Rick Pitino, Russ Smith

Weekend Preview: Kentucky-Louisville highlights a solid slate

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Game of the Weekend: Sat. 4:00 p.m.: Kentucky at No. 4 Louisville (CBS)

It may not be the battle of top five teams that we expected it to be heading into the season, but that doesn’t take any of the excitement away from the battle for bluegrass supremacy.

Louisville enters this game playing as well as they have all season long. Their lone loss to Duke seems like it was an eternity ago, and given the success the Blue Devils have had this season, relatively insignificant as well. The Cardinals have one of the best back courts in the country in Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, and while their front line has played well over the course of the last month, Rick Pitino’s club will get a big boost on Saturday afternoon as Gorgui Dieng has been cleared to play. I’m sure he would have liked to have gotten Dieng in a game or two before throwing him into the biggest game of the regular season for the Cardinals, but having Gorgui is much better than, well, not having Gorgui.

While Louisville is beginning to hit their stride, Kentucky is still enduring some growing pains. As much talent as the Wildcats have on their roster, John Calipari looks like he is still figuring out how to get all that talent to fit together. The good news? Ryan Harrow is coming off of the best game of his collegiate career. The bad news? He now has to deal with one of the peskiest defensive back courts in the country.

And that right there is going to be what determines the outcome of this game. Can Kentucky’s back court handle the pressure that will inevitably be thrown at them by Louisville’s guards? Will Harrow’s confidence survive Smith’s quick hands? Can Archie Goodwin be patient enough in half court sets? If they can, than Kentucky might have a chance to upset the Cards.

Six more games to watch this weekend

  • Fri. 8:00 p.m.: Baylor at No. 13 Gonzaga (ESPN2): So how good is Baylor? They won in Lexington, yes. But they also lost at home to Charleston and Northwestern at home. And isn’t this the same question we always end up asking about Scott Drew’s teams? Pierre Jackson is going to be a nightmare matchup for either Kevin Pangos or David Stockton, but the real question is going to be how Baylor handles Gonzaga’s physicality up front.
  • Fri. 10:00 p.m.: No. 7 Missouri at UCLA (ESPN2): UCLA looks like they are finally starting to hit their stride this season as their three stud freshmen all played their best games of the year the last time the Bruins took the floor. But Ben Howland’s team will have their work cut out for them with the Tigers, who have the kind of size and physicality that could give the Bruins problems. The key? Who wins the battle of the backboards. Missouri crashes the offensive glass as hard as anyone. Can the Bruins keep them from getting those second chance points?
  • Sat. 2:00 p.m.: No. 20 UNLV at North Carolina (ESPN2): North Carolina will get a chance for some revenge against UNLV after the Rebels knocked them off of their No. 1 perch last season with a win in Vegas. And for UNC, that’s something that they definitely need at this point: a statement win. Something that tells the country that this season will be different than 2009-2010. Because right now, the Heels don’t look like a serious contender for the ACC title, let alone a national title.
  • Sat. 3:00 p.m.: Valparaiso at Murray State (ESPN3): One of the best mid-major matchups of the season. Valpo is the favorite in the Horizon, while Murray State looks like they picked up where they left off last season. Isaiah Canaan looks like an all-american again, and Stacy Wilson has proven to be terrific this year. The best matchup, however, will end up being Ed Daniel squaring off with Valpo’s front line of Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk.
  • Sat. 6:00 p.m.: Xavier at Tennessee (ESPNU): Xavier has one of the best freshman in the country in Semaj Christon, but where they will end up having issues with Tennessee is along with Vols front line. Does Chris Mack have anyone capable of hanging with Jarnell Stokes in the paint?

And the mid-majors?:

  • Fri. 7:00 p.m.: Iona at St. Joe’s
  • Fri. 7:30 p.m.: Bucknell at Loyola (MD)
  • Sat. 8:00 p.m.: North Texas at Western Kentucky
  • Sat. 8:00 p.m.: South Dakota State at North Dakota State

Cyclones add big man for 2017

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 15:  Head coach Steve Prohm of the Murray State Racers shouts from the sidelines against the Colorado State Rams  during the second round of the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KFC YUM! Center on March 15, 2012 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Iowa State secured its first commitment Wednesday of what will be a pivotal class of forwards in 2017.

KeyShawn Faezell of Mississippi committed to Steve Prohm and the Cyclones, he announced Wednesday.

“After praying to God to lead me in the right path and talking with my dad,” Faezell wrote, “I’ve decided to further my education and basketball career under coach Prohm at Iowa State University.”

Faezell, a 6-foot-9 consensus top-150 forward in the 2017 class, joins wing Terrence Lewis as the first two members of a class that figures to number at least six for ISU. The addition of Faezell is key because ISU will be losing three members of its frontcourt it will likely be leaning on heavily in 2015-16 in Deonte Burton, Merrill Holden and Darrell Bowie. A 2016 big man, Cameron Lard, has also yet to enroll in classes this fall due to academic issues, making Faezell’s commitment even more important should Lard be unable to get clearance.

“They need some people to come in and compete,” Feazell told the Ames Tribune. “I think I fit in the program.”

Prohm’s teams dating back to his Murray State days have always been guard-oriented and guard-heavy, but beginning to stack the roster with quality big men will be key as he looks to continue the Cyclones’ success in the Big 12, which includes a school-record five-straight NCAA tournament appearances.

BYU adds commit for 2019

Dave Rose
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BYU added a commitment from a high school senior this week, but the Cougars won’t be seeing him on campus until 2019.

Kolby Lee, a 6-foot-9 forward from Idaho, pledged to BYU on Monday evening, but won’t suit up until after serving a two-year mission for the Church of Latter Day Saints, according to the Deseret News.

“I had a great feeling about BYU, and I prayed about it,” Lee told the paper. “I just feel like it’s the right fit for me. It just seems right. It feels right.”

Lee chose BYU over offers from  Utah State, Boise State and UC Davis. He was rated a four-star prospect by ESPN and three by Scout.

His decision to forego immediately joining BYU certainly isn’t a new wrinkle for the Cougars, who routinely see their players either delay their initial eligibility or pause it mid-career while serving on missions.

Self pays freshman Jackson a major compliment

Josh Jackson, from Napa, Calif.,, dunks over Nancy Mulkey, from Cypress, Texas, as he competes in the slam dunk contest during the McDonald's All-American Jam Fest, Monday, March 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
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Freshman phenom production under Bill Self has been something of a contentious topic. Many fault the coach, who has won one national title and 12-straight Big 12 championships, for not developing one-and-done talent to their fullest potential during their single-season stays in Lawrence. Cliff Alexander and Cheick Diallo are Exhibit 1-A and 1-B for this argument in recent years.

Whatever outside criticism there is (Andrew Wiggins did go No. 1 overall just 2 years ago, after all), Self isn’t shying away from hyping the latest freshman with big expectations to come to KU. When asked who the greatest athlete of all-time is at the school’s annual Tradition Night last week, Self had a simple, if tongue-and-cheek, response.

“I’ll say Josh Jackson,” Self said of the the 6-foot-8 shooting guard ranked No. 1 in his class, according to Lawrence Journal-World.

With others answering with the likes of Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali, it’s pretty fair to say Self was playing to the crowd with the answer, but it’s still telling that he was willing to deliver such a sound bite, even if it was before a welcoming audience. Self didn’t try to seriously depress expectations for Wiggins, a player Jackson is often compared to, and it looks like he won’t for Jackson as well.

Jackson, though, won’t have the burden Wiggins had as there’s one of the country’s best backcourts in Frank Mason II and Devonte Graham to help shoulder the workload for the Jayhawks.

 

ACC non-commital on HB2 stance

John Swofford
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With North Carolina unwilling to rescind their controversial so-called bathroom bill, the NBA has withdrawn its All-Star Game from the state this year and numerous high-profile music acts have canceled performances as a result.

The ACC is declining to join them with a hard-line, or really any, position.

“We don’t want to damage our league with any premature decisions,” commissioner John Swofford said on The David Glenn Show. “We’ll just see how it plays out.”

The ACC, of course, has quite the presence in the state with North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest all in the Tar Heel State. Swofford’s comments are sure to draw the interest of the LGBT community, which has roundly been critical of the bill, which requires people to use the bathroom which corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate, and has recently been active in college athletics, opposing the Big 12’s potential inclusion of BYU in its expansion plans over concerns of the Church of Latter Day Saints school’s honor code.

North Carolina’s bill has also drawn the eye of the NCAA, which is requiring potential championship sights to provide information on local anti-discrimination laws.

One of the loudest voices in the ACC, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, has come out against the law.

“It’s an embarrassing bill,” Coach K said last month.

The Champions Classic renewed through 2019

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 27: Bill Self head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks claps for his team as they celebrate winning the Big 12 Conference Championship after they defeated Texas Tech Red Raiders 67-58 at Allen Fieldhouse on February 27, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. With the win, Kansas clinched its 12th straight conference championship. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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The Champions Classic is back, baby!!!

On Wednesday, the four schools that participate in the event — Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State — announced that they have signed deals to extend the life of the doubleheader for another three years.

This is terrific news. The Champions Classic is always the best early-season event of the season, an annual double-header that always ends up putting together two of the best non-conference games in packed NBA arenas. This year, it features Duke, the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country, squaring off with Kansas, who is a consensus top three team with the No. 1 freshman in the class, Josh Jackson, on their roster, in one game.

The other game? Kentucky, the third consensus top three team nationally, going up against Tom Izzo and Michigan State, who will be, at worst, a top 15 team in the preseason polls.

So yeah, we’re going to get a pair of sensational basketball games in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15th. MSG also just so happens to be the best arena to watch a great neutral site basketball game.

It’s going to be awesome.

There’s only one possible way to make it better: turn it into a two-day event, with the winners squaring off for the Champions Classic title the following night.

Make it happen.

Anyway, here’s the schedule:

Nov. 14, 2017 (United Center, Chicago)
Kansas vs. Kentucky
Duke vs. Michigan State

Nov. 13, 2018 (Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis)
Michigan State vs. Kansas
Duke vs. Kentucky

Nov. 12, 2019 (Madison Square Garden, New York)
Kansas vs. Duke
Michigan State vs. Kentucky