The world of college hoops will be dark on Sunday, Christmas Day, and on Monday as well -- not a single Division 1 game will be played on either day. But in a scheduling quirk, there is one single solitary game this Saturday, a pre-Christmas Eve contest. The Louisville Cardinals will host the Detroit Titans at 12:05 p.m. ET (available on ESPN Full Court).
The Detroit players and coaches are psyched for the game. "It's a little strange to play on Christmas Eve, but we all want this game," Detroit guard Brandon Cotton says. "It's a great opportunity to go up against one of the top teams in the country."
"It'll be a good learning experience, playing under these circumstances," Detroit coach Perry Watson says. "Hopefully we'll be focused and ready for the challenge."
Most of Detroit's players are local, from the state of Michigan, so they'll be able to travel back to Detroit and get home in time to spend Christmas Eve with their families. A couple players who live farther away will fly directly home from Louisville. The Titans don't play again until New Year's Eve, at South Carolina, so they won't reconvene until Dec. 28.
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Louisville's roster, on the other hand, includes players from 11 different states, plus one player (Juan Palacios) originally from Colombia. And the Cardinals play next on Dec. 28, at home vs. Fairleigh Dickinson. So they'll be staying on campus for Christmas. There will be a team dinner Christmas Eve after the game. And the players who can't be with their families on Christmas Day will spend the day at one of the coaches' houses.
"We're very limited with what dates we can schedule games early in the season at Freedom Hall," says Louisville associate coach Kevin Willard. "Christmas Eve was an open date, and we thought we could turn it into a nice day ... We'll get together afterwards and be thankful for our health and the opportunities we have here."
To all college hoops players and coaches, particularly the ones who are spending the holidays away from their families: Thank you for all the joy you bring us college hoops fans.
Well, it's actually not Paul Millsap. He's merely sixth in the nation right now, at 12.0 per game (Rashad Jones-Jennings of Arkansas-Little Rock is averaging 12.8). But I'd bet on Millsap being on top at the end of the season. After all, he's led the nation in that category each of the past two years.
A 6-8, 245-pound junior from Louisiana Tech, Millsap is simply a rebounding machine. After posting 12.5 boards per game his freshman year, and 12.4 his sophomore year, he became the first player ever to win two consecutive NCAA rebounding titles in his freshman and sophomore seasons. And he's only the fifth player to win back-to-back rebounding titles overall, joining such players as Jerry Lucas and Artis Gilmore -- pretty impressive company.
Speaking of impressive company, look who Millsap beat out for the top spot the past two years: Emeka Okafor (who finished third) in 2003-04, and Andrew Bogut (second) last season.
But you won't hear Millsap brag much. He lets his rebounding do the talking. "I don't really get too worked up about that stuff," says Millsap. "It feels good, but I'm not too big on all the attention."
His coach, Keith Richard, gets a little more worked up. "When we signed him, we knew we got a good player," says Richard. "But we had no idea about this rebounding thing. After just one week of practice, we knew we had something special going on here."
How does Millsap do it? He's not particularly tall or strong for a power forward. "He has a sixth sense for where the ball is coming off the rim," says Richard. "He's a quick jumper in traffic, and he's got good hands. And he's relentless."
Millsap credits his mental approach. "A lot of people give up on plays," he says. "I think every shot is going to miss."
Millsap is more than just a rebounder. He's averaging 21.3 points per game this season, as well -- making him one of just four players in the country averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. This past week, he notched 24 points and 13 boards in a win vs. McNeese State, 27 and 12 boards in a 76-58 loss at Memphis, and 25 points and eight boards (in only 17 minutes of action) in a win over NAIA Tougaloo College.
Problem is, his supporting cast hasn't been up to par. For instance, none of his teammates scored more than eight points against Memphis.
Millsap does get frustrated sometimes. He was recruited by bigger schools, like LSU and Oklahoma, but he came to Louisiana Tech (known best for former player Karl Malone) because of its proximity to his family, hoping to lead the Bulldogs to their first NCAA Tournament since 1991. But that hasn't happened yet.
The Bulldogs are 7-5 so far this season. No matter what happens the rest of the way, Millsap is planning on considering a jump to the NBA next year. "I talked to [NBA senior VP of operations] Stu Jackson about Paul," says Richard. "He said he still needs to improve offensively, but that he has an NBA skill in rebounding ... they're intrigued."
College hoops fans across the country should be intrigued, too. Check out a Louisiana Tech game on TV this season if you can.
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Big mistake on my part. Boy, did they bounce back. And Tubby Smith deserves a gold star for his chemistry experiment, switching his starting lineup -- specifically adding Joe Crawford, Sheray Thomas and Lukasz Obrzut. All three made significant contributions, particularly early on. The Wildcats jumped out to a double-digit lead in the first seven minutes of the game and never looked back, beating Louisville 73-61.
Throw in the news that Randolph Morris will be able to return this season after all -- and suddenly the Kentucky faithful have a lot to be excited about again. I'm excited to watch them again, too.
The Wildcats are currently 7-3, and their losses have come against pretty good competition -- UConn, Michigan St. and Houston. But they still haven't played up to their potential. And a couple of off-the-court incidents, including senior Hassan Adams' recent arrest for disturbing the peace, don't bode well for the rest of the season. But we'll see how they respond in crucial games coming up against Washington and UCLA in the next couple weeks.
"I'll tell you what, that was a beautiful win."
Anyone else who watched this game would probably disagree with Mr. Prosser. After all, the Demon Deacons shot only 30 percent from the field. Trent Strickland, who's averaging 15.1 points per game, managed just two points, on free throws. Luckily for Wake, Richmond was even worse from the field, shooting only 26 percent.
Nevertheless, it's a good sign that Wake, a team that normally relies on its offense to win games, was able to pull out a scrappy defensive battle like this.
Thoughts from games I watched this past week:
• UCLA's starting backcourt -- Jordan Farmar and (especially) Aaron Afflalo -- doesn't get quite the attention it deserves. The duo came up big in a win over Michigan. And the fact that Michigan's leading scorer, Courtney Sims, got off only two shots from the field is a great credit to the Bruins' defense.
• Louisville will suffer at the start of Big East play after playing such a light early-season schedule. The Cardinals clearly weren't ready for Kentucky, and they've got tough conference games in January against Villanova, Pittsburgh and UConn. Luckily for the Cards, all three of those games are at home. But I expect them to lose at least one, maybe two.
• Ohio State and Iowa State are two really fun teams to watch, particularly because of their great guards. I think Ohio State will be a major factor in the Big 10 this season.
• I'm still riding the Indiana bandwagon after watching the Hoosiers take down Charlotte in Charlotte. After UConn, they might be the deepest team in the country. Seems like everyone on their roster can knock down the 3, including Marco Killingsworth. And if D.J. White can get back in playing shape and do some damage down low alongside Killingsworth, the Hoosiers will have a lethal inside-outside attack.
• JamesOn Curry's scoring has been a bit erratic this season. But he's a much better all-around player than I realized. He played a very complete game Thursday night against Tennessee, with 16 points, seven assists and seven rebounds. He was unselfish and displayed great court vision. Don't sleep on Oklahoma St. -- the Cowboys probably should have beaten Gonzaga, and they could still be a big factor in the Big 12 this season.
• West Virginia's offense was firing on all cylinders Thursday night -- so much fun to watch -- in a huge win over Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. The Mountaineers shot an astounding 66.7 percent from the field against the Sooners. Don't sleep on the Mountaineers, either -- seems like everyone forgot about them after they lost three straight in November to Texas, Kentucky and LSU.HISTORY
That made me curious about Izzo's playing career. It's widely known that Izzo and former San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions coach Steve Mariucci are great friends. But did you know they were high school teammates in football, basketball, baseball and track? And, as college roommates at Northern Michigan, Izzo walked on to the basketball team, while Mariucci walked on to the football team. Both eventually earned Division II All-America honors.
Izzo played for Northern Michigan from 1973-77, set the school record for most minutes played in a season, and was voted team MVP as a senior. After graduation, he was a high school head coach for one year before going back to NMU as an assistant coach. In 1983, he joined the Michigan State staff as an assistant.
I'm not going to argue with Calipari's decision here (although I would start Carney if I were coaching Memphis). But Carney looks like he's mastering the art of being a sixth man. This past week, he came off the bench to score 19 points against Ole Miss (despite being under the weather), and then dropped 37 points on Louisiana Tech!
Calipari has done this before -- Carney came off the bench in 10 games last season, including all eight of Memphis' postseason games (C-USA tourney and NIT). It would bother a lot of players in Carney's position -- but it doesn't seem to faze him. Here's a quote from Carney after the Mississippi game: "Whatever [Calipari] thinks he needs to do for us to win ... if it's coming off the bench and giving a spark, that's what I'm going to do. I'm not mad about it at all. If he starts me, if he puts me on the bench, I'm going to be ready to play."
It takes a special mind-set to be a successful sixth man, particularly in Carney's situation. Seems like he's got it.
So, I thought I'd recommend a Michael Jordan book this week. There are so many -- for instance, when I searched for Michael Jordan on BarnesandNoble.com, 719 results came up. But if you get a chance, pick up a copy of David Halberstam's "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," published in February 2000. Halberstam is a wonderful writer, and this book includes coverage of Jordan's college years at North Carolina under Dean Smith.
Which brings me to this week's poll question. Christmas Eve always features some fun TV options -- and this year we also get almost a full slate of NFL games. What do you want to watch the most this Christmas Eve? Please vote in the poll at the top-right of this page.
And remember, please do send me questions for next week's column, or nominations for the different subject categories. You can e-mail me here. Now, here are a couple of the questions I received in the past week:
Honestly, who thought the Illini would be undefeated so far? I know conference play hasn't started, but still ... what's going on? I thought Illinois was supposed to struggle this year?
-- Chad, Gurnee, Ill.
I'm not surprised the Illini have a very good record right now -- I am surprised they've managed to go undefeated (12-0). Illinois still has some very experienced veterans -- particularly Dee Brown and James Augustine, of course. And that experience has helped them pull out a few very close games -- by one against Wichita St., by four at UNC and by three vs. Xavier. They should win their next two games and remain undefeated heading into 2006. But I expect their first L to come on Jan. 5 vs. Michigan St.
I was looking at the Baylor Bears' schedule and noticed they don't play their first game until they travel to Texas Tech on Jan. 11. What's the reason for the prolonged start to their season?
-- Ross Gunn, Chicago
Because of NCAA sanctions levied on the program after the Dave Bliss regime, Baylor was not permitted to play a nonconference schedule this season. The team just held its second official scrimmage of the season in Dallas on Monday. It remains to be seen how the team will respond after a three-month "preseason," but coach Scott Drew has collected some good young talent, particularly sophomore guard Aaron Bruce. They could surprise a couple Big 12 contenders in the coming months.
This is probably the weirdest week of the regular season, with just Louisville-Detroit on Saturday and no games Sunday or Monday. But there's one game on Tuesday night that's absolutely must-see TV:
Gonzaga at Memphis (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2): This game could have huge seeding implications a couple months from now -- going forward, neither team should be challenged much in its respective conference. Memphis has one significant nonconference game left after this one, Jan. 2 vs. Texas. The Zags have a Feb. 11 date with Stanford, but the Cardinal are currently 4-4. The bottom line is, it's not just a great game -- it's a really important one, too. The winner will have a leg up on possibly securing a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.
Kieran Darcy is an editor at ESPN.com and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.