NCAA Basketball Column: Playing the role of Santa Claus
It feels like just yesterday that Michigan State and UConn met in Germany for the start of the college basketball season. Now, faster than you can spell the last name of Duke's head basketball coach, we have flipped the calendar to December. A lot of teams throughout the country are still trying to find their identity, while others have hit the ground running and are swiftly rising in the national polls. Schools such as No. 1 Indiana, No. 2 Duke, and No. 8 Arizona are off to fabulous starts and well on their way to very special years. Others, including UCLA and NC State, have stumbled out of the gate and need to look into some mirrors if they wish to regroup and turn things around before conference play begins.
However, hope is far from lost for some of the early disappointments. For the UCLAs and Kentuckys of the world, this is the perfect time to start anew and get back to playing solid basketball. Why is now the time, you ask? Well, because it's the holiday season. Christmas is approaching, Ralphie is beginning to salivate over a Red Ryder BB Gun and Hess already brags that this year's version of its toy-truck is "better than ever." A lot of magic occurs during the winter holidays, and nothing exemplifies this more than the presence of Father Christmas himself.
Please understand that Santa Claus does not set records in forgiveness and forgetfulness. If children have been more naughty than nice under Santa's eye, he makes them pay. Instead of receiving a plethora of desired presents under the tree, Jolly Old Saint Nick may reprimand boys and girls via the tossing of lumps of coal, unpleasant sweaters and even Mark Sanchez down the chimney.
When it comes to college basketball programs, I'd like to believe he becomes much more understanding and compassionate. Santa acknowledges a slow start when he sees one, and he also knows that one gift can change the entire mindset for a team while steering them in the right direction. It remains to be seen whether Kentucky, Tennessee and others can erase a rough November and return to their winning ways, but it is quite clear what they need under the Christmas tree to get back on track.
Gift: Patience and Practice Time
OK, maybe bestowing two presents upon UCLA seems a bit greedy, but "greedy" may just be the perfect word to describe Bruins coach Ben Howland. Howland went all John Calipari on us this summer and landed not one, not two, not three (No really, LeBron, keep going), but four top-50 recruits for this year's class. The most highly touted of the four, Shabazz Muhammad (No. 2 in ESPNU 100), had to watch UCLA's first three games from the pine amid an NCAA investigation. Upon his return, the team has dropped three of its five games, including a loss versus San Diego State Saturday in the Wooden Classic. All that the Bruins really need from Santa is a little bit of patience. Give Muhammad, along with fellow freshmen Kyle Anderson (No. 5 in ESPNU 100), Tony Parker (No. 26), and Jordan Adams (No. 41) a couple of months to gel and get acclimated to the college game. Much like Rome, legendary teams composed of freshman studs aren't built in a day. Just ask Calipari.
Gift: Additional Low-Post Scorer
The main catalyst on the Tennessee Volunteers roster is sophomore Jarnell Stokes, a beast in the paint whose shoe size (20) is actually higher than his age (18). As effective as Stokes has been so far this season (13 points per game, 7.7 rebounds per game), it's becoming obvious that he needs some additional help down low. Luckily for Tennessee, that help may soon be arriving in the form of the injured Jeronne Maymon. Maymon, currently recovering from offseason knee surgery, made All-SEC Second Team last year with averages of 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per contest. With Maymon at full health, the Vols pose as formidable a frontcourt as any team in the country. I'm hoping someone in the North Pole saw Tennessee put up just 36 points in a loss at Georgetown on Friday.
Gift: Point Guard Depth
If Santa is unable to fulfill Missouri's request for another ball handler in the backcourt this Christmas, the least he can do is purchase a Brookstones gift certificate for point guard Phil Pressey (13.6 ppg, 6.3 assists per game). Pressey, widely regarded as a Top-3 point guard nationally, deserves a massage chair after already having to shoulder much of the load for the Tigers. Missouri does get PG Jabari Brown, an Oregon transfer and a former five-star recruit in the spring semester. Thank goodness, too, as the need for Brown has gotten that much more zealous with news that Michael Dixon Jr. (13.5 ppg last year as sixth man) is unlikely to ever step foot on the court again after a rape accusation. Pressey rarely gets a break during the game and, as a result, his turnover numbers have increased. Missouri (ranked No. 12 in the AP Top-25, No. 11 in the Coaches Poll) is still in better shape than most of the teams in this column thanks to a solid frontcourt, but the efficiency and decision-making of backup guards Brown and freshman Negus Webster-Chan will be the X-factor for the Tigers going forward.
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