In a game that has been billed for months — literally — as a battle between Andrew Wiggins and Marcus Smart, the two favorites for National Player of the Year back in November were fairly forgettable.
Smart was 3-for-14 from the floor, but as he tends to do, he put together an impressive all-around performance, finishing with 10 boards, eight assists and four steals while sparking an Oklahoma State comeback from a 47-30 halftime deficit.
Well, he finished 1-for-5 from the floor. He had three points, two boards and an assist. He took one shot after the 9:26 mark … of the first half! The most physically gifted wing in the country, one of the nation’s top prospects and a future top three pick in the NBA Draft, was a complete non-factor for the No. 15 Jayhawks.
Think about that for a second. Wiggins was thought to be the savior for the Jayhawks because he gave them a go-to guy, an offensive weapon that would be able to get them 20 points on a nightly basis and give them an option at the end of a clock. He was going to be the guy that Bill Self would build an offense around, the load-bearing shoulders that would carry a young and unproven Kansas team to yet another Big 12 title.
The Jayhawks are now 4-0 in the Big 12, having beaten their four biggest challengers in Big 12 play already — at Oklahoma, Kansas State, at Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Kansas State is the only team that currently sits within one game of the Jayhawks in the Big 12 standings. This is arguably the most talented team in the country, and they are peaking at the right time.
And they are doing it despite the fact that their Sports Illustrated cover boy has yet to be anything more than a piece to the puzzle.
That’s scary for two reasons.
First of all, the rest of the Jayhawks have found their groove. Embiid, who finished with 13 points, 11 boards and eight blocks, has turned into arguably the most dominant post presence in college basketball. Wayne Selden caught fire last week, sparking Kansas against Oklahoma and Kansas State. Naadir Tharpe is (finally) fully embracing the point guard role Kansas has been waiting for him to fill for two years. He had 21 points and six assists on 7-for-8 shooting on Saturday, which included three huge jump shots in the second half, the last of which gave Kansas a 79-73 lead with 35 seconds left.
But what happens if Wiggins is the next guy to come full circle? What happens if it finally comes together for him? Kansas already has full control of the toughest conference in the country. They already look like a national title contender. And they can still get so much better.
Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the America East conference.
After four title appearances in the past five seasons, Stony Brook finally captured an America East Conference championship and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. Shortly after an 85-57 loss to Kentucky in the first round, Jameel Warney, the three-time America East Player of the Year and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Carson Puriefoy, an all-America East first team selection, and Rayshaun McGrew, another double digit scorer, all graduated. Before that, on March 19, it was announced that Stony Brook head coach Scott Pikiell was hired by Rutgers.
It’s more than fair to assume the America East will have a new champion this season. In 2016-17, it may be a border battle between two New England programs.
Vermont, which led Stony Brook by 15 before dropping the 2016 America East title game to the Seawolves, should be tabbed as the favorite. The Catamounts graduated forward Ethan O’Day, but retain essentially every other key piece. The team will be led by Trae Bell-Haynes, who led the team with 12.2 points per game. Taking on an ever larger leadership role, the emphasis for the 6-foot-2 junior is protecting the ball as he looks to cut down on turnovers this season. He’ll be joined on the wing by Ernie Duncan, who averaged double figures in his redshirt freshman season and Kurt Steidl, who started all 36 games for the Catamounts during the 2015-16 season. The frontline will miss the 11.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game O’Day provided, but that void can be filled by a pair of Tulane transfers. Payton Henson, a 6-foot-8 forward, should add a level of toughness to the frontcourt, while Josh Hearlihy should add versatility with the ability to play 3-5 and guard pretty much every position on the floor. The Catamounts have the depth that few teams in the league can compete with night-in and night-out.
With Vermont’s additions down low, this league may come down to the frontcourt. New Hampshire boasts arguably the best one in the conference, headlined by Tanner Leissner. The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 15.9 points and 7.3 boards per game during the 2015-16 season. The frontcourt also includes Iba Camara, the team’s top rebounder also returns from a season ago. Jaleen Smith, a well-rounded guard, who averaged 13.4 points 5.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, will anchor the backcourt, while fellow guard Joe Bramanti will be in charge of locking down the opponent’s top perimeter threat. The Wildcats are coming off a program-record 20 wins and in a good position to secure its first-ever bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Albany was in the tournament only two seasons ago. However, the Great Danes have lost its three top scorers — Evan Singletary, Peter Hooley and Ray Sanders. Albany’s attempt to reload begins with whether Joe Cremo, the America East Rookie and Sixth Man of the Year. The 6-foot-4 guard, who averaged 10.5 points and shot 51 percent from the field and 37 percent from three, will be surrounded by a core of junior college transfers. If Will Brown can get this group of newcomers to mesh quickly, the Great Danes can be a legitimate threat. Stony Brook enters the season with a new coach, Jeff Boals, who spent the past seven season at Ohio State. The Seawolves also enter the 2016-17 campaign without 60 percent of its scoring and 50 percent of its rebounding from a season ago. Ahmad Walker will be the focal point for the Seawolves, but how will he handle being “the man” as opposed to being a supporting member?
Binghamton, which returns all five starters, headlined by Willie Rodriguez, has the best chance to make a jump up the conference standings. The Bearcats should serve as a sleeper pick in the America East. Binghamton was in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency, but had one of the worst offenses in all of Division I. Tommy Dempsey has made changes to the backcourt which should improve the ‘Cats’ offensive woes. UMBC guard Jairus Lyles, the top returning scorer in the conference, will anchor a talented perimeter, but the frontcourt is cause for concern, especially in a league where the two favorites are strong in that department.
Hartford and Maine both took big hits this offseason when leading scorers Pancake Thomas (Hartford) and Isaac Vann (Maine) elected to transfer. UMass Lowell, in its third season in Division I basketball, returns three double-figure scorers. The Riverhawks remain ineligible for postseason play for one more season.
PRESEASON AMERICA EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tanner Leissner, New Hampshire
In a league that doesn’t have a dominating senior, New Hampshire junior forward Tanner Leissner has a chance to be the league’s top player. He ended the 2015-16 season averaging 15.9 points and 7.3 boards per game and scored 20 or more points 11 times in 30 games. The skilled forward has been part of a winning culture in Durham in his two seasons — 19 wins in 2014-15, a record-setting 20 last year — and has the potential to lead New Hampshire to the conference’s top spot.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON AMERICA EAST TEAM:
Trae Bell-Haynes, Vermont: Known for coming up big in crucial situations, Bells-Haynes has the keys to the Catamounts entering this year. He’s the leading scorer and will be in charge of running the offense. Cutting down the turnovers can only help Vermont’s tournament hopes.
Willie Rodriguez, Binghamton: The 6-foot-6 small forward has the chance to be the conference player of the year; a player who can turn the Bearcats from rebuild mode to competitor.
Ahmad Walker, Stony Brook: The 6-foot-4 guard recorded six double-double a season ago. Will need to be a fixture on offense as he is on defense for the Seawolves this year.
Jairus Lyles, UMBC: The VCU transfer became eligible after the first semester, scoring 23.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists in 36.2 minutes per game.
NEW YORK (AP) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s next book will be a fond look back at his long friendship with John Wooden, the celebrated basketball coach at UCLA.
“Coach Wooden and Me” will be published next June and will combine personal memories and lessons learned from his friend and mentor, Grand Central Publishing told The Associated Press on Wednesday. Wooden, who died in 2010, coached 10 NCAA championship teams at UCLA. Three titles were won while Abdul-Jabbar, then called Lew Alcindor, was the Bruins’ star center.
Abdul-Jabbar, who went on to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, remained close to Wooden. In a statement released through Grand Central, he called Wooden a great coach and “an even better teacher and friend.” Abdul-Jabbar’s other books include the memoir “Giant Steps” and the novel “Mycroft Holmes.”
Bowen, a consensus top-20 recruit, is a 6-foot-8 small forward out of Sagniaw, Mich., but he currently is attending the prestigious La Lumiere School in Indiana. He’s also the cousin of former Michigan State star Jason Richardson, leaving many to believe that he’s a heavy Spartan lean.
“People think I’m 100 percent to Michigan State,” Bowen told Brendan Quinn of MLive.com earlier this month. “I love them to death and I’ve been there my whole life and everything — it’s a great coaching staff and everything — but I’m not 100 percent to a school until I commit there. Right now, I’m open to the schools that are recruiting.”
Bowen hasn’t said when he plans on making a final decision.
Indiana senior Collin Hartman underwent surgery to repair damage on his left knee, the school announced Wednesday.
The Hoosiers provided no timetable for Hartman’s return following a non-contact injury he suffered in practice last week.
“Any time you see one of your players go down to injury,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said in a statement, “it tears you up as a person and as a program — even more so when it’s someone like Collin Hartman, who has been a huge part of our success and is in his senior year. We all look forward to helping him recover and rehabilitate.”
After playing sparingly as a freshman, Hartman has been a role player for the Hoosiers the last two seasons, averaging right around 20 minutes per game. He put up 5.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists last year as a junior.
The school hasn’t released the nature or severity of the Hartman’s injury, so it’s impossible to even guess when he might be able to suit up next for the Hoosiers, who are a likely top-15 team heading into the season.
Indiana opens the year in a big way on Nov. 11, facing off against Kansas in the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu.
The upward trajectory of Virginia Tech basketball under Buzz Williams continued Wednesday.
Wabissa Bede, a Class of 2017 point guard, committed to the Hokies to give them their second top-100 player in the class.
The 6-foot-1 Massachusetts native choice Virginia Tech after taking official visits to both Blacksburg and Butler with UMass and LaSalle also in the mix. He’s ranked 77th in the 247Sports composite rankings.
“Wabissa Bede is a rugged guard who helps his team win games by defending and playing smart basketball,” NBCSports.com recruiting analyst Scott Phillips said. “He can stand to improve his perimeter jumper, but he has a high IQ and can make plays for others as a passer.
“Bede is a perfect Buzz Williams fit.”
Williams is developing quite the backcourt in this class with top-50 shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker already committed to the Hokies.
It’s becoming a good time to be a Virginia Tech basketball fan after a couple of lean years to start the Williams era. The Hokies are a likely top-25 team and expected to end a 10-year NCAA drought this season with Seth Allen and Zach LeDay returning.
With the improvement of the on-court product and the recruiting successes, Virginia Tech certainly looks like a program on the rise.