By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. NEVER BET AGAINST BEN HOWLAND
Was it really less than a year ago that an article came out crushing Howland and the UCLA program? Boy how times have changed. The Bruins aren’t a lock to go deep into the NCAA Tournament or even win the PAC-12 for that matter, but Howland has shown again why it’s foolish to question a man that took UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-2008. Did the Bruins have hiccups early in the season including a loss at home to Cal Poly? Absolutely. It’s taken some time for UCLA but right now the Bruins are a perfect 4-0 in league play and 14-3 overall after Saturday’s win at Colorado. Not many thought this was possible after the first few weeks of the season, but this team has really developed into one of the better stories in the sport.
2. NOTHING IN COLLEGE HOOPS IS GUARANTEED — JUST ASK KENTUCKY
Going into this season the Wildcats hadn’t lost a single game at Rupp Arena in the John Calipari era. Now after Saturday’s defeat to Texas A&M they’ve already lost twice on their home floor in the past six weeks. Anyone who covers college basketball knew that this particular Kentucky team (10-5) was going to take some time to mold, but now the question becomes — when will they mesh? The Wildcats are fortunate to be 1-1 in league play and they don’t play in a conference this year that presents a lot of opportunities to gain quality victories. How this team fares on the road in the SEC will determine where they wind up in the postseason. We all thought the Commonwealth’s team was a known commodity. Not this year.
3. BUTLER AND VCU LOOK LIKE THE CLASS OF THE ATLANTIC 10
It’s only been a few games but right now the two high-profile additions to this conference look like they’re a cut above the rest. The Bulldogs won at two difficult road venues in Saint Joseph’s and Dayton, while VCU beat the Flyers at home and then won at St. Bonaventure. We’ll know more about both these teams this week. Butler will likely be without Rotnei Clarke due to a neck injury for Wednesday’s game vs. Richmond and VCU will have a tall task when they host Saint Joseph’s on Thursday night at the Siegel Center.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. LOUISVILLE’S TRIP TO UCONN ON MONDAY
The Cardinals will likely be the number one ranked team in the country when they face the Huskies in Hartford and it will be interesting to see how UConn handles themselves on such a big stage. Let’s just say this: Kevin Ollie has gotten this team to believe. They’ve beaten Michigan State. They won a game at Notre Dame on Saturday. There is a belief in the eyes of these players that they have something to prove even though they can’t play in the postseason this year due to the program’s low APR. Can they beat Louisville? We’re not so sure. The Cardinals’ pressure shouldn’t be that much of a factor considering the Huskies have Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, but Louisville’s relentlessness on the backboards could wind up being the difference. UConn will need strong games on the glass from both Tyler Olander and DeAndre Daniels to stay close.
2. NC STATE’S BATTLE WITH MARYLAND ON WEDNESDAY
I’m not just looking forward to this game because I’m going to be in College Park on Wednesday. I really want to see how the Wolfpack respond after beating Duke on Saturday. NC State’s talent level is on par with anyone in college basketball but we’re still not sure how this group will handle prosperity. Mark Gottfried’s team has several potential pros and one of the more underrated players in the country in Richard Howell, who scored 16 points and grabbed 18 rebounds on Saturday against the Duke. NC State isn’t going to sneak up on anyone like they did at the end of last season. The Wolfpack will have to play well to beat a young, but talented Maryland team on the road.
3. SAINT JOSEPH’S VOYAGE TO VCU WITHOUT HALIL KANACEVIC
Shaka Smart said a big reason why he wanted to join the Atlantic 10 was because it would create more higher profile opportunities for the players in his program. The Rams can’t ask for a better opportunity than the one they’re going to have on Thursday night at the Siegel Center. Saint Joseph’s was picked in the preseason to win the conference and while they’ve battled injuries and other issues early, the Hawks still have the talent to beat VCU on their home floor. Saint Joseph’s though, will be shorthanded as they’ll be without valuable forward Halil Kanacevic, who will miss the next few games due to a death in his family. Without Kanacevic, we’re really skeptical if Phil Martelli’s team has the depth to withstand the Rams’ vicious pressure.
THIS AND THAT:
– The coaching staff at Providence deserves a tremendous of credit for the job they’ve done with Bryce Cotton. Player development is an integral part of any program and the Friars’ staff has made Cotton into one of the better all-around perimeter scorers in the Big East. When Ed Cooley arrived at Providence nearly two years ago, Cotton was merely a shot maker. Now he’s a big-time offensive threat that can beat a defense in a plethora of different ways. After Sunday’s win at Seton Hall, Cotton was leading the conference in scoring at 21.5 points per game.
– Umass freshman point guard Trey Davis will be a pivotal piece for the Minutemen in the Atlantic 10. The 6-foot Davis has been used regularly recently for Umass in several different three-guard alignments and allows Derek Kellogg to move Chaz Williams off the ball. Davis came off the bench and had 12 points as well as four assists in Sunday’s 77-73 win at Fordham.
– Oklahoma freshman guard Buddy Hield is becoming more than just a scorer. Known as a dynamite offensive player when he arrived on campus in Norman, Hield is starting to round out his game and had five assists and four rebounds along with 15 points in Saturday’s win over Oklahoma State. Lon Kruger told me a few weeks ago that the Sooners needed Hield in the starting lineup because of his energy and he’s proving to be a valuable piece for this team. Oklahoma is 11-3 overall and 2-0 in the Big 12. They will host Texas Tech on Wednesday.
– Fabyon Harris is starting to emerge as a consistent perimeter threat for Texas A & M. Elston Turner did score 40 points at Rupp Arena in the Aggies’ win over Kentucky on Saturday but Harris nailed a big three-pointer late in the second half that iced the game. The 5-11 Harris, who spent last season in junior college has scored in double-figures in each of his last four games.
– Evansville proved that they’re a legitimate contender in the Missouri Valley after they upset Wichita State on Sunday night. The Aces are 4-1 in league play and played an arduous non-conference schedule that included games with Notre Dame, Butler, Murray State, and Creighton. The player to watch on this team? Senior wing Colt Ryan. The 6-5 Ryan scored 24 points and dished out eight assists in the win on Sunday against the Shockers.
– With James Southerland out indefinitely for Syracuse, freshman forward Jerami Grant is going to have an important role for the Orange. The 6-8 Grant is the typical Syracuse player who would be a star on a lower level team but instead is just another talented option that Jim Boeheim can use off the bench. In Saturday’s win over Villanova, Grant had his best game of the season, scoring 13 points and grabbing five rebounds in 29 minutes of action.READ MORE: Reports: Mets, Max Scherzer Agree To Record 3-Year, $130 Million Deal
– Cincinnati senior JaQuon Parker finally looked like the player we saw last season in the Bearcats’ win on Saturday night at Rutgers. Parker single-handedly took Scarlet Knights’ star Eli Carter out of the game and forced Rutgers’ leading scorer into a dreadful 1-for-11 from the field. For Cincinnati to be one of the better teams in the Big East, Parker needs to just do what he did on Saturday night. Nothing more, nothing less.
– Washington has won their first three PAC-12 games after performing poorly in the non-conference portion of their schedule. The Huskies don’t have any household names like they have in past years, but C.J. Wilcox (19 PPG) is one of the better scorers in the conference and Aziz Ndiaye (9.3 RPG) is one of the better big men.Lorenzo Romar’s team will host Colorado and Utah this week.
– Several NBA people have told me in the past week that they wouldn’t be surprised if Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore winds up being the top overall pick in June’s NBA Draft. The 6-5 McLemore has the body of a big time scorer and could instantly put the ball in the basket at the next level. Other potential candidates for the top spot in what is expected to be an extremely weak draft are Indiana’s Cody Zeller and UNLV’s Anthony Bennett.
– Forecasting the NCAA Tournament is part of covering college basketball, but saying certain teams are in trouble if they lose a few early league games in January is simply ludicrous. The bracket doesn’t come out for another nine weeks and if we’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that teams will always have opportunities to play their way into the field. Tournament talk shouldn’t start until at least after the Super Bowl. Period.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: LOUISVILLE AT UCONN, BAYLOR AT KANSAS
TUESDAY: WISCONSIN AT INDIANA, TENNESSEE AT KENTUCKY, NOTRE DAME AT ST. JOHN’S
WEDNESDAY: UNLV AT SAN DIEGO STATE, NC STATE AT MARYLAND, COLORADO AT WASHINGTON, PROVIDENCE AT GEORGETOWN
THURSDAY: MICHIGAN AT MINNESOTA, FLORIDA AT TEXAS A & M, SAINT JOSEPH’S AT VCU
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