Monday, January 19, 2009

Northern Iowathoughts vs. Drakethoughts

Yeah, it kind of went something like this.

Certain evenings after the turn of the year, I'll flip through the 10 or so sports-devoted channels I've got on my Comcast Digital Cable, not see a single mid-major related offering amongst the likes of the 2005 World Series of Poker, a match-up of the eighth- and ninth-place teams in the Big 10, and a "Hot Stove" edition of Baseball Tonight, and I'll get angry. Then I remember that it wasn't too terribly long ago that you would never under any circumstances see mid-majors on television until the singular glory of Championship Week, and that ESPN does occasionally let mids slip onto "the Deuce" when it can find the time. (Remember when they were calling it that? Remember Keith Olbermann behind a desk in a shiny leather jacket? Remember that first ticker, that took up what seemed like a third of the screen? Ah, the '90s.)

Anyways, all of that is a convoluted way of telling you that Drake was hosting Northern Iowa on ESPN2 Saturday morning, and part of the way I try not to take that sort of thing for granted is by watching it and writing about it. Well, watching most of it: the game unfortunately wound up an 81-59 annihilation in favor of UNI. How'd that happen?

Shooting. A lot of your modern-day hoops writers acknowledge that luck plays a big role in determining your one-possession and/or overtime games, but sometimes I wonder if it plays an even bigger role than that. Opening few minutes of this game, both teams run their offensive sets, both teams get good looks from 3, UNI buries theirs--no, seriously, like all of theirs--and Drake clonks all but one of theirs. UNI goes up 13-3. And now you can see Drake start to press just a bit in their match-up zone, get pulled out of shape just a little bit to try and stop the bleeding ... and the visitors take advantage of those new spaces to drill another series of 3's. Like, a long series. End result: 40-17 with 3:11 to play in the first half and the game's outcome most assuredly done and dusted.

Obviously, in a game where one team eventually takes a 30-point lead in the second half, there's no room for what-ifs. But both these teams can shoot the ball, but every team can also have an off-day or a bad stretch: on some level, UNI just happened to be the team that shot the lights out in those opening minutes on Saturday, while Drake sat on the other end of the see-saw having that bad stretch at the worst possible time. And on some level, that decided the game.

The problems with this approach are twofold, however: first, it doesn't give UNI credit for their outstanding execution, for the rotations and skip passes and screens that found the open guy over and over again who over and over again effortlessly knocked down his shot. (Freshman guard Johnny Moran was especially useful: 6-of-13 on 3's, with a 5-to-zero assist-to-TO ratio to boot.) Second, it doesn't give Drake their proper discredit for so completely unraveling in the face of their "bad luck" to start the game. That the Bulldogs fell apart into a hundred visibly frustrated pieces was just one part of the ...

Coaching smackdown that also defined the game. UNI's Ben Jacobson's defensive plan was pretty simple: we're not going to let Josh Young beat us. Young, for those of you who never saw Drake during their 2007-2008 annus mirabilis, is and was the Bulldogs' best offensive player (no matter what the MoVal MVP voting might tell you). The Panthers chose to deny Young the ball in all parts of the court, bring an immediate double-team him whenever he dribbled inside the three-point line, and generally get away with as much off-the-ball nudges as they could. First-year Drake coach Mark Phelps never came up with an answer, watching helplessly as Young was held without a made field goal in 30 minutes of action (!) and slowly lost his cool, committing a couple of dumb fouls and getting lucky an elbow to a UNI defender's jaw came just after a whistle.

Not that Phelps's charges gave him a lot of help in finding a way to get Young involved. In one sequence five minutes into the game, Young posted up nicely on the left block and wasn't thrown the entry pass for some unfathomable reason. A moment later Young re-posted, and though this time the entry pass was made, there was a weird delay in the delivery that allowed Young's defender to push him several feet further from the basket by the time the ball arrived. Young was forced to pass the ball back out and, not surprisingly, the possession ended pointless.

Frontcourt domination. Jonathan Cox was one of Drake's stars last year, a three-shootin', reboundin', fundamentallin' demon, but he was completely invisible Saturday, as were all of Drake's frontcourt players. UNI 7-footer Jordan Eglseder owned the paint, getting just about whatever shot he wanted and repeatedly keeping alive the few Panther first-half possessions that didn't end in a made shot. 10 points, 8 boards, 2 blocks in just 17 minutes? Not a bad day's work, son. (Fellow forward Lucas O'Rear went for 11 points and 7 boards himself.) To make the Drake forwards' day even longer, they seemed to be a step slow on getting to the corners in Phelps's 2-3 match-up zone, leading to a lot of the open shots UNI so blissfully took advantage of.

So, the upshot? Remember when I said Creighton had become the nominal Valley favorite after their win over Bradley? Nevermind--the Jays got spanked at Wichita St. over the weekend for the Shockers' first MVC win in seven tries. Oops. Although Illinois St. remains the league's only prayer of an at-large bid--the nonconference-light Redbirds would basically have to virtually run the Valley table from this point and nab a big BracketBusters road win--UNI is without question the league's hottest team, having now racked up six W's in a row, including road victories over four different teams over .500 in the league: Southern Illinois, Creighton, Evansville, and Drake. It's quite the achievement, and the Panthers will now get their turn in the Valley catbird seat for a bit.

As hot as the Panthers are, it's hard to see them making too much noise in March. Precise and well-coached as they are, UNI is going to run a serious athleticism deficit against most power-conference teams, one that not even their shooting and Eglseder's size can overcome. (Thus the blowout loss to Big 10 also-ran Iowa, the home defeat to Big 12 punching bag Iowa St. Of course, they did beat Auburn.) Whatever the result of the regular season race, the Valley's best hopes for an NCAA upset remain Illinois St. and possibly Creighton.

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