Paul Hewitt, Patrick Holloway

College Hoops Week in Review: Five Thoughts

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Is the CAA now overrated?: ‘Overrated’ might not be a fair term to use here, as most expected the CAA to take a hit with VCU leaving for the Atlantic 10 this season. ‘Incapable of getting two teams to the tournament’ is probably the better descriptor here. Only three teams in the league having winning records, and none of them have fewer than three losses less than a month into the season. The two favorites in the conference, Drexel and Delaware, are a combined 4-11, and while a number of those losses have come against good competition — Delaware made it to the semifinals of the Preseason NIT, but they’ve lost five in a row, including a game at Lafayette, while Drexel recently lost to Rider, the fifth school outside the BCS leagues they’ve dropped a game against — simply playing a tough schedule won’t get you a trip to the Big Dance.

George Mason may now be the one team that can potentially carry the torch for the conference, but they failed to follow up their season-opening win over Virginia with wins against Bucknell, New Mexico or, on Sunday, against Maryland. With Northern Iowa being the only quality non-conference opponent left on the schedule, there likely isn’t going to be enough there for the Patriots to earn an at-large bid. League play will only hurt, as the CAA is currently 1-20 against RPI top 100 teams.

Two years ago, three CAA teams made the NCAA tournament. But two of those three — VCU and Old Dominion — have left the conference. We knew there was a chance this would happen, but that doesn’t reduce the sting of one of the nation’s most entertaining mid-major leagues losing some of their pluckiness.

What’s up with Kentucky?: After losing two straight games last week, which included the first loss at Rupp Arena in the Calipari era, the Wildcats are going to likely see themselves fall out of the top 25. And that’s probably fair; they lost to two unranked teams, including one that was coming off of a loss at home to Charleston. But I must stress to you that how good Kentucky ends up being is still a complete unknown. This team is very, very young and in the midst of trying to find an identity and pinpoint individual roles while getting on-the-job training for how to play college basketball. Most importantly, Ryan Harrow is still a long way from 100%. The Wildcats ceiling is simply unknown at this point.

But that’s not necessarily a positive thing, because the simple fact of the matter is that this team could end up simply OK. What happens if Harrow never figures out how to play the point for Coach Cal? And what happens if Kyle Wiltjer never learn how to play defense, or Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein can’t figure out a way to share the front court without being massive liabilities offensively? What if Alex Poythress never becomes ‘The Man’? Most importantly, what happens if this team simply doesn’t have the mental toughness and leadership to perform under the pressure of Big Blue Nation’s expectations?

At the end of the day, my point is this: for better or for worse, Kentucky is still a complete question mark at this point.

The nation’s most underrated freshman: Xavier is 6-1 on the season, including a dominating win over Butler and a win at Mackey Arena over Purdue, which is a far cry from what was expected of these Musketeers heading into the season. The biggest reason for their improvement has been the play of freshman Semaj Christon. After sitting out the opener and despite scoring just two points in the win over Butler — his first game of the season — Christon is now averaging 16.0 points and 6.2 assists on the season. An athletic, 6-foot-3 freshman, Christon excels at using a crafty handle, long strides and an explosive first step to get to the rim. Did Chris Mack have a feeling that Christon would be this good? I wonder if that played a role in Mark Lyons’ departure.

In San Diego State the best team in California?: At this point, there really is no way to argue that fact. It’s certainly not UCLA, who not only was beaten by SDSU on Saturday, but who lost to another California school in Cal Poly. It’s not USC, either, as the Trojans lost at home to the Aztecs despite the absence of Deshawn Stephens and Chase Tapley. And to think: this team is only going to get better when James Johnson gets eligible.

If someone can figure out Florida State, do share: Nothing surprises me about Florida State anymore. Is there a program in the country that is more capable of pulling off thrilling upsets and head-scratching, you-gotta-be-kidding-me losses? Last season, Florida State lost to Harvard, Princeton and Clemson (by 20!) while going 4-1 against North Carolina and Duke. That included a 33 point home win over the Tar Heels, a win at Cameron and the ACC tournament title. This season, they won the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at the Barclays Center, but have now lost to South Alabama, Minnesota and, on Sunday, Mercer.

The Seminoles are at their best offensively when they have Ian Miller, Michael Snaer and Devon Bookert on the floor together at the same time, but that takes away from their ability defensively. Leonard Hamilton is still trying to figure out his rotations — Where does he fit in Montay Brandon? How many minutes should Terrence Shannon play? — so that might have something to do with it. Regardless, this group has proven to be Team Schizophrenic.

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

Hart returning for Villanova’s title defense

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Villanova’s title defense just got a whole lot stouter.

Josh Hart, the leading scorer of the Wildcats’ national championship team, will return for his senior season, he announced on Twitter.

The decision for Hart to return is a major boost for Villanova in its quest to become the first back-to-back champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007. Hart, a 6-foot-5 guard,  averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from 3-point range.

Most draft pundits had him pegged as a potential end-of-the-first-round pick in next month’s draft though he could have certainly slid into the second should he had decided to forego his senior season. Instead, Hart will be a potential first-team All-American exhausting his eligibility in Philadelphia.

The 2016-17 season is taking shape nicely, and Hart returning to Villanova only increases the strength of the field at the top. Title game hero Kris Jenkins as well as Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges are also back for the defending champs while the super recruiting classes of Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State, Kansas’ returning core along with Josh Jackson and a solid group of teams including North Carolina, Arizona, Louisville and Wisconsin make for an intriguing upper-tier of teams that could very well make for a top-heavy season following last year’s free for all.

College basketball isn’t the NFL. Parity doesn’t equal strength and quality, and when the sport has a handful high-quality teams, it is at its best. It’s looking like that is a possibility for the 2016-17 campaign.

UConn duo returning to school

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Connecticut may have lost its 6-foot-7 wing scorer but it is keeping its defensive stalwart and leading scorer.

Center Amida Brimah and guard Rodney Purvis have withdrawn their names from NBA Draft consideration and will return to the Huskies for another year, the school announced Tuesday.

The decisions from Brimah, a 7-foot center, and Purvis, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, help soften the blow dealt by Daniel Hamilton’s decision to sign with an agent and leave school despite having some shaky draft stock. The Huskies may not open the season as a top-25 team, but they won’t be far behind and will be one of the AAC’s favorites, along with Cincinnati.

Brimah averaged 6.5 points per game last year, but blocked 2.7 shots per game. He missed 11 games last season with a broken finger. Purvis registered 12.8 points per game while shooting 43.4 percent from the floor.

Neither Brimah or Purvis were among those invited to this month’s NBA Draft combine nor were either expected to be drafted should they have kept their names in the draft.

Gonzaga’s Karnowski returning for fifth year

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The man in the middle is returning to Gonzaga.

Przemek Karnowski will return to the Bulldogs for his final year after a medical redshirt waiver was granted allowing him a fifth season in Spokane, the school announced Tuesday.

“I’m excited to be coming back,” Karnowski said in a statement. “After talking with the coaches, my parents and the team, I decided this was the best decision for me. I still have a ways to go with my rehab, but I’m staying positive about the upcoming season.”

The 7-foot-1 Karnowski, a Poland native, would have, at minimum, had professional opportunities overseas, but instead will return to play for the Bulldogs once more after a back injury limited him to five games last season. He averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as a junior in 2014-15.

With Karnowski returning along with  Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, Gonzaga coach Mark Few will be having newcomers Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Norvell, Johnathan Williams II and Zach Collins joining an experienced and talented group.

Gonzaga (shocker) will be the West Coast Conference favorite once more, but the Bulldogs will also be fielding a team that should open the season in most everyone’s top-15.

Michigan St. at Duke highlights ACC/Big Ten Challenge

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A matchup in Durham of likely top-10 teams is the headliner of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, whose schedule was released Tuesday.

Michigan State, expected to open the season in the top-10, and Duke, the presumptive preseason No. 1, will meet Tuesday, Nov. 29, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the most intriguing contest of the 14-game event.

The Spartans are losing Denzel Valentin, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello, but the recruiting class of Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward is one of coach Tom Izzo’s best and has Michigan State positioned as one of the Big Ten’s favorites.

Izzo’s recruiting class, though, pales in comparison to what coach Mike Krzyzewski is bringing to the Blue Devils, with Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden, Frank Jackson and Javin DeLaurier in their 2016 class, which is why, when paired with the likes of Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson and Luke Kennard, make Duke nearly everyone’s No. 1 heading into next season.

Krzyzewski is 9-1 all-time against Izzo’s Spartans.

Among the other highlights of the conference competition is Syracuse at Wisconsin (Nov. 29) Pittsburgh at Maryland (Nov. 29), Purdue at Louisville (Nov. 30) and Ohio State at Virginia (Nov. 30).  

Monday, Nov. 28

Minnesota at Florida State

Wake Forest at Northwestern

Tuesday, Nov. 29

Syracuse at Wisconsin

Michigan State at Duke

Pittsburgh at Maryland

Iowa at Notre Dame

Georgia Tech at Penn State

N.C. State at Illinois

 

Wednesday, Nov. 30

Purdue at Louisville

North Carolina at Indiana

Ohio State at Virginia

Virginia Tech at Michigan

Rutgers at Miami (Fla.)

Nebraska at Clemson

 

Hayes returning to Wisconsin for senior season

Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes celebrates with fans after an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, in Iowa City, Iowa. Wisconsin won 67-59. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Wisconsin has cemented itself as one of the teams to beat in the Big Ten for the 2016-17 season.

Forward Nigel Hayes, the Badgers’ leading scorer and assist man, is withdrawing his name from NBA Draft consideration to return to Madison for his senior season, he told the Wisconsin State Journal on Tuesday evening.

Hayes declared for the draft last month, but did not hire an agent, taking advantage of new NCAA legislation that allowed him to attend the NBA Draft combine and workout for pro franchises. He was largely regarded as a fringe first-round prospect by draft observers.

His decision is a major boon for Greg Gard, who may have the Big Ten’s best team in his first full season at the helm after taking over for Bo Ryan in the middle of last season. Wisconsin had a major turnaround under Gard, which ultimately resulted in him moving from interim to full time. The Badgers were 7-5 when Ryan stepped down, but recovered by going 13-4 to end the season and make the Sweet 16. 

Now, the entirety of that team, headlined by Hayes, is returning for another year and almost assuredly will be a top-15 (or better) preseason pick. Michigan State will welcome in a dynamite recruiting class that features five-stars Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston, and Indiana should remain strong, but the Badgers, with some players having the experience of  playing in two Final Fours, could very well have the best roster on paper with its blend of talent and experience. Whichever team is pegged as the favorite, the top of the Big Ten is shaping up to be a fantastic race.