A look at a Sunday in college basketball in which three National Player of the Year candidates turned in disappointing performances and three top 20 teams went down to defeat.
No. 21 Memphis 73, No. 5 Oklahoma State 68 (Orlando, Fla.)
Less than two weeks ago, then No. 11 Memphis went to Stillwater and got throttled by Oklahoma State, losing 101-80 in a game that wasn’t that close. Marcus Smart, the Cowboys’ super sophomore, had 39 points in that game, giving a very early boost to his Wooden Award candidacy.
On Sunday, the Tigers got their revenge on both Smart and OSU, holding him to just 12 points in a 73-68 win in the Old Spice Classic finals. Smart didn’t play his best and wasn’t feeling his best, either, at one point appearing to throw up behind the Cowboys bench. He made just 4-of-13 shots on the night and was 0-for-5 from 3-point range, a far cry from the 11-of-21, 5-of-10 display he put on the first time these teams met. Trailing by one in the final 30 seconds, Smart committed two turnovers, both of which led to a pair of Memphis free throws that provided the final margin.
Smart wasn’t the only OSU star to struggle. Markel Brown, who had 20 against Memphis the first time, was held to half that total and shot the same 4-of-13 that Smart did.
It was the first win ever against a top 25 opponent for Tigers coach Josh Pastner, who saw his team overcome a 10-point halftime deficit and win despite being outrebounded, outshot and making only 50 percent from the free-throw line.
Don't worry too much about Smart. While this was the second straight game he has looked unimpressive in the clutch -- he also missed all three free throw attempts in the final seconds of Friday's narrow semifinal win over Butler -- when he's feeling 100 percent he is still one of the most well-rounded offensive players in the country. Come tournament time, teams won't have the luxury of building game plans around the knowledge gleaned from having faced him in person just days earlier.
UAB 63, No. 16 North Carolina 59
For the third straight Sunday, North Carolina turned in a head-scratching performance. First came a loss at home to Belmont two weeks ago in which the Tar Heels missed 26 free throws and blew a late eight-point lead. Then came a thoroughly convincing nine-point win over No. 3 Louisville on a neutral court seven days ago. Finally, in their first true road game of the season and their first contest since beating the Cardinals, the Heels struggled from start to finish in losing by four at UAB.
Don’t be confused by the win over the defending national champions. This offensively-inept version is more representative of the team North Carolina will be this season, at least until it gets back P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, its two most experienced perimeter shooters who are being held out due to an ongoing NCAA investigation -- assuming they get them back, that is.
The effect of their absence was evident throughout the game as Carolina made just 1-of-11 from 3, including an 0-for-6 performance from Marcus Paige, a point guard by trade who has been pressed into duty as a shooting guard and largely delivered to date, averaging 22 points per game entering Sunday. But Paige was held to just 13 in Birmingham, and with the Tar Heels down three in the final 30 seconds they had only one realistic option -- get Paige an open look. The Blazers knew it, blanketing him all over the court and forcing him to take a well-covered shot from the corner that had no chance of going in.
It was a huge win for second-year UAB coach Jerrod Haase, a former player and assistant under Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams. The Blazers were just 16-17 a year ago and had already dropped two games this season, one a double-OT defeat to New Mexico and the other a blowout loss to Temple. UAB is one of the oldest teams in the nation, boasting 10 players who are at least juniors and five JUCO transfers. One of those, Chad Frazier, had 25 points, including 18 in the first half in which the Blazers built a 12-point lead.
They held on despite shooting only 31 percent because they outrebounded the Tar Heels by 15, including 10 on the offensive glass.
No. 3 Kentucky 79, Providence 65 (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
For all the talk -- much of it deserved -- centering on stud forward Julius Randle and his fellow freshmen, Kentucky will be at its best this season when it is getting help from its relative veterans, especially sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress. Poythress has been bumped from the starting lineup with the arrival of that celebrated group of frosh, with his scoring average cut in half from last year, when he started 31 of 33 games.
Cauley-Stein, however, returned to the starting lineup on Sunday and delivered the kind of performance -- 15 points, eight rebounds, nine blocks -- that helped make lottery picks of his two predecessors at center in Lexington, Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel.
Cauley-Stein has a ways to go before he can be considered in their class but there’s no question he has the game-changing talent to be an extremely valuable contributor for the Wildcats, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. His performance against the Friars helped offset the worst game to date for Randle, who had 12 points and eight rebounds, the first time this year he has failed to secure a double-double.
George Washington 60, No. 20 Creighton 53 (Anaheim, Calif.)
Doug McDermott entered the consolation game of the Wooden Legacy averaging more than 27 points per game, third-best in the nation. He was held to just seven on Sunday thanks to the stifling defense of GW’s Isaiah Armwood. It was only the 10th time in his career that McDermott has been held to single-digits and only the second time in the past three seasons he’s been held to two or fewer field goals.
It would be incorrect to assume the Colonials cracked the code for how to slow down McDermott. After all, he’s a two-time All-America and two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year who has gone off on virtually every team he’s played in his career. Still, the Bluejays dropped consecutive games in this field and only three players other than McDermott cracked double figures in those games. McDermott is a fantastic player but he’ll need more help from his teammates. It was GW’s first win over a top-25 team in almost eight years, the last one coming against then-No. 21 Maryland on Dec. 5, 2005. That Colonials squad was the last one to win a game in the NCAA tournament. This one will get another chance at a resume-boosting win against the Terrapins next Sunday at the Verizon Center.