By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. KENTUCKY’S FRESHMEN GUARDS ARE STARTING TO MATURE
Sometimes people forget the season is five months long, right? The Wildcats’ first-year back court has been chastised left and right, but played their best game of the season in Kentucky’s 73-66 win over Louisville on Saturday at Rupp Arena. James Young led the way with 18 points and 10 rebounds and Andrew and Aaron Harrison appear to be growing more comfortable in their respective roles. The wild card for this group? Pesky guard Dominique Hawkins. Hawkins isn’t a player that will see a lot of time in bold print this season, but he has the ability to regularly make an impact thanks to his tenacious on-ball defense.
2. SYRACUSE’S 2-3 ZONE WILL BE A NEWLY FOUND PROBLEM FOR EVERYONE EXCEPT PITT AND NOTRE DAME
Luckily for the Panthers and Irish, they’re very familiar with Jim Boeheim’s defense from their days in the Big East. For everyone else in the ACC, dealing with the Orange’s vaunted zone is going to be an absolute headache. Syracuse did a tremendous job denying the high post in its win against Villanova on Saturday and like usual, will be a nuisance to play against.
3. THE BOTTOM OF THE BIG TEN HAS CAUGHT UP TO THE MIDDLE
The toughest league in college basketball is deeper than it was last season. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa clearly look like the class of the league but everyone else is more than capable. Indiana and Illinois are both re-tooling from last season but are still exceptionally well-coached. In addition to those two teams, Purdue, Penn State and Minnesota all look sneaky good and will be awfully tough to beat on the road.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. THE START OF CONFERENCE PLAY
I’m making this as a generic statement because we’re now officially in the second phase of college basketball season. The non-conference portion of your schedule allows you to take inventory of your roster but conference play truly defines you as a coach, player, and program. Every game means so much when you’re playing in your league and it’s really exciting to think that starting on Tuesday there will be games every day that mean a great deal.
2. MICHIGAN STATE’S TRIP TO PENN STATE
Sparty has enough firepower to get to Dallas and cut down the nets — they’re that good. But Penn State has been searching for a marquee opportunity and this is it. The Nittany Lions don’t look like an NCAA team but they’re extremely scrappy and have two terrific guards in Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill. The wild card in this game? John Johnson. The transfer from Pitt scored 20 points last week against Mount St. Mary’s and was 8-of-11 from the field. If Johnson, whose only played one game this season, can provide that type of an offensive lift, it would be a huge boost for Penn State.
3. THE AAC OPENER BETWEEN SMU AND CINCINNATI ON WEDNESDAY
If you like defense, this game is for you. The Mustangs have been a trendy pick to do damage in the AAC and they’ve been terrific defensively on the interior. Cincinnati meanwhile, is slowly improving under Mick Cronin and has held their opponents under 70 points for 20 consecutive games. This will be a rock fight of epic proportions. First one to 65 wins.
THIS AND THAT:
– Steve Donahue thought he had a borderline NCAA team this year at Boston College. Most of us in the media agreed with him, too. The Eagles were picked eighth in the ACC preseason poll, but have gotten off to a brutal 4-9 start thanks to a vicious non-conference schedule. “I feel bad for my players,” Donahue said after Boston College lost to VCU Saturday night at the Barclays Center. “This was a group that had some confidence and the schedule has chopped into that.” Next up for the Eagles? A date with Harvard on Wednesday in Cambridge.
– Illinois is 11-2 heading into Big Ten play, but John Groce’s team is going to need its bench to improve if the Illini are to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row. Freshmen Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn, and Malcolm Hill are all important pieces that need to give Illinois mileage in reserve.
– Looking for an underrated game this week? George Washington at Kansas State. The Colonials are 11-1 with two games remaining before Atlantic 10 play, while the Wildcats are quietly hitting their stride after a slow start. This will be a good victory for whichever team comes out victorious.
– St. John’s opening stretch in the Big East isn’t an easy one. The Red Storm travel to Xavier and Georgetown and then return home to face Villanova at Madison Square Garden on January 11th. We’ll know a lot about Steve Lavin’s team early.
– I knew Boise State was a good team before I watched them during the Diamondhead Classic, but I’m more impressed with Leon Rice’s team after seeing them a few times in Hawaii. The Broncos are much more than just Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks and have a capable supporting cast that can regularly make plays. This looks like an NCAA team and a real threat at the top of the Mountain West.
– It was against Prairie View A & M, but Wisconsin played a college game and only committed two turnovers and eight fouls. That’s discipline. Bo Ryan’s team is 13-0.
– The two biggest things we learned about Louisville after they played Kentucky? The Cards really miss a presence like Gorgui Dieng inside and they desperately need to get Luke Hancock back on track offensively. Last year’s Final Four MVP is just 3-16 from three-point range in his last five games.
– Kameron Woods is quietly having a terrific season for Butler. The 6-9 junior is averaging 9.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game for the 10-2 Bulldogs, who open Big East play at home on Tuesday against Villanova. Woods has had seven games this season with double-figure rebounds.
– A mid-major team to put on your radar — North Dakota State. The Bison look like the best team in the Summit League and have two proud seniors in Taylor Braun and Marshall Bjorklund. This team has already won at Notre Dame and beaten Towson.
– One wish for 2013 — people will stop overreacting about one game in college basketball. It’s a season, folks!
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: ROBERT MORRIS AT OKLAHOMA STATE, VIRGINIA AT TENNESSEE, SAINT LOUIS AT VANDERBILT
TUESDAY: ST. JOHN’S AT XAVIER, VILLANOVA AT BUTLER, MARQUETTE AT CREIGHTON, INDIANA AT ILLINOIS, OHIO STATE AT PURDUE, MICHIGAN STATE AT PENN STATE
WEDNESDAY: SMU AT CINCINNATI, SAN DIEGO STATE AT COLORADO STATE
THURSDAY: OREGON AT UTAH, MICHIGAN AT MINNESOTA, CAL AT STANFORD
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