Who Won the Week? Two Undefeated Teams, But Certainly Not The Third…Posted by Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker) on February 7th, 2014
Who Won the Week? is a regular column that outlines and discusses three winners and losers from the previous week of hoops. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), a Spokane-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.
WINNER: Wichita State
The nation’s winningest team cleared its toughest conference hurdle Wednesday night in defeating Indiana State in Terre Haute, led by senior forward Cleanthony Early’s 19 points. From here on, the Shockers have better than 50 percent odds to go undefeated in the regular season, according to KenPom.com, and about 35 percent odds to make it to the NCAA Tournament unblemished. Wichita State’s reign over the Missouri Valley has been so strong this year that only two teams – Missouri State and Indiana State – have even finished within 10 points of them. Tomorrow’s game at Northern Iowa is the toughest remaining tilt for the Shockers, which also sandblasted Evansville 81-67 last Saturday.
(Related winners: Gregg Marshall, whose stock will never be higher, even if he never wants to leave; the Missouri Valley, which is certain to get some more NCAA Tournament win shares, even without Creighton in the conference. Related losers: Indiana State, the MVC”s second-best team, which probably has to win Arch Madness to make the NCAAs; Evansville, perpetually anonymous in purple.)
Of the triumvirate of teams that came into last weekend undefeated, only two came out unscathed. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they weren’t one of them. Their road trip to California, the toughest game left on their schedule at that point, turned out to be undone by a last-second jumper from Golden Bears’ guard Justin Cobbs over center Kaleb Tarczewski, giving Cal a 60-58 win. That news was bad enough, but worse was what came after — that sophomore forward Brandon Ashley, a starter, had broken his foot during the game and would be out for the season. In Thursday’s 67-65 win over Oregon, Arizona looked disjointed offensively and saw star freshman Aaron Gordon injure his leg in a game in which he made just 2-of-11 free throws. The Wildcats actually trailed the disintegrating Ducks with just 90 seconds left before point guard T.J. McConnell made a three-pointer that gave them the lead for good. Sean Miller only played seven players, even accounting for Gordon’s injury, and its lack of depth could be problematic should more injuries arise or should fouls accumulate. It’s a shame to see this happen because a full-strength Arizona team looked to be head and shoulders above all but a few others around the country.
(Related winners: Cal, although it followed up its momentous game against Arizona with a letdown loss to Stanford; Arizona freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who inherits most of Ashley’s minutes. Related losers: Ashley, for obvious reasons; Oregon, whose recurring late-game bungling has it 3-7 in Pac-12 play, looking nothing like the team that stormed through the non-conference.)
The 35,000-plus people that packed the Carrier Dome on Saturday for Syracuse and Duke got their money’s worth and then some, and the Orange got out with their perfect record intact, winning 91-89 in overtime in one of this season’s most thrilling games. They had their best per-possession offensive performance of the year in their toughest game to date, although their defense, one of the nation’s best, struggled to contain the Blue Devils. Syracuse came out and backed that up with a 61-55 win over visiting Notre Dame on Monday, a game in which Trevor Cooney scored 33 points on the strength of 9-of-12 three-point shooting, making up for star forward C.J. Fair’s 2-of-13 performance from the field. Thanks to that February 1 game, we knew it was the crux of college basketball season one night before the Super Bowl was over. What a welcome, welcome reminder.
(Related winners: Cooney, for shooting the lights out against Notre Dame; Fair, for his 28-point performance against Duke. Related losers: Duke, but they’ve got another shot at Syracuse in a couple weeks; Notre Dame, a team that probably doesn’t have a shot at postseason play.)
LOSER: Boise State
The Broncos missed a pair of huge opportunities this week, stumbling in back-to-back games when it needed to right its disappointing season. Boise State returned all five of its starters from an NCAA Tournament team a year ago, and had a non-conference schedule that included big chances against St. Mary’s, Kentucky and Iowa State. Problem is, they lost all three of those games. This week’s losses, Saturday at UNLV and Wednesday against San Diego State, both involved leads blown late, and pushed the Broncos down to 5-5 in Mountain West play. Thanks to the conference’s down year and a relatively weak non-conference schedule, Boise State’s RPI is #66 and its best win is against #115 Utah, at home. Both shots against San Diego State are gone, including Wednesday’s, lost 67-65 on a three-pointer from Dwayne Polee with four seconds left. Apart from a shot next week against New Mexico, there are no more chances for top-75 wins, of which Boise State has none. It’s Mountain West tournament or bust for the Broncos.
(Related winners: San Diego State, which keeps the nation’s third-longest winning streak alive; other potential bubble teams, which saw a potential foe fall far from at-large consideration; UNLV, but its 73-69 win was countered by a 75-57 loss at Colorado State later in the week. Related losers: Any team that’s schedule was built around beating Boise State, especially St. Mary’s; the rest of the Mountain West, which could have used a third potential bid to the NCAA Tournament besides San Diego State and New Mexico.)
Rick Barnes’ boys just can’t stop winning. After stumbling to an 0-2 start in Big 12 play, the Longhorns have ripped off a seven-game winning streak, punctuated by a home win over Kansas on Saturday and followed by an averted letdown game against TCU three nights later. The Longhorns held the Jayhawks’ superb freshmen, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, to a combined 15 points on 5-of-21 shooting in the 81-69 win in Austin. Junior forward Jonathan Holmes had 22 points and four rebounds, and freshman guard Isaiah Taylor had a game-high 23 points. Tuesday’s 59-54 win against TCU was a bit rockier, but Holmes again showed up huge, scoring 20 points while grabbing 16 rebounds in a game where Texas had more offensive rebounds (22) than TCU did defensive rebounds (15). Oh, and Taylor had 11 points and seven assists.
(Related winners: Holmes, for obvious reasons; Barnes, for going from the hot seat to a trendy pick for National Coach of the Year. Related losers: Kansas, which is no longer undefeated in conference play; TCU, which is still winless in conference play.)
The Sooners went on the road for both of their games this week and came away with a pair of losses, falling 81-75 to a then-reeling Iowa State team on Saturday, then losing 91-86 on Wednesday in overtime at West Virginia. In a conference laden with tough teams, a bad week is destined to happen occasionally, but for a team that only regularly plays two seniors and no juniors, learning how to recover from this hiccup could be a test of coach Lon Kruger’s ability. But all is not lost; guard Buddy Hield had 30 points on 18 shots against the Cyclones and fellow guard Jordan Woodward had 23 points on 11 shots against the Mountaineers; the former is a sophomore, the latter a freshman.
(Related winners: Iowa State, above .500 in Big 12 play after a 98-97 win at Oklahoma State later in the week; Cyclones forward Melvin Ejim, who had 22 points and 16 rebounds Saturday; West Virginia, surprisingly 6-4 in conference. Related losers: None.)