With conference play now in effect, the Big East and the Big 12 can revert back to the normality of familiar teams and styles of play, new and old faces, and intense rivalries.
Without further delay, here is my preview of Saturday's ranked conference-inspired action.
No. 11 Syracuse at Rutgers
Players to watch
PG Jonny Flynn
The Big East playmaker has been uncharacteristic as of late.
Over his last three games, Flynn is averaging 12.3 points (1-of-6 from behind the arc), has one steal, and has turned the ball over 11 times. Though his offensive production may be down a few dregs and he's fumbling away the ball, he's improving as a facilitator with eight assists against DePaul—marking the 16th straight game he's had more assists than turnovers—and 10 dimes three weeks ago.
Expect Flynn's T.O. numbers to return to normal as Eric Devendorf adjusts within the offense and Paul Harris returns—both missed a combined three games this season—with Jonny shouldering the load in their absences.
While Pitt's Levance Fields maybe the Big East's best game manager as a floor general, Flynn is the most talented.
Standing only 6'0", Flynn uses his wiry frame to elude backcourt traps and knife through defenders, effectively distributing the ball to his teammates, bringing forth memories of a youthful Brevin Knight at Stanford.
His up-tempo style of play had several major effects on the Orange. With Flynn at the controls, Syracuse finished last season No. 1 in the Big East in team field goal percentage, second in free throw attempts, and second in scoring in the conference behind Notre Dame.
In terms of NBA, his stature is his greatest weakness. But we're starting to see a trend develop in utile point guards playing above their height and becoming invaluable to their teams at the next level: Aaron Brooks, D.J. Augustin, and Nate Robinson, among others.
If Flynn continues his excellent game management, he has a chance to become a middle to late first-round selection ranging from No. 16-28.
He may not be starting material in the NBA yet depending on the team that drafts him, but he will be immediately serviceable off the bench as a backup point guard on the roster of a playoff team with holes in their second unit.
Teams such as the Celtics, Nuggets, Hornets, and Magic come to mind.
Key fact: The Orange are 15-0 when Flynn attempts two free throws or more.
No. 23 Louisville at No. 18 Villanova
Players to watch
F Dante Cunningham
Yes, Scottie Reynolds' 40-point melee deserves a special degree of applause. Think of it as redemption after abandoning his teammates in a loss against Marquette in which he had more turnovers than assists, 4-1.
Dante Cunningham has been the most efficient member of Villanova over the past four seasons, improving his minutes, points, rebounding, and block per game averages with each passing year.
In his first year with Villanova, he needed to gain weight and improve defense.
Well, he's healthily ballooned to 230 lbs. and is beginning to emerge as the team's best defender, certainly inside the painted area.
How much of an improved defender is he?
In his freshman season he recorded 27 steals and 19 blocks in 33 games, 629 minutes of play.
Heading into Nova's 15th game Saturday, Cunningham is one steal and one block shy (26 steals and 18 blocks) of prematurely abolishing those marks in only 492 minutes.
After watching Cunningham and his tendencies, images of Charlie Villanueva appear, but only a shorter, stockier version. True, Dante doesn't possess the range yet from long distance, but Villanueva wasn't exactly an accomplished long-range shooter, converting on 6-of-60 attempts in his final season at UConn.
With his skill set progressing, he's hovering around the 18-8-1-1 plateau, which would place him in high company, among Blake Griffin and Tyler Hansbrough of the Big 12 and ACC.
Key fact: The Wildcats are 7-0 when Cunningham attempts 15 shots or more with an average win margin of 18.2.
G/F Earl Clark
Clark has been the most consistent player on Pitino's team this season. He's hoisted 10 or more shots 10 times this season and has nine games in which he grabbed eight rebounds or more. At 6'9" and strength metastasized across his body, contact has been frequent but Lilliputian, allowing him to score around the basket. Though he only scored 10 points against Kentucky, he showed how versatile he can be.
He only made two shots in the contest, but both of them were layups in the paint, and the remainder of his production came from the free-throw line, where he shot 6-for-8. He only scored one point after halftime and turned his focus to defense, grabbing eight boards and blocking a team-high three shots.
Clark has all the tools of a Swiss Army knife; he's long, has great lift, is an excellent rebounder, understands positioning on both sides of the floor, and is a great team player—like a shot-creating defensive-minded Trevor Ariza.
His next step is to improve his jump-shot and work on his ball-handling, which appears stagnant at times and allows the defense to exercise trapping methods against him.
He's already likened to the task of shooting. In the Cards' win over South Florida, Clark hoisted 13 jump shots, making 3-of-8 from long range. Though he didn't convert all of his perimeter shots, Clark's showing displays glimmers of confidence, which are beginning to protrude out onto the court.
He's already a lottery pick. If he can upgrade his ball-handling, a Top 10 selection doesn't sound so farfetched.
Key fact: Had Edgar Sosa not made a three-pointer late against Kentucky, it would have been Louisville's third loss to an unranked team this season and the third in six games.
No. 6 Oklahoma at Kansas State
Players to Watch
PG Willie Warren
Blake Griffin is the apparent star on Oklahoma, but the focus should be drawn on freshman Willie Warren. He's even outscored Mr. Griffin; not throughout the season, but during a recent stretch. From Dec. 22-Jan. 3, Warren tallied 80 points in comparison to Griffin's 72, with the two playing similar minutes: Warren 99 minutes, and Blake 97 minutes.
He's also improving each week in different aspects of the game, intensified by his output in the last four weeks. In week one, Warren established a new career-high in points with 31. In week two, he broke that mark with 35 points to go along with personal highs in field goal and three-point attempts. In week three, he dished out a season-best seven assists, and last week he became a role player and went 10-of-10 from the charity stripe.
Warren has all the makings of a Keyon Dooling and is excelling in his debut season by constantly changing speeds, prohibiting defenses from getting a sound lock on him, making him a terror in the open court. Though Georgetown freshman Greg Monroe is oft-heralded as the best newcomer in the land, Warren is closing in rapidly.
His crafty dribbling and the fact he is an effervescent scorer is enough to land him around the latter part of the first-round. If he elects to return to the Sooners after this season, it will be for the better and could upgrade his status and catapult him up the draft ladder next year.
F Darren Kent
The post Bill Walker/Michael Beasley-era has begun smoother than most expected, including me. At 11-3 the Wildcats have been surprisingly aggressive on defense and have only allowed two opponents to score more than 70 points on the season.
On Saturday they run into a major roadblock in the form of 6'10", 250-lb. Blake Griffin and the Oklahoma Sooners.
Blake likes to attack the glass and is the most offensively skilled big man in the land.
The player presented with the unforgiving task of defending the gifted Blake Griffin is Darren Kent.
In retrospect, Kent has four games this season with 10 rebounds or more, but that is combated by four games with four fouls or more.
However, Kent has showed flashes of exceptional play this season, logging three double-doubles and perhaps had the most productive game this season by any player in College Basketball, going neck-and-neck with the clock, posting 24 points, 10 rebounds, and a blocked shot in only 25 minutes of play.
Though the outburst was unexpected and the biggest accomplishment for the Wildcats since Beasley's scorched-earth policies, Kent is unlikely to get drafted.
Regardless of that fact, I don't need to be a harbinger to see that Griffin will exploit Kent offensively and should engulf him on the other end as well. No player in College Basketball can singlehandedly defend him one-on-one, so Kent should be backed by a collective Wildcat legion in hopes of containing Griffin.
If K-State wants any chance of a victory, they must keep Griffin away from the rim and plant defenders around him before he advances into the paint.
Key fact: Kansas State is 4-0 when Darren Kent logs a double-double and has outscored their opponents 329-246 in those games.
No. 5 Connecticut at Cincinnati
Players to Watch
F/C Jeff Adrien
Adrien has four double-doubles and two 20-10 efforts on the year, and his tenacious hustle solidifies UConn's desire to win. Along with teammate Hasheem Thabeet, the duo represents one of the toughest frontcourts in the NCAA, averaging a combined 18.9 rebounds and 4.8 blocks between them.
At 6'7" and 240 lbs., Adrien reminds me of a Paul Millsap-type of player. Both have similar builds (Millsap stands at 6'8", 250) and are undersized forwards who are hard-nosed rebounders and pursue the ball with a feverish intent.
Like Millsap, he will be an early second-round pick in the annual June draft.
Key fact: The Huskies are only 1-1 when Adrien grabs two defensive rebounds.
G Deonta Vaughn
The Bearcats are only one of five teams to have gone winless in the very conference they inhabit this season, none other than the Big East.
Vaughn's numbers aren't what they were a season ago, and he seems to have become infatuated with the long ball. In games in which he has attempted 10 three-pointers or more (there've been of six them), he's missed triple the number of long range shots than he's made, going 23-of-66.
It's an amazing stat that speaks to how reliant he's become on that one area to score the basketball.
With tendencies and awful shooting woes like that, the likelihood of slipping into the cellar of the second round sounds like a possibility. Or teams can attempt to translate his game into a misguided, poor man's version of Jamal Crawford.
Key fact: In the two Big East conference games the Bearcats have lost, Vaughn has 20 points on 5-of-21 shooting.
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