By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. IONA'S SCOTT MACHADO IS THE BEST POINT GUARD IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL
And it doesn't even seem like its close. Those who haven't seen Machado play may read this and think it's a crazy statement but watch him just once and you'll see the truth. With good size and even better poise, the 6-foot-1 senior has added strength and a refined outside shot --- two of the attributes that make him the best floor general in the land. "There's no doubt he belongs in that conversation," said Iona coach Tim Cluess when asked if Machado was one of the best point guards in the country following the Gaels' 91-71 win over Rider on Friday night. "The thing about Scott that stands out is he's not putting up the numbers he's putting up and he's not being surrounded by All-Americans. That's a big thing." The other thing that resonates when watching Machado is how well he takes care of the basketball. In his last three games, Machado has dished out 40 assists and only committed six turnovers. "He's the perfect point guard to get us into what we do," Iona guard Momo Jones said of Machado.
2. MICHIGAN'S TREY BURKE IS THE BEST POINT GUARD IN THE BIG TEN
Can a freshman be the best at his position in college basketball's best conference? You better believe it. Burke has made people in Ann Arbor forget about Darius Morris rather quickly after Morris' decision to enter to the NBA Draft after last season was supposed to inhibit the Wolverines hopes of potentially returning to the NCAA Tournament --- because of the presence of Burke that hasn't happened. The first-year point guard is far and away the best player on Michigan and made all the big plays down the stretch last week in a narrow one point win at home over Michigan State. Some may make the case for Ohio State's Aaron Craft or Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor to claim the title of the Big Ten's best floor general but they don't have the "it" factor like Burke. The kid is special.
3. FLORIDA STATE'S THREE GUARD LINEUP HAS TRANSFORMED THEM
I'm sorry if I sound a bit punchy here about the Seminoles but it's been mesmerizing to watch this team's transformation. Since Leonard Hamilton opted to start a three-guard lineup with Luke Loucks, Deividas Dulkys, and Michael Snaer, Florida State's offense has drastically improved and that's one of the main reasons this team was able to beat both North Carolina and Duke in a seven day stretch with the latter coming Saturday off a buzzer beater by Snaer at Cameron Indoor Stadium. "It's made us a more cohesive team on both sides of the floor," Hamilton said of the three-guard lineup after Saturday's win over the Blue Devils. "We're well aware of our strengths and well aware of our weaknesses. What we're doing a better job of now is having the ability to handle the moment. We're learning to adjust and we showed that against Duke. It's special to get a win against them here (Cameron Indoor) because not a lot of people do it, but we know the only thing we've done right now is win four ACC games. We have a long way to go."
THREE THINGS I'M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. CINCINNATI'S SHOWDOWN WITH SYRACUSE MONDAY
This game might not have the sizzle many hoped it would after the Orange fell to Notre Dame but it's still a golden opportunity for the Bearcats to bounce back after a narrow loss they should have had Saturday at West Virginia. Without Fab Melo in the middle of the Orange's daunting 2-3 zone, Mick Cronin's team should be able to find seams in the defense if they get the quality perimeter play they've been getting recently from Cashmere Wright, Sean Kilpatrick, and Dion Dixon. The key will be if Cincinnati can get something inside from senior big man Yancy Gates who missed several point blank shots down the stretch in the loss to West Virginia. Without Gates providing a low post presence against Syracuse, the Bearcats will have make at least 10 three-pointers to upset the powerful Orange.
2. CAN TENNESSEE CONTINUE ITS NCAA PUSH AGAINST VANDERBILT?
We're slowly learning that with the Volunteers' addition of freshman big man Jarnell Stokies, anything for this team is possible. After an impressive showing a week ago in a loss to Kentucky and a solid victory over UCONN on Saturday in Knoxville, Cuonzo Martin has his team rising --- and a big part of that is the addition of Stokes. "He gives us a legitimate low post presence that we didn't have," Martin told me last week in reference to Stokies, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds in Saturday's 60-57 win over the Huskies. "He reminds me of Jared Sullinger because of how physically big he is. He makes everyone on our team better." Conversely, Vanderbilt is coming off a narrow one point loss at home to Mississippi State. The Commodores can ill afford to drop back to back conference games at home and will need a big effort from Festus Ezeli to neutralize Stokes in the pivot.
3. LIU AT ROBERT MORRIS THURSDAY
There was a consensus among most NEC coaches before this season that the league was better than its ever been and even though four teams have six and two records in conference play, one team remains at the top --- defending champion LIU. The Blackbirds haven't lost since December 14th and have won nine straight heading into Thursday's game at Robert Morris. The Colonials could be the biggest obstacle Jim Ferry's team has during the rest of their conference slate mostly due to the play of Robert Morris junior guard Velton Jones, who's averaging 24.2 points per game in his last four outings.
THIS AND THAT:
- Vanderbilt's starting five is as solid as anyone's in college basketball but it may be time to officially start expressing concerns over the Commodores' lack of production off the bench. Freshman guards Kedren Johnson and Dai-Jon Parker are good in their roles but neither have emerged as a consistent threat that can score points while big men Rod Odom and Steve Tchiengang have also been sporadic. It's tough to go deep in March without capable reserves and that's something it seems this team is lacking right now.
- Most people including myself thought that as soon as UCONN got a commitment from Andre Drummond he would immediately mesh with the rest of the Huskies' pieces and they'd be right back in the mix for a National Championship. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case. The skill sets of Drummond and junior power forward Alex Oriakhi don't seem to click because neither can face the basket or play effectively on the high post. This has forced Jim Calhoun to play Tyler Olander more and at the same time take minutes away from Oriakhi, something that has forced the veteran have a much more disappointing junior season than anyone would have anticipated.
- If Drexel shoots the ball the way it did in Saturday's 71-53 win over Northeastern, the Dragons could be the team to beat in the CAA. Drexel shot 60 percent from the floor and 64.3% percent from 3-point range in the victory, showing they might have the necessary offense this season to earn a bid out of what is annually one of the top two or three mid-major conferences in college basketball. Bruiser Flint's team is 14-5 and has won ten of eleven.
- Marquette transfer Reggie Smith is already making an impact at UNLV. The 6-foot Smith is a great change of pace guy off the bench for the Runnin Rebels and gives Dave Rice a legitimate backup point guard off the bench behind veteran floor general Oscar Bellfield. Smith is just another example of how UNLV has become a landing spot for players from BCS level schools who didn't have success at their first college destination.
- Can anyone figure out the PAC-12? A week ago it looked like Cal and Stanford were the two best teams in the conference and since that time both have lost and it's looking more and more clear that anyone can beat anyone. If you gamble, stay far away from the PAC-12 conference tournament. Be afraid, be very afraid.
- Temple sophomore guard Aaron Brown has been a vital piece for the Owls this season. Though undersized at 6-foot-5, Brown has given Fran Dunphy solid minutes on the boards, grabbing 14 rebounds in his last two games. With Temple still waiting on senior center Micheal Eric to return, Brown's presence has helped Dunphy's teams stay afloat, relying on him as a "glue guy" to do the necessary dirty work and fill cement in between the cracks.
- It's taken some time but Villanova freshman forward Jayvaughn Pinkston is starting to emerge for the Wildcats. The 6-foot-7 Pinkston has recorded double-doubles in his last two games and is bridging the gap offensively for this team between Maalik Wayns on the perimeter and Mouphtaou Yarou in the low post. There's still obvious rust for Pinkston, who didn't play basketball at all last year due to a suspension but it's clear the former Bishop Loughlin star has the ability to be an All-Big East type player in the next few seasons.
- North Carolina losing Dexter Strickland for the season to a torn ACL hurts the Tarheels in a number of ways but the biggest impact will be defensively. The athletic Strickland was this team's best perimeter defender and regularly guarded the opponent's best scorer in the back court. Without Strickland, there will be even more pressure on John Henson to protect the paint and make up for some of the limitations the Tarheels might have defensively.
- Forget about people saying Mississippi State's Arnett Moultrie is the best player on the Bulldogs --- he's one of the best players in the SEC. The 6-foot-11 Moultrie is averaging 16.4 points and 11.1 rebounds per game while single handedly anchoring Rick Stansbury's front line. With he and Dee Bost, Mississippi State has the ability to match up with any team they'll play from here until March.
- If you're looking for a potential sleeper for your March bracket, highlight Saint Mary's. The Gaels have one of the best floor generals in the country in Matt Dellavedova and are led by one of the nation's underrated tacticians in Randy Bennett. Keep an eye on this group in Moraga.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: SYRACUSE AT CINCINNATI
TUESDAY: BAYLOR AT OKLAHOMA, TENNESSEE AT VANDERBILT,
WEDNESDAY: MINNESOTA AT MICHIGAN STATE, GEORGIA STATE AT DREXEL, SAINT LOUIS AT XAVIER, NOTRE DAME AT SETON HALL,
THURSDAY: NC STATE AT NORTH CAROLINA, FLORIDA AT OLE MISS, LIU AT ROBERT MORRIS
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