Beware the guards of March: twenty deadly backcourt heroes

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Basketball may be a big man’s game, but college basketball is dominated by the teams who land the best ball-handlers, slashers and long-range shooters. Want to get to the Final Four? You have to have one or two elite guards. There are so many who will take the stage before the weekend comes, and I want you to know them all.

Numbers 1-8. Tom Petty Rob Dauster and the Heartbreakers: Eight of the most dangerous guards in the game were profiled by my colleague yesterday. Trey Burke, Seth Curry, Matthew Dellavedova, Kerron Johnson, Shane Larkin, Marcus Smart, Chase Tapley and Khalif Wyatt are known quantities, and I can’t give them any stronger daps than Mr. Dauster already has. If you watched Tuesday night’s games in Dayton, you got a preview of Dellavedova’s shooting stroke, as the Aussie with the distinctive mouthpiece went off for 22 points to earn his team a date with Memphis in the real first round.

9. Ben McLemore, Kansas: The redshirt freshman from St. Louis has been a crucial piece for the Jayhawks, nailing a buzzer-beater to keep his team alive against Iowa State in the regular season, and showing an ability to throw down monster dunks during game action. It’s his shooting stroke that promises to stand out in March – he sends television announcers into raptures every time he goes up for a jumper. Some are still holding out hope for injured Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel to be the NBA’s top pick this summer, but others lean toward smooth-as-silk McLemore.

10. Russ Smith, Louisville: It’s tough not to get giddy when a Louisville game is on the slate, because you know you’re about to watch a veritable force of nature. Smith is speedy, so he’s had a race horse named after him by his coach. Smith is an excellent scorer who also occasionally takes mental vacations (sometimes both on the same play), which has earned him the sobriquet Russdiculous. He’s one of the main reasons the Cards are the No. 1 overall seed, and favorites to cut down the nets in Atlanta.

11. Aaron Craft, Ohio State: Craft is so crucial to the Buckeyes, but he doesn’t always do it with scoring. Yes, he put 20 points on Michigan State in the Big Ten semifinals, and it’s nice to know he has that gear when it’s needed, but that’s not really his game. Craft is a facilitator who averages 4.6 assists per game, but more than that, he’s the best on-ball defender in the game right now. Woe to any opponent who hopes to dazzle pro scouts on a night when he lines up across from Aaron Craft. Which brings me to…

12. Lamont ‘Momo’ Jones, Iona: The nation’s third-leading scorer behind Erick Green and Creighton big man Doug McDermott, Momo may be best remembered for his two years at Arizona, which ended in an Elite Eight run two years ago. Momo transferred to be closer to his family in Harlem, which was Iona’s gain. Momo’s deft passing is overshadowed by his gunnery, but he’s good at dropping dimes as well. Momo vs. Craft is one of my must-see opening round matchups.

13. Victor Oladipo, Indiana: I could almost feel Hoosier fans getting edgier and edgier as they read the names of other guards at the top of this page. No, I haven’t forgotten Mr. Oladipo. How could I? The 6’5″ junior was a revelation for the top-seeded Hoosiers this season, and if he hadn’t played in the same league as Michigan’s Burke, he would have garnered even more plaudits. The numbers say it all: Oladipo averaged 13.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game this season. His deep shooting improved dramatically, going from 20 percent last season to 44 percent this year. When opponents double-team Cody Zeller in the post, Victor Oladipo is the man who makes them pay.

14. Rotnei Clarke, Butler: Clarke is an Arkansas transfer who will only play this one season at Butler, but what a season it has been. Clarke hit a crazy one-handed shot in Hawaii in November, and he’s been Butler’s leading scorer all season long, averaging 16.7 points per game. Clarke has been somewhat mis-cast as a distributor for the Bulldogs – imagine what he could do if he had an elite point guard getting him the ball?

15. Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA: You may have wondered what the Free Shabazz Muhammad movement was all about when the freshman’s debut was delayed by the NCAA. It’s about this. UCLA is relevant in March again, and Muhammad is the biggest reason. Kudos also go to his backcourt mate Larry Drew II, but Muhammad is the face of the program right now, and likely to go high in the NBA draft in a few months.

16: Phil Pressey, Missouri: “Flip” led the SEC in passing this season, averaging 7.1 points per game. His nickname gets a little too on-the-nose when it comes time for him to shoot the ball, but he’s perfectly capable of hitting some daggers as well. He’ll have his hands full with Colorado State’s rugged defense in the Tigers’ first game, but his ability to involve his teammates will be the key to winning.

17: Ian Clark, Belmont: We talked about Kerron Johnson above, and it’s a measure of how dangerous Belmont can be that we felt the need to mention Clark as well. Clark averages 18.1 points and 3.3 assists per game, and the senior from Memphis is a constant threat to poke away a steal or two from an unwary opponent. With their dual engines in the backcourt, Belmont could easily be a Sweet Sixteen team.

18: Derrick Marks, Boise State: If you’re getting anxious, you can watch Marks tonight, as his Broncos take on Ramon Galloway and the La Salle Explorers in Dayton at 9 pm on tru TV. Marks plays his biggest in big games. He dropped 35 points on Creighton, earning a win that probably tipped the scales when the selection committee put BSU in the Dance. He also hung 27 on New Mexico, 38 on Colorado State and 27 on San Diego State in Mountain West play.

source: AP
Nate Wolters can even play without pants. (AP)

19: Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse: At 6’6″, MCW is so big it’s easy to forget he’s a guard. But his 7.7 assists per game in the rugged Big East render the distinction moot. He can also throw down an eye-opening dunk when the opportunity presents itself, and is a defensive force for the Orange as well, averaging 2.7 steals per contest.

20: Nate Wolters, South Dakota State: No, I haven’t forgotten Wolters. Neither have Michigan’s coaches, who are no doubt wide-eyed and suffering from the caffeine shakes as they try to figure out how to keep the Jackrabbit stud from dousing their title quest on the first day. Wolters can do it all: He’s averaging 22.7 points per game and is capable of scoring 30 on any given night. He rebounds, dishes, defends and hits the three-pointer at a roughly 40 percent clip. And if you put him on the line, he’ll sink you there, too. He’s an 81 percenter on the freebies. If you want to sound smart around the water cooler this week, get to know Wolters.

The killer part of this is that I just gave you twenty guards to keep an eye on, and I still feel reasonably certain that someone not on this list will distinguish himself on the national stage before it’s all said and done. That’s how good this year’s crop of guards is. Think I left someone out? Let me have it in the comments.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

James Wiseman picks Memphis over Kentucky

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In a move that was both shocking and not at all surprising, James Wiseman announced on Tuesday afternoon, live on Sportscenter, that he will be playing his college basketball for Penny Hardaway at Memphis, spurning John Calipari and Kentucky in the process.

“The whole city of Memphis knows my decision,” Wiseman said moments before unveiling a unicorn with a Memphis logo on it.

Wiseman, who has drawn some comparisons to Chris Bosh in the past, will join top 50 prospect D.J. Jefferies and four-star recruit Malcolm Dandridge in Penny’s second recruiting class.

The decision is surprising because of the obvious: Wiseman is a consensus top four player in the class. Many had him as the top prospect in the Class of 2019 before Tuesday’s news that Anthony Edwards would be reclassifying. And he just picked Memphis, who hasn’t been truly relevant in nearly a decade, over Calipari and Kentucky, the man that was responsible for making Memphis a powerhouse?

In a vacuum, that is baffling.

Except we’re not in a vacuum.

Wiseman, a Nashville native, moved to Memphis to play his high school basketball for Penny when Penny was still the head coach of East High School. He played his AAU ball for Penny’s AAU program, which was rebranded after Penny took the Memphis job. When that team did not make the trip to Las Vegas for the final July Live Period over the summer, Wiseman played for Hoop City Basketball Club, a program that was previously known as M33M and owned and operated by Mike Miller, who is now a Memphis assistant coach.

To be frank, it probably would have been more surprising if Wiseman had picked Kentucky over the Tigers.

As a player, Wiseman has a chance to be pretty good. He’s a 6-foot-11 lefty with a projectable 3-point stroke and enough size and athleticism to be effective in the paint in college. There are some concerns about how that game will translate at the NBA level — he’s not really a switchable big, his shooting isn’t  yet good enough to make him a true stretch-five, he’s not yet an elite shot-blocker — but this isn’t about the NBA. This is about Memphis, and Wiseman will be terrific for Memphis.

It is also a validation of the decision for Memphis to hire Penny.

Well, to be frank, the validation came when local products Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris committed to the program as a flood of season-ticket holders made their return to the FedEx Forum. The Memphis basketball program is back in the black, and after two years where Tubby Smith torpedoed the goodwill they had in the community, that matters.

But that excitement for a new head coach is only going to last so long if there isn’t a product on the court worth watching, and landing a player like this — someone that played for Penny growing up, that has a relationship with the coach, that played his high school ball in the city, that can be a potential all-american and lead Memphis towards the top of the American — is exactly what he needed.

And I’m sure Penny would tell you, his commitment was never in doubt.

Best Bets: Where do you want your money for the second day of the Maui Invitational?

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The second day of the Maui Invitational will tip-off tonight, the headlining game being No. 1 Duke’s date with No. 8 Auburn.

As always, here is a look at the slate of games from a gambling perspective:

No. 1 DUKE vs. No. 8 AUBURN, 8:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Line: Duke (-11)
  • O/U: 167.5
  • Vegas Implied Score: Duke 89.25, Auburn 78.25
  • KenPom Projection: Duke 82, Auburn 76

On paper, this game looks like it will be one of the most entertaining of the season.

Duke is already must-see TV every time that they take the court. That’s what happens when you have Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish on the court at the same time. Magic happens. Auburn, on the other hand, is really, really good themselves. If you haven’t seen them play yet, they are somewhat undersized — they like to play a pair of athletic, 6-foot-8 forwards that can space the floor and protect the rim up front — but they love to press and play in transition as much as anyone.

And it’s Auburn’s style of play that I think will play into Duke’s hands here. The Tigers want to play fast. Last year they finished the season ranked 18th in pace. This year, they are just 67th, but they have already played a couple of teams that tried their damnedest to take the air out of the ballin Xavier and Washington. They currently rank fifth-nationally in defensive turnover percentage, gambling for steals in that full court pressure to try and create opportunities for easy buckets at the other end of the floor. They attack the glass (fifth in offensive rebounding percentage), shoot a ton of threes (and make them at a 39.4 percent clip) and struggle to clear the defensive boards.

Duke?

Well, they want to play fast. That is the entire basis of what Mike Krzyzewski has built this season. He has three guys on the floor that were primary ball-handlers in the high school ranks, and that doesn’t include Zion Williamson, who is the nation’s best grab-and-go forward. They are built to play in transition, and they are already top 40 nationally in pace. Like Auburn, they pound the offensive glass (they get nearly 40 percent of their misses) and have some issues boxing out. They haven’t proven to be turnover prone yet, either.

There is something of an unknown here, as Duke has yet to face a team that is going to be able to pressure the way Auburn can, but I just can’t see that fazing them.

PICKS: To get an idea of how fact the line is moving here, when I started writing this, the over-under was 162.5. As I get ready to hit publish, it has already jumped to 167.5. The line for Duke has moved from (-10) to (-11). I got my bets in before the lines moved. I still love Duke and I still think the over hits, but if you are going to bet it, get it in quickly.

ARIZONA vs. No. 3 GONZAGA, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Line: Gonzaga (-10)
  • O/U: 154.5
  • Vegas Implied Score: Gonzaga 82.25, Arizona 72.25
  • KenPom Projection: Gonzaga 81, Arizona 72

Early on this season, Gonzaga is playing faster than they have in the past, which makes sense. With the talent and athleticism they have on their roster, they are going to be able to beat a lot of teams down the floor. Prior to Monday night’s win over Illinois, the Zags had scored at least 94 points in all three of their games this season and won all three by at least 23 points. That included a game against Texas Southern (who won at Baylor) and a win over Texas A&M, who was without two starters.

The game against Illinois was a different story. The Zags looked like they were ready to pull away when Trent Frazier went bonkers and made it a game. I do not think that Arizona — who is not your typical Arizona team — has the horses to run with the Zags this year. If it wasn’t for a takeover performance from Justin Coleman down the stretch on Monday night, the Wildcats would have lost to an Iowa State team missing four players, including two starters.

Yes, the Zags are without Killian Tillie, but Filip Pertrusev and Jeremy Jones have been somewhere between fine and good in his absence.

PICKS: Gonzaga (-10) is the bet that I would make here. I would lean toward the over as well.

XAVIER vs. SAN DIEGO STATE, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • Line: San Diego State (-1)
  • O/U: 153.5
  • Vegas Implied Score: San Diego State 77.25, Xavier 76.25
  • KenPom Projection: San Diego State 76, Xavier 75

This one is pretty simple: I think that Xavier is the better basketball team here, and after dropping one in overtime on Monday afternoon, I think the Musketeers will bounceback with a win here.

PICKS: If you can get Xavier (+1), then I would take that. I also lead towards the under here, as the total is pretty high for two teams that play good halfcourt defense. The under went 3-1 in Maui yesterday.

IOWA STATE vs. ILLINOIS, 5:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • Line: Iowa State (-2)
  • O/U: 154.5
  • Vegas Implied Score: Iowa State 78.25, Illinois 76.25
  • KenPom Projection: Iowa State 80, Illinois 74

The KenPom projection here would usually lead me towards taking the Cyclones, but keep in mind that Iowa State is playing without four rotation pieces, including their three best big men and their best guard. So it makes sense that the line would lean closer to Illinois.

PICKS: I think the bet here is Illinois. Brad Underwood is a smart coach, and he knows that Iowa State and their shortened bench will have tired legs. I honestly think the better bet is the over. Illinois really wants to run and neither team plays much, if any, defense. In fact, all Illinois wants to do is to try and force turnovers. They gamble and give up a lot of layups. Give me Illinois (+2) and the over.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Barrett, Zion still top the list

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The season is now two weeks hold, and there hasn’t been all that much that has changed in terms of the Player of the Year race.

R.J. Barrett is still sitting at the top of the list. Carsen Edwards has been awesome. So has Rui Hachimura and Grant Williams. There have been a few names that have popped up on the list thanks to some magical early-season performances, and it will be awesome to see if they last.

Here is this week’s Player of the Year Power Rankings:

1. and 2. R.J. BARRETT, Duke (Last Week: 1) and ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke (2)

It’s tough to parse between these two. I think they have definitively been the two best players in college basketball this season, and they are doing it for the best team in college basketball. I’ll stick with Barrett since he was my preseason pick.

Is anyone else ready for Duke to take on Auburn today?

3. CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue (6)

Edwards has been everything that we expected him to be this season. Through the first five games, he is averaging 26.6 points and 4.0 assists. He hasn’t scored fewer than 23 points in any game this season, he’s shooting 41.5 percent from three on more than 10 (!!!) 3-pointers attempted per game and he’s doing it on a Purdue team that looks like it is going to be a bit better than some people expected.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that Edwards will be one of the five-most entertaining players in college basketball this year. Someone that is capable of putting up 30 on any given night, who makes threes from 30-feet and who can also do this?

You have to tune in.

4. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga (5)

The competition that Hachimura will kick up a notch this week, as the Zags will square off with Arizona in the Maui Invitational semifinals before taking on either Duke or Auburn on the final day of the event. Hachimura has been impressive through the first four games of the season — he’s averaging 22.8 points on the season and 20.5 points in wins over Illinois and Texas A&M — but that’s not exactly a murderer’s row we’re talking about.

We are going to learn a lot about him, and this Gonzaga team as a whole, in the next two days. Then we’ll see the Zags take on Creighton, Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina. Credit to Mark Few. He didn’t shy away from anyone this year.

5. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin (UR)

Happ has been an absolute machine this season. He opened the year with a triple-double in a win over Coppin State and over the weekend he had 15 points, 12 boards and six assists as the Badgers took down Houston Baptist. In between those two performances, Happ turned into Kevin McHale, going for 30 points, 12 boards and five assists as the Badgers landed an impressive win at Xavier.

6. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee (t-9)

Williams has been a force to be reckoned with this season. In two games against Division I competition — Georgia Tech and a Louisiana team that gave Kansas fits in Allen Fieldhouse — he is averaging 26.5 points, 9.0 boards and 3.0 assists. He gets Louisville and, basketball gods willing, Kansas this week.

7. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech (UR)

Alexander-Walker has been one of the pleasant surprises of the young season. A borderline five-star prospect coming out of high school, Alexander-Walker was a guy that had some NBA buzz entering his freshman season. It never really came to fruition, as Alexander-Walker struggled with his playmaking and profiled as something of an ambidextrous slasher with some concerns about the consistency of his perimeter stroke.

Fast forward a year, and he is tearing up college hoops. Through the first two weeks of the season, he has grown into Virginia Tech’s best player, averaging 21.8 points, 5.8 boards and 4.5 assists while shooting 40 percent from three. He was terrific in their win in the Charleston Classic, which included a 25 point performance in a come-from-behind win over Purdue in the title game.

8. CAMERON JOHNSON, North Carolina (8)

I’m not going to go all-in on the Cam Johnson takes until I see UNC play some better competition, but it is worth mentioning that, two weeks into the season, he not only looks healthier and more athletic than he was a season ago, but he is UNC’s leading scorer, their second-leading rebounder and the team leader in steals while shooting 93.3 percent from the free throw line and 56.5 percent from three.

9. TY JEROME, Virginia (7)

Same as Cam Johnson. Jerome has been awesome — 17.0 points, 5.7 assists, 4.3 boards, 68.8 percent from three — but UVA has not yet played a team of their caliber.

10. LAGERALD VICK, Kansas (10)

Vick’s performance against Vermont was from another planet. The 6-foot-4 senior scored 32 points in a game where Kansas struggled early, making all eight of the threes that he attempted. He also made two threes in that game that came with his toe on the 3-point line, meaning that he was roughly six inches from going 10-for-10 from three.

Watch it. It was ridiculous:

And here’s the craziest part: That might not have been his best, or his most important, performance of the week. Vick went for 33 points in a win over Louisiana in which Kansas had to erase a 12 point first half deficit. He shot 7-for-12 from three in that win. I don’t imagine that Vick will keep shooting at this rate, but the threat of the three-ball will help to open up space in the paint for Bill Self’s talented frontline of Dedric Lawson and Udoka Azubuike.

Dropped Out: 3. C.J. Massinburg (Buffalo), 4. Chuma Okeke (Auburn), t-9. Markus Howard (Marquette)

 

Arizona State hands No. 15 Mississippi State first loss

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — As a freshman, Arizona State’s Kimani Lawrence made three 3-pointers.

Monday night, the sophomore drained three from long range — part of a 22-point performance — including the game winner with 33 seconds, to lead the Sun Devils to a 72-67 victory over No. 15 Mississippi State in the heavyweight bracket of the MGM Main Event.

“I’ve completely reconstructed my shot, from the base, to the release, to getting it all in one motion, I’ve worked really hard for it,” said Lawrence, who is 9 of 19 from 3-point range through the first four games of the season. “Credit to Remy (Martin) to trusting me. He hit me, I hit the shot. Stepped up, made a big-time play for the team, for the program.”

Luguentz Dort added 17 points and nine rebounds, while Remy Martin scored 16 for the Sun Devils, who will meet Utah State in the championship game on Wednesday.

The Bulldogs, who will face Saint Mary’s in the consolation game, were led by Aric Holman with 22 points and 10 rebounds.

Arizona State, which climbed as high as No. 3 after opening last season 12-0, improved to 4-0, while handing the Bulldogs their first loss of the season (3-1).

This year, the Sun Devils have scrapped the fast-paced, up-tempo style that saw them average 95.6 points after their first six games, to a blue-collar approach that includes a physicality that baffled Mississippi State. This season, thus far, the Sun Devils are averaging 86 points per game, and outrebounding teams, 51-34.

“It’s been a drastic change from last year; we were a fun, free-flowing team that could hit the deep 3s, and I had guards that could attack the lane, and we played a lot of small ball,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “This year it’s like the polar opposite of that. We talked about guys wanting to rebound, and you’re not gonna find a team that’s more imposing physically at all positions. For us to outrebound them is a statement to how physical we were.”

The Sun Devils held off a second-half rally by Mississippi State, which tied the game at 65 when Nick Weatherspoon drained a long-range jumper just inside the 3-point line with one minute left in the game.

“They have great size, they’re very physical, they played big — which is difficult for us — I thought they just pounded us,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. “They’re a very good team. I was really happy with the way we fought and came back in the second half after getting smashed in the mouth in the first half. We made a defensive mistake and came off (Lawrence) in the corner and we weren’t supposed to and he hit the 3.”

Trailing by 15 at halftime, Mississippi State came out of the locker room firing, as it opened the second half on a 10-0 run and hit five 3-pointers during a 19-10 spurt to cut the lead to 49-43.

The Bulldogs shot 15 of 36 (41.7 percent) from the floor in the second half.

Arizona State outrebounded the Bulldogs 27-12 in the first half, including 10 on the offensive glass, and scored 14 second-chance points en route to a 39-24 halftime lead.

In the early game, Neemias Queta had 24 points, nine rebounds and five blocks and Utah State beat Saint Mary’s 80-63.

Monday’s Things To Know: Duke-Auburn headlines Maui, Mississippi State loses and Justin Coleman shines for Arizona

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1. WE GET DUKE-AUBURN IN THE MAUI SEMIFINALS!

The first of two top ten matchups in the Maui Invitational will be played in the semifinals on Tuesday, as the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils will face off with No. 8 Auburn in a game that could end up turning into college basketball’s version of what happened between the Rams and the Chiefs on Monday night.

Duke, as we know, is insanely talented and is built to run up and down the floor unlike any team that we’ve ever seen. Auburn, though, has plenty of weapons offensively and also is effective enough defensively that it could cause some disruption for the young Blue Devils.

It’s the first must-see game of a Maui Invitational that is strong even by its own lofty standards. If Gonzaga can get past Arizona on the other side of the bracket, there will be a monster championship game Wednesday.

2. ARIZONA STATE HANDED MISSISSIPPI STATE THEIR FIRST LOSS OF THE SEASON

It looked as though the Bulldogs might stave off their first loss the season when Nick Weatherspoon tied things up with under a minute to play, but Arizona State got a 3-pointer from Kimani Lawrence in response to give the Sun Devils a 72-67 vicotry at the MGM Main Event in Las Vegas.

Lawrence scored 22 points to lead Arizona State to its upset of the 15th-ranked Bulldogs.

Arizona State has another undefeated start to the season at 4-0 after beginning last year with 12-straight wins. Sure, they lost six of their last seven to end the year, but that start was still something. They’ve got a date with Utah State on Wednesday for the championship.

For Mississippi State, the 3-point shooting continues to be an early-season issue. The Bulldogs were 8 of 30 (26.7 percent) against Arizona State and are now shooting 27.5 percent from distance for the season, which ranks outside the top-300 natioanlly.

3. IS JUSTIN COLEMAN THE CLOSER THAT ARIZONA NEEDS?

The big question with Arizona heading into this season was whether or not they still had enough talent on their roster to compete at the level Wildcat fans have become accustomed to. That’s what happens when you lose five starters and your recruiting class goes up in smoke.

But there may be an answer to Sean Miller’s prayers, and his name, on Monday night, was Justin Coleman. The 5-foot-10 transfer from Samford by way of Alabama entered the game having scored a grand total of 18 points through the first three games of the season. Against Iowa State in the Maui Invitational opener, Coleman finished with 18 points, scoring 15 in the second half and just about single-handedly leading the Wildcats back from a double-digit deficit in the final seven minutes.

I’m not saying that Coleman is the answer, but in Arizona’s toughest game of the season to date, he is the one that stepped up and made essentially every single big play.

It was a terrific performance. Let’s see where Arizona can build from here.