-President Obama was on hand to watch his brother-in-law’s Oregon St. team defeat Maryland on Sunday Night. Based on my novice body-language reading skills, the president seemed to be having more fun at the game than his daughters. He was also chewing gum late in the game. There is just something funny about watching the President chew gum.
-Whether it is Dick Stockton calling a game on Fox Sports 1, Seth Davis stepping in on the Big Ten Network, or Seth Greenberg getting out of the studio for ESPN, one of the joys of the early season is hearing unusual voices call games.
-I expected VCU’s pressure to get to Virginia’s inexperienced ball-handlers London Perrantes and Malcom Brogdon last Tuesday. But most of Virginia’s turnovers did not come by pick-pocketing the player bringing the ball past half-court. Instead VCU got a ton of tips once Virginia began executing their offense. The ball would get into the paint on a nice angle, and then suddenly a VCU hand would reach out and bat the ball out of bounds. VCU’s inability to get mid-court steals meant there were few transition opportunities. But VCU showed that even if a team gets into its half court sets, their Havoc defense can still be devastating.
-PG Anthony Collins missed the first two games of the season for South Florida, but the Bulls didn’t miss a beat because JUCO Top 100 recruit Cory Allen played some outstanding basketball, averaging over 6 assists and nearly 16 points per game. JUCO Top 100 guys are like lottery tickets. Many of them are busts, but sometimes you find a true star.
-Of all this year’s transfers, Trae Golden is not getting enough hype yet. A PG with an ORtg near 110 that scores over 12 PPG is an extremely valuable player. And Golden was a difference maker in the Yellow Jackets win at rival Georgia on Friday. Thanks to Golden, I had Georgia Tech in 8th place in the ACC, ahead of Boston College in my preseason rankings. And I don’t think people have yet realized how competitive Georgia Tech is going to be this year.
-Texas is really playing with fire. They have trailed in the second half of all three of their home games to open the season, against Mercer, South Alabama, and Stephen F. Austin. It is just a matter of time until they create a deficit they cannot overcome.
-St. Mary’s is quietly putting together a great NCAA tournament resume with wins over Louisiana Tech, Akron, and North Dakota St. Those three teams could very well win their leagues this year.
-A lot of people wonder why Colorado is not playing better, including a narrow win over Wyoming last week. But if you look at the box score from that game, Colorado got all of 3 points scoring from their bench. While the top 4 stars for Colorado are great, the Buffaloes bench is extremely young.
The Search for Upsets and the ACC’s Rough Start
When power conference teams lose to plucky mid-majors, I am rarely shocked anymore. It is not that I can necessarily predict these things ahead of time. But hind-sight is 20/20, and you can almost always convince yourself that certain outcomes were plausible.
For example, Indiana St. should be the 2nd or 3rd best team in the MVC and Notre Dame has historically struggled on defense. Thus Indiana St.’s win at Notre Dame was not a complete shock. Meanwhile, after how Seton Hall, Auburn, and Northwestern struggled last year, it wasn’t a huge shock to see these teams lose home games to mid-major squads.
But just when I thought nothing could shock me, North Carolina went and loss to Belmont at home. Again, you can almost talk yourself into believing this outcome was plausible. Rick Byrd has been at Belmont for 27 years. His teams consistently post some of the best margin-of-victory numbers outside the power leagues. That is a hallmark of great execution and Belmont showed that in setting up three great three point shots that won the game in the final minutes.
Meanwhile North Carolina was without PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald who are serving suspensions. Hairston in particular might be the Tar Heels best player. Until he comes back, I don’t think you can do anything to measure how good North Carolina will be this season.
And yet, when you step back and look at the big picture, this is an epic upset. North Carolina is one of college basketball’s blue bloods. Belmont was an NAIA team as recently as 1996. There isn’t a player on the Belmont roster that North Carolina could not have had if they had wanted to offer a scholarship.
And with North Carolina falling, the ACC is off to a horrible start. The conference that many people pegged as the top conference in college basketball already has 12 losses. Comparatively the Big Ten, American, Pac-12, Big 12, and Big East, have 4, 4, 5, 5, and 5 losses respectively. The SEC and MWC have also struggled some, but no one expected those leagues to be as strong from top-to-bottom as the ACC.
Branden Dawson at the 4
Adriean Payne schooled Kentucky with a beautiful running hook shot early in the Champions Classic. Gary Harris ran circles around Kentucky’s inexperienced back-court. And Keith Appling simply has the perfect instinct for when to attack tired defensive legs late in basketball games. But the player who impressed me the most in Michigan St.’s win over Kentucky was Branden Dawson.
Dawson was a rebounding machine in high school, and his offensive rebounding percentage as a freshman was outstanding at 13.1%. But that percentage fell to 9.8% last year. Some people blamed that on injuries, but I also think he was hurt by playing so many minutes at the 3-position last year. For proper floor spacing, he spent a lot of time outside the three point line.
Thus I was thrilled when Dawson got to play so many minutes at the 4 against Kentucky. We got to see one of the most explosive 6’6” players in the country get his hands on numerous balls defensively, and explode for the game-sealing tip-in.
Tom Izzo complained in the post-game that he was worried about how playing the undersized Dawson in the paint impacted Michigan St.’s defense. But two things Luke Winn wrote this week made me more optimistic. First, Winn pointed to Chris Mackinder’s defensive stat-sheet that showed that Dawson was not a defensive liability on Tuesday. And second, in his SI magazine season preview, Winn noted the huge decrease in post-ups in college basketball as a whole. While Kentucky’s Julius Randle was dominant on post-ups late in the game, the reality is very few college basketball teams have two players skilled enough to pull off back-to-the-basket moves consistently. Dawson’s height should not be exposed too often over the course of the season.
Michigan St.’s defensive rebounding might need to improve with Dawson in the paint, but I truly believe that in the Spartans season defining moments, the ideal lineup will be Payne, Dawson, Denzel Valentine, Harris, and Appling, and not one of the Spartans other big men.
Of course the beauty of college basketball is that only three days removed from their dynamic win over Kentucky, the Spartans struggled to beat Columbia at home. This is college basketball.
Harvard Watch Week 2
Harvard may not be in the national title hunt, but the storyline of an Ivy League team on the edge of the Top 25 is too good to pass up. I plan to track Harvard’s progress throughout the season.
Harvard played MIT (a non-D1 team) and Howard (a team without D1 resources) and won each game easily. The big news this week was that Brandyn Curry, whose return I chronicled last week, injured his foot and will be out for an indefinite amount of time.