10 brawl is worth resisting here. Does it play a part? Maybe. Has guard Mark Lyons (who didn't start) been unpredictable and frustrating since? Oh yeah. But at this point, it's also possible Xavier just wasn't all that good in the first place. Whatever the reasons, the Musketeers -- perennial NCAA tournament fixtures -- are running out of time to figure it out.
A few more observations from the night of hoops:
Harvard's preordained run to its first NCAA tournament in decades -- the Crimson are clearly the best team in the Ivy League and were the heaviest of favorites to win it outright -- got just a little shakier Saturday night. Tommy Amaker's team fell to the old-world perennial Ivy favorite, Princeton, 70-62. It's a sign of Harvard's changed status that Princeton students -- who are fans of a program that is the historical Ivy elite, and which just beat one of the league's longtime losers -- rushed the court after their team's 23rd consecutive home victory over the Crimson. Despite the loss, Harvard's chances of winning the league are still very good. Its schedule -- which features Yale, Princeton and Penn at home before a season-ending two-game road swing at Columbia and Cornell -- is a major advantage. Plus, the No. 21 Crimson still own a one-game lead in the standings. But they will be eager to avoid any further slip-ups. If they end up in another one-game tiebreak (the Ivy League awards its NCAA tournament bid to the regular-season winner), anything can happen. Amaker's bunch, which lost its trip to the tourney to Princeton on a tiebreak buzzer-beater last season, knows all too well what can happen when you leave the preordained to chance.
We let this one slip by in the afternoon frenzy, but Mississippi State's loss to Georgia probably deserves a mention. The Bulldogs were undone by freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's big-time step-back 3 in overtime (not to mention his other 17 points and eight rebounds), and hey, yeah, sometimes you take a tough OT loss. But Mississippi State's inconsistency is a bad sign for a team with major tournament aspirations. Not a good performance at all.
Southern Miss held on for a 78-74 home victory over UCF, yet another gritty, close win in a Golden Eagles season full of them. Don't look now, but Southern Miss is 21-4 on the season with a top-15 RPI. Wednesday night's loss at UAB is certainly a black mark -- especially considering the Blazers lost by 34 to Memphis on Saturday night -- but other than that, this team has a shockingly strong at-large case. Larry Eustachy is reborn!
Phil Martelli's team picked up another A-10 home win, as Saint Joseph's took down upstart UMass 73-62 and damaged the Minutemen's outside chances of an at-large bid. Massachusetts could have gone to 8-3 with a win. Instead, it moves backward, into the thick of the league's muddled middle, alongside the Hawks and many others.
If there is any justice in the world, tiny Wabash College will find its way to the "SportsCenter" top plays in the coming days. Why? Because of Aaron Zinnerman's shot, one of the more insane and unlikely you'll ever see. The YouTube clip is here. Enjoy. (Important correction! This post incorrectly cited Wabash as the alma mater of Butler coach Brad Stevens. Rather, as numerous alums have informed me, Stevens actually went to rival DePauw. I always mistake the two, but nonetheless regret the error. My bad, everyone.)