It’s that time of the year when injuries start to play a bigger role for teams around the country. This week we’ve talked about injuries to C.J. Wilcox (hip stress fracture, out this weekend), Brandon Smith (due back from a concussion tonight), Mychal Ladd (thumb injury, doubtful this weekend) and Trent Lockett (sprained ankle, doubtful). But as of yet, we haven’t mentioned USC’s Aaron Fuller, who is dealing with a labral tear in his left shoulder. Given that he is a lefty, this is a nearly debilitating injury and he is considering undergoing season-ending surgery as early as next week. It remains to be seen whether Fuller will play this weekend in Oregon, but given that he is easily USC’s best offensive player, losing him could made an already terrible offensive team even less potent.
Speaking of USC, it’s no secret that Trojan fans are frustrated with their team’s 0-5 conference start and generally atrocious offensive play. Head coach Kevin O’Neill is frustrated too. And, while he is trying to keep this team focused on this season, he thinks he should have a good team on his hands next near. Not only will all of these current Trojan players have an extra year of experience under their belts (and guys like freshmen Byron Wesley and Alexis Moore and sophomore DeWayne Dedmon could sure use them), he expects to have point guard Jio Fontan back from his ACL injury, along with transfers Ari Stewart and J.T. Terrell, both from Wake Forest, and Eric Wise, from UC Irvine.
Tying up a few loose ends, we talked about Richard Solomon’s academic ineligibility and Josh Watkins’ dismissal from Utah yesterday, but thought we’d also pass along some information from the local media on both situations. For Solomon, there isn’t a whole lot to report; he just didn’t make grades, but head coach Mike Montgomery hopes he can patch up those problems and return next season. For Watkins, it’s another story. All indications are that he is a good kid, but head coach Larry Krystkowiak just couldn’t ignore the “accountability issues” with Watkins any longer. He reportedly missed practice again on Monday, and after Krystkowiak had laid down a “zero tolerance” policy following a blowout loss to Colorado on New Year’s Eve, Watkins had to go. Krystkowiak said he hopes Watkins continues at Utah and receives his degree, and I’m sure he does, not just for Watkins’ sake, but for the sake of Utah’s graduation rates that will be in the garbage following all of the recent transfers out of the program.
Washington has a big weekend ahead of it, what with conference-leading California and Stanford headed into Seattle for battles with first place on the lane. And in the midst of that atmosphere, it is possible that freshman forward (and starting tight end on the Husky football team) Austin Seferian-Jenkins could see his first action for the basketball team this weekend, although nothing is set in stone yet. Head coach Lorenzo Romar also confirmed that senior forward Darnell Gant would continue coming off the bench for the Huskies, with center Aziz N’Diaye and forward Desmond Simmons continuing to start up front.
Lastly, we turn our attention to UCLA, who has won three straight games after starting 0-2 in conference play. Bruin players like David Wear and Tyler Lambattribute the turnaround to a renewed emphasis on defensive intensity, with players taking pride in getting stops and learning to play as a team on that end. While UCLA has held its opponents to just 40.3% shooting from the field over the course of the winning streak, their trip to Oregon this weekend should present a much bigger challenge.
Wake Forest had a rough season this past year. No, wait, that’s not right. Bad? Terrible? Catastrophic? I’m having a hard time capturing the scale and scope of how bad last season was. The ideal word would capture a sort of hopeless, inevitable despondency mixed with mind-blowing, frustrating futility. Imagine a turtle trying to climb up a hill. Then the camera zooms out, and the turtle is at the bottom of the Grand Canyon trying to scale the side of a cliff. Now imagine that the turtle accidentally falls onto it’s back. Now imagine a mob gathering at the top of the cliff to push boulders down onto the turtle. That’s how last season felt in Winston-Salem.
Jeff Bzdelik Has A Lot Of Work To Do After Last Season's Disaster
Wake Forest had a single win in the Atlantic Coast Conference against lowly Virginia. Wake Forest won a single game away from its home court: a neutral court win against Elon at Greensboro Coliseum. Wake Forest stunned the world by losing the season opener against Stetson and then proceeded to lose to Winthrop, UNC Wilmington, and Presbyterian. They also lost to a number of very good basketball teams, but that kind of goes without saying when Stetson and Presbyterian are giving you the business on your floor. Ken Pomeroy’s basketball efficiency statistics demonstrate that this wasn’t just a few unlucky games. This was a systemic and utter, season-long failure. Every 16-seed in last year’s NCAA tournament was significantly better than Wake Forest. For the record, that group included UNC-Asheville, Boston University, Arkansas-Little Rock, and Texas-San Antonio. Last season, in short, was an unmitigated disaster. I hope we’re clear on that. That said, this summer may have been worse.
The ACC had a down year though North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall-ledresurgence and Florida State’s Sweet Sixteen appearance helped a little bit. Before and during the season, Duke was the runaway favorite in the conference: Kyrie Irving’s toe injury obviously was the pivotal point that brought Duke back down to earth. Equally pivotal (in the reverse direction) was Marshall’s move to starting point guard for North Carolina. With Larry Drew II at the helm, there is no way the Tar Heels could have come close to surpassing Duke for the regular season title. The down year did not really surprise most people, and despite lofty preseason expectations (read: people forgot how highly rated North Carolina was to start the season) I think the perception is that the league at least lived up to preseason expectations with a couple of notable exceptions: NC State, Wake Forest, and Virginia Tech. NC State had NCAA Tournament talent, but did not come anywhere close to sniffing the Big Dance; Wake was arguably the worst major conference team in the country; and Virginia Tech once again found itself very highly seeded in the NIT. On the flip side, Clemson and Florida State both exceeded expectations.
Roy Williams and Kendall Marshall led a mid-season resurgence that resulted in a trip the Elite Eight. (News Observer/Robert Willitt)
It wouldn’t be a random mid-April Wednesday without NBA Draft comings and goings, and not one, but two, SEC teams announced the draft intentions of three of their stars yesterday. First and foremost, John Calipari’s talented trio of Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and DeAndre Ligginsare all going to test the waters over the next few weeks, and by all indications, it appears that next year Kentucky fans will face a third straight season of uber-talented but inexperienced freshmen leading their team. Knight and Jones are projected as lottery picks, whereas Liggins, a second rounder if chosen at all, probably wouldn’t be in any better position after returning for his senior season. Jeff Goodman argues that, despite all of Calipari’s martyrdom last year about his five first-rounders (“best day in Kentucky history” and all that nonsense), he actually wants his players to return. It’s no leap of faith to state that a coach, if forced to do so, would admit to wanting his best players to stick for two, three, or even four years, but Calipari certainly didn’t expect them to — after all, why recruit a Marquis Teague if you already have a Brandon Knight; or, why recruit a Michael Gilchrist if you already have a Terrence Jones? The truth is that those players are going to Kentucky with an expectation that minutes at their positions will be available, and they didn’t get those impressions through a careful reading of the tea leaves.
Moving on to the SEC team that announced on Wednesday that its three stars would be returning, Vanderbilt’s all-SEC trio of Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeliwill be back in Nashville next season. The Commodores went 23-11 overall and 9-7 in the rugged SEC East before losing a heartbreaking opener in the NCAA Tournament against a much-lower seed for the second straight year. Kevin Stallings’ team will have the weight of enormous expectations on it next year, as this news gives him as talented and experienced a team he’s ever had in his twelve seasons at Vandy.
We’ve got space today for one piece of significant transfer news — Wake Forest’s Ari Stewartwill reportedly resurface at USC in the 2012-13 season. The 6’7 Demon Deacon forward suffered a bit of a sophomore slump in his first year under Jeff Bzdelik, but he has the tools and the jumper to become an all-conference level player at his next destination. USC picked up a good one as Kevin O’Neill continues rebuilding with his own players in Troy.
Princeton again decided to keep it within the family by reaching out and hiring Class of 1998 graduateMitch Henderson to take over for the departed head coach Sydney Johnson. Henderson has spent the last eleven years working under Bill Carmody at Northwestern, and said upon his hiring that when junior Doug Davis’ shot fell through in the Ivy Championship game this year against Harvard, he “jumped off his couch” with excitement. His era as a player (1994-98) was one of the best in program history, as the Tigers made three NCAA Tournaments, reached #7 in the national polls in 1998, and defeated defending national champion UCLA in his sophomore year. As with Johnson, it’s a lot to live up to for a fan base with rather big expectations.
Just when you thought you couldn’t be more impressed by Derrick Williams’ sophomore All-America season, we learned Wednesday that his “sprained right pinky” had actually been a broken one all along. Yep, a broken digit that he decided to tough out and play with after suffering the injury in a late January game against UCLA. Without question, Williams’ field goal percentages of 59.5% and 56.8% (from three) must have really taken a hit by virtue of D-Will’s injury — he likely would have been in the mid-60s in each metric had he not been hurt (we’re only partially kidding). This exhibited ability to play through pain can only serve to elevate his draft stock come June.
A couple of weeks ago we broke down what will arguably be the top holiday tournament of the 2010-11 season, the Maui Invitational. The other Big Daddy of pre-conference tourneys, the Preseason NIT, released its brackets today, and at first blush, the field is not all that exciting this year. Take a look at the below bracket and tell us where you get a little tingly thinking about the downstream matchup possibilities?
The only legitimate national contender in the field is Villanova, with 105-point scorerCorey Fisher returning along with a whole cadre of talented inside players including Mouph Yarou, Antonio Pena and Isaiah Armwood. If the expectation is that productive freshmen become superb sophomores, then the Wildcats are a team with as much upside as anyone else in America next year. The dropoff in talent from VU to the next best squad, Tennessee, is significant, but the real precipice occurs after that point. The Vols lost Wayne Chism, JP Prince and Bobby Maze from their Elite Eight team, but they bring back star-in-waiting Scotty Hopson and add Tobias Harris to a solid cast of role players, so UT has a chance to be very good again. We’d expect these two teams to sleepwalk their way to the finals on Black Friday in Madison Square Garden.
The third and fourth seeds and regional hosts Wake Forest and UCLA are two of the weaker teams we’ve seen in this position in some time. Neither is a likely NCAA Tournament team next season, and it says here that both schools will have trouble getting out of their PNIT region despite the fact that it will be played on their home courts. Wake returns two promising sophomores in CJ Harris and Ari Stewart, but the loss of all-ACC players Al-Farouq Aminu and Ish Smith, not to mention head coach Dino Gaudio (replaced by Jeff Bzdelik), will be too much for the duo to bear so early in the season — expect the Deacs to crumble against a strong VCU team with something to prove. UCLA returns more than Wake Forest, but if you’ve somehow been in a fugue state for the past twelve months, the Bruin program has fallen on hard times due to poor recruiting, team chemistry and injury problems. The talented but enigmatic Malcolm Lee returns along with several other young players (Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson, Jerime Anderson), but the addition of five-star stud Josh Smith to the mix isn’t going to suddenly remind UCLA how to win games. A second-round matchup against Pacific, with its top four players returning, or Nevada, always looking for a Pac-10 scalp as a member of the overlooked WAC, will be difficult for UCLA, even in Pauley Pavilion.
The one thing we will continue to give the PNIT folks credit for, though, is that they actually still understand the meaning of the word “Tournament.” Yeah, yeah, we know that other entities get around it by using words like “Classic,” but a bracket is a bracket and it really only makes sense when a team advances into the later rounds by, you know, winning. There are no guarantees — Villanova, Tennessee, Wake Forest and UCLA will actually have to beat two visiting teams to earn the privilege of a trip to New York City during Thanksgiving week to play in the World’s Most Famous Arena. So from that perspective, we’ll still enjoy watching the Preseason NIT this November if for no other reason than they get it right.
Best first flight of games ever? It just might be. Right now the Selection Committee are looking like a bunch of geniuses. We have confidence in the second flight of games bringing some excitement, too. We popped for the DirecTV package so we’ll be monitoring every game:
Ohio vs Georgetown
East Tennessee State vs Kentucky
Northern Iowa vs UNLV
Washington vs Marquette
San Diego State vs Tennessee
Wake Forest vs Texas
Lehigh vs Kansas
Montana vs New Mexico
After what we saw this afternoon, we suggest you join us for our live-blogging feature this evening. Get that refresh-button finger warmed up, and by all means let us know in the comments section what you’re watching and how you’re celebrating this unofficial national holiday. We’ll start at around 7 PM ET. See you there!
7:00: That’s OK Hemogoblin. Though scheduling a fantasy baseball draft TODAY?? Hmmm… Anyway, Butler is polishing off UTEP in a game that is going to screw up a lot of brackets. UTEP was a popular upset pick for the first round, and sometimes beyond. Frankly, I expected more from Arnett Moutrie at the forward spot. Zero points today.
7:30: OK, sorry there, folks. Had a quick dinner break, which I tried to time right so it would happen during the single-game interval. Didn’t hit it. We haven’t missed much. Kentucky has started pretty hot against ETSU and UNLV has taken an early lead over Northern Iowa.
7:52: Kentucky is shooting 70% to start this game. YEESH. They’re already up 41-16 against ETSU. At what point do you pull the starters to rest for the second game against either Wake or Texas?
7:58: Anyone want to wake up Georgetown? The Armon Bassett/D.J. Cooper tandem has been quite effective for the Bobcats, so far a combined 6-12 and 15 of Ohio U.’s 33 points.
8:02: Goodness. John Wall already has seven assists. Let’s see what else is on…
Black Wednesday in RTP. A bit of hyperbole here, as we make reference to Black Sunday (March 11, 1979), the infamous day when both UNC and Duke lost NCAA second round games on the same afternoon. Still, tonight’s surprising losses by both Carolina and Duke to the two ‘other’ schools in the traditional Big Four represent the first time in nearly seven years that they both lost conference games on the same night. How on earth could this have happened? Are big scary red/black aliens shaped in Deacon and Wolf form landing tonight to take us all away? Will tears of blood flow from the sky as God weeps for us? Will high-profile recruits clown Uncle Roy? These are all good questions for the people of central North Carolina to be asking tonight, so we’re here to help them make sense of it all. (ed. note: what? NC State wasn’t shipped out to somewhere like Pembroke in the late 80s?)
NC State Exorcised Their Devils Tonight (N&O/Ethan Hyman)
NC State 88, #6 Duke 74. There were a lot of shocking parts to this game, but by far the biggest shocker was the knife-through-butter ease by which NC State repeatedly shredded the Duke defense. The Devils have held their opponents to 41% from inside the arc and 28% from beyond it all season long, but the Pack paid that no mind, shooting a red-hot 58% for the entire game and hitting five timely threes on a reasonable twelve attempts. Even the expected collapse that everyone thought was coming immediately after halftime (and Nolan Smith’s ridiculous catch-and-shoot trey just before the buzzer) never materialized. Instead it was NC State that appeared to have the confidence, pushing their lead back out into double-digits and answering the Devils each and every time they cut the lead to eight. The night belonged to NCSU’s Tracy Smith, the 22d birthday boy who could seemingly do no wrong, dropping 23/5 on 10-12 FGs on a variety of post moves and drives to the hole. The Duke defense, one of the very best in the nation coming into tonight, seemed bewildered and confused by Smith all night long, almost as if he’d been left off the scouting report. Coach K’s group allowed over a point per possession for just the fourth time all season, and at 1.23 PPP tonight, it was easily their worst performance of the year. Something tells us that their level of effort on that end will not go unnoticed by Krzyzewski. With the win, NC State moves to 2-3 in the ACC race, and would you believe that the leaders of this conference are Virginia (3-0) and Maryland (2-1)? Is it too early to start calling the ACC the Pac-10 East with its nuttiness so far this year? Final thought: nice RTC, State students. And, deserved (start at 2:50).
Wake Forest 82, #23 UNC 69. Freshmen? No, I don’t think so. Wake’s C.J. Harris and Ari Stewart were impolite guests in their first visit to the Dean Dome as collegians, to say the least. In the first half, Wake cajoled UNC into questionable shot selection while taking good ones themselves and went into halftime with a three point lead. When UNC came out quickly early in the second and almost immediately made it just a one-point deficit, you got the feeling that Roy Williams had indeed gone into his magic bag and come up with a speech that would now put things right. You could feel that UNC had finally shown up and that they — the ranked team, at home — would redeem themselves, take advantage of the young Deacon guards, pull out a win, and SURELY avoid a three-game losing streak, something that’s never happened here under Roy Williams. It cannot happen here under Roy Williams. Right? RIGHT? Well… it just did. Harris and Stewart looked like anything but frosh in the second half right about the time UNC started getting their legs under them. First, almost halfway through the second half, it was Stewart. A three. Then another. Then ANOTHER. That last one is in caps because it was from about 22 feet, finishing the triple of triples that came in a span of a minute and 26 seconds. About a minute later, it was Harris, drilling two straight from the same spot on the left. Those five threes were courtesy of assists from four different players. At that point the Deacons’ lead was 15, and the Tar Heels were done. A couple of minutes later Ish Smith — a terror tonight, with 20/7/6 on 9-17 shooting — drilled another three for the official dagger. A team on which each player knows and cherishes his role is a dangerous thing, and that is this Wake Forest team — at least, it was tonight. Aside from the aforementioned guards providing the outside threat, Smith distributes well and is a heady senior point guard. Al-Farouq Aminu, whose 13/11 we haven’t even mentioned, is a fine interior defender and rebounds like a maniac. Chas McFarland might not take many shots (1-3 tonight), but he gets to the line and hits the boards (ten against UNC) and anchors the defense inside with Aminu. And they seem to be buying in to what Dino Gaudio is teaching. Sure, the Heels didn’t have Ed Davis, and this might have been Wake’s best outside shooting night of the season. But this is North Carolina. At home. What can you say about this team at this point? Is Roy about to lose them? It’s been an incredible three-year run. But sometimes after such a period of sustained success, when hard times arrive it can be easy for a young team to fold. They’re 12-7 and 1-3 in the ACC, have twelve games left, with seven of them away. A split does not get them in. The Heels have six days off, and it’s a good time for it. They have a lot to think about. It’s soul-searching time.
The sports world may have told us that this was a college football weekend, but we know better, right?
That Kentucky vs. UNC is Meaningful Again. Now that John Calipari is at Kentucky and his Cats are ranked in the Top 10 with a legitimate shot at postseason glory for the first time in a long while, it’s good to have this game on the early-season schedule. UK rode a masterful 28-2 run to build an early 19-point lead behind John Wall’s 16/5/7 assts even though he spent much of the game cramping up, and the record crowd of 24k+ at Rupp Arena loved it… until UNC got their young legs settled in the second half, and a late 12-1 run got the Heels within one bucket with 0:33 remaining. Eric Bledsoe and John Wall made five pressure-filled FTs to close it out 68-66 and UK moved to 8-0 on the season while UNC fell to 7-2. One thing was clear, though — both of these teams are going to get a lot better before March – can we set a rematch in Indy on Semifinal Saturday four months from now?
Oregon State. For putting an end to the discussion that was already gurgling (ahem) about the Pac-10 getting swept in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series. The Beavers defeated Colorado 74-69 on Friday night to give the Pac-10 its first win in the Series, and through the weekend games, only Cal’s dominant home victory over Iowa State was the other. The Big 12 now leads 8-2 in the matchup, and with two games remaining at Pac-10 venues, we’re still not coinvinced that the league will get another win (Oklahoma State @ Stanford & Texas A&M @ Washington).
Reggie Jackson. It didn’t count, but lordy… Jackson damn near brough the entire world down with this ridiculous dunk (below) at the end of the BC-Miami (FL) game on Sunday. Still, Jackson dropped 18/9 in a conference opener for both teams that showed both of these teams will be heard from in the ACC this season. BC dominated the glass 43-19, but it was Jackson’s FTs (not a dunk) with three seconds remaining that gave BC the home win to go to 1-0 in league play.
Dunk to Win. How about a dunk that did count? On Saturday afternoon, Ole Miss’ Eniel Polynice broke free for a throwdown right before the buzzer that ended up being the winning margin, 81-79, over Southern Miss. This was the capper on a wild game that saw the 7-1 Rebels come back from six pts down in the final minute to take the lead and win the game on that dunk. We’ve yet to find online video of this play but it’s really impressive, so if someone finds it a link to the dunk only, please let us know. Chris Warren added 20/6 assts for Ole Miss, while Gary Flowers contributed 20/8 for Southern Miss. Afterwards, USM coach Larry Eustachy found time to throw Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury under the bus for not playing his team. Good times.
Gravity. If you haven’t heard by now, Ohio State superstar Evan Turner took a nasty spill after attempting a dunk in the first few minutes of the Buckeyes’ 111-60 mauling of Eastern Michigan on Saturday afternoon. He landed on the small of his back and broke two vertebrae which will shelve the early-season leading candidate for NPOY for at least eight weeks. Ohio State will undoubtedly have trouble recovering from his loss during that time. For a more detailed description and video of the fall, see our report from Saturday.
A 22-point Half. You probably missed this on Friday night, but we didn’t. Pitt and New Hampshire tried their best to set the game back fifty years with a wretched offensive performance during a 15-7 first half. You read that right. 15-7. The 22 combined points was the lowest for a half in the shot-clock era, which began in 1985. It may as well have been 1955, though, as Pitt won 47-32 with the two teams combining for 31% shooting and Pitt in particular getting almost all of its points from two players — 23 from Ashton Gibbs and 19 from Brad Wanamaker. In fact, the entire Pitt front line contributed a total of three points. We’re not sure what exactly caused this, guys, but let’s please not let this happen again, ok?
She Looks Different With the Lights On. Nouveaux-riche WCC powers Portland and San Diego are learning what it’s like to be Gonzaga after all these years. Just one week after one of the most successful weekends in both schools’ basketball history, the giant red target that was placed squarely on their backs is weighing down both teams. On Sunday, both teams took blowout losses at the hands of schools that were clearly fired up to get a shot at a team playing with the big boys into their arena. Portland, the media RTC darling of a week ago, lost its second straight game to a middie after finishing as the runner-up to West Virginia in the 76 Classic. Idaho ran out to a 16-pt first-half lead and never looked back, holding Portland to 32% shooting and 6-22 from deep. Things have been even worse for San Diego since returning as the runner-up in the Great Alaska Shootout. The Toreros have dropped three straight games, including Friday night’s loss to UC Riverside and a 37-pt (19% FG) stinker on Sunday at Fresno State (note: Brandon Johnson did miss the game for disciplinary reasons, but SD was still down 38 pts in this one at one time – ugh). It was Idaho’s first win over a ranked team in 27 years and Fresno’s first win in five tries. Both of these WCC teams are going to need to right the ship in home games this week (Denver and New Mexico, respectively) or be considered irrelevant by Christmas after such good starts.