I don’t know why I keep letting college basketball surprise me. Last season the top-ranked team in America lost in four consecutive weeks, Florida Gulf Coast made the Sweet 16, Spike Albrecht scored 17 points in the first half of the national championship game, and I witnessed a man’s bone pop out of his leg on live television — not to mention the past 20-plus years of madness. Last year alone should have been enough to teach me to expect the unexpected. Well, I must be a sucker, because this past week still managed to surprise me.
I wrote this last week and it’s worth repeating: A month ago I was convinced that Michigan State, Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, Louisville, and Arizona were the only teams good enough to win a national title. I thought the gap was so wide between those six and the rest of the field that I would’ve been willing to bet that every Final Four team would come from that group. But now I don’t know what to think. Michigan State was humiliated on its home court by a team that lost to Belmont and UAB, Kentucky showed zero heart in a loss to Baylor, Kansas has lost three of its past four, and Arizona squeaked by UNLV at home. As if that weren’t enough, Ohio State and Wisconsin, two teams I thought were overrated, looked like legit title contenders in impressive wins. And craziest of all, Russ Smith had 11 assists in a game.
Every sport provides drama, but last week reminded us that college basketball is the Breaking Bad to all other sports’ Saved by the Bell caffeine pill episode.
The Big Five in Philadelphia is one of those things that I know I should pay more attention to. I hear Philly natives talk about the passion in Big Five rivalries. I’m aware that any “best gyms in America” list that omits the Palestra is guaranteed to have tons of swear words in the comments section. I respect the history of college hoops in Philly and I think it’s cool that five historically great basketball programs are so close to each other. Watching a game in an old, tiny gym is my idea of heaven, which is why going to a Big Five game is definitely on my bucket list. But the truth is that I can’t remember the last time a Big Five game was nationally relevant, which probably explains why it’s hard for a neutral fan like me to get into the rivalries. That said, I feel like I know enough about the history to know that 30-point road blowouts, like the one Villanova handed to Saint Joe’s on Saturday, don’t happen very often.
What’s crazy about Villanova’s domination of Saint Joe’s is that the Wildcats didn’t play that well in the first half. Five minutes before halftime, the Hawks held a seven-point lead and all the momentum. But then two JayVaughn Pinkston free throws and one of a handful of Pinkston three-point plays on the day sparked a ridiculous stretch for the Wildcats. Villanova dominated the rest of the half and the start of the second by going on a 33-8 run over 10 minutes of game time. Their defense was unreal and their offense might have been even better. Throughout the second half, the Wildcats spread the floor with shooters, penetrated whenever and wherever they wanted, and Pinkston and James Bell cleaned up the rare misses. When it was all said and done, Villanova was a Josh Hart free throw away from hanging 60 on Saint Joe’s in one of the most impressive halves of basketball I’ve seen this season.
I didn’t expect much from Villanova this year. I knew the Wildcats would be pretty good just because they returned most of last season’s team, which pulled off three top-five upsets. What I didn’t realize was that they’d be “upset Kansas and Iowa in consecutive days and then beat Saint Joe’s by 30 on the road” good. It’s safe to say that I’m now fully aware of Villanova’s potential.
I can’t keep up with who is injured, who is suspended, who is ineligible, and who is available for the Gators anymore. But I know this much: If the team that beat Kansas on Tuesday is really the 19th-best team in college basketball like the AP poll claims, either this year’s crop of teams is the best it’s ever been or I’m crazy. I know pollsters took a wait-and-see approach with Florida because the Gators had yet to play a marquee game at full strength. But after Tuesday night, the wait should be over. Florida is for real.
It doesn’t really make sense that Florida was ever as low as 19th in the first place. Its two defeats came on the road to teams currently ranked in the top 10, and both losses were one-possession games with less than a minute to play. Critics might point to the Kansas comeback in the second half of Tuesday’s game as a sign of weakness for the Gators. I see it a different way — that Florida was even in a position to ease up on Kansas is proof that it can play with anybody. The Jayhawks are in the midst of a skid, sure, but they still have one of the most talented teams in the country and they are going to be a nightmare in March. That Florida could force 16 first-half turnovers and make Bill Self bust out the Self Smirk1 on multiple occasions isn’t to be taken lightly.
I guess if you want to nitpick, you could say that Florida lacks star power because NBA fans likely don’t know a single guy on its roster. Screw that. The Gators are loaded with talent, they’re led by a senior quartet that has been to three straight Elite Eights, and they have one of the best coaches in the game. Who cares if they don’t have an obvious lottery pick? If they can keep everyone healthy, if Scottie Wilbekin can stay out of trouble and play with a chip on his shoulder like he did Tuesday night, and if Chris Walker finally gets cleared for action, I’d go so far as to say that the Gators should be considered favorites to win the SEC over Kentucky.
UConn basically took the week off by destroying a terrible Maine team in its only game, so there’s no use dwelling on a glorified scrimmage. I will say this, though: I have my eye on Kentan Facey’s development. Facey is a top-100 recruit from Jamaica who has played only a few years of organized basketball. He’s long and athletic with tons of potential, but most important he’s a big man on a team in need of an interior player to help with rebounding. Facey played three minutes against Florida and he hasn’t gotten much burn in UConn’s big games so far this season, but against Maine he played 18 minutes and pulled down nine rebounds. I should again stress that Maine sucks and I don’t expect Facey to be a household name by the end of the season. I just think if he settles in and Kevin Ollie starts trusting him, Facey could play a huge role for UConn when the NCAA tournament rolls around. Even if it’s just a matter of pulling down six to eight rebounds and blocking a couple of shots in 15 to 20 minutes, that will make a huge difference for a team that already has some of the best perimeter players in college basketball.
Duke had the week off so its players could deal with finals and so Coach Kreyschewizzle could apparently teach Northwestern how to play basketball. With that, I’m going to use Duke’s section this week to bring you something you’d find only at Grantland: a completely unnecessary and impractical proposal to change an aspect of sports solely for my personal entertainment. More specifically, I’m going to discuss how awesome it would be if trades could happen in college basketball.
The idea of college basketball trades entered my mind while watching Rasheed Sulaimon warm the bench for Duke against Michigan. Sulaimon was impressive as a freshman starter last season, averaging 11.6 points and 3.4 rebounds. With the graduation of Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee, and Ryan Kelly, all signs pointed to Sulaimon being a go-to guy for the Blue Devils this year. Instead, he has come off the bench in most of Duke’s games and he plays barely more than half of each game. His numbers are down significantly, which is probably why Kreyschewizzle tried to give him a kick in the pants in the form of a DNP against Michigan.
I trust that Coach K knows what he’s doing and Sulaimon isn’t going to rot away on the bench for the rest of the season. But when I see him and Alex Poythress of Kentucky caught in the vicious cycle of “I don’t play well because the coach doesn’t trust me because I don’t play well because the coach doesn’t trust me … ” I can’t help but think how good these guys might be with a change of scenery. Instead of transferring and sitting out a year, how great would it be if Wisconsin could alleviate its depth problems by trading a scholarship and a 2014 top-100-protected recruit to be named later for Sulaimon? The Buzzcuts go all-in on this season, Duke cuts ties with a guy it doesn’t really need, and everyone goes home happy.
I know this would never happen, and to be honest I don’t even want it to happen. All I really want is for someone to create a college basketball trade machine so I can waste countless hours playing out hypotheticals. For example: Indiana gives Robert Johnson (2014 ESPN no. 44) and Noah Vonleh to Duke (which desperately needs a post presence this season) for Jahil Okafor (2014 ESPN no. 1). Oklahoma State (which also needs a post presence) gives Phil Forte and Joe Burton (2014 ESPN no. 53) to Kansas (which needs a shooter) for Joel Embiid. Kentucky gives Poythress to Wichita State and the Shockers give the Wildcats six ketchup packets and a $2 bill. In the words of the Trade Machine Picasso, “WHO SAYS NO?!”
8. Michigan State
If Bo Ryan grew an Afro, got a face tattoo, and legally changed his name to “Bocephus Marmalade,” I still wouldn’t be as shocked as I was Wednesday when North Carolina dominated Michigan State in East Lansing. The Tar Heels have plenty of talent and they had already beaten Louisville, but this win was in a different stratosphere. Just consider what we knew going into the game: North Carolina is the most inconsistent team in college basketball. Michigan State was playing at home as the near-unanimous no. 1 team in America, and had beaten another no. 1 team already this season. The Izzone had the longest pregame line in its history, suggesting that MSU students had consumed plenty of alcohol and were ready to bring the ruckus. Tom Izzo was 0-6 against Roy Williams’s North Carolina, primarily because all of Williams’s teams were better than Izzo’s when the two had met. Now that Izzo clearly had the better team, you’d think he would be champing at the bit to unleash nine years of frustration. Add it all up and what do you get? A 14-point North Carolina drubbing, of course.
What makes Wednesday’s game so incredible isn’t just that it was a blowout and Michigan State never led, but also that North Carolina annihilated the Spartans at their own game. Tom Izzo’s teams have always been known for toughness, physicality, hustle, and other words that could be used to describe a team that will kick your ass if a fight breaks out. Hell, in the mid-2000s you couldn’t watch a Michigan State game without hearing commentators mention how Izzo’s teams practice with football pads. North Carolina, on the other hand, is known as a finesse team that likes to run and doesn’t play much defense, but it still wins because it has more NBA players than you do. In other words, Michigan State is typically a Mack truck and North Carolina is usually a sports car.
Wednesday, though, the Tar Heels were tougher and more physical, as Michigan State was out-rebounded by 11 and dominated in the paint.2 I used the Michigan State section in last week’s power rankings to praise Branden Dawson and mention that he needs to average close to a double-double for Michigan State to be a national title threat. Wednesday proved my point. Gary Harris, Keith Appling, and Adreian Payne all had solid games despite various injuries.3 Dawson, though, scored just two points and grabbed three rebounds in 17 forgetful minutes. It’s no coincidence that North Carolina dominated the interior the same night that Dawson went AWOL. Michigan State just isn’t deep enough to survive that kind of outing from Dawson. Matt Costello wasn’t even supposed to play because of flu-like symptoms, yet he was Michigan State’s fourth-best player. Something is seriously wrong if you’re relying that heavily on a sick Costello.
I’m not going to overreact and pretend that Michigan State’s season is over now. At the same time … yikes. That was quite the wake-up call for the Spartans. As talented as they are, this team clearly lacks the testicular fortitude often associated with Michigan State, which is why I’d be surprised if Izzo weren’t beating the hell out of his players during their 10-day break. We’ll know more about Michigan State when they travel to Texas on the 21st, and even more when they open up Big Ten play at Penn State, at Indiana, and vs. Ohio State. In the meantime, the Spartans need to get Dawson back on track and reestablish their identity as the baddest sons of guns in college basketball.
You know how there’s always that one guy in your pickup game who takes things way too seriously? I’m not talking about the scrub who thinks he’s better than he is. I’m talking about the guy who was a Division II star and can’t really turn off his competitive switch, so he destroys you every time he touches the ball while you just give him the “really?” face. I was reminded of that guy when I watched Baylor beat Kentucky. Kentucky looked like they were surprised Baylor was playing so hard, especially in the last 13 minutes of the game.
Come on, Baylor. We’re winning by nine and we’re clearly the better team. How about you stop making us work and just casually toss the ball around and chuck jumpers like we’re doing? That way we can just run out the clock and then all go out for pizza or something.
All of that team height and length I raved about in last week’s power rankings did nothing on defense against Baylor, mostly because Kentucky’s guys played with their hands below their waists all night. This lack of intensity and Kentucky’s season-long communication problems resulted in horrendous defense on ball screens. Baylor had Kentucky running in circles — the Bears could get any shot they wanted, they dominated the boards because Kentucky’s big guys were almost always out of position, and the Wildcat players were left pointing at each other and shaking their heads. When you pair Kentucky’s poor execution against Baylor’s zone with the Cats’ terrible defense, it’s easy to see how they lost a game they should’ve won.
Kentucky had plenty of problems on defense against Boise State on Tuesday night, but thanks to the Broncos’ lack of size, lack of defense, and lack of a way to not get their shots blocked by Willie Cauley-Stein, it didn’t matter. If nothing else, at least the Cats played harder. But it should be noted that a lot of Kentucky’s success can be attributed to Boise State setting about 70 fewer ball screens than it should have. And when the Broncos did set ball screens and they got to the rim, their lack of a solid big man meant they could either pass off to a teammate they had no confidence in or try (and fail) to score over Cauley-Stein. Credit Kentucky for shutting down the highest-scoring offense in college basketball, but let’s not pretend John Calipari’s team is anywhere close to realizing its potential defensively.
That said, Kentucky’s best win of the season before Tuesday night was its loss to Michigan State, so props to the Cats for cruising against an undefeated team. And it can’t be ignored that their offense looked way better than it did at the end of the Baylor game, when Kentucky had a six-minute stretch without a field goal. I’m hesitant to put Kentucky back on my list of national title favorites because I want to see how it responds when a team better than Boise State tries to exploit its weaknesses. I have a feeling we’ll see it Saturday, when Kentucky travels to North Carolina for what figures to be its biggest test so far this season.
It’s halftime, which can mean only one thing: It’s time for Dick’s Degrees of Separation, the most mildly amusing Internet game involving college basketball! You know the drill: I give you the endpoint of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get down to business. During the Florida vs. Kansas game played in Gainesville, how did Dick Vitale end up using the phrase “Big Apple”?
- Tarik Black checks into the game for Kansas, prompting Dan Shulman to mention that Black is a transfer from Memphis. Speaking of Memphis, Dickie V. says, the Shulman-Vitale tandem is scheduled to broadcast Memphis’s upcoming game against Florida in Madison Square Garden. Shulman says that it’s part of a big week for them because a couple of days later they’ll call the Duke-UCLA game, which will also be in Madison Square Garden. Vitale then excitedly says he can’t wait to stay a few nights in the Big Apple.
- While Andrew Wiggins is at the free throw line, Florida’s student section starts an “overrated” chant. Vitale quickly comes to Wiggins’s defense and explains how unfair it is that Wiggins had so much hype coming out of high school. Vitale then says that Wiggins is perceived as overrated because guys like LeBron and Kobe have set an impossible standard. Shulman comments that Kevin Garnett started the trend of high school kids going straight to the NBA, prompting Vitale to say that he feels bad that KG’s Brooklyn Nets aren’t having a great season. He then reminds viewers that the Knicks aren’t very good, either, and wonders aloud what has happened to basketball in the Big Apple.
- During a stretch when Scottie Wilbekin takes over, Shulman mentions that Wilbekin is from Gainesville and attended the same high school as Joel Embiid. Vitale explains that their high school is named “the Rock” and produces a lot of great athletes. In fact, Vitale says, the last time he was there he ran into Florida State football coach Jimbo Fisher, who was recruiting a handful of players from the Rock. Shulman interjects to say that Fisher’s team will play in the BCS Championship on ESPN in January. Vitale then guarantees that before Fisher goes to Pasadena, he’s going to watch his quarterback, Jameis Winston, win the Heisman in the Big Apple.
6. Oklahoma State
I missed the first half of Oklahoma State–South Carolina because a women’s college soccer game went into double overtime and cut into the broadcast. By the time ESPNU switched to basketball, the Cowboys were up 39-15. That’s my way of saying I didn’t watch a single second of the game.
I’m not sure what happened to South Carolina in the first half. I don’t know if Oklahoma State played phenomenal defense or if the Gamecocks were just awful. I’m guessing it was a combination of both. Either way, it was very encouraging to see Oklahoma State, a team that recently gave up 58 points in a half to Purdue, shut down a team that Baylor barely defeated. The Cowboys are unstoppable on offense, especially when they go small and play Phil Forte with Marcus Smart and Markel Brown. If you throw lock-down defense into that equation, there’s no telling how good they can be. We still have to wait more than a month before the first OSU-Kansas showdown of the season, but the Pokes do have one more big non-conference test against Colorado on the 21st, and that game should give us a better idea of how much Kansas should worry about Oklahoma State snapping its streak of consecutive Big 12 championships.
With respect to Villanova, the Wisconsin Buzzcuts are the biggest early-season surprise in college basketball. Wisconsin was expected to finish close to the top in the Big Ten standings because being consistently good but never really great is Bo Ryan’s bread and butter. But I don’t think anybody thought that 10 games into the season the Buzzcuts would look like potential Big Ten favorites. They are off to their best start in 20 years despite playing one of the toughest schedules in college basketball. It’s not just that the Buzzcuts are winning, though — it’s that they’re doing it in a variety of ways.
Like most college basketball fans, I like to mock Wisconsin for looking like they’ve been transplanted from the 1940s and for failing miserably when teams make them play a style that requires things like athleticism and skip passes. There isn’t going to be much mockery this year, though, as the Buzzcuts have proven they can adapt to whatever is thrown at them. They’ve won close games and blowouts. They’ve won at home and they have true road wins over two potential tournament teams. They’ve played only 10 games, yet they’ve already won by scoring in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 100s.4
What makes Wisconsin so good is its versatility. The Buzzcuts’ starting center, Frank Kaminsky, is a 7-footer who shoots 42 percent from the 3-point line, and their point guard, Traevon Jackson, can score on the low block. All five starters are threats from deep, and because of Bo Ryan’s swing offense, they’re also all threats to post up at any time. This means that defenses have to be ready for anything, which is a problem because “be ready for anything” isn’t a very helpful scouting report. This versatility paired with unselfishness, chemistry, and great team defense are what give these Buzzcuts a chance to be the best team Bo Ryan has ever coached.
If and when the Buzzcuts do run into trouble, it will likely be because they lack depth or because they tend to fall in love with 3-pointers. Wisconsin is basically seven deep, and four of its starters are averaging more than 30 minutes per game. Among ranked teams, only UMass relies so heavily on its starters. With the rule changes and the tendency for Big Ten basketball to resemble sumo wrestling in the paint, I’m concerned that foul trouble might doom the Buzzcuts in a few games this season.
Being worried about Wisconsin’s love for 3s might seem strange, since it has proven that it can shoot as well as anybody. But it remains a problem because so many guys shoot well, and the offense occasionally stagnates when players stop moving and setting screens and instead just stand at the 3-point line calling for the ball. This was a problem in the Virginia game. If it weren’t for Jackson’s penetration, I’m not sure the ball would’ve ever gone inside the 3-point line.
Following the North Carolina loss, Louisville won its next three games by an average margin of 32.7 points, so I guess you could say the Cardinals are back on track. Of course, we should probably hold off on crowning them national champions since none of those three opponents could be classified as “good at basketball.” In truth, we won’t really know how good Louisville is until it plays at Kentucky on the 28th.
One concern I have with Louisville is its depth, especially on offense. Russ Smith and Chris Jones are great scorers, even though they can be streaky and they tend to look for their shots too much. From there, though, serious questions arise. Montrezl Harrell is limited at creating his own offense. Wayne Blackshear is what we in this business refer to as a “glue guy.” Stephan Van Treese is basically just there to take up space and use his five fouls. Chane Behanan and Luke Hancock have regressed from last season. Mangok Mathiang and Terry Rozier are works in progress. And Kevin Ware looks pretty much like you’d expect for someone whose leg broke in half eight and a half months ago.
Teams with great perimeter defense can make the Cardinals look average. It’s easier said than done, but making things difficult for Smith and Jones is the recipe for success against Louisville. Trap ball screens, deny passes back to them when they give up the ball, make sure everyone playing help-side defense knows where those two are at all times, and let the other guys beat you. Shoot, North Carolina proved that Louisville can be beat even when Smith and Jones go off. All you need is to get those two in hero mode and Louisville’s offense will come to a screeching halt. It just doesn’t have the weapons and balance it had last year.
I don’t mean to imply that Louisville isn’t a threat to repeat as national champion. The Cardinals probably have the second-best defense in college basketball, and they average almost 87 points per game, so clearly something is working on offense. They still don’t have a statement win, but it’s not like teams are going to be crossing their fingers to play Louisville in the NCAA tournament. It seems clear, however, that this team isn’t as good as last year’s and it will take extraordinary individual efforts from Smith and Jones for Louisville to repeat as national champs. The good news for Cardinals fans is that both those guys are capable of doing just that.
3. Ohio State
It’s pretty obvious that Thad Matta reads the most powerful power rankings in college basketball, prints any criticisms of Ohio State, and uses them as bulletin board material. How else do you explain the team responding to last week’s takedown of the Buckeyes offense with two offensive explosions? How do you explain LaQuinton Ross, who inspired me to create the Felipe Lopez/Bracey Wright Award, averaging 21.5 points and six rebounds in Ohio State’s two blowout wins and being named Big Ten Player of the Week?
Maryland fans on Twitter were quick to point out Wednesday night that their team sucks and that getting excited about Ohio State beating the Terps is like getting excited about the Mighty Ducks handing it to Trinidad and Tobago in D2. The opponent doesn’t matter to me. I just needed to see some signs of life from the Ohio State offense. I wanted to be confident when I saw guys shoot wide-open 3s. I wanted to see both the ball and Ohio State’s players moving around the court. I wanted to see the fluidity they’d been lacking. If nothing else, I wanted assurance that there’s no chance the Buckeyes might score 37 points and lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. I got that and then some this past week. And by “and then some” I mean the Sam Thompson Show. Look, I’m still not sold that this is a top-five team, and neither should you be. There’s something about Ohio State that worries me, and it’s probably that nobody on the roster has proven to be a consistent scorer. I think the Buckeyes are good enough to beat Arizona in Tucson, but I also think they are bad enough to lose to Iowa at home by 15. That said, there’s no denying they have the best defense in college basketball.5 And, more importantly, I don’t get the feeling that anybody is a true top-five team right now. To its credit, Ohio State has steamrolled through its schedule, with blowouts against its two best opponents, which is something no other team in college basketball can say.
(Wait, I forgot to give Matta some criticism to motivate the team. Umm … how about this: “Ohio State is going to enter the Big Ten season ranked in the top five of the country, but the Buckeyes might not even finish in the top five of the conference.” There we go. That should hold them over.)
Syracuse blew out Binghamton in the Orange’s one game in the past week, so there’s not much new to say about them. I do want to give some love to Trevor Cooney, though. He’s on my short list of most improved players in college basketball.6 Cooney barely saw the court as a freshman last season because guys like Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche dominated the backcourt minutes. He averaged 3.4 points, was pretty bad from the 3-point line for a supposedly great shooter, and he struggled to find a rhythm all season. It was clear that he would play much more for the Orange this season and that his numbers would improve, but I bet even he wasn’t expecting to play this well.
Cooney is Syracuse’s second-leading scorer with 15.3 points per game, he’s shooting 48 percent from 3, he has hit five 3-pointers in four of Syracuse’s last five games, and most importantly he has been light years better on defense than anybody expected. I’m not sure if he can maintain this production over a 40-game season, but I also don’t think it matters. At this point he’s established himself as a guy who can catch fire at a moment’s notice, so teams are going to have to key on him even if he enters a shooting slump. Cooney’s presence stretches the floor for the Orange and makes things much easier for C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant, and Tyler Ennis. That’s why, even if he doesn’t score 20 points in another game this season, he’ll still be the most important offensive player for the Orange other than Fair.
In short, Cooney’s emergence is largely responsible for taking Syracuse from “pretty good team” in the preseason to “serious national title contender” now.
Kill it. Soak it in gasoline and set it on fire. Douse a rag with chloroform, put it to its mouth, tie its legs to a cinder block, and throw it in deep water. Feed it a few Triple Steak Stacks from Taco Bell. Just make sure that it’s dead and has no chance of coming back to life.
I’m talking, of course, about Arizona’s annual whiteout game. The Wildcats held their whiteout game on Saturday against UNLV. And in what should come as a surprise to nobody, the no. 2 team in America struggled to beat a 3-3 team on its home court. Why shouldn’t this be a surprise, you ask? Because it’s obvious that the whiteout game is a kiss of death for Arizona at this point.
The last four whiteouts have been the opposite of successful. In February 2011, 12th-ranked Arizona, which was undefeated at home, needed Derrick Williams to block a layup with one second left to beat unranked Washington by one. In January 2012, Arizona lost by two to unranked Washington. In January 2013, sixth-ranked Arizona, which was 16-1 and undefeated at home, was blown out by unranked UCLA. And now, in December 2013, second-ranked Arizona needed all 40 minutes to put away the same UNLV team that lost to UC–Santa Barbara by 21. So, yeah, maybe it’s time to have a black-out, red-out, blue-out, or even just a cream-out. I know getting rid of it will take away Jamal’s chance to shine, but for the love of god, drive a stake through the whiteout’s heart and leave its corpse to the vultures.
In all seriousness, Arizona’s struggle against UNLV hopefully taught the Wildcats that their key to winning will always be their defense this season. UNLV lit up the Wildcats in the first half, shooting a remarkable 64 percent against one of the best defenses in college basketball. Arizona also shot pretty well in the first half, so you might think that UNLV’s hot shooting wasn’t that big of a deal. But a side effect of UNLV scoring so easily was that the Rebels started to believe they could win. They oozed confidence the entire first half and carried themselves more like the second-ranked team than Arizona did.
The Cats tightened up their defense in the second half, holding UNLV to just 16 points after the Rebels scored 42 in the first half, and Arizona made plays down the stretch to win. But just imagine if it had played its second-half defense in the first half. Imagine 3-3 UNLV going into halftime at the second-ranked team’s arena with just 16 points. They might not have even come out of the locker room for the second half. Instead, Arizona let the Rebels hang around long enough to realize that stealing a win wasn’t as difficult as they thought, and the game was closer than it ever should’ve been.
Arizona is versatile enough to play just about any style. But that first half against UNLV proved that no matter what style of game, defense will always be paramount for the Cats.
The Celebration of the Week
As you know, North Carolina beat no. 1 Michigan State by 14 in East Lansing last Wednesday. I guess you could say the Tar Heels were pleased with their performance.
(Warning: Turn down your headphones/speakers before you press Play.)
I know a lot of college basketball fans like to criticize Roy Williams for not being great at X’s and O’s, for being too lenient when it comes to discipline, for not being able to beat Kansas, for his involvement in a handful of NCAA violations, or for throwing his walk-ons into the fire way too often. But even his harshest critics have to admit that it’s pretty cool to see him celebrating with his team like that. I mean, how many 5-foot-10 63-year-olds would get involved in a mosh pit with 20-year-olds twice their size?
In almost every case, as soon as the kids call the old coach into the mosh pit, he’ll probably just furrow his brow and say: “I didn’t fight in two wars for you to carry on like a buffoon. Get the hell off of me and go get a job. And for god’s sake pull your pants up.”
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is A. See you next week.