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.

 

Advertisements

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: #16 UCLA

Rotation

G Lonzo Ball (Fr.)

G Bryce Alford (Sr.)

F Isaac Hamilton (Sr.)

F T.J. Leaf (Fr.)

C Thomas Welsh (Jr.)

Bench

G Aaron Holiday (So.)

G Prince Ali (So.)

F Ike Anigbogu (Fr.)

F Gyorgy Goloman (Jr.)

UCLA’s penultimate losing season was achieved by a team that was led by Dijon Thompson and T.J. Cummings. It was Ben Howland’s first season on campus. It was also thirteen years ago. For the first time since the 2003-04 season, the 2015-2016 UCLA Bruins ended the year with more losses than wins, a year that was also just-extended Steve Alford’s third in Los Angeles. However, maybe more so than any other program in the country, UCLA is synonymous with tradition. It’s a program with a record 11 championships to its name. Yet, 10 of those championships belong to the Wizard of Westwood and were won over the course of 12 years. Post-Wooden, UCLA has won only once, and they have the immortalized 4.8 second Tyus Edney length of the floor lay in at the buzzer to thank for that.

But, the Bruins are supposed to win. And in Alford’s first two seasons on campus, that was an expectation that was reasonably fulfilled through consecutive appearances in the Sweet 16, albeit with one run that was facilitated by what must have been Woodenian intervention from above in a first round escape of SMU. Yet, last season the Bruins were unable to make it past the first round… of the Pac-12 tournament, finishing 15-17 and impelling Alford to explicitly reassert his own accountability to fans of the program. Fortunately, it appears that this year’s team is poised to at the very least return to the tournament and is also well positioned to make a run once they get there. And while UCLA is forced to absorb the departures of big men Tony Parker and Jonah Bolden, much of the optimism surrounding this season owes itself to the arrival of freshman Lonzo Ball.

An incredibly unique talent, and one of the highest regarded recruits in what promises to be one of the deepest freshmen classes in recent memory, Ball’s immediate insertion into the starting lineup will be nothing short of transformational. With him he carries an expectation that he will challenge the evolutionary constraints of the point guard position. He has positively elite vision and his overall athleticism paired with his size at 6’6″ should allow him to develop into force on the defensive end. However, his shot, while developable, is certainly inconsistent, as well his ability to create and make plays in the half court. Nevertheless, Ball will be given the keys to the offense and should ostensibly allow the Bruins to better fulfill Alford’s already demonstrated predilection to play up tempo. Even more fundamentally though, throughout Alford’s tenure thus far, UCLA has been without an actual floor general, and while I certainly harbor extreme affection for former Bruin Kyle Anderson, Ball fills a void that has been left unfilled for the last three years. Consequently, his presence on the floor also allows coach’s son Bryce Alford to slide off the ball, a position that much better suits his game and alleviates a significant portion of his ballhandling and playmaking responsibilities. Last year especially, the construction of the roster necessitated that the team be overly reliant on Alford to be both the primary scorer and distributor, a reality that proved to be far from advantageous. And even though Alford was statistically impressive as a playmaker a season ago, the Bruin backcourt will inevitably be better off if some of his burden is removed. Ball and Alford will be joined on the wing by senior Isaac Hamilton, a skilled and efficient scorer who led UCLA in points per game a season ago and finished third in the Pac 12. And even though he shot 38% from three last year, the transformation of the backcourt should allow both he and sophomore guard Aaron Holiday to improve on their field goal percentages, while also cutting down on their number of turnovers.

The most prominent returner in the frontcourt is seven foot junior, Thomas Welsh, who, with continued improvement of his jumper and his post game, should further develop into a consistent offensive threat inside the arc. However, with the departures of Parker and Bolden, the Bruin frontcourt will not only invariably rely on the maturation of Welsh, but will also be forced to rely heavily on five star freshman forward T.J. Leaf, a McDonald’s All-American, whose athleticism and skill at 6’9″ will need to be immediately present if the Bruins hope to fill a glaring void in a frontcourt that is not especially deep, even before the 4-6 week absence of fellow freshman Ike Anigbogu to begin the season.

This year has the appearance of do or die time for Steve Alford. However, with an infusion of young talent, most notably of Ball and Leaf, the Bruins seems well positioned to return to their spot at the footsteps of prominence. Nevertheless, this was a team that barely finished inside the top 125 defensively last season, and their improvement this season must begin there. And although Ball already looks the part of transcendent, it remains to be seen whether or not superior talent in the starting five will be enough to alleviate a marked lack of depth down the bench. But suffice it to say, we think it will.

Namedrop Corner

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook

So this addition to the namedrop corner would appear to eschew our affection for the obscure and the otherwise anonymous. And yet, as UCLA’s most prominent and assuredly most idiosyncratic basketball alumnus, Russell Westbrook is just too compelling not to write about… and because, frankly,  well

There is no doubt that he became even more compelling because of everything that happened this summer, yet compelling in a way that only seemed to impel me even more fervently towards an effort to conceptualize him. To comprehend a figure that perpetually seems so deeply entrenched in his own individualism that he eschews even basic understanding. I don’t remember much of Russ from his days at UCLA apart from his game sealing dunk against Texas A&M in the second round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament. But something, even then, was undoubtedly magnetic about him. The 2008-09 NBA season was the first for the Oklahoma City Thunder (RIP Seattle Supersonics), but they moved across the country with a face of the franchise already in tow – Kevin Durant. They won only 23 games that season. And yet, it seemed so obvious that it would not take them long to ascend to the national forefront. After selecting James Harden with the third pick of the 2009 draft, the Thunder rode their transcendent young core all the way to the playoffs, where they earned the 8 seed and a first round matchup with the eventual world champion Los Angeles Lakers. But where I fell in love with the otherworldly and almost overwhelming mythos of Russell Westbrook was on a Tuesday night. April 20, 2010. Lakers-Thunder Game 2. 5:55 left in the third quarter. The Lakers were up 6. And then this happened.

roos

It was a game I watched from one of those faux-ergonomic desk chairs at a Holiday Inn in Omaha, Nebraska. Everything about the occasion seemed banal. But that didn’t mean that what was happening on the twenty inch screen just a couple feet from my face couldn’t do everything in its power to contradict the idyllic ordinariness of a Tuesday night in middle America. Like the man attempted to throw down on Andrew freaking Bynum from just in front of the free throw line. It was only his second year. And like I said, they won 23 games his rookie year. So this ostensibly qualified as my first HOLY SHIT THIS GUY IS NOT NORMAL moment of my Russell Westbrook experience. Like a regular human being was not supposed to attempt something like that. But he gave zero fucks. He turned around, walked to the free throw line, and calmly high fived his teammates. LIKE WHAT? YOU JUST TRIED TO PUT ANDREW BYNUM ON A MOTHERFUCKING POSTER. And yet it looked elegant and effortless in a way I’m still not sure I’m equipped to describe. He didn’t care what Bynum thought. He didn’t care what I thought. Russ was just gonna do Russ. And that’s the way it will always be. Throughout his career, Russell Westbrook has seemed more symbolic than he has a real basketball player. Emblematic of some level of unbridled kinetic beauty that we’re not yet privy to. He refuses to be reduced to anything by anybody. He has always seemed a supernatural figure, someone who if he was indebted to anything, it was to his own mythology. Which is why this summer was so interesting. It felt like maybe for the first time, Russell Westbrook, the human being was forced into the limelight whether he liked it or not. Kevin Durant left for the Bay. He left for the team he and Russ had blown a 3-1 lead to in the conference finals. So now, if he so chose, Russell Westbrook would be the unchallenged face of the Thunder. And that is exactly what he chose. Why exactly however, still seemed like a mystery. In many ways, he still seemed impenetrable. Revelatory as always because he is the best at what he does, Lee Jenkins talked to Russ and wrote about it in a piece that just recently dropped for Sports Illustrated. The title of the piece – “I Was Never Going to Leave”. What emanated from the piece is that Russell Westbrook is fiercely loyal. To his family. To his friends. To his team. And to his city. But also that he is deeply invested in the journey. In the ups and downs. He knows a championship will not be in the cards every year but he loves that it can be. In many ways he just loves. His overabundant compassion is what makes him him. It is easy to perceive him as the consummate individual. Obfuscatory by nature because he is so wrapped up in himself. But that might just fundamentally misunderstand who Russell Westbrook is. There’s a journey towards understanding, and that’s one thankfully, that we can be on with him.

 

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: #18 Purdue

Rotation

G P.J. Thompson (Jr.)

G Dakota Mathias (Jr.)

F Vince Edwards (Jr.)

F Caleb Swanigan (So.)

C Isaac Haas (Jr.)

Bench

G Spike Albrecht (Sr.)

F Jacquil Taylor (So.)

G Carsen Edwards (Fr.)

G Ryan Cline (So.)

F Basil Smotherman (Jr.)

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

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

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

Namedrop Corner

spike1

Michael Joseph Albrecht

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

Top 25 Countdown: #17 Louisville

Rotation

G Quentin Snider (Jr.)

G Donovan Mitchell (So.)

F Deng Adel (So.)

F Anas Mahmoud (Jr.)

C Mangok Mathiang (Sr.)

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

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

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

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

Namedrop Corner

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

jerrysmith

Top 25 Countdown: #19 Connecticut

Rotation

G Jalen Adams (So.)

G Rodney Purvis (Sr.)

F Terry Larrier (So.)

F Juwan Durham (Fr.)

C Amida Brimah (Sr.)

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

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

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

adamsfloater

Floater creativity

adamsdownhill

Attacking downhill

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

Namedrop Corner

Denham Brown

UCONN v Notre Dame

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

Top 25 Countdown: #20 Rhode Island

Rotation

G Jarvis Garrett (Jr.)

G Jared Terrll (Jr.)

G E.C. Matthews (Jr.)

F Hassan Martin (Sr.)

F Kuran Iverson (Sr.)

Bench

G Stanford Robinson (Jr.)

G Christion Thompson (So.)

F Nikola Akele (So.)

F Andre Berry (Jr.)

F Mike Layssard (Fr.)

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

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

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

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

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

Namedrop Corner

Lamar Odom

Lamar Odom

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

Top 25 Countdown: #21 SMU

Rotation

G Shake Milton (So.)

G Jarrey Foster (So.)

G Sterling Brown (Sr.)

F Semi Ojeleye (Jr.)

F Ben Moore (Sr.)

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Namedrop Corner:

Quinton Ross

qross

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

Top 25 Countdown: #22 Creighton

Rotation

G Mo Watson Jr. (Sr.)

G Marcus Foster (Jr.)

G Isaiah Zierden (Sr.)

F Cole Huff (Sr.)

C Justin Patton (R Fr.)

Bench

G Khyri Thomas (So.)

F Toby Hegner (Jr.)

C Zach Hanson (Sr.)

G Ronnie Harrell Jr. (So.)

G Kobe Paras (Fr.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Namedrop Corner

Ethan Wragge

eth

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

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