Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
Isn’t it fantastic that Duke-North Carolina means something again? Last year’s Blue Devil dominance coupled with a bleak NIT season from their Tobacco Road rivals produced a lackluster two-game set between these hated competitors culminating in a Senior Day thrashing for the ages at Cameron. With Kyrie Irving buoying a seemingly unstoppable Duke attack and UNC still figuring themselves out, it looked to be more of the same refrain during non-conference play, but obviously much has transpired since then: Tyler Zeller has grasped a go-to scorers role, Kendall Marshall has supplanted the now-departed Larry Drew at the point and, most importantly, Irving suffered a toe injury that’s kept him on the sidelines and Duke has had to change their style once again. The last point could loom large during Wednesday’s meeting in Durham. I fully expect Duke to win, but the pressurized, relentless, full-court attack that Duke employed with Irving was going to pose a challenge for Marshall setting up the Tar Heel halfcourt offense and containing the much quicker Irving defensively. Given Duke’s adjustment to a halfcourt-oriented offense with an emphasis on screening for Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, the Blue Devils won’t provide as much of a headache for the inexperienced Marshall. Thus, I expect a closer-knit affair on Wednesday, and any tight Duke-UNC game is a victory for college basketball.
It might surprise you to know that Arizona has 20 wins already. The quick-fix rebuilding job Sean Miller has orchestrated in Tucson is nothing short of extraordinary, but it’s appropriate to point out that none of it would have been possible if not for the Tim Floyd disaster at USC. Most forget that Pac-10 POY frontrunner Derrick Williams and Arizona starting point guard Lamont Jones were both USC commits under Floyd until the O.J. Mayo situation surfaced, Floyd resigned and the two talented recruits signed on with Miller at Arizona. Williams (19.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 63% FG) has molded into a lottery pick as a sophomore and Jones’ heroics down the stretch at California provided the Wildcats with a breathtaking road victory and propelled them to first in the Pac-10. To claim Miller’s reloading effort as mostly luck is doing the fantastic coach a disservice, though. Miller’s coaching acumen was displayed during his 120-47 run at Xavier and his recruiting has already produced a 2011 recruiting class that rivals Lute Olson’s top efforts. Where this Arizona program stood two springs ago during their frantic and humbling search for a head coach to their position today atop the conference and with a bright future ahead is staggering.
The road ahead is treacherous for Baylor, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, the resuscitated Bears have an ample amount of opportunities to collect quality wins down the stretch with trips to Austin, Columbia and Stillwater and a return trip from the Longhorns on the docket. On the other hand, good luck winning those games! The fact that Baylor is even in the discussion (their best non-conference win is Pac-10 bottom feeder Arizona State at home) shows the current state of the bubble in a 68-team environment. Regardless, the development of Perry Jones should give Bears fans hope that a late season surge could be approaching. The multi-talented future lottery pick is making tremendous strides lately. He’s scored in double-digits every game in Big 12 play including 24 points against Oklahoma State and a banner performance on Saturday at A&M where he scored 27 points on 9-16 FG and 9-9 FT. Jones is becoming much more comfortable knocking down a smooth mid-range jumper, attacking the glass and playing within Scott Drew’s offense. At 14.7 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 57% FG in over 33 MPG, Jones has quietly posted a stellar freshman campaign in the shadow of Sullinger, Jones and other prominent diaper dandies.