College Basketball Nation: Russ Smith
So, now that we're a week away from the Wooden Award luncheon in Dallas, how does the Los Angeles Athletic Club and its Wooden Award advisory board actually go about deciding this thing? Helpful explanation from the club itself is provided here:
Voting is opened to the national voting panel prior to the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. Voters may vote via an online system that allows them to evaluate players up until just after the Third Round of the NCAA Tournament. The official accounting firm of the John R. Wooden Award, Deloitte, tabulates all votes.
In other words, the votes are already in, but that doesn't mean voters can't take the NCAA tournament into account. Do they? Hard to say. Should they? Your mileage might vary. Either way, let's take a quick look at how the Wooden candidates might -- or might not -- be affected by their tournament performances.
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Cue up Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday" for this one. Last week, McDermott finished his college career with 3,150 points, fifth all time on the scoring list, but his team played -- and shot -- its worst game of the season against Baylor's long, tricky zone and couldn't press effectively to try to get back in the game when it was over. The result was an 85-55 blowout, and a tearful McDermott exited to a standing ovation. The only thing more of a bummer than the way McDermott ended his career was that he had to end it at all. We'd happily sign up for another year. In any case, he's still your runaway Wooden Award favorite.
2. Russ Smith, Louisville: Smith hasn't played particularly well in the NCAA tournament thus far, which is just like him. As much as Smith has frustrated coach Rick Pitino in his mostly brilliant Louisville career, he is just as frustrating for pundits who go all-in on praise, because he usually follows that praise with a quirky off night under the bright lights. For most of this season, though, he's been brilliant. How he plays in the Cardinals' Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky could define his legacy.
3. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Speaking of legacies, how about the one Napier is putting together at Connecticut? In last week's upset of No. 2-seed Villanova, Napier was lights out before bruising his shin. He left the game in "excruciating" pain. He later reentered, finished a couple of insane drives that only he can make and led UConn to a victory after all. What a player.
4. Jabari Parker, Duke: Parker's freshman season, and almost certainly his college career, ended with a whimper. That was true of his team, which made 15 of 37 shots from 3 and still lost to 14-seed Mercer, and Parker himself, who scored 14 points on 14 shots. That finale might hurt him in the final awards voting, to say nothing of his defensive issues, but overall? As single seasons go, Parker's was pretty great.
5. Nick Johnson, Arizona: It has taken most of the country a few months to figure out why Aaron Gordon is so valuable to the Wildcats (because he is a complete athletic freak who can guard every position on the court for the best defense in the country, naturally). But Johnson has kept showing why he's so important, too: Not only is he Arizona's most reliable and versatile scorer, he's a crucial perimeter defender in his own right. Arizona is still in the title hunt as well.
6. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: When was the last time a player on a No. 1 seed saw his draft stock leap this much in a loss? Early was legendary in Wichita State's loss to Kentucky last weekend. His cool, comprehensive, 31-point performance wasn't enough to get the Shockers past soaring UK, but it was enough to simultaneously validate his team's season and his own individual primacy even though Fred Van Vleet 's shot missed right.
7. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: It's a safe bet that much of the country's casual college hoops fandom had no idea who Thames was before the tournament. They figured it out pretty quickly. Thames was great in the first weekend and arguably even better in SDSU's back-and-forth rumble with Arizona on Thursday night.
8. Casey Prather, Florida: Florida is so deep and talented that when Prather and forward Patric Young sat on the bench with four fouls apiece late in Thursday night's win over UCLA (and Scottie Wilbekin was struggling through one of his worst games of the season), no one in Memphis, Tenn., actually thought the Gators were going to lose. That depth has overshadowed Prather's contributions at times -- Wilbekin, after all, was the SEC player of the year. But from November until now, Prather has been the best and most important player on the best team in the country. Without him, Florida wouldn't be Florida.
9. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: Kilpatrick and Cincinnati had a rough go in their only NCAA tournament game, falling victim to Harvard and the strange curse of the No. 5 seed. (Seriously, why do so many No. 5s lose to No. 12s? Doesn't that mean the teams are improperly seeded? Something doesn't compute here.) But, as with Creighton, the Bearcats' early end shouldn't overshadow the magnificent season their star player had in the three dozen games that preceded it.
10. Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle has been Kentucky's consistent force all season long. That hasn't changed. He's still beasting the glass on both ends of the court. What has changed are the conditions around him -- better, headier play from the Harrison twins, smart shot selection from James Young, increased energy from Alex Poythress and great defensive contributions from centers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein. For much of the season, Randle's remarkable frontcourt work was Kentucky's best and only option. Now, it's just the tip of the sword.
Honorable mentions: Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Aaron Gordon (Arizona), Scottie Wilbekin (Florida) Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Marcus Paige (North Carolina), Bryce Cotton (Providence)
ORLANDO, Fla. -- After Louisville guard Russ Smith went 1-of-5 from the floor and turned the ball over five times against Saint Louis in the first half on Saturday, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino pulled him aside in the locker room at halftime.
“Russ, there’s a lot better coaches than me in the other locker room, but picture if I was in the other locker room,” Pitino told him. “Do you think I would even let you breathe any time down the court? Do you think I would let you breathe?”
“No, Coach,” Smith told Pitino . “You would double me, you would trap me.”
Smith, a senior from Brooklyn, N.Y., must have listened to Pitino’s advice because he played much better in the second half, leading the No. 4 seed Cardinals to a 66-51 rout of the fifth-seeded Billikens in a round-of-32 game in the Midwest Region of the NCAA tournament at Amway Center.
The Cardinals, the defending national champions, will meet the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 1 seed Wichita State and No. 8 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis on Friday.
Smith finished with 11 points and seven assists, and he didn’t try to force things against Saint Louis’ suffocating defense as much as he did in the first half.
“Russ Smith has grown so much as a basketball player,” Pitino said. “But he still has one thing left, and I tried to explain this to him at halftime. He has a very difficult time because he’s a distracted young man. His last lesson is to play like he did in the second half. He doesn’t understand the scouting of the other teams. He’s all Michael, all Kobe. He doesn't get it. So we're going to give him shock treatment on Monday."
Smith said he’s willing to do whatever it takes to help the Cardinals move forward in the tournament.
“I agree with anything [Pitino] says,” Smith said. “He’s gotten me to the point of being an All-American. Everything he says is correct. I’m just playing to win. I’ll do whatever I have to do.”
Against Saint Louis, less from Smith turned out to be more in the second half. Pitino warned his team that Saint Louis’ slow pace and stingy defense would frustrate them.
“They watched the Pitt-Florida game, and I said, ‘Guys, that’s the exact game you’re going to be in. You’re going to have to be the prettiest team in an ugly game because that’s the way it’s going to be,'" Pitino said.
Pitino’s comments were prophetic because the Billikens and Cardinals slugged their way through a forgettable first half. Louisville shot 40.9 percent in the first half; Saint Louis shot 28.6 percent. The Billikens went 0-for-15 on 3-pointers in the game.
After taking a 25-16 lead over the Billikens at the half, the Cardinals couldn’t make anything at the start of the second. Louisville went nearly six minutes without making a field goal -- its only points came on a pair of free throws on a Saint Louis technical foul. But after the Billikens went ahead 29-27 on forward Rob Loe’s layup with 14:17 to go, Smith ended Louisville’s drought with a basket and then made two foul shots on the next trip for a 31-29 lead.
After Louisville forward Luke Hancock made 3-pointers on consecutive trips a few minutes later, the Cardinals finally seemed to be back in rhythm.
Maybe that’s why Smith was trying to force things so much early against Saint Louis. During Louisville’s run to a national championship last season, the Cardinals breezed through their region in reaching the Final Four. They beat North Carolina A&T by 31 points, Colorado State by 26, Oregon by 8 and Duke by 22.
Then Louisville won close games over Wichita State and Michigan to earn Pitino a second national championship.
“[This year] feels good,” Smith said. “Nothing is going to feel like last year. We were clobbering teams. Last year’s team is incomparable. The new guys are hungry, but this team is different. This is our first year playing together. Last year, we’d been playing together for three years. We all have new roles this year and there’s different chemistry. I feel good about our guys and where they are.”
After the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, the defending national champions have as much of a chance as anyone else to win another title.
“Obviously, they’ve got a chance to repeat,” Saint Louis coach Jim Crews said. “They’re going to be in the final 16, so they’ve got a better chance than the other 314. [Their chances] are a lot better than us."
ORLANDO -- Florida hardly looked like the No. 1 overall seed Thursday night in its opening-round game of the NCAA tournament.
And Louisville didn’t look much better in its first NCAA tournament game in defense of its national championship.
Both will be looking for redemption when they play round-of-32 games Saturday, with another trip to the Sweet 16 on the line:
South Region: No. 1 seed Florida (33-2) vs. No. 9 seed Pittsburgh (26-9), 12:15 p.m. ET Saturday
The surging Panthers walloped No. 8 seed Colorado 77-48 Thursday.
“It was good enough to win, but is it good enough to play against a team like Pittsburgh? Probably not,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “But I’m proud of our guys because they found a way to win when they didn’t play their best. And you know what? They’ve always been really good at being able to learn valuable lessons in a lot of ways. So hopefully they’ll be able to come back and correct that and do a little bit better.”
The Gators will probably have to be much better against Pittsburgh, which is a lot bigger and more physical than the Great Danes. Albany, which had to win a first-round game against Mount St. Mary’s on Tuesday night to earn the trip to Orlando, trailed UF by only six points at the half and tied the score at 39 with about 14 minutes to play. The Gators finally pulled away with a 9-0 run in the final 10 minutes.
“I think in this tournament you have to be aware that every team is fighting for their life, and the goal is just to survive,” Gators center Patric Young said. “Moving forward, we have to make sure we do whatever it takes just to survive and every team is going to be trying to keep that same mindset of just moving on to the next round. Hopefully, we can keep it going, as well.”
Pittsburgh, which led Colorado by 28 points at the half and committed only three turnovers in the game, seems to be hitting its stride. The Panthers won 16 of their first 17 games this season, then dropped six of 10 after losing sixth man Durand Johnson to a season-ending knee injury.
Pittsburgh has played better lately, though, winning four of five, including an 80-75 victory over North Carolina in the ACC tournament.
Pitt was 1-7 against ranked opponents this season and is 2-15 all time against the country’s top-ranked team.
“I think we feel like we’re playing really good basketball,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “We think we’re playing our best. We played well in the ACC tournament. We didn’t win it, but we thought we were playing better and we played good the other day. I think all that matters is not so much the seed but how you feel like you’re playing and how you are playing.”
Midwest Region: No. 4 seed Louisville (30-5) vs. No. 5 seed Saint Louis (27-6), 2:45 p.m. ET Saturday
Louisville and Saint Louis were in even more trouble than Florida on Thursday night.
The Billikens trailed No. 12 seed NC State by 14 points with 5 minutes to go, and eight points with 90 seconds to go, but somehow won the game 83-80 in overtime.
Louisville and Saint Louis will meet on Saturday, with the winner advancing to next week’s Midwest Region semifinals in Indianapolis.
“We won the game, but any team in this tournament [can win],” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “Albany played Florida to the mat. Because of everybody leaving so early, that’s what makes March Madness so much fun. I think we’re a very good basketball team. I thought Manhattan was the better team [Thursday night] until 4 minutes to go in the game, and then we were the better team.”
Manhattan’s familiarity with Louisville -- Jaspers coach Steve Masiello played for Pitino at Kentucky and coached under him at Louisville -- made things more difficult for the Cardinals. Louisville missed 13 of its first 17 shots in the second half.
But Saint Louis and Louisville also are very similar. The Billikens have started five seniors in all but three games this season, and they’re built on defense. Saint Louis ranks eighth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 91.4 points per 100 possessions. Louisville, which starts three seniors, ranks sixth in adjusted defensive efficiency (90.6 points).
"It's like watching one of [SMU] coach Larry Brown's teams," Pitino said. "You weren't quite sure whether his team executed better on offense or defense, and that's indicative of Saint Louis and Jim [Crews]' teams. They execute at both ends of the floor in a terrific fashion. Obviously they've got seniors, and seniors execute very well, and they're very impressive."
One group of seniors will be together on the court for another chance Saturday.
“We’ve been the underdog pretty much my entire time at Saint Louis, so it’s nothing new,” Saint Louis forward Dwayne Evans said. “But to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, and obviously Louisville won it last year. I think we have the team to do it."
ORLANDO, Fla. -- For more than 36 ˝ minutes on Thursday night, it seemed as if No. 13 seed Manhattan knew exactly what defending national championship Louisville was going to do.
When the Cardinals tried to find shooters on the wing, the Jaspers were there to cut them off.
When Louisville tried to toss the ball inside, Manhattan’s swarming defenders surrounded the post players.
“We played the best we could,” Louisville guard Russ Smith said. “Manhattan knew us and anticipated everything we were going to do. They played a perfect game and couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
Smith and fellow senior Luke Hancock scored 14 of the Cardinals’ final 16 points, helping them erase a late deficit in a 71-64 victory. Louisville advanced to play No. 5 seed Saint Louis in Saturday’s third round.
“It was big,” Hancock said. “Nobody wants to go home on the first day. We’re trying to build a legacy. This is another step and it would have been tough to go home tonight.”
Louisville missed 13 of its first 17 shots in the second half and fell behind 58-55 with less than 3 ˝ minutes to go. But then Smith, who bruised his thumb early in the first half, made a 3-pointer from the top of the key to tie the score at 58. He scored 18 points on 3-for-9 shooting, with 11 points coming at the foul line.
“I finally got open after 36 minutes of stifling defense,” Smith said. “I’m just happy winning. I wasn’t trying to do too much, but I also didn’t want to lose. For me to get a look like that and knock it down, after Manhattan defended me so well, was pretty big.”
After the Jaspers went back in front 60-58 on Tyler Wilson’s layup with 2:34 to go, Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear made a bank shot to tie the score at 60. Then Hancock stole an ill-advised, cross-court pass in Manhattan’s backcourt and was fouled driving to the rim. He knocked down two foul shots, and then drained a 3-pointer from the right wing to give Louisville a 68-62 lead with 27.2 seconds to play.
“We just played a great team and needed a couple of bounces to go our way,” Hancock said. “Luckily, I found myself open in that matchup zone they run so well. I got two good looks at the end and they went in.”
Hancock, who was the Most Outstanding Player of last season’s Final Four, scoring 22 points in the Cardinals’ 82-76 win over Michigan in the championship game, wasn’t aggressive enough early in Thursday’s game, according to Pitino. Hancock finished with 16 points on 4-for-10 shooting, going 2-for-5 on 3-pointers.
“He was passing up some shots, and we need him to shoot the ball,” Pitino said. “I told him, ‘If you don’t shoot the ball when you’re open,’ and then I said some other expletives. But I said, ‘You shoot that ball because they’re all going to come after Russ. Russ obviously had one of his off nights, and when you see Russ play that way, it’s because the defense made him have an off night. I knew they would do it to him.”
The Cardinals got everything they needed from their stars when it mattered most.
“Coach Masiello was one of the designers of our defense,” Smith said. “It was very frustrating because he knew everything we wanted to run. Every opponent scouts you, but it’s different when they run the same system. They knew the counter to our counter.”
But the Jaspers had no answer for Louisville’s one-two punch at the end.
“We needed this type of game,” said Pitino, who was pleased his team did not tense up. “Winning by 60 and 40 doesn’t make you a better basketball team.”
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Louisville won the championship in its one and only appearance in the American Athletic Conference tournament, beating UConn 71-61 Saturday at FedExForum. Here are five observations from the Cardinals' win:
1. Louisville passes the eye test with flying colors. Louisville dominated the American tournament, trailing for only 27 seconds (ironically, during a 61-point drubbing against Rutgers). Louisville coach Rick Pitino said immediately after the game that the Cardinals will be a No. 1 seed. But he pulled back after, saying in the postgame news conference that the Cardinals should be but won't be a No. 1 seed. If the committee were to give the Cardinals a 1-seed then it would be revamping the entire system. If you had just landed from the moon and saw this team the past week you wouldn't have thought there is a better team in the country.
But the season has to be put in context and Louisville doesn't look like it will have a nonconference win against the field. The Cardinals don't have a bad loss. But the numbers aren't in Louisville's favor with a .500 record against top-50 teams, seven nonconference games against teams below 100, 12 conference games against teams below 140. After the game, Pitino said that you can't blame the Cardinals for the schedule or the league but to blame football (I think that was a shot toward the breakup of the Big East). Still, no one is going to want to be in the same bracket with the Cardinals. Expect the weakest No. 1 to get a strong No. 2 Louisville in its region.
2. Louisville is a force to be reckoned with in conference tournament play. The Cardinals have won three straight postseason tournament titles -- two in the Big East and one in the American. The Cardinals have won all their conference tournament title games by double-digit points for the second straight season. Add to that Louisville’s two straight Final Four trips and one national championship, with a possibility for a repeat. Yet, for whatever reason, that is not being discussed much nationally.
The conference the Cardinals play in may have something to do with that, but Louisville deserves at least some talk of having built a budding dynasty. As he departed his postgame news conference, Pitino remarked that the Cardinals were heading to their ninth conference next season. He's not that far off. Louisville has been in the Missouri Valley, Metro, Conference USA, Big East, American and next season the ACC.
3. Russ Smith, the overshadowed senior, was named the American Conference tournament MVP. He didn't get player of the year in the conference. That went to UConn's Shabazz Napier. Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick was a possible selection and had a strong case over either player. Yet, Smith stood tall yet again with a conference title. He scored 42 points in the win over Rutgers and while he wasn't as dominant against UConn (19 points) he made winning plays.
Smith bought into being a leader in his senior season from the jump. He didn't leave for the NBA after last season, not just because he wasn't going to be a first-round pick, but as much because he enjoyed the college experience. Smith said after the game that he loved Louisville and appreciated getting an education, the friends he has made in the city and at the school and the whole college experience. He said earlier in the week that he learned how to read screens, where to be on the court and became a much better basketball player playing for Pitino. Smith gets it and will leave quite a legacy at Louisville when he's through after the NCAA tournament.
4. Montrezl Harrell will be one of the toughest matchups in the NCAA tournament. Memphis coach Josh Pastner said Harrell is a difference-maker. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said Harrell is the most versatile player on the team, someone who can defend, rebound and is an all-around talent. Harrell has made everyone forget about Chane Behanan. Harrell has been sensational and not just because of his dunking. He finished with 22 points, 11 boards and 3 blocks in the title game.
Pitino called him the best power forward in the country. He may be the hardest to guard on the weak side, on the break or in transition. A year ago, Pitino said Harrell was the best NBA talent he had on his team. That may be hard to argue against.
5. What’s the ceiling for UConn? The Huskies got rocked by Louisville last Saturday and while they were in the game during stretches this Saturday, they couldn't cut the deficit to under 10 when it mattered. But the Huskies didn't match up well with Louisville. Napier couldn't shake the Louisville perimeter, forcing most of his shots. He rarely had a good look and neither did Ryan Boatright. The bright spot for the Huskies this week was the play of Amida Brimah, who could be a major factor if the Huskies are to win a game or two in the NCAA tournament. The freshman big man has made quite a leap in his development this season. He must be a board man and create some balance for the Huskies to advance. UConn coach Kevin Ollie remained upbeat after the game and predicted a good run for the Huskies next week.
Napier said he never gave it much thought that the Huskies would be in the NCAA tournament after not being allowed to participate last season. But with Selection Sunday at hand, he is appreciating the opportunity to be in the tournament. That's why he remained in Storrs, Conn., when others did not. UConn still has a player who can carry the Huskies a round, but more important, if the complementary players like Brimah, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey perform well, then the Huskies have a real shot to be playing into the second weekend.
"As we’ve discussed ad nauseam, the POY award is often about (A) being really good at basketball and (B) building so much perceptual momentum that your honor starts feeling inevitable. Both players have done just that so far. Parker is the insanely gifted freshman; McDermott might finish his career with 3,000 points. If this is a two-man race for the next three months, don’t say you weren’t warned."
Were you to scroll through four months of Wooden Watches, you'd notice McDermott's name atop the list in every week since Week 8. But even if you don't read a word, you'll feel his case building. Every week, McDermott's blurb got a little bit longer. Every week, the rest of the list got smaller. Every week, the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker (ACMcDAT) crammed more and more data into bulleted points. In Week 16, after McDermott became the first player since Lionel Simmons to post three straight seasons with 750 or more points, I was almost numb to the numbers. Exhausted, even. He was so good we ran out of ways to say it.
On Saturday, McDermott ended his regular-season career with 45 points on 25 shots in a Senior Night blowout of Providence -- and, in the process, passed the career 3,000-point mark (3,011) with plenty of postseason to spare. The crowd in Omaha, Neb., gave him a stirring ovation. His dad, Creighton coach Greg McDermott, gave him a hug and a slap on the head. In a few weeks, the Associated Press will give him his third straight first-team All-American honor, and make him the first player since Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale to do so. At the Final Four, the Los Angeles Athletic Club will give him the John R. Wooden National Player of the Year Award.
For four years -- and especially the last four months -- McDermott gave us more beautiful basketball than any player in decades. The awards will be the least we can do to say thanks.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Parker might not have come close to making this a two-man race, but that shouldn't obscure the excellent season he's had. While using 31.4 percent of his team's possessions and taking 31.8 percent of its shots, Parker has posted a 113.3 offensive rating. He's also rebounded 24.0 percent of opponents' available misses -- he might not be a great defender, but he's been Duke's anchor on the defensive glass all season. (He's also blocked 4.3 percent of available shots, which tends to get overlooked.) Without him, the Blue Devils would be a good offense and an irredeemable defense. With him, they're great on offense and so-so defensively. His value has been immense.
3. Russ Smith, Louisville: All season, we've been worried that Smith would end up overlooked again. Louisville had a bad nonconference schedule and some stumbles here and there; the Chane Behanan dismissal could have derailed its entire season. And so, despite having the most efficient season of his career -- a year after being the best two-way play in the country, no less -- Smith could have gone overlooked.
We seem to have avoided that fate. Both the USBWA and Sporting News gave Smith first-team All-American honors this week; the Associated Press is likely to follow suit. Meanwhile, Louisville has won nine of its last 10 and is arguably playing the best all-around basketball in the country right now. If Smith's efficient scoring and passing and general Russ Smith-ness haven't impressed you yet, you have ample opportunity to catch up in the weeks to come.
4. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The only time I've ever felt the urge to give a college basketball player a hug came was Jan. 9, 2012. The post-Kemba Walker UConn Huskies were sloughing their way through Jim Calhoun's final season as coach, and Calhoun was desperately searching for some self-leadership. Napier, then a sophomore, cast himself in the role. His teammates had other ideas:
"I try to tell the guys, I feel as if I’m their best leader. Sometimes they give me a chance, sometimes they don’t," Napier said then. "That’s just how it is. It’s just basketball, I guess. ... I try my best to be a leader, even though guys don’t give me a chance to be that person. It shows in the game, I can’t lie. When we have a tipped ball and big guys get the ball and I’m yelling for the ball back out, we’ve got a new shot clock and they go back up ... that shows I’m not that much of a leader. When a play starts breaking down and I’m yelling, ‘Bring it out, bring it out,’ and Boat or Jeremy takes a shot, that just shows that I’m not a leader. It sucks, because we lose games like that. But I try my best. I’m just a human being, I try to do my best in helping my teammates out."
Two years later, Napier is as respected a player as there is in the college game, both by his teammates and by opponents. It helps that he's as good a guard as there is in the college game, too -- a scorer/distributor/defender capable of bending entire halves to his will. Watching him go from disrespected sophomore to beloved senior has been a treat four years in the making.
6. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Johnson's season was not without its bumps, the most notable of which came immediately after forward Brandon Ashley was lost for the season to an foot injury. But Johnson has rebounded -- literally and metaphorically -- in the weeks since. He hasn't put up huge offensive numbers, but like Smith, Napier and Kilpatrick, he's one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, and maybe the most versatile. Arizona's offense might have taken a post-Ashley hit, but its defense is still the best in the country. Johnson has played a major role in that.
7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: It's hard not to give this spot to point guard Fred VanVleet. VanVleet was, after all, the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year, and fairly so: he posted a 131.5 offensive rating with a 33.2 percent assist rate and a tiny 13.8 percent turnover percentage, what my Insider colleague John Gasaway called "a near-perfect season for a pass-first point guard."
So why stick with Early? Because he's the sun around which Wichita State revolves. The Shockers are an ensemble production, sure, but Early is the only player to use more than 22 percent of the team's offensive possessions, using 26.5 percent -- and takes 28 percent of their shots to boot. Tekele Cotton might be the team's best defender, Ron Baker its best shooter, VanVleet its best passer. But Early does all of those things very well almost all of the time.
8. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: Thames struggled a bit down the stretch, including one 10-for-50 span that looked like it might knock him out of any and all postseason award consideration. And it did, kind of: Thames wasn't on the Wooden Committee's final ballot. That's a mistake. Thames got back on track in his final three games, including a 23-point, five-steal effort in the Aztecs' grinding regular-season title clincher against New Mexico Saturday, and finished with a 119.1 offensive rating on nearly 28 percent usage (in addition to a 3.4 percent steal rate, a 22.1 assist rate, 38 percent from 3, etc.). The Aztecs finished the regular season 27-3 because they were a) a great defensive team and b) a great defensive team with a reliable star scorer. Thames belongs on one of the All-American teams at the very least.
9. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: On Saturday, Wiggins scored 41 points on 18 shots with eight rebounds, five steals and four blocks. And Kansas lost. Those two sentences don't compute, but if anything, Wiggins' blowout regular-season finale gave us a chance to point out how solid he's been for pretty much all of his freshman season. He's scored reliably, he's rebounded, he's played lockdown inside-out defense -- he's been really good. He hasn't been the second coming. Sometimes, he's been too passive. But many coaches would kill for his baseline production, let alone the possibility he might go off for 41 on 18 at any given time. If he is 75 percent as good in the postseason, look out.
10. T.J. Warren, NC State: For better or worse, the player of the year award is about the value a player contributes to his team's success. You'll notice there aren't too many players on this list whose teams aren't going to make the NCAA tournament. That should let you know just how good Warren was individually for the probably-NIT-bound Wolfpack in 2013-14: He posted a 115.2 percent offensive rating on a McDermott-ian 37 percent of his team's shots; he averaged 24.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and shot 53.2 percent from the field. He finished the season with back-to-back 41- and 42-point efforts (on 17 and 21 field goal attempts to boot) against Pitt and Boston College, respectively.
Warren did all of this despite facing constant double and triple teams for a team that finished eighth in the ACC in points allowed per possession. If the Wolfpack had guarded better, we'd get to see this dude try to singlehandedly take over the NCAA tournament, and the tournament would be better for it. But they didn't, and so, barring an ACC tourney miracle, we won't. Shame.
Honorable mentions: Casey Prather (Florida), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Julius Randle (Kentucky), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Joel Embiid (Kansas), Marcus Paige (North Carolina).
Saturday, the last full day of regular-season college hoops, was a grand affair. We had overtime and history-making matchups and buzzer-beaters and memorable Senior Nights.
And the NCAA tournament hasn’t even started.
It’s probably best to recap this day according to its most significant numbers:
3,000: Bill Walton won two national championships with UCLA. Lew Alcindor won three national titles for the Bruins. J.J. Redick shattered records at Duke during his time there. Ralph Sampson won three consecutive Naismith player of the year awards at Virginia. Sampson, Alcindor and Walton are three of the greatest athletes who ever played at the collegiate level. But none of the aforementioned four players scored 3,000 points in their respective careers. Now, it’s only fair to note that eligibility limits blocked freshmen from competing with the varsity squads then and the 3-point line wasn’t available, either.
4: Iowa State and Oklahoma State have had two battles this season. And after Saturday’s thriller, the Cyclones can claim both victories over the Pokes, but they needed four overtimes to get there. The first game, a 98-97 win for Iowa State, demanded triple overtime in Stillwater. Naz Long hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to drag Saturday’s game into the extra period in Ames, where Iowa State secured the 85-81 victory in the rematch.
41: Remember that stuff about Andrew Wiggins not being aggressive enough? Well, that’s so 2013. The freshman, a finalist for the Wooden Award, has been one of America’s best players in recent months. Proof? He dropped a career-high 41 points in Kansas’ 92-86 loss at West Virginia. At one point in the game, the Mountaineers had a 64-39 lead. But the Jayhawks, who were missing Joel Embiid, had a chance in the end. Yes, Kansas suffered a loss, which doesn’t help its argument for a top seed. But Wiggins produced the second-highest point total for a freshman in Big 12 history, per ESPN Stats & Information. That’s impressive.
18-0: Kentucky made things interesting for a moment. But the Wildcats couldn’t handle Florida’s full onslaught in the Gators’ 84-65 victory in Gainesville, a win that gave Florida a perfect 18-0 record in conference play. The Gators are the first team in SEC history to finish a year with 18 wins, per ESPN Stats & Information. The win also extended Florida’s winning streak to 23 games.
13: In the final home game of his career at Louisville, Russ “Russdiculous” Smith decided to let his teammates shine. He dished out a career-high 13 assists during an 81-48 Senior Night win over UConn.
1: With Cincinnati topping Rutgers and Louisville beating UConn, the American Athletic Conference had a problem. The Bearcats and Cardinals split the league title so the conference used a coin flip to finalize the top seed in next week’s AAC tourney. The winner? Cincinnati. "I requested that Coach Pitino and I play one game of liar's poker," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin joked to reporters after the game. “We used to do that all the time -- for fun, obviously.”
7 minutes, 32 seconds: That’s how long Arizona went without a field goal in the second half of a 64-57 road loss to Oregon, which snapped the Wildcats' five-game winning streak. That drought helped the Ducks seize a commanding lead via their 17-5 run.
73 seconds: That’s how much time remained in the game when Glenn Robinson III hit a go-ahead 3-pointer in Michigan's 84-80 win over Indiana.
33: Wins for undefeated Wichita State after Saturday’s 67-42 victory over Missouri State in the Missouri Valley Conference tourney semifinals. The Shockers are just the third team in Division I history to achieve a 33-0 mark, per ESPN Stats & Information.
30: Jabari Parker's career high in a 93-81 win over North Carolina at Cameron Indoor (most points by a Duke freshman in a matchup against North Carolina, according to ESPN Stats & Information), which gave Duke 33 consecutive home wins -- a Division I-high that the Blue Devils currently share with Stephen F. Austin.
2007: Eastern Kentucky upset top-seeded Belmont, 79-73, in the Ohio Valley tourney title game. The Colonels became the second team to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament this season. And they’ll be dancing for the first time since 2007.
But tucked in the undercard, some of the conference POY races could very well end up a pick 'em.
Case in point: the first installment of the American Athletic Conference hardware. Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier, Louisville guard Russ Smith or Cincinnati forward Sean Kilpatrick. Who do you take? How do you pick?
It’s impossible, really, the difference between the trio almost nonexistent, a most subjective pick of taste.
The edge might go to whomever wins the conference crown, which is why Saturday’s game between Connecticut and Louisville might be so critical. The Cardinals could take a piece of the American pie by beating the Huskies in Smith’s final home game.
Those are some serious stakes.
Smith, who a few weeks ago decided it was time to stop playing like he thought people (read: NBA scouts) wanted him to play and instead play like he wanted to, has been Russdiculous-ing again, to impressive results. His 26 points against SMU -- complete with trips to a nearby garbage can to vomit -- was just the latest in a string of incredible performances that have put Louisville back in the national title-contender conversations.
He’s been getting help with the emergence of Montrezl Harrell as a steady and powerful post presence, giving the Cards the inside game they had been sorely lacking in the early part of the season.
Though the Napier-Smith tango will get the eyeballs, Harrell might actually be the difference-maker. As good as Napier has been -- and he has been Kemba Walker-like sensational -- his supporting cast can’t match Louisville’s.
But you’re forgiven if you watch the two guards for the sheer pleasure of it. They’ve earned it.
Both Smith and Napier, who finished his home career with 26 points against Rutgers, have enjoyed their share of bumps and bruises along the way but have managed to do what few great college players have the time or chance to do anymore -- grow and mature as people and as players.
What you see on the floor now are players who, along with Kilpatrick, don’t see the responsibilities of leadership as a burden but instead welcome them. Big moments are never too big for them. Slow starts are there to eventually be remedied.
Somehow, some way, the conference will have to split hairs to hand out its first player of the year trophy.
The bad news -- two players will have to lose.
The good news -- the league can’t go wrong.
It’s March. Championship Week begins Friday, and we’re less than two weeks away from the Big Dance.
We’ll probably see a multitude of thrillers, overtime games and clutch performances in the coming weeks. At least, we hope we will.
With the game on the line, these players should have the ball in their hands.
Here’s a list of America’s most clutch performers:
- Sean Kilpatrick: Cincinnati’s defense has been critical in the Bearcats’ rise to the top of the American Athletic Conference. But Kilpatrick has been the offensive catalyst for a team that’s struggled from the field this season. He’s arguably the top shooting guard in America, and his 34-point effort in Thursday’s 97-84 win over Memphis was his 17th performance this season with 20 points or more.
- Shabazz Napier: This list wouldn’t be valid without Napier. The senior guard has been clutch throughout his career at UConn. He’s always confident with the ball in his hands during big games. The legend continued when he hit the game-winning shot over Florida in December. He’s averaging 18.1 PPG, 5.3 APG and 1.9 SPG, along with shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. He’s always ready to show up down the stretch.
- Russ Smith: He’s still “Russdiculous.” Sometimes Smith can lose control and force shots, but he rarely shrinks under the spotlight. The senior star just keeps rolling, even on his worst nights. Against Cincy on Feb. 22, he’d missed seven of nine field goals when he caught the rock in the final seconds. He hit the shot, beat the buzzer and won the game for Louisville. The shot alone was impressive, but Smith’s ability to move on to the next play and help his team is rare.
- Tyler Ennis: Yep, Syracuse is struggling. But prior to this 1-4 stretch, Ennis was probably the most dependable player in America in the final minutes of a game. Through Feb. 12, he was 8-for-9 from the field and 14-for-14 from the charity stripe with a 6-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio in the final five minutes of the second half and overtime, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That’s a ridiculous stat line that illustrates Ennis’ reliability in crucial moments for the Orange this season.
- Doug McDermott: Perhaps a list like this has to feature a senior who is on the verge of scoring 3,000 points for his career and earning his third consecutive Associated Press first-team All-America honors (he’ll be the first player since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing in the 1980s to complete that feat). McDermott is also shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line this season and averaging 25.9 PPG.
- Traevon Jackson: Wisconsin’s veteran guard can’t match the accolades that other players on this list boast. But whenever the Badgers are in a tight spot toward the end of a game, Bo Ryan usually turns to Jackson, the son of former Ohio State and NBA standout Jim Jackson. Sure, Jackson has missed a few late, but he’s also nailed clutch shots during his time in Madison. He beat Minnesota and Penn State last season with shots in the closing seconds. And his most recent heartbreaker was a last-second dagger that finished Michigan State last month.
- T.J. Warren: His blood type? Ice. The 6-foot-8 sophomore plays on a Wolfpack squad that won’t crack the NCAA tournament field without an ACC tourney championship. But he has put together some of the season’s most magnificent performances. His 41 points (16-for-22) in a 74-67 victory at Pittsburgh Monday probably opened some eyes, but he has scored 30 or more eight times this season.
- Billy Baron: There is only one player with a higher offensive rating (125.2) than Doug McDermott, per Ken Pomeroy. That’s Baron. But Canisius fans knew that already. Last season, Baron hit a 3-pointer toward the end of regulation to force overtime in a win at Youngstown State in the CIT, capping a comeback from a 45-28 halftime deficit. This season, Baron put together a late barrage during a 40-point night that lifted Canisius to a triple-overtime win versus Siena.
- Jermaine Marshall: Arizona State wouldn’t be in the NCAA tourney conversation without the Penn State transfer. He hit big shots in overtime during ASU’s win over rival Arizona last month. In January, Arizona State beat California in overtime after Marshall’s 3-pointer forced the extra period. He hit clutch free throws in a win over Oregon a few days later, too. The senior doesn’t have much time left and is playing with a sense of urgency, an attitude that has helped the Sun Devils compete for an at-large bid.
- Nik Stauskas: The versatile sophomore has fueled Michigan’s run to the Big Ten title. He’s averaging 17.3 PPG in a season that could end with All-America and Big Ten Player of the Year honors. His teammates can trust him with the game on the line. In January, two clutch performances stood out. Stauskas helped the Wolverines secure a road win over Minnesota Jan. 2 after Glenn Robinson III missed the second half with an ankle injury. Two weeks later, he knocked down a 3-pointer in the final minutes to help the Wolverines hold on to their lead in a win at Wisconsin.
And you know what? It doesn't matter. McDermott has had this award sewn up for weeks. We're just going through the motions. When 22 points and 12 rebounds is considered a so-so game -- or, say, when those 22 points make you the first person since Lionel Simmons (1987-88, 1988-89, 1989-90) to score 750 in three straight seasons -- your Wooden Award isn't going to be threatened by a late-season loss to a desperate bubble team.
In any case, here's the mother of all ACMcDAT sirens: Creighton's final home game of the season, the last of McDermott's career, comes Saturday against Providence. McDermott needs 34 points to reach 3,000 for his career.
On Tuesday, a reporter asked his father and coach, Greg McDermott, if he would let his son go for the record if he was close with enough time on the clock.
"If his mother has anything to say about it, probably,” McDermott said.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Like McDermott, Parker saw his team lose a road game in the final week of conference play, an 82-72 loss Wednesday at Wake Forest. The Blue Devils allowed 46 points in the second half at Wake, which likewise hints at some of the defensive issues they (like Creighton) have had at various points with this configuration. And like McDermott, Parker still had a pretty solid outing relative to just about any player in the country -- 19 points, 11 rebounds, 7-of-11 shooting. McDermott has been our obvious No. 1 for a while, and remains so this week. Parker is a similarly codified consensus No. 2. Also, he makes a mean dessert bar.
3. Russ Smith, Louisville: The Cardinals unleashed perhaps their best performance of the season Wednesday night at SMU, and got arguably the best of Smith's season, too. Russdiculous' line -- 26 points on 15 shots, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals -- was a perfect microcosm of what he's done all season, and what makes him so valuable: efficient scoring, timely distributing, unyielding perimeter defense.
4. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Napier was an early front-runner for the Wooden Award this season before a couple of bad early conference losses knocked him off our radar. UConn has had its blips, but Napier has been steadily great, averaging 17.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game as the Huskies' anchor.
5. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): Kilpatrick is having his worst mini-stretch of the season these past two weeks, including a 3-for-14 3-point performance in a close loss to Louisville and Saturday's 2-for-8, seven-turnover struggle in 37 minutes at UConn. But Kilpatrick did still have 28 points in that loss to Louisville -- 28 of his team's 57, no less -- and even when he's not scoring, he's still one of the best guard-defenders in the country.
7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Missouri Valley Conference voters awarded Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet with the league's POY trophy this week, and it's hard to argue with the reasoning. VanVleet has been great. So has guard Ron Baker. And Darius Carter. And Tekele Cotton. When you go 31-0, you tend to get a lot of really great individual performances. We'll still take Early, Wichita State's most-used player by a fair margin and its most important all-around offensive and defensive contributor.
8. Casey Prather, Florida: It's hard to believe Florida's last loss came all the way back on Dec. 2, but it's true. That game, at UConn, took place when the Gators had, like, six available players, back when Prather was still surprising us with his sudden scoring turn as a senior. Prather's usage has dropped as the Gators have gotten healthy (Kasey Hill) and eligible (Chris Walker), but his efficiency has held firm, and more than any other Florida player he's the reason why Billy Donovan's team managed to overcome so much personnel drama in the first place. The breadth of his season deserves honorifics.
9. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: We thought about dropping Thames from the list after a brutal 10-for-50 slump bracketed the Aztecs' losses to Wyoming and New Mexico. But Thames got back on track against Fresno State Saturday and kept it going Wednesday when his 19-point effort keyed a comeback win at UNLV. Like Prather (and not unlike Kilpatrick), his whole-season contributions to an SDSU team without another consistent offensive option are too great, in aggregate, to overlook.
10. Kyle Anderson, UCLA: "Slo-mo" has numbers that are kind of crazy. He's averaging 14.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and from 3. That is exactly the kind of game the 6-foot-8 Anderson's unique skill set promised when he entered college a year ago. It took him a little bit, but he got there this season. He does it all.
Honorable mentions: Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Julius Randle (Kentucky), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), T.J. Warren (NC State), Bryce Cotton (Providence), Billy Baron (
Louisville looks to avenge its 73-67 home loss to the Tigers on Jan. 9 and keep pace with Cincinnati for first place in the conference. The Cards were a disjointed team still trying to figure out who fit where in their loss. As Rick Pitino teams tend to do in February, they have hit their stride now. Louisville closed out the regular season of its 2013 national championship run with seven straight wins. The Cards got started a little earlier this season, and the proof is in their beards. Pitino and staff vowed not to shave until they lose a game. Their winning streak has reached seven games headed into Memphis.
Louisville guards Chris Jones and Russ Smith have developed a backcourt chemistry that was lacking earlier in the season. Jones is taking fewer shots; Smith is dishing more assists. The first meeting with the Tigers was a breakout game for senior forward Luke Hancock, last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player. He went from averaging 7.8 points in nonconference play to averaging 14.7 points in the American. Freshman Terry Rozier is becoming a budding star off the bench.
For Memphis and coach Josh Pastner, a win over the Cardinals could again bring validation that they could sorely use. Back in January, the Tigers’ road win over a ranked Louisville team brought credibility. The Tigers are staggering down the stretch of the regular season. They struggled with last-place Temple at home before winning 82-79 in overtime. They fell flat at Houston on Thursday and lost 77-68.
The schedule doesn’t present Memphis any breaks in its final three games. The Tigers close out conference play with arguably the toughest road in the league with Louisville, at Cincinnati and SMU. The Tigers will have the advantage of serving as hosts for the American tournament, but they can’t afford to try to build momentum then. They would love to start now and in the process send their old nemesis away to a new conference with the bitterness of a season sweep.
With 21 seconds left and Creighton leading 72-69, McDermott, an 89 percent foul shooter, missed two in a row during the same trip to the line for the first time since the 2012 Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
Sometimes, the best ACMcDAT stats come from the most unlikely places.
Anyway, McDermott finished Sunday's game with 29 points on 14 shots. In doing so, he edged his way past Alfredrick Hughes into the all-time college scoring top-10. The question now is not whether he will win the Wooden Award, or whether he will get to 3,000 points (he's on pace to do so during the Big East tournament), but whether McDermott can pump up his pace high enough to reach that magic milestone by Saturday, March 8 -- the final home game of his career. He needs to average 28 over the next three games; he's at 26 ppg currently. In the immortal words of Jurassic Park chief engineer Ray Arnold: Hold on to your butts.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke: The emergence of Marshall Plumlee as a capable offensive rebounder who follows those rebounds with quick kickouts to the perimeter -- like a miniature version of Brian Zoubek -- is huge for Duke generally and Parker specifically.
For most of the season, Parker was Duke's best defensive rebounder, with Amile Jefferson as a close second. But Parker's game didn't always lend itself to the offensive glass, and so Duke was, for most of the season, a mediocre offensive rebounding team. That could change with Plumlee around; let's get a larger sample than three games before we decide one way or the other. But Plumlee's presence should allow Duke to feel more comfortable with Parker playing inside and out, where he is devastatingly effective. And in general, Plumlee's ability to pick up minutes (and if, necessary, fouls) means less punishment and less foul trouble for the Blue Devils' overworked star player. Parker has used 31.8 percent of his team's offensive possessions this season, and been asked to guard up on the other end, too. The Blue Devils' new look should change that.
4. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): Cincinnati's own two-way anchor rode a hot-shooting high into Saturday's huge American clash against Louisville ... when he promptly shot 3-of-14 from 3. Ouch, right? Yet Kilpatrick still finished with 28 of his team's 57 points, which is a handy counterintuitive reminder of just how important he is to the Bearcats' composition. Usually, he's much more efficient; usually, Cincinnati wins. But without him, Mick Cronin's team would be lost.
5. Nick Johnson, Arizona: For a minute there, it looked like Johnson would be the player most affected by Brandon Ashley's injury. Johnson started shooting the ball really poorly, in part because the Wildcats' floor-spacing took a hit without Ashley, and in part because ... well, because he couldn't make any shots. From Feb. 1 (the Cal loss) to Feb. 19 (a solid road win at Utah) Johnson shot 19-of-70 from the field and 2-of-20 (!) from 3. If you wrote Johnson's candidacy off, you had reason. But he and the Wildcats have since bounced back with two ultra-impressive blowout wins. Johnson had 20-6-5 on Saturday in an 88-61 win at Colorado. On Wednesday night, he had 22-7-5-1-1 with zero turnovers in an 87-59 home win over Cal. Both he and his team appear to be recovering quite nicely, thank you very much.
6. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Things started a little rocky for Napier and UConn at South Florida Wednesday night, and for a while it looked like the Huskies were going to take a damaging late-season loss to a team with just three American wins. But nope: Napier led an 18-0 second-half run and finished with 17 points, seven assists, four rebounds and two steals. That line is emblematic of his senior season: Efficient scoring, tidy passing, high-leverage shotmaking, and great defense.
8. Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle's offensive numbers -- 8 points, 3-of-8 shooting -- from Kentucky's big overtime win over LSU Saturday don't look like much. But Randle was easily UK's most important player. He brilliantly checked LSU center Johnny O'Bryant (who destroyed the Wildcats in Baton Rouge a month ago), and grabbed 15 rebounds, seven of them offensive, to go along with two big blocks. When UK's offense struggled, Randle was there to muscle home interior buckets. As UK has become more fluid, Randle's contributions on the glass on both ends of the floor make him John Calipari's most essential piece.
9. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: Syracuse has not had its best stretch: After last Wednesday's home OT loss to Boston College -- a 62-points-in-63-possessions effort against (to that point) the worst major-conference defense in the country -- the Orange went to Duke Saturday. There was the C.J. Fair charge call and the Jim Boeheim blow-up, of course, but before the game-deciding play (and ejection) there was a lot more stagnant, struggling offensive play. On Monday, the Orange barely escaped with 57 points in 64 possessions at Maryland, the ACC's seventh-best defense. All of which says that Syracuse is having a tough time on the offensive end. What does that mean for its players' POY chances? For now, we're kicking Fair down to the honorable mentions and keeping Ennis, mostly because we think that's how voters would weigh the two if the award voting took place today. This could be temporary; let's see how Saturday at Virginia -- maybe the best defensive team in the country -- goes.
10. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: Thames has had a brutal few weeks. Since Feb. 11's loss at Wyoming, the San Diego State star is 12-56 from the field. In the Aztecs' loss at New Mexico Saturday, he shot 3-of-15 and didn't get to the free throw line once. He has 19 combined points in his last three games. We're not inclined to punish players who mix in a week or two of struggles with an otherwise peerless resume, but this is above and beyond. Whether this is just a slump or something deeper will determine whether Thames stays on this list in the weeks to come. It will also determine how and when the Aztecs end their surprisingly successful campaign, which is slightly more important.
Honorable mentions: C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Casey Prather (Florida), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Lamar Patterson (Pittsburgh), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), T.J. Warren (NC State), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Bryce Cotton (Providence).
CINCINNATI -- Louisville's 58-57 road win Saturday bore some resemblance to Rick Pitino's new facial hair. Not always smooth. Definitely some scraggly patches.
But, like the beards Pitino and his players began sporting before Valentine's Day, the No. 11 Cardinals might not be going away anytime soon. Much as they did a year ago at this time, the defending national champions are displaying noticeable growth in February. Louisville (23-4) has won six straight and got its first major scalp of the season by nipping No. 7 Cincinnati in a close shave.
"This was big for us," swingman Wayne Blackshear said. "There were a lot of doubters out there saying how good are we because we can't beat a ranked team. But obviously we pulled one out today."
It took a signature moment of Russdiculousness for the Cardinals to finally earn that cornerstone victory. Russ Smith knocked down a jumper from the left elbow with 2.2 seconds left, helping Louisville avenge a three-point home loss to Cincinnati on Jan. 30 and creating a virtual tie atop the American Athletic Conference standings with the Bearcats.
That Smith would take and make the game winner came as no surprise. The unexpected part was that his late-game unselfishness proved the difference in a back-and-forth street brawl of a contest.
Cincinnati erased a 10-point second-half deficit and led 55-52 with just 1:28 left after Justin Jackson sank two free throws. After a timeout, Smith dumped the ball to Montrezl Harrell for a dunk off a designed pick-and-roll. On Louisville's next possession, Smith contorted through traffic to find Harrell for an easy layup.
"It was a great play," Pitino said, "but it was an even better play by Terry."
There's little doubt that trigger-happy Smith would have jacked up a quick shot rather than work for a better one early in his career. But the senior -- who made only three field goals Saturday -- said he showed maturity by searching for his teammates against the Bearcats.
"That was the right thing to do," he said. "That was the basketball play, to give it up.
"I knew scoringwise that I wasn't going to beat Cincinnati. It was going to be a team effort, and I was going to have to find people, get Montrezl going, get everybody else going. I feel really good about the decisions I made down the stretch."
Louisville won in an extremely hostile environment despite getting only 10 points from Smith and enduring one of Luke Hancock's worst games (0-for-6 from the floor, five fouls). That's because other players are starting to contribute more, which is a great sign for the Cardinals as March approaches.
In a fitting regular-season halt to this rivalry -- the two teams have no scheduled games in the foreseeable future after the Cardinals bolt to the ACC -- every play in the paint turned into a mosh pit of flying body parts. No one enjoyed that more than 235-pound Harrell, who led Louisville with 21 points and 10 rebounds. That marked Harrell's sixth double-double in his past 12 games, and Pitino said the sophomore forward is "really developing into a great basketball player."
"I just try to go out there and be that one to dive on the ball or hustle down to the block," Harrell said. "Just do something to get my team going and hope they feed off my energy."
Rozier, a nonfactor much of the season, added 11 points and has scored in double figures in three straight. He provided key minutes and defense Saturday as Hancock struggled.
"I never really played that much against good teams earlier in the year," Rozier said. "[Pitino's] confidence in me is definitely growing, and I'm getting more minutes and more looks. He's starting to trust me."
Even Blackshear, who has had a frustrating tendency to disappear in big games, came up with the key defensive play by blocking a Sean Kilpatrick layup attempt with 47 seconds left.
Pitino said he gave the same pregame speech he delivered before last year's Final Four game against Wichita State, telling his players the better defensive team would win. Neither team shot well in what Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin described as a "bloodbath," but Louisville held the Bearcats to a season-low 28.6 percent from the floor. That included a 3-for-26 start to the game.
Kilpatrick matched the 28 points he scored in last month's win at the KFC Yum! Center but had to work much harder for his points as the Cardinals' aggressive zone often kept him far from the lane. He hit just nine of his 26 shots and -- after an 11-for-11 free throw performance in the first meeting -- missed a foul shot that could have given his team a three-point cushion in the final two minutes.
The Bearcats (24-4) lost for just the second time since Dec. 14. Meanwhile, the Cardinals appear to be taking off at the right time. They vowed before last week's win at Temple not to shave again until they lost a game. Results have varied on that fuzzy front.
"I look like a 61-year-old, aging Al Pacino," Pitino joked after the game.
The most striking facial features among the Louisville contingent Saturday afternoon were the broad smiles through the whiskers. The beards will continue to grow. So, too, does this team's outlook.