Many Musings as College Hoops Enters Home Stretch

9:06 PM, Jan 31, 2011   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The best way to be efficient, whether it's at work or at home, is to make lists.

With that sentiment in mind, I have a laundry list of thoughts from an action- packed week in college basketball that started to separate teams in each conference's upper echelon and further added to Jimmer Fredette's budding legend.

1. You know you've reached cult status when Kevin Durant tweets, "Jimmer Fredette is the best scorer in the world!!". That was on a night Durant racked up 47 points in a victory over Minnesota. Fredette was nearly his equal, scoring 43 points (his third game of 40-plus points in the last five contests), and he did it in a variety of ways.

Fredette used his patent rock-and-dribble drive that lulls a defender to a flat-footed position before using a speed dribble to create shooting real estate. His cross-over also gave him an ample window to stroke any of his five three-pointers. Make no mistake, he also converted several shots with nary an inch of room, and he penetrated to his left side, a criticism of his skill set earlier in the season.

The sign in the audience that read "Fredette About It" may ring true if Fredette continues to pile up points and get valuable contributions from role players. Lost in the Jimmer madness was a 14-point performance by big man Brandon Davies, more than holding his own, to my surprise, against San Diego State's best player, Kawhi Leonard. Noah Hartstock was also solid with a six- point, seven-rebound line and reserve James Anderson added an intimidation factor in the paint, blocking five shots in 14 minutes.

It all added up to an impressive 71-58 victory, one that elevated the Cougars' stock in my eyes way more than it reduced San Diego State's. These are two Sweet 16-and-beyond caliber clubs.

I'm going to ignore BYU's subsequent letdown loss at New Mexico. "The Pit" is a tough place to come out victorious, and the Cougars didn't have much time to respond after such an emotional high.

2. While I missed the mark on the game in Provo, I correctly put a spotlight on Saint Mary's Mickey McConnell for the Gaels' game at perennial West Coast Conference power Gonzaga on Thursday. McConnell scored 27 points on just 17 shots, had more assists than turnovers (six to four) in a hostile environment and drained the game-winner with 1.2 seconds left, sending the reeling Bulldogs to a third straight conference loss.

3. Connecticut is no longer the Kemba Walker Show.

The cultivation of supporting talent in Storrs is one of the major storylines in the Big East at the halfway point. We all suspected talented, yet raw, big man Alex Oriakhi would develop as the season progressed, and he answered the call, scoring double figures in five of seven games since putting a goose egg on the scoring ledger in Connecticut's loss at Notre Dame on January 4th. Yet the two big contributors in recent weeks have been a pair of freshmen, swingman Jeremy Lamb and guard Shabazz Napier.

Lamb has notched six straight double-figure scoring games, including a 24- point explosion against Marquette, and Napier has just 18 turnovers in his last six Big East games. Walker has four games under 20 points this month after just one such contest in the first two months, but the Huskies have hung tough in a conference that is competitive every night, which is a great sign come March.

UConn lost a classic double-overtime thriller to Louisville on Saturday, but still saw positive performances from Walker's teammates. Now all the Huskies need is Walker to re-gain his early-season shooting stroke.

4. Was there a more dominating performance this season than Ohio State's absolute dismantling of Purdue last week? Columnists have been waxing about the play of freshman point guard Aaron Craft (an unheralded recruit in many circles), but Ohio State's balance in an often-times 4-1 set is what makes the Buckeyes so lethal.

With four players shooting better than 43 percent from long range and a National Player of the Year candidate in the paint, defenses are left in scramble mode.

The game in Columbus also highlighted Purdue's soft underbelly offensively behind JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore. Ryne Smith had a nice stretch of games, but attempted just two shots against Ohio State's athletic guards.

5. The word "burn" will be in the vernacular of each college basketball analyst from now through March. It is the name Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey dubs his slow-paced offense.

The Fighting Irish orchestrated the high pick-and-roll and slip screens to precision against Pittsburgh's normally fundamentally-sound defense. Ben Hansbrough penetrated past a Pittsburgh guard with zero back-line help on four occassions in the final four minutes. That can't make Jamie Dixon too happy. The Fighting Irish's 56-51 victory featured just 84 total field goal attempts, an average of just 2.1 per minute.

6. One conference that has no definitive step-sister is the ACC.

Duke, despite its warts, is leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of a league that is in scramble mode to lock up NCAA Tournament bids. Florida State, to date, has done something it hasn't achieved in recent years, backing up a victory over Duke with a string of wins, but still can't win on the road as evidenced by its no-show on Saturday at Clemson. The Seminoles are in line for a tournament selection, but the following squads are all staking claim to beating each other as proof of their worth. North Carolina is slightly ahead of Virginia Tech and Boston College because it has the best signature victory of the bunch over Kentucky.

In what is a down year for the conference, while bubble prognosticators still suggest six teams are heading to the Tournament, I wouldn't be surprised if one or two fewer make the final field.

THOUGHTS BEFORE FILLING OUT YOUR HOOPS BRACKET

Below is another excerpt from my just-released book, "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket." You can purchase it at Amazon.com or in a variety of formats at www.99-series.com. I will publish a tip (more as the tournament draws closer) during each column to prepare you for bracket madness.

The first place to look for first-round upsets is at teams that already proved their worth at some point during the regular season. This does not necessarily mean springing an early-season upset during the wee hours of the morning in Maui or before the break of dawn in Anchorage, but staying competitive against big-name competition highlights several important points.

1. If a small school records a victory or narrow loss against a major- conference foe, it proves its talent matches up over 40 minutes. It also:

a) Demonstrates the smaller school is not intimidated by the opponent or its surroundings, which are normally hostile when getting a chance to face a powerful foe prior to postseason play.

b) Showcases the smaller school's head coach, his preparation level, and his ability to motivate players.

Simply put, early-season contests are not a golden rule but are a healthy barometer of upset chances.

FINE 15

1. Ohio State (22-0): Lost in Ohio State's offensive arsenal is how good it guards people. The Buckeyes rank fourth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.

2. Kansas (20-1): The Jayhawks' otherworldly depth got even better with the return of Thomas Robinson to the lineup on Saturday. His story is tragic, as not many young men are prepared to deal with the loss of two grandparents and a mother over the course of a month. Kansas played a nearly flawless, and very emotional game, in routing Kansas State on Saturday.

3. Pittsburgh (20-2): Still at the top of the nation's best overall conference despite unorthodox game played at a snails pace versus Notre Dame. In truth, Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs needed to do a better job of forcing tempo either through offensive transition or defensive perimeter pressure.

4. Texas (18-3): I was more impressed with its back-to-back victories over Oklahoma State and Missouri than the Kansas win, as that shows the sign of a maturing outfit.

5. Duke (19-2): St. John's toasted Duke's defense because of its quickness at multiple positions and its attacking nature on the interior. The Blue Devils looked disinterested, not as hungry as the Red Storm, but more importantly, they looked slower. That was the knock against last season's team as well so we all know not to count them out.

6. Connecticut (17-3): The Huskies have been that impressive, especially considering how down I was on them just a few weeks ago. Yes, they lost to Louisville on Saturday, but I'm still impressed at this team's overall growth.

7. BYU (20-2): I wish my first name was stamped into street lingo as a verb. The Cougars really "Jimmerized" the Aztecs behind Fredette's offensive showcase.

8. San Diego State (21-1): Not that far of a tumble, but I was surprised D.J. Gay and company couldn't at least hold Fredette to season-average numbers. The Aztecs looked lethargic down the stretch, as the Cougars used a great atmosphere (bravo, BYU student body) to pull away late.

9. Villanova (17-4): With so much carnage above and below them, the Wildcats don't drop despite two straight losses. The Wildcats need to attack the rim more aggressively, as their guards settled for long jump shots far too often (with little success) last week.

10. Purdue (18-4): That was a nice bounce-back victory at Williams Arena against Minnesota. I still have the suspicion that the Boilermakers have a "ceiling" because of their reliance on two players.

11. Kentucky (16-4): The Wildcats came out with an energy unmatched by Georgia until it was too late. That was a nice revenge victory against a team full of NBA-ready talent.

12. Notre Dame (17-4): Hansbrough played like big brother Tyler, a man possessed with a leader-worthy determination that propelled his Fighting Irish to a big road victory. I will be looking to see if other teams try to copy the blueprint and take the air out of the basketball against Pittsburgh.

13. Louisville (17-4): Rick Pitino has his club playing above its talent level.

14. Missouri (17-4): The Tigers just aren't going to beat the best teams in the nation shooting 34 percent from the floor because of their defensive deficiencies.

15. Georgetown (16-5): The Hoyas are perhaps the most impressive team in the nation over the last two weeks. Written off as a disappointment, Georgetown has dug deep and turned to the Big East Preseason Player of the Year to right the ship. A four-game winning streak in the Big East is an achievement, and Austin Freeman has started to take control, scoring 30 in the road win over Villanova.

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