First Take: Rutgers Scares UNC
And four players you should be talking about.
That deafening silence you heard last night was the North Carolina crowd at the Dean Smith Center as they watched partially stunned, partially horrified as Rutgers gave the Tar Heels everything they could handle. The final score reads UNC 81 – Scarlet Knights 67, but anyone who watched this game knows it was a much, much closer affair.
This is one of those classic examples of a situation where the next day anyone who witnessed this game is having an internal seesaw battle with themselves: Is Rutgers really this good? It North Carolina overrated? Did the Knights catch the Tar Heels on an off night and play a great game? The answer of course is yes, yes and yes. On paper this one isn’t close, or at least it shouldn’t have been. Rutgers top big man Gregory Echenique is out for the season with an eye injury and Hamady Ndiaye, the nation’s leading shot blocker battled foul trouble all night, ultimately playing just 21 minutes. UNC carries more freakishly long, albeit young and inconsistent, frontcourt players than the Knicks. While this may not work in a match up with say Texas, it spells W against a perennial basement dweller from the Big East.
Carolina led by 17 with around 12 minutes to go, that should be a done deal, but the Scarlet Knights just wouldn’t quit. Whether it was UNC turning the ball over at a key moment to keep the momentum swing going or freshman forward Dane Miller hitting a preposterously ridiculous as Mike Patrick called it, “1950′s move” scoop shot from eight feet out on the baseline, things kept going right for Rutgers down the stretch. They got it to within four points with just over two minutes to play, but then natural order was restored. On paper it won’t seem like anything more than a standard win for a Tar Heel team that was disinterested with their overmatched opponent: a few more turnovers than usual, an advantage on the glass, shot 45 percent from the floor and forced Rutgers into 3-23 shooting from the outside, ho-hum. But I’ll tell you one thing, practice for the Carolina players today is going to be brutal.
This game further confirms two suspicions that I (along with many others) have had this season. The first, North Carolina at this point in time isn’t a top ten team in nation, they are too young and still finding their rhythm as a team. Give it until February and they will be fine. The second point, the Big East may not put two teams in the Final Four again this season, but the conference is deeper this season than it was a year ago. I’ve never been a major proponent of moral victories, but nail biting losses by Seton Hall and Rutgers against a pair of top ten teams in the last three days shows that the bottom half of this conference can play.
Elliot Williams turned in another monster game last night at Memphis ran away from IUPUI 87-67. The sophomore transfer scored a career-high 27 points on 8-of-11 shooting (5-of-6 from beyond the arc) and for good measure added six rebounds and 5 assists. In nine of his 11 games this season he has eclipsed 20 points and this is a former stud recruit at Duke, how is it that we are not hearing more about Elliot Williams or Memphis for that matter? Everyone flipped their lid when the Tigers took Kansas to the wire in mid-November and now it’s as if neither player nor team exists anymore. Maybe a battle for state supremacy with Tennessee on Thursday will do something to help bolster the amount of attention Williams and the Tigers are receiving before the C-USA slate gets rolling. Speaking of which, how strange is it to see UAB ranked and Memphis not in the latest AP Poll?
You may recognize the name Jimmer Fredette. I wrote an article about him a couple of months back and I’ve mentioned him in this blog in the past. Last night the BYU guard had a game that can best be described as silly. The junior incinerated Arizona for 49 points – that wasn’t a typo – he scored 49 points on 16-of-23 shooting, including 9-of-13 from beyond the arc. The last time I saw a point total that high coupled with shooting numbers that efficient I was in high school doing work with Ray Allen on NBA Live. It’s a sign that the situation in Arizona is a rough one right now and that more NBA scouts need to start booking tickets to Provo.
Al-Farouq Aminu turned in arguably his best performance of the season last night, dropping 23 and 17 including 6 blocks in a Wake Forest romp of UNC-Greensboro. Here is another player who just hasn’t been getting the attention he deserves, due in large part to the fact that the Demon Deacons aren’t earning top 10 love in the polls like they were last season. Let’s not forget, the sophomore was a likely lottery pick last season and if he continues to play like this, will certainly be one in 2010 if he opts to jump ship. He has double-doubles in 8-of-11 games, but two of his weaker showings did come against the stiffest competition Wake has faced in Purdue and Gonzaga. The team enters a killer stretch now where over the next month opponents include Richmond, Xavier, Miami, Duke, North Carolina, Maryland and Georgia Tech – now is when Aminu proves himself again.
One final player who needs to be talked about right now in my mind is Pitt’s Ashton Gibbs. The sophomore guard from the Garden State has been fantastic in his first season as a starter, averaging just under 17 ppg to go along with 2 rebounds and 2 assists. Replacing a guy like Lavance Fields in the backcourt is no easy task for a guy who played 10 minutes a game last year, but Gibbs has handled the pressure very well, and may be the most underrated player in the Big East right now. Watch out though, his younger brother Sterling who is only a junior in high school may be an even better player.