Team of the Week
Nothing better for your NCAA tournament dreams than a win at Michigan State. H.I.U. didn’t see that one coming. Neither did Tom Izzo or the crazed fans at the Breslin Center. They all figured it would be another easy win against the Cornhuskers. Somebody forgot to tell Tim Miles’ team. The friendly second-year coach already has been scoring big points with his tweets at halftime and funny media interviews. Turns out the guy also can coach. Several times against Michigan State, the early Nebraska lead looked ready to evaporate. But Miles kept his guys together, and they held on. Win a few more games down the stretch and we will start calling Nebraska a “basketball school.” The team has plenty of work to get into the NCAA tournament, but the signature win against the Spartans made it possible. When he took the job at Nebraska, Miles faced a five-year rebuilding job. After beating the Spartans, he is way ahead of schedule.
Team of the Weak
After reaching the Top 25 for the first time since Larry Brown wore short pants, the Mustangs couldn’t keep the fun going. Coming off an impressive win against Cincinnati, SMU lost 71-64 at Temple. So much for staying in the Top 25. It should be pointed out that SMU is having a breakthrough season with Brown in charge. And while we are passing out credit, don’t forget about former Illini assistant Tim Jankovich, now Brown’s associate head coach and the next guy in charge of the Mustangs. No doubt, he has had a major influence on the program’s success. The NCAA tournament remains well within reach for SMU. But the Mustangs will be challenged in the next couple of weeks, starting with Sunday’s game at UConn. After that comes a visit to Dallas from Louisville and a trip to Memphis. Thankyouverymuch. The ranking has left the building. But sweep those three and it could return.
SCHOOL LAST WEEK
1. Wichita State 2
The Shockers’ schedule is the opposite of brutal. Perhaps Talbru (think about it for a second). Is it just H.I.U. or does it seem like the Shockers play Evansville every week? Those critical of the Missouri Valley would argue that all teams in the league are the same. Except for Wichita State. The undefeated Shockers pounded the Purple Aces on Sunday before Wednesday’s game against overmatched Loyola (who let the Ramblers in the Valley?). Drake and Bradley are next, which means Wichita State plays three of its last four games against the worst of the Missouri Valley. Do you think Larry Bird had to defend his schedule when Indiana State pounded everybody back in 1979? Do what Rick Pitino suggests, blame the social media. Must not be enough Twitter love for the Shockers. The good news is that they will get to prove their worth in the NCAA tournament.
2. Syracuse 1
Not everybody loves the Orange. Thanks to the fine work by The Associated Press, we know that Detroit writer Joe Rexrode (a good friend of H.I.U.) is the one who dropped Syracuse from No. 1 in place of Florida. Good for Joe. Maybe he knew what was coming for the Orange against Boston College on Wednesday, a shocking loss that dropped C.J. Fair and friends out of H.I.U.’s top spot. For now. Syracuse can move back to No. 1 if it takes care of Duke on Saturday and survives Monday’s trip to Maryland. Bru-tal.
3. Florida 4
The guess here is that the Gators would like another shot at Wisconsin, which beat them in the second game of the season. Florida wasn’t at full strength for that game, and Wisconsin was playing at a different level than it is now. If Florida pops up in the same NCAA bracket as Wisconsin, the Badgers will not smile. But the teeth are showing constantly in Gainesville, and not just because Ron Zook is back in coaching. Florida is dominating good teams, beating Tennessee and Kentucky by nine and 10 last week. Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and LSU don’t have the talent to keep up. Florida is going to run away with the SEC title and then will work on moving one round further than last year, when it lost in the Elite Eight.
4. Arizona 3
New rule for H.I.U.: no more predictions when it comes to the Wildcats. Last week, we told you that Arizona would not have a tough time with in-state rival Arizona State. Oops. The Sun Devils pulled off a 69-66 shocker on Valentine’s Day, making it two losses in a four-game stretch for the Wildcats. No need to panic in Tucson. Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon still are playing at a higher level than most of college basketball. But Cal and Arizona State have exposed a few weaknesses. While the rebounding is dominant, Arizona struggles on offense. And its shooting turns funky at times. The Wildcats could be challenged Saturday at Colorado, which is desperate for the win. Cal visits next for a game Sean Miller’s guys have been waiting for since the loss at Berkeley.
5. Louisville 6
Don’t make Pitino angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. Since the loss to Cincinnati, the Cardinals have been pulverizing any team in their way. They have won their last five games by 17, 15, 24, 48 and 26. That’s an average of “a lot” per game (actually 26). The revenge tour begins with Saturday’s game at Cincinnati. On March 1, the Cardinals visit Memphis. Just a hunch that the Ricksters sweep the games. And we wouldn’t bet against Louisville defending its national title, either. In case anybody asks.
6. Duke 7
Nice of the Blue Devils to wave goodbye to soon-to-be-former-rival Maryland with a two-point win. The Terps really wanted that game, and somehow Duke pulled it out. We might be getting a better understanding of why Maryland decided to move to the Big Ten. If you can’t beat them, flee. Duke isn’t going anywhere other than to a high seed in the NCAA tournament. Those glitches from earlier in the season have been fixed the old-fashioned way — by playing better. The busy week included Tuesday’s win against Georgia Tech and Thursday’s makeup game against North Carolina. If the Blue Devils sweep the week and beat Syracuse on Saturday, they will jump into the Top 5.
7. San Diego State 9
The Aztecs might have hit the ranking ceiling already. While Tuesday’s 15-point win against Utah State was nice, it doesn’t do much for San Diego State’s resume. Now win Saturday at New Mexico and we will be impressed. The loss to Wyoming has some wondering how good the Aztecs really are. We probably won’t find out until the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, assuming San Diego State makes it that far.
8. Kansas 10
Might be time to follow Bill Self to the local convenience store and see if he is buying any lottery tickets. In the age-old question, “Is it better to be lucky than good?”, Self’s answer should be “Both.” The guy has the players. Bunches of them. Probably the most talent of any team in the country. Nobody has a better combination of shooters, rebounders, defenders and passers. Almost as important, the Jayhawks seem to lead charmed lives. Shots that fall for them roll off the rim for opponents. Andrew Wiggins got the game-winner with two seconds left Tuesday against Texas Tech. It was the start of an important stretch for Kansas, which will try to even the season series against Texas on Saturday, then hosts Oklahoma on Monday.
9. Saint Louis —
There are more reasons to visit River City than The Hill, Ted Drewes and the Cardinals. Like watching the defense played by the Billikens. Sticky. In an uncomfortable way. The only undefeated team in the Atlantic 10 is building a big lead in the conference race by refusing to allow opponents to score. Part of it is an offense designed to control the ball. But more of it is an in-your-face ideal that challenges opponents. Nobody wants to see the Bills on their half of the NCAA tournament bracket. Nobody.
10. Cincinnati —
Bearcats fans weren’t happy to see their favorites listed as “Team of the Weak.” They didn’t feel the crime, a loss to SMU, fit the punishment. In hindsight, they were right. The Bearcats built up enough goodwill that they should have been allowed to slide for a week. It is the only blip in the last two months for a team that beat Louisville. The Bearcats can continue their pitch for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament by knocking off the Cardinals again Saturday. It is possible.
Five more to watch
1. Villanova — If they didn’t have to play Creighton, the Wildcats would be ranked in the Top 3. Give Jay Wright and guys props for not allowing the bad trip to Omaha ruin their season. Instead, they edged Providence in two overtimes and put the Friars on the NCAA bubble. They will try to frustrate another Big East team when St. John’s visits Saturday.
2. Creighton — The Bluejays can beat Villanova when Ethan Wragge isn’t hitting every three-pointer. It does help when Doug McDermott (see Wooden watch) scores 39 points. Next time ‘Nova, you might want to guard him.
3. Virginia — The four-point loss to Duke on Jan. 13 lighted a fire under the Cavs. Since that game, Virginia has won 10 in a row. They will go for No. 11 when Notre Dame visits Saturday. Virginia isn’t winning with offense, ranking toward the bottom in Division I scoring. It is very good in close games.
4. Michigan State — The parts are back in place. Well, most of them. But will it mean winning basketball for the Spartans? Adreian Payne was on the court for the game against Nebraska, and it didn’t help. Michigan State continues to miss Keith Appling. Michigan State has a critical game Sunday at Michigan, one it needs to win if it has any hope of landing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
5. Iowa State — No team in the country does a better job finding the open man than Iowa State. The Cyclones lead the nation in assists per game. Which helps explain why they are fifth in the nation in scoring. Fred Hoiberg understands offense as well as any young coach.
Ranking the best leagues in the land:
LEAGUE LAST WEEK
1. Big 12 2
2. Big Ten 3
3. American 1
4. ACC 4
5. Pac-12 5
6. Big East 6
7. SEC 8
8. Atlantic 10 7
9. Missouri Valley 9
10. Mountain West 10
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton — The walk-on senior just passed Bird on the career scoring list. That’s good company. By picking up his scoring average, the nation’s leader has a chance to finish with 3,000 points. Not bad for the second-best player on his high school team (he went to Ames High with Harrison Barnes).
2. Julius Randle, Kentucky — If you could start a program with any freshman in the country, it would be hard to pick anybody else. Against Mississippi, he scored 25 points and had 13 rebounds. For the season, he is averaging a double-double. If the Wildcats make a long run in the postseason, it is going to be on his back.
3. Jabari Parker, Duke — If the Blue Devils make a long postseason run, it is going to be on the back of the Chicagoan. Sounds familiar. H.I.U. isn’t sure if Parker is more ready for the NBA than Randle. We would like both to stay another season. You can make millions later.
All it took for the NCAA to enact a rule was for Marcus Smart to enter the stands and push a Texas Tech fan. Do the same thing now and you will be ejected from the game. Shouldn’t that have been part of the rules before? Or part of the common sense of basketball? Basketball officials are mostly good guys doing a difficult job. But sometimes, they worry too much about the rules and not enough about taking care of the game they love. They shouldn’t have needed a rule to know that what Smart did was wrong and that he should have been ejected on the spot. Now the rules have their back. It shouldn’t have been necessary.
Good call by the folks at Indiana to postpone the game against Iowa after a chunk of Assembly Hall fell. Of course, the folks at Indiana quickly pointed to the weather as the culprit. Maybe all the praise our grandparents drew for putting up better buildings back in the day was misguided. What should happen now is that any arena in the age range of Assembly Hall needs a strict inspection. Finding problems now is much better than the potential disaster of a building collapsing when the stands are full.
With Scott Nagy, the son of former Illini assistant coach Dick Nagy. The longtime coach at South Dakota State has built his team into a Summit League power. Despite the loss of star Nate Wolters, Nagy has the Jackrabbits at 8-3 in the Summit, just a game behind North Dakota State for the conference lead. Jordan Dykstra has taken over for Wolters, leading the team in scoring and rebounding. If the Jackrabbits win the Summit and earn an NCAA bid, the seed will be low and the danger of playing them is high. The surprise is that a bigger school hasn’t scooped up Nagy. He is ready for a promotion.