When NCAA Tournament hopefuls arrive at the Gates of March Madness, a game played in November or December is rarely what makes or breaks those hopes. But a scare from a lesser opponent, or an encouraging performance against a marquee squad can do wonders for a team's confidence and momentum once the calendar turns to 2004 and conference play begins.
Among those who received a scare in the past week was InsideHoops.com No. 11 Missouri, who took Arthur Johnson and Rickey Paulding back home to Michigan and were almost ambushed by a game Oakland Golden Grizzlies squad playing its first home game. Had high-scoring Oakland guard Mike Helms not fouled out with 8 minutes left, coach Greg Kampe might have come up with a nice win to close out a November that also featured games against Xavier, Michigan and Cincinnati (all losses). Oakland will definitely contend for the Mid-Con title, so you'll likely be hearing from them three months from now.
In another instance of a school hitting the road so that a player can play in his hometown, No. 5 North Carolina almost fell victim to Cleveland State in UNC junior forward Jawad Williams' homecoming. Roy Williams' Tar Heels had to score the final 10 points of the game to escape with a 6-point victory over new CSU coach and Tom Izzo disciple, Mike Garland. It's may only be December, but there is no question that both former Izzo assistants that landed head coaching gigs this season - Garland and Brian Gregory at Dayton - have made outstanding first impressions at their new schools.
Good for the Resume
Bobby Lutz is already known for wreaking havoc on the Conference USA Tournament annually, regardless of his team's talent level. But Lutz's 49ers ruined the defending national champion's home opener by outgunning Syracuse, 96-92. Vanderbilt transfer Brendan Plavich hit 10 of Charlotte's 13 3-pointers, as the 49ers jumped out to a 21-point halftime lead and held on for the upset.
Purdue is always generic on paper and that's the way Gene Keady likes it. Every season Keady gets the most out of his team's talent, and already he's pulled a rabbit out of his hat this season with a convincing upset of then-No. 2 Duke in the championship game of the Great Alaska Shootout. Kenneth Lowe was instrumental for the Boilermakers, and although this team may find itself hanging in that second tier of the Big Ten, this win alone will be hard to dismiss when it's time to pick 65 teams to dance in March.
Georgia Tech has burst onto the scene with its resounding 16-point victory over UConn in the Preseason NIT semis - its first win over a No.1 opponent since 1994. That's the closest game the Yellow Jackets have played thus far. There was no letdown from Paul Hewitt's crew after the big upset, as Tech went on to smoke Texas Tech and Ohio State by 20 points each. Jarrett Jack has been extremely efficient running the show and Isma'il Muhammad has provided a huge spark as the sixth man. With all of the early television exposure this season, Muhammad has put himself on the map as one of the top dunkers in college hoops. And this team will get an even bigger boost when Arizona transfer Will Bynum joins the mix later this month. He'll add even more explosiveness to an already potent backcourt.
Box Score Bits
Just in case you missed it, UCLA became the final Division I school to open its 2003-04 season on Saturday. That's not really the story, though. What is the story is that they were taken to the buzzer by Vermont. Catamounts star forward Taylor Coppenrath scored 38 of Vermont's 67 points and did not commit a single turnover. But it was a questionable no-call as UCLA's Cedric Bozeman appeared to foul T.J. Sorrentine as he attempted a 3-pointer before the buzzer that sent UCLA to victory lane and Vermont coach Tom Brennan into a tizzy. Brennan barked at officials on his entire journey off the Pauley Pavilion court, but didn't miss out on handshakes with Bruins coaches on the way by. What a great character coach Brennan is for the college game - and yes, he can coach a little bit, too.
Akron's Derrick Tarver lit up Hampton for 44 points on 15-of-20 shooting in the Zips' 96-82 road triumph.
Following Bucknell's lead in terrible free-throw shooting as discussed last week, UConn shot 10-of-30 in losing to Georgia Tech, only to watch their next opponent "out-do" them two days later. Utah shot 6-for-21 from the charity stripe in the third-place game of the Preseason NIT.
Niagara beat Canisius in an early MAAC matchup, 109-106 in overtime, thanks to Juan Mendez's 37 points and 15 rebounds. Mendez is the best frontcourt player in the conference and should lead Niagara to a first-division finish in the MAAC this season, and maybe even the school's first tournament bid since 1970, when Calvin Murphy was BMOC and led the school to its only NCAA appearance.
And finally, Kelvin Sampson is just trying to keep up with Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. Stoops' football powerhouse routed Texas A&M 77-0 earlier this season. Meanwhile Sampson, who also called off the dogs very early, saying he wished he had more walk-ons, disposed of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 94-24. All eleven Sooners that played scored at least four points. Only one UAPB player - Billy Hall Jr. - scored more than four points…and he led the Golden Lions with 6.