Player of the Week: Tray Woodall, Pitt
Pitt lost eight straight games this season. They started off Big East play with seven consecutive losses. They lost to Wagner. They lost to DePaul. They lost to Rutgers by 23 points at home. And despite all of that, the Panthers are all of a sudden a team that not only looks destined to be headed to the NCAA Tournament, they look like they actually deserve an at-large bid.
Why? Its simple: Tray Woodall. The talented Panther point guard missed an extended period of time in the middle of the season due to groin and abdominal injuries, but he returned to the lineup on January 21st. Pitt lost that game as Woodall was, quite evidently, working to get his bearings back. But since then, the Panthers have won four straight, including going into West Virginia and taking home the title in this year’s Backyard Brawl. Woodall had 24 points and three assists. Then on Saturday, Woodall went for 29 points, six assists and five boards in a nine point win over Villanova.
I went back and watch the tape of Pitt prior to Woodall’s and return and with him back, and there are a couple of differences. The first is that the Panthers are now able to break a press. Believe it or not, that was as big of an issue as any without him in the lineup, particularly against Marquette. More importantly, however, Woodall’s return give Pitt a playmaker at the point that is capable of creating off of the dribble not just for himself, but for the rest of the team. Ashton Gibbs, when he is forced to go 1-on-1 off the dribble, can get a good look, but he’s not going to be finding assists. Woodall is a much more dangerous player with the ball in his hands.
The All-They-Were-Good-Too Team:
– G: Damian Lillard, Weber State: The nation’s leading scorer showed why he is such a dangerous offensive weapon this week. He went for 40 points and five assists in a win over Portland State and followed it up with 35 points and five assists against Northern Colorado, upping his scoring average to 25.5 ppg. What makes Lillard so dangerous is how efficient he is. Lillard’s offensive rating is 130.3, which is an astounding number considering that he uses 31.7% of Weber State’s possessions. Think about it like this: looking at every player in the country regardless of usage rate, Lillard is 12th in terms of efficiency. No one else in the top 20 uses more than 23.3% of their team’s possessions. Only three players in the top 50 — Jared Sullinger (25.9%), Doug McDermott (28.0%) and Isaiah Canaan (26.0%) — use more than 23.9%.
This week, Lillard totaled his 75 points while shooting 25-36 (69.4%) from the floor and 11/17 (64.7%) from three with just five turnovers in 70 minutes. That’s impressive.
– G: Kevin Murphy, Tennessee Tech: Lillard may be this season’s scoring leader, but Murphy was this week’s champ. On Monday night, the 6’6″ guard went for 50 points, the most scored this season to day, on 16-21 shooting. On Thursday, Murphy followed that up with 33 points before finally closing out the week with a measly 23 point performance at Jacksonville State. If the 106 point aren’t enough, Murphy shot 59.3% from the floor, hit 12-22 from three and added 7.0 rpg.
– F: Garrett Stutz, Wichita State: Don’t look now, but Saturday’s matchup between Wichita State and Creighton will be one of the most anticipated games of the season. Why? Because after the Bluejays got dropped on a buzzer-beating three on Saturday afternoon, the Shockers pulled back into a first-place tie in the MVC with them. And the biggest reason WSU has been able to make their run has been their biggest player. Stutz had 25 points and 11 boards in a win at Missouri State on Wednesday and followed that up with 24 points, 15 boards and five blocks as the Shockers outlasted Indiana State on Saturday night.
– F: Joshua Smith, UCLA: UCLA went just 1-1 on the week, with their one win coming against Washington State and their loss coming when they blew a late, 10 point lead against Washington. It wasn’t exactly the greatest week for the Bruins. It was, however, arguably the best weekend that Smith has had in his collegiate career. He went for 24 points and nine boards against UW and followed that up with 19 points against Washington State. Its a shame that it takes a trip back to his native Seattle to get him motivated, but maybe tasting success keeps him motivated. When he wants to be, Smith is a top ten center in the country.
– C: Anthony Davis, Kentucky: What is there to say about Davis that hasn’t already been said 100 times over? He’s a freak. He’s the most terrifying defensive force in the country. His presence around the rim makes the Wildcats one of the best defensive teams in the country, and that wouldn’t change even if I was playing the two. His offense is starting to come around now as well. This week, in wins over Tennessee and South Carolina, Davis averaged 20.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 7.5 bpg.
Team of the Week: Miami Hurricanes
You might not have realized it on Sunday with that other game going on, but Miami landed a massive win that vaulted them into serious contention for the NCAA Tournament. The Hurricanes went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and knocked off the Blue Devils in overtime despite the fact that Malcolm Grant managed just one field goal on the day. Reggie Johnson went for 27 points and 12 boards, eight offensive, which led to a fourth straight win. Miami has also won five of their last six and nine of 12 since Reggie Johnson returned from him injury.
In fact, the biggest reason for Miami’s turnaround is not necessarily Johnson’s return. Well, it is, but what Johnson’s presence inside has allowed is Kenny Kadji to get free up as a stretch-four on the perimeter. He’s averaged 16.7 ppg and 6.7 rpg in the last 12 games and looks like one of the best four-men in the ACC. I do have concerns about Miami’s back court — they don’t always make great decisions and Shane Larkin is a freshman running the point — but this group looks like they can be in contention for a top four spot in the ACC.
Teams that deserve a shoutout:
Arizona: The Wildcats lost Kevin Parrom to a season-ending foot injury at the start of last week, a blow that had caused the majority of the Pac-12 watching public to all-but write them off this season. So what did Sean Miller’s club do? Oh, they just went into Cal and knocked off the Bears and then went into Stanford and handled the Cardinal. No big deal. Arizona is still very much alive in the Pac-12 race.
Notre Dame: The Irish are back because the Burn Offense is back. After going into Hartford to knock off UConn, Notre Dame beat Marquette — who just may be the second best team in the Big East — by 17 points at home. They have now won four straight games, including a win over Syracuse, and have moved into sole possession of fourth place in the Big East. Who saw that coming? Mike Brey has to be at the top of a short list for National Coach of the Year right now.
Florida: Florida seems like one of those teams that no one is talking about right now. They are right on the edge of being in the top ten and, after beating Vanderbilt on Saturday, seem to have a pretty firm grip on second place in the SEC. They have a lottery pick in the middle and a ridiculous amount of talented spread across their perimeter. But this group still isn’t being taken seriously, and that’s probably because we all have visions of terrible shots from Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker dancing in our heads. Well, with Brad Beal starting to come into his own and Will Yegeute providing quite a dangerous defensive presence at the point of Florida’s press, maybe we should start paying a bit more attention to this team.
Florida State: Yup, the Seminoles did it again. After rolling over Georgia Tech, FSU beat Virginia at home despite blowing a 15 point second half lead. The win keeps Florida State on pace with North Carolina at 7-1 in the ACC, a game in front of Duke and two games up on NC State, Miami and Virginia.
Yale: All the talk heading into this season in the Ivy League was that Penn and Princeton would be the two teams that would give Harvard their biggest test of the season. After this weekend, however, its Yale that is sitting all alone in second place in the league. Thanks to 44 points and 22 boards from big man Greg Mangano, the Elis took care of both Penn and Princeton at home. The bad news? Six of Yale’s last eight games are on the road, including return trips to both Penn and Princeton and a rematch with Harvard, who beat Yale by 30 in New Haven.
– Kansas and Missouri rivalry has to continue, but in time: There is so much to love about this rivalry, and with Missouri well on their way towards returning to national prominence, this intensity of this game will continue to grow. That said, there is no way that it happens immediately. If the Big 12 hadn’t managed to survive — which is still no guarantee for the future — the Jayhawks would have been deciding between the remnants of the Big East, the Mountain West and the Missouri Valley for their conference affiliation. You’d be mad, too.
– Temple taking control of the Atlantic 10?: No conference in the country — and that includes the Pac-12 — is as big of a mess as the A-10 is right now. Just last week, there were 11 teams within a game of first place in the conference. As of today, there are six teams within a game and two more just two games out. But only one team — Temple — has a hold on first-place, and the Owls look like they are primed to run away with the league. They’ve won six in a row and now have starting center Michael Eric back in the mix.
– Iona needs to get better defensively: Thanks to two dominating offensive performances this week, the Gaels have moved into first-place in the MAAC. But as well as Iona can score the ball, they are going to be in trouble if they cannot figure out a way to get stops. The Gaels gave up 86 points to Canisius, who is 1-12 in MAAC play. Their two losses in league play were the result of blowing two separate 18 point leads. Its not difficult to imagine their season being cut short because of their inattentiveness to the defensive end of the floor.
– Colorado is still hanging around: I keep waiting for the bottom to fall out of the Buffalo’s season, but this group just simply keeps on winning. This weekend they swept Oregon and Oregon State, moving into a tie for second place in the conference with Cal. They’ve now won five of their last six games. That said, the Buffs have done their damage at home. They are 7-0 in Boulder in league play and 1-3 on the road. The one win came against USC. Oh, and five of their last seven league games are away from home. It will be interesting to see if they can continue to perform at this level.
– Time for Northwestern’s run?: We’ve been asking the question for so long that it seems almost silly to bring it back up again, but could this be Northwestern’s year to make the dance? Last week, that idea would have seemed silly as the Wildcats were sitting in at 2-6 in Big Ten play. But after this past week, where the Wildcats beat Minnesota and knocked off Illinois on the road, this group still has a glimmer of hope left. They visit both Purdue and Indiana and get Michigan and Ohio State at home. They’ll need to win at least two of those games for a chance.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.