The Double Bonus: Not Thrilling, But Nice

We’re back to Week 1 with our formatting here: Tim is in black, John is in red. We asked for feedback last week, and we got one response demanding the return of color. You’re welcome.

We’re roughly halfway through the conference season already, and I can’t help but react to the season thus far the same way Dom Deluise’s Caesar does to that alabaster tub in History of the World Part I: “Nice. Nice. Not thrilling, but nice.” A lot of it has to do with the parity settling in among the nation’s conferences: There seem to be fewer elite teams in 2010 and several leagues with tightly packed standings.

It also appears as if most of the big six conferences are having down years. We knew coming into the season that the Pac-10 would be down, if not to this Oregon State-got-beat-by-51-by-Seattle extent.* The Big XII is having an excellent season with Kansas, Texas, and Kansas State at the top and a nice balance in the middle. The Big East is still the Big East, if not quite as top-heavy as last season. The SEC is having a bit of a bounceback year—how could it not after last season’s disaster?—aided by South Carolina’s upset of Kentucky and Vanderbilt’s win in Knoxville (once again, the SEC East may have four teams better than anyone in the SEC West. Prove me wrong, Mississippi, prove me wrong).

*Which was still not the most surprising loss in the last month for a member of Craig Robinson’s family.

Purdue's struggles in the Big Ten have left many on campus scratching their heads.

But the ACC and Big Ten are having worse years than expected. North Carolina has fallen out of the rankings and to 10th in the ACC (that won’t last…unfortunately) while Purdue is already three games behind Michigan State in the Big Ten standings after a three-game losing streak earlier this month. The biggest issue for both of these conferences, however, is that their muddled middles comprise a lot of bubble teams instead of solid contenders pushed down by conference heavyweights. The Big Ten was far from a clear picture last season, but the teams fighting it out in the middle of the conference were all consensus Tournament teams: Illinois and Purdue earned 5-seeds, Michigan a 7, Minnesota a 10, Wisconsin a 12. This year, after the top three of Michigan State, Purdue, and Wisconsin, it’s a jumbled mess. Only Ohio State portends to be a threat come March (as long as Evan Turner doesn’t re-fracture his back) since Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Penn State, and even Northwestern have been disappointing.*

*Before Wildcats fans (and I know you’re out there) jump on me, it’s been a disappointing season compared to the pre-injury expectations. It’s been a good season compared to the post-injury expectations.

The same is true in the ACC, which is led by Maryland and Virginia—both of whom wouldn’t merit at-large berths according to Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology (the Terps are a 13-seed because they lead the conference). Lunardi hands out six other bids to the ACC, but a lot of that is based on the conjecture that UNC will bounce back (they will…unfortunately), that FSU and Georgia Tech can start winning road games, and that Clemson is better than what it’s shown in its last few games. Duke, Georgia Tech, and possibly Wake Forest appear to be the only teams in the ACC who can feel comfortable at this point about their Tourney chances.

So, John, is it just me, or is this the absolute worst year to start talking expansion? I feel like only the Bigs East and XII have made it to the deep end of the pool while everyone else is on the shallow side (and the Pac-10 is on the top step).

Well, I’ve never really understood the talk about expansion; this is the second (maybe third?) year in a row with a weak bubble, where the difficulty is more about putting teams in than keeping them out. So what is the sense of expanding the tournament and taking away any drama in the regular season? You’d essentially be saying to major conference teams, “Go .500 in conference and you’re in.”

And it does seem like a lot of conferences are having down years. In the ACC, some of this can be attributed to a rash of players leaving. At least five teams (UNC, Duke, Wake Forest, Miami, FSU) lost their best player from 2009 to graduation and/or the NBA; teams always lose players, but not always at that rate.

Having Said That, you can’t really use that excuse to explain why Purdue has been mildly disappointing, or why the mid-level teams in so many conferences have failed to distinguish themselves.

This may be part of a new trend—this is gonna get speculative—in college basketball. Inconsistency pervades all levels, from elites like Kentucky that can drop games to South Carolina, to second-tier teams like UConn that can beat the #1 team in the country by 14 and then lose to Providence by 15. It probably also extends to teams like Providence or NC State, the latter of which can lose to UNC by the same margin by which it beat Duke.

With so much inconsistency, it becomes hard to get a solid grasp on these mid-level teams. As soon as they get a marquee win and garner some bubble talk, they drop an easy one and hurt their own reputation.

You know what sucks? Being a glue guy on a bad team. Don’t worry, Marcus Ginyard. Jesse Sapp from last year’s Hoyas can sympathize.

Hey Tim, remember when you said that Georgetown was “not an NCAA team”? And now they’re #7 in the country! Funny how things work out.

Remember when Georgetown had that 14-0 lead on Syracuse Monday? And then the Hoyas were outscored 73-42 the rest of the way? Mark my words: G’Town doesn’t play on the second weekend.*

*That’s already a pretty big step back for me. In another two weeks, I’ll be boldly proclaiming Georgetown will not make the Final Four.

Only in the Big Ten can Iowa win a road game.

Not sure whether to be worried about Michigan State for almost losing on the road at Minnesota and Michigan or impressed that it pulled both out at the end. I’m leaning toward impressed. That late-and-close experience will help in March, and I don’t know if there’s another guard I’d want with the ball in the final seconds more than Kalin Lucas.

NPI: Home of Spirited Austin Freeman Debate

I’ll agree with you on the “impressed” point: I think Michigan State may be flying under the radar (you know, as much as a #5 team can fly under the radar) since they haven’t been put in the “elite” class yet, but Tom Izzo is great and his teams usually exceed expectations in March. But I’ll probably disagree with Kalin Lucas. He’s a good choice, but is he better than Scottie Reynolds? Sherron Collins? Austin Freeman? John Wall? Even Jon Scheyer?

Did you really put Austin Freeman in that class?

I considered putting him FIRST. He’s good, Tim. Don’t let your hatred of the Hoyas blind you.

I am sure of this: With 2 seconds or less on the clock, I want John Beilein drawing up a play for me.

Line of the Week: I’m tempted to go with Kemba Walker against Texas for his 19-10-8-6. But the eight is for turnovers. How often does someone have 10 assists and eight turnovers?

Also, you can’t really go against another Big East guard putting up 46, 10, and 8. That was Dominique Jones in South Florida’s overtime win at Providence.

We’ve talked in other posts on other sports about the acceptance of instant replay as a good thing. Here’s my possible exception: Do we need to look immediately to determine whether it’s a two or a three? First of all, these reviews take at least twice as long as they should; the first or second replay is almost always conclusive. Second, there are enough timeouts in college basketball already; just wait for the next TV timeout or stoppage in play to determine it (unless, of course, it’s in the final seconds).

I disagree. Even if it’s in the final seconds, the refs should wait until the next stoppage. That way, the game will end, and the refs can go back and check to see who won.

Does And-One still make those mixtapes? If that league’s still around, South Carolina’s Devan Downey is gonna find a home. He’s not the best guard in the SEC East, but he may have the best crossover in the nation.

I didn’t see this game, so I haven’t been blown away by Downey yet, but did you see his line? Dude was 9-for-29—it’s a good thing he got the foul line so often. He’s also had games this year of 3-for-15, 6-for-25, 8-for-23, and 7-for-20. How is his FG% over 40?

Yeah, his 7-for-9 in the season opener against Alabama A&M is really propping him up.

How did South Carolina ever lose when it has Downey and its coach is the smartest man in the world?

There is something unsettling about hearing Gamecock fans chant “S-A-T” at another school.

DeMarcus Cousins, on the other hand, was very impressive in that game in Columbia. Cousins reminds me a little of Al Horford on the block, except bigger.

Look, I’m all for wearing an alternate light-colored jersey at home. Illinois’ orange, Michigan’s maize, Cal’s yellow…these are all good looks. But Seton Hall’s gray? South Carolina’s gray? Maryland’s yellow? Those are terrible looks. (And what’s the deal with USC’s numbers there? When did they become Miami?)(I wrote all this South Carolina stuff at halftime of its game with Kentucky, thinking the Gamecocks were very lucky to only be down three and that the Wildcats would blow them out in the second half and that my insight on Devan Downey would be new. I was wrong on all accounts—except the being lucky to be done three.)

I know how much John dislikes ESPN having its own rankings, but it’s kind of ridiculous when the worldwide leader’s website runs an AP story all about how Seton Hall beat its first top-10 team in years after knocking off Pittsburgh while placing your own ranking of the Panthers (11) next to their name up top.

Now, John, you know I like Barack Obama as much as the next guy. And I wasn’t buying into this whole “Barack’s a letdown” right-wing propaganda…UNTIL he called John Calipari and congratulated him on his Haiti donations. I don’t know if I can ever vote for that guy again.

Come on, after that speech last night?

Maybe Jeremy Lin belongs on that list of guards?

Cue the DVR! Harvard and Cornell on Saturday for Ivy League Domination! The Crimson and the Big Red! This sarcasm is totally unjustified! This is a legitimately significant basketball game!

The Ivy League might have more tournament teams than the Pac-10 this year. This is only a slight exaggeration.

Just three days after I called Georgia Tech the second-best team in the ACC, they dropped a game to Florida State. I guess this means Wake Forest is better than them? Even though Duke beat Wake by 20 and lost to Georgia Tech? The ACC is turning into the NFC South: Everybody wins at home (except UNC!) (they beat NC State on the road).

The estimable Pat Forde called out Duke on Tuesday, specifically mentioning them as a team that “can’t win it all.” And as much as we hate to admit it, he’s probably right. Instead of getting sucked into the “new Duke” hype that seems to come out every January, Forde points out that we’ve been here before. The Blue Devils look surprisingly good against weak non-conference opponents, and even good teams that come into Cameron. By February, though, their weaknesses show against tough ACC competition. This year isn’t shaping up any different, with Scheyer, Singler, and Smith carrying the team through different stretches, but already showing signs of wearing down.

The Blue Devils need a post player to step up. Mason Plumlee is too young and tentative in the low-post, and Brian Zoubek is Brian Zoubek, so it’s up to Miles Plumlee and Lance Thomas. Both of them need to stay out of foul trouble (Thomas fouled out in 14 minutes—14!—against Georgia Tech). Thomas had an encouraging game against Clemson, with 13 points and 7 rebounds. Perhaps the most encouraging thing, though, was that he took 9 shots; when he got the ball, it actually sometimes seemed like he was looking for his own shot and not immediately looking to pass!

I don’t know how you think this team is better when Lance Thomas is taking (and hitting the same part of the front of the rim) three mid-range jump shots in a game. As for Duke as a title contender on the whole, I agree that the Blue Devils aren’t any better than they have been the last two seasons. At the same time, the competition is a lot worse—which is the only reason they might make it farther than in years past. (You know what else would help Duke’s cause? Upsets around them in the Tournament. It would have been a lot easier as a 2-seed last year to go through Minnesota and American and then, I don’t know, Oklahoma State.)

I have two bigger problems with Forde’s list, though:

1. He essentially took the Top 10, threw out Duke, and added No. 12 BYU as his “flier.” A 20-1 team is not a “flier,” even if it’s BYU.

2. His reasoning for all his teams lacks, you know, insight. Wesley Johnson is an “elite-level” player for Syracuse, “which is a necessity.” You know who else is an elite-level player? Devan Downey. After Michigan State got to the Final Four in Detroit last year, why can’t Purdue do that in Indianapolis? Along those same lines, why can’t Butler or Indiana or IUPUI? 

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