By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. MOE HARKLESS IS ONE OF THE BETTER PLAYERS IN THE BIG EAST
The stigma coming into the season was that Harkless was destined to be one of the better first year performers in the Big East and after watching him throughout the team’s first 17 games it’s clear that he’s not just one of the elite players in his class — he’s one of the elite players in the entire conference. The versatile 6-foot-8 forward was far and away the most talented player on the floor in St. John’s 69-49 loss to Georgetown on Sunday, finishing with 21 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out with just over five minutes to play. “He’s tough,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said of Harkless. “He can score in so many different ways. He’s a load to handle.” If Harkless can refine his outside shot and add some more gunpowder to his diet, he has the ability to develop into a “Rudy Gay” type of wing moving forward.
2. FLORIDA STATE IS CAPABLE OF BEING ONE OF THE BETTER TEAMS IN THE ACC
I’m fully aware that I said prior to the season that the Seminoles would be the second best team in their conference but up until Saturday’s 90-57 decimation of North Carolina, Leonard Hamilton’s team had yet to show their potential. With combo guard Ian Miller out for the first semester and starting power forward Terrance Shannon lost for the season in early December with a shoulder injury, it’s been difficult for Florida State to get into an offensive rhythm — but that could change after Saturday. The move to play bouncy forward Okaro White at power forward could prove to pay major dividends down the road because of his speed and agility. With White, burly southpaw Bernard James, and skilled big man Jon Kreft coming off the bench, the Seminoles should have the size to overwhelm most conference opponents on the backboards. The key will be if the back court of Miller, Deividas Dulkys, and Luke Loucks can continue to build on Saturday’s breakout performance against the Tarheels and become more proficient at both scoring and taking care of the basketball.
3. THE LACK OF POWER TEAMS IN THE BIG EAST COULD HURT SYRACUSE
It’s out of the Orange’s control but it’s fair to say that the level of difficult games they normally endure throughout the Big East portion of their schedule will be minimized this season. With Villanova and Pitt both struggling and Louisville in a bit of a funk, Syracuse isn’t likely to have more than a handful of nail biters before they hit the Big East Tournament in early March. It would be a major shock if Jim Boeheim’s team isn’t a number one seed on Selection Sunday.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. BAYLOR’S TRIP TO KANSAS MONDAY NIGHT
The Bears have answered every potential challenge thrown at them this season and have shown more grit than any other team in college basketball — but winning at Phog Allen Fieldhouse is an entirely different story. We’ve heard all season long that the road to the Big 12 title goes through Kansas and even though this may not be a vintage Jayhawks squad, Bill Self will have them primed and ready for Monday night’s showdown with the Bears. Look for Kansas big man Jeff Withey, who’s really starting to flourish in a “Jeff Foster” type role for the Jayhawks to be a major factor in this one because of his intangibles. The biggest factor in this game could be depth, which Baylor clearly has more of. Don’t be surprised if Scott Drew uses as many bodies as possible to wear down the Jayhawks, who don’t have more than two or three capable reserves.
2. NOTRE DAME’S TRIP TO THE RAC
Just which Rutgers team can we expect on Monday night? Will it be the the unit that beat UCONN and Florida or the one that got pummeled the two times they played West Virginia? Notre Dame hopes it’s the latter. The Irish were physically beaten up in Saturday’s loss at home to UCONN and Mike Brey knows as well as anyone how difficult it is to win in an environment like the RAC. Look for Rutgers to attack Notre Dame big man Jack Cooley early while the Irish try to highlight their talented sophomore back court of Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins against the Scarlet Knights’ youth on the perimeter. If you’re Notre Dame and you want to return to the field of 68, Monday night is a game the Irish have to have.
3. CAN CINCINNATI WIN AT UCONN?
If there was ever a week I gave them a legitimate shot, this would be it. The Bearcats’ defensive tenacity has frequently disrupted teams who didn’t have multiple ball handlers and with the status of UConn freshman guard Ryan Boatright in question, the door could be open for Cincinnati to pester the Huskies’ back court from start to finish. Mick Cronin has frequently used four guard alignments this season but in Saturday’s win over Villanova, the Bearcats showed their versatility and played more traditionally to match up with the bigger Wildcats. Look for the same to occur on Wednesday against Jim Calhoun and UConn, who like usual are starting to resemble a team that will be much better in early March than they are right now.
THIS AND THAT:
– Vanderbilt freshman guard Dai-Jon Parker is starting to emerge as a physical perimeter defender off the bench. The 6-foot-3 freshman is stronger than most first-year players and adds an “edge” to the Commodores. Don’t be surprised to see Kevin Stallings use him in special defensive situations moving forward because of his physicality.
– The most encouraging thing for Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg after Saturday’s 80-73 loss at Kansas? Starting guard Chris Babb didn’t score in 34 minutes and was 0-8 from the field and 0-6 from 3-point range. The Cyclones didn’t get a marquee victory last week in games against Missouri and Kansas but proved they’re capable of competing with the top teams in the Big 12.
– George Mason got an incredible steal in freshman big man Erik Copes. Originally committed to George Washington out of high school, Copes wound up at George Mason after Karl Hobbs was fired at the end of last season and Paul Hewitt was named head coach of the Patriots. “I’m excited to have a guy like Erik in our program,” Hewitt said of Copes. “He’s got a lot of upside ahead of him.”
– Alabama freshman guard Trevor Lacey seems like the likeliest option to emerge for the Crimson Tide as a fourth scoring option next to Trevor Releford, Tony Mitchell, and JaMychal Green. The 6-foot-3 Lacey has reached double figures in two of his last five games and is starting show signs of comfort in his ability to make shots. Recruited as a sniper from long range, Lacey could be a major factor with his ability to stretch.
– The more and more I watch Texas and St. John’s, the more and more I see parallels between the two programs. Both the Longhorns and the Red Storm have deep, talented freshmen classes that could be special when they become juniors in two years time. It will be up to both Rick Barnes and Steve Lavin to keep these groups together and sprinkle in other pieces that could eventually complement the parts already in place.
– Marquette junior point guard Junior Cadougan has dished out 16 assists and only had four turnovers in the Golden Eagles’ last two games, which were both victories. The continued evolution of Cadougan as a floor general is the key for this team moving forward the rest of the season. “For us to go where we want to go, he has to be really, really good,” Williams said of Cadougan earlier this season.
– UConn got really good minutes from sophomore forward Roscoe Smith in Saturday’s 67-53 win at Notre Dame. A starter during last year’s run to the National Championship, Smith scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds against the Irish while excelling in the same role he did last year for the Huskies as an undersized power forward that could face the basket and find seams in the defense. Don’t be surprised if Jim Calhoun keeps him in this role rather than try to use him on the wing, where the Huskies already have Jeremy Lamb, Niels Giffey, and Deandre Daniels.
– Former Hofstra point guard Chaz Williams is thriving under Derek Kellogg at Umass. The 5-foot-9 point guard has led the Minutemen to a 14-4 start averaging 16.2 points, 5.9 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 40.3% percent from 3-point range. In a wide open year in the Atlantic-10, don’t count out Umass, who earned two big wins last week over St. Joseph’s and Charlotte.
– Despite their struggles, Villanova is going to be right back in the mix at the top of the Big East a year from now. The Wildcats don’t have a senior on their roster and bring in two highly rated prospects in the 2012 class such as point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and big man Daniel Ochefu. Jay Wright’s team is getting noticeably better as evidenced by the way the Wildcats played in Saturday’s loss at Cincinnati, which featured the best games of the season for guards Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek.
– Northwestern junior guard Reggie Hearn looked lost in the Wildcats rotation 10 days ago but has emerged as a capable scoring threat. In his last three games, Hearn has averaged nine points, including 10 in Saturday’s upset win over Michigan State. Should Hearn continue to be a threat, it will add only more depth to Northwestern’s back court of Drew Crawford, Dave Sobolewski, and Alex Marcotullio.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: BAYLOR AT KANSAS, NOTRE DAME AT RUTGERS, LOUISVILLE AT MARQUETTE
TUESDAY: MICHIGAN STATE AT MICHIGAN, ARKANSAS AT KENTUCKY
WEDNESDAY: CINCINNATI AT UCONN, SAN DIEGO STATE AT NEW MEXICO, SAINT JOSEPH’S AT XAVIER, LA SALLE AT TEMPLE
THURSDAY: VANDERBILT AT ALABAMA, CAL AT WASHINGTON