Posted February 16, 2014

Four-Point Play: Wisconsin, Virginia on the upswing; Missouri raises tourney hopes

Four-point play, Virignia Cavaliers, Wisconsin Badgers
Frank Kaminsky (left) was a major force behind Wisconsin's win against Michigan. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Frank Kaminsky (left) was a major force behind Wisconsin’s win against Michigan. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Four-Point Play is One and One’s attempt to highlight one notable team, player, game and GIF/video from the past seven days of college hoops. Expect this column every Sunday.

Wisconsin trending upward

It wasn’t so long ago that Wisconsin lost five of six games to fall to 4-5 in the Big Ten. The Badgers were reeling after starting the season 16-0 and stoking Final Four hype. Their skid included a loss at Indiana and home defeats to Northwestern and Michigan. But after an ugly one-point home loss to Ohio State on Feb. 1, the Badgers bookended a big win over then-No. 9 Michigan State with solid victories over Illinois and Minnesota. Wisconsin was Wisconsin again, it seemed.

The Badgers’ skid coincided with an impressive run of wins from Michigan. With a scorching hot offense and a Big Ten player of the year candidate, Nik Stauskas, stressing defenses with lights-out shooting, Michigan rolled to an 8-0 start in conference play. The Wolverines then stumbled, dropping games to Indiana and Iowa. That was predictable; there isn’t a team in the country good enough to go undefeated in this season’s Big Ten. The next part isn’t as easy to foresee: can Michigan regain its early-conference season form? Or are the Wolverines no better than the mediocre outfit that’s gone 2-3 over its last five games?

One game won’t yield the answer, though Sunday’s 75-62 loss at home to Wisconsin was a strong indication that the Wolverines aren’t playing as well as the team that was considered a conference title contender throughout January. Stauskas scored just 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting, while forward Jordan Morgan and point guard Derrick Walton Jr. combined for 5 points on 2-of-9. Guard Caris LeVert was the Wolverines’ best offensive performer, as he scored 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting and grabbed six rebounds.

Michigan allowed Wisconsin to shoot 41 percent from three and let forward Frank Kaminsky essentially take control of the game late in the second half. The junior scored 17 points after the break, including 10 between the six- and two-minute marks that pushed the Badgers’ lead to 13. Kaminsky finished with 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting and 11 rebounds, the first double-double of his career.

You may remember Kaminsky as the dude who dropped a program-record 43 points against North Dakota in November. With all due respect, Wisconsin probably would have won that game even if Kaminsky didn’t discover how to channel NBA Jam’s “on fire” mode. Kaminsky’s performance on Sunday came against a much better opponent.

As impressive as Kaminsky was, though, it was hard to ignore Michigan’s utter inability to get stops when it needed them. It wasn’t just Kaminsky the Wolverines couldn’t keep in check. Forward Sam Dekker scored 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds. Guard Josh Gasser had 13 on 3-of-5 and hit three threes, including one with 3:15  to go that gave Wisconsin an 11-point lead, prompted Michigan coach John Beilein to call timeout and seemingly put the game out of reach. Wisconsin put up 1.25 points per possession (Michigan had 1.03). That’s far more than what the Badgers had averaged during Big Ten play entering Sunday (1.11).

The Wolverines are not a great defensive team, but they’re going to need to play better on that side of the ball than they did Sunday to have a shot at making a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Michigan trails Michigan State by only a half game for first place in the Big Ten and can pass the Spartans if it beats them in Ann Arbor next Sunday. The Wolverines have the offensive firepower needed (1.15 points per possession in Big Ten play, first in the conference) to pull of the upset — even though they struggled a bit on Sunday — but can they guard well enough?

The Badgers have won four in a row to move to 8-5 in the Big Ten. For a while there, it felt like this would be the year that Wisconsin finally finished outside the top four in the conference. Wisconsin’s in fifth right now, but it trail fourth-place Iowa by just a half game and will play the Hawkeyes next Saturday. That’s the Badgers’ last truly challenging game of the regular season; after that, they play Indiana, at Penn State, Purdue and at Nebraska.

Wisconsin looks like a different team than the one that was mired in a perplexing losing skid last month. Michigan has a week to get over this loss and prepare for a huge game.

Virginia plows ahead 

On Dec. 30, Tennessee beat Virginia by 35 points. The score tells the entire story: the Cavaliers were demolished. The loss capped an underwhelming nonconference season that featured four losses — including two at home — and amounted to a big letdown for a team expected to push Syracuse and Duke for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. The Cavaliers were picked fourth in the ACC preseason poll. When conference play began four days after Tennessee routed them, it seemed reasonable to question whether the Cavaliers would even make the NCAA Tournament.

Virginia has played 13 ACC conference games and won all but one of them (and the one it did lose, a four-point defeat at Duke on Jan. 13, it probably should have won). It sits a half game back of Syracuse for first place in the league and is tracking towards a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. That laugher they were on the losing end of in Knoxville? Old news. Few teams in the country have played better than the Cavaliers since the calendar flipped to 2014. They picked up two more victories this week, beating Maryland at home and Clemson on the road, to extend their conference winning streak to nine games for the first time in more than three decades.

Saturday’s win at Littlejohn Coliseum didn’t come easy. Virginia, who hadn’t won at Clemson since 2007, trailed the Tigers by six midway through the second half. They were struggling to break down Clemson’s tough defense, which ranks 10th in the country in points allowed per possession. Tigers star forward K.J. McDaniels was giving his team just enough offense in a low-scoring game. Two McDaniels free throws and a three from forward Austin Ajukwa brought Clemson within two with less than two minutes remaining. But after a timeout, Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon knocked down two free throws, then hit four more in the final 20 seconds to seal the game.

“He was very poised and he has a quietness in his mind when he steps up there,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said of Brogdon. “It was significant because they hit a big three to bring it within reach. It was a battle. We knew it would be a tough game and we knew we’d have to bring it and compete like heck to be in this. That was the mindset.

Senior guard Joe Harris led the Cavaliers with 16 points Saturday, but Virginia also got 14 points apiece from sophomore center Mike Tobey and Brogdon, who has averaged a team-high 15.1 points per game in conference play. A couple of weeks ago, Brogdon drilled a three with 0.4 seconds to lift Virginia to a 48-45 win at Pittsburgh. He’s scored in double figures in every conference game this season. After redshirting in 2012-13 while rehabilitating a broken foot, Brogdon has emerged as a key contributor for a team ranked in the top 20 of both major polls and ninth in Ken Pomeroy’s team rankings.

The biggest reason Virginia is winning, though, is its defense. The Cavaliers are allowing fewer points per possession than every other ACC team in conference play. They rank first in opponent two-point and effective field goal percentage and are forcing teams to turn the ball over on a league-high 20.1 percent of their possessions. This is shaping up to be the best defense Bennett has produced as a head coach; the 88.8 points per 100 possessions Virginia is allowing are fewer than what the Cavaliers yielded in 2011-12, when they ranked sixth in the nation.

“We don’t change out [our] mentality when we go on the road,” Brogdon told The Daily Progress. “We have a saying on our team: defense travels. And that’s really what we live by. If we can play the same defense on the road that we do at home, we’ll be OK.”

Syracuse’s undefeated run has overshadowed how well Virginia has played this season, but don’t be surprised if the Cavaliers finish ahead of the Orange in the ACC. Syracuse has to play four of its final six games on the road, including one at Duke and one at Virginia. The Cavaliers will play three of their final five in Charlottesville. It wouldn’t be shocking to see them win out; kenpom.com lists Virginia as the favorite in all of its remaining games. Syracuse, meanwhile, is projected to lose at Duke and Virginia (kenpom gives Syracuse a 37 percent chance of beating the Cavaliers). If the Orange can get past the Blue Devils, their matchup with Virginia on March 1 could decide the conference title.

Before that game, the Cavaliers will play at in-state rival Virginia Tech before hosting Notre Dame and Miami. The upcoming Duke-Syracuse matchup will keep Virginia from getting the attention it deserves, but the Cavaliers could well be ahead of both of those teams at the end of the regular season.

“Every time you taste success or do something well, that’s a good deposit that you need and I think you can draw on that and not be rattled or flustered,” Bennett said.

Whatever Bennett told his team after that 35-point loss at Tennessee, it worked.

Brown keeps Missouri in good bubble shape

In exactly one month, you will be sitting in front of your television watching CBS’ NCAA tournament selection show. We’re at that point in the season where every game is hyperanalyzed. We attach tournament implications to every result, proclaim ourselves bracketologists and readily say things like “improve the resumé” and “on the bubble.” It’s hard to resist doing these things when the tournament is less than five weeks away. In that spirit, here’s some groundbreaking analysis on Missouri: the Tigers helped themselves this week.

Missouri had lost three consecutive games (to Kentucky, Florida and Mississippi) heading into Thursday’s matchup against Arkansas. Wherever their standing in the bubble pecking order, the Tigers were trending in the wrong direction. Any more slippage would have pushed Missouri farther away from where it wants to be on selection Sunday. The Tigers sort of needed to win, lest they fall behind too many other teams fighting for at-large berths. Then junior guard Jabari Brown stepped up to help them beat the Razorbacks Thursday and Tennessee Saturday.

“It was a great win for us,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said Saturday. “Quick turnaround playing a team that I think is an NCAA tournament caliber team. We had to bring it.”

Missouri trailed Arkansas by one with less than 30 seconds remaining, but Brown hit a runner with 12.2 seconds left to give the Tigers a one-point win. He finished the game with 25 points and shot 14-of-15 from the free throw line. On Saturday, with Missouri leading by three and less than eight seconds remaining, Brown switched onto Volunteers guard Jordan McRae, intercepted forward Jeronne Maymon’s inbounds pass and tapped the ball to Tigers forward Johnathan Williams III. Williams was fouled and converted two free throws on the other end for the final five-point margin. Brown shot 8-of-12 from the field for 24 points and grabbed five rebounds.

“It’s a team effort,” Brown said. “We knew [Jordan] McRae was going to get the ball at the end and I was able to switch it out. The guy threw it, and I was able to make a play on it. I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to get a win.”

In 12 conference games, Brown has averaged 22.8 points, shot 51.6 percent from the field, posted an offensive rating of 134.5 and an effective field goal percentage of 62.7. The two wins he helped Missouri secure this week could be what gets the Tigers into the tournament. The Bracket Matrix last updated on February 14, one day after Missouri beat Arkansas. It lists the Tigers as a No. 11 seed. Missouri obviously needs wins, which its victory over Tennessee helped with. But it also, at least temporarily, gives the Tigers a head-to-head edge against another SEC bubble team. Missouri will play Tennessee in Knoxville on March 8 to close the regular season.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how SEC teams with realistic shots at making the NCAAs are flirting with danger in most of their conference games. There are seven teams (Vanderbilt, Georgia, Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State) in the league with RPIs of 90 or higher. Beating those teams won’t do anything to improve a team’s tourney credentials, but losing to them will cause damage. Missouri’s next five games (Vanderbilt, at Alabama, at Georgia, Mississippi State, Texas A&M) carry significant resumé-crippling potential. The Tigers need to win these games.

If Brown keeps this up, Missouri should be OK.

“He’s a mature player,” Haith said of Brown. “He’s very patient in what he does. We ran some plays for him and he made some big shots.”

Boeheim’s euphoria 

(Via @Will Brinson)

The only thing better than the 35-foot runner Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis hit to sink Pittsburgh on Wednesday was the reaction it inspired from coach Jim Boeheim. The Orange boss rarely shows any emotion, but he looks pretty excited in that shot.

As he should be.

“The ball goes in,” Boeheim said afterward. “That’s not luck. He took the shot and he made the shot. He didn’t throw it from half-court or three-quarters court. That’s not lucky. He dribbled it up, he had a purpose, he got up in the air and he took a good shot, and it went in. It happens sometimes, but he was poised to do it.”

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