College Basketball Nation: Russ Smith
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.
That 69-66 win for Cincy on Jan. 30 is the only home loss on Louisville’s résumé since Jan. 12. The Cards have won nine of their past 10, with Cincinnati as its lone blemish during this stretch.
It was an interesting matchup. Louisville outscored Cincinnati 46-41 in the second half and forced 20 turnovers. But Sean Kilpatrick’s 28-point effort was too much for the Cardinals to overcome.
Even though that game was just three weeks ago, this next matchup might involve new factors that weren’t as prominent in the first meeting.
Both Cincy and Louisville are receiving contributions from young players on their rosters. Russ Smith versus Kilpatrick might have been the headline last month, but this game is not about two players. It’s about two teams competing for the American Athletic Conference crown and prepping for March while gaining traction as their freshmen and sophomores continue to mature and produce down the stretch.
Those youngsters could be the deciding factors in a matchup between two teams in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.
Freshman Terry Rozier took seven shots in the first matchup against Cincinnati. But he’s 11-for-24 with 29 points, seven rebounds, four assists, five steals and two turnovers in Louisville’s past two games. Mangok Mathiang has gone through growing pains in his first few seasons, but the big man looks more comfortable now with the idea of hoisting up the occasional forever-unblockable hook shot inside. And other than a 47 percent clip from the charity stripe, Montrezl Harrell's numbers (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.3 bpg) are impressive. That trio could give Louisville an edge against the Bearcats.
But Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin hopes a few of his underclassmen will help on Saturday and beyond, too.
Shaquille Thomas (7.1 ppg), a 6-foot-7 forward, comes and goes. But in the team’s past two games, the sophomore has scored 19 points and connected on 50 percent of his shots. There’s always a chance that he’ll have a big day. He’s talented enough to make a difference. Freshman Troy Caupain has had five double-digit scoring efforts this season. And he’s a solid shooter from outside. Will he make noise in this high-profile matchup?
Justin Jackson, Luke Hancock, Smith and Kilpatrick will be the players who will carry a chunk of the weight for their respective squads.
But this one could be close again. And it could come down to a handful of plays, plays that some newer faces might have to make in this crucial AAC matchup.
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: At this point, it's getting hard to come up with material for the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker. Well, OK, that's not exactly true. McDermott is doing plenty of awesome things. But it's just like, come on guys, do I really need to recap the statistics and individual milestones this week? Do we have to go through this whole process every time? You're on board by now, right?
This week, McDermott scored 39 points on 13-of-17 shooting in Creighton's 101-80 rout of Villanova, and afterward, Wildcats coach Jay Wright, honorary member of ACDMcAT Nation, said this:
“I think he’s as complete a player -- and I do not use that term loosely -- with size, as I’ve ever seen. With 6-8, 6-9, there’s nothing he can’t do. He can take you off the dribble. He guards, he’s tough as hell guarding. He defends. He rebounds. He moves without the ball. He seals. He’s the best post player that we’ve played against and he’s the best perimeter player, and maybe one of the best passers, and he’s 6-8, 6-9. I think he’s as good a basketball player as I’ve seen.”
I'd say that just about sums it up.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Now that the weather has cleared and friend of the Watch Dickie V isn't looking quite so bummed out on Instagram, we can finally get back to the business of Parker’s first and likely only trip to the Dean E. Smith Center, which, as you might have heard, happens tonight. If there was some possible way McDermott could have lost the POY award, eight days ago I would’ve said this was the chance for Parker to put on a case-bolstering show with all eyes watching. But that window is now closed, so instead, you'll have to settle for watching one of the most gifted offensive players in years -- and still a crucial anchor for the Blue Devils on the defensive glass -- play on the road in the best rivalry in the sport. So there's that.
3. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): So Cincinnati beat the daylights out of Houston and UCF this week, and Kilpatrick jumps from No. 10 to No. 3? What gives, Brennan? What gives is that Kilpatrick's sensational play in both games (9-of-16 from 2, 8-of-18 from 3, 51 points, seven assists, six rebounds, one turnover, 146 offensive rating, need I go on?) was indicative of his immense individual season writ large. Among players who use more than 28 percent of their team's possessions, only two -- McDermott and Canisius' Billy Baron -- are more efficient offensively. Neither plays the kind of defense Kilpatrick plays. It's high time we put him near the top of this list. He's been great.
4. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: This wasn't Thames' greatest week, but whatever: He's still using 28.1 percent of his team's possessions and putting up a 120.1 offensive rating, which is positively McDermottian (or Kilpatrickian). He creates assists, he doesn't turn the ball over, he plays great defense, and all of the above is utterly priceless to a San Diego State team that still doesn't have another reliable offensive weapon. Where would the Aztecs be without him?
5. Russ Smith, Louisville: Can y'all just let the Based King live?
"I have two Final Fours, I have Big East championships, a national championship. I have all the accolades. Now they're saying I'm under the radar. If you want me to get 30 and 40, I can do that. But I don't need to do that. Now I'm getting my teammates involved, I'm being solid, I'm being efficient. Now everybody thinks Russ is bad now.
"I'm efficient, I'm getting guys the ball, I'm averaging five assists, having the best assist-to-turnover ratio of my life. I'm good. I could care less about who they think is better than me. Guys have to do more on other teams, I have to do less. All I have to do [is] put guys in the position to do good, and that's what I'm doing."
You know what? In his own way, Smith is exactly right! He's having the best and most efficient statistical season of his life, and he was already way better last season than most people gave him credit for. Russ, you're not under the radar here, man. Also, stop reading Twitter. Your coach doesn't like that.
We're going to stick to our corner-cutting guns, and include Fair and Ennis as a tandem, for at least one more week. Maybe we'll have to decide between one of the two eventually, but that process didn't get any easier even as Syracuse barely survived NC State and then fell at home to Boston College on Wednesday night. The Orange are still 25-1, and Fair is still Fair, and Ennis is still Ennis, and the workhorse-finisher combo should still hold the Orange in good stead in the weeks to come.
7. Shabazz Napier (Connecticut): How did Shabazz fare this week? Um, well: He made five 3s and went 10-for-21 from the field for 34 points in 37 minutes (with five assists, four rebounds and four steals) in a huge UConn home win over Memphis. Find a replay of that game if you can. It was a lot of fun.
8. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Would Early be on this list if Wichita State weren't undefeated? That's a good question. I'm not sure. He'd be really close either way, of course, but his individual numbers don't quite stack up with a handful of players here. You could argue that has more to do with the Shockers' balance than anything else -- you might also take Ron Baker or Fred VanVleet here -- and that's kind of my point: Wichita State is undefeated, and minimizing that fact or Early's contributions to it would be a mistake.
9. Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle is ho-humming his way through some typically dominant interior performances, but his best contribution this week was whatever explanation he offered John Calipari that led to one of the greatest college basketball gifs of all time. May we cherish it forever.
10. Nick Johnson, Arizona: It's probably time to downgrade Nick Johnson a bit, if not take him off the list, after Friday's 5-of-20, three-turnover performance in Arizona's loss at Arizona State. It's not like Johnson doesn't deserve to be here. Let's not get crazy. But he hasn't been a top-five player in the country lately.
Honorable mentions: Casey Prather (Florida), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Lamar Patterson (Pittsburgh), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Gary Harris (Michigan State), T.J. Warren (NC State), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Jabari Brown (Missouri)
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: The Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker will be shorter than usual this week, and not just because we here at ACMcDAT Industries are wary of repeating the same mind-bending statistics week in and week out. But there are a few nuggets worth passing along:
- Last Friday, McDermott scored 32 points at DePaul. Two days later, he dropped 25 on 10-of-18 shooting at St. John’s. The Bluejays lost that game -- you may light your standard-issue ACMcDat Vigil Candles now -- but that two-day stretch of work made McDermott the first player in more than two decades to score more than 1,000 field goals in a career. He’s at 1,011 and counting.
- Here’s a good bit of context on McDermott’s insane combination of efficiency and usage from SI.com’s Luke Winn: “In the past 10 seasons, in the major conferences and Mountain West, only six players have attempted more than 36 percent of their team's shots. Creighton's Doug McDermott is one of those players. And he's the most efficient one of those players, by a good margin. Are you at all surprised?” McDermott averages 37.9 percent of his team’s shots, third-most in the country.
- And finally, from Creighton SID Rob Anderson: “Doug McDermott’s been Big East Player of the Week six times already this year, tying a conference mark first set by John Wallace and Troy Murphy. He’s been named MVC Newcomer of the Week (7), MVC Player of the Week (13) or Big East Player of the Week (6) a combined 26 times in his 62-week in-season career.” That’s pretty good, we guess.
One last thing: Thursday night, Creighton plays at Butler. The Bulldogs aren’t very good this season, but I don’t care: If you live in the Indianapolis area and don’t plan to go see McDermott’s one and only trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse, you are not a very good basketball fan. That is all.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Does the weather know no bounds? Does it, at long last, have no decency? I’m pretty sure Dick Vitale has never been photographed not smiling in his life, and now look, weather! Look what you did! Look at how filtered and sad this Instagram photo is! On Wednesday night, decidedly gross road conditions throughout the Southeast postponed Duke’s trip to North Carolina. Not only did this weather delay Parker’s first and likely only trip to the Dean Dome, it turned Dickie V’s Instagram into a Bill Callahan album cover. Stupid weather, ruining everything.
3. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Arizona’s first two games in the post-Brandon Ashley era did nothing to hurt Johnson’s player of the year stock: He averaged 14 points in each and played 39 minutes (and made 8 of 11 from the free throw line) in Thursday’s tight win over Oregon. It’s going to be interesting to see what Arizona looks like without Ashley, how Sean Miller tweaks his previously dominant group. But whatever he does, Johnson will have to be a major part of it -- perhaps even more so than before -- for the Wildcats to maintain their national title aspirations.
4b. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse
In the early weeks of Wooden Watch, Fair earned Syracuse’s POY place. Then, as Ennis emerged as one of the best players in the country, he took the spot. For the past few weeks, Fair has reclaimed the throne and held firm, and for good reason: He plays 93 percent of Syracuse’s available minutes, is integral to what the Orange do on both sides of the ball and was unstoppable in that 91-89 OT win over Duke. Plus, Jim Boeheim called him the best player on his team, and I am not in the business of arguing with Boeheim.
Now, barely 12 hours after the 35-foot 3-pointer Ennis hit to sink Pittsburgh at the Pete, the Watch has made an executive decision: Why not both?
Fair might be the wire-to-wire workhorse, but the numbers Ennis has put up (121.0 offensive rating, 32.3 percent assist rate, 13.3 turnover rate, 4.1 steals percentage, etc.) are (A) great in their own general right, and (B) utterly insane in crunch time. Per ESPN Stats and Info: "In one-possession games (when the score is within three points) in the final five minutes of the second half and overtime this season, Ennis is now 8-of-9 from the field, including the game-winning 3-point field goal as time expired against Pittsburgh, and 14-of-14 from the free throw line.” Not only did Ennis make the game-winning 3 Wednesday, he also coolly sank the go-ahead free throws with 14 seconds left. He is Syracuse’s closer, and the Orange are 24-0. I say we shouldn’t have to choose between Ennis and Fair. They both belong.
5. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: San Diego State suffered its first loss since Nov. 14 on Tuesday night, falling 68-62 at Wyoming. Laramie, Wyo., is a tough place to play, and the Aztecs were bound to lose eventually. No big deal.
6. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: How great is Gregg Marshall? The Wichita State coach was a special guest on ESPN’s studio coverage during Syracuse-Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, and not only did he reject the kind-of-silly notion that his unbeaten Shockers “need” to lose before they get to the NCAA tournament, he also openly rooted against Syracuse. The man wants to be undefeated. He invites the pressure of it all. He knows his players -- Early chief among them -- are more than capable of handling it.
7. Russ Smith, Louisville: Nothing has changed since November: Smith is still one of the best players in the country on both offense and defense. He’s still having the best season of his career by a wide margin. And thanks to some circumstances outside his control (such as Louisville not being best team in the country) and some inside of it (his unique ability to draw Rick Pitino’s vocal postgame frustration), he's still not getting the wide-ranging national player of the year love he deserves. Such is the curse of Russdiculous.
9. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The Watch left Napier in its honorable mentions field last week, drawing the ire of Connecticut fans and bearded hoops correspondents alike. The Watch would like to go on record saying that you guys did not influence the process, because sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hu... OK, fine, you were right. With rare exceptions -- such as last week’s loss to Cincinnati -- Napier’s individual season has been uncommonly good, even as the Huskies have occasionally dipped their toes into mediocre waters. But how blah would they be without him? He absolutely belongs here.
10. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: Cincinnati took one on the chin at SMU on Saturday, which makes this a slightly awkward time for Kilpatrick to leapfrog Lamar Patterson, Joel Embiid, Nik Stauskas et al, but oh well. SMU is really good, and anyway, Kilpatrick is a lot like Thames: not only an elite defender, but a super-efficient offensive option on a team that desperately needs him to be both.
Honorable mentions: Lamar Patterson (Pittsburgh), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Joel Embiid (Kansas), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Casey Prather (Florida), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Alan Williams (UC-Santa Barbara at Pomeroy)
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: We are in the midst of the longest break of the Creighton Bluejays’ season: Their last fixture was all the way back on Jan. 28, when McDermott splashed that 39 and a game winner on the Red Storm's unsuspecting heads. You'd think, then, that this would be a light week for the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker (ACMcDAT) -- the statistical equivalent of a walk-through. You’d think wrong.
McDermott is still averaging 25.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field, 43.9 percent from 3, and 89.3 percent from the free throw line. His offensive rating (121.5), true shooting (62.5), usage (33 percent) and shot rate (37 percent) is all still what it was last week. He’s still closing in on Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson on the all-time scoring list.
- McDermott needs eight field goals to reach 1,000 in his career. The last time any player reached 1,000 career field goals in a season was 1992-93, when Calbert Cheaney and Alphonso Ford both surpassed that mark.
- McDermott led the nation in field goals in each of the past two seasons. He is on pace to do so again in 2013-14. If he does, he will be the first player since Wayman Tisdale in 1983-85 to accomplish that feat.
- Fittingly, Tisdale and his contemporary, some guy named Patrick Ewing, were the last players to earn three straight first-team All-American selections. McDermott will do the same this season.
A week off? The ACMcDAT doesn’t take weeks off, and neither do the crazy things you can find to say about Doug McDermott’s career.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Remember when Parker was in a slump? It isn’t much of a slump anymore. Since Parker got back on track against NC State on Jan. 18 he’s posted offensive ratings of 141, 104, 104, 105, 93, and 153 while averaging 18.5 points per game. That 93 came against Syracuse, by the way, when he finished with 15 points on 15 shots in just 26 foul-pocked minutes. The Syracuse interior was too much for Duke on a systemic level. But Parker’s scoring was noticeable when he was on the floor, and he followed that up with Tuesday’s near-perfect 21-point, 8-of-10, 8-rebound, 2-block, 2-steal night in a 20-point win over Wake Forest. When he’s scoring like that, he’s capital-G great. When he’s not, he’s still Duke’s second-best rebounder. In any case, the Blue Devils aren’t close to the nation’s most efficient offense without him.
3. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Saturday was a tough night for Arizona generally, and for Nick Johnson specifically. The Wildcats scored 58 points in 66 possessions -- and shot 2-of-11 from 3 and 18-of-51 from 2 (!) -- in their first loss of the season. Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending injury. And Johnson finished with the worst line of his career: 4 points, 1-of-14 from the field, 5 turnovers, 27 ORtg. Just … blech. Worse yet, his last miss of the game was a good look Johnson earned from 14 feet or so, one that just didn’t fall -- and opened the window for California’s Justin Cobbs to make the game winner on the other end.
And so what? Rough nights happen. Shots don’t go in. You lose conference games on the road. Do not reappraise Johnson’s player of the year candidacy based on the biggest outlier that ever out … lied? Laid? Lay?
4. C.J. Fair, Syracuse: So C.J. Fair kind of had a rough night of his own Monday night. Did you notice? Trevor Cooney scored 33 and Syracuse won, so it was all good. But Fair did play probably his worst game of the season. File this under the Nick Johnson "So what?" file: On Saturday night Fair unleashed one of the most beautiful, brilliant individual scoring performances I’ve seen a long time. His Saturday against Duke was the fully realized C.J. Fair, the Fair that Jim Boeheim has seen in his mind’s eye for years, the one who had Duke fans pleading for mercy -- the Fair who went so far above and beyond his "reliable workhorse" baseline that he was bound to suffer a slight hangover come Monday night. Well-earned.
5. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: Thames is so good. I understand this is not an especially interesting thing to write about a basketball player. But really: What can you say?
By now, you should know how San Diego State’s formula works: The Aztecs play insanely good defense on one end of the floor and then rely on Thames for a huge share of their offense on the other end. Thames is so good, he makes this formula work. Wednesday night’s come-from-behind 67-65 win at Boise State -- a ruthless, ice-cold dagger delivered through the Broncos' collective sternum -- was maybe the best example yet.
Thames finished with 23 points in 27 minutes on 5-of-7 from the field (3-of-4 from 3) and 10-of-11 from the free throw line, and the Aztecs still haven’t lost since Arizona on Nov. 14. Seriously, dude is good.
6. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Early was a charter member of the honorable mentions (this would have been a great band name in 1993) pretty much since the start of the season. It’s about time we involved him more fully in this discussion, because there isn’t much he isn’t good at. He rebounds the ball, especially on the defensive end. He shoots efficient percentages from everywhere (55.0/35.7/83.8). He blocks shots. He gets to the free throw line. And, oh by the way, he does all of it for a team that after Wednesday night’s win at Indiana State (their toughest regular-season game to date, and remaining) now has, per KenPom.com, a 55.6 percent chance of ending the season unbeaten. (The BPI roughly concurs.) The mutual excellence of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet had something to do with why Early wasn’t on this list … previously. But it's time to choose sides now, and he's the Shockers' easy choice.
7. Russ Smith, Louisville: If we’ve said it once, we’ve said a hundred times: Smith is having the best season of his career -- scoring, passing, defending, the works. That he occasionally drives his coach crazy, and that his team isn’t quite as good as last year's national title contender, need not be held against him.
8. Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh: Patterson still wasn’t his typically hyper-efficient self at Miami Wednesday, but he finished with 25 points, and the Panthers escaped Coral Gables, Fla., with a win. After two squandered chances to beat good teams at home (Duke, Virginia) with a six-day rest between them, Pitt’s season -- and Patterson's All-American candidacy -- couldn’t have afforded a loss to the 11-11 Hurricanes.
9. Julius Randle, Kentucky: The bona fide star of the Most Analyzed Team in Sports History" has recovered from that ugly 3-for-11 at LSU quite nicely: He was solid in Tuesday’s win over Ole Miss and imperious in the second half against Missouri, making one big shot after another as Kentucky held off a super-hot Tigers team for a huge road win. UK’s offense has gone back and forth between gorgeous and grinding, but its baseline operates as a function of what Randle does, and the attention defenses must pay him.
10. Joel Embiid (Kansas): It wasn't that Kansas' loss to Texas Saturday was all that surprising: The Longhorns have been playing better-than-you-think ball for most of the season. But the details were stunning. The Jayhawks' steamroller of an offense was held to just 69 points in 69 trips thanks largely to the fact that Texas was bigger, stronger, and tougher on the inside. To wit, Rick Barnes' team blocked 12 KU attempts, or 23.5 percent of their shots. Kansas blocked only four. It is fair to bump Andrew Wiggins off this list (he was No. 10 last week, and he submitted a 7-point, 1-for-10 stinker), but Embiid deserves to stay, for now.
Honorable mentions: Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Shabazz Napier (Connecticut), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati), Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Keith Appling (Michigan State), Casey Prather (Florida), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico)
The original version of this file just said "Doug McDermott, Doug McDermott, Doug McDermott, Doug McDermott" over and over again for 1,000 words, but my editors told me that wouldn't work,* so I guess we'll stick with the usual format.
*Not actually a true story.
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: This week’s Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker (ACMcDAT) could probably just be reduced to an embed of this video, highlights of McDermott’s Tuesday night against St. John’s, when he shot 15-of-26 and scored 39 of his team's 63 points -- including the game-winning 3. But just like my first (not real!) submission, that would be a disservice to the loyal members of ACMcDAT Nation. So here it is, your list of ACMcDAT facts:
- McDermott is now averaging 25.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field, 43.9 percent from 3, and 89.3 percent from the free throw line.
- He takes 37.9 percent of his team’s shots and ends 33 percent of their possessions. Despite these facts, his offensive rating is 121.5 and his true shooting percentage 62.5.
- This week, McDermott scored the 2,741st point of his career, which moved him to 18th on the all-time scoring list. He passed both Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers in doing so. Next in line: J.J. Redick, Allan Houston, Kevin Bradshaw, Otis Birdsong and Larry Bird.
- If McDermott averages 25 points in his last nine regular-season games, he will enter the Big East tournament with 2,966 career points, seven shy of Oscar Robertson.
- No one is ever going to catch Pete Maravich's all-time scoring record because he scored 44.2 points per game. Don’t ask, next question.
- Thanks to Creighton sports information director Rob Anderson, the ACMcDAT now includes the following information: On Tuesday night, McDermott made five shots off the backboard and two with his left hand. Of his 992 career field goals, 436 banked in, and 126 were shot lefty.
- Creighton’s offense is scoring 1.25 points per possession this season, best in the country, and 1.20 against Big East opponents, best in the league.
- He's probably top-five on this list. I might put him at No. 3.
- He's going to win the Wooden Award.
McDermott has really done the Wooden Watch a solid these past few weeks. Figuring out the rest of this list will still be tough, but the No. 1 spot will be very, very easy. Thanks, Doug.
2. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Forget ACMcDAT negligence: The best argument for keeping the rest of these rankings fresh resides in Tucson, Ariz. Johnson is an efficient scorer and all-around offensive player who also just so happens to be an elite perimeter defender. On Wednesday, the former gave Arizona the decisive go-ahead margin it needed in a 3-point survival at Stanford. But it was the latter -- that defense, and how coach Sean Miller implements Johnson alongside the Wildcats' brutish interior core -- that held the Cardinal to just two field goals in the final 10 minutes. Before Johnson iced his 3, he made one of the best help-defense blocks we've seen all season. It was his national-player-of-the-year case wrapped in one tidy highlight package. In any other season, he'd be No. 1.
4. C.J. Fair, Syracuse: Last week, Jim Boeheim’s insistence that Fair was his team’s best player helped convince the Watch to include him over point guard Tyler Ennis. The temptation to swap the two again beset the Watch this week. Ennis did have 16 points in the second half at Wake, after all, and his combination of effective outside shooting and ballhandling (Ennis finds a teammate for a score on 31.1 percent of his possessions and turns it over on just 12.6 percent) remains as lethal as ever. But the one real flaw plaguing Fair's game early in the season -- turnovers -- is slowly starting to recede, and in the meantime he's playing 91.9 percent of his team’s available minutes (!) and using 26.5 percent of Syracuse's possessions while doing so. That's … kind of crazy.
5. Nik Stauskas, Michigan: Let's go to John Gasaway for a remote report on Nik Stauskas. John? "Since [Jan. 2], John Beilein's team has not failed to record at least 1.13 points per in any game. Over this six-game, non-pedestrian span UM has made 60 percent of its twos and 40 percent of its threes. (I think there’s a t-shirt design waiting to happen there.) For Nik Stauskas personally, those six-game numbers are 60 and 46 percent respectively, and in that stretch he's taken 25 percent of the shots that occur in this offense during his minutes. Well, I can certainly see why the Wooden committee wants nothing to do with this guy." Thanks, John. And let me just say, for all of us here in the Wooden Watch studios, we certainly want everything to do with Stauskas. Because Stauskas, as the kids say, is Ball. Ing. And now, the weather …
6. Joel Embiid (Kansas): On Wednesday night, I looked up from my laptop early in Kansas’s 92-81 home win over Iowa State just in time to see Embiid take the ball on the left block, engage with the post defender, pivot toward the baseline into his right shoulder and sink a tidy little 6-foot turnaround jumper. It’s possible Embiid has made that exact shot before, but I haven’t seen it. It may have been the first time he attempted it. Here’s the point: This happens all the time. You put your head down for a minute, and then you look up, and Embiid is putting into practice something that even most good college big men can't do with decades of camps at their back. Oh, and he blocks 12.2 percent of opponents' shots, too. So there's that.
7. Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh: For a relatively deep dig into exactly what Duke did to arguably the nation’s second-best offensive player in his 4-of-14 performance Monday night, see here. You should also know that before Monday’s off night, Patterson had 28 points in 14 shots with 7 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 steals at Maryland. He deserves to stay.
8. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: As of Thursday, two players in the country use more than 28 percent of their team's possessions and have a higher offensive rating than Thames. One is Billy Baron, who is putting up some wild numbers at Canisius this season. The other is Cameron Bairstow, who would be in the top 10 if New Mexico wasn't quite so permissive on defense. (McDermott, for what it's worth, ranks fourth on this list, despite that 33 percent usage rate. Also wild.) San Diego State guards like crazy but has no other offensive options, save one. Fortunately, the one it does have is really, really good.
9. Russ Smith, Louisville: Smith's player-of-the-year candidacy looks destined to go overlooked this season for a variety of team-related reasons, but now that Louisville has won four straight (including that road win at UConn), it's a good time to bring him back into the discussion. Because Smith is still playing the most efficient offense of his career, shooting the ball and dishing easy buckets to teammates more effectively than ever before and still playing his disruptive brand of perimeter defense.
10. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: Here’s the thing about Wiggins: He has been pretty good for most of the season. He hasn't been LeBron James 2.0. He hasn't been perfectly consistent from game to game. But a baseline, his all-around, all-court performance has been immensely solid. Now -- with 56 points in his past two games, 29 of which came Wednesday against Iowa State -- we're starting to see some of the brilliance that had NBA scouts so excited. If he keeps it up, and Kansas keeps looking like the Non-Arizona, Non-Syracuse Team Most Likely To Win The National Title, we'll be discussing him more in the future.
Besides, Julius Randle had his worst game of the season at LSU (3-of-11, six points, five rebounds) Tuesday, and Marcus Smart hasn't played all that well of late. Also, he's being punished for excessive flops. It's Wooden Watch, not Wooden Flops, am I right? OK, we’ll stop now.
Honorable mentions: Smart (Oklahoma State), Randle (Kentucky), Keith Appling (Michigan State), Casey Prather (Florida), Shabazz Napier (Connecticut), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State)
STORRS, Conn. -- After 677 career wins and two national titles, Louisville coach Rick Pitino is not a man accustomed to ceding control of a timeout. But Saturday night, just before the biggest shot of the biggest win of Louisville’s season, he passed the figurative whiteboard to Montrezl Harrell.
It was the 18:40 mark of the second half, and UConn guard Shabazz Napier had just hit a long 3-pointer to tie the game 34-34 -- the first tie since the opening minutes of the first half. Gampel Pavilion was roaring. Pitino called a timeout. He began to draw up a play -- some way the Cardinals could get an easy bucket, maybe knock some of the steam out of frenzied Gampel Pavilion -- which is when Harrell spoke up.
“It was a back-door play off our quick action,” Pitino said. “And actually Montrezl made the call. He said, ‘I think I can get Luke [Hancock] on the back door.’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
After the timeout, Harrell set a backscreen on Napier, Hancock’s defender, who found himself trailing his man by a foot when Stephan Van Treese laid two more screens on the opposite wing. The third gave Hancock the space he needed, and his 3 kick-started the 11-0 run that broke Louisville’s 76-64 win open.
Pitino’s credit-where-due recounting of that timeout was the most surprising of Harrell’s contributions Saturday night, but it was hardly the most important. Harrell also had 13 rebounds, three blocks, 39 minutes on the floor, affected a number of shots without fouling -- and, last but not least, had 18 points on just 10 shots.
He’s not far off as it is. Saturday’s performance -- which buoyed the Cardinals in an otherwise sloppy first half -- showcased a host of skills Harrell has been gradually unveiling in recent weeks: strength around the rim, touch from range, angular savvy on the defensive end, and a rebounding safety net on both ends of the floor. Louisville grabbed 78.4 percent of available defensive rebounds Saturday night, 10 of which went to Harrell.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, Pitino’s team attempted 34 of its 57 shots inside the paint. Twelve of Harrell’s 18 points came in the lane, including 10 of his first-half 15. The Huskies, for all their speed on the wing, had no answer. After Hancock’s shot and the 11-0 run -- right around the time UConn coach Kevin Ollie was thrown out of the game via a pair of questionable technical fouls -- the interior mismatch had essentially decided the game.
Harrell’s breakout is the culmination of months spent drilling footwork and flexibility. The result is a player with an increasing array of over-the-shoulder post moves, one more comfortable catching the ball on the block and reading the defense, one who doesn’t need the perfect pass or an offensive rebound to be effective around the rim.
“What he’s needed to work on is his footwork in the low post,” Pitino said. “The jump shot is fine, but if he’s going to make it at the next level, that’s what [the NBA] wants to see. They saw a lot of it tonight.”
In the past, Pitino has often described Harrell as “too erect.” It’s an affliction many highly touted post players suffer from early in their college careers: In high school, merely being taller than everyone on the court is usually more than enough. Bending your knees and battling for position is often beside the point.
Harrell played an important role off the bench in the Cardinals’ national title run as a freshman, but was never a featured player because he never needed to be. Now, with Behanan booted from the program and Gorgui Dieng in the NBA, the Cardinals can’t win without him. And so Harrell has begun to listen to the singular piece of instruction his coach is constantly begging him to heed. He’s bending his knees.
“It really is just a little thing like that,” Harrell said. “Stay down, bending my knees, being ready to make a move, making sure I’m ready to go.”
“You saw him do a lot of that stuff in the summer and in the fall,” guard Russ Smith said. “He would hit that jumper, that little hook shot. But it’s hard to bring what you’re doing in the gym into the game. I recently had this dribble move-bounce pass thing I was working on in the gym and I tried to do it in a game and it went out of bounds. It just takes time to work that stuff in.”
Whatever Harrell is working, he’s doing so at the perfect time. Louisville’s loss to Memphis Jan. 9 was just the latest disappointing result for a defending national champion whose best resume win prior to Saturday was either a 31-point home victory over Southern Miss or last week’s 71-63 win over SMU. While the Cardinals weren’t in danger of missing the 2014 NCAA tournament, getting into mid-January without a tentpole victory wasn’t part of the plan, either.
Now, after holding off UConn in its own building -- the same UConn that won at Memphis earlier this week -- the Cardinals might finally be getting the kind of interior play they need to pair with a skilled and versatile backcourt.
“Every time we rebound the basketball and outrebound our opponent we win like 95 percent of our games,” Pitino said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t outrebounded a whole lot of opponents.
“But when we have this kind of rebounding and play from Montrezl Harrell, who the last three weeks has really improved his post game … who’s worked very hard on his footwork. And he deserves a massive amount of credit for working that hard.”
And a little credit for a play-call, too. Don’t expect to see Harrell with the whiteboard in his hand anytime soon. But if he can stay on the floor, knees bent all the while, Louisville’s post-Behanan prospectus might not be so downcast after all.
The Bearcats’ 5-0 start in the conference means Louisville game at UConn on Saturday just got real. Should the Cardinals lose, they’ll likely fall two games back of the Bearcats, who play at USF on Saturday. Should the Huskies lose, they’ll be looking at three conference losses just a third of the way through the AAC schedule.
On paper, the game will be a matchup of two of the nation’s best guards, Louisville’s Russ Smith and UConn’s Shabazz Napier. Both seniors can now be described with words no one associated with them as freshmen: mature and reliable.
Smith is averaging 18.1 points, 4.8 assists and has increased his shooting percentages to what would both be career bests from the field (45.3) and from the 3-point arc (38.8).
Napier averages 16.1 points, a league-leading 6.2 assists and a team-leading 6.2 rebounds. He’s the only player in the nation who leads his team in all those categories, in addition to steals and minutes played.
But this game might not be decided by either player. It might be tipped by the play on the wing.
For Louisville, it’s possibly Wayne Blackshear. The junior guard/forward entered Thursday night’s game having scored a combined five points in his past two games. Louisville coach Rick Pitino opted to bring him off the bench for the first time this season instead of starting him. Blackshear responded with a career-high 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting and had seven rebounds.
Blackshear has had a tendency to go silent in the Cards' big games this season. He was scoreless against North Carolina, had five points against Kentucky and just two against Memphis. But if he can make his presence felt against UConn, Louisville will be that much harder to defend.
For UConn, it’s possibly Lasan Kromah. He has reached double-figure scoring in only four games this season. But one of those was his 13 points Thursday night in the win at Memphis.
The Huskies can be overly reliant on Napier, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels to score. Kromah averaged double figures in each of his three seasons at George Washington before transferring to UConn, so he can be a difference-maker.
Louisville could again be without junior guard Chris Jones, who injured his right hip and missed Thursday’s win over Houston. If he’s unable to play, freshman Terry Rozier will probably get the start in his place. Rozier had a career-best eight assists and one turnover against the Cougars.
The Cards have won six of their past seven matchups with UConn, with the last Huskies victory coming in the 2011 Big East Tournament championship game.