Deconstructing an Early Season Game
Where are Kansas, Michigan State, Gonzaga + Memphis headed this season?
by Cub Buenning
College basketball games played in November and December can be a mixed-bag of information. Teams can struggle a bit early while trying to insert new pieces into the rotation, while others can pick up right where they left off the previous spring and come out of the gates in impressive fashion.
Just last year, the Michigan State Spartans had an inconsistent first two months to the season and headed into the holidays and their conference schedule as an afterthought to the impending championship race. Of course, three months later, the Spartans won five straight tournament games and found themselves just one game away from cutting down the nets. Last night, Michigan State played Gonzaga.
Historically, teams that are experienced and talented get off to great starts and send messages to the rest of the nation that they will be more than ready come tournament time. This was the case for the Kansas Jayhawks, a team so loaded with depth, size, backcourt play and experience that fitting in the ultra-talented freshman Xavier Henry looked to be Head Coach Bill Self’s only real chore. Hell, he even had two Wooden Award candidates leading his team. Last night, Kansas played Memphis.
MSU and KU came into the season hand-picked as the two “best” teams in the nation. On a night, when both teams faced perennial winners that seemed to be rebuilding, Michigan State looked to be the most ready. To be honest, though, the Spartans could have easily been run out of their own building, when the Bulldogs of Gonzaga came out aggressive and forceful in a beautifully played, but sloppily shot first-half. Nine new faces grace the Zags’ bench, but Mark Few’s side may not be a team that is truly “rebuilding,” rather, “reloading.”
Gonzaga has quickly replaced the likes of Austin Daye, Josh Heytvelt and Jeremy Pargo with names like Elias Harris (future WCC star), Kelly Olynyk along with the reappearance of center Robert Sacre who missed all of last year’s Sweet 16 run. Know this — the darlings of Spokane will be more than ready to shoot for their tenth straight WCC title and once Matt Bouldin, Stephen Gray and Demetri Goodson continue to mesh in the new parts, expect more March success. Last night, the Zags were the bigger and better team for the game’s first 30 minutes. From there, the interior play of Spartan newbie Derrick Nix and the gutsy Raymar Morgan and the perimeter work of Durrell Summers and Kalin Lucas wore down the opposition to snare a 4-point victory from the jaws of certain defeat.
Kansas, on the other hand, faced a Memphis squad that saw not only its best talent (Tyreke Evans) leave early for the NBA, but several of its “verballed” recruits chose elsewhere once John Calipari bolted the Mid-South for Bluer pastures in Kentucky.
On paper, Memphis should have never been in the game with Kansas. The Tigers struggled to form any sense of offense, forced up several long-range prayers that failed to even draw iron and were severely outclassed and outmuscled down in the paint. But somehow, they had a shot at the buzzer to beat one of the nation’s best teams, losing by just a bucket at 57-55. Memphis’s offense looks to be knee-deep in the rebuilding mode, but its defense was scrappy, intense and annoyed the Jayhawks to the tune of 21 turnovers. Yes, this Memphis team under first-year Head Coach Josh Pastner is rebuilding and regardless of the effort they put forth in Saint Louis last night, there will be some tough nights and potential conference losses to follow.
But check back one year from now. Pastner and the Memphis staff can already boast one of the most robust recruiting classes in the nation (I believe getting 5 of ESPNU’s Top 100) which will likely put the Tigers alongside the Zags in the “reloading” phase earlier than most thought.
So what does this all really mean?
First of all, Kansas should not be removed from any person’s Final Four prediction after last night. They won a tough fight at a neutral site. Meanwhile, the Spartans gained some valuable “stones” from weathering the formidable Gonzaga storm, but might things have been different if the game wasn’t at the friendly confines of the Breslin Center (one of the biggest home-court advantages in the country)?
Truth be told, predictions or conclusions gleaned from last night’s doubleheader may look pretty ignorant four months from now. But one thing is for certain: These are four programs that will stay in the national conscience for years to come. That, and intensely competitive, early season games like the ones we saw last night are sure fun to watch.