NCAA BK

BURLISON: Diener shows he's ready for prime time

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Frank Burlison

 
   
 

NEW YORK

Even the most casual of college basketball fans has a pretty good idea as to how good Dwyane Wade is. And, Wade believes, the really astute follower of the sport should have already had a pretty good notion about his backcourt mate, too, well before the team's season opener against Friday night during the Coaches vs. Cancer/AT&T Wireless Classic in Madison Square Garden. "We kept reading all of the magazines and articles, talking about our 'question mark' at point guard," Wade said, smiling after he and the Golden Eagles had breezed past , 73-61. "We all laughed about it. It was kind of a joke to us." Wade and his teammates were hip to something about Travis Diener that many who write or talk about the sport for a living were naïve to. Friday night, though, the 6-foot-1, 165-pound sophomore from Fond du Lac, Wis., educated the crowd in MSG and a national television audience as to just what kind of point guard he is. And let's just that if you're still of the mind that Diener might be a weak link for FOXSports.com's No. 17-ranked team, you had other things to do Friday night other than stick around the pad and watch college basketball. Diener's numbers — 12 points, five rebounds and four assists — weren't nearly as persuasive as was the manner in which he operated his team's half-court offense, helping Tom Crean's team get a quality shot attempt on nearly every possession. He, too, had perused the preseason magazines. He got a few laughs out of them, too. Sometimes he did, that is. "I know I can play," he said, the trace of five or six blonde whiskers sprouting on his chin. He turned 20 on March 1 but has the look of someone who's going to have to whip out a drivers' license any time he steps into an alcohol-serving establishment over the next 20-odd years. Anyone who paid attention to the Golden Eagles during their 26-7 run last season should have been clued into everything they needed to know 's point guard situation. Backing up senior starter — and spending time alongside of him in the backcourt — Diener averaged 7.9 points per game while hitting 44.2 percent of his 3-pointers and committing just 27 turnovers compared to his 86 assists. But maybe a lot of the prognosticators were just enamored with Wade — with good reason, of course — and overlooked Diener's oh-so-solid freshman performance. Whatever. "When you read those kind of things, it does kind of fuel your fire," he said, after the first of what should be many 39-minute performances while his freshman backup, Karon Bradley, spends three or four weeks recovering from a leg injury. "But that's fine. My teammates and coaches know what I can do." Wade's numbers (17 points, five rebounds and four assists) were relatively modest by what most seem to consider All-America standards. But, either via slick drives to the bucket fueled by about as tight of crossover dribble moves as you'll see outside of the NBA, or his mid-range jumpers, Wade gave off the distinct impression that he could have scored just about any time he was so inclined against a team that played four freshmen extensively. One of the most defining measures of how special he is lies in the fact that could genuinely care less about how many shots he gets up a game. There isn't a more selfless All-America caliber player in the country. "Dwyane is the kind of kid who is never going to be satisfied with his performance," Crean said. "But we got a 'W' tonight and that's all that matters to him." The Eagles, who returned just five roster members (including Wade and the only other full-time 2001-02 starter, post player ), will rack up a whole lot of "W's" this season. They figure to be one of the better half-court defensive teams in the country and they did nothing to dispel that notion Friday night while limiting the Wildcats to 22 of 73 (including three of 26 on 3's) shooting from the field. Those are near-anemic percentages of 30.1 and 11.5, in case there isn't a calculator at your fingertips. Of immediate concern to Crean though, were the rebounding numbers. His team was out-rebounded, 53-43. And a whopping 31 of 's grabs came following their own misses. Surrender 31 offensive rebounds too many during a season and, even with a set of guards as good as Wade and Diener, a team is going to find itself smack dab in the middle of a NIT bracket sheet come March. At times 's offense seemed to consist of guards , Randy Foye and Allan Ray (a combined two of 18 on 3's) chucking from deep and post player Jason Fraser and (a combined 15 offensive boards) beating their counterparts in a game of volleyball after the clanked jump shots. "We definitely have to do some work on blocking out," Crean offered as a very early "understatement of the season" candidate. "I don't think I've ever been a part of a team that has given up 31 offensive rebounds. Coach (Tom) Izzo (his former boss at ) probably won't be talking to me any time soon." , minus sharp-shooting guard (and boy could they have used him Friday) who is sidelined with a bum ankle, figures to be one of the strong NCAA tourney at-large candidates out of the Big East Conference in March. But this is still November. Jay Wright's freshmen aren't nearly the players now that they'll be in the thick of Big East play. And there's no telling how good the glamour member of that class will be in a very short time. Crean got an up-close look at some of the things Jason Fraser will be doing to Big East foes, though, after watching the 6-9 McDonald's All-American from Amityville in score 13 points to go with 13 rebounds in 31 minutes as a reserve. "Having not seen him since he was in high school, he was much better with the ball in his hands than I anticipated he would be," Crean said. "He's going to cause a lot of havoc for people inside the lane." Wright expects that even the skittish moments of Friday night will provide dividends for his team. What better way to correct his players' mistakes then by making them watch them time and again, on videotape, against an opponent the quality of a ? "Maybe we tried to give our team a little too much (in preparation for ) tonight," he said. "With so many freshmen playing this early, maybe we should have just kept it simple." Nothing he saw Friday night, though, kept Wright from beaming as he greeted postgame well wishers. "Sometimes it takes a loss to tell you a lot about what you team is like," he said. "We're going to be all right. I really like this team."

Nightcap barnburner

A couple of other coaches saw a whole lot of things to like in the evening's second game. Georgia, despite playing without two starters, led by as many as 10 points early in the second half before falling to (No. 6 in the FOXSports.com Top 25), 77-71. Sophomore T.J. Ford offered up compelling evidence that he's about as good as they come in the backcourt this season, scoring 22 points to go with eight assists and three steals for the Longhorns. But Bulldogs' coach Jim Harrick couldn't have been too upset with what took place, although he did get hit with technical late in the game. Georgia was playing without starting center (suspended for six games because of academic ineligibility) and forward , serving a one-game NCAA suspension for playing in an uncertified exhibition game at his high school over the summer. Factoring Thomas and Daniels into the equation, the Bulldogs look to have a chance to be as good as any other team in the Southeastern Conference this season. And a big reason is the addition of transfer , who had 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists in his Bulldogs debut. As for Texas, the Longhorns are a much deeper club than the one that lost to Oregon in a Midwest Regional semifinal last March. And, as was quite apparent Friday night, Ford is much improved over the player he was last season when he led the nation in assists as a freshman. Friday night, Ford and Wade looked every bit the strong candidates to win the John R. Wooden Award that most anticipate they would be. Frank Burlison can be reached at his e-mail address, fburlison@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Marquette, Oregon, Michigan State, Michigan, North Carolina State, North Carolina, Georgia, Long Island, Villanova, Texas

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