Four-Point Play: SDSU tops Kansas on the road, Cincinnati rising and more
Four-Point Play is One and One’s attempt to highlight the best team, player, game and GIF/video from the past seven days of college hoops. We reserve the right to tweak the formula on a weekly basis. Expect this column every Sunday.
No. 21 San Diego State upsets no. 16 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse
It would be a mistake to say No. 21 San Diego State’s 61-57 upset of No. 16 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse Sunday night was totally unexpected. Sure, Kansas hadn’t lost a non-conference game in its home gym since November 2006. And the Jayhawks, despite having already sustained three losses this season, are one of the most talented teams in the country.
But it’s not like the Aztecs entered the game with meager credentials. Steve Fisher’s team had already beaten Creighton, Marquette and Washington, establishing itself as the clear favorite to win the Mountain West Conference. They ranked 24th in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s team efficiency ratings, and No. 15 in points allowed per possession. SDSU also features Xavier Thames, a 6-foot-3 senior guard averaging 16.3 points per game, and Winston Shepard, a versatile defender and scorer, and capable cast of role players.
Even so, it was fair to wonder whether the Aztecs simply wouldn’t be able to handle one of the toughest venues in college hoops and if they were about to face a harsh reality check. Rather than crack under the enormity of the moment, San Diego State rose to the occasion, playing lockdown defense throughout en route to securing one of the best non-conference wins in college basketball this season.
“This is a great win for us,” Thames said after the game. “A lot of teams don’t come in here and get victories. I’m just blessed to be a part of this one.”
Thames led all scorers with 16 points, while senior forward Josh Davis added 10 points and 14 rebounds. San Diego State held an 11-point lead around the 13-minute mark, but a Naadir Tharpe layup pulled the Jayhawks within two with just over four minutes to go. Thames buried a three a minute later, and converted four key free throws in the final 10 seconds to ice the game.
Neither team shined on the offensive end, but Thames’ ability to run the offense efficiently made a huge difference.
“Every play we made, it seemed like they came down, they got something positive out of the next possession,” Kansas point guard Frank Mason said.
The biggest reason San Diego State was able to pull the upset, though, was its defense. The Aztecs held Kansas to just 23 first-half points and 29.8 percent shooting, the second-worst shooting performance of Bill Self’s 10-plus year tenure. Freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid needed 19 shots to combine for 26 points and second-leading scorer Perry Ellis finished with just four points on 1-of-8 shooting.
Kansas’s offensive futility can be blamed, at least in part, on its own poor shooting, but the Aztecs deserve plenty of credit for contesting shots, clogging passing lanes and forcing Kansas to resort to low-percentage looks.
“I think everybody, we all missed shots we usually make,” Wiggins said, “and that’s going to happen from time to time with a young team.”
If it wasn’t clear before, it certainly is now: San Diego State is not about to endure the sort of “transition year” most expected when it lost leading scorers Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley in the offseason. Since losing to No. 1 Arizona on Nov. 14, the Aztecs have won 11 consecutive games.
None of those wins was as impressive as what the Aztecs managed Sunday night. They will face plenty of tough road games in the Mountain West — including Utah State (Jan. 25), Boise State (Feb. 5) and New Mexico (Feb. 22) — but Sunday night’s win should provide them plenty of confidence through the rest of the conference season.
Few would have expected Kansas, ranked No. 5 in the preseason, to incur four losses before the start of conference play. But all of the Jayhawks’ defeats have come against good teams: Villanova, Colorado, Florida and San Diego State all rank in the top 40 of Kenpom’s efficiency rankings and in the top 25 of the AP poll.
Still, that’s no excuse for a team with conference and national championship aspirations. Kansas should be farther along the collective development curve at this point in the season. The Jayhawks’ offense stagnated so frequently Sunday night, there were times when San Diego state looked like it knew what play Kansas was going to run.
There is still time for the Jayhawks to sort things out. Kansas is a young team – it ranks No. 348 in Kenpom’s “experience” statistic – that should get better over the next two months. But the need to improve seems more urgent now than it did at the beginning of the season.
“We’re not as good as I thought we’d be [at this point], and our players know that,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I still think we’re going to be good.”
The Jayhawks’ Big 12 schedule is not a cakewalk: No. 13 Iowa State, No. 6 Oklahoma State and No. 9 Baylor (and possibly Kansas State) are worthy conference championship contenders. Beating out those teams won’t be easy.
Justin Jackson propels Cincinnati to two big wins
Impartial college basketball fans have better ways to spend their time than watching Cincinnati. The Bearcats play slow. They grind out possessions in the halfcourt. They don’t shoot the ball particularly well, from inside or outside the three-point line. They exist near the bottom of college hoops’ aesthetic totem pole.
Of course, style of play is less important than wins and losses. And over the past week Cincinnati has beaten two of the best teams in the American Athletic Conference, Southern Methodist and No. 18 Memphis. The latter win came on Saturday at FedExForum, improved Cincy’s record to 13-2 and cemented its status as a league title contender.
Senior forward Justin Jackson played a huge role in both victories. He scored 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting, grabbed six rebounds, blocked five shots and recorded five steals in the Bearcats’ home victory over SMU. On Saturday, he went for 13 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks to help the Bearcats deal Memphis its first loss in a conference game since February 2012.
“This is a huge win, and we have to keep everything rolling,” senior guard Sean Kilpatrick said afterward about he and his excited teammates. “This is just a stepping stone for us, and we have to keep it going as we continue conference play.”
While Jackson has made major contributions (11.9 ppg) on the offensive end, his defense and rebounding have been bigger factors in Cincinnati’s recent success. Jackson’s 14.8 block percentage ranks No. 10 in the country, and his offensive rebounding (15.1) and steal percentages (4.0) are both top-100 figures. Jackson has been especially effective at guarding opponents’ post-ups. He has allowed just 0.435 points per possession on that particular play type, according to Synergy Sports.
It’s possible that Cincinnati’s offense could improve as the season progresses, but this team’s biggest strengths undeniably are its defense (No. 3 in the country in points allowed per possession) and offensive rebounding (No. 3 in OR percentage).
Jackson has helped fuel the Bearcats’ elite defensive and rebounding work to date. The two games he helped them win this week show why.
Kansas State hits its stride
You could be forgiven for overlooking Kansas State.
It lost both its leading scorer, guard Rodney McGruder, and primary playmaker, point guard Angel Rodriguez, from last season’s Big 12 championship team. To defend its title, it would need to finish ahead of at least four likely NCAA Tournament teams: No. 6 Oklahoma State, No 13. Iowa State, no. 16 Kansas and No. 9 Baylor.
This was supposed to be a textbook transition year for Bruce Weber’s team.
So it wasn’t surprising when Kansas State didn’t play well early in the season. The Wildcats lost three of their first five games – including their season opener at home against Northern Colorado, who is ranked No. 157 in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings.
Since getting blown out by Georgetown (90-63) in the consolation game at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on Nov. 22, though, Kansas State has won nine straight games. That streak includes a win Saturday night again Oklahoma State.
“We felt like that was one of the toughest games we’ve played so far,” senior forward Thomas Gipson, who finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds, said after the game. “For us to be young and come out and get a huge win against the No. 6 team in the nation, that feels real good.”
Five days earlier, Kansas State beat a George Washington team ranked No. 66 in Kenpom’s ratings that has beaten Miami, Creighton, Maryland and Boston University.
Those two wins suggest Kansas State is not only playing much better than it was early in the season, but that it might be able to compete with the Bears, Cowboys, Cyclones and Jayhawks for the conference title.
What are the Wildcats doing well? What most of Weber’s teams have historically excelled at: defense. Kansas State ranks No. 12 in the country in defensive efficiency, No. 22 in effective field goal percentage defense and No. 4 in opponent three-point field goal percentage defense.
On Saturday, it held Oklahoma State to just 1.01 points per possession, well below its season average (1.18), and limited preseason first-team All-American guard Marcus Smart to 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting. The Cowboys seemed rattled by Kansas State’s physical defense.
“They just outplayed us. They played hard every time. They don’t care what the situation is, they just play. That’s what we need to do,” Cowboys guard Markel Brown said. “We played tentative and we need to play hard every game. That’s what I’m going to do from now on. Play 100 percent and give 100 percent.”
Kansas State is also getting key contributions from freshman guards Marcus Foster and Jevon Thomas. Foster, the Wildcats’ leading scorer (14.0 ppg), has helped mitigate the impact of McGruder’s departure and scored 17 points and grabbed eight rebounds on Saturday. Thomas, who sat out most of the first two months of the season as a partial qualifier, has bolstered Kansas State’s backcourt depth.
The two wins Kansas State picked up over the past week should vault it into the top 25. Whether it can remain ranked will depend on how it fares at Kansas next Saturday.
Dotson dunks Oregon to a win over Utah.
With the score tied and six seconds left in overtime of No. 10 Oregon’s game at Utah on Thursday night, Utes guard Dakarai Tucker inbounded the ball to forward Dallin Bachynski. His back to the basket, Bachynski turned and fired a two-handed pass across the paint that was deflected and stolen by Oregon guard Damyeon Dotson, who sprinted down the court and dunked the ball with 0.6 seconds remaining to give the Ducks a two-point lead. Utes guard Jordan Loveridge missed a last-ditch three-point attempt at the buzzer.
“That was unbelievable,” said Dotson said after the game. “I never had a game winner like that before. It’s the greatest feeling for me. That’s a great way to start conference [play].”
It was a brutal way for Utah (11-2, 0-1 Pac 12) to lose. As Tucker prepared to inbound the ball, the worst possible outcome for the Utes, it seemed, was that the game would go into a second overtime period. Instead, in a wild six-second sequence, Utah managed to squander what could have been a signature win. The Utes will be kicking themselves for this one.