No. 14 Kentucky and Texas A&M entered Saturday’s game in College Station in far different states. John Calipari’s team was playing as well as any team in the country, as they’d won four straight games with each being decided by at least ten points. Texas A&M, on the other hand, had just ended a four-game losing streak and its chances of winning the SEC diminished as a result. An important game for both teams, it was Texas A&M that needed the momentum boost that can come with a big win.
And in somewhat controversial fashion the Aggies got the win they needed, beating the Wildcats 79-77 in overtime on a Tyler Davis put-back as time expired.
Davis’ shot capped a bizarre final ten seconds of overtime, beginning with Kentucky getting a stop up a point and freshman center Isaac Humphries being fouled. In his excitement Humphries spiked the basketball, but he and his teammates knew almost immediately what a risk that was. Humphries was given a technical foul, resulting in the Aggies getting two free throws themselves.
Danuel House made both of his, and with Skal Labissiere splitting his the game was tied. Now here’s the question: was the decision to give Humphries a technical foul the correct one? In many instances a player spiking the ball occurs in a fit of anger, and it’s generally understood that doing so will result in a technical. But Humphries clearly wasn’t angry, so could there have been a better understanding of the moment by the official?
This will be discussed for quite some time, but of greater importance for Kentucky down the line is what happened on the backboards.
Texas A&M grabbed 20 offensive rebounds, which works out to an offensive rebounding percentage of 40 percent, and scored 22 second-chance points. With the Aggies looking stagnant on offense at multiple points in the game, those extra opportunities proved to be quite valuable for them.
The Wildcats weren’t helped by the fact that Derek Willis, who’s been their best front court player in recent weeks, left the game with a sprained ankle in the second half. The positive for Kentucky was that Humphries produced his best game as a Wildcat, grabbing 12 rebounds with ten of them coming on the defensive end. The negative: the other Wildcat bigs combined for seven defensive rebounds, with Marcus Lee responsible for four of them.
Kentucky’s entire front court combined to grab 17 defensive rebounds. Texas A&M’s tandem of Davis (nine) and Tonny Trocha-Morelos (four) combined to grab 13 of the Aggies’ 30 offensive boards. Add in a game-high 24 points and eight rebounds from Jalen Jones, and Texas A&M was able to win the game despite the fact that Danuel House and Anthony Collins combined to shoot 3-for-20 from the field.
Texas A&M did their best to dare a Kentucky player other than Tyler Ulis (22 points, 11 assists) or Jamal Murray (21 points) to beat them, alternating between man-to-man and triangle-and-2 looks to make the two standouts shoot challenged mid-range shots. But Ulis and Murray still managed to make plays, nearly leading Kentucky to a win that would have preserved their two-game lead atop the SEC standings.
Ultimately, a technical foul and Kentucky’s inability to close out the game’s final possession with a rebound did them in.
Where it was tough to whittle down the back courts to just 15 teams, for the front lines, it was tougher to find 15 units that we truly thought were potentially dominant. Whether it was a result of a lack of depth or a lack of star power, the back end of this list didn’t feel all that overpowering.
The Zags ended up winning out on this list for the simple fact that there isn’t another program in the country with three big men that are as good as this trio. Wiltjer is a prototype stretch four with shooting splits that are reminiscent of Doug McDermott. Karnowski is the rim protector, a 7-foot-1 behemoth that has developed a solid offensive repertoire that includes baby hooks and the ability to dive to the rim in ball-screens actions. And Sabonis may actually be the best of the three, a throwback power forward that plays physical, sets hard screens and is always looking to hit the glass.
As a whole, however, I’m personally not sold, although my colleagues don’t necessarily agree with me. I think Wiltjer is a defensive liability and I worry about lineup flexibility; can you get all three on the floor at the same time? Can Sabonis and Karnowski both be on the court without the shooting of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to spread the floor? If the answer to those questions is yes, than Gonzaga should be a top 15 team. If not, it’s a much different story.
2. North Carolina (Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Joel James, Luke Maye)
When the casual ACC hoops fan thinks of North Carolina basketball, they probably think of an uptempo, run-and-gun team built around Roy Williams’ patented secondary break offense. And while that’s true, the best North Carolina teams have always had a couple of big bodies that commanded double-teams on the block. Sean May turned into Tyler Hansbrough who eventually became Tyler Zeller. None of UNC’s bigs have that kind of lottery pick potential, but Meeks, Johnson and James are all above average post scorers. Hicks struggles with his confidence in games, but he’s routinely one of UNC’s best players in practice. If he can put it together this season, the Tar Heels will reach another level.
3. Kentucky (Skal Labissiere, Isaac Humphries, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Derek Willis)
On paper, Kentucky probably has the most raw talent along their front line. The problem is that none of their five players have proven anything at the college level. Lee has been good in flashes but has yet to play extended minutes. Poythress struggled with his position identity before tearing his ACL. Humphries is a freshman that enrolled a year early. Willis has always been projected as an end of the rotation kind of guy. Labissiere has the talent to be the National Player of the Year, but until we see how he transitions to the college level, it’s tough to know whether he’s going to be great or just simply good. The good news? It’s hard to imagine all five failing to live up to their individual potential.
4. Maryland (Robert Carter, Diamond Stone, Damonte Dodd, Michael Cevosky)
I’m probably higher on this Maryland group that anyone mostly because I love the potential of running high-low offense through Diamond Stone and Robert Carter. Stone is the name you know. A 6-foot-10 four man that can play on the perimeter, he’s a top ten recruit and a potential one and done player. But Carter is the guy that has gotten all the hype since practice started. He averaged 11.4 points and 8.4 boards at Georgia Tech before sitting out last season and shedding a good 20 pounds. Dodd and Cevosky are both better than adequate subs as well.
5. Purdue (A.J. Hammons, Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan)
Like Gonzaga, I love Purdue’s big men individually even if I don’t love them as a group. Hammons, when he’s dialed in, is one of the best big men in the country. He was, more often than not, dialed in last season. Haas is a 7-foot-2 center that showed tons of promise as a freshman, while Edwards, another sophomore, has a chance to be a star at the three after a very good freshman season. Throw in Biggie Swanigan, a McDonald’s All-American and a terrific low-post scoring threat, and Matt Painter is going to have some legendary battles in practice. But Haas and Hammons can’t play at the same time. Can Purdue function offensively with Swanigan at the four and Hammons or Haas at the five?
6. Baylor (Rico Gathers, Jonathan Motley, Taureen Waller-Prince)
I love this Baylor group. Waller-Prince is as underrated as anyone in the country, Gathers is an absolute bully in the paint and Motley has a chance to be this season’s breakout star in the Big 12. When all three are on the floor together — which is possible given Waller-Prince’s versatility — they’re going to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country. The problem? Depth. If Jo Acuil can’t get cleared (he has a heart issue, as if Baylor hasn’t had enough of those), the Bears will have to rely on Terry Maston, who played 11 games as a freshman.
It was hard to know what to do with Kansas here. Bragg is promising, Mickelson and Lucas should be serviceable and Ellis should once again put up first-team all-Big 12 caliber numbers. That’s a good front line, but one that should be closer to No. 15 than No. 7. But if Diallo gets eligible, that changes things, as he’s precisely the piece their missing, an athletic, 6-foot-9 four that plays hard, runs the floor, defends and crashes the glass. He’s everything that Cliff Alexander wasn’t last year, and makes Kansas so much better. He’s also not yet cleared to play. So we slotted them here.
8. Utah (Jakob Poeltl, Brekkot Chapman, Jordan Loveridge, Kyle Kuzma, Chris Reyes)
I like the mix that Larry Krystkowiak has at his disposal here. Poeltl is an elite rim protector with a chance at being a lottery pick, Loveridge is a veteran scoring presence that can space the floor and Chapman and Kuzma are talented sophomores with bright futures. Losing Delon Wright is going to hurt the Utes, but the reason they’ll remain in hunt for a Pac-12 title.
9. Vanderbilt (Damian Jones, Luke Kornet, Djery Baptiste, Jeff Roberson, Samir Sehic)
There’s a chance that Vandy’s ranking here could look far too low by the end of the season. We expect Jones to be a star this season, potentially as the best center in all of college basketball. Baptiste and Roberson both look like quality rotation players and Sehic, a freshman, is an undersized four that always seemed to be able to produce regardless of competition at the high school level. Kornet is the x-factor. People around the program expect the 7-foot-1 sharpshooter to have a big season. If he lives up to the hype, the Commodores will be very dangerous.
There is so much talent on this front line. So much. Morgan and Okonoboh were high profile recruits in the Class of 2014, Jones — a freshman — will be the nation’s best dunker this season and Carter was a starter at Oregon. Zimmerman is the best of a bunch, a versatile, 7-foot lefty whose biggest strength is his ability to pass the ball. Can they live up to their potential is the major question mark here.
11. Virginia (Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Isaiah Wilkins, Jarrod Reuter)
Losing Darion Atkins, who was so, so good for the Cavs on the defensive end of the floor, is a bigger blow than some may realize. But Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey are both above average post scorers and Isaiah Wilkins is an intriguing prospect that had some promising moments last season. As with just about everyone on Tony Bennett’s roster, these guys are better than their numbers will suggest.
12. Arizona (Kaleb Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson, Mark Tollefsen, Dusan Ristic, Chance Comanche)
Even with Ray Smith done for the year with a torn ACL, the Wildcats deserve a place on this list. That’s what happens when you have this much quality depth. But who is a star in this group? Who scares opposing scouts? Zeus has never lived up to the billing of being a top ten prospect, scouts love Ristic but he has yet to beat out Zeus, Comanche is a freshman that needs a year or two and Tollefson is a transfer from San Francisco. Anderson, who averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 boards at BC, is the best of the bunch on paper, but he lacks explosiveness and is coming off of a redshirt season. He’s the x-factor in this equation.
13. Iowa State (Georges Niang, Jameel McKay, Simeon Carter)
Niang is the single-toughest cover in all of college basketball. A 6-foot-8 power forward, he’s so skilled: he can beat you in the post, he can beat you to the rim from the perimeter, he can pass, he can shoot, he can dribble. He’s a stud. McKay is the perfect compliment, a 6-foot-9 shot-blocker and offensive rebounder. But after those two, there really isn’t much of note in ISU’s front court.
Simmons is going to be must-see TV every time he plays as a freshman. He’s a 6-foot-9 point forward with handle, an innate passing ability and a flair for making highlight reel plays. He’ll notch multiple triple-doubles this season. But where is his front court support? Craig Victor is the most talented of the bunch, but left Arizona because he couldn’t crack the rotation.
15. San Diego State (Malik Pope, Skylar Spencer, Zylan Cheatham, Angelo Chol)
This ranking is based on the assumption that Malik Pope lives up to his potential. He’s got the talent of a lottery pick and the consistentcy — and the health — of a four-year Mountain West big man. Spencer is a shot-blocker extraordinaire, Chol is an above-average high major big man and Cheatham has plenty of promise, but if Pope doesn’t play his way into being a first round pick, this rank will look silly in March.
Others considered: Texas A&M, Cal, Marquette, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Duke