Winners and Losers
January 14, 2014
By Bruce Marshall
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Hopping around the college basketball map as we seek to identify some of the winners and losers from last weekend's action....
WINNER: Nevada...A few weeks ago they weren't even talking about the Wolf Pack in Reno. And most Mountain West insiders were of the belief that fifth-year HC David Carter was on his way out the door. But suddenly, Nevada is the hottest team in the league with four straight wins and has popped up on college hoops radar screens across the West after Saturday's 62-54 win over capable Utah State that has converted some of the doubters into believers. The catalyst was the mid-December eligibility of 6-9 juco AJ West, who was thought to be lost for the season due to eligibility issues. Lo and behold, however, West became eligible just when the Pack's season seemed to be heading down the drain. And now Carter suddenly has the big man that he has lacked since the Dario Hunt/Olyk Czyz combo departed a couple of years ago, as West (one of the juco leaders in blocked shots a year ago) has provided a very real and menacing presence on the blocks, scoring 10 ppg and grabbling 8 rebounds pg while hitting 61% from the floor. Nevada already had one of the best backcourts in the Mountain West, with 6-1 sr. G Deonte Burton (21.8 ppg) making NBA scouts drool, with spidery 6-8 Jerry Evans (a defensive stopper also scoring 13 ppg) and UTEP transfer Mike Perez (12.1 ppg; plays very well in combo with Burton and off of the ball) completing a dynamite trio. Carter, one of the genuine good guys in the business, now seems to have a chance to save his job and get the Pack into the postseason.
LOSER: North Carolina...The Tar Heels already have claimed plenty of scalps this season (including heavyweights Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky), but Carolina is also piling up losses like the Charlotte Bobcats, suffering its sixth defeat of the season on Saturday at Syracuse. Roy Williams has some problems on his roster, especially since sharpshooter P.J. Hairston, the best marksman in the program, will not return from suspension. Outside shooting continues to be an issue, never more so than last Saturday vs. ACC newcomer Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, when the Heels hit only 2 of 12 beyond the arc, dropping season three-point shooting to a mere 32%. And since UNC doesn't shoot free throws particularly well either (63%), one can see the plight of Williams, who was already getting very concerned about his team's progress (or lack thereof) in the losses prior to the 'Cuse against mid-to-lower level Atlantic Coast sorts Wake Forest and Miami. There is still enough manpower on hand get back to the Dance, but even Carolina has a limit on how many losses it can accumulate before the Selection Committee begins to wonder if the Heels really are a tournament team.
WINNER: Stanford...Or, more specifically, Stanford HC Johnny Dawkins, who desperately needed a win on Sunday at Oregon to avoid an 0-4 conference start that would have officially condemned him to the coaching endangered list. His Cardinal obliged with a crucial 82-80 victory that, at least temporarily, throws Dawkins a lifeline. Though the ex-Dookie still has a lot of work to do to get off of the hot seat (some Pac-12 observers believe Dawkins requires a Big Dance berth, something that has avoided all of his previous teams at The Farm, to save his job). Although season-ending injuries to expected contributors such as G Aaron Bright & F Andy Brown have hurt, all hope is not lost with four double-digit scorers and several marksmen in the lineup, paced by G Chasson Randle (19.5 ppg; 51% FGs) and swingman Anthony Brown (13.3 ppg; 52% from floor), while 6-10 sr. Dwight Powell (14.4 ppg) is an acknowledged interior scoring threat. With the Pac-12 looking like a grab-bag beneath top-ranked Arizona, there is still time for Stanford to make a move, although the Cardinal defense needs to tighten the screws.
LOSER: Duke...Last week, Duke dropped out of the top ten for the first time in 122 weeks after a loss at Notre Dame. Following yet another ACC road setback at Clemson on Saturday, it might not be long before Coach K's Blue Devils drop out of the rankings entirely. This season's retrofit has not gone as smoothly as envisioned for Mike Krzyzewski, whose team was going to be built around small forwards after the departure of frontliners Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee from last year's 30-6 team that advanced to the Elite Eight. Newcomers such as 6-8 Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood and ballyhooed 6-8 frosh Jabari Parker would be the new center-pieces of the show. While Hood and Parker have made expected contributions, what Krzyzewski has lacked is defensive presence on the perimeter, as the Blue Devils are poor at denying dribble penetration, and thus is one of the teams that has been impacted more negatively by the new tougher defensive rules. And without a rim protector, Duke has been even more vulnerable on the stop end, as evidenced in the recent loss at South Bend when the Fighting Irish scored a whopping 44 points in the paint. We don't think Duke has anything to worry about as far as making the Big Dance, but the Blue Devils have for the moment likely dropped out of "protected seed" (1 thru 4 seeds) territory. We'll have our latest NCAA Tourney projections in the upcoming TGS Weekend Hoops edition, and expect to see the Blue Devils in the 5-6 seed range for our new projections.
WINNER: Iowa...Anyone who doubted that the Hawkeyes belonged in the Big Ten discussion will have to think again after Sunday's rousing 84-74 win at Ohio State, when Iowa outscored the Buckeyes 22-9 down the stretch to steal the verdict in Columbus. Iowa displayed the proper mix of poise and emotion after HC Fran McCaffery returned to the sidelines after a one-game suspension for conduct toward an official in a recent 4-point loss at Wisconsin. But McCaffery, now in his fourth season at Iowa City, finally seems to have rebuilt the Hawkeyes into a contender, with a veteran lineup consisting of all sorts of versatile weapons featuring 6-6 sr. swingman Roy Devyn Marble (16.4 ppg) and augmented by 6-9 Wisconsin transfer F Jarred Uthoff, hitting 55% of his triples. What impressed Big Ten observers most is how many different role players are being utilized by McCaffery, who is able to effectively mix-and-match his roster in the same way as he did when leading Siena into the Big Dance before taking the Hawkeyes job. Another prime example of a player knowing his role is 6-7 sr. F Melshan Basabe, who limits his contributions to work in the paint while shooting 56% from the floor and leading the team with 6.8 rebounds per games. The recent return to active duty of 6-5 G Josh Oglesby also further improves Iowa's depth that now features eleven players averaging double-digit minutes for the season. Sources also say that last year's near-miss of a Big Dance berth was actually a benefit to the side, which instead gained valuable postseason experience in the NIT when advancing all of the way to the title game at Madison Square Garden. A tough pre-league slate will also serve the Hawkeyes well as they prepare for their first NCAA Tourney since Steve Alford's last Iowa team seven years ago.
LOSER: Southern Cal...There wasn't more of a "flavor of the month" on the coaching carousel last spring than Florida Gulf Coast HC Andy Enfield, whose Eagles shocked the Big Dance by advancing to the Sweet 16. Along the way, their "Dunk City" label briefly became a national sporting phenomenon as Enfield began to get targeted by bigger programs. The "winner" in the Enfield sweepstakes was Southern Cal, in the market for a new coach after AD Pat Haden dismissed Kevin O'Neill midway through last season. The quick ascension enjoyed by Enfield bypassed some of the doubters who would remind that "Dunk City" almost never got off the ground when FGCU was involved in a nip-and-tuck battle with the North Florida Ospreys in first round of last season's Atlantic Sun Tourney. But the Eagles rallied for a 73-63 win (in front of 638 fans), and the rest of the story is pretty well-known, as FGCU surged all of the way into the Big Dance, where it upset Georgetown and San Diego State in the sub-regionals before the fun ended against in-state Florida in the Sweet 16. Fast forward to this season with SC, and "Dunk City" appears lost somewhere back on Sanibel Island, with the Trojans more resembling "Clunk City" in recent efforts that have seen them lose their last three Pac-12 games by a whopping 24.3 ppg, crushed in succession by UCLA, Arizona State, and Arizona. Enfield inherited some talent at Troy, but his offensive schemes have not been impressive, and lately Troy has been avoiding defense like the plague, strafed by recent foes. No buyer's remorse yet (at least outwardly) from AD Haden on the Enfield hire. But already more than a few SC honks are believing that Enfield might have been a mistaken hire, a classic case of a flash-in-the-pan.
WINNER: Oklahoma...Don't look now, but HC Lon Kruger appears to be up to his old tricks once more with his Oklahoma Sooners, picked in the middle of the Big 12 pack entering the season, but one of the early surprises in the loop and the nation with a 13-3 mark. The lower expectations were mostly tied to three key starters who departed after last season. But Kruger identified new go-to elements on a summer tour with the team in France, when players such as 6-7 sr. Cameron Clark, who had never scored more than 7 ppg at Norman, flashed potential as a go-to scorer when tallying almost 17 ppg on the trip. Clark has maintained that scoring average into the regular season, while another holdover, 6-4 soph G Buddy Hield, has also enjoyed a breakout campaign while scoring 16 ppg. The real sleeper, however, has been frosh PG Jordan Woodard, scoring nearly 13 ppg and making a case as one of the best frosh in the Big 12 alongside Kansas' high-profile Andrew Wiggins and productive Kansas State G Marcus Foster. Like most Kruger teams, OU doesn't have a dominant post threat, although Kruger once again seems to be extracting the most from his available talent, which also includes 6-8 soph F Ryan Spangler, a transfer from Gonzaga. Perhaps this will simply be another Kruger team to exit the Big Dance in the sub-regional, as OU has a 9-thru-11 seed look about it at the moment. But three months ago, that was a lot more than most Sooner fans were expecting.
LOSER: Penn State...The Nittany Lions are one team that didn't need a slow break from the gate in the rugged Big Ten, as a quick start after an encouraging pre-conference run could have catapulted Patrick Chambers' team at least into the middle range of the conference, which would have been a big improvement from recent seasons. Instead, however, the Nittany Lions have been heading South after the first half of their conference opener vs. Michigan State when leading the Spartans 47-40 at the Bryce Jordan Center. Tom Izzo's team would dominate the second half by a 39-16 score to win going away, and three more Lion losses have followed against mid-level conference opposition, with two of those losses at home vs. Minnesota and Indiana. Penn State still has its toughest Big Ten games ahead, and chances of salvaging the season with even an NIT bid now seem pretty remote. The Nittany Lions were expecting that the return of G Tim Frazier, who missed almost all of last season with an Achilles tendon injury, would help trigger a revival, especially pairing with former Southern Miss transfer D.J. Newbill in the backcourt. While both were scoring near 20 ppg in the pre-league portion of the schedule, their production of late has waned, and Newbill's recent form has especially deteriorated, as he has been saddled by foul problems in the losses to Illinois and Minnesota while scoring just a combined 7 points in those games. Now at 9-8 entering Tuesday's game vs. Michigan, one has to wonder if Penn State can do enough to even squeeze into any sort of a postseason tourney (even the CIT or CBI) in March.
WINNER: Virginia...Given up for dead by many just a couple of weeks ago after getting trounced 87-52 at Tennessee, all Virginia has done since is roll off three straight wins (prior to Monday at Duke), each more impressive than the last, with Saturday's 76-45 wipeout of NC State in Raleigh a signal that Tony Bennett's Cavs can yet fight their way into the Big Dance field. Virginia is mostly doing it with defense, as recent victims Florida State, Wake Forest, and NC State have combined to shoot 31.7% from the floor while converting only 24.3% of their triples. On the other end of the court, while sr. G Joe Harris continues to post modest numbers, soph G Malcolm Brogdon has emerged as a threat with three straight double-digit scoring efforts. The season is hardly over in Charlottesville.
LOSER: Butler...There were some Big East sources who wondered whether Butler really had the quality depth to handle the enhanced competition in the Bulldogs' new league after mostly dominating in the lower-grade Horizon the past few years. Early evidence suggests those concerns might be well-founded after Butler dropped to 0-4 in the Big East with its second straight OT loss at Hinkle Fieldhouse, against previously-struggling Georgetown, on Saturday. Prior, DePaul had won in double OT at Hinkle. While soph G Kellen Dunham (18.8 ppg) has emerged as a go-to scorer, and sr. F Khyle Marshall (the last holdover who saw extensive minutes during the Final Four years, and posting a career-best 15.9 ppg) is still around, the Bulldogs' depth is being tested in the Big East after a 10-2 pre-conference run. And Butler might also be missing the presence of former HC Brad Stevens, now with the NBA Celtics. Remember, the next-in-line at Hinkle was likely to be former assistant Matthew Graves, but he took the South Alabama job last spring, well before Stevens made his surprise announcement. Brandon Miller, a Butler grad working on John Groce's staff at Illinois, was thus summoned back to his alma mater. Might this job have come a bit too soon for Miller?
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