Observations: Duke, Walton vs. Howland, and picking winners

A lot to cover, so let's get right into it:

1. Duke is No. 1 in the country … why again is that? If the NCAA tournament started today and the Blue Devils were without Ryan Kelly, I would be screaming at the top of my lungs that although their resume is that of a clear one seed, they are not what their resume says they are without Kelly. Beating Georgia Tech does little to nothing for me. Michigan winning at Minnesota does. On the other hand, minus Kelly, Duke will get a chance to continue to develop some depth in its front line. The Devils might lose to Miami this week, but a team that often seems to have a useless bench at NCAA tournament time will gain valuable experience that will help going forward.

2. Bill Walton ripped Ben Howland in the LA Times on Sunday. Walton, who is back to calling games for ESPN and is also calling Pac-12 games for the first time on television, has made it pretty clear he is not a fan of Howland. Some of Walton's problem with Howland involves
timeouts. Walton played for John Wooden, who didn't call time out -- great, got it -- and of course Howland not only calls timeouts, he does so after made baskets at times, which though odd has been effective throughout his career. But for Walton to crush Howland for the offense sets and plays he runs is laughable, uninformed and, frankly, out of line. Howland is on the hot seat, but his Bruins did win 10 in a row before losing at home to Oregon. If Walton wants to actually analyze the play of the Bruins, he might find that UCLA is better when it runs its offense and uses it to get open shots. Shabazz Muhammad is a terrific transition player, but he shot too quickly in transition twice against the Ducks. Oregon committed 10 second-half turnovers but benefited from UCLA's lack of patience. One Pac-12 head coach told me, "Walton knows nothing about our league and little about UCLA outside of wanting them to win. Ben and I may not get along great, but Walton riding Ben on broadcasts is bullshit. We know [analysts] can be critical of our coaching, but Walton's just seems a bit personal and uninformed."

A hot topic has become speculation about what happens if Howland goes at the end of the year. UCLA thinks that with its "new" arena and storied tradition it can land any coach in the country. While UCLA is still a destination job, the job does not pay at the elite level. And although the arena is improved and puts the Bruins on a level playing field on the West Coast, Pauley Pavilion is not even a top-20 venue in either atmosphere or facility. The locker room is nice but not elite, the weight room is great considering where they were, but it is tiny and just OK relative to those of other elite programs such as Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, Duke, Michigan, Texas, and Louisville. Still, when a UCLA coach doesn't channel Wooden, the knives come out among UCLA supporters, as Walton is showing. Do not be surprised if Howland, who interviewed at DePaul two years ago, quietly looks for another job after the season.

3. HUGE HUGE HUGE game for Bruce Weber in the Sunflower State Showdown on Tuesday night. K-State has beaten KU at home just twice in the last 24 years, and the Jayhawks have beaten the Wildcats an astonishing 44 of the last 47 times. Last year at Bramlage Coliseum (also known as Allen Fieldhouse West), KU sealed off all penetration, with Jeff Withey blocking nine shots. KSU has used a smaller lineup en route to a tremendous start but doesn't match up all that well with KU, as Kansas also has the ability to play "small" and does it better than Kansas State. The three biggest keys: 1) How much of a factor will Withey be? Can KSU's Thomas Gipson score "underneath," can they get Withey away from the basket on ball screens, or defend him with Jordan Henriquez off the bench? 2) Kansas State's Angel Rodriguez made several key mistakes down the stretch against Tyshawn Taylor last season, and current KU point guard Elijah Johnson is a better defender than Taylor. 3) KU has to get something out of its bench -- only Naadir Tharpe has given the Jayhawks occasional pop.

This game will be incredibly intense, and if Weber can come away with a win over Bill Self, it will do wonders for the buy-in factor from the Wildcats faithful. Every historical stat says take KU, but I think KSU is primed for this one … easily a last-possession type of game.

Texas continues to lose close games. In a somewhat remarkable stat, the Longhorns have lost six games by seven points or less this year after losing nine by seven or less last year. While some will tell you that Myck Kabongo will change that when he is eligible after their 23rd game, remember Kabongo is not a good shooter, he will be very rusty, and Kabongo was prone to the big mistake last year and has not had time to play through those mistakes. Texas has pretty good talent and should be better than how it is finishing games -- especially with Sheldon McClellan dropping 18 and 25 after being benched in the Iowa State game. Rick Barnes is an institution in Austin, and I can not see him being fired, especially with Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson leaving two years ago and the Kabongo mess this year, but with road games still to come in Lawrence, Manhattan and Stillwater, as well as Morgantown, Texas will be fortunate to make the NIT, much less the NCAAs -- and that may put Barnes on a very warm seat next year.

4. Oklahoma isn't great, but the Sooners are solid as long as they hide their point-guard deficiencies. What makes them hard to cover is they have Romero Osby playing at a very high level, and he looks far more athletic than last year. Add in the usually impactful shooting of Steven Pledger, the sneaky goodness of Buddy Hield and Amath M'Baye starting to figure it out, and Lon Kruger has his type of lineup that can switch every screen 1-4. OU isn't great, and it's inability to win at Kansas State showed a lack of offense due to turnovers, but Kruger should be able to win 10 conference games and sneak into the tournament in Year 2 of a three-to-four-year rebuild in Norman. 

5. New Mexico has three more games in this huge stretch for it to begin conference play. While the Lobos bagged a big road overtime win Saturday over surprising Boise StateColorado State is an imposing matchup Wednesday. CSU has a ton of experience and is rebounding back from last year, plus it has Colton Iverson, the massive transfer from Minnesota. Do not be surprised if Iverson matches up some with Chad Adams and Cameron Bairstow instead of Alex Kirk. Kirk is so active on the perimeter as a shooter that Iverson would be exposed. Whereas Adams is really a three playing the power forward; he is not a scorer and is just an energy guy. Bairstow is a terrific high-post passer in New Mexico's halfcourt offense and he closes the big games out. 

Picking some winners this week:

Wisconsin beats Michigan State. Bo Ryan has virtually owned Tom Izzo, especially in Kohl, and Michigan State's big men will struggle out on the floor vs. Wisconsin's bigs. Plus it is Wisconsin, at home, in Big Ten play. Take out last year and Halley's Comet comes around as much as a Badgers home loss in the league.

Take K-State over Kansas. My suspicions that KU has just one stud and a bunch of very good vets is true; now, if only K-State can handle that stud and navigate its history and Withey at the rim. With very little confidence in anything other than they are veteran and they are due, take the Cats. Over the past three years, Kansas has used a triangle and two against Frank Martin's K-State club to near perfection. Martin would prep for it, his team was ready for it, but for the most part it worked dating back to last year; Bill Self would only guard Rodney McGruder and Will Spradling, look for the same thing tonight as Shane Southwell will be left relatively open from 3 and Angel Rodriguez will have to not force open jumpers as the top man will match to him. K-State has a lot mentally to overcome as Kansas acts like they own Bramlege, and the triangle and two will be a big test for K-State's motion offense of Bruce Weber.

Take New Mexico over Colorado State. More than just owning the best home court in the MWC, the Lobos are a bad matchup for CSU. Kirk can guard Iverson some, though CSU might just pound it in to get him into foul trouble, and Iverson cannot guard Kirk out on the floor. Tony Snell played well against BSU, and I think he should so the same vs. CSU. One key to watch: Colorado State goes under every ball screen while the big man pushes up. It allows for threes to be taken behind screens and rescreens to be useful. UNM's staff of Steve Alford and Craig "Noodles" Neal is very adept at designing sets to get shots based upon the defense of others, so expect Kendall Williams to get some shots behind screens.

Duke beats Miami. Reggie Johnson wore Duke out last year, but without him, even without Ryan Kelly, I like the Dukies in a big game. Shane Larkin is improved, and Kenny Kadji has the look of a guy who could go off in this game, but this feels like a Duke win without Johnson to go to the chin of Plumlee.

Arizona will manhandle UCLA. The U of A can guard Shabazz Muhammad with Solomon Hill, and their bigs are good enough to put length on Slow MO. While Mark Lyons turns it over some, he competes and is so much tougher than Larry Drew in terms of key possessions and confidence scoring. UCLA may drop both games in the desert.

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