A Down Year in the Big East? Not So Fast

Syracuse is one of several teams that could win the league title.

Syracuse is one of several teams that could win the league title.

By Ken Davis

Things get a little slow in college basketball at this time of year. The holidays are upon us and semester exams are wrapping up for most of the “student-athletes” — to borrow a popular term used by the NCAA during March Madness.

So, this seemed like a good time for a little studying and reviewing of our own. What have we learned at this point in the season? We bring you five main topic points. Feel free to discuss or write a short essay answer of your own.

1. The Big East is better than we thought. After so many talented players left for the NBA, it appeared the Big East would not be able to stage the exciting regular season that the conference featured the past couple of seasons. Wrong. Syracuse, Connecticut and Cincinnati remain undefeated. Pittsburgh and Georgetown have shown flashes of Final Four potential and have lost just once. Notre Dame, Louisville and Villanova are in the one-loss category as well. Providence, Rutgers and West Virginia are right behind with only two defeats. DePaul, at 5-6, is the only team below .500. UConn won the Maui Invitational, and no one expected that. Kemba Walker seemed a sure bet to be an All-Big East selection but the UConn point guard wasn’t the preseason pick as Big East Player of the Year. Now everyone seems to be in agreement that Walker is the early leader for National Player of the Year honors. The question ahead is whether Walker and his UConn teammates can maintain their torrid pace.

2. Three teams have separated themselves as legitimate Final Four contenders. That would be Duke, Ohio State and Kansas. Will the fourth come from a group of teams that includes UConn, Syracuse, Kansas State, Tennessee and Pittsburgh? Or is there another Butler out there to surprise us? Freshman forward Jared Sullinger has been the key for Ohio State. Josh Selby debuted with Kansas Saturday and added another dimension to the Jayhawks. Duke is no surprise. But the question ahead is whether Kyrie Irving’s injury will destroy the chemistry for the Blue Devils.

3. Kansas State is not the best team in the Big 12. Too much of the preseason hype was built on the Wildcats of last season. And this year’s edition simply isn’t as good. K-State is 9-2 with losses to Duke and Florida. The Wildcats shot 27 percent from the floor and scored only 44 points against Florida. That has to be a concern for coach Frank Martin. The Wildcats are shooting 54.5 percent from the free throw line — and that will sting them time after time. K-State is strong up front and can control the boards, but that’s not enough to win a conference. The road to the Big 12 title still goes through Lawrence. Kansas, Missouri, Baylor, Texas, and Texas A&M may all be better than K-State right now.

4. San Diego State is the best team on the West Coast. The Aztecs are 10-0 with victories over Gonzaga, Wichita State, and Cal. The Mountain West race with BYU, UNLV and New Mexico should be very interesting. The Aztecs shoot 50.4 percent from the floor (sixth in the nation). If you don’t know sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard yet, you had better study up. He averages 16 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.5 rebounds. He is 6-7 and 225 pounds and he is a double-double machine. He’ll likely be in the NBA next season. But coach Steve Fisher will still be around working his magic. The Aztecs have plenty of scoring options.

5. UCF may be the best team in Florida. The Knights are 10-0 with victories over Florida (57-54) and Miami (84-78). UCF is third in the nation in field goal percentage (51.8) and 26th in points scored (79.9). Keith Clanton leads the Knights in points (16.7) and rebounds (8.8), but fans really come out to see M. Jordan. No, not Michael. It’s Michael’s son, Marcus (16.0 ppg). Keep an eye on the Knights. They could be coming to a Top 25 near you.

Time to break one of our own rules. Under ordinary circumstances, a freshman would not be eligible for POW honors. That’s why we have a Freshman of the Week. But Josh Selby did not make his debut with the Kansas Jayhawks under ordinary circumstances. The anticipation and the hype surrounding Selby was the lead topic of last week’s notebook. After missing the first nine games of the season under NCAA suspension, the 6-2 guard from Baltimore proved he was worth the wait by scoring a game-high 21 points and hitting the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 left. Kansas beat USC 70-68 to extend its home winning streak to 65 games. Only Xavier Henry, with 27 points against Hofstra, ever scored more as a Jayhawk freshman in his first game. Wilt Chamberlain debuted at Kansas with 52 points – but he was a sophomore.

We will stay in the Big 12 and name Cory Joseph as the runner-up to Selby. Joseph, another freshman who has been trying to live up to his hype, hit a turnaround jump shot with 1.4 seconds left Saturday to earn his horns. The Longhorns defeated North Carolina, 78-76, in Greensboro, N.C., thanks to the big basket by Joseph, who had a season-high 21 points as Texas won its third consecutive game. Look for much more to come from the Texas freshman.


Tuesday, Dec. 21
UNLV vs. Kansas State
Lon Kruger was one of coach Jack Hartman’s best players at Kansas State and was Big Eight player of the year in 1973 and 1974. Now Kruger brings his defensive-minded UNLV team into the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., for a homecoming (of sorts) against his alma mater. Should be a good one.

Wednesday, Dec. 22
Texas at Michigan State
Freshman Cory Joseph grew up a whole lot with his clutch jump shot that defeated North Carolina on Saturday. It was a big win for the Longhorns, who now continue their rugged schedule in Sparty Nation. Michigan State will be trying to avoid its fourth loss of the season.

Missouri vs. Illinois
Missouri has won five straight since that OT loss to Georgetown in Kansas City. Now the Tigers travel to St. Louis to take on their rivals from Illinois. The Illini figure to be a bit angry after losing to Illinois-Chicago 57-54 on Saturday.

Kansas at Cal
The Jayhawks are 10-0 and can improve to 4-0 against Pac-10 teams with a win against the Bears. Josh Selby gets to wear the Kansas road uniform for the first time.

Thursday, Dec. 23
Georgetown at Memphis
Georgetown is 10-1 with a loss to Temple. Memphis is 8-1 with a loss to Kansas in the Jimmy V Classic. Hoyas begin Big East play Dec. 29 at Notre Dame.

Sunday, Dec. 26
Richmond at Seton Hall
Seton Hall’s final tune-up before Big East play comes against a Richmond team that just lost to Georgia Tech.


“We did a lot of things to hurt ourselves. We missed a lot of easy shots. Defensively we were getting lost. We didn’t stick to our game plan. Toward the end of the game we fell apart with it.” — Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen, after the Wildcats shot 27 percent and lost to Florida 57-44.

“I still don’t think we’re as good as our ranking. I really don’t, but I think we could get there.” — Villanova coach Jay Wright, after the No. 10 Wildcats defeated Delaware 78-59.

“That’s his prerogative. I coach the game. He has a whistle. If he wants to throw me out of a game, that’s what is in his mind.” —– Kentucky coach John Calipari, after referee Mike Stuart called two quick technical fouls and ejected Calipari with 6:26 left in an 85-60 victory over Mississippi Valley State.

“UCLA was physical and strong. We really didn’t have an answer for their size. That’s as physical as we’ve been guarded with size all year.” – BYU coach Dave Rose, after an 86-79 loss to UCLA

“We’re not scared of anybody. We weren’t intimidated by the No. 7 team in the country because we had just played Michigan State, and we should have won that game. We had just played Illinois, and we could have won that game. I think those are big and can help us.” — Oakland coach Greg Kampe after his team’s 89-82 victory over No. 7 Tennessee.


Weber State has a big game Tuesday against nationally ranked BYU and All-American candidate Jimmer Fredette. But the Wildcats will be without guard Damian Lillard, their leading scorer and the reigning MVP in the Big Sky Conference. Lillard will have season-ending surgery to repair a fracture of the fifth metatarsal of his right foot. The injury was suffered in an overtime loss at Tulsa on Thursday. Lillard will need 10 to 12 weeks to allow the bone to heal after surgery on Dec. 26. Lillard averaged 21.5 points a game and ranked 20th in the nation in scoring.

Like so many rules that end up in the NCAA manual, the one that led to a one-game suspension for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was well intentioned but possibly ill-conceived. It turns out Michigan State employed someone associated with a potential recruit. The person was paid $475 for five days working with middle school students. The NCAA reportedly viewed the incident as secondary and Izzo missed Saturday’s game against Prairie View A&M. Izzo, of course, handled the situation with class, accepted his penalty and moved on. MSU athletic director Mark Hollis said the only way to ensure a violation of the same sort could not happen again was to eliminate summer camps. The sad part is Izzo’s good name getting dragged through the mud. This clearly was an inadvertent act, without connection to agents or runners. A private warning to Izzo and Michigan State would have been enough. The NCAA needs to understand that young players today have a lot of “business” relationships these days. The difference between right and wrong often requires better definition in the rules book. Special attention should be focused on the intent of a rule.

The big question in Lawrence, Kan., last week focused on who would be the odd man out when Josh Selby made his debut. Guard Mario Little might have answered that when he was arrested on charges of battery, criminal damage and criminal trespassing — and then was suspended indefinitely by coach Bill Self. Reportedly, Little was nowhere near Allen Fieldhouse Saturday when the Jayhawks defeated USC. This falls under the category of “stay tuned.”

Who had the worst week? Oregon State, with a 71-66 loss at Montana (Big Sky) and an 87-79 home loss to George Washington? Or Auburn, with a 61-49 loss at South Florida and a 62-59 home loss to Presbyterian (Big South)? That’s a tough one.

Note to John Wooden, the late, great UCLA coach: Your record-breaking win streak is safe with me. Records from the men’s game and records from the women’s game should be kept separate. This has nothing to do with gender bias. It has everything to do with the fact they are different sports that just happen to share the name of basketball. The streak by the UConn women is impressive in its own right, but never, ever should have been compared to anything else.

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/).




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