NASSAU, The Bahamas -- Blowing past defenders is Ryan Boatright's specialty, but the one opponent he couldn't get around was uncertainty.
A 6-foot, 160-pound freshman point guard at UConn, Boatright was declared ineligible on Nov. 2 while his school and the NCAA undertook an investigation into a plane ticket he received from his former AAU coach. For the next two weeks, Boatright was in limbo while awaiting a verdict. It drove him mad and sapped his spirit. "I was hearing it would be three games, maybe four, but they kept prolonging the process," Boatright said. "I felt like they were taking my joy away."
UConn coach Jim Calhoun empathized with what his freshman was going through, but he didn't like seeing him mope. One day after practice, Calhoun pulled Boatright aside and gave him a dose of tough love. "He pouted a little bit, just to let us know he was down so we're supposed to give him sympathy," Calhoun said. "I said to him, nobody's going to give you sympathy. It wasn't your fault. These are the rules you play under. Therefore, you've just got to play basketball and get ready."
The official word finally came on Nov. 18. Boatright's suspension would cover eight games (including two exhibitions), which would be retroactively applied to the five he had already missed. That meant Boatright could make his collegiate debut during the final day of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament on Paradise Island.
He proved to be worth the wait. On Saturday, Boatright checked in at the scorer's table early in the first half of the Huskies' third-place game against Florida State. He immediately changed the game -- and UConn's season. He weaved and sliced his way through the Seminoles' vaunted defense. He dropped deft passes to UConn's big men for easy buckets. And he hit some big-time shots, none bigger than the three free throws he swished with seven seconds remaining in regulation. That sent the game into overtime, where UConn escaped with a 78-76 win. In all, Boatright played 33 minutes and finished with 14 points, three assists and zero turnovers. "I ain't gonna lie. I was nervous," Boatright said. "I had been in a slump with my free throws, too. I couldn't make them in practice. But I just kept telling myself, this is what I've been waiting for."
The shots were clutch, the timing impeccable: Less than 24 hours before, UConn had unraveled in stunning fashion against unranked UCF in the semifinal, blowing a 17-point lead early in the second half to lose by five. When I asked Calhoun after the Florida State win what he had learned about his team during its three games in the Bahamas, he answered simply, "We needed Ryan Boatright."
Calhoun was surprised but not shocked that Boatright was so good so soon. He had, after all, spent weeks watching Boatright blow by defenders in practice. That includes Kemba Walker, who had been hanging out in Storrs during the NBA lockout. Whenever Walker was in the gym, Boatright begged to guard him. "You almost have to know Ryan. Not too many things bother him," Calhoun said. "He didn't get much [practice] work as far as running our stuff, but I'll tell you what he does do. He has incredible courage. He can go by most anybody. Plays very good defense. I had no qualms whatsoever about throwing him in like that."
Besides moxie and poise, Boatright also gave UConn a different look. With two catch-and-shoot swingmen, 6-8 freshman DeAndre Daniels and 6-8 sophomore Roscoe Smith, rendered ineffective by the Seminoles' perimeter pressure, Boatright's ankle-breaking crossovers were the perfect counter. Boatright's presence also enabled the Huskies' starting backcourt tandem of 6-foot sophomore Shabazz Napier and 6-5 sophomore Jeremy Lamb to move off the ball. (Napier was especially careless running the point during the tournament, committing 18 turnovers in three games.) Calhoun told me he doesn't plan on starting Boatright in the foreseeable future because he likes the spark he provides off the bench. But that three-guard lineup sure looked sharp.
Meanwhile, UConn's other prized freshman, 6-11 center Andre Drummond, also took important steps forward at the Atlantis. Calhoun gave Drummond his first start in the quarterfinal against UNC-Asheville. Against the Seminoles he had 12 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks. "He has great instincts, but he hasn't mastered any of the fundamental skills of finishing all those plays," Calhoun said. "Remember, we're talking about an 18-year-old freshman. Andre can change games. There are not too many game changers out there."
Drummond's rise has come at the expense of 6-9 junior forward Alex Oriakhi. He might be UConn's most experienced player, but Oriakhi has not asserted himself during the first few weeks of the season. Nor did Oriakhi react well to his benching. In reply to a tweet from his former high school teammate, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, who played for UConn last season before transferring to Hofstra, Oriakhi said his benching was "sum bs." Against the Seminoles Oriakhi was a bit player, finishing with zero points, zero rebounds and three fouls in just ten minutes.
Calhoun said the reason Oriakhi is not starting is simple: Drummond is better. "Despite having a very good career, Alex has been sporadic at times," Calhoun said. "Alex will play a lot for us, but he has to be consistent."
Oriakhi's discontent did little to sour Calhoun's mood. The win over Florida State may have come in a consolation game of an early-season tournament, but Calhoun knew that his team, which was already pretty good, had just gotten much better. That's because he no longer has to wait on Ryan Boatright. "The bigger the moment, the more he steps up," Calhoun said. "I think you'll see an awful lot more of him.
• I know we're never supposed to say never, but North Carolina's loss to UNLV and UConn's loss to UCF underscored why I believe we will never have another undefeated NCAA champion in men's basketball again. (The last team to achieve perfection was Indiana in 1976.) Between players leaving early for the draft, the added number of games and the dramatic increase in media scrutiny, I just don't think it can be done.
• UCLA's problems go deeper than just one guy, but I can't remember being as disappointed in a player as I am in Josh Smith, the Bruins' 6-foot-10 sophomore center. It's not uncommon for a big man to come to college out of shape, but Smith has had a full season of competition and off-season to work on his body. Yet, he is actually in worse shape now than he was a year ago. Smith has been blessed with great size, hands and feet. Such a shame he's letting all that natural talent go to waste.
• Meanwhile, as Smith huffs and puffs, and as Reeves Nelson implodes, it must really gall UCLA fans to see Mike Moser, who transferred from UCLA to UNLV two years ago, bring his hard hat and lunch pail to work against North Carolina Saturday night. Moser, a 6-8 sophomore, had 16 points and 18 rebounds in the big win. It's the third time this season he has had 13 or more rebounds.
• My only concern about Wisconsin right now is a lack of depth. The Badgers drilled BYU by 17 points over the weekend, yet Bo Ryan only played six guys.
• Let me be clear: I hate the three goggles. I understand kids should be able to have fun while playing a game, but there's a big difference between exuberance and showboating -- and the three goggles gesture clearly falls into the latter category. I didn't mind several years ago when players started popping their jerseys, because that exalted the team. But the three goggles is all about the individual. I've long since given up hope that parents and AAU coaches would put a stop to this kind of nonsense (many of them encourage it), but I expect more from college coaches. Here's hoping they put the kibosh on this lousy new trend, and fast.
• I'm mystified that Purdue point guard Lewis Jackson has been in college for four years and still hasn't become a dependable three-point shooter. Jackson is quick and is a nice floor general, but when you're 5-9 and you play the point, you've got to able to knock down long-range shots. Jackson has only taken 10 three-pointers this season and made three.
• Everybody out there who said Missouri made a big mistake hiring Frank Haith, please raise your hand. Yep, mine's up too. Just checking.
• Cleveland State hasn't exactly lit the world on fire since opening the season with a win at Vanderbilt. Before they blew out Rhode Island Sunday night, the Vikings had beaten St. Bonaventure, Kent State and Boston University by a combined eight points. Then they lost to Hofstra by 10. Looks to me like the Horizon will be a one-bid league.
• San Diego State quietly pulled off two impressive true road wins last week at Arizona and Long Beach State. Give Steve Fisher credit: This program is no one-hit wonder.
• Kris Joseph did a great job bailing out Syracuse at the end of that Stanford game, but I'm surprised Boeheim isn't getting more out of his freshmen, Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams. I don't expect those guys to dominate, but I do expect them to earn more than six minutes of combined playing time.
• If Patric Young is Florida's go-to guy, the Gators have a good chance to get to the Final Four. If they rely too much on their guards, they'll get clipped. Simple as that.
• It's gonna be a close race between Boston College, Utah and South Carolina for the mantle of worst team from a power conference. And LSU is not far behind. I hate to say it because I think he's a good coach and a good guy, but I'm not sure Trent Johnson, now in his fourth year at LSU, can survive this.
• Oh, and if Wake Forest fans are bummed about their team's situation, just remember that your athletic director fired Dino Gaudio after he took his team to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Karma, anyone?
• I'm glad that in college hoops a team doesn't automatically get the ball at halfcourt after it calls time out. That's one thing this sport definitely has over the NBA.
• Kansas fans have reason for optimism based on how the Jayhawks played in Maui, but at the end of the day I'm not sure you can really win big with Tyshawn Taylor as your point guard. He has lots of talent, but his decisions on and off the court leave a lot to be desired. Taylor looked great at times in the championship game against Duke, when he scored 17 points. But he also committed a whopping 11 turnovers. That was the biggest reason Kansas lost.
• Speaking of Maui, you know who nobody is going to want to see in the NCAA tournament? Michigan, that's who. John Beilein coaches a unique, intricate offense that is extremely difficult to prepare for, especially if you've never seen it before. And freshman point guard Trey Burke is only going to get better between now and them.
• You are aware that Baylor forward Quincy Miller has been the nation's best freshman, right?
• Hate seeing Notre Dame's fifth-year senior guard, Tim Abromaitis, go down with a torn ACL. Abromaitis, who was voted preseason all-Big East, can petition the NCAA for a sixth year, but it's not clear if he would get it. It's also not clear if he even wants to play another year.
• Weber State junior guard Scott Bamforth has made 14 of his 17 three-pointer attempts through his first three games. Many of his makes have come from well behind the arc. Just making sure you knew.
• Speaking of exciting mid-major players, did you know that ESPN's Doug Gottlieb says Iona's Scott Machado is the best point guard in America? I don't agree -- my list starts with Kendall Marhsall, Jordan Taylor and Aaron Craft -- but the kid is definitely worth checking out. He's averaging 19.8 points and 12.8 assists through his first four games.
• I admit it: I always get Heisman envy this time of year. College hoops has so many national player of the year awards, it's hard to tell which one is really important. College football never has that problem.
• The Kentucky point guard's first name may be spelled Marquis, but it's pronounced "Marcus." He's gonna be talked about a lot, so we might as well say his name right.
• Memphis forward Wesley Witherspoon has had quite a comedown since hanging 22 points on Belmont in the season opener. Not only has he failed to reach double digits in the three games since, but Witherspoon had one of the more boneheaded turnovers you'll see at the end of overtime against Tennessee in Maui. Witherspoon grabbed what should have been a game-clinching rebound, but he celebrated too soon and was called for traveling. Tennessee missed its chance at a game-winning shot, but when you're a senior playing for a young team, you've got to have better composure than that.
• Oregon's Jabari Brown is the poster child for the instant gratification problem that plagues our basketball culture (and our culture at large, for that matter). A six-foot-five guard from Oakland, Brown was ranked 18th overall in the Class of 2011 by Scout.com, but he quit the team after two games and intends to transfer. Way to stick it out, kid.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (2)
2. Ohio State (3)
3. Duke (4)
4. Syracuse (6)
5. Baylor (7)
6. Florida (8)
7. North Carolina (1)
8. Louisville (9)
9. Alabama (11)
10. Xavier (13)
11. Missouri (NR)
12. Kansas (12)
13. UConn (4)
14. Michigan (24)
15. Gonzaga (14)
16. Vanderbilt (15)
17. Wisconsin (16)
18. Mississippi State (17)
19. UNLV (NR)
20. Michigan State (21)
21. Georgetown (NR)
22. California (19)
23. Creighton (22)
24. St. Louis (NR)
25. Harvard (NR)
Dropped out: Memphis (10), Arizona (18), Belmont (20), Florida State (23), Saint Mary's (25)
I promised a couple of weeks ago that there would be some shakeups during Thanksgiving week, but I didn't realize it would be this seismic. Eight of the teams ranked in the AP's top 25 went down to defeat, including two of the top four, North Carolina and UConn. So my first order of business was deciding how far to drop those two.
My decision to drop UConn nine spots and UNC just six was largely based on how those teams lost and to whom. I think UCF is not as good as UNLV, and I didn't like that UConn blew that huge lead. And UConn could have easily lost to Florida State the next day. There's no science involved in making these decisions, so I just kept going down my ballot until I found a team I thought was worse. If you think I was too harsh -- and you probably have a case regarding North Carolina -- then those teams will have plenty of chances to redeem themselves soon.
Allow me to offer a big, hearty welcome to the Missouri Tigers. I was actually surprised to look over last week's ballot and see I hadn't ranked them at all. (Shows you how much effort I put into this.) I ranked the Tigers this week based on not just what they've done but how they looked while doing it. And if you saw them mutilate Notre Dame and California -- not great teams, but two pretty good ones -- then you couldn't help but be impressed.
I felt like UNLV deserved to be rewarded for knocking off the nation's top-ranked team, but we'll find out a lot more about the Runnin' Rebs in the next three weeks. Four of their next six games are on the road, and they're against pretty good teams: UCSB, Wichita State, Wisconsin and Illinois. Something tells me the Rebels are not going to run that table. I also liked what I saw out of Georgetown in Maui, where they played Kansas tough before squeaking by Memphis in overtime.
Speaking of Memphis, as you can see the Tigers were last week's biggest casualty, going from tenth to unranked. Do I believe Memphis is one of the best 25 teams in the country? Probably. But based on their results (they also lost to Michigan and needed overtime to get by Tennessee), I can't put them there. That decision prompted me to take out Belmont as well, because Memphis crushed them in the season opener. The transitive property doesn't always apply, but I'm trying to be fair. I'm still driving the Belmont bandwagon, but for the time being I'm obeying the speed limit.
I readily concede that I favor mid-majors when I go hunting for my last few teams. It's a crap shoot anyway, and these teams never get enough recognition. I had Saint Mary's at No. 25 last week, but after the Gaels lost to Denver they got bumped out. So the last two spots went to teams that won Thanksgiving week tournaments by beating power conference teams, St. Louis and Harvard. I hope they enjoy their stay.
Besides Memphis, my two most notable omissions are Pitt and Marquette. I actually had Pitt in my top ten the first week, but I dropped them out after they lost to Long Beach State at home. Marquette is 5-0 but they haven't played anybody good. The Warriors play in Madison this Saturday. If they win that one, they're a shoo-in to make my ballot next week.