College Basketball Musings And Notes: Dec. 29

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College Basketball Musings And Notes: Dec. 29

This week's edition of the Musings is coming to you live from sunny Orlando, Florida. I'm sitting around, counting down the hours until Michigan State and Georgia kick off in the Capital One Bowl. More importantly, I'm excited to get my first chance to witness an SEC tailgate firsthand. I hope the Spartans win, but I think the Dawgs are going to win the tailgating battle...

Anyway, the column is a little later this week because I wanted to make sure I was able to get some observations from Georgetown-UConn in. I'm glad I waited, because that game delivered.

 

Random thoughts after this week's games

*It's not basketball related, but I've got to give a mention to the Detroit Lions. Going into their game against the Packers on Sunday, Lions players were calling it their "Super Bowl." You might think that this is ridiculous, until you realize that Detroit has still never won a Super Bowl of any sort.

*We’re over 12 minutes into the Washington State-LSU game, and the score is 9-8. Pete Maravich is rolling over in his grave.

*Is it so wrong that I kept hoping for WSU coach Tony Bennett to break out into a spirited rendition of “Come Fly With Me”?

*Five and a half minutes into the Georgetown-UConn game, it's 15-1 in favor of the Hoyas. Greg Monroe in the high post is going to be a very beautiful thing by the end of his collegiate career.

*Oakland University showed quite a bit of fight against Michigan State on Saturday. They've now become my favorites to win the Summit League. They play a real physical brand of basketball and can knock down the outside shot.

*Is it safe to say that Ohio State misses David Lighty? Ohio State misses David Lighty.

*Michigan is ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in ages...Wolverine fans everywhere will be excited, and deservedly so. They had a great start in non-conference play, and I will (grudgingly) admit that they've got a good team.

This team has seen the lowest of the low (no official tournament appearances in almost 20 years), but can now legitimately feel confident that they'll be returning to the tournament. Barring an incomprehensible collapse in conference play, they'll be dancing.

*I just don't get the hype surrounding Bo Ryan. No National Titles, no Final Fours. He's a good coach, but please, analysts, take him off the pedestal. He's not on par with Roy Williams, Coach K, Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan, Jim Boeheim, Bill Self, etc. Win a title and then we can talk.

*On a related note, I've got a personal rivalry with Bo Ryan. I'm a former member of Spartan Brass, and we use the same tunnel to get to the court as the teams and officials do. Remember when MSU upset No. 1 Wisconsin a couple of seasons ago? I stared down Ryan when I was helping bring drum equipment into the arena, as he was giving a radio interview. He noticed and was shaken.

*Can we get a timer on A.J. Abrams' shot release? He gets the ball out of his hands quicker than Dan Marino. It's beautiful.

*Greg Monroe has made Hasheem Thabeet look foolish at times during this game. The future is bright for the Hoyas.

*Michigan State has actually dropped in Joe Lunardi's bracketology, to a five seed. This despite a win over projected three seed Texas, and a higher AP ranking (10) than the projected four seed in their bracket, Clemson (20). If Michigan fans are allowed to complain about being ranked below Michigan State, I'm allowed to complain about this.

*Speaking of rankings, I don't think anybody who votes in the official polls has any idea what they're doing. Gonzaga has fallen only as far as 16th after three losses, but Ohio State drops nine slots after a single loss? Weird.

A closer look at...Texas vs. Wisconsin

This one turned out to be a very exciting game. It featured a very well-coached team in Wisconsin against a very athletic, up-tempo team in Texas. Before tip-off, I expected Texas to try and push the ball, and both teams to execute well.

Boy, was I wrong. I was right about Texas, but the execution in the early going was pretty terrible. Missed shots, fouls, sloppy passes...not what you expect out of those teams.

When they finally did settle down, it was loads of fun to watch. Connor Atchley and A.J. Abrams were matching Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon shot for shot. Three-pointer, swish. Alley-oop, etc. You get the idea.

A game that had started unbearably slow had heated up rather quickly. We were treated to some stellar shooting and lock-down defense, all in the first half.

The moment of the game came right before the first half buzzer. Texas' Varez Ward tossed up a desperation three-pointer with about two seconds left on the clock. It was way off, but Damion James kept running from the top of the key while the Badgers stood still. Shades of NC State in 1983, except you know, minus the huge stage and the unforgettable highlights of Jimmy V.

The game remained just as tight during the second half. Neither team was able to gain any real separation thanks to timely shooting and great defense. Texas finally pulled away just enough in the last two or three minutes, but still had to hang on to win by only five.

The Longhorns were able to beat the Badgers at their own game, and that was the key. Texas outrebounded Wisconsin by 15 and enjoyed a huge advantage on the offensive glass. You can't afford to give a team with that many athletes that many second chances. It just won't end well.

Damion James was the star, doing his best Blake Griffin impersonation. He scored 18 points and added 15 big rebounds, a nice follow-up to his 15 and 10 performance against Michigan State.

A.J. Abrams was also able to turn in a nice performance, netting 21 points. That should send him into conference play on a high note after being held to a season-low eight points against the Spartans.

There's not too many reasons for Wisconsin to be discouraged though, aside from the rebounding margin. They played excellent defense and got big games from Hughes and Bohannon. If they can solidify their inside presence and get a bigger contribution from their bench, they could challenge for second or third place in a revitalized Big Ten conference.

Spotlight on...North Carolina

Earlier in this series, BabyTate stopped by to share some of his vast knowledge on Duke and their basketball history. Of course, there are two sides to the infamous Tobacco Road rivalry, and this week Nathan B joins me to talk Tar Heels.

Joe Guarr: First, we've got to get some background on you. According to your B/R profile, you're a proud graduate of UNC. Were you a Tar Heels fan before you set foot on campus, or are there other college hoops teams in your past?

Nathan B: I was definitely a Tar Heels fan from the time I first started college in the 1800s.  Okay, it was 1990, but seriously, I was on the 17-year plan.  My fanhood was probably sealed the day the Heels beat the Fab Five for the title in '93—I wasn't a big fan of that Michigan team.  I do have a past history with Illinois, where I had grown up, and Kansas, who I just flat-out liked because of Roy Williams.  Imagine my joy when he became the Tar Heel coach!

JG: (Struggling not to make the obligatory Chris Webber reference...done!) What's your favorite college basketball memory?

NB: My favorite memory is actually not from a Championship but a day in which Duke was eliminated from the Final Four and UNC sealed their bid in a game right afterward...I think this was the '98 Madness, but what I remember (better than the year...ha) was how thousands of us students poured out onto Franklin Street, filling it for hours.

There was this old guy with a trumpet, repeatedly playing the fight song, while we sang along.  It was a clean, fun celebration; no one got hurt or acted stupid.  It was pure school spirit.

A close second would be watching UNC beat the Illini in '05, most of it watched while running on a treadmill in a gym in Camp Rustamiyah (southeast Baghdad, Iraq).

JG: Ah yes, a shout out to Kentucky, who got revenge on Duke in 1998. A lot of criticism has been leveled at UNC star Tyler Hansbrough during his college career. Plenty of people seem to want to label him as a failure because they don't see his game translating to the NBA. What's your take on this criticism, and how do you see Hansbrough panning out in the NBA?

NB: The criticism borders on the ridiculous.  You evaluate a college player by how he plays in college, not how his skills may or may not translate to the NBA.  He deserved the Player of the Year award last year, and he deserves to be in the conversation this year, though I acknowledge he would not currently be the guy who should win. 

Do I think he'll be an NBA stud?  No.  I think he'll be a decent reserve, but ultimately he's smart enough to know his college degree will probably get him further in life than his NBA contract.
He will probably go down as, statistically, the greatest player in the history of the ACC.  He will likely be the first-ever four-time unanimous All-American.  He has the heart of a champion, and I think he'll have the ring to go with it by season's end.  I don't care if he never plays a minute in the NBA—it doesn't mean that he isn't one of the greatest players to ever play the college game.

JG: North Carolina and Michigan State are two programs that play more ranked opponents than anybody else in the nation. How has UNC been able to survive such a brutal schedule to enjoy so much sustained success?

NB: If you're talking about this year, their schedule really hasn't been that tough.  They have easily dispatched all comers, though Michigan State and Notre Dame are the only ranked teams they played.  Even with injuries and Wayne Ellington's cold start, they are decimating all opponents by 15-20 points or more.

They can recruit like no one else, and they rarely have to rebuild (just reload).  Roy Williams is one of the best in the business, and he knows how to take an above-average college player and turn him into a great college player (Danny Green and Ty Lawson come to mind). 
You have to beat the best to be the best.  I am strongly against schedules in which you have "warm-up" games against patsies from the weak conferences.  It can help create bad habits that young players may get away with against weak teams.  They are nothing more than glorified practice sessions.
UNC's history of tough scheduling is a help, not a hindrance.  The level of competition is so high in the ACC (year in and year out) that by the time March rolls around, you know exactly what your weaknesses are.

JG: Let's get some predictions from you. Who's your ACC champ?

NB: UNC, of course!  It won't be easy.  Look for Duke and Wake Forest to make a serious run at them.  Clemson is underrated; they have improved every year under Oliver Purnell.  Ultimately, UNC has too much depth for any of them, but I highly doubt they will go undefeated in conference play.  I look for UNC to be 15-1 in the regular season, and they will win the conference tournament.

JG: Dark horse?

NB: I don't know if you can call Clemson a dark horse at this point, but they could potentially finish second in the ACC, given the right breaks.  If Clemson isn't dark enough of a horse, Maryland is a dangerous team that can beat anyone on any given night, coached by a genius (albeit, a very sweaty genius) in Gary Williams.

JG: Get the man some Degree! Disappointment?

NB: Virginia Tech.  I know they've suffered some buzzer-beater losses, but this team has taken a significant step backwards from last March.  Virginia and Georgia Tech weren't supposed to be good...but the Hokies weren't supposed to be this bad, either.

JG: All-ACC team?

NB: Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, K.C. Rivers, Jack McClinton, Kyle Singler

I think Aminu of Wake Forest may actually end up beating out Singler in the end, but right now, I'll give Singler the edge.  There are a lot of players waiting in the wings.  Danny Green and Deon Thompson for the Heels, Vasquez of Maryland, Trevor Booker for Clemson who actually has looked better than Rivers at times...Tyrese Rice of BC if he heats up.  This was a tough lineup to assemble.

JG: Player of the Year?

NB: I'm going to go with Ty Lawson.  He's not the vocal floor leader that Hansbrough is, but he is the fastest man in college basketball, the best point guard in college basketball, and his assist to turnover ratio is unreal.  His toughest competition?  Tyler Hansbrough, of course.  Both must remain healthy, of course.

JG: I'd love to see Lawson and Rajon Rondo in a race. How many ACC teams make the tournament?

NB: Seven.  UNC, Duke, Wake, and Clemson are locks.  Maryland and Miami are probable.  Florida State is the bubble team that gets in; Boston College is the bubble team that gets left out.  N.C. State and Virginia Tech don't have enough this year.

Many thanks to Nathan for his participation! If you'd like to share your thoughts on your favorite team or conference, drop a note on my bulletin board. I'd love to hear from some fans from Big XII country or mid-majors.

Top 10 teams for the New Year

Here's the Top 10 list that I originally posted in mid-November.

1. North Carolina: This team runs deep, and Tyler Hansbrough will never be outhustled.
2. Louisville: A Rick Pitino team will never be outconditioned.
3. Michigan State: A Tom Izzo team will never be outintensed (good thing this isn't Scrabble).
4. Duke: A Mike Krzyzewski team will never be out-McDonald's HS All-Americaned.
5. UCLA: The Bruins will never be outhistoried.
6. Notre Dame: I think they'll be the surprise Big East champs.
7. UConn: Two straight postseason disappointments equal a No. 2 preseason ranking? Really?
8. Gonzaga: The Zags are well beyond the point where they'll surprise people, but they're a very good team.
9. Pittsburgh: Always overrated in the preseason polls. Always.
10. Texas: They'll probably miss D.J. Augustin.

Umm...this list is in desperate need of some editing. No Oklahoma? No Georgetown? I don't know what I was thinking...

Here's the revised list to get you through 2009.

1. North Carolina: Not only have they beaten all comers, they've made it look incredibly easy. I'd pick them in a game against Oklahoma City.
2. Oklahoma: I think Blake Griffin might be the only big man in the country that could tire Tyler Hansbrough out.
3. Georgetown: They might be young (the preseason knock on them), but their talent is helping people forget about that.
4. Duke: Don't like the loss to Michigan, but the victories over Purdue and Michigan were excellent.
5. Gonzaga (just kidding), it's UConn: Despite the loss to Georgetown, you can still expect the Huskies to be right in the mix for the Big East title. They're deep and Jim Calhoun can coach.
6. Minnesota: This will shock pretty much everybody, but that's okay. The Gophers have a very good win against Louisville, and they've got a great coach with a title under his belt. They'll be a dark horse in the Big Ten.
7. Texas: Two losses to two great opponents (Notre Dame and Michigan State) by a total of five points. They'll be around late in March.
8. Syracuse: The hiccup against Cleveland State doesn't bother me. They played a tough non-conference slate and have several very impressive wins. They'll get even better with Eric Devendorf back.
9. Pitt: They've benefitted from a very weak non-conference schedule. They'll fold, you just wait.
10. Michigan State: They are a completely different team with Goran Suton in the lineup. Their two losses? Minus Suton. The offense is clicking, and that's a bad thing if you're in the Big Ten.

 

What I'm watching this week

Aside from the Capital One Bowl, I'm looking out for the start of conference play in earnest.

Michigan State meets Minnesota on Wednesday at noon. Two of the best coaches in the Big Ten will clash and see whose style wins out. It should be a good game and will be Minny's first true conference test.

Michigan will look to keep their momentum going against a pesky Badger team on Wednesday. I don't like either team, but expect Michigan to win. They're a little bit deeper, and that will make the difference.

Villanova and Marquette meet on New Year's Day. Two Top 25 teams from the same conference, great guards by the bucketful...it's win freaking win, baby.

Pitt and Georgetown face off on Saturday in Georgetown's second straight game against another Top 10 opponent. Finally, Pitt is facing an elite team. If they win, I owe them an apology. They won't win though.

Lastly, the Bluegrass state heats up on Sunday as Kentucky faces Louisville. I actually like the Wildcats in this one, so long as they give Patrick Patterson the ball as often as they can. I look forward to this game every year.

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