ATB: New Mexico Opens Eyes, UCLA Arrives and Diamond Head Classic Produces Dramatic Finish…

Posted by Chris Johnson on December 28th, 2012

ATB

* Editor’s Note: Due to a light schedule over the past week, this edition of the ATB covers all games played from Monday through Friday.

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The Week’s Lede. Wrapping Up Holiday Week.  When college basketball thins out over the Christmas Holiday, so too does the ATB. This version will cover an entire week of games, meager and diffuse though they were. If you took a break from the sport this week, there’s not a whole lot you missed out on, outside a few appealing contests towards the end of the week, and a sneaky good tournament in Hawaii which featured one of the best game-saving plays all season and which, in essence, amounted to a total scheduling coup. (note to Feast Week event organizers: push your tournaments into December, if only to make this dry lull a little more palatable). That doesn’t sum up everything that went down. Just last night, we saw an undefeated top 10 team lose in its own building, and there’s plenty on tap for the weekend ahead. Consider this a refresher to prep you for the last weekend of significant non-conference action. Which reminds me: conference play is finally upon us! That means really, really good things. Now, let’s have our look back at this here week of Holiday Hoops.

Your Watercooler Moment. Diamond Head Classic Produces A Gem Of Non-Conference Action.

When 2012-13 is all said and done, the Diamond Head Classic will be mostly remembered for one thing: Arizona guard Nick Johnson’s acrobatic swat to deny San Diego State’s Chase Tapley in the final seconds and clinch the championship trophy. It was arguably the best individual defensive play we’ve seen all season, and if it wasn’t the best, then certainly the most important. In beating San Diego State, Arizona not only solidified its status as the best team on the West Coast, but it beat a deep, athletic, well-coached, disciplined SDSU team on a neutral floor, which is a notable feat on its own, but even more impressive when you stack it on top of the 19-point bludgeoning the Wildcats put on Miami in the semifinals. That was a humbling blow for the Hurricanes, a team that many were touting as the second best in the ACC after that nice 22-point road win at UCF. Worse was the two-point loss to Indiana State that followed; not to take anything away from Jake Odum and the Sycamores, but if you’re the second best team in the ACC, you don’t lose that game. And it should be noted: ISU had a very nice time out on the islands. Scraping out overtime wins against Ole Miss and Miami is the type of thing that spawns serious reevaluation of an already top-heavy MVC. All in all, the field didn’t disappoint, churned out a few surprising results and staged maybe the most thrilling, high-stakes, down-to-the-wire fixture of the season outside of Butler-Indiana and UCLA-Missouri.

Also Worth Chatting About. Lobos Bounce Back.

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New Mexico’s Win at Cincy, Led by Alex Kirk, Was an Important One

Beyond the outward toughness and hard-nosed defense and equalized intensity across its roster, it was hard to draw too much from New Mexico’s early-season track record. Home wins over Dayton, USC and Valparaiso; neutral court wins over George Mason and UConn; the timeless strain of a road trip to rival New Mexico State – that is a nice selection of good but not great teams. It is not the work of a top-10-caliber club. The Lobos traveled to No. 8 Cincinnati Thursday night with perception-altering intentions on their minds. And boy, did they alter some perceptions. New Mexico took the physical brand of basketball Cincinnati hangs its hat on and threw it right back at Mick Cronin’s team. Kendall Williams and Tony Snell went right at Jaquon Parker, Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick in the backcourt (while providing stingy defense for much of the night), and Lobos seven-footer Alex Kirk played his best game of the season, to the extreme chagrin of Cincinnati’s undercooked frontcourt. In the end, this game – like so many others – came down to shot-making: The Bearcats converted just 31.3 percent from the field, and didn’t really make up for it at the free throw line (3-of-4). It was a wakeup call for the Bearcats in that their patented formula – crash the glass, grind opponents with physical defense and an intimidating backcourt – is not totally unassailable. In fact, no game plan functions quite right when you shoot as poorly as Cincinnati did Thursday night.

Your Quick Hits…

  • UCLA Comes Together. In the preseason when UCLA was being thrown around as a legitimate national championship contender, beating Missouri would not have seemed nearly as important as it does now. But because the Bruins have had so much trouble living up to those massive expectations, and because Ben Howland’s No. 1 recruiting class is still sorting things out on both ends of the floor, and because this team has overcome the lowest of lows — losing to Cal Poly, along with the departures of two players — there is no understating what a win like this can do for UCLA’s on and off-court chemistry and confidence as it turns to the Pac-12 portion of its schedule. Depending on your source, the Bruins were a 3.5-point favorite against Missouri. That is not an accurate snapshot of the overall perceptions of these teams. UCLA had taken its lumps in every non-conference game of note, weathered internal and external obstacles (fan apathy, for one), embarrassed itself against San Diego State at a John Wooden-themed event in Anaheim in a putative battle for the state of California, all the while shoving off rumors of Ben Howland’s endangered job status. Missouri, meanwhile, has looked like the best team in the SEC. Don’t let Vegas fool you; this was an upset — an important one.
  • Gonzaga Is Good. Now We Have Proof. It would be easy for me to ramble on about how Gonzaga needed a big win over an upper-level high-major opponent to anchor its non-conference docket, or how the Zags triggered all kinds of uncertainty and doubts after losing at home to Illinois. I’m not going to do either of those things, because Gonzaga is posting top 25 figures in both offensive and defensive efficiency and has backed up its gaudy statistical profile on the court all season long. This is a very good basketball team. All Friday night’s 94-87 win over Baylor did was cement that self-evident truth in everyone’s mind. It also showed that when Kevin Pangos goes 7-of-10 from downtown, and Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris get in on the act with a combined 38 points and 11 rebounds, you’re going to have a tough time keeping up with Mark Few’s team. Up next for Gonzaga: a trip to Oklahoma State for an excellent New Year’s Eve treat.
  • Mitchell Returns For St. Louis. Any early-season assessment of St. Louis’ place among a pack of quality outfits in the A-10 almost always ended the same way: let’s reserve judgment until Kwamain Mitchell returns from injury. The senior guard made his 2012-13 debut Friday night, and not a moment too soon. The Billikens didn’t need Mitchell to take care of SIU-Edwardsville at home. What they will need him for is an upcoming visit from road-tough New Mexico, who will travel to Chaifetz Arena on New Year’s Eve hoping to pick up another road win in a foreign environment against a hard-nosed defensive team. Mitchell will help the Billikens try to avoid Cincinnati’s unfortunate Thursday night fate.
  • Indiana Sharp Before Big Ten Play. You can’t fault Indiana fans for having nerves about a New Year’s date at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa is playing some really efficient per-possession defense, gobbles up its own misses at a top 25 rate, boasts enough interior length to harass Cody Zeller and Christian Watford, and can be a massive challenge in its home gym. The good news is that the Hoosiers looks as locked-in as they have all season. In thrashing Jacksonville at home Friday night, Indiana pushed its baseline margin of victory over the last three games to 34 points. The counterpoint to that string of dominance is that Big Ten competition inevitably will force the Hoosiers to play close games, the likes of which Iowa is capable of forcing as early as Monday night. The counter to the counter is that Indiana has already played (and lost) a close game, and thus should be ready for the demands of pressure situations. And now we’re just running into all sorts of rhetorical pretzels and logical conundrums. Indiana is ready for conference play; let’s leave it there.

And Miss…

  • New Additions Not Jelling In Providence. The mid-December entry of Kris Dunn and Sidiki Johnson into the Friars’ rotation was supposed to give Ed Cooley a closer version of his team at full strength. Ricky Ledo’s partial qualifier status meant Providence wouldn’t unleash the full depths of its newfound talent this season, but Dunn and Johnson, playing alongside junior forward Kadeem Batts, sophomore swingman LaDontae Henton and a now-healthy Vincent Council (junior guard Bryce Cotton was unavailable due to a knee injury), made for an offensively potent dynamic. The Friars have now dropped consecutive games against Boston College and Brown. The first loss isn’t all that bad – the Eagles, even in their current morass, have a solid low-post presence in 6’8’’ forward Ryan Anderson. Getting tripped up at Brown, with a match-up against No. 4 Louisville looming after the New Year? Now that’s going to raise some eyebrows.

Homecourt Clinic Of The Week. Most kids welcome Christmas break as a time to go home, enjoy the comfort of their own beds, spend quality time with family members, and eat unseen amounts of sugary holiday delicacies. Michigan freshman Nik Stauskas is not most kids. The sharp-shooting guard took it upon himself to show everyone just how lethal his 55.7 percent long-range stroke can be in a 50-shot sample, with no defenders in sight, and in what looks like an awesome home court setup (with a special nod to whatever landscaper was put to the task of bordering the area). Shame on him for missing one-tenth of his shots.

The Week’s All-Americans.        

  • Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga (NPOY) – For Baylor to realistically have designs on knocking off Gonzaga at the Kennel, Pierre Jackson needed to outduel Pangos in a crucial point guard match-up. Seven three-pointers and 31 points later, and I think we know who came out on top here (to his credit, Jackson did play a very nice game, highlighted by 26 points).
  • Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA – Finally, he has arrived: the Shabazz Muhammad we’ve all been waiting for, the surefire lottery pick with the power to lead UCLA back to familiar Final Four territory on sheer talent alone, the one player who could end the Bruins’ early-season rut. Muhammad had 27 points in a huge win over Missouri Friday night.
  • Brandon Davies, BYU – The Cougars are not challenging Gonzaga (or Saint Mary’s, for that matter) in the WCC. Don’t let that shroud the tremendous low post work of Davies, who finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds in a win over Northern Arizona.
  • Phil Pressey, Missouri – So. So. Close. Pressey needed just one more point and one more assist to lock up an almost unheard-of 20/20 point-assist stat line. Even in a losing effort, Pressey deserves a mention here.
  • Jordan Hulls, Indiana – Shoot 6-for-9 from behind the three-point line (and finish with 20 points in the process), and I don’t care if you’re name is Jordan Hulls and your long-range marksmanship is a basic tenet of college hoops life in 2012-13. This week’s All-American you are.

Tweet Of The Week. The final result wasn’t ideal, but San Diego State left the Diamond Head Classic with new levels of national respect – that’s what tends to happen when most of the college hoops viewing public is focused on one game and one game only. The Aztecs are longer and deeper than ever before, and with Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin anchoring the offense, they have more than enough star power to win the MW and roll deep into March.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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