Virginia won its first ACC regular-season title in 30 years with its win Saturday over Syracuse, but let's be honest -- compared to other NCAA-caliber ACC teams Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina and Pitt, the Cavaliers had far and away the easiest league schedule. Tony Bennett said as much to me on the radio. The Cavs only had to play the four aforementioned ACC stalwarts one time each, and got Carolina and Syracuse at home (they beat Pitt 48-45 on the road, and lost at Duke).
The facts are the facts, and shouldn't take away from the accomplishment, but they do make it difficult to determine if the Hoos are really the best team in the ACC. When you lose at home to VCU and Wisconsin, and lose at Green Bay and get blown out by 35 against Tennessee, then have a small sample size against elite conference teams, it is difficult to measure how you really stack up in comparison to other top teams in the ACC or even nationally. The ACC tournament next week could help shed some light on the Cavs' strength.
As for those early-season hiccups, Virginia was playing too many guys, and their shot selection was crummy against teams like Tennessee. The Vols also played a bit above their level in Knoxville. But the bottom line is that since then, the Hoos have been excellent. What's their ceiling? We're about to find out.
The Jayhawks and the streak
Kansas won its 10th straight Big 12 title Saturday night before they took the court in an eventual loss to Oklahoma State. The OSU defeat took some shine off the accomplishment, but I believe this is the most remarkable of the program's titles during the Bill Self era.
What some people don't realize about the first seven years of the Jayhawks' run is that though the Big 12 had just one standings, they had a split schedule when the league was 12 deep. For the purposes of scheduling, the North was KU, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado and Iowa State. The South was Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor. Each team would play opponents in their region twice, and the other side only once. (Essentially, the Jayhawks had Virginia's schedule every year the first 7 years of this run).
KU only had to play the South teams -- which were loaded with twice the talent (NBA Draft picks, all-conference selections) one time, half of those at home, while the teams from the South beat each other up. It's true that Self has an amazing record against the teams from the South, but every coach in the league, Self included, knows when you only play Blake Griffin once a regular season, or Bob Knight's Texas Tech squad, or a perennial NCAA tournament Texas team once a regular season, you have a better chance of beating them. During this same era, Iowa State only finished above .500 once, and Colorado and Nebraska were mostly non-competitive. Even Missouri, which went on a deep NCAA run under Mike Anderson, was on NCAA sanctions for the early part of that run.
Do I state this to take away from Kansas' streak? No, just to give additional perspective on why unbalanced league titles aren't as meaningful. Frankly, I still think we underestimate the value of the regular season in college basketball, especially when a league champion has played a balanced league schedule. Every team I have ever been around has four goals to begin the season: win your non-conference tournament, win your league, win your league tourney title, get to the Final Four. But the unspoken goal is to improve and evolve in the process. The idea of a “body of work” may provide perspective to fans and NCAA tournament selectors, but it diminishes the value of improving as the season goes on. Only those that do get to achieve the ultimate goal and cut down the nets on championship Monday.
Syracuse, Baylor and injuries
The most difficult part of the assessment in putting teams in or out of the tournament, or seeding them at all, is injuries.
Syracuse hasn't played well recently, but has been playing without Jerami Grant for the last game-and-a-half as well. Grant was playing with a bad back, and the Orange shut him down. On the other hand, as I'd said all year when the wins were piling up, the Orange's end of season schedule was ridiculous and anyone could see several losses coming. No one survives that schedule -- no one. There are no guaranteed future first-round picks on this team, which only goes six or seven players deep anyway. Death. So let's say Cuse loses at Florida State this weekend and then in the ACC tournament to Duke … what does the committee do with them? I guess you ship Syracuse out of Buffalo, with heir chance of playing at MSG in the regional seemingly gone, but should it be? This is the same team that stomped Villanova, beat Duke, UNC, Baylor, Indiana, Cal, Pitt (twice) and beat St. John's in MSG. This is one place where looking at their body of work, as opposed to the evolution of the Orange's season, would be appropriate.
Speaking of injuries, look at Baylor and how they've played since point guard Kenny Chery made a full return from his problems with turf toe. Chery has played 22 or more minutes in the Bears last seven games, during which time the Bears are 6-1. He has averaged 15.8 points and six assists per game over his last six. On the other hand, this is the same Baylor team that nearly lost to a Marcus Smart-less Oklahoma State team, and Chery played in that game, so is BU really back or was their surprising home win against Iowa State an aberration? That will be a question for the committee to consider.
Return of the Ducks?
Oregon looks to be back in the field thanks in part to their win at UCLA last week. But the Bruins didn't have their two best players at Pauley Pavillion with Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson both suspended, yet it took the Ducks double OT to win on the road. Other than that, and a win over an Arizona State team the Ducks matched up well against, Oregon has played the bottom of the Pac-12 during its resurgence. We'll see just how much they've really improved against Arizona this Saturday on CBS.
Oregon has a lot of firepower and seems to have accepted that Dominic Artis has regressed and Johnathan Loyd (whom the Ducks used to think was the backup) is their guy at the point. Artis doesn't guard like Loyd (few do) and also takes questionable shots, doesn't make enough of them and doesn't create enough shots for others to merit playing time. That said, the way to beat Oregon has been to dominate them inside, like Arizona will try to do. Forward Mike Moser played Tuesday night like he did at times at UNLV, with great energy, and was a difficult matchup for ASU's forwards. He'll need more of the same if Dana Altman's team is to knock off UA.
Two teams who were much better earlier this season when they were healthy
Wyoming: The Cowboys lost Larry Nance Jr. for the year two weeks ago to a torn ACL. Nance wasn't just Wyoming's best player, he was a stretch 4-man who opened up Wyoming's ball-screen offense. Without him Wyoming is lucky to win games, and it makes the San Diego State loss at 7,000 feet above sea level look worse than it actually was.
Northwestern: JerShon Cobb was the second-leading scorer and a vet for Chris Collins' first Wildcats team. Without him, Northwestern just doesn't have the horses to compete in the Big Ten. Look back at the Cats' victories at Indiana, Wisconsin and others and notice how much better they were on offense with Cobb in the lineup. His foot injury has shrunk the court and turned a competitive Big Ten team into an inferior one.