Saturday, November 10, 2012

Open The Season: Canceled Carrier Games & UConn Shocks Michiganbly their State

For the first time in a long time, college basketball had a true "opening day". 184 Division I teams played a game yesterday. The highlights were supposed to be three aircarft carrier games (after the success of last year's carrier game) and a game on Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. Unfortunately for the carrier games, condensation and wet basketball courts did them in. The Syracuse/San Diego State game was cancelled hours before tip-off. The Marquette and Ohio State players warmed up on the court, and even briefly "scrimmaged" to get a feel for the court, before the game was cancelled. And Florida/Georgetown played an entire first half before cancelling the game. Brutal.

I think the lesson from these carrier games is that if you're going to do them again they have to be like last season - in San Diego, during the afternoon. Playing in the evening on the east coast is just begging for an unplayable court. But really, if they want to pay tribute to the troops, they should consider doing more military bases, because the Ramstein Base game was awesome. Speaking of which:

UConn 66, #14 Michigan State 62
Even aside from the awesome location, this was the game of the day. UConn was white hot to start the game - their eFG% was over 100% for the first ten minutes of the first half. Their shooting cooled off as the game went along, but stayed better than an ice cold Michigan State team. The Spartans briefly got the lead late in the game, but never by more than a possession, and they fell apart down the stretch. In the final five minutes, Michigan State shot 2-for-7 from the field with 2 turnovers.

I think it's a mistake to draw too many conclusions about Michigan State here. Watching the game it felt like a game MSU would win 8 times out of 10. Upsets happen, and Michigan State has a history under Tom Izzo of starting slow and ending strong. The biggest concern to me was Keith Appling, who is trying to do his best Kalin Lucas impersonation but doesn't seem to have the same vision. He kept dribbling into corners, and was unable to create offense for his teammates. Gary Harris might be good someday, but he didn't quite live up to all the hype in game #1 of his college career. Michigan State dominated the boards against UConn (17 offensive rebounds for a 47.2 OR%), but their backcourt play has to get significantly better if they're going to contend for a Big Ten title.

This is a huge win for Kevin Ollie and UConn. When Ollie was first given a small one-year contract to lead the team, and with the postseason ban in mind, it seemed almost a certainty that Ollie wouldn't get a second chance. But if Ollie can pull a few more upsets like this and keep UConn with a respectable Big East record? It will be hard for the administration not to give him another shot. One scary moment was a fall by Ryan Boatright. He was able to come back into the game, but the injury briefly emphasized just how thin this UConn team is. They have a good starting lineup, but have a very thin bench. They can't afford any serious injuries this season.

#19 Baylor 99, Lehigh 77
Normally I wouldn't bother recapping a 22 point victory for a ranked team over a Patriot League team. But there are two reasons I want to talk about this game. First of all, CJ McCollum was great. He scored 36 points, and really looked like one of the best players in the nation. Have to imagine that the NBA scouts are drooling. At times he tried to do too much and forced shots in triple teams, but it's hard to blame him when you consider that his teammates were vastly outmanned at every other position. But those Lehigh players, who didn't even look like they belonged on the same court athletically as Baylor, actually had 17 offensive rebounds, compared to only 11 for Baylor.

And that brings me to my second point: Baylor's effort and focus was terrible. And I'm sure Baylor fans will argue that they dominated the first 10 minutes of the game and just took their foot off the pedal after that. But the problem is that this has been how Baylor has played throughout the Scott Drew era. The reason they are always so much better on the offensive glass than the defensive glass (last year they were 16th in the nation in OR%, 177th in DR%) is because they are lazy, and fail to show the focus needed to execute basketball fundamentals. That is what consistently holds this program back from truly competing for Big 12 titles and Final Four berths.

Still, I don't want to be totally negative about Baylor. The reason CJ McCollum was so good and Baylor was so awful on the boards but this game wasn't close was because the Baylor bigs dominated the paint on offense. They made an absurd 81% of their two-pointers, led by a combined 20-for-23 from Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin. Austin got hurt and missed the second half of the game, which was a scary moment for Baylor. But it sounds as if he should be back in the lineup when they play Boston College next week.

George Mason 63, Virginia 59
George Mason finished this game on a 12-4 run, sparked by Bryon Allen, who had the score to put George Mason ahead and then hit a pair of free throws to put the game away in the final seconds. This was never going to be an easy game, but it's a tough loss for a Virginia team that I might have overrated preseason. Mike Scott was always going to be irreplaceable, but I assumed that the defense would be back as good as ever. They were less than great here, although I do give them a pass on some hot George Mason outside shooting (7-for-14 behind the arc).

If Virginia can avoid an upset next week in the NIT Season Tip-Off early rounds (Monday's game against Fairfield is probably their toughest test) then they'll get a couple of good games in Madison Square Garden the following week to test themselves. As for George Mason, I'm not quite ready to consider them a serious at-large contender. This game was an upset, and I'll be very curious to see how they play Tuesday night at a good Bucknell team. If George Mason can pull the upset there (and yes, I would view it as an upset, even though Vegas could end up settling on them as a 1 or 2 point favorite) then it will give me more reason to believe in Paul Hewitt's boys.

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