If you read Friday's column, you know there's a big gray elephant in the room, and we might as well recognize it right off the bat. So, here you go:
Yes, I was right about Pittsburgh beating Syracuse, Miami beating NC State, Oklahoma State playing well against Kansas, and Florida blowing out Ole Miss.
Does that make me some kind of basketball genius? You tell me. I hate throwing words like "genius" around, because I'm not into labels and I know that as long as people perceive me as someone who knows more about basketball than any other human, it doesn't matter what title they choose, whether it's "genius" or "virtuoso" or "wunderkind" or
Trembly in Assembly
My tail is between my legs, and I offer all IU fans an apology. If anybody was "soft" on Saturday, it was Michigan, who tiptoed into a swarming Assembly Hall and got blitzed for the first 10 minutes as the Hoosiers rolled up to a 28-13 advantage. For the timid Wolverines, it was almost exactly like the thrashing they took in Columbus in their only other loss, when OSU led by 21 after 14 minutes. Beilein's team recovered slightly faster this time, narrowing the deficit to four by halftime and managing to stay within striking distance for most of the second half, but the defense never really got entrenched, and Indiana pulled away at the end for the 81-73 win.
Michigan is still a relatively young team, and they clearly missed Jordan Morgan's presence inside, but I thought the OSU game would give them the experience to avoid an early meltdown in Bloomington. Instead, it was a repeat trauma. From a statistical angle, the loss isn't hard to diagnose. Take a look at the Four Factors from our pals at StatSheet.
Except for a marginally higher turnover rate, Indiana was better in every aspect of the game. They dropped a higher effective field goal percentage (59.0) and a higher offensive efficiency (117.4) than Michigan had seen from an opponent all season. While the Wolverines settled for 23 3-pointers and took only seven foul shots, Indiana was driving, getting into the lane, and reaching the stripe 25 times. They also kept Michigan effectively off the glass, though the deficit there wasn't as pronounced as you might expect with Jordan Morgan on the sidelines. Most importantly, perhaps, IU pulled off the rare feat of imposing a fast pace on a slow team. We see the reverse all the time, since slowing things down is difficult to defend against, but this game ended with 69 possessions for each team. On the season, Michigan averages 64 and Indiana 70 another sign that the young Wolverines came in jumpy and forgot their identity.
In the end, Michigan simply hadn't faced an offense like Indiana's all season — NC State came closest, but that game was played in Ann Arbor — and they took the full brunt of the Hoosier attack. Still, they showed some resilience. After a Tim Hardaway jumper with 7:38 remaining, the Wolverines pulled within two and it still seemed like they might be able to beat the Hoosiers at their own game. But another cold stretch followed, of which there were many.
And now it's time to talk about the significance. Indiana will probably rise to no. 1 later today, and Michigan will fall to third or fourth. But what does Saturday's result really tell us about both teams? We already knew Indiana is capable of superior offense, and we already knew Michigan was prone to mini-collapses in tough road environments. They stayed true to form, and for now Indiana is rightfully atop the best conference in basketball. But this result made me think about a fascinating Ken Pomeroy study about margin of victory that included this finding:
There are several other interesting pieces of information. For instance, it takes a 15-point home win to get a team to the point where you’d expect them to win the road.
Indiana has had a highly imbalanced home-road schedule early in the Big 10, facing Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Michigan at home, while taking on Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern, and Purdue on the road. In Assembly Hall, against the four strong opponents, the Hoosier margin of victory was 7, -5 (a loss to Wisconsin), 5, and 8. By KenPom's numbers, Indiana has a 38.6 chance of winning the rematch game against those teams on the road (it would be less for the Badgers, but Indiana doesn't travel to Madison this season). That idea passes the eye test for me; against Minnesota and Michigan, IU had explosive starts and then spent most of the game holding off spirited comebacks. You'd have to think it will be more difficult to duplicate that early burst on the road, and while the Michigan State game was back-and-forth most of the way, you'd again give the advantage to Izzo's squad in East Lansing.
So let's say that of Indiana's four remaining "hard" road games — Ohio State, plus the three above — they play to statistical expectations and lose three, win one. As of now, we the collective nation feel that a 9-1 Big Ten record makes Indiana the best team in the nation. Fair enough. But how would we feel about a 14-4 team? Before we overrate the Hoosiers because of some admittedly impressive home wins, we should at least think about the road ahead.
Also, at the risk of bringing voodoo into real analysis, I do believe that Victor Oladipo may have to answer to the karma gods for the way he ended the game:
For the record, I love Oladipo, and love watching him play. I know he was just juiced up after a big win, and at some level I understand the awesome tomahawk (and to his credit, he apologized after the game). But it was still the wrong way to go out when Michigan had conceded, and it reminded me of Warren Sapp getting the Miami players to slap the floor in unison to mock Duke in the midst of the beatdown in Coral Gables. Whatever you think of moves like that, you can guarantee that coaches like Krzyzewski and Beilein will use it as motivation for the rematch. (Speaking of which, Crean's "uh-oh" expression after noticing the dunk is priceless.) It's going to be damn hard for Indiana to win in Crisler, and, since Duke cultivates resentment and rage better than any team in the universe, damn near impossible for Miami to win in Cameron.
Speaking of the 'Canes
NC State Sheeeeeit Is Back
For a primer on the phenomenon known as NC State shit, see here or just go to Urban Dictionary:
An inevitable chain of events in a sports [sic] where a blatant bad call or bizarre unlucky play causes a total collapse of confidence, resulting in multiple, unforced, and devastating errors.
It's the Murphy's Law of sports, and at the college ranks nobody has it worse than State. On Saturday in Raleigh, the Wolfpack led 76-71 with two minutes left, which meant it was time for NC State shit to kick into high gear. Almost immediately, State turned it over twice, Durand Scott scored six straight points, and State had the ball with 47 seconds remaining and a one-point lead. Point guard Lorenzo Brown was out with an injury, and his replacement, Tyler Lewis, did an excellent job running the Wolfpack offense. But Lewis wasn't the guy you wanted taking the shot in that situation — that would be C.J. Leslie, the mercurial power forward who looked unstoppable in the paint and had one of the great dunks of the season over Reggie Johnson earlier in the half. Sharpshooter Scott Wood would have been a good choice, too, or freshman sensations T.J. Warren or Rodney Purvis, or big man Richard Howell. Lewis was probably the last choice, and he missed a jumper in the lane, which gave the ball to Miami with 17 seconds left
The Johnson tip-in (State fans wanted a push-off, but from my perspective he just got good position and Howell was late with the box-out) was Level 6 NC State shit. But Purvis's shot, which rattled in and out from full-court length that's one for the NCSS Hall of Fame.
To me, NC State is the great tragedy of this basketball season. There aren't many teams with more offensive talent — Indiana, maybe Florida — but they have absolutely no defensive identity (the low forced turnover percentage is especially mystifying), and they keep losing close games as a result. When teams like Maryland and Virginia decide to slow-play them, they get slow-played. When teams like Wake Forest and Miami try to outscore them, they get outscored. It's hard to explain exactly how they come up short, but the best I can muster is that they play at the whim of other teams, even though they have enough talent to dictate the terms of engagement. Coming into the UVA-Miami-Duke stretch, State had a chance to prove it belonged among the elite teams. They have lost the first two, and will probably lose the third on Thursday in Cameron. I believed in them back when they started the season ranked sixth, but now they're a game away from being 5-5 in a weak ACC, and I'd be shocked if they make it past the Sweet 16.
Pittsburgh Is Officially the Scariest No-Name in the Country
What happens when a team with the second-highest offensive rebounding percentage in the country meets a team that plays almost exclusively zone defense and therefore gives up a high percentage of offensive rebounds?
Answer: That team gets a lot of offensive rebounds. Imagine that. The Pitt Panthers rebounded almost half of their missed shots against Syracuse, which may have been a given, but the really impressive part of their game is how they cleaned up on the defensive boards, holding the Orange to their second-lowest ORB% of the season.
And that was the difference in the game, because Jamie Dixon has assembled a team of big, tough, semi-anonymous players who manage to wrap themselves, boa constrictor–like, around the frail torsos of an opponent, crushing the air from their
OK, forget that description. Let's start over — Pitt has no stars. Calling them "balanced" doesn't begin to tell the story. Against Syracuse, Tray Woodall led all scorers with 13 points, while seven players had at least six. Dixon's rotation goes 10-deep, and nine Panthers had at least 15 minutes of playing time on Saturday, while none had more than 30. This is a "team" in the truest sense of the word, and I don't mean that with an implication of moral superiority. I just mean that they've found a strange identity in which no player really sticks out — even 7-foot center Steven Adams — and it becomes impossible for an opposing defense to fixate on any one player. It's one of the rare teams where strength comes from depth, and based on how well they perform in all the major metric categories, beating Syracuse wasn't even an upset. Assuming they end up with a 5-6 seed, Pitt is going to be a holy terror for the 1- or 2-seed in the same bracket.
Marcus Smart Is a Manly Winner Man
Oklahoma State had yet to win a road game all season, which is why I stopped short of predicting a win at Kansas (seeing as how the Jayhawks had won 33 straight at home). But there were a few factors that pointed to a Cowboys resurgence.
1. Superb defense — OKSU ranks in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, and they do everything well besides defending the 3.
2. Good offensive players — Markel Brown, as we saw against Kansas, can get really, really hot. Phil Forte is a great shooter. Le'Bryan Nash might be one of the best athletes in the country. For some reason, the offense hadn't quite jelled, but the pieces were at least in place.
3. Marcus F'ing Smart. The freshman point guard quickly became my favorite player after dominating NC State way back in November, and his performance in an upset win at Kansas should propel him over Ben McLemore for Freshman of the Year and generate some serious discussion for the National Player of the Year award. He's that good. Look at this line from Saturday, and remember that he was a freshman playing in one of the toughest venues in the country:
25 points, 8-17 FG, 9-11 FT, 9 boards (8 offensive), 5 steals, 3 assists
You often hear the cliché "He can do everything!" spouted about athletes, but in Smart's case it's actually true. He can literally do everything. And on top of it all, he's competitive as hell and plays his best basketball under pressure. With 2:23 left against Kansas, OKSU led by one, and I doubt there was anybody watching who thought they could pull it off. But Smart skied over Kansas players for offensive boards on two straight possessions — rebounding like a player much taller than 6-foot-4 — and his ensuing put-backs gave State a five-point cushion. When Kansas stormed back, he made five of six free throws, and did what he does best — steal the ball — to end the game:
(Kudos to OKSU coach Travis Ford for a classic facial expression at the end; he looked like a thrilled little kid who made his first basket on a regulation hoop and still can't believe it I think he might even have said "Hh my God!")
There's nobody else in the country who routinely makes you think, "Good Lord he's everywhere!" like Smart does. I can't wait to see what he does in March.