- Jason King
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With his team -- or perhaps his former team -- trailing Middle Tennessee State by 20 points late Tuesday evening, suspended UCLA forward Reeves Nelson sent out a one-word tweet that captured the thoughts of not only Bruins fans but the rest of the college basketball world, too.
"WOW!" it read.
Indeed, even the folks who thought Ben Howland's squad entered the season with unwarranted buzz couldn't have seen this coming. First, a setback against Loyola Marymount, then the suspension of their best player and an embarrassing debacle against Middle Tennessee State. As the Maui Invitational approaches, things could worsen before they improve. Without question, UCLA's free fall has been the biggest surprise of the season thus far.
But there have been plenty of other "Wow!" moments. The pageantry and class surrounding North Carolina's game against Michigan State on an aircraft carrier, Kentucky's dominance of Kansas in the Champions Classic, Cleveland State's upset of Vanderbilt and, of course, Mike Krzyzewski's record-breaking win at Madison Square Garden.
The 2011-12 season is living up to its lofty expectations. As always, the King's Court is here to make sure you're up to date on what's has transpired -- and what's ahead.
In a zone
Branden Dawson -- Michigan State may be 0-2, but the 6-foot-6 freshman forward has given fans reason to be optimistic. The chiseled, athletic Dawson more than held his own against top-10 teams North Carolina and Duke. He averaged 9.5 points and five rebounds while exhibiting a level of strength and athleticism that most Big Ten forwards will be unable to match.
Geezers -- Purdue's Robbie Hummel and Virginia's Mike Scott may not have any gray hairs, but they must feel like senior citizens around some of their younger teammates. Both fifth-year seniors, Hummel and Scott have gotten off to sizzling starts. Hummel has averaged 19.5 points for the Boilermakers, while Scott is scoring 13 points and grabbing 11.5 boards for the Cavaliers.
Kevin Pangos -- Gonzaga's freshman guard turned in the performance of the season thus far when he swished nine 3-pointers en route to a 33-point effort against Washington State on Monday. The Canadian also had six assists.
Ohio -- Is it the new hotbed of college hoops? Ohio State, Xavier and Cincinnati are all in the Top 25. Cleveland State is fresh off an upset of Vanderbilt on the road, and Akron defeated a talented Mississippi State squad in Starkville.
Horizon League race -- Speaking of Cleveland State, add the Vikings to the list of teams that could emerge with the championship in this underrated conference. Butler is the popular favorite after appearing in back-to-back NCAA title games, but a large number of analysts are picking Detroit, which lost 59-53 at Notre Dame on Monday. The Titans, though, are without standout center Eli Holman indefinitely. That hurts. Even without Norris Cole, Cleveland State may have as good a chance as anyone to win the conference.
Florida versus Ohio State -- Forget the two games at Madison Square Garden. Tuesday's tilt between the Gators and Buckeyes in Columbus was the most entertaining contest of the day, in my opinion. Both teams appeared to be in midseason form. Ohio State emerged with an 81-74 win, but I'd love to see a rematch on a neutral court in March.
In a funk
Hot seats -- A couple of coaches who entered the season with their jobs in jeopardy haven't gotten off to very good starts. Trent Johnson's LSU squad lost to Coastal Carolina on Tuesday. Less than a week after losing to Division II Ohio Dominican, Southern Illinois was embarrassed at home 61-42 by St. Louis. Things aren't looking good for Salukis coach Chris Lowery -- or for South Carolina's Darrin Horn. The Gamecocks fell to Elon on Tuesday 58-53. Ouch.
Jamarious Sykes -- The 7-foot-2, 260-pound Jackson State center pulled off a rare feat in Sunday's loss at Baylor. Sykes managed to foul out despite playing just three minutes and scoring zero points. "That's never happened before," Jackson State coach Tevester Anderson said. "He got his money's worth."
Expectations -- Fans are quick to panic when highly ranked freshmen struggle in November. We're seeing it now after lackluster performances by players such as Duke's Austin Rivers, Arizona's Josiah Turner and even Oklahoma State's Le'Bryan Nash, who had just five points and three turnovers in Tuesday's win against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Remember, it takes time for 18- and 19-year olds to adapt. Their heads are spinning on and off the court. A bad start doesn't always result in a poor finish. Just ask Harrison Barnes.
Fat guys -- It's inexcusable that UCLA's Josh Smith and Mississippi State's Renardo Sidney aren't in better shape -- especially considering they're each in their second season. Both players are hovering in the 300-pound range. Maybe Sidney and Smith should consult Michigan State's Derrick Nix or Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. Each player lost between 20-25 pounds during the offseason -- and it's showing on the court.
Louisville's luck -- Freshman guard Wayne Blackshear (shoulder) is out indefinitely, and forward Rakeem Buckles (knee) won't be back until mid-January. To top it all off, Mike Marra -- who factored heavily in Louisville's plans after averaging 6.4 points last season -- tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Sunday and is out for the season.
Diet -- As much as I loved watching ESPN's 24-hour hoops marathon, the event didn't do much for my waistline. On my first food run I picked up a Chicago dog and Italian beef sandwich with provolone and two bags of chips. Later it was off to Chipotle -- and I may or may not have ordered a pizza at halftime of the Kansas-Kentucky game. Good thing I just refilled my Lipitor prescription.
Questions for the King
After seeing them get dismantled by Kentucky, do you still think the Kansas Jayhawks can win the Big 12?
Absolutely. Let's be honest: Kentucky is a different caliber of team than Kansas. If they played 10 games, the Wildcats would win all 10. It's that way now, and it'll be that way in March. Still, other than North Carolina and maybe Ohio State, Syracuse and Connecticut, I'm not sure there's a team in the country that can hang with Kentucky. So losing to them certainly doesn't make the Jayhawks a bad team. They're just not the elite team that they've been in the past. It's a good season for this to happen. The Big 12 is full of mediocre squads that aren't as well-coached or as tough as the Jayhawks, who, as always, will get much better as the season progresses. Baylor's talent and depth is noticeably better than KU's, but who knows whether the Bears can put it all together? Until someone dethrones them, the Jayhawks are the favorite to win an eighth straight Big 12 title.
Is Ole Miss good enough to make some noise in the SEC, or is Andy Kennedy on his way out?
Other than Kentucky and Florida, everyone in the SEC has looked vulnerable. So, yes, the Rebels can win their share of games if guys like Nick Williams, Reginald Buckner, Terrance Henry and Murphy Holloway play well. Still, I'd feel more confident if Ole Miss had a stud, a first-team all-conference-caliber player capable of scoring 27-30 every so often. Maybe Jelan Kendrick will be that guy when he becomes eligible in December. Either way, I think Ole Miss has enough pieces to win 20 games and save Kennedy's job for another season.
What's an under-the-radar team to look out for as the season progresses?
I like Florida State. The 24th-ranked Seminoles embarrassed Central Florida 73-50 and have a pair of emerging players in Michael Snaer and Bernard James, who finished second in the ACC last season with 82 blocks. This is an incredibly athletic team that can be a pest defensively. A third-place finish in the ACC and another NCAA tournament berth should be the expectation in Tallahassee.
Good things come in threes
Three teams that look better than anyone expected
1. Texas -- The Longhorns may not be good enough to contend for the Big 12 title, but there are worse ways to start a rebuilding season than scoring 100 points against Rhode Island.
2. Virginia -- There's a lot of buzz surrounding the Cavaliers, and rightfully so.
3. Memphis -- Even the folks who ranked the Tigers in the top 10 had to be surprised at how good Josh Pastner's squad looked against Belmont on Tuesday.
Three teams that were overrated
1. Vanderbilt -- Even without Festus Ezeli, there's no excuse for losing at home to Cleveland State when you're ranked in the top 10.
2. Arizona -- The Wildcats certainly aren't bad, but they're not one of the 25 best teams in the country. At least not yet.
3. UCLA -- Is it possible to have a bad time in Maui? The Bruins are about to find out.
Three best freshmen thus far (non-Kentucky version)
1. Brad Beal, Florida -- Last year's Gatorade National High School Player of the Year is the best player on the Gators' roster.
2. Quincy Miller, Baylor -- The 6-9 forward is averaging a team-high 18 points in Perry Jones' absence.
3. Moe Harkless, St. John's -- Harkless has helped key the Red Storm's 3-0 start by averaging 16.7 points, six boards and two steals.
Three best teams with at least one loss
1. Michigan State -- The 0-2 Spartans had some nice moments against North Carolina and Duke.
2. Mississippi State -- Losing to Akron at home stung, but this bunch is too deep and talented to be written off just yet.
3. Florida -- I'm not sure the Gators don't belong in the top five.
Three games to watch this week
1. Mississippi State versus Texas A&M, Thursday -- Khris Middleton (knee) is out for Texas A&M. Can the Bulldogs capitalize in the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer at Madison Square Garden?
2. Purdue versus Iona, Thursday -- The Boilermakers squeaked out a 67-65 home victory over High Point on Monday. They'll face a much stiffer test against MoMo Jones and the Gaels in Puerto Rico.
3. Maryland vs. Alabama, Thursday -- This will be the first real test for a Crimson Tide squad that has received loads of preseason hype.
Three things for fans to debate
1. Anthony Davis or Jared Sullinger?
2. Syracuse, Pittsburgh or Connecticut?
3. In-N-Out or Five Guys?
A -- Billy Kennedy: It was good to see the Texas A&M coach back on the sideline this week. Kennedy had been on a leave of absence while battling the early stages of Parkinson's disease.
B -- James Southerland: Amid all the talk about Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine and Rakeem Christmas, people forgot about Syracuse forward James Southerland, who has averaged 17 points off the bench in his past two games.
C -- Belmont: It's tough to give a high grade to a team that's 0-2, but Belmont deserves mention after two strong showings in road losses to Duke (77-76) and Memphis (97-81). The Bruins trailed Memphis by only seven points with eight minutes left.
D -- Cincinnati's nonconference schedule: Just like last season, I'm going to have a tough time buying into the Bearcats until they prove themselves in the Big East. Before then, their marquee games are against Georgia, Oklahoma, Marshall and Xavier.
F -- The SEC: A league some considered to be the second-best in college basketball (behind the Big East) is off to a rocky start. Vanderbilt (Cleveland State) and Mississippi State (Akron) were both upset at home. And LSU (Coastal Carolina) and South Carolina (Elon) suffered embarrassing losses.
Thoughts from press row
1. As much as it hurt his team, it's tough not to respect UCLA's Ben Howland for suspending forward Reeves Nelson because of attitude issues. Good to see that discipline, respect and rules are still more important than winning to some coaches.
2. It's too early to panic, but is Cody Zeller's presence having a negative impact on the play of Indiana's Christian Watford? Last season's leading scorer has combined for just nine points on 3-of-14 shooting in the Hoosiers' first two games.
3. Considering its roster is composed almost completely of newcomers, St. John's deserves tons of credit for its 3-0 start. The thing that stands out to me the most when watching the Red Storm is the chemistry and passion the players show. This is an unselfish team whose players really seem to like one another. Thursday's game against Arizona could be a good one.
4. Not many players have looked as good in their first two games as Texas' J'Covan Brown. Two days after scoring 28 points in a season-opening win against Boston University, the junior guard erupted for 35 points in Tuesday's victory over Rhode Island. He also averaged seven assists in those two games. Everyone always knew Brown, who averaged 10.4 points last season, could score. His issue has been consistency.
5. I stayed up late Monday and watched Nebraska's double-overtime victory at USC. I'm convinced the Cornhuskers can finish in the top half of the Big Ten. Certainly not first, second or third, but maybe fourth, fifth or sixth. I've seen them play a lot during the past 10 years, and I can't remember them having a guard as good as LSU transfer Bo Spencer. He's the playmaker that program has sorely lacked since the days of Tyronn Lue.
6. Speaking of USC, the Trojans are further along than I expected after losing Nikola Vucevic, Alex Stepheson, Donte Smith and Jio Fontan (to an ACL injury). For the most part, they played smart, selfless basketball and were well-prepared. Dewayne Dedmon is a specimen, without question. But he has a long way to go in terms of grasping the offensive and defensive schemes. What surprised me was the maturity and poise of unheralded freshmen Alexis Moore and Byron Wesley.
7. The only thing more impressive than Baylor's talent is its depth. Not many teams in the country are as loaded as the Bears, who bring standouts such as Pierre Jackson, Deuce Bello and Cory Jefferson off the bench. And don't forget about Cal transfer Gary Franklin, who will become eligible in December. Baylor has so many pieces that it won't hurt to redshirt forward J'mison Morgan, who is injured.
8. Renardo Sidney (hamstring) didn't play in Mississippi State's 80-65 victory over South Alabama on Saturday, and according to the opposing coach, it didn't matter. "Mississippi State is a very explosive team, especially without Renardo Sidney," South Alabama coach Ronnie Arrow said. "They are much quicker and get up and down the floor really well. They always play hard, but when you take Sidney out and put an athlete in there, they will have more quickness." Wonder if Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury agrees?
Jefferson's, Lawrence, Kan. -- My credentials as a wings connoisseur may need to be revoked -- or at least suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. Because somehow, despite covering countless games in Lawrence in the past 10 years, I'd never been to Jefferson's, which has easily cracked my top-five list for wings. The variety of styles and flavors -- I went with 10 double-dipped and 10 hot -- is a nice touch. But the quality of meat, the crispy skin and the overall size is what sets these bad boys apart. For the first time in my illustrious career, I stopped short of the goal line and finished only 18. Of course, the nachos I had as an appetizer might have had something to do with that.
California Tortilla, various locations -- Move over, Chipotle, Qdoba and Freebirds. I discovered burrito nirvana during a recent layover at Washington's Dulles Airport. You won't find California Tortilla in the state after which it's named, but if you're ever in D.C., Baltimore or Virginia, make sure to hunt down a location. Tacos, fajitas and quesadillas are available, but the signature burritos are what stood out the most. I tried the buffalo chicken burrito (wing sauce, ranch, lettuce tomatoes, beans, chicken), but I was also intrigued by the crunchy BBQ ranch burrito and the blackened Caesar ranch burrito. There's always next time.
Pancake Pantry, Nashville -- I'm usually not a breakfast guy, but I figured that if people were willing to stand in a line that wrapped around a building, the food inside Pancake Pantry must be pretty darned good. And it was. With 22 different types of pancakes -- sugar and spice, pecan, Georgia peach -- I had a tough time ordering. But I finally made a wise choice and devoured a plate full of chocolate chip pancakes along with bacon, sausage and hash browns. Needless to say, I was worthless for the rest of the afternoon.
Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.
Although it's early, this season is living up to its lofty expectations. As always, the King's Court is here to make sure you're up to date on what's transpired -- and what's ahead.