There were questions as to how VCU would adjust to life under new head coach Will Wade, and at this point in the season it’s fair to say that the Rams have been just fine. VCU is 7-0 in Atlantic 10 play, and while they’ve been solid defensively throughout the season the Rams have also been the A-10’s most efficient offensive team in league play. They’ll face a significant test in the form of Davidson and its high-scoring guard Jack Gibbs, who scored 40 points or more in three games this season, but the triumvirate of Melvin Johnson, JeQuan Lewis and Korey Billbury has been very productive for the Rams. A win at Davidson keeps VCU in sole possession of first place, with Dayton currently 7-1 and Saint Joseph’s 6-1.
THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: Wright State at Oakland, 8:00 p.m.
Valparaiso has company atop the Horizon League standings, as Billy Donlon’s Raiders are 7-1 in conference games and have won ten of their last 11 games. Friday night they visit one of the nation’s most electrifying guards in junior Kay Felder, whose ability to both score and distribute the basketball makes him a tough matchup for any opponent the Golden Grizzlies encounter. But the key for Oakland will likely be their ability to defend, as Wright State has four players averaging at least 9.6 points per game led by sophomore guard Mark Alstork (12.2 ppg). The Raiders aren’t a prolific scoring team, but their ability to defend makes it imperative that Oakland get stops at a higher rate than it has thus far.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
1. The final weekend in January bring about the start of Ivy League back-to-backs, with tonight’s schedule including Harvard hosting Cornell. The Crimson have won the last three league titles, and with Columbia and Yale both off to 2-0 starts not losing any more ground is important for Tommy Amaker’s team (1-1 in Ivy League play).
2. One of the northeast’s best rivalries will have its latest installment, as Manhattan visits Iona. The Gaels (7-3 MAAC) are tied for second with Siena, a game behind first-place Monmouth, with the Jaspers a game back in the loss column at 5-4. With A.J. English leading the way one would expect Iona to take care of business due to their offensive firepower, but these match-ups tend to be close affairs.
3. Another key matchup in the Horizon League is Green Bay’s game at rival Milwaukee, with both sporting 5-3 records in league play. The Panthers, who have been the Horizon League’s most efficient offensive team in league play, have five players averaging double figures led by senior forward Matt Tiby (14.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg).
4. Kent State looks to remain atop the MAC East standings as they visit Ohio, with the Bobcats having won two of their last three. The teams have already met once this season, with Xavier Pollard scoring 23 points and Kellon Thomas 20 in the Golden Flashes’ 89-82 win January 16. In conference games only Northern Illinois has been better than Rob Senderoff’s team when it comes to defensive efficiency.
5. Penn looks to avoid an 0-2 start in Ivy League play as they visit undefeated Yale. James Jones’ Bulldogs, who have won six straight games, have a very good guard in leading scorer in Makai Mason and their front court tandem of Brandon Sherrod and Justin Sears combines to average 25.7 points and 14.2 rebounds per game.
PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Key America East, MAAC battles on the slate
Stony Brook’s reached the last two America East tournament finals, only to have the Great Danes eliminate them and earn the league’s automatic NCAA tournament bid. Friday’s meeting is the first of two this season, and with the higher seed getting home court in each round of the conference tournament these match-ups take on even greater importance. Forward Jameel Warney and guard Carson Puriefoy lead the way for Steve Pikiell’s Seawolves, who are currently 5-0 in conference play. As for the Great Danes, Peter Hooley’s back to lead as a senior with Will Brown’s team boasting a 4-1 league mark.
THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: Saint Peter’s at Iona, 7:00 p.m.
With Monmouth losing at Manhattan Thursday night, John Dunne’s Peacocks enter this matchup in sole possession of first place in the MAAC. As usual Saint Peter’s has been stout defensively, but they’ve also been better offensively in league play than they were during non-conference play. Freshman Antwon Portley has been one of the MAAC’s best newcomers, averaging 15.3 points per game to lead three SPC players averaging in double figures. Scoring isn’t a problem for Iona, which is led by senior guard A.J. English, but being engaged defensively for 40 minutes has been at times. Tempo will be key here; SPC will be best in a half-court game, while the Gaels will look to ramp things up.
OTHER NOTABLE CONTESTS
Already two games behind first-place VCU in the loss column, the game between Rhode Island and George Washington (3:00 p.m.) is a critical one with both at 3-2 in Atlantic 10 play. Keep an eye on how often the Colonials head to the foul line. URI hasn’t done the best job of keeping opponents away from there, and those points could prove to be the difference.
Valparaiso looks to maintain its lead atop the Horizon League as they visit second-place Wright State (7:00 p.m.). Billy Donlon’s Raiders have done a good job defending the three as well as knocking them down at a solid clip, but they’ll have to be better offensively if they’re to knock off a Valpo team led by forwards Alec Peters and Vashil Fernandez.
The top two teams in the MAC West meet in DeKalb as Northern Illinois hosts Toledo (7:00 p.m.). Mark Montgomery’s Huskies are 4-1 in conference play and their defense is a big reason why, with opponents shooting less than 44 percent inside of the arc. Tod Kowalczyk’s Rockets have been good offensively for most of the season, but they’ve had issues stringing together stops at times.
THE REST OF FRIDAY’S SCHEDULE
Duquesne at George Mason, 2:00 p.m.
UIC at Northern Kentucky, 7:00 p.m.
Fairfield at Marist, 7:00 p.m.
Yale at Brown, 8:00 p.m.
PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Showdowns in the Atlantic 10, MAAC
GAME OF THE NIGHT: George Washington at Dayton, 7:00 p.m.
With both St. Bonaventure and VCU atop the Atlantic 10 standings with 4-0 league records, this is a big matchup for contenders George Washington and Dayton as both enter this game 3-1. The Flyers rebounded from a disappointing effort in their loss at La Salle with a win over Davidson earlier this week, with Scoochie Smith leading a balanced offensive attack with 18 points and four assists.
The key for Dayton is turnovers, more specifically the unforced errors that occur a little too often for Archie Miller’s liking. George Washington has one of the top defenders in the country in senior Patricio Garino, and their 1-3-1 zone can be a tough task for opponents to attack. It should be noted that GW guard Joe McDonald will miss his second straight game due to an eye injury.
THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: Monmouth at Iona, 9:00 p.m.
The preseason favorite to win the MAAC hosts the team that boasts the conference’s best overall résumé in New Rochelle. Iona’s dealt with injuries (Shadrac Casimir’s done for the season, A.J. English just returned) and the departure of Kelvin Amayo, but others have stepped forward and as a result Tim Cluess’ team sits atop the MAAC standings. One game behind them in the loss column are the Hawks, who have won eight of their last nine games. The two frontrunners for MAAC Player of the Year will be on the same court with English and Monmouth’s Justin Robinson being those players. Both teams can put points on the board, but which one can string together the stops needed to get the win?
OTHER GAMES OF NOTE
Akron visits Toledo (7:00 p.m.) in a MAC crossover game, with the Zips among three teams tied atop the MAC East at 2-1 and the Rockets 1-2 in the MAC West. Tod Kowalczyk’s team needs to hold serve, as they’re already two games behind a Northern Illinois (3-0 MAC West) team they lost to Tuesday night.
Illinois State hosts Evansville (9:00 p.m.) in a matchup of teams hoping to make a run at Wichita State in the Missouri Valley. The talented tandem of D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius lead the way for the Purple Aces, but the Redbirds have an all-MVC candidate of their own in Devaughn Akoon-Purcell.
The off-guard spot is the weakest position in college basketball this season. For comparison’s sake, the No. 20 lead guard in the list we released yesterday was UConn’s Sterling Gibbs, who ranked 59th in our top 100 players list.
For off-guards, only 18 were ranked in our top 100, meaning the final two in this list didn’t crack that list. Why is this the case? Is it because the best scoring guards in basketball are trying to mold themselves after the likes of Russell Westbrook, John Wall and Derrick Rose as opposed to, say, Kobe? Is it because the emphasis on court spacing has turned the off-guard spot into a spot-up shooters role? Or is this just a random year where the two-guards just aren’t all that good?
As interesting as that discussion would be, it’s a different conversation for a different day. Here are the top 20 off-guards in college basketball:
It feels like Hield has been around forever. Initially considered to be not much more than a lockdown perimeter defender, the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year has developed into one of the nation’s most potent wing scorers, averaging 17.4 points last season. His shooting percentages dipped a bit last year, which will be something to keep an eye on this year. Does being the focus of every team’s defense throw him off?
2. Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
I’m beating this quote to death, I know, but the ACC coaches that I’ve spoken too rave about Brogdon. One of them told me that “he’s a MFer, man. In every way.” That’s just about the highest compliment that can be given to a basketball player from a coach. What he means is that Brogdon is tough, he’s physical, he’s skilled and he’s got the mental fortitude to execute in big moments. He’s a perfect fit for Tony Bennett’s system.
3. Ron Baker, Wichita State
It’s really difficult to argue with Ron Baker’s results. He made the Final Four as a freshman. He was a star on a team that won their first 35 games as a sophomore. He was an all-american on a team that went to the Sweet 16 and beat in-state rival Kansas — who refuses to play the Shockers — in the tournament. What does he have left to do?
The NBA hype on Baker has subsided a bit, but I still think he’ll find a role somewhere at that level. He can shoot, he can defend, he can handle the ball and he can operate in ball-screen actions.
4. Caris LeVert, Michigan
Ability is not going to be the issue with LeVert. We know how good he can be. The question is going to be his health. He’s broken his left foot twice in the last 18 months, with both injuries requiring surgery. How long does it take him to shake off the roster? And, more importantly, can he remain healthy for an entire season? If he does, Michigan has enough talent to make a run to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament and LeVert is good enough to finish his final season as an all-american.
5. Wayne Selden, Kansas
I see all the buzz surrounding Wayne Selden after his performance in the World University Games this summer. I understand why people are so high on him entering the year. The dude has never lacked for ability. Consistency and a left hand? That’s where he’s struggled. He got a slight bump in these rankings because of his play in Korea, but until he proves it night-in and night-out in the Big 12, I’ll have my reservations.
Blackmon is such a dangerous scorer and he’s such a perfect fit for this Indiana offense. He’s a lethal three-point shooter when he gets into a rhythm, which is often, and that ability to shoot is what helps Indiana keep the floor spread offensively, creating acres of space for Yogi Ferrell to penetrate. I’d be surprised if his scoring numbers — he averaged 15.7 points as a freshman — didn’t improve this year. That said, the reason he’s sixth on this list is because he was a sieve defensively last year.
7. Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky
Briscoe was another guy that was tough to place in these rankings. For starters, he’s probably more of a natural lead guard than he is an off-guard, but playing in a back court with Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis is an easy way to get pushed off the ball. How does he react to that? Will he be willing to fill a role for UK? Is he a good enough shooter to dominate minutes over guys like Charles Matthews and Mychal Mulder? The ability is there, but it remains to be seen how he will be utilized by John Calipari.
8. Danuel House, Texas A&M
House was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and last season, his first with the Aggies after transferring in from Houston, he looked like it. House averaged 14.8 points, 2.1 assists and shot 40.0 percent from three. The Aggies were one of the last teams left out of the NCAA tournament in March. With House leading the way, and a talented freshman class coming in, the Aggies should be an SEC contender this season.
9. E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island
Matthews, a junior, is probably the best player in the Atlantic 10, having averaged 16.9 points last season. He’s an explosive, albeit at times inefficient, scorer that is a major reason the Rams will enter this season as the favorite to win the Atlantic 10.
10. Eron Harris, Michigan State
As a sophomore at West Virginia in 2013-14, Harris averaged 17.0 points. He’s a big-time wing scorer that can light it up from three when he gets on a role. Like Briscoe, it’s going to be interesting to see how Tom Izzo divvies up minutes on his perimeter. Will Harris start over Bryn Forbes? Will they be on the floor together with Denzel Valentine handling playmaking duties? Who will be the guy whose number gets called in crunch-time?
11. Grayson Allen, Duke: Allen was terrific in the Final Four last season, helping to spark Duke’s come-from-behind title game victory. Does his development continue this season? And how does Coach K divide up minutes on Duke’s loaded perimeter?
12. Kellen Dunham, Butler: It feels like Dunham is perennially underrated. He averaged 16.5 points and shot 41.0 percent from three last season on a top 25 team.
13. Isaiah Cousins, Oklahoma: Cousins doesn’t get quite as much attention as he should, which is a by-product of sharing a back court with Buddy Hield and Jordan Woodard. NBA scouts know how good he is.
14. Zak Irvin, Michigan: Irvin had a nice sophomore season individually, but with Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton getting injured, Michigan missed the NCAA tournament. Irvin is a lights-out spot-up shooter when he gets in a rhythm.
15. A.J. English, Iona: English was the only player in college basketball last season to average 20 points, five boards and five assists.
16. Antonio Blakeney, LSU: Blakeney is a big-time talent that can score in bunches and throw down some thunderous dunks. But he’s also streaky and playing for a coach that doesn’t always maximize his talent. I expect that he’s going to have an up-and-down season.
17. Sheldon McClellan, Miami: McClellan was the steadying force on a Miami team that won 25 games a season ago. While Angel Rodriguez was up and down, McClellan averaged a cool 14.5 points with 48.4/35.8/82.4 shooting splits.
18. Stefan Moody, Ole Miss: Moody is the SEC’s leading returning scorer. At 5-foot-9 with a 45 inch vert and a penchant for hitting three or four 25-footers in a row, Moody is as entertaining as anyone in the country.
19. Anthony Drmic, Boise State: Drmic missed the second half of last season with an injury. With Derrick Marks gone, Drmic will have to carry a heavier load this season.
20. Juice Woodard, Tulsa: Woodard is the leading scorer on a Tulsa team that is going to contend for the AAC regular season title.