By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. XAVIER’S DEMEANOR IS SIMILAR TO THE ONE ST. JOSEPH’S HAD IN 2003-04
Great guards win in March. In 2004, Phil Martelli had Jameer Nelson and Delonte West take him to within one possession of the Final Four at St. Joseph’s before bowing out to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight. Much like the Hawks that season, Xavier has a feel early that they’ll be there late. Call it a hunch. Call it a parallel if you want, but one thing is for certain — the Musketeers’ back court combination of Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons has a special demeanor — a similar demeanor to that of Nelson and West in 2004. Twice in the past week, Holloway and Lyons willed Xavier to victories against two teams from BCS conferences in Vanderbilt and Purdue. The non-conference schedule doesn’t get any easier for Chris Mack’s team. There is a trip to Butler this week that will be followed by home games against Cincinnati and Gonzaga with a trip to Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic looming before Christmas and a game against Memphis mixed during the heart of the Atlantic-10 part of the schedule. A tall task remains for the Musketeers before they start the bulk of their conference play but one thing is for certain — this team is in the nation’s elite.
2. RUTGERS’ LACK OF OFFENSE IS OFFICIALLY A MAJOR CONCERN
Mike Rice has done everything that’s been asked of him since he took over the Rutgers basketball program 18 months ago. He changed the culture and augmented the Scarlet Knights’ overall toughness. He brought in a recruiting class that should provide a solid foundation for the next three to four season filled with guards and big men — but Rice still hasn’t found a perimeter scorer, and that’s becoming more and more apparent each time his team plays. In Saturday’s loss to LSU, the Scarlet Knights had solid control of the game late in the second half but couldn’t manufacture any baskets down the stretch to hold off the Tigers late run. In spite of not having a wing that can create and initiate offense, the rest of the rotation players on Rutgers need to do a better job of seizing the opportunities that are directly in front of them. Multiple times against LSU, Scarlet Knights big man Austin Johnson missed layups at point blank range and while the freshmen trip of guards Myles Mack, Jerome Seagears, and Eli Carter all ooze of long term potential, one of the three is going to have to become a reliable three-point shooter. This team really misses both James Beatty and Jonathan Mitchell in end of shot clock situations.
3. ALABAMA DESPERATELY NEEDS A SHOOTER TO EMERGE
Let me say this. I’m a big fan of Anthony Grant. Great communicator. Proven head coach. Terrific person. He won big at VCU, instilled an immediate defensive mindset at Alabama, and he has three core pieces in Trevor Releford, JaMychal Green, and Tony Mitchell that give his team a chance to win every time they step out on the floor. Now all Grant needs is a shooter. It’s getting to the point where if an opponent doesn’t zone Alabama out of the gate, they’re really not doing a good job with their preparation. The Crimson Tide are only shooting 27 percent from three-point range and in Thursday night’s loss at home against Georgetown, the Hoyas basically dared Alabama to beat them from the outside. One of Grant’s freshmen, Trevor Lacey, Levi Randolph, or Rodney Cooper will have to become a reliable threat from deep if this team is to perform at the level it hopes to in the SEC.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. MARQUETTE’S BATTLE WITH WASHINGTON TUESDAY IN THE JIMMY V CLASSIC AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN
Overlooked and underrated in the preseason, Buzz Williams’ team looks like it has the potential to be third best squad in the Big East behind UCONN and Syracuse. After an impressive victory at Wisconsin on Saturday without starting point guard Junior Cadougan, the Golden Eagles look primed to shine on college basketball’s biggest stage at the World’s Most Famous Arena. In addition to Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, freshman guard Todd Mayo and sophomore Vander Blue look comfortable as ancillary pieces in the Marquette offense. The key against Washington will be forcing the Huskies to take difficult shots and make them work for opportunities deep into the shot clock. Getting into a finesse game is something Williams has never been a fan of since he’s been head coach at Marquette and against a team as skilled and talented offensively as Washington, we’re highly doubtful he opts to start a new trend now.
2. HOW WILL MEMPHIS PERFORM ON THE ROAD AT MIAMI?
After going one and two in Maui, Josh Pastner takes his ultra talented Memphis team to South Beach to take on Miami. No one is questioning the Tigers overall talent but many, including myself feel this type was rated in the preseason more on ability rather than cohesion. The Hurricanes meanwhile, have one of the nation’s most talented back courts in Durant Scott and Malcolm Grant and have gotten good play lately from freshman Shane Larkin. This will be a game with plenty of four-guard sets and fast break opportunities. Memphis is the deeper team and probably has more overall talent but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to win.
3. THE MID-MAJOR SHOWDOWN BETWEEN CLEVELAND STATE AND ROBERT MORRIS
These two teams could very well be the representatives for the Horizon League and the NEC in the NCAA Tournament. The Vikings have an already made a national statement with their win at Vanderbilt and the Colonials guard tandem of Velton Jones and Coron Williams is good enough to match up with any mid-major back court in college basketball. They’ll have to be at their best against Cleveland State’s perimeter. Even though Gary Waters lost “Mr. Electricity” in Norris Cole, the Vikings have a dynamite trio in D’Aundray Brown, Trevon Harmon, and Jeremy Montgomery. The key in this game will be whether or not Robert Morris has enough size to match up with Cleveland State big man Aaron Pogue, who at 6-foot-9 could pose a major problem on the interior.
THIS AND THAT:
– Kyle Wiltjer only played five minutes and only scored two points in Kentucky’s 73-72 win over North Carolina on Saturday but made a significant impact with his floor game. On offense, Wiltjer kept the ball moving and wasn’t stagnant while defensively, the 6-foot-10 freshman did an admirable job double-teaming both Tyler Zeller and John Henson in the low post. If Wiltjer can keep developing and give John Calipari a quality seventh man, Kentucky is going be off to the races in the SEC.
– North Carolina has to be encouraged with how well they’ve shot the basketball to start the season. Prior to the start of practice, Tarheels coach Roy Williams told me his biggest concern was how well his team would shoot from the outside and early on, it appears they’ve remedied the situation. Against Kentucky, North Carolina made 11 three-pointers including five combined from P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock.
– West Virginia has gotten solid production in spot minutes the past two games from freshman center Pat Forsythe. With Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins desperately searching for a third big man to play alongside Kevin Jones and Dennis Kilicli in the front court, the development of the 6-foot-11 Forsythe could be huge for West Virginia when they hit the Big East.
– Mississippi State will be at their best if sophomore guard Jalen Steele becomes a reliable perimeter scoring threat and in the last week, the 6-foot-3 wing really showed signs of hitting his stride. Steele has been in double figures in each of his last two games for the Bulldogs and will be perfect in a “sniper” type role to complement the savvy of Dee Bost and the speed of Deville Smith. Keep an eye on this team, they’re for real.
– It is amazing how much better offensively VCU has gotten in the past ten days. After struggling to score the basketball in their first few games of the season, Shaka Smart’s team has found their way offensively and gotten back to creating chaos on the defensive end of the floor. Excelling in multiple guard alignments, VCU has gotten great ball pressure from freshman Briante Weber and solid outside shooting from Troy Daniels. Look for Smart to pair these two along with another guard, either Darius Theus or Rob Brandenburg with Bradford Burgess as the Rams look once again to challenge in the CAA.
– Depaul may not make the NCAA Tournament this season but the Blue Demons are much better than they’ve been. Oliver Purnell has done a terrific job identifying athletes that fit his fast paced style of play and has two good ones in freshmen Charles McKinney and Jamee Crockett. If it doesn’t hurt his team on the boards, look for Purnell to pair one of those two alongside Cleveland Melvin up front with three guards on the perimeter to attempt to speed up and the game and magnify his team’s athleticism.
– Tom Crean had to sleep well after Indiana earned a hard fought win over NC State last week as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Hoosiers have struggled for the first three years of Crean’s time in Bloomington but you can slowly start to feel the tide shifting. After having a lead for much of the game against the Wolf Pack, Indiana fell behind but rallied to leave Raleigh with an impressive 11-point win. “The toughness is coming.” Crean said by text message last week. “You can see it.”
– Anyone else see some Steve Wojciehowski in Illinois’ point guard Sam Maniscalco?
– George Mason has the potential to have a team that will continually get better as the season progresses. Paul Hewitt has yet to have the services of veteran point guard Andre Cornelius after he was suspended for the first semester and once he returns against Duquesne on December 21st, the Patriots should have all the ingredients they need to compete for a CAA title. Ryan Pearson right now looks like the conference player of the year and Mason has two capable wings in Sherrod Wright and Vertrail Vaughns. This team has a solid test Tuesday against Tony Bennett and Virginia.
– Andy Kennedy has a hidden gem in freshman point guard Jarvis Summers. The 6-foot-4 Summers bring good size and a calm demeanor to the floor general spot for the Rebels who have been able to play Dundrecous Nelson and Nick Williams exclusively off the ball with Summers’ ascension. If this kid can improve his outside shooting, he could be one of the best at his position in the SEC when he’s a junior.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: ST. JOHN’S AT DETROIT, HAMPTON AT FORDHAM
TUESDAY: MARSHALL AT SYRACUSE, MISSOURI VS. VILLANOVA, MARQUETTE VS. WASHINGTON, LONG BEACH STATE AT KANSAS, MEMPHIS AT MIAMI
WEDNESDAY: ARIZONA AT FLORIDA, ALABAMA AT DAYTON, VANDERBILT AT DAVIDSON
THURSDAY: HARVARD AT UCONN, WEST VIRGINIA AT KANSAS STATE, CLEVELAND STATE AT ROBERT MORRIS