Ten Opening Night ScribblesPosted by zhayes9 on November 13th, 2010
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court.
It would be foolish to draw too many sweeping conclusions after one rust-filled outing against inferior competition, but there are certain elements within a game that can provide a glimpse into what to expect during the season ahead. After watching a handful of games last night and tracking each and every box score this morning, these ten things caught my eye:
1. As is often the case in the SEC, Vanderbilt flew under the radar in the preseason. Kentucky’s ballyhooed freshmen class received the buzz, Florida was crowned the prohibitive favorite due to the return of five starters, Bruce Pearl’s recruiting indiscretions vaulted Tennessee into the spotlight for the wrong reasons and Mississippi State could certainly be dangerous when Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney return nine games into the campaign. The Commodores, coming off a 24-9 season and a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, didn’t receive the same publicity as their SEC brethren. But that’s just how Kevin Stallings, one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the business, prefers it. The loss of senior point guard Jermaine Beal (and the premature departure of A.J. Ogilvy inside) was a big reason why many pegged Vanderbilt to take a step back from a season ago, even with returnees John Jenkins and Jeffrey Taylor oozing with talent and potential. The question was how junior point guard Brad Tinsley would step in for the grizzled veteran Beal and run the Commodores offense with the same aplomb, finding Jenkins off curls and screens for open threes or big man Festus Ezeli in scoring position on the block. Tinsley showed he’s up for the task in a 41-point romp of Presbyterian at Memorial Gymnasium on Friday, notching Vandy’s first triple-double in school history with 11 points and a career high 10 assists and 10 rebounds (not too shabby for a 6’3 guard). Tinsley also collected three steals and only turned the ball over twice. If Tinsley provides playmaking and stability at the point, Taylor lives up to his future lottery pick billing as an impact wing, Jenkins continues his proficiency from deep and Ezeli gives Vandy a presence inside, the Commodores will win 24 games again.
2. Two wins on Friday night may fly under the radar a bit, but are absolutely worth highlighting. The first is Minnesota’s convincing home victory over Wofford. I expected the Terriers to give Tubby Smith’s squad all kinds of trouble and possibly even win this game straight up. Wofford returns four starters, including potential SoCon POY Noah Dahlman, from a stout defensive team that gave Wisconsin a scare in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Heck, I even pegged them as my Cinderella last week. Throw in yet another Minnesota suspension on Thursday (this time off-guard Devoe Joseph) and this had all the makings of a super competitive test for the Gophers. Instead, Minnesota controlled the game throughout, leading by ten at half and winning 69-55 behind 20/13 from Ralph Sampson and 14/10 in Trevor Mbakwe’s debut in maroon and gold. The Gopher bigs also contained Dahlman to 15 points and the Wofford guards couldn’t find their stroke from deep. Don’t be surprised if this is an RPI top-100 win for Minnesota by season’s end. A second win that stood out is West Virginia’s romp of Oakland, another squad favored to win their conference behind potential first round pick Keith Benson. Benson did his thing with 22/15 but received no help as the Mountaineers utilized a balanced attack- Joe Mazzulla, Dalton Pepper, John Flowers, Deniz Kilicli, Casey Mitchell and Darryl Bryant all scored in double figures- to romp the Golden Grizzlies 95-71. Without an all-Big East perimeter threat like Da’Sean Butler at their disposal, this type of team effort is imperative if the Mountaineers want to vault themselves into the upper echelon of the Big East this season.
3. It’s painfully obvious that Georgetown is going to live and die with their backcourt this season. Their frontcourt pieces- Julian Vaughn, Nate Lubick, Jerelle Benimon and Henry Sims– are unspectacular, role players that can crash the boards, provide versatility and dish from the top of the key in the Georgetown halfcourt offense, but simply cannot be relied upon as consistent scoring threats. The Hoyas opener at reigning CAA champion and preseason favorite Old Dominion exposed this weakness inside. The Monarchs out-rebounded Georgetown by 11, blocked nine more shots and the Hoya forwards only scored eight of the team’s 62 points. Yet Georgetown eked out an enormous road victory on the heels of their experienced and savvy backcourt trio of Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark. The threesome led Georgetown back from a second-half deficit with clutch threes and free throws down the stretch, including one from Wright on a crosscourt Hollis Thompson feed where the 6’1 senior wasn’t even able to even land as the shot clocked expired. Given the Monarchs defensive prowess and the return of four starters from a team that advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, this is in all likelihood a top-50 RPI win for Georgetown in the first week of the campaign. If more of those marquee wins are to come, Wright, Freeman and Clark will be the reasons.
4. Amid all of the opening week hoopla, the decision on Kentucky center Enes Kanter came down from the NCAA: permanent ineligibility. Ruling that Kanter received benefits over the limit to retain amateur status, and barring an unlikely reversal from a reinstatement appeals committee, John Calipari will be without a top-five pick type talent in the low post, a player that many agreed would have vaulted the Wildcats past Florida as the SEC favorite. Instead, Calipari has an ultra-thin backcourt with Eloy Vargas and Josh Harrellson as his primary options at the 5-spot and either Terrence Jones or Darius Miller at the other forward. While a large portion of Division I programs would kill for these problems, expectations at Kentucky tend to be pretty high. All isn’t lost for UK, though, and it showed in their season opening win over East Tennessee State where the frosh trio of Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb were fantastic. Even with four first round picks in the starting lineup, one glaring area of weakness for the Wildcats last season was three-point shooting. On Friday, Kentucky was a ravishing 13-26 from deep with nine courtesy of that rookie trio. The lack of a scoring post presence may prevent this version of the Wildcats from reaching the Final Four, but outside shooting is one area where Kentucky should actually be much better than a season ago.
5. Other than Georgetown downing Old Dominion in a true road win, the most impressive resume-building victory of the night may have come in Philadelphia where Temple handled Seton Hall with relative ease. The Owls answered quite a few questions on Friday: Juan Fernandez’ heady performance (five assists) showed he can handle point guard duties while also providing an outside shooting threat, Ramone Moore (14 points, 6-13 FG) is ready to take on a larger role after coming off the bench last year and Temple can survive against stellar competition without a virtuoso performance from all-Atlantic 10 forward Lavoy Allen, who was strapped with foul trouble for most of the first half and finished with just nine points on 4-12 FG. Temple also showed their bread-and-butter defense wasn’t lost over the summer with the departures of Ryan Brooks and Luis Guzman. Seton Hall has a handful of ultra-talented players on the roster and ranked eighth in the nation last year in scoring offense, but ran into a stout Temple defense that finished seventh in defensive efficiency and held their opponents to just 29% from three. The stalwart Owls D proved victorious, holding the Pirates to 30% shooting, and, you guessed it, 29% from behind the arc. Garnering a win against a Hall team that should improve as they adjust to new coach Kevin Willard and ease Pope back to full game shape may be notable on the NCAA Tournament portfolio come March.
Five other quick thoughts:
6. Wake Forest and Auburn were not expected to fill up the win column this season. Both programs welcomed a new coach this offseason and are playing an extraordinary amount of inexperienced freshmen unready for expansive roles. Expectations are not exactly sky high. Still, Wake’s defeat at the hands of Stetson (including a crushing on the boards, 45-33, despite near seven footers Ty Walker and Carson Desrosiers down low) and Auburn falling in the christening of their new arena to UNC-Asheville are ominous signs that it’s going to be a long, strenuous, rebuilding year on the hardwood for both Jeff Bzdelik and Tony Barbee. If you’re a tye-dye rocking Wake fan, at least you can hang your hat on the expected improvement of freshmen Travis McKie and J.T. Terrell as the year progresses. If you’re an Auburn fan, well, enjoy Cam Newton?
7. If he were playing in any other conference, John Shurna is a surefire first team all-conference candidate. His season debut: 31 points, nine rebounds and three assists on 9-16 FG and 7-10 from deep. Coupled by stellar efforts from Michael Thompson and Drew Crawford, Northwestern cruised to a 97-78 road thrashing of Northern Illinois. Unfortunately for Shurna, the loaded Big Ten boasts players like Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, William Buford, Jared Sullinger, Talor Battle, Jon Leuer, Demetri McCamey, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson that will make it awfully difficult for the 6’8 junior to earn first team status. Too bad he didn’t opt to play in the Pac-10.
8. This was a prevailing thought in my mind even prior to last night, but it’s becoming more and more obvious to me that North Carolina’s freshmen are going to have to lead the way this season. The Heels starting backcourt of Larry Drew and Dexter Strickland were unimpressive against Lipscomb, combining for six points and not making a single field goal in 52 minutes. Meanwhile, the freshmen trio of Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall totaled 36 points on an efficient 15-28 FG. It wouldn’t shock me if Marshall, Bullock and Barnes are all starting for North Carolina in a month’s time. Patience is low, and Roy Williams needs to trot out his best players.
9. Freshman Aaron Craft may be the answer for Ohio State at the point guard spot, allowing William Buford to remain in his true position off the ball. In the Buckeyes exhibition game and opening win over North Carolina A&T, Craft has 17 assists and zero turnovers. Ohio State travels to Gainesville on Tuesday for a top-ten clash with Florida, a contest that will truly test Craft’s mettle at the point.
10. Look out for Western Kentucky as one of the best mid-majors in the nation this season. The Hilltoppers received a program-changing transfer in athletic former Oklahoma big man Juan Patillo, who followed up a 17/10 exhibition performance with 17/12 in a blowout win at St. Joseph’s on Friday. The real star, though, was preseason Sun Belt POY Sergio Kerusch and his 31/9. Toss in solid 6’5 wing Steffphon Pettigrew and WKU has a high-major caliber Big Three at their disposal.