Minnesota may be the country’s most impressive through Week 2.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
While two weeks of basketball doesn’t make or break a season, we learned a lot about certain teams this past week when a few of the highly anticipated pre-season tournaments got started.
Maui and Old Spice Classic in Orlando will begin this week (Thanksgiving and college hoops > > > than Thanksgiving and a Detroit Lions football game, in my opinion), but the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament, the Charleston Classic, and the final two rounds of Coaches vs. Cancer final at MSG said a lot about which teams are overrated and underrated this early in the season.
The underachievers have plenty of time to get their acts together and the early surprises will have plenty of time to screw their seasons up, but non-conference tourney results usually don’t lie. The level of competition ensures that the weaker teams are exposed.
Minnesota’s performance in Puerto Rico might not be a huge surprise, but they have gone from a Big Ten sleeper to Big Ten contender in one week. If you take a step back, forget that they just won the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, and look at the entire body of work so far, they have been the country’s most impressive team: 5-0, with all five wins coming against potential NCAA tournament teams (Wofford, Siena, Western Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virgina). The highlights of this week were obviously their upset 72-67 victory over No. 8 North Carolina and the 74-70 tournament title victory over West Virginia. Minnesota’s frontcourt, led by Trevor Mbake and Ralph Sampson, is proving to be an incredible strength of Tubby’s team.
North Carolina, on the other hand, came to Puerto Rico riding the Harrison Barnes feel good train and left wondering whether this team is any better than last year’s. The Tar Heels are, in fact, much better than last year (it would be difficult not to be), and I’m not going to overreact to a couple of losses to good teams (in addition to their loss to the Gophers, UNC fell to Vanderbilt in the tournament’s third-place game) this early in the season, but Roy Williams has to be careful with his young team.
North Carolina can’t take on the habit of counting on Harrison Barnes to singlehandedly win them basketball games. That’s not his strength anyway — he’s the kind of player who makes those around him better. Teams are still packing in zones against North Carolina and daring them to beat them with threes. UNC has the shooters to easily combat this strategy; they just need some confidence.
As of now, the Tar Heels are absolutely overrated. No way they are the eigth-best team in the country, and they might not even be in the Top 25. But this team should rebound and be fine by ACC play.
Coaches vs. Cancer
It might be a little insulting to label Pitt as a team with no star player but, instead, one with a bunch of solid, smart players who know their role and execute it to perfection. Insulting or not, it’s exactly what they are, but they continue to prove that a team doesn’t need a Harrison Barnes-type player to be one of the best in the country. The No. 4 Panthers capped off a perfect run in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic with a 68-66 win over equally impressive Texas.
After last year’s debacle of a season (No. 1 in the country to first round flameout sounds about as debacle-ish as it gets), it became chic to dismiss Texas’ chances this season. They had enough talent to be a Big 12 challenger, but how was Rick Barnes supposed to manage a roster with even more McDonald’s All American talent than last year’s combustible roster?
It seems, though, that the young Longhorns have turned a corner. Jordan Hamilton is having the most noticeable breakout season in terms of pure numbers (he dropped 28 in the loss to Pitt), but other veterans Gary Johnson, J’Covan Brown and Jai Lucas have improved their games as well. This story is far from over, though — Texas came out of the gates hot last year too. We’ll learn if the team learned anything from last year soon enough.
For No. 16 Illinois, there is no shame in losing to Texas in overtime in the Coaches vs. Cancer semis, but if Bruce Weber’s team is going to make the leap everyone thinks they are capable of, they will have to start winning some of these marquee games. Beating Maryland in the consolation game at the Garden is impressive, but a win over Texas would’ve set up a huge statement game vs. Pitt.
Luckily for the Illini, there will still be plenty of opportunities to make that statement before Big Ten play gets underway. They still host North Carolina, travel to Gonzaga, and face off with regional rival Missouri. Winning at least a couple of those games would be ideal heading into the buzz saw that is the ‘10-11 Big Ten.
Georgetown continued its impressive start to the season by taking the Charleston Classic title and beating out an underratedly strong field in South Carolina. In the final they took care of an NC State Wolfpack team that many believe will compete for an upper-tier finish in the ACC. The Hoyas, historically college basketball’s “Center U.”, continue to win with their fleet of talented guards. Austin Freeman, Chris Wright, Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson (who may be considered a forward) all had their moments in Charleston.
NC State, while talented, still has some work to do if it wants to compete with Duke, Virginia Tech and even North Carolina at the top of the ACC.
Having already lost to Minnesota, Clemson and Georgetown, the Wofford Terriers may have bitten off a little more than they can chew in the scheduling department so far this season. Coach Mike Young, who should really be commended for such ambitious scheduling, was finally rewarded when his team defeated George Mason in a thrilling overtime contest. Wofford will absolutely be in the mix in the surprisingly competitive Southern Conference (College of Charleston and Davidson will be the main challengers), and these early season games, regardless of the result, should only help during conference play. A couple of more tests at Xavier and at South Carolina remain for the defending SoCon champs.
Other Games of Note
UNLV 68 – No. 25 Wisconsin 65: UNLV became the second Mountain West conference team in as many weeks to come through with a big early season win, defeating the Badgers in Las Vegas. In what figures to be one of the more exciting conference races, UNLV, New Mexico, BYU and San Diego State all have legitimate shots at winning the MWC title. Beating Wisconsin might not be as high profile as beating Gonzaga on the road, which is what San Diego state was able to do, but a win over a high-quality Big Ten opponent like Bo Ryan’s Badgers has to leave Lon Kruger excited about his Rebels going forward.
California 89 – New Mexico 64: While conference rival UNLV was handling their ranked major conference opponent, New Mexico was busy getting shellacked by a Pac-10 team that lost four starters to graduation and is projected to finish seventh in the much-maligned league. New Mexico allowed Harper Kamp and Jorge Gutierrez to go off for career highs, and was never in the game after allowing Cal to open with a 12-4 run. Regardless, not a good loss for Steve Alford, but especially not when the rest of the competition is racking up quality wins.
Syracuse 63 – William & Mary 60: Jim Boeheim publicly criticized his young team’s “lackluster” start last week. Good try, Jimbo. William & Mary’s unorthodox style is difficult to prepare for and play, but Syracuse should’ve handled the Tribe easily. Instead, they were down with three minutes to play and are lucky they didn’t suffer an embarrassing defeat. This Orange team doesn’t seem to be gelling as quickly as last year’s team did.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.