Fordham transfer player Jio Fontan has resurfaced all the way across the country at USC, and he will be eligible to play next season at the semester break. This is a good pickup for Kevin O’Neill, as Fontan averaged 15/5 assts in a season-plus at Fordham and will be able to move into the PG slot vacated by Mike Gerrity. Speaking of USC, the self-imposed sanctions on the basketball program may not become official until February, when the school will appear in front of the NCAA Infractions Committee. Does this mean that, if the Committee imposes much harsher penalties than proposed that this year’s Trojans could actually still play in the postseason?
Jerry Tarkanian never wasted an opportunity to take a shot at the NCAA, and his guns were blazing at a speech he gave in Arkansas Monday where he called the NCAA the “crookedest organization in this country.”
Mike DeCourcy suggests that the problems at DePaul go well beyond Jerry Wainwright and indicts the administration itself. His point about firing Wainwright in the middle of the season after an 0-18 Big East slate is a great insight.
More aftermath from the Tennessee upset over #1 Kansas on Sunday, including Parrish’s take on Skylar McBee and how he’s living his dream at Tennessee. As for Kansas, maybe they should have taken more half-court shots during the game. They seem to be pretty good at making them.
Into conference play to stay. Besides the Bracket Busters event everyone is locked in and focused on conference play in the Horizon League.
Butler is still the team to beat. The Bulldogs haven’t been challenged yet in the Horizon League, but every team is gunning for them. There’s a huge game coming up at Wright State on Friday and another at Detroit on Saturday.
Parity reigns in league play. Besides the Butler bully at the top the conference nobody can get away with playing anything less than their “A” game. That’s especially true on the road.
Butler: The Bulldogs are an excellent offensive team, but the trip to Wright State is going to be a huge game. Pomeroy projects the Bulldogs to lose in a tight game on the road. The Bulldogs might’ve slipped up one too many times to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team, but now all that matters is the conference tournament in March. Gordon Hayward is ridiculous. If you haven’t seen Butler play this season you’re missing out on a treat. He’s got an excellent game and he rebounds. He’s 46th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage.
Green Bay: One of the two annual rivalry games between the two Wisconsin schools in the Horizon League takes place on Saturday. The game is in Milwaukee so the Phoenix are slight underdogs. Green Bay won’t have played in a week since its last game was a 6-point win at Valparaiso. Here the player to watch is Rahmon Fletcher. He dominates the ball for the Phoenix, taking the 16th highest percentage of shots in the nation. Fletcher has to be on the court for Green Bay to play well. The Phoenix lost by an average of 23.5 points per game to Butler and Oakland when he was out.
Detroit: Probably the tallest team in the Horizon League, the aptly named Titans are using it to their advantage. Detroit suffered an upset loss to UIC at the Pavilion last Thursday, but came back to beat Loyola on the road to get a split in Chicago. A game against Valparaiso could be a trap game before Butler on Sunday. (Valparaiso is Butler’s “travel partner” and could be a trap game for many opponents this season.) Eli Holman is one of the tall people on the frontline. He’s 6’9″ but plays bigger and is 28th in the country in block percentage.
Wright State: The “other” Top 50 Pomeroy team in the Horizon League, the Raiders already have a tough loss in Horizon League play – 53-52 to Loyola on New Year’s Eve. Now they get Butler on their home court. Wright State forces a lot of turnovers, plays at a slow pace and generally grinds through a game. They don’t have any particularly good non-conference wins – Belmont is the best – so it’s Horizon League title or bust for the Raiders. Senior guard Todd Brown and junior guard Vaughn Duggins lead a very balanced attack. No player uses more than 21.8% of the team’s possessions while on the court.
Cleveland State: The Vikings are 6-10, but don’t let the record fool you, this team is a competitor in the Horizon League. After a four-game losing streak (albeit against some talented teams) head coach Gary Waters switched to a four-guard starting lineup and it’s paid off in two wins over Youngstown State and Loyola. The Vikings have to finish off the Chicago pair when UIC comes to town and then prepare for Butler. (Everyone prepares for Butler.) Norris Cole is the guy for Cleveland State. He does a little bit of everything from his guard position. Also, the four-guard rotation has given Jeremy Montgomery a more prominent role in which he could also flourish.
Loyola: A little bit of luck went a long way, but the Ramblers are coming back to reality during conference play. Then again, being sixth is still a surprising position for a team that was picked 10th in the preseason poll. Loyola lost a close game to Cleveland State in Cleveland on Thursday. The bench continues to outscore the starters and every game is going to be close. The loss to the Vikings was Loyola’s first close loss of the season. Now they have to go to Youngstown State to finish up the Ohio swing before playing crosstown rival UIC next Friday. Sophomore Walt Gibler is emerging as an effective scoring threat that goes to the line often. He’s seventh in the nation in fouls drawn.
Valparaiso: A New Year’s Eve victory over Milwaukee was a good way to end 2009, but 2010 hasn’t been as kind to the Crusaders. They have a sieve for a defense, probably because they gamble too often. (Valparaiso does rank 69th in steal percentage as a team.) Like I noted above, the Crusaders are Butler’s travel partner, so they might benefit from that, though it didn’t help last time as Green Bay won a tight game 64-58. Look out for sophomore guard Brandon Wood. He takes a lot of shots and makes them, a lethal combination. He also draws some fouls, making him a very effective scorer.
Milwaukee: Nothing like playing SIU-Edwardsville to make a Horizon League team feel better about itself. That’s exactly what the Panthers did on Tuesday to improve their record to 9-7. The game against Green Bay should be a big one and according to Pomeroy the Panthers are a slight favorite. If I had to handicap it though I’d give the edge to the Phoenix, even on the road. The Panthers don’t like giving up offensive rebounds, they rank 7th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage. The guy here is James Eayrs, but the senior is having a bit of a problem with his three-point shot thus far this season.
Youngstown State: The reason the Penguins are ninth in the standings is because they got a home game against the tenth team. Youngstown State became the final Horizon League team to win a league game when it defeated UIC 76-67. Now maybe the Penguins can start a two-game winning streak when Loyola comes to town on Saturday. DeAndre Mays is the go-to-guy for the Youngstown.
UIC: An upset victory over Detroit on New Year’s gave the Flames their first conference victory, but two losses have followed. Jeremy Buttell absolutely went off with 31 points and 12 rebounds against Youngstown State, but it wasn’t enough to carry the Flames to victory. Now they’ll take on Cleveland State before the crosstown game versus Loyola on their home floor at the Pavilion on January 15. (A game that will be televised on ESPNU.) Robo Kreps is the go-to-guy most nights for UIC and when he’s on he can carry the team, but nights when he shoots 4-14, like he did against Youngstown State, make it difficult to win.
The Phoenix are rising. Green Bay has turned into one of the best teams in the Horizon League and is set to challenge Butler. In fact, it can be argued that Green Bay’s victory over Wisconsin is the biggest non-conference win for the league thus far this season.
Howard if off track. Reigning Player of the Year Butler’s Matt Howard has struggled in the post during the non-conference schedule. He hasn’t been able to get into a rhythm and has more fouls this season than field goals made (36 to 24).
Detroit suffers a bad loss at home. A lot of people think the Titans have the talent to compete with early leaders Green Bay, Butler and Wright State. Detroit may be up there now in the standings, but the Titans still have a long way to go. It showed in a home loss to Tennessee State this week.
Final chance to pull some big upsets. The Horizon League has a number of chances this week to improve its overall profile by pulling upsets at major conference venues. The best chances seem to be Detroit at Michigan and Wright State at Mississippi State.
Vaughn Duggins (G), Wright State – 13.8 ppg, 2.7 apg in 2008-09 season.
Troy Cotton (G), Green Bay – 12.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg
Norris Cole (G), Cleveland State – 13.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg
Gordon Hayward (F), Butler – 13.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg
Matt Howard (F/C), Butler – 14.8, 6.8 rpg (last season’s Horizon League Player of the Year)
6th Man.Jordan Hicks (G/F), Loyola-Chicago
Impact Newcomer.Milos Milosevic (F), Valparaiso. The 6’7″ Croatian junior college transfer should give the Crusaders a paint presence.
What You Need to Know.
There’s more to the Horizon League than just Butler. Whether it’s Cleveland State – which upset Syracuse and Wake Forest last season – or Green Bay and Milwaukee, the Horizon League has quality teams throughout. Someone in the top half of the league is going to rise up and not only challenge the Bulldogs, but compete for an NCAA at-large berth.
This is only the beginning for the Bulldogs. Butler is going to be good for a long time. Young talent like Gordon Hayward (soph.), Matt Howard (jr.), Shelvin Mack (soph.) and incoming center recruit Andrew Smith mean the Bulldogs will be strong for many seasons to come, not just 2009-10.
UIC was expected to be a pretty good team in 2009-10, even with the losses of Josh Mayo and Scott VanderMeer, but the team was gutted when two frontcourt starters – Rob Eppinger and Tori Boyd – decided not to return along with the indefinite suspension of guard Spencer Stewart. Now the roster seems to contain more questions than answers. The Flames will rely heavily on guard Robo Kreps.
Is he healthy again? That’s the question Wright State fans are asking about guard Vaughn Duggins. He missed all but four games with finger and ankle injuries and his return will be a key for the Raiders. Duggins averaged 13.3 points per game two seasons ago.
They start real early. The Horizon League is one of the few conferences that plays league games in early December. December 3rd and 5th feature full slates of league games before it goes back to it’s non-conference business.
Predicted Champion. Butler (NCAA Seed #5). The Bulldogs start the season ranked in the Top 20 and are a great collection of talent. Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding season, but it didn’t end until the first round of the NCAA Tournament in a heartbreaker to LSU. This season the non-conference schedule is even tougher and the Bulldogs will be trying to advance even farther.
Ed. Note: the previous posts in this series (Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Atlantic South, Deep South and Mid-South) are located here.
It’s time for the sixth installment of our RTC 2009-10 Impact Players series, the group of rust belt and farming states that we like to call the Lower Midwest. Each week we’ll pick a geographic area of the country and break down the five players who we feel will have the most impact on their teams (and by the transitive property, college basketball) this season. Our criteria is once again subjective – there are so many good players in every region of the country that it’s difficult to narrow them down to only five in each – but we feel at the end of this exercise that we’ll have discussed nearly every player of major impact in the nation. Just to be fair and to make this not too high-major-centric, we’re also going to pick a mid-major impact player in each region as our sixth man. We welcome you guys, our faithful and very knowledgeable readers, to critique us in the comments where we left players off. The only request is that you provide an argument – why will your choice be more influential this season than those we chose?
Ed. Note: for the purposes of our analysis in this region, Butler was considered a high-major program.
Cole Aldrich – Jr, C – Kansas. Much like North Carolina one October ago, Kansas appears to be the unanimous selection to begin the season atop every poll and ranking. One of the main reasons for such accolades is the continued improvement of Cole Aldrich, the Kansas double-double machine in the post. Remember the national semifinals against UNC in 2008 when Aldrich burst onto the scene recording eight points, seven rebounds and four blocks in a then career-high 17 minutes? That was the night college hoops fans first saw what Aldrich can provide for Bill Self and his Jayhawks. In a full season of play, Aldrich and guard Sherron Collins were the anchors behind Kansas’ surprising run to a #3 seed and a Sweet 16 berth in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Cole Aldrich and a pretty good player named Blake Griffin were the only players in the Big 12 to average a double-double in 2008-09. Speaking of stats, Aldrich’s triple-double in the second round against Dayton – 13/20/10 blks- was the first recorded triple double in KU’s illustrious basketball history. Aldrich led the conference in blocks with at 2.7 BPG, finished second in rebounding at 12.4 RPG, second in FG% at 60% and tenth in FT% at an impressive 79% for a 6’11 center. Aldrich possesses great length, a high motor and displays the fundamentals under the basket that Self loves. The insane talent around Aldrich this season will only put less of a load on his shoulders as the big man can rely on Collins for the clutch outside shot, Xavier Henry on the wings, Thomas Robinson on the block or Tyrel Reed to knock down the long-range three. But the pressure will be on Aldrich to provide a post presence that simply cannot be matched in the Big 12 (sorry Dexter Pittman). If he achieves his potential, a national POY award isn’t out of the realm of possibility for Kansas’ prized junior center.
Craig Brackins – Jr, F – Iowa St. Craig Brackins won’t get half the airtime this season as any of the other high-major names on this list, but he could end up becoming the best player of the group when it’s all said and done. It’s not as if Brackins came out of nowhere – he was a five-star recruit out of Brewster (NH) Academy in 2007, and he turned down offers from Indiana and Pitt, among others – but, when you play in the Big 12 and your team is generally an afterthought (4-12 in 2008-09), it’s tough to get noticed. But noticed he got on Jan. 24th in a nationally-televised home game against the defending champion Kansas Jayhawks. Brackins sliced and diced the vaunted Jayhawk defense for 42/14 in a losing effort that had Bill Self afterwards stating that the lanky center could be the “best player in the country today.” That single game may have put the Iowa State star on the casual fan’s radar screen, but it’s not like Brackins wasn’t tearing it up against everyone else too: 32/16 against N. Iowa; 28/17 against Jacksonville St.; 38/14 against Houston; 25/13 against Nebraska. The all-Big 12 first teamer nearly averaged a double-double for the season (20.2 PPG and 9.5 RPG) despite seeing hard and fast double-teams every time he touched the ball. It was widely presumed that Brackins would jump into the NBA Draft last summer after such a spectacular season; after all, projections for him of the lottery and mid-first round were prevalent. However, Brackins said that he had some unfinished business to attend to at ISU (meaning, getting the Cyclones to an NCAA Tournament), and he returned to what should be an improved squad with 6’7 juco transfer Marquis Gilstrap’s arrival on the blocks and a solid returning backcourt of Diante Garrett and Lucca Staiger. The only true weakness he has exhibited so far in his career is his 28% from beyond the arc, but with more firepower on the team this year he may be less inclined to feel like he has to do it all (Brackins attempted 37% of ISU’s shots last year). Regardless of how the team’s season plays out in 2009-10, there should be no doubt that Brackins is on the short list of best post men in America. With another year of seasoning under his belt at the collegiate level, however, we could be looking at a top five pick next June. Don’t flip the channel so quickly if you see that Iowa St. is playing on the tube this year – it may be one of your few chances to see one of the best big men in the country.
It’s BracketBuster Saturday, and we’re back with another compelling edition of Boom Goes the Dynamite. We don’t know how it is where you live today, but it’s rainy and chilly here at the RTC Western Compound, which means it’s a great day for huddling up on the couch, firing up the three tvs, ordering up some pie and watching hoops all day. There are some pretty strong games on the slate today, starting with Butler v. Davidson early and finishing with BYU v. UNLV late. Settle in and feel free to make your own observations in the comments section.
12:08pm. Oh no, Steph Curry’s mom is NOT at the Davidson game today!!!! Who will the cameras show in the crowd?!?!!? Oh yeah, Dell’s there. Ok. Whew.
12:10pm. Wonder how ESPN decides who gets to host these games? Seems like a pretty big decision considering Butler and Davidson are so tough at home, and the loser could drop a seed line or two based on this game. Curry doesn’t like quite as quick as normal so far – the ankle is probably a little tender.
12:17pm. Our new uber-intern sent over some interesting news today – looks like Patrick Patterson might go for Kentucky today against Tennesee (coming up at 1pm), and surprise of all surprises, the NCAA is investigating USC with respect to recruiting Daniel Hackett. His dad is the strength and conditioning coach at USC (which is legal, btw).
12:30pm. There are a couple of other BB games that started at 11am, and the most interesting one is Northeastern at Wright St., which is on ESPN2. NE is leading by six right now, while CAA sibling ODU is crushing Liberty and Seth Curry.
12:46pm. How many games this year have we watched Davidson only to hear some announcer talking about Steph Curry having an “off” game. It would be nice if he’d just come out and blow up one of these nationally-televised games. As it now stands, he’s 1-10 and 0-6 from three.
12:50pm. Interesting stat from Brad Nessler there – that if Curry continued his 30 ppg pace for another season-plus at Davidson, he could conceivably catch Pete Maravich’s all-time scoring total record. Of course, Pistol Pete did it in three years, but that would be a phenomenal record to approach. We’ll see if we can figure the math and get back on that.
12:52pm. Early afternoon bubble watch. Miami is smoking BC in S. Florida at halftime (up 12) and ND is also up 12 at halftime on Providence. These are both pretty much must-wins, although Notre Dame needs it a little more than Miami.
12:57pm. Somehow three of the top four CAA teams drew road games in the BracketBusters event. So far, the CAA looks good. VCU only lost by one at Nevada last night, and Northeastern is finishing off Wright St. ODU already won, and it’ll be very interesting to see what George Mason can do at Creighton later this evening.
1:02pm. Wow, Doug Gottlieb just eviscerated Jay Williams as to why Georgetown was going to make the tournament. He must have thought he was back on that motorcycle there. No inside presence? Except the best freshman big in the country, Greg Monroe. We get his point about frontcourt depth, but we’re with Gottlieb here – we think Georgetown makes a run to get to 9-9 in the Big East.
1:06pm. We’ve got some 1pm games starting here, incl. Bruce Pearl’s orange blazer at Kentucky (speaking of bubbles), Buffalo at Vermont on the deuce, and the second half of ND-Providence on ESPN FC. Oh, and did we mention Gus Johnson is in Lexington today. Oh yes.
1:11pm. Thanks CBS for showing me a graphic telling me that UK is on a 5-0 run in the last 3:20… or, to start the game. Brilliant.
1:18pm. Ok, here’s the deal on Curry catching Maravich. Curry had 2414 coming into today. Maravich ended with 3667 pts. If we assume eight more games this year (three regular season; three SoCon Tourney; two NCAA Tourney), and 35 games next year, that’s 42 games. He’d have to average 29.84 over that stretch to pass him. Since he’s averaging 29.0 already this season, this is eminently possible should he stick around another season. That would be fairly cool to track next season – let’s hope he returns.
Damon Lewis, a reporter and play-by-play announcer for the Horizon League Network, is RTC’s Horizon League correspondent.
Butler (#15/15) 12-1, 21-2
Green Bay 11-3, 19-7
Cleveland State 9-5, 18-8
Wright State 9-5, 15-10
Milwaukee 9-5, 14-10
Youngstown State 6-8, 9-15
Loyola 4-10, 12-14
UIC 4-10, 11-13
Valparaiso 3-10, 6-18
Detroit 2-12, 7-17
This edition of the HL “check in” comes smack dab in the middle of a whirlwind tour of the Horizon League. Loyola to Cleveland State to Butler to Valparaiso…four games in six days, all in an effort to sew up my notes on as many teams as possible heading into the Horizon League Championship, which begins on March 3rd. Some things are already crystal clear while others remain murky, much like the weather we deal with here in the Midwest this time of year. Two weeks ago it was snow measured in feet and this week it’s been unseasonable warmth, followed by wind and rain. It’s a nice sign that March is right around the corner, but for now the return of the winter chill is a reminder that this time of year features “Mock Selection Thursday” and not “Selection Sunday.”
Damon Lewis, a reporter and play-by-play announcer for the Horizon League Network, is RTC’s Horizon League correspondent.
Butler (#13/13) 9-0 18-1
Green Bay 8-2 16-6
Milwaukee 8-3 13-8
Wright State 7-3 13-8
Cleveland State 5-5 14-8
Loyola 4-6 12-10
UIC 3-7 10-10
Youngstown State 3-7 6-14
Valparaiso 3-7 6-15
Detroit 0-10 5-15
I’ve used up the majority of this space over the last several weeks explaining why and/or how the Horizon League would be a two-bid league in the NCAA Tournament this year. Actually, it was more like “explaining why” early in the season because the hopes were so high, then “explaining how” as of late, as the chances became slimmer and slimmer. That said, let me make something very clear…
The Horizon League will ONLY send 2 teams to the NCAA Tournament if Butler stumbles in the Horizon League Tournament. Period.
I’m really, really disappointed about this. The fact that the HL will likely be a one-bid league once again this season isn’t a knock on the overall level of basketball. It’s simply evidence that, right now, there’s really only one elite team/program in the Horizon League. That program, of course, is Butler. Having seen nearly every team play in person (and all of them via TV or Internet), I have a lot of confidence in saying that there truly isn’t much difference between team #2 and team #10. There may be a wide margin in the wins and losses, but talent-wise and coaching-wise, the gap is much tighter. To me, the differences between teams 2-thru-5 and teams 6-thru-10 are things like experience, lack of injuries, or mental toughness. Some teams have better results in these areas, and because of that they’ve risen slightly higher in the league standings. It’s not because of a disparity in talent. The only disparity in talent I see is at Butler. Along with doing the little things right, they have the most talent, and it shows.
No need to go on, and on, about teams that are irrelevant right now, unless I feel like poking a little fun (which I will). There have been some impressive performances since the last time we checked in, which has prompted a lot of chatter in Horizon League circles about who this season’s “HL Player of the Year” will be, “All-HL 1st Team,” etc. We’ll dive into that, among other things, right about…now.
Damon Lewis, a reporter and play-by-play announcer for the Horizon League Network, is RTC’s Horizon League correspondent.
Butler (#17/18) 6-0 15-1
Milwaukee 6-1 11-6
Green Bay 5-1 12-5
Cleveland State 4-3 13-6
Wright State 3-3 9-8
UIC 2-4 9-7
Loyola 2-4 10-8
Youngstown St. 2-5 5-11
Valparaiso 2-5 5-13
Detroit 0-6 4-11
Much to my surprise, there seems to be as much attention on the Horizon League this year, as any year I can remember. Maybe some of that has to do with the often-mentioned “reload” at Butler, or maybe it’s the HL’s tendency to impress when the lights are at their brightest.
Those are only a few examples of what’s going on this year in the Horizon League. The level of play is as good as I’ve seen it many years, but that may not translate into multiple NCAA bids. Unfortunately, as you can probably see by the current standings (shown above), There aren’t 2 or 3 teams separating themselves from the rest of the pack. Yes, I see the 2-game gap between Green Bay and Cleveland State, but looks can be deceiving. There are 3 teams in the HL who have yet to play Butler. Wanna guess who they are? Yep…Milwaukee, Green Bay (Butler hosts both next week), and UIC (hosting Butler on Saturday afternoon). It’s still early, but this thing is trending more and more toward one-bid with each passing road loss by Cleveland State and UIC.
Now that we’re in the heart of league play, my position with the Horizon League Network allows for a fair amount of travel to see a lot of these teams in person. With that in mind, my thoughts on specific teams will hopefully be a bit more concise from here on out, as I no longer have to speculate solely on what “seems” to be true by reading game recaps and looking over box scores. Remember folks…games aren’t played on paper.
The regular season is flying by. Believe it or not, we’re only nine weeks away from having an official NCAA Tournament Bracket to review and obsess over. We also happen to be nine weeks removed from opening night, so yesterday marked the official midpoint – 63 days on each side – of the regular season. Which means, of course, for all you folks who have been busy with the holidays, busy with the bowl games, busy with the NFL Playoffs… let’s get you caught up.
From now until the first tip in Dayton March 17th on the Road to the F4 in Detroit (ugh), roughly 150 or so teams are realistically jostling for position to be selected as one of the Chosen 65. As we nestle into the familiarity of conference play (only the Ivies have yet to begin) and America once again wakes up to our game, weaknesses will be exposed, experienced teams will try to avoid complacency and young teams will start to figure it all out. Come Selection Sunday, many of these prospective bracketeers will have fallen by the wayside, but there will be 50 or so at-large teams holding NCAA-caliber resumes, even though only 34 will be taken. Before we jump in with both feet into the fun that the next two months will bring, let’s take a look back at the first two months to see what we’ve learned.
Carolina is Not Unbeatable, but Are the Heels Still the Favorite? A mere month ago we wrote that North Carolina was playing like a team with plans to lose no more than a couple of games (if that many) all season. Then the last eight days happened. First, UNC lost at home to an underwhelming BC team, followed by a road loss at Wake Forest last night to start 0-2 in the ACC. So what’s going on – how can this juggernaut of a team with nearly everyone returning look so… mortal? It’s easy, really. So far, UNC’s defense hasn’t been up to snuff. It’s more efficient as a whole than last year’s version, but their statistical profile is elevated on the defensive end by forcing turnovers which in turn fuels their lethal fast break. In a halfcourt set, as Wake and BC repeatedly and effectively showed, UNC can be penetrated and exposed. The key to playing with the Heels is limiting those TOs that Ty Lawson turns into the quick strikes that overwhelm teams. Is it a fatal flaw? It could be (how’s that for a hedge?). Teams that can’t consistently make stops don’t win championships, but we really don’t see why UNC’s defense shouldn’t be able to make the commitment to improve over the next two months. The 2005 title team only became legit once Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May got serious about stopping people in addition to outscoring them. Can the 2009 Heels – specifically, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Deon Thompson – do the same? Stay tuned.
These Guys Have to Commit to Better Halfcourt Defense
The Big East Should Have Its Own Region. Seriously, let’s just rename the E. Rutherford Region this year and invite every Big East team. Or at least the top 12. Of course, if we did that, it would prohibit the possibility of the conference placing four teams in the Final Four this year – a plausible scenario. Tell us that you couldn’t envision a situation where four of the following teams – Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse – would reach Detroit in April. Throw in Villanova, Marquette and West Virginia and you might just have nine of the Sweet Sixteen. The top half of this conference is really that good. So who is the best of the best? It depends on when you ask the question. Two weeks ago it was UConn. A week ago Georgetown. Now it’s Pittsburgh. Next week… probably Syracuse. The point is nobody knows. UConn has the most raw talent, but they’ve exhibited problems putting it together consistently. Georgetown, haven’t you heard, has rebounding issues. Pittsburgh isn’t reliable from behind the arc. Syracuse has a tendency to lose to teams like Cleveland St. on miracle shots. Louisville spends much of its time looking for its ass with both hands. Notre Dame has a maddening tendency to play defense with its hands. Marquette and Villanova are too guard heavy. West Virginia has Bob Huggins. And on and on. All we can say for certain is that the quality of play in the seemingly-nightly matchups between Top 25 teams is top-shelf, and it makes up for all those other nights where we’re stuck watching Auburn-Ole Miss.
The Big Ten Doesn’t Suck This Year.Now don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying that our friendly midwestern conference is on par with the Big East, or even the ACC, but it’s a lot stronger in the middle of the pack than it has been in recent years. Not much was expected out of Minnesota (15-1), Illinois (14-2) or Michigan (13-3) this year, but each of them are playing excellent ball and have marquee wins over the likes of Louisville, Missouri, Duke and UCLA in their pockets. Combine their success with the standard good seasons expected from Michigan St. (13-2), Purdue (12-4), Ohio St. (11-3) and Wisconsin (12-4), and you have a competitive six-bid conference. Even traditional cellar dweller Penn St. (13-4) has shown signs of life this year. Heck, they even made the ACC/Big Ten Challenge competitive (losing 6-5) this year!
Our Midwestern Friends Have Been Practicing
They’re Putting It Together. Now that Tom Izzo once again has a full complement of players with Goran Suton back in the fold, Michigan St. has looked much better since their abysmal performance in the ACC/B10 Challenge against UNC. They’ve run off nine in a row with wins at Texas, at Minnesota and Ohio St. – everyone wrote this team off after that UNC game, but they’ll be heard from in March. UCLA is also quietly going about its business, also reeling off nine in a row (including a 3-0 start in road games in the Pac-10) since their loss to Texas in mid-December. Ben Howland is getting production from eleven players, and if anyone really thought the Bruins were going to have a ‘rebuilding’ season, they need to have their head checked. This team will win close to 30 games again. It’s amazing how a series of close games that go your way can make or break a team’s confidence. After Louisville had dropped tight ones to Minnesota and UNLV in late December, everyone was ready to write off the Cards. Now that they’ve won three of their lost four on the last possession, they sit at 3-0 in the Big East (with two road wins) and appear to be in relatively good shape compared to some of the other Big East contenders (UConn, ND, and Georgetown in particular). We’ll see just how good they can be when #1 Pittsburgh visits on Saturday.
Pleasant Surprises. Obviously, Wake Forest is a pretty big surprise – we expected them to be pretty good, but nobody saw a top five team coming from Dino Gaudio this year. What about Syracuse? – at 16-1 and the lone loss to Cleveland St. from 75 feet, Jim Boeheim’s crew has as much talent as just about anybody in the country. Clemson is pulling its annual ridiculous start, but there are signs that this Tiger team is legit – they have a balanced attack, they’re strong at both ends of the court, and they have good road wins at Illinois, South Carolina and Miami (FL) so far. Butler is a HUGE surprise, although we shouldn’t ever be surprised with that program. The Bulldogs sit at 14-1 and two of their top three players are freshmen, yet they once again appear to be the class of the Horizon and a top mid-major. Tubby Smith has Minnesota playing great ball, and the Gophers are on a fast track to the NCAA Tournament at least a year ahead of schedule. Coaching matters – Mike Montgomery also has California playing hard for the first time in a decade. The Bears look like a top three team in the Pac-10 at this point.
Syracuse Has the Look of a Team Built for March
Disappointments. Since the Q1 update, Gonzaga has done nothing but crap itself, losing games to Arizona, UConn, Portland St., and Utah. They did get a key OT win at Tennessee last week, and their defense is still stronger than in recent years, but for some reason or another, the Zags are having trouble putting it all together. USC is destined to become this year’s NC State (a preseason ranked team that won’t make the NCAA Tourney). The SEC – Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky – have all been various shades of disappointing. Between the cream of the SEC East, there’s what, three quality wins? On the other side of that conference, only Arkansas has even been mildly interesting, with big home wins over Oklahoma and Texas. At the mid-major level, Southern Illinois (6-8 ) and Wright St. (9-8 ) have a long way to go before they’ll turn their seasons around.
RTC Midseason All-Americans. We’ll take some heat for not putting defending NPOY Tyler Hansbrough on our first team, but his numbers, particularly his rebounding average, are off from last season. Granted, he’s still probably recovering from a stress reaction injury, so he’ll have time to recover his (rightful?) place on the 1st team, but for now, we like Griffin (obvious choice) and Harangody in our frontcourt. Curry and Harden are also easy choices in the backcourt, but we’re making a leap of faith choosing Teague – his last two games against BYU and UNC were very impressive performances (he averaged 32/5/4 assts on 59%) and we’re riding on the Wake bandwagon right now.
Jeff Teague, G – Wake Forest(21/4/4 assts on 54%/54% 3fg shooting)
Stephen Curry, G – Davidson (29/4/7 assts/3 stls on 45%/37% 3fg shooting)
James Harden, G – Arizona St. (23/6/5 assts on 56%/42% 3fg shooting)
Blake Griffin, F – Oklahoma (23/14/3 assts on 65% shooting)
Luke Harangody, F – Notre Dame (25/13 on 51% shooting)
Knocking on the Door (2d Team).
Tyler Hansbrough, F – North Carolina (22/8 on 54% shooting)
Patrick Patterson, F – Kentucky (19/9/3 assts on 71% shooting)
Dejuan Blair, F – Pittsburgh (15/13 on 61% shooting)
Manny Harris, G – Michigan (19/8/5 assts on 44%/31% 3fg shooting)
Ty Lawson, G – North Carolina (15/3/6 assts on 53%/42% 3fg shooting)
All-Freshman Team. Al-Farouq Aminu (Wake Forest), Jrue Holiday (UCLA) and Gordon Hayward (Butler) were tough to leave off this list.
Greg Monroe, C – Georgetown (14/6/3 assts on 57% shooting)
Sylven Landesberg, G – Virginia (19/6/3 assts on 49%/30% 3fg shooting)
Tyreke Evans, G – Memphis (16/6/4 assts/3 stls on 45% shooting)
Seth Curry, G – Liberty (20/4 on 45%/40% 3fg shooting)
Paul George, F – Fresno St. (16/7 on 54%/46% 3fg shooting)
Big Games (Q3). Here are the top 10 games of the next month.
Syracuse @ Georgetown – 01.14.09
Pittsburgh @ Louisville – 01.17.09
Georgetown @ Duke – 01.17.09
Wake Forest @ Clemson – 01.17.09
Texas @ Baylor – 01.27.09
Duke @ Wake Forest – 01.28.09
California @ UCLA – 01.29.09
Connecticut @ Louisville – 02.02.09
Duke @ Clemson – 02.04.09
Michigan St. @ Minnesota – 02.04.09
Notre Dame @ UCLA – 02.07.09
Extremes. This won’t last much longer, as we fully expect all three of the unbeatens to have a loss by this time next week, if not sooner. That’s what conference play does to you. NC Central will get a win against a D2 squad soon, but poor little NJIT has no relief in sight. They’re sitting on 49 in a row and, according to KenPom’s projections, 60+ in a row is within reach. Memo to NJIT coach Jim Engles – take a page from the NC Central playbook and schedule some JVHigh School D2 teams.
Unbeaten (next possible loss)
Pittsburgh (Big East):15-0 (@ Louisville 1/17)
Wake Forest (ACC): 14-0 (@ BC 1/14)
Clemson (ACC):16-0 (v. Wake Forest 1/17)
Winless (next possible win)
NJIT (Ind): 0-16 (Bryant 1/21)
North Carolina Central (Ind): 0-18 (D2 Central St 1/16)