The new No. 1 team in the Power Five probably deserved it two weeks ago, but now there’s little question that Coach K’s Blue Devils are the class of college hoops. The Dukies took the previous week off for final exams, and should have no problem hanging their hats on having already handed Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State, Temple and Minnesota each their first loss of the season in non-conference play.
2. Michigan (11-0, LW: 3)
What year is this again, 1993? A star-studded Michigan team led by underclassmen slowly begins to take the country by storm? After they cruise through a pair of upcoming local games with Central and Eastern Michigan, the Wolverines will be able to hit New Year’s Day with a perfect 13-0 record heading into their Big Ten opener against Northwestern on Jan. 4. John Beilein still doesn’t really want to talk about how well his kids are playing right now though, which is probably a good move considering how this is uncharted territory and all. “I don’t give a hoot about how [good] people think we are,” Beilein said over the weekend. “We’re playing five freshmen.”
3. Syracuse (9-0, LW: 4)
Michael Carter-Williams may just be the best point guard in America. But the sophomore floor general was still caught red-handed on video cameras stealing $120 worth of merchandise from a local mall on Dec. 7 according to a report by The Post-Standard, and it’s quite difficult to figure out why. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim already informed reporters that there’s simply nothing left to investigate after his talented point guard already paid a $500 fine after being detained, but it’s still curious that MCW was not even slapped on the wrist at all by his school. Fair question: Would this have worked out the same way if the player in question was a third-string walk-on?
4. Indiana (9-1, LW: 1)
When Saturday’s game with Butler went to overtime, it seemed inevitable that the Hoosiers would find a way to do what elite teams do after an opponent fails to close. Instead though, Indiana couldn’t find a consistent offensive threat each time down the floor, on a day when Butler’s half-court D very much came to play. Watching Indiana run its offense this year, I can’t help but wonder why a guy like Victor Oladipo isn’t used more in crunch time as a scoring option. We know the scouting report on Oladipo: Elite defender, lightning quick feet, explosive leaper, not the most consistent shooter, relentless. But he is still a relatively low usage player with only 21.7% of Indiana’s possessions used when he’s on the floor. Right now it looks like the Hoosiers need a go-to guy, and I can’t see why Oladipo can’t emerge to fill that role on most nights.
5. Arizona (8-0, LW: UNR)
I’m not sure how Arizona will fare at season’s end, but it’s safe to say Sean Miller’s team will be well-equipped for the rigors of late game situations in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are currently No. 3 among all power conference schools with a 77.3% free-throw percentage, representing a stark increase from last year’s relatively average number of 70.5%. Right now five of Miller’s rotation players shoot better than an 80% clip from the charity stripe, and big men Kaleb Tarczewski and Angelo Chol are the only players on the roster that cannot sink better than 70% of their freebies. In Saturday’s clutch win over Florida, Arizona went 18-for-21 (87.5%) and won the game by a single point.
Four Shot-Blockers Who Demand Your Attention
Chris Obekpa, St. John’s - It seems so impossible, and yet Steve Lavin’s 6’9 freshman is actually doing it. As a full time starter, Obekpa is averaging 4.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.3 blocks per game this season for the Johnnies, numbers that probably shouldn’t compute to a basketball fan. This all means that Obekpa is more likely to swat 10 shots on any given night than he is to score 10 points, or haul down 10 rebounds, and I’m not sure there’s another player in college basketball who can make this claim. Some of his scoring issues may stem from his abysmal free-throw shooting (4-for-14=28.6% this season), but Obekpa’s 21.34% block rate is every bit as insane as it sounds and ranks No. 2 in college hoops, ahead of NCAA block leader Jeff Withey’s 20.97%.
Da’Shonte Riley, Eastern Michigan – You may remember him from a brief stint with Syracuse during the 2009-10 campaign, but the seven-foot Riley is now in his second season as a nightly contributor with EMU. It took a while for the blocks to start flowing in his first year on the job, and now he’s dialed things up with a very strong start to his redshirt junior season. Foul trouble and poor free-throw shooting often hinder his minutes though, so Riley’s 2.7 blocks per game average as roughly a sixth man candidate at 22.7 minutes every night is awfully difficult to ignore. Only six players in America currently sport a higher block rate than this kid right now, and that could easily continue seeing as how we all know the MAC is full of chuckers.
Jordan Bachynski, Arizona State – I touched on Bachynski’s defensive prowess earlier in the season, and the 7’2 giant on the interior hasn’t slowed down his production when it comes time to to alter opposing shots. Right now Bachynski ranks second in the country in total blocks behind only Obekpa, and his 13-point, 12-rebound, 12-swat performance against CS Northridge on Dec. 8 was absolutely a sight to behold. Six blocks in a game would be a career game for most players around the country, and yet Bachynski has already done this six times himself before we can even begin to sniff at conference play. Toss in the fact that he’s blocking 2.41 shots for every foul he’s called for (a number that ranks No. 2 nationally among top 40 shot-blockers), and Bachynski already feels like a mortal lock for Pac-12 defensive player of the year if he can stay healthy.
Isaiah Armwood, George Washington – Top contender for one of the best shot-blocking names in college hoops, Armwood is off to a brilliant start in his first year of eligibility after transferring two years into his Villanova stint. He only weighs about 200 of his 210 listed pounds by the end of most games due to the fact that he is pretty much running around everywhere, and the numbers after 10 games certainly don’t lie: 32.0 minutes, 13.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.4 blocks, 1.5 assists, 1.1 steals. His 5.0% block rate as a sophomore with Villanova hinted at plenty of growth down the line, but not many people would have pegged him as a top 10 guy nationally in blocks per game after bolting the Big East. Right now he’s up to a remarkable 9.4 block percentage, an improvement that mirrors his can’t-miss development on the defensive glass (15.5 DR% as a soph, 20.6 DR% currently).
Three Thoughts About Tom Crean’s Hoosiers
Interior defense is a problem. Big men, little men – it didn’t matter one bit. Virtually any Butler player who attacked the rim on Saturday was rewarded with a free two-point gift from Indiana’s lackadaisical defense. Even after Brad Stevens was forced to bring in a vastly undersized unit in overtime with his bigs already fouled out of the game, Indiana still couldn’t make the proper adjustments to keep smallish guards and forwards from waltzing into the lane for easy buckets. AND1 mixtape defense simply isn’t going to cut it against some of the better teams in America. Alarming to say the least, Crean will need to hope this isn’t the same level of defensive intensity he receives against elite Big Ten guards like Trey Burke, Aaron Craft and Brandon Paul.
Cody Zeller needs to re-work that killer instinct of his. Butler’s Andrew Smith flat-out manhandled Zeller over the weekend, in a head-to-head matchup that many blindly assumed the latter would dominate with his unrivaled versatility at both ends. His 18-point, five-rebound final stat line does not tell the full picture either. Zeller played tentatively all game and only rarely flashed instances where it appeared like he was comfortable enough to look for his own shot. Aside from the obvious outcry from Butler fans about free-throw injustice, Zeller somehow finished Saturday’s thriller with ZERO fouls to his credit over a whopping 37 minutes of action. A number so egregious in a tightly-contested game almost sounds like a mistake, especially when you consider that Zeller was allowed to attempt 14 freebies himself, two less than Butler’s entire team. The seven-foot Zeller needs to have a few bounce-back performances to win back some of the country.
Christian Watford’s jumper is starting to do more harm than good. The game-winning shot to beat Kentucky happened more than a year ago. Since then, Watford has played in exactly 34 regular season contests, and has yet to make at least 50% of his field goals in a jaw-dropping 23 of those games. Going further, Watford connected on just 26.4% of his shots against the quartet of Georgetown, North Carolina, Butler and Georgia this season, four schools who represent easily the toughest opponents Indiana has faced this season. And now for the ultimate dagger to make things much, much worse, go ahead and try to fathom Watford’s 21.7% shooting mark on two-point field goals over that same four-game span. If not for his elite ability to draw contact, Watford’s 47.1 eFG% right now would be more than enough to yank him from his starting role after 10 games.
Two Predictions For Saturday’s Slate Of Games
The Buckeyes will pick up 25 from DeShaun Thomas and 20 from Aaron Craft to silence The Jeff Withey Experience.
Phil Pressey and Mizzou will make a shocking late-game comeback to stun John Groce’s undefeated Illini in the best game of the day.
One Team Nobody Feels Like Talking About
Pittsburgh. Jamie Dixon’s kids are off to a 10-1 start, with that only stumble coming by five points against the Michigan Wolverines. Forgivable, right? Not a chance. Not even a Big East school that seemed like a lock for 25 wins per season over the last decade can entice voters to buy-in after appearing to schedule the equivalent of Charmin Ultra outside of the Michigan game. The Panthers have played a grand total of one game against power conference competition, and have only Delaware State and Kennesaw State remaining on their non-con schedule. And whether some feel it is justified or not, voters around the country are taking a big stand against Dixon’s team right now in both polls.
It begs the question: Is Pittsburgh’s quality loss ever going to be put into prosper perspective when it comes time to go back and evaluate non-conference schedules? Are voters who are purposely keeping Pittsburgh from their top 25 ballots each week actually doing so because they realize that Delaware beating Virginia in the NIT Season Tip-Off effectively stripped Dixon’s team the chance to play another power conference opponent? Pittsburgh has taken care of 10 of its 11 opponents this season with relative ease. Most have been cupcake-worthy, sure. But if that Delaware game happened to instead be a meeting with Kansas State or Virginia, it’s not a stretch to say that Dixon’s team would be sitting pretty among the top 25 right now.
The first month of the season is officially in the books, and a grand total of 14 undefeated programs are currently peppered across college basketball. And this Sunday, on national television, two of these teams will share the court in a pivotal non-conference showdown pitting one mid-major upstart against a power conference foe. Are you hooked yet?
Good. No turning back now. The schedule-makers never saw this one coming either: A red-hot Eastern Kentucky squad from the OVC will be forced to put its perfect record on the line against first-year coach John Groce and an Illinois program that everyone counted out back in October. It’s almost so perfect that it makes absolutely no sense. Let’s just go ahead and call this can’t-miss television at its finest.
1. Indiana (9-0, LW: 1)
Tom Crean’s Hoosiers won exactly 12 games back in the 2010-11 season. Then, as we all know, Cody Zeller arrived and things began to pick up rather nicely. So here we are nine games through our current campaign and the Hoosiers are still out there performing yeoman’s work by graciously hosting nightly clinics on offensive efficiency for their opponents. And why not? With numbers currently in another stratosphere at the moment, it’s quite difficult to find a program that has been more prolific on offense.
The comparisons to last year’s team are fair, but probably need to stop. Every last player that mattered from Crean’s 2011-12 roster came back to Bloomington, and each one looks visibly improved on the court this season. It’s not every day you witness a team that is capable of scoring 90 points each night on 50+% shooting, let alone one that currently holds the No. 1 spot in the sport. One glance around the country and it starts to become even clearer. You’ll see Northwestern State dropping 85 points per game on 48.5% shooting, or Syracuse at 84.6 and 46.7%, or Cincinnati at 84.2 and 46.8%, or North Carolina at 83.4 and 46.2%. None of them can even sniff Indiana’s numbers right now, and it’s a safe bet none ever will.
2. Duke (9-0, LW: 2)
When you beat Louisville, Ohio State and Kentucky (and Minnesota and VCU), a meeting with the Temple Owls is hardly what one would consider walking into uncharted territory. Still, Fran Dunphy’s Owls are rarely, if ever, a team that gets blown out with any semblance of regularity by top programs, and came into Saturday’s game without a single blemish on their record. Just 10 minutes into the opening half though, the Dukies quickly assembled a double-digit lead, one they would continually paw at for the rest of the game. The final line: Duke 90, Temple 67. Here’s what I noticed most:
Free throws. Duke shot 29, while Temple attempted exactly four and made just one. ONE.
Turnovers. Coach K’s boys gave the ball up six times. Only three of those came from the combination of Quinn Cook, Seth Curry, Rasheed Sulaimon and Tyler Thornton.
Long-range shooting. Six of Duke’s nine players who hit the floor each drained a three-pointer. Curry’s 5-for-9 performance led the way, but good things tend to happen when you finish 12-for-20 from downtown as a team.
Shutdown of opposing starters. Temple picked up only 31 of its 67 total points from its starting five, a group that combined to shoot a woeful 31.9% from the field in the loss.
3. Michigan (9-0, LW: 3)
The good times continue to roll for John Beilein’s rock-solid Wolverines, and Saturday’s 13-point win over Arkansas was a nice bit of revenge after the Hogs upended Michigan last season down in SEC country. The talk right now continues to focus on Nik Stauskas and his insane percentages, but for my money I still think fellow freshman Glenn Robinson III will be THE guy when it counts for this team. For as talented as he is offensively, Robinson is taking just 18.6% of Michigan’s shots when he’s on the floor, a startlingly-low number for a kid who averages 12 points and seven boards per night. Robinson has also attempted at least two three-pointers in each of his last eight games, which only makes his limited amount of field goal attempts from two-point range look even more surprising. Consider: Robinson has not attempted more than eight two-point field goals in a game all season long. I fully expect both his rebounding and scoring to each increase in Big Ten play, but right now he’s doing a heck of a job in a role slightly smaller than what we expected.
4. Florida (7-0, LW: 4)
It’s time to pay attention now. Billy Donovan’s Gators flat-out destroyed a rival Florida State squad down in Tallahassee on Saturday by 25 points, effectively wrapping up the game before they could even grab orange slices and juice boxes at halftime. Most impressive is the fact that Florida has already dropped three of the better defensive programs from a scheme perspective in the country in Wisconsin, Marquette and now the Seminoles. The now-cancelled season-opening date against a comparably-stout Georgetown squad would have been the epitome of a defensive masterpiece, even though the first team to 36 points probably would have snagged a win. Saturday’s trip out to No. 8 Arizona will be another huge litmus test for Donovan’s team, but this is easily one of the best defensive units in American right now.
5. Syracuse (8-0, LW: 5)
So this Michael Carter-Williams kid is pretty good. It’s easy to brush aside seeing 11 dimes racked up against Wagner, and then 13 assists against Colgate a week later. But over the last three games we’ve been able to solidify exactly what Carter-Williams is: A dominant point guard with elite court vision who happens to feature a 6-foot-6 frame. MCW’s near-triple-double against Arkansas (17 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists) wasn’t a breakout performance by any means. What’s truly wild is that at his current rate 3.8 steals per game, and with a pair of five-steal performances under his belt already, MCW may actually have a viable shot to approach an unfathomable quadruple-double at some point during the season. We know the points, rebounds and assists could all come in bunches at any moment, but imagine ‘Cuse hitting overtime with Louisville in January when MCW already has six or seven steals to his credit. Unlikely? Of course. But if somebody miraculously flirts with history this season, I’ll bank on MCW to be the guy.
Texas – Aside from how poorly Rick Barnes has been running his program in recent years, this is still a no-brainer. The Longhorns hit both the local angle and fill that Big 12 market, and should likely pick up something tangible in the 2013 class to combine with their current crop of jack squat. I’m willing to bet good money that Jerry Jones would veto this entire project if no local school was added in, so congrats Texas, you win by default.
Duke – You don’t do something like this without first asking if Coach K and the Dukies want to sign up. A program that competes annually and features quite possibly the strongest brand in college basketball needs to be here. Pit Duke against Michigan State and let ‘er rip. Izzo builds off those early-season losses anyway.
Kentucky – It’s safe to say that Calipari’s Wildcats will once again become an NBA team next fall, so leaving Big Blue Nation out of the mix would be both cruel and brilliant on Hollis’ part. Kentucky doesn’t need an event like this, but what on Earth could ever go wrong with bringing thousands of raucous UK fans to town?
VCU – The mid-major quota will need to be filled, and Shaka Smart’s Rams would get my vote. Toss them on the floor with a team like Texas and things would get intereting. Smart’s program is hardly running roughshod over opponents right now in 2012-13, but next season has the potential to be special, and Shaka’s players are always extremely well-prepared.
Three Thoughts On The SEC
Kentucky has nothing to worry about, even after a loss to Louisville on Dec. 29. There are a number of glaring issues with Calipari’s current team, but how many of these weaknesses will exist on March 1? It’s painfully obvious that Calipari doesn’t have the same talent level as in past seasons. But to say that this won’t be a top 25 team is premature to me. The Wildcats will be there when it counts, viable title contender or not.
LSU’s 5-0 start is a mirage, and the Tigers will lose by 15 to Boise State on Friday. When your big claim to fame is a five-point win over Seton Hall, an undefeated record becomes meaningless. The Tigers certainly aren’t terrible by any strech, but all three volume shooters from the outside hit significantly below a 38% clip most nights, and a road date with a vastly underrated Boise squad will deliver first-year coach Johnny Jones’ first loss.
Kevin Stallings is in serious trouble with his current Vandy squad. Early exits in the big dance are one thing, but starting the season at 3-4 with losses to Davidson and Marist is hardly what Vanderbilt’s athletic department had in mind. The Commodores are extremely young with six freshmen and five sophomores on the roster, and while Stalling probably has enough talent to keep a postseason chance moderately interesting, things could sour in a heartbeat if the program finds itself in a big hole midway through conference play.
Two Newcomers In The Player Of The Year Discussion
Brandon Paul, Illinois – Well that was fun. Not many players can attest to dropping 35 points on Mark Few’s Bulldogs out in Spokane, but Paul managed to pull it off after taking just 16 field goal attempts and 11 shots from the charity stripe on Saturday. After the pivotal win, it seems that the 6’4, 200-pound senior is back on the national radar with his team out to a hot 10-0 start, and he absolutely deserves it. Paul’s 48.1% field goal shooting right now is a flat-out revelation from his 39.2% mark as a junior, and he’s up to 41.2% from 33.3% from three-point range. To put things as bluntly as possible, Paul is hitting an extra three-pointer per game and dishing out an extra assist, all while cutting his fouls and turnovers by roughly one per game as well. Good stuff is going up – bad stuff is going down. It’s magical. Seeing as how he will have every opportunity to maintain his 19.5-point per game average in John Groce’s three-point-happy attack, Paul’s POY status will be something to keep tabs on.
Jack Cooley, Notre Dame – The Luke Harangody look-alike entered the season on a short list of guys who could step up in conference play and make this race interesting. He isn’t the same type of scorer that Harangody was, but with averages of 14.2 points and 11.3 rebounds through nine games it appears Cooley has already more than stepped up. His 13-point, 11-rebound performance to help spur an upset of Kentucky back at the end of November was huge, and he truly looks poised to do this on a nightly basis this season in the Big East. Seven of his nine games have ended in double-doubles. The two that didn’t? Try 16 points and nine rebounds in just 21 minutes against Monmouth and eight points and eight rebounds in just 24 minutes against George Washington. The block numbers will come sporadically and foul trouble remains a constant issue, but Cooley’s productive will soon prove undeniable when stacked up against his peers across the country.
One Free Throw For The Ages
I don’t care how many zillion times this gets posted on social media websites, Saturday’s Western Carolina-Appalachian State game featured one of the most hilarious free-throw attempts in the history of basketball. Twelve seconds of gold from WCU 62TV:
The big news of the last week was the passing of 64-year-old coaching great Rick Majerus, a man who touched a number of people during his lengthy career at both the pro and college levels. Majerus never had the luxury of winning a national title despite putting together plenty of elite teams with Utah, but it became fully evident just how widely revered he was by the vast amount of tribute articles that immediately popped up from scribes around the country.
“The first time, [Utah was] recruiting me, and after the game I went down to the [Utes'] locker room,” says Jeff Johnsen, who signed with Utah in 1996. “His hair’s everywhere and his sweater’s off and he’s just drenched, and he’s eating a whole pizza in front of me and he’s like, ‘You want any?’ I grab a piece, and then he starts undressing and gets in the shower and is still talking to me. It was funny. It was weird. How many grown, fat, naked men do you see when you’re a high school kid?”
Another player remembers Majerus calling him up to his hotel room on various occasions, and “he’d answer the door in his towel and I’d come in and the towel would fall off and it was like nothing had happened. He’d just be standing there buck naked. One year he had this lower-back injury, and he would have the trainer massage it with ultrasound. But instead of just lowering his pants a little bit, Majerus would pull his pants down to his ankles and sit in a chair and coach us. Sometimes he’d be like, ‘Guys, bring it in, take a knee.’ We’d come in, and we’re just like, No way this is happening.”
Great stuff. Similar to the way former players speak fondly of fellow coaching great Bob Knight, Majerus was always the type to evoke the same type of love and dedication from the kids who fully bought into his style of coaching. The world of college basketball suffered a great loss on Friday, and it’s a shame it had to be Rick Majerus.
1. Indiana (8-0, LW: 1)
The highest-scoring offense in America? Check. Wins over Big East, SEC and ACC schools? Check. The phenomenon that is Cody Zeller? Double check (no discount). College basketball’s most prolific team may very well feature the sport’s best all-around player in the seven-foot Zeller, and hopefully this comes as little surprise. He probably won’t lead the country, or even the Big Ten, in scoring. And it’s a safe bet he also won’t lead the nation in rebounding, blocked shots, steals or field-goal percentage. On paper Zeller is an ultra-efficient big man with few weaknesses, visible limitations that appear much less significant when you consider that we’re talking about a kid who fully understands that three-point shooting is not an integral part of his game. What Zeller does, aside from rack up 15.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per night, is bring virtually every positive aspect that a player who measures in at seven feet tall could ever bring to the table. At a different school he might be playing 35 minutes a night and fighting foul trouble. At Indiana he’s seeing roughly 28 and is quite possibly the most dangerous player in the country because of it.
2. Duke (8-0, LW: 2)
The Dukies completed their early-season romp through power opponents last Wednesday with a 73-68 win over Thad Matta’s No. 4 Buckeyes. The notable part to me is how Duke opened the game with 23 first-half points to fall down by nearly double figures at the break, and yet still managed to pull off a marquee victory on the backs of big man Mason Plumlee and freshman point Rasheed Sulaimon. Plumlee’s national player of the year candidacy appears to be materializing before our eyes, as the 6’10 senior is currently up to 19.6 points and 11.0 rebounds per night with 1.9 blocks and 1.5 steals. His effectiveness both as a field goal shooter (65.4%) and from the charity stripe (76.1%) cannot be overstated, especially when you consider that he is still rebounding at the exact same rate he did over the last two seasons. Along with an improved touch from virtually everywhere around the basket, Plumlee is drawing nearly 1.5 more fouls per game than he did a year ago in order to get himself a few easy shots per night. Combine this with his drastically upgraded three-throw stroke (up 23.3% from 2011-12) and we may just be talking about one of our early POY frontrunners.
3. Michigan (7-0, LW: 4)
Even as a Michigan fan I continue to remain blown away that John Beilein’s current squad is actually this good. A number of the biggest early-season tests have already been passed with flying colors, leaving only inconsistent opponents in Arkansas and West Virginia to remain on the non-conference schedule. The immediate contributions of freshmen Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas have been immense right out of the gate, and it’s starting to become evident that Trey Burke won’t be needed to don a Superman cape around all season long, which represents the best scenario for everybody. Stauskas though, who probably could have been mentioned in the tempo-free all-star section below for his 75.0 eFG%, 79.5 TS% and 155.4 ORating after seven games, continues to defy every feasible expectation put in place before the season. Third on the Wolverines in scoring, fourth in minutes and already the unquestioned free-throw shooting king of the roster with a 95.7% mark, the 6-foot-6 youngster drained four three-pointers in Saturday’s win over Bradley en route to a career-high 22 points. His 62.1% three-point accuracy will eventually have to return to Earth at some point. Right?
4. Florida (6-0, LW: 5)
The Gators beat Wisconsin by 18 points back in mid-November. If you spend any time perusing KenPom, then you hopefully know just how monumental an early-season victory like this will prove to be. Right now Billy Donovan’s Gators sit at No. 2 in college hoops in Pomeroy’s up-to-date rankings, and it doesn’t appear there is a logical argument out there to refute such a high distinction. Guard play once again looks to be taken care of with the senior duo of Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario firing on all cylinders from the perimeter. But while last year’s underwhelming team sorely lacked a defensive stopper, junior all-specimen team member Patric Young is finally starting to develop into that elite shot-blocker that we always knew he was capable of becoming. Although his playing time remains nearly identical to last season, Young has swatted an improbable 10.3% of opposing shots when he’s on the floor this year, a number more than three times his average as a sophomore. And while foul trouble often limited his aggressiveness at the defensive end a year ago, Young is somehow finding a way to get whistled less and block much, much more through his first six games of 2012-13. That block frequency will begin to taper off over time, but seeing him actively going after shots consistently for the first time in his college career is a great thing for Donovan’s team.
5. Syracuse (5-0, LW: NR)
The Orange are making their first appearance in the Power Five this season after hitting 5-0 with a road victory over Arkansas on Friday night. Last year the theme for Jim Boeheim’s squad was an unparalleled level of depth, and now things have shifted into more of a four-man scoring rotation with a number of key contributors no longer with the program. Powered by a 35-point performance that included nine three-point makes on Friday, senior forward James Southerland currently leads all ‘Cuse players at a hearty 19.2 points per game. The 6’8 Southerland clearly will have a green light for the foreseeable future from beyond the perimeter after his big night, even though it may be the dazzling play of sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams that proves to be Boeheim’s biggest asset. The 6’6 Carter-Williams narrowly missed out on a triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists versus Arkansas, and continues to both orchestrate the offense and wreak havoc in the zone on defense. No point guard in America can touch MCW’s nightly package of 9.2 assists, 6.4 rebounds and 3.8 steals right now. Scoop Jardine who?
Four On The Rise
Illinois(8-0) – First-year coach John Groce is off to a hot start in Champaign, grabbing notable non-conference wins over Southern Cal, Butler and Georgia Tech over the last two weeks. Groce famously led the Ohio Bobcats to a 29-win campaign last spring that ended in a Sweet 16 berth, and is now well on his way toward putting Illinois back on the map in the Big Ten. Right away you see that the Illini currently sport the ninth-best three-point percentage in the country at 42.2%, a mark that soars over Groce’s previous career-high of 36.5% with the Bobcats. The key for the turnaround, aside from the improved clip from the outside though, has been the ramped up level of defensive intensity under Groce’s watch. The Bobcats placed second nationally in defensive turnover percentage and third in steal percentage last season, and Groce’s players are already reaping the rewards of his aggressive system at Illinois after eight games. A year ago Bruce Weber’s team ranked No. 297 in college hoops with a meager 7.8% defensive steal rate. Groce’s current squad? No. 139 nationally with a 10.7% mark. You do the math.
Ole Miss (6-0) – I went back as far as possible to find the last time Ole Miss had an easier six-game stretch to open the year, and I’m sad to say the results came up empty. The combination of Mississippi Valley State, Coastal Carolina, Arkansas-Little Rock, McNeese State, Lipscomb and Rutgers is the epitome of a cupcake schedule for an SEC school to kick off the year with, and Ole Miss deserves every last kudo in the world for gaming the system like a champ. The crazy thing is, until a Jan. 9 SEC opener at Tennessee, the Rebels STILL won’t be forced to play a single team of note (say what you will about Middle Tennessee State). That doesn’t mean there aren’t losses to be had along the way – those aforementioned Blue Raiders will be a pesky bunch this Saturday – but the Rebels could very easily waltz into conference play with a sparkling 12-0 record. And for as hollow as it would probably feel to see that happen, the prolific start by senior big man Murphy Holloway (16.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, 26.0% def. reb) is still enough to warrant keeping an eye on this team going forward.
Wyoming (8-0) – The Cowboys hardly played to the script on Saturday in a program-rattling win over the No. 19-ranked Colorado Buffaloes. Wyoming players dropped 50 points alone in the second half despite making only 7-of-25 shots from the perimeter, and officially joined New Mexico as the only 8-0 squads in the Mountain West in the process. The blueprint of second-year coach Larry Shyatt’s team is all defense, coupled with easily one of the slowest paces in America at the offensive end. The Cowboys are averaging a mere 62.2 adjusted possessions per game at the moment, and still managed to hang around with Colorado by forcing 17 turnovers and holding the Buffs to just 40.5% shooting on two-point field goals. Shyatt’s team is doing an impressive job of using its size to clog the lane on defense right now, which may be an extremely beneficial thing when conference play kicks off in January. In the meantime, be sure to keep an eye on Saturday’s epic battle against Panhandle State.
Georgetown (5-1) – Friday’s 37-36 win over Tennessee is still hard to fathom. The Hoyas took a serious hit in the court of public opinion for their lackluster offensive showing despite the victory, and now will enter a tough mid-week game against Texas desperate to pick up the pieces at the offensive end of the court. Lost in the shuffle after Friday’s game however is the fact that Georgetown actually held a power conference program to 36 points. Say what you will about John Thompson III’s offense, but his defense is holding opponents to just 42% shooting on two-point field goals and ranks in the top 35 nationally at sealing off offensive rebounds. Thankfully we should know much, much more about this Georgetown team after it faces a talented Longhorns roster on Tuesday.
Three Thoughts On Pac-12 Hoops
Foreshadowing is what we call Washington’s 14-point home halftime deficit against Cal-State Fullerton on Sunday. Let’s recap: Washington already has losses to both Albany and Colorado State on its record, needed an overtime period to hang on against Seton Hall, barely scraped out a five-point win over Saint Louis solely on the back of C.J. Wilcox, and just now narrowly avoided dropping a game to a CS Fullerton team that may or may not actually play defense. Injuries have clearly affected Lorenzo Romar’s rotation after seven games and it’s a damn shame, but this team is oozing with red flags.
Utah’s non-con resume may actually warrant printing out on a piece of paper this year. The Utes took down the meaty trio of Idaho State, Portland and San Diego Christian last season in non-conference play. Three wins. That was it. But one year after that abysmal 6-25 campaign, Utah is sitting pretty mildly attractive with a 5-2 record. Hardly a who’s-who of the sport’s elite, Utah’s 2012-13 non-conference resume now features victories over Wright State, Central Michigan, Texas State, Idaho State and Willamette. Then again with Boise State and BYU up next, it’s probably about that time for Larry Krystkowiak’s team to pack it in for the year.
Arsalan Kazemi is settling into his role with Oregon quite nicely. The Rice transfer missed his team’s first two games of the season, but is on a tear with averages of 13.3 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.3 steals over Oregon’s last three contests. While Kazemi averaged a double-double per night over the last two seasons with the Owls, it has been his defensive ability that has turned the most heads right off the bat. Along with racking up at least two steals in all six games he’s suited up, the 6’7, 220-pound Kazemi owns the nation’s No. 2 steal rate at the moment at 8.2%, exactly double his top 35 mark of 4.1% from a year ago.
Much of the country was fixated on the happenings around college football, but Doug McDermott’s Creighton Bluejays absolutely rolled over an extremely talented St. Joe’s team on Saturday afternoon. Many were expecting a back-and-forth battle with the potential to come down to the final minutes. But of course, McDermott had to go and ruin everything with that talent of his. Paced by 18 of his game-high 23 points, McDermott and his Bluejays pretty much had the game wrapped up before the first under-four media timeout hit. Seriously – it was that bad.
So I went back to the tape and tried to figure out how exactly McDermott pulled this off against a team that usually plays a solid amount of defense. The general consensus was fairly simple: He puts himself in the ideal place more often than not. Here’s how he did it:
The shot chart above shows every field goal McDermott attempted in the first half on Saturday, while the number at each location indicates the order he took the shots depending on whether it was a make or a miss. And to add even more of that brilliant context thing, it’s paramount to keep in mind that McDermott’s final miss of the half (white No.4) came with Creighton ahead 45-17 on the scoreboard with exactly 2:33 remaining. Here’s how each one of these made field goals happened:
Our hero in question broke the scoring with a beautiful backdoor cut in the game’s first minute, promptly finishing with an easy right-handed layup off the glass from right under the basket. McDermott 2, St. Joe’s 0.
He then cut across the top of the key during a sneaky in-bounds play under the basket, effectively spotting up for a laser pass that afforded him a clean look from three-point range behind the left elbow. McDermott 5, St. Joe’s 0.
On a delayed run-back down the floor with the defense already set, Doug allowed his point guard to penetrate the lane while he set up shop immediately behind him for a wide open three-pointer at the top of the arc. McDermott 8, St. Joe’s 3.
He then received a back-to-basket pass on the low right block, quickly assessed his surroundings and then immediately fired a step-back fadeaway jumper that predictably tickled the twine. McDermott 10, St. Joe’s 5.
Following an odd missed layup at roughly the same spot he broke the scoring from, Doug chased the missed rebound across the court well out to the perimeter. With the defense significantly out of position because of this, he casually slotted a few feet to his left to allow a teammate to feed him the ball for another unguarded three-pointer. McDermott 13, St. Joe’s 5.
For the official dagger, Doug then waited for the defense to collapse on a teammate’s drive, and filtered back out to the right wing for yet another three-pointer that was created by positioning, and not individual skill moves. McDermott 18, St. Joe’s 10.
At this point the Bluejays shot out to an improbable 29-10 advantage, a deficit that St. Joe’s would quickly prove unable to account for. The thing is, games like this will likely happen quite often this year for McDermott in MVC play, and it would certainly be a shame for performances like these go unnoticed on the national level when stacked up against his 35 and 40-point nights. Filling out a box score is nice and all, but completely breaking an opponent by halftime is way cooler.
A year ago I went into full breakdown mode to put the greatness of Iona’s Scott Machado into perspective. And now that we finally have a few games under our belts in 2012-13, I’m going to put four of the best floor generals in America under the microscope again for another long-winded assist breakdown. Before we get started though, here’s the criteria I used in order to keep things somewhat consistent:
All have played exactly six games in 2012-13.
All are the primary ball-handlers in their respective offenses.
All play in a major conference.
All are averaging better than six assists per game this season.
All are six feet tall or shorter.
And here we go…
Pierre Jackson, Baylor
Currently among the top 40 nationally in nightly scoring average (20.3), the 5-foot-10 Jackson has already gift-wrapped his teammates a number of easy baskets this season with his lightning quick first step. Last year our man Machado served up an insane 62.3% of his assists through dunks or layups over his first five games, and right now Jackson is at 57.5%, which easily tops out as the highest in this study. Jackson’s ability to get his own offense off the dribble consistently allows backcourt mate A.J. Walton more opportunities to set other teammates up (and thus makes Jackson the least distributor-like of the four), but his proclivity for getting his fellow Bears easy buckets is hard to ignore:
When you lose to Cal Poly in your own gym, it’s a fairly sizable a wake-up call. When you lose to Cal Poly after blowing an 18-point second half lead, in a game where the No. 2 recruit in college basketball still managed to post a double-double with ease, well, then that’s a debacle of epic proportions.
While most of the country was sleeping with visions of that final plate of leftovers dancing in their heads, Ben Howland’s oh-so-mighty UCLA Bruins dropped their second game of the season late Sunday night. And it had absolutely nothing to do with turnovers, or a lack of rebounding, or an erratic shooting touch, or some buzzer-beating three-pointer. It starts and it ends with something called leadership, a seemingly widespread quality which may or may not actually exist in Los Angeles right now.
Star-studded freshmen classes can waltz in and out of Pauley Pavilion over the next half-decade and things could still remain the exact same. With Howland’s teams, and his players even, something is always missing. There was a time it was interior scoring. Then it was the glaring need for a pass-first guard willing to defer to teammates. Now more than ever though, it has everything to do with a startling lack of leadership and accountability out in Bruins Nation. And make no mistake, it starts from the top down.
Depending on who you talk to, Ben Howland is either walking on extremely thin ice or he’s one of the game’s most revered coaches in one of the sport’s most revered positions. He can recruit, he can get his players to work tirelessly on the defensive end of the floor and he has a history of success with UCLA. That much we know. But the seedier side of Howland’s tactics, and in some ways college basketball as a whole, came out over the summer in Sports Illustrated’s tell-all piece about the UCLA program.
In it, Howland was painted as a power-hungry coach who has proven time and time again he will go to great lengths in order to toss one of his own players under the bus. It was a revealing yet hardly surprising portrayal of the esteemed coach, and it seems to offer up the ideal amount of context for what we’re witnessing on the court this very season from his Bruins.
Talent will win out more often than not. But when that’s all you have, it can’t simply carry you through games like some people think. Shabazz Muhammad is already an outstanding player and may be an NBA superstar one day, but he exudes every bit of that O.J. Mayo vibe where it doesn’t actually feel like he cares one iota if the Bruins win or lose. He’s here for a quick one-year stint, knows he’s going to get paid when it’s all over and therefore doesn’t feel the need to pour his heart and soul out for UCLA basketball. This is also the exact type of infectious attitude that Howland willfully allows to take over his program.
For as much as it seems like Howland bought himself more time on the sidelines when Muhammad signed, it’s just as easy to claim that he actually warmed up his own hot seat with the added expectations of a big-time recruiting class. Whether they are taking a cue from their coaching staff or not, these players are so utterly lackadaisical on the court after six games that it’s almost starting to feel like a team that mental. Tossing a budding superstar like Muhammad into the unhealthy, dysfunctional mix hardly seems like enough firepower for Howland to miraculously pull off a one-year coup. A basketball program with its head on properly doesn’t blow an 18-point second half lead to Cal Poly in the house that John Wooden built. Then again, maybe we should start getting used to this.
Superlatives just aren’t enough sometimes. Not for this.
Not for what took place at the D-III level on Tuesday night at a tiny little college in Iowa. A place where six-foot cornstalks tower over starting lineups with regularity. A place where the tempo of basketball has somehow morphed from fast to frantic to insane without missing a beat. And now, it’s a place where college basketball’s most unlikely cult-hero calls home.
By now you’ve heard: Grinnell College’s Jack Taylor smashed a 58-year-old record into the ground on Tuesday night by dropping 138 points. And no matter where you look, everyone is buzzing about this kid. What the performance means. How it happened. Why it happened. And whoa: Could he actually do it again?
The numbers are almost too surreal to even fathom, let alone take at face value. Imagine missing 28 shots in a single basketball game and getting immediately booed off the court. Now imagine missing twice that many shots in the same game and instantly becoming the biggest sports story of the week. This…shouldn’t…happen.
And it still did.
At first glance it would seem that Grinnell head coach Dave Arseneault has a crippling Red Bull addiction. Either that or he is a diabolical manipulator who owns most of his players in a D-III fantasy basketball league. And yet, Arseneault will be the first man to tell you that what took place on Tuesday was absolutely no accident. It’s called organized chaos, people, and apparently there’s a science to it.
It starts with defense – if you want to call it that. This is not a team that will ever, ever, ever shy away from giving up easy baskets to opponents. The only caveat is that they don’t just think they can outscore you in the process, they know they can. Arseneault sends all five of his players on a frenzied full-court press attack all game long in hopes of stealing as many possessions as possible, with any and all players who are immediately broken fully expected to fly down the court like madmen defending a breakaway.
The intensified pace on opposing ball-handlers usually works like a charm considering how this is the D-III level and all. And even when it doesn’t, fans still get to see a transition lay-up or dunk at the other end. Even opponents who broke the press for an easy bucket still have to be endlessly frustrated by the fact they will probably need to do it about 95 more times just to win the freakin’ game.
Hockey-style substitutions are the only viable way for Arseneault to keep his kids going at breakneck speed for 40 full minutes, and he may very well have the shortest leash in America. Five come in, five go out. Rinse and repeat. Instead of viewing his roster like the majority of his peers around the country, Arseneault eschews the concept of starters and reserves in favor of creating five-man shifts.
A quick Grinnell three-pointer after winning the tip is immediately followed by a steal and easy layup? SHIFT CHANGE. Who cares that a mere 58 seconds ticked off the clock? Every single one of those five players will be jettisoned right back onto the floor in a matter of minutes anyway. As long as you’re willing to lace up your sneakers and hoof it down the court a few times, you will get to play.
The underlying theme on defense is always going to be to get the ball back, but Arseneault clearly knows when to fight his battles. Three-point shots are a no-no, and must be defended at all times. Two-point jumpers and shots from around the paint? Well, those can be brushed aside every now and then. The veteran coach famously commented that he would rather “give up a dunk in 10 seconds than allow an opponent to hold the ball for 30 seconds and not score”, and his players rarely, if ever, struggle to epitomize this.
The offensive aspect of this whole thing seems obsolete in a way, but it’s still the side where the records keep on falling. Taylor demolished Clarence Francis’ NCAA single-game record by a whopping 25 points, and bumped up his 2012 scoring average by more than 38 points PER GAME in the process. He played 36 minutes, took 71 three-pointers and turned the ball over just six times. None of that should make any sense whatsoever, but then it begins to when you figure out what this Grinnell team actually wants to accomplish.
So while the narrative will always be quick to paint some scrawny 5’10 sophomore named Jack Taylor as the kid who defied logic on a random Tuesday evening, something still needs to be said about this mind-blowing system that Arseneault has put in place. In many ways, Taylor benefited just like Griffin Lentsch did last season for Grinnell when he poured in 89 points to break the D-III record originally, and there simply comes a point when we need to stop and flat-out applaud the man behind the curtain pulling the strings. It doesn’t even matter if you are completely disgusted by Tuesday’s improbable result and the reasons we arrived here. Arseneault’s unshakable dedication to his plan not only helped turn Taylor into a household name, it also helped put his little Grinnell College on the map. And that’s huge.
November 21st, 2012 | Category: Uncategorized | Comments are closed
So North Carolina’s storied basketball program is embroiled in controversy, and for a while it felt like nobody cared enough to do anything. Years and years of possible cheating have been stacked upon one another like pancakes at a diner, and finally, all of that weight started to do some real damage on Saturday.
In addition to admitting that a significant number of football and basketball player were not able to perform college-level work during their time in Chapel Hill, Willingham also pointed out that a number of key staff members were fully aware of the rule-bending that was actively taking place in order to keep recruits flooding in. While North Carolina’s internal investigation is still ongoing (and sure to omit plenty of crucial details when it concludes!), sometimes it takes another push for a story to truly take off, and hopefully Willingham’s comments are the driving force here. Seeing the Heels slapped with some multi-year postseason ban is still not the ideal scenario, but simply letting something like this pass would be the biggest embarrassment of all.
Tom Martin and Fred Katz hadn’t spoken in person for an entire year, that is until the podcast you see before your eyes was born. Have a listen – and be sure to follow both Fred (@FredKatz) and Tom (@TomMartin4) on Twitter.
The 2012-13 college basketball season is already here, but to some fans it still doesn’t truly feel like a new year until ESPN’s annual 24-hour block of games kicks off this Tuesday. The lack of a concrete opening day has always been an odd way for the NCAA to ring in its new season each and every fall, and while Friday’s loaded schedule offered a noticeable improvement over past years, this remains an area that is fully ripe for criticism.
With games like Duke vs. Kentucky and Michigan State vs. Kansas each scheduled for Tuesday evening though, fans will at least be able to take solace in the fact that those big early-season showdowns are very much on the horizon. But it still begs the question: Why not aim to pull in casual fans and diehards alike with a showstopping opening day of games, akin to the rapid-fire, staggered schedule we are treated to in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament? This enthralling sport always finds a way to top itself by ending each campaign on a high note, so why not open the new season the same way?
It’s that time again. The purest, most entertaining sport in America is back for another year on the hardwood. After an enjoyable first season here at HoopSpeak U, we are thrilled to announce our triumphant return to the college hoops blogosphere in 2012-13.
Aside from a few minor changes and upgrades, HoopSpeak U will continue to give readers a level of analysis that goes well beyond box scores and point-per game averages. Thought-provoking content remains the No. 1 goal here, and we are fully committed to bringing this to you on a daily basis during the season.
To stay up-to-date, make sure to like us on Facebook and keep tabs on the #HoopSpeakU tag on Twitter throughout the year. We are ridiculously eager to explore a TON of new concepts this season, so stay tuned!
November 9th, 2012 | Category: Uncategorized | Comments are closed