Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Frustrations of Playing at Duke, and Other College Basketball Business

Going into a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, you expect a little favoritism for the Blue Devils. It's something everyone knows and expects will happen. Over the years, especially since the turn of the millennium, you just expect Duke to get the benefit of the doubt on the calls.

When your favorite team is playing at Duke, you know that going in. But it sure as shit doesn't make it any easier to watch.

Let me get this disclaimer out of the way: Temple didn't have much of a shot at beating the No. 1 Blue Devils last night. With two starters on the shelf — Michael Eric done for the year and Scootie Randall out indefinitely — the Owls were undermanned and outclassed. It would take a perfect game even with Eric and Randall in tow to win at Duke. Even with an impressive first half defensively, you just knew it was only a matter of time before Duke would turn it on. They're the number 1 team in the country for a reason, and with or without the benefit of the doubt from the referees, they were going to beat Temple, most likely pulling away in doing so. That's exactly what they did, blowing out the Owls in the second half to win 78-61.

Now that that's out of the way, let me explain to you why everyone else on the planet hates Duke, and no, it's not simply because they're jealous of Coach K's success. I admit, that's part of it, but it's far from the whole story. After all, traditional power such as Kansas, UCLA, North Carolina and Kentucky are far less universally disliked. The main reason? No matter against who, what, where or when — but especially at Cameron Indoor — Duke gets the benefit of the doubt on calls. All the damn time. And what makes that so fucking frustrating is that Duke doesn't need that help. The Blue Devils are so damn good already, the last thing they need is help from the refs. But that doesn't stop the referees from playing favorites, whether they do it consciously or not.

The first half of last night's game was agonizing to watch. Even though Temple played Duke incredibly close in the first 20 minutes, it was almost more frustrating to watch than the second half.

There were at least 5 or 6 fouls called on Temple in the first half alone that were nowhere near fouls. On one, Rahlir Jefferson was called for a reach or block or something on Kyle Singler when he didn't even touch him for a second. If anything, maybe a foul could have been called on a reach in by Aaron Brown, but the replay showed Brown didn't touch Singler either. Didn't matter. Two shots.

That type of shit was happening the entire first half. Ramone Moore picked up two quick fouls. Ditto Juan Fernandez, who ended the first half with three fouls. And that put an already undermanned and less talented Temple team even further behind.

On the other end, things weren't much better. Several times, T.J. DiLeo — who I admit is mostly worthless — got bulled over, clear charges. Had a Dukie flopped the way DiLeo did, it's an automatic charge on the opposition. DiLeo didn't draw a call once.

And most frustrating of all, there were at least 5 times where a Duke player just camped out in the lane, yet the Blue Devils weren't called for a single three-second violation. On one, I swear to god — as did Arkansas Fred — that Singler was in the lane for 8 seconds. I was screaming at the television for a damn three-second violation. Nothing.

And that's why people hate Duke so much. Beyond the smugness of their fans and the hateable faces of their players and coach …

… they just always seem to get the calls. And they don't need them. They're good enough on their own. That's what makes me and everyone else hate them so damn much.

But like I said, that had minimal impact on the outcome. It's just incredibly annoying. Duke is simply a far better team than the Owls, who are certainly no pushovers. Kyle Singler was outstanding, scoring a game-high 28 points, and he got enough help from his teammates to keep Temple honest.

The Owls really only had two guys show up to play. Rahlir Jefferson carried Temple in the first half, scoring 10 points and making great decisions with the basketball. But he was silent in the second half, scoring only one more point the entire way. Still, he was around the ball and finished with 11 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, a steal and 2 blocks.

Unfortunately, his only other help came in the form of Lavoy Allen, who quietly was the best player on the court not named Singler. Lavoy, who has had a fairly underwhelming season overall, was outstanding last night. He scored a team-high 17 points —  second only to Singler's 28 — and added 13 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. Hell, he even made 3 three-points in 4 attempts after having only two made threes all season going in.

Sadly, those were the only two Owls to show up. Their leading scorer, Ramone Moore, got in foul trouble early and never got into the flow. He had just 8 points and shot just 3-7 from the field. Khalif Wyatt couldn't provide the offensive spark he's grown accustomed to, going just 2-9 from the floor and netting only 6 points. And Juan Fernandez continued to be missing in action, as he has all season long.

The fuck you forget how to play basketball?

Coming off a breakout sophomore season last year when he averaged 12.6 points while shooting 43 percent from the field, 45 percent from three and 85 percent from the line and won the A-10 tournament Most Outstanding Player, Fernandez was expected to take the next step and be this team's leader in the backcourt. Instead, Juan has regressed to an alarming degree. This season, he's scoring just 10 points a game. He's shooting a career-worst 35 percent from the field and career-worst 30 percent form three, and his free throw percentage has dipped to 76 percent. Last night, he was an abysmal 2-10. Somewhere along the way, his confidence disappeared. He no longer makes the brilliant passes we saw the past two seasons, no longer shoots with confidence, no longer trusts his game.

If he doesn't step his game up, especially with Scootie Randall on the shelf, Temple won't have much of a chance defending their A-10 title in the tournament. The Owls need him to be the tough foe everyone's come to expect in both the A-10 and NCAA tournaments. Let's hope he can find his game and get back to the player he was last season.

In other NCAA basketball news, I just wanted to share a few thoughts on Villanova, Penn State and North Carolina as well.

As we all know, Nova is struggling quite a bit right now. They've lost three of their last five games — one at Rutgers and two at home — and are just 5-5 in their last 10. Oh, and things aren't getting any easier for them to wrap up the regular season. Their last three games are against No. 23 St. John's, at No. 9 Notre Dame and at No. 4 Pitt. Basically, the Wildcats are in a little bit of trouble.

Not "going to miss the tournament" trouble, obviously — Villanova is 21-7 after all and ranked 15th in the nation — but trouble in terms of the Big East Tournament for sure. Right now, Nova is 9-6 in the conference, tied with Cincinnati for 7th. They're already on a skid, and they could very easily lose their last three games to finish at .500 in the Big East and miss out on a bye altogether. And unless they can find a way to make a deep run in the conference tournament, they won't be heading into the NCAA tourney with much confidence or a very favorable seed. So these final three games — all of them incredibly tough — are vital.

To be honest, I think one of the reasons Nova has struggled so much recently traces back to coach Jay Wright. Wright is unquestionably an outstanding coach and recruiter. He took a Villanova program that was on life support and has turned it into a national power. Just two seasons ago, he led the Wildcats to the Final Four, and he's churning out NBA players left and right. But this season, I think Wright has made some crucial coaching errors, magnified during this rough stretch.

For one thing, Wright has been tinkering with his lineup all season long and took much, much longer than usual to get his starting lineup set. That hasn't been his M.O. over his career at Nova. Typically, he finds his starting five early in the season and sticks with it. But this year — in part due to injury (and the year-long absence of top recruit JayVaughn Pinskton certainly hasn't helped) — we've seen so many different starting lineups that's it's hard to discern who is a starter and who is not at times. Of late, he's been going with a big lineup: Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes (when he's been healthy), Mouphtaou Yarou, Isaiah Armwood and Antonio Pena. That's far from the Nova way, when we've grown accustomed to three- and even four-guard lineups: Mike Nardi, Kyle Lowry, Randy Foye, Allen Ray, Scottie Reynolds, Dwayne Anderson, Fisher, et al. For a while, that was the case, with Maalik Wayns starting in place of Armwood, giving Nova the three guards it's grown accustomed to. And while Wayns has certainly struggled with turnovers and ill-advised shots at times, the Wildcats were playing much better basketball with him in the starting lineup than with him coming off the bench.

Then you look at some of Wright's in-game strategy of late and it has you scratching your head. In the epic collapse at Rutgers, his end-of-game coaching was laughable, something I never thought I'd say about Jay Wright. The Scarlet Knights started to catch fire from three late in that game, to the point where the last thing you wanted was for Rutgers to be in position to tie or win the game with a three. So after Corey Fisher missed a critical free throw late that would have made it a four-point game and practically iced it, the only smart thing to do was to foul Rutgers and make it a free-throw shooting contest the rest of the game. That way, Rutgers couldn't tie the game with a three, and chances are Nova would come out on top as the superior foul-shooting team.

I know there's a debate about playing defense and fouling with a three-point lead at end-of-game situations, but the reason I say fouling was the only smart thing to do is simple: Villanova is the best free-throw shooting team in the Big East, shooting 76.2 percent as a team. To prove it was the way to go even more, Rutgers is a really bad foul-shooting team, shooting just 66.7 percent on the season, and they were lighting it up from three. You make it a foul-shooting contest, and more than likely Villanova escapes a scare against a horrible team and gets a W. Instead, Wright didn't play the percentages, and disaster struck:

Yes, it was Corey Fisher who missed a critical free throw and then "fouled" (seriously, I still don't think he touched him) a three-point shooter to suffer the four-point play loss, but Wright also failed to put his players in the best position to win following that miss by Fisher. It wasn't one of his better moments, and that inexplicable loss really started this slide over the past 5 games.

After that, they lost to a really good Pitt team at the Pavilion by just three. That was followed by Nova struggling to outlast a bad Seton Hall team, winning by just three themselves, and they barely escaped DePaul with a two-point win, needing overtime to defeat the last-place team in the Big East.

Then there was Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center. In an important game against Syracuse, a game that was critical in determining seeding for the Big East Tournament, specifically the coveted four spot for a double bye, Jay Wright thought it would be a good idea to throw a freshman that missed the majority of the first half of the season in for the final four minutes with his team trailing in a tight contest. Yeah, instead of going with Maalik Wayns or Dominic Cheek, two more proven, seasoned players and one in particular in Wayns who has come up big late in games for Nova, Wright rode with James Bell, a guy who had played a total of 19 games and had only played 2 minutes to that point on the night.

I was screaming at my television, asking why Bell was in at such a critical juncture, and even more livid when he played the entire rest of the way. In that time, Bell missed two free throws, turned the ball over and missed a meaningless three with time winding down. He didn't help Nova at all. Yet he was in the game, and I was baffled.

It turns out that Wayns was suffering back spasms, that's why he wasn't in. But still, why not go with a guy like Cheek, someone who has been in some wars, even though he admittedly was struggling with his shot too? I'd still feel more comfortable with a sophomore who has played in a lot of big games at Nova than a freshman that has played very little.

So here we are with Villanova faltering as the season winds down. It would be tough to expect Nova to be as good as last year after losing a first-team All American in Scottie Reynolds and important contributors like Reggie Redding and even Taylor King, not to mention the unexpected season-long suspension of Pinkston. But it wasn't out of the realm of possibility to expect Villanova to be playing its best and vying for Big East supremacy by this time of the year. That hasn't happened, and things are only going to be tougher from here on out.

Then there is my alma mater, Penn State. As recently as Saturday, I heard Digger Phelps, Hubert Davis and Jay Bilas all proclaim that Penn State is an NCAA Tournament team. Those guys seem to be under the impression that with three more teams added this year, every major conference will get pretty much every decent team in. This makes absolutely no sense, because there are only three teams being added, not a dozen. The pundits don't seem to grasp that. Any smart person who understands simple math does. And any smart person, despite some people proclaiming there are still crucial road tests for the Nittany Lions, knows Penn State is nowhere near a tournament team.

Does that mean Penn State is the embarrassment that it has been for more than a decade and mostly has been under the incompetent Ed DeChellis? No. Much like the Penn State team that won the NIT in 2009, the 2010-11 Lions are tough and far from a pushover. They've beaten Michigan St., Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota at home, lost by just three at Ohio St. and just one at Purdue, and defeated a Duquesne squad that is fourth in the A-10. But that doesn't make them a tournament-worthy team, especially when you look at the full body of work.

For starters, Penn State is just 14-12 overall. They are a game under .500 in the conference, sitting at 7-8, and they have only one road victory all season long. Read that again: Penn State has just one road victory the entire season, and that came at Indiana, a team that is 12-16 on the season and tied for last in the Big Ten with Iowa at 3-12. And in their road games, they've lost seven by double digits. I'm sorry, but if you can't win any games of consequence on the road whatsoever, you don't deserve to be dancing even a little bit.

Then you factor in some of the losses. This team lost at home to Maine. Maine, for christ's sake, an American East team. And they lost that game by 10 points. They lost by 13 at Mississippi, got blown out by 23 at home against Maryland, lost by 10 at Virginia Tech, got rolled at home by 15 against Purdue. They lost twice to Michigan. And they offset their wins at home against Illinois, Michigan St. and Wisconsin by getting destroyed on the road against those teams in the rematches. This month, Penn State lost by 17 at Illinios, 19 at Michigan State and 10 at Wisconsin. How, exactly, is this a tournament team?

Even if they somehow miraculously beat Ohio State next Tuesday, this team's résumé simply isn't good enough — at least not without a deep run in the Big Ten tournament. And frankly, I don't see either of those two things happening. Hell, they may not even beat Northwestern or Minnesota, two of their final three opponents. Both games are on the road, after all.

Talor Battle is a really, really good player. And some of the younger guys are showing promise and playing hard. This team is far from a laughingstock. But they're not a tournament team either. They just aren't.

However, the Tar Heels are. After a dismal 2009-10 season and a shaky start this year, North Carolina has quietly had a very nice season. UNC is 21-6 overall and just a game behind Duke in the ACC, sitting at 11-2 in conference play. They've won 9 of their last 10 games, with the only loss coming at Duke — and that was a close game the entire way, losing by six when it was all said and done.

The way things are going, the regular-season finale in Chapel Hill against Duke could determine the ACC title. Fresh off a 12-point win at NC State, UNC has just Maryland and Florida State (who they beat by 20) before the clash with Duke. And unlike Villanova, Carolina is playing its best basketball of the season right now.

Harrison Barnes has played the second half of the season like he was expected to play the entire season. Kendall Marshall has been outstanding since being inserted to the starting lineup. And Tyler Zeller and John Henson give the Tar Heels two of the better interior players in the nation. This team rebounds, plays smart and gets contributions from just about everyone. They aren't as loaded as the title teams Roy Williams has coached, but they're getting there.

While I still think they're a year away from being elite, they're getting better every game and could make a deep run in the tournament. It's rare that North Carolina flies under the radar, but with the dominance of Duke in the ACC combined with a bit of a down year for the conference — not to mention everyone's love affair with the Big East — that's exactly what's been happening for Carolina this year. The Tar Heels are quietly having a very impressive season, and the nation will begin to take notice in March.

Hopefully, it begins with a statement victory against Duke to wrap up the regular season. Thank god that game won't be in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

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