|Pitt guard Tray Woodall is healthy, and he's a big reason why the Panthers are so improved. (US Presswire)|
NASSAU, Bahamas -- I know exactly what you're thinking after seeing this dateline. Goodman in the Bahamas for a basketball tournament? You've got to be kidding. Well, I'm here on a business trip. At least that's my company line, anyway. The field for the Battle 4 Atlantis is loaded, maybe as stacked as any since they have become watered down.
Pittsburgh back to old
The only programs that have gone to more Sweet 16's than Pittsburgh over the past 11 years are Duke, Kansas, UConn, Michigan State, Kentucky and North Carolina. Jamie Dixon's program has won 78 percent of its games over that span, 69 percent in Big East play and a half-dozen league titles.
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But the Panthers have managed to find themselves off the national grid, primarily due to a down year last season in which they still managed to win 22 games.
It's time to start taking Pittsburgh seriously again.
Dixon has gone from playing without a point guard to now having a pair. Travon Woodall was a non-factor virtually all of last season with numerous injuries. Now Woodall is healthy and he's joined by a freshman, James Robinson, in the starting lineup.
There are a plethora of quality big men -- from highly touted freshman Steven Adams to the suddenly emerging Talib Zanna to veteran Dante Taylor. Dixon, in fact, has enough quality size up front that he decided to redshirt another talented big man in Malcolm Gilbert -- who could get quality minutes for about 275 other D-1 teams. Dixon also has options on the wing. There are holdovers Lamar Patterson and J.J. Moore and transfer Trey Zeigler.
The lone reason the Panthers weren't ranked in the preseason was due to last year's disappointing performance. We have short memories.
Dixon's team won its first four games. Included was a resounding win over C.J. McCollum and Lehigh and an overtime victory against Oakland. But no one was buying the Panthers. Not until Wednesday night when Dixon shuttled 11 players in and out of the lineup and found himself in a one-possession game against No. 4 Michigan with 30 seconds remaining.
Pittsburgh went toe-to-toe with a team that may be as talented and skilled offensively as any in the entire country -- and did it on a neutral court.
This just has that look and feel of a typical Pittsburgh team. Underrated guys with chips on their shoulders who look and play like grown men.
It's going to take some time for the Big New Zealander. Adams arrived in the United States midway through last season and while he is physically gifted, exceptionally coachable and plays with a high-motor, he appears overwhelmed at times. He struggled mightily against Michigan, failing to score a point and grabbing just a single rebound in eight minutes. Robinson is a contrast to his fellow frosh. Poised, effective and reliable. He was on the floor for more than 30 minutes, took care of the ball and found his teammates for easy shots.
Patterson is the key because this team needs a potent wing scorer to go along with its two-headed point guard monster and its cast of big bodies.
Usually, I'd be reluctant to give a coach who has back-to-back-to-back Final Four appearances any advice, but I'm confident in this one.
Ben Howland needs to alter his defensive approach and play primarily zone this season. Howland has always been a man-to-man guy, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that his current personnel would have difficulty keeping Ivy League teams from getting to the basket while playing straight-up, man-to-man defense. The Wear Twins are limited, Josh Smith remains large, freshman Kyle Anderson is unathletic and both Larry Drew III and Shabazz Muhammad are average defensively.
Howland's Bruins couldn't guard Georgia in the first half of Tuesday night's game, and then Howland switched it up, went zone and UCLA came back and escaped with the victory.
Look for teams to go right at freshman Kyle Anderson, who is playing forward. Georgia's coach made no secret that he was going to pick on the slow-footed Anderson, who simply cannot defend opposing post forwards from a physicality standpoint.
This UCLA team is almost the polar opposite of the team's he coached to the final weekend in three consecutive seasons. Back then, he did it with mostly tough, hard-nosed, athletic under-recruited guys -- whether it was Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison, Alfred Aboya, Luc Mbah A Moute. Sure, there were exceptions such as Kevin Love, but for the most part he has excelled at Pittsburgh and UCLA with guys who are committed on the defensive end.
It's almost as if someone else recruited this group without Howland's input. UCLA will improve this season with so many new faces playing critical roles, but count me skeptical whether this team can live up to the preseason hype. It's almost like trying to put a round peg in a square hole.
Never a tad early
Find me a team that has three more impressive wins than Colorado. It's highly unlikely.
The Buffaloes have taken care of Baylor, Murray State and Dayton thus far -- and they've done it with arguably the most underrated coach in America in Tad Boyle and a bunch of under-the-radar guys.
Andre Roberson is considered the star of this team, one of the nation's most reliable and relentless rebounders. But he's just been OK thus far, Boyle told CBSSports. It's been sophomore guards Askia Booker (17.8 ppg) and Spencer Dinwiddie (12.5 ppg, 5.0), along with talented freshman big man Josh Scott (12.3 ppg, 5 rpg) who have led the way on the offensive end en route to a 4-0 start.
Dinwiddie was given the task of checking Baylor's Pierre Jackson, Murray State's Isaiah Canaan and Dayton's Kevin Dillard -- three of the best guards in the nation. The trio's numbers: 15 of 42 from the field, 4 of 20 from beyond the arc and 14.3 points per game. Canaan had 21 on 19 shots, Jackson was held to a dozen and Dillard finished with 10 points.
Boyle was concerned heading into the Charleston Classic.
"I was honestly hoping we didn't go 0-3," Boyle said.
He gave some of the credit to the European trip the Buffs took this past summer. Colorado has been effective on the defensive end -- and this early, if you can guard, you've got a chance. He also makes no secret of the fact that he's got more talent than people realize.
"Absolutely," Boyle said. "We've got four guys who can score and are high-level players. We've got Xavier Johnson, a Top 100 player, coming off the bench."
Weber, K-State fortunate to avoid rebuilding
Will Spradling was gone. Angel Rodriguez was also on the verge of leaving.
"They weren't alone," Kansas State coach Bruce Weber told CBSSports.com following the team's win over Delaware on Wednesday night. "It could have been a mass exodus."
Spradling wasn't going to play another day under former coach Frank Martin. Rodriguez and several of his teammates weren't planning on playing for anyone else at K-State except for Martin. The Wildcats could have easily been rebuilding this season. Instead, they are a team that could make noise in the Big 12.
Weber raves about the toughness of this group, but he understands that it'll take time for many of the players to become acclimated to a completely new system and also a coach who couldn't be more different than the previous one. It went as far as the players called the old coach by his first name. They call the new guy "Coach."
"It couldn't be more different," Rodriguez said.
Spradling has made the most seamless transition, but Rodriguez is also ecstatic he stuck around and gave Weber a chance. They talk about the freedom given in Weber's motion offense. The one player who has struggled early is Rodney McGruder, and Weber feels terrible watching McGruder's shooting woes because he's a relentless worker. However, McGruder got out of the gates slow a year ago. He was shooting just 39 percent from the field, 20 percent from beyond the arc through the first eight games last season.
"We have nice pieces. We just have to put the puzzle together," Weber said. "If we get better offensively and get Rodney going, I think we can be a pretty good team."
Double dribbles: Lorenzo Romar has had a run in which he's always had a stud player, but this year that's not the case and it'll likely result in U-Dub finishing somewhere in the middle of the Pac-12. C.J. Wilcox is a nice player, but he's not a star. Abdul Gaddy has improved, but he'll never be the player who was, at one time, ranked as the nation's top point guard. ... I called Danny Hurley the best offseason coaching move, and while the URI Rams weren't able to pull the upset over Ohio State or Seton Hall, it's apparent that athletic director Thorr Bjorn hit the jackpot with the hire. Once Hurley gets some talent into the program, the Rams will be fighting for A-10 titles. ... Pat Skerry's Towson Tigers won just a single game last season. They already have three and we haven't even flipped the calendar to December. Seven of his top nine guys are newcomers -- and Georgetown transfer Jerrelle Benimon has been terrific through the 3-2 start, averaging 16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds. Skerry joked that Benimon is the team's go-to guy after having a no-to player last season. "Our guys are playing really hard," Skerry said. "They're buying into guarding and rebounding." ... I painfully regret leaving Michigan freshman Nik Stauskas off my preseason list of Top 50 shooters. He doesn't just belong on the list; he belongs high up on it.