By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. BASKETBALL IS BACK IN VEGAS
Not that it wasn’t under Lon Kruger but UNLV’s upset of top ranked North Carolina on Saturday night reminded many why the Runnin’ Rebels are the nation’s sleeping giant when it comes to college hoops. Without a pro sports team on the strip, UNLV games become an event if the program is a national factor and that’s just what this team has looked like early under first-year coach Dave Rice. A player on the 1990 National Championship team under Jerry Tarkanian, Rice inherited a quality roster from Kruger but has accelerated the Rebels offensive pace which has led to point guard Oscar Bellfield playing the best basketball of his career. Also, UCLA transfer Mike Moser looks like he could be the best player in the Mountain West Conference. In 31 minutes of action in the win over the Tarheels, Moser scored 16 points, grabbed 18 rebounds, and dished out five assists.
2. MISSOURI COULD WIN THE BIG 12
Overlooked by many as a possible threat to win their conference after Mike Anderson bolted for Arkansas, Frank Haith and the Tigers made a major statement last week by routing both Notre Dame and PAC-12 favorite Cal. Missouri has two veterans in Kim English and Marcus Denmon who were a part of an Elite Eight team in 2009 and a solid piece in the paint in Ricardo Ratliffe. Haith’s fresh outlook has this team primed for a major run in the Big 12 and their overall team speed led by sophomore point guard Phil Pressey make them a difficult match up for any team they’ll face. Missouri’s next major test will be against Villanova on December 6th in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.
3. RYAN BOATRIGHT COULD BE THIS YEAR’S SHABAZZ NAPIER
He didn’t arrive in Storrs with the hype of Andre Drummond or the polish of Deandre Daniels — but Ryan Boatright could wind up being UCONN’s most valuable freshman. Playing for the first time over the weekend after serving a six-game suspension, Boatright made a major impact in the Huskies’ 78-76 overtime win over Florida State in the consolation game in the Battle For Atlantis Tournament. A jet in the open floor and a capable distributor, Boatright anchored UCONN’s perimeter for the majority of the second half and overtime next to both Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb. Just like last season when Jim Calhoun used Napier off the bench to move Kemba Walker off the ball on offense and pressure the opponent’s point guard on defense, look for Boatright to play a similar role moving forward for the Huskies, who are a different team with this first-year guard in the rotation.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. LIU AGAINST IONA ON MONDAY NIGHT
The battle between two of the elite mid-major teams in the New York metropolitan area features a showdown that will likely feature great offense and probably little else. The Gaels look like potentially the most prolific scoring team in the country thanks to the dynamite one-two punch of Mike Glover and Scott Machado. Machado is playing like a legitimate Cousy Award candidate, averaging an astronomical 12.8 assists per game. Glover meanwhile, once again looks like he can play at any level in the country and should be tested against the Blackbirds formidable front line of Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere, and Kenny Onyechi. The key for Jim Ferry’s team in this game will be minimizing their turnovers against the Gaels’ full-court pressure, a task that falls squarely on the shoulders of promising sophomore point guard Jason Brickman.
2. HOW MASON PLUMLEE FARES AGAINST JARED SULLINGER
Duke’s double-double machine has played the first six games of the season against some of the toughest competition in college basketball — but that doesn’t include Ohio State. In order for the Blue Devils to continue their pace this season among the elite, they’re going to need Plumlee to continue to anchor the middle and open up seams in their offense for Duke’s accurate outside shooting — something the presence of Jared Sullinger could change. After a dominant freshman season, the Buckeyes big man has slimmed down and added new wrinkles to his game including a bouncier first step which has allowed him to cover more ground defensively. This will be by far the tallest task both Plumlee and the Blue Devils have had in 2011-12.
3. HOW WILL GEORGETOWN REACT ON THE ROAD AGAINST ALABAMA?
The Hoyas have been one of the pleasant surprises of the early season. A strong showing in Maui saw Georgetown trade blows with Kansas for 40 minutes before bowing out to the Jayhawks late and then John Thompson III’s group earned a solid win over Memphis. The million dollar question for this team will be point guard play and even though Markel Starks has been solid thus far, he will be facing a whole new level of intensity when he tries to initiate the Hoyas’ offense against Alabama. Anthony Grant and the Crimson Tide are one of the nation’s elite defensive teams and are able to augment the pressure even more this season thanks to improved depth on the perimeter. This match up Thursday night in the SEC/Big East Challenge should be a solid litmus test for both teams.
THIS AND THAT:
– Dayton’s Matt Kavanaugh is a poor man’s version of Tyler Hansbrough. Extremely active around the basket, Kavanaugh has really improved on both ends of the floor and never stops working. The 6-foot-9 junior is one part of an extremely improved front court for the Flyers along with Josh Benson.
– LaSalle might be the most dangerous three and three team in recent memory. The Explorers have already played Pitt and Villanova to the brink on the road and have the potential to beat anyone because of their perimeter. Coach John Giannini has four guards will likely average double-figures in Earl Pettis, Tyreek Duren, Sam Mills, and Ramon Galloway — now they just need some help on the interior to take the next step.
– He doesn’t have the talent or experience he did a season ago but St. Peter’s coach John Dunne proved again why he’s one of the best X’s and O’s guys around in Peacocks narrow loss to Seton Hall on Saturday night. Despite the 63-54 defeat, St. Peter’s showed poise and patience on offense and their normal discipline on defense. This team will be a tough out again in the MAAC despite the loss of four starters from last year’s group that went to the NCAA Tournament.
– Virginia Tech has a really good group of freshmen and they have a chance to be special a few years down the road. In addition to starting forward Dorian Finney-Smith, Seth Greenberg has three potential rotation players this season in Robert Brown, C.J. Barksdale, and Marquis Rankin, who’s been trying to get healthy after battling an injury. The growth of these first-year players will be a big key to whether or not the Hokies can finish in the top half of the ACC.
– It’s only been three games, but Kansas State Jordan Henriquez has been flat out ridiculous for the Wildcats. The lanky southpaw is averaging 9.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks per game for the Wildcats in just under 25 minutes a contest . If this continues, Henriquez could put himself in the discussion as one of the better defensive players in the Big 12.
– Mike Rosario has been on an absolute tear early for Florida. While some wondered if the former McDonald’s All-American would embrace a sixth man role for the Gators, Rosario has looked more then comfortable early, shooting over 50% from both the field and 3-point range. His outside shooting will be critical when Billy Donovan’s team takes on Syracuse in the Carrier Dome Friday night as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge.
– Speaking of the Orange, it really seems like there’s going to come a point when Jim Boeheim cuts Scoop Jardine’s minutes significantly. Jardine has become a feast or famine player as a starter and Syracuse’s depth is too good to let Dion Waiters not playing between 25 and 30 minutes a game. Freshman floor general Michael Carter-Williams also figures to see more time at point guard as the season progresses.
– Georgetown senior big man Henry Sims looks more than comfortable distributing out of the high post for the Hoyas. In addition to effectively scoring and rebounding as a starter, Sims has distributed like a veteran, dishing out over four dimes a game. His progression is another major reason why the Hoyas have looked better than anticipated early in the season.
– Oklahoma’s strong start under Lon Kruger has been a direct result of the play of point guard Sam Grooms. The JUCO transfer might not be the flashiest player at his position but has done a tremendous job of running the Sooners offense and delegating responsibility. Thanks to Grooms, big man Andrew Fitzgerald, and emerging junior guard Stephen Pledger, Oklahoma will be a tough out in the Big 12.
– Stony Brook continues to be an absolute nuisance under Steve Pikiell. The Seawolves had two opportunities on the road at Northwestern to cut into a four-point deficit but came away unsuccessfully and wound up falling to the Wildcats 63-58. If JUCO wing Ron Bracey can develop into his role as defensive stopper, this should be the team to beat in the America East Conference.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: LONG BEACH STATE AT LOUISVILLE, LIU AT IONA, XAVIER AT VANDERBILT
TUESDAY: DUKE AT OHIO STATE, MIAMI AT PURDUE, SAINT LOUIS AT LOYOLA MARYMOUNT, MICHIGAN AT VIRGINIA
WEDNESDAY: WISCONSIN AT NORTH CAROLINA, FLORIDA STATE AT MICHIGAN STATE, CREIGHTON AT SAN DIEGO STATE, PITT VS. DUQUESNE, INDIANA AT NC STATE, DREXEL AT ST. JOSEPH’S
THURSDAY: GEORGETOWN AT ALABAMA, OLE MISS AT DEPAUL, ST. JOHN’S AT KENTUCKY