By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. UCONN IS STARTING TO FIND A RHYTHM
They're still not where many thought they'd be entering the last week of the regular season but there were signs in Saturday night's loss against Syracuse at Gampel Pavilion that UCONN still can find a way into the field of 68 and be a team that's finally starting to click at the right time. Jeremy Lamb looks like he's regaining his confidence offensively and it appears the Huskies are finding a way to get the most out of freshman center Andre Drummond, who was terrific against the Orange. If UCONN can get something from their bench --- and that has been a major issue with the lack of production the Huskies have gotten from freshman wing Deandre Daniels, they're more than capable of beating both Providence and Pitt this week and carrying a touch of momentum heading into the Big East Tournament.
2. SOUTH FLORIDA IS AN NCAA TOURNAMENT TEAM
Work still may need to be done for the Bulls to officially take their place in the field of 68 but after watching them against Syracuse and Cincinnati this past week, I've learned all I need to know about Stan Heath's team. South Florida isn't pretty, exciting, or particularly fun to watch --- but they win. The Bulls are exceptionally long on the baseline and have a wonderful freshman point guard in Anthony Collins, who is unquestionably this team's most important player. While he's not a great athlete or prolific offensive threat, Collins manages the game like a senior and uses as much of the shot clock as he can on each and every possession. If this team splits their final two games against Louisville and West Virginia, they'll have 12 wins in the Big East --- that's more than enough for them to reach the NCAA Tournament.
3. PEOPLE ARE STILL SLEEPING ON DARIUS MILLER
He's not getting the hype of Anthony Davis, Doron Lamb, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but Darius Miller is still a very important piece to Kentucky's hopes of getting to the Final Four and winning a National Championship. The senior sharpshooter has found his stride in the Wildcats' last three games and is starting to resemble the player that was the MVP of last year's SEC Tournament. While he's not the first player people want to mention when people bring up John Calipari's 28-1 squad, Miller is the only player on Kentucky's roster that has played in two consecutive NCAA Tournaments --- and that could be a big thing during the month of March.
THREE THINGS I'M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. CAN MARQUETTE KEEP THINGS GOING AT CINCINNATI?
The Golden Eagles look like a runaway train and might have the two best players in the Big East in Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. The two seniors have been flawless for Buzz Williams and have allowed Marquette to roll through the majority of their conference schedule. Cincinnati meanwhile, suffered a narrow one point loss on Sunday at South Florida but has proven over the course of time that they have the DNA of an NCAA Tournament team. Still a win over Marquette at home would do wonders for the Bearcats in terms of their NCAA seed and their overall confidence heading into the postseason. A major key in this game will be whether or not Cincinnati point guard Cashmere Wright can handle the Golden Eagles' vicious pressure, something that forced the Bearcats to unravel the first time these teams played a few weeks ago.
2. XAVIER'S TRIP ON TUESDAY TO SAINT LOUIS
The Billikens loss on Saturday at Rhode Island was one of the more shocking results of the entire weekend in college basketball but in a weird sort of way, I think this could be the best thing for Rick Majerus' team. Saint Louis was finally starting to get some publicity on the national circuit and a bad loss could refocus them for the final week of the season and the Atlantic-10 Conference Tournament. Meanwhile, what do we make of Xavier? The Musketeers have good wins over Purdue, Vanderbilt, and Cincinnati but have yet to secure a bid in the field of 68 --- that will change with a road win on Tuesday.
3. SETON HALL'S TRIP TO DEPAUL ON SATURDAY
Perhaps no team over the weekend suffered than a bigger blow to their NCAA hopes than the Pirates, who suffered a difficult overtime loss to in state rival Rutgers. Seton Hall still has the ability to play their way into the NCAA Tournament but will need to beat DePaul on the road next Saturday in Chicago --- and that's not going to be an easy task. Despite only two Big East wins, Oliver Purnell has drastically improved the overall product of the Blue Demons program. It will be up to Pirates senior point guard Jordan Theodore to handle DePaul's pressure defense and send Seton Hall into an advantageous position heading into the Big East Tournament.
THIS AND THAT:
- The "Jekyll and Hyde" routine of Duke junior guard Andre Dawkins is extremely puzzling. In a road victory over Florida State last week, Dawkins scored 21 points in 22 minutes, made six threes, grabbed four rebounds, and legitimately looked like an All-ACC guard. Then in the next game at home against Virginia Tech, Dawkins didn't score a point. The sharpshooter needs to find some sort of consistency if the Blue Devils are going to get on a roll in the next few weeks.
- He hasn't gotten the attention of Eli Carter or Myles Mack but Rutgers freshman point Jerome Seagears has become a different player than the one I saw in practice in early October. Under control and quietly confident, Seagears is now a capable floor general and has a knack for the big moment as evidenced by his go ahead three pointer late in overtime in the Scarlet Knights win at Seton Hall on Saturday. In two years, the triumvirate of Seagears, Mack, and Carter could be one of the Big East's best back courts along with Notre Dame's terrific duo of Eric Atkins and Jerrian Grant.
- Sometimes sports can be cruel. On Saturday with Old Dominion trailing by three points against CAA leader Drexel, Monarchs senior wing Kent Bazemore got fouled shooting a 3-pointer with .7 seconds left on the clock. It was senior day and up to that point, Bazemore had been dominant, pouring in 35 points and grabbing 12 rebounds ---- but after drilling the first two free throws, he short armed the third. Game over. The senior put his head down, choked back tears, and once again reminded us just how cruel this game can sometimes be. For the euphoria that exists for the winning team after every buzzer beater, there is another side that we all sometimes forget is there.
- Staying in the CAA, Drexel has put themselves in position to earn at large bid to the NCAA Tournament even if they don't win the CAA Conference Tournament. The Dragons have won 23 of their last 24 games and have an unbelievable 25-5 record --- and that includes not having junior guard Chris Fouch to start the season. Should Bruiser Flint's team make the finals of the conference tournament and lose to a team like VCU, they deserve to be in the field of 68.
- Saint Joseph's played themselves right back into the bubble picture with a monster win at home Saturday night against Temple. The Hawks are now 19-11 and will have 10 wins in the Atlantic-10 and 20 overall with a victory over St. Bonaventure on Wednesday. Phil Martelli's team has also beaten Creighton and Drexel, two teams that could be in the NCAA Tournament earlier in the season.
- Long Beach State looks like a mid major team primed to win multiple games in the NCAA Tournament. The 49ers have four seniors in their starting lineup and have played one of the nation's toughest schedules with road games at Pitt, North Carolina, Kansas, Louisville, and San Diego State. "We wanted to prepare ourselves for the postseason," Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said recently. One of the 49ers biggest assets has been 6-foot freshman guard Mike Caffey, whose presence as a floor general has allowed senior star Casper Ware to get off the ball. "Mike gives us a different dimension," Monson said of Caffey. "He really allows Casper to have more opportunities on the offensive side of the floor."
- What a job by Monmouth's King Rice to close the season. After losing their first eight games of the year, Rice has rallied the Hawks to win eight of their last ten games, including a 106-78 rout over league leader and defending champion LIU on Saturday night. Monmouth still may be a year or two away for competing for an NEC title but the progress shown the last few weeks is tangible proof that this program is on the upswing. Playing right by the beach doesn't hurt either --- what a gig!
- The slide at Mississippi State has been amazing. Just two weeks ago, the Bulldogs were 19-5 and looked like the type of team that break open a bracket in the NCAA Tournament. Since then, Rick Stansbury's team has lost five games in a row and are in serious danger of being on the wrong side of the bubble thanks to a 6-8 record in the SEC. Mississippi State closes the season at South Carolina and at Arkansas.
- Washington freshman point guard Tony Wroten has lived up to the billing. Entering this season with monumental expectations, the lefty floor general has produced at a high level for Lorenzo Romar's team, only scoring in double figures two times during the course of the season. "He's used to dealing with the hype," Romar said of Wroten recently. "Since he was in sixth grade, people were flocking to see him play. Nothing at this point is going to rattle him." With Wroten and Terrence Ross, Washington has two potential first round picks on its perimeter --- the question is, will that be enough to get the Huskies into the NCAA Tournament? Despite a 20-8 record, Washington doesn't have any signature wins outside the PAC-12.
- Florida is really going to have to adjust after losing Will Yeguete last week to a broken foot. Yeguete, arguably the Gators' toughest player and best defender is likely gone for the season and it will be interesting to see where Florida gets its intangibles from without the services of their glue guy.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: NOTRE DAME AT GEORGETOWN
TUESDAY: MICHIGAN STATE AT INDIANA, FLORIDA AT VANDERBILT, XAVIER AT SAINT LOUIS, UCONN AT PROVIDENCE
WEDNESDAY: IOWA STATE AT MISSOURI, OHIO STATE AT NORTHWESTERN, MARQUETTE AT CINCINNATI, SAINT JOSEPH'S AT ST. BONAVENTURE, SOUTH FLORIDA AT LOUISVILLE
THURSDAY: FLORIDA STATE AT VIRGINIA
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