By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. ARIZONA’S NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE CONTINUES TO PAY DIVIDENDS
There is no team more prepared for the long haul than the Wildcats. Arizona has played tough road games (San Diego State, Michigan), good neutral site games (Duke, Drexel), and quality buy games at home (New Mexico State). Sean Miller has prepared his team for the Pac-12 and beyond by putting together a quality non-conference slate prior to the beginning of league play. One thing I’ve learned about Arizona? They’re like a great prize fighter. They’ll take hay maker after hay maker to the jaw — but they get up and respond. It happened against Drexel. It happened against Duke. And it happened on Saturday in a dramatic 72-70 win at Michigan.
2. NO ONE EXPOSES MISMATCHES LIKE FRED HOIBERG
And it happens year after year. Regardless of his personnel, Hoiberg is going to ensure that his best players are put in the best possible position to succeed as many times as possible. In Iowa State’s win over Iowa on Friday night, Hoiberg regularly isolated Georges Niang when he was guarded by Hawkeyes’ big man Adam Woodbury in hopes of exploiting Woodbury’s lack of foot speed. It’s the same formula Hoiberg used last year with Will Clyburn and two years ago with Royce White. Iowa State will be in the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season. Book it.
3. IF YOU’RE HOPING TO HAVE A BREAKTHROUGH SEASON, MANAGE YOUR NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE
It doomed USC last year and it’s doing the same for Boston College this season. The Trojans were a sexy pick to make a big jump in the Pac-12 a year ago but had an incredibly tough non-conference schedule and never got into a rhythm. It ultimately cost Kevin O’Neill his job. The same thing is happening to Steve Donahue this season. Boston College is 3-7 thanks to a vicious pre-ACC slate and still has to play VCU at the Barclays Center in addition to a road game at Harvard.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. MEMPHIS AGAINST FLORIDA IN THE JIMMY V CLASSIC AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN
The Tigers made a major statement a few weeks ago when they beat Oklahoma State in the finals of the Old Spice Classic and it will be interesting to see if they can continue to play at a high level against some of the elite teams in the country. Florida has all the requisites to be one of the best teams in college basketball and the Gators are finally getting healthy. Can Memphis play as composed as it did a few weeks ago on Tuesday night against Florida? Time will tell.
2. STANFORD’S TRIP TO UCONN
The Cardinal have expectations of reaching the NCAA Tournament and in order to accomplish that they’re going to have to start winning some quality games in the non-conference portion of their schedule. Stanford has already lost to BYU and Pitt but getting a win at UConn would really be a step in the right direction. If this team is a real contender for the field of 68, we’ll see it Wednesday night in Storrs.
3. DUKE’S SHOWDOWN WITH UCLA ON THURSDAY IN NEW YORK
Does it get any better than this? Two of the elite programs in college basketball will go toe-to-toe Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. Both Duke and UCLA are limited on the baseline but this game has the potential to be incredibly entertaining offensively. The Bruins have done a great job so far protecting Kyle Anderson on defense but he’ll have his hands full in this one if he’s asked to check either Jabari Parker or Rodney Hood. Expect Steve Alford to mix in a lot of zone against the Blue Devils.
THIS AND THAT:
-The best win Indiana has heading into Big Ten play? Stony Brook. The Hoosiers have lost to UConn, Syracuse, and Notre Dame in the non-conference portion of their schedule and will have to do serious damage in league play if they’re to return to the NCAA Tournament. The good thing for Indiana is the Big Ten always presents those types of opportunities. Michigan State comes to Assembly Hall on January 5th.
-The more and more I watch Illinois, the more and more I come away impressed with how good a coach John Groce is. Groce led the Illini to a win over Colorado in last year’s NCAA Tournament and always seems to put his teams in the right spots on the floor to be successful. This isn’t a great Illinois team in terms of overall talent, but you get the feeling that they’ll definitely be in the bubble picture come March because of Groce.
-Through five weeks of watching Kentucky, the same two things keep rearing their head every time the Wildcats play. This team has no on-court leader, and they don’t have anyone that makes anyone else any better.
-Remember the name Darius Carter. The junior-college transfer has 23 points and 20 rebounds in his last two games for Wichita State and is slowly developing into a factor for the Shockers. The 6-7 Carter can play both power forward and center.
–Cincinnati’s best offense is its press. The problem with that? You have to score to set up your press and right now that’s the Bearcats’ achilles heel. Mick Cronin’s team has scored just 101 points in back-to-back losses against New Mexico and Xavier.
– Eddie Jordan continues to get players at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights received a commitment from Georgetown transfer Greg Whittington over the weekend and the 6-8 forward should be a big piece for Rutgers as they transition to the Big Ten next season. The problem with this team isn’t talent. There’s more than enough capable bodies on the Scarlet Knights roster to make them a competitive team and they should be much better than their 5-7 record. This team has to start guarding and competing on a regular basis. Whittington is expected to have two years of eligibility remaining and averaged 12.1 points and 7.0 rebounds for the Hoyas in 13 games last season.
-The best player in the Pac-12 that no one knows about? Utah’s Jordan Loveridge. The 6-6 forward can score the ball in a plethora of ways and is averaging 17.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Keep an on the Utes. They’ve got some pieces.
–VCU is going to need Juvonte Reddic to play like an All-Atlantic 10 player if the Rams are going to have the type of season they hope to have. Last week against Old Dominion, Reddic was engaged from the opening tip and had 24 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks. In Saturday’s loss at Northern Iowa, he finished with five points and six rebounds.
-It’s time to officially buy stock in Oklahoma freshman Jordan Woodard. The floor general is averaging 11.9 points and 4.9 assists per game while shooting an impressive 42.9% from three-point range. Lon Kruger’s team is 9-1 with their only loss coming against Michigan State.
–New Mexico’s Cameron Bairstow is one of the better power forwards in college basketball. The 6-9 senior is averaging 20.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game for the Lobos and tallied 24 and 6 in Saturday’s loss against Kansas. This is one of the more improved players in college basketball.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: GARDNER WEBB AT DUKE
TUESDAY: MEMPHIS VS. FLORIDA, UC IRVINE AT OREGON, WICHITA STATE AT ALABAMA
WEDNESDAY: STANFORD AT UCONN, TEXAS AT NORTH CAROLINA, NC STATE AT TENNESSEE
THURSDAY: DUKE VS. UCLA, IONA AT DAYTON
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