by Nick Rotunno
What a week.
From late-game heroics to cross-country rivalries, the last few days of college basketball have been fantastic. Arizona goes down, in exciting fashion. The Dukies stay perfect. Big Ten squads Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota vie for the top spot in the nation’s best conference. Great stuff.
Since the schedule was so full this time around, and because you 21st-Century readers probably already know the scores from last weekend, I’m going to pick carefully today. I’ll select—in my opinion—the most noteworthy game (or two) from each day of the past week, while including our regular Game of the Week, Best Game You Probably Didn’t Watch and POY features.
So, without further ado:
WEEK IN REVIEW—January 6
GAME OF THE WEEK: No. 4 Arizona 66, Oregon 70 (Thursday)
You can’t beat a riotous floor-storming, and that’s what transpired on Thursday night in Eugene.
The Wildcats brought an undefeated record to Matthew Knight Arena—a sparkling Nike temple on the northeast corner of the Oregon campus—but they left town with their first loss of the season. I bought a ticket for this one and watched from the nosebleeds as Oregon held off the Cats for an all-around impressive victory.
The Ducks were riding high after a Pac-12 win over archrivals and fellow pond-dwellers, the Oregon State Beavers, earlier in the week. In true Oregon style, they wore highlighter-yellow uniforms and matching lime-green Nikes on Thursday. Pretty cool or pretty ugly, depending on your point of view (and your age).
Early in the first half Oregon fell behind 11-0, but the Ducks rallied quickly. All the pre-game analysts were saying that Arizona’s major weakness was its defense, and true to form the Wildcats failed to rotate on the perimeter as Oregon knocked down shots. By halftime the Ducks were leading 41-30, and Arizona couldn’t pull any closer than eight points throughout most of the second frame.
Sharp-shooting Oregon maintained its lead until late in the game, when the Wildcats closed the deficit to three points with less than a minute remaining. Arizona got the ball with about nine seconds left, but the Wildcats turned it over and couldn’t get a shot off. After a pair of Oregon free throws, the kids rushed on to the floor as the buzzer sounded (Puddles, the overzealous Oregon Duck, was soon crowd-surfing).
Oregon was accurate all night long, especially from deep—the Ducks shot 7-11 from three-point range. A fired-up EJ Singler—younger brother of former Duke star, Kyle—led Oregon with 14 points, 7 assists and 3 steals. He is the Ducks’ most versatile player and one of the top forwards in the conference. Carlos Emory, Tony Woods and Dominic Artis had 10 points apiece for the Ducks. Arizona’s best guard, Mark Lyons, scored a game-high 21 points. Solomon Hill was probably the most talented player on the floor; he finished with 16 points and 6 boards.
Overall, both teams played a high-tempo style. They rarely settled for bad jumpers but attacked instead. Arizona’s guards were a touch quicker, but Oregon executed its offense to perfection. The Ducks are very good at slipping the screen-and-roll—time after time, Oregon’s athletic forwards would roll early off a high ball screen, catching Arizona flat-footed on the switch. It was crafty and effective, and the Wildcats couldn’t quite figure it out.
Both these teams could easily win the Pac-12, a conference that looks wide open. From what I’ve seen of the Ducks (13-2, 2-0), if they play to their potential and play well on the road, they might not only reach the NCAA Tournament but win a few games as well.
No. 15 Georgetown 48, Marquette 49
One of Saturday’s top games was this Big East tilt between a ranked Georgetown club and a tough Marquette squad. It came right down to the wire, as the Hoyas’ Greg Whittington was fouled on a three-point attempt that would have tied the game. He made the first two free throws but missed the third, giving Marquette a close-fought conference win.
Vander Blue paced the Golden Eagles with 12 points. Guard Trent Lockett grabbed 10 rebounds to go along with his 9 points. Marquette is now 11-3 and 2-0 in the Big East. With winnable games against Pitt, Seton Hall and No. 21 Cincinnati upcoming, don’t be surprised if the Golden Eagles break into the top 25.
BEST GAME YOU PROBABLY DIDN’T WATCH
Bucknell 64, (then) No. 12 Missouri 66
A much closer game than anticipated, this was.
Talented guard Phil Pressey scored 26 points as the Tigers fended off a stubborn Bucknell crew in Columbia. Opportune shooting and poise down the stretch keyed this victory for Mizzou, a team that looks ready to take command in the SEC. Pressey was brilliant, shooting 10-22 (3-6 from three-point land) and playing all but one minute of the game. Forward Laurence Bowers gave the Tigers some frontcourt presence, collecting 16 points and 8 rebounds.
But let’s not overlook the Bucknell Bison, who thundered into a very tough arena and nearly pulled out an improbable victory. Big man Mike Muscala dropped in 25 points, while backcourt mates Bryson Johnson and Cameron Ayers scored 11 and 13, respectively. The Bison weren’t afraid of this very athletic, deep Mizzou squad, but they turned the ball over 11 times and only shot 45 percent from the free-throw line. If a mid-major team is hunting for an upset, turnovers and free points are all-important.
Unfortunately for Missouri, senior Laurence Bowers sprained his MCL during the Tigers’ 84-68 win over Alabama on Tuesday. A consistent scorer and rebounder, Bowers is an important part of Missouri’s roster and one of its most experienced players. ESPN reported he will miss at least two games.
No. 17 Notre Dame 66, No. 21 Cincinnati 60
As Big East play heats up, Notre Dame is finding its stride. The 13-1 Irish buried 9 three-pointers and shot 50 percent from the field on Monday, besting a Bearcats club that has stumbled early in Big East play. Despite being out-rebounded 27-19, Notre Dame took care of business in Cincy and secured its second conference win. The Associated Press recap stressed Notre Dame’s ball movement—taking advantage of open looks, the Irish shot exactly 50 percent, cashed in 9 three-pointers and registered 14 assists. Smooth scorer Jerian Grant led the way with 19 points.
“There’s a culture of passing the ball here. We recruit basketball IQ guys, and I think there’s a lot of trust that we’re going to keep moving that thing. That’s why we have great balance,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey told reporters. “We can move it until we get the right guy to take the shot. And we enjoy moving it.”
Cincinnati has now lost three straight at home. The Bearcats travel to Rutgers on January 12, a game they should win.
Clemson 40, No. 1 Duke 68
The undefeated Blue Devils easily held serve at Cameron Indoor, thwacking a mediocre Clemson team by 28 points. Duke’s Quinn Cook led all scorers with 27. With North Carolina struggling and the rest of the ACC looking pretty average, Duke will likely run away with the conference title.
But the Blue Devils visit No. 20 North Carolina State on Saturday, a team that could challenge Duke for the ACC crown. NC State is the only currently ranked team Duke will face for the remainder of the regular season.
No. 15 Ohio State 74, Purdue 64
Ohio State managed a 10-point win over scrappy Purdue in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers scored a huge win over Illinois on Jan. 2, but lost to Michigan State three days later and couldn’t fend off the Buckeyes on Tuesday. Behind Deshaun Thomas’s game-high 22 points, Ohio State moved to 12-3 overall, 2-1 in the Big Ten. It was OSU coach Thad Matta’s 100th conference victory.
OSU is athletic and defensively sound. Aaron Craft (15 points against Purdue) is as good as any point guard in the country—an excellent on-ball defender and a savvy playmaker. Up front, the Buckeyes have Thomas, a legit star, and high-flying Sam Thompson. There have plenty of weapons, to be sure, but can the Buckeyes overtake Michigan or Indiana? Time will tell.
Characteristically, Mackey Arena was plenty loud during this game. Purdue made a run in the second half, boosted by the outstanding play of brothers Terone Johnson (18 points) and Ronnie Johnson (11 points, 7 assists). The Boilermakers closed to within six points with about three minutes left, but couldn’t quite catch the talented Buckeyes.
Iowa State 89, No. 6 Kansas 97 (OT)
The Cyclones traveled to Phog Allen Fieldhouse and gave Kansas all it could handle in regulation, but the Jayhawks’ Ben McLemore banked in a three-point shot with one second left in the game and tied the score at 79.
“When it left my hand, I actually called, Bank!” McLemore claimed. “It was a good release and it went in, so I’m glad.” I guess we’ll take his word for it.
In overtime Kansas took control, outdueling the Cyclones 18-10 in the extra frame. McLemore finished with 33 points, and Jeff Withey added 15 for the Jayhawks. As a team Kansas was 31-62 from the field.
Fred Hoiberg’s Iowa State club loves the long ball. The Cyclones hoisted 38 three-pointers and made 14 of them (36.8 percent). Forward Melvin Ejim hit three treys on his way to a double-double (19 points, 11 rebounds), and Will Clyburn had 16 points for the ‘Clones.
Kansas is 13-1 on the year. Its only loss was against Michigan State way back in November. I haven’t see much of the Jayhawks this season, but they certainly look like the team to beat in the Big 12.
No. 24 UNLV 60, No. 25 New Mexico 65
Big man Alex Kirk had 23 points and 9 rebounds for New Mexico, a team now boasting a 14-2 overall record.
The Lobos raced past a highly-touted UNLV squad and sensational freshman Anthony Bennett, who was whistled for his fourth foul early in the second half and managed just 12 points (he’d been averaging almost 20 per game). The Lobos didn’t shoot very well (22-57 from the field) but still secured their first Mountain West victory of the season.
Miami 68, North Carolina 59
What’s the deal with UNC? The Tar Heels are 10-5 overall with two conference losses, including this 9-pointer against Miami. In Chapel Hill! The Tar Heels are talented, no doubt, but Roy Williams has got some work to do.
While neither team shot the lights out, Miami was 25-53 from the field and hit 9 three-pointers. The Hurricanes had a balanced score sheet, too: Kenny Kadji scored 18, Julian Gamble had 14 and Durand Scott and Shane Larkin scored 11 each.
No. 22 Michigan State 62, Iowa 59
My beloved Hawkeyes were oh-so-close on Thursday night. Playing without leading scorer Devyn Marble, Iowa built an early lead and was up by four at halftime. MSU came back, though, taking the lead midway through the second half. With 12 seconds left in the game, Iowa had a chance to tie the score, but young Anthony Clemmons bricked a free throw and the Spartans ultimately prevailed.
MSU’s Brandon Davis led all scorers with 17 points. Spartans guard Keith Appling, Tom Izzo’s floor general, shrugged off a poor shooting night and knocked down several big free throws in the game’s waning moments.
Iowa played another game this week, at No. 2 Michigan. I will offer no comment, except to report that Michigan is still—decidedly—undefeated. Let’s get it together, Hawks.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Ben McLemore, Kansas
The aforementioned Mr. McLemore, he of the allegedly called, banked-in three-pointer to force overtime, scored 33 points against Iowa State on Wednesday night. Not only did he make that big shot at the end of regulation; he also recorded a remarkably efficient night. McLemore was 10-12 from the field, 6-6 from behind the arc and sunk all 7 free throws he attempted. Now that’s a fine outing.
GAMES I’LL BE WATCHING
No 1. Duke vs No. 20 North Carolina State, Saturday, 12:00 EST
The Blue Devils face their stiffest test of the conference season. Can they remain unbeaten?
No. 8 Minnesota vs No. 5 Indiana, Saturday, 12:00 EST
Two of the Big Ten’s best tangle in Bloomington.
No. 12 Illinois vs Wisconsin, Saturday, 2:15 EST
With a victory over Illinois, the Badgers would vault themselves into Big Ten title discussion.
Uconn vs No. 17 Notre Dame, Saturday, 2:00 EST
The Irish host the Huskies in a Big East battle.
Oklahoma State vs Oklahoma, Saturday, 3:00 EST
A rivalry game between two teams that will contend for a Big 12 crown.
No. 2 Michigan vs No. 15 Ohio State, Sunday, 1:30 EST
Another big-time Big Ten game, this one on national TV (CBS).
Northern Iowa vs No. 13 Creighton, Tuesday, 8:00 EST
A great matchup in years past, can the Panthers hang with a talented Creighton crew?
Georgia vs No. 10 Missouri, Wednesday, 8:00 EST
Missouri could run the table in the SEC this year. Will Georgia challenge the Tigers?
No. 25 New Mexico vs Boise State, Wednesday, 9:00 EST
New Mexico (14-2) heads to Boise for a Mountain West showdown.