Posts tagged Big Ten Basketball
Posts tagged Big Ten Basketball
Photo credit: (Left) Minnesota Daily, Erin Westover; (right) Associated Press, Jim Mone.
When a stellar non-conference record only hides the true shortcomings of a Big Ten team. The Minnesota Golden Gophers entered Big Ten conference play with a stellar record and a strong RPI, but will that translate into an NCAA Tournament bid? In all likelihood – and from the look of the first three Big Ten games – no.
With about six and a half minutes left in the first half of a non-conference game, forward Rodney Williams took a pass from Gophers guard Maverick Ahanmisi and slammed it down with two hands, posterizing a Central Michigan defender and adding another dunk to a career that has been highlighted by little else so far than otherworldly hops. The ball hit the defender in the head and he fell out of the way, it’s a great dunk that is pictured above.
The basket put the Golden Gophers up 23-17 against the mid-major conference Central Michigan Chippewas, a game the Gophers eventually won handedly, 76-56.
Rodney Williams can do phenomenal things on a basketball court that make talent evaluators drool, things that 90 percent of the people who ever pick up a leather Spalding only dream of doing.
This isn’t about me, but I need to share some perspective. I love the game of basketball: I love shooting at the park alone, I love pick-up games, I love talking about the 1-3-1 zone, I love teaching fifth-graders how to properly drop step. That said, other than a good first step to gain separation, nothing I did on the basketball court was predicated on superior agility, quickness or leaping. So I love watching Williams leap high on defense to pound a shot against the backboard. I love watching him pull off a 360-degree dunk* on a fast break. If there was one human trait I could harness for a single day, it would be a ridiculous vertical. I would go to the nearest park and dunk for the next eight hours. I would call my friends over to play just so I could hang on the rim and point at them later, like Shawn Kemp emasculating Alton Lister. I would basically do what any 12-year-old does when they find a seven-foot hoop.
So, yes, I enjoy watching those athletic moves that Williams makes look so easy, so instinctual. But seeing that from him isn’t really exciting anymore. I know he can posterize role players from a MAC team. I don’t know if he can crossover Draymond Green and sink an elbow jumper.
I’d much rather see Williams take a defender to the post, spin and go to the hoop. I’d like to see him get to the charity stripe 10 times a game because he can drive to the hoop from the wing or make strong moves from the block. I love to see him because a complete basketball player and not just a high-flyer destined only for YouTube highlight videos. For example, Williams scored 12 points in one half against a team called Mount St. Mary’s. But 10 of those points came off of dunks; and again, they came against a program that counts winning the 2008 NCAA Tournament play-in game as its most noteworthy achievement.
In a perfect world, Williams would have developed an offensive arsenal in his first two years at Minnesota. Instead, we’re waiting to see if he can fill the seismic crack in the Gophers lineup that was caused when Trevor Mbakwe’s ACL snapped. Williams’s raw talent, his jump over a car vertical, will always enchant. That allows us to think that the 6-foot, 7-inch Williams is up to it. It will also cause us to forget that there’s no reason at this point to defend him 15 feet from the basket and also that he is too skinny to regularly post up power forwards.**
Yes, Williams’s 12 points against Mount St. Mary’s were nice. So were the Gophers’ 12 non-conference wins. But neither tell us what we really need to know about this team: Can they at least make the NCAA Tournament?
* - Someone said a dunk like that is senseless. I’m guessing that person couldn’t do it themselves. I imagine the reason that Williams makes plays like that is similar to when Simon Le Bon, singer of Duran Duran, was asked in the mid 1980s why rock stars date models: “Because we can.”
** - Yes, Williams is currently shooting 40 percent from three-point land. That’s one way to put it. Another way is that he’s shooting six for 15 through 16 games. Another way to put it is that once a game, and only once a game, Williams has a 40 percent chance of making a basket worth three points.
Entering this season, the Minnesota Gophers were at best a bubble tournament team. Then, Mbakwe went down with a crushing injury, leaving even the tourney’s fringe unlikely. I started writing this on Dec. 18, shortly before the end of Minnesota’s non-conference schedule. (No, it doesn’t take that long to finish a blog post, but I got busy with more important things than whining into my own echo chamber. Either that or a “Law & Order: SVU” marathon that was on USA.) The Gophers were riding high, with an 11-1 record and a high RPI ranking. Since, they’ve lost three conference games to a decent Illinois team, a solid Michigan team and an Iowa team that might be the third-best team in Iowa.
Jon Dolan of Grantland wrote about the team on Dec. 14, published right as Minnesota was playing Central Michigan on ESPN.* He could have saved a lot of time by writing: “Winter sucks, this team will, too, especially since Trevor Mbakwe is hurt” and he wouldn’t have been incorrect doing so. In the otherwise standard column, Dolan couldn’t have described Ralph Sampson III better.
Dolan wrote:“The Chippewas started out strong against the newly center-less Gophers (center-less in the existential sense; they have a center — Ralph Sampson III, a promisingly named but ultimately ill-defined youth with the soft, brooding eyes of a café poet and the impressionistic intensity of a jazz flutist).”
That description is so perfect that I think we should buy Sampson a beret. (Dolan also sneaked a nice reference to First Avenue in the piece.)
* - Synergy! ESPN also put Ralph Sampson III on the front of its website during the game, as if he was the biggest story in the sporting world at the time, which is ridiculous especially since he’s playing the fourth-most minutes on a team that seems to lack depth at the post position.
In Mbakwe’s absence, the Gophers played relatively well, considering Sampson was injured briefly as well. Before we get too far though, the team played an extended exhibition schedule or sorts, filled with teams like Mount St. Mary’s, Appalachian State (not the football team), St. Peter’s, Athletes in Action and the Washington Generals. Two of those teams might be fake.
Elsewhere in the Big Ten, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo has adopted an “any time, anywhere” theory of non-conferencing scheduling (he even played one game on an aircraft carrier, which was awesome). Tubby Smith has, well, a different approach. Call it “no one, nowhere.”
Aside from early season tournaments, during his Gophers coaching career, Tubby Smith has put together a schedule that the Star Tribune’s Patrick Reusse said recalled the “Hyphen Road” days of Clem Haskins’s non-conference slate.
Again, Tubby has been “No One. Nowhere.” In 2008-09, the Gophers played No. 9 Louisville as their lone top 25 ranked opponent on the non-conference schedule. In 2009-10, No. 12 Butler served as the lone ranked team. In 2010-11, they played No. 8 North Carolina. All of those games were neutral sites or tournaments.
This year, like Smith’s first in 2007-08, the Gophers have yet to play a ranked team. The team’s final non-conference game comes Thursday against North Dakota State. The Gophers didn’t play a single non-conference road game. They have played three neutral site games, one of which they lost. Below is a list, courtesy of ESPN Insider, of the Gophers’ non-conference opponents as of Dec. 18 and their RPIs — three teams have RPIs of more than 250.
Using ESPN’s Bracketology as a guide (taken on Dec. 18), only one of the teams they’ve played outside of the conference schedule is tourney bound. That team is South Dakota State, listed as a 15 seed. Now, Bracketology is obviously flawed to use as a predictor, but it also shows which teams have performed well so far. Virginia Tech, who the Gophers beat without Mbakwe, was listed as one of the last eight teams left out of the tournament.
I bring this up not because other teams have brutal non-conference schedules, most don’t. As Reusse wrote this week: The Gophers were No. 28 in RPI and No. 24 in strength of schedule as of Wednesday morning. This says much about the nonconference schedules of teams from the power conferences, as they play 80 to 90 percent of those games at home against teams from the lower rungs of Division I.”
I bring this up because we shouldn’t put too much into a stellar non-conference record when the team won’t be able to compete in the Big Ten. It really doesn’t matter if Smith doesn’t want the Gophers to chase teams around the country like a barnstorming tag team from the days of AWA professional wrestling; as long as the Gophers win in the Big Ten, the non-conference stuff is on the periphery. For all of Haskins’s “Hyphen Road” jokes, he won* when it came to conference games.
But Smith hasn’t won.
According to the Star-Tribune’s Michael Rand, Smith’s record in Big Ten conference games with the Gophers is 32-43. Previous coach Dan Monson’s final 75 regular-season games was 32-43. Smith’s teams have made two NCAA tournaments in four years – which is solid — but they have yet to pass the first round. I’d be shocked if that happens this year, in year five.
Compounding matters, three of Smith’s former recruits (Justin Cobbs, Devoe Joseph and Royce White) are important parts of teams not playing at Williams Arena. One could even argue that the five players who have left the program since February 2010 are a better squad than the current starting lineup.
* - Waiting for someone to make a “vacated” joke here, but everyone remembers where those teams really finished.
At the beginning of this essay, I wrote about Rodney Williams’s potential. When someone can jump 40 some inches in the air, it makes us forget about other warts in their game. Tubby Smith’s national championship is his ridiculous vertical. When a coach has that kind of resume, it makes us forget that his Big Ten conference record is exactly the same as a guy who was run out of Dinkytown with pitchforks. It makes us forget that three players who would likely start this year are playing well for other squads.
I was ecstatic when it was announced Tubby Smith was coming to the University of Minnesota. But the honeymoon is over. I don’t think the Gophers should fire Tubby Smith by any means, but it’s time to quit making excuses. You’ve heard them: Smith had to overcome a lackluster program when he came in, the practice facility needs to be upgraded, recruits aren’t impressed with Williams Arena, Smith’s teams have been unlucky with injuries.
Maybe we’ve been blinded by the annual, “Will he leave for Maryland, Auburn, etc.” job search frenzy, so let’s run those excuses down:
• Dan Monson had to overcome the loss of scholarships and a big-time scandal, Smith didn’t.
• Northwestern’s facilities surely aren’t better than the Gophers’, yet they finished atop the Gophers in the Big Ten last year and at least made the NIT.
• Purdue lost Robbie Hummel in consecutive years and still reached the third round of the NCAA Tournament each year.
Bad things happen to teams every year. The good ones overcome it.
Those excuses above aren’t why the Gophers won’t be tourney bound this year. It’s because either their players aren’t good enough, they aren’t being coached and developed well enough, or very possibly, both.
Again, I don’t think the Gophers should fire Smith by any means right now, but it’s time for Smith to prove he’s worth more than his credentials.
Justin Cobbs, in a walking dribble near the top of the three-point line, makes quick move to the left before crossing over his dribble and driving the lane at Williams Arena. As he gets past his defender, another comes up in help defense, leaving Royce White open on the backside, who has just started to bolt toward the hoop. Cobbs notices the defender coming and lobs a pass just out of his opponent’s reach about a foot to the left from the backboard square. White, uncumbered from any defender, rises, grabs the ball and thunderously dunks it down with two hands.
The Williams Arena crowd explodes, even though the cheers are coming for the visitors, wile Cobbs and White have just thwarted Gophers Rodney Williams and Julian Welch.
Is the fictional scenario above so far fetched?
Colton Iverson left Tubby Smith’s Golden Gopher basketball program this month, making a total of five players who have shuttled off since February 2010. A friend recently asked by e-mail, which team do I think would win, if they met in a real-life contest. (WhatifSports.com should put something together about this.)
Here are the teams:
Tentative Gophers 2011-12 Roster
PG - Julian Welch
SG - Andre Hollins/Joe Coleman
SF - Rodney Williams
PF - Trevor Mbakwe
C - Ralph Sampson III
Bizarro Gophers 2010-11 Transfers
PG - Justin Cobbs
SG - Devoe Joseph
SF - Royce White
PF - Paul Carter
C - Colton Iverson
Note: I realize that Paul Carter would have graduated in 2010-11, but for the sake of sports debate, we’re going to let that slide. He only played three years of Division I ball, so in our twisted universe, he’s eligible for this game.
Now, just to be clear, I don’t have a huge problem with the transfers in Tubby’s program. It’s a problem, yes, but not a huge one, if I can include that modifier. The gawd-awful tenure of Dan Monson has given Smith a long leash in my book.
The two largest transfer question marks, and unfortunately best players, have been White and Joseph. White couldn’t seem to avoid making the wrong kind of headlines, while Joseph decided to surprisingly up and leave campus last winter. But at the same time, if they are guys who are going to be head cases, you don’t want them in your program. Granted, it still would have been nice if Tubby could have gotten them on the right track. (I have a source close to some people from the high school that expelled. Apparently going to class and his effort while there was a constant issue; it’s disappointing that he still couldn’t get his life in order off of the court at Minnesota. Moving on.)
Carter left to be closer to his cancer-stricken sister. Cobbs left at a time when he was buried on the depth chart (of course he would have ended up to be a major factor late last season) and Iverson possibly left for similar concerns about dwindling playing time.
But on to debates about fictional games that can never be definitively settled. (It’s like ranking fantasy football teams in the preseason!)
As my esteemed colleague writes: the transfer team is arguably better at PG, SG and SF, and if Mbakwe goes to the NBA or gets arrested, the transfer team likely beats the current roster [with Maurice Walker filling in] by about 20 points.
I can’t disagree with those things at all.
The Bizarro Five could exploit White’s size and strength advantage at SF, while Joseph becomes the best offensive threat on the entire court. I have misgivings about his consistency, but Cobbs is a pass-first guard and the Coleman/Hollins mix consists of two unproven freshmen. The Bizarro All-Stars could also play around with their match-ups, in allowing White to play power forward and moving Carter to the three. Either player would provide exploitable post-up opportunities against the smaller Rodney Williams.
But on the otherside of The Barn, Mbakwe would absolutely shred Paul Carter or White in the post, even though Carter’s athleticism would help him beat Mbakwe down the floor in transition. (It might be best to move Iverson against Mbakwe, but I could see him fouling out in about three minutes of game action in that case.) Also, I wonder if the Bizarro Gophs would implode on the court - would they mesh well? Would Joseph bristle if White started taking a lot of shots? If Joseph is having an off night, who picks up the offensive slack in the backcourt? I think a simple, aggressive 2-3 zone would give the Bizarro Gophers fits.
My friend is a huge Joseph fan, while my own irrational optimism meter probably rises most with Rodney Williams. Can Williams make the leap from being a jump-out-of-the-gym athlete to a complete basketball player? I don’t know. My friend said the Gophers next year will likely be awful, unless Williams becomes an All-Conference-type player. He put a one-in-five chance of that happening and again, I really can’t disagree with that.
The most striking thing for me is how well both teams match-up with each other. Both have the same strengths, half-court basketball and the ability to play high-pressure athletic defense; but lack a clear No. 1 offensive threat who can create his own shot.
But who would be a better team? Without seeing enough of Hollins’s game, I have to rank the team according to Coleman instead. I think he will be a solid player and fits nicely in with the current squad. But the game would likely be closely contested. When two teams are that close, I think you look at the best player on the court and put your chips behind him. At this point in time, that’s Mbakwe and he has probably the best match-up of any of the 2011-12 Gophers against their transferred counterparts.
Still, the Bizarro Gophers wouldn’t be far off and that alone should give even the most loyal of Gopher basketball fans some concern about next year.