Four-point play: Arizona, the Cy-Hawk rivalry game, Johnathan Loyd and Joel Embiid’s dream shake
Four-point play is One and One’s attempt to highlight the best team, player, game and GIF from the past seven days of college hoops. Expect this column every Sunday.
Team of the week: Arizona
In one of the lightest weeks on the college hoops calendar, the Associated Press’s new No. 1 team faced two stern tests – a home game against WAC favorite New Mexico State and a road date with Big Ten contender Michigan – and handled both of them.
The Wildcats’ four primary big men (Brandon Ashley, Aaron Gordon, Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) scored in double figures against the Aggies, who were limited to just 0.77 points per possession. Compared to the rest of the wins on Arizona’s resumé, a victory (74-48) over New Mexico State doesn’t stand out, but the way the Wildcats dominated the game – to the point of making the Aggies look like just another creampuff non-conference opponent – was impressive nonetheless.
That game was merely a tune-up for the tough road challenge the Wildcats faced Saturday. Michigan had already lost three games coming in, and is clearly still adapting to life without Trey Burke, but that didn’t make the Wildcats’ trip to the Crisler Center any less daunting. Arizona erased an 11-point deficit in the second half to emerge with a two-point win (72-70) and remain undefeated.
After a layup from Michigan guard Nik Stauskas with 1 minute, 18 seconds left gave the Wolverines a one-point lead, Arizona guard Nick Johnson sank six free throws over the final 30 seconds to seal the win. Johnson, Gordon and Tarczewski all finished with 14 points and Ashley added 18.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Wildcats’ victory was their unwillingness to back down in the second half. Trailing by double digits, facing not only a talented opponent but also the raucous crowd on hand to support it, the Wildcats could have given in. Instead, Arizona asserted control over the game and validated its reputation as the best team in the country.
“For the No. 1 team, we still had a lot of doubters,” said Gordon, who held Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III to just four-second half points after he scored 16 over the first 20 minutes. “Just to come out here from the West Coast, come to the Big Ten, kind of lay to rest some of the stereotypes that have been surrounding that – I think it’s a big statement we’re here to stay and we’re here to play.”
It would have been hard to doubt the Wildcats even if they did lose at Michigan on Saturday. Sean Miller’s team has proven itself in big spots time and again this season, notching wins over no. 8 Duke, UNLV and at no. 25 San Diego State – all before taking down the Aggies and Wolverines this week.
This team has no obvious flaws. It ranks in the nation’s top 20 in both offensive (15th) and defensive efficiency (9th); rebounds a higher percentage (43.3) of its misses than all but one team in the country; features a deep and athletic frontcourt and an experienced backcourt; and has shown on multiple occasions the ability to stay composed and pull through in close games against tough competition.
Arizona should carry its undefeated record into conference play, which begins Jan. 2 with a home matchup with Washington State.
Game of the week: (17) Iowa State 85, (23) Iowa 82
There was ample reason to be excited about this season’s rendition of the Cy-Hawk rivalry game, which featured two ranked teams for the first time since 1987. The game — a fast-paced, high-scoring thriller — somehow managed to be more intense and exciting than the historical backdrop and pre-game hype suggested it could be.
Iowa led for over 37 minutes and held a five-point lead after center Adam Woodbury hit one of two free throws at the 1:29 mark. The Cyclones, who scored the game’s final eight points, pulled ahead when forward Georges Niang converted a nifty reverse layup with 20 seconds remaining. The Hawkeyes had a chance to regain the lead just five seconds later, when point guard Mike Gessell, an 80 percent free throw shooter, drew a foul while driving to the basket. With Hilton Coliseum blaring, and Gessell trying to block out the fevered Cyclones fans jumping and screaming behind the basket, the sophomore missed both free throws. Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Mike Hlas described the wild scene that unfolded as Gessell stepped to the line.
“The crowd noise surely rattled the player. It may have rattled molars in 14,384 paying customers’ mouths. It probably made the Hawkeyes long for a more soothing sound, like a space shuttle launch or the first lap at the Indy 500.”
The Hawkeyes weren’t done. After Iowa State guard Dustin Hogue sank two free throws, Gessell drove down the court and dished to sharp-shooting forward Zach McCabe (a 48.5 percent three-point shooter), who caught the ball, squared his feet and let loose an astonishingly clean three-point look. The shot rimmed out, prompting Cyclones fans to rush the court.
Niang scored a career-high 24 points for Iowa State, while Iowa forward Aaron White scored 25 points and notched a career-high 17 rebounds.
It was a tough loss for Iowa, who had control for most of the game but couldn’t make the plays it needed to in the closing moments. But Hawkeyes fans shouldn’t be too disappointed. Hilton Coliseum can be one of the loudest gyms in the country, and it was ratcheted up a few decibels Friday night for an intense rivalry matchup between ranked teams. Iowa faltered down the stretch, but one can make the argument that its performance – even in defeat – was an encouraging sign. Few teams would have been able to hang with Iowa State for 40 minutes on its home court. Iowa did that and more, only to be overcome late by ‘Hilton Magic.’
Player of the week: Johnathan Loyd
Over two wins against Ole Miss and Illinois, Loyd scored 34 points and dished out 22 assists. The Oregon guard’s 23 points and 15 assists were pivotal in the Ducks’ overtime win in Oxford last Sunday, which included 39 points and 10 threes from Rebels guard Marshall Henderson. On Saturday against Illinois, Loyd knocked down a key jumper with 28 seconds remaining to extend the Ducks’ lead to five after Illini guard Joseph Bertrand converted a layup at the 1:02 mark to make it a one-possession game. Loyd, who finished with 11 points and seven assists, also completed a steal-and-layup with five seconds left to thwart the Illini’s late comeback attempt.
It was an excellent week for Loyd, who has quietly elevated his performance to new heights this season. The senior point guard’s numbers have risen dramatically – from his offensive rating (89.3 to 135.4) to his effective field goal percentage (43.4 to 64.2) to his true shooting percentage (47.5 to 70.8) to his assist rate (23.7 to 42.5). He registered offensive ratings of 149 and 137, respectively, against Ole Miss and Illinois.
The most interesting part about Loyd’s rise is that he wasn’t even expected to be Oregon’s primary point guard this season. Sophomore Dominic Artis’s nine-game suspension, which ran through the Illinois game, vaulted Loyd into a bigger role, and he’s taken advantage of the opportunity.
It will be interesting to see how the Ducks integrate Artis into a backcourt rotation that features Loyd and high-scoring guard Joseph Young (19.4 points per game). Loyd has been exceptional this season, so it wouldn’t make sense to slash his minutes too much. But Oregon struggled when Artis missed nine games last season with a foot injury, and could use the sophomore’s scoring to complement Loyd’s pass-first approach.
Whatever coach Dana Altman’s plans for his backcourt rotation, Loyd should be a big part of them.
GIF of the week
It seems a stretch to compare Kansas center Joel Embiid to NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon. But when he makes moves like this, it’s easy to see what those comparisons are rooted in. Embiid’s ‘dream shake’ on New Mexico center Alex Kirk early in the second half of Saturday’s win over the Lobos might not have been the most spectacular play of the week, but it highlighted how refined Embiid’s skills already are and hinted at his massive potential. It’s no wonder Embiid has been the subject of plenty of No. 1 pick buzz lately.