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Athlon Editors Discuss 5 Burning College Hoops Questions.
1. Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor has become the poster child for an underrated player. Who is else is getting overlooked nationally?
Mitch Light: Maryland is having a down year, so I don’t think basketball fans are paying enough attention to Jordan Williams. The Terps’ sophomore forward has been a double-double machine, averaging 17.1 points and 11.8 rebounds for Gary Williams’ club. The one knock on Williams is his free throw shooting; he’s at .562 for the season.
Braden Gall: How about the No. 1 player in all of college fantasy basketball? Providence senior wing Marshon Brooks is averaging 24.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and nearly two steals, blocks and assists per game. USC forward Nikola Vucevic (16.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg) and Iowa State guard Diante Garrett (17.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 5.8 apg) are two others that stand out as guys who don't get mentioned too often on the national scene.
Nathan Rush: Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried has gotten more national exposure as the season has gone on, but I’m still not sure the 6’8”, 230-pound senior is getting the publicity he deserves. Faried is averaging 17.3 points (on 63.1 percent shooting), 14.2 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 2.0 blocked shots through 27 games. The Newark, N.J., native has 20 double-doubles and five 20-plus rebound performances. And the 2010 OVC Player of the Year is not just dominating mid-major competition (15.5 ppg and 15.1 rpg in 15 league games); Faried had 20 points and 18 rebounds at Florida and 15 points, 12 rebounds and five steals two nights later at Ohio State earlier this year.
2. Last week, we addressed the most surprising team in the nation. Which team has been the biggest disappointment?
Mitch: Northwestern. This should have been the season the Wildcats (14–10, 4–9) finally made the NCAA Tournament. But it won’t happen — barring a Big Ten Tournament title. John Shurna’s bum ankle hasn’t helped the Cats, but this team has had far too many no-shows during the Big Ten season — the 88–63 loss at Illinois, the 78–46 loss at home to Wisconsin and Sunday’s 65–41 loss at Penn State.
Braden: It’s hard not to pick Athlon Sports’ preseason No. 3 team in the nation — a team that now sits at 14–10 overall. I realize that some key losses this season have killed Tom Izzo and the Spartans, and certainly Izzo has earned an off year every now and then, but there is no excuse for how Michigan State has played.
Nathan: The most disappointed fans in the land have to come from Kentucky. After “John Wall Dance”-ing as a national title contender with five first-round picks in John Calipari’s first season, the Big Blue tidal wave has come crashing down. Without 6’11”, 260-pound “Undertaker” Enes Kanter — who the NCAA ruled ineligible — the Wildcats (17–7 overall, 5–5 SEC) lack the size and depth to contend for the SEC crown. And if last year’s loaded UK squad could only advance to the Elite Eight, this season’s thin lineup — led by a stellar (but overworked) trio of freshmen in Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb — may have trouble getting to the Sweet 16. But there’s hope; Coach Cal has four McDonald’s All-Americans on their way to Lexington. If Jones, Knight and Lamb come back, the Cats’ quest for an eighth national title banner will be back on.
3. Which team needs to get its act together the most over the next two weeks?
Mitch: I’ll go with Georgia. The Dawgs, 17–7 overall and 6–4 in the SEC, are in most mock brackets this week, but their spot is far from secure. They let a big opportunity slip away last week with a loss at home to Xavier before rebounding to win at South Carolina on Saturday. They begin a huge stretch this Wednesday when Vanderbilt comes to town. After that, it’s road games at Tennessee and Florida. Mark Fox will feel a lot better about his team if the Dawgs can somehow win two of the next three.
Braden: I have been in the minority when I have said that John Calipari's teams have been overrated when it comes to tournament success. Even his Memphis team that nearly won the national title had serious flaws (and an ineligible player). Last year’s Wildcat team was bigger, more athletic and better than almost every team in the nation at the two most important positions — point guard and center — yet still didn’t reach the Final Four. This season, the Cats have lost five games in conference play already. Home games against Mississippi State, South Carolina and a road trip to Arkansas should have this team right back near the top of the SEC East. However, Kentucky fans only care about national titles, and there is no way this team — playing this way — will make any sort of run in March.
Nathan: Tennessee and Michigan State need to get it together over the next two weeks if either hopes to hear its name called on Selection Sunday. The Volunteers are the ultimate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — or is it Tony Jones and Bruce Pearl? UT has knocked off Pitt, Villanova, Vanderbilt and Memphis. But three straight losses — to Alabama, at Kentucky and at Florida — coupled with ugly early-season defeats to Oakland, Charlotte and College of Charleston have the Big Orange on the bubble for the Big Dance. Meanwhile, the Spartans have a 4–6 record — with three of those four wins coming in overtime — over their last 10 games. Tom Izzo’s run of 13 straight NCAA berths is over if MSU doesn’t get hot in a hurry.
4. Who is the best team in the country?
Mitch: I think Texas is the best team right now, even though I have Ohio State ranked No. 1 in the Athlon Sports top 25. Ohio State was No. 1 last week and lost at Wisconsin, one of the most difficult venues in the nation. Texas has three losses, but at this point of the season, you can make a very sound argument that the Horns are the best team. They are 10–0 in the Big 12, and none of the 10 games has been closer than nine points.
Braden: I was going to say Kansas, but a lackluster first half against Kansas State did them in on Monday night. Pitt is playing about as well as anyone. Ohio State only has one loss, and Texas can beat anyone. But until someone beats the champs, I will go with Duke. No one has ever led the ACC in scoring and assists in the same year, and Nolan Smith has a good chance to do it this year.
Nathan: The Duke Blue Devils are the undisputed heavyweight champions of college basketball and are the best team in the country until they are knocked out. The Dukies have it all, with a four-time title-winning coach in Mike Krzyzewski, senior leadership in point guard Nolan Smith and forward Kyle Singler, size down low in the Plumlee brothers (6’10”, 245-pound Miles and 6’10”, 230-pound Mason) and Ryan Kelly (6’11”, 235), and deadeye outside shooting in Seth Curry (41-of-96 from 3) and Andre Dawkins (48-of-112 from 3). Oh yeah, and there is a slim chance that Duke’s best player — freshman point guard Kyrie Irving (17.4 ppg, 5.1 apg) — may return in time to test his toe out in the Big Dance. No other team even comes close to the Blue Devils’ championship experience, balance and potential — they’re clearly No. 1 in my book.
5. Which game are you most looking forward to this weekend?
Mitch: Ohio State at Purdue. Both teams have tough mid-week tests — Ohio State hosts Michigan State and Purdue hosts Wisconsin — so I will be interested to see what frame of mind both of these teams are in. I expect Ohio State, coming off the loss at Wisconsin, to be refocused and ready to make a run at the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Purdue was embarrassed when these team met in Columbus in late January. You can be sure that Matt Painter will have his team ready to play.
Braden: Ohio State at Purdue on Sunday afternoon. If the Buckeyes win on the road, they likely have the Big Ten regular season title wrapped up. If Purdue wins, the race is wide open — especially with a win over Wisconsin at home on Wednesday. A special shout out to the UConn-Louisville game on Friday night: Thanks for giving this hoops dork something to do on a Friday night.
Nathan: Washington at Arizona is an intriguing matchup between two of the top three teams in the Pac-10. The Huskies crushed the Wildcats, 85–68, three weeks ago — thanks in large part to Isaiah Thomas’ 22 points, 10 assists, six rebounds and one turnover. Since then, however, UW has slumped, losing three straight — at Washington State (87–80), at Oregon State (68–56) and at Oregon (81–76). Meanwhile, Arizona is undefeated since the Jan. 20 loss in Seattle. Derrick Williams (19.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and Co. will be out for revenge in Tucson on Saturday, but there’s a reason the Dogs beat the Cats by 17 not so long ago. The rematch will be telling for both teams.