Minnesota, UNC surprise in Puerto Rico -- but not in the same way
Minnesota won the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, in part because of its underrated big men
Harrison Barnes, UNC's vaunted freshman, struggled and appeared to be pressing
UNC, losing its last two games, also has problems at point and under the basket
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The Puerto Rico Tip-Off was a tournament of revelations, some of them rude: Its only ranked team (No. 8 North Carolina) finished 1-2 and made a strong argument to be unranked by Monday. Its lone preseason All-America (Tar Heels forward Harrison Barnes) was far more freshman-like than All-America-like. Its team with the most aggressive reputation (West Virginia) had its star player (Kevin Jones) admit of his opponent, following the championship game, "They were the aggressor, and they had us on our heels the whole night."
They were the unranked Minnesota Gophers, the Tip-Off's biggest surprise -- a team that traveled here without their best offensive player (suspended combo guard Devoe Joseph) and yet bulled their way past Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia to win the title. Most discussions about the Big Ten title race have focused on four schools -- Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Illinois -- but the 5-0 Gophers can no longer be ignored. Here's what was revelatory about them, and the rest of the field in San Juan:
Minnesota's big men were incredibly underrated. I'm among the guilty, having left the quartet of juniors Trevor Mbakwe (the tournament MVP), Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson, and sophomore Rodney Williams out of SI.com's preseason frontcourt rankings. But in the past four days I've watched two more-heralded front lines -- Illinois' and North Carolina's -- play with a disappointing lack of physicality, while the Gophers' veteran bigs have overwhelmed opponents with their power and energy. On Sunday against West Virginia, it was the 6-foot-10 Iverson (15 points, eight rebounds) and the 6-8 Mbakwe (16 points, seven rebounds) who dominated, provoking Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins to say, "We're big and strong and young; [Minnesota's] big and strong and old. I'll take big and strong and old all the time."
A main reason the Gophers' bigs were overlooked was because no one knew what to expect out of Mbakwe, who essentially had his D-I coming out party in San Juan. He started at Marquette in 2007-08, playing only 11 games before suffering an injury and eventually transferring to Miami Dade Community College. Following his sophomore season there, he was involved in a felony assault case -- he was accused of attacking a woman, but evidence suggests it was a case of mistaken identity -- that delayed his debut at Minnesota by a year. Only after he completed a pre-trial program this offseason was he cleared to play, and he's been a force so far, averaging 14 points and 9.4 rebounds.
We aren't seeing the real Harrison Barnes. The first freshman to be named a first-team AP All-America did not have a strong final two games of the tournament, going 0-for-12 from the field for six points against Minnesota, and 4-of-12 from the field for 11 points against Vanderbilt. While Barnes was being guarded by two elite defenders (the Gophers' Rodney Williams and the Commodores' Jeffery Taylor), he still isn't playing in the fluid, athletic style that we became accustomed to on the summer circuit. Instead, he's been moving stiffly and settling for an inordinate amount of jump shots rather than his trademark glide-steps to the rim. Barnes wouldn't admit as much -- he only says he's bothered by losing -- but he appears to be pressing due to the high, early expectations.
Vandy coach Kevin Stallings, for one, would like to blame it on the media: "People need to get off this first-team All-America thing," he said. "Who picked that? Give the kid a chance, he's going to be a really good player. He's a frickin' college freshman. Now, he's a very talented college freshman, but it's unfair to him, he's already got a target on his back and it's none of his own doing. ... What you guys have done to him is just not even right."
I asked UNC coach Roy Williams, who's also been critical of the Barnes over-hype, to provide a fair assessment of the kid after four games. Williams said, "He's a basketball player, is what he is. I don't say he's a great player, [because] you've gotta prove that. He was a great high school player, and he hasn't proven yet that he's a great college player."
Williams then instructed me to be sure, if I printed that quote, to include the word "yet."
(And for what it's worth, the NBA scouts that I talked to on Sunday seemed undaunted by Barnes' slow start. "We knew he wasn't going to be Kevin Durant," one of them said. "But we also already know how good [Barnes] is. These two games ... they really don't bother me at all.")
The Tar Heels have much bigger problems than Barnes. They'll surely be better once he and fellow blue-chip freshman Reggie Bullock (a 6-5 shooting guard) begin scoring up to their potential, and Williams adamantly said, "I don't feel anything like I did last year" -- when they bumbled their way into the NIT.
Yet there are some glaring issues that need to be resolved: The Heels' slender frontcourt duo of John Henson and Tyler Zeller got pushed around too often on defense (particularly by Vandy's Festus Ezeli, who had a career-high 15 points and nine rebounds). Henson was major liability on offense against the Commodores, committing six turnovers against zero assists, while shooting just 2-of-6 from the foul line. His season free-throw percentage is an abysmal 23.1 percent. Williams limited Henson's minutes to 16, saying, "You've gotta deserve to play."
And the oft-discussed Carolina point guard problem still exists: Starter Larry Drew and backup Kendall Marshall were largely invisible on Sunday, combining for six points, three assists and two turnovers in 40 minutes. It might be in Carolina's best interests to eventually start Marshall and Bullock together in the backcourt, in the name of putting the most talent possible on the floor, but Marshall needs to distinguish himself first.
Casey Mitchell has finally arrived. Mitchell was such a vaunted junior college gunner when he jumped from Chipola JC to West Virginia last season that many, including myself, expected him to make an immediate impact on the wing. He did no such thing, getting banished to the bench for lackluster defense after starting the first five games, and then feuding with coach Bob Huggins to the point that he was rendered invisible. Mitchell scored in double figures just once after Nov. 27 and averaged just 3.7 points per game.
In Puerto Rico, Mitchell exploded for career highs of 31 (against Vanderbilt, including the game-winning three) and 27 (against Minnesota, including 16 of the Mountaineers' first 20 points). He was the most dynamic scorer in the Tip-Off field, shooting lights-out (12-of-25) from long range and looking like the feared offensive option WVU needs him to be in its first season without Da'Sean Butler.
Vanderbilt, like Minnesota, was a glaring omission from the AP's preseason Top 25. Stallings' confidence in his club -- "I thought we could win the tournament when we came down here," he said -- was vindicated by the 'Dores' 72-65 outclassing of UNC in Sunday's third-place game. If 6-7 junior Jeffery Taylor wasn't already considered one of the college game's top all-around talents, the sequence that began at the 17:56 mark of the first half should've cemented it: In a 33-second span, he hit a three, stuffed a Barnes baseline dunk attempt, then raced down the floor on Carolina's next possession to block a fastbreak layup attempt by Dexter Strickland. Taylor finished with 15 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two blocks, while also locking down on Barnes for 34 minutes. Taylor's versatility, John Jenkins' lethal shooting ability, and solid role players such as Ezeli and point guard Brad Tinsley should make Vandy a real challenger for the SEC title.