Spartans are one of several top teams struggling.
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/).