First Take: 2,000 For Kentucky
And the Big 12′s new third wheel.
You’ll have to excuse me Kentucky fans if I don’t seem overly excited about the program’s 2,000th win, I’m not. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice round number and certainly a nice milestone, but this doesn’t prove or reaffirm anything about the Wildcats that doesn’t already exist. Former Kentucky star Dan Issel said the win proves the school is the strongest college basketball program in history – sorry but I believe that distinction already belongs to UCLA, or at least plenty would argue it. It also isn’t as though the Wildcats are light years ahead of anyone else, North Carolina and Kansas are eight and 20 wins shy of 2 G’s respectively themselves, which in the big scheme of things isn’t very much.
I think the more important thing here is John Calipari has led UK to its best start (12-0) since the 1983-84 season after doubling up poor Drexel last night. John Wall didn’t need to do anything other than punch in his time card — by which of course I mean make the standard half dozen spectacular plays on his way to 16 points — while DeMarus Cousins and Patrick Patterson dominated the inside, combining for 36 points, with Cousins hauling in 13 boards. This team isn’t going to be challenged for a while still, there’s a date with Louisville in a couple of weeks, but I’m not sure I’m all that sold on the Cardinals right now. Florida will be waiting in Gainesville early in the New Year but we have to see how the Gators respond after their recent loss to Richmond first. Not to get completely ahead of myself, but we could be talking about an undefeated Kentucky team when Tennessee rolls into Lexington the second week of February.
You want to talk about the biggest surprise in college basketball this year? While it was certainly Syracuse in the opening weeks of the season, the luster of the Orange has subsided and been replaced by Kansas State, who ever so quietly has climbed to 15th in the polls and stands at 11-1 after handling Arkansas-Pine Bluff last night 90-76. Jacob Pullen has been brilliant; the junior’s numbers have improved across the board to a scintillating 20 ppg on 43.6% shooting from beyond the arc. It isn’t as if the Illinois native has been padding the stats against cupcakes either, his three highest scoring games of the year have come against Alabama (30 points), UNLV (28 points) and Dayton (26 points). Entering the season the Big 12 race was all about Kansas and Texas with Oklahoma looking like the third wheel. The Sooners have clearly taken a step back (I’ll get into that later) but the conference is clearly not in need of a third power with the way the ‘Cats have been performing.
Speaking of OU, I hope some of you managed to catch their loss at home against UTEP last night. I’m officially ready to say that the Miners are ready to challenge Memphis for Conference-USA supremacy, among a couple of other teams. Derrick Caracter is still working his way back but posted a nice double-double, and Randy Culpepper introduced himself to the nation with a dynamic 27-point showing to lead all scorers. He was efficient, he hit from the perimeter, he got to the line, in short Culpepper did everything you could hope for if you’re a coach. Willie Warren pumped in 26, but continued to have problems with shot selection and turnovers, aspects of his game that he has been struggling with all year. Oklahoma is in trouble, they look like a team that is going to finish in the middle of the Big 12 pack. Before the season started I had the chance to talk with Sooner coach Jeff Capel, mainly about Warren but about the team as well. Not surprisingly he was somewhat hesitant when I talked about the wealth of young talent on his team this season, saying that while his squad had the potential to go far come March, they needed to prove they were ready first. Thus we know why Capel is a Division 1 coach and I am not, this team doesn’t look ready yet.
Oklahoma State handled La Salle easily enough in the All-College Classic with James Anderson netting a game-high 28 points. During the broadcast Fran Fraschilla made a very astute observation about the guard’s place in Big 12 history in that there haven’t been many players in recent memory who can score at the rate that Anderson has and do so while creating their own shot. So many of the Big 12′s high scoring guards have been perimeter shooters who spot up and fire away without having to do much handling of the basketball. Now certainly Kevin Durant could create his own shot, but he was only around for one year – Anderson has been doing this for three years now. The most appealing aspect of Anderson’s game, at least from a pro standpoint, is his ability to constantly get to the free throw line. He’s a big physical guard who isn’t afraid to put the ball on the floor and draw some contact, a fact that has him shooting more than seven times from the charity stripe per night. That is the kind of player you love to have on your team in close games down the stretch – it also doesn’t hurt that he shoots 84% on those attempts either.
Even though Fresno State fell to Montana last night, I have to mention a tremendous individual performance from Paul George. The super sophomore recorded his third double-double of the year, going for 28 and 10, while connecting on 6-of-10 from beyond the arc. There aren’t too many players in the country who can hit the boards like he does and shoot better than 43% from the perimeter – NBA scouts know this.
Settle in for some good, good hoops action tonight if you’re up for it. Michigan State at Texas should be a great match up because if there is one team that is smart enough to slow things down and work some clock against the Longhorns, it is Tom Izzo’s Spartans. Texas wins, but not by as much as you might think after the Carolina game. Cal visits Kansas and this will be a much better game than it looks like on paper. The Golden Bears have the speed in the backcourt to stay with the number one team in the nation, but a lack of frontcourt talent will be their undoing. The most evenly matched contest though will be the late one out west with Texas A&M on the road at Washington who saved a little face over the weekend by running all over Portland. Donald Sloan going at Isaiah Thomas all night should be fun to watch, which leaves Quincy Pondexter as the X-factor against Bryan Davis inside.
Looking for some good off-beat games? I’ll give you a pair. For those of you with some free time this afternoon and the wonder of ESPN360, hop on at 3 ET and watch BYU at Nevada. The Wolfpack have been up and down this season but have a pair of studs in Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson and haven’t lost at home yet, while BYU has been red hot at 10-1 and can shoot the lights out with Jimmer Fredette and Jonathan Tavernari gunning from the outside. For the later crowd, Washington State and Texas Tech will be hooking up in a battle of major conference teams who have overachieved so far this season.
Enjoy the hoops everyone and get that shopping done!