Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Sissy" Spartans, Irving's injury impact and more bench thoughts

By Jared Trexler

Kyrie Irving's right foot is in a cast and Michigan State's trademark toughness has joined the Duke point guard on the sideline.

Only one of them can return anytime soon, and that speck of truth has entirely flipped the college basketball world on its axis.

Irving injured ligaments in his right foot during an 82-70 victory over Butler on December 4. The ailment was initially thought to be a sprained toe, but has turned out to be much more problematic, perhaps even crippling to Irving's freshman year and the air of invincibility surrounding the defending national champions.

More details are likely to emerge in the next week as the highly-respected Duke medical staff consults with foot experts nationwide, the coaching staff, Irving and his family on the smartest course of action for the East Orange, New Jersey product considered one of the nation's best players and a surefire top-5 selection in next year's NBA Draft.

Many questions will be asked in the coming days about Irving's collegiate status if in fact his season is over. Will eight collegiate games be a long enough audition tape to max his draft stock? Will scouts' hesitancy surrounding an injury to a guard's professional life line (his wheels) affect his NBA perception if he never showcases his speed and lateral quickness in game situations post-injury? How badly does Irving want a national championship and to share a backcourt with next year's incoming sensation, Austin Rivers, son of Boston Celtics head coach Doc?

All of those questions will have no answers until the curtain drops on this season's production. Until then, Irving's injury impact has substantial ripple effects on Duke's current rotation and scoring hierarchy.

Nolan Smith, the team's leading scorer pre-Irving injury, is the new point guard. He is more than capable of orchestrating the offense, but how will the move to primary ball handler affect his scoring? Through two games, the results have been mixed. He missed all eight of his shots in an 83-48 victory on Wednesday over Bradley then made 8-of-13 attempts in an 84-47 thumping of Saint Louis on Saturday.

The hot-and-cold levels will likely continue until Smith works through an adjustment period. He is a more efficient shooter off the pass, but has the ability to attack the rim with the dribble. Like Saturday, you will likely see Smith's three-point shooting attempts dwindle and his foul shots rise as he uses the dribble to get his own shots. However, the injury has cost Duke two great shooters -- Irving and his deadly stroke off the dribble and Smith's off the pass -- and the Blue Devils now must rely on their two new pivotal perimeter players to pick up the slack.

Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry went from supporting actors on the periphery to key cogs in Duke's ability to repeat in Houston this April. Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn conducted an interesting study last week on the benefactors of Smith's and Irving's assists.

A large percentage of Irving's assists ended in Smith baskets, not a surprise for a guard (Irving) who loves to penetrate and another (Smith) who is deft at finding open spaces once a defense collapses on the ball. A good portion of Smith's assists went to Kyle Singler and Dawkins, who on key scored a career- high 28 points against Bradley. He followed that with just two points and only two total shots on Saturday, but Curry did his best to replicate the role with 11 points and three treys off the bench. The Blue Devils will need consistent shooting from the two-guard position to strain opponents' perimeter defense and open avenues for Singler to work from the foul-line extended through the blocks.

Duke's preseason All-American has quietly gone through an extended shooting slump as the nation has been enamored with Irving's rapid ascent. In the two games since Irving went down, Singler has made 13-of-25 shots and scored 38 points, yet his shooting percentage (even with an over 50-percent two-game stretch) still hovers around 45 percent with 36-percent marksmanship from long distance. The injury's little-discussed domino effect is on Duke's backcourt depth, where freshman Tyler Thornton is the out-of-necessity backup point guard. He averaged just less than six minutes a game through the Butler victory, but has nearly doubled that playing time since Irving went down. His job will be to start the offense and promote motion and ball movement because both Dawkins and Curry are not point guards by trade.

The blunt assessment of Irving's injury strikes a deciding blow at Duke's dominance. No longer are we talking about undefeated seasons and comparing this team to the Bobby Hurley-Christian Laettner repeat champions of the early 1990s. Duke is still ONE OF the favorites in a season now without a prohibitive powerhouse, but its reign of terror was short lived because of a freak accident to its star point guard.

Michigan State's chances in March don't hinge on an injury, but on a physical, and many argue mental, ailment affecting its play. The Spartans characteristic toughness has come into question, not just from talking heads and grumbling fans, but from the coach whose teachings trademarked their style.

Syracuse battered the Spartans in the paint on both ends of the floor, showing physicality unmatched by Michigan State's veteran frontcourt. The Orange held a 42-24 advantage on points in the paint and outrebounded the Spartans, 38-30, in a convincing 72-58 victory last Tuesday.

Head coach Tom Izzo didn't mince words after the game.

"We turned into a pretty-boy jump-shooting team instead of the blue-collar, fist-fighting team we should be. The aggressive team usually gets the advantage, but we were taking it like a sissy and they were taking it like men."

Izzo also likened his post-game feelings to those felt by the New York Jets after a 45-3 waxing to the New England Patriots one night earlier on Monday Night Football. He concluded with the ominous line, "It's been a while since we've been manhandled like this."

In Michigan State's defense, Syracuse's 2-3 zone many times lulls a team into jacking long jump shots early in the shot clock, but this is a veteran squad from top to bottom with an excellent high-post passer to beat the zone, Draymond Green, and a backcourt accustomed to penetrating into the seams and finding the bigs on the blocks. The Spartans also continued disturbing trends of poor foul shooting (9-of-16) and turnovers, committing 17 of them against negligible backcourt ball pressure.

Overall, the Spartans have had trouble getting into their offensive sets, haven't converted at the foul line and now have their coach questioning their toughness as they prepare to enter Big Ten play against a league stacked with tournament-worthy competition and toughness at its core.

The Spartans need to look in the mirror fast. I'm looking at you Kalin Lucas, who admitted he finally feels 100 percent after last season's Achilles injury. I'm looking at you Durrell Summers, who has disappeared at times and needs to command the basketball. I'm looking at you Delvon Roe, who hasn't been as advertised out of high school due to a litany of injuries.

There is no doubt Izzo will exude toughness from the sideline. However, in a 5- on-5 environment, you can't hide a glaring deficiency. Michigan State's capability to again lift the game's Holy Grail hinges on the veterans' ability to find the inner fortitude and physical edge that has been a valuable asset for each Izzo-coached team.


1. We have spoken ad nauseam about Tennessee's off-court issues so far this season, but the Volunteers' play is masking those difficulties (at least for now). Tennessee played with chaotic control in an 83-76 victory over Pittsburgh that carried historical significance. The Panthers dropped a non- conference contest in Pittsburgh for the first time in 58 games, or since a January 2, 2005 loss to Bucknell. The Volunteers were more physical, an eye- opening sight to college basketball's most ardent supporters. They also played both reckless and intelligent, two polar opposites on the surface that equate to form perfect harmony in head coach Bruce Pearl's playing philosophy. Tennessee attacked with reckless abandon, yet seemed to make the correct decision each and every time. It doesn't hurt that Tennessee's biggest flaw -- its outside shooting -- was spot-on Saturday. A 56 percent mark from the floor and a 7-of-11 effort from long distance will equal many victories for these Vols, even when Pearl goes on the eight-game mandated conference sabbatical. Scotty Hobson played within himself and used his natural ability to score a career-best 27 points.

2. Two teams get a standing ovation in print this week. Rutgers, and new head coach Mike Rice, beat its second BCS school this season, the first time that has happened since 1999, which tells you where this program has been in the last decade. The Scarlet Knights have executed with defense, defeating Auburn on Saturday, 63-54, despite missing their first 12 shots. The secret? Holding the Tigers to 30 percent shooting. The same formula held true in a 61-45 victory over Miami-Florida back on November 21. The Hurricanes made just 29 percent of their shots in defeat. Rutgers has a 6-2 record despite holding down the 205th spot in total scoring and the 136th position in field goal percentage.

The Richmond Spiders and all-conference contender Kevin Anderson have already defeated polished mid-majors William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth, won across the country at Arizona State and posted a signature, double-digit victory over Purdue. At least three of those wins will hold plenty of weight come tournament selection time, and Richmond has more statement opportunities in the coming weeks against Georgia Tech, Seton Hall and Wake Forest. More on Anderson and the Spiders next week.


1. Duke (10-0):

No Irving for the foreseeable future as a best-case scenario. Good news is the schedule broke in Duke's direction. Bradley, Saint Louis and upcoming tilts with Elon and UNC-Greensboro are not exactly Murderer's Row.

2. Ohio State (8-0):

Not much fanfare surrounding the Buckeyes. Not surprising since "signature" victory came against "selfish" Florida Gators.

3. Kansas (9-0):

The time has finally come. I will chronicle freshman Josh Shelby's debut (this Saturday versus Southern California) in this space next week.

4. Connecticut (8-0):

Moving Huskies up thanks to the self-imposed eye test. Kemba Walker strikes more confidence at this point in the season than Kansas State's Jacob Pullen.

5. Kansas State (9-1):

Sluggish play again made head coach Frank Martin hot under the collar in a 68-60 victory over Loyola-Chicago this past Saturday. The fact remains a team that shoots a bordering on historically-poor 54.3 percent from the foul line CAN'T win in March. In fact, I'm not sure it can win Saturday versus Florida or next Tuesday in Kansas City versus UNLV if that keeps up.

6. Syracuse (10-0):

Still not confident in Syracuse's halfcourt offense, but if it controls the backboards like it did against Michigan State my concerns won't matter. Rick Jackson has been a man amongst boys.

7. Tennessee (7-0):

No one can predict the future. I'm not an armchair psychologist. How the Vols respond in Pearl's absence is anyone's guess. What I do know is they have rallied through the initial storm and are playing as inspired as their leader.

8. Pittsburgh (10-1):

Was caught on its heels and looked a step slow throughout Saturday's loss to Tennessee. Brad Wanamaker was solid, but Panthers need better than 4-of-13 effort from Ashton Gibbs.

9. Baylor (6-0):

Have only played six games when rest of the nation has played several more. First barometer is next Saturday in Dallas versus a Gonzaga team desperate for a victory.

10. Missouri (7-1):

Another must-watch overtime victory, this one an 85-82 barnburner with Vanderbilt. Next test is a date with Illinois and the Orange Crush on December 22.

11. San Diego State (10-0):

Steve Fisher's Aztecs climb three spots with two routs of in-state foes. Most impressive was a 77-57 thumping over California, which already beat Temple.

12. Georgetown (9-1):

The Hoyas didn't beat the Owls, though their placement below the Aztecs is not that simple. The reason for the 68-65 loss to Temple was Ramone Moore's career-best 30 points for the Owls. The Hoyas were sloppy with the ball, however, and need more output from the frontcourt.

13. Villanova (8-1):

Tour through the Big Five brought two victories, but no killer instinct. Penn hung around far too long before succumbing, 65-53, and La Salle tested the Wildcats until the final horn. Major offensive issue is Corey Fisher's 32.7 shooting percentage.

14. Michigan State (7-3):

Three losses all to teams in my top six, but I echo Izzo's sentiments. Get tougher or the JaJuan Johnsons and Jared Sullingers of the world are going to eat you alive.

15. BYU (10-0):

Impressive 87-65 victory over Arizona thanks to 33 points from Jimmer Fredette. My preseason player of the year is averaging 23.7 points per game and shooting nearly 48 percent from the floor.


Kansas State is going through the motions and can't make foul shots. The Gators don't share the ball enough to please their head coach. Something will give Tuesday night in Sunrise, Florida. Baylor's date in Dallas with Gonzaga is not as significant thanks to the Bulldogs' struggles, but it's a better test than a bus ride tour through rural Texas.

Also, we have spent plenty of writing realty on Duke and Michigan State so far this season, and rightfully so. Both are national contenders who have played rigorous early-season schedules. Until the New Year -- unless news breaks on Irving's full prognosis -- we will pivot and take a longer look at the rest of the college hoops landscape.

No comments: