Fast Break: Wyatt shines vs. Syracuse, Muhammad finds rhythm, more
The Christmas rush has not slowed down the Fast Break. We're flying this week with a high-scoring Owl and a pair of sticky Hawks. We've got jumping Jackrabbits and galloping Griffins. And if you're in the mood for a little holiday inspiration, we have a visit with a midmajor coach who won over hearts and minds by seizing a microphone in Columbus. So climb aboard, little elves, and fill the lanes with me. Ho ho ho!
These are weekly awards, not single-game awards, but Wyatt's effort against third-ranked Syracuse on Saturday was too sublime to pass up. Coming just three days after the Owls lost at home to Canisius (Wyatt had 17 points in that game, although he needed 16 shots to do it), the 6-foot-4 senior went for 33 points, four assists and three rebounds in the 83-79 upset. The best part of Wyatt's afternoon was his use of the foul line, where made all 15 of his attempts. Wyatt and his teammates obviously have consistency issues, but give him credit for being a giant slayer. Last season, he had 22 points, five steals and three assists in a 78-73 upset of No. 3 Duke.
There was no logical reason to believe the Jackrabbits could win at New Mexico on Saturday. In their previous outing, they had lost by 27 points at Belmont. Inclement weather canceled their connecting flight to Chicago, forcing them to take a 20-hour bus ride to Albuquerque. Moreover, the team's best player, 6-4 senior guard Nate Wolters, was playing on a bum ankle. And they were playing an undefeated, ranked team in one of the toughest road environments in the country. So of course, they won, 70-65, thanks to Wolters's 28-point, seven-assist, four-rebound effort. I'd say they earned a chartered flight back to Brookings.
These were the two tone-setters in the Jayhawks' 74-66 win at Ohio State on Saturday. While freshman Ben McLemore was racking up 22 points and senior center Jeff Withey was dominating the paint as usual, Releford and Young were the ones who held Kansas together despite a 14-0 Ohio State run midway through the first half. As usual, Releford drew the toughest defensive assignment, harassing the Buckeyes' leading scorer, Deshaun Thomas, into a 4-for-11 shooting day. Young, meanwhile, made just one field goal, but he grabbed ten rebounds to go along with three assists and one steal. It's not a coincidence that both these guys are fifth-year seniors. They're versatile, smart, tough and unselfish -- the very intangibles that turn a good team into a championship team.
You remember this guy, right? It took a couple of weeks for Muhammad to get into a rhythm after missing the first three games with an NCAA suspension, but he is rounding into form. The 6-6 swingman from Las Vegas had a total of 48 points and 13 rebounds in UCLA's wins over Long Beach State and Fresno State. He has now scored more than 20 points in three straight games, and on the season he is averaging 18.8 points and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 47.8 percent from three-point range. I sure hope that all those people who wrote the Bruins off two weeks ago did so in pencil.
If I'm gonna give Wyatt some love, the least I can do is throw a bone to the guy who beat the Owls earlier in the week. Baron is literally Buffalo's favorite son. He transferred to Canisius over the summer because the school hired his father, Jim, after Jim was fired from Rhode Island. Previously, Billy left Virginia midway through his freshman season to join his dad at Rhode Island. Baron was terrific against the Owls, finishing with 19 points, five assists and four rebounds in the ten-point road win. He followed that up by scoring 30 points (on 4-for-7 three-point shooting) to go along with six assists and five rebounds in an 89-74 loss at UNLV. The Golden Griffins' 8-3 start includes two conference road wins. They've established themselves as the favorite in the MAAC, and Billy Baron is the biggest reason why.
We knew the Wildcats had some players, but we didn't know how good of a team they were (and frankly, how good of a coach Bruce Weber was going to be for this group). In their only two tests of the season, they were badly outclassed by Michigan and Gonzaga. Both of those games were away from home, so if this team had suffered another pratfall against Florida in Kansas City, it could have damaged its confidence. Will Spradling, the 6-2 junior who grew up nearby in Overland Park, had arguably the finest game of his career (17 points, six rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers) against the Gators, while Jordan Henriquez added five blocks in 18 minutes off the bench. Kansas State pounded the Gators on the glass and locked up their three-point shooters. That's a nice dose of karma heading into the holidays.
The Monarchs came into this game having lost nine consecutive games and owning a 1-10 record. It's understandable the Cavaliers might take them lightly, but to outright lose the game is unacceptable, especially since Virginia was up by 10 points early in the second half. Defensively, the Cavs allowed Old Dominion sophomore guard Dimitri Batten score a career-high 23 points. The loss snapped Virginia's eight-game win streak. Not exactly the way a team wants to head into conference play.
Sure, it was a home game against a Marshall team that was playing without leading scorer DeAndre Kane, who is out indefinitely with a hand injury. Still, given how rocky Harrow's season has been early on, his performance sent ripples of hope across the Commonwealth. Harrow, a 6-2 sophomore point guard who transferred from N.C. State, missed four games earlier this season because of a lingering flu and the ever-mysterious "personal issues" that prompted him to spend a few days back home in Georgia. He has been steadily more productive since returning six games ago, but he had a breakout game against Marshall, scoring a career-high 23 points. Harrow also had four rebounds, four assists and three steals in the 82-54 win. We'll find out more about this player and this team when they visit Louisville this weekend, but it looks like Harrow may finally be ready for his close-up.
Over his previous ten games, Nix attempted a total of 25 free throws. So it was pretty surprising to see him take 13 against the Longhorns. But what was truly stunning was that he made 13 of those en route to a career-high 25 points. When Nix was a freshman, he made just 27.1 percent from the foul line. As a junior, he made 58.1 percent. For good measure, Nix added 11 rebounds and four steals against the Longhorns. Pretty good day's work, I'd say.
Arizona vs. San Diego State, Tuesday, 10 p.m. As if you have something better to do on Christmas night than watch this game. I can't wait to see Mark Lyons and Jamaal Franklin go at it.
New Mexico at Cincinnati, Thursday, 9 p.m. It looked like this was going to be the battle of unbeatens before the Lobos' loss at home to South Dakota State over the weekend. Cincinnati still hasn't lost, but the team has had a bear of a time scoring the ball. The Bearcats play great D, but they're going to need buckets if they want to stay perfect.
Missouri at UCLA, Friday, 10 p.m. As I mentioned earlier, the Bruins have been playing better the last two weeks, but those wins came against relatively weak competition. There's nothing weak about Missouri, but the Tigers don't have the same incentive. If UCLA really wants to turn its season around, it needs to win this one in Pauley.
UNLV at North Carolina, Saturday, 2 p.m. The Tar Heels are in a similar must-win position as the Bruins, only they're facing a UNLV team that is without one of its most important players in Mike Moser, the 6-8 junior forward who is out with a dislocate elbow. Still, the Tar Heels are really weak at center, so they'll have to shoot well from three to win this one.
Kentucky at Louisville, Saturday, 4 p.m. This is one major nonconference rivalry that John Calipari can't bring to an end. Thank goodness for that.
SI.com: You obviously had quite an impact with your words on the Newtown shooting last week after your game against Ohio State. When and why did you decide you were going to make those comments?
Kelsey: When I heard what happened on Friday, like every other American, all I could think about was my kids, my [two] little girls. Early that morning we had breakfast together and they were drawing pictures for me to take on the trip. My wife was making pancakes. We were crossing off days on the calendar for Christmas Eve. What struck me was that those twenty kids and their families were having the same type of breakfast that morning. That's the joy of having children. Then the next time they're seeing their kids, they're identifying their bodies. I couldn't stop thinking about it.
Then we get to Ohio State, and I had never been in a press conference like that before. I looked at all those cameras and reporters and I'm like, holy cow, this is unbelievable. When I sat down, I was like, do I take questions or do I make a statement? They start asking questions. It just hit me that these cameras and this platform and this microphone, it just struck me that this is how powerful sports is. At the end, somebody said do you have anything else? And I'm getting my water and I'm getting ready to walk away, and I don't know why I did it but something came over me. I don't know if it was divine intervention or what, but I spoke from the heart. The Lord didn't bless me with good looks and a lot of hair, but He put a lot of passion and a lot of energy into me. I think I have a talent for inspiring people.
SI.com: When did you realize what a big deal it had become?
Kelsey: We had an eight-hour bus ride on the way back, and we arrived at five in the morning. I got a lot of twitter messages. I'm like, 'Good Lord,' but I probably still had no idea. When we got off the bus, there was a big truck with a satellite, a huge pole coming out of truck. I'm all disheveled, I haven't brushed my teeth, and all of a sudden here's a guy and he's asking me about it. The next day, ESPN showed it and then it just went bananas.
SI.com: What has the reaction been like?
Kelsey: I've gotten thousands of emails, and I'd say 95 percent have been positive. In a lot of ways, I was embarrassed, because I don't want the attention to be on me. It's about those poor families in Connecticut. That was my point.
SI.com: You spoke very eloquently and passionately, but you were non-specific in terms of potential solutions. So let's pretend you're talking to President Obama. What should he do?
Kelsey: You look at these military-style weaspons that fire off hundreds of rounds in very, very few seconds. Just from a pure common sense standpoint, I find it hard to believe that Joe Bag of Donuts needs that kind of weapon to go hunting. But you know what, I'm talking to Seth Davis. I'm not talking to the President. I'm a dad, I'm a coach, I've got my whole career ahead of me. Jim Boeheim can say whatever he wants because he has won nine kajillion games. I've won five stinking games, brother.
SI.com: You played for Skip Prosser at Xavier, and you were an assistant coach with him at Wake Forest. You were one of the first people to be at his side when he suffered his fatal heart attack. That must have been extremely painful.
Kelsey: As you can imagine, that was pretty traumatic. My first daughter, Ruthie, was born two weeks after that. Every birthday with Ruthie just reminds me. When she's 37 years old, I'll know it will be 37 years since we lost Skip. His son, Mark Prosser, is on my staff. He has a really bright offensive mind. The cool thing is, I know Mark's dad as a coach than Mark does because I was with Skip for over a decade as a player and coach. It's cool because every day, I say, "Coach would do this," or "Your dad would do this." He loves hearing that.
SI.com: After you left Wake Forest, you became an assistant at your alma mater [Xavier], but you took a year off. Why did you do that, and what did you get out of it?
Kelsey: When Coach died, I struggled, man. He was my guy. He was my mentor. We had a lot of success at Xavier, but I just felt like I had to step away. I really wasn't sure if I would coach again, but it was a great year to gain perspective. I spent a lot of time with my girls and my wife. I spent time with a lot of coaches. Guys were unbelievable to me. It kind of got my juices going again. It was around Christmas when my wife said to me, "You want to coach again, don't you?" I told her I'd been thinking about it and she said, "What the heck took you so long?"
SI.com: What can we expect from the Winthrop Eagles the rest of the season?
Kelsey: Well, this is my first year here, and we've got some challenges. They graduated their top four scorers and rebounders from last season, and then the point guard we signed when I first got here tore his ACL. But we went to Ohio and we beat a team that went to the Sweet Sixteen last year. We're a little bit of a tractor pull offensively right now, so we've got to really guard and defend. But the kids have bought in. Skip used to have a saying: "Crush it where you're at." That's what I'm trying to do. We're trying to build a culture here. I know we're gonna get better as the year goes on.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Duke (1)
2. Louisville (2)
3. Michigan (3)
4. Kansas (9)
5. Arizona (6)
6. Indiana (8)
7. Missouri (12)
8. Ohio State (4)
9. Cincinnati (10)
10. Syracuse (5)
11. Illinois (11)
12. Gonzaga (13)
13. Michigan State (14)
14. San Diego State (15)
15. Butler (16)
16. Florida (7)
17. Pittsburgh (17)
18. Minnesota (20)
19. UNLV (19)
20. Notre Dame (21)
21. Georgetown (22)
22. N.C. State (23)
23. Creighton (24)
24. Kansas State (NR)
25. Wyoming (NR)
Dropped out: Oregon (18), New Mexico (25)
It should come as no surprise that Kansas and Missouri were my two biggest risers this week. Would that we could see them meet up this season. Alas, these two former league rivals will have to eye each other warily in the rankings. I gave Kansas higher stature because its win came in a true road game, but Missouri also has a pretty good body of work right now, with its only loss coming to Louisville on a neutral court. Mizzou also got a tremendous jolt with the addition of 6-5 freshman guard Jabari Brown, who was invaluable in the win over Illinois (18 points, 7 rebounds).
Florida is an interesting case. It was a little over a week ago when folks like me were talking about the Gators as a Final Four-caliber team. Now, in the wake of their collapse at Arizona and their uninspiring loss to Kansas State, the Gators' wins look less convincing -- which is why I dropped them nine spots. Sure, they beat Wisconsin, Marquette and Florida State by an average of 25.3 points, but it is quite possible that none of those teams will be in the NCAA tournament. The opening of Florida's SEC schedule is pretty weak, too, so we won't have our next chance to really judge this team until it hosts Missouri on January 19.
To be fair, I'd also note that upon further review, Syracuse's best win of the season came against San Diego State on a windy, sun-dappled aircraft carrier. Might that loss to Temple be indicative that this team is overrated as well? Time will tell.
Oregon and New Mexico dropped out of my rankings because of losses to UTEP on the road and South Dakota State at home, respectively. That opened two spots. Clearly, Kansas State deserved one of them. The Wildcats didn't look good in those games against Michigan and Gonzaga, but given where I have those teams ranked, K State deserved to be included following the win over Florida. (Although that doesn't mean they should be ranked ahead of Florida, which still took the No. 5 team on my ballot down to the last possession on its home floor.)
That left the usual batch of candidates for No. 25. I gave consideration to Miami, Kentucky and Maryland; but in the end, I went with Wyoming, which is one of five remaining unbeaten teams and has a win over Colorado. The Cowboys have their big gauntlet in mid-January, when they have a four-game stretch featuring games against the three big favorites in the Mountain West. (They play San Diego State and New Mexico at home and UNLV on the road.) Wouldn't it be awesome if Wyoming went into that still undefeated?