PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- Colleges might not be in session during Thanksgiving Week, but that doesn't mean school is out for their basketball teams. Coaches and players were able to learn a great deal about themselves last week -- especially about areas they need to improve.
That was certainly the case for the eight teams that gathered here at the Battle 4 Atlantis, which culminated late Saturday night with Villanova's thrilling comeback overtime victory over Iowa. Watching eight teams play 12 games over three days will teach a Hoop Thinker a great bit about the team's respective strengths and weaknesses. Here's what we learned about the Atlantis Octet during their stay in paradise:
The good: For many years, the biggest buzzword Wildcats coach Jay Wright has used is attitude. His team says it when it breaks huddles. When the players leave the locker room, they touch a sign bearing that word. Even when they're on the road, a manager writes it on a piece of masking tape and sticks over a doorway. Given the way the Wildcats emerged as the surprising champ, it is safe to say that they possess the requisite attitude to be a factor in March.
There's no better example than 6-foot-3 sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. Villanova's offense flows through its versatile swingmen James Bell (who was named tournament MVP after scoring 20 in the final) and JayVaughn Pinkston, but when Wright needed a game-winning bucket on the penultimate possession against Kansas, he drew up a play for Arcidiacono -- even though the kid had not made a field goal all night. Naturally, the ball went in, as did Arcidiacono's two pivotal three-pointers in OT Saturday night. Arcidiacono gets few assists for a full-time point guard (just 3.3 per game) and is not a great shooter (25.6 percent from three), but he is the ideal floor general for a team that needs toughness and selflessness to prevail.
Another positive takeaway was the addition of 6-2 sophomore guard Dylan Ennis. The transfer from Rice missed the season's first two games because of a broken hand, but he was fabulous in Atlantis. During the three games, he averaged 12 points and made 8-for-12 from three-point range. Yup, just what the Wildcats needed: Another tough, athletic guard who can stroke it.
The bad: No program in America has had more success playing Smallball, but even by Villanova's standards this is a very small team. The only serviceable big man is 6-11 sophomore Daniel Ochefu, who played 17 total minutes (and scored two points) in the Wildcats' last two games. Without someone to protect the rim and score in the post (or at least get to the foul line), the Wildcats will constantly have to play with a surfeit of energy. How long can they keep that up?
The good: Lots of teams claim to have depth, but few have meaningful depth. Iowa does. Coach Fran McCaffrey has a legitimate 10-man rotation, and each man made an important contribution. It is instructive that forwards Zach McCabe and Jarrod Uthoff, the team's third- and fourth-leading scorers, respectively, came off the bench in all three games. Best of all, only one of those 10 players is a freshman, and he plays the least minutes among that group.
The advantage has little to do with avoiding fatigue, although that is a positive. It allows McCaffrey to ride a hot hand and exploit the best matchup. And if a player gets in foul trouble or is injured, the drop-off isn't as great. For example, after falling behind to Xavier by 15 points early in the second half, Iowa came charging back until its best player, senior guard Devyn Marble, had to leave the game with six minutes still remaining because of a nasty leg cramp. No problem. McCaffrey inserted 6-10 junior center Gabriel Olaseni into the game, 6-1 sophomore Mike Gesell took over the offense, and the Hawkeyes were able to complete the comeback.
The bad: Teamwork and efficiency can only take a team so far. The difference in toughness and physicality between Iowa and Villanova was really palpable on Saturday. Yes, Villanova is going to be able to "punk" most teams it plays (that's a compliment, by the way), but the Hawkeyes' lack of strength and toughness cost them the game.
That was most evident on the defensive backboard, where 'Nova was able to turn 16 offensive rebounds into a 17-6 advantage in second-chance points. As much as I was impressed by Iowa's half court offense, my lingering vision of the Hawkeyes' experience at the Atlantis will be that of Aaron White, their slender, 6-9 junior forward and second-leading scorer, walking through the lobby after the final on Saturday night with a sad look on his face and a gruesome shiner on his left eye. If a game is going to result in some bad bruises, it is definitely better to give than receive.
Kansas (Third place: beat Wake Forest 87-78; lost to Villanova 63-59; beat UTEP 67-63)
The good: Even in the worst of times, Jayhawks coach Bill Self is usually one of the most sanguine guys in his profession. So it was odd to see him so ticked off after his team rebounded from the loss to Villanova by holding off a scrappy UTEP team in Saturday night's consolation game. When I asked Self afterward to tell me something positive he learned about his team down here, he stared into space for several seconds before he could think of anything. "We did have some young kids play really well in stretches," he finally said. "Joel [Embiid] is terrific and Frank Mason did some good things for us. So I think that's a positive that we can take out of here, but there's not a lot of positives. We really got exposed in a lot of areas."
The play of Mason, a 5-11 freshman, is going to be an important springboard moving forward -- so much so that I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually replaces junior Naadir Tharp as the starting point guard. When Kansas fell behind by 12 points with 12 minutes to play against Villanova, Self inserted Mason into the lineup, which sparked the comeback. And when Kansas frittered away a 14-point lead in the second half against Wake Forest on Friday, Self benched all five of his starters and watched his reserves hold the Demon Deacons at bay. The Jayhawks are a young team and they looked like it at times, but the talent is still considerable. Self learned that he has more options on his roster than he may have realized.
The bad: A lot of coaches would like to have Self's problems, but he does have problems. First and foremost is the lack of perimeter shooting. During their first two games, the Jayhawks made a total of seven shots outside of three feet. For the tournament, they shot 10-for-45 from three-point range. That made the Jayhawks way too easy to guard in the half court, which put a higher premium on getting out in transition; and because their energy was so lacking, they didn't have many opportunities. "We know we're not going to be an execution team in November, but I'm surprised that we don't play with the competitive spirit that all our teams have always played with," Self said.
That begins with -- yup -- Andrew Wiggins, the freshman forward who was maddeningly disengaged. Wiggins was battling bronchitis, but as Self told me, "a lot of people don't feel good, but they still go to work every day." We've known that Wiggins does not possess a superstar's mentality, but from a technical standpoint he got exposed in two areas. The first is his ball handling. He can only go one or two dribbles and gets the ball knocked away a lot (four turnovers vs. Villanova). Second, his jump shot is just OK; he only made two three-pointers in three games. Wiggins doesn't have to be a great three-point shooter, he just has to be good enough to make defenders respect him behind the line. Right now he's not.
UTEP (Fourth place: beat Tennessee 78-70; lost to Iowa 89-53; lost to Kansas 67-63)
The good: When he's not getting into nasty public spats, Tim Floyd is still one heck of a basketball coach. He proved that Thursday night when he sicked his vaunted triangle-and-two defense on Tennessee. Asked afterward by Marty Snider of NBC Sports Network whether it was fair to label the win over the Volunteers a surprise, Floyd smiled and said, "Absolutely. I'm surprised."
Not only do the Miners play an unconventional style, but they also have an unconventional lineup, especially for a mid-major school. Normally programs at this level are lacking in size, but UTEP is bursting with it: Its starting front line consists of 6-8 junior Julian Washburn, 6-10 junior Cedric Lang and 6-11 senior John Bohannon. Even the starting shooting guard, junior McKenzie Moore, is 6-6. Maybe the most intriguing player on the roster is Matt Willms, a 7-1 freshman from Ontario. Willms is generously listed at 220 pounds and his minutes have been limited because of foul trouble, but I got to see him during an hour-long practice on Wednesday afternoon, and he showed a lot of grace and agility.
The bad: We all know the Miners lost their top incoming freshman when Isaac Hamilton, a McDonald's All-America from Los Angeles, backed out of his commitment. (That was the source of Floyd's anger at USC coach Andy Enfield.) But they also lost two other prized recruits to academics. So there is a definite ceiling here in terms of talent, particularly in the backcourt. That makes it harder for UTEP to get its offense started. If the Miners aren't playing with maximum effort and getting back on defense -- as was the case against Iowa -- then they can look bad.
Tennessee (Fifth place: lost to UTEP 78-70; beat Xavier 64-49; beat Wake Forest 82-63)
The good: I keep hearing how "talented" the Volunteers are, and they do have good players. In the end, though, this team is not going to get very far by being prettier than their opponents. It needs to be tougher, and you could see that identity being forged last week. The Vols did a good job playing through their two beasts on the block, 6-8 junior forward Jarnell Stokes (54 points, 34 rebounds, 60 percent field goals in three games) and 6-8 senior forward Jeronne Maymon (32 points, 20 rebounds, 61 percent shooting). Maymon even added eight assists -- all the more reason why Tennessee needs to run its offense through the post. "We call ourselves a 'tougher breed.' That's how we have to play and compete," coach Cuonzo Martin told me. "If we try to play any other way, we're not going to be very successful."
The bad: Tennessee has an awkward dynamic at point guard. Antonio Barton, the 6-2 senior who transferred in from Memphis, spent his previous three years playing shooting guard with some limited minutes as a backup point. He is a catch-and-shoot scorer, not a playmaking lead guard, and that is not what this team needs. Freshman Darius Thompson is more of a traditional point, but he is not ready to take over full-time. So Tennessee is a work in progress at the most important position on the floor.
The other issue for Tennessee at the Atlantis was outside shooting. The Vols were 3-for21 from three-point range in the loss to UTEP, 2-14 against Xavier and 4-11 vs. Wake Forest. Martin promised me that "we're a better three-point shooting team than we showed," but until we see evidence, the Vols can expect to see a lot of sagging defenses.
Wake Forest (Sixth place: lost to Kansas 87-78; beat USC 77-63; lost to Tennessee 82-63)
The good: If ever there was such a thing as a moral victory, the Demon Deacons' loss to Kansas is it. The Jayhawks led by 14 at halftime and looked like they were about to run away with the game when Wake clawed back to within five points. The best player on the floor -- and one of the revelations of the tournament -- was sophomore guard Cody Miller-McIntyre, who scored 20 of his 26 points in the second half.
Last season, Miller-McIntyre struggled while playing point guard for the first time in his life. He suffered some typical freshman inconsistency, but he also scored 26 points in a close loss to UConn. Wake coach Jeff Bzdelik has switched him to the wing and installed 6-1 sophomore Madison Jones at the point. At 6-3, Miller-McIntyre is strong and athletic, and he makes a lot of tough shots. "Because he was playing point for the first time last year, he became very robotic. He was trying to think too much," Bzdelik said. "Now he's more instinctive."
The bad: This team embodies the difference between height and size. Bzdelik can put some skilled big men on the floor like Devin Thomas (6-9, 245-pound sophomore), Tyler Cavanaugh (6-9, 230-pound sophomore) and Andre Washington (7-0, 240-pound sophomore), but as soon as they make contact with an opposing player with similar size, they get shoved around. That was especially problematic against Tennessee. On a few occasions, I could have sworn I saw Jarnell Stokes picking pieces of Thomas out of his teeth.
Wake's emotional immaturity was also an issue. Just as the Deacs were putting game pressure on Kansas, they lost their composure. Cavanaugh got whistled for a technical foul and then Thomas got teed up twice and was ejected. "Half of strength is from the neck up," Bzdelik said. "Tough guys play through the bad times. That's what we need to learn to do."
USC (Seventh place: lost to Villanova 94-79; lost to Wake Forest 77-63; beat Xavier 84-78)
The good: Even as the Trojans were getting their doors blown off the first two days, I could tell they were trying hard. Their body language was good, and there was no dissension in the ranks as far as I could see. The fact that they were able to bounce back after getting humiliated by Wake Forest impressed me. Despite their obvious deficiencies, the Trojans appear to have some competitive pride.
I admit that, coming into the tournament, I had a pretty low opinion of USC starting point guard Pe'Shon Howard, a 6-3 senior who transferred from Maryland and was granted a waiver by the NCAA to play right away. Howard was a role player on a mediocre team last year, and he has showed a tendency to take bad shots and throw errant passes. But he was magnificent against Xavier, finishing with 23 points (on 8-for-14 shooting), seven assists and two turnovers. Howard told me afterward that was a result of the players becoming comfortable with each other.
The bad: When I attended USC's practice a few weeks ago, Trojans coach Andy Enfield was raving about Omar Oraby, his 7-2 center from Egypt who was a backup last season to Dwayne Dedmon. Oraby missed practice that day because of a minor leg injury, but after watching him in action for three straight days, I believe it will be difficult for him to be effective. He has stone hands and average footwork, and he gets discouraged easily. The game moves too fast for him.
Oraby's backup, D.J. Haley, a 7-foot senior transfer from VCU, has the same limitations, and the team's third frontcourt player, 6-10 freshman Nikola Jovanovic, has skills but lacks confidence. Enfield has talked about slowing down his vaunted Dunk City attack to accommodate his bigs, but it seems to me he would be better off playing small and turning his guys loose. Villanova west, maybe?
Xavier (Eighth place: lost to Iowa 77-74 in OT; lost to Tennessee 64-49; lost to USC 84-78)
The good: I'm sure the Musketeers are shocked to be leaving the Bahamas 0-3, but they can take solace knowing they led Iowa by 15 points early in the second half. Xavier was doing an excellent job handling Iowa's full court pressure until its point guard, 6-3 sophomore Semaj Christon, had to leave the game with leg cramps. And even after blowing that lead, the Musketeers still had a chance to win at the end of regulation, but Matt Stainbrook, the 6-10 junior transfer from Western Michigan, missed a point-blank layup.
Xavier coach Chris Mack also had to like what he saw from Myles Davis, the 6-2 sophomore from New Jersey whom the NCAA ruled ineligible last season. After the team's awful performance against Tennessee, Mack inserted Davis into the starting lineup, and he responded by scoring 16 points (4-for-8 from three). He was a bright light in an otherwise dark week.
The bad: The Musketeers were thisclose to knocking off the No. 23 team in the country, and yet they left without a W. Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be coaches.
The primary concern is the way Christon cramped up against Iowa. That should not happen -- especially since it was only the first game. Christon has a history of cramps. He needs to re-evaluate his hydration and nutrition and take better care of his body. This team can't afford to lose him.
I still think this could be an NCAA tournament team -- the Musketeers did beat Tennessee in their season opener despite missing two starters -- but they obviously have much to improve upon. They may want to start with foul shooting. Xavier is ranked 339th in the country in that category at 58.5 percent, and in its three games at the Atlantis it shot a combined 32-for-58 from the line.
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
Florida at UConn, Monday, 7 p.m.
UConn 79, Florida 74
The Hoosiers are still way too young to be able to pull off this kind of road victory -- especially since C.J. Fair, who won the MVP award in Maui, appears to have gotten on track.
Syracuse 80, Indiana 70
Duke's wheels have gotten awfully wobbly the last couple of weeks. Michigan is a good team, but the Blue Devils can't afford to lose this one at home.
Duke 75, Michigan 70
Are the Tar Heels Jekyll and Hyde? Or was that Louisville win an aberration? We'll find out more here, but I lean toward the latter.
Michigan State 78, North Carolina 68
Normally, I'd say first one to 50 wins, but this Wisconsin team likes to get out and go. Now it's up to the Cavaliers to slow down the tempo and get Joe Harris high-percentage shots. Virginia is a veteran team playing at home. That's usually a solid pick.
Virginia 67, Wisconsin 64
A Few Minutes With ... Stan Van Gundy
SI.com: You were in the Bahamas to call the Battle 4 Atlantis for NBC Sports Network. What do you think of the new rules changes in college hoops to limit hand checking and physical defense?
Van Gundy: I like the idea. We went to a version of that in the NBA, and as much as guys like me griped about it, it's been a good rule change. In the NBA, though, if a guy turns his back to you at any point and tries to back you in, then you can use the arm bar. Which makes sense because if the offensive player is going to try to make it a strength game, then you've got to allow the defense to respond.
SI.com: Would you also like to see college basketball go to a 30-second shot clock?
Van Gundy: Yes. The shorter, the better. Get it to 30, get it to 24. I think it makes a more up tempo game that's more fun to watch.
SI.com: You called Kansas' loss to Villanova on Thursday night. That was your first look at Andrew Wiggins. What did you think?
Van Gundy: He has to accept his role as the best player on the floor and be more aggressive. We always talk about role players accepting and playing their role, but he has to accept his role, too. They can be good with him playing the way he's been playing, but they can't contend for the national championship unless he's willing to take over a little bit more.
SI.com: The recent history of college coaches moving into the NBA hasn't been good. How do you think Brad Stevens will do?
Van Gundy: He'll do fine if they get him some players. The reason that college coaches have struggled is they haven't gotten good jobs, plain and simple. If you can coach, you can coach.
SI.com: Do you miss coaching?
Van Gundy: I miss it a lot. I miss the camaraderie of a coaching staff, of a locker room. With two of my four kids still in high school, it's a tough time to move and it's great to have more time to spend with them. I've also come to grips with knowing that the opportunities might not be there, and if that's the case I'm fine with that, too. There's other things to do.
SI.com: Are you in touch with Dwight Howard?
Van Gundy: We don't talk very much, but we text every couple of weeks. I try to text him if either something great happened or something bad happened. He's been real supportive of me, too. I got involved in a school tax referendum in Seminole County, Florida, where Dwight still has a house. He was the biggest donor to our campaign by a long shot.
SI.com: I'm a little surprised to hear that because it did not end well between you two in Orlando.
Van Gundy: My brother has a great line: "Of course it ends badly. That's why it ends." It's regrettable the way it ended, but you have to keep things in perspective. I wouldn't have had the record I had without Dwight Howard. I'm going to look at that a lot more than I'm going to look at one bad incident near the end.
This Week's AP Ballot
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Michigan State (1)
2. Kentucky (2)
3. Arizona (4)
4. Syracuse (5)
5. Ohio State (8)
6. Kansas (3)
7. Duke (7)
8. Louisville (9)
9. Wichita State (10)
10. Florida (11)
11. Oklahoma State (6)
12. Memphis (21)
13. Wisconsin (16)
14. UConn (17)
15. Iowa State (18)
16. Villanova (NR)
17. Iowa (14)
18. Oregon (19)
19. UMass (20)
20. San Diego State (NR)
21. New Mexico (23)
22. Baylor (24)
23. Dayton (NR)
24. Colorado (25)
25. Boise State (NR)
Welcome to the life of a balloter. (Or is it balloteer? I always forget.) With so many surprising results coming at a furious pace, it is harder to maintain a natural order. Memphis rebounded from its drubbing at Oklahoma State by edging the Cowboys on a neutral court. So I left OSU ahead of the Tigers by a single spot. I am nothing if not Solomonic.
Not surprisingly, Villanova is the big riser of the week, thanks to its twin wins over Kansas and Iowa at the Battle 4 Atlantis. After watching the Jayhawks up close for three days, I'm far from convinced they are the sixth-best team in the country, but they deserve to be ahead of Duke because of their head-to-head win. And Louisville does have that loss to North Carolina.
I probably would have left Creighton on my ballot despite the loss to San Diego State at the Wooden Legacy -- the game was in Anaheim, after all -- but the Bluejays' loss to George Washington on Sunday knocked them out.
As for other teams that didn't quite make it, Pittsburgh is 7-0, but how good are they? Beats me. The Panthers' best win was by 21 points on a neutral court over Stanford. The good news for Jamie Dixon is that his team will have plenty of opportunities in its new league, the ACC. My advice is to take advantage of them.
I dropped Gonzaga out because of its loss at the Maui Classic to Dayton, the first good team that the Zags have played. The Flyers proved they were no fluke by playing Baylor down to the final possession before losing by one and then dominating Cal by 18 points. So they get ranked for the first time.
I came close to slotting LSU, but I'm waiting for the Tigers to get a signature win. An overtime win over Butler on a neutral court doesn't quite qualify -- but it's close. The Tigers have lost to UMass (road) and Memphis (neutral), but I think they're legit. They can start proving that on Jan. 7 at home against Tennessee.
I admit I ranked Boise State partly out of sentimentality, as I usually do when I get to No. 25. (Have you seen Derrick Marks in action yet?) The Broncos also lack a signature win, but they'll be playing in Rupp Arena a week from Tuesday. Those Kiddy Cats better be ready.
I supposed I'm "underrating" UCLA compared to my fellow voters, who had the Bruins at No. 19 last week. But again -- where is that quality win? Let's see how they do Dec. 7 at Missouri and Dec. 19 in Madison Square Garden against Duke. They need to at least split those games to get on my ballot.
Indiana fans have also been nudging me to rank the Hoosiers, and if they had pulled out that win over UConn I might have done that. As it stands, all they have to do is win in the Carrier Dome on Tuesday night. That's not hard, is it? They also have Notre Dame on Dec. 14 in Indianapolis to make their mark.
I might have ranked Arizona State after their win over Marquette, but the Sun Devils blew it by losing to a pretty bad Miami team over the weekend.