Fast Break: Butler soars, McDermott's stock continues to rise, more
Fast Break (Cont.)
A Bluejay without enough buzz. A pack of Bulldogs with bite. A pair of teams heading in separate directions through the Arizona desert. A visit with the lead Bearcat, and an old-but-new number one team on my AP Top 25 ballot.
Run the floor with me, Hoopheads. All that and more are filling it up in this week's Fast Break.
McDermott hasn't generated much Jimmerific buzz yet, but just you wait. It looks like he is headed for one of those seasons. With other national player of the year candidates falling by the wayside (we mean you, Cody Zeller), The Dougie has quietly been the most dominant offensive player in the country. He was an absolute force Sunday night during the Bluejays' impressive road win at Cal, finishing with 34 points on 10-for-10 shooting from the foul line and 4-for-7 from three-point range. He also had nine rebounds. That followed a 30-point, six-rebound, four-assist performance in a home win over Akron last Sunday. McDermott is now 21-for-31 from three-point range over his last five games, and on the season he is making 87 percent of his free throws while averaging nearly seven rebounds per game.
On Dec. 22, 2009, the Butler Bulldogs were 8-4. On Dec. 9, 2010, they were 5-4. Both of those seasons ended with Butler playing on the final Monday night of the season. I'm not saying that will happen again this season -- but I'm not saying it won't. We should be long past doubting Brad Stevens' program, as evidenced yet again by the Bulldogs' thrilling overtime win over Indiana on Saturday. Remember, this team is playing without its incumbent point guard, Chrishawn Hopkins, who was dismissed in October for repeated violations of team rules. Somehow, Stevens keeps adding quality players, whether it's Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke, who made five three-pointers and scored 19 points against the Hoosiers, or Alex Barlow, the now-legendary walk-on guard who fluttered home the deciding bucket with 2.4 seconds remaining in overtime. Only at Butler does stuff like that happen. By now, we should all expect it to keep happening.
In the future, I will try to avoid using doubling up my categories, but Jones' performance against the Hoosiers was too sublime to pass up. The 6-4 sophomore from O'Fallon, Ill., is not usually looked upon to score. But if Clarke is this team's Mr. Outside and 6-11 senior Andrew Smith is Mr. Inside, then Jones is Mr. Everything In Between. He leads Butler in assists and is essentially tied with Smith for the team lead in rebounds. Against Indiana, Jones had 12 rebounds and six assists -- both career highs -- and scored 16 points before fouling out with 2:03 left in regulation. Usually, the Glue Guy does a little of everything. On Saturday, Jones did a lot of everything.
I realize the Johnnies weren't exactly facing a powerhouse team in St. Francis, but I still have to give Obekpa, a 6-9 native of Nigeria, the nod for his nine-block, seven-rebound, five-assist performance in the 77-60 win. That was two blocks shy of tying the single-game record Obekpa set seven days earlier against Fordham. Obekpa is locked in a tight race with Kansas center Jeff Withey to be the nation's shot-blocking king. Withey has a slight lead at the moment -- he averages 5.6 blocks to Obekpa's 5.3 -- but keep in mind that Withey is a fifth-year senior on a national powerhouse. Obepka is a first-year freshman on a rebuilding team. Yet, he's staging his own, one-man block party.
We don't normally think of a player from a power conference school as being under the radar, but since Marble has yet to play in the NCAA tournament, most fans are unaware of just how good he is. The son of former Hawkeye great Roy Marble, who is still the school's alltime leading scorer, Devyn had a season-high 30 points (on 14-for-19 shooting from the free throw line) to lift the Hawkeyes to a resume-building win over Northern Iowa last week.
The Gators were in control of this one from the opening tip, building an 11-point lead with 10 minutes to play and six points with one minute to play. The comeback from there was a total team effort as five different Wildcats scored, ending with Mark Lyons' driving layup with seven seconds remaining to put Arizona in the lead for the first time since the opening minutes. We can talk about Florida's turnovers and missed free throws down the stretch, or Solomon Hill's sterling 18-point, three-assist, two-steal performance. In the end, though, Arizona prevailed because it never stopped fighting. That's a great attribute to take into conference play.
DePaul is a much-improved team, so there's no shame in losing to them. But to lose by this much at home indicates that the Sun Devils may not be primed for the resurgent season that many of us anticipated. Arizona is 8-2 but it has just one win over a team ranked in the top 100 of the RPI. DePaul, by the way, is 119th.
I mention this not because of the fact that the Tigers lost to Louisville but because of the way they lost. Memphis was at home in front of a packed FedEx Forum and built up a 16-point first-half lead. The Tigers squandered that advantage by coughing the ball up 24 times. Eight of those turnovers were committed by junior point guard Joe Jackson, who played an otherwise effective game with 23 points and eight assists. The loss left Memphis coach Josh Pastner with a career 0-11 record against ranked teams, something that is being increasingly remarked upon in the fish-bowl, hoops-loving city that he calls home.
The Hurricanes had one hiccup at Florida-Gulf Coast in their second game, but they were playing without Durand Scott, the 6-5 senior guard who ranks second on the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals. Scott missed the season's first three games because of an NCAA suspension for extra benefits that dates to the end of last season. With Scott back in the lineup, the Hurricanes have beaten four good teams, including an eight-point win over Michigan State and a 21-point drubbing of previously undefeated Charlotte on Friday night at home. Given the struggles that North Carolina and N.C. State have had in the early going, it's quite possible that Miami could end up being Duke's biggest threat in the ACC.
The Hoyas have really struggled offensively the last two weeks, and Whittington, a 6-8 sophomore, was a major reason why. Over his previous four games, Whittington averaged 8.0 points while making 31 percent of his shots and just 2 of his 17 three-point attempts. But he broke through in major fashion against Western Carolina on Saturday, scoring a career-high 25 points (on 3-for-5 shooting from three) to go along with 11 rebounds and two assists in an 81-68 win.
This game was played to commemorate the meeting between these two schools in the 1963 NCAA tournament's mideast regional semifinal, otherwise known as the "Game of Change." The governor of Mississippi was prepared to issue an injunction forbidding the Bulldogs to play against an integrated team, so they had to literally sneak out of the state before it was served. The game was played in Michigan State's Jenison Fieldhouse, and Loyola won, 61-51, en route to capturing the national title. In another gesture of recognition of that historic event, Michigan State returned on Saturday night to Jenison, where it defeated Division II Tuskegee, 92-56. That school produced some of the first African-American aviators in the United States military. Some of the famed Tuskegee Airmen were honored during the first time out.
That's right, Riverside had 26 points. It was the second time this season the Highlanders set a school record for fewest points in the shot clock era. They only scored 30 in a loss to Fresno State in November.
Detroit at Syracuse, Monday, 7 p.m. It's not a bad game on its own merits -- the Titans have one of the top mid-major players in the country in junior guard Ray McCallum -- but the real significance is the opportunity it will give Jim Boeheim to win his 900th career game. That would put him just three wins away from passing Bob Knight for No. 2 on the alltime men's Division I list.
Murray State at Dayton, Saturday, Noon. This is the best under-the-radar game of the week. Murray State's Isaiah Canaan is having another terrific season (21.4 ppg on 42.9 percent from three), and the Flyers are off to a surprising 8-2 start that includes a win at Alabama.
Xavier vs. Cincinnati at U.S. Bank Arena, Wednesday, 7 p.m. This has always been one of the most heated rivalries in the country, but last year things boiled over into an ugly fight. Much of the pre-game discussion will center on that incident, but the hoops will be terrific as well. Xavier's roster has suffered a lot of depletion since the end of last season, but the Musketeers are off to a 7-2 start that includes a win over Butler. You knew they would love to hand their crosstown rivals their first loss of the season.
Kansas at Ohio State, Saturday, 4 p.m. It's not often we get a game between two top-10 teams in December. Can't wait to see if this develops into a shootout between Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas and KU freshman guard Ben McLemore.
Illinois at Missouri in St. Louis, Saturday, 6 p.m. The annual "Braggin' Rights" game is always a treat, but this year's has extra intrigue because of Illinois' surprising start. Missouri will have the services of 6-5 Oregon transfer Jabari Brown, so this will be quite an indoctrination for him.
SI.com: You guys are 10-0. How good are you?
Cronin: We have the potential to be really good because we have depth. That means we're not a one-dimensional team. We've been really good defensively in the past, but this team at times can be really good offensively. Right now we're scoring 83 points a game, which is fifth in the country. But I believe we're nowhere near where we can get as a team yet. So I'm looking forward to the December break so we can really use the time with no class to clean things up and execute better.
SI.com: You mentioned your depth. You've got 11 guys averaging double-figure minutes, which is highly unusual. Are you going to shorten your bench as the season goes on?
Cronin: We will not shorten our bench. Because we press and run, that means more fatigue and more fouls. You hear a lot of coaches complain about their lack of depth. Well, you've gotta play guys if you want depth. I've always been a big believer in my bench, and I have tried to build this program to the point where now we can be this deep.
SI.com: You've got a terrific veteran perimeter trio in Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker. What kind of luxury is it to have so much experience?
Cronin: All three of them can make shots and can beat their man off the dribble. So it makes us tough to defend. I don't have to overcoach offensively. We just have to give 'em an advantage and give 'em space. Cashmere is the key for us. He's one of the best shooting point guards in the country. When he plays well, we're an elite team.
SI.com: Speaking of Cashmere, that shot that he made to beat Alabama -- is that the way you drew it up?
Cronin: (laughs) I'll tell you if you want that I drew it up, but I was hoping he would go by the guy for a layup. The big kid from Alabama did a good job not letting him do that.
SI.com: There was a great closeup of you rolling your eyes at Anthony Grant. What did that mean?
Cronin: It meant we got lucky. It's tough to lose a game like that. I've been on the other end of that. Anthony and I are good friends. We've come up through the business together. He's all class.
SI.com: You guys play Xavier on Wednesday. It's the first time your schools have played since that ugly fight last year. I know there was some discussion about canceling the series after that incident. Are you glad that didn't happen?
Cronin: You know what? We'll see. I only know I've got young guys who are trying to chase their dreams and get a degree. People need to let the kids play basketball. There's too much hatred in the stands. These kids don't hate each other. The least of my worries are the players. If it can't be a positive thing, then we shouldn't play.
SI.com: Now that the seven Catholic schools are bolting from the Big East, are you worried Cincinnati is going to be stuck without a good conference?
Cronin: At the end of the day, it will all shake out and be fine. The thing that's a shame in all this is the money-hungry attitude that's caused this whole thing. Schools are getting $20 million to change conferences. What are the players getting? Are they getting any of that? If it's all about football, are the football players getting any of that? When I hear someone talking about the betterment of student-athletes, I turn off the TV. The only people who are about student-athletes are the ones working with them every day.
SI.com: How much do you watch other teams play? A lot of coaches are only locked in on their own teams.
Cronin: Other than be a dad to my six-year-old daughter, all I do during the season is watch basketball. I'm always evaluating, analyzing. Like you, I'm working. But in the summer I don't watch any basketball. Some guys watch film all summer. Roy Williams gave me great advice. He said in May, June and July, you've gotta get your mind away. You read Dean Smith's book, he did the same thing. He played a lot of golf. You've gotta freshen up, or the game will eat you alive.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Duke (2)
2. Louisville (3)
3. Michigan (4)
4. Ohio State (5)
5. Syracuse (6)
6. Arizona (7)
7. Florida (9)
8. Indiana (1)
9. Kansas (8)
10. Cincinnati (10)
11. Illinois (11)
12. Missouri (12)
13. Gonzaga (13)
14. Michigan State (14)
15. San Diego State (15)
16. Butler (NR)
17. Pittsburgh (16)
18. Oregon (17)
19. UNLV (18)
20. Minnesota (19)
21. Notre Dame (20)
22. Georgetown (21)
23. N.C. State (22)
24. Creighton (23)
25. New Mexico (25)
Dropped out: Wichita State (24)
There were very few games last week because of final exams, but there was one very big shakeup at the top of the ballot. The decision to move Duke to No. 1 was easy following Indiana's loss to Butler. The trickier call was figuring out how far to drop the Hoosiers. It seemed pretty obvious that they belong in a one-loss trio with Kansas and Florida. Given that Kansas' loss came on a neutral court and Indiana's was on a home-neutral court, I figured Florida should be ranked the highest of those three because its lone defeat came in a true road game on the final possession against another top-10 team. Thus, even though the Gators lost over the weekend, they moved up two spots on my ballot.
I consider my ballot to be an amalgam of the previous week's results as well as the teams' overall body of work. So it didn't make sense to rank Butler ahead of Indiana simply because the Bulldogs won head to head. You have to take Butler's two losses (to Xavier and Illinois) into account. So I took the middle road and stuck 'em at 16. Since it was imperative that I rank Butler, and since Wichita State was the only other team on my ballot that lost last week, I didn't have to make any other decisions as to whom I should rank. Nor do I see a clear top tier of unranked teams ready to move up when vacancies arise. Teams like Kentucky, Wyoming, Maryland, Miami and Illinois-Chicago are on my radar, but as I've written before, the best way to make my ballot is to beat a team that's on it. The schedule will continue to be quiet the next few weeks, so the real fireworks won't start popping until early January.