Battle 4 Atlantis (Cont.)
The Longest Flight
On Saturday afternoon, the Cardinal suffered by far the toughest loss of any team in the tournament. With their game against Minnesota tied and apparently headed to overtime, Chasson Randle, Stanford's 6-1 sophomore guard, fouled Andre Hollins as he was attempting a desperation halfcourt shot. With .4 seconds showing on the clock, Hollins drained all three free throws to give the Golden Gophers the 66-63 win. A short while later, I spotted Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, who is one of the most congenial guys in the business, walking through the casino with a scowl on his face. He saw me, shook his head, and kept walking.
Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be coaches.
The loss was especially bitter because it was the last game of the week, thereby robbing the Cardinal of the chance to bounce back. Still, this team can take away plenty of positives -- including the play of Randle, notwithstanding that foolish final foul. Because Stanford's regular point guard, 5-11 junior Aaron Bright, was unable to play because of a sprained ankle, Randle had to pull triple duty running the team, serving as the primary scoring option, and guarding the opponent's best ballhandler. He came into this event amidst a miserable shooting slump, and though he was obviously gassed against the Gophers (3-for-19 shooting), he still made nearly 43 percent of his three-point shots and averaged 18.3 points in three games.
The absence of Bright and 6-6 junior forward Anthony Brown (hip) forced Dawkins to go extra deep into his bench, which gave valuable experience to players who wouldn't have otherwise gotten it. Chief among them was Christian Sanders, a 6-4 freshman who took Bright's place in the lineup, and 6-10 junior forward John Gage, who made six three-pointers in three games. But the main takeaway for Stanford is something we already knew: When 6-10 junior forward Dwight Powell is on the floor and attacking the rim, this team is hard to beat. When Powell is settling for jump shots or sitting on the bench because of foul trouble (he committed four in each game), then this team is vulnerable.
So, good things to build on, but a difficult lasting memory. I'm guessing it was not a happy ride back to Palo Alto.
They Woke Up the Space!
I watched all eight teams conduct shootarounds on Wednesday. My favorite moment was when the Rams walked into the ballroom-turned-arena. I could hear them coming before they got there because they were all shouting and chanting. Coach Shaka Smart trailed his players onto the floor and obviously liked what he was hearing. "Let's wake up the space!" he shouted.
Welcome to my new favorite expression.
That scene encapsulated what makes VCU so effective and fun to watch. Smart's "havoc" system requires a great deal of energy and depth, and the Rams have both. Their style also depends on creating a ton of turnovers and making a high percentage from three-point range. Alas, when those things aren't happening, they are just another team.
VCU fought hard against Duke and Missouri, but the Rams were unable to get over the hump. After forcing Memphis to commit 22 turnovers in the quarterfinal, they forced just eight from Duke and 14 from Missouri. And after making 13-of-22 from three against Memphis, VCU was 4-for-18 and 8-for-26, respectively, in its next two games. Even more problematic was the fact that VCU only attempted six free throws against Missouri. When you play a smaller lineup predicated on speed, you have to do a better job of driving.
VCU's lineup got smaller as the week went on. Center D.J. Haley, a 7-foot junior, only played five minutes against Duke and was dropped from the starting lineup for the Missouri game. On the flip side, sophomore guard Treveon Graham was a revelation. At 6-5, 215 pounds, Graham is big, strong and versatile. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called him VCU's best player after watching him hang 26 points on Memphis.
The bottom line is, VCU is a talented, entertaining team that is not operating on a big margin for error. To compete with the Rams, you have to match their energy. In other words, you've gotta wake up the space.
THIS WEEK'S AP BALLOT
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Indiana (1)
2. Duke (3)
3. Louisville (2)
4. Kentucky (4)
5. Michigan (5)
6. Ohio State (6)
7. Syracuse (7)
8. Arizona (8)
9. Kansas (9)
10. Michigan State (10)
11. Florida (12)
12. Gonzaga (18)
13. Cincinnati (20)
14. Missouri (21)
15. Creighton (22)
16. Georgetown (NR)
17. Colorado (23)
18. San Diego State (16)
19. North Carolina (13)
20. Florida State (24)
21. Pittsburgh (25)
22. Oregon (NR)
23. UNLV (14)
24. Illinois (NR)
25. N.C. State (19)
Dropped out: Memphis (11), UConn (15), UCLA (17)
I'd like to tell you that I gave a lot of thought to ranking Duke number one, but I really didn't. I just didn't think it was right to drop my number one team if it doesn't lose. The Hoosiers didn't look like world beaters against Georgia and Georgetown last week, but they still won the games. So instead of taking down Indiana, I rewarded the Hoyas for hanging tough before losing in overtime. (Although Georgetown's win over UCLA the previous night looks less impressive in the wake of the Bruins' shocking home loss to Cal Poly on Sunday.)
You might be surprised I ranked North Carolina so high after the Tar Heels' loss to Butler in Maui, but I was more impressed by their comeback from 29 down than I was disappointed that they ended up losing. The Heels could have easily slinked off into the sunset, but they fought hard and learned something about themselves in the process. They're not a great team at the moment, but they're far from a bad one.
On the flip side, I usually don't drop a team six spots after a win, but if ever there was an occasion to do it, it was N.C. State's 82-80 win at home over UNC Asheville. That was especially troubling coming on the heels of the Wolfpack's blowout loss to Oklahoma State the week before.
Speaking of Oklahoma State, the Cowboys were my first team out. I try not to overreact to any single result, so I am still waiting for one more quality win from them. They will have a golden opportunity when they play Gonzaga at home on New Years Eve. If you want to be ranked, you have to win that game.
As usual, the more interesting decisions came at the bottom of my ballot, where I had to decide which of the many good candidates should be given the last couple of spots. I ended up going with undefeated Oregon because of the Ducks' win over UNLV at the Thomas and Mack Center. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better true road win turned in by any team this season. I especially like that the Ducks won the game despite shooting 3 -for-19 from three-point range. That shows me they are capable of playing well when they're not playing well, if you get my (Zen) drift. I think much of it has to do with the presence of uber-rebounder Arsalan Kazemi, a transfer from Rice.
Illinois also gets the nod for winning the Maui Invitational. I'm not sure the Illini can stay there for long (a little too reliant on the three-pointer for my tastes), but for the time being they're 7-0 and deserve to be ranked.
In retrospect, I guess I violated my single-result rule when I put UConn so high after the Huskies' season-opening win over Michigan State. The Huskies' loss to New Mexico at the Paradise Jam in Puerto Rico looks worse when lumped in with their uninspiring wins the previous week over Wake Forest (by six) and Quinnipiac (in double overtime). We'll have a better handle on how good this team is on Dec. 4 against when they play N.C. State at Madison Square Garden.
A couple of teams who played at the Battle 4 Atlantis were also within range of being ranked. VCU looked like a top 25 team, but if you're going to rank the Rams, you have to put them behind Wichita State, which is undefeated and beat VCU in Richmond. I also think Minnesota will be ranked at some point this season, but the Gophers' wins over Memphis and Stanford don't get them there just yet.
I also looked hard at Alabama, which is still undefeated. The Tide can get on my ballot if they win next weekend at Cincinnati. But that's a tough ask.
Two other teams worthy of consideration are Ohio and California, who are both undefeated. The Bobcats' only tough nonconference games are road tests at Memphis on Dec. 5 and at Oklahoma on Dec. 29. Frankly, I'm disappointed that the Bobcats' first-year coach Jim Christian didn't set up more challenging, high-profile games to take advantage of that Sweet Sixteen run. The Bears, meanwhile, haven't played anyone of significance yet, but they will have a chance to turn some heads in the next couple of weeks with games against Wisconsin, UNLV and Creighton.