Some weekly thoughts, from watching and reading and generally spending too much time following college basketball:
- CBS’s Jon Rothstein beat us to mentioning him today in his Observations column, but we’ll add on: Dylan Ennis has been a real difference-maker for Villanova. The junior averaged just 5.1 points per game last year but this year has stepped up his scoring, averaging nearly 13 points per game, including 18 Tuesday night in the Wildcats’ win over Illinois in the Jimmy V Classic. As if Nova’s offense needed another perimeter threat, it now has one as Ennis is shooting 46% from three (20 of 43) and has almost already matched his entire season total of 25 triples made last year. He helped keep the Wildcats going early this season in tougher-than-expected wins over Lehigh and Bucknell when the rest of the team was struggling from deep, and Ennis is now the leading scorer as Villanova has seven players averaging between 7.4 and 12.9 points per game.
- Wyoming got off to a 7-0 start, but after seeing the Cowboys lose 66-53 at SMU, this is still a team that is offensively challenged. (Which begs the question: when Wyoming and San Diego State meet in Mountain West play, does either team break 40?) It also needs Larry Nance, Jr., to come up big in big games, but Larry Brown’s Mustangs shut down Nance in all facets (three points, three rebounds), and the offense went stagnant down the stretch while SMU’s Nic Moore took over in time to put the Ponies on a 30-11 run to end the game. Nance is the team’s only double figure scorer, so while this is a defense-first team, the Cowboys are going to need offensive contributions from all to pick up the marquee wins necessary for an NCAA bid.
On the plus side, high praise for Coach Larry Shyatt eschewing the ‘Whose Suit is Fancier’ game and sporting the sweater look on the sidelines. And to do so in Wyoming gold…bold move. Love it.
- Wyoming plays California on Wednesday. The Golden Bears are not pretty under Cuonzo Martin, but so far they’ve been effective and have toughed out some good wins. Tyrone Wallace has developed into a go-to scorer, while David Kravish holds down the inside almost by himself. Three straight narrow wins over Fresno State, Montana and Nevada make one skeptical of this team, but the Bears also have beaten Syracuse-a win that could go a long way in March-and have three wins away from home. Upcoming games against Eastern Washington and Wisconsin should also be intriguing before Cal hits the Pac-12 schedule.
- Another Pac-12 team that has made early noise is Washington. The Huskies are 7-0 and deservingly into the national rankings after a win over San Diego State on Sunday. Watching a couple of the Huskies’ games, this is a solid team and maybe will make the NCAA Tournament, but in no way should be ranked 17th right now as the polls say. Washington has a nice backcourt with Andrew Andrews (yes, real name) and Nigel Williams-Goss, and a difference-making shot blocker with Robert Upshaw. The Huskies also have gotten hot from three-point range at times, but also could have several losses already. Long Beach State had Washington down nine midway through the second half of the Wooden Legacy semifinal, and in the finals UTEP led by four with just over three minutes left. Credit Lorenzo Romar to switching to a zone defense that baffled both opponents in those games, and wins over Long Beach and UTEP are nothing to sneeze at, but the Huskies will need more consistent performance from Upshaw and Shawn Kemp, Jr., in order to keep up their early play.
- Referring to zones, Seth Davis hit on it in his Hoop Thoughts this week for Sports Illustrated that more and more teams are playing zone, and have noticed this ourselves in watching a large cross section of games. Another thing have noticed is that more and more teams have slipped in some flex offense into their attacks. Good move. The flex-popularized in the 1970s by former Santa Clara coach Carroll Williams-is a simple patterned offense, but it keeps players moving (often close to the basket), keeps defenses on their toes, and when run through enough seems to eventually generate a good look more than not. Few are the teams that use it regularly, but more and more are throwing it in a couple times a game, and just from the eye, it seems to have been effective more than not.
- Make no mistake-South Carolina-Upstate’s win at Georgia Tech on Saturday was a surprise, but not a shock. Just happened to be watching a replay on Friday last week of Upstate’s win earlier that week over North Carolina A&T, and coach Eddie Payne has a really nice team. Ty Greene and Fred Miller are excellent players, and the team has complementing parts that work well together. The Spartans don’t have a lot of size, like many teams at their level, but they play a 2-3 zone that, sure enough, gave the Yellow Jackets fits. The Atlantic Sun seems to always be growing a new quality program out of nowhere, and while Florida Gulf Coast is the brand name in that conference, USC-Upstate certainly looks equipped to give the Eagles a run this year.
- In Wisconsin-Green Bay’s win over Miami, the very athletic Phoenix out-rebounded the Hurricanes 46-37 and, perhaps most impressive of all, it didn’t even take a huge game from Keifer Sykes to get this win. Sykes had 18, but seven of those came at the free throw line in the last 1:30. Sykes was just 5-for-15 from the field, but Carrington Love was the star with a career-high 20. UWGB hasn’t completely replaced the unique inside/outside game of seven-footer Alec Brown yet, but if more players can take scoring load off of Sykes, then look out.
As for the Hurricanes, it’s a team has been highly fortified by the three-pointer in its red-hot start. Saturday, that swung the other way, as Miami was just 5 of 20 from deep. Credit some of that to Green Bay having more length than many know, but there are also times when the shots just aren’t falling. When they aren’t, teams like Miami can look ordinary in a hurry. It’s likely the Hurricanes will have to develop their inside game as this season goes on.
- Evansville is off to a 7-1 start with an improved offense early in the season. Coach Marty Simmons’ motion offense has always gotten the Purple Aces a lot of good looks, and this year they’re knocking them down, shooting 53.8% through eight games. Unlike the past couple years when the offense has been dominated by primarily Colt Ryan and, last year, D.J. Balentine, this year’s team has several players who can score. Balentine continues to get better and better and is averaging 20.5 points through seven games, but Egidiju Mockevicius has also improved and is staying out of foul trouble, averaging 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Evansville also is getting a lift out of Mislav Brzoja, who is averaging 9.5 points off the bench. So far, the Aces are getting nearly 30 points per game from their bench, a good sign. This may be Simmons’ best team, and with a number of Missouri Valley teams building/rebuilding, there is opportunity for Evansville to get to 20 wins and contend for at least an NIT bid.
- Mississippi has had some blips and some very nice wins; now it’s time to develop some consistency. The Rebels are 6-2 with wins now over Creighton, Cincinnati and Oregon, the first two at a neutral site and the third on the road. Ole Miss jumped on Oregon and defeated the Ducks despite getting just one point from leading scorer Jarvis Summers. Small (5-foot-10) point guard Stefan Moody was terrific with 22 points, and impressive was how the Rebels basically beat the Quack Attack at their own up-tempo game. Mississippi has home losses to Charleston Southern and TCU, but at the very least it looks ready to out-perform expectations, and perhaps grab an NCAA tourney bid if it can rise from a pack of similar teams (see: Alabama, LSU, Georgia, etc.) in the SEC.
- Don’t care how much the talking heads try to say otherwise; no team is playing a non-conference schedule tougher than Long Beach State. The 49ers have already gone to BYU, Xavier, UCLA and Stephen F. Austin-four NCAA Tournament teams last year. They’ve hosted Kansas State-another NCAA team-and took on Washington and Xavier again in the Wooden Legacy tourney. And that was the easy part. Coming up: at San Diego State, at Texas, at St. John’s, at Syracuse, at Louisville. That makes ten non-conference games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year, and just one of them at home. No Pac-12/Big West Challenge, no made-for-TV neutral site games here. Then there’s a breather against Division II Fresno Pacific before Big West play opens on the road at defending league champion and preseason favorite UC Irvine, followed by surprising 7-1 UC Davis. Dan Monson deserves a load of credit for taking on all comers in non-conference games, his players deserve credit for playing them (remember-these guys are still trying to keep up with classes, though most of this upcoming schedule at least is taking place over LBSU’s winter break), and the 49ers have weathered the early part well, sitting at 5-5 heading into the game at San Diego State tonight.
- Jay Bilas mentions the subject a lot, but he’s right about it: there are too many charges in college basketball, and for some reason referees like to call charges. Don’t understand it, why officials seem to want to penalize offense in this sport, but it seems true at almost all levels. Understand: some charges deserve to be called because of how recklessly players now attack the basket at almost all times, when they should be perfecting a pull-up game. But there are still too many charges called that really aren’t.
- The term “Euro step” clearly has reached the status of hip phraseology, the term everybody is using on basketball broadcasts as if they just learned it. It’s just a step-through move. That’s all. Don’t have any problem with European basketball (though it doesn’t say much for the game in America when the game created here is considered here to be played better in other countries). But would be perfectly fine if this term ended up in a bin with other overused terms like “skill set” (just ‘skill’ or ‘skills’ is fine) and “dribble drive” (doesn’t one have to dribble when they drive with a basketball?).
- Have already seen a fair amount of references to power ratings early this season in declaring if a team had a bad or (sometimes) good loss or win. (Example: New Jersey Tech, ranked No. 293 in the Pomeroy ratings, defeated Michigan). Too early. Power ratings really don’t have any value until at least the middle of the season. If NJIT ends up ranked, say, 175 in the Pomeroy ratings or RPI at the end of the season, then saying Michigan lost to No. 293 is an exaggeration. At this point of the season, it doesn’t pay to overreact too much to wins or losses. While obviously NJIT winning at Michigan is a huge, huge deal with historical significance, we could find out later on that, within this season, it just doesn’t mean as much as we thought it did. So no reason to cite the ratings just yet.