Athlon Editors Discuss 5 Burning College Hoops Questions.
1. What team has been the biggest surprise this season?
Braden Gall: The Texas A&M Aggies. We knew the coach was good. We knew they would play hard. But A&M lost its top three scorers and its top rebounder from last season and is sitting at 16–1 overall and 3–0 to start the Big 12. Wins over Missouri, Temple, Washington and Arkansas already give this team a nice resume, and the two-point loss to Boston College has turned into “good loss.” We will learn a lot about this team in the next two weeks as Mark Turgeon’s bunch faces Texas (twice), Kansas State and Nebraska over a 12-day period.
Mitch Light: I think it has to be UConn. With only one proven commodity (guard Kemba Walker) back from a team that went 7–11 in the Big East, the Huskies were expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the league. Even after the hot start — the Maui Invitational championship — many were still doubting this team. But Walker & Co. made a huge statement a few weeks ago by winning at Texas. After the win over Villanova on Monday, UConn is 15–2 overall and 4–2 in the Big East. The Huskies now have wins over Wichita State, Michigan State, Kentucky, Texas and Villanova.
Nathan Rush: I expected Ohio State to be the second or third best team in the Big Ten and a solid Sweet 16-type of squad — not a conference bully and national title contender. But freshman Jared Sullinger (17.6 ppg, 9.9 rpg, .593 shooting) has put together the type of rookie year not seen since Greg Oden was patrolling the paint in Columbus. If “Big Sully” keeps it up, he could have the Buckeyes playing in the national title game just like Oden did back in 2007.
2. If you were an Athletic Director and you had to hire a basketball coach, who would be your top three candidates.
Braden: One letter would top my list: K. Mike Krzyzewski would be my first phone call — no questions asked. Arguably the best tournament coach in the nation, Tom Izzo, would be my second call. Hall of Fame names like Boeheim, Calhoun, either Williams (Roy or Gary), Donovan and Ryan would all be in the mix, but I will go slightly off the beaten path and take Matt Painter of Purdue. He is much younger than the others and still has a lot to prove. In five short years at Purdue, Painter has become one of the nation’s best.
Mitch: I’d have to factor in age, since I want a coach for the long term, so my top candidate might be a surprise — Thad Matta. He is a tremendous recruiter who has proven himself in three stops as a head coach — Butler, Xavier and Ohio State. I’d also have to have Tom Izzo on the list for what he has done at Michigan State. Bill Self at Kansas and Coach K at Duke would obviously be great choices as well, but for No. 3 on my list, I will go with Jay Wright at Villanova. Like Matta, he is a great recruiter who has done well at more than one school. He went 122–85 in seven seasons (30–12 in his final two) at Hofstra before moving on to Villanova in ‘01-02.
Nathan: Michigan State’s Tom Izzo would be the first coach I’d call. After six Final Fours in 15 seasons, including the 2000 NCAA title, Izzo has proven his ability to maximize the talent on his roster in any given season and thrive under the do-or-die pressure of March. After Izzo, it’s a toss-up between Kentucky’s John Calipari and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Coach Cal and Coach K are polar opposites stylistically, but they are undeniably two of the best in the business at recruiting and managing elite talent.
3. Which result from this past weekend surprised you the most?
Braden: I’ll go with Georgia Tech beating North Carolina. If the Jackets normally played up to their potential this would not be shocking considering the issues the Heels have had over the last 12-to-16 months. However, this Paul Hewitt-coached Tech team (now 8–8) had no business beating Roy Williams’ bunch by 20 points — even at home (although, most of the crowd was actually wearing blue).
Mitch: I was very surprised by South Carolina’s 72–69 win at Florida on Saturday. The Gamecocks opened up SEC play with a big overtime win over Vanderbilt but then struggled mightily in a loss at Alabama. This is a very young team that I figured would have a lot of trouble winning on the road. Florida was 2–0 in the SEC after its big win at Tennessee last Tuesday. The Gators had a great opportunity to jump out to a 3–0 record in the wide-open SEC East. Didn’t happen.
Nathan: Tennessee’s 67–64 come-from-behind win over Vanderbilt may not have been the most surprising final score for those who didn’t watch the game. But the way that the Volunteers beat the Commodores was the most shocking result of the weekend. With associate head coach Tony Jones wearing the orange blazer for suspended coach Bruce Pearl — and Pat Summitt cheering on courtside — the Vols rallied from 17 points down to defeat their in-state rivals from Nashville. After starting 0–2 in SEC play (losing at Arkansas and in overtime to Florida), UT pulled off a stunner against Vandy, a team that also let a 14-point lead slip away at South Carolina in the SEC opener.
4. Which team needs to get its act together in the next week or two?
Braden: It might be piling on, but Georgetown needs to get some work done in Big East play. The Hoyas righted the ship with a win over lowly Rutgers this weekend, but had started 1–4 in the Big East prior to the win on Saturday. Losses to St. John’s, Notre Dame, West Virginia and Pitt have put pressure on the Hoyas to win now.Mitch: Northwestern is good enough to be an NCAA Tournament team, but the Wildcats don’t have an NCAA Tournament resume. They dropped to 2–4 in the Big Ten with an overtime loss at Michigan State on Saturday. They need to start winning games — and beating good teams. After hosting Michigan and SIU Edwardsville this week, they play Wisconsin at home and travel to Minnesota next week. If the Cats takes care of business at home and can find a way to steal a win at Minnesota, we can then start talking about the NCAA Tournament once again.
Mitch: Northwestern is good enough to be an NCAA Tournament team, but the Wildcats don’t have an NCAA Tournament resume. They dropped to 2–4 in the Big Ten with an overtime loss at Michigan State on Saturday. They need to start winning games — and beating good teams. After hosting Michigan and SIU Edwardsville this week, they play Wisconsin at home and travel to Minnesota next week. If the Cats takes care of business at home and can find a way to steal a win at Minnesota, we can then start talking about the NCAA Tournament once again.
Nathan: North Carolina appears to be back in trouble — if the Tar Heels were ever off the bubble — after an embarrassing 78–58 loss at Georgia Tech on Sunday. An underachieving Yellow Jackets team thoroughly dominated the Heels, who shot 27.6 percent (16-of-58) from the field and 16.7 percent (2-of-12) from downtown in Atlanta. If UNC can’t bounce back against Clemson (Jan. 18), at Miami (Jan. 26), NC State (Jan. 29), at BC (Feb. 1) and Florida State (Feb. 6), Roy Williams may have his second straight NIT ticket punched before heading to Cameron Indoor to face Duke (Feb. 9) for the first time this year.
5. There are some great freshmen and some great seniors. Who is the best sophomore in the country?
Braden: Wow, there are too many to count, and there is no Blake Griffin in this group. I will go with Maryland’s Jordan Williams, who has been a machine on the glass all season. His 12.1 rebounds per game rank third nationally and first among all power conference teams. He is also averaging 18.1 points, 1.4 blocks and is shooting 56 percent from the floor. I can’t, however, answer this questions without at least mentioning Jordan Hamilton, Derrick Williams and Alec Burks.
Mitch: Derrick Williams at Arizona is having a monster sophomore season. The forward who originally committed to USC leads the Cats in scoring (19.7 ppg) and rebounding (7.3 rpg) and is shooting .658 from the field and .770 from the line. He is a legitimate Pac-10 Player of the Year candidate.
Nathan: My favorite sophomore is Miami point guard Durand Scott — although Arizona big man Derrick Williams is a beast, Vanderbilt sharpshooter John Jenkins is one of the top marksmen in the country and UCF heir to His Airness, Marcus Jordan, has nearly doubled his production while leading the Knights to a 14–2 start. But Scott has an all-around game that continues to improve and an intangible winning edge. The 6’3”, 200-pound New York City product — who won a state title as a high school senior at Rice and played for the AAU power New York Gauchos — is averaging 14.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists on ultra-efficient shooting percentages (45.8 from the field, 87.1 from the free throw line and 43.8 from three).