Season of mediocrity, UNC on rise, Kemba in slump and more (cont.)
If it's possible that a single moment can turn around a team's season, then North Carolina experienced it with 6.6 seconds remaining in its game at Miami last Wednesday night when Harrison Barnes stroked a three-pointer from the right corner to give the Tar Heels a 74-71 victory. Barnes followed that up by scoring a season-high 25 points in North Carolina's 20-point beatdown of N.C. State. This kid's ability has never been in question. All he's missing is confidence.
It's official: Kemba Walker is in a bad slump. Walker shot 7-for-23 from the floor during Saturday's loss at home to Louisville. He has earned his green light, but no player should jack up 23 shots when they're not going in. Over his last four games, Walker has made 17 of his 74 attempts, or 23 percent. That hasn't just made Walker a clear No. 2 behind The Jimmer for POY. It has made UConn more beatable.
Speaking of the Louisville game, I honestly don't know that I've ever seen Rick Pitino do a better job. This team was not expected to do much even before it lost three key players to injuries. Oh, and I think it's high time America started reading more about Peyton Siva, don't you? Louisville's sophomore point guard had 19 points and seven assists in the double-overtime win, and on the season he is ranked first in the Big East in steals and fifth in assists.
I have met Rutgers coach Mike Rice, but I can't say I know him well. He is obviously an excellent basketball coach and was a smart hire. For all I know, when he is at practice or having dinner with his players, he is a soft-spoken, demure wallflower. But I have to say his histrionics on the sidelines are very, very troubling. There has to be a better way for him to motivate his guys, influence the referees and let everybody know what he is thinking.
San Diego State sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard was sick as a dog the day of the BYU game last Wednesday. He even had to get an IV just 45 minutes before tipoff. All he did was go for 22 points and 15 rebounds in the loss. Leonard is an incredible rebounder for his size. To me, he looks like a more-skilled version of Ben Wallace.
Has there been a more disappointing player in the country this season than Kansas State's Curtis Kelly? The 6-foot-8 senior forward was the second-biggest reason (behind Jacob Pullen) why the Wildcats were a preseason top-five pick. Not only has he had two different suspensions -- one implemented by Frank Martin, the other by the NCAA -- but Kelly's numbers are also way down across the board. He's averaging just 9.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and shooting 52.6 percent from the floor. Last season he averaged 11.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and shot 56.5 percent. Kelly may have hit rock bottom Saturday night against Kansas, when Martin benched him after he missed three shots during his 10 minutes on the floor. Asked after the game why Kelly didn't return, Martin replied (as only he can), "Next question."
Duke's loss to St. John's exposed the fact that Kyle Singler is very quietly having a disappointing season. If you'll recall, Singler was a near-consensus choice for preseason player of the year. (He was the leading vote-getter on the AP's preseason All-America team.) He has been far from terrible, but he hasn't been as dominant as I expected he would -- or as dominant as his team needs him to be. He was 1-for-7 from three-point range during the loss to St. John's, and on the season his three-point shooting is down slightly from last season (38.1 percent, down from 39.9). Singler has been good, but the Blue Devils need for him to be great if they're going to make a run at another championship.
It has been a long time since I saw a team lose in as devastating a fashion as Gonzaga did last week. The Zags were at home, playing their league rival, Saint Mary's, desperately in need of a win to bolster their NCAA credentials ... and they go down on a last-second bucket by Gaels guard Mickey McConnell. Gonzaga has struggled all season, but that really has to shatter a team's confidence.
Here's something that's a little off-topic. One of the most polarizing questions in this sport is the question of whether Adolph Rupp was a racist. Last week I appeared on a radio show based in Louisville hosted by ESPN broadcaster Bob Valvano and former SI writer Billy Reed. Bob raised this question and as we discussed it at some length, Billy directed my attention to an article that SI published in 1966. It was written by a young Frank Deford and it was headlined, "The Negro Athlete Is Invited Home." The article details Rupp's efforts to recruit Butch Beard, an African-American player from Louisville, to Kentucky, which would have made Beard the first black player in SEC history.
Has there ever been a team with a softer 18-4 record than Cincinnati? I think this is a pretty good squad, but the Bearcats have a lot more work to do to make the tournament than that record would indicate. The Bearcats' nonconference strength of schedule ranking is 294. That number will be a huge anchor around their neck if they're on the bubble. Their Big East wins came at home against DePaul, Seton Hall, South Florida and Rutgers, and by two points on the road at St. John's. Cincinnati had a golden opportunity to prove it belongs in the field by playing a decimated West Virginia team at home on Saturday, and yet the Bearcats still lost by 11. Like I said, a long way to go.
VCU is officially back on my radar screen. The Rams have won nine in a row to grab sole possession of first place in a very good CAA. It wouldn't surprise me if the CAA ends up being a two-bid league.
Here's why Washington's Isaiah Thomas is my choice for Pac-10 Player of the Year. He had a bad shooting night against Washington State on Sunday, going 3-for-13 from the field. But he still drove the ball aggressively and was 11-for-12 from the foul line. Thomas did have seven turnovers, but that's going to happen from time to time. As long as he stays aggressive, the Huskies are going to win this conference and have a great chance to make it back to the Sweet 16.
I'd pay to see Rotnei Clarke and The Jimmer in a game of H-O-R-S-E. Clarke's three-point shooting is off the pace from a year ago (40.7 percent, down from 42.7), but Arkansas's 6-foot junior guard exploded for 36 points in the Hogs' road upset of Vanderbilt. He was 12-for-16 from the field and 6-for-7 from three-point range.
Bad break for Georgia Tech not having Brian Oliver for its home game against Maryland Sunday night. The Jackets were putting together a nice little run with three wins in four games (including over North Carolina and Virginia Tech). Without Oliver they just didn't have enough firepower and lost by 11.