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

Tuesday’s Three Things to Know: URI survives, Kentucky comes back, Michigan State and Ohio State roll

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1. NO. 18 RHODE ISLAND SURVIVES A HERCULEAN EFFORT FROM LA SALLE’S B.J. JOHNSON

The 18th-ranked Rams clinched at least a share of the Atlantic 10 regular season title, but it wasn’t easy as they needed overtime to beat La Salle 95-93 in Philadelphia. The “foul or defend” question came up on multiple occasions late in regulation and overtime, with Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley opting to foul each time. Late in regulation the strategy didn’t work out, as Tony Washington rebounded an intentional miss and scored the basket that forced overtime.

B.J. Johnson was outstanding in a losing effort for La Salle, finishing with 29 points and 23 rebounds. The rebound total was one off of the Atlantic 10’s single-game record, which is held by the late Yinka Dare. As for URI, Jeff Dowtin and Stanford Robinson led the way with 25 and 20 points, apiece, with the former also dishing out seven assists and grabbing five rebounds. With the win Rhode Island can clinch the outright A-10 title by beating Dayton Friday night, and the result also keeps the Rams in the conversation to earn a 4-seed (or possibly better) in the NCAA tournament.

BUBBLE BANTER: Texas A&M and Creighton suffer rough losses

2. KENTUCKY REBOUNDS FROM SLOW START TO WIN AT ARKANSAS

On multiple occasions John Calipari’s young team has produced efforts that led to many wondering if they had turned the corner. But after ending a four-game losing streak on Saturday, the Wildcats trailed Arkansas 11-0 with Darryl Macon and Jalen Barford serving as the sparks for the Razorbacks. But instead of wilting and getting blown out Kentucky fought, pulling even by halftime. And in the second half the Wildcats were even better, controlling the action and picking up an 87-72 victory.

Five Kentucky players scored in double figures, with Kevin Knox accounting for 23 points and seven rebounds and fellow freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander adding 18 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Three of the five double-figure scorers came off the bench, with Jarred Vanderbilt and Quade Green providing much-needed sparks in the first half. Kentucky’s now won back-to-back games for the first time since late January, and while that may not seem like a big deal it’s certainly a positive development for this group.

ALSO: NO. 21 WEST VIRGINIA GETS BACK TO BASICS IN WIN OVER BAYLOR

3. NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE AND NO. 16 OHIO STATE HOLD SERVE

Both the Spartans and Buckeyes took care of overmatched foes on their respective senior nights, with Michigan State beating Illinois by 20 and Ohio State whipping Rutgers by 27. With its win Michigan State wrapped up at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title, and the Spartans can wrap up the top seed in next week’s Big Ten tournament with a win over Wisconsin on Sunday. Miles Bridges led the way with 19 points and Joshua Langford added 16 for Michigan State, which shot 47.1 percent from the field and 11-for-27 from three.

What Michigan State will need to do against Wisconsin will be known by tip-off, as Ohio State completes its regular season schedule Friday night at Indiana. Tuesday night, Chris Holtmann’s team rolled past an overmatched Rutgers squad, with C.J. Jackson scoring a game-high 18 points off the bench. Keita Bates-Diop shot just 3-for-11 from the field and scored six points, but Ohio State received quality efforts from multiple players as it ended a two-game losing streak.

Jarred Vanderbilt’s value coming to the forefront as Kentucky wins second straight game

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Maybe Jarred Vanderbilt was the key that unlocked Kentucky’s potential all along.

The struggles that this team has had this season have been covered ad nauseum at this point in the season. Do they have a go-to guy? Can Kevin Knox become consistent and aggressive enough to be a star? Is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander going to takeover the lead guard role? Just what in the world is going on with Hamidou Diallo?

Hell, that really only scratches the surface, doesn’t it?

We’ve reached the point where the national conversation about Kentucky is … well, it’s almost non-existent. We’ll talk about them when they give us something to talk about.

And they have.

The Wildcats won their second straight game on Tuesday night. But unlike a home win over an Alabama team that isn’t all that much older than Kentucky, the Wildcats went into Bud Walton Arena and beat down a talented, veteran Arkansas team, 87-72.

Knox finished with 23 points. SGA had 18 points, seven assists and five boards. P.J. Washington (13 points, ten boards, three assists, two steals, two blocks) and Quade Green (12 points, six boards, four assists) both had big games coming off of the bench. Those are the kind of performances the Wildcats need out of their four-most talented offensive weapons.

But the x-factor here, the guy that now looks like he could be what sparks a Kentucky run that could salvage their season, is Vanderbilt. He is the one player on this roster that can change a game without needing the ball in his hands. He’s a workhorse on the glass with boundless athleticism and energy. He can block shots. He can play a small-ball five role and he can also get out an defend on the perimeter when needed. He can take a defensive rebound and go coast-to-coast.

No one else on this team can do all of those things. And that is before you get to the simple fact that he has some dog in him. He brings a level of intensity and toughness, both physically and mentally, that Kentucky has lacked at times, and in the last two games he seems to finally be getting up to speed with what it takes to win at this level.

What Vanderbilt’s presence does is allow Kentucky to utilize their best lineup: Green, SGA, Knox, Washington and Vanderbilt.

We’ve been banging the ‘Kentucky needs to go small’ drum for a while. At some point, John Calipari is going to have to accept that this is the five that is going to win him games. I understand why he won’t give up on players. It’s not hard to read into what he said yesterday as, essentially, “we won’t do what Duke did to Marques Bolden to our players.” Diallo may be struggling, Nick Richards and Sacha Killeya-Jones may not be ready to handle SEC basketball just yet, but Cal is not going to give up on them. They’re going to get their chances, and I have no problem with that. Kids can’t develop, can’t learn what it takes to play, if they don’t play.

But when it comes to winning time, when it comes to tournament games where losses mean you are heading home, that five — Green, SGA, Knox, Washington and Vanderbilt — is the five that needs to play the majority of the minutes. It gets their best offensive players on the floor, it gets at least two of their best defenders on the court and it lets them matchup with big and with small lineups.

That is their best five.

Now before anyone overreacts or snitches on me to Old Takes Exposed, this is not me saying that Kentucky Is Back!!!

Beating good but inconsistent teams in the middle of the SEC is not exactly a sign that the Wildcats are destined for the Final Four, not when we’re just a week removed from a four-game losing streak.

But it’s hard to ignore the difference in the way Kentucky played on Tuesday in contrast with the way Kentucky rolled over at Texas A&M two weeks ago.

 

URI fights off La Salle for share of A-10 title

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jeff Dowtin scored 25 points, including four key free throws in the final seconds, as No. 18 Rhode Island clinched a share of the Atlantic 10 regular season title with a hard-fought 95-93 overtime victory at La Salle on Tuesday night.

Five Rams scored in double figures. Stanford Robinson had 20 points, Jared Terrell had 14, E.C. Matthews had 13 and Fatts Russell had 10.

La Salle was led by B.J. Johnson, who posted a career-high 23 rebounds to go with 29 points. Johnson a double-double in the first half with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

The Rams (22-4, 14-1 Atlantic 10) trailed 30-18 midway through the first half before going on a 14-0 run and taking a 39-37 halftime lead.

Rhode Island never trailed in the second half and led 81-78 with three seconds left. The Rams purposely fouled Pookie Powell, who made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second. Tony Washington snared the long rebound and made the putback to tie the game at 81 at the end of regulation.

Cyril Langevine scored four straight points to give the Rams a 91-87 lead with 2:20 left in OT. Trailing 91-90, La Salle had two chances to take its first lead since the first half, but couldn’t convert.

Dowtin hit two free throws to give La Salle a 3-point lead, and the Rams again intentionally fouled Powell, this time with 3.2 seconds left. Powell again made the first — and accidentally made the second. After Dowtin made two more, the Explorers tried the same tactic yet again but were called for a lane violation.

Saul Phiri added 16 points, and Miles Brookins scored 13 for La Salle (11-17, 5-10).

BIG PICTURE

Rhode Island: The Rams are looking for the first outright A-10 title in team history. In 1980-81, they finished tied for a share of the Eastern Eight regular season title. The 14 conference victories equal a team record.

La Salle: The Explorers are now 9-4 at home this season and have lost five straight to Rhode Island at Tom Gola Arena. Johnson’s previous career-high in rebounds was 16 against Miami in November of last year.

No. 21 West Virginia gets back to basics in win over Baylor

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West Virginia was not happy about the way things ended in Lawrence, so they took it out on the hottest team in the Big 12.

On Saturday, No. 21 West Virginia blew a double-digit, second-half lead in a loss to Kansas for the second time this season. Given the nature of Saturday’s loss, not only with regards to the blown lead but also the frustration that comes with attempting just two free throws, the question for the Mountaineers going into Tuesday’s game at Baylor was how would they respond.

As was the case with its 35-point beating of Texas in the first game after their home loss to Kansas, West Virginia offered up a positive response in Waco. Esa Ahmad and Jevon Carter led a balanced offensive effort and Sagaba Konate was dominant around the basket as the Mountaineers picked up the 71-60 victory.

West Virginia built its advantage in the first half, finding quality looks offensively (and making them at a solid clip) while limiting Baylor on the other end of the floor. But Baylor was able to mount a rally in the second half, with West Virginia’s offense being stagnant at times with passing on the perimeter ultimately yielding to a hopeful hoist in the final seconds of the shot clock.

That’s been an issue for the Mountaineers on multiple occasions this season, in wins and losses alike, with Carter being the team’s best option to make a play either for himself or his teammates. Even with Tuesday’s win, West Virginia showed that it still has work to to in this area as the season’s most important month draws closer.

The second half offensive issues aside, the conversation should be about what Sagaba Konate gives West Virginia in the post. Konate finished with ten points, ten rebounds and nine blocked shots, tying the single-game school record set by D’Or Fisher in 2004.

The 6-foot-8 sophomore entered Tuesday’s game ranked fifth in the country in blocks per game (3.15), and his block percentage of 16.2 ranks third nationally. While the perimeter players, most notably Carter, receive attention for their roles in “Press Virginia”, a big reason why they’re able to be so aggressive is the presence of Konate on the back line. Players big and small alike have looked to challenge Konate at the rim, and more often than not those attempts fail to the his combination of timing and sheer strength.

Baylor was able to pull closer in the second half due to West Virginia’s at times sluggish offense and its work on the offensive boards. For the game Baylor rebounded 38.6 percent of its missed shots, outscoring the Mountaineers 15-7 in second-chance points. But they shot just 32.8 percent from the field and 3-for-9 from three, with West Virginia putting forth one of its better efforts with regards to half-court defense in addition to forcing 14 Baylor turnovers.

Ultimately, while West Virginia’s bounce-back performance was a good one the result wasn’t so much about learning something new about the Mountaineers so much as them getting back to who they are. The offense was balanced if not spectacular, and defensively one of the nation’s best rim protectors produced a virtuoso performance.

That’s been the formula West Virginia’s called upon when successful, and they’ll have to continue to do that if they’re to make a run in March.

Bubble Banter: Losses by Texas A&M, Creighton put them in weird spots

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Saturday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

N.C. STATE (RPI: 55, KenPom: 47, NBC seed: 10): The Wolfpack avoided adding a bad loss to their résumé by knocking off Boston College. At this point, N.C. State has done enough to get into the tournament. Not only do they have five Quadrant 1 wins, but in that group of wins includes: Duke, Clemson, at North Carolina and Arizona on a neutral. They can still mess this thing up by going on a losing streak at the wrong time, but I think that N.C. State is closer to safe than people realize.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (RPI: 61, KenPom: 46, NBC seed: Out): It might be time to pay a little more attention to Mississippi State. After winning at Texas A&M on Tuesday, they now have three Quadrant 1 wins and a 6-8 record against the top two Quadrants with no bad losses. Here’s the problem: Their three best wins are Arkansas at home, Missouri at home, at Texas A&M, who may not end up being a tournament team. Throw in an atrocious non-conference SOS, and there is a reason they’re on the outside looking in. This is, however, a step in the right direction.

BUTLER (RPI: 34, KenPom: 20, NBC seed: 10): Butler did themselves a favor by picking up a Quadrant 2 win over Creighton at home. They now have a 3-8 record against Quadrant 1 with six Quadrant 2 wins. That loss to Georgetown at home doesn’t look pretty, but it shouldn’t be a killer so long as the committee takes into account that the Hoyas have been better late in the year. That’s a bad loss. It’s not a horrific loss. Their final two games of the regular season: at St. John’s and at Seton Hall. Win one and they should be fine, especially if they win their opener of the Big East tournament.

LSU (RPI: 75, KenPom: 63, NBC seed: First four out): LSU got their job done on Tuesday, night, beating Vanderbilt at home. That’s not going to help them leapfrog anyone in front of them. Frankly, games at Georgia, at South Carolina and Mississippi State probably won’t, either. If the Tigers are going to get into the tournament, they are probably going to have to get some work done in the SEC tournament. The good news is this: a 6-5 record against Quadrant 1 is a good place for them to start.

NEBRASKA (RPI: 58, KenPom: 56, NBC seed: Out): Nebraska beat Indiana, but I think they may have cost themselves a shot at a bid by losing to Illinois over the weekend. They have a gaudy record but they are going to need to get some work done in the Big Ten tournament.

LOSERS

BAYLOR (RPI: 56, KenPom: 38, NBC seed: Play-in game): Baylor did not help their cause on Tuesday, losing at home to West Virginia. That dropped them to 16-11 overall and 7-8 in the Big 12. Here are their final three games: at TCU, Oklahoma, at Kansas State. Those are all Quadrant 1 wins, and that’s before the Big 12 tournament. Baylor’s rallied a long way from the team that was barely in the mix for a bid three weeks ago. It’s not over yet, but they have quite a bit of work to do.

TEXAS A&M (RPI: 27, KenPom: 32, NBC seed: 7): This team is all over the place. They’re now 17-11 on the season after losing at home to Mississippi State, and they’ve now lost three straight games since Duane Wilson went down for the season. But the first two of those losses were on the road against top 30 teams, eight of their 11 losses are Quadrant 1 and of their three Quadrant 2 losses, this was the only one where they were anywhere near full strength. But they’ve had so many suspensions and injuries and illnesses and players missing time that I don’t know what is what with this group. Two of their last three are on the road, and they are already 6-9 in the SEC. I think the Aggies are in more trouble than people might realize.

CREIGHTON (RPI: 37, KenPom: 26, NBC seed: 7): I’m including Creighton here because a Creighton fan asked me about them this week so I figured it was worth the discussion. As of today, I think that Creighton is safe. They’re 3-7 against Quadrant 1, they have six Quadrant 2 wins and no bad losses. But I also recognize that the end of their season schedule isn’t exactly easy. They host Villanova on Saturday, and the Wildcats are finally healthy and playing with a Big East title on the line. Creighton should be DePaul, but then they have to play at Marquette, the same Marquette who just beat them in Omaha. Lose two out of three, and suddenly they’re 19-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big East. That would put them at 5th or 6th in the league standings, most likely, which would mean they play a Quadrant 1 game in the first round of the Big East tournament. So the way I see it, Creighton is likely in with one more win this season. They’re definitely in with two.