Never make too much --good or bad -- of one game.
They're words to live by in the world of college hoops, where radio and Internet bloviators are far too quick to bury any team or player that has one off night. This isn't college football, folks, and Duke's Jon Scheyer isn't the worst player in the nation (as we heard in some quarters) just because he had a rough shooting night against Pittsburgh last week.
With that in mind, here are four teams that were labeled "disappointments" after November losses but are now showing why we thought they'd be good in the first place:
MICHIGAN STATE (11-1)
Early loss: to UCLA on Nov. 20.
The Spartans' lone defeat (to national-title contender UCLA) came after Drew Neitzel had been throwing up all day, and MSU got lousy performances from Goran Suton (0 field goals attempted in 20 minutes) and Kalin Lucas (five points, four turnovers). All three were good in the Fighting Izzos' win over Texas last Saturday (we're amazed at how effective Suton can be when he wants to), and the Spartans' defense against the 'Horns was even better. Add leading scorer Raymar Morgan to the mix, and MSU has the best ensemble cast this side of ...
Early loss: to Texas on Nov. 24.
The Vols' blowout loss to Texas got everyone (including the 'Bag) down on Bruce Pearl's crew, but Tennessee's response has been impressive, especially its win at Xavier last Saturday. Chris Lofton still isn't playing like a national Player of the Year candidate, but the Vols have other threats. Newly eligible J.P. Prince came out of nowhere to score 23 points against Xavier; Brian Williams has shown promise filling in for Duke Crews; and everyone from Wayne Chism to Ryan Childress to the Smiths (Tyler, JaJuan and Ramar) is picking up the slack for Lofton (who I expect will start playing like Chris Lofton again soon). Even better, the Vols' half-court defense is looking better and their toughness is winning the day: witness Ramar Smith's remarkable skiding dive to win a loose ball late against the Musketeers. Classic Tennessee basketball.
Early loss: at Siena on Nov. 17.
Siena? You're right: no excuse. Don't look now, though, but the Cardinal could be a real player in the loaded Pac-10. Granted, the schedule has been weak (Stanford's best win was a virtual road game against Texas Tech on Saturday), but the Cardinal are a completely different team with 7-footer Brook Lopez back after being academically ineligible for the first part of the season. Lopez dominated Tech during the second half last Saturday, and he's a game-changer on both ends. Can't wait to see him go up against UCLA's Kevin Love on Jan. 3.
Early loss: to Xavier on Nov. 24.
We love Eric Gordon, but the best thing that may have happened to the Hoosiers was for Gordon (and Armon Bassett) to sit out the win over Kentucky and let his teammates realize that D.J. White and Jordan Crawford are awfully good too. Indiana is infinitely more dangerous when White is a focal point of the offense, and the Hoosiers are playing much more like a team than they were in the loss to Xavier a month ago.
Is Gary Williams on the hot seat? Why has Maryland underperformed the past few years? How do the next few years look for the Terps from a talent perspective? --Iceman, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Well, consecutive home losses to Boston College, Ohio and American (Ohio and American!?!) have certainly put Terps fans into a foul mood, and the five-year grace period following Williams's 2002 national title has ended. But I would still be surprised if Williams's job was in real trouble this season unless his team just quits on him during the ACC schedule (which I highly doubt will happen). Next season? That's another story.
The Terps' problems this season are pretty clear: they can't shoot and they don't take care of the ball. According to kenpom.com, Maryland's effective field-goal percentage (37.9) ranks 233rd in the nation, and its turnover percentage (23.9) is even worse, ranking 264th. (General) Greivis Vasquez is a fun player who may have a pro future, but he's also maddeningly inconsistent and turns the ball over too much. The Terps also don't have a Lonny Baxter-quality big man (James Gist isn't the guy). At least Maryland still plays decent defense, but things will have to improve in a hurry or the ACC season could get ugly.
Williams has also been a victim of his own success, losing three quality assistants to head-coaching jobs since the 2002 national title run: Dave Dickerson (Tulane), Jimmy Patsos (Loyola) and Mike Lonergan (Vermont). During that stretch the Terps' NCAA tournament performances have also slipped:
2002: National Champion
2003: NCAA Regional Semis
2004: NCAA Second Round
2005: No NCAA bid
2006: No NCAA bid
2007: NCAA Second Round
Is help on the way in College Park? I'm not so sure. Williams has never been known as a workaholic recruiter, and while that hardly hurt him in the earlier part of this decade (the '02 champs didn't have a single high-school All-America), the renowned player-development program that produced Baxter, Juan Dixon and Chris Wilcox has taken a slide. The Terps will lose Gist and Bambale Osby next season and bring in just one freshman who's among the top 150 recruits in the country per Rivals.com (Sean Mosley, a 6-3 guard from Baltimore's St. Frances High). Also coming in will be Bobby Maze, a 6-2 guard and juco transfer who started his career at Oklahoma, and Gus Gilchrist, a 6-10 center who originally signed with Virginia Tech.
It'll be up to them to make the Comcast Center a place that opponents fear again. Right now that's not the case.
Arizona has been starting senior walk-on Bret Brielmaier fairly frequently this year. Have there been other Top 25 caliber teams in the past that have relied on a walk-on in such a crucial way? --Mike, Tucson, Ariz.
Readers: help me out here. Send in your examples. I know that Georgetown's Jonathan Wallace, Butler's Drew Streicher and Tennessee's JaJuan Smith started out as walk-ons, but any other instances of walk-ons starting for recent Top 25 teams would be welcomed.
You mentioned in your [pre-Pittsburgh game] Duke piece that the Blue Devils lack a really good post player. It's not like they haven't tried to get one. Recently they recruited -- and failed to land-- Washington's Jon Brockman, Kentucky's Patrick Patterson and [Georgetown signee] Greg Monroe. Is it just a string of bad luck, or is there a pattern here? Does having three assistants who were all former guards hurt the Devils in trying to get a big man? --Etan Frankel, Los Angeles
I have to admit, I've always thought it was strange that Steve Wojciechowski, a former pint-sized point guard, is the assistant coach who works with Duke's big men, but that didn't keep the Blue Devils from producing Shelden Williams (a very good college center if not an NBA star). The fact of the matter is that the big concern regarding Duke all season has been its lack of an effective big man, and we saw exactly why when Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair manhandled the Blue Devils down low last week (15 points and 20 boards).
Kyle Singler can do a ton of things on the basketball court, but asking him to defend Blair was too much. The fact that Mike Krzyzewski gave minimal time to Brian Zoubek (6 minutes) and Lance Thomas (14) shows how little confidence K has in his current big guys. I don't want to make too much out of one loss to a very good Pitt team, but perhaps we made too much of Duke's one impressive win against a Marquette team that (like Duke) is extremely perimeter-oriented.
How long before will it be before Mick Cronin gets Cincinnati back on track and relevant nationally again? --Ben Arinsmier, Baltimore
It might sound crazy for a team that has lost five straight, but give Cronin another year or two and Cincy will be a player in the Big East. It won't happen this season, not least because Cronin's quick-fix guys Mike Williams (ruptured Achilles) and Hernol Hall (ruled ineligible) haven't played a minute for the Bearcats.
But Deonta Vaughn is a good young player who has helped Cincy look better than expected in losses to Xavier, Memphis and N.C. State, and highly-rated recruits Yancy Gates and Cashmere Wright will increase the talent level for Cronin next year. Remember, Cronin got Murray State into the NCAA tournament in two out of his three years there, and he learned well under Rick Pitino and Bob Huggins.
We got plenty of response from Ole Miss fans after we gave Andy Kennedy's bunch the Golden Soufflé (for being the undefeated team with the weakest schedule) and the Rebs responded by staying undefeated in Puerto Rico last week, including a win over previously undefeated Clemson. A sampling:
Ole Miss 85, Clemson 82. We'll take the Golden Soufflé every year! Yeah, I know it is early, but the Rebels have not looked this good in a while. --Steve Wilson, Brandon, Miss.
Might want to rethink the 2007 Golden Soufflé award. Ole Miss is a damn good team; time to admit it. Every team plays creampuffs in the preseason. Give 'em credit why don't you! After all, we did beat Clemson. --JK, Madison, Miss.
Keep doubting Andy Kennedy. I'm pretty sure anyone in Oxford would take a Sweet 16 and smile. Is it some kind of insult that your previous "winners" have for the most part made it to the Sweet 16? --Erik, Birmingham, Ala.
Congratulations to Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss. As we said last week, we gave a half-hearted Soufflé this year because (thankfully) nobody is scheduling total creampuffs in the non-conference anymore. Kennedy is a respected coach whose team is headed in the right direction. That said, we'd still give Ole Miss the Soufflé again. It isn't rocket science, folks: the Soufflé goes to the undefeated team with the weakest schedule to that point in the season.
And let me get this straight: We're supposed to think Ole Miss is some sort of powerhouse now that it's beaten another dubiously undefeated team (Clemson)? As for some of the previous Soufflé winners reaching the Round of 16, look: decent teams sometimes put together horribly weak schedules. (Big John Thompson and Jim Boeheim used to make a science of it, in fact.) That doesn't mean they shouldn't be called out on it. We'll be stunned if Ole Miss gets anywhere near the tournament's second weekend.
• Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose were huge for Memphis in its win over Georgetown last Saturday, but we want to focus our attention on Joey Dorsey, who pulled off a double-double (11 points, 13 rebounds) and made life miserable for Roy Hibbert (6 and 6). Dorsey caught a lot of grief for calling out Greg Oden and falling on his face last spring, but aren't we supposed to love guys who do more than just issue boilerplate "one-game-at-a-time" nonsense? The 'Bag will say it right now: Dorsey is one of our favorite players.
• We don't generally criticize referees here at the 'Bag (the fans make too big a deal over the zebras anyway), but the absurd technical foul whistled on Tennessee's Bruce Pearl late in the Vols' win over Xavier nearly ruined an electric game. Pearl was merely exhorting his player to defend when he got T'd up for being outside the coaching box. The crew working the game (James Breeding, Eugene Crawford, Joe Lindsay) should be embarrassed. If that's the way we're headed with the coaching "decorum" point of emphasis, count me out.
• Junk-defense alert: Texas brought out the box-and-one against Michigan State on Saturday (with the one on Drew Neitzel) with decent results. Given how successful USC's triangle-and-two was against Memphis, we'll ask the question: Why don't more coaches junk it up on defense?
• Raiders of the Lost Art: we've found the sky-hook! It's being used by Georgetown's Vernon Macklin and Texas' Connor Atchley. Have any other eagle-eyed readers spotted the sky-hook this season?
• Perhaps even more impressive than his points and rebounds against Duke were DeJuan Blair's steals. His pick-pocketing of Greg Paulus blew me away.
• Is anyone else worried that DarrenCollison's knee issues are starting to look like Ronald Steele's at Alabama last season? It certainly helps the Bruins that Russell Westbrook has made a giant leap on the perimeter.
• Movies we're still hoping to see: Juno, Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood, Walk Hard, Charlie Wilson's War, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Savages, I'm Not There.
We're off next week, but make sure to send in plenty of questions for the next column. Happy new year!