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Battle 4 Atlantis squads show strength, skill in heated matchups

NASSAU, Bahamas -- The second annual Battle 4 Atlantis is now a matter of history. While much attention was paid to the two headliners, Duke and Louisville, there were six other teams at this event who showed signs that they will be forces to reckon with once league play begins. So before we officially close the books on this event, here are the headlines that best describe what the non-headliners gleaned from their trip to the Bahamas. Sunscreen not included.

Which Way Will Joe Go?

There was no sadder sight at this tournament than that of Memphis junior guard Joe Jackson sitting on the team's bench as the final seconds ticked away on the Tigers' nine-point loss to Minnesota Friday afternoon. While Jackson was parked there for the entire half because he had been so ineffective in the first, his former high school teammate from Memphis, Minnesota guard Andre Hollins, lit up his Tigers for a career-high 41 points. Jackson could barely look Hollins in the eye during the postgame handshake line.

It was the second straight game in which Jackson, a two-time Conference USA tournament MVP, was a non-factor. In Memphis' quarterfinal loss to VCU, he had just one field goal and committed seven turnovers before fouling out early in the second half. Memphis coach Josh Pastner was at a total loss to explain Jackson's disengaged play. "Joe is going to be better than this and we need Joe to be better," he said after the loss to Minnesota.

Jackson was indeed better the next day against Northern Iowa, partly because Pastner moved 6-foot-4 junior Chris Crawford to the point and let Jackson play off the ball. Crawford said he was shocked at the switch, but Jackson, and thus the entire team, benefited from it. The Tigers had trailed Northern Iowa by 14 points late in the first half before going on a 10-point spurt. While Jackson finished with 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the win, Crawford also flourished, scoring a game-high 18 points and grabbing a career-high 12 rebounds.

Jackson became a local high school legend in Memphis because he was a great scorer. He switched over to the point in college, but he is clearly miscast in that role. Not only is Jackson a natural scorer, he is also a quiet, introverted kid who offers nothing by way of leadership. That's a huge problem to have in a point guard, especially on a team that already has difficulty summoning emotion. Jackson may want to play the point because that's where he'll have to play in the NBA, but it's not Pastner's job to turn Jackson into a pro if it is costing Memphis games. Jackson has two choices: He can either embrace this idea, or he can spend lots more time on the bench. It's really not much of a choice.

Mbakwe Getting Stronger

This headline should send shudders around the Big Ten. Few players around the country are better than Gophers senior forward Trevor Mbakwe at using their lower body strength to gain leverage on the glass. This is especially important because even though Mbakwe is listed at 6-8, it looked to me as I watched him jostle against players like Duke's Mason Plumlee and Stanford's Josh Powell that he tops out at 6-7. Before this week, Mbakwe had not displayed much explosiveness because he is still recovering from the torn ACL and microfracture surgery that sidelined him for most of last season. He has yet to start any of Minnesota's games.

I'm guessing that will change soon. After being held in check against Duke (11 points, 3 rebounds, 18 minutes) and Memphis (5 points, 8 rebounds, 20 minutes), Mbakwe turned in his best game of the season against Stanford. He needed just 24 minutes to tally 19 points (on 7-for-10 shooting) and 12 rebounds, including four at the offensive end. Mbakwe was also 13-for-18 from the foul line this week, which is impressive for a guy who was making 58 percent last season before he got hurt in December.

Minnesota needs Mbakwe's inside presence because this is not a great offensive team, despite Hollins' otherworldly performance against Memphis. The Golden Gophers have done a terrible job taking care of the ball this season (they averaged 16.7 turnovers per game at the Atlantis). They are going to have to win games through tough-nosed defense, aggressive offensive rebounding, and foul shooting. In other words, this is a blue-collar team. Fortunately, Mbakwe appears to be rounding into form at just the right time.

Panthers Must Peak in the Valley

No one was surprised that the Panthers left this tournament 0-3, but they were twice within reach of scoring an upset. After trailing Louisville by 18 points in the second half of Thursday's quarterfinal, UNI methodically came back to within one point with two minutes to play before losing by five. UNI also could not hang on to that 14-point lead over Memphis. That means the Panthers will have to finish in the top three of the Missouri Valley Conference to be considered for an at-large bid.

The biggest concern for UNI moving forward has to be the play of 6-8 sophomore Seth Tuttle. Last season, he averaged 9.6 points and 5.6 rebounds en route to being named MVC's freshman of the year, but in three games here he had a total of three made field goals. Tuttle is a fundamentally sound post player, but he struggles when he's being defended by someone who's bigger than he.

UNI has a lot of good three-point shooters, but the team made just 28 percent during this tournament. Nor did the Panthers enjoy much success driving the ball. They shot 6-for-15 in the first half against Memphis, but when the Tigers' defenders closed out on the Panthers' shooters (UNI was 1-for-12 from behind the arc in the second half), they were lost trying to make plays off the dribble.

Still, the Panthers can take heart knowing they took on three of the top teams in the country and stood toe-to-toe with two of them. They didn't leave the Atlantis with any wins, but I have to believe they are leaving with some confidence.

Whither Michael?

I know a lot of Missouri fans were hoping the situation regarding suspended senior guard Michael Dixon would become clearer this week, but if anything it became murkier. Dixon made the trip to the Bahamas, which seemed to indicate he would become available at some point. Tigers coach Frank Haith left open that possibility, but Dixon was never reinstated. On Friday night, former Missouri guard Kim English revealed on Twitter that the decision to suspend Dixon was made by a university student board and is now in the hands of the university administration. So it appears this is not even Haith's call to make.

The fact that Missouri played so well without their emotional leader and best perimeter scorer should tell you how good it will be if and when Dixon becomes available. (Ditto for 6-5 freshman Jabari Brown, a sharp-shooting transfer from Oregon who will become eligible in mid-December.) Much of that excellence stems from junior point guard Phil Pressey. He can get a little sloppy with the ball sometimes (eight turnovers against Louisville), but that's a small price to pay for his aggressive playmaking. Pressey also shot well from three (8-for-15) and showed dynamic athleticism. For example, during the Stanford game, I watched him grab a rebound by reaching above two of the Cardinals' 6-10 forwards. I knew he was a good athlete, but I had no idea he had that kind of vertical leap.

Missouri is a different team in the frontcourt with the addition of Laurence Bowers (who missed last season with a torn ACL) and Alex Oriakhi (transferred from UConn). But to me, the most intriguing addition is Earnest Ross, a chiseled, 6-5 bull who transferred from Auburn. Though Ross shot horribly in the win over Stanford, going 3-for-19 from the floor and 0-for-5 from three-point range, he did a good job crashing the boards for seven offensive rebounds. His shot selection was better against VCU (4-7 fg, 3-5 from three), but he only had one rebound in 22 minutes. Ross can be a queen piece for this team, but he needs to figure out where he's most effective on any given night. That's what Thanksgiving tournaments are for. As Ross gradually becomes more comfortable, Missouri will become tougher to beat.

The Longest Flight

On Saturday afternoon, the Cardinal suffered by far the toughest loss of any team in the tournament. With their game against Minnesota tied and apparently headed to overtime, Chasson Randle, Stanford's 6-1 sophomore guard, fouled Andre Hollins as he was attempting a desperation halfcourt shot. With .4 seconds showing on the clock, Hollins drained all three free throws to give the Golden Gophers the 66-63 win. A short while later, I spotted Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, who is one of the most congenial guys in the business, walking through the casino with a scowl on his face. He saw me, shook his head, and kept walking.

Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be coaches.

The loss was especially bitter because it was the last game of the week, thereby robbing the Cardinal of the chance to bounce back. Still, this team can take away plenty of positives -- including the play of Randle, notwithstanding that foolish final foul. Because Stanford's regular point guard, 5-11 junior Aaron Bright, was unable to play because of a sprained ankle, Randle had to pull triple duty running the team, serving as the primary scoring option, and guarding the opponent's best ballhandler. He came into this event amidst a miserable shooting slump, and though he was obviously gassed against the Gophers (3-for-19 shooting), he still made nearly 43 percent of his three-point shots and averaged 18.3 points in three games.

The absence of Bright and 6-6 junior forward Anthony Brown (hip) forced Dawkins to go extra deep into his bench, which gave valuable experience to players who wouldn't have otherwise gotten it. Chief among them was Christian Sanders, a 6-4 freshman who took Bright's place in the lineup, and 6-10 junior forward John Gage, who made six three-pointers in three games. But the main takeaway for Stanford is something we already knew: When 6-10 junior forward Dwight Powell is on the floor and attacking the rim, this team is hard to beat. When Powell is settling for jump shots or sitting on the bench because of foul trouble (he committed four in each game), then this team is vulnerable.

So, good things to build on, but a difficult lasting memory. I'm guessing it was not a happy ride back to Palo Alto.

They Woke Up the Space!

I watched all eight teams conduct shootarounds on Wednesday. My favorite moment was when the Rams walked into the ballroom-turned-arena. I could hear them coming before they got there because they were all shouting and chanting. Coach Shaka Smart trailed his players onto the floor and obviously liked what he was hearing. "Let's wake up the space!" he shouted.

Welcome to my new favorite expression.

That scene encapsulated what makes VCU so effective and fun to watch. Smart's "havoc" system requires a great deal of energy and depth, and the Rams have both. Their style also depends on creating a ton of turnovers and making a high percentage from three-point range. Alas, when those things aren't happening, they are just another team.

VCU fought hard against Duke and Missouri, but the Rams were unable to get over the hump. After forcing Memphis to commit 22 turnovers in the quarterfinal, they forced just eight from Duke and 14 from Missouri. And after making 13-of-22 from three against Memphis, VCU was 4-for-18 and 8-for-26, respectively, in its next two games. Even more problematic was the fact that VCU only attempted six free throws against Missouri. When you play a smaller lineup predicated on speed, you have to do a better job of driving.

VCU's lineup got smaller as the week went on. Center D.J. Haley, a 7-foot junior, only played five minutes against Duke and was dropped from the starting lineup for the Missouri game. On the flip side, sophomore guard Treveon Graham was a revelation. At 6-5, 215 pounds, Graham is big, strong and versatile. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called him VCU's best player after watching him hang 26 points on Memphis.

The bottom line is, VCU is a talented, entertaining team that is not operating on a big margin for error. To compete with the Rams, you have to match their energy. In other words, you've gotta wake up the space.

THIS WEEK'S AP BALLOT(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Indiana (1)

2. Duke (3)

3. Louisville (2)

4. Kentucky (4)

5. Michigan (5)

6. Ohio State (6)

7. Syracuse (7)

8. Arizona (8)

9. Kansas (9)

10. Michigan State (10)

11. Florida (12)

12. Gonzaga (18)

13. Cincinnati (20)

14. Missouri (21)

15. Creighton (22)

16. Georgetown (NR)

17. Colorado (23)

18. San Diego State (16)

19. North Carolina (13)

20. Florida State (24)

21. Pittsburgh (25)

22. Oregon (NR)

23. UNLV (14)

24. Illinois (NR)

25. N.C. State (19)

Dropped out: Memphis (11), UConn (15), UCLA (17)

I'd like to tell you that I gave a lot of thought to ranking Duke number one, but I really didn't. I just didn't think it was right to drop my number one team if it doesn't lose. The Hoosiers didn't look like world beaters against Georgia and Georgetown last week, but they still won the games. So instead of taking down Indiana, I rewarded the Hoyas for hanging tough before losing in overtime. (Although Georgetown's win over UCLA the previous night looks less impressive in the wake of the Bruins' shocking home loss to Cal Poly on Sunday.)

You might be surprised I ranked North Carolina so high after the Tar Heels' loss to Butler in Maui, but I was more impressed by their comeback from 29 down than I was disappointed that they ended up losing. The Heels could have easily slinked off into the sunset, but they fought hard and learned something about themselves in the process. They're not a great team at the moment, but they're far from a bad one.

On the flip side, I usually don't drop a team six spots after a win, but if ever there was an occasion to do it, it was N.C. State's 82-80 win at home over UNC Asheville. That was especially troubling coming on the heels of the Wolfpack's blowout loss to Oklahoma State the week before.

Speaking of Oklahoma State, the Cowboys were my first team out. I try not to overreact to any single result, so I am still waiting for one more quality win from them. They will have a golden opportunity when they play Gonzaga at home on New Years Eve. If you want to be ranked, you have to win that game.

As usual, the more interesting decisions came at the bottom of my ballot, where I had to decide which of the many good candidates should be given the last couple of spots. I ended up going with undefeated Oregon because of the Ducks' win over UNLV at the Thomas and Mack Center. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better true road win turned in by any team this season. I especially like that the Ducks won the game despite shooting 3 -for-19 from three-point range. That shows me they are capable of playing well when they're not playing well, if you get my (Zen) drift. I think much of it has to do with the presence of uber-rebounder Arsalan Kazemi, a transfer from Rice.

Illinois also gets the nod for winning the Maui Invitational. I'm not sure the Illini can stay there for long (a little too reliant on the three-pointer for my tastes), but for the time being they're 7-0 and deserve to be ranked.

In retrospect, I guess I violated my single-result rule when I put UConn so high after the Huskies' season-opening win over Michigan State. The Huskies' loss to New Mexico at the Paradise Jam in Puerto Rico looks worse when lumped in with their uninspiring wins the previous week over Wake Forest (by six) and Quinnipiac (in double overtime). We'll have a better handle on how good this team is on Dec. 4 against when they play N.C. State at Madison Square Garden.

A couple of teams who played at the Battle 4 Atlantis were also within range of being ranked. VCU looked like a top 25 team, but if you're going to rank the Rams, you have to put them behind Wichita State, which is undefeated and beat VCU in Richmond. I also think Minnesota will be ranked at some point this season, but the Gophers' wins over Memphis and Stanford don't get them there just yet.

I also looked hard at Alabama, which is still undefeated. The Tide can get on my ballot if they win next weekend at Cincinnati. But that's a tough ask.

Two other teams worthy of consideration are Ohio and California, who are both undefeated. The Bobcats' only tough nonconference games are road tests at Memphis on Dec. 5 and at Oklahoma on Dec. 29. Frankly, I'm disappointed that the Bobcats' first-year coach Jim Christian didn't set up more challenging, high-profile games to take advantage of that Sweet Sixteen run. The Bears, meanwhile, haven't played anyone of significance yet, but they will have a chance to turn some heads in the next couple of weeks with games against Wisconsin, UNLV and Creighton.

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