Lessons learned as players at Montana aid three Division I head coaches

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There are 15 college programs can claim at least three alums among the 351 Division I head coaches. Name-brand programs — Duke and North Carolina, Arizona and Kentucky — are on that list. So are smaller schools, like Howard and Division III Catholic University.

Montana is on that list as well, as Larry Krystkowiak, Wayne Tinkle and Travis DeCuire have all followed a similar path in their respective coaching careers — former Montana player who eventually becomes a head coach at Montana at some point. You often hear about about the Carolina family or the Duke coaching tree, but up in Missoula, the Grizzlies have developed their very own coaching tree; a coaching tree that has produced the two favorites for Pac-12 Coach of the Year; a coaching tree that includes a Hall of Famer and dates all the way back to Jud Heathcote.

Heathcote served as head coach at Montana from 1971-76, posting an overall record of 80-53 before moving on to Michigan State. And after Jim Brandenburg took the reins for two seasons Mike Montgomery moved into the head coaching position, where he would eventually be followed by Stew Morrill and Blaine Taylor.

All three of those coaches would experience success at other stops in their respective careers. Montgomery made his name at Stanford before a short-lived stint in the NBA and, eventually, a few years at Cal. Taylor found success at Old Dominion, while Morrill turned Utah State into one of the nation’s best mid-major programs.

What’s noteworthy about the time those three spent in Missoula is that it intersected with that of Krystkowiak, Tinkle and DeCuire. Morrill, who will retire at the end of this season, coached both Krystkowiak and Tinkle, and he also added DeCuire to the program as a transfer before moving on to Colorado State.

And, according to him, it’s been administration’s willingness to foster continuity helped make Montana a successful basketball program.

“Jud Heathcote got it started, and we were all very fortunate that the administration was willing to hire the assistant coach time after time,” Morrill told NBCSports.com. “And it’s worked very well for them over the years. I got my start that way as a head coach, and I felt very fortunate to be in that position.”

It wasn’t an easy gig, however.

“There were high expectations; most of us only had one-year contracts,” Morrill added. “I was an assistant for Mike Montgomery for eight years and a head coach for five, and I always tell people that ‘I’ve been a coach for 29 years, but Montana was the most pressure I’ve felt.’ It was my first head coaching job, and the tradition had been established by the coaches who came before me.”

Krystkowiak was the first to arrive on the scene, as he was recruited by Montgomery and Morrill and went on to become the program’s greatest player. He won three Big Sky Player of the Year awards at Montana, and to this day he remains the school’s all-time leader in both points and rebounds. After playing more than a decade in the NBA, Krystkowiak embarked on what has been a successful coaching career, which includes a two-year stint at his alma mater (2004-06).

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Now in his fourth season as the head coach at Utah, Krystkowiak has revamped a storied program that fell on hard times prior to its move from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. The Utes, led by senior guard Delon Wright, are currently ranked ninth in both the AP and Coaches’ polls, and with a host of contributors having eligibility remaining beyond the current season, the future is bright in Salt Lake City as well.

Something that has helped Krystkowiak in the process is his time at Montana, where he was able to play for coaches who not only knew the game but also knew what it took to build a quality program.

“It’s just the grind, the process of having to start over, and how to tackle it,” Krystkowiak told NBCSports.com. “It can be overwhelming I think, so the important thing was to have a target of what you’re trying to accomplish in short periods of time and move on to the next thing. If you don’t have some patience and a blueprint for how to attack it, then it’s probably not going to be very successful.”

“So we just tried to stay consistent and try to make a little progress each day. There weren’t too many long-term goals; it’s more about ‘whatever the fire is right now, let’s put it out.'”

Tinkle, now the head coach at Oregon State, was a teammate of Krystkowiak’s for two seasons at Montana and also served on his coaching staff from 2004-06. And during the time they spent together as teammates, Tinkle saw qualities in Krystkowiak that have translated into him being a good head coach.

“Looking back on his playing days, the work ethic and the energy he brought is what I’ll always remember about him,” Tinkle told NBCSports.com last month. “Nobody outworked him, nobody out-hustled him; he was super-competitive. We got in scraps in pickup games during the spring and summer because if you lost, you had to sit awhile. That’s where I learned a lot about the level of competitiveness you needed to play with.”

“The two years I got to coach with him is really when I got to see the ‘intelligent’ part of his mind as far as scheming, X’s and O’s, and his understanding of the game,” Tinkle continued. “And then his demeanor, personality and drive all set pretty good standards as far as never getting too emotional and keeping yourself in control.”

Tinkle arrived on the Montana campus as a player in 1985, with Krystkowiak coming off of a sophomore season in which he won the first of his three Big Sky Player of the Year awards. Both Montgomery (one season) and Morrill (three seasons) served as head coach during Tinkle’s playing career, one in which he would earn first team All-Big Sky honors in each of his final three seasons and be named team MVP as both a junior and a senior. Tinkle’s playing career took him overseas for more than a decade, before returning to his alma mater as an assistant in 2003.

And like his former teammate, the times spent in Missoula have helped Tinkle put together an impressive head coaching record. Taking over for Krystkowiak in 2006, Tinkle went on an eight-year run in which the program won more than 63 percent of its games and made three NCAA tournament appearances. The success at Montana is what led to some being surprised when he made the decision to take over at Oregon State last spring.

After being an integral figure in a program that considers contending for conference titles to be the norm, Tinkle was moving to one that hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since the father — Gary Payton — of the best player on this year’s team — Gary Payton II — was in Corvallis. But in deciding to make the move, Tinkle saw some similarities between the two communities that lead him to believe that he can turn Oregon State into a consistent winner.

“They’re both college towns that really rally behind the university,” Tinkle said. “And the fact that they’re blue-collar communities that just want to see the kids play their tails off and do things the right way.”

The first season at Oregon State has been much better than anyone anticipated back in October. Picked to finish last in the Pac-12’s preseason media poll, Oregon State is currently tied for fifth and 16-9 overall (7-6 Pac-12). The Beavers aren’t the deepest team, but with players such as Payton II, Malcolm Duvivier and Langston Morris-Walker leading the way Oregon State has relied on its defense to this point in the season.

In conference games Oregon State is ranked second in the Pac-12 in both field goal and three-point percentage defense, and they also lead the Pac-12 in blocked shots per game. With a respected recruiting class signed up for next season, the future appears bright for Oregon State. But the current players can help set the tone, since the majority of them will return next season, and that’s something Tinkle’s players have embraced.

“We brought that up early on, with the hype of [the 2015 recruiting] class. They’re here right now, and in some respects we’re all kind of auditioning for the future,” Tinkle noted. “This is the way we want to do things and if you guys do it, we’re going to build something really neat and if you don’t you might not be here. But then we also said, ‘those guys are going to have to go through the rigors and the hard times just like you, nothing’s going to be handed to them’ and I think they appreciated hearing that.

“They did say, ‘why wait, let’s buy in and see what we can make happen in year one.’ Because I think they saw the effort that the staff was putting in. We’re all earning paychecks this year so we’re all grinding away, and we didn’t want to be anyone’s doormat.”

With Tinkle moving on, Montana made the decision in June to hire Travis DeCuire as its new head coach. Like Krystkowiak and Tinkle before him DeCuire was also a productive player at Montana, earning first-team All-Big Sky honors as both a junior and senior and remains the school’s all-time assists leader. DeCuire landed at Montana as a transfer after spending one season at Hawaii Pacific, and while he didn’t get to play for Morrill in actual games (his redshirt year was Morrill’s final one at Montana) the point guard certainly made an impression on the coach.

“He came from a great high school program in Mercer Island, Washington, and his high school coach Ed Pepple swore by him. I mean this in the most positive way: he was just a cocky little point guard,” Morrill said. “He had great days ahead of him as a player, and you could see that he had the things you hoped to have in a point guard even though he wasn’t playing in games.”

DeCuire’s last coaching stop prior to returning to Montana was at Cal, where he served on Montgomery’s staff for six seasons (assistant for four, associate head coach for the last two). Like Krystkowiak and Tinkle before him, DeCuire can speak from experience the impact that the school and community have had on Montana basketball over the years.

The relationship has helped Montana not only become one of the Big Sky’s preeminent programs, but to establish a level of consistency that allows them to enter most seasons with realistic thoughts of winning a conference title and reaching the NCAA tournament. That relationship is also what sold DeCuire as a player when he was going through the recruiting process.

“The dream was there, and I believed in what was being sold,” DeCuire noted when asked about his recruitment, with the passion of the Montana fan base also standing out. “There weren’t many programs that were comparable in terms of fan passion and attendance.”

It’s with the tradition of success and a passionate fan base that DeCuire looks to lead Montana back to the top of the Big Sky, and with two starters and seven lettermen returning from last season’s 17-win squad he wasn’t left with an empty cupboard. After going through a tough non-conference slate that included double-overtime losses at Boise State and California, Montana’s 10-3 in Big Sky play with two of the defeats being close losses to Sacramento State (10-3) and Eastern Washington (10-2).

Martin Bruenig (16.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg), who sat out last season after transferring in from Washington, is averaging just under 17 points per game in conference play and has been one of the Big Sky’s best front court players. And in guards Jordan Gregory (16.8, 3.3 apg) and Mario Dunn (8.9, 4.0 apg), the Grizzlies have a solid perimeter tandem to lean on as they look to make a run at their third Big Sky title in the last four seasons.

The key in doing that boils down to one word: consistency, especially when it comes to turnovers. If Montana can play more efficiently, they’ll have a shot at getting back to the NCAA tournament after missing out a season ago.

“Our efficiency needs to improve down the stretch,” DeCuire said. “We were up 13 at Sacramento State before losing that game, and turnovers hurt us against Eastern Washington as well.”

While DeCuire adds his chapter to the Montana history books, what helps is the fact that the blueprint has been set for years. From Heathcote to Montgomery, and from Montgomery to Morrill and Taylor, the Montana program has led to success not only in Missoula but in other locales as well. And given what Krystkowiak, Tinkle and DeCuire have been able to do in their respective coaching careers, that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

“I just think back to [Montgomery and Morrill’s] commitment to the fundamentals of the game, and how you went about life in general, were the main ingredients of what Montana basketball was and is.” Tinkle noted. “A lot of times you can get lost in all the nonsense. What winning programs come down to are the small things that become big things in the ‘big picture.'”

The fatal flaw for every team in the top ten

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So much of college basketball’s preseason content centers around talking about what teams do well.

Well, what if we do the opposite?

Let’s talk about what the best teams in college basketball are bad at.

Today, we will be looking at every team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 and working through their fatal flaw, a ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ preview, if you will.

This is why your favorite team will be bad this season. You can find teams 11-25 here

1. MICHIGAN STATE

TOM IZZO’S WILLINGNESS TO PLAY SMALL

Two seasons ago, when the Spartans had a pair of lottery picks on their roster in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State was in a position where they had the absolute best frontcourt possible to go full small ball. Jackson was everything that you could ask for out of a small-ball five, a 6-foot-11 shot-blocker with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and three-point range. Bridges was the uber-athletic forward that was big and strong enough to play the four while also being a nightmare for opposing bigs to deal with.

We spent, quite literally, wishing that Izzo would find a way to get those two on the floor together at the four and the five and it never really happened.

I bring that up because this Michigan State team has all the makings of a group that should be very good playing small. Other than Xavier Tillman, there isn’t really a big man on the roster that has proven himself. Getting another spacer on the floor at the four will create just that much more room for Winston to operate, and the more room you can create for Winston, the easier your life is going to be. Throw in the fact that Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Malik Hall and Kyle Aherns all make sense as guys that can play bigger than what they are listed at, and we have another Michigan State team that looks like a perfect fit to play small. Will Izzo agree?

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. KENTUCKY

SCORING IN THE HALFCOURT

The Wildcats are going to be an interesting team to track over the course of the season. They’re young again, obviously, and they don’t really have a clear-cut star on their roster. Can you, unequivocally, tell me who is going to be the best player on their roster? (No. You cannot.)

And that puts the Cats in a weird position, similar to the one they were in last year. I’m just not sure how they are going to play this season. Cal has tended towards playing a slower brand of basketball, one that relied on overwhelming opponents in the paint, unless he has an absolute jet – John Wall or De’Aaron Fox, specifically – at the point. He has three guys that can play the point guard role this year, and none of Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey or Immanuel Quickley are as good as Wall or Fox. But he also doesn’t have an overpowering presence in the paint. There have been some rumblings from people that the best big on Kentucky’s roster early on has been Nate Sestina, the Bucknell transfer. He’s not exactly Karl Anthony-Towns.

So I’d think that in an ideal world, Kentucky would play as more of a pressing team, allowing them to get out into transition and let their athletes do athletic things.

But when they are forced to play slower, where is their offense coming from?

Put another way, if you are an SEC coach game-planning to stop them in the halfcourt, who are you worried about? Hagans can’t shoot. Johnny Juzang has gotten some buzz, but can he really be better than Tyler Herro was last year? Is E.J. Montgomery going to actually take a step forward? Maxey is fine, but he’s also not the caliber of Kentucky’s past star guards.

It will be very interesting to see how Kentucky evolves this season.

3. KANSAS

THE FOUR

The power forward spot has traditionally been the most important spot on the floor for the Jayhawks, and last year was no different. Before Udoka Azubuike’s injury, Kansas was playing like one of the best teams in the country because it was borderline impossible to stop Dedric Lawson and Azubuike in high-low action. And while Azubuike is back this season, Lawson is off to the professional ranks, and there is no clear answer for who will step into that four-man role for the Jayhawks.

One option is Silvio De Sousa, but he would make Kansas a liability defensively and is not a floor-spacer. The same can be said about David McCormick. Mitch Lightfoot doesn’t appear to be the answer, and we saw last season just how much of an issue Marcus Garrett’s lack of shooting can cause when he’s slotted into that role. Will one of the freshmen, Jalen Wilson or Tristan Enaruna, step up?

I honestly don’t know.

And, as I mentioned in the video below, I’m not actually all that worried, either.

4. LOUISVILLE

THE POINT

Louisville has just about everything that you need in a college basketball program. They have the All-American in Jordan Nwora. They have all-league talent on their roster in Dwayne Sutton and Samuell Williamson. They have a talented freshmen class to pair with depth up and down their roster, which is why the Cardinals are a top five team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

The concern, however, is at the point guard spot, just as it was last season. With all due respect to Christen Cunningham, he was more of a guy that kept Louisville from losing games as opposed to being the kind of talent that wins games, if that makes sense. Louisville replaced him with two guys. The first is Fresh Kimble, a grad transfer from St. Joseph’s that put up good scoring numbers last season. The problem, however, is that Kimble was always more of a scorer than a pure point guard that made people around him better. I think the latter is what this Louisville team needs more than the former, and while incoming freshman David Johnson was impressive in early practices, he’s also going to be out until around the start of ACC play with a shoulder injury.

There is enough talent on this roster to be able to win big even if their point guard play isn’t great, but I do think that great point guard play is the most important thing for college basketball teams.

5. VILLANOVA

SO WHO’S MAKING SHOTS THIS YEAR?

The modus operandi for this Villanova program during this six-year dynasty has been simple: Target the most talented players that fit the program’s cultural values and style of play, develop them within the program over the course of two-or-three years, hang banners with a roster that’s older than the competition, ship those players off to a job in the NBA. Even without Omari Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo last season, the Wildcats still were able to play through Eric Paschall and Phil Booth en route to their fifth Big East regular season title and fourth Big East tournament title in the last six seasons.

This year, however, is the year when that gets tested. Because there is a lot of unproven talent on this Villanova roster. Is this the year Jermaine Samuels makes the jump to stardom? Are Collin Gillispie and Dhamir Cosby-Rountree truly good enough to be cornerstones for a team that is competing for league titles and Final Fours? Just how good will Cole Swider and Saddiq Bey be with a year of seasoning on the Main Line? Can Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore and – when he gets healthy – Bryan Antoine be able to step in and play right away as freshmen?

The talent is there on paper. Will it show up in wins?

6. DUKE

CAN THEY BE GOOD DEFENSIVELY AND OFFENSIVELY

I’ve talked about written about this extensively already, so I’ll keep it short and sweet here: The roster makeup for this team is weird. There are a lot of players that are good and that can do a job in a role, but I’m not sure just how many players they have that are going to be good on both ends of the floor. Put another way, can Duke put a team on the floor that will be able to score and be able to defend?

7. FLORIDA

THE BURDEN OF EXPECTATION

Let me get this out of the way before I start: I’m in on Florida. I have them at the No. 7 team in the country. I invested my own hard-earned money on a ticket for Florida winning the national title. So I totally get the upside here.

But I’m also well aware of the fact that we are taking a leap of faith, one centered around the idea that a number of players on this roster are taking a significant step forward. Can Andrew Nembhard play his way into being on an all-SEC team? Will Noah Locke emerge as a secondary scorer with Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen gone? How will Kerry Blackshear Jr. mesh within this roster? Perhaps most importantly, will the freshmen that Mike White has coming to campus – Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann, in particular – be a net positive over the inefficiency gunners that are graduating?

Remember, this team was a No. 10 seed last season that couldn’t shoot and lost 16 games. Asking them to go from that to a team that will be among the best in the country is a big ask.

8. GONZAGA

DO THEY HAVE A POINT GUARD?

It shouldn’t really be up for debate at this point, but if you still weren’t buying into the idea that Gonzaga is one of the 8-10 best college basketball programs in America, all you have to do is look at the fact that they’ve continually lost talent to the professional ranks earlier than expected and have not skipped a beat. That was true when they lost Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins to the pros and remained among the top ten teams in the country the last two seasons. And that’s even more true this year, when Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Zach Norvell all bounced with eligibility remaining, and the Zags will still enter the year as a preseason top ten team.

The concern, however, is that they have been forced to try and figure things out on the fly at the point guard spot. Josh Perkins graduated, and since Joel Ayayi has not earned the starting job and Brock Ravet is apparently not ready to take things over, Mark Few had to go to the grad transfer route again. He brought in Admon Gilder from Texas Tech and Ryan Woolridge from North Texas to paper mache over the gaps.

With a roster that’s pretty loaded up front, will that be enough for the Zags to compete at the level we’ve come to expect?

9. MARYLAND

THEY’RE MARYLAND

That’s harsh, I know, but the truth is that during Mark Turgeon’s tenure, the Terps have had a tendency to flop when they enter a season with a certain level of expectation. Take, for example, the 2015-16 season. The Terps were loaded – Melo Trimble, Rasheed Sulaimon, Jake Layman, Diamond Stone and Robert Carter – and entered the year as the preseason No. 1 team in the country, yet they stumbled to a 27-9 record, a third-place finish in the Big Ten and got bounced out of the tournament in the Sweet 16.

Some people will tell you that Turgeon isn’t a great coach, that that’s the problem. Others will point to the fact that players tend to stagnate in College Park. Melo Trimble was awesome as a freshman but never really took the leap to the next level. Anthony Cowan seems to be trending in that same direction.

Do you trust this program to be able to find a way to be among the nation’s elite?

10. VIRGINIA

CAN TONY BENNETT TRUST THEIR GUARD PLAY?

I love Virginia’s frontcourt. Mamadi Diakite is going to be arguably the best defensive big man in the country. Jay Huff is the protoype pick-and-roll big and should be in line for a monster junior season. Braxton Key should do well playing an expanded offensive role.

The question is going to be their backcourt. Kihei Clark was really good in a role last season, but with Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome off to the NBA, he’s going to be asked to be the guy this year. Is he up to the task? Can Casey Morsell be a contributor as a freshman? What about Tomas Woldetensae?

I went more in depth on Virginia below.

Kentucky lands commitment from five-star guard Askew

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Kentucky landed a commitment from five-star guard Devin Askew on Thursday night.

Askew is a top ten prospect in the Class of 2021, but the expectation is that he will reclassify and enroll at Kentucky next summer. Assuming he does, Askew will join a recruiting class that already includes Terrence Clarke, B.J. Boston, Lance Ware and Cam’Ron Fletcher.

Askew picked the Wildcats over Louisville, Arizona, Memphis and Kansas.

Where things get interesting here will be with Cade Cunningham, the top point guard in the Class of 2020 and arguably the top prospect in the class. Many believed that Cade would end up going to Oklahoma State, where Mike Boynton hired his brother, Cannen, as an assistant coach. But Cade has made it clear that he wants to be recruited, and after taking an official visit to Kentucky over the weekend, it looks as if the Wildcats have a real shot at landing him.

But will he be willing to share lead guard duties with Askew?

We shall see.

The fatal flaw for every team in the back half of the top 25

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So much of college basketball’s preseason content centers around talking about what teams do well.

Well, what if we do the opposite?

Let’s talk about what the best teams in college basketball are bad at.

Today, we will be looking at every team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 and working through their fatal flaw, a ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ preview, if you will.

This is why your favorite team will be bad this season. You can find the top ten teams here

11. TEXAS TECH

PLAYMAKING

We know how good the Texas Tech defense is going to be because the Texas Tech defense is always good. It’s something Chris Beard and Mark Adams preach more than anything else, and while losing guys like Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens are big losses, the truth is that this defense is as much about the system as it is the players and guys like Chris Clarke and Jahmius Ramsey should be pretty good defensive pieces in their own right.

The bigger issue is on the other end of the floor. The last two seasons, when Texas Tech has been the best team in the conference, has come when there has been a big, talented lead guard to run offense through when things get bogged down – Keenan Evans and Jarrett Culver. I believe it’s going to be Ramsey this season that takes over that role, but he is also a freshman. Is he going to be ready the moment he steps onto campus to carry the load offensively for a team that we expect to be competing for a Big 12 title?

12. OREGON

JUST HOW GOOD ARE THESE BIGS?

As good as Arizona and Washington are this season, I think that there is a valid argument to make that Oregon is not just the best team in the Pac-12 this season, but the most talented team. They have the best point guard in the conference in Payton Pritchard, a guy that is a proven winner and should make his way into the All-American conversation by the end of the year. Anthony Mathis and Shakur Juiston arrive as grad transfers and should play major roles immediately. Will Richardson should be ready for a bigger role, and the likes of Chris Duarte, C.J. Walker and Chandler Lawson should be able to contribute immediately. There may be a lot of turnover here, but Dana Altman has dealt with it before.

The question, however, is going to be in the frontcourt. Oregon’s best teams in recent seasons have had a hyper-athletic, elite defensive presence in the middle. Read: Bell, Jordan; or Wooten, Kenny. It’s not a coincidence that Oregon played their best basketball after Bol Bol got hurt. Who can play that role this season? I’m not sold that N’Faly Dante will be that guy when he finally does get eligible. Francis Okoro has been good in flashes but has never been asked to play a major role. Chandler Lawson and Juiston profile more as fours than elite defensive fives.

13. SETON HALL

DOES OLDER ALWAYS MEAN BETTER?

I love Seton Hall this season. I love Myles Powell forever and always. But the truth is that this Seton Hall team last season was already pretty old, turnover prone and inconsistent from beyond the arc. They won a bunch of games because Powell is good enough to win a bunch of games by himself, but if Seton Hall is going to live up to these lofty expectations, they’re going to need the likes of Myles Cale (consistency), Quincy McKnight (turnovers, three-point shooting) and Sandro Mamukelashvili (ability to control the paint) to take steps forward.

But just how much better will they actually be this year? These guys are already upperclassmen, and just because a good-not-great team returns everyone they have on their roster doesn’t mean that they are going to be great the next season. Put another way, just because they had room to grow doesn’t mean they grew.

14. NORTH CAROLINA

EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE IS NEW

The Tar Heels lost basically everything from last season. Coby White, Cam Johnson, Luke Maye, Nassir Little, Kenny Williams. Their leading returning scorer is a big guy who averaged 7.9 points. That’s a lot to replace, and it means there are going to be a lot of new faces asked to play in a system they haven’t played in before and old faces asked to play much bigger roles.

The talent is there. I think we can all agree. Cole Anthony is going to be awesome. I love Armando Bacot. The grad transfers are going to be super-valuable. But this much turnover in any program is not easy to navigate, and it’s not something that Roy Williams has a had a ton of experience dealing with.

15. UTAH STATE

ARE WE SURE THEY’RE ACTUALLY GOOD?

Before Aggie fans jump all over me for this, remember: I have you ranked 15th nationally.

But also remember: We’re ranking this team 15th a year after they put together a season where their best wins came against Saint Mary’s, UC Irvine and Nevada. They lost by 17 points in the NCAA tournament to a Washington team that lost by 22 points to a North Carolina team that lost by 17 points to an Auburn team that lost Chuma Okeke during the game. They finished the season 38th in KenPom.

I’m buying in on them, but that’s because I believe in the coaching staff and the talent. Not because we’ve seen them perform at this level before.

16. ARIZONA

DO YOU TRUST THEIR BIGS?

We know how good Arizona’s guards are going to be. Nico Mannion and Josh Green are five-star prospects with the chance to get picked in the lottery come June. Even with the injury to Brandon Williams, the addition of Max Hazzard gives the Wildcats one of the better backcourts in the country, particularly if Jemarl Baker gets a waiver.

The questions that I have are with their big guys. Their best frontcourt player is … Chase Jeter? Ira Lee? Stone Gettings, who was the second-best player player on a sub-.500 Ivy League team? Zeke Nnaji and Christian Koloko have had some buzz in the summer and fall, but can Arizona get to a Final Four if one of those two freshmen are forced to start and play 25 minutes a night?

17. SAINT MARY’S

IS JORDAN FORD GOOD ENOUGH TO SHOULDER THE LOAD?

So here’s a weird stat that I came across: Saint Mary’s had the lowest assist rate in all of college basketball last season. They literally finished 353rd nationally in the percentage of their made field goals that were assisted, a number that becomes all the more stark when you considered there were just five teams in college basketball that played at a slower pace. The Gaels averaged just 10.1 assists per game last season. In 2017-18, Emmett Naar averaged 7.9 assists himself.

The reason for this is that Randy Bennett runs a ball-screen heavy offense, but last season, the guy that was put in those ball-screens was Jordan Ford. Unlike past SMC point guards – Naar, Matthew Dellavedova, Mickey McConnell – Ford is a score-first player. He’s not coming off of those ball-screens looking to do anything other than find a way to get a bucket, and he’s really good at that.

But is he good enough at it to get the Gaels into the mix for the WCC title? Can Saint Mary’s make a run in March if their offense is, essentially, let’s see if Jordan Ford gets hot today?

18. XAVIER

ARE THEY THE TEAM THAT WON SIX OF THEIR LAST SEVEN, OR THE ONE THAT STARTED 3-8 IN THE BIG EAST?

The thing that is difficult about projecting teams that finished the regular season hot is that they may have made their leap during the season.

Put another way, is Xavier a team that still has room to grow after they figured some things out late in the year, or is this a group that made their jump down the stretch of the season?

I ask, because a team whose ceiling is an 11 game stretch where they go 8-3 against a mediocre Big East and NIT competition is one thing. But if Naji Marshall and Quentin Goodin actually get better from beyond the arc, if this group learns how not to turn the ball over, if they show some improvement in being able to run opponents off of the three-point line, then they have a chance to truly compete for a Big East title and make a run at getting a top four seed.

19. LSU

AT SOME POINT, THE NCAA PAYS A VISIT, RIGHT?

As much as any other team in college basketball this season, I think that there is a chance that the bottom falls out for LSU. The talent they have is undeniable. They are the reigning SEC regular season champs, and they bring back everyone except Tremont Waters and Naz Reid. Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart are as good as any guard duo in the league. Marlon Taylor and Emmitt Williams are two of the most exciting athletes in the sport. Trendon Watford is a five-star freshman. This team is loaded.

But their head coach had to sit out last year’s postseason run because of wiretaps that were played in federal court that appeared to show him trying to cut a deal for a player that is still on the roster. The NCAA is investigating. They are going to get hit with something. The when and the who are the big questions, as is the possibility that the program will fall on their sword and self-impose a punishment.

20. BAYLOR

WILL THEY STOP FOULING?

This Baylor team is weird. They look like they might be good enough to finish second in the Big 12 this season, but I’m not sure there is an NBA player on the roster. I’m sure most Big 12 fans know who Tristan Clark is, but he missed the second half of last season with a knee injury. There aren’t many college basketball players that are national names, and Baylor certainly does not have one. Hell, I’m not sure how many casual Big 12 fans that can name someone on the roster.

But there’s more to it than that. Baylor plays a zone, but not only did they lead the Big 12 in defensive rebounding percentage during league play, they also found a way to foul more than West Virginia did last season.

I’m in on this Baylor team. They are balanced, they are well-coached and they have some guys that can really play. But when you don’t have the high-end NBA-caliber talent, you’re winning on the margins, so to speak. You’re winning because you can dominate the glass on both ends, because you extend possessions with second-chance points better than anyone while ending possessions after missed shots at an elite level. Fouling at a rate that

21. MEMPHIS

FRESHMEN DO FRESHMEN THINGS

As the saying goes, the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Memphis is on track to start five freshmen and play seven freshmen in their rotation. I expand on all that below.

22. AUBURN

WHERE ARE THE SHOT CREATORS?

Losing Jared Harper was a major blow for the Tigers, because he did so much for them when their offense got bogged down in the halfcourt. Chuma Okeke was another option, because he was such a matchup problem for opposing defenses. Even Bryce Brown was able to just shoot over any and all defenses when he got hot. Can J’Von McCormick, Isaac Okoro and Samir Doughty replace that?

23. TENNESSEE

DO THEY HAVE ANYONE TO PLAY THE FIVE?

The Vols lost a lot in their frontcourt. Kyle Alexander is gone. Admiral Schofield is gone. Grant Williams is gone. That is a lot of production to replace, and I’m not sure who they have that can do it. Their guards are going to be fine. Lamonte’ Turner is ready for a bigger role, Jordan Bowden is talented-if-inconsistent and five-star Josiah James should be able to provide scoring and shot creation. Hell, even using Yves Pons at the four is doable. But can Tennessee win if they need to rely on John Fulkerson and Zach Kent?

24. VCU

THEY CANNOT SCORE

We spent the entirety of last season burying Duke because they were such a bad shooting team. The Blue Devils actually shot better from three than VCU did last year, and the Rams don’t have guys like Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. That’s why they finished last year ranked 177th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric.

25. OHIO STATE

HOW GOOD ARE THEIR GUARDS?

The Buckeyes lost their starting backcourt from last season, and while we all know how good Kaleb Wesson is, there is a legitimate concern as to whether or not they have guys that can get him the ball this year. C.J. Walker is a transfer from Florida State who was fine in the ACC, so that helps with the experience, and D.J. Carton is a guy with an incredibly high ceiling, but he’s a ways away from that ceiling at this point.

Michigan lands commitment from five-star forward Todd

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Juwan Howard has landed his first five-star prospect as the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.

On Thursday night, Isaiah Todd, a top ten prospect from Word Of God Christian Academy in North Carolina, announced that he will be playing his college ball in Ann Arbor. Todd picked Michigan over Kansas, having cut both Kentucky and North Carolina from his list earlier this month.

Part of the intrigue for Todd in committing to Michigan and Howard is that the two are similar as players. Todd is a skilled and mobile four that runs well, can finish above the rim and play out on the perimeter. Motor and consistent effort is the key for him. When he’s dialed in, he’s dangerous.

Todd joins top 100 shooting guard Zeb Jackson in Howard’s first recruiting class, and this is where the intrigue really begins. Michigan is also involved with a number of highly-touted prospects – five-stars Josh Christopher, Jaden Springer and Nimari Burnett as well as four-stars Moses Moody, Mark Williams and Hunter Dickinson.

CBT Podcast: Penny Hardaway and the Big Ten Preview

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Rob Dauster was joined by Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway for the latest episode of the College Basketball Talk podcast. Afterwards, Scott Phillips jumped onto the pod to walk through a full breakdown of every team in the Big Ten. Does Michigan State have the NBA-level talent to win a title? Can Maryland live up to their lofty expectations? There are new eras at Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin to discuss. Who is best set up for success? Ohio State and Illinois are trending up, Iowa and Minnesota are trending down, and the Mayor is back!

Here is the full rundown:

OPEN: Penny Hardaway

15:45: Big Ten overview

20:05: Illinois

26:55: Indiana

31:30: Iowa

35:45: Maryland

40:25: Michigan

45:30: Michigan State

51:35: Minnesota

54:40: Nebraska

57:15: Northwestern

59:20: Ohio State

1:03:30: Penn State

1:07:45: Purdue

1:13:45: Rutgers

1:17:00: Wisconsin