Fast Break: Player of the week, best win, glue guy, much more
Welcome to the inaugural edition of Fast Break, my wrap-up of the week that was. Check back here every Monday for a look at the best, the worst, and everything in between from the last seven days.
Green had been putting up stellar numbers all season, but he had yet to prove himself against top-level competition. Consider him proven. Green had 24 points, five rebounds and five assists in a win at home over Iowa Tuesday, and he followed that up by going for 28 points and seven rebounds in Saturday's big win at home over then-No. 15 Oklahoma State. Remarkably, Green only played 26 minutes for the Hokies because of foul trouble, and he did not score a field goal in the final 16 minutes, 53 seconds. He also made a combined 20 of his 22 attempts from the free throw line in the two wins. Thanks to Green, the Hokies under first-year coach James Johnson are 7-0 for the first time in 30 years.
Since there was no Fast Break, you can consider this the team of the fortnight. But in many ways, the Blue Devils' wins over Ohio State and Delaware were even more impressive than their romp through the Battle 4 Atlantis over Thanksgiving weekend. Duke was clearly gassed last Wednesday against fourth-ranked Ohio State, but the team found a way to dig in and rally from a 10-point deficit. On Saturday, the Blue Devils were playing without an injured Seth Curry and could have been forgiven for coming out flat against a plucky Delaware squad. Instead, they ran the Blue Hens out of Cameron Indoor Stadium in an 88-50 blowout. You can debate all you want about who deserves to be ranked No. 1, but there is no question who has put together the most impressive resume during the season's first four weeks.
Gathers wasn't as heralded as fellow freshman Isaiah Austin, not to mention those blue-chip recruits at Kentucky. Yet, he provided Baylor with a critical, efficient presence during Saturday's win in Rupp Arena. Even though Gathers was limited to 15 minutes because of foul trouble, he still snared seven rebounds, including two at the offensive end, and scored five points. He made arguably the most critical play of the game with five minutes remaining and Baylor trailing by five. After Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson missed a shot, Gathers fought through several Wildcats to grab the rebound and convert the put-back while being fouled. Toughness on the boards is a prime quality in a Glue Guy, as is the willingness to come off the bench and supplement the main stars. Gathers could serve the same purpose for Baylor as did Quincy Acy, a member of SI.com's 2012 All-Glue team.
We knew the Wolverines had a stellar recruiting class, but we didn't know that Stauskas was the gemstone. While most of the preseason attention was focused on Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, Stauskas, who was ranked 71st in the Class of 2012 by Rivals, has thrived in John Beilein's penetrate-and-kick offense. He shot 4-for-7 from three-point range and scored 20 points in a win at home over N.C. State on Tuesday. On Saturday, he had 22 points on 4-of-5 three-point shooting in an eight-point win over Bradley.
Don't look now, but the Bison are off to a 7-1 start, and Muscala is the biggest reason why. He had 17 points and 11 rebounds in a win over Dartmouth last Tuesday, and he went for 29 points and a career-high 19 rebounds in a win at Columbia on Saturday. That was Muscala's sixth double-double of the season. He was also a combined 15-for-17 from the free throw line in those two wins.
Southerland's performance last Friday night in a win at Arkansas was good enough to be considered player of the week, not just sixth man. He was sensational in draining nine three-pointers during a 35-point performance. It was the second time this season Southerland has reached a new career high in scoring, and it came on the heels of an 18-point effort in a win over Colgate last Sunday.
I picked this not just because it was John Calipari's first home loss in Rupp Arena, or because it ended Kentucky's 55-game home winning streak. I picked it because in the Bears' previous game, they lost at home to College of Charleston. The win validated Baylor as a top-25 squad, but more important it illustrated just how valuable 6-2 junior guard Brady Heslip is to this team. Heslip did not play against Charleston because he was recovering from an appendectomy, but he returned to score 10 points against UK.
There's no shame in losing in Assembly Hall to the No. 1-ranked team in America. It's quite another to get embarrassed -- especially considering North Carolina was also outclassed by Butler during the Maui Invitational. At one point, the Heels trailed by 32 points, and the final 24-point margin would have been a lot worse if Tom Crean had not emptied his bench. The Tar Heels have more talent than they're showing. Yes, they lack experience, but the bigger problem is that they lack toughness.
When the Broncos nearly knocked off Michigan State at the Breslin Center two weeks ago before losing by four, most people chalked it up to an off night by the Spartans. We know better after Boise State waxed Creighton, 83-70, in Omaha last Wednesday night, marking the school's first win over a ranked opponent in nearly four years. The star of the game was 6-3 sophomore guard Derrick Marks, who scored a career-high 35 points, including one 10-minute stretch where he scored 18 consecutive points for his team. After beating Seattle, 87-64 on Sunday, the Broncos are 6-1.
This bout between two tough, athletic teams in Cincinnati was nip and tuck throughout the second half. It finally ended when Bearcats senior guard Cashmere Wright hit a buzzer-beating fadeaway jumper over the outstretched arms of Alabama's 7-foot center Moussa Gueye. The best part of the win was UC coach Mick Cronin's eye-roll look at Crimson Tide coach Anthony Grant, as if to say, "I have no idea how he pulled that shot out of his ass." Then again, maybe it was just the basketball gods getting even with Alabama, which won its season opener over South Dakota State on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by sophomore guard Trevor Lacey.
South Dakota State junior guard Chad White hit his second buzzer-beating three-point game winner in 12 days to lift the Jackrabbits to a 71-70 win last Wednesday night. These are the same Jackrabbits who lost to Alabama on that buzzer-beating three by Trevor Lacey. Between those dramatics and the Jimmerific performances by Nate Wolters, you might want to keep your eye on this bunch over the next few months.
When Hoyas coach John Thompson III said this was the ugliest game he had been a part of "at any level," he wasn't kidding. Not one player in this game scored in double figures. The Vols shot 33 percent, the Hoyas shot 36 percent, and the teams combined to make 7-for-20 from the free throw line. The only good thing about it was that the game didn't go into overtime.
Northern Illinois scored five -- count em, five -- points during the first half of its game at Dayton on Saturday night. And yet, the Huskies still ended up with 43 points in the loss, more than either Georgetown or Tennessee scored against each other.
Former Indiana and UAB coach Mike Davis took his unheralded team into the Coors Events Center and darn near pulled off the upset. Colorado had to overcome a 39-point performance from Tigers guard Omar Strong. Alas, the Buffaloes could not overcome their defensive deficiencies over the weekend as they lost at Wyoming, 76-69. Bye-bye, top 25.
The Redbirds fought hard against the nation's No. 3 team but came up short thanks to a heartbreaking no-call on the last possession. Senior guard Tyler Brown, who scored 25 points, began the sequence with a shot fake on Cards forward Chane Behanan. When Behanan left his feet, Brown dribbled once and jumped into Behanan as he launched a potential game-tying three-pointer. It is one of the more difficult decisions an official has to make, but after watching the play several times on my DVR (a luxury the referee does not have, incidentally), I thought the zebra made the proper decision. The rule of thumb is that when the shooter is the one who initiates the contact, the referee usually doesn't call a foul. In this case, that was even more applicable because Brown took a dribble before jumping into Behanan. But it was close.
Actually, there's no greater compliment to a team than to write that you're impressed with a team because it lost to them by a close margin. This is clearly the best team John Beilein has ever coached. It's not just that the Wolverines are effective, they're also exciting to watch. I won't argue with Burke and Hardaway being called the best backcourt in the country, although there's a case to be made for Peyton Siva and Russ Smith at Louisville.
At this point, I can't even identify a real deficiency of Michigan's as a long-term concern. The Wolverines are playing great at both ends of the floor: They're ranked seventh in the country in three-point percentage (44.1) and fifth in field goal percentage defense (26.7). They're even fifth in the country in rebound margin (+14.0), whereas Beilein teams are usually in the deep negative territory (by design). The two main caveats with the Wolverines right now are that it's early, and they're young. None of their top six players are seniors, and three of them are freshmen. But that's picking nits. Clearly, this is a team with national championship potential, and it has been a long, long time since we have been able to say that about Michigan.
This is what you call a high-class problem. In Gonzaga's win over Pacific last weekend, Dower had 18 points and nine rebounds (three offensive) in 24 minutes off the bench. That's a solid night's work. I realize that Zags fans are excited about 7-1 freshman Przemek Karnowski, a native of Poland, but he is still a freshman who is unfamiliar with American college basketball. He's strong, but also a bit lumbering. Kelly Olynyk, the 7-foot redshirt junior, is the team's best big man, but I don't see him as a dominant scorer just yet. So whatever your concerns about Dower's defense might be, the fact is, the Zags will need all hands on deck if they are going to reach the Final Four, which is once again a very realistic goal. Putting Dower and Olynyk on the floor together for long stretches gives them a strong look up front that few other teams can match. We'll see over the next few weeks, as they hit the teeth of their nonconference schedule, whether that is a viable option moving forward.
Actually, I don't think Illinois was on anybody's radar at the beginning of the season, but I'm glad the Illini's hot start is playing well in Peoria. Though this was not a vintage Maui field (mostly because North Carolina is having a down year), the Illini didn't get a lot of sizzle out of winning the championship. But they did get into the top 25, which I doubt anyone expected would happen just a few weeks ago.
Mike from Michigan called Burke and Hardaway the best backcourt in the country, but Illinois' D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul should be in that conversation. Paul has been phenomenal. He's averaging 18.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists while making 41.5 percent from three-point range. Pretty impressive for a guy who started out making 27.9 percent from behind the arc as a freshman. That's the value of having older players, and Illinois has more than its fair share. Four of this team's top five scorers are fourth-year players (three seniors plus redshirt junior Joseph Bertrand). And of course, first-year coach John Groce has given this program a jolt of fresh energy with his up-tempo style and high-octane demeanor.
Illinois fans have been beat down for a while, so I'm glad they are enjoying this wonderful early start. But there's that word again: early. I'd recommend keeping a level head until we're well into conference season. I think I read somewhere the Big Ten is gonna be pretty good this season.
I understand that lack of visibility is a continued source of frustration for teams and fans on the West Coast. Until the sun starts rising in the west, this is going to be an ongoing problem.
Then again, UNLV is also a western team that plays in the same conference as New Mexico, and the Rebels seem to be getting an awful lot of love. When they lost at home (!) to Oregon, the response of many experts was not to decide that UNLV was bad but that Oregon must be pretty good. Perceptions are hard to change.
As I indicate while discussing my AP ballot below, there is a very good case to be made that New Mexico deserves to be ranked, but I would think even the Lobos' hard-core fans (and based on my Twitter feed there a lot of them) would concede their case is not open-and-shut. Yes, the win over UConn in the Virgin Islands was significant, but in their previous game the Huskies needed two overtimes to get by Quinnipiac. And the Lobos didn't exactly look like world beaters over the weekend when they needed overtime to beat an Indiana State team that opened its season with a 27-point loss at Shabazz-less UCLA.
One thing I do agree with is that Kendall Williams and Tony Snell are as good a 1-2 punch as you will find in college basketball. New Mexico can take the floor with any team in the top 25 and believe it can win the game, regardless of where it is played. Likewise, the Lobos are capable of losing to a lot of unranked team if they don't play to their potential.
It's pretty simple, really: Win your games, and the rankings will take care of themselves. Everything else is just sound and fury.
Regarding the lament of a charter member of the ACC to move to the Big Ten, unfortunately this is akin to spitting in the wind. The move makes great financial sense for Maryland as well as the Big Ten. Terps fans of a certain age will miss the excitement of seeing Duke and Carolina come to town, but believe me, their kids will be equally jacked for Indiana and Ohio State. This is the price of progress.
From a competitive standpoint, Maryland's short-term concern is the unlikelihood that Alex Len will return for his junior year. NBA scouts tend to notice agile seven-foot centers who can score and rebound. Beyond that, the main question is whether playing in the Big Ten will be a hindrance in recruiting. Maryland's recruiting base has always been on the east coast. Now, instead of selling recruits on the idea of playing in the ACC, Mark Turgeon is going to have to convince players to commit to a schedule that is going to make it very difficult on their families to watch them play. I'm not saying he can't overcome that hurdle, but it is a hurdle.
1. Indiana (1)
2. Duke (2)
3. Louisville (3)
4. Michigan (5)
5. Ohio State (6)
6. Syracuse (7)
7. Arizona (8)
8. Kansas (9)
9. Florida (11)
10. Gonzaga (12)
11. Cincinnati (13)
12. Missouri (14)
13. Michigan State (10)
14. Georgetown (16)
15. San Diego State (18)
16. Pittsburgh (21)
17. Oregon (22)
18. UNLV (23)
19. Illinois (24)
20. Minnesota (NR)
21. Notre Dame (NR)
22. Boise State (NR)
23. Baylor (NR)
24. N.C. State (25)
25. Creighton (15)
Dropped out: Kentucky (4), Colorado (17), North Carolina (19), Florida State (20)
This was a good week to do a little house cleaning. For some reason, I had been sticking with Kentucky more than my fellow voters, who installed the Wildcats at No. 8 following their loss to Duke. I honestly believe that Duke could be the best team in the country right now, so I didn't feel right about penalizing Kentucky for losing to them on a neutral court. After last week's drubbings at Notre Dame and then at home against Baylor, I decided to drop the Cats completely out of my rankings. I don't keep records of such things (and I hope you don't either), but I'm pretty sure no team has ever dropped so far so fast from my ballot.
It's also time to banish from the rankings that other proud program from the south, North Carolina. Ironically, the Tar Heels and Wildcats have the same problem right now. For all that blue, their players are way too green.
As I mentioned at the top, my decision to leave Creighton at 25 is as much a measure of respect for Boise State as anything -- which is further demonstrated by my decision to rank the Broncos even higher. I also noticed my fellow voters ranked UNLV last week and not Oregon, even though the Ducks beat the Rebels in Las Vegas. Oregon's only loss this season was a close one to Cincinnati in Vegas the next day. It's only a matter of time before voters catch their drift.
There were plenty of other teams with strong cases for inclusion. Unfortunately, I was limited to 25 slots. So you can assume there was an eight-way tie for 26th between New Mexico, Wichita State, Miami, Virginia Tech, Alabama, Maryland, Oklahoma State and VCU. As always, the best way to make my ballot is to beat someone who's on it.
One team no one is talking about is Temple, which is quietly off to a 5-0 start. The Owls have a chance to raise eyebrows this week with games at Villanova and against Duke at the Meadowlands.