Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thoughts from the 24-hour College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon

By Charlie Scaturro

Source: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America

ESPN kicked off the return of college basketball this week with its annual 24 hour marathon of hoops that forces some of us to ignore aspects of our life like work, significant others, sleep, and even basic bodily functions to tune in. Of course, as expected, it was totally worth it. College basketball fans quickly put all of the aircraft carrier nonsense behind them and got back to enjoying games that didn’t have us thinking about condensation ridden courts, high winds, or blaring sun (by the way, has anyone checked on Jim Boeheim and Steve Fisher after those 3-plus hours in the sun on that aircraft carrier? Hope they applied sunscreen liberally and often on Sunday).

Besides the fact that having college basketball games on TV during the middle of the day and into all hours of the night probably reminded some of us of March Madness, there was plenty to take away from the games that were played during the 24-hour period. Here are a few thoughts I had during the marathon:

Gonzaga looks formidable

Yeah, I know it was only one game in mid-November and some are now proclaiming that Gonzaga is Final Four bound, but it’s hard to blame them after the Bulldogs completely dismantled West Virginia 84-50. And the worst part is, the 34-point disparity might not even tell the whole story. The lopsided final score wasn’t a case of the Zags pulling away during garbage time; they jumped on West Virginia right out of the gate opening up a 17-2 lead, and they never looked back. As the carnage unfolded and the 24-hour marathon’s tip-off game became so stiflingly uncompetitive that even Bob Huggins losing his mind on the sidelines couldn’t keep me interested, I’m pretty sure everyone was asking themselves the same questions: “Is Gonzaga really this good? Is West Virginia really this bad?”

Again, it was only one game and the likely answer to the above questions is “no” and “no” but the Bulldogs made a major statement on early Tuesday morning. Their backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. is going to be incredibly tough for opposing teams to defend, and their combined 5-9 effort from behind the arc against WVU looks like the start of these two giving the entire nation fits from deep all season.

Last year, both Bell Jr. and Pangos shot over 40 percent from three, and there’s no reason to think either guy will slow down this season. Additionally, Elias Harris is the Zags token “I can’t believe he’s still in college” guy (because every team’s gotta have at least one) who teams with Sam Dower to give Gonzaga some balance in their frontcourt. Finally, Guy Landry Edi is the perfect slashing/defending/do a little bit of everything wing player to compliment what Pangos, Bell Jr., Harris, and Dower bring to the table. Although he’s not nearly as hyped as some of his teammates, Edi might end up stealing headlines from the likes of Pangos, Bell Jr., and Harris this season.

Are they a Final Four team? Who knows, but Gonzaga has the potential to play with anyone in the country.  

R.I.P. Deniz Kilicli’s beard

I’d be remiss if I didn’t briefly mention the fact that Deniz Kilicli ditched his signature beard for the clean-shaven look. Seeing Kilicli and the best beard in college hoops was one of the things I was looking forward to most about the start of the season (yeah, I’ve got problems, I know) and I was shocked and disappointed to learn that he now looks like any other 6’9’’ Turkish prison inmate. At least we’ll always have Google image searches like these.

There are a lot of familiar faces on Kansas State, with one notable exception

Source: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images North America
I’ll admit that because I was mourning the loss of Kilicli’s beard and watching a bunch of other games I didn’t get a chance to actually watch Kansas State play during the marathon, but I did look at the box score of their game against Alabama Huntsville.

Forgetting about the fact that this was a largely meaningless 61-point win over a team that ESPN didn’t even bother to include individual player links in the box score, the thing that struck me was that K-State brought back almost their entire team from last season. The one loss from last year’s roster is Jamar Samuels, who although he didn’t have a terribly impressive senior season with the Wildcats, will be missed. Even so, Kansas State returns their leading scorer in Rodney McGruder and guys like Will Spradling, Angel Rodriguez, Jordan Henriquez, Thomas Gipson, Shane Southwell, and Martavious Irving all contributed last year and should be ready to play even bigger roles in 2012-13’.

Last year’s team didn’t have quite as much firepower as some of the recent Kansas State teams headed by Frank Martin, but they still pulled off impressive wins against Missouri (twice) and Baylor in conference play, as well as making the NCAA Tournament. Of course, the elephant in the room is that Frank Martin, a Send It In Jerome favorite, departed for South Carolina and the Wildcats replaced him with Bruce Weber. While it will be interesting to see how Weber does with the fairly substantial pieces that Martin left behind, it certainly wouldn’t be surprising if the guys on this team were a little more relaxed, comfortable, and able to hear better now that Martin isn’t constantly screaming in their ears for missing a free throw late in the 2nd half of a game that K-State comfortably controls.

Martin’s intense coaching style made for hall of fame YouTube clips and he clearly has a fire for the game that’s unmatched by many other coaches around the country, but some 18-22 year-olds don’t respond very well to someone screaming in their face every single time they make a mistake. It will be very interesting to see how an experienced K-State team performs this year.

Chaz Williams is awesome

Having never seen much of Chaz Williams, it was awesome to watch most of the UMass-Harvard game yesterday afternoon. Although he’s (generously?) listed at 5’9’’ Williams is hard to miss on the court because he’s constantly pushing the ball up the floor and playing a fearless brand of basketball. Sometimes Williams’ fearlessness gets him into trouble (his unwillingness to concede the fact that Harvard’s Steve Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith, both of whom who are close to a foot taller than Williams, would block his shots near the basket got frustrating) and can lead him to make a bad decision from time to time, but the good far outweighs the bad with Williams.

In yesterday’s thrilling 67-64 victory over Harvard, Williams scored 12 points, grabbed 3 rebounds, dished out 10 assists, and added 3 steals, while playing 39 of 40 minutes. Williams’ energy and heart were evident throughout the game, and whether he was trying to block the shot of guys who are a foot taller than him, or boxing out and fighting for rebounds, it was awesome to watch. While Williams flying around the court would have been impressive at any time of day, the fact that this game started at 10 am (which for college kids might as well be 5 am) is even more impressive. And when the game was tied at 64 with just a few seconds to play it was Williams who drove to the basket, attracted a crowd, and then dished to Sampson Carter who hit a wide open three to win the game.

I don’t normally watch UMass games, but I think I’ll have to make an exception this season.

St. John’s will be insanely fun to watch this season 

Photo credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

I originally intended to list the fact that this team is talented, young, athletic, and they like to push the tempo as reasons why they’re going to be a lot of fun to watch this season, but Chris Obekpa hijacked that thought much like he hijacked the Red Storm’s narrow 77-74 win over Detroit yesterday. In Steve Lavin’s inspiring return from prostate cancer, Obekpa shined brighter than anyone on the court (including Ray McCallum) and made it clear that the only thing more difficult than pronouncing his name will be getting a shot off over him this season. When all was said and done, Obekpa finished with 7 points, 11 rebounds, and a St. John’s record 8 blocks. Not a bad debut for the Johnnies freshman center.

Obekpa is still a bit raw offensively (although he swished a perfect-looking “no, no, no, YES!” midrange jumper late in the second half against Detroit that surprised a lot of people) and probably won’t be lighting up the scoreboard much this season, but he’s already shown that he’s one of the nation’s best shot blockers and it should be insanely fun to watch him defend the rim this season. Oh yeah, and the rest of St. John’s young, athletic roster should be pretty exciting as well this year.

Xavier looks like they’re going to be just fine

Considering how much they lost from last year’s team, it was fair to question what Xavier would look like without four of their most important players (and all five starters) from a team that went 23-13 and reached the Sweet 16. Coming into this season, the new look Musketeers said goodbye to Tu Holloway, Kenny Frease, Mark Lyons, and Dezmine Wells, four players who averaged a combined 52.6 points per game last season, leaving plenty of questions about who would step up to fill the void. As uncertain as things might have looked a few days ago, something tells me those questions will quiet down a bit after Xavier took care of business against Butler 62-47 yesterday.

Yes, Xavier was playing at home, and Butler will probably need some time to fully integrate Rotnei Clarke and cope with the loss of Ronald Nored, but this is still an extremely impressive win for a team that was depending on a bunch of previously unproven players to get the job done. During yesterday’s win, Jeff Robinson and Travis Taylor, who combined for all of 8.1 points last season, poured in 32 of Xavier’s 62 points, and set the tone for the Musketeers throughout this game. The rest of the Xavier supporting cast also chipped in, and they were able to hold an all-world shooter like Clarke to just 7 points on 3-11 from the field (including 1-7 from deep).

I guess we should have known better than to count out a program that’s won at least 20 games and made the tournament in seven straight seasons.

Different year, same Kansas 

Speaking of teams that lost a lot from last year, Kansas and Bill Self had their first real test of the season without Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor when they took on Michigan State in the Champions Classic. In what was a grind-it-out, hard fought game, the Spartans outlasted Kansas and came away with a narrow 67-64 win, but it’s clear that the Jawhawks should be very good once again this season. Not many teams could sustain losing two players like Robinson and Taylor and still be one of the best teams in college basketball, but as we all know, this is what Kansas has grown accustomed to over the last few seasons and Bill Self always seems to find a way to have this program in contention for another National Championship. And despite a disappointing loss, that certainly appears to be the case again this season.

Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford, and Jeff Withey all played fairly big roles on last year’s National Championship runner-up team, and all three will bring experience and production that should help offset some of what this team lost when Robinson and Taylor left. Ben McLemore, who redshirted last season, was arguably the Jayhawks best player against Michigan State last night, and his ability to slash to the basket and contribute in a number of different ways will be extremely valuable.

Perry Ellis looked tentative and frankly a little shell shocked in last night’s game, but he’s another highly touted recruit who appears to have the potential to contribute in his freshman season. With the likes of Jamari Traylor, Naadir Tharpe, and Kevin Young coming off their bench, the Jayhawks also have enough depth to run with pretty much anyone in the country. Traylor in particular wowed during last night’s game, as he delivered a highlight-reel tip slam, and what should be the block of the year in college basketball on a fast break late in the game.

The one concern I have right now for this Jayhawk team is that they don’t appear to have a go-to guy on offense that they can feed the ball late in the game, but as always, they should have enough depth and talent to compete with anyone in the country.

Michigan State is nothing if not resilient

The other side of the coin in Kevin Ollie’s thrilling victory in his coaching debut with UConn was Michigan State’s disappointing start to what has all the makings of another promising campaign. Early season losses as your team rounds into form are a fact of life in college basketball, and this is especially true when your coach always signs you up for tough games a la Tom Izzo. Because of Izzo’s aggressive scheduling, the reality of the situation on late Friday night looked pretty bleak for the Spartans if they wanted to avoid starting 0-2. They just lost to UConn in Germany, and now they would fly back to America knowing that a Tuesday showdown with the #7 ranked Kansas Jayhawks awaited them in Atlanta just as they were getting over jet lag and all the annoyances that come along with transcontinental flights.

Although last night’s game was close throughout, Michigan State trailed by five with five minutes left to play, and they hadn’t held a lead in the game since the 6:30 mark in the 1st half. But just as it looked like Kansas would hold onto their lead by grinding through a few well executed possessions, Gary Harris and Keith Appling spearheaded an 11-2 run that was capped off by a clutch Appling three with just a minute and a half left to play. This impressive run paved the way for a three-point Spartans victory and showed just how resilient this team is. By now we know that no matter how bleak things look we can’t ever count the Spartans out, and if Michigan State is going to get contributions from Gary Harris and Keith Appling like they did last night, this team is going to be extremely tough to beat.

Duke’s experience vs. Kentucky’s inexperience 

Source: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America
The beauty of this year's tip-off Marathon was that it culminated in Tuesday night’s Duke vs. Kentucky show-the-Christian-Laettner-shot-as-many-times-as-you-can-to-troll-Kentucky-fans meeting. Besides the fact that Ryan Kelly and Kyle Wiltjer were squaring off in a mirror match of awkward 6’10’’ white guys that can shoot the hell out of the ball, this game pitted an experienced Duke squad against a young Kentucky team full of likely “one and doners”. And it didn’t disappoint.

Kelly and Wiltjer awkwardly shadowed each other for most of the night, and provided genuine entertainment for yours truly, and oh yeah, the rest of the game was pretty good too. Things were neck and neck in the first half, only to see Duke pull out to a 12 point second half lead before Kentucky stormed back to make everyone in Blue Devil nation genuinely nervous in the final minutes. Duke ultimately prevailed 75-68 behind a sparkling performance from Seth Curry (whose mom was only shown in the stands cheering for her son once by my count) and a similarly impressive 18 points on 7 of 8 shooting from Mason Plumlee.

Of course, the common reaction from everyone other than Duke fans was: “yeah, well, Duke has all the experience and Kentucky is a bunch of freshmen, they should have won this game.” And that's exactly what Duke did; they took care of business behind the leadership of Curry, Plumlee, and Kelly.

I was curious to see just how much of an experience advantage Duke had over Kentucky, so I looked it up. Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee, and Ryan Kelly (who accounted for 51 of Duke’s 75 points) had 317 games of experience going into last night’s game, compared to 322 games of experience for the entire Kentucky roster. Keeping in mind that 114 of Kentucky’s 322 games of experience came from Twany Beckham (who?) and Jon Hood, the experience factor on the actual court in this game was even steeper. As is always the case with John Calipari’s Kentucky teams, it stands to reason that a team powered by freshmen is going to be a lot better come tournament time than they are at the beginning of the season, and we saw flashes of greatness from players like Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress last night.

Although it's unfair to do, a lot of people will compare this year's Kentucky team with last year's, that's just the way it goes.  While I don't think there's much of a comparison to be had, I think most people will agree that last year's Kentucky team that beat both Kansas and North Carolina in the first few weeks of the season, would have beaten Duke last night.  What does that tell us?  What we already knew all along; this year's Kentucky team is not last year's Kentucky team.

A few other quick thoughts:

- As many already stated, Kentucky really suffered against Duke because they didn’t have a true point guard on the floor. The player most affected by this was Kyle Wiltjer. Despite playing 32 minutes, the sophomore took just five shots and only attempted two three-pointers. For a guy who shot 43 percent from behind the arc last season and hit four of six against Maryland in Kentucky’s first game, it’s pretty inexcusable that he didn’t get the ball more. Of course, Wiltjer has issues creating his own shot, and since Kentucky didn’t do a good job of getting him the ball when he was ready to catch and shoot, it hurt him

- Willie Cauley-Stein is going to frustrate me all season. This talented seven-footer has all the potential in the world, but his erratic play against Duke forced Calipari to give Cauley-Stein just six minutes of floor time last night. When he was on the floor, Cauley-Stein alternated between making pretty drop-step moves on Mason Plumlee for easy buckets, to playing out of control on defense and racking up three fouls in those six minutes of floor time. I’m extremely intrigued by his size and fluidity, but I have a feeling I’m going to be frustrated with Cauley-Stein all season. It seems likely that Coach Calipari will be as well.

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