The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of the night's best basketball action. Can you hear that? It's the sound of Indiana fans losing their ish harder than Fran McCaffery.
No. 15 San Diego State 75, New Mexico 70: I tend to take issue with the way the Coach of the Year award is voted on and decided. It's an entirely expectations-based award. At the beginning of the season, we all get together -- media, mostly, but fans and coaches, too -- sit down and decide which team is good and which team isn't. The formulas by which these expectations are reached are hardly advanced. They include some combination of returning starters and veteran presence, and the rating of the incoming recruiting class. Then, when a team overperforms or underperforms, we say "well, that team is disappointing, what happened to them?" or "hey, this team's really surprising, what a great job by that coach!" Meanwhile, coaches that coach teams that are supposed to be good -- like, say, Kentucky -- aren't see as COY-worthy, because how hard must it be to coach a team everyone knew was going to be good anyway?
See how silly this is?
Admit it: It is silly. And yet, when it comes to San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, and the job he's done with the 2012 Aztecs, I'm willing to forgo this entire semantics subsection and get behind the typical spirit of the award: San Diego State is the most surprising team in the country in 2012, and if the award was conferred today, Fisher would have to be the 2012 Coach of the Year.
After 2011's dream campaign, the Aztecs were supposed to return to Earth. Fisher lost Kawhi Leonard to the No. 15 overall pick. He lost seniors Billy White, Malcolm Thomas, D.J. Gay and Brian Carlwell. This team was supposed to be ... well, if not downright bad, then at least thoroughly mediocre. That's what happens. Or that's what's supposed to happen. We had an unforgettable year, now we rebuild, we'll be back, let's get to work. That sort of thing.
Instead, SDSU is once again a legitimate Mountain West contender. In the past week -- in their first two conference games, no less -- SDSU has edged UNLV by two points at Viejas Arena before Wednesday night's win, this 75-70 victory at a frenzied Pit in Albuquerque, N.M. That one's even more impressive, if you ask me. Sure, UNLV is a great team; the Runnin' Rebels will have much more to say about the MWC title before the season is out. But New Mexico hadn't lost a game since Nov. 24, playing some of the most well-rounded basketball on the West Coast.
The travails faced on the way to this win were impressive, too: San Diego State went down 10-0 early, fought back in the first half, lost its lead and trailed by six early in the second half, came roaring back to open a 59-48 lead with 7:30 left in the game, then ferociously protected that lead as New Mexico kept coming and coming and coming. Xavier Thames played big, as did Chase Tapley (no surprise there) and Jamal Franklin.
It's a cliché, but oh well: That's a gutty victory. It wasn't pretty. It didn't go according to plan. And the San Diego State Aztecs -- the apparently rebuilding San Diego State Aztecs, the well-that-was-cute-see-you-in-three-years San Diego State Aztecs, the one-last-Steve-Fisher-redemption-song San Diego State Aztecs -- are miles away from what we thought they were. This team isn't the 2011 edition. Of course not. But as we're learning this week, perhaps it doesn't have to be.
No. 18 Creighton 66, Missouri State 65: Yesterday afternoon, on my putative day off (extra credit! give me a cookie!) I did a quick radio hit with the fine folks at ESPN's 1700 The Champ in my home state's capitol of Des Moines, Iowa. At one point, the conversation drifted to Doug McDermott, Creighton's star and national player of the year candidate, and after I said some typically complimentary things about McDermott -- he scores so many ways, he's one of the few guys in the country worth seeking out on a nightly basis, Creighton is for real, and so on -- the host, Marty Tirrell, made a fantastic point: Greg McDermott is pretty good, too.
Why? As Marty said, because it's really, really hard to coach your own kid. Anyone who's ever played youth sports at a basic, recreational level can attest to that. You can't play favorites, but you don't want to be too hard on your own offspring just to prove a point, either. It's an incredibly delicate balance. With each rising level -- club sports, select teams, high school competition -- the stakes are a little higher, the balance more difficult to strike, the potential for resentment from the player and his teammates ever more likely. (Don't coach your kid in youth soccer. I'm telling you: The other parents are usually not worth it.)
But Greg McDermott and Doug McDermott are doing it at the collegiate level. It's not something we think about all that often, but the elder McDermott's has maintained his team's collective momentum as his own son has become a national star, balancing Doug's sudden leap with a sneaky-talented lineup that features a former Big East freshman of the year, Gregory Echenique, and a host of other talented players.
Those players have been overlooked this season, and that will continue to happen; such is the nature of mid-major stardom. But the Bluejays' 66-65 win at Missouri State -- a team that beat Creighton at home earlier this season and had won six straight in the series -- was an excellent example of why this team is so much more than Doug McDermott. He was good but not stellar, going 6-for-12 from the field (and 2-of-5 from beyond the arc) for 15 points, six rebounds and four turnovers. But Echenique was great (16 points on 5-0f-6 from the field, seven rebounds, two blocks) and the Bluejays got their biggest late buckets from role players like Josh Jones and Grant Gibbs. Those hoops helped ward off Kyle Weems and Co.'s very real upset bid.
The McDermotts have a good thing going. The father's failed tenure at Iowa State turning into a brilliant one at Creighton; the son who lived his high school career in the shadow of Harrison Barnes emerging as the more likely college hoops POY candidate in the most unlikely of ways. It's a great story, and one we'll talk about all season long. But the real Creighton Bluejays are more than a tidy familial redemption story. As great as Doug McDermott is, this team can be so much more.
Coverage links of note: Our Andy Katz was on hand for Cincinnati's huge road win against UConn in Storrs, and his recap of the proceedings is here. Meanwhile, Myron Medcalf broke down the Hoosiers' struggles after Indiana's brutal road loss -- in which Tom Crean's team blew an 11-point lead with six minutes remaining -- and was, if I may say so myself, absolutely spot on.
Everywhere else: Murray State remained undefeated in a very win-is-a-win 66-60 win at Morehead State, extending its undefeated record another night and even earning some top-of-broadcast love on the late edition of SportsCenter. During SC, my roommate Paul asked: "Is this team actually any good? That was not an impressive highlight." And he's right. It wasn't. But the Racers deserve credit for sticking out an ugly one on the road all the same. This undefeated thing might not last much longer, but it can't be discounted quite so easily. ... Less impressive: Mississippi State's ugly road loss to the same Ole Miss team that just lost in double-OT at Auburn. Winning on the road is hard and all, but still. ... Villanova handed Seton Hall its second straight road loss, and the Pirates will need to bounce back soon if they want to maintain their insurgent Big East status ... West Virginia was excellent again Wednesday night, topping a good Marshall team 78-62 in the Herd's home building; that's a really good win. ... Xavier won its fourth-straight A-10 game, 68-55 over Saint Joe's, and it appears the Musketeers are finally headed back in the right direction. ... UCF dropped Memphis by one in Florida. Once again, the C-USA will be no cakewalk for the Tigers ... and Kansas State got a solid 84-80 win against a Texas team which has sneakily turned into an efficient squad on both sides of the ball.