Top sleeper candidates, troubles at Duke and UNC, more mailbag

Wednesday January 15th, 2014

Jordair Jett (5) and Saint Louis have been one of the most surprising teams in the nation.
Keith Gillett/Icon SMI

Every Wednesday, Seth Davis will answer five questions from his Twitter followers who submitted those questions for his weekly Twenty for Tuesday Twitter chat.

Daniel Sechuga (@Choogdawg): Who is your big mid-major sleeper this year that we should be looking for in conference play?

Daniel asked me for one. I'll give him three. See how much I adore my Twitter followers?

First and foremost, I like Louisiana Tech. This is as deep and balanced a team as you'll find. Nine players average between 12 and 28 minutes per game, led by 6-foot-4 junior guard Raheem Appleby's 16 points per game. The Bulldogs' 14-3 start includes an overtime road win at Oklahoma on Dec. 30. I anticipate that they will roll through a weakened Conference USA and possibly have a cup of coffee in the national rankings. (They were No. 25 on my AP ballot this week.) Louisiana Tech might have a chance at an at-large bid, but if it gets in by winning the conference tournament, it could earn a high enough seed to get a favorable matchup and win a game or two.

Second, watch out for Saint Louis. The Billikens returned their core from the team that won the Atlantic 10 last year, and they earned an impressive victory last weekend at Dayton to move to 2-0 in the conference. Jim Crews is doing a fine job extending the ethos that was instilled by the late Rick Majerus, resulting on a style that is predicated on toughness and teamwork.

Finally -- this won't surprise you, will it? -- I still like Harvard. That is, if this team can ever get healthy. First, the Crimson lost its starting center, Kenyatta Smith, to a sore Achilles. He has yet to play a game but could be back sometime next month. Then, Harvard had to play nine games without senior guard Brandyn Curry because of an injured foot. Just as he was working his way back into the starting lineup, leading scorer Wesley Saunders went out because of a sore knee and has yet to return. Remember, this is the team that returned all its main players from the squad that beat New Mexico in the NCAA tournament. If they ever get everyone healthy and in rhythm, the Crimson will be very dangerous -- but that's a major if.

James Donaldson (@jdon19): Any truth to the rumor that "Tobacco Road" is "closed for repairs" ?

Hey, now that's not a bad idea. In short:

Duke's on-the-ball defense has been surprisingly deficient, and with no legit center waiting to protect the rim, the Blue Devils are vulnerable both on dribble penetration and the defensive glass. Yes, Jabari Parker is going through a slump, but he is not getting much consistent help from his friends (except for Rodney Hood). Maybe Rasheed Sulaimon's performance against Virginia is a sign of things to come, but let's wait and see on that.

North Carolina has the opposite problem: the Heels can't score. When they beat Louisville -- a win that incidentally doesn't seem so impressive in retrospect -- it was because sophomore guard Marcus Paige was lights out shooting and getting to the foul line. That can only take a team so far, and the Heels' foul shooting problems have only exacerbated their issues. This is the very dimension that P.J. Hairston was supposed to provide. Without him, the Tar Heels are very easy to scout and defend.

As for Wake Forest and N.C. State, the problem is simple: not enough talent. Under Jeff Bzdelik, the Deacons' recruiting has never matched the level it was when Skip Prosser and Dino Gaudio ran the program. (Gaudio was fired after not only making the NCAA tournament but also winning a game there. That was a travesty.) And while Mark Gottfried has had some better luck on the recruiting trail, the program sustained a mass of defections last year. T.J. Warren, the high-scoring sophomore forward, is the only player that gives opponents problems.

Last week, Duke dropped out of the AP's top 10 for the first time in more than six years. The Blue Devils fell even further to No. 23 following the loss to Clemson. One more stinker and they'll be out, too.

David Collins (@David4242): @CoachGundry Martin just doesn't fit at SC, weird marriage

This was a response to a question I took about South Carolina coach Frank Martin. Someone asked me if the program would do well in the long run. My answer: "Maybe the long LONG run."

Look, we all know this guy can coach. He had a good eye for talent while he was at Kansas State. So it should be safe to assume that if he can recruit good players to Manhattan, Kans., he should be able to get them to go to Columbia, S.C. The Gamecocks went 4-14 in the SEC (14-18 overall) last year, and they've already lost their first two league games to Florida (on the road) and LSU (home). As for recruiting, Martin signed two players ranked in the top 150 in the Class of 2014 as ranked by No. 43 Sindarius Thornwell, a 6-5 guard from Oak Hill Academy, and No. 100 Demetrius Henry, a 6-9 center from Brandon, Fla. Not bad, but not exactly reason to believe a dramatic turnaround is in the offing.

It's worth also remembering that Martin didn't take this job because he was excited about coaching at South Carolina. He had a great thing going at Kansas State. The reason Martin came was because he hated his athletic director.

Matthew Wethington (@Slow30): Thoughts on Andrew Harrison's progression these last few weeks?

I wanted to wait until after Kentucky's game at Arkansas Tuesday night to answer this. On the one hand, Andrew Harrison was not much of a factor against the Razorbacks. He only had seven points during his 38 minutes on the floor, and he also had five turnovers (to go along with six assists). On the other hand, the two field goals he did make came late in the game at significant moments. That tells you the kid has some moxie.

This is not all that different from how Andrew has been all season. He is not an efficient scorer. Yes, he had a season-high 18 points in the win over Louisville, but it took him 16 shots to do it. He has also been inconsistent in terms of taking care of the ball. And I'd still like him to get to the foul line more, especially since he converts 71 percent from there and Kentucky as a team has struggled in this area.

But if you set aside the numbers and just watch this kid play, you can see that he is doing a much better job of managing the game. I also think that his body language has gotten much better, which was the major knock on him and his twin brother coming into the season. All in all, this Kentucky team is starting to gel, a new school team playing old-school basketball. Despite the loss in overtime at Arkansas, I believe these Wildcats are primed to challenge Florida for supremacy of the SEC.

Lombardi Lambeau (@GBTitletown): What is Marquette's issue this year and can Buzz get this team to March Madness?

Certainly if anyone can alchemize this rusty old bucket, it's the wondrous Brent Williams. But I believe this task is beyond even his considerable powers. It's not complicated what's happening here: Marquette can't shoot. According to, the Eagles are ranked 101st in offensive efficiency, 254th in free throw percentage and 287th in three-point percentage. They get just 19.6 percent of their points from behind the three-point line, which ranks 320th nationally. I've always believed that if a team isn't utilizing the three-point line at a high rate, they might as well be playing four on five. There are too many teams taking advantage of that part of the game to think you can compete consistently without it.

Yes, Marquette did not expect to lose Vander Blue to the pros, and the season-ending injury to freshman point guard Duane Wilson was a tough blow. This program has won big in recent years much more because of its culture than its talent, so it is more vulnerable to personnel losses. I'll be interested to see if Buzz can resurrect this, but as of now, it looks like the team that was picked to win the Big East conference in the preseason will not even make the NCAA tournament.

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