By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. INDIANA WILL BE IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
They were on that type of trajectory before their upset of top-ranked Kentucky on Saturday but the way the Hoosiers played against the Wildcats for 40 minutes proves they’re good enough to be in the field of 68 come March. Tom Crean has built a balanced attack in Bloomington with five different players averaging in double-figures and has Indiana in position to be a factor in the Big Ten for years to come. The only key rotation member of this team that will depart after this season will be starting guard Verdell Jones, who should be able to be replaced by multiple members of the Hoosiers 2012 recruiting class, which is rated as the nation’s best by a plethora of different scouting services.
2. THE PAC-12 IS COMPLETELY WIDE OPEN
There is officially no favorite in this league. The potential candidates were likely to be Cal, Arizona, and Washington but the Huskies remain a work in progress until talented freshman point guard Tony Wroten takes over point guard responsibilities full-time while Cal is also adjusting as starting power forward Richard Solomon was suspended indefinitely last week for a violation of team rules. Arizona might be the team that gets progressively better as the season moves along if Sean Miller can get consistent perimeter scoring from freshman Nick Johnson and junior Kevin Parrom. The dark horse to make a move into the conference’s top third is Stanford, who could be 13-1 heading into a showdown at Oregon on January 5th.
3. MISSISSIPPI STATE CONTINUES TO BE THE BEST TEAM NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT
The SEC might have more teams in their conference that are capable of reaching the Final Four and none more under the radar than the Bulldogs. Rick Stansbury’s team has all the ingredients of a unit that can make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament and still have to play tough non-conference games against both Detroit and Baylor in December. The Bulldogs have a grizzled senior point guard in Dee Bost and a double-double machine in UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie. Lanky lefty wing Rodney Hood may also be the most under publicized first-year player in America and sophomore Jalen Steele looks primed to get better and better offensively as the season progresses. For a team that relied on Renardo Sidney a season ago to win big, here’s a refreshing thought for Mississippi State —- with the ancillary pieces they have, they no longer have to.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO NEXT WEEK
1. HOW CINCINNATI RESPONDS WEDNESDAY AT WRIGHT STATE
The brawl between Cincinnati and Xavier on Saturday was a black eye for college basketball and a dark moment for the sport. Now, we get to see how both teams respond. Mick Cronin’s squad will be severely tested on the baseline for the next six games without starters Yancy Gates and Cheikh Mbodji and it will be interesting to see how this group responds. During his first five years as head coach of the Bearcats, Cronin incrementally improved the talent in the Cincinnati program, culminating with 26 wins and an NCAA Tournament berth last season. Now with already three losses, it’s hard to see how this team can rally itself and play their way to where many thought they’d be this season — in the top half of the Big East.
2. THE SHOWDOWN BETWEEN VILLANOVA AND BU ON TUESDAY ON THE MAIN LINE
Long before Joe Jones was the head coach at both Columbia and Boston University, he was an assistant coach under Jay Wright at Villanova and helped the Wildcats secure a pivotal recruiting class in 2002 which featured Allan Ray, Randy Foye, Curtis Sumpter, and Jason Fraser. Now Jones returns to the Main Line with his own team and one that is capable of winning the America East Conference. The Terriers have a dynamite scoring wing in Darryl Partin and a capable sidekick in D.J. Irving. The Wildcats meanwhile, will look to utilize their newly found size with Mouphtaou Yarou, Markus Kennedy, and Jayvaughn Pinkston while desperately hoping their perimeter shoots the basketball better than they have in the past few games.
3. WILL RUTGERS’ OFFENSE HAVE A BREAKOUT GAME AGAINST MONMOUTH?
They better. The Scarlet Knights have only broken 70 three times in their first nine games and need to show some signs of being capable offensively if they hope to salvage their season when they reach the Big East. Mike Rice’s team will get longer and more athletic when they get freshman power forward Kadeem Jack back later this month but that still doesn’t cure what’s ailing this team and that’s more scoring. Rutgers also better not look past Monmouth, who’s won two in a row under first-year coach King Rice and is getting quality play from junior guard Jesse Steele.
THIS AND THAT:
– Anthony Lee has been terrific for Temple since Micheal Eric was sidelined with a knee injury a few weeks ago. Lee has grabbed nine rebounds in each of the last four games and is really stabilizing things in the middle for Fran Dunphy’s team. “We knew coming into the season that we needed 20 minutes a game out of him,” Dunphy said of Lee.
– C.J. Williams is starting to emerge as a legitimate “glue guy” for NC State. The 6-foot-5 senior is drastically more productive than he’s been in the first three years of his career and could become a major ingredient for Mark Gottfried’s team in the ACC. If Williams can emerge as another scoring option for the Wolf Pack, this team could have six different players that can reach double figures.
– Baylor coach Scott Drew said he feels his front court this year could be better than one that reached the Elite Eight in 2010 with Ekpe Udoh because there’s simply more players that can have an impact. “We could be better than we were up front two years ago because we have more options,” said Drew, whose Baylor team is 7-0. The Bears back court will also receive an addition this week when Cal transfer Gary Franklin become eligible on December 17th at BYU. “He gives us another piece to the puzzle,” Drew said. “The best thing about our team right now is that guys only care about the end result. We need to maintain
– Duke is a different team when Andre Dawkins scores the ball at a high level. The junior guard is excelling off the bench as a 6th man behind Austin Rivers, Seth Curry, and Tyler Thornton and is filling a role for the Blue Devils similar to the one that Rashad Anderson filled for UCONN in 2006.
– It’s hard to fully evaluate Florida State until Ian Miller is eligible on December 22nd but based on early impressions, the Seminoles lack of ball handling is starting to be a major concern. Leonard Hamilton’s team had 26 turnovers in Sunday’s win over UNC Greensboro and desperately need to settle things at the most important position on the floor. An immediate impact should be felt with the addition of Miller, whom Hamilton said really reminds him of current NBA star Toney Douglas, who played for Florida State before being drafted in 2009.
– Kansas’ depth will be severely tested in the next few weeks without Tyshawn Taylor, who will miss time with an MCL injury. Look for Bill Self to increase the minutes of freshman Naadir Tharpe and blend both Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson as primary ball handler’s in Taylor’s absence.
– Don’t be surprised if Bob McKillop has Davidson in the mix to win the Southern Conference. The Wildcats have two solid post players in De’Mon Brooks and Jake Cohen and a talented scoring wing in J.P. Kuhlman. The key will be if sophomore guard Tom Droney can become an effective outside shooting threat to balance out the rest of the offense.
– Kansas State freshman big man Thomas Gipson is a lefty version of current Miami Heat power forward Udonis Haslem. The burly big man has been an anchor for Frank Martin early in the season and seems ready to hold his own in the Big 12. Look for Martin to surround Gipson in spurts with four perimeter to maximize quickness and versatility. There’s no Jacob Pullen or Michael Beasley on this team but the Wildcats have a chance to be a balanced, cohesive group that could be better than people anticipated.
– There are many reasons why many believe Marshall is an NCAA Tournament team this year but one of the biggest is Dennis Tinnon. The 6-foot-8 JUCO transfer is averaging over 10 rebounds per game and is looking like a stalwart in the paint for the Thundering Herd. “I’ve always heard that the one skill that always translates regardless of level is rebounding,” Marshall coach Tom Herrion said. “That’s the case with Tinnon.”
– It’s hard not to be amazed at what Kyle Smith is doing at Columbia. The Lions have won seven straight games including over Loyola Marymount, LIU, and Manhattan and have done it without senior guard Noruwa Agho, who was lost after two games with injury. Keep an eye on this team in the Ivy League.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: MONMOUTH AT RUTGERS
TUESDAY: WISCONSIN AT MILWAUKEE, BOSTON UNIVERSITY AT VILLANOVA, FLORIDA ATLANTIC AT MISSISSIPPI STATE
WEDNESDAY: IONA AT RICHMOND, UTEP AT UNLV, LIU AT NORFOLK STATE, FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL AT MARYLAND, CINCINNATI AT WRIGHT STATE
THURSDAY: ORAL ROBERTS AT GONZAGA
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