Team of the Week
You are not going to like this, Illinois fans, but Bill Self’s team is on a serious roll. The Jayhawks have won four consecutive games against ranked teams. That’s the kind of stuff they did when Danny Manning was leading the team. Or Wilt. And it’s the kind of stuff that earns you a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Self knows his team is far from perfect. And there are some losses that scream “trouble.” But since the bad game against San Diego State, the Jayhawks have pulled it together and are on the way to another Big 12 title. Self has won the conference every year but one since leaving C-U for Lawrence.
Team of the Weak
Didn’t see this one coming. Not with Aaron Craft running the show. Not with Thad Matta in charge. Not after starting the season with 15 wins. The Buckeyes lost four in a row going into Thursday’s game against Illinois, which also had lost four in a row. Fair or not, Craft is going to get a share of the blame. For some reason, he became a turnover machine, matching his assists with miscues during the slide. Watching Craft, he appears to be trying to do too much. That’s a natural reaction for a leader who is used to winning and being a stabilizing force on the court. The loss at Nebraska will hurt the Buckeyes during the tournament selection process. Nebraska hadn’t won a game in the conference before stopping the Buckeyes at home. It exposed the Ohio State defense, getting inside for easy baskets. Greg Oden and Jim Jackson are not proud alums.
SCHOOL LAST WEEK
1. Arizona 1
The Wildcats are making the game look easy. They blasted Arizona State by 23 before Thursday’s late game against Colorado. On Sunday, Sean Miller’s guys might be tested during a game against Utah. Oh, it’s not the Jazz, just the Utes? Then make it Arizona by 30. Sure, Utah is 14-4 but lost to Boise State and Washington State. It won’t be able to hang with the Wildcats. Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon are combining for 28 points per game while hitting 52 percent of their shots from the field. They are pretty much slump-proof.
2. Syracuse 2
The battle of the old Big East went to the Orange, Jim Boeheim’s guys edging Pitt by five. C.J. Fair and smooth freshman Tyler Ennis earned a week off. Syracuse doesn’t return to the court until Saturday’s game at Miami. Beat the Hurricanes and the Orange should get to 20-0 with no trouble. Next week’s first game is against Wake Forest, and Tim Duncan has used up his eligibility. Syracuse is waiting on Arizona to lose before it can think about taking the top spot. Could happen soon.
3. Michigan State 3
If only the Spartans could replay that game against North Carolina. Not that the loss seemed to bother the Fighting Izzos. Even without Adreian Payne, Michigan State keeps chugging along. Congrats to Tom Izzo, who passed Lou Henson last week for fourth on the Big Ten’s career wins list. If he stays around long enough, Izzo can make a run at Bob Knight. Wouldn’t everybody else in the Big Ten like to see that (rhetorical question)? While Payne gets healthy, Gary Harris and Keith Appling are doing whatever it takes. Tuesday’s game against Indiana was the kind of game the Spartans always seem to win. Michigan comes to town Saturday. Don’t expect the Izzone to play nice with the Wolverines.
4. Wichita State 4
Why are the Shockers always listed last among the remaining undefeated teams? Did coach Gregg Marshall offend somebody? Do we have a bias against the Missouri Valley? Didn’t Wichita State prove its worthiness during last season’s run to the Final Four. The Shockers pounded the best team left on their schedule, beating Indiana State by 20. The worst team left, Drake, visits Saturday. Rayvonte Rice got out of Des Moines just in time. Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker are going to hammer the Bulldogs.
5. Florida 8
If you are Will Muschamp, are you rooting for Billy Donovan’s Gators? The better the basketball team plays, the more it eases the pressure on football. But it also gives the angry football fans an example on campus of a team doing it right. Great to see senior forward Casey Prather back against Auburn. After missing two games with an injury, Prather had 21 points and six rebounds against the Tigers. Florida needs him in the lineup if it hopes to contend for the SEC title. The Gators will try to stay perfect in league games when Tennessee visits Saturday.
6. San Diego State 9
Steve Fisher gets it. He knows there is more to life than winning basketball games. Like the health of his son and Aztecs assistant coach Mark. Mark Fisher is battling ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. After keeping the diagnosis private, the family decided to talk about Mark Fisher’s illness. Hopefully, added attention will increase research funding for the dreadful disease. The Aztecs are performing at a high level for their ailing coach, beating everybody on the schedule this season other than Arizona. It is pushover week for San Diego State, with the opponents a combined 2-9 in the ice cream soft Mountain West.
7. Kansas —
Andrew Wiggins drew a lot of the preseason attention. Made perfect sense. The best freshman this side of Jabari Parker was supposed to be the next great Kansas star. Of course, he has had some clunkers. It happens to all young guys. But those seem to be happening less often, and we are seeing more games like the one he had against Baylor when he scored 17 points, had seven rebounds and hit 10 of 12 free throws. By the time the Jayhawks get to the NCAA tournament, Wiggins might grow into the country’s best player. Or at least be one of the top five. Maybe TCU can slow him down Saturday. Doubt it.
8. Louisville —
We are going to have to wait until Wednesday to see if the Cardinals can compete for another national title. That’s when Cincinnati, the only other threat to Louisville in the American, visits. Rick Pitino’s guys were mean to Houston and UConn, beating them by a combined 51 points. The rest of the American can’t wait for Louisville to takes its fancy program to the ACC. When that happens, the American won’t be heard from again.
9. Oklahoma State 7
After splitting a pair last week, the Cowboys will look for a sweep against West Virginia and Oklahoma. Oklahoma State already has played a loaded schedule, with games against Memphis (twice), Colorado, Kansas State and Kansas. In the next two weeks, the Cowboys face Baylor twice, another game against the Sooners and a rematch against Iowa State. And Kansas visits March 1. Wow, the Big 12 is hard.
10. Kentucky —
Good job by John Calipari to make sure the overtime loss to Arkansas didn’t turn into a long losing streak. The Wildcats bounced back with consecutive painless wins against Tennessee and Texas A&M. Hotshot freshman Julius Randle continues to average a double-double. He seems to enjoy college basketball.
Five more to watch
1. Villanova — Jay Wright’s team looked dreadful in Monday’s home loss to Creighton. But it’s hard to look good against a team that is burying three after three after three. Was there no scouting report for the Wildcats going into the game? Did they simply wing it and hope the shots would miss? Or maybe everybody had the flu. Call it the “no guarding bug.” Wright and his guys will be ready for the rematch later in the season in Omaha. But first, they visit Marquette on Saturday.
2. Iowa — The Big Ten is hard, too. Just ask Iowa. The Hawkeyes own wins against Ohio State and Minnesota. They lost to Michigan on Wednesday and have a trip to no-longer-awful Northwestern on Saturday. Next week, Michigan State visits before a trip to Illinois. No wonder Coach Fran gets so angry. Turns out that blowup/suspension was good for the Hawkeyes. They have rallied around their coach and are playing their best basketball of the season. Apparently, the Hawkeyes will not be satisfied with another trip to the NIT. Good goal.
3. Wisconsin — The Badgers drop a couple of games and everybody in Cheeseland loses his mind. Dudes, they aren’t canceling deer hunting season. The Packers aren’t moving. Relax. You know what you are going to get with Bo Ryan’s team. Lots of gritty play. Lots of diving on the floor for loose balls. Wisconsin remains a lock for the NCAA tournament and a threat to reach the Final Four. But there are no guarantees. One day, you are beating Iowa, the next you are losing to Indiana. Sports are fun that way. Or annoying.
4. UMass — Hate to tell Minuteman fans (both of you), but you don’t get much credit when you play in the Atlantic 10. Is that fair? No. UMass will have a chance to prove itself in March, after the games against Fordham and George Mason have ended. The problem for the Minutemen now is that no matter how many games they win, they are going to have a hard time impressing the tournament selection committee, which means a bad seed and a tough third-round opponent.
5. Iowa State — The Cyclones have been one of the fun stories this season. They have the coach dressed up like he is going to the prom. They have a roster full of transfers and guys who are getting a second chance. But after three losses in a row, they won’t be as cute if they lose Saturday to Kansas State. Great that they beat Iowa and Michigan earlier in the season, but it is time to start piling up some W’s. Now.
Ranking the best leagues in the land:
LEAGUE LAST WEEK
1. Big 12 1
2. Pac-12 3
3. Big Ten 2
4. SEC 5
5. American 6
6. ACC 4
7. Big East 9
8. Atlantic 10 7
9. Missouri Valley 8
10. Mountain West 10
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton — When you first saw the lopsided score against Villanova, you probably figured the senior scored 50. But he wasn’t needed that much as teammate Ethan Wragge tied a school record with nine three-pointers. The problem for opponents is that they have to try to stop McDermott. And when the other players are hitting, he becomes that much more difficult to contain. While he didn’t have 50 against the Wildcats, H.I.U. bets he hits half-a-hundred by the end of the season.
2. Rodney Hood, Duke — Jabari Parker leads the team in scoring, but the sophomore forward is close. And he gets his points by hitting a higher percentage of his shots from the field and from beyond the arc. It will be hard for Duke to win the award with two strong candidates. They certainly will take votes from each other.
3. Xavier Thames, San Diego State — The senior guard has added seven points to his scoring average this season, going from 10 to 17. And he does so much more. Like rebounding. And passing. And playing defense. Steve Fisher loves the defense. He is deadly as a three-point shooter, hitting 47 percent. When the game is close late, Fisher wants him with the ball. Thames is making 82 percent of his free throws. He didn’t make the cut of 25 players released Wednesday, but that is more a guideline than a necessity. Smart basketball people know better.
Warren Buffett is the coolest rich guy ever. First, he gave a huge chunk of his money to charities. Now he is offering to pay $1 billion to anyone who fills out a perfect NCAA tournament bracket. Buffett is no chump. He knows the odds are lottery long that anyone will get all of the games right. But if somebody pulls it off, how nice to get $25 million for the next 40 years. Even H.I.U with his expensive habits could survive on that kind of coin. And maybe rich guy Buffett will hand out some investment tips. Got to love that the guy is a basketball fan, too.
So, South Carolina coach Frank Martin had to apologize after a meltdown against Mississippi. Look at the guy. He’s got crazy eyes. Word is that Martin is a swell dude away from the court. But something about the games tends to set him off. He looks like a technical foul. The pressure of trying to build the program in Columbia could be getting to him. He had a nice job at Kansas State but — like most coaches — couldn’t resist the challenge/payday from another school. The Gamecocks are failing, and Martin isn’t happy about it. But he isn’t about to blame himself. Much easier to go after a player. SEC officials might want to be careful around Martin, too.
Let him talk
We want our athletes to have personalities. Until they say something we don’t like. Or until they cross some sort of arbitrary sportsmanship line. Fans and media types are angry about Richard Sherman’s postgame comments about 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree. Sherman’s bold words will be talked about for weeks. The hope here is that the reaction won’t cause any of the clever basketball players in the country to avoid saying what is on their minds. Unfortunately, directions from coaches and school officials already have made the players hesitant to be as open as we want them to be. Closed postgame locker rooms serve to water down the comments from the athletes. They are much more likely to talk with emotion immediately after the game as opposed to 15 minutes later. Too bad.