SEC Superlatives: The Non-Traditional Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 11th, 2014

The SEC’s long (and often bumpy) basketball road has finally led to Atlanta. There were some memorable performances as the season unfolded, and players stood out in a number of ways. Before we unveil the RTC SEC microsite’s predictable year-end superlatives, here are players that made impressions in less traditional ways:

Most Exciting Player Award

This isn’t necessarily the player you know will consistently produce. In fact, it might be a player that spends most of his time maddening you. But every so often this guy will throw down a dunk or hit a crazy three that gets you out of your seat like no one else.

Somehow, Marshall Henderson was not a unanimous selection as the SEC's Most Exciting Player.

Somehow, Marshall Henderson was not a unanimous selection as the SEC’s Most Exciting Player. (Getty)

  • Brian Joyce (@bjoyce_hoops): For me, there is no one more exciting than Marshall Henderson. You don’t have to like him, but you have to appreciate what he is able to do on the court. Henderson single handedly shot Ole Miss into contention during several games this year (and subsequently shot the Rebels out of many games too), so he is nothing if not entertaining.
  • David Changas (@dchangas): Marshall Henderson. Sure, he didn’t recreate the magic or draw the attention of last season, either on or off the court, but anyone who shoots so often (12.2 threes attempted per game) and from so many spots on the floor and keeps his team in games they otherwise wouldn’t be in is fun to watch. And there’s still time for the senior guard to do something special and go out with a bang at the SEC Tournament in Atlanta.
  • Christian D’Andrea (@TrainIsland)Marshall Henderson. Come on – like it could be anyone else? Henderson misses way more shots than he makes, but the ones he hits have kept us all coming back for more. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t get at least one Land Shark moment in Atlanta this week.

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Is Vanderbilt’s Rod Odom Shooting His Way on to the NBA Radar?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 11th, 2014

Rod Odom has been more than a pleasant surprise for Vanderbilt this season. The senior picked up this week’s SEC Player of the Week award, and should be in the discussion to land on an all-SEC team. His numbers are up across the board and this isn’t just a product of the over 35 minutes per game he’s been forced to play for Kevin Stallings. He’s shooting considerably better than last year despite more attempts per game, and has essentially come from under the radar to become one of the best scorers in the league. He’s also the rare breed of player that makes the hearts of NBA scouts beat just a little faster, a big man who can shoot. This got me thinking, does Odom have a chance to shoot himself from relative obscurity onto the draft radar? The NBA loves shooters with size, and the senior has shown that he can really stroke it.

Rod Odom (44.1 3P%) has shot himself into All-SEC discussion. Could there be bigger things ahead for the senior? (insider.espn.com)

Rod Odom (44.1 3P%) has shot himself into All-SEC discussion. Could there be bigger things ahead for the senior? (insider.espn.com)

  • 65.6% true shooting (up from 51.3% in 2012-13)
  • 44.1% 3FG (up from 35.3% in 2012-13 and despite taking nearly seven threes per game)
  • 74.2% FT (up from 64.2% in 2012-13)

Any player with size shooting over 40 percent from deep will get at least a glimpse from scouts. Non-traditional lineups filled with versatile players have been on the rise in the NBA for a few years, as teams try to create space for LeBron James, Derrick Rose, James Harden and others by surrounding them with shooters. Shooting from a forward is a bonus, and a big reason why Florida’s Erik Murphy heard his named called in the second round of last summer’s NBA Draft. Odom’s game this season is similar to Murphy’s production in his last two seasons in Gainesville. But despite how well the Vanderbilt senior has played this season, it doesn’t appear that he’s on the same path to the NBA.

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Despite Attrition, Vanderbilt Finding Surprising Success in SEC

Posted by David Changas on February 6th, 2014

Expectations for Vanderbilt were relatively low coming into the season, as the Commodores were predicted by most to finish in the bottom half of the SEC. A team beleaguered by defections and suspensions in the offseason started the year with an inexperienced nine-man rotation, but the loss of Josh Henderson to a torn ACL and leading scorer Eric McClellan to dismissal appeared to spell doom for the Commodores as they embarked upon conference play. Using a seven-man group that has forced starting guards Kyle Fuller and Dai-Jon Parker along with forward Rod Odom to essentially play with no rest, Vanderbilt’s start in the SEC went largely as expected with home losses to Kentucky and Ole Miss contributing to a 1-4 record. But after the Ole Miss loss, the Commodores went to Texas A&M and Georgia and grabbed wins, following that up with a home win over Mississippi State last weekend. On Wednesday night, they extended their winning streak to four after edging Tennessee, 64-60, to surprisingly move a game to 5-4 at the halfway mark of SEC play. With Arkansas coming to Nashville on Saturday, the Commodores have a realistic shot of adding to their current hot streak.

Vandy Continues to Surprise (S. Myers/Tennessean)

Vandy Continues to Surprise (S. Myers/Tennessean)

While Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings has endured his share of criticism for underachieving with several upper echelon SEC squads, the job he has done with this year’s team has drawn rave reviews. Included among the seven players who are part of the rotation are slender freshman Luke Kornet, who would have been a natural candidate to redshirt under different circumstances, and forward Shelby Moats, who logs just over 10 minutes per game. Fortunately for Stallings, he is especially able to rely upon the underrated Odom, who has stepped his game up to an all-SEC level.

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SEC M5: 01.17.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 17th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. That sound you hear rushing past you? That’s Missouri dive-bombing off the bubble. The Tigers wiped out a 10-point halftime deficit in just a few minutes, but Vanderbilt regained control to get a home win last night. The Commodores’ half-court defense was impressive, as they largely bottled up Missouri’s dribble drive offense, especially Jordan Clarkson. Their zone also forced the Tigers to shoot more threes than they usually do (26 attempts last night; they average 17.3 per game). The fight that Kyle Fuller, Rod Odom and the rest of team have shown since Eric McClellan’s dismissal has been laudable, and the Commodores were due a win. Fuller and Odom each logged 40 minutes and still found the energy to hit the deciding shots in the final moments.
  2. Andy Kennedy has had the tall task  this season of replacing two incredibly productive big men in Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway. So when LSU and its frontcourt bursting with talent rolled into Oxford it seemed obvious which team would have the advantage down low. But freshman Sebastian Saiz had a breakout game (20 points on 8-of-11 shooting, nine rebounds) and Jordan Mickey and Johnny O’Bryant were held to just eight points combined. ”It’s amazing when the ball goes in the basket, and what that does for your confidence,” Kennedy said. “[Saiz] made a couple [shots] early. They were really extended on Marshall, and when teams play that way, we have to take advantage of it behind the zone. We have to finish plays, and Saiz finished the plays. It’s something we’ve been sorely missing.” Henderson is a lot of things, and one of them is an effective decoy (see: Jarvis Summers’ game tying-three against Oregon). There will be easy opportunities for Saiz throughout the rest of the season, so we may not have seen his last big game.
  3. Marshall Henderson is “going back to me,” and we’ll probably all end up better (or at least more entertained) for it. The Dagger’s Kyle Ringo wrote about the tight rope Andy Kennedy may have to walk as the excitable Henderson reaches the end of his career. “He is a senior with 15 regular-season games remaining in his career. If he goes a bit overboard with his showmanship or showboating and taunting, will the school step in and risk short-circuiting another possible NCAA tournament appearance by suspending him again?” Henderson hasn’t done anything this season to attract Deadspin‘s attention, but he does need to keep the shenanigans in check. Unlike LSU and Missouri, Ole Miss is a middle-tier SEC team that has a bit of momentum going its way. We’ve written this countless times, but the conference has a soft underbelly begging for a team to rise up and stockpile a number of wins. The Rebels have the talent to be that team, but only with Henderson on the court in a productive way. 
  4. SI.com‘s Seth Davis doesn’t seem that bullish on Frank Martin‘s prospects at South Carolina. In his weekly mailbag, Davis writs that Martin might be able to turn the program arond in the “long LONG run” and noted that he took the job mostly because he hated his athletic director at Kansas State. Maybe I’m just an SEC apologist (which is not an easy job these days), but the second-year Gamecock coach deserves some more slack here. He didn’t inherit much talent from Darrin Horn, and he lost some of what he did have to the transfer rule. While the Gamecocks are off to an 0-3 conference start, none of the losses were that alarming (going to Gainesville isn’t easy, after all). He’s starting three freshmen and a sophomore, so counting out a significant turnaround by a proven coach seems premature.
  5. But things won’t get easier for Martin this season, as Villanova transfer Tyrone Johnson is now out indefinitely after fracturing his right foot against Texas A&M. Johnson is second on the team in scoring (11.6 PPG), and while he didn’t start against the Aggies, he is also the team leader in minutes (27.3 MPG). This is the second major in-season loss to South Carolina’s backcourt after Bruce Ellington left the team to train for the NFL Draft. While it hurts to lose Johnson, it’s not the end of the world for Martin. A bid to the NIT is a pipe dream after its start, and getting heavy minutes for Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell can only help in the seasons to come when a postseason invite may not be so unrealistic.
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Three Takeaways from SEC Play: Two Elite Rebounders and Watch For Rod Odom

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 10th, 2014

Sometimes things go as planned (see Florida’s win over South Carolina), and sometimes they don’t (see Georgia upsetting ranked Missouri), but that’s the element that makes college basketball so intriguing. The SEC’s slate of games certainly brought some unpredictability this week, but also shed some light on things to come in the conference race. The SEC season is only one game old, but it’s never too early to speculate on trends that could affect the end result. Here are our three first-week takeaways that could ultimately impact the final SEC standings.

Mark Fox gets an emotional win to break Missouri's 26 game home winning streak. (AP photo)

Mark Fox gets an emotional win to break Missouri’s 26-game home winning streak. (AP photo)

1. Mark Fox and Georgia got an emotional overtime win over Missouri in large part because of a dominant effort on the boards. I was more than prepared to write a 2,000-word essay on the tremendous play of Nemanja Djurisic, but try as I might to shift the narrative to the hot shooting of the Bulldogs’ junior forward, the more pressing and lingering issue from this game was Missouri’s rebounding deficiency. The Tigers were outboarded on both ends, but if Frank Haith’s squad is going to settle on outside jumpers by its trio of heavy usage guards then they will need a better performance on the offensive glass from freshman Johnathan Williams. Missouri is more than a little thin in the frontcourt, so it will have to rely on the 6’9″ rookie to do better than his season low of two rebounds against the Bulldogs. Missouri simply can’t afford for him to pull a no-show on the glass. The good news is that Williams is more than capable of shouldering the load, considering that he is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country. Just how good is he? He’s one of only a handful of freshman  in the last seven years with an offensive rebounding percentage over 15 percent. And he’s in some pretty good company, as the table below exhibits.

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A Better Outlook for Vanderbilt?

Posted by David Changas on November 22nd, 2013

It was a summer to forget for Kevin Stallings. After finishing a relatively disappointing 2012-13 campaign with a run to the SEC Tournament semifinals, there was reason for some optimism heading into the offseason. Then Kevin Bright left to play professionally in Germany. And Sheldon Jeter transferred. And, in the biggest blow to this season’s prospects, star point guard and team leader Kedren Johnson was suspended from school. Without those three key contributors, many wrote off the Commodores’ chances for anything but a disastrous season. Picked to finish 10th by the SEC media, the prediction was only that high because the four teams predicted to finish behind them – Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Auburn – are in more dire straits. While the losses of Bright and Jeter hurt — both were expected to be major contributors — Johnson’s departure appeared disastrous. The rising junior would have been an all-SEC selection and was the team’s on-court leader and go-to scorer. With his departures, the Commodores returned only 35 PPG from last season and appeared to be a roster full of complementary players.

Kevin Stallings  (AP/Wade Payne)

Kevin Stallings May Have Some Tricks Up His Sleeve This Year (AP/Wade Payne)

Despite all that happened over the summer and a general expectation of a finish near the bottom of the SEC, Stallings remained optimistic about his team’s prospects during the preseason. And while it’s far too early to say that this team will exceed its low expectations, there are signs Stallings wasn’t just engaging in coach-speak when he talked up his squad. Heading into Friday’s game with Providence at the Paradise Jam, the Commodores sit at 2-1 with home victories over Georgia State and Lipscomb, and an overtime loss at Butler on Tuesday – a game in which they fought back from a 14-point second half deficit to force the extra frame. While the team’s defense appears to have fallen off somewhat (ranking 122nd, down from 51st nationally), the offense, according to Ken Pomeroy, is much improved (177th to 65th). The team heads to the Virgin Islands with a chance to build some necessary confidence against quality competition.

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SEC M5: 10.08.12 Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 8th, 2012

  1. Residing under the national and local spotlight is a way of life for the national champion Kentucky Wildcats and coach John Calipari. But as if interest in the Cats wasn’t high enough already, a new ESPN series, titled All-Access Kentucky, will go in depth on the Big Blue’s preparation for the 2012-13 season. “With many new players on the Wildcats this year, there is enormous interest surrounding this team,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and acquisitions. “All-Access Kentucky gives us an opportunity to deliver something entertaining and unique that helps bring fans closer to a sport they love.” The series will air in 30-minute segments beginning on October 17.
  2. Is Kentucky the only SEC school that cares about basketball season? It seems as though everyone outside of Lexington is still paying attention to some other sport. Blasphemy. Meanwhile, Calipari gave each of a pair of walk-ons, Sam Malone and Brian Long, a scholarship for the upcoming year. While they may not have contributed much on the court, both achieved grade point averages well above 3.0 during last year. Both are excited their determination paid off. ”It shows you’ve got to work hard and you’ve got to continue to keep working hard,” Long said. “And you’ve got to be successful on the floor and off the floor and in school. There’s a lot of factors, but it all pays off if you work hard.”
  3. Vanderbilt is starting to turn one eye towards the hardwood, as Anchor of Gold examines a new-look Commodores team. Contrary to the last several years when the ‘Dores had a dominant center down low, Vanderbilt may now have to play small ball to put its best team on the court. Vandy lost its top six scorers from a year ago, and only returns three players standing above 6’9″. While their strength may be in the backcourt, the Commodores can’t ignore their weaknesses in rebounding and low post play. Junior Rod Odom and sophomore Josh Henderson will have to combine for well more than the pedestrian rebounding numbers they managed last season.
  4. If you happened to live under a rock last week, you may have missed the huge announcement that the biggest package deal ever in college basketball recruiting made their collegiate choice on Thursday. If you live anywhere else in the world, you already knew that. The Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew Harrison of Houston, Texas, chose to play for the SEC’s Kentucky Wildcats over the Maryland Terrapins. Andrew, one half of the future starting backcourt for Calipari’s Wildcats said, “Coach Calipari presented a challenge for us … he would push us every day. We just want to be better players.” With these couple of huge commitments for UK, and with Calipari positioned well for other top prospects in the class, the 2013 class is setting up to be one of Cal’s best since arriving in Lexington, and that’s saying something.
  5. While Calipari continues to put his Wildcats in contention for the number one recruiting spot, he’ll have to beat out Florida coach Billy Donovan to do it. Donovan’s Gators currently sit atop the 2013 rankings, and he is feeling pretty good about hosting one of the top players in the class. Power forward and Plano, Texas, native, Julius Randle made a visit to Gainesville this past weekend. “He’s excited about (the visit),” said Chris Mayberry, Randle’s high school coach. “He went to Kentucky a couple of weeks ago, so this will be his second official visit.” Donovan has already loaded up for next season with Chris Walker (the #8 prospect), Kasey Hill (the #6 prospect), Damontre Harris (a transfer from South Carolina), and Dorian Finney-Smith (a transfer from Virginia Tech).
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SEC Transition Basketball: Vanderbilt Commodores

Posted by Brian Joyce on July 10th, 2012

It’s hot out there, and to many of us, college basketball is the last thing on our minds. But here at the SEC Microsite, we’re going to be rolling out mid-summer resets of each of the (now) 14 basketball programs in our league. We’re calling it Transition Basketball, and you can expect we’ll cover three or four teams a week until we’re done. By that time, we’ll actually start to be turning the slight corner into the fall, and from there it’s a smooth slope down to Midnight Madness in mid-October. Today’s update: Vanderbilt.

State of the Program

The reigning SEC Tournament champions appeared to be on a promising streak preceding the Big Dance. After swatting the proverbial monkey off its back and defeating Harvard in the Round of 64 following three straight first round exits, it was heartache once again for Commodore fans as the team settled well short of expectations. With a trio of NBA level talent and an experienced hoard of role players, 2011-12 was supposed to be the year on which Vandy fans had been waiting. Turnovers, a reliance on the outside shot, and difficulty rebounding marred Kevin Stallings‘ club, and now Vandy looks to be heading into a rebuilding year unfortunately situated in one of the SEC’s strongest years in recent history.

John Jenkins is gone, and so are his NBA bound teammates, Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor

With familiar names such as John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, and Festus Ezeli all gone, who does Stallings turn to now? In fact, his top six players in terms of minutes played are gone. The Commodores will rely heavily upon talented yet vastly inexperienced and untested players. The leading returning scorer for the 2012-13 ‘Dores averaged just over three points per game last season. To say there are some question marks about next season is an understatement. As Stallings pointed out in the SEC summer teleconference a few weeks ago, “It is certainly going to be a year of transition for our basketball program. Not one guy who is playing will have ever been in the role he will be assuming for next year’s squad.”  Vanderbilt certainly underperformed last season, but can it now exceed a lowered set of expectations in 2012-13?

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Bracket Prep: Michigan State, Florida State, Vanderbilt, St. Bonaventure, Long Beach State, & New Mexico State

Posted by EJacoby on March 11th, 2012

Selection Sunday is here! We’ve been providing you with summaries of every automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, and this post concludes all of the conference tourney winners. Big Ten, SEC, ACC, A-10, Big West, and WAC were the last ones to complete their championships. Here’s everything you need to know.

Michigan State

Draymond Green is the Force Behind the Spartans' Strong Attack (AP Photo/A. Goldis)

  • Big Ten Champion (27-7, 16-5)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #4/#3/#3
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +17.3
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #1

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. After winning the Big Ten Tournament, expect Michigan State to steal the last #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. There’s nothing that this team hasn’t done to deserve the top line. 27-7 against the #1 strength of schedule, co-champion of the best conference in the country, and Big Ten Champions. This is a classic Tom Izzo team that’s ferocious on the boards and executes efficiently on both offense and defense. The Spartans run through their Big Ten Player of the Year, but this is a deep team that relies on many contributors in different areas. A late season ACL injury to blossoming freshman forward Branden Dawson was horrible news and is potentially devastating. But Dawson was still not much of an offensive factor and the team won the Big Ten Tournament without him, showing an ability to adapt.
  2. Draymond Green is the Big Ten Player of the Year who does everything that you want in a senior star leader. 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game is what Green provides. The 45% field goal percentage doesn’t look great until you realize that Green does much of his work on the perimeter, including hitting the most three-pointers on the team. The rest of this team is loaded with strong athletes and defenders, from the interior duo of Derrick Nix and Adriean Payne to the perimeter players Keith Appling and Brandon Wood, and beyond to the reserves. Appling is crucial to this team as the playmaking point guard with explosive agility to make plays for his teammates and himself.
  3. Most things in March Madness are unpredictable, but one of the few guarantees is that Tom Izzo’s teams will play their best basketball in the NCAA Tournament. This Izzo team is loaded and ready to dance with as difficult a combination to beat as nearly anyone in the country. A +17.3 adjusted scoring margin is the fourth best in the nation, led my MSU’s elite defense. The Spartans allow just 37.7% defensive field goal shooting, the second best in the land. Their 89.9 defensive efficiency also ranks in the top 10. Throw in their own 47.7% field goal shooting, and this team’s shooting percentage disparity is fantastic, which is always a top formula for success. Their 55.2% rebound percentage is top 10 in the nation, as well. The numbers look great for Michigan State. But this team just lost its best athlete to the ACL injury and it doesn’t have the amount of elite scorers that a usual #1 seed does. Instead, this team is so efficient defensively that it will be difficult to knock off. Teams that gave Michigan State trouble were those that caught fire from the outside while holding their own defensively, like Indiana. Expect an awesome clash of styles between MSU and its opponent in a Sweet Sixteen matchup, if it can avoid an upset from the 8-9 seed, or 10-7 seed if it receives a #2 seed.

Florida State

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SEC Make or Break: Vanderbilt Commodores

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 13th, 2011

The Make or Break series will tell us what we need to know about each SEC team by looking at the three most important non-conference games on each team’s schedule. Depending on the outcome, these three games could make OR break that team’s season because of the strengths it shows or weaknesses it could expose. The next team in the series is the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Vanderbilt entered the last two NCAA Tournaments as a #4 seed (2009-10) and a #5 seed (2010-11), yet lost in its first game both years. The Commodores last made the Sweet Sixteen in 2007. So, it’s understandable if national college basketball writers and analysts are a bit hesitant to declare Vandy as a Final Four contender. Last year, Vanderbilt was unable to put teams away, especially in close games. The ‘Dores lost a double-digit lead in five of their 11 losses. Their inabililty to close out opponents is a cause for concern this year for a team that is expected to challenge for the SEC title.

Of course, Vanderbilt returns all five starters, including SEC Player of the Year, John Jenkins. This Vandy team has high expectations, and the offensive firepower to be amongst the nation’s best. The ‘Dores also boast some of the best non-conference games in the country as they have several top 25 matchups to test their talented and experienced squad. Preseason All-SEC center, Festus Ezeli, will miss many of their big matchups early on as he recovers from a sprained MCL and PCL injury.

Vanderbilt will miss Ezeli's defense and post presence during his absence.

The three key non-conference games that will make or break the Commodores’ schedule this season:

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Vanderbilt’s Festus Ezeli Sprains MCL & PCL

Posted by Gerald Smith on October 28th, 2011

Vanderbilt’s hopes to challenge for a high NCAA Tournament seed have become a little more complicated. Senior center Festus Ezeli sprained the MCL and PCL ligaments in his right knee during Tuesday’s practice. Luckily for the preseason All-SEC Second-Teamer, the injury does not require surgery and he should return within six to eight weeks.

We Hear Ya, Big Man. Get Better Soon.

Senior forward Steve Tchiengang will likely replace Ezeli as the starting center. Redshirt freshman Josh Henderson was already planning to see more action due to Ezeli’s NCAA-mandated six-game suspension for ineligible benefits. Now Tchingang and Henderson will need to extend their roles through nearly every significant non-conference game for the Commodores: November 21 vs. either Texas or Oregon State in the TicketCity Legends Classic Finals; November 28 vs. Xavier featuring the recently reinstated 7-footer Kenny Frease; and December 2 at Louisville where Ezeli was expected to be productive against Cardinal centers Gorgui Dieng and Stephan Van Treese.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on November 23rd, 2010

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

Pitt has a team capable of reaching that elusive Final Four

1. I had an opportunity to attend the consolation and championship games of the 2K Sports Classic last Friday and learned a great deal about the four teams participating- Pittsburgh, Texas, Illinois and Maryland. The Panthers were one of my preseason Final Four teams and did nothing to give me second thoughts on that prediction. Ashton Gibbs is a true playmaker at the end of the shot clock, Jamie Dixon has an incredibly deep frontcourt and the Panthers play heady, smart, hard-nosed basketball for 40 minutes. It’s possible we overrated Illinois a bit coming into the year. They lack a bruiser down low that can post up on the block and demand the basketball. Mike Tisdale’s the same player he’s been his entire career at Illinois, a capable mid-range jump shooter that lacks any sort of physicality and is often mired in foul trouble because opposing power forwards constantly out-muscle him. Maryland looks like a middle-of-the-pack ACC team that should sneak into the NCAA Tournament because Gary Williams always receives max effort from his teams and Jordan Williams is a force in the post, although he needs to avoid silly fouls and demand the basketball more often. The team that needed to convince me they were a contender after last season’s disaster is Texas. The Longhorns are a top-20 team with a duo of physical, lockdown defenders on the perimeter in Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph, an athletic low-post presence in Tristan Thompson and an explosive scorer in Jordan Hamilton. A shortened rotation and accepted roles has helped Rick Barnes develop improved chemistry, as well.

2. The story of the first two weeks of college basketball might just be Minnesota. The Big Ten was the best conference coming into the season with Michigan State and Ohio State shaping up to be Final Four frontrunners, Purdue and Illinois mainstays in the polls and Wisconsin as solid as ever. Minnesota was a team that nobody could quite get a handle on, especially considering it was impossible to predict just how much the additions of Trevor Mbakwe and Al Nolen would help Tubby Smith.  After three statements wins in Puerto Rico over Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia, the Gophers appear to be yet another contender primed for a deep March run out of the absolutely loaded Big Ten. Al Nolen was superb in the championship game against West Virginia locking down the Mountaineer’s point guard duo of Joe Mazzulla and Darryl Bryant on defense and splitting the West Virginia defense with dribble penetration that either resulted in free throws (11-12 on the night) or open looks for sharpshooting teammate Blake Hoffarber. Where the Gophers have forged their identity, though, is inside with a plethora of size and length. Ralph Sampson, Colton Iverson, Mbakwe and big bodied Mo Walker provide Smith a frontline that can go toe-to-toe with any in the nation. Just wait till they get Devoe Joseph back.

3. The most crippling defeat for any team with NCAA Tournament aspirations could have come Monday afternoon at the Maui Invitational for Wichita State. The Shockers inability to contain Kemba Walker (29 second half points) cost them a chance to pick up a quality win over a Big East opponent and a shot at potential #1-seed Michigan State in the semifinals. Why is this so devastating? One, Wichita just blew their best chance for an RPI/SOS booster. The only other challenging non-conference game on the slate is a road trip to San Diego State, where it’s extremely unlikely the Shockers leave with a victory. Merely the addition of the Spartans on their schedule would improve Wichita’s power rating dramatically. Instead, it’s increasingly likely Gregg Marshall’s team will have to win the MVC Tournament. This task is very possible; after all, the Shockers are the prohibitive favorite, a senior-laden squad with talents like Toure Murry, David Kyles and J.T. Durley. Marshall’s goal in Maui was to pick up two quality wins for the resume in March. That chance has gone by the wayside.

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