Articles By Mitch Light
1. Which team had the most impressive win of the weekend?
Nathan Rush: Texas’ unbelievable come-from-behind win at Kansas was easily the biggest victory of the weekend. The Longhorns ended the Jayhawks’ 69-game home winning streak at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. UT also ended its own 0–7 slide at KU with the improbable 74–63 triumph. Kansas jumped out to a 10–0 lead, led by as many as 15 points in the first half and took a 35–23 edge over Texas into the break. In the second half, however, the Horns rocked the Hawks and chalked up a 51–28 tally over the final 20 minutes, taking a 45–44 lead with just over 10 minutes to play before cruising to an 11-point statement win. Rick Barnes’ team was my early-season Final Four sleeper (in one of these columns) when the Horns were barely hanging on to a top-25 spot. After this weekend’s win in Lawrence, it will take Bevo to pull the burnt orange bandwagon.
Mitch Light: Wisconsin. The Badgers completely dominated a decent Northwestern team in Evanston, racing out to a 20-point lead in the first half and eventually winning by 32. Wisconsin shot 55.4 percent from the field, had 22 assists on 31 field goals and only committed three turnovers. On the other end of the court, the Badgers held Northwestern to a season-low 46 points. Bo Ryan’s club was great in every facet of the game.
Braden Gall: Since I think Duke and Kansas are the top two teams in the nation — no offense, Ohio State — I would have to say Texas’ win over the Jayhawks was easily the most impressive win. Allen Fieldhouse was rockin’ after an 18–3 KU start, but the resiliency and hard work of the Burnt Orange youngsters brought Kansas’ 69-game home winning streak to an end. There is something different about this Texas team. Ohio State’s road win over Illinois was also impressive but would have been the equivalent of Kansas winning at Texas — not vice versa.
2. Which team had the most troubling loss?
Nathan: Arkansas suffered a 32-point beatdown at the hands of Florida. Granted, these aren’t Corliss Williamson’s Razorbacks and no one expects them to be. But these aren’t Joakim Noah’s Gators, either. Before devouring the Hogs, coach Billy Donovan’s young team appeared toothless during an ugly 45–40 win at Auburn — a team that has established itself as easily the worst in the SEC. Maybe the lopsided loss says less about Arkansas’ ineptitude and more about Florida’s enormous unrealized potential. Still, a 39–17 halftime deficit and 75–43 final margin against an unranked conference foe is something to be ashamed of.
Mitch: I subscribe to the theory that there is no such thing as a bad road loss in conference play, but Louisville let one get away Saturday in Providence. When you play in a league as loaded as the Big East, you simply have to beat the bad teams in the league — and Providence entered the weekend with an 0–6 mark in the conference. Louisville missed an opportunity to improve to 5–1 in the Big East.
Braden: I have to give an honorary vote to Clemson for losing its 55th straight game to North Carolina in Chapel Hill. That is more than eight decades of frustration. But my real vote goes to St. John’s, which suffered a tough loss to Cincinnati. A Yancy Gates 3-pointer with eight seconds left took a quality home win over a likely NCAA Tournament team away from the Red Storm and gave Mick Cronin’s group a solid resume road win. This is a game that St. John’s, now 11–7 overall and 4–4 in the Big East, might look back on when Selection Sunday rolls around.
3. Will Gonzaga’s run of 10-straight regular-season WCC titles going to end?
Nathan: The Zags’ run of 10-straight West Coast Conference regular season titles has come to an end. Granted, coach Mark Few’s team has not yet been mathematically eliminated. But following back-to-back losses at Santa Clara (85–71) and at San Francisco (96–91, OT), Gonzaga is 3–2 in WCC play (13–7 overall) and looking up at a powerful Saint Mary’s club that is 5–0 in the WCC (17–3 overall). The Bulldogs do have two chances to take down the Gaels (at home on Thursday and at SMC on Feb. 24), but the odds are against an 11th consecutive West Coast crown. Just don’t tell Adam Morrison; he can get pretty emotional.
Mitch: We will know a lot more later this week after the Zags host Saint Mary’s, but I do believe this is the year that Gonzaga’s streak ends. They are already two games behind SMC in the loss column and are coming off their first two-game WCC losing streak since 2000. This team has some talent, but it’s not nearly as skilled as some of Mark Few’s team from years past.
Braden: After seeing Saint Mary’s in person over the weekend (they lost by 19 to Vanderbilt), I am inclined to say no. But Gonzaga has a ton of work to do — and it starts on Thursday. The Zags still have the most talented roster in the league but already trail the Gaels by two games in the loss column. The battle between these two on Thursday in Spokane will go a long way in determining the Bulldogs’ WCC fate. What amounts to a four-game lead in the league would be insurmountable.
4. San Diego State visits BYU on Wednesday in one of the biggest MWC games in years. Who wins?
Nathan: With all due respect to the great Jimmer Fredette — who has taken the Danny Ainge school of shot taking and making to a new level while establishing himself as a legit National Player of the Year candidate — San Diego State is a better team than BYU. The Aztecs will have to account for Fredette and battle a tough crowd at the Marriott Center, but coach Steve Fisher, Kawhi Leonard (15.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg) and Co. will improve to 21–0 overall and 6–0 in the Mountain West after their top-10 showdown on Wednesday night in Salt Lake City.
Mitch: Can’t wait for this one. I think San Diego State is the better team, but I will go with the home team. Expect a wild atmosphere at the Marriott Center and expect a big game from Jimmer Fredette, one of the most exciting players in the nation.
Braden: Is 39–1 good? These two have combined for one loss thus far in 2010-11, with BYU losing to UCLA by seven points. BYU has owned this series of late — especially at home. The Cougars have won seven of the last 10 (and five straight) regular-season meetings and haven’t lost at home to SDSU since Jan. 8, 2005. I also think they have the best player on the floor in Jimmer Fredette. The nation’s leading scorer has averaged 29 points per game with 14 boards and 14 assists in his last three against the Aztecs. Fredette went a combined 9-of-16 from behind the arc in last season’s series sweep by BYU. Give me the Cougs at home.
5. Who’s the best freshman in the country on a team not in one of the Big Six leagues?
Nathan: Unlike other Ohio basketball stars, Dayton point guard Juwan Staten decided to stay close to home when it came time to sign his name on the dotted line. After playing alongside Kentucky’s Doron Lamb, Connecticut’s Roscoe Smith and Syracuse’s Baye Moussa Keita last season at Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, Staten chose to take his talents to southwest Ohio for his collegiate career. Now, the 6’0”, 189-pound passer is leading the Atlantic 10 in assists (6.6 apg) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.74-to-1) while also averaging 9.2 points for a Flyers club that is very much in the A-10 hunt.
Mitch: Memphis has a bunch of good-looking freshmen, but Detroit’s Ray McCallum has been the best of those playing outside the power conferences. McCallum turned down some big-time offers (UCLA, Arizona, Florida) to play for his dad at Detroit and is averaging 14.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Trey Zeigler, another touted recruit who chose to play for his dad, is putting up better numbers (17.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg) at Central Michigan, but the Chips are 5–13 overall.
Braden: The most talented non-Big Six freshman is probably Detroit guard Ray McCallum. Coached by his father, Ray Sr., McCallum has the Titans in the thick of the Horizon race by leading his team in scoring (14.4 ppg) and assists (4.3 apg) and is second on the team in rebounding (4.7 rpg).
By Ralph Vacchiano
Aaron Rodgers was Jay Cutler once. Maybe not quite as hated, certainly not by other players, but there was a time when nobody was sure what or who he really was.
It was in the summer of 2008, while the city of Green Bay — the state of Wisconsin, really — was still mourning the “retirement” of legend Brett Favre. Packers fans were sure their hero was being pushed out for the new, golden-boy quarterback. They weren’t convinced he was the real deal.
And he really ticked them off when he said this to Sports Illustrated about his relationship with those fickle fans:
“I don’t feel I need to sell myself to the fans,” Rodgers said then. “They need to get on board now or keep their mouths shut.”
You know what the difference is between Rodgers then and now? It’s the same as the difference now between Rodgers and Cutler. Wins. Performance. Success. That’s everything in the NFL, especially when it comes to how someone — particularly a quarterback — is perceived.
For Rodgers, that was just his cocky nature.
Cutler? He’s apparently a wimp.
“I think any young quarterback who gets this opportunity, there is a ladder that you have to climb,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, after his quarterback, Rodgers, helped his team beat the Bears 21-14 in the NFC championship game on Sunday. “You have to first show that you belong as a starter. You have to win big games. He is a 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown-a-year quarterback. He is definitely in the upper echelon as far as the way he plays statistically.
“The next step is to win playoff games. He has accomplished that now. Now he gets the challenge to be a Super Bowl champion. To me, it’s the process and the progress of a young, talented, special individual who has taken full advantage of his opportunities.”
Left unsaid by McCarthy is that Cutler hasn’t. He has a big arm, was a first-round draft pick, had a 4,000-yard season and was thought of highly enough that the Bears traded their own quarterback (Kyle Orton), two first-round picks and a third-round pick to get him. He’s even won a big game or two, too.
None of that, though, has shielded Cutler from some stinging, personal criticism. It started two weeks ago when a national columnist did a hit-and-run attack on his personality, sparking a week-long debate in Chicago about how aloof and prickly Cutler was (or wasn’t).
Then the worst came on Sunday when he committed the apparently unforgivable crime of leaving the NFC Championship Game with an injured knee. Never mind that, against doctors ordered, he tried to play one last series. Never mind that sitting out wasn’t his call. Never mind that it was later revealed he had a Grade II sprain of his MCL — an injury that normally sidelines players for 3-4 weeks.
All anyone could see was that he was able to walk and pedal a bike on the sidelines, but he wasn’t able to play.
The criticism didn’t just come from boozed up fans, either, or anonymous punks on the internet. Via Twitter, like a plague, it came from NFL players like Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, Cardinals lineman Darnell Dockett and safety Kerry Rhodes. And it came from former NFL players-turned-analysts like Deion Sanders and Mark Schlereth.
Worst of all, it came before the game was over, before any of those “experts” watching from home knew the extent of the injury, before it was revealed Cutler had a badly sprained MCL.
From Jones-Drew: “All I’m saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee. … I played the whole season on one…”
From Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel: “If he was my teammate I would be looking at him sideways”
From former Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks: “HEY there is no medicine for a guy with no guts and heart”
And on and on and on the assault went, until it was relayed to Cutler’s teammates in the Bears’ locker room after the game.
“Bleep them,” said Bears center Olin Kruetz. “It’s bleeping stupid. I could see (his knee) wiggling when he was walking back in the huddle.”
It didn’t matter, though, because of one undeniable fact: Cutler isn’t perceived as a winner. In the same circumstances, Tom Brady would never have drawn such fire. Neither would Peyton Manning. Everyone would’ve even forgiven Rodgers had he sat out, too.
Why? Because Rodgers has done what Cutler hasn’t. He carried the Packers through the first two rounds of the playoffs, first out-dueling Michael Vick in Philadelphia and then lighting up the top-seeded Falcons for 366 yards and 48 points in Atlanta. He was even on fire in the first half of the NFC championship game.
Cutler? The lone postseason win of his NFL career came one week earlier against the 8-10 Seattle Seahawks. He was outstanding in the game and, for a few days, everyone forgave him for being somewhat petulant and boring. They did that because he won.
Once he was a loser again, all bets were off.
So Rodgers will sit at a Super Bowl podium all next week and no one will remember how whiny he seemed nearly three years ago. Cutler’s rebound likely won’t be so quick. Even though his coach and teammates had his back, too many ignorant fellow players and voices already labeled him a quitter. At this point, the only way to make that a footnote in his history is if he leads the Bears to the Super Bowl next year.
Just ask Rodgers how big a deal that is for a reputation. It seems that Vince Lombardi was right. Winning is everything … at least as far as perception is concerned.
By Ken Davis
The puppies are growing up.
We’re talking about the freshmen at Connecticut. And, when you consider all the ramifications, it might be one of the biggest stories of the college basketball season.
Everything UConn does offensively still runs through Kemba Walker, who took the nation by storm and established himself as a national player of the year frontrunner with his electric performance at the Maui Invitational. But Walker no longer is a one-man band, and the Huskies confirmed that during huge victories last week over Villanova and Tennessee.
Sophomore center Alex Oriakhi had back-to-back double-doubles in those games — a welcome sight for the Huskies. But even more significant has been the emergence of freshmen Jeremy Lamb and Roscoe Smith. Lamb is a smooth shooting guard who combined for 30 points in the two victories. He has emerged a third offensive threat for the Huskies. Smith turned in stunning defensive performances on Villanova’s Corey Stokes and Tennessee’s Scotty Hopson. He also scored 12 in the 72-61 victory over the Vols.
If gives the Huskies a totally different look. UConn played with tremendous confidence. The young Huskies didn’t panic when they fell behind. Against Tennessee, Walker, Lamb, Oriakhi and Smith combined for 56 points on 21-for-41 (51 percent) shooting. Take out Walker’s 6-for-17 stats and the other three shot 63 percent.
The bottom line is the Huskies are 16-2 and no one expected that —especially not the Big East coaches who selected UConn to finish 10th in the conference’s preseason poll. UConn coach Jim Calhoun said on Big East media day he might have picked them lower than that.
The victory over Tennessee wrapped up UConn’s non-conference schedule. The Huskies went 12-0, and they have wins over Wichita State, Michigan State, Kentucky, Texas, Villanova and Tennessee. Depending on which RPI model you trust the most, the Huskies are either No. 3 (CollegeRPI.com) or No. 1 (ESPN’s Inside RPI).
There’s a lot of basketball to be played, but it would take a major collapse for the Huskies to miss the NCAA Tournament field. And after last season — when Calhoun had to take a leave of absence, the Huskies closed out the season on the bubble, and ultimately settled for a trip to the NIT one season after reaching the Final Four — this feels like a lot of fun for UConn Nation.
“Given the competition we face, I couldn’t be prouder of them,” Calhoun said after the Tennessee victory Saturday. “What we saw in Maui still wasn’t a true test of who we were. It was an idea that we had some things in us — Kemba particularly — that could make us a pretty good basketball team.
“Out of the 18 games played, [the game against Tennessee] was far and away the best team effort against a quality opponent. I don’t think it’s even close.”
UConn’s recruiting effort was a bit disjointed, and the freshman class came together relatively late. Calhoun said all along that liked his players, but the sudden maturation of this team is remarkable. Calhoun is begging Lamb to score. and what freshman wouldn’t enjoy hearing that? Smith’s teammates are calling him “Defensive Coordinator” because his role as the shut down guy has become crystal clear.
“I think the [freshman] label is gone,” Smith said. “We’re getting a lot of confidence in each other and in ourselves. Every little thing we do, every inch we step, everything we do in the weight room, and just everything builds our confidence.”
Freshman Shabazz Napier came off the bench against Tennessee to run the offense. He handed out four assists and gave Walker a chance to play off the ball. UConn even got six points, five rebounds and a block from reserve center Charles Okwandu, a senior who has struggled throughout his UConn career. Calhoun has stayed with him, and if Okwandu could make contributions consistently it would be enormous.
Calhoun has won two national championships, is in the Hall of Fame, and the critics said he should have retired last year. But this may be one of his best coaching efforts yet. If you want to make a short list of National Coach of the Year candidates this early in the season, he has to be included.
“Our chemistry is great,” Walker said. “We do everything together, and it just translates onto the court. [The freshmen] are growing up fast. Their confidence is really high right now. Hopefully we can keep them that way.
“I think [Calhoun] is letting them grow up. I think he has let them play through mistakes. That’s been the biggest difference this year. He’s not really yelling at them. He’s talking to them in a soft voice and giving them confidence when they do make mistakes. We need everybody to contribute in some type of way and if their confidence goes down, it’s going to be bad.”
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Texas made the biggest impact in college basketball last week, defeating Texas A&M and Kansas to take control of the Big 12. Jordan Hamilton didn’t have his most productive game Saturday — at least in terms of scoring. But there’s no doubt Hamilton had his fingerprints all over the sweep that left Texas with a 16-3 record overall and a 4-0 mark in conference play. Against A&M, Hamilton was 10-of-14 from the field, hit all four 3-point shots he took, scored 27 points and had eight rebounds. Against Kansas, Hamilton didn’t shoot quite as well (5- of-13), but he had 17 points and nine rebounds. The sophomore swingman has made tremendous improvement since his freshman year, taking his scoring average from 10.0 to 19.5 and his rebounding average from 3.7 to 7.2.
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
Jared Sullinger, of course. No. 1 Ohio State is at the top in large part because of Sullinger. He showed that again Saturday with 27 points, 16 rebounds, one assist and three blocks in a 73-68 win over Illinois in Champaign. He also went 13-of-15 from the free throw line. “Pride, heart and composure,” he told the Associated Press after the game. “Those three things — we really showed a lot of composure.” Earlier in the week, Sullinger had 13 points and nine rebounds in a 70-48 destruction of Iowa.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Tuesday, Jan. 25
Purdue at Ohio State
This might be the game of the year in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes have emerged as the top team in the nation. Purdue is second in the Big Ten, and a win for the Boilermakers could alter the complexion of the season.
UConn at Marquette
Marquette needs a big win to help its NCAA Tournament resume. The Golden Eagles missed recent opportunities against Louisville and Notre Dame. UConn is playing well, but the Huskies will be going against a hungry team.
Wednesday, Jan. 26
Texas at Oklahoma State
The Longhorns took control of the Big 12 with a huge win at Kansas Saturday. This will be an emotional game for the Cowboys, one day before the 10th anniversary of that tragic plane crash that killed 10 members of the OSU program.
San Diego State at BYU
This is the first of two meetings between the top teams in the Mountain West, and both are in the Top 10. The Marriott Center crowd will be pulling for Jimmer Fredette and the rest of the Cougars. Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay and Malcolm Thomas are having outstanding seasons for the undefeated Aztecs. (A friendly tip: If you can get CBS College Sports Network, you can actually watch this game.)
Thursday, Jan. 27
Michigan at Michigan State
The visitors are 1-5 in the Big Ten. The home team is 4-3. Tough times for hoop fans in the state of Michigan.
Boston College at Duke
Boston College is 4-2 in the ACC, but the Eagles are 0-2 against Ivy League teams.
Saint Mary’s at Gonzaga
Will a power shift take place in the West Coast Conference this season? Saint Mary’s is 5-0 and 17-3 overall. Gonzaga is 3-2 and 13-7 overall. This would be a huge win for Saint Mary’s.
Saturday, Jan. 29
Georgetown at Villanova
The Hoyas are another mystery team this season. They’ve won two in a row, but beating Rutgers and Seton Hall doesn’t qualify as turning the corner. Villanova’s win at Syracuse Saturday was a big-time bounce back from the loss at UConn.
Louisville at Connecticut
Can Louisville disrupt the Huskies with pressure? Or is Kemba Walker too fast for the Cardinals?
Kansas State at Kansas
ESPN GameDay returns to Lawrence for the Kansas Sesquicentennial. (That’s the 150th anniversary of statehood for Kansas, in case you don’t know that big word.) The Jayhawks also will retire the jersey of Wayne Simien, an All-American in 2005 who played in two Final Fours.
Missouri at Texas
The Longhorns face another difficult challenge at home. Marcus Denmon and the Tigers have won three of their last four.
Sunday, Jan. 30
Duke at St. John’s
Steve Lavin has a roster loaded with seniors, and the program is trying to bring some magic back to Madison Square Garden. Beating Duke would help with that goal.
Northern Iowa at Missouri State
Missouri State begins the week in first place in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bears play Drake and then have this contest against the Panthers, the Cinderella of last year’s NCAA tourney.
THEY SAID IT
“We are inconsistent because our best player, Scotty Hopson is inconsistent. Not his effort, not his attitude, not his ability. It’s just … there are times … I mean, UConn is not going to beat some of the better teams on their schedule on the road unless Kemba Walker has a good game.” —Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl after the Vols lost to UConn, 72-61, in Hartford Saturday. Hopson scored 13 points on 5-of- 13 shooting with five turnovers.
“We just played stupid, to be honest with you. We made a ton of turnovers and it kind of snowballed from there.” — Iowa State guard Scott Christopherson after the Cyclones committed 19 turnovers and went 4 for 22 from three-point range in an 87-54 loss to Missouri Saturday.
“I felt like Jared was pretty good today. That was a joke. He was awesome.” — Ohio State coach Thad Matta during his deadpan routine with reporters Saturday. Freshman Jared Sullinger had 27 points and 16 rebounds in a 73-68 win over Illinois.
"I’m really proud of those kids. Everybody talked about how poorly they played at Georgia Tech. My radio call [show] last night stunk; everybody was talking about how they were Carolina fans for nine million years and how bad we are; I don’t give a damn how long you’re a Carolina fan — those are kids in the locker room, and they played their buns off tonight. I can remember working for Coach [Dean] Smith, and we go down to Clemson, and we got beat 93-76, and I thought the world was going to end. … But I didn’t have anybody calling up the TV show, talking about my team. Don’t call me next week and say how good we are; keep your damn phone calls to yourself.” — North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
“First of all I want to apologize for my language at the end of the game. I got caught up in the emotion of the game, but that’s no excuse. Sometimes you don’t realize that what you’re saying on national TV. The [Big Blue Nation] deserves better and so do my players.” — Kentucky coach John Calipari on Twitter after ESPN cameras caught him cursing at Terrence Jones after the Wildcats lost at Alabama Tuesday.
“We had a pretty good practice yesterday and looked crisp and sharp. Then you come out and just never stop them. They got the shots no matter what defense we were playing. We never made them feel uncomfortable. Each time down the court, it seemed they were in control.” — Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, after Sunday’s 78-46 loss to Wisconsin.
• A fellow reporter asked me the other day about the parental selection of a name for BYU’s senior point guard. What were the Fredette’s thinking when they named him Jimmer? Since I wasn’t involved in the process, I didn’t have an answer. Then I came across the explanation in a Q and A exchange Fredette participated in for The Sporting News. “It’s basically from my mom,” the National Player of the Year candidate said. “She has a lot of Jameses and Jims in her family, and James is my real name. But she decided she wanted to make it unique, so she added the extra ‘m’ and ‘er’ to the end and started to call me Jimmer from birth. She wanted everybody to call me that.” Jimmer says he really likes the name. I’ve no problem with it. If he isn’t calling attention to himself with his game — and he does that every time he takes the floor — then the name is an added touch. It’s certainly better than going by Jimmy, isn’t it?
• Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser had the first triple-double in school history during a 78-46 victory over Northwestern. And the freshman knew exactly what he needed to reach that milestone. “Towards the last couple of minutes I had an idea that I was close and wanted just to get one more [assist] at the end,” he told the Associated Press. “Fortunately Brett [Valentyn] knocked it down. He missed one before that and told me he was going to get another.” Gasser got that final assist with three minutes left and finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
• There’s something sad here, and you just hope the situation doesn’t get worse. Reserve forward Dan Jennings dressed for West Virginia Sunday but he didn’t play. And during the second half of the victory over South Florida, Jennings walked away from the bench and didn’t return. Coach Bob Huggins said it was “unexcused, inexcusable” and “never to be seen again, I guess. … I know, he started a couple of games, but he’s a non-entity. It isn’t like we lost Kevin Jones. I know, you guys [in the media] have to write about it, but it’s a sidebar. Isn’t that what you call it?” Maybe Huggins has a career as an assignment editor ahead of him. On the other hand, Jennings has probably worn the WVU uniform for the last time. Back in November, his name was actually spelled wrong on the back of his jersey. It showed up as JENINNGS. Jennings had a difficult childhood, bouncing back and forth from his biological mother to several foster homes in the New York City area. In November he wrote a speech entitled “Looking for the Light” that was presented at a Morgantown middle school and also at WVU. The speech began: “Did you ever have one of those days when nothing goes your way and you want to give up? Well, I had a whole childhood of those days.” What happened Sunday is a mystery at this point. The 6-8 sophomore was averaging 2.0 points and 2.5 rebounds in 14 games this season and started four times.
• Kansas sophomore Thomas Robinson will not be with the Jayhawks Tuesday when they play at Colorado. Robinson’s mother, Lisa, 37, died of an apparent heart attack late Friday night, just hours before Texas ended Kansas’ 69-game home winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse. Robinson played in Saturday’s game and informed coach Bill Self of his decision to return to Washington, D.C., Monday morning. “He wants to go home to be with his sister,” Self told the Lawrence Journal-World. “The bottom line is Thomas needs to do what he needs to do, and we’re all here to support him.” Lisa Robinson had lost her mother and father in recent weeks. “Thomas lost his grandmother at the very end of December,” Self said. “He lost his grandfather on Sunday and lost his mother on Friday night. For him to even be out there [Saturday] is remarkable.” Robinson learned of his mother’s death when his 9-year-old sister called him.
• Indiana’s backcourt has been hit hard by injuries. Verdell Jones III, who started 17 games this season, is out indefinitely with inflammation in his right knee. That news came just eight days after sophomore Maurice Creek injured his right knee in a win over Michigan. Creek had surgery last Thursday to repair the stress fracture and he is out indefinitely as well.
By Charean Williams
Where there’s Big Ben, there’s a way.
Somehow, someway Ben Roethlisberger manages to find a way to win in the postseason. In his seventh season, Roethlisberger already has won two Super Bowls and has a chance for a third. Roethlisberger is 9-2 in the postseason, giving him a better postseason winning percentage than Joe Montana (.696) and as many postseason victories as Bart Starr. Only seven quarterbacks in NFL history have more postseason wins than Roethlisberger: Montana (16), Terry Bradshaw (14), Tom Brady (14), John Elway (14), Brett Favre (13), Troy Aikman (11) and Roger Staubach (11).
“He may not be Brady or all those other guys, but you can’t knock the guy for what he has done,” Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. “History shows he is a proven winner in the playoffs.”
The Steelers are in the conference title game for the fourth time in seven years. They have won a record six Super Bowls, with two of those coming in the past five seasons. It was Roethlisberger’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left that gave the Steelers a 27-23 victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
He did it again last week, too.
The Steelers were tied with the Ravens 24-24 and faced a 3rd-and-19 at their own 38 with 2:07 left in regulation. The Steelers could have played defense, calling for a run that, based on how their defense had played in the second half, likely would have resulted in overtime. Instead, Roethlisberger talked offensive coordinator Bruce Arians into sending rookie Antonio Brown deep. The 58-yard completion set up the game-winning touchdown, a 2-yard run by Rashard Mendenhall with 1:33 remaining.
It was just another big play by a quarterback who is quickly becoming known as big-time.
“He’s a special quarterback, and he’s done that his whole career,” tight end Heath Miller said. “He’s never mentioned among the top quarterbacks for some reason. I don’t know why that’s the case. He just gets the job done. He brings his team home victorious.”
Williams is getting his due
Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews are the faces of the Packers defense, but Tramon Williams is the heart of it. Though his peers failed to recognize him with a deserved Pro Bowl berth, he has proved in the playoffs that he is one of the league’s top cornerbacks.
“He is having a Pro Bowl season,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “When these playoffs and the Super Bowl are completed, everybody in the country is going to know who Tramon Williams is. That’s the type of level that he’s playing at. He’s been very consistent. He’s making the big plays when the opportunity presents itself. Tramon’s playing great.”
Williams played just as well in the regular season as he is playing now. He allowed 40 catches for 533 yards and three touchdowns, according to STATS, Inc., with 23 pass breakups and six interceptions.
His teammate, Woodson, Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel and Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall were selected for the NFC. Hall gave up the third-most receptions in the league this season (70) and the second-most touchdowns (nine), while Woodson had four pass interference penalties, three defensive holding penalties and a league-leading four illegal contact penalties.
Williams is showing Pro Bowl voters why they were wrong.
He intercepted Michael Vick’s pass in the end zone in the waning seconds to secure the Packers’ victory over the Eagles in the wild card round. And he twice intercepted Atlanta’s Matt Ryan last week, with a 70-yard return for a touchdown on the last play of the first half.
“I don’t think I could have sat up there and told you I was capable of this,” Williams said. “I’ve always been a smaller kid going up against bigger guys, but I was always athletic. … It’s what you work for to be great and pretty much be the best. You sit back and watch other guys make plays and do things and get all the attention, and as a competitor, somewhere deep down inside, you want to do the same things those guys are doing.”
Fourth and short
• Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt will hire his third defensive coordinator in his four years with the team. He fired Clancy Pendergast after the 2008 season and let Bill Davis go earlier this month.
• The Cardinals will try to get a contract extension worked out with receiver Larry Fitzgerald. That was expected after they traded Anquan Boldin to the Ravens last year. Fitzgerald’s contract expires after the 2011 season, and he already was the league’s highest-paid receiver. His deal could affect the future of receiver Steve Breaston, who will be a free agent. The Cardinals will have to decide whether to try to bring back Breaston or go with Andre Roberts and Early Doucet.
• Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez has one year left on his contract and sounds as if he will return for a 15th NFL season. The Falcons want him back, even though he turns 35 in February. Gonzalez made the Pro Bowl, started all 16 games for the 11th time in 14 seasons and caught 70 passes.
• Ed Reed turns 33 in September and had hip surgery before last season. But he is expected to return to the Ravens for a 10th season. He led the NFL with eight interceptions despite playing in only 10 games, making him the franchise leader with 54.
• The Bills lost their final two games against division rivals New England and the New York Jets by a combined 72-10 with 13 turnovers and no offensive touchdowns.
• The Bills aren’t hiding their interest in Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Buffalo, which has the third overall choice, plans to play multiple fronts next year after failing to make a smooth transition to the 3-4 defense in Chan Gailey’s first season as head coach.
• Ron Rivera, 49, becomes the first minority head coach of the Panthers and the first Latino coach in the NFL since Tom Flores.
• The Panthers planned to take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the first overall draft pick. But with Luck staying in school, the Panthers have to find a Plan B. Jimmy Clausen, a second-round pick in 2010, threw three touchdowns in 10 starts and had the league’s worst passer rating at 58.4.
• The Packers and the Bears have met only once before in the playoffs. That was 69 years ago, a 33-14 victory by the Bears in a semifinal game on their way to the 1941 championship.
• Bears returner Devin Hester returned five punts for 128 yards against the Packers this season, an average of 25.6 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown in Week 3.
• Running back Cedric Benson, who was critical of the playcalling for most of the season, is not expected to return to Cincinnati. The Bengals also could lose Chad Ochocinco. They have picked up the option on his contract, paying him $6 million in base salary in 2011, but the receiver has voiced doubts about whether he can co-exist with coach Marvin Lewis following his critical comments late in the season. Cincinnati could end up with three different starters at the four skill positions, with Terrell Owens also not expected to return.
• The Bengals offense has finished 20th or worst the past three seasons.
• The Broncos are expected to trade Kyle Orton to allow Tim Tebow to take over the starting quarterback job. Brady Quinn is expected to remain as Tebow’s backup.
• The Lions won games with three different quarterbacks. Starter Matthew Stafford played in only three games because of injuries to his right shoulder. Detroit, which put 18 players on injured reserve this season, had three different starting running backs, five middle linebackers and five right cornerbacks. It even finished the season with a backup kicker.
• Gary Kubiak is on his third defensive coordinator in five seasons as head coach. He gave Richard Smith and then Frank Bush a chance to be defensive coordinators for the first time. Both were fired. This time, he hired Wade Phillips, who is switching the Texans to a 3-4 scheme.
• The Colts had 18 players on injured reserve. They used 72 players during the season.
• Patriots quarterback Tom Brady now has lost his past three postseason games.
• The Saints ranked fourth in total defense and sixth in total offense. It was the first time in franchise history that the Saints have ranked in the top 10 on both sides of the ball. Their defensive ranking was the lowest since they were fourth in 1997.
• The Giants allowed 42 passing plays of 20-plus yards. Of those, 21.4 percent went for at least 30 yards.
• This marks the third consecutive AFC Championship Game that Rex Ryan has been a part of. He was the Ravens defensive coordinator two years ago when they lost to the Steelers, and Indianapolis beat Ryan’s Jets last season.
• Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was sacked a league-high 19 times against the blitz. He fumbled nine times and all six of his interceptions came in his last seven starts.
• The Eagles allowed 33 touchdowns in 43 red zone visits by opponents. That 76.7 success rate by the opposition was the league’s worst since the 1988 Houston Oilers.
• The Steelers were 7-1 on the road this season and just 5-3 at home during the regular season. They are 1-2 in championship games at Heinz Field and only 1-3 in their past four title games at home. In their history, the Steelers are only 5-5 in AFC Championship Games played in Pittsburgh.
• The Chiefs are the only one of the eight division winners who had a losing record within their division. Kansas City went 2-4 against AFC West teams.
• The Chiefs have 23 players without contracts for 2011, including outside linebacker Tamba Hali.
• Quarterback Chad Pennington said he will attempt to come back from the fourth major injury to his throwing arm. He was named the Dolphins’ starter in Week 9 but was injured on his second snap.
• The Chargers, who have a long list of free agents, are expected to let running back Darren Sproles leave. He has earned $14 million the past two seasons, but he had only 267 rushing yards, 520 receiving yards this season while fumbling three times.
• David Carr is the only 49ers’ quarterback under contract for 2011. Alex Smith and Troy Smith are scheduled to be free agents and are not expected to return to San Francisco. Practice squad quarterback Nate Davis was signed to a future contract by the Seahawks last week.
• The Seahawks have 27 potential free agents. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, 35, tops the list. He has indicated his desire to remain in Seattle.
• The Bucs started 10 rookies, the most by a winning team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Running back LeGarrette Blount led all rookies in rushing with 1,007 yards, and receiver Mike Williams led all rookie receivers with 65 receptions for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns. Williams is the first rookie to have double-digit touchdown receptions since Randy Moss in 1998.
In: Boston College, Duke, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia Tech
Worth a Mention: Maryland
Notes: It was a great eight-day period for Florida State, with home wins over Duke and NC State and a road win at Miami. This little run has cancelled out the bad loss at Auburn. Miami is one of the last teams in the bracket. That win over West Virginia in early December was huge (even though the Mountaineers lost at Marshall Wednesday night). Maryland's loss at home to Virginia Tech on Thursday will not help the Terps down the line.
America East (1)
In: Temple, Xavier
Worth a Mention: Dayton, Duquesne, Rhode Island, Richmond
Notes: Xavier has won three straight in the A-10, and the Muskies need to keep winning because their non-conference resume isn’t strong. They beat three Big Six conference teams, but those wins were against Iowa, Seton Hall and Wake Forest — three of the weakest in the nation from the power leagues. Duquesne isn’t really close to making the field, but the Dukes are off to a 4–0 start in the league. Dayton had what looked like a nice win early in the season, beating Ole Miss in Oxford, but the Rebels are 0–4 in the SEC. Richmond has wins over Purdue, Arizona State and VCU, but also lost to Iona, Bucknell and Rhode Island (at home).
Big 12 (7)
In: Colorado, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M
Worth a Mention: Baylor
Notes: Baylor has a ton of talent but has yet to beat a team with a top-100 RPI. Colorado was among the last teams in. The Buffs have some nice wins (Missouri, at Kansas State) but lost at San Francisco and at Harvard. Oklahoma State got a boost with Alabama’s win over Kentucky this week (the Pokes beat the Tide in December) but then took a hit the next night when Missouri State lost at Indiana State.
Big East (11)
In: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, St. John’s, Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia
Worth a Mention: None
Notes: The Big East goes 11 deep this week, and Marquette is really the only team worth debating. The Golden Eagles’ RPI is 70 due to a very poor non-conference slate. They are lacking in good wins, but they have lost closely to some good teams — Duke (five points), Gonzaga (three), Wisconsin (five), Vanderbilt (one), Louisville (one). This team passes the “eye test.”
Big Sky (1)
In: Northern Colorado
Big South (1)
In: Coastal Carolina
Big Ten (6)
In: Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin
Worth a Mention: Northwestern, Penn State
Notes: Penn State has two nice wins (Michigan State and Illinois at home) and two close losses on the road against very good teams (three points at Ohio State, one point at Purdue), but the Nittany Lions need to win more games to make up for the loss at home to Maine in December. Northwestern has one win vs. a top-100 RPI team, Michigan (No. 83).
Big West (1)
In: Long Beach
In: Old Dominion
Worth a Mention: James Madison, VCU
Notes: James Madison had a great opportunity Wednesday night, but lost a six-point game at ODU. VCU gets its chance at ODU this weekend. A road win over the Monarchs could put the Rams into the field next week.
Conference USA (1)
Worth a Mention: Memphis, UAB, Southern Miss
Notes: UAB is close. The Blazers won at Arkansas and beat VCU at home, but neither of those are currently in the bracket. Southern Miss played its way out (for now) by losing a big lead at home to Memphis Wednesday night. Memphis has a long way to go, but that win at USM was a good place to start. UCF is sliding down the bracket, thanks to a three-game losing streak. Those wins over Florida and Miami will only carry this team so far.
In: Butler, Cleveland State
Worth a Mention: Valparaiso
Notes: Butler has some bad losses (Evansville, Milwaukee by 20), but also has done some good things, beating Florida State and Washington State in Hawaii and pounding Cleveland State by 23.
In: Ball State
In: Missouri State
Worth a Mention: Wichita State
Notes: Wichita State’s loss at home to Northern Iowa on Wednesday night was a tough blow. This team’s other three losses are to UConn in Hawaii, at San Diego State and at home to Missouri State.
Mountain West (3)
In: BYU, San Diego State, UNLV
Worth a Mention: Colorado State
Notes: Colorado State’s huge win at UNLV on Wednesday night was impressive, but the Rams still need a few more quality wins to offset losses to Sam Houston and Hampton.
In: Long Island
In: Austin Peay
In: Arizona, Washington, Washington State
Worth a Mention: UCLA
Notes: Washington State’s spot is far from secure. The Cougars have wins over Mississippi State and Baylor, two teams with plenty of talent but two teams that have underachieved. The win over Gonzaga was big. UCLA has one good win: vs. BYU. The Bruins need to go on a big run in league play.
In: Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
Worth a Mention: South Carolina
Notes: The five teams in the field are pretty secure at this point. South Carolina is sneaking its way into the discussion. The Gamecocks are 3–1 in the league, highlighted by an overtime win over Vanderbilt and a win at Florida.
In: College of Charleston
In: McNeese State
Sun Belt (1)
In: Texas Southern
In: Utah State
In: Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s
By Ralph Vacchiano
When the house fell on the Wicked Witch of the East early in The Wizard of Oz, everybody knew what that meant. She was dead and there was lots of singing and dancing (at least until her evil sister showed up).
There were similar feelings on Sunday, when the trash-talking Jets took out years of frustration and hostility on the NFL’s Evil Empire. Suddenly, everyone pointed out that Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the mighty New England Patriots haven’t won a playoff game since Jan. 20, 2008. Finally, the revelers said, after 10 long years their dynasty was dead.
But is it really?
Even though their ring fingers are collecting a little bit of dust, it’s not as if the Patriots have suddenly become the Jets — not these Jets, of course, but the “same-old Jets” who have gone 41 years without even appearing in the Super Bowl. Sure, the Jets beat them 28-21 in the AFC Divisional playoffs on Sunday, marking the second straight year the Pats were bounced from the playoffs without a win.
But a dynasty over? They were 14-2 this year. They still have the NFL’s best quarterback, and he’s still only 33. They still have the highest-scoring offense in the NFL. They still have Belichick’s brain, too.
Yes, a dynasty is all about championships, not near-misses, and it’s now been six long years since the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX. But with all that on their resume, plus a few likely additions in free agency and the draft, isn’t it all-but certain the Patriots will be among the favorites to win the championship next year?
Of course they will be, because they always are. Just look at what they’ve done in the five years since they won their last Super Bowl:
• In 2005 they went 10-6 and won the AFC East for the fourth straight year. They won a playoff game, too, before getting knocked off in Denver in the second round.
• In 2006 they went 12-4 and won the AFC East for the fifth straight year and advanced all the way to the AFC Championship Game. In fact, they had a 21-3 lead in that game in Indianapolis and led by three with 3:49 remaining. It took a last-minute drive by Peyton Manning and a very late interception by Brady to knock the Pats off, 38-31.
• In 2007, all they did was become the first NFL team to ever go 16-0 in the regular season, and they did it with an offense that scored more points than any team in NFL history. Then they even took a 14-10 lead in Super Bowl XLII with 2:39 remaining before losing to the Giants on arguably the most dramatic, incredible, Super Bowl-winning drive of all time. And don’t forget, the Giants needed the all-time greatest Super Bowl play — Eli Manning’s daring escape from a sure sack, followed by David Tyree’s one-handed helmet catch — to do it.
• In 2008, after losing Brady to a torn ACL and MCL in the season opener, they missed the playoffs. But not by much. Behind backup Matt Cassel, who wasn’t even a starter in college, they went 11-5, making them just the second 11-5 team to miss the NFL playoffs. Ever.
• In 2009 they went 10-6 and won the AFC East for the seventh time in the last eight years. But they lost in the first-round of the playoffs to the Baltimore Ravens
• In 2010 they snuck up on everyone by going 14-2, winning the AFC East for the eighth time in the last nine years by three full games over a Jets team that got most of the national publicity. Then they lost to the Jets in one of the greatest games that franchise has ever played.
That’s not just a pretty good run of success. That’s a run that maybe only the Pittsburgh Steelers — with two Super Bowl title and four trips to the playoffs — have equaled in that same span. They may not have a championship to show for their efforts, but in almost every week of all of those years, they were the team to beat.
Maybe they do have some flaws that the Jets exposed, but what team doesn’t? And the hallmark of the Belichick era in New England has been the Patriots’ ability to constantly reinvent themselves. The only constants, really, throughout the era have been Belichick and Brady. Players, coaches, coordinators, and even the general managers have changed.
The results, though, really haven’t.
So maybe one day we’ll all look back on the Patriot dynasty and realize that it did only last from 2001 to 2004. Maybe it ended at the end of the 2007 season, when Eli Manning hit Plaxico Burress in the corner of the end zone in Glendale, Ariz., with just 35 seconds left in Super Bowl XLII.
Or maybe the Patriots, Belichick and Brady have another championship or two left in them. Since no one — or at least no one with any football sense — expects them to experience the rapid decline that most dynasties do, you have to count New England among the 2011 contenders. Certainly no one can rule them out of Super Bowl XLVI.
In other words, that “Ding Dong” you hear may not be the sound of people dancing around the Patriots’ body. It might turn out to be the sound of the Patriots standing at the door to another championship instead.
1. What team has been the biggest surprise this season?
Braden Gall: The Texas A&M Aggies. We knew the coach was good. We knew they would play hard. But A&M lost its top three scorers and its top rebounder from last season and is sitting at 16–1 overall and 3–0 to start the Big 12. Wins over Missouri, Temple, Washington and Arkansas already give this team a nice resume, and the two-point loss to Boston College has turned into “good loss.” We will learn a lot about this team in the next two weeks as Mark Turgeon’s bunch faces Texas (twice), Kansas State and Nebraska over a 12-day period.
Mitch Light: I think it has to be UConn. With only one proven commodity (guard Kemba Walker) back from a team that went 7–11 in the Big East, the Huskies were expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the league. Even after the hot start — the Maui Invitational championship — many were still doubting this team. But Walker & Co. made a huge statement a few weeks ago by winning at Texas. After the win over Villanova on Monday, UConn is 15–2 overall and 4–2 in the Big East. The Huskies now have wins over Wichita State, Michigan State, Kentucky, Texas and Villanova.
Nathan Rush: I expected Ohio State to be the second or third best team in the Big Ten and a solid Sweet 16-type of squad — not a conference bully and national title contender. But freshman Jared Sullinger (17.6 ppg, 9.9 rpg, .593 shooting) has put together the type of rookie year not seen since Greg Oden was patrolling the paint in Columbus. If “Big Sully” keeps it up, he could have the Buckeyes playing in the national title game just like Oden did back in 2007.
2. If you were an Athletic Director and you had to hire a basketball coach, who would be your top three candidates.
Braden: One letter would top my list: K. Mike Krzyzewski would be my first phone call — no questions asked. Arguably the best tournament coach in the nation, Tom Izzo, would be my second call. Hall of Fame names like Boeheim, Calhoun, either Williams (Roy or Gary), Donovan and Ryan would all be in the mix, but I will go slightly off the beaten path and take Matt Painter of Purdue. He is much younger than the others and still has a lot to prove. In five short years at Purdue, Painter has become one of the nation’s best.
Mitch: I’d have to factor in age, since I want a coach for the long term, so my top candidate might be a surprise — Thad Matta. He is a tremendous recruiter who has proven himself in three stops as a head coach — Butler, Xavier and Ohio State. I’d also have to have Tom Izzo on the list for what he has done at Michigan State. Bill Self at Kansas and Coach K at Duke would obviously be great choices as well, but for No. 3 on my list, I will go with Jay Wright at Villanova. Like Matta, he is a great recruiter who has done well at more than one school. He went 122–85 in seven seasons (30–12 in his final two) at Hofstra before moving on to Villanova in ‘01-02.
Nathan: Michigan State’s Tom Izzo would be the first coach I’d call. After six Final Fours in 15 seasons, including the 2000 NCAA title, Izzo has proven his ability to maximize the talent on his roster in any given season and thrive under the do-or-die pressure of March. After Izzo, it’s a toss-up between Kentucky’s John Calipari and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Coach Cal and Coach K are polar opposites stylistically, but they are undeniably two of the best in the business at recruiting and managing elite talent.
3. Which result from this past weekend surprised you the most?
Braden: I’ll go with Georgia Tech beating North Carolina. If the Jackets normally played up to their potential this would not be shocking considering the issues the Heels have had over the last 12-to-16 months. However, this Paul Hewitt-coached Tech team (now 8–8) had no business beating Roy Williams’ bunch by 20 points — even at home (although, most of the crowd was actually wearing blue).
Mitch: I was very surprised by South Carolina’s 72–69 win at Florida on Saturday. The Gamecocks opened up SEC play with a big overtime win over Vanderbilt but then struggled mightily in a loss at Alabama. This is a very young team that I figured would have a lot of trouble winning on the road. Florida was 2–0 in the SEC after its big win at Tennessee last Tuesday. The Gators had a great opportunity to jump out to a 3–0 record in the wide-open SEC East. Didn’t happen.
Nathan: Tennessee’s 67–64 come-from-behind win over Vanderbilt may not have been the most surprising final score for those who didn’t watch the game. But the way that the Volunteers beat the Commodores was the most shocking result of the weekend. With associate head coach Tony Jones wearing the orange blazer for suspended coach Bruce Pearl — and Pat Summitt cheering on courtside — the Vols rallied from 17 points down to defeat their in-state rivals from Nashville. After starting 0–2 in SEC play (losing at Arkansas and in overtime to Florida), UT pulled off a stunner against Vandy, a team that also let a 14-point lead slip away at South Carolina in the SEC opener.
4. Which team needs to get its act together in the next week or two?
Braden: It might be piling on, but Georgetown needs to get some work done in Big East play. The Hoyas righted the ship with a win over lowly Rutgers this weekend, but had started 1–4 in the Big East prior to the win on Saturday. Losses to St. John’s, Notre Dame, West Virginia and Pitt have put pressure on the Hoyas to win now.Mitch: Northwestern is good enough to be an NCAA Tournament team, but the Wildcats don’t have an NCAA Tournament resume. They dropped to 2–4 in the Big Ten with an overtime loss at Michigan State on Saturday. They need to start winning games — and beating good teams. After hosting Michigan and SIU Edwardsville this week, they play Wisconsin at home and travel to Minnesota next week. If the Cats takes care of business at home and can find a way to steal a win at Minnesota, we can then start talking about the NCAA Tournament once again.
Mitch: Northwestern is good enough to be an NCAA Tournament team, but the Wildcats don’t have an NCAA Tournament resume. They dropped to 2–4 in the Big Ten with an overtime loss at Michigan State on Saturday. They need to start winning games — and beating good teams. After hosting Michigan and SIU Edwardsville this week, they play Wisconsin at home and travel to Minnesota next week. If the Cats takes care of business at home and can find a way to steal a win at Minnesota, we can then start talking about the NCAA Tournament once again.
Nathan: North Carolina appears to be back in trouble — if the Tar Heels were ever off the bubble — after an embarrassing 78–58 loss at Georgia Tech on Sunday. An underachieving Yellow Jackets team thoroughly dominated the Heels, who shot 27.6 percent (16-of-58) from the field and 16.7 percent (2-of-12) from downtown in Atlanta. If UNC can’t bounce back against Clemson (Jan. 18), at Miami (Jan. 26), NC State (Jan. 29), at BC (Feb. 1) and Florida State (Feb. 6), Roy Williams may have his second straight NIT ticket punched before heading to Cameron Indoor to face Duke (Feb. 9) for the first time this year.
5. There are some great freshmen and some great seniors. Who is the best sophomore in the country?
Braden: Wow, there are too many to count, and there is no Blake Griffin in this group. I will go with Maryland’s Jordan Williams, who has been a machine on the glass all season. His 12.1 rebounds per game rank third nationally and first among all power conference teams. He is also averaging 18.1 points, 1.4 blocks and is shooting 56 percent from the floor. I can’t, however, answer this questions without at least mentioning Jordan Hamilton, Derrick Williams and Alec Burks.
Mitch: Derrick Williams at Arizona is having a monster sophomore season. The forward who originally committed to USC leads the Cats in scoring (19.7 ppg) and rebounding (7.3 rpg) and is shooting .658 from the field and .770 from the line. He is a legitimate Pac-10 Player of the Year candidate.
Nathan: My favorite sophomore is Miami point guard Durand Scott — although Arizona big man Derrick Williams is a beast, Vanderbilt sharpshooter John Jenkins is one of the top marksmen in the country and UCF heir to His Airness, Marcus Jordan, has nearly doubled his production while leading the Knights to a 14–2 start. But Scott has an all-around game that continues to improve and an intangible winning edge. The 6’3”, 200-pound New York City product — who won a state title as a high school senior at Rice and played for the AAU power New York Gauchos — is averaging 14.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists on ultra-efficient shooting percentages (45.8 from the field, 87.1 from the free throw line and 43.8 from three).
By Ken Davis
During those crazy summer days of 2010, realignment rumors threatened to blow up the Big 12 as we know it. In the end, the Texas Longhorns put an end to that speculation by sticking with the membership and keeping the league together — minus Nebraska and Colorado.
The Cornhuskers and Buffaloes are committed to their escape plan. The old Big Eight partners have decided to bail out after this season. Nebraska will join the Big Ten and Colorado is headed for the mountains and surf of the Pac-10.
There is no doubt the Big 12 will feel a greater sense of loss as a football conference. From a basketball perspective, the reaction was an overwhelming sense of “Good riddance.” Neither program has brought much to the basketball table — especially in recent seasons — so who will miss them?
But guess what? It appears the Huskers and Buffs want to make a little noise as they head for the exit ramp.
Colorado travels to Lincoln, Neb., to play the Cornhuskers Tuesday. It’s not a game that will catch the fancy of the entire nation. But the Heartland will take notice. Just look at the Big 12 standings. Colorado (14-4 overall) is tied for first place with Texas A&M with a 3-0 conference record. Kansas, which plays at Baylor Monday night, and Texas are 2-0. Behind Baylor (2-1) is a logjam of five teams at 1-2, including Missouri, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Kansas State — and Nebraska (13-4 overall).
The Cornhuskers nearly rocked the college basketball world Saturday when they almost took the Rock Chalk out of Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks had to battle back from a 10-point deficit early in the second half to defeat the Cornhuskers, 63-60, in Nebraska’s last visit to Lawrence — at least as a Big 12 member. Kansas remained undefeated this season and extended its home winning streak to 69 games, but the Huskers made a statement.
“I can tell you this, as long as I’m coaching here — I’ll be a spectator probably the next time there’s a game here,” Nebraska coach Doc Sadler said. “I don’t like it that much.”
College presidents, commissioners and athletic directors make their realignment decisions with money in mind. They give very little thought — if any — to the traditions that are being destroyed. They give no thought to the emotions of coaches and players. It was obvious Saturday’s trip to historic Allen Fieldhouse meant something to Nebraska. Football coach Bo Pelini even attended the game.
The Jayhawks didn’t play their best game, but credit the Cornhuskers for making it close. Nebraska won the battle of the boards, 39-31, and played tough defense — especially on the interior. Sophomore forward Brandon Ubel grew up in nearby Overland Park, Kan., and attended games at Allen Fieldhouse. Like the other Huskers, he was hungry for Nebraska’s first victory there since 1999.
“I really wanted to get that win,” Ubel told the Lawrence Journal-World. “We were so close. … The fact that I’m not going to be able to come back here and give it another go is one of the more disappointing things.”
The emotions will be even stronger for Colorado coach Tad Boyle on Feb. 19 when the Buffaloes make their final appearance at Allen Fieldhouse. Boyle is a 1985 graduate of Kansas and played point guard for the Jayhawks. He is excited about the move to the Pac-10, but knows he will only get one chance to coach against KU in a conference game.
Boyle is a native of Greeley, Colo., and after building a program from scratch at Northern Colorado, he got the Colorado job when Jeff Bzdelik left for Wake Forest. With a new practice facility opening in April, Boyle is excited about Colorado’s future.
“This is not a stepping stone job for Tad Boyle,” he said during an interview last summer. “It’s a destination job for me. … This is where I want to be.”
The Colorado players are flourishing in Boyle’s system. Sophomore guard Alec Burks is averaging 19.7 points and is one of the most underrated players in the nation. But Burks isn’t a one-man show. Cory Higgins (16.6 ppg), Marcus Relphorde (12.0 ppg) and Levi Knutson (11.6 ppg) are all averaging in double figures scoring for CU.
Burks had 20 points and 11 rebounds in a 75-71 win over Oklahoma State Saturday. Colorado is 3-0 in conference play for the first time since 1996-97, when they opened 6-0 and went on to the NCAA tournament.
“You have to give Colorado credit,” OSU coach Travis Ford told The Boulder Daily Camera. “They have come a long way. They’re not the team of the past. They are a very good basketball team.”
And their timing couldn’t have been better.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Jimmer Fredette is the talk of college basketball, especially after scoring 47 points in BYU’s 104-79 victory over Utah last Tuesday. So how could we possibly deny him the Player of the Week award, even if he gets it for the second consecutive week? If you haven’t seen the highlights, Fredette was 16-of-28 from the field, including 6-of-9 from 3-point range, and 9-of-9 from the free throw line. So just when you thought Kemba Walker was going to walk away with Player of the Year honors, you might want to reconsider. Fredette took over the national scoring lead that night with a 26.1-point average. “I just felt good right from the beginning,” Fredette said.
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
Terrence Jones scored 35 points against Auburn last Tuesday night and then apologized to teammate Doron Lamb. Why the apology? Jones had just broken the Kentucky freshman scoring record set by Lamb last month when he scored 32 against Winthrop. Jones came off the bench and demonstrated his versatility by scoring from points all over the floor. “I just wanted to do the little things on defense, run the floor hard and shoot it when I was open,” Jones said.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Monday, Jan. 17
Villanova at Connecticut
This has developed into one of the best rivalries in the Big East. Why should it be any different with Kemba Walker, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes on the floor? This is the start of a great Martin Luther King Day schedule on the ESPN networks.
Kansas State at Missouri
Curtis Kelly is back for K-State. Missouri’s grueling overtime loss to Texas A&M dropped the Tigers’ conference record to 1-2 — same as the Wildcats.
Syracuse at Pittsburgh
Coach Jim Boeheim’s leading scorer, Kris Joseph, won’t be healthy enough to play. In fact, he won’t even make the trip. That makes the task at Pitt even tougher. The Cuse might suffer its first loss.
Kansas at Baylor
The Ferrell Center will be amped up to greet the Jayhawks. But Kansas hasn’t lost in Waco since 2001.
Tuesday, Jan. 18
Colorado at Nebraska
For all the traditionalists out there, this is a slice of history. This is the next to last Big 12 game between these two. Both have shown remarkable improvement in conference play.
Michigan State at Illinois
Two overtime victories last week put the Spartans back in contention in the Big Ten. Now can they pick up a big win on the road?
Wednesday, Jan. 19
Duke at North Carolina State
The Blue Devils got off to such a smooth start, but last week was full of speed bumps. The trip over to Raleigh is always interesting.
Cincinnati at Notre Dame
The Irish will be glad to be home at the Joyce Center for this one. Notre Dame’s most recent road trip resulted in losses at Marquette and St. John’s.
Texas A&M at Texas
Mark Turgeon’s Aggies have been a huge surprise. The winner of this game emerges as the strongest contender to Kansas in the Big 12.
Thursday, Jan. 20
Virginia Tech at Maryland
Both of these teams have fallen below expectations, but you get the impression they aren’t far from busting out. This is a big ACC game.
Saturday, Jan. 22
Villanova at Syracuse
Syracuse hopes to have guard Kris Joseph healthy and back in the lineup for this game. Either one of these teams could win the Big East.
Ohio State at Illinois
With two big home games this week, the Illini could make a big difference in the Big Ten standings.
Kansas State at Texas A&M
You better make yourself familiar with Khris Middleton. He is a rising star at Texas A&M, a team that is quietly starting to make a lot of noise.
Kentucky at South Carolina
The Gamecocks love to cause trouble for Kentucky. Led by freshman guard Bruce Ellington, South Carolina is dangerous at home.
Iowa State at Missouri
Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones lost back-to-back Big 12 games to Nebraska and Kansas, but bounced back to beat Baylor.
Tennessee at Connecticut
The Vols take a break from the SEC and that earns coach Bruce Pearl a “Get Out Of Jail” card.
Texas at Kansas
This is the rivalry that has defined the Big 12 Conference. The Jayhawks will be shooting for their 70th consecutive home court victory.
Sunday, Jan. 23
Wisconsin at Northwestern
If John Shurna doesn't score, Northwestern finds itself in big trouble. Michigan State held Shurna to six points and the Spartans won in OT.
THEY SAID IT
“I have failed this team. I’ve got to do a better job of making us see how well we can play.” — Kansas State coach Frank Martin, after deciding to show his team video of wins over Gonzaga and Virginia Tech earlier this season.
“Look at anybody’s next six games in this league. It is by far the best league in the country. Everybody watches it because it’s drama and it’s playing out again.” — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey after his team lost to St. John’s 72-54.
“They’re kind of similar to a Big Ten team. It kind of reminded me of Minnesota. It wasn’t anything I haven’t seen before.” — Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson, after a 68-64 loss to West Virginia in Morgantown.
“It’s someone’s girlfriend. (Reading) ‘Meet me at Jake’s … Is there a Jake here? …. (puts down the phone) I shouldn’t be getting messages on that. I told them not to call me on someone else’s phone.” — Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, reading a text message from a reporter’s buzzing cell phone at the press conference following the Blue Devils’ loss at Florida State.
“When he starts to shoot from 40 feet out you know he’s feeling something. You kind of wanted to keep giving him the ball.” — BYU’s Jackson Emery, commenting on Jimmer Fredette’s 47-point performance in a 104-79 victory over Utah.
“If that does happen, the thing that excites me the most is that’s the second time we’ve been there in a few years. I think it’s great for the program. I don’t know how many schools can say that they’ve been in that position. We’re definitely one of them.” — Ohio State coach Thad Matta on the possibility of rising to the No. 1 spot in the polls. Ohio State ended the 2006-07 regular season as the No. 1 team.
• Guard Jeremy Hazell is playing again at Seton Hall and somehow that just seems like a miracle. We’ve been updating you on the preseason first-team All-Big East selection since November. He went into the season as the centerpiece of everything the Pirates wanted to do, but a wrist injury immediately ripped him from the lineup. The uncertainty of his return upset Hazell deeply. Then on Christmas Day, Hazell was shot, hit by a bullet as he fled armed robbers in Harlem. Suddenly a wrist injury didn’t seem so serious. Hazell could have lost his life. But rather remarkably, there he was last Wednesday, scoring 23 points in a victory over DePaul. We’ve seen comeback stories before, but maybe nothing like this. “I was just happy to get back with my team,” he said. “When they told me I could play, there was no holding back.”
• Reggie Moore, starting point guard at Washington State, has been suspended indefinitely. Coach Ken Bone made the decision and Moore was in street clothes when the Cougars defeated Stanford Saturday. According to the Associated Press, Moore received two misdemeanor citations last month involving marijuana and drug paraphernalia. He was cited after a Dec. 11 search of a dorm room. Bone told the rest of the team about the suspension as they were getting off the bus at Maples Pavilion.
• Again, if you’ve been paying attention to this space, we predicted the first loss of the season for UCF would come against Southern Miss. The Knights did lose there 86-69. But it wasn’t the first loss for UCF. That came a week ago Saturday at Houston. So now UCF has lost two in a row and everyone is casting doubt over that 14-0 start. Southern Miss, under the direction of former Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy, scored its first home victory over a ranked team since 1986. There’s a lot to think about there. Most important, UCF might not be as impressive as originally thought.
• The soap opera at Memphis has gotten out of hand. Now coach Josh Pastner has suspended Wesley Witherspoon. There’s no doubt Witherspoon, a veteran with outstanding athletic ability, is a major key to the Tigers. But Pastner had little choice. Reportedly, Witherspoon mimicked an assistant coach by getting on the team bus’ loudspeakers and doing an impression of the coach — after a loss at SMU. It was supposed to be comical. But maybe Witherspoon should think about growing up a bit before he hurts his team again.
• Kansas State junior center Freddy Asprilla, who transferred to the Wildcats from Florida International and had started 13 games, has left the team. Coach Frank Martin called it a “mutual decision.” Martin offered no further explanation, other than to say he expected Asprilla to pursue pro opportunities in Colombia. “I found out last night,” Martin said before Saturday’s game against Texas Tech. “I don’t know what to tell you.” It’s just one more distraction for the Wildcats.
• Oregon’s new Matthew Knight Arena cost $227 million. It looks like a terrific building and I’m sure it tailored to the fan in every way possible — except actually watching the game. That court has to go. The idea is to pay tribute to the “Tall Firs,” that 1939 national championship team. My first impression? Someone spilled paint all over the floor. The more I watched on TV, the more problems I — and others — noticed. The lighting creates a horrible glare. The mid-court line is barely visible, even with a camera close up. Let’s hope there’s a new court in there by next season — if not sooner.
By Ralph Vacchiano
The fact that the Seattle Seahawks were even in the playoffs didn’t sit well in New York and Tampa Bay, where the 10-win Giants and Buccaneers were already dispatched to their offseason vacations. And collectively, the nation laughed that, for the first time in NFL history, a 7-9 team would play in a playoff game.
But the Seahawks didn’t laugh. And nobody’s laughing at them anymore.
They shook up the world and the NFL playoffs on Sunday with their hard-to-believe 41-36 win over the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. They were the only home team to win, and they did it against a team many thought might be the most dangerous in the NFC.
They did it in style, with an unheralded quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, standing toe-to-toe with Drew Brees and throwing four touchdown passes. They did it wan unwanted running back, Marshawn Lynch, finishing the Saints off with a touchdown run so powerful, the cheers from the Qwest Field crowd literally shook the Earth.
And when they did it, they were still facing this unfathomable reality: They still are not a .500 team.
“We just beat the world champs and that’s a great feeling,” Hasselbeck said. “And we worked hard to do it. It wasn’t like it kind of happened. We worked hard this week, and we prepared, and we believed and we laid it on the line.”
“It’s funny I’m so calm about this,” added Pete Carroll, the coach in his first year back in the NFL. “You’d all think that I’d be all pumped up and jacked up, but there is just a calm about it. I’m just so proud to be part of this thing.”
Nobody really knows what “this thing” is yet for the 8-9 Seahawks, who next travel to Chicago on Sunday to face the Bears (11-5) in an NFC Divisional playoff game. There’s a pretty good chance that the thing was a fluke, aided by one of the loudest home crowds in the NFL, injuries to their opposition, and a bit of a Super Bowl hangover for the Saints.
But the beauty of the thing is that the possibilities are endless for a team that, incredibly, would need to win the Super Bowl to finish over .500 for the season. It’s a testament to what players around the NFL always say this time of year — it doesn’t matter how you get to the playoffs, just that you get there.
And once you’re there, all you need to do is believe. And the Seahawks definitely believe.
“I think what’s clear to me is that we have a bunch of guys that are really together on how we think and how we approach our opportunities,” Carroll said. “And they realize that it doesn’t have anything to do with what’s outside. It has to do with what we do. The lessons in the last two weeks (when they beat the Rams to win the division, and then upset the Saints) are so clear about that. The way we performed last week and the way we came back this week, they’re starting to own it.
“And that’s what makes you powerful.”
Still, it’s not enough to make anyone outside of Seattle feel they were deserving. Certainly the Bucs and Giants took note of the fact that they each won three more games than the Seahawks and still didn’t earn a playoff spot. And the Saints took note of the fact that they won four more games and had to make the trip to the Seahawks’ home.
Critics also point to their 7-9 record despite playing six games in the worst division in football (where they went 4-2). They were just 2-6 on the road. They were outscored during the season by 97 points — a wider margin than all but three other teams, and all three of those teams finished last in their respective division.
Not surprisingly, the Seahawks’ appearance has sparked the predictable cry for re-seeding so that the teams with the better records host games in the wild card round. Many simply believe that a team with a losing record does not belong in the postseason.
That’s fine, and you can certainly debate that all you want — and the competition committee undoubtedly will in the coming months. But here’s the thing: The Seahawks did what they had to do under the current rules. There was no requisite number of wins. They won their division. They got in.
And now that they’re in, they may still be a losing team, but don’t try telling that to the Saints. The football world can laugh all it wants, but the Seahawks are still playing while 24 other teams are watching them on TV.
“I’m having fun with this,” Carroll said. “I’m enjoying it. And we’re going to see how far we can ride it.”
1. It’s obviously early, but which team really needs a big win this weekend?
Mitch Light: I’ll go with Wisconsin, which hosts Illinois. The Badgers let what would have been a great win on the road slip away in East Lansing on Tuesday night. Instead of a 3–1 Big Ten record, the Badgers are 2–2 with two wins at home and two losses on the road. UW lost at Illinois, 69–61, a few weeks ago due in large part to some poor outside shooting. The Badgers got some good looks at the basket but only shot .350 from the field, including .286 from three. If Bo Ryan’s club plans on hanging around in the league race, winning at home this weekend would be a very good idea.
Braden Gall: The Tennessee Vols have lost six out of nine — to some really bad opponents — and have started 0–2 in league play. A second straight home loss to in-state rival Vanderbilt would push the Vols record to 0–3 in SEC play and 10–7 overall. That would be almost insurmountable. If Tennessee cannot figure out how to play with consistency, instead of playing down to its opponents, Big Orange nation will be at home this March.
Nathan Rush: If K-State’s Jacob Pullen “won’t play in the NIT” during his “last go around” in Manhattan, then the Wildcats better win at home against Texas Tech on Saturday before hitting the road at Missouri for a quick turnaround Monday matchup. A preseason top-10 pick by many, K-State has early losses to Duke, Florida, UNLV, Oklahoma State and Colorado. It’s not quite do-or-die time, but when a star player is in panic mode about the NIT in January, one or two conference wins will go a long way.
2. Which coach from a Big Six power conference is on the hottest seat right now?
Mitch: Since I spend far too much time wondering how Georgia Tech can struggle so much under Paul Hewitt, I will go in a different direction on this one. How about Pat Knight at Texas Tech? Knight called this a “make-or-break” season for him; well, the Red Raiders are 8–9 overall and 0–2 in the Big 12 (with both games at home).
Braden: In our weekly pick on Paul Hewitt segment, I will buck the trend and ignore the atrocious play at Georgia Tech and say Pat Knight at Texas Tech. There are only nine power conference teams currently under .500; the Red Raiders are one of those teams, and they have lost to the one with the worst record (South Florida at 6–12). Also, Texas Tech is 3–5 vs. teams from Texas this season, with losses to TCU, North Texas, UTEP, Baylor and Texas. Knight is a pathetic 11–33 in Big 12 play, and the overall mark of 45–51 isn’t what Tech signed up for when they hired someone named Knight.
Nathan: Even Oregon State coach Craig Robinson’s POTUS brother-in-law Barack Obama or his First Lady sister Michelle’s new best friend Oprah don’t have the power to save him. The Beavers have lost to Seattle, Texas Southern, Utah Valley, Colorado, Montana, George Washington, Washington State, Washington and UCLA. But Robinson’s squad does have wins over Arizona, Arizona State, Texas-Pan American, Howard, Charlotte and Texas-Arlington — so maybe those coaches deserve to be fired first. What OSU needs is a 6’2 lanky lefty shooter with 1979 Punahou (Hawaii) High School state championship experience. If only “Barry O’Bomber” didn’t have so much going on right now...
3. Ohio State has emerged as the best team in the Big Ten. Whose next?
Mitch: I really like the talent level at Illinois, but Purdue has been very impressive (despite the loss at Minnesota Thursday night). The Boilermakers don’t really have any great wins, but they have been consistent on both ends of the court. Purdue ranks No. 4 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. This team is capable of winning the Big Ten.
Braden: It is a boring answer, but 15¬–2 Purdue is probably the second best team the Big Ten. The Boilers have two elite players in guard E’Twaun Moore and center JaJuan Johnson. They have a head coach who has transitioned from green rookie to grizzled Big Ten vet in a quick five years. And the injury to Robbie Hummel has opened the door for younger players to develop — eight Boilermakers are averaging over 17 minutes per game. Keep an eye on Michigan State, however, as the improbable comeback against Wisconsin this week could springboard the Spartans into another great Big Ten season.
Nathan: I will go down with the Michigan State ship as long as Tom Izzo is its captain. The 64–61 overtime win over Wisconsin was a good bounce-back following a 66–62 loss at Penn State. Other than being haunted by the ghost of JoePa, Sparty has respectable defeats to UConn, Duke, Syracuse and Texas. But Izzo’s club has NCAA Tournament experience, an inside-out game and toughness. When it comes time to dance in March, Izzo’s team may even outlast Ohio State.
4. Who is your favorite college hoops color commentator.
Mitch: Before this season, I would have said Jay Bilas, but I want to throw Dan Dakich into the mix. The former head coach at Bowling Green and interim coach at Indiana has been terrific on ESPN’s Big Ten telecasts. He knows that league so well, and he does a great job explaining the Xs and Os.
Braden: Jay Bilas is the best in the business. He delivers original, timely commentary no matter the situation. There are no clichés or over-the-top antics. He states his case succinctly and with eloquence — like the lawyer that he is. If you want the antics or clichés, there is none better than Bill Raftery. Onions!
Nathan: CBS and Big Ten Network play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson is more “colorful” than any color commentator in the business. I think he could call a game by himself. But if I have to go with a former coach or player — (and who’s to say Gus doesn’t “rise and fire” a “big time J” or “get buckets” in an “unbelievable” style worthy of an “ohhhhh” reaction?) — I’ll still cop out. Give me former color man and current Saint Louis Billikens coach Rick Majerus — or if I really can hand-pick who has the microphone, NBA legend Hubie Brown. Both are basketball brainiacs who have seen it all and provide insightful observations and legitimate strategic suggestions.
5. Name a player who isn’t well known that has impressed you over the pat few weeks.
Mitch: I’m going to go back to Purdue and talk about guard Ryne Smith. Smith scored in double-figures just once during nonconference play (11 points vs. Austin Peay) but scored 13 or more in each of the Boilermakers’ first four Big Ten games. In last Sunday’s 75–52 win over Iowa, Smith scored 18 points and added three assists and three rebounds. He struggled last night against Minnesota (three points in 25 minutes), but Smith has emerged as another threat on a very good Purdue club.
Braden: His play has not necessary translated into big wins just yet, but Michigan’s Darius Morris has been outstanding. He is leading the Big Ten in assists at 7.3 — which is good for fourth nationally. He is also leading the Maize and Blue in scoring at 15.4 points per game and does an excellent job on the glass for a point guard (3.5 boards per game). Once he learns to cut back on the turnovers (3.6 per game in conference play), Morris will take his place among the league’s best.
Nathan: If you don’t already know about South Carolina freshman point guard Bruce Ellington, that won’t be the case for much longer. The state championship winning quarterback — who was a Mr. Football finalist also-ran to current Gamecock running back Marcus Lattimore — has been hot and cold; but when he’s hot he’s nearly unstoppable. In his first season as a basketball-only athlete, Ellington has shown flashes of Devan Downey potential. The sky is the limit for Ellington, who scored 22 points (hitting 6-of-10 from three) with seven boards, four assists and two steals during an 83–75 come-from-behind overtime win over Vanderbilt last Saturday.
By Charean Williams
It was the moment Nick Folk had been dreaming of since the Cowboys selected him in the sixth round of the 2007 draft: A game-winning kick in a playoff game.
But Folk’s 32-yard field goal advanced the Jets in the playoffs, not the Cowboys.
His dream now is to return to his old stomping ground at Cowboys Stadium and kick the game-winning field goal for the Jets in Super Bowl XLV. How sweet would that be?
“That would be fine with me,” Folk understated.
Folk became a Folk hero in New York, almost making Jets fans forget Doug Brien.
Brien had missed field goal tries of 47 and 43 yards in the final 2:02 of regulation in a 20-17 playoff loss to the Steelers to end the 2004 season for the Jets. Brien never kicked for the Jets again.
Folk knew his kick Saturday was good the moment it left his foot. He let out a scream when the officials raised their arms, signaling a 17-16 victory over the Colts.
“It was exciting,” Folk said. “Playing Peyton Manning in Indianapolis in a playoff game, it’s exciting to get that win and move on to this week.”
Folk made the Pro Bowl his rookie season, making 26-of-31 field goals, including a 53-yarder on the final play of an improbable 25-24 victory over the Bills. He made 20-of-22 field goals in 2008, but he had no touchbacks, prompting the Cowboys to select David Buehler in the fifth round of the 2009 draft.
It was the beginning of the end to Folk’s career in Dallas.
Folk had hip surgery in May, and though the Cowboys kept both kickers on their roster, Folk eventually was released after his 10th miss in 14 games.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Folk said, “and it is what it is.”
He signed with the Jets, and aside from one rough spell when he missed six field goals in four games, Folk has been right at home in New York.
The Packers admit they didn’t see this one coming. James Starks, a sixth-round draft pick, played in only three games during the regular season. He had only 29 carries for 101 yards.
Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said the team had “a couple of packages” for Starks against the Eagles.
A “few carries” turned into Starks carrying the load.
Starks produced the most rushing yards by a Packers’ running back this season.
His 123 yards on 23 carries also was the most by a rookie in the team’s illustrious postseason history, topping the 88 yards Travis Williams had in a Dec. 23, 1967, playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams.
“He looks great in practice. He runs really hard,” Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “We’ve known that since the first day he came in. We weren’t even wearing pads in the spring, and we knew he could do some great things. I think how he’s built and he runs, he’s so big and tall, he falls forward even when he’s getting tackled.”
The Packers have been looking for someone, anyone to fill the cleats of Ryan Grant, whose season ended after only eight carries with a severe ankle injury. They have used a running back by committee approach this season, with Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and Dimitri Nance.
Starks didn’t join the mix until Dec. 5.
He was the University of Buffalo’s all-time leading rusher with 3,140 yards, and he scored 40 total touchdowns in three seasons. But he missed his senior season with a shoulder injury, dropping his draft stock.
Soon after arriving in Green Bay, Starks strained a hamstring and was placed on the physically unable to perform list.
He had 73 yards in his pro debut against the 49ers, setting a franchise mark for the most yards by a running back in his first game.
“I always had high hopes,” Starks said. “I prayed about it. I knew God would put me in the right situation at the right time. I just stayed focused, stayed in my playbook, tried to help as much I can in practice doing what the coaches ask me to do and what the teammates expect me to do. Everything worked out well for me.”
Starks will be a bigger part of the game plan this week against the Falcons. Now that they’ve seen Starks do what he did against the Eagles, they expect it against the Falcons.
“He’s just getting started,” Packers offensive tackle Chad Clifton said. “Hopefully, he can do some great things [against the Falcons] as well.”
Fourth and short
• Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington had surgery last month, the fourth major surgery on his throwing shoulder. He has not decided on his future yet.
• The Patriots are 11-2 at home in the playoffs in their history. After Robert Kraft bought the team 17 years ago, the Patriots won 11 consecutive home playoff games before Baltimore beat them last year.
• Falcons receiver Roddy White had only five catches for 49 yards the last time Atlanta played the Packers. It was his second-lowest output of the season next to the 43 yards he had against New Orleans on Dec. 27. White led the league with 115 catches, and in the four seasons since his breakout season of 2007, he has averaged 93 catches for 1,282 yards and 9 touchdowns.
• Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez has played 14 seasons and has yet to win a playoff game. He is 0-3 in the postseason in his career.
• Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had one touchdown and six interceptions in his first five postseason appearances. He passed for 265 yards and two touchdowns against the Chiefs in his sixth playoff game.
• Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe was shut out for only the second time all season. The Broncos shut down Bowe on Dec. 5, and last week against the Ravens, Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel never even targeted Bowe.
• Bowe led the NFL with 15 touchdown catches and caught 72 passes for 1,162 yards this season.
• Ravens tight end Todd Heap has been Joe Flacco’s favorite target in the two games he’s been back from a hamstring injury. Heap has been targeted 17 times in the past two games.
• Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said he is committed to keeping the top pick despite Andrew Luck’s decision to stay at Stanford. The last time the Panthers had the No. 1 overall choice, they traded it to Cincinnati and selected Kerry Collins with the fifth overall pick.
• The Bears have only one player on injured reserve, and that’s backup linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer. Twenty-nine of their starters and key backups missed no games or only one because of injury.
• In the first meeting against the Seahawks, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler completed 17-of-39 passes for 290 yards and was sacked six times.
• Josh Cribbs did not score a touchdown this season, the first time in his six-year career we was scoreless.
• The Broncos have not settled on their defensive scheme yet, but whether it is a 4-3 or a 3-4 they likely will take a lineman or two high in the draft. Denver has not selected a first-round defensive lineman since 1997 when it took Trevor Pryce.
• The Packers have lost at least one fumble in five consecutive games.
• Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 1,008 rushing yards, becoming the first Patriots player to top the 1,000-yard rushing mark since Corey Dillon had a team-record 1,635 rushing yards in 2004.
• Defensive end Vernon Gholston, the Jets’ first-round pick in 2008, has not had a sack in his three-year career. Last week, he was inactive for the first time this season.
• The Raiders will make their ninth head coaching hire in the 17 seasons since they have returned to Oakland.
• The Raiders will have 27 free agents. Though many could be restricted free agents, offensive lineman Robert Gallery could be among those who are unrestricted.
• Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a 7-2 regular-season record against Baltimore and is 8-2 overall. He also is 8-2 in the postseason.
• Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall ran for 13 touchdowns this season, tying the most by a Pittsburgh running back in 34 seasons. Franco Harris holds the record of 14 in 1976.
• Seahawks defensive end Raheem Brock has been in 17 playoff games. He was unsung hero in Saturday’s victory over the Saints, with a sack, a forced fumble and two tackles for loss.
• Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has the most postseason wins of any of the four NFC quarterbacks left, with a 5-5 playoff record in his 12-year career.
By Ken Davis
Saturday was one of those upsetting days in college basketball — at least upsetting for ranked teams. Not sure if you were counting, but seven ranked teams lost to unranked teams.
Based on those results, it seems safe to predict some wild and crazy conference races this season. The conference tournaments should be full of pressure too because the more losses that build up on those NCAA resumes, the more pressure there is when the bubble starts shrinking and the selection committee gathers in Indianapolis to make its decisions.
Just to top off the weekend wildness, No. 1 Duke, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Kansas all appeared vulnerable on Sunday. All three ultimately remained undefeated. But Duke, playing at Cameron Indoor Stadium, trailed Maryland early in the second half. Ohio State held on for a 67-64 home victory over Minnesota. Kansas struggled against Michigan’s zone, lost a big lead in the second half, and had to go overtime to defeat the Wolverines.
Kentucky should still be the favorite in the SEC, despite Saturday’s loss to a good Georgia team in Athens. UCF was due to pick up that first loss soon, but no one really thought it would come against Houston. Missouri’s 89-76 loss at Colorado qualifies as a huge upset, especially given Missouri’s high-level of play recently, but we will excuse the Tigers in an early conference road game.
But there are four teams that seem to be caught in a disturbing trend. We are talking about four teams that were Top 15 selections in the preseason polls. All four lost again Saturday, so we’re going to lump them together, call them our Fuzzy Four, and ask “What’s wrong with these guys?”
Michigan State: I’ve been lucky enough to be around Tom Izzo and his program for some big regular-season games, early season tournaments, the NCAA Tournament, and the Final Four. I’ve never seen Izzo as dumbfounded as he was Dec. 7 at Madison Square Garden when Syracuse crushed the Spartans. Michigan State teams normally take the battle to the opponent. Syracuse out-worked, out-played and out-smarted the Spartans in that game. And things haven’t gotten much better for Izzo’s crew. The Spartans lost 66-62 at Penn State Saturday. Point guard Kalin Lucas wasn’t at full strength against Syracuse, but the big thing was the way Michigan State let Syracuse attack the boards and dominate. Izzo leaned against a wall outside his team’s locker room and looked like a man without any answers. Most people thought the Spartans were headed back to the Final Four this season. Instead, they are 10-5 overall, 2-1 in the conference, no longer the favorite to win the Big Ten and sliding toward a lower seed in the NCAA Tournament. Izzo called the Penn State defeat “one of the most disappointing losses of my career. … We had one of our best weeks of practice.” Things are very fuzzy for Izzo right now.
Georgetown: The Hoyas are 1-3 in Big East games, including a road loss to St. John’s last week and Saturday’s 65-59 home loss to West Virginia. Chris Wright and Austin Freeman are seniors. Jason Clark is a junior. The Hoyas should be using their experience to beat opponents. Maturity appeared to be on their side during the nonconference schedule. Now they can’t shoot, and turnovers are torturing coach John Thompson III (18 against West Virginia, 13 against St. John’s). Wright says team confidence and morale are down. The Hoyas are good enough to pull out of this. The question is how long will it take?
Kansas State: The preseason rankings for the Wildcats were an insult to guard Denis Clemente. The tandem of Jacob Pullen and Clemente made K-State special last season. Pullen is still a talented college player, but he is Robin without Batman. The Wildcats shouldn’t have been favored to win the Big 12 and they shouldn’t have been thrust into a Final Four forecast. Clemente was a leader. Obviously, we now know this team lacks leadership. Pullen is back from his suspension. Curtis Kelly will be back soon. But don’t expect Kelly to show a sudden burst of maturity. It’s not in his makeup. The Wildcats are still a factor in the Big 12 but at 12-4 and 0-1 after Saturday’s 76-62 loss at Oklahoma State, I think the bar has been lowered considerably. When you turn the ball over 21 times and commit 31 personal fouls, your chances of winning are reduced. K-State has to learn that.
Tennessee: The Vols are in serious trouble. They’ve lost five of their last eight. Coach Bruce Pearl just started his eight-game suspension for SEC action, and the Vols responded with a 68-65 loss at Arkansas. In the game before that, the Razorbacks had lost 79-46 to Texas. You do the math (not sure what number you come up with, but it is bad for Tennessee). The Vols continue to get pumped up for ranked teams and then don’t turn it on against other opponents. Emotion can be a good thing, but it can also backfire. Pearl has hurt his team. He should have been fired for lying to the NCAA. Then the Vols could have regrouped and moved on. Instead, this bad environment hangs over them every time they play. That’s Pearl’s fault. And it’s the fault of a weak administration that didn’t want to dismiss a popular coach. Now the program pays the price.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds says Jimmer Fredette is “just uncanny. You can play him tough and he still gets his points. The minute you relax on him he makes shots. He is just a terrific player.” Those were Reynolds’ words after Fredette scored 22 points to lead No. 15 BYU to a 76-66 victory Saturday. Earlier in the week, Fredette scored 39 points on the road as BYU handled UNLV 89-77. It’s all just further proof that Fredette is a first-team All-America choice. In the two games, Fredette was 18-of-39 from the field, 15-of-17 from the free throw line and 10-of-21 from 3-point range. Add in nine rebounds and seven assists and you’ve got a Player of the Week performance that stood out above some other fine solo efforts.
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
Kemba Walker hit the winning shot for UConn against Texas on Saturday. And while Dick Vitale screamed about the need for UConn to keep the ball out of the hands of Jordan Hamilton with 2.4 seconds remaining in overtime, freshman Shabazz Napier made a stellar defensive play. On the live telecast, Napier got little credit, and that’s just wrong. J’Covan Brown’s inbound pass went to Cory Joseph, and Napier swiped at the ball. Joseph lost control just long enough that the final play was disrupted. Joseph could only manage an air-ball, and the Huskies won. Napier has played tough defense all season, and he had 15 points off the bench against the Longhorns and 18 earlier in the week against Notre Dame. In those two road games, he was 10-of-16 from the field and 7-of-7 from the line.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Monday, Jan. 10
Notre Dame at Marquette
If you aren’t interested in Auburn playing Oregon for the BCS championship, then this is your top alternative. Not all that attractive, but you can understand where the ESPN programming people are coming from on this one. Big Monday gets going next week.
Tuesday, Jan. 11
Wisconsin at Michigan State
This is pretty close to desperation time for Michigan State. Tom Izzo’s team needs to prove itself at home.
Florida at Tennessee
I want to know where Bruce Pearl is and what he is doing during Tennessee games as he serves his SEC suspension. At Arkansas, he supposedly watched from a hotel banquet room and then was picked up by the team bus on the way to the airport.
Wednesday, Jan. 12
Pittsburgh at Georgetown
When Pitt comes to town, you had better be on top of your game. Georgetown has been committing too many turnovers. That’s a bad mix unless the Hoyas take better care of the ball.
Syracuse at St. John’s
There should be a big crowd in Madison Square Garden for this game. Syracuse has a big following in the Big Apple. And Steve Lavin’s squad is waking up the city.
Duke at Florida State
The Blue Devils historically have had problems in Tallahassee. The Seminoles play tough defense but rank 205th in the nation in field goal percentage.
Kansas at Iowa State
Fred Hoiberg’s return to Ames was going very well until Saturday when Nebraska beat Iowa State 63-62. The Mayor will be looking to re-create the old days of Hilton Magic against the Jayhawks.
Thursday, Jan. 13
Purdue at Minnesota
The Boilermakers are 14-1 — even without Robbie Hummel. Better be careful not to forget about Purdue.
Providence at West Virginia
Someone has to be in last place in the Big East, but the Friars don’t play like your average basement dweller.
Virginia Tech at North Carolina
Both teams started the season thinking they would challenge Duke in the ACC. Both team have four losses overall.
Friday, Jan. 14
Butler at Detroit
Can the Titans knock off Butler and take control of the Horizon? We will find out.
Saturday, Jan. 15
Vanderbilt at Tennessee
With Bruce Pearl still in the SEC jail, this is a big opportunity for Vanderbilt, which swept the Vols last season.
Cincinnati at Syracuse
This won’t be a battle of unbeaten teams after all. Cincinnati’s loss at Villanova changed that. The Bearcats are still trying to prove themselves.
Missouri at Texas A&M
Khris Middleton and David Loubeau have the Aggies in the hunt for the Big 12 championship. This is a battle of two ranked teams.
Maryland at Villanova
When these two get together it kinda feels like a conference game. What conference? I don’t know, maybe the Big Atlantic Coast?
Sunday, Jan. 16
Providence at South Florida
Not convinced that the Big East is tough? Check out these two teams from the bottom of the standings.
Purdue at West Virginia
A gift for mid-January: Big Ten vs. Big East. Bring your shoulder pads. Someone might need stitches — and that’s just the crowd at Morgantown.
THEY SAID IT
“These guys are learning so much, learning how to play hard, together and unselfish. The biggest part of all that is learning how to win. It doesn’t just happen.” — Auburn coach Tony Barbee, after a 65-60 victory over Florida State that evened the Tigers’ record at 7-7.
“This is harder than I thought it would be. I don’t have any impassioned speech for the guys. I want to keep things as normal as possible. I haven’t even brought it up.” — Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl after a team shoot-around on Friday, the day before his eight-game SEC suspension began at Arkansas.
“The main thing when you see them huffing and putting like that is keep sprinting harder up and down, rim to rim.” — Colorado forward Austin Dufault, on breaking the Missouri press in a big 89-76 victory for the Buffaloes.
“For him to go around about 10 dudes and make that floater, it was a momentum change.” — Washington’s Isaiah Thomas on Venoy Overton’s runner as time expired in the first half, a basket that gave the Huskies a 40-39 halftime lead over Oregon State.
“Kemba Walker is Kemba Walker and he’s going to make a play.” — UConn coach Jim Calhoun after Walker and the Huskies rallied to defeat Texas 82-81 in Austin on Saturday.
• The Washington Huskies are 4-0 and on top of the Pac-10 standings despite the horrible news that point guard Abdul Gaddy tore his ACL in practice Tuesday and will be lost for the season. With Gaddy and Isaiah Thomas together, the Huskies had one of the best starting backcourts in the nation. Gaddy had worked hard in the offseason and the improvement from a rather routine freshman season had been obvious. Gaddy had started 41 games in his career. It’s a major blow to his personal improvement. Coach Lorenzo Romar has a few options in the backcourt. Venoy Overton is a senior who is battling several injuries but capable of making things happen. Freshman Terrence Ross may benefit the most, at least in terms of minutes and opportunity. Ross had 14 points in 16 minutes as Washington defeated Oregon State 103-72 Saturday.
• Not sure what all the uproar is about in the case of Enes Kanter. Did anyone actually think the NCAA would reverse itself in a case involving $33,000 in impermissible benefits? You can be sure Kentucky coach John Calipari wasn’t the only NCAA coach interested in a 6-11 center who might turn out to be a top 10 NBA Draft. But reasonable coaches dropped their pursuit when they investigated the circumstances. I disagree with those who complain about the inconsistency in NCAA penalties. Every case is different, and that means every ruling will be different. Calipari now says his job is to prepare Kanter for the NBA Draft. Wasn’t that always the case?
• In case you missed it: St. Bonaventure defeated Charlotte 92-88 in triple-overtime Saturday in Olean, N.Y. The Bonnies hit 9-of-10 free throws in the third OT. Charlotte was 8-of-9 — for the entire game. St. Bonaventure’s game total was 31-of-42 from the line. Two Bonnies logged 55 minutes, including forward Andrew Nicholson, who led all scorers with 34 points.
• Baylor coach Scott Drew wants senior guard LaceDarius Dunn to be a more complete player. But every once in a while the gunner in Dunn is going to burst out. Dunn scored a career-high 43 points and hit 10 3-pointers in an 89-72 victory over Morgan State.
• Colorado sophomore Alec Burks must have taken a lot of satisfaction from the 36-point memo he sent to Missouri in Saturday’s Big 12 opener for the Buffaloes. Burks, a 6-6 guard, is from Grandview, Mo., but the Tigers didn’t offer him a scholarship. Now Burks is emerging as a Big 12 star, averaging 20.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists and shooting 35.5 percent from 3-point range. He scored 56 points in two games last week. The final schools on Burks’ recruiting list included Kansas State, Missouri State, Santa Clara and Wichita State. “How about Alec Burks?” Missouri coach Mike Anderson said in his postgame radio interview. “You always wonder about those when they’re from your home state. They want to make sure you know.”
• It was a difficult weekend to concentrate on sports. Games don’t mean much in the aftermath of a senseless event such as the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an attack that left six innocent people dead in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday. Athletic officials at Arizona and Stanford showed tremendous understanding of the entire situation and handled the postponement of their game with dignity and class. The game was played Sunday — not Saturday — in Tucson. Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said it was “an easy decision” and I suppose it was. But we’ve seen mistakes made in past situations. A community such as Tucson revolves around its campus activities. The compassion and understanding shown by the athletic directors, coaches and players should be held up as a positive example across the country.
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 Ralph Vacchiano
The toughest talking head coach the NFL has seen in years certainly wasn’t going to back down now. Never mind that his team is only the sixth seed in the AFC and facing an impossibly hard road to where they want to go.
This is Rex Ryan we’re talking about here, son of Buddy, the crazy man-coach who once decked an offensive coordinator because he didn’t like the way he was calling plays. The younger Ryan may not be that crazy — not yet — but sometimes he can sound crazy enough.
He’s looking at a road to the Super Bowl that runs through Indianapolis, New England and then probably either Baltimore or Pittsburgh — about as tough a road as any team would have faced in years. And his thoughts on that?
Doesn’t matter. As far as he’s concerned, the Jets are still the team to beat.
“I thought we’d win it last year. I think we’re going to win it this year,” Ryan said after the Jets finished up their 11-5 regular season. “So we’ll see. Regardless of who we play, we think we’re better than any team out there.”
He did add that “We’ve got to go prove it, though,” but you get the feeling that Ryan believes that’s only a small detail. Never mind the flaws in the Jets — like their 22nd-ranked passing offense, drop-happy receivers, and shaky young quarterback Mark Sanchez. He sees a strong rushing attack, the NFL’s third-ranked defense and … well, he sees himself.
He’s brash, bold, confident, and wants his team to reflect that attitude. So the first thing the Jets have to do is stop Peyton Manning — who has never lost to a Ryan-coached team in a game that he started and finished. After that, they’d face Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. And after that, it would either be Ben Roethlisberger’s arm or Ray Lewis’ defense.
That’s a path littered with Hall of Famers. It would have to be, as Ryan sees it, if anyone has any hope of stopping his Gang Green.
“If somebody is going to beat us, they must be really good,” Ryan said. “This football team is ready. We have no excuses. Not one excuse. We’re going to Indy and our goals are intact. We want to win a Super Bowl, and we want to do it right now.”
It’s so easy to laugh at Ryan, with all his boasts and guarantees and tough talk that has made him a caricature of a football coach. He’s no Joe Namath, issuing one famous guarantee and backing it up. He wants to be Muhammad Ali — kicking butt and taking names — in a sport where he needs 53 people on a roster just like him to do it.
But here’s the thing: Who would’ve imagined last year that when he talked about bringing the Jets to a Super Bowl that he would have come so close. They backed into the playoffs after beating two teams that laid down before them in the final weeks of the regular season. Then they rolled their “Ground and Pound” attack all the way to the AFC Championship Game.
And there, wouldn’t you know it, they gave Peyton Manning and those powerful Colts, who once threatened to go undefeated, plenty of fits and came within a few bad decisions, a couple of ill-fated plays of reaching the Super Bowl.
So do you want to doubt Rex Ryan now? It would be easy. But you do it at your own risk.
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.”