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Division I teams: Stop the cupcakes in December

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Scrolling through tonight’s Division I college basketball slate, I noticed something. Well, I’ve been noticing it for some time now.

I looked at the schedule and found certain, we’ll call them ‘unique’, match-ups. Ones I haven’t recalled ever seeing in mid-December. So I looked some of them up. These schools don’t reside in Division I, at least not in the NCAA.

SIU-Edwardsville is playing Eureka College, who has also played Texas-Pan American already this season. Northern Colorado? They get mighty Tabor College tonight. Bethune-Cookman has a date with Florida Christian. And given the name and my adolescent history with religious-type girls, they won’t get very far (off-the-court, at least).

Division I programs playing non-Division I teams well into the season. It’s a recent trend in Division I college basketball, and it needs to stop. Yesterday.

I get it. They’re easy wins. Everyone likes to look in the newspaper or on a website and see a 30-or-40-point blowout win. It’s a great confidence booster. But, for the love of God, think about when you get these victories. Ones like this are reserved for the exhibition slate.

I did some research. For the sake of time, I looked through only the past week to identify how many teams played a game against a non-Division I team in the past week. If anything, I thought it would fight my case. It didn’t. By my count, there have been 25 contests out of a possible 212 since last Monday. That’s 25 no-win games for 25 teams. A vast majority of them played by mid-or-low major Division I teams.

I say no-win because frankly, no one wins with a blowout victory against a team that has no shot at winning. The only result that could matter? A loss. Ask Charleston how they feel about that game to Anderson (S.C.) University last week, 65-49. Yep, a loss.

I get it, okay? When you’re a program that isn’t necessarily big-time, you take the W’s you can get. And in turn, the opponents who don’t (normally) stand a chance take a nice, hearty game check and use it towards expenses and other athletic or university-centric endeavors. That’s fine. But do it in the beginning of the season. Wins like that at this point don’t help anything. Not your RPI, your seeding in your conference tournament and most certainly don’t lend a hand to your postseason hopes.

It’s better to at least be bold enough to try for a game in that slot that could do some good towards those postseason aspirations. A game against a team of equal talent, from a conference on-par with their own.

By mid-December, all teams in Division I should know what kind of team they have, so the “we’re still figuring ourselves out” excuse is a waste of time. And pounding Po-Dunk State from NAIA Division II isn’t going to help that. Confidence is one thing. Confidence in a game that shouldn’t be in doubt, that’s another. That just equals ego.

To the small schools taking their beatings. By all means, collect your game checks. This isn’t about you.

To the teams in the SWAC, MEAC, Big South, Sun Belt, Atlantic Sun and beyond: I understand that there aren’t many options when it comes to playing tune-up games that can build your team’s confidence. But instead of fishing for easy wins, play one another in the non-conference. A loss may be a result, but, in my opinion, there’s at least something to be learned. Nothing can be learned by smashing a non-D-1 this far into the season.

Admittedly, there’s no correlation between teams having late-season success or failure and playing cupcakes well into their seasons. That’s fine. College football teams schedule Football Championship Subdivision teams for Senior Day — or just for the hell of it — to get a win, so it’s not like this is a problem that affects only college basketball. But be better than that, Division I. Because you are, the scoreboard normally proves it.

David Harten is a sportswriter and college basketball blogger, you can follow him on Twitter at @David_Harten.

Blogger Spotlight: The Only Colors on Michigan State’s stiff defense, Draymond Green’s superior play and more

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It seems like forever ago, but Michigan State’s inauspicious start to the season – losing to North Carolina on an aircraft carrier and as the unlucky team on the other end of Mike Krzyzewski’s 903rd win – didn’t properly indicate just how good the Spartans would be this season.

But there were hints.

Draymond Green was going to be reliable. The chemistry would be improved. And the talent was there, it was just a question of how long it would take before it fully meshed.

Fast forward nearly four months and the Spartans are not only headed for their second Big Ten title in the last four years, but could snag a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament. How’d it happen? How good are they really? Is it a basketball school? And where will Green land in the pantheon of all-time Spartans?

For those answers, I turned to Pete Rossman at The Only Colors in the latest Blogger Spotlight.

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Q: When this story was pitched to me back in October, I figured it was half-optimism, half-hope. I’d never question Tom Izzo’s coaching, but if you told me he was overly optimistic about such an unknown group, I would’ve thought you were smoking something.

So. Did you expect anything close to this?

A: Well, I predicted MSU would place second in the Big Ten this year.  I thought Draymond Green would be improved, that Keith Appling would make a productivity jump from his freshman to sophomore year, and I thought that Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix would provide much needed offense in the post.

But to expect MSU to have gone 12-3, with wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin at home? No, I didn’t expect that, and much of that is a testament to how well the offense has gelled and how quickly the freshmen, especially Branden Dawson, have bought in to playing defense.

Q: Past Draymond Green – who’s clearly headed for an All-America spot and is still undervalued – who’s the Spartans’ most essential player? Appling? Wood? Payne? Could they survive an injury to anyone (except Green) and still make the Final Four? 

A: The key word here is essential, because there’s depth at many positions: Payne and Derrick Nix combine  to make one heck of a center we like to call Derrick Payne, Brandon Wood’s done a great job filling in at the wing; ditto for Austin Thornton who’s made a quantum leap in his ability, going from role player to starter in seemingly days.

However, the one position where there’s currently a distinct drop off in ability is at point guard, and that makes Keith Appling the most essential.  The other two players who could possibly run the point, Travis Trice and Brandan Kearney, are both inexperienced and lack the weight needed to play effectively in the Big 10 currently, though it should be said Kearney has earned his keep as a defensive presence.  If Appling goes out this team either has to use one of the freshmen, Wood, or even Draymond as a point guard, and then the offense gets a bit dodgy.

Q: It’s Michigan State, so great rebounding is a given. But is that their biggest strength? Or just the easiest to focus on?

A: Tom Izzo and rebounding have become synonymous to the point that if we were playing a word-association game, if I said “rebounding” you’d most likely say “Izzo” or “Michigan State” as one of your first responses.  And yes, the rebounding has been that of a vintage Tom Izzo Michigan State team, as they rank in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive rebound percentage, and also are currently tied with North Carolina in total rebounding percentage at 56.9%.

However, there’s another strength the Spartans possess, and that is defensive field goal percentage.  MSU ranks in the top 20 in Division One in both two and three-point precentage.  If you prefer field goal percentage as a whole, Michigan State is tied for third, with only Kentucky and Florida State (who Michigan State beat by double digits earlier this year) better.  Excellent rebounding combined with tenacious defense have been essential in the Spartans’ comeback from last year’s troubles.

Q: Is the Big Ten the toughest conference? And does the team that wins the “toughest” conference have an edge heading into March? Has this type of thing helped MSU in the past?

A: To answer the first question, yes.   The Big Ten has five teams in MSU, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana that can conceivably beat any team in the nation on any given day; I’d say only the Big East or possibly the Big 12 comes close to that sort of depth.

For the second question, I’d say no.  I remember during the 2009 NCAA tournament when some were wondering if the Big East was the best conference in history.  Michigan State responded by beating Big East champions Louisville and the #3 team in the conference, Connecticut, on the way to the national title game.  I don’t think playing in the “toughest” conference grants an edge, as any team who plays in a top-tier conference (not necessarily BCS — you could easily substitute the Mountain West for the PAC-12 this year) will have its trials.

And for the last question, I don’t playing in a tough conference has given MSU an advantage in that by the time they get to the tournament, they’ve played enough top teams where they have a feel of what’s going to work on offense and defense. When you look at a conference like the Big East, yes you have your top teams in Syracuse and Marquette, but there’s so much chaff at the conference’s bottom (lookin’ at you DePaul) where teams can afford to take a night off.  I don’t think one can in the Big Ten this year, otherwise a team might lose by double digits to the conference’s cellar dwellers.  The strength of teams throughout the Big Ten and the diversity of styles (slow, fast, perimeter-oriented, etc.) is one of the ingredients that helps make the Spartans a tough out during the tourney time.

Oh, and Izzo.  He helps a bit too.

Q: Yeah, I’d say Izzo is a nice advantage to have. But given how his team has already thrived, is it fair to say that this might be one of the few times the Spartans don’t overachieve in the NCAA tournament? It’s going to be difficult for MSU to surprise anyone in this year’s tourney, let alone avoid the “They didn’t make the Final Four, they choked” backlash (which is always BS). (And, of course, all of this is just blather if they do make the Final Four or win the whole thing.)

A: It will be hard for MSU to overachieve when they’ll most likely be going be a 1 or 2 seed.  However, the last time they went into the tournament as a 2 seed was 2009, and that season ended in the national title game.

While I think there might be some backlash by the national media if MSU gets ousted in the Sweet Sixteen or earlier, I think many of us MSU fans won’t be too hard on them.  Sure, it’ll be frustrating to think what could’ve been, but compared to last year’s disastrous season everything just seems like gravy.

Q: Is Green gonna go down as one of Izzo’s all-time Spartans? If they win it all, could he displace Mateen Cleaves of the top spot?

A: He’s definitely going to go as one of the all-timers, no doubt about it. He was a pudgy three-star recruit at the time of his commitment, and I recall many Michigan State fans wondering if he was going to pan out.  His body, shot, and smarts improved every season though into the All-American candidate he is today.  However, I don’t think he’s going to replace Mateen at the top spot.  It’s not like Mateen replaced Magic when MSU won it all in 2000, and I think the same sentiment will apply for Draymond if (knock on wood) MSU wins it all in 2012.  I do think Green will be on the same plane as Cleaves, which would put him among the top 5 Spartan basketball players of all time in my opinion.

Q: Is Michigan State a basketball school? Or is football the preferred sport, just not as successful?

 

A: If this was 2005, I would’ve absolutely said basketball school.  Football was in a rut and MSU was coming off a Final Four season as a 5 seed.  With Mark Dantonio’s arrival however, I think interest in both programs is about equal.

If I had to choose, I’d choose football, and here’s why — After Michigan State’s entrance in the Big 10 in 1953, its first big successes were in Football in the mid-60’s.  I think a good part of the fanbase still identifies with those victories and their accompanying history.  Combine that with America’s preference for college football as a whole over college basketball and the allure of fall Saturday mornings without snow on the ground, and I think most (but definitely not all) fans would say MSU’s a football school.

Q: What’s your future like at The Only Colors? I know the grind got to KJ after a while. Is emeritus status something you might consider after a few more years?

A: I’m definitely still enjoying The Only Colors.  SB Nation’s a great company to work for, and I have great writers with intrpdtrvlr, T-Con, Spartan Dan, Patrick Hayes, Heck Dorland, and even KJ from time to time. The grind definitely becomes a lot easier when you have people to cover you; I even took a week off and went to Peru last summer!

Right now though, I’m 28, single, and I definitely still have the time to contribute, so I don’t see myself going anywhere in the near future.  When you have commenters as entertaining and intelligent as we do along with gifted writers, it makes it a real joy to run the site.  I see myself sticking around as long as SB Nation will have me.

Read more from Pete at The Only Colors. Follow him on Twitter @PeteatTOC.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Blogger Spotlight: The Big Lead on Kentucky, the Big East vs. the Big Ten and some Final Four picks

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The Big Lead covers everything sports, and then some. NFL, NBA, MLB, MMA, fantasy sports, sports gossip, babes, statistical analysis, you name it. It’s there.

With NFL season over, expect even more college hoops to surface on the site as it reflects the nation’s annual rising interest in the sport. But if it seems as though it has a few more college basketball stories than anything else, that’s probably because the site’s founder and editor-in-chief, Jason McIntyre, is a hoophead.

(This SI.com profile makes for good background reading if you don’t read the site, though this story’s a bit more recent.)

All of which makes him an ideal subject for the latest Blogger Spotlight. We covered hoops’ post-Super Bowl attention, if it needs a Jimmer, Kentucky’s insane fan base and even a little CAA hoops. Who does he think will be in the Final Four and who will probably make the Final Four? Read on.

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Q: Super Bowl’s over, which usually means college basketball gets a slight attention boost from casual fans (who weren’t watching before) and media outlets that couldn’t fit in games like St. Mary’s-Gonzaga for time/space limitations. Do you find this to be true? Does The Big Lead’s coverage change? Do you guys push college hoops more?

A: I’m a college hoops junkie, so I follow the sport from the Maui Classic through the title game. I thought Kentucky/UNC in December was better than 97 percent of worthless bowl games. It almost seems as if college hoops timed it perfectly this year – the Super Bowl, quickly followed by a slew of marvelous games this week.

I think you’re right – nationally, college hoops will be getting significantly more coverage now that football is over. Weekends won’t be consumed by football, but rather college basketball. On the site, yes, we’ll certainly be doing much more college hoops.

I’m just glad the Colts are going to cut Peyton Manning soon instead of waiting until March and infringing on March Madness, which is the greatest sports event every year (except when the World Cup happens every four years).

Q: Does college basketball need a Jimmer-type player every year to boost overall interest? Or is it better when Kentucky, Carolina, Duke and other marquee schools are dominating the game? Seems like the ideal for national attention is when Duke has a star like J.J. Redick and is great, but …

A: It’s funny – the NBA basically has two Jimmer-type players this year in Ricky Rubio and emerging Jeremy Lin and college hoops doesn’t have one. I think college basketball certainly misses Jimmer, but I don’t think the sport is hurting without him, not with a ridiculously loaded Kentucky team and at least 8-9 really, really good lottery picks dominating the sport.

College football is better when traditional powers like Notre Dame are very good; baseball generates better ratings when the Yankees are in the World Series. The NBA is star-driven. College basketball seems like a different animal. Duke and Butler in the National title game generated the best Championship rating in over a decade.

This year, we could be looking at a Final 4 better than 2008, when all the No. 1 seeds advanced. How much interest would there be in a Kentucky-Kansas-North Carolina-Syracuse Final Four? (Syracuse for the coveted “Northeast” market.) Or would fans tune in for an “underdog” like Missouri or Baylor? (I’m using underdog in the sense that neither school ever makes the Final 4.)

Q: Not that you’ve been ignoring college hoops. You love this stuff. Where does college hoops rank in your sports hierarchy? Prefer it over NBA?

A: Of the 17 NFL Sundays last season, i was able to sit at home for 16 of them watching Red Zone for hours on end. (Don’t ask how I pulled this off with a baby at home who is now 10 months old.) That being said, yes, my favorite sport is college basketball. In college, I joined a nerdy college hoops fantasy league and became obsessed with sport. I’d be willing to go up against anyone in college basketball Jeopardy from 1995-2002.

Gun-to-head, I’d rank em like this: College basketball, NFL, NBA, college football. In truth, it’s 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B.

Q: Do you get to many games in person? Or is that appeal even there? When I’m work, it’s far more useful to have TVs on and ESPN3 running so I can monitor several games. Going to games is fun, but it’s like everything else in sports right now – TV is often a superior viewing experience. (Not to mention the kid factor. Who has the time to work, go to a game and see their family?)

A: Haven’t been to a college basketball game in years. For site coverage purposes, it makes significantly more sense to be at home – the ability to pull video, for instance, and get it online 10 minutes later. The value in going to the game and getting quotes/talking to people/networking works for longer pieces and developing contacts, though. Then you’ve got to weigh the hassle of travel, and as you said, being away from your family constantly. I don’t know how the beat guys do it. I traveled plenty for work in my 20s, but it’s not nearly as appealing now.

As for March Madness, the best seat, without question, is a computer chair with two TVs going. (True story: Last year, during the 2nd day of the tournament, my wife was giving birth and I had the tournament on mute. Only for a bit though. Once labor began, I had to shut it down.) I actually feel that way about all sports. Give me Red Zone on NFL Sundays over going to a game. When you factor in all the TV timeouts, the prices for parking, food, dealing with drunk knuckleheads, etc … the game experience is vastly overrated, in my opinion.

Q: Earlier this season, you tapped the Big East as the best conference. Still feel that way? And where’s the ACC rank nowadays? I might take the Mountain West over it in an ACC/MWC Challenge.

source: APA: I’ve been trying to find a moment to sit down and really delve into the Big East vs. Big Ten. Perhaps this weekend. I’m aware that virtually all the numbers point to the Big Ten. Yes, the Big East is obviously down this year, but of course you’re going to go down after getting a record 11 teams into the tournament. Check out last year’s  all-Big East teams. Of the top 16 players, how many are playing right now? Three. Of course a drop-off was to be expected. That being said, let’s look at strength of schedule.

The Big East has three in the top six, and six in the top 18. The Big Ten has four in the Top 20. If you compare the top three teams in each league in SOS, it’s about even; the Big 10 (going by the current standings) has an edge in the next group of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois over Notre Dame, Louisville and Cincinnati. But then you’ve got the next trio where the Big East has an advantage because teams like West Virginia and UConn are down a bit.

For what it’s worth – last five years, five Big East squads have reached the Final Four (four different schools). Same time period: three Big Ten squads, (two different schools). I’m very curious to see how these conferences do in the NCAA tournament. Would you be surprised if each conference only had two schools in the Sweet 16 (Ohio State, Indiana; Syracuse, UConn)? I wouldn’t.

How wild has the ACC been? Florida State beating the hell out of UNC and winning at Duke? Virginia was on the uptick, but 18-4 good? I actually think UNC has underwhelmed a bit despite rolling through the ACC so far. I was expecting the loaded Tar Heels to pummel teams into submission, but that hasn’t totally happened. Problem is, after FSU, UVA, UNC and Duke, I’m not sold on Miami (which is better with Reggie Johnson) or NC State (which has a fat record by default because the dregs in the conference stink). I could see the same number of MWC teams reaching the Sweet 16 as the ACC.

Q: Most surprising aspect of the season thus far?

A: I knew the Pac-12 would be awful, but falling to a 1-bid league?

I think Dion Waiters of Syracuse went from reserve with potential to star in one off-season. I know a lot of folks like Kevin Jones as Big East player of the year, but Waiters is my pick.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was an elite high school player, but going to UK all anyone talked about was Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones. MKG has been phenomenal, and I think he’s become a Top 5 draft pick.

I’m shocked that Georgetown managed to improve (considerably) despite losing two all-conference stars in Wright and Freeman.

Gotta toss Missouri, Murray State and Michigan State into the “surprising” category as well.

Q: You tweeted some reservations about Kentucky as the game’s best/most dominant team despite a 20-point win against Florida. How much did BBN kill you for this? Few fan bases respond with more vigor and ferocity to perceived slights.

A: It’s undeniable: Kentucky is the best team in the country. Kentucky has the best talent in the country. Virtually all the stats point to Kentucky. My reservations are purely opinion-based: 1) Cal’s history of struggles in the NCAA tournament, 2) Freshman and sophomores choking in a big spot in a close game on the road, 3) Despite the growth of Marquis Teague, he’s still the weak link of that offense. That’s all I’ve got.

That being said, a No. 1 seed has won the title four of the last five years (UConn last year was a 3). I’ll probably fill out 10 pools again and have Kentucky winning in 6-7 of them.

Q: You’re a James Madison grad, right? As Shaka Smart says, great basketball in that state. But do you ever look at the rest of the Virginia-based CAA teams and think “Damn. Why can’t we break through just once?”

A: Can I play the, “we’re a football school?” card? They beat Penn and GW earlier this year and I thought maybe they could be dangerous in the CAA tournament. Now, they’ve lost six in a row. No shot. The last time they went dancing was in 1994, which was three years before I got there.

Q: We’re still a month away from Selection Sunday, but give me who you’d like to see in the Final Four and who you think will get there.  

source: APA: It’s all about the matchups. Take Syracuse. Like the Orange, root for the Orange, but what if they draw a strong 3-point shooting team in the 2nd round? I could easily see them getting bounced. Michigan and Virginia can be dangerous teams – if the matchups are right. That being said …

Who I’d like to see: Kentucky vs. Syracuse would be an exciting semifinal. Remember what Bob Huggins’ gimmick zone defense did to John Wall’s 2010 Kentucky team in the Final 4? UNC vs. Ohio State. I’d say those are probably the 4 best teams in the country. Craft vs. Marshall? Sullinger vs. Henson?

Who I think will get there: Kentucky and UNC seem to be the only sure bets (Duke finish notwithstanding), and two teams not currently in the top 15 (polls or Ken Pom), just for fun: Louisville, UNLV.

Q: Do you get much time for reflection for how The Big Lead’s grown? You’re obviously in this for the long haul, but how do you envision your role in a few years? Will you ever cede daily responsibilities to another editor and take a background role or even seek out another challenge and let the site evolve without you, kinda like what Will Leitch did?

A: I used to be the kind of guy who tried to map out my future long term, but then I started a website from scratch and that’s changed everything. No idea where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing in two years. But I enjoy running the site because it doesn’t have to be all sports, all the time. That’s why I left newspapers – it was basically sports 24/7 and that’s it. I much prefer the ability to drop in a movie/tv/culture post whenever, and having fun that way. I have started to slowly back away from the site for an hour here or an hour there because I need to for my sanity, but ultimately, I end up checking things out on my phone and talking with the writers that way.

There’s a weird parallel somewhere about the site being my little baby – awkward and fun and clumsy at first, and I had no clue what I was doing. As it has grown, the site has matured, and it’s constantly evolving and trying different things (such as the Colin Cowherd profile last month). Preliminary talks with the USA Today brass give me optimism for 2012 and beyond.

More of Jason’s writing can be found at The Big Lead. Follow him on Twitter @TheBigLead.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Blogger Spotlight: Duke’s defense, potential and the Devil nobody hates

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Once again, Duke’s doing its thing in college hoops. The Devils are a Top 10 mainstay, feature an offense that can stroke the 3 and a post players who focus on rebounding and ensuring those perimeter shooters get their shots.

And in case you missed it, they’re also atop the ACC standings, tied with Florida State.

So what await coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team the rest of the season. I asked Adam Rowe, the founder and editor at Duke Hoop Blog for analysis of the season thus far and insight to what’s ahead.

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Q: Does this feel like a Top 10 team? The Devils are 18-3, but sure seem to catch a lot of grief, even before the home loss to FSU. (Coulda been worse, though. Coulda been on the road by 33.) Heck, even Coach K wasn’t overly pleased after Saturday’s win against St. John’s. This is just part of Duke basketball, right?

A: Based on their body of work, the 2012 version of the Duke Blue Devils absolutely feels like a Top 10 team. After losing seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, along with No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Kyrie Irving, this team had serious scoring, assisting, and most importantly leadership voids entering November.

The trips to China and Dubai in August certainly helped mold the team’s chemistry and allowed Austin Rivers and Michael Gbinije to assimilate into post-high school basketball more quickly, but this was still a team searching for an identity heading into their Nov. 11 game against Belmont at home. Since that one-point win, the team played a ridiculous non-conference schedule (tops according to kenpom.com, RPI) beating teams currently ranked five, 11, and 21, all at neutral sites. They also got a win over 19th-ranked Virginia in their second ACC game. I don’t see any other teams in the polls with that kind of record. Sure, they tripped up against Florida State, but the Devils didn’t look bad doing it.

As far as getting grief, we are talking about Duke here. There is no in between with this team. You either think Mike Krzyzewski is the devil incarnate or that Christian Laettner’s shot against Kentucky was guided by supernatural beings.

Q: What’s behind the defensive issues? Can they be fixed?

A: Duke has never finished below 20th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive rankings (I’m a big tempo-free guy if you haven’t noticed) yet this year they sit at 84. I think there are a number of reasons that can be extrapolated for this team’s propensity to give up points, but no magic bullet.

We can go back to the strength of schedule that Duke has played and point to that as a reason. We’ll stick with kenpom.com here for a standard, and see that Duke’s opponents boast college basketball’s third-toughest offenses. This is even including Virginia, who sits at 95. Well, Alabama is the only other team to have faced a Top 5 offensive schedule to be ranked in the KenPom Top 40.

Moving beyond their opponents and concentrating on Duke, there is clearly something missing on the defensive side of the ball. Much has been made of Duke’s perimeter defense and it certainly was an issue heading into the season. We are actually taking part in the Project Defensive Scoresheet Project initiated by Luke Winn and David Hess. Hopefully, through analyzing Duke’s defense by a number of metrics, we will be able to show a much clearer picture of what/who is causing the drop in Duke’s defense. You can see the first installment here, with the Western Michigan game.

Q: Even if the defense does have issues, the offense is as good as any in recent seasons. Andre Dawkins is a stone-cold killer, Austin Rivers has his sick crossover, Seth Curry’s due for a huge day and the Plumlees are the kings of second-chance points and alley-oops. But does it seem like Ryan Kelly should get more looks? Or is he getting the right amount of shots for his game? 

A: Ryan tends to play somewhat of a quiet game, so you may not notice the shots that Ryan is able to get. He’s tied for third on the team with Mason Plumlee and Andre Dawkins at 149 shots on the season. If you look at these charts from Statsheet.com (deselect the previous two years to see just this year’s) you can see that Ryan is getting 21.3 percent of Duke’s shots while participating in 21.9 percent of the possessions.

If anything, Duke should look to get Ryan more open behind the 3-point line as he is the most accurate shooter there by a wide margin at 47.2 percent. For one reason or another, he has only taken 53 three-pointers compared to 110 for Andre Dawkins, 87 for Seth Curry, and 73 for Austin Rivers.

Q: Rate Rivers’ season. Few freshmen came in with more hype. How’s he done?

source: APA: Austin started off the year outstanding, and even most of the his harshest critics (I’m looking at you, Sebastian Pruiti) can admit that. While his offensive production has fallen off as defenses have become more keyed on him, he is still a net positive player for Duke. His +/- of +200 points while he’s on the court makes him worth 10.5 positive points for his team. (His full game log is here.)

Coach K decided to bench Rivers for the start of the Wake Forest game on Jan. 19 but that game he dropped 20 points on 32 minutes. He has played 38 minutes in the two games afterwards and scored 19 and 10, respectively. Like any freshman, he’s going through growing pains but with his immense talent and ability and the foundation of a lifetime around the game of basketball, I expect him to be playing his best basketball in the spring.

Q: Is Tyler Thornton underrated as a point guard? Seems to me that the guys they’ve tried – Curry, Rivers – and hope blossom as a PG – Quinn Cook – have been inconsistent. Meanwhile, Thornton’s kinda like Jon Scheyer, only with a defensive emphasis. Duke doesn’t really miss a beat with Thornton in there, but the general consensus is that things could be better.

A: I think it’s easy to say that Tyler Thornton is underrated in everything he does as he’s not really rated by anyone, ever. He knew his role at Duke was to come in and be a four-year player. The fact that he’s contributing offensively as early as he is can be attributed to an extremely high level of character and work ethic. He is generally a steadying hand as the lead guard, doesn’t take a whole lot of risks, and can knock down an outside shot every once in a while.

As a point guard, Tyler is not going to lead a fast break or cut through a defense to drive, draw, and dish but he does give the team calm. A lot of people talk about Tyler’s defensive prowess, but his strength there lies in his help defense and ability to jump passing lanes. He, like all of Duke guards, have a tendency to get beat by their men on the perimeter.

Q: Well then, I’ll be sure to stop talking about Thornton on defense (musta been a default phrase). Is anyone on Duke worth much on defense? Say I need someone to check Harrison Barnes. Who’s it gonna be?

A: A lot of people talk about Tyler as a defensive stopper. I’m not exactly sure where that observation came from (although he does have Duke’s best stop% at 55.3 percent.) It probably comes from the fact the he is an in-your-face type player and is relentless. As I said earlier, he is a really good off the ball defender, but I wouldn’t call him a stopper, per se.

Duke’s defense has been an issue all year, but the guards have been shown to get blown by quite regularly. Whether that’s a function of an overplay style or lack of lateral quickness or mental lapses is a matter of debate, but it is definitely an issue compared to other years.

Barnes is one of those guys who will give Duke matchup problems as there is nobody on the team with his physical attributes. Josh Hairston did show an ability to stop Draymond Green when Duke played Michigan State, but Barnes has much more ability as a shooter than Green. It will be interesting to see who picks him up. Andre Dawkins played him pretty tight in the ACC Tournament last year. Maybe he can replicate that success.

Q: I was among those who wrote about the declining attendance among the Cameron Crazies. It’s not something that’s specific to Duke, but – like most everything else related to Duke hoops – you guys probably take more hits on this because of the Crazies’ rep and because it’s Duke. Is there anything regarding Duke you do think gets a fair shake?

A: There are certain writers that give Duke a fair shake, but for the most part they use Duke to get more page views, which is what we are all in this business for. As I said above, Duke is the most polarizing team in college basketball (maybe college sports). There’s a reason the game against Butler was the highest rated of the 20 years prior. I think you, Jeff Eisenberg, Luke Winn and a few others give Duke a fair look but there are certainly some who don’t.

Q: Twitter segue: How often do people pick fights with you in that medium? And vice versa?

A: I get trash talked quite a bit, especially after Duke loses. At first I responded, but I know now that people use the cloak of anonymity for role play. I’ll either ignore it now or simply block the person. I do talk trash, but only if it’s people I interact with on a regular basis.

Q: Everyone loves to hate Duke players. Is there a guy who non-Duke fans love? Grant Hill comes to mind.

source: APA: Grant Hill is a guy nobody can hate but Nolan Smith is the one that immediately pops into my mind.

Some friends and I ran a marketing campaign to get Nolan the National Player of the Year Award last year, and even UNC fans were commenting about how much they liked him and wanted to see him succeed. I think for Nolan, putting himself out there like he did in the “Lessons From My Father” article really humanized him to a point where people could actually see him as a person and not just as a basketball player. That, and his outgoing personality really endeared him to a lot of Duke fans, but also non-Duke fans as well. I hope that he can continue to stay in the spotlight as he has a lot of good to show the world off the court.

Q: How’s the response been to Duke Hoop Blog? Is there a day in the future when that’s your only job?

A: I feel like I’ve been blessed to have a really good response from the site. I started it one night when my wife went out on her bachelorette weekend and I was sitting around the house with nothing to do. It was more of a hobby than anything. I wrote a few articles that got some recognition, started tweeting (there really wasn’t a Duke fan presence on Twitter at the time I started but there definitely is now), and now I have four writers who contribute to the site and am getting around 30,000 hits per day. I’m lucky for those guys (follow them on twitter @thedevilwolf, @ClykinsBlog, @R_Horn21, @Bleed_DukeBlue1) because I have a full time job, I’m married, have a social life, and am taking 12 hours of classes to change careers. Without their contributions, this site would not be alive today.

There was a week or two in the offseason when I considered shutting it down just because I knew the time suck would be so large. @thedevilwolf in particular is a huge reason why I kept going.

As far as this being my only job, I don’t think that’s feasible unless I went to a pay model and that is not something I’m interested in. This is a labor of love for me, and something I do because I am passionate about Duke Athletics. This site is a way I feel like I can give back for all the great memories and emotions that Duke has given me ever since I first stepped foot in Cameron as a young boy.

You can read more of Adam’s writing at Duke Hoop Blog and follow him on Twitter @DukeHoopBlog.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Blogger Spotlight: Inside FSU’s nasty D with Tomahawk Nation

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Florida State isn’t a basketball school. Probably never will be. But Leonard Hamilton’s doing his best to ensure the Seminoles are a respectable hoops program (thanks to defense!).

And luckily for college hoops fans, the blogging at Tomahawk Nation is even better than Hamilton’s program.

That’s a credit to Michael Rogner, it’s basketball writer and analyst. (Hey, not everyone can do both.) He’s had a busy week, too. Rogner watched the ‘Noles smoke North Carolina last weekend – perhaps the season’s most impressive team performance – follow it up with a solid win against Maryland and is now doing previews for yet another big game when FSU travels to Duke.

But lucky for me, he was kind enough to take some time to be the focus on our latest Blogger Spotlight.

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Q: Big win probably doesn’t do Saturday’s 33-point victory over North Carolina justice. Beating the Heels isn’t exactly new, but that margin must’ve been remarkable to see. Beating Auburn by 30, sure. UNC? How?

A: The defense makes these games possible, but the margin here was extreme. Carolina hasn’t been held to 0.75 points per possession in two years. And you have to go back to Al Thornton’s senior year to find an FSU team that’s scored 1.18 per trip against an ACC team. The stars aligned and the shots fell at an unreal rate, they made their FTs, and when UNC gave up in the 2nd half FSUs team responded by playing even harder.

It was a whole lot of fun to watch.

Q: Does this mean Deividas Dulkys is the ‘Noles go-to player? Or just the most likely to get hot?

A: I’m not sure about him becoming the go-to player, but a couple of recent changes work in his favor. First, coach Hamilton switched to a 3-guard lineup against Princeton to try and cure some of the offensive woes. Second, with that lineup they’ve been cutting back attacking the post via pass, and instead have been spreading teams to create pockets in which to drive. This creates a lot of opportunities for jump shooters on kick-outs.

Either way, Dulkys brings it every night. He plays because of defense and intangibles. Vitale kept commenting during Dulkys’ 32-point outburst every time he blocked a shot or made some hustle play that it “must be his night.” But he does that every night. He gives maximum effort regardless of what’s happening with his shot.

Q: Aside from the Princeton loss, this hadn’t been a horrible season when you look at that schedule. UConn, Michigan State, Florida and even Harvard are good teams. But did it feel that way, or was there a sense of FSU lacking a certain something (until Saturday, of course).

A: In recapping the 3rd game of the season (a low interest affair against Stetson) I questioned the coaching staff’s ability to motivate this team. They went through stretches where they just didn’t seem to care. And Hamilton’s teams might not always be the most skilled teams, but they always play hard.

Fast forward a month and Hamilton began publicly calling out his senior class, questioning their focus. He didn’t name names, but at that point FSU went to a 3-guard lineup and tweaked their rotation. This experiment began with an abysmal start in their 10-point 1st half against Princeton. But the offense began attacking differently after the break, and since then they’ve played 4 1/2 games of their best basketball. Of course they also played Clemson, where they laid an egg. So the jury is still out on whether or not Hamilton has found that spark.

Q: Compare the defense to previous seasons. How’s it rate?

A: John Henson may have been the media’s pick for ACC Defensive Player of the Year last season, but the coaches unanimously picked Chris Singleton. The fact that they lost him (and Derwin Kitchen) and haven’t missed a beat is a testament to the system.

With a veteran team Hamilton has been mixing defenses more than I ever recall. It starts with Michael Snaer on whoever he wants shut down (typically the opposing point guard) and FSU in a man-to-man. In that man-to-man, FSU has been switching screens as much as they’ve been hedging them. They’ve gone to 2-3 and 3-2 zones, sometimes in the middle of a possession that began man to man. They’ve pressed. In other words, they’re really mixing it up.

The end result is that it is once again an elite defense. After leading the nation for two years in defensive efficiency, the Noles are fifth this season. They’re not a fun team to play against.

Q: I’ve always considered teams who thrive on defense simply have coaches who know how to properly motivate players, but Hamilton’s style is even beyond that. They don’t just use man-to-man, but as you say, switch to various zones and presses. How much time is spent on defense compared to offense during practice? And has Hamilton recruited a specific type of player to make that work?

A: I don’t know if the offense/defense imbalance has anything to do with practice time – by all accounts their practices are in line with other college practices. It’s more the players. Hamilton recruits smart kids with next level athleticism in order to be able to run his defense. But those kinds of athletes who ALSO have polished offensive skills go to Duke, Kansas, Florida, Syracuse, etc…. Though after ressurecting the program that’s beginning to change. Ian Miller, Terry Whisnant and Aaron Thomas come to mind as kids who are breaking that mold.

Q: Both Bernard James and Snaer should receive more acclaim for their defensive abilities nationally. But is one more crucial to FSU’s success than the other?

source: APA: I’ve tracked every possession with James on the floor versus possessions with him on the bench. Unfortunately I haven’t finished that analysis with Snaer. So I’m strictly going on the eye test when I say James is more important. The reason is that the dropoff from Snaer to Dulkys isn’t that far. Sure, Snaer should be a lock for the ACC All-Defensive Team, but Dulkys is really, really solid.

The dropoff from James to everyone else is huge. His combination of strength, agility and understanding of the principles is remarkable. It really gives the staff a ton of flexibility in their game plans.

Q: Do the fans ever want a little less defense and more offense? (I’m sure winning makes it all easier to take.)

A: Definitely. Right now FSU has the 113th ranked offense (efficiency ratings) and the 5th ranked defense. If those numbers were reversed and FSU had the exact same record I think the support would be a lot higher. This is a football school. Most fans view the basketball team as entertainment which happens to be sandwiched between the bowl game, National Signing Day, and the start of baseball season.

Q: Duke’s up next. Is a win against the Devils more gratifying than beating the Tar Heels?

A: Considering the financial and talent advantages those teams have, beating either is always a kick in the pants. And I’m sure more FSU fans would answer this question with Duke. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy listening to Duke fans after they lose? But this season it’s definitely UNC.

The Tar Heels have 8 consensus top-25 recruits on their roster, which is as many as the rest of the conference combined. The Tar Heels arguably have the deepest assemblage of elite talent in the nation. But that’s the beauty of basketball. On any given night teams who are much better on paper go out on the court and get smoked. The most gratifying thing for me will be if the program reaches a level where fans don’t rush the court after beating a top-5 UNC or Duke team.

Q: Last year’s team reached the Sweet 16. That doable again this season?

A: First they have to make the Dance. But if that happens, sure. They’ve already proven they can hang with or beat very good teams. It will help if they luck into a favorable bracket like last year. The nicest thing I can say about the committee is that I’m not a big fan, but I won’t complain when they pair my team (a 10 seed) with a 7-seed, and it’s the 7-seed who is the underdog in Vegas.

Of course this crap handiwork went against FSU in 2009 when they were the underdog as a 5-seed in the 5/12 game. So I’m assuming an out of whack bracket, and just hope it falls in the Noles favor.

Michael Rogner is the basketball writer for Tomahawk Nation, the managing editor of Run the Floor, and can be followed on twitter at @RunTheFloor.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Blogger Spotlight: Big Ten Geeks on Hummel, Ohio St. and Meatheads

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It used to be there was one tempo-free guru for Big Ten hoops. Now there are scads, but only two of them have a sweet blogging gig at Big Ten Network. It’s not the only thing Mike Portscheller and Josh Reed do for a living, but it’s certainly their favorite. Why else churn through mounds of data and watch every conference game – yes, even Penn State-Iowa – unless you love it?

That’s life for the Big Ten Geeks. They dissect games, box scores and performances, then write about it with a healthy dose of perspective and insight. (And a dash of sarcasm.)  Their Twitter feed is essentially the same, just more concise.

Now that conference play has begun in college basketball’s best conference (yes, it’s true; sorry Big East), Josh took some time to answer a few questions in the latest Blogger Spotlight. (Mike was busy blogging.)

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Q: The Big Ten was the top conference last season (regular season at least) and seems to be heading that way again this year. What’s brought about this rise? Retention of players? Coaching stability? Or just a rise in overall play?

A: I think it is the retention of players, and it really had a lot to do with the class of 2007. That particular class is one that won’t be matched anytime soon, and the Big Ten benefited from its 2007 members sticking around for a while. Of the top 100 from that class, the Big Ten captured 18. Of those, only 5 hung around for fewer than 3 seasons.

But now the class of 2007 is all but gone, with Robbie Hummel as the John Uncas of the group (after Trevor Mbakwe’s injury). But because they hung around so long, they limited opportunities for younger guys. Since the class of 2007, only three players from the subsequent classes have declared for the draft. Players are much more likely to transfer in search of more playing time, than to leave.

Q: Tell me someone can give Ohio State a run for the conference title. (Assuming Jared Sullinger’s healthy). Who’s that team?

A: We’re the Big Ten Geeks, not the Big Ten Eye Test Meatheads, so absolutely someone can give them a shot, and the team in the best position to do so is Wisconsin. Sure, even Ken Pomeroy doesn’t seem that thrilled with his computer’s assessment of the Badgers, but scheduling matters. Bo Ryan’s team plays Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan each only once. This is a stark contrast to Ohio State, which sees only one game against each of Penn State, Purdue, Iowa, and Minnesota. And the computer might be on to something — in 12 of their 14 games, the opponent has had its worst or second-worst offensive night (by points per possession) against the Badgers. In those other two games, it was still only the third and fifth-worst offensive showing of their opponent.

I’d also keep a close eye on Indiana, which gave Michigan State all it could handle at the Breslin Center. Sure, the Hoosiers probably won’t shoot 46 percent from three-point range all season, but this is an offense not to take lightly.

Q: Plus, Big Ten Eye Test Meatheads doesn’t really roll off the tongue or make for an easy Twitter handle. If Indiana and Wisconsin are two teams to watch, which teams aren’t as good as their records? I’m leaning Northwestern and Illinois …

A: Northwestern is a solid pick, certainly. Usually it’s the teams certain to finish near the bottom of the conference have 4 or more losses upon entering conference play, but those aren’t the only squads that will do more losing than winning from here on out. Northwestern is certainly one of those — we don’t see any reason to be excited about that defense.

Illinois is a bit of a strange case. In just about every game against non-cupcakes, they’ve played to the opponents’ level. Maryland, Gonzaga, St. Bonaventure, Minnesota, Illinois State, Richmond, and even the elite Missouri. They haven’t blown any of these teams out, but UNLV is the only team that’s clearly outplayed them. This usually isn’t a résumé that belongs to a top-20 team, but we wouldn’t count the Illini out of the Dance just yet.

Another good candidate is Minnesota. They’ve played better without Mbakwe, but that’s probably a fluke. Conference play means your opponent has read the book on you, and Minnesota’s book says it can’t shoot.

Q: When March rolls around, how many Big Ten teams are really Final Four contenders? I’ve been impressed with how well Indiana and Michigan State have played thus far, while Wisconsin and Michigan are teams who should be Top 20 mainstays. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that they’re all limited and ultimately doomed to “only” reach the Sweet 16. One might sneak into the Elite Eight. (As if either is a failure.) Either of you have that feeling or am I just being stubborn?

A: It’s true that no Big Ten team is perfect. But no team is. Is Kentucky too young? Can UNC beat you from outside? Does Brad Stevens have any more magic dust?

If last year taught us anything, it’s that all you need is eligibility. How else could a 9th seed in the Big East win it all, or the 4th-best team in the Colonial end up in the Final Four? I’m confident that the Big Ten will have several teams at the end of the year with better résumés. That’s not to say the Big Ten is filled with teams just hoping to get hot at the right time. Ohio State is obviously loaded, and again, offensive guru Bo Ryan appears to have himself an elite defense. That’s not fair.

Q: How often do you guys find yourselves defending the league’s “slow” image? Or do you even bother? After all, if playing “slow” yielded results such as Wisconsin’s, we should all be so lucky, right?

A: It comes with the territory. One-half of the Geeks actually grew up an ACC fan, so learning to love the Big Ten’s pace was a process. Contrary to a common viewpoint, the league is not slow for lack of athletes. Rather, it’s slow because just about every team is obsessed with not giving up easy baskets. The only team with a long track record of throwing caution into the wind in order to crash the offensive glass is Michigan State. And it bears mentioning that, despite recruiting a bevy of talent to East Lansing, that approach doesn’t always work out for Tom Izzo (for example, last season).

It’s necessarily a subjective discussion, but our preference is for efficient basketball — a game with a minimum of careless turnovers, defensive lapses, and missed open shots and free throws. That kind of game can be played at any speed.

Q: Best player in the league? Jordan Taylor? Jared Sullinger? Draymond Green? Someone else? I’d go Green because I love how he’s emerged as a scorer this year, but maybe I’m biased. Always been a sucker for guys who a little bit of everything then do it all even better as a senior. (My heartstrings also get tugged by Hummel.)

A: Taylor was our preseason pick for conference player of the year, but Carlton has struggled with his shot all season. It’s remarkable that he’s still very efficient despite his inaccuracy. Sullinger is an easy pick, especially because his defense has improved quite a bit.

As much as we like watching Green play, the past season and a half have shown that he was probably better suited with a little less responsibility in the offense. As the focal point, his accuracy has suffered.

If Hummel stays healthy all year, it’s probably a two-man race with Sullinger (expand to three if Taylor finds his shot). A darkhorse candidate is Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr.

Q: I once asked this to KJ from The Only Colors, so I’ll ask you guys too: I swear a vast percentage of the best college hoops blogs are based around Big Ten teams. Agree? And how does that happen?

A: If Dean Smith invented tempo free, Dean Oliver taught us how to calculate the numbers, and Ken Pomeroy brought the numbers to the masses, then it was John Gasaway who spread the word and told us what the numbers meant. The reason so many people got into this stuff is because the Wonk was so fun. It was a must-read for Big Ten fans, and when the Wonk went geeky, we all followed.

Q: So. About the blog. Why did you guys start? What’s a typical week look like for you in terms of workload? How’d you settle on the name? Do you ever worry about those eye-test meatheads beating you up?

A: We started largely because the Wonk stopped. We were used to reading about Big Ten hoops every morning at that URL, and then one day John decided the Big Ten wasn’t enough, and there wasn’t as much to read. Moreover, the stuff that was out there seemed so antiquated in comparison to all this tempo-free we’d been digesting. The blog was actually my idea, but I didn’t want to go it alone, so I recruited Mike. We actually didn’t even know each other prior to starting the blog — we just bumped into each other on message boards.

Regarding workload for a typical week, we watch every single conference game. Keep in mind, we both have real jobs outside of the blog, so this can be a challenge. But even if it’s two cellar-dwellers facing off in a meaningless battle in late February, we’re watching at least a good portion of that. Our job isn’t just to summarize the numbers, it’s to make sense of them. And it’s hard to do that just from box scores.

We also try to do more than just recap what went right and what didn’t. We want to inform our readings of trends, oddities, and things to look for going forward. That means our workload really varies depending on how inspiration strikes. If there’s a lot of data mining involved, it could take hours to write a single post. There’s one in the works right now that several weeks of data collection. But sometimes it’s 30 minutes.

Mike came up with the name. It sounded better than “nerd.” We don’t spend too much time worrying about Eye Test Meatheads like Gregg Doyel beating us up. We just got a new alarm system set up in Mom’s Basement.

Q: How long do you guys envision doing this? Blogging can be a grind, but it seems you guys relish having a narrow focus on specific timeframe in which you write.

A: It has to end, right? We can’t be doing this when we’re 60 (for one, the Big Ten will be about 36 teams by then. And still called the Big Ten.). For now though, it’s still fun. BTN has been really great too, they don’t censor us or tell us what to write, and they’ve supported us wherever we’ve asked. It’s been a great partnership.

And I think the narrow focus helps us, too. We don’t have to know whether Miami is going to shoot a lot of threes this season. We have our familiar teams with their familiar tendencies. Ohio State won’t dig deep into the bench, Wisconsin plays slow, Purdue and Illinois defend, Michigan State crashes the glass, Northwestern shoots threes, Michigan spreads the floor, Iowa wants to run, Minnesota utilizes depth, and so on. The basic philosophies don’t change, so we don’t have to relearn all that stuff. Just focus on the challenges for the teams for each new season.

More of the Geeks’ work can be found here at BTN.com. Follow them on Twitter @bigtengeeks.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.