Tonight’s Lede. Mini-Tournaments Abound! Few events typify the diffuse nature of non-conference competition in college hoops more than mini early-season invitationals. You have stacked fields like the Battle 4 Atlantis, replete with national championship hopefuls and quality mid-majors battling it out in a tropical locale. Then you have events like the South Padre Invitational, where the most anticipated match-up will pit annual bubble denizen Northwestern and Illinois State. Not to take anything away from Jackie Carmichael and the Redbirds, but come on – yuck. Several of this year’s events tipped off Thursday, and while the early-round match-ups may lack for intrigue, their occurrence brings the promise of quality contests in the later rounds. Even if the first-round competition didn’t quite sate your hoops palate, there were some intriguing bouts scattered about the ledger, with conference and national contenders taking the floor in various spots around the country. These little tourneys may not tout Champions Classic-level prestige, but they’re exciting enough to spark the interest of most college hoops fans. What do you say we dig into some of these mini-tourneys’ first-round tilts?
Your Watercooler Moment. Flaws Exposed in Oklahoma State’s Overtime Win Over Akron.
Few teams count two top-10 recruits in their starting lineup. Even fewer combine that youth with effective complementary pieces and offensive firepower at every position. Oklahoma State, with sophomore wing Le’Bryan Nash and freshman guard Marcus Smart, fit the description. Based on Thursday’s near-loss in overtime to Akron in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, it seems the Cowboys have some fine-tuning to do before they can be considered a realistic contender in this season’s deep Big 12. The book is out on Nash: He’s an effective but inefficient scorer (last season, he took 29.3 percent of available shots and used 29.0 percent of possessions yet posted an ugly 89.2 offensive rating, per kenpom.com). The early returns on Smart are just about where you’d expect them to be: The talent is there, but the attention to detail is not. If Nash and Smart, who combined for 34 points and 16 rebounds Thursday, can bring it all together, and junior Markel Brown can provide consistent scoring from the perimeter, this is a dangerous team. Whether that if-statement translates to the affirmative – and whether the young duo can guide the Cowboys into NCAA Tournament territory, which is probably the threshold postseason benchmark to ensure the continuation of coach Travis Ford’s tenure – will largely fall on the shoulders of Nash and Smart.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Another Key Loss for Oklahoma State? There were significant concerns about Oklahoma State’s depth heading into this season. With swingman Brian Williams done for the season, and point guard Cezar Guerrero leaving the team for family issues, the Cowboys’ bench was already very thin. Those concerns may reach new levels of immediacy if senior JP Olukemi’s apparent left knee injury, suffered during the Cowboys’ game with Akron Thursday, proves serious. Olukemi spent much of the second half with his knee wrapped in ice. For Oklahoma State, losing him would be a major blow. He’s an explosive scorer and a fantastic perimeter complement to Nash and Smart. On a more personal level, you can’t help feeling for Olukemi, who missed most of last season with a torn ACL and was granted a waiver to play out his final year of eligibility after a long and presumably anxiety-filled waiting game with NCAA folk.
- Late-Game Mismanagement Costs Purdue. Transition is the fitting byword for Purdue’s 2012-13 season. Gone are Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson, the heart and soul of Purdue’s recent outfits. In comes a new freshman class, which features three-top 100 players. The future is promising for the Boilermakers; Matt Painter will have his team challenging the top levels of Big Ten competition sooner rather than later. This year, the goals are more realistic, more focused on development and transition. Purdue’s inexperience proved costly Thursday night as the Boilermakers saw their seven-point lead evaporate in just over a minute’s time, thus sending their 2K Sports Classic semifinal contest into overtime, at which point Villanova — thanks to a pair of huge threes from James Bell — took over. Chalk this one up to youth — a veteran team with multiple years’ playing experience does not let that one slip away. For Purdue, the silver lining is plain: the young Boilers can take this performance, and use it as a reference point for future growth. The Boilermakers’ short-term outlook is far less promising than the long-term. Last night was a confirmation of the fact.
- 2K Sports Classic Provides Marquee Drama. In what amounted to arguably Thursday’s best matchup of power conference teams, Alabama needed a late three from Rodney Cooper to advance to Friday night’s championship round. Cooper’s shot was huge – it halted Oregon State’s valiant second half run. More impressive was Alabama’s guard play, namely Trevor Lacey and Trevor Releford. We know the Tide are going to lock you down; that’s what Anthony Grant’s teams do. They defend. The picture is less rosy on offense for Alabama. The development of a potent guard combo like Releford and Lacey could be just what the doctor ordered. And about that defense – Alabama’s suffocating defense produced produced 17 turnovers to Oregon State’s nine. It’s only November, and much Alabama has plenty of work left on the nonconference ledger before they can start thinking about Kentucky and Missouri and Florida, but this has the makings of another defensive-minded Tide team. Their identity is a timeless quality under Grant.
- The “Other” Freshman Shines for N.C. State. With all due respect to Rodney Purvis, T.J. Warren wants the spotlight just as much as you do. That’s the impression you got watching Warren, the less-heralded member of Mark Gottfried’s prized 2012 recruiting class, steal the show in N.C. State’s win over Penn State in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-off. Warren mixes a savvy low post game with a high basketball IQ and range out to the three-point line, as comfortable to mix it up on the low block as he is spot up from deep (Warren connected on three of four three-point attempts Thursday). For all of Purvis’ lottery talent, Warren’s diverse inside-out game could be the more productive asset. Throw Warren, likely lottery pick C.J. Leslie, and interior enforcer Richard Howell in the same frontcourt, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find teams capable of matching that size and talent.
- Kansas Needs A Go-To Scorer; Hello Ben McLemore. Trap games arrive in many different shapes and sizes. For Kansas, coming off a three-point loss to Michigan State in Tuesday night’s Champions Classic, Chattanooga pounced on the Jayhawks’ sluggishness to jump out to an eight-point halftime lead. Then Kansas realized it was playing Chattanooga, shrugged off its shaky start and ripped off a 27-4 run in a 12-minute second-half stretch to silence the Mocs. An update on Ben McLemore: the hype – which amplified throughout last season and over the summer as tales of Mclemore’s athleticism and natural scoring ability surfaced in droves – is legitimate. Bill Self told CBS’s Jeff Goodman this week he had yet to find a player with a “killer instinct”, a Thomas Robinson-type lead option who he can hand the ball to in crucial moments. McLemore’s 24-point, eight-rebound effort could fashion an answer.
- Rethinking the Big 12 Hierarchy. All early-season caveats apply here, but it’s hard to argue Baylor hasn’t looked and played like the Big 12’s best team so far this season. The latest tour de force came Thursday night against an improved Boston College team, when Pierre Jackson’s 31 points on 10-15 shooting overwhelmed the Eagles and served and provided more fuel to the notion this could be Baylor’s best team under Scott Drew. It’s not just about Jackson – freshman Isaiah Austin has all the physical tools of Perry Jones III and all the intangibles he never had. To reiterate: It’s way too early to make any bold proclamations about conference races. At this point, we can come together on the concept that Kansas may not, as many posited throughout the preseason, cruise to a ninth straight conference title. Baylor feels like a viable contender.
… and Misses.
- Another Tough Loss for Georgia. The source of Georgia’s problems is no huge mystery. It involves sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the lack of proficient scoring talent around him. How else can you explain the McDonald’s All-American throwing up 21 shots and making just five of them in a losing effort, the Bulldogs’ second straight defeat in the Legends Classic after falling to Youngstown State Monday. It only gets harder from here for Georgia, with either UCLA or Georgetown (depending on who wins their first round matchup Monday) waiting in Tuesday’s semifinal at the Barclays Center. Pope is a very talented player whose high-end NBA projection borders on lottery-pick status. He is the driving force of all of Georgia’s offensive sets. Through three games – which, admittedly, is a small sample – Georgia’s 41.2 effective field goal percentage ranks 256th nationally. For that to improve, coach Mark Fox needs to find ways to get other players involved offensively.
- Cancun not Kind to DePaul. Not all bad losses are created equal. Often times the better team plays down to its competition and loses by a small margin. Less common is the underdog blowout, when the putatively weaker opponent rises up and dominates its more prominent opponent. Gardner-Webb saw an opportunity in DePaul in the first round of the Cancun Challenge, and took it to the Blue Demons. Talk of progressive changes under Oliver Purnell has been constant. This marks a setback in that progress, even if, in the grand scheme, a menial non-conference loss won’t in any drastic way alter DePaul’s season – especially because they’re unlikely to land in a favorable postseason tournament. The baseline expectations are low for DePaul, but an outcome like this stains the rest of your non-conference season. Big East play has not yet arrived, and already DePaul is turning into everyone’s punching bag.
- Drexel’s 0-2 Start Recalls Last Season’s Tournament Miss. The main charge against Drexel’s NCAA Tournament resume last season was its lack of quality non-conference wins. Sure, the Dragons won 25 of their last 27 games (the losses coming to Georgia State and VCU), but their shortcomings out of the CAA loomed large in the selection committee’s eyes. Drexel looks poised to romp through the CAA yet again, especially now that their schedule doesn’t feature a home-and-home with VCU. But after losing their first two games out-of-conference, the Dragons are in the early stages of piecing together a Tournament dossier similar to the one that left them on the wrong side of the bubble cut line last March. Bruiser Flint’s team needs to score some respectable victories before CAA play, or else Drexel will be left feeling much the same way it did at the end of last season.
Dunkdafied. How about Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes with authority and-one?
Thursday’s All Americans.
- Pierre Jackson, Baylor (NPOY) – The lightning-quick point guard knifes through the lane in a flash, drops dimes on a pivot and finishes with pop. His season-high 31 against Boston College is the type of performance that makes people stand up and take notice.
- Isaiah Canaan, Murray State – The chances Murray State rolls out another 20+ win streak to start the season are slim. The Racers are undefeated so far, though, and Canaan’s 26 points and six assists in a 20-point win over Auburn are a strong indicator Murray State will be making headlines for a second straight year.
- Jordan Adams, UCLA – In the illustrious history of UCLA basketball, no freshman had ever scored 20 or more points in his first three games, until tonight when Adams went for 25/3/4 assts in 22 minutes off the bench.
- Jud Dillard, Tennessee Tech – Anytime someone scores 34 points, that’s an impressive feat unto itself. Accounting for 11 of your team’s last 14 points in a two-point win brings that huge night into a game-deciding context.
- Ryan Anderson, Boston College – In a losing effort, Anderson stood toe-to-toe with Baylor’s vaunted front line and finished with 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting – this after notching 29 points in the Eagles season-opening win over Florida International. This three at the half was typical of his afternoon.
Tweet of the Night. Following D.J. Byrd’s questionable flagrant foul call in the final minutes of regulation against Villanova, which keyed the Wildcats overtime-forcing comeback, Purdue coach Matt Painter was understandably livid. ESPN Senior Basketball Recruiting Analyst Dave Telep apparently felt Painter’s pain.
If Matt Painter gets tossed, I’ll pay his fine.
— Dave Telep (@DaveTelep) November 16, 2012