Friday's Carrier Classic and Cleveland State’s upset of Vanderbilt on Sunday weren’t the only things that grabbed my attention during the first weekend of the 2011-12 campaign. Here are 10 other observations I made while tracking the season’s first few days of games.
1. First and foremost, it was good to see Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy on the sideline for Sunday’s victory over Southern. Kennedy, who was hired during the offseason to replace Mark Turgeon, had taken a month-long leave of absence after being diagnosed with early stages of Parkinson’s disease. Although his condition has improved, Kennedy still isn’t sure if he’ll accompany the Aggies to New York later this week for the final rounds of the 2K Sports Classic.
2. Speaking of coaches, Southern Illinois’ Chris Lowery continued his fall from grace Saturday when the Salukis suffered a 64-63 home loss to Ohio Dominican, a Division II school that won despite committing 27 turnovers. Just five years ago, Lowery was one of college basketball’s hottest names after SIU advanced to the Sweet 16. Now he’s hoping to save his job by avoiding his fourth consecutive losing season.
3. Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor is still the best point guard in America -- for now. But I won’t be surprised if Kendall Marshall surpasses him by the time conference play begins. The North Carolina sophomore had 15 assists and just one turnover in Sunday's victory over UNC Asheville. And, yes, I know it helps that Marshall is surrounded by future NBA lottery picks who finish most every play. Still, Marshall is a special, special talent and, in my opinion, the most irreplaceable person on the Tar Heels’ roster.
4. I watched Billy Gillispie’s Texas Tech debut on ESPN3 Friday night. I must say, I was impressed with how cohesive and selfless the Red Raiders looked in a 90-85 victory over Troy. Remember, this team is almost completely made up of true freshmen and junior-college transfers. Yet they managed to keep their poise and hit big shots in the waning minutes of a tight game. Gillispie also had to be pleased with the announced crowd of 10,088. Even though the figured was reportedly inflated, the turnout was still encouraging.
5. I can’t wait to watch Belmont play again.
6. Arizona came from behind to defeat Ball State on Sunday without the services of highly touted point guard Josiah Turner. Wildcats coach Sean Miller elected not to play the freshman after a pair of lackluster performances in Zona’s first two games. Miller is obviously trying to send a message to a player who some analysts hailed as a “one-and-done” prospect.
7. Remember how everyone said point-guard play was the reason for Baylor’s poor performance in 2010-11? A.J. Walton apparently didn’t like it. Walton, last season’s starter, is one of the most-improved players on the Bears’ roster. He dished out five assists and played a team-high 26 minutes in Sunday’s win over Jackson State. Walton, who has yet to relinquish his starting job, should continue to be a key player in a backcourt rotation that includes a pair of newcomers in Boston College transfer Brady Heslip and Pierre Jackson, last season’s National Junior College Player of the Year.
8. Anyone who thought Northern Iowa was destined for a rebuilding year probably changed their opinion after the Panthers dismantled Old Dominion 63-46 on the road Saturday. ODU, you may remember, went 27-7 last season and lost by just two points to national runner-up Butler in the NCAA tournament. Northern Iowa doesn't have much time to celebrate, as Ben Jacobson’s team flew to the opposite coast for a tilt with Saint Mary’s that tips off Monday night at 11 p.m. PT.
9. A handful of high-profile players who missed either all or most of last season with injuries have looked good in their return. Virginia’s Mike Scott snared 15 rebounds in Sunday’s win over South Carolina State while Washington’s Abdul Gaddy had 15 points and six assists in a win over Florida Atlantic. On Friday, Purdue’s Robbie Hummel had 21 points in 20 minutes in a rout of Northern Illinois.
10. Sorry to end on a depressing note, but after I file this story, I’m going to pour out a little of my Diet Coke for Louisville’s Mike Marra, who is out for the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee in Sunday’s win over Lamar. Marra, a junior guard, averaged 6.4 points last season and figured heavily into the Cardinals’ plans. Louisville had already lost standout freshman Wayne Blackshear to a season-ending shoulder injury.