This week, we learned that...
1) Some early-season locks are playing themselves out of the NCAA Tournament
Tennessee began the year ranked 14th in the AP and 13th in the coaches’ poll. They rose to as high as eighth in both polls in mid-December, and looked like a potential contender for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, the Volunteers have lost four of their last seven, after a brick-laden 54-52 defeat to Memphis at home. In fact, three of those four losses have been at home, with the Vols hosting Jodie Meeks’ record-setting night, and Gonzaga's victory snapping a 37-game home winning streak on January 7th. They are 12-6 and tied for fourth in a conference which has one team (Kentucky) ranked in the Top 25. Suddenly, Tennessee’s big wins against Georgetown in the Old Spice Classic in November, and Marquette in December, are looking more and more like old news.
These home losses are significant. After this week, the Volunteers play six of their final ten regular season games on the road. In fact, three of their final five games are away from Knoxville - against Kentucky, Florida, and better-than-expected South Carolina.
Tennessee does have one of the toughest slates in the country at the moment (currently #3 in strength of schedule), which should boost their RPI and bubble chances at season’s end – something Coach Bruce Pearl was keenly aware of when he labeled the Memphis defeat a “resume-building opportunity loss.” But continue to stumble through the rest of a rough schedule the way they have recently, and the Volunteers will be building their resume in the NIT.
After their defeat to Michigan State on Sunday, Ohio State dropped to 3-4 in the Big Ten, tied for seventh with Wisconsin. While the Buckeyes haven’t had any truly bad losses, other than getting trounced at home to West Virginia, they have dropped five of their last nine. Like Tennessee, Ohio State simply cannot rest on early season victories (in their case against Butler and Notre Dame), or a mid-December Top 25 ranking, to get them into the Tournament.
After two games the Buckeyes need to win (against Michigan and Indiana), four of the next seven games will come against ranked conference foes, two of which will be nationally televised on CBS. There is also a crucial road game against Wisconsin (another team now fighting for an at-large berth after dropping their fourth straight Saturday).
With the Big East and ACC alone swallowing up as many as 15 at-large berths, in addition to the emergence of surprise teams like Oklahoma State and Cal, it could mean a long night on Selection Sunday for both Ohio State and Tennessee unless things turn around.
2) Utah State could all but lock up the WAC this week
After a successful road (or overseas) win at Hawaii, Utah State has now quietly won 14 in a row, the second longest in the nation behind St. Mary’s 15 game winning streak. They are 19-1, tied with Oklahoma for most wins so far, and are 7-0 in the WAC.
They haven’t missed a beat from last season, where they won 24 games and earned a share of their first WAC regular season title. The fact that the Aggies are doing this despite losing the conference’s player of the year in Jaycee Carroll to graduation is a testament to Coach Stew Morrill, who will notch his 10th straight 20 win season this year.
Gary Wilkinson, the preseason pick for conference player of the year, is certainly living up to the hype. He is currently tied for third in the conference in scoring, fourth in rebounding, and is in the top five in the WAC in field goal and free throw percentage. Sophomore forward Tai Wesley, who posted a double-double against Hawaii, is shooting over 65% on the season.
Overall, the Aggies lead the WAC in field goal percentage and assists, a testimony to their unselfish play. More importantly, they also lead the WAC in points allowed at 59, nearly five points per game less than the next nearest team, Louisiana Tech.
Utah State will face Nevada at home on Thursday. A win would give them a two and a half game cushion in a conference where only three of the nine teams currently have winning records. The Aggies look like they are about to win their second WAC title in school history, and who knows, may even make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.
3) UConn learned they will get a great player...in 2010
Connecticut got some good news and bad news this week. The good news is that their super-recruit, Ater Majok, who has already enrolled in classes on campus, was cleared to play for the Huskies by the NCAA. The bad news is that it won’t be until the second semester of next season.
The reason is a little more complicated, but helps to put Majok’s extraordinary journey to Storrs, CT in perspective.
Majok is a native of Sudan who at the age of six was sent off to a refugee camp in Egypt, to escape the genocide in his own country. There, he endured horrible conditions and overcrowding. Even though he was only a child, he was attacked more than once, and has a knife wound on his ear to prove it.
But Majok also tried to better himself by learning Arabic and other languages, although not much English. He eventually wound up in Australia at the age of 13 by way of a United Nations asylum program for refugees.
Four years later, Majok’s cousin decided that he would introduce the 6’10’’ soccer player to the game of basketball. Four years after that, he was one of the hottest college basketball recruits in the United States.
He originally committed to Baylor, but decommitted after other schools began to take notice of him. Majok eventually chose UConn in April over the likes of UCLA, Kansas, and Kentucky. He has to wait to play until he successfully completes two full semesters of academic work, according to the recent NCAA ruling, which apparently did not allow much of his coursework in Australia to transfer over. He is, however, allowed to practice, which is already paying dividends in his development as a player.
Majok joins a distinguished group of Huskies who hail from foreign countries, including legendary players such as Emeka Okafor (Nigeria, although born in the US), Ajou Deng (Sudan), current star Hasheem Thabeet (Tanzania), Doron Sheffer (Israel) and Nadav Henefeld (Israel) who still holds a cult-like status in Connecticut despite only playing a single season, the “dream season” of 1990.
Coach Jim Calhoun is thrilled to have Majok despite the fact that NBA scouts are apparently drooling over his potential and work ethic, meaning he might turn pro after only wearing a UConn uniform for a single semester. Still, with the graduation of AJ Price, Jeff Adrien, and Craig Austrie, as well as Thabeet’s likely exit to the NBA, Majok will be more than welcome in Storrs, and will be a lot of fun to watch. Even if it’s only for a short time on the collegiate level.
4) Hoosier fans are already looking forward to football season
The good people of Bloomington, Indiana can be forgiven for being in a bit of a funk lately. It’s been a bitter and cold winter in more ways than one.
Their beloved Hoosiers lost their fifth straight game at Assembly Hall on Sunday to Minnesota. It was also their ninth defeat in a row, and eleventh in their last twelve games. They lost to 7-11 Lipscomb, were crushed by Northeastern, and lost to Penn State at home by double digits. They are off to their worst start (0-6) in conference play in 65 years. Oh, and hated Purdue is ranked in the Top 20.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way of course. Three years ago, Indiana lured Kelvin Sampson away from Oklahoma amid much fanfare and expectations. Now, they are struggling to deal with the repercussions of that fateful decision, and their first major scandal since 1960.
Sampson’s repeated violations of NCAA rules concerning telephone calls to recruits, and then lying about it over the course of its investigation, led to the program being placed on three years’ probation by the NCAA last fall – in addition to the scholarship and recruiting restrictions already self-imposed by the school.
Even after Sampson’s merciful dismissal, new coach Tom Crean immediately found himself having to deal with players on his roster who clearly were recruited by Sampson without much thought to character or academics. Forward DeAndre Thomas was quickly booted from the team, as were starting guards Armon Bassett and Jamarcus Ellis. Freshman center Eli Holman decided to transfer, and Eric Gordon and DJ White were taken in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Just like that, the proud Indiana Hoosiers – who own five national titles, have over 1600 wins and have endured only a single losing season since 1969 – were left with just nine scholarship players for the current season, just two of which played in limited minutes last year.
But Hoosier fans can take heart in watching Baylor’s resurgence. What Dave Bliss managed just five short years ago (framing a murdered kid to hide his own illegal payments) makes Sampson look like Coach Carter. Yet the Bears have overcome devastating NCAA sanctions and key transfers, and are now nationally ranked and well on their way to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament thanks to the great work of Coach Scott Drew. There’s no reason to think Tom Crean can’t perform a similar rebuilding project once he has his own recruits in place, even under the cloud of probation, especially with such a tradition-rich program.
5) Marquette (speaking of Tom Crean) and Louisville are on fire in the Big East
I don’t know what Coach Rick Pitino told his team after losing a nail-biter to UNLV on New Year’s Eve, but whatever it was, it stuck. Louisville has now won seven in a row, with five of those wins over teams currently ranked in the Top 25. This includes two very impressive road wins against then-#17 Villanova and then-# 8 Syracuse on Sunday, a win at home over rival Kentucky, and of course, defeating the top ranked team in the country in Pitt.
Earl Clark has really stepped it up, posting a double-double in four of the last five games. So has Terrence Williams, who is taking better shots and ripping down more rebounds (he had 30 of them combined in back-to-back wins over Villanova and Notre Dame).
Mark your calendar. February 2nd, groundhog’s day, the Cardinals play host to UConn, and it could be the most exciting game of the year so far.
Marquette for their part has now won 10 in a row and are off to their best conference start, in any conference, in school history at 7-0 after beating Notre Dame in South Bend on Monday.
Should their winning ways continue, and granted there is still a long ways to go, the Golden Eagles have a real chance to make a strong case for a # 1 seed at season’s end. Their final five games are, in order, at Georgetown, home against UConn, on the road against Pitt and Louisville, and then at home against Syracuse. Considering how much weight the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee places on how teams close out the regular season, there shouldn’t be a school in the country that can make as much of a statement than Marquette will should they get through that schedule intact.