Thanks to some big assists from role-player-turned-playmaker Taurean Green, Florida's one of the season's early surprises
Florida began the season unranked, and with good reason. The Gators, who lost their top three scorers from last year (guards Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh and forward David Lee), were left with an untested starting lineup made up of four sophomores and a junior. Little wonder coach Billy Donovan is so pleasantly surprised by Florida's 7--0 record through Monday, its best start in 20 years. That run, which included wins over Wake Forest and Syracuse as well as a comeback from a 17-point deficit against Florida State, has vaulted Florida to No. 8 in this week's AP poll. "We weren't going to replace the guys we lost with one or two players, so the thing I've emphasized with this team is unselfishness," Donovan says. "They've exceeded my expectations."
Indeed, the Gators have gotten assists on nearly 70% of their field goals, thanks in part to the deft dishing of sophomore point guard Taurean Green, a role player last season who has averaged 5.1 assists a game and ranks second on the team in scoring (14.4 points). Green's excellence has helped make Florida the biggest surprise of the season's first month. Here are some other early impressions.
December 12, 2005
Biggest disappointment: Charlotte. We could have gone with Miami (5--3 through Monday), but the Hurricanes have been slowed by injuries to point guards Anthony Harris (stress fracture in his right foot) and Eric Wilkins (back) and center Anthony King (sprained left ankle). Charlotte, by contrast, is plenty healthy--but the 49ers, who boast an All-America candidate in 6'8" senior forward Curtis Withers, were 5--3 following losses to Northwestern, Wyoming and Mississippi State. They also needed two overtimes to beat Davidson at home.
Best player: Adam Morrison, Gonzaga. The Larry Bird comparisons aren't far off. Morrison's height (6'8") and scoring skills (29.7 average) compare well with Bird's, and the Zags' junior forward has a similar competitive fearlessness. Now all Morrison needs to do is take his team to the Final Four, as Bird did with Indiana State in 1979.
Best unknown player: Anthony Winchester, Western Kentucky. The 6'4" senior guard averaged 24 points during the Hilltoppers' 4--1 start, which included an impressive road win at Alabama-Birmingham. The versatile Winchester was second on the team in rebounding (5.4 per game) while shooting 52.5% from three-point range.
Overrated: Duke is 7--0 and ranked No. 1, but the Blue Devils have not looked like a team ready to win the national championship. They struggled to beat Drexel in the preseason NIT and needed a miraculous half-court shot by Sean Dockery on Sunday to edge unranked Virginia Tech at home. Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has seen his share of great teams in Durham, says of this year's Devils, "We're not any kind of powerhouse."
Best transfer: Marco Killingsworth, Indiana. The 6'8" senior forward was a rebounding force at Auburn, and his improved scoring ability was evident in his career-high 34-point performance in a Nov. 30 loss to Duke. When the Hoosiers get 6'9" sophomore D.J. White back from a broken left foot at the end of this month, they'll have the best post-scoring tandem in the country.
Strangest schedule: Louisville. As trade shows featuring livestock and RVs occupied Freedom Hall for much of November, the fifth-ranked Cardinals played just once during the month, a 78--61 home win over Tennessee-Martin. They will make up ground with 11 games in December, but their only road match before Big East play comes on Dec. 17 at Kentucky.
Turnaround Tom Does it Again
This fall, the University of Houston touted its hoops team on highway billboards as the show. The Cougars won 18 games last season, coach Tom Penders's first at the school, doubling their 2003--04 total, but for a program that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years, the billing seemed a bit overheated.
Last Saturday at Hofheinz Pavilion the Cougars proved their ad campaign was not hyperbole, upsetting 15th-ranked Arizona 69--65. One of the fans who mobbed the floor afterward carried a sign that read turnaround tom, referring to Penders's record of resuscitating programs at Rhode Island, Texas, George Washington and now Houston. The win over the Wildcats, which came on the heels of an 84--83 victory against No. 25 LSU on Nov. 29, marked the first time the Cougars had defeated ranked teams back-to-back since the 1984 NCAA tournament--the last of three straight Final Four trips during the glory days of Phi Slamma Jamma. For those who expected the depleted Conference USA to be Memphis and a bunch of stiffs in '05, well.... "We think Memphis is great, don't get me wrong," Penders says, "but we think we're just as good."
Houston's 3--1 start was triggered by the top gun in Penders's four-juco-player recruiting class, junior two guard Oliver Lafayette, whom the coach lured from Brown-Mackie College in Kansas with this pitch: "If you're afraid to take 20 shots a game, don't come here." Lafayette's response? "Bring it on"--and he has been a perfect fit in Penders's up-tempo attack, scoring 60 points (on 37 attempts) in the two upsets.
The Cougars' two Top 25 victims, ironically, have recruited away top Houston talent (Arizona landed swingman Jawann McClellan, and LSU snatched guard Tack Minor), while the U of H has of late been largely ignored by local stars. But while both McClellan (who is academically ineligible) and Minor (academic violations) have been serving suspensions this semester, the lone Houston product on the Cougars' roster, junior point guard Lanny Smith, has been running the Show (dishing out 11 assists and committing just one turnover against the Wildcats) and helping spark a Hofheinz revival. "When I first got here, I could dribble the ball during games and hear it echo," Smith says. "For us to have the place packed now, it's special." --Luke Winn
NBA scouts evaluate the potential of Temple point guard Mardy Collins, a 6'6", 220-pound senior who averages 15.2 points and 3.4 assists a game.
He is a big, powerful guy who won't get knocked off the dribble. His size is unusual for a point guard, and it's the key thing he brings to the table.... He has good vision and passing ability.... He's a great defender. He always has his hand on the ball and in the passing lanes. But Temple plays zone, so you wonder if he can defend an NBA point guard man-to-man.... The knock against him is that he isn't a consistent jump shooter. He also is not the greatest athlete in the world and lacks quickness.... He's a jack of all trades but a master of none.... Does he have first-round talent? Yes. Could I unequivocally take him in the first round? No. He'll be a second-round pick. He will play in the NBA, have a long career and always fill up the stat sheet.
SETH DAVIS'S Hoop Thoughts
Defense and toughness have been the trademarks of Tom Izzo's teams at Michigan State. But the Spartans--despite their 5--2 start and solid play by sophomore point guard Drew Neitzel (left)--are lacking in both this season. Michigan State has allowed opponents to shoot 45% from the floor and in narrow wins last week over Georgia Tech and Arkansas--Little Rock was outrebounded by a combined 64--56. "We have no identity," Izzo lamented after the Spartans almost blew a 12-point lead at home to the Yellow Jackets. "There's a concern we just don't want to guard anybody. That's going to change."
One welcome change was the return of Matt Trannon, the starting wide receiver on Michigan State's football team. Trannon, who averaged 3.3 rebounds as a reserve last season, joined the Spartans for their game against Arkansas--Little Rock last Saturday. He contributed a key inside basket late in the game and should help restore the toughness the team lacks. It would also help if athletic wings Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown started showing as much passion for playing D as they do for scoring.
Now that Kentucky sophomore center Randolph Morris (right) appears to have been ruled ineligible by the NCAA (the school is formally applying for his reinstatement), Arn Tellem's SFX sports agency will have some questions to answer. Morris did not technically sign a contract with SFX when he declared himself eligible for the NBA draft last spring, but the agency arranged workouts with pro teams for him and even issued a press release on his behalf. Morris was obviously trying to keep his options open by not officially signing with SFX, but if the agency did not notify Morris he could be ruled ineligible regardless of the contract, then it did him a huge disservice.
1Bucknell is the new Vermont. Despite playing four of their first five games on the road and competing in a conference (Patriot League) that has only allowed athletic scholarships since 1998, the Bison are 5--0, including wins at Syracuse and DePaul.
2Drexel is a disappointment. Since giving Duke and UCLA stern tests during the preseason NIT, the Dragons have lost three straight--to Penn, Saint Joseph's and La Salle.
3The Pac-10 is off to a rough start. Besides Arizona's upset at the hands of unranked Houston, Stanford lost by 19 at Montana last weekend while Oregon fell to Georgetown at home.