In a wild week of upsets, Illinois, Wisconsin score top honors
Fast Break (Cont.)
Was that a wacky week or what? The upsets were coming so rapid-fire, even the Fast Break had trouble keeping up. The only thing we can predict about this college basketball season is how unpredictable it is. What's up is down, what's right is wrong, and just when you least expect it, the improbable becomes probable. So who stood out, and who stood down? Lace 'em up and run the floor with me to find out.
You had to put up some ridonkulous numbers to win this award after the week we just witnessed, especially if you're off the beaten path. That's exactly what Nate the Great did last week. Wolters scored 53 points -- the highest of any player this season -- in a win at IPFW, but it was an efficient 53 points. He was 17-for-28 from the field, 9-for-14 from three-point range and 10-for-11 from the foul line. Wolters followed that up by scoring a mere 36 in a loss at Oakland on Saturday. He added seven assists and six rebounds in that one. Wolters is well-known to hardcore college basketball fans, but to the casual fan he remains a faraway mystery. To all, I say: Get familiar. Nate the Great is coming to a screen near you.
Yes, the Illini turned everybody's heads with that thrilling last-second win over No. 1 Indiana last Thursday night. But I was actually more impressed with their win at Minnesota on Sunday. In the first place, that one came on the road, and we all know how hard it is to win on the road in your conference. (Especially against a team in such dire need of a win.) And second, that game came three days after the big Indiana upset. A less tough, less mature team would have been primed for a letdown, but these veteran Illini know just how precarious their NCAA tournament resume was heading into this week. Even though they are still three games under .500 in the Big Ten, as long as they don't go in the tank over the next five weeks, I fully expect the Illini to be in the field of 68. Go figure.
Until Notre Dame and Louisville's epic, five-overtime game on Saturday night, the idea of a team playing three OTs in the same week qualified as significant. Still, you've got to hand it to the Badgers for holding serve at the Kohl Center and pulling out wins against Iowa (double OT) and Michigan (single OT). Besides the overtimes, the common denominator in those wins was the heroics from Ben Brust. In the win over the Hawkeyes, Brust scored 18 points, including three critical late free throws. And you know what he did to the Wolverines: Nailed a running, buzzer-beating 40-footer at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime, and then drilled another three-pointer with 40 seconds left in the extra session to lift the Badgers to a 65-62 win. The amazing thing about the Michigan win was that the Badgers committed 14 turnovers, which is nearly five more than their nation's-best 9.2 per game. Of course, this being the Big Ten, things won't get any easier this week as Wisconsin plays at Minnesota and then at home against Ohio State. But this was a week to remember, as well as one that will really help the Badgers' seed come NCAA tourney time.
Usually, calling someone a Glue Guy is a little bit of damnation by faint praise, but in this case it could actually be considered an overstatement. Sherman did not play a single minute of the Fighting Irish's loss at Syracuse last Monday, and he did not play at all during regulation of their epic, five-overtime win over Louisville on Saturday night. Yet, after Notre Dame's starting forwards Jack Cooley and Tom Knight fouled out, Irish coach Mike Brey had no choice but to insert Sherman, a 6-10 transfer from Michigan State. All Sherman did from there was contribute 17 points and six rebounds in 22 minutes of play in the extra sessions, including a tip-in at the end of the fourth OT to give the Irish the extra five minutes they needed to win. I love it when a player who has been parked on the bench takes advantage of an opportunity like that. Here's hoping Brey gives Sherman more opportunities to shine.
This big, agile New Zealander came into the season amidst speculation that he was going to be a one-and-done lottery pick. Adams' impact as a scorer was limited early on, but he did the smart thing and turned himself into an aggressive rebounder. He is averaging 6.5 boards this season, and he grabbed a season-high 15 in a win over Seton Hall last Monday. On Saturday at Cincinnati, Adams turned in arguably his best performance of the season, going for 13 points and four blocks in a hard-fought 62-52 victory. Adams will not be a prolific scorer this season (he is averaging 7.2 points on 59.4 percent shooting), but on this team, he doesn't have to be. He just has to give the Panthers a dependable post presence at both ends of the floor. That's what Adams is doing, and he is getting better at just the right time.
It has been a quiet, somewhat disappointing season for the Gaels, but they are in a three-way tie for second in the MAAC, and Jones is the biggest reason why. The little man from Harlem stood especially tall last week, when he scored a combined 69 points against Marist (loss in double overtime) and Rider (78-71 win). The thing I love most about Jones' game is the way he attacks the rim: His 162 made free throws leads the nation this season. At this rate he will soon set a school record for most made free throws in a season.
I realize Conference USA is very weak this season, but if the Tigers run the table, it will be impossible to deny them an at-large bid should they falter in the conference tournament. They needed a road win against the second-best team in the league to fortify their case. Most of the attention on Memphis has gone to junior guard Joe Jackson, but Geron Johnson, a 6-3 junior college transfer, has actually been the team's best player this season. Johnson had 25 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and four steals against the Golden Eagles, while Chris Crawford added 16 points off the bench. Don't look now, but Memphis has now won 14 straight since that collapse at home over Louisville. They may not be beating a murderer's row of opponents, but I'm a firm believer that winning is a habit.
As I wrote in Hoop Thoughts last week, I believe this is the greatest regular season upset since Chaminade beat Virginia in 1982. The difference is those Virginia Cavaliers were a great team that was caught sleeping. Kansas, on the other hand, has been exposed as a team with some very real flaws -- primarily at point guard, where senior Elijah Johnson is in the midst of a horrible funk. TCU came into this game with an 0-8 Big 12 record, and many of those losses were by huge margins (by 18 at Oklahoma State, by 21 at West Virginia, by 26 vs. Baylor, by 17 at Texas). The first half in particular was epically awful: The Jayhawks were 3-for-22 from the floor, 0-for-4 from three, committed eight turnovers and scored 13 points. The Jayhawks' problems are fixable, but it's going to take some time.
Anyone else out there notice that the Grizzlies are 14-0 in the Big Sky? This team has the most versatile player in the conference in 6-5 senior swingman Kareem Jamar, who is ranked in the top eight in the Big Sky in points (13.9), rebounds (6.0) and assists (4.2). He and 6-7 senior Mathias Ward give the Grizzlies a veteran look on the wing, but because this is not a big team, it hurts their performance on the boards. (The Grizzlies are getting out-rebounded by 2.2 boards per game, and they rank 337th nationally in offensive rebound percentage. This week begins a difficult and odd stretch for Montana. Its game at second-place Weber State on Thursday starts off a string of five -- count 'em, five -- consecutive road games. I think it's safe to say the Grizzlies will not emerge from that quintet undefeated, but they will still be the team to beat in the Big Sky tournament.
Kansas State at Kansas, Monday, 9 p.m.
It's hard to imagine a team needing a win more than the Jayhawks need this one. The Jayhawks own Kansas State and I still believe they have the pieces to make a run to the Final Four, but until they iron out their problems at point guard, they are going to be vulnerable.
Kentucky at Florida, Tuesday, 7 p.m.
A week ago, this would have looked like a Florida cakewalk, but now I'm not so sure. Kentucky has won five in a row, and the Gators, who are missing Glue Guy reserve Will Yeguete, are looking more vulnerable after their drubbing at Arkansas last week.
Michigan at Michigan State, Tuesday, 9 p.m.
Ho hum. Just another boring night in the Big Ten.
North Carolina at Duke, Wednesday, 9 p.m.
Avoid clichés like the plague. Also, this is a huge rivalry game, so you can throw the records out the window.
Gonzaga at Saint Mary's, Thursday, 11 p.m.
I am starting to wonder whether the West Coast Conference is adequately preparing the Zags for the NCAA tournament. This will be their toughest regular-season test.
SI.com: Heading into your game last week at home against Indiana, you guys had lost six out of your last seven. Then you're down by eight points with three minutes to play against the No. 1 team in the country. How did you pull off that win?
Groce: It was interesting because Indiana shot over 50 percent from the field, over 50 percent from three, over 90 percent from the foul line. So they made shots. It was a heck of a game. From Day 1 I've been talking to our guys about staying engaged, even though we've had a couple of three-game losing streaks. Even when we were losing, I thought we were playing well. We did some good things against Michigan State and Wisconsin -- we just didn't win. Everyone around us was like, "Man, they're struggling." Trying to put almost a cloud over us. We refused to allow that to happen, and I think that's a big reason we were able to play as well as we did.
SI.com: Explain to me the play that resulted in the winning basket.
Groce: It's a 4-2-2-4 screen. Big, little, little, big. We ran it two times before that during the game. D.J. Richardson made a three the most recent time with about four minutes to go. They didn't want him to make the same shot on the play, and they got busted up on the switch. Grif [Tyler Griffey] read it, realized two guys went with D.J. on the cut and slipped to the basket. He made a basketball play, and [Brandon] Paul made a great play on the pass.
SI.com: The thing I loved about the play is that you didn't call time out beforehand. That's because you didn't have any left. If you had a time out, would you have called it?
Groce: Maybe, because we had that in our package. I have a sheet, like a football offensive coordinator, that says, here's what we'd like to run from zero to 2.9 seconds fullcourt. Here's what we'd like to run from three seconds to 4.9 fullcourt. All the way up to about 10 seconds. Since I didn't have a time out, I felt like I just wanted to give them something they know that they felt comfortable with.
SI.com: Isn't that an argument in favor of not calling time out even if you have one left? I think coaches call time out too often in these situations.
Groce: You know what's interesting, when I was at Ohio, we had a game where the other team missed a free throw, we outlet to D.J. Cooper, who was our best decision maker by far. He was coming up the court so I didn't call time out. We set a ball screen, they switch it, he missed the three at the buzzer, and we lost. So in the media room it's, why didn't you call time out? Then three weeks later, we play Miami (Ohio) at home. The same thing happens, except they make the shot. So now it's a quick inbounds, I have timeouts left, I don't call it, D.J. throws it across the floor to Tony Freeman and he buries a three to win the game. Now all of a sudden I'm a genius.
SI.com: There has been a lot of talk lately about why scoring is down in college basketball. I've been advocating for things like a 30-second shot clock and cleaning up physical play. Do you think this is a problem, and if so, what would be your solution?
Groce: I don't know if it's a huge deal for me personally. I watch some of the NBA games with the 24-second shot clock and some of those games are low scoring. To me, the biggest culprit is the skill level of the players. We need to continue to find a way in our country to develop the skill levels of kids and feeder programs at a young age. I'm talking about basic shooting, passing, dribbling. That's where I would start.
SI.com: You told me last summer that you were committed to playing really fast, uptempo basketball at Illinois. It seems like you guys play fast but not really fast. Are you still committed to that style?
Groce: We've had to adapt to our personnel. Do we play faster than probably most teams? Probably. But are we on steroids like we were in year three and four at Ohio when we were playing nine players and beating you down the court every time? We're not at that level yet. The one thing I've tried to do is coach to my personality and what I believe philosophically, and I just prefer for us to be in fullcourt attack mode. It fits me better.
SI.com: That picture of you and your son after the Indiana win made the rounds on Twitter Thursday night. It was an amazing picture. But why wasn't he wearing a shirt?
Groce: That was my wife's idea. Our coaches' wives are really close. All the boys came to the game with no shirts on and they painted the I-L-L on their chest. He was so excited. He loves the game, plays on Saturday, practices Wednesdays. He watches our guys and tries to emulate everything they do. He wears their jerseys. He's really into it. I didn't see the picture until late that night. It was funny, though, because he got up in the morning and he goes, "Daddy, how do I get this orange 'I' off my chest?" I said, "Conner, you need to see your mother on that. She's the one who put it on there."
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Indiana (1)
2. Miami (4)
3. Duke (5)
4. Michigan State (6)
5. Michigan (2)
6. Gonzaga (7)
7. Syracuse (10)
8. Ohio State (12)
9. Florida (3)
10. Kansas State (14)
11. Arizona (9)
12. Pittsburgh (19)
13. Wisconsin (24)
14. Louisville (11)
15. New Mexico (15)
16. Butler (16)
17. Georgetown (18)
18. Oklahoma State (20)
19. Kansas (8)
20. Kentucky (23)
21. N.C. State (22)
22. Akron (25)
23. Marquette (NR)
24. Indiana State (NR)
25. Creighton (13)
Dropped out: Oregon (17), Cincinnati (21)
Even though it was such a crazy week, it felt strangely easy to do my ballot. I said over the weekend that if Indiana won at Ohio State that I would leave the Hoosiers at No. 1, despite their loss at Illinois. Shoot, these days, a conference road loss on the final possession darn near counts as a win.
Part of me was rooting for Indiana to lose just to see if any of my fellow voters would rank Miami at No. 1 the way I was prepared to do. As such, I've got the Hurricanes at No. 2, which I'm guessing is going to be higher than anyone else ranked them. What has really impressed me about Miami is the fact that the Hurricanes have not had a lull since the big win over Duke. We've seen that a lot of teams over-celebrate a big win and then lose games they shouldn't. The 'Canes haven't missed a beat.
I try not to be too firm about these things, but I honestly do not see Gonzaga rising above No. 7 on my ballot, even if the Zags win out. The reality is they are not playing the same caliber of competition as teams who are ranked ahead of them. Should we move a team up the rankings just because people above them are losing? If anything, I suspect the Zags aren't as good as their current ranking would indicate. Think about it: The Zags' best wins this season came over Kansas State in Seattle and by a point at Oklahoma State on New Year's Eve. Does that sound like a top-five team to you?
I had Arizona ranked sixth until it lost at home to Cal on Sunday night. Losing at home to a mediocre team is never good, but that was just the Wildcats' third loss of the season. So I dinged them, but not too badly.
Normally, I would drop a team for losing three straight games, but I can't quite give up on Kansas. The Jayhawks could get back on track if they beat Kansas State Monday night in Allen Fieldhouse. If they lose, I will leave them off next week even if they beat Texas at home on Saturday.
I also thought about dropping N.C. State off my ballot after the Pack was embarrassed at Duke and then came close to losing at Clemson. But a win is a win -- especially on the road. Plus, the Pack got Lorenzo Brown back, so you have to expect they will play better in coming weeks.
This was one of those weeks where I had a lot of really good candidates for the last few spots. Creighton had the 25th spot until Illinois forced my hand by beating Minnesota. Notre Dame earned a hard look after its crazy win over Louisville. Memphis was right in the mix. I'm also curious to see if Saint Mary's can knock off Gonzaga Thursday night in Moraga. Since the Gaels are playing at home, they probably won't get onto my ballot with a win, but they will at least force me to take a closer look.
I wish I could give you a good reason why I should (or shouldn't) rank Stephen F. Austin. No, I haven't seen them play, but it's hard not to notice a team with a 20-2 overall record (11-1 Southland). The Lumberjacks' two losses were at Texas A&M on Dec. 5 and at Northwestern State on Jan. 26. I'm going to make it a point to watch them soon and see if that inspires me to rank them. In the meantime, all you bracket-filler-outers should keep your eyes on this team over the next few weeks.
Another team I'm tracking is Colorado State. The Rams played New Mexico real tough in the Pit three weeks ago, and they have won four in a row since. They have a critical stretch ahead with games against San Diego State (home), Air Force (road), UNLV (road), and New Mexico (home). If CSU can win three of those four -- which I believe it can -- then it will have a very strong case to be ranked.
I realize Missouri thumped Ole Miss on Saturday, but the Tigers' loss at Texas A&M two days beforehand kept them off my ballot. It will be hard for Mizzou to play its way in this week with road games at Mississippi State and Arkansas, but the following week it plays Florida at home and Kentucky on the road. That's a pair of golden opportunities right there.
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