Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Relief For Clemson

#25 Clemson 91, Miami (Fl) 75
Clemson fans have learned that an 11-0 start is nothing to get too excited about, especially when they're beating up on a bunch of terrible teams (other than a solid win over Illinois, the rest of the wins were over teams that I would qualify as mediocre or bad). The test was going to be whether they could head into the ACC and keep up their winning ways. A 16 point win over a very good Miami team is a very impressive start, especially when Jack McClinton had a pretty good game (20 points on 14 shots from the field) and he also got decent support from the rest of his team (four of his teammates scored 9 points or more). To be fair, the 2006-07 Clemson team did win its first 3 ACC games before collapsing and losing 9 of their final 13, but this year is different in a couple of ways. First of all, those three wins in '06-'07 were close wins over mediocre ACC teams (an average margin of victory of less than 5 points). Nobody can overlook a 16 point win on the road over a team that has spent time in the Top 25, and likely will spend more time there in the future. More importantly, a lot of these guys went through that disaster, and that kind of debacle can only be a maturing process. This is a very experienced Clemson team. Clemson isn't a lock for the Tournament, but I'd be shocked if they missed out. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Miami, a team that drops to 7-3 and doesn't have any really good wins (the jury is still out on Kentucky, the best team that Miami has beaten). It's important for them to beat a mediocre St. John's team on Saturday, because without it they will likely need 10 wins in the ACC to make the Tournament. And when you've got three games against Duke and North Carolina, it's tough to only lose 6 throughout the entire ACC regular season. If I were a betting man, I'd pick Miami to make the Tournament, but it's going to be a tough road.

#3 Pittsburgh 56, Florida State 48
This final score might not look impressive for Pitt, but I was impressed watching the game. They were on the road against a good team, and nothing was going right. Levance Fields just didn't seem into the game, and didn't even attempt to look for his own shot (his one three-point field goal game as the shot clock was nearing zero and he didn't have enough time to pass it off), and Tyrell Biggs didn't play well either. But Pitt kept themselves in the game with impenetrable defense and tough rebounding. They held the Seminoles to 30% shooting, forced 18 turnovers, collected 25 defensive boards while only allowing 8 offensive boards, and did all of this while only committing 19 fouls. And when they needed a play, Sam Young led the way (21 points and 7 rebounds). The hallmark of an elite team is finding a way to win a win games when many of your top players are struggling. I still think UConn is the favorite in the Big East, but if anybody will knock them off it's Pitt.

USC 76, Georgia Tech 57

For some reason USC has floated under the radar this season. My guess is that it has to do with OJ Mayo and the fact that fans tend to confuse NBA prospects from NCAA stars. Often times the best NBA prospect on a college team is not its most important player, because a savvy senior is often superior to a raw 18-year old talent, even if the raw 18-year old has a much better chance of developing into an NBA star. So in the case of guys like Kevin Durant, or even Tim Duncan back in the day, they were the star of the team as well as the best NBA prospect. But I also would argue that Greg Oden wasn't the most important player on his team (that would have been Mike Conley, Jr), and I would argue that OJ Mayo was not the best player on last year's USC team. But people see Mayo starring in the pros and assume that his loss is devastating to the Trojans. But I would argue that the most important player on last year's team was Daniel Hackett, and he's still around. Taj Gibson is also a key returner, as is Dwight Lewis. Davon Jefferson also is gone (playing in Israel, and joining the long list of players who messed up their careers by going pro too early), but USC has replaced him with star freshman DeMar DeRozan. They might not be quite as good as last year, but I do think they're going to eventually be a Tournament team. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, just isn't really all that good. When Gani Lawal is held in check, they're not going to beat anybody. Unless they win over both Georgia and Alabama in early January (an unlikely result), Georgia Tech will need 10 ACC wins to make the Tournament. I just don't think they're good enough for 10. If they do manage to beat both Georgia and Alabama, they might be able to sneak in with a 9-7 ACC record.

Utah State 66, Utah 64
I don't know how many people know somebody from Utah State, but if you don't then you don't know how big of a game this is for them. The first thing anybody from that school wants to talk about is that despite the success of the RickMajerus teams, Utah State has won a majority of the match-ups between these two teams over the past two decades or so. And they won another one, reinforcing my belief that they're the favorites to take the WAC. For Utah, this is another tough loss (four of their five losses have been by four points or less). What's interesting about them is that despite their poor 6-5 record, they are still probably the third best team in what is (according to the RPI, Sagarin and Pomeroy) the seventh best conference in the nation. Most recent years we have had a mid-major conference earn three bids, so doesn't that mean that this year's top mid-major conference should have an excellent shot at a third bid? Certainly, but Utah has a way to go. Their out-of-conference resume won't cut it, unless they find a way to defeat Gonzaga and LSU in their final two big games. After that, they're going to have to make up a lot of ground in the Mountain West. If they can win the regular season title, for example, they'll have a great shot at the Tournament.

No comments: