Handicapping (way too early) the national scoring leader race

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Points are the way teams win games. You can argue defense, you can argue rebounding. But if you don’t put the ball in the basket, you don’t win.

I know, that’s expert analysis.

Now that we’re a few weeks into the season some players are starting to show how good they are at putting said ball into said basket. With that in mind, let’s check out the leaders among points per game in Division I basketball, and their odds for ending the season as the nation’s top scorer, with a few dark horses at the end.

Leaders

C.J. McCollum, Lehigh (25.8 ppg)

Why?: Scored 20-or-more in six of eight games, including three 30-point outings so far. He’s the main focus on a good team and can do it all. That means that teams will have to guard him for the pass and box him out, not just play him for the shot.

Future outlook: Games against VCU and Bucknell loom, but the rest of the seasonal competition within the Patriot League will be sub-par (outside of the Bison) compared to McCollum. He’s also averaged at least 19 points in his four seasons. There’s something to be said about that.

Odds: 5-to-2

Kyle Vinales, Central Connecticut State (25.6 ppg)

Why?: This guy is a name not a ton of people know, but should. Only a sophomore, Vinales led all freshman in scoring in Division I last season at 17.9 points per game, albeit for a pretty bad team. Through six games, Vinales has played a ridiculous 40.8 minutes per game and has eclipsed the 20-point mark in the last five. He’s hit 45.6-percent of his shots overall and 39.5-percent from three.

Future outlook: A game at Indiana on Saturday will be the true test. In-conference, games against Wagner, Quinnipiac and Long Island loom. Those will be the proving ground.

Odds: 8-to-1

Isaiah Canaan, Murray State (22.5 ppg)

Why?: He’s everybody’s All-American and it’s mainly because he’s one of the best scorers in the country. The senior is connecting on 49.5-percent from the field and a crazy good 42.6-percent from three  in 33.6 minutes per game through six games. He’s the main perimeter scoring option and has the tools around him to fend off double teams.

Future outlook: Games at Dayton and at home against Valparaiso loom, but it’s the Ohio Valley Conference slate that worries anyone thinking Canaan can top the scoring charts. Belmont, Tennessee Tech and Tennessee State know how to defend, especially the latter two, who have seen Canaan over the past four years.

Odds: 15-to-1

Doug McDermott, Creighton (21.2 ppg)

Why?: Because he’s D-Mac. Because he’s one of the top contenders for National Player of the Year. He’s got the outside game (46.9-percent), hits his free throws (87.8-percent) and the post game (53.8-percent overall) to be the efficient scorer that everyone expects, and do it well. He’s got Grant Gibbs and Greg Enchenique to taper the double teams, too. So that helps.

Future outlook: A game at Nebraska on Thursday, with games at California and at home against Tulsa will be challenging. But the Missouri Valley Conference brings the contest of Illinois State (Jackie Carmichael), Northern Iowa (Seth Tuttle) and Wichita State (Cleanthony Early). It’s going to be tough.

Odds: 18-to-1

Stan Okoye, VMI (20.8 ppg)

Why?: Because Okoye plays for VMI and VMI always has someone who contends for that title every season in Duggar Baucom’s system. They run, they score. The 6-6 senior is hitting 48.1-percent of his shots overall in 31.2 minutes per game through eight games.

Future outlook: Outside of Wright State and George Washington, the rest of the Keydet’s non-conference slate is Charmin soft. In the Southern Conference, the biggest defensive threats to Okoye are Winthrop, Coastal Carolina and UNC-Asheville.

Odds: 25-to-1

Other potential candidates

Lamont “Momo” Jones, Iona (23 ppg); Erick Green, Virginia Tech (24.8); James Kinney, San Jose State (22.8); Kevin Foster, Santa Clara (22.5); Ray McCallum, Detroit (21.1).

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.