Ten Tuesday Scribbles…

Posted by zhayes9 on December 29th, 2009

RTC contributor and bracketologist Zach Hayes will deliver ten permeating thoughts every Tuesday as the season progresses.

1. The most competitive conference in the land this season should spark the most competitive Player of the Year race come March. Top-seeded Kansas boasts three potential candidates once center Cole Aldrich starts to play with a more aggressive mentality on the offensive end. Senior point guard Sherron Collins has the skill set to explode come conference play and should provide the Jayhawks with more than one clutch play the season wears on. Freshman Xavier Henry has surpassed everyone’s expectations early in Lawrence as the Jayhawks early scoring leader. Nipping at the heels of #1 Kansas is #2 Texas and their all-time rebounder Damion James. James has exploded onto the scene the last week-plus with two masterful performances against North Carolina (25/15/4 stl on 8-22 FG) and Michigan State (23/13 on 10-18 FG). You’d be hard-pressed to find someone that argues James isn’t the current frontrunner for Big 12 POY and deserves definite consideration for first team All-America honors. Kansas State has been one of the bigger surprises in college basketball through the first month and a half behind sharp-shooting guard Jacob Pullen. The junior went on a tear recently scoring 28 in a big road win at UNLV then topping himself with 30 points at Alabama. In his last three games, Pullen has nailed an incredible 16 of his last 25 threes. Lurking in the shadows is Oklahoma State’s James Anderson (21.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG) and Iowa State forward Craig Brackins (17.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG) with Baylor’s Ekpe Ugoh and Oklahoma’s Willie Warren also making large impacts on their respective squads.

2. It’s fairly clear the top two teams in a weaker Pac-10 conference will be Washington behind Isaiah Thomas and Quincy Pondexter and California behind their big three of Jerome Randle, Theo Robertson and Patrick Christopher. While both teams have encountered their early season struggles, Washington knocking off an emotionally scarred Texas A&M squad at home Tuesday and California hanging in with Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse should convince most critics that those two will compete for the Pac-10 title. Prior to the season, many believed UCLA would be that third team in the Pac-10 to cause some damage and sneak into the NCAA field. But with a week that included wins over Tennessee, St. Mary’s and UNLV, it’s becoming quite evident that USC might very well be that team. Even with early season home defeats at the hands of Loyola Marymount and Nebraska and blowout losses at Texas and Georgia Tech, the Trojans are coming together behind newly-entrenched point guard Mike Gerrity and coach Kevin O’Neill. The two-time transfer Gerrity is already the Trojans leading scorer and far and away their best assist man. He won’t blow anyone away with flash and speed, but he knows how to run an offense and play the position with efficiency. A starting five of Gerrity, Nikola Vucevic, Alex Stepheson, Dwight Lewis and Marcus Johnson all of a sudden doesn’t look too shabby, does it?

3. There are some high-quality games on the docket this week to keep an eye on including a top-six duel between West Virginia and Purdue and a Big East clash as Connecticut visits Cincinnati. The most intriguing game in my estimation is Kansas visiting Temple. As impressive as their 11-0 start has been, Kansas has yet to face a current top-25 opponent with Michigan and Cal underachieving early. Few teams have as impressive a non-conference resume as Temple with wins against Virginia Tech, Penn State, Villanova and at Seton Hall plus a one-point defeat at Georgetown, boosting the Owls to a #19 ranking. Temple is currently ranked third in the nation in defensive efficiency and has limited high-powered offenses Villanova and Seton Hall to below 20 points their average. Could the Owls cause enough havoc on defense to confuse Aldrich, Collins, Henry and Co. in a raucous environment in the Jayhawks first difficult road test of the season? If they can pull it off, Temple would separate themselves as the far-and-away favorite in the Atlantic 10 and may even be as high as a #3 seed in my first bracket next Monday.

4. Every November and December, I always commend high-profile programs that play challenging non-conference schedules. So let me take the time to give a round of applause to Roy Williams of North Carolina and Tom Izzo of Michigan State for putting together roughhouse non-conference slates that will prepare their respective teams quite nicely for the rigors of conference play. It’s always baffled me why more high-profile programs don’t load up their early season schedules with more rigorous competition. As we’ve seen with the Spartans and Tar Heels, compiling a few losses to elite teams early in the campaign doesn’t destroy their ranking and only boosts their computer numbers come March. North Carolina is #9 and Michigan State is #11 in the polls this week despite both being 9-3 and I’d be shocked if those two schools don’t rank in the top ten in RPI and SOS throughout conference play. Even though they lost, Michigan State surely improved as a team and may have even helped their cause on Tuesday by going into Austin and competing with Texas for 35 minutes. While a team like Syracuse did face California, North Carolina and Florida on neutral floors, they’re playing their first true road game tonight at Seton Hall. In the past, Orange coach Jim Boeheim has kept his team in the state of New York into Big East play. In the long haul, is this really the best strategy to get the most out of your team?

Joe Murphy/Getty Images

5. A team expected to win a competitive conference and even hover around the polls was Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane entered the season with the 1-2 punch of talented guard Ben Uzoh and possible first round pick at center in Jerome Jordan. Still, Tulsa has underperformed in non-conference play, compiling only one quality win over Oklahoma State but falling in their three other tests at Missouri State and over the holidays in Vegas against Nebraska and Nevada, two teams Tulsa surely expected to defeat. One issue is that Jordan hasn’t quite been the force we expected before the season. The 7-foot center’s scoring and rebounding totals have stayed stagnant from his junior to senior seasons and both his FG% and FT% have slipped. In the two losses in Vegas, Jordan attempted just 13 shots and scored a combined 25 points. That is production Tulsa fans expected from Jordan in one game, not two. It would be prudent for Tulsa to take care of business against Colorado at home on Saturday before entering Conference USA play where they find themselves behind UAB, UTEP and Memphis in the pecking order.

6. Two teams with national championship aspirations in Texas and Syracuse may have an Achilles heel that prevents those two squads from reaching the ultimate goal in early April. You guessed it, folks- free throws! Especially in the college game, you see free throws make such an enormous impact on close games. They were the decisive factor in Seton Hall’s loss on Saturday to undefeated West Virginia and we all know the most obvious example with free throws ultimately costing Memphis in the 2008 title game. While it’s tremendous Texas has superb athleticism and playmakers galore, they shoot 61% from the line as a team. The biggest culprits are their most important players: Damion James (65%, needs to improve), Dexter Pittman (55%, not surprising), Avery Bradley (48%, inexcusable even for a freshman) and point guard Dogus Balbay (44%, it will be interesting to see if Barnes keeps his leader on the floor in close games if Hack-A-Balbay strategy is imposed). Those are four of his five starters. Syracuse is even more mysterious. Both swingman Wesley Johnson and freshman point guard Brandon Triche shoot over 50% from three yet hover around 65% from the free throw line. Andy Rautins’ shooting ability from deep has been long documented, yet he’s just a 56% free throw shooter. Forwards Rick Jackson (58%) and Arinze Onuaku (46%) also have their problems. Don’t be surprised if the charity stripe costs both Texas and Syracuse one or two important games in conference play.

7. It seems like a yearly event now. Duke impresses before the New Year with stellar defense and marquee non-conference wins. The media fawns over the Blue Devils, they’re grossly over-ranked and everyone thinks this is the year Duke finally returns to the Final Four. Let me get in line for 2010!  Seriously, I do believe this Duke team has the pieces to contend for a #1 seed and make a serious run for Indianapolis. Two main reasons: First and foremost, Jon Scheyer has played the point guard position better than anyone in the country. He’s having a tremendous overall year: 18.2 PPG, 5.9 APG, 3.9 RPG, 46% FG, 91% FT, 42% 3PT with an otherworldly 5.9 A/T. Athletic or not, Scheyer is playing the point better than anyone in Durham since Chris Duhon and Nolan Smith provides a more than suitable backup at the 1-spot when Scheyer needs a rare breather (35.2 MPG). The second reason is height. Duke’s big men won’t blow you away with scoring ability, but Coach K can trot out five players 6’8 or taller- Lance Thomas, Mason Plumlee, Miles Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Brian Zoubek that rebound and defend. And that doesn’t even include 6’8 Kyle Singler with his 7.2 RPG and tremendous defense.

8. One team that could wear down through the rigors of Big East play is Georgetown. With a high number of transfers in recent years, John Thompson III is left with a concerning lack of depth on his roster. With the announcement this week that seldom-used forward Nikita Mescheriakov will be transferring, the Hoyas will be forced to go seven deep in Big East play unless a surprising name emerges from the bench. Greg Monroe, Jason Clark, Chris Wright and Austin Freeman all play over 32 MPG a game for Thompson and conference play hasn’t even started yet. Julian Vaughn, Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims are the only other players who should expect to receive minutes in the weeks and months ahead. With the Big East appearing much better than anticipated before the season plus no Ater Majok or Mike Gerrity walking through that door, the Hoyas top-seven could be dead come March.

9. After Stephen Curry and Davidson took the college basketball world by storm two seasons ago, could the Southern Conference boast this year’s Cinderella squad? Okay, we can’t expect the Western Carolina Catamounts to come within a basket of the Final Four, but if you’re looking for a deep sleeper to pull off this season’s stunning 3-14 or 2-15 upset, the Catamounts may be the leading candidate. They’re 10-2 in the early going with their only defeats at Texas and at Clemson and wins mixed in at Louisville, at Bradley and home against decent Duquesne and Wofford squads. In the Texas defeat, Western Carolina held the high-powered Longhorns to just 73 points and were trailing ranked Clemson by just five points with about seven minutes to play in Littlejohn before the Tigers went on a run. In the Louisville upset, the Catamounts forced 21 Cardinal turnovers and shot 51% for the game in a victory I’m sure the program will never forget. They’re already off to a 2-0 start in SoCon play and have proven themselves to be a team to look out for if they should reach the Dance.

Jimmer Fredette/AP

10. Doesn’t it seem like we’re saying every season that the Mountain West doesn’t get enough respect? It seems to be the case yet again in 2009-10. The conference has the potential to receive as many as four bids come tournament time with BYU, New Mexico and UNLV looking like definite candidates. But don’t count out San Diego State, a team that certainly has the talent to win the conference regular season title or win the conference tournament in mid-March to force the committee’s hand. With the Pac-10 potentially only a two-bid league, the beneficiary could be the Mountain West. It’s unfortunate the conference doesn’t have a more lucrative TV contract with ESPN or another channel that someone outside of the Mountain time zone receives. With exciting players like UNLV’s Tre’Von Willis, New Mexico’s Darington Hobson or BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, the MWC has plenty to offer. Two early games to keep an eye on are the January 5 meeting with New Mexico traveling to San Diego State and BYU getting a visit from UNLV on January 6.

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