Do you believe in magic?
Matt Sylvester does. A couple of days before Ohio State took on 29-0 Illinois in its final regular-season game last March, the Buckeyes forward said to a teammate, "Wouldn't it be unbelievable to score 25 points and hit the game-winner against Illinois?" Sylvester's career high was only 17 points. And he wasn't even a starter.
But with 5.1 seconds left against the Illini, Sylvester buried the 3-pointer heard 'round college basketball, giving the Buckeyes a shocking 65-64 win. Sylvester finished the game with a new career high ... 25 points.
This season, OSU is off to an 11-0 start. But things haven't gone as smoothly for Sylvester, now a fifth-year senior. He's a starter now, but he has struggled shooting the basketball. Through the Buckeyes' first nine games, Sylvester was shooting just 31.4 percent from the field, down from 45 percent last season. He was only 25 percent from 3-point range, and his scoring average was down to 5.1 points per game, compared with 8.0 a year ago.
Matt needed a little more magic. And he found some, with a little help from a friend.
Josh Ellis, a sophomore at OSU, was in Sylvester's badminton class -- yes, badminton class -- this past fall. The two struck up a friendship. Ellis watched his friend struggle with his shot early in the season. And he thought he might have a solution.
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As the Buckeyes were warming up before their game against LSU this past Saturday, Ellis tried to make his way courtside to talk to Sylvester. But there was a female security guard standing in his way. He decided to tell her the truth: "I have Matt Sylvester's lucky beads!"
Ellis had caught these Mardi Gras-style silver beads from an Ohio State cheerleader who was throwing them into the crowd last spring ... during that same Illinois game. The Buckeyes were trailing by eight with about five minutes left to play when he caught them. After OSU came back to win thanks to Sylvester's shot, Ellis, who admits to being very superstitious, considered them his lucky beads. From then on, he took them to exams. He took them to football games. He took them all over the place.
The security guard let Ellis pass, and he made his way down to the court, calling out Sylvester's name. Sylvester came over. He'd been getting a little tired of people giving him tips, telling him how to break out of his slump. But Ellis explained the beads to him. "I told him that he was the one who made them lucky," Ellis says. "It only seemed right that they would help him back." Sylvester shoved the beads inside one of his socks and wore them throughout the entire LSU game.
So what happened? Well, the Buckeyes trailed by 10, 76-66, with two and a half minutes left. But they stormed back to cut the deficit to 76-75, then got the ball with a chance to win the game. Je'Kel Foster had the ball, was double-teamed around the free-throw line, but was able to dish it to Sylvester, wide open in the left corner. And with 5.5 seconds left, Sylvester launched another potential game-winning 3-pointer. Nothing but net. OSU won, 78-76.
Sylvester had his best game of the season against LSU, finishing with 14 points, including the game-winner. "I'm wearing those beads every game the rest of the season," Sylvester says. "And I owe Josh a steak dinner. Any kind of dinner he wants."
The two ended up going out for dinner Thursday night, after Ohio State's 104-69 walloping of Penn State. Sylvester's parents took them to Damon's Grill in Columbus, where Matt insisted Josh have a steak ... and retell the story of the beads.
Josh was happy to oblige. Hey, that's what friends are for.
Novak was just a freshman then, coming off the bench. But he came up huge in Marquette's tourney run. He went 3-for-3 from 3-point range in overtime in Marquette's second-round win over Missouri. He knocked down three more 3s against Pittsburgh in the next round. And he drilled five treys against Kentucky in the regional final.
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Novak's next two seasons didn't go as well. Wade made the leap to the NBA after the Final Four. And Marquette has had to settle for two straight NITs. Now Diener's in the NBA, too, and it's Novak's team. He has some young talent around him. But Marquette just joined the Big East, the deepest conference in the country, and the Golden Eagles were picked to finish 12th out of 16 teams in the league coaches' preseason poll.
So what did Marquette do in its first-ever Big East game Tuesday night? Oh, just blew out the No. 2 team in the country, undefeated UConn, 94-79. And what did Novak do in his first-ever Big East game? Oh, just put up 41 points and 16 rebounds.
41 points and 16 rebounds. No wonder he got a call from Diener right after the game. That performance deserves an A+, doesn't it?
Novak, despite his size (6-foot-10) is one of the best pure shooters in the country. Last season, he was sixth in the nation in 3-point percentage (46.1). And he has made 63 consecutive free throws, dating back to year. "I've never had a kid work harder than Steve, particularly on shooting," Marquette coach Tom Crean says.
But Novak also has a knack for coming up big when it counts the most. Besides the games already mentioned, he scored 28 points in the championship game of the Great Alaska Shootout against South Carolina earlier this season and was named the tourney's MVP. And his previous career high, before the UConn game? Thirty points in a huge road win vs. Louisville his sophomore year.
But Novak played at an even higher level against the Huskies on Tuesday. He was all over the glass. He was extremely aggressive looking for his shots. And he connected on so many. He finished 12-for-20 from the field, including six 3s.
Why does Novak play so well in big games? "Steve's got a good balance of focus and intensity, yet he has a certain calmness about him," Crean says. "When he's really locked in, he can play with just about anybody."
"When I have my best games, I don't even really think about my shot," Novak says. "I'm just so focused."
Novak's main focus is getting back to the Big Dance. If he can lead the Golden Eagles there, he'll have all the friends he could ever want around Marquette.
But no matter what, Novak should get a chance to join his friends Travis and Dwyane in the NBA next year.
Second, Barnes went to a 2-3 zone for much of the game, which also was very effective. Granted, a big reason why Barnes went to the zone was foul trouble -- LaMarcus Aldridge picked up his third foul about midway through the first half. But Memphis struggled against the 2-3, and he stuck with it. Instead of penetrating and attacking Texas inside, the Tigers too often got lazy and settled for bad 3-point attempts. They finished 6-for-32 from long range and scored only 58 points -- 29 below their season average.
Gonzaga is an outstanding offensive team -- as of Monday (and the latest numbers posted by the NCAA), the Zags are 32nd in the country, averaging 79.5 points per game. But they're giving up 74.5 per game. That's 279th in the nation, out of 326 D-I teams.
I love watching Gonzaga play. When the team is really rolling offensively, I believe in my heart the Zags can make the Final Four, maybe even win the national championship. But my mind sees these numbers and says they can do neither playing this kind of defense. It's simply not good enough. Gonzaga is allowing teams to shoot 44.6 percent from the field, and let St. Joe's shoot 53.6 percent in Spokane.
Gonzaga's defense won't hurt too much in conference play. The Zags should still dominate the WCC. But when the NCAA Tournament comes around, they're going to come up against a very good defensive team at some point. Or they're just going to have an off night offensively. And as of now, their defense just isn't good enough to pick up the slack in those situations. That could spell doom.
"I assume we will drop out of the top 35 now. We were No. 24 when we went to Utah, then dropped out of the top 25. We only won by 30 at Utah, of course. I hope now we can stay in the top 35."
Someone sounds a little bitter, huh? But I like it. I like Olson's edginess. And I love the guts Arizona displayed in coming back from 13 down at halftime to beat Washington, which owned the nation's longest home winning streak (32 games).
Arizona just didn't look right earlier this season, especially when the Wildcats lost Dec. 3 at Houston. They eventually dropped out of the Top 25, after making 312 consecutive regular-season AP Top-25 polls -- although they were dropped after a week in which their only game was a blowout win at Utah. But this week, the Wildcats are ranked once more (No. 21 AP, No. 23 ESPN/USA Today).
Problem is, Arizona turned around and lost a home game to UCLA on Thursday night. That loss could bounce the Cats back out of the rankings. But it won't be for long. The team still looks better than it did earlier in the season. And 'Zona will be a factor come March.
Thoughts from games I watched this past week:
• Arizona wasn't the only team that displayed guts Saturday in Seattle. After losing that 13-point halftime lead, the Huskies tied it up after being down seven points with less than 1:30 to play. Brandon Roy hit two clutch 3s to send the game into OT and double-OT. Can't wait to see these two teams tangle again March 4.
• Memphis will benefit from the Texas loss. The Tigers probably will see more 2-3 zone from future opponents, but they'll be better prepared to attack it next time.
• Duke clearly didn't look past Bucknell as the Blue Devils prepared for ACC play. They jumped on the Bison early, including applying some full-court pressure. I liked to see that intensity from the Devils.
• I must admit, the main reason I tuned into UConn-Marquette was to watch the season debut of UConn PG Marcus Williams. I'm so glad I got to watch Marquette's performance. But I was really disappointed by UConn -- I mean, eight points from Rudy Gay? And 17-for-34 from the free-throw line? I'd be mighty cranky too, Coach Calhoun.
• After watching the Rose Bowl, anyone else curious to see what Vince Young could do on a basketball court?
• Villanova is just so much fun to watch with those terrific guards. These Wildcats could become America's sweethearts, particularly if Curtis Sumpter comes back this season.
• Congrats to all the Illini fans who e-mailed me whining about my Michigan State pick. You were right. I underestimated your team's toughness. But Dee Brown scored 34 points -- 20 above his season average. If he has just a good game, instead of a spectacular one, the Spartans probably win.HISTORY
The answer is former Providence guard Eric Murdock, who tallied 48 points vs. Pittsburgh on Jan. 23, 1991. Murdock also set an NCAA D-I record with 376 career steals -- a record that was eclipsed by another Friar, John Linehan, in 2002 (385).
I'd forgotten how solid an NBA career Murdock had. He was drafted No. 21 by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 1991 NBA draft, but was stuck behind John Stockton and was traded to Milwaukee after his rookie season. There, he became a starter and blossomed. His best season was in 1993-94, when he led the Bucks with averages of 15.3 points, 6.7 assists and 2.4 steals per game.
Murdock played nine seasons in the NBA, 1991-2000, bouncing among the Jazz, Bucks, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Heat, Nets and Clippers. His final career averages were 10.1 points, 4.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game.
If you just watched Illinois' win over Michigan State on Thursday night, you would think Dee Brown's biggest strength is his offense -- after all, he did score a career-high 34 points. But the best part of Brown's game is his defense. He's one of the best in the country at the art of on-the-ball defense.
The Michigan State game wasn't the best example, since Brown spent more time guarding his former high school teammate, Shannon Brown, on the wing as opposed to guarding Spartans point guard Drew Neitzel up top. But you could still see why he's so good. When his man catches the ball, he goes out to pick up him up on balance, under control, not going too far or falling for shot fakes. He usually extends one arm out to bother the man with the ball, and both arms and hands are always moving, looking for a steal or a deflection. He's great at hounding the ball handler all over the court, but he's also very good at getting around screens or switching off to another man, if necessary.
Try spending an entire game just watching Brown play D sometime. You'll enjoy it. He can literally change a game with his defense.
I only know McGuire as a broadcaster. He retired as a coach just before I was born. But I used to love listening to him as a color commentator, especially during NCAA Tournament games. And I've always wanted to learn more about his life, particularly his coaching career, since he's widely regarded as one of the greatest characters in college basketball history. That's why I'm recommending, and picking up, "Al McGuire: The Colorful Warrior" by Roger Jaynes. Looks like an excellent read.
But now the holidays are over. It's time to get down to business, aka the conference season. Your poll question this week is, which conference are you most excited to watch? I'm partial to the Big East, having grown up in New York City. But I have to tell you, I'm leaning toward the Big Ten this year. The Big East is probably the best conference from top to bottom, but I don't think any conference has a better top eight than Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Please vote in the poll at the top right of this page. And remember, 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:
Why is Syracuse receiving as little publicity and credit as it has? In the latest Bracketology they were a projected No. 10 seed and falling, which seems ironic for a team that has won eight straight?
-- Greg, Syracuse
Greg, that's what can happen when you lose two in a row early in the season, including one to Bucknell. You can fall off the face of the map -- or out of the national rankings.
Syracuse has won nine straight games now, but none was against a major-league opponent. And, as usual, Jim Boeheim kept his team close to home for almost all of November and December -- in fact, the Orange won't play their first true road game until Wednesday's game at Notre Dame.
The easy schedule hasn't provided Syracuse enough good opportunities to earn its way back into the rankings. But those opportunities will come soon enough -- check out this eight-day stretch Syracuse will face soon: vs. UConn (Jan. 16), at Villanova (Jan. 21), at Pittsburgh (Jan. 23). That'll be a huge test.
How much will Randolph Morris' return help Kentucky?
-- Mark, Valparaiso, Ind.
It should help quite a bit. Morris didn't blow people away last season -- obviously, since he wasn't selected in either round of the NBA draft. He averaged 8.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a freshman. But he's a year older. He still has a lot of potential. And he showed flashes last season -- like his 20 points against Michigan State in Kentucky's NCAA regional final loss.
No member of Kentucky's three-headed center right now -- Lukasz Obrzut, Shagari Alleyne and Jared Carter -- is capable of scoring anywhere near 20 points against a team like Michigan State. Tubby Smith desperately needs a better scoring threat in the paint. That also will help open up better looks on the perimeter for guys like Patrick Sparks and Ramel Bradley, and give Rajon Rondo a better target to dish off to when he penetrates.
Morris can be that guy. The Wildcats will have to adjust to having him in the lineup -- but he has been able to practice with the team while he has been sitting out. He'll have to sit out Saturday afternoon's clash with Kansas. But he'll be able to play Tuesday night against Vanderbilt, which is big -- because Kentucky's still struggling. The Cats needed a Rondo jumper to bail them out in a 59-57 win over Central Florida at home Tuesday.
My initial list of assignments for this week contained over 15 games -- yes, the conference season is indeed in full swing. I don't want to overburden you guys, so here's my short list:
Duke at Wake Forest (Sunday, 8 p.m. ET, check local listings): How will Duke fare in its first major road test in the ACC? Seniors J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams have never won in Winston-Salem.
NC State at Boston College (Tuesday, 9 ET, ESPN Full Court): Two Top-20 teams, and two of Duke's primary threats in the ACC, square off.
Indiana at Michigan State (Wednesday, 7 ET, ESPN): The two most talented teams in the Big Ten, in my humble opinion -- yes Illini fans, I still believe this. The Spartans desperately need this win on their home floor.
Kieran Darcy is an editor at ESPN.com and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.