Teams to Keep an Eye On
Well, the Turkey is out of the way (unless some of you are still consuming leftovers), and the Feast that is the ACC-Big Ten Challenge is upon us.
But let’s take a quick look back at teams that impressed over the Thanksgiving Holiday:
1) Butler. A top-half seed is not out of the question for the Bulldogs after they knocked off Indiana, Tennessee, and Gonzaga all on neutral courts. Graves, the tournament’s MVP, was a terrific floor leader, and the team’s free throw shooting was simply amazing throughout. Importantly, Butler followed up the NIT title with a home win in OT against Kent State the next day. A two-loss Horizon League finish is still necessary to assure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but things look very good for Butler at the moment.
2) Providence. Yes, Providence. After an inexplicable intra-city loss to Brown in the second game of the year, the Friars have reeled off big wins against Boston College and George Washington. Florida is on the schedule for 12/6. The inside-outside combo of Sharaud Curry and Herbert Hill has been leading the Friars thus far. At the very least, look for Tim Welsh’s team to be a thorn in the side of the traditional Big East power schools once conference play rolls around.
3) The Valley. It was a tremendous weekend for the Missouri Valley Conference, with Creighton knocking off George Mason, Bradley putting the fear of The Brave into Illinois, Illinois State beating St. John’s at MSG, and of course the biggie: Wichita State over LSU in the Bayou. This conference could surpass the neighboring Big Ten in RPI this year, as it did to the Pac-10 last year.
4) Florida-Kansas. The game lived up to its billing in all facets & for those who were handing the Gators a ticket to Atlanta already, be warned: if every team competes against UF with the intensity that Kansas did, it’s going to wear Billy Donovan’s team down. On a personal note, I was surprised to see Donovan go away from the Zone late in the second half after Kansas had struggled to make outside shots at times throughout the night. If you’re going to beat the Jayhawks, playing a disciplined half-court game at both ends of the floor (Butler, anyone?) is probably the way to do it. But give the Jayhawks full credit for finding ways to get out in transition and stopping the Gators when it mattered most on D.
5) UCLA. Great defense, tremendous athleticism, experience, on-floor leadership, the return of an injured star (Josh Shipp), an outside shooter that no one knew they had (Michael Roll), a potential all-Pac-10 point guard that no one knew they had (Darren Collison), and two potential first-round NBA picks in Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Arron Afflalo. This team looked terrific in Maui, and is an early favorite of mine to make it back to the Final Four, along with fellow Pac-10 powerhouse Arizona.