In the championship of Around the Dorm, the “Ref,” Greg Oriolo, challenges sports editor Chris Molicki, sports assistant Peter Fiorilla and staff writer Kevin Lee to answer questions about the most impressive teams in college basketball so far, who’s the top challenge for the Heat in the East, and who should be the NFL MVP.
1. Through the first month of the men’s NCAA basketball season, which two teams have impressed you the most and why?
CM: College basketball’s two most impressive teams so far are the Duke Blue Devils and the Minnesota Golden Gophers. As a Duke hater, I can’t deny that they’ve been great. They’ve already beaten Ohio St., Kentucky and Louisville, three of the nation’s top teams and favorites in their respective conferences. Mason Plumlee has broken out into a monster, averaging nearly 20 points and 11 rebounds per game. However, the two biggest players have been Rasheed Sulaimon and Quin Cook. Sulaimon, a freshman, is averaging 12.7 points per game, an amazing number for a rookie, while Cook’s ability to run the offense against some truly brutal defenses has been invaluable. As for Minnesota, they were a team in turmoil last year, losing seven of their final nine regular season games. Rodney Williams Jr., Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman have all made huge improvements, but senior Trevor Mbakwe has been the key. After multiple injuries and a run-in with the law earlier this fall, Mbwake vowed he would pay for his scholarship if the Gophers did not make the NCAA tournament. He has backed up his words by being a true leader in Minnesota’s 7-1 start.
PF: They aren’t the glamorous teams anyone prioritizes watching, but San Diego State and Colorado have quietly impressed this far into the season. The Aztecs opened the year with a blowout loss against Syracuse, but have since showcased their airtight defense by allowing only 53.2 points a game (12th in the NCAA as of Friday) and are picking up 44.6 rebounds per game (7th). The schedule has been so-so and San Diego State needs more efficient offensive threats like Jamaal Franklin, but defense wins elimination games and I am going to keep an eye on the Aztecs heading into March. Over in the Pac-12, the Colorado Buffaloes have won in a variety of ways — blowouts over mediocre squads and tight victories against Baylor and Texas Southern — coming off a not-so-great 2011-12 season that saw them finish 23-11 overall and get destroyed by the Baylor team they just got revenge on. The Buffaloes have not put up eye-popping statistics anywhere on the court but are solid on both ends, and with 6-plus consecutive wins right off the bat, it will be hard to ignore them going forward.
KL: Syracuse and Duke have impressed me the most. Syracuse is sixth in the nation, but what impresses me most is that they are able to do this after losing Dion Waiters, Fab Melo and Kris Joseph to last year’s NBA draft. If you thought last year’s team was good, this year’s team might be even better with different players. It just amazes me how some programs can churn out NBA players and still remain in the NCAA’s elite the next year. This year, Syracuse is that team. Duke impresses me for who they have beaten. They’ve beaten No. 3 Kentucky, No. 2 Louisville and No. 4 Ohio State to remain 6-0 at this point in the season. Coming into the season, I did not think Duke would be nearly this good. Coach K has gotten the most out of his players once again, having six players average 10 or more points. Duke has a shot to be the No. 1 one team in the nation when the rankings come out next week.
Peter gets 3 for his analysis of teams not in the national headlines. Chris gets 2 for his on-point analysis of Duke. Kevin gets 1 for pointing out how the draft really does hurt most teams, but not the Orange this year.
2. In the NBA’s Eastern Conference, which team do you feel will give the Heat the toughest time on their quest to the NBA finals?
CM: As much as it pains me to say, right now, the Brooklyn Nets, not the New York Knicks, look like the Heat’s biggest competition. I thought that the Nets would be very average this year, but I was wrong. They’ve already proven themselves with wins over the Celtics, Knicks and Clippers. Everyone said they would score a lot and play no defense, but it turns out they’ve allowed the fewest points in the NBA. And that high-powered offense? No one is averaging 20 points per game. With players like Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, you know they’ll all be averaging over 20 by the season’s end. What’s most surprising is how well this team has come together so far. With a batch of new players, the Nets actually have a pretty decent bench with Jerry Stackhouse, Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans, C. J. Watson and MarShon Brooks. I really do like the Knicks’ chances of contending and when Amar’e returns, my answer to this question may be different, but because of age and an unsustainable start, I’m just not sure they’ll be as big of a pest to the Heat as the Nets.
PF: The only Eastern Conference squad I give a one-in-a-million chance at dethroning the Miami Heat is the Brooklyn Nets. It will take physicality and a varied offense, the kind the Nets showed while beating up on Boston and provoking Rajon Rondo into a multi-game suspension last week, to challenge a team as potentially great on defense as the Heat. There will be mismatches, but there are too many weapons on the Nets to be able to handle for an entire series. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are the obvious threats, but Brook Lopez is on fire. In less than 30 minutes a game, Lopez has a team-high 18.5 points while shooting 53.5 percent. That’s incredibly efficient. The Celtics pushed Miami to seven games last year, but their window for a title has passed at this point, and I do not expect the Knicks to extend their early form into the postseason. For me, bringing Amar’e Stoudemire back into the fold will raise more questions than answers — will Woodson bench Stoudemire for potentially playoffs-killing defense, can the Knicks be efficient with Carmelo and Stoudemire both on the floor, and so on. If Miami is to be upset in the 2012-13 Eastern Conference playoffs, it will be by the Brooklyn Nets.
KL: The Eastern Conference is pretty weak in general, but I think the Brooklyn Nets have a shot at beating the Heat. The Nets have one of the best starting fives in the league. Many of the doubts about team chemistry coming into the season are gone. The thing I like about the Nets is that they have players who know their roles. Deron Williams and Brook Lopez are the two go-to players for offense with Joe Johnson playing a very comfortable role as the third option. Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries are great on defense and get a majority of the boards. The other team that has a shot to beat the Heat in the playoffs is the Knicks. Although Amar’e is talented, the Knicks may go through a transitional phase with his return. The Nets match up very well against the Heat.
Chris gets 3 for talking about the Nets defense and depth. Peter gets 2 for describing the Nets overall offensive ability. Kevin gets 1 for his analysis of the Nets starting five.
3. Through the three-quarters mark of the NFL season, which player do you feel deserves the MVP award?
CM: I’m sure everyone will be picking a quarterback here, but I’m going to go the uncharacteristic route. The MVP this season is Houston running back Arian Foster. The dude is money near the goal-line with all 12 of his touchdowns coming in the red zone, where he leads the league in carries. However, what I think distinguishes Foster from the other candidates is something quarterbacks do — make their teammates better. Matt Schaub is an above average quarterback at best, yet he’s been able to pass the ball very well in a passing league. Why is that? Because Schaub is the best in the NFL in play-action passing and that comes directly from Foster’s production. In reality, Foster is the force behind the running and passing attack of the NFL’s best team. The majority of quarterbacks have all put up stinkers this year, but Foster has at least 90 yards or a touchdown in every game. His only competition is Peyton Manning, but let’s face it, Tim Tebow won a playoff game for Denver last year. I think credit needs to be given to the rest of that Bronco team, and Foster as well.
PF: The NFL MVP will realistically be awarded to a passing maestro like Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers, but I would like to see a player who has sacked those two a combined 4.5 times this season get it — defensive tackle J.J. Watt of the (nearly) unstoppable Houston Texans. Watt’s stat line is impressive. As of Saturday, he leads the AFC in sacks with 14.5, is second in passes defended with 13 and has pitched in 54 tackles along with two fumble recoveries. In other words, he is easily the best defensive player on one of the best defenses around. Even when Houston has let up a lot of points, Watt has kept the team alive with big performances. During a recent two-game stretch where the Texans allowed 68 points against Jacksonville and Detroit, Watt produced four sacks and 11 tackles to allow his team to eek out close victories. A defensive player might not ever win the MVP again considering how quarterbacks’ stats balloon on a yearly basis, but Watt deserves consideration for the award thanks to his diverse defensive skill set that has the Texans in great position for a playoff run heading into December.
KL: Peyton Manning has been nothing short of spectacular in his return to the NFL at the age of 36. We know about Manning’s QB rating and touchdown passes, but Manning’s passing percentage is an absurd 67.7 percent. That’s probably higher than when Mark Sanchez throws the ball in warm-ups. He’s led a resurgent Broncos team and they basically have the division wrapped up in a bow. Manning’s numbers should only improve in the remaining four games, facing the easier part of his schedule. It’s Manning’s to lose having every credential needed for an MVP. He’s simply one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Kevin gets 3 for picking Peyton, who has the most likely shot since QBs are favored. Chris gets 2 for Foster’s overall importance to the team. Peter gets 1 for Watt who may win defensive player of the year due to his overall ability and stats.
Chris wins the Around the Dorm Championship, 7-6-5.