Dozen (and one) things I learned over a 31-hour span
Five games in 31 hours. It was phenomenal. Duke to Shaw University to NC State in a tripleheader on Saturday. Then it was a double-dip on Sunday in Bloomington and Champaign. Here are a dozen (and one) things I learned on my quick jaunt.
Some thought I was nuts, but there were others who understood. I am fortunate. Extremely lucky. Five games within a 31-hour span in three states. It began at Cameron Indoor Stadium at 1 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, continued with a Division II contest and the tripleheader was capped by NC State basically running North Carolina out of the gym.
Then it was off to Bloomington for a 1 p.m. tip-off on Sunday afternoon between a pair of Top 15 teams -- and full, all-out sprint to my car (I'm pretty certain I clocked a 4.4 40) when the buzzer sounded so I could beat the traffic out of town and get to the "other" Assembly Hall to see Michigan make history with a victory that would elevate its program back to Numero Uno.
It was perfect. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. The craziest part of it all is that I actually get paid for this job (don't tell my boss this, though).
A Dozen (and one) Things I Learned on my weekend jaunt:
1. Trey Burke is the best point guard (it's not even up for debate) in the nation and will be a lottery pick come June. I've got to give my colleague, Gary Parrish, kudos for this one. He wanted to go with Burke over Phil Pressey as a preseason first-team All-American, but I fought for Pressey -- who I still believe is the best distributor in the country. Burke said he's still learning how to balance scoring and getting his teammates involved, which isn't an easy task when you have as many offensive weapons as the Wolverines. No team in America is as much fun to watch as Michigan -- and it starts with Burke. He'll be successful in the NBA because he's a high IQ guy who will excel in pick-and-roll offense, can shoot the ball and is a deceptive athlete. Burke had me at hello. Now I just need him to admit he was virtually gone to the NBA this past offseason and he'll surpass Zack Novak as my favorite Michigan Wolverine.
2. There's a shortage of "Must-See" players in college basketball this season. Indiana's Victor Oladipo has begun to take his game into that category. The athletic wing has become a consistent, relentless defender -- and his offensive game has improved dramatically. He's a self-made kid who plays with emotion, intensity and takes pride in guarding. It's become as much of a lost art as the true point guard in basketball. If guys like Bruce Bowen and Tony Allen can have lengthy careers in the league, Oladipo can do the same.
3. Mason Plumlee just doesn't look like the same player I fell in love with early in the season down in the Bahamas. Don't get me wrong; Plumlee is still plenty productive. The loss of Ryan Kelly plays into it, but it's more than that. Plumlee had this swagger early in the season in which he truly believed he was the best player in the entire country. He needs to regain that, and Kelly has to return, for the Blue Devils to return to a team that is feared come March.
4. Tom Izzo's team has the pieces to make another run come March. I know, I know. Tell us something we don't know, Goodman. Well, I've long said that Adreian Payne is the X-factor for this team -- and he's been a different player for much of the past couple of weeks. Maybe he needs to get in scuffles with his teammates more often. Just as long as he doesn't get into it with former teammates like Pretty Boy Delvon Roe, who has now gone Hollywood. Payne was terrific on Saturday against the Hoosiers, showing the skill-set I've always believed could one day make him a lottery pick (his lack of assertiveness will ultimately hold him back from achieving that goal). If Keith Appling didn't get into foul trouble, I think the Spartans would have pulled off the road win. Izzo's starting unit is pretty good with Appling, freshman Gary Harris, Branden Dawson, Payne and big man Derrick Nix. Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine give Izzo a solid top seven.
5. Saturday was the first time I'd been to Assembly Hall in Bloomington for a so-called big game. I'll admit it. I got goosebumps when I watched the pregame video that featured a young Bobby Knight. Man, I wish I was around to see that 1976 team in person. Anyway, the venue is worthy of a personal Top 5 ranking. My current list is as follows: 1) Allen Fieldhouse (Kansas) 2) Cameron Indoor Stadium (Duke) 3) Assembly Hall (Indiana) 4) Hinkle Fieldhouse (Butler) 5) Tie between Rupp (Kentucky) and the Palestra in Philly. I had a chance to attend games at three of them in the past 10 days -- and there's still no place like Cameron. It doesn't hurt that the media seating is right on the floor (Unless you're Clark Kellogg and get tossed way up in the rafters).
6. I wrote about Cody Zeller after Indiana's win against Michigan State. One of the best kids I've ever come across and a really good college basketball player, but it's difficult to change your stripes at this point in your life. Zeller is too nice. Plain and simple. He was abused by the bigger, stronger and older Derrick Nix for most of the game. I understand he doesn't possess the strength right now to hold his position against Nix, but Zeller needs to get tougher, and its difficult to learn to become tougher. I just don't see it happening. Sometimes you just are what you are. Zeller, again, is a heckuva player. Just not a dominating one.
7. You know North Carolina isn't North Carolina when Jackson Simmons is called upon to try and defend NC State's Richard Howell. I thought the Tar Heels were making progress, but this team is what it is: Mediocre. How about a play-in game in Dayton between the two teams that should have played for the national title a year ago: Kentucky and UNC. It could happen. There's a laundry list of issues in Chapel Hill and I'll have more on this in this space soon. If this were an NBA team, Roy Williams might blow it up. It'll be interesting to see if James Michael McAdoo returns for one more season or leaves after this season. He's still a first-rounder and maybe even a lottery pick. The one guy I really like is freshman forward Brice Johnson. He showed some fight against a veteran NC State frontline -- and will be a major factor next season after he bulks up a bit.
8. This might have been the worst freshman point guard class in the history of college basketball. Certainly since I have been following recruiting -- which is about 15 years or so. Marcus Paige, Yogi Ferrell and Kris Dunn were considered the elite floor leaders. Tyler Lewis was a McDonald's All-American. All are solid, but I'm not sure any are future pros. Scoring is down, efficient offense is hard to come by around the country -- and much of the reason is that quality point guard play is much more difficult to find than it once was.
9. Maryland is a point guard away from being a lock NCAA tournament team. Alex Len is a lock lottery pick and a near-guarantee to bolt after this season for the NBA. He struggles to demand the ball and doesn't possess the willingness to dominate games, but a major aspect to his disappearing act is the lack of someone that can deliver a low-post entry pass. Pe'Shon Howard is a backup and Seth Allen is a two-guard. Throw Phil Pressey or Trey Burke on Maryland -- and Len could be the National Player of the Year. The Ukrainian has an unreal skill set for someone his size. Just imagine how bad this team would have been if Mark Turgeon hadn't added Dez Wells at the 11th hour.
10. Many NC State fans aren't quite sold on Mark Gottfried despite the program's resurgence. I took the temperature of plenty of Wolfpack fans and the majority of who I spoke to agree with former player Thomas De Thaey in that he can recruit, but leaves plenty to be desired as an X's and O's guy. It's interesting watching Gottfried on the sidelines. He doesn't say a whole lot to his players during the game. That's not always a negative, but it's just rare nowadays. NC State is a complete unknown now and nothing will change heading into the NCAA tournament. This is a group that could bow out to someone like Stephen F. Austin in their opening game or make an appearance in Atlanta. I'm still waiting for Lorenzo Brown to consistently play the way he did on Saturday. If he does, then I'd be more apt to trust this group.
11. John Groce has done a tremendous job getting as much as possible with this Illinois team. Bruce Weber didn't leave him much. I've said that the win against Gonzaga in Spokane would likely wind up getting Illinois into the NCAA tournament, but now I'm not quite so sure that -- and the win over Butler in Maui -- will be enough. This is a team that could easily finish with a half-dozen league wins. The Illini are 2-5 in league play thus far and have a brutal four-game slate upcoming: at Michigan State, home against Wisconsin and Indiana, then on the road to Minnesota. They could easily lose all four and be 2-9. For Illinois to get into the Big Dance, it probably needs to win eight in conference play. I just don't see that happening.
12. Division II basketball is entertaining. I caught Shaw University's game against St. Augustine's down in Raleigh in-between the Maryland-Duke and North Carolina-NC State games. There wasn't a seat to be had in the gym, and the crowd was electric. It just goes to remind you that college hoops is relevant beyond the D-1 level. My favorite college basketball player of all-time was a kid named Jim Frew, who starred in high school in Worcester, Mass., and then went onto star at D-3 power Williams College.
12B. My colleague, Gregg Doyel, is in desperate need of a makeover. I ran into him in the Cincinnati airport as he was en route to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. Someone needs to offer their services to Doyel, who believes a skin-tight T-shirt exposing his lack of muscular definition is the proper channel to showcase his manhood.
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