by Nick Rotunno
I can’t believe it, but we’re already five weeks into the college basketball season. Time certainly flies when every game is an opportunity or a challenge; when teams are hoping to get noticed, to notch that marquee win over a big-time opponent, to impress the poll voters.
The season is a journey, sure, but that journey is well underway. Christmas is almost here, and in just a couple of weeks I’ll be talking about conference games.
That said, here are my pre-holiday impressions after a strong start to the college basketball season (in no particular order):
1. The freshmen are for real. All the pre-season hype swirling around Wiggins, Parker, Randle and Gordon is entirely justified.
2. No 1. Arizona is one heck of team, but it will be challenged from within its own conference (I’m thinking UCLA and Oregon will battle the ‘Cats for the Pac-12 crown, and possibly Colorado, which scored an impressive buzzer-beating win over Kansas last week).
3. In my opinion, the Big Ten and the ACC are the two best leagues in the country. The Pac-12, Big 12 and A-10 aren’t far behind.
4. The new hand-check rules seem to be working…for the most part. Some games are foul-fests, while others are just like last year, with a physical, just-let-‘em-play style. There’s always an adjustment period for this kind of thing, and I think the players have figured out how games are going to be called. All that’s needed is consistent officiating, game to game, conference to conference.
5. UMass is legit.
6. Likewise Villanova.
7. Doug McDermott will quietly have another phenomenal season, another statistical atom bomb, and you probably won’t notice because he plays for Creighton. (Per NCAA.com, the star senior is averaging 25.3 points per game, second in the nation.)
8. No. 7 Oklahoma State looked like the top team in the Big 12—and one of the top teams in all the land—but Iowa State is playing terrific basketball and could make a run at the conference title.
And now, on to the recaps. Monday night was pretty low-key around college basketball; the most noteworthy game involving an upper-tier program was No. 8 Duke bashing Gardner-Webb by 19 points. This week promises more of the same, as players wrap up their final exams and ease into the Christmas festivities. Few coaches schedule tough this time of year; in college hoops world, the holidays signify a collective sigh of relief, a gathering of strength before the grind of the conference season.
But last weekend was a different story. Last weekend was a blast.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
No. 2 Syracuse 68, St. John’s 63
Jim Boeheim’s second-ranked Syracuse Orange held off a pesky Johnnies squad at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. Talented guard CJ Fair, a natural scorer for the Orange, finished with 21 points and knocked down three critical baseline jumpers late in the game to help Syracuse preserve its undefeated season. Freshman guard Tyler Ennis also scored 21 points for Syracuse; he shot 50 percent from the field and knocked down all 10 free throws he attempted.
This was a fun game to watch. The Orange were typically stingy on defense, using their length and speed to frustrate St. John’s in the halfcourt. The Johnnies are athletic and can really get down the court in a hurry, so they were successful in transition, but if you’re going to beat Syracuse and the 2-3 zone you’re going to have to hit a few three-pointers; St. John’s was just 1-15 from beyond the arc.
D’Angelo Harrison played well for the Johnnies—he scored a team-high 21 points and grabbed 6 rebounds.
Ennis is an impressive player. Just a freshman, the 6-2 guard from Brampton, Ontario, already plays a heady game. He never seems to hurry, makes the right pass and knows how to use his body to shield defenders.
“As a freshman point guard, he is playing better than any I ever had, and I’ve had a few pretty good freshman guards,” Boeheim told the Associated Press. “If he played like a freshman, we’d be 7-3. He’s been the difference in our team.”
With Ennis and Fair dishing the ball and scoring when needed, the Orange boast one of the most dangerous backcourts in the country.
La Salle 52, No. 10 Villanova 73
Villanova notched another blowout win on Sunday at The Pavilion, racing past La Salle in the second half to earn its 10th victory of the year. Darrun Hilliard scored 21 points and Josh Hard had 13 to lead the Wildcats past an overmatched Explorers squad.
After starting the season unranked and under the radar, Jay Wright’s team has logged big wins over Kansas and Iowa, as well as victories against fellow Philly schools Penn and St. Joe’s. Collectively, the Wildcats were 25-51 from the field on Sunday.
Western Michigan 60, No. 24 Missouri 66
Mizzou needed all 15 points from Jabari Brown as the Tigers managed to hold off Western Michigan in Columbia on Sunday. The normally high-scoring Tigers only had 31 points in the first half but still built a nine-point lead by intermission. Early in the second frame the Broncos used an 11-4 run to close the deficit to 35-33, but that was as close as Western Michigan would get. Despite 14 turnovers and an offense that seemed out-of-sync, Mizzou closed out the win and remained undefeated this year.
Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross added 12 points apiece for the Tigers. David Brown led Western Michigan with 18 points, while Shayne Whittington posted a 16-point, 10-rebound double-double.
Not Missouri’s best effort, but a win is a win.
No. 1 Arizona 72, Michigan 70
There was talk last week that Arizona might lose its Number 1 ranking Saturday if the Wildcats couldn’t handle a tough road game against Michigan. But Arizona didn’t buckle, kept clawing in the second half and left snowy Ann Arbor with a marquee win on its resume.
In a ballgame characterized by fast tempo, good shooting and thunderous dunks, Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III stood out. He was on fire in the first half, scoring the bulk of his 20 points in the opening 20 minutes, including a feathery step-back three-pointer a few seconds before the halftime buzzer. Guard Caris LeVery also played well for the Wolverines, dashing into the lane and finding ways to finish at the rim. He finished with 15 points on the night.
Michigan had a 37-28 lead at the half and opened an 11-point margin early in the second frame, but the Wildcats didn’t fade away. Freshman sensation Aaron Gordon was his usual dynamic self—he was 7-11 from the field and scored 14 points. Wildcats Kaleb Tarczewski and Nick Johnson also scored 14 points each, but it was Arizona forward Brandon Ashley who battered the Wolverines in the post. Michigan had no answers for the 6-8 sophomore, who tallied 18 points and snared 6 rebounds. With 1:30 left in the game Ashley drove across the lane, pivoted around his defenders and scored on a nifty bank shot, giving Arizona a one-point lead. After some key rebounds and made free throws, the Wildcats secured a slim victory.
Arizona clearly dominated the interior, winning the rebounding battle 37-24. On the offensive glass the Wildcats outperformed Michigan 17-6. On the hand, Michigan was the better long-range shooting team Saturday—the Wolverines netted eight three-pointers to Arizona’s four.
Wildcats coach Sean Miller knew his team had just beaten a solid opponent—last year’s national runner-up, remember—in a very tough barn.
“This was as quality of a win as you can have, in my opinion, in the country,” Miller told the AP.
No. 11 Kentucky 77, No. 18 North Carolina 82
Behind Marcus Paige and his 23 points, the up-and-down Tar Heels held serve at the Dean Dome on Saturday versus an equally mercurial Kentucky team. Both teams pressed the issue on offense, forcing 56 personal fouls over 40 minutes of basketball.
Paige took over late in the game—he had 21 of his points in the second half and finished 6-13 from the field. James Michael McAdoo had one of those games we’ve always known he’s capable of having, racking up 20 points, five rebounds and two steals. JP Tokoto added 15 points for the Tar Heels on an efficient 7-10 from the field.
Rough free-throw shooting was a theme: Kentucky was 29-43; UNC was 26-45 (57.8 percent!).
Aaron Harrison paced the Wildcats with 20 points, while brother Andrew added 17. Kentucky is talented; we know that much. Julius Randle is one of the best forwards in the country (he had a quiet 11 and 5), the Harrisons are gifted and Willie Cauley-Stein is becoming a premiere rebounder (12 boards versus UNC). But the Wildcats have no real floor leadership at this point, they’re turnover prone and they’re not shooting well enough to win games on talent alone. It’s all a product of youth. If anyone can make this team work, though, it’s John Calipari.
No. 5 Michigan State 67, Oakland 63
The Spartans held on against a stubborn Oakland team on Saturday at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Branden Dawson was huge for the Spartans, scoring 16 points and grabbing 13 boards to lead MSU to its eighth victory of the season. I saw this score and figured it was a big red flag for Sparty Nation; after all, how does a nominal national contender beat Oakland, of the mighty Horizon League, by just four points on a neutral floor? The Golden Grizzlies were 2-8 when this game was played. 2-8!
But then I looked at Oakland’s schedule, and realized their early non-conference slate was pretty bonkers—the Grizzlies’ first four games were against North Carolina, UCLA, Cal and Gonzaga (all losses, of course, but still…did anyone in the country face a tougher start?).
Regardless, the jury is still out on MSU. A December 21 game at Texas should be a good road test.
No. 23 Iowa 82, No. 17 Iowa State 85
My beloved Hawkeyes lost a tough one Friday night against a very good Iowa State team at rocking Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones’ Georges Niang scored two of his team-high 24 points with 18 seconds left on the clock to give Iowa State the lead.
Then Iowa guard Mike Gesell missed a pair of free throws, Dustin Hogue hit two freebies for the ‘Clones and Zach McCabe missed a three that would’ve tied it up.
In a battle of two fast-paced, quick-shooting teams, Iowa held the upper hand for most of the game. Iowa State tied the score at 62 with 10 minutes left and the two squads went bucket for bucket down the stretch. Ultimately, poor free throw shooting from Iowa and some clutch shots from ISU sealed the deal for the Cyclones.
Aaron White had 25 points and 17 rebounds to lead the Hawkeyes. Melvin Ejim scored 22 for ISU.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Russ Smith, Louisville
Russ-diculous scored 14 points and doled out 10 assists in a 79-63 victory over Western Kentucky on Saturday. The scary thing about that comprehensive stat line is that it’s something of a ho-hum performance for Smith. The hyper-quick, high-scoring guard is still doing his thing for the Cardinals, last year’s national champs. Louisville sits at 9-1 and should lead the American Conference from start to finish this season, in large part because of Smith’s nightly doses of energy and shot-making.
GAMES I’LL BE WATCHING
No. 16 Florida vs No. 15 Memphis, Tuesday, 9 p.m. EST
Two teams with designs on the postseason square off in Madison Square Garden.
Texas vs No. 14 North Carolina, Wednesday, 7 p.m. EST
The unranked Longhorns look for a big win over talented UNC.
UCLA vs No. 8 Duke, Thursday, 7:30 p.m. EST
A battle of two blue-blooded programs. Duke is ranked, but UCLA is 9-1.
No. 3 Ohio State vs Notre Dame, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EST
Can OSU stay unbeaten through the weekend? We’ll find out when they face a surging Notre Dame team.
No. 5 Michigan State vs Texas, Saturday, 4 p.m. EST
MSU travels to Austin for a tough game against the Longhorns.
No. 7 Oklahoma State vs No. 20 Colorado, Saturday, 11:30 p.m. EST
A showdown in the Rockies between two very good squads. Can the surging Buffaloes slow down Marcus Smart and the Cowboys?