Sunday, January 11, 2009

Wake Forest Steals A Win

#4 Wake Forest 92, #3 North Carolina 89
I hope everybody got to watch this outstanding battle between two of the best teams in the nation. At some point, the pressure of being highly ranked is going to catch up to this very young Wake Forest team, but they just rode a frenetic crowd to a lead and desperately held on despite a furious North Carolina rally to end the game. The question for Wake Forest, of course, is how long they can keep this up. Their next two games are at Boston College and at Clemson, and if I were going to bet I'd say that Wake will lose one of those two games. They're due for a little reality check. For North Carolina, they're still the best team in the nation, but there is no question that they are beatable. If I had to give a reason for their recent struggles, I'd say that they lack an identity. I do hate to harp on Tyler Hansbrough, because I think that most casual fans do underestimate how good he is (he falls somewhere between the superhero that the media treats him as, and the whiny child that most fans of opposing teams think he is), but his style of play just does not fit with this team right now. Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green form a great uptempo trio. Hansbrough actually serves to tie things up. He moves poorly without the ball on offense, and way too often I noticed cutting Carolina players running into him. Every time you saw two or three Tar Heels players standing in one spot, Hansbrough was one of them. His greatest strength (his aggressiveness and tenacity) also worked against him at the end of this game, as he forced an unwise three-pointer, and turned the ball over by pushing his way into a triple team under the basket. He needs to understand his limits and allow his teammates to lead the way. Wayne Ellington, especially, has really taken a leap in ability this season. You can't see it in his stats, were are similar to last year, but watching him play he just seems like a much more aggressive and dominant player.

Alabama 65, LSU 59
Speaking of players who have greatly improved their play this season, Senario Hillman is suddenly one of the elite players in the SEC. He singlehandedly won this game for Alabama down the stretch. He was the only Crimson Tide player to score in the final four minutes of the game, including a clutch 7-for-8 free throw shooting performance over the final 45 seconds of play. Alabama (as they have been for several years now) is dreadfully thin, but with Hillman's rise they really have quite a talented starting lineup. Ronald Steele continues to be a bit tentative and inconsistent, but if he, Alonzo Gee and Hillman can all get their act together at the same time, that might be the best trio in the conference. That lack of depth will probably be what keeps Alabama out of the Tournament, but you can't completely count them out as long as they're playing like this. Here's a stat that will tell you how easy it is to be in the SEC West this year: Of Alabama's 16 SEC games, only nine of them are against teams currently in the RPI Top 100, and only two of them are against teams currently sitting in the RPI Top 50. Of course, that doesn't do their strength of schedule any favors, and with a loss to Mercer they will need a minimum of a 10-6 conference record to make the Tournament. With a slightly better out-of-conference resume, LSU has more of a margin for error, but I also think that they need 10 conference wins. They get a great opportunity for a signature win when Xavier comes to town on the 24th. But it just struck me: how weird of a season is it when an SEC team needs to wait for an Atlantic Ten opponent in order to have a chance at a prominent win?

Drake 74, Wichita State 69
I have to say that I'm pleasantly surprised with this Drake team. After so many years of Missouri Valley futility, last season seemed like one of those once-in-a-decade teams with so many seniors and such great chemistry. With all of their stars gone, it was assumed that Drake would slide back into the shadows where we could forget about them for another decade. In fact, they are now tied for first place in the Missouri Valley with a 4-1 record, and are 13-4 overall on the season. With only one RPI Top 100 victory and a loss to Stephen F. Austin, the resume is still lacking, but I think they are well aware that an at-large big was always going to be a long shot this season. The thing with the Missouri Valley this season is that you've got a lot of good teams, but no great teams. If everybody beats up on everybody else then it will be a one-bid league. But if one or two teams are able to clear the field and rack up a gaudy record, they could easily earn two, or even three Tournament bids. Drake is one of those teams that has the ability to make a Tournament run if everything falls right.

#7 UCLA 64, USC 60
A good, if somewhat messy game in Los Angeles. One thing I have to point out is that Jrue Holiday's improvement has been remarkable. I was really killing him earlier this season (here and here, for example) for his atrocious play. He couldn't pass, he couldn't play defense, and he just seemed unaware of what was going on around him. Well, he still isn't a great defender, but he's definitely improved. More importantly, he has turned into something of a dynamic scorer. You can tell why he was so highly rated as a prospect coming out of high school. One other thing to note about UCLA is that they've actually played a really easy schedule so far. Despite the gaudy record they are only 1-2 against the RPI Top 90. But the reason I have stuck with them as a 1 seed is because they really have the ability to blow through the Pac-10. There's no reason that they can't go 15-3 or 16-2. Is a 30-4 UCLA team that won the Pac-10 regular season and conference title going to get denied a 1 seed? Not a chance. USC, meanwhile, missed a really great opportunity to jump up the Pac-10 pecking order. They are still a solid 10-5, but they are 1-3 against the RPI Top 100 and 1-2 in the Pac-10, with an RPI hovering around 100th in the nation. They have a great opportunity coming up with back-to-back home games against Arizona State and Arizona. They need to at least split those two games to keep pace in the conference, and I believe that they will. Depending on what takes place in other conferences, it's possible that a 9-9 Pac-10 record won't be good enough for an at-large bid for USC, so it's really essential that they don't dig a hole for themselves with a 1-4 start.

1 comment:

DMoore said...

Right now UNC has the look of an extremely talented team who exits the tourney earlier than their seed would predict. In two straight games, when they were just a little bit behind at the end they panicked and started jacking up 3s way too early. You described their problem as "identity", and I think I'd go so far as to call it "leadership".

I've been impressed with Ellington and Green so far, but very disappointed with Lawson & Hansbrough. Frankly, in the halfcourt these guys don't make their teammates better.

Hansbrough gets double and triple teamed constantly. So why does he only average 0.6 assists per game? That's Horrible!

Ty Lawson may be the fastest guy in college basketball. On the break, he terrorizes opponents. So why is he not constantly getting in the middle of the lane in halfcourt sets? He should be leading Danny Green and Deon Thompson to incredible dunkfests.

It's just baffling.