First Take: Great Expectations
We need to give UNC a chance.
Obviously today’s First Take is going up a bit late and it’s going to be a little on the short end – sometimes life is busy I guess.
There were some pretty good games around the country last night, though most of them were on west coast time. Gonzaga held off Pepperdine 91-84 to improve to 4-0 in the West Coast Conference. I say held off, because Waves sophomore guard Keion Bell exploded in the second half, scoring 34 of his 37 points, showing off some eye popping athleticism in the process. This kid is a player, but sadly because he plays out west for a subpar team, he almost certainly won’t get his due respect outside of his own conference, so here you go Keion. There aren’t too many 6-3 underclassmen out there who put up 19, 5 and 4 with 1.6 steals thrown in on a nightly basis who can also demoralize an opposing big man by skying over them for a put back dunk, but the Los Angeles native fit that bill. By the time next season rolls around we could be looking at this guy as one of the top scorers in the nation, his arsenal is that good.
Speaking of the west, great news for UCLA fans and bad news for the Pac-10 last night. The Bruins stole a win from Washington 62-61 thanks to a last second jumper from reserve Mustafa Abdul-Hamid, meaning one of the conference favorites slipped even further into the abyss that is that conference. If you like tight races, then this is fun for you given that every time is currently somewhere between 4-2 and 2-4 in conference play, but with 14-5 Arizona State sitting as the top dog, it is looking bleak for the Pac-10.
Butler just survived Loyola (Ill.) last night to stay undefeated in the Horizon League and Siena staved off Loyola (Md.) to improve to 9-0 in the MAAC. That may be the first, last and only time that both Loyola’s are used in the same sentence for any reason.
Before I break into this weekend’s preview, I need to rant about something. Why are 90% of the college basketball analysts and writers out there acting like North Carolina’s struggles are such a huge shock? Were people – myself included – expecting this team to be solid again given the wealth of young talent they have accumulated, sure, but are these growing pains actually that shocking? No, of course not, how can they be? The Tar Heels lost four players to the NBA last year, one of whom was the all-time leading scorer in ACC history and the other who fluctuated between the fastest man on the court and the top point guard in the country. All of a sudden now Roy Williams is trying to instill a winning system coaching the Cabbage Patch Kids and we’re shocked that the team is losing games in a deep conference? And yes, the ACC is deep, very deep. After four games when Virginia is your only undefeated team left, you know you’ve got depth.
I almost chocked on my lunch yesterday when I turned on ESPN to hear that according to calculations UNC is a 50-50 to make the NCAA Tournament as of right now. Pardon me for being the one to disagree with the World Wide Leader, but outside of a handful of teams (15-20) you can say that about almost any team in the country, and many have even worse odds. Three of Carolina’s four non-conference losses came to Final Four teams (Texas, Kentucky and Syracuse) while their three ACC losses have come to Clemson, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, all teams that should be dancing in March. Even so, there are still 12 games on the ACC docket for UNC, 12! A lot can happen in that time span. Remember in the 1996-97 season when Dean Smith was dealing with a young and unpredictable team that started 0-3 in conference and everyone was yelling WTF? Well, that team wound up not losing another game after January 29th until Arizona took them down in the Final Four. Granted, that team featured future pros Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Ed Cota, but as young as they were, why can’t you argue that the Tar Heels have several future members of the Association on their roster now?
Am I saying the baby Heels are going to the Final Four? Absolutely not. However, we need to keep two things in mind before calling this season a shocking disappointment. First, as much as we love dynasties in this country, the college game just isn’t favorable to them. Even though the uniforms still say North Carolina on them, this team isn’t last year’s team, not even close, so we need to stop holding them to the same standards. Secondly, people are too trigger happy with the panic button. The ACC schedule is only a quarter of the way finished and it’s not like the Tar Heels have had a cupcake road so far. I said a few weeks back this team was going to put it together in February, so if two weeks from now the team is still floundering, then it’s time to start worrying. But let me tell you, with NC State, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Maryland all coming up, Carolina could very well win their next four in a row heading into the Duke game.
As for the weekend, your two safe bets for excellent games are clearly Texas at Connecticut and Duke at Clemson. In the former there is enough athleticism on the court to make the average viewers head explode. There will be no less than eight pro prospects in action in that game. The latter contest will tell us two things, is Clemson for real and can Duke overcome its lack of toughness inside? Little John Coliseum is very tough to play in and Duke hasn’t fared well on the road in the ACC as of late, but there’s no way Duke is happy about how they got bullied around in their last game by NC State. Trevor Booker goes off for the Tigers, but the Dukies get the win. Ohio State is going into West Virginia and coming out with a win, put that down. The mid-majors have a couple of big games this weekend as well with Xavier hosting Rhode Island in a big one for the A-10 while in the CAA William & Mary hooks up with Old Dominion. It’s almost hard to go wrong with any choices this weekend, the slate of games is that good. Enjoy the hoops!