Bob Asmussen: Aztecs rule
Team of the Week
San Diego State
New rule: You end a team’s 68-game home nonconference winning streak and become T.O.T.W. That’s just what the Aztecs pulled off Sunday, stunning the crowd in Lawrence, Kan. Hard to believe, it was the first game Steve Fisher coached at historic Allen Fieldhouse. Got a feeling his rebound-loving guys won’t be invited back any time soon. San Diego State is presenting a great case for a high seed in the NCAA tournament. Road wins against ranked teams work wonders.
Team of the Weak
Schizophrenia has a face in college basketball, one wearing powder blue and ram horns. While losing to Wake Forest is no disgrace for the Tar Heels, it follows a scary pattern that might cost Carolina come tournament time. Roy Williams and the guys have lost this season to Belmont, UAB, Texas and now the Demon Deacons. North Carolina has become the basketball version of Texas football. Not in a good way.
1. Arizona — Does Sean Miller know how to teach defense? You have to say yes after the Wildcats held Washington State to 25 points in a game last week. To compare, Washington State’s football team scored 24 this season against Arizona. With wins against Michigan, San Diego State and Duke, Arizona is trying to put a lock on a No. 1 seed before the temperature hits zero. The Wildcats’ offense isn’t bad, either. Guard Nick Johnson (16 ppg) leads a balanced attack. Two others are averaging double figures, and a third is averaging 9.9.
2. Syracuse — H.I.U. admits to having a soft spot for Orange coach Jim Boeheim. He seems real. He doesn’t come across as a phony. And he is a better coach than he has ever been given credit for. Sure, he has had some talent. He was also the one responsible for landing that talent. The first year in the ACC hasn’t taxed Boeheim much, but it is early in the season. Syracuse has impressive nonconference wins against Baylor, Indiana and Villanova. There is no Carmelo Anthony on the roster, but C.J. Fair is a steady scorer and rebounder. We are looking for a long tournament run from Team Boeheim. Maybe back to the Final Four. No worries, Michigan won’t be there.
3. Michigan State — The Spartans had a bad day against North Carolina. It happens. Just ask Louisville and Kentucky. Give Tom Izzo’s guys some credit for not letting one slip ruin their season. They have bounced back like the football team after Notre Dame, ending Ohio State’s undefeated season Tuesday. Izzo knows his way around the Final Four. The question is whether the current team can match the titles posted by Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves? Easy to like a team with three players averaging 16 points a game. Who are you going to guard? Everybody isn’t an option.
4. Wisconsin — Everybody loves Bo Ryan. Well, maybe not the officials who have to put up with his “I can’t stand you” looks. Ryan’s team remained undefeated with Wednesday’s win against Illinois. The Badgers are ready at the Kohl Center. Unfortunately, they won’t play any NCAA tournament games on their home court. Ryan does more with less. And the Wisconsin way works during the regular season. But don’t clear a space for Ryan in Springfield, Mass., until he makes a couple of runs at the national title. We will see if that is possible with Ben Brust, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky leading the way.
5. Wichita State — A year after making the Final Four, the Shockers might actually be better this season. Cleanthony Early is the best player in the Missouri Valley. Can’t believe Gregg Marshall has stayed in Kansas. But there is no reason to leave. He’s got great local support, is building a reputation for winning and doesn’t have to deal with Creighton anymore. The top three players all hit at least 84 percent at the free throw line. The Shockers will not be an easy out in March.
6. Ohio State — Rough week in Columbus. First, the football team finds a way to lose to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Then, the basketball team drops an overtime game to Michigan State. Of the undefeated teams remaining in the power conferences, Ohio State seemed like the shakiest. Nothing the Buckeyes did wrong other than playing a soft nonconference schedule. The most impressive win was a three-point decision against Notre Dame. Not that Thad Matta’s guys can’t get it together. It seems like the Buckeyes might be short a scorer. That’s what happens when your best player leaves early every year for the NBA.
7. Iowa State — Fred Hoiberg played for Johnny Orr (see below). So, it only seems right that after Orr’s death, his former star is leading the Cyclones to unprecedented heights. The Cyclones improved to 14-0 with Tuesday’s romp against another ranked team, Baylor. Other than basketball, there isn’t much to do in Ames. Hoiberg was already “The Mayor” because of his work there as a player. Now that he has shown he can coach, “The Senator” might be the next title. The good news for Iowa State is that Hoiberg is at home. He isn’t likely to take the next big-time job that opens. He has the job he wants. If you haven’t seen the Cyclones this season, make the time. They are a lot of fun to watch.
8. Villanova — Another H.I.U. favorite is Villanova coach Jay Wright. One of the truly great guys in college basketball, Wright seems to have been forgotten after the Big East’s breakup. The Wildcats are still there and are playing like a team with something to prove. They should win the league and earn a top seed in the NCAA tournament. Senior guard James Bell is second on the team in scoring and rebounds like a center.
9. Oklahoma State — So, the Cowboys lost to Kansas State. Give Bruce Weber kudos for that win. The Cowboys still were mourning the football loss to Missouri in the Cotton Bowl. When Boone Pickens is unhappy, everybody in Stillwater is unhappy. Marcus Smart remains as college basketball’s top stat-stuffer. The guy scores, rebounds and dishes as well as any player in the country. You might complain about his free throw shooting, but count the number of times he misses when it matters. Not often. Glad he stuck around for another year of free basketball. Next year, somebody is going to have to pay.
10. Louisville — The paying in Kentucky goes mostly toward the head coach. That is a good plan. Rick Pitino now has won titles with two different schools and taken a third to the Final Four. The old Big East prepared the Cardinals for the NCAA tournament. The American gives Louisville a much easier path to a top seed. Russ Smith has lost a point or two in scoring, but he has almost doubled his assists. Pitino will make that trade every time. Nothing better than a senior who would rather pass than score.
Five more to keep an eye on
1. Baylor — The Big 12’s second-best team will fall from the Top 10 after losing to the Cyclones. But Scott Drew has another talented team in Waco, one that sacrifices high-end scoring for offensive balance and rebounding.
2. Florida — Is Billy Donovan still coaching in Gainesville? Good thing he didn’t go to work for the Orlando Magic. Coaching in college is much more fun. Billy “The Kid” is about to turn 49. Yes, we are old. Two losses came against Wisconsin and UConn. And the Gators beat Kansas. Along with everybody else.
3. Colorado — The loaded Pac-12 has another Final Four contender playing in Boulder. Dude. Can’t be many shooters better than junior Spencer Dinwiddie, who is hitting 88 percent at the line and 43 percent of his threes.
4. Kentucky — It won’t be the NIT for the Wildcats this year. Julius Randle is keeping a smile on John Calipari’s face, averaging a double-double while making 56 percent of his shots from the field. One ... and ... done. Oh, well.
5. Kansas — Who coaches in Lawrence? The name has slipped the mind. Now I remember, Bill Self. Sure, he has four losses, but they are all against good teams. And wins against Duke, New Mexico and Georgetown. But winning another Big 12 title looks far from certain.
Ranking the best leagues in the land:
1. Big Ten
2. Big 12
7. Big East
8. Atlantic 10
9. Missouri Valley
10. Mountain West
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton — Thanks to Fox Sports 1, you can watch almost every game the senior plays. As expected, the Big East teams are knocking him around. But he still scores in bunches and has to be accounted for every second he spends on the floor. He is coming off a ho-hum 19-point game against DePaul.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke — The freshman from Chicago is actually playing better than the hype, averaging 20 points and 7.6 rebounds while hitting 50 percent of his shots from the field. Note how the football team got better after he arrived. Coincidence? We think not.
3. Antoine Mason, Niagara — Junior guard has bumped his scoring average 10 points per game, to a Calvin Murphy-like 28.7. He’s got a 4.4 edge on the nation’s No. 2 scorer, McDermott.
1. Strange change. Not sure what to make of the new-look Big East. It doesn’t seem right to have Georgetown and Syracuse playing in different conferences. And watching Butler and Creighton outside of Midwest-based leagues will take some getting used to. Ultimately, the success or failure of the new Big East will depend on the play and recruiting of the traditional teams: Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, etc. The newcomers will provide a temporary boost. That’s about it. Don’t be surprised if the now 10-team conference looks to expand soon. There are some obvious targets, starting with Saint Louis, which would add another strong Midwest influence. One thing we know for sure: the Big East tournament in New York City won’t match up to past events. The losses to the Big East were too severe to allow the Big East to maintain the status quo. Crowds will be smaller, and the buzz will have a difficult time being heard in a busy entertainment center.
2. Here’s Johnny. College basketball lost one of its great personalities with the recent death of former Michigan and Iowa State coach Johnny Orr. The Taylorville product was one of the first to move basketball coaches into the high-pay stratosphere they enjoy today. The Pitinos and Selfs and Caliparis owe part of their riches to the groundbreaking work done by Orr. When he jumped from Michigan to Iowa State, some thought he was nuts. Crazy like a fox. He built Iowa State into a winning program and became a cult-like figure in Ames. His signature move with the Cyclones was a pregame stroll onto the Hilton Coliseum court with the band playing “The Tonight Show” theme. Really, really cool.
3. Great fun. It was nice to see the Flyin’ Illini back in town for the Penn State game. One small complaint: One of the former players or coaches should have addressed the crowd. Even if it was just to say “Thanks.” The team was loaded with eloquent speakers. Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo or Marcus Liberty would have done a fine job. And the crowd would have gone gaga if Lou Henson or Jimmy Collins spoke. Overall, it was a great weekend. Next time the group gets together in C-U, like for the 30th anniversary in 2019, the school should set aside some more time for the ex-players and coaches to interact with the fans. The next time will be in the renovated State Farm Center. Have to think that great team will have plenty of public recognition in the new place.
Email Bob Asmussen at firstname.lastname@example.org.