Heat Check Herald: Leadership matters, Arizona’s title wart, Texas Tech’s contender status and Providence’s absurd luck

Leadership matters. Few environments bear that out to be the case more than the arena of competitive youth sports — and while Division 1 basketball (and a Big Ten game nonetheless) rises to a level far surpassing that of Pop Warner football or Little League baseball, it remains worth repeating.

Because the events in the final minutes of Wisconsin’s 77–63 victory over Michigan and the ensuing moments after the horn had sounded at the Kohl Center proved the importance of leadership. For those who missed it, here is the incident that led to Michigan head coach Juwan Howard open-hand slapping Wisconsin assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft.

Context matters as we digest this 1:23 clip. Yes, Juwan Howard had his team running a full-court press against Wisconsin’s walk-ons. Yes, Greg Gard used a timeout to help said walk-ons get the ball past half-court. If Howard had no desire to listen to Gard explain his rationale for using a timeout, that’s fine by me.

But nothing excuses the face of a program and — to use an old trope — “leader of men” placing himself behind others and throwing hands at a member of the opposing team. This is not the first time that Howard has run hot. Last year at the Big Ten tournament, the former Fab Five big man had to be separated from Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon.

More often than not, we come away from viral moments in youth sports thinking adults are responsible for ruining things. Here is another example of adults ruining things for those around them. Because of the selfish actions of Howard — who refused to apologize in his postgame comments — freshman forward Moussa Diabate found himself in a situation that resulted in punches being thrown and a likely suspension. That suspension cloud could hang over him for the duration of this season and in his inevitable draft process whenever that plays out.

No, Howard doesn’t need to be fired for this (and spare me the “eliminate the handshake line B.S. If you can’t shake someone’s hand after a game, you’re probably not mature enough to be competing in said game anyway). If an athletic department was looking for a reason to get rid of a coach, and the coach in question wasn’t fresh off an Elite Eight appearance, this could easily be a fireable offense. There will be plenty of individuals who call for Howard’s firing, but his standing in Michigan’s history and recent track record of coaching success lead me to believe he’ll instead be suspended for the rest of the season and asked to re-evaluate things before returning to the sideline next November.

Elsewhere around college basketball there are plenty of notable things from this weekend and recent weeks since our last edition of the Heat Check Herald. So, here are three real basketball things (plus my HC Poll and Pac-12 votes) that stand out to me as we find ourselves inside three weeks from Selection Sunday.

  1. Kerr Kriisa is Arizona’s biggest wart in pursuit of national title

As an objective journalist, what I’m about to say shouldn’t shock anyone. But it should be worth noting. I love watching Arizona play basketball.

The Wildcats are an amazing team filled with elite athletes and playmakers. When the polls comes out on Monday, Gonzaga and Arizona are going to be 1–2, a remarkable feat for Mark Few and his former assistant Tommy Lloyd to see come to fruition in Lloyd’s first year in Tucson. Watching them play in person two weeks ago in Tempe was incredibly impressive and the Wildcats likely have the Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Coach of the Year. A sequence of high-flying dunks during a second half burying of Arizona State had me sitting bewildered on press row.

But in their quest to win a national championship, Arizona’s biggest detriment is their sophomore point guard.

A lot of attention has — and will continue to be paid — to the wrist-tape throwing and kisses he’s blowing, because the actions are equal parts endearing to the fanbase and invigorating for those outside Tucson. But the volatility of the on-court actions and basketball productivity for Kriisa is the most exploitable part of this Arizona team.

Which makes it no surprise that Kriisa’s worst performances align with four of the five most competitive games of the season for Arizona. The Wildcats have played five games that were either losses or a win decided by fewer that five points. Admittedly, Kriisa was solid shooting the ball in the December win at Illinois. But, here are Kriisa’s box scores in the other four contests:

  • 82–78 OT win vs. Wichita State: 12 points, 3 of 11 shooting (2 of 10 on 3PA)
  • 77–73 loss at Tennessee: 3 of 10 FG (all shots were 3s), 4 TO, 3 AST
  • 75–59 loss at UCLA: 0 of 12 FG, 0 of 9 3PA, 4 TO, 6 AST
  • 84–81 win vs. Oregon: 9 points, 3 of 8 FG (all shots were 3s), 4 TO, 3 AST

Everyone will point out this shot by Kriisa to beat Oregon Saturday as evidence to the contrary. Anyone who has watched Arizona extensively though will admit that Kriisa’s turnover issues (he looked like an overwhelmed high schooler in the opening minutes of the loss to Tennessee) and questionable shot selection can and will be an issue for Arizona. Kriisa often settles for long-range heaves. According to hoop-math.com, just 5.4 percent of his shot attempts come at the rim. Against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, his early shot clock 3-point heaves felt desperate and unnecessary.

The Wildcats are good enough to beat the brakes off teams early in the NCAA tournament. Maybe, it’s not a noticeable issue until an Elite Eight game. I believe the best thing for Lloyd’s group would be close games at the Pac-12 tournament that force Arizona to develop experience with half-court offense in tight, late-game situations. In those spots, the ball in guard Bennedict Mathurin’s hands is the best thing for the Wildcats.

2. Providence remains the luckiest team in America

Providence is in the midst of its best season in years. The Friars have reached the 20-win plateau for the first time since the 2017–18 season and are poised for their highest seed in program history (if seeding holds from Saturday’s early top-16 seed reveal).

At 22–3, the Friars are the leaders in the Big East ahead of a solid Villanova squad. As the No. 8 ranked team in last week’s AP Poll, they were ranked as high as they’ve been since Kris Dunn was playing at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

But Sunday afternoon was another example of Ed Cooley’s group struggling with a lesser Big East opponent. A week after needing overtime at home to defeat a Javon Freeman-Liberty-less DePaul squad, the Friars went to Butler and trailed by 19 points in the first half.

As has been the case throughout this year, Providence erased the deficit (marking the largest comeback in the Cooley era) and came back to win in overtime by a point. The victory helped the Friars improve to a stunning 10–1 record in games decided by five points or less.

Ken Pomeroy ranks the Friars at 46th in his adjusted efficiency margin and the Friars are there as a team that is largely average in comparison to other elite teams. At 42nd in offensive efficiency and 66th in defensive efficiency, they aren’t elite at anything (other than being lucky). In that KenPom stat, the Friars rank numero uno. Nobody is better at beating the random variance of close games like Ed Cooley and his group of winners.

In fact, no Power-6 team in the KenPom era (which dates back to the 2001–02 season) has ever finished with as great of a positive luck rating as this year’s Providence team currently sits. Right now, Providence is +.207 in that category. The previous high ranking for a team from any of the major leagues is the 2014–15 Maryland Terrapins, which finished with a +.127 mark.

That Turgeon-led group wound up as a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, squeaking by 13-seed Valparaiso 65–62 in the opening round before bowing out in the Round of 32 with a 10-point loss to 5 seed West Virginia. Maybe Providence can continue its luck all the way through the opening round of the NCAA tournament (which just so happens to fall on St. Patrick’s Day), but all these numbers lead me to believe they’re due for some negative regression — or an early upset as an unjustifiably high seed.

3. Texas Tech: real national title contender?

First of all, watching Texas Tech fans take over the Erwin Center was equal parts embarrassing for Texas and impressive in the I-still-hate-my-ex categories. All of that led to what appeared to be as close to a 50–50 split possible in a regular season on-campus game. That’s rare and extremely impressive from a fanbase that was as petty as the team Twitter account.

With two top-10 teams in defensive efficiency competing, Saturday’s contest would be aptly described as a rock fight. In a 61–55 win, the Red Raiders held the Longhorns to 10 points in the paint, the lowest output in that category for a Chris Beard led team in his Division 1 coaching career.

Mark Adams’ is likely the National Coach of the Year, and the Red Raiders have emerged as a trendy Final Four pick after being a fadeaway Ochai Agbaji 3-pointer away from having season sweeps of Kansas, Baylor and Texas under their belt. But I still have reservations about Texas Tech because of their lack of solid point guard play. And by lack of solid point guard play, I mean non-existent point guard play.

If it feels like Texas Tech’s entire rotation is guys who are 6-foot-6, that’s because it’s pretty much the truth. Four of the nine players who play significant minutes for the Red Raiders are listed at that exact height and three others are either 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8. Clarence Nadolny and Mylik Wilson are listed at 6-foot-3, but neither would be mistaken for a typical point guard. The leading assist man on this squad is Kevin McCullar, a ball-handling wing who averages 3.2 assists per game.

How hard is it to win a national championship without a real point guard, or even a ball-handler you trust to create offense off the dribble in late-game situations?

If you’ve followed Heat Check before this season and are familiar with the Making a Champion exercise, you’ll remember that every national champion since 1987 has at least one player that averaged at least 3.1 assists per game. Texas Tech barely passes that bar with McCullar at 3.2.

Even if you think McCullar has enough play-making abilities to create opportunities for offense — or you’re a particularly large fan of the ball-handling skills of Terrance Shannon Jr. — it’s worth noting that the offensive struggles of the Red Raiders extend to shooting the ball as well.

Texas Tech shoots 31.5 percent from 3-point range, a mark that places them at 291st among Division 1 programs. No team since 1986–87 (the first year of the 3-point line) has shot worse than 32.9 percent from distance en route to a national championship. Coupling a lack of above average off-the-dribble shot creation and a lack of perimeter shooting makes it hard to foresee the Red Raiders as a legitimate national title contender.

That doesn’t make Texas Tech a failure. They’ve won the break-up with Chris Beard. Easily. An Elite Eight run would be the cherry-on-top of a great season for a program that now garners consistent support and real expectations for excellence on a yearly basis.

4. My Week 15 HC Poll

The Heat Check poll causes great debate within our show text thread each week. Couple it with Corporate Scotty’s initial bracket release, and there’s a lot to debate this week. Here are my rankings this week:

1. Gonzaga

2. Kentucky

3. Arizona

4. Kansas

5. Baylor

6. Auburn

7. Duke

8. Texas Tech

9. UCLA

10. Villanova

11. Purdue

12. Houston

13. Tennessee

14. Illinois

15. Arkansas

16. Iowa

17. Wisconsin

18. Texas

19. UConn

20. Saint Mary’s

21. Ohio State

22. San Diego State

23. Alabama

24. Murray State

25. Providence

5. My Pac-12 Weekly Awards Ballot

Player of the Week: UCLA guard Jaylen Clark

I would say this week’s Player of the Week ballot was the hardest choice of any week so far this season. Arizona guard Bennedict Mathurin was masterful in a 24-point, seven-rebound, five-assist performance against Oregon on Saturday night. He did all of that without committing a turnover; something he didn’t do in either of the Wildcats win this week. And now, after raving about the performance of the likely All-American, I can say that I voted UCLA guard Jaylen Clark for the honor after his performance’s against the Washington schools.

Maybe it was boredom with handing the award to a different Arizona Wildcat for what felt like every week of the season, but I don’t think that’s the case. What I do believe is that Clark can thank Tyger Campbell — who was suspended due to a violation of team rules — and a scooter (which allegedly injured Johnny Juzang before Saturday’s game against Washington) for providing him the opportunity to play more minutes.

I need more information on this scooter injury. Was it a Bird? Razor? Foot peddle? I’d guess Bird given that we have video evidence of Bengals receivers riding them around the UCLA campus during Super Bowl week.

Enough about scooters. Clark was awesome this weekend. In his two starts, Clark averaged 21.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.5 steals per game. He also did it while shooting above 70.4 percent in the two games.

Freshman of the Week: Colorado guard K.J. Simpson

Simpson scored in double figures in all three Colorado contests this week as the Buffaloes won all three games against Oregon State, California and Stanford. Solid week for the young guard and maybe Colorado is finding a guy who can fill that McKinley Wright role in the future.

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Gabe Swartz

Sports Journalism at Arizona State University | Cronkite 2022 | Staff Writer DevilsDigest.com | President WCSN | Former Editor-in-Chief of BVNWnews