Pac-12 Basketball Fantasy League Voting: Round One, Game One

Posted by Connor Pelton on June 30th, 2012

Our first matchup of the summer pits top seeded David Piper (Addicted to Quack) up against the eight seed, Jack Follman (Pacific Takes). Below are the rosters, followed by commentary from the respective owner:

David Piper

Head Coach – Pete Newell, California

Guard – Terrell Brandon, Oregon
Guard – Harold Miner, USC
Guard – Andre Miller, Utah
Guard – Aaron Brooks, Oregon

Forward – Luke Jackson, Oregon
Forward – Greg Ballard, Oregon
Forward – Keith Van Horn, Utah
Forward – Adam Keefe, Stanford

Center – Sidney Wicks, UCLA
Center – Brook Lopez, Stanford

David’s Take:

Obviously, all of these teams are filled with great players, but none are as versatile as mine. At the guard spots, I have two of the best all-time scorers at guard in Terrell Brandon and Harold Miner, who both averaged over 27 PPG a game, but Brandon and Andre Miller are also two of the better distributors in league history, while Aaron Brooks is lightning quick and has unlimited range. Miller and Brandon, two of the better all-around guards not only in college, but in the NBA over the last two decades, are both fantastic defenders as well. In the frontcourt, three of the forwards are 20/10 guys while the fourth is one of the best all-around forwards in league history. Keith Van Horn nearly won a national title at Utah, and has the ability to go inside out, while Adam Keefe was a physical banger at Stanford who went for 26-12 his senior year. Greg Ballard’s was the equal of Marques Johnson, drafted two rounds earlier, he just didn’t have the name “UCLA” on his jersey, and Luke Jackson was a triple-double waiting to happen who could score from anywhere on the floor and once had 39 straight in a game. At center, Sidney Wicks was a national player of the year who won a national title at UCLA while, Brook Lopez is a 20/10 seven footer. My team has four first-team All-Americans (Miller, Van Horn, Jackson, and Wicks) and two national players of the year (Wicks and Van Horn).

But, most importantly, there isn’t a thing this team cannot do. I can put out guard combinations that score at the rim, from three, or distribute. I can put in posts who will score back to the basket, or hit jump shots. Only Brooks isn’t a great rebounder or defender; everyone else is plus in both areas. Oh, and they are coached by national champion Pete Newell, who, if not for health reasons, would be the greatest coach ever (and is the only coach in conference history to have a winning record over John Wooden).

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Arizona Week: State of the Program Address

Posted by AMurawa on June 30th, 2012

We been all around the Arizona basketball program this week, but we’ve got one last post to go, the one in which we step way back and look at the big picture of the program, not just looking at what the next season holds, but the overall trajectory of the program. Given the stunning success the program enjoyed under legendary head coach Lute Olson, it is no secret that the last few years have been sub-par. Two NCAA Tournaments missed in the last three years is especially galling to a program that ran off 25 straight appearances, but that’s in the past now. What should – and what will –  the next decade or more of Arizona basketball look like?

Arizona

Following Lute Olson’s Unprecedented Run Of Success In Tucson, The Expectations In Tucson Will Always Be High

Prior to Lute Olson, Wildcat basketball was an afterthought on the national scene. But after 11 Pac-10 titles in 25 years, with 11 Sweet 16s, four Final Fours and a national title mixed in there, Arizona is without a doubt an elite program, a solid #2 program in their conference (for evidence of how strong a program Arizona is, watch some of their fans take offense at being referred to as the #2 program in the conference). Olson established Tucson as a legitimate landing spot for elite recruits from around the country. Further, upgrades to the basketball facilities which began under Olson have continued under new head coach Sean Miller. Between the McKale Center and the Richard Jefferson Gym, the Wildcats enjoy excellent facilities, even if the 41-year old McKale is no longer exactly state-of-the-art, a fact more than made up for by the consistent fan support that building houses.

As for Olson’s replacement, despite the two missed NCAA tourneys in Miller’s first three seasons, the new head man has a history of success, taking Xavier to four tournament appearances in his five seasons there, including two Sweet 16s. And the Elite Eight run in his one NCAA appearance at UA has not only earned him time, but it has earned him the confidence of his fanbase and the trust of recruits, who saw Derrick Williams rise from an afterthought as a recruit to the second overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. In short, Miller has credibility not only for those close to the UA program, but for the recruits who he’ll need to entice to the desert to get the ‘Cats back to their perch atop the Pac-12.

And really, those are the rightful expectations for the Arizona program: consistently competing for and winning conference titles, regularly advancing deep into the NCAA Tournament and occasionally landing in the Final Four. A national title every decade or two wouldn’t hurt either. Lute Olson set a high bar for the program, and while his run of success is the exception, rather than the rule, over the long arc of the program, it is, for better or worse, the standard for the modern-era of Arizona basketball. Basketball fans around the nation expect the Arizona program to be an unfailing national force, playing ridiculously tough regular season schedules, making NCAA Tournaments annually, pipelining players to the NBA. It is a realistic goal for the program because it has been done before. And barring a major change in culture, that is the expectation for all future head coaches at UA. There will likely be coaches in the future who are not up to that challenge, just as UCLA, Kentucky and North Carolina, for instance, have made missteps in hiring for the head seat. And the leash that those coaches get will not always be long. But, forever and anon, the expectations in Tucson will be vast. As they should be.

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2012-13 RTC Way Too Early Top-25

Posted by zhayes9 on April 3rd, 2012

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

It’s never too early to look ahead to next November and take an early crack at the top 25. This isn’t meant to act as a rigid ranking but more of a first snapshot at who’s primed to contend in 2012-13. Remember to keep in mind that so much can still change with early entries, injuries and transfers. Here it goes:

1. Indiana- Assuming Cody Zeller and Christian Watford return to Bloomington for another hurrah, the Hoosiers projected crunch-time five – Hulls, Oladipo, Sheehey, Watford and Zeller – will be the most versatile and talented the nation has to offer. Tom Crean also added a star-studded recruiting class bolstered by point guard Yogi Ferrell. I’d say the rebuild is officially complete.

2. Louisville- Rick Pitino will likely only lose seniors Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith, meaning his three most indispensable cogs – point guard Peyton Siva, center Gorgui Dieng and explosive scorer Russ Smith – are all back in the fold. The Cardinals also tout emerging star Chane Behanan in the post and will receive a full season from talented sophomore Wayne Blackshear.

3. Kentucky- Assuming Marquis Teague is John Calipari’s first returning point guard since before Derrick Rose, the ‘Cats could put together another title run. Doron Lamb may also return to form a sharp-shooting tandem with pick-and-pop threat Kyle Wiltjer. It’s fair to assume that Calipari convinces one or both of Shabazz Muhammed and Nerlens Noel to join Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress in his latest star-studded rookie class.

Believe it, folks: As long as Zeller returns, Indiana should be preseason #1

4. Florida- While it appears projected lottery pick Brad Beal may be headed out the door, Patric Young has given every inclination he’ll return for his junior season. Billy Donovan will once again spread the floor around Young with point guard Scottie Wilbekin, scorers Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario, plus versatile forward Erik Murphy. Solid post defender Will Yeguete and incoming point guard Braxton Ogbueze could also be key components.

5. Ohio State- Jared Sullinger is likely history, as is senior Will Buford. But nearly every other contributor should return, including the best duo of backcourt defenders in the country in Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith. DeShaun Thomas is a candidate to lead the Big Ten in scoring and garner All-American consideration, while Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel will be expected to take on a much larger role down low.

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Morning Five: National Championship Monday

Posted by nvr1983 on April 2nd, 2012

  1. In a rather surprising move, Kansas State announced that it was hiring Bruce Weber to be its next head coach. Weber replaces Frank Martin who left the school earlier in the week to take over at South Carolina (technically that was more surprising than the Weber hire). Weber, who has a 313-155 record in stops at Southern Illinois and Illinois, reached the national championship game at Illinois in 2005, but was criticized by Illini fans for having done so with Bill Self’s recruits and then failing to land many of the top recruits out of Illinois. Now he will be tasked with running a program that Martin revitalized and will also have to deal with a familiar foe in-state: Bill Self.
  2. Less than a month after getting fired from Tulsa, Doug Wojcik has found a new head coaching position at Charleston. Wojcik, who went 140-92 at Tulsa in seven seasons, replaces Bobby Cremins, who retired due to health issues. Interestingly, Wojcik was fired in large part because of his inability to make the NCAA Tournament, but he takes over a program where Cremins was widely praised despite his inability to get his team to the NCAA Tournament. Will Charleston be as forgiving if Wojcik continues to fail to make the NCAA Tournament when he is at Charleston?
  3. Mississippi State is taking another route to find its next head coach. Instead of hiring a retread the Bulldogs are going with Rick Ray, who has served as assistant at Indiana State, Purdue, and Clemson. Although Ray has not had any experience as a head coach he has experienced a good amount of success as an assistant and comes in with high praise based on the quotes we have seen. Some may view hiring someone without head coaching experience as a risky proposition and it is to some degree, but we would rather see a program do that than hire someone with a track record of mediocrity as a head coach.
  4. Like Wojcik, Jim Baron did not have to wait long after being fired to find another job. The former Rhode Island coach, who was fired after going 184-165 in 11 seasons, but went 7-24 this past season is set to be named as the next head coach at Canisius later this week. Even though we have been critical of teams hiring retreads (see above) this seems like it would be a decent hire for Canisius as Baron’s team had won 20 or more games in the past four seasons, which would be a huge turnaround from where Canisius has been recently.
  5. In a sign that the times may be changing, Ohio is reportedly has taken Jim Christian away from TCU. Yes, a (soon to be) Big XII school might be losing a coach to a MAC school. Christian’s record at TCU (56-73) is not exactly inspiring, but he was very successful at Kent State, another MAC school, going 138-58 there including 10-5 against Ohio. The school has not released a statement on the topic, but is expected to introduce Christian on Tuesday so we suspect that an official announcement would come out some time later today.
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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 03.22.12 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on March 22nd, 2012

The NCAA Tournament is here and there’s more news, commentary and analysis than any of us can possibly keep up with. To make things a little easier, we’ll bring you a list of daily links gathered about teams in each of the four regions all the way through the Final Four.

Midwest Region

West Region

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RTC Sweet Sixteen Podblasts: South & Midwest Regions

Posted by rtmsf on March 21st, 2012

Yesterday we released our Sweet Sixteen Podblasts covering Thursday night’s East and West Regions. Today we’re releasing our South and Midwest Region versions, featuring guest appearances from RTC NCAA Tournament correspondents, Kevin Doyle (South), and Evan Jacoby (Midwest). We’ll be back next week with full Final Four analysis, so keep an ear out for that too.

South Region

Midwest Region

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Morning Five: 02.06.12 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on February 6th, 2012

  1. In case you were fixated on Super Bowl coverage for the entire weekend, news released Friday that Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun would take a leave of absence from the bench for an undetermined amount of time (possibly the remainder of the season?) to deal with spinal stenosis, a painful back ailment that can become debilitating. Although the general consensus from the national pundits was that a Huskies team already on the brink of self-destruction could find the edge of the falls, it’s probably not in the competitive coach’s character and disposition to walk away from the game after yet another health problem. For what it’s worth, UConn dispatched Seton Hall at home on Saturday afternoon, but they must travel to Louisville for a Big Monday game tonight and, as Mike DeCourcy notes in his above piece, the Huskies are only 9-9 in games after the first that Calhoun is not available to coach. We certainly wish him a speedy recovery and hope to see the three-time national champion back on the sideline soon.
  2. The ACC has released its plans for a new basketball schedule once Pittsburgh and Syracuse join the conference, pushing league membership up to 14 teams. The first significant change will be the addition of two games to the conference schedule to get to 18 games (ACC teams currently play 16 games), and the second major change will be a pairing of natural rivals to play home-and-home series every year (e.g., Duke-North Carolina; Pittsburgh-Syracuse; etc.). Several long-time rivalries, especially among the “Big Four” North Carolina schools, will be scaled back in that the remaining schools will play home-and-homes with each of the other ACC schools on a revolving three-year basis. The good news within this system, though, is that at least every school will play the other 13 at least once per season.
  3. With Frank Haith‘s Missouri team already owning huge wins over Kansas and Baylor this season, is it fair to say that he’s the early February favorite for National Coach of the Year? Considering just how obviously mediocre his teams were at Miami (FL), this season has been nothing short of eye-opening, especially in light of the fact that he walked into a less-than-welcoming environment in Columbia AND he lost his star forward, Laurence Bowers, to a season-ending injury prior to the start of the year. As Gary Parrish writes in his own mea culpa offering to Haith, nobody but nobody saw this coming. No matter how this season turns out for Mizzou and its coach, perhaps everyone (ourselves included) will think a little harder before rushing to judge a coaching hire based solely on his past performance. Sometimes a change of environment can make all the difference.
  4. Remember the weird incident last Thursday night involving Cal’s Jorge Gutierrez and Arizona assistant coach Joe Pasternack where the Bears guard thought that Pasternack kicked at him when he crashed into the Wildcats’ bench? He thought it because it appears from the video that Pasternack may have let the heat of a close game get the best of him in the situation, kicking out at Gutierrez in a showing of immediate anger. Regardless of whether it was intentional or not, Pasternack released a statement on Saturday about the incdient: “I would like to clarify that my actions last night were a reflex in response to a player falling on top of me while running at top speed toward our bench… In no way was I deliberately attempting to engage him. My hope is that this statement will clear up any misconceptions about the incident and that we can move on in a positive fashion.” Take that for what it’s worth.
  5. This week isn’t just the first week without any football nonsense to get in the way of college basketball, it also happens to be the best week of the regular season to date in terms of the games on the docket. As Mike DeCourcy writes in his Weekly Walkthrough, the coming week is an “embarrassment of basketball wealth,” with games like Duke-UNC, Florida-Kentucky, Baylor-Kansas, UNLV-SDSU and Ohio State-Michigan State on the menu. There are only five weeks left until Selection Sunday — let’s all enjoy the remainder of the ride.
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SEC Set Your TiVo: 02.04.12

Posted by EMoyer on February 4th, 2012

Eric Moyer is the RTC correspondent for the Southern Conference and Atlantic Sun Conference and a contributor to the RTC SEC Microsite. You can find him on Twitter @EricDMoyer. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.

Vanderbilt @ #11 Florida – 1:00 PM EST Saturday on CBS (****)

  • The best of a so-so weekend in the SEC lost a little bit of luster after Vanderbilt lost at Arkansas on Tuesday. As it still stands, the winner moves into second place in conference standings. Vanderbilt would tie Florida at 6-2 with a win, conversely the Gators could take a two-game lead on the Commodores with the home victory.
  • Saturday represents the first of two meetings between the Gators and Commodores. Each of the previous three seasons have resulted in season sweeps. The Gators won twice in 2008-09; Vanderbilt took both meetings in 2009-10 while Florida won both regular-season meetings and eliminated the Commodores in an SEC Championship semifinal contest as season ago.
  • This contest features the reigning SEC Player of the Week (Jeffery Taylor) and Freshman of the Week (Bradley Beal) and four of the top seven scorers in the conference. Additionally, the Gators and Commodores rank first and second, respectively, in three-pointers made and in three-point percentage.
  • The Gators are one of two SEC schools undefeated at home (Kentucky) and Vanderbilt has the second-best road record in the conference at 4-2. Could the experienced-laden Commodores steal a key SEC road win after letting one get away on Tuesday? In their six losses, Commodore opponents have shot almost 39% from the three-point arc as compared to 31.5% in their 16 wins.

Ole Miss @ Alabama – 8:00 PM EST Saturday on ESPN2 (***)

  • A pair of teams squarely on the NCAA bubble square off in Tuscaloosa. Both teams enter fresh as neither has played since Saturday. Alabama ended a three-game slide by beating Arkansas. Ole Miss owns a pair of quality conference wins (Arkansas, Mississippi State) but an overtime loss at Auburn will remains a stain on the résumé.
  • The Crimson Tide have dominated the Rebels at home, winning 70 of the 80 contests.
  • The Tide’s defense remains one of the top in the nation by allowing a scant 57.9 points per game this season,the ninth-best average in the nation and the best in the SEC. Only seven Alabama opponents have even reached the 60-point mark this season and four have failed to score 50 points. The Crimson Tide has held their opponents  to just a 37.3% field goal percentage, the sixth lowest in the country. Ole Miss more than holds its own at the defensive end, holding opponents to 39.4% shooting and the Rebels are 11-2 when holding their opposition to less than 40% shooting.
  • History says Alabama is the right choice in this game. In addition to their home dominance, the Crimson Tide are 27-2 in their last 29 games at Coleman Coliseum.

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Halfway Home: Evaluating the Big Ten And Looking Ahead

Posted by jnowak on February 1st, 2012

We’re halfway home in Big Ten conference play and it’s easy to argue that the conference race is no more sorted out now than it was on day one. But we can still take a good, hard look at how teams have performed and what we can reasonably expect from them the rest of the way. Here’s our midseason team evaluations, grading each squad on its overall performance through the non-conference slate and first half of Big Ten play. We also have offer a best- and worst-case scenario for each club the rest of the way, as well as a more reasonable expectation.

Illinois (16-6 overall, 5-4 Big Ten)

  • Overall Grade: B
  • Worst-case scenario: Illinois beats Northwestern this week, but wins just three more games the rest of the way (at Nebraska, against Purdue and against Iowa).
  • Best-case scenario: The Fighting Illini maintain homecourt advantage the rest of way, handling Purdue and Michigan and stealing back-to-back road wins in Ann Arbor and Bloomington to pad their resume.
  • Reasonable expectation: With trips to Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin remaining, the Illini have an uphill climb ahead of them. And that’s not good news for Bruce Weber.

Indiana (17-5 overall, 5-5 Big Ten)

Crean Has Indiana Looking Up But He Needs Some Road Wins

  • Overall Grade: B+
  • Worst-case scenario: The Hoosiers continue to struggle on the road, and lose at Michigan, Purdue and Minnesota. Sprinkle a home loss to Michigan State in there, and they finish with a 9-9 conference record. The Goodwill stores in Bloomington are overwhelmed with once-trendy “We’re Baaaaack” t-shirts.
  • Best-case scenario: Cody Zeller finds the mojo he was working with early in the season, and leads the Hoosiers to the Sweet Sixteen as Tom Crean is named Big Ten Coach of the Year.
  • Reasonable expectation: The Hoosiers are not the Top 10 team many thought they suddenly were early on, but they can do enough to get into the NCAA Tournament and solidify an overachieving season.

Iowa (11-11 overall, 3-6 Big Ten)

  • Overall Grade: C+
  • Worst-case scenario: The Hawkeyes split meetings against Penn State and Northwestern, lose at Nebraska and are blown out by Indiana and Wisconsin at home.
  • Best-case scenario: Iowa picks up the pace against some of the weakest competition in the league, and goes 5-4 the rest of the way.
  • Reasonable expectation: Most of the heavy lifting is out of the way, but Iowa will hover around .500 the rest of the season.
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Morning Five: 01.20.12 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on January 20th, 2012

  1. The strange transfer drama around Todd O’Brien appears to have come to an unsatisfying end as he received the official rejection of his appeal for a graduate student transfer late on Wednesday. This does not appear to be any different than the previous rejections as the NCAA continues to reiterate its stance that the decision by Saint Joseph’s not to support the transfer factored in the NCAA’s decision. Since nothing seems to be changing in this story as the school refuses to comment on the situation citing privacy laws despite O’Brien’s insistence that he would waive his rights it seems like the school will continue to take a big PR hit and face the consequences on the recruiting trail. If the school does have a legitimate reason for blocking the transfer, one would assume they would want to get their story out there even if it was leaked through anonymous sources talking to a reputable media organization. Seriously, someone at St. Joe’s e-mail us and we will pretend it was an anonymous source.
  2. Unlike O’Brien DePaul junior forward Tony Freeland will be granted a release for his transfer. Freeland announced yesterday that he would be transferring to a school near Los Angeles to help tend to his ailing grandmother. Freeland, who has been sidelined this season after undergoing shoulder surgery, averaged 9.6 points and five rebounds per game as a sophomore. Despite his injury, he should have plenty of interest from teams in the LA area looking for a solid interior player with Big East experience and two more years of eligibility remaining.
  3. Speaking of forwards in the LA area, USC junior forward Aaron Fuller is expected to miss the rest of the season as he will undergo surgery on his left shoulder next week. Fuller has been one of the bright spots averaging 10.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game for a Trojan team that that has been underwhelming to put it kindly. Fuller, a transfer from Iowa, has done this while playing with a torn labrum in his left (shooting) shoulder. As we mentioned yesterday, we didn’t think that the Pac-12 could get much worse, but it continues to find ways to top itself.
  4. In this week’s edition of his power rankings, Luke Winn examines the relative chances of Syracuse and Murray State going undefeated as well as a variety of topics. The undefeated discussion goes about the way you would expect, but some other areas such as the statistics on blocked shots by Anthony Davis and Jeff Withey may surprise quite a few people. As always it is a great read and we guarantee that if you read his power rankings you will come away having learned something that you didn’t know before (assuming you aren’t some college basketball sabermetric guru).
  5. Is there a storm brewing in the ESPN college basketball family? According to some sources it appears that Jay Bilas is not a fan of Andy Katz based on a tweet that Bilas sent out after Katz made a mistake on-air. While we have no knowledge of their relationship firsthand we have spoken with both at games and they seem very friendly as individuals. In truth, this really isn’t a major news story (nearly every major company has some petty bickering among high-level employees), but it is a slow news day and makes for some amusing discussion.
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Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week Ten

Posted by Connor Pelton on January 18th, 2012

Here’s a look at the power rankings that Drew and I have compiled after the tenth week of Pac-12 games. Here we go!

1. Stanford, 15-3 (5-1): Going into the week, most Cardinal fans would have said they expected a big win over Utah and a grind it out, nail biting victory against Colorado. Instead, the opposite happened. But the Cardinal still went 2-0, and they are still on top of our power rankings after ten weeks of basketball. While the Cardinal have already been on a road trip to face the Oregon schools, they will be tested even more this week when they visit Pullman and Seattle. Up Next: 1.19 @ Washington State

2. California, 15-4 (5-1): Unlike their rival from across the bay, the Golden Bears barely got past Colorado on Thursday. After a terrible first half of shooting, Cal found itself down seven heading into the locker rooms. But when the two teams came out to begin the second half, it was like they switched identities. The Golden Bears would outscore Colorado by 14 in the second half en route to an ugly 57-50 win. Cal wrapped up the week with a 36-point win over the Utes. Up Next: 1.19 @ Washington

California guard Allen Crabbe leads the Golden Bears with 15.7 PPG. (credit: Ben Margot)

3. Oregon, 13-5 (4-2): The Ducks are the talk of the conference after sweeping the Arizona schools on the road this week. Thursday night they got a closer than comfort nine-point win over Arizona State, but the real damage was done on Saturday. Oregon went into the McKale Center and dominated Arizona for 35 minutes, and despite a late flurry of points from the Wildcats, held on for a thrilling 59-57 win. Up Next: 1.19 vs. USC

4. Washington, 11-6 (4-1): Two less-than-mediocre in-state rivals filled Washington’s slate this week. On Tuesday night Washington hosted Seattle University, and the Redhawks hung around all night before eventually falling, 91-83. On Sunday it was Washington State who came calling for the first Apple Cup of the season. The Cougars gave it all they had, but in the end the mixture of Tony Wroten, Jr., Terrence Ross, and Darnell Gant was too much for Washington State. The final was 75-65, bringing the UW winning streak up to three. Up Next: 1.19 vs. California

5. Arizona, 12-6 (3-2): The Wildcats ended up splitting on the week, but it was in uninspiring fashion. First there was the near-brawl, overtime win against Oregon State, and then there was Saturday’s meltdown against the Ducks. The Wildcats need to win beat both Utah and Colorado this week to keep their small at-large hopes alive. Up Next: 1.19 @ Utah

6. Colorado, 11-6 (3-2): Definitely a letdown week for Colorado after starting conference play 3-0. On Thursday they were able to play California tough, but Stanford totally dismantled the Buffaloes with an 84-64 thrashing Saturday afternoon. Up Next: 1.19 vs. Arizona State Read the rest of this entry »

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Top 25 Snapshot: 01.09.12

Posted by zhayes9 on January 9th, 2012

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

If there’s one thing I’m reminded of every January, it’s that winning on the road in conference play is incredibly difficult.

Ask Missouri, who came into their road game at Kansas State riding an undefeated record and lost by 16. Or consult Connecticut, who had a nightmarish week in New Jersey, succumbing to both Seton Hall and Rutgers. Florida would have a clue, as they were manhandled by rebuilding Tennessee. The same applies to Duke and Georgetown, two more top ten teams that lost on the road during this past week.

Needless to say, the rankings will experience a dramatic shakeup every Monday during a season where our perceptions are constantly in flux. After watching countless hours of hoops over the last two months, here’s how I see the top of the pack:

Fab Melo's rapid improvement has been a big reason for Syracuse's ascent

1. Syracuse (17-0, 4-0): There’s no debate over the best team in the Big East. With Syracuse’s first road game against a ranked team not coming until February 13, it’s looking more and more like a race for the league’s silver medal. The five players that Jim Boeheim shuffles off his bench – notably superb sixth man Dion Waiters, who could be their most talented player — could challenge for an NCAA Tournament bid by themselves. Their patented 2-3 zone is nearly impenetrable and Syracuse is second in block percentage and first in steal percentage, generating countless transition opportunities where they excel in the open court. No team has more depth or is currently playing at a higher level.

2. Kentucky (15-1, 1-0):  The Wildcats are not only sensational at this stage in the season, but with three freshmen and two sophomores among their top six players, they have the most room to grow of any team from now until March. This might be John Calipari’s best defensive team, buoyed by the shot-blocking artistry of center Anthony Davis, the primary reason why Kentucky ranks first in the nation in opponents two-point percentage (37%). The keys for the Wildcats over the next two months will be snapping preseason All-American Terrence Jones out of his perplexing funk and minimizing freshman point guard Marquis Teague’s turnover woes.   Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who plays with an unquenchable energy and can guard four positions, has been the best overall freshman in the country on both ends of the floor.

3. North Carolina (14-2, 1-0): Roy Williams’ team has an inside track at a number one seed due to a watered-down ACC aside from Duke. The common perception of the Tar Heels is one of a potent offensive arsenal and a soft defense, but Carolina ranks 12th in defensive efficiency and puts the opposing team on the free throw line less than any other team in the country. Harrison Barnes is one of the nation’s top scorers, averaging 17.6 points per game on 49% shooting, many of those open looks courtesy of the nation’s top distributor in Kendall Marshall. What separates this year’s Heels from last year’s 33% three-point shooting team is the health of Reggie Bullock and addition of freshman P.J. Hairston as pinpoint outside gunners.

4. Ohio State (15-2, 3-1): There’s no shame in the Buckeyes two losses at Kansas (without star center Jared Sullinger) and at Indiana by four points. In Sullinger, point guard Aaron Craft and wing William Buford, the Buckeyes boast the best player at each respective position in their conference. Ohio State ranks first in defensive efficiency largely due to the perimeter wizardry of Craft, rank sixth in two-point field goal percentage at a robust 55 percent and are the most proficient defensive rebounding team in the country. One major flaw could be a lack of outside shooting; with no high-volume Buckeye shooting higher than 37 percent from deep, opposing Big Ten defenses may pack the post in an attempt to limit Sullinger and force Ohio State to beat them from beyond the arc.

5. Indiana (14-1, 2-1): Tom Crean’s rebuilding project is one year ahead of schedule. The most dramatic change has been on the defensive end where the Hoosiers have gone from tenth to fifth in the conference in defensive efficiency led by tremendous defenders Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey. Couple that with a 46% team mark from three, Cody Zeller’s efficient post scoring (66% from inside the arc) and Christian Watford’s emergence as an all-Big Ten wing, and it’s no surprise Indiana has pulled off dramatic wins over Kentucky, Ohio State and Michigan at a rejuvenated Assembly Hall. The questions that lie ahead: can Indiana win on the road in conference play, and when those threes inevitably rim out, will they be smart enough to consistently feed Zeller in the post?

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