First Take: Monday Morning Mash-Up
It was a busy weekend…
What a weekend. I don’t even know how to quantify it, but I’m going to try. Between Saturday and Sunday college hoops fanatics were treated to 161 games of which I was able to watch all or part of approximately 30 (God bless the internet). Given that there is so much to rehash on Monday mornings, particularly now that conference play is in full swing, I’m going to try something new for the start of the week. Rather than trying to write a free flowing column covering such a tremendous amount of hoops action, let me attempt to formalize my thoughts in short bursts as best I can. As this is an ever changing and evolving blog, please let me know if this format works or I’d be better off with something else.
· Neither Texas’ overtime scare against Texas A&M nor Kentucky’s 5-point squeaker at Auburn should be too surprising. This won’t be the last time the Longhorns are challenged in the Big 12, and I’m not talking about Kansas either. The Big 12 is brimming with underrated talent this year, and despite falling out of the polls a few weeks ago, A&M is a team that still deserves to be feared given their dynamic backcourt and the interior presence of Bryan Davis. For the love of Dick Vitale can we start talking about Damion James as a POY candidate already, the man led Texas to victory down the stretch, posted his third straight game of at least 20 points and 12 rebounds, oh and for what it’s worth recently became the all-time Big 12 rebound king. As for Kentucky, it’s simple, they are young and still not playing great basketball, they are getting by on ability.
· After watching Syracuse hold off West Virginia I’m ready to say the Orange will be playing in the national championship game – that team just doesn’t have any real holes. The trio of Wesley Johnson, Andy Rautins and Scoop Triche (I’m combining Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche into one person) to make one of the strongest backcourts in the nation. Arinze Onuaku, Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson give ‘Cuse the bulk and the length to hang with any team in the country and Jim Boeheim is a big time coach. So why does this team have what it takes to outlast a team like Kentucky or Texas that clearly brings more athleticism and long term potential? Experience, the Orange have it in abundance and at nearly every spot on the floor.
· Northwestern took down Purdue, improving to 13-4 and dealing the Boilermakers their third straight loss. In doing so, the Wildcats once again defied their appearance. Nothing about what this team shows indicates they should be a competitive basketball team. They aren’t athletic, they don’t have a gimmick offense or a particular strength that allows them to win games. They’re like the team from Hoosiers, only Jimmy Chitwood (Kevin Coble) is injured and inactive for the entirety of the season. On top of all that, Northwestern has NEVER made the NCAA Tournament. This is the feel good story of the year in college basketball.
· Two things stick out to me about Duke’s 90-70 win over Wake Forest last night. First, Mason Plumlee is going to be a very good college player. His 11 points and seven rebounds were modest – especially compared to big bro Miles’ career-night of 19 and 14 – but he showed a lot of flare, particularly with an offensive rebound followed up with a reverse slam all in one move. What really stuck out last night for me though, as I’m sure was the case for many, was the ridiculous intentional foul call against Ishmael Smith, ironically enough against Mason Plumlee. Listen, I’m not going to go on a rant about Duke getting calls and whatnot, even if they have in the past, you still have to be a damn good team to win as many games as they do. But if you saw this play you can’t tell me it was an intentional foul. You can’t do it. The refs even watched replays of this and stuck by their call, which I’m convinced is because if they reversed it the Cameron Crazies would have stormed the floor and carried them back to the dark abyss from which they came. Smith made a play on the ball, got screwed, Duke capitalized and turned it into a four-point swing and a momentum builder, the game was never the same after that. (Side note, I scoured YouTube looking for a clip of this play and came up empty handed)
· Villanova’s five-point win over Georgetown was the best Big East game so far this season. The reason for this? The best players for each respective team took center stage and said get out of the way to everyone else. Scottie Reynolds dropped 27 points, topping 20 for the eighth time in 10 games. Greg Monroe reminded us why he was a preseason favorite for Big East POY by going off for 29 points and 15 rebounds. That’s what I love about Monroe, he is such a well rounded player, particularly as a passing big man who can facilitate offense, that he doesn’t need to put up gaudy numbers to be a great player – but we’re stupid and don’t realize that, we need big numbers dammit! So every now and then Monroe senses this and just decides to go off, much like he did last month against Butler. Thank you for the reminder Greg.
· Unfortunately I watched Kansas State’s win over Colorado from start to finish. On the one hand, I got to watch Jacob Pullen in action who is the best player in the country no one is talking about. On the other hand, I had to watch these two teams attempt 94 free throws. It looked like a glorified Jimmy V Shoot-a-thon. It was like watching every Pauley Shore movie in succession with no bathroom breaks to make an escape. Damn you Colorado. Damn you Kansas State.
· North Carolina confirmed my suspicions that they are just lacking the experience to be an elite team this season. They are a poor man’s Kentucky right now. The Tar Heels are loaded with young talent, but it isn’t so good that they can make up for their youth. At the same time though, we’ve seen what they are capable of when everything is clicking, hence the massive comeback they pulled on Georgia Tech before losing by a deuce.
· For all of the talk that Dexter Pittman and Cole Aldrich get in the Big 12 (and rightfully so) it’s time we start talking about Ekpe Udoh as well. Not only is the Michigan transfer blessed with a long 6-10, 240-pound frame that attracts pro scouts, but he has a ridiculous stat line of 14.1 ppg, 11.4 rpg and 4.4 bpg to further bolster the intrigue. He’s only topped 20 points twice this season, but that’s due in large part to the fact that he’s playing with LaceDarius Dunn who has been hotter and more trigger happy than AI playing in an over 40 rec league. When you consider that Udoh has gotten a huge percentage of his points on the offensive glass – he averages better than 4 O boards per game – his numbers become ever more impressive.
· I love that Xavier has basically given a giant screw you to the entire basketball world. Their coach bolted for Arizona, their top three players graduated and everyone had written them off as being players in the Atlantic-10 this season. Well, after beating conference preseason favorite Dayton on Saturday, the Minutemen are sitting atop the standings at 4-0 and basically flipping the bird to everyone. If Jordan Crawford can spearhead a win over #21 and second place Temple on Wednesday then Xavier will officially be in “F the World Tony Montana at the End of Scarface” mode.
· Just when it looked like the Missouri Valley Conference was going to be a two-horse race, Creighton took down Wichita State and reminded us all why the MVC rarely gets multiple NCAA Tournament bids: they beat the crap out of each other all season. The Shockers are still sitting pretty at 16-3 (5-2) and in second behind the runaway freight train that is Northern Iowa right now, but Illinois State has already fallen victim to the tenacious play of the conference. After entering with a sharp 9-2 record, the Redbirds have stumbled to a 4-3 start leaving them in need of little win streak to keep their name fresh in the minds of the selection committee.
· I love when ESPN decides to show games like Morgan State at South Carolina State on days other than BracketBuster Weekend. While the rest of the world is probably changing the channel or spending an inordinate amount time starring at their refrigerators trying to decide what to microwave, I take the opportunity to check out some of the players and teams that will likely be screwing me once my bracket falls apart in March. Morgan State at 4-0 in MEAC play is looking strong in its bid for a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance. While guard Reggie Holmes, a top five scorer in the country, may be getting most of the attention, I enjoyed watching sophomore Kevin Thompson for the first time. A 6-8 forward who averages a workmanlike 13.7 ppg and 12.7 rpg, the Baltimore native is probably the top pro prospect in the conference. Of course being the top pro prospect in the MEAC is like being Mr. Basketball for the state of Maine in high school. But I digress. In his three games against stiffer competition, those being Louisville, Arkansas and Minnesota, Thompson has posted games of 16 and 13, 10 and 14, and 17 and 19 respectively. David Stern may not call his name one day, but rest of the conference can’t wait for him to go.
· UConn lost to Michigan, dropping the Huskies to 11-6 overall, losers of three straight. As much as Rick Barnes has been lambasted over the years at Texas for not winning with absurd amounts of talent, has anyone noticed that Jim Calhoun does the same? I know the guy has won a pair of national championships, but should that completely get him off the hook for some of these? Remember when Connecticut was knocked off by George Mason in the Elite Eight a few years ago, they were the favorites to win it all. That team featured six legitimate pro prospects and couldn’t make the Final Four, but it all got swept away by the whole Mason is the ultimate Cinderella story. This year’s team is almost as perplexing right now. The Huskies have a lottery talent in Stanley Robinson and two future pros in their backcourt in Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker, not to mention a slew of talented role players. Heck, even Gavin Edwards is going to get a few sniffs from the NBA (seriously). I’m not saying Jim Calhoun isn’t an all-time coach, but the next time you’re ready to bash on Rick Barnes, just remember he’s not the only one who has had some head scratching results from loaded rosters.
OK, so that was a long winded recap of the weekend, if you’re still reading at this point congratulations, you’re either a super fast reader, or you’ve perfected the stealth reading technique while at work. Given that I rambled this long I’ll keep my suggestions for tonight brief. Syracuse at Notre Dame and Texas at Kansas State. Just watch ESPN from 7 ET to 11 ET and you’ll be set. Oh, and Kansas State, if you get into another free throw fest I’m done with you.