Monday, January 17, 2011
Observations from the week that was
By Andy Katz
1. Memphis coach Josh Pastner is earning his salary, going through the most trying season of his young career. And that includes a season on the staff of Arizona interim coach Kevin O'Neill, who took over after Lute Olson's health problems caused him to take a leave of absence. Pastner was supposed to cruise to the Conference USA title with one of the nation's top-three recruiting classes. That hasn't happened. The players on the roster, both returnees and newcomers, have challenged him more than imagined. Will Barton's eligibility was an issue in the summer, but he was cleared and all seemed calm. Then Jelan Kendrick didn't adhere to the standards of the team, and Pastner decided to jettison him (he eventually transferred to Ole Miss). Angel Garcia decided he needed to make some cash and went back to Spain prior to the conference season. Losses in the “up” games against Kansas, Georgetown and Tennessee piled up before a stunning loss at SMU. To add to Pastner's misery, after the loss to the Mustangs last Wednesday, his top returning player, Wesley Witherspoon, who had already missed a few games with an injury, opted to be insubordinate. Witherspoon reportedly grabbed the microphone on the team bus and proceeded to mock a member of the coaching staff. So Pastner had to suspend Witherspoon. To his credit, he didn't flinch or cave in to play a valued player. He's now empowered by the result -- the Tigers beat upstart Marshall without Witherspoon. Memphis might have to win the conference tournament in El Paso to get a bid, and if so it will be well-earned.
2. If Tony Bennett could ever catch a break at Virginia and have his whole team available, the ACC might see quite a turnaround. The Cavaliers are playing without their best player, Mike Scott, who is out for the year with an ankle injury. But the Cavs had North Carolina on the ropes before losing at home and then pushed Duke for more than half of its game Saturday before the Blue Devils flipped a switch and rolled. Virginia will be a pest the rest of this season but once they're whole, the Cavs will be a factor in a league that is going through a transitional period, save Duke. Remember, this Virginia team won at Minnesota and at Virginia Tech.
3. The SEC is the toughest conference to predict. Kentucky has been the most consistent team but after that forget it. Georgia has won games it was supposed to win and lost the ones, like at Vanderbilt, which you would assume it would on the road. Tennessee is all over the map, playing in a constant state of chaos. Florida? The Gators looked like a possible SEC East champ, winning in overtime at Tennessee and then once again were flat at home -- this time losing to South Carolina. The Gators have already lost three home games to Ohio State, Jacksonville and South Carolina, making a trip to Gainesville less intimidating. Vanderbilt has had multiple chances to close out teams but failed, most recently at South Carolina and Tennessee -- two games it had a significant lead in. The Gamecocks were awful at home against Boston College, yet Sam Muldrow and Bruce Ellington have been stars in wins over Vandy at home in overtime and then at Florida. Ole Miss fancied itself a possible at-large berth team at the start of the week and then got beat by rival Mississippi State and Georgia, both at home. Mississippi State finally got the output from Renardo Sidney (24 points) and Dee Bost (25) that Rick Stansbury had been hoping for in that win over Ole Miss. But it's too late to consider the Bulldogs for an at-large candidacy.
4. It's a shame that Minnesota won't have a complete roster this season. The Golden Gophers had a real shot to win the Big Ten had they avoided controversy. The injury to Mo Walker was unavoidable, but he would have provided plenty of beef to a solid inside game. He had five fouls to toss at Jared Sullinger of Ohio State but didn't get the chance. Devoe Joseph's apparent selfish play of wanting more shots, according to the Gophers' staff, hurts this team's offensive versatility even if it might help in the locker room. And it's unfortunate that Trevor Mbakwe has put himself into trouble again. Even though the Facebook message was harmless in its verbiage, there was still a restraining order about contacting the woman in question. Mbakwe was released from his brief jail stint earlier in the week and returned to help the Gophers beat Purdue in a thrilling affair. But the image damage was done and he will now have to work to get it back. The Gophers nearly won at Ohio State without Joseph and Walker. Nearly every Gopher game is close. And there are plenty to go. But this team probably won't reach its full potential of what was projected in the preseason due to the myriad of distractions.
5. Check the standings a third of the way through the Sun Belt and you'll see that the recycled coaches are going through a bit of a renaissance. The East division is led by Florida Atlantic's Mike Jarvis at 6-0 with Florida International's Isiah Thomas in second place at 3-2. Atop the West is Denver at 5-0 led by the coach Joe Scott. Arkansas State is second at 4-2 behind John Brady. Jarvis went to the Elite Eight at St. John's, Brady to the Final Four at LSU, Thomas was an NBA coach/GM for multiple teams and Scott was once the chosen one at his alma mater Princeton. Yet the obscurity of the Sun Belt is providing cover for these coaches all vying for a return to the NCAA tournament.