Here are a few things that caught my attention while watching games on Saturday:
1. Saturday’s top performance was turned in by BYU’s Tyler Haws, who did his best Jimmer Fredette impersonation by scoring 42 points in the Cougars’ 97-71 victory over Virginia Tech in Salt Lake City. Haws had 29 points in the first half, when he went 9-of-13 from the field and connected on six of eight 3-point attempts. BYU’s defense also deserves praise for holding Hokies guard Erick Green to 12 points on 4-of-17 shooting. Green entered the game averaging 25.4 points for a Virginia Tech squad (9-4) which has fizzled after a 7-0 start that included a victory against Oklahoma State.
2. I don’t understand the people who say Duke has hit its ceiling and that the Blue Devils aren’t going to get any better. Um, why not? Rasheed Sulaimon is a freshman who has played 12 college basketball games. Sophomore Quinn Cook, who saw limited action last season, is seven weeks deep into his first season as the Blue Devils’ point guard. Why would anyone think those players wouldn’t improve as the season progresses? With Cook and Sulaimon trending upward and with Mason Plumlee increasing his lead in the national player of the year race -- he had 22 points, 13 boards and 5 assists in Saturday’s 90-77 win over Santa Clara -- I think Duke will continue to get better. And that’s scary.
3. I’m sure most people would agree with me, so this may not be a very bold statement, but if the season ended today, I’d vote Louisville’s Russ Smith as a first-team All-American. And I wouldn’t hesitate. Smith had 21 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals in Saturday’s 80-77 victory over Kentucky and was especially huge down the stretch. If Smith continues to perform at a high level -- and there’s no reason to believe he won’t -- I think Louisville will be the team to beat in March and April. Chane Behanan is playing like a beast, Gorgui Dieng will be back in rhythm within a week or two, Wayne Blackshear will continue to improve and, defensively, the Cardinals will be as good as any team around. Throw in a Hall of Fame coach on the sideline and one of America’s best floor leaders (Peyton Siva) at point guard and it’s hard to be anything but optimistic about Louisville’s future.
4. Kentucky showed some encouraging signs in Saturday’s loss, mainly at the point guard spot, where Ryan Harrow finished with 17 points on 8-of-15 shooting. He did not commit a turnover in 39 minutes. But he also had just three assists. Even when Harrow is playing well, it’s clear that this UK team doesn’t have much of a shot to repeat as NCAA champions. Even winning an SEC title will be a challenge. The Wildcats don’t have a true scorer in the post, they lack an elite level point guard, have zero depth in the backcourt and don’t have a leader. That doesn’t mean this team can’t be very, very good. I just don’t expect to see Kentucky in Atlanta come March. Enjoy it while you can, Big Blue haters. The Cats won’t be down for long.
5. Nice win for North Carolina against UNLV, but this Tar Heels team still looks soft to me, both physically and mentally. Maybe I'm still having trouble shaking the memories of that Texas loss when the Longhorns made UNC -- particularly its guards -- look foolish.
6. Part of me wants to be excited about Maryland, but good gosh, has anyone looked at its schedule? The Terrapins have won 11 straight since a season-opening loss to Kentucky, but their most impressive victory is either against George Mason or Northwestern, which is the only school from a "power six" conference that Mark Turgeon’s squad has faced. Maryland blew out Delaware State 79-50 Saturday and will now turn its attention to a highly anticipated face off against IUPUI on New Year’s Day.
7. Oregon State pulled off one of the biggest choke jobs of the season Saturday when it blew a 19-point lead at home in a 67-66 overtime loss to Towson. Marcus Damas won it with an 18-foot jumper with eight-tenths of a second remaining. Georgetown transfer Jerrelle Benimon had 20 points and 21 rebounds (the sport's first 20-20 of the season) for Towson, which improved to 5-8. Pat Skerry’s Tigers have made significant strides after going 1-31 a year ago. Oregon State, meanwhile, fell to 9-3 and saw its five-game winning streak end.
8. As bad as the Towson loss was for OSU coach Craig Robinson, who entered the season on the hot seat, it was even more damaging for the Pac-12, whose reputation was in shambles following a 2011-12 campaign so embarrassing that its regular-season champion (Washington) didn’t even get an NCAA tournament bid. As if the Beavers’ meltdown wasn’t bad enough, the conference took another hit Saturday when Cal lost to depleted Harvard. At home. Arizona and UCLA may be better but, overall, this is still a very bad league. Sorry if that stings, but it’s the truth. If the Pac-12 was good, then Cal and Oregon State wouldn’t lose home games to Harvard and Towson, Arizona State wouldn’t get blown out by DePaul, Washington wouldn't lose to Albany and USC wouldn’t lose to UC-Irvine. Utah wouldn’t lose to Cal State Northridge and ... well, you get the picture.
9. On the flip side, the Horizon League had a solid showing Saturday, as Loyola ended DePaul's seven-game win streak and Valparaiso handed Isaiah Canaan and Murray State an extremely rare home loss with a 66-64 victory. Ryan Broekhoff had 18 points for the Crusaders and Jordan Coleman added 10. Valpo outrebounded Murray State 38-25 and forced 17 turnovers.
10. Trey Burke had 22 points, 11 assists and only one turnover in Michigan’s 88-73 victory over Central Michigan. Nearly two months into the season, Burke is my choice as the nation’s top point guard. That could certainly change, of course. Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse), Phil Pressey (Missouri), Canaan (Murray State), Pierre Jackson (Baylor), Peyton Siva (Louisville) and Matthew Dellavedova (Saint Mary’s) are all having great seasons, but Burke has been the most consistent and well-rounded thus far.