After winning 28 games and the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament titles a season ago, No. 13 Saint Louis had two personnel losses to account for. Gone were two of their three double-digit scorers in Cody Ellis and Kwamain Mitchell, and those certainly aren’t departures to be glossed over. However the Billikens did return four of their top six scorers, led by forward Dwayne Evans Jr., and for that reason Jim Crews’ team was expected to once again be right in the middle of the Atlantic 10 title race.
Evans (as he did last season) is leading Saint Louis in scoring, but if there’s a key play to be made late the ball will most likely be in the hands of fellow senior Jordair Jett. And against La Salle that was the case with Jett using a flat ball screen at the top of the key to get to the basket, finishing with four seconds remaining to give the Billikens the 65-63 win. Saint Louis has now win 16 straight games, establishing a new school record.
Jett finished the game with a season-high 25 points to go along with four assists, connecting on nine of his 14 shots from the field and shooting 7-for-9 from the foul line. And he epitomizes this Saint Louis team: not much flash, but certainly not lacking for results either. Saint Louis shot just 2-for-13 from beyond the arc against La Salle but they were able to make plays inside, scoring 42 of their 65 points in the paint.
La Salle was slightly better in this category, scoring 44 points in the paint with Jerrell Wright (21 points, eight rebounds) and Steve Zack (15 points, 13 rebounds) both being productive interior options, and the Explorers remained in the game throughout for that very reason. But guards Tyreek Duren (14 points) and Tyrone Garland (six points) combined to shoot just 7-for 21 from the field, with Saint Louis’ perimeter defense forcing challenged looks for much of the afternoon. And in the end, it was Jett who proved to be the difference-maker.
Saint Louis is off to the best start in school history, and their win streak is also a program best with SLU’s last defeat coming against No. 4 Wichita State back in December. With their ability to defend Saint Louis has the potential to be a tough out come March, and when the chips are down they’ve got a player in Jett makes all the right decisions.
Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.
After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.
Video credit: Wyoming Athletics
Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.
Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.
Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.
Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.
Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.
But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.