The Week That Was
UNC Love, Tall Aussies in Utah and the Midnight Snack in the WAC.
Just a couple weeks remain until the most exciting sporting event this side of the World Cup! Most teams have just a few games remaining in conference and Selection Sunday is not far away (March 8). This past week was filled with teams losing (Butler, Utah State, Texas, again) and others showing their powerful mettle. North Carolina has suddenly won nine in a row and despite not being even close to full strength, the ‘Heels are still loaded to the gills and are starting to get contributions from their precocious freshmen class. I have to give Ty Lawson some love, too, as the point guard has been flat-out phenomenal.
I must also admit that I have given UNC very little attention this year, and I am really only adding them into this space as I noticed, upon editing, that I had again, omitted them from the Teams of the Week. I will admit to some snoozing. This week, I woke up from my slumber with Carolina’s impressive win in Coral Gables over the Miami Hurricanes. Granted, the ‘Canes are in a free-fall; but road wins in conference are all great, especially on the “Heels” of impressive road-punkings of Duke.
We will stray a bit from our general practice of community-related headlines by quickly breaking down last night’s monumental Big East battle in Hartford.
HEADLINE: Does the Win Mean Pitt is the Better Team?
Last night’s 76-68 victory by Pittsburgh on the road at UConn will immediately convince many around the nation that the Panthers are the better team and are more likely to make a long tournament run. They were physically more aggressive (no small feat against UConn) and to win a late-season road-game like last night’s proves their potential worth as a #1 seed.
But are they better than Connecticut?
Let’s examine a bit deeper. This was a game that was won by Pittsburgh’s stars, rather than a team approach that won out in the end. Early on it was Sam Young that was unstoppable and gave the visitors a lead they enjoyed for most of the first half. About midway through the first-half, DeJuan Blair began to not only exert his muscle inside against the Huskies’ Hasheem Thabeet, but he also forced the 7-3 center into foul and injury trouble.
With seven minutes left in the game, however, UConn enjoyed a five-point lead despite the lack of production from Thabeet and the omission of recently injured guard, Jerome Dyson. One Pitt star missing for most of the game was senior point guard LeVance Fields, who had struggled to get anything going against the defensive trio of AJ Price, Craig Austrie and Kemba Walker. With just under two left, the game was tied and Fields showed, hitting two-straight three-pointers (his first FGs of the game.) A sudden six-point lead wasn’t relinquished and the visitors got the win. Young finished with 25 points (on just 13 shots) and Blair put forth a gargantuan (especially considering the opponent) effort of 22 points and 23 rebounds. In addition, his physicality and fearlessness kept the recently scorching Thabeet to a quiet night of just 5 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 blocks in just 21 minutes of action.
Thankfully for basketball fans, this will not be the last time these two 24-2 teams meet. Not only will they will catch back up at “The Pete” in the Steel City in three weeks to finish the regular season, but hopefully there is a MSG rematch or a Final Four one still in the works.
TEAMS OF THE WEEK:
Oklahoma — Thirteen in a row; undefeated in conference; and the best player in the country are all a part of the Sooners’ current make-up. Blake Griffin has not only stayed consistent and productive against the big teams but has made extreme “hay” against those teams that are shorter in stature. Case in point, Griffin’s 40 and 23 night against Texas Tech this Saturday. He was also instrumental last week in OU’s impressive 15-point win on the road against Baylor, as was the grown-man play of freshman, Willie Warren. I think the maturation and consistency of this precocious youngster has been one of the season’s biggest surprises and one of the main reasons for the extended team success. Not only are the Sooners 25-1 (11-0) on the season but they also own noteworthy out-of-conference wins against Purdue, USC, Davidson, VCU and a surprising 18-point win over the sky-scraper-tall, Utah Utes. While most people will shy away from Oklahoma when it comes time to pick a tourney winner, the Sooners just might be the least chosen team that is most ready to make the six-win run in March.
Arizona — Before the season started, I predicted that this was one of (if not, the) best teams in the PAC-10. Granted this was all before that coaching nightmare went down and left an experienced, but shallow team in the hands of a complete novice, but I was still high on them even after they passed on offering Mike Dunlap a long-term deal (despite his resume which included NBA experience and multiple D-II national championships). I took serious grief from many of our readers and the Wildcats followed an inconsistent (but tough) out-of-conference campaign by losing five of their first seven in conference. They seemed done and most had written their season (and Chase Budinger’s promising pro career) off. Now winners of seven in a row, U of A held home serve this week against the Tinseltown tandem of USC and UCLA. At 18-8 and still alive for the Pac-10 title, Arizona’s argument for an NCAA bid is also validated by wins over Gonzaga, San Diego State and Kansas. This recent run just might also put one of the nation’s greatest sporting streaks back in play. The Wildcats’ 24-straight trips to the NCAA tourney is truly astonishing and with five winnable games left before the conference tourney, a 21- or 22-win year (with the aforementioned resume) should be more than enough to make it a quarter century since the Wildcats were at home in late-March.
(An aside, for the haters—In the last six games, Budinger averaged 21.5 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. He has been assertive and complimentary at the same time, as he, Jordan Hill and Nic Wise have more than carried their collective weight. Budinger has put forth his usual allotment of highlight-worthy bangs all while recovering from the face-stomping that proceeded his current stretch of great play. For real, a couple weeks ago, some dude on Houston literally used his sneakers and 200-plus pounds to smash Air Bud’s face into the hardwood.
Honorable Mention: Wisconsin (four in a row after losing six straight), Weber State (winners of eight in a row and boast six players that average at least 8 and 2.5- which looks simple, but is no simple task) and the Creighton Bluejays (started poorly but have ripped off six in a row to move into contention with Northern Iowa for the Valley title).
SCOUTING CORNER: Guess Who?
This week’s mystery player is a kid that is a pleasure to watch play the game. He is an active power forward with a big body and a lunch-pail mentality. He is a youthful (sometimes to a fault) power forward who plays with an ear-to-ear smile. In just a year-and-a-half, this guy has proved to be crafty in the post with good instincts around the hoop whether finishing a post move or fighting for loose balls and rebounds. This guy is not averse to diving on the ground and combines his nimble inside game with a nice passing ability out of the post.
He has way above-average defensive instincts for a guy of his size. In his career, he has averaged two steals a game in just 26 minutes of action, all from a 6-7, 250-pounder usually stuck down in the trenches. He has shown up against big comp, as well, getting double-doubles against many of the nation’s top teams.
This player is obviously a bit short for what will be his professional position, but he can be a good pro with further development on both ends of the court. I think he may need another year of the college game to also trim up his body in preparation for the pounding of the professional game/life. By then, he should be someone that can move into the mid-first-round range.
PLAYER ALERT: Is Utah a state in Australia?
Just a couple years removed from 7-foot Australian center, Andrew Bogut’s time in the SLC, Perth-native Luke Nevill is putting the finishing touches on another solid college career. At 7-2 and 265, Nevill is a tough one to miss on the basketball court but has largely been ignored by the national radar for the past few years. Already a 1700-point/800-plus-rebound guy, Nevill is more than just the imposing fixture in the middle getting 17 and 8 a night while shooting 60 percent from the floor. Despite the fact that his numbers (1.6 apg) don’t bear it out, this kid is a nifty little passer with a nice sense of the flow of the game and is strong around the hoop with both of his hands.
This season, he has made major strides in certain areas that should impress the NBA scouts. He has never been a dominating defensive presence but has made huge strides this year, upping not only his block totals (1.6 to 2.6) but he has also begun to force his will during the course of games much more than in the past. Nevill is more than capable of hitting the open spot-up perimeter jumper, but his post game has also taken major strides, as well. In only one game this season, has the senior failed to hit double-digits (a cakewalk v. Air Force) and his best games have been in the team’s biggest of moments. 32 and 10 in their thrilling home win over in-state rival, BYU and 25 and 11 in a nail-biter loss in Logan against Utah State. This Down-Under product is surely not going to follow his countryman’s path as the No. 1 pick in the draft, but l feel he is worthy of a first-round selection.
Maybe more importantly, though, his Utah team has won six in a row, eight of nine, and 12 of 14 in the ultra-competitive Mountain West. I think Utah is a Sweet 16, maybe Elite 8 team.
GAMES: (All times are EST)
A double-header on ESPN is headlined by the first game between Michigan State and Purdue, which tips at 7 p.m. The second game does not entice me more than an opportunity to promote, Kentucky guard, Jodie Meeks. If you haven’t seen him yet, UK’s game in Nashville at Vanderbilt’s weird gym just might be a great chance and if Patrick Patterson is not yet returned from his mid-week injury, be assured that Meeks will not be shy.
CUB SCOUTS HUGE GAME OF THE WEEK is later tonight at 10 p.m. on the Mountain when New Mexico travels to Provo to face BYU. After this game, all of the top five teams in the Mountain West (BYU, Utah, New Mexico, UNLV, and San Diego State) will have played 11 in-conference games and with both of these teams tied at 7-3, NCAA tourney spots might be on the line. All five have at least 16 total wins and seven in conference. All five should get bids to the NCAA tourney. With a down year for the other “non-BCS” conferences, that just might happen. Believe that it should, but know that it probably won’t.
Things start with a nice Big Ten game on their own network when Penn. State (who still stands alive after a nice Saturday win over Minnesota) hits the road to meet Illinois.
ESPN2 has a solid Big East game between Providence and Louisville. The Friars got fat this week off the conference’s bottom dwellers (S. Florida and Rutgers) and at 16-9 and 8-5, they cannot be ignored. Mad props are in order for first-year PC head coach, Keno Davis. The 36-year-old took over after his brilliant, if not brief, stroke while at Drake. The son of the coaching legend that goes by the “Dr. Tom” moniker, the younger Davis is a future star in the coaching ranks and his squad is another that may sneak into the tourney, so check ‘em out now while you can. The last five for PC are pretty sticky (but does include one more with Rutgers) so getting at least two more in-season wins will be crucial.
The Big Ten Network will lead-off again, with a nice “bubble” game with Minnesota traveling east to face the Michigan Wolverines.
ESPN has some ho-hum action tonight, but some interest may lie in watching Duke hit the Big Apple to face St. John’s. The Blue Devils are obvious struggling a bit lately and their annual game with the Johnnies just might be closer than most think. (Is any of the SLAM Family going to check this one out?) The late-night game at 11PM is not in the WCC but a WAC tilt between Hawai’i and Fresno State. (What is Gonzaga off or something?) This game does remind me slightly of the old ESPN Big Monday Classic, “Midnight Snack in the WAC.” Although, it is an hour earlier and back in those days, the WAC was made up of the teams that now encompass the Mountain West.
A rare Friday night game is on tap between two mid-major bubble teams that are not leading their respective conferences, with 20-win Illinois State hosting the 21-win Niagara Purple Eagles.
This is the day to find out about all those semi-obscure teams that you will be forced to know when filling out your brackets.
It starts with maybe the best of the day at noon on ESPN, when Butler heads to Charlotte to face Davidson. These two popular “Cinderellas” are not coming into this match-up in great form, as Butler lost an embarrassing home game on Saturday to Loyola of Chicago and Davidson’s star, Stephen Curry is a bit gimpy after spraining an ankle on Saturday at Wofford. Both are locks for tourney bids, but how far will you pick these guys to go?
Things then shift over to ESPN2 at 1 p.m. with the MAC-leading Buffalo Bulls in New England to face the America East-leading Vermont Catamounts.
Followed immediately at 3 p.m. when the Missouri Valley-leading Northern Iowa Panthers travel to meet the MAAC-leading Siena Saints.
The next game is hindered by an injury to a major star, this time Saint Mary’s Patty Mills who is still out with his broken hand. His Gaels are hosting the 24-win Utah State Aggies, who are coming off their first conference loss of the season.
The night is capped by ESPN’s Game Day crew in Austin for the Red River rematch between Big 12 giants, Texas and Oklahoma. The Sooners were their impressive selves in beating the ‘Horns last month by 15 in Norman.
The actual battle for Big 12 supremacy just might go down tonight at 9 p.m. on ESPN with the Kansas Jayhawks in Oklahoma to tangle with the Sooners
Enjoy the games! Next week we will investigate/debunk not only the bubble teams but the contenders/pretenders, as well.
Check Cub Buenning’s scouting website for weekly player reports.