Bouncing around the nation...

Bouncing around the nation...
Dec 05, 2005, 01:46 am
With the college basketball season now three weeks old, Jonathan Watters brings you a rundown of NCAA happenings around the nation.

Who is worthy of consideration for being ranked #1 in the country, a blast from the past with some familiar names popping up on mid-major rosters, tackling the paradox of inexperience on NCAA rosters and a look out to the West Coast are the issues at hand in this week’s column.

So you want to be #1? Step up to the plate…

Duke, the consensus preseason favorite, hasn’t exactly looked like an undisputed #1, but has protected its ranking up to this point. Despite the injury woes of DeMarcus Nelson and the trials of getting two major freshman contributors up to speed, the Blue Devils knocked off Memphis to win the preseason NIT and outlasted Indiana in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. However, it took a miracle to knock off a previously shaky Virginia Tech team at Cameron Indoor Stadium. This team is far from invulnerable, but dodged a well-aimed bullet against the Hokies. Until Sunday, JJ Redick’s play had been nothing short of spectacular.

Texas has also managed to keep its record unblemished, despite some very spotty play at times. It took some inspired late game play from LaMarcus Aldrdige to keep the Longhorns in the win column against West Virginia, and it wasn’t until Rick Barnes took struggling sophomore guard Daniel Gibson off the ball that Texas was able to pull away from a feisty Iowa team. (Yes, at this point it looks like I underestimated my hometown Hawkeyes).

Connecticut made its case for #1 by winning the Maui Classic without standout floor general Marcus Williams. While it wasn’t a pretty showing, Jim Calhoun has his team playing outstanding defense, and no group protects the interior as well as Rudy Gay, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Boone, and Jeff Adrien. The Huskies’ offense looks quite disoriented, as Calhoun just doesn’t have the perimeter weapons to create space for his stable of big men. Connecticut will remain vulnerable to the zone all season long, though the impending return of Williams helps quite a bit. Fortunately for Calhoun, it doesn’t look like anybody else on the non-conference schedule has the firepower to knock this team off until then.

After a Saturday manhandling of Oklahoma, it is time to add the Villanova Wildcats to this group. I was ready to peg Jay Wright’s group as preseason #1 until the injury to Curtis Sumpter, and despite that they may just gain that spot before too long. Although Sumpter's inside-outside game will be missed, it is now clear that a healthy Jason Frasor is going to make Sumpter’s loss much more absorbable. If any team was capable of pounding the Wildcats into submission in the paint, it would have been the Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout-led Sooners. Terrell Everett & company couldn’t handle the Wildcat press, and the four-headed lead guard monster is something beyond scary these days. Keep Duke and Connecticut atop the polls for now, but could you really favor them against Villanova at this point?

Despite the hard-charging Wildcats, it would be surprising to see anyone other than the winner of this Wednesday’s Duke-Texas matchup occupying the #1 spot as we head into conference play. Texas will get all it can handle from John Calipari’s rejuvenated Memphis squad in early January, while Duke will host Bucknell, the nation’s latest mid-major darling.

You might remember…

One of my favorite hoops pastimes is to keep track of those high-major recruits that end up transferring into mid-major obscurity. Every now and again a player will explode into prominence during an NCAA tournament run (Ed McCants, anyone?), but many times these players end up slipping completely through the cracks. Today, I will focus on a trio of former high-major point guards having success at their new mid-major homes.

Brandon Cotton was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school, and was supposed to rejuvenate a Michigan State backcourt that had desperately needed a floor general presence since the early departure of Marcus Taylor. However, Cotton and Izzo never saw eye to eye, and Cotton transferred to Detroit after playing in just a handful of games. Cotton averaged nearly 19 point per contest last season, but his career was put on hold this summer after a vicious hit-and-run car accident that cost Cotton part of one of his fingers on his left hand. Nonetheless, Cotton was in uniform on opening night, and recently put up 24 points in the Titans’ narrow victory over Western Michigan.

Oakland coach Greg Kampe has coached his fair share of big-time scorers over the past several seasons. Last year’s group, led by Rawle Marshall and Courtney Scott, got hot at the right time and upset Oral Roberts in the conference championship game to earn an NCAA tournament berth. With the loss of Marshall and Scott, as well as stat sheet stuffer Mike Helms the previous season, one might have expected the Golden Grizzlies to come back down to earth this fall.

That is where former Rutgers point guard of the future Calvin Wooten fits in. Wooten decided to transfer closer to home after a solid freshman season, and a sophomore year which was shortened by an ACL injury. He has put up 25.4 ppg in 5 games thus far, including a 39 point outburst in Oakland’s season opening loss to Albany. The Golden Grizzles (4-1) haven’t lost since, but have a rough stretch coming up on the schedule. Miami (OH) and Saint Louis come to town this week, while Oakland travels to Marquette and Wisconsin-Milwaukee the next. The team receives yet another boost via transfer when former Ohio State wing Rick Billings becomes eligible on December 18.

Oakland upset Missouri-Kansas City in last year’s Mid-Con Conference Tourney, putting an end to a very encouraging season for the Kangaroos. UMKC started the season 0-7, while former USC point guard Quinton Day sat out the first semester. After Day was integrated into the offense, good things happened. The Kangaroos didn’t lose a single game in January, and won 11 in a row overall. Day averaged 13.1 ppg and 4.8 apg on the season, and has significantly upped his production this year. With averages of 20.8 ppg and 6.0 apg, Day has developed into one of the top mid-major point guards in the country.

Other point guard names you might remember: Andre Collins, Loyola-MD (Maryland), 20.5 ppg, 4.3 apg; Kendrick Davis, North Texas (Arkansas), 16.8 ppg; Elijah Ingram, New Mexico State (St John’s), 15.4 ppg; Rodney Stuckey, Eastern Washington (former high-major recruit), 18.7 ppg; Armando Surrat, San Francisco (Miami), 15.4 ppg, 5.8 apg; Dez Willingham, SMU (Kansas State), 12.0 ppg, 3.3 apg

Inexperience: the ultimate wildcard

While a longstanding common theme amongst successful NCAA Tournament teams has been experienced guard play, the general ability of teams starting over in terms of experience varies wildly on a case-by-case basis. Some teams are able to shrug off their lack of game experience, and play beyond their years. Others aren’t so fortunate, and take some time to develop. This season is no exception, as there are obvious examples on both sides of the spectrum.

This season’s number one example of a team shaking off the stereotype about a team needing experience to win is John Calipari’s young Memphis squad. Rodney Carney is the only upperclassman in the rotation, and six first year players are currently thriving in Calipari’s up-tempo system. Small forward Shawne Williams is leading the team in scoring, while shooting guard Antonio Anderson recently broke out, scoring 32 points in Memphis’ win against Cincinnati. The Tigers have looked nothing short of spectacular thus far, gaining double digit first half leads against Alabama, UCLA, and Cincinnati, and playing Duke right down to the wire. The Tigers are obviously vulnerable inside and will struggle if an opponent can slow down the tempo, but that has been easier said than done thus far. Before fattening up on a weakened Conference USA, Memphis still has major tests against Texas and Gonzaga.

Many wondered what kind of team Roy Williams would be able to field this fall, as we all know that North Carolina lost its top seven scorers. The Tar Heels were able to keep a perfect record against three mid-major squads before running into their first test of the season against Illinois. While the Illini were able to pull away late, the Tar Heels pushed them the entire way. Then came UNC’s surprising win over Kentucky at Rupp. Freshman like Tyler Hansbrough, Bobby Frasor, and Marcus Ginyard are suddenly comfortable in lead roles, and Reyshawn Terry, essentially a freshman in terms of actual court time, played like a legitimate go-to force in the big win. DraftExpress was betting that it would take time for this group to meld, and it looks like we were dead wrong.

On the other hand, we have examples of talented young teams that have underachieved somewhat. Kansas has played a brutal schedule thus far, but Bill Self clearly has his hands full this season. The Jayhawks wilted under Arizona’s full court pressure in the first real test of the season, and while Kansas is usually invincible at the Phog, Nevada recently left town with a win. The substantial potential of this group is quite obvious, but results have come only in flashes thus far. Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson are completely in over their heads in attempting to run the team, and kids like Brandon Rush, CJ Giles, and Julian Wright are going to look like different players by the end of the season. Nonetheless, Bill Self could find himself in quite a big hole by then. It remains to be seen whether this team will be able to find the comfort level and coherence necessary to make a run at an NCAA tournament berth.

In even worse shape than Kansas, Rick Stansbury and his young Mississippi State team have not looked good in recent early season tests. The Bulldogs lost nearly every contributor from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, and Stansbury has been stung particularly hard by roster attrition in the last several seasons. His remaining core of inexperienced seniors and talented yet even greener underclassmen just doesn’t look prepared for SEC-level basketball. The Bulldogs did manage to beat a similarly struggling Charlotte team, but followed that up with consecutive losses to the likes of Northwestern State and Southeast Louisiana. The Bulldogs are shooting just 41% from the floor as a team, and have committed nearly twice as many turnovers as assists. Keep in mind, this is coming against largely low-major competition. Freshman Jamont Gordon has been as good as advertised, but sophomore power forward Charlie Rhodes has disappointed and senior Dietric Slater recently went down with an ankle injury. The improved play of freshman Reginald Delk and a recent win over Santa Clara give some cause for hope, but with this team’s offensive woes, expect some ugly basketball in the SEC this year.

In the end, a major difference between these teams may be that North Carolina and especially Memphis have a couple of veteran performers that have allowed a more gradual adjustment to take place. With the loss of JR Giddens in the offseason, Kansas literally has no veteran presence on the court, while Mississippi State’s upperclassmen really aren’t pulling their weight.

Out West…

Several of the traditional west coast powers have ran into issues early this season, most notably Arizona and Stanford. California is anything but a “traditional power”, but heads were still raised when the Golden Bears lost their season opener to Eastern Michigan. However, it should be noted that California’s top two big men, forward Leon Powe and center Rod Benson, missed that game. Since that time, the Golden Bears have come up with two semi-quality wins over Northeastern and Akron, Ayinde Ubaka and DeVon Hardin have shown dramatic improvement over last season, and most importantly, Leon Powe has returned to the court. And when I say returned to the court, I mean 53 points and 20 rebounds over two games in his first action in nearly two seasons.

While any sort of success for Ben Braun’s club rests solely on the fragile body of Leon Powe and the Bears have yet to prove themselves against big time competition, the rest of the Pac-10 should take note. California has as talented a starting lineup as anybody in the conference, and if the favorites continue to falter, the Golden Bears are more than capable of putting themselves in the mix.

A truly marquee west coast matchup took place last night in Seattle, where Washington hosted Gonzaga. Despite another awe-inspiring performance from Adam Morrison, the Huskies were able to prevail over the short-handed Bulldogs in a nasty dogfight. This result was expected, as the 'Zags are without their two key players, Erroll Knight and Josh Heytvelt. Both players are crucial to Mark Few's gameplan, as each represent key changes of pace from the two Gonzaga stars. To make matters worse, point guard Derek Raivio went down in the first half with an injury. Reaching deep into his bench, Few got a major contribution from freshman Larry Gurganious and Morrison nearly willed Gonzaga to victory. Many preseason pundits denounced the 'Zags as overrated, based on last season's early tourney exit and the loss of Ronny Turiaf. I am here to say that after watching this team play shorthanded for several games now, this team is going to be downright scary come March, with Knight and Heytvelt in good health.

Washington gets credit for knocking out a team that simply refused to go down, and for the moment, looks like the clear team to beat in the Pac-10. There isn't a go-to star or surefire NBA prospect on the roster this year, but Lorenzo Romar has more enough talent and depth to go around. Ryan Appleby is going to drive opponents nuts this season with his deadly quick release, and Jamaal Williams is a legitimate offensive force at the college level. Don't count out Bobby Jones and an NBA career just yet.

Check back in next week, when I will release part two of my article entitled "The NBA's new CBA, the DL, the IL, and what it all means for the NCAA"

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