The season is still young, but the tournaments have already revealed several surprises and disappointments
THE EARLY-SEASON tournaments give everyone a chance to match preseason theories against the realities of actual competition. With another month of delicious interconference matchups left before the start of league play, here's what we've learned so far.
BETTER THAN WE THOUGHT
Gonzaga is usually considered the king of the West Coast Conference, but the Gaels sent a message to the league by beating then No. 11 Oregon 99--87 on Nov. 20. Nobody made a greater impression in the win than 6-foot freshman guard Patty Mills. One of four Australians on the Gaels' roster, Mills scored 37 points—the most by a freshman in school history—to go along with five assists and two steals.
Bringing back three starters from last year's Sweet 16 team, Butler (6--0) won the Great Alaska Shootout last week with an 81--71 win over Texas Tech and is now ranked 16th. The Bulldogs could be the best three-point-shooting team in the nation—in the Shootout's championship game they hit 16 of 24 from behind the arc. Senior guard Mike Green, who scored a game-high 23 points in the final, was shooting a blistering 57.1% from three-point range through Monday. Says Texas Tech coach Bob Knight, "The best compliment I can give them is that I wish we played as smart as they do."
In winning the early-season NIT with routs of Washington and Ohio State, the Aggies showed that their perimeter game will survive without All--Big 12 point guard Acie Law. The new backcourt of Dominique Kirk and Donald Sloan combined for 33 points against the Huskies, but even when the pair totaled just seven in A&M's 23-point thrashing of the Buckeyes, the bench was strong as 6'4" sophomore Derrick Roland had a career-high 15 points and 6'6" freshman Nathan Walkup made three of five three-pointers while scoring 11.
WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT
The Spartans lost their exhibition opener at home to Division II Grand Valley State 85--82 in double overtime, then barely scraped by another D-II team, Michigan Tech, 61--55. They did open up a 12-point lead against No. 2 UCLA in the CBE Classic in Kansas City, Mo., but they blew that to lose 68--63. Last Saturday, Michigan State needed a career-high 20 rebounds from center Goran Suton just to fend off Oakland by four points.
The Volunteers were supposed to display a renewed commitment to defense. They showed none of that during a 97--78 loss to Texas last Saturday in which the Longhorns shot 63.6% from the floor, including 10 of 20 from three-point range. Even more confounding has been the play of 6'2" senior Chris Lofton. The preseason All-America made just three of his first 17 three-point tries.
The Aggies were the preseason pick to win the WAC, but they lost four of their first seven games (including defeats by Weber State, Cal Poly and UC Irvine) for their worst start in 12 years. The main reason has been the defense: The Aggies are allowing teams to shoot 44.5% from the floor and 35.4% from three-point range.
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1 Louisville is in trouble. Senior center David Padgett (right) is out until at least late January with a fractured kneecap, and senior forward Juan Palacios is healing more slowly than expected from a knee cartilage tear. The Cardinals' 78--76 loss to BYU last Friday does not bode well for the future.
2 Mid-major darling Davidson will have a hard time getting an at-large bid. The Wildcats' seven-point loss to Western Michigan on Nov. 21 means they'll probably have to win the league tournament again to earn a berth. The Southern Conference has never sent more than one team to the NCAAs.
3 Expect the Ivy League to go to a conference tournament soon. Penn and Princeton have long been the biggest opponents to a league tournament, but with those schools off to a combined 4--7 start, they may start to come around.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (KIRK)
EARLY RISERS Kirk (22), Green (inset, top) and Mills have their teams on hot starts.
AL GRILLO/AP (GREEN)
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COURTESY OF SAINT MARY'S ATHLETICS/TOD FIERNER (MILLS)
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TIMOTHY D. EASLEY/AP (PADGETT)