Bruce Weber topped Bill Self in a battle of former Illini coaches.
Team of the Week
Did you see them storm the court in Manhattan? That’s what happens when the Wildcats knock off the hated Jayhawks, which they did Monday night. In overtime. Bruce Weber might not be popular enough to be Kansas governor right now, but he would take 95 percent of the vote for mayor of Manhattan. Home wins against Kansas are rare for Kansas State. They might celebrate this one for a year or two. Credit the Wildcats for not getting down after Kansas made one of its typical comebacks late in the game. The Kansas State players followed the lead of their coach and went back to work. While his coaching career didn’t end the way he wanted in Champaign, Weber is having a tremendous second act at Kansas State. It has to be fun for him to be appreciated. Beating Bill Self will do that for whoever is in charge at Kansas State. The next step for Kansas State is to stay a while in the NCAA tournament. Early exits do not go over well in the Little Apple. Somewhere, Mitch Richmond and Rolando Blackman are smiling.
Team of the Weak
We wanted to love the Bearcats, despite the many flaws. We didn’t care that they couldn’t score. That they didn’t like passing the ball. That they couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn (farm term). But losing by 21 points to the SMUrfs was too much to overlook. How old is Larry Brown, 300? Pretty sure he taught Abe Lincoln the hook shot. The Mustangs are a decent team fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament. But they shouldn’t be able to smash the Bearcats like that. Cincinnati built a lot of credibility with wins against Louisville and UConn, then gave it all away with one bad day in Dallas. Better be ready for Saturday’s game against struggling Houston.
SCHOOL LAST WEEK
1. Syracuse .........................................................................1
If you are reading this, the Orange must have survived Wednesday’s game at Pitt. Or, Syracuse got beat and H.I.U. was too lazy to change his Top 10. Nobody other than his mom and wife have ever accused H.I.U. of being lazy. And nobody will say that about Jim Boeheim, who has enough wins and money that he could hang out on a beach somewhere with his family. Instead, he is chasing another national title. It shows the pride the coach has toward his alma mater. He wants nothing more than to keep putting up banners. Syracuse hasn’t made it easy for him, moving from the easier Big East to the nasty ACC. And Louisville isn’t even in the league yet. Wait until next season, when Boeheim and Rick Pitino have regular meetings. That is a whole lot of wins between the two of them.
2. Wichita State ................................................................2
Is there a close game left on the schedule? Doubt it. The Shockers only beat Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa by a combined 20. Not exactly nail-biting time. Sunday’s trip to Evansville might be scary if the Purple Aces could suit up coach Marty Simmons from his playing days. Without the slender Lawrencevillian, Evansville has no chance. Not against a team that loves to rebound. Not against a team that doesn’t care who gets the credit. Not against a team that would really, really like to finish the season undefeated and go into the NCAA tournament hoping to pull an Indiana.
3. Arizona ...........................................................................3
We have sort of forgotten about the Wildcats. That’s what happens when you lose for the first time. So dominant for most of the season, Arizona has been able to ease its way out of the spotlight for a week or so. The Wildcats have done nice work since losing to Cal. They edged desperate Oregon by two, then pounded Oregon State by 22. Next up, a Valentine’s Day matchup against Arizona State. No lovefest there. The two teams are separated by two hours and a lot of cacti. There is resentment going both directions. The city school against the smaller city school. One with a great basketball tradition and one that brags about golf. If Arizona State actually wins the game, the party might go on for weeks. If Arizona wins, the Wildcats will yawn and say, “What else did you expect?”
4. Florida ............................................................................4
Tennessee had the Gators where it wanted them. And then it didn’t. The Vols were leading by a point at halftime, then let the Gators outscore them by 10 in the second half. It was Florida’s 16th consecutive win. How did the Gators ever lose? The two bad days came against Wisconsin and UConn. By a combined seven points. Florida continues to distance itself from the best of the SEC, with only Kentucky hanging close. The Wildcats will try to cut into the lead during Saturday’s game in Lexington. Win that one and the Florida streak should hit the low 20s. At least. Florida is that good.
5. Villanova .......................................................................7
The Wildcats are rubbing their hands together like a bunch of evil geniuses. They can’t wait to get to Omaha for Sunday’s rematch against Creighton. The good news for Villanova is that the Bluejays aren’t the team that routed them in Philly. Not even close. Teams in the Big East have figured out how to beat Creighton, and certainly the secret has been passed on to Jay Wright and his guys. Throw Creighton around, get in the face of star Doug McDermott and don’t let Ethan Wragge get open. That pattern worked well for St. John’s, which got a huge win at home against the Big East leaders. Villanova remains H.I.U.’s pick to take the Big East. Keep winning and the Wildcats can move up to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
6. Louisville ......................................................................—
Cincinnati’s loss to SMU put the Cardinals back in the American race. Not that they were ever really out of it. Louisville is the defending national champion. Pitino remains one of the top coaches in the country. The schedule in the final month includes a game at Cincinnati. Steam will come out of the Cardinals’ ears before that game. Louisville followed the loss to the Bearcats with easy wins against Central Florida and Houston. Sunday’s game against Rutgers figures to be a breeze.
7. Duke ..............................................................................—
Word is that the market was way off for tickets going into Wednesday’s Duke-North Carolina game. We will never know for sure because the game was postponed by snow and moved back to next Thursday. Too bad for Duke, which is rolling. The Blue Devils are 7-1 in their last eight games, with the lone loss in an overtime thriller against No. 1 Syracuse. Duke is coming off a 21-point win against Boston College, which followed a 20-point victory against Wake Forest. No signs of Jabari Parker and pals easing up, unless the weather causes more schedule shuffling. Of course, Mike Krzyzewski has a talented team, but you have to give him a lot of credit for making all the parts fit together. It is a team that should make a long run in the postseason.
8. Michigan State .............................................................9
Tom Izzo is getting the pieces back for a team that had lost three of its last five going into Thursday’s game against Northwestern. Having Adreian Payne back for the rest of the season should be a good thing for Michigan State. But it might take time for the players to figure out who does what. Payne stepped up at the end of the Wisconsin game, hitting a clutch three-pointer to tie it. That is the kind of big play Izzo expects Payne to make the rest of the season. The Spartans are better because they had to learn to play without Payne and Branden Dawson. But it isn’t automatic that it will all work when everybody is back on the court. Michigan State has a few weeks to sort out any trouble spots. That should involve a lot of yelling by Izzo. And hopefully no more fists hitting tables.
9. San Diego State...........................................................5
Have you heard this one before: I had a bad day in Wyoming? Laramie was not the place to be for the Aztecs on Tuesday. Before the 68-62 loss to the Cowboys, it had been almost three months since Steve Fisher had to say “Hang in there” after a game. And the earlier loss was against Arizona. San Diego State has a much narrower margin for error when it comes to NCAA tournament seeding. The Aztecs need to play better starting with Saturday’s home game against Air Force. New Mexico, which trails San Diego State by a half-game in the Mountain West, is on the schedule twice.
10. Kansas .........................................................................8
Critics will point to six losses for the Jayhawks. Kansas defenders will mention the brutal schedule the team plays and the endless Big 12 titles. Good argument. Bottom line, Bill Self has a talented team that is a lot of fun to watch. There are flaws, but they are the kind that might go away during a six-game march to the national title. Kansas should be recovered enough by Saturday to beat up on TCU. The rematch against Texas is next weekend.
Five more to watch
1. Michigan — Just about the time we are going to count out the Wolverines, they come back and beat Ohio State by 10. In Columbus. That ended a 1-2 streak for Michigan with losses against Iowa (OK) and Indiana (not so good). The Wolverines will be challenged again during Sunday’s visit from Wisconsin. Next, Michigan State comes to Ann Arbor. Should be fun.
2. Saint Louis — Maybe you don’t respect the Atlantic 10. You are entitled to your opinion. But the Billikens are 9-0 in the league going into Sunday’s showdown against VCU. You remember the Rams, right? You might have heard of their coach, Shaka Smart. There isn’t an All-American playing for Saint Louis. All it does is win games. No style points.
3. Iowa — The Hawkeyes, on the other hand, earn all sorts of style points. Give a bunch to coach Fran McCaffery for his hair helmet. Iowa is third in the country in rebounding and 10th in scoring. It should have no trouble Saturday at Penn State.
4. Kentucky — We will learn a lot more about John Calipari’s team during Saturday’s game against Florida. The Wildcats have no trouble against the soft teams in the SEC. In other words, most of them. But the Gators can match Kentucky’s athleticism and intensity.
5. Virginia — Welcome back, Cavaliers. Last time we were watching, Ralph Sampson was on the team. The older Ralph Sampson. Tony Bennett has done a nice job building the program. After a slow start, Dick’s kid has led Virginia to consecutive postseason appearances. The Cavs are on their way back to the NCAA tournament.Other than a March 1 game against Syracuse, the remaining schedule lacks challenges.
Ranking the best leagues in the land:
LEAGUE LAST WEEK
1. American 4
2. Big 12 2
3. Big Ten 3
4. ACC 1
5. Pac-12 5
6. Big East 7
7. Atlantic 10 10
8. SEC 6
9. Missouri Valley 8
10. Mountain West 9
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton — He stays in the top spot despite a loss to St. John’s. McDermott scored 25 points in his first game at Madison Square Garden. He looked forward to the game so much that it might have caused him problems. He was 10 of 18 from the field, but he missed shots he normally buries. He has scored at least 30 points in eight games this season. Every game, he passes another college superstar on the career scoring list.
2. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State — The first guy used to play in the Missouri Valley, and Early still lives there. He is the best player on one of two undefeated teams in the country. He is averaging 16 points and six rebounds while shooting a high percentage from the field. He is a bundle of energy on the floor, the on-court version of coach Gregg Marshall. If the Shockers need a big play late in the game, Early makes it.
3. Julius Randle, Kentucky — He doesn’t put up a double-double every game, but he gets close. He is the best freshman in the country this side of Parker. Next week, H.I.U. will write that Parker is the best freshman this side of Randle. They are that close.
Don’t move north
Nothing like a little snow and ice to rattle the sports administrations in the South. South Carolina and Georgia Tech pushed midweek games back a day because of the weather. The decision to postpone the game between Boston College and Georgia Tech in Atlanta seemed especially silly. Both teams were in town and so were the officials. Those in charge at Georgia Tech claimed to be worried about the fans. More to the point, they probably didn’t want to play in front of hundreds when the chance for bigger crowd increases by waiting a day. Coaches are creatures of habit, so, of course, they resist the postponements. It has been a bad year weatherwise across the country. Schools in the Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East are used to it. Those in the South tend to panic the first time they see a flake. Not dandruff.
Come fly with me
The newest basketball gimmick is ready-made for a sponsor: Southwest Airlines or United or American Airlines. In 2018, Michigan State, Texas, Florida and North Carolina will play three games, one in New York, one in Chicago and one in Los Angeles. The really weird part is that the games will happen during an eight-day period, and the teams will travel from city to city on the same charter. Better hope they all get along. Just in case, it would be a good idea to bring some officials along on the flight. Michigan State continues to break new ground when it comes to basketball scheduling. The Spartans played on an aircraft carrier and have been a part of an event with Duke, Kansas and North Carolina. The exposure is great for the Spartans and the Big Ten. You have to wonder if the extra travel might zap some of the strength from the Michigan State players later in the season, but these are young guys with lots of extra energy.
Smart (second) move
A player can’t touch a fan. Never. No matter what the circumstances. Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart knew that before he pushed a Texas Tech fan. But what happened next showed the wisdom of the star. Sounding very apologetic, Smart said all the right things. He took the blame entirely on himself and willingly accepted the three-game suspension. He could have argued and pushed a point about what the fan said, but he wisely chose to let it go. It will end up being a positive decision for Smart. Whatever NBA team is lucky enough to draft him won’t have to spend the first day explaining why it picked such a problem player. Smart took all of that off the table by being a grown-up. Of course, everyone will watch from now on to make sure he doesn’t lose his temper. But the worst moment has passed.
Now he can get back to worrying about his team. Based on recent play, the Cowboys need his help.