The first month of the college hoops season has already had enough defining moments to warrant the Luther Vandross treatment.
There was the poignant high of Coach K surpassing his mentor Bob Knight as the all-time leader in NCAA D-I coaching wins; the gut-wrenching (and ongoing) low of Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine throwing his program into scandal; the inspiring comeback stories of Arizona forward Kevin Parrom and Kansas forward Thomas Robinson; made-for-March upsets like UNLV over North Carolina, Presbyterian over Cincinnati, and Central Florida over UConn; and big-time matchups like Ohio State vs. Duke, Kentucky vs. Kansas, and Syracuse vs. Florida that were dipped in Tournament atmosphere.
This past weekend, though, gave us the most thrilling game, the highest display of talent, and the most grand exhibition of the best of college basketball, all wrapped in one 40-minute showcase in Lexington, Ky. Here is that game, plus the rest of the best and worst of the weekend:
4 Games I Wish You Watched
Kentucky 73, North Carolina 72 â€“ Enough future pros to fill a Green Room, two coaches headed for the Hall of Fame, and two programs with enough tradition for a couple of museums. The Wildcats withstood hot outside shooting by the Tar Heels in the first half and took control after tightening its defensive screws in the second half. With under a minute to go, UNC’s Reggie Bullock caught a gorgeous cross-court pass from PG Kendall Marshall (quickly becoming my favorite player in the country) and buried a corner three to cut UK’s lead to one. Marquis Teague was fouled on the other end, and missed the front end of a one-and-one. Carolina ball for one last chance, and while 6-10 forward John Henson (10 pts, 8 rebs, 3 blks) had a good look at a short jumper, he was in the neighborhood of the only man on the court who could have blocked one of his high-release shots: Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis (7 pts, 9 rebs, 2 blks). The 6-10 Davis skied in front of Henson and swatted the ball with his fingertips, and I think Clark Kellogg still hasn’t stopped talking about UNC’s players neglecting to foul Teague as the clock ran out.
Syracuse 72, Florida 68 â€“ The most embattled head coach on the planet right now, Jim Boeheim, helped orchestrate a win that old-school coaches worldwide could appreciate. When the most explosive offense in the country (Florida) ran into the most stifling defense in the country (Syracuse), it was Boeheim’s defense-first squad that came out on top. Florida’s Kenny Boynton (22 pts) hit a couple shots from the Carrier Dome parking lot, but he didn’t have enough to overcome the Orange 2-3 zone, as well as strong performances from Syracuse’s underrated backcourt of Scoop Jardine (16 pts, 7 asts, 4 stls) and Brandon Triche (20 pts).
Louisville 62, Vanderbilt 60 (OT) â€“ The Commodores went on the road and had Louisville on the ropes for about 39:55, but couldn’t deliver the knockout punch. With five seconds left and overtime looming, Cardinals PG Peyton Siva â€“ who had already made three or four shots borrowed from D-Wade‘s bag of tricks â€“ got into the lane again but passed to freshman PF Chane Behanan. Smart move in theory, as Behanan (14 pts, 10 rebs) has been one of the most effective close-range finishers I’ve seen in college this year, but this time the frosh missed. In overtime, Siva was back in the same spot: Score tied with about five seconds left, ball in his hands. Siva took it himself and scored the game-winner on a finger roll.
Weber State 91, San Jose State 89 (2OT) â€“ Coaches always point out the best player on the other team and tell their guys, “Don’t let him be the one to beat us.” George Nessman‘s Spartans either missed the message or were just helpless in trying to execute it. Weber State boasts the nation’s No. 1 scorer in junior guard Damian Lillard (28.2 ppg), the Big Sky Conference MVP two years ago who missed almost all of last season with a foot injury. Lillard went off for 41 points (13-21 FG, 9-10 FT) against San Jose State, including the and-one layup with 10 seconds left in the second overtime that proved to be the game-winner. Lillard also hit a three-pointer with five seconds left in regulation that forced the first extra frame.
4 Future Pros You Know
Tim Hardaway Jr., SG, Michigan â€“ His team wears blue and yellow, he wears No. 10, and his name is Tim Hardaway. Other than that, Junior really has nothing in common with his famous father on the court. Where the original NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway was a compact playmaking point guard who famously broke down defenders with his crossover, Tim Jr. is a long and lanky scorer at 6-5 who excels more in catch-and-shoot and transition situations. But the kid can ball. Hardaway had 19 points and six rebounds to lead the Wolverines past Iowa State.
Anthony Davis, PF, Kentucky â€“ Nobody will remember that Davis posted a modest seven points, nine boards, two steals and two blocks against North Carolina. To be honest, no one player dominated a game that featured at least 10 future pros. But Davis jumped to the top of most NBA Draft boards with his game-saving block in the final seconds. That play not only displayed Davis’ length, instincts, athleticism and defensive prowess, but also his sense of the big moment. It was a star-making play in a star-making game.
Thomas Robinson, PF, Kansas â€“ I’m not saying a player shouldn’t dunk the ball 100 percent of the time if that’s what the defense is giving him. You’re supposed to take the high-percentage shot, and as much as some stick-up-their-ass pundits act like dunking is all about showboating, a dunk is the most efficient way to score. But at the same time, I still can’t tell if Robinson â€“ who had 14 points, eight rebounds and four steals against South Florida â€“ has an offensive game beyond his dunks. I did, however, say the same thing about J.J. Hickson after watching him in high school and at NC State, and he’s done pretty well for himself in the league.
Ashton Gibbs, PG, Pittsburgh â€“ NBA shooting coaches aren’t exactly like NFL quarterback coaches, so hopefully nobody at the next level tries to “fix” Gibbs’ unorthodox form before they see what he can do with it. Gibbs put up 16 points, five boards, six assists and three steals to help Pitt beat Tennessee, and is shooting 42 percent beyond the arc this season.
4 Future Pros You May Not Know
Durand Scott, PG/SG, Miami â€“ In today’s NBA, a guard’s ability to get to the free-throw line is probably more important than his ability to hit a mid-range jumper or defend his man one-on-one. Scott, a 6-4 junior who played with Kemba Walker in high school, makes about 80 percent of his shots from the stripe and spends a lot of time there. In a win over Boston College, Scott had 16 points, six rebounds and six assists, with all of his points coming at the free-throw line. He went 0-for-6 from the field and 16-for-18 at the line.
Hollis Thompson, SF, Georgetown â€“ After hitting a deep three with 1.8 seconds left to beat Alabama earlier in the week, Thompson dropped six more treys as the Hoyas had a much easier time with N.J.I.T. “Hollywood” is a smooth scorer at 6-8 who is averaging 15.0 points per game on 56 percent shooting from the field in his first year as Georgetown’s top offensive option.
Meyers Leonard, C, Illinois â€“ You could have watched the Big Ten Network religiously last season and still missed Leonard. The 7-footer played less than 10 minutes per game as a freshman and averaged two points a night, yet he was still named to USA Basketball’s U19 squad for the World Championships. After playing well against the international competition, this season Leonard is putting up 13.4 points, 6.6 boards and 2.9 blocks for the Fighting Illini (8-0), including a 21-point, six-rebound effort against Gonzaga.
Will Barton, SG, Memphis â€“ From a distance, Memphis games look like a fast-moving gaggle of arms and legs and headbands and dunks and layups and threes. But if you look closely, you’ll notice Barton is the one guy finishing more plays than the rest. The 6-6 sophomore posted 22 points, 13 rebounds and six assists against Austin Peay, and for the seasons leads the Tigers in scoring (18.2 ppg) and rebounding (7.0 rpg).
4 Fab Freshmen
Ryan Boatright, PG, Connecticut â€“ Go ahead and add UConn to the list of teams (Florida, Duke, Washington, etc.) with ridiculously loaded backcourts. In his second collegiate game following a six-game NCAA suspension, Boatright dropped 23 points off the bench against Arkansas. Quick and aggressive at 6-foot-nothing (if that), Boatright was all over the place with floaters, drives and pull-up jumpers, outshining UConn’s other star guards, Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb.
Cody Zeller, PF, Indiana â€“ While older brother Tyler (North Carolina) is going through the part of the pro-prospect process where his game is being picked apart for flaws, Cody is in that exciting place where each week uncovers something else that will draw pro scouts to watch him play. At 6-11, he does everything you want as a traditional power forward, but with a little perimeter smoothness. Cody posted 16 points, seven rebounds, four steals and four blocks against Stetson.
B.J. Young, SG, Arkansas â€“ Between his scorer’s mentality, offensive skill set and the Razorbacks’ up-tempo system, Young is a lock to average 20 points per game for a whole season. That is, if he sticks around for more than a one-and-done. The 6-3 guard poured in 28 points against UConn, is averaging 15.4 points while playing only 22 minutes per night.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, SF, Kentucky â€“ For all the talent on the floor during Kentucky/UNC, only one individual stat line stood out from the pack: 17 points and 11 rebounds by Kidd-Gilchrist. Many high school stars have to adjust to not being The Man in college, but Kidd-Gilchrist knows the drill. The 6-7 wing played alongside Kyrie Irving and Dexter Strickland at St. Patrick High School (N.J.).
4 Teams Running Suicides On Monday
Butler â€“ In his first four seasons coaching the Bulldogs, Brad Stevens lost five home games. This season he’s already lost two. Louisville was understandable. Not so much with Valparaiso this weekend.
USC â€“ Facing a Minnesota team that had just lost its best player (PF Trevor Mbakwe) to a season-ending injury, the Trojans still got blasted in a 15-point loss to the Golden Gophers, scoring a paltry 40 points while shooting 32 percent from the field and 45 percent from the free-throw line.
UCLA â€“ During the same week when UCLA fired football coach Rick Neuheisel, do you think Ben Howland was trying to stay low-key around the Athletics office while devising a winning game plan for his struggling basketball team? There was nowhere to hide, however, when the Bruins lost to Texas at home to fall to 2-5 on the season.
Clemson â€“ Bad enough that the Tigers lost to rival South Carolina on their home floor, but they also did it after blowing a halftime lead and missing key free throws down the stretch.
4 Teams Running Toward The Final Four
Baylor â€“ There weren’t too many teams able to out-athlete the Bears when they didn’t have future Lottery pick Perry Jones III. Now that Jones is back from his NCAA suspension and looking like a Big 12 Player of the Year candidate, Baylor (7-0) is looking officially frightening. Jones had a light 12 points and six boards while Quincy Acy added 16 points, six boards and six blocks in a rout of previously undefeated Northwestern on the road.
Marquette â€“ Many of the teams in this year’s field of Final Four favorites are led by NBA-caliber stars that passed on going pro. Marquette won’t match those teams in talent, and in fact they lost an NBA first-round pick (Jimmy Butler) from last year’s Sweet Sixteen squad, but the Golden Eagles (7-0) are just tough and experienced enough to claw their way into the Final Four discussion. Behind senior guard Darius Johnson-Odom‘s 17 points, Marquette snapped Wisconsin’s 23-game home winning streak.
Kentucky â€“ After knocking off North Carolina, the No. 1-ranked Wildcats (8-0) don’t face another notable test until New Year’s Eve, when they host Louisville. In the five games between now and then, don’t be surprised if five different players lead Kentucky in scoring.
Ohio State â€“ Earlier in the week the Buckeyes (8-0) smacked Duke in a surprisingly easy win that probably shouldn’t have been that surprising. Not surprising at all was Ohio State’s dismantling of Texas-Pan American on Saturday, even without Jared Sullinger in the lineup due to a back injury.