Fast Break: UConn's big move, UVA scuffles, more of the week that was
Fast Break (Cont.)
We're brewin' up a storm in the Fast Break. Or should I say, we're Bruin up a storm. We're raining dogs as well as cats, although as usual the cats got the business end on that score. And we have bucking Broncos, a budding Badger, and a Billy with a balky back. Most of all, we have my weekly AP ballot, which features a new No. 1 team. It's all here -- the best, the worst, and everything in between that happened in the week that was. Lace 'em up and run the floor with me.
Each time you step into Rupp Arena, you have a chance to make history. That's just what the Aggies' 6-foot-5 senior guard did on Saturday by scoring 40 points on 14-for-19 shooting, including 6-of-10 from three-point range, in a shocking win over the defending champs. It was the most points scored by an opposing player in Rupp in 23 years, and it tied for the second alltime behind David Robinson's 45 points in 1987. At the start of his college career, Turner was primarily a three-point specialist at Washington, but he left after two seasons because he wanted to be closer to his hometown of Missouri City, Texas. Saturday's performance shattered his previous career high of 26 points. Turner also had 15 points, eight rebounds and two assists in the Aggies' 69-51 win over Arkansas on Wednesday.
I honestly believed that once the school removed the uncertainty surrounding Kevin Ollie, this team would falter. After all, the Huskies have no postseason to play for, so I figured they could use all the incentive they could get. Apparently, pride is enough, because on Saturday the Huskies did what few teams do -- beat Notre Dame at the Joyce Center. The Irish have lost just twice there in their last 48 games. (Ironically, both losses came against UConn.) The Huskies got another stellar performance from their backcourt duo of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier (33 points combined), an overall Glue Guy effort from DeAndre Daniels (eight points, nine rebounds), and some tough defense by junior forward Tyler Olander, who bumped and banged Notre Dame center Jack Cooley all game long. UConn also defeated DePaul by 21 points on Tuesday, and it has a huge game at home Monday night against Louisville.
If you get a chance to watch Belmont in action, take it. The Bruins are a small, quick team that spreads the floor, plays drive-and-kick and loves to get out and run. Clark, a 6-3 senior from Memphis, was sublime in two wins last week, scoring a combined 62 points by making 24-for-39 from the floor and 9-for-13 from three-point range. No wonder he is on pace to break the school's all-time scoring record. Clark also added seven rebounds, three steals, two assists and just two turnovers in the two games. This is Belmont's first season in the Ohio Valley Conference after coming over from the Atlantic Sun. The Bruins went 9-4 in the nonconference season, including a road win at Stanford, and now they're off to a 4-0 start in the OVC. Catch 'em while you can!
It might surprise you to see Anderson listed as a Glue Guy, but to his credit, that is what he has become. The 6-9 freshman from New Jersey was invaluable in the Bruins' win on Saturday at Colorado, when he had 10 rebounds, five assists and one steal. He also took just three shots and made them all. Anderson added 11 points, eight rebounds, two blocks, two steals and one assist in a tough road win at Utah on Thursday. Anderson has been terrific on the glass this season, ranking sixth in the Pac 12 with an 8.9 average, and he's second on the team in assists. Yes, he's fourth on the team in scoring at 9.5 points per game, but he is making a respectable 43.1 percent, which tells you he is not forcing a bunch of shots. Sticky stuff.
The transition to college has been a little rockier for Dekker than many anticipated, but he is starting to come into his own. A 6-7 forward from Sheboygan, Dekker was arguably the most heralded recruit Bo Ryan has signed, and he performed like it in the Badgers' rout over Illinois on Saturday. Playing his customary role off the bench, Dekker had 13 points (including 3-for-7 from three-point range) to go along with four rebounds, three assists and one steal. It was his third double-digit scoring outing in his last seven games. If that's a sign of things to come, then it is a very good sign for Wisconsin.
Coming into this game, Wyoming was one of the last four remaining unbeaten teams in the nation. It was a huge chance for Boise State to score a big road win -- which made it all the more impressive that Broncos coach Leon Rice suspended four players, including leading scorer Derrick Marks, for violating team rules. Somehow, the Broncos found a way to win anyway on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by junior guard Jeff Elorriaga. During the nonconference portion of its schedule, Boise State won at Creighton and nearly knocked off Michigan State in East Lansing, but given the circumstances, this was its most impressive win of the season. Rice has since said he would reinstate the players for Wednesday's big game at home against New Mexico.
It spoke volumes that the Big Blue Nation took so much solace in UK's close loss at Louisville a few weeks back. This defeat to the Aggies -- at Rupp Arena, no less -- spoke even louder. This is, after all, the same Texas A&M squad that lost at home to Southern University three weeks ago. Unfortunately, the outcome overshadowed the best performance of Nerlens Noel's brief career. Kentucky's 6-10 freshman center had 15 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks, six assists and four steals, but it was not enough to overcome the rest of the team's porous defense. Even when Kentucky won last week, it still felt like a loss. The Cats blew a 16-point lead at Vanderbilt and needed a missed shot clock violation to win by two over one of the worst teams in the SEC.
On Dec. 22, the Cavaliers lost at home to Old Dominion, one of two wins the Monarchs have had all season. However, the Cavs were without injured guard Jontel Evans in that game, and when he came back to help his team beat North Carolina at home on Jan. 6, it looked like Virginia might be heading in the right direction. Look again. Last week, the Cavs lost road games to Wake Forest and Clemson, arguably the two worst teams in the ACC, to fall to 1-2 in the conference and 11-5 overall.
Sure, the Rebels' victory over Missouri came with an asterisk because the Tigers were playing without senior forward Laurence Bowers. Still, for a program that has not been to the NCAA tournament in 11 years, any hopeful sign is welcome. Ole Miss got 22 points and eight rebounds from Murphy Holloway, a 6-7, 240-pound senior who puts the "power" in power forward, and it won despite only getting 11 points from Marshall Henderson, a junior college transfer who is the SEC's leading scorer. The win improved Ole Miss' record to 2-0 in the SEC (13-2 overall), and with upcoming games against Vanderbilt and Auburn (on the road), plus Arkansas and Tennessee (at home), the team appears poised to benefit from a down year in the SEC.
The Tigers made a total of three field goals (on 25 attempts), and had just one bucket over the final 12 1/2 minutes of the half, to score a total of 10 points. That performance was so ugly that it out-uglied Vanderbilt's 11-point first half in Saturday's 56-33 loss at Arkansas. The Commodores had just six minutes on the board at the five-minute mark. These two halves ain't got no alibi.
UNLV at San Diego State, Wednesday, 10 p.m., CBS College Sports
The colorful crowd at the Viejas Arena will make sure the atmosphere is crackling when Anthony Bennett and the Runnin' Rebels come to town. UNLV is chock full of talented forwards, but the team still has to work out some kinks on the perimeter.
Syracuse at Louisville, 4 p.m., Saturday, ESPN
Unless James Southerland returns for Syracuse, this is going to be a very tough task for the Orange. The good news is the 'Cuse has no midweek game, so that should give Jim Boeheim some extra prep time. It will also give Michael Carter-Williams some time for shooting practice.
Gonzaga at Butler, 9 p.m., Saturday, ESPN
Major props to both these coaches for setting up such a terrific game in mid-January. Butler got a scare on Saturday when Rotnei Clark banged his head on a basket stanchion, and it's not clear whether he will be able to play in this one. It would be a shame if we were denied a shootout between him and Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos, but the more decisive question will be whether the Bulldogs can collar Zags center Kelly Olynyk.
Creighton at Wichita State, Saturday, 4 p.m.
This will be the biggest regular season game in the Missouri Valley. The Shockers suffered their first loss in conference play Sunday night against Evansville. Wichita State has been hanging on for dear life without three injured starters, but Carl Hall, its leading scorer, should be back in time to play this one. Creighton forward Doug McDermott remains my choice (at the moment) for National Player of the Year.
Oregon at UCLA, Saturday, 4 p.m.
Oregon notched a season-changing win at home over Arizona last Thursday. Now it's time for the Ducks to take their show on the road. Shabazz Muhammad will get most of the pregame hype, but the real battle will be on the front line between the Wear twins and Kyle Anderson of UCLA, and Oregon's Tony Woods, Arsalan Kazemi and E.J. Singler.
SI.com: Erik Murphy, your senior forward, missed the Yale game with an injured rib and it sounded like he might be out for a while. But he played in your wins over Georgia and LSU this week. What is his status going forward?
Billy Donovan: He had a cracked rib, and he just had a hard time breathing and sleeping. Couldn't raise his arms, couldn't do anything. Our trainer has him heavily padded, so he's not going to take a hit to the same spot. There's a hard shell on top of the padding. So he's cleared to play and he's starting to feel better, but because he's so heavily padded it's going to be uncomfortable for a while. He'll probably have to wear that for at least another two weeks.
SI.com: Kenny Boynton is having another up and down season with his shooting, and it seems he has struggled at times making decisions with the ball. What's your take on him right now?
Donovan: He has played the point for us about 40 percent of the time, which is the most he's played since he has been here. What happens is, when you're a two guard, you can just go out there and focus on yourself, but when you're a point guard, there are four other guys on the floor you're responsible for. Also, when he went through his shooting slump, about 63 percent of his shots were three-pointers. From a scouting standpoint, everybody was pressing up on him and he was taking contested shots. He has done a much better job the last three or four games of mixing it up and driving and kicking it and making the extra pass.
SI.com: You guys blew a golden opportunity to win at Arizona by allowing the Wildcats to go on a 7-0 run in the final minute to lose by one. What happened there and how concerned are you about how that affected your players' confidence?
Donovan: I really felt like for 38 1/2 minutes, we played really good basketball. Kenny had a couple of plays where he turned it over, missed a free throw, and I think the crowd, the environment, being on the road, that was big. Arizona won the game so I give them credit, but we just didn't do a good job in the last minute of each half. Think about this, in our nonconference schedule, we traveled 10,000 miles. In our conference schedule we're going to travel 11,000 miles. There was just a stretch there going back and forth where we did not play well, but we had two really good games this week.
SI.com: Your son, Billy, is on your team and sitting out this season after he transferred from Catholic University. What has that been like having him around?
Donovan: Oh, I love it, it's awesome having him around and in practice every day. He went to Washington, D.C., as a political science major and he thought he wanted to get into politics. He interned for Homeland Security, he did an internship for a lobbying firm and an internship for Marco Rubio. He thought he wanted to get into politics, but after doing that, he said this is not for me. I think he just loves the game of basketball. I had to appeal to the NCAA to get him eligible to play this year, and it was really so he could travel with us to road games more than anything else. He's obviously not good enough to play here, but they told me that I needed there to be an extenuating circumstance like a family member being ill, and I wasn't comfortable doing that.
SI.com: Are you happy with the idea that he might get into coaching?
Donovan: My wife is a little bit concerned about it. He's not a 100 percent sure he wants to go into college with recruiting and everything else. I could see him maybe teaching in high school and wanting to be a high school coach. He may try to intern in the summer with an NBA team and see what that's like, because he could be interested in a front office job someday.
SI.com: I remember you used to play basketball a few mornings a week. Are you still doing that?
Donovan: I can't do it anymore, man. I have three discs in my lower back that are basically bone on bone. I've been dealing with my back since I was in college. I went to a back specialist about five years ago and he told me I have the back of a 70-year-old. If I had surgery they'd have to put a rod in my back and I don't want to do that. So I do a lot of pilates, yoga, keep my core strong, do a lot of stretching. I can still lift some weights, I do some cardio stuff, but my playing days are long gone. I miss it like you can't believe.
1. Louisville (2)
2. Kansas (4)
3. Duke (1)
4. Michigan (3)
5. Indiana (6)
6. Syracuse (7)
7. Gonzaga (9)
8. Minnesota (10)
9. Arizona (5)
10. Creighton (11)
11. San Diego State (12)
12. Butler (13)
13. Ohio State (18)
14. Missouri (8)
15. Kansas State (14)
16. N.C. State (23)
17. Florida (15)
18. Michigan State (17)
19. UConn (NR)
20. Notre Dame (19)
21. New Mexico (22)
22. UNLV (21)
23. UCLA (24)
24. Oregon (NR)
25. VCU (NR)
Dropped out: Illinois (16), Georgetown (20), Wichita State (25)
Now this was a fun ballot! Lots of decisions to make at the very top, with no right or wrong answers and nothing really riding on it except my Twitter feed.
Even though I picked Ohio State to beat Michigan, I was actually half-hoping the Wolverines would win so I would have to decide whom to rank No. 1. On the one hand, I have ranked Louisville ahead of Michigan all season. So the natural, fair thing to do would have been to elevate the Cardinals to No. 1 and vote Michigan No. 2. However, I had decided before tipoff that I would give the Wolverines the top nod if they won. If they had won after falling behind in the first half by 21 points, that would have sealed the deal.
Alas, the Wolverines' rally fell short, so it was elementary for me to rank Louisville at the top.
Considering that both Duke and Louisville have one loss each, and considering that Duke beat Louisville in the Bahamas, I recognize there is a case to be made for voting Duke number one. I rejected that case for three reasons. First, that game was nearly two months ago. Second, Louisville did not have Gorgui Dieng then, but it does now. Third, Duke is playing without senior forward Ryan Kelly, who is obviously very important to this team considering the Blue Devils have now lost three of four without him, dating back to last season.
Kelly's injury was the reason I ranked Kansas one spot ahead of Duke. If he were coming back soon, that would be one thing, but from what I'm hearing he could be out for quite a while.
Injuries are tricky to take into account when you're doing a top 25 ballot. Missouri was a tough case. The Tigers might not have beaten Ole Miss even if Laurence Bowers weren't hurt, but the game would have been closer. Since he is expected to come back in the next two weeks, I didn't want to punish Mizzou too badly.
Wichita State is also a conundrum because three of its starters are out. I dropped the Shockers because they lost Sunday night at Evansville, but they should be getting one of those missing pieces, Carl Hall, in time for Saturday's huge game at Creighton.
It will also be tough to decide where to rank Syracuse if the Orange lose a game or two without James Southerland. In his case, the issue is eligibility, not injury, so it could be a while before we have a resolution.
I get a lot of questions about my ballot, very smart questions pointing out inconsistencies. This is the nature of the beast. But if there's one overriding theme, it's that I give very strong emphasis to road games -- meaning a road win counts huge, while road losses and home wins count less. That's why UConn not only got back on my ballot, but got ranked ahead of Notre Dame, whose best win this season came at home against Kentucky.
On the other hand, Wisconsin got my attention by beating Illinois at home, but not my vote. The Badgers have two road games this week at Indiana and Iowa. That's two bites at the apple.
Wichita State's loss opened up a spot for VCU. I have been trying the last couple of weeks to shoehorn VCU onto my ballot. It has been hard because to this point, the Rams' best win came on a neutral court over Memphis, and that was nearly two months ago. Still, there's something to be said for winning 11 in a row. Plus, the Rams don't just pass the eye test, they ace it.
Miami, which won at North Carolina and beat Maryland at home, is also on the cusp of being ranked on my ballot. The Hurricanes have a road date at Boston College on Wednesday and then they host Duke on Sunday. Needless to say, if the Canes win those two, next week they will have a number next to their name.
I've also got my eye on Charlotte, which is 14-2; Marquette, which is 12-3 and has won five straight; Baylor, which plays a road game Monday night at Kansas; Boise State, which hosts New Mexico on Wednesday; Arizona State, which lost at Oregon Sunday and plays Arizona at home on Wednesday; and Utah State, which is 14-1 and tied for first place in the WAC with a 5-0 record.