It’s about the midway point in the men’s college basketball season, meaning the Final Four in Minneapolis is less than a few months away.
I’m excited to post my first entry for the Star Tribune’s national college hoops blog today. In the next 82 days, we’ll be tracking different teams, players, coaches and trends on the road to the Final Four on April 6-8 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Feels like the game’s biggest spectacle will be coming to the Twin Cities quicker than Minnesotans will see heavy snow again this winter, so you betcha I can't wait any longer to give you my five things to watch around the country. I’m calling it Fuller’s Five.
NO ZION, NO PROBLEM
All you Duke haters out there had to be grinning from ear to ear when Florida State led the Blue Devils 78-77 with 2.8 seconds left in Saturday’s game in Tallahassee. Superstar freshman Zion Williamson wasn’t an option on the last-second play, because he missed the second half with vision issues after being poked in the eye. The Seminoles figured Coach K would be going to leading scorer R.J. Barrett, but instead it was another five-star recruit Cam Reddish to the rescue. With Barrett heavily guarded in the corner, Apple Valley native Tre Jones located Reddish flashing to the right wing wide open. Reddish's uncontested buzzer-beater sank through the net along with the FSU faithful’s hopes of upsetting the nation’s No. 1 team. Barrett and Reddish combined for 55 points on 9-for-15 shooting from three-point range. That dynamic duo more than made up for Williamson’s absence after a season-low in 11 points in 17 minutes.
MORE BUZZER-BEATER BUZZ
Reddish’s game-winning three wasn’t the only buzzer-beater Saturday that blew up the Internet more than that new Wreck-It Ralph movie. One of my favorite highlights to watch so far this season was UTEP’s Jordan Lathon giving us flashbacks of the Grant Hill to Christian Laettner all-time greatest shot in NCAA tournament history or for Gophers fans, the Travis Busch to Blake Hoffarber miracle shot in the Big Ten tourney. Laettner had 2.1 seconds for his shot by the way. Hoffarber had 1.5 seconds. Lathon, a freshman guard, scooped up a 95-foot pass that landed on the baseline with 0.5 seconds and drilled a turnaround jumper for the 65-64 win over Rice at home. Crazy part is that Ountae Campbell's perfect pass was actually intended for another teammate, but he just threw it to the open spot. Lathon’s shot was No. 1 on Sportscenter’s Top 10 plays that night. Reddish's buzzer-beater for Duke was actually No. 3 on top plays, also behind Texas A&M guard T.J. Starks taking the inbounds pass with 3.4 seconds left, driving past midcourt and heaving a one-legged three that banked in for the 81-80 win at Alabama. Feels like March already.
BEST CONFERENCE CONVERSATION
Which conference is the best in college basketball? That’s a debate that really isn’t a debate in my opinion at this point with arguably 10 teams from the Big Ten possibly being NCAA tournament-worthy (Michigan, Michigan State, Maryland, Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Nebraska, Purdue and Minnesota). Bracket experts Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm both agree on that so far, but the ACC isn’t far behind with eight in the field as of Jan. 11. Who will be the best conference in the end? Is it the league with the most NCAA bids or most Final Four participants? Some folks might say the latter. In that case, it's still hard to separate them. The ACC and Big Ten both currently have projected No. 1 seeds in Duke, Virginia, Michigan and Michigan State.
You could probably do jumping jacks all day every day growing up and never have hops like Murray State’s Ja Morant. As if it wasn’t impressive enough that the 6-foot-3 sophomore guard averages 23.1 points and a Division-I best 10.3 assists per game this season. Morant’s leaping ability almost overshadows his eye-popping numbers, especially the dunk jumping over a 6-8 UT Martin player last week. There weren’t enough emojis for me to express my degree of shock when I first spotted it on Twitter. That was one of the best recreations of the epic Vince Carter slam over 7-footer Fred Weis in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. How awesome would it be for KG to give his take Morant’s gravity defiance since he was there to see Carter add to his dunking legend nearly two decades ago?
BETTER WITH AGE
Mike Krzyzewski is 71 years old. John Beilein is 65. Rick Barnes is 64. Tom Izzo is 63. Those could end up being your Final Four coaches leading Duke, Michigan, Tennessee and Michigan State (you heard it here first) this year in Minneapolis. When most of us will just be looking forward to being veteran AARP members at that age, Coach K and company pretty much run things right now. You might want to ask to kiss their hand the next time you’re in the presence of one of these college basketball Dons. Oh by the way, I can’t end this section without mentioning two more veteran coaches in the SEC making noise this season with Mississippi State’s Ben Howland (61) and Ole Miss’s Kermit Davis (59). Davis, who upset Michigan State and Minnesota in the NCAAs with Middle Tennessee, is finally getting the respect he deserves as one of the great coaching minds in the game. The Rebels jumped into the top 25 this week after wins vs. Auburn and Mississippi State.