With Iowa and Michigan each claiming a pair of big time wins last week, experts around the nation will proclaim that Wolverine basketball is back thanks to Tommy Amaker, and that Steve Alford has finally brought the Hawkeyes success in the Big Ten.
Im not going to say stop the presses, but I am going to try to put these victories in perspective a bit. As nice as back to back wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin (or in Iowas case, Indiana and Ohio State) are, they took place at home. Im not sure a home win means much of anything in this cutthroat conference, and the fact that Iowa only has four tough conference road games this season probably means more than their impressive stretch of play at Carver-Hawkeye.
There are seven teams that make up a clear-cut top tier in the Big Ten. (We could see all seven in the top 25 this week.) Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin have played each other 16 times this year. The home team is 15-1 in those games.
There have been some close, competitive games from this group. There have also been a few blowouts. The home/road gap has led to a couple of truly nonsensical sequences of events, such as Iowa handily dispatching Illinois at Carver-Hawkeye, the Illini defeating Michigan State in Champaign, and the Spartans absolutely destroying those same Hawkeyes when they came to town last week.
If the road trips, unfamiliar rims, and hostile arenas werent enough, Big Ten road teams have to deal with another even more formidable opponent: the officials. Top tier Big Ten teams have played each other 16 times this year. On average, the home team has shot 9 extra free throws per game. Yes, you read that right. If Big Ten home teams take care of business once they get to the stripe, they are being spotted an extra 7 points every game!
People really started paying attention to this after Michigan beat Michigan State earlier in the week with a 34-10 free throw attempt home court advantage, but there are other blatant examples. Iowa outshot Indiana 30-8 earlier in the week in their big home win earlier in the week. Michigan lost to Indiana in the season opener, and the Hoosiers had a 25-5 advantage at the charity stripe. We have to go back to January 5th to find a game between top tier Big Ten teams where the guest shot more free throws than the host. On that night, Michigan State got a 14-12 advantage at Illinois.
Would you like to guess what the free throw disparity was the lone time a top tier Big Ten team has lost at home? It was 10-10 of course, on the night that Michigan State edged Ohio State at Columbus.
This free throw advantage can be partially explained by the simple fact that Big Ten road teams are losing nearly 100% of the time, and a team that is trailing heading into the stretch run is likely to foul in an attempt to get back in the game. It certainly created a false look of favoritism in Michigans victory over Wisconsin on Saturday, where the differential was 27-16.
Still, 9 free throw attempts per game? It seems more than a little too high to me.
The moral of the story here is that while home wins and road losses count in the standings, the home team is merely holding serve when it beats a quality opponent in the Big Ten. Those home wins really dont prove much of anything. The team that can steal a couple of big ones on the road is the one that will likely take the conference.
I would be interested in hearing peoples thoughts on home court advantage around the country. I realize that playing at home is a huge advantage in any conference. The Big Ten has always been especially blatant. But this big? Feel free to e-mail me using the link at the bottom of the page
Oak Hill (VA) vs Episcopal (PA) at the Palestra
Even with the age limit, it is getting much easier to watching future college stars and NBA prospects at the high school level. While I wasnt able to catch Thaddeus Young or Brandan Wright last night (thank you so much, ESPNU), I did find an internet feed of the loaded Oak Hill (VA) vs Episcopal (PA) matchup at the Palestra on Sunday afternoon.
There were no less than five future McDonalds All-Americans in this one. Wings Wayne Ellington (06, North Carolina) and Gerald Henderson (06, Duke) led the way for Episcopal, while Oak Hill more than countered with PG Tywon Lawson (06, North Carolina), SG Nolan Smith (07, Duke), and F Michael Beasley (07, Charlotte). As if that trio wouldnt beat any team in the nation single handedly, roleplayers on the Oak Hill roster have committed to Michigan, Virginia Tech, Georgia, and Maryland.
While the wing duo headed to Tobacco Road makes Episcopal one of the most talented teams in the nation, it wasnt expected that they would put up a fight against a full roster of D-1 prospects. Nonetheless, Episcopal was able to keep Oak Hills high powered offense in check most of the way. Lawson and Beasley appeared on the verge of opening the game up on several occasions but Lawson picked up his 3rd foul late in the 2nd quarter, and that allowed Episcopal to keep the game within single digits headed into the break.
The second half was a similar story, with Oak Hill looking ready to pull away but Lawson picking up his 4th early in the 4th quarter. Oak Hill then decided to stall the game for two minutes to get Lawson back on the court (remember, no shot clock in high school), and even though they were trailing by 6, Episcopal sat back in their zone and let the clock tick down. Some late outside shooting by Ellington would make things interesting, but Beasley emphatically blocked an Ellington slashing move in the final minutes, helping to secure the Oak Hill win.
Oak Hills spectacular duo of Tywon Lawson and Michael Beasley jump out at you almost immediately.
Lawson is nothing short of unguardable off the dribble, and all the comparisons to Raymond Felton are absolutely deserved. (Another player I thought of when I saw Lawsons explosiveness, stocky build, and lock down pressure defense was Villanovas Kyle Lowry). Lawson didnt display all of Feltons court vision in this one, but it would be tough for him to show that off considering he can get a good shot almost whenever he wants. He is known as one of the top pure floor generals in the country. I had Lawson with 21 points, and he easily would have gone for 30 if foul trouble hadnt derailed his efforts early in the second half.
While Oak Hill was clearly a different team the minute Lawson went to the bench, the 511 PG isnt even the best NBA prospect on the roster. That would be Charlotte commit Michael Beasley. Beasley checks in at a chiseled 68, and can play either forward position with ease. He didnt finish well around the basket in this one, but probably had as many offensive rebounds off of his own misses than the entire Episcopal team on the afternoon hes just that superior in terms of strength, length, and bounce. Beasley displayed a nice lefty stroke from the midrange, and an ability to slash to the basket. While it isnt yet clear if we are watching a future wing or post man, there is little doubt in my mind that he could emerge as a dominant player at either position. His physical superiority and feel for the game are nothing short of amazing. Beasley finished with 20 points, and it looked like he barely broke a sweat. Did I mention hes only a junior?
If we attempted to do something as absurd as a 2008 mock draft, Michael Beasley would certainly be near the top of the lottery.
Of course, Episcopal has a nice little duo you might be hearing a little bit more about over the next five years. It is obvious that Wayne Ellington and Gerald Henderson have been playing with each other for years, but the two will part ways next fall. Ellington is taking his talents to North Carolina, while Henderson will head to archrival Duke. The story is almost too good to be true, and for that reason we will probably have to hear about it before every Duke-UNC game for the next three seasons.
While Ellington is more highly regarded by most recruiting services, it has been Henderson putting in the big time performances this season. Henderson is a remarkably well-rounded wing man. In addition to the rim-rattling dunks that come with the territory for any 66, freakishly athletic power wing, Henderson can get to the basket and finish in a variety of ways. He is an impressive passer as well, and created nicely for Ellington in the second half of this one. Henderson will need to prove that he can knock down the perimeter jumper, but it is clear that stardom awaits at Duke. His athleticism will remind Blue Devil fans of Dahntay Jones, but Henderson has a chance to be a much better all-around player. Henderson finished with 19 in this one.
Ellingtons stock may be slipping a bit, after a so-so performance on national TV earlier this month and whispers that he just isnt playing as well as he did this past summer. Nonetheless, it is easy to see why Tar Heel fans are excited about Ellington. He isnt the explosive athlete that Henderson is, but Ellington finds crafty ways to get to the basket. He nails the 3-point shot almost as well as he slashes Think Ben Gordon, but with a little more size. There is a bit of point guard in Ellington and his role as a distributor could be hampering his effectiveness as a pure scorer. Today he was defended by Lawson right out of the gate, but Ellington got a bit more space to operate once Lawson got into foul trouble. He looked like a different player in the second half, and finished with 23 points.
If we all had a chance to vote for who goes #1, I would probably cast my ballot for LaMarcus Aldridge right now. Kelvin Sampson decided to let Kevin Bookout defend Aldridge by himself on Saturday night during Oklahoma's big win, and the results of that individual matchup werent pretty for the Sooners. Aldridge scored on a variety of turnaround jumpers and midrange hooks in the lane, and was a real factor on the offensive glass.
Aldridge is physically superior to almost any big man in the country, and given the way he has bulked up in the last year, his potential is off the charts. You just dont see big men of Aldridges size, skill, and athleticism at the college level anymore, and if Kevin Bookout and Taj Gray cant control him it is doubtful any big man in the country could.
Unfortunately, the Texas backcourt can keep him in check. Both Taj Gray and Bookout picked up two fouls with time to spare in the first half, but the Longhorns couldnt get Aldridge a decent look in the latter part of the first half or the first four minutes of the second half. This was a game where Aldridge should have gotten 30 shots, but he ended with 15. Foul trouble sent him to the bench with 9 minutes to play, and he wouldnt attempt another shot on the night. Not surprisingly, things went downhill quickly for the Longhorns once Aldridge got his 4th.
I am not sure what to make of Texas. Ken Pomeroys statistics claim that Texas is the top defensive team in the country, but this is the third game (Duke, Tennessee) I have seen this season where they have done a terrible job of defending the perimeter. They obviously had little trouble slowing down the high powered backcourts of Villanova and Memphis, but I wasnt able to catch either of those games.
The way Texas had been breezing through the Big XII after those two big wins late in the non-conference slate had me thinking that the Duke game was just a hiccup. While Texas remains in my national top 5 (it was just a conference road game), these poor defensive performances and the selfishness in the backcourt have me wondering if the Longhorns arent a prime candidate for an early round NCAA Tournament upset. Keep an eye on this team
The Race to 30 (points per game)
One of the top storylines of this season has been the emergence of the two-man national player of the year race between Adam Morrison and JJ Redick. Their mutual on court respect and off court friendship has been well-documented, and they continue one-upping each other with new feats of scoring proficiency on a weekly basis.
While a simple statistical accomplishment might seem frivolous compared to national player of the year honors, I am really interested to see if either player can top that rarely seen 30 ppg mark for the season. It hasnt been fpmr since 1997 when Charles Jones of Long Island averaged 30.1 ppg, and the last time a recognizable name managed it was Glenn Robinson in 1994.
Neither Redick nor Morrison is currently averaging 30 per night, but both players are rapidly approaching that mark.
Morrison is averaging 31.3 ppg in seven WCC games, and scored 40+ his each of his last two games. In his most recent game against Portland, he reached the 30 point threshold at halftime. On the season, Morrison is now averaging 29.0 ppg.
Redick has a bit more work to do, as his scoring average is currently sitting at just 27.8 ppg. However, Redick has matched Morrison shot for incredible shot in recent games. Over his last 7 outings, Redick is averaging 32.2 ppg. The Blue Devil senior also has a pair of 40 point performances during his recent hotter stretch.
So who wins that National Player of the Year Award? My guess is that Redick takes home the hardware, playing in a high-profile conference for one of the top teams in the nation. My choice would be Morrison, however. While Redick certainly has improved at creating for himself, the degree of difficulty on the things that Morrison does every time down the court is nothing short of spectacular. He doesnt need his team to set picks or spread the floor for him.
Forget the WCC, Adam Morrison will go 1-on-5 against any defense in America and still get his 30 every time.
National Top 25
8. West Virginia
11. George Washington
13. Michigan State
17. Northern Iowa
21. NC State
22. Ohio State
24. Boston College
Next Five: Wisconsin, North Carolina, Bucknell, Colorado, Maryland