I'd like to begin this week's column with a brief story.
On Friday, I was sitting at home hoping to get to my local Jimmy John's for lunch. I used to work there and wanted to say hi to some of my former co-workers.
The weather had other ideas. You see, between Thursday night and Friday morning, my hometown had about 10 inches of snow dumped on it. Schools were closed, roads were closed, and my favorite hot dog joint, Gregordog, was also shut down.
But I was determined and more than a little foolish.
I spent a good 40 minutes digging my car out of the driveway. It's a little front-wheel drive hatchback. Great on dry pavement, not so great in 10 inches of snow. But I was going to make it to lunch if it killed me.
Ten feet past the end of my driveway, my front tires sunk into the snow and I had no choice but to throw the car into reverse and head back into the driveway.
I probably should have listened to my mom, who cautioned against leaving the house in the first place. "Your tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker," she had cleverly warned.
What's the point of this story?
My Friday morning was a lot like Michigan State's basketball season so far. For every small victory, there's been a huge disappointment. After dominating Alcorn State and The Citadel in the past couple of games, I was left wondering what would happen in Texas on Saturday against an actual contender.
Would there be another meltdown like we suffered against North Carolina, or would the Spartans actually play to their potential against a quality opponent for the first time all season.
If you're dying for a recap, go ahead and skip to the "Closer Look" segment. Otherwise, enjoy this week's column.
Random thoughts after this week's games
*In a battle of former Kentucky Wildcats coaches who won titles in Lexington, Tubby Smith and his Minnesota Gophers came out ahead of the ninth-ranked Louisville Cardinals.
Many folks slammed the Gophers for playing a weak early schedule, just like their football team, but unlike their football team, the basketball team actually came away with a win over a quality opponent.
*The Citadel wasn't blown out of the Breslin Center like Alcorn State was, but there are a couple of very good reasons for this. First, everybody on their roster can shoot from outside, which spreads out the defense. Second, the Spartans were trying to integrate Goran Suton back into their lineup after a lengthy absence.
*Speaking of Suton, he had his knee scoped on Dec. 4, yet played significant minutes on Dec. 17. I'm definitely impressed by modern medicine.
*Just when you thought the Indiana scandal was over, Eric Gordon came out and said that the team's problems stemmed from drug abuse, which divided the locker room. From illegal phone calls (a recruiting violation) to illegal drug use (violation of state and federal law). What's the next step in the progression, and will it surprise anybody?
*Gordon's allegations weren't the most surreal thing to happen in college hoops this week though. That honor goes to Mississippi's Andy Kennedy, who allegedly shouted ethnic slurs at a cab driver and then punched him in the face.
Regardless of whether or not Kennedy actually did anything, it's still a shame that a coach would even be in a position to be accused of something this serious.
*This week's reason why you can't trust the Big Ten Network: When interviewing Raymar Morgan after MSU had knocked off The Citadel, MSU alum Steve Smith sounded more like a teenage girl at her first Jonas Brothers concert than a sports journalist.
*Note to Davidson's future opponents: Find a way to shut down Steph Curry without double-teaming him, and you've got a great chance at beating them. Double-team him the whole game and you still look like an idiot.
*Syracuse fell victim to the most exciting finish of the early season against Cleveland State but rebounded nicely in dispatching Memphis. Syracuse will likely make some noise in March. To do so, they've got to survive at least a few weeks without Eric Devendorf.
*Duke also appears to be rebounding nicely after their loss at the hands of Michigan. They sent Xavier back to earth after the Musketeers had risen all the way to No. 7 in the rankings. While Duke will still have to be firing on all cylinders if they hope to challenge North Carolina in the ACC, it would appear that they've got a good chance.
*Ohio State is okay without David Lighty...for now. They'll miss him once conference play starts though.
A closer look at...Michigan State vs. Texas
This was an important game for both teams. Michigan State had fallen way short in their last test against marquee opposition and Texas will have been hoping to reassert their status as a dominant team after struggling in games against Texas Southern and Texas State.
On paper, Texas appeared to have the edge. Michigan State hadn't beaten a ranked team all season and Texas had taken down UCLA and Villanova. Michigan State's best post player, Goran Suton, was still trying to work himself back into playing shape after almost a month off due to an injured knee.
This was a close game from the start, a defensive struggle. Neither team was able to take control of the contest for any significant stretch of time.
Michigan State did a better job shutting down Texas' AJ Abrams than Texas did shutting down Goran Suton. The Spartans held Abrams to 3-10 shooting while Suton scored 18 points on 7-8 shooting off the bench. How a rusty forward with a gimpy knee was allowed to do so much damage inside, I'll never know.
It's an even stranger result when one looks at all the stats. Michigan State was both outrebounded and outshot from the foul line, issues that Tom Izzo will no doubt address in practice before the conference season begins. Izzo hates being beaten on the boards almost as much as he hates stupid turnovers.
The only significant edge that the Spartans held was in shooting percentage. They shot 50 percent, compared to only 39 percent for the Longhorns.
Defense, then, was the name of the game. Neither group of starters performed terribly well. Texas' starting five ended up with 41 points while Michigan State's starters were held to an abysmal 29 points.
The benches were the difference. As mentioned, Suton scored 18 points but the hero of the game was Durrell Summers. Summers scored 14 points and hit the key three-pointer with less than 20 seconds left to give the Spartans the lead for good.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Spartans were walking out of Houston with their third straight win over a talented Texas squad. That's wins over teams led by Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, and now A.J. Abrams.
What will each team take away from this game?
Michigan State gains a much-needed confidence boost after falling short against Maryland and North Carolina. They needed to show the country that yes, despite some early hiccups, they are still one of the elite programs in the nation. The players themselves also needed to be reassured that they can compete with anybody in the country on any given day.
Texas gets a reality check. While they've put together some good results recently, the Spartans were able to expose some flaws. If a team can shut down Abrams, they've got a good chance at beating Texas. The Longhorns will need to find some more scoring options, especially before they start conference play.
Spotlight on...The Pac-10 and Washington State
For this week's "Spotlight on..." segment, I've brought in somebody from Pac-10 country, a fan who is a die-hard supporter of the Washington State Cougars. Ladies and gentlemen, this week's guest is Lew Wright.
Joe Guarr: First of all, you're a Washington State fan. Have you always cheered for the Cougars, or are there other teams in your past?
Lew Wright: Growing up in Southern California, my first "favorite" teams were the Trojans and Bruins. My folks had season tickets for USC, so the exposure to the Pac-8 began there. Yes, I saw both Mike Garrett and O. J. Simpson play for USC.
The only schools on my radar for college were in the Pac-8. Washington State was my choice for a number of reasons. That's where it all began, the passion for college athletics.
JG: Washington State had quite a bit of success last year, dominating Winthrop and Notre Dame in March en route to the Sweet Sixteen. What's the key to keeping this momentum going?
LW: It would be great to see the young guns of WSU mature quickly enough this season to predict another trip to the tournament in March. That is the goal of both Coach Tony Bennett and the players. Given the talent, it's not a stretch to think that it will happen again.
Aron Baynes has continued to improve and mature. He's going to surprise a few folks this season. Daven Harmeling has been shooting the ball well, an important element to running the deliberate offense of Bennett Ball. Taylor Rochestie hasn't been consistent and that's a worry.
For Bennett Ball to flourish, the point guard play is critical. Those are the senior starters. The key to the success of the team is hinging on the play of uber-athlete DeAngelo Casto.
He has tremendous instincts on defense and the talent to make plays. When both Casto and Baynes are on the floor at the same time, the Cougs have a front line that can dominate either end of the court.
JG: The Pac-10 is a conference that has one very successful program (UCLA) and a bunch of teams and players that tend to fly under the radar most years (Jon Brockman, WSU, etc.) What are some things that the nation might not know about that makes the conference worth watching?
LW: The Pac-10 has long been a conference of offensive-minded teams/coaches. In the past 5-10 years that has changed to defense-first philosophy. With the retirement of Coach Olsen, it's likely that run-and-gun is done for now.
That won't attract fans of slam dunks, but if you want to see teams that will challenge the Big East, ACC and Big 12, watch the Pac-10.
JG: Arizona lost Lute Olsen in the offseason, but they proved with their victory over Gonzaga that they still have plenty of talent. Are they capable of contending in the Pac-10?
LW: Coach Olsen might be gone, but the trio of Budinger, Hill, and Wise are still there. That's probably not enough to contend during the season, but they could sneek through the conference tournament.
JG: Who's your conference champion?
LW: I'm going out on a limb here and go with Arizona State. I really like Coach Herb Sendek and what he has going in Tempe. You know what I think about Harden. The Sun Devils have a terrific mix of players with great chemistry. The favorite, UCLA, just hasn't looked as good as ASU in non-conference play.
LW: Washington. Coach Romar is an excellent coach and always prepares his players well. The Huskies are strong up front. If their guards gain the confidence necessary to shoot over zones (which UW will see from a lot of teams this year), they will do very, very well.
LW: UCLA. They have been inconsistent on offense this season. Holiday will develop into a good player, but clearly doesn't replace the scoring of Love from last season. The Bruins might lose six conference games, making them a disappointment.
JG: Player of the Year?
LW: >James Harden of ASU. He is not only the best all-around guard in the conference, he can carry a team on his back. Harden is a "player."
JG: All Pac-10 team?
LW: C- Taj Gibson, USC F- Jon Brockman, UW F-Jordan Hill, UA G-James Harden, ASU G-Darren Collison, UCLA
JG: How many teams from the conference make the tournament?
LW: By the time the Pac-10 is done banging on each other, they will be lucky to get five teams in this season. Wouldn't surprise me if only four got a ticket.
JG: Lastly, UCLA is historically successful, but lately their crosstown rivals USC have been making big strides, landing some top recruits and getting a lot of national hype. What are your thoughts on an improving situation at USC? How have they been able to do it?
LW: USC has made huge strides under Coach Floyd. He has brought in some awesome players, but there is the problem as well. Coach Floyd has not been able to get his guys to come together as a team.
Daniel Hackett is a terrific player that obviously gets frustrated when his mates don't play as a team or stay within the system and schemes preached by Coach Floyd. Honestly, Coach Floyd is better suited to coach the professional game.
Many thanks to Lew for his willing participation in this week's "Spotlight on..." Remember, if you'd like to share your views on your favorite team or conference, drop a note on my bulletin board.
Santa Claus is coming to town
What are your favorite college hoops stars hoping to find under their Christmas tree?
Stephen Curry—Some offensive help. Davidson won't come close to replicating their Elite Eight run if Curry remains the only option on offense.
Michigan Wolverines—Some respect. They've been treated like Rodney Dangerfield by pollsters so far this season. They'll make the tournament but their fans would like them to be ranked as well.
Louisville—Some rest. The Cardinals might still be hung over from their stretch of three games in three days earlier in December. You won't hear Rick Pitino making any excuses though.
Miami—Some consistency. The Hurricanes have looked pretty good in their wins, especially against Kentucky. But they've slipped up against every ranked opponent they've faced this season. They've got to find a way to get over the hump.
Raymar Morgan—Some consistency. Morgan has the same issue as the Hurricanes, only on a much smaller scale. If he stays out of foul trouble, he generally has a pretty good game. If he gets in foul trouble...well, he's usually lucky to reach double-digits in scoring. Not what you expect out of somebody with his athletic abilities.
Syracuse—Continued success. If Eric Devendorf isn't allowed to return to school in the spring, it will be a big blow to the Orange. Even if he does return, they've still got to weather some games without him. Syracuse will hope to keep up their early-season success through December and early January.
What I'm watching this week
Texas vs. Wisconsin, Tuesday: Texas faces its second straight test against a quality Big Ten opponent. They'll be looking to get back to their winning ways.
Illinois vs. Missouri, Tuesday: This annual border rivalry always produces an intense, entertaining game.
UAB vs. Louisville, Saturday: Louisville will be looking to rebound after their loss to Minnesota, but UAB will provide a stern test.
Washington State vs. LSU, Saturday: This matchup pits a quality WSU squad against an LSU squad that appears to be in much better shape than last season.
Ohio State vs. West Virginia, Saturday: Ohio State's first real test without David Lighty. West Virginia is well-coached and could take advantage.