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Hues of blue, Jimmer is all the rage, and Buckeyes go down

Jared Trexler
College Basketball Contributing Editor


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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The week that was in college hoops featured another scintillating edition of the sport's most-storied rivalry.

Wednesday night in Durham had everything; established stars in Duke's Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler; young phenoms in North Carolina's Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall; and in the end, a somewhat unlikely hero -- the Blue Devils' Seth Curry.

No matter what side of the Triangle you stand on (Durham, Chapel Hill or the uncomfortable limbo in the neighborhood of Raleigh), the hoops we saw at Cameron Indoor Stadium was classic Duke-Carolina.

"That was vintage," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game.

It was so refreshing to see the rivalry restored, as the brand of basketball and competition was so fierce compared to the Blue Devils' 32-point whipping of the Tar Heels in Durham last season. No, these aren't your same Tar Heels, which hasn't gone unnoticed by the polling public.

The popular belief following the loss was that the Tar Heels could take away so many teaching moments from defeat: the nearly flawless first half, the composure and 6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio of Marshall, how their frontline dominated the Plumlee brothers from start to finish.

Yet, head coach Roy Williams' biggest takeaway was one that shows North Carolina is tantalizingly close to its normal standard of success.

"We are not here for moral victories," he told his team afterward.

The points that follow are a brief construction of the 40 minutes of basketball we all witnessed on Wednesday in Duke's historical high school gym:

1. Smith's second half may not have been as important as his first. Yes, Duke's lead star racked up 22 second-half points on his way to a career-best 34, and granted, he penetrated at will and set up Curry in excellent shooting spots during the game's deciding stretch, but his 12 first-half points kept the game from entirely escaping the Blue Devils.

North Carolina was dominating the interior, a 28-11 edge in points in the paint, pounding the Blue Devils on the glass, and setting the game's tempo to its liking -- a more up-and-down, freelance style that fits Williams' offense. The Tar Heels were the hungrier, feistier team and it showed on the scoreboard to the tune of 43-29. Yet, it could have been worse. If Smith had fallen into the slumbering disposition of his teammates, the margin could have been 20 or worse -- a hole even hot second-half shooting wouldn't have overcome.

2. As much as North Carolina's perimeter defense can be praised for its first half, the film does not lie in the final 20 minutes. The Tar Heels relaxed just enough, were a half-step slower getting out on shooters, and even when they did it wasn't with the proper technique, allowing Curry on two occasions to ball fake and step inside the arch for easier mid-range attempts. Duke's guards also penetrated with late help from the defense. It all added up to a remarkable 40-point second half from Smith and Curry.

3. Duke is in a world of March trouble if the Plumlee brothers play like they did Wednesday night. The Blue Devils can live (or in March terms, "survive and advance") with the duo as non-factors on offense, but the way Tyler Zeller and John Henson carved them up has to be very disconcerting for Coach K. Zeller scored 24 points, established great post position and was a handful with his back to the basket, while Henson faced up the Duke bigs and took them off the dribble with great success. The Tar Heels front line, while solid, is not the best Duke will see on its road to Houston, and if the effort isn't better from Mason and Miles, the trip will be a short one. Can you imagine either Plumlee going up against Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, Purdue's JaJuan Johnson, Texas' Tristan Thompson or Kansas' Morris twins? If the Blue Devils aren't raining threes or if one of the Plumlees don't reincarnate Brian Zoubek's defense from last year's championship run, trouble is lurking.

JIMMER FEVER

The AnnArbor.com Player of the Year poll is a straw poll of 59 journalists who also serve as voting members on other national player of the year panels. It takes the heartbeat of a populous that is already among the voting contingent, and it reflects the ebb and flow of the ever-changing race.

The third poll, released last week, has made one thing abundantly clear: Jimmer Fredette is the man to beat, which I applaud since I named him From The End of The Bench's Preseason Player of the Year back in November and have spent ample time building a virtual monument of his likeness in this column (an exercise apparently shared by three quarters of the BYU student body if you follow social media).

Fredette overtook Connecticut's Kemba Walker, who led the first two straw polls. Part of the turning tide is directly related to Walker's extended shooting slump, remember the line from last week's Fine 15 -- Kemba's shooting numbers have fallen off the cliff -- but another part may just be Jimmer fever.

Fredette has the fourth-highest offensive rating in the country according to KenPom.com, ahead of Walker (who is seventh) and Sullinger.

If I had a voting stake in this race, my top-5 (as of print) would shake out like this:

1. Jimmer Fredette, BYU

2. Nolan Smith, Duke

3. Kemba Walker, Connecticut

4. Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

5. Derrick Williams, Arizona

A TOUGH TRIP TO MOSCOW

The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee's at-large process comes down to "Who have you beaten, and where." Utah State fails on both criteria because it fell short on its two toughest tests of the season, BYU and at Georgetown, and its best RPI victory came against Long Beach State. The Aggies' saving caveat was an unblemished conference record to show their vast superiority in event of a loss in the conference tournament.

Now, a loss in that tournament may be devastating unless they can win at Saint Mary's in one of this weekend's BracketBusters game. And I state these facts begrudgingly because I like Tai Wesley's game, appreciate what head coach Stew Morrill has accomplished in relative obscurity and would love to see "Wild Bill" at an NCAA Tournament game (If you don't know the man by that moniker, check out Seth Davis' column last Thursday at SI.com).

However, parsing through the resume finds little to puff your chest at except continued "W's", which ended in abrupt fashion on Wednesday at Idaho. The Aggies have eight victories over teams with an RPI over 200 and two more against San Jose State, which sits on the precipice at 197. That is nearly half of their 23 victories to date against the nation's worst teams, and without a win outside the conference to prove its worth, they will, in my mind, have to earn it the hard way over several days in early March.

THOUGHTS BEFORE FILLING OUT YOUR HOOPS BRACKET

Below is an excerpt from my just-released book, "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket." You can purchase it at Amazon.com or in a variety of formats at www.99-series.com. I will publish a tip during each column to prepare you for bracket madness.

#23: How Good Are They? Look at Last 10

One of the biggest contributing factors to a team's tournament success is how it has played in its last 10 games. From 1992 to 2007, teams with a better record in the last 10 games won 54% of the time. However, that number spiked to 61.5% when looking at tournament games from 2004-2007. It is a pretty simple premise: college basketball teams are not electronic appliances. It is tough to stop playing poorly and just flip a switch in March. The teams playing well entering the tournament normally fare well once it begins.

BUBBLE DUEL

From now through Selection Sunday, I will dissect two at-large candidates' profiles to determine which (at the time of publication) is more worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid. In the last two columns before that fateful Sunday afternoon, I will compare multiple teams to determine their at-large candidacy. If you agree or disagree, feel free to email me at jtt128@comcast.net.

Virginia Tech vs. Maryland

Grid
:

RPI = Ratings Percentage Index

SOS = Strength of Schedule

Virginia Tech

Record
: 16-7 (RPI 66, SOS 92)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 1-5

Profile Dissection: The Hokies are skating on thin at-large ice, relying mostly on victories over other bubble sitters in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The lone out-of-league win to hang their hat on is a five-point victory over Oklahoma State at home. Lost opportunities against Kansas State, Purdue and UNLV leave a hole in the Hokies' resume. They can point to conference victories over likely tournament team Florida State and fellow on- the-fence member Miami.

The scheduling of Longwood (RPI 331) at the end of January did more harm to the RPI than good. The Hokies would benefit from sweeping Maryland (home date on Tuesday) and may very well need to beat Duke at Cassell Coliseum save two wins to finish the season versus Boston College and Clemson.

Maryland

Record
: 16-6 (RPI 86, SOS 80)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 0-8

Profile Dissection: The Terrapins have played a tournament-worthy schedule; they just haven't fared well against it. Maryland has missed opportunities at every turn, starting in New York City against Pittsburgh and Illinois, both single-digit losses, and a three-point setback to Temple. It competed until the very end at Duke, losing by seven, then saw a double-digit lead disappear against Villanova. When your best victory is at Penn State you know you are in trouble. Maryland still has a lifeline but it's a small window. The date at Virginia Tech is pivotal to avoid the season sweep and beating at least either Florida State or North Carolina is advisable.

Selection: Virginia Tech. A Terrapins victory on Tuesday brings these teams back to equal, but right now the Hokies have the best out-of-league win, the head-to-head edge and better overall profile with wins over Florida State and Miami.

FINE 15

1. Kansas (24-2): Body of work vs. the eye test. I just can't punish the Jayhawks, despite their previous loss to Texas, in a week that saw them slice and dice Missouri to the tune of 103 points and follow it up with a 23-point thumping of Iowa State. Sorry, Austin. Let the hate mail roll in.

2. Texas (22-3): Jordan Hamilton is having a transformational season, but he's lying when he says, "We don't want No. 1." I understand Texas reached the top spot for the first time in school history last season before tumbling down the polls and out of the NCAA Tournament after one round. Something tells me this team is different with plenty of staying power.

3. Pittsburgh (23-2): Don't focus on the past, people. Jamie Dixon, for all his team's previous tournament failures, has a Houston-worthy squad on his hands. How else do you explain two road victories over tournament-caliber clubs without the services of Ashton Gibbs?

4. Ohio State (24-1): It had to happen some time, but I didn't think Madison was the place AFTER holding a 15-point lead. The Buckeyes can take solace in that the Badgers are an entirely different team in the Kohl Center, and Jordan Taylor is one underrated superstar.

5. Duke (23-2): The Blue Devils celebrated Coach K's 64th birthday by relying on Smith (when he could see after suffering a scratched left eye) and Curry, the same duo that disposed of the Tar Heels on Wednesday, to edge Miami.

6. San Diego State (25-1): Memo to teams trying to advance past the Aztecs in March. You HAVE to force an up-tempo pace and make their big men play in space. There are only a handful of teams that can outslug this defensive- minded group.

7. BYU (24-2): A YouTube video in his honor and a Facebook page where many students came to his defense after someone had the audacity to wonder aloud, "What is all the fuss about?" The legend of Jimmer continues.

8. Notre Dame (21-4): Style points don't matter. This isn't the BCS. The Fighting Irish can grind it out, but also showed they can score in an overtime victory over Louisville.

9. Georgetown (20-5): Talk about a leap from "left for dead" to possible top seed. Another banner week included downing the Orange, John Thompson III's first victory at Syracuse.

10. Wisconsin (19-5): First, the Badgers (barely) navigated the famed look- ahead game versus Iowa. Then came perhaps the best 13 minutes by a single player in the nation this season. Taylor scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half, eight of them during a 15-0 spurt that rallied the troops and brought the Kohl Center to its feet. Scoring 15 straight points against an offense as good as Ohio State's is a tribute to the Badgers defense as well.

11. Purdue (20-5): After a dreadful 27-point first half on Sunday at Illinois, head coach Matt Painter had only one request: play better in the second half. Sounds simple enough, and his players responded, doubling their first-half point total in an impressive road win at desperate Illinois.

12. Connecticut (20-5): Jamal Coombs-McDaniel may have played his way out of head coach Jim Calhoun's doghouse. A relationship the coach described as "stormy" may have a sunnier outlook after the 6-foot-7 sophomore scored a career-best 25 points in a win over Providence.

13. Arizona (21-4): Only one game last week, but it was the Wildcats' main rival after a long layoff and an instant classic, triple-OT thriller versus California. They responded with a solid victory over Arizona State, which is the sign of a strong outfit.

14. North Carolina (18-6): Another double-digit lead had vanished on the road. How did the young Tar Heels respond? By tightening their Nikes and pushing past Clemson in raucous Littlejohn. These Heels are maturing fast.

15. Villanova (19-6): The finish at Rutgers clearly makes the case for fouling when up by three points in the final seconds, and making sure to commit the foul far away from the basket. Instead, Villanova let a red-hot team dribble into scoring territory then committed a silly foul in the act of a three-point heave, which went in. Horrible end-of-game sequence by a team so well-coached.


Trexler is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket." Click HERE to purchase the Kindle version...and stay tuned on an updated hardcopy edition this winter! Trexler also wrote "Penn State Football: An Interactive Guide To The World of Sports", a detailed look at the Nittany Lions' storied football history. It can be purchased HERE.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jared Trexler at jtt128@comcast.net.

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