by Nick Rotunno
Well basketball fans, it’s already late January and the season is moving right along. These past few weeks we’ve been treated to some first-rate conference matchups, some big-time games between ranked foes and vivid scenes from packed gymnasiums all over the country. Despite the freakish polar vortex, despite the ceaseless snow storms in the Midwest and Northeast, die-hard hoops fans still showed up and cheered on their teams. Hey, there’s no better place to warm up than a basketball arena packed with 10,000 fans. The Week in Review has been absent these past few weeks, but now it’s back in force with a special 1.5-week extended edition, a kind of conference-game vortex.
Glancing at the scores and the standings, perusing the Top 25, a few things caught my eye.
First of all, the best conferences in the country—the Big Ten, Big 12, the Pac—are doing what they always do this time of year: beating the crap out of each other. The college basketball season spreads itself out over five grueling months, November to March. To succeed in the hyper-competitive realm of Division I hoops, teams must not only win games but also stay healthy. If a decent team can survive the gauntlet of conference play intact—and, ideally, improve little by little throughout the year—it stands a good chance in the conference tourney and beyond. As we’ve seen time and again, anything can happen in March… you just have to get there, and your roster has to be in pretty good shape.
Here are a few thoughts on the Top 10 teams in the country, according to the AP:
The Wildcats are 18-0 and fresh off a 23-point drubbing of Arizona State. The scariest thing about this team? It’s still getting better.
The boys from upstate New York are defensively adept, offensively potent and coached by one of the greatest of all time. Oh, and the Orange are still undefeated.
3. Michigan State
Always solid, always well-coached, the Spartans will vie for a conference title again this year. If Keith Appling plays his best ball, MSU could be Final Four-bound. Huge game against Michigan this weekend.
The surprise team of the season thus far. Nobody thought the Wildcats would be this good, but here they are at No. 4 and 16-2. Jay Wright is consistently overlooked as one of the top coaches in the nation. He’s good, and so’s his team (kindly overlook that Creighton blowout described below, which was certainly an anomaly).
5. Wichita State
The Shockers are among the most complete teams in the country, and still undefeated at 19-0 (they took care of Illinois State on the road Wednesday). Inside, outside, the Shockers defend and pass and shoot the ball extremely well, and CleAnthony Early is a pro. It’s very possible, with Creighton now in the Big East, that Wichita State will run the table in the slightly down MVC.
Billy Donovan’s Gators are 15-2 and could be the best team in the SEC. Looks like a two-horse race in the Southeast between the Gators and Kentucky, but after a few questionable performances from the Wildcats, I’d say Florida is the conference favorite. Just to emphasize that statement, the Gators chomped a weak Georgia team by 22 points last Tuesday then traveled to Auburn and secured a 7-point W.
7. San Diego State
This team is much better than most people realize. This season the Aztecs have beaten Creighton (a win that keeps looking better and better), Marquette, Washington and Kansas, and their only loss was against Arizona back in November. Most recently they hammered San Jose State 75-50. Would you want to face the Aztecs in any round of the NCAA Tournament? No, you would not.
Look out, people, the Jayhawks are figuring things out. Kansas has beaten four ranked teams in its last four games: Kansas State, Iowa State in Ames, Oklahoma State and Baylor. Granted, three of those games were in the friendly confines of the Phog, but Bill Self has this team turned around and headed toward a conference title. KU is playing more fluid offense, staunch defense and is using its athleticism to get easy points. Andrew Wiggins may not be an elite scorer, but he’s a fine all-around ballplayer (his defense has been especially good of late) who has seemingly bought into Self’s selfless system.
The Badgers have returned to Earth with a few recent Big Ten losses. They got knocked around a little bit, but they’re still littered with sharpshooters and fun to watch. If Wisco is hitting shots and grabbing the lion’s share of the rebounds, the Badgers can beat anyone in the conference. Don’t write them off just yet.
It gives me great joy to see my beloved Hawkeyes in the Top 10. Iowa had won three conference games in a row before dropping a tough road game at Michigan on Wednesday night (see below). Deep, skilled and gritty in the post, the Hawks are hunting for a conference title this season, and they just might get it.
So that’s how the Top 10 shakes out, in my view. Now let’s get rolling on this week’s recaps.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Colorado 57, No. 1 Arizona 69
It seems every time Arizona steps on the floor the Wildcats are markedly better than their opponent, and Thursday night was no exception. ‘Zona was up big at the half, 39-24, but the Buffs are a resilient Pac-12 foe and they kept chipping away in the second frame, taking advantage of some poor perimeter shooting from the Wildcats to keep the game fairly close. At home, though, Arizona is all but unbeatable, and without leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie (injured and out for the season) the Buffaloes didn’t have the firepower to really challenge the ‘Cats.
Nick Johnson scored 18 for Arizona, Brandon Ashley had 15 and freshman forward Aaron Gordon chipped in 12. Xavier Johnson scored a game-high 21 to lead Colorado.
Arizona didn’t have a great second half, and it was only three-15 from behind the arc. No matter. Stingy defense, strong play from the talented Johnson and a big home court advantage allowed the Wildcats to stay undefeated against a dangerous, if wounded, Buffaloes squad.
No. 6 Florida 68, Alabama 62
Alabama isn’t know for it’s home court advantage, but the Crimson Tide faithful were fired up Thursday for a SEC showdown with surging Florida in Tuscaloosa. Trevor Releford, a great little guard who doesn’t get much national recognition outside of SEC country, ran the show for Alabama and collected 14 points and 4 assists. But the Tide, without second-leading scorer Retin Obasohan (out with a strained hip flexor), couldn’t hold back the Gators and their timely outside shooting.
Florida’s Michael Frazier III was on fire in this one, racking up 18 points and hitting 5 three-pointers. At one point in the second half, with Alabama hanging around, Frazier hit two threes in a row to give the Gators a comfortable margin. The Crimson Tide pulled within five with just over a minute remaining, but Florida knocked down its free throws and secured its fifth SEC win.
The Gators are 16-2 and flexing some muscle in the SEC.
No. 9 Wisconsin 68, Minnesota 81
Wednesday was a big night for college basketball, highlighted by this Big Ten matchup at The Barn in Minneapolis. Richard Pitino’s Gophers earned a big home win against a Wisconsin team that has revealed a few weaknesses in recent days.
Minnesota led from start to finish, behind 18 points apiece from DeAndre Mathieu and Mo Walker. The Gophers like to run-and-gun, and Mathieu can really move, slithering into tight spaces to get off high-percentage shots. And Walker, who lost 60 pounds last summer according to the AP, simply overpowered any Badger assigned to check him.
“We’ve got very good chemistry. When things are clicking, it’s tough to overcome,” Pitino told the AP. “I think these guys truly believe that the whole is greater than the parts.”
Sharp-shooting Sam Dekker registered 20 points and 6 rebounds for the Badgers, who only shot 5-20 from three-point range—a departure from their normally high long-range percentage. Part of the problem was Frank Kaminsky, the best three-point shooter in the conference, was saddled with early foul trouble and couldn’t play his customary minutes.
Minnesota had no trouble scoring the basketball in its home barn—the Gophers shot nearly 59 percent from the field.
Wisconsin, which started the year 16-0, has lost its last three games.
No. 10 Iowa 67, No. 21 Michigan 75
Another big Wednesday night tilt in the Big Ten. Nik Stauskas scored 26 points to lead the surging Wolverines past a talented Hawkeyes team in Ann Arbor. It was Michigan’s eighth-straight victory.
With Stauskas raining shots, Glenn Robinson III using his explosive athleticism around the rim, and little Spike Albrecht (remember ole Spike, from last year’s title game?) running roughshod down the court, Iowa had all it could handle from the Wolverines, especially on their home floor. Robinson finished with 14 points, while the quick-handed Albrecht racked up 7 points, 7 dimes and 4 steals.
Sixty-seven points is a low total for this year’s Iowa Hawkeyes, who would prefer to score in the high 70s or 80s. Iowa didn’t shoot all that badly (47.2 percent from the field) but only hit 2-10 from three-point territory, a big part of their offensive attack. Michigan fired a whopping 27 three-balls and hit 8 of them; Stauskas was personally 4-9 from behind the arc. Statistically it was a very even game.
Aaron White and Melsahn Basabe scored 17 points apiece for Iowa.
No. 13 UMass 55, Richmond 58
A big upset in the A10 on Wednesday as the Spiders took down the talented Minutemen. Richmond guard Kendall Anthony, all of 5-8, knocked down his first four three-point shots and just kept cruising, finishing his night with 21 points on 8-14 shooting from the field. Umass’s own diminutive and dynamic guard, Chaz Williams, was bottled up for much of the evening and only scored 8 points (2-11 shooting), a testament to the Spiders defense.
Still, it was close in the end. Late in the second half with Richmond leading, Sampson Carter and Cady Lalanne scored for UMass to make the score 55-53. Then Cedrick Lindsay, normally Richmond’s top scorer, made three critical free throws in the final minute to steal the game for the Spiders.
No. 22 Kansas State 64, Texas 67
Longhorns forward Jonathan Holmes knocked down a corner three-pointer at the buzzer to give Texas a three-point victory over Big 12 rival Kansas State on Tuesday.
With three seconds left, following a timeout to set up the play, Texas’s Isaiah Taylor found Holmes in the corner. Covered by two defenders, he rose and fired. Swish.
“I just caught it and shot it,” Holmes told the Associated Press.
This was a tight ballgame for all 40 minutes. Texas center Cameron Ridley battled his counterpart Thomas Gipson for much of the night, both men working hard in the post and scoring plenty of points—Ridley with 18, Gipson with 24.
Ultimately Holmes’s heroics won the game for Texas, but it easily could have gone K-State’s way.
The Longhorns are now sitting at 15-4 (4-2) and could be a sleeper for that elusive Big 12 title.
Creighton 96(!), No. 4 Villanova 68
We’ve known for a while now that Creighton shoots the long ball exceptionally well, but rarely has there ever been a three-point fusillade like the one the Jays fired on Monday. Creighton went 21-35 from behind the arc, an eye-popping 60 percent. The Jays shot better from three-point land than from the field as a whole (56.9 percent).
At one point in the first half, Creighton was up by 28 points. Ethan Wragge went bananas, hitting 9 three-pointers and finishing with 27 points. It was simply nutty.
Creighton, oddly enough, lost to Providence on Saturday 81-68.
“Providence did a better job sticking with Wragge,” a shell-shocked Jay Wright, Villanova head coach, told reporters afterward.
The 21 three-balls broke a previous Creighton record of 20.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Ethan Wragge, Creighton
Yea, anytime you hit 9 three-pointers in one game, you get Player of the Week Honors. Wragge scored 27 points in the Creighton absurdity described above. Eight of those threes, by the way, came in the first half. Teammate Doug McDermott told reporters that he wasn’t surprised by Wragge’s outburst; the kid often shoots better than that in practice.
Wragge’s 9 shots tied a record set by Kyle Korver back in 2003. Nice work, Mr. Wragge.
GAMES I’LL BE WATCHING
No. 21 Michigan vs No. 3 Michigan State, Saturday, 7:00 EST
A great in-state matchup between two conference rivals.
No. 4 Villanova vs Marquette, Saturday, 2:00 EST
Can the Wildcats rebound after a tough loss with a win over Marquette?
Texas vs No. 24 Baylor, Saturday, 1:30 EST
Coming off a nice win over Kansas State, Texas travels to Baylor for a Big 12 shootout.
Xavier vs Providence, Saturday, 12:00 EST
Two unranked teams that you might find in the Top 25 by season’s end.
Utah vs No. 1 Arizona, Sunday 8:00 EST
Utah is good, but the Wildcats look impregnable. Can the Utes make it a game?
LAST WEEK IN REVIEW (January 12-18)
Since we couldn’t get a recap in last week, I decided to include these matchups today. Yes, it’s a little dated, but these games were noteworthy and fun, so I cherry-picked a few for your reading pleasure.
No. 3 Wisconsin 72, Indiana 75
The Hoosier faithful stormed the floor last Tuesday night as unranked Indiana knocked off then-No. 3, undefeated Wisconsin in Bloomington, a season-saving win for Tom Crean’s crew. Dynamic Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell caught fire in the second half, scoring on layups, three-pointers and pretty midrange jumpers, sometimes falling away from the basket, sometimes slipping into the lane, planting a foot and launching a smooth pull-up. He finished with 25 points on the night, 19 of which came in the second frame.
Wisconsin had a chance to tie the game late when Ben Brust launched a three-pointer from the corner that missed badly. Brust, perhaps thinking he had less time than the 5 seconds remaining on the clock, forced the shot and Indiana secured the rebound. Game, Hoosiers.
“To the team, it means a great deal,” Crean told the AP. “To me, the team needs this [win]. It’s amazing what happens when some real confidence starts to come.
In addition to Ferrell’s performance, the Hoosiers got some help from the always-energized Will Sheehey (13 points, 6 boards) and freshman guard Stanford Robinson (an unexpected 13 points). Indiana shot 51.6 percent from the field and our-rebounded the Badgers 33-28 in an all-around well played game.
Wisconsin wasn’t bad, either. Led by Traevon Jackson and his 21 points, Wisconsin shot 53 percent from the field (and about 30 percent from three-point land).
The Badgers are no longer undefeated, but they’re still among the nation’s elite teams. The Big Ten, as always, will be up for grabs this year.
No. 13 Kentucky 85, Arkansas 87
A wild one down in Fayetteville. With about 2 seconds left on the clock, Andrew Harrison, wide open on the wing, knocked down a three-pointer to tie the score at 74 and send the game to overtime.
Then, in the waning moments of the extra period, Kentucky scrambled to corral a loose rebound and found James Young at the top of the key, who calmly stroked a three-pointer and tied the game 85-all. Arkansas guard Rashad Madden dribbled up-court, stopped and fired a wing three-pointer that missed a little long and a little left, bouncing high off the rim. Charging in from the opposite side of the court, no one blocking him out, Michael Qualls leapt for the ball and slammed it home with two hands just as the buzzer sounded. Crazy play, crazy conference win for the Razorbacks.
“Crashing the boards in that type of situation is the best time to crash the boards,” Qualls told the AP. “I just saw an opportunity and took it.”
Qualls and Madden scored 18 points apiece for the Razorbacks. Qualls added 5 rebounds to his stat line, including 3 offensive boards. On the Kentucky side, swingman James Young played an excellent 23-point, 6-rebound game, while freshman man-child Julius Randle added 20 points of his own.
“It was an unbelievable finish,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson told reporters.
Kentucky and its talented roster are now 12-4 on the season; Arkansas, surprisingly, has the exact same record.
Butler 60, No. 20 Creighton 88
Yea, Creighton is pretty tough at home. On paper this looked like a great game—the Butler Bulldogs, a decent squad this season with a legacy of defensive tenacity and tough-mindedness, versus Creighton and the Fightin’ McDermotts. Sadly it was over by halftime Tuesday, and the Jays coasted to a 28-point victory over a brand new Big East rival.
Star forward Doug McDermott scored 28 points to lead all scorers. Creighton is a favorite for the Big East title; Butler, however, is in the midst of a five-game losing streak and trending down.
St. John’s 75, DePaul 77
My late grandfather was a DePaul alumnus, so naturally we root for the Demons here. Any Big East victory for DePaul is cause for celebration, and this was a good win over a Johnnies squad that—frankly—is underachieving this season. Billy Garrett Jr. led the Demons with 21 points.
No. 15 Kansas 77, No. 8 Iowa State 70
The famous Hilton Coliseum magic wasn’t enough to save Iowa State in this marquee Big 12 matchup on Monday night. Freshman star Andrew Wiggins was quietly spectacular for the Jayhawks, scoring 17 points, snagging 19 rebounds and playing excellent defense. Naadir Tharpe dropped in a game-high 23 points, while rangy 7-footer Joel Embid had 16 points, 9 rebounds and 5 blocked shots.
After an impressive 14-0 start, ISU has dropped its last two conference games. The Cyclones were outmuscled on the glass in this one, 53-36; ISU doesn’t have much size up front and it showed. It also shot the three-pointer much less efficiently than it normally does (just 4-25 from behind the arc). Adding to Iowa State’s troubles, top scorer DeAndre Kane is still battling an ankle injury he suffered on Saturday against Oklahoma.
As for the Jayhawks, well, just when we were all set to write them off, Bill Self has this team motivated and playing its best ball of the season.
No. 20 Iowa 84, No. 3 Ohio State 74
At last, my beloved Hawkeyes beat a quality Big Ten team on the road! Roy Devin Marble, one of the best all-around ballplayers in the conference, scored 22 points for Iowa. Forward Aaron White chipped in 19 and Melsahn Besabe racked up 11 points and 10 rebounds for a Hawkeyes team that finally closed the deal on a marquee win. According to the AP, it was Iowa’s first win over a Top 5 team since 2001, and it came one week after Iowa had Wisconsin on the ropes in Madison but couldn’t ice the game.
Ohio State logged an uncharacteristic 17 turnovers on Sunday, including several key miscues in the second half. The Buckeyes have now lost two conference games in a row—last week’s loss at Michigan State being the first—and have since dropped out of the Top Ten.
PLAYER OF (LAST) WEEK: Tre Demps, Northwestern
Northwestern hasn’t had a great year so far, but the Wildcats scored an impressive Big Ten victory over a ranked Illinois squad last Sunday in Evanston, 49-43. Tre Demps scored 11 points for the Wildcats, which seems fairly average at first glance—until you factor in when he scored most of those points. He knocked down three three-pointers in three minutes (almost poetic, isn’t it?) late in the second half, building up a lead the Wildcats wouldn’t relinquish. Well done, Mr. Demps, a fine showing. You are the Week in Review Player of the Week.