- Matt Cox
The Weave’s college campus takeover expanded to Chicago’s north side this weekend, as Matt and Ky took their talents to Gentile Arena to cover Loyola versus Illinois State in a battle between two of the Valley’s top contenders. So, in addition to surveying the weekend that was in our standard weekend wrap-up format, we also highlight some key observations from the Ramblers and Redbirds showdown on Saturday.
The Big Boys
Much to the dismay of Duke haters everywhere, the Blue Devils survived their first true road test of the season (Wake Forest doesn’t count, let’s be honest) thanks to Florida State’s blown defensive coverage on the out of bounds play on the game’s final possession. The missed assignment left acres of space for Cam Reddish to step into a wide open, butt-naked 3 as the final seconds ticked away.
With Zion Williamson sidelined with double vision after being poked in the eye in the first half, Reddish rose to the occasion down the stretch and reminded us why his preseason hype was well warranted, despite some recent individual struggles. He and RJ Barrett combined for 55 of Duke’s 80 points and rained in 9 of the Devils’ 11 triples, which helped mask poor performances from Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier, both of whom were bullied by Florida State’s frontline trio of Mfiondu Kabengele, Christ Koumadje and Phil Cofer on the glass.
Duke’s 2nd half survival in Tallahassee predictably hogged the highlights this weekend, but the Virginia Cavaliers continue to quietly dismantle whoever they play, wherever they play them. Clemson was the Cavs’ latest victim as the Hoos’ suffocating defense held the Tigers to 0.70 points per possession on just 26% shooting. Virginia’s near-flawless play on both ends of the floor will be put to the ultimate test this week when they play host to in-state rival Virginia Tech Tuesday before traveling down to Durham for what might be the most anticipated game of the season.
While Notre Dame, NC State and Miami all took care of business on Saturday, North Carolina and Syracuse took it on the chin in front of their home fans, courtesy of Louisville and Georgia Tech, respectively. After rattling off four straight wins, Syracuse now finds themselves on the wrong side of the bubble after Georgia Tech pulled away from Cuse in the 2nd half. North Carolina’s at-large prognosis is far more secure than the Orange, but a top-2 seed is starting to slip away from the Tar Heels’ grasp. Heading into the weekend, both Ky and Jim pegged UNC as the top-3 seed on their dueling bracket S-Curves, but a 21-point defeat in Chapel Hill likely slides them down closer to 4-seed territory.
When will Nassir Little wake up from his conference coma? Through three ACC games, the 5-star freshman has yet to post an O-Rating above 100 and has tallied more turnovers (5) than made 3s (0), made free throws (4) and assists (3).
The Mitten State once again smacked around Big Ten foes like defenseless rag dolls on Sunday. With Josh Langford and Kyle Ahrens both missing in action, Michigan State dispatched Penn State by 15 on the road, despite an atrocious game from Cassius Winston (11 points and 7 turnovers). Michigan used an unexpected barrage of Jon Teske trey balls - yes, Jon Teske - to route Northwestern by 20 at home after leading by 22 at the half.
While the two Michigan monsters are each eyeing a spot on the 1-seed line in March, Minnesota and Iowa each notched impressive home wins to further bolster their respective at-large resumes. After an 0-3 start to Big Ten play, Fran McCaffery can now take a big fat sigh of relief with his Hawkeyes sitting at a respectable 3-3 in the conference standings, including wins over Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio State. Richard Pitino’s Gophers held serve at home against a pesky, but Eugene Omoruyi-less, Rutgers squad, a necessary result for a team that will likely ride the bubble well into Selection Sunday.
The quest to dethrone Kansas’ never-ending streak of Big-12 titles advanced one step further on Saturday when Texas Tech improved to 4-0 in league play after screeching past Texas by a touchdown. Kansas came out firing in Waco and leaned on an early cushion to eek by a rapidly improving Baylor team to stay within one game of the Red Raiders in the conference standings. Currently, kenpom.com projects Kansas and Texas Tech to finish tied atop the Big-12 leaderboard at 13-5, a whole three games above Iowa State and Oklahoma, who are beginning to finally look mortal after blistering hot starts.
After Kansas State finally looked like themselves with a full roster in-tact (Dean Wade played 22 minutes and Kamau Stokes played 29 minutes in the Purple Wildcats’ enormous win at Iowa State) and Oklahoma State weaseling their way into the thick of the conference standings at 2-2, West Virginia now sits all alone in the Big-12 basement. The slew of injuries and suspensions have simply been too much for Bob Huggins to overcome, as both Wesley Harris and Esa Ahmad were benched in Saturday’s 8-point loss to Okie State. And with the ‘Sagaba Saga’ still an ongoing dilemma with no end in sight, it’s hard to find any convincing evidence that the Mountaineers can right the ship going forward.
It’s probably time to silence the ‘What’s wrong with Villanova?’ music that’s been played on repeat throughout the Big East echo chamber. After freaking out over early losses to Michigan and Furman, Nova is slowly recreating the surgical offensive precision that tore through the Big East over the last five seasons. While the Wildcats still lack the offensive firepower of prior Nova versions, this rendition has slowly asserted itself as the class of the conference. Jay Wright & company had to scrap and crawl for their first three league wins, including two painful struggles at home with DePaul and St. John’s, before picking apart Creighton’s defense on Saturday in Omaha.
Speaking of the Blue Demons and the Red Storm, DePaul took advantage of the wounded Johnnies’ who were without Big East POTY candidate Shamorie Ponds on Saturday. Ponds’ gamebreaking speed and shotmaking were in high demand, as the Demons exploited the Red Storms’ soft spots inside. Femi Olujobi and Paul Reed combined to rack up 45 points and 18 rebounds and DePaul revealed the glaring weakness in the Johnnies’ 5-out small-ball lineup: interior defense.
A changing of the guard appears to be in effect amongst the Big East competitors - Butler, Creighton and Providence have switched spots with Georgetown, DePaul and St. John’s in the conference standings, all of whom are looking up at Villanova (4-0), Marquette (3-1), Seton Hall (3-1) and, surprisingly, Xavier (3-2) at the top of the totem pole.
Whatever slanderous nickname you wish to apply to the Pac-12, the facts still hold - this conference is falling fast into national irrelevancy. Not one team currently sits inside the top-40 of kenpom’s overall rankings and two steaming hot piles of garbage in Washington State and California reside outside the top-200 nationally! With our brains tied in a knot trying to make sense of this conference, the three Weavers and our colleague Max Meyer of Sports Illustrated each took a crack at re-ranking all 12 teams from top-to-bottom:
Oregon State has been a nice surprise, thanks to the emergence of shot-blocking savant Kylor Kelley, but the Beavers will need their versatile forward Tres Tinkle at full strength to make any serious charge at a Pac-12 title. Tinkle retuned to the hardwood on Sunday against UCLA, but was noticeably hobbled by a bum ankle that caused him to miss Thursday night’s tilt with USC.
The Best of the Rest
After a rare home loss to open the season against Ohio State, ‘Cronin and his Chronies’ began their typical tear through non-conference and pocketed respectable victories over Ole Miss, UCLA and UNLV on the road. The AAC opener stuck to the same script, as the Bearcats demolished Tulane by 30 in front of their home crowd in Fifth Third Arena, but the turbulence began shortly after…
The Joe Dooley coached East Carolina Pirates stunned UC when the Bearcats traveled to Greenville last Saturday, and since then, UC has needed back to back overtime wins to escape from Tulsa and UCONN to keep pace with UCF, Houston, Temple, SMU and Memphis atop the conference standings.
Where shall the finger be pointed for San Diego State’s struggles? Brian Dutcher is the obvious fall man for the Aztecs abysmal season thus far, which, after Saturday’s 14-point loss to Air Force, seems far from salvageable at this juncture. Despite a roster oozing with talent, San Diego State’s spotty defense and disjointed offense has manifested in horrendous losses to nearby San Diego, California and Brown in the non-conference, before dropping to 1-2 in the MWC standings this weekend. With Fresno State rapidly rising up the MWC ranks under the direction of Justin Hutson, many are questioning whether the former San Diego State assistant was the true mastermind behind the Aztecs’ elite defensive units over the last 5 years. Dutcher has always had super-glue stick on the recruiting trail, but this season has shed light onto some of his shortcomings as a game planner, scheme deviser and player developer.
‘Twas a great weekend for Louisiana hoops fans. The state’s flagship program LSU survived a late scare from Arkansas to add a much needed conference road win to their resume, but the Bayou Bengals were far from the only Louisiana-based school that impressed on Saturday. While the Louisiana Lafayette Rajun Cajuns, last year’s Sun Belt champions, picked up a much needed road win at top league contender Georgia Southern, Louisiana Tech blitzed Middle Tennessee for their second straight C-USA victory.
However, no team in the Pelican state has galvanized my attention more frequently than Louisiana Monroe, who wound up on the wrong side of yet buzzer beater on Saturday, this time to Sun Belt favorite Georgia State in Atlanta - D’Marcus Simonds got LeBron-esque treatment on this travel no-call:
Despite the outcome, it’s clear Keith Richard has something special brewing in Monroe - the Warhawks are led by a premier playmaker in former Wichita State transfer Daishon Smith, who put the league on notice with his 42 point explosion in Monroe’s conference opening victory against Little Rock.
The Poster Boy and The Stat Sheet Stuffer
If you haven’t seen the highlight of Ja Morant’s hammer time throw down over Tennessee Martin on Saturday, this is why the Racers’ sophomore Superfreak is already earning comparisons to Russell Westbrook…
The only individual accomplishment from the weekend that comes close to that superhuman feat is South Florida’s LaQuincy Rideau’s improbable triple-double of 18 points, 10 assists and 10 STEALS!
Brian Gregory deserves a ton of credit for transforming the Tampa-based Bulls from AAC punchline to fringe AAC contender in less than two years. The former Georgia Tech head honcho has perfectly fused together young freshman talent (see Alexis Yetna and Michael Durr) with experienced talent via the transfer wire (see Rideau and Auburn import TJ Lang).
Loyola vs. Illinois State Observations
Gentile Arena is the perfect mid-major venue
It was only my second visit to Loyola’s northside campus, but I was promptly reminded of how fond I am of the Ramblers’ home court venue. Recent renovations give it a pristine finish, but it’s the size and setup that make Gentile Arena such a perfect atmosphere for Missouri Valley basketball. The cracker-jack gym holds just under 5,000 people at full capacity, but the intimate feel and flawless sight lines make every seat in the house a desirable one. The octagon layout gives every attendee a straight-on view of the action and the hollow floorboards beneath the seats roar whenever the ‘Blers go on a run.
Cam Krutwig - The Secret Sauce in Loyola’s Versatile Offense
Illinois State’s multitude of defensive looks provided a perfect template to assess Loyola’s offensive versatility. In the first half, Dan Muller seemed content to play mostly man-to-man, which opened up ample opportunities for Porter Moser to isolate his bruising beauty of a big man in multiple locations on the floor. Even with one of the Valley’s best individual post defenders in Phil Fayne marked on him, Krutwig was simply too much for the Redbirds to handle. When he was able to seal Fayne or one of the other Redbirds forwards deep on the block after subsequent ball rotations, the pure passing Rambler guards were able to find Krutwig on time and on target for an easy dump and finish inside.
The few times when Illinois State successfully forced him to catch the ball outside the lane, the patient and sound handling Krutwig methodically meandered his way to the bucket, which either generated a high percentage baby hook from 5-feet and in or brought a swarm of Redbird defenders for Krutwig to pick apart with his precise passing. Marques Townes and Cooper Kaifes were frequent beneficiaries of the collapsing Illinois State defense down low on Krutwig, as ‘the Big Smooth’ (nickname pending sign-off from Sam Perkins) located the sharpshooting Townes and Kaifes for wide open, spot-up 3s.
Last season, with the position-less weapons of Aundre Jackson and Donte Ingram at Moser’s disposal, Krutwig was used more or less like an off-speed change up or curveball in baseball with the intent of throwing a different dynamic at an unsuspecting defense. This year, the young Ramblers are still sorting out their bench rotations, which places an even higher premium on Krutwig’s ability to consistently play big minutes. As the advanced on / off numbers from hooplens.com indicate below, his presence on the floor lifts Loyola’s offense to a whole new stratosphere.
The Ramblers’ Defensive Dominance
Porter Moser has been raving about the strides his team has made on the defensive side of the ball, which has helped alleviate the adverse impact of extended scoring droughts on offense. There was no better example than the final 6 minute stretch of Saturday’s game when Loyola failed to tally a single field goal, leaning on a string of clutch defensive stops to prevent their double-digit lead from slipping away. In the big picture, the renewed health of Lucas Williamson and the ascending confidence of Aher Uguak will be two critical ingredients to Loyola replicating last year’s level of defensive destruction.
Williamson was pegged by many prognosticators to follow in his predecessor Ben Richardson’s footsteps and take home defensive player of the year honors. Williamson missed six straight games with a broken wrist before returning to action last week at Evansville when the Ramblers were demolished by the Aces in their first conference road trip. Moser reinserted Williamson to the starting lineup Saturday, but the 6’4 sophomore still has a heavy coating of rust to remove before he returns to peak form.
Uguak, on the other hand, was brought in to fill Donte Ingram’s shoes as a multi-positional defender capable of guarding 2s, 3s and 4s, depending on Moser’s lineup combinations - he’s gone AWOL far too often this year on offense, but he did chart three huge steals on Saturday that took away three precious possessions from the visiting Redbirds. Williamson and Uguak acted as neutralizers to Illinois State’s vast array of primetime athletes, including Fayne, Malik Yabrough, William Tinsley and Matt Chastain (who woke up the crowd with a vicious put-back slam in the 2nd half for the game’s most memorable highlight).
Illinois State’s Fragmented Offense
Dan Muller was fixated on the defensive lapses when discussing keys to the game in the postgame press conference, but it was the disconnected flow on offense that drove me up a wall. The Redbirds might be the most talented team in the Valley and tend to overly on that individual talent to put points on the board with unnecessary isolation possessions. Yarbrough showed off his impressive offensive repertoire with a collection of dribble drives, turn around jumpers and pull-up 3s, while his backcourt co-pilot Keyshawn Evans hit a few HUGE shots to keep the margin within striking distance - yet, neither one has been efficient so far this season, a major contributor to the Redbirds’ middling offense.
The real head scratcher was the misuse of Phil Fayne, who routinely looks lost on the floor every time the game slows down to a half-court affair. While Krutwig’s block-to-block post-ups and seal offs are well-timed and well-executed, Fayne tends to float back and forth without a clear purpose. As a result, his touches in this game were minimal and his impact to a stagnant Redbird offense was nonexistent. When Fayne’s at his best, few post defenders in the Valley can match his verticality, as he uses both hands comfortably to finish with a soft touch around the basket.
Saturday’s 17% usage rate was Fayne’s lowest of the season, a bizarre outcome given he was the fulcrum of the Redbirds scoring attack in their prior two Valley games - Fayne finished with 20 points on 10/16 shooting against Evansville, and followed that up with 19 points on 8/10 shooting just three nights later against Northern Iowa. Without an inside-out offensive balance, Illinois State’s team efficiency is highly leveraged on Evans and Yarbrough taking turns playing hero ball, which can be a slippery slope with Yarbrough’s unpredictable decision making. Exhibit A of this mental deficiency was apparent on the 2nd to last offensive possession of the game, when Yarbrough threw an errant pass right to the Loyola cheerleaders, costing the Redbirds a chance at the tie with under a minute remaining. Muller responded by parking Yarbrough’s caboose next to him on the bench for the final possession of the game.
When Kevin Sweeney asked Muller in the postgame presser why Yarbrough was on the bench for the last possession, Muller cited the need for an additional 3-point shooter on the floor. I won’t speculate on the truthfulness of that response, but given Yarbrough’s extensive track record of late game debacles - not to mention the fact that he’s actually Illinois State’s top 3-point shooter statistically this season - it’s clear Muller has lost faith in Yarbrough to initiate offense in late-game situations.