First Take: December Blues
There’s plenty of non-conference fun still to be had!
Depending on how much of a diehard college hoops fan you are, the first night of the week during the early weeks of the season are more about Monday Night Football than they are college basketball. Once the new year rolls around and ESPN breaks out their Big Monday schedule where viewers are saturated with more intense Big East and Big 12 match ups than they can handle – that’s the time to bother you with the higher learning of hardwood.
For those who truly love the game, regardless if a program’s travel budget is seven figures or four, early December is about much more than UNC/Kentucky and Syracuse/Florida, though these are fantastic gauges in the young schedule and enticing contests for national audiences. This time of year is a chance for every team big or small to establish themselves and test their metal against non-conference foes and even a handful of familiar rivals, to see where they stand in the big picture.
Every year pundits gush as Clemson enters their ACC schedule with another 14-0 record, having seemingly accomplished the feat right under everyone’s nose without much fanfare. Every March the latest Cinderella springs up without the national audience having any clue as to what quagmire of the country this rough tandem of players crawled out of. A closer inspection of these pre-New Years games though sheds a great deal of light onto how the season plays out in the long run much of the time. That isn’t to say every game is of dire significance, but there is more than meets the eye in the opening act of another college basketball year.
A relatively quiet night in the top 25 with Texas, Michigan State and Texas A&M all walkingaway with double-figure wins. The Longhorns posted a season-high 107 points in their victory over Long Beach State, with six players reaching double digits led by Avery Bradley’s 17. The real story in this game though in my mind was the play of new point guard Dogus Balbay who doled out 11 assists in just his second start of the season since starter Varez Ward was injured. Balbay said after the game that his job was easy, simply to distribute the basketball to his talented teammates, but having a straw that stirs the drink is crucial for Texas.
Donald Sloan continued his strong play for the Aggies, topping the 20-point barrier for the third time this season in A&M’s 75-65 win over North Texas. The Spartans knocked off the Citadel in McAlister Field House, despite 60 percent shooting from beyond the arc by the Bulldogs – Kalin Lucas led all scorers with 17.
I said yesterday that the UMass/Seton Hall game was likely to be the best match up of the night, and though the Pirates walked away with a relatively easy 86-68 win, this game still gives us plenty of food for thought. The Hall is off to a 7-0 start, their best since the 1988-89 season, a year that saw the program reach the national championship game only to lose to Glen Rice and Michigan. Is that likely to happen this season – not a chance, but these early returns are at least telling us that the Big East is going to show more parity this season than it did a year ago when it was supposedly the greatest conference of all time. Jeremy Hazell had his usual 20+, but junior forward Herb Pope had his fifth double-double of the season, going off for 22 and 15. The Aliquippa, PA native is having a huge season thus far, posting averages of 14.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in just over 30 minutes a night. Whooping up on a team from the A-10 is always cause for optimism and while there are still easily half a dozen or more teams I’ll slate ahead of Seton Hall in the Big East this season, the Pirates are stacking up the wins in hopes of a Tournament berth.
Western Carolina out of the SoCon took down Bradley last night, significant because the MVC is looking stacked this season and because the Catamounts are now looking pretty at 8-1, their only loss coming to Texas. The rest of the early season schedule includes the aforementioned win over the Braves, solid victories over conference opponents Furman and Wofford and the win to hang your hat on for now, an 83-77 squeaker over Duquesne. This is an offense by committee with six players averaging between six and 11 points and five averaging been four and six rebounds. It’s always hard to gauge how these hot starts can carry over into the near year, but with the type of balance Western Carolina is showing, I like them in the SoCon to make some noise.
There’s plenty for everyone on the docket tonight with the Jimmy V Classic taking place in New York. Butler will take on Georgetown in a battle of ranked opponents in the 7 o’clock ET game, giving the Hoyas at least their first real test of the season. A less attractive night cap, as a still developing Indiana team faces a Pittsburgh team that should walk out of Madison Square Garden with a win. Plenty of other games worth watching if you can get them online or in your television market depending though.
A young, but solid Illinois team is at home – where they are undefeated – facing off against a surprisingly tough Vanderbilt team who has cracked the top 25 in the latest polls. The Fighting Illini have gotten plenty out of their freshman duo of D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul who are each scoring in double figures to start the year.
Iowa visits Northern Iowa in a battle for the The Hawkeye State – word of advice, bank on the Panthers. UNI is going to challenge for the Missouri Valley Conference crown and have jumped out to a 5-1 start, their lone loss coming to a better than advertised DePaul team. Did I mention they’ve taken down Boston College and Iowa State though? The Panthers will be able to add Big Ten to the list of conferences they’ve handled after tonight. Speaking of the Valley, what a start to the season! Illinois State is 7-0 (we knew this would happen) but Missouri State has a surprisingly identical record. Add in 7-1 Wichita State and a 3-4 Creighton team that we know is going to turn things around and life could be very crowded at the top of the MVC as the season moves on.
The best game tonight that no one is talking about? How about Kansas State at home against Xavier. Neither is ranked, but both are off to solid starts, with Wildcats owners of a 7-1 record, having taken down Dayton a couple of weeks ago and most recently Washington State. Junior Jacob Pullen has scored 20 or more points in four straight games and is having a good start to his season. Xavier, though they aren’t the same team from the past couple of years, will still challenge for an A-10 title thanks to the dynamic play of guard Jordan Crawford who is a highlight waiting to happen.
Arizona State visiting BYU out west should also be a good one to catch if you’re so inclined to staying up later on the east coast.
One final thing before I send it off for the day – UNLV is ranked 18th in the latest AP Poll. The last time the Runnin’ Rebels were nationally ranked in the month of December was the early ’90′s when Larry Johnson and Co. were running teams out of the building. More or less, this was just an excuse for me to find some vintage clips from back in the day.
Have a great day everyone.