PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
Through three games this season, these are Valentine’s numbers: 16.3 points, 10.7 assists and 9.0 boards while turning the ball over just six times. The seven points, seven boards and 11 assists he had in a blow-out win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Saturday was the second-best stat-line he had this week.
Those 29 points, 12 boards and 12 assists that he had as No. 13 Michigan State stormed back from a double-digit deficit late in the second half to knock off No. 4 Kansas in the Champions Classic. It was dominant, quite possibly the best all-around performance that we are going to see from anyone at any point this season. He scored or assisted on 22 of Michigan State’s 28 baskets, and only turned the ball over once in those 38 minutes.
Valentine was a popular pick as an All-American in the preseason, and he looks every bit the part through the first two weeks of the year,
THE ‘ALL THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM
Grayson Allen, Duke: Allen was sensational in New York this weekend, averaging 31.0 points, 5.5 boards and 3.5 assists in wins over VCU and Georgetown to take home the Legends Classic title. He’d be a shoo-in for Player of the Week again if it wasn’t for that six-point, four-turnover performance against Kentucky on Tuesday night. I told you it was too early to write them off.
Patricio Garino, George Washington: The man they call ‘Pato’ was the best player on the floor as the Colonials knocked off No. 6 Virginia at home on Monday night, going for 18 points and five boards. He followed that up with 18 points in wins over Army and at South Florida.
Shaquille Harrison, Tulsa: Harrison was terrific in Tulsa’s two games in the Paradise Jam, sparking come-from-behind wins over Ohio and Indiana State by averaging 27.5 points, 6.5 boards, 3.5 assists and 3.0 steals. And that came after he went for 20 in Tulsa’s win over No. 9 Wichita State.
Tyler Ulis, Kentucky: Ulis has been Kentucky’s best player through the first week and change of the college basketball season, and it was on display in his 18-point, six-assists, four-rebound performance in the win over Duke.
Wes Washpun, Northern Iowa: Washpun was the best player on the floor for the Panthers as they knocked off No. 1 North Carolina on Saturday afternoon, finishing with 21 points and eight assists.
BENCH: Jakob Poeltl (Utah), Buddy Hield (Oklahoma), Evan Bradds (Belmont)
TEAMS OF THE WEEK: Purdue and Miami
No two teams in the country made as much of a statement as the Boilermakers and the Hurricanes did this week.
We kind of saw it coming with Purdue. The Boilermakers shot the ball incredibly well from three during the season’s first weekend, overpowered teams with their front court and did so before A.J. Hammons was able to play. Throw in the fact that Caleb Swanigan has been excellent in his role at the four and it was really not a surprise that this group rolled over Old Dominion and Florida in the Hall of Fame Classic at Mohegan Sun this weekend. Purdue’s ranking probably isn’t going to skyrocket — they’re currently No. 21 — because they didn’t beat anyone all that impressive, but it’s easy to watch this team and know just how good they are.
Miami, on the other hand, will likely go from unranked to the top 15, if not the top ten. That’s what happens when you spend a weekend steamrolling Mississippi State (who stinks), No. 16 Utah and No. 22 Butler (who don’t stink). This group reminds me quite a bit of the 2013 Miami team that won the ACC: They have tough, veteran guards and a slew of high-motor bigs, all of whom are totally bought into what head coach Jim Larrañaga wants from them. There hasn’t been a consistently more impressive team in the country this season.
I wrote a column on Saturday about how wide-open this season is and why it is that way, and that’s very much the case in the Big Ten and the ACC. As a result, while it is still early, I’m willing to say that both of these teams will be in the mix for their respective regular season titles. That’s how impressive they’ve been.
THEY WERE GOOD, TOO
Xavier: The Musketeers woke up a lot of people on Friday night as they went into Ann Arbor and knocked off No. 24 Michigan by 16 points. The Big East race looks like it is going to be a fun one, and at this point, it’s tough to imagine Xavier not finding a way to be relevant in that race.
Northern Iowa: The Panthers picked off a good Stephen F. Austin team during the Tip-Off Marathon and followed that up by knocking off North Carolina, the No. 1 team in the country, over the weekend.
George Washington: The Colonials picked up a huge win on Monday night at home over No. 6 Virginia, one that could very well have locked up their NCAA tournament chances, assuming they do the things they’re supposed to do this season.
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane landed a key win over No. 9 Wichita State on Tuesday night, an impressive win that they followed up with two come-from-behind wins in the Paradise Jam.
Oregon: The Ducks have now beaten No. 20 Baylor and one of the nation’s best mid-major, Valparaiso, without their best big man and their senior point guard.
SET YOUR DVR
These are the tournaments to keep an eye on this week:
11/23-11/25: Maui Invitational, featuring Indiana, Kansas, UCLA and UNLV
11/25-11/27: Battle 4 Atlantis, featuring Gonzaga, Washington, UConn and Michigan
11/26-11/29: Advocare Invitation, featuring Wichita State and Notre Dame
11/26-11/29: Wooden Legacy, featuring Arizona and Michigan State
AAC Preview: Can SMU win the league without a postseason?
Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the American Athletic Conference.
The AAC is in for an awkward season as the league’s best team — SMU — will likely be spending the majority of the season trying to win a yet-to-be-filed appeal with the NCAA that will allow them to participate in the NCAA tournament this season.
Then again, the AAC is one of those leagues whose existence still feels a bit awkward. The football-playing leftovers of the Old Big East, the AAC pairs some of the nation’s top basketball programs — UConn, Memphis, Cincinnati, Temple — with some programs that make you wonder if you need to redefine if the AAC is truly a high-major conference — East Carolina, Tulane, UCF.
In recent years, there’s been a clear-cut difference between the top of the conference and the bottom of the league. This year, with Houston and South Florida improving, that line may get a bit blurrier, but there is still a decided difference between the three or four real contenders — SMU, Tulsa, UConn and Cincinnati — and everyone else.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:
1. SMU could win the league but may not be postseason eligible: If you read this site than you’re probably already aware of how I feel about the postseason ban the NCAA handed SMU. I hate it. I think it’s morally wrong simply because the people that pay the ultimate price — seniors Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert — are the ones that are actually hurt here. Because this SMU roster, which also includes Keith Frazier (who earned them that ban), Ben Moore and Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye, is good enough to not only win the AAC regular season title, but they have the pieces — and the head coach — to make a Final Four run.
Here’s to hoping that the appeal process takes six months. I want to see this team have a chance to play in March.
(UPDATE: Since this preview was published, SMU has announced that they will not appeal their postseason ban.)
2. This is the year for Tulsa to make their run: Frank Haith will never have a better chance than this to win the AAC. Looking beyond the fact that his backcourt of Shaq Harrison and James Woodard is as good as any in the league and that they are coming off of a season where they won 14 league games, the Golden Hurricane are about as old as you can get at the college level. They return their top seven scorers from last season — their first in the American and their first under Haith — and all seven of them are seniors. Tulsa’s roster is stacked with enough talent to win the league, but it will also lose enough talent to ensure that Haith will have a significant rebuild on his hands beginning in 2016-17.
3. UConn’s fifth-year seniors make the difference: Kevin Ollie has talent. There’s no question about that. Daniel Hamilton has a shot at being the AAC Player of the Year. Rodney Purvis was a top 15 recruit. Amida Brimah is one of the nation’s best shot-blockers. Jalen Adams is a stud. But the keys to this Husky team are going to be the fifth-year additions, Seton Hall transfer Sterling Gibbs and Cornell transfer Shonn Miller. Gibbs is exactly the kind of lead guard that has carried UConn in recent years, while Miller is exactly the kind of do-it-all four-man that the Huskies were missing last year.
4. Memphis lost their best player: Josh Pastner really cannot catch a break. In July of this year, the Tiger head coach found out that Austin Nichols, who would have had a decent argument for being the Preseason Player of the Year, was leaving the program. The Tigers do add Dedric and K.J. Lawson, and Ricky Tarrant should theoretically help stabilize things at the point guard spot, but unless Kedren Johnson has magically turned into the guy he was three years ago at Vanderbilt or Shaq Goodwin has taken a giant step forward, the Tigers are probably the fifth-best team in the AAC, and that’s being optimistic. Another year without a trip to the NCAA tournament could mean that Pastner’s tenure in Memphis is over.
5. Don’t forget about Cincinnati with Mick Cronin back: Cincinnati’s fiery head coach Mick Cronin missed the majority of last season as he dealt with an unruptured aneurysm in his brain. He’s back now, and he should have the pieces to make an NCAA tournament run. Troy Caupain is back to captain the squad, while the likes of Octavious Ellis and Gary Clark return inside. In fact, Cincinnati essentially returns everyone that matters from last year, but the x-factor this season could end up being the addition of Justin Jenifer, a pint-sized point guard that could fill a role Cincy was missing a year ago.
Favorite: “SMU. They are as good as anyone in the country, even with the ban. Nic Moore, the Player of the Year, is coming back, and they still have a guy like Markus Kennedy, who crushed us. When we played them we had control of the game until he went totally bonkers. We couldn’t handle him.”
Sleeper: “Houston. I think they will make a jump in what they were last year to this year. Kelvin Sampson is a really good coach and they add some kids (Ronnie Johnson, Damyean Dotson). They already had some players, too.”
Best player: “This may be surprising, but I think Daniel Hamilton at UConn is a terrific, terrific player. He’s one of the better players in the country and I think he’s going to be in line to have a breakout year.”
Most underrated player: “James Woodard at Tulsa. I’m sure people in the league realize he’s a good player, but I think that he’s one of the premier guards in the league. And I know how good some of the guards in the league are.”
PRESEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Nic Moore, SMU
Moore, the reigning AAC Player of the Year, has been sensational in his first two seasons with the Mustangs after transferring into the program from Illinois State. As a junior, he averaged 14.5 points, 5.1 assists and 2.3 boards while shooting 41.6 percent from three. He’s the best guard in a league that’s stocked with talented perimeter players, and it’s a shame that his career looks like it’s going to be remembered by a postseason ban and a game-losing goaltend.
THE REST OF THE AMERICAN FIRST TEAM:
Daniel Hamilton, UConn: Hamilton averaged 10.9 points as a freshman despite, at times, showing questionable shot selection and decision-making. Entering school with the rep of being a pure scorer, he also produced 7.2 boards and 3.7 assists a night.
Sterling Gibbs, UConn: Gibbs is a perfect piece for Kevin Ollie. A talented, veteran lead guard capable of taking over games and with the intestinal fortitude to take and make big shots. Hopefully, UConn fans forgive him for being related to Ashton.
James Woodard, Tulsa: Woodard’s reputation is that of being a spot-up shooter, but he could very well end up being the best player on a team that will once again challenge for the regular season title.
Markus Kennedy, SMU: Kennedy’s numbers as a junior were impacted after he was ineligible for the first semester last season. He’s the best low-post player in the conference and a piece that can take over a game when he needs to.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:
Shaquille Harrison, Tulsa
Amida Brimah, UConn
Troy Caupain, Cincinnati
Louis Dabney, Tulane
Quentin DeCosey, Temple
BREAKOUT STAR: Gary Clark, Cincinnati
Clark is a prototype Cincinnati front court player: long and athletic with a motor that doesn’t stop running, and on a team that’s built around toughness, defense and outworking their opponents, Clark is a perfect fit. The 6-foot-8 sophomore isn’t going to put up huge numbers — he averaged 7.8 points, 7.2 boards and 1.3 blocks on a team that didn’t have a double-figure scorer last season — but he’s going to be an integral piece if the Bearcats make a run at a league title.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Josh Pastner, Memphis
This one is obvious. It feels like Pastner’s job has been on the line since he took over for John Calipari. While the success he’s had with the Tigers has been in line with just about every coach in the program’s history, he had the misfortune of following in Cal’s footsteps. The standards he has to live up to are overwhelming, and, needless to say, Pastner has not lived up to them. With Austin Nichols, arguably the best big man in the league last season, transferring out of the program this summer, Pastner is staring down the barrel of another season without an NCAA tournament trip. He better hope those Lawsons are the real deal.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : SMU should not be sitting out of the NCAA tournament. They could have made the Final Four.
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : The perimeter battles at the top of the league. Nic Moore and Keith Frazier vs. Sterling Gibbs and Daniel Hamilton vs. Jordan Woodard and Shaq Harrison.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:
1. SMU: The best coach, the best point guard and the best big man. Whether or not they are eligible for the postseason, the Mustangs are the best team in the conference.
2.UConn: Landing Gibbs, Miller and Adams was key, but it will be the development of Hamilton, Purvis and Brimah that determines just how good the Huskies are this season.
3. Tulsa: A senior-laden squad, a talented backcourt and a year under their belt in a new league with a new coach. This is the season for the Golden Hurricane to make their run.
4. Cincinnati: It feels weird calling Cincinnati a sleeper, but that’s what the Bearcats are this year. Nothing they do is going to be glamorous, but there are few coaches that thrive are better blue collar coaches than the now-healthy Mick Cronin.
5. Houston: The Cougars are the most intriguing team in the AAC this year. They have a roster stocked with big names and a coach in Kelvin Sampson that has already proven how good he is. But they also had quite a bit of talent on the roster last season and they finished 4-14 in the league. Ronnie Johnson, L.J. Rose, Damyean Dotson, Devonta Pollard and Chicken Knowles. That roster should be relevant.
6. Temple: Losing Will Cummings will hurt, Jaylen Bond and Quentin DeCosey should be able to anchor a roster that returns some promising young talent.
7. Memphis: Losing Austin Nichols was a brutal blow, but if either Johnson or Tarrant solidifies the point guard spot, the Tigers should have enough on their roster to make an NCAA tournament push.
8. South Florida: Corey Perry Jr. graduated, but Roddy Peters, a former top 25 recruit, should be able to replace that production.
9. Tulane: The Green Wave return Louis Dabney and add Washington transfer Jernard Jerreau to help bolster their front court.
10. East Carolina: B.J. Tyson has a chance to put up some impressive numbers this season. ‘Wins’ may not be one of those numbers.
11. UCF: Am I the only one hoping that Donnie Jones pairs 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall and 6-foot-9, 330 pound Justin McBride in his front court?