1. “It’s all about the ‘O'”
If going on the road and pulling out wins away from the confines of your home gym is a sign of a team’s potential Final Four mettle, what the Oregon Ducks were able to pull off a couple of Thursdays ago should put them at the head of the class in the race to Houston.
Dana Altman’s Ducks went into Tucson, where the Arizona Wildcats had won 49 consecutive games at the McKale Center, and proceeded to allow the Wildcats to shoot 73 percent from the floor in the first half and 61 percent for the contest.
Bad news, right? Nope. Oregon won by eight, 83-75, and only relinquished the lead once in the final 16 minutes of the game – when Arizona tied the contest at 64 at the 7:32 mark.
The hallmarks of Altman’s squads, especially during his tenure in Eugene, are usually athleticism and versatility, with as many four players on the court at any given time able to create his own shot. That same athleticism pays off at the defensive end, especially when they were able to force the Wildcats into 19 turnovers while scoring 21 points off of those Arizona’s miscues. The turnovers were the main reason Oregon was able to come back from a 13-point first half deficit, with the Ducks attempting 14 more field goal attempts and making one more shot from the field in the first than Arizona, even with the home team’s hot shooting.
In the game, five players scored in double figures, with four of those players – Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook, Tyler Dorsey and Chris Boucher – averaging double figures on the year. Brooks, who’s continuing the line of great players to come out of the Canadian province of Ontario, scored 24 against Arizona, hitting an array of tough mid-range jumpers to go along with a couple of threes.
Probably the most intriguing player on the team, and one of the most unique players in the country, is another foreigner, Chris Boucher, the Caribbean-born, Canadian-raised junior college player of the year in 2015 who has starred since his arrival on campus. Boucher, at 6-10 and a very lanky 190 pounds, leads D-1 with 81 total blocks, and he’s able to blocks shots from the weak side as well as while being bodied one-on-one. He’s no slouch on the offensive end as well, shooting 55 percent from the field and a respectable 34.7 percentage from beyond the arc. In the Ducks’ latest win, a 10-point win over Utah on Sunday, Boucher made six of his seven shots from the field, hit two three-pointers and blocked three shots in only 26 minutes of action.
As impressive as the win in Tucson was, the Ducks did not let complacency sink in afterward, as they followed that win with a hard-fought victory in Tempe against Arizona State, then followed that with two convincing home triumphs against surefire NCAA Tournament teams Colorado and Utah. Oregon, at 9-2 in conference play, sits alone atop the Pac-12, a league that currently has seven of its teams in the Top 35 of the RPI. (Oregon’s schedule currently ranks as the toughest overall schedule in Division-1.)
By the way, Oregon’s record against those other six Pac-12 teams is 6-2, including road victories against Arizona and Utah. The Ducks possess eight wins against teams in the RPI Top 50, which is the second-most such wins in the country, only trailing Virginia’s nine.
Those are the credentials of a team getting ready to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Even if the Ducks were to fall short of that achievement, that won’t take away the fact that they might be as equipped as any in the country to make a Final Four run.
2. She’s Golden
When you tie a near 30-year-old NCAA Division-I record, and don’t even remember half the things you did on your way to greatness, you know you’re “in the zone.”
That’s exactly where Minnesota senior guard Rachel Banham resided all game long on Sunday in Evanston, scoring a whopping 60 points in the 112-106 double-overtime victory against Northwestern. With apologies to Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, Banham was clearly the MVP in the sports world on Super Bowl Sunday.
Her 60 points allowed her to take the same stage as former Long Beach State star and Olympic champion Cindy Brown, who scored 60 in a game against San José State in February of 1987.
When asked about the once-in-a-lifetime performance to lift the Golden Gophers to their 15th victory overall, Banham ran into her toughest defender of the day: her memory.
“I don’t even remember half the points right now,” said Banham after the game, according to the Star Tribune. “I think I’m still on the rush of the whole thing that happened. It’s all so surreal.”
Let’s help Rachel fill in some of the gaps of her great performance. In the first half, she scored 20 points – including hitting five three-pointers – but her team went into intermission down 46-40. The third and fourth quarters saw Banham score 22 more points total, with her most important tallies coming when she hit three free throws after being fouled on a three-point attempt with 46 seconds left to cut Northwestern’s lead to one. (Minnesota tied the game on a Carlie Wagner free throw with 10 seconds left.) In the first overtime, Banham scored five points in the final 36 seconds, including a driving layup with 2.4 seconds in the extra frame to tie the game at 92. Finally, in the second overtime, Banham put the game away, scoring an And-1 off of a top-of-the-key jumper with 50.5 seconds remaining to give the Gophers a 107-102 lead.
Banham, who missed most of last season after tearing two ligaments – including her ACL – in her right knee last December in a game at North Dakota, is now third in scoring in D-1 with a 25.8 scoring average. She’s also climbing the all-time Division 1 scoring list, as her performance on Sunday not only moved her career points total to 2,773, ranking 24th all time, but she passed college basketball greats Courtney Paris (Oklahoma), Chiney Ogwumike (stamford), Becky Hammon (Colorado State) and Karen Pelphrey (Marshall) in the all-time scoring charts during the game.
3. No mocking these Mocs
Who needs your leading scorer, rebounder and assist person? And who needs all of that firepower heading into your most marquee game of the season?
Days before Chattanooga headed to the Buckeye State to take on a Dayton Flyers’ team that had just beaten then No. 21 Vanderbilt at the always tough Memorial Gym in Nashville, the Mocs’ all-everything player, Southern Conference preseason Player of the Year Casey Jones, suffered an ankle injury in practice, ruling the senior guard out for that game – and every other game since then.
Not only did the Mocs end up winning the contest, a 61-59 barnburner at University of Dayton Arena, Chattanooga has used that win, amidst the adversity they faced going into it, as a springboard to what could lead to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009.
Actually, the heck with that last statement; the Mocs could be Sweet 16 good, an achievement they pulled off almost 20 years ago as a 14 seed, in 1997.
Including Monday’s thrilling 72-66 overtime victory on the road against fellow SoCon championship contender Mercer, the Mocs have won nine in a row, 17 of their last 18 games and 19 of their last 21. With Jones still sidelined, the key to the Mocs’ consistency and winning has been a balanced scoring attack. Eight different players average at least seven points per game, though no one averages more than 13 points per game. (Jones leads in scoring average, with a 12.6 average in eight games.) Furthermore, 10 different players have scored at least 10 points in a game this season, and all of those players have scored double figures in points in multiple contests.
Not only did that balance lead to a win on the road against Dayton, but that also has helped them secure road victories against two other Power Five conference teams, Georgia and Illinois. Because of those victories, their computer numbers (No. 45 in RPI as of Monday) are respectable enough that an at-large bid is still a legitimate possibility even if they do not win the Southern Conference Tournament – assuming they take care of business in the final six games of the regular season.
Interview of the Week: Brandon Sherrod
At this time last year, Brandon Sherrod was part of a Yale team with 13 other people. Instead of the basketball team, it was with the Yale Whiffenpoofs, the oldest collegiate a cappella group in the world. A three-year letterwinner going into 2014-15, Sherrod had to drop the sport of basketball altogether last season to travel across the country and the world with the “Whiffs.” Back on the basketball team this season, Sherrod has been a perfect compliment inside to last season’s Ivy League Player of the Year, Justin Sears, as the Bulldogs have started 6-0 in Ivy League play. After Yale’s 86-72 victory against Columbia on Friday, we had a chance to talk with Sherrod, and it was one of the more rewarding interviews we ever got a chance to conduct. Enjoy the talk about basketball, singing, Tanzanian sunrises and talking to the referees before games.
Game(s) of the Week:
Men: No. 10 West Virginia at No. 6 Kansas, 7:00 PM ET, Tuesday, ESPN2: Is this where the streak finally ends? Kansas, who has won at least a share of the Big 12 regular season championship in each of the last 11 seasons, would fall two games behind the Mountaineers, leaders of the Big 12 with an 8-2 record, if the Jayhawks don’t protect The Phog on Tuesday. What the Jayhawks MUST DO on Tuesday is protect the ball, as Bob Huggins’ charges lead the country in turnovers forced, almost averaging 19 turnovers forced per game. During their 11-year hegemony of the Big 12, Kansas’ worst conference record during the run was 12-4. (Kansas is 7-3 in Big 12 play going into Tuesday.)
Women (…that’s not UConn vs. South Carolina): No. 19 Miami at No. 3 Notre Dame, 1:00 PM ET, Sunday: Including last season’s conference tournament, the Fighting Irish have won 27 consecutive games against ACC opponents, including last Sunday’s come-from-behind 66-61 victory in Louisville. Notre Dame’s last loss in ACC play, however, came on Jan. 8 of last year in Coral Gables against the Miami Hurricanes, a 78-63 decision in which Katie Meier’s squad led by 20 at halftime. As a matter-of-fact, that remains Notre Dame’s only loss to an ACC opponent since moving to the conference. Unlike last season, Sunday’s game is in South Bend, though we’re sure that Canes guard Adrienne Motley will try to prove that her 32 points against the Irish in the win last season was no fluke.
[Cover photo (Oregon Ducks bench) courtesy of Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images]