The matchup that we will be featuring today is that of Kentuckys Rajon Rondo and Ohios Jeremy Fears. While all of you have more then likely read of the heralded Rondo, Fears has the potential to be a legitimate draft prospect in his own right with due time. At 64, he has great size for the point guard position and is able to disrupt virtually every opposing teams point guard with his length and athleticism. This was a fairly average performance on the part of both players, with Fears getting the best statistically, and Rondo getting the victory, but both players showing most of their strengths and weaknesses.
The game was played at US Bank Arena, located in Cincinnati, Ohio. While the game was played in OUs home territory, it was definitely similar to a Wildcats home game. With the majority of the arena dressed in royal blue, Kentucky had a distinct advantage in terms of the atmosphere. Not to be outdone however, the Ohio University faithful that did make it out to the game was extremely loud, as they realized that this was the Bobcats most important game of the reason as far as bracketologists are concerned.
US Bank Arena was rocking and rolling when the game tipped off, with the game being sold out in front of a crowd of more then 16,000. Scalpers were outside charging upwards of $100 for nose bleed seats. This non-conference matchup definitely had the atmosphere of an NCAA tournament game, leaving fans standing for the majority of the game. Hats off must be given to the UK faithful and Bobcat supporters, as there couldnt be a better setting for a non-conference game on a neutral site.
In somewhat of a David vs. Goliath matchup, Ohios Jeremy Fears went up against the more heralded Rajon Rondo of Kentucky. The 64 Fears is the top draft prospect that the MAC has to offer at the moment, and needs games like this to gauge where he is at as a player and show that he can compete with upper echelon point guards. Not heavily recruited out of high school, he settled on Ohio University, where he had an outstanding freshman campaign last year.
Rondo on the other hand was McDonalds All American coming out of high school, and could have virtually went to any school in the nation out of Oak Hill Academy. As a freshman, he had a solid, but unspectacular season for UK. Expectations out of him were huge this year, and he has not disappointed as he has nearly doubled his scoring average, tripled his rebound average, and is averaging one and a half times as many assists from last years numbers.
In terms of draft prospects, Fears is a player that scouts and fans need to know about for the future. Not a marquee name at this point as far as the 2006 draft goes; he is definitely a player who could emerge into a serious prospect if he continues to work on his many correctable weaknesses. On the flip side, Rondo is arguably the top point guard in college basketball at the moment. He came into this matchup with the billing of a lottery prospect, and with the potential to move into the mid-lotto depending on how he and his team play the rest of the season.
If this was your first time watching these two, one might be scratching their heads as to how Rondo was the potential lottery pick and Fears was the unknown draft prospect. Rondo played quite possibly his worst game of the season, but walked away with a come from behind victory. Fears on the other hand had a good game for the most part, but had a two hour bus ride back to Athens thinking about a game the Bobcats let slip away.
The game started off with Fears guarding Rondo, whereas UK guard Patrick Sparks had the task of handling Fears on the other end. It was truly a sight to see how long Rondo actually is in person, as his arms seemingly go on forever and his hands are so big that he literally palms the ball every time he puts it on the floor. Rondo came out firing, knocking down a three pointer very early in the game. After that moment, he virtually disappeared from the remainder of the half. He didnt look to score, or even break down his man for that matter. He just brought the ball up and passed the ball off to the wing every time. On the defensive end, the 2004 McDonalds All American was torched by Mychal Green to the point that the Wildcats were forced to run a zone defense. Definitely not the performance youd expect from a potential lottery pick billed as one of the top defensive guards in the NCAA.
Fears clearly came out with a chip off his shoulder, looking to show that he could hang with the big boys as he really pushed the ball up the floor in a hurry and looked to break down the much slower Patrick Sparks. He showed the ability to penetrate against big time competition, collapsing the UK defense every time he decided to drive to the basket with excellent results. He also showed some very nice court vision, but also some questionable decision making skills. Fears would have one good pass followed by a bad pass and it was clear that there was quite a bit of nervousness or indecisiveness on his part. Defensively, Fears did an excellent job keeping Rondo in check for the entire half. He played about two feet off of him and contained his penetration attempts. All in all, a very impressive performance in half one.
Aside from these two, it was basically a showdown between OUs Mychal Green and UKs Joe Crawford in half one. Green, a 64 senior, knocked in four three pointers en route to 16 first half points. Crawford, a 64 sophomore., scored 14 points himself through a flurry of three pointers and athletic drives to the basket. Ohio controlled the game for the majority of the half, and forced Kentucky run a match-up zone defensively. The Bobcats took a 40-37 lead into the half.
The second half was the same story for Rondo, as he was far too passive for a player of his caliber. The sophomore stud drove to the basket a few times, but OUs great rotation kept his penetration at bay. He looked very frustrated when the Bobcats began playing a zone defense, and just moved the ball around without looking for his own shot at all. Rajon did rebound the ball well and had a very impressive reverse dunk late in the game, but wasnt much more impressive on the whole than he was in the first half.
As for Fears, he really played great defense yet again in the second half. He still kept Rondo under control, and did a great job of getting in the passing lanes, resulting in two breakaway dunks for the sophomore point man. Fears showed great speed on both ends of the floor and ability to break the UK defense down, but still struggled in terms of decision making. He passed up on a wide open three pointer at the end of the game, opting to drive to the basket where he was stopped by a Wildcat defender.
UK was able to win this game due to their immense size and athleticism advantages over the Bobcats. They snagged 19 offensive rebounds against the Bobcats and the outside shooting of Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley proved to be too much for the defending MAC tournament champions. Ohio did show that they can compete with top notch teams, but their lack of an inside presence is what will kill them in the end. Aside from 67 Leon Williams (last years MAC tournament MVP), the Bobcats do not have any other serviceable post players or rebounders and do not play anyone else over 66. Even with this lack of size, the Bobcats controlled the game with their great ball movement and unselfishness. Barring a catastrophe, we should be seeing the defending MAC tournament champions in the NCAA tournament yet again this season.
Rajon Rondo- 6 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 turnovers, 1 steal, 2-4 FG, 1-2 3PT, 1-4 FT in 36 minutes
Jeremy Fears- 14 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 7 turnovers, 2 steals, 5-9 FG, 0-2 3PT, 4-4 FT in 35 minutes
This was a side of Rondo that we have not seen that much of. He was passive, uninspired, and hesitant throughout the entire game. His shooting form looked horrendous, and not improved at all since last year. From the three point land, from the free throw line, from wherever Rondos mechanics were terrible and you have to hope he can get with a great trainer before he enters the draft or its going to definitely affect his stock. For a player who was playing so well this season up until this game, it really makes you wonder whether he underestimated Ohio or just had an off night.
On the positive side, Rajon did a great job on the boards and was at times able to beat his man off of the dribble thanks to his excellent first step. His quickness is unbelievable to see in person, but for some reason, he doesnt use it all the time. Rondos length, athleticism, and rebounding are spectacular, but he just didnt seem to turn it on at all for this game. His decision making remained excellent, usually not forcing anything at all. However, he was far too passive and passed up countless open looks and/or opportunities to penetrate, instead opting to swing the ball around the perimeter. Players of his caliber are supposed to be able to carry the scoring load at times when things get tough for his team, but Rondo looked either unwilling or unable to do this tonight. Playing for a team as talent-deprived and uninspiring off the dribble as Kentucky appears to be this season; this is probably not going to be the first time this issue comes up.
Tonights game was truly shocking because Rondo was a having terrific season thus far. His length and quickness are virtually unparalleled on the collegiate level, and he truly does a great job running a team. You just dont find too many point guards with 610+ wingspans that have great vision, play great defense, and can run a team the way he does. Things should be a little bit easier on him in the NBA with teammates that can do more than just hustle and play defense, though, allowing Rondo to focus in on what he does best. With that said, much of his draft stock will be dependent upon the improvement of his shot. If is able to improve his form and consistency from outside, he has mid-lottery pick potential. Otherwise, things will rely heavily on how the rest of this draft class plays out, especially in terms of the point guards. Despite being a sophomore, he will have to show quite a bit more leadership than he did in this game to encourage scouts that he can impact the game in more ways than one.
OUs Jeremy Fears was able to show that he can play with some of the better guards in the country with his performance tonight. He was able to break down UKs defense at will, and showed that he could defend the potential lottery pick Rondo. Fears vision and speed were both fantastic, and its likely that he really opened up a lot of eyes nationally with the potential he displayed. He showed a very nice feel for finding the open man, whether on the drive and dish, in transition or off the pick and roll. This is by far the biggest improvement weve seen in his game from the NCAA tournament last year, as his future appears to be clearly and undoubtedly as a lead guard. Athletically, he has elite size (64), speed and length for a point guard, which allows him to cause havoc for opposing guards on both ends of the floor.
In terms of weaknesses however, Jeremys biggest one was also his most glaring tonight: his decision making. He would have one good pass, followed by a questionable pass. He looked very nervous and indecisive, wanting to do one thing, but at the last moment deciding on something else and in turn throwing away the possession. Whether it was picking up his dribble, jumping in the air with no clear target in mind, or passing up an open shot, Fears did not look 100% fluid or comfortable in his game. Its unclear how much this has to do with the growing pains involved in developing into a pure point guard, or whether its just the amount of pressure he put on himself on this big stage with his will the prove his doubters wrong. As Fears continues to grow as a player and plays with the type of confidence we saw from him in certain stretches of the game, these careless mistakes should be minimized.
Although he can definitely knock down the three point shot (evidenced by hitting as many as 6 three pointers last season against Buffalo), Fears didnt look too confident in his outside shot and his release looked a bit slow. At the end of the game, he seemed to be a bit passive as well, when he shouldnt have been considering that he is his teams best one on one player.
Fears has made some serious strides in his game over the past 2 years and his improvement in the future will be exciting to watch. Continuing to play the point guard position, being more under control and showing the ability to make his teammates better will be crucial for him, along with improving his outside shot. His mid-range game looks to be virtually non-existent at the moment, as he seems to either get all the way to the basket or shoot a three pointer when he gets the ball. Fears ceiling is extremely high considering how much the NBA values size and athleticism at the point guard position, and with development in the areas listed above; he should be able to pave his way to the NBA despite being off the national medias radar screen for the most part.