- Jason King
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Basketball season has basically been put on hold this week as students prepare for finals. Luckily, plenty of things happened this past weekend for the college hoops world to buzz about until the real action resumes Saturday.
From Christian Watford's buzzer-beater in Indiana's victory over Kentucky to Jared Sullinger's absence in Ohio State's loss at Kansas to the fight that marred the showdown between Cincinnati and Xavier, college basketball dominated the conversation.
This week's King's Court provides a look back and a look forward as nonconference play nears its end.
In a zone
The Big Ten: Naming the top conference in college basketball the past few seasons has been a mindless task. This season, though, the Big East may not reign supreme. With Ohio State looking like a legitimate NCAA title contender, Illinois undefeated and Indiana knocking off No. 1, the Big Ten has a legitimate argument as the top league in the country, especially with Michigan State getting it back together, Michigan on the upswing, 10-1 Minnesota hanging in there and Wisconsin and Purdue solid as always.
Lon Kruger: One of the better coaching jobs in the country thus far has been turned in by Kruger, who is in his first season at Oklahoma. Saturday's 15-point victory over Arkansas upped the Sooners' record to 7-1, which includes a surprise appearance in the 76 Classic final. OU should win at least three of its final four nonconference games -- and the fourth is at Cincinnati, which will be without Yancy Gates, among others. If Oklahoma keeps this up, it could find itself on the NCAA tournament bubble come March. No one could've predicted that.
Murray State: Late last month it was Saint Louis. Then came UNLV, Creighton and Harvard. Now the current non-Big Six flavor of the week is Murray State, and for good reason. The Racers are 10-0, with their last two wins coming in a road game at Memphis and at home against the same Dayton squad that throttled Alabama. Guard Isaiah Canaan leads in points (19.8) and assists (4.0) for this remarkably consistent program.
Herb Pope: It probably helps that he's 34 years old (or at least it seems that way), but Pope is putting up some crazy numbers in his final season at Seton Hall. He is averaging 21.9 points and 11.3 rebounds for the Pirates, who are a surprising 8-1 under second-year coach Kevin Willard. Pope has recorded a double-double in all but two games this season.
Arizona's freshmen: Or at least the ones who are left. Sidiki Johnson was suspended and then elected to transfer, but UA coach Sean Miller has liked what he's seen lately from point guard Josiah Turner, shooting guard Nick Johnson and forward Angelo Chol. Johnson (10.6 ppg) has been solid all season, and Chol had five points and five boards in just 13 minutes off the bench against Clemson this past weekend. And Turner, who was disciplined earlier this season because of a poor attitude and work ethic, is appearing more and more comfortable on the court.
Khris Middleton: A month after injuring his knee in the season opener, the Texas A&M forward returned to the court Saturday and scored 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting in a victory over Louisiana-Monroe. Middleton, who also grabbed six rebounds, was a preseason All-Big 12 selection and is a potential first-round NBA draft pick.
In a funk
Memphis' public address announcer: Chuck Roberts has a reputation of being an all-around good guy, which is why I couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for him during Sunday's pregame introductions, when he accidentally announced that the Tigers were coached by John Calipari. The mistake evoked all sorts of boos at the FedExForum, which I thought was a bit extreme. Brain freezes happen to the best of us.
Fran McCaffery: Even though it's only his second season with the Hawkeyes, most people figured McCaffery's team would be further along. Instead, Iowa has lost five of its last seven -- and by an average of 17 points. Friday, it trailed archrival Iowa State by 24 by the opening minutes of the second half. Even if you're missing shots on purpose, that's hard to do.
Villanova: The Wildcats squeaked into the NCAA tournament last spring despite losing seven of their final nine games. Jay Wright's squad may not be so lucky in 2012. Villanova has dropped four of its last five contests, including setbacks against Santa Clara and Saint Louis out in Anaheim, Calif., and a double-digit loss to Big 5 rival Temple. The 5-4 Wildcats face Boston University on Tuesday before facing a tough Saint Joseph's team Saturday.
St. John's: Speaking of the Big East, could things get any worse for the Red Storm? Three members of their highly ranked recruiting class failed to qualify, coach Steve Lavin is out while recovering from prostate cancer surgery and now third-leading scorer Nurideen Lindsey has announced his plans to transfer. Not surprisingly then, St. John's has lost five of its last six games. Staying out of the Big East cellar will be a challenge.
Winless teams: There are four remaining in Division I, two of them within about an hour's drive of each other. Chicago State and Northern Illinois are joined by Towson and Grambling on the list no one wants to find themselves on.
Finals week: Basketball fans and sports writers hate it almost as much as students. The highlights of the next few days include a showdown between Wisconsin and Milwaukee on Tuesday and a tilt between South Florida and Auburn on Wednesday and on Thursday, the game we've all been waiting for Kennesaw State and Missouri. Saturday can't get here fast enough.
Questions for the King
Who is the second-best team in the SEC behind Kentucky?
No. 13 Florida is a tad higher in the polls, but right now, 16th-ranked Mississippi State is playing better basketball. And the Bulldogs certainly appear to have more balance and depth than the Gators, who will have trouble matching up with MSU's Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney in the paint. I'm really looking forward to MSU's game against Baylor Dec. 28 at American Airlines Center in Dallas.
Where will Indiana finish in the Big Ten?
It's not a stretch to say the Hoosiers could finish anywhere between third and seventh in league play. If that happens, Indiana should be in the NCAA tournament. I have Ohio State and Wisconsin pegged in the top two spots in the conference, with Michigan State as a strong candidate for third. But if IU can beat Kentucky, it can beat anyone. The key will be maintaining the intensity and focus it had against the Wildcats. The Hoosiers will certainly need it in the Big Ten.
Is Kansas State good enough to make the NCAA tournament?
Absolutely, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen. The Wildcats are 6-1, but their only decent win thus far came in a Dec. 4 road game against a mediocre Virginia Tech squad. Kansas State couldn't put away unranked West Virginia despite playing on what was basically a home court in Wichita, Kan. Three days later, it needed overtime to beat North Florida at home. So there's definitely cause for concern. A win against No. 21 Alabama at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., this weekend would do wonders for the Wildcats' resume.
Good things come in threes
Three key players who become eligible second semester
1. Tony Mitchell, North Texas -- Mitchell is a forward and potential one-and-done player who originally signed with Missouri but didn't meet academic requirements. He enrolled at UNT midway through last season and will likely become the team's top player the minute he steps on the court.
2. Jelan Kendrick, Ole Miss -- A McDonald's All-American, Kendrick was booted from Memphis' squad shortly after the beginning of practice last season for allegedly threatening a teammate. He's an excellent scorer and facilitator who should give the 8-1 Rebels an immediate boost.
3. Gary Franklin, Baylor -- Franklin was a part-time starter at Cal as a freshman last season, but he left the school in December and transferred to Baylor, where he'll provide some much-needed depth in a backcourt that includes Pierre Jackson, A.J. Walton and Brady Heslip.
Three best wins of the season thus far (besides IU over UK, which is just too obvious)
1. Marquette over Wisconsin in Madison -- The defeat marked just the 12th home loss in 11 years for Badgers coach Bo Ryan. Marquette played without suspended point guard Junior Cadougan, and standout forward Jae Crowder scored just two points.
2. Georgetown over Alabama in Tuscaloosa -- The Hoyas withstood a huge rally by the Tide, and Hollis Thompson's 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds remaining catapulted them to a 57-55 victory over previously unbeaten Bama.
3. (tie) Xavier over Purdue -- The Musketeers fought back from a 19-point deficit in the second half to overtake Purdue. Tu Holloway led the charge by swishing three consecutive 3-pointers within the final two minutes.
(tie) Central Florida over Connecticut -- Keith Clanton and Marcus Jordan both had outstanding games against the defending national champions in a semifinal game of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Three bold predictions
1. Detroit will give Mississippi State fits Saturday. The return of suspended center Eli Holman couldn't have happened at a better time for the Titans, who have a realistic shot of upsetting the Bulldogs at home.
2. The race for the Missouri Valley Conference title will be one of the best of the season. With Wichita State, Creighton, Northern Iowa and Indiana State, I'll be disappointed if this isn't at least a three-bid league.
3. Duke's Austin Rivers will be one of the country's top players by mid-January.
Three schools ranked in the top 20 in both football and men's basketball
1. Baylor (No. 7 in basketball; No. 12 in football)
2. Wisconsin (No. 15 in basketball; No. 10 in football)
3. Michigan (No. 18 in basketball; No. 13 in football)
Three things for fans to debate
1. Best point guard in America: Jordan Taylor, Kendall Marshall or someone else?
2. Calipari said he can't see himself coaching more than 10 years at Kentucky. Who is another coach that could handle and embrace the off-court rigors of that job?
3. Christmas lights: Integral part of the holiday season or an annoying sideshow that clogs up traffic on residential streets?
Report card (Coaches edition)
A -- Tom Crean, Indiana: There won't be a regular-season win as big or meaningful as the Hoosiers' victory over Kentucky. As much credit as Christian Watford deserves for hitting the game-winning shot, equal praise should be heaped upon Crean, who has rebuilt a once-downtrodden program.
B -- Dan Monson, Long Beach State: Don't let the 4-5 record fool you. This is a scary-good team. Four days after nearly upsetting Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, the 49ers led North Carolina at halftime before falling 84-78 in Chapel Hill. They beat Pittsburgh earlier this season. Monson, the former Gonzaga and Minnesota coach, has assembled a top 25-caliber team.
C -- Mick Cronin, Cincinnati: The Bearcats coach earned national praise for his postgame remarks following Saturday's embarrassing brawl with Xavier. But he lost some respect the following day when he only suspended the primary participants for six games. Cronin, though, followed that questionable decision with a good one when he made forward Yancy Gates and others face the media to apologize for their actions.
D -- Chris Mack, Xavier: The Musketeers may not have landed as many punches as the Bearcats, but that doesn't clear them of any wrongdoing. Tu Holloway's constant trash talking throughout the game -- toward Cincinnati's players and coaches -- helped set the tone for the brawl, and his initial shove certainly didn't help. A lot of that is on Mack, who should've done more to get control of the situation earlier in the game. The ridiculous postgame comments made by Holloway and Mark Lyons also reflect negatively on Mack, who should've made sure his players were in the right frame of mind before taking questions from the media.
F -- Sean Miller, Arizona: I'm not sure anyone came across looking more foolish in this whole mess than Miller. The former Musketeers coach decided to inject himself into the situation by making these comments about the brawl: "If Cincinnati tries to do what they did [Saturday] they're going to get a fight. So I'm proud of those guys. No one is going to bully those guys. Happens every game [between Cincinnati and Xavier]. I would fully expect there to be a fight." Miller issued a statement Monday, saying he would never condone fighting, but his words rang hollow. His initial quote speaks for itself.
Thoughts from press row
1. There are still a lot of people who aren't buying into No. 7 Baylor -- mainly because of its poor track record on the road. The Bears won just two games away from the Ferrell Center last season, which explains why they were four-point underdogs at Northwestern last week. Scott Drew's squad took the challenge to heart in a merciless 69-41 beatdown of the Wildcats. But that test won't be anything like what Baylor will face Saturday in Provo, where BYU will be looking to upset the Bears in the Marriott Center, which will be one of the toughest environments Baylor faces all season. If Perry Jones & Co. win this one, it will be hard not to take the Bears seriously.
2. Even though it's undefeated, Louisville is ranked way too high at No. 4. Other than Vanderbilt (in overtime) the Cardinals don't have a signature win, unless you count Long Beach State, which would be understandable considering the 49ers' performances in near-wins at Kansas and North Carolina last week. Still, it's hard not to be impressed with Louisville, which continues to win despite being grossly undermanned. If anything, the situation magnifies just how good a coach Rick Pitino truly is. And remember, Louisville is only going to get better, thanks to the return of Rakeem Buckles and the addition of Kevin Ware and possibly Wayne Blackshear, who is recovering from an injury.
3. Missouri is more than deserving of its top-10 ranking, but I still want to see how the undefeated Tigers fare against a team that can match up with them athletically. The Tigers had slow, plodding teams such as Cal and Notre Dame beat before they ever stepped on the court. And let's face it: Villanova just isn't very good. The more I watch Missouri, Kansas and Baylor, the more I get excited about this season's Big 12 title race.
4. Remember the Akron team that looked so poised and crisp in dismantling Mississippi State in Starkville during the first week of the season? What happened? The Zips are 3-5 and were blown out recently by unranked West Virginia (77-56) and Middle Tennessee State (77-53). Center Zeke Marshall scored a combined 13 points in those two games and fouled out in each of them.
5. With a roster full of freshmen and junior college transfers, Texas Tech isn't making much noise on the court under first-year coach Billy Gillispie. But the Red Raiders are certainly making a positive impression off of it. This past Saturday the team began "Billy Gillispie's Red Raiders 12 Days of Christmas." Each day from Dec. 10-21, the Red Raiders will be volunteering at various hospitals, learning centers and charity organizations. It's a great idea by Gillispie and one that other schools should adapt.
6. Missouri's Frank Haith and Murray State's Steve Prohm have had more success than any other first-year coaches this season, as both their teams are undefeated. But not far behind is Wyoming's Larry Shyatt, the former Florida assistant who is in his second stint as the Cowboys' head coach. Wyoming is 9-1 under Shyatt are coming off a win at Colorado.
7. "Christmas in Hollis" by Run DMC never gets old.
8. Not to make light of the situation, but a few years from now, when their basketball careers are over, it would be kind of fun to see Cincinnati's Gates and Xavier's Kenny Frease square off in a celebrity boxing match. Considering how many times Gates' cheap shot has been replayed on "SportsCenter," I'm sure the event would draw the same kind of interest as the big Jose Canseco-Lenny Dykstra showdown of a few years ago, or the one between Manute Bol and Refrigerator Perry. My money would be on Frease, by the way.
Hickory Park, Ames, Iowa: A trip to watch the Cyclones play at Hilton Coliseum isn't complete without a pregame meal at Hickory Park, which may be the finest all-around establishment I've visited in all my years of travel. I always go with the chicken and rib dinner, a heaping portion of food that comes with two sides and bread for less than 15 bucks. I've also heard people rave about the burgers, smoked sandwiches and barbecue. At Hickory Park, the quality matches the enormous quantities. Just make sure you save room for one of the restaurant's 51 sundaes, banana splits or parfaits. I used to go with the Snicker Bar sundae, but the Candy Cane Delight has become a new favorite.
Dreamland BBQ, numerous locations in Alabama: If you're not a rib person, don't go to Dreamland, because there's no excuse for ordering anything else. Put it this way: I live in barbecue nirvana in Kansas City, but last year, when I wanted to send some ribs to a friend as a thank you present, I had them shipped from Dreamland. The ribs aren't of the fall-off-the-bone variety, but that's a good thing. A little gnawing makes you appreciate things more. And the sauce is legit.
East Coast Wings, numerous locations in North Carolina: As a self-proclaimed wing critic, I'm usually not a fan of the chain establishments that sell overpriced, undersized bird. But that wasn't the case at East Coast Wings in Salisbury, N.C., where a friend and I mowed through about 60 wings that were some of the best I've had during my career. And I've had plenty. East Coast Wings features more than 30 flavors of sauce -- everything from BBQ Cajun ranch to lemon pepper to General Tso's to cheddar jalapeno to Kentucky bourbon. I went with the Mardi Gras wings, which were recommended by the bartender, who threw beads around my neck as she delivered the order. OK, not really, but they were definitely a hit.
Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.