It may sound weird to say this, but Julius Randle was the most important player on the floor for the Wildcats in Saturday’s win over LSU despite the fact that he managed just eight points on 3-for-8 shooting.
He guarded Johnny O’Bryant, the LSU big man that torched the Wildcats in their first meeting in Baton Rouge, forcing him to take 25 shots to get his 20 points and turning him over five times. He switched onto Anthony Hickey on regulation’s final possession, keeping him from penetrating and forcing him into a tough, fadeaway jumper. He grabbed 15 rebounds, one of which led to his game-winning lay-in with 3.9 seconds left.
Randle is Kentucky’s best offensive weapon, which means that his value may lie in being a bit of a decoy offensively while setting the tone for the Wildcats with his effort and his hustle. He may be the star, but he needs to play like the glue-guy that only gets minutes when he gets floor-burns.
It seems like he’s embracing that.
“It is what is (on the scrutiny). I don’t care about that. It may or may not be true, but I’m playing basketball. I didn’t come here to be liked. I came here to win a championship,” Randle told Larry Vaught of VaughtsViews.com.
Last week, Jason King of Bleacher Report published the story of four days behind-the-scenes with Kentucky’s basketball program.
It’s well worth the read, with plenty of insight into what it’s like to be a basketball player representing Big Blue Nation. But the most interesting passage is this quote from Calipari during a film session with Randle.
“Look at yourself!” says Calipari, raising his arms. “Look at what you’re doing! Normal human beings can’t do that! If you play like that and go 2-for-9, we’ll win!
“The question is whether you can go 2-for-9 and still play like that.”
I guess he can.
Player of the Year Power Rankings: Frank Mason III, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball stand out
1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: The latest impressive performance from Mason came against Stanford, as he finished with 20 points, five assists and four boards in a 15-point win over the Cardinal. He’s the engine that makes that team go, averaging 19.6 points, 5.4 assists and 4.5 boards while shooting 56.1 percent from the floor and 48.4 percent from three, and he’s still the proud owner of the biggest shot of the season. Is anyone else fired up for when the Jayhawks head to Rupp Arena to take on Kentucky in January?
2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Last Tuesday, we talked about how Hart has improved his three-point shooting and has added the ability to operate in ball-screens to his offensive repertoire this season. Then he went out posted a triple-double in a win over Saint Joseph’s while averaging 9.5 assists in two games. Prior to last week, Hart had never averaged more than 1.9 assists in any season in college.
3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: The value that Ball brings to this UCLA team goes well-beyond the numbers that he’s putting up, and his numbers are already quite impressive. He’s averaging 14.3 points, 5.0 boards, 1.3 blocks and 1.0 steals on the season, but it’s the nation’s-best 9.3 assists that he’s averaging that makes the difference. He, quite simply, makes everyone on the court around him better. It’s a cliché that’s used with point guards too often, but no one fits that mold better than Ball.
We saw it on Saturday against Kentucky. Ball struggled early in that game, committing five turnovers in the first 10 minutes as the Bruins dug themselves a 23-14 hole. When he finally turned it on, UCLA torched Kentucky’s defense, which is one of the best in all of college basketball. His unselfishness has permeated that roster. Watching the Bruins move the ball against a set defense is a thing of beauty. Draft Express posted a terrific breakdown of just what makes Ball’s passing so difficult to deal with last week.
4. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: The Wildcats ended up losing to UCLA on Saturday afternoon, but it was no fault of Fox, who finished with 20 points and nine assists while doing the heavy-lifting in keeping Lonzo Ball more-or-less in check. Fox is a terror in transition, nearly impossible to keep out of the paint, unselfish when he draws extra defenders and an elite on-ball defender. If he can find a way to become a consistently jump-shooter, he’s going to be very, very good.
5. Luke Kennard, Duke: Kennard has been Duke’s best player this season, and that did not change in the last seven days, with the return of Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden. He had 20 points in a win over Michigan State and followed that up with a career-high 35 points as the Blue Devils knocked off Maine. If Tatum turns out to be as good as advertised and Grayson Allen eventually returns to health, think about how scary a Duke back court is when Kennard is the third-best weapon offensively?
6. Markelle Fultz, Washington: Let’s put the numbers that Fultz is averaging this season – 22.7 points, 6.7 boards, 6.6 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.4 blocks – into perspective. No college basketball player since 1993 has averaged 22 points, six boards and six assists in a season before. Only 14 times in that time-frame has a player averaged 20 points, five boards and five assists, and only one of those 14 played at the high-major level – Evan Turner in 2009-10, when he averaged 20.4 points, 9.2 boards and 6.0 assists and won National Player of the Year.
Making those numbers even more impressive is that none of the 14 players on that list have A) averaged more than one block per game or B) come close to shooting 48.4 percent from three. It’s early, yes, and Fultz still hasn’t played any elite competition, but what he’s done this season is remarkable.
Washington, who is just 4-3 on the season, will get their first real test of the year when they square off with Gonzaga in Spokane on Wednesday.
7. Mo Watson, Creighton: For all the love that UCLA’s Lonzo Ball is getting this season, it’s worth noting that Watson is doing something similar for the Bluejays. He’s averaging 12.0 points and 9.0 assists, second nationally to Ball, for a Creighton team that is in the top ten and running one of the nation’s most high-powered offenses. He’s been terrific.
8. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: We saw Berry’s value last week when he struggled against Indiana in Assembly Hall and the Tar Heels played their worst game of the season to date. He’s now dealing with an ankle injury that could keep him out for the next two games. With freshman point guard Seventh Woods stepping into the starting lineup against Davidson on Wednesday, we should really get a feel for just how imporant he is to this team.
9. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: Evans was held in check for the most part in Oklahoma State’s loss at Maryland on Saturday and he still managed to finish with 16 points, five boards and five assists.
10. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Swanigan had a rough outing against Louisville last week. His finished with 14 points and 13 boards, but he also committed six turnovers and was one of the reasons that the Boilermakers had so much trouble on the offensive end of the floor in the first half.
JUST MISSED THE CUT
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
James Blackmon Jr., Indiana
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Yante Maten, Georgia
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
No. 20 Arizona’s Jackson-Cartwright out up to 2 months
North Carolina announced that Joel Berry II, the team’s star point guard, will be out for Wednesday night’s game against Davidson.
Berry suffered the injury in the second half of Sunday’s win over Radford. The school listed him as questionable for Sunday’s game against Tennessee.
Berry is averaged 14.8 points, 4.7 assists and 3.8 boards on the season while shooting 41.9 percent from three. His absence puts the Tar Heels on upset alert, as they’ll be starting true freshman Seventh Woods at the point against a good Davidson team that features Jack Gibbs, one of the nation’s most lethal scorers.
AMES, Iowa (AP) Iowa State moved the ball and yet again played strong defense.
The result was a surprisingly satisfying win on the heels of two tough losses.
Deonte Burton scored 20 points and the 25th-ranked Cyclones pummeled Nebraska-Omaha 91-47 on Monday night, snapping a two-game losing streak.
Donovan Jackson had 15 for the Cyclones (6-2), who hit 15 of 29 3-pointers and rolled to their third win of 40 or more points this season.
“I thought we did some things better,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. “Pace of play. Sharing the basketball, moving the basketball, the ball moving side to side. And defensively, for the majority of the game, I thought we competed.”
Iowa State knew it had to take the Mavericks (4-5) seriously after they stunned Iowa on Saturday. The Cyclones never let Omaha think it had a chance, storming ahead 36-9 after just 12 minutes – with Burton scoring their first 13 points.
“I just took what they were giving me, and it was falling,” Burton said.
Iowa State, which fell six spots in Monday’s AP Top 25 poll but remained ranked for the 61st week in a row, held the Mavs to 28 percent shooting.
The Cyclones, not typically known for their defense, have held three of their last four opponents to 56 points or less.
“We play in a really good league,” Prohm said, looking ahead to Big 12 play. “You better guard, and you better play the right way.”
Tra-Deon Hollins had 13 points to lead the Mavs.
THE BIG PICTURE
Iowa State: One of the big issues for Iowa State this season was inconsistent ball movement. That was clearly a focus for coach Steve Prohm in practice after last week’s 55-54 home loss to Cincinnati, and the Cyclones had the ball flying around the perimeter from the opening tip. Iowa State had 10 assists on its first 16 baskets.
Omaha: The Mavericks crossed the Missouri River for a road trip against Iowa and Iowa State. They split, having beaten the Hawkeyes 98-89 on Saturday. That’s a result any Summit League program would take.
Ranked teams are supposed to beat low-major teams handily at home. How the Cyclones look in Iowa City will determine if their streak reaches 62 weeks.
Darrell Bowie scored 12 points, including a pair of 3s, for Iowa State. Naz Mitrou-Long had 11 points, five rebounds and three assists and Monte Morris had seven points and nine assists. … Omaha hit just 5 of 22 from 3-point range. … Solomon Young returned from a hand injury and scored six points and five rebounds off the bench. His size will be crucial against Iowa, which has depth along its frontline.
Jackson, a junior college transfer, was expected to be Iowa State’s starting point guard this season – but Morris somewhat unexpectedly returned for his senior season. Jackson was spotty at times as a rotation guard, averaging just 3.9 points in his first seven games. Jackson got 23 minutes and made the most of them Monday, adding three assists, three rebounds and a steal without a turnover. “I don’t care who we were playing…he made open shots. He made right decisions,” Prohm said. “He bounced back, but that’s what good players do.”
HE SAID IT
“I think I’m gaining more confidence by the day,” Jackson said.
The Cyclones hit the road to face Iowa on Thursday. The Hawkeyes haven’t looked as bad as they’ve looked this season in years, but those rivalry games tend to be close and intense.
The cliché ‘here, it just means more’ has never rang more true than it did on Monday night in Madison Square Garden.
A bad Syracuse team and a worse UConn team got together in New York City to play an awful basketball game, one where the two teams didn’t crack 100 points combined until there were 2.2 seconds left; where UConn won 52-50 despite shooting 31.4 percent from the floor because the Orange made just 25.9 percent of their field goals; where UConn did everything they could in the final minute to give the game to the Orange, including missing five free throws.
In a game between two teams that entered with a combined 8-6 record, Syracuse and UConn fans packed the Garden and created an environment that was just as rowdy, raucous and bi-partisan as a Big East tournament quarterfinal game that goes to six overtimes.
Businessmen in $5,000 suits were court side, going just as crazy as the UConn fans that packed their student section. Day-traders showed up in Orange t-shirts over their shirt and ties.
It didn’t matter that the Orange entered the game on a two-game losing streak. It didn’t matter UConn, a young team that has already lost two starters to season-ending injury, looks like a team that will be lucky to earn an invite to the NIT.
It never matters when these two former Big East rivals get together in the Basketball Mecca.
“It may be a slap in the face,” said Larry Avitabile, a Connecticut native that now calls Manhattan home, “but I hope UConn shows up as a bad loss when they show Syracuse’s NCAA tournament résumé.”
The rivalry between UConn and Syracuse is unlike any other rivalry in college basketball because of their proximity to New York City and Madison Square Garden, where the Big East has held their conference tournament since 1983.
Both fanbases claim the Big Apple as their own. Both schools consider themselves New York City’s college basketball team. None of the schools that left the Big East and none of the programs still in the conference traveled to the Garden the way that UConn and Syracuse travel to the Garden.
And the result is what you saw on Monday night.
Half of the Garden was blue.
The other half was Orange.
It simply does not get better than that.
Every season, one of the biggest talking points this time of the year is how neutral site games sterilize what makes college basketball special: the energy that comes with playing a game in front of a home crowd. The product on the court is never going to be as good as the product on the floor of any NBA game. That’s a fact of life when the best players at this level are 19 year olds a couple of years away from being able to impact an NBA game or 22 year olds that weren’t quite good enough to be able to make the jump to the pros.
And basketball at any level is never going to be a more popular than the NFL or college football. Unless you live in places like Lexington or Lawrence, college basketball probably isn’t even as important as the MLB or the NHL.
But those big, on-campus games are unparalleled in any sport at any level in this country. The experience of watching, say, UCLA’s visit to Rupp Arena on Saturday or North Carolina’s trip to Assembly Hall last week comes through on the television broadcasts.
When UConn and Syracuse square off in the Garden, it’s like two teams are playing a home game in the building.
“It’s New York City, it’s one of the best venues to play basketball in, it’s on everybody’s bucket list,” said Syracuse guard Andrew White. “Then, given the teams that were here, and the location, you’re dipping into history. This venue and this game is one of the tops all-time.”
White is a fifth-year senior that spent the last four seasons playing for Kansas in the Big 12 and Nebraska in the Big Ten. He’s seen it all. He’s played in the most electric college gyms. He knows what constitutes a great place to play a basketball game.
“I knew what to expect,” said White, who hails from southern Virginia. “I knew what I was getting into coming into this game. It’s Syracuse and UConn at the Garden. Say no more.”
College basketball needs all the games like this that it can get. It’s why those two programs would be doing a disservice to the sport if they decide to discontinue the series after the 2017 Jimmy V Classic, when they will play in the Garden for the second straight season.
Because UConn has too much talent and Kevin Ollie recruits at too high of a level to be down for that long. The Orange are just a year removed from getting to the Final Four and have plenty of young talent of their own on the roster.
Those programs will return to their rightful spots in the top 25 sooner rather than later.
And if those two fanbases can turn one of the ugliest games of the season into what we experienced in the arena on Monday night, imagine what it will be like in that building when those two teams are actually good.