Five thoughts from this past week:
1. While Missouri is the most entertaining team, Marquette might just be the hardest-working. The Golden Eagles are again one of the toughest outs on any given night. Buzz Williams has his team in every game and this past week was no different. Marquette was within one possession of winning at Vanderbilt, and then the Golden Eagles played every possession with the same passion and determination in holding off West Virginia in the Big Ten opener Saturday. This team still has much work to do during the Big East to earn a bid, but it will never go away quietly.
2. Kentucky with Enes Kanter would be scary good. The odds are against him winning a reverse ruling to be eligible, but think of the possibilities. What Kentucky has found early in the season is a hard-working, senior big man coming into his own in Josh Harrellson. The Wildcats have plenty of scorers now with Brandon Knight at the point, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb on the wing and DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller slashing to the hoop. But Harrellson is providing the necessary put-back man the Wildcats covet. He can be a source of production inside and appears to have earned the trust of John Calipari (finally). Harrellson scored 23 points and grabbed 14 boards in UK’s 15-point win at Louisville.
3. Last week I wrote that NC State can’t be judged yet because senior forward Tracy Smith had been out for 10 games due to a knee injury. During that span, the Wolfpack lost to Georgetown in the Charleston Classic, at Wisconsin, at Syracuse and at home to Arizona. And the Pack still don’t have a quality win. But Smith returned to the lineup for a home game against San Diego and scored 16 points, making 7 of 12 shots. There are still plenty of consistency problems on this team like Javier Gonzalez being ineffective, C.J. Leslie and Scott Wood going a combined 1-of-9 against USD and the team shooting 3-of-11 on 3-pointers. Now that the team is whole, however, let’s see what happens as ACC play starts this week. If they don’t pick up their play with Smith back, it’s fair to call this season a disappointment.
4. Three schools that continue to exceed expectations are Boston College, Iowa State and Saint Mary’s. The Eagles lost early in the week at Rhode Island, but then wacked South Carolina on Saturday in a game that was never close. The Gamecocks have completely fallen apart while BC has showed resiliency in splitting a two-game road trip. The 11-3 Eagles are getting balanced play out of their core six and have put themselves in position to earn a bid through the ACC under first-year coach Steve Donahue, who has a strong handle on this veteran team. First-year coach Fred Hoiberg has Iowa State at 12-2 after a road win at Virginia. The Cyclones haven’t played a tough schedule and did lose two of their tougher games at Northern Iowa and at home to Cal. But they appear to be a tougher out than projected and if Hilton Coliseum can rock, then this is no longer an easy win for upper-tier teams. Saint Mary’s lost Omar Samhan off the Sweet 16 team, but Mickey McConnell returned and so did most of the shooters, giving SMC a team that can shoot itself into any game. Well, the Gaels are going to challenge Gonzaga again (with Portland being a pest as well). Saint Mary’s rocked Mississippi State in Las Vegas and enters the WCC at 12-2, with another quality nonconference game coming at Vanderbilt on Jan. 22.
5. Have Gonzaga and Florida finally figured things out? The Zags and Gators each won a key game this week -- games they needed to win for most of us to take them seriously. Gonzaga crushed Oklahoma State at home on New Year’s Eve and Elias Harris was the leading scorer as projected in the preseason before he got injured (shoulder and Achilles). Florida went to depleted Xavier and won in a tough environment. That’s what should happen when one team is healthy, more experienced and deeper. The Gators had a mental letdown the previous week against Jacksonville. That wasn’t the case this past week.