At the start of the season, the Big East figured to be the toughest conference in the nation, as eight teams landed in the Associated Press' top 25 preseason poll. Thus, it is difficult to predict a winner.
While there is certainly a long way to go, Georgetown made a strong case Monday that it is ready to win a third straight regular-season title. The Hoyas, scoffed at as pretenders by some for compiling a 9-1 record in non-conference action without playing a true road game, went on the road and posted a 74-63 victory over unbeaten Connecticut at Hartford in the Big East opener.
"I want to congratulate Coach Thompson for coming in here and giving us a lesson on how to play basketball with enthusiasm, execution and energy," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "We got beat by a solid 20 points."
The margin was actually just 11 points but John Thompson III's Hoyas were impressive, shooting an effective 52.8 percent from the field and 86 percent from the foul line. While taller Connecticut held a 31-23 rebounding edge, the Huskies committed 17 turnovers against Georgetown's sticky matchup zone while posting 48.0 eFG% in a 64-possession game.
"We couldn't score," Connecticut forward Jeff Adrien said. "They had us well-scouted."
Georgetown was considered a long shot to win the Big East coming into this season, primarily because it lost a pair of four-year starters from last year's championship team in center Roy Hibbert and point guard Jonathan Wallace. However, freshman Greg Monroe has stepped into the lineup in the pivot and sophomore Chris Wright has taken over at point guard. Not only have the Hoyas not missed a beat with the newcomers, but they are more athletic for having them.
Monroe leads the nation in free throw rate with 100.0 while ranking 77th in percentage of blocks (7.7), 120th in offensive rating (122.4), 155th in percentage of steals (3.7). Wright is 128th in effective field goal percentage (59.9), 161st in offensive rating (120.4) and 185th in assist rate (27.4).
Monroe was a highly touted high school player in Grenta, La., and considered the top recruit in the nation going into last season. He slipped a bit in his senior year but has been as good as advertised as a collegian.
"He's one of the best freshmen centers in the country, if not the best," Wichita State coach Greg Marshall said after losing 58-50 to Georgetown in the Old Spice Classic during Thanksgiving weekend. "His potential is limitless."
The same could be said for Wright, who had a 24.1 assist rate and 100.1 offensive rating last season as a freshman while being limited to 16 games by a severe ankle sprain.
"He's special," Florida International coach Sergio Rouco said after suffering a 76-38 loss to Georgetown on Dec. 23. "He runs his team, he gets to the cup and he's making jump shots. He's so hard to guard because he is so strong."
Add Monroe and Wright to Georgetown's solid core of holdovers and the Hoyas have become something to see.
"We're exciting, probably more exciting now than we were the last two seasons," senior guard Jessie Sapp said.
Sophomore guard Austin Freeman (121.0) and junior center DaJuan Summers (116.1) also have fine offensive ratings, ranking 147th and 278th in the country. Summers is 35th in effective field goal percentage at 65.2 and Freeman is 94th with a 61.3 mark. Furthermore, Summers is 151st in free throw rate (59.8) and 191st in percentage of steals (3.5).
Georgetown leads the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency (124.2) and is seventh in adjusted defensive efficiency (82.4)
No wonder Thompson has been a firm believer since the first day of practice that his team could three-peat in a loaded Big East that includes four of the nation's top ten teams, according to the Pomeroy Ratings. Georgetown is first while West Virginia is No. 4, Pittsburgh is No. 5 and Connecticut is No. 7. Five more teams are in the top 50: Louisville (No. 12), Villanova (No. 29), Syracuse (No. 30), Notre Dame (No. 35) and Marquette (No. 43).
"We lost two very good players at the end of last season, but our goals have not changed," Thompson said. "Even though this league is brutally tough, we want to improve and continue to get better. We want to put ourselves in position to have success at the end of the year. That's how we've always approached it."
Georgetown has been awfully good early in the season, though the schedule gets no easier as the Hoyas host Pittsburgh on Saturday and visit Notre Dame on Monday. That is why Thompson is not too giddy about being 1-0, even if the win came on the road against a strong opponent like Connecticut.
"The commissioner isn't handing out any trophies yet and we have a long and difficult road ahead of us," Thompson said. "It doesn't get any easier."
UCLA Goes Young
Despite making it to the Final Four in each of the last three seasons, UCLA knows it is going to have to rely heavily on freshmen to make it four in a row. So far, that has been the case as three freshmen have positive offensive ratings as the Bruins are 10-2 and 17th in the Pomeroy Ratings.
Guard Jrue Holiday's 115.9 rating is 284th in the nation and he also ranks 82nd in percentage of steals (4.2). Forward Drew Gordon has a 108.4 offensive rating and guard Malcolm Lee has a 105.2 offensive attention while gaining the attention of coach Ben Howland.
"He's going to be a good player," Howland told the Los Angeles Times. "He's a good on-ball defender."
Unfortunately, Lee will miss UCLA's first two games of the Pacific-10 season because of a bone bruise in his knee. The Bruins visit Oregon State tonight and Oregon on Sunday.
UCLA is also getting a major boost from some its seniors. Point guard Darren Collison's 129.0 offensive rating is 39th in the nation; he is also 38th in effective field goal percentage (64.8), 130th in assist rate (29.5) and 133rd in percentage of steals (3.9). Forward Alfred Aboya is 18th in free throw rate (84.5), 104th in offensive rebounding percentage (13.1), 172nd in effective field goal percentage (58.6) and 179th in offensive rating (119.3). Forward Josh Shipp's offensive rating is just 100.9 but he is 90th in percentage of steals (4.2).
Meanwhile, junior forward Michael Roll's 149.7 offensive rating leads the country even though his percentage of minutes is a mere 44.8. He is part of the reason Howland believes UCLA is ready for conference action.
Southern California also opens Pac-10 play with the same swing, visiting Oregon tonight and Oregon State on Sunday. The Trojans are 9-3 and featuring a new player as senior guard Marcus Johnson, a transfer from Connecticut, made his Trojans' debut last Sunday with six points and three steals in 19 minutes off the bench in a 66-56 win over Oral Roberts.
"I had some jitters before going in," Johnson said. "It didn't take me long to get into the flow of play."
The addition of the 6-6 Johnson means that Trojans coach Tim Floyd is now using some smaller combinations, particularly with power forward Leonard Washington out at least two weeks with a high right ankle sprain. Washington's 117.7 offensive rating ranks 225th in the nation and he is also 68th in defensive rebounding percentage (23.5).
The Very Big Ten
While the Big East was expected to be loaded this season, the general thought was that the Big Ten was going to be down. However, the Big Ten has seven teams in the top 50 of the Pomeroy Ratings: Illinois (No. 14), Purdue (No.16), Ohio State (No. 27), Northwestern (No. 33), Michigan State (No. 38), Iowa (No. 46) and Wisconsin (No. 50).
"I've said all along with the [players] teams had coming back and the recruiting classes that were added it could be a pretty rough go of it," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "With some of the wins, it appears across the board this league is playing people well, which speaks volumes for how good the Big Ten is this year."
The Big Ten is 105-25 in non-conference games this season and had a banner day on Dec. 20 when Michigan State beat Texas, ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll at the time, while Minnesota knocked off No. 9 Louisville and Purdue handled No. 22 Davidson while holding Stephen Curry, the nation's leading scorer, to 13 points on 5-of-26 shooting.
"The Big Ten is a lot deeper than a lot of people thought," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "Guys talked at media day about how many losses the Big Ten champion could have. Four or five was thrown around and I think that could happen because we have a balanced league and some teams that will surprise people across the country."
However, two of the Big Ten's upstarts suffered rude awakenings by suffering losses on their home courts on Wednesday in conference openers. Michigan fell to Wisconsin 73-61 and Minnesota was downed by Michigan State 70-58.
Michigan went 10-2 in non-conference play after going 10-22 last year in John Beilein's first season as coach.
"Some people didn't know what to expect or maybe forgot what the Big Ten was but we know now," Wolverines sophomore guard Manny Harris said. "This was a wake-up call."
Wisconsin, meanwhile, got back on track after going 9-3 in non-conference play with the losses coming against Connecticut, Marquette and Texas.
"This win answered a bunch of questions," Badgers junior guard Trevon Hughes said. "We can still play Wisconsin defense and take care of the ball."
Minnesota came into conference play 12-0, though it played a lackluster schedule ranked as the 240th-best in the country by the Pomeroy Ratings.
"It just brings us back down to reality," Golden Gophers sophomore point guard Al Nolen said about the loss.
Games to Watch
Five games to watch in the next week based on the Pomeroy Ratings with all times Eastern:
No. 5 Pittsburgh (13-0) at No. 1 Georgetown (10-1), Saturday Jan. 3, Noon, ESPN2
No. 19 Wake Forest (12-0) at No. 15 Brigham Young (11-1), Saturday, Jan. 3, 8 p.m., Mountain West Network
No. 23 Kentucky (11-3) at No. 12 Louisville (8-3), Sunday, Jan. 4, 4:30 p.m., CBS
No. 4 Connecticut (11-1) at No. 7 West Virginia (10-2), Tuesday Jan. 6, 7 p.m., ESPNU
No. 8 Gonzaga (8-4) at No. 26 Tennessee (9-2), Wednesday, Jan. 7, 9 p.m., ESPN2
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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