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Inside the College Game

Thu, 01/31/2008 - 2:03pm

ByAdi Joseph
1/31/08

[img_assist|nid=3511|title=Jim Larranaga - Icon SMI|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=451]Cinderella is searching for another ball.

In 2006, George Mason basketball meant something. By 2007, the Patriots were a thing of the past, a year-old story that was fun while it lasted.

Virginia Commonwealth had become the talk of the Colonial Athletic Association, culminating in their CAA Tournament Championship via a memorable defeat of George Mason and an NCAA Tournament upset of Duke in Round 1.

Ram point guard Eric Maynor was a rising star, one of the hot new names in mid-major hoops, and coach Anthony Grant instantly became a big-name on the national scene. With Maynor and Grant returning along with numerous other supporting players, the Rams were everyone’s pick to take home the conference title once again.

Tuesday night, though, the Patriots struck back.

Will Thomas, the underrated power forward with the nasty hook shot from Mason’s Final Four squad, showed the nation that George Mason basketball is more than just a flash in the pan. Last season, rebuilding was required after the Patriots were forced to recoup from crucial losses. This year, Thomas, Folarin Campbell and John Vaughn are prepared for a true stand.

George Mason simply outplayed the Rams, with Thomas on full display making 8-of-9 field goals for 21 points and 15 rebounds. The Patriots turned the ball over just eight times and frustrated Maynor, Jamal Schuler and freshman Joey Rodriguez, the Rams’ three primary ball-handlers, into committing 13 turnovers themselves. Mason’s defense was stifling throughout, and when it counted, the Patriots were ready.

Maynor had stolen the conference championship and what would have been a shocking NCAA Tournament bid from George Mason last season, getting two crucial steals to end the CAA Championship game. The Patriots weren’t going to let that happen again.

Down six-points with less than 11 minutes to play, the Patriots turned it up a notch and simply dominated on a 20-4 run where they held advantages in every facet of the game. The Patriots played well enough down the stretch that their eventual 12-point win mirrored their largest lead of the game.

"We knew we were only going to play them once during the season and it was at home, so we knew it was a must-win game," Campbell said after the game to the Washington Post. “We just played with intensity. We ran. We hustled. We did everything right in the second half.”

The Patriots looked so much better Tuesday than they have in any game I have seen in the last two years. I am certainly not going to say that they will find themselves in another Final Four. I’m not even making the reach to say they will win the CAA title. But George Mason basketball meant something in 2006. And it may again mean something in 2008.

For now, let’s start the show.


There’s No ‘Five’ in ‘Team’

Of course, one issue all mid-majors (Memphis and Gonzaga notwithstanding) have to deal with on a consistent basis when battling the “big boys” is depth of talent. Whereas smaller schools often go with short benches and extended minutes for starters, powerhouse programs can run with deep benches flooded with former top recruits.

That was part of the beauty of that George Mason-Connecticut game two years ago. The Patriots had this great starting lineup that could play with anyone in the country, but the Huskies had talent that could go on for days. Former ACC Rookie of the Year Ed Nelson had transferred to Connecticut from Georgia Tech, and he was the eighth or ninth man off Jim Calhoun’s bench.

It’s a simple, obvious fact. Big teams can stack big recruits, allowing for deeper rotations and more competition for starting jobs. And in an age where players jump ship the minute they hear “first-rounder” attached to their names, having that kind of program depth is a huge deal for coaches.

There’s no “five” in “team,” because a strong bench is simply so valuable. Here is how I rank the top benches in the country. [Note that Connecticut was not considered due to suspensions to sixth man Doug Wiggins and starter Jerome Dyson that have collapsed the Huskies’ depth. Pittsburgh was not considered due to injuries to starters Levance Fields and Mike Cook that have had a similar effect.]

1. Tennessee Volunteers

Key Reserves: G Ramar Smith/Jordan Howell, F J.P. Prince, F Duke Crews, G Josh Tabb, C Brian Williams, F Ryan Childress

Yeah. That’s a long list. Bruce Pearl loves to run, and his team has so much overwhelming depth that the coach’s agenda just seems logical. Everyone is athletic, everyone has a role. Smith and Howell split time and starting duties at point guard, but Smith is best off the bench because of his explosive athleticism while Howell is a more intelligent player. Prince provides as versatile a bench player as anyone in the nation. But the meat is up front, where Crews, Williams and Childress provide three players to back up and compliment Wayne Chism perfectly, each with unique talents.

2. Memphis Tigers

Key Reserves: F Shawn Taggart, G Willie Kemp, G Doneal Mack, G Andre Allen

The Tigers play with a blitzing, attacking, frantic style that flusters and wears down opponents. But such a style can also wear down the players executing it. Coach John Calipari’s bench is so important because his team never misses a beat if a starter begins to tire. Mack is a sharp-shooter and Kemp and Allen are experienced point guards, giving the team the ability to rotate their guards rather freely without worrying about stupid mistakes. But the guy I like the most for the Tigers is Taggart, a monster on both sides who actually may be better than starter Robert Dozier.

3. Duke Blue Devils

Key Reserves: G Jon Scheyer, G Nolan Smith, F Taylor King, F David McClure, C Brian Zoubek

After starting all of his freshman season, Scheyer has taken a new role as a sixth-man extraordinaire as a sophomore. He’s become arguably the best bench player in the country, showing great poise and all-around skill. King can shoot from miles away, an ideal fit in the Blue Devils’ spread offense, while Smith provides contrast with his defense, athleticism and slashing. McClure provides a workmanlike effort every night, going against much taller players. If Zoubek starts to show any consistency this may be the best bench unit in the nation.

4. Michigan State Spartans

Key Reserves: F Marquis Gray, G Kalin Lucas, G Durrell Summers, G Chris Allen

The Spartan bench isn’t the most skilled or experienced. But that shouldn’t surprise you. Instead they are a group that combines raw athleticism with grit, determination and a commitment to defense. The three guards, Lucas, Allen and Summers, are all stars-in-the-making who are learning as they proceed through their freshmen seasons. Summers is super athletic while Lucas is lightening quick. Gray, along with Idong Ibok and Tom Herzog deeper on the bench, helps give the Spartans one of the toughest, deepest front-court units in the nation.

5. Georgetown Hoyas

Key Reserves: C Patrick Ewing Jr., F Vernon Macklin, G Jeremiah Rivers, G Tyler Crawford

Macklin exploded in Georgetown’s blowout of St. John’s on Wednesday, scoring a career-high 18 points. If he can stay hot, this may simply be the best unit in the country. Ewing is an outstanding defender who can bang down-low. He’s a dirty-work type that every team needs. Rivers is the type of guard who is perfect to fit right in when team leader Jonathan Wallace because both are intelligent lead guards. Crawford is receiving more time because of an injury to freshman Chris Wright, who had provided a nice change of pace with his explosiveness.


Game Notes:

I just want to start out by saying that Ewing’s block against West Virginia simply was basket interference. I’ve watched the replay so many times now that I can tell you where every player and referee was on the play. Each time I watch I feel stronger in my stance… If you’re looking for the hottest team in the country, look at Vanderbilt, then turn in the opposite direction. The Commodores have too much talent to be slumping so much, they’re a frustrating team to watch… Jerryd Bayless is, in my opinion, the third best player in the nation, behind Tyler Hansbrough and Michael Beasley. With him, Arizona is 13-3, without him they are 1-3… Kansas State’s big win over Kansas completely outshined Texas A&M’s romping of Texas. The Aggies were beginning to slip up but turned things around just in the nick of time… Still, it is pretty cool to see Kansas State finally beat Kansas in the same sports-season as Navy football finally toppled Notre Dame. Two incredible streaks come to an end… Pitt, Marquette and Villanova are slipping lately. So who is the second best team in the Big East in this columnist’s opinion? My choice is Notre Dame, who have a deep front court and outstanding pair of lead guards who are capable of doing just about everything… Maryland’s starting lineup scored 81 of 85 points in Wednesday’s defeat of Virginia. The Terps’ bench is absolutely atrocious and the starting lineup isn’t going to be able to do this night-in and night-out. I’m not a believer, even if their last three games have been solid… All hats off for Keno Davis, the architect of the single-season Drake turnaround and this season’s Tony Bennett. The Bulldogs have compiled a stellar 19-1 record, including 10-0 in-conference. Davis, like Bennett did last season, has taken a team over from his father (Dr. Tom Davis) and improved it substantially. For some perspective, the Bulldogs finished last year at 17-15… This week’s bold prediction involves the Super Bowl. I’ve got the Patriots winning by 20+… That’s all for this week, thanks for reading.

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