1. Playing Big
It comes as no surprise that the Big East, after the first couple of weeks of the college basketball season, has stood out with its play on the hardwood more than any other conference so far. Well, at least it wouldn’t have been a surprise if this was 1986. Or even 2011.
But after The Great Divide in college sports which saw the football portion of the Big East Conference wither away and the basketball part be put on life support, many believed the glory days of the first true basketball-centric conference would never be recaptured. So it is a bit of a surprise what the current constitution of the league has done before the end of the first month of the season.
The hit list of teams that Big East members have beaten so far include nine NCAA Tournament teams from last season (North Carolina, Oklahoma, Stanford, Florida, George Washington, VCU, Michigan, Stephen F. Austin, Mercer) and last season’s Postseason NIT Champions (Minnesota). While Villanova defeating both VCU and Michigan wasn’t too much of a surprise given the fact the Wildcats are expected to win the league and be a Top 25 team all season long, it is the teams projected towards the bottom of the league, like Butler (over North Carolina) and DePaul (over Stanford) who may prove that the conference could be as deep this season as it was during the halcyon days of the league. Although losing Player of the Year Doug McDermott, Creighton still looks to be a national threat, as they impressively came back from a 17-point deficit to knock off Oklahoma. Georgetown took out Florida in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament before giving second-ranked Wisconsin all it could handle in the semifinals. Seton Hall’s 5-0 start includes a win against quality Atlantic 10 squad George Washington.
Instead of seeing legends on the sidelines like Lou Carnesecca, Jim Boeheim and John Thompson, there’s a new blood of coaching talent in the league like Chris Mack, Kevin Willard and, well, John Thompson. JT3 that is.
If play like this continues around the league in non-conference play, Madison Square Garden, the near perpetual host for the Big East Tournament, may very well be the place to be during Championship Week. The more things change, the more they may stay the same.
2. It’s very upsetting, already
For the women’s basketball cynics that may have lamented that we would be in for another season of Connecticut dominating the sport and possibly going undefeated again, making for a “supposed” anti-climactic season, Stanford laid those plans to rest when it upset the Huskies in Palo Alto on Nov. 17.
As it turned out, that “upset” set in motion a chain of surprising results that may lead to the most competitive and, maybe, most uncertain women’s college basketball season on record.
Just this past week alone, five of the AP Women’s Top 25 teams lost to unranked opponents, including Chattanooga – led by former Vanderbilt and Ohio State head coach Jim Foster – holding on to defeat then No. 4 Tennessee, building a 16-point halftime lead in the process. Another longtime well-respected coach, Joe McKeown, kept Northwestern undefeated in probably the game of the week, upending then No. 18 DePaul 97-91 in a game that featured two overtimes, 23 lead changes and 13 ties. Kentucky (to Illinois), Iowa (to Arkansas) and Maryland (to Washington State) also suffered defeats to unranked opponents.
Even the No. 1 team in the country almost fell victim to the upset bug, as South Carolina needed an 18-4 game-ending run to ruin No. 22 Syracuse’s upset bid in The Bahamas, 67-63.
3. The Twilight Zone
After the Texas Longhorns succumbed to the Syracuse Orangemen in the 2003 national semifinals in New Orleans, Texas head coach Rick Barnes decided to take the bane of that matchup for his team, Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone, and incorporate it as strategy going forward.
After almost a decade of mixing man-to-man defense with zone defense to mixed reviews, Texas looks like it now has the personnel and the length to create defensive havoc on a nightly basis.
If you watched the Longhorns’ 55-54 thriller over Connecticut in Storrs on Sunday, you would have seen a zone defense at its best, taking away driving lanes while forcing its opponent to take tough long distance shots.
In the front of the zone, Demarcus Holland, one of the best on-ball defenders in the Big 12, makes up for a lack of size (6-2) with a long wingspan and extreme quickness. But what makes Texas’ zone so intimidating is the back line, with freshman stud Myles Turner (6-11) already becoming one of the elite defenders in the game. Turner, along with Cameron Ridley (6-9), Jordan Holmes (6-8) and Connor Lammert (6-9) combine to form somewhat of a spider’s web in the back, making attempts inside the paint just as tough as shots from the perimeter.
While the defense has the potential to perform at an elite level, the Longhorns will only go as far as Holmes, not shy to take the big shot, will take them on the offensive end. Holmes’ game-winning three-pointer against the Huskies once again highlighted his penchant for taking and making big shots, and that is what ultimately could lead to the Longhorns being a Final Four contender.
If Rick Barnes’ squad does make it to Indianapolis, going up against a formidable zone will be someone else’s problem for a change.
Interview of the Week: Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga)
No. 10 Gonzaga came all the way out East to not only celebrate Thanksgiving, but to also serve notice that they’ll be a formidable force in the national landscape once again this season. After a 73-66 victory over St. John’s (NY) in the NIT Season Tip-Off Championship Game last Friday, we spoke with Bulldogs guard Kevin Pangos, who won the MVP of the tournament after combining for 33 points and 15 assists in two games at Madison Square Garden. Among other things, our interview touched on how healthy he is after struggling with turf toe and ankle problems almost all of last season, as well as whether he thinks this is Gonzaga’s most talented team since he’s been in Spokane.
Game(s) of the Week:
Men: Duke at Wisconsin, 9:30 PM ET, Wednesday: Being named a preseason AP All-America before his first game as a collegian means that Jahlil Okafor should be ready to put on a performance against the Badgers. Then again, he could be in for a major struggle against Wisconsin’s talented All-American big man of their own, Frank Kaminsky. The X-factor in this game could be Sam Dekker, the 6-8 point forward for the Badgers who can fill a number of roles to help Wisconsin create mismatches on the court.
Women: Connecticut at Notre Dame, 3:15 PM ET, Saturday: If there’s one team that has had Geno Auriemma’s number over the past few years, it’s been Muffet McGraw and the Fighting Irish. Last April, however, Notre Dame was just a speed bump as UConn capped off a perfect 40-0 season with a convincing win the championship game in Nashville. Though Connecticut lost to Stanford on Nov. 17, the Huskies haven’t lost multiple games before the New Year since the 2004-05 season.
[Cover photo (Jonathan Holmes) courtesy of Jim Rogash/Getty Images]