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Parity brings two Mid-major showdowns into foreground

Jared Trexler
College Basketball Contributing Editor


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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Parity reigns.

There isn't a dominant team in college basketball this season, thanks in part to a freak injury to Duke point guard Kyrie Irving nearly two months ago in a game against Gonzaga.

Since he went down, teams have jockeyed for position with several showcasing their capabilities only to remind us a game or two later that deficiencies still linger. Between all of the noise at the top sits four programs out west vying for national legitimacy. Notice I didn't use the word "respectability" because each already has that, either through past tournament success, early- season statement victories or in the case of BYU, just one player no one else has: Jimmer Fredette.

To be a fly on the wall in Provo, Utah and Spokane, Washington this Wednesday and Thursday night, respectively. Below, I break down the matchups and expect some revisionist analysis in next Monday's column on the outcomes of this week's two marquee games.

San Diego State at BYU (Wednesday, January 26th):

Initial Thoughts: San Diego State has already taken care of both teams in Thursday's showdown (edging Gonzaga way back in mid-November then disposing of St. Mary's on the first of December). The Aztecs don't have an eye-popping victory on the resume, but efficiency numbers (in the context of common opponents with some other marquee teams) show San Diego State stands up to the nation's best.

BYU has also beaten St. Mary's (by one on a neutral floor) and has bulldozed through the early portion of the Mountain West Conference slate. The Cougars are very efficient offensively, thanks in large part to Fredette's uncanny ability to create shots from all angles and convert even on the difficult ones.

Game Breakdown: San Diego State doesn't create turnovers, it's just not in its defensive makeup, and the Cougars rarely have empty possessions due largely to excellent floor spacing. So with few wasted trips, it makes San Diego State guard D.J. Gay's (likely assigned to Fredette) job that much more difficult. He won't be able to take off any plays, but he should watch tape of the job TCU's Ronnie Moss did defensively on the BYU star. TCU played a hybrid box- and-one on Fredette, holding him to just 21 points, a season low in a game in which he played at least 30 minutes. The dilemma facing Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher is Fredette has two inches on Gay, and quite a bit of foot speed on the 6-foot-2 Chase Tapley. I don't read Fisher as a gimmicky X's and O's guy, and I think he respects Jackson Emery, Kyle Collingsworth and the Cougars' inside girth too much to allow them free reign in the middle of a scrambling zone defense. I think he will rotate Gay, Tapley and 6-foot-5 guard James Rahon on Fredette to keep defenders fresh and play straight up on BYU's big men Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies with Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas.

On the other end of the floor, BYU has good enough on-the-surface defensive numbers but with an educated glance, its guards look susceptible to dribble- drive offensive sets and I believe Leonard and Thomas can have some success on the low post. Fisher does not want to turn this game into a track meet, where BYU can push and hit ahead to Fredette before the Aztecs set up their defense.

This game will be a battle of tempo, and the outcome will be based on the Aztecs' execution and patience in exploiting their offensive advantage in the post and holding Fredette to pedestrian numbers. I think they can do just enough in what will be a statement to the nation: These Aztecs are really good.

Prediction: San Diego State 73, BYU 70

St. Mary's at Gonzaga (Thursday, January 27th)

Initial Thoughts: I love watching mid-major guards because they adapt to the collegiate game with execution and smarts to make up for a lack of athleticism. Mickey McConnell is a prime example, a guard who rarely over- penetrates and knows his limitations. McConnell makes over 51 percent of shots -- otherworldly for a guard -- and converts on almost 47 percent of his long- range attempts. He is also very smart with the basketball. It's a great sign for offensive efficiency (the Gaels rank ninth nationally) when your primary ball-handler has nearly a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (129 to 44).

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few loves to test his team early in the season. It is a formula the Bulldogs have perfected in the last 10 years. They know how to manipulate the RPI to their advantage, building a profile in November and December and holding serve in the conference season. The early-season returns were not promising, as injuries and offensive inefficiency resulted in Gonzaga's 4-5 record through nine games. Since then, the Bulldogs won nine straight (including wins over Baylor, Xavier and Oklahoma State) before dropping two straight head-scratchers to Santa Clara and San Francisco. Gonzaga's biggest flaw is not the lack of scoring behind Stephen Gray, but rather its overall defensive attitude from game to game. The Bulldogs tend to get lax during prolonged stretches and don't defend the arc well (299th nationally in three-point percentage against). Santa Clara made eight three- pointers in the upset on Thursday.

Game Breakdown: This game looks to be in McConnell's wheelhouse. St. Mary's, thanks in large part to McConnell's decision-making, has the best effective field goal percentage in the nation (58.5 percent) and is the nation's 10th- best three-point shooting team going against one of the nation's worst in defending long-range attempts. Gray will be the best player on the floor, and Gonzaga has more interior size and depth, but McConnell is too efficient and will exploit the Bulldogs porous defense for a game-changing burst late in the second half.

Prediction: St. Mary's 77, Gonzaga 66

WHAT WE LEARNED LAST WEEK

1. Texas A&M may not have the guard play to make a long tournament run. B.J. Holmes is 175 pounds soaking wet and the Aggies don't have a long-range marksman to take the pressure off Khris Middleton and David Loubeau inside. Teams that can match the Aggies inside girth, like Texas, can then use their perimeter players to dictate tempo. Texas shot 58 percent, aided by many run- outs, in an 81-60 rout.

2. I can't figure out Maryland. The Terps looked like an NCAA Tournament- worthy team, albeit in losses, to Duke and Villanova, but a 2-3 start in a watered-down ACC and nary a quality win on the schedule has them in full panic mode. Jordan Williams is one of the most skilled big men in the nation, but a lack of consistent guard play on both ends of the floor continues to haunt them.

3. Central Florida has fallen off the map. I was one of the Knights' biggest advocates, even including them in a pair of Fine 15 rankings, earlier in the season. They took a 13-0 record into conference play then started with a promising victory over a respectable Marshall them. Since then, four losses, two by double digits, to teams that shouldn't scare the Knights. What's wrong? Two sub-par games from Marcus Jordan, and a third scoring option has not stepped up behind he and Keith Clanton. Now, the scuffling Knights have to travel to Memphis on Thursday.

THOUGHTS BEFORE FILLING OUT YOUR HOOPS BRACKET

Below is another excerpt from my just-released book, "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket." You can purchase it at Amazon.com or in a variety of formats at www.99-series.com. I will publish a tip (more as the tournament draws closer) during each column to prepare you for bracket madness.

The Seeds Don't Lie

You see that little number to the left or right of a team name? It is there for a reason. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee assigns each tournament team a seed based on its overall profile throughout the season. And for the most part the seeds don't lie. When searching for upsets and deciding on which team to build your bracket around, use this statistical list of first-round success from 1992 to 2007.

#1 seeds are 64-0, #2 seeds are 61-3, #3 seeds are 56-8, #4 seeds are 52-12, #5 seeds are 42-22, #6 seeds are 47-17, #7 seeds are 37-27 and #8 seeds are 28-36.

FINE 15

1. Ohio State (20-0): One week after my internal debate rewarded the Jayhawks the top post, the Buckeyes just kept winning. The beat goes on in Columbus ahead of a Tuesday night home date with Purdue. Jared Sullinger vs. JaJuan Johnson is must-see TV.

2. Duke (18-1): To prove that parity is prevalent, I'm not sold on the Irving- less Blue Devils as legitimate titleholders unless they receive more consistent output from the Plumlee brothers. Mason played 22 minutes and didn't score, attempting just one shot, against lowly Wake Forest.

3. Pittsburgh (19-1): Last Monday's victory over Syracuse was a game of spurts. The Panthers scored the game's first 19 points followed by 17 in a row for the Orange. Highly entertaining basketball resulted once each team settled in.

4. Kansas (18-1): The 69-game home winning streak had to end sometime. Still, losing a 12-point halftime edge at home to Texas is somewhat disconcerting -- remember that lacking killer instinct I talked about in this space last week.

5. San Diego State (20-0): An entire week to prepare for guarding Fredette. I still don't see any gimmicky defensive schemes coming from Fisher's clipboard.

6. Villanova (17-2): I was impressed with Villanova's guards in the Carrier Dome on Saturday. Yet, my big takeaway from an 83-72 victory at Syracuse was how well the Wildcats are coached. It can't be long before Jay Wright takes his talents to the next level.

7. Syracuse (18-2): Not a good week for the Orange, but it comes with some caveats. Kris Joseph didn't play versus Pittsburgh, and his scoring punch would have been well appreciated against a suffocating Panthers defense. Scoop Jardine's worst game of the season (1-for-8, only three assists) came against an explosive group of Villanova guards.

8. Texas (16-3): With the win over Kansas, Texas became the first team since the 1992-1993 season to beat Michigan State, North Carolina and the Jayhawks all in the same season. Big reason why: Jordan Hamilton has matured offensively from a selfish, points-first player to an all-around orchestrator.

9. Connecticut (16-2): After going through a slight lull, it looks again like the Huskies have found their stride. It's a good sign when Kemba Walker scores just 16 points and UConn still rolls always-dangerous Tennessee by double digits.

10. BYU (19-1): A big change in Fredette's offensive skill set this season is his ability to attack the rim. No longer just a pure shooter with a lethally- quick release, Fredette got to the charity stripe 17 times (making 16) in a 42-point effort against Colorado State.

11. Purdue (17-3): It's a shame Robbie Hummel tore his ACL (again) in the preseason. After watching these Boilermakers systematically break down Michigan State, I'm convinced with Hummel this would have been the nation's best team.

12. Texas A&M (17-2): Good bounce-back victory over floundering Kansas State after getting picked on by Texas' guards. The Aggies' flaws were discussed above, but if they control tempo and feed the post they can play with anybody.

13. Missouri (17-3): How does a team shoot just 43.6 percent and still score 87 points? By turning 19 turnovers into easy baskets. The Tigers' 87-54 rout of Iowa State was impressive considering the Cyclones just beat Baylor and hung in until the final minute against Kansas.

14. Kentucky (15-4): Head coach John Calipari's profanity-laced rant to star freshman Terrence Jones is such a non-issue it's comical. So, a coach scolded his star player for failing to follow instructions and used a few choice words. Color me shocked. It's only being discussed because ESPN caught it on tape.

15. Wisconsin (15-4): Congratulations to Josh Gasser. Wisconsin has had some skilled players in recent years, but Gasser recorded the first triple-double in school history (10 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) in a 78-46 beat down of Northwestern. And to think Gasser is only a freshman.


Trexler is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket." Click HERE to purchase the Kindle version...and stay tuned on an updated hardcopy edition this winter! Trexler also wrote "Penn State Football: An Interactive Guide To The World of Sports", a detailed look at the Nittany Lions' storied football history. It can be purchased HERE.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jared Trexler at jtt128@comcast.net.

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