Monday, November 12, 2012
10 observations from opening weekend
By Jason King
Here are 10 quick thoughts as I emerge from my mancave (empty pizza boxes and Diet Coke cans in tow) following college basketball’s opening weekend.
1. Nothing creates buzz and anticipation quite like a new face, which is why we spend so much of the offseason talking about the potential impact of incoming freshmen. In reality, though, it’s rare for an 18- or 19-year old to have a major influence on his squad in November and December. It doesn’t mean he was overrated or he isn’t going to pan out. Quite simply, it takes a while to adjust to the speed, physicality and complexity of the college game. Eight of the top 10 players in ESPN.com’s Class of 2012 opened their college careers over the weekend. Collectively, Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel, Baylor’s Isaiah Austin, Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett, UCLA’s Kyle Anderson, Pitt’s Steven Adams, Texas’ Cameron Ridley and Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart averaged 7.6 points. Take Austin (22 points) out of the mix and that number drops to 5.8. Most -- if not all -- of these players will be major factors by the opening of conference play. In the meantime, it’s important to show a little patience with any freshman, regardless of ranking, while he adapts to the next level. Note: Second-ranked Shabazz Muhammad (ineligible) of UCLA and No. 7 Anthony Bennett of UNLV have yet to play. Bennett, who scored nine points in the Rebels' final exhibition game, makes his debut Monday.
The Wildcats will rely on forward Kyle Wiltjer this season, much like they did against Maryland.
2. Freshmen Noel, Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein command the headlines, but two of the biggest keys to Kentucky’s season will be sophomore Kyle Wiltjer and senior Julius Mays. Much like Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones, Patrick Patterson, DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller in the seasons before them, the Wildcats’ “veterans” need to serve as a calming force on the court when their younger teammates get sped up. Wiltjer (19 points) was one of just two Cats to score in double figures in Friday’s victory over Maryland. Mays, a transfer from Wright State, played 30 minutes off the bench and attempted a team-high 10 shots.
3. Baylor has the best chance of any team to end Kansas’ run of eight straight Big 12 titles. The Bears were the most impressive team I saw last weekend. The No. 1 question surrounding Scott Drew’s squad was the frontcourt, where Baylor lost three players (Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller) to the NBA draft. The 2012-13 unit of Austin, Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers is actually better. Austin and Jefferson (who averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds in his first two games) are much more aggressive than Jones III and Miller. Jefferson, a 6-9 redshirt junior, attacks the basket with ferocity, which leads to a lot of easy buckets on put-backs and alley-oops. Jefferson had nine dunks against Lehigh on Friday. The 7-1 Austin hit two 3-pointers in that blowout victory and scored 22 points before leaving with a sprained ankle early in the second half. The most physically imposing of the trio is Gathers, a 6-8, 260-pound freshman who plays with the same type of toughness and grit as Acy, the Bears’ most important player last season. Gathers averaged 8.5 boards in two games. Mix in guards such as Pierre Jackson, Brady Heslip, A.J. Walton and Deuce Bello, and this is Drew’s best team yet. Not just because of personnel, but because of chemistry.
4. Speaking of Lehigh, I feel foolish for leaving C.J. McCollum off of my preseason All-American team. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen much of him before Friday. I was covering another game when the Mountain Hawks beat Duke in last season’s NCAA tournament. Now I understand what all of the hype is about. A 6-3 guard, McCollum scored 36 points against Baylor. Pull-up jumpers with a hand in his face, fall-aways from the baseline, 3-pointers and slashes to the basket ... McCollum was hitting Kobe-like shots against the Bears, who are as athletic and long as any team Lehigh will face all season. I can’t imagine there is a better scoring guard in the college game right now.
5. The biggest upset of the weekend occurred when No. 25 Florida State fell to South Alabama 76-71 Friday in Tallahassee. But the Seminoles were far from the only disappointing team. No. 14 Michigan State hardly seemed ready to contend for a Big Ten title in falling to Connecticut 66-62. The Spartans trailed 20-6 early in the first half. No. 20 San Diego State looked dreadful in Sunday’s 62-49 loss to ninth-ranked Syracuse, although it should be noted that high winds on the flight deck of the USS Midway affected the outside shooting of both squads. I also thought Marshall, which is picked to finish second in Conference USA, would fare better against Villanova, an average Big East team. The Thundering Herd lost 80-68. The excitement about Rutgers’ “breakthrough season” took a hit when the Scarlet Knights opened with a 56-52 home loss to lowly St. Peters. Then there’s Old Dominion, which has appeared in two of the last three NCAA tournaments. The Monarchs are already toting setbacks to Holy Cross and Texas-San Antonio. It’s early, though. It’s early.
6. It may be too early to declare that the Pac-12 is officially back, but the much-maligned league is off to an excellent start. The Pac-12 and Big 12 are the only two conferences to survive the opening weekend without a loss (although it should be noted that West Virginia will play its first game Monday night at Gonzaga). Every Pac-12 team has notched a win. I’m still picking UCLA to win the league over Arizona, which got 17 points from Xavier transfer Mark Lyons in Sunday’s 82-73 victory over Charleston Southern. The most intriguing team is USC. An influx of transfers could spark the Trojans to an NCAA tournament berth one season after finishing 6-26. Omar Oraby, a 7-foot-2 transfer from Rice, had 16 points, 6 rebounds and three blocks in his USC debut Friday -- and he only played 14 minutes in a victory over Coppin State. I’m also high on Colorado and Stanford in the Pac-12. I think the conference will get five NCAA tournament bids after receiving only two last season.
7. Sunday was a great day for new coaches. Tim Miles opened his Nebraska career with an 11-point win over Southern and Danny Manning got things rolling at Tulsa with a 110-54 victory over LSU Shreveport. South Carolina rallied from a 15-point deficit to defeat Milwaukee in overtime, giving Frank Martin a dubya in his first game as a Gamecock. Larry Brown’s SMU debut saw all five starters score in double figures in a 73-58 victory over Loyola Marymount. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Glockner joked on Twitter that, after the game, Brown resigned and contacted the Los Angeles Lakers about their once vacant head coaching position.
8. No coach had as memorable of a first game as Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie. As impressive as they were in a 20-6, game-opening run against No. 14 Michigan State, the Huskies showed even more grit and resiliency by fighting off the Spartans after they had taken a lead late in the second half. Guards Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier combined for 38 points on 14-of-28 shooting for Connecticut, which is already being pressured to award a long-term contract to Ollie, who was given a seven-month deal after Jim Calhoun retired in September. Personally, I’m not sure one victory in an emotional game should be enough to warrant a brand new contract. But if UConn continues to succeed under Ollie the next few months, the school should definitely restructure his deal and stand behind him as the permanent coach. The signs couldn’t be any more positive thus far. Seriously, was I the only one who was actually moved and inspired during Ollie’s postgame interview with Andy Katz?
9. Speaking of moving and inspiring, I was shocked to see Mike Bruesewitz on the court for Wisconsin on Sunday. Bruesewitz had only resumed practice one day earlier after suffering a nasty laceration to his right leg during a practice on Oct. 9. Bruesewitz scored 10 points in just 13 minutes in an 87-47 victory over Southeastern Louisiana. His presence provided a huge emotional lift for the No. 23 Badgers, who have already lost starting point guard Josh Gasser to an ACL injury. “I’m definitely recharged and refocused,” Bruesewitz told reporters after the game. “I was really excited to come into the season before the injury, and now [the excitement] is about 10 times more.”
10. Tuesday’s Champions Classic in Atlanta will feature four of the top programs in basketball history. Still, each team (Kansas, Michigan State, Duke and Kentucky) is a work in progress. KU's offense was stagnant in Friday’s win over Southeast Missouri State, when seniors Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford combined for just 13 points on 4-of-16 shooting. Michigan State may be jet-lagged after returning from Germany. Kentucky starts three freshmen and needed a walk-on point guard (Jarrod Polson) to defeat Maryland on Friday. Duke may be the most seasoned team of the bunch, but this certainly isn’t one of Mike Krzyzewski’s best squads. Both games are tough to call, but I’ll go with Kansas 57-54 over Michigan State and Duke 65-61 over Kentucky. Also, don’t sleep on the Charleston Classic, which begins Thursday in one of my all-time favorite cities. Murray State, Baylor, Colorado, St. John’s, Dayton, Charleston, Auburn and Boston College make up a solid field. I’m taking Baylor over Murray State in the title game. If you plan on attending, make sure to stop by Husk. Best. Cheeseburger. Ever. If there aren’t any seats available, sit at the bar. Hit me up on Twitter at @JasonKingESPN for more Charleston tips -- or basketball questions.