By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. IT WOULDN’T SHOCK ME IF ARIZONA WINS THE PAC-12 TOURNAMENT
Sean Miller told me prior to the season that he hoped his young team would develop to the point where they’d be playing their best basketball towards the end of the year and after this past weekend, it seems like the Wildcats are on that type of trajectory. Arizona earned two quality wins on the road at Cal and Stanford and immediately vaulted themselves back into the top tier of the PAC-12 standings. The Wildcats have a solid core of capable veterans that played big minutes in last year’s run to the Elite Eight in Solomon Hill, Jesse Perry, and Kyle Fogg and also have two improving first year guards in Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson. The PAC-12 has been a major question mark all season long and a league where no one team can provide separation from the rest of the pack. With that said, don’t be surprised if Arizona’s experience, defensive capabilities, and leadership is enough to get them to into a position where they can win the PAC-12 Conference Tournament and earn an automatic bid to the field of 68.
2. TYSHAWN TAYLOR AND THOMAS ROBINSON ARE CAPABLE OF CARRYING KANSAS TO A FINAL FOUR
The Jayhawks suffered a bitter defeat to Missouri on Saturday night in Columbia and even though Taylor missed two key free throws and was called for a critical charge in the game’s final seconds, you couldn’t help but get the feeling that this team has the components to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Even though he’s played his entire basketball career in the shadows, Taylor seems eager to accept the leadership role for Kansas and Robinson has turned into college basketball’s nastiest presence. A brute force on the baseline, the power forward encapsulates the term “man among boys”. With both Taylor and Robinson likely to produce at a high level each and every game, the key for this team will be getting enough support around its two stars. It seems like Bill Self only has six people he can really count on in his rotation and it will be up them to provide just enough ancillary help around Taylor and Robinson.
3. LOUISVILLE IS SLOWLY STARTING TO ROUND INTO FORM
This isn’t a vintage Rick Pitino team in terms of overall talent but the Cardinals are slowly starting to resemble the team many of us thought we’d see early in the season. There is no Terrence Williams or Earl Clark on this Louisville team but this squad seems determined to be a hardworking, overachieving unit that is primed to be peaking at the end of February. A plethora of injuries has helped Pitino establish quality role allocation and even though we’re not going to pick the Cardinals as a team that can reach New Orleans, you’re starting to see this team suffocate opponents defensively. Also, freshman power forward Chane Behanan is really starting to blossom as he grabbed 11 rebounds in Saturday’s win over Rutgers including eight on the offensive glass. Keep an eye on him moving forward.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. CAN FLORIDA GET SHOOT THEIR WAY TO AN UPSET WIN OVER KENTUCKY?
One of the things that Kentucky has proven throughout this season is that if you’re going to have a chance to beat them, it’s not going to be from the inside. The Wildcats interior defense led by Anthony Davis is so difficult to crack that you’re going to have to probably make double figure 3-point shots to have a chance to win and that’s just what Florida is capable of doing. The Gators have four capable guards who can score it from deep in Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, and Bradley Beal as well as a capable face up forward in Erik Murphy. These two teams have separated themselves as the top two squads in the SEC and Tuesday night’s showdown at Rupp Arena has all the makings of a game with an NCAA Tournament feel.
2. DOES NORTH CAROLINA CONTINUE ITS RUN AGAINST DUKE?
Since the second half of their win over Virginia Tech on January 19th, North Carolina has looked every bit like the team everyone anticipated we’d see at the start of the season. The question is — will it continue against Duke on Wednesday? It certainly looks like it. Kendall Marshall tallied 16 assists in North Carolina’s win over Maryland on Saturday in College Park and is really starting to accelerate the Tarheels’ break while Tyler Zeller is quietly making his case as the ACC Player of the Year. Duke will probably have more depth than the Tarheels and will need freshman combo guard Austin Rivers to use his ability to dribble drive to the basket to get Carolina’s thin perimeter into foul trouble.
3. THE DESPERATION BETWEEN SETON HALL AND RUTGERS ON WEDNESDAY
I’ve been very open about the fact that if these two teams were both ranked in the Top 25 for four or five straight seasons, this rivalry would develop into the Northeast’s version of Duke and North Carolina. Neither Seton Hall nor Rutgers are even close to perennially being an elite team but both schools are one thing heading into Wednesday’s showdown at the RAC — desperate. The Pirates have lost six straight games after a 15-2 start and the Scarlet Knights have really shown their youth recently in end of game situations. Both teams are 4-7 in conference play and both need the same thing to take the bad taste out of their mouth — a win.
THIS AND THAT:
– One of the more noticeable things in Memphis’ win over Xavier on Saturday was how much more fluid the Tigers’ offense was when Antonio Barton was on the floor. A steady ball mover and capable perimeter defender, Barton isn’t the player on Josh Pastner’s team that’s always put immediately in bold print but he’s a very big piece to the puzzle if this team is going to return to the NCAA Tournament.
– Keep an eye on Temple as potential team that can do some damage in the NCAA Tournament. The Owls have postseason experience from a year ago and the potential Atlantic-10 Player of the Year in senior guard Ramone Moore. Senior center Micheal Eric has also added some intangibles in the middle since his return from a knee injury and Aaron Brown has relished his role as a “glue guy” type off the bench.
– The biggest difference between Maryland winning and losing is having a consistent forward in the front court next to Alex Len. Mark Turgeon has gotten sporadic play from both James Padgett and Ashton Pankey but neither has yet to establish themselves as a consistent threat either scoring the ball or grabbing it off the backboards.
– How about the job Doug Wojcik is doing at Tulsa? The Golden Hurricanes are in second place in Conference-USA and are much better than their overall 14-9 record. Wojcik has two really solid guards in Jordan Clarkson and Scottie Haralson and two capable big men in Steven Idlet and Kodi Maduka.
– I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — when Sean Armand makes shots, Iona can beat just about anyone except for a handful of teams in the country. When he doesn’t, they’re going to struggle. The Gaels sophomore is the X-Factor for Tim Cluess’ team, who proved on Saturday in their win over Manhattan that they MAAC still goes through New Rochelle.
– George Mason freshman big man Erik Copes is going to be a factor for the Patriots in the postseason. The 6-foot-8 Copes has made an impact for Paul Hewitt’s team since he returned from a mid season injury and is a tremendous rim protector for the CAA level. “He’s one of the smartest freshman big men I’ve ever coached,” Hewitt said of Copes. Look for him to blossom over the next five weeks.
– With parity in college basketball at an all-time high, a league as good at the top like the CAA deserves two bids. The conference’s top four teams — Drexel, VCU, George Mason, and Old Dominion have all gotten better since the beginning of the season and each of them are capable of winning a game in the NCAA Tournament.
– Don’t count out St. Joseph’s in the Atlantic-10. The Hawks may just sit at a 5-4 mark in league play but have two big opportunities coming up at home against Saint Louis and Umass followed by winnable road games at Rhode Island and George Washington. I’ve liked this team’s overall talent since September and still think they can make a move to the top of the conference.
– It’s tough not to be amazed at the transformation of Wichita State big man Garrett Stutz. The 7-footer has doubled his averages in points and rebounds from a season ago and is one of the main reasons why the Shockers have a chance to challenge Creighton for a Missouri Valley Conference title.
– It’s getting to the point where Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi shouldn’t be on the floor together for UCONN because they’re so much more effective with the other one off the floor. The dynamic between those two reminds me of when the Knicks had both Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry during the 2007-08 season.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: MISSOURI AT OKLAHOMA, UCONN AT LOUISVILLE, MARQUETTE AT DEPAUL
TUESDAY: FLORIDA AT KENTUCKY, IOWA STATE AT OKLAHOMA STATE
WEDNESDAY: GEORGETOWN AT SYRACUSE, KANSAS AT BAYLOR, DUKE AT NORTH CAROLINA, CINCINNATI AT ST. JOHN’S, NOTRE DAME AT WEST VIRGINIA
THURSDAY: ILLINOIS AT INDIANA, WISCONSIN AT MINNESOTA, SAINT MARY’S AT GONZAGA
What’s your prediction for Seton Hall-Rutgers? Sound off below…