Four-Point Play: Big Ten upsets continue, LSU boosts its tourney chances
Four-Point Play is One and One’s attempt to highlight the best team, player, game and GIF/video from the past seven days of college hoops. We reserve the right to tweak the formula on a weekly basis. Expect this column every Sunday.
Hoosiers clip Michigan
There was no court storm.
The Indiana fans at Assembly Hall didn’t spark another mini-controversy after watching the Hoosiers beat No. 10 Michigan Sunday, 63-52. They presumably recognize what’s becoming more obvious by the week in the Big Ten. Expecting any team – no matter how impressive its credentials – to win is risky.
The Wolverines entered Sunday’s game with a perfect conference record. They had won road games against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan State and home tilts against Iowa and Northwestern. They boast the most efficient offense in the Big Ten and a sophomore guard, Nik Stauskas, whose name had been shooting up national player of the year watch lists. Michigan has been better than Indiana pretty much any way you want to measure it.
None of that previous paragraph accounts for what we’ve already seen take place in the Big Ten this season. The league has been, well, really weird. Penn State won at No. 24 Ohio State last week. Nebraska is 3-1 in conference home games. Northwestern currently sits in fourth place in the conference standings. With so many odd results happening every week, perhaps “weird” is the wrong word. Maybe this is the normal state of things in the Big Ten.
It is weird and predictable … if that even makes sense.
On Sunday, Indiana stifled Michigan’s high-octane offensive attack. Stauskas, who had averaged 22.6 points over his last five games, scored six on 1-of-6 shooting and 0-for-2 from three-point range. The Wolverines shot 23 percent from the field and scored roughly 0.96 PPP. The Hoosiers also got 27 points on 8-of-10 shooting (and 7-of-8 from three-point range) from point guard Yogi Ferrell.
"We had no answers for Yogi," Michigan coach John Beilein said Sunday.
The Hoosiers aren’t a great offensive team – they rank 10th out of 12 Big Ten teams in points scored per possession during conference play – but they can guard (their defense ranks fourth). The Wolverines weren't getting clean looks, and they couldn’t match Indiana’s defensive effort.
"We didn't get many good shots today," Michigan coach John Beilein said afterward. "There was a couple of shots we certainly would like to have back. At the same time, we made some tough shots, but I didn't see many easy ones today. They did a great job defensively"
The result was a massively important win for Indiana. Before Sunday, the Hoosiers were moving further and further away from the bubble cutline, but a win like this should get Tom Crean’s team back into the conversation. The Hoosiers have an RPI of 75, a non-conference strength of schedule of 166 and a 2-4 record against the top 50. There is plenty of work to be done before Indiana can feel comfortable about its at-large chances, but Sunday’s win is a big step.
The Hoosiers will have a few more chances to notch resumé-boosting Ws between now and Selection Sunday. They play at Minnesota on Feb. 8, No. 8 Iowa at home on Feb. 18, at No. 14 Wisconsin on Feb. 25 and a season-closing return game at Michigan on Mar. 8. Indiana played well enough to beat the best team in the conference Sunday. Whether it can going forward is an open question.
For Michigan, this loss isn’t too alarming. Upsets are an unavoidable fact of life in the Big Ten this season. Even teams as offensively potent as Michigan can get clipped if they aren’t careful enough. These things happen.
While Indiana's defense deserves most of the credit, the Wolverines didn’t play as well Saturday as they had during their 8-0 start to conference play.
"I’m really a bad loser, but this makes us all get better," Beilein said. "You learn so much more from losses than you do in wins. Somewhere down the line this game will come back and help us win another game, hopefully."
Michigan is just as qualified a Big Ten title contender as it was before this loss. Just because it can no longer claim sole possession to first place in the conference standings doesn’t mean the Wolverines can’t or won’t close hard over the final month of the regular season to beat out the Spartans.
This is an upset in the strictest definition of the term: Michigan was expected to beat Indiana. But expecting one Big Ten team to win one league game, or another to win a different one, is a flawed approach. Look at every Big Ten game between any two teams and prepare yourself for the fact no outcome is off the table.
Tigers boost at-large hopes
It is impossible to talk about Southeastern Conference basketball this season without mentioning No. 3 Florida and No. 11 Kentucky.
They are the two best teams in the conference and two of the top 15 in the country, if measured by Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. One of them, Florida, is considered a legitimate national championship contender. The other, thanks to its hyper-talented freshman class, attracts the eyeballs of that otherwise indifferent subset of NBA fans peeking in on the college game just to get a glimpse of who their teams might draft this June.
As for the rest of the conference? Intriguing storylines are few and far between. And no, the announcement of spring football schedules does not count.
But there are at least three other teams from the football-centric league that deserve your attention. Missouri nearly toppled the aforementioned Wildcats on Saturday after winning at Arkansas four days earlier, while Tennessee dealt Alabama its worst home loss, 76-59, since New Year’s Day 2008.
Both the Tigers and Volunteers could hear their names called on Selection Sunday. One other SEC team deserves recognition for what it did this week: Louisiana State. On Saturday, the Tigers dominated Arkansas to cap a week that also included a five-point win over the Wildcats.
“We are a confident team,” junior forward Johnny O’Bryant III said Saturday.
One of the biggest reasons the Tigers have played their way into fourth place in the SEC standings, one game back of third-place Mississippi, is the play of their frontcourt. Forwards O’Bryant III and Jordan Mickey combined for 45 points, 20 rebounds and seven blocks against the Razorbacks on Saturday.
“LSU is a very good basketball team,” Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson said. “As a team, their strength is (they are) a team of size. They have an experienced guy in Johnny O'Bryant. Jordan Mickey, someone we are very familiar with, he's really playing well for them. They are really playing at a good level right now."
Against the Wildcats, one of the toughest frontcourt matchups in the country, they accounted for 43 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks. Mickey and O’Bryant III also helped limit future lottery pick forward Julius Randle to a season-low six points on 3-of-11 shooting. Starting center Willie Cauley-Stein had three points in 17 minutes.
The Tigers also got key contributions from freshman forward (and five-star recruit) Jarrell Martin. While he’s been outshined by fellow freshman Mickey for much of the season, Martin came through with 15 points, five rebounds and two assists in 34 minutes against the Razorbacks and nine points in 31 minutes against the Wildcats.
“There are a lot of freshman that come in and lead, but that's how college basketball is these days,” O’Bryant III said Saturday. “Freshman have to step right in and make a big commitment to the team and our freshman are doing a good job of that.”
After opening SEC play with a 1-2 record, LSU (14-6, 5-3 SEC) has won four of its last five games by an average margin of 12 points. The Tigers’ efficiency margin – the number points scored per possession minus the number allowed – over that stretch is + 0.142.
Even if the Tigers’ performance slips a bit over the next few weeks, they should be able to keep winning. Only one of the next five teams LSU plays (Georgia, Auburn, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Mississippi State) ranks inside the top 130 of Ken Pomeroy’s team ratings.
Winning those games won’t much help the Tigers' NCAA Tournament resumé, but the alternative – losing them – would hurt it. The Bracket Matrix, which compiles bracket projections from across the Internet, lists LSU under the “Last Four Out” category. The Tigers played a weak non-conference schedule (105th in the RPI) and are just 2-3 against the RPI top-50, but if they can minimize bad losses, the Tigers could make a case for an at-large bid.
LSU’s bubble prospects would feel more dubious had it lost one or both of the games it played over the past week. After a disappointing start to conference play, the Tigers seem to be hitting their stride.
Staten steps up
A 5-4 record in one of the nation’s two toughest conferences cannot be ignored.
Over the past week, West Virginia beat Baylor on the road and Kansas State at home to move into fifth-place in the Big 12 standings. Point guard Juwan Staten played well in the first game – he scored 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting, dished out nine assists and hit a game-winning layup with three seconds remaining – and was borderline unguardable in the second. The junior shot 8-of-13 from the field and 18-of-21 from the free-throw line for 35 points.
Staten’s 35 points against the Wildcats were the second most scored by a Big 12 player this season, trailing only Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart’s 39 against Memphis in November. Smart is unanimously recognized as the conference’s best point guard, but at least one Big 12 player disagrees.
“Staten, he’s fast. He can get in the lane and can get by anybody,” Kansas State guard Marcus Foster told the West Virginia Metro News Saturday. “I feel he’s the best point guard in the league right now.”
During conference play, Staten is averaging 18 points and six assists in 38 minutes. He’s shooting 52.5 percent from the field, getting to the line frequently (his free throw rate is 63.7), using 22.4 percent of available possessions and producing 1.22 PPP.
“If you give him space, he’s so hard to guard in space. He’s got such great explosion,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said Saturday. “The difference really is that he can make shots now.”
Staten has been one of the bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season for West Virginia. The Mountaineers are probably going to fall short of the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year. If they do, it would mark the first time since 1990-91 that coach Bob Huggins has failed to lead his team to the big dance in consecutive seasons.
With more than a month remaining in the regular season, West Virginia has matched last season’s win total. The Mountaineers are tied with Kansas State for fourth place in the Big 12 standings.
Winning three of four in a tough league is a big accomplishment for a team that won just 13 games last season and was picked seventh in the preseason Big 12 poll. Still, it’s hard to tell how good West Virginia really is. The next two weeks should provide some clarity. The Mountaineers will face four of the five top-ranked Big 12 teams (Oklahoma, at Kansas, Iowa State, at Texas) in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. Even going .500 over that stretch would be impressive.
If Staten continues to play like -- in Foster’s words – “the best point guard in the league right now,” that’s not an unreasonable goal. The Mountaineers have managed to win five games in a tough conference without drawing much national attention. They could get some this week.
“He wants to win,” Huggins said of Staten. “I think that’s the biggest thing. He wants to win.”
Whether they do will depend, in large part, on whether Staten can continue to light up opponents.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had anybody like him,” said Huggins.
Was Hood Fouled?
One of the best college basketball games we’ll see all season might have ended differently had officials whistled Syracuse center Rakeem Christmas on what seemed like a clear foul on Duke forward Rodney Hood.
With the Blue Devils trailing 88-87 and less than 15 seconds remaining in overtime, Hood attacked the rim and rose up for a one-handed tomahawk dunk. Christmas made contact with the ball, but his right arm appeared to hit Hood’s left arm as the Duke forward guided the ball toward the rim. Syracuse made enough free throws in the waning seconds to win, 91-89. Did the guys in stripes make the right call? Was Christmas’s block clean?