Battle 4 Atlantis squads show strength, skill in heated matchups
Point guard Joe Jackson's obvious lack of leadership proved costly for Memphis
Trevor Mbakwe needed 24 minutes to nab 19 points, 12 rebounds against Stanford
Memphis, UConn and UCLA all were dropped out of my AP ballot for this week
NASSAU, Bahamas -- The second annual Battle 4 Atlantis is now a matter of history. While much attention was paid to the two headliners, Duke and Louisville, there were six other teams at this event who showed signs that they will be forces to reckon with once league play begins. So before we officially close the books on this event, here are the headlines that best describe what the non-headliners gleaned from their trip to the Bahamas. Sunscreen not included.
Which Way Will Joe Go?
There was no sadder sight at this tournament than that of Memphis junior guard Joe Jackson sitting on the team's bench as the final seconds ticked away on the Tigers' nine-point loss to Minnesota Friday afternoon. While Jackson was parked there for the entire half because he had been so ineffective in the first, his former high school teammate from Memphis, Minnesota guard Andre Hollins, lit up his Tigers for a career-high 41 points. Jackson could barely look Hollins in the eye during the postgame handshake line.
It was the second straight game in which Jackson, a two-time Conference USA tournament MVP, was a non-factor. In Memphis' quarterfinal loss to VCU, he had just one field goal and committed seven turnovers before fouling out early in the second half. Memphis coach Josh Pastner was at a total loss to explain Jackson's disengaged play. "Joe is going to be better than this and we need Joe to be better," he said after the loss to Minnesota.
Jackson was indeed better the next day against Northern Iowa, partly because Pastner moved 6-foot-4 junior Chris Crawford to the point and let Jackson play off the ball. Crawford said he was shocked at the switch, but Jackson, and thus the entire team, benefited from it. The Tigers had trailed Northern Iowa by 14 points late in the first half before going on a 10-point spurt. While Jackson finished with 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the win, Crawford also flourished, scoring a game-high 18 points and grabbing a career-high 12 rebounds.
Jackson became a local high school legend in Memphis because he was a great scorer. He switched over to the point in college, but he is clearly miscast in that role. Not only is Jackson a natural scorer, he is also a quiet, introverted kid who offers nothing by way of leadership. That's a huge problem to have in a point guard, especially on a team that already has difficulty summoning emotion. Jackson may want to play the point because that's where he'll have to play in the NBA, but it's not Pastner's job to turn Jackson into a pro if it is costing Memphis games. Jackson has two choices: He can either embrace this idea, or he can spend lots more time on the bench. It's really not much of a choice.
Mbakwe Getting Stronger
This headline should send shudders around the Big Ten. Few players around the country are better than Gophers senior forward Trevor Mbakwe at using their lower body strength to gain leverage on the glass. This is especially important because even though Mbakwe is listed at 6-8, it looked to me as I watched him jostle against players like Duke's Mason Plumlee and Stanford's Josh Powell that he tops out at 6-7. Before this week, Mbakwe had not displayed much explosiveness because he is still recovering from the torn ACL and microfracture surgery that sidelined him for most of last season. He has yet to start any of Minnesota's games.
I'm guessing that will change soon. After being held in check against Duke (11 points, 3 rebounds, 18 minutes) and Memphis (5 points, 8 rebounds, 20 minutes), Mbakwe turned in his best game of the season against Stanford. He needed just 24 minutes to tally 19 points (on 7-for-10 shooting) and 12 rebounds, including four at the offensive end. Mbakwe was also 13-for-18 from the foul line this week, which is impressive for a guy who was making 58 percent last season before he got hurt in December.
Minnesota needs Mbakwe's inside presence because this is not a great offensive team, despite Hollins' otherworldly performance against Memphis. The Golden Gophers have done a terrible job taking care of the ball this season (they averaged 16.7 turnovers per game at the Atlantis). They are going to have to win games through tough-nosed defense, aggressive offensive rebounding, and foul shooting. In other words, this is a blue-collar team. Fortunately, Mbakwe appears to be rounding into form at just the right time.
Panthers Must Peak in the Valley
No one was surprised that the Panthers left this tournament 0-3, but they were twice within reach of scoring an upset. After trailing Louisville by 18 points in the second half of Thursday's quarterfinal, UNI methodically came back to within one point with two minutes to play before losing by five. UNI also could not hang on to that 14-point lead over Memphis. That means the Panthers will have to finish in the top three of the Missouri Valley Conference to be considered for an at-large bid.
The biggest concern for UNI moving forward has to be the play of 6-8 sophomore Seth Tuttle. Last season, he averaged 9.6 points and 5.6 rebounds en route to being named MVC's freshman of the year, but in three games here he had a total of three made field goals. Tuttle is a fundamentally sound post player, but he struggles when he's being defended by someone who's bigger than he.
UNI has a lot of good three-point shooters, but the team made just 28 percent during this tournament. Nor did the Panthers enjoy much success driving the ball. They shot 6-for-15 in the first half against Memphis, but when the Tigers' defenders closed out on the Panthers' shooters (UNI was 1-for-12 from behind the arc in the second half), they were lost trying to make plays off the dribble.
Still, the Panthers can take heart knowing they took on three of the top teams in the country and stood toe-to-toe with two of them. They didn't leave the Atlantis with any wins, but I have to believe they are leaving with some confidence.
I know a lot of Missouri fans were hoping the situation regarding suspended senior guard Michael Dixon would become clearer this week, but if anything it became murkier. Dixon made the trip to the Bahamas, which seemed to indicate he would become available at some point. Tigers coach Frank Haith left open that possibility, but Dixon was never reinstated. On Friday night, former Missouri guard Kim English revealed on Twitter that the decision to suspend Dixon was made by a university student board and is now in the hands of the university administration. So it appears this is not even Haith's call to make.
The fact that Missouri played so well without their emotional leader and best perimeter scorer should tell you how good it will be if and when Dixon becomes available. (Ditto for 6-5 freshman Jabari Brown, a sharp-shooting transfer from Oregon who will become eligible in mid-December.) Much of that excellence stems from junior point guard Phil Pressey. He can get a little sloppy with the ball sometimes (eight turnovers against Louisville), but that's a small price to pay for his aggressive playmaking. Pressey also shot well from three (8-for-15) and showed dynamic athleticism. For example, during the Stanford game, I watched him grab a rebound by reaching above two of the Cardinals' 6-10 forwards. I knew he was a good athlete, but I had no idea he had that kind of vertical leap.
Missouri is a different team in the frontcourt with the addition of Laurence Bowers (who missed last season with a torn ACL) and Alex Oriakhi (transferred from UConn). But to me, the most intriguing addition is Earnest Ross, a chiseled, 6-5 bull who transferred from Auburn. Though Ross shot horribly in the win over Stanford, going 3-for-19 from the floor and 0-for-5 from three-point range, he did a good job crashing the boards for seven offensive rebounds. His shot selection was better against VCU (4-7 fg, 3-5 from three), but he only had one rebound in 22 minutes. Ross can be a queen piece for this team, but he needs to figure out where he's most effective on any given night. That's what Thanksgiving tournaments are for. As Ross gradually becomes more comfortable, Missouri will become tougher to beat.
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