by Nick Rotunno
As I write these words, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Grants Pass, OR (if you’ve never heard of Grants Pass, you’re not alone), watching the Utah Jazz play the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Utah’s Gordon Hayward just dunked on a fast break. He’s playing well tonight—a few minutes earlier, he threw down a nice alley-oop pass.
Remember Gordon? The lanky forward with the smooth outside stroke, the best player on Butler’s 2010 Final Four squad. That was the year, recall, when the Cinderella Bulldogs, young Brad Stevens at the helm, played Duke for the National Title in Indianapolis, and Hayward just missed a running half-court shot at the buzzer that would’ve won it for Butler.
Hayward is a little older now, more filled out, growing into his role on the Jazz. He’s also sporting an odd scraggly chin-beard thing, which he definitely didn’t have at Butler. Watching him play now, I’m instantly reminded of the glorious unpredictability of college basketball. The magic of it.
Think of that last-second shot, that Hail-Mary heave. When I say it just missed, I mean it just missed. Like, by an inch. Had it gone in, and had the upstart Bulldogs beaten the mighty Blue Devils and their all-but-invincible Coach K, the entire college basketball apple cart would’ve toppled spectacularly. A small mid-major school from Indianapolis—literally down the street from Lucas Oil Stadium, the Final Four venue—would’ve defeated the ultimate blueblood. The blueblood of all bluebloods, really.
Alas, it didn’t happen, and it still didn’t happen a year later, when Butler—inconceivably—returned to the Final Four and again fell short, this time to Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies.
Wonderfully, college basketball is full of surprises and improbable things going on, and great stories tend to develop and percolate throughout the regular season, building their own kind of momentum, until finally they explode into national consciousness during the NCAA Tournament in March. This happens year after year.
George Mason comes along, or Butler, or VCU. An unheralded player bursts onto the scene. The madness takes over.
But it all starts in November, and it takes shape all year long. We follow these stories because it’s fun, because we sort of care too much, and because we love the game. The whole season flows brilliantly into March, but there’s a whole lot to talk about before then.
Who will be the next Gordon Hayward or Stephen Curry? Who’s the next Butler? We’ll find out soon enough. For now, let’s enjoy the journey.
Which (at last) brings me to this new column. All that stuff about Gordon Hayward was just a prelude.
Since college hoops is so far-flung and ever-evolving, it’s pretty hard to cover from top to bottom with just one weekly column. So, here are the basic parameters: I’ll talk about the week’s most important/intriguing games, then preview some of the upcoming contests. The focus will be on the top-25 teams in the country and the power six conferences, but I’ll try to throw in some mid-major love too (after that Butler-inspired raving above, how could I ignore the mids?).
If time and space allow, I’ll include a couple of crazy stats or interesting stories that come down the road. The idea is to cover the big games and the biggest news.
WEEK IN REVIEW—December 31
GAME OF THE WEEK: Colorado 83, No. 3 Arizona 92 (OT)
Thursday night’s Pac-12 clash between Colorado and undefeated Arizona had all the makings of a college hoops classic: an upset brewing, extremely clutch shot-making, overtime, and a controversial three-pointer at the end of regulation. For those reasons and more, it’s our inaugural Game of the Week.
The Buffaloes took this game by the horns. Colorado opened a seven-point lead by halftime, and at one point in the second frame, the Buffs led by 16. Then Arizona settled down, chipping away at the lead until Mark Lyons drove to the rim, got hit and made two free throws to knot the score at 80.
With 9.3 seconds left, Colorado brought the ball slowly up court, ran a dribble-handoff and gave the ball to Sabatino Chen. Just as the clock expired, the left-handed senior rose up and banked in a three-pointer that seemingly won the game. The Buffaloes stormed on to the court, arms outstretched, but their celebration was premature. The officials held a powwow at the fancy flat-screen replay monitor and decided that Chen had been one-tenth of a second too late. No basket.
Visibly deflated, Colorado was no match for Arizona in overtime. Lyons led all scorers with 24 points, and went 10-10 from the free-throw line. Chen had a team-high 15 points for the Buffs.
Colorado coach Tad Boyle was understandably peeved. “If it’s the wrong call, I’m really, really sick to my stomach, because we had guys in this locker room that deserved to win that game,” he told the Associated Press.
New Year’s Eve featured a heavy dose of college hoops, with several teams opening conference play early. Here are the highlights from a full docket of Monday mayhem (all rankings are AP):
No. 18 Michigan State 63, No. 9 Minnesota 76
The Big Ten is loaded this season, but Minnesota could make some serious noise. The Gophers kicked off the conference schedule with a solid win at home against Michigan State. Minnesota spread the wealth on Monday: Andre Hollins had 22 points, Rodney Williams scored 15 and big senior Trevor Mbakwe—back on the floor after an ACL injury knocked him out last year—dropped in 11 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Sitting at 13-1, Minnesota and coach Tubby Smith have proved they’re a program to be reckoned with.
Predictably, Tom Izzo’s Spartans began the season with a couple of tough games that’ll stand out on their Tournament resume. Their opening contest ended in a loss to UConn, but MSU rallied to beat a very good Kansas team on Nov. 13. Over the past six weeks, Sparty has looked decent against mostly low-caliber competition. The jury’s still out on Michigan State. Its next three games—conference matchups against Purdue, Iowa and Nebraska—should be a good litmus test.
No. 10 Gonzaga 69, No. 22 Oklahoma State 68
Mark Few’s 10th-ranked Gonzaga squad is off to another great start—the Bulldogs have already knocked off West Virginia, Oklahoma and Baylor this season, and Monday’s tight victory at Oklahoma State brought the Zags’ record to 13-1 (their only loss came against Illinois in early December). Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos led all scorers with 23 points as the Zags fended off a talented OSU team in Stillwater. Keep this road victory in mind if Gonzaga makes a long Tourney run come March.
Upperclassmen Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris anchor the Gonzaga frontcourt; both players are averaging around 15 points per game. The versatile Olynyk has blossomed this season—it could have something to do with his lush cascade of brown hair, arguably the finest mop in all of Division I. Pangos and fellow guard Gary Bell Jr can both score from distance, and Bell is an excellent on-ball defender. There’s already talk in Spokane that this Gonzaga team could be Few’s best ever.
Late update: The Zags knocked off Pepperdine Thursday night to win their West Coast Conference opener.
No. 14 Cincinnati 70, No. 24 Pittsburgh 61
Cincy’s Cashmere Wright was a bulldog at Pitt, shooting 50 percent from the field and racking up 18 points. Running mate Sean Kilpatrick scored 16, while JaQuon Parker added 13 points and 5 rebounds for the Bearcats. That Cincy backcourt, with the speedy Wright as a primary ball-handler, will give a lot of teams headaches this season. All in all, a tidy performance from Cincinnati in a tough barn.
Pitt missed all 10 three-pointers it took and only shot 60 percent from the charity stripe. That won’t get it done against a team like Cincinnati. Both these clubs will look to establish themselves in the always-competitive Big East—a league with some very big changes on the horizon. Enjoy these traditional conference rivalries while you still can.
No. 5 Indiana 69, Iowa 65
As an Iowa alumnus, I’m hoping for a good basketball season to offset the Hawkeyes’ dismal football campaign. Naturally I watched this game with great interest, as the highly ranked Indiana Hoosiers rolled into Carver-Hawkeye Arena for both teams’ Big Ten opener. Boosted by an excitable home crowd, Iowa hung with Indy for 20 minutes and was down by just eight points at halftime. But then Cody Zeller, that tall oak tree of a power forward, got all crazy in the second half, scoring 15 points (he would finish with 19 points and 10 rebounds, game-highs) and leading Tom Crean’s Hoosiers to their first conference victory of the young season.
Iowa never threw in the towel, but Zeller’s inside dominance and guard Victor Oladipo’s all-court brilliance sealed the deal. Oladipo, who tallied 14 points on the night, scored several clutch buckets late in the game. He just might be the finest guard in the country (watch him play—his court sense and change of pace are elite level), and 13-1 Indiana could be headed to the Final Four.
The Hawkeyes, on the other hand, are probably not headed to the Final Four, but they have steadily improved over the past few seasons under coach Fran McCaffery, and they currently boast a respectable 11-3 record. I maintain that lanky Iowa forward Aaron White is by far the best redheaded basketball player in the Big Ten (he scored a team-high 15 points on Monday). The Hawks are coming, people. Watch out.
BEST GAME YOU PROBABLY DIDN’T WATCH
Harvard 69, St. Mary’s 70
Not the least intriguing aspect of this ballgame was the geography involved. Harvard traveled about 3,000 miles, from Cambridge to Moraga, and crossed three time zones in the process. Once the road-weary Crimson arrived, St. Mary’s squeaked out a win behind Mitchell Young’s 16 points and 8 boards. The Gaels were down 18 in the first half but came all the way back; St. Mary’s took its first lead with one second left in the game on a pair of free throws from Young. Always a tough out, especially in Moraga, the 11-3 Gaels could make a run at Gonzaga for the WCC crown.
Harvard’s Jonah Travis paced the Crimson with 19 points. Even though its record is an underwhelming 7-5, Harvard still might be the best team in the Ivy League, and it showed some chops against a quality St. Mary’s roster. Columbia is also 7-5 (all non-conference games, of course), but second-place Princeton is just 5-7. The rest of the league bottoms out from there.