Saturday, January 26, 2013
Nova, Hoyas play spoiler in Big East
By Eamonn Brennan
Say it loud, say it proud: There are no great teams in college basketball.
This maxim, trotted out so frequently in recent seasons, long ago grew tiresome -- there is only so much pining for the glory of the 1980s one '80s baby can take. But what might have been curmudgeonly applied in the past feels entirely accurate in 2013 -- especially so after this Saturday afternoon in the Big East, when Villanova sprang its second top-five upset of the week and Georgetown battered national title contender Louisville into its third straight conference loss.
Of these stories, Villanova's is surely the most unlikely. On Monday, the Wildcats were 11-7 overall and 2-3 in the Big East. In November, with the possible exception of a win against Saint Joe's, Jay Wright's team lost its only real nonconference games of note (to Alabama, La Salle and Temple), including a home loss to Columbia. Most recently, Villanova had lost at Providence, was ranked in the 90s in the KenPom rankings and just seemed destined to chug along toward another past-his-best year of mediocrity under Wright.
Instead, Villanova held off No. 5 Louisville on Tuesday night, then followed it up with Saturday's win, a 75-71 overtime thriller against No. 3 Syracuse. Freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono hit the game-tying 3 with 2.2 seconds remaining, and James Bell hit two massive jumpers in overtime, to help seal the victory. It made the Wildcats the first unranked team to knock off two top-5 opponents in a single season since Florida State in 2011-12, and the first unranked team to do it in the same week since Ball State in 2001. It was stunning stuff, not just because Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche were yielding to a lesser Big East foe just a few days after their own win at Louisville (and not just because Triche somehow lost his footing on a wide-open layup that might have kept Syracuse in the game in overtime) but mostly because lightning isn't supposed to strike the same place twice.
Louisville, the first victim of Villanova's sudden defensive prowess -- the Wildcats are playing the third-best per-possession defense in the league to date -- had its own problems to deal with Saturday. After two straight losses, the Cardinals found themselves mired in an ugly defensive clash on the road at Georgetown. Typically, that style of game works fine for Louisville because it guards as well as (if not better than) any other team in the country. But the strength of this Louisville team isn't just defense -- it's defense that leads to offense, that thrives off turnovers and that creates easy odd-man situations for guard Russ Smith to slice and dice.
Georgetown didn't play along. The Hoyas gave up their share of turnovers, sure, but they were quick to recover on the defensive end, and their defense proved the equal of Louisville's. The Cardinals shot just 16-of-46 from the field, and just 3-of-11 from beyond the arc. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 10 of those 16 Cardinals makes came from within five feet of the basket; Louisville sank 6 of 32 attempts outside of eight feet and shot just 20.6 percent on jump shots. Some of that blame belongs to Louisville for simply shooting poorly. But much of the credit must go to the Georgetown players, who prevented penetration, helped each other brilliantly on defensive rotations and seemed to challenge every shot, no matter where it came from.
The final Louisville possessions told the story. With 35 seconds remaining, Cardinals guard Smith -- whose improved offensive efficiency and defensive prowess have made him a real national player of the year candidate in his junior season -- caught the ball off a curl screen at the top of the key and rushed a fading 20-footer. Georgetown defended it well; Otto Porter claimed the rebound, only to be tied up (or, in reality, fouled) by forward Gorgui Dieng. The referees called a jump ball, which Louisville inbounded to Peyton Siva on the sideline. Siva ran the clock down as Rick Pitino barked orders from the sideline, but the best the Cardinals could get was another challenged 20-footer, this time from Siva. When Porter pulled down that rebound, there was no bailout jump ball call to be had. The Hoyas had held on.
After three straight losses, there is a temptation to suddenly fret about Louisville, to wonder whether all the hype heaped on the Cardinals since the 2012 Final Four has obscured some greater flaws. That would still be premature. Last Saturday's loss to Syracuse was the product of some truly poor decisions down the stretch, but those same decisions have been well-taken by the same Louisville players in much more important games within the past 12 months. If there is some concern, it's that Louisville's offense has suddenly dried up in its past two games, games in which Smith has struggled (he even came off the bench against Georgetown on Saturday). But as we saw last season, Louisville doesn't need to be particularly good on offense to win games or progress deep in the NCAA tournament. Plus, road losses in conference play happen. Plus, it's three games in January. Panic is not the appropriate response.
What feels more appropriate, though, is an acknowledgment of the reality of this college hoops season. In a way, we've known this for a while -- known there would be no one like Kentucky in 2012, or Ohio State in 2011, or North Carolina in 2009, or Kansas in 2008. All of the nation's "best" teams -- and you could argue that at least 10 teams deserve that moniker -- have suffered revealing losses: In the past two weeks alone, Indiana was flummoxed by Wisconsin in Bloomington, Duke was manhandled at Miami, UCLA owned Arizona in Tucson, Michigan was held to 53 points in 60 possessions at Ohio State, Kansas has had to grind out wins at Texas and Kansas State (and nearly lost at home to Iowa State, lest we forget), Gonzaga lost at Butler (and Butler lost at La Salle). Perhaps only Florida, the No. 1 team in the KenPom rankings, has looked routinely monolithic, but even the Gators have had their struggles (and losses, two of them) to date.
No, the further we get into this college hoops season, the more each potential national title contender showcases some flaw that keeps it from becoming an obvious favorite at any given point in time. The AP No. 1 ranking keeps changing hands. The conference upsets keep happening. A very average Villanova team suddenly shows up playing defense good enough to topple two top-five teams in the span of a week.
This is college basketball in 2012-13. The whole thing is wide open.