Question marks abound
Back-to-back losses? Spartans still an impressive bunch
Rex Chapman, an All-SEC player at Kentucky in 1986-87 and ’87-88 and an NABC All-American in 1988, gives his opinion each week on five teams that impress. Team statistics are through Feb. 24.
Some questions have been answered and some abound for these five title-contending teams as we embark upon the final two weeks of regular-season play.
Rick Pitino's Cardinals are one of my favorites to win the whole damn thing. But on Feb. 9, following one of the most soul-crushing losses of the season -- a five-overtime loss at No. 25 Notre Dame -- the question had to be raised: How will Louisville respond?
Games like the Notre Dame loss can cause a team to implode -- or a squad can rally such a heartbreaker, and all signs for the Cards point to the latter.
|LOUISVILLE THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 27 at DePaul|
|March 2 at Syracuse|
Since Louisville returned from South Bend, Rick Pitino and his thick-skinned Cardinals team have rattled off three consecutive conference wins and have done so convincingly. UofL beat St. Johns (by 14), walloped USF (by 18) and returned to the friendly confines of the Yum! Center to dust off Seton Hall (also by 18). Granted, neither USF or The Hall are world-beaters this season, but the way that the Cardinals bounced out of such a gut-wrenching loss to the Fighting Irish and proceeded to dismantle its next three opponents shows the kind of resolve you would expect to see from such a veteran ballclub.
The final four games on Louisville's regular-season schedule may provide us with a clearer picture of just where these Cards are mentally. UofL travels Tuesday to face Depaul before heading to the Carrier Dome, where the Cards will attempt to avenge their only home loss of the season against Syracuse. I'm assuming that a measure of payback will be on Louisville’s mind. (That loss appeared to carry over; the Cardinals subsequently lost their next two, against Villanova and Georgetown.)
Following Saturday's clash with Cuse, Louisville returns home to face an awfully scary Cincinnati squad and then wraps the regular-season, also at home, in a highly anticipated rematch with Notre Dame.
This Louisville team is one which has had quite a bit of success and also faced its fair share of adversity -- and for that reason I really like this ballclub. Pitino's squad had to do plenty of soul-searching along the way and appear to be behaving like most Pitino-coached teams approaching March, playing their best basketball of the season.
Can IU venture away from Assembly Hall, take its show on the road and beat a quality opponent?
I've been waiting for an answer to that question, following a very home-friendly schedule. The Hoosiers, however, gave us an answer -- a resounding "yes".
|INDIANA THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 26 at Minnesota|
|March 2 vs. Iowa|
Not only did IU win a tough, hard-fought battle on the road, the Hoosiers did it at one of the unlikeliest places of all -- a place they had not won a ballgame since 1991, the Breslin Center at Michigan State. Yep, the Hoosiers hadn't beaten Sparty in East Lansing in 22 years. But with a 72-68 win last Tuesday, Tom Crean's Hoosiers showed that they can be an elite team at home and on the road. I felt this was a big step forward for Indiana.
Another question I had regarding the Hoosiers was about freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell, how he would handle his first road conference game against a top-ranked opponent. From merely looking at the stats one may be led to believe Ferrell did not play well against MSU (6 points on 3 of 9 from the field; 0-for-2 from the free-throw line; 3 rebounds; 5 assists; 1 steal; 2 turnovers) but this is a case where the numbers actually do lie.
Ferrell did exactly what IU needed in a rivalry game. He was a calming, ball-handling and playmaking influence. Possibly the biggest stat of the night was that he had only two turnovers. The addition of Ferrell has been the biggest positive difference for the Hoosiers in 2012-13.
Many questions have been answered by this IU team, but the one which remains is the road play of junior forward Will Sheehey. He is extremely confident and a tough competitor at home, where he averages nearly 10.5 points on the year. But on the road Sheehey can become a bit of a ghost, disappearing much of the time. On the road Sheehey is averaging less than 8 points shooting nearly 10 percent lower from the field (54 percent at home, 45 percent on the road). Against Michigan State last week, Sheehey went 1-for-5 from the field for 2 points with 3 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 turnover in 21 minutes of play. If Indiana is going to live up to its No. 1 ranking and hang another banner in Assembly Hall, then Sheehey needs to find a way to play on the road with the confidence and tenacity he plays with at home.
Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller are having first-team All-American seasons. The two combined for 36 points against the Spartans, chipping in 19 points and 17, respectively. Oladipo may have been the ultimate difference-maker; his five steals were both timely and crushing to MSU's hopes of pulling out the win. IU's inside/outside combination of Oladipo and Zeller may be the most feared duo in college basketball this season.
Indiana's last four games of the season are no walk in the park. The Hoosiers travel to Minneapolis on Tuesday to face a reeling and desperate Minnesota ballclub capable of springing an upset. Following the battle with the Golphers, IU comes home for its next two games -- Iowa and Ohio State. The Hoosiers wrap their regular season in Ann Arbor, where Michigan will be seeking revenge. Can't wait!
Will Syracuse bounce back from a puzzling home loss to Georgetown and recover, emotionally, from being absolutely throttled by Otto Porter Jr.? Will the Orange shoot the ball well enough from the perimeter to win a title?
Confidence is a beautiful thing. I've said this since I was a teenager and am reminded of just how beautiful confidence is each and every day while watching college basketball. When you have confidence there is little that can stop you -- in sports as well as in life. When a person or a team lacks confidence, or manages to misplace its "swagger" … well, very little can be accomplished.
|SYRACUSE THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 25 at Marquette|
|March 2 vs. Louisville|
Sometimes a loss is just a loss. But there are times when a loss can be so emotionally crippling that it has a lasting effect. Occasionally a loss, like the one Jim Boeheim's Syracuse Orange suffered at home on Saturday to an undermanned Georgetown Hoyas team can create doubt and linger for days -- if not weeks on end.
Most people, experts, fans, etc. had penciled-in a "W" for Cuse prior to Saturdays Big East game against Georgetown. When G’town forward Greg Whittingham was declared academically ineligible for the remainder of the season a couple of weeks ago, many folks, myself included, wondered if Whittingham's loss may just be too much for the Hoyas to overcome. Enter Otto Porter Jr. The sophomore had no such doubts about his team or its chances as they headed into one of the toughest venues to get a road win in all of college hoops -- the Carrier Dome.
Porter on Saturday -- on the road and against an elite opponent -- put on one of the top individual performances of this season. Check out OPJ's numbers as he played all 40 minutes: 12 of 19 from the floor, including 5-for-10 from beyond the arc and 4-for-4 from the charity stripe, for 33-points. Not too shabby, eh? Oh, and for good measure the young man grabbed eight rebounds. He also handed out a couple of assists and had a game-high five steals -- with only one turnover. That's what you call "going to work".
Syracuse, historically, has been virtually immune to a one-man-wrecking-crew being able to take them out. However OPJ was able to do just that; no other Hoya had more than seven points.
What happened to Cuse? As I watched the game it became apparent that only three players for the Orange showed up to compete -- and two of those didn't have much success. CJ Fair was Cuse's only bright spot: 13 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks.
It's become increasingly apparent that the Cuse bench is shaky, at best. Boeheim is really only going six deep at the moment with Fair, James Southerland, Michael Carter Williams, Brandon Triche, Rakeem Christmas and Jerami Grant. Trevor Cooney, who was getting some run when Southerland was out, appears to be all but forgotten with four games left on the regular-season schedule. Cooney played four unproductive minutes against Georgetown.
Right now I have about as many questions as answers regarding this Orange squad.
Boeheim has been one of the nation’s best coaches for a long time. Heck, the guy was on the sidelines when his squad came to Lexington to play my Wildcats team in 1988! And yes, Rony Seikaly, Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman and high-flying Stevie Thompson were playing that elongated 3-2 zone way back then. Which brings me to another question about this Orange team: Will a coach, a program and a team known for one of the more confounding, frustrating and most effective zone defenses in the history of college basketball actually be undone by having a zone used on them in 2012-2013?
John Thompson III and the Hoyas did a masterful job of showing Syracuse different defensive looks. They played a lot of zone -- and until Syracuse can find a way to consistently shoot the ball better, my feeling is that the Orange will see more and more zone. Cuse struggled to put points on the board, and shot an awful 4 of 20 from beyond the arc.
Triche is a big-time player who usually will step up when Cuse needs him. But outside of Triche and Fair, I'm not sure who will consistently spread the floor for this ballclub. Doing so will be key to Syracuse's long-term success.
Syracuse's last four regular-season games are brutal: at Marquette, home against Louisville, home against Depaul and at Georgetown. … We may learn a lot about Cuse during the next two weeks -- and just how confident it is about winning a title this season.
After being upset by Wake Forest to end the Hurricanes’ 14-game winning-streak and dashing its hopes of going undefeated through the ACC schedule, how will Miami respond?
Quote of the week, from sophomore Shane Larkin: "Who would have ever thought that Wake Forest, at home, beating Miami would be worthy of rushing the court?" Well put, young man.
|MIAMI (FLA.) THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 27 vs. Virginia Tech|
|March 2 at Duke|
Yes, Miami may be the surprise team of the season to date -- and yes, the Hurricanes’ 14-game winning streak was snapped, but I think the loss was actually a good thing for Jim Larranaga's squad.
The Canes hadn't lost a game, conference or otherwise, since Christmas day (to a very solid Indiana State team). Larranaga needed to get this team's attention and the Wake Forest loss gives him that opportunity. In recent weeks it appeared that Miami had become somewhat bored; the Canes had been living on the edge and squeaking by opponents. During the past three ballgames, Larranaga has subbed for his super-soph Larkin early as his play has been a bit lackadaisical.
Larranaga is one of the top communicator's in college basketball. The road loss to Wake may be just what the doctor ordered. I've quietly been hoping that Miami would stub its toe; I believe Miami is one of about a dozen teams that can walk away with a national championship this season. However, I just didn't believe they could do so without a little bit of humbling before heading into the postseason.
Only four regular-season games remain for the Canes: Wednesday against Georgia Tech, then at Duke, at home against Georgia Tech and Clemson. Obviously Miami will need to play better than it did at Wake to right the ship. I anticipate Larranaga will have his ballclub's full attention following the Wake loss.
I am interested to see how the Canes respond to the hostile environment that awaits them when they arrive at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 6. If you remember, Miami handed Duke its worst loss of the year early in the conference schedule, really embarrassed Coach K & Co. If you think "March 6" hasn't been circled on Mike Krzyzewski's (and every Duke player’s) calendar for the past six weeks, then think again.
How will these Cane's respond? My guess is they will regroup.
How will Sparty respond to its first back-to-back losses of the season?
The Spartans lost 72-68 at home to No. 1 IU and then took a bit of a beating at Ohio State on Sunday.
|MICHIGAN STATE THIS WEEK|
|March 2 at Michigan|
As Tom Izzo has the Spartans on the practice floor and in the film room this week, I'd bet my last dollar that Michigan State will be anything but flat on March 2 in Ann Arbor. I've become a big believer in Tom Izzo's Spartans during the past few weeks and feel that Michigan State is going to have a big say in this year's big dance.
But two of the Spartans’ final three games of the regular season are killers. It will be very interesting to see if Izzo can work his magic in order to get rid of the bad taste left in his and his players mouths from the two tough losses they were handed this past week. With arch-rival Michigan and Wisconsin both lying in wait for Sparty, Izzo's bunch will need to be prepared to play their best basketball of the season in order to finish the conference schedule on a high note as they head into the postseason.
Keith Appling has struggled during the past few games -- especially against Indiana and Ohio State. In Sunday's loss to the Buckeyes, Appling was 1-for-6 shooting for 3 points with an assist and three turnovers. His numbers were not much better against IU: 1-for-8 shooting (6 points) with two assists and four turnovers. But compared to his season averages -- Appling is posting 13.8 ppg -- those games look to be an abberation ...
Spartans players, if by chance any of you were wondering when exactly it is that you earn those MSU scholarships -- it's right now. During the next week, you're in my thoughts, fellas.
Rex Chapman played at Kentucky from 1986-88. He was a two-time All-SEC selection as well as an NABC All-American in 1988 before opting for the NBA Draft. He was the No. 1 choice — eighth overall — of Charlotte and played for the Hornets (1988-92), Washington Bullets (1992-95), Miami Heat (1995-96) and Phoenix Suns (1996-2000). Follow Rex on Twitter @rexchapman