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.