Top 25 Countdown: #18 Purdue

Rotation

G P.J. Thompson (Jr.)

G Dakota Mathias (Jr.)

F Vince Edwards (Jr.)

F Caleb Swanigan (So.)

C Isaac Haas (Jr.)

Bench

G Spike Albrecht (Sr.)

F Jacquil Taylor (So.)

G Carsen Edwards (Fr.)

G Ryan Cline (So.)

F Basil Smotherman (Jr.)

Before the season started last year, I was convinced that Purdue, after a five year absence from the national and Big Ten Conference forefront, was prepared to return to the precipice. To plant that black and gold flag with the big P at the top of the mountain next to the most recent one, somewhat tattered, but still standing proud, with Hummel, Moore, and Johnson still visibly traced into the hardened dirt by a since deceased stick. But the deities of the college basketball postseason are undeniably whimsical and omnipotent. Two seasons ago, their year culminated in a devastating late second half collapse in an 8/9 game against Cincinnati that resulted in an overtime loss. Last season they finished the season fourth in the Big Ten Conference, and rode their success all the way to the Big Ten Tournament title game where they would fall to March’s perpetual darling, Michigan State. But still, they looked primed. Primed to conceivably end an Elite Eight drought that not even the teams of the late 2000s were able to rectify. Alas, that would not happen, and it would not happen in a way that superseded even the 2015 result in the disappointment it wrought. A 5 seed in the Midwest, they drew a very good Arkansas Little Rock team. However, with just 5 minutes to go in the game, the Boilermakers were up by 14 and appeared to have already punched their ticket to the next round. Their win probability approached 100%. The fat lady was warming up her voice. And then it started again. The implosion. Now see, the 2015-16 Purdue Boilermakers had been blessed with three NBA-caliber seven footers. Three. Like that’s not a thing that college basketball teams have. And they couldn’t get them the ball late in regulation or in either of the overtime sessions. When Little Rock went up tempo, fourteen feet went off the floor. But, well, the only problem was that guys like point guard, P.J. Thompson became damn near unplayable. And it also didn’t help that Josh Hagins was kissed by the basketball gods. In spite of all of this, the Boilermakers finished last season with a top 20 offense and a top 15 offense. And even though they are forced to absorb the loss of second round pick, A.J. Hammons, they are uniquely equipped to do exactly that. So maybe this year is the year.

The absorption effort begins and ends with sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan and junior behemoth, Isaac Haas. Ostensibly the most highly regarded recruit in the history of the program, Swanigan exhibited incredible prowess on the glass as a freshman, particularly on the defensive end, where he finished first in the conference in rebounding rate. Furthermore, he proved to be an effective and efficient scorer inside the arc, while also showing flashes that he might be able to extend his production past it. And while his usage remained relatively consistent throughout much of his freshman year, the loss of Hammons will necessitate that he assume a much larger burden of the scoring, and consequently, his ability to fulfill his new, purportedly go-to role is one of the most significant questions underlying Purdue’s success this season. He will be paired in the frontcourt with with 7’2″ center, Isaac Haas, who although is admittedly somewhat limited athletically, is a freaking large human being. A per-minute stud in his time on the court a year ago, Haas combines his size with surprising touch around the basket in a way that at least somewhat alleviates pressure on his decided lack of mobility. Nevertheless, even though his role on defense can almost exclusively be limited to rim protection, it is assuredly a vulnerability that can be exploited by opposing offenses. Completing the frontcourt is 6’8″ junior, Vince Edwards, who might very well be the best all-around Boilermaker. Pressed into even greater ballhandling duties a season ago during a point guard search that did not look entirely kindly on either Thompson or Johnny Hill, Edwards has led Purdue in assists each of the last two seasons. Versatile and extremely skilled, Edwards is not only a proficient passer of the basketball, but is also one of Purdue’s best at creating extra possessions on the offensive glass, and is also an efficient scorer. Furthermore, and maybe most importantly for Purdue’s 2016-17 success, is that Edwards improved nearly nine percentage points from beyond the arc from his freshman to his sophomore year, from 32% to almost 41. If that kind of shotmaking can sustain itself throughout the course of this coming year, his Swiss Army Knife game will be all that more dangerous.

The backcourt however is enigmatic. Junior Dakota Mathias is the most likely candidate to start at shooting guard. A much improved player on offense his sophomore season, Mathias became one of Purdue’s and the Big Ten’s more consistent threats from 3, shooting nearly 42% in conference play. Last season, he also often operated as a secondary ball handler, proving adept at taking care of the ball. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen exactly how his production will be affected by his decidedly larger role, especially when he will be counted on even more to make shots in lieu of the departure of the self proclaimed perpetual green light of Kendall Stephens. The shotmaking of sophomore Ryan Cline will also be integral to the development of the Boilermakers on the perimeter, and even more importantly, to the alleviation of interior pressure on Swanigan and Haas. P.J. Thompson will ostensibly get the first opportunity to be the starting point guard. Diminutive and far from a natural playmaker, Thompson still did have the third highest offensive rating of any player in the country a season ago and shot a likely irreplicable 47% from 3 in conference play. And while he did flash the ability to effectively initiate and lead an offense, he can be somewhat of a liability on defense, and was a partial impetus to the Boilermaker collapse in the tournament. Fortunately, there might just be a star waiting in the wings. Four star freshman Carsen Edwards appears equipped to fulfill and even transcend the lead guard vacancy in West Lafayette – a void that has not been capably filled since the days of Lewis Jackson and Chris Kramer. Edwards has already impressed in preseason action overseas, and he already looks like an explosive scorer that could become Purdue’s secret weapon and more, sooner rather than later.

Namedrop Corner

spike1

Michael Joseph Albrecht

We had just come back from the under 16 TV timeout. The CBS cameras flashed first to C-Webb and Jalen in the crowd, a partial resurrection of the Fab Five. The pinnacle of Michigan basketball. Or so we thought. They were maize and blue mythology, heroes in basketball shorts and Nikes. Pushed into obscurity is ostensibly something they thought they would never be. We get a quick glimpse of the Wolverine set out of the timeout before the camera turns to star point guard Trey Burke who had just come out of the game. He nods his head. About what, we don’t know, but it was like he knew something. A secret Joe Couch Potato could not even begin to conceptualize.  15:00. Sauce Castillo with the ball on the left wing. Maybe it was some subtle ode to the anonymity he had previously reveled in, but no Louisville Cardinal seemed to recognize that there was someone wide open in the corner. Almost like he was some sort of spectre. And then… HERE’S ALBRECHT. Corner pocket. 13:09. Off a Russ Smith miss, Tim Hardaway pushed the ball up the floor and found, well… ALBRECHT, CAN HE DO IT AGAIN? The answer, once again, was yes. Yet, it still seemed like some sort of mirage, like a narrative already becoming so dangerously close to Disney sports movie that it couldn’t possibly be real. It still felt impossible to genuinely comprehend what was happening, because it wasn’t clear what exactly was happening. Backpedaling down the court, screaming LET’S FUCKING GO. Jim’s Nantz’s voice getting louder and louder seemed to approximate the intensification of the moment, but it still wasn’t really helping. 12:04. This time, an absolute bomb, early in the shot clock. UNBELIEVABLE. UNREAL. Jim trying his very best to articulate the inarticulable. 5:59. This, the most YOU HAVE TO SHITTING ME three of them all. And yet, sports are cruel. Sometimes, moments are just that. They succumb to the timelessness of narrative, but oftentimes ephemerality afflicts. And in that moment, Michael Joseph Albrecht was the biggest star on his sport’s biggest night. His aspirations changed. A date with Kate Upton seemed within reach. Make me like Mike became make me like Spike. Until it was over. Memory isn’t maize and blue. It’s just a maze.

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Top 25 Countdown: #17 Louisville

Rotation

G Quentin Snider (Jr.)

G Donovan Mitchell (So.)

F Deng Adel (So.)

F Anas Mahmoud (Jr.)

C Mangok Mathiang (Sr.)

Bench: F V.J. King (Fr.), G Tony Hicks (Sr.), F Jaylen Johnson (Jr.), Raymond Spalding (So.), G Ryan McMahon (Fr.)

Last season, the Louisville Cardinals faced a ferocious set of distractions from the outside. With details of a dark recruiting scandal increasing with each day, a self-imposed postseason ban was in order, robbing several departures of a taste of the NCAA Tournament. Things looked uncharacteristically bleak for Rick Pitino as the 2014-15 season came to a close. A mass exodus of talent, including Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell, had the 2013 National Champions scrambling to field a team that could compete in the top half of the ACC. Pitino resultantly found the answer in a pair of grad transfers, Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, and brushed off the distractions brilliantly, fielding not only a competitive team, but consistently a top 25 squad the entire season while also finishing 2nd in defensive efficiency nationally. As the 2016-17 season approaches, the Cardinals find themselves in the same murky waters. The notice of allegations for the lingering recruiting misconduct was just released, and they will again ask some unproven commodities to lead the charge for one of the country’s most prestigious programs. This time around, though, rather than plucking some per se college free agents, Louisville will turn to a pair of sophomores in-house to reveal themselves as the foremen.

Given their upside, Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel figure to quickly develop into household names. Mitchell, specifically, should be ardent to prove there is far more complexity to his game than the high-flying, awe-inducing dunks for which he has garnered attention. His jumper remains a question mark, but a freakish blend of strength, quickness, and killer athleticism make him a prime candidate to emerge. There is, additionally, a holistic nature to his game the nation will grow accustomed to as his usage rate skyrockets, as the combo guard owned Louisville’s second-highest assist rate a season ago. Adel’s emergence, on the other hand, is less of a dead certainty. The primary item on Adel’s checklist must be to value the basketball infinitely better than he did in ’15-’16. His catastrophic 29% turnover rate was the predominant reason for his underwhelming freshman season on the heels of palpable preseason buzz. Nonetheless, his frame immediately reminds one of the prototypical NBA wing, and word on the street is he has had himself a phenomenal summer.

The Louisville program under Rick Pitino has branded itself on the defensive end of the floor, with the epicenter of that identity being nettlesome guards and long rim protectors. Best of luck to ACC opponents in finishing at the rim this season. Pitino utilized Anas Mahmoud from time-to-time at the 4, something I feel they should do more of. Don’t be fooled by Mahmoud’s 7-1 size. His cunning quickness gives him the capability of guarding perimeter-oriented 4’s to go with imposing size, and his rapidly improving skill level offers hope on the offensive end. Thus, deploying a lineup of Mahmoud paired with Mangok Mathiang will make Cardinal fans quickly forget about Chinanu Onuaku, legitimately one of the best overall defenders in college basketball last season. In spite of the loss of Onuaku, the Louisville tradition of bigs will continue, and a top 10 defense should grace the KFC Yum Center floor once again.

Namedrop Corner

 Given our past digressions on Quinton Ross and Lamar Odom in previous previews, Out of Write Field has shown it’s not afraid to stir the pot by being a loose cannon. Yet, Andre McGee here might actually be too savage. The Louisville namedrop, though, was an easy decision in the end. With Southeastern Wisconsin ties, Jerry Smith was the clearcut winner. The former Tosa East Red Raider was recently inducted into his alma mater’s hall of fame as part of its inaugural class. More importantly, Smith was coached in middle school by legendary Tosa East varsity volleyball coach John Simon. So understanding the fact of Mr. Simon’s tutelage, Smith’s stardom was simply inevitable, and his Wisconsinite status along with an impeccable amalgam of shooting and athleticism had me heavily invested in those late-2000s Louisville teams in spite of my Rick Pitino hatred.

jerrysmith

Top 25 Countdown: #19 Connecticut

Rotation

G Jalen Adams (So.)

G Rodney Purvis (Sr.)

F Terry Larrier (So.)

F Juwan Durham (Fr.)

C Amida Brimah (Sr.)

Bench: G Alterique Gilbert (Fr.), F Kentan Facey (Sr.), F Vance Jackson (Fr.), C Steven Enoch (So.), F Mamadou Diarra (Fr.), G Christian Vital (Fr.)

It was a shot heard round the world from an unlikely source, and a shot that would birth the legend of the newest member of a lineage of greats. The American Athletic Conference planted its postseason tournament in Orlando. No matter where the AAC locates its version of March Madness, it will still inconvenience nearly all of the members of its collection of conference realignment odd-men-out. But the sparse Amway Center crowd on a Friday afternoon was treated to one of the dandies of Championship Week in the headliner matchup between Cincinnati and UConn. The lasting image, of course, will forever be a banked-in three-quarter court shot by Jalen Adams to force a fourth overtime as the Bearcats simultaneously celebrated a supposed game-winning trey from Kevin Johnson. That iconic heave was just a small portion of what proved to be Adams’ coming out party that day, going 8-16 from the field and dropping a career-high 22 points. Remember, the Huskies were no tourney lock at this point, and their at-large hopes were hanging in the balance. So essentially with the veteran UConn team’s season on the line, they repeatedly turned to their freshman point guard averaging 7 points a night at the most critical junctures. There wouldn’t have even been a third overtime without his difficult driving layup in the closing moments of the second extra period. Bottom line: Jalen Adams had staked his arrival in college basketball, and that March afternoon was a mere precursor to what we will witness throughout the 2016-17 campaign.

Probably not coincidentally, Roxbury, Massachusetts also produced Shabazz Napier. Adams will be following in the footsteps of what has become a UConn tradition and the vitality of its program. A.J. Price guided a memorable Husky team to a Final Four. He handed the baton off to Kemba, which goes without being said. Shabazz succeeded him, bookending his college career with national titles. Adams is next in line, and the ’16-’17 version of the Huskies will travel as far as the shifty Brewster Academy product will carry them. Toughness is a parallel in this lineage of Connecticut floor generals, but each, naturally, is equipped with a uniqueness to his game. What makes Adams click is his playground-aggressive mindset on the offensive end that takes a back seat to no one. The now-sophomore guard never messes around with the ball in his possession as he relentlessly attacks downhill directly towards the rim. Even if he can’t get by his defender completely, if he’s even, he’s won, thanks to proficient touch and unteachable creativity on his floaters and a Kyrie-like knack to avoid shot blockers by contorting his body, adjusting, and going high off the glass.

adamsfloater

Floater creativity

adamsdownhill

Attacking downhill

The jumper certainly remains a work in progress (27% from deep), but even with defenders’ sagging off and lack of respect for his outside shot, his perpetual downhill attack and quick crossovers were always too much too handle, with opponents constantly finding themselves on their heels. The likes of Amida Brimah, Kentan Facey, and Juwan Durham provide nice lob targets for the inevitability of the waterbug Adams drawing help, and penetrate and kick will be no issue with him initiating the offense. The entirety of the Huskies’ offense, and essentially their season, will begin and end with their lead guard once again. It’s Jalen Adams’ turn to make his imprint in the annals of UConn Basketball, and he may one day be thought of in the same light as the Kemba’s of the world.

Namedrop Corner

Denham Brown

UCONN v Notre Dame

We shift gears after the tangent on the lineage of UConn point guards. A 4-year starter and National Champion in 2004, Denham Brown is one of the many unsung heroes of Connecticut basketball of this millenium and was part of the original pipeline of Canadian college players. “BY GEORGE….THE DREAM IS ALIVE” was delayed 5 minutes by his reverse layup as time expired in the 2006 Elite Eight, which was nearly wiped out by Hilton Armstrong stupidity, in one of the most memorable games of my lifetime. Many stars spanned the career of Brown, but he was the glue that held Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, and Rudy Gay, among others, together. Please, allow Bill Raftery to ask, “What can Brown do for you?”

Top 25 Countdown: #20 Rhode Island

Rotation

G Jarvis Garrett (Jr.)

G Jared Terrll (Jr.)

G E.C. Matthews (Jr.)

F Hassan Martin (Sr.)

F Kuran Iverson (Sr.)

Bench

G Stanford Robinson (Jr.)

G Christion Thompson (So.)

F Nikola Akele (So.)

F Andre Berry (Jr.)

F Mike Layssard (Fr.)

Over the last fifteen years, the faces of the Atlantic 10 conference have been as distinct as they have been numerous. The 2003-04 Saint Joseph’s Red Hawks finished the regular season undefeated, but they finished the season with two losses. One to eventual Elite 8 counterpart Xavier led by Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato, and the other on the precipice of the Final Four to the John Lucas led Oklahoma State Cowboys in one of the greatest regional finals I have ever witnessed. Jameer Nelson was the little man, from the little school who beat, well, almost everyone. Phil Martelli was roaming the sidelines then. And still is today. The forgotten 2005-06 George Washington Colonials who ran through the regular season unscathed in conference play and with only three losses overall. Pops Mensah-Bonsu. Mike Hall. J.R. Pinnock. The 2006-07 Xavier Musketeers did not necessarily have the otherworldly regular season performance of the aforementioned teams, however they did participate in one of the most indelible games of my lifetime. Outlasting the 8th seeded BYU Cougars in the first round, the Musketeers earned a second round matchup with the Oden and Conley led Ohio State Buckeyes. Gus was on the call as I watched the final minutes on a small TV in the concession area at a seventh grade basketball tournament. Now this Ohio State team purported itself to be the closest approximation of a forerunner to a Calipari Kentucky team of the next decade. Oden was transcendent. Conley was his floor general. Swingman Daequan Cook came with five stars floating above his head. And eventual Buckeye great David Lighty had four. They lost only once in the Big Ten, and were coached by former Xavier head coach Thad Matta. So needless to say, they weren’t supposed to lose. At least not yet. Following a Drew Lavender three pointer with seven and a half to play, Xavier was up 11 and inching ever closer to achieving the unthinkable. They were still up 7 with just under 3 to go and then it began. Jamar Butler from the parking lot. Ron Lewis and-1.  All leading up to one of Gus’s best ever calls. CONLEY… 5 TO GO… LEWIS HAS BEEN AWESOME LETS IT GO… LKAHFAOS;IFHIROTHIAODFBAIFHIORTHA’OIH’NSAJLF. Yeah Xavier lost in overtime. But their wait to avenge an early exit would be a short one. Returning almost everyone the next year, Xavier entered the tournament as a three seed and would again make it to the Elite 8 where they would lose handily to a Westbrook and Love led UCLA team. But the game that preceded that, a Sweet 16 matchup against West Virginia also entered the pantheon of indelibility. I will always remember the game as the B.J. Raymond game. Hitting one bomb from the top of the circle with just over a minute to play and then a right wing three off an out of bounds play with 30 seconds left that sent Raf into hysteria. ONIONS. HOW COULD THEY LEAVE HIM?? And yet all of this still fell short of one of the greatest games of all time. March 26, 2010. Xavier in the Sweet 16 again. This time playing the second seeded Kansas State Wildcats. If you looked at the game only through the prism of numbers, this is what you’ll see. 2 overtimes. 13 ties. 17 lead changes. 197 points scored. The game itself fell so deep into the vast abyss of absurdity and volatility that it became genuinely unbelievable. It was high leverage masterpiece where every possession felt monumental. And the shotmaking eluded capable description. This was the last game of the night with the stage all to itself. And even though K State would prevail in the second overtime, the shot to get there birthed another Gus great. “Holloway… has shown a flair for the dramatic… 11 to go… Holloway kicks it out Crawford 8… CRAWFORDS GOTTA HURRY… AAAAAHHHHHHHHHOOOOOOOO… And Len Elmore, becoming the mouthpiece for America screams but a single word… NO. Thank you Jordan Crawford. Thank you Tu Holloway. Now over the last few years, the Atlantic 10 crown has shifted and its overall membership transformed. A 2011 Sweet 16 run by the Richmond Spiders. A couple Rick Majerus led Saint Louis Billikens teams that earned my affection. Consistency at the top of the conference from the Temple Owls. The entrance of Shaka Smart and the VCU Rams. An improbable Sweet 16 run by the Explorers of La Salle. And an inspiring Elite 8 run from the Dayton Flyers. And yet I have yet to mention the team this preview is really about.

All of this is to say that the class of the 2016-17 Atlantic 10 conference is Rhode Island. Extracted from the doldrums of obscurity by now fifth year head coach Dan Hurley, the Rams look to be legitimately positioned to do something they have only recently watched other members of their conference do – play deep into the NCAA Tournament. But that could have happened even earlier. And a 2014-15 season that saw them make it to the second round of the NIT, Rhode Island looked primed to end their twenty first century tournament drought last year. That was until their best player, E.C. Matthews, sustained a knee injury in the first game of the season. The Rams went on to finish a disappointing 17-15 accompanied by a first round exit in the A10 tournament. However, not all was lost. In the absence of Matthews, the sophomore backcourt of Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell, was forced into an opportunity to shoulder much more of the load themselves. And it was Garrett especially, who emerged as one of the best lead guards in the conference. In his freshman season, Garrett flashed his abilities as a pure point and a defensive menace, but his offensive production left much to be desired. Shooting 38% from the field and 29% from three with relatively low usage was recognizably freshman, but last season, out from beneath the shadow of the ball dominant Matthews, saw not only a significant uptick in usage, but an unfathomable improvement in shot making that saw the Masked Man become the best three point shooter in the entire conference. Whether or not that is sustainable remains to be seen. While Terrell did not enjoy as monumental a transformation between his freshman and sophomore year, he did cement himself as an invaluable part of the Ram rotation, playing a much higher number of minutes while improving his percentages across the board. Adept at taking care of the ball on the offensive end and having already displayed a penchant for forcing turnovers on the other end, the Garrett/Terrell tandem has proven to be formidable on their own. And now Matthews steps back into the fold.

A legitimate first round NBA prospect and the player who will most assuredly dictate how far Rhode Island can go, E.C Matthews is one of the most skilled offensive players in the entire country. And most importantly, with him returns hope in Kingston. Mining for comparisons, guys like D’Angelo Russell and James Harden come to mind. Admittedly it helps that they are all left handed, but Matthews fits into their mold of smooth, crafty, high usage playmakers capable of carrying their team for long stretches of time. Already a skilled creator for himself and for others, Matthews does need to take care of the ball better and more consistently convert from behind the three point line, two things that might inherently improve through the maturation of Garrett and Terrell, allowing Matthews to more often move off the ball and have it in his hands less. The backcourt will be most notably supplemented by Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson, a sixth man, who although was a relative non shooter during his two years with the Hoosiers, will ostensibly be able to better utilize his athleticism to his advantage in the A10.

The frontcourt returns both Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson, who although are both relatively undersized, make up for it with their respective length and athleticism. Iverson, a Memphis tranfer, and a former top 30 recruit, led the Rams in rebounding a season ago and was one of the best in the A10 at cleaning the glass. With every year his range extends more comfortably outward, and his development as a two way forward is another key to postseason success. Since he stepped foot on campus at Rhode Island, there has always been one thing Hassan Martin has been able to do, block shots. The best in the Atlantic 10 the last two seasons, and consistently in the top 20 nationally, Martin is an absolute force around the rim defensively and an efficient producer around it on the other end. His durability is certainly a concern, but the continued development of Iverson and Martin suggests that the Rams frontcourt is not far behind their backcourt, if at all.

This is the year. The Rams have not been back to the tournament in this millennium. The Rams played unbelievably slow last year, as their tempo dipped into the 33os nationally, down from spot firmly inside the top 100 the year before. However their offense improved from its 2015 incarnation, most prominently due to a marked uptick in three point percentage. If the Rams can inch back closer to their top 15 defense from a couple seasons ago, this team suddenly becomes extremely formidable, especially while being perpetuated by the continuity of its core. Yet, the Rams are not especially deep and are not especially big, and therefore, their success this season will stem from the reassertion of Matthews and the health of the starting five. But this is their turn, their chance to bear the flag of the A10 while a nation watches in awe. And they will do exactly that.

Namedrop Corner

Lamar Odom

Lamar Odom

The best player in the history of Rhode Island basketball, Lamar Odom was awesome and revolutionary. 6’10” with sublime handle of the basketball and an unbelievably gifted playmaker, Lamar will forever be underappreciated, possibly having earned a spot on the Mount Rushmore of point forwards. But he was also an intimately complex figure and a tragic one, much of the tragedy sacrificed for the televised essentiality of Kardashiana. A playground legend at a young age, his fame and mythology was compounded by his bestowed transcendence atop the glitz and glamour backdrop of Los Angeles. A captain for the Clippers at 21, it wasn’t until Khloe that his sports and Hollywood celebrity coalesced in the most dysfunctional way possible. My one time foray into the world of Khloe and Lamar was relatively brief but it was real. And even while his life was manipulated by camera documentation and framed by the high definition living room set of housewives in suburbia, his vulnerability was exceedingly evident. As was his pervasive optimism. Deferential and perpetually seeking connection, my short lived exposure to him is what ultimately made his eventual descent all the more heartbreaking. And Khloe always seemed like the most down to earth of the three. The most relatable. The most resistant to reduction. And while my years of separation leave me unable to verify whether or not this is still true, their divorce was just finalized and you wanted to see those two crazy kids make it. RIP Khloe and Lamar, best wishes to you both. Although Khloe, you already maybe got engaged to Tristan Thompson which is kind of weird, but also you do you girl.

Top 25 Countdown: #21 SMU

Rotation

G Shake Milton (So.)

G Jarrey Foster (So.)

G Sterling Brown (Sr.)

F Semi Ojeleye (Jr.)

F Ben Moore (Sr.)

Bench: G Ben Emelogu (Jr.), C Harry Froling (Fr.), G Tom Wilson (Fr.), G Dashawn McDowell (Fr.)

Look around the college basketball early season forecasting landscape, and one team you won’t find mentioned in the top 25 conversation is SMU, as the Mustangs seem to be lost in the shuffle. Playing in the American Athletic Conference and being relatively new to the whole “relevance” ordeal, SMU is rarely going to grab national headlines, and when Larry Brown is at the helm, there is a more-than-slight chance that when they do, a couple of those headlines wind up being negative. This past summer, Larry Brown vacated his throne in Dallas in the most Larry Brown way possible: out of nowhere, on his own terms, and riddled with NCAA allegations and penalties. This is, perhaps, the reasoning behind the national media writing off the 2016-17 Mustangs, figuring SMU will dearly miss the journeyman czar who is the only coach to hoist the trophy at both the college and professional level. In steps his assistant, Tim Jankovich, and what many will rapidly realize is Jankovich is the man to lift the SMU program to new heights. Certainly Brown is a legend and a hoops mastermind, but his old school philosophies had overstayed their welcome, conceivably being SMU’s foremost barrier since their meteoric rise three seasons ago. On their way to an 18-0 start and a fabulous 25-5 finish, the 2015-16 Mustangs sank a mind-numbing 42% of their three-point attempts, good for third in all of college basketball. However, their three-point attempt rate was 15th-lowest nationally. Imagine the damage that could have been done. Brown, still trapped in 1975, has a track record proving he simply does not believe in the long ball, even when he is armed with the personnel.

SMU was the final remaining unbeaten last season, and let’s not forget that half of those games were won when Tim Jankovich slid over six inches to the head coaching chair during Larry Brown’s suspension. Jankovich’s offensive philosophy, safe to say, will be on the opposite end of the spectrum from Brown’s. In turn, Jankovich will be able to fully utilize his players’ skillsets. Analytics guru Ken Pomeroy puts it candidly:

 

The most important of those players is irrefutably Shake Milton, who slides over from the 2-guard slot to direct traffic as the Mustangs’ point man. Milton, without question, is one of the nation’s true breakout candidates. Measuring in at 6’7” with a 6’11.5” wingspan this summer at the Nike Skills Academy, no point guard in the country will have more disruptive size and length than the Mustangs’ floor general. In spite of playing 80% of possible minutes in 2015-16, Milton will still undertake a massive leap in responsibility. Last year’s diminutive, but tough-as-nails point guard Nic Moore was very ball-dominant, especially late-clock, contributing to Milton’s microscopic usage rate. Nonetheless, Shake using a meager 15% of possessions is probably more in conjunction with his feel for the game. Milton was as patient of a freshman offensively as I have ever seen. He rarely took poor shots, resulting in a 53/43/73 slash line, used size to his advantage when operating out of the PnR, and fully understood the value of the extra pass, averaging nearly 3 assists a game. Thus, the transition to point guard will be seamless for him while also giving him ceilingless potential. Luxurious length will, additionally, allow Jankovich to implement some zone with emphasis on turnover creation if he so desires. The possibilities are endless. Milton is not the only Mustang whose game is demarcated by uber-efficiency. It is, in fact, an omnipresent theme up and down the SMU roster, which further begs the question of this team’s potential given the increased leeway from the perimeter Jankovich provides. Another beneficiary from the new system is senior wing Sterling Brown, who quietly put together a wacky set of percentages last season (63/54/86). His 71.6 true shooting % landed him third in the entire nation. He however, dissimilar to Milton, is unlikely to see a huge spike in usage. While these blistering numbers will be a tall task to duplicate, we should at least expect going in that Brown be the same explosive athlete, defensive enforcer, and efficient offensive player that he was.

Semi Ojeleye primarily transferred to SMU due to the presence of Larry Brown, but he will nonetheless be a feared scorer in the AAC, prospectively leading the Mustangs in that category. Ojeleye understandably never found a niche in Durham with the surrounding talent, which included five first round picks. Having not played in a meaningful game in approximately two years, there will exist a copious amount of hunger for the former 5-star to prove his worth. He’ll be harmonized in the frontcourt by senior Ben Moore, who has seen himself ascend from energy guy to importantly efficient two-point scorer during his time in Dallas. As mentioned, the lofty percentages are across the board for the most part. This particular amalgam quite conceivably could form an offensive juggernaut. The personnel is there for Jankovich to mobilize more drive-and-kick and there will be a favorable size mismatch at the most important position on the floor on a nightly basis. The lone deterrent to SMU attaining the skyscraping goals I have outlined would be depth, partially due to NCAA-imposed scholarship reduction (point, Larry Brown). The Mustangs will bring very little experience off the bench. Players will quickly need to grow accustomed to Australian accents, as Aussie freshmen Harry Froling and Tom Wilson would figure to see some important minutes if foul trouble ever looms. Froling, a skilled lefty big man, owns soft touch and has range beyond the three-point line, nestling right in with the theme of the day, while Wilson’s feistiness and outside shooting mirror that of Australian icon Matthew Dellavedova.

I am hereby trademarking SMU’s projected starters as the “uniform distribution,” as Jankovich will likely employ a lineup of 6-7/6-6/6-6/6-8/6-8 the majority of the 40 minutes. Thus, the potential for interchangeability on the defense end will give the SMU head coach plenty at his disposal. Pair this with the legitimately-possible top 5 offense as described above. Your guess is as good as mine in regards to where the SMU love is at the moment. What I am envisioning might end up being a mere figment of my imagination, but if/when the “uniform distribution” becomes one of the hottest commodities in college basketball, you’ll know where to find its roots.

Namedrop Corner:

Quinton Ross

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An SMU Basketball namedrop very well could be the most difficult thing we do throughout this 25-team, 25-day countdown given the program’s complete irrelevance prior to the 2013-14 season, so this required some uncharacteristic digging. The only recognizable name that surfaced was Quinton Ross, who enjoyed an eight-year NBA career with five teams. Aside from accumulating some mop-up minutes in NBA Live Franchise Mode games, Ross doesn’t really have any interesting stories on the hardwood. His name popping up does, however, evoke the odd situation in which his death was randomly falsely reported, which has to be the weirdest feeling imaginable. I continue to wonder why he didn’t choose to remain hidden Hunger Games-style and stun the world by reappearing at a Rucker Park game claiming to be resurrected and putting on an Uncle Drew-type clinic.

Top 25 Countdown: #22 Creighton

Rotation

G Mo Watson Jr. (Sr.)

G Marcus Foster (Jr.)

G Isaiah Zierden (Sr.)

F Cole Huff (Sr.)

C Justin Patton (R Fr.)

Bench

G Khyri Thomas (So.)

F Toby Hegner (Jr.)

C Zach Hanson (Sr.)

G Ronnie Harrell Jr. (So.)

G Kobe Paras (Fr.)

For the majority of my existence, Dana Altman has been the face of Creighton basketball. Leading the Jays to seven tournament appearances during his tenure in Omaha, ephemeral stardom smiled down on Missouri Valley darlings like Kyle Korver, Nate Funk, and Booker Woodfox. However, he departed Omaha following the 2009-10 season for Eugene, paving the way for the ascendance of then Iowa State head coach, Greg McDermott. Thus, while Altman might have objectively defined Creighton basketball, it has been McDermott, and his son, Mr. McBuckets, who have ostensibly ushered in an era with the closest approximation of transcendence. In Dougie’s three years of superstardom, the formula for the Jays was relatively simple. They were going to score a lot of points. They were going to shoot a lot of threes. They were going to allow a lot of points. But more often that not, they were going to score more points than they gave up. The 29-6, 2011-2012 Jays were 5th in the country in offense and would not finish below the top 5 in the two seasons that followed, boasting the nation’s highest three point percentage in consecutive seasons. However, in the three seasons of McBucket transcendence, the highest Bluejay defensive finish was 69th, which ostensibly owed itself to a commitment to cleaning up the glass and keeping their opponents away from the charity stripe. Most often though, it appeared like their defense was largely characterized by an inability to create turnovers and a overall lack of size. After the departure of Gregory Echenique, the 2013-14 Jays were nominally playing McDermott at center in their most common lineup with molasses footed Ethan Wragge at the 4. And thus, even with an offense that reached scarily good heights, they were left with a team whose inherent construction became its regrettable downfall, perpetually falling just short of the Sweet 16.

But at least they knew who they were. And they had something they had never had before. An absolute superstar, future lottery talent, whose shot-making and overall versatility was something to behold. Inevitably, the last two seasons, post Dougie, have necessitated a transformation, and the discovery of a new identity. But somewhat quietly, these last two seasons have also been the backdrop for the emergence of a new superstar in Omaha.

A transfer from Boston U and an OOWF favorite, Mo Watson Jr. is flat out one of the best players in the entire country. The diminutive point guard is a do-everything speed demon who is also very much a quintessential floor general, albeit with a penchant to turn the ball over just a little too much. A special passer of the basketball, Watson was second in the nation in assist rate in his final season with the Terriers, and was 12th nationally a year ago, while also posting the best mark in the Big East. A high minute, high usage player a year ago, Watson had the ball in his hands incessantly, and much like my discussion of Bryant McIntosh, became the impetus for previously unprecedented team success through his assertiveness on offense, almost single handedly taking over in conference games against Butler and Xavier. Nevertheless, Watson is still markedly a work in progress from beyond the arc, shooting just under 30% a year ago. Therefore, it is helpful that he will continue to be flanked in the backcourt by the experience and shotmaking ability of senior Isaiah Zierden and an emerging 3 and D threat in sophomore Khyri Thomas.

What will be even more helpful however, is that Watson now has someone to more than capably share in the ball handling and play-making responsibilities. Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster finished the 2013-14 season in Manhattan as one of the most highly regarded freshmen in the nation. However, his sophomore year saw not only his play decline, but also his position within the Wildcat basketball program, eventually culminating in his dismissal from the team. Now armed with a change of scenery and a fresh start, McDermott and the Jays hope that Foster can parlay his strength, athletic ability and his ability to create for himself and for others into a backcourt tandem that could very easily become one of the nation’s best. Already best friends off the court, the chemistry between Foster and Watson is what will ultimately determine the Jays’ ceiling, which may very well be higher than this ranking purports. Ostensibly, Foster can become the go to guy at the end of the shot clock, exhibiting an amalgamation of control and explosiveness that is one of the keys to this team’s hopeful postseason success.

Returning in the frontcourt is 6’8″ junior Nevada transfer Cole Huff. In his first season with the Bluejays a year ago, Huff flashed the ability to score in bunches, scoring 35 with 7 threes in a Big East Tournament loss to Seton Hall and 28 in a February home victory over DePaul. Already one of the team’s better shooters from the outside, Huff has also exhibited the ability to be an invaluable defensive contributor, using his athleticism to become one of the team’s best at crashing the defensive glass and forcing turnovers. Returning important rotation pieces like Zach Hanson and Toby Hegner is not insignificant, but the national viability of the frontcourt and its greatest hope for never before seen success lies in seven foot redshirt freshman and Omaha native, Justin Patton. A consensus top 75 recruit, a season ago, Patton represents something the Jays have not recently, and maybe never, had – a dynamic presence at the center position. And while his frame currently inhibits his ability to bang down low, his mobility and ability to stretch the floor will almost immediately render him a nightly matchup nightmare.

This team returns nearly all of its significant contributors from a season that saw them finish as a top 50 offense and defense; rankings that should only be supplemented by another year of experience and the addition of guys like Foster, Patton, and freshman guard Kobe Paras to the rotation. The post-McBuckets reconstruction of the roster now feels complete, and Creighton basketball feels like its ready to once again assume its place at the national forefront, and maybe, finally secure the all elusive berth into the Sweet Sixteen.

Namedrop Corner

Ethan Wragge

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Monday January 20, 2014. In what became an incredibly surreal game watching experience, Creighton, visiting Philadelphia to take on #4 Villanova in a game that felt like it was positioned for the Bluejays to confront their Big East and national legitimacy, began the game with nine consecutive three pointers.

By the 14:00 mark in the first half, the game was already over. Wragge finished with 9 three pointers in a game that saw them win by 28, but he will be permanently accompanied in my mind with Gus on loop shouting, “PPUUUUREEEEEE”.

Top 25 Countdown: #23 San Diego State

Rotation

G Jeremy Hemsley (So.)

G Trey Kell (Jr.)

G Montaque Gill-Caesar (So.)

F Malik Pope (Jr.)

C Valentine Izundu (Sr.)

Bench: F Zylan Cheatham (So.), G Dakarai Allen (Sr.), F Jalen McDaniels (Fr.), F Max Hoetzel (So.), F Matt Shrigley (Sr.), F Nolan Narain (Fr.)

I was not old enough to remember when Steve Fisher took the men’s basketball head coaching job at San Diego State University back in 1999. If I was, there would have been little reason for me to care. Steve Fisher, the high-profile coach of the Fab 5 at Michigan, took a job in the Mountain West with a program that hadn’t sniffed the NCAA Tournament in over a decade and was suffering from abysmal attendance numbers. Fisher, however, viewed this school in southern California as a diamond in the rough, and he has clearly uncovered the diamond since then. The 2015-16 season marked the end of a 6-year run of the Aztecs reaching The Dance, a run that very easily could have continued as San Diego State was one of the biggest at-large snubs in the country last season. The reality is that Fisher, now 71, has choreographed one of the most consistent programs in all of college basketball. Since that run of consecutive NCAA appearances began in 2010, the Aztecs have gone 194-55 (78%). West coast tip-times and the lack of power conference exposure grants San Diego State a best-kept-secret mentality.

Without a doubt, Fisher has established defense as the foundation of his rags-to-riches transformation of San Diego State basketball. In 5 of 7 seasons since 2010, the Aztecs have owned a top 15 defense nationally. Yet, it is almost alarming how each San Diego State team under Fisher is a carbon copy of all the others. On the recruiting trail, Fisher actively seeks out long and rangy athletes in order to execute his pesky defensive schemes, and the 2016-17 roster is a perfect example of the archetypal Steve Fisher prospect. On the other hand, the Aztecs’ hindrance during their rise has been efficient scoring. In those same 7 seasons since 2010, San Diego State has finished with a top 50 offense just twice, bottoming out at 170th nationally in 2015-16. To find the root of the offensive issues, we have to look no further than the complete absence of a floor general on the roster. There has not been a player in San Diego that can be classified as a point guard since the departure of Xavier Thames. The Trey Kell point guard experiment in 2014-15 was nothing to write home about to put it lightly, as that was a large contributor to the Aztecs’ slow start. Kell is much better-suited as a spot-up shooter anyway. Last season, then-senior Winston Shepard led the team in assist rate as a natural small forward. The last two years, overall, have been marked by stagnant and brutal half-court offense, little movement, and isolations that go nowhere. For example, in an NIT game against Washington last year:

aztecs

After Kell fiddles with the ball for 15 seconds, the Aztecs late-clock solution was a ball screen for Winston Shepard, a non-shooter, who sizes up his defender on a switch and fires an airball. After completing last campaign assisting only 46.2% of makes, good for 305th out of 351 Division I teams, the 2016-17 story appears it will be scripted a bit differently. Sophomore combo guard Jeremy Hemsley seems primed to grab hold of the full-time point guard duty reins. Hemsley, a former top 100 recruit, truly has a chance to erupt into a college basketball star and has the makings of developing into the dynamic scoring point guard that Xavier Thames was in 2013-14. Three key additions will also aid in amending the Aztecs’ bone-dry offensive crisis. A cornerstone of Steve Fisher’s outline has been key transfer additions. Montaque Gill-Caesar enters after a lone season at Missouri. A proficient shot-creator, Gill-Caesar’s isos will produce some better results than several of the ones we saw last year. Indiana transfer Max Hoetzel instantly becomes San Diego State’s best pure shooter, and utilizing him in pick-and-pop and as a floor spacer at 6-9 will be essential for the Aztecs to have an efficient enough offense to be considered a national menace. Matt Shrigley also returns from injury in the same role: knock-down shooter. Good looks have been hard to come by, but that can all be disentangled by the mere threat of outside shooting on the floor.

If you ask ESPN’s Chad Ford, Malik Pope is the best NBA prospect since Jordan, and his underwhelming first two seasons in college will not allow you to tell him otherwise. San Diego State fans hope the third year’s the charm for Pope, who oozes upside, sure, but has failed to put it together due to poor shot selection and lack of an edge. Zylan Cheatham brings invaluable energy and activity off the bench. Replacing the departed Skylar Spencer is grad transfer Valentine Izundu, who makes San Diego State his third different college stop. Izundu provides the capabilities that Spencer vacates: feared rim protector. In limited minutes for Washington State in 2015-16, Izundu amassed an astounding 13.9% block rate, and should see an increase in overall production with an increase in minutes and step-down in level of competition. In the end, one thing’s for certain: a stingy defense in San Diego will always be a constant. The season will hinge on how quickly and how well Hemsley is able to adjust to the point guard role, as well as what exactly the supposed added offense is indeed able to add. The Aztecs should be able to drill threes at an at least respectable rate. If that comes to fruition, don’t be surprised to see Steve Fisher enjoy yet another 30+ win season.

Namedrop Corner: People forget….. San Diego State went 34-3 in 2010-11. They only lost 3 games!!! 2 were at the hands of JIMMER, and the other came in the Sweet 16 against the eventual National Champion UConn Huskies. Not too shabby. The team was comprised of a bunch seniors and some springy dude with huge hands and cornrows named Kawhi. I was a sophomore in high school watching the waning hours of the ESPN College Basketball Tip-Off Marathon late on a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, and that was when the special season was born. San Diego State trudged into Spokane and exited with a 79-76 victory against #11 Gonzaga, all thanks to Billy White. Instantly growing attached to a lefty hoopster as I naturally do, White dazzled with a clinically masterful 30-point performance, going 14-18 from the field, for the one shining moment of his career.

billywhite

Top 25 Countdown: #24 Northwestern

I can almost hear Greg Gumbel now. “Now Thursday/Saturday games out of the Midwest… and they will be playing the 10th seeded Wildcats of Northwestern…” I can’t hear anything else because my insides will have already exploded. Please bury my remains beneath the three point line. CBS tries to cut to their live feed of Welsh Ryan Arena. Nate Taphorn dabs and points at America. Gavin Skelly stands up and sprints around the floor twice, while loudly emanating a rash of incomprehensible syllables. Dererk stares quizzically ahead and whispers “Pardon me?”, believing wholeheartedly that he had just cleverly birthed an original pun at the perfect moment. And Bryant sits at the center of it all with his eyes closed. He keeps his eyes closed for a little longer, hoping that if he never opens them, he never has to stop dreaming. It couldn’t be real. It just couldn’t. Finally, he opens his eyes. He looks at the video board. It’s feed is split in half. Drew has been holding a three stache for the better part of thirty minutes. Alex, from across the pond, has been screaming for almost that entire time, although the speakers had given out a long time ago. They couldn’t handle that much noise. He looks up and winks. And then all of a sudden the live feed cuts out. Tries to return. And cuts out. Evanston erupts in flames.

The Northwestern Wildcats will make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history in 2017. But Mike, you say that every year, why should I even consider believing you now? Admittedly, over the past few years, there hasn’t genuinely been a team that was equipped to make it that far. My belief in our tournament hopes stretched much more into wishful thinking than they did into any kind of honest truth. But this year is different, I promise you.

Rotation

G Bryant McIntosh (Jr.)

G Scottie Lindsey (Jr.)

F Sanjay Lumpkin (R Sr.)

F Aaron Falzon (So.)

C Dererk Pardon (So.)

Bench

F Vic Law (R So.)

G Isiah Brown (Fr.)

F Gavin Skelly (Jr.)

F Nathan Taphorn (Sr.)

F/C Barret Benson (Fr.)

G Jordan Ash (So.)

Heading into his junior season, this team will go as far as Bryant McIntosh is able to take them. Which is not to say that the supporting cast is not capable. Rather, it’s more that Bryant is just really fucking good. 14th nationally in assist rate last year and 2nd in the Big Ten, Bryant is as close to an archetypal floor general as you can get. Not only that, but his assist rate jumped from 53rd his freshman year to that spot at 14 as season ago, while he simultaneously improved his turnover rate and played much heavier minutes. Frankly, he almost never came off the floor. And yet, where he improved most significantly last year and where his greatest upside resides is in his offensive assertiveness. There were a frustratingly large number of games last year in which Bryant and Tre Demps were the only two people capable of getting something even resembling a quality look, most often occurring near the end of the shot clock after several pick and rolls and half-hearted attempts at moving the ball around the perimeter had inevitably failed. And yet, there were also several games in which his unselfishness almost came at a detriment. A really crafty play-maker in the pick and roll, there are few things as enjoyable to watch as his careful probes into the lanes only to draw a defender and dish it off at the perfect moment. But knowing when to look for his shot and committing himself to that raises this team’s ceiling significantly. Last year against Columbia and Wisconsin at home, McIntosh ostensibly won each of those games single-handedly with his shot-making, scoring 32 and 28 points respectively; games that wielded his two highest shot attempt totals of the year.

Nevertheless, quite possibly the biggest question heading into the year is how exactly the Cats will replace Tre Demps. Not only was he the player on the team best at creating for himself and getting his own shot, but he was also an invaluable second ball handler who never turned the ball over, ranking 25th in the entire country in turnover rate. He played the most minutes of anyone in the conference, never leaving the floor much like his backcourt partner. This year, McIntosh will be ostensibly flanked by junior Scottie Lindsey, and it is Lindsey, who might actually hold the key to the entire season. Fitting the profile of a conventional 3 and D wing, Lindsey jumped to 41 % from behind the three point line last year, up from 35% his freshman year. However, with an inevitable increase in minutes and usage, it remains to be seen whether or not those numbers are sustainable.

The frontcourt will be comprised of redshirt senior Sanjay Lumpkin and sophomore Aaron Falzon, who, if they were capable of combining their talents into one body may very well be an All-American. Lumpkin is a quintessential glue guy, a player who might be the best individual on ball defender on the team, and whose willingness to crash the boards and become the face to a defensive identity purportedly committed to physicality renders him invaluable. However, there are few things harder to watch than a possession that ends in a Sanjay Lumpkin corner three. The ball seems to just close its eyes and pray that it finds the rim. Which is where Falzon steps in. A 35% shooter from deep last year, Falzon is already a skilled bomber and mover without the basketball. And if added strength and a year of experience can help him negotiate everything inside the line, he will almost certainly transform into our best and most complete offensive threat. I envision the best version of this offense being predicated around a spread pick and roll attack between McIntosh and sophomore center Dererk Pardon, allowing McIntosh to move downhill, Pardon and his enviable length to be around the rim, and Lindsey and Falzon to space the floor and stretch the defense. Supplementing the attack will be instant offense freshman guard Isiah Brown, energizer bunny junior forward Gavin Skelly, floor stretching (well maybe) senior Nate Taphorn,  and most importantly, the return of redshirt sophomore forward Vic Law. The most heralded Northwestern recruit in some time when he arrived on campus, Law showed flashes his freshman year of the player he was expected to be, an uber athletic and long forward, capable of being a terror on the defensive end. And while his offense was slow to come along, he shot 44% from beyond the arc in Big Ten Play. Yes you read that right, 44%. Good for 5th in the conference. Whether or not that kind of shooting ability is transferable after a year away from the court is another thing, but the talent is there, and his ceiling only keeps rising.

The Cats never help themselves with a perpetually barren non-conference schedule, but this year is a little bit different. With early season games against Butler, Texas, Notre Dame, and Dayton, Northwestern has something it often does not. Opportunities to bolster its resume outside of Big Ten conference games. This is the year. The momentum feels tangible. Like something is genuinely building. Undoubtedly a team whose footprint last year was characterized best by its unwillingness to turn the ball over but also its inability to turn the other team over needs to be incredibly precise and has little room for error. But everything is there to do something that has never been done before. When Evanston burns down in March, Chris Collins won’t have started the fire. But he will surely have brought it.

Namedrop Corner

Michael “Juice” Thomspon

juicepumpedvsosu3

January 29, 2011. The day was introduced to Northwestern basketball. The day I became a fan. That day the Cats welcomed #1 Ohio State to Evanston in a game that will forever be lamented as the Jared Sullinger game. That day the Cats lost 58-57, but I remember standing in my family room, screaming for a team I had never watched before. To me, it will always be the Juice Thompson game. Trailing the entire second half, he hit a three with 7:56 remaining to bring the Cats within 9, and assisted on a JerShon Cobb three just moments later to cut the lead to 5. He made another bomb a minute later to keep the lead at 4 and with 3:53 remaining, hit one more to put the Cats on top by a point. Welsh-Ryan was shaking. It felt special even while all I was able to have was a distant, vicarious experience through a television set. And even though the Cats lost on a regrettable Sullinger free throw in the final seconds, I received an ephemeral glimpse into how special an environment Welsh-Ryan could be. I was in. Thank you Juice.

 

Top 25 Countdown: #25 Princeton

Rotation

G Amir Bell (Jr.)

G Henry Caruso (Sr.)

G Steven Cook (Sr.)

F Hans Brase (Sr.)

F Pete Miller (Sr.)

Bench: F Spencer Weisz (Sr.), G Devin Cannady (So.), G Myles Stephens (So.), F Alec Brennan (Jr.)

Another March passed, and yet another set of dreams were dashed by a congregation of hoopster virtuosos. If it wasn’t evident already, the Ivy League can ball. Harvard won a first round game as a double-digit seed in consecutive tournaments. Yale, of course, owned complete control of almost the entirety of their 12-over-5 upset of Baylor seven months ago. This go-round, however, the Ivy League’s readiest opportunity to bust brackets will belong to the Princeton Tigers. The conference’s track record as a giant-killer can be traced back to the frustrations the patented Princeton offense caused in some of the nation’s bluebloods. The 1989 Tigers were the closest any 16-seed has ever been to actualizing the impossible against the mighty Hoyas. A 13-seeded Princeton meticulously snuck past defending national champion UCLA in 1996. Most recently, in the Tigers’ last NCAA appearance in 2011, they nearly halted a Kentucky Final Four run in its tracks on opening weekend. Those three games saw Princeton score less than 50 points on average. It’s safe to say the 2016-17 version of Princeton will be quite incongruent from that trend, attributable to one of the nation’s most efficient offenses.

Mitch Henderson’s team receives a shot in the arm with the reappearance of All-Ivy League performer Hans Brase, who returns to the floor after taking a medical redshirt year due to a torn ACL. Brase was Princeton’s second-leading scorer and leading rebounder in both his sophomore and junior seasons. Size was the Tigers’ most noticeable hole last season, and Brase plugs it. In spite of occasionally mobilizing a lineup with five players 6-5 and under, Princeton still managed to finish 45th in the nation in defensive rebounding rate as a team. Brase, personally, was 32nd nationally in 2014-15. Thus, Princeton will possess the size and glass-cleaning ability blended with offensive skill necessary to be Sweet 16 caliber. The Tigers, in general, are incredibly difficult to defend. Amir Bell technically is the man that initiates their offense, but they more utilize a point guard-by-committee approach with a half-court offense predicated on constant movement, inversion, and pinpoint execution.

princeton

Speaking of Bell, the improvement of his jumper by leaps and bounds was a major driver behind the Tigers adding 6 wins last season. Already a nifty pick-and-roll scorer, Bell was able to force defenses to respect him from beyond the arc, opening up even more avenues for the remainder of his team. Princeton is stabilized on the wing by senior leaders Henry Caruso and Steven Cook, who both not only stretch the floor, but are very proficient scorers off of cuts and straight-line drives. Devin Cannady, on the other hand, is no longer the new kid on the block. Exploding onto the scene in his freshman season as a sparkplug sixth man, the certified bucket-getter was one of the nation’s most efficient offensive players (126.8 O-Rating), and will be expected to deliver the same type of production off the bench again. He is a sophomore in a sea of upperclassmen. The successful mid-major scheme is a senior-laden squad, and that is exactly what the Tigers have assembled. Their collective chemistry and basketball IQ makes for a beautiful brand of basketball. Princeton will have chances to garner national attention in the non-conference with games at BYU, at VCU, at Monmouth and against Cal. If the secret is not out by then, the Tigers will surely have the potential to torch brackets courtesy of the Ivy League once again.

Namedrop Corner: As each top 25 team is introduced, a player namedrop from the respective team from our generation will accompany it. You know, the guys where the name is merely said and your fellow college basketball connoisseurs die of laughter. Out of Write Field lives for those names, and Princeton owns plenty from their successes since 2010. The hero of the aforementioned 2011 tournament team was combo guard Douglas Davis, who provided a special moment for Tigers basketball in a one-game playoff against Harvard.

Davis delivered the up-and-under move I would attempt to emulate for the remainder of my unstoried high school basketball career. Davis’ uncanny Juwan Staten-esque mid-range game gave the Ivy League fits for years, but the memorable shot during championship week of 2011 will never be lost in college hoops lore.