Monday Madness: Best & worst of the weekend
(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)
Posted Dec 16, 2013

The nation’s No. 1 team passes a tough test, two blue-blood programs put on a show, and what’s going on with college basketball in Chicago? Here is the best and worst of the weekend that was:


Arizona 72, Michigan 70: Playing a good team on the road with an early tip-off time, the Wildcats had a few good excuses to drop this one to the Wolverines. But the No. 1 team in the country went out and showed why they deserve that spot. Trailing by double digits in the second half while Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III (20 points) was scoring like his daddy, Arizona rallied to get within one point in the final minute. Junior PG T.J. McConnell, who has mastered the art of making the right play at the right time for the ‘Cats, came up with a crucial offensive rebound that led to Nick Johnson’s go-ahead free throws with 25 seconds left, and Arizona held on from there for another big nonconference win.

North Carolina 82, Kentucky 77: Two Hall of Fame coaches, maybe a dozen legit Diaper Dandies and PTPers, one national TV broadcast, and about 20,000 crazy Carolina fans ... this was a recipe for Dick Vitale losing his voice. The star-studded powerhouses went back and forth all night Saturday before UNC started to pull away in the final two minutes, and when Marcus Paige (23 pts) hit Brice Johnson with an alley-oop to put the exclamation point on the win, Dickie V (he still had his voice) sounded like he could’ve renounced his allegiance to Coach K and joined the Tar Heels fan club on the spot.

Iowa State 85, Iowa 82: Having just spent a week in Iowa visiting family, I’ve seen first-hand the big-brother-little-brother dynamic between the Hawkeyes and Cyclones. Little bro has bragging rights for the next year, however, after Iowa State won this rivalry’s biggest game in decades; Friday’s matchup was the first in 26 years in which both teams entered the game nationally ranked. The Cyclones went up by one with 19 seconds left on Georges Niang’s baseline reverse layup, and on the Hawkeyes’ next possession, Mike Gesell drew a foul but missed both free throws. Iowa State added two free throws, and Iowa missed a wide-open three and two putbacks before the buzzer in a wild finish.

Syracuse 68, St. John’s 63: If you wanted to argue that C.J. Fair was merely handed the titles of senior leader and go-to guy for the Orange before this season started, you can’t dispute that the lefty small forward earned them on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. Fair hit three clutch jumpers against the Red Storm -- one to tie it after ‘Cuse has squandered a 13-point lead in the second half, and two more to help put the game away down the stretch -- on his way to 21 points. “He wasn't our first option last year but he's always made big shots, big plays for us,” coach Jim Boeheim said of Fair. “We had other guys, but he was developing. He's going to get the ball and these opportunities, and he's prepared for that.”



Russ Smith, Louisville: Before this season began, I thought Rick Pitino would give Smith every chance to showcase his point-guard skills for NBA scouts, especially since Peyton Siva was gone and the Cardinals had no obvious replacement at point guard. But JUCO transfer Chris Jones emerged as the best man to run the show, Smith settled back in at two-guard, and UL resumed the business of defending its national championship. Jones hurt his wrist last week, though, allowing Smith to start at the one in Saturday’s win over Western Kentucky. He finished with 10 assists and just two turnovers while scoring 14 points. Jones won’t be sidelined for long, so hopefully Smith will get enough for his highlight tape to at least be considered a combo guard. Because a 6-foot shooting guard who’s not Allen Iverson will have a tough time getting drafted.

Nick Johnson, Arizona: Johnson came to Tucson hyped as little more than a high-flying finisher, but in three years he’s turned himself into a versatile contributor who makes plays all over the court. In Saturday’s win over Michigan, the 6-3 shooting guard with a Gerald Henderson-type game had 14 points, five rebounds, four assists and two threes, going 6-of-6 at the free-throw line in the final 25 seconds to give Arizona the lead and preserve it.

James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina: Potential over production has been McAdoo’s thing since he arrived at UNC as a high school All-American, but Saturday’s performance against Kentucky seemed like a turning point for the 6-9 junior power forward. McAdoo put up 20 points (12-19 FT), five boards, four dimes and two steals while outplaying UK’s future Lottery pick Julius Randle.

Sim Bhullar, New Mexico State: The biggest man in college basketball (7-5, 350 pounds) had his biggest game of the season on Saturday, finishing with 22 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in the Aggies’ win over Drake. The sophomore giant moves slow and still (somehow) disappears on the court for long stretches, but there’s no way 30 NBA teams bypass that size, right?



Roberto Nelson, Oregon State: I kind of felt bad for Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Their game at Oregon State was originally scheduled for Dec. 7, but was rescheduled three times due to bad weather shutting down air travel. So when the Golden Lions finally did get the Beavers on Friday, it was like watching a kid who’d waited three extra hours for the parent to come home from work and deliver the whuppin’ they knew they had coming. Nelson, a 6-3 senior who is making a strong case for Pac-12 Player of the Year, dropped 26 points on Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and 20 against Maryland-Eastern Shore on Sunday. He’s a pure scorer who will find his place in the pros.

Branden Dawson, Michigan State: Overshadowed by the Spartans’ Big Three -- Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling -- Dawson is quietly averaging nearly a double-double (10.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg) from his wing position. In Saturday’s closer-than-expected win over Oakland, he put up 16 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks and two steals. The 6-6 junior is an explosive athlete who’s still working on the basketball-player part, but he’ll have time and space to develop, especially next season when he could be Michigan State’s top guy.

Khem Birch, UNLV: Think Larry Sanders on the college level. Birch is a ball-hawking defensive game-changer who might just be a little out there personality-wise. The 6-9 junior swatted five shots in Saturday’s win over Southern Utah, throwing in seven points and seven rebounds in the process.

Larry Nance Jr., Wyoming: The son of the NBA’s first dunk contest winner is as long and athletic as you’d expect. And yes, he can fly. The 6-8 junior dominated Denver on Sunday, posting 38 points (Wyoming scored 61 as a team) and 12 rebounds in a losing effort.



Isaiah Taylor, Texas: Nobody was really checking for the Longhorns (9-1) before this weekend, and now they’re really under the radar thanks to Mack Brown’s resignation and the search for UT’s next football coach. But a big part of Texas’ turnaround from last season’s disappointment has been Taylor, the 6-1 floor general who had 15 points and eight assists in Saturday’s win over Texas State. Taylor will be pushed to his limits over the next few weeks, though, as he gets to face Marcus Paige (North Carolina), Keith Appling (Michigan State) and Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State) between Dec. 18 and Jan. 8.

Joel Embiid, Kansas: He’s climbing up the mock draft boards, from an intriguing prospect before the season to now maybe getting ranked ahead of KU teammate Andrew Wiggins. The 7-footer posted 18 points, six boards, four blocks and three steals in Saturday’s must-win game against New Mexico.

Nate Britt, North Carolina: His stat line against Kentucky didn’t stand out -- eight points, two steals and one assist off the bench -- but the 6-1 point guard made a few plays on both ends that helped turn the game in UNC’s favor. He’ll be a solid backup for Paige now and a dynamic leader for the Tar Heels in the future.

Andrew Harrison, Kentucky: Julius Randle is still worthy of top billing among UK’s freshmen, and James Young just looks like a 35-point explosion waiting to happen, but the slightly younger Harrison twin -- the natural point guard and higher-ranked of the brothers coming out of high school -- was the standout against North Carolina on Saturday with 17 points, six rebounds and seven assists.



Kansas: With the panic that was rippling through Jayhawk Nation last week, you would’ve thought KU was 0-9 instead of 6-3 going into this weekend. Saturday’s win over a good New Mexico team might be enough to draw some of those fans off the ledge, as Perry Ellis and Joel Embiid issued a reminder that Kansas might have the best frontcourt in the country.

Notre Dame: The Big East refugees should get a better grasp of how they’ll fare in the ACC after a couple of Big Ten games. Follow that? The Irish played down to their competition in losses to North Dakota State and Indiana State (both at home), but Saturday’s impressive win over Indiana was the kind of performance fitting a team that has size, depth, experience and good coaching. Next up for Notre Dame is a meeting with Ohio State on Dec. 21.

Wichita State: Corny headline writers across the nation will be happy to know the Shockers are over the underdog thing and look like a legit threat to make a deep 2014 NCAA tournament run. Wichita State stayed undefeated (10-0) with Saturday’s win over Tennessee, during which Tekele Cotton carried the offense with 19 second-half points and sparked the defense with some momentum-changing plays during a key run in the second half.

Wisconsin: Nobody who has watched the Badgers lately would be surprised if they received some first-place votes in the next Top 25 poll. Bo Ryan’s guys are clicking on all cylinders, and the total package was on display in Saturday’s stomping of Eastern Kentucky. Ben Brust scored 20 points and hit five threes to lead four Badgers in double figures, as they shot over 60 percent while holding the Colonels to just 41 percent shooting from the field.



Cincinnati: I’ll let Bearcats coach Mick Cronin describe his team’s showing in Saturday’s ugly loss to cross-city rival Xavier: “We walked into a street fight with a pink outfit on,” Cronin was quoted by FOX Sports Ohio. After ripping his team’s defense, Cronin then went all-in. “We’re not tough enough on the defensive end,” he said. “We’re not tough enough on the backboard, we’re not tough enough to give the ball to the open man when teams are doing whatever they’re doing defensively against us. Really anything that involves toughness right now is a big problem for our team.”

Jacksonville State: Try and find a D-1 team that had a worse performance last weekend than the Gamecocks’ stinker against Dartmouth on Saturday. Against a team that was under .500 going in, Jacksonville State got savagely outrebounded (46-23), shot 30.4 percent from the field (17-of-56), fell behind by 20 in the first half, didn’t have one player score in double figures, and eventually lost by 30.

New Orleans: The Privateers didn’t do anything wrong; it’s just that their 101-38 rout of Champion Baptist College on Saturday wasn’t even a workout. They’ll need to put in some extra conditioning this week just to stay fresh. New Orleans was up 51-12 at halftime and never looked back against a team that had no business on the court with them.

Seton Hall: Rehabilitating your program’s brand in the new-look Big East isn’t going to work when you can’t beat sub-.500 St. Peter’s at home. The Pirates had beaten their in-state rival 17 straight times before the Peacocks’ broke the streak Saturday on Desi Washington’s game-winning three in overtime. St. Peter’s hadn’t beaten Seton Hall since 1995. For reference, that’s before Shaheen Holloway suited up for the Pirates.



Which program would you call college basketball's marquee program: Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Kansas or UCLA?

Am I the only one who sees Tulsa guard Pat Swilling Jr. getting an NFL tryout next summer? At 6-3, 225 pounds with good genes -- his father was a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Saints -- Swilling’s agent will surely get a call or two asking if his client is interested in playing wide receiver.

How much different would Kobe Bryant’s career have been if he’d gone to college for a year? After tearing it up as a one-and-done at, say, Duke, Kobe would’ve been a top-five pick in the 1997 NBA draft, which means he most likely doesn’t end up with the Lakers.

Why isn’t there a national powerhouse program in or near Chicago right now? The city produces too much talent for schools like Northwestern, Northern Illinois, DePaul and Chicago State -- the latter two played each other Sunday to zero national fanfare -- to be so mediocre.



Scoochie Smith, Dayton

Matt Milk, St. Francis (NY)

Ledrick Eackles, McNeese State

Winslo Barry, Incarnate Word



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