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ONIONS

Columnists | Message Board  | Onions Archive

By Adam Glatczak

arfboy37@yahoo.com

January 20th, 2006

College Basketball: "Onions" Weekly Review

-So far there has been one game we’ve watched this season that has stood out above the pack as more entertaining, more fun and more pleasing on the eye than any other we’ve seen. That game of course was…Marist at Siena?

Believe us, we didn’t expect it either. Even the heartiest college hoops connoisseur wouldn’t have thought much of this matchup, which was televised on ESPNU last Friday night and featured two teams who looked, by almost any standard, average. Marist came in at 6-6 but 0-4 in the Metro Atlantic. The Red Foxes did beat St. John’s at Madison Square Garden and Matt Brady is doing a nice job in Poughkeepsie, but Rik Smits’s legacy isn’t being threatened just yet. Siena came into the game 7-5 and is also having a good bounce-back year under new coach Fran McCaffery, but the Saints best win is over Holy Cross. Enough said there.

Expecting to check out just a few minutes, this one turned out to be a blast. First, there was scoring-Marist won, 85-77, and those scoring totals were truly representative of the pace and level of play, not inflated by several minutes of fouling at the end. Both teams also shot well; the Red Foxes were scorching at 60%, while Siena made ‘only’ 44%, a figure many teams would consider good these days.

Most importantly, though, was how the two squads scored. These teams both know how to run an offense. Siena in particular is the most entertaining team I’ve seen this year. The Saints run some great motion offense, and it’s not the oft imitated, Princeton-style with a few back cuts or lots of false motion either. Like so many old motion offenses, Siena’s starts with two downscreens and never really stops. Players almost never stop moving and keep great spacing, something we haven’t seen much of in years, and what it results in is a team with not much height being able to get quality shots on a consistent basis. On more than a few occasions 6-4 Antoine Jordan penetrated the Marist defense and dropped the ball off to 6-1 Kojo Mensah for lay-ups. Contrary to what some believe, this offense also offers players freedom to create. One reason why motion offenses have mostly disappeared is because some think they don’t allow athletes to do their thing, as so many want to do in today’s game, but Siena players frequently drove the lane. The difference was that the players around them were moving, making it extremely difficult for the defense to collapse on them.

Like the Saints, Marist also moves without the ball very well and doesn’t stand around as the shot clock winds down. That isn’t surprising, since Brady is a former St. Joseph’s assistant and helped develop players like Delonte West and Pat Carroll. Brady also has a terrific point guard in Jared Jordan, a great throwback-type who controls the game, finds open teammates and also stuffs the stat sheet (15 points, five rebounds and eight assists per game). Shooting guard Will Whittington also is a potentially explosive scorer from deep. In fact, Whittington scored 30 against Siena, while Jordan had 12 assists and found teammates outside (Marist was 15-of-26 on three-pointers) and in (15-for-24 on twos). The Red Foxes are particularly adept at moving to an open spot after the ball goes inside, either on an entry pass or on Jordan’s driving the lane.

The game was encouraging because it was reminiscent of the motion offenses teams used on a regular basis years ago. It was quite obvious that Siena’s players have been taught how to not only screen and cut, but also how to understand spacing and when to set screens, skills rarely shown in today’s set-play and free-lance dominated game. Marist’s players understand that they have a point guard that will get them the ball if they just get open, and the best way to get open is to move. We only hope more teams catch on to these traits. Spreading the floor to drive-and-kick is nice if you have superior athletes, and set plays work fine if executed crisply, but a well-executed motion offense should get a team a good shot on every possession. Both Siena and Marist displayed this frequently in this game.

-The seeming improvement in offense this year, coupled with some scores that catch the eye a bit, makes one ask the question: is offense starting to make a comeback? Check out some of these scores of late:

Sacramento State 107, Idaho State 106

Towson 96, Delaware 92

West Virginia 104, Marquette 85

Missouri-Kansas City 93, Oakland 91

High Point 100, VMI 90

Florida Atlantic 97, Campbell 88

East Tennessee State 110, Campbell 96

Lawrence 125, Grinnell 110

OK, that last one is a plant, as the Division III Grinnell Pioneers are still playing their wonderfully hectic style of ball, averaging 124.5 points per game through 12 games. The others, though, are all Division I, where defense is supposed to rule and offense is supposed to mean you’re not playing not enough defense. (A theory that is not true, by the way; Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount teams played very good defense, but they played so fast that opponents were going to score 90 points a game even if they shot badly.)

The most frequent “offenders” (and we mean that term in the best way) seem to be Campbell, East Tennessee State (sense a pattern here…Atlantic Sun teams) and Towson. Eight of Campbell’s 15 games have included at least one team scoring 90 points, and the fewest scored in any of the Camels’ games is 71. East Tennessee State is only 23rd in the country in scoring average (80.7 ppg) but would be higher if not for being caught in a few slow-down games. The Buccaneers also still have Tim Smith, one of the darlings of the NCAA 1st Round a few years ago when he almost single-handedly beat Cincinnati. Though we don’t see him much anymore, Smith is still one of the most exciting players in the country and is averaging more than 23 points per game.

The most interesting offensive makeover has come at Towson, where the Tigers have hit 94 or more three times running and have suddenly become a player in the very balanced Colonial Athletic Association. Pat Kennedy’s team has been powered by the arrival of Gary Neal, who became eligible in December and in eight games has averaged almost 28 points per game. Neal is a great story. Effectively run out of La Salle after being accused of rape in a well-documented scandal a few years ago, he enrolled at Towson as a student and only decided to play basketball later. Once eligible, he has become maybe the best player in the CAA. Losing early in the season to the likes of Norfolk State and American, Towson is 5-3 since Neal arrived and has only been outplayed badly in a loss to Syracuse. Offensively, the Tigers have thrived as a team since Neal arrived, too. In its first seven games, Towson’s best scoring output was 76 points; since he became eligible, the Tigers have scored 78 or more five times.

The subtle hints of an offensive revival, isolated as they may be, are exciting. Scoring has been on a downward spiral for years. Reasons have of course included the much-cited decline in fundamentals, coaches seizing more and more control of games, and a generally apathetic attitude about offense has permeated the sport of basketball. Gonzaga and coach Mark Few have been a leader in keeping it cool to want to score, continuing to focus on offense even when everyone else preached defense, and it seems to be spreading. Many seem to forget that the sport is best when offensive AND defensive styles can be successful. When Loyola Marymount, Arkansas, Oklahoma and U.S. International were lighting up scoreboards in the late 1980s, Princeton, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Georgetown were also thriving with defense as good as (and mostly cleaner than) anything played today. There is most certainly room for games in the 40s AND games in the 100s, and the more we get to see the higher end, the better.

-All of that said, we present Michigan State-Ohio State: proof once again that just because a game is close or goes into multiple overtimes does not mean it was a good game to watch. Add this into a brutal series that perhaps most infamously includes the 2004 Dayton-DePaul NCAA Tournament game, as well as the Oklahoma-Texas A&M game from the day before. Just because a game is low scoring does not automatically mean it wasn’t worthwhile viewing, but this one was awful. Rather humorous to see on ESPN.com the next day Jay Bilas saying the Big 10 is a much better offensive league than it used to be, and citing several teams’ ability to spread the floor. Saw plenty of spreading the floor in MSU-OSU, and the results weren’t so hot, and we can tell you it wasn’t all defense.

Still a little early to concentrate on RPI too much, but some interesting numbers have developed thus far:

-As of Jan. 18, seven teams were tied for the most wins against top 50 RPI teams with five: Duke, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State, UCLA, Connecticut and Northern Iowa. Potentially good news for the March seeding of all of those teams, in particular UCLA, which won’t get much help in the Pac-10 (only four teams in the RPI top 100), and Northern Iowa, which should be on track for no worse than a 5 seed if the Panthers’ pace continues.

-Teams in the top 100 with the most wins vs. teams RPI below 200: George Washington, North Carolina State and Hofstra (eight each). George Mason, Air Force, West Virginia, Wake Forest. Georgetown and Florida State all have seven.

-Teams with work to do in the next month-plus, maybe more than some might expect: Nevada, George Washington (eight wins vs. teams below 200), almost any Big 12 team besides Texas, Washington, Southern Illinois and Missouri State (both need some signature wins against upper division MVC teams), Kentucky, Louisville (79th in RPI), Tennessee (only 2-2 vs. top 100 so far).

-Teams in better shape than some might think: Iowa State (four top 50 wins), Arizona (despite clumsiness still 2-3 vs. top 50), Marquette, Washington State, Creighton (4-1 vs. top 50), Wichita State, Northern Illinois (though the Huskies have zero at-large chances if they keep losing to the likes of Western Michigan).

-The “Not Quite Ready for Prime-Time” award: Drake, which is 0-7 vs. the RPI top 50, 8-1 vs. everyone else. Next year, though, could be a different story for Dr. Tom Davis’s Bulldogs. And no, basketball writers, commentators and fans aren’t contractually obligated to call him “Dr.” Tom Davis, as if it is his first name, it only seems that way.

-Old Dominion and Bucknell are two teams that may not be talked about much for at-large bids until March, but both aren’t in too bad of position right now. ODU is 21st in the RPI and is 2-2 against the top 50; Bucknell is 27th and also 2-2 vs. the top 50. Regular season conference championships should almost assure them NCAA bids, though there’s no guarantee the up-and-down Monarchs will win the CAA.

-Wisconsin-Milwaukee is 18th in the RPI, Manhattan 39th, George Mason 42nd and Winthrop 53rd. Look closer, though, and that group is a combined 2-7 vs. the top 50, the best win being Winthrop beating Marquette on the road. Milwaukee does have four top 100 wins, which gives the Panthers a leg up on the other three, who have combined for only four. If last year’s disrespect of the numbers of Vermont (and, to a lesser extent, Southern Illinois) are any indication, then all four will need runaway conference regular season championships to even start receiving at-large consideration, particularly the last three. Some could also benefit from a Bracket Buster win in February.

-The MVC has five teams in the RPI top 30; only the Big 10 (six) has more and only the two-conferences-in-one Big East has an equal number.

-Hilton Armstrong? Who would’ve thought he would be Connecticut’s best player right now, certainly better than Mr. NBAer-in-the-making Rudy Gay? These are the stories that make college basketball fun. It isn’t the guys who short-pit in college on their way to assured millions; it’s the guys like Armstrong who work for several years, improving all the while and biding their time until they get a chance to show their stuff. Great to see the big guy having a moment in the sun.

-Of the final three undefeated teams, Pittsburgh is clearly the mystery meat of the bunch, certainly the least celebrated. A lot of that is with good reason, what with the miserable excuse of a non-conference schedule the Panthers played, but we’re ready to start giving them their due, at least for now. The wins at Louisville and Rutgers were solid, though we’ll stop short of using the term great because the Cardinals are young and struggling right now and need a healthy Taquan Dean, while the Scarlet Knights simply didn’t play well. What the wins did underscore was that this is a team that is more than Carl Krauser. It is also winning the close games and perhaps deserved more credit for its battle-testedness over the past few years, when it has been a regular in the rankings. Against South Carolina, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and now Louisville, the Panthers were behind or involved in down-to-the-wire finishes in all and made the plays late, displaying the confidence of a team that has been there before. Trailing for much of the game and playing rather average ball until the final 10 minutes, Pittsburgh simply out-executed Louisville down the stretch. Moreover, it was guards Ronald Ramon and LeVance Fields hitting big threes in the second half to get the Panthers in position to take control late. Krauser only scored eight points in the game, but Pitt’s underrated shooters still ate up the Cardinals’ zone, which was certainly weakened by a gimpy Dean. Up front, the Panthers have a group that might be called overachievers, but we prefer to call such players “good.” Seven-footer Aaron Gray is one of the most improved players in the country. And against Rutgers, it was Levon Kirkland who provided clutch shots. Pittsburgh’s poise and control in the second half of games and its ability to find someone to step up cannot be underestimated. One still wonders, though, how far the Panthers can take this. At this point, they look a lot like Boston College last year. Right now they’re are on a regular season roll and with a just friendly enough schedule to make it possible to keep winning those 50/50 games, but it’s also a team that could easily get torpedoed early in the NCAA Tournament.

-With all the injuries resulting in comings and goings in the lineup, UCLA is doing some terrific things this year. Almost all of the credit will go to Ben Howland, or at least Billy Packer will see to such. While Howland most certainly receives credit for turning things back in the right direction (and getting UCLA to win the games it’s supposed to-see Cal State-Northridge, Northern Arizona, UC Santa Barbara in the past) a lot of the credit this year really should go to Aaron Afflalo as well as the players’ ability to gel as a group. Afflalo is the Bruins’ best player, and it’s hard to imagine the best player from UCLA could be underrated, but it’s true in this case. Moreover, despite having plenty of solid recruits, the Bruins play well as a team. Though Afflalo and Jordan Farmar are the keys, any of a number of players can step up, and usually someone does when needed. Players on this team seem to know and accept their roles, something you don’t often see at a place where talent is plentiful.

-Bucknell simply has much better athletes and better players than anyone else in the Patriot League and also plays terrific defense, as evidenced in a 56-42 win over Holy Cross on Saturday. (Random thought: isn’t that score lower than the average college football game now?)  If the Bison keep their focus, they should run the table in the league, with the possible exception of maybe a road game at Holy Cross. The biggest challenge left should be a Bracket Buster game, potentially against a highly rated MVC team 

-Enjoyed two points made by the brilliant author John Feinstein in his color commentary on the HC-Bucknell game. His first was that the rule allowing 30 seconds for coaches to sub after players foul out is a terrible one. He’s absolutely correct, too many coaches have abused this rule to use it as a free timeout, and there’s no need for it. Even under the most intense circumstances, it doesn’t take 30 seconds to decide on a substitution. Feinstein also pointed out his dislike for the rule allowing TV timeouts to be taken before players shoot free throws. This is simply a poor rule not in the interest of players. While free throw percentages these days often seem to stink regardless of when they’re shot, it’s still noticeably more difficult to come off the bench and shoot than it is to shoot in the flow of the game. To penalize a shooting player with a timeout that hasn’t been called by either team puts that player at a disadvantage they shouldn’t be at. No reason the TV timeout can’t wait until a true dead ball.

Let us also add another rule that should be changed: the one allowing timeouts to be called by players flying out of bounds. This one is so simple it should be obvious: if a player doesn’t have at least one foot on the ground, he shouldn’t be able to call time. Too often this year officials have granted timeouts to guys in the air, even when they don’t have anything resembling possession of the ball. (How many guys can really levitate long enough to catch a ball and establish possession of it before hitting the ground?) Many players are fumbling the ball when they call time and shouldn’t receive it even under the current rules. Don’t allow players that option and it will make the officials’ job easier.

-Great to hear the voice of Fred White calling Big 12 games yet again this year. To some of us, White is the voice of Big 8/Big 12 hoops. He’s been doing the Saturday afternoon doubleheaders as long as we can remember, and he was there to call Kansas State’s upset win at Kansas last weekend, a win that maybe(?) will finally signal the Wildcats stepping out of Big 12 mediocrity. We’re not sure that’s really the case, not when the Kitties were losing by 15 at home to Nebraska just a few nights before beating the Jayhawks. Nevertheless, Jim Wooldridge’s club showed tremendous poise down the stretch on the road and proved it is one of the many in the jumbled Big 12 that is capable of making a run to the top third of the league.

-It’s easy to knock the West Coast Conference as being “that league Gonzaga is in,” but much like the PCAA/Big West was tougher for UNLV than some thought in the 80s, the WCC isn’t that bad. Conference teams had made some great strides in the past few seasons, but while there still will be a few challenges for Gonzaga, it just isn’t the same this year. Massive player loss from 2005 has left many rebuilding, much the same way the Atlantic 10 was last year after similar roster upheaval killed that league’s momentum after two Elite Eight appearances in 2004. Teams like Santa Clara, St. Mary’s and San Francisco are inconsistent, despite having some of the better players on the left coast. Daniel Kickert (St. Mary’s) and Travis Niesen (Santa Clara) are two players who are good but just don’t have enough help, and as a result their teams have been capable of beating the likes of Bucknell and Nevada but are still hovering around .500. The Gaels in particular have been a disappointment in starting 0-3 in the WCC, despite having Kickert and improvement from players like Reda Rhalimi and Brett Collins. We’re confident that, like the A-10 has bounced back this year, the WCC will be back better next year, as much of the youth starts to come of age. For now it simply will not offer Gonzaga the challenges it has in past years and the challenges the Bulldogs need to stay sharp for March.

-We’re not in the career advising business here, but we think Nick Fazekas would be wise to stay at Nevada one more year to bulk up some. Fazekas is one of the best players in the country, bar none, and has terrific inside-outside skills, though he’s not a ballhandler like, say, Dirk Nowitzki. As far as the pros go, he looks frail, too frail to play inside consistently as would likely be expected of him. Maybe we’re just selfish, though, because it would be great to see him back one more year to continue the Wolf Pack’s surge to national prominence.

-It seems every year a new team gets its chance to shine in the Big Sky. In recent years Portland State and Eastern Washington have made it to the top; this year, it could be Sacramento State. The Hornets are 13-5, with two of their five losses against Nevada and UCLA. We’d love to say we’ve seen the Hornets play, but we haven’t. The Big Sky still hasn’t made many strides on putting together some kind of TV package on a regional sports network, and it is one of the few D-I conferences that you can’t find much of on your DirecTV. It’s too bad, because typically Big Sky games are entertaining, and this year’s conference race, with Sac State, Montana and Northern Arizona all undefeated so far, should be one of the better ones in the country.

-The loss of Erik Crawford for Northern Iowa is a huge blow for a team that should’ve been in the top 25 before his injury. After Ben Jacobson, Crawford is the most valuable player on the team, and that’s saying a lot on a squad that was mostly playing only six players before he went out. A 6-3 guard, Crawford is UNI’s best defender, is a good rebounder and shooter, and can even play some point guard. Few will understand how big of a loss this is, and if he is back in time for the NCAA Tournament, the selection committee better give the Panthers the same consideration it has given other schools in the past, in judging teams’ resumes differently when injuries factor into the mix. That is, if the Panthers need it; since Crawford went out, UNI is 3-0, including a double-overtime win over Southern Illinois in a game that it was a sin to not have televised nationally. At the same time, this could also be a blessing in disguise for the Panthers. With Crawford out, some of Northern Iowa’s bench players will be forced into action, because UNI starters will not always be able to play 40+ minutes, as four of them did against the Salukis. The experience gained, while it may not result in immediate dividends, could pay off in the postseason and in future seasons.

-Bruce Pearl is doing a great job at Tennessee. We thought Pearl would eventually buck the odds and win in Knoxville, but didn’t think it would be this soon. His style is difficult to prepare for because few do anything like it anymore. One wonders what he could do with some top of the line athletes. Other schools are going to rue that they didn’t pursue Pearl before the Volunteers did. Now, if he could just do some tweaking of that terribly ugly orange UT uses for its uniforms…

 

-Enjoyed seeing the MEAC and SWAC featured on ESPNU on Martin Luther King Day. Hopefully for those who watched it, they saw that while these leagues are certainly toward the lower end of the Division I food chain, they aren’t as bad as the blown-up non-conference records may indicate. The numbers say these two leagues combined to go 25-167 in D-I non-conference games, but that happens when only 19(!) of those 192 games were at home. Many teams in these leagues (Delaware State, Hampton, Southern to name a few) could compete quite well near the top of the Mid-Continent, Northeast, Atlantic Sun, or other lower-third D-I leagues.

 

-Finally, it doesn’t sound like much yet, but Bill Herrion is already starting to turn things around at New Hampshire. The Wildcats have won four in a row to move to a modest 6-11 and into the middle of the America East pack, but anyone who knows New Hampshire’s history knows a winning streak of any kind is one to celebrate. Impressive was a road win at Stony Brook on Saturday, where, like Kansas State and some other road teams last weekend, UNH fought back from behind to steal one late. Yes, it was Stony Brook, not Kansas, but a road win at any level is impressive, and downright encouraging for a program that once was featured in Sports Illustrated for how much it lost.

 

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