College Basketball Nation: 011714 weekend homework

Weekend homework: Pitt perceptions

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
The following is true of the Pittsburgh Panthers:
  • They average 1.18 points per possession.
  • They allow just .94.
  • The Panthers’ average margin of victory in 2013-14 is 17.2 points.
  • They have 16 wins.
  • They have one loss.
  • This week, when Ken Pomeroy unveiled his 2013-14 player of the year rankings (his “kPOY”), senior Pitt forward Lamar Patterson was the highest-ranked player on the list not named Doug McDermott.
  • According to the qualitative terms used by Synergy to describe its percentile data, there is no offensive play type or setting in which Pitt, relative to the rest of college basketball, isn't at least "very good." (Usually, as on the offensive glass, they are "excellent.")
  •’s RPI calculator ranks Pitt’s overall strength of schedule No. 1 … in the country. (True story.)
[Correction: A glitch in the RPI page data is apparently causing every team in the country to rank No. 1 in strength of schedule. If only it were so easy! Pitt's actual SOS, per, is 105. That's still too high, relative to the actual strength of Pitt's opponents, but it's not No. 1, which was insane. Some light edits to the original copy follow. My apologies for the error. -- EB]

Despite all of these pieces of information, Pittsburgh has spent almost all of 2013-14 season outside the top 25. Few have cited Jamie Dixon's team as an ACC contender in its first season in the league; fewer have called it a national title contender. Instead, Pittsburgh has floated along under the radar for nearly six weeks, because no one has any idea what to make of Pitt, because Pitt's schedule has been awful.

After this season, we need to give Dixon a lifetime achievement award in the area of RPI exploitation brilliance. According to tempo-free statistics (not to mention most viewers’ accurate descriptions), Pittsburgh’s overall schedule ranks somewhere near the 200 range; its nonconference schedule is even worse. According to the RPI, the Panthers have played the toughest schedule in the country to date. Too funny.

Down here in the real world, save a Thanksgiving-week game in Brooklyn against Stanford, the only time the Panthers popped their heads up from their dour nonconference minnow-feast was in December, when Cincinnati (which is regarded more highly now than it was then) escaped Pittsburgh with a 44-43 win … in 48 possessions. Good defense, bad offense, or both, the Panthers were easy to dismiss: Their wins a product of their schedule, their impressive efficiency numbers a product of malevolent computers.

Since then, Pittsburgh has kept winning, and usually in impressive fashion. Really, a 58-46 New Year’s Eve sleepwalk against Albany was the last time Dixon’s team wasn’t in obvious command of its situation. The only problem is that even the front end of Pitt’s ACC schedule — it has played NC State, Maryland, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, which run the gamut from “transitioning” to “rebuilding” to “disappointing” — has left it without an opportunity to once and truly prove themselves.

Saturday -- a road trip to play unbeaten No. 2 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome -- is that chance.

In one sense, it’s unfair to ask Pittsburgh to prove its viability by beating Syracuse in Syracuse; that’s like asking me to prove the viability of my legs by running a marathon. (I’m good, thanks.) In another sense, it’s completely fair. Dixon’s canny (and rather hilarious) gaming of the RPI will likely hold Pitt in good stead on Selection Sunday, but for now the gulf between efficiency statistics, RPI and eye-test perception has fueled a very public gap about the merits of the Panthers themselves. Saturday could reconcile all of that.

Weekend homework: Life in the Valley

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
Wichita State had an epic comeback at Missouri State a week ago.

That may just be the beginning of the grind in the Missouri Valley for one of the national title contenders.

The Shockers will get everyone's best shot.

This is Gonzaga in the WCC, Butler when it was in the Horizon, Davidson when it was the class of the Southern and to a lesser extent, every time Duke and/or North Carolina is on the schedule in the ACC.

Every team, player and coach in the Valley now wants to knock off Wichita State.

But there may be only one team capable of doing it: Indiana State.

The first of two chances occurs Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in Wichita. The next chance will be Feb. 5 in Terre Haute, Ind.

"We've got to score more points than them," said Indiana State coach Greg Lansing, in jest of course.

The Sycamores, like Wichita State, are 5-0 in the Valley. They have only three losses and all are respectable (Belmont and Saint Louis on the road and Tulsa on a neutral court). Indiana State knocked off Notre Dame on the road and beat Belmont at home for its signature wins.

Wichita State poses so many problems for Indiana State or any other team. Cleanthony Early can hurt you in a variety ways inside and out. Fred VanVleet is putting together an All-American point guard season with his ability to slice through the lane, finish and get to the free throw line. Ron Baker is a versatile scorer and a winner.

"We've got to keep them off the offensive boards," Lansing said. "We've got to have ball security so they don't get easy transition baskets. We can't let Early get comfortable on offense. We've got to stay aggressive on offense but be able to play at two speeds."

Wichita State does like to run and can push the tempo. Indiana State will need to show poise and patience, especially on the road at the rocking Round House.

"We've done well taking one day and one practice at a time and not get ahead of ourselves," Lansing said.

The Valley was a multiple-bid league with Creighton in the conference. The Bluejays are off to the Big East. Indiana State may be the only other option to Wichita State.

Beating the Shockers -- at least once -- would make the selection committee pay attention.

"We're a long ways from any of that discussion," said Lansing of a bid. "But I think we can pass the eye test."

Weekend homework: Louisville-UConn big

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
Conventional thinking about the American Athletic Conference race in the preseason figured Louisville, Memphis and Connecticut would compete for the crown. Through five games, they’re all chasing Cincinnati.

The Bearcats’ 5-0 start in the conference means Louisville game at UConn on Saturday just got real. Should the Cardinals lose, they’ll likely fall two games back of the Bearcats, who play at USF on Saturday. Should the Huskies lose, they’ll be looking at three conference losses just a third of the way through the AAC schedule.

On paper, the game will be a matchup of two of the nation’s best guards, Louisville’s Russ Smith and UConn’s Shabazz Napier. Both seniors can now be described with words no one associated with them as freshmen: mature and reliable.

Smith is averaging 18.1 points, 4.8 assists and has increased his shooting percentages to what would both be career bests from the field (45.3) and from the 3-point arc (38.8).

Napier averages 16.1 points, a league-leading 6.2 assists and a team-leading 6.2 rebounds. He’s the only player in the nation who leads his team in all those categories, in addition to steals and minutes played.

But this game might not be decided by either player. It might be tipped by the play on the wing.

For Louisville, it’s possibly Wayne Blackshear. The junior guard/forward entered Thursday night’s game having scored a combined five points in his past two games. Louisville coach Rick Pitino opted to bring him off the bench for the first time this season instead of starting him. Blackshear responded with a career-high 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting and had seven rebounds.

Blackshear has had a tendency to go silent in the Cards' big games this season. He was scoreless against North Carolina, had five points against Kentucky and just two against Memphis. But if he can make his presence felt against UConn, Louisville will be that much harder to defend.

For UConn, it’s possibly Lasan Kromah. He has reached double-figure scoring in only four games this season. But one of those was his 13 points Thursday night in the win at Memphis.

The Huskies can be overly reliant on Napier, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels to score. Kromah averaged double figures in each of his three seasons at George Washington before transferring to UConn, so he can be a difference-maker.

Louisville could again be without junior guard Chris Jones, who injured his right hip and missed Thursday’s win over Houston. If he’s unable to play, freshman Terry Rozier will probably get the start in his place. Rozier had a career-best eight assists and one turnover against the Cougars.

The Cards have won six of their past seven matchups with UConn, with the last Huskies victory coming in the 2011 Big East Tournament championship game.

Weekend Homework: The Illini mess

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
Perhaps Illinois fooled us.

For a stretch in December, John Groce’s program rattled off a promising winning streak. Victories over Missouri, Illinois-Chicago, Indiana and Penn State suggested that the program had gathered momentum after welcoming a variety of new faces.

But Illinois hasn’t been the same since Wisconsin buried it with a 20-0 run during a 95-70 loss in Madison on Jan. 8. A loss at Northwestern, ranked 170th by Ken Pomeroy, followed. Then, the program stumbled again in a 66-58 home loss to Purdue on Wednesday.

“It’s just unacceptable,” Groce told reporters following the loss. “They [Purdue] were tougher than us physically and they threw us around like a bunch of rag dolls. Our guys better figure out very quickly the physical toughness that’s required on the backboard.”

Through Thursday, Illinois is shooting 35.6 percent from the field (last in the Big Ten) and 25.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc (12th in the Big Ten) in conference play.

And if that hole isn’t daunting enough, Saturday’s matchup against Michigan State will kick off a brutal five-game stretch that includes road matchups against Ohio State and Indiana, plus a pair of games against contenders Iowa and Wisconsin.

This 2-3 Big Ten start could conceivably morph into a 2-6 or 2-7 stretch.

There were certainly concerns about Illinois entering the season. Transfers Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey, a batch of talented freshmen and veterans Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand were charged with coming together and building a bond on the floor in time to compete in the toughest league in America.

The win over Indiana on New Year’s Eve suggested that they were ready for that. This streak, however, has sent the team in the other direction.

Illinois has to get back on a positive path, or this season could be a disaster.

There’s certainly a correlation between the team’s struggles and Rice’s struggles. He’s 12-for-41 in this three-game losing streak. Abrams has gone 14-for-39.

Illinois won’t recover unless its top two players are effective. But it’s bigger than that.

Something definitely has to change soon.

Kansas has lost exactly twice in the past 46 games at Allen Fieldhouse, so the Jayhawks and their dedicated fan base tend to remember the L's.

Follow up a road win at the Phog with a celebratory backflip and you’re certain to never be forgotten.

Follow up a road win at the Phog and celebratory backflip with a shot over the bow directed at Kansas’ stud freshman?

Welcome to infamy, Marcus Smart.

The Jayhawks were in need of someone new to hate after Missouri ditched them for the SEC. Thanks to Smart’s perfect 10 and preseason suggestion that perhaps Andrew Wiggins play a game before being considered the greatest college basketball player of all time, Oklahoma State has at least temporarily filled the void.

To which we say, thank you, Mr. Smart.

The truth is, the Oklahoma State sophomore was merely doing what kids do when he turned his flip, and as for his preseason "knock" against Wiggins, he was just speaking the truth. The kid had to prove it.

But there is nothing like a little vitriol, contrived or not, to make a game more fun.

And Allen Fieldhouse will be a whole lot of fun Saturday for the 4 p.m. ET tipoff.

This game lost a little bit of its luster early, as Kansas’ record got a little sideways through growing pains and Oklahoma State regrouped after losing Michael Cobbins. But everything seems back in order.

The Big 12 right now is the best conference in the country, and with apologies to Iowa State, these are the top teams in that league.

Once dogged by questions of what ails them, the Jayhawks are hitting their stride. They have won three in a row, including an absolute drubbing of Kansas State and on the road at Iowa State. Wiggins, who was doing too much alone early in the season, now has plenty of help, much of it coming in the form of fellow lottery pick Joel Embiid.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys have a three-game tear of their own to claim, with Smart averaging 22 over that span.

Aside from the sideshow shenanigans, what makes this game intriguing is that one team’s weakness is really the other’s strength. Kansas’ biggest attribute is its frontcourt, Oklahoma State’s the backcourt.

Naadir Tharpe has to find a way to stop Smart from driving the ball while the Cowboys, sans Cobbins, need Le’Bryan Nash and Kamari Murphy to somehow contain Wiggins, Embiid and Perry Ellis.

And then there is the X factor: Allen Fieldhouse, where Oklahoma State knows it can win and Kansas remembers ...