CBT Monthly Awards: Arizona earns accolades, everybody enjoyed Butler vs. Indiana

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As we did last month, the College Basketball Talk writers got together to pick the very best of December. The month was filled with entertaining games, outstanding performances and everything in between.

With the calenders turning to a new year, we analyze which teams we believe in, and which teams need a reality check.
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Team of the Month: Arizona
Terrence Payne – In less than two weeks, the Wildcats had a pair of top-25 wins including a big-time win over Florida. Nick Johnson’s block preserved a victory over San Diego State on Christmas night. Arizona is now ranked No. 3 and undefeated at 12-0 heading into the New Year.

Daniel Martin – As undefeated teams dropped around them, the Wildcats continue to stand strong, despite lingering questions about the inexperience of their frontcourt and how far natural shooting guard Mark Lyons can take them while playing the point. Regardless, Arizona has claimed its title as the favorite in the Pac-12.

Rob Dauster – Wins over Florida and San Diego State are impressive this early in the season, especially when you consider that the Wildcats are only going to get better as their big men mature.
 
 
Player of the Month:
Daniel Martin – Trey Burke, Michigan – The sophomore point guard averaged 18.2 points, 6.7 assists, and just 1.2 turnovers per game for a team that is still undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country. He has been the most important part of the offensive engine for Michigan and he is continuing to prove that he made the right choice by foregoing the NBA draft and returning to school.

Raphielle Johnson – Khaliff Wyatt, Temple – Three games of 20 or more points in December, most notably that 33-spot he hung on Syracuse, and Wyatt failed to reach double figures just once (the loss to top-ranked Duke). Many have jumped to say the A-10 race is VCU, Butler and Saint Louis, but Wyatt is one reason why the Owls will be heard from when league play begins next month.

Troy Machir – Anthony Bennett, UNLV – The freshman forward finished the month with four double-doubles and was one of the lone bright spots in the Rebel’s loss at North Carolina. Carried the load when Mike Moser went down. Looks like a ready-made pro just two months into his college career.

Honorable Mention: Ben McLemore (Kansas), Doug McDermott (Creighton), Mason Plumlee (Duke)
 
 
Game of the Year: Butler 88, Indiana 86 (OT)
David Harten – And it’s not really all that close. It had great offensive and defensive play. Great individual efforts. An incredible atmosphere you could feel even through the television. An improbable hero in Bulldogs walk-on guard Alex Barlow and an upset. Case closed.

Raphielle Johnson – Even with the Arizona/Florida game later that night not sure there was a better game this month than the Bulldogs outlasting the Hoosiers. In fact, this could very well end up being the best game of the entire season when it’s all said and done.

Eric Angevine – Absolutely the best, most meaningful game of the month.

Daniel Martin – Not only did it have the typical ingredients for a great game, it had implications, too. The Indiana loss knocked them out of the No. 1 spot and vaulted Butler into the Top 25. It didn’t hurt that reserve Alex Barlow emerged as an unlikely hero with the game-winning shot.
 
 
Most Surprising Team:
Rob Dauster – Oklahoma State – They have a point guard that’s not a natural point guard and they lost tow key players to season-ending injuries. And yet, there they are.

Eric Angevine – Arizona – Don’t get me wrong. This looked like a good team to start the season, but undefeated at year’s end? Didn’t see that coming at all.

Terrence Payne – Illinois – I wasn’t sold on the Illini after winning Maui, but despite the loss to Mizzou, Illinois went into Spokane and behind a great performance from Brandon Paul beat Gonzaga by double digits.

David Harten – New Mexico – Alex Kirk has solidified himself as a go-to big man and Kendall Williams has shown himself to be a contributor as a scorer (14.9 ppg, a team high) and distributor (a team-high 4.7 apg). Tony Snell is the athlete everyone comes to see make plays. Beating no. 8 Cincinnati on Thursday night on the road definitely helped the cause.
 
 
Least Surprising Team: Michigan
Terrence Payne – The Wolverines went undefeated in conference play behind the strong play of Burke, Tim Hardaway, and Glenn Robinson III.

Daniel Martin – Despite being undefeated and the No. 2 team in the country, how much are the Wolverines being talked about in the Final Four discussion? Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Glenn Robinson III are as solid a trio as you’ll find. Pair that with a three-point shooter like Nik Stauskas and inside toughness from Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan and you, too, shouldn’t be surprised at where Michigan is right now.

Troy Machir – Shockingly enough, this is exactly where I predicted the Wolverines to be at this point in the season. They are really, really good. Really.

Eric Angevine – Under Trey Burke and the scions of half of the pre-millennium NBA, the Wolverines have been an absolute machine. Their undefeated run has been so unremarkable that it’s almost easy to forget they’re around.
 
 
Bandwagon you’re jumping on: Kansas
Troy Machir – They have two guys playing like All-Americans and another handful playing like All-Conference selections. Everybody is chipping in. Jayhawks should steamroll through Big-XII play.

Rob Dauster – I’ve been on the bandwagon for a while, but with McLemore playing as well as he has, this team is ahead of the curve.

Terrence Payne – Never quite sure why I leave the bandwagon, but Bill Self has the Jayhawks riding a 10-game winning streak and led Ben McLemore’s 15.8 points per game, KU looks to be a mix on the national stage entering conference play.
 
 
Bandwagon you’re getting off:
Eric Angevine – Florida – I was legitimately on this bandwagon, choosing the Gators as a Final Four contender when we made our CBT preseason picks. But horrible shot selection and poor situational awareness is killing this team, and nothing about that seems to be about to change any time soon.

Raphielle Johnson – Wyoming – The Cowboys are 12-0 and have four players averaging double figures, but no reserves average more than 5.3 points per game (Josh Adams; Riley Grabau’s 5.1 ppg would be the mark if Adams is the fifth starter). If a Leonard Washington, Larry Nance Jr. or Luke Martinez were to land in early foul trouble, would Wyoming have enough offensively to contend with the other powers in the Mountain West?

Rob Dauster – Colorado – They are good and they’ll compete in the Pac-12, but I don’t see the Buffaloes being anything more than a good west coast team.
 
 
New Years Resolution for a team, player or coach:
Rob Dauster – Indiana needs to realize that Cody Zeller is their bread and butter and get him more touches.

Eric Angevine – New Mexico needs to keep big man Alex Kirk engaged. It’s no coincidence that a dangerously close win over New Mexico State and a home loss to the NDSU Jackrabbits happened on successive nights when Kirk was ineffective around the basket.

David Harten – Pittsburgh needs to get more out of Steven Adams. This isn’t a knock on the Panthers or Adams. He’s lived up to the preseason love, but to say he’s reached max potential this season might be far-fetched. Averages of 7.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game aren’t bad at all, but the more I watch him, the more I believe he’s capable of averaging somewhere around 13 and 9 per. He can do it.

Raphielle Johnson – Minnesota should resolve to become more efficient on the defensive glass. The best offensive rebounding team in the country, the Golden Gophers have had their issues on the other end. If that doesn’t improve in Big Ten play, their chances of contending diminish greatly.
 
 
Final Four Picks after two months:
Raphielle Johnson – Duke, Indiana, Louisville, Arizona
David Harten – Duke, Kansas, Louisville, Ohio State
Rob Dauster – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri
Eric Angevine – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana
Troy Machir – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana
Daniel Martin – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana
Terrence Payne – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana

Bubble Banter: Nebraska’s fortunes have changed thanks to better Big Ten

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Here is the most recent bracket NBC Sports bracket projection.

There is no better example in college basketball of the importance of non-conference play for a league and the value that performance brings to a team than Nebraska.

A year ago, the Cornhuskers entered Selection Sunday with a 22-10 record and a 13-5 mark in the Big Ten and barely got a sniff of life on the bubble. That was a direct result of just how weird the Big Ten was that season. The conference had four teams that were good enough to be top five seeds on Selection Sunday — Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan — and a bunch of nothing beyond that. To put it into perspective, prior to last season, there had never been a team with 12 Big Ten wins to get left out of the NCAA tournament and there have only been two teams in the history of the conference to win 11 games and be relegated to the NIT. Hell, the only time that any power conference team won 13 league games and missed the NCAA tournament was when it happened to Washington and Oregon in 2012. Washington won the league title but the conference was worse than it is this year, so they got left out.

Nebraska? They went 13-5 in conference play and they were a No. 5 seed in the NIT.

How?

Unbalanced scheduling meant that Nebraska only got one game against each of those top four teams — three of which came on the road — and they won the one game they got at home by 20 points over the same Michigan team that reached the national title game. They, like the much of rest of the conference, whiffed on all of their chances to land big wins outside of league play, and when they lost at Illinois late in the season, it was more or less the end of the road.

This year, Nebraska is sitting at 5-10 in league play with a 15-11 record overall, and … they’re one of our Next Four Teams Out?

How is that possible?

It’s simple: The Big Ten cleaned up in non-conference play, meaning that everyone in the league except for Rutgers is ranked in the top 80 of the NET. If Illinois (77) and Northwestern (78) find a way to get into the top 75, it would mean that 13 of the 14 teams in the conference would be Q1 wins if you beat them on the road. Yes, Nebraska lost seven games in a row, but five of those seven losses were Q1 losses and the other team were Q2.

They’re 15-11 on the season but they don’t have a single bad loss to their name. What they’re missing are those high-end wins, and that’s where things get really interesting. The final five games on Nebraska’s schedule — including Tuesday night’s trip to Penn State (70) — are Q1 games. They close the season against Purdue (12), at Michigan (8), at Michigan State (7) and Iowa (28). Let’s say they finish the season 3-2 and pick up a win at a depleted Michigan State team in the process. Suddenly, they would be sitting at 18-13 on the season. The committee would not factor in that 8-12 record in the Big Ten or that there was a seven-game losing streak in the middle of the year.

Instead, they would look at a team that is 5-10 in Q1 games and 10-13 against Q1 and Q2 opponents with a win in East Lansing in their back pocket.

I look at bubble profiles every single day this time of year.

And that resume? I think it probably gets them into the tournament.

What a time to be alive.

GAMES LEFT TO PLAY

Dayton at DAVIDSON (NET: 67, SOS: 128), 6:00 p.m.
Ohio at No. 25 BUFFALO (NET: 24, SOS: 71), 7:00 p.m.
NEBRASKA (NET: 38, SOS: 77) at Penn State, 7:00 p.m.
Rhode Island at VCU (NET: 42, SOS: 31), 8:00 p.m.
No. 16 Florida State at CLEMSON (NET: 41, SOS: 43), 9:00 p.m.
BAYLOR (NET: 36, SOS: 45) at No. 19 Iowa State, 9:00 p.m.
ALABAMA (NET: 50, SOS: 20) at Texas A&M, 9:00 p.m.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Zion Williamson has this award locked up

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1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

I’m running out of good things to say about Zion at this point.

Last week, we talked about how good he can play in games where he doesn’t even play well — when he had 18 points, five boards, five assists, three blocks and three steals in an OK performance at Virginia. Then this past week we saw Zion play through foul trouble to put up 27 points, 12 boards and three steals in a come-from-behind win at Louisville before lighting up N.C. State for 32 points, six boards and three steals in just 30 minutes.

He’s just not fair at this level, and at this point in the season, with less than three weeks before tournament play kicks off, I think we can just about stamp him as the National Player of the Year.

2. MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette

After struggling and finishing with just 17 points on 5-for-17 shooting in Marquette’s loss to St. John’s two weeks ago, Howard has been absolutely on fire. He’s averaging 37.0 points in the last two games while shooting 25-for-45 (55.6 percent) from the floor and 9-for-20 (45 percent) from three. Included in that run is a 38 point performance in a win over Villanova. He has been carrying the Golden Eagles for stretches on the offensive end of the floor this season, and that is why they are in the mix for a Big East regular season title.

3. JA MORANT, Murray State

Morant had 25 points, 14 assists, eight boards, three steals and a block the last time out. He’s averaging 24.3 points and 10.2 assists on the season. He is the reason a Murray State team that doesn’t have all that much talent on the roster is sitting at 21-4 on the year. I don’t think the Racers have a realistic shot at getting an at-large bid this season, but I want nothing more than a chance to see Morant try and put 50 points up against some No. 3 seed in the first round of the tournament.

4. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

I think that you can make the argument that R.J. Barrett played his best game of the season on Saturday, as he notched just the fourth triple-double in the history of the Duke program while posting 23 points, 11 boards and 10 assists without committing a single turnover.

5. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

The flaw in Williams’ game was exposed on Saturday night. When he goes up against someone that can match him pound for pound and muscle for muscle, he doesn’t quite have the athleticism or the skill to win that battle. He’s still a surefire all-american and, at this point, I have a hard time imagining him falling off of the first-team, but we did get a glimpse at some of his limitations.

6. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

Every time I watch Hunter play, I am more and more convinced that he is on his way to being a top five player out of this draft class. The most intriguing part of it all is the way that Tony Bennett has opted to deploy him on the defensive end of the floor, using Hunter to guard Coby White in the closing minutes of a win at North Carolina and putting him on Nickeil Alexander-Walker in the win at Virginia Tech. Those are point guards. Hunter plays as the four in many of Virginia’s lineups.

7. CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State

Nick Ward had surgery on his hand and is out for an undetermined amount of time. Josh Langford is already done for the season. If Michigan State is going to have any chance to make a run in March, they are going to need Winston to play out of his mind for the next six weeks.

8. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech

Culver makes his return to this list as his three-point shooting has started to regress back to the mean. After a 3-for-33 stretch from deep, Culver is 5-for-11 from deep in the last two games as the Red Raiders have gone scorched earth from beyond the arc of late. The fact that Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney are starting to hit shots is opening up some more space for him to operate.

9. BRANDON CLARKE, Gonzaga

I don’t care what Jordan Sperber says, Clarke is the best player on Gonzaga this season.

10. P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky

In the last eight games, Washington is averaging 21.1 points, 8.1 boards, 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals, which includes a 23 point performance as Kentucky manhandled No. 1 Tennessee in Rupp Arena on Saturday evening. More important, however, is the fact that during that stretch, Washington is shooting 12-for-24 (50 percent) from three. It’s hard to know exactly where to put Washington on a list like this — he has a couple big games earlier in the year, but he was no where near as consistent or as dominant — but I do think that if he finishes out the season the way that he has played over the course of the last month he will win SEC Player of the Year.

IN THE MIX: Phil Booth (Villanova), Jordan Caroline (Nevada), Carsen Edwards (Purdue), Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga), Ethan Happ (Wisconsin), Ty Jerome (Virginia), Dedric Lawson (Kansas), Charles Matthews (Michigan), Shamorie Ponds (St. John’s)

Davison, Iverson lead No. 22 Wisconsin over Illinois, 64-58

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MADISON, Wis. — Brad Davison scored 18 points, Khalil Iverson added 16 and No. 22 Wisconsin held off Illinois 64-58 on Monday night.

The Badgers (18-8, 10-5 Big Ten) ground out a win over Illinois (10-16, 6-9) with leading scorer Ethan Happ on the bench down the stretch.

Happ, who averages 18 points, scored just six points on 3-of-7 shooting, was 0 for 3 from the foul line and had three turnovers, including one just before he sat out the final minutes. He also has proven a liability from the line in crunch time in past games, shooting less than 45 percent from the line.

But Davison led the Badgers down the stretch. His short jumper put the Badgers up 54-52 with 3:21 left, giving them the lead for good. After Iverson blocked Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Davison collected the loose ball to take it in for a layup and a 56-52 lead with 2:45 to go.

From there the teams traded blows until Nate Reuvers’ putback dunk on a missed 3 gave Wisconsin a 62-58 lead. Iverson then stole the ball on the next Illinois possession, helping put away the game.

Aaron Jordan finished with 12 points for the Illini, while Ayo Dosunmu added 11 and Bezhanishvili 10.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois: The Illini had won four straight and were looking for their first five-game conference winning streak since 2013. Instead, they lost their 15th in a row to the Badgers, the longest streak to any Illinois opponent.

Wisconsin: The Badgers snapped a two-game losing streak and proved they could win in a grind-it-out game with Happ on the bench.

UP NEXT

Illinois: Hosts Penn State on Saturday.

Wisconsin: Travels to Northwestern on Saturday.

No. 23 Kansas State beats West Virginia to keep Big 12 lead

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Barry Brown scored 21 points and No. 23 Kansas State beat West Virginia 65-51 on Monday night to remain atop the Big 12 standings.

A 14-0 run midway through the second half, led by a couple of 3-pointers by Xavier Sneed, gave the Wildcats (20-6, 10-3) their fifth straight conference road win.

After shooting poorly in the first half and only holding a two-point lead, Kansas State kept the Mountaineers (10-16, 2-10) at bay with 50 percent shooting in the final 20 minutes.

Sneed added 19 points for Kansas State, including five 3-pointers. Dean Wade, who was questionable going into the game, scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds.

Lamont West led West Virginia with 16 points. Derek Culver picked up his sixth double-double of the season with 13 points and 11 rebounds. Brandon Knapper scored 10 points.

The Mountaineers outrebounded the Wildcats 35-31.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State: The Wildcats remain on top of the Big 12 by bouncing back after their 78-64 loss to then-No. 23 Iowa State on Saturday. No. 12 Kansas and No. 14 Texas Tech remain one game back at 9-4. The Jayhawks and Red Raiders play each other on Saturday in Lubbock, Texas.

West Virginia: Considering the recent depletion of their roster, the Mountaineers put up a pretty good fight against the stout Wildcats, not caving until midway through the second half. With Oklahoma State’s win over TCU on Monday, WVU sits alone at the bottom of the Big 12.

UP NEXT

Kansas State returns home to host Oklahoma State on Saturday.

West Virginia heads to Waco to play Baylor on Saturday.

Monday’s Things To Know: Ethan Happ gets benched, Kansas State stays in first and Virginia keeps winning

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There weren’t any wildly surprising results Monday across the country, but there was no shortage of interesting happenings. From an All-American on the bench to the Big 12 race continuing to take shape and beyond, here’s what you need to know from Monday: 

ETHAN HAPPS GETS BENCHED IN WISCONSIN VICTORY

Ethan Happ has been awesome this season. He’s been a national player of the year candidate, and is a likely All-American selection. The Wisconsin senior is averaging 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game. That’s rarified statistical air for the 6-foot-10 star.

He’s also often a liability late in close games, and Wisconsin coach Greg Gard implicitly acknowledged that fact by sitting his All-American center for the final 4 minutes, 6 seconds of the Badgers’ 64-58 win over Illinois on Monday.

Gard said it was because Happ was turning the ball over, and Happ did have a tough offensive night with just six points and three giveaways. So when Gard removed him from the game right before the under-4 timeout, it probably was out of frustration of his poor night. That fact that he never came back in, though, points to hole in Happ’s game.

Happ, for all his success, talent and skill, can’t shoot free throws. It’s inexplicable how bad he is at the line, and it’s incredible what a potentially fatal flaw it might be in his game.

As a freshman, he attempted nearly five free throws per game and converted at a not-great-but-not-embarrassing 64.3 percent. That fell to 50 percent as a sophomore, ticked up slightly to 55 percent last year and has now plummeted to a highly-problematic low of 44.5 percent.

That’s led to Hack-A-Happ, and that led to Happ’s benching when the game was tied with Wisconsin desperately needing a win after back-to-back losses before welcoming a surging-but-not-special Illini team to Madison on Monday.

One of the best players in the country watched from the bench as his team closed out a close game at home in a critical spot in the season. Sure, he was having an otherwise rough night, but it’s hard to believe Gard wouldn’t have been more tempted to go back to him if there wasn’t the issue of free throws lingering in the rafters of the Kohl Center.

The question now will be if Gard will resort to this completely-defensible strategy for the rest of the season, including the NCAA tournament. It’s wild that a coach’s best move could be to bench not only his best player, but one of the country’s best players. Happ’s free-throw shooting has sort of forced his hand, though.

KANSAS STATE STAYS OUT FRONT IN BIG 12

Losing to Iowa State at Bramlage Coliseum over the weekend put a major obstacle in Kansas State’s path to winning an outright Big 12 title, but a loss at West Virginia would have totally taken things off the track.

The Wildcats flirted with disaster, but ultimately prevailed in Morgantown, downing Bob Huggins’ undermanned Mountaineers, 65-51, in a game that was tied with under 12 minutes to play.

Ultimately, it was a win for Kansas State, as was having Dean Wade on the floor after an injury scare kept him out of the game for the final 9 minutes against the Cyclones. Wade played 32 minutes and seemed fine, scoring 10 points and grabbing six rebounds.

Bruce Weber’s team is now 10-3 in the Big 12, a game up in the loss column on Kansas, Texas Tech and Iowa State. They have what should be a gimme at home Saturday against Oklahoma State, but then play in just a monster game at Allen Fieldhouse against the Jayhawks. Steal that one and then it’s two home wins and a road win at suddenly-stumbling TCU to claim the first outright Big 12 title for a team that doesn’t reside in Lawrence for the first time since 2004.

VIRGINIA KEEPS ROLLING

If you’re not Duke, you’re not beating Virginia, apparently.

Kyle Guy scored 23, Virginia Tech shot 39.7 percent from the floor and Virginia topped the Hokies, 64-58, in Blacksburg.

It was the 23rd-straight win against non-Blue Devils teams for Virginia, which has lost to Coach K’s team twice this season.

The next to take a crack at Tony Bennett’s machine is Chris Mack’s Louisville, which hosts Virginia on Saturday and will play them again in Charlottesville in the regular-season finale.

Virginia keeps winning this season. It’s basically passe at this point, but it is pretty remarkable how Bennett and Co. keep racking up wins.