By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. THE PAC-12 COULD CONCEIVABLY BE A ONE-BID LEAGUE
And I think it will be if different teams win the PAC-12 regular season and the PAC-12 Conference Tournament. The one thing that doesn’t exist in this conference is separation. Cal and Washington have looked like the two best teams in this league the entire season but both have been inconsistent. The Huskies seemed primed to take a strangle hold on the top of the standings last week but we’re beaten by 25 at Oregon. Cal has been getting quality play recently from veteran big man Harper Kamp but have yet to distance themselves from the rest of the pack. Also, don’t dismiss Arizona from running the table late. The Wildcats might have lost versatile forward Kevin Parrom for the season but have a solid core of experienced players and two impressive freshmen guards in Nick Johnson and Josiah Turner.
2. BUTLER COULD BE BACK – DEAL WITH IT AMERICA
They might feel like the 1990s Buffalo Bills to some, but if you watch the Bulldogs play, you’ll have a greater appreciation for what they do on the basketball court. Butler doesn’t have a featured perimeter scorer like they did the past two years with Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack but they have everything else — and that may be enough for them to win the Horizon League Conference Tournament. Ronald Nored, Khyle Marshall, and Andrew Smith are all grizzled veterans that have went deep in the NCAA Tournament and freshman small forward Roosevelt Jones is a burgeoning star. Don’t be surprised if Brad Stevens has this team in the field of 68 despite their 15-12 record.
3. THE MAAC TOURNAMENT WILL BE NO FORMALITY FOR IONA
Many people, including myself, expected the Gaels to run through this conference like a chainsaw through butter but if we learned anything from Iona’s loss to Loyola on Friday, it’s that Tim Cluess’ team will have some stiff competition to get where they hope go —- the NCAA Tournament. Jimmy Patsos and the Greyhounds did a tremendous job controlling the pace and knowing when to attack for easy baskets and while Iona did get close a few times in the second half, there was never any doubt that Loyola was going to earn the victory. The win could propel Patsos’ team into position for the top overall seed in the MAAC Conference Tournament and with Fairfield, Rider, and Manhattan all playing solid basketball, the competition for this league’s automatic bid could be more competitive than ever. Many coaches always say that the most pressure filled situation in college basketball is when you’re coaching in a mid major conference tournament because there’s only one bid at stake. No league tournament may encapsulate that belief more than this season than the MAAC.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. LOUISVILLE AND SYRACUSE MONDAY NIGHT AT THE KFC YUM CENTER
Rick Pitino has had tremendous success against Jim Boeheim in recent years and if the Cardinals find a way to beat the Orange Monday night at the KFC Yum Center, it will go down as their best win of the season. Louisville has slowly started to turn the corner in last few weeks and got a real boost in Saturday’s win over West Virginia from freshman guard Wayne Blackshear, who made his season debut after being sidelined early with an injury. Blackshear should give Pitino another solid scorer off the bench along with Russ Smith, and while an upset over Syracuse isn’t a likely occurrence, it’s certainly not impossible.
2. HOW WILL KANSAS SURVIVE IN THE OCTAGON OF DOOM?
The Jayhawks look like a legitimate Final Four contender and have responded with a vengeance after last weekend’s brutal loss at Missouri. Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson have been constants for Kansas but Bill Self’s team is starting to look it can rely on either Elijah Johnson or Trevor Releford to be a double figure scorer at home — but what about on the road? Kansas has had mixed success over the past few seasons at Kansas State and there’s no doubt the Wildcats need this game more than the Jayhawks. Frank Martin has made a commitment to the back court tandem of Angel Rodriguez and Will Spradling but the biggest key in this game for Kansas State will be whether or not burly freshman Thomas Gipson can avoid foul trouble — something he hasn’t been able to do in the past three games.
3. NORTH CAROLINA AND MIAMI WEDNESDAY NIGHT IN SOUTH BEACH
Perimeter defense has to be Roy Williams’ biggest concern after the Tarheels lost combo guard Dexter Strickland to a season ending injury and that element of North Carolina’s defense will be tested to the max when they’re matched up with Miami’s perimeter trio of Durant Scott, Malcolm Grant, and Shane Larkin. Jim Larranaga’s squad is finally healthy and winning this game would add another marquee win to add to their NCAA resume. Additionally, this game will feature a showdown between the two top big men in the ACC — UNC’s Tyler Zeller and the Hurricanes’ Reggie Johnson.
THIS AND THAT:
– A major reason why Saint Louis has ascended to 20 early wins in early February is because of the maturation of sophomore forward Dwayne Evans. The 6-foot-5 Evans has relished his role for Rick Majerus as a “dirty work” type player and has made a massive impact on the boards, grabbing 55 rebounds in the Billikens’ last five games.
– Despite being 16-10, Saint Joseph’s still has a chance to make a run in the Atlantic-10. The Hawks have two winnable games on the road at Rhode Island and Richmond before returning home to play Big Five rival Temple as well as Richmond. Phil Martelli’s team also owns victories over Drexel and Creighton — two teams that have an excellent chance of being in the NCAA Tournament.
– Arizona coach Sean Miller said this week he’s looking for senior guard Brendon Lavender to fill the perimeter scoring role that Kevin Parrom provided before he was lost for the season with injury. “If you at things statistically, he’s the best shooter on our team,” Miller said of Lavender. The 6-foot-5 Lavender scored 12 points in the Wildcats win over Utah on Saturday and will continue to get major minutes the rest of the season. “He’s certainly going to an opportunity,” Miller said.
– Speaking of Drexel, the Dragons have now won 19 of their last 20 games and should have the inside track at the CAA regular season title since they’ve already beaten George Mason and VCU head to head. Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said this past week he’s only enjoyed this type of winning streak once in his coaching career — in 1995-96 when he was an assistant at Umass under John Calipari. The Minutemen only lost two games that season and lost in the Final Four to eventual National Champion Kentucky.
– The suspensions of Alabama players JaMychal Green, Trevor Releford, and Andrew Steele could wind up putting the Crimson Tide on the wrong side of the bubble. With forward Tony Mitchell already suspended, Anthony Grant will have to squeeze more out of his undermanned team. Don’t be surprised if the SEC is a four bid league with Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State.
– Florida State still turns the ball over far too much for a team that hopes to have a chance to win the ACC but the Seminoles are starting to look more potent scoring the ball from the perimeter. For long stretches in Saturday’s win over Miami, Leonard Hamilton played Michael Snaer and Ian Miller together on the wings, giving Florida State two potent shooters to take pressure off Bernard James and Xavier Gibson on the interior.
– Missouri is built incredibly similar to the way Villanova was in 2006 when Jay Wright started four guards in Allan Ray, Kyle Lowry, Randy Foye, and Mike Nardi. The Wildcats went to the Elite Eight that season and lost to eventual National Champion Florida when they were over matched by the Gators’ bruising baseline of Al Horford and Joakim Noah. Could the same thing happen to the Tigers? It doesn’t seem as likely. The presence of Missouri big man Ricardo Ratliffe gives Frank Haith’s team a legitimate low post scoring threat — something that Villanova team lacked. The Wildcats had three players they rotated up front in Dante Cunningham, Will Sheridan, and Jason Fraser but none of the three could put the ball in the basket like Ratliffe.
– North Carolina fans should encouraged by the production of freshman power forward James Michael McAdoo during the Tarheels last few games. The 6-foot-9 McAdoo tallied nine points and seven rebounds in North Carolina’s rout over Virginia on Saturday and is starting to resemble a legitimate scoring threat off the bench. Roy Williams told me before the season that McAdoo had a chance to have a “Marvin Williams” like impact for North Carolina, who looks like it will still be playing its best basketball heading into March.
– Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall told me last week that senior forward Ben Smith was nicknamed “Big Shot Ben” and he certainly lived up to the hype on Saturday at Creighton. The 6-foot-5 Smith scored a career-high 22 points and made three 3-point shots to help the Shockers earn a decisive 89-68 win over the Blue Jays. The combination of Smith and JUCO transfer Carl Hall has provided the perfect blend up front for Wichita State next to big man Garrett Stutz.
– They may have only two Big East wins but there is noticeable improvement in DePaul. Oliver Purnell has done a tremendous job in making the Blue Demons competitive and getting athletes like Jamee Crockett and Charles McKinney to fill specific roles for his style of play. Don’t be surprised if this is a postseason team in two seasons.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: SYRACUSE AT LOUISVILLE, IOWA STATE AT BAYLOR, KANSAS AT KANSAS STATE
TUESDAY: VCU AT GEORGE MASON, FLORIDA AT ALABAMA, OHIO STATE AT MINNESOTA, TEXAS AT OKLAHOMA
WEDNESDAY: NORTH CAROLINA AT MIAMI, NORTHWESTERN AT INDIANA
THURSDAY: NC STATE AT DUKE, WISCONSIN AT MICHIGAN STATE, VANDERBILT AT OLE MISS, WEST VIRGINIA AT PITT
Is Butler back? Sound off in the comments below…