I'm not sure if it's the end of the holidays or the constant pummeling from winter storms, but when I opened my mailbag this week, I inhaled a strong whiff of gloom. Is there no end to this darkness? Where is the proverbial light at the end of this long and ominous tunnel? Didn't John Lennon promise us that it's getting better all the time?
Uh ... maybe not. Let's start with a dose of despair and desolation from the Midwest.
Michigan State has to be the biggest disappointment so far this season. They are collection of talent that seems to fly in the face of how Tom Izzo has built the program. They don't rebound well, the defense is porous, they turn the ball over far too much and they don't shoot free throws well. Any chance they dig themselves out of this or is it a lost season in East Lansing?-- Keith DeBildt, Cincinnati
Funny how a single day can brighten a guy's mood. There were two results from Tuesday night that I'm sure gave Keith some hope. The first, obviously, was Michigan State's dramatic comeback win to beat Wisconsin in overtime. If the Spartans turn this thing around and make their annual run in the NCAA tournament, you can pinpoint the pivotal moment at the 2:39 mark of the second half, when they trailed the Badgers by nine points before storming back.
The second result was Penn State's win over No. 16 Illinois. The Nittany Lions, of course, also knocked off Michigan State at home last Saturday. If nothing else, Keith can take heart in that old "misery loves company" thing.
Still, I'm far from convinced Michigan State's problems have all been fixed. True, if you take away that loss at Penn State, the Spartans' four other losses came against teams that are currently ranked in the top 12 of the AP poll. But two of those losses, to Syracuse and Texas, came in embarrassing fashion.
Why were the Spartans underachieving up until late in regulation last night? Let Keith count the ways:
• They don't rebound well. Maybe the best part of Tuesday's win was the fact that Michigan State out-rebounded the Badgers by six. Heading into the game, the Spartans were ranked sixth in the Big Ten and 92nd nationally in rebound margin. That is stunning. According to Kempom.com, they're ranked 50th in the country in offensive rebound percentage.
To be fair, Michigan State did lose last season's leading rebounder, Raymar Morgan, to graduation, but this program has lost plenty of players over the years. The board work has never suffered this badly.
• The defense is porous. The numbers don't quite bear this one out. The Spartans are ranked third in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage defense (39.3) and they're fifth in three-point defense (38.5). They're also 16th in Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings. Still, it's fair to say the defense hasn't been good enough to overcome the team's offensive problems. Nine opponents this season have shot better than 40 percent from the floor against the Spartans. Not surprisingly, that includes all five of the teams that beat them.
• They turn the ball over far too much. This is the team's biggest problem, and it has been for at least the last two years. Even though the Spartans still have one of the best point guards in America in Kalin Lucas, plus arguably the best passing big man in Draymond Green, they have been committing 15.1 turnovers per game (that ranks 251st nationally). They have already had four games in which they committed 20 or more. They are also ranked 228th nationally in turnover percentage, plus they're eighth in the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio and dead last in turnover margin. So yes, this is a very, very big problem, and I'm frankly not sure it's fixable.
• They don't shoot free throws well. True dat. The Spartans' 65.0 free-throw percentage is ranked 271st nationally, and they're 192nd in free-throw rate. (They were marginally better against the Badgers, sinking 17-of-25, or 68 percent.) This was especially problematic against Penn State, when the Spartans shot 10-for-20 from the line. If they were merely bad from the stripe, they would have won.
It must be said that Lucas is still not the player he was before he ruptured his Achilles tendon in the second round of the NCAA tournament. That's not an excuse, it's a fact. I'm not sure people truly understand just how serious an injury that is, and also how unusual in basketball. Izzo told me last week that he's not sure when Lucas will be himself again because he has never had a player who tore his Achilles. Lucas will continue to get better and stronger over the next couple of months, and that is bound to help.
Still, as noted above, Michigan State doesn't just have one or two problems. It has lots of them, and they touch on a vastly different areas. As they proved Tuesday night, this is still a good basketball team, and not for nothing has Izzo gone to six Final Fours in the last 12 years. The Spartans are going to get better all the time -- but only if they show the same sense of urgency they showed on Tuesday night with two minutes and 39 seconds left in regulation.
Moving on, here's another die-hard fan wallowing in wintry desolation.
What is going on with the Hoyas? Their 1-3 start in the Big East is depressing. Are they not up to competing with the big dogs or is it a temporary slump?-- Allie, New York
Is it fair to put the fates of a team on a single player? No. But in Georgetown's case, it would be accurate. It has been true for the last three years: As Chris Wright goes, so go the Hoyas, and the 6-foot-1 senior guard from Bowie, Md., hasn't gone very well lately. Though he did put up 17 points in the Hoyas' win at home over DePaul (I have a feeling Allie could score a dozen against the Blue Demons), Wright averaged 6.3 points on 22.6 percent shooting in losses to Notre Dame, St. John's and West Virginia. Overall, Wright's numbers are down from last season pretty much across the board. His assists are up to 5.9 per game from 4.1 as a junior, but he's averaging fewer points, committing more turnovers and converting much lower percentages from the floor (including a woeful 30.4 percent from the three-point range, down from 33.6 last season).
In a weird way, my take on Georgetown is a compliment to Wright. The fact that his team needs him to play well so badly indicates just how good he is. I've always felt his main problem was that he's not a pure point guard, yet he is often asked to run the offense by necessity. When he's shooting well, he's one of the best players in the country, but when he's not, he doesn't make enough plays to make his teammates better. That gets even harder without the presence of a bona fide post scorer like Greg Monroe.
Normally I would tell a fan to buck up, that it's only January, but I can understand Allie's pessimism. Two years ago, the Hoyas entered January ranked in the top ten with a 10-1 mark. Two months later, their season ended with a first-round loss in the NIT. Last season's squad held it together to finish 23-10, but it lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Ohio. (To be fair, Wright had 28 points in that game.) The bottom line is, nothing this team does from here on out will surprise me, for better and for worse. They can beat Pittsburgh tonight and go on to make the Final Four, or they can fall apart again down the stretch. Anything's possible. The only thing I know for certain is that no player will have more of an impact about what happens than Chris Wright.
Enough of the pessimism. Let's get to some more cheerful missives.
Could a non-AQ, like BYU or SDSU, get a No. 1 seed in the tournament much like Memphis a couple years ago?-- Shane Hale, Las Vegas
I think it's very unlikely that either one of those teams (or any other mid-major this season) will be able to snare a No. 1 seed. In 2008, Memphis had a nonconference strength of schedule that was ranked eighth in the RPI. This year, BYU's is ranked 34th and San Diego State's is 77th. Memphis only lost one game that year, and that was to Tennessee, which at the time was a top-five team. BYU has already fallen to unranked UCLA.
Of the two, San Diego State conceivably has the better chance because it hasn't lost yet. If the Aztecs run the regular season table in the Mountain West, they'd have a pretty good chance. That's how Saint Joseph's got a No. 1 in 2004 out of the Atlantic 10. (Though the Hawks' nonconference schedule was ranked first in the RPI that year.) But I can assure you, Shane, that neither of these teams is going undefeated in the Mountain West. If nothing else, they have to play each other twice.
Seems to be a consensus that the ACC is far weaker than in recent memory. What has caused this dilution in the quality of the conference? Why would adding some football schools mess up other programs?-- Scott, Chicago
As I wrote in this week's Hoop Thoughts, in my two-plus decades of covering this sport, I have never seen the ACC this bad. It's not just that Duke is the only ranked team. (I've been ranking North Carolina for weeks now. Don't worry, the rest of the world will soon catch up.) But the bottom of the league (Virginia, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech) is atrocious. Even the second-tier teams have been beset either by injury (Virginia Tech) or underachievement (Florida State's loss at Auburn).
However, I would caution against assigning out any reason to this other than the fact that these things run in cycles. I remember back in the mid-90s the ACC only put three teams into the NCAA tournament. (Of course, that's when the league had nine teams, not 12.) It was only a few years ago that we were all writing stories about the great resurgence of the Pac-10. That league is only starting to come out of its two-year down cycle. The Big East seems to be cycle-proof, largely because when you have 16 teams, you're bound to have a few really good ones. But it's only a matter of time before we start wondering what happened to the big bad Big East.
If there is a trend working its ugly hand here, Scott has touched on it. Adding Florida State, Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech may have been great for football (though ACC football ain't no great shakes these days, either), but it has diluted the basketball product. If the ACC ever adds more teams, it will be done also for football reasons. And that will make the basketball even more sucky. I mean, how many total Big East basketball games do you think TCU is going to win over the next five years? I put the over/under at 12.
Is Missouri a serious Final Four contender even without their No. 1 recruit Tony Mitchell getting cleared by the NCAA? Or do you think they need another talented big like Mitchell suited up to help make a truly deep run in the NCAAs? And if you know anyone at the NCAA, will you please tell them to rule on Mitchell already? This is getting ridiculous!-- Michael Corleone, Raytown, Mo.
First of all, Michael, I have no idea if that's your real name, but if it is, you are my new best friend. (And don't ever ask me about my business.) Second, it amazes me how certain cases (Enes Kanter, Josh Selby) can be parsed and bloviated ad nauseum, yet another case of a top recruit (Tony Mitchell) on a top team (Missouri) goes totally unnoticed. I plead as guilty as anyone.
For those who are not familiar with Mitchell's situation, he is a 6-8 forward from Dallas who was ranked 12th in Class of 2010 by Rivals.com. Mitchell has never been declared ineligible, but he was not academically cleared by the NCAA in time to be play at Missouri for the first semester of his freshman year. As far as I can tell that is still the case: Mitchell is not ineligible, but he's not allowed to play. Only in the NCAA's America.
One source at Missouri indicated to me recently that they are still having problems getting transcripts and other information from the private school Mitchell attended in Florida before returning to Dallas. But the folks in Columbia seem to be pretty much in the dark as to where this thing stands. Mitchell has until Jan. 25 to be cleared, as that's the last day to enroll at Missouri. While poking around the Enes Kanter situation last week, I asked a couple of people at the NCAA what the latest was. Not only did they not have an answer for me, they didn't even know about the case. That's not their fault -- it's their job to answer questions from the media, not track every eligibility case, and they obviously have not been getting a lot of questions. I'll try to get a better answer for you soon as to where this stands, and I hope to have an update by the time I hit the airwaves on CBS this weekend.
Now to the other part of Michael Corleone's question. (I know it was you, Fredo! You broke my heart!) Yes, Mizzou is a Final Four contender, even without Mitchell. Like a lot of teams, the Tigers will have a hard time surviving a real bad shooting night, especially since they're not a very good rebounding team. (The Tigers were 4-for-16 from three-point range in their loss at Colorado, and they were beaten on the boards by 13.) We'll know a little more about them in a couple of weeks because they are about to hit a tough stretch in their Big 12 schedule. They should have an easy time with Nebraska at home tonight, but check out their next seven games: at Texas A&M, Kansas State, Iowa State, at Texas, at Oklahoma State, Colorado, at Kansas. It's gonna be fuuuuunnn.
One interesting query sent to my Facebook page:
According to BracketAnalystics.com, 69 percent of the time, two teams from one conference make the Final Four. Which conference is most likely to do so this year?-- J.C. Corrigan
Wow, just what the world needs: another bracket analysis site. I'll check it out. That is an amazing stat, though -- I would not have guessed it. Tell you what, J.C. I'll take the Big East, and you can have the field. See ya in Houston.
And finally, here are two questions that were submitted via Twitter:
How do you see UGA finishing this season? My Dawgs deserve the top 25.-- @MarionPugh
When you're a good team with high aspirations and you lack a signature win, you must beat the best team in your league when it comes to your gym. Period. So mad props go to Mark Fox's crew for knocking off Kentucky in Athens over the weekend. I had promised that if they won that game, I would put them on my AP ballot. I was obviously not the only one as Georgia entered the poll this week at No. 24.
Obviously the most important thing that has happened to this team is that junior forward Trey Thompkins, who missed the first three games with a high ankle sprain, has returned to form. Players will tell you that a high ankle sprain is extremely painful, and even after you get back on the court it takes a while to shake off its ill effects. The first two games Thompkins played were against Notre Dame and Temple in the Old Spice Classic, and they were the only two games the Bulldogs have lost. Fortunes can change very quickly in this sport, and Georgia has another big game tonight at Vanderbilt. But at this point, I'd say that if the Bulldogs can stay healthy, they will be primed for a very satisfying NCAA tournament.
Is Tennessee the team that is currently unranked that has the best chance of making a deep run in the tournament?-- @268pastor
First of all, we can't even be sure the Vols will get into the tournament at all. The committee doesn't technically include a team's record in its last 12 games as part of its criteria, but I still think the members place added value on what happens late in the year. That said, I think it's pretty obvious that among unranked teams you'd have to go with Michigan State, who I'm guessing won't be unranked for long. There are actually a few pretty good unranked teams right now, while somehow teams like Louisville, Kansas State and Cincinnati are in the Top 25. Baylor, Florida, UNLV, Vanderbilt, Saint Mary's, North Carolina, Gonzaga, West Virginia, St. John's -- all of those teams are capable of at least making it to the second weekend. It's gonna be a wild and wacky tournament. Then again, it always is.
Read ya next week, Hoopheads. In the meantime, cheer up!