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Inside the College Game

Mon, 01/07/2008 - 3:17pm

By Adi Joseph
1/7/08

[img_assist|nid=3550|title=Russell Westbrook - Ric Tapia/Icon SMI|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=450]We’re past New Years. It’s time to sort things out.

Non-conference play can present some fun matchups. You can always hope to see rematches later in the season (think Ohio State-Florida last season). And even if that doesn’t occur, games like Georgetown-Memphis provide both early measuring sticks and really fun games with contrasting style.

But conference play is different. Some coaches break the season into thirds – non-conference play, conference play, post-season. Each third is increasingly more important than the last. Conference play is a matter of pride. It’s a matter of natural rivalries. It’s a matter of who will stand out on the even playing fields.

No more can teams hide their inadequacies by playing inferior opponents at home. And we’re already seeing the results.

Out west, UCLA and Washington State earned their spots in the Top 5 with big road wins. The Bruins went north into the Bay Area and knocked off Stanford and Cal in a three-day span by 31 combined points. Neither team is anywhere close to a slouch, and the Bruins really proved their marquee status.

With point guard Darren Collison back from his early season injuries, Russell Westbrook – Collison’s early-season replacement – had initially struggled to find his fit. Now Westbrook and Collison have gelled and the Bruins are running as well as they have in years. Swingman Josh Shipp and center Kevin Love have been the biggest benefactors, finding high-quality shots with two outstanding playmakers on the floor at once.

Meanwhile, Washington State has made clear that Pullman is the capital of Washington basketball on the basis of road wins over Washington on Saturday and Gonzaga on Dec. 5. The Cougars have proven themselves to be a serious threat to UCLA and all other Pac-10 and national contenders as a team that rarely makes mistakes.

Next on the plate for the Cougars is a Los Angeles trip, facing off at USC and UCLA. If the Cougars can pull of the LA sweep, they should be considered for No. 1.

Then again, maybe the current No. 1 is just fine. North Carolina showed and proved itself on Sunday, winning an overtime game at Clemson. On paper, only Duke should pose a serious threat to the Tar Heels’ ACC domination. But games aren’t played on paper.

The ACC is always a competitive league with an exciting brand of basketball and the Tar Heels are sure to take some lumps and get into some close games. Pulling out the win in Clemson is a huge showing for the Tar Heels, who were under one second away from an overtime loss. It’s also a deceptively good sign that they could win a tough one while superstar Tyler Hansbrough is shut down on the offensive end. Hansbrough offered only 12 points on 3-of-7 shooting in 42 minutes, but sophomore guard Wayne Ellington made up for it with 36 points of his own.

Ellington and Lawson have really gelled this season, something that wasn’t quite there last year when Ellington’s talent rarely showed itself and instead he came across as not much more than a jump shooter. Both players have looked more free and willing to take chances, which is a huge step for the Tar Heels.

Marquette, on the other hand, failed in their first major road test, taking a beating at West Virginia on Sunday. The Mountaineers had been smoked at Notre Dame earlier this week, but they are a good team. Still, the Golden Eagles were supposedly a great team, and a 15-point loss to a less talented team doesn’t give me much confidence in that judgment. Losing the rebounding battle to a team like West Virginia isn’t a good sign for a team with Final Four aspirations.

The season doesn’t end here of course. But conference play is the best indicator for a team (Memphis excluded). Now that it’s here, its forces are already being felt in a major way.

Game Notes:

Memphis is at a point where more than three losses would be mildly disappointing going into the NCAA tournament. They still have games at UAB and Houston and games at home against Gonzaga, Tennessee and Houston, to go along with the Conference USA tournament. But they “should” win all of those and it may be unfair but even three losses may not guarantee John Calipari of a No. 1 seed, which in itself is incredible… As impressive as Memphis may be, Butler is on a similar boat. The Bulldogs will be favored in all games and may shockingly be in contention for a top seed despite their Horizon League schedule if they can win out… Kyle McAlarney’s outstanding effort allowed Notre Dame to hold on at home against Connecticut, but the Huskies showed great effort coming back from down 21 points to make it a one-point game with under five minutes remaining… In what was one of the most exciting regular season games of last season, LSU looked completely overmatched by Texas A&M this time around… O.J. Mayo’s world of talent was just frustrating to watch at Stanford on Saturday. Mayo was coming off a 34-point outburst, but the stud freshman went 5-of-19 from the field against the Cardinal in a low scoring loss… As a preview to my midseason awards next week, my freshman of the year is *drumroll* Michael Beasley… See you guys then, thanks for reading.

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