ATB: Majerus Passes Away, Kentucky Drops Second Straight and Cincinnati Wins Defensive Duel At the Buzzer…Posted by Chris Johnson on December 3rd, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
This Weekend’s Lede. Rick Majerus’ Passing Looms Over Action-Packed Weekend. This space is typically reserved for a general overview of the weekend’s on-court action. Common practice won’t suffice this weekend, not after college basketball witnessed the passing of a true coaching legend. Rick Majerus was one of the brightest basketball minds of his generation. Anyone with even the faintest knowledge of recent college hoops history will mourn the loss of not only a sideline legend and master strategist. They will forever long to appreciate the inexplicable character traits, the brusque disposition, the measured charisma, the almost juvenile passion for the game – they’ll seek to understand all of it. In truth, no one will every truly encapsulate Majerus’ legacy, though many brilliant reactions were penned following Saturday night’s news. (Here’s my brief take). The best we can do is pay homage and seek to remember the many ways in which he impacted the sport we love. So as we move to recapping the weekend, take a moment to appreciate the legacy of one of college basketball’s most unique individuals. Know that Majerus, if healthy and able, was not ready to slide away from the sport’s center stage. Majerus was a grand attraction unto himself; his lasting work, cut short by heart problems, will forever be remembered as unfinished business. RIP.
Your Watercooler Moment. An Unforgettable Majerus Moment.
The personal side of Rick Majerus was always a divisive subject. Stories of his abusive and demeaning behavior towards players tarnished his legacy. His grizzled disposition wasn’t for anyone; many players transferred away from his programs. More often, you hear coaches and players talk about how much Majerus loved the game, how many players he helped and how his sideline eccentricities were all part of the Majerus coaching experience – the sometimes inexplicable measures he took to get the most out of his players. Whether you briefly remember this highly emotional press conference following the Billikens’ Round of 32 loss to Michigan State in last year’s NCAA Tournament, or if you’re just seeing it for the first time, let it serve as a poignant snapshot of the emotional grip Majerus forged with his players. He was about so much more than Xs and Os, and Saint Louis senior Brian Conklin hammers that point home with this passionate postgame speech. Conklin teared up not just because his team lost, but because it was his last chance to play for Majerus. Keep some tissues nearby.
Also Worth Chatting About. The End of Kentucky’s Home Win Streak.
The idea that John Calipari could reboot his team for another dominant national championship season always felt like a bit of a stretch. The similarities between this year’s UK team and last year’s transcendent group aren’t all that difficult to make out. The 2012-13 Wildcats are, crazy as it seems, normal freshmen. Last year’s Anthony Davis-led cast were legendary talents that, when assembled, somehow projected greater collective value than the sum of their individual blue-chip credentials suggested. Of course this season’s one-and-doners fly near the top of every recruiting ranking and NBA Draft board projection, just like last year’s team. But this group is not impervious to the typical rigors of college hoops first-year players. They can’t block out brutal road environments – as Notre Dame proved Thursday night. They aren’t talented enough to create offense on the fly. They aren’t selfless enough to accept defined scoring roles this early in the season. And they most certainly are not good enough to overcome a 29.6 percent shooting night, not even at unassailable Rupp Arena. Baylor went into Lexington and stunned the blue and white diehards, a feat unachieved thus far during the Calipari era. That’s a monster-sized win, no doubt. But this was just as much about Kentucky’s shooting woes as it was Baylor’s disciplined defense. This is a bad mark for Kentucky, but it’s not time to sound the alarms in Big Blue Nation just yet. Maybe this won’t be another dream season, but the Wildcats will round into form. It’s just going to take longer this time around – after all, they’re just freshmen.
This Weekend’s Quick Hits…
- To Foul or Not To Foul: Illinois State’s Controversial Loss. I get the feeling Kentucky’s loss would have gone down much easier with UK fans had Louisville lost its hotly-contested tilt with MVC power Illinois State on Saturday. The Redbirds gave Louisville everything they wanted and more, thanks in large part to senior guard Tyler Brown’s 25 points and the Redbirds’ 52.1 percent shooting night. Afterward, Brown found himself at the center of a controversial non-call. With the Redbirds down three points and under three seconds remaining, Brown collected the ball near the top of the halfcourt decal, pump faked Chane Behanan out of his shoes and initiated contact with the freshman forward while releasing his desperation heave, only to watch his shot fall well short of the goal. You can watch the play at the end of this clip. Decide for yourself. For my money, the referee made the right decision to swallow the whistle there – instead of appealing for help from an official, hit the shot. Either way, it’s a tough blow for what could have been a massive non-conference boost for the Redbirds’ dwindling at-large hopes.
- Saint Louis Wins First Game After Majerus’ Passing. Without the emotional baggage hovering over the Saint Louis players, Sunday’s matchup with Valparaiso was a big challenge for a Billikens team coming off a six-point loss to Washington and needing a respectable resume win. Playing with heavy hearts, the Billikens channeled their emotion into arguably their most complete performance they’ve put together all season. Credit coach Jim Crews for preparing his team in such dour circumstances. Saint Louis is an emotionally-charged group right now, and they played like it Sunday. Nice win.
- That’s the Wisconsin We Know. The way Virginia handled Wisconsin at the Kohl Center last week – and the way Florida and Creighton got practically everything they wanted on the offensive end of the floor – it was not outrageous to think this would be the year Bo Ryan’s team finally took a step back. After scoring a 25-point win over California on Sunday, the jury is still out. What’s clear is that Wisconsin is not nearly as bad as their three losses would lead you to believe. Home losses, especially when privy to one of the best home-court advantages in the sport, are concerning, but Sunday’s thrashing looked like a textbook Madison beatdown. Whether the Badgers can compete at the top of this year’s loaded Big Ten remains an open question. Wisconsin’s ability to make the NCAA Tournament is not.
- Is Virginia Tech The Real Deal? So many signs pointed against Virginia Tech contending in the ACC this season. In April, their former coach, Seth Greenberg, was unexpectedly fired. Dorian Finney-Smith, Tech’s most talented player, left the program shortly after. Promising big man Montrezl Harrel re-committed to Louisville. The Hokies were not predicted by many to be a very good basketball team this season, and it was hard to fault the gloom-and-doom forecast. Tech officially passed the “ok they’re only winning because their schedule’s easy” point of the season Saturday in beating Oklahoma State, which came on the heels of an impressive 16-point win over Iowa. It helps when senior Erick Green, who poured in 28 points in the victory to push his season average to 24.9 PPG, is product of one of the nation’s most remarkable junior-senior leaps (Green averaged 15.6 PPG last season). Who knows how far this hot start carries them, or whether they’re a viable force once league play begins, but the Hokies have already exceeded expectations.
- Syracuse in Fayetteville in November. Really. The non-conference scheduling preferences of Jim Boeheim-coached Syracuse teams are no secret. Rare is the Orange team that leaves the state of New York before Big East play. Friday night’s SEC/Big East Challenge matchup at Arkansas mandated Syracuse do exactly that – and by the looks of it, the Orange have this whole non-conference roadtrip thing all under control. Syracuse has left the Empire State twice this season and come away with victories on both occasions. To be fair, the first trip – in San Diego for the aircraft carrier Game – wasn’t a true road game. The Orange get half credit for that one, but Friday’s win at Bud Walton Arena was a notable feat. Also worth mentioning: James Southerland’s 35 points. Syracuse’s travel-averse scheduling priority notwithstanding, the Orange are going to win every game they play if Southerland goes for 35.
- Unexpected Transfer Waiver Could Shape ACC Title Race. If the NCAA was going to grant an undergraduate transfer waiver, the messy Dezmine Wells legal situation, which began with Wells’ alleged (yet later proven unfounded) sexual harassment and eventual expulsion from Xavier, and ended when he found a new home at Maryland after a frenzied public recruitment, seemed to fit the bill. It nonetheless came as something of a surprise when Wells learned he was eligible to play this season. Wells was supposed to make Maryland a very good team, though most predicted the Terrapins were better positioned for an ACC title challenge next season, when a highly-touted recruiting class and Michigan transfer Evan Smotrycz join the ranks. Wells is making it awful hard to refrain a massive upward revision of Maryland’s short-term goals. After Duke, the Terrapins look like the conference’s best team. Much of the burgeoning optimism in College Park surrounds Wells’ recent improvements. In his last two games, wins over Northwestern and George Mason, Wells has scored a combined 48 points on 20-for-28 shooting. Perhaps Maryland’s rise is a present-day phenomenon.
- Legal Troubles Doom Hofstra Against SMU. The arrest of four Hofstra players on burglary charges is a significant injustice to the men’s basketball program and the school’s larger community. It’s also not the first time Hofstra’s men’s basketball team has had to deal with punishable off-court misbehavior. Earlier this year, leading scorer Taran Buie and UConn transfer Jamal Coombs-McDaniel were suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules. Through it all, Hofstra needed to shove aside legal concerns and try to win a basketball game against a Larry Brown-coached team. That’s no easy feat in and of itself – Brown is considered one of the best coaches of all time – but it’s especially daunting when off-court issues dominate the proceedings. Hofstra couldn’t set aside those issues, and was beat down, 73-47, on its home floor. Tough spot for the Pride.
- The Most Enigmatic Team In the Country. When reading that headline, it is not difficult to pinpoint the obvious choice. It’s Florida State. We’re talking about a team with all-conference level talents in shooting guard Michael Snaer and big man Okaro White; a team that plays hard-nosed halfcourt defense almost as a reflex. But after dropping home games to South Alabama and Mercer (the Minnesota loss was mildly surprising, but forgivable. The Gophers look legit), and get held to just 56 points by Mercer, it’s hard to take Florida State seriously as a legitimate upper-echelon ACC squad. Wednesday night’s home date with Florida will go a long way toward revealing the Seminoles’ true identity.
- Aztec Fans Stuff Honda Center for Wooden Classic. The most telling detail of San Diego State’s victory over UCLA Saturday in the Wooden Classic was not that UCLA continues to underperform relative to its immense talent potential, or that Kyle Anderson has not discovered a natural fit in the Bruins’ pecking order. It was the crowd, where, according to The Dagger’s Jeff Eisenberg, “about 70 percent of the 17,204 fans at the Wooden Classic wore red and black.” This UCLA team has a long way to go before it resembles anything close to a credible Pac-12 challenger. That’s not some new revelation – Saturday night was a confirmation of the obvious. The program just endured one of the worst weeks in its history – it started with the abominable home loss to Cal Poly, got worse when both Norman Powell and Josh Smith transferred out, and culminated Saturday when Aztec fans seized control of the event named after UCLA’s most prominent sports legend, an affront to the late Wooden’s transcendent legacy.
- That Was Ugly. In Georgetown’s 37-36 win over Tennessee Friday night, Otto Porter scored eight points. That total, shared by four other players, gave Porter the “game-high scorer” distinction. When games get this ugly offensively, when neither team breaks the 50 percent mark from the free throw stripe, when four total three-point shots are made, there are no winners. If there’s anything redeemable about this defense-dominated showdown, it’s that Georgetown hasn’t lost a game since that overtime thriller in the Legends Classic final. The Hoyas looked like a top-20 team in that nationally-televised contest two weeks ago and they’ve done nothing to shake that perception. Even when the game degenerates into a muddled scrap fight, the Hoyas are proving they can beat quality teams.
- The Official Termination of Drexel’s At-Large Hopes. So much for Drexel not needing the Colonial Tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament. At this point, I’m not convinced the Dragons can post an over-.500 record in league play. After losing to Rider at home Saturday, Drexel dropped to 2-5 on the year. Save for a December 22 home spot with Davidson, the Dragons have exhausted all their good non-conference opportunities. Not that Drexel would take advantage of such opportunity in its present state – the Dragons don’t look nearly as capable as the team that rolled through CAA play last season. All Drexel can do now is bide its time until March, when the perils of the league tourney will determine its fate.
At the Buzzer. Not only did Cincinnati score yet another impressive non-conference win and further cement its case as a very real threat to contend at the top levels of Big East competition, it did so thanks to Cashmere Wright’s buzzer-beating heroics. Wright’s game-winner was the perfect sendoff for a game dominated by relentless defense.
Trickshot of the Weekend. Amidst all the pressure of winning games and meeting expectations and training every waking hour of every day, college basketball players find time to enjoy themselves with moments of trickery. I wouldn’t advise North Carolina’s JP Tokoto to try this in a game, but no amount of defense or pressure amounts to the difficulty level of this incredible no-look heave.
This Weekend’s All Americans.
- James Southerland, Syracuse (NPOY) – Unprecedented November ventures into enemy territory require scoring spurts from unexpected sources. Southerland obliged with 35 points in Syracuse’s win at Arkansas.
- Kadeem Batts, Providence – As the Friars chug along with just six scholarship players, Batts’ 32-point night in a 10-point win over Mississippi State provided a stroke of positivity.
- Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State – The Aztecs’ made a statement Saturday in beating UCLA on a neutral floor at a Wooden-themed event. Franklin lead the way with 28 points and seven rebounds.
- Brock Motum, Washington State – The best scorer you’ve never heard of, Motum, helped his team to a 12-point win over Portland by contributing 29 points and seven rebounds.
- Allen Crabbe, Cal – Despite Crabbe’s 25 points and seven rebounds, the Bears were beaten down at the Kohl Center, 81-56.
- Carl Hall, Wichita State – How many mid-major teams are better than Wichita State right now? Not many. Hall had 21 points and 10 rebounds in a three-point win at Air Force.
- Mason Plumlee, Duke – His NPOY of the year credentials are in no need of further analysis. Plumlee’s 18 point, 11-rebound outing against Delaware is routine output for the Blue Devils’ big man.
- Semaj Christon, Xavier – There’s one thing you know about A-10 basketball: it’s never wise to count out Xavier, no matter how drastic its roster turnover. Christon poured in 25 points as the Musketeers won at Purdue.
- Terone Johnson, Purdue – Christon’s team had the upper hand, but that doesn’t detract from Johnson’s double-double of 19 points and 10 rebounds.
- Anthony Collins, South Florida – With a match-up at Oklahoma State looming, Collins lead the Bulls to an 11-point win over Georgia with 17 points and 10 assists.
Tweet of the Weekend. The outpouring of emotion following news of Majerus’ death was remarkable. Personal experiences from longtime friends and colleagues were revealed in columns and tweets from national college hoops writers of seemingly every major media outlet. ESPN analyst and former coach Fran Fraschilla’s anecdote was just one of many stories floating around the web.