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Monday’s Overreactions: Tyrese Maxey, West Virginia, and UCLA

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky

It is not a coincidence that, in the two biggest wins Kentucky has had this season, Tyrese Maxey was the star. On Saturday, in a 78-70 overtime win over then-No. 3 Louisville, Maxey went off for 27 points on 9-for-14 shooting while hitting 4-for-5 from three. This came after his 26 point outburst on the opening night of the season in a win over Michigan State.

And that right there is what makes the difference for the Wildcats. Nick Richards played the best game of his life Saturday. Ashton Hagans was as solid as always, even if his scoring wasn’t quite there. Immanuel Quickley stepped up and hit some big shots in big moments. But having a go-to guy, a bucket-getter that was create something out of nothing is absolutely enormous for a team that has so many question marks elsewhere on their roster.

We don’t know what Kentucky is going to do at the four. We don’t know if Kahlil Whitney or E.J. Montgomery or Johnny Juzang are going to be able to contribute this season in significant ways. Some of that gets mitigated if Maxey can be the guy that can create offense on the most important possessions of a game.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: West Virginia

There was not a team in college basketball that I was more wrong about being bad than West Virginia. I thought they were going to be the worst team in the Big 12.

Turns out, they are not.

The Mountaineers landed themselves a marquee win on Saturday, beating Ohio State in Cleveland in fairly dominant fashion despite the fact that Oscar Tshiebwe played eight scoreless minutes due to foul trouble. Much of that is the result of Miles McBride, who went for a career-high 21 points, but it also had quite a bit to do with the fact that West Virginia’s defense is suffocating.

They aren’t Press Virginia anymore, but they are one of the 10 best defenses in college hoops.

And now, they are sitting pretty with wins over Ohio State, Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Pitt and Rhode Island. That is a serious resume this early in the season.

MONDAY’S OVERREACTIONS

1. I FEEL BETTER ABOUT LOUISVILLE NOW THAN I DID BEFORE THE KENTUCKY GAME

The biggest knock of Louisville this season is that they are a team that is forced to ride or die with Jordan Nwora because they don’t have anyone else on the roster that is capable of creating for themselves. This is why they looked so bad offensively against Michigan and Texas Tech, and why they struggled so much in the first half against Kentucky. Through the first 100 minutes that the Cardinals have played against elite defenses this season, they had mustered a total of 139 points in 171 possessions, or 0.813 PPP. For reference, the best defenses in college basketball hover around the 0.850 PPP allowed range.

It’s not a coincidence that, in that same time frame, Jordan Nwora was 14-for-47 from the floor and 3-for-17 from three.

That’s relevant because, in the second half and overtime on Saturday afternoon, Nwora more or less played as a decoy. Kentucky face-guarded him wherever he was on the floor, and he simply got out of the way. That’s when he wasn’t actually on the bench. Louisville erased a 12-point second half deficit against the Wildcats on Saturday, and the run to regain a foothold in the game came when Nwora was out.

Steve Enoch finished with 18 points, knocking down a three and getting his back-to-the-basket game going. Dwayne Sutton had 14 points and 10 boards, making some key defensive plays and picking up a few critical loose balls.

But the most important performance came from Fresh Kimble, a grad transfer point guard from St. Joe’s that currently backs up Darius Perry. He had 12 points and four assists, making some crucial plays in the second half to keep the Cardinals moving in the right direction. Point guard play has been the biggest concern for Louisville this season, and playing arguably the best team in what was definitely the toughest venue they’ve seen this year, Kimble had his best game. Someone needs to be able to make plays to create easy offense for people not named Nwora, and Kimble – along with Sutton, Enoch and even Darius Perry, to a point – were able to do that and bring Louisville back.

That’s big, even if it comes in a loss.

2. SATURDAY SHOWCASED THE BAD SIDE OF OHIO STATE’S POINT GUARD PLAY

After Ohio State’s win over Kentucky, I sang the praises of D.J. Carton and, to a lesser extent, C.J. Walker, as they were instrumental in leading the Buckeyes to a massive win over the Wildcats.

On Sunday, we saw the other side of things. Carton was 1-for-5 from the floor, turned the ball over five times and, in his 22 minutes, looked exactly the way you would expect a raw freshman to look against West Virginia. Walker wasn’t much better, finishing with one assist and four turnovers.

Ohio State does not have all that much offensive firepower. There really aren’t that many guys that can create offense for themselves, so when their point guards aren’t able to initiate offense and can’t create easy points for their teammates, they’re in trouble.

3. SO LET’S TALK ABOUT UCLA AND MICK CRONIN

Over the weekend, Gary Parrish of CBS Sports wrote a column blog post about UCLA that, in so many words, said that Mick Cronin should not be judged based on this season because he has a roster that lacks anything close to the talent we typically see on a UCLA roster.

It created quite a bit of dialogue, both on twitter and in private conversations, among the people I talk to, so I figured this space was the perfect place to do that after a slow weekend.

If you missed it, UCLA lost to Cal St.-Fullerton on Saturday night, a team that ranks 274th in KenPom and did not have a single win over a top 300 team prior to that game in Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins are now 7-6 on the season, and Mick Cronin is getting more and more frustrated.

Now, I’m going to be talking out of both sides of my mouth here, but there’s a lot to chew on with this discussion.

Cronin knows how to win. He’s one of just six coaches to reach each of the last nine NCAA tournaments, along with Coach K, Bill Self, Tom Izzo, Mark Few and Roy Williams. He did it at Cincinnati with his defense. His teams finished an average of 15th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric over that nine-year run.

But the Cincinnati program has a very different culture and ethos to the one that he walked into in UCLA. That doesn’t change overnight, as evidenced by the fact that a roster loaded with four-star, top 100 talent is currently sitting at 199th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

It took four years for Cronin to get it rolling at Cincinnati. It’s going to take him some time to get it rolling at UCLA, and he should not be judged on his ability to turn that thing around until he has three or four years under his belt and “his guys” in the program.

That said, what UCLA has done this season is terrible. Think about it like this: Steve Alford was fired right around the New Year last season after a 7-6 start that featured home losses to Belmont and Liberty, two mid-majors that won an NCAA tournament game last season. As the calendar flips this season, UCLA is sitting at … 7-6 with losses to mid-majors Hofstra and Fullerton, neither of whom are as good as Belmont or Liberty was last season.

This summer, I wrote about how much work Cronin has in front of him re-establishing the culture he needs to win. I think there is still the same chance that he can get there as when the season started.

But this season is a mess, and while Alford did not leave Cronin with a roster good enough to get to a Final Four, he certainly left him one that should be good enough to beat Fullerton and Hofstra in their own building.

4. JORDAN BONE WAS THE SINGLE-BIGGEST EARLY ENTRY LOSS IN COLLEGE HOOPS

Losing Jordan Bone was always going to be a major blow for Tennessee. As a junior, Bone was one of the best point guards in the SEC. He averaged 13.5 points and 5.8 assists for the Vols, and if he had returned to school, he might have been a preseason All-American.

And that’s to say nothing of the fact that a perimeter attack that consisted of Bone, Lamonte’ Turner, Josiah-Jordan James and Jordan Bowden would be among the best in the country.

But now that Turner is gone, his loss is magnified even more. Tennessee got absolutely steamrolled on Saturday afternoon, scoring just 48 points in a blowout loss at home against a Wisconsin team that was 0-5 away from the Kohl Center. It was all bad, and it stemmed from the fact that Tennessee does not have a point guard on the roster right now. Having Bone would have made a difference.

The good news is that reinforcements have arrived. Freshman point guard Santiago Vescuvi, a native of Uruguay, enrolled last week and arrived in Knoxville on Saturday morning.

Just in time for league play.

Bueno suerte, hermano.

5. ARKANSAS IS DANGEROUS

Eric Mussleman’s best Nevada teams were known as offensive juggernauts where he let his best players rock out while hoping that they would be able to do just enough defensively to get the wins they needed. He let Caleb Martin, Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline do what they do, and the result was 110 wins over four years, three straight seasons with at least 28 wins, two tournament berths and a trip to the Sweet 16.

At Arkansas, he’s once again letting his guys rock out. Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe are both having terrific individual seasons. The difference is that the Razorbacks are a top 10 defense in college hoops right now, which gives me hope that this 11-1 start to the season isn’t a fluke.

I don’t fully trust this team just yet. Their best win is at Indiana, who may or may not be good themselves, and I cannot get the thought of the overtime period at Georgia Tech out of my head.

But this team has a chance, and in an SEC where we are not sure who is actually good outside of Kentucky and Auburn, that may be enough for a top three finish.

Kansas and Kansas State end rivalry game in fight

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Kansas and Kansas State erupted into a fight on Tuesday night.

The Jayhawks were closing out an 81-60 Big 12 home win over their in-state rivals. Things got heated when the buzzer sounded.

Kansas forward Silvio De Sousa threw a punch and picked up a chair during the chaos. It’s difficult to pinpoint specific things from there. Police, security and team personnel stepped in to clear up the melee.

It’s one of the uglier incidents in recent memory for the heated Kansas state rivalry.

It’s been a wild night in college basketball. Illinois’ Alan Griffin stepped on Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic and was ejected. This is yet another bad incident that doesn’t involve basketball.

We’re definitely going to see suspensions out of this Kansas and Kansas State fight. It will depend on what the Big 12 is able to see during its investigation. The conference will try to track down as much evidence as possible to see how this started and who instigated things further.

Kansas and Kansas State have some recent history during this rivalry. Bill Self and Kansas forward Jamari Traylor had a difficult time with a court storm after Kansas State won on its home floor five years ago. But that was more of a student-related incident instead of the two teams starting a fight.

No. 3 Kansas improves to 15-3 overall and 5-1 in the Big 12 with the win. Christian Braun paced the Jayhawks with 20 points. Devon Dotson added 18 points while Udoka Azubuike had a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds.

A clearly-frustrated Kansas State dropped to 8-10 and 1-5 in the Big 12 as the rebuilding season continues.

These two teams will meet again in the Octagon of Doom on Feb. 29. The fight in the first matchup will be something to monitor as Kansas could still be fighting for a Big 12 title or No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Illinois’ Alan Griffin ejected for stepping on Purdue player

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Alan Griffin stepped on Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic and was ejected on Tuesday night. With Illinois on the road in a crucial Big Ten road game, Griffin was lost for the game midway through the first half.

Griffin turned to run back on defense and clearly stepped on Stefanovic while he was on the ground. Attacking the basket and not getting a call, Stefanovic was on the ground when Griffin stepped on his chest.

Griffin finished scoreless before his ejection.

A 6-foot-5 sophomore, Griffin is a key reserve during Illinois’ resurgent season. Playing 17.9 minutes per game, Griffin is an adequate three-pointer shooter and good rebounder from the wing.

Potentially facing a suspension for his actions, Griffin’s potential absence is something to monitor.

Walter McCarty dismissed as Evansville head coach

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Walter McCarty was fired as Evansville’s head coach on Tuesday night.

The school officially announced the decision after additional reports of alleged misconduct. On administrative leave since Dec. 26, McCarty was under investigation for Title IX violations.

Bennie Seltzer will remain interim head coach.

“While the investigation of potential Title IX violations will continue under University policies, UE has decided that, based on the facts uncovered thus far, it is necessary to terminate Mr. McCarty’s employment immediately,” the release said.

“There is no place at UE for any behavior by any University employee or student that jeopardizes the safety and security of others,”

The statement also said McCarty received “warnings last year regarding inappropriate off-court behavior with members of the campus community.”

The 45-year-old McCarty was in his second season with the Purple Aces. After an 11-21 finish in the first season, Evansville had a promising 9-4 start. Evansville made national news when the beat No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena earlier this season.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Powell vs. Pritchard vs. Howard vs. Toppin

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At this point, I do feel like we have reached a point where there is finally a top tier in the College Basketball Player of the Year race.

Myles Powell. Payton Pritchard. Markus Howard. Obi Toppin. That’s the order that I have it in, but there is a strong and legitimate argument for all four to be No. 1 on this list. I wouldn’t call any of them wrong.

This doesn’t mean that the players from outside those ranks cannot win the award — it is so wide open this year, anyone with a couple of big weeks will be in the mix — but as of this moment in time, those are the likely favorites.

Anyway, here is the definitive Player of the Year power rankings:

1. MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

Stats: 22.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, 34.9 3PT%

Powell had his best week of the season last week, averaging 29.0 points — including 21.0 points in the second half — as he led the Pirates to a pair of come-from-behind wins at Butler and at Saint John’s. It took Powell a while to get to this point, as he dealt with an ankle injury and a concussion, but there is no questioning the fact that he is the leader and the go-to guy for a Seton Hall team that is currently sitting at No. 10 in the AP poll and in sole possession of first place in the Big East.

And here’s the ironic part in all of this: It took a Powell injury for Seton Hall to really find themselves as a team. They made their leap on Dec. 19th, when the Pirates beat Maryland at home without Powell in the lineup. That’s when the supporting cast found their confidence. That’s when Seton Hall became a team, not just a bunch of guys playing next to Myles Powell.

2. PAYTON PRITCHARD, Oregon

Stats: 19.5 ppg, 5.7 apg, 4.4 rpg, 41.2 3PT%

No one in college basketball has had more, or bigger, moments this season. He scored 19 of his 23 points in the second half and overtime, including 15 in the final five minutes, in a win at Michigan. He had 16 points and six assists in a come-from-behind win against Seton Hall in the Battle 4 Atlantis. He hit a number of big shots late as Oregon knocked off Memphis in November, the only game against a quality opponent that James Wiseman played. Then there was Saturday’s game at Washington, when Pritchard hit a 30-footer to tie the game and force overtime then made a pair of big shots in the extra frame, including this ridiculous game-winner:

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He has carried the Ducks this season. He’s the reason this team is a top ten team.

3. MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette

Stats: 28.2 ppg, 2.9 apg, 43.1% 3PT, 9.8 3PAs

The numbers themselves are ridiculous.

Howard is leading the nation in scoring at 28.2 points. He’s shooting better than 43 percent from three on nearly 10 threes attempted per game. He’s doing it while posting a significantly higher offensive rating than Myles Powell and a significantly higher usage rate than Payton Pritchard.

To put his season into context, there is one other high-major player since 1992 that has made better than 42 percent of his threes while shooting more than nine threes per game: J.J. Redick during his college basketball Player of the Year season in 2005-06. Stephen Curry did the same during the 2007-08 season, when he led Davidson to within one shot of the Final Four.

Markus Howard has been the most lethal offensive weapon in college basketball, and if Marquette was a title contender this season, he’s easily be No. 1 on this list.

4. OBI TOPPIN, Dayton

Stats: 19.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 35.3% 3PT

What Obi Toppin provides for Dayton cannot be overstated. He’s putting up massive numbers this season, and he’s doing it while being the piece that makes everything Anthony Grant wants to run work so well. The breakdown below explains it all:

The thing that’s tough about placing Toppin on this list is that he is not the go-to guy for Dayton. Jalen Crutcher is going to be the player that takes and makes all of the big shots. See: Kansas, when he forced overtime, and Saint Louis, when he won the game in overtime.

But the reason Dayton is in a position to do things like take Kansas to overtime, get ranked in the top ten and have a shot at winning a national title is because of what Toppin opens up for them every possession other than the final one.

He may not have the moments we all remember, but Dayton is as good as they because of him. That matters.

5. LUKA GARZA, Iowa

Stats: 22.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 1.6 bpg

Garza has been relentless this season, and he is absolutely one of the most improved players in the country. The reason that he’s just outside the top four, for me, is because of the defensive side of the ball. I talk through that more in this piece.

6. CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State

Stats: 18.1 ppg, 6.1 apg, 2.4 rpg

Winston has been really, really good this year. He has not been quite as good as expected — he was the consensus preseason college basketball player of the year — and neither has Michigan State, which hurts him a bit. I think he’ll be back in the mix by the time the season ends, particularly if the Spartans play their way back into being one of the nation’s elite teams.

7. JARED BUTLER, Baylor

Stats: 16.1 ppg, 3.1 apg, 1.5 spg, 38.1% 3PT

It’s getting harder and harder to ignore the fact that the sophomore point guard is the best player on the best team in college basketball. That’s worth something in the Player of the Year race.

8. JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

Stats: 19.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 42.7% 3PT

On the plus side, Louisville once again looks like a team that can win the ACC, get to a Final Four and win a national title now that David Johnson has taken the point guard reins, and Nwora is unquestionably the best player on the roster. On the down side, he really hasn’t shown up in Louisville’s biggest games. That’s a delicate balance.

9. VERNON CAREY, Duke

Stats: 17.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.8 bpg

Carey looked like a much bigger player in this race before Duke lost two games last week in large part due to the ability to Miami and Louisville to expose Carey on the defensive end of the floor. Coach K has fixed issues like this before. We’ll see what he has up his sleeve this year.

10. MALACHI FLYNN, San Diego State

Stats: 16.5 ppg, 5.0 apg, 3.6 rpg, 40.4% 3PT

Malachi Flynn is the best player, the leader, of the only team in college basketball that remains undefeated. And the reason they are still undefeated is because of him: It was his three that allowed the Aztecs to avoid defeat at the hands of San Jose State back in December.

Three Things To Know: Shaka’s seat heats up, Baylor survives, Virginia doesn’t

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It was a slow night for college hoops on Monday, but there is still plenty to talk about after some weird results.

Here are the three things you need to know:

1. SHAKA’S SEAT IS HEATING UP

The Shaka Smart era at Texas feels like it has hit an inflection point.

On Monday night, the Longhorns went into Morgantown, W.V., and found themselves wishing Country Roads would take them home before the first half came to a close. No. 14 West Virginia, coming off of blowout loss at Kansas State on Saturday, used a 28-2 run over a 10 minute stretch in the first half to turn a 15-13 lead into a 43-15 blowout. They would go on to win 97-59.

The loss dropped Texas to 12-6 on the season and 2-4 in the Big 12. The Longhorns certainly are not out of it just yet — three of their four Big 12 losses came against teams that currently rank in the top six at KenPom — but it’s getting harder and harder to defend the situation that’s brewing in Austin. Texas has now lost four of their last six and five of their last eight. They are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the second straight season and for the third time in four years.

But perhaps the biggest concern is that the Longhorns just don’t seem to be growing as a program. Last year, while Texas ended up missing the tournament, they finished as a top 25 team on KenPom and made a run all the way to the NIT title. It’s worth noting that before the tournament started, they were already a top 30 team on KenPom; their ranking wasn’t skewed by getting hot for three weeks in a tournament no one cares about.

The problem this season is that there has been no progression. Texas has been a program under Shaka that has hung their hat on defense, but this is the worst defensive team he has had in his tenure. That becomes even more of an issue when you factor in that they cannot score. They’re 111th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, which is what happens when your offense is, essentially, a spread ball-screen into a contested three.

KenPom has Texas favored to win just three more games the rest of the season. They’re projected to finish 17-14 overall and 7-11 in the Big 12.

That’s not good.

2. NO. 1 BAYLOR SURVIVES

It looked like Baylor was going to cruise to a pretty easy win at home against Oklahoma, but the Sooners had other ideas. They hung around long enough in the second half to make things interesting late. Oklahoma hit back-to-back threes in a 40 second span to cut a 59-51 lead to 59-57 with 41 seconds left, and after Baylor couldn’t find a way to score on their next possession, Austin Reaves cut off a 3-on-1 break to flare to the corner and fire up a wide-open, go-ahead three with less than five seconds left.

He missed.

Baylor won.

And No. 1 lived to fight another day.

3. VIRGINIA LOSES AGAIN

The reigning national champions lost for the fourth time in their last five games on Monday night, this time falling at home against N.C. State, 53-51.

Like Oklahoma, Virginia had a shot to win the game at the buzzer, as N.C. State fouled up three and then missed free throws of their own at the other end. But Virginia is the 346th-best three-point shooting team in the country for a reason, and Casey Morsell missed the game-winner as time expired.

At this point, it’s getting harder to see how Virginia is going to find a way to play their way into the NCAA tournament.