The First Take: Carolina On My Mind
And the next great mid-major dunker…
Generally one of the well accepted rules in college basketball is that veteran leadership will trump more talented, but less experienced teams in early season games that come down to the wire. Fortunately for North Carolina, the cushion they built during the first thirty minutes of their game with Michigan State was enough to hold off a Spartan rally down the stretch. The Chapel Hill kids highlighted a busy night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge that saw the ACC take three out of five games and even up the overall series at three games each.
Clearly, this night was all about the rematch of March’s national championship game and for a while it looked like a rerun of the Tar Heels romp, just with a different cast of characters. The scary thing about young teams is how quickly they can grow and mature under the right conditions – learning under Roy Williams is an ideal environment. Carolina was phenomenal in their first test since getting run by Syracuse at the Garden a couple of weeks ago. Ed Davis posted a career-high 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting in his second consecutive brilliant performance and point guard Larry Drew continued to do his best to make UNC fans forget about Ty Lawson but netting 18 and dishing out 6 assists. These two are quickly making the jump from freshman role players to star veterans, more out of necessity than anything, but they are pulling it off very well. Davis in particular just looked so impressive with his freakish length and athleticism. On a loaded roster his numbers may not always be off the charts, but he has the talent to easily average 20 and 10 in the ACC if he gets enough touches.
What has to be cause for concern for the rest of the country though is how good Carolina’s supporting cast looked. Midway through the first half Williams pulled his starters and put out a lineup of four freshmen in John Henson, Leslie McDonald, the Wear twins and senior Deon Thompson. The youngsters responded by putting together a quick 9-0 run to put the Tar Heels out in front. Henson is going to be a star, no question. To move as effortlessly as he does at 6-10, it’s just fun to watch. In all, freshman and sophomores accounted for 31 of Carolina’s first 36 points. To put in your second unit and actually build on a lead against a preseason national title contender…let’s just say that UNC is going to be very, very good come March.
In another match up of experience versus youth, experience won out, running away. In hostile territory on the road, Wake Forest was looking good against sixth-ranked Purdue. Al-Farouq Aminu looked good early, but struggled in the second half, finishing with 12 and 10 on 3-of-11 shooting. Here’s the thing with Aminu, he is a sophomore still learning the game and just scratching the surface of his vast potential. We all know players like this, the Wilson Chandler’s of the world. The tremendous combination of size, athleticism and potential that only comes together in the briefest of moments during the college years. That moment came for Aminu with just under six minutes remaining in the first half when he poked away a pass, dribbled the length of the court and in one swift move, split a pair of defenders and put down a thunderous dunk with one hand. I don’t care about the foul trouble or the poor shooting, find me one NBA scout who won’t get excited at seeing a 6-9 sophomore pull off a play like that. But after the early fast start – and my long winded digression – Purdue rolled in the second half with 20-point games coming from E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, ousting the Demon Deacons 69-58.
Newly ranked Cincinnati showed no problems dealing with the number now thrust in front of their name, trouncing Texas Southern 94-57. Cool side note, Nick Van Exel was on the TSU sideline as an assistant coach, taking on his old school. On the court the Bearcats put seven players in double-figures, but funny enough, it was an individual who scored only seven points who put on the best performance. Freshman Lance Stephenson flirted with the first Cinci triple-double since the 2005-06 season by hauling in 11 rebounds and dolling out seven assists in addition to his point total. This was the kind of game that makes me second guess all the early visions I had of Born Ready alienating himself on the team by taking 457 shots per game. We all know he can score, if Lance proves to be a consistent playmaker too, well the NBA will come calling relatively soon.
My girlfriend – who is currently driving across the country to begin her blossoming career as a TV reporter in Big Sky country – was actually within range of Assembly Hall today, which means she was close enough to catch the best undercard game of the night if she wanted. Maryland used a balanced scoring attack (four players in double figures) to best Indiana 80-68 on the Hoosiers home court. Senior guard Greivis Vasquez busted out of his scoring slump with a 23-point showing, thanks to the 13 free throws he connected on. Landon Milbourne added 19, but the story has to be the continuing emergence of sophomore Sean Mosely who had 13 and 9. There may have not been a more overlooked blue chip recruit in the country last season and with good reason. The Baltimore product was a top-50 player in his class but didn’t show it much in the box score as a rookie. Now, starting in the Terps three guard lineup, he is putting together a great start to his second year in College Park.
Speaking of young players with promise who were lacing it up in Bloomington last night – which player is leading all Big Ten freshman in scoring as of this moment? Give up? How about Indiana’s Maurice Creek who entered the game averaging 16.3 ppg and then added 19 more last night to lead the Hoosiers. I got a look at Creek during the spring at the inaugural Reebok All-American Game, but boy has he outdone my expectations for him. Christian Watford, another touted freshman chipped in with 16 points – give Tom Crean one more recruiting class before Indiana is back challenging in the Big Ten.
Gator alert! Florida is 7-0 for the first time since 2005 and shows no signs of slowing down with a young core that is only going to get better as the season progresses. Bill Donovan’s squad smacked Florida A&M 80-59, and that was with high school All-American Kenny Boynton contributing one point – I guess the 9 assists made up for it though. Of course, when you can throw the ball up near the rim for Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin life can be fun. Now if Chandler Parsons could only figure out how to put his 6-9 versatile frame to good use…
In the mid-major game that you didn’t see because it likely wasn’t televised but was worth watching, UTEP took care of New Mexico State on the road with an easy 19-point win. The Miners are 5-0 and so much fun to watch because of junior jumping jack Randy Culpepper. The 6-foot (most generous listing ever) guard is averaging a modest 16.5 ppg, but makes old highlights of Nate Robinson at Washington look like child’s play. If you didn’t catch the flush that Culpepper put down last night on SportsCenter, here is a small sampling of what this young man can do when he is feeling springy.
So what comes next? Well it is Wednesday which means it’s the busiest day of the week after Saturday. The docket features 63 games including 14 that feature ranked teams. But the real focus will be on the five games left to be played between ACC and Big Ten schools. This one is all knotted up at three games each like I already mentioned, but the Big Ten has a chance to win this challenge for the first time ever. Three wins out of five ends a decade-long drought and perhaps adds some fuel to the first that this conference is for real this year.
This one is going to be a dog fight to the finish though. Let’s give Duke and Clemson wins over Wisconsin and Illinois, so that’s a pair for the ACC. Ohio State should handle Florida State in Buckeye country, although don’t expect the human triple-double Evan Turner to turn in his third 3D of the season against the ‘Noles. So really it comes down to the swing games: Minnesota at Miami and Boston College at Michigan. The Wolverines have dropped back-to-back games to Marquette and Alabama, but Boston College is this year’s Clemson – plenty of wins but none of them impressive. Undefeated Miami is at home against a Minnesota team that has dropped two straight as well, though both of these have been against quality teams. I may regret this tomorrow and hear it from ACC fans the world over, but I give both games to the Big Ten and bring the futility at the hands of the Atlantic Coast to an end.
The real shame in all of this though? Washington State’s visit to 16th ranked Gonzaga isn’t going to make the national scene for television viewers. What could be more fun than watching a Bulldog team that has surprised everyone trying to slow down the nation’s leading scorer in Klay Thompson? Well, nothing that the Blue Devils and Badgers will be able to provide.
But before I continue to lament my lack of funds to invest in the DirecTV sports package, I’ll wrap this up and say happy Hump Day everyone, enjoy the hoops.