Monday Overreactions: Markus Howard goes nuts, Kentucky’s back, Alford’s out?

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Markus Howard, Marquette

Markus Howard put together one of the most impressive individual performances that I have ever seen.

In a win over No. 14 Buffalo, Howard went for 45 points, an incredible number on its own but all the more out-of-this-world when you consider that he scored 40 of those 45 points in the second half.

Seriously.

That’s not a typo.

Markus Howard scored 40 points in the second half against a top 15 team.

You can watch it all right here:

That game was actually the second time this season that Howard has scored 45 points in a game. He put 45 on Kansas State, who has one of the best perimeter defenses in college basketball. He put 45 on Buffalo, another team with a number of really talented backcourt defenders. In the month of December, he is averaging 32.8 points. On the season, he’s averaging 25.0 points, 4.5 assists and 4.3 boards. He’s doing all of this for a Marquette team that has set themselves apart from the rest of the Big East — in the last month, they’ve beaten Louisville, Kansas State, Wisconsin and Buffalo.

Should I mention that Howard, a junior, is almost six months younger than Trae Young?

If you’d like to join me, there are plenty of seats available on the bandwagon.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: N.C. State Wolfpack

The Wolfpack are here and they aren’t leaving any time soon.

N.C. made a State-ment this week as they worked over then-No. 7 Auburn, 78-71, to improve to 11-1 on the season and justify their record and where they are ranked in the NBC Sports Top 25.

There isn’t a star on this Wolfpack team, unless you count their head coach. They go 10-deep, often rolling out lineups with four guards that are 6-foot-5 or shorter. They press, they run the floor, they force turnovers and they fire up threes, knocking them down at a 41.2 percent clip, good for eighth nationally.

Not only are they good, but they play a style of basketball that is entertaining to watch — it’s like Shaka Smart’s VCU teams and Bob Huggins’ Press Virginia program had a child and taught it how to shoot. We’ll see if it ends up being a facade, but at the very least, Keatts’ early success has managed to reinvigorate a rabid fanbase.

Zylan Cheatham (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

MONDAY OVERREACTIONS

1. ARIZONA STATE SAVED THE PAC-12 FROM BEING A ONE-BIG LEAGUE

The Pac-12 is an absolute train-wreck this year.

I don’t want to be the guy to tell everyone this, but here we are.

Heading into Saturday’s slate, the conference was 3-30 in Quadrant 1 games. That was before Colorado lost to Indiana State and Hawaii on back-to-back days, UCLA got smacked by Ohio State, Stanford lost at San Francisco and Washington State lost at home to San Diego. On Friday, Oregon lost at Baylor — a team that might finish last in the Big 12 and also won at Arizona — and Oregon State lost at home to Kent State. On Wednesday, Cal was blown out at Fresno State and UCLA lost by 29 points to a rebuilding Cincinnati team. On Tuesday, USC lost at Santa Clara. Even Arizona State suffered an ugly loss of their own, falling by 16 points at Vanderbilt on Monday.

The only day this week that wasn’t a net-negative for the league’s overall profile was on Thursday, when no on in the conference played.

This matters for one, simple reason: non-conference performance determines what the computer numbers are going to be in the league. I walked through it in detail here, but all you really need to know is that eight of the 10 teams in the Big 12 are in the top 50 on KenPom and none are rated lower than Oklahoma State at 80. The Pac-12 doesn’t have a single team rated in KenPom’s top 40, and five of the 12 teams in the conference are ranked behind Oklahoma State — should I mention that Colorado and Oregon State, who are sixth and seventh in the league, respectively, are slotted directly in front of Oklahoma State?

Arizona State’s win over Kansas guarantees that there will be at least one team in the conference that will be looked at as a quality win come February.

2. IF TRE JONES AND ASHTON HAGANS PLAYED 1-ON-1 NO ONE WOULD EVER SCORE

I didn’t think that I would see a more impressive defensive performance this season than I saw out of Tre Jones at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, but I did: Ashton Hagans leading the charge as No. 19 Kentucky forced No. 9 North Carolina into their worst offensive performance of the season.

And that’s what I feel comfortable saying that …

3. … KENTUCKY IS BACK, BABY!

The truth is that the Wildcats are never going to be a great team offensively.

On the one hand, they just don’t have much in the way of great offensive players. Keldon Johnson is fine, P.J. Washington can do a job, Reid Travis is limited but effective, Tyler Herro is allegedly a shooter. But no one on that roster can do what Markus Howard did. No one on that roster can do what Myles Powell did. That’s not how their built.

And it’s also not the way that John Calipari wants to coach. He builds his teams around defense and rebounding and playing two big men together. The concept of pace and space seems to have eluded him.

It can work at the college level, because the beauty of college basketball is that you don’t have to play the same way as the best team in the sport in order to win a title. That’s why Virginia and Gonzaga are both able to be very, very successful.

But that only works when Cal’s teams are really, really good defensively, and for the first time this season, this Kentucky team looked really, really good defensively.

So Kentucky is back!

4. TEXAS TECH FAILED TO COVER 10 POINTS AGAINST DUKE AND I’M MORE SOLD ON THEM NOW THAN I WAS BEFORE THEY PLAYED

Example No. 58647603 of why gambling on sports is dumb: Texas Tech was the better team on Thursday night for roughly 32 of the 40 minutes that they shared a court with Duke. Cam Reddish was a zero until the last four minutes. R.J. Barrett missed 14 of his first 17 shots. Zion Williamson fouled out in 23 minutes.

And Texas Tech still couldn’t cover a 10 point spread.

If you’re a box score watcher, you probably saw that scoreline and just assumed that Duke was the better team throughout. They weren’t. Tech’s defense took Duke out of what they wanted to do, Jarrett Culver went for 25 points and the Red Raiders proved themselves as the second-best team in the Big 12, at least according to my eyes.

They lost by 11 points, and I walked out of the Garden more impressed with Chris Beard’s club than I did Duke.

And I don’t think that I’m alone in that.

5. UCLA IS NOW HIRING

Saturday’s loss may have put the nail in Steve Alford’s coffin at UCLA.

The Bruins have now lost three games in a row. They are 7-5 on the season with a 1-4 mark against high-major opponents. After falling 80-66 to No. 15 Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic on Saturday afternoon, the Bruins have lost to the Buckeyes, Cincinnati, Michigan State and North Carolina by a combined 79 points. That doesn’t include last Saturday’s home loss to Belmont.

That’s not a good spot for UCLA to be in, but what makes matters worse is that there will be no rallying in league play. The Pac-12 has been dreadful this year. There aren’t going to be big wins to pick up during conference play, not when Arizona is struggling, Oregon is down and USC can’t crack .500. Even Alford will admit as much.

“Our league has not performed well,” he told reporters after Saturday’s loss. “That’s obvious. As a whole, our league has not done well out of conference, so we’ve got a lot of work to do from that standpoint because that year we had a little bit more, I think opportunities, in league play to get big wins, and this year out of conference, our league hasn’t performed well.”

In other words, barring a miracle or a run to win the Pac-12’s automatic bid, UCLA is going to miss the NCAA tournament for the second time in Alford’s six year tenure in Westwood. On paper, that’s not all that bad, especially when you consider that three of his four trips to the NCAA tournament have resulted in Sweet 16s. The problem is that strictly looking at tournament results buries the lede: One of those Sweet 16 runs came as a No. 11 seed, one came with Lonzo Ball on the roster and another took wins over Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin to get to the second weekend.

The simple fact of the matter is this: In his sixth season at UCLA, Alford should not be hoping and praying to land the league’s automatic bid to get into the NCAA tournament. This isn’t UC Davis or Cal St.-Northridge. He has a roster composed of back-to-back top six recruiting classes. He has three McDonald’s All-Americans on his roster. He has seven top 100 players.

But UCLA does not defend. They are selfish. They have a roster full of guys that fall somewhere between believing they deserve to be in the NBA right now or thinking that this is their team and their chance to prove themselves worthy of being a first round pick. Yes, injuries have hurt, but losing Tyger Campbell and Shareef O’Neal is not enough of an excuse. I could understand an argument for why those injuries kept UCLA from winning the league title. They aren’t an excuse for being a punching bag.

“I’m a man of God,” Alford said, “so I’ve got an audience of one.”

At this point, Alford better hope that God roots for USC or Arizona.

Because that may be the only thing that can save him.