Checking in on… the Pac-10

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 6th, 2011


Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and West Coast Conference.

A Look Back

With non-conference play all but wrapped up and the first week of the conference season in the books, we’re getting a clearer and clearer picture of who the legitimate contenders are and who is going to be bumping along in the lower half of the standings as the season progresses. But, it wouldn’t be the Pac-10 if it didn’t have plenty of surprises in store for us. And with the first nine games of the season complete, we’ve already got the mind-boggling first week surprise of an Oregon State sweep of the Arizona schools, Stanford bouncing back from struggles in their early games to smack Bay Area rival Cal around and Washington going on what is likely their toughest road trip of the season and pulling out just their third-ever sweep of the road trip to Los Angeles to establish themselves as the clear-cut favorite for the crown.

Team of the Week

Oregon StateIt is awful hard not to peg the Huskies as the team of the week, given that they’ve just passed with flying colors what is likely their biggest test of the conference slate. But, this Beaver team just wrapped up a completely fascinating weekend. This is an OSU team that I have previously this year described in this column as “bad,” “amazingly underwhelming,” “very ordinary,” “pitiful,” “terrible,” and “just awful.” In the weekly power ratings, they have never been ranked higher than tenth and I even once wished that there were already 12 teams in the conference just so I could put the Beavers lower than that. There are losses to Texas Southern, Seattle and Utah Valley State in the record books and this team just had the look of a team that would fight and scrap and claw to get to 0-18 in the Pac-10, even if it killed them. But then, just before Christmas, much-heralded and waited-for recruit Roberto Nelson became eligible, the team looked improved in a sneaky-good 20-point win over Illinois-Chicago, and there were whispers that this team had turned the corner. Then this past weekend, they killed Arizona State by 22 before coming back on Sunday night and upsetting Arizona, in a game where the Beavers didn’t even play all that well. And now all of a sudden, you look up and down that roster and see talented freshmen and sophomores (like Nelson, Ahmad Starks, Joe Burton and the star of the Arizona win, Jared Cunningham) paired with a couple of serious veterans in Calvin Haynes and Omari Johnson and you see a pretty stout lineup. I’m not for a second suggesting that out of the blue this OSU team woke up one day as a consistent finished product, but on the right night when things click together for this team, they can beat just about everybody in this conference. And I’m still a little bit scared that I just wrote that sentence.

Player of the Week

Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Senior, Washington – In the Huskies’ New Year’s weekend sweep of the Los Angeles schools, the 6’9 senior from London led the way for Lorenzo Romar’s club, leading the team in both points and rebounds in their two games while posting averages of 19.5 points and nine rebounds per contest. After losing his starting spot for four games earlier this season, Bryan-Amaning has bounced back in a big way, knocking down a high percentage of shots in an efficient manner, being a monster on the boards on both ends, taking care of the ball and defending well. With Washington firmly entrenched as the favorite in the Pac-10, Bryan-Amaning will need to continue being a steady frontcourt presence for the relatively undersized Huskies.

Newcomer of the Week

Dwight Powell, Freshman, Stanford – From the minute Powell stepped on the court this season, it was clear that he had an abundant supply of athletic gifts. But, all too often, Powell has struggled to reign in those talents and play under control and within the structure of the Cardinal offense while still being able to make an impact. This week, however, in his first Pac-10 contest against the hated Cal Bears, Powell pulled it all together in breaking out a career-high 20 points, adding seven rebounds and hitting seven of his 11 attempts from the field. The next test for the talented 6’9 forward is to recreate performances like that on a regular basis. If he can do that, a Stanford squad that struggled in non-conference play could make an impact in the Pac-10 race.

Game of the Week

Washington 73, USC 67 (OT) – If the first game of the year is any indication, we’re in for a wild Pac-10 season. Despite struggling through foul difficulties and injuries, the Huskies battled the homestanding Trojans for 40-minutes to a draw, then saddled back up and went at it for five more intense minutes before coming away with a hard-fought victory. The game was played at the pace and in the style that the Trojans wanted, with the score in the mid-50s at the end of regulation and with the Huskies having to switch to primarily zone defense after they got in deep foul trouble early in the first half (three U-Dub players fouled out, two more wound up with four personals). But Lorenzo Romar got big performances from senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning and freshman Terrence Ross, who each had a team-high 18 points – a career high for Ross. It was seniors Venoy Overton and Justin Holiday who came up biggest in overtime, with Holiday hitting the first five points of OT (including a fall-away three) and Overton scoring eight of his 11 points in the extra frame. All things considered, it was a great example of the Huskies getting positive contributions from a variety of sources in order to get their weekend, and their conference run, off to a scintillating start.

Game of the Upcoming Week

UCLA at USC, 1/9, 7:30 PM PST, FSN – Both LA-area schools started out conference play with a split, each knocking off Washington State in close games, but with both teams entertaining hopes of making a run at NCAA Tournament consideration, this becomes a very important game, apart from the inherent dislike between the two programs. Entertaining matchups abound in this game, with both squads featuring big and imposing frontlines ready to battle it out on the boards. In the backcourt, UCLA junior Malcolm Lee will likely be lined up against the Trojans’ Jio Fontan, and USC’s defensive stopper Marcus Simmons should set his sights on the Bruins’ versatile Tyler Honeycutt. One key in this game could be UCLA’s offensive rebounding. Ben Howland’s team loves to get after the offensive glass, but Kevin O’Neill preaches some heavy duty work on the defensive glass and his duo of Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson are willing acolytes. If they can keep UCLA’s Josh Smith and Reeves Nelson from getting easy buckets on the boards, the tight USC defense could make life difficult for the Bruin offense.

Power Rankings

1. Washington (10-3, 2-0): With the help of last week’s sweep of the Los Angeles schools, the Huskies have erased whatever doubts there may have been about their legitimacy as the favorite in the Pac-10. After earning the hard-fought win over USC detailed above, they came back a couple days later to run away from UCLA in the second half. However, just when it seemed there was nothing but good news surrounding the Husky program, news broke on Wednesday that sophomore point guard Abdul Gaddy had torn his ACL in practice and would miss the rest of the season. One glance at the stat sheet and Gaddy’s 8.3 PPG may make one believe that, though a tough loss for the Huskies, this is one that they can overcome. And while it is certainly true that the combination of Isaiah Thomas, Venoy Overton, C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs still form a strong backcourt, Washington will definitely miss Gaddy’s confidence and leadership. He had developed into a true floor general and an efficient player on both ends of the court after a rough freshman season. In his absence, however, Overton and Thomas will both get more minutes at the point, with Suggs and Wilcox due for a bump in playing time at the two (although Wilcox played just four minutes on the SoCal trip due to a staph infection). While the Gaddy injury is a huge bummer for Husky fans (and college basketball fans in general), it is by no means a deal breaker for Washington, especially considering they now have a chance to adjust to his loss over the remainder of the regular season.

Looking ahead: The conference home-opener at the Hec-Ed is on Thursday, with northwest rival Oregon coming to two, then a suddenly interesting contest with Oregon State on Saturday afternoon.

2. USC (9-6, 1-1): With Washington the clear-cut favorite in the Pac-10, the question now becomes, who’s number 2? And the answer remains, albeit after only one week of play: who knows? For now, I’ll go with the Trojans, who gave the Huskies everything they could handle in the opener. A couple of days later, they looked excellent against Washington State for about 37 minutes before slowing up short of the finish line and winding up with a fortunate two-point win. But all things considered, this is a USC team with a reputation as a great defensive team, strong on the boards and with plenty of upside on the offensive end. The Trojans are still adjusting to life with Jio Fontan as their lead guard, and given that he is their most talented offensive player, once everybody is comfortable in their roles USC should improve upon their average offensive efficiency numbers to date. The biggest weakness for Kevin O’Neill is the complete lack of depth on this squad, so if the grind of conference play slows any of the Trojans’ key contributors, things could get tight, but with a little luck, USC could ride a strong conference run to an NCAA Tournament invitation.

Looking ahead: The Trojans host UCLA at the Galen Center on Sunday before getting out on the road in conference play for the first time with a trip to the Oregon schools.

3. UCLA (9-5, 1-1): The Bruins’ homestand against the Washington schools was an eventful one. In the opener against Wazzu, they needed a big second half to defend their turf and get conference play started on the right foot. Sophomore Reeves Nelson had 13 second-half points and classmate Tyler Honeycutt added 12 as UCLA used a 20-6 second half run to come back from an eight-point halftime deficit to post a nine-point win. In the follow-up game, however, it was a 27-10 Washington run that doomed the Bruins to a split. One big factor for the Bruins in the early season has been freshman Joshua Smith and his issues with foul trouble. When Smith can keep clean, few teams around the country have players than can defend him well, but all too often he gets in early foul trouble and then either has to sit or play more carefully for fear of fouling out. In the Washington game, he picked up two quick fouls trying to hedge on ball-screens at the top of the key – a strategy Ben Howland has used successfully with big men during his time in Westwood. Howland admitted he has reconsidered and will no longer regularly ask Smith to hedge ball-screens, rather asking him to sit back and plug the lane.

Looking ahead: The cross-town battle with USC on Sunday should be a must-watch game, with a trip to the Oregon schools to follow.

4. Arizona (12-3, 1-1): The Wildcats’ loss to Oregon State on Sunday was maybe the biggest story around the Pac-10, and it is worth another look from the Arizona perspective. I don’t know about anyone else, but the first thing I look at when I check out an Arizona box score is Derrick Williams, and just looking at his line is a pretty good microcosm of what went wrong in Corvallis. First and foremost, there is little dispute that Williams is the Wildcats’ best player and the guy who Sean Miller wants to be most involved in the offense. He is an insanely efficient offensive player who has been absolutely on fire early in the season. Why then did he only attempt six field goals, especially considering he made every one? Yes, he was limited somewhat by foul trouble, but he still played 29 minutes and yet Arizona could only get him a field goal attempt once every five minutes, in their game with the highest number of possessions this year? Worse yet, that’s not even much of an aberration, as he has only once taken double-digit attempts from the field (ten attempts against CS Fullerton on 12/8) since Thanksgiving weekend. Aside from the six field goal attempts, Williams did get to the line ten times, but he made just three of them, a stunning number given his 81.7% rate coming into the game. And last, but certainly not least damning, Williams had exactly two rebounds in 29 minutes. Two. Really. Two. There were 75 rebounds available for grabbing in that game, approximately 54 rebounds available to him in the time he played, and he grabbed less than 4% of them. That’s unforgivable for a player as talented as he. There is a lot of talk about Arizona as an underrated team and a potential challenger for the Pac-10 crown, but unless Williams, clearly the most talented player on a relatively under-talented Arizona team, can get more aggressive on the boards and more involved in the offense, this is little more than a middle-of-the-Pac team.

Looking ahead: The Wildcats get a chance to bounce back from the Beaver debacle with visits from the young Bay Area teams to the McKale Center.

5. Washington State (10-4, 0-2): After a second half fade against UCLA, the Cougars came out cold against USC, struggled to get good shots and then failed to convert when they did get open looks. And yet, after an 11-0 run in crunch time to get to within 58-56, Klay Thompson drove and spotted an open Abe Lodwick at the three-point line in the corner. However, the pass from Thompson was just a bit off target and Lodwick couldn’t handle it, and a clean look at a possible game-winning three fell harmlessly out of bounds. At this point, you wouldn’t blame Cougar fans if they were a little bit skittish about their team, even after a pretty strong non-conference schedule. Sure, the 0-2 start to conference play is easily explained away with the fact that it was a pair of road games against arguably the toughest pair of travel partners the Washington schools will face all season. And sure, those first two games of the conference schedule came at the tail end of a nearly two-week span away from home. But on the heels of last year’s freefall from a 12-3 start to a 16-14 finish (including a 6-12 conference record good for last place, this WSU team has a lot to prove.  

Looking ahead: The Cougs have a chance to get back to .500 in conference by defending their home court against the Oregon teams, two teams expected to finish in the bottom half of the Pac-10. However, with Oregon State’s sudden resurgence, Ken Bone and company had better bring their A-game on Thursday, just to be safe.

6. Oregon State (7-6, 2-0): Am I really going to jump the Beavers from #10 to #6? I don’t know what choice I have. As I mentioned above, I think this is a talented roster. Couple that with their most recent three games and put on a pair of decent blinders, and this ranking seems perfectly reasonable. Sophomore guard Jared Cunningham has proven to be one of the most dangerous thieves in the country, picking opposing teams’ pockets on six percent of all possessions, and he’s also shown to be an athletic talent in the open floor. He threw down one of the better dunks of the year over Arizona, although he still missed at least three point-blank bunnies in that game. Sophomore center Joe Burton burst out over the weekend as well, averaging 16.5 points and seven rebounds in the game and displaying quick feet, nice hands, a soft touch and a good feel for the game, especially for 6’7, 280-pound guy. Throw in 6’9 athletic senior forward Omari Johnson defending the top of the 1-3-1 zone and second-team All-Pac-10 selection in 2009-10 Calvin Haynes to go with a handful of other young and talented athletes and this Beaver team has gone from an afterthought to must-see TV in the span of about two weeks.

Looking ahead: The Beavers travel to the Washington schools this week, with Pullman the first stop. If they were going to win one of these games, the Wazzu game would be the more likely one. Despite their reputation in previous seasons under Craig Robinson as a team that wants to play a slow pace, this Beaver team is young, athletic and raring to go, qualities which are endearing but which could get them in trouble against the more talented Huskies.

7. Stanford (8-4, 1-0): While not as extreme of a surprise as Oregon State’s start to conference play, Stanford’s 14-point win over Cal goes down as an unexpected result as well. It’s not so much that the Cardinal won that was surprising, but the manner in which it happened. For most of the start of the Stanford season, it had been primarily the Jeremy Green/Josh Owens show, with Green providing the bulk of the offense from the perimeter and Owens doing the dirty work inside. But on Sunday, aside from Green’s 21 points, our Newcomer of the Week, Dwight Powell, busted out for 20 points and fellow freshman Anthony Brown and Aaron Bright also went for double digits, outplaying the Cal freshman and providing the difference in the game. Just one game is too small of a sample size to think the Stanford freshmen have turned the corner, but if Jeremy Green can continue to get help from the youngsters around him, Johnny Dawkins’ bunch can spring an upset or two this season.

Looking ahead: The Cardinal head to the desert for matchups with Arizona State and Arizona, giving their freshman class their first taste of life on the road in the Pac-10.

8. Arizona State (8-5, 1-1): Sun Devil leading scorer Trent Lockett missed the first two games of the Pac-10 season with a toe injury, and he was definitely missed. In the opener, the Sun Devils looked awful against Oregon State. They were outrebounded badly, grabbing just 51% of the available defensive rebounds while getting outshot badly on the way to an embarrassing 22-point loss. They bounced back to beat Oregon on Saturday, but didn’t look particularly good in doing so. Junior college transfer Carrick Felix got his second and third starts of his career and his most run (averaging 28.5 minutes per game), and responded with a particularly good game against Oregon, posting a line of 19 points, six rebounds and four assists, and it will be interesting to see Felix’s role upon Lockett expected return this week.

Looking ahead: The Sun Devils host Stanford and Cal, two winnable home games.

9. (Cal 7-6, 0-1): The sole game of the week was the Bears’ disappointing road trip to Stanford, but the big story broke Wednesday in Berkeley, when it was announced that freshman guard Gary Franklin was no longer in school and would be transferring out. Franklin had struggled mightily with his shot in the early season, hitting just 29% from the field, 29% of his threes and only 44% from the line – all this for a guy whose strength was considered to be his shooting. Franklin started the first 11 games of the season, but removed from the starting lineup in the Bears final non-conference game against Hartford, where he only played ten minutes and didn’t score. However, Franklin returned to prominence in the Stanford game, still coming off the bench, but this time getting 30 minutes, knocking down four of his seven three-point attempts and scoring 15 points in his best game of the season. Three days later, the decision was made, and he’ll be playing somewhere else beginning next December. The whole story is confusing, but the scuttlebutt is that Franklin was unhappy with coming off the bench, despite the fact that he still averaged over 25 minutes a game. Odds are, he’ll reappear in another west coast team, maybe San Diego State or UNLV or something like that, but this observer from outside can’t help but see this as a bad decision by a kid who has been treated more than fairly by Mike Montgomery, allowed to work through his struggles with his shot while still being trotted out there every night. In the meantime, Cal’s backcourt become a little thinner, and their fans’ dreams of a Franklin/Allen Crabbe backcourt bringing them back to glory in the not-too-distant future fade far earlier than expected.

Looking ahead: The Golden Bears head to the desert as well, starting with Arizona on Thursday, then heading to Arizona State on Saturday.

10. Oregon (7-7, 0-2): A sad week in Oregon basketball. Yes, they lost their first two games of the Pac-10 season, but really, Duck fans know there are more losses where those came from. The saddest part of the week was the final scheduled men’s basketball games at McArthur Court, the second oldest on-campus arena in Division I (behind Fordham’s Rose Hill Gym). So the old brokedown palace, site of not only many a classic Pac-10 game, but also one of the best Grateful Dead shows ever, gets put out to pasture, while the bright shiny new Matthew Knight Arena gets unveiled in a couple weeks. I’m sure that place is beautiful, and it will probably wind up giving Duck fans a better, more comfortable experience at games. And sure, the Knight Arena and its attendant facilities give Oregon some great new perks to offer potential recruits. I get it. But I’m still sad to see the old place go. I would love it if Oregon could find a way to sneak a game back over across the way to the old barn, but I’m sure that’s little more than a pipe dream. Fare you well, Mac Court, fare you well.  

 

Looking ahead: The Washington swing is up next for the Ducks, and by this time next week, in all likelihood your Oregon Ducks will be sitting at 0-4 in the conference. Their time will come to sneak up on somebody in the Pac-10, but I doubt it is this week.

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The Week That Was: Dec. 28-Jan. 3

Posted by jstevrtc on January 4th, 2011

David Ely is an RTC Contributor

Introduction

Happy New Year everyone! TWTW hopes that you all had a great and safe NYE and then had a better time recovering on your couch over the following couple of days with some college hoops on the flat screen. And TWTW won’t judge if your condition forced you to watch said games on mute — that’s just a casualty of the season.

What We Learned

Harrellson Is Most Valuable As a Glass Cleaner, But Has a Solid Stroke As Well

It looks like Kentucky is headed toward another 14-2 type run through the SEC this season, and a perfect 16-0 record in conference play isn’t out of the question. That statement isn’t as much based off of how the Wildcats are playing (though TWTW was very impressed with how UK dismantled Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center on New Year’s Eve) but it’s a reflection of just how putrid the rest of the conference seems at this point. The Wildcats are the only SEC team ranked in the AP Top 25. Tennessee’s reputation has dropped faster than Goldman Sachs’, going from a chic dark horse Final Four pick to a team on the bubble. Losses to Oakland, Charlotte and College of Charleston coupled with unimpressive wins over Belmont and Tennessee-Martin will do that to you. Now the Vols face Memphis in their last game before Bruce Pearl’s eight-game suspension. Cross Tennessee off your list of possible teams that could challenge Kentucky. That leaves us with Florida and Vanderbilt as Kentucky’s top competition. TWTW is not a fan of Florida, who recently lost to Jacksonville, so if we were to circle a possible first conference loss for Kentucky we’d have to choose Feb. 12 at Vanderbilt. That game is the last of a three-game stretch in which the Wildcats travel to Florida and host Tennessee. Vandy took Missouri down to the wire in an overtime loss on Dec. 4 and the Commodores beat North Carolina during the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Don’t be shocked if Vanderbilt hands Kentucky its first conference loss that night.

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Set Your Tivo: 12.31.10

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 31st, 2010

***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

A really good schedule awaits college basketball fans today on your New Year’s Eve. The Battle of the Bluegrass gets things going right away with an early noon tip, a game tailor made for Gus Johnson. All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.

#12 Kentucky @ Louisville — 12 pm on CBS (*****)

Louisville will be shorthanded in this game but is favored according to the Vegas odds. The Cardinals, still without Jared Swopshire, will also be missing the services of Rakeem Buckles and Mike Marra this afternoon. Still, this is a game you must watch with Gus Johnson on the call. It is a unique rivalry that doesn’t get enough press and has only heated up with the addition of John Calipari and the switch of Rick Pitino from Kentucky blue to Louisville red. It started almost 100 years ago in 1913 but the teams have only met 41 times prior to today with Kentucky holding a 27-14 edge. These teams did not meet for 24 years from 1959 until an elite eight NCAA Tournament game on March 26, 1983. They have met every year since then with UK leading 18-11 in the modern era. One interesting fact is that Kentucky has never failed to win at least two games in a row after winning one throughout the entire history of this series. With the Wildcats on a one game winning streak entering the game today, that statistic, though ultimately meaningless, would suggest a UK win. Expect this game to feature a lot of threes, a big part of each team’s offense. Kentucky actually has five guys who can knock down a triple, much more than the average team. Doron Lamb and Preston Knowles are the big shooters for their respective teams with Lamb being the better of the two so far this year. The freshman has connected on 54% of his treys including a seven for eight performance against Winthrop, a large part of Kentucky’s #13 three point percentage. Knowles is Louisville’s leading scorer and a good defender who teams with Peyton Siva to really disrupt opponents on the defensive end. That will be a big factor against Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight, averaging almost four turnovers per game. Rick Pitino loves the zone press so expect a lot of trapping and aggressive on-ball defense from the Cardinals, trying to get Knight out of a rhythm and make him turnover-prone. As a whole, Kentucky takes remarkably good care of the ball with only 11 turnovers as a team. Calipari needs a good point guard to run his dribble drive offense and Knight is often the key to their success. He had an awful game in a loss to Connecticut and fouled out after committing six turnovers in UK’s loss to North Carolina. In the front court, Kentucky has the best player on the floor in Terrence Jones. The 6’8 freshman can score from almost anywhere on the floor and uses his superior athleticism effectively to create space. Another T.J., Terrence Jennings, has to have a good game defensively for Louisville. He’s a good shot blocker and must neutralize Jones inside. Despite their reliance on the three pointer, the Cardinals get a lot of points inside as well, the seventh best two point shooting team in the country. With Buckles out however, Louisville may turn even more towards the trey in order to win. Kentucky lacks a true scoring center as Josh Harrellson rebounds well but doesn’t look to score much, attempting just four field goals per game. Expect Kyle Kuric to step up in the absence of Marra and Buckles. He’s played more minutes lately and scored 25 points against Morgan State on Monday. Quite simply, this game is going to be a war. The fans hate each other, the coaches do too and even the players got into it right away last year. Most rivalry games are close and despite Louisville’s personnel issues, we expect this one to be as well. However, depth could rear its ugly head if the Cardinals get into foul trouble. Louisville fouls a lot and Pitino has to ensure that doesn’t become an issue. Even though they’re on the road, Kentucky is the better team and has to get the edge here. Take the Wildcats and the points today.

#13 Minnesota @ #18 Michigan State – 4 pm on Big Ten Network (****)

A critical game for both teams, the loser will face some tough questions going forward. With a loss today, Minnesota faces the real possibility of starting Big Ten play at 1-3 with a game at Ohio State next Sunday and Indiana in between. Michigan State would drop to 8-5 overall with a loss today, making Monday’s game at Northwestern a huge one for the Spartans. For Tom Izzo’s team, the three point line is critical in this matchup. Minnesota doesn’t defend it well at all (#260) and the Spartans shoot 40% behind a trio of capable long range bombers. Durrell Summers leads Michigan State in scoring and is arguably their best shooter from deep while Kalin Lucas and Korie Lucious can also knock down the trifecta. Tubby Smith likes to play a zone but that may hurt the Gophers in this matchup. Unless Minnesota extends their defense beyond the line, Michigan State can easily shoot right over it. Of course when you extend a zone there will be holes inside. Minnesota’s big men must lay down the law in the paint and force MSU to beat them from the outside. A strong defensive game will really limit the Spartans offensively and turn this into a rebounding battle, one Minnesota should feel confident in their ability to win. Michigan State has not been a vintage Izzo team in terms of defense and rebounding, a bad sign against a tall and talented Minnesota team. Trevor Mbakwe could be deadly against the Spartans today with his quickness and long arms around the tin. With Mbakwe inside and Blake Hoffarber outside, the Gophers will keep Michigan State on their toes all game long. Al Nolen must play better for Minnesota. Wisconsin shut him down on Tuesday night held the Minnesota offense in check en route to a victory. Turnovers will again be the story for the Spartans, averaging 16 per game. Extra possessions only enhance the Gophers chances. Michigan State looked awful against Syracuse and the Gopher bigs are even taller than Syracuse’s. Despite the KenPom prediction and the Vegas odds, we’re going against the grain and feel this game will come right down to the very end. This is anyone’s ballgame in East Lansing this afternoon.

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Set Your Tivo: 12.06.10

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 6th, 2010

***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

Tonight is one of the lightest nights of the season as teams recover from many recent games and finals are approaching on campus. Not to mention it’s a Monday.  All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.

Nevada @ Houston – 8 pm on Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast (*)

The Wolf Pack have lost six straight games as turnovers and poor offense have limited them. Nevada averages 16 turnovers a game and shoots just 42% from the floor as a team. Malik Story has been a bright spot however, hitting over 50% of his threes while averaging 11 PPG (6 PPG last year). Dario Hunt has been Nevada’s best player at 13/8 a game. For Houston, 6’9 forward Maurice McNeil (11/9) started hot but has seen his minutes and production fall over the last four games. Getting McNeil going should be a goal against a weak Nevada team. Look for Adam Brown to continue his hot shooting from the arc (55% this year). He’s hit 13 of his last 21 shots (62%) and leads the team in scoring at 14 PPG. The Cougars struggle with turnovers too (18 per game) but are the better team on both ends of the floor. Houston shoots 46% overall and 38% from three, plus they get to the line effectively. The homestanding Cougars should win this game but a hot shooting night from Nevada could snap their losing streak.

Portland @ Washington – 10 pm on FSN Northwest/FCS Pacific (**)

The high-octane Huskies have put up 100+ points in their last two games, both blowout wins at home. On the season, Washington averages 96 PPG, shoots 51% and 46% from three, #2 in the nation. Portland will look to slow the game down with their tempo (ranked #295) and the rebounding of Luke Sikma (12/12, 49% FG). Sikma will have his hands full with Washington’s big frontline that includes Matthew Byran-Amaning and seven-footer Aziz N’Diaye coming off the bench. Washington’s vulnerability is defensive rebounding and foul trouble. With Sikma, the Pilots have somebody who can compete with the Huskies on the glass and can get offensive rebounds for second chance shots. Sikma grabs about four offensive boards a game but he’ll need to have more than that in order for Portland to compete tonight. Ball control will also be a big key for Portland. Washington has a great turnover margin (+7) through forcing 20 turnovers a game and the Pilots just cannot afford to turn the ball over and create more transition opportunities for the Huskies. At the same time, Portland must be aggressive as Washington fouls a lot and doesn’t get to the line often enough themselves. An advantage at the stripe could keep Portland in the game, plus Washington ranks just #308 in free throw shooting. Both teams shoot the three ball extremely well, each ranked in the top five. C.J. Wilcox and Abdul Gaddy have been terrific from the arc, both at 59%. For Portland, Jared Stohl must at least match them for the Pilots to have a chance. He’s capable, averaging 15 PPG and 53% shooting the three. Washington is a heavy favorite in this game and it’s hard to see Portland competing. Eric Reveno’s team has won three straight but they face a Huskies team that has blown the doors off every inferior team they’ve faced so far. Washington has two losses but those were to Kentucky and Michigan State, two high quality clubs. The Huskies have won five games by an average of 36 points with no margin under 26, even against two teams ranked in Pomeroy’s top 100. Washington should win this one comfortably as Portland needs career games from more than one player in order to stay close.

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Checking in on… the Pac-10

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 2nd, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West conferences.

 

A Look Back

After an up-and-down start to the season, this past week was more or less just down. The ten Pac-10 member institutions posted a combined 11-11 record on the week and the majority of those wins were against teams that were simply overmatched, schools like Sacramento State, Houston Baptist and something called Utah Valley State.

As for the losses, in the conference’s big tests of the week, aside from Cal’s Old Spice first round victory over Temple, the results came back negative. Yes, Arizona looked pretty good in their eight-point loss against #4 Kansas, but it was still a loss, as was UCLA’s four-point loss in the NIT consolation game against VCU. Same for Arizona State’s nine-point loss to St. John’s in the Great Alaskan Shootout final, and two-thirds of Stanford’s 76 Classic debacle, right up until they ran up against a BCS conference school in DePaul that was in worse shape than they were. The fact is, after just about three weeks of the college basketball season, the Pac-10 schedules are littered with near-misses and embarrassments, and as we welcome December, only Washington State maintains an unblemished record on the season. However, they too have a big exam coming up with a visit from Kansas State in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series on Friday night.

Team of the Week

Washington State – The Cougars take down this award almost by default, joining only Washington as the two Pac-10 teams who escaped this week unscathed. The most impressive win for Ken Bone’s team this week was an 11-point victory at Fresno State on Friday, as junior college transfer Faisal Aden continued his early season tear, racking up 28 points on six threes while adding three assists.  WSU turned the game around with a 14-0 run in the second half that flipped a seven-point deficit upside down. The Cougs followed that up with an 84-36 thrashing of Sacramento State on Tuesday, sparked by a 27-0 run to start the game, holding their opponent scoreless until the 10-minute mark of the first half. While there isn’t a great win on the Washington State resume yet, they’ve taken care of business to this point, which is more than some other teams around the conference can say.

Player of the Week

Derrick Williams (Sophomore), Arizona – Williams continued his amazing start to the season this week, averaging 24.5 points per contest and throwing in five three-pointers. In the Wildcats’ loss to Kansas in the Las Vegas Invitational, Williams kept Zona in the game with 27 points and eight rebounds before fouling out with under three minutes remaining. So far on the season, Williams has put up 20.5 points and 7.7 rebounds a night in a mere 24 minutes per game, while hitting an excellent 67.1% from the field and an amazing 80% from three (albeit on just ten attempts). While he’s unlikely to keep up that pace over the course of the season, he has shown that he used the offseason to improve his game. Last year he wasn’t much of a threat outside of the key, but he’s improved his jumper and extended his range out to the arc, he’s added quickness and he’s even stronger than he already was, a scary proposition for teams around the Pac-10 trying to figure out an answer for the talented sophomore.

Newcomer of the Week

C.J. Wilcox (Freshman), Washington – It would be easy enough to reprise the selection of Faisal Aden here, as his torrid early pace has not slowed a bit, but in the interest of a little variety, we’ll go with Wilcox, who caught fire in the sole Huskies game of the week with six three-pointers (in eight attempts) on the way to a career-high in both points (20) and minutes (23) as the Huskies ran away from Long Beach State. Wilcox has seen his minutes fluctuate early in his career, but his three-point shooting has been nothing less than stellar, with 17 makes in his first 29 attempts, good for a 58.6 percentage – just what the Huskies needed, another potent offensive weapon.

Game of the Week

Kansas 87, Arizona 79 – For the second consecutive week, we’re dropping a Pac-10 loss in the Game of the Week section, a pretty good summation of how the season is going thus far for the Pac-10 (Utah Valley State?). Much like last week’s winner here, the Kentucky/Washington matchup in Maui, this game was a matchup of one of the top two teams in the conference against one the premier programs in the country, and while the Wildcats looked impressive in this game, the end result in still a loss. Arizona had to scrape back from a big early deficit (at 31-15, the game looked on the verge of blowout territory), but three straight three-pointers by junior Kyle Fogg, who was coming off the bench for disciplinary reasons, jumpstarted the Zona offense and he and Derrick Williams kept the ‘Cats close until late in the second half. But after Williams fouled out in the game’s closing finish, Sean Miller’s club was unable to finish the deal, yet another Pac-10 case of close, but no cigar.

Game of the Upcoming Week

Gonzaga @ Washington State, 12/8, 8:00 PM PST, FSN – The Cougars have a big week ahead of them, with both Kansas State and Gonzaga visiting the Palouse this week. We’ll take the Zag game as the game of the week, as not only is it a slightly more winnable game for the conference (baby steps, Pac-10, baby steps), but it is also an excellent local rivalry, the battle of eastern Washington. Juniors Faisal Aden and Klay Thompson have been on fire in the early going for WSU, but this week they’ll face a significantly higher level of competition than in their first five games. Luckily, sophomore point guard Reggie Moore is due back from his wrist injury, although he’ll wear a splint on his wrist and will need some adjustment time, especially with Jacob Pullen his matchup on his first night back. Also, DeAngelo Casto is expected back this week after missing the last two Cougar games with a right foot injury, meaning WSU will be healthy (or at least marginally healthy) for the first time all season.

Power Rankings

1. Washington (4-2): The Huskies took things a little bit easy this week after returning from their Maui trip, with just a visit from Long Beach State for the week, and they came out ready to play. Seven players scored in double figures and the team posted a stellar 71.6% effective field goal percentage, with C.J. Wilcox, Abdul Gaddy, Darnell Gant and Justin Holiday going 12-14 from behind the arc between them. However, junior guard Isaiah Thomas continues to struggle with his shot, as he missed all six of his attempts from long range. Head coach Lorenzo Romar made a little switch in his starting lineup, sliding junior center Aziz N’Diaye into the starting lineup and bumping senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning to the pine. Bryan-Amaning responded with a perfect 7-7 night from the field for 14 points, and he added five rebounds and four blocks, while N’Diaye was ineffective.

Looking ahead: A couple home games for the Huskies, as they welcome in Texas Tech as part of the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series on Saturday, then host Portland on Monday.

2. Arizona (6-1): The big story of the week was the Wildcats’ matchup with Kansas in the Las Vegas Invitational, which we detailed above in our game of the week section, but prior to that the Cats ripped through Santa Clara on their way to a 23-point victory, and following that they added a 27-point win over Rice, meaning Zona has won their six non-Kansas games by an average of 30 points. Granted, beating up on the “little sisters of the poor” (thanks, Gordon Gee) is not exactly all that much to write home about, but it certainly beats losing to, you know, Utah Valley State or something. While Derrick Williams (see our Player of the Week section) has been nothing short of amazing, Sean Miller has yet to settle into a rotation yet, with plenty of players getting time and posting widely divergent lines as a result. One thing seems clear though in the early going, the point guard position is not yet settled in Tucson. Starter Momo Jones has shown an inability to both get his own points and distribute the ball in the same game, as the only three times he has handed out more than three assists, he has failed to score in double figures. Freshman Jordin Mayes has gotten looks in relief of Jones, but he is still a work in progress, and the best creator for the Wildcats has been off-guard Kyle Fogg, the only player on the squad to average more than three assists per game. That weakness could be a killer come conference play.

Looking ahead: Arizona hosts Oklahoma and CS Fullerton, two games that the Cats should win with relative ease.

3. Washington State (5-0): The lone undefeated Pac-10 team, and the winner of this week’s Pac-10 Team of the Week, has been on fire from the field in the early-going. They rank fourth in the nation with an effective field goal percentage of 60.6% and they are second in the nation with a two-point field goal percentage of 65.2%. While those numbers are drastically improved from last season’s totals, the real improvement for the Cougars has come at the other end of the court. In 2010, they were 155th in the nation in defensive efficiency but thus far this season rank #40. Now, these numbers should be taken with just a grain or two of salt, since last year at this time, the Cougars were 6-0 heading into matchups with Gonzaga and Kansas State, where they began to get exposed a bit, and thus far this season, their most difficult opponent has been Portland, but nevertheless, the focus that Ken Bone and his staff have put on the defensive end is evident and that work should pay off come conference play.

Looking ahead: Last year, the Cougs played at Gonzaga on 12/2 and at Kansas State on 12/5. This year, it’s Kansas State on 12/3 and Gonzaga on 12/8, and the games are at home instead of away, but the importance of these two games remains the same. Last year it was a five-point loss in Spokane and a 15-point loss in Manhattan, and if the Cougs really have improved upon last season, we’ll see it this week.

4. UCLA (3-2): The sole Bruin game of the week was a disappointing loss to Virginia Commonwealth in an NIT consolation game that was anything but consoling to fans in Westwood. While UCLA owned the glass with a 41-26 rebounding margin, VCU got to the line 26 times compared to just 12 free throw attempts for UCLA — worse yet, 21 Bruin turnovers, including five each by their biggest offensive playmakers, junior point guard Lazeric Jones and sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt. Turnovers have been a problem for Honeycutt all season long, as he has had four or more turnovers in four of UCLA five games. A bright spot for Ben Howland’s club was the play of junior Malcolm Lee, who had 23 points and five threes and looks to be all the way back from his early ankle injury.

Looking ahead: One big test for the Bruins and one relative breather, as UCLA heads to Lawrence tonight for a battle with Kansas before returning home to face Montana in Pauley Pavilion on Sunday.

5. Cal (4-2): It shows a lot about the strength and depth (or lack thereof) of the Pac-10 this season that after a week in which the Golden Bears scored a whopping five points in a half against Notre Dame and then followed that up with by comparison a blistering 15-point second half against Boston College, they maintain their ranking as the fifth best team in the conference. The fact is, while Mike Montgomery’s team looked awful in the final two games of the Old Spice Classic, they did come away with an opening round win over a Temple team that had been ranked. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Bears have a ways to go on the offensive end, although their five-man freshman class does have some pieces, notably guards Allen Crabbe and Gary Franklin. Franklin, in particular, has struggled from the field, hitting less than 30% of his shots in the first five games, but he did rebound to score a team-high 13 points in Cal’s Wednesday night win over UC Davis. Montgomery will need those freshman guards to settle down and become relatively consistent scoring threats prior to conference play for this Golden Bear team to be of importance in the Pac-10 race.

Looking ahead: Cal travels to Iowa State for a winnable Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood game, then gets San Diego State at home next Wednesday night. Given the difference between the way the Bears have played in Haas Pavilion and elsewhere, that SDSU game may actually be the more winnable of the two.

6. Arizona State (3-2): The Sun Devils brought a little warmth to the Great Alaskan Shootout this week, going 2-1 with a big win over Houston Baptist, a squeaker over Weber State and a come-from-ahead loss against an average St. John’s team in the final. In most conferences, that would spell a drop in the power rankings, but not this one. While the outcome had to be a disappointment for Herb Sendek and his team, there were some bright spots. Sophomore wing Trent Lockett continued to be the most impressive Sun Devil, averaging 17.3 points and seven rebounds per game in Alaska, while going for a career-high 24 points in the win against Weber, including the game winner with 8.4 seconds left. Senior Ty Abbott showed up in the final for ASU, knocking down six threes on the way to 22 points in the game, the senior trio of Abbott, Jamelle McMillan and Rihards Kuksiks are still only shooting 37.8% from the field between them. While Lockett has been a revelation, he’ll need those seniors to step up for the Sun Devils to have an upper-division Pac-10 finish.

Looking ahead: A Brutal week for the Sun Devils, as they head to Waco for a Big 12/Pac-10 matchup with Baylor, then back home to host Richmond. A split this week is brilliant for Sendek and company, with Richmond being the more likely conquest, although still not a safe bet.

7. Stanford (4-2): Considering the Cardinal went to Anaheim for the 76 Classic with an undefeated record, and came away from a fairly unintimidating field with only a win over DePaul to show for their troubles, Thanksgiving weekend was a disaster. Junior guard Jeremy Green struggled all weekend, making just 18 of his 47 attempts from the field and handing out just four assists in 97 minutes of play, then had insult added to injury when he collapsed after the win over DePaul due to exhaustion after dealing with illness all weekend. The Stanford freshman class was predictably inconsistent, with Dwight Powell turning the ball over ten times over the course of the weekend before wrapping things up with a 13-point, ten-rebound game in the finale against DePaul. Anthony Brown was also impressive in the DePaul game, scoring 14 and making several key plays in the overtime, but relatively absent elsewhere this weekend. However, the big issue for the Cardinal is going to be at the point. Neither Green nor junior guard Jarrett Mann are capable playmakers and freshman point Aaron Bright is more equipped to be a distributor and shooter than a creator. With no easy solution walking through the door anytime soon, head coach Johnny Dawkins will have his work cut out for him creating coherent offense all season long.

Looking ahead: Nothing this week for Stanford as they prep for finals, but they return on 12/12 with a game against UC Riverside before hosting North Carolina A&T a few days later.

8. Oregon (4-2): The Ducks hosted the Singler family reunion in the Rose Garden in Portland on Saturday night, providing the perfect platform for that showoff Kyle to go for 30 points in an NBA arena. Little brother E.J. struggled early with the situation, failing to score in the first half, but eventually winding up with 14 second-half points in the Ducks 27-points loss to the number one team in the land. While the Ducks were outshot and outrebounded, one Dana Altman stamp has become apparent on this team: they are going to take care of the ball. Oregon only turned the ball over 11 times against Duke, and they’re in the top 40 in the nation in lowest offensive turnover percentage. The Ducks simply don’t have the horses to really compete this season, but Altman will have this team beat more than a couple teams that are more talented than them over the course of the season and soon enough, Oregon will be a frightening place to go again.

Looking ahead: Now that I’ve written about the Ducks not turning the ball over, they immediately get to test that theory when they host Missouri and Mike Anderson’s pressure defense on Saturday. Things get a bit easier following that with a game against Portland State.

9. USC (4-4): Up and down, up and down. A couple wins over munchkins, a couple losses to relative munchkins. A couple more wins over teams the Trojans should beat on talent alone, a couple more headscratching losses. This week’s bombs? Opening the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series with a loss at Nebraska, one of the strong contenders for last place in the Big 12, after having a 20-point first half lead, then following that up with a loss at TCU, a team in the bottom half of the Mountain West. Up front, the Trojans are just fine with Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, but the backcourt is young and, really, a mess. While Kevin O’Neill again has his team defending like mad men, there is just no flow offensively. The freshman point guard Maurice Jones turns the ball over just about as much as he hands out assists, and is shooting just 35.6% from the field, although that hasn’t diminished his zeal for continuing to pull the trigger, as he is putting up 13 shots a night. Sure Jio Fontan is eligible soon and maybe he has a magical elixir that will make this team a tournament team overnight. More likely, the Trojans will be better come conference play, but still fatally flawed.

Looking ahead: The Trojans host Texas on Sunday. Watch them beat the Longhorns. Just watch.

10. Oregon State (3-3): Just awful. I wish there were already 12 teams in the conference, just so I could rank this team somewhere lower than 10th. The Beavers lost to Utah Valley State on Wednesday night, and were somehow outrebounded by UVSU by 10. Utah Valley State even went out of their way to open the door for OSU, turning the ball over a generous 24 times, but the Beavs couldn’t take advantage of that. I mean, really. Utah Valley State? It’s a good thing that head coach at Oregon State isn’t a cabinet position or the First Brother-in-Law might be asked to resign in disgrace. The UVSU debacle comes after the Beavers actually made the trip to D.C. to play in front of President Obama and family, and they avoided disaster there by coming back from a halftime deficit against Howard and pulling out a ten-point win behind 60% shooting after the half. But, again, Utah Valley State? Really?

Looking ahead: OSU heads to Boulder for their Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood matchup with Colorado. Chalk that one up for the Big 12.

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Set Your Tivo: 11.24.10

Posted by Brian Otskey on November 24th, 2010

***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivobut we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

Maui lived up to the hype. Kansas City? Not so much. We’ve got two more good ones from paradise today, Thanksgiving Eve. Rankings as per the latest RTC Top 25. All times eastern.

Maui Invitational Third Place Game: #3 Michigan State vs. #15 Washington – 5 pm on ESPN2 (****)

All Walker, All the Time in Maui

How’s a top 15 matchup for a third place game? Courtesy of Connecticut’s upset of Michigan State, that’s what we have. The Spartans were the latest team to fall victim to the Kemba Walker show as the Connecticut point guard put up 30 points yet again on 10-19 shooting. Tom Izzo’s Spartans did not hold their customary edge rebounding wise which cost them and poor games from Kalin Lucas, Delvon Roe and Korie Lucious certainly didn’t help the cause, either. Washington lost one of the hardest fought, intense games you’ll ever see this time of year to a Kentucky club that dominated the boards and got to the line enough to win. Former Washington commit Terrence Jones torched the Huskies with 16/17 as he and Brandon Knight (24 points) led Kentucky to the championship game. This figures to be another war but Michigan State must get meaner and more physical if they hope to beat Washington. The Huskies are going to get it up and down quick meaning Michigan State has to hold their ground defensively, be active in the passing lanes and stay in front of the Washington guards. Lorenzo Romar hopes Isaiah Thomas can rebound from a sub-par outing and help prevent a 1-2 finish in Maui. The unbelievable thing is that a top 15 team is going home 1-2 no matter what happens in this game tonight. This is a noon local tip so one or both teams may get off to a sluggish start. If Washington can get better looks and shoot it well, Michigan State will have their hands full. Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday need to be strong in the post against a tough Spartan front line for Washington to get an edge on the glass. We don’t think it’s crazy to think Michigan State will be the top 15 team to leave Maui with two losses on the young season.

NIT Season Tip-Off Semifinal: #6 Villanova vs. UCLA – 9:30 pm on ESPN2 (***)

Villanova has defended much better so far this year, ranking 14th in defensive efficiency. That’s a big improvement from last season’s 62nd ranked defense which failed the Wildcats down the stretch and ultimately resulted in a second round exit to St. Mary’s after being pushed to overtime by #15 seed Robert Morris. Offense is not a problem for Villanova but defense will determine how far they can go this year. So far, the early returns look good. Jay Wright loves to get his team out in transition by causing turnovers. Villanova is in the top ten in steal and turnover percentage and ranks 30th in two point FG%, probably a result of all the layups created through turnovers. One thing the Wildcats have not done, surprisingly, is shoot the trey well. That’ll play right into UCLA’s hands as they rank 8th in three point defense. There is reason for optimism in Westwood after last year’s disaster as the Pac-10 is weak yet again and Ben Howland’s team has a great chance to finish second and get back to the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins have been led by 6’8 sophomore forward Reeves Nelson (19/10) and Tyler Honeycutt (16/8). These two more athletic players could cause problems for Villanova’s Antonio Pena and Mouphtaou Yarou inside tonight. While UCLA can hold their own there, the Wildcats will have a big advantage in the back court. Malcolm Lee is listed as probable for UCLA but will still be hampered by a bum ankle. The Bruins will count on Lazeric Jones to steady the ship and control the basketball against the aggressive Villanova defense. Try as they might, Villanova is too tough for UCLA to handle behind a trio of stud guards. Corey Fisher and Maalik Wayns lead the way and Corey Stokes is a big guard who can really shoot it. Villanova simply has too much talent and depth for the thin Bruins, playing with just ten scholarship players. It’s not impossible for UCLA to win but it seems highly unlikely tonight under the bright lights of the big city at Madison Square Garden.

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After the Buzzer: Butler’s Unfurling & Opening Weekend

Posted by rtmsf on November 15th, 2010

In case you’re just catching up with us after a football weekend, we covered Friday night’s games — the real Opening Nightin a special ATB that evening, while RTC contributor Zach Hayes put together an Opening Night edition of his 10 Scribbles series to share some of his initial thoughts on most teams’ first games of the year.

Your Watercooler Moment.  This is something we don’t see much and it may be a long time before we see something like it again, so Butler’s banner unfurling from Saturday night was this weekend’s best moment.  Jump ahead to the 2:20 mark if you’re the impatient type (a shorter alternate version is also available).

Quick Hits…

  • Emmanuel Negedu.  Hey, if you can literally come back from the dead and contribute 8 points, 6 rebounds, a steal and a block in your first game as a New Mexico Lobo merely a year after you were resuscitated, you deserve all kinds of props.  Can’t root for this guy enough.
  • Chris Singleton. Quite possibly the best defensive player in the country, Singleton pulled off a very difficult triple double by going for 22/11/10 stls on Sunday against UNC-Greensboro.  Oh, he also added four blocks just for show.
  • Illinois Backcourt. Bruce Weber’s backcourt of Demetri McCamey, DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul off the bench was outstanding on Saturday against Southern Illinois.  The three combined for 43 points and 16 assists in that game, and in three games this season all of them are shooting over 50% from the field and 40% from deep.  With the solid play inside of the two Mikes (Davis and Tisdale), the Illini look very strong right now.
  • Kyrie Irving.  As good as advertised, with 17/4/9 assts to prove it against Princeton on Sunday.  Everything seemed completely natural and smooth with very little wasted motion.
  • Matthew Bryan-Amaning.  MBA’s been getting a lot of hype all offseason, but we weren’t completely sold due to his inconsistency over the last three years.  After a 28/13 performance against McNeese State on Saturday, we might be coming around.  As a side note, the Huskies had an inconceivable 67 rebounds in that game.
  • Matt Howard’s Foul Trouble.  Sure, we know the game was against Marian College, but the fact that Howard failed to commit a single foul in 23 minutes of action is encouraging.  Without Gordon Hayward around, Brad Stevens must have his star big man on the floor most of the time this season, so committing nearly four fouls a game again isn’t going to work.
  • DJ Cooper.  Keep an eye on Ohio University again this year — the MAC champions who took out Georgetown in last year’s first round NCAA game return MAC POY candidate Cooper, who debuted the 2010-11 season with a strong 25/5/7 assts/3 stls evening.
  • James Rahon.  SDSU’s transfer guard from Santa Clara hit three straight threes in the mid-second half to give the Aztecs breathing room to win a true road game in front of a packed arena in Long Beach.  If the Aztecs can get solid guard play to match their dominant post play, Steve Fisher could have a MWC juggernaut on his hands.
  • Jeremy Hazell.  Seton Hall might be able to put together a surprisingly good season if it can continue to get the types of games it got from Hazell today.  28 points on 8-11 FG and 8-8 from the line is extremely efficient, something that Hazell hasn’t always done well.

… and Misses

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RTC 2010-11 Impact Players – Northwest Region

Posted by rtmsf on November 4th, 2010

Welcome to our RTC Impact Players series.  The braintrust has gone back and forth on this and we’ve finally settled on a group of sixty players throughout ten geographic regions of the country (five starters plus a sixth man) to represent the who and where of players you should be watching this season.  Seriously, if you haven’t seen every one of these players ball at least once by the end of February, then you need to figure out a way to get a better television package.  As always in a subjective analysis such as this, some of our decisions were difficult; many others were quite easy.  What we can say without reservation is that there is great talent in every corner of this nation of ours, and we’ll do our best to excavate it over the next five weeks in this series that will publish on Mondays and Thursdays.  Each time, we’ll also provide a list of some of the near-misses as well as the players we considered in each region, but as always, we welcome you guys, our faithful and very knowledgeable readers, to critique us in the comments.

You can find all previous RTC 2010-11 Impact Players posts here.

Northwest Region (UT, WY, MT, ID, AK, WA, OR, NorCal)

  • Isaiah Thomas – Jr, G – Washington. For the Pac-10 favorite Huskies, it is the smallest guy on the floor who will have the biggest impact. In each of Isaiah Thomas’ two previous collegiate seasons in Seattle, he has been at best a secondary option. Two years ago it was Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon who were the senior leaders (even though Thomas still led the team in scoring) and last year it was Quincy Pondexter. Nowadays, the 5’8 junior point guard is clearly the face of the program, a lightning-quick, high-flying, pint-sized lefty with a penchant for scoring, even over larger defenders. Thomas is a versatile offensive player, at his best with the ball in his hands and going to his left, but capable of being a scoring threat in all manner of situations.  He is not yet a great three-point shooter, but upped his average to a solid 33% as a sophomore and seems poised to push that number up a couple points again this season, a tool which could be deadly given his explosive first step and ability to finish with any number of acrobatic shots in and around the lane. Thomas also excels at drawing fouls and getting to the line, where he also upped his efficiency as a sophomore to 73%, a number upon which he should improve yet again. One offensive area where Thomas is still finding himself is in terms of getting the rest of his team involved. For instance, there was a stretch of three games at the start of the Pac-10 season last year where he handed out just one total assist. He picked things up in this area down the stretch and averaged two more assists per game in the last 14 games of the season than he did in the first 22, and not coincidentally, the Huskies were a better team over that span, posting an 11-3 record. With senior Venoy Overton and sophomore Abdul Gaddy also capable of running the point for the Huskies, Thomas does have the ability to play off the ball for head coach Lorenzo Romar, but Washington is just more dangerous when Thomas has the ball in his hands, and if he can continue to improve his playmaking skills while still maintaining his explosive scoring ability, everybody on the team will be better for it. Defensively, Thomas is excellent in the open court and away from the basket with his quick hands and feet, but, as is the case with anyone his size, he has been a defensive liability at times in the halfcourt game, a weakness somewhat mitigated by the Huskies’ use of aggressive pressure from Thomas and Overton to keep opponents from getting comfortable in a half-court set. And really, wherever Thomas is on the floor, his talent and ability make it difficult for any opponent to get too comfortable.

Thomas May be Small in Stature, But Not Talent

  • Jeremy Green – Jr, G – Stanford. Last season the Stanford Cardinal were, by and large, a two-man gang. Green and Landry Fields were the only two players to score in double figures and between the two they accounted for almost 39 of Stanford’s average of 69 points per night. With Fields now plying his trade at the next level, the onus for the Stanford offense falls squarely on Green. Green came into last season with the reputation as a designated shooter, after knocking down over 45% of his threes as a freshman on his way to 6.4 points per game, and although he showed an increased proficiency off the bounce as a sophomore, it is still his shooting that opponents need to fear. With his minutes doubled last season, his production more than doubled as his scoring average jumped to 16.6 PPG nightly. In the process, he set a new school record for threes in a season with his 93 makes, and more than half of all his attempts, and makes, were from behind the arc. Green will be called on again to be a big scorer for Johnny Dawkins’ club, and he’ll need to show that he is capable of wearing a target on his back on a nightly basis and still succeeding. Despite Green’s increase in scoring as a sophomore, he did see his three-point percentage dip seven points to 38% last season, and minus Fields’ ability to create opportunities for teammates, Green could find matching last season’s efficiency more difficult. However, expect the Cardinal to run plenty of plays for him, running him off screens both with the ball and away from the ball, allowing him to find shots in both catch-and-shoot situations or even off the dribble. While Green is not an explosive athlete and isn’t often a threat to take the ball all the way to the rim, he is effective at using his dribble to find a spot from which to hit his jumper, although it would be nice to see him attack defenders more with an eye towards getting to the line; he only attempted 92 free throws last season, a shame for an 80-plus-percent shooter. Also, with the ball in his hands, Green doesn’t present much of the threat to the rest of the defenders on the court, as Green is ineffective at finding his teammates for open looks, notching just 25 assists all of last season. Green is a pretty good rebounder for a guard, grabbing 3.8 rebounds per game last season, while defensively, he is merely competent. With his running mate from last season now departed, Green is clearly the go-to guy on the Stanford offense, and he’ll need to show that he is capable of handling those duties, but the next step for the proven shooter is to find ways to get his teammates involved more often, and find ways to get himself to the charity stripe on a more regular basis.

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Four Teams Up…

Posted by rtmsf on November 1st, 2010

David Ely is an RTC contributor.

Every year teams come out of nowhere and burst into the top 25, while sports writers run to their keyboards to type the requisite “Where Did Team X Come From” story. I mean how many people saw Cornell coming last year? Who said last October that Butler would go on to lose the national championship game by just a couple of inches?  Conversely, there are teams that look great on paper in the preseason but fail to live up to the hype once the season starts. Think North Carolina last season. Why did the Tar Heels begin the year in the top 10 again?  Allow us to sort through the mess and pull out this year’s Cornells and North Carolinas for you. Missouri fans, get ready to be excited. West Virginia fans, start thinking of things to say in your hate mail.

Today we’ll take a look at four teams that will be up this season as compared to where they were in to 2009-10.  Wednesday we’ll look at four teams that will be down.

Four Up

#1) North Carolina

Drew Will Have a Superstar to Get the Ball To This Year

I know, I know, you’ve seen this script before. The Tar Heels enter the season ranked in the top 10. They don’t have many players on their roster that have accomplished anything in the college ranks, but they boast a highly touted incoming freshman class. Sound familiar? That was last year’s UNC squad, and we all know how disastrous the 2009-10 season was in Chapel Hill. So why the reason for optimism for Roy Williams & Co.? Two words: Harrison Barnes.

In Barnes the Tar Heels have the top freshman in the nation, and a guy many foresee as next year’s No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. The 6’8 forward gives UNC the kind of scorer last year’s offensively challenged squad lacked. He’ll instantly become the primary option in Williams’ offense, and his inside-outside game should have the Tar Heels back in the NCAA Tournament as a dark horse Final Four candidate. In addition to Barnes, the Tar Heels have a rookie point guard in Kendall Marshall who should provide the competition in practice to make Larry Drew II a better floor general, and at the very least should give UNC two capable ball handlers. The lone reason to be concerned is North Carolina’s lack of depth along the front line. UNC lost Deon Thompson (last year’s top scorer) to graduation, Ed Davis left for the NBA and David and Travis Wear transferred to UCLA during the offseason. If center Tyler Zeller suffers another injury this season, North Carolina might be in trouble, but the Tar Heels definitely won’t suffer another NIT season.

#2) Missouri

Kim English is Ready to Take Mizzou Deep Again

It didn’t take long for Baylor to lose its momentum from last season’s run to the Elite Eight. All it took to bring the Bears back to earth was LaceDarius Dunn’s arrest for aggravated assault and indefinite suspension from the team coupled with Ekpe Udoh’s decision to enter the NBA draft. And the team that gained the most from Baylor’s drama? Missouri.  The Tigers are well equipped to jump into the Big 12 elite and it’s all because of head coach Mike Anderson. Anderson is 88-46 in his four seasons at Missouri and reached the Elite Eight in 2009. Last year the Tigers made it to the Round of 32, and Anderson’s squad is predicted to finish fifth in the Big 12 this year.

Personally, fifth seems a little too low. The Tigers’ brand of basketball (the “fastest 40 minutes in basketball”) that Anderson learned at Arkansas under Nolan Richardson is incredibly tough to prepare for and usually leaves the opposition bent over in exhaustion by halftime. And if that’s not enough, the rest of the Big 12 has to account for preseason Wooden All-America selection Kim English and five-star recruit Phil Pressey. If Anderson’s other five-star signee, Tony Mitchell, ever becomes eligible then the Tigers will have the frontcourt presence necessary to post Anderson’s best season in Columbia.

#3) Florida

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RTC Conference Primers: #6 – Pac-10

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 1st, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences and an occasional contributor.

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Washington (13-5)
  2. Arizona (12-6)
  3. UCLA (11-7)
  4. Washington State (10-8)
  5. Arizona State (10-8)
  6. Cal (9-9)
  7. USC (9-9)
  8. Stanford (6-12)
  9. Oregon State (6-12)
  10. Oregon (4-14)

All-Conference Team

  • G: Isaiah Thomas. Jr, Washington (16.9 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.2 APG)
  • G: Klay Thompson, Jr, Washington State (19.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG).
  • G: Jeremy Green, Jr, Stanford (16.6 PPG, 3.8 RPG)
  • F: Derrick Williams, Soph, Arizona (15.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG)
  • F: Nikola Vucevic, Jr, USC (10.7 PPG, 9.4 RPG)

6th Man

Ty Abbott, Sr, Arizona State (12.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG)

Impact Newcomer

Josh Smith, Fr, UCLA: Smith is the biggest incoming recruit in the conference, in more ways than one. Ranked the 20th-best recruit in the 2010 class according to ESPNU, Smith also tipped the scales at somewhere over three bills when he stepped onto the UCLA campus this summer. Immediately, head coach Ben Howland put him in a conditioning program and Smith changed his dietary habits as well, putting him on the road towards dropping 40 pounds already. Paired with his soft hands and quick feet, the trimmed-down Smith will play a vital role in the Bruins’ attempts to bounce back from last year’s brutal campaign.

UCLA’s Ben Howland is among several Pac-10 coaches looking to make the conference an NCAA Tournament threat again after a poor showing in 2009-10.

What You Need to Know

  • Pac-10 Blues: Last year, the Pac-10 was saved from the indignity of receiving only one NCAA Tournament berth when Washington won nine of their last 11 games of the regular season, then proceeded to win the Pac-10 Tournament to clinch the automatic berth. Together with regular season champion California, the Huskies represented the Pac-10 well, advancing to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual Final Four team West Virginia, while the Golden Bears fell in the second round to eventual champion Duke. However, the Pac-10’s limited success in the tournament did little to hide the fact that last season was a down year across the conference, and with 11 of last year’s top 20 scorers, and nine of the top 20 rebounders gone, it doesn’t seem that the talent level across the conference is ready to skyrocket.
  • Stability and Youth: But, while there aren’t loads of household names up and down the rosters in the conference, there is some stability, as only Oregon welcomes a new head coach (Dana Altman, formerly of Creighton) and teams across the conference average a total of 3.2 returning starters. And there is plenty of youth, with just 17 seniors on rosters across the conference. Schools will need to see their youngsters step up quickly for the Pac-10 to improve upon last year’s showing. There is a bright side here, though. Even with five members of last year’s all-tournament team (all except the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Isaiah Thomas) and six of the ten All-Pac-10 first team members having graduated, most teams around the conference, with the significant exception of Cal, return the majority of their production – eight of the ten conference schools return more than 50% of their scoring production, and nine of the ten return more than 50% of their rebounding production. If the kids around the conference can put some of that experience they earned last season to use, this could be a much-improved conference, as the veteran coaches around this conference have proven their ability to coach up their players. There are five coaches in the Pac-10 with more than 300 career wins, and that doesn’t even include some of the most respected young coaches in the land like Sean Miller and Lorenzo Romar. While the talent level seems to be down across the conference, expect this lineup of stellar coaches to get the most out of what they do have.
  • Last Roundup: This season marks the end of the Pac-10 conference. Next year the conference will welcome Colorado and Utah, officially becoming the Pac-12. In the process, plenty of tradition will be discarded: no more home-and-home round robin and the resultant crowning of a true regular season champion, the biggest change. There will be years where UCLA doesn’t visit McKale and Oregon won’t visit Hec Ed, for instance. But in the long run, the conference will add a Utah program that has had some significant success over the years (including a run to the national championship game in 1998) and a Colorado program that, well…hey, they made a Final Four in 1955, I’m told. In any event, come 2011-12, basketball season around the conference will have a different feel.

Predicted Champion

Washington (NCAA Seed: #5): The Huskies are pretty much the de facto favorite, given that last year’s regular season champion Cal lost about 85% of its scoring, but Lorenzo Romar’s team, despite having plenty of talent, still has some question marks. Not in question is the team leader, 5’8 junior point guard Isaiah Thomas, a dynamo who is the team’s leading returning scorer and an interesting personality. Paired in the backcourt with 6’0 senior Venoy Overton (8.5 PPG, 3.1 APG. 2.9 RPG), the duo are undersized but form an intimidating pair for opposing ballhandlers, with the quickness and aggressiveness to get up into their opponents, keeping the opposition from getting comfortable in the half-court set and forcing turnovers which the Huskies can use to jump-start their transition game. They can be overpowered by bigger guards in the half-court game, but use their quickness to good advantage defensively. On the offensive end, Thomas plays with a style that belies his stature, getting into the lane and drawing fouls or finishing in often spectacular ways. The Huskies also return sophomore guard Abdul Gaddy (3.9 PPG, 2.3 APG), the second-ranked point guard in the 2009 recruiting class, who struggled finding his rhythm in his rookie campaign. Should he get his swagger back and become a consistent offensive force for Washington, they could have one of the stronger backcourts in the nation, with junior Scott Suggs (4.7 PPG, 1.2 RPG) providing depth and a good long-range threat. However, up front the team still has something to prove, given the graduation of last year’s leading scorer Quincy Pondexter and the retirement from basketball over the summer of forward Tyrese Breshers due to medical issues. Matthew Bryan-Amaning (8.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG) and Justin Holiday (5.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG) figure to start at the forward spots, giving the Huskies an undersized but athletic starting five. Bryan-Amaning will need to prove himself capable of taking over Pondexter’s role, but all signs show that he is ready for that challenge, as he finished his junior season strong and was one of the big reasons for Washington’s improvement down the stretch. Depth up front will come from 6’8 junior scrapper Darnell Gant (2.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG), 7’0 transfer Aziz N’Diaye and 6’6 wing Terrence Ross, one of the conference’s most heralded newcomers, and a guy who could be an offensive weapon immediately for Romar, provided he can earn the minutes. In a conference where the talent level is presently in question, there is little doubt that the Huskies have plenty of talent. But they’d like to come out of the gates more quickly than they did last season and prove that they are ready to win on the road on a consistent basis, something they struggled with in 2009-10, when they lost their first seven games away from the Hec Ed. Odds are, they’ll be improved in that area due to an extra year of experience for their hyper-talented backcourt, but they’ll have a good early season test of that theory when they travel to the Maui Invitational during Thanksgiving week.

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Five Teams Nobody Can Quite Get a Handle On…

Posted by rtmsf on October 21st, 2010

Zach Hayes is an RTC editor, contributor and bracketologist.

As the pre-Midnight Madness polls trickled out last Friday, it became glaringly obvious to us that consensus was more the exception than the rule. Aside from Duke at the top, teams like Butler and Kentucky somewhere in the middle and a precipitous decline for Purdue following Robbie Hummel re-tearing his ACL, agreement was about as prevalent as a British parliament session. Examining polls from a handful of websites that compiled a top 25 to prepare for the start of practice — ESPN’s Andy Katz, TSN’s Mike DeCourcy, CBS’ Gary Parrish, Fox’s Jeff Goodman and yours truly here at RTC — we found five teams with a noticeable amount of dissent attached to their name in the preseason. Let’s examine those schools and break down what they need to do to match optimistic projections and how they can avoid sinking to the depths of other predictions.

Team #1: Syracuse (Preseason Rankings: #7, #10, #13, #19, #20)

Overrated at #7 if: the Orange are unable to replace the leadership, chemistry and production provided by fifth year seniors Andy Rautins, Arinze Onuaku and fourth year junior Wes Johnson. At times last season, Syracuse was a well-oiled machine on both ends of the floor. Players embraced their roles offensively and Jim Boeheim had the perfect roster at his disposal to stymie opponents with his patented 2-3 zone. The jury’s still out on whether Kris Joseph will be able to step into Johnson’s shoes and replace that versatility on the wing. Scoop Jardine was that sparkplug off the bench last season — will he be able to channel that effort for 35 minutes per night rather than 21.3 MPG? As many accolades as Fab Melo and Dion Waiters achieved in the high school ranks, depending on freshmen can be risky business. Asking them to drop just three spots in the polls after losing that considerable amount of production seems unreasonable and unrealistic.

When Boeheim Speaks, We Should Listen (TSN/B. Leverone)

Underrated at #20 if: Remember last summer when Boeheim hyped up that transfer from Iowa State named Wes Johnson? He’s been doing the same with Fab Melo, telling SI.com’s Seth Davis that his seven-foot freshman will be “a strong contender for national rookie of the year.” Plus, let’s face it: storied, winning programs like Syracuse prefer to reload than rebuild. Last October, we were wondering how the Orange would replace Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris (in hindsight, that looks foolish, but it was true at the time). Why should we believe any differently this time around? NBA scouts have tabbed Joseph as a future lottery pick, Jardine and Brandon Triche shot well enough in 2009-10 to believe they can pick up Rautins’ slack, and Melo is an immediate upgrade offensively over Onuaku. In a conference that lost personnel across the board, Boeheim has a shot to put together back-to-back Big East title squads.

Team #2: Missouri (Preseason Rankings: #8, #12, #13, #16, #16)

Overrated at #8 if: Missouri’s returning talent isn’t that good in the first place. The Tigers return their top three scorers from a season ago, but it’s not as though Missouri lit the world on fire in 2009-10: they lost games to Oral Roberts, Oklahoma and Nebraska before garnering a #10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. There’s also concern about the Tigers frontcourt — Laurence Bowers, Ricardo Ratcliffe, Justin Safford and Steve Moore -- regarding their ability to contain the behemoths that face them in the Big 12. Any team that takes care of the basketball, keeps the action in the halfcourt and boasts legitimate scoring big men can negate Mike Anderson’s chaotic full-court press and take the Tigers out of their comfort zone. The prized recruit of Anderson’s class, 6’8 power forward Tony Mitchell out of Texas, is dealing with eligibility concerns and hopes to join Missouri in time for the bulk of Big 12 play, but that proposition is in serious jeopardy.

Underrated at #16 if: people underestimate the ability of Anderson to get the most out of his team. He’s positively giddy about the prospects of this year’s roster. There’s scoring punch on the outside with Kim English and Marcus Denmon, a dynamic point guard duo with Mike Dixon and Paul Pressey and plenty of candidates to thrust themselves into stardom in the frontcourt, especially Ratcliffe, the ultra-talent top junior college recruit. The Tigers full-court press keeps them in any game against any opponent if they’re able to force turnovers and impose their will. Anderson has the speed, versatility and athleticism to pressure opponents into oblivion. English is a phenomenal scorer and potential all-conference performer. If he develops more of a well-rounded game and improves efficiency, Anderson also boasts a go-to scorer when the Tigers need a clutch bucket.

Team #3: North Carolina (Preseason Rankings: #6, #9, #12, #14, #14)

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2010-11 RTC Class Schedule: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by zhayes9 on August 27th, 2010

Zach Hayes is a editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court.  To see the entire group of 2010-11 Class Schedules, click here.

After dissecting a trio of Big 12 teams in prior weeks, more and more elite programs are releasing their 2010-11 schedules to the masses. Let’s continue with Kentucky, a squad that reloaded following the departure of an astounding five first round draft picks.

With so much turnover, Calipari has another tough coaching job on his hands

Team Outlook: A fan base as rabid and fanatical as Kentucky’s surely awaited this week’s announcement with tremendous anticipation. Big Blue Nation has expectations for their Wildcats that perennially surpass any other program in the nation. Their point guard and this April’s #1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, John Wall, will be replaced by Brandon Knight, whose high school accolades and ranking matches those of his predecessors under John Calipari. If deemed eligible by the NCAA, Enes Kanter will fill the post presence left by the ultra-productive DeMarcus Cousins. Similarly to Kanter, Terrence Jones spurned Washington and headed to Kentucky, a 6’9 wing very capable of matching the offensive production provided by Eric Bledsoe a season ago. The key word for Kentucky and Calipari since he took the helm: replenish. And if Knight, Kanter and Jones are history next April, three more top-ten recruits will fill the void. It’s a tall task for Knight and Kanter to match the contributions of Wall and Cousins, two of the top three players in the sport last season. Still, with such talent abounding, a wide open SEC, and the true dribble-drive offense back into high gear, to expect a giant step back from Big Blue and underestimating the coaching prowess of Calipari would be a grave mistake.

Non-Conference Schedule Rank (ranked 1 thru 10, 10 being the most difficult): 7.5. A program with the visibility and significance of Kentucky should challenge themselves at every chance. Forced out of necessity more than choice to load up in November and December at Memphis, Calipari has utilized that same strategy in Lexington. The potential is there to face fellow powerhouses at least in terms of college basketball history: North Carolina, Michigan State, Louisville, Indiana, Notre Dame, Washington and Oklahoma, although these teams remain at varying degrees of competitiveness. Kentucky will surely attract an enormous contingent to Maui where they could face a top-ten team in the semifinals in Washington and a top-two team in the finals, Michigan State. North Carolina is still working its way back up to elite status following last year’s NIT berth, but the young Wildcats’ trip to the Dean Dome won’t be any sort of cakewalk. The same theory applies to Louisville on New Year’s Eve, the next chapter of one of the fiercest rivalries the sport knows. A matchup with possible NCAA squad Notre Dame should also prove competitive. Kentucky gets everyone’s best shot, and it’s no relief for Calipari that up to seven non-conference contests will be either on true road or neutral floors.

Cupcake City: Two notable cupcakes travel to Lexington when Mississippi Valley State and Coppin State make the trip for what should be 40-point blowouts, but other than that Calipari did a solid job limiting the scrubs. East Tennessee State returns their top three scorers from an NCAA Tournament team that was blown out in the first round by, you guessed it, Kentucky. I’m not saying the Wildcats are vulnerable to lose to the Buccaneers, but they will not be a total walkover. Winthrop rode a Big South Cinderella run to an NCAA bid and is on the slate. Boston University with John Holland and Jake O’Brien is halfway decent, while a Maui tune-up in Portland against the rebuilding Pilots will provide a raucous atmosphere. Last season, Kentucky did struggle a bit early in the campaign against Miami (OH), Stanford and Sam Houston State while Calipari determined roles and rotations for a plethora of new players. If the same holds true a year later, Portland and BU could be pesky opponents.

Toughest Early Season Test: It’s far from a guarantee that Kentucky downs Washington in the Maui semifinals. After all, the Huskies return the majority of their backcourt led by Isaiah Thomas, Venoy Overton and Abdul Gaddy with a frontcourt anchored by Matthew Bryan-Amaning and a talented newcomer in Terrence Ross. Plus, they should have plenty of motivation to knock Kentucky down a few pegs following the Kanter and Jones situations that have been rehashed continuously. If the Wildcats can survive Washington, and I have a sneaking suspicion they will, Michigan State awaits in the final if the Spartans can knock off Connecticut or Wichita State (unless they pull a Virginia against Chaminade). The Spartans return their entire Final Four squad with the exception of Raymar Morgan and Chris Allen. Containing Kalin Lucas is baptism by fire for green Brandon Knight, while wing Darius Miller may have the unenviable task of chasing around three-point bomber Durrell Summers. The Spartans will likely be ranked number two in the nation behind Duke at this point. Win or lose, the learning experience will certainly be valuable for the young Wildcats.

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