- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here are yours truly's 10 big thoughts from the first January hoops Saturday of the year:
1. C.J. McCollum's injury looks like a real bummer. Before we eulogize McCollum's season, it's important to note that we don't know exactly what injury caused him to watch Lehigh's near-miss 59-55 loss at Virginia Commonwealth from the bench, crutches in tow. During the game's broadcast, it looked an awful lot like McCollum said "I broke my foot" to a teammate. But that, revealing as it may be, is not an official doctor's diagnosis. After the game, Lehigh coach Brett Reed told reporters "there may be a break," but didn't want to say anything definitive until McCollum received more tests. In short, it really seems like McCollum broke his foot, but there's a chance that's not the case.
That uncertainty makes it hard to know whether McCollum is doomed to miss the rest of his senior season. It also makes it impossible to know how, or whether, his injury could affect his NBA draft status. Last season, McCollum exploded onto the national scene (and the NBA radar) with a sublime 30-point performance in No. 15-seed Lehigh's upset of Duke. He eschewed the NBA to return for his senior season -- his family didn't need the money, he wanted to get his degree, and he wanted to play his final season with his teammates. His performance has been just as good as last season -- at 25.7 points per game, McCollum entered Saturday as the nation's leading scorer -- and his draft status has only improved. He is widely considered a safe first-round pick (Chad Ford ranks him at No. 13).
All of which made it a huge shame to see him get injured, and disconcerting to wonder if that injury could play a role not only in his and Lehigh's season, but in McCollum's upcoming draft circuit. I don't know any college hoops fan, writer, analyst, player or coach (well, OK, maybe the Patriot League) that doesn't want to see McCollum on the floor this season. As Dana tweeted earlier today: fingers crossed.
2. Ohio State is worrying me. Don't get me wrong: Illinois was impressive Saturday -- Brandon Paul & Co. are looking as consistent and self-assured as ever -- and, yes, it is going to be hard to win on the road in the Big Ten this season. But Ohio State's offense just laid an absolute egg in the 74-55 loss. Actually, check that. That's an insult to eggs. (Eggs are delicious!)
No, Ohio State's offensive performance was worrying because Illinois' defense really hasn't been all that good this season. When the Illini have beaten good teams, they've typically done so because they simply outshoot them on the offensive end. But the Buckeyes held Illinois to 8-of-27 from beyond the arc and still lost by 19. How? OSU went 4-of-19 from 3 and 20-of-60 from the field. That's one answer. The other answer is that even when the Buckeyes shoot it well, their lack of a reliable interior anchor (Amir Williams still isn't there) can make them look downright average.
3. Pittsburgh is making it hard for me to tell you how underrated it is every week. In fact, I'm starting to think the Panthers so much enjoyed spending their November and December miles below the radar that they decided to open Big East play with a couple of losses, just to throw everyone off the scent. Throughout nonconference play, Pitt's per-possession efficiency numbers painted the portrait of a top-10 team. Their schedule was so bad, however, that after a close loss to Michigan in Madison Square Garden, there was no win to point to to help back up the numbers. So I said Pitt was underrated. A lot. Like, every Monday, when they remained unranked. After a Big East-opening home loss to Cincinnati and today's loss at Rutgers -- well, I still think the Panthers have big potential, but I'll probably be a bit more demure about it for a few weeks.
4. Speaking of Cincinnati … Pittsburgh wasn't the only Big East team with a weird loss on its docket Saturday. The Bearcats followed their New Year's Eve Big East-opening win at Pitt up with a … wait. What? A 53-52 home loss to St. John's? Really? That is a reasonable approximation of how I reacted when I saw that result. The Johnnies entered this one 8-5, with losses to San Francisco and UNC-Asheville mixed in. But they managed to hold UC to .75 points per trip -- just a hair under their own mark of .77 -- and D'Angelo Harrison, a gifted but maddening offensive player, made the pull-up jumper in winning time. I'm not sure you want to draw any larger conclusions from this one, at least not yet. But we'll file it away nonetheless. Weird.
5. Bucknell-Missouri might have been the game of the day. Hard-core college hoops fans already knew. Mid-major enthusiasts did, too. And NBA scouts have long since gotten wise. But the rest of you: If you were not aware that (a) Mike Muscala is the real deal, and (b) Bucknell is to be feared, then at least Missouri's 66-64 home victory over the Bison gave you the gift of this knowledge. Muscala -- a real pro prospect, and as polished a low-post player as you may find in college hoops -- finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks in Columbia, and the Bison would have won were it not for Phil Pressey's 26 points, many of which came at crucial junctures throughout the second half. This was a great game, and a great showcase -- not only of Pressey and a still-improving Tigers team but of one of the nation's best and most casually overlooked big men. (And by the way, with McCollum's injury, Bucknell is the overwhelming favorite in the Patriot instead of the slight favorite.)
6. Is Kansas State the second-best team in the Big 12? First of all, word to Kansas, because it's gotten to the point where the best any non-KU member of the Big 12 can hope for is "best non-Kansas team." That is dominance. This season, though, that dynamic is also thanks to the obvious dearth of quality in the Big 12. Baylor and Iowa State can't guard, Texas can't score, Oklahoma is meh and West Virginia has been a massive disappointment by any standard. (Speaking of which, what the Huggins is wrong with West Virginia this season?)
Oklahoma State and Kansas State are the two obvious contenders for non-Kansas honors, and K-State got a big win at Bramlage Coliseum today to further its case. That said … it is hard to win at Bramlage. I'm not quite ready to make the Wildcats the favorite runner-up over OSU. But as Jason King wrote, if Rodney McGruder (MCGRUDER! /guitar slash) plays like the star he was Saturday, Kansas State's defense and rebounding will give it a shot.
7. "Arizona just wants it more." This is the kind of phrase you hear when a team wins a lot of close games. It is a phrase you might have heard about Arizona after it knocked off Florida and San Diego State, both one-possession victories decided in the final moments. But then you get the Sabatino Chen Shot™, and that whole thing about "wanting it more" and "making plays when they matter" goes out the window, because that was just plain referee-caused dumb luck. So what do we make of the Wildcats' 60-57 home win over 8-6 Utah? I think we can safely say that Arizona, at least right now, has a nasty habit of playing down or up to its competition. Actually, I shouldn't even say "up," because Arizona is legitimately good, and the Wildcats didn't have to play "up" to beat Florida at home, or SDSU in Hawaii. But you don't want to be leaving teams like Utah -- losses: Sacramento State, SMU, Cal State Northridge and Arizona State -- chances to beat you in the final minute of games. Eventually, luck turns.
8. OK, Shabazz Muhammad. I see you. When UCLA's star freshman made his debut at Madison Square Garden, he was still a bit out of shape from his offseason injury, and UCLA was still in the midst of an early-season feeling-out period that threatened to devolve into something far worse, and quickly. But the Bruins have recovered since -- they've won seven in a row, including games over Texas, Missouri, Cal and, today, Stanford -- and Muhammad is starting to look really good. In UCLA's 68-60 win over the Cardinal, he dropped 23 points on 6-for-12 shooting, with 10 rebounds and a 10-of-13 mark from the free throw line. Muhammad isn't an Anthony Davis-level game-changer. We get too carried away with our hype sometimes. But he is playing some really great offensive basketball right now. It's no longer possible to be unimpressed.
9. Miami might be OK without Reggie Johnson. The Hurricanes' big man is likely to be sidelined until mid-February, and when that news first came down a couple weeks ago it was a real blow. Johnson was having a great senior season, and Miami was playing really well with him anchoring the low block. The consensus was the Hurricanes would take a hit, another bit of bad luck for a coach (Jim Larranaga) who has had nothing but since arriving in Coral Gables. But Wednesday's second-half domination of La Salle and Saturday's impressive road win at Georgia Tech make me think that Miami just might be all right without Johnson. It's not ideal, of course. But the Canes could make do.
10. I have no idea how good Maryland is, but I'm excited to find out. After the Terrapins lost to Kentucky in their season opener in Brooklyn, N.Y., there was buzz that this team -- led by transformed star center Alex Len -- would be one of the nation's great redemption stories, or at least a sleeper in the top half of the ACC. Since that opener, Maryland is undefeated: 13-0, many of those wins by double digits, nary a real scare in the mix. And I have absolutely no idea how good Maryland actually is! Its schedule has been so bad to date that it has been difficult to gain any real insights. The Terrapins' per-possession, adjusted-efficiency numbers are intriguing (they shoot and defend well, rebound their own misses and don't foul), but not without warts (they turn it over a ton, and force turnovers at one of the nation's lowest rates).
So, Saturday's 94-71 victory over Virginia Tech was nice, I guess, but the Hokies are fading fast. Coming up for Maryland is a home game against Florida State, a road trip to Miami and a home game with NC State. Now that should shed some light on the subject.
A few more quick-hitters:
Purdue fans freaking out about the Branden Dawson "punch" on Travis Carroll: It was so egregious that neither coach nor player brought it up after the game. Let it go (and also stop using the word "thug," ew).
Considering how bad Wake Forest has been this season, I was genuinely shocked to see the Deacons down only 15 points in the second half at Duke. Yes, I said "only."
Emerging star Kelly Olynyk was too much in the end, but Santa Clara gave Gonzaga real problems Saturday night. The 12-4 Broncos haven't played the nation's greatest schedule, sure, but they're going to be a brutal out in the WCC. Nice bounce-back season
Impressive win for Northern Iowa at Illinois State. After playing like one of the best mid-majors in the country in November and December, the Redbirds have lost their first three Valley games.
Creighton got all it could handle from sneaky-good Indiana State, and Gregory Echenique -- who is often overlooked in the Creighton-praise calculus -- was the difference.
And last but not least ... how about those Towson Tigers?! Last season, Towson was famous for going an entire calendar year without winning a basketball game. The Tigers finished 1-31 and were a Bottom 10 member far too often for anyone's taste. On Saturday, Towson won its seventh -- yes, seventh -- game of the 2012-13 season, a 69-66 victory at Drexel that made the Tigers 2-0 in the CAA. You might be tempted to lament how disappointing Drexel has been, and understandably so, but I'd prefer to celebrate the miraculous turnaround of the previously hopeless Towson Tigers, who also won at Oregon State last week. Hear hear.