Monday, January 10, 2011
Brennan: Thoughts from the week that was
By Eamonn Brennan
Five impressions from the week that was:
1. Connecticut should hereafter receive the benefit of the doubt. Before Saturday’s big win at Texas, Connecticut appeared to be a one-man team. The Huskies had major holes in their frontcourt and no legitimate second scoring option to help keep defenses honest in their approaches toward brilliant scorer Kemba Walker. Their record and subsequent rise in the rankings could have been seen as a soon-to-be-exposed fraud based on little more than three days in Maui in November. It wasn’t an entirely unreasonable assumption. The Big East would chew up the overrated Huskies, everyone would forget about Maui, and that would be that.
After the win? Not so much. Connecticut now looks far more impressive. There aren’t too many teams in the country with the kind of nonconference résumé the Huskies can now boast; the win over the Longhorns not only adds another marquee victory to that tally, but it puts the rest of UConn’s nonconference performance back into focus. You can’t take much away from a team that has beaten Michigan State, Kentucky and Texas all away from home. Do we believe in Connecticut? At this point, it’s hard not to.
2. Cincinnati is still a mystery. One of the more intriguing teams in the nation, the Cincinnati Bearcats came into this week -- their biggest of the year thus far -- obscured by a shroud of mystery. Yes, Cincinnati was undefeated, and that was impressive in its own right, but that optimism had to be hedged with the fact that its undefeated nonconference record didn’t have a single plausible NCAA tournament team in the mix. This week -- with games against Xavier and at Villanova -- was the week the Bearcats would prove to everyone just how good they were (or weren’t).
After those two games, Cincinnati is still something of a mystery. The Bearcats easily handled an undermatched Xavier squad, but that was an impressive win all the same. But what do you make of a solid if occasionally shaky performance against Villanova on the road? There’s no shame in losing a road game to the No. 7 in the nation, even if that team didn’t play its prettiest hoops of the season. It’s clear Cincinnati will be much better than last season’s ugly 19-16 squad. How much better? After 15 wins and one loss, we still don’t know.
3. Winning on the road road is always difficult. This one doesn’t need much explanation. If you tuned in Saturday, you already know the story: Seven ranked teams -- Missouri, Georgetown, Michigan State, Kansas State, Kentucky, UCF, and Vanderbilt -- lost to unranked opponents Saturday. Of those losses, only Georgetown’s came at home; the rest were products of road conference games. Throw in Kansas’ overtime scare at Michigan, Tennessee’s inexplicable loss at Arkansas, and a handful of other under-the-radar results from the weekend, and the collective results hammered home a point we too often forget: Winning on the road is just plain hard.
4. Missouri State is your new Missouri Valley favorite. The Bears aren’t a complete surprise. After all, many experts picked Missouri State to compete -- and by “compete,” I mean “hang around during the regular season enough to keep the Shockers from running away with things, maybe” -- with Wichita State, Creighton and Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley this season. Through five MVC games, the Bears have already done all that and more. Sunday night, the Bears got their biggest win of the season, a 59-56 grinder of a victory at previous consensus league favorite Wichita State. That’s not the Bears’ first big conference win. Missouri State -- which I will begin referring to as “Mo. State” as of … now -- also owns wins at Creighton and at UNI. In other words, the three toughest games of the MVC season are already out of the way, and with wins in each, Missouri State is in the MVC driver’s seat until further notice.
5. Georgia might be worthy of their preseason hype. It’s not like the Georgia Bulldogs were burning up the pages of your favorite preseason annual, but they were expected to improve on last year’s feisty but ultimately feckless 14-17 finish. Thus far, that expectation seems to be valid. Georgia got its biggest win of second-year coach Mark Fox’s career Saturday, beating the No. 11-ranked Kentucky Wildcats -- a hot team coming off a lopsided road blowout of rival Louisville -- 77-70 in Athens. The Bulldogs had yet to beat a ranked team or even a plausible NCAA tournament team this season, but they were tough in neutral-court losses to Temple (65-58) and Notre Dame (89-83 in double overtime). With the win over the Cats, Georgia took a major step forward as a potential SEC East contender, a potential NCAA tournament team, and a potential rising SEC power under Fox.