| ||Friday, January 7|
Special to ESPN.com
|No. 4 Arizona at No. 1 Stanford
Lute Olson's only concerns about his team stem from the inconsistencies of youth, and his young Wildcats will get the most severe test of the Pac-10 season in its first weekend. Arizona hopes to get Olson his 600th win against the big, physical and deep Stanford Cardinal, the defending Pac-10 champs and one of only three unbeaten teams in the nation. Oh yeah, Stanford has Mark Madsen back in the lineup. Yikes.
Gilbert Arenas is back in the starting lineup next to Gardner after missing time because of tardiness for rehab appointments. Close-outs on Arenas are crucial, because he puts it on the floor and takes it to the hoop once the defender rises up. Richard Jefferson needs only to be more assertive in attacking the basket to be an absolute star. The only question mark about him is his commitment to going to the boards on every play, rather than only when the spirit moves him.
Michael Wright is a solid inside presence and a monster rebounder, and he forms a nice inside tandem with Loren Woods, a 7-footer who can put pressure on the Stanford big men by running the floor.
Stanford is a tenacious bunch that has surprised many by being this good this early in the season. The key for Stanford has been the play of the big men, who form the best inside rotation in the nation. Jarron Collins, Jason Collins, Curtis Borchardt and Mark Madsen all can play either center or power forward, and they give Mike Montgomery big bodies to post, screen, box out, rebound and block shots. Make no mistake, though, Madsen is the guts of this team, and his ability to lock down defenders and seal in the post give Stanford a huge edge.
The Cardinal has quicker players this year, with more skills to take defenders one-on-one yet they understand the importance of halfcourt execution. Casey Jacobsen is a big-time scorer -- watch his jumper: He has a pure shot with range with a great release point. Point guard Michael McDonald, who is probably a bit quicker than Arthur Lee, is doing a very nice job running the team. Better yet, he has shown admirable mental toughness. David Moseley can score in bunches, Ryan Mendez has found his stroke and is one of the quickest shooters in the West, and Julius Barnes is an absolute blur with his speed and leaping ability.The keys for this game will be Arizona's patience on the offensive end and the battle for rebounds. Stanford allows opponents to shoot only 31 percent from the field, largely because the Cardinal defend from the 3-point line in to the hoop. Stanford challenges shots, and it doesn't allow second shots (which takes away many of its opponents' higher-percentage opportunities). Arizona and Stanford rank first and second in rebounding in the Pac-10, and control of the backboards may lead to control of the scoreboard.
No. 13 Tennessee at LSU
What does LSU have to do to be ranked in the ESPN/USA Today poll? John Brady is battling severe scholarship limits due to NCAA sanctions from the Dale Brown era, he wins 12 straight games (including a win over then-No. 11 Oklahoma State) and the Tigers are still in the "Others Receiving Votes" category. It's not fair, but a win over Tennessee would remedy that problem. LSU seems to be for real, with all five starters averaging in double figures, but there is little depth. Stromile Swift, a 6-9 sophomore, is as gifted as any big man in the SEC. Swift can play almost any position, shoot it with range, put it to the deck, rebound and block shots. He's second in the league in scoring (21.5), fifth in rebounding (8.6), and first in blocks (almost 3 per game) and field goal percentage (69 percent). If he decides to apply for the NBA draft, he won't have to sit very long before he gets that free hat (and multimillion-dollar contract).
Teamed with shot-blocking rebounder Jabari Smith, Swift makes it difficult for opposing teams to get clean looks at the basket inside, although they can get clean looks at their shots flying out of bounds. Smith was second in the SEC in rebounding last year. Lamont Roland was brilliant against Oklahoma State, and freshman point guard Torris Bright had 21 points against Alabama to go along with five steals. Bright, who once scored 70 points in a high school game, has done a nice job of running things from the point. Brian Beshara is a good shooter, passer and defender, and he is willing to play a role. Brady is shorthanded with only nine scholarship players, and due to recent injury problems calls his group the Magnificent Seven. LSU is not a good free-throw shooting team, but they can really pound the offensive glass.Tennessee is a talented group of run-and-jump athletes who all can catch and shoot. Tony Harris is the glue that holds this team together, but he has been fighting hip and wrist injuries. Without Harris, Tennessee was blown out in Puerto Rico by a very good Tulsa team. With the Volunteers' depth, they maximize the ability to play pressure defense and sweep the glass.
With the injury to Jenis Grindstaff, freshman Jon Higgins has been playing more and has done an admirable job at the point. Harris Walker has ball-handling skills and can use his quickness to be a great defender.
The star of this team is Vincent Yarbrough, a 19-year-old phenom who can do absolutely anything on the court. Yarbrough is the SEC's most versatile player -- he's in the conference's top 15 in six different categories, including scoring (15 ppg), rebounding (6.5) steals (2.5) and blocks (1.5).
Inside, coach Jerry Green has Charles Hathaway, Isiah Victor and C.J. Black, all of whom are capable. Victor is an extraordinary talent who has struggled and could soon see his playing time diminish due to the superior play of Marcus Haslip, who has a great knack for scoring inside and being around the ball. The key for Tennessee will be handling the ball and attacking. The Volunteers are averaging more than 20 turnovers over their last eight games, and they need to take the ball right at Swift and Smith.
N.C. State at No. 14 North Carolina
While everyone laments the Tar Heels' 8-4 record, it should be clear that they are still the most formidable team in the ACC. Despite some bumps in a very difficult schedule, the Heels are getting healthy, and they are getting people back into natural positions. The majority of Carolina's problems are correctable, such as what plagued the Heels in a loss to Louisville. Carolina outrebounded Louisville but gave up a ton of offensive rebounds. Louisville scored 34 points in the first half off turnovers and second chances, and you can expect Carolina to be more efficient in the future.
Bill Guthridge has decided to ease off the throttle on Carolina's scramble defense, the run-and-jump pressure that forced so many turnovers in the past. Carolina doesn't have the personnel to make that defensive scheme work to a high level, so they'll just go back to beating people silly in halfcourt situations.N.C. State is doing things differently as well. Herb Sendek's squad is running a motion offense with pass-and-screen-away principles and hopes his team eventually will score more points not by shooting more, but by passing more. Motion is a difficult offense for young players to grasp and make reads out of, but on the flip side it is the most difficult offense to defend and scout.
Ed Cota, who now stands third all-time in ACC assists, makes Carolina go with his nearly 3:1 assist-turnover ratio. Cota's ability to penetrate coming off screens or out front gets him into scoring position for a variety of runners in the lane. Zoning Carolina to keep Cota out of the lane has proved difficult for teams. The key is to force Cota to a side, stay in front of him and pressure everyone else to make them put the ball on the floor and make plays.
Joseph Forte is an extraordinary scorer, showing as much confidence as any freshman in the nation. Guthridge has been pleased with Forte's tenacity, and thinks he can blossom into a very good defender to go along with his deep shooting range. Jason Capel is back at his natural small forward position now that Kris Lang is healthy enough to start. Capel has been a key performer for the Heels, and when he plays well, Carolina seems to win. Lang has been fighting shin splints and the effects of a virus that sapped his energy and weight early in the season.
Brendan Haywood is automatic inside but has taken a lot of heat for not going to the basket harder or rebounding better. Haywood can be as good as any big man in the ACC, and having Lang back will help. Max Owens is the new sixth man, and if he embraces that role, he can be one of the best in the country.
N.C. State's win over Maryland gave the Pack the big win they needed for confidence. Justin Gainey, the primary ball-handler, is smart and poised, and he can hit the open 3-pointer if given time. Long-armed Anthony Grundy has the ability to put up points and can be a great defender.
After a brief injury, Kenny Inge is back and can give the Wolfpack an athletic and tough inside presence with superior offensive rebounding and finishing capabilities. Inge always gets fired up to play against Carolina, and that energy can give the Pack momentum. Damon Thornton and Ron Kelley are both healthy and playing solid in the paint. Damien Wilkins is a versatile, hard-working freshman who understands how to play but is not a great outside shooter. N.C. State has a near-automatic shooter in Archie Miller when he gets his feet set.This will be a pivotal game for N.C. State. The Wolfpack has the chops to win in the Dean Dome, but the Pack will have to hit free throws. With a win, Carolina can re-assert its claim as the top team in the ACC. Without question, blood will spill.
No. 7 Duke at No. 15 Maryland
After a thriller at Virginia in which Duke won in overtime, freshman Michael Dunleavy said that if every ACC game was going to be like the one against the Cavaliers, then it would be a long season. Guess what, Michael? Every team will come at the Blue Devils that hard, because Duke stepped on everybody's neck in the ACC last season. The Blue Devils, while still an excellent team with a chance to be outstanding, are now beatable. That wasn't true in the ACC last season. Gary Williams has done an exemplary job with the Terps this season. Maryland presents a challenge for Duke because of the Terps' size and strength. Terence Morris is one of the nation's truly elite players, and he needs only to take more shots to become an absolute monster. He ranks in the ACC top 10 in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and field goal percentage again this season. Lonny Baxter is leading the ACC in rebounding while showing he can score inside, and Mike Mardesich has improved.
Juan Dixon, an explosive scorer who also rebounds well for a guard, leads the ACC in steals. But the the key to the game will be freshman point guard Steve Blake. Blake is a good passer and leader but has struggled with running the team at times. He turns the ball over too much, as does Maryland as a team, and that could haunt the Terps against Duke.
At the beginning of the season, the Blue Devils had no inside game, got pounded on the glass, and relied only on perimeter shots launched too quickly and from too far out. Mike Krzyzewski has done a remarkable job of blending this team together quickly, but questions still remain.
Freshman point guard Jason Williams is coming along, and his penetration keys Duke's halfcourt game -- he can finish or dish it off to one of several athletic teammates attacking the basket. Shane Battier and Chris Carrawell have given Duke the upper-class leadership and production expected. Carrawell has been tremendous on both ends, leading Duke in scoring, rebounding, and 3-point field goal accuracy. He is also an underrated defender. Battier has become a terrific offensive player with the ability to hit his perimeter shot or drive by a bigger defender.
Carlos Boozer has been the answer inside and has shown a great ability to finish with his left hand. Dunleavy is savvy beyond his years and has been spectacular at times with his ability to read situations.
Duke always has been good at taking away predictable movement and forcing the opposition further out on the floor. Maryland likes to run a variation of the flex offense with some nice wrinkles to it, and Duke can make running that difficult. To beat Duke, Maryland will have to spread the court and take Duke off the dribble and pound the offensive glass. Duke will score in this game; the question is whether Maryland will be able to score consistently in halfcourt sets, one of the only things Maryland did not do well last year in two losses to Duke.
West: Desert depletion
Katz: Who's in the hunt?
Daily Word: 'Cats scratching their heads