College Basketball Nation: Arizona Wildcats
College basketball offered up a variety of high-profile affairs. There were so many competitive, thrilling matchups. It all began with an exciting game between Arizona and Michigan in Ann Arbor and from there, beautiful chaos followed.
I have so many thoughts about this Saturday that I had to break it down into a bunch of random categories.
Best Game: Arizona might be a step above everyone else in college basketball right now. Yeah, the No. 1 ranking suggests that. But we've witnessed so much movement at the top of the rankings that no team really had separated itself from the rest. Until Saturday. The Wildcats weathered adversity (down 11 early in the second half of a 72-70 win at Michigan) in a true road environment. None of this neutral-site stuff. Sean Miller's squad was in Ann Arbor facing a Michigan team that was really hungry for a top-25 win (the Wolverines now have losses to Duke, Iowa State, Arizona and Charlotte).
You didn't want to blink in this one. So much drama. So much excitement. In the end, the Arizona frontcourt (Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Aaron Gordon combined to score 46 points) was too much. But Michigan continues to improve. Plus, Mitch McGary is still not the player I know he'll be in the coming weeks and months.
There was a fight in Ann Arbor on Saturday. We were privileged to witness it.
Most Significant Loss: Virginia Commonwealth is still wreaking havoc on college basketball (second in defensive turnover percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy). But that number alone doesn't define a defense with some obvious challenges. The Rams' opponents have shot 46 percent from the field this season. Duquesne is the only Atlantic 10 squad that has given up a higher mark.
Those numbers matter, because the Rams forced 16 turnovers at Northern Iowa. But they still suffered a 77-68 loss to the Panthers after allowing UNI to shoot 53.1 percent in VCU's third loss of the season. Shaka Smart probably has his best VCU squad based on talent. But this group hasn't shown it yet. Saturday was a setback.
Most Significant Win: Kansas finally can exhale for the first time in nearly a month. The Jayhawks had lost three of four entering Saturday's 80-63 win over New Mexico in Kansas City, Mo. They were more than desperate for a win. And they played like it.
Kansas launched a 14-2 second-half run that changed everything. Perry Ellis (21 points) bounced back from a rare three-shot effort in Tuesday's loss to Florida. And the Jayhawks seemed revitalized.
With home matchups against Georgetown and San Diego State in the next three weeks, Bill Self's squad definitely needed that victory. More than that, the Jayhawks needed the confidence that could come from it.
The undefeated Shockers should be a top-10 squad. This team might be better than the one Gregg Marshall led to the Final Four last year. Why? Because the Shockers can turn to guys like Cotton when necessary. So much depth.
Most Important Performance: Marcus Paige was the difference in North Carolina's 82-77 win over Kentucky. And not only because he scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half (two assists and three steals, too). But Paige was the rallying point and the leader for a Tar Heels squad that wouldn't have won that game without him.
The game was fiery and competitive for 40 minutes. But as Kentucky played tight and chose individualism over team ball, Paige just seemed to steady things on that North Carolina sideline.
That's the guy that Kentucky lacks. Perhaps Andrew Harrison and/or Aaron Harrison will mature into that player, that leader the Wildcats need.
But Paige continues to prove that he's willing to shoulder the load for the Tar Heels. And that goes beyond buckets. On Saturday, they just needed someone to keep everything and everyone calm. Paige did that in another crucial moment.
Most Interesting Battle: Raise your hand if you had a two-win Oakland squad leading Michigan State 31-30 at halftime. Anyone? Oakland kept things close as Duke Mondy (24 points, seven steals) and Travis Bader (18 points, 5-for-20) tried to lead their squad to a major upset, though the Spartans ultimately won 67-63.
I think this game should be a warning to every high major. With players headed home for the holidays soon and enjoying some rare downtime after fall classes, teams can be vulnerable.
I don't think Michigan State realized it was in a game until the second half. And it nearly cost the Spartans. But Gary Harris missed the contest, and that clearly made a difference.
But the bigger point is that December can be dangerous. Not many easy games at this level. Saturday's battle between Michigan State and Oakland in Auburn Hills proved as much.
Most Redemptive Win: On Wednesday, Notre Dame suffered a 73-69 loss to North Dakota State in South Bend, Ind. It was the team's third loss of the season. Not the start most had anticipated for a Fighting Irish team that hasn't missed the NCAA tournament since 2009.
But a 79-72 victory over Indiana in Indianapolis on Saturday probably made that loss to NDSU somewhat easier to swallow. Had Notre Dame lost to the Hoosiers, things really could have gone from rough start to downward spiral for the Irish with matchups against Ohio State and Duke in the next three weeks.
Saturday's "What planet is he from?" Performance: Did you see the move? In the second half of his team's win, Joel Embiid put together a spin move that had lottery pick written all over it. The Kansas freshman is gradually becoming more comfortable against the bigger bodies he's facing each time out. And he's also showing off his diverse offensive arsenal.
But the 7-footer has been playing the game for only a few years. If he continues to grow at this pace, he might be the best NBA prospect in college basketball soon. Seriously.
He finished Saturday's win over New Mexico with this ridiculous stat line: 18 points, 6 rebounds, 4 blocks and 3 steals in 25 minutes. If he can avoid foul trouble and continue to mature into a more assertive player, he might realize that he's unstoppable at this level.
Embiid, not Andrew Wiggins, might develop into the No. 1 pick in next summer's NBA draft.
Top Under-the-Radar Performance: Jackson State senior Brandon West finished with 14 points, 22 rebounds and 4 blocks in a 57-51 win at Evansville.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There is no award for being No. 1 in November or December.
Kentucky and Michigan State, which both have held the top spot already this season and slipped, proved that.
But No. 1 Arizona might deserve something for its efforts, putting together possibly the most impressive string of nonconference victories this season.
The Wildcats might just get something; it’s just that their payoff would come later. Because more so than other teams, they’re doing the things as a No. 1 team in December that will make it easier to be No. 1 in April.
The Wildcats have picked up wins away from home over San Diego State, Duke (at Madison Square Garden) and, on Saturday, Michigan in a 72-70, come-from-behind victory in a jam-packed, maized-out Crisler Center.
Those experiences could mean something in March.
“When you say we went to San Diego State, played Duke at The Garden -- which is basically a home for them -- and then we went to Michigan, we’ve been tested,” Arizona guard Nick Johnson said. “And I think the country is starting to see that, that we’re not just a West Coast team that stays at home or a top team that stays at home and just plays easy teams.”
They tore up Michigan’s post defense at times, throwing passes with the vision of guards, and finished the day scoring 46 points and pulling in 20 boards, just four fewer than Michigan’s entire team.
As a team, Arizona showed the poise and levelheadedness of veterans late in the game, fouling at the right moments and eating up the clock at others. And when the Wildcats clawed back to take the lead late in the game, it was Johnson at the line for critical free throws.
Did he feel pressure? With not only the game but also the perfect season and the No. 1 ranking on the line, did that get to him? With the fact that his team didn’t get to shoot Friday night at the Crisler Center and that his first shots at this arena came just an hour and a half before tip?
“No,” Johnson said. “We’ve been working for this for so long. My team trusts in me. So there’s no pressure.”
He went 6-for-6 from the line in the final 30 seconds of the game. Those are the kind of shots that Arizona will need in March and April. That confidence too.
The Wildcats are putting to bed some of the stereotypes that exist about basketball outside of the Big Ten and ACC.
“You know,” Aaron Gordon said, “the West Coast is soft.”
“You don’t have to ask me that, I think you know,” he added. “You’ve heard the stereotypes. … But they’re completely false, like a lot of stereotypes are.”
Their performance against the Wolverines was anything but soft. The referees let the players play, and bodies flew, on both sides of the court. The Wildcats grabbed 13 more rebounds than the Wolverines, just a shade under its season average margin of plus-14.3.
Arizona made halftime adjustments that paid off -- holding Glenn Robinson III to four second-half points and Michigan to six 3-point attempts.
Mostly, the Wildcats' attitude remained consistent. From when they walked out of the tunnel to getting on the bus, there were intermittent smiles, but it resembled the grin of a marathoner at Mile 6.
When Nik Stauskas’ Hail Mary heave at the buzzer fell short, the Arizona fans who made the trip shouted, but the rest of the team acted as if it was business as usual. The work in Ann Arbor was done, and it was on to the next challenge.
The Wildcats had made a statement, but it wasn’t big enough. And the biggest one of all won’t come for months. So for now, they’ll keep their energy and heads in check, knowing how quickly all of this could change.
“A few weeks ago, we were chasing No. 1,” Johnson said. “And now, we’re still chasing it. We want to be the No. 1 team in the country for as long as we can. We’re just going to take it one game at a time.”
One game at a time until April. That’s their plan.
It happens. It will continue to happen, I’m sure. I’ll get a few right (maybe) and I’ll miss some. Either way, you all will let me know.
There are a variety of must-see matchups this weekend. Let’s see how many games I can pick correctly in a new round of weekend predictions.
Last week: 3-2
No. 23 Iowa at No. 17 Iowa State, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU: There will be fireworks in Ames on Friday night. Iowa State averages 91.7 points per game (the NCAA's No. 1 scoring offense) and Iowa averages 89.5 (No. 6). This is only the second time that both teams have been ranked during the rivalry’s history. Both teams can obviously push the tempo. But I think the game will be decided at the 3-point line. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg’s offense is built on the 3-ball (five Cyclones shoot 38 percent or better from beyond the arc). But Iowa’s 6-foot-6 wing Roy Devyn Marble & Co. have held opponents to a 26 percent clip from the 3-point line this year. I think this will be a tight game. But I expect Iowa’s length, depth and ability to defend the 3-point to be the difference Friday night.
Prediction: Iowa 98, Iowa State 97 (OT)
No. 1 Arizona at Michigan, noon ET, CBS: I think we’ll see the best Michigan performance of the year Saturday. The Wolverines will be home and they’re due for an upset. But it still won’t be enough. This is just a terrible matchup for Michigan. I think there’s definitely a chance the Wolverines could get hot from beyond the arc (38.6 percent). But there are so many mismatches against an Arizona team that’s eighth in offensive rebounding percentage per Ken Pomeroy and boasts (arguably) America’s best frontcourt with Aaron Gordon, Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The Wildcats have held opponents to just 58.0 PPG and a 27.2 percent mark from the 3-point line. That’s a problem for Michigan, even though it’s hosting Arizona.
Prediction: Arizona 73, Michigan 67
No. 11 Kentucky at No. 18 North Carolina, 5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN: Probably the best game of the weekend. I hope. You really don’t know what you’ll get from North Carolina. The Tar Heels have lost to UAB and Belmont and they’ve defeated Michigan State and Louisville. So recent history suggests that they’ll be ready for Kentucky, which will play its first true road game of the season, because this is another big game. Kentucky’s Julius Randle had eight turnovers in his team’s loss to Michigan State last month. He’s averaging 3.5 TPG. That’s significant because he’s such an offensive catalyst for the Wildcats. And North Carolina has the length to frustrate him and force him into mistakes. Marcus Paige will help the Tar Heels harass Andrew Harrison. North Carolina has already defeated two teams that are playing better basketball than Kentucky is right now. The Tar Heels will get another big win on Saturday in Chapel Hill.
Prediction: North Carolina 81, Kentucky 78
Tennessee at No. 12 Wichita State, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Last season, the Vols topped the Shockers 69-60 in Knoxville. But Tennessee has struggled in the first few weeks of the 2013-14 season. Cuonzo Martin has utilized some young players and re-inserted Jeronne Maymon into his rotation after the forward missed last season with a knee injury. The Vols have won three in a row and Maymon is gradually regaining his pre-injury form (15-for-20 in his last three games). But Wichita State is still riding the wave that was created in last year’s Final Four run. And this Shockers team might be even better than last season’s crew. Fred VanVleet is one of America’s top point guards and a healthy Ron Baker has emerged as a star (15.3 PPG). The Shockers recently held BYU (90.8 PPG) to a season-low 62 points. That defense will be tough for Tennessee to overcome.
Prediction: Wichita State 75, Tennessee 67
New Mexico vs. No. 13 Kansas (Kansas City), 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Kansas suffered its third loss in four games Tuesday when it faced Florida in Gainesville. Saturday’s matchup against New Mexico will be Kansas’ sixth consecutive matchup outside Lawrence, Kan. The road has not been kind to Kansas thus far. The Jayhawks had a lot of issues against the Gators. But they showed some fight down the stretch. They’ll have to fight for 40 minutes, however, to beat Mountain West contender New Mexico. The Lobos have a potent trio of Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk. But they’re facing a wounded animal. Kansas is desperate for a win. And the Jayhawks have the size, skill and athleticism to end this slide.
Prediction: Kansas 78, New Mexico 74
That might be pushing it, I admit. But New Mexico State -- held to just 48 points in 62 possessions in Tucson, Ariz., Wednesday -- is a good team, a good program, the WAC's best of the past five seasons and a three-time tournament team since 2009-10. Arizona treated the Aggies like something out of Division III.
Sean Miller's team was good offensively, of course; you can't really blow out a capable team like that if you're not scoring with ease. (That was never more true than when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson did … well, just watch.) But even as the Wildcats took their time figuring out NMSU's well-conceived, off-kilter defense in the first half, they maintained a mostly comfortable lead by doing what they've done best in 2013-14: playing defense.
This is an easy point to lose amid all of the Aaron Gordon (and Hollis-Jefferson) highlights: The Wildcats are a much better defensive team than they were a year ago. Last season, they hovered around the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency. In 2013-14, they’re No. 5 overall. Thus far, Arizona is holding opponents to just 40.3 percent shooting from inside the arc and 27.2 percent outside of it, the product of a defensive reorientation that Stan Van Gundy could love.
Van Gundy's Orlando Magic teams were probably the first NBA teams to understand one of the core truths behind offense: midrange scoring is less efficient. The ease of layups and dunks is wiped away; the reward of three points is not a factor. So Van Gundy's best defenses, anchored by Dwight Howard in the middle, obsessively pressured the perimeter, happy to close out a little too hard if it meant giving up an 18-foot jumper instead of a 3.
Kentucky's 2011-12 national championship group was wired similarly. With Anthony Davis blocking everything in sight, UK's perimeter defenders could rush 3-point shooters and force them to put the ball on the floor. According to Hoop-Math.com, that team forced 39.2 percent of opponents' shots to come from midrange. It blocked 20.3 percent of them, which is completely insane, and opponents shot just 26.7.
In a much smaller sample size, the 2013-14 Wildcats have been even better at forcing opponents into inefficient choices. To date, 52.1 percent of shots by Arizona's foes have come in the midrange, and just 32.1 percent of those shots have connected. Arizona allows just 18.9 percent of field goal attempts at or around the rim. Thanks to the arrival of Gordon, as well as improved interior defense from just about everybody, it blocks a high rate of both kinds of attempts.
The development of Nick Johnson has been huge, and the arrival of T.J. McConnell has given the Wildcats a cohesion-minded distributor to help keep everything aligned. If Arizona goes to Ann Arbor, Mich., this weekend and comes away with one of the most impressive nonconference victories of the season, those will be among the storylines. Gordon will be sure to provide highlights since NBA scouts will be in the building.
But the biggest difference between the merely good team of 2012-13 and the national title contender you see now goes beyond the immediately obvious. The real reason Miller's team has been the premier outfit of November and December is defense. The Wildcats are dictating terms.
Or we can keep it this simple: Duke and Arizona are playing each other on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and that's a game you probably should make sure you consume. Pick a bar with TVs. Etc.
We hold these interests to be self-evident, of course. But -- and yes, here comes the annoying "turns out" portion of this post -- all of the obvious reasons can kind of overshadow what makes Sean Miller's team interesting and threatening and insert-your-preferred-adjective here.
Less fuzzily, if you want to understand why Arizona is one of the best five or six teams in the country to date, you have to talk about the Wildcats' backcourt.
You have to talk about Nick Johnson. Remember Johnson as a freshman? He came to school in 2012 with touted point guard Josiah Turner, one of the great recruiting busts of the past five years, and struggled on a not-very-good 22-12 NIT team. He was better in just about every way as a sophomore, but it's this year Johnson truly has made the proverbial leap: an offensive rating of 130.4, an effective field goal percentage of 61.9, 87 percent from the free throw line, 69 percent from two-point range -- you name it, Johnson is doing it, and he's defending better than ever, too. His viability as a perimeter option makes Arizona's offensive attack multifaceted, far less predictable than last season.
Which is (also) where T.J. McConnell comes in. The former Duquesne transfer has, for all intents and purposes, replaced one-year holdover Mark Lyons at the point guard spot this season. The difference has been that McConnell is actually a point guard. Lyons was always an awkward fit in that role; he was always a shoot-first guard and clashed with Xavier coach Chris Mack for exactly those reasons. When he came to Arizona last season, he scored the ball plenty, but his individual tendencies exacerbated the issues a young Arizona team faced. Lyons, in other words, wasn't the right guy to get everyone else involved. And on a team with a lot of talented big guys who wouldn't handle the ball unless it was delivered to them in the right spots, Lyons was an even worse fit.
McConnell is the polar opposite. His 34.1 percent assist rate to date is a nice number to point to, but the passes he is capable of pulling off -- little pocket bounce-passes, parabola-perfect lobs, even something as simple as a post entry -- have turned Arizona's bevy of big men into universally effective weapons.
He is the perfect guard for this system and personnel, and Johnson is the perfect scorer to lead the way. So when you hear the talk about Gordon, don't forget his backcourt. If Arizona is the real deal in 2013-14, it seems the Wildcats will owe it to Johnson and McConnell.
Duke's Jabari Parker and Arizona's Aaron Gordon lead their respective top-10 teams but in hardly the same manner.
And yet each of them shares a significant burden, whether they admit it or not.
Each needs to shine for his team to win the NIT Season Tip-Off title Friday night at Madison Square Garden (6 p.m. ET, ESPN), their respective conference and ultimately the national title.
Here are five things we've learned:
Parker is unfazed: He is arguably the most grounded elite freshman to come to college since Kevin Durant. Parker plays with a coolness about him. He doesn't pout. He doesn't boast too much. He plays to his game and is hardly out of his element. His answers are always stock, but respectful. He is always about team, never about himself.
Gordon is humble: The Arizona coaching staff loves to tell a story that Gordon served them on his home visit. He was the one making sure they were fine in the home. There was no sense of entitlement. And it shows. If he is not the focus of a possession and the game is being directed more from the perimeter with Nick Johnson or T.J. McConnell, he hardly mopes. He finds his way to contribute, by commanding attention, getting to the backboard or simply running the floor.
They score with ease: Parker's 27 came in stretches against Alabama. But he had his full game on display. He can score from essentially anywhere on the court. He can handle the ball as a Scottie Pippen-like point forward. He draws attention, which can be pointless for a defender, but immensely important for his teammates. Gordon can handle it as well, choosing on many an occasion to rip and run on the break and start off the possession. He runs the floor as well as any big man.
Family first: The snapshot of meeting the Parkers in Chicago and the Gordons here in New York is telling. They both exude warmth with a strong sense of family for two players who already have been the ultimate teammates to two elite programs and title contenders. Right or wrong, on elite stages, the families are present, not a third-party.
Importance: Parker has to score for Duke to win. Gordon does not. The intangibles from Gordon are a must, and while Parker possesses them as well, the onus on him is to produce points.
The entertaining, explosive and skilled forward might be the addition that helps the Wildcats win the Pac-12 and make a run in the NCAA tournament. But his presence enhances a frontcourt that boasted two promising pieces before his arrival.
Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski will matter Friday night when Arizona faces Duke in the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden in New York City (6 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The most appealing component in that matchup is the Gordon-Jabari Parker pairing, especially since there's a chance the two will defend one another. An appearance by two of the top freshmen in America who star on nationally ranked teams makes this must-see TV.
But Ashley (10.7 PPG and 7.2 RPG) and Tarczewski (9.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG and 2.0 BPG) could be the difference for Arizona. The 7-foot Tarczewski and 6-foot-8 power forward Ashley could dominate an unproven Duke frontcourt. Amile Jefferson is the only player over 6-9 who has become a regular part of Coach Mike Krzyzewski's rotation.
That's a gap that Arizona must exploit to secure a win against one of America's best teams. The Wildcats need Tarczewksi and Ashley to be aggressive and consistent on offense and defense. With Parker on his roster, I don't think Coach K is focused on Gordon as much as he's worried about Tarczewski and Ashley, who are 42nd and 43rd respectively in Ken Pomeroy's offensive ratings of Pac-12 players.
Per KenPom.com, Arizona is ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage and Duke's defense is ranked 173rd in offensive rebounding percentage allowed. Arizona needs Tarczewski and Ashley to be relentless on the glass and earn extra possessions and opportunities for their squad.
But the duo also will be vital as the Wildcats attempt to stay in front of Parker and Duke's other talented wings. The new hand-checking rules have made it more challenging for perimeter defenders to contain elite players such as Parker.
So shot-blocking, shot-altering big men have become more important as teams attempt to limit penetration. Both Tarczewski and Ashley have to make Parker & Co. think twice about attacking the rim.
If those two struggle, Arizona will lose. It's that simple.
All of the buildup for Friday night's top game centers on Gordon and Parker.
But Tarczewski and Ashley might be the most significant players on the floor.
Wondering where I’m going with this?
Well, Aaron Gordon isn’t quite the Forgotten Beatle, but when you look at the Fab (Basketball) Four Class of 2017, he’s definitely the most overlooked.
The West Coasters will blame it on East Coast bias, and for sure, Arizona’s late tip times don’t help.
But the truth is, unlike Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Andrew Wiggins, Gordon hasn’t put up the big numbers consistently to get him noticed.
Right now Gordon is the only of the quartet that doesn’t lead his team in scoring, which is as much a nod to the Wildcats’ depth, ball sharing and talent. Unfortunately, games are based on numbers and numbers are how players are judged.
That doesn’t mean Gordon is any less talented, not by a long shot. He’s toe to toe with everyone in his class, but the casual observer is less likely to know his name than those of his classmates.
That could change on Friday night when Arizona faces Duke in the final of the Preseason NIT. It’s the Wildcats versus the Blue Devils, another terrific early game between top-10 teams with heavy Final Four potential.
But in this, the year of the freshman, it will be billed (fairly or not) as Gordon versus Parker. Ultimately who wins the game matters most, but the game within the game will no doubt get just as much attention.
So if Gordon comes into the World’s Most Famous Arena and stars and more, shines even brighter than Parker, he’ll no longer be Pete Best, side note to history. He’ll be Ringo.
NEW YORK -- Boy, college basketball fans are in for a Black Friday treat.
Two weeks after that fantastic Champions Classic doubleheader in Chicago, we get another top-10 clash -- No. 4 Arizona versus No. 6 Duke, at Madison Square Garden, no less.
The fabulous freshmen have been the top story of the young season, and two of the finest -- Duke’s Jabari Parker and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon -- will go toe-to-toe Friday night.
They certainly didn’t disappoint in Wednesday’s NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals. Parker poured in a game-high 27 points in Duke’s 74-64 win over Alabama. Gordon posted a double-double (10 points, 13 rebounds) in Arizona’s 66-62 victory over Drexel.
Gordon, a 6-foot-9 forward from San Jose, Calif., is within a whisker of averaging a double-double, at 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
“His first six games for me have been great,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He’s a pleasure to coach. As talented as he is on the floor, he’s an even better kid and teammate.
“Aaron’s not gonna wow you with 25 shot attempts, if that’s what you’re looking for. But if you really pay attention to the stat sheet, he played between the 3 and the 4 [positions] -- in 35 minutes he had 13 rebounds, 10 points. ... I think any time you have a player with 10 points, 13 rebounds, they’re adding tremendous value.”
Parker, a 6-foot-8 swingman from Chicago, was nearly perfect against Alabama, making 9 of 12 shots from the floor and 9 of 10 from the foul line, plus eight rebounds. He’s averaging 23.2 points, and has scored 20 or more in seven consecutive games to start his collegiate career.
The last freshman to pull that off? Kevin Durant. But Parker didn’t sound too impressed with his performance Wednesday.
“I think I’ve got a long ways to go,” Parker said. “Just need to stay sharp, or be sharp in the beginning of the game. I lacked that in the first couple minutes. Nothing is coming too easy.”
Alabama coach Anthony Grant was much more impressed.
“He’s probably, in eight years as a head coach, the most talented freshman I’ve seen just from his size, his physicality and his skill level,” Grant said. “He’s able to make tough shots and free himself for the open shot and he’s able to get himself to the free throw line. He’s just a really, really talented player.”
Parker has the early lead in the Freshman of the Year race, but Arizona has the higher ranking heading into the NIT championship showdown. The Wildcats are 6-0, and have Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski concerned.
“Arizona’s probably ahead of some other teams,” Krzyzewski said. “They have guys that have played prominent roles back, and then they’ve added a great guard [T.J. McConnell' and a great wing [Gordon] to their lineup.
“They’re big – it’ll be completely different than playing [Alabama]. We’re not real big, so that’ll be interesting, how we try to get that done.”
Duke is 6-1, its only loss coming against No. 2 Kansas in Chicago. The Blue Devils were in the top 10 in the country in points per game (92.7) and offensive field goal percentage (55.0) entering the semis, and Parker looks practically unstoppable. The Wildcats don’t have a scorer who can match him.
That being said, Arizona arrived in New York ranked fourth in the country in field goal percentage defense (33.3), and has yet to give up more than 62 points in a game.
“We have to defend. We have to be an elite rebounding team,” Miller said. “And then our offense, we’re gonna do it with balance, we’re gonna do it where different players on any given night can step up.”
Two top-10 teams with legitimate national championship aspirations, on the brightest stage in college basketball? That’s must-see TV, and certainly something to be thankful for this holiday weekend.
Enjoy Parker and Gordon while you can, college hoops fans. They’ll be moving on before too long.
NEW YORK -- Five quick thoughts from Arizona’s 66-62 win over Drexel on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off:
Got nerves? Drexel jumped out to a 27-8 lead with 6:59 left in the first half, stunning the Garden crowd. No. 4-ranked Arizona, not Drexel, looked like the nervous, tentative squad -- perhaps due to its youth? The Wildcats do start a freshman and two sophomores.
Arizona got its act together after that. The Wildcats closed to within nine at halftime, and took the lead less than four minutes into the second half. Drexel didn’t fold, but Arizona eventually put the Dragons away. You can expect a better start from the Wildcats in Friday’s championship game.
Diaper dandy: Arizona’s highly touted freshman forward, Aaron Gordon, did not disappoint, with 10 points and 13 rebounds against Drexel.
Gordon didn’t blow anyone away Wednesday night -- he took only six shots from the field, scoring most of his points from the foul line. But he was active, particularly on the glass. It’s his fourth double-double in his first six collegiate games.
Size matters: The biggest difference in this game? Arizona’s front line. Drexel ultimately could not handle the starting group of 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, the 6-9 Gordon and 6-8 Brandon Ashley. The Dragons’ undersized post players were in foul trouble seemingly all game long.
That’s no disgrace. Most teams in America will have difficulty against a front line that big.
Real deal: Drexel is definitely a dangerous mid-major squad. The Dragons almost slayed No. 19 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion earlier this month as well.
Coach Bruiser Flint has an experienced starting backcourt in seniors Chris Fouch and Frantz Massenat, two guards who can really fill it up. The Dragons were picked to finish second in the Colonial Athletic Association behind Towson, but can certainly win that conference.
Up and down: You have to feel good for Fouch, a Bronx, N.Y., native who starred at Rice High School. A sixth-year senior who sat out last season with a broken ankle, Fouch scored a game-high 29 points in his New York City homecoming.
On the flip side, Drexel’s second-leading scorer, Damion Lee, suffered a right leg injury midway through the second half and did not return. Lee couldn’t put any weight on the leg -- it could be a serious injury, and a crippling blow to Drexel’s season.
On Holiday is College Basketball Nation's daily rundown of the holiday tournaments, complete with previews, recaps, and links to all of the early-season tournament info you'll need in the weeks to come.
Top Story: Wichita State impressive as ever in a 75-62 CBE CLASSIC title win over BYU: "It’s easy to forget how close the Shockers came to a national championship last season. With 13:40 to play in that Final Four matchup in Atlanta, Wichita State had a 12-point lead over Louisville. The Shockers lost 72-68, but the admirable effort seemed more impressive after Louisville won the national title. But the Shockers didn’t receive the VCU treatment after last year’s Final Four. They’re not the new Butler. They’re not viewed that way, at least. Past mid-major darlings became top storylines in the months that followed their surprising postseason rallies. Not so much for Wichita State." -- From Myron Medcalf's take on Wichita State's impressive win over BYU.
The Shockers never looked totally in the flow offensively, but never looked anything but commanding defensively and on the glass. They headlined the CBE Classic and lived up to billing, and if they really are flying under the radar this season, well, stop that, you guys.
CANCUN CHALLENGE: Wisconsin moves to 7-0 with win over St. Louis: Has any team had a more impressive November than Wisconsin? The Badgers have had their moments of sheer brilliance -- see Frank Kaminsky's 43 points-on-19-shots night against North Dakota -- but they've also found ways to win when they haven't been peerless offensively. Tuesday night was a good example: St. Louis, always a brutal out, was the first team since Florida to hold the Badgers to less than a point per possession. But after a late Billikens run -- and a 23-17 advantage in the final 10 minutes -- Traveon Jackson and company still defended well enough down the stretch to walk to midcourt with a win.
(By the way, Wisconsin's win in a lopsided Cancun Challenge field -- the other half of the "bracket" saw West Virginia punish poor Old Dominion -- might make the St. Louis win the best opportunity of the event. We'll see if the Mountaineers have different ideas Wednesday night.)
MAUI INVITATIONAL: Baylor beats Dayton. Still not sure how. "We led 1-zip and we finished leading by one; everything else was chasing Dayton." That was Baylor coach Scott Drew after his team's borderline-mystifying win over Dayton last night. His math was right: The Bears led for exactly 16 seconds, after the opening possession of the game and for the final one -- when Dayton's Van Sanford missed a contested floater and forward Devin Oliver's tip-in somehow rimmed out. (His quote, head down at press conference podium, was both factual and devastating: "I don't know how I missed it.")
Coach Archie Miller had his own postgame assessment: "For about 30 minutes in that game," he said, "our guys looked about as good as any team in college basketball." His was just as accurate as Drew's. Syracuse and Baylor will meet in the Maui Invitational final tonight -- more on which below -- but no team has had a better, or more impressive, trip to the island. But still, that's small consolation, when your win probability chart looks like the polygraph reading of a bad liar with just one very big secret. Ouch.
One more thing: Pitt's soft nonconference schedule is likely to either a) keep the Panthers off the national radar or b) inspire doubt (or both), but it'd be silly to ignore how dominant Jamie Dixon's team looked in a win over a not-horrible Stanford team in Brooklyn Wednesday night. Pitt, no surprise, is grabbing every offensive rebound in sight, which sounds like a very frightening proposition for huge swaths of the ACC.
MAUI INVITATIONAL FINAL: Syracuse vs. Baylor, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN: Does Baylor have a chance? That sounds harsh -- the Bears are 6-0, stocked with lanky, athletic talent, and coming off that win against Dayton, which for all its flaws can and should be described as gutty. Besides, the Bears seem to match up pretty well. Their interior defense is among the best in the country, thanks to Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin; Bears' opponents are making just 36.3 percent of their two-point shots on the season. Why the doubtful tone?
Because the one thing Syracuse has done consistently this season -- not only its chief statistical characteristic, but a reliable source of points (and wins) in otherwise ugly offensive performances -- is turn opponents over. And Baylor doesn't need much help.
Syracuse foes have turned the ball over on 25.8 percent of their possessions this season, the seventh-highest mark in the country. It's the same old story: Smart 2-3 zone and long arms and offenses forced into corners against their will, and the bad-idea-blue-jeans skip-passes that turn into deflections. The Orange have ranged from intriguing to downright bad on offense thus far, but they've turned folks over in the zone, and that's why they've won.
Baylor, on the other hand, enters Wednesday night's finale with a 20.8 percent turnover rate hanging around its neck. It's the one thing the Bears don't do well on offense. Which is why this game looks, at a glance, so likely to be a Syracuse win: Not because the Bears aren't talented enough, or long enough, or whatever else, but because the one area where they're worse off just so happens to be Syracuse's bread and butter. There are solutions. "Make 3s" and "rebound misses" are chief among them. But if the Bears can't get into their offense in the first place, or give away too many transition buckets before they have time to get Jefferson and Austin in front of the rim, it could be a long night for the kids from Waco.
Maui remainders: Arkansas gets Gonzaga after both teams handled respective second round (consolation) opponents Minnesota and Chamiande, and it feels safe to guarantee a stylistically entertaining game. And Minnesota, which two days ago was five good minutes away from a possible upset of Syracuse, now has to avoid disaster against Chaminade.
And yet it feels far from guaranteed. Duke barely got by Vermont at home Sunday night, when it allowed the Catamounts 90 points in 65 possessions. I will keep repeating and emphasizing that fact until Duke's defense, currently 179th in defensive efficiency, proves that it can guard anyone. Duke's defense is awful right now.
Arizona has no such obvious warts. The Wildcats are rolling, with a lottery talent surrounded by no-slouch frontcourt counterparts (Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) balanced with pass-first point guard T.J. McConnell and efficient shooting guard Nick Johnson. The whole thing just clicks. But Drexel is not a slouch, either: After a disastrous 2012-13, the Dragons took UCLA to the wire in Westwood on opening night and haven't lost again since.
Odds are, we get Arizona and Duke Friday, and our freshman frenzy will be, at least for the moment, sated. But if we don't, don't say you weren't warned.
Bonus Wednesday note! The Great Alaska Shootout may be a diminished shell of its former self these days, and this year's field is basically Harvard, Denver and not much else, but I felt obligated to inform you the GAS still exists, so there you go.
Happy Thanksgiving, and happy hoops, y'all.
One of them -- opening night on Nov. 8 -- is already behind us. Three take place in February (Feb. 1, 22) and March (March 8).
You can probably guess where this is going: Night No. 5 -- or No. 2, if you're into the whole linearity thing -- comes Tuesday night.
I'll be the first to admit this is not exactly a Champions Classic-level confluence we're talking about here. All four teams are playing games they should win, and rather easily; the most difficult opponent on the schedule is Tim Cluess' Iona program, a good mid-major that will nonetheless almost certainly get a right smack in Allen Fieldhouse. Arizona's home date against Rhode Island might look a bit tougher in a few months, but for now it's hard to get too excited. Duke plays East Carolina. Kentucky will destroy UT-Arlington.
Still, with all four players in action just before the holiday and early-season tournaments begin in earnest, we might as well take the opportunity to check in on each. (Oh, and this early in the season, all small sample size disclaimers apply.)
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas Jayhawks (vs. Iona, 8 ET on ESPN3): Kansas' likely and aforementioned smacking of Iona will be just the third game on the Jayhawks' schedule, which was a smart move; the rest of the Jayhawks' schedule is insane. In other words, if you saw the Champions Classic, there's not a whole lot to update where Wiggins concerned. I mean, you saw him, right? Right.
It's just two games, but the numbers are already stellar. Wiggins is shooting 63.2 percent from 2, he's 2-of-5 from 3, his offensive rating is a sterling 120.3, he's rebounding at a high rate (particularly on the defensive end), he's blocking shots and creating steals and he's drawn 6.4 fouls per 40 minutes. He is, in short, doing everything. If there is one minor gripe -- and I really can't stress "minor" enough here -- it's that Wiggins' foul trouble against Duke and his total floor game (as opposed to strictly dominant scoring, for example) can make one feel as if the future No. 1 pick isn't always impacting the game as much as he could be. But, again, minor: When Wiggins is totally on, he -- and by extension his team -- can do anything.
Jabari Parker, Duke Blue Devils (vs. East Carolina, 6 ET on ESPN3): If you thought Wiggins' numbers were good, check out Parker's. In four games, Parker has posted a 128.3 offensive rating on 34.5 percent usage and a 36.4 percent shot rate; a 70.4 effective field goal percentage; a 28.8 defensive rebounding rate; a 3.4 percent block rate; and a 12-of-18 mark from 3-point range. It's flabbergasting. It's hard to tell which number is the craziest. They're all a little bit crazy.
Meanwhile, Duke's offense is looking like one of best units, if not the best unit, in the country. (Frontcourt mate Rodney Hood, meanwhile, is flirting with the 140.0 O-rating mark. Yeesh.) The only problem to date is defense. That was most noticeable when the Blue Devils yielded 54 points in the second half -- and 32 in the final 10 minutes! -- to Kansas at the United Center. Because of the opponents since (Florida Atlantic, UNC Asheville), it's been hard to get a sense of just how good Duke's defense might be. The issue is not pace; the Blue Devils should be able to get stops at any speed. The biggest issue is whether Parker can shoulder so much offensive load and still be an asset on the defensive end, often guarding bigger, more experienced players.
Julius Randle, Kentucky Wildcats (vs. UT-Arlington, 7:30 ET on ESPN3): Maybe the biggest surprise about Randle's numbers thus far is that his usage rate isn't even higher. Kentucky's star forward is using 32.4 percent of UK's available possessions when on the court. If all you saw was the Champions -- when Randle was basically UK's only effective weapon, and the only player anyone in blue seemed to trust to go get a basket -- you could have been convinced his usage would be trending toward the 40s.
In any case, the dude is, quite simply, a beast. The biggest thing for Randle -- and no one has been more vocal about this than coach John Calipari, who clearly sees greatness in Randle and is determined to push him toward it -- is his lack of second- and third-level moves in the low block. Against Kentucky's lesser opponents, the one-dribble spin he has perfected will work every time. He often doesn't even need that. But against better, experienced defenders (see: Michigan State), Randle will have to devise another move and another counter-move. He will have to keep defenders guessing. In the meantime, though, sheer physical strength will do the job.
Aaron Gordon, Arizona (vs. Rhode Island, 11 ET on ESPNU): Gordon is the only player on this list not to lead his team in usage rate, but that makes perfect sense, given the differences in his game. Gordon is not as fully formed a wing player as Wiggins or Parker; he is not a "true" post-up guarantee like Randle. Instead, at least right now, Gordon's a bit of both, and neither at the same time.
What he is, however, is very good, and very athletic -- "Blake Griffin with a jumper" is not a ridiculous comparison. Thus far, per Synergy data, Gordon's shots most frequently come from offensive rebounds and putbacks. His second most frequent play type is "cut," which is a simpler way of saying "Gordon runs to the rim, jumps really high, catches the ball, and dunks it." (See: The baseline inbounds play with 1:22 remaining in the second half at San Diego State. And-1. Yikes.) Post-ups have comprised just five of his overall plays to date.
Which is fine: Gordon may not have a refined post game just yet, but he has more than enough to impact the game in ways very few players -- including the three on this list -- can. Watch him. You won't be disappointed.