Fast Break: Kelly Olynyk shines, UNC falters, more best and worst
Fast Break (Cont.)
The Fast Break never takes time off, but this week it honors two significant players who sat out last season. We've got a Tiger on the prowl and some zebras who had a week to forget. And because this is a place where birds of a feather come together, we've got eagles soaring high and a Mountain Hawk who has been grounded. Let's lace 'em up, run the floor and make our points on the week that was.
This 7-foot Canadian is literally the biggest reason why people are touting the Bulldogs as a Final Four-caliber team. It is unusual for a player to redshirt his junior season for developmental purposes, but that was what Olynyk agreed to do last year. His purpose was to develop his skills, put muscle on his frame, and most important, wait for Robert Sacre to graduate. Olynyk returned a much-improved player, which he proved this week by contributing 33 points (on 12-for-15 shooting), 10 rebounds and two blocks in the Zags' 81-74 road win at Santa Clara on Saturday night. That came two days after his 16-point performance in a win at Pepperdine. On the season, Olynyk is averaging 17.1 points and 6.6 rebounds while shooting 67.5 percent from the field and 81.4 percent from the foul line. He has even made four three-pointers. He gives Gonzaga a big-time presence inside and out, and he's only going to loom larger as the season goes on.
Yes, both wins came at home. Yes, one of them came by a single point, and the other was in overtime. And yes, one of those victories was aided by an officiating gaffe (see below). But after a brutal nonconference season that featured a loss to Butler on a ridiculous buzzer-beating three, an embarrassing 33-point loss at Florida, and a two-point loss at Green Bay, Marquette needed to start off 2-0 in the Big East by any means necessary. On Monday, the Golden Eagles beat UConn in overtime despite not having head coach Buzz Williams, who was serving a one-game suspension because of NCAA violations committed by an assistant. In that win, Marquette got 18 points from 6-1 senior guard Junior Cadougan, but Cadougan only shot 1-for-10 from the field against Georgetown on Saturday. No problem. The Golden Eagles pounded the Hoyas on the glass, locked ''em up on D, and eked out a 49-48 victory. That tells me this team has some toughness, character and chemistry. Now let's see if they can pull out a few close ones on the road.
There's nothing glamorous about the role that Howell plays for the Wolfpack. This team has numerous potential NBA players and a star-studded freshman class. Yet, Howell, a 6-8 senior forward from Georgia, has been the most consistent and mature member of the team this season. The Pack would not have won at Boston College without him on Saturday, when he had 12 points and 11 rebounds, his eighth double-double of the season. He also had 11 points and 13 rebounds in a win over UNC Greensboro on Monday. On the season, Howell is ranked third in the ACC in rebounds (9.7) and is seventh nationally in field goal percentage (64.5), but his most important contribution to the team is his senior leadership. N.C. State will need that if it is going to contend for the ACC title.
Coming into the Terps' game against Virginia Tech on Saturday, Layman, a 6-8 forward from Wrentham, Mass., had scored a total of 42 points all season. So it was stunning to see him score nearly half that total (18) in the first half of a 94-71 win. Layman, who was pressed into action because 6-6 sophomore guard Nick Faust was limited to just five minutes because of back spasms, finished with 20 points to go along with eight rebounds, three assists and two blocks. He also drilled 4-of-9 from three-point range. Layman took advantage of his opportunity to play and electrified the Comcast Center crowd with numerous putback dunks. The game was a huge boost for Layman's confidence, as well as another promising sign that good things are about to happen in College Park.
The Tigers have quietly been one of the feel-good stories of the season. They had a historically bad season last year, winning just one game and setting a record for most consecutive Division I losses (41). Now, remarkably, they are 7-8, and last week they opened CAA play by winning their first two games -- including on the road at Drexel, which was the preseason pick to win the league. A major reason for this turnaround is Benimon, a 6-8 junior who transferred in from Georgetown. Benimon had 18 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and one steal in the win over Drexel, and he added 19 points, eight rebounds, five assists and five blocks in a road win at UNC Wilmington. The previous week, Towson also won at Oregon State thanks to Benimon's 20-point, 21-rebound effort.
This has obviously been a tough season for Saint Louis. Not only did the program suffered the death of head coach Rick Majerus, it has also had to deal with the absence of Kwamain Mitchell, the 5-10 senior point guard who missed the first 11 games of the season with a broken foot. Mitchell was the Billikens' second-leading scorer last season and last fall was named a preseason All-Atlantic 10 selection. This game against the Lobos was just his second game back, and while he was noticeably rusty during his 29 minutes (he shot 2-for-9 from the floor and was 0-for-4 from three), he still had six rebounds and four assists in the win. Saint Louis has now won nine straight games, but it needed a signature win over a ranked team to serve notice that it is capable of winning the conference. Consider it served.
Just when I thought I was in, they push me back out. The Tar Heels had finally shown some promise last week when they beat UNLV at home, thus earning the Fast Break's nod for best win of the week. But they were back to their uninspiring, soft selves Sunday night in Charlottesville. While playing a Cavaliers team that had lost at home to Old Dominion two weeks ago (one of two wins the Monarchs have had all season), the Tar Heels blew an eight-point second-half lead in the ACC season opener. The Cavs were boosted by the return of point guard Jontel Evans, who had missed nine of the first 13 games with a foot injury, but that's no excuse for allowing a team to shoot 8-for-14 from three-point range or making just 9-of-17 from the foul line. James Michael McAdoo, who was on some preseason All-American lists, scored just 10 points, and the Heels continue to get next to no production from their freshman class. If this is any indication of how the season will unfurl, this team is going to face the possibility of not making the NCAA tournament.
There's no shame in losing in Champaign, but this is the type of loss that could rattle a team's psyche. The Buckeyes came into the season with very real hopes of winning a national championship, but every time they have had a chance to prove themselves against a good team, they came up short. This game was never close. Illinois led from the opening tip, built up a 12-point lead by halftime and then used a 13-2 run early in the second half to stretch the lead to 23 points. Ohio State has struggled offensively for most of the season, but it has for the most part been playing pretty strong defense. Yet, the Buckeyes allowed Illinois sophomore center Nnanna Egwu to score a career-high 16 points. That's got to wound a team's pride and rattle its confidence.
Cook, a 6-1 sophomore, dished a career-high 14 assists and had just one turnover in the Blue Devils' 80-62 rout of Wake Forest on Saturday. Yet, he was also 0-for-11 from the floor and did not attempt a free throw. Still, that was downright conventional compared to what Delaware sophomore guard Jarvis Threatt did during the Blue Hens' win at Old Dominion. Threatt had 19 points but he did not make a single field goal. Every one of his points came at the foul line.
I'm assuming you've all seen the video or photographic evidence by now. With the score tied and time winding down in regulation, Colorado senior guard Sabatino Chen banked in what appeared to be a buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer. Referee Verne Harris, who officiated last year's national championship game between Kansas and Kentucky, called the bucket good before observing proper protocol and going to the monitor. Although it appeared that replays were inconclusive at best, the refs overturned the call and declared the bucket no good. Arizona went on to win in overtime, and while the Buffaloes were understandably upset, they must also acknowledge that they would never have been in that position had they not blown a 16-point lead in the first place.
It's not easy to make two boneheaded mistakes on the same play, but that's what the officials managed to do last Tuesday in Milwaukee. When the teams lined up for the jump ball to start overtime, the refs had them facing the wrong direction. The zebras realized after Marquette's Jamil Wilson was called for goaltending a layup attempt by UConn guard Shabazz Napier. The rulebook clearly states that under such circumstances, whatever happened before the error should count as if teams were shooting toward the correct goals. For some reason, the officials waved off the basket and gave Marquette the ball based on the possession arrow. The Big East acknowledged afterward that the officials erred in their interpretation of the rules.
This one is personal for me. I spent some time with McCollum last summer in Las Vegas and Los Angeles for a feature I wrote about him for SI.com. I found him to be thoughtful, engaging, and very easy to root for. McCollum ended up at Lehigh because he was overlooked and under-recruited, and he proved it by hanging 30 points on Duke in the Mountain Hawks' epic upset in the NCAA tournament. McCollum could have gone pro last spring, but he decided to return to Lehigh largely because he knew he would be getting a lot of hype and was looking forward to putting on a show for his school. Alas, McCollum injured his left foot in Lehigh's loss at VCU on Saturday night. X-rays taken Sunday morning confirmed that he fractured the fifth metatarsal bone in that foot. He is projected to be out eight to 10 weeks, and Lehigh coach Brett Reed told me on Sunday that he is hoping that McCollum will be able to play for the Mountain Hawks at some point this season. Even so, this was an unfortunate setback to a young man of high character. The loss isn't just Lehigh's, it's college basketball's as well.
UNLV at New Mexico, Wednesday, 10 p.m.
The Mountain West is going to produce as many compelling games this season as any league this side of the Big Ten. The Lobos have lost two of their last three games, and by the time this one tips off, it will be 10 days since their last one. I expect they'll come out fired up and ready to go.
Arizona at Oregon, Thursday, 9 p.m.
Arizona has been flirting with disaster of late, beating Colorado in overtime and Utah on a game that came down to the final possession. Both of those games were in Tucson, so it would appear the writing is on the wall in this one.
Duke at N.C. State, Saturday, Noon
There's nothing like the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, but in truth this is the game of the year in the ACC. If the Blue Devils are going to lose a conference game, this is the most likely spot.
Minnesota at Indiana, Noon, Saturday
Think this is a challenging week for the Gophers? They also play at Illinois on Wednesday. The fact that Minnesota won at Assembly Hall last season should give the Hoosiers a little extra motivation.
Michigan at Ohio State, Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
The Buckeyes are hurting after getting pasted by 19 points at Illinois on Saturday. The Wolverines should get a little more frontcourt depth with the return of 6-10 sophomore forward Jon Horford.
SI.com: It looks like you guys are playing much improved since the Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahamas. What specifically are you doing better?
Josh Pastner: I've always said that when you shoot well, you look good. When you shoot bad, you don't look good. In the Bahamas, we weren't making shots until the second half of the Northern Iowa game. If you look at our three losses, they're all to good teams. Minnesota and Louisville are ranked, and VCU should be. People are missing the boat on them.
SI.com: You were up by 16 against Louisville in the first half and blew the game. What happened?
JP: We were too emotionally high and low. They made a run at us, and instead of responding with emotional positive energy, we got down. One of our later games was against Loyola, which is a good team. They made runs but we stayed emotionally positive and won. Same thing against Tennessee. I told the guys, we're not holding anybody scoreless. Teams are going to score aginst us. We can't get too high or too low.
SI.com: Speaking of highs and lows, Joe Jackson was awful in the Bahamas, but he has been terrific lately. What's going on with him?
JP: He has let the game slow down, and he's coming up with 50/50 balls. I emphasize with our guards about 50/50 balls and guard rebounding. With our speed, we should be coming up with 50/50 balls because that allows us to start our fast break.
SI.com: You're in your fourth year at Memphis, and most of us believe you have your best and most veteran team. Are you feeling the heat down there more than in your previous seasons?
JP: Nope. That's the case every year. This is Memphis. This is one of the five most intensely scrutinized media sections as far as college basketball. It's the equivalent of Green Bay, Wisc. There's just a deep-rooted emotional investment here tied to basketball. People on the outside don't fully understand it. We've done Memphis Madness here for four straight years, and every time we've had to shut the doors of FedEx Forum because of a fire hazard. How many programs can say that?
SI.com: You had an odd situation last week, where you said publicly that Memphis and Tennessee were not going to play anymore, and it turns out that your athletic director had been talking to Tennessee's AD about extending the series. It looked like he was going behind your back. What happened there?
JP: There was just a little miscommunication. That happens. He said publicly that he made a mistake, but I'm always gonna back my boss. I believe in the chain of command. We have a healthy relationship.
SI.com: You guys are going into the Big East next year. Are you even sure there's going to be a league to go to?
JP: Absolutely, there's no question we're going to go to the Big East next year. I'm not concerned, because it's all football-driven. When my president and athletic director tell us what time the game is and where it's at, we'll be ready to compete and play. The rest of it is way above my pay grade.
SI.com: We all know you are a world-class grinder. How are you balancing being a dad and being a coach these days?
JP: I love being a father. I have a stepson, I have a two-and-a-half-year old daughter, and I have a three-month-old daughter. I'm trying to be a better balancer and spend as much time around my kids as I can. But I also have a high-demanding job that I love. I love being around my team, too. I have some major responsibilities here. I'm fortunate I have a great wife who is understanding and who's an amazing mother.
SI.com: I remember even when you were a young assistant at Arizona, you functioned on very little sleep. Is that still the case? JP: I'm a bad sleeper. I'm not a healthy sleeper. It can range anywhere from three to five hours, but I can stay up from midnight to 6 a.m. I've gone to the health club at 2:30 in the morning to work out. I'll watch TV, do emails, random stuff, maybe get a quick nap from six to seven. I have a lot on my mind. I'm always thinking what we gotta do, what's next. It's something I've got to get better about. Even when I sleep, I'm intense.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Duke (1)
2. Louisville (2)
3. Michigan (3)
4. Kansas (4)
5. Arizona (5)
6. Indiana (6)
7. Syracuse (8)
8. Missouri (9)
9. Gonzaga (11)
10. Minnesota (18)
11. San Diego State (13)
12. Butler (14)
13. Kansas State (23)
14. Creighton (24)
15. Florida (16)
16. Illinois (10)
17. Michigan State (12)
18. Ohio State (7)
19. Notre Dame (19)
20. Georgetown (21)
21. New Mexico (15)
22. UNLV (22)
23. N.C. State (NR)
24. UCLA (NR)
25. Wichita State (NR)
Dropped out: Pittsburgh (17), Cincinnati (20), North Carolina (24)
It's not surprising that there was finally some significant movement this week, given that conference play is underway. I've tried not to overreact to wins at home, but I had to give Minnesota a nice bump for running away from Michigan State. The Gophers have a big week coming up with road games at Illinois and Indiana. I think they're built for success away from home, but now they have to prove it.
I can't say I honestly believe Kansas State is the 13th-best team in the country, but give the Wildcats credit for winning games they should -- including last week's home win over Oklahoma State. They also beat Florida in Kansas City, so I thought it was important to rank them ahead of the Gators, although this is probably the last week that I will allow that game to be a factor.
With a 13-1 record, including 11 wins in a row, Notre Dame looks like it should be rising. However, the best of those wins came at home against Kentucky, which was ranked No. 8 at the time but has since dropped out of the rankings. Other than that, Notre Dame's best win came on a neutral court in Indianapolis over Purdue. Incredibly, the Irish have not played a single true road game this season. That will change Monday night when they play at Cincinnati. (I'm sure tons of Notre Dame fans will be watching that game. Nothing else on TV tonight, right?) This game will tell us a lot about whether the Irish are legit, because the Bearcats very sorely need a win to get back on track.
I appreciate the passion that Maryland fans are showing for their team, but I am still waiting for the Terps to get a signature win before I rank them. I mean, what is the argument to have Maryland ranked over Kentucky, when UK beat the Terps on a neutral court in the season opener? Oregon also has a great opportunity to get into the rankings if it can beat Arizona in Eugene on Thursday. After the Ducks beat UNLV in Las Vegas, I was ranking them ahead of almost every voter, but I dropped them out after they lost in overtime at UTEP.
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