CBT Monthly Awards: Arizona earns accolades, everybody enjoyed Butler vs. Indiana

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As we did last month, the College Basketball Talk writers got together to pick the very best of December. The month was filled with entertaining games, outstanding performances and everything in between.

With the calenders turning to a new year, we analyze which teams we believe in, and which teams need a reality check.
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Team of the Month: Arizona
Terrence Payne – In less than two weeks, the Wildcats had a pair of top-25 wins including a big-time win over Florida. Nick Johnson’s block preserved a victory over San Diego State on Christmas night. Arizona is now ranked No. 3 and undefeated at 12-0 heading into the New Year.

Daniel Martin – As undefeated teams dropped around them, the Wildcats continue to stand strong, despite lingering questions about the inexperience of their frontcourt and how far natural shooting guard Mark Lyons can take them while playing the point. Regardless, Arizona has claimed its title as the favorite in the Pac-12.

Rob Dauster – Wins over Florida and San Diego State are impressive this early in the season, especially when you consider that the Wildcats are only going to get better as their big men mature.
 
 
Player of the Month:
Daniel Martin – Trey Burke, Michigan – The sophomore point guard averaged 18.2 points, 6.7 assists, and just 1.2 turnovers per game for a team that is still undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country. He has been the most important part of the offensive engine for Michigan and he is continuing to prove that he made the right choice by foregoing the NBA draft and returning to school.

Raphielle Johnson – Khaliff Wyatt, Temple – Three games of 20 or more points in December, most notably that 33-spot he hung on Syracuse, and Wyatt failed to reach double figures just once (the loss to top-ranked Duke). Many have jumped to say the A-10 race is VCU, Butler and Saint Louis, but Wyatt is one reason why the Owls will be heard from when league play begins next month.

Troy Machir – Anthony Bennett, UNLV – The freshman forward finished the month with four double-doubles and was one of the lone bright spots in the Rebel’s loss at North Carolina. Carried the load when Mike Moser went down. Looks like a ready-made pro just two months into his college career.

Honorable Mention: Ben McLemore (Kansas), Doug McDermott (Creighton), Mason Plumlee (Duke)
 
 
Game of the Year: Butler 88, Indiana 86 (OT)
David Harten – And it’s not really all that close. It had great offensive and defensive play. Great individual efforts. An incredible atmosphere you could feel even through the television. An improbable hero in Bulldogs walk-on guard Alex Barlow and an upset. Case closed.

Raphielle Johnson – Even with the Arizona/Florida game later that night not sure there was a better game this month than the Bulldogs outlasting the Hoosiers. In fact, this could very well end up being the best game of the entire season when it’s all said and done.

Eric Angevine – Absolutely the best, most meaningful game of the month.

Daniel Martin – Not only did it have the typical ingredients for a great game, it had implications, too. The Indiana loss knocked them out of the No. 1 spot and vaulted Butler into the Top 25. It didn’t hurt that reserve Alex Barlow emerged as an unlikely hero with the game-winning shot.
 
 
Most Surprising Team:
Rob Dauster – Oklahoma State – They have a point guard that’s not a natural point guard and they lost tow key players to season-ending injuries. And yet, there they are.

Eric Angevine – Arizona – Don’t get me wrong. This looked like a good team to start the season, but undefeated at year’s end? Didn’t see that coming at all.

Terrence Payne – Illinois – I wasn’t sold on the Illini after winning Maui, but despite the loss to Mizzou, Illinois went into Spokane and behind a great performance from Brandon Paul beat Gonzaga by double digits.

David Harten – New Mexico – Alex Kirk has solidified himself as a go-to big man and Kendall Williams has shown himself to be a contributor as a scorer (14.9 ppg, a team high) and distributor (a team-high 4.7 apg). Tony Snell is the athlete everyone comes to see make plays. Beating no. 8 Cincinnati on Thursday night on the road definitely helped the cause.
 
 
Least Surprising Team: Michigan
Terrence Payne – The Wolverines went undefeated in conference play behind the strong play of Burke, Tim Hardaway, and Glenn Robinson III.

Daniel Martin – Despite being undefeated and the No. 2 team in the country, how much are the Wolverines being talked about in the Final Four discussion? Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Glenn Robinson III are as solid a trio as you’ll find. Pair that with a three-point shooter like Nik Stauskas and inside toughness from Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan and you, too, shouldn’t be surprised at where Michigan is right now.

Troy Machir – Shockingly enough, this is exactly where I predicted the Wolverines to be at this point in the season. They are really, really good. Really.

Eric Angevine – Under Trey Burke and the scions of half of the pre-millennium NBA, the Wolverines have been an absolute machine. Their undefeated run has been so unremarkable that it’s almost easy to forget they’re around.
 
 
Bandwagon you’re jumping on: Kansas
Troy Machir – They have two guys playing like All-Americans and another handful playing like All-Conference selections. Everybody is chipping in. Jayhawks should steamroll through Big-XII play.

Rob Dauster – I’ve been on the bandwagon for a while, but with McLemore playing as well as he has, this team is ahead of the curve.

Terrence Payne – Never quite sure why I leave the bandwagon, but Bill Self has the Jayhawks riding a 10-game winning streak and led Ben McLemore’s 15.8 points per game, KU looks to be a mix on the national stage entering conference play.
 
 
Bandwagon you’re getting off:
Eric Angevine – Florida – I was legitimately on this bandwagon, choosing the Gators as a Final Four contender when we made our CBT preseason picks. But horrible shot selection and poor situational awareness is killing this team, and nothing about that seems to be about to change any time soon.

Raphielle Johnson – Wyoming – The Cowboys are 12-0 and have four players averaging double figures, but no reserves average more than 5.3 points per game (Josh Adams; Riley Grabau’s 5.1 ppg would be the mark if Adams is the fifth starter). If a Leonard Washington, Larry Nance Jr. or Luke Martinez were to land in early foul trouble, would Wyoming have enough offensively to contend with the other powers in the Mountain West?

Rob Dauster – Colorado – They are good and they’ll compete in the Pac-12, but I don’t see the Buffaloes being anything more than a good west coast team.
 
 
New Years Resolution for a team, player or coach:
Rob Dauster – Indiana needs to realize that Cody Zeller is their bread and butter and get him more touches.

Eric Angevine – New Mexico needs to keep big man Alex Kirk engaged. It’s no coincidence that a dangerously close win over New Mexico State and a home loss to the NDSU Jackrabbits happened on successive nights when Kirk was ineffective around the basket.

David Harten – Pittsburgh needs to get more out of Steven Adams. This isn’t a knock on the Panthers or Adams. He’s lived up to the preseason love, but to say he’s reached max potential this season might be far-fetched. Averages of 7.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game aren’t bad at all, but the more I watch him, the more I believe he’s capable of averaging somewhere around 13 and 9 per. He can do it.

Raphielle Johnson – Minnesota should resolve to become more efficient on the defensive glass. The best offensive rebounding team in the country, the Golden Gophers have had their issues on the other end. If that doesn’t improve in Big Ten play, their chances of contending diminish greatly.
 
 
Final Four Picks after two months:
Raphielle Johnson – Duke, Indiana, Louisville, Arizona
David Harten – Duke, Kansas, Louisville, Ohio State
Rob Dauster – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri
Eric Angevine – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana
Troy Machir – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana
Daniel Martin – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana
Terrence Payne – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana

Vanderbilt lands five-star forward Simi Shittu

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Vanderbilt continues to build a monster recruiting class under head coach Bryce Drew as five-star 2018 forward Simi Shittu pledged to the Commodores on Wednesday.

The second five-star commitment for Vanderbilt in the Class of 2018, Shittu joins top point guard prospect Darius Garland to form one of the best freshman combinations in the country for next season. The Commodores also have a top-150 forward in Aaron Nesmith.

The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Shittu is coming off of a monster summer in which he became a major problem and top-ten recruit. The No. 8 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2018 recruiting rankings, Shittu is a huge get and an instant starter for Vanderbilt next season.

By landing prospects like Garland and Shittu, Drew is also becoming a major player in a short amount of time as a high-major coach. Always a noted recruiter at the mid-major level at Valparaiso, now Vanderbilt is seeing Drew’s hiring workout as he’s bringing top talent to the program.

If Drew can continue to recruit like this then Vanderbilt could be in position to be in the top half of the SEC as the league has seen some of its rebuilds go poorly over the last few years.

Kansas still without freshman Billy Preston

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Kansas freshman Billy Preston has yet to make his debut for the Jayhawks and it appears he’ll have to wait a bit longer before that happens.

Head coach Bill Self met with media earlier this week to discuss the Preston situation, saying that nothing has changed about his status quite yet. Preston was previously suspended for violating a team rule when he missed the game against Tennessee State. Before Preston was set to debut against Kentucky in the Champions Classic he was also withheld from the contest after the revelation that Preston had been in a single-vehicle accident the previous weekend.

“I have actually been out, until I just pulled back in, so as of this morning, there was no movement. The last time you guys asked me was Friday and so you don’t work on Saturday or Sunday, so there is nothing new on that situation,” Self said.

“Sure, I’m worried,” Self also added. “I’m concerned and I do think that it can work itself, based on what I’ve been told. I also think that it obviously hadn’t happened yet.”

It’s uncertain when the next step in any of this will play out but Self doesn’t appear to be too concerned over it. Kansas has won without Preston so far but they could definitely use his size, scoring punch and overall depth to a team that isn’t very deep right now.

A matchup nightmare, Preston could help the Jayhawk offense while also giving Udoka Azubuike additional help on the glass and protecting the rim.

(H/t: Jesse Newell, Kansas City Star)

Brian Bowen not allowed to play at Louisville

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Louisville announced on Wednesday that freshman wing Brian Bowen will not be allowed to play at the school. The former McDonald’s All-American will be allowed to remain on scholarship but he can’t participate in any team activities.

Bowen was tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball this fall as an adidas company executive is alleged to have been part of a scheme to deliver $100,000 to Bowen’s family, according to court documents.

Bowen hired attorney Jason Setchen to fight the case and seek reinstatement as Setchen had experience dealing with college basketball scandals before. When DeQuan Jones was suspended from Miami after the Nevin Shapiro case in 2011, Setchen helped Jones re-gain his eligibility as Miami.

With this case, Bowen was not allowed back at Louisville as the school has fired head coach Rick Pitino and most of his previous staff. Athletic Director Tom Jurich also lost his job, so the Cardinals are definitely cleaning house and trying to detach themselves from anyone involved.

It will be interesting to see what Bowen opts to do in light of this news. He’s talented enough that other schools could want him, if he’s eligible, but he’s also a former five-star prospect who could have pro aspirations. But since Bowen won’t be playing this season, he also hasn’t had a chance to spotlight his game to potential pro suitors.

 

President Trump fires back at LaVar Ball on Twitter

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The never-ending war of words between President Donald Trump and LaVar Ball escalated to another level on Wednesday morning.

Starting his early-morning tweets with some messages aimed at Ball, President Trump continued to double down on his insistence that he helped play a role in the safe return of three UCLA players arrested in China for shoplifting. LiAngelo Ball, LaVar’s middle son, was one of the three players involved in the international incident as fellow Bruins Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were also arrested. The trio returned to the United States last week after UCLA left China without them following a win over Georgia Tech in the Pac-12 China Game.

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LaVar has drawn the ire of President Trump for downplaying the President’s role in the return of the UCLA trio as Ball maintains that others had more to do with the release. All three UCLA players publicly thanked President Trump and the United States government during their return press conference on Nov. 15. The three players remain suspended indefinitely from all activities with the men’s basketball team.

In an interview with CNN earlier this week, LaVar was critical of Trump’s role in the whole ordeal while also questioning why the President would spend so much time bothering for a thank you from the father of one of those arrested.

No. 22 Baylor comes from 12 down to beat Creighton

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It was another rough night for the Scott Drew Can’t Coach crowd.

No. 22 Baylor got 15 points apiece from Jo Lual-Acuil and Terry Maston and closed the game on a 37-19 run as they knocked off Creighton, 65-59, in the title game of the Hall Of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

King McClure led the way for the Bears with 19 points, picking up the pieces for Manu Lecomte, who struggled to deal with the defense of Khyri Thomas.

Creighton jumped out to a 33-24 lead at the break and extended it to 40-28 with 18 minutes left in the game, but that’s when Baylor turned the game around. A couple of tweaks to the way that they played their zone coupled with the Bluejays missing some shots that they were capable of making led to the comeback. Instead of simply writing another ‘See, I told you Scott Drew can coach’ column, I figured it would make more sense to show exactly what I mean when I say that.

Creighton had a smart, simple game-plan offensively on Tuesday night. Get the ball into the paint, whether it was via dribble penetration or finding one of their big guys near the foul line or at the short corner, and then find a shooter on the perimeter, a cutter going to the rim or, simply, score from 8-10 feet out. That’s the best way to beat a zone, especially a zone that has the amount of length and athleticism that Baylor’s does. Notice in the clip below how extended Baylor’s guards are and, as a result, the space it creates:

Once Baylor got down by 12, their game-plan changed. Instead of extending, their defense became more compact. What is usually something of a 1-1-3 zone turned into more of a 2-3, with the focus seemingly being cutting off penetration. Baylor dared Creighton to let Ronnie Harrell be the guy that beat them, and it worked. The result was that the open threes dried up, and the jumpers that Creighton shot in down the stretch were much more contested than the looks they were getting earlier in the game:

That’s coaching right there.

Game-planning is a part of coaching. Player development is, too, as is recruiting. But making in-game adjustments like that, figuring out how a team is beating you, devising a way to stop them from doing that and getting your players to execute those adjustments is arguably the most important part of being a coach.

Here’s another example of what I mean.

Khyri Thomas might be the best on-ball defender in college basketball, and I don’t say that lightly. He essentially eliminated Manu Lecomte from the game. He is to point guards what Darrelle Revis was to No. 1 receivers. Whoever he is guarding is on Khyri Island.

Lecomte is typically Baylor’s closer, but Drew ran actions that allowed Lecomte to be a facilitator and a decoy, taking Khyri out of the play and taking advantage of matchups he thought his guys could win. That involved running a double-high ball-screen, which confused Harrell and Martin Krampelj defensively a couple of times, and resulted in a high-low action between Maston and Lual-Acuil on a number of possessions down the stretch.

But then there was also this set he drew up, using McClure as the ball-handler in that double-high ball-screen and while putting Lecomte in the same side corner. McClure refused the ball-screen, drove straight at the gap where Thomas was not going to help off Lecomte and got a bucket out of it:

That’s coaching!

And I’m not trying to say McDermott got out-coached here. His game-plan worked. Drew’s adjustment turned out to be just a bit better.

But Creighton also has players that can make the tough shots that they were forced into in the second half. If two more of them go down – if the Bluejays shoot 37.5 percent from the floor instead of 34.4 percent, if they go 7-for-30 from three instead of 5-for-30 – then they probably win this game.

Sometimes that’s how basketball works.

It’s why you always hear coaches refer to it as a ‘make or miss game’.

The larger takeaway from this game should be this: Both Baylor and Creighton are good teams. Both landed good non-conference wins during this event. Both are likely headed to the NCAA tournament.

And both took part in a fun, tactical battle between head coaches on Tuesday night that one of them had to lose.