Triple Threat: Why the Big Ten is still ahead of the Big 12
Jon Rothstein takes his weekly look at the players, teams and issues that are trending in college basketball.
What three guys are not getting enough national attention? Which under-the-radar mid-majors are on the way up? Answers to those questions and more in week's edition of the Triple Threat.
Three quick hits
1. What does the Big Ten have that the Big 12 doesn't?
More teams that could potentially get to a Final Four. The Big 12 looks like the best league in America from top to bottom but the Big Ten possesses multiple teams that have a chance to be playing in Dallas during the first week in April. Michigan State and Ohio State showed Tuesday night why they're two of the best teams in the country and Wisconsin remains undefeated. In addition to those three teams, Iowa still looks like it has the requisites to do damage in the NCAA Tournament despite having three losses. The Hawkeyes have experience, depth, and easily could have won the three games they lost against Villanova, Iowa State, and Wisconsin.
2. Fred Hoiberg no longer just has a good team at Iowa State, he has a "program." How did this happen?
It started with transfers but it's been sustained because of Hoiberg. Once the Cyclones' program was able to get enough capable talent to be competitive, "The Mayor" shined. He's led his alma mater to two consecutive NCAA Tournaments and a third one seems more than likely after a 14-0 start this season. Hoiberg gives his players tremendous freedom and regularly allows them to play through their mistakes. You don't see that much in college basketball. Hoiberg has the demeanor and pedigree to be an NBA head coach, but is on his way to building a high-level program at Iowa State.
3. Former Providence recruit Brandon Austin will transfer to Oregon. What does this mean for the Ducks next season?
That they'll have one of the nation's lethal back courts and once again be a major player in the Pac-12. The 6-6 Austin was potentially the Big East Rookie of the Year this season if he didn't get suspended for off-the-court issues. With Austin, Dominic Artis, Joseph Young, and Damyean Dotson, Dana Altman's team will again be awfully difficult to stop on the perimeter.
Three games I'm looking forward to
1. Harvard at UConn (Wednesday, 7:00 PM ET)
Is this the year the Crimson go into Storrs and get a win? It's beyond possible. Harvard has terrific depth and Brandyn Curry finally seems to be hitting his stride after scoring 16 points in the team's last game at Rice. The Huskies lost their first two games in conference play last week to Houston and SMU respectively, and can't afford to suffer a third consecutive defeat. Look for UConn to play desperate in this one and Harvard to play extremely loose. The Crimson have nothing to lose in this game, but boy do they have a lot to gain.
2. Memphis at Louisville (Thursday, 7:00 PM ET)
The Tigers learned first hand on Saturday against Cincinnati what conference play is like outside Conference USA, and they'll get an even more difficult test when they take on the defending national champions at the KFC Yum Center. How Memphis plays on the road in a higher-level league is a major story to keep an eye on moving forward throughout the rest of the season.
3. Arizona at UCLA (Thursday, 9:00 PM ET)
I said when I was in Tucson before the season that one of the keys for Arizona this year was going to be its zone offense and the Wildcats will need that element on Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA is sure to test Arizona's outside shooting, and also will need to play zone to have a chance on the backboards. The Bruins will need strong efforts on the glass from both David and Travis Wear to have a chance to pull the upset.
Three guys not getting enough national attention
1. Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
A reserve during last year's run to the Final Four, VanVleet has officially broken out as a sophomore. The 5-11 point guard is averaging 12.4 points, 5.1 assists, and 3.4 rebounds per game while shooting 47.2 percent from three-point range. In VanVleet's last five games, he's handed out 22 assists while only committing two turnovers. That's ridiculous.
2. Lamar Patterson, Pitt
Hopefully more college kids will understand the value of redshirting after seeing the success Patterson is having as a fifth-year senior. The 6-5 wing looks like one of the better players in the ACC and is averaging 18.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, while shooting 43.5 percent from three-point range. Patterson averaged just 10.0 points per game last season for the Panthers, who are currently 14-1.
3. Maurice Creek, George Washington
How have the Colonials become one of college basketball's biggest surprises this season? The addition of Creek. The former Indiana guard has flourished at the DC school and has been the missing piece for Mike Lonergan's team. The 6-5 Creek is leading George Washington in scoring at 16.0 points per game and has already made 37 three-point shots while shooting 42.5 percent from long range. The Colonials are 12-2 and begin Atlantic 10 play tomorrow night at La Salle.
Three storylines that have come to the forefront
1. The Atlantic 10 could get more teams in the NCAA Tournament than the Big East.
It's hard to believe that statement is being made after the Atlantic 10 lost Butler, Charlotte, Temple, and Xavier after last season but it's the absolute truth. The Big East didn't perform as well as the Atlantic 10 during the non-conference portion of the season and that carries more weight now than past years because there are only 33 at-large bids to the field of 68 after the creation of the American Athletic Conference. The Big East simply hasn't performed up to this point like many thought it would. Providence was seen as a potential NCAA team before the season but lost three key members of its rotation and now has an exceptionally thin roster. That coupled with the early struggles of Marquette and St. John's has left only four teams -- Villanova, Creighton, Xavier, and Georgetown -- standing out from the rest. Meanwhile the Atlantic 10 has five programs -- UMass, Saint Louis, VCU, Dayton, and George Washington -- that have all helped themselves in the first two months of the season. The dynamic between these two leagues will be an interesting thing to following from now until Selection Sunday.
2. John Groce's star continues to rise at Illinois.
I knew Groce could coach when he took Ohio to the Sweet 16 two years ago but he's been better than advertised so far with the Illini. Illinois won a game in the NCAA Tournament last season and is now 13-2 this year with nine completely new players on their roster. Groce has molded a group that's been predominantly role players for the majority of their careers into a hard-working, unselfish unit that shares the ball on every possession and defends like their life depends on every possession. The future is also bright in Champaign. Groce brings in four-star power forward Leron Black next season and also adds two quality transfers in Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) and Darius Paul (Western Michigan). Illinois visits undefeated Wisconsin tonight in Madison.
3. Wichita State looks more and more like this year's Gonzaga.
The Shockers are currently undefeated and may lose a game or two along the way in the Missouri Valley, but just like the Bulldogs last year they're primed to enter the postseason with only a few losses. This team is destined to earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Wichita State doesn't have as many quality wins during the non-conference portion of its schedule as Gonzaga did a year ago, but did win at Saint Louis and Alabama as well as beating Tennessee at home. Based on the Shockers' early body of work and the fact that they're not going to have as many difficult games as teams in BCS leagues, it's seems very likely that Gregg Marshall's team, much like Gonzaga last season, will have a legitimate chance to earn a three seed or above in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs earned a one seed last year but ironically enough lost to Wichita State in the Round of 32.
Three under-the-radar mid-major teams that are on the way up
1. Southern Miss
Conference USA will likely only get one team in the 2014 NCAA Tournament and the Golden Eagles will definitely be in position to claim that bid. Donnie Tyndall has nine legitimate players he can put into a game and a strong core of seniors led by point guard Neil Watson. Southern Miss nearly shocked the world when it took Memphis to double-overtime in last year's Conference USA tournament final before falling short, and it says here they'll be right in the hunt to get back to that same spot this season.
What mid-major team rebounds like the Bobcats? Check that, what team on any level rebounds like the Bobcats? Only one (UAB). Quinnipiac is the second-leading rebounding team in the country and beat reigning MAAC champion Iona 50-27 on the glass in a 12-point win on Monday. Tom Moore has two Atlantic 10 caliber big men in Ike Azotam (16.8 points, 10.7 rebounds per game) and Ousmane Drame (12.6 points, 8.3 rebounds per game) along with a solid junior guard in Zaid Hearst (13.1 points, 8.3 rebounds per game). The MAAC was supposed to be a two-horse race between Manhattan and Iona but Quinnipiac has already proven that won't be the case. The Bobcats host the 11-2 Jaspers on Thursday.
3. Long Beach State
How can a team with a 4-10 record be trending upward? It's real simple. The 49ers are 3-1 since UCLA transfer Tyler Lamb became eligible with their only loss coming last Saturday at Missouri. In four games, the 6-5 Lamb is averaging 20.8 points per game and has made 11 three-point shots. His presence along with that of veteran point guard Mike Caffey and former West Virginia big man Dan Jennings should give Dan Monson a nucleus that will be able to compete with Hawaii, UC Irvine, and UC Santa Barbara in the Big West.
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