Element of Surprise
The highs and lows of college hoops thus far.
Ah 2009, the new year. College football season is over (congratulations to the Florida Gators), inauguration day is just a over a week away and the NFL Playoffs are in full swing. Of course, most importantly, conference play is underway in college basketball. For the next two months, we can look forward Big East battles, Big 12 throw downs and ACC clashes among other things.
The season is already at the halfway point and we are starting to get a sense of who is for real and who may be packing their bags earlier than expected come March. With that in mind, here is a run down of the teams and individuals who have surprised and disappointed so far this year.
Tubby Smith works fast, real fast. The Golden Gophers were picked to finish fifth in preseason Big Ten Poll, but in just his second year with the program, Smith has his team off to a torrid 15-1 start and a No. 22 ranking in the most recent AP Poll.
After winning 20 games last season there wasn’t a question that Minnesota was primed to have another successful season with some key returning upperclassmen, and a few talented newcomers to their roster. What has surprised, though, have been some of the quality wins that the Gophers can already boast on their resume. Wins over a better-than-expected Iowa and strong Ohio State team in the early part of the Big Ten schedule have been promising, but there is little doubt that the crown jewel for Minnesota thus far has been a 70-64 victory over then-No. 9 Louisville.
It’s been scoring by committee for Tubby’s boys so far, but if they can stay consistent and continue to get solid minutes from freshman bigs Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson, Minnesota should find themselves near the top of the conference.
Anytime a player averages over 20 ppg in one of the big six conferences, it is of note. In the case of Kentucky’s sharp shooting junior, this is even more impressive. Coming off a sophomore campaign in which he appeared in just 11 games due to a stress fracture in his pelvis, and owning a career scoring average of less than 9 points, Meeks has risen to the top of the national scoring race by netting 24.2 ppg this year.
The Georgia native has been torching the nets, shooting 47 percent from the field which is amazing considering over 50 percent of his shots come from beyond the arc; it helps when you shoot 42.5 percent from 3, though. Sure Meeks has put up points against lesser opponents (39 vs. VMI and 46 vs. Appalachian State), but he has done it against bigger names as well, including 37 points in a win over Kansas State and most recently 28 points on the road at Louisville. SEC teams, you have been warned.
OK, maybe this isn’t a huge surprise since the Demon Deacons were ranked 21st in the preseason AP Poll, but to be fair, not many people anticipated Wake being undefeated and ranked 4th in the country the first week of the new year. With the dominating performances the Deacons have turned in so far, their win over North Carolina was absolutely no fluke.
Jeff Teague has improved by leaps and bounds, seeing boosts in every major statistical category. James Johnson is still a force and freshman Al-Farouq Aminu has been as good as advertised averaging 13 points and 9 rebounds.
The overtime win on the road at Tennessee on Wednesday was a step in the right direction, but for a team many were penciling into their preseason Final Fours, Gonzaga has been somewhat of a letdown. The loss on the road to Arizona was tough but not unimaginable since Jordan Hill has been playing so well this year, but the three game skid to end 2008 was hard to watch if you are a Bulldog fan.
The Zag’s blew an 11-point lead with 12 minutes to go against UConn. The Huskies were able to force overtime and pull away for the win, again tough, but not unacceptable. Subsequent losses to Portland State and Utah however are real cause for concern for head coach Mark Few. By no means does this mean that Gonzaga isn’t capable of making a deep run come Tournament time, but this team should be looking at a 13-1 or 12-2 record as opposed to their current 9-4 standing.
B.J. Mullens & Co.
This year’s freshman class has performed admirably thanks in part to individuals like Greg Monroe, Willie Warren and Sylven Landesberg. Many of the marquee names who were expected to make an immediate impact have fallen far short of expectations, none more so than Ohio State’s latest 7-foot recruit.
Mullens has barely made a blip on the radar in his first 13 games at the collegiate level, recording just three double-digit scoring performances and grabbing more than 5 rebounds just 5 times. Widely considered to be a top-3 recruit and arguably the most physically talented big man Thad Matta has ever recruited, Mullens has been slow in coming along.
UCLA’s Jrue Holiday and USC’s Demar DeRozan, a pair of west coast players expected to challenge for Pac-10 Player of the Year honors have also been somewhat of a let down. Though they have fared better than Mullens, neither has lived up to their preseason hype. Holiday has yet to have a dominant performance against a quality opponent and DeRozan has only recently started to rely on more than just his freakish athleticism to get points.
The Loyola head coach is right, people will remember his teams Nov. 25 loss to Davidson for years to come, but for the wrong reason. When Patsos called for his players to double team star guard Stephen Curry for the entire game it robbed the fans and the players. For the fans, it was a chance to see one of the great players in the country perform at his highest level up close. For Curry, it was another opportunity for him to reap the benefits of his remarkable talent and all of the hard work he has put in.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with zone defenses, they are a part of the strategy that make basketball the greatest game in the world. The point of a zone defense is to take a player out of his game, but not to literally take the player out of the game. The beauty of basketball is teams go back and forth taking each others best shot, trying to stop the other team from scoring. Your guys versus our guys, give us your best. By doubling Curry, Patsos took that purity away from both teams. Not only was Curry no longer partaking in the game itself, but Loyola was put at a disadvantage having to play three on four the whole way through. From a player or a fan’s perspective, it was a tough day for college hoops.