By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. SETON HALL DESPERATELY NEEDS MORE SCORING
Jim Valvano used to say all that matters in college basketball is surviving and advancing and that’s exactly what happened for Seton Hall against St. Francis on Saturday night. The Pirates were outplayed for the better part of 39 minutes by the Terriers before senior floor general Jordan Theodore rescued Kevin Willard’s team and willed them to a four-point overtime win. It’s eerily apparent that Theodore, Herb Pope, and Fuquan Edwin are the only legitimate scoring options for Seton Hall and if the Pirates are to remain competitive throughout the rest of the season, at least two of the freshmen that Willard brought to South Orange will have to emerge as viable offensive threats.
2. VILLANOVA GOES BACK TO BASICS
Four-guard alignments have been a way of life at Villanova under Jay Wright and there’s no question that Wildcats will frequently use that same formula plenty this season. In Friday night’s 106-70 victory over Monmouth, Wright started four perimeter players — Maalik Wayns, James Bell, Dominic Cheek, and freshman Darrun Hillard with the hopes of maximizing his team’s ability to break people down off the bounce and create open shots. The result? Cheek had a major breakout game with 27 points and showed a brief flash of the player many expected him to be when arrived on the Main Line three years ago. If Hilliard can continue to play beyond his years and Bell becomes a “glue guy” in the mold of former Wildcat wings Dwayne Anderson and Reggie Redding, Wright will have a team that should get continually better as the season progresses.
3. UCLA LOOKS LIKE A WORK IN PROGRESS
It’s too early to go Colonel Jessup and order a “Code Red” but there are serious concerns about UCLA after their opening night loss to Loyola Marymount. First, the Bruins lack of outside shooting was magnified as they only made two of fifteen shots from behind the 3-point line. Second, their overwhelming size was negated by the Lions’ ability to spread out the Bruins and go by them off the bounce. Also, while the return of senior point guard Jerime Anderson will no doubt give Ben Howland another capable ball handler, it might not quench UCLA’s thirst for a breakdown perimeter player that can get into the paint and finish at the rim. It will be real interesting to watch this team on a game by game basis for the entire season.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. IONA AGAINST PURDUE THURSDAY IN THE FIRST ROUND OF THE PUERTO RICO SHOOTOUT
Robbie Hummel back in the lineup? Check. Iona’s first ever game with Momo Jones? Check. Neutral floor? Check. Sounds delicious. This first-round showdown in Puerto Rico features a classic contrast in styles between the lock down Boilermakers and the lightning quick Gaels. Iona coach Tim Cluess has a team that is capable of leading the nation in scoring but will need to be at their best in transition against Purdue, who is annually one of the Big Ten’s best defensive teams. The match up at point guard is a doozy as Gaels floor general Scott Machado will go head-to-head with one of the more underrated distributors in the country in Lewis Jackson. Look for Iona wing Rashad James to play a major role in this one due to his athleticism.
2. FLORIDA’S SHOWDOWN TUESDAY AT OHIO STATE
While the majority of the college basketball world will be focused on the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, there is a potential Final Four caliber showdown in middle America. Florida has all the makings of a terrific perimeter team thanks their extra loaded back court while Ohio State is simply, well Ohio State. The Buckeyes return a three headed monster in Aaron Craft, William Buford, and Jared Sullinger that has the ability to match up with anyone in college basketball but it’s yet to be determined who the other 40 percent of the starting lineup will be. Thad Matta has spoke highly of Boston College transfer Evan Ravenel at power forward and sophomore wing Deshaun Thomas figures to take a major step forward as sophomore. Still, college basketball has always been dictated by guard play and there might be no team in America that does that better than the Gators. In addition to starters Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario looks like he’s on a mission to put the first portion of his collegiate career behind him and Bradley Beal might be the most complete first-year guard in the country. This game will be a major test for Florida big man Patric Young, who will undoubtedly be matched up for long periods of time against Sullinger, a powerful post player who’s dropped at least 25 pounds since the end of last season. If Young is up to the challenge, the Gators could be in for a major road win.
3. SEEING HOW THE RUTGERS FRESHMEN REACT ON THE ROAD AGAINST MIAMI
Mike Rice doesn’t have much patience to begin with but he’ll need to be extra understanding when his young band of Scarlet Knights hit the road to face a veteran Miami team on Tuesday night in South Beach. There were times late in the second half of Friday’s narrow win over Dartmouth when Rutgers had three first-year guards — Myles Mack, Jerome Seagears, and Eli Carter all on the floor at the same time. The Hurricanes are built similar to Rice’s team in the sense that they rely heavy on the perimeter and are deprived of their primary low post presence. Just like how the Scarlet Knights are playing without highly touted freshman power forward Kadeem Jack until January, Jim Larranaga’s team is minus burly big man Reggie Johnson until around the middle of the ACC schedule. Not to worry, the Hurricanes have two dynamite perimeter players in Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant along with a jack of all trades type of Trey McKinney-Jones. Look for both teams to feature frequent four-guard sets in this one, which should be a true test of experience against youth.
THIS AND THAT
– The more and more I think about it, there are plenty of similarities between last year’s Cincinnati team and this year’s group at Ole Miss. A season ago, the Bearcats made great strides and had better chemistry without ball dominant players such as Lance Stephenson and Deonta Vaughn and the same could be in store for the Rebels this year. After losing starting guards Chris Warren and Zach Graham, Andy Kennedy’s squad has a more cohesive feel and maybe the SEC’s most underrated front court in Murphy Holloway, Reggie Buckner, and Terrance Henry. Keep an eye on this team all season, especially when they get Memphis transfer Jelan Kendrick eligible for the second semester.
– Syracuse sophomore big man Baye Moussa Keita is incredibly similar to former NBA big man Steven Hunter. A tremendous athlete with exceptional timing, Moussa Keita is not a difference maker offensively but can be an X-factor for the Orange because of his ability to alter shots in the paint.
– Indiana’s Victor Oladipo looks primed to become the elite perimeter defender in the Big Ten. The bouncy wing has added incredible strength in the off-season and is playing with an enormous chip on his shoulder. Look for Oladipo to really flourish for Tom Crean’s team on the perimeter thanks to the extra minutes left behind after Hoosiers guard Maurice Creek went down with a season ending injury.
– Don’t be surprised if Illinois develops into an outstanding shot blocking team. Fighting Illini coach Bruce Weber told me in the preseason that freshman big man Nnanna Egwu was really standing out in practice due to his physicality and the combination of he and Meyers Leonard could give Weber’s team two space eaters in the middle of the paint that could deflect shots on a regular basis.
– He may not be one of the more highly regarded recruits in the Big East but Depaul freshman guard Charles McKinney is a highlight reel waiting to happen. A jumping jack at 6-foot-4, McKinney should flourish in Oliver Purnell’s full-court pressure attack and provide quality depth behind Blue Demons starters Brandon Young and Jeremiah Kelly.
– Texas A & M’s Elston Turner might have been the best transfer no one was talking about heading into the season but his role will incredibly magnified sooner that even he might have liked. With Aggies star Khris Middleton out three to four weeks with a knee injury, it will be up to Turner to ensure that this team has the necessary pop it needs from the perimeter. Texas A & M will be at Madison Square Garden on Thursday to play Mississippi State in the annual Coaches vs. Cancer event.
– There may be no player in the ACC that’s more ready to break out than NC State point guard Lorenzo Brown. Taking over as the Wolfpack’s full time floor general after last year’s starter Ryan Harrow transferred to Kentucky, Brown flourished in his team’s season opening win over UNC-Asheville, scoring 13 points, grabbing five rebounds, dishing out 9 assists, and tallying 8 steals.
– Red shirting players is a way of life in the CAA and George Mason’s Sherrod Wright will be a prime example of that this season. After sitting out last year, Wright will be a double-digit scorer for Paul Hewitt and the Patriots this season as the team’s starting shooting guard.
– St. Bonaventure’s point guard situation will be the key to the Bonnies finishing in the top-four of the Atlantic-10 and potentially challenging for a post season bid. Mark Schmidt has two good options in JUCO import Eric Mosley and sophomore Charlon Kloof.
SET THE DVR
MONDAY: PROVIDENCE AT FAIRFIELD, WASHINGTON STATE AT GONZAGA, NEVADA AT UNLV
TUESDAY: FLORIDA AT OHIO STATE, BELMONT AT MEMPHIS, DUKE VS. MICHIGAN STATE, KENTUCKY VS. KANSAS, RUTGERS AT MIAMI
WEDNESDAY: HOFSTRA AT OREGON STATE, LONG BEACH STATE AT PITT
THURSDAY: IONA VS. PURDUE, FAIRFIELD AT MINNESOTA, MISSISSIPPI STATE VS. TEXAS A & M, ST. JOHN’S VS. ARIZONA