Monday November 30th, 2009

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- We'll lead off my Monday Hoop Thoughts with my take on the quartet of teams that were assembled in Atlantic City last weekend for the Legends Classic. I did color commentary on those games for HDNet, so I had a great seat for the games as well as the shootarounds. I also got to spend some quality time with the coaching staffs.

Defeated Michigan State 77-74, defeated Rutgers 73-58.

If you saw the highlights of the Gators' upset of Michigan State, you probably saw sophomore point guard Erving Walker drain a 25-footer with under two minutes remaining to give the Gators the lead for good. If you concluded from that he played a terrific game, you were wrong. To that point, Walker was 0-for-6 from behind the arc and 1-for-9 overall. He did finish with seven assists (and just one turnover) and three steals, but he nearly shot the Gators out of the game.

Walker was much better on Saturday night against Rutgers, when he went 3-for-6 from three and had five assists to three turnovers. That only raised his three-point percentage on the season to 23.5 percent -- which is still better than the 19.5 percent clip being posted by his freshman backcourtmate, Kenny Boynton. The good news here is that this is a correctable problem. The Florida coaches assured me that those guys shoot the lights out in practice, so it's just a matter of their getting into a better rhythm during games. I saw plenty of Boynton in high school and I was frankly concerned that he would come into college with too much of a gunner's attitude. That has not been the case. He clearly looks intent on playing within the framework; he wants to be a good teammate. Boynton knows he has a green light (he's the team's leading scorer at 15.8 ppg), but he's still minding the speed limit.

Besides the arrival of Boynton, the biggest change for Florida over last year is the presence of Vernon Macklin, a 6-foot-10 junior transfer from Georgetown. Macklin is not and may never be a polished offensive player, but he allows Alex Tyus to move from center to power forward and 6-8 senior Dan Werner to shift to small forward. That makes for a very big lineup. Still, the Gators got outrebounded by 18 against the Spartans. That resulted partly from Florida playing a lot of 2-3 zone, but it's something the Gators need to tighten up.

Bottom line: This is clearly an NCAA tournament team, and the Gators' size and skill level will win them a lot of games. Now they need to develop the toughness required to play deep into the tournament.

Lost to Florida 77-74, defeated UMass 106-68.

We know toughness will never be an issue with the Spartans. Size, however, is a different story. It was pretty dramatic to sit courtside and see how much bigger Florida was than Michigan State. Tom Izzo is starting games with 6-10 freshman Garrick Sherman at center, but Sherman is playing less than 10 minutes per game. The player getting the most minutes in the middle is sophomore Draymond Green, but he only stands 6-6.

And yet, the Spartans dominated the boards against Florida because rebounding is at the heart of this program's identity. They also shot 52.5 percent and followed that up by shooting 58.6 percent in the win over UMass. This may be the most efficient offensive team Izzo has had. That is largely attributable to junior point guard Kalin Lucas, but Michigan State is also shooting a high percentage because all of its big men are excellent passers. That is especially true of Green, who is averaging 3.2 assists per game and whose basketball I.Q. is off the charts.

Michigan State should have beaten Florida, but the Spartans lost because they showed no poise against the Gators' press, resulting in 22 turnovers. Still, you have to keep in mind that this team has been riddled with injuries in the offseason and preseason. Raymar Morgan had only practiced three times since returning from a sprained ankle, and Chris Allen and Delvon Roe both missed time during exhibition games. Also, sophomore point guard Korie Lucious is still getting back into form after missing seven months during the offseason following foot surgery.

My general take is Michigan State does not have as much room for error as it did last season, but that doesn't mean this team is not as good as last year's. We'll have a better sense of how good they are after everyone has been healthy and together for a few weeks. The Spartans are always going to rebound and defend, but in the end their halfcourt offense will be the difference.

Defeated UMass 83-75, lost to Florida 73-58.

This was my first time seeing Scarlet Knights sophomore guard Mike Rosario play in person since he was high school. He looked good, but I wasn't exactly overwhelmed. Rosario had 18 points in the first half against UMass, but after the Minutemen made some adjustments on him defensively, he stopped moving without the ball and only scored four points in the second half. That allowed UMass to close a 19-point deficit to four before Rutgers closed them out.

The following night, Rosario played better against Florida, especially on the defensive end, but he still needed 15 shots to score 14 points. After the game Scarlet Knights coach Fred Hill told me they need Rosario to do more for them to be a good team. That's a problem in my view. The kid is good, but he's not Superman.

The good news is that Rutgers does have some other nice pieces. Junior point guard Mike Coburn is a solid, tough, smart, dependable player who did a much better job against the Gators' press than any of Michigan State's guards did. Hill has been splitting time at the five spot, starting 6-9 sophomore Gregory Echenique and bringing 6-11 senior Hamady Ndiaye off the bench, but going forward I expect Ndiaye to garner more and more minutes. He was superb in Atlantic City, with 26 points and 6 blocks in the two games compared to Echenique's 6 and 2. I was also very impressed with 6-6 freshman swingman Dane Miller. He's going to be a really good player in this program, but he and the rest of the Scarlet Knights are not ready yet to play their way into the NCAA tournament.

Lost to Rutgers 83-75, lost to Michigan State 106-68.

I didn't quite realize just how much of a rebuilding project Derek Kellogg is facing in Amherst. He has one of the best scoring guards in the Atlantic 10 in 6-2 senior Ricky Harris, but beyond that Kellogg is coaching eight newcomers -- five freshmen and three transfers. The best of the newbies is Terrell Vinson, a lithe, 6-7 swingman from Baltimore, but like many of the youngsters on this team, Vinson is going to have a hard time physically withstanding the rigors of a full college season.

As for Harris, he is skilled but he does not seem to have the motor required to be a truly great player. He is a nice kid and a good student, but he needs to play with more edge. He also needs to be more committed to defense and do a better job moving without the ball. Kellogg switched him to point guard -- a position he has rarely played, even in high school -- midway through the Rutgers game, and he may play a lot more minutes at that position as the season wears on. Kellogg was also bringing 6-3 junior guard Anthony Gurley off the bench, but Gurley has been so productive that Kellogg moved him into the starting lineup for the Michigan State game.

Kellogg has done some good recruiting, but even as the young kids grow up next season they will have to account for the loss of Harris. Kellogg has his blueprint for rebuilding this program, but it is going to take a couple of years before we can judge how well he is getting the job done.

• Two guys who have shown they were worthy of inclusion in my sophs to watch column last week: Florida State's Chris Singleton and Alabama's JaMychal Green. Singleton and 7-1 sophomore Solomon Alabi are as good a frontcourt duo as you'll find in the ACC. The question is whether the Seminoles' guards will be able to deliver them the ball.

• UConn's Kemba Walker has a lot of talent, but he also has a lot to learn about playing point guard. Walker is so good at attacking the basket that he has yet to develop the ability to run the offense at a slower pace. There's a difference between coming off the bench to spell A.J. Price and running the show fulltime. I believe Walker will get there, but it's going to take some time.

• I'm a little surprised (and I'm guessing Coach K is, too) that Duke has not played more zone so far. As it turns out, this is a much better man-to-man team than many of us anticipated. In the past, Duke has used extended ball pressure to force steals that lead to fast breaks. Now they're using blocked shots to create those fast-break opportunities. Duke might not be able to pressure the ball fullcourt (or even halfcourt), but they can really lock you down from the three-point line and in. It's a different method, but it's still quite effective. And keep in mind their best shot blocker, 6-11 freshman Mason Plumlee, will be out a few more weeks with a broken wrist.

• Count me as one of those folks who believes the NCAA needs to get rid of those slippery promotional stickers on the court. There are plenty of ways to give corporations the requisite visibility without putting players at risk.

• Huge loss for Villanova as freshman center Mouphtaou Yarou will miss the entire season because of a viral infection. Yarou was a big (literally) reason I thought the Wildcats, and not West Virginia, should be favored to win the Big East and possibly make the Final Four. They can still do it without him, but it will be a lot harder -- especially until Reggie Redding comes back from suspension in December.

Lance Stephenson walked into a very good situation at Cincinnati because he does not have to carry the team offensively. The trick for coach Mick Cronin will be to get Stephenson his shots while still enabling Deonta Vaughn as a featured threat. Also, I'm going to be watching Stephenson's body language closely all season. He plays with a lot of passion and energy, but when things aren't going well you can see how that can boil over into a bad temper.

• Freshman guard Kelsey Barlow's increased minutes at Purdue is a classic case of a player getting an opportunity in the wake of another player's injury -- in this case, to sophomore point guard Lewis Jackson -- that will make a team better in the long run.

• You have to wonder at what point Gonzaga's lack of depth will catch up with them. The Zags' starting five is solid, but they are a little too vulnerable to fatigue, foul trouble or injury.

• Memo to TV game producers: Unless a guy is losing his temper or his hair is on fire, there is absolutely no reason to show a live box of a coach while the game is going on. Please cease and desist.

• You think Michigan's Manny Harris needs a little help from his friends?

• Interesting how North Carolina is de-emphasizing the three-pointer of late. The Heels only shot 10 treys (making four) in the win over Nevada and attempted just four in their drubbing of Gardner Webb. I guess that's what happens when you replace Wayne Ellington and Danny Green with Marcus Ginyard and Will Graves.

• I still think Tennessee is the team to beat in the SEC, but I admit I am not a big Bobby Maze guy. Yeah, he's got skills, but can he run a team?

• I don't think it's any secret that Jordan Hamilton is Texas's best NBA prospect.

• Had to do a double take seeing William and Mary win at Wake Forest over the weekend. I know W&M is pretty good (it played Connecticut tough and lost to Harvard in overtime on a buzzer beater), but if you're Wake there is no excuse for losing that game at home.

• I was less surprised by Louisville's loss at UNLV. It was a true road game, and remember UNLV won at Freedom Hall last year. That said, Terrence Jennings, who was supposed to be one of the best players in the Big East this season, is off to an awful start. He only played nine minutes against Vegas because Rick Pitino does not trust him on defense.

• Illinois has some good frontcourt players, but the Illini remain offensively challenged on the perimeter. They went a combined 5-for-33 from three-point range in losses to Utah and Bradley last week.

• Alabama's wins over Baylor and Michigan make Cornell's win in Tuscaloosa look that much more impressive. Could this be a year when an Ivy League team wins a game in the NCAA tournament? Me thinks it could be so.

• At this point you'd have to anticipate that the Pac 10 will only get three teams into the NCAA tournament. That would leave a few bids out there for mid-majors to gobble up.

• Big, big wins for St. John's last week in Philadelphia, where it beat two NCAA tournament teams, Siena and Temple, in the Palestra. Remember, the Johnnies are still without their best player, Anthony Mason Jr., who won't return from injury for another few weeks. Write it down: St. John's is going to the NCAA tournament.

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