Everyone knows the real college basketball season begins when conference play gets underway, and some of the top teams early now are struggling mightily. Take Ohio State, which started out 13-0 with a No. 2 ranking, but loomed on the edge of falling out of the Top 25 completely because of a 2-4 start in Big Ten play before Thursday night’s win over Illinois. It’s the same story with Wisconsin (13-0 nonconference, 3-3 Big Ten), Iowa State (12-0 nonconference, 2-3 Big 12), Oregon (12-0 nonconference, 1-4 Pac-10) and Baylor (12-1 nonconference, 1-4 Big 12). Or as Buckeyes guard Aaron Craft said before the Illinois game, “It’s like there’s this black cloud over us right now.”
Brown riding Mustangs
At 73, Hall of Fame basketball coach Larry Brown probably should have his feet propped up on his recliner watching games on TV. Instead, the former 76ers coach paces the sideline at Southern Methodist and molds his team into a postseason contender. The Mustangs, 15-4 after Tuesday night’s win over Rutgers, haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1993 and last won an NCAA game in 1988, but could be dancing in March. “We’ve still got a hill to climb, tough games ahead, but it’s right there for us,” Brown said in an Associated Press story. “As long as we rebound, defend and share the ball, I think we’ll put ourselves in a good position.”
Maybe the best
Last week in this space, we mentioned three freshmen considered at the top of the class, but we whiffed on perhaps the best rookie of all — Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis. Ennis enters Saturday’s game at Miami with 48 steals in 18 games and an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 4-to-1. Ennis hit two layups and two free throws to save the No. 2 Orange in last week’s narrow win over Pittsburgh, leading coach Jim Boeheim to say, “He made some of the best plays I’ve seen in a long time.” The low-key Ennis told the AP he’s in a “perfect situation” with Syracuse because his teammates are confident and “they make me look really good.”
After watching their fathers enjoy success as coaches, Richard Pitino and Chris Collins have waded into the pool as rookie college head coaches and have impressed observers with their early accomplishments. Pitino, son of Louisville Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino, has seen his Minnesota Golden Gophers post upsets over Ohio State and Wisconsin. Collins, whose father, Doug, coached in the NBA, most recently with the 76ers, already has wins over Illinois and Indiana on his resume as Northwestern head coach. “We’re trying to build a program,” Collins said in the Chicago Tribune. “We’re in the early stages.”
Off Kentucky’s pine
Kentucky has benefitted lately from its bench play, showing the depth that it lacked last season. In their victory earlier this week over Texas A&M, the Wildcats received a valuable contribution from 7-foot freshman reserve Dakari Johnson, who had six points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes while starter Willie Cauley-Stein struggled. Meanwhile, Alex Poythress, a sophomore forward who started last season, scored a season-high 16 points off the bench while playing 25 minutes. “They’re a deep team,” A&M coach Billy Kennedy told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “They’re just bigger and stronger at every position.”
Florida keeps crawling up the national rankings thanks to its ability to close out games better than it did last season. The sixth-ranked Gators are 8-2 this season in games decided by less than 10 points, and 3-1 in games decided by one or two points. Last season, they were 0-6 in games decided by single digits, 0-4 when the difference was five points or less. “We have an internal confidence as a team when it gets in those types of situations,” point guard Scottie Wilbekin said in an AP story. “We just have a confidence we’re going to pull it out.”
When Michigan went a so-so 8-4 in nonconference play, few people suspected its game Saturday at Michigan State would be for first place in the Big Ten. The 21st-ranked Wolverines will have that chance against the third-ranked Spartans, a meeting of the final two unbeatens in conference play. While that’s going to excite the Michigan fan base, especially with ESPN’s College GameDay hyping the game, it doesn’t stir Wolverines coach John Beilein very much. “We don’t circle any dates on our calendar,” Beilein told a local Ann Arbor radio station when asked if the Spartans were his team’s biggest rival.
Expat of the Week
Philadelphia native Markus Kennedy has played terrific basketball for Southern Methodist since entering the starting lineup following an injury to center Yanick Moreira. The 6-foot-9, 245-pound sophomore, a transfer from Villanova, is averaging 15.0 points in those five starts after scoring 10.2 points per game in 14 games off the bench. Overall, he has averaged 11.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 52.8 percent from the field.