With the Super Bowl in the past, here are the ten things you need to know about college basketball

6 Comments

source: Getty Images

1. Injuries plaguing two of the nation’s best: Syracuse is the new No. 1 team in the country. They are unanimously ranked at the top of the latest AP poll, and they are currently sitting in first in the NBCSports.com Top 25. There really isn’t a coherent argument to make against the Orange currently being the No. 1 team in the country.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve been the most impressive team this season. To date, I’d argue that Arizona and Michigan State have been the two teams that have looked the most formidable as we head into the stretch run of college basketball season. But here’s the thing: neither of those two teams are healthy. Michigan State could get there, as Adreian Payne could be back as early as this week and Brandon Dawson’s broken hand should be healed at some point this month.

Arizona?

They’ll be without Brandon Ashley the rest of the season thanks to a broken foot.

2. Andrew Wiggins is overrated and underrated: The story of the season back in October was the freshmen: Wiggins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, Aaron Gordon. To date, Randle, Parker and Gordon have mostly been what we expected them to be. Wiggins, on the other hand, has failed to live up to the hype of being the “best prospect since LeBron” this year, which has resulted in talk about Wiggins being overrated.

And to a point, that was a fair criticism. But remember: Wiggins is the leading scorer on a top ten team that is a favorite to not only win the Big 12, which may be the nation’s best conference, but is also considered one of the strongest Final Four contenders in college hoops. He’s so overrated that he’s become … underrated? Sounds weird, but it’s true.

3. Tyler Ennis is the nation’s best freshman: Here’s the irony of it all: Wiggins isn’t even the best freshman on his team. Joel Embiid is, and he’s not even the best freshman in the country.

source: Getty ImagesThat title belongs to Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis, who has been the steadying presence and closer that Syracuse has needed so badly this season. C.J. Fair gets a lot of attention, because he’s a senior that has been really good for a really long time, and Jerami Grant gets the hype, because all of those tip-dunks are nasty, but it’s Ennis that is the reason the Orange are currently the No. 1 team in the country.

4. The Big 12, not the ACC, is the best conference: There was some chatter in the preseason that the ACC could end up being the best conference in the history of conferences, hype that turned out to be a long way from true. North Carolina has not been the same team without P.J. Hairston, Duke’s defensive issues has made them quite inconsistent, Virginia’s slow start hasn’t yet been made up by feasting on ACC bottom-feeders, and Pitt has literally beaten no one this season.

The Big 12 is the best conference in the country this season, and it’s because so many teams have outperformed expectations. Texas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma and, arguably, Kansas are all better than we thought. The crazy part? Oklahoma State and Baylor have disappointed to date, and the Big 12 is still loaded. Think about that.

5. The Big Ten is nuts: If you can figure out the Big Ten, you may be the only one. Michigan lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway to the draft and Mitch McGary to surgery, yet they’ve been the best team in league play. That’s until they went to Indiana, who was coming off of a disastrous second half in a loss to Nebraska and beat the Wolverines. Wisconsin and Ohio State were ranked in the top five at one point and both have lost five of six games at one point in league play. Illinois? They went from top 25 to seven straight losses. Northwestern? They went from the league’s running joke to fourth place as February starts.

Yeah, I don’t get it either.

6. Kentucky’s talented, but can they win a title?: The talent on Kentucky’s roster has mostly been as good as advertised. They had some struggles early in the season, but Julius Randle has been awesome, James Young is scoring a ton and the Harrison twins have, mostly, looked like what scouts expected them to look like. Throw in the recent emergence of Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress, and Kentucky, on paper, can matchup with anyone.

The problem? The Wildcats haven’t shown the kind of toughness or leadership you expect out of a real title contender. The game against LSU is the perfect example. They got staggered by a 22-6 run to open the game, and never fully responded. Can this team handle the adversity that will undoubtedly come during a six-game run through the NCAA tournament?

Are they even the most dangerous team in the SEC? Florida doesn’t have a star on their roster, but they’re stifling on the defense. The last three games? They’ve given up 128 points total. That’s an average of 42.7 points.

7. Doug McDermott has been awesome: Creighton may not be the best team in the Big East — Villanova probably is, despite losing by 28 to Creighton at home — but they not only have the league’s best player in Doug McDermott, they have a guy that is a shoe-in for National Player of the Year at this point in the season. It’s barely even a discussion at this point.

Which actually disappoints us a bit. The Bluejays have been steamrolling a disappointing Big East, but …

8. Wichita State is better than they were last year: … we miss out on a chance to see them play the Shockers two (or three!) times this season.

The Shockers are still undefeated as we enter February, and I’d argue they are better this season than they were last season. Fred VanVleet is one of the nation’s most underrated point guards, Ron Baker is as good of an off-guard as you’ll find in the country and Cleanthony Early is a legitimate NBA prospect. They are extremely well-coached, they defend and they have size and depth up front.

9. Best team in the American is … Cincinnati?: Entering the season, it was Louisville. Memphis and UConn weren’t all that far behind. SMU had some hype. So did Houston. Cincinnati? They were mostly an afterthought, but they’ve turned out to be one of the best teams in the country. Their defense is absolutely stifling, as Justin Jackson has become arguably the nation’s best overall defender. When Sean Kilpatrick is shooting well, this is a dangerous team.

10. The Mountain West is down, but SDSU isn’t: New Mexico’s issues defensively, Boise State’s mediocrity and UNLV’s inconsistency means that the conference, as a whole, is no where near where it was last season. But that doesn’t change the fact that San Diego State is legitimately a top ten team. Thing about it like this: they have one of just nine wins in Phog Allen Fieldhouse in the last nine seasons and their only loss came against Arizona. Like Cincinnati, this team is stifling defensively and quite dangerous on the days Xavier Thames is hitting shots.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

Abbie Parr/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

Eric Espada/Getty Images
Leave a comment

De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
1 Comment

Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.