THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WE LEARNED THIS WEEK
The Pac-10 race is wide open ... and Arizona actually has a chance.
Liam Foley/Icon SMI
The two games I saw at Phoenix's Desert Classic on Sunday -- IUPUI's non-televised, near-upset of No. 20 Arizona State and Arizona's upset of No. 4 Gonzaga -- altered my perception of the Pac-10. The Sun Devils were supposed to be the state's best team, but when All-America candidate James Harden gets neutralized by a good zone, there's no guarantee they have enough weapons to overcome it. On Sunday it took a few clutch, late threes by Rihards Kuksiks to save a game against an IUPUI team that had already lost to Northeastern, Indiana and Western Illinois. ASU trailed 34-18 at half and won 59-58 in overtime, but was one defensive stop away from a loss that would've looked worse than Kentucky falling to VMI.
Meanwhile, Arizona, which seemed to be in shambles after the final turn of the Lute Olson saga, subsequently losing an NIT Season Tip-Off qualifier in mind-numbingly stupid fashion to UAB, dismantled the Zags, who had up until that point been the most complete team in the nation not named North Carolina. (The Pythagorean efficiency rankings actually had Gonzaga ahead of UNC.) And the Wildcats did it by, of all things, playing a slowed-down, trap-heavy defensive game and forcing usually steady Zags point guard Jeremy Pargo into seven turnovers. Suddenly we're forced to consider Arizona as a contender in the Pac-10.
"This puts us on the map," 'Zona forward Chase Budinger said of the 69-64 win over Gonzaga. "This kind of gives us hope again, that Arizona's not a lost team, not a rebuilding team."
If the 'Cats continue to defend -- especially Budinger, whose rep has been as an atrocious defender -- they should make the NCAA tournament. On offense they can ride the Pac-10's best interior player, Jordan Hill (22 points vs. Gonzaga) and keep the floor spread with Budinger and Nic Wise's shooting (they combined to hit 6-of-9 threes on Sunday). Wise isn't Brandon Jennings at the point, but he thoroughly outplayed Pargo, which is no small feat.
UCLA is probably the league's best all-around squad, but that's not saying much; the Bruins already flopped against Michigan and lost at Texas. Unless swingman Josh Shipp becomes a go-to guy to complement point guard Darren Collison, and a few of the Bruins' freshmen step up, the gap between Ben Howland's boys and 'Zona, ASU and USC is minuscule.
SI.COM'S STARTING FIVE
(Wearing Tony Crocker long-sleeve Oklahoma outfits, which, we were recently told by an NCAA source, are against the rules ...)
1. Ben Woodside, PG, North Dakota State: He's the Maravich of the Dakotas ... or at least he tied Maravich's record for most free-throws in one game (30) en route to dropping 60 points in a 112-111, triple-overtime loss to Stephen F. Austin on Friday.
2. Stephen Curry, PG, Davidson: After scoring 27 against West Virginia in a low-percentage (9-of-27) performance on Tuesday, Curry upped the accuracy against Chattanooga on Saturday. His 11-of-22 shooting day led to 41 points, his third 40-plus game of the season.
3. Dionte Christmas, SG, Temple: He was the dagger-man in the Owls' upset of No. 8 Tennessee, hitting 7-of-14 treys for 35 points ... and inspiring all sorts of "Merry Christmas" / "Christmas came early" / "Christmas gift" pun-making.
4. A.J. Abrams, SG, Texas: While most his teammates were struggling against Texas State on Saturday, Abrams scored 30, following up his 26-point effort on Tuesday against Villanova at Madison Square Garden.
5. Jordan Hill, PF, Arizona: After an ill-advised late technical in a loss to Texas A&M two weeks ago, Hill has channeled his fury into his game instead, going for 25 points and 14 boards in a win over San Diego State on Wednesday, and 22 and 6 against Gonzaga Sunday. He has double-doubles in six of 'Zona's nine games.
MY ONE WISH FOR THIS WEEK
That senior small forward Marcus Ginyard returns and fixes the woeful North Carolina Tar Heels. They've looked so helpless thus far, jumping out to a 9-0 start with an average victory margin of 28.8 points. What their rotation desperately needs is another savvy, athletic veteran. Ginyard has been out since October, when he had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot, but dressed for Saturday's win over Oral Roberts and may be back in the lineup soon. Hopefully he can save top-ranked Carolina before it's too late.
THE ONE DAY YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT
I usually list one game here, but Dec. 20's slate is too beautiful not to mention as a whole. There might not be a better day in college hoops until the first day of the NCAA tournament:
At 2 p.m.: Michigan State at Texas and Duke vs. Xavier (in East Rutherford, N.J.).
At 4 p.m.: UConn vs. Gonzaga (in Seattle) and Davidson vs. Purdue (in Indianapolis).
At 4:30 p.m.: BYU vs. Arizona State (in Glendale, Ariz.).
At 6 p.m.: Syracuse at Memphis.
Any self-respecting college hoops fan will have this afternoon cleared on his schedule.
YOUR MONDAY MOMENT OF ZEN
Gadget-armed Dallas Lauderdale informs Butler's Zach Hahn that, contrary to what he may have believed, the perimeter is NOT A SAFE PLACE. Hahn's three-point attempt finds a home in the crowd. Lauderdale slaps hands with the crowd -- and gets a standing O for his efforts.