Up until this weekend did you think the Atlantic 10 race was shaping up rather nicely as a cut-and-dried showdown between the league's two newest members, Virginia Commonwealth and Butler? Me too. (Though I'm keeping an eye on Saint Louis, as well.) Then Temple beat No. 3 Syracuse 83-79 in Madison Square Garden. Any team that can record a win against Jim Boeheim's group at the Garden is a force to be reckoned with, surely.
If Fran Dunphy's team turns out to be as good as they looked against the Orange (as opposed to what we saw from them three days earlier, when they lost to Canisius by 10 at home), the Rams and the Bulldogs will have some competition at the top of the A-10. But before we get that far, I'm here to give the rest of the league an advance scout on the Owls. Don't foul them.
John Wooden once said "Basketball is not a complicated game, but we coaches complicate it." In that spirit, not fouling Temple is a no-brainer. The Owls rank a so-so No. 141 in the nation in two-point accuracy, and an abysmal No. 271 from beyond the arc. But Dunphy's men are shooting 73 percent at the line, good for No. 83 nationally. And against Syracuse, Temple was 29-of-36 on their free throws (81 percent). The Owls won this game at the line.
In this sense, Khalif Wyatt is Temple in a nutshell. The 6-4 senior is shooting just 26 percent on his threes this season, and has made just 46 percent of his attempts inside the arc. But Wyatt's hitting 77 percent of his free throws, and throughout his career he has consistently drawn five fouls per 40 minutes. Against the Orange, Wyatt went 15-of-15 at the line, on his way to a career-high 33 points.
Nor is Wyatt the only Owl for whom fouls are vitally important. For Anthony Lee, the trick is not only getting to the line but also staying out of foul trouble. Lee hasn't fouled out of a game yet this season, but he came into the Syracuse contest averaging just 22 minutes a game. Against the Orange, conversely, Fran Dunphy got a full 38 minutes from Lee. An extra 16 minutes of Lee is huge, because the 6-9 sophomore draws fouls on offense and crashes the glass on D. Against the Orange Lee was 11-of-14 at the line. Temple scored 83 points in 72 possessions in large part because Dunphy got 26 made free throws from Wyatt and Lee.
As for Syracuse, one conclusion I draw from their first loss is that Boeheim is one tough man to please when it comes to offensive rebounds. On a day when his team pulled down no less than 43 percent of its misses, the head coach was quoted as follows: "I think our biggest problem was we should have gotten more offensive rebounds."
What an odd thing to say. If there was a rebounding problem for the Orange against Temple, it came not on offense but on defense, where Boeheim's men allowed the Owls to haul down 46 percent of their missed shots. Then again compared to last season this Syracuse team is practically Izzo-like on the defensive glass.
No, if I'm Boeheim I'm worried less about my team's offensive rebounding, or even rebounding in general, and more about their fouling. Historically the Orange have been able to play very good defense without fouling. This season's team, conversely, is fouling at the highest rate we've seen from Syracuse in seven years. It's the primary weakness in what is otherwise (once again) an outstanding defense. Look at the Temple loss. The Orange lost a shootout, but they held the Owls to 33 percent 3-point shooting, and 43 percent shooting inside the arc.
Take The Jeff Withey Challenge!
Last week I said I was holding off on declaring Kansas a full-fledged national title contender on the same level as Duke or Louisville. But after seeing the Jayhawks completely demoralize No. 7 Ohio State in Columbus on their way to a 74-66 victory, I'm persuaded. That's a genuine contender you have there, Bill Self. Congratulations.
And congratulations to me, too. (Let's keep the focus on me.) In the preseason my editor asked me to make a "bold" prediction for 2012-13, and I thought: Well, everyone's just conceding the National Player of the Year award to Cody Zeller before the season's even started. I shall boldly go elsewhere: Jeff Withey.
I took a lot of grief for that pick, and by that I specifically mean I got a lot of grief even from Kansas fans. Withey? Seriously? Great shot blocker, sure, but National POY? Come on.
Withey is still the longest of POY long shots, of course, and certainly there's no occasion for declaring a winner in this race in December. But I will say my "bold" pick looks a little less wacky and a little more boring with each passing game. If you don't believe me, take what I call The Jeff Withey Challenge.
It goes like this: Withey is the best player in the nation on defense. And while he's not the best player in the nation on offense, he's very good on that side of the ball. Now, is there any player that's so much better on offense that he can make up the clear evaluative lead that Withey starts with on D?
Look at KU's win over the Buckeyes. Thad Matta's team was so sure that it was hopeless to even try to score in the paint that they fired up jumper after doomed jumper over and over and over again in the second half of their loss. (I swear I heard a smattering of boos from the Value City Arena crowd after one miss.)
Withey's stat line for the game looks normal enough (14 points, 10 rebounds, one block), but does Ohio State attempt 31 three-point shots (they made just eight) if the big guy's not in the lineup for the Jayhawks? Much like last season's POY, Withey alters a game -- on occasion, dramatically -- by simply stepping on the floor.
A sudden change suddenly clicks for Kansas State
This was a red-letter weekend for teams from the Sunflower State, as both Kansas and Kansas State recorded wins against top-10 opponents. (And, yes, Wichita State won too. It was a 3-0 sweep for the state's Division I programs. Take a bow, Sam Brownback!)
If I had to pick the biggest surprise out of these three victories, I'd go with the Wildcats' 67-61 win over No. 8 Florida at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Before facing the Gators, K-State had played two quality opponents in the form of Michigan and Gonzaga, and Bruce Weber's team lost those games by an average of 15 points. But against a UF team that appears to have Final Four-level talent, the Wildcats took the lead at 20-19 and never trailed after that.
Everybody always says "It will be interesting" to watch a certain team, but in the case of Kansas State I think it can be fairly said that it will be fascinating to watch them this season. In a coaching change where a team says goodbye to Frank Martin and hello to Weber, there are two diametrically opposed philosophies on fouls on display.
Martin plainly loves fouls, both drawing them and committing them. It has even been intimated that Martin has his teams foul so much on the theory that there's a natural ceiling on the number of fouls officials will be willing to call in a game, and past that point your team can more or less foul with impunity.
On this particular stylistic matter, however, Weber inhabits the opposite extreme. His Illinois teams perennially posted very low foul rates on both defense and on offense. Sure enough, so far this season Kansas State is looking very Illinois-like, and the number of fouls that you see in a Wildcat game has plummeted. Case in point: Florida attempted just 15 free throws against the Wildcats. That, plus lackluster perimeter shooting by Billy Donovan's team (5-of-19), enabled K-State to hold one of the nation's best offenses to 61 points in a 62-possession game.
Change is never easy, and the stylistic jump that Weber is asking of Martin-era players might fairly be termed huge. But for one night, at least, the changes made by the new coach worked wonders.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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