Sunday, December 15, 2013
A Saturday full of thrillers
By Myron Medcalf
Well, we were certainly spoiled on Saturday.
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).
Center Kaleb Tarczewski and the Arizona frontcourt keyed Saturday's win at Michigan.
And the young Wildcats showcased their maturity by overcoming both the environment and a good Michigan team. The Wolverines had the best team in America on the ropes. They fought until the end. There were five lead changes in the final 2 minutes, 32 seconds. Nick Johnson's free throws down the stretch sealed it for Arizona. But Nik Stauskas had a good look in the final seconds. Spike Albrecht hit a 3-pointer with 2 seconds to play.
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.
Junior Tekele Cotton scored 19 points Saturday to lead unbeaten Wichita State past Tennessee.
MVP: With Ron Baker nursing an ankle injury, Wichita State's Tekele Cotton (19 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and a block) stepped up and carried the Shockers on both ends in a 70-61 victory over Tennessee.
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.
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.