Winning early-season games against quality competition is as much a function of a team's toughness as anything else. After five weeks of practice, most teams are still fiddling with lineups, role definition and how they will incorporate new players into their system. Offensive and defensive execution are often sloppy early in the year, as well. Most teams are operating at about 70 percent efficiency and will improve over the course of the season.
A coach's hope is that he can win games while still developing the culture of that season's team. It helps if he has enough veterans who have been through hard-fought games in the past to teach the newcomers what it takes to win close games. Xavier, despite losing three key players from last season's Elite Eight team, won the Puerto Rico Classic on Sunday night by grinding out three wins throughout the tournament over Missouri, Virginia Tech and No.12 Memphis with that formula.
All three of the Musketeers' victories came down to the final possession, and in each case they found a way to win. In two of the wins, they shot less than 40 percent from the field. Memphis held them to 2-for-14 3-point shooting, and Missouri forced 20 Xavier turnovers. But they were aggressive enough to get to the free-throw line an average of 34 times each game.
Making clutch free throws requires a certain amount of mental toughness, as well, and Musketeers freshman point guard Terrell Holloway showed he's got enough to get coach Sean Miller excited about him this season. Holloway -- who has a tall order in replacing Drew Lavender -- went 10-for-10 from the foul line in the win over Memphis in the championship game. In fact, he's 27-of-28 on the season.
Seven-foot freshman Kenny Frease and 6-foot-8 Tulsa transfer Jamel McLean proved they are ready to give Miller extra depth up front, and each made key contributions in the tournament. Frease will play in the NBA someday because he's huge, has great hands, nimble feet for his size and an excellent feel for the game. And he might not be Jeff Ruland, but he was not afraid to throw his 265 pounds around this week. McLean, the team's best athlete, scored 11 key points in the Memphis win when junior Derrick Brown was swaddled with foul trouble.
Ultimately, Xavier's toughness revolves around four players who have been in the trenches for Miller: seniors C.J. Anderson and B.J. Raymond, as well as juniors Jason Love and Brown. These guys know how to win, and have already passed on their knowledge to the new Musketeers.
Some thoughts on the Puerto Rico Classic
• Southern Cal was the most disappointing team in San Juan. Without North Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson, whose request for immediate eligibility was denied by the NCAA, the Trojans have a shallow front line. Taj Gibson is a beast, and Leonard Washington is an undersized power forward who is an excellent rebounder, but that's it. Point guard Daniel Hackett is a nice player and a "caretaker," but not a playmaker, and freshman DeMar DeRozan is not yet ready to make the impact that O.J. Mayo made a year ago. My hunch is that coach Tim Floyd will figure things out, but he found at the Puerto Rico Classic that his team has holes.
• Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez does not have a lot of friends in the Big East, or in the New York/New Jersey media, but he sure can coach. I always look for how hard a team plays for its coach, and the Pirates play for him like their lives depend on it. Despite having only seven scholarship players against No. 20 Southern Cal, the Pirates "junkyard-dogged" the Trojans into losing a 15-point lead and the game. Then, after losing to Memphis, they bounced back and, with suspended small forward Robert Mitchell reinstated, knocked off Virginia Tech. If Seton Hall can keep all eight scholarship players healthy throughout a long season, they will be a major annoyance to most of the top teams in the Big East.
• No team in college basketball lost more important players than the Memphis Tigers, who went 38-2 last season. The Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose is the odds-on favorite for NBA Rookie of the Year one month into the season, and Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey have made NBA rosters, as well. John Calipari is still trying to figure out his point guard situation, whether he has enough outside shooting and how to get the ball to Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart inside. Top-5 freshman Tyreke Evans has struggled with his shooting and decision-making early, and committed four charges in the win over Chattanooga. Fellow freshman Wesley Witherspoon is very talented but has been thrown into the fire early, as well.
While this will not be the typical Memphis juggernaut we've grown accustomed to the past few years, and it's likely that their long Conference USA winning streak will come to an end this season, I am anxious to see how Calipari molds this team. Trust me: He will figure out a way to win, and win big, again. It's likely going to happen on the defensive end, where he can control their effort. This is still a long and athletic group that will be hard to score on all year.
• The Missouri Tigers picked up a key nonconference win over USC in San Juan on Sunday after a very close loss to eventual tournament champion Xavier on Thursday. With a win over Fairfield, as well, they will leave Puerto Rico with a 2-1 record in the tournament, and are 4-1 overall.
I have been a big Mike Anderson fan since his UAB days. However, his first two years at Missouri haven't gone as smoothly as his four in Birmingham. He inherited a team that didn't fit his frenetic style of play, and seemed to have some team chemistry and off-the-court issues, as well.
This season, Anderson has added his first true recruiting class to go along with four starters who returned from last season. They finally look like a team that can start to deliver on Anderson's promise to Tigers fans of "the fastest 40 minutes in basketball." Seniors DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons could end up being as good a pair of bookend forwards as there are in the Big 12. Junior J.T. Tiller showed some long-range shooting ability to go along with his defensive prowess.
Anderson consistently played 11 players throughout the weekend. And what was most enlightening was the emergence of freshman guards Kimmie English, Marcus Denmon and Miguel Paul. They all got significant minutes over the three days and grew up a little more in the win over the Trojans. I have said throughout the fall that if they can get meaningful contributions from their newcomers, the Tigers are the "dark-horse" team in the Big 12 this year.