Peyton Siva

Conference Catch-ups: Despite realignment, Big East will be competitive

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Missouri Valley Conference Catchup:

Favorite: No. 3 Louisville

Russ Smith has matured his game and is turning into a go-to scorer. Yes, he still takes a lot of shots and it wouldn’t hurt to shoot better than 43 percent from the field, but he is beginning to take better shots and, along with Peyton Siva, makes up one of the nation’s toughest backcourts.

Contenders:

Syracuse

The Orange suffered their first loss of the season to Temple, due in large part to the Owls’ ability to force Michael Carter-Williams away from distributing and into scoring the ball. Once he gets back to facilitating the offense, Syracuse will keep running like a well-oiled machine.

Cincinnati

They climbed as high as 8th in the national polls before a loss to New Mexico. That will likely be as high as they get all season, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a legitimate Sweet 16 contender. Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright are dangerous.

Pittsburgh

The backcourt duo of James Robinson and Tray Woodall is proving to be a good one. Talib Zanna’s development has helped to solidify the Panthers’ inside presence. They don’t turn the ball over much, which will help in Big East play.

Notre Dame

Jack Cooley picked up where he left off last season and is averaging a double-double of 15.2 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. Combine that with consistent guard play from Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins and the Irish are in business.

Georgetown

Yes, we saw an abysmal offensive performance in the Hoyas’ ugly win over Tennessee early in the year, but we should see the Georgetown team we saw in Brooklyn as the year progresses. Otto Porter continues to be the do-everything guy who makes it all work.

Biggest Surprise: Connecticut

A mass exodus of talent from Storrs, a new coach, and a postseason ban should have been enough to sink the Huskies, but Kevin Ollie has gotten his team on the same page and off to a 10-2 start. Ollie was rewarded with a five-year deal worth close to $7 million, which can only help his comfort within the program, giving him some job security.

Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have proven to be a formidable combo in the backcourt, averaging 16.8 and 16.1 points per game, respectively. DeAndre Daniels has doubled his minutes this season and responded with production, putting up 10.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game.

The true test of Connecticut’s resolve might come as early as mid-January, when the Huskies face No. 21 Notre Dame, then No. 4 Louisville, then No. 24 Pittsburgh in the span of a week.

Biggest Disappointment: Providence

Let me say first that it’s not Providence’s fault. They lost Ricky Ledo to an NCAA ruling at the beginning of the season. Kris Dunn and Vincent Council just recently got into the rotation after working through injury. They’re still 8-4, despite those road blocks, in a conference that has done well overall in the non-conference. Ed Cooley is building a contender at Providence, though. With his presence on the recruiting trail and what he has been able to do with the assets he already has, the Friars are on the upswing in the long-term.

Player of the Year: Jack Cooley, Notre Dame

Cooley is averaging a double-double of 15.2 points and 11.3 rebounds. He’s been comparable to Mason Plumlee of Duke so far, which is saying something. If Notre Dame wants to make a run in March, he’s going to be the guy who gets them there.

Also of Note: Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse), Russ Smith (Louisville), Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati), Otto Porter (Georgetown)

Best Freshman: Chris Obekpa, St. John’s

Obekpa leads not only freshman but the entire nation in blocks with 5.3 per game. He has changed the complexion of Steve Lavin’s defense, allowing the Red Storm to take more chances on the perimeter because Obekpa is around the rim to block shots. He adds a solid 4.3 points and 5.3 rebounds, as well.

Also of note: James Robinson (Pittsburgh), Omar Calhoun (Connecticut), Ryan Arcidiacono (Villanova)

Three Predictions:

1. Notre Dame will end up as the conference’s fourth best team. Cincinnati and Georgetown are ahead of the Irish right now, but Cooley, Grant, and Atkins shouldn’t be discounted.

2. Connecticut will finish as an NCAA tournament-worthy team, though they can’t qualify. Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier make up one of the strongest backcourts in the conference and Omar Calhoun is emerging as a legitimate option in only his freshman season.

3. Otto Porter will make himself a lottery pick by the end of the year. The same Michael Kidd-Gilchrist worked his way to the top of the draft by being a lot of different things well, Porter will do the same to a lesser extent.

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. No. 4 Louisville *
2. No. 7 Syracuse *
3. No. 8 Cincinnati *
4. No. 21 Notre Dame *
5. No. 18 Georgetown *
6. No. 24 Pittsburgh *
7. Connecticut
8. Marquette *
9. South Florida
10. Villanova
11. Seton Hall
12. Rutgers
13. St. John’s
14. DePaul
15. Providence

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

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.