First Take: Fortson Returns
And tough times hit Tennessee.
Old Southwest Conference matchups generally tend to be pretty good games from my memory, but Arkansas gave Texas a little more than it probably expected last night. The Razorbacks hardly seemed intimidated by the number two team in the country thanks in large part to a raucous crowd that was behind them and the return of point guard Courtney Fortson.
The sophomore was suspended for the first 14 games of the season after bursting onto the SEC scene last year as a newcomer to the college ranks. Even with how good we know Fortson is and can be (head coach John Pelphrey has called him one of the best floor generals in the country and he may be right) it’s hard not to be impressed with the 19-point, 7-assist performance he put on in his first game back against a team most expect to be appearing in the Final Four this March. Not including the six turnovers – c’mon the guy was a little rusty – Fortson was brilliant off the dribble, able to penetrate at will during certain stretches of the game against the vaunted Longhorn backcourt. With the strong play of Rotnei Clarke and Marshawn Powell (Michael Washington hasn’t even hit his stride yet) if Fortson can smoothly assimilate back into the lineup, and he should, Arkansas suddenly goes from a team that is struggling at 7-8, to one who can make a little noise in the conference schedule.
As difficult as this game was for Texas, it says a lot about how strong this team is. With the backcourt struggling and not producing much, the Longhorns were able to dump the ball inside to Dexter Pittman and Damion James to get the job done, I’m not even mentioning reserve forward Gary Johnson and his 16 points. Pittman recorded his second double-double of the season and led the way with 21 points, while James added 20. The key point in this game came when Pittman on a fast break was fed the ball and despite taking a pretty good foul from Michael Washington, flushed home a one-handed dunk, then proceeding to flex his arms on his way to the foul line. The symbolism of this moment was much more important than the actual momentum it generated for Texas. It was in many ways a culmination of how far Pittman has come since the nearly 400-pound freshman he was when he first arrived on campus. The senior has molded himself into a dominant big man, not necessarily a consistent one, but a frontcourt force capable of controlling the lane in a way that few if any other players in the country can. If Pittman can push his minutes up closer to 24-25 as the season progresses, the chances of a national title in Austin will increase tremendously.
Purdue tied its best ever start by defeating Minnesota 79-60 and improving to 14-0. Boilermaker head coach Matt Painter said he felt the Golden Gophers outplayed his team due in large part to the 17 turnovers his team committed and the 19 offensive rebounds yielded. While these are numbers that will need to be reduced against say Michigan State, Purdue made up for this by shooting 52 percent and hounding Minnesota to just a 31 percent mark. Not having Ralph Sampson III available hurt Tubby Smith’s squad a good deal, especially given that Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson each posted double-doubles in the winning effort. I have to be honest, I was skeptical of Purdue heading into this season, I thought they might be a tad overrated given the hype they failed to live up to last year, but they continue to prove they are the real thing. In many ways, Purdue reminds of Michigan State teams from the past, loaded with veterans, stingy on defense and ripe with offensive balance.
There were a couple of big games from a pair of underrated stars last night, players that have been talked about a great deal on this site in the past. Luke Harangody hung a season-high 36 points on South Florida in a Notre Dame win, his second straight 30-point effort. For the NBA scouts watching the Fighting Irish big man and pondering his pro potential, the senior connected on 4-of-5 shots attempts from beyond the arc. Is this worth fawning over? No of course not, one game does not make a pro prospect – unless your name is Patrick O’Bryant – but certainly an improved consistency from the outside can only help Harangody in the draft game. Oklahoma State’s James Anderson dropped 26, proving his 10-point egg in a loss to Rhode Island was a fluke. It’s sad because unless either of these teams go on a major run in conference play, neither Anderson or Harangody will likely get the kind of postseason recognition they deserve, though Harangody has a better chance given that he has established himself in the past.
Georgia played almost flawless basketball offensively (if you exclude 18 turnovers) and managed to upset rival Georgia Tech, due in large part to another big effort from Trey Thompkins who scored 20 and continues to impress. He scored against super long Gani Lawal inside and got freshman Derrick Favors into foul trouble, limiting the youngster to just 21 minutes and 8 points. The MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game has been somewhat quiet in his first season, posting averages of 12 and 9, but lacking in that signature game. He’ll have plenty of chances to prove himself against tough frontcourts in the ACC in the upcoming weeks.
One final note from last night, San Diego State proved immediately how tough the Mountain West is going to be by taking down #14 New Mexico in convincing fashion. The Aztecs got a huge game from forward Malcolm Thomas who had his second double-double of the season, scoring 18 points and hauling in 15 rebounds. This just makes the upcoming game with UNLV all the more interesting given that SDSU picked up a win in its first major conference test.
There is plenty going on tonight, for starters Wisconsin visiting Michigan State. How this game isn’t on national television is beyond me, but for those who will get it on regional networks, do yourself a favor and watch. ESPN2 has Memphis at Syracuse tonight at 7 ET which means Wesley Johnson vs. Elliot Williams. If that isn’t a good enough endorsement to watch a basketball game, then I don’t know what is. Seton Hall visits Connecticut in an attempt to try and finally take down a ranked opponent this year, but the best northeast game tonight has to be the classic A-10 matchup pitting Saint Joseph’s against Temple.
The eyes of the college basketball world will be on Knoxville tonight when Tennessee hosts Charlotte. Excluding the fact that this should be a good game, it will be the first time the Volunteers are in action since four players, including star forward Tyler Smith, were arrested on gun charges. Smith, along with guards Melvin Goins, Cameron Tatum and center Brian Williams have been suspended indefinitely by coach Bruce Pearl, leaving the team with only six scholarship players and a lot of questions as they enter conference play. It’s always unfortunate when something like this happens, especially for a player like Smith who had a potential future in the NBA, but that is very much in jeopardy now.