College Basketball Nation: Sean Miller
NEW YORK -- Boy, college basketball fans are in for a Black Friday treat.
Two weeks after that fantastic Champions Classic doubleheader in Chicago, we get another top-10 clash -- No. 4 Arizona versus No. 6 Duke, at Madison Square Garden, no less.
The fabulous freshmen have been the top story of the young season, and two of the finest -- Duke’s Jabari Parker and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon -- will go toe-to-toe Friday night.
They certainly didn’t disappoint in Wednesday’s NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals. Parker poured in a game-high 27 points in Duke’s 74-64 win over Alabama. Gordon posted a double-double (10 points, 13 rebounds) in Arizona’s 66-62 victory over Drexel.
Gordon, a 6-foot-9 forward from San Jose, Calif., is within a whisker of averaging a double-double, at 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
“His first six games for me have been great,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He’s a pleasure to coach. As talented as he is on the floor, he’s an even better kid and teammate.
“Aaron’s not gonna wow you with 25 shot attempts, if that’s what you’re looking for. But if you really pay attention to the stat sheet, he played between the 3 and the 4 [positions] -- in 35 minutes he had 13 rebounds, 10 points. ... I think any time you have a player with 10 points, 13 rebounds, they’re adding tremendous value.”
Parker, a 6-foot-8 swingman from Chicago, was nearly perfect against Alabama, making 9 of 12 shots from the floor and 9 of 10 from the foul line, plus eight rebounds. He’s averaging 23.2 points, and has scored 20 or more in seven consecutive games to start his collegiate career.
The last freshman to pull that off? Kevin Durant. But Parker didn’t sound too impressed with his performance Wednesday.
“I think I’ve got a long ways to go,” Parker said. “Just need to stay sharp, or be sharp in the beginning of the game. I lacked that in the first couple minutes. Nothing is coming too easy.”
Alabama coach Anthony Grant was much more impressed.
“He’s probably, in eight years as a head coach, the most talented freshman I’ve seen just from his size, his physicality and his skill level,” Grant said. “He’s able to make tough shots and free himself for the open shot and he’s able to get himself to the free throw line. He’s just a really, really talented player.”
Parker has the early lead in the Freshman of the Year race, but Arizona has the higher ranking heading into the NIT championship showdown. The Wildcats are 6-0, and have Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski concerned.
“Arizona’s probably ahead of some other teams,” Krzyzewski said. “They have guys that have played prominent roles back, and then they’ve added a great guard [T.J. McConnell' and a great wing [Gordon] to their lineup.
“They’re big – it’ll be completely different than playing [Alabama]. We’re not real big, so that’ll be interesting, how we try to get that done.”
Duke is 6-1, its only loss coming against No. 2 Kansas in Chicago. The Blue Devils were in the top 10 in the country in points per game (92.7) and offensive field goal percentage (55.0) entering the semis, and Parker looks practically unstoppable. The Wildcats don’t have a scorer who can match him.
That being said, Arizona arrived in New York ranked fourth in the country in field goal percentage defense (33.3), and has yet to give up more than 62 points in a game.
“We have to defend. We have to be an elite rebounding team,” Miller said. “And then our offense, we’re gonna do it with balance, we’re gonna do it where different players on any given night can step up.”
Two top-10 teams with legitimate national championship aspirations, on the brightest stage in college basketball? That’s must-see TV, and certainly something to be thankful for this holiday weekend.
Enjoy Parker and Gordon while you can, college hoops fans. They’ll be moving on before too long.
As the Wildcats began to unravel in the final minutes -- most of the team’s starters had encountered foul trouble by then -- Sean Miller turned to the freshman. With 82 seconds remaining in the game and the Wildcats up by just four after squandering a double-digit lead, point guard T.J. McConnell threw a lob pass to Gordon on the inbounds.
Perhaps his critics, too.
Before he arrived in Tucson, Ariz., Gordon dismissed assumptions.
At 6-9, 225 pounds, he looks like a power forward. But he doesn’t play like one.
Gordon has been likened to NBA All-Star Blake Griffin for his ferocious dunks -- and probably based on his complexion, too. But Gordon rejected those comparisons prior to the beginning of his first and only season at the Division I level.
"He’s an incredible player; he’s the No. 1 pick," Gordon told Sporting News in July when asked about the Griffin comparisons. "I can’t be too mad if people are comparing me to a No. 1 pick, but I can play point guard."
Point guard? That sounded like the type of crazy talk that this generation of LeBron James wannabes often spews, failing to recognize the difference between doing a bunch of things and doing a bunch of things well.
But Gordon, like his game, was serious.
Against the Aztecs, Gordon auditioned his outside-the-box skill set.
He began the game by dribbling into a trap.
He made few mistakes after that.
Gordon, ranked fourth in the 2013 recruiting class by RecruitingNation, dribbled up the floor solo, pushed toward the rim, stopped and scored early. He hit a couple of 3-pointers, too. There was also a jump shot in the lane.
In the first half of the first half, Gordon had scored 12 points and made all five of his field goal attempts. Just 10 minutes into the game, it was clear that Gordon was on a different level than everyone else on the floor.
On Tuesday night, Gordon’s elite peers in the freshman class anchored one of the biggest events in the history of college basketball’s nonconference slate. During the Champions Classic at the United Center in Chicago, Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle justified the hype with impressive efforts.
If this was Gordon’s coming-out party, it definitely occurred under different circumstances. The Wildcats were playing in a brutal environment for visitors.
The game began at 10 p.m. Eastern, bedtime for many outside the West Coast.
That, however, didn’t make his effort less dazzling. Gordon put on a performance that rivaled those orchestrated by the other future millionaires who were featured on Tuesday night at the United Center.
He’s not a power forward and he’s not a point guard. But he is a combo forward who can be trusted to handle the ball and roam on the perimeter in Arizona’s offense. He’s an excellent passer. He’s also a versatile defender.
Gordon’s athleticism helps him guard multiple positions and smaller players. His movements are fluid.
With less than six minutes to go, SDSU forward JJ O’Brien drove to the rim as Gordon harassed him. Gordon had played cautiously after picking up his third foul, but he tracked O’Brien, and then, he swatted a shot that would have extended a brief SDSU rally.
He finished with 16 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks, 2 assists and zero questions about his potential.
He didn’t win the game alone. Nick Johnson (game-high 23 points) was a catalyst on both ends for the Wildcats. McConnell (six assists, two turnovers) was a leader. Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (seven points, five rebounds) might be a star soon, too.
But Gordon is the game-changer, the talent who could lead Arizona to a Pac-12 championship and so much more.
It’s not easy to leave Viejas Arena with a victory, especially when your team is counting on a freshman to make big plays down the stretch.
Yet Gordon was calm in that moment, his moment. And that was the difference.
Gordon will play multiple games this season that will commence after a chunk of the country has already fallen asleep. And perhaps that will affect his street cred when folks assess the 2013 class.
It’s clear, however, that Gordon belongs in the same conversation as the other three freshman stars who excelled earlier this week in Chicago.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Can Arizona put it all together?
Is Arizona the most fascinating story in the 2013-14 Pac-12? Probably not! Indeed, the travails of the UCLA Bruins and new coach Steve Alford surely offer more pure intrigue. Alford will step into a breach occupied by the insane subconscious expectations of UCLA fans, who were already in somewhat of an open revolt against their entire athletics program before they were miffed by the hire. Alford has a gigantic, inexplicable contract buyout, so he's not going anywhere anytime soon, and how he handles his first season -- when he will have as talented a roster as he's ever coached -- will set the tone for the next five.
It's interesting stuff, and yet I can't help but feel that UCLA -- like brilliant Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson, like Dana Altman's steadily improving Oregon Ducks, like Mike Montgomery's quiet solidity at Cal -- are mere bit players in this production. In the 2013-14 Pac-12, Arizona's name is the one in lights.
In four seasons at Arizona, Sean Miller's teams have had one defining characteristic: talent. No one on the West Coast has recruited elite prospects as well as Miller. But this season feels different. This season doesn't include a productive but ultimately makeshift option (Mark Lyons) at point guard. It isn't staking its season on a freshman such as Josiah Turner. (Remember him?) It isn't mixing in maybe one too many young forwards with seniors (Solomon Hill) who have to play. This season Arizona doesn't feel like a collection of really good pieces; it feels like a really good team.
Rest assured: There will still be talent. Even without forward Grant Jerrett, who made a surprise move to the NBA this past spring, the Wildcats have one of the deepest and most talented frontcourts in the country. Sophomores Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley are star-level talents willing to bang on the low block, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the fifth-ranked small forward in the class of 2013. And then there's Aaron Gordon. Go ahead and type his name into the YouTube search field now. The Blake Griffin comparisons are non-stop at this point; Gordon isn't talked about as much as Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle or Jabari Parker, but he has a chance to be better than all three.
But what really separates this year's Arizona team from slightly underachieving groups of the recent past is the backcourt. Last season, Miller turned to Lyons, his former recruit at Xavier, after Lyons' relationship with Chris Mack broke down; that meant putting all that frontcourt talent (along with Hill) on the floor with a point guard whose game would never be described as "pass-first." And don't get me wrong: Lyons had a good season, as did the Arizona offense. But one couldn't watch the Wildcats' fourth-place Pac-12 finish and not feel like much had been left on the table, like everything didn't quite fit.
Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell, who will take over at the point this fall, should snap into place immediately. And his backcourt mate, junior Nick Johnson, is probably the most polished player on the team -- an ideal outside-in college two.
That's why Arizona is (or should be) a top-five team in just about every poll despite losing Lyons, Hill, Jerrett and Kevin Parrom: Because the product of Miller's years of recruiting success are finally taking shape in more ways than mere acquisition. This could be the best team in the country. At the very worst, there will be lots and lots of lobs. Either prospect is worth the price of admission.
2. Oklahoma State rising sophomore Marcus Smart told Yahoo! Sports that he would leave the Cowboys after the 2013-14 season. This was expected but now it's not hidden. But no one should fault Smart. Smart did stay beyond what was projected. He easily could have challenged for the No. 1 spot in the NBA draft last month. He decided to come back and lead the Cowboys to a possible Big 12 title and run toward the Final Four. But Smart also has hardly shrunk from challenges. He stepped up to sign on for the FIBA U-19 gold medal winning USA team in Prague, a year after leading the U-18 team to a gold medal in Brazil. He played without ego and didn't mind blending, rather than being the go-to guy. He is one of two collegians (Creighton's Doug McDermott is the other) at the USA national team minicamp in Las Vegas. Smart is giving Oklahoma State a bonus year by returning for his sophomore season. He has eliminated the questions of whether he'll return for his junior year. This is it. And based on the way he plays and handles himself, Oklahoma State will get the best of Smart every day, not a player who will be thinking about the draft or the NBA. He'll worry about that when it's applicable.
3. Louisville coach Rick Pitino had this to say on Brad Stevens' departure from Butler to the NBA to coach the Boston Celtics and what he'll need to accept when I caught up with him at the White House on Tuesday: "I won 52 games and lost 30 with the Knicks, and losing 30 games was painful in one season. But I was an assistant first with the Knicks. The difference for college guys who weren't assistant coaches is you're going to lose a lot of games. You're going to win a lot of games, too, but you're going to lose more [in one year] than you've lost in five years of college. You have to accept losing and that's the most difficult thing."
Describing why Calipari has been so successful is much more difficult. Last week, my colleague Myron Medcalf and I spent most the better part of a morning attempting to do just that. I'm biased, but I think we did an OK job -- from the self-sustaining cycle of draft results that practically recruits players without any need for human salesmanship, to Calipari's rejection of the old-school attitude that college basketball exists solely to make men out of boys. To Calipari, college basketball exists to pull families out of generational poverty. There is no song-and-dance about the value of a four-year degree. That's the level Kentucky's playing on, and it works. Obviously so.
But even having noted these things, we may still have undersold the point. Today, ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil follows up with her feature story on the new rules of recruiting, which must account for players' -- and their families' -- NBA dreams in a way coaches never quite had to before. The entire story is excellent (obviously), and you should absolutely read all of it. But possibly the most interesting point is slammed home rather early, and Arizona coach Sean Miller has the hammer in hand. To wit:
"In general terms, you have to be careful at times when you're talking about getting a degree," Arizona's Sean Miller said. "It could be taken as an insult
I'm not good enough or my player or my son isn't good enough to leave early. Is that every situation? Of course not. But you have to be careful."
Did Sean Miller just blow your mind? Because he blew mine. Of course the NBA looms large over any recruiting interaction between high-profile college coaches and high-profile high school stars. To some extent that has always been the case. As Dana notes, that attitude has only accelerated in Calipari's wake. But we've actually gotten to the point now where a college coach has to be careful not to promise a recruit's family a college degree because it might be perceived as a diss. "You want my son to stay in college long enough to get a degree? How dare you!"
This is an indictment of many things, most of which Dana notes. There is the very millennial desire to have everything now now now (of which we are all at least somewhat guilty). There's the insular and often narcissistic social media climate, in which everyone is the star of their own story. There's the overheated grassroots hoops culture, in which everyone is a star, which dovetails nicely with the everyone-gets-a-ribbon ethos Baby Boomers and Gen X'ers are always affixing en masse to my purportedly "coddled" generation. There's the one and done rule, which makes sense for the NBA and no one else. And there's the shortsighted desire to get paper now and a degree later, which is impossible to deride when it is a family's best chance of breaking through a decades-old cycle of poverty. (Or, for that matter, middle-class-ness -- $10 million is $10 million to anyone who doesn't have considerably more than $10 million.)
But it is also, to some small degree, an indictment of the NCAA. While justifying its own tax-exempt existence as one of academic necessity, and touting how many student-athletes go pro in something other than sports, the NCAA generates its revenue because elite prospects like the ones Miller talks to are immensely entertaining to watch play single-elimination games in March. We worry about if schools are living up to their academic obligations to players, but what happens when the players, and their families, aren't remotely interested in academics either? When coaches have to lightly tread around the notion that a degree is one of the benefits of playing college basketball, hasn't the artifice crumbled entirely?
Thirty years ago, a degree was an ironclad part of that promise. Now, depending on the player and his family, a degree is a touchy subject. At worst, apparently, it's an insult -- a derogative notion that must be massaged, if not avoided altogether.
The cognitive dissonance here overwhelming. It's 2013, and if it wasn't official before, it is now: College basketball has officially entered its bizarro period. This can't possibly be sustained.
2. Independent investigator Stu Brown of the Indianapolis-based law firm Ice Miller has submitted the report about the officiating controversy during the Pac-12 basketball tournament to league presidents for their spring meetings this weekend in Utah. The Pac-12 called for an outside report after Ed Rush, the coordinator of officials, resigned over allegations that he jokingly offered financial and other incentives for handing out a technical foul to Arizona coach Sean Miller. Officials also at the time told ESPN that Rush ruled through intimidation during his one year in the position. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and the presidents will review the investigation and determine if further action is needed. The Pac-12 is still seeking a replacement for Rush.
3. The high-profile challenge games between the ACC and Big Ten and the SEC and Big 12, neutral-site single games and neutral-site tournaments are making it harder for elite programs to set up true home-and-home series. Take Indiana, for example: The Hoosiers will play Notre Dame in Indianapolis at the Crossroads Classic, go to Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and play in the 2K Sports tournament with Connecticut, Boston College and Washington. That gives the Hoosiers four games away from Bloomington -- probably enough for a program that has to fund a number of sports. Kansas is one of the few top-10 programs that still plays true home-and-home series. KU had a series with Ohio State that wasn't tied to anything, and now has one with Georgetown. The Hoosiers have one game left to give, but likely will buy a home game instead of starting a new series on the road.
2. The one-and-done rule gets all the headlines, but the number of transfers is what is stunting team growth and winning with consistency in a number of spots. Alabama had a chance to be a top-four SEC team, but that became much more difficult with the decision of Trevor Lacey to transfer. Tony Chennault wasn't a major contributor for Villanova after transferring from Wake Forest -- but he's on the move again in search of more playing time, while possibly sacrificing a chance to win. Players transfer for a host of reasons. But impatience is usually high on the list.
3. Pac-12 officials meets next week in Phoenix and, according to the league office, commissioner Larry Scott might not address the Ed Rush resignation in any great detail, nor will he get into the tension between the league and Arizona over the $25,000 fine levied against head coach Sean Miller. The league office contends that the Miller fine had nothing to do with the "jokes" Rush made at an officials meeting in which incentives were said to be offered for calling a technical against Miller; Rush has said he was joking, but wanted officials to enforce the rules on the court and in bench decorum. The league is conducting an internal investigation into the incident and how it was handled; a finding is due in June. Arizona wants Miller's fine rescinded, but there has been no indication that will occur.
Mark Lyons told reporters that his matchup with Aaron Craft is significant, but not as important as his team’s on-court unity on game day. Solomon Hill believes he’s the proper neutralizer for a player with Deshaun Thomas' versatility.
LaQuinton Ross? That’s a different matter.
“I think LaQuinton Ross is a different guy that we have to have guys keyed in on,” Hill said Wednesday of the Buckeyes' forward. “I think he's the big spark off the bench. He's a starter on any other team, and our young guys have to be prepared for him to really put it on the floor and shoot the outside shot.”
Shannon Scott is averaging 1.8 steals per game. Sam Thompson scored 20 points in OSU’s victory over Iona in the second round. Lenzelle Smith Jr. (9.4 points per game) is the team’s No. 3 scorer behind Thomas and Craft. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta might need the length of both Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel when his team encounters an Arizona frontcourt that features four players who are 6-foot-8 or taller.
The Buckeyes didn’t start this impressive rally -- one that includes a Big Ten tournament title -- with two players. And they won’t reach Atlanta with two players, either.
“They’ve been the difference,” Matta said. “The thing that I’ve enjoyed watching come to fruition is just those guys accepting their roles, but then taking great pride in doing their job.”
Ross said the team came together after the Buckeyes suffered a demoralizing 71-49 loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 17. The players gathered to discuss their differences following the defeat. They recognized that they were a fractured unit. Ross said every player, stars and reserves, accepted blame.
“[Wisconsin] was able to pick us apart because we weren’t together,” Ross said.
Since that time, however, the Buckeyes haven’t lost -- rolling off 10 consecutive wins. Why? Because they’re jelling with one of the NCAA tournament field’s best eight-man rotations. Ohio State’s players seem certain of the responsibilities they’re expected to handle each night. This is certainly not a two-man show.
“It’s really important for us to step up and be X factors,” Scott said. “We can’t be out there watching.”
WHOM TO WATCH
Ohio State’s Craft: The point guard's defensive wizardry has been on full display in the tournament. Iona’s Lamont Jones committed four turnovers with Craft on him. Iowa State’s Korie Lucious recorded five turnovers against Craft’s pressure.
“Aaron Craft is exceptional at what he does,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
Arizona’s Lyons: The Xavier transfer scored a combined 50 points in his team’s two NCAA tournament victories over Belmont and Harvard. He’s also shooting 85.3 percent at the free throw line. But his leadership is a critical intangible for this program. His team feeds off him, whether he’s playing well or struggling.
WHAT TO WATCH
The paint: Arizona’s frontcourt athleticism could be a problem for the Buckeyes. But Thomas, Ravenel and Williams said they’ll play the physical Big Ten style that’s fueled their current winning streak. Ravenel said his team can also take advantage of Arizona’s youth; Grant Jerrett, Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley are all freshmen.
“Intimidation is one of the things that can win games in basketball,” Ravenel said.
“It was intense out there," the senior said. “But that’s how it should be.”
The sixth-seeded Wildcats credit the return of that intensity -- especially on the defensive end -- for propelling them to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16, where they will play second-seeded Ohio State in Los Angeles in a West Region game Thursday.
Led by Lyons’ 25 points per game in its NCAA opening-round victories, Arizona shot better than 50 percent combined against 11-seed Belmont and 14-seed Harvard. But the Wildcats (27-7) sounded more proud that they held those usually-sharpshooting foes to a combined 33 percent shooting overall (including 28.9 percent from 3-point range).
“Obviously, we have a lot of scorers on this team, a lot of good players, a lot of great players,’’ Arizona guard/forward Kevin Parrom said. “But it starts with defense, and that’s what Coach [Sean Miller] emphasizes, especially now in March: The best teams in March are the best defensive teams, and that’s something we’ve been doing now.”
There was never really any question whether the Wildcats could play defense. Their 14-0 start was highlighted by close victories, but big ones, too -- and their most notable included at least some defensive fuel. In December’s Diamond Head Classic, for instance, Arizona held Miami to 36.5 percent shooting in the semifinals, then beat San Diego State when Wildcats guard Nick Johnson swatted away what could have been a game-winning layup with three seconds left.
But somewhere along the line, they lost their defensive tune -- and any question of if the Wildcats could play defense turned into whether they consistently would. In January, Oregon (which overcame an early 11-0 deficit) and UCLA (which built a 19-3 cushion to start the game) handed the Wildcats their first defeats. Then in February, Cal (which shot 58.8 percent) and Colorado (which shot 50 percent) handed Arizona back-to-back losses.
“At a point in this season, I think we just stopped trying on defense -- just stopped being as aggressive as we were,’’ Johnson said. “Maybe [it was] a little complacency, maybe thinking we could outscore teams.”
The turning point came during two-loss trip to Los Angeles a month ago, when USC cruised (shooting 61.1 percent) and UCLA prevailed again. All of a sudden, the Arizona team that looked like a Final Four contender in early January was staggering toward the postseason, and, Johnson said, “we knew that we weren’t going to be able to advance in any tournament if we didn’t get our defense straight.”
Focus improved. Practices intensified. Miller stressed consistency on the defensive end. “It was March,’’ Parrom said. “We knew we had to play well, or go home."
The Wildcats lost to UCLA yet again in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals -- but the Bruins shot under 40 percent for the game (and 8.3 percent on 3-pointers), a sign even before last weekend that Arizona’s "D" was pushing back in the right direction.
“I think it’s just a renewed sense of urgency,’’ center Kaleb Tarczewski said. “We’re trying to come out strong every day, and really stress defense. We have so many skilled guys on our team, offense will come. But defensive intensity, that’s really something every player can improve. That’s something we’ve been trying to stress.”
And that emphasis will continue against Ohio State, a team known for its own defensive focus, and which also made better than 49 percent of its shots combined in its first two tournament wins. The Buckeyes (28-7) pose UA's toughest test yet in this tournament, what with All-American Deshaun Thomas scoring from all over the court and point guard Aaron Craft coming off the high of connecting on a game-winning 3-pointer against Iowa State on Sunday.
Several Wildcats said their team is playing its best basketball since late December. But key to reaching the regional final and beyond, they added, will be continued defensive perseverance.
So expect another intense one.
“We’ve been getting progressively better; coach always talks about keeping that switch turned on,’’ Tarczewski said. “When you turn it off, it’s hard to flip it back on -- so keep going, keep going, keep working as hard as you can.”
He dreamed of leading his team on an NCAA tournament run ... someday.
The fact that someday is today?
“Amazing," the 6-foot Ivy League rookie of the year said Friday, less than 24 hours after 14th-seeded Harvard knocked off No. 3 New Mexico for the program’s first NCAA tournament victory.
That word could describe his development, too.
It’s a role the 19-year-old ball handler never expected, at least not this soon, when he arrived on Harvard’s campus less than a year ago. First recruited by Crimson coach Tommy Amaker when he was in the eighth grade, Chambers decided pretty quickly that he wanted to play for the former Duke guard because of what he could learn.
But Chambers also thought he would have some time to be a pupil, while playing behind Brandyn Curry, a Cousy award candidate last season. That is, until September, when Curry and fellow senior Kyle Casey withdrew from Harvard following an academic scandal.
When the freshman heard the news, his head spun. “I was definitely nervous -- very, very nervous," Chambers said. “All of a sudden, it’s your first year, you’re coming in trying to learn the whole process about everything: playing, dealing with school and basketball.”
To persevere, he said, he leaned on his teammates -- and they leaned back, looking for the vocal freshman to glue together a team whose chances of winning the Ivy League all of a sudden seemed precarious, at best.
But Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball exceeded expectations probably because he had no other choice, gaining confidence (and his team’s confidence in him) by becoming a steady assist man and scorer early; he even hit the game-winning basket with four seconds left against Boston University on Dec. 11.
“He’s a special kid, and certainly he plays basketball in a special way, and I think you get excited when you watch him play," Amaker said. “I know when we recruited him, we wanted him to play in that manner; sometimes I thought he held himself back a little bit, and I told him if you ever come to play for us ... we want you to be dazzling because you’re capable of it.”
His season stats -- 12.6 points and 5.8 assists per game -- were dazzling enough to make him the first freshman named first-team All-Ivy League.
But the way he melded his team dazzled, too. Sophomore Wesley Saunders emerged as a go-to scorer (16.5 PPG). Rivard became a scary outside threat (five 3s against the Lobos on Thursday). Kenyatta Smith and Steve Moundou-Missi improved in the post. Harvard finished the regular season 19-9, winning the Ivy League.
So maybe it was fitting that as the seconds ticked down on Harvard's historic upset Thursday, Chambers was the one with the ball in his hands, grinning and carefully watching the clock. That moment is a feat the Crimson hope to repeat against another bigger, more heralded team Saturday.
And one Chambers never imagined when he thought about his goals a year ago.
“I just wanted to come in and learn as much as possible, so when it was my time I could step in and be able to contribute to the game," he said, remembering. “... When I first decided to come here, I did not think this is what I would be stepping into.
“But I’m glad I came here, and I’m glad this happened.”
SALT LAKE CITY NEWS AND NOTES
SAFETY FIRST: One teammate compared Wichita State sophomore Tekele Cotton to a strong safety. Shockers coach Gregg Marshall? He thinks the guard is more like a free safety.
Whatever the football analogy, you get the picture: The 6-2, 202-pound athlete is hard-nosed, hard-bodied and hard-focused on making stops. And if he can stymie a certain Gonzaga player like he did Pittsburgh guard Tray Woodall on Thursday (the senior was brought to tears after his 1-for-12, two-point performance), Cotton knows his team has a better chance to upset the No. 1 team in the country.
“I look forward to being that guy, to chase around their player like I did yesterday," said Cotton, who is also averaging 6.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game this season. “So I look forward to chasing around Kevin Pangos. I have no problem with it; I enjoy it.”
Pangos, the Zags’ standout sophomore guard, is averaging 11.6 points per game this season and scored the final five points in top-seeded Gonzaga’s six-point survival against 16th-seeded Southern on Thursday. He said the key to competing with a physical team such as the ninth-seeded Shockers is to be physical right back.
“We don’t shy away from that; our team is tough," Pangos said. “We don’t back down from that at all.”
This should be an interesting matchup. The Shockers held Pitt to 35.2 percent shooting from the field -- and just 5.9 percent on 3-pointers. The Zags are third in the nation in field-goal percentage, making 50.4 percent of their shots.
NO ALARM HERE: Zags coach Mark Few wasn’t particularly rattled that the game against Southern went down to the wire; a win is a win is a win right now.
“At this point of the year, I don’t think we need to worry about aesthetics or, you know, differences," he said. “I know it’s cliché, ‘survive and advance,’ but there really is no other alternative. We’re not getting style points and we’re not getting graded -- you know, you either win or your season is over.”
QUOTE-WORTHY: “We know we’re in for a fight, especially the confidence that they have. When you win a game like that, it doesn’t just all of a sudden leave you; many times it carries through for the rest of the weekend. For us, it’s not about being consumed with Harvard, as much as it is about being consumed with ourselves, making sure we’re ready to go.” -- Arizona coach Sean Miller
2. Arizona coach Sean Miller was fined $25,000 by the Pac-12 for his postgame behavior during the conference tournament in questioning the officiating. Rutgers fined Mike Rice $50,000 during the season and suspended him for three games for his behavior in practice in the previous year. The NCAA committee on infractions suspended Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett for the first five games of the WCC season in 2013-14 for a failure to monitor violations. This is no longer a trend. This is the new normal for coaches. They are being singled out and, in some cases, being held accountable and, in other cases, being held responsible for the actions of their subordinates. This is a new era and coaches now have to be on guard and on edge for the way they are being watched -- and ultimately punished -- for actions by schools, conferences and the NCAA.
3. I'd love to say more players will stay but the draft may be the weakest in years, which means spots are available. That's why it should come as no surprise that Tony Mitchell of North Texas will declare for the draft Wednesday, as first reported by CBSSports.com. North Texas coach Tony Benford said Monday night Mitchell still has to make it official but this is not a shock. UNT struggled through an injury-riddled season and went 12-20. Mitchell is still a potential lottery pick, assuming he comes out, according to Benford due to his skill set. Mitchell will be one of the first to declare but he likely will lead another exodus.