Commentary

King's Court: Early-season observations

Originally Published: November 25, 2011
By Jason King | ESPN.com

A lot has happened since the last time we talked.

Duke won the Maui Invitational, Mississippi State beat a pair of ranked teams in New York and a guy named Griffin Lentsch set a Division III record by scoring 89 points in a game for Grinnell College.

Missouri looks like a top-10 team, Georgetown isn't down after all and UCLA is full of confidence after upsetting Chaminade.

Here are some other odds and ends to digest during Feast Week:

In a zone

[+] EnlargeReggie Bullock
Rob Kinnan/US PresswireReggie Bullock scored 18 of his career-high 23 points from beyond the arc against Tennessee State.

The "other" Tar Heel: Just when we thought North Carolina couldn't get any scarier, sophomore Reggie Bullock starts playing with confidence for the first time in his career. Hampered by a nagging knee injury a year ago, Bullock scored a career-high 23 points in Tuesday's 102-69 win over Tennessee State and made six of his seven attempts from beyond the arc. If Bullock keeps it up, he'll become yet another headache for opposing defenses, who already have to worry about Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, John Henson and Tyler Zeller.

Mike Dunlap: Even though St. John's is a work in progress and probably not an NCAA tournament team, I've been impressed with how sharp the Red Storm has looked at times, especially considering the roster is comprised of almost entirely of freshmen and junior college transfers. Much of the credit should go to Dunlap, the assistant coach who has done a nice job of making sure things run smoothly while Steve Lavin deals with issues surrounding prostate cancer treatment. Dunlap is one of the best teachers and game tacticians in the business.

PJ3: That's Perry Jones III, for anyone who may be unfamiliar with the Baylor forward and future NBA lottery pick. Jones will make his season debut in Tuesday's game against Prairie View A&M after serving an NCAA-mandated six-game suspension for accepting impermissible benefits from an AAU coach during high school. The 6-foot-11 Jones averaged 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds as a freshman last season. He'll be the catalyst for a frontcourt that is easily one of the deepest in the nation with Quincy Miller, Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones.

Gem at Central Florida: Marcus Jordan (Michael's son) gets most of the press for Donnie Jones' Knights. But NBA scouts would be wise to take a look at 6-8, 245-pound forward Keith Clanton, who has averaged 24 points and 14.5 rebounds in his past two games. Clanton scored 14.2 points and grabbed 7.7 boards as a sophomore last season. I've seen him play in person. The kid is legit.

Mississippi State's depth: Dee Bost, Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney aren't the only reasons the Bulldogs defeated two ranked teams (Texas A&M and Arizona) en route to winning the Coaches vs. Cancer championship. Rick Stansbury's squad is a solid eight deep with highly touted freshmen Rodney Hood and Deville Smith and talented role players like Brian Bryant, Jalen Steele and Wendell Lewis. Each member of the Bulldogs' rotation averages more than 16 minutes per game.

Frank Haith: The Missouri fans who hissed when the school hired Haith in March are probably changing their tune a bit after the Tigers' performance in the CBE Classic. One night after a 29-point win over Notre Dame, Missouri embarrassed Pac-12 favorite Cal 92-53. Haith's team is in midseason form and is playing with a poise and structure on offense that have been missing from the program for years. Missouri appears more than capable of winning a Big 12 title in its last season in the conference, but it certainly won't be easy with Kansas and Baylor in the mix.

In a funk

Pac-12: Give credit to Stanford and Oregon State for clear improvement, but the Pac-12 favorites have been disappointing and that's not helping the already-sullied reputation of the league. The bad teams (ASU, Utah, USC, etc.) are even worse than we thought, but it's the play of the favorites that's especially troubling. Preseason pick UCLA is 1-4 for the first time in 24 years and all four losses have been by double-digits (including to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee). Washington was thumped by Saint Louis, Cal lost to Missouri by nearly 40 points and Arizona lost in New York to Mississippi State and at home to what is supposed to be a rebuilding San Diego State team. Oh, and highly touted freshman Jabari Brown decided to leave Oregon. It's shaping up to be another atrocious season for the Pac-12.

[+] EnlargeBen Howland
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaUCLA is off to the school's first 1-4 start since 1987. And that one win was against a D2 team.

Ben Howland: Speaking of UCLA, Howland didn't exactly come down with an iron fist when dealing with troublesome forward Reeves Nelson, who was "suspended indefinitely" last week because of attitude issues. Nelson's suspension lasted just one game. Then, a few days after his return, Nelson missed the team bus that took the Bruins to the airport for their flight to Maui, so he was forced to travel to the island on his own. His punishment? Howland sat him for the first half of UCLA's opening game against Chaminade.

South Florida: If they haven't already, it may be time for South Florida officials to think about pulling the plug on Stan Heath. The Bulls have already lost to a terrible Penn State squad, and things certainly won't get any easier with trips Kansas and VCU and visit from Cleveland State on the schedule. Three of Heath's first four teams finished either 14th or 15th in the Big East. South Florida went 10-23 last season. Where is the progress?

A little upsetting: Campbell crushed Iowa on the road, Clemson lost at home to Coastal Carolina and Charleston, USC fell to Cal Poly 42-36, TCU upset Virginia, Drake beat Iowa State and, the most stunning of all, Presbyterian won at Cincinnati.

Kansas bench: The Jayhawks have a decent starting five, but a lack of depth will be an issue for them all season. For just the second time in 15 years, the KU bench was held scoreless in Wednesday's loss to Duke in the Maui Invitational. In a combined 30 minutes of action, Conner Teahan, Justin Wesley and Naadir Tharpe attempted just one field goal and didn't have a rebound or an assist.

Dewayne Dedmon: The 7-foot USC forward that head coach Kevin O'Neill touted as a potential first-round NBA draft pick has scored a combined 19 points in his past four games. To be fair, he is still learning how to play basketball after picking up the sport as a high school senior. Dedmon's mother forbade her son from joining a team prior to his 18th birthday because she wanted him to spend more time with church-related activities. Dedmon may indeed be an NBA player at some point -- his physique and athleticism are striking -- but he's got a lot of learning to do in the meantime.

Questions for the King

What is the best mid-major team in the country?
Other than Xavier and Gonzaga, who should not be considered mid-majors, I'm going to go with Creighton. The undefeated Bluejays are fresh off an 82-59 annihilation of Iowa and are only going to get better. Doug McDermott is averaging 21.5 points for his father, Greg, who is in his second season as Creighton coach since leaving Iowa State. Rutgers transfer Greg Echenique grabs 7.3 rebounds per contest and also blocks 1.8 shots. It should be a compelling race in the Missouri Valley Conference with Creighton, Wichita State and Indiana State.

[+] EnlargeRick Barnes, J'Covan Brown
AP Photo/Bill KostrounJ'Covan Brown fouling out led to a total Texas collapse against NC State at the Legends Classic.

What's the problem with Texas?
Other than leading scorer J'Covan Brown getting technical fouls at inopportune times, the biggest issues surrounding the Longhorns -- who lost to Oregon State and NC State in New Jersey this week -- are youth and a lack of depth and talent in the paint. Four of Texas' top five scorers are freshmen, and Clint Chapman and Alexis Wangmene aren't exactly high-level replacements for Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson.

What's your assessment of Connecticut?
Other than Kentucky, I think the Huskies have the highest ceiling of any team in the country. In other words, as good as Jim Calhoun's squad is right now, it's still going to improve considerably. As soon as freshmen DeAndre Daniels and Andre Drummond adapt and start playing at a high level consistently, the Huskies will be even better than the team that won last season's NCAA title. I'm not sure it'll even be close. The addition of guard Ryan Boatright, who has been serving an NCAA suspension, will also help.

Good things come in threes

Three teams with gaudy records that still haven't played anybody
1. Indiana: The Hoosiers have won their first five games by an average of 25.8 points. Last season they won their first six contests by an average of 21.8 points. That team went 6-20 the rest of the way. Something tells me things will be different this season for Indiana, which faces Butler and NC State in its next two games.
2. Kansas State: Don't be fooled by the 3-0 start. This is definitely a rebuilding year for the Wildcats, who have defeated Loyola, Maryland-Eastern Shore and (after a furious rally) Charleston Southern.
3. Illinois: A 5-0 start is nice, but it may be too early to get excited about the Illini, who squeaked by Illinois State in Cancun on Wednesday.

Three players who are straight up ballin' that no one is talking about
1. Herb Pope, Seton Hall: The senior forward is averaging 21.4 points and 11.2 rebounds for the Pirates. He scored a career-high 32 points against Northwestern in the Charleston Classic final.
2. Mike Moser, UNLV: The UCLA transfer ranks third in the country in rebounds (13.0) and steals (3.8).
3. Scott Machado, Iona: You thought no one in the country was better at dishing out assists than North Carolina's Kendall Marshall? Check out Machado, who is dropping a national-best 12.8 dimes per contest, including 15 in a 26-point rout of Maryland.

Three teams that are a little bit better than I expected
1. Oklahoma: Thursday's 74-59 victory over Washington State in the 76 Classic was huge for the Sooners (3-0), who are in their first season under Lon Kruger.
2. Tennessee: The Vols' only victory in Maui came against Chaminade, but Cuonzo Martin's squad showed a lot of his trademark toughness against Duke before losing to Memphis in double overtime.
3. Seton Hall: This is still probably a second-tier Big East team, but the Pirates (4-1) are improving under Kevin Willard. Pope, Jordan Theodore and Fuquan Edwin form a nice trio.

Three things for fans to debate
1. Bob Knight or Mike Krzyzewski
2. Kansas, Baylor or Missouri in the Big 12
3. Thin and crispy pizza (New York-style) or deep-dish (Chicago)

Report card

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
AP Photo/Eugene TannerRyan Kelly took home Maui MVP honors after averaging 17 ppg.

A -- Craig Robinson: The first brother-in-law (Robinson's sister is Michelle Obama) led Oregon State to two of the program's more impressive performances in recent memory at the Legends Classic, where the Beavers defeated Texas 100-95 in overtime Monday, a win that followed a 64-62 loss to a Vanderbilt squad with huge expectations. Not bad for a team that finished 11-20 last season.

B -- Ryan Kelly: The Duke forward earned Most Outstanding Player honors at the Maui Invitational after scoring 17 points in each of the Blue Devils' three victories.

C -- Virginia: Excitement was beginning to build over the Cavaliers, who some analysts labeled as the fourth-best team in the ACC behind North Carolina, Duke and Florida State. Losing to TCU was a huge buzzkill.

D -- Tyshawn Taylor: The Kansas point guard committed a school-record 11 turnovers in Wednesday's loss to Duke in the championship game of the Maui Invitational. Kansas will have no chance to win the Big 12 if Taylor's decision-making doesn't improve.

F -- Jabari Brown: It's not a good look to quit a team just two games into a college career, which is exactly what Brown, one of the country's highest-rated freshmen, did at Oregon. The loss could be a huge blow to a Ducks squad that had hoped to contend for a Pac-12 title.

Thoughts from press row

1. Injuries have hit Louisville hard, but one thing that hasn't suffered is the Cardinals' defense. Rick Pitino's squad defeated Arkansas State 54-27 on Tuesday. It was the lowest point total by a Louisville opponent since 1947. "I don't think I've ever had a team so anemic offensively, and I give Louisville credit," Red Wolves coach John Brady said. Louisville (4-0) has not allowed more than 54 points all season.

2. The suspension of center Eli Holman is seriously hurting Detroit, which will have trouble competing for the Horizon League title without the 6-10 center. Holman, who led the conference in rebounding the past two seasons, allegedly broke the nose of a Detroit student during a fight at a fraternity house Sept. 17. Holman is also the guy who threw a potted plant across the Indiana basketball office in the spring of 2008 after telling coach Tom Crean he planned to transfer.

3. One team that's flying under the radar is Florida State. Yes, I realize the Seminoles are ranked No. 20, but there isn't nearly enough buzz about a team that has defeated its first five opponents by an average of 21.8 points.

4. LeBryan Nash, the Big 12's Preseason Freshman of the Year, has struggled in his first few weeks as a collegian. The 6-7 small forward is averaging 13 points but is shooting just 32 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from 3-point range. It could be a long season for the Cowboys, who were blown out by Stanford at MSG after being nearly upset at home by Texas-San Antonio.

[+] EnlargeOtto Porter
AP Photo/Eugene TannerOtto Porter signed with Georgetown late and has been an impressive for the Hoyas early on.

5. Speaking of freshmen, one of the more impressive new faces I've seen this season is Georgetown's Otto Porter. The forward averaged nearly 13 points in the Maui Invitational and had eight rebounds, four steals, three assists and two blocks in Wednesday's overtime victory against Memphis. Hoyas coach John Thompson III said Porter entered college "more prepared" than any freshman he's ever coached.

6. Cranberry sauce … yuck.

7. One of the most impressive things about Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon is that he competes for Big East titles every year with players who weren't all that highly touted coming out of high school. And when Dixon does sign a McDonald's All-American, he hardly feels the need to rush him into action. This season's example is forward Khem Birch, who has scored a combined eight points in his first four games as a collegian. Dixon took the same approach two years ago with McDonald's All-American Dante Taylor, who is just now blossoming into a solid contributor.

8. No offense to Notre Dame's Mike Brey, but I can't envision the Fighting Irish finishing in the top half of the Big East this season. One night after losing by 29 points to Missouri, Notre Dame fell to Georgia in the consolation game of the CBE Classic in Kansas City. The Fighting Irish are slow, unathletic and noticeably soft on defense, especially in the paint. At times it looked too easy for the Tigers and Bulldogs.

9. Speaking of Georgia, Mark Fox's team is hardly going to be a pushover in the SEC. A handful of NBA scouts showed up at Kansas City's Sprint Center to watch freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the 6-4 shooting guard didn't disappoint. There are some other nice pieces on this team, too, and the Bulldogs are well-coached.

10. One thing that stands out when watching Duke is that the Blue Devils still have a high ceiling. They aren't anywhere near as good as they'll be in March. Or, for that matter, January. I'm not sure this will ever turn into a great Duke team, but if Austin Rivers continues to progress, the Blue Devils will stay in the top 10 all season long.

Pit stops

The Watering Hole, Lincoln, Neb.: Sticking with my weekly ritual of identifying good wing haunts, allow me to recommend my favorite place in America for spicy bird. The Watering Hole grills its wings and lets the signature sauce cook into the meat, which is better than simply slathering it on at the end. When the grill master is on top of his game -- and he always is -- the wings are as good as you'll find anywhere in the country.

Bullock's Bar-B-Cue, Durham, N.C.: I knew this place must be good when an unnamed Tar Heels assistant coach told me he often ventures into enemy territory just to eat at Bullock's. I went with the hamburger steak with peppers and onions and a cajun-style catfish filet. A return trip is definitely in the plans.

Whataburger: For years my go-to order has been a Whataburger with bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheese, mustard and grilled jalapenos. But during a recent trip to Texas, this commercial forced me to try something new. Ordering the patty melt may have been the best decision I made in all of 2011. Oh, and for the record: Whataburger > Five Guys > In-N-Out.

Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.