First Take: The Statement Weekend
Georgetown, Maryland, Texas A&M, Richmond and UNLV all come up big.
Well it’s finally here. That point in the calendar where all of the attention is squarely on the hardwood. The gridiron is empty (congratulations Saints) and it’ll be a few more weeks before our national pastime really gets underway. In many ways, it feels like the season is really starting now. The regular season is entering its final stretch run before the beautiful chaos that is the conference tournament begins for teams all over the country. If the action from this weekend was any indication of what is in store the rest of the way, then hold on for what should be a very interesting ride.
· There are few teams I believe capable of losing to South Florida and then trouncing #2Villanova a few days later in such a dominant fashion that the previous defeat is not only forgotten, but talks of a national title suddenly become prevalent. Nice work Georgetown. After the Hoyas dominated the Wildcats by a 103-90 margin, sophomore Greg Monroe said the team is, “as good as we want to be.” Right now it looks like they’re thinking Final Four in DC. Despite turning the ball over 20 times, this was a brilliant team effort, one that featured 56 percent shooting from the floor (10-of-19 from three) and 21 assists on 27 field goals. Greg Monroe was at his best, scoring 19 points while hauling in eight rebounds and dishing out a game-high six assists, while guards Austin Freeman and Jason Clark each eclipsed 20 points. Clark, a sophomore as well, exploded from the perimeter, connecting on 6-of-7 attempts from beyond the arc. As much criticism and skepticism as Georgetown has received this season (I’m included in that group) for their lack of depth and almost non-existent rotation, their starters who see an enormous amount of playing time might be good enough to carry them into the final weekend of the season. Monroe is one of the most unique weapons in the country, capable of killing you with his scoring or passing from the power forward position. Add in gunners Freeman and Chris Wright who have traded off big nights almost on a game-by-game basis and this team has some serious firepower. Certainly if nothing else, they are starting to peak at the right time. I still think they run into trouble against a deeper team like Kansas, but then again the Wildcats were pretty deep too.
· After his Michigan State Spartans were “upset” by Illinois, Tom Izzo said the absence of Kalin Lucas was not an excuse for losing. Tom, I know you’re a great coach, one of the best in the game, but don’t be so hard on yourself or your team. I know that no one is going to lighten up on the Spartans on the court if someone is hurt, but playing without Lucas is the biggest blow MSU basketball can take. It’s one thing to lose a star early in the season (ie: Ohio State) and keep the ship afloat for a few games, but at this point in the season when teams are hungrier and simply playing better basketball, it can cause a collapse. Considering that his status is unknown for Tuesday’s huge contest with Purdue and just a few days after it looked like Michigan State was a runaway for the Big Ten regular season title, the Spartans could find themselves in a potential four-way tie with Wisconsin, Purdue and Ohio State.
· I don’t even know what to say about Texas at this point. The Longhorns fell to Oklahoma on Saturday and have now lost four of six since rising to number on in the polls a few weeks ago. This is worse than the 2006 UConn team that was loaded with NBA talent and was upset by George Mason in the elite eight that year. At least the Huskies waited until the Big Dance to struggle (remember they nearly lost to Albany in the first round), but Texas is proving to be an even bigger conundrum. The funny thing is, I can’t help but still consider penciling their name into my Final Four – crazy I know. This team has so much raw talent, size, length and athleticism, if they decide to wake up and start playing, they can beat anyone in the country. Doing it is a completely different matter of course.
· There were two major conference shakeups on Saturday that were not so much unexpected, but the sizeable margin of defeats caused a few eyebrows to be raised. UNLV’s 14-point win over BYU not only ties the schools for the Mountain West lead with New Mexico, but Tre’Von Willis’s 33-point, 8-assist masterpiece suddenly throws some fire under his name for the conference POY race with Jimmer Fredette. UNLV has a slightly easier remaining schedule and BYU still has to face New Mexico – a team that beat them once already – before the postseason arrives. Regardless of who comes out on top, both schools will be dancing in March. In the Atlantic-10, Richmond shot 77 percent in the first half against one of the top defensive teams in the country in Temple and trounced the 17th-ranked Owls 71-54. The Spiders continue to overachieve (even though Kevin Anderson has been outstanding) and suddenly not only are they one game back of the conference lead, but Temple has been knocked off their perch (no pun intended) as well. In fact, the top five teams in the A-10 are separated by just one game right now. If you are looking for the best conference race down the stretch of the regular season, you have found it.
· Texas A&M picked up a huge win over #24 Baylor and all of a sudden the Aggies are tied for second place in the Big 12. At this point, no one is catching Kansas, but the fact that A&M is here right now is a major accomplishment. Their final seven games are about as tough as it gets though, featuring trips to Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma, the latter two venues which have proven to be treacherous this year. Then there are home games with Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma State. The Aggies are either entering the postseason limping, or as the hottest team in the country.
· One final note from the weekend, Maryland proved it is up to the challenge of bringing home the ACC regular season title. Yes, the Terps are still a half game back of Duke and frankly the Blue Devils are going to be the favorite when they meet up this Saturday, but UMD’s trouncing of North Carolina yesterday is a major statement. I know the Tar Heels have been struggling, but a 21-point win against a team loaded with former McDonald’s All-Americans is impressive no matter how you slice it.
Tonight begins rivalry week and we will be experiencing college basketball overload with the number of potential fantastic games on the schedule. I say potential because we know that games that are billed as marquee matchups can quickly turn into one-sided affairs, but hey, there’s always cause for optimism.
As far as what should be on your television tonight, it’s simple: keep the remote locked on ESPN. Starting at 7 ET Villanova will be entering the 9th circle of hell, also known as West Virginia, in a pivotal Big East game between the second and third place teams. Of course, the bigger story going in will likely center on if the Mountaineer faithful can behave themselves and not chant obscenities to the point that it can be heard on national TV, or throw objects onto the court and pelt opposing coaches. Either way, this will shape up to be dramatic one way or another.
Following that contest, Kansas will visit Texas for a game that almost certainly will be stellar. Yes, Texas has been floundering tremendously, but you know they will be up for this game, there’s no question. At the very least, consider that at any one point there will be upwards of eight or nine NBA prospects on the court in this one and you know there will be a high level of play.
In addition to my daily ramblings, keep an eye out for some feature content this week as well, as I’ve been conducting interviews over the last several days, hence the tardiness of today’s post. Enjoy the hoops!