First Take: No-Name Defense
Why West Virginia is like the ’72 Miami Dolphins…
Generally I don’t like to start this column until after the last games of the night are finished or starting to wind down. Given that Southern Methodist and Charleston don’t tip-off until 2 a.m. ET in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic, I’m making an exception to my own rule.
It was a fairly routine night in the top 25, every game holding suit save for #12 New Mexico suffering its first loss of the season to Oral Roberts. I knew the Lobos weren’t going to make it beyond the second week of the new year without suffering a loss, I just assumed it would come against one of their next four opponents in Texas Tech, Dayton, San Diego State or UNLV. But alas, the Golden Eagles had their number tonight, thanks in large part to 18 points and 13 boards from junior forward Michael Craion. My concern now is the tendency for voters to severely punish non-traditional programs who start out red hot but suffer a questionable loss. It happens every year, some school not associated with a BCS conference jumps out to a 12-0 start, climbs the polls, loses a game to a team that will be at home come March and the next thing you know, there is no love from the pollsters. So for those of you with an AP vote to your name who might stumble upon this humble column, I ask you to look at New Mexico’s larger body of work when casting your votes this week, don’t punish them for a single night of offensive inconsistency.
In the only match up of ranked teams last night, #6 West Virginia looked excellent in taking down #21 Mississippi. The Mountaineers used their surplus of lanky, jumping jack forwards to dominate the glass, outrebounding the Rebels by an incredible margin of 50-28. Forward Wellington Smith had a career-best 19 points, including five three-pointers, all of which came in the second half, and despite seven turnovers, Devin Ebanks looked strong in posting 14 and 13. This game showcased why so many people have been and continue to be high on West Virginia: they don’t kill you with size or speed, but they present matchup problems and come at you in waves. The Mountaineers are continuously praised for their depth, but I dare you to name more than three or four players on the roster. You can’t do it can you? Bob Huggins has assembled an outstanding team akin to the famed Miami Dolphins “No Name Defense” of the 1970′s – the Mountaineers D may be just as stingy. Ole Miss entered the game with the 6th highest scoring offense in the nation and were held to a season-low 66 points. I still don’t think we’ve gotten to see this team take on a really stiff opponent just yet, but the wait will soon be over thanks to a New Years Day contest at Purdue.
Kentucky, Villanova, Tennessee and Georgetown all put tallies in the W column last night as well. The Hoyas are not as good as their record of their #13 ranking, I’m just not impressed yet. Chris Wright’s 34-point explosion against Harvard was great, but from the games I’ve watched Georgetown play in this year so far, I’m seeing an up and down Big East run once again. I’m not saying the Hoyas are going to suffer the kind of meltdown they did last year, but I can tell you right now they will not be a top 15 team when the regular season comes to a close.Georgia beat Florida Atlantic, stop the presses! No but really, this game showcased an under the radar pro prospect for the Bulldogs in versatile sophomore forward Trey Thompkins who had a monster 35-point, 15-rebound showing in the win. It was the third double-double of the season for the youngster and his third time eclipsing 20 points, one of which was against Illinois. The all-around numbers look great: 15 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 1.8 steals and 40% three-point shooting in 29 minutes per game. He is an active player who has solid range, can handle the basketball and has good mobility for a player standing 6-9 and weighing nearly 250 pounds. Don’t expect him to jump to the NBA after this season, but should he improve his quickness don’t be shocked if this sophomore is a second round selection in 2011 or 2012.
I don’t know what got into Old Dominion last night, but on the heels of their upset win over Georgetown on Saturday, the Monarchs obliterated Charlotte 81-48 in a game I pegged as the best of the night – oops. ODU got 16 and 7 from forward Gerald Lee who has been around FOREVER, all while shooting 53% from the floor and smothering the 49ers to a paltry 33% shooting clip. This doesn’t change my opinion of Charlotte who I still think is a contender in the Atlantic-10, but the Monarchs now look like they could dominate the Colonial Athletic Association. Of course, for those of who like me follow the CAA religiously know, that conference is incredibly tough and a team that looks untouchable going into the conference schedule could find themselves in the middle of the pack come February. If you don’t fully comprehend how tough the CAA is, I suggest picking up a copy of Cinderella by Michael Litos, to this day one of my absolute favorite basketball books and maybe the best one ever written on the subject of mid-major hoops (John Feinstein’s Last Amateurs can give it a damn good run though).
The two games I was bashing on yesterday – NC State vs Arizona and Illinois vs Missouri – actually turned out to be worth watching. The former was a fantastic finish with Nic Wise driving the length of the court and scoring with one second remaining to give the Wildcats a much needed win. The real story of the game was the continuing development of freshman forward Derrick Williams, another name to remember for the future all you draft nuts out there. The 6-7 youngster posted his third 20-point game of the season, the other two of which came against Wisconsin and UNLV, so he’s been doing it against legitimate defenders. Mizzou outlasted the Fighting Illini, who despite some quality wins and promising youngsters, just aren’t ready for primetime yet. The Tigers player their typical in your face, 40 minutes of hell defense, forcing 21 Illinois turnovers, right around their average of 22 forced per game. In fact, Missouri averages a whopping 30 points off of turnovers per game so far this year, so seeing them matched up with a ball control team should be an interesting contest.
We now enter a difficult stretch for those of you who suffer college basketball withdrawal, as there will be exactly one game played over the next three days with the Christmas holiday. While I can’t offer up hardwood action to help with the shakes, I can offer up a brand spanking new First Take column ready and waiting for you bright and early Christmas morning tomorrow when you wake up. So before the kids go tearing into the gifts Santa brought them (for those of you who celebrate) check in for a little college hoops fix before taking on the day. Happy holidays everyone!