Aside from a predictable 2007 Final Four (#1 seed Florida, #1 seed Ohio State, #2UCLA, and #2 seed Georgetown) it can be a tad difficult gauging the men’s hoops’ terrain. This season’s pre-conference schedule is contributing to that dilemma. Sure we have the usual suspects at the top: UNC, Memphis, Kansas, Georgetown, and Texas to name a few (eight undefeated teams in the top ten, and Clemson(8-0) at #15 and Vanderbilt(9-0) at #20), but some rumblings below the surface could cause us to consider possible shifts in the landscape.
Can the A-10 return to legitimacy? Once was a time when Calipari coached UMass, Chaney prowled the Temple sidelines, Jarvis barked orders at GW, and Pete Gillen sweated through his suits at Xavier. The A-10 put four, count ‘em four teams in the ’95 Dance. Yeah, and three of ‘em followed suit in ’96. Since then it’s been hit or miss for the Atlantic Ten. St. Joe’s had a nice run. The Bonnies even played Kentucky to overtime a few years ago, but nothing like the mid 90’s.
That is until now. The A-10 is kinda throwin’ the Big East around. Xavier knocked off Cincy in the battle for Queen City bragging rights. Dayton turned away Louisville at Freedom Hall. Rhode Island leads the conference with ten wins including knocking off Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. The Rams have only one loss on the season: by four at Chestnut Hill to the ACC’s, Boston College. UMass also topped the Orange earlier this season.
Syracuse fans have to be wondering which team will show up from night to night. They beat Virginia at Charlottesville and then suffered the previously mentioned defeats. ‘Cuse fans should seek some solace in that their team is playing a more challenging pre-season schedule. Hopefully, this will help them come tournament selection time. The Orange are a young team. They will play without a conscience in March.
On a personal note – the ‘Cuse / Rhode Island game was of particular interest to me. I worked summer camp for Ram coach, Jimmy Baron, during his previous stint at St. Bonaventure. I can vividly remember Jimmy Baron Jr. running around with a ball attached to his hands at all times. Now to see him light up the Orange for six threes was pretty amusing. The last time I saw him he measured probably three feet in height.
One Big East team trying to maintain their end of the bargain is West Virginia. After playing John Beilein’s finesse game, the Mountaineers have become a rough ‘n’ tumble squad under Bob Huggins. Huggins is employing an open-post set on the offensive end that is rather enjoyable to watch. A lot of cutting and screening going on. Swing man, Joe Alexander, is a beast when finishing.
The Big East is not the only ‘Big’ struggling. The Big Ten is taking some early lumps. The ACC took eight of eleven in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. To add some salt to the wounds this past weekend Marquette beat Wisconsin in Badger Land, and Duke undressed Michigan. Only Michigan State saved the conference as they took down #22 BYU, 68-61.
I am not ready to bury the Big Ten. The last time I did that they put two teams in the Final Four: Illinois and MSU, 2005. As long as Tom Izzo coaches in Lansing the Big Ten will have a team ready to make a run in March. Come tournament time a couple statistics prove important: rebounding margin and field goal defense. Izzo’s teams always rank high in those categories. It’s not pretty, but it wins games.
Back to Marquette – they return an experienced team including guard Dominic James.
Experience and guard play could carry them late in the season. Their only loss thus far was to Duke in the Maui Classic.
Speaking of Duke, I am more cautious than optimistic. I like the athletes they have assembled. After last year’s first round exit to a gamey VCU squad, Duke’s obvious dearth of athleticism needed improving. They seem to be going in the right direction. With the barely athletic McRoberts leaving for the NBA, that made room for Gerald Henderson, and newcomers David McClure and Kyle Singler. While I’m thinking of McRoberts – what does his entering the NBA draft say about the league? I love the NBA – don’t get me wrong (Thank you again JD for opening my eyes), but when McRoberts has one of the 550 roster spots in the league, I gotta wonder. More on the Blue Devils – my concern rests with Paulus. I’m waiting for him to fulfill the hype. In the aforementioned victory over Marquette, Paulus showed little if any leadership in the game’s final moments. Marquette stepped up and pressed, and Paulus decided the time was right to play hot potato. I’m thinkin’ the point guard should be the one takin’ the heat at that point. Instead Paulus ducked the pressure. Every team in the ACC had to be watching and licking their chops. Paulus better be ready when Ty Lawson and the Heels come a calling.
Mentioning Lawson makes me think of the great point guards around the country. I like James from Marquette, Lawson, DJ Augustin of Texas, Drew Neitzel at Michigan State, and Darren Collison from UCLA.
I’m looking forward to conference play, but these December games are just what the doctor ordered.
On deck: Clipboard National Chan’ship begins Saturday.
In the hole: 2007 Clipboard Readers’ Choice Awards – start next Wednesday.