NEW YORK—The field for Tuesday night’s Jimmy V Classic doubleheader at Madison Square Garden was extremely impressive: No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 13 Memphis and No. 7 Michigan State vs. No. 8 Syracuse.
As expected, Kansas didn’t have too much trouble with a young Memphis squad, winning 81-68. The Jayhawks never pushed the lead to blowout territory, but after the game was tied early in the second half Kansas went on a 9-0 run; Memphis never got closer than six again.
Meanwhile, Syracuse “manhandled” (Tom Izzo’s words) the Spartans en route to a 72-58 victory. It was a one-possession game with 13 minutes left but the Orange flexed its muscle and fed off what was essentially a home crowd.
Here are some of the things I learned:
The national media stories focused on the impending return of the nation’s top recruit, Josh Selby (Dec. 18 vs. USC) and how he will adjust to his teammates. Kansas is 9-0 and some media folks were suggesting Selby’s return could be a bad thing for the Jayhawks.
This was at least partly based on this postgame comment from Bill Self: “To be honest with you, our other players aren’t doing poorly. So [Selby] needs to be part of it as opposed to the guy. Because he’s not going to be the guy. We don’t have the guy. And I kind of like it that way; we have balance.”
But let’s take a step back and give Self—a two time Coach of the Year and national champion—a little more credit. He has had boatloads of talent since he arrived in Lawrence and hasn’t had too much trouble assembling a cohesive team. And let’s not kid ourselves: Kansas can certainly use Selby. “If you look at our team, who breaks down pressure?” Self said. “Obviously, you need a second guy that can do that. Josh is the only guy in our program that you can run really bad offense and come away with two or three points, and every team needs a guy like that.”
It’s not unreasonable to think Selby might press early on, which could lead to even more media scrutiny. But if he is able to settle down he should thrive, as should Kansas. “Expectations will be a little ridiculous for him, starting out, just because everybody’s been waiting and questioning,” Self said. “Our USC home game will be as anticipated a home game as we’ve had maybe in years.”
It’s pretty amazing that Josh Pastner assembled what many experts believe to be the No. 2 recruiting class in the country before he even coached a collegiate game. His talented freshmen were on display Tuesday night, as two rookies led the Tigers in scoring. Will Barton scored 16, though it took him 17 shots to get there, and Chris Crawford dropped 15.
I was most impressed with Crawford, a 6’4 guard who showed a nice outside touch and a willingness to drive to the basket. This is a Memphis team that should definitely improve as the season progresses. I think Pastner will have them back in the Big Dance after a one-year hiatus.
“I told the guys I don’t want to hear about being young,” Pastner said. “I am not going to allow them to have that as an excuse.” Pastner, 33, is the youngest head coach in Division I, but you know he won’t let himself use it as excuse either.
Jim Boeheim always seems to be unhappy with his team, yet the Orange always seem to be in the top 15 and a dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament. But I think Boeheim’s philosophy—to tell anyone who will listen that his team stinks—is accurate to a certain extent: All good teams expect to be a lot better come March.
I’m sure this has been said before, but against the Spartans it was as if Syracuse’s 2-3 zone featured six players. Michigan State started its offense from well beyond the three-point line and couldn’t get anything going early on.
Meanwhile, offensively, it looked like a lay-up line as Cuse jumped out to a 25-13 lead. The Orange only hit two three-pointers, but got 42 points in the paint, many off of seemingly uncontested lay-ups and dunks.
There’s no doubt Syracuse is going to have to find its touch from outside and hope some of the freshmen can develop as the season progresses, but there’s no reason to think this team can’t earn another high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Where to begin? How about with Tom Izzo calling out junior forward Delvon Roe. “I don’t know if Delvon’s frustrated with that. Tom’s frustrated with Delvon, OK? Their guy took it at him, same size—one guy went up tough, one guy didn’t. So Delvon’s got to grow up. He’s healthy. I was not pleased with his play. Not very often am I calling out players; I usually call out a team. But our inside guys need some work. We are just not very tough in there. That has been a trademark of our team and our program, and we’ll get that back.”
Izzo was visibly frustrated after his team was embarrassed for stretches against Syracuse to drop its third game of this young season. He isn’t worried about the losses, but rather the reason behind them. “We’re a pretty boy team now, not a smash-mouth team,” he said.
When he hinted it was an unprecedented defeat for his program, a reporter asked if he could remember how long it had been since he’d lost in such a fashion. “A long time, to be honest with you,” Izzo said. “I’m not proud to say that either. I say we’ve gotten beat, I’ve said we played bad. But it’s been a long time since I thought we totally got manhandled.”
Keep in mind the Spartans were within two points seven minutes into the second half. Also remember they were blown out, twice, by North Carolina two seasons ago. Especially considering one of those games was the national championship, you have to assume Izzo wasn’t forgetting those defeats. Yet he still felt this was worse.
Part of Sparty’s struggles have to be attributed to the brutal schedule—not just tough opponents, but a lot of travel as well—but Michigan State is also getting outrebounded, which is not a good sign. Izzo’s squad has led the nation in rebounding margin the last two seasons and four of the last 11 years. But Syracuse had a 38-30 advantage on the boards and was the fourth opponent the Spartans have failed to outrebound this season. Other teams that have outrebounded Michigan State include South Carolina and Division II Chaminade.
“We all go through the same problems this time of year,” Izzo said. “Some people don’t play hard, some people don’t go up enough, some people feel sorry for themselves. It’s a man’s game, and when you play a schedule like this you’ve got to be ready to play every night.” Regardless of Michigan State’s struggles so far, we all know no coach gets his team prepared for March basketball like Izzo.