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It's Time to Take Inventory

January 04, 2006|Diane Pucin

It is just about halftime of the college basketball season, time to head to the locker room and take stock.

Who needs a pep talk, who needs a kick in the rear? Who should be proud of their first-half achievements, who should be asking for a do-over?

Because everybody gets a do-over now. Conference play begins in earnest around the country this week. (Yes, we are aware it began last week for the Pacific 10 Conference, but when your conference has a team playing for the football national championship, less attention is paid to this basketball stuff. And Stanford thanks you all very much for that.)

The Big Ten Conference's two Final Four participants last season -- Michigan State and Illinois -- kick things off in a big way by playing each other. The Big East Conference has welcomed some new members who have transferred from Conference USA with a hearty pat on the back and matchups with the cream of the crop.

Except it backfired quickly. Haughty Connecticut took its 11-0 record to Milwaukee on Tuesday night to play Marquette, a Final Four team three years ago, and left with a 94-79 loss because little Golden Eagle center Steve Novak scored 41 points.

Louisville, an Elite Eight team last year, drew No. 3-ranked Villanova. The Wildcats take an unbeaten record into the game Thursday. Maybe it's Villanova that should be worried.

So let's pause to look back at the first half and assess the rest of the season.

What has Duke taught us? That Drexel is better than Bucknell. The Dragons stayed within four and five points of the Blue Devils until the last two minutes of their preseason NIT game in New York. Everybody's favorite Cinderella of last season (remember how Bucknell upset Kansas?) was down 40-19 to the Blue Devils before the spectators had settled into their seats.

And when will Duke lose? How about Sunday at Wake Forest. Or Jan. 21 at Georgetown, a tricky date in the heat of Atlantic Coast Conference play. Or Feb. 1 at Boston College. The Eagles, freshly moved from the Big East Conference to the ACC, would love nothing more than to make a big mark in the new conference.

Most surprising team (good division) -- Illinois for sure. Coach Bruce Weber's team survived the departure of three starters (including two of its top scorers) from last season's national finalists, and begins Big Ten play undefeated.

Florida absolutely. For the last three seasons, Coach Billy Donovan has loaded up on big-name high school talent and foreign stars only to see his teams disintegrate into squabbling, underachieving NCAA first-round upset fodder. These Gators weren't ranked in the preseason, but now they've started better than any Florida team with players who are not so famous. Maybe you'll know them by the end of the season -- though it's hard to pick only one. Five Gators score in double figures, and three average six rebounds or more.

And in the Southern California sub-division, the San Diego Toreros are 10-3 and own impressive wins over San Diego State, Eastern Washington, Fresno State, New Mexico and Furman. In his 12th season as coach, Brad Holland may have a team equipped to cause trouble in the West Coast Conference.

Most surprising team (bad division) -- Oklahoma was in most preseason top-10 polls, but the Sooners have posted ugly losses against the only good teams they've played -- Villanova and West Virginia -- and struggled to beat Coppin State and Oral Roberts. And the 50-47 whipping of Southern Methodist on Tuesday night isn't a plus.

Stanford was supposed to challenge Arizona for the Pac-10 title, but after losses to UC Irvine and UC Davis, it seems ill-equipped to challenge for the Big West Conference title. Point guard Chris Hernandez is struggling, and inside play has been weak. And leading scorer Matt Haryasz probably will sit out Stanford's games with the Oregon schools this weekend after spraining an ankle in a loss to USC last week.

Best single-game performances (Washington division) -- Washington lost the game in double overtime, but watching Brandon Roy sink three-pointers twice (at the end of regulation and of the first overtime) against Arizona on his way to scoring 35 points was a good reminder of why Coach Lorenzo Romar suggested at Pac-10 media day that Roy was going to have a breakout season. And Adam Morrison wowed the country with 43 points in Gonzaga's triple-overtime upset of Michigan State in the Maui Classic. There may be no better 1-2 punch in any state.

Washington's loss ended a nation-leading 32-game home-court winning streak. Who has the longest such streak now? Gonzaga at 30.

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