Team of the Week: St. Louis Billikens
The Billikens have not exactly had a smooth ride this season. At the start of practices, their star point guard Kwamain Mitchell broke his foot, which almost certainly made things more difficult for new head coach Jim Crews. Then, in early December, the man that had put this team together and built it into an Atlantic 10 favorite, Rick Majerus, passed away.
But since the death of Majerus, the Billikens have turned their season around. They haven’t lost since, winning all eight games they’ve played. That includes a 60-46 win over then-No. 20 New Mexico that wasn’t even that close. All of a sudden, the team that started out the year 3-3 and looked a long way from some of the powerhouses at the top of the A-10 is round into form. And while they have Mitchell back in the mix, he’s still a ways from being “Kwamain Mitchell”; through three games, he’s averaging just 7.3 points, shooting 25.0% from the floor and 9.1% from three and averaging a career-high 3.0 turnovers.
What happens when he finally gets healthy? If you take anything out of the win over the Lobos on New Year’s Eve, it’s that the A-10 needs to be forewarned.
Seven Teams Deserving a Shoutout
- Gonzaga: We’ve written plenty on the Zags over the last few days, but it is worth noting here that this group not only went into Gallagher-Iba and knocked off a good Oklahoma State team, they did the same to a Santa Clara team that was leading Duke midway through the second half in Cameron. And it’s only now that Kevin Pangos is starting to find his perimeter stroke. If this team ever figures out how to defend, watch out.
- Minnesota: I think it may be time to officially designate the Gophers as ‘for real’. I had my doubts heading into Big Ten play, as some of their big non-conference wins have gotten less and less impressive as the season has gone on. But with Trevor Mbakwe starting to look like pre-ACL Trevor Mbakwe and with the two Hollinses starting to play like all-Big Ten candidates, Tubby Smith has a team that will make quite a bit of noise in the Big Ten. Ask Michigan State, who watched the Gophers use a 22-4 Fatality (Finish him!) in their Big Ten opener.
- Marquette: For all the question marks that we had about the Golden Eagles after a less-than-stellar non-conference season, Buzz Williams’ crew has jumped out to 2-0 in the Big East with a pair of nail-biting wins over UConn and Georgetown. Marquette got a game-tying, buzzer-beating three from Junior Cadougan to force over time — where they benefited from an official brain-fart — against the Huskies, and survived when Greg Whittington missed a free throw with 2.3 seconds left against the Hoyas.
- Creighton: Not a bad start to league play for the Bluejays, as they knocked off Illinois State on the road on Wednesday and followed that up by beating Indiana State at home on Saturday. It looks like the MVC is going to once against be Creighton, Wichita State, and everybody else.
- Weber State: Damian Lillard may be gone, but that doesn’t mean that Weber State is finished as a program. Thanks to a 2-0 week, the Wildcats are 11-3 on the season and 4-0 in Big Sky play.
- Arizona State: It’s time to start paying attention to the Sun Devils. DePaul loss aside, this team is 13-2 on the season after defending their home court in the Pac-12’s first weekend with wins over Utah and Colorado.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.
After briefly taking part in the NBA Draft evaluation process, Villanova forward Kris Jenkins announced Monday night that he’s decided to withdraw and return to school for his senior year. Jenkins, whose three-pointer as time expired gave the Wildcats the win over North Carolina in the national title game, announced the news via Twitter.
2015-16 was a breakout season for Jenkins, who moved into the starting lineup and averaged 13.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. The 6-foot-6 forward shot 45.9 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from beyond the arc, and with starters Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduating he’ll have even more opportunities to produce next season.
Jenkins’ decision to return leaves wing Josh Hart as the lone Wildcats going through the early entry process at this time. Hart was a first team All-Big East selection as a junior, and his return would be the final piece to the puzzle for a team that many expect to be a national title contender in 2016-17.
Jenkins and Hart wouldn’t be the only returnees who had a part in the national title run, with guards Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth, wing Mikal Bridges and forward Darryl Reynolds back as well. To that group Villanova adds Fordham transfer Eric Paschall and a recruiting class anchored by Omari Spellman and Dylan Painter with Donte DiVincenzo and Tim Delaney available after being hampered by injuries last season.
Delaney missed all of last year after undergoing surgical procedures on his hips, and DiVincenzo played a total of 74 minutes over the first nine games before having to sit due to a broken foot.
With their top three scorers from last season all deciding to declare for the NBA Draft, Florida State was facing the possibility of having to rebuild their backcourt ahead of the 2016-17 season. However two of those three have decided to return to Tallahassee, with rising junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes announcing on Monday that he will be back in school.
Rathan-Mayes joins rising sophomore Dwayne Bacon in returning to play another season for head coach Leonard Hamilton, with Malik Beasley hiring representation and remaining in the draft.
Rathan-Mayes had more scoring help last season and as a result was able to concentrate more on the distribution aspects of the point guard position, as he averaged 11.8 points and 4.4 assists per contest. With the return of Rathan-Mayes and Bacon, Florida State will have two of its top three scorers from last season back on campus.
The Seminoles did lose some veteran players, most notably guard Devon Bookert and center Boris Bojanovsky, but the returnees and a recruiting class led by McDonald’s All-American forward Jonathan Isaac means that they won’t lack for options next season.
After receiving commitments from former Purdue/Houston guard Ronnie Johnson and former Presbyterian forward DeSean Murray, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl continued to load up on the transfer market Monday. Forward LaRon Smith, who was named MEAC Defensive Player of the Year at Bethune-Cookman last season, announced that he will use his final season of eligibility at the SEC program.
Like Smith, Johnson will also be eligible to compete immediately for the Tigers while Murray will have to sit out next season before having two years of eligibility remaining.
The 6-foot-8 Smith played two seasons at Georgia State before transferring to Bethune-Cookman, where he averaged 7.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per contest in 2015-16. Smith played just over 25 minutes per game for the Wildcats, shooting 58.5 percent from the field.
Smith reached double figures in scoring in four of the Wildcats’ final seven games, including a 20-point, 11-rebound, three-block outing in an overtime win over North Carolina A&T. He joins a front court in need of depth following the departures of the likes of Cinmeon Bowers and Tyler Harris, with Horace Spencer, Trayvon Reed and incoming freshman Anfernee McLemore also competing for minutes in 2016-17.
With a five-member recruiting class set to arrive on campus this summer, SMU added a talented transfer Monday afternoon. Jimmy Whitt, who played his freshman season at Arkansas, committed to join Larry Brown’s program. Whitt, a 6-foot-4 guard from Columbia, Missouri, will have three seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out the 2016-17 campaign.
As a freshman at Arkansas, Whitt averaged 6.1 points and 1.7 rebounds in just over 17 minutes of action per game. He reached double figures in scoring nine time, with the high being a 15-point outing in a blowout win over Missouri in mid-January. Whitt produced a stretch of four consecutive games in double figures during non-conference play, but he struggled to maintain that consistency against SEC competition.
At SMU he’ll join a perimeter rotation that will lose rising senior Sterling Brown following the 2016-17 season. Among those who will have eligibility remaining when Whitt becomes eligible are Ben Emelogu, Shake Milton, Jarrey Foster and incoming freshmen Tom Wilson and Dashawn McDowell.
GREELEY, Colo. (AP) Jeff Linder is the new basketball coach at Northern Colorado. He spent the last six seasons at Boise State, where he was associate head coach for the Broncos since 2013-14.
Linder replaces B.J. Hill, who was fired last month amid an NCAA investigation into allegations of violations in the program.
University President Kay Norton and Athletic Director Darren Dunn announced Linder’s hiring Sunday.
Linder played high school ball in Lafayette, Colorado, and college ball at Mesa State and Western Colorado State. He began his coaching career under Colorado head coach Ricardo Patton.
In a statement, Linder said, “I look forward to returning home to the state of Colorado and continuing to build this program into something everyone can be proud of.”
Hill was 86-98 in six seasons at UNC.