First Take: Wildcats Muscle Longhorns
Can Kentucky handle that No. 1 spot?
I’m a person who likes to move around a lot, rarely staying in one place for too long before boredom sits in. It was with that thought settling in yesterday – less than one week after my expedition out west – that I decided to drive a couple of hours north and pay a visit to a pair of old college buddies. The beauty of this trip is not only do I get to spend time in beautiful West Hartford, CT, but my friends are now employed by the World Wide Leader so I couldn’t think of anyone better to take in some college hoops with on a Monday night.
After enjoying a brilliant greasy burger at Plan B – a cozy little burger joint/bar – we settled in for the Big Monday double-header, starting with Syracuse’s quality win over Notre Dame. I already sang the praises of the Orange at length yesterday, so I won’t say too much about this one other than ‘Cuse’s leaders Wesley Johnson and Andy Rautins each punched their time cards with 20-point games in the winning effort. It was a typical game from the Irish, Luke Harangody shouldered the load going off for 31 and 14, topping the 30-point mark for the third time in five games. I’ve said this so many times it’s getting old by now, but if Harangody was on a contending team, we’d be talking about him as a national POY candidate, instead, he’ll toil away on a Notre Dame team that will land somewhere between the bubble and a six seed come March – a poor man’s Dave Cowens if I ever saw one.
At the outset of the Texas/Kansas State game my friend Nick turned to me and said one of his fellow ESPN employees – a Texas alum – had stated during the Texas A&M overtime win that the outcome of the game really didn’t matter since the Longhorns were going to lose to the Wildcats a few days later anyway. Oh how bitter those words must taste today. The surprise isn’t that Texas lost here, Kansas State has been underrated most of the season anyway, the surprise is that the Longhorns frontcourt was handled, something I didn’t expect to see occur until their matchup with Kansas. Curtis Kelly and Jamar Samuels combined for 37 points and 20 rebounds in spearheading an attack that won the battle on the glass 42-34. Dexter Pittman and POY candidate Damion James were held to 15 total points and 12 rebounds, there’s your difference. This game was won inside as both squads had their star backcourts neutralized,Texas because it hadn’t seen a tough set of guards like this year and Kansas State mainly because Dennis Clemente turned an ankle. The outcome of this game proves one point and sets up another very interesting scenario. First, the Big 12 is more than the best conference right now, it is loaded beyond belief. Texas and Kansas are Final Four contenders, Kansas State is pretty much at that point the way they are playing and let’s not forget A&M and Baylor who are going to be handfuls in March as well if they keep improving. This conference tournament is going to be tremendous.
The scenario we’re faced with now – assuming they don’t lose this week – is Kentucky will be standing atop the polls on Monday. In my mind, this is the perfect situation for John Calipari to see what his team is made of. Not only will the ‘Cats be dealing with the pressures of being top dog, but they are in the midst of a conference schedule that is going to see a slew of tough teams giving them everything they’ve got. Now, it’s very possible that Kentucky is just a little too young and a little too cocky to understand the magnitude of where they are at – almost like the great UNLV and Michigan teams from the early 90’s. However, I tend to think Calipari and an experienced veteran like Patrick Patterson are wise enough to know the situation and keep the young guns grounded and focused.
In case you couldn’t tell, aside from the two marquee contests, it was a fairly quiet night in college hoops land. Tonight presents us with a few more appealing games that will go a long way to determining conference pecking orders. Tennesse at Alabama and Purdue at Illinois should both go to the far superior visiting teams with little trouble. If you want a pair of evenly matched games though, look no further than the ACC and MVC. Clemson visits Georgia Tech in a game that will go a long way to telling us who will be playing second fiddle to Duke. Of course we’ll also get an answer to the question what happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force when Derrick Favors collides with Trevor Booker somewhere around the rim. In the Valley, newly ranked Northern Iowa is on the road at Wichita State in a matchup of the top two teams in that conference. The Shockers are coming off a surprising loss to Creighton but have enough weapons and talent to hand the Panthers their first conference loss of the season. That’s it for today and my apologies for the late post but a rule of thumb I’ve determined is you can never trust wireless internet in Connecticut. Enjoy the hoops.