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NEW TGS COVER STORY...THE WEEK'S WINNERS & LOSERS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Lots happening in the last week in all sorts of sports, including the regenerated NHL. Winners and losers from the past seven days...

WINNER: San Diego State...It took the Aztecs a while to swallow their pride and admit their move to the Big East for football (and Big West for basketball) was ill-conceived and a bad idea. Although it took a near-dissolution of the Big East before San Diego State would come to its senses. With Boise State having earlier withdrawn from the Big East, the Aztecs had almost no choice but to ask forgiveness from the Mountain West, which (as sources close to the situation have maintained for the past year) was not all that eager to re-admit SDSU before making the Aztecs, who burned a lot more bridges in their ill-fated jump to the Big East than did Boise, dangle in the wind for a while before officially letting them back into the club. So ends a poorly-constructed adventure before it begins for the Aztecs and Broncos, just as we have been warning for the last year. It’s great news for SDSU football and HC Rocky Long, who was not excited about several potential trips for his team to the Eastern Time Zone, and for Aztec fans who were hardly excited about the prospects of hosting Tulane, Memphis, East Carolina, and South Florida at Qualcomm Stadium. Basketball-wise, this is a plus for SDSU as well, as a switch to the lower-profile Big West (which many believe might have prompted HC Steve Fisher’s retirement) and its various bandbox gyms (such as UC Riverside, CS Fullerton, and Cal Poly SLO) is now avoided, keeping alive what have become high-intensity rivalries vs. the likes of UNLV and New Mexico and annual trips to their rabid hoops palaces, which match any in the country.

LOSER: San Diego State...Huh? Winner and loser in the same week? While the health of the overall athletic program was given a big boost by the decision to stay in the Mountain West, the Aztec hoopsters endured a rough week with losses at home vs. UNLV and then an ugly beatdown administered by Wyoming at Laramie in which SDSU scored only nine points in the first half vs. the suffocating Cowboy defense. Those results knocked SDSU out of the AP Poll entirely and down to 25th in USA Today/ESPN poll after the Aztecs looked more likely to enter the Top Ten last week. At Laramie, SDSU was 17 of 59 from the field and 2 of 18 from behind the arc. The loss is damaging for its Mountain West title hopes because the Aztecs’ schedule during the second half of MW play is more difficult than the first half. Having already lost at home vs. the Runnin’ Rebs, SDSU still must face UNLV, Colorado State, New Mexico and Boise State on the road in February. Regional observers were wondering if the Aztecs’ lack of presence on the blocks would eventually prove their undoing; they might be getting their answer sooner than expected. It’s too soon to write off SDSU, but Steve Fisher’s teams looks in some trouble and could easily slide onto the Big Dance bubble if not careful in the coming weeks.

WINNER: Wichita State...Those in the Midwest who had any doubts about the Missouri Valley being a multi-bid league can rest easy, as the Shockers’ inspiring weekend win over Creighton solidifies their Big Dance credentials. Despite shooting 4 of 23 from behind the arc and 9 of 19 from the free throw line, Wichita upset the visiting 12th-ranked Bluejays 67-64 to forge a first-place tie atop the Valley standings. The Wheatshockers overcame poor shooting by forcing 14 Creighton turnovers and dominating the offensive glass. With Carl Hall back from the thumb injury that sidelined him for the past few weeks, the Shockers had 17 offensive rebounds. Hall had 17 points and 13 rebounds in his return.

LOSER: Utah State...Those who were wondering if the WAC could possibly become a multi-bid league in March can forget about it after the lone possible at-large candidate Utags went down in flames on the road, losing by double-digit margins at New Mexico State and Denver. Thus, after once at 14-1 and getting votes in the weekly polls, Utah State suddenly finds itself sitting in fourth spot in a low-ranked conference. Worse yet, key performers G Preston Medlin (16.1 ppg) and F Kyisean Reed (12.1 ppg) went down with injuries in Thursday’s loss at Las Cruces and missed the game at Denver. And the prognosis is not good; Medlin’s wrist injury is expected to keep him out for at least a month, while Reed is done for the season due to his knee injury. Not exactly a week to remember fondly for HC Stew Morrill.

WINNER: Michigan State...Just when we were wondering if Tom Izzo might not have a legit contender this season, the Spartans buck up and beat Ohio State 59-56 for their fifth straight win and a place at the top of the Big Ten standings. Sure, some of the preceding league wins were against second-division loop sides, but the way MSU beat the Buckeyes was impressive, especially how G Keith Appling stepped up big against OSU defensive ace Aaron Craft in the closing minutes. Six of Appling’s 15 points came in the final minute, including blowing by Craft for a driving layup with 41 seconds to play to put MSU ahead. Many Big Ten observers have suggested that Izzo will have to scheme a bit differently to make another deep run this March, likely relying upon his guards to make the big plays without the frontline presence of graduated PF Draymond Green, who was always a dump-off option on the blocks when the offense would break down late in the shot clock and could usually at least get to the free-throw line when the Spartans needed to slow an opponent’s rally. But if Appling and maturing frosh G Gary Harris can provide similar offense in the clutch, the always tenacious MSU defense, and Izzo’s sleight of hand, suggest the Spartans might be able to hang around for a while in March after all.

LOSER: Illinois...The Fighting Illini took the weekend off, which was probably a good idea after last Thursday’s ugly 68-54 home loss vs. Northwestern, Illinois’ third straight defeat and fourth in its last five games. The Illini (also 1-7 vs. the line their last eight thru January 22) are sliding down the Big Dance seeding pole so fast that they’re almost into bubble territory after ascending into the Top Ten in December and looking like a protected Big Dance seed for the first half of the season. Recent foes have gone to school on Missouri’s mid-December win over Illinois at St. Louis when the Tigers exploited the Illini shortcomings in the paint. Almost totally reliant upon Gs Brandon Paul, Tracy Abrams, and D.J. Richardson for offense, first-year HC John Groce is finding that sort of imbalance hard to overcome in a deep and demanding league such as the Big Ten. There’s also no time for Illinois to catch its breath, as after Tuesday’s game at Nebraska (certainly no gimme after how the Illini have played lately), the unforgiving Big Ten slate offers Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin (which has already throttled the Illini), Indiana, and Minnesota in a row. In a couple of weeks, we might be talking about Illinois’ chances to make the NIT instead of the Big Dance. This hardly resembles the team that romped in the Maui Classic and won handily at Gonzaga in the first month of the season.

WINNER: Oregon...Many regional observers have suggested it was just a matter of time before HC Dana Altman got the Ducks into position to become a Big Dance regular. Now in his third season at Eugene, it looks as if Altman has arrived at that point with the Oregon program after another weekend conference sweep, this one on the road at L.A.-based Southern Cal and UCLA after the previous week dumping the Arizona schools (including then-unbeaten U of A Wildcats), to move into first place in the Pac-12. Moreover, the Ducks seem to be getting better as they get used to their many new pieces, including frosh Gs Damyean Dotson & Dominic Artis (both scoring DDs), while Rice transfer F Arsalan Kazemi, now being utilized as a super sub by Altman after a stint in the starting lineup, has emerged as a rebounding machine, gobbling almost 10 boards per game. Which, in combo with last year’s Wake Forest transfer C Tony Woods and Las Vegas product true frosh Ben Carter, gives the Ducks as much presence on the blocks as any time in recent memory. We might have undershot Oregon in our last Bracketology update a week ago when seeding the Ducks a a nine; now we suspect Oregon has a legit shot at a protected seed on Selection Sunday.

LOSER: Georgetown...How much is Georgetown’s reputation helping it these days? Not much, it seems, if Saturday’s ugly 61-58 loss at South Florida is any indication. JT III’s current edition lacks the versatile scoring dimensions that last year’s team possessed with now-graduated G Jason Clark and F Hollis Thompson, as the Hoyas are almost solely reliant upon G Markel Starks for points from the perimeter. And when Starks goes cold as he did on Saturday at Tampa when making only 1 of 8 field goal tries, it becomes too easy for opponents to jam the Hoya gearbox. Heading into Monday night’s game at Notre Dame, Georgetown had lost three of its last five games. Not yet time to worry about missing the Big Dance altogether, but the Hoyas’ seeding trend for Selection Sunday is headed in the wrong direction.

WINNER: Colorado State...Look out for the Rams, who slipped into the Big Dance as one of the last at-large qualifiers last March before HC Tim Miles moved to Nebraska. But CSU hasn’t skipped a beat under new HC Larry Eustachy, who made a somewhat-surprising move from Southern Miss and inherited a senior-laden roster augmented by 6-10 Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson, scoring 14.4 ppg and providing a recently absent legit post scoring presence in the paint while also contributing to a ferocious rebounding alongside wild man 6-5 Pierce Hornung (10.1 rpg). The result is the nation’s top rebound margin team (+14.1 caroms pg) with lots of different dimensions, including a couple of old-school guards in Dorian Green and former Iowa State transfer Wes Eikmeier and a defensive stopper deluxe in 6-6 sr. F Greg Smith, who put the clamps on UNLV’s 6-9 frosh star Anthony Bennett last Saturday at Moby Arena, limiting the touted Rebel to a mere 9 points (less than half of his season scoring average) in a gritty 66-61 CSU win. Another hero down the stretch was Green, who calmly hit six straight free throws in the final three minutes as CSU ended the game on a 10-2 run to score the important win. Eustachy and his all-senior starting lineup have also covered five of their last seven games on the board, and CSU’s homecourt win streak at Fort Collins grew to 24 straight after last Saturday’s win over UNLV.

Meanwhile, in the NBA...

LOSER: L.A. Lakers...We have beaten this horse enough already this season but still can’t quite get over how the Lake Show simply can’t put the pieces together, as the “dream team” and offseason title talk in L.A. is fast becoming a false alarm of the Comet Kohoutek variety. As we suspected at the outset of the season, the pieces were not going to fit easily in the new L.A. mix, especially defensively, where G Steve Nash is now a serious liability, with teams continuing to attack the paint in commando-like style as they blow past the Lakers’ invisible Maginot Line on the perimeter. Throw into the mix the coaching confusion after the first week of the season, and trying to adapt to new HC Mike D’Antoni’s system on the fly after the campaign had already commenced, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. But the price for the Lakers’ dysfunction might really be felt in the offseason, as some sources are suggesting that the newly-acquired Dwight Howard is far from a happy camper at Staples Center, having to assume a subservient role behind Kobe Bryant in the team structure. And whether the reports of a recent locker-room fracas with Kobe are true or not, more than a few are suggesting that Howard (still not signed beyond this season) will be looking for pastures anew at the conclusion of the current campaign, when Howard might also have a bit more time to get back to 100% physically after last summer’s back surgery that kept him out of the Olympics. None of which is surprising to anyone who watches L.A. closely, with Bryant abandoning offensive structure and simply going one-on-one and taking all sorts of low-percentage shots in crunch time, after acting as if he is doing a favor to his teammates by passing them the ball in the first three quarters of the game. Coupled with the fact Pau Gasol still looks out of place at the high post in the D’Antoni offense, the Lakers’ mediocre 12-10 straight-up record at home and downright poor 5-13 mark on the road thru January 20, and the crash-and-burn scenario is playing out in front of the eys of NBA fans. Get ready for the Lakers to be in the middle of February 21 trade deadline rumors, which will begin to heat up the next few weeks.

As always, stay tuned...


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