The Utah Jazz, the Houston Texans, the Missouri Valley and much more in Five Things From the Week.
1. It’s time to take the Jazz seriously
Any team that wins 18 of 19 games is going to attract plenty of attention, as is an unexpected team owning the NBA’s best record over a third of the way through the season. The Utah Jazz have done both, and there are reasons to believe they really are this good. For starters, they are the only team in the league to be in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating. Utah also ranks first in made 3-pointers per game (16.7) and fourth in 3-point percentage (39.5%). The Jazz can with shooting, or with Donovan Mitchell, or with their defense.
But there’s another factor in Utah’s success that’s just as important: Mike Conley. The 33-year-old’s numbers are vastly improved across the board from last season and he is back to playing like one of the league’s premier point guards. Bojan Bogdanović’s return cannot be overlooked either. While the varying levels of emphasis teams place in the regular season makes it difficult to accurately determine the Jazz’s place in the NBA hierarchy, there are specific developments to point to that suggest they are a legitimate title contender.
2. The Texans are sending mixed signals
The Houston Texans’ handling of their two unhappy faces of the franchise could not be more different. J.J. Watt asked for his release and received it along with the celebratory send-off he deserved. Deshaun Watson requested a trade and the Texans made it clear they have no intention of honoring his request. There is no point keeping Watson if he isn’t provided with the talent needed to win, but Houston seems intent on doing just that.
Of course, there are important differences between Watt and Watson. Watson is an elite quarterback and 25 years old. Watt is an injury-prone defensive end who is about to turn 32. Watt’s release might come as a surprise had the Texans not been consistently ridding themselves of good players the last few years, but there wouldn’t be much to read into. A player’s value changes rapidly in the NFL and stars get cut sometimes. The context of Watt’s departure is a crucial part of the story here. While the Texans can say whatever they want about Watson being their quarterback, they can’t force him to play. The worse that roster is, the less likely he will change his mind about wanting out.
3. Urban Meyer has completely lost the benefit of the doubt
While plenty of people feel otherwise, there was a reasonable case to be made that Urban Meyer’s transgressions were the result of honest mistakes and misjudgments rather than a blatant disregard of morality. By no means does that excuse his actions, but it provides a different lens through which to view his tenure as the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach. There is no way to spin Meyer’s hiring of Chris Doyle, who promptly offered his resignation the next day, though.
At what was essentially his first opportunity to do so, Meyer once again contradicted all of the character and leadership traits he has preached in various forms over the years. Meyer didn’t bother to justify Doyle’s hiring other than to say he was “thoroughly” vetted. There was no detailed explanation as to why Doyle’s behavior would be any different than it was at Iowa. On a cynical level, Doyle was not going to determine the success or failure of the Jaguars, yet Meyer thought it was worth the controversy to bring him in anyway. That tells you all you need to know.
4. Women’s basketball has its next superstar
The last time a freshman led the UConn women’s basketball team in scoring was when Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis did so in 2011-12 with 15.0 points per game. Maya Moore is the only player in program history to be the Huskies’ leading scorer four years in a row. The accuracy of both statements is now in serious jeopardy. Thanks to three straight 30-point performances to start the month of February — the final one coming in a win over No. 1 South Carolina — freshman Paige Bueckers is one pace for UConn’s most prolific scoring season since Moore’s senior year.
Bueckers arrived in Storrs with plenty of hype and has backed up every bit of it. She is averaging 21.1 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 56.7% from the field and 55.4% from three. Her run of three straight 30-point games is the first time it’s happened in UConn’s illustrious history. And the win over South Carolina was capped off by her 3-pointer with 11 seconds left in overtime. Sensational players at UConn are nothing new. What Bueckers is doing is.
5. The Missouri Valley proved it’s a two-bid league
Loyola Chicago and Drake were both in the top 30 of the NET rankings heading into their two-game weekend series. Had the NCAA Tournament started before they played each other, the Ramblers and Bulldogs would’ve been in. Drake losing game one by 27 after leading at halftime put Darian DeVries’ team squarely on the bubble. It looked like a similar story was going to unfold in game two, but the Bulldogs fought back and squeaked out a 51-50 win in overtime that did wonders for their resume.
Drake played both games without leading scorer Tank Hemphill and was the better team in two of the four halves. Loyola Chicago’s dominance in the first game validated its excellent standing in the NET rankings and at KenPom. Hemphill could be back for a potential meeting in the conference tournament, though it seems unlikely. If the Bulldogs can manage without him until then, a second loss to the Ramblers won’t be too detrimental. The eye test and the metrics agree both teams deserve a spot in March Madness. They just need to keep proving it the rest of the way.
Even the brilliance of Bruno Fernandes cannot get Manchester United out of this cycle that seems to never end. The Red Devils look great for an extended stretch, then fall apart before looking great again. The highs and lows aren’t as extreme as they were earlier in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign, but nothing has changed at the most fundamental level.