When March Madness is more than just a game: Remembering a friend

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Four years ago today.

March 31st, 2010.

I woke up at 6:00 am to my phone ringing. By the time I got to it, the ringing had stopped. Three missed calls. All from my mom, the first coming at 4:15 am. She had left a voice mail saying to call her immediately, it was an emergency.

That’s never good.

So I called.

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I’ve always loved sports.

When I was little, I used to clear off the floor of my family’s living room to stage games with the football figurines I collected. I would grab a handful of quarters from my parents change bucket to design plays on our kitchen table. The walls of my old bedroom in my parents house in Connecticut are still covered with pictures that I cut out of SLAM and SI and ESPN the Magazine. Hell, I played strat-o-matic baseball. A lot.

I’m a die-hard hoops head these days, but football was my first true love. A Connecticut native, I’ve been a lifelong San Francisco 49ers fan because my mom got me a Joe Montana costume for Halloween one year when I was about five. My dad “wanted me to have my knees” when I was older so the only time I ever donned shoulder pads and a helmet was when I was Joe Montana.

I tried my hand at baseball. I wasn’t bad, either. When I was nine, I was moved up to the “minors” in the Max Sinoway Little League in my hometown. That’s the first level where they allowed the kids to pitch. I still remember my first game. Ed Prokop, who was three years older than me and would eventually sprout to 6-foot-5, was pitching. He was a hard-throwing lefty. In each of my first two trips to the plate, I got hit with a pitch. That was the end of my baseball career.

So basketball it was.

By the time I reached high school, my entire life revolved around hoops. My family scheduled vacations to avoid missing practices. I was on the varsity team in high school for three years. I played AAU ball with a pretty good team, the CT Gold. We had a handful of Division I players during my tenure, sending a couple guys to Atlantic 10 schools. Tim Abromaitis, who played at Notre Dame, came from the same program four years later.

Personally, I was slightly above average. I was never much of an athlete — I couldn’t actually dunk until my junior year in college — but I had a quick release on my jumper and range for days. One of my coaches in those days said I had a high-major jumper and Division IV athleticism. And while I shot a higher percentage from three than I did on layups, it was enough that I got a lot of interest from D-III schools in the Northeast.

I ended up going to Vassar College, a small Liberal Arts school in Poughkeepsie, NY, a city now better known as Snooki’s hometown. I made the decision to play college basketball — or at least attempt too, I only managed two and a half years on the team and a whopping two starts — because of my love for the game. I wanted to say that I had been a college basketball player. No one could ever take that away.

Growing up in Connecticut, we didn’t have a pro sports team after the Whalers bailed on us. There was always that constant struggle between the Boston fans and the New York fan, but regardless of where your allegiances lied, those teams weren’t ours.

The UConn Huskies, however, were.

Nothing brought me more happiness than watching college basketball, which is why I ended up starting a blog, called Ballin’ is a Habit, seven long years ago. I grew up idolizing Ricky Moore and Doron Sheffer. I still remember bargaining with my father about whether I could stay up to watch the end of the Big East Final between UConn and Georgetown in 1996. I was 11. He said I had to go to sleep if UConn got down by ten points. They got down by 11. I negotiated for another couple of possessions. UConn made their run. I got to see Ray Allen’s miracle floater live.

The NCAA Tournament? That was the best. The first weekend was the highlight of my year. Still is. That first Thursday and Friday is a holiday for me. I haven’t gone to school or work since junior high — more than a decade ago — just so I would able to soak in every second of the Madness.

These days, I get paid to do it. I’m not complaining.

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Building true friendships is not an easy thing to do. Finding that similarity of interest, mutual respect, and level of trustworthiness in another person is like chasing an inside straight. The smart play is to fold. The odds are stacked in the wrong direction, and risking more by chasing the longshot is a fool’s errand.

But when that longshot hits, the winnings are huge. Having a friend, a confidante, that will always be an ear to listen or a shoulder to lean on is a terrific feeling.

It’s not an easy thing to cultivate, however, especially when the distance that needs to be covered is 4,500 miles.

I come from a big family, particularly on my mother’s side. My mom is one of five kids and her mom is one of five kids. Ever since I was little, we would gather the family together for massive reunions every year. It was great. I have a relationship with relatives that live far enough away — places like London and Texas — that I probably never would have known them if it weren’t for the insistence that we put family first. I’ll forever be thankful for that.

My mother’s older brother moved to Alaska. He happened to have a son, Lew Allen IV, that was just a year older than me. Naturally, every time the family got together, we were locked at the hip. As we got older, we only got closer. He was starting a career as an MMA fighter at the same time that I was playing college basketball, so the summer rendezvous’s became week long training sessions. Hill sprints in the Rockies, four mile runs on the Delaware beaches, endless push-ups and sit-ups and pull-ups.

Lew became my confidante. When I had girl problems, I’d call him. When I had issues with a coach or with my workload, I’d call him. Hell, if I couldn’t figure out which pair of shoes to wear, I’d call him. Sometimes we’d talk every day. Other times there would be a month in between.

Didn’t matter.

It doesn’t when you have a friend like that.

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It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was never going to be able to play professional basketball.

In high school, I didn’t get a single letter from a D-I school. If that didn’t tip me off, the fact that my handle bordered on terrible and that I was 6-foot-3 was a pretty clear sign. Getting kicked off during my junior season — I was an idiot in college — certainly didn’t help matters, either.

But I loved the game. Everything about it. And I always knew that I wanted to be a part of it. Coaching high school ball didn’t strike my fancy. I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher. College coaching didn’t appeal to me, either. I would have been a terrible recruiter.

My first job out of college was with a lobbying firm that represented the interest of foreignly owned companies operating in the United States. I sat at a desk. I answered the phone. It was miserable. I would actually get excited when they would task me with stuffing 1,000 envelopes to send out to our members. In my down time I started a blog, and the more I wrote, the more I realized I loved it.

So I quit that job, started waiting tables and bartending to earn some cash, and set out to make it as a writer covering college hoops.

That was in 2007. I haven’t had a single regret since.

Sure, I questioned the decision when it was 4:00 am in the middle of January and I still had 1,500 words to write before heading to work at 10:00 am for the lunch shift, but I can honestly say that trading sleep-deprivation in the pursuit of something I love to do is 10,000 times more rewarding than being miserable and cashing a steady paycheck.

Call me crazy, but that’s the truth.

It’s also true that the Madness of March isn’t just the action on the court. I learned pretty quickly that covering conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament is a grind. The basketball is played for more than twelve hours a day. There are people that not only want constant updates on the action, but that want to read reactions to the outcomes. Quotes need to be taken. Stories need to be written. And all this happens while the next game is tipping off.

And that’s just in your location.

Sleep is a luxury. Praise and gratitude? Those are non-existent. You’re more likely to be ripped by a fan base that is unhappy with the way you worded a sentence referring to a sophomore that plays eight minutes a game than you are to receive a “thank you” from a reader for giving them a brief respite from whatever menial task their boss has them doing that day.

Sportswriting is not a glamorous profession. It requires a lot of hard work and sleepless nights and time spent away from loved ones. It doesn’t pay all that well, especially when you’re an independent blogger.

And I loved every second of it. Still do.

It’s what got me through that first March after my mom’s call.

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“Your cousin Lew killed himself last night.”

No.

That was the unfortunate message my mom had to pass along to me.

He was 26 years old. He was married, the father of two kids and the step-dad to two more. He never ended up going to college. It wasn’t because he lacked the intelligence. An education is secondary to a paycheck when you have mouths to feed, and Lew stepped up. He worked two and three jobs at a time just to pay the bills.

And despite that, despite the issues that he was going through and the pressure that he was dealing with, he never stopped being a loving and attentive father. He never stopped answering my phone calls. He managed all that even when his job as an electrician required him to spend weeks at a time on “The Slope”, a petroleum-rich wilderness the size of Utah in the northernmost portion of Alaska where the nights never ended and he spent his “days” battling frostbite and mean little arctic foxes.

That’s what hurt the most.

His kids would never know what kind of man their father was. They wouldn’t know how hard he worked or how caring he was or how much he loved them. They wouldn’t know that he could perfectly replicate Jim Carrey’s smile in The Mask, or that he was able to do Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean dance in its entirety, moonwalk included.

When I got the call, it was the Wednesday of Final Four week. I was boarding a plane for Indianapolis in 50 hours. I made the decision to get on that flight. I knew Lew would have been pissed at me had I not gone on his account.

It was the best decision I could have made. Preparing for that Final Four, experiencing that Final Four, writing about that Final Four. A healing process, it was not. A pleasant distraction to keep my mind off of losing my best friend?

Absolutely.

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The following season, for the first time ever, I did not look forward to the month of March. I dreaded it. I knew what was waiting at the end of the month.

It didn’t help matters that my birthday is now one day after the anniversary of Lew’s death.

But like the Final Four in Indianapolis, what got me through the month — hell, the year — was college basketball. It was March Madness. It kept me busy. It kept me entertained. It kept me distracted.

Most of all, it kept me happy.

And therein lies the beauty of sports.

In the long run, they don’t matter. Sports are a game. We play them for fun. We watch them for our enjoyment, and if the stars are aligned right, for some excitement. We watch sports because the young men and women that are competing are incredible at their craft. Because they have the kind of athleticism most of us only dream of. We pay absurd amounts of money to go to games because there is nothing more beautiful than a well run fast break, or a perfectly turned double play, or a well timed fade route. We cheer for our favorite teams because, for one reason or another, we have a special bond with that team. When they win, it makes us happy.

But sports won’t solve the conflict in Ukraine. They won’t fix the issues in our educational system. The Super Bowl isn’t going to change anyone’s position on same-sex marriage. The World Series won’t bring the two sides together in South Sudan.

March Madness isn’t going to solve the world’s problems.

And it certainly didn’t solve mine.

But it sure made them easier to deal with this past month.

No. 16 Arizona State hands No. 2 Kansas second-straight loss

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No. 16 Arizona State got a combined 72 points, 14 assists and nine steals from their three-headed monster of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Remy Martin as the Sun Devils went into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and handed Kansas their second-straight loss, 95-85. ASU went on an 18-0 second half run to turn a 52-47 deficit into an 65-52 lead they would never relinquish.

It’s the first time since Dec. 2013, when Kansas lost to Colorado and Florida in back-to-back road games, that the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks lost two in a row. The difference, of course, is that neither of these losses came on the road; Kansas was beaten by Washington in Kansas City on Wednesday.

Arizona State now owns wins at Kansas and over St. John’s and No. 14 Xavier on a neutral floor. They were, without a doubt, the favorite to win the Pac-12 title at this point. They are probably the best team on the west coast, and there is a valid argument to rank them as the No. 1 team in the country.

Here are four things to take away from this result:

1. YES, WE CAN RANK ARIZONA STATE NO. 1 IN THE COUNTRY

I probably won’t be the guy to do that, not when Villanova and Michigan State still exist, but there is more than enough reason to do so.

Namely: their wins.

Is there a program in the country that has put together a better trio of wins than at Kansas, Xavier on a neutral and St. John’s on a neutral? The Sun Devils also own wins over San Diego State and Kansas State, and perhaps the most impressive part of it is that each of those wins, with the exception of Kansas State, came by double-digits. They put up 102 points on Xavier despite trailing by 15 in the first half. They put up 95 points on Kansas despite trailing by 13 in the first half.

If you’re the kind of person that does your rankings based totally on the rèsumè that a team has produced – a completely valid way to rank – then putting Arizona State at No. 1 makes total sense.

So don’t be surprised when they get some of them in this week’s AP poll.

2. ARIZONA STATE’S ACHILLES’ HEEL IS NOT THREES, IT’S DEFENSE

One idea that I’ve seen bandied about is that Arizona State’s performance early on this season is something of a mirage. These guards, as talented as they are, are just tough-shot makers that are running hot right now, and there might be something to that. I’m not going to pretend that shooting 14-for-28 from three at Phog Allen Fieldhouse or 13-for-27 from three against Xavier is the kind of thing that is going to happen every single time that Arizona State plays this season, but I also don’t think that’s why their offense has been so successful this season.

The Sun Devils get to the line more than just about any other team in the country; Cal St.-Fullerton is the only program with a higher free throw rate than the Sun Devils. That has everything to do with the ability of Evans, Holder and Martin to put the ball on the floor and get into the paint. It’s why they get to the line so often, and it’s why Romello White gets to the line so often.

That is sustainable, more so than shooting nearly-50 percent from three is.

What may not be sustainable, however, is winning games like this while posting a sub-150 adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. That’s where Arizona State has problems they need to solve. We saw it on Sunday, as Kansas had a never-ending parade of dunks. Ironically, what may have ended up being the difference is the fact that the Sun Devils had a handful of run-out layups – pick-six turnovers, if you will.

Bobby Hurley’s team allowed 1.39 points-per-possession on possessions where Kansas did not turn the ball over. That, quite simply, has to improve if you assume that Arizona State doesn’t shoot 50 percent from three every night.

3. KANSAS DESPERATELY NEEDS THEIR REINFORCEMENTS

We talk about it over and over again, but it’s the truth. Right now, Kansas goes seven-deep. One of those seven is Mitch Lightfoot, a 6-foot-9 back-up center that is the only big man on the Kansas roster not named Udoka Azubuike. He’s fine as a back-up. He’s not fine as a guy that is going to have to provide 15-18 minutes a night as the only big man on the floor. He doesn’t provide rim protection. He doesn’t provide post scoring. He’s not a great rebounder. He can commit five fouls and but Bill Self some time with Azubuike on the bench. That’s it.

They need Silvio De Souza to get his test score and enroll early. They need to find a way to get Billy Preston cleared to play this season. If they don’t, we probably need to start entertaining the idea that this might be the Kansas team that sees their Big 12 title streak come to an end.

The other issue is that the only other player on the KU bench is Marcus Garrett, who is a freshman that doesn’t quite seem ready for the minutes he’s getting. Malik Newman has not been as good as advertised this season, and on Sunday, Svi Mykhailiuk reverted back to the Svi Mykhailiuk of the last three years. What that means is that …

4. … KANSAS HAS ONE GUY THAT CAN CREATE FOR HIMSELF RIGHT NOW

And I’m not quite sure when that is going to change.

I just don’t think Newman is all that good. Svi is at his best as a spot-up shooter and a guy that attacks close-outs. Garrett, as of now, cannot be relied upon, and I’m not convinced that Sam Cunliffe or Lagerald Vick are guys that can be more than finishers; at the rim, as a spot-up shooter, etc.

Even Azubuike is someone that has to more or less rely on getting the ball in a position where all he has to do is catch it and dunk it.

That’s a massive burden to ask Devonte’ Graham to carry, especially when he has to do so while playing every second.

Ayton leads Arizona to 88-82 win over Alabama

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Deandre Ayton had 29 points and 18 rebounds, Allonzo Trier scored 20 of his 25 points in the second half and Arizona outlasted Alabama 88-82 Saturday night.

Arizona’s first real home test and the fans were ready, making McKale Center louder than it’s been all season.

The Wildcats (7-3) responded with their second quality win of the week, backing up a victory over No. 7 Texas A&M with a strong all-around performance to win their 45th straight nonconference home game.

Alabama (7-3) matched Arizona nearly shot for shot in one of college basketball’s toughest road environments, pulling within 84-80 on Riley Norris’ 3-pointer with 38 seconds left.

Trier, who took just six shots, hit three free throws in the final 34 seconds to seal it for Arizona.

Freshman Collin Sexton scored 21 of his 30 points in the second half to keep the Crimson Tide close.

Arizona’s defense was a sore spot to start the season, leading to three straight losses in the Bahamas that dropped the Wildcats out of the AP Top 25 from No. 2 — a first since Louisville in 1986.

Even when the Wildcats rolled over Long Beach State, coach Sean Miller lamented their defensive effort in a 25-minute postgame rant.

Arizona shored up its defense on Tuesday, when it grinded out a 67-64 victory over No. 7 Texas A&M in Phoenix.

For their first big home test, the Wildcats got back sophomore guard Rawle Alkins, a tough, emotional player who Miller hoped would give them a lift.

Arizona had a spark before Alkins even entered the game, efficiently working its offense during a 10-0 run that put the Wildcats up 24-13. The Crimson Tide fought back behind their defense, using a 13-2 run to tie it at 26-all.

Alabama had no one who could stop Ayton in the first half — 15 points and nine rebounds — but Sexton banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to put the Tide up 40-38.

The Crimson Tide went on a quick run to start the second half, but Arizona rallied and the teams traded athletic plays, neither to gain much separation.

Alabama closed in around Ayton to limit his shots, but Trier got free multiple times to keep the Wildcats around the lead.

Sexton was Alabama’s go-to player, confidently stroking in long 3-pointers and driving to the basket.

BIG PICTURE

Alabama came up short, but handling a hostile environment at McKale Center and keeping it close against a good team should only help the Crimson Tide later in the season.

Arizona could find itself back in the AP Top 25 next week after two quality wins.

UP NEXT

Alabama hosts Mercer on Dec. 19.

Arizona plays at New Mexico next Saturday.

No. 18 West Virginia holds off Pittsburgh 69-60

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PITTSBURGH — West Virginia coach Bob Huggins made it a point to schedule back-to-back games against No. 15 Virginia and Pittsburgh to give the 18th-ranked Mountaineers a taste of what awaits when Big 12 play begins in three weeks.

“I was trying to prepare them and we flunked that test,” Huggins said.

Well, maybe not technically. It just sort of felt that way to Huggins after his team nearly let a 20-point lead get away before holding on for a 69-60 over the Panthers on Saturday night in the renewal of the “Backyard Brawl.”

“This is getting to be finals week,” Huggins said. “I hope they do better on their finals than they did tonight.”

The Mountaineers (9-1) forced just 14 turnovers, were outrebounded by six and sent the Panthers to the free-throw line 31 times. Only Jevon Carter’s occasional brilliance and some lockdown defense over the final 5 minutes prevented a staggering upset.

“They kicked our butt on the glass,” Huggins said. “I wasn’t surprised. I told our guys for two days that’s what I was afraid was going to happen.”

Carter finished with a game-high 19 points but also ran into foul trouble in the second half, watching as the Panthers nearly erased all of an 18-point halftime deficit. Daxter Miles Jr. added 15 points and Lamont West finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds and the Mountaineers won their ninth straight following a season-opening loss to Texas A&M.

Still, work remains to be done. Pitt pulled within 61-59 when Marcus Carr completed a 4-point play with 5:31 left. The Panthers, however, never got any closer. Pitt missed its last six shots and turned it over twice as West Virginia escaped.

“We knew that we could beat this team,” said Carr, who finished with 12 points. “It was a matter of time of putting it all together. We still didn’t play our best (but) it’s another step in the right direction.”

Ryan Luther overcame early foul trouble to lead Pitt (5-5) with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Shamiel Stevenson added 12 points for the Panthers, who dissected West Virginia’s defense in the second half after shooting just 5 of 22 (23 percent) in the first half.

“We got our butts kicked in the first half,” Pitt coach Kevin Stallings said. “Guys of lesser character would have put their heads between their legs and thought the night was over … I couldn’t have asked any more out of them than they gave.”

The 185th meeting between the schools featured the programs in two very different places. The Mountaineers are a legitimate threat to challenge No. 2 Kansas in the Big 12, while the Panthers were picked to finish last in the ACC while undergoing what could be a lengthy rebuilding process.

Still, old habits die hard. Pitt offered a promotion that included “13-9” decals to customers if they bought a Panthers cap, the score of Pitt’s epic football upset of the Mountaineers a decade ago that kept West Virginia out of the Bowl Championship Series title game.

Then the game started and the punch Stallings told his team would come courtesy of the Mountaineers’ pressure defense arrived. West Virginia dominated at times during the opening 20 minutes. Carter went on a personal 12-0 run at one point and it seemed as if West Virginia was going to pull away.

It didn’t happen. Kham Davis hit a 3-pointer on Pitt’s first possession of the second half and pumped his fist at the Panthers bench, starting a wave that crested with Carr’s 4-point play.

“We don’t take too much consolation in a loss,” Luther said. “I thought we stuck together. We played extremely hard. If we keep snowballing, keep getting better in practice we’ll be better when conference play starts.”

ALMOST HEAVEN?

The crowd of 7,748 was the largest of the season at the Petersen Events Center, though a considerable portion came courtesy of folks in blue-and-gold who made the short 70-mile trip from Morgantown.

“It sounded like a home game honestly,” Carter said.

BIG PICTURE

West Virginia: The Mountaineers will have trouble in the Big 12 if the games are called tight. The offense needed either Carter or Miles on the court (and preferably both) to be functional. That will require them staying out of the kind of foul trouble they ran into in the second half.

Pitt: The Panthers are showing signs of progress. Measuring improvement in wins and losses could be difficult for a roster filled with nine freshmen, but Pitt’s effort and savvy in the second half provided concrete evidence the players are buying into whatever Stallings is selling.

UP NEXT

West Virginia: has a week off then hosts Wheeling Jesuit in an exhibition game on Dec. 16.

Pitt: welcomes McNeese State on Dec. 16.

Barford, Gafford lead Arkansas past No. 14 Minnesota, 95-79

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Jaylen Barford was still learning what major college basketball was all about a year ago as a first-year junior college transfer when Arkansas went to Minnesota and lost by 14 points.

This time around, the Razorbacks senior had a clear idea of how to attack the 14th-ranked Golden Gophers — and he had plenty of help along the way.

Led by Barford’s 22 points, Arkansas (7-2) returned the favor from last year’s loss with a 95-79 victory over Minnesota on Saturday night. It did so while continuing what’s been nothing short of an offensive onslaught in Bud Walton Arena to open the season, raising its home scoring average to 93.2 points per game with the win.

Barford entered the game second in the Southeastern Conference in scoring at 19.6 points per game, and he finished 9 of 15 from the field — adding four rebounds and four assists. The 6-foot-3 senior also hit two 3-pointers and had a block while making amends for last year.

“I think it was just having the experience and maturity level of our game, and just taking our time and being more poised this year,” Barford said. “Last year was our first road game, and (we thought) things were going to be a cakewalk, and it wasn’t.”

While Barford brought plenty of experience to the court, Arkansas’ newest rising star fared just well while making the first start of his career.

Freshman Daniel Gafford had 16 points on 8-of-8 shooting, and the 6-foot-11 forward added seven rebounds and six blocks while facing a talented Minnesota (8-3) front line. He did so in only 21 minutes and helped the Razorbacks hit 39 of 68 shots (57.4 percent) for the game.

During one second-half possession, Gafford swatted two straight shots by the Gophers and added to his growing highlight with three dunks — bringing his season total to 21 in nine games.

“If he works hard and he’s a good kid, (Gafford) could be a first-round pick,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said.

The loss is the third in the last four games for the Golden Gophers, who lost earlier in the week at Nebraska . Jordan Murphy led Minnesota with 20 points and 10 rebounds, Amir Coffey had 18 points and Nate Mason 17 in the loss.

The Gophers shot 41 percent (25 of 61) in their first road game against an SEC opponent since a loss at Georgia in 2001.

“Certainly we have our deficiencies we have to fix, but the sky’s not falling,” Pitino said.

BIG PICTURE

Minnesota: Senior Reggie Lynch entered the game averaging 11.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and a national-best 4.5 blocks per game. The 6-10 Lynch rarely had the chance to affect much of the game on Saturday, committing four fouls in his first 6 minutes and finishing with five points in 14 minutes.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks entered Saturday having won their four home games by an average of 25.3 points per game. They were nearly as dominant against the Gophers, leading from start to finish and by as many as 19 points in the second half while making their case for a Top 25 ranking.

MORRIS’ INTRO

New Arkansas football coach Chad Morris was busy recruiting early on Saturday, attending a prep state championship football game in Little Rock. That didn’t stop Morris from making the trip back to Fayetteville by the evening, just in time to be introduced in the first half of the basketball game — much to the delight of the 17,853 fans in Bud Walton Arena.

HOME COOKING

The victory was the first for the Razorbacks over a top 15 team since defeating No. 5 Texas A&M during the 2015-16 season, and it extends their home winning streak to eight games. “That was Bud Walton Arena at its best,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “That’s how we do it around here.”

UP NEXT

Minnesota returns home to face Drake on Monday night.

The Razorbacks are off for finals before hosting Troy on Dec. 16.

No. 3 Michigan St tops Southern Utah 88-63, aims for No. 1

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Cassius Winston sprinted up the sideline, called for the ball and got it to put up a 3-pointer.

Swish.

Winston scored 15 points and missed only one shot beyond the arc, helping the third-ranked Spartans beat Southern Utah 88-63 on Saturday night.

“I was definitely feeling it,” he said. “My teammates did a good job of getting the ball in my hands where I could make shots.”

That’s a good idea this season.

After making just 38 percent of his 3-pointers last season, Winston has connected on 61 percent and almost has as many makes beyond the arc that he did all of last season.

“I’ve put a lot of work into it,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of attention on other guys. If I can knock down open jumpers like that, it opens the floor up that much more.”

The point guard made 5 of 6 3-point attempts against the Thunderbirds. Over the last six games, the sophomore has connected on 19 of 26 3-pointers.

“He is shooting the lights out,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Winston is often open because many of his teammates can score, too.

“He’s shooting with great confidence and he’s getting it off quick,” Southern Utah coach Todd Simon said. “He’s a game-changer for them when he’s playing like that. There’s not many holes in that lineup.”

Jackson had 13 rebounds and five blocks. Bridges had 11 rebounds and six assists.

The Thunderbirds (5-4) had won three straight. They kept it relatively close at the Breslin Center for a while, trailing by just five points midway through the second half.

Michigan State’s balanced team took control with a 21-7 run to take a 79-60 lead with 4:45 left.

Southern Utah’s Dre Marin, Jacob Calloway and Jadon Cohee scored 12 points apiece and Ivan Madunic added 10 points.

“We’re kind of a budding program, rebuilding this thing,” Simon said. “Our guys played really hard. From a competitive standpoint, I was really proud of the guys.”

BIG PICTURE

Southern Utah: The Thunderbirds can upset a lot of teams if they make 3-pointers like they did at Michigan State, connecting on 11 beyond the arc.

“Our game plan was to get 30 3s up and make 15 of them,” Simon said. “We felt like we could because they’re so aggressive defensively. We passed up some and drove inside the trees and found that was not a good strategy.”

Michigan State: The Spartans may be ranked No. 1 on Monday for the first time in two years. The top-ranked Blue Devils (11-1) lost to Boston College on Saturday, No. 2 Kansas (7-1) lost to Washington on Wednesday and No. 4 Villanova (9-0) is unbeaten going into Sunday’s game against La Salle.

Izzo welcomes the top spot.

“I think this team has to learn how to handle all these things,” he said.

HOMECOMING

Simon had a lot of fans in the stands because he’s from Fowler, Michigan, a small town about 30 miles from Michigan State, and he graduated from Central Michigan in 2003.

“That part of it was a pretty cool experience,” he said.

UP NEXT:

Southern Utah: Plays on Saturday at home against Central Michigan.

Michigan State: Plays Oakland on Saturday in Detroit after Michigan faces Detroit Mercy in Little Caesars Arena.