First Take: Kentucky Back On Top
A rough weekend for the top ten…
What a weekend of college basketball. I’d dare to say that this was the best one so far. We saw several brilliant individual performances, a handful of top ranked teams fall, a few more get pushed to the limit and the ascension of a new team to the top of the national polls. All in all, this makes for a great few days worth of action of recap, so without further ado, here’s this week’s Monday Morning Mash-Ups.
· Of course hindsight is 20-20, but can anyone honestly say they are that shocked by Connecticut’s win over former number one Texas? The Longhorns were on the road in a hostile environment playing a team that was amped up with extra motivation as a result of the sudden concern surrounding coach Jim Calhoun’s medical leave of absence. Then there is the fact that the Huskies have a roster loaded with enough talent to make them a top ten team, they just hadn’t been playing like it. The first half was quintessential UConn: chaotic, frantic play with equal parts careless mistakes and breathtaking flashes of athleticism. Somehow, the switch flipped at halftime and the home team put it all together behind aggressive play on offense and suffocating defense. Jerome Dyson had a signature game in scoring a season-high 32 and sparking a 13-0 second half run with a pair of steals. Kemba Walker had maybe his finest game in a Connecticut uniform posting 19 points, 10 assists, six steals and yes, eight turnovers. Helooked like a young Ty Lawson, brimming with potential but still learning to harness it all together. Stanley Robinson added another chapter to a book which is quickly being entitled “Lottery Pick”, but above all else the Huskies beat Texas at their own game in the second half. In the second half alone, UConn scored 43 points in the paint and at the free throw line. They shot 11-for-18 in the paint, and attempted 29 free throws, connecting on 21. They didn’t back down from the Longhorn’s size in the middle and in not doing so, may have turned their season around.
· It hasn’t taken John Calipari very long to restore Kentucky basketball to its throne and in the process he has turned a lot of doubters. I thought the Wildcats would be a good team, even top ten, but would perhaps be just a little too young and not mesh well enough to turn into a juggernaut. Well here we are now 48 removed from the Arkansas massacre. Forget about the fact that the 31-point beat down UK put on the Razorbacks was the worst SEC loss in the history of the program. Kentucky is rounding into shape now and steamrolling teams. The best comparisons I can make right now are the great UNLV teams from the early 90’s. The biggest difference there, particularly with that 1991 team, is Kentucky has played in some close games against good teams and proven they can handle the pressure. Hell, John Wall’s introduction the college level was a game-winning shot in his very first game. The only thing scarier than young, jaw dropping talent, is talent that has proven it can perform under pressure.
· Dukes win at Clemson was classic Blue Devil basketball. Play the opposing team close through the first half, then force some errors and capitalize after the break which Coach K’s squad did to the tune of a game turning 14-2 run. While the win was certainly quality, especially given the teams recent struggles on the road (2-6 in their last eight conference road games entering), this game further proved to me something I’ve been noticing more and more lately: Duke has no depth. None. Zilch. Nada. Of the Blue Devils 60 points on Saturday, 0 came from the bench. In fact, if you exclude Mason Plumlee’s minor breakout game against Wake Forest last weekend, non-starters have scored a grand total of 28 points in the last four games. I know the Devils are riding high right now in the national polls, but a team that is week in the frontcourt and lacking any real semblance of a bench is not going to last long in March.
· It was a tough weekend if you were ranked in the top 15, even if you didn’t lose this weekend, nothing came easy. Fourth-ranked Villanova got all it could handle from St. John’s, #5 Syracuse needed a huge game from Wesley Johnson to just get past Marquette, #7 Michigan State only avoids defeat thanks to the grace of Minnesota’s Lawrence Westbrook getting blocked and missing his subsequent follow up in the last four seconds of play, #8 Tennessee was handled by a good Georgia team, a few days removed from knocking off Texas #9 Kansas State was tripped up by Oklahoma State and even #13 BYU had to rally to get past San Diego State. Speaking of Oklahoma State, can we finally all just agree that James Anderson deserves much more attention than he’s gotten all season? Not only did he drop 30 on Kansas State, but it was his tenth, that’s right, his tenth time eclipsing 25 points this season.
· I give West Virginia a lot of credit for rallying from a 40-28 halftime deficit against Ohio State. I questioned the legitimacy of the Mountaineers ranking last week and they made me eat their words. It wasn’t their best game by any stretch of the imagination, but it was their most resilient performance of the season against a very good team. Everything was in the works for a Buckeye win with Evan Turner posting a double-double and William Buford scoring a season-best 22 points. Give credit to Da’Sean Butler who scored 16 of his 21 in the second half and to the suffocating WVU defense which stymied OSU’s offense, allowing just one field goal in the final 8:35.
· Maryland’s 24-point thumping of North Carolina State announces the Terps as a possible threat for the ACC crown. Consider that the Terps have blown out their last two conference foes (the other being Boston College), beat a good Florida State team and was one or two plays away from being 4-0, losing in overtime to Wake Forest. The road ahead is far from easy, with games at Clemson, FSU, and Virginia Tech, to go along with hosting UNC and Georgia Tech. That doesn’t even include two games each against Duke and surprising Virginia. In two weeks time Maryland could be all but an afterthought in the conference depending on how they respond, but the pieces are there. Greivis Vasquez is playing well and teams with Eric Hayes to form one of the most battle tested backcourts in the conference. Landon Milbourne is a solid second scoring option having a career year and sophomore Sean Mosely has stepped up. They key may be freshman big man Jordan Williams who gives the team a frontcourt player who can bang with the other bigs of the ACC, something the team sorely lacked last season.
· Chandler Parsons is quickly becoming the most hated man in college basketball. Just a couple of weeks removed from his game winning 75-foot heave at the buzzer to stun North Carolina State, the Florida junior killed another fan base on Saturday when he nailed a (much shorter) three-pointer to beat South Carolina. Parsons ran his lane in transition perfectly, keeping his distance from point guard Erving Walker who drew three defenders to him while flying up the court, leaving Parsons with an open look. What will quickly be forgotten in this game though were the two extremely clutch plays that took place in the 30 seconds prior to the ultimate finish. Trailing by two, Gator freshman Kenny Boynton Jr. was fouled on a three-point attempt and calmly converted all three free throw attempts to put his team up one. Then on the ensuing possession, South Carolina’s Devon Downey scored the final two of his 36 points on a tremendous lay in while falling down in traffic. Also worth noting, Downey scored his 2,000th career point in this game.
· One final note from Saturday, South Florida’s Dominique Jones, one of the best scorers no one knows about, hung 46 points on Providence. It was the second highest scoring total by a Big East player in a regular-season game. The two guard definitely helped himself at the line, going 14-18 at the charity stripe.
· Seton Hall is doing its best to crawl out of the Big East basement after starting 0-3 – knocking off #11 Pittsburgh on Sunday was a step in the right direction. The Pirates held on for a win despite the almost costly errors by guard Jordan Theodore who in trying to run out some clock foolishly attempted a reverse layup in the games closing seconds which he missed, and then missed a subsequent follow up shot. Luckily for him, his teammates were there to back him up by grabbing the offensive rebound and drawing a foul. The Hall definitely caught the Panthers on a poor shooting night, but for the team to beat a quality opponent on a night when Jeremy Hazell only scored nine points, is a promising sign for the future.
· Florida State is the difference between Georgia Tech’s current 3-3 fourth place standing in the ACC or a 5-1 first place record. The Seminoles defeated the #18 Yellow Jackets 68-66 on Sunday, sweeping the season series after winning the teams’ first meeting back in December.
Tonight’s game to watch is an easy choice with Georgetown visiting Syracuse. Both teams are playing very good basketball right now and there will be no shortage of star power. Wesley Johnson is coming off another double-double for the Orange, while Greg Monroe turned in one of his best statistical performances of the season this weekend, even if it was against Rutgers. You have to like ‘Cuse in this one simply because they have the guards to match up with the Hoyas backcourt and are tougher physically inside. That’s it for today everyone, enjoy the hoops.