FSU is better than expected
It was a heck of a holiday weekend for Florida State.
Even if it would have been better if they played only three quarters in football.
The small matter of a gridiron collapse against in-state rival Florida notwithstanding, Florida State women's teams more than held up their end of the bargain. Ranked No. 1 for much of the season, the women's soccer team advanced to the College Cup with a quarterfinal win against Notre Dame. For just the third time, the women's volleyball team earned a seed in the NCAA tournament after it beat Miami on Friday to win the ACC championship.
And while there's a lot of basketball to be played before the women's basketball team need worry about postseason play, Saturday's 73-59 victory against No. 17 Vanderbilt is further evidence of a comeback season on the court.
The win against the admittedly struggling Commodores came a day after a 90-51 win against Eastern Kentucky in the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico and moved Florida State to 5-0 on the season (including a 31-point win against the Gators, just in case anyone in Tallahassee needed a lift on that count). That represents a marked improvement over last season, when the Seminoles didn't pick up their fifth win until Dec. 10 on their way to a 14-17 record and a postseason spent at home, the first losing season for coach Sue Semrau since 2001-02 and just the second time in that span her team didn't win at least 20 games.
So why might this start be more than a mirage?
Through five games, Florida State has 94 assists and 94 turnovers. Last season, the Seminoles finished with 230 more turnovers than assists, a difficult deficit to overcome for a team that also forced far fewer turnovers than it committed and struggled to create second-chance points. Teams can win at a high level with a high-risk, high-reward style (see: Wildcats, Kentucky), but they have to make up the lost possessions somewhere along the line.
The keys to turning things around have been a full season with Auburn transfer Morgan Toles, who appeared in just four games last season, and the arrival of junior college transfer Yashira Delgado. Averaging better than 51 combined minutes per game, Toles and Delgado have taken just 36 shots this season but have been credited with 64 assists. Toles had 10 assists without a turnover in the win against Eastern Washington, and Delgado, who goes by her nickname "Cheetah" rather than Yashira, had nine assists and four steals against Vanderbilt, playing all weekend in front of friends and family as a second-generation Puerto Rican.
But it wasn't either distributor whom Semrau named as the MVP through five games. That label instead went to senior Leonor Rodriguez.
Rodriguez arrived from Spain as a freshman with some dazzling YouTube highlights and an impressive international résumé at the youth level, but she had a quiet first two seasons for the Seminoles and contributed sparingly off the bench. Although lost amidst the wreckage of the season, she took on a much more significant role as a junior, starting 26 games and proving herself a reliable 3-point option. That still didn't really hint at what she has done so far this season, averaging 16 points per game on 65 percent shooting, including 61 percent 3-point shooting. Even when those percentages return to merely mortal levels, another scoring option would make everyone else incrementally more difficult to stop, from Natasha Howard inside to Alexa Deluzio outside.
Maybe it's wise to withhold judgment on the Seminoles for a few more games, beginning with Wednesday's home game against Iowa (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET), before penciling them in with Duke and Maryland as ACC contenders. But it does seem like we've seen enough to know this is more than the seventh-place team it was predicted to be in the ACC preseason poll. Perhaps much more.
Team of the weekend
Syracuse: The 6-0 record just doesn't look right for Syracuse. Not the unbeaten part; the Orange have gotten off to strong starts in recent seasons. It's the part that puts five of their six wins away from home. The team that often padded its record by welcoming every overmatched team in the state short of SUNY-New Paltz to town is venturing out into the world. Granted, early trips to Maine and Cornell were more challenging bus rides than games, but the past week was the real deal -- maybe not by the standards of Connecticut or Notre Dame, but certainly by those of the rest of the pack.
In seasons past, Tuesday's 80-39 road win at Saint Joseph's, the same team that knocked off Maryland a week earlier, might have been the signature game away from home for the Orange. This season it was just a warm-up for weekend games against Georgia Tech and Virginia in Puerto Rico. Syracuse won both by a combined four points, a three-point win in overtime against the Yellow Jackets and a one-point win in regulation against the Cavaliers. The Orange shot below 40 percent in both games. They could have lost one or both. That they didn't is a good sign, but it wouldn't have mattered if they did. Just playing those games now should help this team in Big East play later.
She also starred
Brandi Brown, Youngstown State: The Penguins are unbeaten with Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror. Maybe that won't make those of you who don't spend an inordinate amount of time watching Horizon League basketball spit out whatever beverage you're consuming while reading it, but trust me, it should. Youngstown State went 10-20 last season -- and that was cause for celebration. This is, after all, a team that played 30 games during the 2009-10 season and didn't win any of them.
But after a decisive 76-56 road win Sunday against a Miami (Ohio) team that could well win the MAC, Youngstown State is unbeaten in four starts (including a road victory at Pittsburgh). Give a lot of credit to third-year coach Bob Boldon, who took over in the Titanic-like wake of that 0-30 season. Give just as much to Brandi Brown, an undersized 5-foot-11 senior forward who has been one of the conference's best players for several seasons. Brown put up 18 points, 12 rebounds and three assists against the Redhawks (we'll forgive her the eight turnovers) and is averaging 21 points and 14.3 rebounds so far this season.
Of all the preseason predictions, rankings and lists we're asked to make (and, at least in my case, generally miss), none was more difficult than narrowing down the list of point guards to a top five. It's quite possible the position, and the basketball, has never been in better hands than it is right now, and there are considerably more than five truly elite college point guards. Still, I didn't feel good at the time about leaving Nebraska's Lindsey Moore off my list, and it feels even more dubious right about now.
Through six games, Moore is averaging 15.3 points, 4.9 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game. She's shooting 42 percent from the 3-point line and has turned over the ball just nine times in 169 minutes. And she lived up to all of those numbers in Nebraska's biggest victory to this point in the season, a 74-65 win at Southern California on Friday. Moore scored 23 points, hitting 13 of 15 free throws and scoring the team's final eight points, and finished with seven rebounds, four assists and no turnovers in 34 minutes against the Women of Troy. Nebraska lost its first road game of the season at South Dakota State (not before Moore scored 21 points in a tough environment), so the win in Los Angeles was all the more meaningful of a building block as the Huskers prepare for their biggest game of the nonconference season at home against Maryland on Wednesday.
Providence first-year coach Susan Robinson Fruchtl might be the lone dissenter (and in reality, even the former Wade Trophy winner at Penn State surely appreciated it), but the best sight of the holiday week on the basketball court had to be Delaware All-American Elena Delle Donne making her season debut. Delle Donne played 27 minutes against Providence but used the time wisely in finishing with 22 points and eight rebounds in a 64-46 victory.
Delaware plays just three more times between now and a Dec. 20 showdown at home against Maryland, so the timing works to Delle Donne's benefit in not overexerting herself. She returned to the court wearing tights underneath her game shorts, as she did when she returned from battling Lyme disease during the 2010-11 season and something she described as one small part of managing the condition on a day-to-day basis, in this case to keep her warm.
Before next weekend
Louisville at UT-Martin (Monday): It's a rough start for the preseason mid-major No. 10, but losses at Northwestern and at Hawaii aren't embarrassing, and losses against Stanford and Baylor shouldn't be discouraging. Now UT-Martin gets a home game. Through a small sample size of six contests, Louisville's Shoni Schimmel (47 percent shooting, 39 percent 3-point shooting, 30 assists, 19 turnovers) has been more efficient than in seasons past.
Duke at Michigan (Wednesday): It's a rare true road game for the Blue Devils, who played at Xavier on Sunday but play just three non-neutral-site games away from Cameron Indoor before Jan. 3. Probability says it can't last, but Michigan's top three 3-point shooters and three leading scorers -- Rachel Sheffer, Kate Thompson and Jenny Ryan -- are shooting a combined 52 percent from behind the arc.
Georgia Tech at Purdue (Wednesday): Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph returns to her alma mater and could use a win after her team dropped an overtime decision against Syracuse in Puerto Rico and now faces Purdue, Georgia and Duke in quick succession. Purdue was overmatched against Connecticut in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but guards Courtney Moses and KK Houser are shooting 48 percent from the 3-point line through six games.
Ohio State at North Carolina (ESPN3, 7 ET Wednesday): Ohio State's eye-catching defense silenced a good player in Wright State's Kim Demmings on Sunday (Demmings scored 17 points but needed 23 shots and turned over the ball seven times), but a trip to Chapel Hill is a different test. The Buckeyes are struggling to control the boards at the moment, and the Tar Heels are in the black in rebounding margin by more than 10 per game so far this season.
Drexel at South Carolina (Wednesday): First one to 45 wins in a matchup of good defenses. This is the biggest hurdle between South Carolina and a 10-0 record when Stanford comes to town. The Gamecocks beat two good mid-major programs in Hampton and Florida Gulf Coast in the U.S. Virgin Islands and capped their stay with a 55-46 win against DePaul. They have an otherworldly plus-20.6 rebound margin but are leaving too many points on the free throw line.
Hofstra at Marist (Wednesday): Don't discount this game because of six combined losses. Both the Pride and the Red Foxes have taken some lumps against quality early schedules, making a win in one of several mid-major showdowns this week all the more valuable. With too many turnovers and only 33 assists through five games, Hofstra appears to really miss point guard Candice Bellocchio.
Middle Tennessee at Tennessee (Wednesday): All eyes, or at least most eyes, will be on Tennessee's upcoming visit from North Carolina, but this might be a better game. The Blue Raiders, who somehow already played a conference game, are forcing more than 25 turnovers per game thus far and have the athletes to pressure the Lady Vols. Then again, 21 turnovers by Tennessee didn't help them avoid a rout last year, in part because of 53 Tennessee rebounds.
Rutgers at Princeton (Thursday): These neighbors didn't meet last season, but Rutgers escaped with a 54-53 win against Princeton two seasons ago. Two starters from each team remain from that game. In the present, the Tigers let an early double-digit lead against UCLA slip away Sunday, while Rutgers rallied from a double-digit deficit to down Davidson. Princeton committed 25 turnovers against the Bruins, too many of the decidedly unforced variety.
California at Old Dominion (Friday): Cal rolled through five consecutive home games to open the season, including a 72-56 victory against Georgetown on Saturday, but it won't play its next home game until Dec. 21 (and will play just three home games between now and Jan. 17). The big test is a game at Duke on Dec. 2, but Old Dominion's 4-0 start suggests the Bears can't look past this game. Can the Monarchs, who have allowed just 30 percent shooting thus far, keep Cal point guard Brittany Boyd from setting up teammates? Boyd had 14 assists against Georgetown.