Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On a Night of Stars, Trevor Mbakwe Shined Brightest

Ben Fishman

    Six years ago, a young man named Trevor Mbakwe committed to Tom Crean at the University of Marquette. Since then, Mbakwe has bounced from Wisconsin, to Miami and all the way back up to Minnesota. Six years later, the two still keep a nice relationship. Except of course on nights like last night.
    See, by now you know that Tom Crean left Marquette for the Indiana job. Mbakwe had some problems, with his knees and then the law, and bounced around from Marquette to Miami Dade Community College and finally landed at Minnesota under coach Tubby Smith. This year is his 6th year of eligibility, and boy did Minnesota need it. The Gophers needed Mbakwe the man in last night’s 77-73 victory over the top ranked Indiana Hoosiers, a win that solidifies Minnesota as a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
    The reason Minnesota picked up the win? Forget Austin and Andre Hollins, forget the rowdy crowd inside the Barn, and forget the high pressured intensity of a team in a must-win situation. No, in order to really understand this win, you need to look at the man, Trevor Mbakwe. He finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds. But the plays that won’t show in the box score are all on defense. Mbakwe shut down preseason Player of the Year Cody Zeller, forcing the big man into an awful night of shooting and forcing Zeller to foul out, for the second time in his career.

    Mbakwe is the heart and soul of this Minnesota team, and even when he went to the bench with foul trouble, there he was, screaming and directing his teammates in huddles and on the floor. The big man has certainly waved off his past transgressions and established himself as one of the best interior players in America.
    Mbakwe at the moment is considered a late-first round or early-second round pick in this years NBA Draft, and it would be a mistake to not take this kid in the first round. He has hustle, tenacity and a smooth offensive game that was on display for all of his 25 foul plagued minutes.

    What did Tubby Smith have to say about his 6th year senior? After posting his league leading, think about that for a second, 7th double-double of the year, Gophers coach Tubby Smith simply said, “Trevor set that tone for us,” referring to his Gophers coming out with a bit of an edge against an Indiana team whose last two road games resulted in huge wins at Ohio State and at Michigan State.
    Said Indiana coach Tom Crean, Mbakwe’s former coach at Marquette, “He’s a high-level, high-energy, tough guy who plays the game at a desperate level.”
    The win wasn’t as much a coming out party for Minnesota as it was a question for Indiana. The Hoosiers shouldn’t hold their heads low after this one, and they really can’t with a scary Iowa team coming in this Saturday, winners of 3 of their last 4. Iowa pushed Indiana to the wire to start the Big Ten slate for both teams, and now needs a huge win in Assembly Hall Saturday.
    Indiana didn’t match Minnesota’s poise and got handed a tough loss on the road, a place where they were so good as of late. But let’s be honest, the Gophers owed ‘em one. Indiana is still in first place in the Big Ten, but the slip up means the Hoosiers now must win out to win the Big Ten regular season title and assure itself of the top seed in Chicago in three weeks.
    If the season ended today, the Hoosiers would get Iowa or Purdue in the quarters, then likely Michigan or Ohio State in the semis. Just another sign of how tough the Big Ten really is.

    For Minnesota, the Gophers can’t celebrate for too long, they finish with Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue, three games they could very easily sweep. If Minnesota wins out and finishes 10-8 in the conference, they’d be red hot, and a team that you probably wouldn’t want to see Chicago.

    Either way, last night’s game showed that the Big Ten has been its own mini version of March Madness. But as Tubby Smith said afterwards, “Hey, we’ve gotta get busy, we’ve got practice tomorrow.”
    Expect anything different?

Observations from Tuesday 2/26

Ben Fishman

1.    Minnesota showed that they can play with anybody in the nation. The Gophers were in a must win situation last night in the Barn, and had to pick up a win to really solidify themselves as a lock in the NCAA Tournament. While watching the loss, I was extremely happy that no other team in America has a guy like Trevor Mbakwe. To describe his play in one word would be easier than trying to defend him, just ask Cody Zeller, the pre-season Player of the Year in the Big Ten. He was simply a man. Leading the way with 21 points and 12 rebounds, Mbakwe also was huge on Cody Zeller all night. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, Indiana can not beat very many teams when Cody Zeller becomes a non factor on offense and defense. Not only did Mbakwe have his way with the potential lottery pick, but he also was imposing on the defensive side of the ball, forcing Zeller into 2-9 shooting for only 9 points, 5 of which came from the free throw line. Indiana must quickly regroup, with a dangerous Iowa team coming into town this Saturday. After that it’s Ohio State then Michigan to end the year, and Indiana can win them all.

2.    I told everybody to check out the Memphis-Xavier game last night, to try and get a good read on the Tigers. I think I have one. Memphis decided to give its naysayers all the ammunition they now need to plant Memphis with an 8 or a 9 seed in three weeks on Selection Sunday. Memphis was abysmal last night, going 6-18 from the free throw line. You won’t beat anybody with those kinds of numbers. In reality, Memphis should’ve won, had they just hit their free throws. They played well on the road in the second half to come back from a 13 point deficit, but the Tigers are now facing their worst enemy, themselves. Memphis can win out from here and possibly earn a 7 seed, but this is a team that has now missed two huge opportunities in last night’s loss to Xavier, and a December 15th loss to Louisville.

3.     How about Tennessee? The Vols finally are putting it together and it’s only gotten more and more exciting to watch what they can do. After dismantling Kentucky by 30 last week, the Vols picked up their biggest win yet, a 64-58 victory over #8 Florida last night. Tennessee is quietly putting together a solid resume in a not spectacular SEC. UT now finds themselves at 17-10 and 9-6 in the SEC. They go runner-runner road games at Georgia and Arkansas before closing at home against a Missouri team that is 1-6 in SEC road games.  Tennessee could jump Ole Miss before the SEC Tournament and earn the 4 seed. If I had to peg a dark horse candidate in that tournament, it’d be the Vols. For Florida, they must regroup once again, the Gators have a one game lead over Alabama now, and finish with the Tide, then Vandy, and then the big March 9th date in Rupp Arena. The SEC is gonna be quite fun to watch down the stretch.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Three Big Matchups for Tuesday

Ben Fishman

1.     Indiana goes to Minnesota in what couldn’t be more of a trap game. When the two teams met in early January, the Gophers were a top 10 team and the battle for the Big Ten had just begun. Minnesota trailed by 23 at the half before making it interesting, eventually losing 88-81. Since then the Gophers have struggled to a 6-8 record in Big Ten play which includes a loss at Northwestern. So how high is the panic meter for Minnesota? Probably around an 8. They’re still a tournament team because of their strong strength of schedule and RPI, but this could be the beginning of the end. If Minnesota lays down to Indiana tonight, then this may be a team destined to part ways with Tubby Smith in April. It’s a big game for Indiana too, as they can move a game closer to clinching the Big Ten, with three games (two at home) to go.

2.     If Indiana vs. Minnesota doesn’t do anything for you, then flip on over to ESPN2. The Memphis Tigers will try to silence some doubters at Xavier, never an easy place to play. The Tigers put their 18 game winning streak on the line against a Xavier team desperate for a quality win. If Memphis loses this one, against a Xavier team without guard Dee Davis, then the naysayers will have all the ammo they need to tear down Memphis’s resume. If Memphis wins, then maybe they can win over some believers and get pundits to look past Conference USA. Either way, this another big game for both teams.

3.    Finally, let’s go to the SEC. A huge game awaits for the Florida Gators in Knoxville. UT is again putting together a late season push to sneak into the NCAA Tournament, and a win over #8 Florida at home would go a long way towards doing that. Florida needs to remain calm after a loss to Missouri last week, and they did a good job rebounding against Arkansas over the weekend. But the Gators still have a road date at Kentucky on March 9th, and would like to wrap the SEC up by then. They have a two game lead over the Wildcats, and can’t afford a slip up tonight in Big Orange country. My friends, tonight will tell us a lot about each one of these teams. I can’t wait.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Recapping a Wild Saturday in Basketball

Ben Fishman

    It was another big Saturday in college hoops yesterday. From Kentucky keeping its NCAA Tournament hopes alive, to Georgetown sealing the deal on the Carrier Dome, we’ve got it all.
    What about Kentucky? They needed a win and got one. And it was a big one. Missouri came in fresh off an upset of #5 Florida on Tuesday night, but once again showed that it’s a team that can’t be trusted outside of Columbia. The loss drops them to 1-6 on the road in the SEC, and playing in half filled arenas like LSU doesn’t make me that optimistic that they’ll suddenly figure it out in March. Kentucky isn’t dead yet and the win keeps them in, barely, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. But the stretch gets tougher for UK, they still have Florida on their schedule March 9th.

    Memphis keeps on winning, and who cares if it’s against inferior competition? Winning 18 in a row is incredibly hard to do, and Memphis makes it look easy. In their game yesterday, an  89-73 drubbing of Southern Miss, the Tigers scored 29 baskets on 25 assists. That’s a truly unselfish team. Memphis gets a chance to showcase itself to the nation on Tuesday night, in an ESPN2 game at Xavier. The Musketeers, are 15-11 and have yet to play Atlantic Ten leader St. Louis, but dropped a close game to VCU last night. It’s a must win for both teams. For Xavier, they need a quality win to bolster a resume that includes an early season win over Butler and Purdue, but also includes a loss to Wofford and Vanderbilt. For Memphis, the Tigers need to keep winning, and dropping a game to Xavier will give all the naysayers in America plenty of ammunition to launch at Memphis come March.

    What has happened to Miami? Their luck finally ran out at Wake Forest last night, dropping their first game in ACC play, and it wasn’t even close. The Hurricanes were out hustled and out played by the smaller Demon Deacons, and deserved to lose by more than 15. Give them credit for fighting back, but their last four games are very troubling ahead of a rematch with Duke next Saturday. The loss likely drops Miami from its perch as a #1 seed, and they will have to beat Duke, probably twice, to get it back.

    Gonzaga is now going to be the #2 team in America. And good for them. The Zags have done well this season and are getting every teams best shot out West. The 1-2 punch of Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos, is as good as it gets in America. Factor in Elias Harris, and this team is scary good. They’ve got a big one at BYU next week, and if they win that one, they’ll likely win out and earn a #1 seed in the Los Angeles regional.

    Speaking of teams out West, St. Mary’s finally put it together in a win over Creighton. Guard Matt Dellavedova is as good as it gets when it comes to directing an offense. The win yesterday likely gives St. Mary’s enough ammunition to sneak in as an at-large team if it doesn’t beat Gonzaga in the West Coast tournament. Meanwhile Creighton is in trouble. They need a big win over Wichita State next Saturday to assure themselves a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

    North Carolina picked up a huge win and finally seem to be putting all the pieces together. They’ll be a tough out in March and could be the dark horse candidate to steal the ACC’s crown. The victory over N.C. State was huge in terms of seeding. They’re now in sole possession of 3rd place and would get Duke in the semi finals. UNC still gets the return game with the Blue Devils on March 9th in Chapel Hill, and if they get that one, they could be scary.

    Villanova and Georgetown picked up two huge wins yesterday. For ‘Nova, they turned away a good Marquette squad and further boosted their resume. They now have wins over Marquette, Syracuse and Louisville. If they keep this up, and sneak another win out next week over Pitt, then they’re gonna be dancing come Selection Sunday.
    And finally we get to the game of the day. Georgetown-Syracuse more than lived up to its billing. Saturday morning I said that for the Hoyas to win, Otto Porter had to be big. He was that and way more as Georgetown went on the road and picked up a huge victory in front of a sell out crowd of 35,012 inside the Carrier Dome. The biggest part of the victory? It now gives John Thompson III’s squad sole possession of first place in the Big East.

    It was a wild Saturday and this next week promises to be even better. As the final days of February tail off, we will quickly move into the best month of the year, March. Let the Madness begin, almost.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Saturday Selections 2/23

Ben Fishman

    Welcome to the last Saturday in February folks! Next Saturday is go time. Why? It’s March, the best month of the year. With 15 days until the final day of the regular season, let’s take a look around America.

    Southern Miss at #19 Memphis FSN 1:00 p.m.
This is a rematch of a game from two weeks ago that put Memphis back in the polls. Since then, the Tigers have kept winning, extending the nation’s longest winning streak to 17. Southern Miss on the other hand, has won three in a row and kept an RPI in the top 40. This is a must win on the road for the Golden Eagles to assure themselves of an at-large bid. Memphis dominated the first game, controlling the pace and will do so again at home.

Memphis 81 Southern Miss 71

    #11 Georgetown at #8 Syracuse CBS 4:00 p.m.
Remember when it was Jim Boeheim vs. John Thompson III? Those were the days. Now, as Syracuse prepares to leave for new conference land, and Georgetown plans to join its six best friends, we see the end of a great rivalry. Much like Kansas-Missouri last year, expect this game to be full of emotion and full of everything that makes us love college basketball. Otto Porter is my key for Georgetown today, if he has a big game, and the rest of the Hoyas can shoot around Syracuse’s zone, then it’ll be a fun day in New York. I like the upset.

Georgetown 65 Syracuse 62

    Stanford at #23 Oregon PACN 8:00 p.m.
What about the season the Ducks are having? Oregon is putting together quite a campaign for the Pac-12 title, and it needs to win tonight to stay in contention. The Ducks were knocked off by Cal earlier this week, and must regroup. They’re still in a tie for first place with Arizona, but three teams are all within one game. The finish out West might be as good as any other conference in America.

Oregon 75 Stanford 63

    Missouri at Kentucky ESPN 9:00 p.m.
John Calipari’s Kentucky squad got a much needed victory earlier this week against a scrappy Vandy club at home. It was a game too close for comfort, and Coach Cal hopes this one isn’t much of the same. Missouri comes in 1-5 on the road in SEC play, but upset Florida at home on Tuesday. Kentucky needs this win to stay alive in the quest for an at-large bid. After this battle, UK gets Mississippi State, road games at Arkansas and Georgia, and then another big game at home against Florida. They need this one tonight, though. Or it may be NIT.

Missouri 69 Kentucky 63

    Illinois at #7 Michigan ESPN 1:00 p.m Sunday
Michigan needs a win to stay in contention in the Big Ten race, and can still win the regular season title. The Wolverines get road games against Purdue and Penn State before Indiana on March 10th, but now find themselves 2.5 back of the league leading Hoosiers. Illinois is looking for another big victory to boost its at-large chances, and desperately wants to work up to a top 4 seed in Chicago. Going to Michigan is never easy, and I expect the Wolverines to be clicking ahead a quick two game road trip, in preparation for IU.

Michigan 73 Illinois 67

    Michigan State at Ohio State CBS 4:00 p.m. Sunday
Want to see a huge game on Sunday? Look no further. Michigan State, fresh off its defeat Tuesday to Indiana, gets to travel to Ohio State this weekend. OSU gets its third straight CBS Sunday game, and they hope this one goes better than the last two, losses to Indiana and at Wisconsin. Neither team can afford a loss today and these two games will go a long way towards deciding who gets Thursday off in the Big Ten tournament, and who will have to win four games in four days. At the moment Ohio State is 5th in the conference, just half a game back of Michigan. Sparty is still in second place, but a loss Sunday could be bad.
Michigan State 62 Ohio State 59

Friday, February 22, 2013

Contender or Pretender? Miami

Ben Fishman

    If you had Miami, yes the one in South Beach, being undefeated in the ACC heading into the last week of February at the beginning of the year, raise your hand. Very few of you, okay. If you had Jim Larranaga as your Coach of the Year, please, raise your hand. None of you, that’s better. The reality is that nobody could have predicted this sort of outburst from Miami’s other team. The Hurricanes enter the last weekend of February at 12-0 in the ACC and 22-3 overall.
    So the question now becomes, contender or pretender?

    For Miami, it’s a very simple offense but one that is pretty efficient. They love to clear the way for their talented guards Durand Scott and Shane Larkin who are averaging 26 points between them. When they’re locked down, Miami has a beast inside named Reggie Johnson, who is averaging 9.4 points and 8.3 rebounds good for 6th in the conference. Alongside him is Kenny Kadji. To borrow a quote from Moneyball, he’s the Greek God of efficiency, except he’s from Cameroon. Kadji is your do it all guy, someone you can count on throughout the whole game. He averages 12.8 points, shoots 48% from the field and isn’t horrible from beyond the arc, shooting 36%. The three seniors, Larkin is a sophomore, do a great job of carrying Miami. But that’s about where it stops.

    Miami is a team that isn’t going to kill you with its athleticism or its depth. Miami probably goes about seven deep, not great for a team competing to win a national championship. The Hurricanes top seven guys, and that’s really it, average between 6.6 and 13.1 points per game. Comparing that to a team like Indiana, the Hoosiers top 6 guys average 71.7 points per game, while the Hurricanes need their entire rotation to get to 70.7. Miami is a team that clearly lacks the star power of an Indiana or a Michigan State.
    What Miami does do well is rebound. The Hurricanes are one of the better rebounding squads in America at check in at just over 36 per game, using their size and strength inside to bully other teams around. They also win and not only win, but they find a way to survive and grit out wins. Larranaga’s team has won eight games within ten points and three games within one possession.

    Now time for what Miami doesn’t do so well. Where to begin? The Hurricanes are a team that don’t share the ball well. They average a mediocre 11.7 assists per game which is good for 261st in the country. Miami averages less than 70 points which checks them in at 140th in America and five times this year have failed to crack 60 points.
    Miami takes good care of the ball, coming in at 20th in the country, but they don’t force many turnovers. The Hurricanes 176th in the nation in steals per game, meaning when they aren’t taking care of the ball, they can’t rely on their defense to get easy points.
    Finally, Miami isn’t a team that is going to beat you with the deep ball. The Hurricanes come in shooting just over 35% in three point field goal percentage. A team can drop to a zone and have their way with Miami’s shooters if they wish, which is what a Syracuse would do should they run into the Hurricanes in March.

    So back to the original question. The scoring isn’t always there for Miami. In their last two games they’re averaging 49.5 points per game, in two games they probably should have wound up losing. The bench isn’t great, but it isn’t horrible either, it’s just not deep as they only have seven players that contribute. Miami isn’t a team that is going to wow you with their star power either.
    For example, if a Michigan comes out, you’re immediately going to be drawn to Tim Burke or Tim Hardaway Jr., just the way you’d be drawn to Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry at Duke. Miami doesn’t have those type of guys on their roster.
    Miami though is a team that could very easily be 25-0. They lost to Florida Gulf Coast without Durand Scott. They lost to Indiana State and Arizona without Reggie Johnson. But they had the full collection against Duke, the game that showed the nation that Miami had arrived. In a 27 point thrashing of the Blue Devils, Miami slowed the pace and stepped up the defensive intensity. Don’t forget that Duke didn’t have Ryan Kelly though, a player that Duke desperately needs back. But if that Miami team shows up every night, then Miami will be tough to beat.

    The problem is that their are way too many question marks on this Miami team. They don’t defend as well as some of the better teams in the country, and their low assist rate is pretty troubling. Add to that the fact that they only go seven deep is very concerning. They lost each of their games missing one of their top four guys. What’s the end result if that happens in March? Not good.
    This is a Miami team that will likely get Duke two more times, once in early March, and again in the ACC Tournament. If they drop those games, as well as any other contest, it’s clear to say that Miami will lose its shot at a #1 seed. For me, they’re a two seed, and for me, they’re a team you won’t be seeing very much of in March.

Miami = Pretender

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hey, NCAA, Fix This, Too

Ben Fishman

    During Tuesday night’s clash between two Big Ten titans on ESPN, the game was at a turning point. The top ranked Indiana Hoosiers had relinquished the lead to #3 Michigan State in East Lansing.
    As Michigan State took its biggest lead of the night, a four point cushion in front of a frenzied crowd, the officials stopped play. The play in question? Apparently Michigan State forward Derrick Nix was trying to get to know Cody Zeller a little better, and referee Tim Valentine quickly blew the whistle. Whatever side you are on as it pertains to who was at fault between Zeller and Nix, I think they both were, you have to see what the stoppage in time did. Sparty was making its run. The Izzone was rocking and the top ranked Hoosiers chances at a Big Ten regular season title were at stake. Then the officials halted play. Their response? No call.
    It was ridiculous really. The officials stopped play here for several minutes just to decide that they couldn’t do anything, when video evidence clearly showed something happened. At the very least somebody should have received a technical or a flagrant foul. But nothing happened, even though earlier in the game the refs awarded a technical foul to Christian Watford for making a routine drive and making contact with his elbow above the shoulders of a Spartan defender. Instead what we got was an obvious stop in momentum.

    This is a prime example of what is wrong in college basketball. I agree, there is no place in basketball for these actions, but we are giving officials way too much power during the course of a game. At seemingly any moment, an official can stop play to check any number of things. They can check if a 3 point basket was a 2, they can check on the clock, they can go back in time on video and call fouls they missed in the first place. Why not wait until the next time out?NCAA officials are what’s bad for the sport right now. I’ll go as far as saying that next to injuries, the officials are having the second worst impact on the game.

    The NBA officials are just that, officials. When the NBA officials are done with their games, they hop on a plane and head to the next city to ref the next game. When NCAA officials are done, they go home. They go to their day jobs. NCAA officials are part time guys, meaning when their not stopping games in pivotal moments, they’re selling you insurance, or they’re working in an office somewhere. That is ridiculous. Let’s say official A comes into your arena. Official A drove six hours to get here. He’s tired. His family wants him home but he knows that when he’s done officiating this game, he has to get back in his car and drive six hours to open up at his real estate firm. Think his head is in the game?

    Now take an NBA official. He’s fresh, he’s ready to ref this game. He saw his family two days ago and gets to see them tomorrow morning when he flies back home. Wouldn’t you rather have this guy? The NCAA needs to fix this. And it’s not just the fact that they’re part time officials.

    The NCAA official has too much control over the pace and the course of a basketball game. During Wednesday night’s game between Kansas and Oklahoma State, the words “Official Review,” were as prevalent on the ESPN telecast as the score at the bottom of the screen.
    How about earlier this season in a game between Arizona and Colorado. The Buffs had just hit what looked to be a game winning three, knocking off Arizona at home and sending them from the ranks of the unbeaten. The refs, obviously, went to go to the monitor to check the last second shot, probably the only thing they get right. If you haven’t seen the still image of this shot go look it up. It went in, and it was clearly out of Sabatino Chen’s hands before time ran off the clock, but the officials said it was no good. And Colorado lost in overtime. Even when they get it right, the officials by rule had to review the play, they get it wrong.

    This isn’t sour grapes by any means. The officials regularly do a good job, but in the recent years we’ve seen several suspensions of officials and several egregious calls by guys who should be working at your local Mercedes Benz store. It’s sad that the NCAA, with its never ending budget can’t hire full time officials. Of course, the NCAA is dealing with the bundling of the Miami case at the moment, so we should cut them some slack while they’re being investigated by themselves.
    But the NCAA needs to do something about this. It’s not this bad in football is it? The stoppages are so prevalent in the sport that it’s becoming ridiculous to sit down and just enjoy a game. When they’re not stopping time, they’re blowing their whistle too much. People pay to see the best players play, not sit on the bench.

    So this is an open plea to the NCAA. When the summer meetings commence in Indy, if you guys haven’t been dragged through the street by Frank Haith and Jim Larranaga yet, set some time aside to address these problems, because they are getting old, very fast. Hey, how ironic.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Michigan from a Cheerleaders Perspective

Ben Fishman

    It’s 7:00 AM on February 2nd. It’s early but about two blocks from our Bloomington apartment, a crowd is gathered outside of Assembly Hall for a long and memorable day. Last night our coaching staff changed our arrival time to 9:00 AM instead of 8:00 AM, but it didn’t really matter, we were excited.
    As we walked into the softball locker room downstairs in Assembly Hall, which is our makeshift locker room during basketball season, we had the TV tuned into the live feed from outside. Our excitement was peaked quickly as we saw several sections filled with “eager” students waiting to be seen on national television.
    There was no ordinary schedule for a game at 9:30 AM as we finally made our way out of the tunnel and were ushered around Assembly Hall by ESPN production crews, all who were as professional and kind as they could be. By this time Digger Phelps, Jay Bilas, Jalen Rose and Rece Davis had all made appearances ahead of the 10:00 AM show on ESPNU.
    When the show went live at 10, both teams were ushered behind the desk. For the next hour there was a ton of smiling and lots of laughs as the hosts talked about the huge matchup between Indiana and Michigan, as well as all the other great games from around America. The fans cheered loud for images of Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller and booed for Nerlens Noel and Duke. As the morning came to an end I couldn’t miss out on an opportunity for a photo op. (See below.)

    Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee meant several things for me. First, I have a soft spot for sweet tea and BBQ. Second, I’ve been in love with sports since I can remember. I attended my first Memphis Tigers game when I was 6. Since then it’s been all basketball. I remember traveling with the team from 2005 to 2008 once they made it to the NCAA Tournament. This led to places like Little Rock, New Orleans and Houston. Then I came to Indiana and it was a whole new level of love.
    So coming into the February 2nd, Indiana vs. Michigan game, I had only been to probably two games that rivaled the enormity of this one. Those games were both in 2008. The first being #1 Memphis vs. #2 Tennessee, and the second being the Elite Eight game vs. Texas in Houston. It took all of about fifteen seconds on the night of Saturday, February 2nd, to realize that these games weren’t even close.

    That afternoon, after the College GameDay tapings, a few of us went to Yogi’s to kill some time. Our report time for the main attraction on this Saturday was 7:15 PM to Assembly Hall. Yogi’s is a typical place to go to if you wanna see nothing but sports. We were sat down and quickly surprised that today was even bigger. The enormity of this game, and the way people felt about it on Saturday afternoon can be described simply as magical. It was on every TV you could find, from replays of the GameDay telecast to commercials hyping the nights action. But before all of that, our team, and I mean all of our members, needed one thing: A nap.

    As we strolled into Assembly Hall a little after 7:00, we quickly saw that the students had ramped it up and were going crazy in the GA line. Knowing that their doors were about to open only made them more antsy. We quickly rushed into our locker room downstairs and began suiting up, the softball locker room becoming filled with the now suddenly recognizable smell and haze of hairspray. Guys were throwing tape around the room, lacing up shoes and putting on their uniforms. At 7:30 we made our way under the arena to Cook Hall. For anyone that has never strolled into Assembly Hall and explored, this is fun. Directly under the 1940 National Championship banner, beneath the student section, there is a hallway that leads away from the arena. At the end of this hallway is a door, usually locked by key card access. Through this door is a long, narrow tunnel with the words, “Indiana Hoosiers Basketball,” lining it. This is the hallway that your Hoosiers stroll down every night from their Cook Hall locker room.

    The pep rally at Cook Hall was quick as usual. It offers the opportunity to mingle with the big spenders and boosters at IU and on February 2nd, it was Indiana University Hall of Famer Landon Turner who gave the coaches talk. Following his talk we went straight to the men’s court in Cook Hall to go over warm ups.
    For about half an hour we go over every timeout and pyramid that we might do during the game, a process that can drag on, keeping us from making our final preparations and heading out to Assembly Hall. But tonight everything flowed smoothly. Our coaching staff pulled us together, reminding us of how big of a game this was, telling us that we need to be “Hoosier fans” first tonight.

    At 8:35 it was finally go time. As we sit in the locker room for the next five minutes, our coach runs us through the timeouts we will do during the game. Usually differing each game between such things as Wipeout and Zombie. For the next half hour we started cheers, interacted with fans and watched warm ups. My personal favorite moment here is my high five from Remy Abell every game. Following Coach Crean’s talk and the National Anthem comes the tunnel. As we form our tunnel and the band and students reach full throat one last time before the game starts, we sit and take in the surroundings, something that we rarely have a chance to do during the game.
    As the team runs out and the lights turn on, we know it’s time. Everything we do for the next two hours is scrutinized and closely viewed, but it’s also the most incredible time of our lives. For two hours we get to cheer on the #3 (eventual #1) team in America, in a game of two top three teams, in the best atmosphere in basketball. For two hours, we are in heaven.
    The game was amazing. The Hoosiers and Wolverines played a battle that goes down as the best game of basketball I have seen in person. It’s been amazing. By the time the William Tell overture starts, I’m more excited than ever to hoist my teammate up in the air. By the time the clock runs down to all zeroes, nobody is more excited than our squad. As the celebration continues outside of Assembly Hall, it’s just starting in our locker room. It begins with me hoisting up our coach and ends when everyone is gone, another quality night in the books.

    On February 2nd, 17,000 plus packed into Assembly Hall to watch a game between two teams ranked in the top 3 in both polls. On February 2nd,#3 Indiana beat #1 Michigan 81-73 to regain the top spot. This has been a recap of that day from the views of a member of the Indiana Cheerleading squad. Being in Assembly Hall this season, and not just that day has been magical. There’s no real answer as to why we do what we do. Maybe when it’s all over after four years, we’ll have an answer. Maybe we won’t find out anything. But we’ll step back out there on that court again for the next game, because we know the view from there is, amazing.

Three Observations from Tuesday 2/19

Ben Fishman

  1. Indiana is the best team in America. The Hoosiers went to Michigan State, a place where they hadn’t won since 1991, and grabbed a huge victory. The Hoosiers now control their own destiny in the Big Ten title race, with four games remaining. Indiana controlled the tempo in this one from start to finish and when Michigan State got the fans into it and looked like they would come back and win by five or more, the Hoosiers remained calm. Michigan State hadn’t lost at home this year and Indiana is proving that they’re just as good on the road, as they are in Bloomington. They’ve dropped just one road game to Illinois and have remaining contests at Minnesota and Michigan. The Hoosiers bench might be of concern scoring wise, but the second rotation more than held its own on defense. Don’t be surprised if these two teams meet again in Chicago on March 17th.
  2. Miami is letting national pundits begin to doubt their rise to the #2 ranking in the country. In their last two games, both scary wins, the Hurricanes are averaging a dismal 49.5 points per game. They’ve won their last three games by an average of 4 points. The question now becomes, “Did we think too highly of Miami?” They beat Duke by 27 without Ryan Kelly and then hung on for wins against N.C. State, FSU, Clemson and Virginia. They’ve still got Duke on their schedule one more time and then likely again in the ACC Tournament, so we’ll see if the luck has run out on Miami. But after seeing IU-MSU II then Miami-Virginia right after it, it’s clear that Miami is not close to being in the league of a team like Indiana or Michigan State.
  3. How crazy is college basketball? Forget the classic in East Lansing, what about Missouri upsetting Florida? The Tigers came back from 13 down to upset the 5th ranked Gators. The knock on Missouri? When will the Missouri team we see in Columbia, be the Missouri team we see everywhere? They’re 1-5 on the road in the SEC, but haven’t lost at home. Something’s gotta give eventually. St. Louis picked up a huge win over VCU and suddenly the Billiken’s are 20-5. The late great Rick Majerus has gotta be loving it. And UNC is finally looking like a team that is putting it together. They won’t be a great threat in the tournament, but they’ll be in it. That’s something defending national champion Kentucky might not be able to say in three weeks.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Keys to IU-MSU II

Ben Fishman

For Indiana

  1. Indiana must remain poised. The Hoosiers are 5-1 on the road in the Big Ten and need this one to prove that the Illinois game was a fluke. The Ohio State game was huge and went a long way towards paying dividends in regards to the perception the Hoosiers face when they leave Bloomington. But all that can go away if the Hoosiers come out flat in East Lansing.
  2. Feed the post. The big man has got to eat. Cody Zeller had a rather pedestrian time with Michigan State on January 27th in the Hoosiers 75-70 victory. Zeller finished with 9 points and 7 rebounds, not terrible numbers against the massive front line of Michigan State, but rather average numbers nonetheless. Indiana needs a big effort from their Player of the Year candidate tonight and needs Christian Watford to continue his consistent play throughout the Big Ten.
  3. Play your game. Indiana is perhaps the best offensive team in transition and needs to focus on pushing the pace against Tom Izzo’s Spartans tonight. The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in 3-point shooting coming in at 43.3%. They must defend the Spartans shooters as well as Gary Harris who went off in Bloomington last month on his way to 21 points. Defending the Spartans hot shooting guards well will go a long way towards determining who comes out on top tonight.

For Michigan State

  1. The Spartans have to relax. They made play after play in Assembly Hall last month and had they not settled for too many long shots, they might’ve beaten Indiana. Tonight to beat the Hoosiers they need to not get rattled by the big time atmosphere. They weren’t picked to finish in the top 3 of the Big Ten this pre season and now here they are tied at the top. They’ve done enough to get here, and they can do enough to stay here. But it’ll all be for naught if they let Indiana come in and control the game right away.
  2. Pick your spots. Sparty got it to the free throw line just six times in the first matchup of these two teams, playing right to the Indiana mindset. Indiana gets to the free throw line more times than anybody in the country and have shot 132 more free throws than their opponents this year. Sparty needs to fix that tonight by attacking the Hoosiers and taking the right shots. They went 11-23 from beyond the arc in the first matchup, not bad, but if the Spartans start hoisting up 20 plus threes tonight while not getting to the line, then it’s the same old game as January 27th.
  3. Let the game come to you. Gary Harris scored 21 points in the first game, mostly because he was trying to prove a point to Indiana fans that they should be missing him this year. The former Mr. Basketball will have to slow the pace tonight and not let his emotions get the best of him in this tightly contested matchup. Harris is the best at driving and attacking and he must do that tonight. He had four of the six free throws for MSU in the first game and needs to double that to be effective at home.

I expect a close game. This one will be back and forth all night long and at the end of the night I think we will have a team that really deserves to be in sole possession of first place. Call me a homer, but that team is gonna be Indiana. The way the Hoosiers played on the road against Ohio State two Sunday’s ago was huge and went a long way towards proving to them that they can win anywhere. If they want to win in Atlanta, better yet, if they want to win in Indy before Atlanta, then they must pick up this win tonight.
I like Indiana 79 Michigan State 72

Monday, February 18, 2013

Monday Thoughts in America

Ben Fishman

    Thoughts from around the block on this Monday.

  • It’s the Road to Selection Sunday. And we’re on it. In four weeks time we will have selected all 68 teams and placed them into their respective brackets. Four weeks from tomorrow the opening round games will tip off in Dayton, Ohio. VCU went from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011 so who knows what the Dayton rounds will bring.
  • How about Miami? The Canes keep gaining ground on Indiana in the polls and could pop up to #1 if Indiana loses at Michigan State Tuesday night. More on that one later. Miami has a tough one this week against Virginia, right after IU-MSU II.
  • Wisconsin has proven itself once again. The Badgers ran Ohio State out of the building yesterday in Madison, staking claim to third place in the Big Ten. They now own victories over Ohio State, Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan and get another shot at Sparty on March 7th.
  • Minnesota is in free fall mode after an embarrassing road loss to Iowa. Iowa on the other hand has won three in a row and could win four of their last five games, with the one loss coming March 2nd at Indiana.
  • Gonzaga is up to #3 in both polls and deservingly so. The Bulldogs scored a huge win over St. Mary’s last week on ESPN and looked impressive doing so. St. Mary’s now has to beat Creighton to assure themselves of a spot in the Big Dance.
  • Things won’t get easier for Duke. They have two ACC bottom feeders before getting another crack at Miami as well as a road game at Virginia. If this team has no Ryan Kelly the rest of the way you could see Duke dropping to a 2 or 3 seed.
  • Louisville is doing a nice job of hanging around while flying below the national radar. The Cardinals get Syracuse and Notre Dame still on their Big East slate before the league tournament in Madison Square Garden which is always fun. Before the year started I had UL-IU in the title game.
  • Michigan could still win the Big Ten regular season title. The Wolverines host Illinois, Michigan State and Indiana all over the last three weeks of the season while also getting home games against Penn State and Purdue. Michigan could very easily win out and get the #1 seed in Chicago.
  • Memphis jumped six spots in the Coaches Poll today, probably surprising the entire fan base. The coaches who were relatively down on Memphis since dropping them out of the polls in the Fall, bumped Memphis past Marquette, Notre Dame and VCU. Watch out for Memphis. If they keep winning and keep climbing, it’ll be very hard for the committee not to award them a top 5 seed.
  • Injuries really ruin the game of basketball. Victor Oladipo missed the second half of Indiana’s walloping of Purdue Saturday with a sprained ankle. Ryan Kelly missed another Duke loss. Rutgers leading scorer Eli Carter is out for the year now. Seton Hall’s Brandon Mobley will have season-ending surgery next week. And Nerlens Noel has already begun his pre-surgery preparations in Lexington. Pray that nobody gets hurt in the first couple weeks of March ala Kenyon Martin.
  • Arizona better get it together fast if they intend to win the Pac-12 and more. The Wildcats got back to their winning ways last night against Utah. But it was a game too close for comfort against a team that came in with a 3-10 record in the league. Zona is now one game back of Oregon. And when they put it together, they’re as good a team as anyone in the country.
  • I like Pittsburgh tonight against Notre Dame at home. Kansas State should handle West Virginia at home as well.
  • I’m excited to hear Dick Vitale and Magic Johnson call a game together tomorrow night in East Lansing. Magic is as good as it gets when talking about basketball royalty, and Dick Vitale is, well Dick Vitale.
  • If Kentucky is gonna make its run, it is gonna be this week. They host Vanderbilt on Tuesday then have a BIG game Saturday at home against Missouri. Coach Calipari better have his troops ready or it’ll be NIT time in Big Blue Nation.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Recap of Saturday's Action

Ben Fishman

    What a Saturday in college hoops. Another giant went down in the top 5, a crazy Big 12 battle and a West Coast power established itself firmly as a national championship contender, let’s go around America and recap the action.

    Duke needs to figure it out. Let’s view their last three games.
Boston College. Squeaked out a one point win on the road.
North Carolina. Came from behind to beat the Tar Heels by five at home.
Maryland. Luck ran out and lost in College Park.
    The BC game was terrible. A team with a 2-7 record in the ACC, forced Duke into 40% shooting and 13 turnovers in a game where Ryan Anderson had his way inside. The Blue Devils then turned around and trailed an average UNC team at halftime before finding a way to win that  one. It’s worth noting that the Tar Heels missed ten free throws in a game they eventually lost by five. And finally there was last night’s game against Maryland. The Terrapins star forward Alex Len got out of his funk and controlled the inside, much like Ryan Anderson did, going for 19 points and 9 rebounds. Duke never led in the second half and it’s become increasingly clearer that this team needs Ryan Kelly back.
    With Kelly on the floor, Duke was the best defensive team in America. On offense Kelly freed up the inside for Mason Plumlee, while Kelly dropped to the outside for open looks beyond the arc where he shot 52% before his injury. Duke has now lost all three of its games, without Ryan Kelly. And they better figure out if he can return or not. March is 12 days away and Duke wants to cut down the nets in Atlanta.

    One of the best games of the day had to be Oklahoma battling Oklahoma State in a big matchup in the Big 12. Oklahoma, which upset Kansas a week ago, led by 11 just after halftime before the Pokes turned it around. If you don’t know who Marcus Smart is you should probably find out. Smart led O.K. State with 28 points and 7 rebounds as they kept themselves in a three way tie atop the Big 12 with Kansas and Kansas State. O.K. State is putting together quite a season and could make some noise in March.

    The top five decided to stop losing. It was the same old Indiana team that went to Purdue two weeks ago and bashed the Boilermakers by 37. This time Indiana went easy and only won by 28. The Hoosiers got a little scare from National Player of the Year candidate Victor Oladipo, who tweaked an ankle late in the first half. Head coach Tom Crean said, “He thinks he’s going to be OK, wishful thinking would be that he will play.” Crean is referring to Tuesday night’s showdown between Indiana and Michigan State in East Lansing, a game between the two teams in Big Ten. Indiana did just fine without Oladipo, outscoring Purdue 42-26 in the second half. Indiana beat Michigan State last month 75-70 in the team’s first battle in Bloomington.

    Gonzaga is finally proving their worth to the nation. The Bulldogs were on National TV last Thursday night in a hotly anticipated battle with St. Mary’s, winning that one 77-60 after actually trailing by one at the half. The Zags turned around and beat San Francisco 71-61 last night. The Bulldogs are now 25-2 on the season and have a couple more challenging games but they won’t get more tough than the St. Mary’s game on Thursday. Kelly Olynyk and the Bulldogs trailed by a point at the half on the road in front of a crazy home crowd, wanting to see an upset. The Bulldogs then came out and played arguably their best basketball of the year, turning a close game into a laugher.
    Gonzaga is playing for the fourth number 1 seed right now which could easily put them in Los Angeles for the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight. Don’t be surprised if some people start referring to Gonzaga as a dark horse threat to win the title. Except I won’t be surprised, I think they’re clearly one of the top five or six teams in America.

    Memphis continued to win and extended their winning streak to 16, beating up on another Conference USA school. The Tigers have a big game coming up on ESPN2 at Xavier on February 26th. Should Memphis win that one expect more and more national attention especially as the Tigers rise in the polls. Their biggest perceived weakness is that they play in Conference USA, ranked #11 in Conference RPI, but they’re also a team that has yet to lose on the road this year. It’s still tough to get a good read on this team as it pertains to how well they’ll do in March, but that’s why March is the best month in basketball.

    In other news from around America, Syracuse is doing more and more each day to convince us that they aren’t a championship team. They dropped another one this week to Connecticut. They’re now 3-3 in their last six games and dropped into a three way tie atop the Big East with Georgetown and Marquette.

    Butler is getting everybody’s best shot in the Atlantic Ten, and that doesn’t include the March 2nd date at VCU. After barely getting past George Washington in a game where they nearly blew a 17 point lead, Butler got tripped up at home against Charlotte. Looking to avoid back to back losses, the Bulldogs had to dig deep and needed every one of Rotnei Clarke’s 22 points to hold off Fordham 68-63. This isn’t the same Butler squad that knocked off Indiana on December 15th. They’ve lost three on the road and are now one game back of first place and VCU in the Atlantic Ten. Still, they’re a team nobody is lining up to play in March.

    Texas needs to really take a good, hard look at their situation this off season. Rick Barnes’s Longhorns were blown out in front of a primetime ESPN audience last night, 73-47 at Kansas. Texas has played most of its season without star freshman Myck Kabongo which takes some steam of Barnes’s hot seat. But Texas is now 11-14 and unless they win the Big 12 will likely be sitting at home in Austin in March.

    The Pac-12 might be the most intriguing conference in basketball. Their title race is shaping up to be as chaotic as the Laker’s season. Indeed Staples Center hosts the Pac-12 league tournament in March. This week Oregon continued its surprising season to improve to 21-5 and finds itself on top of the Pac-12 standings. But it was another team taking the headlines out West. That team? The mighty California Bruins. Cal upset Arizona at home then got a national television contest against UCLA on Thursday. They took advantage of that one, winning 76-63 in a game that was never really close. So could Cal really win the Pac-12? Maybe. They sit at 5th in the standings right now, just 2.5 games back of the Ducks.

    Finally we go to the SEC. It was the same old dominating performance for Florida, but that’s not where we’re headed. In Knoxville yesterday, Kentucky began life without Noel. And they’d probably prefer not to have it continue. Sensing blood, the Vols came out fast and built a huge lead early, running away to an 88-58 victory, the largest in the series’s history. Tennessee outrebounded Kentucky 39-21, a margin that clearly shows where Noel is missed. Kentucky now has to rebound and look to home games against Missouri and Florida to prove to the committee that they still deserve a spot in the field of 68. But after yesterday? They might wanna start printing NIT shirts.

Extra tidbit of information:
If you’re ever looking for a great place to eat in Bloomington, stop by Scholar’s Inn on College Avenue. Had the pleasure of dining there last night with my good friends the Scheinberg’s who were in town from Tennessee. Huge Hoosier fans, they were excited about another big victory over Purdue, but worried about Victor’s right ankle. The Hoosiers will be fine.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Saturday Selections

Ben Fishman

    There’s no marquee game today but there are several games that could ultimately impact a team’s seeding and whether they get in the tournament or not. Here’s some selections on this Saturday.

    Purdue at #1 Indiana 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
Here’s the run down, Indiana went to West Lafayette last month, expecting a typical, hard fought battle in a rivalry game that is always filled with emotion. What they got? A 97-60 road victory over Matt Painter’s Boilermaker squad. Had A.J. Hammons not gone off for 30 points this one might have been much worse. Indiana won’t win by 37 again, which shouldn’t be viewed as a negative by any means. But expect a big Hoosier win.
IU 85 Purdue 65

    #2 Duke at Maryland 6 p.m. ET, ESPN
Wanna see a team still trying to figure it out? No, not Maryland, Duke. The Dukies barely squeaked past Boston College last Sunday and had a tough victory against North Carolina on Wednesday night in Cameron. UNC shot 13-23 from the free throw line in a game it lost by five. Hmm. Alex Len of Maryland is an NBA player who hasn’t scored in double figures in three of the past five games for the Terrapins. If he gets going, it could be close.
Duke 67 Maryland 60

    Oklahoma at Oklahoma State 1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Remember when Oklahoma State was a tournament team? Yeah, it was a fun thing to watch in the Big 12. Then the conference lost a few members, and it became Kansas and everyone else, just like it is this year. Or was, until last weekend when Oklahoma upset the Jayhawks at home. Marcus Smart is a gem for OK State and I expect the same today at Gallagher-Iba. Oklahoma State is in a three way tie for first place in the Big 12 too.
Oklahoma State 79 Oklahoma 64

   #22 Memphis at Marshall 8:00 p.m. ET, CBSS
Memphis has a 15 game winning streak on the line in Huntington this evening. The Tigers who haven’t lost on the road all year will be ready to handle the Thundering Herds home crowd. The Tigers are the one game each member of Conference USA has circled, as it is their last year in the conference before jumping to the Big East next season. Expect more of the same for the red hot Tigers.
Memphis 82 Marshall 59

    Ohio State at Wisconsin 1 p.m. ET, CBS Sunday
What a game this one will be. Ohio State dropped one to Indiana last Sunday on CBS and returns to the network for a highly anticipated rivalry game at Wisconsin. Deshaun Thomas was 6 for 17 from the floor in Thursday’s rather close victory over Northwestern at home and he has to regain his composure as the best scorer in the Big Ten. Wisconsin on the other hand needs to keep pace with league leaders Indiana and Michigan State to earn a top 4 seed and a bye in Chicago. This will be a typical, grind it out game and I look for a battle.
Ohio State 61 Wisconsin 56

    Minnesota at Iowa 2 p.m. ET, BTN
This one will be interesting. Iowa does not want to be in the 8-9 game in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament and have to play the top seed on Friday in the quarterfinals. Fran McCaffery’s squad is making strides and toppling Minnesota at home will do wonders for his team ranked fourth in the league in scoring defense. But they first have to stop Andre and Austin Hollins, actually no relation but both from Memphis, Minnesota’s mules in the backcourt. This game is huge as Iowa could tie Minnesota in the standings with a win. Expect a battle. I’m gong with the upset.
Iowa 71 Minnesota 68

Friday, February 15, 2013

Contender or Pretender? Memphis

Ben Fishman

    The Memphis Tigers started the season ranked in the top twenty of both major polls to begin Josh Pastner’s fourth and most anticipated season in the Bluff City. Their ranking was based more on what they hadn’t done and could do rather than what they’ve accomplished previously. Josh Pastner brought in another top twenty five recruiting class featuring McDonald’s All American Shaq Goodwin and added Geron Johnson, a player many believed to be the player of the year in most JUCO circuits.
    Memphis returned most of its core players from a team that made its second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament and won Conference USA for the second straight year. They met the late Rick Majerus’s St. Louis Billikens, losing 61-54.
    The Tigers opened the year in the Bahamas, losing to VCU and Minnesota before rebounding to pick up a win over Northern Iowa, a win that counts as a Top 100 RPI win.

    Yet Memphis fans expected more from fourth year coach Josh Pastner, perhaps expecting at least two wins and the possibility of playing Duke in Atlantis. As the seat got warmer under Pastner, he quietly moved the struggling Joe Jackson to shooting guard and let Geron Johnson move to the point. And that’s where we find Memphis today. They are winners of fifteen straight and finally look to be putting it together after two convincing routs of its top two challengers to its conference dominance, one on National TV last weekend.

    The question now remains. Is Memphis a legitimate contender to the National Championship? Let’s examine.

    First and foremost I think that Josh Pastner needed at least three years to finally get the train rolling in Memphis. His first recruiting class was ranked #2 by, right behind the man whose job he took, John Calipari. But even with his recruiting success he still had to learn the ropes of coaching a college team amidst one of the most impatient fan bases in America. Also, let’s be honest, John Calipari spoiled Memphis. Over his last four years in Memphis his teams won one hundred and thirty three games, a record that was obviously wiped clean following the Derrick Rose scandal, but a stunning record nonetheless. The Tigers won four straight Conference USA Tournaments and went Elite Eight, Elite Eight, Championship Game and Sweet Sixteen before Calipari departed for Kentucky.

    Barring that in mind I believe Memphis fans are finally getting what they want out of their coach. This team is doing what his last three teams didn’t do and that’s enjoy the ride. Watching the Tigers play it’s clear to see that this team enjoys each other.
    The on court result is pretty good too. They lost to a VCU team without Geron Johnson who is arguably their best player right now averaging 11.9 points per game. He’s a perfect player to look at when discussing how to truly understand the game. In the last three games he’s averaging 21 points, 8 rebounds and 8.5 assists. And he’s only getting better.
    Since moving Joe Jackson from point guard to shooting guard, the Memphis native is averaging 13.9 points while shooting a career best 54% from the floor.    
    Memphis is a very balanced team as well. The Tigers have eight players who average between 6.8 and 13.9 points per game, meaning on any different night it could a different guy stepping up. That doesn’t just spell balance, that spells dangerous.

    To further break down the Tigers numbers is the perfect way to see how this team operates. They currently rank 18th in the country in field goal percentage and are 10th in the country in assists. They’re even better on defense, ranking 6th in blocks and 14th in steals. They are one of only two teams in America to be in the top 15 of both those categories, the other being Syracuse.
    Now time for the knock on the Tigers. There really aren’t that many but the few holes you can poke in the Tigers armor are rather large.
    For starters Memphis missed out on their chances to beat a quality opponent. They own six wins over teams in the RPI Top 100 and just one over a team in the RPI Top 50. The loss to VCU doesn’t look terrible but Minnesota has dropped from the top ten in January to unranked. Granted those are still two losses to RPI Top 50 teams. Furthermore Memphis had Louisville down at home 25-9 in the first half and let the Cardinals claw back and pick up the win. Were they outdone by turnovers and the referees? Maybe, but that can’t be an excuse.
    The Tigers are at team that doesn’t excel at rebounding but they do a good enough job and control the boards inside. Tarik Black however has to be a concern for Memphis fans. He averages a lowly 4.8 rebounds per game, an extremely low number for a guy who is 6 foot 9 and 262 pounds. By comparison, do it all guy D.J. Stephens averages 6.6 rebounds at 6 foot 5 and 188 pounds.    
    The Tigers also give up a pretty high field goal percentage of 39.6 and allowed Southern Miss to shoot 47% on them last Saturday. If there is any gnawing weakness for this squad, it’s on defense. Kentucky won the championship last season by suffocating teams to shooting 37.4%. Not a huge difference but something to keep an eye on.

    So back to our original question. For me, a team must have five things to win a National Championship: Scoring, rebounding, defense, a bench and intangibles. Memphis has the scoring as evident by their production during their fifteen game winning streak averaging 75 points per game. They rebound well enough to contend with most teams and their size could force many teams into submission. A finesse big man inside with the skills of a Cody Zeller or Kelly Olynyk could force problems for Memphis. The Tigers bench is well suited and primed to make runs at any time which leaves the intangibles.
    Intangibles really revolve around the team. Can the coach lead them to the second weekend and Final Four? What happens when they’re down three with two minutes left in the Elite Eight? How do they respond leading by ten at the half as opposed to losing by ten at halftime? And finally, do they get a good matchup and seed? The intangibles are there for Memphis, but I’m not sure the seeding will be. I believe Memphis would be deserving of a top four seed had they beaten Louisville. Now I think they’re in the five to seven range which hurts them tremendously.
    So are they a contender for the National Championship? I actually think yes. The seeding in the tournament will be tough to maneuver but we’ve seen what a Butler or a VCU can do and with the parity in basketball this year I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Indiana or Michigan either not make it to the Final Four, or be joined there by a lower seed or two.
    The Tigers seem to be peaking at the right moment and who knows, if they win out, which would include another victory over Southern Miss plus a road win at Xavier on ESPN2, who’s to say they won’t get a four seed? They’d be on a twenty five game winning streak. And the committee looks at how they play on the road. Spoiler alert: Memphis hasn't lost on the road this year. Yeah. It’s just that kind of season.

    Either way, I would be very surprised to not see Memphis playing on the second weekend of the tournament.

Memphis = Contender

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Need for the Abolition of One and Done

Ben Fishman

    In 2008, Derrick Rose, OJ Mayo, Kevin Love and Michael Beasley became one of the best classes in NBA Draft history when the quartet were all drafted in the top five of that years NBA Draft. The year before that, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were taken 1-2 in the draft. In 2009, it was Tyreke Evans. In 2010, it was John Wall. You get where this is going. All of these players have one thing in common. They were forced to go to college for one year instead of being able to jump straight to the NBA out of high school. Unlike their childhood stars growing up, they had to attend a year of college before realizing their dream of playing in the NBA.
    In 1995 Kevin Garnett, a lanky, built high school senior from Farragut Career Academy in Chicago, Illinois, bypassed high school and went straight to the NBA. A year later, another young man named Kobe Bryant too announced that he would be entering the NBA Draft out of high school. It doesn’t take a basketball whiz to know what happened next. Garnett and Bryant have combined for six NBA Championships and two MVP awards.

    In 2005, the NBA and its player’s union began discussing the possibility of adding an age limit. The league agreed on a minimum age of 19, which would require most high school seniors to head off to college. The rule was implemented the next season, ushering in the One and Done Era in college basketball.
    “All these people are trying to make this one-year rule my rule. When did it become my rule? I don’t even like it,” says Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari, and after this past week he should dislike it even more. Since the rule’s inception John Calipari has coached eleven players that fit the bill as “one and done.”
    Yet this past week Calipari’s worst fear was realized. On a hustle play made by his newest star freshman Nerlens Noel, in a game that was all but in the books as a Kentucky loss, Noel landed awkwardly on his left knee, tearing his ACL. In 2012 Calipari was quoted as saying, “If it’s your son, if he had that kind of talent, you would make him stay in college four years? What if he got hurt?” Noel’s family need no longer worry about what if, as Noel will miss the rest of the season.
    And isn’t this what the rule is all about? College basketball and the money grabbers at the NCAA get to exploit stars that should be in the NBA already for one year, filling Final Fours in NFL stadiums for the chance to see the latest crop of one and done athletes. It’s disgusting. And it was only a matter of time before someone got hurt this bad. Nerlens Noel was projected as the top pick in this June’s NBA Draft. Now what? And I know the argument.
    “Well, he’ll still be a top five pick. Who cares if he needs surgery?” Tell that to Derrick Rose, who tore his ACL in the first round of last years playoffs in a year that Chicago could have challenged for the NBA Title. He’s not even back on the court yet. Tell that to Robert Griffin III, who tore his ACL in the NFL playoffs this year for the Redskins. It’s just sad that such an amazing talent like Nerlens Noel will now wait two weeks for surgery, then rehab to be in shape in time for October practice when he shouldn’t have been playing the Florida Gators anyways.
    If this isn’t a big red flag to the NBA then I don’t know what is. Noel as a commodity will be fine. He will still make a small fortune in his lifetime, playing the game he loves. But what about Noel, the human being? Noel, the player who was chasing down a turnover in a game in which Kentucky was out played and out hustled all night, wound up screaming in agony on the court. People like to criticize Calipari for his frequent use of stars like Noel and Anthony Davis before him. But criticize the NCAA. Criticize the NBA and its Collective Bargaining Agreement that didn’t change the rule in 2011 when it should have.
    Criticize Mark Emmert and David Stern, who both have been outspoken against the rule. Last October Emmert said, “I dislike it enormously.” Then change it! Granted the NCAA has become the butt of many jokes lately, what with the bundling of the Miami investigation and the egregious way it stepped outside of its own rules to punish Penn State last year. What better way to save face than to end this rule. Make high school athletes choose between going to college for two years or bypassing it all together.
    But don’t put it on John Calipari. Don’t put it on Rick Barnes, who had the first one and done player in Kevin Durant at Texas. Or Thad Matta who coached Greg Oden and Mike Conley. Coach K had Kyrie Irving and Austin Rivers. Don’t blame them for doing their jobs. Blame Emmert and Stern for not doing theirs.
    Don’t get me wrong. Some of these guys have been successful. Oden and Conley led the Buckeyes to the 2007 Championship game. Rose led Memphis there in 2008. And last year Kentucky won with a slew of one and done players. But look at Kyrie Irving. He missed over half the season at Duke, but still was the #1 pick in the 2011 Draft. Enes Kanter chose to go to Kentucky for a year out of Turkey, before the NCAA made him sit out all season due to eligibility issues. Think he regrets that?
    Brandon Jennings decided to tell the NCAA and NBA to take their rule and shove it, bypassing college to play overseas for a year before being drafted 10th overall in 2009. How’s he doing? Well he’s averaged fifteen points or more since being drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks.

    So please Mark Emmert get this one right. Please David Stern, take away this rule. The fans will still pour millions of dollars into the product every year. Why blame them? It’s their duty to love this sport and to follow your leagues. But please, for Nerlens Noel, make every high school seniors decision a little safer.

Three Observations from Wednesday's Action

Ben Fishman

    1. Indiana is scary good when they try. The Hoosiers shrugged off a slow start to win a big home game and avenge a road loss last season in a 76-47 rout of Nebraska. When the Hoosiers run in transition they are the best team in America. Cody Zeller came down with two early fouls and the Hoosiers could’ve easily folded and mounted an offensive when he returned in the second half, but instead went on a 10-0 run. Christian Watford keeps on keeping on and the Hoosiers looked every bit the part of the #1 team in America.
    To win a National Title you must win all sorts of games. In the 2007-2008 season, John Calipari’s Memphis Tigers met up with a USC team led by future lottery pick OJ Mayo. The Tigers had a gem of their own in Derrick Rose. Analysts predicted a high scoring matchup. The final? 62-58 in overtime. The Trojans cramped things up with a triangle and two defense, matching up with Rose and fellow lottery pick Chris Douglas-Roberts.
    Last night it was Nebraska milking the clock down under ten seconds each possession, slowing the pace to a grind it out game, the type of stye Wisconsin used to upset the Hoosiers last month. But Indiana didn’t panic or rush anything. They settled down and waited for their opening and attacked. The true mark of a championship team.
    2. Duke just isn’t the same team as they were in December. To start the year Duke rattled off wins against Minnesota, Louisville and Ohio State, making an argument to be #1, a ranking held by the Indiana Hoosiers. Then forward Ryan Kelly came down with a foot injury and has missed the last nine games. Granted the Blue Devils haven’t struggled, going 7-2, but the team isn’t the same defensively without the 6’11 bruiser from Raleigh. When he went down Kelly was averaging 13.4 points per game while shooting a red hot 52% from beyond the arc.
    But the most noticeable gap with Kelly sitting comes on defense. It was apparent in a twenty seven point blowout loss to league leading Miami and it was apparent again last night against North Carolina. Duke probably should have lost at home. The Tar Heels shot 13-23 from the free throw line in a game they lost by five. Do the math. The fact of the matter is that the game wouldn’t have been close had Kelly been available. The Blue Devils need him back if they intend to cut down the nets in Atlanta on April 8th.
     3. Don’t sleep on Memphis. The Tigers were in the top 15 to start the season and dropped out of the polls after losses to VCU and Minnesota in the Bahamas. Then they lost to Louisville at home on December 15th and have been an afterthought ever since. Until last week of course.                                                                                                                                                                                     
     The Tigers, winners of fifteen straight, have picked up six top 100 RPI wins against Tennessee, Northern Iowa, UCF, Harvard, Oral Roberts and Ohio, and finally got a top 50 RPI win under their belt last weekend at Southern Miss, a team that many consider to be second best in C-USA. Last night they routed UCF 93-71, a team considered to be third best in the conference but ineligible for the postseason. They climbed back into both polls this past Monday and even though they play in what is perceived to be a weak conference, they have not lost in two months, and haven’t lost on the road all year. Their best player is arguably Geron Johnson, a JUCO transfer who did not play in the loss to VCU and played his first college game against Minnesota. This is a team that if it gets a good seed and the right match ups, could make some noise in March.
  3a. Our prayers go out to Nerlens Noel. Like Robbie Hummel and Kenyon Martin before him, Noel will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. It’s a shame to see such a talented player go down, but let’s be honest, he never should have been wearing a Kentucky jersey anyways. He should be getting paid to play the game this year, and now his potential spot as a top pick in this year’s NBA Draft is gone. This is just another prime example of why the NBA and college basketball must do away with the one and done rule. It was only a matter of time before a guy like Noel, who had no business being in college, jeopardized his career in an instant. We hope for a speedy recovery for the big guy.

Hoosiers Overcome Slow Start, Spank Visiting Cornhuskers

Ben Fishman

     With Michigan State regaining sole possession of the Big Ten a night earlier, the top ranked Indiana Hoosiers knew they couldn’t avoid a slip up in order to stay in the hunt for the regular season title. For all of about ten minutes Wednesday night, the Hoosiers seemed to be forgetting all about their goal of a Big Ten title. Then they woke up.
    Cody Zeller struggled early on. Yogi Ferrell stopped driving the ball. And the Hoosiers were suddenly in an actual game with the visiting Nebraska Cornhuskers. Then Victor Oladipo, and really who else did you expect, got things rolling. His three helped key a 10-0 run to put the Hoosiers ahead for good 21-14. His final stat line? Another stellar performance consisting of 13 points, 8 rebounds and 3 steals.
    With the win the Hoosiers find themselves again in a tie with Michigan State atop the Big Ten standings at 10-2, both two games in the win column ahead of Wisconsin. If the season ended today the Hoosiers would get either Illinois or Iowa in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. Indiana gets Purdue on Saturday, while Michigan State travels to Nebraska.
    The victory was a prime example of what Indiana does well. Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said, “I thought it was transition more than anything.” And in reality that was it. The Hoosiers not only possess Cody Zeller, who runs the floor better than any big man in America, but the Hoosiers as a team are viewed as the best team in transition. With lightning quick guard Yogi Ferrell running the point, the Hoosiers send shooters Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey trailing for open threes, which is what helped the Hoosiers pull away from Nebraska.
    But in order for Indiana to continue doing things well they can’t find themselves trailing by four to a Nebraska team that has only three Big Ten wins, two of them coming against Penn State. The same team that got spanked by UTEP walked into Assembly Hall for the first time as a member of the Big Ten and had their way early on, perhaps sensing the crowd wasn’t as riled as it usually is.
    Once the Hoosiers put it together they were as good as advertised, sending Nebraska back to Lincoln to awe over their football signing class. Indiana is still a team that is putting it together. Did Michigan State look more impressive Tuesday night? Yes. Does that matter when it comes to 10-2? No. But it will matter on March 10th when the regular season crown, is finally decided.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Three Observations from Tuesday's Games

Ben Fishman

    1. I had a chance to watch Kentucky and Florida play last night and came away very impressed with the Gators. To win your conference you must protect your home court and the Gators are doing that, having won twelve in a row in Gainesville. The Gators defend better than any team in America and are #2 in Ken Pom’s Defensive Efficiency and #1 in Offensive Efficiency rankings while their backcourt is led by star Kenny Boynton who continues to improve.
    The scary injury to Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel takes a little away from this victory. Throughout Big Blue Nation, Kentucky fans cringed at the sight of their star player and likely #1 pick in this years NBA Draft come down hard and grab his left knee. Early prognosis is that it will take an MRI to find out what happened. He did fly back to Lexington last night. Our prayers go out to him.
    2. Michigan State is for real. And I mean that. They pushed Indiana to the final buzzer in Bloomington on January 27th and had a few plays gone their way they would have beaten the Hoosiers in Assembly Hall. Last night they welcomed Michigan to town, in a rivalry game that could have easily determined who has the upper hand in the Big Ten regular season title race. A Spartan win gave them the outright lead with just under a month to go.
    It wasn’t the win that was surprising. It was how Sparty won. MSU dominated their rival Michigan en route to a 75-52 win. Gary Harris and Derrick Nix combined for 32 points and helped spur an offense that shot 48.4% from the floor. For Michigan, it was a cold shooting night as a team that lives and dies by the three settled for long shots instead of feeding the inside, going 6-19 from deep. Their 16 turnovers didn’t help and you won’t beat anybody with that many turns, especially on the road, especially against Tom Izzo’s squad.
    3. During the Florida-Kentucky game the idea of Miami being a #1 Seed on Selection Sunday was discussed between Dick Vitale and Dan Shulman. I’ve watched a good deal of the Hurricanes and am the most impressed with what they’re doing to the ACC. The last team not named Duke or North Carolina to have at least an 8-0 start in the conference was Ralph Sampson’s 1981 Virginia team. And Miami is 10-0.
    But I’m not entirely sold on them yet. We will discuss them Friday in depth as part of our team by team analysis of contenders and pretenders, but at the moment they are probably in the middle. I do believe they are the most consistent team in American right now especially after the rout of North Carolina last Saturday. Miami still has Virginia on their schedule and a road trip to Cameron Indoor in March so we will see just how good this Hurricane team really is.

    3a. Prayers go out to Steve Lavin and his family after the death of his father. Lavin missed St. John’s 77-58 loss to Syracuse over the weekend to be with his family and will not coach the game against Louisville on Thursday night. Lavin is one of the finer coaches in basketball and one of the best all around guys. He lead UCLA to an Elite Eight and four Sweet Sixteens in the late 1990s. Lavin took time away from the team in 2011 to battle prostate cancer.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Best Conference in Basketball? That's the Big Ten

Ben Fishman

    Each year college basketball fans await the start of fall practice with each universities rendition of Midnight Madness. At schools like North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and Indiana, fans line up hours ahead of that fateful hour when the doors to their favorite school’s gyms open. And then the festivities begin.
    ESPN, CBS and SI all unveil their top teams in America, their top players and top coaches and so on and so forth in the days leading up to the first regular season game in the first week of November. But the biggest debate comes when that one guy throws out the question, “Which conference is the best?”
    This year one need not look too far to find the best conference in basketball. It’s the Big Ten. From top to bottom the Big Ten is stacked with talented players, experienced coaches and some of the toughest places to play in the country. To examine the Big Ten’s power one need only look at the latest RPI rankings, which the NCAA Selection Committee uses to select and seed the field of sixty-eight on Selection Sunday.
    As of February 12, the Big Ten boasts five teams in the top twenty four of the RPI, beginning with Michigan and including Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State. But don’t stop there, because it gets better. Checking in at #26 is Illinois, followed shortly after at #31 by Wisconsin, the latter two which own wins over the team currently at the top of the AP Top 25 polls, Indiana.
    It’s not that the other conferences are regressing. The Big East is wide open again and with its fifteen members should put at least seven of those members in the Big Dance. The Pac-12 crown is up for grabs as well with teams such as UCLA, Arizona and Oregon vying for their league title at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. And the SEC and the conference formerly known as the Big-12 each boast two teams that have shared time in the top five of both major polls in Florida and Kansas. But after these aforementioned teams the parity drops off. Outside of Kansas losing at TCU, and Florida losing at Arkansas, these conferences show a noticeable gap in talent which the Big Ten does not. Would you rather be Kansas going to Texas Tech or Michigan State going to Iowa, a school that owns a win over Wisconsin and pushed Indiana to the final buzzer before losing 69-65?
    Michigan coach John Beilein, who has been in the Big Ten for six years now, was quoted as saying, “Last year we were a co-champion with a 13-5 record. That record, even 12-6, may be a Big Ten title winner.” In the last three years, there has been only one outright regular season conference champion and by the looks of things this year, that seems more and more unlikely as the year progresses.
    Credit should also go to the coaches as well. Of the coaches in the Big Ten, all but two have won an NCAA Tournament game. Two coaches, Tubby Smith and Tom Izzo, have won championships. And the coaches have a combined record of 131-82 to go with eight coaches that have made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Needless to say coaching is a strong suit in the Big Ten.
    Finally comes players. Since 2000, thirty two members from Big Ten schools have been drafted in the First Round of the NBA Draft. Ten of those were drafted in the top ten. Clearly the Big Ten has no trouble drawing top talent to their conference.
    Yet there is one problem with the Big Ten. The conference has not won a National Championship since 2000 when Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans beat Florida 89-76. If this conference truly is the best in basketball, and many national analysts agree that it is, then the conference will have to get over that hump. Indiana and Michigan are two teams that are believed to the best in basketball, but Michigan State is knocking right on the door as one of the favorites to cut down the nets in April. Whatever happens the rest of the season, it’s clear that all the eyes of the college basketball world will be squarely on the Big Ten.