O26 Weekly Awards: Princeton, Augustine Rubit, Joe Scott & NDSU…Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 17th, 2013
It was final exams for many schools across the country this past week, meaning a relatively light college hoops schedule leading up to Saturday. But once the weekend kicked into gear, there proved to be plenty of intriguing match-ups, weird semi-neutral court games played in NBA arenas, standout performances and altogether surprising results to pass out weekly awards to deserving O26 performers. Heck, even the thinly-populated weekday slate offered up a noteworthy upset and a fine example of early-season coaching.
O26 Team of the Week
Princeton. It is official: the Ivy League has two legitimate contenders in 2013-14. For all the recognition Harvard has received nationally — which is certainly well deserved, considering the team’s loaded roster and excellent start to the season — there has been another Ivy squad lurking under the radar, playing great basketball and looking like a bona fide threat to challenge the Crimson this year. That team is Princeton, and last week was its ‘hello, world’ moment. It started Wednesday night in Piscataway when the Tigers took on Route 1 rival Rutgers, a team starving for a victory in the wake of three straight losses. After trading leads for much of the contest, Princeton took firm control of things at around the 10-minute mark by doing what it has done so often this season — calmly finding seams in the opposition, penetrating and kicking out for open threes on the perimeter. In all, the Tigers hit 16 of their 34 attempts from behind the arc, and T.J. Bray — the senior point guard who was suspended for the previous game — scored 15 of his 23 points in the final nine minutes to put the game away for Mitch Henderson’s seasoned group. The 78-73 victory was a nice one, moving Princeton to 7-1 and furthering its case as the best team in New Jersey. Yet, it was Saturday’s win at Penn State that turned the heads of many college basketball fans.
Played at Penn State’s old Rec Hall (aptly dubbed ‘Return to Rec’) and in front of a packed, Santa-hat-wearing crowd, the game appeared to be unwinnable for the Tigers from the very beginning. More than any other team in the country, Princeton’s offense relies on its ability to knock down threes with regularity — at 51.5%, it leads the country in percentage of field goals attempted from three-point range — and for the majority of the contest, it simply could not make them. The Tigers went 3-of-21 from behind the arc in the first 30 minutes of play and found themselves in a late 20-point hole. The game was seemingly out of reach, both visually and statistically, until Will Barrett provided the spark his team had been lacking. After igniting the offense with a pair of threes and an aggressive take the rim, the 6’10’’ forward propelled Princeton toward eight minutes of some of the most hyper-efficient basketball you will see, including 6-of-8 shooting from range, open cuts to the basket, and two huge steals by Bray that helped cap a furious 30-10 rally, sending the game to overtime tied at 66. Henderson’s team controlled the overtime period throughout, and when Penn State’s Tim Frazier missed a game-tying layup attempt at the buzzer, last year’s Ivy League runner-up had suddenly completed the improbable comeback, 81-79. At 8-1 and with two games upcoming this week against Pacific and Portland in the Las Vegas Holiday Hoops Classic, the Tigers have a chance to further bolster a resume that’s already prompted a popular #2BidIvy hashtag on Twitter. Whether that is a real possibility or just wishful thinking, the fact that Princeton has even drummed up the notion of a two bid Ivy League makes it our O26 Team of the Week.
Honorable Mentions: Northern Iowa (vs. Savannah St., vs. VCU), Saint Mary’s (@Boise State), Wichita State (vs. Tennessee)
O26 Player of the Week
Augustine Rubit – South Alabama. Sure the Jaguars played just one game this week, and sure, they lost. But in that game, Augustine Rubit was about as close to perfect as a player can get, and he did it against #20 Gonzaga in Seattle. Consider this: In the game’s opening 10 minutes, Rubit went 0-for-3 for zero points, one rebound and his team trailing, 22-3. Over the remaining 30 minutes, the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year went a ridiculous 11-of-13 from the floor, 3-of-3 from behind the arc, 10-of-10 from the line, grabbed six rebounds and helped his team outscore the Bulldogs 56-46. South Alabama still lost the game by 11, but Rubit’s 35-point, seven-rebound performance showed why the 6’7’’ forward entered the season considered by many to be a top-100 player in college hoops, regardless of league. In order to protect his conference POY crown this season, Rubit will need to outperform fellow Sun Belt stars like Louisiana-Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long on a nightly basis. Performances like the one on Saturday will certainly go a long way.
Honorable Mentions: Larry Nance Jr. – Wyoming (38 pts, 12 rebs @Denver), T.J. Bray – Princeton (23 pts, 8 assts @Rutgers, 11 pts, 13 assts @Penn State), Alec Peters – Valparaiso (30 pts, 8 rebs v. LMU)
O26 Coach of the Week
Joe Scott – Denver. Three years, three different conferences, two heart-breaking conference tournament losses, and a difficult start to this season has clearly not broken the spirit of Joe Scott and his basketball team. After missing out on the NCAA Tournament last year, the Pioneers began 2013-14 the losers of four straight games, including a bad loss to Pepperdine in the Great Alaska Shootout. A week later, Denver suffered another heartbreaking defeat, surrendering a bucket with 12 seconds to play and falling by a point at Mercer. Narrowly-missing out on a quality road win after several tough losses can be demoralizing for a college basketball squad and might have been enough to send Denver into an early season tailspin, especially with a game against Colorado State in daunting Moby Arena looming. But Scott and his team kept on chugging ahead, somehow managing to outmuscle the tough rebounding Rams on the offensive glass and run its Princeton offense well enough to come away with the school’s first road victory over CSU since 1979. The Pioneers then followed up that surprising result by knocking off another Mountain West opponent on Sunday, overcoming a monstrous 38-point, 12-recbound effort by Wyoming’s Larry Nance Jr. to beat the Cowboys, 64-61. Once in jeopardy of losing his players after the series of tough losses, Scott has instead gotten them to respond with maximum effort, outworking the opposition over the last two games and completely changing the outlook of Denver’s inaugural season in the Summit League, both internally and externally. With another tough non-conference tilt on the schedule tonight against Belmont, it would be no surprise to see the Pioneers keep things rolling. Scott deserves a ton of credit for that.
Honorable Mentions: Ben Jacobson – Northern Iowa, Scott Nagy – South Dakota State, Robert Jones – Norfolk State
O26 Upset of the Week
North Dakota State over Notre Dame, 73-69. Every time Notre Dame got close to evening things up against the Bison, Marshall Bjorklund had an answer. The 6’8’’ forward — one of the many seniors on Saul Phillips’s most experience team since 2009 (the NCAA Tournament team) — was the best player on the floor Wednesday night, going 11-of-14 from the field and flashing an array of soft-touch post moves that consistently baffled Irish defenders. He finished with 26 points in all, including eight in a row midway through the second half, prompting Phillips to deliver the epic line afterwards: “His resting pulse at the end of the game wasn’t any more than when he’s out there slopping pigs.” Ultimately, it was the fact that North Dakota State stayed aggressive until the very end that enabled the Bison to pull off the upset in South Bend. The team played like it belonged, like it believed it was the better basketball team, and that confidence led to made shots, run-out steals and other ‘winning plays’ that too-often escape upset-minded underdogs. NDSU is the clear-cut favorite to win the Summit League this season and will be an absolute bear of a draw for a three or four seed in the NCAA Tournament, should the Bison get there. Last Wednesday night was a fine example of why.
Honorable Mentions: Saint Peter’s over Seton Hall (83-80 OT), South Dakota State over Belmont (85-72)