By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. KENTUCKY JUST NEEDS MARQUIS TEAGUE TO BE STEADY TO REACH THE FINAL FOUR
Let's face it, if the three pointer by Indiana's Christian Watford rimmed out at the buzzer on December 10th against Kentucky, we'd be talking about the possibility of the Wildcats going through the season undefeated. Instead --- and I don't know how this is possible, it doesn't feel like John Calipari's team has gotten the attention it deserves --- and maybe it's because the point guard on this team isn't overly flashy. While Calipari has had a long lineage of top flight floor generals, Marquis Teague has excelled recently at just simply keeping the Kentucky ship afloat. While many including myself were simply waiting for Teague to emerge and take over a game, that doesn't seem to be his role on this team so many ancillary pieces capable of dominating at the offensive end of the floor. As long as Teague is efficient, limits his turnovers, and gets his teammates involved, this team has all the ammunition it needs to get to New Orleans.
2. FLORIDA WILL REMAIN A FINAL FOUR CALIBER CONTENDER
They suffered a minor hiccup in their SEC opener on the road at Tennessee but since then, the Gators have rallied to win five straight and look every bit the part of a team that has a chance to play until the last weekend of the season. Billy Donovan lit a fire under sophomore big man Patric Young when he opted to bring the talented forward off the bench and Young has responded with strong performances in Florida's last two games. Great teams in the NCAA Tournament have great guard play and the Gators have a slew of them but thy also have one perimeter player that no one mentions in sophomore reserve Scottie Wilbekin. While most people praise freshman Bradley Beal or veterans Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, and Mike Rosario, Wilbekin often falls off the radar and he shouldn't. When Florida trailed this past week at Ole Miss, it was Wilbekin's steadiness and intangibles that helped Florida get back in the game. It's a skill to always be ready and be prepared to never get any credit --- and that's exactly what Wilbekin has mastered.
3. NOTRE DAME WILL BE IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
It really is remarkable what Mike Brey has been able to do in the last eight days. After losing a hard fought game at Rutgers, Brey has rallied the Irish to an impressive three game winning streak featuring victories against Syracuse, Seton Hall, and UCONN. The Irish were left for dead when they lost Tim Abromaitis to a season ending injury but their recent surge gives the impression that Brey will have Notre Dame where they always seem to end up on his watch --- the NCAA Tournament.
THREE THINGS I'M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. HOW WILL VANDERBILT HANDLE ARKANSAS' PRESSURE?
Kentucky may have the most passionate fans in all of college basketball but Vanderbilt's are the ones who are thirsting the most for a dose of postseason success. After three straight years of being knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round, the Commodores have the necessary pieces in place to win a few games in the postseason but have to first navigate the rest of their SEC schedule --- and that starts Tuesday night at Bud Walton Arena. Arkansas has been up and down in Mike Anderson's first season with the Razorbacks but have the depth and speed to wear down Vanderbilt, especially considering the question marks on the Commodores' bench. Freshman Dai-Jon Parker looks like a capable defender but Kevin Stallings has gotten virtually zero offense all season from his reserves and that could be a problem against Arkansas. It will be interesting to see how the Dores guards --- Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins react to the fastest 40 minutes in basketball.
2. CAN KANSAS STATE REBOUND AT IOWA STATE?
The Cyclones looked every bit like an NCAA Tournament team on Saturday when they beat Kansas in Ames and now it will be interesting to see how they respond after such an emotional win. The Big 12 seems to have three teams at the top with Baylor, Missouri, and Kansas and this game likely has the two teams competing for the fourth spot in the conference. Frank Martin's team lost for the second time this season to Oklahoma on Saturday and desperately needs to get sophomore point guard Will Spradling back on track. The floor general has made just 10 of his last 44 shots from the field and will have to be more than adept at getting the Wildcats into things offensively on Tuesday if Kansas State is to get a road win.
3. ROBERT MORRIS AT WAGNER ON THURSDAY NIGHT
There's a lot of reasons why I'm excited for this NEC tilt but the first is the pregame meal at Il Colosseo in Dyker Heights --- heard the farfalle is off the charts! On another note, in a year where a handful of teams could represent the NEC in the NCAA Tournament, this game between Robert Morris and Wagner figures to be a blood bath from the opening tip. Both coaches --- Danny Hurley and Andy Toole are rising stars in the coaching profession and both own impressive wins this season against higher level opponents --- Wagner against Pitt and Robert Morris against La Salle. The Colonials will likely have the best player on the floor in burly guard Velton Jones and it will be interesting to see how Hurley and Wagner try to slow him down. This game should be terrific from the opening tip --- and that doesn't include the pregame meal!
THIS AND THAT:
- One of the noticeable things down the stretch in Marquette's win Saturday at Villanova was the Golden Eagles bigger lineup up front featuring forwards Jae Crowder, Jamil Wilson, and center Davante Garder. Buzz Williams has said throughout the season that he's finally got the options to configure his lineup in multiple ways and this trio is tangible proof of just that. While Marquette has opted to play smaller in previous years, this alignment should pay major dividends on the backboards moving forward while allowing Gardner, whose filled in admirably since starting center Chris Otule went down with a season knee injury, more time to be featured on both sides of the floor.
- The end result of Saturday's game between West Virginia and Syracuse wasn't one the Mountaineers wanted after a blown goal tending call on Orange big man Baye Moussa Keita cost Bob Huggins' team a chance for overtime but there still were plenty of positives. While West Virginia struggled mightily against zone defenses in losses earlier in the season against Seton Hall and St. John's, they were considerably better against the Orange thanks to doses of a three-guard lineup of Darryl "Truck" Bryant along with freshmen Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne. While once using a zone against the Mountaineers seemed like a sure way to frustrate them, they proved Saturday they're getting more comfortable at dealing with the challenge.
- A big reason why this Saint Mary's team could be better than the one that reached the Sweet 16 in 2010? The emergence of Brad Waldow. The 6-foot-9 freshman big man has reached double figures in each of his last three games and is really giving the Gaels another option in the paint along with veteran Rob Jones. If Waldow can continue to be a capable defender, Randy Bennett's front court should be able to match up with just about any opponent they face.
- Oregon figures to right in the mix to win the PAC-12 and a big reason why is Wake Forest transfer Tony Woods. The Ducks center is starting to give Dana Altman's team a legitimate presence in the middle on both sides of the floor. "He's really starting to make a difference," Altman said of Woods last week. "It's taken him some time but he's finally starting to rebound and block shots as well as alter them. If we're going to be the team we hope to be, we're going to need that the rest of the season from Tony." The conference may be still be a bit of a mystery but Oregon seems like it has the potential to get better as the season goes along thanks to Woods and guard Devoe Joseph, whose scored in double figures in 13 of the 14 games he's appeared in this season.
- Keep an eye on Iona junior Rashad James. The athletic guard has been in and out of Tim Cluess' rotation all season long but seems like he might have the power to stay in the mix now because of his athleticism. "He can give us things that we're going to get from anyone else," Cluess said of James. "He's a slasher that can go above guards for rebounds and still guard big man defensively. None of our other guards can do that." A situational player, James was key in Iona's early season upset over St. Joseph's with his strength and has proven he can excel in a "specialist" type role off the bench.
- Is a trip back to the NCAA Tournament in the cards for Larry Eustachy? Don't rule it out. Eustachy's Southern Miss team is 19-3 and has only one loss in conference play which was a narrow defeat at Memphis. The Golden Eagles can get revenge on the Tigers this week when they play them at home and with a win, could officially join the conversation as a legitimate contender to win Conference-USA. Southern Miss has really good guard play with Kentucky transfer Darnell Dodson, LaShay Page, and Angelo Johnson and a capable big man in Maurice Bolden. Make sure to watch this team Wednesday night on the CBS Sports Network.
- Don't tell Glenn Braica that LIU is the only team to watch in Brooklyn. The classy coach of St. Francis (NY) has the Terriers rolling after they've won seven of their last eight after Saturday's win at Robert Morris. Braica's team is now 8-2 in the NEC and tied for second place with Wagner. The fact that St. Francis (NY) is even in this position is remarkable considering they lost their two starting guards --- Ricky Cadell and Akeem Bennett from last season.
- After a mid season skid, Rick Pitino and Louisville appear to have righted the ship after winning four of their last five following Saturday night's 60-51 win over Seton Hall in Newark. The Cardinals defense was off the charts from start to finish in the win over the Pirates but the biggest thing that seemed in sync was their role allocation. I know no coach wants to lose players to injuries but with less depth to work with, Pitino seems more certain of which players are going to get certain minutes. Sometimes less really is more.
- He may not get the publicity of some of their other stars but Ed Daniel is a big reason why Murray State has started the season 21-0. The 6-foot-7 junior forward is a huge intangible player for the Racers and really made a difference on the boards when starter Ivan Aska was out with a hand injury. If this team is going to win a game in the NCAA Tournament, they're going to need Daniel to be at his best.
- If the CAA only gets two bids to the NCAA Tournament, one really good team is going to be left out of the field of 68. George Mason, Drexel, and VCU are playing incredibly solid basketball and would all be capable of winning an opening game. It will be interesting to see how many bids this league can get after the Rams reached the Final Four last season.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: MISSOURI AT TEXAS, PITT AT WEST VIRGINIA
TUESDAY: TENNESSEE AT KENTUCKY, VANDERBILT AT ARKANSAS, KANSAS STATE AT IOWA STATE, SETON HALL AT MARQUETTE, MICHIGAN STATE AT ILLINOIS
WEDNESDAY: INDIANA AT MICHIGAN, UCONN AT GEORGETOWN, BAYLOR AT TEXAS A & M
THURSDAY: ROBERT MORRIS AT WAGNER, ARIZONA AT CAL, UCLA AT WASHINGTON
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