- Jason King
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I'll always be true to my Texas roots, but living in Kansas City isn't all that bad. And I'm not just saying that because of all the great sports bars, hot wing joints, barbecue restaurants and steakhouses located within a few miles of my house.
I'm talking about basketball.
Already this season I've attended games featuring local Big 12 contenders Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State. I've seen three of the country's top non-Big Six teams (Wichita State, UNLV and Long Beach State), as well as the nation's former No. 1 squad, Ohio State.
A trip to Kentucky gave me the chance to watch college basketball's two most talented teams square off when the Wildcats beat North Carolina. The night before I drove from Lexington to Louisville to see the undefeated Cardinals beat Vanderbilt in overtime.
My point? Just a month into the season, I've already witnessed a ton of great college basketball -- and there's so much more to come. In the meantime, King's Court is here to make sure you're caught up on everything you need to know as conference play approaches.
In a zone
UCLA transfers: Former Bruins Mike Moser and Chace Stanback are two of the main reasons UNLV owns victories over North Carolina and Illinois and a spot in the Top 25. Drew Gordon is the best player on a New Mexico squad with realistic hopes of a Mountain West Conference championship. Matt Carlino scored 18 points in his BYU debut Saturday against Baylor. Think Ben Howland would like to have a few of those guys back right now?
Syracuse's bench: Dion Waiters (22 points), James Southerland (11 points) and the rest of Syracuse's non-starters outscored North Carolina State's reserves 46-4 in Saturday's 88-72 road victory. The Orange boast as much depth as any team in the country.
BYU fans: In one of the classiest moves you'll ever see, a group of BYU students unfurled a banner prior to Saturday's game against Baylor in Provo that read: "Congratulations Baylor University & Robert Griffin III, 2011 Heisman Winner." The Bears almost seemed taken aback by the reception they received from the 22,700 fans at the Marriott Center: "I want to give respect to the fan base here," forward Perry Jones said. "That's one of the hardest places to play. They didn't use foul language. They stayed humbled. I respect them for that and for not cussing us out like other places."
Deshaun Thomas: The Ohio State forward has been sensational the last few weeks while All-American Jared Sullinger battles injuries. Thomas is averaging 21.3 points in his last three games and is shooting 67 percent (30-of-45) from the field during that span.
Butler: Just when everyone seemed ready to write off the Bulldogs, Brad Stevens' squad came up with what could be a season-changing victory against Purdue on Saturday. Even if Butler loses at Gonzaga on Tuesday, the win over the Boilermakers was a reminder that the Bulldogs will again be in the thick of the Horizon League title hunt.
The Big 12: While it may not be the best in college basketball, the conference has surpassed expectations thus far. Baylor and Missouri are undefeated and in the top 10. Even after Monday's loss to Davidson, you can never count out Kansas to win an eighth straight Big 12 title. And one-loss teams such as Oklahoma and Kansas State have been pleasant surprises and legitimate contenders for NCAA tournament berths. So, too, is Texas, which has bounced back nicely from early-season losses to NC State and Oregon State. The Longhorns have won seven straight games by double digits.
In a funk
Computer geeks: It appears someone hacked into Oregon's athletic website and posted fake quotes from Ducks coach Dana Altman following Sunday's loss to Virginia. Media members who know Altman were skeptical when they read comments from him complaining about the overcooked spaghetti his players ate for their pregame meal and saying that he wasn't very impressed with UVa forward and All-ACC candidate Mike Scott. "Nice hair, though," one quote read. An Oregon spokesman said Monday that the website had been "compromised."
Kevin Stallings: One month after opening one of the most-hyped seasons in school history, the Commodores are 6-4 with home losses to Cleveland State, Xavier and Indiana State. Remember, this was a team that was ranked No. 7 in both preseason polls. If Stallings isn't feeling any heat, he should be.
Villanova: It sure looks like the Wildcats' string of seven straight NCAA tournament appearances will end this season. Heck, they may not even make the NIT. Saturday's 16-point setback against crosstown rival Saint Joseph's was the fifth loss in seven games for Nova, which opens Big East play with back-to-back road games against West Virginia (Dec. 28) and Marquette (Jan. 1).
The Pac-12: OK, this is getting ridiculous. Washington was just humiliated by South Dakota State, Oregon hasn't lived up to expectations, Arizona is slumping, USC can't score or win, Arizona State and Utah are unspeakably bad and UCLA, well we don't need to talk about the Bruins anymore, do we? It's hard to fathom how a league filled with so many good coaches got this bad this fast.
Ill-advised "air ball" chants: Folks, as long as it hits something, it's not an air ball. So if the ball misses the rim but caroms off the backboard, there's no need to start the chant. An air ball hits nothing but, you guessed it air.
Isiah Thomas: Things just aren't working out for the former NBA star at Florida International, where his team is 3-8 and averaging less than 60 points a game while ranking among the worst in the country in rebounds (30.4), assists (9.0) and field goal percentage (41.7).
Questions for the King
Can BYU win the West Coast Conference?
Gonzaga has won the past 11 league crowns, but that streak is in jeopardy now that Brigham Young is in the mix. The Cougars certainly aren't as good as they were last season with Jimmer Fredette, but anyone who witnessed their performance in Saturday's three-point loss to No. 7 Baylor had to be impressed. BYU outrebounded the taller, more-athletic Bears 41-26 and got a combined 33 points in the paint from forwards Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies. UCLA transfer Matt Carlino provided balance by making four 3s. The WCC is as competitive as ever with Gonzaga, Saint Mary's, San Francisco and Santa Clara all in the mix. BYU won't take a backseat to any of them.
Seton Hall is 9-1, but are the Pirates any good?
It's too early to tell. Their best win is against Saint Joseph's and they needed overtime to defeat Mercer on Sunday. Still, it's hard not to be impressed with the progress this team has made under second-year coach Kevin Willard. Seton Hall lost its best player (Jeremy Hazell) from a team that went 13-18 last season, but that's hardly been a factor thanks to Herb Pope (22.1 ppg, 11.9 rpg) and Jordan Theodore (7.1 apg). I'm picking the Pirates to win between 18 and 20 games overall while finishing between eighth and 10th in the Big East.
How high can Murray State rise in the polls?
The Racers are 12-0 and will likely be favored in every game they play the rest of the season. Quite an impressive feat for a squad that went through a coaching change during the offseason. Still, even with victories over Southern Miss, Memphis and Dayton, I can't see Murray State ever being ranked much higher than 12-16. Its remaining schedule simply isn't good enough to warrant a jump into the top 10.
Good things come in threes
Three surprising seniors
1. Henry Sims, Georgetown: Center is averaging 12.6 points -- nine more than last season.
2. Herb Pope, Seton Hall: Scoring average has jumped from 9.8 points to 22.1; rebounds from 7.9 to 11.9.
3. Kim English, Missouri: Averaging 16 points after scoring just 10 a game as a junior. Shooting percentage has gone from 36.6 to 66.8 percent.
Three longest home-court winning streaks
1. Duke (41 games): Will things change when North Carolina visits Durham on March 3?
2. Kentucky (40 games): John Calipari has never lost at Rupp Arena.
3. Ohio State (31 games): The Big Ten is loaded with good teams, but are any of them strong enough to beat an NCAA title contender in Columbus?
Three basketball books (besides "Beyond the Phog") to read over the holidays
1. "Shaq Uncut: My Story" -- Shaquille O'Neal tells all
2. "The Whore of Akron" -- Chronicling the rise of LeBron James and his departure from Cleveland
3. "Basketball Junkie" -- A memoir by Chris Herren detailing the off-court addictions that ruined his career.
Three things for fans to debate
1. Tougher conference: Big East or Big Ten?
2. Biggest surprise thus far: Mississippi State, Indiana or Missouri?
3. Better Christmas movie: "Christmas Vacation" or "A Christmas Story"?
On Saturday, I caught up with Shakey Rodriguez, who coached Kansas State's Frank Martin and Alabama's Anthony Grant at Miami Senior High School. Martin and Grant eventually served on Rodriguez's staff, and when Rodriguez left the prep ranks to become head coach at Florida International, he hand-picked Martin as his successor. Rodriguez was in Kansas City to watch his former pupils face one another at the Sprint Center, where Kansas State defeated Alabama 71-58. My interview with Rodriguez can be seen here.
A-plus -- Nate Wolters: The South Dakota State guard scored 34 points and dished out seven assists in a turnover-free performance in Sunday's 19-point win at Washington. After the game, Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar compared Wolters to Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. Wolters ranks 10th in the nation at 21.5 points per game.
B -- Holiday tournaments: The Las Vegas Classic (Baylor, West Virginia, St. Mary's and Missouri State) and the Diamond Head Classic (Kansas State, Xavier, Long Beach State and others) are both very watchable this year.
C-minus -- Texas A&M: Even with Khris Middleton, the Aggies couldn't compete with Florida during a 20-point blowout Saturday. A&M is 8-2 but has yet to post a quality win.
D -- Cousy award committee: St. Mary's guard Matthew Dellavedova was left off the list of 60 finalists, along with Missouri's Phil Pressey. But at least Pressey's teammate, Michael Dixon, was included, even though he comes off the bench. Also making the cut was Memphis' Will Barton, who isn't even a point guard.
F -- Phil Martelli: The Saint Joseph's coach has refused to grant a release to Todd O'Brien, a former player who graduated with a year of eligibility remaining and wanted to play his final season at UAB. This is clearly personal, as O'Brien wasn't even a top player for Martelli's squad. If Martelli doesn't grant the release, his reputation will be permanently stained. And rightfully so.
Thoughts from press row
1. Even though Syracuse is the country's top-ranked team, I'm sticking with my preseason prediction that Connecticut will win the Big East. Andre Drummond is getting more and more comfortable, Shabazz Napier is one of the country's most underrated guards and Ryan Boatright is mature beyond his years. And, of course, there's also Jeremy Lamb.
2. Kansas' 80-74 loss Monday to Davidson wasn't all that shocking to Bill Self. "That wasn't an upset tonight," the Jayhawks coach said. Self also said his team is "not that good." Self may be exaggerating a bit, but either way, this is clearly his worst team at Kansas. Point guard Tyshawn Taylor, a fourth-year starter, has averaged 5.2 turnovers in his last five games, and Kansas got just six points (all from Conner Teahan) from its bench Monday. There is little margin for error with this team.
3. Davidson's victory in Kansas City stole some of the national spotlight from LSU, which handed No. 10 Marquette its first loss of the season. The 67-59 victory was the fifth straight for the Tigers, who are 8-3. It was also a huge win for coach Trent Johnson, who entered the season on the hot seat after winning a combined five SEC games the past two seasons.
4. Even though key players such as Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Ricardo Ratliffe will be graduating, Missouri should be fine next season. On Monday, highly touted freshman guard Jabari Brown announced his plans to transfer from Oregon to Mizzou. Former Auburn standout Earnest Ross and ex-Pepperdine scoring machine Keion Bell have also transferred there and will be eligible next season.
5. There are some who believe that Indiana's Cody Zeller is a better player than his older brother, Tyler, a senior forward at North Carolina. That may be the case eventually, but not quite yet. Tyler Zeller's strength, poise and basketball IQ give him the edge on his younger sibling, who is only a freshman.
6. DePaul seems to be headed in the right direction under second-year coach Oliver Purnell. The 8-3 Blue Demons have quietly improved and rank 27th of 344 teams in scoring.
7. Even though they weren't exactly playing high-level competition, the Cincinnati Bearcats deserve credit for beating Wright State and Radford by a combined 59 points despite the absence of Yancy Gates and Cheikh Mbodj, who were suspended from both games because of their roles in the Dec. 10 brawl between Cincinnati and Xavier.
8. Speaking of Xavier, I fully expect the Musketeers to lose to Long Beach State by at least 10 points in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic on Thursday. The Musketeers will be without Mark Lyons and Dezmine Wells, who were also hit with suspensions after the brawl.
9. If Kansas State can continue to get solid bench production from point guard Angel Rodriguez and forward Jordan Henriquez, the Wildcats could finish as high as fourth in the Big 12. Henriquez and Rodriguez combined for 30 points against Alabama. Rodriguez had seven assists and Henriquez snared eight rebounds.
10. San Diego State's Chase Tapley has been one of the country's more efficient players this season. He's averaging 17.7 points and shooting 50 percent from both the field and 3-point range.
Good 2 Go Taco, Dallas: The taco craze hit Dallas hard a few years ago and it hasn't slowed down. Good 2 Go is one of the biggest reasons. Owners Colleen O'Hare and Jeana Johnson were chefs at a few high-end Dallas restaurants before opening their gourmet taco stand in the back of a gas station. When lines started wrapping around the building before lunch, they figured it was time to get their own place. One of Good 2 Go's most popular tacos is called Paris, Texas. Filled with grilled hangar steak, potatoes, spinach, egg and tomato-jalapeno hollandaise, the taco was featured on the Food Network show "The Best Thing I Ever Ate." My personal favorites are the Hotlanta (waffle-battered chicken, sweet potatoes and honey butter) and the Swine Bleu (pulled pork with bleu cheese slaw).
Lazy Dog, Boulder, Colo.: Other than the Coors Events Center, one of my favorite places to watch games in Boulder is at the Lazy Dog. The TV set-up is great, the beer is cold, and most importantly, the wings are really, really good. If you haven't figured it out, I'm picky when it comes to wings. The standard bar wing just isn't good enough for me. But I've always been more than satisfied with the bird in Boulder. I usually don't get too adventurous with sauces, especially when it comes to the thick, gooey stuff like honey barbecue and Asian sesame. I'm a buffalo-style guy by trade. But every once in a while, when there's a full moon outside, I'll get crazy and try something different, which is how I discovered the chili lime wings at Lazy Dog. Not too shabby at all, although I'd still recommend the spicy ones first.
Gus's Good Times Deli, Knoxville, Tenn.: Every college should have a place on its campus like Gus's, which specializes in thick, juicy burgers, hot sandwiches -- they actually steam them -- and fattening-but-hard-to-resist sides like chili cheese fries and onion rings. Mix in the fact that they sell booze and smokes and stay open until 4 a.m., and it's no wonder why Gus's has been a haven for UT students --- and visiting sportswriters -- for decades.
Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.
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