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.

Flagler, No. 6 Baylor rally late, top No. 14 Gonzaga 64-63

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USA Today
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — In a rematch of the 2021 national championship game, Adam Flagler hit a pair of 3s as No. 6 Baylor scored the final eight points to rally past No. 14 Gonzaga 64-63 Friday night.

Gonzaga’s Rasir Bolton missed a wild, driving layup try at the buzzer.

Two seasons ago, Baylor beat the then-undefeated Zags 86-70 to win its first title. This time, the Bears didn’t take the lead for good until Jalen Bridges made two free throws with 16 seconds left.

“Adam is a great leader, but no one knew he wasn’t feeling well today,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “To be honest, some players wouldn’t have played. He played through the pain and left it all out on the court. As a coach, I appreciate that.”

The Bears (6-2) trailed 63-56 before Flagler hit a 3-pointer with 1:33 left. Flagler’s 3 with just over a minute to play cut Baylor’s deficit to 63-62.

After a Gonzaga shot clock violation, Flagler’s 3-point attempt for the lead was off the mark, but Bridges was fouled by Drew Timme on the rebound attempt. Bridges hit two foul shots to put Baylor ahead.

The Zags (5-3) had a final chance when Bolton caught an inbounds pass near his own foul line with 4.6 seconds remaining. He drove the lane, but his off-balance shot went high off the glass and missed as the buzzer sounded.

“We took two balls down hill and tried to make plays at the rim. At that point in the game, those are tough,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “It’s very disappointing. They made plays, man.”

Freshman Keyonte George had 18 points and seven rebounds for Baylor. Flagler had 11 points and Langston Love added 10.

“I trust my work. I was able to knock them down,” George said. “My teammates believe in me each and every day. They give me that confidence in a big game to make big shots like that.”

Malchi Smith scored 16 points for Gonzaga. Anton Watson added a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Timme had nine points.

Baylor led by as many as 12 in the first half before Gonzaga closed to five at the break.

Watson’s basket put Gonzaga ahead 41-40. From there, the teams swapped leads over the next 13 minutes as the second half featured two ties and 14 lead changes.

A thunderous dunk from Smith gave Gonzaga its seven-point lead with under two minutes to go.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The win was a big rebound for Baylor after its 26-point loss to Marquette earlier in the week. The loss was the Bears’ most lopsided since they fell to Kansas 82-56 in 2007

Gonzaga: After opening the season ranked No. 2 in the AP preseason poll, the Zags have now lost two of three.

STAR WATCH

Timme began the night leading the Bulldogs in scoring at 20 points per game. He was hampered by foul trouble against Baylor and got his first field goal with six minutes remaining. He fouled out with 16 seconds to play.

REMATCH PLAYERS

Four players on the floor Friday night had significant minutes in the championship game two years ago including Flagler, Timme and Watson, along with Baylor’s Flo Thamba.

UP NEXT

Baylor: The Bears return home to host Tarleton on Tuesday before playing Washington State on Sunday in Dallas for the Pac 12 Coast-to-Coast Challenge.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs return to Spokane for three straight beginning Monday when they face Kent State for the first time in school history.

Carr scores 19, No. 2 Texas beats No. 7 Creighton 72-67

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AUSTIN, Texas – Texas had pressured Creighton’s shooters into a miserable night, only to watch a late flurry of 3-pointers start swishing.

An 11-point Longhorns lead was down to three.

That hardly rattled Marcus Carr and the second-ranked Longhorns, who stepped up with big late shots of their own and steady free-throw shooting to secure another impressive early-season victory, 72-67 over the seventh-ranked Bluejays on Thursday night.

Carr scored 19 points and made two free throws with 10 seconds left as Texas held off Creighton’s furious late-game rally.

Creighton struggled through a wretched 3-point shooting night, but pulled within 62-59 thanks in part to five points in a row by Baylor Scheierman. Carr’s baseline jumper and an easy layup by Tyrese Hunter when Creighton lost him on an inbound pass with 46 seconds left stretched the Longhorns’ lead again.

That didn’t quite close the door on Creighton, which got two more 3-pointers from Scheierman, who had missed his first nine attempts. That forced Texas to finish it from the free-throw line behind Carr and Brock Cunningham. Cunningham’s two free throws with 4 seconds left were his only points of the game.

“There’s going to be a bunch of times one of us has to go down there and knock down a bunch of free throws,” Carr said. “We talk about it all the time.”

The matchup was part of the Big 12-Big East Battle and Texas earned its second win over a top-10 opponent in its new arena. The Longhorns (6-0) beat then-No. 2 Gonzaga on Nov. 16 and have their highest ranking since they were No. 1 during the 2009-2010 season.

“I don’t think we’ve proven anything,” Texas coach Chris Beard said. “We’re just a team that’s trying to get better.”

Hunter scored 15 points for Texas.

Ryan Kalkbrenner had 20 points and 13 rebounds for Creighton (6-2), and Ryan Nembhard scored 17 points. The Bluejays were 4 of 27 on 3-pointers.

Scheierman, a 44% shooter from beyond the arc this season, made three 3s in a row late. His off-balance shot from the right corner over a defender pulled the Bluejays within 68-65 with 11.4 seconds left.

Scheierman finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

“The reality is you are gonna have nights,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “It just happens. We don’t ever want him to stop shooting.”

BIG PICTURE

Creighton: Kalkbrenner was all but unstoppable on a 9-of-10 shooting night for the Bluejays, who kept launching from long range instead of looking for their 7-foot-1 center.

Texas: The Longhorns couldn’t force their usual numbers of turnovers and fast-break points, but were exceptionally clean with the ball on offense. Texas had just three turnovers that Creighton turned into three points.

FORMER TEAMMATES

Texas senior forward Christian Bishop played three seasons at Creighton before transferring prior to last season. He finished with six points and four rebounds in 16 minutes.

“We understood what this game was, not just for our team but for Christian,” Carr said.

TIRED TEAM

McDermott suggested his team maybe just wore out. The Bluejays went 2-1 in the Maui Invitational last week and then played their first game of the season on an opponent’s home court.

“Three games in three days against ranked teams (in Hawaii) and then to come in here,” McDermott said. “That’s a lot to ask of my team.”

UP NEXT

Creighton hosts in-state rival Nebraska on Sunday.

Texas plays No. 16 Illinois in New York City on Dec. 6 in the Jimmy V Classic.

No. 20 Maryland upsets No. 7 Notre Dame at the buzzer, 74-72

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Diamond Miller scored 31 points, including the game-winner at the buzzer, to lead No. 20 Maryland to a 74-72 victory over seventh-ranked Notre Dame on Thursday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Irish guard Sonia Cintron’s layup had tied the game with 15 seconds left off before Maryland held for the last shot. Miller hit a contested mid-range jumper just before time expired to give the Terrapins a victory over a top-10 opponent. It was the 15th lead change of the game.

Miller also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds to go along with five assists. Shyanne Sellers added 17 points.

Maryland (7-2) picked up its first win over Notre Dame (6-1) since 2007.

Cintron’s double-double led the Irish with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Notre Dame’s leading scorer Olivia Miles got off to a slow start on Thursday due to foul trouble. She scored 12 of her 14 points in the final 15 minutes of the game to go along with seven assists and two steals.

BIG PICTURE

Maryland: The Terrapins picked up their second top-20 win of the season ahead of the upcoming Big Ten opener.

Notre Dame: The Irish have had issues with foul trouble this season, a problem that persisted on Thursday. Miles played just 25 minutes, including the majority of the fourth quarter, due to picking up her fourth foul late in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

Maryland: Returns to College Park for the program’s Big Ten opener Sunday against Nebraska.

Notre Dame: Stays home to host No. 3 UConn Sunday.

Virginia’s depth helping its rapid climb in the AP Top 25

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The starting five is the same, but that is where comparisons between the Virginia team that has climbed to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 and last year’s NIT quarterfinalists ends.

Yes, one more year together and a trip to Italy has made the first five significantly better, but part of the credit for that surely goes to another group: the reinforcements. They’ve helped the Cavaliers (6-0) already knock off No. 6 Baylor, No. 16 Illinois and Michigan.

Virginia has scored 70 points or more in its first six game for the first time since the 2003-04 season, and coach Tony Bennett said it was the offense – and not UVA’s signature relentless defense – that saved them in a 70-68 victory this week at Michigan in the ACC/Bg Ten Challenge.

“Our offense kind of kept us in it in the first half,” Bennett said, before the team put it all together, erasing an 11-point halftime deficit to disappoint a raucous Wolverines crowd.

Reece Beekman was the offensive catalyst, scoring 15 of his 18 points before halftime, but four others joined him in double figures, including Jayden Gardner. His foul-line jumper with 39.9 seconds left provided the last of his 11 points, and the winning margin.

Gardner, who led Virginia in scoring last season (15.3 ppg), is averaging 11.5 this year.

“We’ve got a lot of capable scorers and we’re just gonna keep playing together. And we’re playing very unselfish basketball right now,” Gardner said after scoring 24 against Maryland Eastern Shore. He went into the game with 31 points through four games.

“He’s not the most jumping type of guy, but he’s got so much power,” Hawks coach Jason Crafton said of Gardner, an East Carolina transfer with 2,068 career points. “That low center of gravity and the flexibility that he has to be able to get under people and hold his position is elite. When he wants the ball at a certain spot, he can get it there.”

The leader remains guard Kihei Clark, who already has a place in Virginia history, having retrieved a loose ball and fed Mamadi Diakite for a jumper that sent the Cavs’ Elite Eight game against Purdue into overtime on the way to winning the 2019 national championship.

Newcomers Ben Vander Plas, a transfer from Ohio, and freshman Isaac McKneely have given Bennett more options, and more scoring power than a year ago.

As a junior, Vander Plas had 17 points for No. 13 seed Ohio when the Bobcats upset Virginia 62-58 in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

He scored seven straight in the second half against the Wolverines, twice scoring inside and then swishing a 3-pointer while trying to slow down bruising big man Hunter Dickinson.

“Ben, yeah. Just his poise and composure in the post, took advantage of some mismatches and he really gave us a great lift,” Bennett said. Vander Plas is the son of a teammate of Bennett’s at Green Bay, and his first name is a tribute to Bennett’s father, Dick.

McKneely scored 15 and made 4 of 6 3-point tries in an 89-42 victory against Monmouth

“He was standing in front of our bench. I’m like, `Listen, we’re not helping off him,”‘ Monmouth coach King Rice said he told his team, pointing at McKneely, a two-time player of the year in West Virginia. “And he kind of looked at me and I said, `Yeah, you, because you make all of them,’ and he started laughing.”

Ryan Dunn also made quite the impression on Rice in his first collegiate appearance, scoring 13 points with six rebounds and three blocks in almost 27 minutes.

“I was in the building when De’Andre Hunter came off the bench and had a breakout game,” Rice said of Hunter, now with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. “Dunn reminds me a lot of Hunter, and you can tell he’s young. But when he grows into that body with that skill set, he’ll be giving people problems for a long, long time.”

The Cavaliers open Atlantic Coast Conference play against Florida State, then host top-ranked Houston, which beat them 67-47 last season, a week later.

“A good schedule for sure and it tests you, it kind of shows you, win or lose, you see where you’ve got some holes,” Bennett said.

So far, the Cavaliers have been able to fill them all.

No. 4 Arizona turning heads early in the season

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd knew there was talent on his roster. He wasn’t exactly sure how good the team would be.

The former longtime Gonzaga assistant had a similar view of last year’s team and that one turned out to be pretty good, running all the way to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

This year’s team could end up being even better.

Buoyed by transfers and improved returning players, Arizona has rolled through the early part of its schedule, climbing to No. 4 in this week’s AP Top 25 after winning the Maui Invitational.

“I learned that we’re good,” Lloyd said. “We’re tough. We’re gritty. I think there’s going to be some great things for us to really double down on and some things to show our guys where we went the wrong way.”

Lloyd had a superb first season in the desert, earning coach of the year honors last season with a team that lost three players to the NBA.

The Wildcats (6-0) had to replace three NBA players again this season. Again, they made a seamless transition.

Improvement on the part of the returning players has been a big part of it.

Oumar Ballo, considered a project as a freshman at Gonzaga, has transformed into one of the nation’s best big men. The 7-foot, 260-pound center from Mali has vastly improved his footwork and developed patience in the post, setting himself up for good shots instead of trying to bull his way to the basket.

Ballo is averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 76.7% from the field, fourth-best nationally. He was named Maui Invitational MVP after finishing with 30 points and 13 rebounds against No. 7 Creighton in the title game.

Not bad for a player who averaged 2.5 points and 6.3 minutes per game two years ago at Gonzaga.

“When he struggled, I still believed in him,” Lloyd said. “I didn’t need for him to be instantly successful for me to reaffirm my belief in him. When he struggled, we continued to love him and work with him and then he continued to hang in there and I think it is a great story.”

Fellow big man Azuolas Tubelis has made a few strides of his own, adding strength and toughness to his athletic, fluid game. The 6-10 forward leads Arizona with 19.3 points per game while grabbing 8.0 rebounds.

Fiery point guard Kerr Kriisa has rounded into a reliable floor leader, averaging 15.3 points and 7.5 assists while shooting 51% from the 3-point arc.

“I don’t pay attention to the antics because they don’t mean anything to me,” Lloyd said. “I know maybe that draws attention to him from other people but when it comes to just pure basketball, I mean he is doing a good job and I think he is really showing something.”

So is Courtney Ramey.

The Texas transfer has given the Wildcats a huge boost in his first season in Tucson, providing hounding defense, leadership and another scoring option. He’s averaging 16 points per game and has hit 10 of 16 from 3-point range so far this season.

Campbell transfer Cedric Henderson Jr. has provided an athletic lift off the bench and 7-foot Estonian Henri Veesaar has given Arizona solid minutes.

The mix of new and old has helped Arizona lead the nation with 97.5 points a game and rank second with 21.8 assists per game. The Wildcats climbed 10 spots in this week’s poll after wins over Cincinnati, No. 24 San Diego State and Creighton.

Arizona opens Pac-12 play Thursday at Utah.

“It was good to get the recognition, but we’re not satisfied,” Ramey said. “Our ultimate goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the season and be the final two teams playing, so I think the regular season matters but it’s not the ultimate goal for us.”

The Wildcats are certainly off to a good start.