Inside the College Game
By Adi Joseph
My apologies to the Pac-10.
[img_assist|nid=4048|title=Darren Collison - AP Photo: Don Ryan|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=366]A few weeks ago, I declared that the SEC was the best conference in college basketball. I believed the Southeastern Conference to be much deeper than any other conference in the NCAA. I saw schools like Georgia, Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt off to strong non-conference seasons, and I believed that the success at the bottom of the conference was great backing to an outstanding aristocracy of Florida, Alabama, LSU, Tennessee and Kentucky.
I still believe the SEC is a great conference, but I was underrating the Pac-10 when I called any other conference the best in the country. The West Coast is hot this year, and the Pac-10 could (and would, if the season ended today) have six teams in the Big Dance this March. Backing perennial powers Arizona, UCLA, and Washington have been surprise seasons from Oregon, USC and Washington State.
Tim Floyd is one of my favorite coaches in America, and he has done an outstanding job this season. The Trojans dealt with the death of point guard Ryan Francis and combo guard Gabe Pruitt’s suspension, and managed to make the best of it. They’ve been responsible for a number of upsets already this year, and with Pruitt back should be on track for a strong second half.
Oregon and Washington State managed to hand upset losses to UCLA and Arizona this past weekend, respectively. All four teams are ranked, and all four teams clearly deserve their rankings. Washington State represents a huge contrast in style from the other top Pac-10 teams, and their grind-it-out style will prove difficult for a number of the fun-and-gun offenses in the league.
As a whole, the Pac-10 has been the top conference of the half-season, which brings me to this weeks column, where I will be featuring mid-season awards. Now, onto the show.
Unseen, Unheard, Unheralded
Who’s Flying Under the Radar
1. Providence Friars (12-3, 2-0 Big East)
An early season 10-point loss to Brown suddenly seems forgivable for the Friars, who have a few very good wins over Boston College and Marquette. The Friars are lead by an outstanding sophomore class, including stat stuffer Geoff McDermott and tough little-man Sharaud Curry. Providence seems to have all the pieces to pose a problem for their ranked rivals in the Big East, and proved so after knocking off a slumping Marquette team without leading scorer Curry. The Friars have a tendency to turn the ball over too often, but they are shooting a high percentage from the field and appear to be a legitimate dark horse for the Big East crown.
2. Stan Heath, Arkansas Coach
Stan Heath saved his job last year by making his first NCAA Tournament in his stint with the Razorbacks. Now forced to rebuild after losing several key pieces (specifically Ronnie Brewer and Jonathon Modica), Heath has managed to build his team into one of the most exciting and athletic teams in the country. Building off of three newcomers, former-Mississippi State point guard Gary Ervin, freshman guard Patrick Beverley, and juco swingman Sonny Weems, Heath has his team playing great basketball, as proven by their stomping of then-#8 Alabama over the weekend and close loss to #2 ranked Florida Tuesday.
3. Rashaun Freeman and Stephane Lasme, Massachusetts Forward/Centers
I had the chance to watch Freeman and Lasme go to work at La Salle on Saturday, and these two are among the best post tandems in the country. Combining for 29.7 points, 17.9 rebounds while shooting 62.5% from the field, these two compliment each other very nicely and have the ability to take over a game. Lasme’s athleticism and defensive prowess (5.3 blocks per game) allows Freeman to focus on the offensive end of the floor more, and his outstanding footwork and low post skill set have proven to be tough to handle. These two should keep the Minutemen in the hunt for the Atlantic-10 crown.
The Best, Acknowledged
Mid-Season Awards Handed Out
With conference schedules hitting full-swing and most of the elite teams having their rotations figured out, I figured it was time to hand out some mid-season awards.
Player of the Half-Year: Alando Tucker, Wisconsin Senior Small Forward
Tucker’s explosive athleticism is obvious. What has gone unnoticed is the huge leap he has taken in his overall game. Tucker is an outstanding defender, one of the best on the ball in the NCAA. He also has dramatically improved his assist-turnover ratio and has seen increased play-making responsibility this season. His jump shot is still questionable, but Tucker is an outstanding college player who has been invaluable to a top five team.
All-American First Team:
PG: Darren Collison, UCLA Sophomore
Collison gets the nod over Texas A&M’s Acie Law because of his outstanding quickness and unheralded shooting ability. Collison is shooting 54.7% from the field and 51.2% from behind the arc. He also leads the UCLA fast-pace offense like a pro.
SG: Chris Lofton, Tennessee Junior
Lofton has been hailed as the best shooter in college basketball for a reason. He has J.J. Redick-type range and also has shown some handles and great defense. His 35-point 11-rebound performance against Texas put him into the Player of the Year contention.
PF: Glen Davis, LSU Junior
The Big Baby came into this year with enormous expectations, and after dropping weight in the off season has managed to fulfill them. Though LSU hasn’t quite had the season expected out of them, Davis has been a huge force and has played as well as any big man in the nation.
C: Nick Fazekas, Nevada Senior
Fazekas has a lot of people around basketball whispering about player of the year contention, as he has pushed Nevada as a true elite mid-major. Fazekas recently suffered a minor injury, but if he can get back on track quickly, he should continue his push for post-season awards.
All-American Second Team
PG: Acie Law IV, Texas A&M Senior
SG: Morris Almond, Rice Senior
SF: Kevin Durant, Texas Freshman
PF: Jared Dudley, Boston College Senior
C: Mario Boggan, Oklahoma State Senior
Coach of the Half-Year: Tony Bennett, Washington State
Washington State hasn’t had a winning season since 1995-1996. The Cougars haven’’t made a tournament since Kelvin Sampson was their coach, in 1993-1994. Now, Tony Bennett has Pullman thinking big. Bennett, in his first year as head coach, has taken over for his father, Dick Bennett, and is now one of the hottest names in coaching.
Honorable Mention: Oliver Purnell, Clemson; Sean Sutton, Oklahoma State
Freshman of the Half-Year: Kevin Durant, Texas Freshman Forward
Kevin Durant. What can I say that hasn’t been said? He’s the best freshman we’ve seen since Carmelo Anthony. His skill set is absolutely tremendous and despite his youthful appearance he is NBA-ready. I truly love watching this kid play.
Honorable Mention: Greg Oden, Ohio State Center; Chase Budinger, Arizona Forward
Defensive Player of the Half-Year: Sean Williams, Boston College Junior Center
Williams’ shot blocking prowess has been noted and awed by many analysts and commentators. What has gone unnoticed is Williams ability to flat out defend, whether or not he’s blocking shots. His athleticism allows him to lockdown opponents while the rest of his game has shown improvement as well.
Honorable Mention: Jerel McNeal, Marquette Guard; Jermareo Davidson, Alabama Forward
Most Improved of the Half-Year: Kyle Visser, Wake Forest Senior Center
Visser came into the year having shown some flashes of potential. However, the big man had been marred by foul trouble and stuck on Skip Prosser’s bench. This year, Visser has stepped into a featured role in the Demon Deacons’ offense, and has answered the call, becoming one of the top centers in the nation.
Honorable Mention: Demetrius Nichols, Syracuse Forward; Drew Neitzel, Michigan State Guard
Comeback Player of the Half-Year: Curtis Sumpter, Villanova
After sitting out all of last year, Sumpter has reemerged as a top-tier basketball player in a competitive Big East. He is the driving force behind the Wildcats, and is carrying the offense as the focal point both on the perimeter and wing.
Honorable Mention: Nate Funk, Creighton Guard; Josh Heytvelt, Gonzaga Forward
Game Notes: Wednesday’s Kansas-Oklahoma State match-up was seen as a battle between two of the Big 12 elite. Instead, it looked like the teams were playing six-on-four, as Kansas constantly had double teams and hustle plays all over the court. Oklahoma State could not keep up with the Jayhawks’ athleticism… Duke needs Greg Paulus to step up if they plan compete among the nation’s elite. Paulus has been awful lately, and pressing ACC teams such as UNC, Maryland and Clemson will be able to reek havoc against the Blue Devils if Coach K can’t get reliable play at the point… UNC’s stomping of Florida State was a statement game. Roy Williams has found his rotation and the Tar Heels are the nation’s most dangerous force… One positive out of the news of Bill Walker’s season ending injury: the budding star is much more likely not to contest the NBA’s age restrictions, strengthening the 2007-2008 Wildcats… It’s tough to decide which Florida stomping of Ohio State was worse: December 23’s basketball beat down or the BCS National Championship game. Intriguingly, Florida, Ohio State and Wisconsin could all very realistically end up top 5 in both the final football and basketball polls…… After an 8-1 start, Georgia has lost it’s past four games. However, Dennis Felton’s team lost to Georgia Tech, Clemson, Wisconsin, and Florida. Non-conference games like the first three and an earlier win over Gonzaga can help a team in the long run, and it wouldn’t shock me if the Bulldogs found their way into the Big Dance.
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