With a little more than a month to Selection Sunday, the tournament picture is becoming much clearer and teams are either breaking through or getting exposed. After the break we examine Duke's washout against Carolina, UCONN's winning streak, teams that are starting to gear up as the season winds down, and teams that were getting lots of attention that are starting to falter a bit. Also, another look at VMI as they get more love from the national media.
Duke's collapse not on Coach K
After trailing early, Duke exploded for a 52-44 lead at halftime and it was done by driving the ball and playing an up-tempo counter to the Heels' hot shooting. As the second half began one had to wonder if Duke could keep up the pace while the conditions inside Cameron Indoor reached sauna-like levels. As the game wore on, it was the North Carolina players, particularly Hansbrough and Ty Lawson who stepped their game up and eventually overwhelmed an exhausted Blue Devil team 101-87.
Earlier this year Catfish pointed out that Coach K was doing a better job this year with distributing minutes to his starters and involving the bench more frequently to balance both stamina and scoring. All of the players were hot, the court was moist, and all the uniforms were soaked through. Carolina's trademark light blue looked about 4 shades darker by the end of the game and all the players looked like they had just run through the sprinklers. Yet, it was Duke who showed the affects in the game.
Breaking down the minutes, the teams were similar across the board. No player logged more than 34 minutes. Lawson, Ellington, and Henderson were the only players with 34 minutes played, Hansbrough, Scheyer, and Singler had 33. Both teams had 7 players with double-digit minutes in total. Minutes were not the factor here, it was conditioning. In my opinion this should go on the strength and conditioning coach for Duke. If conditions get like that in your home building, you should be the team taking advantage not the visitors. It reminds me of a D-II school here in Charlotte, Queens University. Their basketball gym is known as "The Oven", it is painted on the wall of the place, and it can get ridiculously hot in there. I went to basketball camp there one summer and played in a summer league so I can attest to how the conditions can get. Queens uses that to their advantage though over their incoming opponents. Cameron Indoor is not as famed for its heat as The Oven but Duke's players should be well-prepared for it and the fact that it led to their sloppy shot selection and deteriorating defensive effort is on them.
Connecticut stil rolling
UCONN does not have the offensive firepower that Carolina does, but their defense has increasingly gotten better this year as evidenced in their 63-49 victory over Syracuse last night. The Cuse had been averaging 80 points a game going into last night, but led by Hasheem Thabeet in the middle, the Orange only shot 31.7%. The Huskies still have two games against Pittsburgh and a trip to Marquette and of course the Big East Tournament, but they are on track for a 1 seed. This season they have only allowed 80 points or more 3 times and have held opponents under 50 4 times.
With Thabeet getting praise and press for his shot-blocking and shot-altering, I must admit there is a developing officiating discrepancy in his favor. Like Tyler Hansbrough of last year, the refs are now giving Hasheem a lot of latitude on borderline calls. Last night he finished with one foul, but probably committed 3 or 4. Earlier in the year I was blowing the whistle (see what I did there?) on Thabeet getting unfair treatment because he was so big, particularly in the game against Gonzaga, but now it seems to have swung the other way. People have so much respect for his shot-blocking ability which is impressive that he is not called for all those instances when there is contact. His ability to stay on the floor is a key for the Huskies in the tournament.
It appears to be another Selection Sunday anxiety for our friend the Concierge and the Orange this year. The good news for Syracuse is they have early wins this year over Florida and Kansas in Kansas City and a victory at Memphis. The bad news is that they have been awful lately and are in danger of finishing sub .500 in the conference. Facing their old rival Georgetown this Saturday is a cruicial game for them. After that only the games at St. John's and home against Rutgers should be sure victories. It may once again come down to how they play at MSG in the Big East tourney to determine whether they get in or not.
Teams on the rise: Mizzou and Dayton
There are some teams that are hitting their stride and could possibly be Sweet 16 contenders in the tournament. Two that stick out to me are Missouri and Dayton. Missouri was nuder the radar until their last second victory over Kansas on Monday night. Many people may not recognize the coach of Missouri, Mike Anderson, but he has taken teams to the tournament before. Anderson began as a Nolan Richardson assistant and was at Arkansas for 17 years. His first head coaching job was not with the Razorbacks with whom he toiled for so long and even won a national championship in 1994, but with UAB out of Conference USA. He led the Blazers to post-season births in all four seasons there and in 2004 he guided them to an upset of the number 1 overall seed Kentucky to advance to the Sweet 16. It has taken him a couple years to get the Tigers going, but now has them playing his kind of ball with his kind of players. Quinn Snyder seems like a distant memory at the moment in Mizzou.
I brought up Dayton on our podcast last week as a sleeper in the A-10 and they opened up some eyes last night as they took down Xavier 71-58. The Flyers dropped a bad one to Charlotte before this big win but still stand at 22-3 and have wins at Marquette and now against Xavier. They are not a team that will blow you away with the rest of their schedule, but they have been winning and could make some noise in the tournament. Xavier has dropped a couple of games lately, but do not discount the Musketeers just yet, people who did that last year saw them make a run to the Elite 8. (*sidenote: I had Xavier in my Final Four last year, gahhh what a call that would have been)
Teams on the slide: Wake Forest and Marquette
I know I just praised Dayton for winning at Marquette and now I am going to criticize them but both the Eagles and Wake are locks as tourney teams. Marquette lost its hold on first place in the Big East and now faces some tough games to close out conference play. The first of their consecutive loses, a 57-56 loss at South Florida can be seen as simply a slip-up, but they followed that with a 102-84 pounding by a dangeours Villanova team. Marquette is not in any danger of completely losing control but they need to be playing good ball when the tourney starts. They still have Connecticut, at Louisville, at Pittsburgh, and Syracuse left on the schedule. Buzz Williams has to keep their heads up.
Wake Forest has slipped to 6th in the ACC after dropping a game to a bad NC State team 82-76. Since reaching number 1 in January, the Deacons have dropped 4 of 6 including a 27 point drubbing in Miami last week. They still have the accomplishment of beating both North Carolina and Duke and their resume is strong enough to get a decent seeding but they need to get the momentum that propelled them to their lofty status back. Florida State, at Duke and Clemson are the only games that should give them trouble left on the schedule. If they do not finish at least 9-7 in the ACC they could be looking at a 8 or 9 seed.
The VMI story does not get old
As a former coach in college athletics, I cannot tell you how much I admire VMI head coach Duggar Baucom. His story is so compelling and I hope VMI makes it into the tournament not just because of Baucom, but I want to see them use their up-tempo style of play against a tournament team. There was a great article in Sports Illustrated recently on the coach, the team, and the Holmes twins. A similar article from the NY Times can be seen here.