Lobos' Williams, Saint Louis earn high marks; more Fast Break
Fast Break (cont.)
You can hear it, see it, smell it, feel it. That month that dominates all others is approaching with all the subtlety of a Victor Oladipo alleyoop. The next time the Fast Break convenes, we will be in That Month. How glorious!
It is fitting, then, that this week we have covered all four corners of the nation, from a Big East beast to a hot-shooting star out West. We've got a young point guard from the South and a heartwarming story from the heartland. The Madness is nearly upon us, so there's only one thing to do: Sprint towards it! Lace 'em up and run the floor with me as we send February out with a bang.
Both of these players deserved to get recognized, not just for their individual achievements but because of the circumstances in which they occurred -- in critical conference games on the road. There really is no logical explanation for what Williams did in the Lobos' win at Colorado State. His previous career high was 24 points, but he shattered that by scoring 46 -- on a Mountain West-record 10 made three-pointers -- to spur the Lobos to a 91-82 win. Those were the top two teams in the Mountain West standings, so Williams' heroics gave New Mexico a two-game lead for first place. Porter, meanwhile, injected himself into the national player of the year conversation by scoring a career-high 33 points to go along with eight rebounds and five steals. Porter's numbers are even more astounding when you consider Georgetown scored just 57 points in the win. Given that this was the last Big East regular season game that Georgetown will ever play in the Carrier Dome, Porter's performance was literally one for the ages.
It is not all that shocking that the Billikens are alone in first place in the Atlantic 10, but given the road they traveled to get here, it is amazing nonetheless. The team had to suffer the passing of its coach, Rick Majerus, early in the season, yet last week Saint Louis posted its two best wins, throttling VCU by 14 points at home and then edging Butler 65-61 in Hinkle Fieldhouse, to take command of this competitive conference. The Billikens were fashioned in Majerus' image -- their five starters are all averaging between nine and 12 points per game -- but give Majerus' interim replacement, Jim Crews, a lot of credit for holding everything together. Saint Louis has a solid inside-outside combination in point guard Kwamain Mitchell and power forward Dwayne Evans, but its ability to take care of the ball and play lockdown defense has fueled this climb to the top. If the Billikens can keep it rolling and win a few games in the NCAA tournament, all of America will be rooting for them.
Paige has had a difficult adjustment to playing college ball, but it's no coincidence that North Carolina is playing its way into the NCAA tournament just as Paige is starting to figure things out. He played his best game of the season on Saturday when he had 14 points, eight assists and zero turnovers in the Tar Heels' 76-65 win over N.C. State. He also had eight points and five assists (to two turnovers) in the Heels' win at Georgia Tech on Tuesday, which came on the heels of a 17-point, four-assist performance in a home win over Virginia on Feb. 16. The best thing that Paige has done during this three-game win streak is attack the basket. During his first eight games this season, Paige attempted a total of one free throw. One! Before the Virginia win, he had just one game where he attempted more than four free throws. In the three wins, however, he shot six, eight and five free throws, respectively, and made 18 out of 19. If Paige is going to keep playing this aggressively and efficiently, then North Carolina will definitely be playing in the NCAA tournament.
Stephens is one of the most explosive athletes in the country, which is why despite his modest height he is leading the Tigers in rebounding with 6.8 per game. That gift, combined with his 36.4 percent clip from three-point range, would lead you to believe he is also a big-time scorer, but he is actually seventh on the team with just 7.3 points per game. That means Stephens sacrifices his scoring ability for the sake of the team, but if the team needs him to score, he can provide that jolt. That's what he did for the Tigers last week. Stephens scored a season-high 16 points (to go with seven rebounds and five blocks) in the Tigers' 16-point rout of Southern Miss, and he added 14 points, 10 rebounds and two steals in a seven-point win over Houston last Wednesday. The Tigers have now won 18 straight games, and even though Stephens does not get most of the headlines, people who watch this team on a regular basis know that Memphis would have a much harder time winning without him.
Hardcore hoopheads like us have had Cannan on our radar for quite some time. After all, as a junior he led the Racers to a storybook 31-2 season, and last November he was named a preseason All-American by the Associated Press. It might seem like the Racers are having a more pedestrian season, but they are still 20-7, and Canaan is still one of the top combo guards in the country. He proved as much last week when he scored 35 points (10 for 11 from the foul line) in the Racers' double-overtime win at Morehead State. Then on Saturday, Canaan outplayed South Dakota State guard Nate Wolters in their much-anticipated Bracket Busters matchup, scoring 22 points and dishing out five assists in an 11-point win.
I have been saying for years that I believe Randy Bennett does his teams a disservice by not putting together a tougher schedule in the nonconference. The Gaels have a high quantity of wins, but very few of high quality, and they whiffed on their chance to knock off juggernaut Gonzaga at home. Creighton has been stumbling of late, so Saint Mary's really could have put itself in a bind by losing. So give the Gaels credit for taking care of business behind 19 points (on five made three-pointers) by Matthew Dellavedova.
The Bears were already leaking oil coming into this one, having dropped five of their previous seven, and while there is no shame in losing at Oklahoma, the fact that Baylor was never in the game does not bode well for its chances to make the NCAA tournament. As usual, the problem for Baylor was on the defensive end. The Bears allowed the Sooners to shoot 45 percent from the floor, 50 percent from three-point range, and allowed them to attempt 45 free throws. The Bears have 11 total losses against just two top-50 RPI wins. They have to win at least three of their remaining four games to have a chance at an at-large bid. That would mean splitting with Kansas State and Kansas at home, and sweeping West Virginia and Texas on the road. Doable, but given the way they have been playing the last three weeks, that's not very realistic.
Don't look now, but the Volunteers have won five straight and seven of their last nine to move two games over .500 in the SEC and put themselves back in the bubble picture. Tennessee also has a flair for the dramatic, winning at Texas A&M on Saturday in four overtimes behind point guard Trae Golden's career-high 32 points. We will find out whether this flavor of the week represents a quick sugar high or something of true substance on Tuesday night, when the Vols host Florida in Knoxville. If Cuonzo Martin's crew can pull off that upset, they will really get tongues flapping in Bracketland.
Memphis at Xavier, Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Memphis has won 18 games in a row, but it's still hard to evaluate the Tigers. Are they this good, or is Conference USA this bad? Xavier is not a great team, but it is also not easy to defeat at the Cintas Center. So this will be a good barometer for whether Memphis has the chops to play its way deep into the NCAA tournament.
Miami at Duke, Saturday, 6 p.m.
This is the rematch we've all been waiting for, but it really won't decide much. Miami is still two games clear in the ACC standings, and there is a good chance these two will meet again in the ACC tournament for the chance to get a number one seed. What would really make this game interesting would be if Duke forward Ryan Kelly becomes available after missing two months with a foot injury.
Louisville at Syracuse, Saturday, Noon
Syracuse's prowess was called into question over the weekend when the Orange couldn't beat Georgetown at home. That makes this one even more of a must win. Somehow, Syracuse needs to figure out a way to get more scoring off its defense, because this is not a good jump shooting team.
Arizona at UCLA, Saturday, 9 p.m.
UCLA tends to play up (or down) to the level of its competition. The Bruins need this one in a big way, not so much for their NCAA tourney hopes (they're pretty much a lock) but to rediscover their good vibrations for the home stretch.
Butler at VCU, Saturday, Noon
This is the Atlantic 10's marquee game as both teams are spending their first year in the league. VCU plays with great energy at home, and Butler's guards generally do not like to be pressured.
SI.com: What's been the hardest thing about being a head coach that you didn't anticipate?
Kevin Ollie: I would say just managing the different people. The AD, the president. It's not just about basketball. It's about the budget and what you have to deal with academically. When I was in the NBA it was pure basketball, and when I was a player here I didn't know what Coach Calhoun and his assistants had to do on a day-to-day basis to get us prepared. I just didn't know how much time it takes out of your day being a head coach.
SI.com: What have you found to be your biggest strength as a head coach, and what is your biggest weakness?
Ollie: Probably my biggest strength is I'm a humble person. I'm an empty cup and I love to learn. I take every experience, good and bad, as a way for me to get better. One of my weaknesses, obviously, is I don't have the experience of a lot of other coaches. But I have Coach Calhoun. He has 870 victories, so I do have some leverage on my side.
SI.com: He seems to be around a lot. Some people would find that bothersome.
Ollie: He's a great reader of people's emotions. He always knows when I need some advice, but he also knows when I need some space. The most beautiful time we have together is, we've got a place called the bunker, because he's known for his five-hour meetings. We just sit in the bunker and talk for two hours just picking each other's brains. I have a Hall of Fame coach for a resource, so I don't look at him like he's stepping on my toes.
SI.com: You famously played for 11 teams in 13 years in the NBA. You got cut four times. What was the worst cut?
Ollie: I got cut by the Dallas Mavericks two days before Christmas my rookie year. When you get cut, man, for two days you don't want to go outside, do anything, you get a little depressed. But my mother always told me, when you fall down, always pick something up. That stuck with me.
SI.com: Did you ever come close to quitting?
Ollie: Not really because my wife is the backbone of our family. Every time I got cut, she would pack up the kids and come back to Connecticut. She gave me that strength, because I always saw my life as a blessing. That's what I learned from my days growing up in L.A., where there were gangs and drugs.
SI.com: From the outside looking in, it would seem really difficult to motivate your players when you have no postseason to play for. Is it as hard as it seems?
Ollie: I really mean this. If you take the meaning of an event and you make your own meaning of it, it's not that hard. I tell our players, you still have a blessing. You're at the University of Connecticut. You've got a free scholarship. You get to play in front of the greatest fans anywhere. Some people don't even wake up. Some people can't move. Some people can't walk and talk. I just tell our kids to go out there and play for the love of the game and play for each other, because you'll never get these days back.
SI.com: How much of a positive effect did it have for you to be named the permanent coach so early in the season? I assumed that would happen eventually, but I didn't anticipate it happening so early.
Ollie: Oh, it has definitely had a positive effect, not just on me but my whole coaching staff. They were kind of in limbo, too. I'm very humbled to be in this position. I'm thankful to my president and my athletic director, and also for Coach Calhoun for believing in me. From day one, he thought I would be able to sit behind his desk.
SI.com: A lot of people have talked about the improvement of your junior point guard, Shabazz Napier. They say he is shooting better, but it looks to me like he's thinking better. Am I right?
Ollie: He's leading better. That goes in the same area as thinking, because his leadership has been incredible. That's hard for your best player because he wants the rest of the guys to shoot like him and have the same mental attitude and prepare the same. If they come up short, there was a tendency early in his career to say, "All right, I'm gonna just do it on my own." Now he's letting the other guys know, "It's all right not to be perfect. I've still got your back." He's also showing his vulnerability, whereas in the past Shabazz was kind of like, "I got this." Now he's like, "I need help, too." It has been a wonderful evolution of a young man.
SI.com: What's your vision for this program in the near future, say the next two to three years?
Ollie: Just keep going higher. It's great to have a long-term deal where I can go into a senior in high school or a junior in high school and let them know I will be their coach. We're breaking ground on a $45 million practice facility on April 16. A lot of people doubted us, but we're writing our own story. We're not going to let anybody write our story for us.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Indiana (1)
2. Duke (4)
3. Michigan State (3)
4. Miami (2)
5. Michigan (5)
6. Gonzaga (6)
7. Georgetown (11)
8. Arizona (9)
9. Kansas (16)
10. Syracuse (7)
11. Florida (8)
12. Kansas State (10)
13. Louisville (14)
14. New Mexico (15)
15. Wisconsin (17)
16. Oklahoma State (18)
17. Ohio State (22)
18. St. Louis (NR)
19. Memphis (NR)
20. Illinois (23)
21. Marquette (12)
22. Akron (24)
23. Louisiana Tech (25)
24. Butler (19)
25. California (NR)
Dropped out: Pittsburgh (13), N.C. State (20), Colorado State (21)
When I posted my ballot on Twitter Sunday night as I always do, the biggest reaction I got was about my decision to rank Michigan State at No. 3. How in the world could I decide not to drop the Spartans after they lost twice?
This is just the kind of formulaic groupthink that tickles me about the way people vote in polls and react to them. One of Michigan State's losses came at home against No. 1 Indiana. You can't penalize the Spartans for that. The other loss came on the road at an Ohio State team that I have ranked 17th. Why should I beholden to a simple "they lost twice" without looking at who the opponents were and where the games were played? And it was only a week ago that the Spartans embarrassed Michigan. Why should Michigan be ranked ahead just because the Wolverines beat Illinois at home in the only game they played last week?
You'll also note that I did not drop Miami too far for the loss at Wake Forest. Let me tell you, Wake Forest is not a bad team. They're no worse than Maryland, which beat Duke last weekend. The bottom line is, we are entering the last week in February, and Miami has just one loss in the ACC. The Canes will have to slide a little more for me to really drop them.
I've also written and said in various places that I will have a hard time ranking Gonzaga higher than No. 6. The Zags are in the midst of a terrific season, and they are certainly capable of reaching the Final Four. But not even the most ardent Gonzaga fans believe they would be undefeated if they were in the Big Ten. So we are left to ask: Are they better than Michigan? Are they better than Miami? Are they better than Michigan State? My answer right now is no, no and no.
St. Louis and Memphis are both on a roll and have played their way onto my ballot. I made room for them by finally dumping North Carolina State (without a doubt the most frustrating team to watch in the country), Pittsburgh (lost to Notre Dame at home), and Colorado State (lost at UNLV and at home to New Mexico). My two midmajor faves, Akron and Louisana Tech, continue to validate my faith by remaining unbeaten in their respective conferences. And I'll also bid a hearty welcome to California, not because I'm afraid Mike Montgomery is going to put me in the camel clutch if I don't, but because his Bears are on a major hot streak, having won seven of their last eight games, including a sweep over Oregon, a home win over UCLA and a road win at Arizona.
The teams tied for 26th this week were Wichita State, which has righted the ship with five straight wins; UConn, which has won four out of five including in overtime over Cincinnati; and UNLV, which has won four out of its last five to climb back into a tie with San Diego State for third place in the Mountain West.