So here goes the inaugural post. My name's Andy Edwards, but most people call me Sanders (I'm from Kentucky). I'm a senior at Notre Dame, and I lived in Mattare's section of O'Neill Hall for 2 years before he went on to bigger and better things. I'm a huge ND and Louisville fan, and even though I'm a big fan of college football, college basketball has always been my one true love. I'll be talking almost exclusively about it now that the season has gotten into swing, and my schedule for the rest of the semester and the spring is emptier than Ron Artest's half-time bottle of Hennessy, so I should be able to contribute regularly. What better way to start than by illuminating a relatively obscure inter-conference early season tournament, the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood series.
I'm a little behind the 8 ball on this one, and this series is a little different from the more well-known Big 10/ACC Challenge. For starters, there are 12 games, leaving open the possibility of a tie (which happened last year), and some teams play twice. USC already lost to Nebraska, so chalk up a 1-0 lead for the Big 12 before I even knew the tournament was going on. Naturally, USC takes the court as a Pac-10 representative again tonight. Being an ND fan, I'd love to see them lose twice in the same tournament, but let's take a look at the match-ups.
Washington at Texas Tech (7:00, ESPN2): The 10th-ranked Huskies make the long trip to Lubbock to take on Pat Knight's Red Raider squad. Both teams come in undefeated, and this game should be the first real test for each of them. Texas Tech is off to a 7-0 start, but have played just one road game, which they eked out by 2 over Stephen F. Austin. This should be a great barometer game for both teams, but especially for the Raiders, who were picked anywhere from 9th to 11th in the Big 12 preseason standings by most polls and publications. College basketball is full of teams that feast on subpar competition early in the year only to be ruthlessly exposed as overrated once the level of competition picks up. I haven't seen Tech play, but I know they lack the star power of Lorenzo Romar's Huskie team, which features two of the more NBA-ready prospects in the Pac-10 in Quincy Pondexter and lightning-quick guard Isaiah Thomas. Pondexter heads a thin list of college seniors that have caught the eyes of NBA scouts, and his physical talents are striking. He could be a lottery pick next year if he improves his perimeter game. He's already shown major improvements in the rebounding category (up to 11 a game from 6 last year), and should carry the Huskies to a win here. Texas Tech lacks the speed to handle Thomas and the firepower to neutralize the 42 points per game that he and Pondexter provide. Pac-10 ties the series at 1.
USC at Texas (9:00, ESPN2): Like many teams fresh off the loss of 2 first-round picks, the Trojans are struggling this year. They've struggled to replace the scoring of Taj Gibson and the athleticism of Demar Derozan this year, and it's shown in losses to Nebraska and Loyola-Marymount. The Longhorns, meanwhile, are challenging Kansas for the top spot in the polls and have cruised to an undefeated mark. USC has nobody to bang with Dexter Pittman inside, and do-it-all forward Damion James and freshman J'Covan Brown should provide a lot of help in making the Trojans' first road game a difficult experience. I like the Horns by double digits here. Big 12 takes a 2-1 lead.
Baylor at Arizona State: This is one of the more interesting games of the event. Baylor is always a fun team to watch, and this year is no exception. They get up and down the court, push tempo, and never hesitate to launch a 3-point barrage on their opponents. Defense has always been the issue, but they seem to have improved in that area this year, giving up just 60.3 points per game, albeit against admittedly mediocre competition. Their win over Xavier in the Old Spice Classic had to impress some folks, myself included. The Bears really faded down the stretch last year, and I'm not sure they have the talent to really compete within the conference this year. LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter should put on an show, but I actually like the Sun Devils at home. They're not the most athletic or entertaining, but they're a solid and relatively balanced squad that plays good defense and tries to control the tempo of the game. Center Eric Boateng is shooting a whopping 72% from the field this year, certainly impressive considering I doubt former Indiana Mr. Basketball and ND center Luke Zeller could shoot that high a percentage throwing balls into the ocean. I like their point guard Derek Glasser to limit turnovers and get his teammates in good spots, and the home crowd and some timely 3-point shooting from Rihards Kuksiks wins the game for the Sun Devils and pulls the Pac-10 even at 2.
Colorado at Oregon State: Not even being the president's brother in law has helped Craig Robinson to sniff the .500 mark this year. The Beavers, expected by many to make a move up the conference standings this year, have been a major disappointment at 2-3. They're allowing more points than they score, which is always a concern this early in the year, and apart from Seth Tarver, do not have a single player scoring more than 8 points per game. Colorado, on the other hand, has been something of a pleasant surprise in the Big 12. They come in at 5-2, but that could easily be an undefeated record with very close losses against Gonzaga and Arizona in OT. Cory Higgins and Alec Burks control the perimeter and provide a lot of scoring, but the Buffs lack the size to compete in the normally power-laden Big 12. I worry a little about them making the trip out West and playing an 11:00 game, but their guard play and firepower should be more than enough to get them past an anemic Beavers squad. Big 12 takes a 3-2 lead in the series.
Oregon at Missouri: The Ducks should make a huge rise in the standings this year after finishing 8-23 last year. Coach Ernie Kent has doled out some high praise to freshman Jamil Wilson, and his emergence coupled with the return of senior point guard Tajuan "Cauliflower Ear" Porter should have the Ducks primed to compete for a top 4 or 5 finish in the Pac-10. Missouri, fresh off a run to the Elite 8 last season, has already lost to Richmond and Vanderbilt on the road, and has struggled to replace all that Demarre Carroll, Leo Lyons, and Matt Lawrence gave them last year. I don't think they'll drop off a cliff this year, with Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year J.T. Tiller back and Kim English stepping into a much bigger role this year. This should be an up-and-down, high-scoring affair between a pair of teams that lack a dependable stable of big men. Oregon hasn't gone on the road yet this year, and I think their first trip ends with a loss, as Mizzou rides the home crowd to a victory and a 4-2 lead for the Big 12.
Washington State at Kansas State: The beauty of these inter-conference tournaments is that schools that would struggle to schedule true home-and-home series with fellow Big 6 conference schools can do so in this format, giving themselves a chance to notch victories that will impress the selection committee come March. It's a great way to add quality opponents to the schedule that might otherwise be impossible to play while also building publicity for both leagues. This game is tough to figure out. Washington State has only played two games against teams with winning records in compiling their 6-1 record. Sophomore guard Klay Thompson is second in the nation in scoring, pouring in buckets at 26.4 points per game clip, but a lot of that is inevitably due to the level of competition he's faced. The folks from Manhattan, Kansas (ManHappenin, as I've heard it called) are coming off a lackluster effort against D-II opponent Fort Hays State, in which the Wildcats won by just 7. They lost to Ole Miss earlier in the year, but also beat A-10 favorite and 2009 Sweet 16 team Dayton on a neutral court. You can bet that Frank Martin will have his kids ready to play on Saturday, and when in doubt it's usually a good bet to pick the home team (apart from the obvious advantages, referees do indeed show a home-court bias-a study I'll examine in a future post), so I'm going with K-State in this one. Big-12 takes a 5-2 lead.
Iowa State at California: Andy Katz likes the Cyclones to be on the rise this year, and with All-American candidate Craig Brackins back for another year in Ames, what's not to like? Mix in junior-college transfer Marquis Gilstrap, and Iowa State has a strong 1-2 punch in the frontcourt. Junior guard Diante Garrett leads the team with 6.6 assists per game, and he'll have his hands full with hot-shooting guards Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher in this one. Cal comes in off a surprising loss to New Mexico and sports just a 4-3 record thus far, their defensive inadequacies having been shown to all the world in a 22 point blowout loss to Syracuse and a subsequent loss to Ohio State earlier in the year in the 2K Sports Classic. Theo Robertson and Jamal Boykin will need to control the glass for the Bears and give their guards a chance to get hot, but I like them to do just that and pull the Pac-10 within 5-3 in the series.
Kansas at UCLA: What was supposed to be a top-notch non-conference heavyweight bout has turned into one of the biggest mismatches of the tournament. UCLA is off to a 2-4 start, and needless to say I will not be taking advantage of Notre Dame being open one more day into Christmas Break to go see that contest come the 19th. The Bruins desperately miss J'rue Holiday, who they expected to have in Westwood for two years, and losing 6 NBA first-rounders in a four-year span wouldn't be an easy prospect for anyone. The fact that Ben Howland, who took them to 3 Final Fours in a row (wrap your mind-brain around that one, as Scott Van Pelt would say), is struggling so much to get his team to compete is a testament to that. The Bruins have looked uninspired and listless on the court this year, and need Roll, Dragovic, and Keefe to shoulder the load and help turn this team around. They haven't found anything resembling an identity this year, and they followed up a very close loss to a good Butler team with a loss to Long Beach State, marking the first time the Bruins have ever lost to not one but two teams from the Big West conference in a single season. The cherry on top of this season came when sophomore guard Drew Gordon left the team. Cole Aldrich scores at will in this one, and Kansas notches an easy win and a 6-3 lead for the Big 12.
Arizona at Oklahoma: This should be an interesting game between two teams that have struggled to replace the NBA talent they lost last year. Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, and the Griffins are gone, but that doesn't mean we can't have a good game, right? Nic Wise and Willie Warren return to provide a great guard match-up, but the game will hinge on their supporting casts. Will Tony Crocker and the ironically named Tiny Gallon (6-9, 300 pounds) help out their All-America point guard enough to win at home, or will Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horn lead the Cats to the victory? Neither team plays great defense, but Arizona has been tested this year against solid competition, while the Sooners are yet to play anyone better than Arkansas and lost to Houston, VCU, and San Diego. Oklahoma's been a major disappointment this year, and that continues here with a loss to Arizona. Big 12 now leads 6-4.
Oklahoma State at Stanford: Yet another weird aspect of this event: it won't be completed until December 22nd. After a week and a half break, the Pokes and Cardinal duel in Palo Alto. Oklahoma State is fresh off a 21 point thrashing at the hands of Tulsa, but James Anderson is back and averaging over 20 a game. They should control the boards against an undersized Cardinal squad, but Stanford took Kentucky to OT earlier this year and feature a dyamic duo of Landry Fields (23 points, 9 rebounds per game) and Jeremy Green (15 points, 47% on 3's) that I was very impressed with when I saw them take on UK. I like Stanford at home here. Pac-10 edges to within 6-5, leaving the final game to determine the winner......
Texas A&M at Washington: This game is a microcosm of the problems associated with this event. It's spread out over a month, and 2 Pac-10 teams have to play twice to ensure that all 12 schools in the Big 12 get an opponent. Although Cal and Kansas play today as well, that game isn't part of the series because of existing contracts between the conferences, so it's hard to determine which games are part of the challenge and which aren't. Anyways, this one is, and it may be for all the marbles. The Huskies head home for their 2nd game of the challenge to face the 22nd-ranked and surprising Aggies. Texas A&M has already beaten Minnesota and Clemson, and played West Virginia tough. They feature one of the better guards in the conference in Donald Sloan and one of its toughest big men in Bryan Davis, who should have his way inside against U-Dub. They are balanced, tough and much more battle-tested than Washington. This should be a good fight, but I think A&M's efforts to schedule big games early in the season will pay off here. Big 12 wins 7-5. The Big 12 is a better conference top to bottom than the Pac-10, which has featured several disappointing teams in the early going. These tourneys are all about match-ups, but conference strength and previous results can definitely illuminate some of the more tossup-type games.
Hope you all enjoyed my first post. The last game of my illustrious broomball career is tonight, so needless to say I'll be channeling my inner Ron-Ron before and possibly during the game. I'll be back in a few days with a new post.