Welcome to this week's edition of the Musings, where we had a great time watching Stephen Curry drop 44 on Oklahoma in a losing effort. There were a few exciting games in the past week, most notably Virginia Tech-Xavier, Davidson-Oklahoma, and Texas Tech-East Central.
We're really looking forward to feast week though. Pretty much all of college basketball's giants will be in action, many of them facing each other. Be sure to stuff yourselves with turkey and grab a good seat on the couch. The Old Spice classic is sure to be better viewing than Lions-Titans on Thanksgiving Day.
Random thoughts after last week's games
* Can somebody please tell me what the hell Arizona was doing at the end of their game against UAB? Tie game, and they start fouling. When you do that, you're admitting one of two things: 1) We can't stop anybody on defense, so we're hoping to get lucky, or 2) We have the collective basketball IQ of a brick of tofu. Smart money is on the latter.
* I used to be naïve enough to think that something between Erin Andrews and I could work out. Now I know that it could never happen—not because she’s out of my league, but because she went to the same school as Teddy DuPay, who nearly knocked Mateen Cleaves out of the 2000 title game.
* How much did Kentucky miss Jodie Meeks last season?
* I don't care that East Central is a Division II school. The fact that Texas Tech scored 167 points in a regulation game is mind-boggling. For those of you who love stats, that's 52 percent from downtown and 59.3 percent from the field. Had the Red Raiders not shot free throws at such a poor 69 percent clip, they would've broken 170. Of course, they also gave up 115 points to a Division II squad.
* Ty Hansbrough looks like a 10-year-old getting ready for his older brother’s wedding in that suit. Seriously. The guy will be getting carded at bars until he’s 50.
* This week was the first time I’ve seen Steph Curry play since last year’s tournament. After watching him knock down shot after shot last March, I don’t think there’s anything he could do this season that will surprise me, except maybe dunk from halfcourt.
* Kentucky is down, and Arizona is down. I don’t think we’re in 1997 anymore, Toto. That title game was built for The Simpsons. Who are they? The Wildcats! Who are we? The Wildcats! Who are we gonna beat? The Wildcats!
* ESPN360.com is possibly the greatest invention of the last 10 years. My internet provider at home doesn't carry it, but I can pick it up when I've got my laptop in class. I may never hear another lecture again.
* I don't know whether to be impressed with Michigan or embarrassed for UCLA. Neither team really played well enough to win that game, and UCLA seemed hopeless against the 1-3-1 zone. Note to Ben Howland: You beat the zone by passing, not holding the ball until the trap shows up. Kudos to Michigan for actually beating a good team, but don't get ahead of yourselves. Duke pounded the snot out of you the next night.
* The problem in East Lansing is not turnovers, as it has been the last few seasons. Instead, the Spartans, normally known for their tough, no-nonsense approach to the game, have been getting outrebounded. I'd be surprised if the Spartans haven't been run to death in practices this week.
A closer look at...Kentucky vs. North Carolina (and Stephen Curry)
I've been a Kentucky fan since year one, but like I said last week, the current edition of the Wildcats has been making me quite sad. I've seen them go from perennial SEC and National Contender to bubble team. Memories of Rick Pitino's 1996 squad are still fresh in my mind. Same with Tubby Smith's 1998 squad—you know, the one that paid Duke back for the transgressions of 1992.
Now we've witnessed home losses to Gardner-Webb and VMI (famous alum: Fred Willard). Nobody thought that Billy Gillispie would have an easy first couple of seasons, especially not with Tennessee inhabiting the same conference. But nobody expected results as bad as Michigan's loss to Toledo, either.
Still, I expected the Wildcats to get themselves hyped up for a marquee matchup against one of their traditional rivals and the team that is hot on their tails on the all-time wins list. The Wildcats even had a decent shot at an upset with Tyler Hansbrough still missing from the Tar Heels' lineup.
The game started out ugly for both teams. They came out with loads of energy, which led to loads of mistakes. It's definitely possible to be too excited for a game. Kentucky turned the ball over a ton in the early going, and UNC missed quite a few shots that they normally wouldn't.
Once the pace calmed down a little bit, North Carolina took control. Kentucky kept turning the ball over, but UNC started draining shots. Even without Hansbrough, they looked dominant.
My notes from the game say, "They’re running the floor, knocking down outside shots, and even playing some defense (gasp!) Their game against Michigan State could look like a Loyola-Marymount intrasquad scrimmage from the Hank Gathers days."
This matchup was essentially over by halftime. The Wildcats rallied to make it look like less of a blowout, but anybody who had been watching the whole time knew the truth. Kentucky had just been flat-out run over. It wasn't pretty. After awhile, I realized that my time would be better spent watching a little bit of the Davidson-Oklahoma contest.
Eleven minutes left in the Davidson game, and Stephen Curry had put up 27 points. I was shaking my head when the announcers butted in and insisted he was having an off night. I realize he's not the scorer that Pete Maravich was, but 27 points in a half-hour against one of the favorites in the Big 12 is pretty impressive.
His efforts got even more impressive when he drained that three-pointer in the corner over Blake Griffin. Griffin has a serious height advantage, but Curry created just a little bit of space and unloaded. He's probably the best pure shooter I've seen in my young life.
Back to the Kentucky game. If Gillispie wants to make it through the season without being showered with boos every time he takes the court at home, he’s got to get much better guard play. They can’t turn the ball over so often (28 against UNC), and they’ve got to feed Patrick Patterson in the post. He should be touching the ball every time the Cats get into their halfcourt set.
Patterson is talented enough to carry the Wildcats for stretches. He takes high-percentage shots, he's strong enough to create his own offense in the post, and he doesn't turn the ball over nearly as often as the guards. Gillispie needs to rely on him until his guards get some more confidence. Otherwise, it's going to be a long season in Lexington.
For North Carolina to have a great year, they just need to keep doing what they're doing. Hansbrough may or may not be at full strength against Michigan State on Dec. 3, but he'll come out with guns blazing for the conference season. Duke will be UNC's nearest contender, and they don't have the depth or the discipline to contend this season.
Spotlight on...The Big East, with Jameson Fleming
This is going to be a regular feature of this column. I'll do interviews with fans from teams and conferences all over the country to give my readers an insider's perspective on their team and conference. If you're interested in participating in a future "Spotlight on..." segment, drop a note on my bulletin board.
This week we're featuring Syracuse student and College Basketball community leader Jameson Fleming. The Big East is expected to be dominant this season, and Jameson's beloved Syracuse Orange are expected to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2006. It's been weird without them.
Joe Guarr: First of all, we need some background. Did you grow up a Syracuse fan? If not, who did you follow as a kid?
Jameson Fleming: I didn't grow up an SU fan in the least bit. I was a die-hard Kentucky fan. I never missed a game when they were on national TV. I still liked UK my first two years of school until last year when the Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament and Syracuse did not.
When I came to college I was hooked quickly on SU hoops. I camped out for a week for several basketball games to get front row seats, and I'm now president of the student section called Otto's Army.
JG: What's your favorite Syracuse basketball memory?
JF: My favorite SU memory is when the 'Cuse took down ninth-ranked Georgetown my freshman year. We thought that would put the Orange into the NCAA Tournament, so we stormed the court. Plus GTOWN is the purveyor of all things evil and wrong with the world, so the win was extra special.
JG: Lots of analysts are saying that the Big East could send 10 teams to the tournament. What is it about that conference that attracts so many elite players? There's no Duke, Carolina, Kentucky, or UCLA, but the Big East always seems to be loaded.
JF: The brand of basketball is the most exciting in the country. Years past the ACC has been the best conference, but the past few years and into the future, it's going to be the Big East.
If you look at where a lot of the top 100 recruits grew up, you'll find a lot in the Northeast. With the conference extending into the Midwest now, it's an easier draw to get those players into the Big East instead of the Big Ten. Who wants to play boring 65 point per game Big Ten basketball when you can play in an up-tempo 80 ppg offense?
JG: St. John's has the fifth-most wins of any college basketball program, yet they've been in a serious tailspin of late. What's going on in Queens, and do you see them becoming relevant again anytime soon?
JF: St. John's will figure things out eventually. Being in NYC is a start, and playing in Madison Square Garden has to wow local players. They need to tap into that resource and turn things around that way. A new coach would probably help too. The Johnnies' recruiting classes are starting to improve, but I don't think they'll be relevant until the 2011 season at the earliest.
JG: It's time to give the people some predictions (please give a sentence or two to explain). Who's your Big East champ this season?
JF: My Big East champ is UConn. Despite being the subject of personal hatred (not as much as the Hoyas), I'm not afraid of admitting UConn is the best. Tonight against Albany they demonstrated great poise without A.J. Price and went on something like a 50 to 9 run to end the game. There's tremendous size, great speed, and solid depth.
JG: Dark horse?
JF: My dark horse is Providence despite the opening game loss to Northeastern. There's a ton of talent and depth on that team plus new coach Keno Davis.
JF: My disappointment will be Pittsburgh. That team is front-loaded in talent but lacks depth. If the role players don't step up, Pittsburgh could drop out of the top four in the conference and fall to sixth or seventh. On a side note, my sister's attendance at the Panthers' Law School has nothing to do with this decision. (No, seriously, it doesn't.)
JG: Big East POY?
JF: Player of the Year: Luke Harangody. I have no second thoughts on that one.
JG: Who goes to the NCAA tourney this year?
JF: Nine teams go from the Big East to the Big Dance. If Providence pans out, they'll push either West Virginia, Villanova, or Marquette from the tournament. I think 'Nova and Marquette are vastly overrated with their lack of size.
JG: Who's on your all-Big East team?
JF: Hasheem Thabeet, Luke Harangody, Sam Young, A.J. Price, Jonny Flynn.
JG: After missing the NCAAs for the past two seasons, Syracuse is looking to bounce back. Why are they going to be successful this season?
JF: I describe Syracuse this way: All-American point guard (Flynn), 17 ppg two-guard (Eric Devendorf), stud defensive guard and shooter off bench (Andy Rautins), best 6'4'' rebounding SF in the country (Paul Harris), two good freshmen (Mookie Jones and Kris Joseph), a Belgian glue guy (Kristof Ongenaet), an above average center (Arinze Onuaku), and a great shot blocker off the bench (Rick Jackson).
Are there a lot of teams out there that can boast they have that kind of depth, flexibility, and talent? Consistent defense and cohesiveness/chemistry is the only thing that stands between this team being good and great.
JG: Lastly, if you had to pick one Big East game to watch this year, what would it be?
JF: Well, personal standpoint, when GTOWN comes to Syracuse. It's the best rivalry in the Big East, and 33,000+ people will be in attendance. Other than that, I'd say UConn vs. Notre Dame. Thabeet/Adrien vs. Harangody. A.J. Price/Kyle McAlarney. That'll be a helluva matchup.
JG: Many thanks to Jameson for being such a willing participant, and best of luck to Syracuse during the 2008-2009 season! If you'd like to participate in a future column, remember to drop me a note on my bulletin board.
What I'll be watching this week
Tournaments, tournaments, tournaments.
The Old Spice classic features Michigan State, Maryland, Oklahoma State, Tennessee, Gonzaga, and Georgetown. The winners will have to go through hell to do it, but this tournament is sure to pay huge dividends when March rolls around.
Look for Michigan State to meet Georgetown in the finals, with the Spartans extracting sweet vengeance from Gonzaga for their triple-overtime loss in the Maui Invitational in 2005.
Speaking of Maui...they've got Notre Dame, Texas, and North Carolina filling out their bracket this year. St. Joseph's is also always a well-coached team, and you can't overlook Oregon and Alabama. UNC should meet Notre Dame in the final, setting up a titanic clash between Tyler Hansbrough and Luke Harangody.
The NIT Season Tip-Off isn't as glamorous as the other two tournaments that I mentioned, but it's set up nicely for a potential final between Oklahoma and Purdue: two teams who will play fundamentally sound, grind it out basketball.
Want to see a clinic on how to rebound? Just pay attention to Oklahoma's Blake Griffin. So far he's averaging 19.8 boards per game. And unlike Dennis Rodman, he's quite good at putting the ball in the hoop, too.