Every Friday I'll be offering up five items that have grabbed my attention in the college basketball world over the preceding week, as well as telling you about the games -- many of them under-the-radar -- that I'll be paying special attention to in the upcoming weekend's slate. So without further adieu...
Five observations from the week...
1. Alex Poythress has embraced his role for Kentucky.
And I never thought it would be as a "glue guy." Poythress came to Lexington last year as a freshman with the idea of being a primary focal point but now he's starting his sophomore season as a reserve. How good is the Wildcats' recruiting class? It's put Poythress -- one of the best first-year players in America a season ago -- into a situation as a sophomore where he's yet to crack the starting lineup. Still, coming off the bench hasn't slowed down Poythress' motor -- it's actually helped it. The 6-8 forward has brought terrific intangibles to Kentucky's attack and is averaging 8.7 points and 10.7 rebounds through the Wildcats' first three games. Poythress made several key hustle plays during Kentucky's loss to Michigan State in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night and looks to be relishing his role as an energy guy. In a day and age where high-profile recruits want instant gratification, it's refreshing to see someone like Poythress embrace the hand he's been dealt and make the most of it.
2. Herb Sendek's career transformation has hit high gear.
A cerebral and methodical coach during several successful years at NC State, Sendek has reinvented himself in the desert. Thanks to lightning quick point guard Jahii Carson and associate head coach Eric Musselman, Sendek is embracing a faster pace at Arizona State . Through two games, the Sun Devils are averaging 93.0 points and have nearly 10 different players averaging double-figure minutes. Arizona State had multiple practices per day during the preseason with the hope of increasing its conditioning level and also regularly used a 24-second shot clock to help augment the tempo. With Carson and Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall each averaging 18.5 points per game, the Sun Devils have the backcourt play they need to be a major factor in the Pac-12. It will be very interesting to see this team when Michigan State transfer Brandan Kearney is eligible next month.
3. Maryland's Charles Mitchell has a chance to be an all-conference caliber big man.
Whether it's this year in the ACC or in the Big Ten next season and beyond, you aren't going to find many interior rebounders better than Mitchell. Armed with a nose for the ball and terrific timing, the 6-8 big man swallows everything that comes off the glass. Mitchell's teammate Shaquille Cleare came to College Park with more hype out of high school, but right now Mitchell has been the more productive player. Only a sophomore, the burly big man has all the requisites to have a great career at Maryland. Last Friday against UConn at the Barclays Center, Mitchell had 15 points and 11 rebounds in just 23 minutes of action.
4. Xavier is the forgotten team in the Big East.
But it won't be when conference play begins. The Musketeers are vastly improved from last year's team that went 17-14. Xavier has one of the best guards in the country in sophomore Semaj Christon who is now virtually impossible to keep out of the paint with the new rules in college basketball. Redshirt freshman Myles Davis is a strong complement to Christon's penetration ability with his outside shooting, and first-year point guard Brandon Randolph has been mightily impressive early. Strong, steady, and always under control, Randolph gives Chris Mack another guard to take pressure off Christon and fill more of the facilitator role. The Musketeers also have a rarity up front -- two traditional big men in Isaiah Philmore and Western Michigan transfer Matt Stainbrook. In a day and age where most teams are playing smaller lineups focused on skill and spacing, Xavier has two old-school big men that can occupy space in the paint. Stainbrook made major strides last season when he sat out, and had an impressive 12 points and nine rebounds in the Musketeers' win on Tuesday against Tennessee. No one is talking about this team in the Big East -- but they should be.
5. The Atlantic 10 has held its own nationally.
A lot of people including myself wonder how many NCAA Tournament bids the Atlantic 10 will get in March after the losses of Temple, Butler, and Xavier, but if the first week of the season is any indication, this league is still going to be on solid ground. UMass' win over LSU and VCU's dramatic victory at Virginia are the types of things that the Atlantic 10 has to have happen if this conference is to stay nationally relevant. After sending five teams to the field of 68 last year, many wonder if this league will be able to get more than three schools into the bracket this season. As long as teams in the Atlantic 10 can win important non-conference games like UMass and VCU did this week, the league will have a chance. As much as we make evaluations on who qualifies for the NCAA Tournament in late February and early March, the value of wins in the non-conference schedule has increased with the beginning of the American Athletic Conference. That league is now fighting tooth and nail with the Atlantic 10 and the Big East for extra bids, and it adds that much more importance to each non-league game that is played between those conferences in November and December.
Five games I'll be watching this weekend...
Creighton at Saint Joseph's
Will the Bluejays be able to compete with high-level front lines when they get into Big East play? We'll have a pretty good idea after they face the Hawks on Saturday night in Philadelphia. Saint Joseph's has as good of a power forward/center combination as there is in the Atlantic 10 with Halil Kanacevic and Ron Roberts and that duo will test Creighton's interior defense right from the opening tip. Conversely the Hawks will have to deal with the Bluejays' uncanny ability to shoot the basketball and a potential front court duo of Ethan Wragge and Doug McDermott that will extend defenses on each and every possession. This is a terrific early season litmus test for both teams, and a game that both programs could use on their resumes down the road as a win. The wild card in this game for Saint Joseph's? 6-6 freshman DeAndre Bembry. The athletic forward makes a plethora of plays each game that don't show up in the box score and can guard multiple positions on defense. Don't be surprised to see Phil Martelli regularly use Bembry on McDermott.
Stony Brook at Indiana
The Hoosiers eked out a one-point victory on Tuesday night over LIU and it says here the Seawolves will provide another stern test for the defending Big Ten champions. Stony Brook has a veteran back court with seniors Anthony Jackson and Dave Coley as well as a BCS- level big man in Jameel Warney. The 6-8 sophomore is a walking double-double (15.0 points, 11.0 rebounds per game) through three games and will provide a real challenge in the paint for Indiana freshman Noah Vonleh. The Hoosiers are filled with talented pieces but still need time to jell. They'll have their hands full on Sunday with Steve Pikiell's team.
Seton Hall at Mercer
This game is beyond dangerous for the Pirates. Kevin Willard's team needed overtime two years ago to get by the Bears at home and Bob Hoffman's team is far more experienced and potent than they were then. Mercer had a nine-point lead in their opener at Texas before falling by three and returns the core of last season's team that won the Atlantic Sun regular season title. A pair of seniors -- Langston Hall and Daniel Coursey (17.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.5 blocks per game) -- anchor the Bears' attack, one that you'll likely hear about again in early March.
Indiana State at Notre Dame
The Irish have cruised in their first two games of the season but the Sycamores will provide a test. Greg Lansing's team is coming off a one-point loss against Belmont, and should be capable of playing Notre Dame tough on the road. The Sycamores will need a big scoring effort from talented wing Manny Arop to stay close. The Irish, meanwhile, are shooting 50% from three-point range so far this season and have one of the nation's best perimeters in Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant, and Pat Connaughton.
Towson at Villanova
Can Pat Skerry's team knock off a Philadelphia program for the second time in four days after the Tigers beat Temple on Thursday night? It won't be easy. Villanova has a significant edge in the backcourt against Towson, which is 3-0 for the first time since 1972. The Tigers will need a stellar performance from sophomore floor general Jerome Hairston if they're to have a chance to pull the upset against the Wildcats, who look deeper than last season's team that won 20 games and reached the NCAA Tournament. The one thing Towson has going for it in this game? The Tigers may very well have the best player on the floor in fifth-year senior Jerrelle Benimon, who had 32 points and 10 rebounds in Towson's win over Temple.