Stanford entered its two biggest games of its season with nagging questions and the need for an on-court leader. Against Kansas, news that Josh Childress would be out until January was still fresh and had to bother players and fans as they headed into a showdown with the number one team in the country. Against Gonzaga, Stanford players had to be wary after coming off a lackluster effort over Florida International. In both cases an on-court leader was needed to answer some of the questions that were facing this Cardinal squad, and in both cases the same man answered the bell. In my season preview I talked about Matt Lottich emerging as a potential leader for this club, and so far he has not disappointed. In the two games against Gonzaga and Kansas, Lottich has demonstrated the qualities that make a player a leader on the court. First, Lottich is emotional, passionate, and hard-working. He is the type of player who will get fired up when the situation calls for it and is also not afraid to lead the team by example. Seeing a senior, and one of the best players on the team, dive to the ground for loose balls, hustle on defense, and practice hard every day, is what makes other players view another as their leader. Lottich does all of these things for his teammates and has emerged as the true on-court leader (think this year's edition of Julius Barnes).
Second, and just as important, Matt Lottich is absolutely CLUTCH. I have heard fans casually refer to Lottich as the poor man's Casey Jacobsen (a man with range who likes to shoot, but simply does not have the stroke and stats to match), and this simply makes me laugh. Lottich will never have the numbers to match Jacobsen, and many fans will remember him as the man who replaced the current Phoenix Suns guard, but this is unfair. Lottich has really come into his own during this young season. As mentioned, in these two big games, Stanford has needed a person to lead the offense and hit big shots, and Matt Lottich has been more than willing. The early season will be highlighted by these two victories over Kansas and Gonzaga, and Matt Lottich was the player of the game for both. He led the team in scoring in both, but more importantly he was clutch down the stretch and was merciless with his accurate outside shooting. Lottich will never get the same incredible publicity that followed Jacobsen, and he will most likely not be a first round pick in the NBA, but his last season at Stanford should go much better than Jacobsen's. Jacobsen always filled up the stat sheet (something that the inconsistent Lottich sometimes fails to do) and was the unquestioned go-to guy (Lottich will fall in behind Josh Childress after his return), but Lottich, in my opinion, is the more clutch of the two.
Being clutch requires three things: wanting the ball in crunch time, getting the ball in crunch time, and making shots in crunch time. Jacobsen was good at all of these things, but rarely did he possess all three at the same time. Early in his career at Stanford it appeared that Jacobsen was all too willing to let the more senior members of his team (the Collins twins, Ryan Mendez, Mike McDonald, etc…) take the big shots. During his final season at Stanford he clearly wanted the ball, but because of his large stature and the focus teams put on him down the stretch, he often was a decoy or someone who Stanford could not get the ball to despite wanting to (think of the game against Oregon when Tony Gioviccini hit the three to force overtime). Lastly, Stanford did get the ball to Jacobsen down the stretch of some games, but while he did deliver in many cases, he often failed to deliver the biggest baskets or take over games late when stars are supposed to shine their brightest. None of this is meant to condemn Jacobsen who will go down as one of the all-time greats at Stanford, but it is instead meant to point out that he might receive too much credit for being clutch. Lottich, however, has not disappointed. He is easier to analyze because he hasn't had as many chances to be clutch. In his limited attempts (again, really only the Kansas and Gonzaga games) Lottich has been flawless in this regard. He has wanted the ball, made it a point to get the ball, and has knocked down every big shot he has taken this season. Maybe things will change as the season goes on, but at this point of the young season, Lottich is one of the best big money shooters I have seen go through Stanford, and for my money, has been better during this young season as a clutch performer than Jacobsen was in his final year.
Stanford should be 11-0 when they head down to Arizona State and Arizona in early January. With home games against Southern Utah, Harvard, and the Washingtons all that remain before that trip, Stanford in all likelihood will be undefeated. I am hesitant to make it fact because we all remember Montana and Richmond from last season, but Stanford will be heavily favored in all four games and will remember the setbacks they suffered because they were overconfident and unprepared last season. If Stanford is 11-0 maybe then they will get the respect they deserve from the national media. Don't get me wrong, I don't think Stanford is the best team in the country (I refuse to rank them number 1 in my rankings that are below), but I do think they are still underappreciated. Stanford can't be the best team yet - they have some flaws that opponents have not yet capitalized on and have been getting by largely on defense and intensity - but to be ranked below Kansas (who they beat), Arizona (who is erratic), and Connecticut (who has played no one) is absurd. Regardless, the Stanford-Arizona game should provide Stanford's third game against a top 15 team on a road or neutral court and should be a game that could really put Stanford on the map if they can pull of the victory.
The Pac-10 will not be rewarded for its non-conference performance when the tournament selection committee gets to work in March. The conference RPI will be abysmal because of numerous "bad" losses by middle of the road Pac 10 teams like Cal, USC, and UCLA and cupcake schedules by teams like Arizona State and Oregon. I really have a hard time seeing the committee giving the Pac-10 more than five berths into the tournament, and I would not be surprised at all by only four. Think about it, only Arizona and Stanford have done anything in the non-conference schedule to show that they are legitimate. Because the conference RPI will be so low, and because Pac-10 teams have faired so poorly, conference play will present less chances for teams to pick up "quality" wins. Aside from Arizona and Stanford, I can't see any Pac-10 team make the dance without at least 12 conference wins. I think Arizona State, Cal, and Oregon could win 12 games, but I highly doubt all three will do so. With teams like USC and UCLA expected to be competitive in conference play, the likelihood that five teams will win 12 games in conference is very low. Rather, it looks like the Pac-10 will have Arizona and Stanford on top, and then 5 teams winning between 8-13 games in conference. Simply put, I would be shocked to see a team like Oregon, ASU, or Cal go 10-8 in conference and make the tournament. Therefore, I really can't see many scenarios (outside of a surprise conference tournament winner) where the Pac-10 qualifies more than four teams. Five is a possibility, but I wouldn't bet on it.
And now for the second edition of my Top 20. Once again, these rankings are based on my observations from watching college basketball all week. I can't get all the games, so I know a lot about some teams and little about others, but I research all of these teams vigorously and am prepared to defend all of my rankings. Beating good teams counts for a lot in my rankings, winning on neutral courts and on the road is also key. Beating patsies will earn you nothing, especially if you do it on your home floor. Plus, how teams are actually playing (what they look like in their games, their confidence, and their cohesion) is very important to these rankings. With all that said, Stanford will not be number 1. They meet all of the qualifications, but I think they have some flaws that prevent them from claiming the top spot at this point. Plus, my number 1 from last week had a good week, and in this poll, you only lose the top spot by losing or by playing poorly. So, to the rankings…
1 - Georgia Tech (10-0, Previous Rank: 1) - Looked very solid in two wins this week. GT has been the biggest surprise of the early season and will continue to be ranked in the top spot as long as their offense and defense both play at such a high level.
2 - Stanford (7-0, PR: 2) - Huge win over Gonzaga. This team is playing great defense and against Gonzaga dove for all the loose balls and did all of the little things that are required to win games against good things. However, this team is still rattled by ball pressure and sometimes lacks effort against lesser teams.
3 - Kentucky (6-0, PR: 6) - Big jump in the rankings is because of the absolute walloping they delivered to Indiana on the road. This team looks like the real deal. Strong interior defense and rebounding and a high-powered offense will make them a tough out in the tourney.
4 - Oklahoma (8-0, PR: 4) - This team keeps on rolling. A big victory this week over Jackson St. keeps their early season momentum alive.
5 - Duke (8-1, PR: 11) - Maybe I was wrong to rank them so low last week. Absolutely dismantled a very good Texas team. Duke is playing on a different level right now and that has to be scary for other teams. They still can't move higher than the above unbeaten teams because the loss to Purdue was ugly, but this is a team that will continue to rise.
6 - Wake Forest (7-0, PR: 12) - Won a thriller over North Carolina that proved that this team is one to be reckoned with. The Demon Deacons will score points on any team in the nation and that makes the ACC even deeper.
7 - St Joseph's (8-0, PR: 7) - Good win over Cal in what essentially amounted to a road game. Cal is not currently a high quality opponent, but St. Joe's got the quality win over a power conference team that they needed to enhance their win over Gonzaga.
8 - Arizona (5-1, PR: 3) - Arizona looked very bad in a 6-point win over St. Mary's (think Stanford vs. Montana last year). This team is very up and down and might not be the favorite in the Pac-10.
9 - Connecticut (8-1, PR: 14) - Beat Iona by 50 points, but once again this team has beaten no one of note. Still, this team is playing very well right now, and I have the suspicion that if they scheduled teams in the top 10 they would be beating quite a few of them at this point.
10 - Gonzaga (7-2, PR: 8) - Won't be penalized too much for losing to Stanford. They played tough, and like past Gonzaga teams they refuse to go down quietly. They also have several quality wins from early on and should cruise to another WCC title.
11 - North Carolina (6-1, PR: 9) - Again, it is tough to penalize a team for a five point loss to the 6th team in these rankings in triple overtime. North Carolina competed hard in the game against Wake Forest and should bounce back nicely from the loss.
12 - Wisconsin (7-1, PR: 19) - Win over Marquette is reason for the big jump. This is a physical team that is not afraid to slow tempo and grind out ball games. They controlled a good Marquette team and should prosper in Big 10 play.
13 - Louisville (5-1, PR: 13) - Had a boring week with a lackluster 17-point victory against Austin Peay. However, in a week when a number of other teams fell, no one else deserves this spot.
14 - Purdue (8-2, PR: 5) - I loved this team last week because of win over Duke and close loss to Oklahoma. However, the loss to SMU was unacceptable. Like fellow Big 10 teams Michigan State, Michigan, and Wisconsin, they are inconsistent, and that should make the Big 10 a fun conference to watch this year.
15 - Florida (6-2, PR: 15) - Bounced back from their ugly week last week. However, a 13-point victory over West Virginia is no cause to move a team up, and thus they stay in their current spot.
16 - Kansas (6-2, PR: 10) - Got crushed, and looked very bad in the process against Nevada. They trailed by 20 at the half and were outsmarted, outhustled, and outplayed in all facets of the game. Makes that Stanford win look a little less impressive.
17 - Cincinnati (6-0, PR: 20) - These guys still haven't played anyone, but you can't deny a team who hasn't won by less than 19, and posted wins of 23 and 35 points this week.
18 - Pittsburgh (10-0, PR: Not Ranked) - Another team that is lacking a marquee win, but Pitt has been consistently good this season. This isn't a team that will dominate the top teams, but they play consistent defense and make enough shots to win games.
19 - Maryland (7-2, PR: 18) - I simply don't understand the Terps. They are one of the most unpredictable teams in the nation and it is hard to know if the team that lost to West Virginia or defeated Florida will show up to play.
20 - Missouri (4-1, PR: 17) - I hate to admit it, but they stay in the rankings mostly on reputation. They still have no big wins, and they only beat UNC Greensborough by eight points. Still, I think this team is better than they are playing and they simply have too much talent to drop further. That, and I don't think anyone else deserves a spot in these rankings.
Dropped from Consideration…
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