Minnesota, UNC surprise in Puerto Rico -- but not in the same way
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The Puerto Rico Tip-Off was a tournament of revelations, some of them rude: Its only ranked team (No. 8 North Carolina) finished 1-2 and made a strong argument to be unranked by Monday. Its lone preseason All-America (Tar Heels forward Harrison Barnes) was far more freshman-like than All-America-like. Its team with the most aggressive reputation (West Virginia) had its star player (Kevin Jones) admit of his opponent, following the championship game, "They were the aggressor, and they had us on our heels the whole night."
A main reason the Gophers' bigs were overlooked was because no one knew what to expect out of Mbakwe, who essentially had his D-I coming out party in San Juan. He started at Marquette in 2007-08, playing only 11 games before suffering an injury and eventually transferring to Miami Dade Community College. Following his sophomore season there, he was involved in a felony assault case -- he was accused of attacking a woman, but evidence suggests it was a case of mistaken identity -- that delayed his debut at Minnesota by a year. Only after he completed a pre-trial program this offseason was he cleared to play, and he's been a force so far, averaging 14 points and 9.4 rebounds.
Vandy coach Kevin Stallings, for one, would like to blame it on the media: "People need to get off this first-team All-America thing," he said. "Who picked that? Give the kid a chance, he's going to be a really good player. He's a frickin' college freshman. Now, he's a very talented college freshman, but it's unfair to him, he's already got a target on his back and it's none of his own doing. ... What you guys have done to him is just not even right."
I asked UNC coach Roy Williams, who's also been critical of the Barnes over-hype, to provide a fair assessment of the kid after four games. Williams said, "He's a basketball player, is what he is. I don't say he's a great player, [because] you've gotta prove that. He was a
Williams then instructed me to be sure, if I printed that quote, to include the word "yet."
(And for what it's worth, the NBA scouts that I talked to on Sunday seemed undaunted by Barnes' slow start. "We knew he wasn't going to be Kevin Durant," one of them said. "But we also already know how good [Barnes] is. These two games ... they really don't bother me at all.")
Yet there are some glaring issues that need to be resolved: The Heels' slender frontcourt duo of John Henson and Tyler Zeller got pushed around too often on defense (particularly by Vandy's Festus Ezeli, who had a career-high 15 points and nine rebounds). Henson was major liability on offense against the Commodores, committing six turnovers against zero assists, while shooting just 2-of-6 from the foul line. His season free-throw percentage is an abysmal 23.1 percent. Williams limited Henson's minutes to 16, saying, "You've gotta deserve to play."
And the oft-discussed Carolina point guard problem still exists: Starter Larry Drew and backup Kendall Marshall were largely invisible on Sunday, combining for six points, three assists and two turnovers in 40 minutes. It might be in Carolina's best interests to eventually start Marshall and Bullock together in the backcourt, in the name of putting the most talent possible on the floor, but Marshall needs to distinguish himself first.
In Puerto Rico, Mitchell exploded for career highs of 31 (against Vanderbilt, including the game-winning three) and 27 (against Minnesota, including 16 of the Mountaineers' first 20 points). He was the most dynamic scorer in the Tip-Off field, shooting lights-out (12-of-25) from long range and looking like the feared offensive option WVU needs him to be in its first season without Da'Sean Butler.