Ryan Kelly makes triumphant return, Gonzaga soars, more Fast Break
Fast Break (Cont.)
Can you hear it? The Big Dance music, I mean. The most glorious month of the year is upon us, and it's all the Fast Break can do to keep up. You might say that March blew in like a cyclone, which makes it a felicitous time to spend a few minutes with the head man at Iowa State. We've got a new No. 1 team on my AP ballot, an old name garnering freshman honors, a cool hand Luke flying high in Louisville, and a group of Tigers who have really changed their stripes. So if you want to go dancing, feel free to march to your own beat. But I'll warn you, the first song is a slow dance, with the soundtrack provided by Woody the Bartender from Cheers. Sing it with me, everybody. Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly ...
There were a lot of good candidates this week. Creighton's Doug McDermott had 41 points in a win over Wichita State. Virginia's Joe Harris had 36 in a win over Duke. Tennessee's Jordan McRae had 27 against Florida and 35 against Georgia. Kansas' Elijah Johnson had 39 against Iowa State. I went with Kelly not just because of his performance, but also the circumstances surrounding it. He would have had a strong case just by scoring a career-high 36 points in a win over a top-five team in Miami. The fact that this was Kelly's first game back after missing seven weeks with an injury makes it all the more epic. Remember, Kelly missed all that time because he re-aggravated a broken foot. That is not an easy injury to come back from, because it is hard for a player to maintain his conditioning with a boot on his foot. Kelly's time-capsule performance did more than just help his team win a game and stay in position for a number one seed. It put the Blue Devils back on the very short list of teams to beat in the NCAA tournament. If he keeps playing at this level, Duke could very well cut down the nets on April 8.
As I wrote last week in Hoop Thoughts, it is time for Gonzaga to enjoy its close-up. I will concede that the Zags have not played nearly as difficult a conference schedule as the other candidates for a top seed, but there should be no diminishing the difficulty of winning at BYU the way they did last Thursday night. The Cougars are a good team, the Marriott Center was jumping, and the Zags knew exactly what they were playing for. I especially like the fact that they closed it out with textbook execution of what to do when you're up by three with under 10 seconds to play. Leading 68-65 with 4.8 seconds on the clock, Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk fouled BYU guard Craig Cusick just as he crossed midcourt. (Cusick actually tossed up a prayer of a shot that went in, but it came after the foul.) The Cougars were not yet in the double bonus, so when Cusick missed the first free throw, Elias Harris got the rebound, was fouled, and made a pair of free throws to seal the win. That's how you get to the No. 1 ranking.
I might as well rename this award in McLemore's honor. His performance against West Virginia on Saturday was truly historic -- which is saying a lot considering the school he plays for. By scoring 36 points (on 12-of-15 shooting), McLemore topped Danny Manning's school record for most points by a freshman. (Ironically, Manning scored his 35 points against an Oklahoma State team that included a senior guard named Bill Self.) It was a heartwarming achievement for Kansas fans considering that during his previous three games, McLemore had twice failed to reach double figures. (My goodness, what a slump!) Before that he had had only two single-figure scoring games all season. It's gravy for the Jayhawks when Elijah Johnson scores a lot of points, but this team is at its best when McLemore is at his best. On Saturday, McLemore was better than any freshman in the long history of this proud program. Well done, young fella.
Before the season started, Rick Pitino said that Hancock, a transfer from George Mason, would be the team's most important player. That has not quite come to pass, but it was certainly the case on Saturday in the Carrier Dome. The Cardinals were reeling because point guard Peyton Siva was having a terrible game. (He would finish with zero field goals on nine attempts. Siva would be a great player as long as he never has to play Syracuse.) So Hancock came off the bench to play 20 minutes, during which he went 4-for-5 from three-point range and made two huge threes in crunch time to lift Louisville to a 58-53 win. Hancock may have had a disappointing season from an offensive standpoint (he is shooting just 38.5 percent from the floor this season), but he is still the team's best leader off the court. And he has done a good job keeping his head down and giving his best effort whenever an opportunity comes up. He may not have the talent of a player like Russ Smith, but he doesn't have the erratic tendencies, either.
This is the second time this season that Marks has won this award, so I'd suggest you start paying attention to him. The Broncos needed to beat Colorado State at home on Saturday to keep their at-large hopes alive, and Marks made sure it happened by scoring 38 points on 13-for-18 shooting. He also shot 8-for-11 from the foul line, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out three assists. Though he's only a sophomore, Marks has a savvy and toughness that you would expect from someone who grew up in Chicago. It is no coincidence that he has had his two biggest games in the Broncos' two biggest wins of the season. Marks also scored 35 points in a win at Creighton on Nov. 28.
I realize the Volunteers took a step back over the weekend by losing at Georgia, but this win was still a major step forward. It was their sixth consecutive win (a streak that also included a home win over Kentucky), and it put them squarely into the bubble conversation for the first time. They still have two games left in the regular season, a road game at Auburn and then a home date with Missouri. If Tennessee can win those two, it would finish the regular season with an 11-7 record in the SEC. Add on a decent win or two in the conference tournament, and they should be in good shape. You might think that's a stretch, but given the way Jordan McRae is shooting the ball these days, I don't think anything is out of the question for this group.
This wasn't an upset on the level of Kansas-TCU (or even Michigan-Penn State), but given what was at stake, it was far more devastating. The Rebels have already been leaking oil, but this one might very well have sealed their fate as far as an at-large is concerned. Mississippi State had won just two games in the league all season. All those people who got such joy out of Marshall Henderson's, shall we say, wacky tendencies should look at his line from the box score: 4-for-19 from the floor, 3-for-18 from three. That's how you kill your team. Now the problem is that even if the Rebels win their two remaining games (vs. Alabama at home and at LSU), it won't help them all that much. I think they have to at least make the SEC tournament final if they're going to have a chance at an at-large bid.
College basketball has never seen anything like it. By defeating Hofstra at home on Saturday, the Tigers finished the regular season with an 18-13 record. That represents the most significant one-year improvement in NCAA history. Last year, Towson started the season by losing its first 22 games, and it finished with a 1-31 record. Coach Pat Skerry deserves a great deal of credit for engineering this turnaround, but the best thing he did was bring in Jerrelle Benimon, a 6-8 junior transfer from Georgetown. Benimon averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds this season and should be the CAA's Player of the Year.
Arkansas at Missouri, Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Mike Anderson takes his Razorbacks to his former school, but there is not much room for sentimentality in this one. Arkansas has some good home wins, but this is its last chance to beat a good team on the road. If the Razorbacks don't get it done here, they will have to win the SEC tournament to go dancing.
Duke at North Carolina, Saturday, 9 p.m.
The one hole in Duke's resume is a lack of quality road wins. That could cost the Blue Devils a No. 1 seed if they don't take care of business in the Dean Dome. That won't be easy given the way the Tar Heels have been playing since Roy Williams went to his small-ball lineup.
Syracuse at Georgetown, Saturday, Noon
The Orange are suffering from erratic guard play and a zone defense that is not as stifling as it was earlier in the season. The Hoyas love to play against that zone, as they proved by winning in the Carrier Dome last week.
Florida at Kentucky, Saturday, Noon
This is the Wildcats' last stand in their quest for an at-large bid. Florida has proven to be beatable on the road, but the Gators should have more toughness now that Will Yeguete is back from injury.
Indiana at Michigan, Sunday, 4 p.m.
I can't think of a better way for this wonderful Big Ten regular season to come to a close. If the Hoosiers win this one they will probably sew up a No. 1 seed.
SI.com: You guys lost a tough one to Kansas last week in a game in which there were some bad calls toward the end. When it was over, you went to the refs to say something before you shook Bill Self's hand. Care to share what you said?
Hoiberg: (Laughs) I'll keep that to myself. I just kind of wanted an explanation on the charge call at the end of regulation. I shouldn't have done it, should have gone straight to the handshake.
SI.com: Your team seems well balanced. Is there one person you would say is your best player?
Hoiberg: It's funny, we're fourth in the nation in scoring right now, but Will Clyburn leads us at about 15 points per game. Korie Lucious is the point guard, so he has the ball in his hands the most. Chris Babb might be the most underrated defender in the country. Melvin Ejim is leading the league in rebounding. Then you have Georges Niang, who had seven assists and zero turnovers playing against Jeff Withey. So we have a lot of versatility.
SI.com: I'll be honest. I thought it was a risky strategy for you to come in and take a bunch of transfers. Why do you think that has worked out for you?
Hoiberg: There were three scholarship players here when I got the job. I told our staff, we have to go out and get as much talent as possible. I didn't say we were going to take every transfer in the country. It just worked out that there were some high-level guys available. And we didn't just tell these guys, "You can come here." We did background checks, we talked to the previous coaches, they met with administrators.
SI.com: You had to have open heart surgery, which forced you to retire from the NBA. How hard was that to deal with mentally?
Hoiberg: It's the most difficult thing I've ever gone through. I was 32 years old, I led the league in three-point shooting, I was in my last year with the Timberwolves. I had four young kids. Then I find out I'm going to have a procedure you normally associate with your grandparents. It was pretty tough to deal with, but at the same time, I was fortunate to find out about it.
SI.com: How is your heart doing now?
Hoiberg: I get checked every six months. Basically, I had an aortic aneurism. The aortic valve was expanding without any symptoms. I was very fortunate to find out because it was at a very dangerous level. I had a pacemaker put in, but now the valve is starting to deteriorate, so I have another surgery ahead of me. Hopefully, it won't be for a while.
SI.com: Were you surprised when Iowa State offered you the job even though you had no coaching experience?
Hoiberg: I was. I had been working for the Timberwolves and we were getting ready for the draft. [Athletic director] Jamie Pollard called me and said he thought Greg McDermott was going to Creighton, and if it happens, would I be interested in the job? Twenty-four hours later, he was at my kitchen table, and I'm laying out my vision. I had taken a lot of notes because I thought I might be an NBA assistant, but timing in life is everything.
SI.com: I'm sure you've noticed that a lot of college coaches have conservative offenses, but you seem to be running a lot of NBA-type sets, which is producing more scoring. Is that by design?
Hoiberg: I watch probably more NBA basketball than college, and I played for Flip Saunders, who I think has a great offensive mind. I use a lot of his stuff. If we space the floor properly, our offense is designed to draw two defenders, which means somebody's going to be open on the weak side. That's what we work on. We're just trying to make the right plays and the easy plays.
SI.com: You coached Royce White, who has obviously been in the news because of his dispute with the Houston Rockets over his mental health. Do you have much contact with him these days, and what do you think about how he has been acting during all of this?
Hoiberg: He sent me a pretty direct text message after the Kanas game, so yeah, I do keep in contact with him. He seems to be doing great. Hopefully, the worst is behind him. He's a passionate guy. He wants to fight for mental health, help people out. I can't tell you how many e-mails I got when he was at Iowa State. A parent e-mailed me how much Royce helped his kid deal with anxiety issues. He's passionate about it. The thing about Royce is he's a guy who will do a lot of things that don't make sense at first, but I think a lot of it is for the good.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Gonzaga (6)
2. Indiana (1)
3. Duke (2)
4. Georgetown (7)
5. Miami (4)
6. Kansas (9)
7. Louisville (13)
8. Florida (11)
9. Michigan (5)
10. Michigan State (3)
11. Kansas State (12)
12. New Mexico (14)
13. Oklahoma State (16)
14. Syracuse (10)
15. Ohio State (17)
16. St. Louis (18)
17. Marquette (21)
18. California (25)
19. Wisconsin (15)
20. Illinois (20)
21. Louisiana Tech (23)
22. Memphis (19)
23. Oregon (NR)
24. VCU (NR)
25. North Carolina (NR)
Dropped out: Arizona (8), Akron (22), Butler (24)
Several weeks ago, I wrote in this space that regardless of what happened the rest of the season, I would not rank Gonzaga higher than sixth the remainder of the season.
Serves me right for committing the cardinal sin of the poll voter: Expressing certitude.
With all the teams ranked above Gonzaga losing last week, and with the Zags taking care of business with their tough road win at BYU, I clearly had to move them to the top of my ballot. But all the way to the top? That was a closer call. Clearly, the Zags have not played a conference schedule that is as tough as the ones the others have played. This is not just a matter of dropping a game or two. When you play in a league where you are getting truly tested every night, it doesn't just make you vulnerable against really good teams. The accretion of all those games can rob a team of its mental edge, which makes it more vulnerable against the bad ones, too. That's what happened to Michigan at Penn State last week. The Wolverines have been running on fumes the last few weeks. No disrespect, but I doubt that would have been true if they played in the West Coast Conference this season.
I also thought hard about ranking Duke No. 1. If the purpose of this exercise is to identify the nation's best team, then you could make a strong case for Duke right now. (Indiana, too.) The Blue Devils have not lost a game this season with Ryan Kelly in the lineup, and judging by his performance against Miami, you can tell that he makes a big difference. Still, Duke could have beaten Virginia last Thursday, and it couldn't get the job done. It's at least as hard to win at BYU as it is at Virginia.
In the end, this is a different job than selecting and seeding for the NCAA tournament. There is more leeway for subjectivity and symbolism. I went with Gonzaga for the simple reason that they deserve to be the No. 1 team in America. The Zags played a good nonconference schedule and held up well. They have won every game in their league, even though they get their opponents' best shot every night. And frankly, it is good for college basketball to have them at the top. It has never happened before, and it will give the spot a nice storyline heading into March Madness. So despite my hard-line prediction of a few weeks ago, I gave them the nod.
Elsewhere on my ballot, I don't know if I've had another instance where a team went from the top 10 to out of the rankings, but I felt justified in giving that treatment to Arizona. The Wildcats are simply not playing like a ranked team right now. Every time they have played a good team over the last three weeks, they have lost, most recently last week at USC and UCLA. They also lost at home to Cal and at Colorado (by 13) two weeks ago. In between those two mini-streaks, they won at Utah (by a skimpy four points), and at home over Washington and Washington State. That is not a top 25 profile.
It pained me to drop my Akron Zips out of the rankings after their loss at Buffalo, because I do think they could be one of the top 25 teams in America. It is unfair to hold this team to such a high standard that it has to stay undefeated in its league to be ranked, but I just felt there are not enough quality wins outside the league to warrant a ranking. I still stand by my assertion that the Zips will be a very tough out in the NCAA tournament if they get there.
As for the bottom of my ballot, in case you haven't noticed, North Carolina has been playing some really good basketball of late. The Tar Heels are alone in third place in the ACC, and they have a big game on Saturday at home against Duke. I thought about ranking Minnesota for my final spot based on the Gophers' win over Indiana, but I couldn't quite pull the trigger given that before that game, Minnesota had lost four out of five. Was that a fluke? We'll have a better idea after we watch the Gophers play winnable road games at Nebraska and Purdue. If they're really rank-worthy, they'll sweep those two.