College Hoops Preview: Identifying this year’s X-Factors

1 Comment

Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Preseason talk is always dominated by all-american teams and all-conference teams, player of the year candidates and who is headed for early-entry into the NBA Draft.

And, generally speaking, the players that have their names brought up in those conversations are usually the guys that dominate the headlines — and the box scores — for much of the season. But quite often, the difference-makers for the best teams in the country aren’t necessarily the leading scorers or the best pro prospects, they are the guys that the most important role. They are the guys that will be called upon to do what no one else on the roster is willing or able to do.

Here are 18 of this season’s most important x-factors (it’s by no means a comprehensive list, so feel free to chime in with oversights in the comments):

Tarik Black, Jr., Memphis: Black was expected to be a breakout performer for Memphis last season, but that didn’t happen. In fact, he put together a fairly disappointing season. One of the biggest issues was his inability to rebound the ball, which was a major reason Memphis was routinely beat up on the glass last year. With leading rebounder Will Barton gone, Black will need to become a presence on the back boards.

Austin Chatman, So., Creighton: The Bluejays returned the majority of their roster from last year, but the guy they lost was point guard Antoine Young. Chatman is the leading candidate to try and replace those 12.1 points and 4.4 assists, but more importantly, he’ll be asked to be a defensive sparkplug. Creighton’s season will hinge on whether or not they can improve on that end of the floor.

Patrick Connaughton, So., and Scott Martin, Sr., Notre Dame: Notre Dame has a pair of terrific play-makers in their back court and a big-bodied, all-conference center in the middle. In Mike Brey’s ‘Burn’ Offense, those three will need space. If Connaughton and Martin can consistently knockdown perimeter jumpers, they’ll have it.

Quinn Cook, So., Duke: The Blue Devils were missing a number of things from last season’s team, but nothing was more difficult to overcome than the lack of a play-maker at the point guard spot. While the roster will have a bit of a different feel this season, there are still plenty of weapons on it. No one will be more important than their point guard, Cook.

Gary Harris, Fr., Michigan State: It’s always tough to peg just how good an incoming freshman is going to be, and it is no different with Harris. But with the tough and physical front line that Michigan State will put on the floor, they’ll need Harris to be a serious scoring threat. Because Tom Izzo doesn’t have many others.

Andre Hollins, So., Minnesota: While Trevor Mbakwe’s legal status may be the most pressing issue for this team, Hollins’ development is a close second. It took him some time to learn the point guard spot as a freshman, but after averaging 16.8 points and 2.8 assists in the final nine games (including four points and no assists in the NIT title game when he fouled out), Gopher fans are expecting a lot out of him this season.

Elijah Johnson, Sr., Kansas: You know about Jeff Withey defensively and you know what it expected of Ben McLemore as a scoring guard, but who will be the Jayhawk’s leader? Who will be their play-maker and ball-handler? Johnson was promising at the end of last season. Can he build on that heading into his senior campaign?

Philip Jurick, Sr., Oklahoma State: Even with Brian Williams’ injury and J.P. Olukemi’s eligibility questions, the Cowboys have plenty of wing and perimeter options. What they’re lacking, however, is a presence in the middle. Jurick averaged 4.9 boards and 1.7 blocks in just 16.5 minutes last year, but he’s battling back from an achilles injury and dealing with some legal issues stemming from an offseason arrest.

Alex Len, So., Maryland: The Terps have a number of talented perimeter options and a couple of live-bodied athletes in their front court, but if Len can live up to some of the expectation he has, Mark Turgeon’s club has a chance to be very good. He’s a legitimate seven-footer and a scoring threat inside.

Mark Lyons, Sr., Arizona: Ok, Lyons may be more than simply a role player, but his role is so important for the Wildcats that I left him on this list. Arizona has a ton of talent on their roster, but it’s young talent. Lyons is a veteran guard, but can he be a facilitating leader at the point?

Anthony Marshall, Sr., UNLV: Marshall’s in a similar situation as Lyons. He’s a veteran guard being asked to play the role of facilitating point guard when it’s not exactly his strong suit. There is a lot of talent on the UNLV roster, and Marshall is the guy that can bring it all together.

Victor Oladipo, Jr., Indiana: Oladipo is the best athlete and the best perimeter defender on a team that doesn’t have much a ton of athleticism and will struggle on the defensive end of the floor. If he can consistently force opposing wings to struggle to score the ball, it’ll be a boon for Tom Crean’s team.

Alex Oriakhi, Sr., Missouri: Lost in his disappointing performance as a junior at UConn was just how dominant Oriakhi was as a sophomore, dominating the paint as the Huskies won the national title. With ball-pressuring guards and versatile, athletic forwards on the roster, if Oriakhi can revert back to that form, Missouri can become an elite defensive team.

Marcus Paige, Fr., North Carolina: The point guard spot on the Tar Heels may be the most important position in the entire country. Paige is a freshman taking over the role. He’ll have talent on the roster with him, but that’s no guarantee that UNC will be successful with Paige running the show. Ask Larry Drew.

Lenzelle Smith, Jr., Ohio State: We know what to expect out of Deshaun Thomas and we know what Aaron Craft is going to give the Buckeyes. Thad Matta has plenty of highly-regarded recruits that can fill in and play roles. What the Buckeyes need is a secondary scorer to emerge on the wing, and Smith showed signs of being that guy last season.

Peyton Siva, Sr., Louisville: Siva had quite a bit of expectation entering last season, and he struggled dealing with them early on. Louisville struggled as well. Remember the 31 point loss to Providence? I do. But down the stretch of the regular season and into March, Siva started to become the kind of play-maker that we all expected from the beginning. And the Cardinals won the Big East tournament and made the Final Four. Louisville is not a good offensive basketball team, which is why Siva’s role is so important.

JT Terrell, So., USC: USC will look like a brand new team this year, with the number of transfers getting eligible and returners getting healthy. And while they have size up front and a quality point guard in Jio Fontan, they are missing some scoring pop on the wing. Terrell can be that guy.

Patric Young, Jr., Florida: From a physical perspective, Young may as well be a Greek God. The problem? That physicality hasn’t quite produced the kind of numbers you’d expect. On a team with a lot of guards and a power forward that shoots a lot of threes, Young needs to become a guy that controls the paint offensively and defensively if Florida is to become elite.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Northwestern beats No. 20 Michigan State in Big Ten opener

Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK
1 Comment

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Boo Buie scored 20 points and Northwestern beat No. 20 Michigan State 70-63 on Sunday night in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

Chase Audige added 15 points and Ty Berry had 13 for Northwestern (6-2), which ended a two-game losing streak.

“Needless to say, this was a huge win for us,” coach Chris Collins said. “Coming off our performance in the ACC-Big Ten challenge, where we lost badly on our home floor (to Pittsburgh), I was really pleased with our resolve the past couple days.”

Mady Sossoko and A.J. Hoggard each had 12 points for Michigan State (5-4) and Joey Hauser added 10. The Spartans have lost two in a row, falling to Notre Dame earlier in the week.

Hoggard cut Northwestern’s lead to 64-63 with 46 seconds left. After a timeout, Buie scored on a layup with 23 seconds left.

“We got out-toughed,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Northwestern took the lead late in the first half on a layup by Buie and never relinquished it, leading by as many as nine points.

“We put (the loss to Pittsburgh) under the rug,” Buie said. “We turned the page, just like we do with any win or loss. The season is so long you can’t get caught up on one single game. Just like tonight. We’re super happy with the win, but after tonight it’s over. You can’t dwell on things.”

The Wildcats went 21 of 24 on free throws, while the Spartans were 9 of 12.

“I was concerned about a knockout punch early,” Collins said. ‘I knew they would be revved up after the Notre Dame loss. They hit us early and got a seven-point lead, and then we settled down.”

UP NEXT

Northwestern: Hosts Prairie View A&M on Dec. 11

Michigan State: At Penn State on Wednesday night.

Miles, No. 7 Notre Dame women beat No. 3 UConn; Fudd hurt

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Olivia Miles had 21 points and eight rebounds for No. 7 Notre Dame, and UConn star Azzi Fudd suffered a knee injury in a collision with a teammate, as the Fighting Irish handed the third-ranked Huskies their first loss of the season, 74-60 on Sunday.

“I think she’ll be all right,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said afterwards of Fudd, who went into the day averaging 24.0 points, but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes.

Fudd exited in the final minute of the first quarter after teammate Aaliyah Edwards fell on her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way as a precaution, according to Auriemma.

Maddy Westbeld had a season-high 17 points and nine rebounds for Notre Dame (7-1), which bounced back from a 74-72 loss to No. 20 Maryland three days earlier.

“I think Thursday’s loss really fueled us today,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “We learned a lot from that game. We have incredible scorers on our team, a lot of balance offensively, but it’s our defense that’s gonna win games, so that was our focus the last 48 hours. (The players) took the challenge and came out and played with heart and defensive intensity. I feel like if we can play that way, we can beat anyone in the country.”

Notre Dame shot 56% from the field while limiting the Huskies to 37%.

“We played very badly (Thursday), but we were still two points away,” Miles said, “so it’s kind of scary what we can do when we play really well.”

Led by Miles, the Irish roared to a 41-24 lead by intermission, outscoring the Huskies 30-11 over the final 11 minutes of the first half.

Miles scored 13 of Notre Dame’s 18 first-quarter points, going 6 of 7 from the field. Westbeld provided her scoring punch after averaging 5.2 points over her previous five outings.

Lou Lopez Senechal led UConn (6-1) with 21 points. Edwards added 14.

“We didn’t win the rebound battle and that hurt us,” said Auriemma, whose club was outboarded 39-26 and outscored in the paint. 46-16. “We just didn’t have enough scoring on the court and enough people playing at a real high level to get enough buckets when we needed them.”

The Huskies got as close at 49-44 at the 3:44 mark of the third quarter, but the Irish stretched their lead back to as high as 70-53 at the midway mark of the fourth period.

Notre Dame ended a seven-game head-to-head losing streak against UConn in regular-season play, prevailing for the first time since a triple-overtime decision in March 2013.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies faced a top-10 opponent for the fourth time this season, but this one was their first true road game. If Fudd’s injury doesn’t turn out to be serious, UConn ought to still have a chance to do what it’s done for decades: craft a resume that will make them a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Notre Dame: The Irish, coming back from that loss at the buzzer to Maryland, showed that Thursday’s outcome may just be a blip on their promising season. Notre Dame matched last season’s win over No. 3 North Carolina State for the highest-ranked team it has beaten in its third year under Ivey.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies host Princeton on Thursday before visiting Maryland next Sunday.

Notre Dame: The Irish have a couple apparent mismatches coming up as they visit Lafayette (2-7) on Thursday and host Merrimack (1-6) on Saturday.

Brink leads No. 2 Stanford women over No. 23 Gonzaga 84-63

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

STANFORD, Calif. – Gonzaga may be rolling out an injury-depleted roster, but the Bulldogs nevertheless left a lasting impression on their West Coast rival in Stanford.

And that leads the Cardinal to wonder if the two power programs might meet again on college basketball’s biggest stage come March.

“This is a team that is a Top-25 team,” Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I think if we can do it, they’re going to be in Seattle (for the NCAA Tournament).”

Cameron Brink had 14 points and a season-high 16 rebounds and Brooke Demetre made a career-high five 3s and scored 17 points, leading second-ranked Stanford past No. 23 Gonzaga 84-63 on Sunday.

The Cardinal (10-1) have now won five straight games after falling to top-ranked South Carolina in overtime on Nov. 20.

“I kind of call Brooke my secret weapon,” VanDerveer said. “She is a really special young lady, and when you have both Cam out there and Brooke, it’s a two-headed monster.”

“She has one of the highest releases I’ve ever seen, one of the quickest releases,” Brink said of Demetre. “She can shoot it, and we’ve always had confidence in her.”

Hannah Jump hit four 3s and scored 14 points, and Haley Jones had 12 points for Stanford.

Short-handed Gonzaga (7-2), limited to seven players because of illness and injuries, had won three in a row.

The Zags kept the pressure on Stanford early in the game, thanks to a 20-point first half from Kaylynne Truong.

Truong shot 4 of 9 from deep and finished with a career-high 22 points.

Brynna Maxwell contributed 19 points. Yvonne Ejim, Gonzaga’s leading scorer, was held to two points in the first three quarters but added six points in the fourth.

“We try to focus on a leading scorer and try to limit them,” VanDerveer said. “But you can’t just focus on (Ejim) because they’ve got Truong, they’ve got Maxwell. . I think we did a much better job (on defense) in the second half.”

STAT OF THE GAME

The Cardinal were able to pull away due to a strong game from beyond the arc, making 15 3-pointers on 15 of 28 (53.6%) shooting. A season-high eight different Stanford players made a 3, led by Demetre’s five and Jump’s four.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: Lost its fourth straight in the series with Stanford and dropped to 1-7 on the Cardinal’s home floor. The Zags haven’t won any matchups since a 79-73 victory at home on Dec. 2, 2018. … Despite playing short-handed, Gonzaga did not yield an easy win to its higher-ranked opponent, trailing by just one point after the first quarter before fading in the second half.

Stanford: Held a 37-23 rebounding advantage. … This win marked the beginning of a crucial stretch in the Cardinal’s season. Stanford’s next two games come against Tennessee – receiving votes in The Associated Press Top 25 poll – and No. 13 Creighton, followed by the start of Pac-12 Conference play against rival California on Dec. 23.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs return to McCarthey Athletic Center to start a five-game homestand, starting with a Tuesday matchup vs. Queens University of Charlotte.

Stanford: After a two-week break for final exams, the Cardinal will continue their seven-game homestand vs. Tennessee on Dec. 18.

Top-ranked Houston grinds out 53-48 win over Saint Mary’s

Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

FORT WORTH, Texas – J’Wan Roberts scored 15 points, Marcus Sasser added 13 and top-ranked Houston held on to beat Saint Mary’s 53-48 on Saturday night.

The Cougars (8-0) won twice in their first week as the No. 1 team since the final poll of the 1982-83 regular season, when Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon led high-flying Phi Slama Jama.

Logan Johnson scored 17 points and Aidan Mahaney had 14 for the Gaels (6-3), who lost their third in a row following a 6-0 start.

Houston was the favorite to win it all in the second of three consecutive trips to the Final Four nearly 40 years ago, but lost to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in one of the iconic championship games.

Coach Kelvin Sampson’s first top-ranked team is coming off trips to the Final Four and Elite Eight the past two seasons.

For the third straight year, the postseason path will start at Dickie’s Arena, where Sampson likes to bring his team during the regular season as prep for the American Athletic Conference tourney.

This victory in the Battleground 2k22 series improved the Cougars to 9-0 in the arena near downtown Fort Worth, where they have won AAC tournament titles each of the past two years.

Saint Mary’s whittled a 12-point deficit to a single possession when Mahaney hit a 3, and he made it a three-point game again at 46-43 with another from long range.

Roberts answered by backing down for a short jump hook before Sasser converted a three-point play to put the Cougars up 51-43.

Houston broke a 17-all tie with a 14-3 run to finish the first half, with Saint Mary’s going 1 of 11 from the field in that stretch against the vaunted Cougars defense. Both teams shot 37%.

BIG PICTURE

Saint Mary’s: Facing the No. 1 team isn’t foreign to the Gaels, who play in the West Coast Conference with Gonzaga. St. Mary’s is 2-7 against the Zags when they have the top ranking, with one of the victories coming last season.

Houston: The Cougars had no trouble in their debut with the No. 1 ranking, blowing out Norfolk State 100-52 at home Tuesday. A disciplined and tournament-tested opponent for the second game was just the threat Sampson’s club figured it could be.

UP NEXT

Saint Mary’s: Missouri State at home Wednesday.

Houston: North Florida at home Tuesday.

Clowney, No. 11 Alabama recover to beat South Dakota St

Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Freshman Noah Clowney’s breakout game – 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists and a steal – helped No. 11 Alabama recover from blowing a 20-point lead and beat South Dakota State 78-65 on Saturday night.

Clowney shot 8 of 17, including 5 of 12 on 3s, in his highest-scoring game of the season.

“We’ve encouraged him to shoot it, I’m glad he did,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “His senior year of high school, he started out pretty poorly from 3 then shot it 40% after that, so I kind of referenced that.”

Alabama (7-1) led 37-17 with 6 1/2 minutes left in the first half. South Dakota State (3-6) rallied to go ahead 51-50 on Alex Arians’ 3-pointer with 11 1/2 minutes remaining.

Nimari Burnett’s foul shot a minute later put the Crimson Tide ahead for good at 54-53. Alabama used a 9-0 run to pull away.

Mark Sears scored 19 points and Brandon Miller had 16 points and nine rebounds for the Crimson Tide

Alabama made 14 of its first 26 shots to build a big lead before it slipped away.

“I’m not going to call them mature, we still have some room to grow,” Oats said. “Our guys have to understand, no matter who we’re playing, even if their record isn’t great, they’re Division I basketball players, they’re good teams. Last year, we had issues with this going down the road.”

Charlie Easley and Arians each scored 17 points for the Jackrabbits. Zeke Mayo added 12 points and Matt Dentlinger contributed nine rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Sears continues to be a force at home for Alabama. In Alabama’s last three home games – wins over Liberty, Jacksonville State and South Dakota State – he has scored 22, 18 and 19 points, making at least three 3-pointers in all three games. Alabama’s next home game comes against a Memphis team that already has two wins over SEC competition.

SECOND HALF SPRING

South Dakota State coach Eric Henderson noticed that in Alabama’s first two home games, Longwood and Liberty both trailed by fewer than 10 points at halftime before losing by 21 and 36 points, respectively. He viewed the first five minutes of the second half as critical in both instances, seeing an Alabama team using the home environment to its advantage.

Henderson stressed to his team that it had to win those five minutes to have a chance. Down 42-35 at the break, it did, and ultimately took the lead.

“They really increase the pressure, they try to play a little faster, they get downhill and they really spray it,” Henderson said. “I thought we were getting some 50-50 balls, I thought we were playing with some confidence. There’s been a lot of schools to come in here and have a good first half and it ends up being a 30- or 40-point game.”

UP NEXT

South Dakota State stays on the road to face Montana on Tuesday.

Alabama takes a weeklong break before its second game against the current No. 1 team in the nation, this time a road game against Houston on Saturday. The Crimson Tide beat former No. 1 North Carolina in its first shot at the top-ranked team, winning 103-101 in four overtimes on Nov. 27.