By Jon Rothstein
THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. DANNY HURLEY HAS MADE WAGNER A NATIONAL NAME
You got the feeling on the summer circuit in July that Hurley felt this could be a special season in Staten Island but even the most passionate Wagner fans couldn’t have expected a win at Pitt. Right from the opening tip, the Seahawks looked like the more aggressive team and outplayed the Panthers for the majority of 40 minutes. The win puts the program on the national map and proved what most close to the program already knew —Wagner may play in the NEC but they don’t have NEC level talent —- and that is why they can be a nuisance if they get into the NCAA Tournament. Newark native Kenny Ortiz has been a bulldog at point guard and outplayed Pitt’s perimeter in Friday’s upset while 6-foot-9 big man Naofall Folahan would be a capable front court player in the Atlantic-10. Watch out for this team as the season progresses.
2. GEORGETOWN WILL BE A MAJOR FACTOR IN THE BIG EAST
The Hoyas were a big question mark entering the season but if their early start proves anything it’s that there will be no “Hoya Paranoia” for the wrong reasons in DC. Thanks to the augmented games of veterans Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson along with the burgeoning play of senior big man Henry Sims, John Thompson III’s team looks every bit like they’ll be a major factor in the Big East. The Hoyas will get a strong litmus test when they play at Louisville this week in a game that should test Georgetown’s depth. In last Thursday’s win over Memphis, Hoyas freshman forward Otto Porter was the only reserve that played double digit minutes, something that may need to change in conference play.
3. FLORIDA STATE NEEDS TO TURN THE CORNER
I know I went out on a limb with the Seminoles in the preseason. I know I said they would be the second best team in the ACC and while I still believe that can happen, let me say this. This team needs to go on a run and they need to go on a run now. Combo guard Ian Miller made his first appearance in last week’s loss at Florida and Leonard Hamilton’s team is still adjusting to that plus not having forward Terrance Shannon for the season after a shoulder injury. “There’s no question we have a lot of moving parts,” Hamilton said last week by phone. “Getting Ian back and playing him next to Terry Whisnant will help our offense. We’re also going to play Okaro White more at power forward. We’re tweaking some things but I still think down the line, we have the potential to be a good team.”
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. HOW SETON HALL PLAYS AGAINST SYRACUSE WEDNESDAY AT THE CARRIER DOME
Give Kevin Willard a ton of credit. The Seton Hall coach has led the Pirates to a pleasantly surprising 11-1 start thanks to a surging Herb Pope, a composed Jordan Theodore, and a flourishing Fuquan Edwin — now here comes the hard part. While the Pirates passed a road test last week against Dayton, playing against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome is an entirely different beast. The number one ranked Orange look like the deepest team in America and have the pieces on the front line to use multiple big men against Pope. Beating Jim Boeheim’s team on the road may be an unrealistic expectation for Seton Hall, but a competitive game in a hostile environment will tell if whether or not this team can really push for a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
2. MISSISSIPPI STATE’S SHOWDOWN WITH BAYLOR IN DALLAS
The Bulldogs will be the most talented team Baylor has played this season. Scott Drew’s team exuded tremendous grit in recent narrow wins over both BYU and West Virginia but the match up with Mississippi State will be a major test because of their ability to beat opponents in multiple ways. Look for the perimeter defensive pressure of Bears’ guards Pierre Jackson and Gary Franklin to be a major key as they try to negate the ability of Bulldogs veteran floor general Dee Bost to find his way into the paint. Conversely, look for Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury to use lightning quick freshman guard Deville Smith on Baylor sharpshooter Brady Heslip, who’s looking more and more like the Bears X-factor offensively.
3. WILL VANDERBILT BE “TOUGH” ENOUGH AGAINST MARQUETTE?
I’m not going Colonel Jessup here on the Commodores and ordering a “Code Red” on them by any means, but Kevin Stallings’ team is going to have to bring their hard hat and helmet to Milwaukee. There’s been a stigma that’s been unfair surrounding Vanderbilt that they’re not the “toughest” team around and that can be changed by trading hay makers with the Golden Eagles. Although they won a close game in Nashville against Buzz Williams’ group last season, the Commodores will be tested on the road thanks to the renowned depth for Marquette. Freshman combo guard Todd Mayo is a legitimate scoring threat off the bench and hybrid forward Jamil Wilson definitely has his best basketball ahead of him. In previous games this season against ranked opponents in Xavier and Louisville, Vanderbilt came close but suffered a pair of bitter defeats. Having a different outcome on Thursday could build massive momentum for this team as they head into the SEC.
THIS AND THAT:
- The biggest thing I like about Gonzaga freshman guard Kevin Pangos is he never stops attacking. In two wins over Arizona and Oral Roberts, Pangos wasn’t particularly effective from the field, only making 3-of-18 shots but still got to the free throw line 20 times. Look for Mark Few to play this scoring threat more and more alongside David Stockton in the Bulldogs back court as the season progresses.
- Very quietly, LSU’s Anthony Hickey is on his way to being one of the better first-year guards in the SEC. The undersized Hickey may not look the part at 5-foot-10 but is extremely poised in running the Tigers offense and is giving Trent Johnson a perimeter presence defensively. Through 12 games, Hickey is averaging two and a half steals per 40 minutes and has a capable assist to turnover ratio of two-to-one.
- The improvement of UNLV big men Carlos Lopez, Brice Massamba, and Quintrell Thomas is noticeable. Under first-year coach Dave Rice, all three seem more at ease catching and finishing in the paint offensively. If the Runnin Rebels can become more efficient at generating offensive production out of the low post, this is a team that has all the pieces to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
- No one is noticing, but UCLA has reeled off five straight wins after a two and five start as they head into the PAC-12. Ben Howland’s team doesn’t have vintage Westwood talent but don’t be surprised if this squad gets better and better as the season moves along. In a down year for the conference, Howland may have a chance to mold this group into a contender. The key will be getting sophomore big man Josh Smith back to the level he was at the end of last season which will immediately make the Bruins a better outside shooting team.
- VCU freshman Briante Weber is an absolute pest and a main cog in the Rams’ hope to win the CAA. “He more than any other player we have reflects what “havoc” is all about,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said of Weber last week. With Weber as his top on ball defender, Smart has enough weapons in his stable to have a better defensive team than he did last year when he led the Rams to the Final Four.
- Alabama coach Anthony Grant had to feel like he got an early Christmas present when two of his freshmen guards Levi Randolph and Trevor Lacey made four of six threes combined in the Crimson Tide’s win over Oklahoma State last week. Up until that game, Alabama really struggled shooting the ball from deep and will have prove they can make outside shots consistently if they want to be in the top quarter of the SEC.
- Chris Crawford has easily been Memphis’ most complete guard in their first 11 games. The 6-foot-4 sophomore has good size and brings a steadiness to the Tigers offense. Look for Josh Pastner to use Crawford more as a facilitator in Conference-USA with the potential of using Joe Jackson more off the ball.
- Iona and Fairfield have gotten the majority of the publicity in the MAAC but don’t count out Jimmy Patsos and Loyola. The Greyhounds might be the biggest team across the board in the conference with Shane Walker and Erik Etherly up front and Dylon Cormier could be the conference’s most improved player at guard.
- It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone than Lon Kruger has gotten Oklahoma off to a 9-1. The Sooners have a terrific point guard in Sam Grooms and a really underrated power forward Romero Osby. This team will be get a good test on Thursday when travel to take on a quick, feisty Cincinnati team.
- There may be more guards in college basketball that are more talented than Duquesne’s T.J. McConnell — but none are tougher. The Dukes’ second-year floor general affects the game in multiple ways and isn’t afraid to mix it up. “He’s a game changer,” Duquesne coach Ron Everhart said of McConnell last week. Through 12 games, McConnell is averaging 10.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3.2 steals per contest.
SET THE DVR:
TUESDAY: PITT AT NOTRE DAME, WISCONSIN AT NEBRASKA, PROVIDENCE AT ST. JOHN’S
WEDNESDAY: SETON HALL AT SYRACUSE, GEORGETOWN AT LOUISVILLE, MISSISSIPPPI STATE VS. BAYLOR, INDIANA AT MICHIGAN STATE
THURSDAY: VANDERBILT AT MARQUETTE, FLORIDA AT RUTGERS, OKLAHOMA AT CINCINNATI, VCU AT AKRON