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November in Review:
What Teams Passed, Failed Early- Season Tests

Jared Trexler
College Basketball Contributing Editor


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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Very few times in life does reality live up to dreams. Yet, when it all comes together, what flows is an embarrassment of riches.

Duke's returning core made it the nearly unanimous preseason top team in the eyes of all educated hoops followers, but certain questions made a repeat national championship far from a certainty.

The two most pressing inquisitions were answered last week in Kansas City, and if those results were an indication of the season to come, the rest of the college basketball nation may be playing for second.

In the Cameron Crazies' perfect world, one (if not both) of the Plumlee brothers would adequately replace departed senior Brian Zoubek, providing more offense while holding serve on the backboards and defending the rim. Younger brother Mason rose to the occasion under the spotlight at the CBE Classic, pouring home 25 points on a variety of routes to the scoring column, hitting face-up jump shots, putting back misses and converting through contact in the lane against Marquette.

Each time the Golden Eagles challenged the Blue Devils, it was Plumlee (not the more accomplished Kyle Singler or Nolan Smith) pushing right back, adding an interior tenacity replicating Zoubek's emotional and physical toughness that marked Duke's championship journey last season. It was a near mirror image, but with an added offensive gusto, as Plumlee spun, ducked, dodged and pummeled his way to the basket, navigating a swarming, rotating group of Golden Eagles with the drive and determination many thought was lacking from Duke's arsenal.

The Blue Devils' 82-77 victory came on an ordinary 14-point night for Singler and a never-to-happen-again 6-of-12 effort from the charity stripe for one of the nation's best squads in that department. It was a resounding answer to the critics who loudly questioned Duke's interior scoring and defending. Plumlee also blocked five shots for good measure, swatting not just heaves from Golden Eagles, but denying the lingering assumption that Duke's frontcourt lacked the physical fortitude to play with inside heavyweights.

If last Tuesday night landed a resounding blow to naysayers and Duke haters, Wednesday showcased a perfect reality that in every way matched head coach Mike Krzyzewski's ultimate dream.

If questions didn't abound about Duke's frontcourt, then they came down directly at the feet of Kyrie Irving, not knocking the true freshman's pure talents but wondering loudly if he had the moxie and makeup to keep Duke's well-oiled machine from stalling.

Working a 17- or 18-year-old high school star into a collegiate lineup off the ball or into an interior rotation is one thing, but handing him the keys to the prohibitive favorite is another. Then, on top of that, last Wednesday night's assignment included engineering an offense and locking down perhaps the nation's best shooting guard, Kansas State's Jacob Pullen.

It was a tall task. After all, Irving is just 6-foot-2. And in hostile Kansas City against the fourth-ranked team, most freshmen would have played much smaller.

Not Irving, who shook off admitted early jitters, stymied Pullen's penetration and clamped down on his outside game. Coach K assisted by rotating Smith and at times the long wing span of Andre Dawkins at Pullen, but the primary responsibility, and ultimately the credit, belonged to Irving, who held the prolific Pullen to a 1-of-12 showing roughly eight months after he guided St. Patrick's High School in West Orange, New Jersey to a 26-3 record.

"Our defense was just really good," understated Krzyzewski following his 800th victory and 27th straight in November. While in truth the team defense was "really good" it began with the effort of Duke's freshman guard, who scored 17 points and added six assists to just three turnovers.

For the season, Irving is also running Duke's offense to perfection, amassing 35 assists to just 14 turnovers (pushing a veteran-like 3-to-1 ratio) and chiming in 14.5 points per game, only surpassed by Smith and Singler. He navigated Duke through the road blocks in Kansas City, and if he and Plumlee continue to shine like they did this past week, the drive may be very smooth from here to Houston.

Other teams passed early-season tests and now head into a distracting holiday season with their heads held high, complete with resume-boosting victories and momentum for the rest of the season ahead. However, a few others missed golden opportunities and need to show improvement before conference play commences.

TEAMS THAT PASSED

Tennessee Volunteers: By now, we know all about the NCAA issues and their repercussions, which include head coach Bruce Pearl's SEC- mandated eight-game suspension for conference play. How the young, freelancing Volunteers handle that stretch absent their demonstrative leader is anyone's guess. His players feed off his energy and love playing in his chaotic system. Maybe the troops rally in his absence, (winning one -- in this case eight -- for coach) or maybe they fold like a cheap tent, but in the meantime, no one can ignore their inspired play, notching two solid wins at Madison Square Garden. Tennessee won the NIT Season-Tipoff thanks to a 77-72 victory over VCU (which has already blitzed power-conference players Wake Forest and UCLA) and an impressive 78-68 takedown of Villanova. The impressive feat wasn't just the Vols' victory over the Wildcats, but how they beat Corey Fisher's crew at their own high-wire, fast-paced game and blanketed the 'Cats' star guard into a 1- of-10 shooting night one game after he blew up for a career-best 26 points against the Bruins. Tennessee's athletes held the Wildcats to a 4-of-19 effort from beyond the arc and 34.5 percent shooting overall. Tennessee's main positive can also be its downfall, as a high-energy game at times leads to careless shots, turnovers and long stretches of offensive ineptitude. So far, the Volunteers have staved off those spells, but several more early-season tests lie versus Pittsburgh on December 11 and Memphis on January 5 before Pearl's suspension kicks in.

Connecticut Huskies: Kemba Walker rode a scoring wave through Maui, never falling off until he pushed his Huskies to shore, where they claimed a tournament trophy that gave the nation a new perception of Jim Calhoun's club. Projected to finish 11th out of 12 teams in the Big East this season, UConn never bought into the national negativity surrounding the program due to on- court unknowns and off-court NCAA issues, stemming the tide and riding Walker's hot hand to three victories (Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky) in three days. Walker scored 90 points in Maui, but the best part was he needed just 52 shots (making 28, a staggering percentage for a guard swarmed by two, sometimes three, defenders). He never forced his shots, oftentimes finding Alex Oriakhi, who developed into a solid interior scoring option over the tournament, averaging 15 points per game and holding his own against the Spartans' and Wildcats' rotating frontlines. Walker's excellence didn't just end with his scoring output but his ability to efficiently run UConn's offense, committing just six turnovers in immense minutes over the three-game stretch. The question going forward will be fatigue on the cusp of conference play. Connecticut will be best served resting its star guard in games against New Hampshire, UMBC and Fairleigh Dickinson before an 11-day layoff for finals.

TEAMS THAT FAILED

Gonzaga Bulldogs:
Give head coach Mark Few credit. He schedules a rigorous out-of-conference ledger to prepare his team for the NCAA Tournament because it faces little comparable competition in the West Coast Conference. However, the Bulldogs failed an early-season test that may stick in the tournament selection committee's mind if they can't respond to beat the next stern opposition. Stephen Gray has been dynamic early, but he has found little assistance. He scored 35 of his team's 76 points in the loss to San Diego State and 20 of the team's 66 points in the victory over Marquette. Also, when facing physically-imposing clubs, the Bulldogs have relented on the backboards. Kansas State held a 41-29 rebounding margin and the Aztecs grabbed an astounding 18 offensive rebounds in their victory over the Bulldogs. In the early going, the Bulldogs have failed to support Gray and have been pounded on the glass, two components that must change...and fast. Few's club will be tested more than any other over the next month, including games with Illinois, Washington State, Notre Dame, Baylor, Xavier and Oklahoma State. How the Bulldogs venture into the New Year will determine whether they can afford a loss in the West Coast Conference Tournament down the line and still make the NCAA Tournament field as an at-large selection.

North Carolina Tar Heels: Listen to head coach Roy Williams' quote after a less-than-convincing victory over UNC-Asheville last week: "This team, I think we are going to be a heck of a lot better at the end of the year. There is a big question if I'm going to live through it." That sums up the start for the Tar Heels, who haven't addressed their major issues from last season despite a good amount of turnover, including the addition of true freshman (and Associated Press preseason first-team All-American) Harrison Barnes. They are still unsettled at the point, where it appears Williams is trying to shift away from upperclassmen Larry Drew to sure-handed Kendall Marshall, but the true freshman doesn't have the speed of a prototypical Williams point guard and hasn't looked much at the basket so far this season. Inside, the Wear twins' surprising decision to transfer back closer to home (to UCLA) has left the Tar Heels thin on the inside outside Tyler Zeller (the team's most consistent scorer), John Henson (the team's most maddening player) and Alabama transfer Justin Knox. And still, nary an outside shooter dons powder blue, as the team's best long-range presence last season (Will Graves) was kicked off the team this fall, and the rest of the bunch (Leslie McDonald, Barnes and Dexter Strickland) is inconsistent. The Tar Heels are best in transition, but both Minnesota and Vanderbilt controlled tempo and took advantage of North Carolina's lack of identity at the point, turning turnovers into easy points and negating the Tar Heels' desire to push the action. Two tests, this Tuesday at Illinois and Saturday versus Kentucky, will tell a lot about the state of these Tar Heels before the New Year.

Temple Owls: This is supposed to be Fran Dunphy's most complete team since he took over the North Philadelphia program. Temple returns forward Lavoy Allen, who played his high school ball down the road from my residence at Pennsbury High School, along with guard Juan Fernandez. That inside-out combination will likely overpower most of the Atlantic-10, but this is supposed to be Temple's year to grow beyond conference success to national recognition. It had a golden opportunity to win a preseason tournament and beat three power conference teams this past weekend then went out and laid an egg to California, 57-50, as Fernandez was just 2-of-14 and the normally efficient Allen needed 12 shots to score his 13 points. The Golden Bears then got waxed the next night by Notre Dame. Temple handled business against Georgia then Fernandez and Allen combined to make just 6-of-18 shots in a three-point loss, 54-51, to Texas A&M. Dunphy's group missed the chance to add major-conference victories to its resume, boost its RPI and take home some hardware. Temple has several more chances before the New Year with games at Maryland on December 5, versus Georgetown on December 9 and a Big Five tilt at Villanova on December 30. Temple NEEDS two of those three games, anything less will lower its national stature and make stockpiling conference victories much more important for not only tournament seeding, but inclusion in the Big Dance.

FINE 15

1. Duke (6-0): Irving is as advertised on the outside; Plumlee more than billed on the inside. Life is good in Durham heading into matchup with Sparty.

2. Pittsburgh (7-0): Solid, not flashy with solid contributions from Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker. Looks like a typical Jamie Dixon-coached team.

3. Ohio State (5-0): Jared Sullinger is a load on the inside, but this team turns its opponents' lights off when David Lighty's turn on.

4. Kansas (6-0): Circle the calendar for December 18 versus Southern California. That is when freshman Josh Selby makes his debut. The Jayhawks will then feel complete.

5. Kansas State (6-1): Not many nights will end like last Wednesday's did for Pullen, who contends he got good shots he normally makes. That may be partially true, but the Wildcats need Curtis Kelly to find a groove after his return last week and must spend some time shooting free throws in practice.

6. Michigan State (5-1): Ran into the Walker freight train in Maui. Looked lethargic a night earlier versus Division II Chaminade, so head coach Tom Izzo has some work to do before ACC-Big Ten challenge date with Duke this Wednesday.

7. Connecticut (5-0): Waxing poetic about Walker's Tour de Maui is easy, but Big East bigs better beef up the film study on Oriakhi.

8. Syracuse (6-0): Nothing is pretty about the Orange's start, especially the lack of...well, anything...from freshman Fab Melo. Kris Joseph did score 22 much-needed points in the victory over Michigan.

9. Missouri (5-0): Pretty non-descript, as-expected start. Meeting with Georgetown this Tuesday (November 30) will show a lot.

10. Kentucky (4-1): Young team played well in Maui. Not much any team -- young or old -- could have done with Walker quarterbacking UConn like Tom Brady.

11. Baylor (5-0): LaceDarius Dunn returned with 24 points last Monday in the victory over Lipscomb, then the Bears had a week off to integrate Dunn back into the offense before this Monday's victory over Prairie View A&M. It shouldn't take long. Just give Dunn the ball and let him work.

12. Villanova (5-1): Fisher needs to be more efficient offensively and play under control. In his defense, Pearl's defense forces reckless play at times.

13. San Diego State (6-0): Aztecs are attacking teams on both ends, hitting the backboards and playing swarming defense, holding three straight opponents under 70 points. Mid-major showdown beckons on Wednesday versus St. Mary's.

14. Tennessee (5-0): Big jump for a team playing for its embattled head coach. The two victories in New York were Pearl's system clicking on all cylinders.

15. BYU (6-0): Cougars have dodged a few bullets, including a double-overtime thriller versus South Florida and a one-point victory over St. Mary's. They need to be better defensively to test the nation's best, but head coach Dave Rose was right when he applauded his team's ability to win "together." Not many teams have been tested so much, so early...and survived unblemished.

WATCH TO WATCH FOR THIS WEEK

ACC-Big Ten challenge:
The Big Ten is defending the crown for the first time and has looked like the deeper league through the season's early stages. However, it is not off to a fast start thanks to Virginia's upset of Minnesota with several measuring-stick games to be played this Tuesday and Wednesday, including North Carolina-Illinois and Duke-Michigan State. Two other intriguing matchups pit North Carolina State (in a season that will define head coach Sidney Lowe's tenure) against Wisconsin (the Badgers are struggling to score, even for a Bo Ryan-coached team) and Purdue (coming off a bad loss to Richmond) versus Virginia Tech (really missing J.T. Thompson). Get instant analysis on the challenge at www.hoopsbench.com.


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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