January 7, 2014
By Bruce Marshall
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Hopping around the college basketball map as we seek to identify some of the winners and losers from last weekend's action....
WINNER: San Diego State...The Mountain West needed to claim a big-name scalp to help the league's profile on Selection Sunday. Not only did the Aztecs help the Mountain, but they also helped themselves enormously in Sunday's 61-57 win at Kansas, breaking the Jayhawks' 68-game non-conference winning streak at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. Kudos to Steve Fisher, who quickly remolding a side that appeared likely to take a few steps backward after losses of key components Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley from last year's latest Big Dance qualifier on Montezuma Mesa. But Fisher quickly got his troops to buy in on the defensive end, and the steady influence of sr. PG Xavier Thames (16.3 ppg) has provided the glue necessary to mesh with some new contributors such as Tulane transfer F Josh Davis and RS frosh swingman Matt Shrigley. The Aztecs now look like the team to beat in the Mountain.
LOSER: Northwestern...Look around this season's Big Ten, and tell us where Northwestern's wins are going to come from? We don't see any that jump off the page at us, as the Cats are learning a very hard lesson with their new HC Chris Collins, the ex-Duke man (and Coach K assistant) pushed hard on NU administrators, who would mistakenly run out the very competent Bill Carmody after last season. After being blasted in early Big Ten action, it seems official that the Cats have taken a couple of steps backward for Collins, who has tried to lay the Duke offense over the modified Princeton offense that Carmody employed. Northwestern, however, lacks Duke's talent base, and after trying to push the pace to no avail over the first month, Collins has tried to put the brakes on the offense. Now the Cats don't know what to do, held to 14 points in the first half of a shellacking against Wisconsin last week before another heavy defeat on Sunday at Michigan. Collins' other problem is that the Cats lack athleticism and own no real defensive stoppers. This team was built to punch above its weight using the Carmody system, not to play like Duke with far less personnel.
WINNER: Colorado...Already owning a win over Kansas in early December, the Buffs claimed another big scalp in Boulder with a rousing 100-91 win over previously unbeaten Oregon on Sunday. Pac-12 observers have long insisted that CU can go a long way this season if the Buffs' guards can play with consistency. They certainly did so on Sunday, as Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie made countless commando raids into the paint and scored a combined 50 points, making 20 of 23 free throws between them. Moreover, the overall athleticism on the roster impresses, with newcomers true frosh 6-5 swingman Jaron Hopkins and 6-8 RS frosh Wesley Gordon having worked their way into HC Tad Boyle's rotation, while 6-10 soph C Josh Scott has added about 20 pounds of bulk following his frosh season in order to better withstand the pounding in the paint. If Booker and Dinwiddie continue to excel, the Buffs (who have qualified for the Dance in each of HC Tad Boyle's first two seasons) are going to be a threat to make a deep run in March.
LOSER: Providence...After hinting at significant progress in the first few weeks of the season, the Friars have made an about-face and are sinking toward the bottom of the reconfigured Big East in what was supposed to be a breakthrough year for HC Ed Cooley. But since an early-season injury to PG Kris Dunn, on-court direction has been lacking for the Friars, with the ball spending too much times in the hands of prolific scoring off-G Bryce Cotton (19 ppg), who needs to be on the receiving end of service as opposed to looking for others to get involved in the offense. Cooley's bench has also be mostly ineffective, and PC might have hit rock bottom in Sunday's 91-61 blowout loss to Villanova. Regional sources long ago soured on the stodgy Cooley offense, which lacks movement which often results in Cotton forcing shots while hoping that frontliners like foul-prone 6-10 Kadeem Batts and 6-6 LaDontae Henton can crash the boards.
WINNER: SMU...Things are looking up for the Mustangs, who have invested quite a bit in their program, beginning with the hiring of Larry Brown as head coach in 2012 and now with the completed renovations on Moody Coliseum, which finally hosted the Mustangs for the first time this season when UConn paid a visit last Saturday. (The Ponies had played their first six home games in the much-smaller Curtis Culwell Center in Garland while the finishing touches were put on Moody). The return to Moody was a complete success, as the 11-3 Mustangs rolled to a 74-65 win. Brown's team is winning the old-fashioned way, earning success with defense, ranking second nationally in field-goal percentage defense. And they can make shots, too, ranking seventh in field-goal percentage. They've also mostly dominated their opponents in points in the paint and in the rebounding battle, and it was no different vs. UConn, whose star G Shabazz Napier was particularly frustrated, connecting on only 2 of 9 FG attempts. Meanwhile, Brown's jitterbug 5-9 PG Nic Moore (team-best 14 ppg), a transfer for Illinois State where he played for Brown assistant Tim Jankovich, scored 20 points and collected six assists. Depth is also a plus for the Mustangs, as Brown has ten players who have seen at least 12 minutes of action per game.
LOSER: Duke...We know that it was an emotional game for Notre Dame on Saturday as it made its ACC debut at home against the Blue Devils. But the 79-77 Irish win will knocked Coach K's team out of the Top Ten for the first time in 122 weeks. Moreover, it was the sort of game that exposed Duke's defensive weaknesses, which Mike Krzyzewski is running out of time to fix as the season reaches its halfway point. This year's Duke lacks some of the size of recent editions, relying more on small forward newcomers like frosh star Jabari Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood. But Notre Dame attacked the paint on Saturday and found relative easy passage to the basket. Duke will continue to try to camouflage its deficiencies in the post with an uptempo style, though the defensive issues are likely to prove this team's undoing in March, causing us to wonder if this team really is a serious national title threat.
WINNER: Kansas State...Look out, as Kansas State just might be the hottest team in the Big XII after Saturday's rousing 74-71 upset win over sixth-ranked Oklahoma State in Manhattan. That was the Cats' ninth straight win (and seventh straight cover) for HC Bruce Weber, who has been able to instill a tough-minded approach to a somewhat rebuilt squad from last year's NCAA qualifier that lost longtime lynchpin guards Rodney McGruder & Angel Rodriguez to graduation. But Wichita Falls, Texas frosh product Marcus Foster (team-best 14 ppg) has stepped into the breach and then some, scoring 17 points in the win over the Cowboys. K-State still has some shooting issues, converting only 29.5% beyond the arc and barely 63% from the FT line, but has a battering-ram 6'7, 275-lb. PF Thomas Gipson, who is converting nearly 60% from the floor. Defense and physicality are trademarks of this Weber edition that improved to 11-3 with the win over the Cowboys.
LOSER: Missouri State...Of all of the results over the weekend, we don't know of any that were more perplexing than the Bears' 89-57 loss at a very modest Loyola-Chicago side that is making its debut in the Missouri Valley this season. The Bears entered Gentile Arena with an 11-2 record, but proceeded to shoot just 39% from the floor while allowing the Ramblers to can 61% of their field goal attempts. Loyola soph G Devon Turk, who had not scored more than 17 points in a game all of this season and never more than 21 in his career, broke his personal mark in Bob Beamon-like fashion with 30 points. We suppose we can cross off Missouri State as a possible challenger to high-flying Wichita State in the Valley.
WINNER: Washington...We know, the Huskies only managed a split of their road swing through Arizona over the weekend. But consider that U-Dub was a double-digit underdog in both games, yet covered each easily, cruising past Arizona State by a 76-65 score on Thursday night before pushing unbeaten and top-ranked Arizona into the final minutes of a 71-62 loss on Saturday. Along the way, true frosh PG Nigel Williams-Goss (12.6 ppg; 4.3 apg) began to more effectively distribute the ball and get others besides bombs-away G Chris Wilcox some touches on the attack end, while 6-8 USF transfer Perris Blackwell (11 ppg over the weekend) has started to provide more consistent scoring from the blocks. Wilcox was back to his high-volume shooting (8 for 19 from floor) in the loss to the Wildcats, but it was still the first indicator all season that Lorenzo Romar's team might be able to make some noise in the Pac.
LOSER: Washington State...While cross-state Washington might have turned its season around with solid efforts in the desert last weekend, Wazzu now looks headed in the wrong direction after scoring just 72 total points in two games against Arizona and Arizona State, held to 7 points in the first half against the former in a humiliating 60-25 setback. The preseason defection of juco PG Danny Lawhorn continues to haunt the Cougs, who have become almost solely reliant upon G DaVonte Lacy (only double-digit scorer at 17.1 ppg) for points. And when Lacy was sidelined after an emergency appendectomy, and another starter, Aussie import 6-6 G Dexter Kernich-Drew, was sidelined due to concussion symptoms, the game at Arizona quickly turned into a descent into the abyss, as Wazzu made only 9 of 45 field goal attempts for the night. Lacy returned to play limited minutes in Sunday's 66-47 loss at Arizona State and figures to get back to normal soon. But time might be running out on the regime of 5th-year HC Ken Bone, whose preferred uptempo style has been hard to detect this season.
WINNER: Wake Forest...It has been a slow climb for Wake Forest under HC Jeff Bzdelik, who has spent the past three-plus seasons trying to put the Demon Deacons back on the map. But evidence of a definitive breakthrough might have come on Sunday in a 73-67 win over North Carolina which improved Wake to 11-3 this season. The Deacs hadn't beaten the Tar Heels since 2010 and had not done so at home in the Lawrence-Joel Coliseum since 2009. Along the way Wake's defense held UNC hotshot G Marcus Paige to only eight points, his first single-digit scoring game this season. A couple of sophs, G Codi Miller-McIntyre (team-best 16.6 ppg) & PF deluxe Devin Thomas (11.4 ppg) have upped their contributions significantly this season, while more experience was added to the backcourt in the form of 6-2 sr. transfer Coron Williams (10.2 ppg) from Robert Morris. Along with longtime 6-7 F Travis McKie (whose career in Winston-Salem seems to date back to the Tim Duncan era; 11 ppg), Bzdelik might have the best-balanced squad of his Wake tenure.
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