By Jon Rothstein
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THREE THINGS I LEARNED LAST WEEK
1. ANYTHING LESS THAN A TRIP TO THE FINAL FOUR WILL BE A DISAPPOINTMENT FOR SYRACUSE
Some of the most passionate Orange fans will tell you that anything less than winning a National Championship will be a disappointment but in all fairness, if Syracuse does not earn a date in college basketball's final weekend, it will be a major letdown. For the past two seasons, Jim Boeheim's team has gotten off to roaring starts in the beginning of the season only to falter in the field of 68 --- but this team is different. With a plethora of options off the bench and a soothing mix and experience and youth, Boeheim may finally have his best chance to win his second title and ironically enough he'd have to do it where he won his first one --- New Orleans.
2. IOWA STATE WILL BE A FACTOR IN THE BIG 12
Fred Hoiberg knows Iowa State isn't going to be the first team people think of when they bring up the subject of Big 12 basketball --- but that doesn't mean the Cyclones can't be one of the better teams in the conference. After Saturday's 74-50 win at Texas A & M, Hoiberg's squad improved to 12-3 overall and an impressive 2-0 in Big 12 play. "The biggest reason we are where we are is our energy level and attention in practice," Hoiberg said. "We've had tremendous practices and have had great preparation." Iowa State also has Royce White, who tallied a triple-double with 10 points, 18 rebounds, and 10 assists in the win over the Aggies and is more and more looking a first-round pick in June's NBA Draft. "He was gobbling up rebounds early," Hoiberg said of White. "When he's a focal point in the middle of the floor, he opens things up for everyone around him." The Cyclones perimeter shooting led by the trio of Scott Christopherson, Chris Allen, and Chris Babb can knock down shots with anyone in their conference. Don't be surprised if this team pushes for an NCAA bid.
3. XAVIER IS STARTING TO RESEMBLE ITS FORMER SELF
It was only one road win over Fordham but the Musketeers showed some signs on Saturday of the team that started out the season with hopes of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament and being a national factor. "I told our team that Xavier teams had always been known for being tough and nasty on defense," Xavier coach Chris Mack said after the Musketeers 67-59 win over Fordham. "I told them I wasn't going to let anyone take that from us." The win over the Rams was highlighted by the play of guard Mark Lyons, who scored 20 points and was visibly emotional throughout the entire game. "When I wasn't being talkative, we weren't winning," Lyons said. "I needed to get back to the player I was and the player I am --- and that's being mean and nasty." Those two words are the best way to describe Xavier and if you see them in person, you'll notice even more of a swag.
THREE THINGS I'M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK
1. THE MATCHUP BETWEEN CINCINNATI AND GEORGETOWN MONDAY NIGHT IN DC
Mick Cronin's team had an extremely disappointing loss at home on Saturday to a young St. John's team after previously reeling off seven straight wins --- the good news? A quick turnaround. Cincinnati will have to wait just over 48 hours to get a chance at redemption against a Georgetown team that lost on the road at West Virginia this weekend but still looks like a Top-15 team. In two wins over the Hoyas last season, the Bearcats full-court pressure stymied Georgetown and exposed their lack of multiple ball handlers. Also, Cincinnati will feel extremely comfortable in the Verizon Center in Washington DC as they played three games there last season including two in the NCAA Tournament.
2. CAN BAYLOR DO WHAT MISSOURI COULDN'T --- WIN AT KANSAS STATE?
I'm not going to say no --- but if I was betting I wouldn't be saying yes. Just like I wrote late last week that the Tigers would suffer their first defeat at the hands of Frank Martin and the Wildcats, I'm going to make the statement that Kansas State will hand Baylor its first loss of the season on Tuesday night in Manhattan. The Wildcats' versatile perimeter should able to negate some of the dribble-drive ability of Bears point guard Pierre Jackson and if Jordan Henriquez dominates the middle the way he did against Missouri, Kansas State should have a tremendous opportunity to make the claim that they belong where many didn't think they necessarily did before the season --- in discussion as one of the elite teams in the Big 12.
3. JUST HOW GOOD IS VIRGINIA?
We'll have a pretty good idea after their date with Duke on Thursday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Cavaliers are getting an All-ACC type season from power forward Mike Scott but do they have enough bullets in the gun to trade blows with one of the elite teams in their conference? Time will tell. Scott's presence has augmented the offensive ability of Virginia's perimeter scorers but going toe to toe with a team like the Blue Devils will require a monstrous effort. The Blue Devils have been stuck in the mud recently and it seems directly related to the play of sixth man Andre Dawkins. Early in the year, Dawkins was a big time offensive spark off the bench but recently, he has just made four field goals in his last four games.
THIS AND THAT:
- As dominant as Anthony Davis was (12 points, 10 rebounds, seven blocks) in Kentucky's 79-64 win over South Carolina on Saturday, the biggest sign of encouragement for the Wildcats in the win over the Gamecocks was the performance from freshman point guard Marquis Teague. While he's struggled at times to start the season, Teague looked every bit the part of an efficient floor general.. His 17 point, four assist performance were a welcoming sign for Kentucky, who will need Teague to continue to develop if they want to wind up where they hope to in late March.
- He may not get the attention of Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons, or Kenny Frease --- but Andre Walker is an incredibly critical piece to Xavier. The fifth-year transfer from Vanderbilt is the Musketeers best post defender and is an exceptional passer from the high post on offense. His defense on Fordham's Chris Gaston was a big part of Xavier getting a 67-59 road victory. "When you take fifth-year guys, you have to be careful of who you're bringing into your program because there's no time for an adjustment period," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "You get into practice in the fall and that's it. Andre has fit in perfectly. He's a big part of what we do. He's incredibly seasoned and it shows. What he does doesn't always show up in the box score." Walker finished with seven points, 14 rebounds, and five assists in the win on Saturday.
- Speaking of Tom Pecora's team, it's obvious that the gap is closing between Fordham and the rest of the Atlantic-10. The Rams have the perimeter pieces in place to trade blows with just about any team in the league and its showed already early in the season. Sophomore guard Branden Frazier looked like an all-league player against Xavier, scoring 22 points while playing the majority of the second half at point guard. Freshman Bryan Smith also continues to develop, as he's reached double figures in each of his last four games.
- Don't count out Arkansas as a potential surprise team in the SEC. The Razorbacks are off to a solid 12-3 start and hung 98 points up on a very solid Mississippi State team in their first conference win on Saturday. "The fastest 40 minutes in basketball" is a mantra that Mike Anderson created at UAB and Missouri and Arkansas has the pieces in place to implement the same style this season. Veteran guards Mardracus Wade and Julysses Nobles along with freshman B.J. Young and Ky Madden give Anderson quality speed and scoring on the perimeter --- the question is whether or not this team will have enough size to be competitive with some of the bigger teams in the SEC.
- Travis Releford is emerging as a legitimate third scoring option for Kansas behind Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. The versatile Releford has scored 58 points in his last three games and is showing signs of being the "X-Factor" the Jayhawks need to win another Big 12 title.
- Even after their lopsided loss to Ohio State, there is tangible proof that Fran McCaffery has Iowa headed on an upward trajectory. Prior to the game against the Buckeyes, McCaffery led the Hawkeyes to back-to-back road wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota, proving to people in Iowa City that there is promise for the present as well as the future. "It was important to get wins of this caliber because if gives this group something to enjoy as well as look to the future," McCaffery said last week. Five of Iowa's best players are freshman and sophomores including silky smooth guard Devyn Marble, who McCaffery said will be in more "lead guard" type situations moving forward. "He's proving he can handle the ball, make good decisions, and not turn it over," McCaffery said of Marble.
- It's a real shame we're not going to get to see this DePaul team with a healthy Tony Freeland. Oliver Purnell --- like he has at both Clemson and Dayton continues to prove that he can take over a struggling program and make it respectable very quickly as evidenced by the Blue Demons play and their win over Pitt last week. It would have been real interesting to see this DePaul team have another scorer in Freeland next to burgeoning sophomores Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin, who will both be All-Big East players by the time their careers are done in Chicago.
- Colorado's Spencer Dinwiddie might be the most under publicized freshman in the country. The 6-foot-5 guard is playing major minutes for the Buffaloes and giving Tad Boyle's team another scoring option in the back court next to Carlon Brown. Dinwiddie is also shooting over 50% percent from three-point range for Colorado, who seems primed to shake a few teams up during their first season in the PAC-12.
- Indiana's Christan Watford is a perfect example of how power forwards are changing in all levels of basketball. More and more now, you see coaches looking to maximize spacing on offense by having a "four man" that can face the basket and stretch the defense and that's exactly what's made Watford such a vital part to Indiana's early success. His ability to make shots from deep and give the Hoosiers a "Robert Horry" type threat has allowed freshman center Cody Zeller more room to operate on the low block and given Indiana another shot maker on the floor.
- UCONN's display of ball handling in their two losses at Seton Hall and Rutgers were the worst I've seen in probably in the last five years I''ve watched this program. The Huskies had great talent coming into this season but they've yet to prove they're a great team and they won't be one until they become less nonchalant with the ball. Jim Calhoun is going to have a real test on his hands with this group that's much more green than people realize.
SET THE DVR:
MONDAY: WEST VIRGINIA AT UCONN, CINCINNATI AT GEORGETOWN
TUESDAY: BAYLOR AT KANSAS STATE, MIAMI AT NORTH CAROLINA, SOUTH FLORIDA AT NOTRE DAME, FLORIDA STATE AT VIRGINIA TECH
WEDNESDAY: MISSOURI AT IOWA STATE, SYRACUSE AT VILLANOVA, SOUTHERN MISS AT MEMPHIS
THURSDAY: VIRGINIA AT DUKE, GEORGE MASON AT DREXEL, GONZAGA AT SAINT MARY'S
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