Four-Point Play: Kansas at top of Big 12; Louisville surging in AAC
Four-Point Play is One and One’s attempt to highlight the best team, player, game and GIF/video from the past seven days of college hoops. We reserve the right to tweak the formula on a weekly basis. Expect this column every Sunday.
Jayhawks create separation in Big 12
For most teams, the start of conference play represents a step up in competition from the first two months of the season. Facing quality opponents familiar with how you play twice a week is much more difficult than the non-conference fluff most teams coast through in November and December.
The shock factor isn’t quite as big for teams that test themselves with challenging non-conference matchups. They are conditioned to playing in close, hard-fought games. Tough competition does not easily faze them.
No team has better demonstrated how a difficult non-league schedule can ease the transition into conference play than No. 15 Kansas. The Jayhawks’ non-league slate ranked first in the RPI and 13th in Ken Pomeroy’s Pythagorean non-conference strength of schedule rating. It featured tough neutral court games against No. 23 Duke and No. 6 Villanova, road tests against No. 7 Florida and No. 21 Colorado and a home meeting with No. 10 San Diego State. While Kansas didn’t emerge from that gauntlet without a few scars, when conference play began, it was ready.
"It's going to be a monster," Kansas coach Bill Self said after his team’s Big 12-opening win at No. 25 Oklahoma. "Our league is great. When you think about OU and they go down and they win at Texas, and Texas wins at North Carolina. K-State is playing as well as anybody right now. Iowa State is obviously terrific, and Baylor. We've probably been, nonconference-wise, one of the bigger disappointments in the league, based on our preseason expectations. I think it's going to be a fabulous league."
Even the most battle-tested teams would have had a hard time going undefeated against the four-game stretch the Jayhawks faced to open their conference season. After beating the Sooners and Kansas State, Kansas this week took down No. 8 Iowa State and No. 9 Oklahoma State.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that people began to question whether Bill Self would ever figure out how to mold his young team’s immense talent into a cohesive product. Now the Jayhawks seem drastically under-ranked at No. 15 in the Associated Press Poll (and No. 18 in the USA Today Coaches Poll) and their ceiling appears as high as any team’s in the country.
After winning on Monday at Hilton Coliseum, one of the toughest road venues in the country, Kansas ensured on Saturday that Oklahoma State would not be celebrating on its home floor for a second consecutive season.
“We weren’t ready to be much better than our record was in the nonconference. Maybe we could have been 10-3 or maybe 11-2, but we were about where we deserved,” Self said after Saturday’s win. “But all these guys hear is, ‘What’s wrong with us?’ There was nothing wrong with us. We had to figure out how to play and how to win.”
I think our schedule has helped us. Getting to conference season has given us new life."
Freshman Joel Embiid shone in both performances, totaling 29 points, 20 rebounds and 13 blocks on 85 percent shooting. Fellow frosh Andrew Wiggins played arguably his best game of the season against Iowa State, scoring 17 points and grabbing 19 rebounds, but converted just one field goal on five attempts in 23 minutes Saturday.
That Kansas was able to beat its top challenger for the Big 12 title with its leading scorer not making a significant impact on the game (and its second leading scorer, sophomore Perry Ellis, scoring roughly seven points below his season average), suggests we haven’t seen the Jayhawks at their best yet.
“Wiggs had the worst game he’s had all year,” Self said Saturday. “Perry’s had as bad a game he’s had all year. Wayne had as bad a game as he’s had in a long time. And we won.”
Said Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, “"I don't know a team more talented in the country, as deep as they are. They just keep bringing guys in."
There may be only one team (TCU) in the Big 12 that can be considered a “weak” opponent, though as the Jayhawks learned last season, crazy things can happen during conference play. The Horned Frogs are the only team in the conference ranked outside the top 80 of Kenpom.com’s team ratings.
With tough competition lurking around every corner, Kansas will need to keep playing at a high level to avoid slip-ups. The Jayhawks sit atop the conference standings after knocking off the four biggest threats to end their nine-season conference championship streak and have everything it takes to stay there the rest of the season.
“There’s so much room to get better,” Self said. “I think the whole goal is getting better. And then if you do that, the wins and losses take care of themselves.”
Smith and Harrell lead Louisville’s AAC surge
When Louisville announced two days after it lost at No. 13 Kentucky that junior forward Chane Behanan had been dismissed from the team, people adjusted their expectations of what the Cardinals could accomplish this season. Some thought they no longer could compete for the national championship. Others doubted their chances of winning the American Athletic Conference title. However much your opinion of Louisville was altered, the sentiment was unanimous: the Cardinals are worse without Behanan.
Nothing the Cardinals have done since has disproved that premise, but they have proven they can still win big games, thanks in large part to the performance of senior guard Russ Smith and sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell.
Smith and Harrell have averaged a combined 33.5 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists while leading Louisville to a 5-1 record in conference play. Over the past week, the inside-out duo led the Cardinals past Southern Methodist, Houston and UConn.
It was a huge week for a team coming off a six-point loss at home to No. 17 Memphis.
"Our last three games, we're really starting to play good basketball," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after his team’s big win Saturday at Gampel Pavilion. "Our defense has picked up, our rebounding has picked up."
Smith scored 23 points on 7-of-16 shooting (and added seven assists) to outduel Mustangs guard Nic Moore, dropped 18 on 6-of-8 against the Cougars and totaled 23 on 5-of-13 and 12-of-15 from the stripe to help the Cardinals past the Huskies.
Though Harrell scored just 19 combined points against SMU and Houston, he played the best game of his career Saturday against the Huskies. Harrell scored 18 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and limited forward DeAndre Daniels, UConn’s best big man and second-leading scorer, to three points on 1-of-9 shooting.
"I didn't try to force anything, or go for a career high in scoring," Harrell said Saturday. "I just took what the defense gave me and made it work."
Like he did last season, Smith is using a large percentage (32.4) of his team’s possessions, drawing a lot of fouls (6.2 per 40 minutes) and scoring a lot of points (18.4 per game). The main difference in Smith’s game this season is that he has become a better distributor. The senior has fed his teammates for 32.6 percent of their field goals (which ranks 49th nationally) while he’s been on the floor and averaged 4.7 dimes per game, up from 2.9 last season.
Saturday’s game offered a taste of what Harrell is capable of, but for much of the season he hasn’t been as consistent as Louisville needs him to be. If he can build off Saturday’s performance, Harrell can mitigate the impact of Behanan’s dismissal and help provide the interior might Louisville needs to make its third consecutive Final Four.
Asked if Saturday's game was the best Pitino had seen Harrell play this season, the coach didn’t hesitate, “No question about it.”
“When we have this type of rebounding and play from Montrezl Harrell, who in the last three weeks really has improved his post game, who’s worked very hard on his footwork. And he deserves an enormous amount of credit for working that hard.”
The Cardinals may not be able to stage another deep tournament run this season, but Smith and Harrell are good enough to keep them in the thick of what’s shaping up to be an intriguing AAC championship race. And if Louisville improves over the next two months, we’ve seen what can happen when it enters the postseason with some momentum.
No. 22 Pittsburgh pushes No. 2 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome
For years the ACC championship has been decided by games involving two teams separated by eight miles of North Carolina interstate. It’s starting to look more and more like this year’s title will be won by a central New York-based newcomer still feeling its way around the conference.
On Saturday, former Big East members No. 2 Syracuse and No. 22 Pittsburgh gave their new league brethren a taste of the physical, hard-nosed style their old conference home was defined by. The Orange eked out a 59-54 win at the Carrier Dome to move to 18-0 (5-0 Big East) and claim sole possession of first place in the league standings.
As has been the case on several occasions this season, freshman Tyler Ennis stepped up with the game hanging in the balance. His two layups with under two minutes remaining turned a 52-51 Pittsburgh lead into a 55-52 Syracuse edge. And after the Panthers pulled back within one on a pair of free throws, Ennis calmly sank two from the stripe with less than five seconds to go to seal the win.
Ennis’s final line Saturday: a team-high 16 points, three assists, just one turnover and one delighted head coach.
“He made some of the best plays that I've seen in a long time," Jim Boeheim said after the game. "You don't get to the basket against Pittsburgh for two layups. He won the game for us down the stretch. We opened it up and we like to give him the opportunity in those situations. We were trying to give him an opportunity so he could get to the basket, and he has a knack for doing it that's just about as good as anybody I've ever seen."
It is no longer surprising to see Syracuse’s freshman point guard step up in big games. His ability to stay composed in critical situations is unique among this year’s crop of heavily hyped freshmen. Ennis is undeniably one of college basketball’s most valuable players. And if he continues to play well, Syracuse is poised not only to become the first major conference team since 1991-92 to win its league’s regular season championship in its first year there, but also earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and make a run at the program’s first national championship since 2003.
While Pitt wasn’t able to knock Syracuse from the ranks of the unbeaten, it fought the Orange harder than any team it has faced all season and, were it not for Ennis’s late brilliance, might have come away with the win. Guard Lamar Patterson led all scorers with 18 points and forward Talib Zanna snatched a game-high 11 rebounds. The Panthers grabbed 44 percent of their misses and 83 percent of Syracuse’s; the Orange managed just 17 and 56, respectively.
Despite dominating the glass, the Panthers couldn’t get the stops they needed to in that pivotal closing stretch.
"We got a couple of good shots. We just didn't make them,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “We need to finish better around the basket. They're good, but we felt we should have won the game."
Now two wins away from tying the best start (20-0) in program history, Syracuse is the clear frontrunner to win the ACC regular season championship. But the battle for second place should be interesting. Pitt, Clemson and Virginia have lost just once during conference play, while No. 23 Duke, Maryland and Florida State are all knotted at 3-2. This league isn’t nearly as good as one of its team’s coaches proclaimed it would be, but it has a few decent-to-good teams at the top – and one elite one that has the look of a legitimate national championship contender.
The Panthers host the Orange at the Petersen Events Center on Feb. 12.
Kevin Ollie loses his cool
With 13 minutes left in the second half of UConn’s game against Louisville on Saturday, coach Kevin Ollie was assessed a technical foul. He stormed out of the coach’s box and down the sideline while screaming at referee Mike Stuart for failing to call what looked like an obvious foul on forward Niels Giffey.
Ollie was hit with a second tech and ejected moments later after he continued to howl at Stuart. The UConn coach glared at Stuart in a threatening manner, walked toward him and had to be restrained by an assistant coach and player before finally being escorted off the court.