Arizona, Villanova announce spots on national scene, North Carolina stumbles
Between the empty arenas for made-for-TV tournaments and the diversions of football and food, fans can be forgiven for paying little attention to the basketball attention of the weekend.
The selection committee will be paying attention, though. Coaches, too, have an idea of which teams will be more dangerous than they thought and which players are breaking out.
The Thanksgiving tournaments are over and the conference challenges are already beginning, so now is a good time to take stock of a few things we learned in the last week.
From the national powers that are up (Arizona, Villanova) to the ones that are down (North Carolina, Kansas) to the mid-majors who impressed, here were the big winners from the Maui Invitational, Battle 4 Atlantis, Old Spice Classic and more.
Thanksgiving Week Winners
The Wildcats established themselves as one of the front line teams this season with a 72-66 win over Duke in the NIT Season Tipoff thanks to more than just star freshman Aaron Gordon. Against Duke, every one of Arizona’s starters scored between 10 and 15 points, and the top two players off the bench scored seven points apiece. The Wildcats played a sound all-around game with veteran Nick Johnson leading the way with 16 points, Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell contributing eight assists to one turnover and a big frontcourt helping to limit Jabari Parker to 7 of 21 shooting.
Maybe it’s time to rethink those Big East projections. Marquette is 5-3, Georgetown is 4-2 with one of those losses to Northeastern, and Creighton dropped two games in the Wooden Legacy. Meanwhile, Villanova had the most impressive win of the Thanksgiving weekend by defeating Kansas 63-59 in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis and then handing Iowa its first loss of the season in the final. Ryan Arcidiacono was captain clutch for the Wildcats, hitting the game-winning 3-pointer against Kansas after missing his first five shots and then hitting 4 of 9 from long range against Iowa. Villanova held Kansas to 2 of 11 from 3-point range and 38 percent from the field and then turned around to beat Iowa 88-83 in an up-and-down game in overtime.
Josh Pastner, Memphis
Memphis found redemption in the Old Spice Classic, transforming from another team with more big-time players than big-time wins to a team with a chance to contend in the American. Most important, coach Josh Pastner can go into the conference season with his first win over a ranked team. Less than two weeks after an embarrassing 101-80 loss at Oklahoma State, the Tigers won a rematch with the Cowboys 73-68 on a neutral court in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. It’s hard to find an area where Memphis didn’t have a major reversal in the second time around: After being a one-man wrecking crew in the first meeting, Marcus Smart wasn’t himself with 12 points and five turnovers. The Tigers' Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford combined for 27 points after scoring 13 in the first meeting. Memphis’ Michael Dixon went from 1 of 10 from the field to 5 of 8, and forward Shaq Goodwin had perhaps his best game of the year. The Oklahoma State game was a headline, but Memphis also picked up another nice win over LSU in the semifinal.
Ron Baker, Wichita State
So much for a Final Four hangover for Wichita State. The Shockers remain undefeated after picking up a pair of nice wins last week against Saint Louis on the road and against BYU. Baker, who missed parts of last season with a foot injury, did a bit of everything against Saint Louis with 22 points on 7 of 10 shooting with two 3-pointers, six rebounds, four steals and two assists in a 70-65 comeback win. Baker has topped 20 points in each of his last four games.
The departures of Xavier, Butler and Temple haven’t hurt the A-10 so far this season thanks to teams like UMass, Dayton and George Washington making major leaps. UMass is 6-0, adding a win over New Mexico in the Charleston Classic to wins over Boston College, LSU, Nebraska and Clemson. With four double-doubles this season, forward Cady Lalanne has been a revelation for the Minutemen. Dayton was one of the stories of the Maui Invitational with an 84-79 win over Gonzaga and a narrow loss to Baylor. The Flyers bounced back to drill Cal in a consolation game. And George Washington needed overtime to beat Miami, but Isaiah Armwood held Doug McDermott to seven points in a 60-53 win over Creighton in a consolation game.
Xavier Thames, San Diego State
Thames has proven himself the post-Jamaal Franklin leader for the Aztecs with a standout performance in the Wooden Legacy. Thames averaged 27.5 points against Marquette and Creighton, shooting 14 of 26 from the field, 9 of 11 from 3-point range and 18 of 21 from the free throw line. With struggles by UNLV and New Mexico early, San Diego State is looking like an early favorite in the Mountain West.
Thanksgiving Week Losers
So this is how it’s going to be for North Carolina this season? Lose to Belmont at home. Beat Louisville on neutral court. Lose to UAB on the road. In other words, watch out, Michigan State. Without P.J. Hairston, the Tar Heels look like a team that’s going to limp its way into the NIT. North Carolina had many reasons to be embarrassed by losing to UAB: Former assistant Jerod Haase coaching the Blazers, a Charlotte native scoring 25 points, but more than anything, the Tar Heels should hide from 21 offensive rebounds from the Blazers.
The loss to Villanova on a late 3-point shot might not be as troubling as a narrow 67-63 win over UTEP in the third-place game. Andrew Wiggins shot 36.7 percent from the field and averaged 11 points per game in the three games in Atlantis, bottoming out at six points against the Miners. Wiggins had the flu when he arrived, but now that he’s back in Lawrence, the nation’s top freshman will continue to be under the microscope.
At least Tennessee was able to avenge its 67-63 loss to Xavier to start the season, but the Volunteers had to lose to UTEP in the first game of the Battle 4 Atlantis to get the opportunity. Alabama has had much worse non-conference losses in the past, but losing to mid-majors in November is a recipe for missing the NCAA Tournament. The Tide lost in triple overtime to Drexel, picked second in the Colonial, in the third-place game of the NIT. Alabama still has Wichita State, Xavier and UCLA in the non-conference. And LSU got Jarell Martin back but needed overtime to beat a Butler team that’s probably going to finish in the bottom third of the Big East.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State
The Jahii Carson vs. Doug McDermott matchup in the Wooden Legacy never really materialized as Carson shot 5 of 12 in the 88-60 loss to the Bluejays. The bottom fell out against Miami when Carson sustained an ankle injury and shot 2 of 14 as the Sun Devils lost to a Miami team that lost to St. Francis (N.Y.) and UCF.
Xavier started last season 7-6 and missed the postseason. This team was supposed to be able to avoid such a start after the Musketeers made a late push in the A-10 season. Instead, the Musketeers lost all three games in the Battle 4 Atlantis to Iowa, Tennessee and USC. Xavier shot 57.8 percent from the free throw line in the tournament.
The Boilermakers are hoping to get into the NCAA Tournament mix, but the performance in the Old Spice Classic was not encouraging. Purdue trailed by as much as 24 in a loss to Oklahoma State — understandable since Memphis did the same earlier this season. But the worst came in a 69-54 loss to Washington State the next day. Purdue led by 10 at halftime but let Washington State score 52 in the second half.