Longhorns Test Duke's No. 1 Rating

National Basketball Columnist
Posted Dec 9, 2005

Some wonder if Connecticut, Texas or even Villanova is a more worthy choice for No. 1 at this point of the season than is Duke. Saturday in New Jersey, the Blue Devils have an ample opportunity to demonstrate that their top rating is anything but bogus. That's because they'll be taking on the Texas Longhorns in a showdown that we could see a repeat of during the Final Four.

The Duke Blue Devils struggled for a while before finally dispensing with Boston University in their season opener on Nov. 14.


And Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team had plenty of rocky moments before knocking off Drexel and Memphis in Madison Square Garden, Indiana in Bloomington and Virginia Tech (my goodness!) in an Atlantic Coast Conference opener in Durham Sunday night.


All of which, coupled with the impressive starts by Connecticut, Texas and Villanova, has made a lot of folks look upon the Blue Devils’ No. 1 ranking as strictly being the product of the near-consensus support the team had for the top spot in the summer and fall.


Saturday afternoon in The Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., Duke will have the ideal opportunity to justify its rating – in as much, anyway, as early-December ratings really mean anything in the overall scheme of things in the sport.


The Blue Devils and Texas (third in the Scout.com Top 25 but second in the Associated Press version of the ratings) hook up in a matchup that we could get a rematch of in Indianapolis on the first weekend of April.


The television broadcast could be worthy of copying from your TiVo hard drive to a DVD for repeating viewings, too.


Shelden Williams and Josh McRoberts will certainly hold their own under the backboards with the Longhorns’ LaMarcus Aldridge and Brad Buckman or P.J. Tucker.


But the Blue Devils will need another strong front-court presence to match up with either Buckman or Tucker (when they’re not assigned to Williams or McRoberts) in order to keep Texas from a potential big rebounding edge.


This is just a hunch but look for Krzyzewski to give 6-foot-10 freshman Eric Boateng his first extended action of the season Saturday.


*UCLA is 0-2 (losing to Kentucky and Boston College) in John R. Wooden Classic games under Coach Ben Howland and the going isn’t going to get any easier in Anaheim, Calif., for the Bruins in the 12th edition of the event Saturday.


The Bruins are 6-1 (the only loss coming to Memphis in Madison Square Garden) but haven’t played particularly well, in large part because of an extraordinary number of injuries – and sophomore forward Josh Shipp is still sidelined after undergoing hip surgery in September.


But even the presence of Shipp wouldn’t do much with Howland’s biggest concern about his team’s game with unbeaten Nevada Saturday: How are the Bruins going to guard 6-10 junior Nick Fazekas, who is playing like someone who will rate first- or second-team All-America honors come March?


It would be one thing if Coach Mark Fox just had Fazekas run to the low post on each possession. But Fazekas does nearly as much damage from the perimeter for the Wolf Pack as he does in the low post.


In the first game of the double-header, Washington – fresh off its 99-95 victory over Gonzaga in Seattle Sunday night – takes on the University of New Mexico Lobos.


The Huskies, playing their first game outside of Seattle, are 7-0 and could be 14-0 (and 3-0 in the Pacific 10 Conference) when they are next in Southern California again for Jan. 12 and 14 games with USC and UCLA, respectively.


*Illinois (which faces the University of Oregon Ducks in Portland Saturday) has gotten off to a somewhat-surprising 9-0 start.


But it’s only surprising in that senior Dee Brown, a consensus preseason first-team All-America and last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year, hasn’t gotten off to the kind of start most figured the team would have needed to be unbeaten at this point.


Brown is shooting .339 on the field, including .279 on 3’s, after finishing at .499 and .434 last season. And he’s got the poorest assist/turnover ratio (4.8/3.7) of his Illinois career.


So why is Bruce Weber’s team unbeaten and responsible for the only defeats inflicted upon Wichita State, Rutgers, North Carolina and Xavier?


Well, the Illini are defending (opponents are shooting .412) and rebounding (7.8 more per game than the opposition) as well as ever. And Brown, despite numbers that no doubt will improve as the season progresses, is displaying solid leadership and making “plays” when his team needs them the most.


Here are two others: James Augustine (the other returning starter from the Big Ten championship and national runner-up 2003-04 season) is having a tremendous senior season, shooting .625 from the field and averaging 15.0 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. I’m be surprised if he isn’t a late first-round selection in the NBA Draft next June.


And guard Jamar Smith, who came into the season with next to zero “freshmen to watch” hype, is putting on jump-shooting displays every time he steps onto the floor. He is shooting .556 on 3’s and is 14 of 20 beyond the arc over the past four games.


The Big Ten has been as good as any conference in the country so far. And get fired up for this Jan. 5 conference opener: Michigan State at Illinois.


An April inductee into the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com’s National Basketball Expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison’s pieces at www.FrankHoops.com

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