Jared Sullinger and the Buckeyes are one of several teams without a loss.
By Ken Davis
Hard to believe, but it’s time to begin conference play. At the start of today, we have eight undefeated teams remaining. That’s impressive. Here’s a quick look at the teams that have achieved perfection to this point – and when we think their luck might run out.
Impressive victories: Wichita State, 83-79; Michigan State, 70-67, Kentucky, 84-67.
Comment: The Maui Invitational seems like a long time ago now. It was definitely a wake-up call, one that sent the Huskies soaring into the top 10 and higher. Kemba Walker has established himself as the leader for National Player of the Year honors. Coach Jim Calhoun has found the proper touch with this young team. The lack of experience in the Big East is still a concern, as is depth and production from the front line. There are struggles ahead, but the Huskies are not the 10th-place team in the Big East everyone thought they were in October. They will contend. Too bad the game against Pitt comes so early.
Projected first loss: Dec. 27 at Pittsburgh
Impressive victories: Dayton, 68-34; Oklahoma, 66-56.
Comment: It’s a stretch to say those two wins were impressive. Dayton is 10-3 and the Bearcats won big. Oklahoma is a big-time program from the Big 12, but the Sooners (6-6) are way, way down this season. The truth is the Bearcats have played one of the worst schedules in the country. Give Cincinnati credit for taking care of business and remaining undefeated to this point. But the chili won’t stay hot for the Bearcats much longer.
Projected first loss: Jan. 6 vs. Xavier. (If not then, certainly Jan 9 at Villanova).
Impressive victories: Florida, 57-54; Miami 84-78
Comment: When you think of Conference-USA, you obviously think of Memphis. But it UCF that is crawling into the national consciousness — and the rankings — with some surprising victories and a kid named M. Jordan. That’s Marcus. (Former) Memphis Commercial-Appeal columnist Dan Wolken tweeted earlier this month that “if UCF ends up 9-7 in the league I won’t be surprised. That’s not a great roster.” We will see, won’t we?
Projected first loss: Jan. 15 at Southern Miss.
Impressive victories: Michigan State, 72-58; Drexel, 93-65.
Comment: The Orange has taken care of business, despite the fact coach Jim Boeheim still isn’t pleased with the offensive execution of his players. Syracuse always plays tough defense and Big East teams have to adjust to Boeheim’s zone philosophy. That’s never easy. Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson are the steady performers here. When Boeheim’s freshmen start picking up their offensive production, Syracuse could become a dominant squad in the Big East. This could be a very dangerous team come March.
Projected first loss: Jan. 17 at Pittsburgh.
Impressive victories: Arizona, 87-79; UCLA, 77-76; Memphis, 81-68.
Comment: Coach Bill Self says Josh Selby is ready to start. That must have been a tough decision. The Jayhawks will be a better team with the skilled freshman on the floor. He can play with the ball in his hands or off the ball and that makes the KU backcourt very dangerous. Marcus Morris has to play smart and be a better leader. He didn’t do that at Cal, but the Jayhawks still pulled away and won on the road. The key to the Jayhawks is their continued unselfish play. Kansas doesn’t start Big 12 play until Jan. 12, but the Jayhawks are the best team in their conference again.
Projected first loss: Jan. 17 at Baylor.
Ohio State (12-0)
Impressive victories: Florida, 93-75; Florida State, 58-44, Oakland, 92-63.
Comment: Jared Sullinger has taken the Buckeyes to another level. As long as Sullinger and David Lighty stay healthy, Ohio State will be the team to beat in the Big Ten. Not many thought that would be the case when the season started, but the Buckeyes have been solid and Michigan State has struggled — against a tougher schedule. Tom Izzo’s team cannot be written off and the Big Ten remains strong. But Ohio State looks like a Final Four team right now.
Projected first loss: Jan. 22 at Illinois.
San Diego State (14-0)
Impressive victories: Gonzaga, 79-76; Wichita State 83-69; Cal 77-57.
Comment: Steve Fisher’s team isn’t a huge surprise. There were questions about depth, but not talent. The biggest problem for the Aztecs is timing because the Mountain West is so impressive this season, with BYU, UNLV, New Mexico and Colorado State off to very good starts. There will be nightly dogfights in this conference and multiple bids to the NCAA tournament. The Aztecs are good but they can’t escape the Mountain West undefeated.
Projected first loss: Jan. 26 at BYU.
Impressive victories: Kansas State, 82-68; Michigan State, 84-79; Butler, 82-70.
Comment: The Blue Devils are a better team than last year when they won the national championship. They are more balanced and have more depth. That has shown even more as Duke has rolled along undefeated even after freshman sensation Kyrie Irving was injured. The ACC isn’t as strong as usual. Duke will be challenged, but it’s possible the Blue Devils will remain undefeated deep into the season. A poor shooting night on the road could spell trouble for Coach K’s team. Somebody will catch them. But who?
Projected first loss: Feb. 2 at Maryland
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
The date had been marked on the calendars of NBA scouts for weeks. They came to Odgen, Utah, on Dec. 21 to see Jimmer Fredette of BYU and Damian Lillard of Weber State. Unfortunately, Lillard is injured and out for the season. But Fredette didn’t disappoint. The preseason AP All-American scored 20 of his 28 points in the second half as BYU defeated Weber State 72-66 in a bounce back game after the Cougars lost to UCLA. Fredette followed that up with 25 points in an 89-68 victory over UTEP on Dec. 23. The senior guard hit 18-of-41 shots and was 9-of-20 from 3-point range. He had 1l rebounds and 13 assists to round out his Player of the Week performance.
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
Freshman guard Doron Lamb had a remarkable game against Winthrop, but Kentucky coach John Calipari had to go and embellish the numbers. “It was a big-time game,” Calipari said. “He didn’t miss any shots.” Well, that’s not exactly true. Lamb was 11-of-12 from the field and 7-of-8 from 3-point range, good enough to break Kentucky’s freshman record with 32 points in an 89-52 victory. Jamal Mashburn held the previous record with 31 points on Feb. 3, 1991 against Georgia. Lamb, who was 3-of-3 from the free throw line, accomplished all this in 29 minutes — off the bench.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Monday, Dec. 27
Connecticut at Pittsburgh
Not much time to enjoy the holidays for these two teams with the Big East opener coming two days after Christmas. This has developed into one of great rivalries in the nation. Can UConn’s young frontline stand up to the physical Panthers? We’re about to find out.
Tuesday, Dec. 28
Providence at Syracuse
The Friars are 11-2. Syracuse is 13-0. Fun fact: Providence ranks fifth in the nation in rebounds per game; Syracuse ranks 30th in the same category.
Wednesday, Dec. 29
Georgetown at Notre Dame
Two 11-1 teams that figure to be heavily involved in the Big East race get it going early. The Hoyas have been quietly going about business but nationally rank second in field goal percentage and eighth in assists per game. That’s the sign of a mature team.
Marquette at Vanderbilt
Amid all the bowl games and conference openers, this game might be overlooked. But there’s a lot of potential here. Marquette’s only losses have been to Duke, Gonzaga and rival Wisconsin. Vanderbilt has fallen to West Virginia and Missouri in OT (both by 3-point margins) and beat North Carolina in Puerto Rico.
Thursday, Dec. 30
Temple at Villanova
Philly’s top two teams get together to settle the issue of pride in the Big Five.
Old Dominion at Missouri
Missouri has played a terrific nonconference schedule, but so have the Monarchs. Old Dominion has lost to Georgetown and Delaware but has victories over Clemson, Xavier, Richmond and Dayton.
Friday, Dec. 31
Kentucky at Louisville
Coach Cal vs. Slick Rick … now that’s a New Year’s Eve party.
Minnesota at Michigan State
Who knew the Gophers would enter this game with a better record than the Spartans?
Charleston at Tennessee
The Vols snapped out of that three-game losing streak but somehow it seems Tennessee might be in trouble against the Cougars.
Saturday, Jan. 1
Notre Dame at Syracuse
Another big game comes early in the Big East. Keep an eye on Syracuse senior Rick Jackson, who has been playing terrific ball all season.
West Virginia at Marquette
The Mountaineers have lost twice but that doesn’t mean you can rule West Virginia out of the Big East race.
Sunday, Jan. 2
Rutgers at Villanova
Rutgers is 9-2. Villanova is 10-1. Count on the Big East wars to produce some more separation between these two teams.
Wisconsin at Illinois
Don’t forget about either of these teams when it comes to the Big Ten race. One will get a chance to make an early statement.
THEY SAID IT:
“We’re not about losing here. We’re not about playing hard and coming up close and moral victories. That’s not what we built our program about. We lost, so it wasn’t good enough.” — Kansas State coach Frank Martin after the Wildcats lost to UNLV 63-59 without suspended starters Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly.
“I really can’t tell them anything . . . words can’t explain what’s going to happen. They have to be mentally tough, that’s it, and go through it.” — Connecticut guard Kemba Walker, when asked how he could help prepare his younger teammates for the upcoming Big East regular season.
“We played on our heels. We were 8-1 coming in, and it wasn't like we hadn't been in an atmosphere like that. We just weren't ready to compete. We stargazed a little bit. I told those guys, ‘We ain’t sneaking up on them. Yo, dude, these guys are going to be ready.’” — Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, after a 93-65 loss at Syracuse that dropped the Dragons to 8-2.
“I’m not paying attention to it. We’ve been in many arenas where it’s been crazy with people yelling at you, saying inappropriate things. It’s just part of the game. It’s fun after a while.” — Georgetown guard Chris Wright after Georgetown silenced a Memphis crowd with an 89-69 road victory.
“Instead of panicking, we made plays.” – Missouri coach Mike Anderson, after the Tigers finished the game with a 14-2 run to beat Illinois 75-64 in the Braggin Rights matchup.
“We have to regroup.” — Michigan State guard Durrell Summers, after the Spartans fell to 8-4 overall with a 67-55 home loss to Texas.
When Ben Howland left Pittsburgh for UCLA in 2003, many doubters thought Pitt might fall off college basketball’s main map again. Those people didn’t know much about Howland’s assistant, Jamie Dixon. Last Wednesday, Pitt defeated American 61-46 for the 200th victory under Dixon. He reached that milestone in 255 games, faster than all but 11 coaches in NCAA history. Dixon, always the humble one, said he appreciated the kind words from his players, who presented him with the game ball. “They talked about the hard work and dedication but, of course, I corrected them and told them it was good players that was most important,” Dixon said. American coach Jeff Jones gave a lot more credit to Dixon. “Look at the consistency. That says a lot about the job he’s done,” Jones said “It’s not as if Pitt has the tradition of a Kansas or a Duke, but the last 8-9 seasons, they’re right there.”
Despite losing the Diamond Head Classic championship game to Butler on Christmas Day, the Washington State Cougars must have turned some heads with victories over Mississippi State and Baylor. Coach Ken Bone has a solid team. And even though the Cougars are young, they look ready to take a run at the Pac-10 title. Conference play begins this week and road games against UCLA and USC should tell the Cougars exactly where they are. The only other loss for Washington State came to Kansas State on Dec. 3. If junior guard Klay Thompson (22.3 ppg) played on the East Coast, he’d be a frontrunner for National Player of the Year honors.
It seems highly unlikely now that Seton Hall senior guard Jeremy Hazell will be back in uniform this season. Hazell’s latest setback occurred Christmas night when he was shot and wounded by someone who tried to rob him. Hazell’s season began with a wrist injury in November. He had surgery for that Dec. 2. If not for the injury, Hazell would have been with his team, which lost to Richmond Sunday. A Seton Hall spokesman said Hazell’s injuries from the shooting weren’t considered life threatening. Hazell was away from the team because he had been allowed to spend the holiday with his family. With Hazell, the Pirates had a chance to make serious improvement in the Big East this season. Now first-year coach Kevin Willard has to address the idea of red-shirting Hazell or considering his professional options. It seems the Seton Hall program simply can’t catch a break. There have been reports in the last week that sophomore forward Ferrakohn Hall will transfer out of Willard’s program and head to Memphis.
Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher
(http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken's web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).