By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. CINCINNATI NEEDS TO GET HEALTHY
There are absolutely no excuses for the Bearcats’ 56-54 loss to Presbyterian but this team desperately needs to get their full complement of able bodies together if they want to be playing solid basketball at the start of the Big East season. Mick Cronin’s team got zero points off the bench in Saturday’s loss and that’s directly related to who wasn’t available for Cincinnati.
JUCO big man Cheikh Mbodj is still out with an ankle injury and Jaquon Parker is still out nursing a sore groin. If healthy, Mbodj is the likely starter at power forward next to Yancy Gates in the front court and Parker will likely represent the Bearcats’ best hope to replace Rashad Bishop as this team’s “glue guy” moving forward. Without Mbodj and Parker, Cronin’s team simply doesn’t have enough reliable pieces to fully pressure opponents and wear them down as they did last season en route to 26 wins and a trip to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
2. SAINT LOUIS IS MORE THAN CAPABLE OF CHALLENGING TEMPLE AND XAVIER IN THE ATLANTIC-10
No one, including myself, expected the Billikens to dominate Washington from start to finish as they did on Sunday but the victory proves Rick Majerus’ team is a legit challenger in the Atlantic-10. Kwamain Mitchell is the best guard that has played for Majerus since Andre Miller was at Utah in the late 1990s while Kyle Cassity and Brian Conklin are two cerebral players that can be put anywhere on the floor because of their basketball IQ.
A major key for the Billikens’ moving forward will be the continued development of 6-foot-11 big man Rob Loe. Against Washington, Loe was able to step outside early and hit two three-pointers that immediately opened up the floor and put Saint Louis in position to have more spacing on offense. If Loe continues to flourish, he could give Majerus a player with “Michael Doleac” type skills because of his outside shooting.
3. MISSISSIPPI STATE HAS THE TALENT TO PLAY WITH ANYONE IN THE COUNTRY
Kentucky coach John Calipari said in September he felt the Bulldogs were a Top-15 team nationally and they proved their worth last week at Madison Square Garden with wins over both Texas A & M and Arizona. Rick Stansbury’s team has all the ingredients to be a major player in the SEC highlighted by veteran point guard Dee Bost.
In the win over Arizona, Bost didn’t have a particularly good shooting game but ran the offense with poise and precision. Also, the addition of 5-foot-11 point guard Deville Smith should allow Bost to spend more time off the ball and give Mississippi State a spark plug off the bench similar to what we saw last year from the way UCONN used Shabazz Napier. Stansbury also has enough depth now to not put Renardo Sidney in a position where he needs to get double-figures every night for the Bulldogs to win. UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie and Wendell Lewis are both more than capable of picking up the interior slack if Sidney’s play isn’t up to par.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. WATCHING UCLA IN THE MAUI INVITATIONAL
The Bruins have endured an incredibly difficult start to the season and a change of scenery could be just the remedy UCLA needs to start building some momentum. Ben Howland’s reinstatement of power forward Reeves Nelson should give the Bruins a solid chance to be competitive in the Maui Invitational and it should be interesting to see how UCLA approaches things defensively.
In their first loss of the season against Loyola Marymount, the Bruins’ superior size was exploited by the Tigers’ spacing and break down ability. A man-to-man enthusiast, Howland vehemently opposed using a zone defense two years ago when his team struggled during a 14-18 season but UCLA may have to go that route if they’re to maximize the towering length of Nelson, David and Travis Wear, and Josh Smith moving forward.
2. ST. JOSEPH’S AT IONA ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT IN NEW ROCHELLE
It’s not even Thanksgiving, but the Gaels have already become must-see TV. In three games in Puerto Rico, Iona averaged over 90 points per game and point guard Scott Machado displayed why he should be mentioned among the nation’s elite floor generals.
After finishing second in the country last year in assists, Machado broke out over the weekend, dishing out 41 dimes over a three game period. The chemistry between Machado and Arizona transfer Momo Jones has been nothing but seamless and the duo should be tested nicely on Wednesday at home against Phil Martelli’s talented perimeter of Tay Jones, Langston Galloway, and underrated freshman Chris Wilson.
3. VANDERBILT AGAINST OREGON STATE IN THE FINALS OF THE LEGENDS CLASSIC
It may not have the hype as some of the games last week at Madison Square Garden but the showdown Monday night at the IZOD Center should feature a terrific showdown between two of the nation’s best two-guards in Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins and Oregon State’s Jared Cunningham.
The silky smooth Jenkins is coming off a 28-point performance in the Commodores win on Saturday over NC State while Cunningham tallied 37 in the Beavers dramatic 100-95 overtime victory over Texas. The encouraging sign for the Beavers is they’ve yet to see the best of 5-foot-9 guard Ahmad Starks, whom Oregon State coach Craig Robinson feels could be similar to former Oregon guard Tajuan Porter.
THIS AND THAT:
– St. John’s showed many positives during their back-to-back losses against Arizona and Texas A & M but the biggest one one might have been the potential explosiveness of the Red Storm’s perimeter. Nurideen Lindsey is an incredibly gifted break down guard who can seemingly get to the tin anytime he wants while D’Angelo Harrison proved to be a capable knockdown shooter with incredible poise for a freshman. The sleeper of the group might be first-year floor general Phil Greene, who doesn’t do one thing particularly well but is incredibly solid in all facets of the game.
– Oregon suffered a bit of a blow when highly touted freshman guard Jabari Brown opted to leave the Ducks program over the weekend. Dana Altman’s team has been looked at as a potential PAC-12 sleeper but the loss of Brown could leave a scoring void on the perimeter. It will be interesting to see where Brown lands over the next few weeks. Whomever lands him will be getting a major talent that will make an immediate impact next season.
– There may be no better glue guy in all of college basketball than Arizona forward Solomon Hill. No matter what the situation is for the Wildcats, Hill is always in the middle of any part of success the team has. “A good game for him is a little bit of everything,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said of Hill. “Solomon does an incredible job of affecting the game in different ways.”
– For all of the preseason hype surrounding UCONN, one thing that has really flown under the radar has been the marked improvement of Tyler Olander. The 6-foot-10 lefty started last year on a team that won the National Championship but is a noticeably different player than a season ago. A confident outside shooter with the ability be a real threat on the offensive glass, Olander will be a solid third big man for Jim Calhoun along with Alex Oriakhi and Andre Drummond.
– By staying competitive with Kentucky over the weekend, Old Dominion showed why they’ll be right in the mix for a CAA title along with Drexel and George Mason. The Monarchs still defend as well as anyone and have three veterans back from last year in Kent Bazemore, Trian Iliadis, and Chris Cooper.
– South Shore combo guard Terrence Samuel said last week that Iowa State currently leads for his services. While there is no word when Samuel will make a decision, a voyage to Ames could potentially put the strong, wiry guard in position to have a Royal Ivey type career in the Big 12. Everyone needs future NBA players, but a utility player like Samuel would be a welcome addition to a rising program like the Cyclones.
– Providence coach Ed Cooley knew that he’d be able to count on perimeter scoring from both Vincent Council and Gerard Coleman but Bryce Cotton has been a surprise. Through three games, the undersized Cotton is averaging 22 points per contest and shooting a blissful 60% from three-point range. “He’s much better than I thought,” Cooley said of Cotton. “He’s bringing it every day which is what you need as you’re building a program.”
– Kentucky could potentially have a devastating seven-man rotation if freshman big Kyle Wiltjer gets into a regular rhythm. The 6-foot-10 freshman scored 19 points in 28 minutes in the Wildcats win over Penn State on Saturday and figures to be entrenched more and more in John Calipari’s front court as the season progresses. “He’s really good,” Calipari said of Wiltjer. “He can do things that other big guys can’t because he’s so crafty around the rim.”
– They’re not going to replicate what they did a season ago, but San Diego State looks more than ready to challenge New Mexico and UNLV for first place in the Mountain West Conference. Jamaal Franklin has emerged as the Aztecs’ go to scorer while LSU transfer Garrett Green has stabilized things in the middle. Steve Fisher also has two veteran guards back from last season in Chase Tapley and James Rahon along with Washington State transfer Xavier Thames.
– Depaul will have a different look on Thanksgiving when the Blue Demons play Minnesota in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. That game will mark the first time Miami transfer Donnavan Kirk will be eligible after sitting out the first two games of the season. Look for Oliver Purnell to try and maximize his teams size while attempting to play Kirk up front with Krys Faber and super sophomore Cleveland Melvin at small forward.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: MICHIGAN VS. MEMPHIS (MAUI), VANDERBILT VS. OREGON STATE (LEGENDS CLASSIC), MISSOURI VS. NOTRE DAME (CBE CLASSIC)
TUESDAY: MAUI SEMIFINALS, ILLINOIS VS. RICHMOND (CANCUN)
WEDNESDAY: SAINT JOSEPH’S AT IONA, OREGON AT NEBRASKA, SAN DIEGO STATE AT ARIZONA, VIRGINIA TECH VS. SYRACUSE (PRESEASON NIT)
THURSDAY: MINNESOTA VS. DEPAUL (OLD SPICE CLASSIC), NEW MEXICO VS. SANTA CLARA (76 CLASSIC)