By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. MARSHALL HENDERSON WILL BE THE PLAYER OF THE YEAR IN THE SEC
And it may not even be close. The 6-2 shooting guard has been the difference maker in Andy Kennedy's program and was instrumental in the Rebels' win on Saturday at Auburn. Although he didn't have a particularly good shooting game (4-15) against the Tigers, Henderson drew a key foul late and made two decisive free throws with just seconds left to seal the 63-61 victory. This kid is a gamer and has already cemented himself as one of the best players in the conference. In a year of less than stellar play in the SEC, Henderson is easily the most important player on the team that's all of a sudden in play for a conference title.
2. ARIZONA STATE WILL MAKE THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
We're officially buying stock in the Sun Devils. Arizona State made a statement on Saturday with their convincing win over UCLA and Herb Sendek's team (16-4 overall) should win 20-plus games en route to an invitation to the field of 68. In the win over the Bruins, the Sun Devils' inside tandem of Carrick Felix and Jordan Bachynski was beyond dominant, tallying 45 points, 26 rebounds, and eight blocks. This team looks like they're due for 22-24 wins and a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.
3. VILLANOVA HAS NEW LIFE
If anyone saw this coming, please speak up now. The Wildcats looked like they were destined to struggle a few weeks ago, but Jay Wright's team rallied to beat Louisville and Syracuse back-to-back in two stunning upsets. Let's set the record straight here. This isn't a vintage Villanova team. This group has flaws --- but thanks to Wright --- they've turned themselves into a scrappy, hard nosed team that's always going to give themselves a chance because of their effort. Sophomore guard Darrun Hilliard has a made a major jump since last season and if the Wildcats find a way to get to 18 or 19 wins, they should have a legitimate chance to make the NCAA Tournament after the victories they secured last week. Villanova will next play at Notre Dame on Wednesday.
THREE THINGS I'M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. KENTUCKY'S TRIP TO OLE MISS ON TUESDAY NIGHT
The Wildcats have yet to beat a team on their schedule that's a virtual lock for the NCAA Tournament and defeating the upstart Rebels in Oxford could go a long way in turning around Kentucky's season. John Calipari's squad is young, inexperienced, and lacks leadership. Ole Miss meanwhile, is the complete opposite. Andy Kennedy's team has two experienced players up front in Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner as well as a slew of other veterans that feel like the time has to come their place as one of the best teams in the SEC. It will take a monumental effort for Kentucky to win this game.
2. LOUISVILLE'S HOME GAME AGAINST PITT ON MONDAY
What is going on with the Cardinals? Just nine days ago, Rick Pitino's team was the consensus choice to win the national title and now they've lost three straight. Louisville's last two games were a product of poor shooting and execution down the stretch. In their two losses against Villanova and Georgetown, the Cardinals made just 28-of-46 free throws. What do we make of Pitt? We're still not sure. The Panthers have solid pieces and are well coached as usual by Jamie Dixon. We should find out on Monday whether or not this team is a legitimate contender in the Big East.
3. SEEING HOW LA SALLE HANDLES EXPECTATIONS
We know how the Explorers responded going against the premier teams in the Atlantic 10. Now let's find out how they respond when they're the hunted. La Salle was terrific last week in wins against Butler and VCU, but it's yet to be determined if this team will be able to handle being a unit that's in bold print each time they take the floor. The Explorers are 4-2 in league play and 14-5 overall. La Salle will host Umass on Wednesday and travel to upstart George Washington on Saturday.
THIS AND THAT:
- Iowa State's Korie Lucious is never going to be a traditional point guard, but he's made tremendous strides since the beginning of the season. The transfer from Michigan State has dished out 32 assists to just 17 turnovers over the past five games, and is gradually becoming more comfortable in Fred Hoiberg's offense. Iowa State rebounded nicely from a bad loss at Texas Tech with a quality win on Saturday over a good Kansas State team.
- The biggest reason why Georgetown was able to win at Notre Dame and return home to beat Louisville? Outstanding defense. In two games against the Hoyas, the Irish and Cardinals shot a combined 34.75% from the floor. Even without Greg Whittington, John Thompson III has a team that's one of the better defensive units in the Big East. We'd still like to see one more scorer emerge for this team to go alongside Otto Porter and Markel Starks.
- UNLV freshman point guard Daquan Cook is an interesting piece to watch moving forward for the Runnin Rebels. Dave Rice's team doesn't have a true floor general on their roster and Cook gives UNLV an unselfish player that can set the table for others. While he's not likely to play huge minutes, Cook could be a nice option for this team off the bench if he continues to develop. Last week against Wyoming, Cook played nine minutes, dished out two assists and had no turnovers.
- Kansas is a deeper team than they were early in the season thanks to the development of Naadir Tharpe and Perry Ellis. The Jayhawks' depth was a question mark early in the year but these two players now give Bill Self two reliable reserves that can regularly contribute off the bench. In Saturday's win over Oklahoma, Tharpe scored eight points and dished out four assists. Ellis meanwhile, has had five or more rebounds in three of Kansas' last five games.
- We love San Diego State and think they're the best team in the Mountain West, but the Aztecs desperately need James Rahon to break out of his shooting slump. The fifth-year senior has made just one of his last fourteen attempts from three-point range and is shooting just 27% from deep on the season.
- Melvin Johnson didn't score in VCU's loss at home to La Salle on Saturday night but we still believe he's going to have a wonderful career for the Rams. The 6-3 combo guard was terrific when VCU played Richmond last week and scored 12 points in 18 minutes worth of work. A volume scorer who can fill it up in a number of ways, Johnson should make a big jump next season after Troy Daniels graduates.
- Watch Tom Knight start to produce for Notre Dame. The 6-10 forward has always had the ability to put up quality numbers with regularity and Knight should get more of a chance now that Scott Martin is out indefinitely with a knee injury. In the Irish's win at South Florida on Saturday, Knight scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds while also adding two blocked shots.
- I'm still a believer in Colorado even though the Buffaloes lost a few games they shouldn't have in the beginning of PAC-12 play. Tad Boyle's group was emotionally flustered after losing to Arizona in the conference opener and it spiraled into a three-game losing streak. This team is now focused and has one of the more underrated freshman in the country in small forward Xavier Johnson. Colorado will be in the field of 68. They're currently 4-4 in the PAC-12.
- Several Big East coaches have told me that St. John's sophomore guard D'Angelo Harrison is the toughest player in the conference to stop from scoring and after you watch him play it's hard to argue. Harrison can seemingly get his shot whenever he wants and has really refined his mid-range game. A lights out gunner with no conscience, the Texas native is leading the Red Storm in scoring at 19.6 points per game. St. John's is 13-7 and 5-3 in the Big East.
- Iona made a major statement by beating Loyola on the road on Sunday. The Gaels have spent the majority of the season trying to find the right chemistry but have yet to put together a solid stretch where they've looked cohesive. This team will have to stay afloat over the next month or so without freshman guard A.J. English, who will be sidelined with a fractured wrist. English was averaging seven points per game and shooting 40% from three-point range. Iona is 14-7 overall and 8-2 in the MAAC.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: PITT AT LOUISVILLE
TUESDAY: WISCONSIN AT OHIO STATE, KENTUCKY AT OLE MISS
WEDNESDAY: INDIANA AT PURDUE, RUTGERS AT CINCINNATI, VILLANOVA AT NOTRE DAME,
THURSDAY: ARIZONA AT WASHINGTON, BUTLER AT SAINT LOUIS, ILLINOIS AT MICHIGAN STATE
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