First Take: South Carolina “Downes” Kentucky
Devan Downey the pint-sized assassin.
I wonder if the professors at South Carolina who teach morning classes bothered to showed up today. Personally I would have taken a sick day – but that’s just me. Most felt Kentucky was going to lose eventually, the law of averages deemed it almost a certainty, but the law of averages said nothing about a Gamecock’s team that was 0-7 all-time against #1 teams and had lost its second best player just five games into the season.
There will be talk that the label “Best Team in the Country” was too much for the Wildcats to handle. They’ll say a team top heavy with talented, but ultimately inexperienced players, is too immature and not savvy enough to handle truly tough ones during crunch time. The claims will fly in from every direction and be supported by one cruel fact: Kentucky lost its first game after ascending to the top spot in the polls for the first time in seven years. Rather than trying to speculate as to what this means for John Calipari and Co. and whether or not they have what it takes to make a run at a national title, let’s just call this what it is, a loss.
The Wildcats are one of the youngest teams in the country and last night they played like it down the stretch. Down four points with just under a minute remaining the team starting jacking up three-pointers like it was the game’s closing seconds, if not for the grace of DeMarcus Cousins –who I will get to in a little bit – grabbing rebounds like a crazed maniac, Kentucky would have probably lost by a few more points than it did. It was only AFTER Calipari called time that his team settled down momentarily and John Wall attacked the rim, ultimately converting a three-point play. Look, nobody is saying Kentucky isn’t arguably the most talented team in the country, I think they’ve proven so already, but even the great ones aren’t above having a freshman moment.
The belief has always been that a team needs to lose at least once, preferably a couple of times, during the regular season in order to have what it takes to win a national championship. Maybe that’s why no team has gone undefeated and won it all in more than 30 years. Ultimately if they are smart basketball players, which I believe they are, the Wildcats will learn from this game and it will make them hungrier. They’ve tasted defeat, they know what it feels like and they will be motivated to avoid that sensation again. Is this going to slingshot them to a national championship now? It might, or it might not. Probably the best comparison there is for this team is Greg Oden’s Ohio State squad from a few years ago that also featured Mike Conley and lost to Florida in the national title game. That team was top heavy with freshman as well and proved they could make a run, Kentucky does have the firepower to do the same.
But where are my manners? I’m 500 words in and haven’t mentioned Devan Downey yet. During the broadcast last night Brad Nessler – who has been on the call for South Carolina’s last two games – said that Downey has turned in the best back-to-back performances he has seen in quite a while in the SEC. I’d venture given his size and the flare he finishes with, only Stephen Curry’s incredible NCAA Tournament run of two years ago tops this two game explosion by Downey. The man almost single handedly chopped down a Kentucky team that starts four NBA players. I don’t care that he shot a nauseatingly inefficient 9-of-29 from the floor, he couldn’t be stopped when it counted most. What makes the spinning lay ups and fall away jumpers all the more impressive by Downey is who they came against: John Wall. As good as the freshman is, with most NBA scouts have labeled him as the clear cut top pick in June, and with many Kentucky fans worshiping him as the Basketball Jesus, on this particular night Downey made him look like a freshman, while the South Carolina star played the role of senior star. Giving up over half a foot in size, Downey used his lightning fast quickness and a crossover dribble that hovers between one to three inches off the ground, to get into the lane and wreak havoc. I can’t remember seeing anything like it. Only the Syracuse/Connecticut six overtime game and the 2008 Kansas/Memphis national championship stand as games in the last five years that have had me more on the edge of my seat. What a game.
One final note about this game, since I promised to talk about him, DeMarcus Cousins was tremendous in defeat. I’m not as much interested in his 27 points as I am how he scored them. I know the NBA is drooling over John Wall’s athleticism, but Cousins may be able to give him a run for his money in that regard. This is a player who at 6-10 and some 270 pounds shows the foot speed of a guard. He has the quickest second jump of any player that size that I have ever seen and he converted a reverse layup last night that only players 6-6 and under have any business converting. In short, if he can put it all together – and that’s a big if – in ten years Cousins could be the one we’re talking about instead of Wall.
And now for some other comments from last night.
· I think Michigan State has firmly proven they are the Big Ten’s best and isn’t going to get knocked off that perch after escaping Ann Arbor with a 57-56 win last night. Sure, it’s the second game in a row that the Spartans have come away with a last second one-point win, but the point is they are winning these games. They’ve proven they can run teams out of the building, now they are showing their mental toughness in close games. Given all the Big 12 and Kentucky hoopla this season they have almost been under the radar you could say, buy boy is this team going to be tough in March.
· It’s going to be really fun when it comes time to fill out brackets and fans who haven’t been following the season until the “postseason” write off Baylor as a non-factor team who will probably end up as an eight or nine seed. Don’t be fooled by the record, the Bears can play. There was the six-point loss to Kansas just a few days ago and last night’s two-point defeat at the hands of top ten Kansas State. You don’t think giving those two squads everything they can handle added to the level of talent and athleticism they posses means Baylor can make a run at the Sweet Sixteen? You might want to think again.
· Two comments on the ACC. Maryland is now in sole possession of first place in the conference after trouncing Miami 81-59 last night and this team looks good. Defensively this is the best squad Gary Williams has trotted out onto the floor in four or five years and they have all the necessary components needed to keep themselves at the top of the pile. I’ll get into that a little more later and you’ll see why. Clemson’s loss to Boston College should set off some alarms around the Tiger program. This is looking like the early stages of another collapse, the likes of which have become very normal this time of year for a team that is a notoriously hot starter.
· Rhode Island picked up a big win on the road at Dayton, just getting past the Flyers 65-64. This comes on the heels of the Rams loss to Xavier which would have signaled them as the primary challenger to Temple for A-10 supremacy. Still, URI kept pace with the pack last night and at 4-2 is still right in the race.
· Northwestern on the other hand took another blow to their NCAA Tournament hopes, losing on the road at Minnesota, dropping the ‘Cats to 14-6 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten. Considering at this point the conference doesn’t look like it’s getting more than five, maybe six teams, to the Dance, Northwestern is going to have to add one or two more resume building wins; on the road at Michigan State this Saturday would be a good start.
Tonight’s schedule features a handful of important conference matchups to help determine the pecking order as we move forward in the second half of the season. BYU visits New Mexico looking to validate their #10 national ranking and stay on top in the Mountain West. The Lobos are only a couple of weeks removed from being one of the surprise teams of the year and finding themselves ranked as well, so this will be a tough one for the Cougars. Temple will have yet another challenge tonight as the Atlantic-10 is a very tight race with a whole slew of teams right on the Owls heels. Tonight it’ll be Charlotte who sits at 4-1, just a game back. Finally in Conference-USA, Marshall will host Memphis with both teams standing at 4-1. The Tigers of course lost their first conference game since the Lincoln Presidency last week, but are still a talented team. I’m more interested to see how Hassan Whiteside handles facing some NBA caliber athletes in another test for the surprising freshman.
Keep an eye out tomorrow as I will be taking a look at some of the contenders and pretenders in the big six conferences, followed by everyone else the next morning. Enjoy the hoops!