NOTES FROM DECEMBER 2nd
The Most Notable Game: (#3) Wichita State, 72 @ (#81) Air Force, 69
This was just as good a game as I expected. Wichita State enjoyed the lead for most of the game, but it was a tight one throughout. The Shockers (8-0, 0-0) were bolstered by a very strong showing out of senior forward Carl Hall, their leading scorer and rebounder, who put up 21 points and 10 rebounds against the Falcons (6-2, 0-0). Air Force, likewise, got big performances out of their big men – center Tim Broekhuis and forward Mike Fitzgerald put in 18 and 17 points, respectively. However, the pair only combined for four rebounds, and as a team, the Falcons were outrebounded 32-19. Wichita State had their sloppy moments, committing 19 turnovers and 23 fouls, but Air Force bailed them out by making only 14 of 25 free throws. Had both teams made all of their shots from the stripe, the game would’ve swung the other way, with AF prevailing 80-76. Alas, free throws have never been free, and this game went to Wichita. WSU was helped by a solid performance from Cleanthony Early, as well as late 3s from Demetric Williams and Malcolm Armstead that put Wichita up by ten – their largest lead of the game and one that they never surrendered.
A Couple Major Conference Teams That Are In Trouble Early: (#96) UCLA, (#131) Florida State
Yesterday, I talked about (#88) Kentucky and their early free fall, but the Wildcats aren’t alone in the Tom Petty Division. UCLA, like UK, had a lot of early season hype resting on the shoulders of some freshmen. The announcement of Shabazz Muhammad’s eligibility was supposed to solidify things at Pauley Pavilion, but the Bruins (5-3, 0-0) have looked anything but solid so far. This team got taken to the wire by (#202) UC-Irvine in their second game, dropped their first real challenge to (#70) Georgetown, and then lost to (#206) Cal Poly. They have a few wins in laughers against teams they were certainly supposed to beat, but even (#230) Georgia, who looks awful in the early going, kept it close. Now they have lost two players (Tyler Lamb & Joshua Smith) to transfers mid-season, and Ben Howland seems to have likewise lost some control. A second true test presented itself Saturday night as (#43) San Diego State came to town. The Aztecs were favored to win, but this was a good opportunity for UCLA to quiet their detractors. The Bruins, in keeping with the rest of their nonconference performance to date, played inconsistently, losing 78-69 at home. They have the talent to compete, but it remains to be seen if they have the constitution to play up to that potential. If they don’t, the other teams in the Pac-12 could end up sending the Bruins into early hibernation.
On the other coast, Florida State (4-3, 0-0) is a hard team to figure out. At times, they play great defense, and their senior leader, Michael Snaer, can play like a superstar. Their loss to (#9) Minnesota is nowhere near as worrisome as their season-opening shocker, in which they lost to (#133) South Alabama. They looked to be back on track until Sunday, when they lost to (#192) Mercer at home. Don’t get me wrong, Mercer is an okay squad who has played very tough competition so far, and could win the Atlantic Sun this year – but that doesn’t excuse the Seminoles from this one. Snaer had as many combined turnovers and fouls (7) as he did points. Their only player in double figures, Okaro White, had to sit for a few minutes down the stretch after picking up his fourth foul. They missed a free throw in the final minute that would have tied it, while Mercer made four down the stretch to seal it. Regardless of my rankings at the moment, I don’t think Sunday’s loss was as bad as the one to South Alabama, but let’s not sugarcoat it – there’ll be some serious trouble in Tallahassee if these guys can’t play more consistently.
A Couple Mid-Major Teams That Might Be a Little Over-Hyped: (#4) Gonzaga, (#19) Creighton
Let’s just get this out of the way now: Gonzaga is a really good team, and they have a legitimate star in Elias Harris. I won’t argue to the contrary. My worry with them, however, is the same as it has always been: they don’t play in a good enough conference. Mark Few and the Zags (8-0, 0-0) have dominated the competition in their nonconference schedule so far, but a big game looms when (#14) Illinois comes to Spokane on Saturday. They also have games against (#55) Baylor and (#54) Oklahoma State later this month which could trip them up. The early dismantling of (#142) West Virginia looked really good on paper, but the Mountaineers looked awful in November. The wins over (#54) Oklahoma and (#75) Clemson are looking increasingly impressive, but I’m still not totally sold on Gonzaga. This is mostly because after their game in Stillwater, they enter play in the middling-at-best West Coast Conference. The WCC is definitely stronger with (#111) BYU in it, and (#113) St. Mary’s is always a threat with Matthew Dellavedova in the fold, but this is simply not the level of competition that you want to be facing in the months leading up to the tournament. I predict that Harris, Kelly Olynyk, and David Stockton (yes, John Stockton’s son) will win their conference running away, but when the real tests come in March, I’m afraid the Zags will have forgotten how to play in big games. A few second-round exits in the last couple years don’t do much to change that opinion, either.
Like Gonzaga, Creighton – and preseason All-American Doug McDermott – are going to give teams fits this year. In their first two tests this year, the Blue Jays (7-1, 0-0) passed with flying colors. They took down (#37) Arizona State and (#51) Wisconsin, two teams that could easily be tournament teams, on neutral-site courts after they picked apart their first four opponents. As soon as they came home to Omaha, though, they slipped up and lost to (#32) Boise State by 13 points. The Broncos are nothing to scoff at this year – their only loss so far was to (#57) Michigan State – but this game should not have given Creighton the trouble it did. Doug McDermott is really the lone star on this team – although Grant Gibbs is a solid point guard – and he does just about everything well. One worries, though, that the Jays are a couple off-nights from McDermott away from stumbling in conference play. They’ll be going toe-to-toe all year with Wichita State, who is just as good as Creighton, in my opinion. I discussed (#58) Illinois State on Saturday, and there are also solid clubs in (#72) Bradley and (#83) Southern Illinois that could trip them up in the MVC. How Creighton fares against their final nonconference tests – trips to (#65) Nebraska and (#50) California over the next two weeks – could be the truest barometer for just how seriously they should be taken this season.
You have to feel bad for the (#345) Liberty Flames. The team lost its first seven games, and they are among the worst teams in the DPI. Liberty hosted (#190) Georgia State on Sunday morning, looking to get off the schneid and record their first win of the season. With less than a minute left, the Flames’ Davon Marshall – who broke out today with 25 points – knocked down a three-pointer from the corner that put them up 63-58. Seconds later, they gave up a three-point play, committing a foul on a GSU tip-in, to bring the game back within two. Marshall made two more free throws, but Liberty gave up another three-point play on a dunk with 18 seconds on the clock. With a one point lead, Liberty’s Casey Roberts – the culprit of both fouls – missed his second free throw, and with 3 seconds left, the Panthers’ Rashaad Richardson knocked down a long three-pointer to give Georgia State a 67-66 lead. John Caleb Sanders put up a prayer from half-court which hit the backboard and bounced hard off the front rim, but caromed out, sending Liberty (0-8, 0-0) to its eighth-straight loss to start the 2012-13 campaign. It was a long day in Lynchburg, to be sure.
Out west, in Sunday’s final game, (#124) Washington narrowly avoided falling below .500, barely hanging on thanks to a few dumb fouls in the last seconds by (#176) Cal State Fullerton. The Titans twice tied the game in the waning seconds, but committed costly errors on the inbounds both times. This allowed the Huskies to escape, 74-72, after some clutch free throws in the final ticks from Andrew Andrews. But these are the types of games that the Dawgs need to be winning convincingly if they want to compete in what is shaping up to be a pretty even Pac-12. Elsewhere in the conference, Cal got whooped by Wisconsin in Madison – where Bo Ryan simply does not lose – for their first loss of the year.
Lastly, I was very sad to learn last night of the passing of Rick Majerus. He was truly one of the great men in basketball, and a coach to whom I took an instant liking as a youngster. His Utah teams were inspiring to me, and are part of the reason that I love underdogs like I do today. I have always been a huge fan of Majerus, and he is on my short-list for coaches I’d love to get a beer with. It looks like we’ll have to put that off until later, Big Guy. I can only imagine how comfortable the sweatsuits in Heaven are. By the way, here’s a fun coincidence: Rick Majerus’ last team, (#116) Saint Louis, won on Sunday in his honor against another team who enamored me to the underdog: (#85) Valparaiso, who are currently coached by Bryce Drew, the man who put them on the map with his buzzer-beater in 1998 – in the very same tournament where Majerus took Utah to the Finals. Perfect.
What to Watch on Monday (14 games total):
(#114) Eastern Michigan @ (#12) Syracuse
(#154) Southern Cal @ (#65) Nebraska
(Monday’s a slow one, thankfully. I have to study for my Phonetics final, so the less distractions, the better.)
Now go check out the Updated Top 50 and Projections through Sunday’s games, then enjoy the rest of your weekend!