By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. I’D TAKE MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST OVER ANY PLAYER IN AMERICA
Some people told me I was crazy when I made that statement prior to Kentucky’s win over Louisville on Saturday but when you watch “MKG” play, it’s tough not to see why he’s more valuable than anyone else in college basketball. Whether it’s a tip in on the offensive glass or a taking a charge in the paint, everything Kidd-Gilchrist does affects one thing — winning. In the Wildcats 69-62 win over the Cardinals on Saturday, the freshman wing tallied 24 points and 19 rebounds while shining brighter than any other player in a game that was loaded with star power. It’s amazing to think that John Calipari welcomed back three starters from last year’s team that reached the Final Four last season in Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller and Kentucky’s two best players are two freshmen — Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis.
2. DON‘T SLEEP ON PURDUE
They’re not on the national landscape as much as they’ve been the past few seasons but the team Matt Painter has this year at Purdue could be more dangerous than previous seasons because of the multiple ways they can score the basketball. With no true low post presence, the Boilermakers have a plethora of versatile parts that are highlighted with great spacing on offense and a feisty approach on defense. While Robbie Hummel and Ryne Smith are the only two players on Purdue that have established themselves as consistent outside shooters, this team has slashers like Kelsey Barlow and Anthony Johnson that can find seams in the defense for easy baskets. If not for a few lost possessions against Xavier and Butler, the Boilermakers could be 14-1 instead of 12-3.
3. RUTGERS WILL BE A MAJOR PLAYER IN THE BIG EAST IF THEY CAN ADD ONE MORE PIECE
Even after their narrow loss on Sunday at South Florida, Mike Rice and the Scarlet Knights proved this past week that they have the ingredients in place to be a major player in the Big East during the next few seasons. In Thursday night’s double overtime win over Florida, freshmen guards Myles Mack, Eli Carter, and Jerome Seagears played practically the entire game on the perimeter and routinely made big shots in big moments. With Kansas State transfer Wally Judge eligible next season and first-year forwards Kadeem Jack and Derrick Randall set to return along with bruising sophomore Gilvydas Biruta, all this team needs is a legitimate scoring wing that can do damage late in the shot clock.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. HOW SETON HALL DOES AGAINST UCONN TUESDAY NIGHT IN NEWARK
It was tough not to be thoroughly impressed with the way the Pirates broke away from West Virginia in the latter part of the second half on Friday night. Kevin Willard is quietly doing one of the better coaching jobs in the Big East but trading blows with the Huskies will be a tall task for Seton Hall. Unlike West Virginia, whom like the Pirates had three veteran players surrounded by an influx of freshmen, UConn has a slew of seasoned pieces back from last year’s team that won the National Championship plus three terrific first-year players in Ryan Boatright, Andre Drummond, and Deandre Daniels. If Seton Hall is within single digits within the last five minutes, they’re a legitimate contender for the NCAA Tournament.
2. KANSAS-KANSAS STATE AT PHOG ALLEN FIELDHOUSE ON WEDNESDAY
The team that has been synonymous with the top of the Big 12 Conference takes on a program that has started the season in the shadows. There is a consensus that this is the year that someone other than Kansas will win the Big 12 and while most believe Missouri and Baylor are the two most likely contenders, don’t dismiss Frank Martin’s team. There is no Michael Beasley or Jacob Pullen in this group of Wildcats but Martin has molded a blue-collar, balanced team that has the ability to beat anyone because of the way they guard and share the ball. “When we got on a roll last season, it was because all of the guys around Pullen started to play at high level,” Martin said late last week. “When we lost to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament, those guys didn’t play well and that’s what people remembered — but that wasn’t reflected with the way they finished the season.” Those “guys” Martin is talking about — Will Sprading, Jamar Samuels, Rodney McGruder, and Martavious Irving have all blended with freshman big man Thomas Gipson to form a unit where on any given night, any player can be the assassin. It will be interesting to see how they respond in one of college basketball’s most hostile environments against a Kansas team that has more star power with Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor — but isn’t necessarily deeper.
3. CAN TEMPLE HANG WITH DUKE WEDNESDAY IN PHILADELPHIA?
Only if they can rebound and against the Blue Devils’ massive front line, that’s not going to be an easy task. Without starting center Micheal Eric, Temple is forced to start 6-foot-9 forward Anthony Lee and 6-foot-6 wing Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson on the baseline — and against Duke’s front court trio of Ryan Kelly and Mason and Miles Plumlee, that’s going to be an uphill battle. Miles Plumlee is averaging 10 rebounds per contest in his last four games and it will likely take an inspired performance by Lee on the boards to give the Owls a chance. Still, Fran Dunphy is one of the best coaches in America and Temple’s terrific perimeter trio of Juan Fernandez, Ramone Moore, and Khalif Wyatt can make this a game if they get it going offensively. The problem is during the Owls’ last two games, that triumvirate is only shooting 35.9% percent from the floor —- against Duke, that won’t be good enough.
THIS AND THAT:
- It’s tough not to love Indiana’s Victor Oladipo. The Hoosiers’ bouncy wing can have a major impact on a game on both sides of the ball and Tom Crean doesn’t even have to worry about running a play for him because of his instincts. Multiple times down the stretch in Indiana’s upset over Ohio State on Saturday, the 6-foot-5 sophomore made major plays that didn’t show up in the box score. Look for Oladipo to get better and better as his career continues in Bloomington and eventually develop into a potential “Gerald Wilkins” type of NBA player down the line.
- Ohio State sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith is really emerging as the Buckeyes replacement for David Lighty. The 6-foot-4 lefty is making 50% percent of his three-point shots on the season and is really embracing doing the dirty work for Ohio State. The Buckeyes don’t shoot it as well as last year’s team without Jon Diebler but have more depth and have maintained their intangibles thanks to Smith and sophomore point guard Aaron Craft.
- Saint Mary’s guard Stephen Holt is looking more and more like one of the better kept secrets in America. An unbelievable athlete with terrific timing, Holt is emerging as a legitimate third option for the Gaels behind Matthew Dellavedova and Rob Jones. Although he only stands 6-foot-4, Holt is grabbing 4.7 rebounds per game and is one of many reasons why Randy Bennett’s team figures to be in the WCC title mix again with Gonzaga.
- Speaking of the Bulldogs, they’ll go as far as Sam Dower will take them. Even though he’s a reserve, Dower is the closest thing Gonzaga has to an X-factor. When Dower scores in double figures, Mark Few’s team wins by an average of 15.5 points per game.
- It’s been overshadowed because of how talented their front court is, but Kentucky point guard Marquis Teague is really struggling. In fairness to Teague, he’s been put in the unenviable position of playing the most important position on the floor for John Calipari after Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, and Brandon Knight have come before him. However the truth is, right now the Wildcats look more potent offensively when Doron Lamb and Darius Miller are in the back court. If Teague evolves, there is no ceiling for this team — as if there was one to begin with.
- Trent Johnson and LSU have a golden opportunity to earn a resume building win Monday night at home against Virginia. The Tigers have won seven games in a row including a victory over Marquette and have really started to shoot the ball better on offense. Freshmen Anthony Hickey and Johnny O’Bryant continue to produce for Johnson’s team, who could make a jump in the SEC if sophomore wing Ralston Turner emerges as LSU’s go to scorer on the wing.
- Miami senior DeQuan Jones has made an instant impact since he’s returned to Miami. In two appearances this season, the 6-foot-7 Jones is averaging nine points and seven rebounds for the Hurricanes, who could be a surprise team in the ACC as they get healthier. With Jones and Reggie Johnson up front, Jim Larranaga has the ability to match up with most teams in the conference and already has one of the league’s best backcourts with veterans Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant.
- Iowa sophomore wing Devyn Marble was beyond poised in the Hawkeyes’ final possessions during their upset win over Wisconsin at the Kohl Center on Saturday. With tremendous facilitating skills at 6-foot-5, look for Fran McCaffery to put Marble in isolation situations more and more as the season progresses for Iowa, whose three best players — Marble, sophomore Melsahn Basabe, and freshman Aaron White all have plenty of time to grow together.
- Picking the winner of the PAC-12 Conference this year is harder than picking boxes in a Super Bowl pool. Still, if I had to shove my poker chips in the middle of the table, I’d bet on Sean Miller to mold Arizona into the best team by late February/early March. The Wildcats still have plenty of pieces back from last year’s team that lost to UCONN in the Elite Eight and are finally starting to get efficient minutes from freshman point guard Josiah Turner. Turner’s struggles early may have been a result of unfair expectations to start the season. People need to understand that just because someone is highly rated coming out high school, it doesn’t mean they’re ready to produce at the BCS level of college basketball.
- Drexel has now won six games in a row and are six and two since Chris Fouch returned to the lineup. Bruiser Flint’s team was the preseason pick to win the CAA and look like the most complete team on paper if they can find ways to just get a little bit better shooting the basketball. The Dragons will begin a difficult eight-day stretch on Wednesday when they travel to Georgia State and then return home to face VCU and George Mason.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: TEXAS A & M AT BAYLOR, VIRGINIA AT LSU, VCU AT HOFSTRA
TUESDAY: UCONN AT SETON HALL, LOUISVILLE AT ST. JOHN’S, OKLAHOMA AT MISSOURI, MICHIGAN STATE AT WISCONSIN
WEDNESDAY: DUKE AT TEMPLE, KANSAS STATE AT KANSAS, MARQUETTE AT GEORGETOWN, NOTRE DAME AT CINCINNATI
THURSDAY: MICHIGAN AT INDIANA, PITT AT DEPAUL
Which games are you looking out for this week? Let us know…