PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Udoka Azubuike, Kansas
Azubuike put together one of the most dominant performances I can ever remember seeing on Saturday against Baylor. He finished with 23 points points on 11-for-13 shooting, 19 boards and three blocks, but that really doesn’t entirely reflect the impact that he had on the game.
Offensively, it was obvious. The first time that Kansas and Baylor faced off, the Jayhawks were smothered by Baylor’s defense, as the Bears completely took away Doke by, essentially, double-teaming him before a pass was even made into the post. Kansas answered on Saturday by putting Doke in ball-screen after ball-screen after ball-screen, and his ability to be a vertical spacer was something that the Bears had no answer for.
But he was just as impactful defensively. Part of the reason that Baylor’s guards struggled as much as they did was because Doke has turned into maybe the best defensive five in the game. His ability to zone up against ball-screens — keeping the ball-handler from getting past him to the rim while being enough of a deterrent to defend against a pass to the roll man — neutered Baylor’s offense and allowed Kansas to keep control over this game for 40 minutes.
I’m not sure it will be enough to truly get Azubuike put into the conversation for National Player of the Yea — or even for first-team All-American, not with Devon Dotson on his team — but it was certainly a statement.
Azubuike is as improved as anyone in college basketball even if the numbers don’t entirely show it, and Saturday was the day that the national finally realized it.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes are back!
On Sunday, Ohio State picked up what is probably their best win of the Big Ten season when they knocked off No. 7 Maryland in Columbus, 79-72. Ohio State is now 18-9 on the season and have won three of their last four and six of their last eight games. They are starting to look like the team that everyone thought was the best team in the country back in December.
We’ll see how long this lasts or if this is just a function of the Buckeyes getting a couple of games in a row at home, but if there was ever a time for a team to hit their stride, the last week of February would be it.
1. SAN DIEGO STATE IS GOING TO BE JUST FINE
I’m not worried about San Diego State after the Aztecs lost to UNLV on Saturday.
I’m disappointed. In a season where the most interesting storyline seems to whether or not Kansas can win a national title with the FBI investigating, the NCAA bearing down and Snoop Dogg shooting fake money at dancers on stripper poles, I desperately wanted San Diego State to get into the NCAA tournament undefeated, blow through some East Coast juggernaut in Madison Square Garden and get to Atlanta with a shot at becoming the first team in 44 years to have a perfect season.
It would have been awesome.
But now that dream is dead, and T.J. Otzelberger killed it.
So that sucks.
But that doesn’t mean I’m worried about the Aztecs. This team is just as good now as they were before losing to the Rebels. UNLV has been one of the most improved teams in college basketball since conference play started. They caught fire early on a night where San Diego State, one of the best shooting teams in the country, didn’t actually start making shots until there were six minutes left in the game. They came out fired up and ready to make a statement on a night where the Aztecs, who have all-but locked up a No. 1 seed, celebrated their Mountain West regular season title by hanging a banner.
If anything, this was a pretty good wake-up call for the Aztecs. They got caught slipping, and while it cost them a chance at a perfect season, it might be just what they needed to actually win a national title.
And if you’re going to take a loss, it’s better to take it now than in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Ask Wichita State.
2. GONZAGA? THEY’RE GOING TO BE JUST FINE, TOO
Gonzaga also lost on Saturday, and while I’m not concerned about San Diego State, I’m even less worried about Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs went into the Marriott Center on Saturday, in front of 20,000 screaming fans and lost to a team that is quietly putting together the kind of a season that can get them into the five-seed conversation. We’ve conditioned ourselves to think that anytime the Zags lose, it’s a disaster because the WCC is the WCC, but this BYU team? …
3. BYU IS A TEAM THAT YOU DON’T WANT TO SEE IN MARCH
… This BYU team is different.
They are one of the nation’s best three-point shooting teams. They have a pair of guards in T.J. Haws and Jake Toolson that have to be guarded out to 30 feet but are also capable of exploiting defenses that sell out to stop them with their passing ability. Mark Pope is one of the more underrated coaches in the country, and watching his team run offenses is so much fun, especially when they are playing in their own building.
And should I mention that Yoeli Childs is an absolute monster?
I’m not sure there is a better fit at the five for BYU than an athletic and strong 6-foot-10 center that can catch lobs, dominate defenders in the post 1-on-1 and even step out and knock down a three. There are definitely reasons to be concerned about this team making a run in the tournament — defense, mainly — but if they happen to have one of those nights, they can beat literally anyone in college basketball.
4. I HOPE YOU DIDN’T FORGET ABOUT PAYTON PRITCHARD
The Ducks fell out of the top spot in the Pac-12 this week thanks to a loss at Arizona State, and it feels somewhat like Payton Pritchard has fallen out of the national consciousness a little bit.
And that’s too bad.
Because he is an absolute killer that can take over a game in ways that 6-foot point guards shouldn’t be able to. On Saturday, he had 38 points and four assists in a 73-72 overtime win at Arizona. He was awesome. Again.
I don’t think I’d have him as the National Player of the Year at this point, but I do think that he is deserving of being in the conversation. And if there is one guy that can pull a Kemba or a Shabazz and lead a team to a national title out of nowhere, it’s him.
5. UCLA AND PROVIDENCE ARE GOING TO GET INTO THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
These are the two weirdest teams in the country.
UCLA lost to Hofstra and Fullerton at home before New Years, was sitting at 8-9 overall after starting Pac-12 play 1-3 and, as of today, is one game out of first place in the league title race. The Bruins swept the Mountain road trip and have now won nine of their last 11 games. They swept Colorado. They won at Arizona. And if they win out, they are guaranteed to win at least a share of the Pac-12 regular season title.
Almost as wild as the fact that Providence might actually be able to get into the NCAA tournament after taking four Quad 3 and 4 losses during the non-conference season. They started out the year 11-10 overall, but after winning five of their last seven games, the Friars now have seven Quad 1 wins. In the last three weeks, they have won at Butler and at Marquette and beaten Creighton and Seton Hall at home.
I would expect nothing less from this roller coaster college basketball season than for these two programs to end up in the Sweet 16. I, for one, am here for it.