With school finals going on across the country, it was another slow week in college hoops. That doesn't mean that there still wasn't a lot going on. If you weren't paying attention, here's what you might have missed.
Team of the Week: Kentucky
The Wildcats were the team of the week, after playing what was unquestionably the game of the year so far. In a battle of two of college basketball’s best all-time programs, Kentucky beat North Carolina in a 103-100 thriller in Las Vegas, thanks to a staggering 47 points from Malik Monk.
And while it’s only December, this was a wildly important win for Kentucky. Not only because they beat another marquee program in Carolina, but because after losing to UCLA a few weeks ago the Wildcats needed a signature win to add to their resume. Had they lost, many would have questioned if they were true title contenders, or just a good team that beats up on inferior opponents. Now we can comfortably say that this UK squad can not only play in, but win big games against elite teams. They also enter SEC play with a noteworthy win as they now pursue a No. 1 seed down the road.
The extra perk for Kentucky? Beyond 47 from Malik Monk, they got 24 points from fellow freshman guard De’Aaron Fox, with an additional 13 and 7 from forward Bam Adebayo (who did foul out at the end of the game). This wasn’t a one-man show, but three freshmen rising on the big stage. And that’s huge for Kentucky.
Player of the Week: Malik Monk, Kentucky
This pick was so easy, a caveman could do it (whoops, my bad. Forgot people stopped making this reference four years ago). Either way, the answer here couldn’t be anyone other than Monk. It wasn’t just that he scored 47 points. But he did it against one of the best teams in college basketball.
Even more impressive is that Monk seemed to make his biggest shots when his team needed them the most. When Carolina cut the lead to 74-72? Monk hit a two-pointer. And when they cut the lead to 93-91? Monk came through again. When UK fell down 98-95? No biggie, he was there. And of course, the game-winning dagger late.
John Calipari always says, "I can’t hide players at Kentucky." Well, he doesn’t have to worry about hiding Monk. He seems to play his best when Kentucky needs him most.
Milestone of the Week: West Virginia coach Bob Huggins picks up his 800th win
Maybe it’s because of his sometimes surly attitude. Or that he coaches at a relatively quiet basketball outpost in Morgantown. Or even that he chooses to wear workout clothes on the sideline rather than a coat and tie. Either way, Bob Huggins has never truly gotten the respect he deserves as one of the best coaches in the game.
He should get some this week after picking up his 800th win Saturday. Incredibly, he is just the 10th person to do that at the Division I level, a feat that guys like Lute Olson and Jerry Tarkanian never accomplished, and a number that neither Roy Williams or Rick Pitino has hit yet either.
What might be even more impressive is that Huggins hasn’t done it at traditional powers or with a ton of elite players. While guys like Coach K, John Calipari and Williams have coached more future NBA stars than anyone can count, Huggins has coached just four consensus All-Americans in his career. And who is his best NBA player? Nick Van Exel? Kenyon Martin? No one has done more with less than Huggins. He’ll likely be rewarded soon, with an induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Mid-Major of the Week: Northeastern
A few weeks ago they went into Gampel Pavilion and knocked off UConn. On Sunday Northeastern did it again. They stunned Michigan State at the Breslin Center, with three starters finishing the game in double-figures.
Now part of this is an indictment on Michigan State – which fell to just 7-5 on the year – but let’s not take credit away from Northeastern either. They jumped out to a lead early and even when Michigan State went on a run shortly after the break, Northeastern actually opened up a double-digit lead late in the second half. Northeastern was the better team on Sunday and deserved this win.
Disappointment of the Week: Syracuse
It’s been a season to forget for the Orange so far, made even worse Saturday. In a matchup of old Big East rivals, the Georgetown Hoyas went into the Carrier Dome and shocked the Orange 78-71. Add it in with losses to South Carolina, Wisconsin and UConn and Syracuse will enter ACC play without a signature win on its resume.
The worst part is that there wasn’t one thing which cost the Orange the game against Georgetown, but a multitude of issues they need to clean up. Leading scorer Andrew White shot just 3 of 11 from the floor, Syracuse was easily outrebounded by the Hoyas, they missed a bunch of foul shots and starting guard Frank Howard had six turnovers.
When you do all those things wrong you’re not going to win many games. And if Syracuse doesn’t clean it up, it’s hard to imagine them doing much damage in the ACC either. It’s also very likely they’ll be watching the NCAA Tournament from home like you and I.
Mark KoneznyUSA TODAY Sports
Juggernaut No One Is Talking About: Gonzaga
Whenever anyone discusses the true national championship favorites, the same few names come up: Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA. Quietly though, Gonzaga is playing as well as any of them.
Now look, I know we say it every year, but this actually might be Mark Few’s best team in Spokane. They once again have size with three guys in their rotation 6’10 or bigger (including a member of my "I don’t know why I like him so much, but I do anyway" All-Star team, freshman Killian Tillie), and this year they’re getting great guard play from Nigel Williams-Goss, Josh Perkins and Jordan Matthews.
Are they in the same breath as Duke, UCLA, Kentucky and Kansas? Considering the ‘Zags have wins over Arizona, Florida, Iowa State and Washington it’s hard to argue against it. This team is good enough to get to Phoenix (site of this year’s Final Four). And yes, maybe win it too.
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Surprise of the Season: USC Trojans
While all of the focus on the Los Angeles college hoops scene is on UCLA (and rightfully so) their cross-town rivals also enter the week undefeated. And what’s most impressive is that they’ve largely done it without one of their best players; forward Bennie Boatwright has been limited to just five games with a knee injury.
Others have stepped up in his absence though. Chimezie Metu – who has an NBA future ahead of him – has nearly doubled his numbers from last year, and Louisville transfer Shaqquan Aaron is averaging 12 a game. The best news? You’ll get plenty of chances to see the Trojans this week, in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic, which will air on FS1 this Thursday and Friday.
What You Need to Watch This Coming Week
With the Christmas holiday taking up the weekend, it’s another quiet college hoops slate. But no worries, starting next week there will be plenty to talk about. The Pac-12 opens conference play (highlighted by a mega UCLA-Oregon showdown on opening night) as well as the Big East, where Villanova will play Creighton on New Year’s Eve.
Before that though, the game to keep an eye on this week is on Wednesday, when Kentucky travels to Louisville. The game (which is usually played on the Saturday before New Year’s) was moved to mid-week this year, but should have the same intensity it always does, with both sitting in the Top 15 of the poll with a combined 18-2 record.