Notes from December 12th
The Most Notable Game: (#58) DePaul 78, @ (#47) Arizona State 61
This was a hellish matchup of Devils and Demons – but puns aside, I really did not see this result coming. Arizona State has looked pretty good so far this year, behind the play of Jahii Carson, Carrick Felix, and the rest of the Sun Devils. DePaul was down 9-2 early in Tempe, but a solid team effort gave them a strong first-half lead. The Demons’ Cleveland Melvin and Worrel Clahar both had ten points at the break, and DePaul got good contributions from Brandon Young and Derrell Robertson Jr. Young added ten points in the second half, totaling a game-high 18 points, as well as nine assists. Melvin ended with a double-double. The closest this game got was a six-point difference early in the second half, but Carson and Evan Gordon were ineffective, turning the ball over and missing shots throughout the stanza. I thought that pro prospect Jordan Bachysnki would have been more of a force in this one, but he was never able to get it going, really. Perhaps I was putting too much stock in Arizona State’s early start, with their only decent win being over (#128) Arkansas, but DePaul’s résumé isn’t much better. Both teams have lost to a strong MVC team – (#18) Creighton beat ASU, (#8) Wichita State beat DePaul – and the Demons also dropped games to (#159) Gardner-Webb and (#36) Western Kentucky. The Demons came to Tempe ready to play, though, and they put the Devils way down in the hole. (Fans of The Wire… you see what I did there?)
A Couple Major Conference Teams Who Look Very Strong: (#6) Louisville, (#24) Kansas
Rick Pitino always fields a solid squad, but this year’s iteration of the Louisville Cardinals just might be his best. Russ Smith has been playing like a man possessed so far this year, and with Peyton Siva at the point, this team has one of the best backcourts in the country. When they lost by five points to (#12) Duke, they were playing without big man Gorgui Dieng, who is set to return as early as Saturday from a fractured wrist. The Cardinals (8-1, 0-0) are hoping that forecast is accurate, because they travel to rival (#70) Memphis this weekend for what should be a pretty good game. Louisville was dominant in their dismantling of (#26) Missouri, and though it was closer than they would have liked, beating (#67) Illinois State was a good win for them. Before the Big East season starts, the Cards play Western Kentucky and host their chief rival, (#56) Kentucky. Smith, Siva, and the rest of the gang will likely still be firing on all cylinders, so Wildcats fans, don’t hold your breath waiting for an upset. Pitino has his boys playing really well, and – with apologize to Jim Boeheim and (#3) Syracuse – they are my early pick to win the Big East, barring any more injuries. I can’t wait for conference play to get underway, though, so I can test that theory.
Kansas is another team playing some really good basketball right now. A three-point loss to (#46) Michigan State early in the year is something that can be overlooked, while it’s much harder to ignore their utter obliteration of (#48) Colorado. Wins over west coast opponents (#125) Washington State and (#76) Oregon State don’t hurt, either. Jeff Withey has been strong in the post for the Jayhawks, averaging 13.8 PPG and eight boards. Ben McLemore, Travis Releford, and Elijah Johnson have formed a solid backcourt trio. These three have combined to average 39 points and 10.4 assists per game so far, and all of them are averaging more than one steal in each contest. While the Jayhawks (7-1, 0-0) might not shoot threes very well (.314), they have made 54.5% of their two-point field goals, and shoot 75% from the stripe. They’ll need to keep up those solid numbers over their next few games, with matchups against (#100) Belmont, (#41) Richmond, and (#23) Ohio State on the docket. Bill Self has his team playing very well at the moment, but this three-game stretch will be indicative of just how seriously to take Kansas in the coming months. My guess is that we’ll be taking them very seriously, and sooner rather than later.
A Couple Mid-Major Teams Who Aren’t As Good As Their Record: (#55) Louisiana Tech, (#41) Richmond
Louisiana Tech, the alma mater of famed Utah Jazz big men Karl Malone and Paul Millsap, has a pretty nice record to start the year. The Bulldogs (8-3, 0-0) have been mostly chewing on the little guys, though. Their best win to date is over (#105) Southern Miss, but that’s a win that’s getting worse by the day. They lost their opener to (#38) Texas A&M, and that’s not such a bad thing, but their most recent losses came to the Southland Conference’s (#142) Northwestern State and (#186) McNeese State. Their SOLV rate – a proprietary measure of the relative strength of the wins and losses – is negative and ranks #187 in the nation, meaning that they are simply running past bad squads, but they are losing to the better ones they have faced. Raheem Appleby has been a bright spot for Lousiana Tech so far, averaging 17.8 points per game, but the Bulldogs as a team don’t shoot the ball very well – from anywhere. They currently have a shooting slash-line of .412/.672/.310 (FG/FT/3P), and that will not bode well for them as they enter WAC play. (#82) Utah State is probably the strongest team in the conference, and though I’m not completely counting Louisiana Tech out of the race, I think the Aggies – who shoot and rebound at better rates and have a higher assist-to-turnover ratio – will represent the WAC in the Big Dance.
Richmond has played a tougher schedule than Louisiana Tech, but their losses have at least come to better squads. They dropped one to (#5) Minnesota, but you can ignore that. Losing by 25 to (#60) Ohio is a little harder to look past, however, despite the fact that the Bobcats are a likely NCAA Tournament team. The Spiders (8-2, 0-0) needed two overtimes to get past (#108) William & Mary, and one extra period to top (#232) James Madison. They beat a struggling (#185) Wake Forest by only two points earlier this month. Crushing (#294) Old Dominion was good for their spirits, but the Monarchs are an unmitigated disaster this year, so it’s nothing to hang your hat on. Their strength of victories is bad (ranked #171 in the nation) and the conference they play in is going to be very difficult. As good as their trio of Derrick Williams, Darien Brothers, and Kendall Anthony has been, it’s hard for me to predict a lot of Atlantic 10 success for Richmond, given the relative strength of teams like (#31) Temple, (#49) Xavier and (#53) VCU. (#15) Charlotte, (#64) Dayton and (#69) Butler are no slouches, either. The Spiders better be ready for a dogfight in the conference this year, because that’s exactly what it’s going to be. They have a huge test before that, though, when they travel to Lawrence to face Kansas. I’m not expecting a victory, but if they can play tough against the Jayhawks – or at least not get run out of the building – my opinion about Richmond will definitely change for the better.
As much as I wanted to put the Oregon State victory over (#299) Portland State into The Most Notable Game category, it was not that notable. A good game, yes, but it was between two teams that aren’t moving the needle too much in the early going. The Vikings got off to a fast start behind the hot hand of Lateef McMullan, leading 10-2 at one point. It wasn’t until the end of the half that Joe Burton and Devon Collier started to take advantage of the size difference down low and led the Beavers on a 19-4 run to close out the period, catalyzed perhaps by two missed free throws by Michael Harthun after a Craig Robinson technical foul. In the second half, Aaron Moore – who made all seven of his shots – brought the Vikings within two points, but Burton and Collier led another 12-4 run that kept PSU at arm’s length. Roberto Nelson stepped up well, dishing out six assists and recording five steals, which made up for a mediocre shooting night. He ended up with 16 points total, while Collier tallied 23, and Burton put in 20. Eric Moreland was a force inside, and his height was a big advantage for the Beavers, as Moore and Renado Parker were largely unable to grab boards away from the lanky big man. All in all, it was not the best game for the Beavers – they probably should’ve won by a lot more – but they did well for themselves, considering that Ahmad Starks was a ghost in this game (no made field goals, no assists). OSU missed 11 free throws, which definitely helped this one be closer towards the end, but they were able to stave off a hungry Portland State team who was hosting a Pac-12 opponent for the first time in school history.
Also, Portland Trailblazers Wesley Matthews, Damian Lillard, and Nolan Smith were in attendance, and luckily I was able to get Matthews’ autograph for my 7-year-old nephew. Thanks to the Stott Center for being small enough that I could chase him down on the court during halftime, and when I yelled to him to come back and sign something, he heard me and obliged. Classy move, Wesley. We won’t forget it.
What to Watch on Thursday (16 games total):
(#8) Wichita State @ (#143) Tennessee – Tennessee is looking to shake off the cobwebs and try to get out from under a couple embarrassing losses. Meanwhile, the Shockers are trying to go to 10-0, and solidify their place in the Top 25. We could definitely have an upset on our hands here, but it’s funny to think that the Vols beating Wichita would be an upset. Such is life in college basketball.
(#25) Middle Tennessee @ (#100) Belmont – One of the best low-major matchups you could ask for. Rick Byrd’s Belmont is always ready for battle (they beat (#93) Stanford earlier this year), and MTSU is coming off wins over (#167) UAB and (#22) Ole Miss. This in-state rivalry should prove a fun one to watch, and if I had to guess, I say Belmont pulls the “upset” here.
(#138) Washington @ (#233) Seattle – The Battle for Seattle will be better than people think. The Huskies have underachieved this year, and could really use this win. The Redhawks are decent enough to pull this one off, but I think UW probably wins by a few field goals. If this one gets really close though, and the Huskies falter down the stretch, well… just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Okay, with all of that in mind, go check out today’s Updated Tournament Projections and Top 100!