Observations: Oregon's backcourt emerges, NC State faces tough test
Here's what caught Jon Rothstein's eye this week and what he'll be watching this weekend.
Check out below for five observations from the past week in college hoops, and five games I'll be watching this weekend.
Five observations from the week ...
1. Oregon has the deepest perimeter in college basketball.
There may be other backcourts that are more efficient, but nobody has more weapons than the Ducks. In the final minutes of a win against BYU last week, Oregon finished the game with a four-guard set that featured Johnathan Loyd, Jason Calliste, Joseph Young, and Damyean Dotson on the floor at the same time with Mike Moser operating as this team's sole front court player. That type of firepower is nearly impossible for an opponent to guard on a regular basis. It will be interesting to see just how explosive this team can be in the Pac-12 once Dominic Artis gets his timing back. The sophomore point guard has played just two games after sitting out the season's first nine contests due to suspension.
2. Creighton is getting better defensively.
The Bluejays are known mostly for what they do on the offensive side of the floor but they're definitely not getting enough credit for the way they're stopping people. In a win over Cal last Sunday, Creighton did a tremendous job getting the Bears to settle for jump shots early in the game and didn't allow Mike Montgomery's team to get into a rhythm offensively. It will be interesting to see if the Bluejays can defend at that same level once they get into Big East play. Two underrated defensive pieces for Creighton? Austin Chatman and Jahenns Manigat. Chatman did a terrific job on Jahii Carson when the Bluejays beat Arizona State on Thanksgiving night and Manigat is the type of "specialist" that will regularly guard the opponent's top perimeter scorer.
3. Boise State's supporting cast is underrated.
This team is much more than just Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic. Burly big man Ryan Watkins is the Broncos' sole low post threat and he's the type of player that can regularly flirt with a double-double if he gets enough touches. Seniors Jeff Elorriaga and Thomas Bropleh are terrific perimeter shooters that can extend the defense, and the real wild card for this team is sophomore Mikey Thompson. Leon Rice told me before the season that he felt one of the keys moving forward for Boise State was finding a third all-conference player to go with Marks and Drmic. Thompson could very well be that guy. The sophomore guard is averaging 9.3 points per game this season and has shown flashes of being a player that could regularly score in double figures.
4. Cullen Neal is starting to emerge for New Mexico.
Pat Riley once said that injury is opportunity that's just what Neal has seized. The freshman point guard has seen his minutes go up drastically since Hugh Greenwood went down with a wrist injury and Neal has responded in a big way. In the Lobos' last two games, the 6-3 Neal is averaging 21.0 points and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 9-13 from three-point range. The kid is a flat out gamer.
5. Boston University has become the flagship program in the Patriot League.
That may sound weird because the Terriers have yet to play a game in the conference, but it's the absolute truth. As soon as Boston University left the America East and joined the Patriot League, it instantly became the conference's best job. Joe Jones has a Top 100 guard in sophomore Maurice Watson Jr. (14.5 ppg) and has the location and pedigree in his current post to regularly attract that level of player on an annual basis. Another thing about this team? They're pretty darn good on the court too. Jones had a standout victory last week at Maryland and also took Harvard to overtime before coming up short. This program is set well for the future as the Terriers have two high-level transfers -- Eric Fanning (Wagner) and Blaise Mbargorba (SMU) -- sitting out this season.
Five games I'll be watching this weekend ...
Two old Big East rival square off at the Carrier Dome in a battle of unbeatens. Villanova has always had success against the Orange under Jay Wright thanks to its ability to use smaller lineups against Syracuse's vintage 2-3 zone. Will that trend continue on Saturday? There's a strong chance. Look for Villanova to use senior James Bell and freshmen Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins in the middle of Syracuse's defense in an effort to get clean looks at the basket. Another story line to watch in this game? Tyler Ennis. The freshman point guard has been absolutely sensational to start the season (12.1 ppg, 5.4 apg) but he'll be tested as he goes against a bevy of talented perimeter defenders highlighted by Tony Chennault and Dylan Ennis.
It doesn't get much better than this. The two defending national champions square off at Rupp Arena in what has recently become college basketball's best rivalry. Rick Pitino has publicly stated that his team really misses Gorgui Dieng defensively and this is the game where the Cardinals' interior defense will be severely tested. Look for Louisville to use a slew of players, including promising freshman Mangok Mathiang and veteran Stephan Van Treese on Kentucky's Julius Randle inside. The defending champs are by far the more experienced team in this game, but the Wildcats need a marquee win after early season losses against Michigan State, North Carolina, and Baylor.
Missouri at NC State, Saturday 8 PM
Are the Wolfpack for real? We'll find out after Saturday. Mark Gottfried's team has won seven straight games since starting the season 2-2 and has had great success since altering its starting lineup. NC State is now using 7-1 big man Jordan Vandenberg up front alongside rugged freshman Lennard Freeman and the combo has given this team a new identity. Missouri meanwhile has one of the elite guards in the SEC in Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson and is one possession away from being undefeated after losing last week to Illinois by a single point. This is a good battle between two teams that should each get better as the season goes along.
Harvard at Fordham, Saturday 4 PM
The Atlantic-10 has had several marquee wins during the early part of the season and Fordham has an opportunity to add another one. The Crimson have won 10 of its first 11 games despite playing most of their schedule without two starters -- Brandyn Curry and Kenyatta Smith -- who have both missed time with injuries. The Rams will pose a threat to Harvard simply because of the uncanny scoring ability of freshman guard Jon Severe, who is averaging 20.1 ppg in his first collegiate season. A big key in this game for Fordham will be the health of sophomore guard Mandell Thomas, who missed the Rams' game against Loyola (IL) on Monday due to a hamstring injury. The 6-2 Thomas is averaging 14.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game this season.
The Bearcats have won three straight after losing back-to-back games against New Mexico and Xavier. Mick Cronin's team isn't always pretty to watch, but they defend at an elite level and are 10-2 after 12 games. Nebraska represents a BCS-level opponent for the Bearcats and a good final test before Cincinnati begins conference play on Jan. 1 at home against SMU. Keep an eye on Bearcats' freshman guard Troy Caupain, who could very well wind up being this team's starting floor general.
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