From start to finish, the college basketball season is actually longer than the college football season. It stretches from early- to mid-November all the way through the very beginning of April and typically outpaces football by about a week or two. It is odd typing out that sentence, however, because for a lot of general fans (and some semi-hardcore ones), basketball season doesn't really get rolling until February. Sure, it exists and we generally know who's good and who isn't, but until Bracketology becomes a thing again, until the BCS Championship and Super Bowl are in the rear view, and until the rivalry games pick up, a good percentage of the sports world doesn't seem to fully immerse itself.
While that is rather unfortunate, one thing is now certain: it's immersion time. We've got three ranked-versus-ranked games Wednesday night on the ESPN Family Of Networks™, and we've got questions abound.
1. Will The Shots Fall For Duke?
No. 10 Duke at No. 5 North Carolina (ESPN, 9:00 p.m. ET)
A funny thing happens when Duke loses: it feels like two or three losses at once. Following the Blue Devils' jarring home loss to Miami on Sunday, my first thought was, "Wow, they're falling apart!" And then I checked the standings and realized that was only their second conference loss. (They also lost at home, via last-second shot, to Florida State a couple of weeks ago.) They're still just a game out of the conference lead, they're still 19-4 overall, and they're still in Ken Pomeroy's Top 15. Not bad for falling apart.
If they do still have plans on a conference title, it would, to say the least, behoove them to pull the upset in Chapel Hill tonight. And for that to happen, the jumpers have to fall. For the season, Duke is eighth in the country in Effective FG%, but in their two conference losses, they were simply dreadful when it comes to actually putting the ball in the net. Against Miami, they shot 38 percent from the field, 29 percent on 3-pointers and 59 percent from the free throw line. They surged back from 16 down to take a lead with under three minutes to play, then scored only three points in almost six minutes of play in regulation and overtime. Against Florida State, it was much of the same story; they shot just 40 percent from the field, 38 percent on 2-pointers. It has been a team-wide issue as well; against Florida State and Miami, Seth Curry shot 11-for-29 (38 percent), Ryan Kelly shot 6-for-19 (32 percent), and even the Plumlee brothers shot just 7-for-18 (39 percent).
While North Carolina has a little bit of an issue with forcing turnovers, they generally leverage you into pretty bad shots -- the Tar Heels rank 19th in Def. 2PT% and 64th in Def. 3PT% this season; if Duke finds a rhythm, this one could be tight until the end. But they quite possibly will not.
2. Can Baylor Do Anything To Slow Down Kansas?
No. 7 Kansas at No. 6 Baylor (ESPN2, 7:00 p.m. ET)
It is a simply enormous week for Baylor; the Bears face Kansas (at home) tonight and Missouri (in Columbia) on Saturday and could either be the Big 12 frontrunner or all but eliminated from the race by Saturday night. If they are to take advantage of the extreme opportunity ahead, they will have to figure out, somehow, some way, how to stop the Kansas offense. They didn't even come close three weeks ago in Lawrence. Kansas absolutely torched the Bears' zone for 1.30 points per possession, shot 57 percent from the field and, worst of all, grabbed 14 offensive rebounds on just 26 missed field goals. In the game's first 16 minutes, Baylor outscored Kansas, 29-26; in the next 17, Kansas outscored Baylor, 49-26.
It was the patented Allen Field House Run, but it was so stark that the burden of proof is on Baylor to prove that they can actually do things a little differently this time around.
While Thomas Robinson went crazy against Baylor in Lawrence (27 points, 14 rebounds), two other players were key to the Jayhawks' romp: Tyshawn Taylor (28 points, six assists) and Jeff Withey (10 points, nine offensive rebounds). Baylor's bigs do not necessarily play that 'big,' and the enormous Withey found himself plenty of rebound opportunities, but the key to beating Kansas could be getting into the head of the enigmatic Taylor, who tends to dominate the game in both good (3-point shooting, assists) and bad (turnovers) ways. Good Tyshawn makes Kansas a national title contender; Bad Tyshawn single-handedly takes them down.
3. Can The Georgetown Defense Keep It Up?
No. 12 Georgetown at No. 2 Syracuse (ESPN, 7:00 p.m. ET)
One of Dick Vitale's tropes for 2011-12 has been that a full-strength, full-personnel Syracuse team cannot be beaten. And with Fab Melo returning from a short absence, the Orange are most certainly full-strength for tonight's tilt versus the hated Hoyas. But no matter how good you look on paper, you have to score some points to win, and opponents have found that awfully difficult against Georgetown this year.
The Hoya defense currently ranks sixth in Ken Pomeroy's Adj. Efficiency rating ($). Combining strong perimeter play with slow pace and solid work on the glass, Georgetown has held four of its last six opponents to 50 or fewer points and 14 of 22 opponents under 60 for the season. The more reliant you are on the 3-pointer, the less success you are going to have against GU -- they rank sixth in the country in Def. 3PT%, holding opponents to just 27.1-percent shooting.
Of course, 3-pointers aren't really Syracuse's game. They rank 214th in 3-point Attempts Per Field Goal Attempt. Only two Orange players average more than three 3-point attempts per game (Kris Joseph, James Southerland), and The 'Cuse ranks 12th in the country in 2PT%. They're still a bit of a jump-shooting team, but there are a lot of old-school, mid-range shots involved; and with their height, Syracuse hits the offensive glass quite hard. They will probably be too much for Georgetown in the Carrier Dome, but with that defense, the Hoyas will give themselves at least a chance.
4. Does Momentum Continue In Morgantown?
Notre Dame at West Virginia (ESPNU, 9:00 p.m. ET)
It seemed like one of those snakebitten years for Mike Brey and Notre Dame. Their star, Tim Abromaitis, played just two games, succumbing first to a short suspension, then to a torn ACL. In his stead were quite a few role players forced to take on a lot more scoring responsibility. Just three weeks ago, they were dead in the water; a loss at Rutgers dropped them to 11-8 overall, 3-3 in the Big East, and losses to not only the Scarlet Knights, but also Georgia and Maryland had them forgetting about any sort of run to the NCAA Tournament. But then they beat four consecutive Tourney-caliber (or close to it) teams -- Syracuse and Marquette at home and Seton Hall and UConn on the road. Now they are on the cusp of the AP Top 25, and they are projected to finish 20-11 and 12-6 in the conference. A loss to an angry West Virginia team would not do too much to dampen momentum, but with an easier schedule ahead (Next five games after WVU: DePaul, Rutgers, at Villanova, WVU, at St. John's), an upset in Morgantown could prompt them to a double-digit winning streak.
West Virginia has not had an easy go of it lately. The Mountaineers look solid on paper -- their offense ranks 22nd in Adj. Efficiency, and their defense isn't terrible -- and they can claim wins over quite a few possible NCAA Tournament teams (Georgetown, Kansas State, Cincinnati, Miami, Oral Roberts, Akron), but they had lost three in a row before their overtime win over lowly Providence on Sunday, and they stand at just 16-8 overall, 6-5 in the Big East. Despite their trademarked relentlessness on the offensive glass, the Mountaineers' offense has been hit-or-miss as a whole, primarily because they are dreadful from the 3-point line this year (they rank 249th in 3PT%); and when they fall behind, they seem to have the tendency to start yanking up quite a few long balls. In their three-game losing streak, they took 59 3-pointers but made just 15 (25 percent). They were 9-for-41 (22 percent) in losses to St. John's and Pitt. For the season, Truck Bryant and Kevin Jones are taking over 11 3-pointers per game, but they have made just 30.9 percent of them, and of the regulars, only freshman Aaron Brown is making more than one-third of his bombs. If the Mountaineers shoot poorly against the Irish, and if Notre Dame brings its A-game in the rebounding department, the Irish will be in possession of a five-game winning streak at the end of the night.
5. Can Arkansas Win On The Road?
Arkansas at Georgia (ESPN3, 8:00 p.m. ET)
One of the more famous lines from Michael Lewis' Moneyball is when Billy Beane says "My s*** doesn't work in the playoffs." Well, as of late, Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson's s*** doesn't work on the road. His Hogs are 0-6 in true road games this year, and going back to his time at Missouri, his teams have lost 19 of their last 25 road games. His "Fastest 40 Minutes" style places a lot of reliance on the way officials call games, and relying on officials is not typically a good way to succeed away from home. They head to Athens to take on Mark Fox's rebuilding Dawgs; Georgia doesn't draw fouls (309th in FTA/FGA), but they also don't turn the ball over (23rd in Turnover Rate), which makes them an interesting matchup for a young Arkansas team reliant on steals (22nd in Def. Steal Rate).
Arkansas is 16-7 overall and 4-4 in a decent SEC, but they probably won't be taken seriously as an NCAA Tournament candidate until they collect a scalp or two away from Fayetteville. Trips to Tennessee, Auburn and Mississippi State still loom, and none are incredibly intimidating, but a slip tonight would be incredibly detrimental to the cause. Watch the pace of this one -- Arkansas is 16th in the country at 71.7 possessions per game; Georgia, meanwhile, is 308th at 62.9. If the Dawgs can control the tempo and successfully crash the offensive glass (Anderson's style tends to sacrifice defensive rebounds for run-out opportunities), they can pull the upset.