Midseason Questions – What is going on here?

PJ III needs to be more assertive on the boards.

February is upon us and that means only a few more weeks until the greatest sporting event in the world – March Madness. But at the halfway point, we have to answer a few questions that are lingering about the hoops season so far. One of the TYS writers took a crack at answering a few of them

An AJ-One Download.

We’ve hit the midpoint of conference play across the country, and the last month has left some unresolved questions in my mind. Can some one help me out here? Although I’ll admit the increasing unpredictability of college basketball is part of what keeps it refreshing year after year. It’s also fun to search for answers to these perplexing questions, which I’ll attempt to do where I can in discussing them below.

1. How can teams with seemingly “all the pieces” struggle so mightily?

The examples I’m having a hard time with, that fall in different places along the spectrum, are Baylor, UConn, and Xavier. You will undoubtedly have others that fit these frustrating descriptions, but I’ll elaborate on these as my examples.

While Baylor has weathered the storm so far to remain in the top 10 and the Big 12 lead, they have gone from a real treat to watch every time out to a team struggling to match outcomes to their talent. Once again a long, athletic, and talented front line headlines the lineup. But new this year, not one but two blazing quick point guard options that can also shoot from the outside. So what’s the problem? While the Bears have gone on winning for the most part, it’s recently been frustrating to watch all this talent not consistently step up to a potentially dominating level of play. For example, I believe Perry Jones to generally be the top player in the game when he steps on the court. But he seems more than willing to disappear for long stretches and not showcase that ability. And as an example of the rest of the team following that lead, they got manhandled on the boards by the 4-guard unit of little Missouri, a high quality team but not one that should be beating this bunch on the boards. More on the little guy a little later.

Similarly Connecticut is hovering in the second quartile of the Big East with what most would agree is a more talented bunch than last year’s national title team. In the games I’ve seen this year, while they put together exciting scoring spurts, there tends to be a lack of passion during long stretches. Nobody among Napier, Lamb or the newcomer Drummond appears comfortable stepping into the leadership role or as the go-to guy when needed – the hole left by Kemba Walker’s departure. If the Huskies can’t address these issues, another tournament run seems unlikely even with this ultra-talented cast.

Then there’s Xavier, the most puzzling of all. How can a group with two sensational experienced guards, a senior 7-foot center with great offensive post skills, and a solid front line have so much trouble in the Atlantic 10? Especially after an impressive pre-conference season including winning at Vanderbilt (very few teams do that) and blowing out a Cincinnati team that is making noise in the Big East. During that stretch the team that showed time and again they know how to exert toughness to pull out close games down the stretch suddenly lost its confidence and now looks like a potential also ran that will fight to get invited to the dance. The early season media darling, and one I actually agreed with, has fallen on hard times. I don’t get it.

2. Why not Kansas?

I’m tired of hearing this talk about the Jayhawks being the least talented team Bill Self has ever had. That sounds to me like saying this generation of Victoria Secret models isn’t as sexy as Tyra, Heidi and the gang from years past. A tough barometer by any measure. On the contrary, there’s a good makeup to this team. Sure they’re not going to have 2-3 lottery picks this summer, but how rare is that anyway? Give me a team with Thomas Robinson in the post, playing about as well as anyone in the nation right now, and senior guard Tyshawn Taylor to lead us and I’m off to a pretty good start. Add in do-everything guard/forward Travis Relleford, a 7-foot shot blocking presence in Jeff Withey to clean things up, and a few 3-point shooting role players and you’ve got a lot of pieces to be successful into March. This Kansas team is also playing a very effective brand of team defense that not only holds the score down but leads to points in transition when their 3’s aren’t falling. KU is entering a gauntlet of Big 12 road games against the conference’s elite in the coming weeks, so we’ll see if they’re up to the test. I expect them to at least hold their own.

Jared Sullinger's Buckeyes might take the Big Ten when it is all said and done.

3. I know the Big Ten is balanced, but this?

Give me your picks for the following games going in…

Iowa at Wisconsin
Michigan State at Northwestern
Minnesota at Indiana
Everybody at Penn State
ACC Bonus game – North Carolina at Florida State (I’ll give you the Heels and 30 points).

Now while the Northwestern win was at least not unprecedented in previous years, this is a hardwood IQ test that would leave the best of us graded as dunces. So what’s going on? Why is past and even recent history leading us astray in expectations for these games?

Yes, the Big Ten is incredibly balanced top to bottom. And unlike my incorrect expectation going into the season, it’s not just Ohio State and a bunch of mediocrity. You also have another quality Spartan squad, with young players contributing more quickly this season than anticipated. And up to a handful of non-NCAA tournament teams at the bottom good enough to beat you if you’re either not ready to play or off your game just a little. While not ready to build a hall of fame wing that rivals the big east just yet, look at the quality of coaches across the league. Just brought in are Fran McCaffery (success with the Siena Saints in recent NCAA tournaments), Keady assistant Matt Painter, and Doc Sadler with a record of success prior to Nebraska. Prior to that the conference welcomed Tom Crean, Tubby Smith, John Belein, and Bill Carmody whose prior successes each speak for themselves. And they were added to a core of Izzo, Matta, Ryan, and Weber. Not hard to see why there’s parity with quality in the conference.

Another reason I think you’re seeing more of these “upsets” across the country is the length of the season and number of games teams are playing now – at least 30 regular season games plus conference tournaments prior to the post season run. It’s difficult for teams to get up for that many games against quality competition, especially if the opponent is one in need of that signature win against your program to boost post-season hopes. The big guys, with post season almost certainly in hand, come in for a road test where the whole town/state has been buzzing all week about the game and that often carries into the atmosphere in the arena and result on the court. The interesting difference this year is that it seems that more road teams are pulling out quality wins, maybe also due to the burnout factor?

4. Can you win in today’s game with just the little guy?

It’s no secret that since the 3-point shot, guard play has become more and more important in the college game. So do you need the post players anymore to be successful, or can you do it with primarily a bunch of guards? Watching Missouri play this year is a good illustration. Four dynamic guards have led them to a #2 ranking prior to this past week. It brings back some memories of Jay Wright’s Villanova teams of the past that have made runs to the Final Four and Elite 8 with guard-dominated lineups. But how repeatable is this blueprint?

Looking at Missouri’s team, they exhibit some unique characteristics. First you have Phil Pressey, an ultra-quick guard who’s faster dribbling the ball up the court than anyone who might be chasing him. His running mates can also shoot the 3 or penetrate to the bucket and hit the mid range jumper, and force turnovers leading to transition baskets. Combine that with a post player leading the nation at 75% field goal shooting, and you have a lot of options. What makes this guard group even more special is their willingness and ability to mix it up on the boards, even outrebounding a Baylor team recently that should never let that happen. Looking back to the Villanova team, there were 1-2 NBA level talents in each of those guard groups, with a toughness to go in and mix it up inside as well.

In short, while this formula can work in certain situations it doesn’t seem possible for widespread success. Just like 5’4” Spud Webb in the NBA, to play at this level with that size, or lack thereof, you better have some unique skills and they aren’t found in abundance across so many players. But if you can get this type of high level talent in a single mix of guards, it certainly can work with complementary players in the lineup.

5. When did the top 25 rankings become so fickle?

Following the changes in the rankings after each week is like watching the stock market. The last game’s results, and those alone, are like the latest piece of economic data or European debt crisis news. Syracuse falling to #4 after their first loss? Where were all the previous supporters who were calling for an undefeated season? Granted, this fall could continue to play out if the Orange don’t learn how to play without center Fab Melo, but certainly not much view of the whole body of work behind these choices.

And what to make of Murray State in the top 10? Certainly just due to their undefeated record, because other than some ok wins against then-ranked Memphis and non-ranked Dayton, not the strongest list of quality wins. They deserve some credit for consistency, but haven’t been dominant in continuing a string of wins against weaker teams in the Ohio Valley. Are they an at large worthy team in the NCAA? Probably. Are they a 3-seed in said tourney? Come on! They are a quality team playing a solid brand of basketball and worthy of mention, but not that kind of resume. How far would they fall in the public view with just one loss?

Luckily these rankings don’t mean much of anything at this point other than directing me to what teams I should keep an eye on. All is superseded on selection Sunday.

For now, I’ll just sit back and see if any of these questions develop answers in the coming weeks. As sure as Hubert Davis will laugh uncontrollably at comments on the ESPN set, whether or not meant to be humorous, new head-scratchers will undoubtedly arise and add to the fun!

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