Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The Weekend’s Lede. This weekend brought a comforting turn in the hoops calendar. It was the first weekend spent in the throes of conference play. On Saturday, starting at 11am ET with Pittsburgh at Rutgers and on through Sunday night, high-quality games could be found on various networks. There were upsets, blowouts, and predictable results – all of which we’ve seen at different stages this season. But there’s a different vibe when it comes to conference play, to me at least, and it was refreshing to take it all in. Gone are the days of high majors beating down cupcakes. Most conference games are real, competitive, no-sleep-walking-allowed basketball games. And they’re here to stay, at least until April. This put me in an especially rosy mood, which is a good sign for what lies ahead in 2013, and an even better sign for college basketball in general. League competition is already shaking perceptions and standings in noticeable ways, and we haven’t even yet broken free of the college football fever. Just wait until February; I can hardly hide my excitement. So let’s recap the first conference weekend. It was a good one.
Your Watercooler Moment. CJ McCollum Breaks His Foot.
Twice this season C.J. McCollum has left NBA Scouts looking for refunds on game tickets. The first time was a minor medical ailment. McCollum sprained his ankle and couldn’t suit up for a Dec. 20 game against North Texas. Saturday’s injury was far more severe. What’s truly saddening about McCollum’s broken foot isn’t the lengthy eight-to-ten-week recovery or the implications for his NBA draft status. It’s the fact that McCollum made the move most college basketball fans wish future first-round picks would make more often. McCollum eschewed guaranteed millions to play out his eligibility. In April, he penned a reflective piece explaining his decision. The SportingNews’ Mike DeCourcy dug up one of McCollum’s pivotal justifications: “By returning for my senior year, I give myself a chance to complete my degree at a prestigious university, while putting myself in a position to be successful no matter what happens in my future.” McCollum will still accomplish those goals, but the basketball component of his senior year won’t go as planned. Passing up the professional game for another year in college is always risky business. Many players wind up hurting their “draft stock” and regretting their decisions. McCollum should be back before the end of the season, and I have little doubt he can redeem whatever shine he may lose during his recovery, whether that be in the midst of a late-season Tournament surge or in draft workouts. McCollum is a preternaturally gifted scorer. He belongs in the NBA. This will do little, if anything, to hurt his draft prospects – provided he returns to his pre-injury form. It’s a tough setback, but nothing McCollum, a determined, clear-headed and driven individual, cannot overcome.
Also Worth Chatting About. Nothing Will Come Easy In The Big Ten.
The formula to Illinois’ early success was flawed. It depended heavily on the three-point shot, which is an inherently risky way to win basketball games, but even more perilous when you don’t have a reliable source of interior scoring. Which Illinois didn’t…..until Saturday. The Illini’s win over Ohio State wasn’t surprising. It was the way Illinois bombarded the Buckeyes not with long-range shots, but with effective low post play. Sophomore forward Nnanna Egwu was slowly, surely coming around of late, but he came up small in this week’s loss at Purdue, and one was starting to get the sense he was still a year or two away from contributing in meaningful ways. On Saturday, he showed up, and boy, does Ohio State wish he hadn’t. Egwu finished with 16 points and eight rebounds to bail out Illinois’ again poor three-point shooting (8-for-27). Illinois showed it doesn’t need the long-ball to knock off good teams – at least not when Egwu’s holding fort in the paint. The same problems remain with Ohio State: Can anyone help DeShaun Thomas shoulder the scoring load? Is Aaron Craft that guy? Will Shannon Scott, Laquinton Ross and Sam Thompson pick up steam as the season rolls along? This will give John Groce’s team boatloads of confidence for an upcoming home date with Minnesota, but the way the Gophers have looked thus far, it may need to recapture its hot three-point shooting stroke to spring the upset.