ATB: Northwestern Shocks Baylor, NC State Fends Off UConn, and Why the Jimmy V Classic is About So Much More Than Basketball…Posted by Chris Johnson on December 5th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Jimmy V Classic A Warm Reminder of College Basketball’s Altruistic Impact. Of all the non-conference events peppering college basketball’s November/December calendar, there are few that go above and beyond to create something more than a touristy change-of-pace from the harsh fall climate. The Jimmy V Classic puts every specialized bracket, exempted field and tropical hosting site to shame. It has grown into one of my favorite moments of the season. Not only does it remind us that sports – trivial as they often seem – can help uplift those in dire need of assistance and services. It commemorates the life of one of college basketball’s legendary personalities, Jim Valvano. I make it a point to at least glaze over segments of Valvano’s famous 1993 ESPYs Speech every year, and I wholeheartedly recommend you join me in perusing his inspirational words. Four name-brand programs, including one pegged by many to make a run at the Final Four and another playing its first season without the generational coach who built a program from scratch, took the court Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. The action on the court was the main focus, but Valvano’s impact was not lost, nor will it ever be.
Your Watercooler Moment. You’re Not Dreaming: Baylor Lost To Northwestern… At Home.
There was nothing about Northwestern’s trip to Baylor Tuesday night that sparked even the faintest sliver of hope in a Wildcats’ upset. The Bears were coming off a season-defining win at Kentucky, the first opponent to go into Rupp Arena and down the Wildcats since John Calipari took over in Lexington four years ago. Meanwhile, Northwestern was smarting after a dumbfounding home loss to UIC, which came on the heels of a total demolition at the hands of Maryland. These teams were heading in opposite directions. And that’s without getting into the roster minutiae, but it boils down to this: Baylor is bigger, faster, stronger and more talented than Northwestern could ever hope to be in its current construction. The Wildcats reversed their current misfortune by capturing what might go down as the biggest non-conference win of coach Bill Carmody’s tenure. The fatalistic cries of another NIT-destined campaign had amplified in recent weeks, but beating Baylor on the road could be just what the doctor ordered. Northwestern watched its first big non-conference test (Maryland) fall away without mounting but the slightest challenge to Alex Len and company. Baylor was the next, and remotely unfathomable, hurdle. Now the Wildcats get Butler and Stanford in Evanston before entering Big Ten competition. With almost any other team, the first impulse wouldn’t necessarily involve NCAA Tournament contingencies. With Northwestern, where fans live through a prism of tourney ignominy, it’s the only thing that matters.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- A Positive Step For NC State. Ever since the Wolfpack’s puzzling 20-point loss to Oklahoma State on a neutral floor, fans and media types across the country have slowly begun creeping off the NC State Final Four bandwagon and quietly rescinding their bullish preseason projections. Nearly skating by UNC-Asheville at home didn’t help NC State’s perception. The Wolfpack lost to Michigan in Ann Arbor, but outside of Indiana or Duke – and even those two programs would have an extremely difficult time – is anyone walking into the Crisler Center and getting a win the way John Beilein’s team is playing right now? Any reasonable observer could have seen through the undue criticism, figured that NC State’s seven-point defeat at Michigan was an altogether favorable outcome, and realized that the Wolfpack are indeed starting to figure things out. Tuesday night’s four-point win over UConn in the Jimmy V Classic opener was the latest point of confirmation. Connecticut – undermanned, shaken by transfer and coaching instability – isn’t contending for a Big East title this year, but they’re more than capable of scaring the nation’s best teams on grit and work ethic alone. NC State weathered the storm and got its first resume win in the process.
- Welcome Back Marshawn Powell. On the final phase of a career path that saw Powell evolve from a promising freshman talent to a clearly-regression sophomore to an injury-consumed junior, the Arkansas senior appears to have rediscovered his form. And not a moment too soon: The Razorbacks needed all 33 of Powell’s points to survive Oklahoma and avoid dropping their fourth straight contest. Powell had shown glimpses of his old self – a 21-point effort against Florida A&M; 19 against Syracuse – but Monday night’s spotlight performance proves he’s vying to live out the high expectations foist upon him three seasons ago.
- Throw Another Hat In the MW Contention Ring. It was easy to gloss over Wyoming’s hot start, to critique and dissect their six wins to open the season into a fortuitous blend of cupcake opponents and a well-noted home court advantage. And if you looked at the Pokes home victory over Colorado, weighed the various factors pointing in Wyoming’s favor – a possible look-ahead spot for Colorado before Wednesday’s rivalry bout with Colorado State; that brutal travel and court environment – and brushed it aside as trivial “we’ll see how that holds up” affair, that’s totally understandable. The time has come to give Wyoming and coach Larry Shyatt their due. Wyoming went to Illinois State, a team that was one Tyler Brown non-call away from upsetting (or at least forcing overtime) Louisville, and shot 54 percent from the field, just under 92 percent from the free-throw line, and got a game-high 19 points from Larry Nance Jr., son of inaugural Dunk Contest champion Larry Nance Sr. I’m not ready to throw Wyoming into the league’s vaunted upper echelon (New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State), but the Cowboys (and let’s not forget Boise State, and Colorado State) are a real threat to at least contend, and at best, garner at-large consideration.
- Reason To Worry About Missouri sans Dixon? The way Missouri let Southeast Missouri State hang around for the first 20 minutes and take a 10-point lead heading into halftime, you could have practically pre-transcribed the postgame chatter lamenting the loss of perimeter dynamo Michael Dixon, and how the upset would have been avoided with Dixon on the floor. Said upset didn’t happen. Instead, Phil Pressey (17 points) and Laurence Bowers (26 points, nine rebounds) helped the Tigers avoid what would have been the program’s second bafflingly disastrous defeat (the first coming to Norfolk St. in last year’s NCAA Tournament) in the past nine months. This game didn’t reveal how the Tigers plan to atone for Dixon’s abrupt departure. Those answers will surface over time. The soon-to-be eligible Oregon transfer Jabari Brown, one of Missouri’s numerous foreign imports, should help.
- Michigan’s Ceiling (Or Lack Thereof). This is without question the best team John Beilein has ever coached. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. compose arguably the best backcourt in the country. Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary arrived as advertised. Nick Stauskus is an unqualified match for Beilein’s free-flowing offensive system. All of it is coming together better than anyone could have expected, and we haven’t even reached conference play yet. The Wolverines, who plowed their Western directional state cohabitant Monday, 73-41, are rolling, and it doesn’t feel like they’re going to stop any time soon. I had massive expectations for this uncharacteristically athletic Michigan team heading into the season. Thus far, it’s done nothing but blow away even the most optimistic preseason forecasts.
- The Problem With Texas’ Youth. When it comes to molding immensely talented freshmen into coherent units, John Calipari is in a league of his own. Despite the early travails of this year’s UK team, Coach Cal is well-versed in the quick-fix development process. No one’s questioning his credentials. Calipari’s remarkable ability to craft egos and instill humility and selflessness into his players punctuates the contrast between UK and teams like Texas, whose major contributors are composed almost entirely of freshmen, and who can’t put a unified outfit on the floor. The Longhorns’ early struggles aren’t wholly attributable to Rick Barnes; getting Myck Kabongo eligible would help the process. But if you needed another reminder how impressive Calipari’s system is – the almost instantaneous leveraging of high school talent into wins and championships – the Longhorns are exhibit A. Their Jimmy V matchup with Georgetown Monday wasn’t billed up to be anything resembling competitive – and it really wasn’t.
- Wolters A No-Show. The legend of Nate Wolters hasn’t quite erupted into the national consciousness, but for college hoops junkies, the SDSU guard is subject to an almost-cultish rock hero adulation. Monday’s game at Minnesota offered a prime opportunity for Wolters to grow his following, only an ankle injury kept him sidelined, and it’s probably no surprise to learn that Minnesota – whose lead guard, Andre Hollins, probably deserves a mini-clique of his own by now – took care of SDSU on its home floor. Even if Wolters suited up in Minneapolis, he wouldn’t have had a prayer trying to keep up with Hollins: dude finished 8-of-9 from the floor, including 6-of-7 from three, all tidily stuffed into 23 minutes of playing time.
- Massachusetts “Rivalry” Yields Unexpected Victor. It would’ve been easy to write off Harvard after a landmark academic scandal claimed its two best players and biggest leaders, senior co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry. The Crimson’s at-large hopes are long gone, sure, but the Ivy League crown is well within reach, and the Crimson proved Monday they have enough remaining talent to knock off a high-major opponent on its home floor. That high-major is Boston College, which in many ways devalues the Crimson’s win. Still, it’s a solid win for Tommy Amaker’s team. As for the Eagles, the rebuild Steve Donahue has on his hands is a monumental challenge – Boston College is well behind the curve.
- 27 Turnovers Stagger Arizona. There’s two ways to look at Arizona’s 63-55 win over Southern Miss Tuesday night. You can call it what it is: a 27-turnover abomination the Wildcats had no business winning. The other school of thought deals in positive terms. That Arizona was able to overcome this mistake-riddled performance is a testament to the tremendous talent Sean Miller has assembled in Tuscon. Only one of Arizona’s starters, Nick Johnson, reached double figures. The Wildcats have played some of the best basketball of any team in the country this season, and not every win is going to be an aesthetic masterpiece of two-way dominance. Arizona proved it can win when things go awry, and that’s an awful valuable trait to carry into the teeth of your non-conference schedule (Arizona travels to Clemson on December 8, followed by a home visit from Florida on December 15.)
Dunkdafied. The best dunkers usually don’t reach their aerial acrobatic peak until they transition into the college game. Robert Hubbs of Dyer County High School in Tennessee has long since reached his dunking apex. The dunk is a masterful act in itself. Add in the fact Hubbs broke the DHCS all-time scoring record on the same night, and what you get is one extremely happy high school basketball player. (In case you’re wondering, Cuonzo Martin made sure to keep Hubbs in-state. He committed to Tennessee in September and will join the Volunteers next season).
Tuesday Night’s All Americans.
- Marshawn Powell, Arkansas (NPOY) – The Razorbacks’ win-loss record is a bit deceptive: All three of their losses have come to average-or-better opponents. Powell helped prevent a fourth-straight defeat by contributing 33 points and six rebounds in a win over Oklahoma.
- Andre Hollins, Minnesota – There was no shortage of breakout love for Hollins after what he did down the stretch last season. He’s surpassed expectations thus far this year. Against South Dakota State, Hollins finished with 22 points while going 8-of-9 from the field and 6-of-7 from three.
- Trey Burke, Michigan – At this rate, the Wolverines might not lose before league play. Michigan’s peerless record will depend largely on whether Burke can continue his All-America level point-guard play. He finished with 20 points and seven assists as the Wolverines cruised to a home win over Western Michigan.
- Laurence Bowers, Missouri – The best part about Laurence Bowers’ career-high 26 points and nine rebounds Tuesday was that it came in the most pressing of circumstances. SEMO held a 10-point lead at the half and nearly embarrassed the Tigers at home.
- Reggie Hearn, Northwestern – Senior forward Drew Crawford is a worthy candidate, having scored 19 points in the Wildcats’ stunning win in Waco. Hearn gets the nod for his 17-point, 10-rebound effort, not to mention a steady dose of relentless half-court defense.
Tweet Of The Night. This Faux-Bill Carmody Twitter account provides comic relief for typically-nonplussed Northwestern fans in the winter months. Tuesday night, he had plenty of reasons to celebrate. If you’re on board with @NotBillCarmody’s excessively optimistic claims, not even two of Baylor’s all-time greats can contain Carmody’s flagship offensive system.