Sometimes you just have to give credit where credit’s due.
Charlotte was an afterthought in Conference USA heading into the season, but that certainly changed this week as the 49ers knocked off Kansas and Northeastern to set up Sunday’s showdown with No. 14 Michigan in the final of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
And in a game that drew plenty of attention stateside due to New England’s inability to avoid fumbling, the 49ers knocked off the Wolverines, 63-61, when Terrence Williams laid in his own miss with 0.4 seconds left.
Michigan struggled in this event. Frankly, they’ve struggled all season long, and there is a reason for that. Trey Burke is gone, replaced by freshman Derrick Walton and sophomore Spike Albrecht. Mitch McGary is still working his way back into shape. Glenn Robinson III is still learning how to be more than an athlete that can shoot. Zak Irvin isn’t ready to be more than a role player. Put it all together, and you get a team that has to ride the coattails of Nik Stauskas, who looks like he could be headed to an All-American season.
Tonight was the perfect example. Nik Stauskas had 20 points on 6-for-13 shooting (he was 6-for-11 from the floor before rolling his ankle with four minutes left). The Non-Stauskas Wolverines were 13-for-48 from the floor and scored 41 points.
Charlotte, on the other hand, came out prepared. Alan Major’s team isn’t flashy, but they defend, they play hard, they’re tough and they had a game plan that was executed and effective. It didn’t hurt that Glenn Robinson III didn’t return after a hard fall in the first half, one that reportedly injured his back, but all the 49ers can do is beat the team that takes the court against them.
For the third time in four days in San Juan, they did.
Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.
After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.
Video credit: Wyoming Athletics
Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.
Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.
Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.
Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.
Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.
But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.