The Christmas rush has not slowed down the Fast Break. We're flying this week with a high-scoring Owl and a pair of sticky Hawks. We've got jumping Jackrabbits and galloping Griffins. And if you're in the mood for a little holiday inspiration, we have a visit with a midmajor coach who won over hearts and minds by seizing a microphone in Columbus. So climb aboard, little elves, and fill the lanes with me. Ho ho ho!
Player of the Week: Khalif Wyatt, six-foot-four senior guard, Temple
These are weekly awards, not single-game awards, but Wyatt's effort against third-ranked Syracuse on Saturday was too sublime to pass up. Coming just three days after the Owls lost at home to Canisius (Wyatt had 17 points in that game, although he needed 16 shots to do it), the 6-foot-4 senior went for 33 points, four assists and three rebounds in the 83-79 upset. The best part of Wyatt's afternoon was his use of the foul line, where made all 15 of his attempts. Wyatt and his teammates obviously have consistency issues, but give him credit for being a giant slayer. Last season, he had 22 points, five steals and three assists in a 78-73 upset of No. 3 Duke.
Team of the Week: South Dakota State
There was no logical reason to believe the Jackrabbits could win at New Mexico on Saturday. In their previous outing, they had lost by 27 points at Belmont. Inclement weather canceled their connecting flight to Chicago, forcing them to take a 20-hour bus ride to Albuquerque. Moreover, the team's best player, 6-4 senior guard Nate Wolters, was playing on a bum ankle. And they were playing an undefeated, ranked team in one of the toughest road environments in the country. So of course, they won, 70-65, thanks to Wolters's 28-point, seven-assist, four-rebound effort. I'd say they earned a chartered flight back to Brookings.
Glue Guy of the Week: Travis Releford and Kevin Young, Kansas (tie)
These were the two tone-setters in the Jayhawks' 74-66 win at Ohio State on Saturday. While freshman Ben McLemore was racking up 22 points and senior center Jeff Withey was dominating the paint as usual, Releford and Young were the ones who held Kansas together despite a 14-0 Ohio State run midway through the first half. As usual, Releford drew the toughest defensive assignment, harassing the Buckeyes' leading scorer, Deshaun Thomas, into a 4-for-11 shooting day. Young, meanwhile, made just one field goal, but he grabbed ten rebounds to go along with three assists and one steal. It's not a coincidence that both these guys are fifth-year seniors. They're versatile, smart, tough and unselfish -- the very intangibles that turn a good team into a championship team.
Freshman of the Week: Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA
You remember this guy, right? It took a couple of weeks for Muhammad to get into a rhythm after missing the first three games with an NCAA suspension, but he is rounding into form. The 6-6 swingman from Las Vegas had a total of 48 points and 13 rebounds in UCLA's wins over Long Beach State and Fresno State. He has now scored more than 20 points in three straight games, and on the season he is averaging 18.8 points and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 47.8 percent from three-point range. I sure hope that all those people who wrote the Bruins off two weeks ago did so in pencil.
Under-the-Radar Player of the Week: Billy Baron, Canisius
If I'm gonna give Wyatt some love, the least I can do is throw a bone to the guy who beat the Owls earlier in the week. Baron is literally Buffalo's favorite son. He transferred to Canisius over the summer because the school hired his father, Jim, after Jim was fired from Rhode Island. Previously, Billy left Virginia midway through his freshman season to join his dad at Rhode Island. Baron was terrific against the Owls, finishing with 19 points, five assists and four rebounds in the ten-point road win. He followed that up by scoring 30 points (on 4-for-7 three-point shooting) to go along with six assists and five rebounds in an 89-74 loss at UNLV. The Golden Griffins' 8-3 start includes two conference road wins. They've established themselves as the favorite in the MAAC, and Billy Baron is the biggest reason why.
Best Win: Kansas State 67, Florida 61
We knew the Wildcats had some players, but we didn't know how good of a team they were (and frankly, how good of a coach Bruce Weber was going to be for this group). In their only two tests of the season, they were badly outclassed by Michigan and Gonzaga. Both of those games were away from home, so if this team had suffered another pratfall against Florida in Kansas City, it could have damaged its confidence. Will Spradling, the 6-2 junior who grew up nearby in Overland Park, had arguably the finest game of his career (17 points, six rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers) against the Gators, while Jordan Henriquez added five blocks in 18 minutes off the bench. Kansas State pounded the Gators on the glass and locked up their three-point shooters. That's a nice dose of karma heading into the holidays.
Worst Loss: Old Dominion 63, Virginia 61
The Monarchs came into this game having lost nine consecutive games and owning a 1-10 record. It's understandable the Cavaliers might take them lightly, but to outright lose the game is unacceptable, especially since Virginia was up by 10 points early in the second half. Defensively, the Cavs allowed Old Dominion sophomore guard Dimitri Batten score a career-high 23 points. The loss snapped Virginia's eight-game win streak. Not exactly the way a team wants to head into conference play.
Sure, it was a home game against a Marshall team that was playing without leading scorer DeAndre Kane, who is out indefinitely with a hand injury. Still, given how rocky Harrow's season has been early on, his performance sent ripples of hope across the Commonwealth. Harrow, a 6-2 sophomore point guard who transferred from N.C. State, missed four games earlier this season because of a lingering flu and the ever-mysterious "personal issues" that prompted him to spend a few days back home in Georgia. He has been steadily more productive since returning six games ago, but he had a breakout game against Marshall, scoring a career-high 23 points. Harrow also had four rebounds, four assists and three steals in the 82-54 win. We'll find out more about this player and this team when they visit Louisville this weekend, but it looks like Harrow may finally be ready for his close-up.
Stat Line of the Week: Derrick Nix, Michigan State vs. Texas
Over his previous ten games, Nix attempted a total of 25 free throws. So it was pretty surprising to see him take 13 against the Longhorns. But what was truly stunning was that he made 13 of those en route to a career-high 25 points. When Nix was a freshman, he made just 27.1 percent from the foul line. As a junior, he made 58.1 percent. For good measure, Nix added 11 rebounds and four steals against the Longhorns. Pretty good day's work, I'd say.
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
A Few Minutes With ... Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey
Then we get to Ohio State, and I had never been in a press conference like that before. I looked at all those cameras and reporters and I'm like, holy cow, this is unbelievable. When I sat down, I was like, do I take questions or do I make a statement? They start asking questions. It just hit me that these cameras and this platform and this microphone, it just struck me that this is how powerful sports is. At the end, somebody said do you have anything else? And I'm getting my water and I'm getting ready to walk away, and I don't know why I did it but something came over me. I don't know if it was divine intervention or what, but I spoke from the heart. The Lord didn't bless me with good looks and a lot of hair, but He put a lot of passion and a lot of energy into me. I think I have a talent for inspiring people.
This Week's AP Ballot
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Duke (1)
2. Louisville (2)
3. Michigan (3)
4. Kansas (9)
5. Arizona (6)
6. Indiana (8)
7. Missouri (12)
8. Ohio State (4)
9. Cincinnati (10)
10. Syracuse (5)
11. Illinois (11)
12. Gonzaga (13)
13. Michigan State (14)
14. San Diego State (15)
15. Butler (16)
16. Florida (7)
17. Pittsburgh (17)
18. Minnesota (20)
19. UNLV (19)
20. Notre Dame (21)
21. Georgetown (22)
22. N.C. State (23)
23. Creighton (24)
24. Kansas State (NR)
25. Wyoming (NR)
Dropped out: Oregon (18), New Mexico (25)
It should come as no surprise that Kansas and Missouri were my two biggest risers this week. Would that we could see them meet up this season. Alas, these two former league rivals will have to eye each other warily in the rankings. I gave Kansas higher stature because its win came in a true road game, but Missouri also has a pretty good body of work right now, with its only loss coming to Louisville on a neutral court. Mizzou also got a tremendous jolt with the addition of 6-5 freshman guard Jabari Brown, who was invaluable in the win over Illinois (18 points, 7 rebounds).
Florida is an interesting case. It was a little over a week ago when folks like me were talking about the Gators as a Final Four-caliber team. Now, in the wake of their collapse at Arizona and their uninspiring loss to Kansas State, the Gators' wins look less convincing -- which is why I dropped them nine spots. Sure, they beat Wisconsin, Marquette and Florida State by an average of 25.3 points, but it is quite possible that none of those teams will be in the NCAA tournament. The opening of Florida's SEC schedule is pretty weak, too, so we won't have our next chance to really judge this team until it hosts Missouri on January 19.
To be fair, I'd also note that upon further review, Syracuse's best win of the season came against San Diego State on a windy, sun-dappled aircraft carrier. Might that loss to Temple be indicative that this team is overrated as well? Time will tell.
Oregon and New Mexico dropped out of my rankings because of losses to UTEP on the road and South Dakota State at home, respectively. That opened two spots. Clearly, Kansas State deserved one of them. The Wildcats didn't look good in those games against Michigan and Gonzaga, but given where I have those teams ranked, K State deserved to be included following the win over Florida. (Although that doesn't mean they should be ranked
That left the usual batch of candidates for No. 25. I gave consideration to Miami, Kentucky and Maryland; but in the end, I went with Wyoming, which is one of five remaining unbeaten teams and has a win over Colorado. The Cowboys have their big gauntlet in mid-January, when they have a four-game stretch featuring games against the three big favorites in the Mountain West. (They play San Diego State and New Mexico at home and UNLV on the road.) Wouldn't it be awesome if Wyoming went into that still undefeated?