76 Classic Notes From Day OnePosted by AMurawa on November 25th, 2011
Andrew Murawa is an RTC correspondent for the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences and a Pac-12 microsite staffer. This week he’s checking on the eight teams at the 76 Classic in Anaheim with some thoughts…
While the old tradition about Thanksgiving Day and football going together like turkey and mashed potatoes is all well and good, college hoops fans know that Thanksgiving week has fast become a smorgasbord of hoops action as well. Thursday night after some turkey and fixings with the family, I got a chance to dig into the basketball buffet a bit at the 76 Classic with a pair of intriguing games: New Mexico/Santa Clara and Oklahoma/Washington State. While I’ve had a chance to catch WSU and UNM on TV a couple of times, this was my first real good chance to get to know these teams. Here are my thoughts on what I saw Thursday night.
The big question mark for New Mexico coming into the season was how they would go about replacing point guard Dairese Gary, who graduated last season. Junior Jamal Fenton had served as Gary’s understudy for a couple of years, but at 5’9”, he can be a liability on the defensive end. Well, after four games I think we can safely say that UNM has its point guard – and it’s not Fenton. Freshman Hugh Greenwood, a 6’3” native of Australia, saw the majority of the minutes at the point Thursday night (he played 33 minutes, Fenton just 16) and scored 14 points, handed out three assists and never turned the ball over. “I thought he was tremendous,” said head coach Steve Alford. “He has, like a lot of guys, some things he has to do better defensively but he competed and ran our team well.” However, as solid as Greenwood was, the Lobos still are having trouble getting Mountain West Preseason Player of the Year Drew Gordon, or even MW preseason all-conference player Kendall Williams, on track. Gordon scored 11 points and added ten rebounds on Thursday, but did so in a below-the-radar way, while Williams scored just six points and was repeatedly exposed defensively by Santa Clara’s Kevin Foster. In the Lobos two losses so far this season, Williams and Gordon area combined 2/25 from the field. ““We had some guys, very similar to the New Mexico State game, where there was just no production and we’re not good enough for that,” said Alford in a clear reference to his two stars. “We’ve got to have production from guys who are supposed to produce.”
As for Santa Clara, they advanced to the semifinals behind the play of their starting guards: junior Kevin Foster and sophomore Evan Roquemore who combined to score 50 points (9/19 from three) and hand out eight assist. While Foster is pretty well known in basketball circles as a prolific scorer for the Broncos (he’s led SCU in scoring the last two years and led the WCC in scoring last year, also leading the nation in three-pointers made per game last year), his reputation around the country is that of just a chucker. Sure, the Santa Clara offense is set up to run Foster off multiple screens on every possession and get him just enough daylight to launch a three (he shot 380 threes last year and looks to be on pace to surpass that number this year – 70 3PAs in four games this year), but Foster on Thursday night also displayed an improved ability off the bounce, good passing ability and a tough defensive presence. The mere fact that he is a prolific shooter shouldn’t hide the fact that he’s got a good all-around game. Meanwhile, his backcourt mate Roquemore is a perfect complement. On those rare occasions where multiple screens don’t free up Foster, E-Roq is plenty capable of drilling an end-of-shot-clock three (with arguably deeper range than Foster) and athletic enough to get some penetration and score. Plus, he’s a natural leader on the court, always talking to his teammates and taking the time during deadballs to make sure everybody is on the same page. It is a shame that senior forward Marc Trasolini is out for the season with a torn ACL, but this backcourt is good enough to keep the Broncos in a lot of games this year
Oklahoma is more or less the same team this year as they were last year when they went 14-18 and finished tied for 10th in the Big 12, with two exceptions: the coaching staff and the point guard. Starting at the top, new head coach Lon Kruger has stepped into a pretty good situation for the style of play he prefers. While this Sooner team could use a talent infusion, they do have a roster made up of good athletes who a ready to thrive in Kruger’s system of pressure defense. Last year under Jeff Capel, the Sooners were content to sit back and pack it in defensively. This year Kruger has the team extending the defense, pressuring ballhandlers and forcing turnovers, and the players seem to love it. “It definitely benefits everybody,” said junior guard Steven Pledger. “In order for us to even be on the court, we’ve got to be able to play defense – just pressuring, getting steals, playing passing lanes allows us to get out and do what we do.” Clearly this Sooner squad is loving the new regime and the new style of play. Sophomore guard Calvin Newell, who was often asked to run the point last season, but has now moved over to his more natural position off of the ball, praised Kruger Thursday night. “Coach is always give us a lot of credit for doing what we do, but we need to give him some praise too, because without him I don’t think any of this would have been possible,” he said. “We’ve got almost the same team as last year, but he challenges us mentally and physically, and as a ballclub, we took on that challenge.” The phrase “almost the same team” is important, because junior college transfer Sam Grooms has taken over the point guard role for the Sooners. He’s not very big (generously listed at 6’1”), but he’s quick, he’s tough, he’s smart and he seems to be a natural born leader. Not only is he a big upgrade at the point, but he allows guys like Pledger and Newell to move off the ball into roles they’re more comfortable with. While no one is expecting this Sooner squad to compete for a Big 12 title this year, this is a team that will sneak up and beat some of the better teams in the conference from time to time.
Last year’s Washington State club wasn’t exactly a slow-it-down team in the style of Tony or Dick Bennett. They averaged about 70 possessions a game under head coach Ken Bone and were comfortable in a run-and-gun game. This year the Cougars want to run even more, especially since they only have two guys that would really qualify as big men getting time on this team: Brock Motum and junior college transfer D.J. Shelton. Paired with guards like Reggie Moore, Faisal Aden, Davonte Lacy and Marcus Capers, all of whom can succeed in an up-tempo game, this definitely isn’t the WSU program of old. Nevertheless, this is still a team that is searching to find itself. Since Moore’s 12.7 points and 4.2 assists as a freshman two years ago, much has been expected of him. However, Moore’s game has never really improved since then – if anything, its regressed. Thursday night he turned the ball over six times, repeatedly struggled with the Sooner pressure and generally failed to create much offensively either for himself or for his teammates. On the year he is averaging less than seven points per outing, and while he’s handing out five assists a night, he’s also turning the ball over at a similar rate. For WSU’s offense to start clicking, Moore needs to start producing. While Motum and Aden are capable of averaging double-figure points with or without a productive Moore, if this team has any hope of a postseason bid of any kind, they’ll need Moore to be a leader and an offensive threat.