Nerlens Noel amazes without a field goal; Indiana dominates
Fast break (cont.)
The Fast Break is quaffing from the Fountain of Youth this week, as several of our awards went out to fabulous freshman. And yet, the Break is also balanced, with a fifth-year senior who rocked us like a hurricane, and a group of flavorful Falcons who have risen in the mountain air. Whether you like to sail high or lay low, whether you're long in the tooth or young at heart, this is the Fast Break for you. So lace 'em up and enjoy the week's youth movement.
This is the first time in the long, storied history of the Fast Break that our POW went through an entire game without scoring a single field goal. That's how good Noel was in all other aspects of the game last Tuesday night at Ole Miss. It was a performance for the ages -- Noel had 12 blocks, seven rebounds and two assists in the Wildcats' season-turning victory. The most impressive aspect was the fact that Noel played the final 10 minutes with four fouls. Noel is obviously not a polished offensive player (especially from the foul line, where he is shooting an unsightly 53.6 percent), but he followed that up by scoring a season-high 19 points (to go along with 14 rebounds, three assists and two blocks) in UK's overtime win at Texas A&M. Noel is getting more confident every time he steps on the floor, which is why this young Kentucky squad is rounding into form.
It is a reflection of how dramatically this program's culture has changed that the Hoosiers, who were the consensus preseason No. 1 team, were considered a mild disappointment for having fallen all the way down to No. 7 in the rankings two weeks ago. They re-established themselves as the team to beat after wins over Purdue and Michigan last week. As significant and memorable as the Saturday's win over Michigan was, last Wednesday's triumph over the Boilermakers may have been more telling. It was a classic trap game: on the road, against a bitter conference rival, with the Game of The Year looming on the horizon. Yet the Hoosiers locked in and drilled the Boilermakers by 37 points. Against Michigan, Indiana could have come in overhyped and out of rhythm, yet the Hoosiers made 11 of their first 13 shots, including four three-pointers, to jump out to a big lead they never relinquished. This team is now firing on all cylinders, especially the mental ones. I'm sure Indiana will lose a game or two between now and the NCAA tournament, but I suspect it will enter the postseason as the popular choice to win the whole shebang.
Like many Glue Guys, Gamble is capable of scoring more than his 6.8 points per game would indicate, but he usually defers to his teammates at that end of the floor. On Saturday at N.C. State, Gamble gave his team an unusual offensive lift by scoring a season-high 16 points (on 6 for 9 shooting) while adding four rebounds, two steals, one assist and one block in a 79-78 win. Gamble's contributions during last Wednesday's win at Virginia Tech were more in line with his Gluey profile: two points, seven rebounds and three blocks. Gamble did not play at all last year due to a torn ACL he suffered in the preseason, but a a fifth-year senior he brings added maturity that has helped this team stick together and remain undefeated in the ACC.
I could have easily given Smart my player of the week award after his twin outings last week. At a time when players Smart's age are supposed to hit the proverbial freshman wall, he was at his very best last week. He had 21 points, seven assists, six rebounds and four steals in a 78-76 win over Iowa State, and he had 25 points, nine rebounds, five steals and three assists in an 85-80 win at Kansas on Saturday. Smart is the perfect player to excel in the Age of the Ball Screen. He is big (6-4), strong (225 pounds), aggressive (5.6 free throw attempts per game), and tenacious on D (2.9 steals per game). His best attribute, however, is his leadership. Smart showed last week why he is arguably the best and most valuable player in the Big 12, not to mention one of the top freshmen in America.
Could it be that Doug McDermott is only the second-best player coach's son in America? If Hunter keeps playing the way he did last week, that idea might not seem so far-fetched. The son of Panthers coach Ron Hunter did his old man a solid by turning down the likes of Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Iowa to play for Georgia State, where R.J. has averaged 17.3 points on 37.2 percent three-point shooting this season. Last week, he set a pair of career highs as he lit up league-leading Northeastern and Old Dominion for 27 and 38 points, respectively. Those performances were especially impressive considering they were both on the road. Those games marked the ninth and tenth times this season that Hunter has scored 23 points or more.
There was a lot of historical significance to this win. It was the first time Oklahoma State won at Kansas in 24 years. It snapped the Jahyawks' 33-game home winning streak, as well as their 18-game winning streak. It was also Oklahoma State's first road win against a top-five team since 1958. But what really mattered was the present-day achievement of improving to 5-3 in the Big 12 (15-5 overall) and drastically improving their chances of returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years. The Pokes were already in pretty good shape, thanks largely to their 20-point win over N.C. State in Puerto Rico on Nov. 18th, but this win gives them a lot more breathing room. Besides the stellar play of Smart, Oklahoma State also got 28 points and four assists from 6-3 junior guard Markel Brown. If the Cowboys could get more consistent production from 6-7 sophomore forward Le'Bryan Nash, they would be considered a truly dangerous team in the tournament, but for now it will be enough just to get there.
Just when we thought they were in, they push us back out. The Bruins appeared to have turned a corner when they dominated Arizona in Tucson last week, but they have since lost two straight. It was understandable that UCLA would experience a letdown at Arizona State, especially considering it was playing without Travis Wear, who was sidelined with a concussion. But there is no excuse for following that up with a loss at home to a struggling USC. Shabazz Muhammad was fighting a bad flu, but that does not explain the team's 2-for-19 performance from three-point range, or the team's generally lackluster effort. The Trojans, who came into Pauley Pavilion owning a 3-5 Pac-12 record, shot 48 percent from the floor and out-rebounded UCLA by eight. The Bruins put themselves in a 15-point hole early in the second half and did not pull even until freshman Jordan Adams hit a jumper with 30 seconds left in regulation. We all this know UCLA has talent, but a loss likes makes us question anew whether it has the maturity to realize that potential.
Who is that team tied for second in the Mountain West Conference, just one game behind New Mexico? That would be Dave Pilipovich's Falcons, who scored a head-turning 70-67 win at home on Saturday over San Diego State, thanks to 20 points, five rebounds and four assists from senior guard Michael Lyons. This is rarefied air for a team that was picked to finish last in the Mountain West during the preseason. Air Force isn't the toughest defensive team you'll find (the Falcons are ranked last in the Mountain West in defensive field goal percentage, and their 1.9 blocks average ranks 322nd nationally), but they are a smooth and efficient offensive team that makes shots and takes care of the ball. They have now won five straight, including a tough road victory at Wyoming on January 26th, but they face a tougher week ahead with road dates at New Mexico and Nevada. We'll find out then whether these guys really have a taste for success.
Ohio State at Michigan, Tuesday, 9 p.m.
This matchup might summon the ghosts of Woody and Bo, but it also represents a chance for Michigan to recover from the disappointment of the Indiana loss. Ohio State has won four straight against lower-tier conference teams, so this will be a steeper challenge.
Creighton at Indiana State, Wednesday, 7 p.m.
There's nothing like a good old-fashioned Missouri Valley Conference tilt to get a hoophead's juices flowing. At one point, Indiana State won four out of five games (including at Wichita State) to climb to third place in the league standings, but a loss last weekend at Drake left the Sycamores two games behind Creighton in the league standings.
N.C. State at Duke, Thursday, 9 p.m.
When the Blue Devils lost in Raleigh on Jan. 12, they were playing without Ryan Kelly, and the Wolfpack was at full strength. Things could be more even if N.C. State doesn't get sophomore point guard Lorenzo Brown back. Either way, Duke is playing much better now, and the team will be looking to exact its revenge in Cameron.
Belmont at Murray State, Thursday, 8 p.m.
I've been looking forward to this one for a while. This is the only regular season meeting between the best two teams in the Ohio Valley Conference, and it will feature a head-to-head matchup between two of the nation's most exciting, diminutive guards: Belmont's Ian Clark and Murray State's Isaiah Canaan.
Memphis at Southern Miss, Saturday, 4 p.m.
These two teams have been the class of Conference USA, entering this week sharing identical 7-0 records a two-game lead over the rest of the conference. We'll find out just how good Memphis is in this tough road environment, where the Tigers will have to contend with Southern Miss's junior sharpshooter Neil Watson, who just drilled six threes in the Bulldogs' win at UAB.
SI.com: How surprised are you to be where you are?
Jim Laranaga: I go into every season with the same mindset, and that mindset is I want these guys to become the best that they can become. Every team has a certain amount of potential. The reason we're where we are is because of our defense. We lost to a Division III team in our exhibition game because our defense was atrocious. We lost to Florida Gulf Coast in our second regular season game because our defense was atrocious. I think that loss really clicked into our players' minds that if we don't play defense we're not going anywhere.
SI.com: Five of your top seven players are seniors, and a sixth is a junior. Is it just easier to coach an older team?
Laranaga: Older guys are hungrier. Especially these guys, because they feel like, "Man, we've never made the NCAA tournament, so there must be something we're not doing. Coach L has not only been to the NCAA tournament a bunch of times, he's been to the Final Four. So we need to listen to him."
SI.com: Does that help explain why you didn't experience a letdown after the Duke win?
Laranaga: In the locker room after the Duke game, my message to the team was, you did a great job tonight, but understand that what you've done is painted a target on our backs. For every game for the remainder of the season, we will never again get a token effort from our opponent. The trap game was Wednesday night at Virginia Tech. We fell behind by 12 points in the first half, not because we were playing badly, but they were shooting lights out. It took us until the start of the second half to really play at the level we needed to play at to win that game.
SI.com: How hard is it to coach players that someone else recruited?
Laranaga: That is based on their attitude. In our first meeting, I talked about how we had committed too many turnovers. So when we started practice in the fall, we put in a drill called TOBE. It's an acronym for Turnover Ball Elimination. We had a rack of 12 balls, and I explained to the players, every time we turn the ball over, that ball gets put away and it's gone for the day. If we get down to the end and there are no more balls left, what do you think we're gonna do? There's no more balls left, so we're gonna run. We kept it simple, because one day, it got down to one ball left, and there was an hour left in practice.
SI.com: Your point guard, Shane Larkin, is Barry Larkin's son. Is there a similarity to the way his dad played shortstop and the way Shane plays basketball
Laranaga: I saw Shane play at the end of his freshman year of high school at an AAU event, and I absolutely fell in love with him. When somebody told me, "That's Barry Larkin's son," I said, "Oh, that's why." He showed the incredible anticipation that only great athletes have. He sees the play before it ever develops. It's like Barry anticipating where a hitter is going to to hit it, so he can be there before the ball arrives.
SI.com: When you were at George Mason, you had chances to take other jobs, most notably at your alma mater, Providence. What was it about Miami that made you want to say yes?
Laranaga: One of the things I enjoyed about George Mason was my relationship with the president. We were very good friends. When he announced his retirement, that changed the situation for me. I have a home in Florida. My father was born and raised in Key West. My grandfather was Cuban. I coached for Virginia for seven years [as an assistant], and I always had the goal to be a head coach in the ACC before my career is over. I remember one of my sons said to me, if Miami offers you the job, you have to take it. He said it would be fun going to the Dean Dome and going to Cameron Indoor Stadium. I said, that's not fun. Winning at the Dean Dome or in Cameron, now that's fun. And that's very, very hard to do. So the opportunity arose, and I was 62 years old at the time, I lust said, "Well, this is my last shot."
SI.com: I have a feeling that you could win three national championships at Miami, and yet the first line in your obituary would still read, "Jim Laranaga, who took George Mason to the Final Four ..." Do you have a full sense of the significance of what happened there?
Laranaga: I hope when we were going through it, that not only the players and coaches were able to enjoy it, but anybody who came along with us for the journey, whether they lived in Fairfax or Los Angeles or Chicago, that they enjoyed it, too. I know people have told me they kind of lived vicariously through that experience. I just think that life is about having memories.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Indiana (4)
2. Michigan (1)
3. Florida (3)
4. Miami (11)
5. Duke (13)
6. Michigan State (5)
7. Gonzaga (8)
8. Kansas (2)
9. Arizona (10)
10. Syracuse (6)
11. Louisville (12)
12. Ohio State (17)
13. Creighton (16)
14. Kansas State (21)
15. New Mexico (22)
16. Butler (7)
17. Oregon (9)
18. Georgetown (25)
19. Pittsburgh (NR)
20. Oklahoma State (NR)
21. Cincinnati (NR)
22. N.C. State (19)
23. Kentucky (NR)
24. Wisconsin (18)
25. Akron (NR)
Dropped out: UCLA (14), Wichita State (15), Ole Miss (20), UNLV (23), San Diego State (24)
We begin at the top with everybody's new No. 1: Indiana. Since the win over last week's No. 1 team, Michigan, happened in Bloomington, I didn't think it was right to drop the Wolverines past No. 2. I realize Florida is putting up huge winning margins right now, but are the Gators that good, or is the SEC just that bad? Perhaps it's a little of both.
Injuries make ranking teams tricky. My rule of thumb is that if a player is expected to come back soon (like N.C. State's Lorenzo Brown and Oregon's Dominic Artis), then I try to give the team the benefit of the doubt. If a player is not going to come back for a while (like Duke's Ryan Kelly), I rank the team based on where it is without that player. I've been pretty tough on Duke without Kelly, but I was duly impressed with the Blue Devils' road wins at Wake Forest and Florida State last week. I realize those teams aren't exactly juggernauts, but look at the landscape around college basketball these days. Any conference road win is hard to come by. Duke is getting used to playing without Kelly and starting to improve in all the right ways. Given how many top teams went down last week (some multiple times), a team like Duke can move up the rankings simply by not losing to bad teams.
So why, then, do I have Miami ranked so high? Simple: The Hurricanes beat Duke by 27 points. Twenty-seven! Plus, they won at N.C. State, which Duke couldn't do. (Yes, Lorenzo Brown didn't play against Miami. Nothing's perfect in ranking logic.) Miami also has the No. 1-ranked overall strength of schedule (Duke is No. 2), so it's not like they're just beating up on the ACC. Do I really believe Miami is better than Duke? I honestly don't know -- but I'm not ruling it out, especially as long as Ryan Kelly is out. The bottom line is, these two teams will meet again in Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 2nd. I'll let the result of that one, as well as all the games between now and then, dictate the order on my ballot.
I was ready to rank Marquette, but while there is no shame in losing at Louisville, I couldn't go with a team that was just blown out by 19 points. The Golden Eagles play South Florida and DePaul this week, but next week they play at Georgetown, and then at home against Pittsburgh. So there are some good chances coming up for Marquette to make an impression on the voters.
A lot of Missouri fans were annoyed with me last week for not ranking the Tigers, but their loss at LSU on Wednesday (with Laurence Bowers playing 30 minutes) made it easy to leave them off again this week.
I defended New Mexico coach Steve Alford when he complained that not enough Mountain West teams were getting ranked, but I'm afraid I've fallen into the very trap he railed against. I dropped two teams from last week, San Diego State and UNLV, who lost conference road games at Air Force and Boise State, respectively. In some cases, a strong conference can lift all boats, but this is one case where a league's ships are sinking. At the very least, I have tried to be consistent. Yes, the Big Ten is tough, but when Minnesota lost four in a row, I dropped the Gophers off my ballot. Last week, Wisconsin lost at home to Minnesota. So the Gophers are gone, too. A team can only play the schedule it has. You all know the rule about my ballot: You gotta win to stay in.
If you recall, last week I dropped VCU because of its losses to Richmond and LaSalle. The Rams have a tough stretch beginning Feb. 19, playing at Saint Louis, at Xavier and then at home against Butler. My sense is they would have to win all three to get back onto my ballot.