The Lede. It was a relatively quiet weekend in college basketball, as most schools scheduled lightly because they are either already taking or heading into exams. There was only one matchup between ranked teams, and most everybody else in the Top 25 rolled (17-2 this weekend). In the two losses — UNLV and Washington — both squads played good teams in their own right in Louisville and Texas A&M on the road. As we head into the holiday season, the next three weeks will be hit-and-miss (mostly miss) in terms of quality games, with the majority of the pre-conference tournaments finished and schools preferring to not kill themselves immediately before conference play. Keep this in mind over the next few weeks, though. With the onset of winter break, teams will have a couple of things going for them. First, if they’re waiting on a key player who might have been a transfer or academically ineligible, guys such as New Mexico’s Drew Gordon or USC’s Jio Fontan or even Missouri’s Tony Mitchell, there’s a good chance that player will be back and ready to help his team soon. Second, with classes over and NCAA hours restrictions lifted during the break, coaches can practice as much as they want. It shouldn’t surprise you in the least if some teams that looked shaky during the first month of the season come back much more polished and stronger after the break.
Your Watercooler Moment. Tennessee Throttles Pitt on the Road. You have to give it to Bruce Pearl. When he perceives that his back is against the wall, he comes out with guns blazing, repeatedly doing things considered nearly impossible by those of us who remember how the Vols collapse when the burden of expectations is placed upon them. Who can forget, for example, the victories over #1 Kansas and #2 Kentucky last season; or, the win at #1 Memphis in 2008; or, the victories over the back-to-back Florida teams in 2006 and 2007? The man gets it done when he’s playing the role of woebegone underdog, and Saturday’s 83-76 victory over Pitt in their own backyard is just the latest example of this trend. With Pearl set to miss the first eight games of the SEC season and still-untold penalties looming from the NCAA masters, he has his team believing in one another and they’re once again shocking the basketball world in the process. So how are the Vols doing it this year? Try defense and a junior who has finally reached his potential. Pitt learned quickly on Saturday that this Tennessee team wasn’t just another soft SEC squad more interested in scoring than getting back and moving their feet on the other end — these Vols actually play defense. With athletic size and length across the front line in the form of Brian Williams, Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson, the Pitt bigs had trouble finding openings, but it was the specific work that Melvin Goins put in on Pitt’s star Ashton Gibbs that made the biggest difference, holding the guard to 4-13 shooting. On the other side, no Panther seemed to have a clue as to how to defend the lithe Hopson, who for the first time in his career on a national stage looked like the top ten recruit in the Class of 2008 he once was. He was 10-13 from the field, hitting all three of his bombs and slicing and dunking his way to a 27-point performance befitting a significantly improved and more efficient player this season. Sometimes it just takes certain players longer to figure out how to play this game at a high level, and Hopson’s better understanding of what a great shot is has been one of the primary reasons that UT sits at 7-0 and presumably in the top five at this point in the season. With a light home-heavy schedule until the SEC season starts, Pearl has his team poised to remain unbeaten and near the top of the rankings when he goes on hiatus.
Quit Calling It a Court Storm!!!! Hehe, regardless of the chosen nomenclature, we had another RTC over the weekend as Fordham came back from 21 down in the second half to beat crosstown rival St. John’s. The Johnnies suffered not one, but two separate 16-0 runs by Fordham (who, remember, only won five games the last two seasons) before succumbing down the stretch. It was Fordham’s first win over a Big East team since the first Reagan administration (1982) and clearly a massive win for Tom Pecora’s program looking for some traction in a crowded NYC sports market. Somewhere on the left coast, UCLA fans knowingly nodded in quiet unison… (h/t to The East Coast Bias for sending along the clip)