Inside the College Game

Mon, 12/31/2007 - 9:18am

By Adi Joseph

[img_assist|nid=1946|title=Brian Roberts - Photo by Tim G. Zechar/Icon SMI|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=450] By now, Brian Roberts probably isn’t “the best player you’ve never heard of.”

But that’s only because of the hype he’s generating. Dayton’s senior combo guard has established himself as one of the top scoring threats in the country, and the Flyers have proven that they could be a threat all the way into March. Between Roberts, touted recruit Chris Wright and a number of role players who understand their places, Dayton has emerged.

And suddenly, the Atlantic-10 has emerged itself. With the Missouri Valley taking a small step back this season, the A-10 is probably the strongest conference outside of the “Big Six” BCS conferences. Dayton, Rhode Island, Xavier and UMass all could wind up in the NCAA tournament at the end of the year, provided the committee recognizes the league’s tremendous improvement.

The A-10 took some pretty hard lumps after being raided by Conference USA, and for several years question marks about the league’s ability to compete loomed. But, with Xavier, Rhode Island and Dayton at the helm, it appears the league has managed to rebuild itself quite nicely. Perhaps more than any other factor, an increased talent level has meant a major improvement.

UMass swingman Gary Forbes is drawing looks from NBA scouts. Temple’s Dionte Christmas is a huge talent who dropped 32 on Florida on Saturday. Rhode Island compliments talented forward Will Daniels with marksmen Jimmy Baron and Parfait Bitee. And St. Joseph’s has a stacked frontcourt with Pat Calathes and Ahmad Nivens.

Then there is Roberts. The star combo guard caught some criticism last season for inconsistent play. But now, teamed with Wright, he has his eyes set on A-10 Player of the Year awards. The Flyers made a national statement with their resounding 25-point win over Pittsburgh Saturday.

As good as Dayton and Rhode Island are, the A-10 favorite should still be Xavier. The Musketeers may not be loaded with superstars, but they have great depth and chemistry, led by Mighty-Mouse point guard Drew Lavender. Sean Miller is an outstanding coach who will likely get snatched up by one of the “big boys” sooner rather than later.

Regardless of who wins the conference, the Atlantic-10 has made major strides. And with that, let’s get on with the show.

Surprise, surprise

The A-10 has provided one of the early season’s biggest revelations. But they are not alone. Every year, there are surprising teams who jump out to fantastic starts. And there are teams with great expectations who fail to deliver on them right away.

It is easy to judge hot starts from teams like Memphis and Kansas, who will certainly wind up in the National Championship picture. But it is significantly more difficult to determine which teams will wind up falling back to earth once conference play begins, and which teams will rebound from a slow start to put themselves back on the map.

Let’s give it a shot.

OVERACHIEVER: Ole Miss (12-0)

The Rebels are probably the early season’s biggest shock. After all, they were expected to finish in the SEC West basement by most analysts. So how did they get to this point, entering the New Year as one of the only undefeated teams in the land? The obvious factor has been the surprising play of undersized freshman Chris Warren. Coming into the season, point guard was seen as the Rebels’ biggest weakness, but Warren and sophomore Eniel Polynice have been outstanding splitting duties of running the offense. Combine those two with massive Dwayne Curtis down low and it’s easy to understand why the Rebels have made strides. Everything, though, must come back to coach Andy Kennedy. He was an outstanding find, and he has transformed the Rebels from doormat to potential tournament team. Granted, the Rebels have not faced the strongest of opposition in their non-conference schedule. But they have the talent to do some damage in a very weak SEC, and they proved that with an impressive win at Clemson. I don’t believe the Rebels have the talent to become a real factor late in the year, but a 9-7 or 8-8 conference record and a shocking NCAA tournament bid is certainly within reach, even if their gaudy record is mostly the product of a light schedule.

UNDERACHIEVER: Kentucky (6-6)

Gardner-Webb. You remember that one. It was the early season’s biggest shock and the first sign of many that the Wildcats were not up-to-par in coach Billy Gillespie’s first season. The Wildcats were seen as one of the SEC’s best teams to begin the season, with seniors Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley leading the way. But nothing has gone as planned. An injury to sophomore Derrick Jasper shifted Bradley to the point, an uncomfortable transition that he has never handled well in the past. And Jasper’s fellow sophomores Michael Porter, Jodie Meeks, Ramon Harris, Mark Coury and Perry Stevenson have been completely underwhelming all season. That’s left Crawford, Bradley and freshman forward Patrick Patterson to handle the full load. Patterson has been terrific and the senior leaders have been strong, but if the other players don’t step up bigger, specifically on the boards where Patterson has been essentially alone, the Wildcats may shockingly fall short of even the NCAA Tournament. The transfer of freshman Alex Legion really hurt matters as well. Getting Jasper back should be a nice boost, but I believe Kentucky has dug itself a hole too deep to emerge from, and an NIT birth seems likely.

OVERACHIEVER: Miami (12-1)

A surprising loss to Winthrop put a dent in the Hurricanes’ armor, but coach Frank Haith has clearly launched the beginnings of a major turnaround in Coral Gables. More than anything, the Hurricanes thrive because of their depth, though. Up front, Anthony King, Dwayne Collins, Jimmy Graham and Raymond Hicks provide four tough, veteran big men with post skills. Swingman Brian Asbury’s scoring may be down but he’s improved his all-around game to the point where he keeps the team together. And on the wings, Jack McClinton and James Dews are the team’s leading scorers, firing three points with endless green lights. They have produced strong wins over VCU, Providence and Mississippi State and now seem geared up for ACC play. The only thing holding this team back is its point guard play. Freshman Eddie Rios is the team’s only true point, but he has been overmatched thus far this season. McClinton has run the offense at times but he lacks the requisite skills for the position. If Rios or junior Lance Hurdle can take strides in running the offense, Miami could find themselves among the elite in the weakened ACC. But more likely, they will wind up a bubble team that struggles in close games against ACC teams with better ball-handlers. Even so, an NIT bid would be a nice change of pace for Miami basketball fans.

UNDERACHIEVER: Georgia Tech (6-6)

Georgia Tech is a perfect example of what happens when a team has a boatload of talent and no one to bring it all together. The Yellow Jackets are loaded at nearly every position, even with center Ra’Sean Dickey out for the year due to injury. But they’ve struggled mightily. Losses to UNC-Greensboro, Winthrop and Florida State are ugly for a team with the talent to compete at a very high level. With leading scorers Anthony Morrow and Lewis Clinch firing from outside and a wide assortment of big men offering varied looks down low, the Yellow Jackets are one player away from being a top-tier team. But they are a very poor passing team, hindered even more by freshman point guard Maurice Miller’s early injury that has continued to nag him since coming back. Transfer point guard Matt Causey hasn’t been much of an answer either. And with Morrow and Clinch being the team’s only consistent scorers, coach Paul Hewitt has struggled to find time for some of his better defenders like DeAndre Bell. Georgia Tech sorely lacks a player to bring this talented roster together, namely a player who can create for others offensively and unify the defensive unit. A large part of the blame falls on Hewitt. But I believe in Hewitt, and I believe in this team. Perhaps it’s a stretch to suggest that Georgia Tech will find itself in the NCAA Tournament, but they could prove a factor in the ACC regular season.

OVERACHIEVER: Saint Mary’s (11-1)

Saint Mary’s? Isn’t that the team that always finishes behind Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference? Well, yes. But the Gaels are prepared now to give Gonzaga its best test in years for conference supremacy. Led by Aussie point guard Patrick Mills and undersized rebounding freak Diamon Simpson, Saint Mary’s has enough talent and chemistry to snatch an NCAA bid. Mills is a blossoming star. Only a freshman, few even expected Mills to start, but he has been a potential WCC Player of the Year candidate. Mills dropped 37 points with only one turnover in the Gaels’ biggest win of the season against Oregon. Simpson and center Omar Samhan give Saint Mary’s great stability down low on both ends of the floor. Coach Randy Bennett’s teams have always played strong defense, but the difference for this team is that they can hang with just about anyone on offense as well. I’m not going to go all the way and say that Saint Mary’s will win the WCC Championship. Gonzaga is too talented for that call to be made. But the Gaels have great chemistry and more talent than anyone other than the Bulldogs in the WCC. I fully expect an NCAA Tournament birth and a pair of outstanding games against Gonzaga. A Sweet Sixteen is not out of reach for this dazzling mid-major.

UNDERACHIEVER: Southern Illinois (6-6)

The Salukis have made the NCAA Tournament each of the last six years, an amazing feat for a mid-major program. Last season, the Salukis peaked off with a 29-7 record, including a 15-3 mark in a strong Missouri Valley Conference. This time around, they reached six losses in their eleventh game of the year. Obviously, the losses of MVC Player of the Year Jamaal Tatum and lock-down defender Tony Young have had a major impact. Star forward Randal Falker has struggled to pick up all the offensive slack from Tatum, and in general the guard position has been weaker than ever for coach Chris Lowery’s squad. Lowery has tried numerous options and is slowly figuring out what the proper rotation on the wings will be for his team. But never fear, Lowery is a brilliant young coaching mind and he will eventually solve the dilemma. Meanwhile point guard Brian Mullins and senior forwards Falker and Matt Shaw give the Salukis enough to guarantee they will continue their role as a MVC power, especially in a bit of a down year for the conference. Defensively, Southern Illinois will continue to lock down opponents and impose their own tempo on the game. This squad doesn’t have the talent of last season’s team, but they should still contend for the MVC title and an NCAA Tournament bid.

Game Notes:

Memphis vs. Arizona on Saturday would have been a far more interesting match up had Arizona star point guard Jerryd Bayless played. Bayless has proven himself to be the Wildcats’ best player and not having him gave them very little chance to beat the Tigers… Stanford’s Brook Lopez has been a beast since returning for the Cardinals, as he has averaged over 19 points and 7 rebounds in his three games this season. If he continues this pace, Lopez is a lock for the NBA Draft lottery… Michael Flowers drew the headlines for Wisconsin after their miracle win at Texas, but the bigger story for the Badgers has been Brian Butch. The senior center is finally delivering on his top-10 recruit potential… Pitt had better be sweating at this point, with their top three ball-handlers all injured in a span of nine days. Ronald Ramon (shoulder) is expected to recover quickly but Levance Fields (foot) is out for 8-12 weeks while Mike Cook (ACL) is done for the year… Bold prediction of the week: Washington State will, with their stifling defense and capable offense, win the Pac-10 regular season. The Cougars play a style that contrasts most of the league, and that should work to their advantage… That’s all for this week, have a happy new year!