A NEW LOOK

How Rockets players are slowly adjusting to Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook

Though opening night didn't go as planned for Houston, Rockets fans did get a taste as to what Russell Westbrook could provide to an already potent offense. The Rockets were noticeably faster (27 fast break points), more athletic (won the rebounding battle 57-53), and had someone who could take over the game with reckless abandon when James Harden had an off night. After a somewhat murky preseason where it wasn't quite clear if the Rockets had acquired a deteriorated version of the 2016-17 MVP, Westbrook put those worries to bed early on night one, finishing with 24 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block on decent efficiency.

"He's a gamer," said Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni at Friday's practice. "When the lights come on, that's when he's the best. He plays from athleticism, just a competitive, ferocious kind of nature."

Westbrook's chaotic mastery particularly came to form with the second unit, where Westbrook is slowly starting to get his timing down with his new teammates. For a while, it seemed Westbrook was moving a rate that was almost too fast for Rockets players who were used to the deliberate pace they played at last year. After a few games under their belt, their timing with Westbrook is slowly starting to come around.

"You don't average a triple double for no reason," said D'Antoni. D'Antoni believes Westbrook will feast off of opposing second units or tired first units with the way Houston staggers him with Harden.

"When you play fast, guys are going to be open at some point in time," said guard Eric Gordon. "Any defense is not going to be able to stop all of it. He's a threat by himself and whenever he's playing fast, he creates for everybody else."

It's a change of pace, but the Rockets view it as a welcome change of pace. D'Antoni particularly, has always wanted to play fast. Last season was a delineation from his core values, but believed it was the best way to go about things with the personal the Rockets had to work with. This year, he's getting back to those core values and he seems more enthusiastic about the possibilities with this newly-framed roster.

"It's important for who we are," said D'Antoni. "We were really good with Chris [Paul] and James [Harden] getting to half-court and figuring things out and going a little bit iso, especially the year before. And they were really good at it, so that's how you do it. I didn't think the pace was that important as long as we were efficient. Well, this is a whole different beast. With Russell, if you can play at that pace and that's a natural pace, I like it better. I think it's better for the team. But you don't just do it, it's got to come natural."

Rockets players, now better adjusted to Westbrook, also seem to prefer this pace as they believe it serves their skill sets better.

"I think we've always tried to play a faster play of pace, but his pace is a whole nother level and it helps our team a lot because it draws a lot of attention," said forward P.J. Tucker "Guys really like this way. It equals a lot of open shots on the perimeter and dunks at the rim. So I think it's something we'll continue to get better at, but right now, it was good last night."

It's only one game, but the Rockets closed last night with a pace of 109.8, over 13 possessions per game higher than any of Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns teams (the highest being 2007-08 which was 96.7).

"Six seconds or less, baby," Mike D'Antoni joked as he left the media scrum.

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The Coogs are No. 1 in the nation! Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images.

Now it is Houston's turn at the top of The Associated Press Top 25 men's college basketball poll.

The Cougars moved to No. 1 for the first time this season in Monday's latest poll, climbing one spot to end the six-week stay of reigning national champion Connecticut. Houston (24-3) became the fifth team to hold the top spot this season.

Purdue rose one spot to No. 2, while the Huskies’ loss to Creighton dropped them to third in a poll that included South Florida cracking the rankings for the first time in program history.

Kelvin Sampson's Cougars spent seven weeks at No. 1 last year, their first stint at the top since the “Phi Slama Jama” days during the 1982-83 season with a team featuring future NBA greats like Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Now they're back, playing in a new conference home (the Big 12) with the same defense-first formula that has Houston leading the country in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency (87.1 points allowed per 100 possessions).

“Our guys are tough,” Sampson said after an overtime win at Baylor. “We're not always pretty. But last time I checked this is not a beauty contest.”

THE TOP TIER

The top 10 featured the same universe of teams, though in reshuffled order.

Tennessee moved up a spot to No. 4 for its highest ranking of the season, followed by Marquette. Arizona, Kansas, Iowa State, North Carolina and Duke rounded out the top 10.

RISING AND FALLING

While there was plenty of movement, there were no major leaps among the week's 12 rising teams. No. 11 Auburn and No. 12 Creighton had the biggest jumps of a modest three spots, while four others teams rose two positions.

No. 21 Dayton took the biggest tumble of nine teams that dropped, falling five spots after a loss at George Mason. No. 15 Baylor fell four spots after losing at BYU before falling to Houston.

No. 24 Florida was the only team to hold its position from last week.

WELCOME ABOARD

South Florida has been a surprise in its first season under Amir Abdur-Rahim, who led a remarkable turnaround at Kennesaw State from a one-win season to an NCAA Tournament bid last year. Now he's helped the Bulls (21-5) go from being picked ninth in the American Athletic Conference to their first-ever ranking at No. 25.

The other two additions are familiar: No. 22 Utah State spent five straight weeks in the poll earlier this season, while No. 23 Gonzaga is back in after falling out for six straight weeks to end that program's first stretch among the unranked since the 2015-16 season.

FAREWELL (FOR NOW)

Colorado State (No. 22), Texas Tech (No. 23) and BYU (No. 25) fell out from last week.

CONFERENCE WATCH

The Southeastern Conference led the way with six ranked teams, including No. 14 Alabama, No. 16 Kentucky and No. 18 South Carolina. The Big 12 was next with four teams, all in the top 15.

The Big East had three, followed by the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast, Pac-12, Mountain West and West Coast conferences with two. The Atlantic 10 joined the AAC with one.

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