Five NCAA teams that got my attention this past weekend for various reasons:
1. Arizona (5-1)
A national TV win over Kansas would have been a seminal moment for coach Sean Miller as he rebuilds the Arizona program. It didn’t happen Saturday night, but the Wildcats can take a lot away from a close loss against a Jayhawks squad that had been destroying their comp by 40 points per game. Derrick Williams, who put up 27 points and 8 boards against KU, is my early favorite for for Pac-10 Player of the Year. The 6-8 sophomore forward is a beast in the paint — he has a knack for getting to the free throw line, and has improved his FT stroke (78%) this season — and he’s added more of an outside shooting element to his game. But the Wildcats rely on Williams too much. When he fouled out with 2:30 remaining on Saturday, Arizona was beaten to some crucial rebounds and the offense lost its flow. The Wildcats can get started another quarter-century streak of NCAA Tournament appearances this season if sophomore forward Solomon Hill (20 pts vs. Santa Clara, 4 pts vs. Bethune-Cookman) and junior SG Kyle Fogg (18 pts vs. Kansas, 0 pts vs. Santa Clara) provide consistent production to support Williams.
2. DePaul (1-4)
Oliver Purnell is also facing a rebuilding job, but his Blue Demons have a steeper hill to climb than the one in front of Sean Miller and Arizona. The recruiting pool in Chicago is deep, but competing for a power position in the Big East makes an instant turnaround tough. While he waits for his own recruiting classes to arrive, Purnell’s current DePaul squad will live and die by its full-court pressure defense. In its two close losses this weekend — to Oklahoma State (down to the final minute) and Stanford (overtime) — DePaul forced 25 and 19 turnovers, respectively. Cal State-Northridge, whose 22-point blowout of DePaul was sandwiched by the aforementioned games, only committed 13 turnovers against the Blue Demons. Defending the paint is also a problem. OK State forward Marshall Moses dropped 27 points and 9 boards on DePaul, Northridge big man Lenny Daniel had 31 and 10, and Stanford out-rebounded DePaul 37-20. The Blue Demons are last-place in the Big East in rebounding.
3. Tennessee (5-0)
Amidst the controversy involving Bruce Pearl and his SEC suspension for violating NCAA rules, the Volunteers knocked off a national Top-10 squad in Villanova to win the preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden. With so many guys on Tennessee rocking 1980s flat-tops and mohawks, their three-man backcourt tandem of Melvin Goins, Cameron Tatum and Scotty Hopson looked like a knock-off of UNLV’s Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt and Stacy Augmon. Goins (4 stls) and Hopson (18 pts) applied defensive pressure and Tatum (17 pts) lit it up outside as UT’s guards outplayed Villanova’s decorated backcourt of Corey Fisher, Maalik Wayns and Corey Stokes, who shot a combined 7-for-30 from the floor. Pearl is still on the bench for now — his eight-game suspension doesn’t kick in until the SEC schedule starts — so we’ll see how his group handles another dose of adversity then.
4. Mississippi State (4-0)
While they wait for Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney, the Bulldogs’ de facto outside-inside tandem of Ravern Johnson and Kodi Augustus is putting in work. Johnson, a 6-7 senior guard, dropped 33 points and 7 threes on Troy last Friday to bump his season average to 27.3 ppg. Augustus, a 6-8 senior post, is averaging 15.3 points and 11.0 boards per game. Their numbers will naturally drop a bit when Bost and Sidney hit the court, but MSU will have a team built to contend for an SEC championship.
5. Iowa State (6-0)
Should it come as a surprise that a team coached by Fred Hoiberg is shooting the nation’s collective face off? Many were skeptical of the program’s decision to hire Hoiberg, who had no head coaching experience on any level, but his Cyclones are 16th in the country in scoring (84.3 ppg), ninth in three-point shooting (44.2%), 14th in field-goal shooting (50.3%) and 18th in assists (18.2 apg). Senior guard Diante Garrett leads five players averaging double-figure scoring with 17.5 points a night. In Saturday’s rout of Montana State, all five of Iowa State’s starters cracked double figures. This week they get some tougher tests with Northern Iowa on Wednesday, and next Saturday they’ll face California in their first major-conference game.
5 GAMES TO WATCH THIS WEEK
* Purdue at Virginia Tech — Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
* Michigan State at Duke — Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
* St. Joseph’s at Villanova — Friday, 8:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
* Kentucky at North Carolina — Saturday, 12:30 p.m. (CBS)
* Illinois at Gonzaga — Saturday, 5:15 p.m. (ESPN)