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.
Considering he was facing the most relentless ball-pressuring backcourt in the country, Harrow managed the big stage with unexpected poise (photo credit: Getty Images).
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.
The Tar Heels Looked locked-in defensively against the talented Rebels (photo credit: Getty Images).
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. Read the rest of this entry »