Doug McDermott, Calvin Godfrey

2011-12 Missouri Valley Preview: Is this Creighton’s year?

Leave a comment

AWARDS

Player of the Year: Doug McDermott, So., Creighton

Picking between McDermott and Missouri State’s Kyle Weems for the Valley’s preseason player of the year award is, more or less, a coin flip, but I’m going with McDermott here. He’s coming off a freshman season where he led the Bluejays in scoring (14.9 ppg) and rebounding (7.2 rpg), earned first-team all-league honors and made the USA’s U-19 team. While his stint as an international competitor didn’t quite go as planned — the States lost to Russia in the quarterfinals — McDermott did have quite a bit of individual success, averaging 11.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg. Don’t be surprised to see McDermott’s name pop-up on a few preseason all-american teams. The Valley is going to be strong this season, but in league’s like this the Player of the Year usually ends up being the best player on one of the best teams.

And a close second goes to…: Kyle Weems, Sr., Missouri State

Like I said, the preseason Player of the Year award is a toss-up between Weems and McDermott, and the fact that I have Weems behind McDermott should not be taken as an insult. The Missouri State star is primed for a big season. He averaged 16.0 ppg and 6.9 rpg on a team with one of the shortest benches in the country a year ago. Weems is the only starter that returns, meaning that he will be asked to carry an even bigger load next season. At 6’6″, Weems is big and strong enough to score around the basket against smaller opponents, but he is at his best when he plays the four spot. He can rebound on the defensive end of the floor and is a matchup nightmare for opposing power forwards with his ability to shoot the ball and score from the perimeter. Its difficult to envision a scenario where his efficiency doesn’t decline next year — he’ll be the focal point of every defensive gameplan — but he’ll also be shouldering a heavier burden. If he can carry the Bears into contention for the Valley title, there is no reason that he can’t win Player of the Year when things are all said and done.

Breakout Star: Dyricus Simms-Edwards, Jr., Bradley

Simms-Edwards averaged modest numbers as a sophomore, putting up 10.5 ppg, 3.5 apg, and 3.3 rpg. As the lone returnee among the Braves top five scorers, however, Simms-Edwards is going to be counted on to have a big year in 2011-2012. And based on the way that he finished last season, there is no reason to believe that he can’t capitalize on the increased number of shots he will get. The 6’2″ guard averaged 16.1 ppg, 4.5 apg, and 5.5 rpg over his last five games, and that was with Andrew Warren — the MVC’s scoring champ — still on the roster. If he can improve on the 28.2% he shot from beyond the arc, Simms-Edwards could end up being one of the best guards in the conference. His late-season improvement combined with the potential return of Taylor Brown to the lineup is a reason for Bradley fans to be optimistic heading into the fall.

All-Conference First-Team:

– POY: Doug McDermott, So., Creighton
– G: Antoine Young, Sr., Creighton
– G: Colt Ryan, Jr., Evansville
– F: Toure’ Murry, Sr., Wichita State
– F: Kyle Weems, Sr., Missouri State
– C: Gregory Echinique, Sr., Creighton

All-Conference Second-Team:

– G: Jake Odum, So., Indiana State
– G: Anthony James, Jr., Northern Iowa
– F: Mamadou Seck, Sr., Southern Illinois
– F: Jackie Carmichael, Jr., Illinois State
– C: Garrett Stutz, Sr., Wichita State

Four summer storylines

– Talent transferring out?: The Missouri Valley is the epitome of a mid-major league. Its a balanced conference that features quality teams built around the program. The league champs aren’t the teams that can bring in the most one-and-done recruits, its the generally the program that developed their players the best over a three or four year period. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t high-major players in the league, which is something that a lot of bigger schools are figuring out. The by-product of that — and the roster attrition of bigger programs — is bigger schools go fishing for players looking to get a second shot at the bright lights.

Three Valley players were involved in the transfer tango this off-season. The biggest name was probably Kyle Weems. The reigning Valley Player of the Year, Weems was not only the lone returning starter on a team that also lost their head coach, he had already finished his undergraduate work at Missouri State, meaning that he was free to transfer without having to sit out a season. Luckily for the Bears, Weems made the decision to remain with the program. The same cannot be said for Bradley’s Sam Maniscalco, who decided to leave the Braves program this offseason. He’ll suit up for Bruce Weber at Illinois next year. Perhaps the most interesting transfer decision was made by Drake’s Rayvonte Rice. After a dominant freshman campaign, the 6’4″ wing had a number of high-major suitors. But Rice stayed loyal to the Bulldogs and will remain with the program for at least another season.

– Coaching changes, buyouts and lawsuits: There were a couple of coaching changes in the Valley this offseason. The most notable was Paul Lusk taking over the Valley champs after Cuonzo Martin left Missouri State to replace Bruce Pearl at Tennessee, but the most interesting involved Bradley. The Braves fired Jim Les, replacing him with Geno Ford and, in the process, found themselves in the middle of two different lawsuits. The first was filed by Kent State, whonamed Bradley in their suit against Ford. Kent State is trying to get Ford to pay the $1.2 million buyout that he owes — $300,000 for each of the four years left on his contract. Les, on the other hand, is suing Bradley, who he says owes him money after firing him with three-years left on his seven-year contract.

– Creighton overseas: The Bluejays made a splash in international hoops this summer. First, it was Doug McDermott, who was a standout on the USA’s U-19 team. While the team underperformed, finshing in fifth-place following a quarterfinal loss to Russia, McDermott was terrific. He averaged 11.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg on the trip. Then there is Gregory Echenique, who played with Venezuela as his home country tried to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games. Finally, Creighton took a trip to the Bahamas, winning all four of their exhibitions handily.

– Northern Iowa’s program getting cut?: The Iowa state budget cuts have hit all of the universities hard, but due to UNI’s reliance on state funding — thanks to a high percentage of in-state students — the Panthers have been hit the hardest. They already had their baseball program get the axe and are now in danger of losing their athletics programs, as well as a number of academic programs. Here’s to hoping that the school can figure out a solution that doesn’t involve eliminating the possibility of reliving the Ali Farokhmanesh-sparked Sweet 16 run.

Four storylines heading into the season

– Will Taylor Brown play?: As a sophomore in 2009-2010, Brown was one of the best players on the Braves roster, averaging 13.5 ppg and 6.9 rpg as a 6’6″ forward. But he was forced to sit out last season after to undergo cardiac testing. Whether or not he will play this season is still up in the air — remember, when dealing with cardiac issues, the answers are never definite. As of September 21st, Brown was cleared for all basketball related activities.

“We welcome Taylor back to the court” said first-year Bradley head coach Geno Ford. “He has been through a difficult experience and we are happy that he is able to rejoin his teammates on the floor and compete for Bradley.”

The next question is just how good he can be. His cardiac testing had to occur after a three month rest period, which means that not only was he sitting out games, but he was sitting out practice as well. How long will it take him to work his way back into game shape? If he returns to his sophomore year form, Brown will form a nice 1-2 punch with junior guard Dyricus Simms-Edwards.

– The Interlude dance: Please, let this tradition continue:

– Rebuilding programs: Southern Illinois was a Valley powerhouse in the mid-00’s. They made the NCAA Tournament every year from 2002-2007, winning five MVC regular season titles and one MVC Tournament title during that stretch. Since then, SIU has gone 57-66 overall and 30-42 in the Valley. Northern Iowa is on the verge of a similar collapse. After reaching the 2010 Sweet 16, the Panthers struggled after Lucas O’Rear’s career ended when he broke his ankle, finished in the middle the MVC and then lost one of the best point guards in the history of their program in Kwadzo Ahelegbe. It will be a task for Ben Jacobson to replace the leadership those two provided. Illinois State suffered a similar drop-off in 2010-2011. After finishing in the top three and making the NIT in each of Tim Jankovich’s first three seasons, the Redbirds struggled with injuries and offensive execution as they finished last in the conference. Can any of these programs turn it around in 2011-2012?

– How good is Creighton?: With all due respect to Wichita State, Missouri State and Indiana State, I’m of the opinion this conference is Creighton’s to lose. They have the best player, the best point guard and the quite possibly the best big man as well. They also have a deep bench with a number of quality role players and shooters. The question, in my mind, is just how good this team can be. Are they top 25 good? Quite possibly, particularly if Doug McDermott has the kind of season that some are predicting. Are they good enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament? Well, they don’t have much margin for error. Their non-conference schedule isn’t overly impressive — a home game against Northwestern and roadies at UAB and SDSU are the highlights — which means that they probably will want to win the Valley to feel safe on Selection Sunday. Can they make it past the first weekend? Should they get to the tournament, I don’t think Creighton is a team that I would want to play. They have not only had a year together to gel under Greg McDermott, but they experienced some postseason success last season, making the finals of the CBI.

Power Rankings

1. Creighton: The Bluejays kicked off a new era in 2010-2011, one that will likely be dominated by McDermott’s. Greg, the father, left Iowa State to return to the MVC where he cut his teeth with Northern Iowa and made three straight NCAA Tournaments in the middle of the decade. He brought along with him Doug, his son, who was originally signed to play at … Northern Iowa. The younger McDermott turned out to be a star, averaging 14.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg and shooting 40.5% from beyond the arc while making both the MVC’s first team and the USA U-19 team.

The Bluejays had a decent 2010-2011 campaign as they tried to blend together a number of new pieces. McDermott wasn’t the lone newcomer in the front, as Creighton also added Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique. The 6’9″, 275 lb Venezuelan came on strong during Creighton’s run to the title series of the CBI. With McDermott a potential all-american, the Bluejays will have the best frontline in the conference especially if Ethan Wragge, who started by the end of his freshman season, can comeback from the foot injury that sidelined him for all but nine games as a sophomore. The back court should be a strength as well. Antoine Young will be one of the best point guards in the conference — on both sides of the ball, as he did as good of a job de-Jimmering BYU as anyone in the country last season. Junior Josh Jones and sophomore Jahenns Manigat both showed flashes of being quality scorers in the MVC as well. Throw in redshirt freshman center Will Artino, Gonzaga transfer Grant Gibbs in the back court and a quartet of incoming freshmen, and McDermott has as deep of a roster as anyone in the conference. He’ll be looking to increase Creighton’s aggressiveness on both ends of the floor, so don’t be surprised to see the Bluejays return to the top of the Valley this season.

2. Wichita State: Its tough to know whether to call Wichita State’s 2010-2011 season a success. Winning the NIT after finishing a game out of first place in the Valley is far from what you would consider a disappointment. That said, the Shockers have to be kicking themselves over how close they came to doing so much more. After blowing their Maui opener against UConn, the Shockers proceeded to lose four games at home in February and March. One of those games was a one point loss to VCU. Another came against Southern Illinois. And despite all of that, Wichita State was still in the conversation for an at-large berth come tournament time. What could have been …

Wichita State should be able to compete for an MVC title next season based on their back court alone. Its headlined by a trio of talented and unselfish seniors that buy into what Gregg Marshall is selling. Joe Ragland is the point guard, David Kyles is the shooter, and Toure’ Murry is the play-maker and the slasher. All three are capable of producing big games, but they also all understand their role within the team. Junior Demetric Williams showed flashes of promise last season, but he will be battling for bench minutes with freshmen Evan Wessel and Tekele Cotton. Where the Shockers have question marks is along their front line. Garrett Stutz, their seven-foot senior center, returns. He is going to need to increase his productivity to make up for JT Durley’s scoring and Gabe Blair’s rebounding and physicality inside. The undersized Ben Smith will be back, although he tends to spend more on his time on the perimeter. Beyond that, Marshall is going to have a lot of fresh faces manning the paint, but the most interesting may actually be a freshman. Jake White is a face-up four that had some legitimate high-major interest.

3. Indiana State: After nearly a decade of mediocrity, the Sycamores became the surprise champs of the Missouri Valley last season. Despite a couple of significant hiccups during the season — a brutal non-conference stretch and a five-game losing streak during conference play — Larry Bird’s alma mater ran through Arch Madness as the three-seed before losing to Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. With quite a bit of talent returning, Indiana State will have a real shot at making a second consecutive tournament appearance.

The Sycamores will be an interesting team to keep an eye on next season. While they do lose two key back court pieces – starter Aaron Carter and senior leader Jake Kelly — they bring back everyone else, including a fairly deep back court. Dwayne Lathan is the name that most will recognize. An extremely athletic, 6’3″ guard, Lathan — who averaged 12.9 ppg as a sophomore and 10.6 ppg as a junior — struggled a bit after returning from an injury that sidelined him for a week in the middle of the season. Part of the reason for those struggles, however, was the emergence of Jake Odum. A redshirt freshman that grew up in ISU’s backyard, Odum became a leader for the Sycamores, carrying them to a five game winning streak to close out MVC play before their tournament run. Once Odum and Lathan get on the same page, Indiana State will have a dangerous back court. Expect Jordan Printy and Steve McWhorter to provide minutes off the bench. The key for the Sycamores will be up front, where they are a bit undersized. Carl Richard is a tough combo-forward, but he’s only 6’5″ and can get overmatched in the paint. Center Myles Walker, a senior JuCo transfer, improved throughout the season and should be a key contributor this year. RJ Mahurin and Jake Kitchell both have had an offseason to get stronger, but the x-factor could end up being freshman Justin Gant. Gant, another Terre Haute native, is a face-up four that had some strong Big Ten interest.

4. Evansville: After a disastrous 2009-2010 campaign that saw the Purple Aces win just nine games and go 3-15 in the Valley, Evansville put together a solid season a year ago. Led by star guard Colt Ryan, the Aces finished 15-14 overall, 9-9 in the league and had wins at Butler and again UT-San Antonio, the SWAC champion. The biggest issue for Marty Simmons’ club? The road. The Purple Aces went just 3-12 away from home last season, including a couple of embarrassing losses late in the season.

This season, however, Evansville will be interesting to keep an eye on. They return three starters and their top four scorers, including Ryan, who averaged 15.7 ppg as a sophomore and scored more than 20 points nine times, including two 30 point outbursts. After spending the past two seasons as a young team, that youth has finally matured — Evansville has three seniors and five juniors on the roster. Simmons will have plenty of pieces in his perimeter rotation. Seniors Kenneth Harris and Denver Holmes, juniors Ned Cox and Lewis Jones, and sophomore Jordan Jahr will all see time this season. Keep an eye on Troy Taylor as well, as he averaged 2.3 apg in just 14.4 mpg as a sophomore. The issue Evansville is going to have is in the front court. The only returnee taller than 6’6″ is 6’8″ senior Matt Peeler, who played a whopping 70 minutes last year. Simmons does bring in three front court players as freshmen, but regardless of level, relying on freshmen in your frontcourt is not necessarily a recipe for success. Harris, and to a lesser extent Holmes, both play bigger than their size, but at under 6’6″, it will be tough for them to deal with front courts like Creighton’s.

5. Missouri State: Depending on how you look at it, Missouri State’s 2010-2011 campaign was both an overwhelming success and a tremendous disappointment. On the one hand, Cuonzo Martin completed the rebuilding process, taking what was a 3-15 in his first season and turning them into league champions in just three years while returning league Player of the Year Kyle Weems for the 2011-2012 season. The bad news? Not only did Martin depart for the greener pastures of Tennessee, but the four other players that started around Weems all graduated. Weems will have a big season, but new head coach Paul Lusk is going to have to build a completely new team around him — the Bears had one of the shortest benches in the country last season.

As we said, this team will be built around Kyle Weems. Weems in the quintessential Valley combo-forward — big enough to score over a smaller defender, perimeter savvy to bury a three or dribble by a slower power forward. He’ll have a big year as a senior, even when defenses key in on him. The question is going to be Weems’ supporting cast. Lusk will more or less have four players at his disposal that can be considers “returners”, or players that were in Martin’s rotation. The guy to keep an eye on is Caleb Patterson. A seven-footer that is pretty skilled offensively, Patterson is going to need to get tougher and more physical in the paint — he averaged just 2.2 rpg as a junior and it cost him some playing time. Isaiah Rhines should also contribute up front, but keep an eye on freshmen Christian Kirk and Andrew Wilson. Kirk should be able to contribute significant minutes immediately. The back court is more of a question mark. Sophomore Nathan Scheer should start. He’s a heady player that defends, doesn’t commit turnovers, and showed an improved scoring touch late in the season. Keith Pickens, who started 17 games as a freshman in 2009-2010, will be back as well, but he’s battled knee injuries throughout his career, missing the entire 2010-2011 season. Beyond that, there are minutes to be earned here. Corey Copeland played about five minutes a game as a freshman, but he could be pushed by freshman Dorrian Williams and JuCo transfers Anthony Downing and Jarmar Gulley. Depending on how the new members of the rotation develop, the Bears should finish in the top half of the conference.

6. Northern Iowa: After the initial growing pains of integrating players into new roles, Northern Iowa appeared to have found their stride midway through conference play. Sitting at 9-3 after reeling off eight straight wins, the Panthers season essentially ended when Lucas O’Rear broke his ankle in early February. A team known for their defensive toughness lost their leader. Throw in the graduation of Kwadzo Ahelegbe, a four-year starter and defensive hawk at the point, and Ben Jacobson is looking at a bit of a rebuilding year in 2011-2012.

There are some pieces left on the roster, however. Forward Jake Koch, the younger brother of former MVC Player of the Year Adam Koch, had a couple of big games for the Panthers, including a 34 point outburst against Bradley, but he was too inconsistent as a sophomore and had a habit of disappearing in big games. If the Panthers are going to compete atop the league, Koch is going to have to become a more reliable scoring presence. The rest of the front court rotation is still to be determined. Austin Pehl is their biggest body at 6’10”, 245 lb, but the redshirt junior has yet to show the physicality inside that O’Rear and Jordan Egleseder had the last few years. Sophomore Chip Rank, redshirt freshman Nate Buss and true freshman Seth Tuttle will have a chance to earn their way into the rotation as well. In the back court, the key is going to be replacing Ahelegbe, which won’t be easy. Junior Anthony James was the breakout star of this Panther team last season. He averaged 12.4 ppg as a sophomore, but at 6’0″, he created just 25 assists all year. Senior Johnny Moran has been a consistent role player throughout his career, and I’m sure Jacobson would like to see him become more assertive this season. The same can be said for junior Marc Sonnen. Don’t be surprised if freshmen point guards Deon Mitchell and JeVon Lyle compete for minutes at the lead guard spot as well. The Panthers will compete, but expect the team — usually known as a defensive juggernaut — to struggle until they find players willing to fill the roles Ahelegbe and O’Rear played defensively.

7. Drake: The Bulldogs struggled to rebuild last season, winning just 13 regular season games and finishing 7-11 in league play. After an ugly start, that included 40-plus point losses to Iowa State and St. John’s in November and a 3-8 start to MVC play, the Bulldogs erased all the momentum gained from a 5-2 stretch in February by getting drubbed by Bradley in both of their last two games. It was a young roster for head coach Mark Phelps, led by star freshman Rayvonte Rice. Rice navigated through the recruiting pitches he received throughout the offseason to return to Drake for his sophomore season, but an arrest for shoplifting in early September with teammate Kurt Alexander put a damper that enthusiasm. Both are currently suspended indefinitely.

The good news is that the Bulldogs return essentially their entire team. Seven of their top eight scorers return, and that doesn’t include senior Frank Wiseler (Ed. Note: Wiseler has recently decided to leave the team and end his basketball career) and redshirt freshman Karl Madison, Drake’s two best point guards that both suffered season-ending injuries. Having a true point guard to run the team should be an immediate boost to an offensive that finished eighth in the conference in terms of efficiency. Kurt Alexander, an off-guard that helped handle point guard duties last year, will be back as well. Its easy to say that the development of Rice, who averaged 13.8 ppg and 4.8 rpg as a freshman, is the key for the Bulldogs this season. As a powerful shooting guard (or undersized small forward), he has the kind of the ability that you can build a Valley program around so long as he develops better shot selection. But where Drake will have their season made is in the front court. Can juniors Seth VanDeest (if he’s not out for the season with a torn labrum), Aaron Hawley and Jordan Clarke and senior Kraidon Woods battle with some of the better front lines in the league? Will junior Ben Simons continue to develop as a dangerous inside-outside threat?

8. Bradley: Bradley heads into this season with a much different look and set of expectations than last season. Last year, they were expected to compete for a spot near the top of the league. But that was before Sam Maniscalco ended his season after six games, applying for a medical red-shirt and eventually transferring to Illinois for his senior season. That was also before Taylor Brown was diagnosed with a heart condition. He sat out last year and may not be ready to play this year. And while Andrew Warren had a career year as a senior — averaging 18.8 ppg to lead the league — it wasn’t enough to get Bradley out of last place. Ultimately, head coach Jim Les was fired (and sued the school), leading to Bradley bringing in Geno Ford from Kent State.

Ford will have his work cut out for him early on in his tenure. In addition to losing Maniscalco and Warren, Dodie Dunson graduated and Will Egolf, a fifth-year senior center, tore his acl in early June — the second time he suffered that injury in his right knee. There are some pieces for the Braves. Junior guard Dyricus Simms-Edwards really came on at the end of the season, averaging 16.1 ppg over the last ten games. Sophomores Walt Lemon, a 6’3″ guard, and Jordan Prosser, a 6’9″ forward, both showed flashes of impressive potential. Throw in the addition of some talented freshmen — forwards Shayok Shayok and Devon Hodges, guards Jalen Crawford and Donivine Stewart, and slender seven-footer Nate Wells (who has already put on 20 pounds of muscle) — and Ford does have some talent to work with. But the key is Brown, who averaged 13.5 ppg and 6.9 rpg in 2009-2010. If he is cleared, Bradley has a shot to finish in the top half of the league. If not, Braves fans will have to wait a season. Whatever the case, the future is bright.

9. Illinois State: Tim Jankovich had his worst season as the head man of Illinois State in 2010-2011. After finishing in the top three of the MVC and earning a trip to the NIT in each of his first three seasons, Jankovich lost his top three scorers heading into last season. Simply put, the Redbirds could not score. Only one player on the roster — Austin Hill — averaged double figures (10.6 ppg), and he graduated. ISU also had major issues at the point guard position. Kenyon Smith was in and out of the lineup with injuries and Anthony Cousin had 67 assists to 56 turnovers. Not exactly what you look for out of your primary ball-handler.

The good news for Jankovich is that he still has Jackie Carmichael and John Wilkins. Carmichael, a 6’9″ rising junior, is a talented-if-inconsistent post threat. While he averaged 9.8 ppg and 5.4 rpg as a sophomore, he had a couple of big games — 22 points vs. South Dakota, 22 points and eight boards at Missouri State, and 43 points and 30 rebounds in his last two games against Bradley. Wilkins, who is also 6’9″, is more of a perimeter player that, along with Carmichael, could form a nice inside-outside attack along the front line. With redshirt sophomore Jon Ekey and redshirt freshman Threloff also in the mix, Illinois State has some potential up front. The issue will be the back court. Who is going to create? Will Hill be more effective off the ball? Just how good are freshmen Nic Moore (PG) and Johnny Hill (SG)? Those are a lot of questions to be answered in one back court.

10. Southern Illinois: Chris Lowery is probably regretting his decision not to cash in on the Saluki’s success early in his tenure. Since taking SIU to three straight NCAA Tournaments and the 2007 Sweet 16 — which earned him a multi-million dollar, seven-year contract — Lowery has lost 15 or more games four straight years, suffering through losing seasons the last three. The problem? Lowery’s teams have gotten away from the grind-it-out defensive mindset that netted them tournament trips and he’s brought in too many players that have opted to leave the program. The latest example was Gene Teague, Lowery’s starting center who didn’t finished the season with the team and is now at Seton Hall.

Things don’t look to be getting much better next season for Lowery. In addition to losing Teague, Carlton Fay — the MVC’s third-leading scorer — graduated while Mykel Cleveland and Troy Long were both run off the team following a mid-season suspension. Diamond Taylor was also suspended indefinitely at the start of the month. That said, Lowery does have a couple of solid pieces to build around. Mamadou Seck is a live-bodied, 6’7″ forward that averaged 10.1 ppg and 8.1 rpg as a junior. Another senior, Justin Bocot, battled injuries all year but really came on strong late in the season. Throw in Kendal Brown-Surles, a junior guard that proved to be a threat from the perimeter as a sophomore, and Lowery certainly does not have a bare cupboard. Sophomore big man Davante Drinkard will also be counted on to produce inside this season. He was overmatched as a rookie. The rest of the roster will be made up of freshmen and JuCo transfers. Expect another finish in the bottom half of the league.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

No. 1 Kentucky succeeding with many willing to assist

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 23:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball during the game against the Cleveland State Vikings at Rupp Arena on November 23, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) For a team that annually turns over its roster of talented individuals, top-ranked Kentucky is playing like a group that has worked together for a while.

The Wildcats’ unselfish play is reflected in a No. 3 ranking in assists (21.3 per game), helped by a season-best 33 on 44 baskets in Monday night’s 115-69 pasting of Arizona State in the Bahamas. That was Kentucky’s highest total under coach John Calipari, who has emphasized sharing the ball to every crop of heralded freshmen.

While that’s better than he might have expected this soon, Calipari doesn’t seem too surprised.

“There’s a couple reasons,” Calipari said Friday. “They’re really skilled, so you can share. When you’re not skilled, you put your head down and you bounce it and you run people over.

“Second thing is, their minds think quick. So, they can see stuff and recognize quickly. . And it’s hard to figure that out until you coach a guy, so there are guys that I’ve had that you have to know that that’s who they are. OK, they’re going to play a little different. But when you put five guys with nimble minds and are skilled, that’s what you get.”

Selflessness could be in play often when Kentucky (7-0) hosts No. 11 UCLA on Saturday in a matchup of college basketball’s marquee programs featuring similar strengths.

The Bruins (8-0) lead the nation in assists (24.8 per game) and field goal percentage (55.3) and are third in scoring average (97 points), just ahead of Kentucky (95.6). UCLA also features the country’s top distributor in freshman guard Lonzo Ball, who averages 9.6 assists including a school freshman-record 13 on Wednesday against UC Riverside.

Kentucky features several facilitators with freshman guard De’Aaron Fox drawing raves after posting Kentucky’s second triple-double (14 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) and first since 1988. Fox ranks fourth nationally with 7.6 assists per game and appears to have inherited the floor general role handled last season by Tyler Ulis.

But other Wildcats have willingly fed their teammates, with the freshmen in particular arriving in Lexington with some playing history together.

“We know how we played a little bit, so we were comfortable with each other,” said guard Malik Monk, Kentucky’s scoring leader (19.3 points). “We just came here and put the work in. .

“We share the ball naturally. I don’t think he (Calipari) knows that we’re going to share the ball the whole game. When I said we just play basketball and we have fun together, that comes with sharing the ball.”

Monk has two highlight-reel examples of how much the Wildcats enjoy giving.

His off-balance effort to keep a ball inbounds against Arizona State culminated in a one-handed pass to forward Wenyen Gabriel for a two-handed reverse dunk, one of several signature moments besides Fox’s milestone. Last week against Cleveland State, Monk followed up his steal by bouncing the ball off the glass to a trailing Fox for a dunk that brought the house down.

Monk ranks third in assists behind Fox and senior guard Dominique Hawkins (22 assists, two turnovers), a reserve who’s known more for defense. Calipari noted that as proof of the Wildcats’ willingness to share, a trait that could be demonstrated by both teams on Saturday.

Said Monk, “It’s working for us good, so we’re going to keep it rolling.”

More AP College Basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org

Previewing Kentucky vs. UCLA: The season’s most anticipated matchup to date

Getty Images
Getty Images
3 Comments

The most impressive team in college basketball through the first three weeks of the season has been the Kentucky Wildcats.

They’re ranked No. 1 in the country for good reason. They’ve won by at least 21 points in every game they’ve played, they’ve scored at least 87 points in every games except one, they’ve cracked triple-digits in each of their last three games and they just so happen to have one of the best defenses in the sport.

What else do you need?

Critics will say they need to do this against a team with comparable talent, and it’s not unfair. Kentucky’s beaten up on five mid-major teams, Arizona State and a Michigan State team that is currently 4-4.

On Saturday, we get that matchup. The Wildcats will host No. 11 UCLA, who has an electric freshman guard of their own leading an offense that is lighting up scoreboards out west.

It will be the most-anticipated matchup on a day filled with terrific games, not only because it’s between two blue-blood programs playing elite-level basketball, but because the way these two teams play should turn this into a fast-paced, highlight-laden shootout.

Let’s break the matchup down.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

If you looked solely at the box scores of Kentucky’s games, you’d probably assume that the Wildcats are the second-coming of the Golden State Warriors, an offensive juggernaut with a roster full of players that are unguardable.

That’s not necessarily the case.

What makes this Kentucky team so special happens on the defensive side of the ball. Simply put, they are a nightmare to play against. De’Aaron Fox is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. Isaiah Briscoe isn’t all that far behind, and Malik Monk has assuaged fears about whether or not he was a guy that cared about that side of the ball.

And I haven’t even mentioned the size and versatility along their front line yet.

Cal isn’t doing anything all that fancy with them on the defensive end, either. He isn’t reinventing the wheel. He’s not playing gimmick defenses or using any kind of full-court pressure. All he’s doing is asking his guys to play aggressive, pressuring man-to-man defense, often-times picking up the primary ball-handler for 94-feet, and his team has bought in.

Their best defensive lineup, the one that Cal has used to start three of the last four games, features Wenyen Gabriel at the four and Bam Adebayo at the five. Both Gabriel and Adebayo are athletic enough to cover point guards, so Cal will switch every exchange 1-through-5.

Kentucky plays with an unbelievable amount of effort and energy on defense. Everyone on the roster plays like they’re the walk-ons, like the only way they can get minutes is if they lead the team in floor-burns. But they’re not. They’re lottery picks, and in the case of Fox and Monk, more athletic than anyone they’re going to face this season. They make running offense a nightmare, and once they get the ball back – whether it’s off a missed shot, a turnover and, oftentimes, even a made shot – it’s off to the races.

And it’s that transition game that kills you.

Briscoe, Fox and Monk are all interchangeable. They can grab a defensive rebound and lead the break coast-to-coast. (Part of the reason that Fox is averaging such a high number of rebounds is that he doesn’t have to worry about point guards crashing the glass, so while the other four guys on the floor go find a body, Fox heads to the rim and grabs the board, the quickest way to ignite their break.) If that doesn’t work, all three of them can throw outlet passes 94 feet and drop them in the bucket like Aaron Rodgers throwing a fade route. They can be the guys running the lanes, catching those passes and finishing acrobatic layups with two guys draped all over them. They can throw the alleys and finish the oops.

But the key to their transition game?

They read each other so well. If Fox sees Briscoe is in a spot to get an outlet pass, he’s gone. If Monk is corralling a rebound, he knows Fox and Briscoe will be running the floor already. That’s why you see “possessions” for Kentucky that so often look like this:

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-1-31-48-pm

On the year, 28.7 percent of Kentucky’s offensive possessions come in transition, according to Synergy’s logs, which is second nationally only to a Savannah State team that has yet to record a win over a Division I opponent.

One of the criticisms of Coach Cal is that he’s only a recruiter. He doesn’t coach, he just rolls the ball out and lets the talent on his team takeover. Frankly, that’s what he’s doing this year, and it’s brilliant. He doesn’t need to micro-manage this group. All he had to do as devise a system that would play to their strengths and let their instincts takeover.

He did, and it’s working pretty well to date.


The key to beating Kentucky this season is to force them to play offense in the half-court. The closest anyone has come to doing that this season was Michigan State, and they held the Wildcats to a manageable 69 points. Kentucky has a perimeter shooting issue. Fox and Briscoe combined have made just five threes on the season and are shooting 20.8 percent from beyond the arc even after combining to go 3-for-3 against Arizona State on Monday night. Their best defensive lineup doesn’t really have a front court scoring threat while guys like Isaac Humphries and Derek Willis, upgrades offensively, limit how effective that Kentucky defense is.

The easiest way to slow down a team’s transition game is by scoring. Make them take the ball out of the net.

And the good news for Bruins fans is that UCLA not only has one of the nation’s most potent offenses themselves, but they just so happen to be able to do the things that you need to be able to do to operate against that Kentucky defense.

The biggest thing is that the Bruins, like the Wildcats, are terrific in transition. Believe it or not, UCLA actually plays at a faster tempo and has a shorter average length of possession than the Wildcats, according to KenPom.com. The best way to score on a great defense like Kentucky’s? Beat them down the floor and score before they’re set. Get uncontested layups. Get open threes before the defense can locate all of the shooters, of which UCLA has plenty.

Kentucky’s transition game is designed around getting those layups, using their speed to beat teams to the rim. UCLA’s is slightly different, geared towards getting the myriad of shooters on the roster open, rhythm threes. No one in the country is better at making that happen than Lonzo Ball, and I say that for three reasons: (1.) UCLA leads the nation in effective field goal percentage because (2.) they’re second in the nation in three-point percentage and (3.) they’re in the 88th percentile in transition points-per-possession just a year after finishing in the 21st percentile, according to Synergy, while (4.) Ball averages 9.6 assists, leading the nation.

In this case, the effect is two-fold: Not only will UCLA avoid having to run offense in the half court, it will keep Kentucky from getting out in transition at the same time.

It’s not crazy to think that UCLA’s best defense on Saturday will be fast break buckets.

But even if the Bruins are unable to get out and run, this is still a team with weapons that can break down Kentucky’s switching man-to-man defense.

Think back to the NBA Finals. The way the Cavaliers attacked Golden State’s switches was to create the mismatches that they wanted; in other words, they’d have whoever Stephen Curry was guarding set a ball-screen for LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, then sit back and let talent takeover.

You beat a switching defense by identifying the mismatch you want to take advantage of and force that switch.

Part of the reason that Kentucky’s switching has been so effective is that they haven’t run into a team who has guards that are capable of fully taking advantage of those mismatches. Is anyone really that worried about Tum Tum Nairn or Tra Holder? UCLA, however, does. Everyone should know how good Ball is at this point, but the other three pieces the Bruins have on the perimeter – Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday – are talented as well. Combined, those three are averaging 46.4 points, 10.6 assists and shooting 44.8 percent from three on nearly 17 threes attempted per game.

They spread the floor with shooters, their perimeter is littered with playmakers and their bigs are skilled enough to be able to slip screens and take advantage of having a smaller guard on them.

The one thing UCLA does not do well is crash the glass, but that has a hidden benefit: keeping two or three guys behind the ball is a really good way to limit how many run-outs Kentucky can get.


Neither Kentucky nor UCLA has truly played a team that appears to be on their level this season, which is what makes this game so intriguing.

Lonzo Ball has played like the potential No. 1 pick in the draft and UCLA has looked like the hands-down favorite to win the Pac-12.

And Kentucky?

Playing them has been about as much fun as getting your hand caught in a meat grinder.

On Saturday, for really the first time this year, we’ll get a sense for whether or not their early-season hype has been justified. But more than that, we’ll see a game between two of the most entertaining teams in the country, two teams loaded with offensive firepower and future NBA players in a game where the winner will be the team that can run the floor better.

What more can you ask more?

Weekend Preview: Kentucky-UCLA, Baylor-Xavier and the rest of Saturday’s Showdowns

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats talks with Malik Monk #5, De'Aaron Fox #0, and Wenyen Gabriel #32 in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Leave a comment

SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 11 UCLA at No. 1 Kentucky, Sat. 12:30 p.m.: Outside of the Champions Classic, this matchup between a pair of blue-bloods in one of the nation’s most famous arenas is likely the most anticipated game of the season to date. Why? For starters, the amount of talent that’s going to be on the floor is ridiculous, but more importantly, that talent allows Kentucky and UCLA to both play styles that are quite aesthetically pleasing. Our full preview for this game can be found here.

  • Prediction: The official lines are not out yet, but according to KenPom.com, which is usually a fairly good approximate for Vegas, Kentucky looks to be around a 10-point favorite. At (+10), I’ll be on UCLA.

No. 7 Xavier at No. 9 Baylor, Sat. 3:30 p.m.: UCLA-Kentucky may be the most anticipated matchup of the weekend, but Baylor-Xavier is the game that will pit two top ten teams against each other. Xavier we all expected to be in this spot this season, but Baylor’s emergence as a potential Big 12 contender caught a lot of people by surprise.

There are going to be two key matchups here. The Bears are going to have a huge advantage on the interior. Johnathan Motley will be the best big man on the floor by a wide margin – if he keeps playing the way that he’s been playing, he’ll be in the discussion for all-american teams – while Jo Lual-Acuil has been a revelation this season. That duo can really protect the rim, and the Bears have been good about making sure they run offense through them on the other end of the floor. I’m not sure who Xavier has to slow them down.

On the other side, we have the Musketeers, who are going to have to figure out how to deal with Baylor’s 1-1-3 zone, which looks like a junk defense on the surface but is tough to figure out the first time you see it. Chris Mack’s club has some perimeter talent – Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner are the big names, but J.P. Macura has been terrific this season – but Myles Davis, the guy that makes their offense run smoothly, still is not cleared to play.

  • Prediction: We’ll update this when an official line comes out. KenPom has Baylor winning by four, and if that’s the case, Baylor (-4) is a good bet.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

SEVEN MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 25 West Virginia at No. 6 Virginia, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: Styles don’t get any more contrasting than that of Press Virginia and the Pack-Line. The Mountaineers want to play full court, frenetic basketball while the Wahoos like to control every detail of a game. What wins out?
  • Saint Joseph’s at No. 2 Villanova, Sat. 1:00 p.m.: The Holy War! An always-intense rivalry, I don’t think that the Hawks have the horses to take a run at Villanova this season, especially not when the game is being played in the Pavillion.
  • No. 8 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Arizona, Sat. 5:30 p.m.: This game looked a lot more interesting when we thought Arizona would have Parker Jackson-Cartwright, not to mention Allonzo Trier, Ray Smith and Terrence Ferguson.
  • Oklahoma at No. 17 Wisconsin, Sat. 1:00 p.m.: The Sooners are sitting at 6-1 on the season despite learning to play without Buddy Hield and company. This will be their biggest test of the season to date.
  • No. 21 Rhode Island at Providence, Sat. 4:30 p.m.: A battle for supremacy in the state of Rhode Island. It may not make waves nationally, but this rivalry matters in the state.

FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Kentucky and UCLA are both playing elite teams for the first time: That is the No. 1 story line that needs to be taken out of this game.

Kentucky has been absolutely massacring opponents this season. They’ve only scored fewer than 87 points once and cracked triple-digits in their last three games. UCLA has reached triple-digits quite often themselves this season, putting together a transition attack that is less ruthless but more aesthetic than Kentucky’s. Both of them look like the runaway favorites to win their respective leagues as of today, but neither of them have played anyone all that good. Kentucky has wins over Michigan State and Arizona State. UCLA has picked off Nebraska and Texas A&M.

Those wins are nothing like the wins that Indiana now has, which is the beauty of this game. UK and UCLA matchup really, really well, so this should not only be an incredibly entertaining game to view, it is going to be our first chance to really see how they do going up against a significant test.

2. The same can be said for West Virginia and Virginia: The Mountaineers are doing crazy things with their press this season – like, for example, forcing 40 turnovers in a 40 minute game – but they aren’t exactly doing it against the best competition. They have beaten Illinois (who lost to Winthrop) and lost to Temple (who lost to New Hampshire and UMass). So who knows just how good they actually are.

The same can be said for Virginia, who gave up an average of just 41.3 points in their first six games but who also found themselves down 32-16 with five minutes left in the first half at home against Ohio State. The Wahoos eventually won that game, but seeing as the Buckeyes, who are a borderline tournament team, are the best team that Virginia has played this season, I don’t think we really have a feel for just how good this team is or how much they miss Austin Nichols.

We’ll learn a lot in Charlottesville on Saturday.

Virginia guard London Perrantes (32) reacts to a three pointer during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Charlottesville, Va., Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. Virginia won the game 63-61. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia guard London Perrantes (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

3. About Nigel Hayes … : Hayes played easily his best game of the season in Tuesday’s win over No. 22 Syracuse, coming within a point of a triple-double as he almost single-handedly sliced apart the Orange zone. It wasn’t a coincidence that Wisconsin looked as good as they have all year when Hayes, who hasn’t shot a three in two games, operated as a playmaker in the paint and played inside-out. But that was also against a zone, where it only makes sense to play Hayes at the high-post.

So what happens this weekend? What happens against Oklahoma? Will Hayes continue to embrace what he does best at this level, or will be continue to try to prove what he can be to the next level?

4. Melo Trimble vs. Jawun Evans: Evans might be the best point guard in the country that you haven’t heard of yet. Trimble, on the other hand, is a guy that everyone knows, a guy that has developed a reputation for saving his team in crunch time. Both Evans’ Oklahoma State team and Trimble’s Maryland Terrapins really could a win on Saturday night when they play at the XFinity Center.

5. So who’s hurt the most by injuries?: Duke’s problems aren’t exactly a secret anymore. Neither are Michigan State’s, although news came down on Thursday evening that star freshman Miles Bridges is dealing with an ankle injury that could keep him out for a few weeks. USC learned on Thursday that Bennie Boatwright, a starting forward, will be out for six weeks after spraining his MCL while Arizona is going to be without starting point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright for some time with a high-ankle sprain. And Indiana? They have two games this weekend and neither of them will be played with O.G. Anunoby on the floor.

BLOOMINGTON, IN - NOVEMBER 30: O G Anunoby #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers grabs his ankle after being injured during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Assembly Hall on November 30, 2016 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
O.G. Anunoby (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

CBT Podcast: North Carolina-Indiana and a look at a terrific weekend of hoops

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 25:  Nate Britt #0 of the North Carolina Tar Heels highfives teammate Joel Berry II #2 in the second half against the Indiana Hoosiers during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at Wells Fargo Center on March 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

A new episode of the NBCSports.com College Basketball Talk podcast is now live.

On it, we took a long look at everything that happened in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge – How big was Indiana’s win? Should we be concerned about North Carolina? Where does Wisconsin go moving forward? – and broke down the four big games on the slate for Saturday.

cysf1h3xaaieesn

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

Cincinnati upsets No. 19 Iowa State

AMES, IA - DECEMBER 1:  Gary Clark #11 of the Cincinnati Bearcats passes the ball around Darrell Bowie #10, and Matt Thomas #21 of the Iowa State Cyclones in the first half of play at Hilton Coliseum on December 1, 2016 in Ames, Iowa.(Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

There was no Hilton Magic on Thursday night.

Cincinnati scored the last four points in the final 2:24 of overtime to upset No. 19 Iowa State. It was the first time in 38 games that a non-conference opponent came into Ames and left win a win.

The Cyclones have dropped two straight, while the Bearcats landed a signature, non-conference road victory.

Iowa State led for the most of the night, but left the door open for Cincinnati at the end of regulation and in the final moments of overtime. The Cyclones hadn’t scored in almost 90 seconds when Matt Thomas came up with a steal with less than 30 ticks to play. However, he got trapped just over half court, and quickly turned it over. Jacob Evans later converted on a game-tying bucket.

The Cyclones still had time for a final possession, but instead of Monte Morris attacking a defense that had not yet set up, they settled for a Naz Mitrou-Long three. He was one of two starters who did not score on the evening.

In the extra frame, Iowa State took a 54-51 led with 2:24 remaining after Deonte Burton cleaned up Morris’ missed fastbreak layup. However, in the ensuing possessions, Burton and Morris both settled for isolation jumpers. In between those two plays was a layup from Kevin Johnson, that cut the deficit to 54-53, and a pair of free throws by Evans that put the Bearcats up 55-54. Again, Iowa State was left with time to produce another Hilton Magic-esque ending. Even with 20 seconds remaining, they waited too long, and had to settle for another 3-pointer from Mitrou-Long that was off the mark. A scrum unfolded on the ground, and while Iowa State was looking for a held ball, the officials determined the clock expired.

Iowa State’s last two losses have come with questionable decisions down the stretch. In the AdvoCare Invitational championship game on Sunday against then-No. 11 Gonzaga, the Cyclones, who nearly erased an 18-point second half deficit, failed to get a shot off on the final possession despite having 14 seconds to work with. Thursday night’s late-game execution wasn’t any better.

In the end, Cincinnati landed a rare win inside Hilton Coliseum. This is an important victory, especially after Mick Cronin’s team blew a halftime lead against then-No. 21 Rhode Island in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off two weeks ago. That loss meant the Bearcats either had to defeat No. 19 Iowa State inside Hilton, or knock off No. 18 Butler inside Hinkle Fieldhouse the following week in order to score a marquee win before AAC play.

The Bearcats did the former, and could possibly be back in the top-25 by the time they take on the Bulldogs on Dec. 10.