This is the time when smart brackets are built. College basketball sneaks along when pro football is hot and the hot stove league is cooking, when the BCS is stomping and the Lakers are fuming, when the NHL … rats, leave it to the NHL to let the beat drop.
This is the time when mid-majors and tiny terrors jostle with the big conference seat fillers, when 19-win seasons become 22-win dance tickets, when the RPI spins its non-conference data web. Tipoff tournaments around the NCAA are making strange bedfellows of transcontinental foes. The wins and losses that happen now, real hard hardwood work for a nation distracted by Heisman races and MVP ballots, spawn the science of bracketology come spring. All 18-win Big Ten teams look alike in March, unless you were looking closely in November.
The 2K Sports Classic in Madison Square Garden is just one of many tipoff tournaments. It packs plenty of intrigue and star power: the nation's best defense, a Big Ten power already reeling from an upset, a traditional contender asking a pair of freshman to erase memories of a lost season, an offensive juggernaut with an Obama-in-law head coach. It's a chance to dip our toes, watch the bubbles grow, and sew the autumn seeds that sprout in spring. Or just enjoy five hours of excellent basketball.
Alabama is supposed to possess one of the best defenses in the nation, but the Tide ran into a small-school superstar named Nate Wolters in their season opener last week. Wolters, a point guard who specializes in pick-and-pop, scored 30 points, and Alabama needed a Trevor Lacey three-pointer at the buzzer to pull out a 70-67 win.
The Tide defense clamped down in their second game, an 80-49 smothering of West Alabama. WAU coach Mike Newell explained after that game what makes the Alabama defense so challenging: "They like doing it. It's hard to get kids to play that way, for 40 minutes and for the whole year."
Oregon State, by contrast, entered Thursday's semifinal with a 102-point season opening effort against Niagara under its belt and a lineup full of returning starters from an offense that scored over 90 points nine times last season. A 17-13 record (the Beavers had a knack for 90-85 losses) only got them to the CBI tournament, but a winning record after four non-winning seasons and a fine showing in the Pac-12 tournament gave Craig Robinson something to brag about besides being Michelle Obama's brother. (The resemblance, it must be pointed out, is striking in person).
In the battle of offense versus defense, defense won, barely: after leading by 13 midway through the second half, Alabama needed a late three-pointer by Rodney Cooper from the left corner to defeat Oregon State 65-62.
Alabama guard Trevor Releford (14 points, 5 assists) was a preseason All-SEC selection, yet he comes off the bench for reasons coach Anthony Grant has not been keen on sharing but is also sick of answering questions about. (It's the only hot topic in Tuscaloosa that does not involve football). Releford is a dynamic, creative ball handler who can finish. In the course of 60 seconds late in the first half, Releford drove with a behind-the-back dribble and dished to Devonta Pollard for a layup; drove for a three-point play; then drove, then faked an outlet pass in the paint, creating space for his own layup.
With Releford on the court, the defense collapses and teammates get looks; without him, the Tide spends a lot of time dishing around the perimeter, with Trevor Lacey (20 points) struggling to create for himself. Lacey is a dependable catch-and-shoot player with range and a burly, physical front court defender, but he could not make space for himself off his own dribble on Thursday.
The Tide offense is very two dimensional; after Releford and Lacey, no one looks for his shot. That became a huge problem for the Tide late in the second half, when the Beavers gave players like Andrew Steele (4 points in 23 minutes) room to catch passes along the perimeter, knowing that Steele would just reverse the ball. (Coach Grant called Steele a "calming voice" on the court, and while Steele may have been too calm on offense, he helped shut down Oregon State's three-point game.)
Oregon State forward Devon Collier (21 points, 6 rebounds) is a long, lanky matchup handful who can slice along the baseline with or without the ball and can dunk over bigger men. He is hard to box out and active on the boards, and he showed off a low post game in the second half. Collier drew a shooting foul by slamming Alabama center Carl Engstrom (a thick seven footer) to the floor while attempting to dunk during a late Beavers run, and while he was shaky from the line early in the game, he finished 9-of-13 from the line.
Oregon State center-forward Joe Burton (8 points) weighs 295 pounds and doesn't hide where he keeps it. Burton, a senior, gives up height at center and shuttles to the bench a lot, but he has a footprint in the paint and moves well for someone who looks like he should be tending the omelet bar. When Burton dives for a loose ball, like he did early in the first half, you can tell someone or something dove. Burton had foul, turnover, and stamina problems, but Angus Brandt picked up the slack on both sides of the court with ten points and 11 rebounds. Robinson said that he likes to work inside-out on offense, and the success of the big men down low allowed the Beavers to make a run when Alabama was not allowing any looks along the arc.
The Tide defense was shockingly slow in transition, allowing several easy fast break baskets. They also had trouble when Oregon State forced the ball inside early in possessions, whether to Collier, Burton, or Brandt. Their strength is in the traditional half court game. As coach Newell said, help arrives quickly when you try to bang the ball low against Alabama, and the defense reacts quickly to kick-outs. Oregon State guards Ahmad Starks and Roberto Nelson combined to go 2-of-9 from the three-point line, and neither got many open looks.
Bottom Line: Alabama is going to smother some opponents, but a two-man offensive game and slow transition defense is going to lead to some 62-60 losses in the SEC. Oregon State has an intriguing mix of size, athleticism, and experience. They need an answer when their backcourt goes cold, but they can crack 20 wins in the Pac-12. The Beavers played well enough to suggest that they could end their playoff drought -- if Thursday's loss doesn't haunt them come selection time. "This was an opportunity lost, but this might be a lesson for us that, come the end of the season, we can say that we got a slap in the face early on," Robinson said.
Looking to Rebound
The early rounds of tipoff tournaments like the 2K Classic are hosted by the biggest schools and are often designed to be high-profile warm-ups. For Purdue, the season opener was a bucket-of-ice wakeup call: Bucknell beat them 70-65, as the Boilermakers revealed deficiencies on the boards (Bucknell out-rebounded them 36-33) and on the line (they shot just 7-of-15 on free throws).
Purdue rebounded, literally, against Hofstra, winning 83-54 and out-boarding the Pride 50-22. But the Boilermakers committed 20 turnovers, a sign that Matt Painter's team, which hasn't missed an NCAA tourney in seven years, has some kinks to work out before the Big Ten schedule begins.
Villanova entered Thursday night's game trying to bounce back from their first sub-.500 season since 2003-04. The Wildcats' hope this season rests with Ryan Arcidiacono, the star recruit who scored 25 points against Marshall early in the week. Arcidiacono spent his senior year of high school recovering from back surgery; instead of playing basketball with his team, he spent much of last winter in the stands watching Wildcats games, making it a de facto redshirt year. "I think he came in here from Day One knowing exactly what we wanted to do, and he has a very high basketball IQ," coach Jay Wright said after the Marshall win.
In a battle of teams with something to prove, Purdue proved that their non-conference schedule would become a nightmare. Villanova erased a six-point deficit with six free throws in the final minute, then used a pair of James Bell three-pointers in overtime to fuel a 89-81 win. Villanova led by as many as ten points in the second half of a sloppy, chippy, run-filled nightcap that proved fundamentals are overrated when you can bomb from long distance and are willing to clobber anyone in the paint.
Arcidiacono has shooting range and an effective pick-and-pop game, and he is an up-tempo ball handler who sees the court well. He has the "fiery guy" demeanor when running the offense, pointing, directing traffic, and delivering routine passes like he plans to drive the ball through his teammate's chest. He is also a freshman who did not play basketball as a high school senior, and it showed on Thursday when Arcidiacono (18 points) committed sloppy open-court turnovers and got too cute when passing in traffic. He has no idea how to finish a drive against NCAA competition yet. But oh, the three-pointers look sweet, and Arcidiacono also hit his overtime free throws, so he was not intimidated by the situation or venue.
Daniel Ochefu (7 points) is Villanova's other key freshman, and the 6-foot-10 Nigerian will have to grow into his minutes: he gets too low when posting up and can be handcuffed under the basket. Still, the talent is obvious. Ochefu jammed home an offensive board in the second half, displaying is above-the-rim ability, than nearly broke Terone Johnson's nose at the end of a break at the other end, showing that he has the aggression needed to be a Big East big man. (Johnson also took a shot to the face in overtime. He finished with 13 points and a radically redistributed profile). A one-handed jam from the post in overtime further highlighted Ochefu's potential.
Darrun Hilliard (22 points) and JayVaughn Pinkston (16 points) got 14 of their points from the free throw line. Villanova has a grinding offense: contested shots, bad looks, fouls after offensive rebounds. It is not pretty, and it went ice cold for long stretches of the second half, but it is recognizably Big East.
Purdue had some ugly offensive possessions in the first half, giving up the ball on turnovers, baseline violations, open-court blocking fouls, charges, or just rushed jumpers with no one under the net. Passes into the corner arrived high or pulled shooters out of position. When they were playing under control, the Boilermakers had a clear athletic advantage, but there were too many wild shots (Purdue was 1-of-9 on three-pointers in the first half) and terrible ideas.
Purdue got smarter with the ball midway through the second half. D.J. Byrd (16 points) rolled off away-from-the-ball screens for a pair of three-pointers, then fed big man Travis Carroll for a layup to tie the game at 49 just before the 12-minute mark. But Byrd then lost the handle when attempting a pass in the lane. It was an unforced error and a momentum killer, and Purdue followed it with two more turnovers underneath. The Wildcats squandered an opportunity to pull away with poor shooting at the other end.
Purdue redshirt freshman Donnie Hale was quiet early in the game but came around late in the second half with a put-back, a 15-footer, and two free throws, the second of which gave Purdue a 61-53 lead. Hale's quickness and soft hands on the offensive glass will be an asset for a team that launches some loopy jumpers, but Hale could do nothing in overtime, when the offensive fouls and messy ball-handling resurfaced again for the Boilermakers.
Purdue's free throw problems also returned and became a big issue in a game that got grabby at the end. Purdue finished 16-of-28 from the line, with Terone Johnson missing two to set the tone at the start of overtime. Villanova shot 33-of-41 from the stripe and took care of business in the final minute, when Purdue kept committing fouls on the floor with a lead (including an intentional by Byrd), and in overtime.
Bottom Line: The Wildcats have a stabilizing presence in Bell (15 points) and up-and-coming wild cards in Ochefu and Arcidiacono. They should return to the high-middle of the Big East pack. Purdue must turn things around quickly if they want to avoid a lost season. They made a staggering number of mental errors. When a kid who hasn't played basketball since his junior year of high school displays a higher basketball IQ then you, it does not bode well for your Big Ten schedule.
Villanova faces Alabama in the 2K Sports Classic title game on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at Madison Square Garden.