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Athlon Editors Discuss 5 Burning College Hoops Questions.
1. It’s obviously early, but which team really needs a big win this weekend?
Mitch Light: I’ll go with Wisconsin, which hosts Illinois. The Badgers let what would have been a great win on the road slip away in East Lansing on Tuesday night. Instead of a 3–1 Big Ten record, the Badgers are 2–2 with two wins at home and two losses on the road. UW lost at Illinois, 69–61, a few weeks ago due in large part to some poor outside shooting. The Badgers got some good looks at the basket but only shot .350 from the field, including .286 from three. If Bo Ryan’s club plans on hanging around in the league race, winning at home this weekend would be a very good idea.
Braden Gall: The Tennessee Vols have lost six out of nine — to some really bad opponents — and have started 0–2 in league play. A second straight home loss to in-state rival Vanderbilt would push the Vols record to 0–3 in SEC play and 10–7 overall. That would be almost insurmountable. If Tennessee cannot figure out how to play with consistency, instead of playing down to its opponents, Big Orange nation will be at home this March.
Nathan Rush: If K-State’s Jacob Pullen “won’t play in the NIT” during his “last go around” in Manhattan, then the Wildcats better win at home against Texas Tech on Saturday before hitting the road at Missouri for a quick turnaround Monday matchup. A preseason top-10 pick by many, K-State has early losses to Duke, Florida, UNLV, Oklahoma State and Colorado. It’s not quite do-or-die time, but when a star player is in panic mode about the NIT in January, one or two conference wins will go a long way.
2. Which coach from a Big Six power conference is on the hottest seat right now?
Mitch: Since I spend far too much time wondering how Georgia Tech can struggle so much under Paul Hewitt, I will go in a different direction on this one. How about Pat Knight at Texas Tech? Knight called this a “make-or-break” season for him; well, the Red Raiders are 8–9 overall and 0–2 in the Big 12 (with both games at home).
Braden: In our weekly pick on Paul Hewitt segment, I will buck the trend and ignore the atrocious play at Georgia Tech and say Pat Knight at Texas Tech. There are only nine power conference teams currently under .500; the Red Raiders are one of those teams, and they have lost to the one with the worst record (South Florida at 6–12). Also, Texas Tech is 3–5 vs. teams from Texas this season, with losses to TCU, North Texas, UTEP, Baylor and Texas. Knight is a pathetic 11–33 in Big 12 play, and the overall mark of 45–51 isn’t what Tech signed up for when they hired someone named Knight.
Nathan: Even Oregon State coach Craig Robinson’s POTUS brother-in-law Barack Obama or his First Lady sister Michelle’s new best friend Oprah don’t have the power to save him. The Beavers have lost to Seattle, Texas Southern, Utah Valley, Colorado, Montana, George Washington, Washington State, Washington and UCLA. But Robinson’s squad does have wins over Arizona, Arizona State, Texas-Pan American, Howard, Charlotte and Texas-Arlington — so maybe those coaches deserve to be fired first. What OSU needs is a 6’2 lanky lefty shooter with 1979 Punahou (Hawaii) High School state championship experience. If only “Barry O’Bomber” didn’t have so much going on right now...
3. Ohio State has emerged as the best team in the Big Ten. Whose next?
Mitch: I really like the talent level at Illinois, but Purdue has been very impressive (despite the loss at Minnesota Thursday night). The Boilermakers don’t really have any great wins, but they have been consistent on both ends of the court. Purdue ranks No. 4 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. This team is capable of winning the Big Ten.
Braden: It is a boring answer, but 15¬–2 Purdue is probably the second best team the Big Ten. The Boilers have two elite players in guard E’Twaun Moore and center JaJuan Johnson. They have a head coach who has transitioned from green rookie to grizzled Big Ten vet in a quick five years. And the injury to Robbie Hummel has opened the door for younger players to develop — eight Boilermakers are averaging over 17 minutes per game. Keep an eye on Michigan State, however, as the improbable comeback against Wisconsin this week could springboard the Spartans into another great Big Ten season.
Nathan: I will go down with the Michigan State ship as long as Tom Izzo is its captain. The 64–61 overtime win over Wisconsin was a good bounce-back following a 66–62 loss at Penn State. Other than being haunted by the ghost of JoePa, Sparty has respectable defeats to UConn, Duke, Syracuse and Texas. But Izzo’s club has NCAA Tournament experience, an inside-out game and toughness. When it comes time to dance in March, Izzo’s team may even outlast Ohio State.
4. Who is your favorite college hoops color commentator.
Mitch: Before this season, I would have said Jay Bilas, but I want to throw Dan Dakich into the mix. The former head coach at Bowling Green and interim coach at Indiana has been terrific on ESPN’s Big Ten telecasts. He knows that league so well, and he does a great job explaining the Xs and Os.
Braden: Jay Bilas is the best in the business. He delivers original, timely commentary no matter the situation. There are no clichés or over-the-top antics. He states his case succinctly and with eloquence — like the lawyer that he is. If you want the antics or clichés, there is none better than Bill Raftery. Onions!
Nathan: CBS and Big Ten Network play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson is more “colorful” than any color commentator in the business. I think he could call a game by himself. But if I have to go with a former coach or player — (and who’s to say Gus doesn’t “rise and fire” a “big time J” or “get buckets” in an “unbelievable” style worthy of an “ohhhhh” reaction?) — I’ll still cop out. Give me former color man and current Saint Louis Billikens coach Rick Majerus — or if I really can hand-pick who has the microphone, NBA legend Hubie Brown. Both are basketball brainiacs who have seen it all and provide insightful observations and legitimate strategic suggestions.
5. Name a player who isn’t well known that has impressed you over the pat few weeks.
Mitch: I’m going to go back to Purdue and talk about guard Ryne Smith. Smith scored in double-figures just once during nonconference play (11 points vs. Austin Peay) but scored 13 or more in each of the Boilermakers’ first four Big Ten games. In last Sunday’s 75–52 win over Iowa, Smith scored 18 points and added three assists and three rebounds. He struggled last night against Minnesota (three points in 25 minutes), but Smith has emerged as another threat on a very good Purdue club.
Braden: His play has not necessary translated into big wins just yet, but Michigan’s Darius Morris has been outstanding. He is leading the Big Ten in assists at 7.3 — which is good for fourth nationally. He is also leading the Maize and Blue in scoring at 15.4 points per game and does an excellent job on the glass for a point guard (3.5 boards per game). Once he learns to cut back on the turnovers (3.6 per game in conference play), Morris will take his place among the league’s best.
Nathan: If you don’t already know about South Carolina freshman point guard Bruce Ellington, that won’t be the case for much longer. The state championship winning quarterback — who was a Mr. Football finalist also-ran to current Gamecock running back Marcus Lattimore — has been hot and cold; but when he’s hot he’s nearly unstoppable. In his first season as a basketball-only athlete, Ellington has shown flashes of Devan Downey potential. The sky is the limit for Ellington, who scored 22 points (hitting 6-of-10 from three) with seven boards, four assists and two steals during an 83–75 come-from-behind overtime win over Vanderbilt last Saturday.