After the Buzzer: On Aircraft Carrier Games, Kevin Ollie’s Debut, Top Five Dunks of the Weekend…Posted by Chris Johnson on November 12th, 2012
This Weekend’s Lede. It’s time to put all that preseason chatter on the backburner, and start drawing first impressions, because the 2012-13 season officially got underway Friday night. Unlike the murmuring fizz of an opening that usually christens a new college hoops campaign, we were treated to several high-profile clashes over the weekend. College basketball set out to establish a definitive starting point, and this year (more than any other in recent memory), it succeeded. There are inherent risks to overanalyzing single-game sample sizes, but even after just one weekend’s action, we were able to learn quite a bit about some of the teams headlining the opening weekend.
Your Watercooler Moment. Stick to Dry Environments (or, Why Naval Ship Games Need to Only Take Place in San Diego).
When inclement weather forecasts pushed the Syracuse-San Diego State game from Friday to Sunday, you knew this year’s slate of naval ship games were off to a bad start. That game, which concluded Sunday evening with Syracuse pretty much dominating the hometown Aztecs (62-49) in one of the Orange’s rare non-conference games outside the state of New York, was played under gorgeous 60-degree San Diego skies. The two other scheduled match-ups – Ohio State-Marquette in South Carolina and Georgetown-Florida in Jacksonville – did not proceed as planned, as both games were called off when officials noticed condensation developing on both playing surfaces. The Florida-Georgetown game tipped off and ran into the half with minimal fuss. Up the coastline, though, the slick playing surface aboard the USS Yorktown prompted coaches and players from Ohio State and Marquette to mop the court in the hope that some good old-fashioned clean-up work could diffuse mother nature’s influence on their much-hyped shipside season-opener. As both teams quickly learned, the condensation kept coming back, and officials then made the logical move of calling the game off. Spiritually, emotionally and patriotically, the outdoor aircraft carrier games are an excellent idea. Last season’s Carrier Classic, played before gorgeous vistas and naval troops, and featuring two of the nation’s most respected programs in North Carolina and Michigan State, was a definite win. And there have been few times when a college basketball non-conference game to begin the season has drawn so much national attention. It was a special night. Logistically, though, playing basketball games outdoors in November on the East Coast is fraught with risk, and event organizers learned as much Friday. If the aircraft carrier trend is to continue, the games must be played on the West Coast, where a more favorable late fall climate will increase the chances of staging contests without conflict.
Also Worth Chatting About. Give That Man a Contract (Or, Kevin Ollie Has His Squad Playing Hard).
The long-term status of UConn’s head coaching job remains unresolved for the moment, but we gained some clarity on the issue Friday night. Its leading candidate, former assistant Kevin Ollie, made a resounding statement to open his one-season job trial by knocking off Big Ten contender Michigan State 66-62 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The Huskies lost the core of last season’s underachieving yet talented team, including two first round draft picks (Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond) and two transfers (Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith). Backcourt mainstays Ryan Boatwright and Shabazz Napier carried the torch Friday night against the Spartans, with Napier pouring in 25 points on 8-for-16 shooting and Boatwright adding 13. Highly-touted freshman Omar Calhoun logged 25 minutes but finished with just one point, two rebounds and two assists. The season could not have begun in a better way for Ollie, who faces the massive burden of proving athletic director Warde Manuel he’s the right man for the job, the right personality to succeed the legend that preceded him in Storrs. There were concerns as to whether UConn would lack motivation this season, given their ineligibility for the postseason, but that was hardly the case Friday night. The Huskies played inspired basketball against a top-tier Big Ten foe known for its toughness and grit. If I were to grade Ollie’s job candidacy one game into the season, nothing less than an A+ would suffice.
A Fitting Homage. Taylor’s Silent Night Morphs Into Orange Hush at Illinois. John Groce’s alma mater is Taylor University, site of one of the coolest traditions in college sports, the “Silent Night” game. If you’re not familiar with it, fans sit in complete silence until the 10th point is scored, at which point the arena erupts into cheering mayhem. In an effort to welcome and honor the new coach while also bringing some energy to the Illini program, the Orange Krush student section instituted the “Orange Hush” at Illinois Friday night in the team’s first win over Colgate. Although not as visually engaging as the Taylor version, we’ll give credit to the Illinois students for abiding by their vow of silence until it was time.
A Little Madness on Opening Night. Trevor Lacey Sinks Nate Wolters. Trevor Lacey’s three at the horn Friday night lifted Alabama to a victory over a pesky South Dakota State team led by Nate Wolters.
Your Quick Hits…
- Alex Len Makes Easy Work of Kentucky’s Prized Freshmen. It was unreasonable to expect Nerlens Noel to seamlessly fill in for the unibrow-bearing generational basketball alien that dominated the national spotlight while leading Kentucky to a national championship last season. Noel is not Anthony Davis, and no one with any good sense expected him to blow up in the same way. In Kentucky’s first game of the season Friday at the sparkly new Barclays Center, it was Maryland’s Alex Len, not Noel – and not Willie Cauley-Stein, the Wildcats’ other highly-touted freshman big man – who stole the show. Len flashed a versatile interior game and uncanny athleticism and finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds. That’s the type of performance that sends your NBA Draft stock through the roof. Len burst on the scene last season as a promising but (cliché alert!) raw big man. The Twitter-verse exploded with this common refrain to describe Len’s apparent refined game: “Alex Len made himself some money tonight.” This would have been a transcendent effort in any setting. Against Kentucky, and Noel, widely lauded for his defensive prowess, Len proved he’s not just a promising interior player with an NBA future, but a player with realistic All-America aspirations.
- Jarrod Polson: Who? There is so much fascination about all things Kentucky, about the way John Calipari recruits and coaches the nation’s best high school players, about the way he so deftly manages the fan base’s almost cultish relationship with their basketball team, and so, so much more. When all that flash and pizzazz falls flat, some the brightest moments come from the most unlikely sources. Former walk-on point guard Jarrod Polson – who ok, I admit, has never blipped my personal college hoops radar, until Friday that is – provided relief when Kentucky needed it most. With transfer point guard Ryan Harrow battling the flu, Polson buoyed the Wildcats’ second-half closing effort with 10 points and three assists, including the game-sealing free throws that extended Kentucky’s lead to 72-69. When asked about Polson’s starring effort, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon remarked, “He subbed in at the table and I said, ‘Who’s That.” SI.com’s Luke Winn lifted the lid on Polson’s unlikely tale and his path to Lexington. There is no telling how much of an impact Polson will have going forward. What we do know is that Kentucky’s freshmen are going to need some time to gel, to work out the kinks, and semi-experienced players like Polson can guide that process, even if his on-court duties constitute far less than what we saw Friday night.
- C.J. McCollum Not Enough Against Baylor. Last April, we witnessed one of the gaudiest one-man takedowns in NCAA Tournament history when C.J. McCollum orchestrated #15 Lehigh’s second-round upset of Duke. Though the Mountain Hawks met their match one game later against a veteran Xavier squad, McCollum’s performance was forever enshrined in NCAA Tournament lore. The preseason AP First Team All-American mustered perhaps an even more courageous effort in Lehigh’s season-opener at Baylor Friday night, but no matter how hard McCollum tried to carry his team on his back, the Bears’ cadre of future pros overwhelmed the depleted Mountain Hawks en route to a 99-77 victory. Freshman center Isaiah Austin, a Perry Jones III clone in both stature and playing style, notched 22 points and four rebounds but was sidelined with an ankle injury (not believed to be serious). Austin was nonetheless held out of Sunday night’s game against Jackson State, a 78-47 Baylor victory.
- Bruins’ Prized Freshman Muhammad a No-Go. The national championship hype at UCLA is very real. The Bruins landed arguably the nation’s best recruiting class and bring back a host of capable complementary pieces. Only problem is, the crown jewel of that recruiting class, Shabazz Muhammad, is ineligible, and he missed the Bruins’ first game Friday night against Indiana State (which, incidentally, was also the re-opening of the “new” Pauley Pavilion). The NCAA put out a release Friday night updating Muhammad’s status, merely saying that principles of amateurism had been violated. Few expected Muhammad to suit up from day one, not with numerous reports out of Muhammad’s camp relaying the NCAA’s trouble in disentangling Muhammad’s alleged recruiting improprieties. The hope is that the dynamic swingman can return for conference play, where UCLA will need Muhammad if it is to live up to its massive preseason hype. Without Muhammad, this is an improved team, arguably one of the Pac-12’s best. With him, working alongside playmaker Kyle Anderson, the Bruins are a Final Four contender. They would like to see Muhammad on the court, and we would, too (not to mention Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers).
- Another Michigan State o-2 Start on the Horizon? Two games and two losses. That is how Michigan State began its 2011-12 season, which ended with a share of the Big Ten Championship, a #1 seed, and a run to the Sweet Sixteen. The Spartans find themselves in danger of another 0-2 start, this after Friday night’s loss to UConn and a trip to the Georgia Dome to face #7 Kansas on deck. Two losses typically don’t make or break a season — as Michigan State taught us last season, bad starts do not dictate bad seasons. The Spartans righted the ship and submitted another distinguished campaign, one of many on coach Tom Izzo’s illustrious resume. The competing logic says Michigan State’s two losses to start last season (North Carolina and Duke) came against elite teams, and for all of UConn’s pent-up emotion and us-against-the-world resiliency, the Huskies are not near the same level as last season’s Tobacco Road heavyweights. Michigan State either turned in a poor effort, may have been overlooking UConn before Tuesday’s bigger test against Kansas (though I find it hard to believe one could overlook any basketball game being played in an air base in Germany), or revealed genuine flaws that require fundamental changes and reevaluation. I’m not inclined to attach any significant level of meaning to any one single game, but there’s no question the Spartans disappointed, to say the least.
- The ACC is Wide Open, Just Ask Florida State. The Donald. L Tucker Center was one of last’s season’s most fearsome home venues. It’s where Florida State knocked off #3 North Carolina, #4 Duke and #18 Virginia, and where the Seminoles lost just one conference fixture. The Seminoles’ home digs fell a notch on the fear meter Friday night. With all due respect Florida State, when South Alabama defiles your home court in the first game of the season, your home arena no longer carries the same giant-killing reputation of old. The #25 Seminoles did not stoke confidence in their ACC title aspirations with a performance by losing to a mediocre Sun Belt opponent. Florida State Shooting guard Michael Snaer, by all accounts one of the nation’s best shooting guards, went 2-for-11 from the floor and 0-6 from three for 10 points. This one isn’t all on Snaer, though — Florida State shot just over 41 percent from the field. The Seminoles dropped the ball in a huge way. With the massive uncertainty atop the ACC, Florida State has a golden opportunity to compete for a league crown, and perhaps steal the national spotlight from the Tar Heel State Triumvirate. Performances like this won’t cut it in league play, particularly if the defense — Florida State’s calling card under Leonard Hamilton — doesn’t improve. More likely, this is a minor hiccup for a very capable bunch, a mere footnote on the road to bigger and greater things. That said, there is a certain urgency and excitement that accompanies the season tip-off. Sun Belt foe or otherwise, when you bottom out in such disastrous fashion on opening night, there are legitimate questions to be raised about the Seminoles’ mental toughness. It’s what you spend an entire offseason preparing for.
- Injuries to Key Big East Players. Georgetown’s Otto Porter was removed from his team’s game on Sunday against Duquesne after he was smacked in the eye, while Providence’s Vincent Council came out of the Friars’ contest on Saturday against NJIT after straining his hamstring. While Council’s MRI found no tear in his hammy, he’ll be kept off the court for a while as it heals. This puts Providence head coach Ed Cooley in a rather unusual and precarious spot with only six healthy (and eligible) scholarship players on his roster — in fact, the situation is so dire that Cooley held emergency tryouts on Sunday to try to find someone who played high school basketball and can handle the ball. Um. Wow.
- CJ McCollum, Lehigh. The preseason first-team All-America candidate took his best shot at carrying his team to a road victory over Baylor Friday night, netting 36 points and grabbing eight rebounds in what was surely a frustrating blowout loss to the Bears.
- James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina (NPOY). McAdoo has looked every bit the breakout candidate that many predicted this season, going for an average of 23/13 in two UNC wins over Gardner-Webb and Florida Atlantic over the weekend.
- Alex Len, Maryland. Len’s 23/12/4 blks over Kentucky’s athletic and talented front line showed that those believing that Maryland was still a year away might have underestimated the talent of the 7-foot sophomore in College Park.
- Jarrod Polson, Kentucky. How do you leave off a kid who scored more in a single game (10 points) than he had in his previous two years at Kentucky (seven)? The answer is that you don’t, especially when it was his contributions that enabled the Wildcats to hold off a charging bunch of Terps.
- Ahmad Starks, Oregon State. In two regional games for the 2kSports Classic in Corvallis, the 5’9″ Starks averaged 26/6/3 APG while leading the Beavers to two solid victories over Niagara and New Mexico State.
- Nate Wolters, South Dakota State. Wolters’ highly efficient 30 points on 10-15 FG ended up for naught in the Jackrabbits’ upset bid in Tuscaloosa as Trevor Lacey’s three at the buzzer (shown above) gave a hard-fought victory to Alabama.
- Cory Jefferson, Baylor. Jefferson has been outstanding in two Baylor wins thus far, averaging 20/10 while shooting a hefty 78% from the field — he’s only missed five shots so far this season.
- Laurence Bowers, Missouri. In his first game back after missing all of last season with an injury, Bowers went for a smooth 20/7 on 9-14 shooting while providing the leadership and frontcourt scoring that the Tigers need.
- Pierre Jackson, Baylor. Not to be outdone by his teammate Jefferson, Jackson has averaged 20/10 APG in two games of action, finding ways to both score and distribute the ball to his multiple options on the inside.
- Shabazz Napier, Connecticut. It was the junior Napier who set the tone early for Connecticut on his way to a 25-point night against Michigan State’s hounding perimeter defense Friday night in Germany.
Dunkdafied: Top Five Weekend Dunks. Thank you to Markel Brown, Alex Poythress, Michael Qualls, Jeff Withey and Deandre Daniels for bringing college hoops back… with authority!