Philadelphia, PA – This wasn't the luck of the dice, a thank- very-much victor capitalizing on the unlucky misfortunes of the opponent.
What happened in Vegas was a veteran-laden team wanting it more and, in the process, providing teaching points and exposing early-season flaws for the team with a target on its back.
North Carolina's frontcourt needs to get tougher with the ball and on the backboards after UNLV racked up 13 offensive rebounds in a convincing 90-80 victory to win the home-cooking Las Vegas Invitational. That alarming number isn't a mirage, but an indicator of a trend that began on a ship in the middle of a San Diego bay, where Michigan State stayed in the game thanks to a decisive edge on the offensive glass.
The Tar Heels also need to better contain dribble penetration, which tends to unglue their defense through poor, often lackadaisical rotation to get out on shooters. UNLV made 13 three-pointers on Saturday night, Tennessee State made seven first-half triples a few nights earlier, and UNC head coach Roy Williams after the game took notice of a continually sore thumb on the stat sheet.
"I was surprised about a lot of things we didn't do. We have to be stronger with the basketball. We have to guard the basketball better," lamented Williams.
The screws need to be tightened with a rigorous week beginning Wednesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge against penetrating czar Jordan Taylor and Wisconsin and ending in what was billed as the 1 vs. 2 showdown with Kentucky in Rupp Arena.
UNLV had other ideas and opened the eyes of the nation, even if many didn't see the undressing on a travel-filled Saturday night post-dating Turkey Day. The Runnin' Rebels sounded like a team led by four seniors after the court- storming victory, taking the "one game at a time" mantra to heart.
When asked where this victory takes them next, forward Mike Moser discussed the team's Wednesday trip to Santa Barbara. That's a good sign of a grounded crew that only hopes to grow from here.
5 MORE THOUGHTS FROM HOLIDAY TOURNEYS
1. Duke rode a developing Austin Rivers and the hot hands of Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry to the final minute of the Maui Invitational championship game against Duke. The last 70 seconds belonged to seldom-scoring guard Tyler Thornton. First came a three-pointer with 70 ticks left then another off- balance three with 20 seconds left that helped the Blue Devils down the Jayhawks, 78-71. Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly also scored 17 points each for the Blue Devils, a welcome sign of balance in late November.
2. Remember this past weekend when tournament selection and seeding comes to bear. Harvard won the Battle 4 Atlantis championship, downing UCF, 59-49, on Saturday night behind its second straight strong defensive effort. One season after claiming its first Ivy League title, head coach Tommy Amaker's veteran team is taking home titles earlier this time around, beating the Golden Knights (who surprised UConn a day earlier) the day after knocking off Top-25 foe Florida State. The recipe was simple: smothering, defense. UCF scored just 18 first-half points, made 1-of-11 threes and shot 33 percent overall while the Seminoles made only 36 percent of their shots. It's a good sign when your team can make just 26 percent of its shots and still knock of an ACC foe. Remember the defense displayed in the Bahamas when March Madness rolls around.
3. Alabama was disappointed in its tourney exclusion last season, but the reason was obvious: an exorbitant RPI and very few marquee wins to speak of. The Crimson Tide collected two March savers in Puerto Rico, downing Wichita State and Purdue to win the Puerto Rico Tip-off title. Alabama is off to a 7-0 start for the first time since 2006 behind the double-double machine, Tony Mitchell, who posted his ninth and 10th double-doubles during the Tide's first in-season tournament title since 2007. JaMychal Green and Trevor Releford are also off to roaring starts for the Crimson Tide.
4. Mississippi State finally seems to be turning its talent into victories. The "same old Bulldogs" murmurs came out in an early loss to Akron, but Mississippi State excelled under New York's bright lights, downing Texas A&M and Arizona to win the 2K Sports Classic. The Bulldogs used their as- advertised length and athleticism to take down the Aggies, who were missing star guard Khris Middleton, then received a big 21st birthday showcase from junior Arnett Moultrie to harness Arizona to take home its first in-season title since 2000.
5. In defeat, Stanford won. The Cardinal looked like a formidable foe for any Pac-12 competitor in a narrow 69-63 setback to Syracuse in the NIT Season Tip-Off title bout. Stanford committed far too many turnovers (24) to beat a top-five foe, but it played defensively sound and hung tough into the final minute. Non-conference dates with North Carolina State and Butler remain, but this is Johnny Dawkins' best team since he took over in Palo Alto, and an 11-1 start is very possible entering conference play.
Big Ten/ACC Challenge Predictions
The Tuesday tilts give the Big Ten the chance to jump out to an early lead. Michigan's Trey Burke has given the Wolverines stability at the point, and Nick Novak and Tim Hardaway Jr. provide pop from the wing that should prove too much for Virginia. Northwestern, quietly off to a solid start after the Charleston Classic championship victory over Seton Hall, will win at Georgia Tech, but the ACC will get on the board when Maryland downs Illinois in the battle of rebuilding conference stalwarts at the Comcast Center. The Big Ten will round out a 5-1 first day when Robbie Hummel shoots Purdue past Miami, Iowa edges Clemson, and Ohio State's Jared Sullinger bullies Duke's frontline, with William Buford's length bothering Rivers and Dawkins just enough.
North Carolina State, which has already beaten Texas this season, will give the ACC its second tally with a victory over Indiana and Boston College will edge Penn State, which is rebuilding under new head coach Pat Chambers. Michigan State's Keith Appling will be the deciding factor -- along with the Izz-zone -- as the Spartans will hand Florida State its third loss in less than a week, but Virginia Tech, fresh off a solid showing in New York that included a victory over Oklahoma State, will keep the ACC alive with a road win at Minnesota.
North Carolina will respond at the Dean Dome, using its decided advantage on the interior to overcome Taylor and Wisconsin, leaving Nebraska, the Big Ten's newest member, to claim the title for its conference. The Cornhuskers, with wins over USC and Rhode Island already this season, will bury Wake Forest to push the Big Ten over the top, 7-5.
To summarize: Michigan over Virginia; Northwestern over Georgia Tech; Maryland over Illinois; Purdue over Miami; Iowa over Clemson; Ohio State over Duke; North Carolina State over Indiana; Boston College over Penn State; Michigan State over Florida State; Virginia Tech over Minnesota; North Carolina over Wisconsin; Nebraska over Wake Forest
1. Kentucky (6-0): Going through the motions a bit, but will be ready to play Saturday against UNC. How will the Fab Freshmen play? The actual key cog may be veteran Darius Miller, coming off a 19-point effort against Portland.
2. Ohio State (6-0): A major step up in competition on the way, and no one knows how the other guards (minus Buford) will respond against Duke's relentless pressure. When all else fails, feed the beast (Sullinger).
3. Syracuse (6-0): The Orange looked a bit distracted and disheveled against Stanford, and the Bernie Fine child molestation inquiry has to be weighing heavily on head coach Jim Boeheim. This ranking may be temporary, as a loss looks to be looming Friday versus Florida.
4. Duke (7-0): Kelly emerged in Maui, and Duke's status with the big boys will rest on a consistent frontline scorer, whether it is the outside shooting big man or the more interior-focused Plumlees.
5. North Carolina (5-1): No need to sound the alarm after the fourth game in seven days, but Harrison Barnes was on crutches after the game with Wisconsin and Kentucky on the docket this week.
6. Louisville (5-0): It hasn't been pretty for the Cardinals, who haven't reached at least 70 points since November 11. The offense has to improve with Vanderbilt on the schedule this Friday.
7. Baylor (5-0): How good are the Bears? That answer may not come until a mid- December trip to BYU. In the meantime, I love watching Anthony Jones, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy.
8. Connecticut (6-1): What happened in the Bahamas? Jeremy Lamb made just 5-of-16 shots and UCF made all 17 of its free throw attempts. Also, Shabazz Napier struggled while in foul trouble, managing just four points. He scored 26 a day later in an OT victory over Florida State.
9. Wisconsin (6-0): Can Ben Brust knock down the open shots off Taylor's dribble penetration? Can Jared Berggren hold his own in the paint? Those answers will tell the tale of the Badgers' trip to Chapel Hill.
10. Xavier (4-0): Nice win over Georgia, but the SEC competition jumps a line with a trip to Nashville on Monday. Tu Holloway versus John Jenkins is worth the price of admission.
11. Alabama (7-0): The Crimson Tide are deep and could be the SEC favorite if the four freshmen getting valuable minutes mature by the beginning of conference play.
12. Missouri (6-0): No one has looked better than the Tigers (see Friday column for heaps of praise).
13. Marquette (5-0): Buzz Williams' teams always play harder than their talent level, though that's no knock on Darius Johnson-Odom, who is off to a great start averaging 20 points per game. This team is still a mystery. After all, two of its five wins are over Norfolk State.
14. Memphis (2-2): The Tigers are still young, and the Maui turnaround was rough on a group that looked a step slow. Playing three OTs in two days will do that to a team.
15. Saint Louis (6-0): I smell a column in waiting. The Billikens are legit, downing four power conference clubs already this season (Washington, Boston College, Villanova and Oklahoma). Though none are top tier this season, the clean slate should keep Saint Louis unbeaten into a New Year's Eve showdown at New Mexico.