Marcus Smart

Properly evaluating Marcus Smart

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If you missed it, there interwebs has played host to an entertaining discussion about Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart over the last day or two.

It started when John Gasaway ranked the freshmen and slotted Smart at 14th, which, according to Mike DeCourcy, is borderline certifiable, as he wrote, “People, Marcus Smart has been the best college player in the nation to this point”. Gasaway fired back, saying, essentially, that he had Smart that low for two reasons: 1) he’s not shooting the ball well for a player whose role is that important, and 2) he can and will play better before the season is out.

Frankly, I don’t think either of them are right as of right now.

I understand Gasaway’s point, but calling Smart the 14th best freshman in the country right now is ludicrous. I’d have Smart somewhere in the top three, along with Anthony Bennett of UNLV and Jordan Adams of UCLA. If you want to slide him down to sixth — behind Nik Stauskas, Ben McLemore and Semaj Christon — because you hate the fact that he’s shooting 45.3% from two and 20.6% from beyond the arc while shooting 23.9% of the possessions that he’s on the floor — or because he’s averaging 3.4 turnovers — than I’ll disagree with you, but at least I’ll understand where you’re coming from.

But you can’t have Smart as the 14th best freshmen in the country, just like you can’t call Smart the best college basketball player in the country to this point in the season.

Because that award belongs to Mason Plumlee, and it’s really not close.

Plumlee has finally turned all of his potential into production, averaging 19.2 points, 11.4 boards and 1.7 blocks while shooting 61.1% from the floor and 73.1% from the free throw line. He’s become Duke’s anchor on both ends of the floor, turning them into a team that lost to a No. 15 seed in the opening round of the 2012 NCAA tournament into one of the two best teams in the country. And Plumlee has posted these numbers while Duke has beaten Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville, Ohio State and Temple.

Smart has changed the culture of that Oklahoma State team. He’s taken over a leadership role and gotten the Pokes through a pair of season-ending injuries. It’s not a coincidence that Le’Bryan Nash is starting to play up to his potential this season or that Oklahoma State is tougher on the defensive end of the floor. But Smart has led Oklahoma State to wins over Akron, Tennessee, NC State and South Florida and a loss at Virginia Tech.

Speaking of Virginia Tech, I also think I would rank Erick Green — the point guard that went for 28 points in the Hokie’s win over Smart’s squad — over him. Green is averaging 24.8 points and 5.0 assists while turning the ball over just 1.8 times per game while leading Tech to an 8-1 start that, quite literally, no one saw coming. Michael Carter-Williams, Doug McDermott, Jeff Withey and Trey Burke are all guys that deserve heavy consideration for the title “best player in college basketball this season”.

Smart’s been great.

No one is saying otherwise.

He’s an all-american as of now.

But I don’t think he’s the Player of the Year after the first month of the season.

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

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.