Kevin McNeill's weekly 5 Things column breaks down what's important in the world of college basketball.
This week, we learned that...
1) Maybe foul shooting isn’t as important as we thought
The very best teams in the country, at least in terms of the latest Coaches’ poll, all have several things in common. They have certified superstars that will be high NBA draft picks in June, they have multiple offensive weapons, and they usually out-rebound their opponents by a solid margin.
They also stink at free throws.
The #1 team in the nation, Pittsburgh, is currently ranked 251st in the nation in free throw percentage (out of 330 teams). UConn is 157th. Oklahoma comes in at 194th and Memphis is right there at 165th.
Only until you reach the North Carolina section of the polls, specifically the Tar Heels (10th) and Duke (61st), do you find teams that really take advantage of the charity stripe.
But they are more the exception than the rule. Other teams widely seen as top contenders for a Final Four run are just as abysmal. Michigan State is ranked 170th in free throw percentage, but they are automatic at the line compared to Louisville (256th) and Missouri (255th).
This is not to suggest these schools will not make it to Detroit. Memphis last season was the 318th worst free throw shooting team in the country (out of 328 schools), yet still posted the nation’s best record, and made the national title game. They were actually only two minutes away from winning the championship, but couldn’t hold on to a nine point lead because of, well, free throws.
In fact, it wouldn’t be so bad if many of these teams did make it to the Final Four. Poor foul shooting has contributed to some of the most memorable national title games in history. Who could forget (dating myself here) Derrick Coleman missing a one-and-one at the end of the 1987 title game, setting up Keith Smart’s game winning shot? There was the terrible free throw shooting by Kansas in 2003 which allowed Syracuse to jump out to a big lead, only to have the Orange’s own poor shooting from the stripe down the stretch allow Kansas back within one final shot to tie it, which was swatted away by Hakim Warrick. And of course, there was the unforgettable final from a year ago.
There may be another memorable game in a few weeks.
2) There have been some Texas-sized disappointments this season
Returning four starters from last season’s Elite Eight team, including top rebounder Damion James and second-leading scorer AJ Abrams, Texas was a fashionable pick to win the national title this year. They were projected to (barely) finish second to Oklahoma in the Big 12 in the preseason, and began the year ranked in the top 10.
They remained there as recently as Jan 12th, before losing to Oklahoma in Norman. After seemingly righting the ship with three straight wins, they lost at home to Kansas State and Missouri. The next game they were stunned at Nebraska.
The Longhorns did earn a hard-fought victory over Oklahoma Saturday, but the first half concussion to Blake Griffin that knocked him out of the game seemed to taint the effort. Previously, they lost to Texas A&M on the road, and needed overtime to put away 9-17 Colorado.
Texas, at 18-8 and 7-5 in the Big 12, is in good shape for an at-large berth. They have quality wins over UCLA, Villanova and now Oklahoma. But even this late in the season they are not a lock yet - especially with road dates with Kansas and Oklahoma State still on the schedule – something that was unimaginable two months ago.
Baylor was another trendy pick to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, returning an experienced team with most of their starters from last year’s surprise Tourney team, including preseason Wooden Award candidate Curtis Jerrells. They began the season ranked in the Top 20.
Now they have dropped seven of their last eight, are completely out of the NCAA bubble picture, and – at 16-10 – in danger of missing out on the NIT.
Texas A&M was sitting pretty at 14-1 at the beginning of conference play, with resume-boosting victories over Arizona and LSU. Twelve games later, they are sitting at 5-7 in the Big 12, in sole possession of eighth place. They need to win their final four games – which includes a home matchup against Missouri - to ensure a winning conference record. Even that will probably not be enough to earn an at-large berth should they fail to advance deep into the Big 12 Tournament.
Texas Tech is just a train wreck. Coach Pat Knight was suspended one game by the Big 12 Conference for ripping the refs in his post game news conference after losing to Texas A&M at home Saturday. This comes a month after Knight was reprimanded by the Conference for making a fool of himself and charging the referees after being ejected from a losing effort against Nebraska.
The Red Raiders are currently 2-10 in the Big 12 with games remaining against Oklahoma and Kansas. They have won two games in their last 13 tries. At least the school re-signed Mike Leach.
3) The Citadel now has a shot at the Southern Conference’s automatic bid
Stephen Curry clearly has not recovered from a severely turned ankle, and may not be for the rest of the season, which means a tiny senior military college in Charleston, South Carolina may be on the verge of one of the most improbable NCAA Tournament berths in history.
The Citadel crushed a Curry-less Davidson on the road last week, the Bulldogs’ 10th straight victory – the second longest in the nation behind Memphis. Once 7-9, they now sit at 18-10 and in sole possession of second place in the conference behind the Wildcats, and having already swept the third place team, the College of Charleston.
Davidson shot a miserable 25% from the field in that game without their leader. In their previous meeting back in January, the Wildcats shot 47% in a 15 point drubbing, helped in no small part by Curry’s 32 points.
On Saturday, Curry returned to the lineup against Butler, but clearly was favoring his ankle, and simply did not have the quick first step that has made him the nation’s leading scorer. He shot just 6 for 23 from the field, and committed seven turnovers.
Now it is highly unlikely, even with Curry not at 100%, that the Wildcats do not win the Southern Conference regular season title. They are in first place by two games, and their remaining three games are against UNC-Greensboro, Georgia Southern, and Elon – three of the worst teams in the conference. However, the Southern Conference Tournament could be ripe for a shocking upset.
The Citadel has never once been to the postseason. They haven’t won more than one game in the Southern Conference Tournament in 50 years. They have had four winning regular season records in the last 20 years. They have posted just a single 20 win season which came 30 years ago.
Suffice it to say, the Bulldogs playing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament would be the single biggest underdog in the history of organized athletics. But somehow, I don’t think they would mind.
3) The America East regular season title will be decided this week
Vermont and Binghamton are currently tied for first place in the America East Conference with just a single game to go. Binghamton has swept the Catamounts, both games in nail-biting fashion, so either a win or Vermont loss gives them the regular season title. That title, and # 1 seed in the America East Tournament, is crucial because the highest seed gets home court advantage in the title game. The # 1 seed has gone on to win the conference’s automatic berth in three of the last four years.
Vermont plays on the road against a Maine team that has won just four conference games on Sunday, while Binghamton is at home Thursday against UMBC (Maryland-Baltimore County).
5) Injuries are playing a major factor in other conference races as well
With the best player in the country, the Sooners were legitimate national title contenders, and had the best record in college basketball. Since Blake Griffin suffered a concussion in the first half of a crucial game against Texas, however, Oklahoma has lost two in a row, the latest at home to Kansas, who now own sole possession of first place in the Big 12.
Griffin should be back in the lineup for the matchup against Texas Tech on Saturday, but it may now be too late to salvage a Big 12 regular season title. The Jayhawks final three games are against underachieving Texas Tech and Texas (at home) and a revenge game against arch-rival Missouri (also at home).
St. Mary’s was on track to overtake Gonzaga for first place in the WCC, but star guard Patty Mills broke two bones in his hand during the game against the Zags that would have accomplished it . After that crushing defeat, the Gaels went on to lose three of their next four, and were soon out of contention in the conference. Even after a huge win over a ranked Utah State team recently – their third win in a row - ESPN’s Andy Katz reported that St. Mary’s would have a very tough time earning an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament should Patty Mills not return in time for the WCC Tournament, simply because they “probably won't be able to convince the (NCAA selection) committee that they can be the same team without him.”
Finally, the season-ending knee injury to Jerome Dyson, who was averaging 13 points and 4 boards a game, is a potentially huge blow to UConn’s chances in the Big East Conference. The Huskies currently have a half game lead in the Big East over Marquette, Louisville and Pittsburgh with three games to play. Two of those games are on the road against the Panthers and Golden Eagles.