Monday Tip: Impressive efforts

The opening month of the college basketball season has brought upsets, breakout performances and shown that preseason predictions are often only good on paper … or in cyberspace.

Surprising efforts from teams such as Connecticut and Louisville in the Big East counterbalanced disappointing starts for touted Butler of the Horizon League and North Carolina of the ACC.

Some star players have run to fast starts, including Duke’s Kyrie Irving and Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger. Others, such as UNC’s Harrison Barnes, have had their ups and downs.

Trevor Mbakwe has become a force in the paint for Minnesota.
(Tom Olmscheid/AP photo)

Which brings us to this week’s question: What player or team has impressed you most in November?

GERRY AHERN’S RESPONSE

Minnesota’s championship run in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off has vaulted the Gophers into the Top 25 and shown that they will be a major factor in the Big Ten and nationally. Victories over North Carolina and West Virginia in Puerto Rico along with solid wins over Siena and Western Kentucky have been eye-opening. Tubby Smith boasts a deep and diverse lineup, capable of giving opponents fits inside and outside. The main catalyst thus far has been forward Trevor Mbakwe, who has shed off-court trouble and become a force in the frontcourt. Big men Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III allow Minnesota to body up on anyone. Sharpshooter Blake Hoffarber can keep teams honest from the outside. About the only concern for Smith thus far has been at the other guard spot. Al Nolen’s status is uncertain after he suffered a foot injury. Devoe Joseph is suspended indefinitely as he tries to get on track academically. Still Smith likes to substitute liberally, sometimes five at a time. Maurice Walker, Austin Hollins, Chip Armelin and Maverick Ahanmisi see plenty of action. The Gophers look like they will slug it out with Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois for the crown of the nation’s best conference. They weren’t being mentioned in the same breath as those teams at the beginning of November.

JASON KING’S RESPONSE

The biggest surprise to me has been Terrence Jones at Kentucky. I expected Jones to be a major factor for the Wildcats. But good gracious, I didn’t know the kid was this good. I’m not sure John Calipari did, either. All throughout the summer we heard how the 2010-11 season would be remembered for its standout freshmen. North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes became the first freshman in history to be named to the preseason first-team All-American squad. Barnes, Baylor’s Perry Jones and Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger were projected as top-five picks in the upcoming NBA draft. And last spring, Kansas signee Josh Selby catapulted to the top of Rivals.com’s Class of 2010 rankings. Jones was in the mix, too, at No. 13. But after two-plus weeks of the season he’s clearly been on a different level than the rest of his classmates. The only player who deserves to be in the conversation is Duke point guard Kyrie Irving, but he plays such a different role for his team that it’s hard to compare him to Jones. Seriously, if there is a hole in Jones’ game, someone please point it out to me. He can score from the perimeter and from the paint, he handles the ball like a guard despite standing 6 feet 8, and his aggression when it comes to rebounding and slashing to the basket will make him one of the most-feared players in the SEC. Jones’ dunk over two Connecticut defenders in last week’s Maui Invitational was one of the biggest highlight-reel plays of the season to date. Just as it did with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky has a true star in Jones. Too bad he won’t be around after this season. Enjoy him while you can.

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Updated Sunday, Nov 28, 2010