Five NCAA teams that got my attention this past weekend for various reasons:
1. Connecticut (7-0)
According to preseason predictions, the Huskies would be overachieving had they reached sixth place in the Big East. Today, UConn is undefeated and ranked No. 6 in the nation following its rout of Maryland-Baltimore County on Friday. Kemba Walker is the alpha and omega of Coach Jim Calhoun‘s young squad. The junior point guard is averaging 29.1 points (best in the country), 5.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game, hitting 53% from the field and turning the ball over a surprisingly low 2.1 times per game considering he’s handling the rock on every Huskies possession. Walker is UConn’s only go-to option in crunch time, carrying his team to wins over Michigan State (30 pts) and Kentucky (29 pts) in the Maui Invitational. On Friday, Walker posted a triple-double with 24 points, 13 boards and 10 dimes. He has to be the front-runner for every major National Player of the Year award.
2. Gonzaga (4-3)
Maybe Butler really did hi-jack their mojo. Gonzaga is looking less like America’s favorite underdog and more like an overrated group trying to find its identity. In a “neutral site” loss to Illinois in Seattle on Saturday, the ‘Zags defense was lit up from beyond the arc, as 10 of Illinois’ first 11 buckets in the second half were threes — most of them open threes — and were on the verge of getting 20-pieced. Offensively, the ‘Zags couldn’t get anything going for top scorer Steven Gray (20.0 ppg), who was stuck on two points until well into the second half and finished with 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting. Although Matt Boldin is gone, the Bulldogs brought back seven of their top eight scorers from last season. But sophomore big man Elias Harris (9.7 ppg) has been slowed by an Achilles’ injury, and junior PG Demetri Goodson can’t stretch the defense with his shooting (16.7% 3PA).
3. Miami (6-2)
This year’s West Virginia squad isn’t as strong as last year’s national championship contender, but they’re still tough and experienced and Miami was impressive in upsetting the Mountaineers on Saturday. Along with solid late-game execution, the ‘Canes NYC-bred backcourt of Durand Scott (Harlem) and Malcolm Grant (Brooklyn) have been key in the team’s 6-2 start. They are the team’s two leading scorers at 14.1 ppg apiece, and Grant was the hero against WVU, puting up 26 points and going 13-of-14 from the free-throw line.
4. Washington (5-2)
The Huskies have the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense, dropping 95.7 points per game and cracking 100 four times. In Saturday’s win over Texas Tech, UW scored 61 in the first half and finished with 108, their highest total against a major-conference opponent. While junior guard Isaiah Thomas (15.0 ppg) is the face of the Huskies, this has been a group effort. Five players average double-figure scoring, and the team is second nationally in assists with 20.1 dimes a night. “I think they are better than they were last year,” Texas Tech coach Pat Knight told reporters after his team got beat by 29. “They pass the ball a lot better. Last year they relied on a couple of guys more than they do this year. I mean they have five guys out on the floor who are a threat.” The Huskies are typically strong on the perimeter, but the key to postseason success will be the frontcourt. Senior PF Matthew Bryan-Amaning has been the anchor, while sophomore 7-footer Aziz N’diaye has been a defensive force who can run the floor.
5. Butler (4-3)
You can applaud coach Brad Stevens for his loyalty in staying home when his name on every program with a coaching vacancy’s wish list, but those who see Butler as a resume-building job still can’t believe Stevens didn’t upgrade while his iron was hot. Especially now that the Bulldogs are struggling and hardly look like they can repeat their Cinderella NCAA Tournament run. Duke didn’t need a lucky bounce to go their way on Saturday, when they used a 12-0 run midway through the second half and won by double-digits in a rematch in New Jersey. Butler was blown out by Louisville earlier in the year, lost to Evansville, and barely beat Loyola (Ill.). Gordon Hayward‘s absence is being felt on offense, where the team is shooting just 43.7 percent from the field. Shelvin Mack (15 ppg) is the best player and leader, but he has to stay on the floor. He left the Duke game with leg cramps and didn’t play most of the second half, a repeat of the injuries that bothered him in last year’s Tournament.
5 GAMES TO WATCH THIS WEEK
* Memphis vs. Kansas — Tuesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
* Michigan State vs. Syracuse — Tuesday, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
* Georgetown at Temple — Thursday, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
* Tennessee vs. Pittsburgh — Saturday, 3:15 p.m. (ESPN)
* Wisconsin at Marquette — Saturday, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN2)