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Final Exam Time

Final exams are here in college basketball, making this the quiet period of the season. After the excitement of the Champions Classic, the Holiday Tournaments, and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, college basketball must make it through a relatively boring stretch on the schedule.

The marquee game last week was supposed to be UCLA taking on Texas at Reliant Stadium in Houston. But with UCLA losing a bunch of early games (including blowing an 18-point lead against Cal Poly), and with Texas struggling (including a loss to Chaminade in Maui), this game had lost most of its luster. In fact, it lost so much luster, that less than 3000 fans showed up to watch a game being played in a dome stadium.

Fittingly, the game lived up to its billing. Texas turned the ball over possession after possession down the stretch allowing UCLA to come from behind at the end. But UCLA couldn’t make free throws that would seal the game. Then Texas air-balled a three at the buzzer that would have won the game. UCLA prevailed, but neither team was able to shake its reputation as a disappointment early in the year.

(Quick side note about Texas. The Longhorns' defense has actually been shockingly good this season. No team has a better eFG% defense at this point in the season than Texas, meaning the Longhorns are forcing teams to miss both their twos and threes at an impressive rate. Rick Barnes simply doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to teach defense. Unfortunately, without point guard Myck Kabongo, Texas’ offense has been dreadful. Only Sheldan McClellan and Julien Lewis have shown a consistent ability to put the ball in the basket this year, and the Longhorns other four Top 100 prospects out of high school have been nothing short of horrible, sporting ORtgs of 61 to 83. No team can win consistently when only two players have ORtgs over 100.)

But the beauty of college basketball is that even on a weekend with few marquee games, the plethora of games ensures there are always some fantastic finishes:

- UNLV’s Quintrell Thomas caught the ball under the basket and put back in a lay-up that gave UNLV a last-second win against California. Both teams will be likely be in the NCAA tournament this year, so it was an important win for both UNLV and the MWC. UNLV’s Mike Moser injured his elbow in the game, and that bears watching.

- Elsewhere, West Virginia handed Virginia Tech their first loss of the season on a Juwan Staten lay-up in the final seconds. West Virginia had high hopes for the elite transfer Staten, but his debut was an ugly 0-6 two turnover performance against Gonzaga. Fortunately Staten had bounced back, scoring in double figures the last four games and living at the free throw line. And against Virginia Tech, Staten drove the lane in the final seconds and hit a lay-up that proved to be the game-winner.

- Meanwhile, Purdue and Mississippi were reminded why major conference teams hate to play at mid-major venues. Purdue fell 47-44 at Eastern Michigan. This is not a great Eastern Michigan team, but with Eastern Michigan turning the ball over only four times, while Purdue turned the ball over 18 times, those 14 additional possessions made all the difference in the upset win. Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee’s Kerry Hammonds made a jumper in the final minute to break a tie and give Ole Miss its first loss of the season. Unlike Eastern Michigan, Middle Tennessee has been playing pretty good basketball this season, and this loss might not hurt quite so much come selection Sunday.

Other notes

- Illinois was back to making three-pointers in Saturday’s win over Gonzaga, sinking 11 in the win. With over 10 made threes per game, I am very curious whether this will continue in conference play.

- Last season, Florida St. had a scatterbrained resume of puzzling losses to bad teams and amazing wins against Top 10 teams. It was largely because of their one-sided play. When you play elite defense, all you need is for a few surprising shots to fall and you can beat an elite team. And when you have lousy offense, all you need is for your opponent to hit a few surprising shots and you can lose to anyone. Georgetown looks like that team this year. They lost to Indiana in OT and have thus far pulled out close wins against teams like Towson. Still, the Hoyas have some head-scratching games ahead, given their great defense and poor offense.

-Michigan’s Nik Stauskas continues to be way more athletic than I anticipated. When the Arkansas game tightened up near the 12 minute market of the second half, Stauskas had the ball at the wing and I thought a turnover was coming. Instead he shook his man, drove all the way to the edge of the free throw line, and banked home a long-layup. To me, it was a game-changing play.

Of course, I have already learned to love Illinois’ three-point shooting, Stauskas’s game, and Georgetown’s defense.  In fact, I wonder if sometimes the computers learn more from these December games than the media. We all know that Kansas is going to be the favorite in the Big 12 in conference play, and that Bill Self’s teams play lock down defense year-after-year. But with ugly games against teams like Chattanooga and San Jose St., Kansas was no longer looking like a Top 10 team in most computer rankings. That changed on Saturday with the Jayhawks 36 point thrashing of a solid Colorado team. I tend to struggle with what to say about a 36 point loss, but in the grand scheme of ranking teams, all these games provide important information.

The other takeaway from the Colorado-Kansas game is that regional rivalries don’t have to die when teams switch conferences. Missouri and Kansas might not play again, but if they do not, that is a dumb choice by the teams. It is not a necessity.

Undefeated but Overrated

As the number of undefeated teams dwindles (we are down to 14 after Sunday), columnists tend to write about which teams with strong starts are over-rated. But I hate that tone. Nobody honestly believes that Charlotte is an elite team after a 9-0 start. But why rain on the parade of a team that has exceeded expectations.

It is one thing to say that you don’t necessarily expect a team to keep it up. If a team is winning close games, it is reasonable to ask whether they will still have a strong season in conference play.

It is one thing to criticize strength-of-schedule and say you wish that an elite team had played more quality competition. For example, I wish Arizona would have scheduled a few more marquee games, because until they play Florida next weekend, I still have no feel for how good this team can be.

But I hate it when people criticize a team for doing what they are supposed to do and winning games. Wyoming is my favorite example. Larry Shyatt had a disappointing run as Clemson’s head coach, but after joining Billy Donovan’s staff and helping Florida win two national championships, he finally got a second chance with the Cowboys. In his first season, he completely turned Wyoming’s team around by emphasizing defense, and now in his second season, his team’s offense is starting to come around. Wyoming isn’t an elite team, but after they came from 18 down to beat Illinois St. and preserve their undefeated mark, they deserve praise, not criticism for an undefeated start.

Do December games matter if everyone is focused on the NFL?

The NBA wants you to think its regular season is extremely important. But when San Antonio can choose to rest four key players at the Miami Heat, that undermines the NBA’s credibility. Chuck Klosterman wrote a fantastic piece recently asking some key questions about whether San Antonio owed it to NBA fans to play its star players against the Heat.

The beauty of college basketball is you never have to ask those questions.

- Almost every player is young, and even with some teams now playing 40 games, the season is still relatively short. The number of key players debating whether to play through a nagging injury is relatively small.

- For most of these kids, this is the moment. Was Louisville’s Peyton Siva really going to complain about playing three games in three days in the Bahamas and not want to give it his all against Duke? Of course not. This season is his moment in the sun and he wants to take full advantage of it.

-Every game matters for selection Sunday. I’ve long said that there is no resting your starters in college basketball because nothing is ever clinched. With so many teams with similar resumes at the end of the year, every loss counts for seeding. In the NBA, if San Antonio drops a game against New Orleans in November, it probably won’t matter much to the team’s ultimate probability of winning a championship. But if UCLA drops a game to Cal Poly in November, it is a critical red-mark on the Bruins resume, and it might be the reason the Bruins don’t play in the regional round in Los Angeles in the Staples Center in March.

The Dreaded Early RPI

Even if the loss to Middle Tennessee (discussed above) doesn’t cost Ole Miss an NCAA tournament spot, the sum total of these wins and losses does matter for the conferences. And at this point, the SEC might have needed that win more than Ole Miss.

Through Saturday, the conference RPI standings were as follows:

1

Big Ten

2

Pac-12

3

Big East

4

ACC

5

MWC

6

A10

7

Big 12

8

SEC

9

MVC

10

WCC

At this point the SEC is sitting 8th among all conferences in terms of RPI rankings, and the plethora of bad losses by teams at the bottom of the conference is going to make it hard to earn quality wins in SEC play this year. And as bad a measure of team quality as the RPI may be, it is still a very strong predictor of NCAA selection.

Rob Dauster noticed it earlier this week, but even if the Pac-12 has lacked signature wins in the early season, because its teams are chalking up fewer head-scratching losses this preseason, winning Pac-12 games will mean something this year. Right now it looks like a team that goes 11-7 in Pac-12 will be in the discussion for an at-large bid, something you couldn’t say last season.

The bigger concern might be how many teams can make the tournament out of the Big 12. I thought the Big 12 might be the deepest conference in the country this year, but none of the Big 12’s bubble teams have been coming through. Kansas St., Iowa St., and West Virginia certainly don’t look like terrible teams based on their margin-of-victory so far this season, and Texas probably won’t be a terrible team in January and February (assuming Kabongo plays eventually). But none of those teams have done anything in their marquee games. The Big 12 might have eight legitimate teams eventually, but unless the conference has a stellar last few weeks of non-conference action, the league may be capped at four or five NCAA bids.

 

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