Another action-packed week of college games have come and gone with a bevy of holiday tournaments to wet the palate of any geographically-isolated basketball fan out there. The next month of games historically provides the top-flight teams the opportunity to dine on a few more cupcakes (along with a toughie or two) before the meat of their respective conference schedules begin. With a look back while always keeping our eyes ahead, here’s what this past week has told us…
1. The Big East has proven to be mortal.
Just one week ago, there were almost a dozen undefeated teams in this 16-team mega-conference. Now only a few remain (with one being DePaul) as some of the league’s heavyweights went down to defeat, and for some, a couple really bad defeats. West Virginia, Notre Dame, and Georgetown have nothing to be ashamed of for their respective losses to Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
It was, however, the eggs laid by Louisville and Marquette which cannot be ignored.
A 14-point loss to Western Kentucky—whom granted were a Sweet-16 team of a year ago—is inexcusable for Rick Pitino’s “title-contending” group. They got beat at their own game and for the first time, freshman sensation Semardo Samuels looked human. A similar “dozen-plus-two” loss was strapped on the Golden Eagles by the Dayton Flyers this past weekend. Again, an early winter hiccup is nothing to be majorly concerned about for most teams in the nation, but for Marquette and Louisville, these losses were more like mass vomiting than just the casual bit of gas.
Don’t expect this to be a trend, league-wide; but using what has become a “Cub Scouts adage,” when you put a mid-major up against a national power, the smaller guy generally plays “above his head,” if only for one night.
2. Is the Big 12 better than we thought?
While we were very high on this conference before the start of the season, not even our Big 12-tinted glasses could have “foreseen” the league’s collective start. Oklahoma, behind a continually gargantuan effort by Blake Griffin, played beautifully on their way to a preseason NIT title. That they went through the likes of Davidson, UAB, and Purdue on the road to the title gives Sooner fans hope that there might be another possible title run later this spring (and another a bit earlier, thanks to those goofy college football computers.)
Despite dropping a game against Wake Forest on Sunday, the Baylor Bears have been impressive, notching victories over Arizona State and Providence. Texas and Rick Barnes should not drop their heads for dropping a one-point decision to Notre Dame out in Hawai’i while sporting wins over St. Joseph’s and Oregon. Even the scrappy, fast-paced group in Missouri has looked competitive with strong wins over teams from power conferences to go with just a four-point loss to the even more impressive Xavier Musketeers. Even the Huskers from Lincoln have started undefeated with a rare win over state-rival and current “pants-wearer,” Creighton. Oh, and I think that Texas Tech just scored, again. Rest assured that scoring over 90 points a night is not what the General taught his son, but with just a loss to Pittsburgh on the Red Raiders’ record, the old coach should be proud.
One of the week’s biggest games involves Texas when the UCLA Bruins come a-knocking in Austin for a 9 p.m. ET tip on ESPN2 this Thursday.
3. Believe the hype on Gonzaga
I’ll keep this one brief. If you are still one of the million doubters of the Zags (and you have good reason considering their recent tourney failures) I hope that you were able to catch their act down in the Magic Kingdom this past weekend. Three impressive wins on their way to the Old Spice Classic title, culminated by their statement victory over Tennessee in the finals. If you didn’t tune in, just read my feature on the team in the recent issue on newsstands everywhere.
To be honest, though, Gonzaga has started even better than I could have even imagined. The fact that they still have Indiana (I know…) Washington State, Connecticut, Utah, Memphis, and Tennessee again, before their competitive conference schedule begins will prove those aforementioned “legion of millions” either wise beyond their years or just plain ignorant.
4. Are Tennessee and Florida the ONLY quality SEC teams?
Unlike some of the other power conferences, I have not made my beef with the boys from down south. I wrote the above statement all by myself, and to be honest, I truly believe it. Yes, I am down with Vanderbilt even without Shan Foster and South Carolina should be improved, but I just can’t see past these two Orange-clad teams as possibly the only real threats come March. LSU has not yet dropped a game with ex-Stanford boss Trent Johnson on the bench, but my only concern is whether the Bayou Bengals’ most quality win this year is against Centenary or Jackson State.
Tennessee is long, athletic, quick; athletic… did I mention they are long? Bruce Pearl’s team should learn from that second-half schooling they endured on Sunday night by Gonzaga and be a dominant team come conference play. The Volunteers’ newest players have been possibly the most impressive with the likes of Cameron Tatum, Scottie Hopson, Renaldo Woolridge (yes, he is Orlando’s son,) and Bobby Maze (who missed all of last year) making major contributions.
Billy Donavon’s boys down in Gainsville are still young and their schedule is pretty favorable from here on in, but they do have two ACC tilts against the second-tier of that conference in Florida State and North Carolina State. The Gators have not gotten as much out of their ballyhooed freshmen class as expected, but second-year forward Alex Tyus has made huge strides from his quiet freshmen campaign and Nick Calathes is just flat-out, legitimate.
5. Is Duke even close to North Carolina?
Believe it or not, this is one of the best Duke teams to come around in some time. Over the past decade, not much positive has been produced down in Durham. This year’s team, however—despite still lacking that dominate inside punch—is experienced, athletic, and deep. Gerald Henderson, Greg Paulus, Kyle Singler, and Jon Scheyer have become that group that has seemingly been on campus for a dozen years, but this team has two “new” guys that have elevated their play early in the season. Junior forward Lance Thomas has upped his game, which included a big 21 and 6 performance against Duquesne. But quite possibly the biggest reason for renewed optimism in Krzyzewski-ville has been the emergence of our boy, Nolan Smith. The sophomore has been consistently dangerous and steady at the same time, as he has taken major minutes away from the senior, Paulus. If you haven’t seen this yet, his dunk on two Southern Illinois dudes was one of the best I have seen from a guy of his size in many years.
The Dukies have a huge test tonight against Top 10-ranked, Purdue, which airs on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET. This is the first of a series of three December road games which should give us a better idea as to the validity of this team. After tonight’s game is a Saturday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET—ESPN) tilt with Michigan on the 6th, followed two weeks later by another weekend daytime meeting with Xavier.
Is North Carolina better? Yes, most definitely. The ‘Heels might be the most superior team in the nation. Luckily, for us basketball fans, there won’t be any computer telling us how to figure that debate out.
Check Cub Buenning’s scouting website for weekly player reports. Many players highlighted in Cub Scouts are thoroughly covered on the site.