Final thoughts from the Champions Classic

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Scott Phillips and I were both in attendance on Tuesday night at the Champions Classic, and while we both wrote plenty of words off of those two games, there was a lot more to discuss that simply couldn’t fit into our stories.

So we put it all here:

Scott: After all of the hype, the Champions Classic is finally over and I’ve got to say that Tuesday night lived up to the hype and so much more, don’t you think, Rob? The crowd was fired up and lively, the freshmen played well and people were reminded of how good Michigan State really is.

I guess we’ll start with Kentucky and Michigan State since it was No. 1 vs. No. 2 and the first game of the night.

(Andrew Wiggins won the Freshmen Showcase)

I’m shocked most at two stats: Michigan State leading Kentucky in fast break points 21-2 and Kentucky outrebounding a Tom Izzo team 44-32?

What do you think those numbers mean going forward and did you have any similar eye-popping numbers that really stood out to you?

Rob: To be honest, I wasn’t all that shocked by the work that Kentucky did on the offensive glass. This team has as much front court depth as we’ve ever seen on one roster, headlined by a freak of nature in Julius Randle. Michigan State? Their biggest issue this season is that their front court behind Adreian Payne is not elite. Matt Costello and Alex Gauna are serviceable against teams that don’t have 25 lottery picks, Branden Dawson is good but undersized, and on Tuesday, Payne was in foul trouble. Do the math. It adds up.

I was surprised by the amount of fast break points Michigan State was able to get, but to me it had more to do with just how bad the Wildcats were in transition. We talked about this at the game. They weren’t hustling back, they gambled for steals, and there was no defensive balance when they were shooting long jumpers. Much of the damage the Spartans did in transition came on run outs and wide-open dunks. It wasn’t like they had the reincarnation of Magic leading the break.

One thing that you mentioned on Tuesday night that really stuck with me was just how good of a job Izzo did game-planning for Kentucky. Packed in defense, anticipating Randle’s spin move, daring Kentucky to shoot. How much of this win belongs to Izzo?

Scott: Good points regarding the rebounding and fast break numbers, Rob. Although Kentucky has more quality size and depth in the front court, it is still shocking to see an Izzo team out rebounded by double digits in any contest.

I think part of the win stems from Izzo’s game plan, part from Michigan State players stepping up and performing and part from Kentucky’s inexperience in big games.

Izzo’s early defensive game plan was fantastic and they did a nice job collapsing on Julius Randle when he got isolation or post touches and between Michigan State’s aggressive switching and Kentucky’s stagnant offensive it was a recipe for early disaster for Kentucky’s offense.

I actually thought Kentucky’s half-court defense wasn’t too bad and they showed a lot of positive signs in that department going forward if they can shore up the transition defense. Kentucky is long and athletic on the defensive end and they also limit second chance opportunities because of their rebounding prowess so they should be okay in that department.

But how about Michigan State’s players stepping up? Izzo can gameplan all he wants but Payne and Harris looked like pros in the first half and nobody in America expected Keith Appling to be the most complete guard in the game with that 22-8-8 line. Heck, even Branden Dawson was a solid x-factor rebounding, running the floor and guarding multiple positions.

Do we see more performances like that from Michigan State’s players — specifically the inconsistent Appling and Payne — or was this an anomaly?

And how do you see Kentucky’s youth growing from here?

Rob: Kentucky will only get better. I thought they were the most likely team to win a national title entering the season, and last time only affirmed that belief.

(Kentucky has the talent. Now they need the time.)

One team that I think I underrated is Kansas. The Jayhawks are going to be a problem, and the biggest reason is Perry Ellis. The dude is going to be a force on the block, and while I think he was in for a big season, I did not think he was going to be as good as he looked on Tuesday. Granted, it is just one game, I know, but if he can be a 15 ppg guy, he makes Kansas a completely different team on the offensive end of the floor, especially if his post game is truly developed and not just a result of going up against a Duke team that doesn’t have a ton on the inside.

Here’s my question: Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker were awesome vs. Kansas. Both looked like lottery picks. Jabari looked like Paul Pierce and Grant Hill had a baby, which is even more terrifying as a theoretical hooper than it would be if they actually had a child.

But I’m concerned about Duke. I thought they’d be better spreading the floor offensively, especially given the new foul rules. But Rasheed Sulaimon was no where to be found, Matt Jones and Tyler Thornton played a ton of minutes while Andre Dawkins was ducktaped to the bench. Amile Jefferson scored some points, but he couldn’t get a rebound if his life depended on it and Perry Ellis abused him like he was Yi Jianlian’s chair.

Does that say more about Duke or about Kansas?

Scott: It says more about Kansas to me. I think we both underestimated the Jayhawks heading into the game and it’s not as if I thought they weren’t talented — they’re loaded — I just didn’t feel like they’d mesh against the talent of Duke this early in the year.

Perry Ellis was a revelation last night and he’s going to be the difference of Kansas’ season going forward. Wiggins will be Wiggins and Kansas has other talent, but if Perry Ellis can get positive post touches it opens up the entire floor for Kansas.

If Ellis commands doubles, or at least the help attention of other defenders, then it opens driving lanes, spaces the floor for shooters and eases things for a freshman center like Joel Embiid.

I know Embiid only had two points and took one of the worst three-point attempts you’re likely to see all season, but he did have five (!) assists as a freshman center and still should be able to finish easy lobs and plays around the rim if defenders are drawn to Ellis. Embiid is only going to improve and so are Kansas’ other young guns.

If Wiggins and Ellis are a consistent 1-2 scoring punch with Selden and the perimeter also playing well, Kansas is going to be really tough to defend.

Which brings me to my question about Duke: Is this team ever going to be able to beat a premier post team or can the Blue Devils shore up their interior defense?

Jabari Parker was a better post defender than I thought — and he rebounds well enough to play the 4 against most teams — but isn’t it going to wear him down if he constantly has to take a beating against a bigger post player while having to create offense on the other end?

(Jabari Parker dazzles the hometown crowd)

Are you worried about Parker’s 3-for-8 second half with a few turnovers and do you think he wore down as the game went on?

Rob: I’m going to go back and rewatch the game this weekend, but I think it had less to do with wearing down than it did with Kansas saying ‘I’m sick of this dude lighting us up’. Wiggins switched on him a bit, which made for a tougher matchup as well.

Duke’s interior defense will be an issue all year long. There’s no way around it. They won’t run into a ton of teams in the ACC with a dominant low-post presence, but I think that it’s more of a red flag than we first realized, particularly when the Blue Devils play an elite team with a talented low-post option. If they switch Marshall Plumlee with one of the other Plumlees, will anyone actually notice?

The bottom-line is this: right now, Michigan State is the best, most complete team in the country. When Keith Appling plays the way he did Tuesday, and Harris and Payne live up to their potential, the Spartans are going to be tough.

But I think what Tuesday night taught us is that there are a number of teams that are no where near finished products just yet. In fact, I’d say that Kentucky, despite the loss, was the most promising. They erased a 15 point deficit to the No. 2 team in the country that had all three of their best players playing well while shooting 20-36 from the foul line, committing 17 turnovers, missing open three after open three and looking somewhat overwhelmed by the moment.

Those errors are fixable. Those problems can be solved with practice, experience and a dose of confidence.

I left Chicago feeling very good about picking Kentucky to win it all.

Tuesday’s Three Things to Know: URI survives, Kentucky comes back, Michigan State and Ohio State roll

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1. NO. 18 RHODE ISLAND SURVIVES A HERCULEAN EFFORT FROM LA SALLE’S B.J. JOHNSON

The 18th-ranked Rams clinched at least a share of the Atlantic 10 regular season title, but it wasn’t easy as they needed overtime to beat La Salle 95-93 in Philadelphia. The “foul or defend” question came up on multiple occasions late in regulation and overtime, with Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley opting to foul each time. Late in regulation the strategy didn’t work out, as Tony Washington rebounded an intentional miss and scored the basket that forced overtime.

B.J. Johnson was outstanding in a losing effort for La Salle, finishing with 29 points and 23 rebounds. The rebound total was one off of the Atlantic 10’s single-game record, which is held by the late Yinka Dare. As for URI, Jeff Dowtin and Stanford Robinson led the way with 25 and 20 points, apiece, with the former also dishing out seven assists and grabbing five rebounds. With the win Rhode Island can clinch the outright A-10 title by beating Dayton Friday night, and the result also keeps the Rams in the conversation to earn a 4-seed (or possibly better) in the NCAA tournament.

BUBBLE BANTER: Texas A&M and Creighton suffer rough losses

2. KENTUCKY REBOUNDS FROM SLOW START TO WIN AT ARKANSAS

On multiple occasions John Calipari’s young team has produced efforts that led to many wondering if they had turned the corner. But after ending a four-game losing streak on Saturday, the Wildcats trailed Arkansas 11-0 with Darryl Macon and Jalen Barford serving as the sparks for the Razorbacks. But instead of wilting and getting blown out Kentucky fought, pulling even by halftime. And in the second half the Wildcats were even better, controlling the action and picking up an 87-72 victory.

Five Kentucky players scored in double figures, with Kevin Knox accounting for 23 points and seven rebounds and fellow freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander adding 18 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Three of the five double-figure scorers came off the bench, with Jarred Vanderbilt and Quade Green providing much-needed sparks in the first half. Kentucky’s now won back-to-back games for the first time since late January, and while that may not seem like a big deal it’s certainly a positive development for this group.

ALSO: NO. 21 WEST VIRGINIA GETS BACK TO BASICS IN WIN OVER BAYLOR

3. NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE AND NO. 16 OHIO STATE HOLD SERVE

Both the Spartans and Buckeyes took care of overmatched foes on their respective senior nights, with Michigan State beating Illinois by 20 and Ohio State whipping Rutgers by 27. With its win Michigan State wrapped up at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title, and the Spartans can wrap up the top seed in next week’s Big Ten tournament with a win over Wisconsin on Sunday. Miles Bridges led the way with 19 points and Joshua Langford added 16 for Michigan State, which shot 47.1 percent from the field and 11-for-27 from three.

What Michigan State will need to do against Wisconsin will be known by tip-off, as Ohio State completes its regular season schedule Friday night at Indiana. Tuesday night, Chris Holtmann’s team rolled past an overmatched Rutgers squad, with C.J. Jackson scoring a game-high 18 points off the bench. Keita Bates-Diop shot just 3-for-11 from the field and scored six points, but Ohio State received quality efforts from multiple players as it ended a two-game losing streak.

Jarred Vanderbilt’s value coming to the forefront as Kentucky wins second straight game

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Maybe Jarred Vanderbilt was the key that unlocked Kentucky’s potential all along.

The struggles that this team has had this season have been covered ad nauseum at this point in the season. Do they have a go-to guy? Can Kevin Knox become consistent and aggressive enough to be a star? Is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander going to takeover the lead guard role? Just what in the world is going on with Hamidou Diallo?

Hell, that really only scratches the surface, doesn’t it?

We’ve reached the point where the national conversation about Kentucky is … well, it’s almost non-existent. We’ll talk about them when they give us something to talk about.

And they have.

The Wildcats won their second straight game on Tuesday night. But unlike a home win over an Alabama team that isn’t all that much older than Kentucky, the Wildcats went into Bud Walton Arena and beat down a talented, veteran Arkansas team, 87-72.

Knox finished with 23 points. SGA had 18 points, seven assists and five boards. P.J. Washington (13 points, ten boards, three assists, two steals, two blocks) and Quade Green (12 points, six boards, four assists) both had big games coming off of the bench. Those are the kind of performances the Wildcats need out of their four-most talented offensive weapons.

But the x-factor here, the guy that now looks like he could be what sparks a Kentucky run that could salvage their season, is Vanderbilt. He is the one player on this roster that can change a game without needing the ball in his hands. He’s a workhorse on the glass with boundless athleticism and energy. He can block shots. He can play a small-ball five role and he can also get out an defend on the perimeter when needed. He can take a defensive rebound and go coast-to-coast.

No one else on this team can do all of those things. And that is before you get to the simple fact that he has some dog in him. He brings a level of intensity and toughness, both physically and mentally, that Kentucky has lacked at times, and in the last two games he seems to finally be getting up to speed with what it takes to win at this level.

What Vanderbilt’s presence does is allow Kentucky to utilize their best lineup: Green, SGA, Knox, Washington and Vanderbilt.

We’ve been banging the ‘Kentucky needs to go small’ drum for a while. At some point, John Calipari is going to have to accept that this is the five that is going to win him games. I understand why he won’t give up on players. It’s not hard to read into what he said yesterday as, essentially, “we won’t do what Duke did to Marques Bolden to our players.” Diallo may be struggling, Nick Richards and Sacha Killeya-Jones may not be ready to handle SEC basketball just yet, but Cal is not going to give up on them. They’re going to get their chances, and I have no problem with that. Kids can’t develop, can’t learn what it takes to play, if they don’t play.

But when it comes to winning time, when it comes to tournament games where losses mean you are heading home, that five — Green, SGA, Knox, Washington and Vanderbilt — is the five that needs to play the majority of the minutes. It gets their best offensive players on the floor, it gets at least two of their best defenders on the court and it lets them matchup with big and with small lineups.

That is their best five.

Now before anyone overreacts or snitches on me to Old Takes Exposed, this is not me saying that Kentucky Is Back!!!

Beating good but inconsistent teams in the middle of the SEC is not exactly a sign that the Wildcats are destined for the Final Four, not when we’re just a week removed from a four-game losing streak.

But it’s hard to ignore the difference in the way Kentucky played on Tuesday in contrast with the way Kentucky rolled over at Texas A&M two weeks ago.

 

URI fights off La Salle for share of A-10 title

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jeff Dowtin scored 25 points, including four key free throws in the final seconds, as No. 18 Rhode Island clinched a share of the Atlantic 10 regular season title with a hard-fought 95-93 overtime victory at La Salle on Tuesday night.

Five Rams scored in double figures. Stanford Robinson had 20 points, Jared Terrell had 14, E.C. Matthews had 13 and Fatts Russell had 10.

La Salle was led by B.J. Johnson, who posted a career-high 23 rebounds to go with 29 points. Johnson a double-double in the first half with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

The Rams (22-4, 14-1 Atlantic 10) trailed 30-18 midway through the first half before going on a 14-0 run and taking a 39-37 halftime lead.

Rhode Island never trailed in the second half and led 81-78 with three seconds left. The Rams purposely fouled Pookie Powell, who made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second. Tony Washington snared the long rebound and made the putback to tie the game at 81 at the end of regulation.

Cyril Langevine scored four straight points to give the Rams a 91-87 lead with 2:20 left in OT. Trailing 91-90, La Salle had two chances to take its first lead since the first half, but couldn’t convert.

Dowtin hit two free throws to give La Salle a 3-point lead, and the Rams again intentionally fouled Powell, this time with 3.2 seconds left. Powell again made the first — and accidentally made the second. After Dowtin made two more, the Explorers tried the same tactic yet again but were called for a lane violation.

Saul Phiri added 16 points, and Miles Brookins scored 13 for La Salle (11-17, 5-10).

BIG PICTURE

Rhode Island: The Rams are looking for the first outright A-10 title in team history. In 1980-81, they finished tied for a share of the Eastern Eight regular season title. The 14 conference victories equal a team record.

La Salle: The Explorers are now 9-4 at home this season and have lost five straight to Rhode Island at Tom Gola Arena. Johnson’s previous career-high in rebounds was 16 against Miami in November of last year.

No. 21 West Virginia gets back to basics in win over Baylor

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West Virginia was not happy about the way things ended in Lawrence, so they took it out on the hottest team in the Big 12.

On Saturday, No. 21 West Virginia blew a double-digit, second-half lead in a loss to Kansas for the second time this season. Given the nature of Saturday’s loss, not only with regards to the blown lead but also the frustration that comes with attempting just two free throws, the question for the Mountaineers going into Tuesday’s game at Baylor was how would they respond.

As was the case with its 35-point beating of Texas in the first game after their home loss to Kansas, West Virginia offered up a positive response in Waco. Esa Ahmad and Jevon Carter led a balanced offensive effort and Sagaba Konate was dominant around the basket as the Mountaineers picked up the 71-60 victory.

West Virginia built its advantage in the first half, finding quality looks offensively (and making them at a solid clip) while limiting Baylor on the other end of the floor. But Baylor was able to mount a rally in the second half, with West Virginia’s offense being stagnant at times with passing on the perimeter ultimately yielding to a hopeful hoist in the final seconds of the shot clock.

That’s been an issue for the Mountaineers on multiple occasions this season, in wins and losses alike, with Carter being the team’s best option to make a play either for himself or his teammates. Even with Tuesday’s win, West Virginia showed that it still has work to to in this area as the season’s most important month draws closer.

The second half offensive issues aside, the conversation should be about what Sagaba Konate gives West Virginia in the post. Konate finished with ten points, ten rebounds and nine blocked shots, tying the single-game school record set by D’Or Fisher in 2004.

The 6-foot-8 sophomore entered Tuesday’s game ranked fifth in the country in blocks per game (3.15), and his block percentage of 16.2 ranks third nationally. While the perimeter players, most notably Carter, receive attention for their roles in “Press Virginia”, a big reason why they’re able to be so aggressive is the presence of Konate on the back line. Players big and small alike have looked to challenge Konate at the rim, and more often than not those attempts fail to the his combination of timing and sheer strength.

Baylor was able to pull closer in the second half due to West Virginia’s at times sluggish offense and its work on the offensive boards. For the game Baylor rebounded 38.6 percent of its missed shots, outscoring the Mountaineers 15-7 in second-chance points. But they shot just 32.8 percent from the field and 3-for-9 from three, with West Virginia putting forth one of its better efforts with regards to half-court defense in addition to forcing 14 Baylor turnovers.

Ultimately, while West Virginia’s bounce-back performance was a good one the result wasn’t so much about learning something new about the Mountaineers so much as them getting back to who they are. The offense was balanced if not spectacular, and defensively one of the nation’s best rim protectors produced a virtuoso performance.

That’s been the formula West Virginia’s called upon when successful, and they’ll have to continue to do that if they’re to make a run in March.

Bubble Banter: Losses by Texas A&M, Creighton put them in weird spots

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Saturday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

N.C. STATE (RPI: 55, KenPom: 47, NBC seed: 10): The Wolfpack avoided adding a bad loss to their résumé by knocking off Boston College. At this point, N.C. State has done enough to get into the tournament. Not only do they have five Quadrant 1 wins, but in that group of wins includes: Duke, Clemson, at North Carolina and Arizona on a neutral. They can still mess this thing up by going on a losing streak at the wrong time, but I think that N.C. State is closer to safe than people realize.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (RPI: 61, KenPom: 46, NBC seed: Out): It might be time to pay a little more attention to Mississippi State. After winning at Texas A&M on Tuesday, they now have three Quadrant 1 wins and a 6-8 record against the top two Quadrants with no bad losses. Here’s the problem: Their three best wins are Arkansas at home, Missouri at home, at Texas A&M, who may not end up being a tournament team. Throw in an atrocious non-conference SOS, and there is a reason they’re on the outside looking in. This is, however, a step in the right direction.

BUTLER (RPI: 34, KenPom: 20, NBC seed: 10): Butler did themselves a favor by picking up a Quadrant 2 win over Creighton at home. They now have a 3-8 record against Quadrant 1 with six Quadrant 2 wins. That loss to Georgetown at home doesn’t look pretty, but it shouldn’t be a killer so long as the committee takes into account that the Hoyas have been better late in the year. That’s a bad loss. It’s not a horrific loss. Their final two games of the regular season: at St. John’s and at Seton Hall. Win one and they should be fine, especially if they win their opener of the Big East tournament.

LSU (RPI: 75, KenPom: 63, NBC seed: First four out): LSU got their job done on Tuesday, night, beating Vanderbilt at home. That’s not going to help them leapfrog anyone in front of them. Frankly, games at Georgia, at South Carolina and Mississippi State probably won’t, either. If the Tigers are going to get into the tournament, they are probably going to have to get some work done in the SEC tournament. The good news is this: a 6-5 record against Quadrant 1 is a good place for them to start.

NEBRASKA (RPI: 58, KenPom: 56, NBC seed: Out): Nebraska beat Indiana, but I think they may have cost themselves a shot at a bid by losing to Illinois over the weekend. They have a gaudy record but they are going to need to get some work done in the Big Ten tournament.

LOSERS

BAYLOR (RPI: 56, KenPom: 38, NBC seed: Play-in game): Baylor did not help their cause on Tuesday, losing at home to West Virginia. That dropped them to 16-11 overall and 7-8 in the Big 12. Here are their final three games: at TCU, Oklahoma, at Kansas State. Those are all Quadrant 1 wins, and that’s before the Big 12 tournament. Baylor’s rallied a long way from the team that was barely in the mix for a bid three weeks ago. It’s not over yet, but they have quite a bit of work to do.

TEXAS A&M (RPI: 27, KenPom: 32, NBC seed: 7): This team is all over the place. They’re now 17-11 on the season after losing at home to Mississippi State, and they’ve now lost three straight games since Duane Wilson went down for the season. But the first two of those losses were on the road against top 30 teams, eight of their 11 losses are Quadrant 1 and of their three Quadrant 2 losses, this was the only one where they were anywhere near full strength. But they’ve had so many suspensions and injuries and illnesses and players missing time that I don’t know what is what with this group. Two of their last three are on the road, and they are already 6-9 in the SEC. I think the Aggies are in more trouble than people might realize.

CREIGHTON (RPI: 37, KenPom: 26, NBC seed: 7): I’m including Creighton here because a Creighton fan asked me about them this week so I figured it was worth the discussion. As of today, I think that Creighton is safe. They’re 3-7 against Quadrant 1, they have six Quadrant 2 wins and no bad losses. But I also recognize that the end of their season schedule isn’t exactly easy. They host Villanova on Saturday, and the Wildcats are finally healthy and playing with a Big East title on the line. Creighton should be DePaul, but then they have to play at Marquette, the same Marquette who just beat them in Omaha. Lose two out of three, and suddenly they’re 19-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big East. That would put them at 5th or 6th in the league standings, most likely, which would mean they play a Quadrant 1 game in the first round of the Big East tournament. So the way I see it, Creighton is likely in with one more win this season. They’re definitely in with two.