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Monday, December 27, 2010
Observations from the week that was

By Eamonn Brennan

1. Baylor's offense -- yes, the offense -- is holding the Bears back. What's been more surprising about Baylor's season to date? That the Bears have lost to Gonzaga (in Dallas, no less) Washington State and Florida State? Or that the Bears have done so thanks to a suddenly just-OK offense? Scott Drew's team, which had the No. 3-ranked offense in the country on a per possession basis last season, is just No. 41 in the nation to date this winter, according to Pomeroy. Last year, the Bears were out of this world on the offensive end; they posted an offensive efficiency of 120.4 despite a high turnover rate. Basically, when the defensively suspect Bears didn't turn the ball over, they scored.

This year, Baylor has flipped the script -- the Bears are playing great defense and so-so offense. Why the change? The loss of senior point guard Tweety Carter is a good place to start. Carter was an underrated offensive player, an assist machine with outside touch. Without him, Baylor's turnovers have ballooned -- replacement A.J. Walton is turning the ball over on 35 percent of his possessions, which is way, way too high. Additionally, Baylor's 3-point field goal percentage has deflated and the Bears have lost three of their last four games, all to arguably mediocre teams. Sure, the defensive improvement is great news. But Baylor has to find a way to stop turning the ball over pronto. Until they do, Drew's team -- one with as much pure talent in the lineup as almost any team in the country -- will continue to be exposed on the offensive end.

2. Don't sweat Butler yet. Remember when Butler's at-large hopes were dashed forever? When the Bulldogs were doomed to a must-win scenario in the Horizon League tournament? When last year's March (and April) darlings became this year's November (and December) duds? How quickly things change. Thanks to last week's Diamond Head Classic title run -- which included a tight win over Florida State and a blowout victory over impressive runner-up Washington State -- Butler has relaunched itself into the at-large picture in a major way.

There are a variety of reasons for Butler's resurgence. Matt Howard, who avoided his customary foul trouble during a deserving tournament MVP performance last week, is sporting an insane 137.8 offensive rating, the 11th best in all of college basketball. Shelvin Mack is shooting the ball well again. Freshman Andrew Smith is playing efficient minutes and taking a heap of pressure off Howard on the defensive end. All together, Brad Stevens and company are in fine shape -- Butler's current nonconference record (9-4) is a half-game better right now than it was 12 months ago. True, none of Butler's four nonconference losses last season were nearly as ugly as this season's Nov. 27's loss to Evansville at home. But Butler fans can officially shelve the freakout for now. If their beloved team continues to play like it did over the holiday, they'll be just fine during the real most wonderful time of the year.

3. Mississippi State is a mess. If we remember the Diamond Head Classic as The Week Butler Turned It Around, we should also remember it as The Week Mississippi State Went Completely, Irretrievably Off The Rails. The losses -- to Virginia Tech in the Bahamas and to Washington State and Hawaii in Hawaii -- are bad enough. The extracurricular maladies -- among them sophomore Renardo Sidney’s attitude issues, poor performance and suspension, which was followed by a this-can’t-be-happening fistfight between Sidney and junior Elgin Bailey on Thursday -- seal the deal. The Bulldogs are not an NCAA tournament team. At this point, they more closely resemble a particularly splintered faction of professional wrestlers. (“Sidney and Bailey are fighting in the stands! The fans are livid, JR! Is that a metal chair?! No! NOOO!!!”) There’s no telling where this thing goes next, but whatever happens, it isn’t going to be positive.

4. Washington State deserves some love. Could Wazzu win the Pac-10? While the rest of the conference’s non-Washington teams play sporadic, hard-to-read hoops, the Cougars keep chugging along, playing quietly impressive basketball. After this week, Ken Bone’s team has lost only twice -- to Kansas State and Butler -- and has wins over Gonzaga and Baylor, the latter of which came on a neutral floor in Hawaii. Washington State also has something most teams don’t: a legitimate all-around star. That’s Klay Thompson, whose all-around excellence has anchored the Cougars on both ends of the floor. Take notice: The boys in purple and gold aren’t the only team in Washington worth watching.

5. Memphis isn’t there yet. Before the 2010 season began, we knew Memphis would be better. The question was: How much better? Was this Tigers team, a young squad led by a star-studded 2010 recruiting class, good enough to make a deep tournament run? Or was it an improved but nondescript team likely to win the C-USA and not much else? After a month and a half of nonconference play, the answer is closer to the former than the latter. Memphis’ last, best chance to a precocious statement -- a home date with Georgetown on Thursday -- ended with another high-profile Memphis loss. The Hoyas’ experienced guards handled a rowdy FedEx Forum atmosphere in the first half before pulling away in the second, and by the end of the day, we knew two things. One: Georgetown has been fantastic in the face of its brutal nonconference schedule; the Hoyas are fully worthy of your respect. Two: Memphis is still just too young. The Tigers are on the way back, but they’re not there yet.