Random hoop thoughts:
Benjamin Button syndrome: If North Carolina were a pro team, I'd say they looked like they were getting too old. That's how it seemed to me as the Tar Heels were a step behind in chasing the young, energetic Wake Forest team. Maybe the Heels are just tired and will regroup for another run at the national title. Wake, meanwhile, should have Final Four aspirations.
I've got a feeling: I like this South Carolina team, under first-year coach Darrin Horn. They're got a great point guard Devon Downey (who transferred form Cincinnati when Bob Huggins got fired), who might be the most under-rated player in the US. The Gamecocks play way too many home games against easy opponents but they are 12-2 with losses to Charleston and Clemson. The pieces seems to fit together with this team, the frontcourt is undersized but skilled and gritty. I predict they'll surprise a few teams.
Amazing 20 minutes: Hard to imagine a good West Virginia team allowing this to happen but the Mountaineers led Marquette at half 31-29 and ended up losing 75-53. The Fightin' McGuires have something going on.
Let the truth be known: I've held back until now but make no mistake I'm on the VMI bandwagon again. In the off-season, VMI coach Duggar Baucom said he was watching tape of Loyola Marymount's ultimate run-and-gun teams under Paul Westhead so the Keydets will not be slowing down anytime soon. They really don't force the pace issue as much as Loyola did (no one has ever done it as much) but they do play fast as evidenced by their 103-102 over Coastal Carolina. The Keydets are 13-2 overall and 5-0 in the Big South, averaging a nation-leading 96.7 points per game, and have won nine in a row. The Coastal victory has an unusual ending. Coastal's Steven Sexton hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to tie the game but the officials reviewed the shot and ruled he had one foot on the three-point arc, making it a two-pointer and giving the Keydets the win.
Better than dad: I know Gerald Henderson isn't the leading scorer for Duke but it seems to me his game has taken on some new dimensions. He was the key to a really good road win at Florida State Saturday. He played on the same high school team -- Episcopal Academy in suburban Philly -- as North Carolina's Wayne Ellington. They were almost equals but Ellington seemed to have a slight edge as the better player. I think Henderson is better now. Henderson's dad is the Gerald Henderson who played for the Celtics.
Sneaky good: I always take shots at Kentucky and their maniacal coach Billy Gillespie, and the Wildcats are down for their standards, but they're quietly 12-4 after opening SEC play with a win over Vanderbilt.
Sneaky good 2: Former Northeastern coach Ron Everhart has had lots of adversity at Duquesne. First, five players being shot after a campus party; then players bailing out of the program chasing the false idol of the NBA but he's hung tough. Despite that the Dukes are a surprising 11-4.
Proving a point: Earlier this week we said all league play, from the ACC to WCC, is different than non-league play because of rivalry, homecourt advantages and familiarity. Another example: Indiana State, which looks like the worst team in the Missouri Valley, upset league favorite Illinois State 75-70 in overtime Saturday. It proves a point but it's still an awful loss for Illinois State. It just won't be forgiven as much as Duke losing to Virginia but it's not that much different. That's my point.
Peoria was hopping: Bradley basketball is a pretty big deal in Peoria, Ill. but I was surprised by this. A crowd 11,592, the second largest in Bradley history, turned out to see the Braves hand Illinois State its first loss 56-52. The biggest crowd was last season when Bradley played Michigan State. I would have thought the record would have been sent when the great Hersey Hawkins played there in the mid-80s. Bradley is now a sneaky 10-5 too.
The Bears: Saw Cal for the first time Saturday night, flipping the channel between Cal-Washington and the Panthers-Cardinals games. Cal will not overwhelm anyone with its individual talent but first-year coach Mike Montgomery has already had an effect: They play together on offense and tough on defense. They gutted out a triple-overtime win over an improved Washington team. Patrick Christopher, Cal's star guard, has a really unusual looking jumpshot and he loves to fall away as he's shooting it but it works for him. Reminds me of what people used to say about the jump shot of Wali Jones of the 76ers back in the 60s. He looks like he's falling down the stairs when he shoots it. The Bears also profited from a bad foul by a Washington player that gave Cal a three-point play, allowing the game to go into overtime. The Bears are 13-2 and off to the best start since '59-'60 team which won the NCAA Tournament under coach Pete Newell, who passed away in 2008.
Worth noting: Mississippi State has been up and down this season but that was an eye-opening 70-56 win at Arkansas Saturday night. The Hogs had beaten both Texas and Oklahoma in Fayetteville recently.
On the beach: Dan Monson was the original architect of what is now the mid-major monster Gonzaga. It got him a big-time job at Minnesota where things went badly. Heck, the Gophers weren't capable of competing with his old school. He got fired but quickly picked up a job at Long Beach State, which was coming off an NCAA tournament season but lost the entire team. Now in his second season, Monson has the 49ers 4-0 in the Big West and 9-7 overall.
Rock fight: Turned into Utah State-Louisiana Tech because Utah State was 13-1 and I wanted to see how good the Aggies were. Man, talk about bad basketball. The Aggies won 50-37 but it was a struggle for both teams to get an open shot (usually one that was missed). I'll have to see them again and maybe chalk it up to playing on the road. I did briefly check out their win at New Mexico State Saturday and the Aggies looked better. I'm not sure yet.
Surprising results, amazing margins:
Utah 91, LSU 61: Yikes, did the Tigers send the JV? It was only their second loss of the season.
Penn State 67, Purdue 64; The Boilermakers' star forward Robbie Hummel and defensive ace Chris Kramer didn't play but this shows the Nits will be a difficult game for anyone in State College, Pa. On the road is different matter as evidenced by the big loss at Minnesota.
TCU: The Horn Frogs upset UNLV in Fort Worth Saturday night. The Frogs have won four in a row, are 11-5 and 2-0 in the Mountain West under first-year coach Jim Christian, who came to Texas from Kent State.
Harvard: Unlike BC, there was no big-win hangover for the Crimson, who followed up their upset of BC by beating Dartmouth. The Crimson are now 9-6 and have won three in a row.
Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders have won seven in a row and are 5-0 in the Sun Belt.
Northeastern: The Huskies are 5-0 in the CAA and their tough non-conference schedule seems to be making a difference. George Mason comes to Boston Jan. 21.
Oklahoma State: Travis Ford's team is 12-3 have won seven in a row.
Illinois State: The Red Birds opened with 14 straight wins but have lost two close ones in the MVC, to Bradley and Indiana State.
Boston College: The North Carolina victory is practically forgotten after consecutive losses to Harvard and Miami..
BU: Losing at Albany hurt but the Terriers have lost starters Carlos Strong and Tyler Morris to season-ending injuries. A win over hapless New Hampshire doesn't help ease the pain.
Maryland: The Terps lost to Morgan State at home after having won seven in a row.
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers lost badly at Mississippi state 95-67 and then were upset by Florida International.
This week's George Mason (best mid-major): Butler
This week's Final Four: Pittsburgh, Clemson, Oklahoma, Wake Forest
This week's national champion: Pittsburgh.
- Michael Vega
- Mark Blaudschun
- Nancy Marrapese-Burrell