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Sunday, December 16, 2012
King's Saturday observations

By Jason King

Nearly 12 hours after Butler topped Indiana 88-86 in overtime in arguably the best game of the college basketball season thus far, Arizona ended the day with an even more exciting victory over Florida. The Wildcats rallied from a six-point deficit with less than two minutes remaining and won 65-64 on Mark Lyons’ layup with 7.1 ticks left. Here are a few random thoughts from a memorable Saturday in college hoops.


It’s time to stop thinking of Brad Stevens as one of the best mid-major coaches in college basketball. He’s simply one of the game’s top coaches, period. Seriously, if you had to rank the top 10 coaches in the game -- not by their overall résumé, but just on how good they are right now -- Stevens would have to be in the top 10, if not the top five. As if leading Butler to the NCAA title game in two of the past three seasons wasn’t enough, this year’s team already touts wins over Big Six heavyweights Marquette, North Carolina (in a blowout) and top-ranked Indiana.


Speaking of Saturday’s Butler-Indiana game, the Bulldogs’ victory also did a lot to legitimize Illinois. The Illini defeated Butler 78-61 in the championship game of the Maui Invitational last month. Still, in the ensuing weeks, the common refrain surrounding John Groce’s squad was that it “hadn’t beaten anyone.” Illinois silenced some doubters by defeating Gonzaga in Spokane last week. After Saturday, it’s evident the Butler team the Illini whipped in November was pretty darn good. Illinois plays Eastern Kentucky on Sunday before hitting the road for next Saturday’s game against No. 12 Missouri in St. Louis.


I’ll be interested to see where unranked Butler ends up -- and how far Indiana falls -- in the next Associated Press poll. My guess is that Butler makes its debut in the Nos. 14 to 18 range. I’d pencil Indiana in somewhere between No. 4 and 6. Duke, Michigan and Syracuse will probably occupy the top three spots. Each has yet to lose.


Arizona’s freshmen big men received a ton of offseason hype, but make no mistake: The most important pieces of this team are still its less-ballyhooed veterans. Solomon Hill (18 points), Nick Johnson (15) and Lyons (14) all played more than 31 minutes and were the only players other than senior Kevin Parrom (7 points) to sniff double figures against Florida. The win should provide a huge momentum boost for Arizona, and it will go a long way toward enhancing the national perception of the Wildcats, who hadn’t been tested by a quality team before Saturday. The win was also good for the Pac-12, which didn’t experience a victory of this magnitude all last season.


Johnson, a sophomore shooting guard, is averaging 17.3 points in his past four games and has gone 9-of-16 from 3-point range during that span.


Even in a loss, I was impressed with the way Florida played in a hostile road environment. Well, at least until the final minute, when the Gators were clearly rattled and unnerved to the point where they couldn’t even get the ball inbounds after a made basket by Arizona. That’s uncharacteristic of a Billy Donovan team, especially one with so many veterans. Florida lost despite outrebounding Arizona 27-21 (including 11-4 on the offensive end) and going 10-of-18 from beyond the arc. I’d still rank Florida no lower than No. 7 in next week’s poll.


I’m still not sure what to make of North Carolina. The Tar Heels led East Carolina by 16 points at intermission, but the Pirates got back in the game by scoring 61 second-half points. Read that again: East Carolina scored 61 points in a single half against North Carolina in the Dean Dome. That’s just hard to fathom. It was a four-point game with 30 seconds remaining, but the Tar Heels held on for a 93-87 victory. Roy Williams spent most of the game red-faced and screaming, and who could blame him? It’s hard to feel good about a team that defends that poorly.


Kentucky’s Kyle Wiltjer broke out of his shooting slump by going 7-of-9 from 3-point range in the Wildcats’ 88-50 win over Lipscomb. Wiltjer had made just 10 of his 38 attempts from long range before Saturday, when he was replaced in the starting lineup by point guard Ryan Harrow. Beneficial as his points might have been, it was Wiltjer’s rebounding -- he snared a career-high 12 boards -- that impressed Kentucky coach John Calipari the most.


One other thought on Kentucky: Calipari is doing everything he can to instill confidence in Harrow, who had difficulty early in the season dealing with Calipari’s tough-love approach. Harrow, who missed four games in November because of flu-like symptoms and an undisclosed family issue, played 31 minutes Saturday and attempted a team-high 13 shots. He made six of them and finished with 12 points.


I learned from a television commentator Saturday that Louisville’s Russ Smith weighed only 137 pounds when he showed up on campus as a freshman. Two years and 30 pounds later, Smith is averaging a team-high 20.3 points for a team that rallied from a 16-point deficit to defeat Memphis, 87-78. Smith performance was particularly inspiring considering he suffered an ankle sprain that appeared to knock him out of the game for good midway through the second half. Smith returned, though, and finished with 19 points, and 12 of them came from the free throw line, where he didn’t miss a shot.


I think Louisville has a chance to be the best team in the country when center Gorgui Dieng returns from a wrist injury next month. Louisville -- along with Kansas and Arizona -- is among a handful of top-10 teams that haven’t come anywhere close to reaching their ceiling. Besides winning in a tough road environment, the most encouraging thing about Saturday was a 22-point effort from forward Chane Behanan, a sophomore who entered the game averaging just 8.8 points. If Rick Pitino can get Behanan and Wayne Blackshear to play at a high level consistently, the Cardinals will be capable of winning it all.


I heard a bunch of boos from the Memphis crowd as the final seconds ticked away Saturday, and while a lot of them were probably aimed at an officiating crew that sent Louisville to the foul stripe 46 times (compared to 20 for Memphis), I’m sure a lot of them were directed at Memphis coach Josh Pastner. Hired when he was 31 to replace John Calipari, Pastner won more games in his first three seasons (75) than any coach in school history. But he’s yet to win an NCAA tournament game and is 0-11 against ranked teams. You have to wonder if Memphis will make the NCAA tournament this season if it doesn’t gain the automatic bid by winning the Conference USA tournament. Memphis’ best win is against Northern Iowa, and the Tigers don’t have a ranked team left on the their schedule. To me, this team looks so much better than the one I watched lose 2 of 3 games in the Bahamas last month. But that might not matter to the selection committee -- or to fans.


Two other thoughts about Memphis, which I thought played extremely hard: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player jump as high, consistently, as D.J. Stephens. And I love the energy junior college transfer Geron Johnson brings to the court. In the past, the Tigers had a tendency to take plays off and go through the motions, to the point where they often appeared disinterested. Johnson keeps them revved up. Well, most of them. Shaq Goodwin definitely needs to play with more fire. He’s capable of so much more.


I’m not ready to predict that Oklahoma will make the NCAA tournament, but the Sooners are the most improved team in the Big 12. Other than Kansas and maybe Oklahoma State, there isn’t a team in the league that has separated itself from the rest of the pack. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Lon Kruger’s squad finish second, third or fourth in this abysmal league. Oklahoma defeated Texas A&M 64-54 on Saturday.


Back-to-back wins over Colorado and Belmont -- two NCAA tournament-caliber teams -- would’ve been impressive enough. Kansas, though, didn’t just beat those schools. It crushed them. One week after thumping Colorado 90-54, Kansas thumped Belmont 89-60 on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse. With the Big 12 struggling, Belmont might have been the toughest home game remaining on KU’s schedule. The Jayhawks host Richmond on Tuesday before taking on Ohio State in Columbus on Saturday.


Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore have been commanding most of the headlines, and rightfully so. But one of the biggest reasons for Kansas’ 8-1 start is senior guard Travis Releford, who is blossoming into the on-court leader KU so glaringly lacked when it opened the season. Releford entered Saturday’s game averaging 12.8 points. Even more importantly, he’s embracing his role as the Jayhawks’ defensive stopper. No KU player improved as much during the offseason as Releford.


Virginia Tech continues to backslide after a 7-0 start. The Hokies fell to Georgia Southern 78-73 at home Saturday. Erick Green had 28 points in a losing effort. Green has scored 20 points in each of his team’s 10 games.


If you’re an AP voter, it’s time to put VCU in the Top 25. Heck, I might even put the Rams in the top 20. Shaka Smart’s team annihilated Alabama 73-54 on Saturday to improve to 7-3. VCU’s only losses are to Wichita State (53-51 in the second game of the year), No. 1 Duke (67-58) and No. 12 Missouri (68-65). I was in attendance for those final two defeats at the Battle 4 Atlantis and I can honestly say that, even in a losing effort, the Rams were among the top 20 teams I’ve seen all year. Along with their trademark, suffocating defense, VCU is a dangerous 3-point shooting team that poses huge matchup problems when it employs its four-guard lineup.


Two hot teams that were brought back down to earth Saturday: SMU and Nebraska. Larry Brown’s Mustangs were manhandled 72-50 by a Rhode Island squad that was just 2-7. Oregon defeated Nebraska and first-year coach Tim Miles, 60-38. Ouch. Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi had 10 points, 17 rebound and 4 steals for Oregon.


It’s tough to take much from Ohio State’s 90-72 blowout of UNC-Asheville, but one thing that’s obvious is that the notion that the Buckeyes lack scorers beyond DeShaun Thomas is false. Evan Ravenel, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson all reached double figures Saturday along with Thomas. Point guard Aaron Craft had 8 assists and no turnovers. Ohio State’s offense is incredibly efficient, which is a credit to Craft and coach Thad Matta. Scoring won’t be a problem because players are getting high-quality shots.


The race for the Cousy Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top point guard, is going to be as competitive as it’s been in years. Two of the leading candidates made major statements Saturday. Michael Carter-Williams of Syracuse had 14 assists in a win over Canisius. He’s averaging 12.8 assists in his past four games. That’s almost unheard of. Michigan posted an 81-66 victory over West Virginia thanks, in part, to Trey Burke, who had 27 points and 8 assists -- and no turnovers.