Bob Asmussen: Cal has reason to celebrate
Team of the Week
Is there anything better than upsetting the No. 1 team on your home court? Nothing that H.I.U. can think of. There were the Bears late Saturday, knocking off previously unbeaten Arizona and sending their fans racing onto the court. Twice. One thing about storming the court: Please make sure the game has actually ended. Lesson learned. Mike Montgomery’s team has the ultimate signature win for the NCAA tournament selection committee. Justin Cobbs, who hit the winning shot with 0.9 second left, now has permanent-hero status in Berkeley. He scored the final 12 points of the game. Impressive against the Arizona defense. It might be the biggest win at Cal since Jason Kidd and friends knocked off Duke in the 1993 NCAA tournament.
Team of the Weak
Dr. J is not happy. He might want to put the vintage UMass jersey back in mothballs. The Minutemen, quite frankly, have been stinking up the court. Once 16-1, UMass dropped three of its next four. Two of the losses came against Richmond and St. Bonaventure, schools in the second tier of the Atlantic 10. As UMass built its impressive record, many suggested that it wouldn’t last. Many were right. The A-10 is going to send a handful of teams to the NCAA tournament, but unless it makes a quick turnaround, UMass isn’t going to be one of them.
SCHOOL LAST WEEK
1. Syracuse .........................................................................2
The move to the top is finally complete. With an exclamation point. Not only is the Orange No. 1 in the polls but it also received every first-place vote. No way to argue against Syracuse at the top. It is one of only two unbeaten teams left and the only one in a power conference. Team Jimbo followed the impressive overtime win against Duke on Saturday with a workmanlike victory Monday night against Notre Dame. That one had “trap game” written all over it, but the Orange survived. Will Syracuse win the rest of its games? While we have learned to never bet against Jim Boeheim, it would be a great accomplishment. There are few easy games in the ACC. Next up for the Orange is Sunday’s visit from Clemson. That will be followed by a trip to Pitt and a home game against North Carolina State. Later come games against Duke and Virginia. The new-look ACC is brutal. But if you win them all, you go into the NCAA tournament as a prohibitive favorite. It is too early to give Syracuse that status.
2. Wichita State ................................................................3
And then there were two. Based on last year’s trip to the Final Four and this season’s schedule, we could have guessed the Shockers would be undefeated late into the season. It’s got a very Indiana-State-with-Larry-Bird-circa-1979 feel to it. The Sycamores didn’t lose a game until playing Michigan State for the title. Is it possible it could happen again? There are just seven regular season games left, starting with Saturday’s trip to Northern Iowa. Used to be a time when the Panthers would be a threat against Wichita State. Not now. Northern Iowa is a game under .500 and shouldn’t put up much of a fight against Gregg Marshall’s team. Even at home. The undefeated season is looking closer to reality every day.
The first half of the season, the Wildcats made the plays when they needed them most. Clutch basket here, critical stop there. It always seemed to go Arizona’s way. But against Cal, the Bears made the big play against Arizona star Nick Johnson. What the folks in the land of cacti and snowbirds need to remember is that the loss didn’t end Arizona’s season. It would have been much worse had it happened in late March with a trip to the Final Four on the line. There is time for the Wildcats to recover. The schedule isn’t daunting. After Thursday’s late game against fading Oregon, the Wildcats host Oregon State on Sunday. Sean Miller isn’t going to let his team drop another game against the Pac-12.
4. Florida ............................................................................4
Remember when Missouri was good? Remember when Florida was a football school? Billy Donovan and the Gators took care of the Tigers, winning by 10 on Tuesday. No muss. No fuss. That followed a 33-point win against Texas A&M that showed us that the Gators are not interested in keeping it close. Florida is trying to put the rest of the SEC in a battle for second place. Doesn’t look like anybody is going to be able to run down the Gators. Alabama visits Gainesville on Saturday. Next, the Gators travel to Tennessee and Kentucky. Win both of those and the SEC regular season race is basically over.
5. San Diego State ...........................................................5
With Arizona’s loss to Cal, only Syracuse and Wichita State have a better record than one-loss San Diego State. Steve Fisher’s band of merry rebounders scored a nine-point win against Colorado State before Wednesday’s trip to Boise State. There are still challengers in the Mountain West. New Mexico is just a half-game back. The Lobos host San Diego State on Feb. 22. The Aztecs will have to be careful in Saturday’s game against Nevada. The Wolfpack is 12-10 overall but is 7-2 in the Mountain West. Xavier Thames and friends should be able to handle Nevada.
6. Cincinnati .....................................................................—
Hopefully, the folks in the Queen City are sending thank-you notes to Mike Thomas. The current Illinois athletic director was smart enough to hire Mick Cronin as Cincinnati’s basketball coach. It wasn’t a popular choice at the time but sure worked out well. Cronin has turned the Bearcats into an American Athletic Conference power. That’s a goal we should all shoot for. Cincinnati followed the win against Lousville with a close game against South Florida. After Thursday’s late game against UConn, the Bearcats travel to SMU on Saturday. The Mustangs will provide a challenge. Folks in Cincinnati can’t wait for the Feb. 22 rematch against Louisville. At home.
7. Villanova ........................................................................9
The blowout loss to Creighton hasn’t been forgotten. But the memory is fading fast. The Wildcats have been dominant since that game, going 4-0 by an average margin of 13 points. The most impressive game during the streak was a 23-point decision against Xavier. Jay Wright’s team tries to make it five in a row tonight against middle-of-the-pack Seton Hall. Senior guard James Bell is coming off a 27-point game against Xavier and has led the team during its recent run.
8. Kansas ............................................................................8
Don’t think for a second that Bill Self is happy about five losses. Self hates to lose. But his team has been challenged, both in the preseason and during conference play. To quote “Mickey” from “Rocky,” that makes the Jayhawks a “very dangerous person.” Self has a talented team that is learning how to handle itself in difficult situations. The Jayhawks shoot as well as any team in the country. They are prolific scorers and rebounders. And they don’t mind passing the ball. Last week’s loss at Texas wasn’t a good performance by Kansas. But the Jayhawks learned a lesson. And they came back with a strong performance against Baylor. They will have to be careful Saturday against West Virginia. No warning needed for Monday’s game at Kansas State. Self and Bruce Weber have a history.
9. Michigan State .............................................................6
Yes, the nonconference loss to Georgetown was a bummer. But the mood in East Lansing lightened quickly. Getting a top player back from injury has a way of boosting a program. Out for weeks with a bad wheel, Adreian Payne showed enough progress that even “poor me” Tom Izzo was talking optimistically. The Spartans need their big guy back. While the Spartans are a threat to win the national title, everyone who picks them adds the caveat “if healthy.” Without Payne, the Spartans lost at Madison Square Garden against a Georgetown team that had not been playing well. Michigan State had lost two of its last three going into Thursday’s game against Penn State. With Payne out, Gary Harris has become the favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year. The sophomore is scoring more than ever and playing with great poise.
10. Michigan ...................................................................10
The 2013 NCAA runners-up dropped their first Big Ten game of the season at Indiana. The win meant a lot more for the Hoosiers, who were desperate to stay in NCAA tournament contention. The loss also ended Michigan’s 10-game winning streak, which dated to a December loss against Arizona. Nik Stauskas is helping Michigan fans get over the early departures last season. A six-point game against Indiana was the first time in 12 games Stauskas failed to hit double figures. John Beilein’s team faces a difficult trip Saturday to Iowa. The Wolverines beat the Hawkeyes by eight earlier in the season.
Five more to watch
1. Duke — The Blue Devils were all set to spoil Syracuse’s undefeated season. Maybe next time. And there will be a next time, Feb. 22 to be exact. That’s when the Orange visits Cameron. Should be fun. Lots of pounding on the court by Duke defenders. Lots of closeups of Jabari Parker. Duke didn’t let the loss to Syracuse bother it too much. It bounced back with a 20-point win against Wake Forest. It travels to 6-15 Boston College on Saturday (blowout) then a quick trip down the street to North Carolina. Who would Illinois fans rather see lose?
2. Louisville — At least now we have an answer why the Cardinals are moving to a league away from Cincinnati: fear. The Bearcats came to the House of Rick Pitino last week and snuck away with a three-point win. Next time they play, Louisville should avoid fouling Cincinnati star Sean Kilpatrick. He was 11 of 11 at the free throw line in the upset, hitting all six in the final minutes.
3. Saint Louis — The Billikens are streaking. Not literally, but in a basketball sense. The team can’t shoot straight, but it plays defense and rebounds. And it wins games, 15 in a row after a victory at St. Joseph’s on Wednesday. You might not like the Atlantic 10, but winning that many games is impressive in any league. Senior forward Dwayne Evans is having a big season for Saint Louis, leading the team in scoring and rebounding.
4. Texas — H.I.U. will admit to not being much of a Rick Barnes fan. His teams seem to underachieve. Except for this season. At 18-4 and with wins against North Carolina, Iowa State, Baylor and Kansas, the Longhorns are a lock to make the NCAA tournament. You wouldn’t have felt good about saying that a month ago. One of the best rebounding teams in the country, Texas visits Kansas State on Saturday.
5. Iowa State — The minislump is over for the Cyclones. They restored order with a thrilling triple-overtime win Monday at Oklahoma State. Now, if the Cyclones could just avoid playing Kansas. Two of the four losses came against the team from Lawrence. Maybe revenge will come in the Big 12 tournament.
Ranking the best leagues in the land:
LEAGUE LAST WEEK
1. ACC 3
2. Big 12 1
3. Big Ten 2
4. American 5
5. Pac-12 4
6. SEC 6
7. Big East 7
8. Missouri Valley 9
9. Mountain West 10
10. Atlantic 10 8
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton — Hard to imagine him dropping off this list. He is averaging 25 points and 7.1 rebounds for a team contending for the Big East title. He is hitting 50 percent of his shots overall, 44 percent of his threes and 89 percent at the line. Last week, he moved past Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers into 18th place on the all-time Division I scoring list. Next up is tonight’s game against DePaul.
2. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse — There is a lot you have to look past to make him a serious candidate. Like the fact that he doesn’t score a lot. He had six points in Monday’s win against Notre Dame. And you have to forget he is a freshman, which should never limit a candidate. Ennis had eight assists against the Irish. His greatest asset is that his team wins. Often because of all of the little plays that he makes. He is the best player (close call) on the best team in the country.
3. Jabari Parker, Duke — The Illinois native scored 15 points and had nine rebounds against Syracuse. He had 21 points in wins against Wake Forest and Pitt. H.I.U. figured Parker would be productive during his first college season, but not this productive. Maybe Durham will grow on him and he will stick around for four years. Or, he can get paid.
Nice of Oklahoma State to honor former coach Eddie Sutton during a ceremony Monday night at Gallagher-Iba Arena. Many of Sutton’s former players came back for the event, including one-time Illini Brett Robisch. Sutton led four different schools to the NCAA tournament and reached the Final Four with two: Kentucky and Oklahoma State (twice). While his career was tainted by NCAA scandal at Kentucky, he rebounded by winning big at Oklahoma State. Sutton ended his career with 888 wins and was a recent inductee into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
Get well soon
To Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear, who missed Wednesday’s game against Houston after suffering a concussion in practice. Illinois fans know all about Blackshear, a star player at Chicago Morgan Park before joining the Cardinals. He has been a key player for Pitino’s team and is averaging just short of double figures. Concussions have always been a major pain for college football. But basketball is getting its share, too. Might be time for those guys to wear helmets on the court. Or at least some foam padding.
Things that happen in the winter: People get sick. Weather disrupts our lives. While H.I.U. hasn’t done any walking in a month (thanks meteorologists), that’s nothing compared to what happened to Wichita State earlier this week. The team was trying to get to Indiana State for Wednesday’s game but got stuck because of weather in Indianapolis. That forced the Shockers to travel the day of the game to Terre Haute. Generally, anxious coaches like to arrive the day before a game. And often that idea is mandated by conference rules. But you can’t do a thing when the pilot says, “We’re staying put.” It is important for coaches to maintain calm during travel troubles. The players will sense a panic and play accordingly.