Articles By Mitch Light
By Ken Davis
By the time conference tournaments roll around, players will know the statistics and the tendencies of almost every other player in their own conference. But nonconference games are full of surprises, especially when national powers play teams from smaller, less-publicized conferences.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams understands how it works.
“Last year I asked all our guys if they had ever heard of Andrew Goudelock and nobody had heard of him,” Williams said Monday. “Well, you could probably ask Tennessee the same thing before their game, but he kicked North Carolina’s rear end last year and halfway did it this year. And he kicked Tennessee’s rear end the other day.”
Williams was making the point that there are a lot of players without big-name recognition, guys “without McDonald’s All-American after their name,” who can really play. Today we’ve picked a few of these players who deserve a little more attention than they are getting.
Williams calls them “Guys You’ve Never Heard Of.” There are plenty of good ones out there, but these have moved to the top of our list:
Andrew Goudelock, Charleston: It must feel good to be praised by Williams. He’s a 6-2 senior guard and last Friday he scored 31 in a 91-78 victory over Tennessee. The Cougars are 9-4, but they have made noise, primarily thanks to Goudelock, who has showed steady improved from a 13.2 scoring average as a freshman to 22.9 this season. He also averages 4.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists and is shooting 41.7 from 3-point range. This season he has scored 27 against Maryland, 28 against Carolina, 31 against Tennessee and 33 against Davidson.
John Shurna, Northwestern: In Shurna, the Wildcats trust. He leads Northwestern in scoring (22.2), is second in rebounds (5.2) and second in assists. If this is going to be the year that Northwestern finally makes the NCAA Tournament, Shurna will be leading the way and that’s one great reason to remember his name. He has the great combination of size and perimeter prowess. The 6-8 junior forward is shooting 61.8 percent from 3-point range. He was one of the most improved players in the nation last season and just keeps getting better.
Marshon Brooks, Providence: UConn’s Kemba Walker is the only Big East player with a higher average than Brooks. Brooks ranks 10th in the NCAA national stats with a 23.1 scoring average. He has had a rollercoaster career as a Friar, complete with hot streaks and disappearing acts. But against Sryacuse he proved he is the real deal this season with 27 points against SU’s zone defense. That was his eight consecutive game with at least 25 points. He shoots the three in transition and knows how to get to the rim. He’s making the Friars much better than they should be.
Klay Thompson, Washington State: Despite an 0-2 start in the Pac-10, we really think this is a good, young team. Leading the way is Thompson, a 6-6 junior guard from Ladera Ranch, Calif. Thompson is averaging 22.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, four assists and 1.9 steals. He had a dazzling stretch with 28 against Mississippi State, 20 against Baylor and 31 against Butler. Thompson had 26 in an 80-71 loss at UCLA. Now the Cougars need to bounce back with games against Oregon State and Oregon at home this week.
Lamont “MoMo” Jones, Arizona: Coach Sean Miller has given the Arizona Wildcats a fresh start. Maybe you are just getting comfortable with star player Derrick Williams, who averages 18.6 points and has the pros drooling over his potential. Jones is a sophomore guard from Harlem who may be bringing Miller’s feisty personality to the floor. He is averaging 8.1 points and 2.3 assists and as he gets better, so will Arizona. He had 11 points against Kansas, 20 against BYU and 20 against Oregon. He was originally headed to USC before the O.J.Mayo scandal. Coming from New York, you know Jones has the guts to take the big shot. Watch his role develop at Arizona.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Senior guard Corey Stokes was clutch for Villanova last week and it just feels right to honor a player who has done so much for coach Jay Wright’s program. Stokes had 24 points Dec. 30 in a passionate, emotional Big Five Philly-style battle as the Wildcats defeated Temple 78-74. Then Stokes helped Villanova get off on the right foot in Big East action with 23 points in an 81-65 victory over Rutgers Sunday. Stokes leads Villanova with a 16.9 average but perhaps the best numbers of the week came at the free throw line, where Stokes hit 14- of-16. He is shooting 93.6 percent from the line this season. That’s a guy you want holding the ball at the end of a game.
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
Forward Cleveland Melvin is making his name known inside the Big East. The DePaul freshman has been Big East Rookie of the Week the past two weeks and it certainly isn’t his fault the Blue Demons are 0-2 in conference play. Last week Melvin averaged 26.5 points and 7.5 rebounds against Cincinnati and Georgetown, two ranked teams that have a combined record of 26-2. Melvin had 24 points and eight rebounds in a 76-60 loss to Cincinnati and followed that with a career-high 29 points along with seven rebounds and two blocks in an 86-75 loss at Georgetown. That was the third consecutive game that his career high in scoring had been improved.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Monday, Jan. 3
Georgetown at St. John’s
Steve Lavin returns to ESPN, this time in the role of coach at St. John’s. It’s still not the good old days when Big John and Louie would wear the same sweater, but the fun might be returning to this series.
Tuesday, Jan. 4
Indiana at Minnesota
Both teams are 0-2 in the Big Ten. Somebody has to get a win. Don't they?
Connecticut at Notre Dame
There are six teams undefeated in Big East play. Then come the Huskies and Irish, tied at 1-1 with Georgetown and Seton Hall. The Huskies rarely enjoy traveling to South Bend.
Wednesday, Jan. 5
Memphis at Tennessee
It’s the last game for Vols coach Bruce Pearl before he begins serving an eight-game SEC suspension. He got a head start on things with that ejection during the 91-78 loss to College of Charleston.
Brigham Young at UNLV
The Mountain West Conference is going to feature more than one “Game of the Season” but this should be a pretty good start. BYU is 14-1, and UNLV enters 12-2. They will meet again Feb. 5, but the opening act will set the stage for much of what happens later.
Thursday, Jan. 6
Xavier at Cincinnati
This is such an intense rivalry, truly one of the best in college basketball. Xavier should be pumped at the thought of knocking the Bearcats from the undefeated ranks. Cincinnati has a thing or two to prove.
Northwestern at Illinois
Expectations were high for this Northwestern team, and there’s still time for the Wildcats to make their move in the Big Ten. The task doesn’t get much tougher than this week, with back-to-back games against Michigan State and Illinois.
Friday, Jan. 7
Cleveland State at Butler
Cleveland State comes to Hinkle Fieldhouse with a 4-0 record and in first place in the Horizon League. Raise your hand if you knew that.
Saturday, Jan. 8
West Virginia at Georgetown
The Mountaineers need some good news after opening the Big East race 0-2. There’s a stop at DePaul before this three-game road trip ends in D.C.
Connecticut at Texas
The Huskies played one of their best games last season when they knocked off the No. 1 ranked Longhorns in Gampel Pavilion. Traveling to Austin for a non-conference game in January isn’t Jim Calhoun’s idea of fun.
St. John’s at Notre Dame
As the week begins, the Irish have only lost to Kentucky, on a neutral court, and at Syracuse. It’s tough to knock off Notre Dame at the Joyce Center.
Sunday, Jan. 9
Kansas at Michigan
The Jayhawks have been up to every task so far and clearly have the more talented team in this contest. But coach Bill Self knows this could be a dangerous trip.
Minnesota at Ohio State
Now is the time for Big Ten teams to line up and take their best shot at the Buckeyes.
Maryland at Duke
Do the Terps have what it takes to knock off Duke this season? Probably not, at least not at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
THEY SAID IT:
“When I walked out and saw it was a full house, and so many Duke fans, I did take a moment to reflect back to when I first got to North Carolina and there weren't very many Duke shirts.” — Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, after beating UNC Greensboro, 108-62, in Greensboro to for his 880th career victory to move past Dean Smith into second-place on the all-time coaching list.
“Of course. I’m the leader of his team. If one of his guys does something like that, then that’s just a reflection of him. Of course he was upset. Of course he told me I couldn’t do that. And I respect that. I never said anything back. I took my punishment, and I just went on with it.” — Kansas junior Marcus Morris, on Bill Self’s decision to remove Morris from the starting lineup after his ejection from the Cal game.
“I was just trying to get Tony Jones some reps, that’s all. I wasn’t talking to the official when I was ejected, so that’s what I was surprised about.” — Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, referring to the Tennessee associate head coach, who will replace him on the bench during an eight-game SEC suspension that begins Saturday for Pearl..
“I really believe that we have a lot of confidence in the bench players. Consistency from the bench is key.” — BYU coach Dave Rose, after the Cougars’ reserves scored 46 points in a 93-57 victory over Fresno Pacific.
Now that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has moved past Dean Smith on the Division I men’s all-time wins list, he is just 21 wins behind his mentor, Bob Knight. Knight is at the top of the list with 902 victories. It will be interesting to see if Coach K can get there during the NCAA Tournament, the way Smith did when he passed Adolph Rupp. One sign in the Charlotte Coliseum last week read, “You’re next, Bobby.”
Missouri was 8-0 last month. That’s the first time the Tigers have gone undefeated in December in 20 years.
At 15-0, Syracuse is off to its best start since it won its first 19 games in 1999-2000.
Tennessee is shooting 24.5 percent from 3-point range in the past six games The Vols have lost four of those games after starting the season 7-0 (and hitting 35.5 percent of their threes).
Duke freshman point guard Kyrie Irving remains out indefinitely with his injured right big toe but was fitted with a new cast Sunday. Doctors are scheduled to perform another scan on Tuesday or Wednesday. “As long as no surgery is needed or it appears that it might not be need, we’re going with this course of action,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. Coach K said Monday that any surgery would mean Irving is lost for the remainder of this season.
Big East home teams have won 11 of the first 13 conference games. St. John’s is 2-0 on the road and the only team to win a Big East game away from home thus far.
Vanderbilt is off to an 11-2 start and coach Kevin Stallings simply doesn’t get enough credit for his work. The Commodores were without two starters Sunday and still defeated Davidson 80-52. Injuries have forced Stallings to juggle his lineup extensively the past six games. Stallings doesn’t get mentioned during discussions of the nation’s top coaches, but he is as solid as they come.
Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher
(http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken's web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).
1. How convinced are you that Tom Crean will return Indiana to national prominence in the next few seasons.
Mitch Light: The Hoosiers have been a disappointment this season, especially of late, but I’m still on the Tom Crean bandwagon. His track record at Marquette is too good — a Final Four in 2003 as a member of C-USA and three straight 10-win seasons in the Big East (’06-08) — for him not to enjoy success at a school like Indiana. Up until this past year, his recruiting at Indiana was good — but not great. That changed in November, when Cody Zeller (No. 20 by Rivals.com) signed with IU, and it will continue next fall when two more top 20 players (forward Hanner Perea and guard Kevin Ferrell) make their commitments official. It might have taken longer than most Hoosier faithful would have liked, but the talent level is getting better in Bloomington.
Braden Gall: “National Prominence” is an interesting term since they have not won a national championship in over 20 years. Yet, they did play in the big game not even 10 years ago, and the entire state of Indiana is basketball crazed. They won’t be national championship good any time soon, but the well-dressed IU coach will be just fine. There is talent on that roster as we speak, so its only a matter of developing it properly. The 10-win total of last season should improve greatly (they are at nine already) from last season and potential tourney berths should be right around the corner.
Nathan Rush: Indiana’s basketball program under Tom Crean will return to national prominence. The question is when? I would ask Marquette’s top Crean recruit Dwyane Wade, who knows how to get to the Final Four by hitting bit-shot after big-shot (against Kentucky). I’ll say the “next few seasons” is a fair expectation. Right, D-Wade?
2. Who is the most important player in the SEC? Not necessarily the best player, but a guy whose team really needs him to play well.
Mitch Light: I’ll go with Vanderbilt point guard Brad Tinsley. The Commodores need Tinsley to play well to compete for an SEC title. He has struggled at times (in an overtime loss at Missouri), but he was very good in Wednesday night’s win over Marquette (15 points, eight assists, one turnover). If he can play that well on a consistent basis, there is no reason Vanderbilt can’t compete for the SEC East crown.
Braden: Braden: You could make an easy case for guys like Tobias Harris of Tennessee, Ravern Johnson of Mississippi State or any of the Vandy big four of Brad Tinsley, Jeff Taylor, John Jenkins or Festus Ezeli. But Chris Warren of Ole Miss is clearly the most important player in the league. He leads his team in minutes at almost 34 per game. He is easily the top scoring option and leads the team in assists as well. The Rebels have okay wins over Murray State and Penn State but need to do most of their work in-conference. Without Warren, they have no chance to make the tourney.
Nathan: Kentucky frosh Doron Lamb is crucial to the Wildcats’ season. He’s already as polished as any player in the conference, having played for Oak Hill (Va.) Academy as a high schooler and the NYC Gauchos as an AAU player before signing with John Calipari at Kentucky. Lamb is basketball royalty — his 32-point, 11-of-12 shooting, 7-of-8 from downtown night is proof enough. Still, all anyone can talk about is Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones or Enes Kanter.
3. What would you place the over-under on the number of ACC wins for North Carolina?
Mitch: I’d say 10.5 wins. My guess is that the Tar Heels will keep improving and take advantage of a down year in the ACC and finish in second place behind Duke with an 11–5 record. UNC has won five of its past six games, with the only loss coming to a very good Texas team in the final seconds.
Braden: Road trips to BC, Florida State and Duke are losses and trips to Clemson and Miami will be tough tests as well. Also, having only one game apiece with Wake Forest and Georgia Tech is unlucky. I think 10 wins would be the high-water mark for this UNC squad. An 8-8 mark will be my pick — and that might be good enough to get into the Big Dance. All four Heels’ non-con losses have been to quality opponents, and the win over Kentucky was huge for the tourney resume.
Nathan: UNC should go 14–2 with two losses to Duke. I’ll go 11–5, with four losses on the slate. A team with as much hand-picked talent as Carolina should not have to worry about any finish other than an ACC title (or national title). But Roy Williams likes to hand-pick soft “Kansas-type” players. So, Dean Smith will have to hide his eyes when he watches. Dean had Rasheed Wallace for two years; Roy’s “problem child” has been whoever his latest strike-zone swing-and-miss McDonald’s All-American is. Not the same tax bracket. … Look away, Dean.
4. It's early, but what seed will UConn be in the NCAA Tournament?
Mitch: I believe the Huskies will settle into the 4-5 range when it’s time to seed the Field of 68. Following the Huskies’ 78–63 loss at Pittsburgh Monday night, many college basketball observers were quick to point out that UConn clearly was not a top-5 team despite its lofty ranking. That might be true, but I would still argue that this team deserved its ranking, even though the roster might be that impressive. You can’t dismiss wins over Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky on a neutral court. Back to the question: I think UConn will enjoy a solid season in the Big East, but this team is too young and too challenged on the offensive end (other than Kemba Walker) to remain in the top 10 throughout the year.
Braden: A 6-seed. Some great early wins and the National Player of the Year (at this point) counts for a lot. But this is a very young team with basically two great, dependable players. The Big East has already proven that it will once again be brutal night-in and night-out. UConn was controlled quite easily by Jamie Dixon’s Pitt bunch on Big Monday. Until those pups grow-up and experience the best conference ever assembled for themselves, UConn will lose many of those close, road tests that count so much in seeding.
Nathan: The Connecticut Huskies will be a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Don’t pick against coach Jim Calhoun’s team, however, because he is 15–1 all-time in the first round of the Big Dance — with a one-point, last-second shot loss to No. 12-seed San Diego as a “dreaded” No. 4 seed in Tampa in the first round in 2008.
5. Notre Dame, fresh off its big win over Georgetown, heads to Syracuse this weekend for a huge Big East battle. Who wins?
Mitch: Notre Dame in the upset. The Irish are far more battle-tested, with wins over Georgia, Cal and Wisconsin on a neutral court and Gonzaga and Georgetown at home. Notre Dame isn’t very deep — Mike Brey played only seven guys vs. Georgetown — but the Irish have a ton of experience, and they have been playing well on the defensive end.
Braden: This is a long, athletic, well-coached Irish squad. Tim Abromaitis and Carlton Scott can do everything on the court and are nightmare matchups for most teams. That being said, Syracuse big man Rick Jackson has played great basketball and is battling for second place behind Kemba Walker for Big East POY honors. Athletic wing Kris Joseph has started to hit his stride (he has topped the 21-point mark in three of his last four), and the Orange’s guards will be too much for the Tory Jackson-less ND backcourt. Cuse by 8.
Nathan: Syracuse is better than Jim Boeheim wants us to think. Then again, Notre Dame’s basketball team is better than their football team. What? Who says? Let Tyler Hansbrough’s little brother quarterback the football team and see what happens. The Cuse lets basketball players (or guys from Duke) take consistent snaps, right? At least the Irish’s Ben Hansbrough has Southeastern Conference experience and is tougher than most signal-callers at ND. Seriously, the Orange have every edge and should win easily against the Fighting Irish.
By Charean Williams
Jordan Shipley found himself caught between an Ochocinco and a T.O. during his first training camp with the Bengals.
“I’m out there, and I’m in between Chad [Ochocinco] and T.O.,” Shipley said. “It was kind of like, ‘What in the world?’ It was crazy.
“Then, the first game going out there, and you’re across from Tom Brady and Randy Moss and [Wes] Welker and all those guys. It’s a crazy feeling.”
The former University of Texas star has fit right in on the Bengals. Despite being on a team with Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, Shipley has become a favorite of quarterback Carson Palmer’s. Shipley, a third-round pick, has 50 catches for 586 yards and three touchdowns.
“I think it’s been good,” Shipley said. “Obviously, I feel like I’ve got a whole lot of room for improvement. I was fortunate to make some plays this year, but I think looking forward, I can definitely make some big improvements now that I have some experience. I think it’s going to be good.”
Shipley, a slot receiver, and rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham give the Bengals future playmakers to build around. Owens, who is on injured reserve, becomes a free agent in the offseason and is not expected back; the Bengals will have to make a decision about whether to pick up the $6 million option on Ochocinco’s contract.
Regardless, Shipley said he feels good about the Bengals’ future despite the disappointments of this season.
“We have a lot of guys that can get the job done,” Shipley said. “Andre [Caldwell] and Jerome [Simpson] made some big plays for us last week. Jermaine has had a big role all year long. I think we’ve got several young guys who can play.”
Redskins receiver Anthony Armstrong used to be able to go out in public and not be recognized. Now, he can’t go anywhere without someone asking for his autograph.
“This time a year ago I could have gone to the mall or dinner in full Redskins’ regalia, and people would think I was just another fan,” Armstrong said. “Today, I went to the mall and had on my glasses and everything. I was not looking the part at all, and a kid came up and asked for my autograph. It’s kind of cool.”
It’s taken a long time for Armstrong to become an overnight star.
He spent the 2006 season with the Odessa Roughnecks of the Intense Football League. A year later, he won a tryout with 600 other wannabes for the Arena’s Leagues Dallas Desperados.
He was on and off the practice squads of the Dolphins and the Redskins. It wasn’t until this season that Armstrong finally got his chance to play in the NFL, and he has become the player he always thought he would be. Armstrong has 42 catches for 787 yards and two touchdowns.
“Every team I’ve been on has helped me develop and get to this point,” Armstrong said.
He is the team’s third-leading receiver behind Santana Moss and Chris Cooley and one of the few bright spots for the Redskins. But he still doesn’t feel like he has “made it” yet.
“I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’ve made it,” Armstrong said. “Even with how far I’ve come, I’ve still got a lot of work to do. I still want to try to reach that pinnacle.”
Fourth and short
• The Panthers have secured the No. 1 overall pick and the rights to quarterback Andrew Luck, assuming Luck leaves Stanford early. Luck has been compared to Peyton Manning, so Carolina is in something of a pickle. The Panthers used a first-round pick on Jimmy Clausen this season, but Clausen has been unimpressive. They haven’t had the No. 1 overall pick since 1995 when they traded down to No. 5 to take Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins.
• John Fox will be coaching his last game for the Panthers. His contract is up at the end of the season. His ideal job would be the Giants, where he served as defensive coordinator from 1997-2001, and Tom Coughlin could pay for the Giants’ collapse. Cleveland also is a possible landing spot, if Mike Holmgren decides to part ways with Eric Mangini.
• Mangini is 10-21 in his two seasons, though seven of the Browns’ 10 losses this season were by seven points or less. Holmgren is expected to make his decision on Mangini’s future next week.
• Bears running back Matt Forté has rushed for 508 yards on only 97 carries, a 5.2-yard average, in the past six games. He is only 22 yards shy of 1,000 yards, and his 4.4 yards-per-carry average is a career best. Forte has been held to less than 4.9 yards per carry once in the past five games.
• Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth was robbed of a Pro Bowl berth. Miami’s Jake Long, Cleveland’s Joe Thomas and the New York Jets’ D’Brickashaw Ferguson were the choices. He has allowed only 2.5 sacks this season, according to STATS, Inc., and has been penalized three times for holds. Two of the sacks Whitworth allowed were on the final drives of games against Atlanta and Indianapolis. Long has allowed five sacks and been penalized for four holds; Ferguson has two holds and two sacks allowed; Thomas has one hold and has allowed four sacks.
• Stephen McGee could become the first native Texan to start at quarterback for the Cowboys since Clint Stoerner in 2001. That also is the last year that the Cowboys started more than two quarterbacks in a season. In 2001, the Cowboys started Quincy Carter in eight games, Ryan Leaf in three, Anthony Wright in three and Stoerner in two. They were 5-11. This season, the Cowboys have started Tony Romo and Jon Kitna. Romo is out with a broken left clavicle, and Kitna has a strained oblique. If they lose, the Cowboys will finish 5-11.
• Tim Tebow has brought hope to Denver. In his two starts, he has passed for 449 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, while running for 133 yards and five touchdowns on 30 carries. Skeptics still question whether Tebow is the Broncos’ long-term answer at the position, but he has carred the “it” factor with him into the NFL.
• Green Bay was 3-5 away from Lambeau Field in the regular season and has lost three consecutive road games.
• Aaron Rodgers needs 307 yards to reach the 4,000-yard plateau for the third time in three seasons as the Packers’ starter.
• After 264 attempts and 60 catches, Peyton Hillis appears to have hit the wall. He has 259 yards on 65 carries, an average of 4.0, in the past four games. He has no touchdowns. In the first 11 games, he had 905 yards and 11 touchdowns on 199 carries, an average of 4.5 per carry.
• The Texans, who rank 29th in total defense, including last in pass defense, made two huge mistakes in the offseason. They underestimated cornerback Dunta Robinson’s value to the defense and let him leave as a free agent for Atlanta, and they didn’t bring in a veteran to replace him. The Texans drafted Kareem Jackson in the first round and tabbed him a starter opposite second-year player Glover Quin. Second-year player Brice McCain kept his job as the nickel back, and fifth-round pick Sherrick McManis won the job as the dime corner. Quin and McCain have had sophomore slumps, and Jackson has been a huge disappointment. Quin has allowed 58 catches for 757 yards and six touchdowns, according to STATS, Inc., while Jackson has given up 46 catches for 873 yards and four scores.
• The Colts can win their seventh AFC South title and reach the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.
• The Jaguars are 19-18 in the month of December under Jack Del Rio.
• Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles has 1,835 yards from scrimmage on 259 touches, or 7.1 yards per touch.
• Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown has gone 20 games without a 100-yard game.
• Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has thrown 319 passes without an interception, an NFL record. Brady’s last interception came on the last play of an Oct. 17 game against the Ravens.
• Sean Payton is 8-2 against the Falcons since become the Saints’ head coach.
• The Giants have been outscored 83-48 in their past two games. They have eight turnovers, which gives them 41 giveaways for the season. Their defense, once ranked fifth overall, has allowed 933 total yards to the Eagles and the Packers the past two weeks, including 316 rushing.
• Eli Manning has had four 300-yard games this season. The Giants are 1-3 in those four games. In his career, the Giants are 7-7 when he throws for at least 300 yards.
• In their seven victories, the Raiders allowed 519 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns on 188 carries, or a 2.8-yard average. In their eight losses, the Raiders allowed 1,504 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. That’s an average of 188 rushing yards per game and 5.8 yards per carry.
• The Steelers are 5-2 on the road and 5-3 at home this season.
• James Farrior has led Pittsburgh in tackles every season since 2006 and all but one season since 2003. But Lawrence Timmons has five more than Farrior does this season, with 139.
• The Cardinals have 12 returns for touchdowns this season, one short of the record set by Seattle in 2003.
• The Seahawks have not had a Pro Bowler since offensive tackle Walter Jones in 2008.
• Only six years ago, the 49ers hired Mike Nolan as head coach and Scot McCloughan as general manager. They drafted Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall pick. Now, they are back where they started. They are looking for a GM to hire the coach, and they will have a high draft pick to possibly take a quarterback.
• Rams quarterback Sam Bradford’s passer rating is 59.4 in the fourth quarter this season. The reason? Nine of his 14 interceptions have come in the fourth quarter.
• Seattle traded for Charlie Whitehurst in the offseason, swapping second-round picks and giving up a third-rounder in the 2011 draft. They signed him to a two-year, $8 million deal as the team’s quarterback of the future. But Whitehurst has given no signs that he is that, having completed only 55.6 percent of his passes for 315 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions in spot duty.
• Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman has passed for 3,196 yards with 23 touchdowns and six interceptions. His 93.6 passer rating is better than those of New Orleans’ Drew Brees (92.2) and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (89.8).
• Kerry Collins is in the final year of a two-year, $15 million contract, making him a free agent at season’s end. Collins, 37, has not said whether he wants to play in 2011 or retire. Although Jeff Fisher said he believes Collins has the ability to play another year, the Titans coach was non-committal about Collins’ future in Tennessee.
• Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has had four consecutive games with a passer rating under 100.
• Since 2002, when the NFL went to eight divisions, there have been 11 top-two seeds reach the Super Bowl. Only two wild card teams have done so.
• Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is the third starting quarterback since 1970 to lead his team to the NFL postseason in each of his first three seasons. He joins Bernie Kosar (1985-87) and Dan Marino (1983-86).
By Ralph Vacchiano
It was supposed to be a year of relative safety for NFL coaches. The looming lockout was going to make it difficult for regime changes. And it was supposed to make it nearly impossible for poverty crying owners to justify firing one coach, hiring another, and paying both.
Yet here they are, with one week to go and four coaches have already been axed — Wade Phillips in Dallas, Brad Childress in Minnesota, Josh McDaniels in Denver, and now Mike Singletary in San Francisco. At least two more — John Fox in Carolina and Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati — are likely gone because their contracts are about to expire.
That’s six. And their could be anywhere from two to six more.
It’s a remarkable and unexpected development in the last year of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. It also could make for quite a feeding frenzy for the coaches who are available. Imagine a half-dozen teams vying for Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden. And the teams that miss out on them could reach deeper into the past for the likes of Jim Fassel or Brian Billick.
And what about the newly fired? Anyone think Fox will be out of work for long? Lewis likely won’t be, either. What if Mike Holmgren is available to be lured from the Browns front office to somebody’s sideline? And if Tennessee decides Jeff Fisher isn’t worth the $6-plus million he’s due next season? He could be No. 1 on everybody’s list.
The fun — if it’s even fair to call it that — could begin in less than a week. For four teams it’s already started, and the Bengals and Panthers seem to be on deck.
Here are the other teams that may be pondering a dip in the coaching pool, too:
• Miami Dolphins. With Bill Parcells removing himself from the Dolphins’ front office, Tony Sparano’s biggest ally, the guy who brought him in from obscurity, is gone. That’s never good news. Also not good for him is 1-7 record at home that spoiled an otherwise promising season. Losing to the Bills and Lions in their final two home games wasn’t a good thing for him, either.
• Cleveland Browns. It was a stunner when Holmgren decided to keep Eric Mangini in the first place after he joined the franchise last season, but he did it because the Browns had finished so strong. Unfortunately for Mangini, they rode that strong finish to a miserable 5-10 record, including a current three-game losing streak. There is always the outside possibility that Holmgren would replace Mangini with himself. If not, he’s close with Gruden so the Browns could be in the lead there.
• Jacksonville Jaguars. They seemed to have a surprising division title in their hands, but now they’ve lost two straight and it’s the Colts that again control their destiny. That could put Jack Del Rio back on the hot seat, though in such a small market paying two coaches is hardly ideal. Plus, they won’t be able to lure any big names. It’ll be a nondescript former assistant for them.
• Tennessee Titans. Most of the NFL would find it hard to believe that Jeff Fisher is in jeopardy, but the Titans are 6-9 and Fisher has picked a fight with owner Bud Adams’ hand-picked quarterback, Vince Young. Add in a contract that will pay him more than $6 million next season? Fisher could be the most attractive free agent on the market in a few weeks.
• Houston Texans. Enough is seemingly enough for these classic underachievers. In a year when some picked them to finally pass the Colts and win their division, the Texans are 5-10. When they blew a 17-0 lead and lost to Denver on Sunday, Gary Kubiak’s job went to the top of the endangered list.
• New York Giants. The Super Bowl XLII championship may still be enough to save Tom Coughlin, especially if the Giants end up winning 10 games. But take away that magical season and Coughlin’s Giants have collapsed in almost every one of his seasons. They were 6-2 this year. They were up 31-10 on the Eagles two weeks ago with eight minutes to play and control of the NFC East in their hands. If they go from that to out of the playoffs — which now seems likely — that championship season is going to seem like it was 100 years ago.
By Ken Davis
Hard to believe, but it’s time to begin conference play. At the start of today, we have eight undefeated teams remaining. That’s impressive. Here’s a quick look at the teams that have achieved perfection to this point – and when we think their luck might run out.
Impressive victories: Wichita State, 83-79; Michigan State, 70-67, Kentucky, 84-67.
Comment: The Maui Invitational seems like a long time ago now. It was definitely a wake-up call, one that sent the Huskies soaring into the top 10 and higher. Kemba Walker has established himself as the leader for National Player of the Year honors. Coach Jim Calhoun has found the proper touch with this young team. The lack of experience in the Big East is still a concern, as is depth and production from the front line. There are struggles ahead, but the Huskies are not the 10th-place team in the Big East everyone thought they were in October. They will contend. Too bad the game against Pitt comes so early.
Projected first loss: Dec. 27 at Pittsburgh
Impressive victories: Dayton, 68-34; Oklahoma, 66-56.
Comment: It’s a stretch to say those two wins were impressive. Dayton is 10-3 and the Bearcats won big. Oklahoma is a big-time program from the Big 12, but the Sooners (6-6) are way, way down this season. The truth is the Bearcats have played one of the worst schedules in the country. Give Cincinnati credit for taking care of business and remaining undefeated to this point. But the chili won’t stay hot for the Bearcats much longer.
Projected first loss: Jan. 6 vs. Xavier. (If not then, certainly Jan 9 at Villanova).
Impressive victories: Florida, 57-54; Miami 84-78
Comment: When you think of Conference-USA, you obviously think of Memphis. But it UCF that is crawling into the national consciousness — and the rankings — with some surprising victories and a kid named M. Jordan. That’s Marcus. (Former) Memphis Commercial-Appeal columnist Dan Wolken tweeted earlier this month that “if UCF ends up 9-7 in the league I won’t be surprised. That’s not a great roster.” We will see, won’t we?
Projected first loss: Jan. 15 at Southern Miss.
Impressive victories: Michigan State, 72-58; Drexel, 93-65.
Comment: The Orange has taken care of business, despite the fact coach Jim Boeheim still isn’t pleased with the offensive execution of his players. Syracuse always plays tough defense and Big East teams have to adjust to Boeheim’s zone philosophy. That’s never easy. Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson are the steady performers here. When Boeheim’s freshmen start picking up their offensive production, Syracuse could become a dominant squad in the Big East. This could be a very dangerous team come March.
Projected first loss: Jan. 17 at Pittsburgh.
Impressive victories: Arizona, 87-79; UCLA, 77-76; Memphis, 81-68.
Comment: Coach Bill Self says Josh Selby is ready to start. That must have been a tough decision. The Jayhawks will be a better team with the skilled freshman on the floor. He can play with the ball in his hands or off the ball and that makes the KU backcourt very dangerous. Marcus Morris has to play smart and be a better leader. He didn’t do that at Cal, but the Jayhawks still pulled away and won on the road. The key to the Jayhawks is their continued unselfish play. Kansas doesn’t start Big 12 play until Jan. 12, but the Jayhawks are the best team in their conference again.
Projected first loss: Jan. 17 at Baylor.
Ohio State (12-0)
Impressive victories: Florida, 93-75; Florida State, 58-44, Oakland, 92-63.
Comment: Jared Sullinger has taken the Buckeyes to another level. As long as Sullinger and David Lighty stay healthy, Ohio State will be the team to beat in the Big Ten. Not many thought that would be the case when the season started, but the Buckeyes have been solid and Michigan State has struggled — against a tougher schedule. Tom Izzo’s team cannot be written off and the Big Ten remains strong. But Ohio State looks like a Final Four team right now.
Projected first loss: Jan. 22 at Illinois.
San Diego State (14-0)
Impressive victories: Gonzaga, 79-76; Wichita State 83-69; Cal 77-57.
Comment: Steve Fisher’s team isn’t a huge surprise. There were questions about depth, but not talent. The biggest problem for the Aztecs is timing because the Mountain West is so impressive this season, with BYU, UNLV, New Mexico and Colorado State off to very good starts. There will be nightly dogfights in this conference and multiple bids to the NCAA tournament. The Aztecs are good but they can’t escape the Mountain West undefeated.
Projected first loss: Jan. 26 at BYU.
Impressive victories: Kansas State, 82-68; Michigan State, 84-79; Butler, 82-70.
Comment: The Blue Devils are a better team than last year when they won the national championship. They are more balanced and have more depth. That has shown even more as Duke has rolled along undefeated even after freshman sensation Kyrie Irving was injured. The ACC isn’t as strong as usual. Duke will be challenged, but it’s possible the Blue Devils will remain undefeated deep into the season. A poor shooting night on the road could spell trouble for Coach K’s team. Somebody will catch them. But who?
Projected first loss: Feb. 2 at Maryland
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
The date had been marked on the calendars of NBA scouts for weeks. They came to Odgen, Utah, on Dec. 21 to see Jimmer Fredette of BYU and Damian Lillard of Weber State. Unfortunately, Lillard is injured and out for the season. But Fredette didn’t disappoint. The preseason AP All-American scored 20 of his 28 points in the second half as BYU defeated Weber State 72-66 in a bounce back game after the Cougars lost to UCLA. Fredette followed that up with 25 points in an 89-68 victory over UTEP on Dec. 23. The senior guard hit 18-of-41 shots and was 9-of-20 from 3-point range. He had 1l rebounds and 13 assists to round out his Player of the Week performance.
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
Freshman guard Doron Lamb had a remarkable game against Winthrop, but Kentucky coach John Calipari had to go and embellish the numbers. “It was a big-time game,” Calipari said. “He didn’t miss any shots.” Well, that’s not exactly true. Lamb was 11-of-12 from the field and 7-of-8 from 3-point range, good enough to break Kentucky’s freshman record with 32 points in an 89-52 victory. Jamal Mashburn held the previous record with 31 points on Feb. 3, 1991 against Georgia. Lamb, who was 3-of-3 from the free throw line, accomplished all this in 29 minutes — off the bench.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Monday, Dec. 27
Connecticut at Pittsburgh
Not much time to enjoy the holidays for these two teams with the Big East opener coming two days after Christmas. This has developed into one of great rivalries in the nation. Can UConn’s young frontline stand up to the physical Panthers? We’re about to find out.
Tuesday, Dec. 28
Providence at Syracuse
The Friars are 11-2. Syracuse is 13-0. Fun fact: Providence ranks fifth in the nation in rebounds per game; Syracuse ranks 30th in the same category.
Wednesday, Dec. 29
Georgetown at Notre Dame
Two 11-1 teams that figure to be heavily involved in the Big East race get it going early. The Hoyas have been quietly going about business but nationally rank second in field goal percentage and eighth in assists per game. That’s the sign of a mature team.
Marquette at Vanderbilt
Amid all the bowl games and conference openers, this game might be overlooked. But there’s a lot of potential here. Marquette’s only losses have been to Duke, Gonzaga and rival Wisconsin. Vanderbilt has fallen to West Virginia and Missouri in OT (both by 3-point margins) and beat North Carolina in Puerto Rico.
Thursday, Dec. 30
Temple at Villanova
Philly’s top two teams get together to settle the issue of pride in the Big Five.
Old Dominion at Missouri
Missouri has played a terrific nonconference schedule, but so have the Monarchs. Old Dominion has lost to Georgetown and Delaware but has victories over Clemson, Xavier, Richmond and Dayton.
Friday, Dec. 31
Kentucky at Louisville
Coach Cal vs. Slick Rick … now that’s a New Year’s Eve party.
Minnesota at Michigan State
Who knew the Gophers would enter this game with a better record than the Spartans?
Charleston at Tennessee
The Vols snapped out of that three-game losing streak but somehow it seems Tennessee might be in trouble against the Cougars.
Saturday, Jan. 1
Notre Dame at Syracuse
Another big game comes early in the Big East. Keep an eye on Syracuse senior Rick Jackson, who has been playing terrific ball all season.
West Virginia at Marquette
The Mountaineers have lost twice but that doesn’t mean you can rule West Virginia out of the Big East race.
Sunday, Jan. 2
Rutgers at Villanova
Rutgers is 9-2. Villanova is 10-1. Count on the Big East wars to produce some more separation between these two teams.
Wisconsin at Illinois
Don’t forget about either of these teams when it comes to the Big Ten race. One will get a chance to make an early statement.
THEY SAID IT:
“We’re not about losing here. We’re not about playing hard and coming up close and moral victories. That’s not what we built our program about. We lost, so it wasn’t good enough.” — Kansas State coach Frank Martin after the Wildcats lost to UNLV 63-59 without suspended starters Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly.
“I really can’t tell them anything . . . words can’t explain what’s going to happen. They have to be mentally tough, that’s it, and go through it.” — Connecticut guard Kemba Walker, when asked how he could help prepare his younger teammates for the upcoming Big East regular season.
“We played on our heels. We were 8-1 coming in, and it wasn't like we hadn't been in an atmosphere like that. We just weren't ready to compete. We stargazed a little bit. I told those guys, ‘We ain’t sneaking up on them. Yo, dude, these guys are going to be ready.’” — Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, after a 93-65 loss at Syracuse that dropped the Dragons to 8-2.
“I’m not paying attention to it. We’ve been in many arenas where it’s been crazy with people yelling at you, saying inappropriate things. It’s just part of the game. It’s fun after a while.” — Georgetown guard Chris Wright after Georgetown silenced a Memphis crowd with an 89-69 road victory.
“Instead of panicking, we made plays.” – Missouri coach Mike Anderson, after the Tigers finished the game with a 14-2 run to beat Illinois 75-64 in the Braggin Rights matchup.
“We have to regroup.” — Michigan State guard Durrell Summers, after the Spartans fell to 8-4 overall with a 67-55 home loss to Texas.
When Ben Howland left Pittsburgh for UCLA in 2003, many doubters thought Pitt might fall off college basketball’s main map again. Those people didn’t know much about Howland’s assistant, Jamie Dixon. Last Wednesday, Pitt defeated American 61-46 for the 200th victory under Dixon. He reached that milestone in 255 games, faster than all but 11 coaches in NCAA history. Dixon, always the humble one, said he appreciated the kind words from his players, who presented him with the game ball. “They talked about the hard work and dedication but, of course, I corrected them and told them it was good players that was most important,” Dixon said. American coach Jeff Jones gave a lot more credit to Dixon. “Look at the consistency. That says a lot about the job he’s done,” Jones said “It’s not as if Pitt has the tradition of a Kansas or a Duke, but the last 8-9 seasons, they’re right there.”
Despite losing the Diamond Head Classic championship game to Butler on Christmas Day, the Washington State Cougars must have turned some heads with victories over Mississippi State and Baylor. Coach Ken Bone has a solid team. And even though the Cougars are young, they look ready to take a run at the Pac-10 title. Conference play begins this week and road games against UCLA and USC should tell the Cougars exactly where they are. The only other loss for Washington State came to Kansas State on Dec. 3. If junior guard Klay Thompson (22.3 ppg) played on the East Coast, he’d be a frontrunner for National Player of the Year honors.
It seems highly unlikely now that Seton Hall senior guard Jeremy Hazell will be back in uniform this season. Hazell’s latest setback occurred Christmas night when he was shot and wounded by someone who tried to rob him. Hazell’s season began with a wrist injury in November. He had surgery for that Dec. 2. If not for the injury, Hazell would have been with his team, which lost to Richmond Sunday. A Seton Hall spokesman said Hazell’s injuries from the shooting weren’t considered life threatening. Hazell was away from the team because he had been allowed to spend the holiday with his family. With Hazell, the Pirates had a chance to make serious improvement in the Big East this season. Now first-year coach Kevin Willard has to address the idea of red-shirting Hazell or considering his professional options. It seems the Seton Hall program simply can’t catch a break. There have been reports in the last week that sophomore forward Ferrakohn Hall will transfer out of Willard’s program and head to Memphis.
Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher
(http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken's web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).
1. Should Tennessee, a team with wins over Pitt and Villanova but losses to Oakland, Charlotte and USC, be ranked in the top 25?
Mitch Light: Tennessee is one of the most interesting teams in the nation. What other team has two wins that good? But what about the losses? Brutal. I will have to see what happens over the weekend, but my guess is that Tennessee will not be in the Athlon Sports top 25 on Monday. Each top 25 is a snapshot in time of the best 25 teams in the nation. And based on the Vols’ recent struggles, it is hard to say they are one of the 25 best teams at this point of the season.
Braden Gall: Top-25 polls are entirely too reactionary, and it’s why Tennessee should be ranked around 25th — right where Athlon had it in the preseason (No. 25). This is a totally different style of team than Bruce Pearl is used to coaching. They play more of a half-court, defensive-minded game and it can lead to inconsistency at times. They have a solid front line and are athletic at every position, but the Vols lack a true point guard on offense and the most talented — and veteran —guard is still wildly inconsistent.
Nathan Rush: Tennessee is arguably the most inconsistent team in the nation. And Bruce Pearl’s squad may continue to ride the up-and-down roller coaster once the coach is forced to sit out the first eight games of the SEC season. But right now, I’d say the Vols are deserving of a spot in the top 25. Wins over Pitt and Villanova overshadow losses to USC (who nearly won at Kansas), Oakland (a team led by NBA center prospect Keith Benson) and Charlotte (well, that’s just inexcusable).
2. Come up with a hypothetical trade between two high-major teams that would make sense for both teams.
Mitch: This question was a lot harder than I thought it would be. There are a lot of really good team out there, but very few have enough depth at any one position to have the luxury of making a deal. Here is my proposal: Villanova trades sophomore point guard Maalik Wayns (or senior point guard Corey Fisher) to Kansas State for big man Jamar Samuel (assuming Curtis Kelly isn’t out of action for too long). Nova is very deep in the backcourt but could use some beef up front, and K-State would love to have a true point guard to allow Jacob Pullen to slide over and play the bulk of his minutes at the 2-guard. This would also allow Frank Martin to bring freshman guard Will Spradling off the bench.
Braden: Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger for the entire Gator starting five? Wait, that wouldn’t make sense for the Buckeyes. In all seriousness, I will offer up North Carolina’s John Henson and Larry Drew for Villanova’s Maalik Wayns and Maurice Sutton. Henson and Wayns are what make the deal go. North Carolina would get a future NBA first rounder — and the first serious playmaker at the point guard position since Ty Lawson. A deep, Corey Fisher-led backcourt could survive the loss and would boast a nasty defensive front line of Henson and Mouphtaou Yarou. Sutton and Drew are quality bench options with upside who add depth and balance to the trade.
Nathan: North Carolina should trade a pair of former McDonald’s All-Americans — sophomore shooting guard Dexter Strickland and freshman point guard Kendall Marshall — for Richmond senior point guard Kevin Anderson. That way, Strickland could shoot anytime he wants, Dumfries, Va., (an hour north of Richmond) native Marshall could be a local legend and UNC could be a national title contender. Anderson (16.3 ppg, 3.7 apg, 44.9 percent from 3) would bring the ball-handling, playmaking and toughness Roy Williams’ team lacks. And even though Anderson is a senior, this is Harrison Barnes’ one-and-done year and probably Tyler Zeller’s last season in Chapel Hill.
3. Name a low-major team that could win a game (or two) in the NCAA Tournament?
Mitch: Belmont. To quote Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings: “Belmont isn’t just good for Belmont or good for their league (A-Sun). They are just good.” That was said after Vanderbilt beat the neighboring Bruins 85–76 in early December. Rick Byrd’s Belmont team has lost three games, at Vanderbilt and at Tennessee (twice). They can score inside and out and are — pardon the cliché — extremely well coached.
Braden: I am guessing that UCF and St. Mary’s don’t count? Oakland is the easy choice. They have played arguably the toughest schedule in the nation and have a great win, at Tennessee. They have an NBA big man and an extremely experienced head coach — nearly 500 wins of experience. But watch out for the Murray State Racers as well. Wins over Stanford and Western Kentucky show that they can play with some of the bigger programs, and few teams in the country can offer a backcourt tandem that rivals B.J. Jenkins and Isaiah Canaan.
Nathan: College of Charleston has an unimpressive 8–4 record — with losses at Maryland (75–74), Rhode Island (75–66), at North Carolina (74–69) and Clemson (66–59). Still, the Cougars have all the pieces in place to be a Cinderella in March if they can win the Southern Conference. First off, coach Bobby Cremins has been to the NCAA Tournament 11 times, advancing to the Sweet 16 five times and leading Georgia Tech to the Final Four in 1990. C of C also has a bona fide star in senior guard Andrew Goudelock (23.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.0 apg) and muscle down low with senior center Jeremy Simmons (6-8, 230). The Cougars’ have inside-out balance — with four players shooting better than 34 percent from three and four players averaging over five rebounds per game. Proven head coach, senior leadership, star power, rebounding and 3-point shooting? Sounds like a potential bracket buster to me.
4. Who is the best freshman point guard in the country.
Mitch: The sample size is very small (as in two games), but I think the answer has to be Kansas’ Josh Selby (though Texas’ Cory Joseph and Kentucky’s Brandon Knight have been very good). The Baltimore native is averaging 19.5 points and shooting 66.7 percent from 3-point range in his limited action. He is turning the ball over too much (3.5 per game), but keep in mind that he has played two games at this level and hasn’t had any ‘gimme’ games to pad his stats.
Braden: Kyrie Irving is the answer, but he isn’t playing basketball at the moment, so I will go with Texas’ Cory Joseph. Sure, Brandon Knight and Josh Selby are talented — and clutch — but Joseph is leading Texas in minutes (32.2 mpg) and is also the Longhorns’ second-leading scorer (11.9 ppg). He also knocked down a contested, turnaround, top of the key, game-winner in Greensboro, N.C., against North Carolina. In wins over Illinois and North Carolina, Joseph totaled 31 points, seven rebounds, four assists, a pair of steals and blocks with, most importantly, zero turnovers in 73 minutes of action. You could also argue he outplayed Kalin Lucas in a true road win over Michigan State Wednesday night — the first non-conference home loss for Tom Izzo since Dec. 3, 2003.
Nathan: The best freshman point guard in the country was Duke’s Kyrie Irving until he suffered a serious toe injury against Butler on Dec. 4. The New Jersey native was averaging 17.4 points (on incredible shooting percentages of 53.2 from the field, 89.6 from the free throw line and 45.2 from three), 5.1 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. Irving also turned in the best single-game performance of the year so far, with 31 points (on 8-of-12 FG shooting and 13-of-16 FT shooting), six boards, four assists, two steals and two blocks in an 84–79 win over Michigan State. But it’s hard to be the best if you can’t play. So the torch has been passed to Kansas’ Josh Selby, who could not play until Dec. 18. Selby has scored 21 and 18 points against USC and Cal, respectively, in the two games he has played thus far. And he has his own highlight reel moment, draining what was essentially the game-winning 3 against USC in his debut at Allen Fieldhouse.
5. Huge Big East game on Big Monday. UConn at Pittsburgh. Who wins?
Mitch: Great matchup. I’m going with Pitt, primarily because the game is at home, where the Panthers rarely lose. Keep in mind that Pitt’s loss to Tennessee earlier this month was in Pittsburgh but not at the Peterson Events Center. UConn has been one of the big stories in the college basketball, and Kemba Walker is the early favorite for National Player of the Year honors, but this will be the Huskies’ first true road game.
Braden: The last time UConn beat Pitt was Feb. 2, 2008. The last time UConn won in Pittsburgh was Feb. 26, 2005. The Huskies’ Kemba Walker and Alex Oriahki are as good as it gets when it comes to 1-5 combos, but the Panthers are much deeper and at home. Pitt leads the nation in rebounding margin and its secondary players will control the rest of Jim Calhoun’s talented but very young squad. Pitt by 6.
Nathan: The BMOC in the Big East should have a huge night on Big Monday. UConn’s Kemba Walker (26.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.0 apg) has been nearly unstoppable and should put on the type of show he did in wins over Michigan State (30 points) and Kentucky (29 points, six assists) earlier this season. Also, 6-9, 240-pound center Alex Oriakhi (11.3 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.2 bpg) should be a force down low against a Pittsburgh team that is tough and talented but lacks a big of Oriakhi’s caliber. After going with the “home” team Florida over K-State last week, I’ll take the road dog Huskies this week.
By Charean Williams
Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald has all kinds of records to his name. He became the team’s all-time leading receiver this season, and last week, Fitzgerald became the second-youngest receiver to top 8,000 receiving yards. Only Randy Moss reached 8,000 yards faster.
Yet, the only record Fitzgerald is concerned about is his team’s.
“There are certain achievements you try to set year in and year out,” Fitzgerald, 27, said. “I never try to let the circumstances dictate my goals. I worry about the things I know I can control — running the right routes, being where I’m supposed to be, being accountable to myself, my teammates and my fans. Those are the things I work on, and those are the things I can do to help right this ship.”
After back-to-back playoff appearances, and despite playing in the lowly NFC West, the Cardinals are only 4-10 and have been eliminated from postseason contention.
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said this week that the talent is better than the team’s record.
There is no doubt Fitzgerald is better than his numbers this season.
In the previous three seasons, Fitzgerald averaged 98 catches for 1,311 yards and 12 touchdowns. This season, he has 78 receptions for 986 yards and five touchdowns.
“Larry has played well for us of late,” Cardinals coach Whisenhunt said. “He had a good game last week against Carolina. We’re hoping maybe the quarterback and the receiver are getting into a little bit of a rhythm.”
Fitzgerald misses Kurt Warner. Of Fitzgerald’s 601 career catches, 345 were thrown by Warner.
But Warner retired after last season.
“I miss him a lot,” Fitzgerald said. “He was probably my closest friend on the team. When I was 21, and wet behind the ears, he taught me the game of football. I really miss his friendship more than anything, but obviously as a player, what he brought to us as a quarterback was invaluable. He was one of the best to ever do it.”
The Cardinals’ backup plan was Matt Leinart, whom they had drafted with the 10th overall choice in 2006. But Leinart was released just before the season started, and the Cardinals have started three other quarterbacks since.
Derek Anderson, Max Hall and John Skelton have had little success as Arizona ranks 31st in total offense and 31st in passing offense. Fitzgerald has 49 receptions from Anderson, 16 from Skelton and 13 from Hall.
“Losing Kurt Warner, it was going to be difficult to replace him,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s an unbelievable player. It didn’t matter who was coming in behind him. When the bar is set that high, it’s hard to reach that.”
Worse still, Fitzgerald is facing the prospect of the Cardinals having their worst record since they drafted him in 2004. They were 5-11 in 2005 and ’06.
“It’s been extremely frustrating,” Fitzgerald said. “You have to learn how to win. It’s disappointing we haven’t done that yet, but it’s not going to stay this way. We can’t allow it to stay this way.”
Jackson hitting stride
Fred Jackson took the long road to get here. He was a backup running back in high school who ended up at tiny Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and reached the NFL as an undrafted free agent.
But after last season’s 1,000-yard season, Jackson has fans all over the league.
“I have as much respect for him as really anybody we’ve played,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters this week. “He’s outstanding, good at everything, good at blitz pickup, a good outside runner, good inside runner. They use him in the passing game as a receiver, split out and empty and those kinds of things. He’s a very good screen back.”
Jackson couldn’t help but smile at Belichick’s praise.
“Anytime you’re playing this game, you’re playing with the best athletes in the world,” Jackson said. “For someone to recognize you as one of the best in the league we play in, it’s definitely going got to mean a lot to you. It means a great amount to me, coming from where I came from, being at the bottom of the mat, so to speak. I just want to try and continue to make plays and not lose that title as one of the best running backs in the league.
“To have coach Belichick say some of the nice things he said about me — he’s one of the best, if not the best coach in the league — is motivation to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Jackson, who split time with Marshawn Lynch and C.J. Spiller early in the season before Lynch was traded and Spiller was injured, needs 189 yards to reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark again.
“It would mean a lot,” Jackson said, “especially after the slow start I had this year. I wasn’t on the field as much as I would have liked to have been. For me to still go out and get 1,000 yards, I would be a consecutive 1,000-yard back. That’s something to hang your hat on. Hopefully, I can get it done, but most importantly, we’ve got to try to win these last two games.”
Fourth and short
• Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is closing in some rookie records. He needs 20 completions to break Peyton Manning’s rookie record of 326, 59 attempts to pass Manning’s record of 575, and 675 yards to pass Manning’s record of 3,739.
• The Bucs rank 30th in sacks with only 20. Defensive end Stylez White leads the team with 4.5.
• Terrell Owens will end his season on injured reserve for the first time in his 15-year career. It likely ends his one-year stay in Cincinnati. He reached two of the six $333,000 incentives on his contract, earning him $2.67 million for the season. Owens caught 72 passes for 983 yards and nine touchdowns, but he is 37, coming off knee surgery and has history of being a divisive player. So finding another taker might be harder than Owens expects.
• The Bengals are likely to change coaches and have rebuilding to do. Among their offseason decisions is whether to pick up Chad Ochocinco’s $6 million option.
• The Cardinals have several big-money players — quarterback Derek Anderson, linebacker Joey Porter and linebacker Gerald Hayes, who likely won’t return next season. Ken Whisenhunt also is expected to shake up his coaching staff.
• Running back Ray Rice has 1,051 rushing yards. He is the first Ravens’ running back to have back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons since Jamal Lewis had three consecutive from 2002-04. Rice had 1,339 rushing yards last season.
• The Bills, having won four of their past six games, are out of the running for Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. That means Ryan Fitzpatrick will almost certainly be the Bills’ quarterback in 2011. Buffalo has a number of other needs, beginning at offensive tackle.
• Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen snapped a streak of 202 passes without a touchdown pass.
• Browns kickoff returner Josh Cribbs has not been himself this season. Cribbs, who has a career average of 26.0 and has eight return touchdowns, has averaged only 20.8 yards on 32 returns this season with a long of 36 yards. The league average is 22.6 and 21 have been returned for touchdowns.
• The Texans have the worst pass defense (275.1 ypg) in the NFL. They have surrendered 31 touchdown passes compared to 19 in 2009.
• The Colts have won 30 consecutive games in which they did not turn over the football.
• For the fourth time in the past seven seasons, the Jaguars have lost control of their playoff destiny late in the year. They were 8-6 in 2004 when a loss to Houston cost them a playoff spot. In 2006, they were 8-5 and lost their last three. Last year, they were 7-5 and lost their last four.
• Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson has been Pro Bowl good this season. He had 17 tackles last week and leads the team with 112.
• Tony Sparano is signed through 2011, but that doesn’t mean he will be back as the coach of the Dolphins. Sparano is hearing daily rumors about whether Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden or another big name will replace him. Whether Sparano returns, offensive coordinator Dan Henning, 68, is expected to retire.
• Bill Belichick is 175-99 (.639), ranking 10th in all-time victories. He is 160-94 in the regular season and 15-5 in the playoffs.
• The Saints had never had a 4,000-yard passer until Drew Brees arrived as a free agent. He now has his fifth consecutive 4,000-yard passing season, with 4,122 yards. Peyton Manning is the only other quarterback to have five or more 4,000-yard seasons in a row. Manning holds the NFL record with six in a row (1999-2004) and also has a current five-year streak.
• The Vikings signed quarterback Rhett Bomar off the Giants’ practice squad. Bomar, a fifth-round pick of the Giants in 2009, spent most of his NFL career on the Giants’ practice squad.
• Darren McFadden has become the Raiders’ first 1,000-yard back since Lamont Jordan, who had 1,025 rushing yards in 2005. McFadden had only 856 yards in his first two injury-plagued seasons. McFadden is 182 yards shy of Napoleon Kaufman’s 1,294 yards in 1997, the second-biggest season by a Raiders’ runner. Marcus Allen gained 1,759 yards in 1985.
• Eagles right cornerback Dimitri Patterson, who has started only six NFL games, gave up three touchdowns against the Giants. For the season, Patterson has allowed 40 catches for 537 yards and five touchdowns.
• Vincent Jackson might be playing himself into another season with the Chargers. After Jackson’s holdout and general manager A.J. Smith’s refusal to give in on a long-term contract, it appeared Jackson’s days in San Diego were numbered. But Jackson has reminded the Chargers what they missed, with seven catches for 141 yards and three touchdowns.
• The Seahawks have 31 turnovers this season, and a minus-9 turnover ratio, ranking 30th. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has 13 turnovers in four games.
• The four teams in the NFC West have a combined record of 21-35. There are eight scenarios that have the division winner at 8-8, and eight scenarios at 7-9.
• Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman is 11-12 as a starter but has won 10 of his past 17 games.
• Randy Moss has only five catches for 62 yards since the Titans claimed him off waivers from the Vikings on Nov. 3. He has not had a pass thrown his way the past two games. But Jeff Fisher said he would make the move again, calling Moss a model player.
By Ralph Vacchiano
No one should ever tell anyone when it’s time to retire. We all deserve to make that decision for ourselves. That goes double for athletes who are often forced to call it quits at a time when most people are just barely entering the prime of their careers.
So if Brett Favre wants to hobble out onto the field one more time or 100 more times, that’s up to him. If he wants to head to the huddle using a walker and the Vikings let him, that’s their decision. And if he doesn’t care what he’s doing to his body anymore, than why should we?
But let’s face it. His final season in the NFL has become pathetic. It hurts to watch.
It’s a shame, really, that one of the greatest careers in football history has come to this. It’s hard to think of another athlete who has had as many self-inflicted wounds to his own Hall of Fame legacy as Favre has had in the last three years. It was bad enough when the only joke was about how many times he could retire and unretired and whether anyone would ever believe another word coming from his mouth.
And it was bad enough when his waffling was compounded by Text-gate, which was made worse by the embarrassing way that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has dragged his feet on the investigation — as if anyone is fooled by Goodell’s obvious attempt to stall until Favre is out of the league.
Now, though, he’s just another in a long line of athletes too stubborn to know when it’s time to quit. It’s his choice, of course, but was anyone actually happy to watch him shake off his shoulder injury and play against the Chicago Bears on Monday night? Watching him use to bring joy. Now it brings sadness.
The only thing anyone can do is close their eyes and pray for the end.
Two weeks earlier Favre, 41 years old and looking about 10 years older than that, couldn’t lift his throwing arm because of a sprained shoulder joint. The hand on his right side was so grotesquely affected by that injury that it was as purple as the Vikings uniform.
Then on Monday night, when he miraculously went from “out” to “questionable” to in the starting lineup, Favre took the frozen field in Minnesota in unsafe conditions and looked like exactly what he was — a very old man.
Instead of a hop in his step, he had a slight limp. The smile that was often his calling card for the first 15 years of his career, was replaced by a grimace. Everyone over 40 — heck, everyone over 30 — could actually feel the pain he had to be in while watching that game.
And when his head was slammed to the frozen turf on what might be the final play of his career? Well, did anything think this was going to end any other way?
What’s worse is that Favre just won’t take a hint. No matter how much venom he gets from fans, how far his texting scandal goes, or how many times he crumples to the ground in a heap, he keeps coming back for more. He won’t rule out playing again.
And he’s not sorry he tried to play on Monday night.
“Do I regret playing? Absolutely not,” Favre said. “I wanted to play.”
That’s fine. It’s his choice. If he needs to be taken off the field on a stretcher at the end of his career, then it’s his hospital bed to lay in. If he wants to run the risk that Goodell will actually conclude his “investigation” and tarnish his legacy even further, it’s his risk to take. If he wants to continue to play, even though he’s a shell of himself, and the Vikings are willing to let him, then good for them.
He’s going to the Hall of Fame anyway. Ten years from now he’ll still be remembered as one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever lived.
But that doesn’t make this ending any less sad, pathetic or embarrassing. For nearly 20 years, NFL fans couldn’t get enough of watching Favre play the game of football. But how could anyone want to watch this anymore?
By Ken Davis
Things get a little slow in college basketball at this time of year. The holidays are upon us and semester exams are wrapping up for most of the “student-athletes” — to borrow a popular term used by the NCAA during March Madness.
So, this seemed like a good time for a little studying and reviewing of our own. What have we learned at this point in the season? We bring you five main topic points. Feel free to discuss or write a short essay answer of your own.
1. The Big East is better than we thought. After so many talented players left for the NBA, it appeared the Big East would not be able to stage the exciting regular season that the conference featured the past couple of seasons. Wrong. Syracuse, Connecticut and Cincinnati remain undefeated. Pittsburgh and Georgetown have shown flashes of Final Four potential and have lost just once. Notre Dame, Louisville and Villanova are in the one-loss category as well. Providence, Rutgers and West Virginia are right behind with only two defeats. DePaul, at 5-6, is the only team below .500. UConn won the Maui Invitational, and no one expected that. Kemba Walker seemed a sure bet to be an All-Big East selection but the UConn point guard wasn’t the preseason pick as Big East Player of the Year. Now everyone seems to be in agreement that Walker is the early leader for National Player of the Year honors. The question ahead is whether Walker and his UConn teammates can maintain their torrid pace.
2. Three teams have separated themselves as legitimate Final Four contenders. That would be Duke, Ohio State and Kansas. Will the fourth come from a group of teams that includes UConn, Syracuse, Kansas State, Tennessee and Pittsburgh? Or is there another Butler out there to surprise us? Freshman forward Jared Sullinger has been the key for Ohio State. Josh Selby debuted with Kansas Saturday and added another dimension to the Jayhawks. Duke is no surprise. But the question ahead is whether Kyrie Irving’s injury will destroy the chemistry for the Blue Devils.
3. Kansas State is not the best team in the Big 12. Too much of the preseason hype was built on the Wildcats of last season. And this year’s edition simply isn’t as good. K-State is 9-2 with losses to Duke and Florida. The Wildcats shot 27 percent from the floor and scored only 44 points against Florida. That has to be a concern for coach Frank Martin. The Wildcats are shooting 54.5 percent from the free throw line — and that will sting them time after time. K-State is strong up front and can control the boards, but that’s not enough to win a conference. The road to the Big 12 title still goes through Lawrence. Kansas, Missouri, Baylor, Texas, and Texas A&M may all be better than K-State right now.
4. San Diego State is the best team on the West Coast. The Aztecs are 10-0 with victories over Gonzaga, Wichita State, and Cal. The Mountain West race with BYU, UNLV and New Mexico should be very interesting. The Aztecs shoot 50.4 percent from the floor (sixth in the nation). If you don’t know sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard yet, you had better study up. He averages 16 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.5 rebounds. He is 6-7 and 225 pounds and he is a double-double machine. He’ll likely be in the NBA next season. But coach Steve Fisher will still be around working his magic. The Aztecs have plenty of scoring options.
5. UCF may be the best team in Florida. The Knights are 10-0 with victories over Florida (57-54) and Miami (84-78). UCF is third in the nation in field goal percentage (51.8) and 26th in points scored (79.9). Keith Clanton leads the Knights in points (16.7) and rebounds (8.8), but fans really come out to see M. Jordan. No, not Michael. It’s Michael’s son, Marcus (16.0 ppg). Keep an eye on the Knights. They could be coming to a Top 25 near you.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Time to break one of our own rules. Under ordinary circumstances, a freshman would not be eligible for POW honors. That’s why we have a Freshman of the Week. But Josh Selby did not make his debut with the Kansas Jayhawks under ordinary circumstances. The anticipation and the hype surrounding Selby was the lead topic of last week’s notebook. After missing the first nine games of the season under NCAA suspension, the 6-2 guard from Baltimore proved he was worth the wait by scoring a game-high 21 points and hitting the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 left. Kansas beat USC 70-68 to extend its home winning streak to 65 games. Only Xavier Henry, with 27 points against Hofstra, ever scored more as a Jayhawk freshman in his first game. Wilt Chamberlain debuted at Kansas with 52 points – but he was a sophomore.
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
We will stay in the Big 12 and name Cory Joseph as the runner-up to Selby. Joseph, another freshman who has been trying to live up to his hype, hit a turnaround jump shot with 1.4 seconds left Saturday to earn his horns. The Longhorns defeated North Carolina, 78-76, in Greensboro, N.C., thanks to the big basket by Joseph, who had a season-high 21 points as Texas won its third consecutive game. Look for much more to come from the Texas freshman.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Tuesday, Dec. 21
UNLV vs. Kansas State
Lon Kruger was one of coach Jack Hartman’s best players at Kansas State and was Big Eight player of the year in 1973 and 1974. Now Kruger brings his defensive-minded UNLV team into the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., for a homecoming (of sorts) against his alma mater. Should be a good one.
Wednesday, Dec. 22
Texas at Michigan State
Freshman Cory Joseph grew up a whole lot with his clutch jump shot that defeated North Carolina on Saturday. It was a big win for the Longhorns, who now continue their rugged schedule in Sparty Nation. Michigan State will be trying to avoid its fourth loss of the season.
Missouri vs. Illinois
Missouri has won five straight since that OT loss to Georgetown in Kansas City. Now the Tigers travel to St. Louis to take on their rivals from Illinois. The Illini figure to be a bit angry after losing to Illinois-Chicago 57-54 on Saturday.
Kansas at Cal
The Jayhawks are 10-0 and can improve to 4-0 against Pac-10 teams with a win against the Bears. Josh Selby gets to wear the Kansas road uniform for the first time.
Thursday, Dec. 23
Georgetown at Memphis
Georgetown is 10-1 with a loss to Temple. Memphis is 8-1 with a loss to Kansas in the Jimmy V Classic. Hoyas begin Big East play Dec. 29 at Notre Dame.
Sunday, Dec. 26
Richmond at Seton Hall
Seton Hall’s final tune-up before Big East play comes against a Richmond team that just lost to Georgia Tech.
THEY SAID IT
“We did a lot of things to hurt ourselves. We missed a lot of easy shots. Defensively we were getting lost. We didn’t stick to our game plan. Toward the end of the game we fell apart with it.” — Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen, after the Wildcats shot 27 percent and lost to Florida 57-44.
“I still don’t think we’re as good as our ranking. I really don’t, but I think we could get there.” — Villanova coach Jay Wright, after the No. 10 Wildcats defeated Delaware 78-59.
“That’s his prerogative. I coach the game. He has a whistle. If he wants to throw me out of a game, that’s what is in his mind.” —– Kentucky coach John Calipari, after referee Mike Stuart called two quick technical fouls and ejected Calipari with 6:26 left in an 85-60 victory over Mississippi Valley State.
“UCLA was physical and strong. We really didn’t have an answer for their size. That’s as physical as we’ve been guarded with size all year.” – BYU coach Dave Rose, after an 86-79 loss to UCLA
“We’re not scared of anybody. We weren’t intimidated by the No. 7 team in the country because we had just played Michigan State, and we should have won that game. We had just played Illinois, and we could have won that game. I think those are big and can help us.” — Oakland coach Greg Kampe after his team’s 89-82 victory over No. 7 Tennessee.
Weber State has a big game Tuesday against nationally ranked BYU and All-American candidate Jimmer Fredette. But the Wildcats will be without guard Damian Lillard, their leading scorer and the reigning MVP in the Big Sky Conference. Lillard will have season-ending surgery to repair a fracture of the fifth metatarsal of his right foot. The injury was suffered in an overtime loss at Tulsa on Thursday. Lillard will need 10 to 12 weeks to allow the bone to heal after surgery on Dec. 26. Lillard averaged 21.5 points a game and ranked 20th in the nation in scoring.
Like so many rules that end up in the NCAA manual, the one that led to a one-game suspension for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was well intentioned but possibly ill-conceived. It turns out Michigan State employed someone associated with a potential recruit. The person was paid $475 for five days working with middle school students. The NCAA reportedly viewed the incident as secondary and Izzo missed Saturday’s game against Prairie View A&M. Izzo, of course, handled the situation with class, accepted his penalty and moved on. MSU athletic director Mark Hollis said the only way to ensure a violation of the same sort could not happen again was to eliminate summer camps. The sad part is Izzo’s good name getting dragged through the mud. This clearly was an inadvertent act, without connection to agents or runners. A private warning to Izzo and Michigan State would have been enough. The NCAA needs to understand that young players today have a lot of “business” relationships these days. The difference between right and wrong often requires better definition in the rules book. Special attention should be focused on the intent of a rule.
The big question in Lawrence, Kan., last week focused on who would be the odd man out when Josh Selby made his debut. Guard Mario Little might have answered that when he was arrested on charges of battery, criminal damage and criminal trespassing — and then was suspended indefinitely by coach Bill Self. Reportedly, Little was nowhere near Allen Fieldhouse Saturday when the Jayhawks defeated USC. This falls under the category of “stay tuned.”
Who had the worst week? Oregon State, with a 71-66 loss at Montana (Big Sky) and an 87-79 home loss to George Washington? Or Auburn, with a 61-49 loss at South Florida and a 62-59 home loss to Presbyterian (Big South)? That’s a tough one.
Note to John Wooden, the late, great UCLA coach: Your record-breaking win streak is safe with me. Records from the men’s game and records from the women’s game should be kept separate. This has nothing to do with gender bias. It has everything to do with the fact they are different sports that just happen to share the name of basketball. The streak by the UConn women is impressive in its own right, but never, ever should have been compared to anything else.
Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher
(http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken’s web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).
1. Which team not in the AP top 10 has the best win this season?
Mitch Light: You could argue that Oakland’s win at Tennessee is the best for a non-top 10 team, but that really isn’t in the spirit of the question. I’ll go with Georgetown, which beat Missouri in Kansas City — basically a home game for the Tigers. I think Mizzou might be a bit overrated (No. 13 AP), but that is still a very good win.
Braden Gall: Probably Oakland. Its brutal early schedule — at Purdue, at West Virginia, at Illinois and Michigan State — finally paid off for the Golden Grizzlies when they went into Knoxville on Tuesday and handed the Tennessee Vols their first loss of the year. Greg Kampe, with 445 career wins, is one of the longest tenured coaches in America and he has a potential NBA player in big man Keith Benson. Benson dropped 26 and 10 on the Vols.
Nathan Rush: UCF’s 57–54 win over Florida could redefine the entire Golden Knights basketball program. In his first season in Orlando, Donnie Jones needed just six games to secure a signature win. Even better, the win came against mentor Billy Donovan. There have been other nice wins from teams outside the top 10 this year, but I’m not sure any were as potentially historic as UCF’s monumental win over in-state big brother Florida.
2. Which team have you changed your opinion on the most — either positively or negatively — since before the season started?
Mitch: Florida. I still think this is a good team and a team that should make the NCAA Tournament, but it looks like the same as last year’s team with the same issues — shaky guard play, inconsistent outside shooting and a lack of depth. The Gators aren’t getting much help from their freshmen, either. Patric Young, a big man ranked among the to 30 recruits, is averaging 3.2 points and 2.9 boards in 15.0 minutes, and swingman Casey Prather is averaging less than 10 minutes per game.
Braden: Florida on the negative side and UConn on the positive. The Gators returned largely intact with an excellent front line and talented backcourt, but Billy D’s group got dominated at home by Ohio State and then lost to a first year coach at UCF. This team still hasn’t won a tourney game since 2007, and until proven otherwise, I am back to being cautious with this team after lots of preseason hype. UConn has the National Player of the Year in Kemba Walker. Center Alex Oriakhi is one of the most improved players in the nation. Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun will have to continue to develop his youngsters if he wants to make a deep tourney run, but no team has surprised more than the Huskies.
Nathan: It’s hard not to pick Connecticut. Although Jim Calhoun has run one of the top programs in the nation for decades, this year’s club was not supposed to be a Final Four contender. But the unreal play of Kemba Walker (28.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.0 apg, 2.3 spg, 53.3 percent from the field, 88.4 percent from the line) has carried the Huskies to an 8–0 start with impressive wins over Michigan State (70–67) and Kentucky (84–67). Obviously, the real tests will come during Big East play and in a strong non-con schedule that includes Texas (Jan. 8) and Tennessee (Jan. 22). But right now, UConn is playing way above my preseason expectations.
3. Who is the most underrated player in the country?
Mitch: There a lot of candidates, but I will go with Mississippi State swingman Ravern Johnson, who is leading the SEC in scoring with 23.8 points per game. Don’t expect that average to remain that high all season, though. Johnson has been asked to shoulder a large part of the scoring early in the season with big man Renardo Sidney (who is now eligible) and point guard Dee Bost (will play in January) out of the lineup. What makes Johnson’s productive impressive is his efficiency; he is shooting .481 from the floor (while averaging over 16 shots per game) and .472 from 3-point range.
Braden: A recent ESPN player power poll had Wisconsin’s versatile forward Jon Leuer as the No. 7 player in America. He wasn’t anywhere near pre-season All-American status for most publications, but all the 6-10 smooth shooting big man has done so far is average 20 points per game on 51.3 percent shooting. He grabs a team-leading 7.5 boards per game with nearly two blocks and over two assists per contest as well. He is shooting nearly 80 percent from the stripe and 50 percent from long range. With little scoring around him, few teams count on one player more than UW counts on Leuer.
Nathan: If players were stocks, Harrison Barnes would be a Warren Buffett special. He’s a blue-chip who has fallen on hard times and the market has overreacted to a point where the No. 1-ranked incoming freshman in the country has become the most underrated player in the land. The North Carolina rookie is being talked about as if he is a bust. Barnes (11.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 35 percent shooting) hasn’t found his sea legs yet, but I expect him to approach his preseason first-team All-America and No. 1 overall NBA draft pick expectations once he does.
4. Name an off-the-radar team that has been as disappointment. Preferably a team not in a Big Six power conference.
Mitch: Dayton, who we picked fourth in the A-10, jumped out of the gate with a 7–0 start but lost three of its next five games. The slide started with a stunningly lopsided 68-34 loss to rival Cincinnati and continued with a 73-68 loss at home to ETSU. Then after a too-close-for-comfort two-point win over Central Connecticut State, Dayton lost at Old Dominion, 74-71.
Braden: I will go with Gonzaga, if Spokane counts as “off-the-radar?” Honestly, I cannot remember the last time the Bulldogs were under .500 like they are now at 4-5. All five losses are respectable — Kansas St, Notre Dame, Washington State, Illinois and San Diego State — and Elias Harris’ Achilles/shoulder injury has hurt. But Robert Sacre and Steven Gray have played uncharacteristic basketball. Without any qualifiers, however, North Carolina (and its dozen or so McDonald’s All-Americans) is easily the most disappointing team in the nation.
Nathan: Richmond could and should be undefeated right now. The Spiders have pulled off upsets over Purdue (65–54) and at Arizona State (67–61), but have also been upset twice — at Iona (81–77 in 2OT) and at Old Dominion (77–70). Star point guard Kevin Anderson (17.1 ppg, 4 apg, 3.4 rpg, 1.3 spg) had two of his three highest point totals (24 at Iona, 23 at ODU) in those losses. Although an 8–2 start is respectable, Richmond has failed to capitalize on an opportunity to be mentioned among the mid-major powers.
5. Kansas State vs. Florida in Sunrise, Fla., on Saturday. Who wins?
Mitch: Tough call, but I will go with K-State. This isn’t a true road game, but it will obviously be a pro-Gator crowd. Kansas State is 2-0 on the road, with a quality win at Washington State and a victory at Illinois-Chicago in a homecoming game for guard Jacob Pullen. I think the Wildcats’ defense can be the difference; they are holding their opponents to 38.5 percent shooting overall and 31.9 percent from 3-point range. K-State’s biggest issue is on the foul line; they can’t shoot (54.3 percent) and they send the other team to the stripe far too many times.
Braden: Kansas State will win the game, but it won’t be easy. The Wildcats are 345th (out of 346) in free throw percentage at 54.3 percent, so Frank Martin’s bunch can’t get out of its own way at times. The game being in the Sunshine state will help Florida, but only a little. South Florida is Martin’s old stomping ground from, so he will have his guys ready to go.
Nathan: The Gators will have the crowd on its side in this “neutral” site, so I’ll go with Billy Donovan’s inconsistent squad to pull off the upset over K-State. Guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton are streak shooters with the ability to get red hot at the right time, while senior big men Vernon Macklin (6-10, 240) and Alex Tyus (6-8, 220) provide matchup nightmares down low. But versatile glue guy Chandler Parsons or athletic true freshman Patric Young will need to step up in order for the Gators to take down a top-10 Wildcats squad.
By Charean Williams
Ndamukong Suh had 85 tackles, 26 quarterback pressures, 12 sacks and 10 pass deflections last season at Nebraska. He has 52 tackles, eight sacks, an interception and a fumble return for a touchdown in his first season with the Detroit Lions.
So what’s the difference?
The NFL hasn’t changed Suh. It’s the same as last year.
“I wanted to come in and do whatever I had to do to help my team win,” Suh said at a Nike Summit at Cowboys Stadium this week. “Whether it’s making a million plays or making no plays, I wanted to be the guy to help my team by making plays or being that guy that allows everybody else to make plays. That was my main focus. From early in the season, through the middle of the season, I was a guy that really got singled up and was allowed to be able to put in a position to make plays. I could take pressure off my other teammates. In turn, we can all play together.”
Suh filled his trophy case at the end of last season, winning every award he was eligible except the Heisman. This season, he is the runaway favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
“I definitely have hopes of winning it,” Suh said. “But the way I approach it and the way I approached it last year, with all the awards I was up for in college, is that (it’s all good) as long as I help my team win. … I’m playing my heart out, playing as hard as I can every single day and every single game. We want to win out. That’s the main focus, continue to play hard and hopefully we can accomplish that and I can take some hardware home.”
Hall’s up-and-down season
Redskins cornerback DeAngleo Hall has been better than good this season. He’s also been worse than bad. He has been frustratingly inconsistent.
Hall is one of the league’s best at forcing turnovers and is a threat to go the distance when he does. He ranks second in the NFL with six interceptions, and he has forced two fumbles. He has two touchdowns this season, a 32-yard fumble return against the Cowboys in the season opener and had a 92-yard interception return against the Bears.
“Sometimes it’s right place, right time,” Hall said. “Some of it’s film study. This defense definitely kind of gives us an opportunity to take a couple of chances — take safe chances I should say.”
But Hall also has been one of the most targeted and most burned cornerbacks in the league, according to STATS, Inc. He has been targeted 80 times, giving up 57 receptions for 735 yards and six touchdowns.
“There have some situations where I’ve just gotten beat,” Hall said. “You take the Philly game for instance. Mike (Vick) drops back and throws the bomb to (Jeremy) Maclin. Even the Tampa Bay game I gave up a long pass.”
Matthews slowing down
Injuries are starting to take their toll not only on the Packers’ playoff hopes but also on Clay Matthews’ chances of winning Defensive Player of the Year. He had a sack against the Lions, giving him 12.5 for the season, but it was his first sack in three games and only his fourth in the past seven outings.
“It is difficult,” Matthews said when asked if it was difficult to keep his play up with the injuries around him. “When you’re losing not only guys but key contributors to the team, our coaches have done a good job, but our backups are now required to play and our playmakers had to step up.”
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu now is the favorite to win the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Fourth and short
• Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is playing better than he did in 2007, if that’s possible. Brady, who threw an NFL-record 50 touchdowns three years ago, has 29 touchdowns and four interceptions. That despite having his No. 1 receiver traded at midseason, while getting little help from his defense. Since losing to the Browns on Nov. 7, New England has won five consecutive games without committing a turnover. Brady has not thrown an interception since Oct. 17, and during the five-game winning streak, he has completed more than 67 percent of his passes.
• Colts quarterback Peyton Manning now has the longest active consecutive starts streak at 205. If the league goes to an 18-game schedule next year, Manning can break Favre’s record of 297 on Week 3 of the 2016 season.
• The Jaguars last won a division title in 1999. They have only eight players who have been on division-winning teams.
• The Saints have scored 30 points or more in five consecutive games after topping the 30-point mark only once in the first eight games.
• Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez has thrown at least one interception in each of the past eight games. In the past three games, the Jets have gone 1-2 in scoring 35 total points. Sanchez has completed 50-of-105 passes for 546 yards with one touchdown and five interceptions in the past three games.
• Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe has caught one pass for three yards in the past two games. In the three games before his dry spell, Bowe caught 32 passes for 465 yards and seven touchdowns.
• Despite missing two games with a hamstring strain, Raiders running back Darren McFadden has 993 yards. With 302 yards over the last three games, he will surpass Napolean Kaufman (1,294 yards in 1994) for the second-best single-season rushing total in Raiders’ history. Marcus Allen holds the franchise record with 1,759 yards in 1985.
• Eagles kicker David Akers has made 22 of his past 23 field goal tries. His only miss in that span was a 42-yarder that the Giants blocked.
• The Steelers’ offense ranks 20th in the NFL and has scored only two touchdowns in the past three games. One of those touchdowns came on a nine-yard drive following a Troy Polamalu forced fumble. The defense scored two touchdowns Sunday against Cincinnati.
• Dolphins left tackle Jake Long is playing despite painful knee and shoulder injuries that could require surgery after the season. He has been penalized for three holds and has allowed 4.5 sacks.
• Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew has six 100-yard games in a row. He has 1,278 yards for the season, and he seems likely to pass last year’s total of 1,391, when he made the Pro Bowl.
• Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer has had five interceptions returned for touchdowns this season, the first quarterback since A.J. Feeley had that many with the Dolphins in 2004. The most since 1991 is six by Peyton Manning in 2001, according to STATS, Inc.
• The Texans have been outscored 75-36 in the first quarter and 119-75 in the second. They have outscored opponents 88-58 in the third quarter and 114-97 in the fourth.
• Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has had 63 300-yard games, tying him with Dan Marino for the most in NFL history.
• Browns running back Peyton Hillis has 1,070 rushing yards and 13 total touchdowns this season. But, with eight fumbles, five lost, he now has a reputation as a fumbler. Bills safety Jairus Byrd speculated that Hillis’ arms are so big that Hillis can’t adequately cover up the ball, making it easier to knock out.
• Houston is 3-4 at Reliant Stadium.
• The Cowboys are 1-6 at home this season.
• Injured quarterback Tony Romo is on schedule in his rehabilitation from a fractured left clavicle. But no decision has been made on him returning to the field this season if at all.
• The Falcons are riding the broad shoulders of running back Michael Turner down the stretch. Turner has 441 yards and six touchdowns in the past four games.
• Baltimore has lost a fourth quarter lead eight times this season.
• Carolina quarterback Jimmy Clausen has not thrown a touchdown in 193 consecutive passes.
• Bears defensive end Julius Peppers has six sacks and six quarterback pressures in his past four games.
• The Bengals have 15 players on injured reserve, including eight defensive backs.
• The Patriots are 10-0 under head coach Bill Belichick when playing in the snow. In the past three games played in the snow, the Patriots have outscored their opponents 142-14.
• Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 3-1 at Heinz Field this season with a passer rating of 104.6, which includes nine touchdowns and only two interceptions. He is 37-11 in his career at home — a .771 winning percentage.
• Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is 20-1 in games played in December and January.
• Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the third overall pick in the draft, was placed on injured reserve with a torn left biceps. McCoy ended his rookie season with three sacks and 28 tackles in 13 games.
• Even if they win out to finish 8-8, the Titans still will have had just six winning seasons in 16 full seasons under Jeff Fisher.
• During Brian Orkapo’s two seasons as the Redskins’ top pass-rusher (19.5 sacks in 29 games), they are 3-1 when he records two or more and 2-8 when he has half a sack or a full one.
By Ralph Vacchiano
The disruption the Giants experienced three years ago was planned, but it was a disruption nonetheless. In the middle of the 2007 season, the NFL sent them to London for a midseason game against the Miami Dolphins. It required two extra days on the road, plus a longer-than-usual flight and unfamiliar shift of time zones.
Their routine, really for two weeks, was far from their comfort zone.
But a funny thing happened while they were there, as they endured inconveniences like walking off their trans-Atlantic flight and boarding a bus for practice that ended up getting snarled for more than an hour on London traffic. While stuck together for more time than they wanted — or even expected — a bond was formed.
And some players believed that was the real beginning of their run to Super Bowl XLII.
It’ll be a few more months before anyone knows if the Giants’ recent adventures have a similar effect, but that was certainly their hope after they finally played their game — both moved and rescheduled — against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night. They beat the Vikings 21-3 at Ford Field in Detroit.
More important, they think they forged a bond along the very long way.
“I think they handled this in a very professional manner,” said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. “There wasn’t any complaining. No nothing. We didn’t have any frustration. There was no anger expressed at any time. The guys handled it well.”
“It’s definitely not easy,” added safety Antrel Rolle. “We were waiting around for two-and-a-half days to play a game. It was draining. But at the same time, we were together.”
Their adventure began, simply enough, on Saturday when they boarded a charter flight early in the hopes of arriving in Minneapolis before the snow storm got too bad. But the blizzard arrived faster and was stronger than anticipated, so they diverted to Kansas City, where they were forced to sit at the terminal and wait.
Eventually they decided to stay the night and quickly booked a hotel, but they were still fully expecting to get up early on Sunday and fly straight to Minneapolis for the game. Then the NFL moved the game to Monday. Then the roof of the Metrodome collapsed. And then finally, early on Sunday, the NFL moved the game to Detroit.
“I must have changed the itinerary five times,” Coughlin said. “I’d go from one thing to the next, then find something else out.”
With all that waiting there wasn’t really much for the Giants to do. They couldn’t go home to their families. For a few hours they didn’t have hotel rooms. The coaches tried to schedule extra meetings to keep the players sharp, but eventually even they ran out of things to give their players to do.
“We’re kind of getting tired of each other,” said defensive end Justin Tuck. “All of us are in this, I guess, and it’s like recreating a bad Christmas movie. That’s what we’ve been feeling like.
“Obviously, we weren’t prepared to spend this much time together but I think there are definitely positives with guys in their hotel rooms playing cards or talking with the guys next to them. It really has been a positive bonding experience and you get to know guys that you didn’t know as well. Hopefully that bodes well for us going into this playoff run.”
For one night, it certainly did. The Vikings — whose lives were disrupted too by an unscheduled trip to Detroit on Sunday night — looked like the “jet-lagged” team on Monday night. The Giants held them to just 164 total yards. Adrian Peterson managed 26 yards on 14 carries.
The Giants even overcame a bad game by quarterback Eli Manning that included two early interceptions and fought through their adversity and looked like the much fresher team.
“We’ve got a lot to play for, so for us it should’ve been easy,” said defensive tackle Barry Cofield. “It wasn’t normal, but it wasn’t like it was something that couldn’t be done.”
Now that’s done, what comes next — and whether this trip has any kind of positive effect on the Giants — all depends on what they do next. In ’07, they struggled for nearly two months after returning home from London before rallying in late December and beginning their remarkable Super Bowl run. The effect wasn’t immediate, but players said that trip taught them how to rally together in tough times.
This time, the Giants don’t have any time to waste because times are already tough in the NFC, where the playoff race is remarkably tight and it’s very possible one team won’t get in with 10 wins. The Giants play an all-or-nothing NFC East showdown against the Philadelphia Eagles (9-4) on Sunday. One week later they make a dangerous trip to Green Bay (8-5).
Two losses, and it might be impossible for the Giants to make the playoffs. So if their extended vacation is going to be a positive, they better see immediate results. They’ll find out soon enough, of course. But their wild, Midwestern adventure at least got them off to a good start.
“We had all these planes, trains and automobiles,” said left tackle David Diehl. “This is a story that we’re going to have for a long, long time. But we wanted it done the right way. This was a business trip. And even though all that stuff happened, we kept our eye on the prize.”
By Ken Davis
NEW YORK – There are occasions when Kansas coach Bill Self smiles during a postgame press conference and, at the same time, it seems obvious he could use an entire bottle of Tums to calm his nervous stomach.
Last Tuesday night was one of those times. Self had just watched his Jayhawks commit 22 turnovers while still pulling away for an impressive, 81-68, victory over Memphis in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.
“We’ve got a fun team, but we’re wild. We’ve got to harness some of that,” Self said.
Enter Josh Selby — super recruit to the rescue. At least that is the popular theory. Selby, a freshman combo guard who was the No. 1 ranked player in the final Rivals.com class of 2010, will make his debut Saturday when Kansas welcomes USC to Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. College basketball’s next whiz kid was ordered by the NCAA to sit out the first nine games of the season for accepting improper benefits as a recruit before he signed with Kansas.
The penalty is almost over. Selby is itching to go. Jayhawk Nation gets an early Christmas present, and all eyes are going to be on No. 32.
“It will be as anticipated a home game as we’ve had in years,” Self said, admitting there is an incredible buzz surrounding the USC game. It’s clear Self and his players are excited too. Selby, 6-2 and 183 pounds, is good enough to step in and be a major contributor. The Jayhawks already lead the nation in field goal percentage (55.8), assists (20 per game) and are fifth in scoring (87.3 ppg).
Self has a good team. Tyshawn Taylor, who has been KU’s primary ball handler to this point, agrees the “dumb turnovers” need to go. If only that careless streak could be eliminated.
“Well, Josh is wild too, so he’s going to fit in great,” Self said. “But if you look at our team, who breaks down pressure? Obviously, you need a second guy that can do that. And Josh is the only guy in our program who can run really bad offense and come away with two or three points. Every team needs that.”
Self has been coy, saying he doesn’t even know if Selby will start against USC. That’s just Self’s way of trying to lower expectations, which will be ridiculous either way. The coaching staff knows Selby is a rare talent but it’s also understood he needs time to find his comfort zone during games.
“We want him to fit in, be one of five,” Self said. “He doesn’t have to be ‘the guy.’ We don’t have ‘the guy.’ “
Self says he isn’t worried about chemistry problems. Since this team has already demonstrated a desire to share the ball, that’s probably an honest answer. Self said Taylor, Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed don’t need to play as many minutes as they have been at the guard spots. Sophomore point guard Elijah Johnson, who has had some productive minutes off the bench, could be squeezed out of the rotation.
“Somebody’s going to be the odd man out,” Self said. “I think that (player) could be different, game-to-game.”
Taylor said the Jayhawks aren’t worried about any disruptions to team chemistry.
“Josh is going to be a big part of this team,” Taylor said. “It might take him a little while. It might not. He might come in and be a big impact right from the beginning. I think he’s capable of doing that. He’s been at practice, he knows our plays, and he’s been around. It’s not like he just came to our team.
“I think it’s going to be the same. He does things like we do.”
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Guard Ramone Moore averaged 18.0 minutes and 7.6 points as a sophomore at Temple last season. Those averages have increased to 31.5 minutes and 14.5 points through the first eight games for the Owls this season. The 6-4 product of Philadelphia put together a career game last Thursday as Temple shocked Georgetown, 68-65, handing the Hoyas their first loss of the season. Moore was 12-for-18 from the field and scored a career-high 30 points. Prior to that game, Moore had scored more than 20 points just once with the Owls. “I try not let the big stage faze me,” Moore told the Associated Press. “I’ve always been calm playing basketball. I’ve been doing it my whole life.” In the previous game, a 64-61 victory over Maryland, Moore scored 16 points.
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
Ohio State freshman forward Jared Sullinger was limited to 17 points Sunday in an 85-60 victory over Western Carolina. That’s news because three days earlier Sullinger went off for 40 points and 13 rebounds in a 75-64 victory over IUPUI. The Columbus native hit 12- of-17 shots from the field and 16-of-23 free throws. The last Buckeye to score 40 had been Dennis Hopson in 1986 when he tallied 41 against Dayton. Sullinger had missed Ohio State’s shootaround before the game in order to pay respects to one of his favorite uncles at a funeral home.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Monday, Dec. 13
Longwood at Seton Hall
Hard to find many decent games this week until Saturday. It’s time for semester exams. Longwood, an independent from Farmville, Va., continues its road tour of the country, heading to the Prudential Center with a 3-7 record. The Hall, 4-4 and still without injured Jeremy Hazell, scored 104 points in a win at UMass Saturday.
Tuesday, Dec. 14
Oakland at Tennessee
Oakland is 5-5 but gave Michigan State a 77-76 scare on Saturday. The Vols are coming off that impressive 83-76 victory over Pittsburgh of the Big East on Saturday.
Wednesday, Dec. 15
Auburn at South Florida
Wouldn’t it be fun if Cam Newton showed up in uniform for the Tigers against USF? Doesn’t seem likely does it?
Thursday, Dec. 16
Oral Roberts at Missouri
Golden Eagles coach Scott Sutton knows a thing or two about the Big 12. He should have known better than to schedule Oklahoma and Mizzou back-to-back. Oral Roberts lost to the Sooners 73-60 Saturday and will need more than a miracle to win at Mizzou Arena.
Friday, Dec. 17
Tennessee at Charlotte
Vols coach Bruce Pearl loves taking his team on the road and proving his critics wrong. Here’s another chance.
Arizona State at Nevada
Nevada is 2-7. Arizona State just snapped a three-game losing streak by beating Gardner-Webb. Hey, it’s Friday night!
Saturday, Dec. 18
USC at Kansas
Allen Fieldhouse will be full to welcome Josh Selby to the Kansas lineup. But USC will be hyped to welcome transfer Jio Fontan too.
Texas vs. North Carolina
The Tar Heels have losses to Minnesota, Vanderbilt, and Illinois already this season. Roy’s boys could use a win over Texas. But the Longhorns could use this to build their resume as well.
Kansas State vs. Florida
This game is one of the highlights of the week, since both teams are ranked. Thank the Orange Bowl Classic for this matchup.
South Carolina at Ohio State
The Gamecoks are 7-1 with six consecutive wins since losing to Michigan State. But beating the Buckeyes at Value City Arena is a tall order.
Sunday, Dec. 12
Stony Brook at Notre Dame
Steve Pikiell’s Seawolves are struggling offensively, but gaining valuable experience through a demanding schedule. Notre Dame has sharing the ball well. The Irish rank 15th nationally in assists (17.4 per game).
THEY SAID IT
“We’ve played one of the hardest schedules in the nation this year. I’m pretty sure if other teams played the same schedule, they’d be in the same situation probably right now. ... We’ve got to keep fighting.” — Gonzaga’s Elias Harris, after an 83-79 loss at Notre Dame dropped the Bulldogs to 4-5 overall.
“The aggressive team usually gets the advantage, but we were taking it like a sissy and they took it up like men.” — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, after Syracuse crushed the Spartans, 72-58, in the Jimmy V Classic.
“The future can be this year.” –— Louisville coach Rick Pitino, after his Cardinals improved to 8-0 with a 77-69 victory over UNLV.
“When you come to Duke and play for Coach K, it’s always in the back of your mind — what’s coach about to pass next? He’s always about to pass something.” — Duke’s Nolan Smith, after Mike Krzyzewski posted career victory No. 878 and moved within one of North Carolina’s Dean Smith on the all-time list.
“My assistant said we had four freshmen in and a walk-on. That’s not a good mix to come into this situation.” — Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus, after an 84-47 loss to Duke in Durham, N.C.
Duke’s Kyrie Irving has suddenly gone from the most exciting freshman in college basketball to the most watched injury of the season. With his foot in a cast and Duke saying Irving is out indefinitely, we are left with two big questions. First, have we seen the last of Irving in a Duke uniform? He has logged just eight games, but that might be it. If he can’t play again this season, there’s nothing holding him back from entering the NBA Draft after the season is over. Irving has already proven himself as a lottery pick. There would be plenty of time in the spring for Irving to hold individual workouts for teams. The second question is how does Duke react? The Blue Devils had shown the ability to attack any defense with Irving in the lineup. Irving gave Duke a dimension few teams have with his ability to break down defenses. Don’t feel too bad for Duke. Mike Krzyzewski is still loaded with talent. The Devils may have to resort back to the way they operated last year. That wasn’t a bad formula.
Victory of the week: Fordham improved to 5-4 with an 84-81 victory over St. John’s Saturday night. It was a good win for the Rams, made better by the fact they rallied from 21 down in the second half. Brenton Butler led the way with 22 points and Marvin Dominique hit the big free throws with 1:31 left. On the flip side, that’s not a good result for coach Steve Lavin, who has a senior-laden team in his first season at St. John’s.
It was a strange week for Memphis. The Tigers played aggressive defense against Kansas and hung with the Jayhawks until halftime of the Jimmy V Classic. Later in the week came the news that leading scorer Wesley Witherspoon will miss five weeks after surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right knee. Then on Sunday junior forward Angel Garcia announced he is leaving Memphis at the end of the semester to play professionally in Spain.
There are a lot of November tournaments we could do without, but thumbs up to the new Champions Classic that will feature Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State from 2011-13. Those four prominent programs will play each other at different neutral sites during the agreement on ESPN. The event begins at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15, 2011 with Duke vs. Michigan State and Kentucky vs. Kansas. Atlanta will host in 2012 at the Georgia Dome. The next season the doubleheader moves to the United Center in Chicago.
Syracuse doesn’t have a true star on its 10-0 team but give a lot of credit to senior forward Rick Jackson, who is averaging 14.0 points and 12.5 rebounds in 34.0 minutes per game. Jackson’s averages are up from 9.7 points and 7.0 rebounds last season. “Rick has been good from day one this year,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “He is as good as any inside guy you can ask for. He has been a good rebounder. He doesn’t have help out there and he is taking it upon himself to do a better job.”
Tie Talk: Self and Boeheim brought out the big ties from their closet in for the Jimmy V Classic. Self wore a red-and-blue stripped tie against Memphis. Turned out it was the same one he wore when Kansas defeated the Tigers in the 2008 national championship game. “Yeah, it is,” Self said, “but I didn’t know that when I picked it out.” Boeheim was wearing a Jimmy V brand tie for cancer research, designed by Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. “Rick Pitino paid $10,000 (at the Jimmy V auction) if I would wear this tie,” Boeheim said. “We won, so I’ll probably have to wear it again.”
Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher
(http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken’s web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).
1. You're down two points in the final seconds. You can pick one player in the nation to shoot a wide open three to win the game. Who do you pick?
Mitch Light: Well, there might be better pure shooters out there (Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins and Arkansas’ Rotnei Clarke come to mind), but I will take a seasoned veteran like Jimmer Fredette from BYU. Fredette is shooting a rather ordinary 34.4 percent from three this year, but he shot 44.0 percent as a junior when he averaged 22.1 points per game.
Nathan Rush: It's a toss up between Vanderbilt's John Jenkins and Duke's Seth Curry. I probably would have been 100 percent Jenkins until the sophomore sharpshooter disappeared at the end of Vandy's 85–82 overtime loss at Mizzou — although it's hard to be disappointed by a 23-point night on 5-of-10 shooting from long range. On the other side, Curry was the go-to guy at Liberty before transferring to Duke, so he's used to the pressure. Plus, both his brother, Stephen, and father, Dell, were deadeye shooters with ice water in their veins. Still, when it comes down to an open 3-pointer, I'll go with Jenkins, who I think should take “Reggie Miller fastbreak layup” 3s or any other half-open look he gets from beyond the arc.
Braden Gall: I really wanted to pick Jimmer Fredette from BYU. He has big-game experience, is a veteran and can flat-out shoot the rock. But Vanderbilt's John Jenkins has to be the pick. The Dores’ shooting guard is averaging 19.1 points per game and has made 27 three pointers (on 7.5 attempts per game) already this season. He has a J.J. Reddick-type stroke from the outside that is simply a rare commodity. So pure.
2. What is the best team in the nation that doesn't play in a Big Six power conference?
Mitch: It’s got to be San Diego State. The Aztecs are 9-0 with wins at Gonzaga and at Cal (by 20 points) and home wins over Saint Mary’s and Wichita State. Steve Fisher’s club has a star in sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard and a host of athletic complementary players. SDSU looks to be the best team in a very strong Mountain West Conference.
Nathan: This particular San Diego State squad could probably beat some of Steve Fisher's lesser Michigan teams from the 1990s. Athletic forwards Kawhi Leonard (16.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg), Billy White (12.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and Malcolm Thomas (9.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg) give the Aztecs a powerful frontline — Leonard is 6-7, 225 pounds; White is 6-8, 235 pounds; Thomas is 6-9, 220 pounds. Meanwhile, senior point guard D.J. Gay (11.3 ppg, 3.6 apg), Santa Clara transfer sharpshooter James Rahon (9.1 ppg, 14-of-26 from three) and Chase Tapley (8.4 ppg) have all the bases covered in the backcourt. San Diego State's roster is definitely loaded, but I worry about the team's 63.4 percent shooting from the free throw line. That must improve if the Aztecs hope to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Braden: Losses to Cal and Texas A&M made for a slow start for the Temple Owls, but they have bounced back with a win over Maryland and led for most of the way in a big resume win against Georgetown Thursday night. A school-best 9-0 start for San Diego State makes it a good choice as the Aztecs have wins over Gonzaga, Saint Mary's, Wichita State and Cal. BYU and Memphis are off to good starts with some okay wins, and both have some serious talent around the perimeter. However, a 9-0 UNLV team with wins over Wisconsin and Virginia Tech has been the most impressive. Five players are averaging at least 9.1 points per game and the Runnin' Rebs are winning by an average margin of 19.3 points. A win over Louisville on Saturday should hopefully justify my pick.
3. Which new coach is doing the best job?
Mitch: Donnie Jones has UCF off to a 7-0 start, highlighted by a 65-59 win over South Florida and a 57-54 victory over Florida and his former boss, Billy Donovan. Jones inherited a solid nucleus from Kirk Speraw, but these same players went 15-17 last season. Jones turned Marshall into a winner in three seasons in Huntington and figures to have UCF competing for C-USA titles in the near future.
Nathan: UCF's Donnie Jones could make a solid case that his team is the best in the state of Florida — following statement wins over South Florida (65–59) and Florida (57–54). If UCF takes down Miami on Dec. 18, the Sunshine State will be black and gold. Jones was Billy Donovan's right-hand man at Florida before coaching Marshall for three years. He's off to a great 7–0 start at UCF, thanks in large part to Marcus Jordan, who is averaging a team-high 16.4 points on 53.1 percent shooting from the field, 85 percent from the free throw line and 48.1 percent from downtown. If Jones' Knights keep it up, they'll be a C-USA Cinderella come March.
Braden: I will go with Donnie Jones at UCF and his 7-0 start. Yes, there are a few West Florida wins mixed in, but beating your former mentor and boss — as the Knights did when they topped the Billy-D and the Florida Gators, 57-54, last week — was especially sweet for Coach Jones.
4. Which new coach is doing the worst job?
Mitch: It’s been a rough start at for Tony Barbee at Auburn, where the Tigers are 3-4 with home losses to UNC Asheville, Samford, Campbell and Jacksonville, but he inherited arguably the weakest roster of any Big Six conference team. It’s also been a struggle for Tad Boyle at Colorado, but my answer is Jeff Bzdelik at Wake Forest (who came from Colorado). The Demon Deacons are 5-3 and have lost three game homes, to Stetson by 10, VCU by 21 and Winthrop by nine.
Nathan: The "Big Nasty" Corliss Williamson is off to an ugly start at Central Arkansas. Granted, there isn't must to work with, but Scottie Pippen's alma mater is 2–6 with a 40-point loss to Missouri State and an unsportsmanlike 71-point win over lowly Champion Baptist. Outgoing coach Rand Chappell went 104-104 over seven seasons and, for better or worse, Williamson brought the spotlight to Conway, Ark., due to his local celebrity status as a McDonald's All-American from Russellville (Ark.) High School; an SEC Player of the Year, 1994 national champion and NCAA Tournament MOP at Arkansas; and an 11-year NBA veteran. I fully expect Williamson, who had never had a coaching job until this year, to improve with experience. But he's off to a slow start.
Braden: Can I go with the Illinois equipment manager? If he/she is eligible? However, being neither a coach nor necessarily new, I would say the women's ball fiasco isn't exactly getting to the heart of the question. I know not much was expected of Auburn, but Tony Barbee's start — three straight losses to UNC-Ashville, Samford and Campbell — has to be one of the worst starts to a coaching career at an SEC school. Two narrow wins over Middle Tennessee and Arkansas-Pine Bluff packaged with another bad loss to Jacksonville, and I immediately accepted my scholarship offer to play back-up shooting guard for the Tigers.
5. Will Gonzaga make the NCAA Tournament if it does not win the WCC Tournament?
Mitch: My guess is no, but the Zags (4-4 at this point) still have several opportunities to pick up quality wins, beginning this weekend when they travel to Notre Dame. They still play Baylor in Dallas and host Xavier, Oklahoma State, Wake Forest and Memphis (though I’m not sure beating Wake would be a quality win). Three of Gonzaga’s four losses have come against top-15-type teams in San Diego State, Kansas State and Illinois, but at some point Mark Few’s club will have to start beating good teams. The best win to date is a 66-63 neutral court victory over Marquette.
Nathan: After early season losses to San Diego State (79–76), Kansas State (81–64), Illinois (73–61) and Washington State (81–59), the 4–4 Bulldogs have plenty of ground to make up if they hope to make the Big Dance as an at-large bid. Luckily, the loaded schedule will provide plenty of opportunities, with games against Notre Dame (Dec. 11), Baylor (Dec. 18), Xavier (Dec. 22), Oklahoma State (Dec. 31), Wake Forest (Jan. 2) and Memphis (Feb. 5). Right now, however, I'd say Mark Few's Zags will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998 if they don't win the WCC Tournament.
Braden: Certainly 4-4 is not what Zags fans were anticipating for the 2010-11 campaign. But the losses are great — if there is such a thing. They lost a close one to SDSU and were handled with relative ease by elite Kansas State and Illinois squads. The blowout loss at Washington State is concerning. But as usual, an incredibly difficult schedule could help rebuild the resume. Non-conference games against Xavier, Wake Forest, Oklahoma State, Memphis, Baylor and Notre Dame offer plenty of opportunity to prove their tourney stock. I think with a veteran guard in Steven Gray, a dominate post man in Robert Sacre and a rising, versatile superstar in Elias Harris (who is expected back this weekend), the Bulldogs will have enough non-conference clout to earn an automatic bid should they falter in the WCC Tournament.
By Charean Williams
Michael Vick still hears the boos. He knows his critics are out there, and nothing he can do will change their opinion of him. He understands he never again will be completely appreciated for his play on the field, no matter how brilliant.
Still, Vick vows he is not only a better quarterback on the field but a better man off of it.
“I hope people will forgive me [because of] what I do on the field,” Vick said. “But that’s just half of it. I would hope they would forgive me [because of] what I’m trying to do off the field as well.
“You can’t change people’s opinions about you, and you definitely can’t change perception. But I think and hope as time goes on that people would have a different perspective and outlook.”
Less than two years after being released from prison, Vick leads the NFL in Pro Bowl voting. He has come back from a 21-month stay behind bars as a changed passer.
Vick had never completed more than 56.4 percent of his passes or had a passer rating higher than 81.6 in his six seasons as the Atlanta Falcons’ starter. He was better known for the 1,039 yards he ran for in 2006. This season, Vick ranks second in the NFL with a 105.7 passer rating, and he has completed 63.8 percent of his passes.
“I think he’ll be the first to tell you it’s his approach,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said. “He had some time to think about it when he was incarcerated. He came out and had a plan in mind of what he wanted to do. [Offensive coordinator] Marty Mornhinweg did a phenomenal job with him. James Urban, who is his position coach, did a phenomenal job with him. Unless a player really wants to do it, it’s not going to happen. He wanted to up his game and make it better. And so he was very receptive to coaching and working out and doing all those things.”
Vick admits he hasn’t always put his all into honing his craft. In Atlanta, he got by on his natural playmaking ability.
It wasn’t until Vick got a second chance that he took his job as seriously as it required. He now says he “wasted some years” not being all he could be as a passer.
“I realized all the talents that I have and I’ve been blessed with,” Vick said. “I just wanted to take advantage of every opportunity. I thank God for blessing with a great arm, a strong arm, and I think Him for blessing me with the ability to improvise and move and make plays with my legs. I feel like why not put it all together. Just take advantage of all the opportunities I’m given, because the truth of the matter is I’m 30 years old. Who knows how much time I have left to play but maybe it’s five years, maybe it’s six years, who knows? So why not give it everything I have now.”
Jets fullback has a special friend
Jets fullback Tony Richardson has given 16-year-old Tyler Nelson his friendship, his support and tons of Jets’ gear. That doesn’t mean Nelson, who is awaiting new lungs and a new liver, has changed his NFL loyalty.
“Yeah, he’s a big Cowboys fan,” Richardson said, “but he definitely tries to watch all my games and even if he can’t watch them on television, he looks at them on the computer. He’s definitely — slowly — getting turned into a Jets fan.”
Nelson was born with cystic fibrosis, a diagnosis doctors made two days after his birth. His liver now is cirrhotic, his lungs damaged and his spleen “the size of a football,” according to his mother, Cynthia Nevels.
Nelson, who is from the Dallas suburb of Grand Prairie, has been in Houston since Oct. 22 hoping and praying for transplants. He needs them by Christmas.
Friends started a Web site — www.giftstotyler.org — to update Tyler’s condition, to raise funds to help with medical expenses and to encourage organ donor registration. Jets players Mark Sanchez, Nick Mangold and Dustin Keller have shared the link with their Twitter followers.
“I hope my story will reach other young people and help inspire them to think about registering,” Nelson said.
Richardson, who struck up his friendship with Nelson during a Make-a-Wish Foundation event at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla., in February 2009, has been inspired by Nelson.
“When we had dinner in Dallas, his mom said, ‘Oh, you’ve done so much for Tyler.’ But I think he’s done so much more for me,” Richardson said.
Fourth and short
• Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs might have earned All-Pro honors last week when he had three tackles for losses, 1.5 sacks and five quarterback hits against the Steelers. Suggs, a three-time Pro Bowler, signed a six-year, $62.5 million contract before last season. He then went out and had a career-worst season with only 4.5 sacks. But Suggs has been worth every penny this season, with a team-leading nine sacks, 55 tackles and a forced fumble.
• Falcons receiver Roddy White has 91 catches for 1,140 yards and seven touchdowns. The two-time Pro Bowler is only nine receptions shy of becoming the team’s first receiver to catch 100 balls in a season since Eric Metcalf in 1995.
• Carolina rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen is 0-6 as a starter and has thrown only one touchdown pass.
• Tom Brady, 33, never seems to age. He is playing as well right now as he did in 2007 when he threw a record 50 touchdowns. In the past two games, Brady has thrown four touchdowns and no interceptions. He has gone seven consecutive games without being picked off, while throwing 17 touchdowns in that span. For the season, Brady has 27 touchdowns and four interceptions, with an NFL-best 109.4 rating. His passer rating has been over 117.0 in each of the past four games.
• Jay Cutler has been sacked 41 times, more than any other quarterback in the league despite missing 1½ games with a concussion. Bears quarterbacks have been sacked a league-worst 45 times, five more than the 31st-ranked Cardinals, and three times as many as New England, Chicago’s opponent this week.
• Bengals receiver Terrell Owens likely has talked his way out of Cincinnati and played his way into a decent contract with another team. Owens, who turned 37 on Tuesday, has 71 receptions for 961 yards. He is on pace to finish with 95 receptions for 1,274 yards and 12 touchdowns. That would earn him only three of the six incentives in his contract (each worth $333,333), giving him a salary of $3 million this season.
• The Cardinals’ seven-game losing streak is the longest since the team lost eight consecutive games in 2006. At 3-9, the Cardinals are assured of having their first losing record in four seasons under coach Ken Whisenhunt.
• Money might not be a factor in the Broncos’ coaching search despite owing Mike Shanahan $3.5 million and Josh McDaniels $5.4 million over two seasons. The Broncos don’t seem fazed by the fact that they will be paying three head coaches next season.
• Packers kicker Mason Crosby has been ice cold when the weather turns frigid. He is 13-of-21 on field-goal attempts when the game-time temperature is 32 degrees or below.
• Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has had four personal foul penalties this season, five if the illegal hit on Jake Delhomme in the preseason is counted. He was fined $7,500 for the hit on Delhomme.
• Texans running back Arian Foster leads the NFL with 1,230 rushing yards and 1,709 yards from scrimmage. He also leads the league with 98 first downs. On third down, he has 27 carries and 20 first downs (74.1 percent). Second is Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew at 43.5 percent. Foster is tied with Cleveland’s Peyton Hillis at converting 3rd-and-1 runs, and he leads in 3rd-and-2 runs. Foster also has caught more third-down passes (18) than any back in the league.
• Peyton Manning won his record fourth MVP award last year with 4,500 passing yards, 33 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. This season, he has 3,709 yards passing with 24 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Eleven of his picks have come in the past three games.
• The average margin of defeat for Indianapolis this season is 6.8 points.
• Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew has compiled five 100-yard games in a row. He had a career-high 186 yards against the Titans, and he has 1,177 yards on 261 carries for the season.
• Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali has a career-high 10 sacks this season. That gives him 37 career sacks. He also has forced three fumbles in 2010, giving him 17 forced fumbles over his career. In nine career starts against San Diego, Hali has 4.5 sacks.
• Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne has five three-interception games in 23 starts, with a 12-11 record. Three of those three-interception games have come in his past eight starts. Henne has thrown 25 interceptions in his past 15 starts.
• Vikings defensive end Jared Allen had only one sack in the first seven games of the season. He has 7.5 the past five games.
• The Patriots have won 14 consecutive regular-season home games. They have not lost a regular-season game in Foxboro since Nov. 30, 2008.
• Saints rookie running back Chris Ivory has two 100-yard rushing games this season. It marks the first time a Saints’ running back has had two 100-yard rushing games in a season since Deuce McAllister did it in 2006. From 2007-09, the Saints had just four players rush for 100 yards in 48 regular-season games.
• Sean Payton has won 10 of his past 11 games against AFC competition, including a victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. The Saints lost to the Browns 30-17 on Oct. 24.
• The Giants are 9-1 when Brandon Jacobs runs for at least 100 yards.
• The Jets are 8-0 against teams at or below .500 and 1-3 against teams with winning records.
• Jets kicker Nick Folk has missed six of his past 12 field-goal attempts.
• The Raiders are 4-0 against division opponents. The reason: They are running and not being run over. In four division games this season, Oakland has 160 rushes for 802 yards and nine touchdowns. Their opponents — the Chargers twice, the Chiefs and the Broncos — have 83 carries for 291 yards and one touchdown.
• Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall topped 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season, but his average per carry has dipped to 3.9. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season.
• Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is one win shy of tying Dave Krieg as the team’s all-time winningest quarterback. Krieg won 70 games from 1981-90.
• Rams quarterback Sam Bradford has thrown only two interceptions in his past seven games, or 246 pass attempts. In the past seven games, all other NFL quarterbacks have thrown 219 interceptions.
• The Titans have gone 13 quarters without an offensive touchdown.
• Nose tackle Albert Haynesworth likely has played his last game in Washington. Haynesworth has received all but $9 million of the $41 million he was guaranteed in the seven-year, $100 million deal he signed before last season. In return, the Redskins received 77 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 43 hurries, a fumble recovery and seven passes defensed in 20 games, 12 of those starts. Washington was 7-13 when he was on the field.
Athlon's Mitch Light, Nathan Rush and Braden Gall debate five burning questions in college basketball each week.
1. Which league do you think will end up being the best?
Mitch Light: The Big East has been very strong, but I still believe the Big Ten will be the best league in the country. The Big Ten has two Final Four-caliber teams in Michigan State and Ohio State and several other Sweet 16-type teams in Minnesota, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin. I also think Northwestern will be an NCAA Tournament team. The Big East obviously has a lot of top-25-caliber teams as well, but there are more bad teams in the Big East than the Big Ten, which brings the league down a bit.
Nathan Rush: The Big Ten looks pretty tough right now. Michigan State and Tom Izzo are annual national title contenders. Ohio State is powerful with freshman big man Jared Sullinger and athletic wing William Buford leading the way. Purdue is not as good as it would be with a healthy Robbie Hummel, but the Boilermakers are a solid team with Sweet 16 potential. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin are a well-coached overachievers. The conference is so deep, I almost left out Illinois, a team with plenty of upside.
Braden Gall: Despite its second straight win the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Big Ten is not the best league in college hoops. The ‘Beast’ conference is simply deeper than any basketball conference ever assembled. But it’s not just a numbers game. UConn beat Michigan State and Kentucky to win Maui. They were picked seventh in the BE. Notre Dame won the underrated Old Spice Classic. They were picked ninth in the preseason. Pitt won the 2K Classic. Georgetown won the Charleston Classic. Villanova and West Virginia were runners-up in the preseason NIT and Puerto Rico Tip-Off, respectively. Louisville, Cincinnati (both picked 10th or worse) and Syracuse are still unbeaten as well.
2. Name a team outside the current AP top 10 that could make the Final Four.
Mitch: I won’t include Georgetown because the Hoyas, currently ranked No. 16, likely will be in the top 10 next after their thrilling OT win at Missouri. How about Illinois? The Illini have a nice blend of experience and youth, and they have a senior point guard in Demetri McCamey who is playing the best ball of his career. This is clearly Bruce Weber’s best team since the 2005 Illini lost in the national title game.
Nathan: Texas is currently ranked No. 19 in the AP poll, but I think the Longhorns have the talent and chemistry to make a run to the Final Four. Rick Barnes’ team will lean heavily on a pair of freshmen in center Tristan Thompson and point guard Cory Joseph. But this is a unique duo. Thompson and Joseph play together on the Canadian Junior National Team and were teammates on a Findlay (Nev.) Prep team that won back-to-back ESPN RISE national titles and ended last year ranked No. 1 in the USA Today poll. The winning track record of Thompson and Joseph — plus the surrounding talent of wing scorer Jordan Hamilton, senior forward Gary Johnson and point guards J’Covan Brown and Jai Lucas — gives this Horns squad a chance to make a surprise run in March.
Braden: I would be willing to bet that at least one from outside the current top 10 will make the trip to Houston. The finalists for me were Villanova, Florida, Purdue, Vanderbilt, Gonzaga and Illinois. I am going with Nova though. I love Maalik Wayns, but he has some growing up to do — the sky is the limit though. Corey Fisher is a veteran guard who can run the team if need be. They have a humble, hard-working (very talented) big man in Mouphtaou Yarou. Sprinkle in names like Stokes, Armwood, Cheek and Pena and you have quite a deep rotation for the well-dressed Jay Wright. To top if off, most of this group was around for the Final Four run in ‘09.
3. Which current AP top 25 team is the most overrated?
Mitch: This might be a bit hypocritical, but I will go with UConn, who we have ranked No. 4 in the Athlon Sports top 25. UConn, ranked No. 7 in the AP, deserves its top-10 ranking based on its strong early season resume (wins over Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky), but I’m not sure the Huskies are one of the 10 best teams in the nation. Kemba Walker has been brilliant, and Alex Oriakhi has been a beast down low, but this is not a roster loaded with talent. They could very well prove me wrong, but I would be surprised if this team remains in the top 10 all season.
Nathan: Just because John Calipari could walk a tightrope with an all freshman lineup at Memphis doesn’t mean that Josh Pastner should follow the same formula. After struggling to beat a one-win Arkansas State team, 78–71 in overtime, on Wednesday night, Pastner’s No. 15-ranked Tigers have a lot of work to do before being considered a lock for the Sweet 16 — as they were when Coach Cal ran the show.
Braden: Minnesota leap into the rankings was way too knee-jerk. They have a nice roster and an excellent coach — and two good wins over North Carolina and West Virginia. But Virginia just went into the Barn and beat them by eight, and watch out come Big Ten play. Their first two games are at Wisconsin and at Michigan State, followed by Indiana at home, at Ohio State and Purdue at home. A 2-3 record to start conference play might be the best they can hope for. My default answer will always be Kansas State, however, until proven otherwise. I am not a Frank Martin believer.
4. Name a team that impressed you during the holiday tournaments.
Mitch: Tennessee looked great against Villanova to win the NIT Season Tip-Off, but the Vols’ road to the finals (Belmont and Missouri State at home, and VCU in New York) wasn’t overly taxing. So I will go with Minnesota, which beat Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia in a four-day period to win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. The Gophers are deep, athletic and have great size. They lost at home to Virginia in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, but point guard Al Nolen was out — and this question was about play in a holiday tournament.
Nathan: Duke proved it belongs at No. 1 with a hard-fought 84–79 victory over Michigan State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Freshman point guard Kyrie Irving was particularly impressive with a line of 31 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocked shots, while thriving in the type of leadership role not usually placed on the shoulders of a Coach K rookie. This Duke team could be better than last year’s national title winner — that’s impressive.
Braden: Notre Dame and Tennessee tied. After losing two of the best to ever suit up for the Irish in recent memory, Tory Jackson and Luke Harangody, Mike Brey’s bunch won the Old Spice Classic by beating a disciplined Wisconsin team, an athletic Georgia squad and Cal. Freshman Eric Atkins is contributing 26 minutes per game and distributing the ball well (3.3 apg). Tim Abromaitis and Ben Hansbrough offer veteran scoring, and Carleton Scott could emerge very quickly as a star — he leads team in rebounds (7.8) and blocks (2.1). The Vols were very impressive in their NIT tourney win. Melvin Goins played extraordinary defense, Tobias Harris supplies an consistent post threat ,and even Scotty Hopson is showing signs of maturity and growth as a rebounder, defender and leader.
5. Which score was the most surprising this week?
Mitch: Wisconsin 87, NC State 48. It was no surprise that Wisconsin won this game, especially since it was in Madison and the Wolfpack were playing without big man Tracy Smith. But there is no excuse for a team with as much talent as NC State — even if the better players are freshmen — to lose by 39 points. Wisconsin is good — but not that good.
Nathan: Central Florida took down Florida, 57–54, as Marcus Jordan — His Airness’ son — scored 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting. The win moves the Golden Knights to 6–0 and could drop the Gators out of the top 25 after many predicted coach Billy Donovan’s team would bounce back to contend for an SEC title this season. The win was especially sweet for first-year UCF coach Donnie Jones, who won two national titles during his 11 seasons as Donovan’s right-hand man in Gainesville.
Braden: Kansas 77, UCLA 76. Kansas is a top-5 team that is unbeaten, the favorite to win the conference and make a deep tournament run. UCLA has lost three straight, albeit to good teams, but is in more of a rebuilding mode. The Jayhawks needed a mass of confusion and an “interesting” foul with 0.7 seconds left to get the win. It was athletic wing Tyler Honeycutt’s coming out party as he went for 33 points, nine rebounds, four assists and a pair of blocks. If he could take better care of the ball, he could blossom into a Pac-10 P.O.Y candidate.
Auburn (-5.5) vs. South Carolina
The Tigers passed their most difficult test of the season last week — and did so in dramatic fashion. Auburn rallied from 24–0 deficit in the second quarter to stun rival Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Now, Gene Chizik’s club turns its attention to South Carolina in a rematch of a game played in late September won by Auburn, 35–27. The Gamecocks had leads of 20–7 in the second quarter and 27–21 in the third but made too many mistakes in the second half. The key for Auburn was limiting Marcus Lattimore’s effectiveness. South Carolina threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns, but the running game was not a factor. And that has been the theme in South Carolina’s three losses — Lattimore had 33 yards vs. Auburn, did not play in the second half due to injury against Kentucky and had only 30 yards against Arkansas. Auburn isn’t known for its stout defense, but the Tigers held Alabama’s dynamic duo in check last week; Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram combined for 60 yards on 20 carries.
Auburn 28, South Carolina 20
Oklahoma (-4.5) vs. Nebraska
Nebraska fell a bit short of its ultimate goal (a shot at the national title), but the Huskers would love nothing more than to win the Big 12 title in their final season in the league. There is no doubt Bo Pelini will have his team ready to play. Nebraska should have Taylor Martinez back at quarterback after he sat out the Colorado game with various injuries. The Huskers survived without him, but this team needs a healthy Martinez running the show to beat a team as good as Oklahoma. The Sooners are playing their best football at the right time of the year. They have won three straight games, topping Texas Tech, 45–7, Baylor, 53–23, and outlasting Oklahoma State, 47–41, in a classic Bedlam Series Showdown. The key matchup in this game will be OU’s offense vs. the stout Nebraska defense. Oklahoma is scoring a ton of points, but the Huskers are allowing only 16.8 points per game.
Oklahoma 27, Nebraska 20
Virginia Tech (-4) vs. Florida State
It might not be the title game the ACC had hoped for (NC State playing in Charlotte would have been a huge draw), but this is still a solid matchup between two very good teams. Virginia Tech has won 10 straight games since its inexplicable loss to James Madison in Week 2. The Hokies are getting very good play from quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and the defense, as usual, has been outstanding. Florida State lost two league games by a total of six points and had the ball in the red zone in the closing minutes in each game. The Seminoles are two plays away from being 11–1 overall and 8–0 in the league. Florida State will be the best offense Virginia Tech has faced since its Week 1 showdown with Boise State. The Noles are balanced and have a savvy senior running the show in quarterback Christian Ponder. This game is taking a backseat to the marquee showdowns in the Big 12 and SEC, but the ACC title game should be very interesting.
Virginia Tech 27, Florida State 24
SMU (+9) at UCF
SMU secured its first trip to the Conference USA title game by beating East Carolina on the road, 45–38, in overtime last weekend. The Mustangs have made a rapid ascent under June Jones, who went 1–11 in 2008 and 8–5 in ’09, his first two seasons on the job. UCF is making its third trip to the conference title game under George O’Leary. The Knights have been explosive on offense in 2010, especially in the last two months of the season. Led by true freshman quarterback Jeffrey Godrey, UCF has scored 35 points or more in seven of its last eight games. This team is 9–3 overall, with two of its losses against BCS conference teams (Kansas State and NC State) by an average of 6.5 points. SMU is good, but UCF is better — and at home.
UCF 38, SMU 30
Miami (Ohio) (+17.5) vs. Northern Illinois
They’ve been flying under the radar in the MAC, but Miami is arguably the most improved team in the nation in 2010. After stumbling through a 1–11 record in Mike Haywood’s first season, the RedHawks have increased their win total by seven games and captured the MAC East title with a 7–1 record in league play. Northern Illinois, on the other hand, was expected to be good — and the Huskies have more than lived up to the hype. Jerry Kill’s club is 10–2 overall and a perfect 8–0 in the MAC. The Huskies won at Minnesota and lost by six at Illinois and 17 at Iowa State. This is an explosive club that has outgained its opponents in league play by an average of 200 yards per game. Miami is a nice story, but Northern Illinois is a dominant team.
Northern Illinois 40, Miami (Ohio) 14
Nevada (+9) at Louisiana Tech
The Wolf Pack, fresh off their monumental win over Boise State, need one more win to wrap up a share of their first WAC title since 2005. There is potential for a letdown, but with so much at stake, veteran coach Chris Ault will have his team ready to play. Louisiana Tech has proven it can move the football and score some points; the Bulldogs have scored at least 34 points in four of their past five games. But this team really struggles on defense. Louisiana Tech ranks 114th in the nation in yards allowed (456.9) and has been torched by every decent team on its schedule — Texas A&M (48 points), Navy (37), Hawaii (41), Boise State (49) and Fresno State (40).
Nevada 44, Louisiana Tech 20
Oregon (-16.5) at Oregon State
In each of the past two seasons, Oregon State needed to beat Oregon in the Civil War to advance to the Rose Bowl. Didn’t happen. The Ducks won 65–38 in Corvallis in 2008 and 37–33 in Eugene in ’09. So can Oregon State return the favor and crush Oregon’s national title hopes? Not likely. The Ducks are simply too good, and the Beavers are simply too mediocre. Oregon State is 5-6 overall and 4-4 in the Pac-10. The Beavers have lost three of their past four games, including a stunning 31-14 setback at home to Washington State and a 38-0 shutout at Stanford last week. There is nothing on this team’s resume that suggests they can hang with the powerful Ducks.
Oregon 41, Oregon State 20
Connecticut (+1.5) at South Florida
The Huskies are one win away from securing a spot in the first BCS bowl game in school history. This team has come along way since mid-September, when it dropped to 1–2 after a troubling 30–16 loss at Temple. UConn has since won six of eight games, with one of the losses by one point (at Rutgers). South Florida, too, is playing its best ball in the latter half of the season. The Bulls have won four of five, though all four wins have come by eight points or less, including three by three points or less. South Florida is having issues at quarterback. Sophomore B.J. Daniels is questionable; he returned to practice this week, but his availability is not known. If he can’t go, true freshman Bobby Eveld (8-of-15, 120 yards vs. Miami) will get the call. The uncertainty at quarterback is a concern, but I like USF.
South Florida 24, UConn 14
USC (-6.5) at UCLA
Has a UCLA-USC game been less intriguing? Not since I’ve been following college football. But the game is on the schedule, so I figured I’d go ahead and add it to the list. USC seemed to gain some momentum in the middle the season, but that was lost with consecutive losses to Oregon State and Notre Dame. The Trojans do expect to get quarterback Matt Barkley back this week, which should help. UCLA has been struggling in the last half of the season, losing five of six games — and looking bad doing so. The Bruins have been dreadful on offense, ranking 101st in total offense and 103rd in scoring offense. It will be difficult for UCLA to score enough to win this game.
USC 24, UCLA 10
Washington (-6) at Washington State
Washington State is an improved team, but it’s an indictment on Washington that the Huskies are only a six-point favorite against the Cougars. Wazzu did win its last game — a stunning 31–14 victory at Oregon State — but this has been the worst BCS conference program in the nation over the last three years (and it hasn’t been close). Washington is 4–4 in the league, but due to a tough non-conference schedule (BYU, Nebraska, Syracuse) the Huskies are only 5-6 overall and need to beat Wazzu to return to a bowl game for the first time since 2002. Think about that: A program that won a national title as recently as 1991 is in the midst of a seven-year bowl drought.
Washington 30, Washington State 14
Last week: 7–3 overall (7–3 against the spread)
Season: 89–41 overall (68–57–5 against the spread)
By Charean Williams
Peyton Manning hasn’t been Peyton Manning the past two games, but the Indianapolis Colts haven’t been the Indianapolis Colts.
Manning has thrown seven interceptions the past two games, the most interceptions he has thrown in back-to-back games in his 13-year career.
The Colts lost both games — to the Patriots and to the Chargers — and sit 6-5. They aren’t used to being here. They started 14-0 last season, had a nine-game winning streak to close out the 2008 season, started 7-0 in 2007, started 9-0 in 2006 and started 13-0 in 2005.
“It’s certainly not fun coming in on Monday after a loss,” Manning said. “We’ve had many a season where we haven’t had many of those at all. It’s not surprising if you aren’t playing as well, executing as well, as you have in the past or as you should be doing. It ends up costing you ball games. It’s a hole that we put ourselves in. It’s a tremendous challenge, but it’s a tremendous opportunity. We have five games left. … We’ve got to find a way to dig our way out of this hole. As an old coach used to say: ‘Keep sawing wood.’ That’s all we know how to do.”
Manning remains a candidate for league MVP, an award he’s won an NFL-record four times. Manning has been the Colts’ offense, which ranks first in the NFL, and he is one of three passers with more than 3,300 passing yards this season. But he has fallen to 15th in passer rating at 90.8.
He hasn’t gotten much help.
The Colts have 13 players on injured reserve, including two of Manning’s favorite weapons in tight end Dallas Clark and receiver Anthony Gonzalez. Manning has completed passes to 14 different players.
Running back Joseph Addai has played in only six games as has running back Mike Hart, and the Colts rank 29th in rushing offense.
The Colts’ patchwork offensive line is getting Manning hit at an alarming rate, though he has been sacked only 13 times.
“I do think that, without question, he can’t do it all by himself,” Colts Coach Jim Caldwell said. “That’s why it’s a team game. So we just got to keep trying to win and get better, and you’ll see things improve.”
Manning admits all the moving parts have made it more difficult for him this season. But all is not lost: The Colts are tied for first place in the AFC South.
“Certainly, it has been a challenge from that standpoint, because of the different players playing,” Manning said. “It’s also different players practicing. Even some of the guys who are healthy aren’t always able to practice, which can affect your continuity and flow. But it’s something we have to deal with. All teams deal with it at different times. It’s something you have to work through.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity for some young guys, some different guys.”
Goodson makes good
The Panthers have DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who last season became the first teammates to have 1,100-yard rushing seasons in the same season. There weren’t many carries left for Mike Goodson, the team’s fourth-round draft pick in 2009.
Injuries to Williams, Stewart and Tyrell Sutton gave Goodson his first start and his first extended action.
“We just wait on the next guy, and whoever is up, goes,” Goodson said.
Goodson played in only eight games and had only 22 carries for 49 yards as a rookie. He had only 16 carries for 50 yards in the first eight games this season. All he needed, apparently, was a chance.
Goodson has made good the past three games as the Panthers’ feature back. He had 23 carries for 100 yards against the Bucs and 22 carries for 120 yards against the Ravens. Against the Browns, Goodson scored his first career touchdown and had 81 yards receiving.
In the past three games, Goodson has 59 carries for 275 yards and a touchdown and 16 receptions for 125 yards.
“I was ready,” said Goodson, who played at Texas A&M. “I got ready in my mind. I knew I had to take on the load. I just put it in my mind that I was going to do it, and I think I did pretty well for the first two games.”
Goodson, who has bulked up to 215 pounds after arriving at 190, still has work to do. He has fumbled three times, losing one.
But Goodson might not be long for the job, even with what he’s done. Stewart returned last week and had 12 carries for 98 yards.
“I leave those decisions to them,” Goodson said. “I’m just going to take what they give me and run with it. The opportunities I get, I can only try to do my best, so that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
Fourth and short
• Seven NFC teams already have seven victories. Those seven teams are fighting for five playoff berths. The Bears and the Saints have tough roads ahead, with their remaining opponents having a combined record of 31-24.
• Bengals running back Cedric Benson has grown increasingly frustrated. He had 18 carries for 41 yards last week, and with only two 100-yard games this season, he has only 788 yards. Benson had six 100-yard games last season in rushing for 1,251 yards in 13 games. With his contract up after this season, Benson is playing for his future.
• The Cardinals’ six-game losing streak is the longest since the team lost eight consecutive games in 2006. At 3-8, the Cardinals are assured of having their first non-winning season since 2007.
• Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has 12 career game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.
• Since 2006, the Ravens are 4-1 against the Steelers when they allow two or fewer sacks.
• Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had a perfect single-game passer rating of 158.3 against the Lions on Thanksgiving, becoming just the sixth quarterback in NFL history to post multiple perfect passer rating games in a career.
• Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell has a completion percentage of 54.7 through eight games — seven starts — after being a 62.4 percent passer in 1,430 attempts in 45 starts with Washington from 2007-09.
• Steelers linebacker James Harrison has been fined $125,000 for four illegal hits this season.
• Running back Tashard Choice will get more carries this week in place of an injured Marion Barber. But it’s clear the Cowboys view him as the No. 3 back behind Barber and Felix Jones. He will only get opportunities because of injury and or situation. He has only 38 yards on 14 carries this season, and 45 yards receiving on nine catches. Choice has said the Cowboys assured him that his fumble that was returned for a touchdown by Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall in the season opener did not play a part in his lack of touches.
• Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew has had four consecutive 100-yard games for the first time in his career. He is nearing the 1,000-yard mark, having gained 991 yards on 230 carries.
• Dwayne Bowe finally is living up to the expectations the Chiefs had for him when they made him a first-round draft pick in 2007. Bowe spent last season in Todd Haley’s dog house. This season, Haley has nothing but praise for Bowe, who has 58 catches for 885 yards and a league-leading 14 touchdowns. Bowe had only 16 touchdowns in his first three seasons combined.
• Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has thrown 17 touchdowns and three interceptions since Week 3.
• The Bears were undefeated in November for the first time since the 2005 team also went 4-0 en route to an 11-5 season.
• Peyton Hillis has 905 yards and 11 touchdowns, joining Hall of Famers Leroy Kelly and Jim Brown as the only Browns backs to score 11 touchdowns in a season.
• Oakland has fallen from second in the NFL in rushing at over 162 yards per game to fifth at 139.7. Darren McFadden has only 16 yards on 18 carries in his past two games.
By Ralph Vacchiano
When Spygate first broke in 2007, the NFL came down hard on New England’s Evil Empire. They hammered the Patriots and Bill Belichick for illegally filming the signals of Jets coaches, and the punishment was deservedly harsh.
The Pats were fined $250,000. Belichick was fined $500,000. And the Patriots were stripped of their first-round draft pick in 2008.
So how did the Denver Broncos get off with not much more than a slap on the wrist for Spygate II?
The league sent a terrible and maddeningly inconsistent message last week when it fined the Broncos $50,000 and coach Josh McDaniels $50,000 for illegally taping the San Francisco 49ers’ walkthrough practice before a game in London four weeks ago.
How much that tape would actually help a team the day before the game might be up for debate. What’s not up for debate is that the Broncos had it, thanks to the team’s director of video operations Steve Scarnecchia. By the way, Scarnecchia worked for Belichick and the Patriots before Spygate I, and was working for the Jets when that scandal erupted. In fact, he’s reportedly the Jets employee who tipped off the league.
And in case you’re noticing a pattern, McDaniels was on Belichick’s Spygate staff, so the apples in this case haven’t fallen far from the tree. It’s a dangerous pattern, too, one that is going to envelop all former Belichick employees in a cloud of suspicion. It’s a direct assault on the integrity of the league.
So why the wrist slap? It seems that the Broncos avoided a major punishment because McDaniels never looked at the tape and turned Scarnecchia into the league. According to the letter that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, the NFL concluded that “the coach had no interest in the material and did not in fact watch the tape (and) did not show the tape to any other member of the coaching staff.”
Fine. And good for McDaniels. But why wasn’t Scarnecchia fired on the spot, instead of three weeks later? And why did it take McDaniels nine days to inform his bosses? And then why did it take the Broncos another four days to inform the league?
If nothing else, they sure did a wonderful job of making it look like they were covering something up.
“I made a mistake,” McDaniels said. “I made a mistake, and I should have done that right away. We felt we handled it the right way by not doing anything with that, but I did not follow through with it.”
Even if McDaniels is to be believed, that he never looked at the tape and it was simply an oversight that he kept the secret for more than a week, the punishment still should have been harsher — especially since he and Scarnecchia are repeat offenders, at least by association. It’s an “integrity of the game” issue, as the NFL made clear, and they can’t play games with that. Fining an ultra-rich team owner $50,000 while he’s running a franchise in an $8 billion per year industry is like a mosquito biting an elephant. It’s hardly an annoyance at all.
It shouldn’t be surprising, though, because this is a league that is insanely inconsistent with what it chooses to get upset about and who it slaps with financial penalties. It has admirably begun cracking down on dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits, doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. But the players say it’s almost impossible to tell what warrants a fine and what doesn’t. The consistency — either with the hits or the amounts — just isn’t there.
And then there are fines like the $25,000 Chad Ochocinco received for using Twitter during a preseason game — a violation of the NFL’s social media policy. That’s the same fine Randy Moss got for not talking to the media — though why the NFL chose to fine him, instead of the dozens of other players violating the media policy, was never made clear.
Were those violations as fine-worthy as the ugly fight last weekend between Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan and Houston receiver Andre Johnson? Both of them got $25,000 fines, too. Come to think of it, Giants running back Brandon Jacobs didn’t even get half that amount when he threw his helmet like a missile into the stands in Indianapolis in Week 2 ($10,000). But he came close, getting a $20,000 fine, when he cursed and made obscene gestures at the fans in Philadelphia in Week 11.
In other words, he got twice as much for hurling insults towards fans as he did for hurling a dangerous object.
It makes no sense. Just like it makes no sense that the Broncos — the entire organization — got only double the fines that players got for fighting, Tweeting or not talking, despite what sure looked like an organizational attempt to conceal a scandal. And McDaniels, the man behind it, got one-tenth the fine that Belichick got for essentially the same offense (though, to be fair, he may end up paying for it with his job).
So what’s to stop another team from doing what the Broncos did? They could tape a walkthrough, watch it, then insist they didn’t and turn themselves in. If it helps them win and get into the playoffs, wouldn’t it be worth $50,000? Would it be worth it for a coach to write a $50,000 check if it helped him keep his job?
None of that is to say that McDaniels was guilty of anything other than bad judgment in not immediately reporting an illegal act. This whole, sordid, ugly incident might have happened exactly the way he said. But his guilt isn’t really the point. It’s about the appearance of his guilt and the message a harsh punishment would sent.
The NFL had a responsibility to protect both the integrity and the image of its sport. They didn’t because their punishment didn’t go nearly far enough.
By Ken Davis
It’s relatively safe to predict at least one lull by the Connecticut Huskies Tuesday night against New Hampshire at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. It might be caused by the final remnants of jet lag. Or it could be the overconfidence that results from coming out of nowhere (almost) to win the Maui Invitational.
But it will happen.
Carrying a championship trophy home from an exotic location like the Hawaiian islands can lead to a strain of complacency — even in this reality-based age of TSA pat-downs. But coach Jim Calhoun has been around the block a time or two. And he can be more imposing than any TSA agent. At the first sign of difficulty, he will call timeout and bring Kemba Walker and the Huskies back to the mainland with a verbal assault worse than any body scan ever invented.
It’s a good problem for the Huskies. Returning as Maui champions is a much better alternative than anything offered by the loser’s bracket. Depending on what happens the rest of the season, the Huskies should look back at their first-round victory over Wichita State and call it the turning point. We weren’t kidding last week when we wrote the Maui opener could set the tone for UConn’s season. The Huskies were fortunate (not lucky, but fortunate) to get past Wichita State, especially after Walker got into first-half foul trouble.
Instead of dropping into the wrong side of the bracket and facing Chaminade, UConn got a shot at No. 2 Michigan State and made the most of it. In fact, the Huskies literally grew up overnight. UConn outcoached and outplayed the Spartans. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish against Tom Izzo’s program. But UConn was not the same team that observers — or coaches — had seen in preseason drills or the early portion of the regular season.
The Huskies, led by the scoring of Walker and the rebounding of Alex Oriakhi, then handled Kentucky impressively in the championship game. The team picked to finish 10th in the Big East won the most prestigious Thanksgiving week tournament.
The main topic of conversation has been Walker, who was unstoppable in Maui and now has scored 150 points in five games. Walker has been remarkable. Around the state of Connecticut, where expectations were low coming off an NIT season and a summer dominated by talk of NCAA allegations, the reaction was pure joy. That was based on UConn’s approach to playing more than anything else.
The Huskies proved they will be fun to watch again. Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards were not leaders, and as last season progressed the fan base was turned off by their lack of aggression and intensity. Walker and co-captain Donnell Beverly have set a different tone, whether it has been in workouts or gathering for team meals prepared by Walker. This is a young squad that appreciates the leadership and direction. The desire to learn was evident early. Now the desire to win has returned to the program after a brief but disturbing absence.
Walker and Oriakhi, averaging 13.4 points and 12 rebounds, have responded to the heavy demands place on them. But they didn’t win Maui alone.
Freshman guard Shabazz Napier is playing outstanding on-ball defense. His shot selection needs improvement, but Calhoun has already learned that Napier can run the offense, while Walker stays on the floor and gets a rest from handling the ball every minute. German import Niels Giffey seems to have a high basketball IQ and made backdoor cuts that haven’t been part of UConn’s offense in recent years — if ever. Jeremy Lamb looks solid and steady at guard. Roscoe Smith is teasing with his raw potential and athletic ability.
One lingering concern is finding help up front for Oriakhi. What happens if Oriakhi gets into foul trouble or has an off night? Charles Okwandu is not the answer and never will be. Freshman Tyler Olander, a big surprise the first three weeks of practice, has a lot to learn and could be physically overmatched once Big East play begins.
Suddenly the challenges of a Big East schedule aren’t too far away. UConn opens at Pittsburgh on Dec. 27 — a showdown that will dominate Calhoun’s thoughts on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
But after Maui, the holidays seem much brighter for the Huskies.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
If you were watching college basketball during your Thanksgiving break, you may have heard more than one TV analyst say that Connecticut point guard Kemba Walker has been the best player in the nation at this stage of the season. No argument here. We were impressed by his 42 point performance against Vermont on Nov. 17 and named him POW in last week’s notebook. Then he went to the Maui Invitational and really shook things up. Walker scored 90 points in three games as the Huskies shocked the field and won the Maui championship with impressive victories over Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky. Don’t forget his 12 assists and eight steals. During the tournament, an earthquake centered on the Big Island could be felt in the Lahaina Civic Center. We’re still awaiting confirmation that Walker caused the Earth to move.
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
With so much attention given to the ineligibility of freshman center Enes Kanter and the debut of point guard Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones was under the radar as he began his career at Kentucky. Jones changed that last week in Maui. Walker overshadowed the 6-9 Wildcat forward, but Jones was sensational in all three games — 29 points, 13 rebounds vs. Oklahoma; 16 points, 17 rebounds vs. Washington; and 24 points, four rebounds vs. UConn. Jones leads Kentucky in scoring (21.2 ppg) and rebounding (10.2 rpg) through five games, is shooting 50 percent from the floor and 46.2 percent on threes.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Monday, Nov. 29
Virginia at Minnesota
The Golden Gophers, led by guard Blake Hoffarber, are 6-0 heading into the start of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Virginia is 3-3 with losses to Stanford, Washington and Wichita State.
Tuesday, Nov. 30
Georgetown vs. Missouri
The Hoyas of the Big East visit the Tigers of the Big 12 in Kansas City. Austin Freeman is averaging 20.2 points to lead Georgetown. Marcus Denmon, Ricardo Ratliffe and Laurence Bowers share the scoring load for MU.
North Carolina at Illinois
Not exactly the 2005 national championship game, but this should be an interesting offering from the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Carolina is searching for some offense.
Wednesday, Dec. 1
Purdue at Virginia Tech
The Boilermakers suffered a surprising setback against Richmond and will have a tough time bouncing back at Tech.
Michigan State at Duke
Could this be a preview of the national championship game? Both teams are capable of going that far. Only time will tell. Sneak preview or not, this should be fun.
Thursday, Dec. 2
Arizona State at Baylor
Baylor has LaceDarius Dunn back from his suspension. He scored 24 points with seven 3-pointers in his return against Lipscomb. Now it is time for the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series.
UCLA at Kansas
The Jayhawks are entering the Pac-10 portion of their schedule. Kansas is coming off a victory over Arizona and welcome the Bruins to Allen Fieldhouse next. Bill Self’s team plays USC on Dec. 18 and at Cal on Dec. 22.
Friday, Dec. 3
Saint Joseph’s at Villanova
Bad timing for Saint Joseph’s to open Big Five play with Villanova. The Wildcats are coming of their first loss to Tennessee on Friday night.
Saturday, Dec. 4
Kentucky at North Carolina
Two historic programs, two successful coaches, and two of the top recruiting classes for 2010 — all in one big game.
Butler vs. Duke
They gave us a great national championship game in Indy. Now the site will be East Rutherford, N.J. Duke might be significantly better than the 2010 national championship team. Butler is struggling out of the gates.
Sunday, Dec. 5
Temple at Maryland
Temple is struggling in every aspect of the game. The Owls lost to Cal and Texas A&M over Thanksgiving weekend and playing the Terps in College Park is never easy.
THEY SAID IT:
“I was trailing the play, so I knew [Tyshawn Taylor] was going to throw it. It was a good pass, but it was an even better catch. Coach [Bill] Self always says to put it in with two hands, but there was no way he could do it on that one.” — Kansas guard Tyrel Reed, commenting on a powerful one-handed catch and slam dunk by teammate Thomas Robinson during an 87-79 victory over Arizona.
“I don’t know how he caught that. It wasn’t a great pass, but that was a big-time play.” — Bill Self, talking about the same play.
“It was like the bully at lunchtime out on the playground.” — Cal coach Mike Montgomery, describing his halftime scolding to his team Friday when the Golden Bears trailed Notre Dame 21-5.
“I was trying to do the math. I’ve never had 21 points at halftime and been up 16.” — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, commenting on that first half against Cal.
“I have a lot of respect for him. I know he’s a good guy. I do know it. I know he has integrity. This business is tough. It can get to you. He might have skipped, but I admire the way he’s handling all of it. His team, man, he’s doing a great job coaching.” — Villanova coach Jay Wright, on embattled Tennessee coach Bruce Peal.
• How many Mountain West teams can command our attention? BYU, San Diego State and UNLV are all 6-0 and New Mexico has started 4-1. Steve Fisher’s Aztecs are receiving the most national love in the rankings but Lon Kruger’s Runnin’ Rebels turned a few heads while winning the 76 Classic at Anaheim, Calif. Kruger has brought together a band of transfers from major programs and kept his philosophy of emphasizing defense first. Chace Stanback (UCLA transfer) had 17 points and eight rebounds and was named most outstanding player as UNVL topped Virginia Tech 71-59 in the tourney’s title game. Quintrell Thomas (Kansas), Tre’Von Willis (Memphis) and Anthony Marshall were big contributors. Against Tech, the Rebels forced 18 turnovers, scored 24 points off them and won the battle inside 34-14. “Our guys have been able to be disruptive,” Kruger said. No argument from Tech on that point.
• Arizona coach Sean Miller had to be pleased with his team’s performance in Las Vegas. The young Wildcats (5-1) lost to Kansas, 87-79, primarily because they fell behind 31-15 early. There’s no doubt Arizona’s Derrick Williams will be a candidate for Pac-10 Player of the Year. Williams had 27 points and eight rebounds against the Jayhawks. Kansas coach Bill Self called him “the best player on the court.” New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies recently said of Williams: “He’s an NBA player. What can I say?” That sums it up pretty well.
• Kansas returns to action Thursday at home against UCLA. The Jayhawks will be in quest of their 64th consecutive victory at Allen Fieldhouse. KU made school history with No. 63, an 82-41 rout of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The Jayhawks still have three more games before the Dec. 18 debut of freshman sensation Josh Selby. It will be interesting to watch Self juggle playing time when Selby starts dominating minutes at point guard. The KU offense has been functioning at a high level without Selby. Kansas leads the nation in assists per game (22.0) and field goal percentage (57.8). The Jayhawks are second nationally in points per game (92.0). And they’re about to get better? Well, yes. Selby will provide the backcourt leadership KU is missing. Right now the Jayhawk bigs are carrying the load.
• By defeating Wisconsin in the Old Spice Classic championship game, Notre Dame won its third in-season tournament title in 11 seasons under coach Mike Brey. And the Irish are 7-0 for the second time ever during Mike Brey’s tenure at Notre Dame. The other time was 2001-02.
• By the way, that five-point half by Cal against the Irish wasn’t even a record low for a half. Kansas State outscored Savannah State 48-4 in the second half back on Jan. 7, 2008. K-State won 85-25.
A• stomach virus that bothered Stanford guard Jeremy Green all last week appears to be the reason why he collapsed following Sunday’s 81-74 victory over DePaul. “As Jeremy was leaving the court following the game, he began to experience some dizziness and stomach pain due to exhaustion," Stanford’s sports information department said in a statement. "After receiving treatment at the arena, Jeremy was then transported to a local hospital for further treatment.” Green had played 39 minutes and scored 19 points.
Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher
(http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken’s web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).
By Charean Williams
Once the Hail Mary landed in his hands, and he crossed the goal line, Mike Thomas knew his career had changed forever. Only two seasons into his NFL career, the Jaguars receiver already is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Thomas’ jersey and gloves were sent to Canton, Ohio, for display after he caught a 50-yard touchdown pass on the final play to give Jacksonville a miraculous, 31-24, victory over the Texans two weeks ago.
“I’m just blessed and honored that things are happening for me and happening to me,” Thomas said. “I’m grateful for them. It’s definitely been a lot going on these last couple of weeks.”
It was the start of the best eight days of Thomas’ life.
He caught the Hail Mary on Nov. 14; he traveled to Bristol, Conn., the next day to appear on ESPN; his girlfriend Angelica delivered his second child, Audrina Jervae Thomas, on Sunday; and, later Sunday, he caught a touchdown pass in the Jaguars’ 24-20 victory over the Browns.
“It’s been fun,” Thomas said, “and tiring.”
Thomas always will be linked to the Hail Mary, but he isn’t a one-catch wonder. He is the team’s leading receiver with 46 catches for 572 yards and three touchdowns. In the past three games, he has 17 receptions for 226 yards and three touchdowns.
“Honestly, I believe in my abilities,” Thomas said. “I’ve always believed in my abilities. I’m a very confident player if you don’t know anything about me. People that know me know that I’m not cocky; I’m real down to earth, but I just believe in myself. This kind of thing, the season that I’m having, it’s expected of me, just because I’ve put in so much work, and I’m real dedicated to what I do. A lot of people try to look down on me because of my height. It is what it is. I go to work every day and try to get better. I definitely believe in myself and I believe this season is well deserved for me. I just keep working and hope things will get better.”
Thomas, who is only 5-8, 198 pounds, produced one of the biggest plays in NFL history. Texans defensive back Glover Quin knocked down David Garrard’s pass in the end zone, but Quin inadvertently batted it right to Thomas. Thomas caught the ball at the 1-yard line and stepped into the end zone as the Texans watched in disbelief.
“It was just a reaction,” Thomas said. “It was unconditioned. You can’t control it. There’s a reaction. I reacted to the ball and caught it. The next thing you know, it was a touchdown.”
Now, he’s a hero.
“Some people recognized me before the play,” Thomas said. “Now that I’ve been on ESPN quite a bit, people are starting to recognize me a lot more.”
Defending a championship
It took the Saints 43 years to win their first championship. They are figuring out why it’s harder the second time.
Only seven of the 43 previous Super Bowl champions repeated.
“There’s always challenges with a new season anyway, but especially coming off a championship year, it’s even harder to win, because every time you step on the field, people are gunning for you,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “You have what they want.”
Brees said before the season he sought advice on winning multiple titles. The Saints are not satisfied with just one Lombardi Trophy.
“It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another thing to actually go out and experience it for yourself,” Brees said. “There’s always going to be those times where you just have to work through it, as a team, on your own. There’s going to be adversity, you know there is, for every team no matter what the circumstances were the year before. I feel like we’re a pretty battle-tested team for what we went through in the early part of the season. Now is the time to be playing our best football.”
Mr. Smith goes to St. Louis
As the No. 2 overall pick last year, Jason Smith received a six-year deal with $33 million in guarantees from the Rams. He immediately was tabbed “the next Orlando Pace.”
But Smith has yet to play left tackle, and he has been slowed by three injuries in two seasons. He has missed nine of a possible 25 games with a knee injury and two concussions.
Smith’s first head injury came in a Nov. 22 game against the Cardinals. He missed the rest of the 2009 season. His second came in practice this season before the Oct. 31 game against Carolina. He missed one game.
He also had one documented concussion at Baylor.
“It’s one of those deals where they happen,” Smith said. “In the NFL, guys are hitting hard every day. You’ve got to just deal with. With my belief being in God and knowing that he does everything to us for a reason, I just pray about it and seek to find out what it is he has in store for me and not basically worry about what happened to me.”
Smith has allowed two sacks this season, according to STATS, Inc., and he has been called for two holds. The Rams starting right tackle has been a solid run blocker and is working on becoming a better pass blocker.
“I feel like I’ve got room for improvement,” Smith said. “There are things I’ve got to keep working on until the last game is played, and then we’ll go back and evaluate and hear how I did and basically just judge myself and see what can I do better, what can I focus on for the future.”
• Vince Young may have played his last game in Tennessee. He needs season-ending surgery on his right thumb, but his relationship with coach Jeff Fisher might be beyond repair. Young and Fisher both have a year remaining on their current contracts, which could force the Titans to make a decision on whether to go forward with Fisher or with Young.
• The Redskins have a plus-6 turnover ratio. Through 10 games last year, they were minus-8. Washington has 21 takeaways this season, putting them on pace for 34. They haven’t had more than 34 takeaways since 1999 when they had 37.
• Rams quarterback Sam Bradford isn’t far off the pace of several rookie passing records. Bradford has completed 228-of-276 passes for 2,158 yards with 14 touchdowns. Peyton Manning was 326-of-575 for 3,739 yards and 26 touchdowns as a rookie in 1998.
• Since head coach Raheem Morris took over the defense, the Bucs are 9-7. Their 21-0 victory over the 49ers last week was their first shutout on the road since 2003. The Bucs have allowed 16 points in their past two games and now rank 16th in overall defense.
• Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a 138.6 passer rating the past two games, having completed 49-of-65 passes for 590 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. …
• The Eagles lead the NFL in takeaways with 26, including 19 interceptions. Cornerback Asante Samuel leads the league in interceptions with seven. He has 36 picks since 2006, the most by any player in the league.
• The Steelers will put new sod in Heinz Field on Sunday. The field first came under scrutiny after former kicker Jeff Reed criticized it. The Patriots and the Raiders also reportedly have filed complaints with the league. The field will host the Pitt-West Virginia game Friday and then four high school championship games on Saturday before the new sod goes down.
• The Texans rank 32nd in pass defense and 31st in total defense. They are on pace to become one of the worst passing defenses in NFL history. The 1995 Falcons are the worst in history, allowing 4,541 passing yards. Defensive coordinator Frank Bush has come under fire, but coach Gary Kubiak said Bush will continue to call the defense.
• Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew has three consecutive 100-yard games and four for the season. For the season, he has 878 yards on 209 carries.
• Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman is 9-4 in his past 13 starts and has won six of his past seven games.
• Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles continues to lead the NFL in yards per carry, as he averages 6.1 yards. Charles has 1,204 offensive yards, fourth in the league. His 28 runs of 10-plus yards is tops in the NFL.
• Eagles tight end Brent Celek had no receptions last week, the second time in three games he’s gone without a catch. Celek, who led the team in receiving last season, has been used more as a blocker this season because of the Eagles’ issues with their offensive line.
• Dolphins quarterback Tyler Thigpen is 1-11 as an NFL starter. His only NFL victory came in a 20-13 decision over Oakland on Nov. 30, 2008.
• Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw has lost his starting job after losing five of six fumbles. In his career, Bradshaw has lost eight of 14 fumbles.
• Raiders safety Michael Huff has 62 tackles, surpassing last season’s total of 59.
• Ravens receiver Donte’ Stallworth, who is back from a year-long suspension and a broken bone in his left foot, had a 15-yard catch last week. It was his first catch in almost two years.
• The Bills owe Shawne Merriman the remaining $1.7 million on his 2010 contract. They may get nothing for their money. Merriman, who the Bills claimed off waivers, re-injured his Achilles’ tendon 10 minutes into his first practice with his new team. The Bills have doubts that Merriman will play this year, and he becomes a free agent after the season.
• Bears rookie right tackle J’Marcus Webb had three holding penalties last week against the Dolphins. The team’s seventh-round pick now has four holding penalties and has allowed seven sacks, according to STATS, Inc.
• San Diego is 23-5 in November and December under Norv Turner.
By Ralph Vacchiano
It was a marriage that was doomed to fail, right from the very beginning. And Bud Adams probably should’ve known better. Saddling a coach with a player he doesn’t want is never a good idea.
And when that player is a quarterback, it can only be a disaster.
That’s what the relationship between Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher and his quarterback, Vince Young, has become after they reportedly had a confrontation after the Titans’ overtime loss to the Washington Redskins on Sunday. Fisher was incensed that his moody quarterback tossed his shoulder pads into the stands after the game and then stormed out of the team’s locker room.
He responded by immediately and publicly stripping Young of his starting job.
Young ended up on season-ending injured reserve with an injured thumb that didn’t really seem to concern Fisher much. The coach’s frustration with his erratic team leader was painfully obvious. He wasn’t trying to hide it at all.
And why, at this point, would anyone be surprised? The icon coach and the petulant quarterback have been headed in that direction since 2006, when Titans owner Adams — and his then-general manager Floyd Reese — made Young the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft, apparently over Fisher’s objection.
It’s been mostly rocky sailing ever since.
“They are going to have to work together,” Adams told the Tennessean on Monday. “I haven’t given up on Vince, and I am sure Fisher hasn’t either. Vince was upset and said some things he regretted after doing it, but you have to get to the bottom of it, straighten it out and move on.
“It is one of those things that happened. It has happened, it is all over with and we want to get Vince back and playing again for us.”
Adams may feel that way for obvious reasons, especially since Young is scheduled to make $8.5 million next season. The fifth-year pro is also loaded with tantalizing talent and potential. Through eight starts this season he had completed 59.6 percent of his passes for 1,255 yards with 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He had also run 25 times for 125 yards.
The feeling among many was that, starting with a strong finish to the 2009 season, he was just beginning to tap into that potential. And for that, he has Adams to thank, at least in part. A year ago the Titans were 0-6 and coming off a horrible, 59-0, loss to the New England Patriots. Adams stepped in then and reportedly ordered Fisher to bench quarterback Kerry Collins and replace him with Young.
Young thrived, and the Titans made an unlikely playoff push, and Fisher even seemed to get behind his revived leader. But his faith seems to be continually tested. On Sunday it was challenged again when Fisher declined to put Young back in the game after he injured his thumb.
That sent Young reeling over the edge, but it also put the spotlight on the festering issue: What good is a promising franchise quarterback if the coach doesn’t believe in him?
And why, in hind sight, would an owner ever think that forcing a coach to live with a quarterback he didn’t want would be a good idea?
“I just want them to get over it,” Adams said after this latest blow-up. “It is like you made the wrong turn and went down the wrong highway and you were upset because someone caused you to do it, but when it is all over with you didn’t have a wreck. You just have to sleep on it and do better the next day.’’
Oh, if only it were that easy.
For the short term, Fisher doesn’t have to deal with the issue. With Young now on IR, the coach can deflect all questions about their fraying relationship by saying, “We can deal with all that when the season is over.”
When the season is over, though, both Fisher and Young will only have one season left on their respective contracts, which Adams will clearly have to address. If Fisher doesn’t want Young, he’ll likely want a quarterback in the April NFL Draft. But if Adams wants Young, will he let his coach choose his own man?
It sure seems like the 87-year-old Adams is more in the Young camp than the Fisher camp, which could lead to a messy ending for the longest-tenured coach in the NFL (16 seasons).
“(Young) is a young guy and he is learning and he has done a good job with us,” Adams said. “I talked to all of them and told them to get this thing settled down and get back to work.”
That sounds like such a simple solution to a messy situation that’s been simmering for four years. But Adams may have to come to grip with the reality that it just might not be possible anymore.
By Mitch Light
Auburn (+4.5) at Alabama (Fri)
For only the second time in 35 years, the Iron Bowl features a matchup of top-10 teams. Alabama, the defending national champs, has an opportunity to play spoiler against its hated rivals from Auburn, ranked No. 2 in the latest BCS Standings. Alabama is one of the top defensive teams in the nation — ranked No. 7 (293.5 ypg) — but the Tide have yet to face an offense as explosive as Auburn’s. Usually, a good defense can stop a good offense, but consider the following: Auburn has averaged 471 yards of offense in its three games against top-25 defenses (Clemson, LSU, Georgia).
Auburn 28, Alabama 20
Boise State (-14.5) at Nevada (Fri)
Boise State is two wins away from completing its third straight undefeated regular season. The Broncos have been on cruise control the past two months, but this weekend’s trip to Reno could end up being their toughest test of the season. Nevada is 10–1 overall and features one of the most potent offensive attacks in the nation. The Wolf Pack have not beaten Boise since 1998 but have been able to score some points in this series, averaging 37.0 points in regulation in the last three meetings. Nevada will need to put a big number on the board to keep this interesting. Boise is averaging 48.0 points per game and has scored at least 33 in all 10 games.
Boise State 48, Nevada 24
Texas A&M (-3.5) at Texas (Thu)
Texas A&M, which improved to 8–3 overall and 5–2 in the Big 12 with a 9–6 win over Nebraska last week, has now won five straight conference games for the first time since 1998. Texas, meanwhile, has lost four straight Big 12 games — its longest conference losing streak since 1997. The Longhorns did win a game last weekend for the first time in over a month, but beating Florida Atlantic isn’t exactly what gets the folks in Austin fired up. A win over A&M? Now that would do the trick. But beating this Aggie team won’t be easy. Texas A&M is balanced on offense and much-improved on defense.
Texas A&M 27, Texas 17
LSU (+3.5) at Arkansas
The SEC West title has been decided (Auburn is heading to Atlanta), but there is still plenty at stake in this underrated rivalry. LSU can wrap up an at-large invitation to a BCS Bowl with a win, while Arkansas is trying to play its way into consideration for a coveted BCS invite. Keep in mind that Arkansas, with a win, would have victories over LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M, and its only two losses would be against Alabama and Auburn. But first things first: Arkansas must beat a talented LSU team that is playing much better offensively in the latter half of the season. The Tigers rolled up 433 yards against Alabama two weeks ago and had 470 in the win over Ole Miss on Saturday. The Razorbacks might give up some points, but they know how to score, as well. They rank second in the SEC in both total offense and scoring offense behind Auburn. Arkansas is 4–2 in its last six vs. LSU in Little Rock. Make it 5–2.
Arkansas 31, LSU 24
Oklahoma (+3) at Oklahoma State
It’s the biggest Bedlam Series showdown in recent memory. Oklahoma State, one of the nation’s biggest surprises, can secure its first-ever trip to the Big 12 title game with a win; Oklahoma will head to Arlington, Texas, with a win as long as Texas A&M doesn’t beat Texas and pass OU in the BCS Standings. The Sooners have played well the past two weeks, beating Texas Tech and Baylor by a combined score of 98–31, but this is far from a vintage Oklahoma team. The defense has been very un-Sooner like, ranking 62nd in the nation overall and a very surprising 64th against the run. O-State leads the nation in total offense, thanks in large part to the terrific trio of quarterback Brandon Weeden, tailback Kendall Hunter and wide receiver Justin Blackmon. Only once this season have the Pokes been held to under 33 points.
Oklahoma State 35, Oklahoma 30
Florida (+2.5) at Florida State
Florida State is favored in this Sunshine State showdown for the first time since 2004, the final year of the Ron Zook era in Gainesville. The Seminoles are 8–3 overall, with a blowout loss at Oklahoma in Week 3 and a pair of late-season ACC losses to NC State and North Carolina by a combined six points. This is a very good team that could be ranked in the top 10 had the ball bounced a bit differently. Florida, on the other hand, isn’t much better than its record. The Gators are 7–4 overall and 4–4 in the SEC and have looked rather mediocre throughout much of the season. Florida State is the better team for the first time in several years. Now, the Seminoles need to play like it.
Florida State 27, Florida 17
NC State (-2.5) at Maryland
NC State is one win away from its first trip to the ACC Championship Game. It’s quite an accomplishment for a team that went 2–6 in the league last season and lost four of those six games by 20 points or more. Nothing really jumps out at you statistically about this team, but NC State has been receiving tremendous play from junior quarterback Russell Wilson. Maryland has also been a surprise this season, carrying a 7–4 record into the finale this weekend vs. the Pack. The Terps have improved on both sides of the ball — averaging about 10 more points per game while allowing about 10 fewer points. Here’s one statistical oddity about the Terps: They rank 119th in the nation in kickoff returns yet third in punt returns. Strange.
NC State 27, Maryland 21
West Virginia (+2.5) at Pittsburgh (Fri)
There’s plenty on the line in the latest edition of the Backyard Brawl (maybe my favorite rivalry name). Pittsburgh, leading the Big East with a 4–1 record, is two wins away from its second-ever BCS bowl; West Virginia is also in the mix, but the Mountaineers do not control their destiny. Pitt was the clear favorite in the preseason, and the Panthers have been the best team in the league throughout the year. As expected, this team has been stout on defense and has leaned on its running game, with Ray Graham and Dion Lewis taking turns as the featured back. West Virginia’s defensive numbers look good (No. 4 overall; No. 4 scoring), but the Mountaineers have only played one team (Cincinnati) that is ranked in the top 65 in the nation in total offense.
Pittsburgh 27, West Virginia 17
Michigan (+17) at Ohio State
Ohio State has won six straight and eight of nine in this classic rivalry. The Buckeyes have been especially potent in Columbus of late, averaging 40.3 points in the last three games vs. Michigan at the Horseshoe. And with the current state of the Wolverines’ defense — No. 112 in the nation — it won’t be a surprise if the Buckeyes top the 40-point mark once again. Ohio State has won four straight since its loss at Madison, none more impressive than last week’s 20–17 victory at Iowa. Ohio State is simply too good on both sides of the ball to lose this game.
Ohio State 44, Michigan 21
Cincinnati (+1.5) at Connecticut
It’s been a strange season at UConn, but the Huskies have persevered and remain in the hunt for a Big East title. Randy Edsall’s team is 3–2 in the league and already has wins over Pittsburgh and West Virginia. If WVU wins the Backyard Brawl on Friday, and UConn wins its final two games (Cincinnati, at South Forida), the Huskies — a team that lost by 14 points to Temple this season — will be heading to a BCS bowl. Cincinnati busted out with a stunningly easy, 69–38, win over Rutgers last week, but this has been a disappointing season for the Bearcats under first-year coach Butch Jones. UC can still become bowl-eligible, but it must beat UConn and Pitt to do so. Not going to happen.
Connecticut 28, Cincinnati 20
Last week: 8-2 overall (6–3–1 against the spread)
Season: 82–38 overall (61–54–5 against the spread)
By Ken Davis
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – We now know freshman guard Josh Selby will play for Kansas this season. The NCAA has ruled that Selby must sit out nine regular season games for accepting “impermissible benefits” prior to his signing with the Jayhawks. That means Selby, the player who might make the difference for Kansas in its quest for a return to the Final Four, will make his debut Dec. 18.
The lucky opponent to share the stage with Selby that day will be … (drum roll) … USC.
“Welcome back, right?” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said Sunday with a chuckle. “That doesn’t bother me at all. I’m one of those guys like, I don’t care who they have, we’ve just got to go and do our job.”
The Trojans will have a player debuting for them that day as well, and O’Neill thinks junior Jio Fontan can be a difference-maker for USC. Fontan is a transfer from Fordham who averaged 15.3 points and 4.7 assists as the Atlantic 10 Conference Rookie of the Year in 2008-09.
“They’ll probably both have a few jitters,” O’Neill said of Selby and Fontan.
Fontan, a product of St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, N.J., has a fascinating background. He was featured in the PBS documentary “The Street Stops Here” that focused on Bob Hurley Sr., the Hall of Fame coach at St. Anthony. Fontan’s father, Jorge, was described as someone who spent his youth in prison and then dedicated his life to helping his son avoid a life of “crime, drugs and poverty.”
O’Neill is excited about the skills and leadership Fontan will bring to his young USC squad. Fontan, a 6-footer who is a true point guard, has trimmed down from 198 to 172 pounds as he prepares for his debut with the Trojans.
“Jio can guard 1 through 3, which is great,” O’Neill said. “And Jio has experience, toughness and leadership. He was Bob Hurley’s only captain ever, so that tells you a little bit about him as a leader. He’s in fantastic shape and I know it’s killing him not to play. I can’t wait for him to be back.”
When Fontan joins the lineup, O’Neill plans to use him alongside freshman guard Maurice Jones, who ran the show and controlled tempo Sunday as the Trojans defeated New Mexico State 80-61 and improved to 3-2. Jones is listed at 5-7 but actually stands about 5-5. He has tremendous quickness and is already a catalyst to the USC defense. O’Neill says his team will hang its hat on defense until it gets more mature, and that was obvious Sunday in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off when USC had 11 steals and scored 17 points off 18 turnovers by the Aggies.
“He isn’t really going to change my role,” Jones said of Fontan. “I won’t have to do as much when Jio starts playing. He’s going to come in and be a leader.”
This is a year for patience at USC. O’Neill knows that will be hard on the loyal fans, but it is necessary after the self-imposed sanctions that resulted from an NCAA investigation into the Tim Floyd/O.J. Mayo era at USC. O’Neill is the coach who came in last season and has to deal with the pain, including being down one scholarship again this season. The Trojans are eligible for postseason play, but that’s going to be difficult to accomplish — especially with a schedule that includes games at Nebraska, at TCU, at Kansas, at Tennessee, and Texas at home before the end of the month.
“We want to challenge ourselves,” O’Neill said. “They’re going to learn the hard way. When it gets right down to it, if you don’t play a great schedule it comes back to bite you. Coming to play in this tournament and playing Bradley and New Mexico State, I know they’re not Kansas, but they’re good teams.”
O’Neill’s easy going personality is suited for situations like this. Don’t forget he made it through a 19-15 season at Arizona in 2007-08. And those 19 wins were later vacated because of NCAA penalties tied to Lute Olson.
“I never knew the entire year what was going on,” O’Neill said. “It was great. I was an assistant coach, then I was the interim coach, then I was named the next coach — and then I was fired. All in four months.”
O’Neill just laughs. And he knows it will take more good humor in the months ahead as USC rebounds from a drastic change in personnel brought on by the NCAA investigation into football and basketball at the school. Last Wednesday, the Trojans lost a home game to Rider by 20 points. 77-57.
It’s going to be a season full of potholes.
“They were booing and they should have been,” O’Neill said of the fans at the Rider game. “I would have booed us too.
“I think next year is our first year to really start moving in a positive direction — which is a year earlier than happens in most of these situations. And by the fourth year, we could be a very good basketball team.”
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
There will be times this season when Connecticut needs point guard Kemba Walker to rescue the Huskies. Last Wednesday was one of those times. UConn defeated Vermont 89-73 behind Walker’s 42 points, eight rebound and three assists. Walker, who saved the Huskies a lot of embarrassment before they left for the Maui Invitational, was 15-of-24 from the field and 4-for-9 from 3-point range. “I’ve been fortunate enough to witness some pretty good performances over the years, but Kemba’s performance was pretty special,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. “Every time we needed something, he got it.”
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
Look who leads the Ohio State Buckeyes in scoring (18.7 ppg) and rebounding (10.7). It’s freshman power forward Jared Sullinger. The big guy is making a big impact with the Buckeyes — as expected. His best game so far? Last week against Florida he had 26 points (on 13-of-17 shooting) and 10 rebounds. He followed that with 11 points and eight rebounds against UNC-Wilmington as Ohio State improved to 3-0. The Buckeyes might be better than they were last season.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Monday, Nov. 22
Wichita State vs. Connecticut
It’s only a first-round game in the Maui Invitational, but it could set the tone for UConn’s season. The Shockers may not be the glamour team in the field, but they have the height and the strength to overpower UConn inside. A loss to Wichita State would likely mean a second-round game against Chaminade for the Huskies — something they want to avoid.
Kansas State vs. Gonzaga
Kansas State vs. Gonzaga in the CBE Classic in Kansas City, Mo. This is a great early season test for both teams, a chance to prove they deserve their high rankings in the polls.
Tuesday, Nov. 23
CBE Classic Championship
This should be Kansas State vs. Duke. The Blue Devils play Marquette in Monday’s other semifinal.
North Dakota State at Minnesota
The Gophers are 5-0 after winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Minnesota must avoid a letdown against the Bison.
Maui Invitational Championship
The brackets are lined up to produce Michigan State vs. Kentucky. But Oklahoma, Washington, Virginia, Wichita State or UConn could change that.
Thursday, Nov. 25
Boston College vs. Texas A&M
It’s an intriguing matchup between the ACC and Big 12 in the Old Spice Classic. One of these teams might catch fire after winning a game like this.
Friday, Nov. 26
NIT Season Tip-Off Championship
The winners from Wednesday’s semifinals — Villanova vs. UCLA, VCU vs. Tennessee — meet for the championship at Madison Square Garden.
Saturday, Nov. 27
Arizona vs. Kansas
This is the showcase of the Las Vegas Invitational, where Arizona should have lots of fan support.
Sunday, Nov. 28
Old Spice Classic Championship from Orlando
Look out for Wisconsin in this tournament.
76 Classic Championship from Anaheim
Virginia Tech and Temple should be the favorites here.
THEY SAID IT:
“I’m exhausted. In the first half, our offense wasn’t really running smoothly, so I just had to take matters into my own hands a little bit. Guys didn’t want to shoot tonight — that’s what it looked like in the first half — but I was fortunate enough to pick up the slack, fortunate enough to make baskets.” — UConn point guard Kemba Walker, after scoring 42 points in an 89-73 victory over Vermont.
“We just got to get better as a team. I give William & Mary a lot of credit. They made shots. We have to grow up fast. We’re young. We’re still immature in some ways.” — Syracuse point guard Scoop Jardine (11 points, nine assists), after a 63-60 victory over William & Mary.
“If you think our guys are thinking that far in advance ... they're wondering if they’re going to get food or post-game meal money. That’s what they’re wondering. Our guys can’t think that far ahead.” — Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, after a 92-70 win over North Carolina-Greensboro, at Greenboro Coliseum, the site of the ACC tournament in March.
“It sounds like a good idea in June.” – Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell, commenting on the scheduling of a 6 a.m. game at Monmouth as part of ESPN’s College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon. The Seawolves needed a late rally to 51-49.
Kevin Willard’s first season as coach at Seton Hall has already hit an injury speed bump. Senior guard Jeremy Hazell, the prolific scorer from Harlem, broke the scaphoid bone in his left wrist while trying to brace himself on a fall in the second half against Alabama in the Paradise Jam Friday. Hazell had scored 27 points in the game and was averaging 24 points before the injury. Matt Sweeney, Seton Hall’s assistant athletics director for communications, said Monday the Pirates are hopeful Hazell can return within four weeks if all goes well during his rehab. Jamel Jackson replaced Hazell in the starting lineup and scored just three points as the Pirates lost to Xavier, 57-52, Sunday night.
Coach Greg McDermott continues to suffer disappointment at the hands of the Iowa State Cyclones. McDermott moved to Creighton last spring after four seasons at Iowa State that came up short of expectations. Before he left, he put Creighton on the Cyclones schedule, so he had to face his old team Sunday in Des Moines. Creighton lost for the first time, and Iowa State improved to 4-0 when Jamie Vanderbeken hit a turnaround 3-pointer as time expired, giving the Cyclones a 91-88 victory. Just one problem: Photos showed the ball still in Vanderbeken’s hand with the red light on the backboard indicating time had already expired. With no TV, there was no opportunity for officials to review the play. “We’ll never know,” McDermott said. “Actually we will know, because they counted it.”
Tubby Smith is back in the national spotlight with his Minnesota team that is 5-0 after consecutive victories over North Carolina and West Virginia that gave the Golden Gophers the championship trophy in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. The Big Ten race is already crowded with Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State, Illinois and Wisconsin. Now Minnesota has thrown its hat in the ring, and Smith seems to have a strong nucleus built around Al Nolen, Blake Hoffarber and Trevor Mbakwe, who was MVP of the tournament. It might be Mbakwe who makes the difference for Minnesota. He played 11 games at Marquette before transferring to Miami-Dade Junior College, then sat out last season after he was charged with felony assault. “It’s been four years, and I finally get the chance to go out there and show what I can do,” Mbakwe told reporters in Puerto Rico.
The justice system in college athletics is so slow — and then it’s hard to understand. Coach Bruce Pearl shouldn’t have his job after all the lies and deception under his watch at Tennessee. He gets an eight-game SEC suspension from commissioner Mike Slive. Pearl calls that sanction unprecedented, then says it won’t impact the team because he can still coach in practice and travel with the team. The Tennessee case won’t go before the NCAA committee on infractions until February at the earliest. In the middle of his SEC suspension, Pearl says he will coach when the Vols play a non-conference at Connecticut on Jan. 22. Again, where is the penalty in all this?
Congratulations to the Class of 2010 inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame Sunday in Kansas City, Mo. The class members are: Jerry West (West Virginia), Tex Winter (Kansas State), Sidney Wicks (UCLA), Tom Jernstedt (NCAA), David Thompson (North Carolina State), Dave Whitney (Alcorn State), Christian Laettner (Duke), and Wayne Duke (Big 8, Big Ten). Perhaps no one has been a greater friend to college basketball than Wayne Duke.
Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher
(http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken's web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).
Athlon's Mitch Light, Nathan Rush and Braden Gall debate five burning questions in college basketball each week.
1. What result from the first week-and-a-half of the season has surprised you the most?
Mitch Light: Kennesaw State’s 80-63 win over Georgia Tech has to be at the top of the list. The Owls jumped out to a 20-point lead in the first half and were never really threatened. I applaud the Yellow Jackets for a playing an Atlantic Sun team on the road, but you have to win that game if you are Georgia Tech.
Nathan Rush: Butler’s miserable showing during an 88–73 loss at Louisville was a shocker. With Gordon Hayward off to the NBA, I didn’t expect the Bulldogs to make another run to the title game this year. But I didn’t expect Brad Stevens’ club to look so sloppy and overwhelmed by a talented but unproven U of L squad. Scrappy center Matt Howard and veteran guard Shelvin Mack combined to score 48 of the team’s 73 points, but no one else showed up. Coach Stevens emptied his bench to give 14 different players floor time. Butler did not look “G-double-O-D, Good” at the new KFC Yum Center. The Bulldogs looked surprisingly bad.
Braden Gall: Georgia Tech’s 17-point loss to a Kennesaw State team that was seven games under .500 last season. Wait, did you say biggest surprise? Never mind, that is actually not a surprise at all.
2. What has been the most impressive win this season?
Mitch: The easy answer is Ohio State’s big win over Florida in Gainesville. That was very impressive. But I will throw another one out there — Western Kentucky 98, Saint Joseph’s 70. The Hawks are very young and will struggle to win games this season, but WKU made a strong statement by winning on the road by 28 points. Oklahoma transfer Juan Patillo scored 17 points in his debut for the Hilltoppers, but the real story was the play of Sergio Kerusch, who poured in a game-high 31 on 6-of-8 shooting from the 3-point stripe.
Nathan: In a bizarro BCS bowl on the hardwood, Ohio State crushed Florida, 93-75. Bruising freshman big man Jared Sullinger had 26 points, on 13-of-17 shooting, and 10 rebounds against the Gators’ formidable frontline. The overwhelming strength of “Big Sully” turned a battle of top-10 teams into a lopsided mismatch. The Buckeyes, especially Sullinger, appear to be a force to be reckoned with this season.
Braden: Easily the Ohio State Buckeyes going into the O-Dome and rolling over a much bigger Florida team. The Buckeye guards might be the most athletic and versatile set in the nation — and they also might have the best post player in the nation in Sullinger. Ohio State, picked third in the Big Ten, ran away with the second half against a team that was picked to win the SEC.
3. What has been the worst loss? .
Mitch: Richmond should be a factor in the very competitive A-10 this season, but the Spiders suffered a bad loss Thursday night, losing 81-77 in double-overtime on the road to an Iona team that was 0-3 with losses to Kent State, Cleveland State and Bryant. If the Spiders are on the bubble in March, this game could come back to haunt them.
Nathan: Midterm election season trends continued when the President’s brother-in-law, Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, fell to regional “rival” Seattle University, 83–80. The Redhawks were winless — losing to Maryland, San Francisco and Cal Poly by an average margin of 22 points — heading into their matchup with the Beavers. But former UCLA point guard and current Seattle coach Cameron Dollar was able to guide Elgin Baylor’s alma mater to a 12-point second-half come-from-behind upset at Key Arena. As a result, Robinson’s approval rating is falling fast in Corvallis.
Braden: LSU, Auburn, Texas Tech, Colorado, DePaul, Wake Forest, Iowa, Rutgers, and South Florida have all lost games that they maybe should have won — but not much is expected from most of those teams. I go back to the 13-20 (last year) Owls of Kennesaw State drubbing the Yellow Jackets. I know not a lot is expected of Paul Hewitt’s bunch, but no one does less with more than Georgia Tech.
4. What under-the-radar freshman are you most interested in watching this season?
Light: Since I have a feeling my colleague Nathan is going to pick South Carolina guard Bruce Ellington, I will go with Ohio State’s Aaron Craft. The Buckeyes will be in great shape if Craft, a true point guard, can step in and run the team (like he did in the win against Florida) and allow William Buford to play off the ball. The Buckeyes don’t need much scoring from Craft, though he is capable; they simply need him to run the show and get the ball to the right people in the right places.
Nathan: South Carolina point guard Bruce Ellington has already made a splash with 22 points, five assists, five rebounds and four steals while holding his own against Michigan State star Kalin Lucas. Although Ellington is still a raw talent, the AAAA state championship winning quarterback and South Carolina Mr. Football finalist — who lost to all-world tailback Marcus Lattimore last year — should continue to improve now that he is focusing solely on basketball. I think Ellington will contend for SEC Freshman of the Year, as the Gamecocks are counting on him to help replace Devan Downey’s leadership, playmaking and scoring.
Braden: There are almost too many to name. I am very interested to see key point guards contributing serious minutes on potential NCAA teams. Phil Pressey at Missouri debuted last night with nine points in 22 minutes against Western Illinois and could be asked to play a key role with Big 12 title hopes. Trae Golden is Bruce Pearl’s back-up at a serious position of concern for the Vols. The youngster already came through with two clutch free throws late in the Missouri State game this week. Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser is starting at shooting guard for the injured Rob Wilson and debuted with 21 points, nine boards and three assists on Sunday. Both Tennessee and the Badgers have conference title hopes and backcourt concerns. With Kevin Pittsnogle comparisons running rampant in Ann Arbor, it should be fun to see what type of impact the smooth shooting 6-9 Evan Smotrycz will have. Big man Josh Smith at UCLA will be intriguing to watch as well. However, all pale in comparison to Jared Sullinger at Ohio State — who is simply a beast!
5. Give me a sophomore you think might emerge as a star this season?
Mitch: I’ll go with Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins, who is off to a strong start despite his surprising struggles from the 3-point line. Jenkins, who shot 48.3 percent from three as a freshman, is 1-of-11 from the arc after two games. But he is averaging 16.0 points per game thanks to his strong shooting from 2-point range (11-of-16) and the foul line (7-of-8). Don’t be surprised if Jenkins averages around 17 or 18 points per game.
Nathan: Miami combo guard Durand Scott averaged 10.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.2 steals in 33 games as a freshman out of New York City powerhouse Rice High School. Scott showed flashes of greatness late in the year, scoring 29 points at North Carolina and leading the Hurricanes to the ACC Tournament title game, where they lost to eventual national champion Duke, 77–74. This year, Scott should establish himself as one of the top all-around guards in the ACC.
Braden: Maryland’s Jordan Williams. Texas’ Jordan Hamilton. Northwestern's Drew Crawford. Duke’s Mason Plumlee. UCLA’s Tyler Honeycutt. Any sophomore from Indiana. But I will go a little off the beaten path and tab Villanova point guard Maalik Wayns to turn in an NBA Lottery-pick type season. Jay Wright has this team poised for another deep tourney run with Wayns being the difference between the Sweet 16 and the Final Four. After averaging 6.8 points and 1.3 assists as a freshman, he is off to a great start in 2010. Through three games, he is averaging 14.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game — including a 12-assist performance Wednesday night against Boston U.