2017-18 OOWF Preseason College Basketball Top 25

Caroline

25. Nevada

G Lindsey Drew (Jr.)

G Kendall Stephens (Sr.)

F Cody Martin (Jr.)

F Jordan Caroline (Jr.)

F Elijah Foster (Sr.)

Bench: F Caleb Martin (Jr.), G Josh Hall (So.), G Hallice Cooke (Sr.), F Darien Williams (Sr.)

Head Coach Eric Musselman has swiftly established Nevada as the new transfer epicenter of college basketball, especially since Fred Hoiberg bolted for the professional ranks. The acquisitions of Marcus Marshall (Missouri State) and Jordan Caroline (Southern Illinois) last season were wildly successful. Caroline is still in Reno for another two years, and he is now flanked by five more high-major transfers. Naturally, transfers lowering their level of competition generally see an uptick in production. Kendall Stephens (Purdue) will have the greenest of lights on the wing. The Martin twins (NC State) combine with Caroline and Josh Hall to present Musselman with an embarrassment of riches in terms of versatility. Hallice Cooke (Iowa State) has escaped the doghouse in Ames to stabilize the second unit. The Wolf Pack fittingly bowed out in the first round at the hands of Iowa State in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, the school they are replacing as Transfer U. A sneaky good offensive squad last season should again go dancing and threaten to reach the Sweet 16.

ECMatthews

24. Rhode Island

G Jarvis Garrett (Sr.)

G Jared Terrell (Sr.)

G E.C. Matthews (Sr.)

F Cyril Langevine (So.)

F Andre Berry (Sr.)

Bench: G Jeff Dowtin (So.), G Stanford Robinson (Sr.), F Nicola Akele (Jr.), G Fatts Russell (Fr.), F Ryan Preston (Jr.)

The Rams hit their stride at exactly the right time in 2016-17, fulfilling their preseason promise and nearly extending the Pac-12’s Final Four drought after leading Oregon in the Round of 32 for 35 minutes. Dan Hurley will seek to replace the production of the departed Kuran Iverson and rim protector extraordinaire Hassan Martin, but may have found his answers in that narrow miss against the Ducks. Stanford Robinson and Cyril Langevine combined to go 14-16 from the field, scoring all 30 of Rhody’s bench points. They will certainly see an increase in minutes. At the end of the day, the senior-laden Rams have a similar makeup as last year and are the favorites in the A-10 next to St. Bonaventure.

MoBamba

23. Texas

G Matt Coleman (Fr.)

G Kerwin Roach (Jr.)

G Andrew Jones (So.)

F Dylan Osetkowski (Jr.)

C Mo Bamba (So.)

Bench: G Eric Davis, Jr. (Jr.), G Jacob Young (So.), F Jericho Sims (Fr.), G Jase Febres (Fr.), F Royce Hamm (Fr.)

Texas historically has been a destination for high-profile center recruits. Mo Bamba is next in line, and he by far owns the best physical gifts of any Texas big man stretching all the way back to LaMarcus Aldridge. A shoe-in for a top 10 pick next summer, Bamba will anchor Shaka Smart’s defense while also displaying a budding offensive skillset. That said, Bamba may not actually be Smart’s most essential addition to his team. The Longhorns last season were able to make games ugly with ease, partially due to their glaring lack of a point guard. Freshman Matt Coleman sets foot in Austin to solve Shaka’s big bugaboo, returning Texas from its brief hiatus from relevance.

CarsenEdwards

22. Purdue

G P.J. Thompson (Sr.)

G Carsen Edwards (So.)

G Dakota Mathias (Sr.)

F Vince Edwards (Sr.)

C Isaac Haas (Sr.)

Bench: G Ryan Cline (Jr.), F Nojel Eastern (Fr.), F Jacquil Taylor (Jr.), C Matt Haarms (Fr.)

The production of Caleb Swanigan is impossible to replicate. The First Team All-American was likely the nation’s most effective offensive player last season. Purdue, however, can still survive with their current roster. Dakota Mathias and Vince Edwards are as good of perimeter defenders as you’ll find in college basketball. Sophomore Carsen Edwards is a premier breakout candidate, and his unconsciousness will account for a good chunk of the scoring vacated by Swanigan. The success of the Boilermakers as a whole will hinge on minutes at the 5, particularly the ones Isaac Haas is (or isn’t) capable of providing. Throughout his career a high-usage player when on the floor, Haas has yet to resolve his foul trouble issues heading into year four. That can be assisted by better reading and passing out of double teams, which Swanigan was so deft at. That will help clean up the avoidable offensive fouls, and Haas really has no choice being surrounded by knockdown 3-point shooters.

26_5168994

21. Virginia

G Ty Jerome (So.)

G Kyle Guy (So.)

G Devon Hall (Sr.)

F Isaiah Wilkins (Sr.)

F Mamadi Diakite (So.)

Bench: G Nigel Johnson (Sr.), F De’Andre Hunter (Fr.), F Jay Huff (Fr.), C Jack Salt (Jr.)

The mundane Virginia Cavaliers. Tony Bennett is probably elated with finally being unranked in the AP Poll to begin the season. The new faces this season are in his starting backcourt. Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy in a couple years will be one of the best guard tandems in the nation. At the moment, they are entering their second season together. Last season each had his fair share of moments; Jerome against Villanova, Guy against North Carolina. Both are sharpshooters with polar opposite personalities, impeccably blended with the senior guidance of Devon Hall. Speaking of Hall, he and Malcolm Brogdon are prime examples of why few programs utilize the freshman redshirt year as well as Virginia. Redshirt freshmen De’Andre Hunter and Jay Huff were both consensus top 100 recruits in the 2016 class and spent last season incubating and adding weight. It might not exactly be business as usual for the Cavaliers, but still expect Tony Bennett’s team to land towards the top of the ACC again.

Davison

20. Wisconsin

G D’Mitrik Trice (So.)

G Brevin Pritzl (So.)

F Khalil Iverson (Jr.)

F Andy Van Vliet (Jr.)

F Ethan Happ (Jr.)

Bench: G Brad Davison (Fr.), G Kobe King (Fr.), F Aleem Ford (Fr.), F Charlie Thomas (Jr.), F Nate Reuvers (Fr.)

You all know me well enough, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s a stark contrast from last season’s collection of grizzled vets that led the nation in minutes continuity (86.6%), which without question is why the Badgers find themselves on the outside looking in at the consensus preseason polls. Similar to the 2013-14 Final Four team, Wisconsin’s foreign tour could not have come in preparation for a better season. Four new starters will hit the Kohl Center floor Friday, but the Badgers’ best players not named Ethan Happ will actually be the first men off the bench. Freshman guards Brad Davison and Kobe King will allow Wisconsin to have one of the best second units in all of college basketball, and it shouldn’t come as a shock if one, or both, slithers into the starting lineup at some point this season. Look for Greg Gard’s club to shatter the school record for 3-point attempts this season, whatever that may be. With the amount of double teams Ethan Happ will see on the low block and the willing passer that he is, open looks from distance won’t be too difficult to come by. Happ has proven his ability to look opposite and find the open man, leading Wisconsin in assists last year with countless more hockey assists. The true target year for this Wisconsin roster is 2019, but you’d be foolish to leave the Badgers out of your Big Ten top four as a bountiful amount of writers have done leading up to the 2017-18 tip-off.

Big 12 Basketball Tournament - First Round

19. TCU

G Alex Robinson (Jr.)

G Jaylen Fisher (So.)

G Kenrich Williams (Sr.)

F J.D. Miller (Jr.)

F Vladimir Brodziansky (Sr.)

Bench: G Desmond Bane (So.), F Ahmed Hamdy (Sr.), F Kouat Noi (Fr.), C Kevin Samuel (Fr.), G Shawn Olden (Jr.)

Jamie Dixon’s tenure at Pittsburgh was underscored by the inescapable lack of a Final Four, which is almost intolerable considering some of the teams he put together in the Big East. There still is no denying that Dixon is one of the best offensive minds out there, and his alma mater reaped the benefits almost immediately upon his arrival. He quickly transformed an anemic team on the offensive end of the floor to the 37th best in 2016-17. Some tough luck losses held the Horned Frogs out of the NCAA Tournament, but their Big 12 Tournament Second Round upset of Kansas and NIT title were indications of what will arrive this season, as Dixon returns almost all of his production and looks to return TCU to the dance for the first time since 1998.

Bruce

18. Miami (FL)

G Bruce Brown (So.)

G Ja’Quan Newton (Sr.)

G Lonnie Walker (Fr.)

F Anthony Lawrence (Jr.)

F Dewan Huell (So.)

Bench: G Dejan Vasiljevic (So.), C Ebuka Izundu (Jr.), G Chris Lykes (Fr.), F Sam Waardenburg (Fr.)

Jim Larranaga has assembled the undisputed most athletic, dynamic trio of guards in the country. Many expect Bruce Brown’s second year in South Beach to be his last, as he will likely be a first round pick next June. He, Ja’Quan Newton, and Lonnie Walker will be must-see television. Expect Dewan Huell, a former top 20 recruit, to emerge as well. The Hurricanes’ depth is what provides its shooting. Anthony Lawrence and redshirt freshman Sam Waardenburg both fit the stretch four mold and are ideal complements to the explosiveness in the Canes’ backcourt.

DengAdel

17. Louisville

G Quentin Snider (Sr.)

G V.J. King (So.)

F Deng Adel (Jr.)

F Ray Spalding (Jr.)

C Anas Mahmoud (Sr.)

Bench: C Malik Williams (Fr.), G Darius Perry (Fr.), F Dwayne Sutton (So.), F Jordan Nwora (Fr.)

Drowning the elephant in the room is obviously the biggest challenge for interim head coach David Padgett, and frankly the Cardinals would be higher if it weren’t for the distractions “unknowingly” provided by Rick Pitino over the past several years. It remains a vintage Pitino roster filled with length, but it is yet to be seen if the Cards can extend their streak of 7 consecutive seasons with a top 10 defense under Padgett. Shooting is also a serious question mark. Junior wing Deng Adel will be counted on from beyond the arc on a more consistent basis. Plenty of weight will be on his and V.J. King’s shoulders to bear the scoring brunt.

Trevon

16. Xavier

G Quentin Goodin (So.)

G J.P. Macura (Sr.)

F Trevon Bluiett (Sr.)

F Kaiser Gates (Jr.)

F Tyrique Jones (So.)

Bench: F Kerem Kanter (Sr.), F Sean O’Mara (Sr.), F Naji Marshall (Fr.), G Paul Scruggs (Fr.), G Elias Harden (Fr.)

Such an undervalued program Xavier is. The Musketeers have reached four Sweet 16’s since 2010 and have the makeup to accomplish that once again. Indubitably J.P. Macura and Trevon Bluiett provide on-court leadership, but Chris Mack has a horde of breakout candidates and could strike gold if he connects on all of them. Quentin Goodin has excellent size and athleticism for a lead guard, filling in admirable for an injured Edmond Sumner last season. Kaiser Gates should at last become the bona fide stretch four he was destined to be, allowing Tyrique Jones space on the interior to clean up the offensive glass. Mack, additionally, has filled out his bench with yet another rock solid recruiting class, who like Macura and Bluiett will all be four-year players. The beat goes on in Cincinnati.

BryantMcIntosh

15. Northwestern

G Bryant McIntosh (Sr.)

G Scottie Lindsey (Sr.)

F Vic Law (Jr.)

F Aaron Falzon (So.)

C Dererk Pardon (Jr.)

Bench: C Barret Benson (So.), F Gavin Skelly (Sr.), F Rapolas Ivanauskas (Fr.), G Isiah Brown (So.), G Anthony Gaines (Fr.)

Now that we got the feel-good story out of the way, it’s time to real talk Northwestern basketball. The majority of the media made the ’16-’17 Cats out to be a cute underdog narrative, which couldn’t be further from the truth. 2017-18 is the season that has been brewing ever since Vic Law joined a recruiting class already headlined by Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey. Going from an NCAA Tournament foreigner to Final Four contender in two years is unfathomable, but that’s exactly what Chris Collins has accomplished. Northwestern doesn’t want your applause or pats on the back. They want your respect. They learned how to win last year, and with that experience will become a force to be reckoned with.

LamontWest

14. West Virginia

G Jevon Carter (Sr.)

G Daxter Miles, Jr. (Sr.)

F Esa Ahmad (Jr.)

F Lamont West (So.)

F Sagaba Konate (So.)

Bench: G James Bolden (So.), F Wesley Harris (So.), F D’Angelo Hunter (Jr.), F Teddy Allen (Fr.), G Chase Harler (So.)

Bob Huggins’ squad ameliorated some of its traditional deficiencies last season. They fouled less, shot it better. It amounted to a Sweet 16 visit, but their season was derailed by perhaps one of the worst final possessions in the history of basketball. Half-court offense once again was the Mountaineers’ downfall, and that doesn’t appear to be changing with the personnel continuity in 2017-18. WVU, however, is built to be regular season menaces de novo and is playing something that more resembles an actual basketball schedule prior to Big 12 play. As far as the half-court offense troubles, more minutes from Lamont West should help. He’ll set up in the corner pocket and be utilized in pick-and-pop situations often to alleviate some of the pressure on Jevon Carter in late-clock quandaries.

Hamidou

13. Kentucky

G Quade Green (Fr.)

G Hamidou Diallo (Fr.)

F Kevin Knox (Fr.)

F P.J. Washington (Fr.)

C Nick Richards (Fr.)

Bench: F Wenyen Gabriel (So.), G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Fr.), F Jarred Vanderbilt (Fr.), F Sacha Killeya-Jones (So.), G Jemarl Baker (So.), F Tai Wynyard (So.)

As often as John Calipari turns over his roster in Lexington, he has, in fact, never entered an all-freshman starting five into the scorebook. Enter the 2017-18 Wildcats, where that will inevitably change. There should exist some legitimate concern over Kentucky’s lack of outside shooting, which is why I list the Wildcats lower than most. Jemarl Baker, likely the team’s top marksman, underwent knee surgery is out for the foreseeable future. Freshman phenom Jarred Vanderbilt will also begin the season on the shelf. Kentucky’s greatest strength will be its unquestionable defensive versatility. Keeping that in mind, these are freshmen that have to pick up defensive concepts on the move. All in all, Kentucky’s preseason top 5 love is rather unwarranted.

Rui

12. Gonzaga

G Josh Perkins (Jr.)

G Silas Melson (Sr.)

G Corey Kispert (Fr.)

F Rui Hachimura (So.)

F Johnathan Williams (Sr.)

Bench: G Zach Norvell (Fr.), F Killian Tillie (So.), C Jacob Larsen (Fr.), G Joel Ayayi (Fr.)

I was fully prepared to award Gonzaga my preseason #1 honor in January, but how quickly things change. Nigel Williams-Goss had no reason to stay after graduation, and Zach Collins developed into a lottery pick. Plenty of intrigue still surrounds the Bulldogs, however, and it comes in the form of Rui Hachimura. The sophomore, little-used as a freshman, erupted this summer at the FIBA U19 Championships, backpacking an undermanned Japan team. His athletic ability was known, but Hachimura showcased an array of first-round-pick-type skills, attacking the rim off the dribble, knocking down shots off the bounce with regularity, and displaying surprising court savvy. He is one of a handful of newbies to the rotation, but the Zags will be just fine. Zach Norvell and Jacob Larsen were former top 100 recruits, with Norvell, Corey Kispert, and Silas Melson easily filling Jordan Mathews’ shoes. While it appears St. Mary’s might finally supplant Gonzaga in the WCC, Mark Few begs to differ.

BINM

11. Minnesota

G Nate Mason (Sr.)

G Dupree McBrayer (Jr.)

F Amir Coffey (So.)

F Jordan Murphy (Jr.)

C Reggie Lynch (Sr.)

Bench: F Eric Curry (So.), G Isaiah Washington (Fr.), C Bakary Konate (Sr.), G Jamir Harris (Fr.), F Davonte Fitzgerald (Sr.)

At least one Pitino is still viewed in a somewhat positive light. Richard Jr. dug himself out of an 8-win hole in ’15-’16 and transfigured his hot seat into a cool throne. Just like his father’s teams, the defensive end of the floor is his club’s calling card. The Golden Gophers, who ended ’16-’17 with a six-man rotation, will additionally enjoy more depth this season, especially thanks to blue-chip freshman Isaiah Washington. Minnesota had little spot-up shooting last season, and it graduated. Amir Coffey should see a leap in his percentages, and Washington has the capabilities of being a dangerous shotmaker.

Berry

10. North Carolina

G Joel Berry (Sr.)

G Cameron Johnson (Jr.)

F Theo Pinson (Sr.)

F Garrison Brooks (Fr.)

F Luke Maye (Jr.)

Bench: G Kenny Williams (Jr.), G Seventh Woods (So.), G Jalek Felton (Fr.), G Andrew Platek (Fr.), F Sterling Manley (Fr.), C Brandon Huffman (Fr.)

The defending national champs cut down the nets in Phoenix via pace and the offensive glass, and while they have their work cut out for them in 2017-18, Roy Williams has similar roster constructs to years past. Mario Kart has sidelined Joel Berry to begin the season, but that may be a blessing in disguise, giving underclassmen Seventh Woods and Jalek Felton valuable experience running the show. Look forward to March hero Luke Maye and Pittsburgh grad transfer Cameron Johnson to have monster years. For whatever reason, Johnson wasn’t able to receive the minutes he deserved at Pitt before last season. The prototypical wing, Johnson will assuredly earn All-ACC honors. Maye (12.3% OReb Rate, 17.4% DReb Rate), on the other hand, doesn’t look the part, but he, along with a multitude of freshman bigs, is up to the task to duplicating the offensive rebounding dominance evacuated by Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.

JacobEvans

9. Cincinnati

G Cane Broome (Jr.)

G Jarron Cumberland (So.)

G Jacob Evans (Jr.)

F Gary Clark (Sr.)

F Kyle Washington (Sr.)

Bench: G Justin Jenifer (Jr.), G Keith Williams (Fr.), F Mamadou Diarra (Fr.), F Eliel Nsoseme (Fr.), G Trevor Moore (Fr.)

Initially, the loss of true point guard Troy Caupain felt like a devastating blow to the Bearcats’ prospects for the 2017-18 season. Upon further review, although, Cincinnati and its 57.7 % assist rate last season was one of the most effective teams at sharing the sugar. New point guard Cane Broome is wired to score, but I’m sure Mick Cronin will make his desires clear to the Sacred Heart transfer. Broome has two outstanding wings to work with in Jarron Cumberland and Jacob Evans, the latter being a potential All-American at season’s end. Depth is Cincinnati’s lone roadblock to challenging Wichita State in the American Athletic Conference. Cronin will have to heavily rely on his incoming freshmen in that area, but he has never been one to dole out plenty of bench minutes anyway.

USC v SMU

8. USC

G Jordan McLaughlin (Jr.)

G De’Anthony Melton (So.)

G Elijah Stewart (Sr.)

F Bennie Boatwright (Jr.)

C Chimezie Metu (Jr.)

Bench: G Shaqquan Aaron (Jr.), G Charles O’Bannon, Jr. (Fr.), G Jonah Mathews (So.), F Nik Rakocevic (So.), F Jordan Usher (Fr.)

Andy Enfield’s squad will be eye candy for basketball fans everywhere. The former Florida Gulf Coast Dunk City architect has carried that brand with him to LA, but don’t let the showtime tag fool you. There is far more to this Trojan team than flash. Enfield is a bright dude, and his switch to a 2-3 zone in his team’s upset of SMU last March was a perfect example. USC has all the tools. In ’17-’18 it’s a matter of defending the 3-point line more consistently and completing the equation with defensive rebounds each possession. Their ceiling will be determined by attention to detail.

LandyShamet

7. Wichita State

G Landry Shamet (So.)

G Conner Frankamp (Sr.)

F Markis McDuffie (Jr.)

F Zach Brown (Sr.)

C Shaq Morris (Sr.)

Bench: F Darral Willis, Jr. (Sr.), G Samajae Haynes-Jones (Jr.), F Rashard Kelly (Sr.), C Rauno Nurger (Sr.), G Austin Reaves (So.)

Forever analytics favorites, Wichita State won’t have to leave their potential at-large candidacy up to their KenPom ranking. They now play in the AAC, travel to Baylor, match up with Oklahoma at home, are participating in the Maui Invitational, and have to battle a difficult College of Charleston team. The Shockers will lead the nation in minutes continuity this season. Landry Shamet must not only fend off a broken foot, but also serenades of preseason hype. Markis McDuffie is a possible NBA wing entering year three, and head coach Gregg Marshall has masterfully worked his rotation of bigs in the past, including Madison native Darral Willis.

Graham

6. Kansas

G Devonte Graham (Sr.)

G Malik Newman (So.)

G Lagerald Vick (Jr.)

G Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Sr.)

C Udoka Azubuike (So.)

Bench: F Billy Preston (Fr.), G Sam Cunliffe (So.), G Marcus Garrett (Fr.), F Mitch Lightfoot (So.)

Monday I declared Jayhawk point guard Devonte Graham my preseason Player of the Year selection. Small ball worshipers will have a field day whenever Kansas takes the floor. The 4-around-1 look Kansas will mobilize is everything about modern-day basketball and then some. The Jayhawks will be hard to guard, but the defensive end of the floor for them individually offers some challenges. This Kansas lineup is unlike Villanova’s, which is still able to win rebounding battles the majority of the time in spite of their size. Kansas has no choice but to attempt 30 threes per contest to counter the offensive rebounds they will surrender. For these reasons, don’t be surprised if Bill Self places Billy Preston in the starting lineup for good at some point this season.

KeVaughn

5. Florida

G Chris Chiozza (Sr.)

G KeVaughn Allen (Jr.)

G Egor Koulechov (Sr.)

G Jalen Hudson (Jr.)

F Kevarrius Hayes (Jr.)

Bench: C John Egbunu (Sr.), G DeAundrae Ballard (Fr.), F Keith Stone (So.), G Mike Okauru (Fr.)

Gainesville has been home to a top 15 defense for five consecutive seasons, but their net rating will receive a massive shot in the arm this year. A middle-of-the-pack 3-point shooting team last season, Florida adds a pair of transfers in Egor Koulechov (Rice) and Jalen Hudson (Virginia Tech) to make them national title contenders. They have an alpha dog in KeVaughn Allen, whom I still lose sleep over, and a waterbug floor general in Chris Chiozza, whom I still lose sanity over. The Gators also regain John Egbunu from injury, giving them a pair of legitimate rim protectors to supplement stingy perimeter defense. A top 10 offense and defense is not out of the question for Mike White’s team. As a matter of fact, it might actually be expected. Kentucky, I guarantee it, will not sit atop the SEC in 2017-18.

AllonzoTrier

4. Arizona

G Parker Jackson-Cartwright (Sr.)

G Allonzo Trier (Jr.)

G Rawle Alkins (So.)

F Dusan Ristic (Sr.)

C DeAndre Ayton (Fr.)

Bench: G Brandon Randolph (Fr.), F Emmanuel Akot (Fr.), G Alex Barcello (Fr.), F Keanu Pinder (Sr.), F Ira Lee (Fr.)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Sean Miller has oozing talent in Tuscon. Miller has toys at his disposal that rival those of his teams of three and four years ago. Sean Miller doesn’t make Final Fours, but odds are Wisconsin won’t be standing in his way this time. The Wildcats have scary size up front with Dusan Ristic and DeAndre Ayton, a veteran backcourt, and a youthful bench.

Donte

3. Villanova

G Jalen Brunson (Jr.)

G Phil Booth (Jr.)

G Donte DiVincenzo (So.)

F Mikal Bridges (Jr.)

F Omari Spellman (Fr.)

Bench: F Eric Paschall (Jr.), G Collin Gillespie (Fr.), G Jermaine Samuels (Fr.)

The commonalities between Josh Hart’s game and Donte DiVincenzo’s are striking. The redshirt sophomore is primed to announce himself as college basketball’s ultimate glue guy, following the same career trajectory as Hart, now with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jay Wright’s small ball lineups are deceiving. The Wildcats play much bigger than gameday pamphlets indicate, but have all the positive qualities of modern-day death lineups on the offensive end. The nation’s most consistent program over the past four seasons will again knife through the Big East and contend for a one-seed and national title.

TrevonDuval

2. Duke

G Trevon Duval (Fr.)

G Gary Trent, Jr. (Fr.)

G Grayson Allen (Sr.)

F Marvin Bagley III (Fr.)

F Wendell Carter (Fr.)

Bench: C Marques Bolden (So.), F Javin DeLaurier (So.), G Jordan Goldwire (Fr.), G Alex O’Connell (Fr.), F Jordan Tucker (Fr.)

This is more of an end-season projection. At the moment the likes of Villanova and Arizona would beat Duke, but the Blue Devils have the most talented roster in college basketball, and where they stand in March will likely reflect that. For the first time since Tyus Jones, Coach K has a natural point guard, and a damn good one. Trevon Duval will make everything go for the Blue Devils. Grayson Allen should molt back into his healthy 2015-16 form. Marvin Bagley III, the nation’s top recruit, is already an elite defender and will only be asked to serve as the team’s third or fourth scoring option. It all begins and ends, though, with Duval, as he will be the primary reason Duke ascends the ladder in San Antonio if that were to happen.

NCAA Basketball: Oakland at Michigan State

  1. Michigan State

G Cassius Winston (So.)

G Josh Langford (So.)

F Miles Bridges (So.)

F Jaren Jackson (Fr.)

C Nick Ward (So.)

Bench: G Tum Tum Nairn (Sr.), G Matt McQuaid (Jr.), C Gavin Schilling (Sr.), F Kenny Goins (Jr.), F Xavier Tillman (Fr.), F Ben Carter (Sr.)

Year in and year out, grit and brotherhood define the Michigan State program. Miles Bridges isn’t the first Spartan to turn down guaranteed NBA money to remain in school for another year, but his gritty return to East Lansing has a greater impact than most before him. The entirety of Tom Izzo’s loaded 2016 recruiting class is back for more, and he adds McDonald’s All-American Jaren Jackson, as well. With its frontcourt depth and the ability to play Jackson at the 5, the Spartans can allow Nick Ward to play in the fashion he did last season: high-usage and living at the free throw line without worrying about fatigue. Cassius Winston will be more aggressive in year two, particularly finding others in transition. Readied to pace the nation in individual assist rate once again, Winston will reward bigs for running floor and make the correct play out of pick-and-rolls in the half-court. Miles Bridges attracts the attention, but the Spartans have the type of balance you see from championship-caliber teams. The Big Ten title drought very well could be coming to a close in 2018.

Also seriously considered: UCLA, Texas A&M, Seton Hall, St. Mary’s, Notre Dame, UT-Arlington, Oklahoma, Butler, Tennessee, Harvard, College of Charleston

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OOWF Preseason Player of the Year: Devonte Graham

A rather anonymous award is the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Player of the Year. To this day, not one that is among those handed out (Naismith, Wooden, AP, etc.) has distinguished itself as the most prestigious. It’s awarded amidst the madness of March and early April, and by the time many have reason to care, we’ve moved onto the subsequent NBA Draft. Who’s staying? Who’s gone to the professional ranks? Are we going to top 1,000 Division I transfers this year?

College basketball’s highest, albeit unsung, individual honor still contains the game’s beauty, senior leadership. Fresh faces annually devour the attention as the season approaches, faces that almost never factor into the Player of the Year chase in the end. As a matter of fact, the past four recipients have been steady, monotonous seniors, marked by gradual progression. Doug McDermott, the coach’s son with the fluorescent green light, transformed from a second round evaluation following his junior year to a top 10 pick after a POY campaign. Frank Kaminsky, the gangly klutz that despised the paint, parked himself on the block more often, making him an indefensible superstar and a top 10 pick. Buddy Hield, the Bahamian gunslinger, became, you guessed it, a top 10 pick. Not one of us could have imagined the rise of Frank Mason, the undersized bulldog discovered in an auxiliary gym, in his last hoorah. Each of the preceding four entered school a three-star recruit, taking the avant-garde path to stardom. Devonte Graham, also a three-star, all but had his bags packed to play collegiate basketball at Appalachian State, and in an alternate universe he’s probably the Sun Belt’s Kay Felder. Instead, the late-blooming guard was reluctantly released by the university from his LOI following the contract expiration of head coach Jason Capel. He immediately became one of the hottest commodities on the market late in the recruiting process, eventually landing in Lawrence.

Conventional thought rightfully gives Michigan State’s Miles Bridges all of the Preseason Player of the Year love, but my mind still drifts to the “most valuable” conversation. No performance better illustrates Graham’s value to the Kansas program than one from his sophomore season involving a man in whose footsteps he attempts to follow. Buddy Hield exploded for 46 points in the Kansas-Oklahoma instant classic at Allen Fieldhouse in 2016. Hield was not Graham’s primary assignment the first go-round. The second meeting in Norman, however, saw Graham in Hield’s shadow for 40 minutes. The 2015-16 POY experienced fits he had not to that point in the season, going 5-15 and coughing it up four times. On the other end of the floor, Graham drilled six threes and led all scorers with 27 points. Graham, from that point forward, couldn’t possibly have been lost in the Jayhawks shuffle despite never being the primary option.

Of course, Graham has largely played off the ball his entire college career with the presence of Frank Mason. Resultantly, a heavy chunk of his production has come courtesy of catch-and-shoot opportunities. That all changes in 2017-18, as Graham, now a senior, is handed the keys to the Ferrari. The high school point guard as a prospect was most noteworthy for his offensive creativity, which is an element he hasn’t exactly had the chance to strut all too much as an off-ball guard in a spread-court offense. Graham owns shiftiness, quickness, straight-line speed, and explosiveness identical to his former backcourt mate, Mason. Bottom line, considering the ball will be in his control now, we should expect a lot more of this:

Graham

Graham will prove he is just as deadly off the bounce as he is off the catch, more deadly than Mason, as a matter of fact. He won’t attack the rim as often as Mason did for that reason, but Graham has everything in his back pocket to create space for his J: size-ups, hang-dribbles, stepbacks, and a cat-like ability to stop on a dime and spring upward. The shot distribution of the career 41% 3-point shooter has emphasized shots from distance further with each season (66% of FG attempts were threes last season), and it appears that trend might continue. In the Jayhawks’ first two exhibition games last week, 18 of Graham’s 20 attempts came from beyond the arc, including nailing 6 of 13 from deep against Missouri. But by no means is he one dimensional with his physical tools. This will be the same dribble-weave, drive-and-kick offense at Kansas we have seen in recent years as Bill Self is beginning to redefine “small ball” with plans to start Lagerald Vick, a natural point guard, at power forward. Cavernous driving lanes will be there for Graham, who will likely leave lingerie on the deck on plenty of occasions with defenders having to respect his range. Not to mention, Udoka Azubuike makes for an interesting PnR tandem. The system and surrounding personnel is catered to Graham having a Mason-type senior season. Yet, Graham’s aforementioned defense is what allows him to college basketball’s most valuable. The last freshman to be the consensus National Player of the Year was also the last to be recognized for his defensive impact. Anthony Davis blocked nearly 6 shots per 40 minutes, and his 58.3 individual net rating stands as the best of all time. Graham’s impact will not be that drastic, nor will it be reflected obviously in box scores, but his lockdown on Buddy Hield two seasons ago gives us a glimpse of the complete defender he is. A pest that knows how to defend without fouling (1.8 FC/40), his perimeter defense will at last come to the forefront of the national conversation. We generally think of two-way studs as wings, but Devonte Graham is here to debunk that myth.

Spearheading what is shaping up to be the nation’s most efficient offense 2017-18, the Devonte Graham/Malik Newman will have a similar dynamic to that of Graham and Mason. Once a program founded on traditional back-to-the-basket big men, Graham is next in the line of Kansas backcourt leaders this decade. Patiently waiting in the wings for three years, expect him to detonate in his final year in school.

The Astros’ World Series model, and how the Brewers are building a carbon copy

The names today are irrelevant.

They are the types of names that could send Cespedes Family BBQ into endless hysteria. It was Brian Bogusevic. Matt Dominguez. Lucas Harrell. Hence, it’s obvious the reason the Houston Astros endured three consecutive 100-loss seasons, culminating in an excruciating 111-loss campaign in 2013.

Fans today might hear the phrase “three true outcomes” and not really comprehend what that entails. Said outcomes are home run, walk, and strikeout, and as I explained last fall, that is the essentiality of Major League Baseball today. Why each end result of an at-bat is classified as “true” provides deeper meaning to professional baseball’s present-day aphorism, and it can be loosely attributed to one of baseball analytics’ defining metrics, Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). A number that normalizes all hitters into a vacuum, wRC+ compares a player’s pure run creation proclivity in relation to the rest of the league, accounting for uncontrollable, extrinsic factors that can affect a player’s ability to create runs, such as ballparks or quality of opponent. It is perhaps the best measure of a hitter’s impact on a game at the plate, plus has to be at least partially responsible for the launch angle craze and a record-breaking year for the long ball (and for the K). The only way to guarantee a run be scored in an at-bat is to hit the ball over the fence. Thus, wRC+ has a slight built-in advantage for those feast-or-famine players, like Justin Maxwell or Chris Carter, two of the names from when Houston first embarked on their rebuild.

Tanking in baseball is misunderstood and frankly a myth, as intentionally losing and intentionally spending less money are entirely different. Much was made a few years back of the quirky factoid that an Alex Rodriguez corpse was cashing larger checks than the entire Astros team, whose salary amounted to a measly $24 million combined. But the cheapest way to construct a competitive Major League team is through wRC+ adoption. The Astros did so in order to buy some time for young talent acquisition and development. Of course, the product on the field in the interim constituted next to nothing, but we’re more focused on the design. There was a rhyme and reason to the names of the lowly Astros, and it was somewhat of a revolutionary rebuilding path. Now, the metrics, conceptions, and logic behind those three consecutive 100-loss seasons are the widespread blueprint for organizational development.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, which enters September 21, 2015, into the annals of important dates of the Milwaukee Brewers franchise. David Stearns was younger than the franchise’s most recognizable player. He was a Harvard PoliSci grad. Above all, he was formerly an Astro executive, and as its assistant general manager played an integral role in Houston’s current placement among baseball’s elite. In his brief tenure as the Brewers’ head man, Stearns has already proved he may have outsmarted even his old club’s model. A more-than-necessary payroll slashing sent Doug Melvin’s spending habits spiraling to the ground along with his career, passing the torch to the (now) 32 year-old who thrives as a market bottomfeeder. However, using the Astros’ recent timeline as a barometer, Milwaukee is ahead of schedule beyond imagination. The Brewers can be found bringing up the rear in the MLB payroll department in 2017, just as the Astros of old. They found players that could fill Stearns’ analytical principles, such as an Eric Thames/Jesus Aguilar platoon at first base, or Keon Broxton garnering the majority of at-bats in center field. It was a cheap alternative assemblage of steep launch angles and an absence of two-strike approaches that won 86 baseball games, falling one game shy of an improbable postseason berth. The 2017 season was astonishing considering it required half a decade for Houston to climb out of the cellar using identical tactics. One of the few explanations must be the staff, specifically the keystone combo of manager Craig Counsell and pitching coach Derek Johnson. Jimmy Nelson’s unprecedented 14.1% improvement from 2016 to 2017 in K-BB% blew the rest of baseball out of the water, and such a leap doesn’t fall from the sky. The same can be said about Chase Anderson, who improved his wFA (Fastball Runs Above Average) by 12.0 and wCH (Changeup Runs Above Average) by 13.4, both Major League bests. Milwaukee might have lucked into a perfect storm season by the top half of their starting rotation. Or perchance these are simply late-blooming pitchers under excellent tutelage.

AceChanderson

Chase Anderson added 2 mph to all his pitches on average in 2017, allowing him to become one of the National League’s best starters.

Luck is inevitable and compulsory to reach baseball’s pinnacle. The Astros are no different, with the most noteworthy token of luck being the story of how Jose Altuve landed in the organization, which is told on seemingly every single Astros national broadcast. The 5’6” three-time batting champ, although, was long a heterogeneity from the general feel of the Astros’ lineup. Attacking early and often in each his plate appearances, Altuve could not care less about your fancy “true outcomes.” Altuve, the presumed AL MVP this year, is so damn good that the Houston organization not only let him be, but actually started to take after him. Until 2017, other Astro hitters lagged behind Altuve’s rebellion against the establishment.

Astros

As we can see, the Astros’ offensive eruption this season is probably strongly correlated to their lineup making A LOT more contact than in the previous five years. As recent as last season, Houston owned the fourth-highest strikeout rate in baseball. It plummeted to the lowest this season, and only two players (George Springer and Carlos Beltran) punched out in the triple digits on the year.

David Stearns, if it wasn’t clear enough already, is no dummy. He, and he only, served as the right-hand man to the forward-looking architect Jeff Luhnow in Houston. He helped draft Alex Bregman, had a front row seat for the development of Springer, Carlos Correa, and Lance McCullers. Just as he did not expect to be in an NL Central title chase as early as 2017, it likely wasn’t anticipated that the Astros would vault from 111 losses to the AL Wild Card in two short years. The simple explanation is the analytics at play. Yeah, the 2017 Brewers struck out in a quarter of their plate appearances (yikes), but that was balanced out by a .180 team ISO Power (11th) and .308 BABIP (6th) interacting with one another to form a quick strike offense. Stearns idealized this type of lineup in a supposed retooling year when he signed Thames, traded for Travis Shaw, and introduced Orlando Arcia to a new bat path. It’s safe to conclude this is now a verified formula for regular season success in Major League Baseball, since this season’s Brewers are now members of a growing handful of examples. The 2015 and ’16 Astros Stearns helped forge fielded competitive teams in the same fashion. But as I pointed out earlier, such success can only be sustained for so long, and the “three true outcomes” magic almost always evaporates in the October air.

Luhnow’s whippersnappers are now all in the big leagues and cutting down on the K’s. He signed a rookie 32 year-old first baseman from Cuba for $10 mil/year because of his level swing and outfield gap real estate, which is so unlike those nerds. The .282 team BA and .346 OBP put Luhnow in a position to go out and get one of this generation’s greatest starting pitchers, cementing his team’s elite status. Luhnow clearly wasn’t going to sit idly by while his team whiffed its windows of opportunity away, and neither will his former protégé.

HiuraErceg

Keston Hiura and Lucas Erceg are part of the Brewers’ wave of young players who can solve their strikeout conundrum.

There is indeed light at the end of the tunnel. The Milwaukee Brewers won’t continue to break their own single-season strikeout record. The RISP struggles that effectively cost them their season will cease sooner rather than later. The Brewers’ current construct is temporary. It’s cheap, it’s a stopgap, and it produces wins to a respectable extent. With Stearns branching off from Luhnow directly, we can only expect the Brewers are in the midst of the same diabolical plan. There’s far more young talent on its way, and enough of a surplus for Milwaukee to maybe swing a deal of its own. Marcus Stroman is potentially on the market, as is Gerrit Cole, but at the end of the day it’s important to keep in mind the timeline. As gravitating as the 2017 Brewers were, several of its faces won’t be around when Milwaukee hoists the Commissioner’s Trophy. If the Houston Astros’ adjustment is any indication, that day will surely come for the Cream City.

NBA Offseason Grades: Southeast Division

Northwest Division

Atlantic Division

The Southeast Division in the upcoming season will be quite the adventure, and not due to an adventurous multitude of offseason transactions. The adventure more refers to what these respective teams’ fanbases will endure. I can definitively say only one of the following 5 teams legitimately improved this offseason (Charlotte). That said, it’s been difficult assigning any sort of expectations for any Southeast Division team. Let the roller coaster begin.

Atlanta Hawks: B+

Free Agency: Re-signed F/C Mike Muscala to a 2 yr/$10 mil deal. All-Star forward Paul Millsap departed to Denver, and guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. rode a contract year to a lucrative deal from the Knicks. Additionally saw Ersan Ilyasova, Mike Scott, Jose Calderon, and Thabo Sefolosha go elsewhere. Signed G Josh Magette to a two-way.

Trades: Shipped F Ryan Kelly to Houston for rising star Cash Considerations. Acquired a 2018 protected 1st rounder from the Clippers in the 3-team Danilo Gallinari deal, as well as Jamal Crawford, who was later bought out and free to sign with Minnesota, and Diamond Stone, who was later waived. The Hawks shipped a 2019 2nd rounder to the Nuggets in the deal. Sent C Dwight Howard to Charlotte for C Miles Plumlee, G Marco Belinelli, and the 41st pick (Tyler Dorsey).

Draft: F/C John Collins, G Tyler Dorsey, F/C Alpha Kaba

Other: Head Coach Mike Budenholzer resigned as the team’s president of basketball ops. He was replaced in that role by former Warriors assistant GM Travis Schlenk.

This rebuild could have been instigated after the drubbing Atlanta suffered at the hands of the Cavaliers in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals. They rather maintained their core by resigning Paul Millsap, but all for naught as Jeff Teague and Al Horford were gone after the following season. Nevertheless, here the Hawks are, in the position they would inevitably find themselves in, but in the grand scheme of things, East Atlanta Santa won’t have to fret all too much. For a delayed rebuild, a baseline of John Collins, Dennis Schroeder, DeAndre Bembry, and Taurean Prince ain’t half bad. Dwight Howard was clearly an admitted mistake, but as the 19th pick, Collins, effectively in the same mold as a younger Howard sans the locker room contagion rep, can surely be one of the Hawks’ new faces. Yeah, the defensive IQ is atrocious enough that I was laughing out loud at him during Wake Forest’s First Four game against K-State. But Coach Bud has plenty of off-the-charts physical traits, a budding shooting touch, and a decently advanced back-to-the-basket game to work with. And speaking of Bud, he’s too good of a coach to make this rebuild easy, or more affectionately, a “process.” In spite of whatever talent shortcomings Atlanta may have, he’ll probably have them competing for a playoff spot at the end of the day and I’d be the least-surprised person if they slide into the 7 or 8 seed. The now deceased Utah Jazz, and the Indiana Pacers before them, were a refreshingly alternative way of constructing a team, building from within with late-lottery-to-late-first rounders. The Hawks appear to be on that path, making it safe to conclude I will get attached to them.

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Charlotte Hornets: B

Free Agency: Signed former Bucks Michael Carter-Williams and Johnny O’Bryant, the former using their Mid-Level Exception and the latter to a veteran’s minimum deal. Signed G Marcus Paige and C Mangok Mathiang to two-way contracts and gave G T.J. Williams and F Isaiah Hicks camp deals.

Trades: Completed the aforementioned deal with Atlanta to acquire C Dwight Howard. Traded 31st pick Frank Jackson to New Orleans for the 40th pick (Dwayne Bacon) and cash.

Draft: G Malik Monk, G Dwayne Bacon

Health, among all other things, is Charlotte’s chief necessity in order to regain their 2015-16 form, a season in which they owned a top 10 offense and defense. From a strictly personnel-interchange standpoint, the Hornets will benefit from being the lone team in the Southeast that actually improved their standing. Say what you will about Dwight Howard, but they have at last found a suitable PnR mate for point guard Kemba Walker. Shooting dipped in 2016-17, but that was partially ameliorated in the draft with Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon. The Hornets, once again, have the makings of being net rating fiends, and in a weak division that could be ridden to an ever-so-meaningless division title, so shake it off, North Carolina.

Frank

Miami Heat: C+

Free Agency: Ready? James Johnson 4/60. Dion Waiters 4/52. Kelly Olynyk 4/50.

Laughing

Also (again) brought back Udonis Haslem on a veteran’s minimum, signed Luis Montero and Derrick Walton to two-ways, and gave former UCF sharpshooter Matt Williams a camp invite. Moreover they are now free from the clutches of Chris Bosh’s contract.

Trades: Obtained C A.J. Hammons from Dallas, who took Josh McRoberts off their hands.

Draft: C Bam Adebayo

Miami swung and missed on one of the biggest prizes of the 2017 free agency period. Gordon Hayward had rumored interest in playing in South Beach for about a year, but between the three finalists for the first-time All-Star, the Heat were the first to be eliminated from contention for his services, and thus eliminated from true Eastern Conference contention. In his stead, Miami doled out the $162 million they had stowed away to James Johnson, Dion Waiters, and Kelly Olynyk, one offseason after opening the checkbook for Tyler Johnson. Good news for the fleeting Miami Heat fanbase, last I checked, their team still plays in the Eastern Conference.

Spoelstra

As the East weakens by the day, maybe in 2017-18 we can make sense of the Heat, the NBA’s most perplexing team last year. If you split their 2016-17 down the middle, you have an 11-30 start and a 30-11 finish, which left Out of Write Field asking each other several times whether or not they were actually good, failing to pinpoint what exactly was transpiring that allowed this transformation to take place given Rodney McGruder started 65 basketball games. It, unpretentiously, came down to shot-making on the wing, whether it be McGruder, Waiters, Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington, or Luke Babbitt. One would figure with the roster being largely continuous that Miami would be able to carry second-half momentum into 2017-18, but it’s a make-or-miss game, and I’m not sure I can count on Dion Waiters shooting 40% from deep in a non-contract year. However, for now, we project the Heat as a playoff team in the East.

Orlando Magic: C+

Free Agency: Stole F Jonathon Simmons at 3 years, $20 mil. Signed G Shelvin Mack to a 2 yr/$12 mil deal. Gave veteran’s minimums to F/C Mo Buckets and G Arron Afflalo and a minimum deal to former NBA Draft early entry-turned-Euro League stud Khem Birch. In addition, Jeff Green left for Cleveland and Jodie Meeks for Washington.

Trades: N/A

Draft: F Jonathan Isaac, G/F Wesley Iwundu

Other: Hired former Raptors GM Jeff Weltman as President of Basketball Ops, who brought in his own staff, including ex-Bucks decision-maker John Hammond.

Hallelujah

More comically, the Magic have at last freed themselves from the Fran Vazquez saga, only twelve years after drafting the Spanish big man.

Orlando, starting with the 2017-18 season, will no longer be handcuffed by the Vazquez cap hold. The story is a long and winding road. Of course, first round picks are guaranteed NBA contracts, so until picks are signed, the team that owns the certain draftee’s rights endures a cap hold that approximates to the respective rookie wage slot. Needless to say, Vazquez never made the trek to the United States, opting for the path to becoming the Euro League’s all-time leading shot-blocker. With the salary cap’s recent skyrocket, the Vazquez $3.1 million cap hold especially didn’t make much of a difference, but the idea of the Magic clinging onto a player’s rights, putting a dent into its cap space in the meantime, is almost downright inconceivable and is a bit of a microcosm of the organization’s current state.

Rob Hennigan is mercifully gone, as is the dartboard of available NBA players that hung in his office, but he is replaced by a regime noteworthy for feeble attempts at an Eastern Conference 8-seed. So can we expect more of the same? An identity of defensive versatility and brick-laying was what John Hammond assembled in Milwaukee’s 2014-15 playoff season. In Orlando, brick-laying will be emphasized even more, as Henningan’s 2014 draft of Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon is entering the final year of its rookie agreement. In selecting Jon Isaac with the sixth pick at the end of June, we were assured that Hammond is making the final call. Isaac will have the defensive impact immediately entering the league that very few rookies can ever own, and in time will prove to be a lethal small-ball 5. Wesley Iwundu, the 33rd overall pick, Jonathon Simmons, and Khem Birch provide additional defensive interchangeability, as if that was needed. Despite having what I would consider a top 10 draft in 2017, Orlando remains next to Brooklyn as having the NBA’s worst roster, so Mo Bamba could be on the horizon.

Washington Wizards: C-

Free Agency: Re-signed F Otto Porter to a 4 year, $106 million max contract. Inked G Jodie Meeks to a 2 yr/$6.75 mil deal in an effort to replace Bojan Bogdanovic, who departed for Indiana. Gave F Mike Scott a minimum deal. Extended a camp invite to Villanova’s Kris Jenkins and two-way contracts to forwards Devin Robinson and Mike Young. Lastly, signed John Wall to a super-max extension (4 yr/$170 mil) that will kick in beginning in 2019-20.

Trades: Dealt only 2017 draft pick (52nd overall) to the Pelicans for guard Tim Frazier to shore up the bench

Draft: N/A

Oprah

In fairness, the Wizards truthfully had no choice but to match Brooklyn’s Otto Porter offer sheet. In turn, don’t expect the preposterous +/- disparity between Scott Brooks’ starters and his bench to change at all. Can a big three of Wall, Porter, and Bradley Beal survive? I guess Otto is only 24. The 3-and-D in 2016-17 was real. He possessed the NBA’s best turnover rate (4.7%) and nearly doubled his win shares from the previous season while lowering his usage. Yet, the Wizards still find themselves stuck spinning their wheels in… maybe not mud, because it’s really not that bad. Probably something more like a pile of dirty laundry. There doesn’t exist a whole ton of roster flexibility for the foreseeable future. The best Washington can hope for is Ian Mahinmi to discover his 2015-16 self again and Tim Frazier to stuff stat sheets in the way he has showed flashes of over the previous two seasons. Until then, the NBA’s worst bench resides in the nation’s capital.

Kings Stay Kings: Basketball in Sacramento might actually be on its way back

This is probably how it all went down.

Vivek Ranadive watched about ten minutes of an Oklahoma-Incarnate Word game two winters ago. Within that timeframe, eventual National Player of the Year Buddy Hield probably sank three or four transition 3’s. It was at that precise moment the Sacramento Kings’ primary owner and chairman decided the Oklahoma guard was Stephen Curry’s second-coming.

A story like this could be very much believable upon analyzing Ranadive’s track record of asininity since purchasing the franchise. From suggesting the full implementation of cherry-picking basketball, to firing head coach Mike Malone in 2014 due to a slower tempo than his liking and a strong defensive emphasis after what many across the league had considered a relatively promising start to the season for the Kings, Ranadive is the classic case of an excessively-meddling owner. Sports’ most consistent model franchises are highlighted by front office synergy, a Bill Belichick preaching of “do your job and I’ll do mine.” The Sacramento Kings for quite some time now have exhibited the antithesis of synergy, leaving the product on the floor in constant disarray and the organization standing aside the Washington Redskins as the most poorly-run in the four major sports. Vlade Divac, in the end, has perpetually been tasked to bridge the gap between what actually is best for the organization and the farcical demands of his boss. So when the New Orleans Pelicans visited Northern California this previous season, Ranadive’s comment to Hield of how “we’re still gonna get you” was bound to come to fruition. I have long been a vocal critic of Vivek Ranadive and the Sacramento Kings. The engineer/businessman is just a billionaire who happens to like basketball. Ranadive doesn’t actually know basketball. Thus, naturally, the billionaire ego felt mere fandom could translate into personnel decision-making. However, after many trials and tribulations, after the Rudy Gay’s and the Rajon Rondo’s, it appears Ranadive has turned over a new leaf, one marked with the meaning of a rebuild.

Fast forward to this February and an iconic Woj bomb, its subject being the polarizing figure that was slowly tearing the Sacramento Kings organization apart. Ranadive had long vouched for the retaining of DeMarcus Cousins, so much so that it booted George Karl to the curb. What caused the flip of the switch within the owner’s brain remains a mystery. Perhaps a serious talk with his more-informed executives? Maybe simply coming to one’s senses? Regardless, it was a trade emblematic of the beginning of greener pastures. The Kings needed to begin losing basketball games in order to preserve their own top 10 protected pick in the 2017 Draft, and added another in a deep draft in the process. Ranadive, at the end of the day, had to make a decision between his beloved face of the franchise he would have no choice but to resign in the summer while still undeniably crippling his team, or what was, indubitably, in the best interest of the organization. The sought-after commodity the owner swore to acquire was packaged, and an actual optimistic future was sealed in Sacramento for the first time in a long time. Current head coach Dave Joerger owns substantially similar philosophies to Mike Malone, the man he fired just three years prior over purely philosophical differences, another sign of Ranadive’s maturation as an owner. More importantly, the acquisition of Buddy Hield paid immediate dividends, which begs the question: Was he right?

Buddy Hield will never be what Stephen Curry is. He’ll never be able to dice up a ball screen. He’ll never be able to get to the basket off of much more than straight-line rack attacks or cuts. However, the potential remains for Hield to become an elite NBA scorer in the modern NBA, especially with his efficiency in stop-and-pop and shooting on the move, all thanks to a Curry-like quick release. With Hield, as he displayed throughout his final two college seasons and in his brief Kings career, there always lies the threat of the backbreaking quick-hitter three, the weapon the Golden State Warriors have made so lethal. 25 games won’t paint the whole picture, but 48/43/81 and 25 pts/48 minutes is pretty self-explanatory.

Buddy

We’ve seen how Warriors opponents have had to chase Steph off the 3-point line as a transition ballhandler, and it’s obviously a dangerous proposition having to pick up the ball defensively 35 feet from the basket while backpedaling. This brings Hield’s improved facilitation into play. Buddy, though, is far more of a hazard for defenses off the ball in transition. Hield owns an innate ability to sprint to open spots and gather himself in a flash. After fast forwarding another 4 months from the Twitter-rattling trade, Hield’s backcourt mate became a King with the 5th pick in last Thursday’s draft. More than just a backcourt mate, Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox is actually the ideal point man to pair with a 2-guard frequently hunting his shot in transition, perhaps the reason why he has been rumored to be Sacramento’s primary target for quite some time. Fox combined with Malik Monk, the 11th overall pick to Charlotte, to form a dynamic backcourt that will have nearly the exact same feel with Hield and make for appealing television. With the likes of Hield filling lanes and finding spots and bigs who love to run such as Willie Cauley-Stein, Fox appears to be a godsend point guard for this particular personnel grouping. His unparalleled speed and striking explosiveness have drawn John Wall comparisons, and his shot isn’t as broken as some have made it out to be. In fact, Fox made 9 of his 19 3-point attempts (47.4%) in the final 10 games of his Kentucky career and has plenty of opportunity to improve in that area. Like Wall, his mechanics are solid off the dribble but wane a bit in catch-and-shoot situations, which is why we often see size-ups and rhythm dribbles before his J’s.

Fox

The Fox/Wall physical tools comparisons are not wrong, however, and it’s safe to conclude Wall has done more than merely survive as a point guard with an inconsistent jumper. Fox owns similar quicks, straight-line speed, handles, and athleticism to do the same, along with a complementary floater game that will be put to good use in late-clock situations. The real scary characteristic Fox proposes, in the end, will be his destructiveness in transition, especially when WCS is almost always the first big down the floor.

But remember, this is the Sacramento Kings. How could they possibly follow up De’Aaron Fox with anything besides a headscratcher? With no clear desirable entity available at 10, the pick acquired in the Cousins trade, Sacramento took advantage of a Trail Blazers team whose cap situation created a dire need to relieve themselves of one of their three first-rounders. Portland, being an obvious trade partner, took the bait, and the Kings, with surprisingly no clear cap deficiencies, attained an additional pick in one of the deepest drafts in recent memory.

The Sacramento front office would be hard-pressed to top the Georgios Papagiannis/Malachi Richardson debacle of 2016. Fortunately, the Kings must’ve recognized it is Mount Rushmore season on Pardon My Take because they plucked one player from each of the Mount Rushmore college basketball programs. They pulled a stunning 180 by nabbing the best player available as noted baseline assassin Justin Jackson arrived next with the 15th overall pick. Jackson is the model for the updated NBA Draft early entry withdrawal deadline. He returned to North Carolina for his junior season following NBA scout/executive feedback and regained the knockdown shooter reputation he exited high school with. Jackson made no alterations to his stiff, straight-on release point, but obviously spent a summer filled with repetition as he improved from 29% from deep in his first two years in Chapel Hill to 37% in 2016-17. That catch-and-shoot proficiency was the only preventative measure for Jackson’s NBA prospects. As the shots continued to fall in conjunction with a deadly floater game, his name ascended draft boards with each passing week. That scoring versatility, with the added jump shot, is what makes Jackson a steal at 15 for Sacramento. Another wing that will religiously run with Fox in hopes for lead passes, Jackson has a willingness to heavily utilize his refreshingly old-school mid-range attack that is perfectly harmonious with Hield stretching the floor and Fox finding cutters off of his dribble penetration.

As a matter of fact, Jackson wasn’t even Vlade’s premier steal last Thursday. Going the upperclassman route once more, Sacramento found their second unit point guard for many years to come in reigning National Player of the Year Frank Mason. Size, at 6’0” in shoes, was always the issue with Mason’s professional candidacy, with many teams red-flagging that and ignoring his unsurprisingly stellar NBA Draft Combine performance. Buried into the second round by upside-laden big men, Mason will surely send reminders to those who passed on the top 20 prospect. Sneaky athleticism, efficient offense, and moxie are the keys to Mason’s bright future as an NBA point guard. An absurd 50% 2-point % for a sub-6-foot player is all attributable to his knack to shield the ball while absorbing contact and keeping his chin on the rim. This past season opener was a perfect example, where late in the 2nd half and in overtime it felt as though he converted an ah-wuh on every possession against Indiana.

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A Fox/Mason backcourt will be fun to mobilize and annoying to play against with their speed and ability to get under the skin of ballhandlers. Both add the toughness that Dave Joerger has lacked in Sacramento, another representation of the Kings’ coming of age as an organization. Fox, Jackson, and Mason all present a composition of safety and value longitudinally. Thus, sandwiched between Jackson and Mason was an affordable lottery ticket purchase at 20 with Duke’s Harry Giles. He falls under the same category as Skal Labissiere, a lottery ticket already showing promise, as a blue-chip recruit failing to find a niche in college. Giles is worth the gamble after cementing positive draft night. Last Thursday capped the first extensive series of best-interest personnel moves under the new regime. The Kings’ front office has amalgamated fit, instant contribution, and high ceiling with their new youth, proving the basketball minds are now in charge. Here’s to hoping it isn’t screwed up, because Sacramento is a darn good basketball town and Kings faithful have not deserved the decade-plus of suffering they’ve endured.

Prospect Breakdown: Sun Prairie vs. Madison East

In mere seconds after setting foot in Madison East High School on a shivering January Saturday night, the atmosphere reaffirmed my decision to make a trek to the East side. The Purgolders’ cramped gym was packed to the brim with the feel of a neutral court game. Bad and Boujee and Lockjaw rang from the speakers. The buzz surrounding this matchup involving multiple Division I prospects was, as one may say, palpable. After a sloppy and sluggish start that saw 8 combined points scored in the first 8 minutes of play, the main events began to seize the stage. Madison East entered the halftime locker room with 1-point edge on one of the state’s best teams. The pitchers’ duel raged on into the second half, but Sun Prairie and their superior talent pulled away over the final 7 minutes in a 56-48 triumph. However, in spite of not being the most aesthetically-pleasing contest, the stars’ fingerprints were all over the game.

keshawnjustice

Keshawn Justice of Madison East led all scorers with 22 points on 7-18 shooting (3-7 from 2, 4-11 from 3, 4-4 FT), grabbed 8 rebounds, and dished out 2 assists. Justice and his excellent size for a 2-guard at 6-5, 195 are the nucleus of opponents’ scouting reports each night out. Sun Prairie’s traditional 1-3-1 presently seems to place less emphasis on trapping and turnovers than it did during the Nick Fuller and Nick Noskowiak days. Nonetheless, the Cardinals were extra-cautious of where Justice was on the floor at all times and extended their wing defenders well beyond the 3-point line on him. Justice is a dangerous shooter with deep range, putting his team in a position to win for the majority of the game despite drawing the utmost attention from the Sun Prairie D. His premier quality is his sound shooting mechanics. With great rotation, a quick catch-and-shoot release, and a mature frame, Justice will surely find a niche early in his college career. What was most impressive about the Madison East junior’s performance was his constant and level-headed demeanor. Never expressing an ounce of frustration, Justice buried a deep three at the first half buzzer and made the front end of two critical 1-and-1’s in the second half to keep the Purgolders in the game when it seemed to be getting away from them. The calm, cool, and collected Class of 2018 guard currently holds only mid-major offers from the likes of Northern Iowa and Green Bay, but is also receiving some interest from Marquette and Illinois. Don’t be surprised to see a high-major school swoop in on Justice late, as he will enjoy a nice college career, wherever that takes him.

marlonruffin

Justice sits at fourth in the vaunted Big Eight in scoring, immediately behind Sun Prairie’s Marlon Ruffin (Class of 2018). A good chunk of the Cardinals’ offense was predicated on finding isolation opportunities for Ruffin. With a quick first step, the slithery junior slashed through the lane almost at will, getting to the cup with straight-line drives and Giannis-esque spin moves. Although listed at 6-4, Ruffin probably stands closer to 6-2. At the next level, he will have to learn to pick his spots better, as he often compromised himself by overpenetrating and catching himself in the air. Once that is ameliorated and he improves his outside jumper, there is nothing stopping Ruffin from being a reliable mid-major scorer at the college level.

The most prized recruit, not surprisingly, stole the show when it was all said and done. Sun Prairie freshman Jalen Johnson just a week prior returned from a knee injury that sidelined him for 6 weeks. Coming off the bench after being reacquainted to the rotation, Johnson confirmed several of the rumblings that he might wind up being the best prospect the state of Wisconsin has ever seen. The 6-6 freshman projects as a point guard down the road with the expectation that he will tighten his handle. He put his vision on full display in this game. Johnson is an incredibly unselfish player that patiently surveys the floor with every touch. Seeing over the top of the defense at 6-6, Johnson really picked apart the Madison East defense in the second half, finishing with 5 assists. He was able to thread the needle to cutters for layups on multiple occasions. Johnson has plenty of time and plenty of ceiling fulfill the promise he exudes. Already with elite court sense at age 15, the sky is the limit. This goes without mentioning stellar athleticism, as he capstoned the game with a one-handed alley-oop.

 

Observations, Superlatives, and Mid-Season Awards: A College Basketball Non-Conference Analysis

3-point attempts continue to rise, and shooting has really never been better

lachance

Riley LaChance carved me up in high school. Now he’s fourth in the nation in 3P%.

Whether you realize it or not, college basketball is in the middle of a massive evolution phase. The analytics trickle-down effect is very real, and this can be emphatically seen actualized in the numbers. The following graphs display national average figures in college basketball since the 2001-02 season.

3pt

 

 

offeff

 

 

 

 

 

On the left we can see the variation in the national 3-point attempt rate (percentage of field goal attempts that are threes) and the national 3-point percentage over this span, with the black vertical line indicating the NCAA’s movement of the 3-point line back a foot to 20’9” prior to the 2008-09 season. The move was in response to a rapid rise in marksmanship from deep, and seriously, it was about damn time. My 6th grade Waukesha West Junior Wolverines team made 15 threes in a game once. You’re telling me J.J. Redick was getting the credit and accolades for the same distance shot? Absurd. After an initial decline in attempts and percentage in the 2008-09 season, there has been a general upward trend from beyond the arc since. Said trend is much more pronounced beginning with the 2013-14 season, highlighted by a meteoric linear rise that is continuing this year. Teams are taking more, and making more. If the season ended today, we would bear witness to the highest national 3-point percentage since the line was moved back. This inclination is, yes, rooted in analytics, but those analytics are also rooted in logic. With college players now connecting on 34.8% of the attempts from deep, the three is a better, more efficient use of a possession than a two (national average always less than 50%). Now, we have the major explanation for the recent spike in adjusted offensive efficiency in the graph on the right, with the last four seasons (including this year) dwarfing the remainder of the KenPom era. So, as Jay Bilas endlessly complains about the state of the game, the truth is that shooting has never been better than it is at the moment, and the same goes for the product on the floor. Enjoy it.

Historical perspective for UCLA’s otherworldly shooting

getitinthemorninlikelonzo

Showtime has returned to Westwood in 2016-17, and it appears the Pac-12 may be primed to end a nine-year Final Four drought thanks to the Bruins, with the Final Four this year, fittingly, taking place in Phoenix. Entering the year, the general consensus was that Lonzo Ball and his giftedness moving Bryce Alford off the ball would vastly improve UCLA offensively. However, it would have been difficult to forecast this type of offensive exhibition the Bruins have treated us to on a nightly basis. UCLA’s astronomical effective field goal percentage currently sits at 63.3%, the nation’s best, and barring an unforeseen significant injury, UCLA will be the second team ever to eclipse 60%, with the other being the 2004-05 Samford Bulldogs. The Bruins also find themselves in the top 5 nationally in two-point % and three-point %, which has only been previously accomplished three times (’05 Samford, ’13 Creighton, ’14 Creighton). Obviously, everything begins with Ball and the tempo he sets. The constant pressure Ball places on opponents with either pushes off of both misses and makes or with pinpoint lead passes is a primary reason why the Bruins have become indefensible. Ball and Alford both owning accurate in-the-gym range stretches the defense beyond repair, opening up gaping driving lanes for all. These driving lanes truly reveal that UCLA occupies every area of the floor with scoring, making describing them as a “juggernaut” kind of an understatement. Keying in on and overplaying Ball and Alford create uninterrupted rack-attacks, drive-and-kick opportunities, and the forgotten short corner where the clinical Thomas Welsh operates. Welsh and freshman T.J. Leaf are deadly from 15 feet, with Leaf also peppering the Bruins’ non-conference foes with trail threes, as well. We haven’t even mentioned the Bruins two highest-usage players in Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday, the latter improving immensely from his freshman campaign and shooting over 50% from both two and three on the year. The majority of college basketball teams, at some point or another, will inevitably have to fend off a drought thanks to the adjustments of conference opponents. With UCLA, however, I have yet to figure out a way in which they may potentially be slowed down, as simply too many weapons grace the Pauley Pavilion floor. UCLA can only beat themselves on the offensive end.

Duke? Yeah, they’re the nation’s best. Don’t overthink it.

That said, UCLA on the defensive end can, at times, be quite permissive. Overall, while the gap is far smaller than I had anticipated heading into the season, Duke, sitting at #5 in the AP Poll and may be trapped there for some time, is still the best team in the country. Yes, cases can be made for Villanova, for UCLA, for Kentucky. No one, conversely, can be found in the green (the nation’s top 50%) in all of KenPom’s Four Factors and miscellaneous component categories, except for Duke, whether you like it or not. It’s well-documented the Blue Devils have not been healthy. Their lone blemish was to Kansas at the buzzer while essentially playing five guys. Then Tatum returned, and started hitting Dirk fadeaways as the Blue Devils dismantled a very good Florida defense. Harry Giles is being eased in. And just as Coach K finally had his full complement of players at his disposal, Grayson Allen forgot how old he was and became the epicenter of the meme universe for a couple of days.

One of the most embarrassing meltdowns I have ever seen has not deterred me from the fact that Allen, himself, has not been healthy physically this year, leading to the reduction in his efficiency. This suspension is an opportunity for him get right more importantly mentally, but also physically. It’s not an exaggeration to say Duke’s entire season hinges on what type of Grayson Allen we see emerge from his timeout corner. He’s critical to the point guard-by-committee the Blue Devils been forced to take, one that may actually end up being a positive for them. The pieces never left. Durham fuses oozing talent, versatility, youth, and experience like nothing we have seen since the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats, while Luke Kennard is the one playing at a Player of the Year level.

West Virginia is a more legitimate threat this year

As Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers continued to pile up resume wins last year, the elephant in the room persisted. “Press Virginia” developed itself into a legitimate brand, but not a brand that was suited for March success. West Virginia fouled more than anyone in the nation last year, amassing a dreadful 55.3 defensive free throw rate, good for dead last. The Mountaineers, additionally, could not throw the ball into the ocean most times (32.5% from 3, 268th in the country), getting by for three months on turnover creation and the offensive glass alone. Their success, simply put, was not at all sustainable, evidenced by getting buried by 14-seed Stephen F. Austin in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. This go-round, however, appears to be a much different story, one that will likely provide happier endings. As the turnover creation (1st) and offensive rebounding (4th) have remained constants, WVU’s deficiencies have been addressed. They are fouling A LOT less, cutting their defensive free throw rate to 37.0 in 2016-17, permitting less freebies for opponents. More decisively, the Mountaineers are actually hitting shots. The nation’s 46th-best effective field goal percentage is attributable to the enhancement of the jumpers of the likes of Daxter Miles, Jr., and the addition of Teyvon Myers and James Bolden to Huggins’ 70-man rotation. Hidden in Huggins’ annual cupcake non-conference schedule is a win against the Cavaliers in Charlottesville, a marquee win that can now be taken more seriously given the Mountaineers are not quite as helter-skelter. These changes will make all the difference in the world for West Virginia, who I assure will not bow out on the opening Thursday/Friday again.

One of the most drastic transformations: Kentucky’s pace

fox

On back-to-back possessions in the first half last Wednesday night against Louisville, Kentucky responded to Cardinal made baskets with a De’Aaron Fox lead pass and Bam Adebayo dunk, each requiring approximately three seconds to complete. Those two possessions epitomized Kentucky’s identity this season. Traditionally under John Calipari, the Wildcats’ pace has been a far cry from what we’ve witnessed this year, generally in the middle of the pack nationally or playing at a pace slower than average.

Year

Adjusted Tempo National Rank

2009-10

71.5

65

2010-11

67.8

203

2011-12

67.2

147

2012-13

66.2

168

2013-14

65.7

221

2014-15

63.0

271

2015-16

68.2

220

2016-17 76.0

15

The lone season that approaches this year is Calipari’s first, in which he understandably had John Wall running the show. Tempo always begins with the lead guard, and De’Aaron Fox has speed that matches, and may even surpass, Wall’s. Calipari’s willingness to cut Fox loose has shielded his team from having to play in the half-court, not exposing their poor 3-point shooting (outside of Malik Monk) just yet, a demon they will more than likely have to exorcize as conference play arrives. Monk’s fluorescent green light contributes to the pace uptick, as well. His ability to make contested shots from any platform was on full display in his dazzling performance against North Carolina. Calipari has not had a backcourt this dynamic since the Wall/Eric Bledsoe duo, and he has molded his philosophy to his personnel very well. If Kentucky remains in the open floor for 40 minutes, only few can keep pace.

Oregon’s offensive decline

Something is noticeably omitted from Oregon’s half-court offense. Dana Altman and the Ducks are sorely missing their small-ball methodology and the versatility of Elgin Cook. En route to a 1-seed last season, Oregon ran pretty offense, initiating their sets out of the high post with Cook or Dillon Brooks, who, in turn, consistently attacked mismatches. The departure of Cook has plunged the Ducks into employing mostly a lineup with two bigs in Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell. While Boucher is able to space the floor, the minimized skill is detrimentally harming Altman’s team. Instead of those high-post sets with off-ball movement and several counters, Oregon this season offensively is not imaginative at all. Possessions oftentimes bog down quickly, calling for a simple high PnR. The lack of movement has forced Brooks, Dylan Ennis, and Tyler Dorsey into countless iso situations, with only Dorsey having a whiff of success. Furthermore, defenses have not been inclined to honor Payton Pritchard and Casey Benson’s shooting (19-67 from 3 combined) out of those pick-and-rolls, and neither of whom are players that like to turn the corner off screens and attack. Altman has seen his team plummet from 13th offensively in 2015-16 to 48th this year, with that rank continuing to drop even with Brooks’ increasing health. If it wasn’t clear already, it’s time to pump the brakes on the Ducks’ sky high preseason expectations, as this is an issue that will take some time amend.

Purdue is the title contender no one recognizes yet

swanigan

The sour taste of the Arkansas-Little Rock collapse of last March appears to have fueled the Boilermakers to an 11-2 start and the makings of a Big Ten title contender. Perhaps what Caleb Swanigan and Co. enjoy more is their under-the-radar status in the national title conversation as much of the scuttlebutt focuses on the bluebloods. One of the first qualities of a team to look for in title contenders is the ability to win in a variety of ways, as six wins is necessary to cut down the nets. Contrary to last season, Purdue in fact possesses that capability. We saw that present itself two Saturday’s ago in the Crossroads Classic against Notre Dame. Matt Painter strayed from a customary bruiser approach to combat Notre Dame’s small ball, utilizing Vince Edwards and his greatly improved jumper at the four and delegating Isaac Haas to the bench for nearly the entire second half. The Boilermakers, resultantly, impressively dug themselves out of a 14-point halftime deficit in transit to an 86-81 victory, beating the Irish at their own game. Moreover, Purdue can beat you from anywhere. Their downscreen/hi-lo action with Swanigan and Haas are an absolute pain to cover, especially with the Boilermakers’ roster now filled with knockdown shooters (9th in 3-point %). Purdue can really share the sugar, ranking 3rd nationally in assist rate, and Caleb Swanigan is at last fully playing to his strengths on the interior while raising his 3-point percentage in the process. The Boilermakers make their mark on the other end of the floor with a Wisconsin-esque ability to defend without fouling and clean the glass. Yet, due to a near miss at home against Nova and a road loss at Louisville, Purdue is only lurking in the shadows at this stage.

Sleepers

                Florida

The Gators have confusingly been a metrics darling the past couple years, but the fondness of the numbers this year is more warranted. The point guard position remains a question mark as the same shot selection and turnover issues that haunted Kasey Hill as a freshman linger. Beyond that, nevertheless, Florida checks all the boxes. Mike White has orchestrated one of the most undervalued defensive teams in the country. The story regarding Devin Robinson has been his emergence offensively, but his length is causing serious problems for the opponents’ best player every night out, and John Egbunu continues to develop into one of the nation’s most imposing rim protectors. On the other end, the Gators have a genuine shotmaker in KeVaughn Allen and one of the most undervalued stretch fours in the country in Justin Leon. The hindrance, in the end, will be Hill’s and Chris Chiozza’s turnover propensities. If that can be miraculously revised, the Gators are a sneaky Elite Eight-worthy squad.

                Northwestern

In our Top 25 countdown, Mike warned you about his alma mater. This year is finally the year. The Wildcats presently are one of Joe Lunardi’s Last Four In. A neutral court win over the Dayton Flyers went a long way towards Northwestern breaking the seal. It will be imperative for Northwestern in Big Ten play to avoid the awful loss that has plagued them in the past, and have a winning record against fellow Big Ten bubble teams such as Michigan State, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio State, etc. The skinny: Northwestern is actually pretty darn good, and could very easily be 13-0, if not for Kamar Baldwin’s audacity and Nathan Taphorn’s Nathan Taphornness.

                Kansas State

Bruce Weber put together a very underwhelming non-conference slate this season, but that has kept the Wildcat secret under wraps. Kansas State’s big bugaboo last year, in spite of a victory over Buddy Hield and a near upset of North Carolina, was putting the ball in the basket. Kansas State may actually be the single most-improved shooting team in the country this year, connecting on 38.8% (48th) of three-point attempts in comparison to a meager 30% (335th) last year. It has been a collective effort, as Dean Wade, Kamau Stokes, and Barry Brown have all made enormous strides, and the addition of nationally-underrated freshman Xavier Sneed has been integral. The Wildcats are yet another team that should be undefeated at the moment, suffering their only loss to Maryland as a result of a phantom foul call.

                Clemson

Clemson, among others, was one of the preseason KenPom surprises, landing in the top 25. The Tigers, however, have not faltered, still finding themselves in the KenPom top 25, and for good reason. Vandy transfer Shelton Mitchell has solidified the floor general role. The Tigers are, in fact, undefeated since his return, as senior leader Jaron Blossomgame seeks to take this program to the NCAA Tournament for this first time since 2011.

                SMU

A short bench grew even shorter with freshman Harry Froling’s decision to transfer from the program. The Mustangs, though, remain one of my preseason sleepers and seem to be hitting their stride. Their breakout performance last week at home against Stanford in which they erupted to a 31-point lead and coasted to a 72-49 throttling of the Cardinal is the type of game we can expect from Tim Jankovich’s team moving forward. The enhanced leeway from the perimeter with Larry Brown away is working to the Mustangs’ advantage. The next challenge will be accumulating some more quality wins, which will be difficult to come by in the AAC.

Better than their record: Belmont (6-4)

Last Spring, I wrote about the Law of Large Numbers governing Villanova’s stellar NCAA Tournament run. On a much smaller scale, we have another case with the Belmont Bruins. A program built on outside shooting is not even remotely close to their standards this year, shooting 30.5% from deep, with several of their players’ percentages not reflective of the shooters they are. The ultimate example is Taylor Barnette, a sharpshooter enduring a brutal season-long slump (24% from 3). We’ve been waiting for the Bruins’ bust-out game, and it looks like that came Thursday against Cleveland State. Belmont canned 14 of 30 threes and erupted for 88 points. Percentages always converge to the mean, so don’t be surprised if they run the table in the Ohio Valley.

(Way) Worse than their record: Maryland (12-1)

Oh, the Terrapins, the perpetual sweethearts of that whole thing called “luck.” If you thought luck was not quantifiable, let me introduce you to KenPom’s Luck Rating. The metric is complicated, but long story short, it is a numerical value that factors in results in close games as well as opponents performing uncharacteristic to their percentages, especially free throw percentage. Two seasons ago, Maryland ranked as the second-“luckiest” team in college basketball, and currently sit at #7 this year, which is understandable given one-point victories over Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and Georgetown, with the latter being a game they had no business winning. Anthony Cowan moving Melo Trimble into a primarily scoring role certainly helps, but among the cluster in the center of the Big Ten, I feel Maryland is outmatched and will fizzle out at some point. Luck has to catch up with you, and the Terrapins don’t have much talent to write home about.

The Citadel: Everyone’s Favorite Comedy

College’s most hysterical brand of basketball can be found in the Southern Conference. Duggar Baucom solidified his patented run-and-gun system at fellow military institute VMI, and some years he made it work. When he took the job at The Citadel, the transformation was immediate. The Bulldogs rose from 343rd in tempo in 2014-15 to 1st last season by a landslide, all stemming from Baucom’s system. The manner in which The Citadel plays is the closest thing we will ever see to cherry-picking basketball at the Division I level. The Citadel’s average offensive possession takes 13.3 seconds (2nd fastest). More telling, however, is their average defensive possession takes 14.9 seconds, also 2nd fastest in the nation, leading to the nation’s second-worst defense. Essentially, Baucom encourages his players to employ matador defense in solely an effort to get the ball back and hoist up a terrible three as rapidly as possible, as nearly 50% of their field goal attempts are threes. Whatever the antithesis of quality is, that’s what we have here with The Citadel, but they have me reeled in. The Bulldogs may not be everyone’s favorite comedy, but at least they’re mine.

The SWAC and MEAC continue to bring up the rear

It is at least somewhat entertaining to track The Citadel’s shot distribution, and their system is certainly catered to putting up triple digits on several occasions. In regard to the SWAC and MEAC, however, I have consistently seen more aesthetically-pleasing basketball played at the SERF. This is old news, as the SWAC and the MEAC are regularly the nation’s bottom-feeders, but the atrocity seems to have reached an entirely new level this season. 18 of the bottom 35 teams in Division I college basketball call these two conferences home, with those 18 teams amassing just 36 wins total. Yikes.

And finally, an obligatory Wisconsin analysis

meech

I will try and keep this as compact as possible, but understand that’s a tall task. Can’t lie, I had a fair amount of concern this November. Seven consecutive made threes at Creighton proved to be fool’s gold as the Badgers chose to die by the three. 39 of 63 (62%) of field goal attempts that night were from beyond the arc against a man-to-man defense. Paint touches were never even thought to be explored. The troublesome shot distribution was an early season trend, leading to the lowly nights like the ones we saw in Omaha and later in Maui. The change was initiated a week after the drubbing at the hands of the Tar Heels with an individual performance that had Josh Gasser rolling over in his sleep. As Nigel Hayes fell a free throw shy of a triple-double, the Badgers unlocked the team they set out to be. Hayes put his court savvy on full display in about as clinical dismemberment of a 2-3 zone you’ll see. From that point forward, Wisconsin has smartly initiated their offense out of the low post, a necessity for a team with a point guard like Bronson Koenig. A team that can effectively invert their offense as Wisconsin has done immediately has a leg up. It’s no accident Hayes and Ethan Happ are the Badgers’ leading assist men. The two exude patience and read double teams and weak side help like few others in the college game right now. Not coincidentally, the quality of three-point looks has increased, as have the percentages.

As for the three, the “automatic” exclamation in Travis Scott’s “Outside” was actually in reference to D’Mitrik Trice from beyond the arc, we just didn’t know it until now. I’m shocked it is not yet played over the Kohl Center loudspeakers as the freshman rises up for a three from the right corner pocket. Trice’s emergence and his 18-30 from deep has been imperative, as Wisconsin’s shooting off the bench previously was nothing to write home about. He’s provided another much-need kickout outlet for Hayes and Happ and shown the ability to hit shots off the bounce. Speaking of Happ, the expansion of his game we were expecting entering the year was the addition of a short jumper. He did, in fact, give us a taste with his first career field gold make outside of the paint (!!!) against Green Bay. Largely, though, Happ is the same player as he was as a redshirt freshman. It’d be difficult to expand that portion of your game, but Happ’s already exquisite footwork and patience actually got better, and so did his touch around the basket. Above all, Happ’s understanding of attacking double teams and reading defenses is what took the largest leap forward, which is deadly when combined with his dexterity and array of moves and fakes. At the end of the day, though, Nigel Hayes decides how far this Wisconsin team goes, and the Hayes we’ve seen over the past month is the one we should expect moving forward. When operating in the appropriate areas of the floor, Hayes holds the keys to yet another Final Four team, and that fact has appeared to settle in with him over this 7-game winning streak.

And purely for your enjoyment, here’s a gif of a manbun breakaway left-handed dunk:

manbun

Superlatives and Mid-Season Awards

Biggest Surprises

                Baylor

Johnathan Motley,Jordan Bell,Casey Benson,Kavell Bigby-Williams

Confidently the Bears are not the fourth-best team in college basketball as the AP Poll indicates, but Baylor has wildly exceeded expectations. Emerging as winners of the Battle 4 Atlantis, dismantling the Xavier Musketeers, and embarrassing the Oregon Ducks, Baylor has clearly made a statement in November and December and should be the supreme challenger to Kansas in the Big 12. The true difference maker for Scott Drew’s team in 2016-17 has been a Boeheim-like 2-3 zone. Drew has a similar personnel makeup to his past teams, oozing length. Baylor’s top 20 defense this season, however, is unlike their recent teams who saw their zone be pulled to pieces at times. Now, sometimes I have found myself watching the Bears and wondering how the opponent can even score at some point. The baseline is completely swarmed and shut down at each instance, and the Bears close on shooters as quickly as you’ll see out of a 2-3 zone. It also helps to have the ultimate security blanket in top JUCO transfer Jo Lual-Acuil, the nation’s best shot blocker.

                Minnesota

Richard Pitino is finally earning his paycheck. After a dreadful 2015-16 where he completed the season with 7 capable eligible players, the Gophers have cascaded to a 12-1 start, already surpassing last season’s win total. Pitino, simply put, has done one of the best jobs in the country this year, but Amir Coffey, Eric Curry, Reggie Lynch, and Akeem Springs were not at his disposal last year. Pitino had the talent to pilot NCAA Tournament teams in each of his first two seasons at Minnesota, but each faltered. The talent is there again, but Pitino seems to have learned from the trials and tribulations of his first three years. The youngest team he’s had is in position to send him the Dance for the first time.

Biggest Disappointments

                Syracuse

Toiling at my desk cramming for an applied linear algebra final, the proverbial last straw for Syracuse materialized on my cellular device. St. John’s 93, Syracuse 60. At the Carrier Dome. At the same time, Wiz Khalifa was imploring me to “Wake Up,” so surely I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But no. The Johnnies mutilated what Jim Boeheim called his “best team” back in August. Jim Boeheim’s best team went ice cold in Brooklyn against South Carolina. Jim Boeheim’s best team lost to UConn, who lost to Wagner and Northeastern and snuck by Loyola Marymount and Boston U, if you’re into the whole transitive property thing. It was one of the most perplexing results I’ve seen, one that cannot really be explained. So yes, Syracuse, more than anyone, belongs here.

                Oregon State

Wayne Tinkle’s second season in Corvallis has been…well……let’s take a look. His son, Tres, the Beavers’ best player, has only played in 6 games due to injury issues, but Tinkle you’d figure still has enough talent to field a relatively competitive basketball team with Drew Eubanks, Stephen Thompson Jr., and JaQuori McLaughlin, among others. Then you look at the results, and see a lot of red. The Beavers have plunged from 81st in the preseason to 206th, by far the worst drop in college basketball this year. They’re 4-9, and the losses? They’re really bad, bottoming out with an overtime slip-up against 338th-ranked Savannah State at home. I don’t see Gary Payton walking through that door. Hence, it’s fair to say Oregon State will compete with Boston College for worst power conference team after reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1990 last year.

Most Impressive Mid-Major

                Middle Tennessee

Yes, the Blue Raiders are coming off back-to-back losses, including one at home to #RonHuntersBoys. Nonetheless, Kermit Davis actually has a squad that is significantly better than the team that knocked off Denzel Valentine and Michigan State in the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. Giddy Potts is the best shooter no one knows about, and Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams has been dominant on the interior as expected. The Blue Raiders caught lightning in a bottle against the Spartans last March. Now, with the ability of Williams to complement MTSU’s threats from beyond the arc, they become far more difficult to defend. Middle Tennessee has made mincemeat of the SEC, beating Vanderbilt and Ole Miss by a combined 38 points on the road, and have a nice neutral court win over a good UNC-Wilmington team, which accounts for the Seahawks’ only loss.

All-Unsung Team

                John Konchar, IPFW

John Konchar is the captain, coach, general manager, and owner of the All-Unsung Team. The sophomore redefines the term “unheralded,” as the only scholarship out of high school in West Chicago for the 2-star recruit was from the Mastadons. Since, Konchar has quickly ascended to quintessential glue-guy status. His invaluable presence on the court is evident in his minutes, which ranks 53rd nationally. Konchar fits the cliché of doing all the little things, but he does so while being outstandingly efficient. Listed as a 6-5 guard, but essentially the power forward in most of IPFW’s lineups, Konchar shoots 70% from the floor, and for this reason, averages 14.2 points nightly while being a low-usage player (16.3%). This has always caught my eye in peeping box scores, but I was able to see Konchar and the Mastadons in action for the very first time in their monumental upset of the Hoosiers just before Thanksgiving this year. Konchar confirmed everything I had previously believed he was and then some. Oh yeah, and he threw down an off-hand absolute hammer on Juwan Morgan, Thomas Bryant, and just about the entire state of Indiana.

konchar

Jon Coffman stuck Konchar in the middle of Indiana’s 2-3 zone the entire night, who ripped them to shreds with hot-potato touch passes out to open three-point shooters. At that point, the legend of John Konchar was born, and I frankly feel sorry for the 3-seed that has to run into the Mastadons in March.

                Kamar Baldwin, Butler

A rogue Butler freshman in the first half anticipated and deflected a post-feed, leading to a Northwestern turnover, and immediately on the other end and rose up for a jab-step three. OH HE’S LEFT-HANDED. Bang. Pure. That instant, I knew. Whoever this kid was, he would surely become one of my favorites and terrorize the Big East for four years. As destiny had it, Kamar Baldwin capped the game this way. Avert your eyes, Mike.

baldwin

The first month of Baldwin’s freshman season has had its fair share of ups and downs, especially in the turnover department, but the aforementioned steal has been the freshman’s bread and butter. He ranks 8th nationally in steal rate at 5.3%, astonishing instincts for a first year player. Baldwin is perhaps even more fearless on the offensive end and might be the Bulldogs’ best shot creator. On the whole, Baldwin is a critical piece for one of the bigger surprises of this young college basketball season.

                De’Anthony Melton, USC

Many felt the Trojans would be hard-pressed to duplicate their NCAA Tournament appearance of last season with the surprising departures of Nikola Jovanovic and Julian Jacobs to the professional ranks. But hey, conference play is here and USC is one of six remaining undefeateds. The Trojans’ unanticipatedly stellar freshman crop is the driver behind this start, and the head of the class is Melton. On a per 40 minute basis, Melton is stuffing the stat sheet with 14.7 points, 8.6 boards, 5.1 assists, 2.7 steals, and 1.7 blocks on 52% shooting. The Swiss Army knife has been thrust into more minutes with the injury to Bennie Boatwright, but the production and efficiency has not wavered to a point that Melton is now garnering attention from NBA scouts.

                Marcus Keene, Central Michigan

By now, you may be aware that Marcus Keene is the nation’s most prolific scorer at over 30 points per game, something that hasn’t been accomplished in college basketball for 20 years. What is not gathering enough attention is how Keene is making this possible. It’s obvious Keene is a high-usage player. Even while Keene uses a flabbergasting 36% of the Chippewas’ possessions, he is shooting over 50% from the field and 42% from beyond. In order to prolong that 30 ppg checkpoint, Keene will have to maintain this type of efficiency. Either way, the diminutive scoring guard should have eyes flocking to ESPN3 for a taste of #MACtion, and who can blame them after he hit the most casual dagger 3 in the history of basketball?

keene

                Michael Weathers, Miami (OH)

As tradition dictates, I made the effort to be in front of a screen watching college basketball all day on the season’s opening Friday, which means I was obliged to watch Miami Ohio battle a Division II team. It proved to be a blessing in disguise, as I was able to discover Weathers, a freshman with a twin brother on the team as well. The immediate standout was Weathers’ floater game, which is very reminiscent of Isaiah Taylor’s. I have not had the opportunity to watch the Redhawks since, but Weathers is putting together a very intriguing season. He attempts 19th-highest volume of shots of anyone in the country, while simultaneously owning the nation’s 4th-best assist rate at 47%. In essence, Weathers has the ball in his hands virtually all the time, charged with the duty of creating effectively all of the offense for John Cooper’s team. He has handled it masterfully, and if it wasn’t for Marcus Keene, Weathers would be the runaway winner of MAC Newcomer of the Year honors.

All-Improved Team

               Gavin Skelly, Northwestern

More affectionately known by OOWF as the Energizer Bunny, Skelly has enjoyed an unscrupulously terrific season as an energy guy for the much-improved Wildcats. Whenever Skelly saw the floor in his first two seasons in Evanston, he appeared to be overmatched, with opponents making a point of emphasis of attacking him. The Bunny in 2016-17 has made a complete 180, shockingly becoming one of the feared shot blockers in the Big Ten, giving Northwestern menacing rim protection when he is paired with sophomore Dererk Pardon. Cleaning up the scraps on the offensive glass, additionally, has led to a 131.2 O-Rating, good for 47th in the country, with an honorable 3-point jumper.

                Jock Landale, St. Mary’s

Landale clearly put in the work when no one was looking this offseason, as Randy Bennett has milked another gem out of his Australian pipeline. Landale has gone from first big off the bench last year to the WCC Player of the Year frontrunner and legitimate All-American candidate. An old-school, back-to-the-basket game is refreshing to see, and Landale has been a load for opponents to handle thus far. All in all, he hardly misses and dominates the glass after playing just 36.4% of available minutes last season. He has supplanted both Evan Fitzner and Dane Pineau on the totem pole due to his willingness to pass out of double teams being a perfect fit for the Gaels’ personnel. St. Mary’s would not be where they are sans Landale’s rise.

                Matt Farrell, Notre Dame

If there could be a singular most improved player in college basketball, Farrell is the man. The insertion of him into the starting lineup last season as a game manager brushing Demetrius Jackson off the ball was a contributor to the Irish’s strong finish. Farrell, this season, has done far more than manage games. He has taken over games on multiple occasions with his uncanny vision and PnR navigation, proving you need not be able to see over the defense to be able to see the whole floor. His per 40 numbers have surged from 7.8 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 4.8 assists on 37/32/88 to 17.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 7.7 assists on 46/38/100.

                Moritz Wagner, Michigan

Mo Wagner’s improvement is more of a case of him fulfilling his ceiling, because the tools were indisputably there. The German 7-footer in the matter of a year has gone from little used 4th big to a starting center and critical piece to the Wolverines’ attack. He is, as a matter of fact, Michigan’s highest-usage player, consuming 24% of possessions compared to just 17.6% in 2015-16. Above all, Wagner’s confidence facing the basket and in pick-and-pop situation is sky high in comparison to where he sat a year ago. At 15-30 from 3 compared to 2-11 last season, Wagner makes the Wolverines almost unfeasible to defend when clicking.

                Frank Bartley IV, UL-Lafayette

The usual transition for transfers in college basketball involves an inverse relationship between level of competition and production, and a positive correlation between level of comp and efficiency. Bartley transferred to a lower level of competition after two seasons at BYU. We’ve seen the production skyrocket, but more shockingly the efficiency soar. Bartley saw some time in his two years in Provo, but was constantly buried on the bench by the Cougars’ backcourt. He struggled mightily when he was presented opportunities, shooting 37% from the field. Bartley undoubtedly took advantage of his transfer year, and is now reaping the benefits. Now being given starter’s minutes for the biggest surprise in the Sun Belt, Bartley has seen his 3-point % leap from 31% at BYU to 39% this season, shooting 46% overall and amassing a 115.2 O-Rating.

Coach of the Year  – Scott Drew, Baylor

The surprise that is Baylor was touched on previously, and Drew obviously has a lot to do with that. What I have come away most impressed with, however, is Drew’s in-game adjustments that have sparked this undefeated start. In back-to-back games in Atlantis, Baylor faced significant deficits against Michigan State and Louisville, and on both occasions, obviously, stormed back. The Louisville comeback was particularly magnificent. The Bears trailed 32-10 at one point and Louisville pocketed a win probability as high as 98.1%. Drew’s decision to abandon the 2-3 zone and go man left Louisville bewildered en route to a 66-63 stunner.

Player of the Year – Frank Mason, Kansas

Flip a coin between Mason and Josh Hart. You can’t go wrong. Hart is commanding the nation’s #1 team and having a Buddy Hield-esque senior season, 16th in the country in Individual Offensive Rating (137.8) and shooting 56% from the field. Really too close to call, but I lean towards Mason. He, himself, is 52nd in the nation in O-Rating (130.2) and is shooting 57% from inside the arc, remarkable for a sub-6-foot player. Part of a star-studded recruiting class headlined by Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, and Wayne Selden, Mason is the best collegiate player of the bunch at the end of the day. His bulldog mentality is very indicative of, once again, a very good Kansas team. Hart, also, does not have the cult following in the rap game Mason appears to have. While many prefer Hart at the moment, I’ll go with the Jayhawk, because #BIFM.

First Team All-Americans

              Frank Mason, Kansas

              Lonzo Ball, UCLA

              Luke Kennard, Duke

              Josh Hart, Villanova

             Caleb Swanigan, Purdue

Top 25 Countdown: #15 NC State

Rotation

G Dennis Smith (Fr.) 

G Terry Henderson (Sr.)

G Maverick Rowan (So.)

F Abdul-Malik Abu (Jr.)

C Beejay Anya (Sr.)

Bench: C Omer Yurtseven (Fr.), G Torin Dorn (So.), F Lennard Freeman (Sr.), G Markell Johnson (Fr.), F Ted Kapita (Fr.), F Darius Hicks (Fr.)

Off the court over the course of Mark Gottfried’s tenure in Raleigh, he has gone toe-to-toe with some of college basketball’s giants and won several recruiting battles. Calipari, Self, Krzyzewski, Williams. They’ve all lost top-flight players to the Wolfpack. The issue at North Carolina State has never been the acquisition of talent. Translating said talent into large-scale success on the hardwood, on the contrary, has been a different story. Yes, the Wolfpack have reached two Sweet 16’s with Gottfried at the helm, but their ceiling has been much higher than that. Perhaps the best example can be found during the 2012-13 season. A loaded preseason top 10 team comprised of Lorenzo Brown, C.J. Leslie, T.J. Warren, Rodney Purvis, and Scott Wood among others had all the makings of being able to etch their names next to David Thompson and Jim Valvano. However, after struggling with inconsistencies throughout the regular season, they bowed out at the hands of Khalif Wyatt and Temple as an 8-seed in the first round. The aforementioned regular season inconsistency has been a common thread in recent years for Gottfried and company. Even in the Sweet 16 years of 2012 and 2015, the Wolfpack were an 11-seed and 8-seed respectively. To avoid the same pitfalls this season, NC State will have to take care of business before the calendar flips to March, maintaining the same quality wins they have obtained in the past while limiting the resume-crushing losses they have tended to suffer, which would do themselves a favor come Spring. Gottfried may finally have the team to do just that.

The 2016-17 edition of NC State owns an ideal personnel makeup similar to that of the 2014-15 team. The Wolfpack were an easy candidate to knock off Villanova in the Round of 32 two seasons ago with imposing size on the interior, the ability to make difficult shots on the wings, and stellar point guard play. Terry Henderson, Maverick Rowan, and Torin Dorn are undoubtedly capable of duplicating what Ralston Turner and Trevor Lacey were able to provide. Henderson, a former West Virginia Mountaineer, returns after a medical redshirt year and made a living in Morgantown burying contested threes. We should also expect Maverick Rowan’s second season in Raleigh to be far more efficient than his first. With the Wolfpack falling casualty to the injury bug a year ago, Rowan was given a fluorescent green light and was asked to shoulder much of the burden from beyond the arc without a ton of help, hoisting countless impossible shots from deep. With greater surrounding talent and a creative point guard more prone to create plays for others, Rowan will assuredly get cleaner looks, which only benefits NC State as a whole. Torin Dorn enters the fray as a transfer after one year at Charlotte where he was Conference-USA’s top newcomer, adding yet another shotmaker. Moreover, Dorn has the capability of acting as NC State’s backup point guard if bouncy freshman Markell Johnson falters. As for the starter at that position, the Dennis Smith era is at last under way after ample anticipation, and he will instantly compete nationally for the Bob Cousy Award and All-American honors. Adding Smith completely changes the complexion of the team, as he is quite simply the real deal. A legitimate top 10 pick in next June’s NBA Draft, Smith’s most conspicuous traits are his physical gifts. Eye-popping quickness and athleticism make it unfeasible to prevent him from getting into the paint. The only impediments to the future star’s limitless cachet are an inconsistent jumper and occasionally erratic play, but Smith can get to the rim almost at will. When his mid-range jumper is connecting, the point guard becomes nearly indefensible, and not to mention is a perpetual posterization threat even at 6-2.

The frontcourt blends experience with yet another blue chip freshman. Beejay Anya, Abdul-Malik Abu, and Lennard Freeman are the lone holdovers from the Sweet 16 team of two years ago and provide the experience. Abu’s growth from Year 1 to Year 2 in Raleigh was a promising sight for Wolfpack fans. The intrigue, though, lies with Uzbekistani freshman center Omer Yurtseven, another potential lottery pick. The questions swirling around Yurtseven’s eligibility, as what takes place with several international college imports, were answered a short while ago with the announcement of his nine-game suspension to begin the season. If anything, the suspension keeps the NC State secret for a bit longer. Yurtseven is the classic European stretch big, and his mobility and soft shooting touch have NBA scouts drooling, primarily why Smith is not the only one-and-done prospect on the Wolfpack roster. NC State’s frontcourt depth will give Gottfried numerous options based on matchups, and the committee combines to check all the boxes. Yurtseven and the extension of Abu’s range offer floor spacing. Anya, Abu, and Freeman anchor the interior, and Yurtseven has become an expert in the art of verticality. Gottfried, overall, will be running out an NBA-type lineup on a nightly basis. Without exaggeration, NC State’s talent will rival that of the likes of Duke, Kentucky, and Arizona. Love is nowhere to be found now, but the nation will quickly realize that is a mistake.

 

Namedrop Corner

Julius Hodge

juicehodge 

McDonald’s All-Americans increasingly rarely remain in school for four years, so the college career arc of Julius Hodge has become a lost art. Once the 7th-ranked recruit in the nation, Hodge a decade ago did what is unspeakable today, peaking in his junior season as the ACC Player of the Year. He and Herb Sendek turned the Pack into March regulars, and Hodge’s all-around game terrorized collegiate basketball for four years. Unfortunately, after being selected 20th overall in the 2005 NBA Draft, Hodge never translated to the professional level and fizzled out after two quick seasons. I have very little recollection of Hodge’s five appearances with the 2006-07 Milwaukee Bucks, a team that also saw minutes from Lynn Greer and Jared Reiner.

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?”