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January 19, 2009
Four-Point Play
DeJuan & Deacons, UNI & U-Dub

by John Gasaway

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Blair is Pitt. Pitt is Blair.

I love Sam Young. In two short years he's gone from bench player to All-Big East performer, thanks to outstanding performance on offense both inside and outside the arc. By the same token, Levance Fields is a point guard's point guard, walking proof that a perimeter player need not make the shots himself to fuel his team's offense.

Make no mistake, though: Pitt will go exactly as far as DeJuan Blair can take them. This fact was hammered home with a vengeance on Saturday night in Louisville, as the Panthers lost their first game of the season 69-63. It was a game played in halves: there were the 20 minutes with Blair on the floor, and then there were the 20 minutes with him on the bench in foul trouble. With Blair on the floor, Pitt outscored Louisville by a comfortable 44-36 margin. With him watching the action, however, the host Cardinals enjoyed a 33-19 advantage. In other words, the difference between Blair's presence and absence on this night was 22 points. (Just like Dick Vitale always says about Patrick Ewing!) That is one important player. With Blair, Pitt is Pitt. Without him, Pitt is, statistically speaking, worse than West Virginia.

I'd already said that Pitt's conference opponents will pound the ball inside, not only to draw fouls on Blair but also to score points even when he's in the game. The examples provided not only by Louisville but also by Rutgers (which lost to the Panthers by just six points on a day when Blair was plagued with foul trouble) support this particular theory: The way to beat Jamie Dixon's team is to challenge Blair.

Wake Forest can win ugly

It wasn't a thing of beauty, goodness knows, but Wake Forest won the battle of the unbeatens, triumphing over Clemson on Saturday by the score of 78-68.

The paradox of any highly successful season is that it invariably includes a number of less-than-stellar stretches of basketball. In 2007, when Florida repeated as national champions, they were actually outscored over their last five SEC games. So it's a backhanded compliment to how good Wake truly is that on Saturday they won by ten on the road against an unbeaten team even though Dino Gaudio's team turned the ball over on one in every four possessions and gave their opponent 21 offensive boards.

Jeff Teague was, of course, Jeff Teague, scoring 24 points primarily because he got to the free throw line 18 times. Yet he also coughed up five turnovers. In fact, Teague is a fascinating case to me. His recent past as a largely overlooked high school recruit has been well documented, yet talent--precisely that which is supposed to stand out in high school--is what he has the most of at this point. His raw talent is so far ahead of his skill it's almost like watching an outstanding athlete who's been coaxed to play basketball.

Nominally a point guard, Teague is still learning to make correct decisions. If you still have this game on your DVR, watch Wake's two-on-two opportunity with about eight minutes left to play. Teague had the ball; his teammate James Johnson was ahead of the Clemson defenders and gesturing for an alley-oop. Teague, however, chose to take on both defenders himself and had his shot rejected with ease by Raymond Sykes. When Teague's floor sense catches up to his talent, look out.

Yet even now, there is simply no denying Teague's effectiveness. He is perfectly able to hit threes, but rather than float on the perimeter he attacks opposing defenses like a chainsaw tearing into a redwood tree. North Carolina looked like they couldn't believe someone who wasn't even a McDonald's All-American would have the effrontery to think they could do that. Well, that is exactly what Teague does, and it works.

You don't want Northern Iowa in your bracket

Most rating systems still have them as merely the third-best team in the Missouri Valley, and they're still invisible to Bracketology. Remember this, however: Northern Iowa is off to the best start in-conference of any Valley team.

Pace and efficiency rankings, Missouri Valley Conference
Through games of January 18, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  N. Iowa          61.1    1.14    0.96   +0.18
2.  Illinois St.     63.0    1.08    0.94   +0.14
3.  Bradley          62.0    1.03    0.97   +0.06
4.  Drake            63.0    1.05    1.02   +0.03
5.  Creighton        64.2    1.06    1.05   +0.01
6.  S. Illinois      61.4    1.05    1.06   -0.01
7.  Evansville       65.9    0.92    0.96   -0.04
8.  Missouri St.     59.8    0.98    1.08   -0.10
9.  Indiana St.      63.1    0.94    1.06   -0.12
10. Wichita St.      61.5    0.99    1.12   -0.13

After the Panthers' win at Creighton on January 6, I was asking what in the world had gotten into them. Now, after their 81-59 demolition of Drake in Des Moines on Saturday, my bewilderment is entirely beside the point. UNI already has four road wins in the Valley and thus is very much in the driver's seat for the regular season title.

As indicated both by the numbers above and, more importantly, the dejected expressions displayed by Drake players on Saturday afternoon, Northern Iowa has been excellent on offense, hitting 54 percent of their twos and 44 percent of their threes in-conference. Add to that the fact that Ben Jacobson's team doesn't turn the ball over and you can begin to see the challenge for opposing defenses. Point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, seven-footer Jordan Eglseder and three-point bomber Johnny Moran give Jacobson a lot of options. None of the above are terribly well known in January, but that could change come March.

Washington has very quietly been very good

I'm a little leery about hyping any team that's had the benefit of games against Oregon and Oregon State. Nevertheless, Washington has played the schedule that was handed to them and done very well. In fact while most of the attention has gone to UCLA and Arizona State, the Huskies are just a triple-overtime loss to Cal away from a perfect record in the Pac-10.

Not a lot was expected of Washington this year because, well, they weren't very good last year, finishing just 7-11 in the Pac-10 and 16-16 overall. What's changed this year, however, is the offense: It's now scoring points, to the tune of 1.14 per trip in-conference. Give a lot of the credit here to Jon Brockman and his tenacious offensive rebounding, though freshman point guard Isaiah Thomas has also helped his team reduce its turnovers significantly.

This is a big week for the Huskies, as USC and UCLA are coming to Seattle for games on Thursday night and Saturday afternoon, respectively. Win both home games and you're sitting at 6-1 in the Pac-10. If it plays out that way the secret will officially be out: Washington is back.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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