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Postgame Reaction: Colorado (and Texas A&M)

After opening conference play with a 74-68 loss to Missouri in Columbia, K-State rebounded by toppling Texas A&M at home, 88-65, and Colorado in Boulder, 87-81.  That puts K-State at 2-1 going into tomorrow night's showdown with Texas in the Octagon of Doom.

On Tuesday, K-State rebounded from last Saturday's disappointment with a ho-hum 23-point win over a Texas A&M team that has to hate everything about trips to the State of Kansas.  The Aggies have never won in Bramlage Coliseum, have lost their last two visits by 20-plus points, and even lost in 2006 with Acie Law.  With the exception of a baffling Big 12 Tournament loss in 2008, Frank Martin utterly owns Mark Turgeon.

Anyway, yesterday brought forth an interesting trip to Boulder to face a Colorado team riding high after beating Baylor at the Coors Events Center on Tuesday.  The Buffaloes were a 1-15 doormat last season in the Big 12, but they have already equaled that win total and look to be much improved with Cory Higgins, Alec Burks and Dwight Thorne.  K-State had to earn everything it got yesterday afternoon, but had too much depth with Colorado in foul trouble and held on for the win.  As Panjandrum put it in the game thread, K-State threw body shot after body shot, knowing that eventually it would knock the Buffaloes out.  OK, so maybe this was more like a win by decision, but it was a victory nonetheless.  With Texas, KU and Missouri picking up road wins this week against bottom-half teams, K-State needed to keep pace, and that's exactly what it did.

Hit the jump for what I liked, what I didn't, what it means, and a special section about Big 12 officiating!!!

What I liked:

Running the offense inside-out.  Colorado doesn't have a lot of quality depth anywhere, but it's especially thin along the front line.  It was obvious throughout this game that Frank Martin had stressed getting the ball to the posts and dribble drives by the guards.  Thanks to an officiating crew that was all too happy to blow its collective whistle, this led to several CU players getting into foul trouble early.  Three players fouled out, and another four picked up four personal fouls each.  We had 33 points from Dominique Sutton, Luis Colon, Curtis Kelly and Jamar Samuels.  I'd like to see that number get closer to 40, but we'll win a lot of games when these guys score 30 or more.

Hitting the glass.  K-State won the rebounding battle in every way imaginable: 44-27 in total boards, 20-eight on the offensive glass, and 24-19 in defensive rebounds.  Against Colorado's undersized front line, that's exactly what you should do.  Winning the battle against Damion James and Dexter Pittman will be another story.

Jake being a leader when needed.  In the middle of the second half, Colorado hit a couple shots and made a couple nice plays on defense to take a two-point lead.  Shortly thereafter, Jacob Pullen hit two threes and a layup in about a two-minute span to restore the lead.  That's exactly what we need from our junior leader.  It's another sign that he's growing into his role, and is comfortable in important situations.

Luis Colon dribbled the ball behind his back and didn't turn it over.  I think that says it all.

What I didn't like:

Inability to finish by the frontcourt: I was surprised to see Curtis Kelly was 3-7 from the field.  While 43 percent from the field isn't awful, even from a post player, Kelly missed at least two easy looks inside, one on an attempted dunk that got blocked, the other a layup he inexplicably short-armed.  In other words, his 11 points could have been 15, easily.  Dominique Sutton also made two terrible moves to the hoop, although one was waived off as the result of an iffy foul call "before" the shot.  Sutton has made a habit the last two games of being a little too cute in his moves to the hoop.  He needs to go strong, welcome the contact, and knock down the free throws.

Never extending the lead.  At several points in both halves, the Cats had a chance to put the game out of reach and extend the lead to 10-15.  In both halves, they allowed CU a few open looks and got sloppy with the ball, which gave the Buffs a chance to get back into the game.  At home in those situations, they might ride the momentum of the crowd to a 10-0 run.  On the road, they need to figure out a way to make those same plays.

The Big 12 Network broadcast.  And no, it's not because Rich Zvosec had the call, although I'm sure Pan will chime in on that.  For CU's sake, the TV folks should really consider turning off the court microphones in an arena that is as quiet as the Coors Events Center.  Being able to hear individual CU students commenting on the game is not why I tune into the broadcasts.  Granted, it was kind of entertaining (my favorite commentary was "WHAT?!?!  THAT'S TERRIBLE!  YOU'RE TERRIBLE!").  And it's not like fans everywhere don't make similar comments, but most arenas are loud enough that individual voices don't get as much attention.

What it means and where we're going:

With three conference games in the book, we're 2-1 and right on the heels of league leaders Texas (3-0) and KU (2-0), both teams we have yet to play.  While the loss at Missouri was frustrating because we held two-possession leads in both halves and couldn't seal the deal, it wasn't like we could count on a win in Columbia.  I'm perfectly happy with 2-1 at this point.

But now the season really begins.  We have some pretty good skins on our wall with Dayton, Washington State, UNLV, Xavier and Alabama.  Despite that, we have yet to beat a truly elite team.

Texas fits that bill.  There's no way around it, folks.  The Longhorns are flat-out good.  I wish I could dig into my thesaurus and give you some better adjectives -- my buddy Matt likes to say nasty -- but my words fail me right now.  I've watched about three of UT's games this season, and Texas plays the best defense I've seen.  They put pressure on the ball-handler, they choke the passing lanes, and they rotate well.  Pittman occupies a couple acres inside, James is Rodman-like in his rebounding, and Avery Bradley can stroke it from deep.  While I'm not sure he could throw the ball through the hoop from a ladder a foot away from the basket, Dogus Balbay is a smothering defender (and was memorialized as Gandalf by Peter Bean in a stunning display of Microsoft Paint, uhh, wizardry).  He will surely be assigned to shadow Jacob Pullen tomorrow night, so Jake had better bring his A-game for the "Beardout."

A loss to Texas tomorrow night wouldn't mean there's nothing left to play for this year.  But it would end any realistic hope we have of winning the regular-season conference title.  Also, if we want to have visions of a deep run into the tournament, we need to be able to beat Texas on our home floor.  The Longhorns had to battle through a draining overtime victory over Texas A&M on Saturday, then travel to Manhattan today, so we should be the fresher team.  We'll see if that matters tomorrow.

Now, as promised, I will (semi) briefly discuss officiating.  It was suggested in the game thread yesterday that I address this issue, so I'll attempt to do that here.  However, to date, I've only had the opportunity to review the film of the Colorado game.  I have the Texas A&M game on DVR and will go through the fouls in that one at some point.  For reasons unknown -- although it's probably just because I'm superstitious -- I do not have the Mizzou game on my DVR.  Sorry.

Anyway, I sat down with a pen and a notebook tonight and decided I would evaluate each foul called against K-State.  The idea was to classify each foul as either a good or bad foul by K-State, and either a good or bad foul as called by the officials.  I realize and fully admit that this was a totally subjective exercise on my part.  Loosely, my criteria were that good fouls by K-State included fouls that prevented an easy basket, fouls committed with a realistic hope of getting a steal or rebound, and anything that was a bad call by the officials (in other words, those that shouldn't have been called a foul in the first place), while bad fouls included silly reaches, obviously going over/through a player for a rebound, fouls committed after getting out of position, and sliding under a player while trying to take a charge.  For the officials, good calls included anything that was obviously a foul, or in other words, what I would want to be called a foul if I was playing the game.  Bad fouls included any incidental or minor contact that had no bearing on the flow of the game.

With that in mind, K-State committed 30 fouls in the game yesterday, not counting Frank Martin's technical, which I'll discuss later.  Of those 30 fouls, I thought nine of them were bad calls by the officials.  Six of those came in the first half, when they called Sutton for chucking a guy on a cut, Samuels on a ridiculous reach, Merriewether on an illegal pick (a particularly terrible call), Merriewether for reaching through a pick, McGruder on a bump after he got pushed, and a soft reach-in call on Pullen.  In the second half, I saw three calls go against K-State that I considered "bad."  They were Colon's blocking foul early, the blocking call on Jake (his fourth personal), and the call on Kelly where CU got a bucket and the foul.

A few thoughts struck me while watching this game.  Taking out the nine calls I considered poor, three offensive fouls, and one silly foul by Kelly a good 80 feet from the basket, here's the breakdown for the call against us: three on rebounding (going over the back), five on the perimeter, and nine inside.  To me, this doesn't say anything remarkable about us or about the officiating.  We like to get out and pressure the perimeter, which can disrupt the other team's offense.  Of course, it also leaves us vulnerable to penetration and backdoor cuts.  It's not surprising, then, that we would have more fouls inside.  It's clear that Martin wants his team to put pressure on the other team, and if they break through it, we'll contest the shot

Now, as for whether the officiating is too tight, I'm not really sure.  We were called for 30 fouls against Colorado, 30 against Texas A&M, and 32 against Missouri.  Our opponents were called for 36, 23 and 24, respectively.  I think this shows more than anything that we made a commitment to get the ball inside against CU and, to a slightly lesser extent, Texas A&M, whereas that commitment was less evident Missouri.  The stats bear that point out.  Against Missouri, we only attempted 31 two-point field goals, while the number was 38 against A&M and 40 against CU.

This isn't really a new phenomenon.  We fouled a lot before conference play started, too.  The Washington State blog, Coug Center, mentioned that at length before we played them.  When you pressure the perimeter, you're going to get called for some fouls out there because someone will get off balance and fall into an opponent, someone will reach through a ball screen trying to make a play, and someone will slap an opponent on the arm going for a steal.  Further, pressuring the perimeter allows an opponent who is good off the drive to penetrate and, if the help doesn't get there in time, that leads to a foul at the hoop as often as not.  And to throw another variable into the equation, you don't play for Frank Martin unless you crash the glass at both ends.  Ideally, that would involve boxing out every time, but sometimes players try to snare a rebound even when they're out of position.  That leads to -- you guessed it -- fouls.

Now, all that ignores the real question, which is "Are the officials calling games too closely?"  Candidly, I think today's officials are in a really bad spot.  One of the recent trends in basketball -- I believe it was started by Southern Illinois, though the Big 10 has perfected the concept -- is to push the limits on defense.  The idea is that if you literally foul on every possession, sometimes numerous times, the officials will swallow their whistles because they don't want to call 100 fouls in a game.  And, lo and behold, these people were right.  Of course, that led to the uneven nature of games, where officials would attempt to "let the players play," but would later be forced to tighten things up to avoid injuries or a brawl.  Now, most teams have adopted this strategy because you can't afford not to be the most aggressive team on the court.

What is the appropriate response to this movement?  One extreme is to tighten the screws, call the game like it was called 30 years ago, and force coaches and players to adjust.  The other is to let everything go, which will eventually lead to basketball players wearing helmets and shoulder pads like Big 10 teams do in practice.  In the middle, you could take things on a game-by-game approach, letting the players know that you won't call every little ticky-tack slap that has no bearing on the game, but at the first sign the game is getting chippy, the players will be reigned back in.  This may lead to some uneven games, but that's the fault of the players, not the officials.

Now, how does this tie into our games thus far?  I've watched all three games, and it never appeared to me that things were getting out of hand.  There was no obvious shit-talking, no extra-curricular pushing and shoving, no excessively hard fouls.  And yet, an average of 58 fouls have been called in our games.  Now, contrast that with the Texas/Texas A&M game last night, where things very nearly did get out of control and the play was rough enough that it's somewhat surprising someone didn't get hurt.  The officials called a total of 46 fouls in that game, which included the overtime period.

Maybe we've picked up a reputation for playing physical defense and crashing the glass, and officials are on edge for our games.  Maybe the Big 12 has told officials it wants physical play reigned in, although the UT/TAMU game last night would belie that theory.  I don't have the answer.  Officiating at that level is an incredibly difficult job because the action is so fast and the play is so physical.  I hesitate to criticize these officials unless it's obvious they make calls to get attention (*cough*cough* EdHightowerJohnHiggins *cough*cough*), or they make really obviously bad calls.

One of those "really obviously bad calls" would include the technical called on Frank Martin on Saturday.  Late in the first half, Rodney McGruder appeared to have position when a Colorado player went over his back for a rebound.  Martin went ballistic at the side official for not making the call, and was rewarded with his second career technical.  In my opinion, this was a case of the official compounding his error.  It was pretty clear he had missed the call on the rebound, so he shouldn't have been surprised that Martin was incensed.  Further, Martin did not do anything to demonstrably show him up.  He stayed within the coaching box (I think), and didn't stick his hands straight up in the air.  Perhaps he made it personal or said a magic word or two.  Point is, I wouldn't know if he had.  But if he didn't, that was a really bad call on the technical.  An official should give a coach some leeway after a bad call.

Anyway, that's more than enough of my rambling thoughts on this issue.  Let's hear what you have to say.