Five Thoughts: James Southerland, Louisville’s struggles, Vegas in March?

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James Southerland’s impact: One of the reasons that the Syracuse offense bogged down while James Southerland was dealing with clearing up his academic issues was that they suddenly lacked perimeter shooting. The Orange don’t have much in the way of an interior presence offensively, which puts an emphasis on penetration for them, especially with a player like Michael Carter-Williams. Having a sharp-shooter on the perimeter only helps to create space. You want proof? Southerland is by far the favorite target of MCW.

But what makes Southerland so important — and why he changes Syracuse so much as a team — is that he’s not just a jump shooter. He also happens to be a rangy, 6-foot-9 athlete that has just about the same affect in Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone as a guy like CJ Fair or Jerami Grant. He’s the perfect player to put on the wing. With Southerland out, Syracuse was forced to use Trevor Cooney if they wanted to upgrade their shooting, and that meant that either Brandon Triche or MCW would have to slide to the back-line of their zone. For a defense predicated on length and athleticism, that’s a massive blow.

With Louisville struggling, Syracuse with Southerland back in the mix looks like the favorite to win the Big East.

Speaking of Louisville: The loss to Notre Dame was just a microcosm of an issue that has been plaguing the Cardinals this season: they simply cannot execute down the stretch, and it’s largely the result of an inability to play in the half court. Everyone of their losses can be attributed to awful offense in end-game situations. There were the two turnovers in the final 30 seconds against Syracuse. There were the passes that went through Chane Behanan’s hands in the loss at Villanova. Louisville played horribly offensively all game long in their loss to Georgetown, but they had two chances at the end of the game to tie it and on both possessions, ended up with long, contested pull-up two-pointers. And that’s not even counting the ugly possessions that Louisville had late in some of the games that they actually won.

Against Notre Dame, Louisville seemingly had a chance to win at the end of each period and blew it. If Louisville can’t turn you over, they can’t score. It’s a serious issue for Rick Pitino’s team.

Indiana’s most impressive performance of the season: The Hoosiers looked as good as they have looked all season long in Sunday’s win at Ohio State. Victor Oladipo had a career-high. Cody Zeller played as aggressive as he has since Big Ten play started. The threes fell, the defense was tenacious and the Hoosiers won a grinder convincingly.

The last six words in that paragraph — “the Hoosiers won a grinder convincingly” — are the most important. The Hoosiers have built a rep for jumping out to big leads and spending the rest of the game trying to protect those leads. They haven’t been the kind of ‘closer’ that you want to see out of a national title contender. But the win over Ohio State had nothing to do with big runs or quick starters. The Hoosiers simply executed on every possession at both ends of the floor slowly but surely pushing their lead out to as much as 16 points.

Alex Oriakhi’s, instigator: I can’t condone the way that Oriakhi behaved this past week. In Tuesday’s loss to Texas A&M, there was one possession where he got tangled up with Fabyon Harris on a rebound and tossed him to the ground. In the win over Ole Miss on Saturday, he nearly started a full-on brawl when he intentionally tripped Reginald Buckner and then squared up to box Murphy Holloway.

You simply cannot do those things.

Missouri needs leadership. They need someone to light a fire under them emotionally. They need someone to carry them in road games. While I realize that Oriakhi may be trying to play that role — and is probably frustrated by the way that his team has performed this season — he’s going to need to find a different way to channel that intensity.

Vegas for Championship Week. Who’s down?: Over the course of an 11 day stretch in March, the Mountain West, the Pac-12, the WCC and the WAC will be hosting their conference tournaments in the City of Sin. I’ve already pitched my bosses, but I’m not sure that I would survive those 11 days.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

AP Poll: Kansas returns to No. 1 as Gonzaga drops to 4th after loss

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Kansas is back where it started the season.

The preseason No. 1, the Jayhawks are again the top-ranked college basketball team in The Associated Press Top 25 despite struggling to get past New Mexico State at home. Kansas received 57 first-place votes from a 65-person media panel in the poll released Monday, sliding into the top spot after previous No. 1 Gonzaga lost to Tennessee.

No. 2 Duke moved up a spot and received four first-place votes. No. 3 Tennessee, No. 4 Gonzaga, No. 5 Michigan and No. 6 Virginia received the other first-place votes. No. 7 Nevada, Auburn, Michigan State and Florida State rounded out the top 10.

The Jayhawks were the preseason No. 1 but dropped a spot after Duke decimated then-No. 2 Kentucky to open the season.

Gonzaga moved to No. 1 after beating Duke in the Maui Invitational title game, lasting two weeks before losing 76-73 to the Vols on Sunday in Phoenix.

Kansas (8-0) kept winning, though it needed a big game from Dedric Lawson to beat New Mexico State in Kansas City on Saturday. Lawson, a preseason All-American, had 20 points, including the final 14 for Kansas, and 10 rebounds in the tighter-than-expected 63-60 victory.

Kansas played without center Udoka Azubuike, but coach Bill Self was not buying any excuses for the struggles.

“We were fortunate tonight,” he said. “How in the world we’ve won these games … it’s one thing to not play well, it’s another thing to not play well and not be intellectually into the game and that was certainly the case tonight.”

It was good enough to get the Jayhawks past the Aggies — and move to No. 1.

Tennessee picked up its biggest win in four seasons under coach Rick Barnes by knocking off Gonzaga in the Colangelo Classic and has its highest AP ranking since hitting No. 1 in 2007-08.

The Vols (7-1) kept their poise and made the biggest plays down the stretch, holding off the Zags 76-73 after Admiral Schofield scored 25 of his 30 points in the second half and hit two key 3-pointers.

The victory was Tennessee’s first over a No. 1 team since beating Kansas in 2010 and Barnes’ first in 31 years as a head coach.

Tennessee matched the biggest climb of the week, moving up four spots from No. 7, while No. 15 Ohio State, No. 17 Villanova and No. 18 Mississippi State also moved up four.

No. 19 Kentucky had the largest drop this week, losing 10 spots to No. 19 after losing to Seton Hall in overtime. No. 25 Kansas State was next at nine.

Furman moved into the poll for the first time last week, thanks to a resume that includes wins over 2018 Final Four teams Villanova and Loyola-Chicago.

The Paladins (10-0) moved up two spots in this week’s poll to No. 23 after beating Elon and South Carolina Upstate. Furman plays Charleston Southern on Tuesday and UNC Wilmington Saturday.

This week’s poll had a rarity — three teams tied for the final spot, meaning there are 27 teams in the top 25.

Syracuse, Indiana and Kansas State all came in at No. 25 after receiving 118 points. It’s the first three-way tie in the AP Top 25 since three teams shared No. 13 in 1991.

The Hoosiers are ranked for the first time since climbing to No. 3 in 2016-17. The Orange moved back into the Top 25 after beating Northeastern and Georgetown. The Wildcats dropped nine spots from No. 16 after losing to Tulsa.

In addition to Syracuse and Indiana, No. 21 Marquette and No. 24 Houston each moved into the poll this week. The Cougars are ranked for the first time since hitting No. 21 last season and the Golden Eagles are back in the poll after dropping out in Week 3.

AP Top 25 poll
First-place votes in parentheses

TEAM LAST
1. Kansas (57) 2
2. Duke (4) 3
3. Tennessee (1) 7
4. Gonzaga (1) 1
5. Michigan (1) 5
6. Virginia (1) 4
7. Nevada 6
8. Auburn 8
9. Michigan State 10
10. Florida State 11
11. Texas Tech 13
12. North Carolina 14
13. Virginia Tech 15
14. Buffalo 17
15. Ohio State 19
16. Wisconsin 12
17. Villanova 21
18. Mississippi State 22
19. Kentucky 9
20. Arizona State 20
21. Marquette —
22. Iowa 18
23. Furman 25
24. Houston —
t-25. Syracuse —
t-25. Indiana —
t-25. Kansas State 16

Monday Overreactions: Kentucky, Kansas State are not top 25 teams

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Admiral Schofield, Tennessee

Have yourself a day, Admiral.

You may have missed it while watching the Miami Dolphins somehow land a win over the New England Patriots or trying to figure out whether or not Patrick Mahomes is actually human, but the most entertaining game of the day on Sunday was No. 7 Tennessee’s win over then-undefeated No. 1 Gonzaga.

And the hero of the afternoon was Schofield, Tennessee’s overlooked, 6-foot-5 pro wrestler of a wing.

Schofield had a career-high 30 points against the Zags. He scored 25 of those 30 points in the second half. He scored 11 of those 25 second half points in the final 3:18, all of Tennessee’s points as they closed the game on an 11-5 surge. His three with 22.1 seconds left gave the Vols the win.

The narratives abound after this performance, and I touched on most of them here. This was a statement win for a Tennessee team that most had yet to put into the same conversation as the Dukes, Gonzagas and Michigans of the world. This was a statement performance for Schofield, whose defensive versatility, toughness, professionalism and ability to bang home threes makes him an awfully intriguing NBA prospect. There’s the rise of Barnes at Tennessee coming at the same time as Shaka Smart, his replacement after getting fired at Texas, is struggling to win in Austin.

But mostly, this was just a thrilling basketball game that was capped by a tremendous performance for a guy that doesn’t get enough credit.

It’s really not all that different from the title game of the Maui Invitational, when Brandon Clarke’s performance against Duke thrust him into the national spotlight.

Myles Cale (22) and Myles Powell (13), Rich Schultz/Getty Images

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Seton Hall Pirates

Exactly one week removed from losing at home to a Louisville in a game where the Pirates blew a double-digit first half lead, Seton Hall made the trek up to Madison Square Garden to take on that other team from the Commonwealth, as the No. 9 Kentucky Wildcats played away from Rupp Arena for the first time since they were embarrassed by Duke at the Champions Classic.

And despite both of the Myles’ — Powell and Cale — playing like they were shaving points for the first 35 minutes, and despite Keldon Johnson hitting a halfcourt prayer at the buzzer in regulation to force overtime, Seton Hall finished the job and their fans were able to hop on NJ Transit to head back to Newark with a smile on their face.

I do think it is important here to reiterate just how bad both Myles Powell and Myles Cale were for the majority of this game. Powell finished with 28 points, but he scored 17 of those 28 points in the final five minutes of regulation and also buried a three in overtime. He had been totally held in check by Ashton Hagans until then.

Cale was even worse. He finished with 17 points — that number is still shocking when I see it — but he shot just 4-for-18 from the floor and had one of those nights were everything seemed to roll off the rim. He was visibly frustrated, punching the air and cursing to himself on more than one occasion.

And then, with 9.5 seconds left in overtime, he casually pump-faked Keldon Johnson out of his shoes and buried the three that gave Seton Hall an 84-83 win.

Winning a game when you don’t play all that well is impressive, especially when it lands you a win that could end up looking as impressive as this one does come March.

MONDAY’S OVERREACTIONS

1. KENTUCKY IS NOT A TOP 25 TEAM

The Wildcats have now played two games outside of Lexington this season. One of them was an absolute beatdown at the hands of Duke, a 118-84 drubbing that served warning of just how good Duke is this season and just how far Kentucky has to go.

The other came on Saturday, when the Wildcats couldn’t put away a Seton Hall team whose two best players were struggling, losing in overtime to the same team that lost to
Nebraska by 23 points and Saint Louis on their home court.

Frankly, that’s not the end of the world. We’re just nine games into the season. Kentucky still plays Utah, North Carolina and Louisville before the start of SEC play, and they do play Kansas in January. Backloaded non-conference schedules can create for weird resumes early in the year. That said, the bigger issue here is that Kentucky has not actually looked all that impressive in the games they’ve actually won at home this year. They struggled with Southern Illinois. They struggled with VMI. They needed a late run to make the win over UNC Greensboro look respectable. They’re allowing opponents to shoot 40 percent from three. They have three five-star point guards on the roster and still manage to turn it over on 20.8 percent of their possessions.

Kentucky has been here before. Need I remind you that last season we were having these very same conversations about the program, and that actually turned out pretty well. If P.J. Washington could make free throws Kentucky probably would have ended up in the Final Four.

No one will be shocked to see John Calipari figure this thing out.

But right now, Kentucky is just not all that good …

Bruce Weber (Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

2. KANSAS STATE IS NOT A TOP 25 TEAM, EITHER

… and neither is Kansas State. The Wildcats lost a road game for the second straight Saturday, this time going into Tulsa and falling to a team that is middle-of-the-pack at best in the American.

The Wildcats have a serious offense problem. As it stands, they rank 102nd in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. They mustered all of 46 points in the loss at Tulsa. As a team, they are shooting just 28.2 percent from three, which is good for 313th nationally. Their effective field goal percentage is a horrid 47.7 percent. They’re shooting 65.6 percent from the free throw line, and somehow manage to give away live-ball turnovers as much as anyone at the high-major level.

This is a concern because these are all things that are not supposed to happen to a team that has a stable of talented, veteran guards. Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes, Cartier Diarra. These guys have been serious disappointments, to say nothing of what we’ve gotten out of preseason all-american Dean Wade.

And it creates an interesting conundrum for Bruce Weber.

There’s been some longstanding angst in Manhattan over his tenure. Kansas State has been fine, but they haven’t risen to the levels that they were at during Frank Martin’s heyday. They had to watch as Weber was given an extension as Kansas State alum Brad Underwood was hired by both Oklahoma State and Illinois since 2016. Last year’s run to the Elite Eight could end up being the worst thing that could have happened to him, because it created massive expectations this season on a team that really wasn’t all that good last year.

If K-State can’t get this thing figured out, how are the folks in Manhattan, Kansas, going to feel about him?

If he can’t make a team that is coming off an Elite Eight and was ranked in the top 15 in the preseason relevant, will he ever?

3. THE TOP SEVEN TEAMS IN THE COUNTRY SHOULD BE CONSENSUS

The elite tier of teams have set themselves apart already this year. They are: Kansas, Tennessee, Duke, Gonzaga, Michigan, Virginia and Nevada.

How you rank them will differ based on what you value when ranking teams. Kansas has the best resume of the seven, but they have struggled the most over the course of the first month of the season and are currently without starting center Udoka Azubuike. The Jayhawks also beat Tennessee, who beat Gonzaga, who beat Duke, with all of those games coming on neutral courts, but if you were forced to bet your left arm on one of those four teams winning a national title, you’d probably rank them the other way: Duke, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Kansas.

Michigan has been utterly dominant at times this season. Virginia, too. Nevada is probably the x-factor, but it’s hard to ignore that they just one six straight games away from home, including trips to USC, a game against Arizona State in LA and a de factor road game against Grand Canyon on Sunday night.

If you have an argument for why someone other than these seven teams should be ranked in the top seven, I’d love to hear it.

4. SYRACUSE IS BACK TO BEING THEMSELVES

Less than a month after the sky was falling on Syracuse, the Orange appear to have righted the ship.

Syracuse has won five straight games. They knocked off Ohio State in Columbus. They dismantled a good Northeastern team. They erased a 13 point halftime deficit in a rivalry game against Georgetown, winning when Tyus Battle knocked down a jumper with just 2.5 seconds left on the clock.

And at this point, Syracuse is more or less exactly what we thought they would be this season. They’re an elite defense. Tyus Battle is getting buckets, and the load he’s had to carry has been eased by the emergence of Eli Hughes and Jalen Carey. They are still struggling to shoot the ball from three, and their games are hardly aesthetically pleasing, but they are back to their winning ways and I cannot see a way that changes.

5. INDIANA IS GOING TO BE JUST FINE

At this point in the year, Indiana’s offense is a work in progress. That’s what you should expect from a program that starts two freshmen, two sophomores and a banged up Juwan Morgan. There were always going to be some growing pains early in the year.

What’s promising is that even with those growing pains, Indiana is still winning basketball games. The Hoosiers are 8-2 on the season. They’re 3-1 in games decided by one possession. They’ve landed four wins against teams that are ranked in the top 50 on KenPom. The only losses that they’ve taken this season came at Duke (everyone is going to lose at Duke this year) and at Arkansas, a 73-72 loss where the Hoosiers missed a layup and a tip-in in the final five seconds of a tie game before committing an over-the-back foul that sent the Razorbacks to the free throw line for the winning point.

The Big Ten is loaded, so it will be interesting to see where the Hoosiers finish within the league, but it will be a major disappointment if Archie Miller can’t get this team to the tournament and win at least one game.

Big East Commissioner hints at potential expansion

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The Big East made an important move for the conference’s future over the weekend by securing another 10 years at Madison Square Garden for the league’s annual conference tournament.

While the new iteration of the basketball-only Big East isn’t as deep or talented as its predecessor, having the iconic Garden to host the league’s postseason is a huge part of the Big East’s identity. The conference might not be as strong top-to-bottom as the ACC or the Big Ten in most years. But March wouldn’t be March in college hoops without the Big East Tournament in the Garden.

The timing of the Big East’s extension at MSG also gave league commissioner Val Ackerman the chance to address some questions — including some talk of potential league expansion. Adding members has always been a touchy subject for the 10-team conference, since all of the schools have a very specific profile while all being basketball-focused schools.

But UConn always gets brought up with regard to the Big East — as the AAC has never felt like a natural fit for the Huskies. There are also other schools probably doing whatever they can for a shot at playing the Big East’s conference schedule and national television deal. The league itself has been coy about adding other teams until Ackerman spoke this weekend.

By noting that the Big East has the capability of adding more teams, the league could be making a push at adding one or two more teams. Now that other basketball conferences are going to 20-game league schedules, the Big East is only at 18 with a true round-robin schedule already in place. They could add another team and upgrade the conference schedule to more games if they decided to do so.

So it’ll be fascinating to see if the Big East tries to enter the college arms race from a basketball perspective. I’m sure UConn fans would love to see their school make the jump back into the league. It’s just hard to speculate where things stand so early in the process.

(h/t: Bobby Reagan, Barstool Sports)

NBC Sports Top 25: Duke back to No. 1, Tennessee hops Gonzaga

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Here’s the conundrum that is going to face voters in the top 25 this week: What do you do with Kansas?

When it comes to resume, Kansas probably has the strongest one of any team in the top seven. They’ve beaten Michigan State on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Tennessee on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Marquette on a neutral court. Every win they have in Phog Allen Fieldhouse this year comes against teams ranked in the top 135 on KenPom.

And then there is this: Kansas has beaten Tennessee. Tennessee has beaten Gonzaga. Gonzaga has beaten Duke. Duke, according to some, can beat the Cavs, which officially means that Kansas is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.

Or something like that.

The point is that it makes total sense to rank Kansas No. 1 based on what they’ve accomplished this season, but I think that even the most irrational Kansas fans will cop to the fact that these Jayhawks haven’t come close to hitting their stride yet this season, and that’s before you factor in the loss of Udoka Azuibuike to an ankle injury.

The difference between the top seven teams this season is marginal, particularly if you are not as high on Duke as I am, and while that means there really isn’t all that much difference between Nevada at No. 7 and whoever it is that you are going to rank No. 1, it does mean that a team like Kansas — who is in a bad run of form — drops to sixth in this ranking.

And to be frank, as long as your top seven is, in some order, the same as my top seven, your ranking is probably going to be just fine. I’d quibble with ranking Nevada in the top four, and I think it’s probably silly to have Duke, Tennessee or Gonzaga outside the top four, but there are arguments to justify it all. I’m sure Kansas fans will call me a Duke homer and say that Bill Self must ignore my calls, but the truth of it is that there are a lot of really good teams at the top this year. Parsing through a jumbled mess like that is never easy.

I dropped Kentucky all the way out of the top 25, as I did Kansas State, but I’ll go more in depth on that in the Monday Overreactions column.

Here is the full top 25:

1. Duke (9-1, Last week: 2)
2. Michigan (10-0, 3)
3. Tennessee (7-1, 6)
4. Gonzaga (9-1, 1)
5. Virginia (9-0, 4)
6. Kansas (8-0, 5)
7. Nevada (10-0, 7)
8. Auburn (8-1, 8)
9. North Carolina (7-2, 9)
10. Florida State (8-1, 10)
11. Texas Tech (8-0, 11)
12. Michigan State (8-2, 13)
13. Virginia Tech (8-1, 14)
14. Wisconsin (8-2, 15)
15. N.C. State (8-1, 17)
16. Ohio State (8-1, 19)
17. Arizona State (7-1, 20)
18. Purdue (6-4, 18)
19. Villanova (8-2, UR)
20. Syracuse (7-2, UR)
21. Marquette (8-2, UR)
22. Buffalo (9-0, UR)
23. Mississippi State (8-1, 25)
24. Iowa (7-2, 23)
25. Nebraska (8-2, 24)

New Additions: 19. Villanova, 20 Syracuse, 21. Marquette
Dropped Out: 12. Kentucky, 16. Kansas State, 21. Creighton

Virginia point guard to undergo wrist surgery

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Virginia’s starting point guard Kihei Clark will undergo surgery on his left wrist on Monday, head coach Tony Bennett told reporters after the No. 4 Cavaliers knocked off VCU in Charlottesville, 57-49, on Sunday.

Clark played 33 minutes in the win. He held VCU’s star Marcus Evans to three points on 1-for-10 shooting. He changed the game when he forced a 10-second violation in the backcourt all by himself, a play that came after Virginia had knotted the game up at 43; they had been trailing 43-38. By the time VCU came to again, UVA had pushed the lead to 53-45, and the game was all but over.

Should I mention that Clark actually suffered the hairline fracture in his wrist on Dec. 3rd, that he spent a week practicing and 33 minutes on Sunday playing with a cast on?

That sums up everything that you need to know about the Virginia freshman. He’s the first wave of Virginia’s defense, the kind of tough and aggressive point guard and on-ball defender that Tony Bennett loves. He’s also the piece that allows Ty Jerome to play off the ball for extended periods, and his presence in the backcourt means that Kyle Guy can slide over to the three and De’Andre Hunter, Virginia’s resident all-american and future lottery pick, can play the position that fits him best — the four.

The good news is that this does not appear to be a season-ending injury, although Clark told reporters that he was not given a timetable for a return. The Cavs have also gotten through the most difficult part of their non-conference schedule; they play at South Carolina and get William & Mary and Marshall at home before league play kicks off on Jan. 5th.

That’s four weeks away.