Friday, November 20, 2009

ESPN's College Hoops Marathon

Now, I’m no long distance runner by any stretch of the imagination, but I know this much: if you’re gonna run a marathon, you gotta work up to it. You don’t just take, say, seven months off and then one day decide to wake up and run a marathon. And, if you do, I’m guessing you’re gonna be hurting pretty bad about halfway through that thing. Yeah, you may get a second wind. Maybe even a third. Either way, you are going to be wrecked the day after.

Well, after taking seven months off from college hoops, I took a bit of a chance to watch some rather uninteresting games last week, and all of a sudden ESPN springs 24 (more like 30 or 32 or something, I dunno, I still haven’t even recovered enough to begin counting by twos coherently) straight hours of some pretty darn good college hoops on me. And, given that I had a day off and all those games and a desire to get acquainted with some of the squads who are going to be renting some space between my ears for the next few months, I dove (apparently this is the point where I am going to leave the marathon metaphor behind) right in.

Now, ESPN’s marathon officially started with the UCLA/CS Fullerton game, but there were three pre-season NIT games prior to that to dig into a bit, so I’ll include those here. I got home from work at about 8pm, had some dinner with the ol’ lady, watched a episode of Mad Men, and by the time I was done, I already had three full games sitting on the TiVo waiting to be watched, so I poured myself a Rum and Coke (I would need some caffeine, and a little liquor never hurt anything) and got down to business. Here’s what I learned from watching these games:

Game 1: Coastal Carolina @ Duke
--Luckily for my hopes of finishing this marathon, these first few games weren’t all that compelling. And, I’ll make no bones about the fact that I never meant to watch every minute of all of these games (and good god, if anyone did, they are insane). Record ‘em, watch enough of the first half to get a feel for the teams (10 min or so), jump ahead a bit, if the game is still close watch some more. Skip ahead until early in the 2nd half and watch the remainder of the game, or at least until the game is no longer competitive.
--That being said, I was interested to get a good first look at Duke, and they looked good. There isn’t a true point on the team, but there is a ton of size and there is plenty of skill. I had looked at this roster over the summer and thought that they would struggle due to their lack of backcourt depth, but one look (even against an overmatched Coastal Carolina squad) at the way Coach K is going to play this made me reconsider those thoughts. Scheyer is capable of playing most of the minutes at the point, certainly Smith (who did not play in this game due to suspension) can cover the remaining minutes, and Singler and Dawkins are capable of aiding in bringing the ball up and initiating the offense. The Devils may still run into trouble against high-pressure defensive teams like Clemson, but Duke will be right in the thick of things in the ACC.

Game 2: Colgate @ Connecticut
--Dyson will have to be the go-to guy offensively for the Huskies, and either Robinson or Walker will have to step up to be the secondary offensive option on this team. And, to this point, neither has shown the ability to be a consistent offensive threat in the half-court, despite their obvious talents. It will be interesting to see if either can develop their game over the course of the season.
--While Dyson will need to be the go-to guy, it remains to be seen if he has the instincts necessary to be that guy.

Game 3: Texas State @ Arizona State
--The obvious question for the Sun Devils is who can replace James Harden. Easy answer: no one can completely replace him. Harder answer: freshman James Lockett certainly showed flashes of the ability to created offense (in many of the same ways Harden did) in the half-court. But. He is still a freshman and still makes you painfully aware of that from time to time throughout the game. It is going to be fun to see him progress over the season and over his career.

Game 4: Cal State Fullerton @ UCLA
--So, by now I’m moving along, passed by Rum and Cokes onto some scotch and finally beer. And I needed plenty of it for this game. Good god. My eyes still haven’t fully recovered from watching this mess of a game. And, let’s be clear here. I mean no disrespect to Fullerton who played well and will likely make some noise in the Big West, but turning to the Bruins for a second, how can a team who repeatedly hauls in top-rated recruiting classes, regardless of the early defections to the NBA be this bad? In the interest of giving a guy who has taken three of his last four teams to the Final Four the well-deserved benefit of the doubt, I will give Ben Howland a bit of a pass here. I’ll also throw in a bit of an excuse for him as well, given that he has had a large amount of injuries in the early part of this season, and that coupled with a very young team means that these guys haven’t had much of a chance to build up a rapport with each other (not that any of that explains the ineptitude of seniors Roll, Dragovic and Keefe in this game). But, that being said, Howland won’t get a pass for long around Westwood, and in order to avoid any uncomfortable questions, he might want to find a way to get some kind of offense going, even if that means stepping outside of his comfort zone on that end of the floor.

Now, after watching UCLA finally succumb after two overtimes (it’s not bad enough they made me watch 40 minutes of that damn thing, I had to watch two extra periods), I decided it was time to get some sleep and in the hopes that by the time I awoke in the morning my eyes would have stopped bleeding. Unfortunately, and in hindsight, that UCLA performance is just something you can’t unsee. My father’s generation had the horrors of war to keep them up at night, I have the UCLA offense.

Game 5: San Diego State @ Saint Mary’s
--After a good night’s sleep, I wake up somewhat refreshed (even those I still get a nervous twitch and feel the urge to hide under the couch any time the images of the previous night come back to me), and at least a couple of hours behind schedule. In this season of Thanksgiving, it only seems right to be very grateful for my TiVo. I started watching this game somewhere around 9:30 am, 10 or so hours behind schedule with a full lineup of enticing games in front of me. It was time to get to work.
--By the time that UCLA game finally ended and ESPN switched over to Moraga, this game was already a blowout with Saint Mary’s up 20 or so behind Mickey McConnell’s multiple threes early in the game. I wound up only watching enough of this to get a feel for both teams, and certainly San Diego State did improve in the second half (not coincidentally matching up pretty well with about the time the Aztecs began to get consistent effort from their entire five), but the game never really got interesting.
--I’m one of those who, while respecting the job Steve Fisher has done in building the program in San Diego, believes the guy is not a very good X’s-and-O’s coach. San Diego State over the past four years or so has been one of the more talented mid-major programs in the country, and all they have to show for it is three NIT appearances and a flame-out in the first round three years back against Indiana, in a game where they were easily the better team for about 37 minutes or so. Once again, this Aztec team has oodles of talent, but it will be interesting to see if Fisher can get the talent to perform.

Game 6: Northern Colorado @ Hawaii
--For my money, this was easily the least promising game on the schedule, two programs that weren’t really on my radar. In the end, however, this turned out to be a fairly interesting game with Northern Colorado building up a big lead only to have Hawaii make a run at the end.
--Hawaii seems to have trouble at point, with their options being Dwain Williams (who wants to pound the ball into the ground for 20 seconds and then hoist a 3) and Jeremy Lay (who is capable of getting into the lane and dishing, but is far too prone to taking abysmally bad shots, even if he can make them). In the end, there’s probably not enough talent on the Rainbow Warrior roster to matter.
--Northern Colorado, on the other hand, could potentially make some noise in the Big West this season. Led by Yohosh Bonner, they’ve got some strong guards and enough serviceable interior players to give themselves a shooting chance come March.

Game 7: Monmouth @ Saint Peter’s
--6AM on the east coast, middle of night my time, but I’m watching it over a late breakfast (bacon and eggs, if you must know).
--Monmouth never seemed to get anybody beyond sophomore post Travis Taylor to wake up in this game and struggled their way to 34 points for the game. Obviously, they’ll need to improve to be able to compete this season, but there are some good parts there. James Hett is a scrappy point. Ed Waite is an athletic freshman frontcourt player. Justin Sofman can knock down some shots. And Whitney Coleman is a talented guard who is still working his way back into playing shape after missing last season with an ACL injury.
--Saint Peter’s plays tough man-to-man defense (strongly displayed here) and has some talent in the frontcourt (Ryan Bacon and Jeron Belin) to pair with solid point Nick Leon.

Game 8: Drexel @ Niagara
--An 8AM game is a little more reasonable, but the first half seemed a little sluggish still. Things definitely picked up in the second in a very entertaining game between two solid mid-majors. Drexel made a couple strong runs in the second half, including a finishing flurry to get back within 3 at the end, but Niagara hung on down the stretch,
--Niagara is a fun team to watch. Not a whole lot of size, but a ton of skilled perimeter players and undersized interior competitors.
--Drexel guards have some excellent potential but need to shore up their decision-making in order for the Dragons to compete in the Colonial. But, if the guards can get there, they are surrounded by enough talent in the frontcourt and some depth of the bench, to make a real run at the postseason.

Game 9: Clemson @ Liberty
--Give credit to Clemson for going to Liberty. Give them even more credit for utterly destroying them. The SMC/SDSU game was previously the most one-sided of the marathon, but this game put that one to shame. Clemson led 17-1 before Liberty scored their first basket, and 42-19 at the half.
--Clemson lost some key players in the offseason, but this freshman class brings a lot to the table. It is going to be interesting to see Clemson in the 76 Classic next week to see what they can do against quality competition, but this looks to be a strong Tiger team that may have the best chance of a deep March run of any of the recent Clemson teams. Or will this just be another Oliver Purnell team that looks great in November and December but falls back when it is time to buy a new calendar.

Game 10: Northeastern @ Siena
--I gotta say, ESPN sure picked some nice mid-major games to show off during this marathon. SMC/SDSU, Monmouth/St. Pete, Drexel/Niagara and this one all were interesting matchups on paper, and a couple of those, including this one, even turned out to be interesting on the court.
--This was a game of runs, with Northeastern off to a strong start in the first half and Siena making their big push at the start of the second. Northeastern made another run at the end to tighten things up, but overall the whole game was very entertaining.
--Neither of these teams has a lot of depth, both with really only six players they can count on at this point. Hopefully both coaches will have some chances to develop their bench a little before conference play.
--Ryan Rossiter is significantly improved. Not too long ago he was thrown out there with little more requested of him than to work hard. Well, clearly he has continued working hard over the offseasons and added a bit of a mid-range jumper (with occasional range out to the 3-point line), something of a face-up game and the strength necessary to be an effective rebounder.

Game 11: Arkansas Little-Rock @ Tulsa
--By this time, the morning had turned into late afternoon/early evening, and what had started as an enjoyable run through the college basketball landscape had turned into a grueling day. And I think that’s only mile-marker 14 we just passed. Eyes starting to burn, back starting to ache, eyelids starting to sag. Time to pump back up with a little jaunt on the exercise bike while I take in Jerome Jordan and Ben Uzoh.
--Little Rock kept this a tight game for about the first 10 minutes, but they really had no answer for Jerome Jordan, who has improved steadily over his career.
--Apparently Doug Wojcik wants to give Ben Uzoh some run at the point, since he suspects that to be the position Uzoh will play if he gets to the next level. My suggestion to Wojcik would worry about what is best for this team, a team that is certainly capable of winning the Conference USA title, instead of worrying about the pro prospects of one of his players. Uzoh is a very nice player, but this team runs most effectively when freshman Donte Medder is running the point and Uzoh is manning the wing. Perhaps Uzoh will have to take over the point when Medder is on the bench, but he should not be the starter at the point. I suspect that as the season goes on, Wojcik will go in this direction, especially as he becomes more comfortable with Medder.

Game 12: Temple @ Georgetown
--Continue pounding away on the exercise bike through the first half here, but I think the exertion combined with the ineptitude of both teams offensively here leads to some pretty severe flashbacks to the UCLA game. I think some calming is needed to quiet the demons, and since I’m clean out of black-tar heroin today, alcohol will have to suffice. 200 cc’s of scotch, stat!
--I still believe Greg Monroe to be one of the most astounding combinations of athletic talent and size in the game of college basketball today. What I’ve got to figure out now is if he either has no instincts for the game or if John Thompson III’s offense stifles his abilities. So far, I’m leaning towards the first option. Until he proves otherwise, I’ll assume Monroe doesn’t have the killer instinct and that guards Austin Freeman and Chris Wright aren’t good enough to provide him with easy opportunities.
--JT3’s situation is similar to Howland’s in a way. Neither is very far removed from some pretty remarkable success, and yet there have got to be some serious questions about the long term feasibility of their offensive choices to maintain their respective programs among the country’s elite. I don’t want to ask those questions too loudly this early in the season out of respect for what both of these coaches have done, but should their respective teams fail to show significant improvement (especially on the offensive side of the ball) before the semester ends, you can expect those whispers to turn into roars.
--Neither team was even remotely impressive in this game, but Temple probably feels a bit better about this game than Georgetown, despite the loss. I don’t think Temple is often going to go 3-23 from 3-point land or 6-13 from the charity stripe, and if they improve those areas, this is the type of game the Owls win by 10.

Game 13: Binghamton @ Pittsburgh
--Binghamton’s program has gone to hell over the last month or so, and there just wasn’t enough talent left in the cupboard to give the Bearcats a chance to keep this close.
--I can’t say enough good things about Jamie Dixon and the direction he has taken this program in since Ben Howland left. Despite losing DeJuan Blair and Sam Young and Lavance Fields to graduation, I fully expect Pittsburgh’s name to be called on CBS somewhere in the 3pm PST hour on Selection Sunday. Further, given the young talent on this squad, the Panthers have an even brighter future ahead of them in the next couple of years.

Game 14: Charlotte @ Duke
--At this point, I’m behind schedule. I took a little break to grab some dinner with the ol’ lady and it’s 9pm and I’ve got at least 4 more games I want to take a look at before bed, so I’m in need of a blowout so I can write off the second half of one of these games and get back near schedule. And, while I suspected that might be the case here, I suspected that Charlotte would be able to keep in touch for 10 or 15 minutes. Not so much. About five minutes in here, I gave up and moved on to greener pastures. Hopefully I can catch the 49ers somewhere else down the line, because I learned absolutely nothing new about them in the few minutes I gave them today.

Game 15: Arkansas @ Louisville
--At first glance, I thought this might be another game where I could duck out a little early, given the number of players missing from the Razorback roster due to suspension, but they impressed me with their fire and hung tough for almost 30 entertaining minutes before the Cardinals put away the overmatched Arkansas squad.
--Arkansas had plenty of talent out on the floor. Rotnei Clarke is a three to shoot from the minute he steps off the bus, Michael Washington is a skilled, athletic post-player, and there are some other pieces lying around, but this team can’t really be a threat to the big boys until and unless Fortson, Welsh and Britt return.
--I’m not sure Louisville has a consistent go-to guy yet, especially in the half court game. Worst case scenario is that the Cardinals devolve into a live-by-the-three/die-by-the-three team.

Game 16: Gonzaga @ Michigan State
--Here it is: the first honest-to-goodness great game of this marathon, and the first great game of the college basketball season.
--And a little note to Tom Izzo and Mark Few: hey, maybe you guys could make this happen every year? You both consistently field great college basketball teams. You make your fans, alumni and boosters proud of the way you run your programs. You may not be obvious natural rivals, but you sure put on a good show. Make this happen.
--I think everybody assumed that this would be a down year for the Zags. Pargo, Daye, Heytvelt, Downs, all gone. Prognosticators started picking St. Mary’s and Portland to finish ahead of the perennial WCC champions. Then Gonzaga had to ruin it all by showing up and playing a game. Robert Sacre and Elias Harris were both revelations, showing not only good athleticism, but good command of basketball fundamentals. Stephen Gray and Matt Bouldin both helped run the offense smoothly, even if the supposed next Zag point, Demetri Goodson, was largely invisible. There are still some potential weaknesses on this team, lack of depth being foremost among them, but until further notice, the Zags need to be the favorite in the WCC.
--All that on the losing team requires that I say something about the victors. About the only real revelation about the Spartans was the play of widebody freshman Derrick Nix, who looks to be an immediate serious contributor on this glass and defensively. Elsewhere, what more needs to be said? There is tons of talent at every position and more where that came from off the bench.

Game 17: Memphis @ Kansas
--After the previous game, and with the clock winding past the 1am hour, and with my state of inebriation increasing by the game, I suppose I didn’t get as good of a look at this game as it maybe deserved, a rematch of one of the classic Finals of all-time, a look at a title-contender and a chance to see what Josh Pastner has planned for the Tigers.
--I like Eliot Williams a lot. I like Eliot Williams as a point guard a lot less. Unfortunately for the Tigers, there don’t seem to be a ton of candidates stepping up to take over that role from him, and I suspect the battle to get good point play will be an ongoing theme in the Memphis season. Ideally, Willie Kemp would be that guy, allowing Williams to slide over and play the attacking wing, but we’ll see how this shakes out over the season.
--Bill Self certainly has a lot of toys to play with, and I suspect that there will be nights throughout the season where Xavier Henry or Tyshawn Taylor or either of the Morrises or other players will step up and have big games, but when all is said and done, KU is going to lean on Collins and Aldrich to provide the majority of the offense, and they will likely have very good success doing so.

At this point, it was bed time, and me still a mile short of the finish line. But no matter, I would finish out the marathon come hell or high water the next night, and that I did.

Game 18: TCU @ Arizona
--The final game of a true marathon of college basketball, taking up three nights and one whole day of my life, was a very tough loss by TCU, who led by 8 with under 4 minutes remaining, and thanks to a couple really bad turnovers, could not hold on and win.
--The story of the game for Arizona State was senior center Eric Boateng who showed a drive and ability that had been decidedly absent in the rest of his college career. He showed excellent rebounding, vastly improved footwork, coherent post moves and a desire to have the ball in his hands when the game counted. It’s only one game, but if that continues, the Sun Devils will be in business.

Of course, that little marathon is only part of a bigger, more satisfying marathon that is the entire college basketball season. After finishing the TCU/Arizona game, I moved on to Butler/Northwestern, Utah/Utah State and UNLV/Nevada, and more from there, and next week alone will be a brutal (yet fun) journey through several different pre-season tournaments that make up, for my money, the 6th best week of college basketball (you know, after the three weeks of the tournament, and the two weeks of conference tournaments – and really, Thanksgiving week may give one or both of those conference tournament weeks a run for their money).

Now, back to the bottle again, as I just had another flash of James Keefe firing a pass off the back of a teammate.

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