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Monday, November 29, 2010
O'Neil's Feast Week observations

By Dana O'Neil

Here’s what we know for sure as December nears: absolutely nothing.

At least nothing we can write in ink or even really solid pencil.

But with our basketball appetite whetted by a week’s worth of feasting, we have learned a thing or two -- such as Washington coach Lorenzo Romar has more sartorial nerve than any other basketball coach in Maui and shooting guru Herb Magee needs to offer a nationwide tutorial on free throw shooting.

A few other salient points we’ve gleaned from our turkey week gobbledygook:

1. So Duke is good … ESPN.com has learned: OK, this doesn’t exactly qualify as stop-the-presses news, but for the handful of detractors who thought the Blue Devils were merely overblown hyperbole we offer you this: 28.1. That’s the margin of victory for Duke through six games. Granted, the Devils aren’t biting off the best of the best, but they did dismantle Kansas State with surgical precision and are doing what good teams are supposed to do: smoking the competition.

2. Too much tryptophan is not good for basketball: More than a few teams looked like they either ingested too much turkey or, at the very least, opted to play like one. The day after Thanksgiving -- and fresh off beating No. 20 Temple -- Cal put up five points in the first half against Notre Dame. Meanwhile, Temple followed its loss to the Bears with a loss to Texas A&M. And then there is the Pac-10, which heads into the holiday season as the land of Misfit Toys. We’ll give Washington a pass. Losing to Kentucky and Michigan State isn’t criminal. And Arizona played well before succumbing to Kansas. After that? Let’s see, USC has lost to Rider, Bradley and Nebraska this season. UCLA crossed the country and lost twice in New York. Oregon State has dropped games to Texas Southern and Seattle, and Stanford needed overtime to oust DePaul.

3. The Big East was undervalued: The general consensus held that this was a rebuilding year for the Big East. Instead the league has won six of the early-season tournaments (Maui/Connecticut, Coaches vs. Cancer/Pittsburgh, Charleston/Georgetown, Legends/Syracuse, Great Alaska Shootout/St. John’s and Old Spice/Notre Dame) and finished as runner-up in two others (Puerto Rico/West Virginia and NIT/Villanova). Mix in Louisville’s beatdown of Butler, Cincinnati’s stomping of Dayton and Marquette’s respectable performances in losses to Duke and Gonzaga, and rebuilding has quickly turned into reloading in the BEast.

4. NCAA investigations aren’t a distraction: Connecticut is waiting for the final word from the Committee on Infractions and Tennessee is awaiting a letter of allegations. And while pundits and talking heads were convinced the Huskies and Vols would be bothered by the pending bad news (this pundit/talking head included), the Huskies and Vols insisted they’d be OK. Yeah, they were right. Connecticut stomped its way through Maui and Tennessee plowed over Villanova to win the NIT Season Tip-Off.

Connecticut, in fact, reminds me of Syracuse from a year ago. When I watch the Huskies I have that same sort of "where did this come from" feeling I had while watching the Orange last season. With the way Kemba Walker has broken out (think: Wes Johnson), the Huskies strike me as an equally legit team as Syracuse of a year ago, not a fluke team that caught early lightning in a bottle.

5. If you’re panicking over Michigan State, don’t: By Dec. 1 of last year, the Spartans already had lost to Florida and North Carolina. By Dec. 3 of the previous year, they’d succumbed to Maryland and North Carolina. Those seasons didn’t turn out too badly. Tom Izzo coaches for March, not November, and his teams routinely get better and tougher as the season progresses. One loss to what appears to be a very good Connecticut team does not a disaster make.

6. But if you’re blowing off Butler’s slow start, don’t: Yes, the Bulldogs looked average in the early season last year and still managed to finish quite nicely. But losing to Minnesota, Clemson and Georgetown (all eventual NCAA tourney teams) is one thing. A blowout loss at Louisville and a home overtime loss to Evansville (albeit sans Ronald Nored) is another. There is plenty of time for Brad Stevens to work his magic, but right now the answer to who is the next Butler isn’t Butler.

7. And if you’re looking for an early player of the year, look at Kemba Walker: The UConn guard’s numbers are downright silly five games into the season. He’s averaging 30 points and 3.6 assists per game and shooting 53 percent from the floor (kudos to Stony Brook for holding Walker to 18 in the season opener). But it’s more than his numbers that have set Walker apart. It’s his energy. He’s playing with a joy that is infectious and spreading to a young Huskies team eager to follow his lead. Last season’s UConn team was loaded with talent but saddled by ill-temper. Walker has changed the Huskies’ attitude and in the process ought to be changing people’s expectations.