Welcome, fans, to the best week of the season
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball:
It’s on now
Dear football fans: Welcome to hoops season. It’s been going on for a while, but we understand that some of you waited until the last Hail Mary had been thrown and last Doritos commercial aired before noticing. We’ll gladly take you all, including the casual fans who don’t know Bo Ryan from Bo Derek (there is a fairly significant difference).
Actually, your timing is perfect. You’ve arrived for the best week of the season, flooded with big games that will affect conference races and help shape the NCAA tournament seeding and selections.
To get up to speed quickly, these are the 10 games you must pay attention to over the next five days, which includes Tuesday night’s match up between Florida and Kentucky (2):
When: Wednesday. Where: Carrier Dome, Syracuse.
Why it matters: As with Kentucky, Syracuse is playing for a No. 1 seed and trying to win the league. The Hoyas are trying to remain in the league title race, firm up a top-four league tourney seed and get a signature victory.
Who wins: Syracuse 68, Georgetown 57. The Orange looked powerful Saturday with the return of Fab Melo after a three-game absence, reportedly for academic reasons, but that was against St. John’s. And St. John’s is not good. This will be a more difficult challenge and a slower pace, but it’s hard to see the Orange losing this game at home.
When: Wednesday. Where: Ferrell Center, Waco.
Why it matters: These top-10 teams are a half-game behind Missouri in the Big 12, and both have lost to the Tigers once. In addition to the league title, both are in the mix for a potential No. 1 NCAA seed. The Bears need a win more, having already lost head-to-head against both Kansas and Missouri.
Who wins: Kansas 73, Baylor 72. The Bears are at home and motivated, and the Jayhawks are coming off an emotional battle at Missouri on Saturday night. But the way Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor are playing right now, they’ll be tough to beat in Waco or anywhere else.
Duke-North Carolina (5).
When: Wednesday. Where: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill.
Why it matters: It always matters when these two play. In the past 75 meetings, Duke has won 38 and Carolina 37, with the Blue Devils scoring one more point than the Tar Heels (5,858 to 5,857). That pretty well defines close. In more immediate terms, Carolina needs the victory to stay tied with Florida State for first in the ACC (though the Heels would lose the tiebreaker). Duke needs it to avoid falling two games behind in the standings.
Who wins: North Carolina 82, Duke 70. The Heels are much more talented and just need to play like it, especially inside, where they should enjoy a significant advantage. But they also should expect the best shot from the Blue Devils, who were called out by their coach Sunday after the loss to Miami. (More on that below.)
Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s (6).
When: Thursday. Where: The Kennel, Spokane.
Why it matters: A Saint Mary’s victory could put a hammerlock on the West Coast Conference title, giving the Gaels a three-game lead with four to play. With strong power ratings and a chance to go undefeated in the conference, Saint Mary’s also is playing to firm up a high NCAA seed. Gonzaga also is playing for seeding and, as the longtime league bully, for pride.
Who wins: Saint Mary’s 75, Gonzaga 73. The Minutes suspects that the Gaels aren’t just the WCC’s best, but much the best. And a victory here only raises the stakes for their Feb. 18 BracketBuster game at Murray State.
When: Friday. Where: The Palestra, Philadelphia.
Why it matters: This should be the Crimson’s toughest remaining game in what seems like an inevitable coronation as Ivy League champion and dangerous NCAA opponent. But if Penn can pull the upset, it at least would make the rest of the league schedule more interesting.
Who wins: Harvard 58, Penn 49. The Crimson are not exactly Kentucky when it comes to athleticism, but they are significantly more athletic than the Quakers. Penn should have a hard time scoring.
When: Saturday. Where: Mizzou Arena, Columbia.
Why it matters: See Baylor-Kansas note above for details on the Big 12 race. The Tigers also are trying to craft an unbeaten home record for the season.
Who wins: Missouri 85, Baylor 78. The Bears almost certainly will make the Tigers work harder on the interior than in the first meeting in Waco, where Baylor dramatically failed to capitalize on a huge size advantage. But Missouri’s ability to exploit the mismatch at the other end, with its quickness, will be an issue. So will the home crowd at what has been a tough place to play this season.
Michigan State-Ohio State (9).
When: Saturday. Where: Schottenstein Center, Columbus.
Why it matters: Pending a major midweek upset, first place in the Big Ten will be on the line between the league-leading Buckeyes and second-place Spartans. Big Ten Player of the Year honors also will be factored in, with Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Michigan State’s Draymond Green facing off. Ohio State needs to protect home court to stay in strong position for an NCAA No. 1 seed.
Who wins: Ohio State 69, Michigan State 57. The Buckeyes’ excellent defense will be a challenge for a Spartans team that tends to play loose with the basketball. If the turnovers pile up and lead to easy Ohio State baskets, this might not be close.
Creighton-Wichita State (10).
When: Saturday. Where: Qwest Center, Omaha.
Why it matters: These teams are tied for first in the Missouri Valley Conference. Both have strong at-large résumés for the NCAAs, but every quality win matters and removes pressure to win the league tournament.
Who wins: Creighton 65, Wichita State 63. The Bluejays rallied from a nine-point, second-half deficit to beat the Shockers in Wichita on New Year’s Eve despite star Doug McDermott scoring only 12 points. But Shockers 7-footer Garrett Stutz has been a different player since that game and will be a handful in the middle.
San Diego State-UNLV (11).
When: Saturday. Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas.
Why it matters: The Aztecs lead the Mountain West by a game over UNLV and New Mexico and won the first matchup with both. But San Diego State needed a basket at the buzzer to beat the Runnin’ Rebels at home, and the power ratings favor UNLV from an at-large NCAA standpoint. Steve Fisher’s crew could use a few more quality wins.
Who wins: UNLV 71, San Diego State 64. UNLV leading scorer Mike Moser had a difficult game against the Aztecs the first time around, scoring just nine points on 3-of-11 shooting. Expect more out of him this time; also expect a Rebels victory.
Cameron: Just another gym?
What in the name of Bobby Hurley has happened to the best home-court advantage in college hoops? Cameron Indoor Stadium (12), for a long time the most revered (and feared) address in the land, is nothing special right now. Ask the Florida State Seminoles and Miami Hurricanes.
Duke has lost to both of them at home this season – the first time it has lost multiple ACC games at home in five years. Against the Hurricanes, the occasionally dispassionate Blue Devils led for just 3:28 of the 45-minute game and trailed by as many as 16 points.
"A Duke team should play with energy for 40 minutes, or 45," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Go outside right now and you look at the banners; there are quite a few of them up there. They were not won without energy, without hunger, with no complacency, with people really wanting it."
Krzyzewski might as well challenge the Duke students while he’s at it. Surprising news broke a couple of weeks ago that the Cameron Crazies (13) are far less crazy than they used to be, actually leaving hundreds of tickets unclaimed for many recent home games. Looks like the kids have become spoiled by endless success.
[ Related: Coach K not satisfied with Duke’s leadership ]
The warning signs are flashing for this Duke team. There have been plenty of recent-vintage Krzyzewski teams that overachieved during the regular season, got a high NCAA tournament seed, then were summarily routed. That happened as recently as last season, when Arizona ran a dunk parade on the Dukies in the Sweet 16.
Unless they show more in the near-future – especially at home – history may repeat itself with this bunch of Blue Devils.
But as surprising as Miami’s victory in Cameron might have been, it actually doesn’t make the list of the biggest road upsets of 2011-12. Using Ken Pomeroy’s probability percentages (which are adjusted as the season goes along, taking into account what came after each game), these are the five biggest shockers of the season to date:
Presbyterian 56, Cincinnati 54 (14).
Date: Nov. 19.
Pomeroy probability: 5.7 percent. The Bearcats led by 15 points with less than nine minutes remaining and apparently figured they had the game won. They didn’t. The Blue Hose pulled the mother of all upsets.
UT Martin 59, UAB 54 (15).
Date: Nov. 27.
Pomeroy probability: 5.9 percent. It’s not that the Blazers are good, it’s that the Skyhawks are that bad. Martin is 3-22, with its other two victories over non-Division I opponents. It is 0-12 in the Ohio Valley Conference. Yet somehow, the Skyhawks led virtually the entire way in Bartow Arena on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend.
Iowa 72, Wisconsin 65 (16).
Date: Dec. 31.
Pomeroy probability: 6 percent. The Badgers have been famously tough at home – except for this season, where they’ve lost three times. The first was the most jarring, going from seven points up in the second half to 12 down and ultimately losing to a Hawkeyes team that ranks as one of three weaklings in the Big Ten (along with Nebraska and Penn State).
Lipscomb 85, Belmont 74 (17).
Date: Jan. 6.
Pomeroy probability: 7 percent. The Bruins have played a tough schedule and generally lost when you’d expect them to lose: at Duke, at Memphis, at Middle Tennessee State, etc. But there also was an inexplicable meltdown at home against crosstown archrival Lipscomb, in which Belmont went from 12 points up midway through the second half to 11 down at the buzzer. If Belmont doesn’t win the Atlantic Sun tournament and winds up missing the NCAAs, this might be the game they look back on with regret.
Princeton 75, Florida State 73, 3 OTs (18).
Date: Dec. 30.
Pomeroy probability: 8.6 percent. In what has to be the worst first-half performance of the season by a good team, the Seminoles scored 10 points and fell behind by as many as 19. They rallied ferociously to force overtime in triplicate – and led in each of those OTs – but could not close the deal. Inexplicable.
Dishonorable mention: Noted motivator and tactician Isiah Thomas (19) and Florida International, which somehow has lost twice at home in 90 percent probability games. The Golden Panthers were beaten Dec. 3 by an Alabama State team that was winless at the time and did not have another D-I victory until January; FIU then lost Jan. 7 to a Louisiana-Monroe team that is 2-22. Nice work, Zeke.
Back from the dead
Teams and people we’ve all given up on at least once, and now are showing signs of life:
Pittsburgh (20). The Panthers have won four in a row after a 0-7 Big East start, highlighted by an upset of rival West Virginia in Morgantown. The biggest key was getting back Tray Woodall from injury; Pitt was 5-6 without him and is 10-3 with him. He has averaged 26.5 points in Pitt’s past two games. The Minutes believes Pitt stands a decent chance of climbing back to 9-9 in the league heading into the Big East tournament.
UNC-Greensboro (21). The Spartans were 2-14 at one point, with the victories over a non-Division I opponent and truly dreadful Towson. Then they won seven in a row before losing Saturday to Furman. They’re now 9-15 and second in their division in the Southern Conference, which is otherwise known as Davidson, Wofford and 10 Stiffs.
Miami (22). The triumph at Duke is the latest sign that Jim Larranaga is turning it around in his first season in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes started 1-3 in the ACC and now are 5-3. And three of those wins are on the road. Miami is sneaking into the bubble discussion.
Larry Eustachy (23). A drinking problem cost him his job at Iowa State in 2003 and it has been a long road back through the obscurity of Hattiesburg, Miss. But he always has been an excellent coach, and he has his best Southern Miss team this season. The Golden Eagles are 20-3, split a pair of thrillers against league favorite Memphis and are in good shape to make the NCAA tourney, regardless of what happens in the league tournament.
Louisville (24). The injury-riddled Cardinals have won five in a row after starting Big East play 2-4 and triggering the annual meltdown of a high-maintenance fan base. This happens almost every season: Louisville suffers some bad losses, everyone speculates that Rick Pitino has lost it, then the ship rights itself in February. The most recent evidence of a team on the rebound came Monday night, when the Cardinals routed Connecticut 80-59.
“That was a tremendous display of passing and fast breaks, the likes of which we haven’t seen too much,” Pitino said. “That was a very good confidence-builder going into a very rough stretch.”
The one reason not to drink the Kool-Aid on the Cardinals is that they’ve mostly beaten up struggling teams of late; the winning streak was compiled against UConn, Rutgers, Seton Hall, Villanova and Pittsburgh, which are a combined 20-35 in Big East play. Next up are West Virginia in Morgantown and Syracuse, so that will be a tougher measure of where Louisville now stands. But considering the Cards lost by 33 to Providence last month, the improvement is pronounced.
(If you want to see a team that doesn’t look as if it is coming back from the dead, take a look at the defending national champions. No coach. No leadership. No offense. Not much pride Monday night. Yikes. “Embarrassed,” was the term used by interim coach George Blaney. No word yet on when or if Jim Calhoun will return from medical leave.)
Some impressive streaks are in jeopardy over the next five weeks of play. Keep an eye on them:
Texas (25). The Longhorns have a 13-season streak of making the NCAA tournament that is in jeopardy, thanks to a 2-7 road/neutral record. They did get a boost by winning at Texas A&M on Monday night, but that was more avoiding a bad loss than getting a good win.
The Duke-Carolina axis. At least one of the two Tobacco Road powers has been a No. 1 seed in every NCAA tournament since 2003, a remarkable run. But as of today, The Minutes would give the top seeds to Kentucky, Syracuse, Ohio State and the winner of the Big 12. That can change, particularly if North Carolina keeps winning, but it will take some doing. Especially if Florida State ends up taking the ACC regular-season title.
Gonzaga (26). The Zags have a 14-season streak of winning some kind of WCC hardware, either the regular-season championship or the conference tournament. But Saint Mary’s is close to icing the regular season, which would put the pressure on Gonzaga in the postseason.
Kansas (27). The Jayhawks have a seven-season streak of Big 12 regular-season titles going. This looked like the team that finally would give up that crown, but Bill Self has done a great job keeping Kansas competitive. If KU survives the trip to Waco, it will amp up the Missouri rematch in Lawrence on Feb. 25.
Butler (28). The Bulldogs have an active streak of six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and two Final Fours in a row. The latter definitely isn’t happening in 2012, and the former looks dicey as well. Butler (13-12 overall, 7-6 in the league) has no chance at an at-large bid and likely will have to battle through a tough Horizon League tourney draw to have a shot at the auto bid on someone else’s home court. But don’t weep for Brad Stevens, who is paying the price for early entries to the NBA (Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack would have been seniors on this team, which would have been scary). The Bulldogs could be Horizon favorites again next season.
Northwestern (29). The Wildcats’ infamous streak of never having made the NCAAs could well continue, but they at least reintroduced themselves to the bubble discussion by beating Illinois in Champaign on Sunday. They have eight losses, including six in the league, but none of them are bad losses. Add a few more quality wins to go alongside beating Michigan State and the Illini, then beg for Selection Committee favoritism for the brainy school, and you never know.
Player of the year: Don’t write anything in ink yet
The U.S. Basketball Writers Association announced its 20-man Oscar Robertson Trophy watch list Monday, and everyone on it is deserving of consideration. But The Minutes will narrow it down to eight leading candidates for now, with the emphasis on for now. No reason to make anything declarative or definitive yet, with the games getting more important every week.
Anthony Davis (30), Kentucky. He’s undoubtedly the best talent in America, but his numbers are somewhat compromised by the balance inherent in the Wildcats’ lineup. Still, he’s starting to establish himself as a star among stars. In two games last week Davis averaged 20 points, eight rebounds and 7.5 blocks. In his past three games, he has made 21-of-23 shots, which means he’s spending a lot of time flushing the ball through the net on the heads of overmatched opponents. If he keeps improving between now and March, he’ll be illegal.
Doug McDermott (31), Creighton. It’s not just the Jimmer Effect that demands close consideration of national player of the year candidates from outside the Big Six conferences. McDermott deserves it on his own merits as a guy who has taken the Bluejays into the rankings – 23.4 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting a remarkable 62 percent from the field and 51 percent from 3-point range. He’s legit.
Jared Sullinger (32), Ohio State. Like the rest of the Buckeyes, Sullinger has spent most of this season efficiently operating without excessive attention and adulation; he’s basically done what was expected of him. That translates into numbers that are good but stop short of sensational (17.4 points, 9.1 rebounds), as he has shared offensive top billing with guard William Buford. But the 24-point, 13-rebound performance Sullinger dropped on Wisconsin in Madison on Saturday might be the sign that he’s ready to pick it up a notch down the stretch.
Isaiah Canaan (33), Murray State. The junior point guard has a little Jimmer in him. He’s a spree killer from 3-point range, hitting six or more in a game four times this season. He’s averaging 19 points per game but has only attempted more than 17 shots in a game once this season. Like Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried before him, Canaan is an atypical OVC player: He’s a big-timer at an out-of-the-way address.
Thomas Robinson (34), Kansas. Robinson was three minutes away Saturday from making a major statement about his player of the year status, both nationally and within the Big 12. But a 25-point, 13-rebound night at Missouri ended with a couple of costly turnovers in a little Jayhawks meltdown. Still, he’s right in the mix for any and all honors available.
Marcus Denmon (35), Missouri. The way Denmon roared out of his shooting slump against Kansas reminded everyone who the best player is for the balanced Tigers. He scored 29 spectacular, super-clutch points against the Jayhawks, then, just as impressively, backed it up with 25 Monday night to help Mizzou escape a trap game at Oklahoma. He and Robinson will duel for Big 12 POY – and maybe more – the rest of the way.
Draymond Green (36), Michigan State. One of The Minutes’ favorite players for his headiness and versatility. A deft passer, tenacious rebounder and improved shooter, Green leads the Spartans in scoring, rebounds and steals and is second in assists. And he’s evolved into the unquestioned leader of a team that has exceeded expectations to date.
Kevin Jones (37), West Virginia. He’s the one guy who stands out in the Big East. Jones leads the league in scoring (20.9 points) and rebounding (11.5) and is hugely responsible for the Mountaineers’ continued competitiveness. The only thing he’s doing wrong right now is shooting too many 3-pointers (1-of-11 in his past two games).
Coach who earned his comp car this week
Frank Haith (38), Missouri. He was not a popular hire with anybody, The Minutes included. But Haith has pushed every button astutely in a dream debut season at Missouri, taking the Tigers into the top five even after the season-ending knee injury suffered by big man Laurence Bowers.
Yes, Haith inherited a flush roster from predecessor Mike Anderson. But this group never played like it is now for Anderson. Haith has fostered a greater chemistry and produced great offensive cohesion while simultaneously letting this athletic team retain its fearless personality. Nice work.
Coach who should take the bus to work
Joe Pasternack (39), Arizona assistant. When California guard Jorge Gutierrez went flying into the Wildcats’ bench last week while saving a ball from going out of bounds, Pasternack reacted by angrily kicking him. In a subsequent statement issued by the school, Pasternack explained it as “a reflex in response to a player falling on top of me while running at top speed toward our bench.” No apology offered.
The Minutes sees players landing on opposing benches pretty routinely in college basketball, but does not see coaches kicking those players. The explanation is weak. Pasternack is lucky this didn’t become a bigger deal, especially at a time when the NCAA has tasked its officials with cracking down on unsportsmanlike behavior in the game.
When thirsty in the great college town of Columbia, Mo., The Minutes recommends – no, demands – a visit to the venerable Harpo’s (40). The beer is cold, the food is good, the gold stadium cups will last well beyond your lifetime and the atmosphere is college at its best. Check it out and thank The Minutes later.
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