ATB: Bluegrass Battle Produces Drama, UNC Steps Up Against UNLV, and One Excellent Day For Kevin Ollie….Posted by Chris Johnson on December 31st, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The Weekend’s Lede. Commonwealth Rivalry Lives Up. It doesn’t get any bigger than Louisville-Kentucky. There are little rivalries that make for great shows of organic competitiveness and bitterness, but they have nothing on what took place Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center. Each year, no matter the disparities in talent or experience, these teams come to play in this rivalry game. The emotional baggage makes the Commonwealth clash an event in itself. When you get two Top 25 sides trading jabs, two coaches with well-established personal gripes – one of whom has navigated the delicate balance of a blue-to-red partisan conversion – there’s added drama to throw on top of the natural hatred. One side (Louisville) entered with more talent, experience and depth, but as is the case in most rivalry games, the final outcome was decided based on who could execute better in crunch time (and who could convert from the free throw line). Whatever your allegiance, or if your viewing interest was of the impartial variety, it’s hard to begrudge the sheer quality and entertainment factor of Saturday’s contest. Louisville-Kentucky was the massive event overshadowing the rest of the weekend, but there were a few other interesting games on tap. Time to wrap up the final weekend of non-conference play.
Your Watercooler Moment. Harrow Doesn’t Break Under Pressure.
The biggest question mark looming over Kentucky’s slow start was the comfort and progression of point guard Ryan Harrow. No one ever said he was going to be Derrick Rose, or even Marquis Teague – the Calipari point guard dynasty is a tough standard to maintain – Harrow simply needs to operate at a level that allows the Wildcats to maximize the talents of Kyle Wiltjer, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin on the perimeter, and enable Nerlens Noel to capitalize on easy lobs and putbacks. Even that seemed like a pipe dream for Harrow following a mysterious four-game absence in November. He’s made huge strides over the past three weeks, and had his best game (23 points on 10-of-17 shooting) just over a week ago in an 82-54 win over Marshall. That was a small step. In Louisville, Harrow was walking into one of the best defensive backcourts statistically-speaking in NCAA history (its 80.0 adjusted defensive efficiency entering Saturday’s game ranks among the best marks in Ken Pomeroy’s database, dating back to 2003), and few believed he was ready to handle the type of pressure Russ Smith and Peyton Siva were going to throw at him. Harrow jumped into the biggest spotlight of his career and performed like a point guard of Calipari’s recent vintage. Not only did Harrow score 17 points and help spearhead a furious second-half rally, but he committed zero turnovers, found ways to ward off the active hands and smothering pressure of Siva and Smith, and commanded Kentucky’s offense with aplomb. The scoreboard reflects a Kentucky loss, a short-term disappointment. In the long term, if Harrow’s performance is a barometer for his development and maturation in Calipari’s system, Saturday was a huge win. With a capable point guard puppeteering the offense, the future is bright for Kentucky.
Also Worth Chatting About. Don’t Count Out UNC Yet.
If any team needed a statement win heading into conference play, it was North Carolina. Besides a puzzling loss at Texas (and even that, given the Longhorns’ defensive chops, is not a fatal misstep) The Tar Heels hadn’t exactly dropped the ball in non-conference play – they lost to two very good teams from the state of Indiana, one an offensive juggernaut (IU) and one a vaunted perfectionist (Butler) in the art of sizing up and beating down more talented opponents – but they hadn’t exactly looked like the ACC front-runner many expected them to be. The visiting UNLV Rebels offered a prime opportunity to hold court against a top-20-level outfit, and build some serious momentum for ACC play in the process. UNC’s stifling defense and balanced scoring overwhelmed the Rebels, who suffered a brutal five-minute field goal-less streak in the second half and received an uncharacteristically inefficient showing from freshman wunderkind Anthony Bennett (15 points on 6-of-16 shooting). Neither team was at full strength – Mike Moser played just 12 minutes in his return from an elbow injury, and Reggie Bullock was scratched with a concussion – but UNC seized its last big chance to make a splash before ACC play. And with a brutal six-game stretch featuring games against Virginia, Miami, Florida State, Maryland and NC State up next, the Tar Heels needed a momentum boost in the biggest way. The proud fans in Chapel Hill can breathe, for now, and feel better about this season not mimicking a 2009-10 campaign that saw the Tar Heels follow up the Hansborough-Lawson-Green-Ellington supergroup with an NIT appearance.
Your Quick Hits….
- Santa Clara Tests Duke. It is a fundamental truism of the 2012-13 college hoops season that Gonzaga will win the West Coast Conference. In fact, I’m willing to go ahead and bet the Zags will have created enough distance from other challengers by February 1 to have rendered the word “race” completely and utterly moot. The rest of the league is far less certain. St. Mary’s is the logical favorite to claim the No. 2 spot. Loyola Marymount is always a tough out. And you can never discount BYU and the daunting road trip that is Provo, Utah. Time to insert a new name in the conversation: Santa Clara. The Broncos went into Cameron Indoor Saturday night and put a scare into the No. 1 Blue Devils, their upset bid powered by 29 points from senior guard Kevin Foster. That’s the kind of confidence-building performance that pays dividends in conference play, when you can rest assured Santa Clara will ride into any road environment exuding confidence and poise.
- Ollie Gets First Win With New Job Title. Hours before Cincinnati’s Saturday night tipoff with visiting Washington, ESPN’s Andy Katz reported UConn had signed Kevin Ollie to a five-year contract extension, thus eliminating the interim tag and granting the long-term security most believed Ollie had earned after leading the Huskies to a 9-2 start and creating a smooth transitory bridge from Jim Calhoun’s fiery coaching style to a new era of UConn basketball. Losing your first game after receiving a big financial commitment from AD Warde Manuel would have been a bad look. The Huskies’ talented backcourt trio of Shabazz Napier, Omar Calhoun and Ryan Boatwright ensured their new coach had a win to back up his new job title, with each posting double-figure scoring totals in an eight-point victory over Washington. UConn may not have postseason motivations on its side, but what it does have, thanks to Saturday’s extension, is a huge incentive to help lay the foundation for Ollie’s tenure and a return to national relevance.
- Illini Get Exposed Inside. One participant in last week’s Braggin’ Rights rivalry game, Missouri, lost its next time out in a tough road spot at UCLA. So it would have come as no surprise if Illinois followed suit against Auburn… Wait, no. Illinois losing to Auburn would have been a huge shock! The Tigers, let’s remember, have dropped games to Rhode Island, DePaul, Dayton and Winthrop this season. Meanwhile, the Illini – despite the Braggin’ Rights loss – are off to a blazing start thanks to the culture change ushered in by new coach John Groce, who has instilled a previously underachieving team with new levels of confidence and offensive ability not to mention unleashing Brandon Paul’s inner Ray Allen (it’s a stretch, but you get the point). The good news is that the Illini survived. The bad: Auburn, an SEC bottom-dweller, made a calculated effort to leverage its frontcourt size advantage – Illinois’ one major flaw – and it largely worked. Auburn outscored Illinois in the paint by a sizable margin (34-26). The Illini will face far greater interior challenges in Big Ten play, challenges they don’t seem capable of handling as currently constructed.
- MVC Contenders Draw Battle Lines. Provided its one home loss to Boise State was a blemish, and not some sign of a larger problem demanding closer inspection, Creighton is far and away the best team in the Missouri Valley, and I fully expect it to finish on top of the standings absent the interest and intrigue one typically associates with league title races. The next tier of challengers is deeper than at any point in recent memory. Wichita State has miraculously recovered from losing most of last year’s senior-laden roster. Illinois State is grinding down more capable opponents thanks to Jake Odum’s heady guard play. Northern Iowa stumbled through a brutal schedule but remains formidable. And Illinois State has one of the better inside-out offensive duos in Tyler Brown and Jackie Carmichael. All four took the court Sunday (with the Sycamores edging Illinois State, and Wichita defending home court against UNI), and all four will fight to the end and push one another for a finite number of tourney bids. As mid-major leagues go, this one’s got everything you could ask for and more.
- Horizon League Race Comes Into Focus. The earlier-than-expected departure of Butler to the Atlantic 10 created a void atop the Horizon League. With the Bulldogs gone, who would step up and assume its top-dog mantle? Valparaiso and Detroit looked a step above the rest, but early-season success from UIC suggested the emergence of another contender. With conference play tipping off this week, Valpo reclaimed its frontrunner status with a solid two-point win at Murray State Saturday night. The Flames are heading in the opposite direction, having dropped three straight, including Saturday’s blowout loss at Toledo (74-55). Valpo is a far cry from entering the at-large discussion, but when you go into Isaiah Canaan’s house and upend the Racers, that’s heady stuff. With the possible exception of Detroit, Bryce Drew’s team is the clear favorite in a watered-down league.
- Tennessee Building Momentum In Advance Of SEC Play. The SEC has taken a reputational beating this season. Even the league’s top teams – Kentucky, Missouri and Florida – have all taken their lumps in non-conference play. Tennessee is not absolved of blame. The Volunteers have missed every one of its big non-conference opportunities (Oklahoma State, Georgetown and Virginia), failed to break the 40-point threshold in consecutive losses to the Hoyas and Cavaliers, and has struggled to replace injured forward Jeronne Maymon. This may be a presumptions inclination, but it really feels like Tennessee is starting to turn the corner. It followed the Virginia loss with wins over Wichita State and Xavier, and if the Volunteers can handle Memphis at home Tuesday, there will be no team carrying as much positive momentum entering SEC play, which opens January 9 with a home date against Ole Miss. Given the league’s shoddy on-court product thus far, the Volunteers have a real shot to influence the conference title race in a big way.
- Loyola Ends DePaul’s Hot Streak. Ah, the dark side of soft schedule strength. For the better part of the last four weeks, DePaul has fattened up on cupcake opponents, rattling off seven straight victories against lowly competition with semi-respectable wins over Arizona State and Auburn (If you can’t tell, I’m really stretching the definition of “respectable”) standing as exceptions. The Blue Demons got a wakeup call Saturday night from Loyola University of Chicago, who, at 9-3 and with wins over Mississippi State and Toledo, is one of the Horizon League’s better ensembles to date. At least DePaul has a shiny new, basketball-only league to look forward to. That’s right: As convoluted and unfair as it seems, DePaul gets to tag along with the Catholic 7 revolutionaries, while UConn and Cincinnati are stuck in the crumbling Big East. Fair is fair, right?
- Heated Interstate Battle Halts Jackrabbits. The New Mexico win, and the rumblings of Wolters Hysteria it spawned, positioned South Dakota State to make a huge statement against territorial and Summit League rival North Dakota State. The Bison weren’t phased by Wolters’ 26 points, or the rest of an SDSU team that just handed UNM its first loss of the season. Big win for North Dakota State, who made it known to all the Wolters lovers out there (and there are plenty) that the Summit’s lone NCAA Tournament berth (no one’s getting in through at-large means) will not fall so easily to everyone’s favorite Dakota-inhabiting point guard. The Jackrabbits will cruise through league play with minimal resistance, but the conference tourney – where the possibility of another NDSU-SDSU matchup looms large – could prove lethal.
- Bad, Bad Loss For Oregon State. You look at Oregon State’s resume, take note of the close neutral-court losses to Alabama and Kansas (by three and six points, respectively), then you say to yourself, “Hey, the Beavers are pretty good.” Or at least that was my impression, but after Saturday night’s overtime loss to Towson, who won a grand total of one game last season, all bets are off. You don’t lose to Towson at home and not get taken to task for it. The Beavers looked to be headed in the right direction under Craig Robinson, and maybe they still are! The Pac-12 is down – not like last year, but still pretty bad – so anything is possible, I guess.
- A Bad Omen for the Pac-12. As if the Pac-12 was in need of further embarrassment after Oregon State’s home disappointment, Cal stepped right up and joined the Beavers on Saturday night’s wall of shame. Losing to Harvard at home – even without senior leaders Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey – isn’t quite as damning as losing to Towson. It is still a massive slip-up, and it happened at the worst possible time, on the precipice of Cal’s Pac-12 opener at UCLA. The Bruins showed what they’re capable of by beating Missouri Friday night. Cal was already a heavy underdog for its big test at Pauley Pavilion. Saturday night’s loss only makes that game seem like a bigger mismatch. If there’s a Pac-12 team ready to compete with Arizona and UCLA at the top of the Pac 12, I haven’t seen it. Cal surely isn’t helping its case.
Dunkdafied #1. The story of BYU’S win over Virginia Tech is Tyler Haws’ 42 points (more on that below). You just don’t see 40-point outbursts at the college level all that frequently. The single best play from that game belongs to sophomore forward Josh Sharp, who pogo-sticks a Hokies defender, finishes with authority and gets fouled in the process.
More Notes From Around The Nation.
- Major Frontcourt Addition For Texas. A messy impermissible benefits/lying episode with the NCAA will sideline Myck Kabongo for most of this season. Luckily for the Longhorns, sophomore forward Jaylen Bond gained his eligibility in time for conference play. He played just 12 minutes in Saturday night’s win over Rice, but he’ll be a big boost to Texas’ young frontcourt.
- 42 Points From BYU Guard Tyler Haws. Here’s the thing: Virginia Tech isn’t going to win many games if Erick Green doesn’t keep his scoring up in the mid-to-high 20s. Another thing: When your opponent goes off for 42 points on 14-of-25 shooting and 8-of-9 from three, you stand and watch that man fill it up. Cougars guard Tyler Haws provided some of the biggest offensive fireworks we’ve seen all season in his team’s convincing 27-point triumph.
- Creighton Opens MVC Play With Pizazz. I envision Evansville pulling off at least one upset in MVC play this season. The Aces are underrated, but they are not good enough to beat Creighton on the road. It was going to take a strong effort to knock off the Bluejays in the league opener, and an even stronger one to do it when Doug McDermott rattles off 29 points and pulls down 10 rebounds. A convincing 17-point win for the convincing MVC title favorite.
- Same Old Dayton. You couldn’t help but take notice of Dayton’s nine-point home win against Murray State. That is no huge upset, but it’s exactly the type of game Dayton has lost in recent years. But because Dayton is Dayton, and inconsistency is inherently ingrained in the Flyers’ DNA, they went to USC Sunday night and lost.
- Clarke Powers Butler Over Vanderbilt. Remind me again how Illinois beat Butler by 17 on a neutral floor. The Bulldogs have since ripped off seven straight victories, including the Crossroads Classic upset of then-No. 1 Indiana, on the road at Northwestern, and Saturday’s 19-point clubbing of Vanderbilt. When Rotnei Clarke goes 6-of-9 from beyond the arc, this team isn’t going to lose many games.
- Alabama’s Plunge Continues. Losing to Mercer was bad. Following that up with a home loss to Tulane is worse. Anthony Grant’s team needs to get on solid footing to avoid further embarrassment in SEC play.
- Another Miss For Ohio. The dangers of using the previous year’s NCAA Tournament performance as a predictive measuring stick for next season are of long standing. Ohio’s tourney exploits are well-noted, but after losing three of four including an 11-point defeat at Oklahoma Saturday, is there reason to believe Jim Christian’s team won’t be able to flip the switch come March? MAC play should help provide answers.
- VCU Forces 33 Turnovers. I’m no Division I basketball coach, but it would seem that the main priority against a turnover-inducing beast like VCU is ball security. Fairleigh Dickinson, who coughed it up 33 times against the Rams’ HAVOC press, failed miserably in that regard.
- Davidson Gets Back On Track. Recent losses to Charlotte and Drexel turned a bunch of folks off on Davidson, which is totally understandable. Winning at Richmond won’t change the tide of opinion, but it is a nice way to lead into the Wildcats’ January 2 “neutral” court clash with Duke.
- Belmont Stumbles At UCF. There’s a lot to like about Belmont if you dig into its non-conference track record (wins over Stanford, Middle Tennessee and South Dakota State) and per-possession traits, so I reserve the right to be somewhat disappointed by the Bruins’ three-point loss at UCF. Then again, when Keith Clanton notches a 26-point, 10-rebound double-double and Belmont’s backcourt advantage is offset by UCF’s NBA big man, the reason for the loss is fairly straightforward.
- McCollum Needs Help. If C.J. McCollum gives you 34 points and knocks down 6-of-10 from beyond the arc, more often than not, minimal supporting work will get you over the top. The rest of the Mountain Hawks did not do enough. Bryant instead did enough to withstand McCollum’s outburst and leave Stabler Arena with a one-point win.
- South Florida Needs Anthony Collins. Midway through the second half of South Florida’s 61-57 win over George Mason, point guard Anthony Collins – whose 48.7% assist rate ranks third in the country – took a vicious knee to the head and was carried off the floor on a stretcher. Thankfully, Collins had sensation in his extremities after the fall, according to coach Stan Heath, but any extended absence from the court would really hurt USF’s chances in upcoming games against Central Florida, Syracuse, Villanova and Louisville.
- Celebrities Invade Allen FieldHouse. Nothing about Kansas’ 89-57 win over American was particularly interesting. The highlight of the night came thanks to a surprise visit from celebrity couple Jason Sudeikis and Olivia Wilde.
- Stauskas Belongs In FrOY Discussion. He won’t grab the same level attention as, say, Anthony Bennett or Ben McLemore or Nerlens Noel, but Nik Stauskas is making a strong case for inclusion in the conversation with the nation’s best freshmen. He produces an average of 135.7 points per 100 possessions (good for seventh in the country), is posting the 12th highest effective field goal percentage (68.8%) and the fourth best true shooting percentage (72.1%). Stauskas’ latest exploit: 5-of-8 from three for 19 points, along with seven rebounds, in Saturday’s win over Central Michigan.
- Detroit Looks Formidable Heading into Horizon Play. In its final three games before the Horizon League opener against Milwaukee, Detroit – led by do-it-all junior guard Ray McCallum – pushed Syracuse to the limit and nearly spoiled Jim Boeheim’s 900th victory celebration, trounced Alcorn State and handled business against a rising Canisius team. Not a bad way to walk into league competition.
- Gators Hit Soft Stretch. It’s going to be a while before Florida plays another competitive basketball game. The Gators dusted off last week’s Kansas State loss, pummeled Air Force seven days later and open SEC play with consecutive games against Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M before welcoming Missouri to Gainesville on January 19 in a game that should hold huge conference championship implications.
- Orange Win, But… Teams like Syracuse need not only to beat woeful 2-12 outfits like Alcorn State, but pummel them and look flawless in the act. Jim Boeheim’s team held the Braves to just 36 points, which is boilerplate stuff for the Orange’s patented 2-3 zone, but offensively – 37.5 percent from the field, including 20 percent from three – there’s some cause for pause.
Dunkdafied #2. Of course BYU has another highlight slam from Saturday night’s win over Virginia Tech. This time: Brandon Davies, inbounds pass recipient, leaps, catches, and dunks, all in one smooth, seamless sequence.
The Weekend’s All Americans.
- Tyler Haws, BYU (NPOY) – A 42-point night is a remarkable feat in and of itself. Using that prolific output to help your team clinch its biggest win to date — over Virginia Tech — is an exemplary ATB first-team All-America performance.
- Seth Curry, Duke – In a perfect world, Curry would have saved his season-high 31 points for a heated ACC clash or the NCAA Tournament. Competition level aside (and Santa Clara was feistier than most probably expected), Curry’s 31 is a testament to his improving offensive game.
- Keith Clanton, UCF – Since absorbing a 22-point beatdown from Miami nearly two weeks ago, the Knights have reeled off three straight Ws, capped off by Saturday’s three-point win over Belmont, where Clanton poured in 26 points and snared 10 rebounds.
- Trey Burke, Michigan – The youth on Michigan’s roster promises future years of Big Ten contention… unless guys like Burke – who had 22 points and 11 assists in Saturday’s win over Central Michigan – lock up first-round draft grades by season’s end. Performances like this are not lost on NBA scouts.
- BJ Young, Arkansas – I’m not nearly as taken aback by Young’s 26 points as I am his 13 rebounds. That’s big man’s double-double territory; Young is 6’3’’, by the way.
- Doug McDermott, Creighton – Should we expect anything less than 29 points and 10 rebounds from the nation’s best pure scorer?
- Tracy Abrams, Illinois – The Illini needed someone to atone for Brandon Paul’s lamentable 3-of-12 shooting night. Abrams obliged with 27 points, eight rebounds and five assists in helping knock off the upset-minded Auburn Tigers.
- Troy Taylor, Evansville – The Aces couldn’t win at Creighton, which is a minor disappointment but nothing to sulk over. Slightly more discouraging: Taylor’s 10-10-10 triple double was a mere footnote in Saturday’s hoops action.
- Erik Murphy, Florida – I really like Murphy’s versatile, rangy, dynamic scoring ability at the four – he led Florida in points (21), rebounds (7) and assists (4) in Saturday’s win – but he could be even more effective if center Patric Young maximized his physical abilities.
- Russ Smith, Louisville – The stat line (21 points, seven rebounds) isn’t anything groundbreaking, but Smith was the main reason Louisville was able to stave off Kentucky’s valiant second half surge and hold on for the victory.
Tweet Of The Weekend. When a college basketball game interests the other side of the globe, you know it’s a big deal. Kentucky and Louisville is a big deal.