Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Saddle Up: Showdown in the Colonial
By Eamonn Brennan
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. Its browser keeps crashing, which, as it has discovered today, can be quite counterproductive. And also quite infuriating.
Virginia Commonwealth at George Mason, 9 p.m. ET: Can either of these teams notch an at-large bid? It doesn't look good. Their respective RPIs, per Jerry Palm's CollegeRPI.com, are 83 (VCU) and 99 (GMU). Neither schedule is ranked among the top 230 in the nation, and the nonconference SOS numbers don't look much better. The CAA is down as a whole this season, and without much in the way of notable nonconference victories for any of its luminaries (these two, Drexel, and ODU are among that group), it's hard to see how this league will end up with more than one NCAA tournament bid. Alas, the conference tournament may be all that matters.
At least to us. To these two teams and their respective fan bases, there is much more on the line tonight. (Indeed, the smack-talk has long since commenced.) Both enter Tuesday night's game 13-2 in league play with three CAA games (and a BracketBusters matchup) left on the docket. VCU is on an impressive 11-game winning streak since its January loss to Drexel. Had Mason avoided a bad loss to Delaware two weeks ago, it would be winners of its last 10 following, you guessed it, a January loss to Drexel.
Considering all that VCU lost after 2011's miracle run to the Final Four, coach Shaka Smart deserves credit for another excellent coaching job this season. Few would have expected VCU to return to the top of the league in 2012, but Smart's defensive style -- codename: havoc -- is again wreaking exactly that on opposing offenses. The Rams'pressure has yielded the nation's second-highest steal percentage (15.7 percent), and as such VCU is forcing opponents into the nation's second-highest turnover rate (27.1). The Rams' offense is about as good as it was for most of last season (except for the sudden barrage in the tournament, of course), but the defense has been vastly improved despite the loss of guard 2011 point-pressure specialist Joey Rodriguez. Impressive stuff.
If one of these teams is going to be an at-large NCAA tournament selection, it would probably have to VCU. To get there, the Rams almost certainly have to win out in the league, which means they'd need to take tonight's road trip and a Feb. 25 rubber match with Mason in Richmond. Even then, it might not be enough. But forget the bubble picture for now. The regular-season CAA race is heating up -- we see you, 19-and-1-in-your-last-20 Drexel -- just in time for these teams to sharpen their swords for what should be an excellent conference tournament. You don't need bubble projections to enjoy that.
No. 12 Florida at Alabama, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: What appears to be a rather ho-hum mid-February SEC conference game -- which is not the same thing as boring, per se; just ordinary -- actually contains a handful of fascinating subplots. On one side, you have an Alabama team that suspended four of its best players last weekend violations of team rules. Two, including guard Trevor Releford, have been reinstated in time to play tonight, but the other two, JayMychal Green and Tony Mitchell, have not, and Green and Mitchell just so happen to be the Crimson Tide's two leading scorers and most important players. Whatever they did to necessitate a suspension, you have to give coach Anthony Grant some credit. The Tide can nary afford a collapse down the stretch if they want to get into the tournament, but Grant is apparently willing to risk as much to teach his players a lesson. Strong stuff.
On the other side, you have a Florida team coming off two straight losses. One was a beatdown at Kentucky. The other was a baffling home loss to 13-12 Tennessee. "Hey, it happens" was the common refrain after the former, but it does not apply to the latter. Can the Gators gain some confidence -- not to mention some semblance of defense -- against a hollowed-out opponent, even on the road? If the Gators don't, and Alabama somehow keeps this thing close without its two leading scorers, will it be time to enter full-on freakout mode? Most importantly, do the Gators have some defensive improvement left to uncover? If not, can this team -- which has to make outside shots to win -- make good on its talent and potential? All valid questions in advance of tonight's trip to Tuscaloosa.
No. 6 Ohio State at Minnesota, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Before Saturday's home loss to the defensively brilliant Michigan State Spartans, Ohio State had been defeated a mere three times. Their combined margin of victory in the three games following those losses is ... carry the one ... 72 points. Granted, two of those blowouts came against South Carolina Upstate (not as bad as you'd think, by the way) and Nebraska (about as bad as you'd think), but the point remains: You don't want to make Ohio State angry. You wouldn't like it when Ohio State gets angry.
Surely, the Gophers would have been hoping for a different Buckeyes-Spartans outcome Saturday. Tubby Smiths' team is 5-7 in the Big Ten and teetering on the tail end of the bubble picture and, well, opportunities to improve your résumé don't get much any better than "vs. Ohio State." A win here would be massive for the fledgling, Trevor Mbakwe-less Gophers, a team that has remained competitive despite the devastating loss of its best player to a career-ending knee injury in November.
Can Minnesota pull it off? To do so, they'll need to play a near-perfect game. Specifically, they'll have to kick their turnover habit, no small feat when Aaron Craft is harassing your point guard for 40 minutes. But the Gophers do have the benefit of a blueprint: On Saturday, Michigan State showed that you can defend the Buckeyes -- heck, might even out-defend the best per-possession defensive team in the country -- if you can manage to make everything difficult for Jared Sullinger without losing track of William Buford, Deshaun Thomas and the rest of Ohio State's perimeter threats. Knowing how to do this is one thing. Executing it with Spartans-esque efficiency is another. But if the Gophers want in the tournament, a similar plan may be their best bet.