ATB: Big Monday Returns, Louisville Brandishes No. 1 Ranking, and Ben McLemore Injured…Posted by Chris Johnson on January 15th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. A staple of my childhood hoops watching fandom has and will forever be “Big Monday.” It never gets old. Finish up a quick dinner, find that comfortable spot on the couch, flick on your television (or, to be technologically correct, your ESPN3 Ipad app) and take in two quality matchups. ESPN’s Monday night special has always aired games from various leagues, but to me at least, there’s a strong connection to the Big East. That 7 PM ET window will always be associated with Big East hoops, and all the great memories it’s brought us over the years. As you already well know, the once-proud northeastern league is edging closer and closer towards extinction. Next year’s Big Monday (if it continues) will not be the same. Tonight’s Big East matchup, Louisville at UConn, won’t rank among the all-time greats. It probably won’t even classify as one of the better Big East games of 2012-13. But it was Big East basketball on a Monday night in January at 7 PM, riding out what’s looking evermore like the last year of its existence. That is good enough, as far as I’m concerned.
Your Watercooler Moment. The Cardinals Are Number One For A Reason.
After a wild weekend of conference play, the coveted summit of the AP Poll got its first major shakeup of the season. Three unbeaten power clubs (Duke, Michigan, and Arizona) had fallen in the past seven days, so there was no obvious choice at number one. Louisville had a legitimate claim. The Cardinals’ only loss of the season came against the last month’s top dog, Duke, with defensive anchor Gorgui Dieng still nursing a wrist injury. All Rick Pitino’s team has done since that defeat was win, and do so in convincing fashion, excepting a tense second-half in a late-December win over rival Kentucky. Some clamored for Duke to retain its top ranking. Others vied for Michigan. For whatever reason – proximity of loss, per possession analysis, last year’s Final Four run – the Cardinals ended up with the majority of AP first-place votes. Maintaining that perch required Louisville to fend off a feisty UConn team in Storrs Monday night. All Louisville did was go out and show why some of the nation’s brightest hoops writers marked them atop their Monday ballots. The Huskies got out to a hot start, powered by tremendous guard play from freshman Omar Calhoun, and carried a 34-28 lead into the break. Then Louisville ratcheted up the defensive intensity and UConn withered under the Cardinals’ smothering pressure. Russ Smith added 23 points to outgun Calhoun, and the Huskies – energetic and confident as ever in the opening half – ran out of steam. That’s what number one teams do – they string you along for a while, keeping your team and fans invested in the flow of the game, waiting for the moment to seize on any misstep or sign of fatigue. Then they take control of the game, which is what Louisville did somewhere around the 10-minute mark in the second half. Louisville is as deserving of number one as any team in America. Everything about tonight’s performance (specifically, a four-minute run midway through the second half where the Cardinals opened up a 13-point lead) was foolproof evidence.
Tonight’s Quick Hit.
- The Kansas We Know. Had Ben McLemore not pulled off one of the finest banked-in three-pointers in recent memory to send Iowa State into overtime and preserve a home victory, this game would have felt something like a must win for the Jayhawks. Baylor, for all its flaws and inconsistency, was a bigger challenge for the Jayhawks. You almost had the sense that if the Bears caught Kansas sleeping again, and Isaiah Austin could put together an all-career game, and Pierre Jackson found holes on the perimeter, and a bunch of other favorable contingencies fell into place, the Bears had a real chance to hand Bill Self’s team its first home loss of the season. Well, no, you didn’t. Instead, you looked at the Bears, saw an incoherent and disparate group, and realized that Kansas is far and away the better team, and far and away the class of the Big 12. If the Jayhawks lose in conference play this season, it won’t happen in Lawrence.
- We May Have Overrated Davidson A Little Bit. In the preseason, when pundits were stacking up the year’s best mid-major teams, Davidson was near the top of most lists (and if they weren’t at the top, they were at the very least mentioned). This was billed as Bob McKillop’s best team since Stephen Curry’s heyday, and you know what, the Wildcats acted on their summer love by taking care of Vanderbilt and West Virginia early, and playing New Mexico to within five points at the Pit. That happened in November. December and January have not been kind to the Wildcats. Losses to Charlotte, Drexel and Duke (a 67-50 blowout) were just the beginning. On Monday night, Georgia Southern dispatched the Bobcats clearly and convincingly, 70-57. Strange things happen on the road in conference play, but relative to expectations, the first few months of the season, on aggregate, do not speak to Davidson’s putative SoCon superiority.
- McLemore Goes Down. Until we learn more about the ankle injury Ben McLemore suffered in the final minutes of Kansas’ beatdown of Baylor Monday night, it’s not really worthwhile to try and assess the Jayhawks moving forward without their biggest star. However many games he’s forced to miss (if any at all), it changes Kansas’ offensive dynamic considerably. McLemore is the one player KU can rely on to generate his own offense. He attacks the rim in a variety of ways, and from a variety of different spots on the floor, all while making it seem so effortless and elementary. He gives Bill Self an individual scoring threat unlike any he’s ever coached in Lawrence. On a radio interview after the game, Self said McLemore had a sprained ankle, but McLemore said he heard a “pop.” For Kansas sake’, plus anyone who enjoys exciting offensive basketball played at an extremely high level, let’s hope that he’s ok. I wan’t Kansas games to be as fun and entertaining as possible. With McLemore sitting on the sidelines, they won’t be.
Dunkdafied. At this point in the game, with just over four minutes remaining in the opening half, UConn was flying high, getting up and down the court, and giving Louisville all kinds of trouble on both ends of the floor. DeAndre Daniels punctuated the first half run with an athletic slam. What’s impressive about this play is Daniels’ ability to outsprint Wayne Blackshear to the rim and finish on the break while absorbing a hard foul.
Monday Night’s All-Americans.
- Russ Smith, Louisville (NPOY) – Offensively, defensively and energetically, Smith makes plays all over the floor. He keyed the Cardinals’ win at UConn with 23 points.
- Ben McLemore, Kansas – There are few sights more entertaining than a trademark McLemore offensive performance. He is masterfully skilled and athletically gifted, and he can score practically on command. Seventeen points and eight rebounds for the redshirt freshman in an easy win over Baylor.
- Adjehi Baru, College of Charleston – The Bobcats’ struggles opens up the door for Baru and the Cougars in the SoCon. Baru finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds in helping Charleston beat The Citadel.
- Fred Sturdivant, Texas Southern – Whether or not any defense was played by Grambling State (0-15) in tonight’s 95-50 rout, Sturdivant’s 22-point, 10-rebound effort was notable.
- Malcolm Miller, Southern – Don’t look now, but the Jaguars are off to a 6-0 start in the SWAC, and Miller (28 points, 10 rebounds against Mississippi Valley State) has been at the heart of the early hot streak.
Tweet of the Night. I’m not ready to second Szczerbiak’s prediction this early in the season, but the Cardinals showed an unflappable poise in a hostile road gym that eluded Duke and Michigan over the weekend. The Cardinals were down early, but I never got the sense they were completely out of it. This team not only has the defensive strength and offensive improvement to win it all, it has the requisite mental makeup too. Life as number one is a happy place, I’d imagine, and it’s even better when you wrangle one of the nation’s best backcourts and pick up a big conference win on the road.