2014 Conference Catchups

SEC Conference Catchup: Will someone step up behind Kentucky?

1 Comment
source: Getty Images
Willie Cauley-Stein (Getty Images)

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the SEC.

MIDSEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky

Kentucky has made headlines this season for having one of the best defenses that we’ve seen at the college level in the KenPom era, and the sparkplug for that defense is Cauley-Stein. A shot-blocking presence around the rim, Cauley-Stein is so much more than just a rim-protector. He can switch ball-screens, he can guard an opponent’s best wing and he can play the point on their press.

THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM

  • Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
  • Bobby Portis, Arkansas: Portis has looked like the best non-Kentucky big man in the conference this season, the centerpiece for an Arkansas team that may be the second-best in the league.
  • Jordan Mickey, LSU: Mickey’s led LSU’s bounce back from a rough start to the season, averaging a double-double and a league-high 3.6 blocks.
  • Levi Randolph, Alabama: There may not be a more improved player in the SEC this season than Randolph, who is averaging 16.2 points and has been Alabama’s spark.
  • Damion Jones, Vanderbilt: The Commodores have not been great this season, but Jones has been a bright spot, averaging 16.6 points and 7.1 boards.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Kentucky has a real chance to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated: Kentucky’s doing it with their defense, which is about what we expected about of the Wildcats this season. Even without Alex Poythress in the mix — and even if their idea of a platoon has not exactly come to fruition — Kentucky has been absolutely overwhelming with their size, strength and athleticism on that end of the floor. Offensively, they have some things to work through, but their ability to get to the offensive glass and the improved shooting that freshmen Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker and Trey Lyles can provide should be enough to get them through SEC play unscathed.

2. But much of that has to do with the SEC’s relative weakness: Part of the reason that Kentucky looks like they’ll be able to run the table in the conference is that there really isn’t another team in the league that’s all that good. Arkansas is probably the second-best team, but they struggle on the road and don’t get Kentucky in Bud Walton Arena this year. LSU is talented, but they’re not trustworthy and their strength — the front line — will be overwhelmed by Kentucky’s bigs. South Carolina looked good against Iowa State, but their physical, tough style of play matches up with what Kentucky does best. And don’t forget about Florida, because …

source: Getty Images
Kasey Hill (Getty Images)

3. Kasey Hill and Chris Walker were not ready to replace Florida’s seniors: The key to the Gators being relevant this season was getting their two top ten recruits from the Class of 2013 to play like it. They haven’t. Kasey Hill’s certainly a talented playmaker, but he’s still not hitting perimeter jumpers consistently enough and is a long way away from being able to replace Scottie Wilbekin. Walker’s an athletic freak, but he doesn’t quite know how to take advantage of that athleticism. At 7-6 on the season, Florida is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament altogether.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Will Kentucky continue to embrace their limited minutes?: Right now, everyone on the Wildcats is fully bought-in on their team concept, the idea that playing nine guys for 20 minutes a night is how they’ll win games. That’s the key to everything that Kentucky does. That’s the reason that they have been so overwhelming on the defensive end. And it’s why this has been John Calipari’s best coaching job since he’s been with the Wildcats. But will it last? Will Andrew Harrison get affected by the notion that Tyler Ulis is a better point guard than him? Will Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson continue to be OK with seeing their minutes cut in close games?

2. How many teams will the SEC get into the Big Dance?: At this point, there really is only one team in the SEC that can provide the league with a quality win, and that’s if someone knocks off Kentucky. Maybe Arkansas joins that list if they can make a run early on in league play, but the bottom line is that there just aren’t that many quality wins available in SEC play. That’s a problem, because the SEC doesn’t have that many teams with strong resumes coming off of non-conference play. South Carolina put themselves in a good spot with their win over Iowa State, and LSU joins the Razorbacks as a team that can pass the eye-test on a good day, but that’s about it.

3. Who plays their way into early entry?: Bobby Portis seems to have done enough this season to ensure that he’ll have a high enough draft stock that the NBA will come calling in June, which means that this may be the best team Mike Anderson will have for a while. But the same cannot be said for LSU at this point. With a recruiting class that includes Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney coming in next season, the Tigers will have a chance to be very, very good — at least on paper — in 2015-2016 if Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin somehow wind up back in school.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Kentucky doesn’t take a loss in league play: The only thing standing between the Wildcats and an undefeated conference season is the failure to show up ready to play against a team they should beat. That’s how much more talented they are than the rest of the conference. The way they lose is by sleep-walking through, say, their trip to South Carolina or Florida. I’ll put my money on that not happening.

2. South Carolina ends the year No. 2 in the SEC standings: There’s just something about a team coached by Frank Martin. They exude toughness, and I know that sounds corny and cliche, but they do. And this year’s group actually has some real talent, particularly in their back court. Duane Notice, Sindarius Thornwell and Tyrone Johnson can matchup with anyone else in the conference, including the guys in Lexington.

3. The SEC is more likely to get three bids than five: The biggest reason that I have a hard time seeing the SEC put five teams in the NCAA tournament is that LSU and Arkansas have done an excellent job of developing a reputation for being untrustworthy in conference play. Arkansas never wins away from home, and LSU is always good for two or three head-scratching losses a season. One of those two teams will find a way to miss the Big Dance.

HOW THEY FINISH

NCAA: Kentucky, South Carolina, LSU, Arkansas

NIT/CBI: Alabama, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Florida, Georgia

NO POSTSEASON: Auburn, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, Tennessee

ACC Conference Catchup: Duke, Virginia and Louisville give the league star power

Leave a comment
source: Getty Images
Jahlil Okafor (Getty Images)

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the ACC.

MIDSEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jahlil Okafor, Duke

Okafor has been the best player in the country this season, so naming him the Player of the Year in the ACC shouldn’t come as any surprise. What Okafor does for Duke is hard to limit to just one paragraph. He’s a lethal scorer on the block if you try to guard him one-on-one but he’s also a talented enough passer that Duke can run their offense through him.

THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM

  • Jahlil Okafor, Duke
  • Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: Grant is second in the league in scoring (18.4 points) and leads the conference averaging 6.2 assists. His return is the biggest reason the Irish look like a top 25 team.
  • Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: Harrell is not only averaging 16.0 points and 9.3 boards for the Cardinals, but he’s also their emotional leader and defensive sparkplug.
  • Justin Anderson, Virginia: Anderson is the leading scorer for a top five team and an ACC contender, shooting 60.9 percent from three on the season while playing his typical brand of defense.
  • Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse: The fact that Christmas is one this list is the most surprising part of the ACC season. The senior center is averaging 17.3 points and 8.8 boards.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Duke is the ACC’s best, but Virginia’s not far behind: The Blue Devils are clearly the best team in the league — they’re the closest thing to Kentucky outside of Lexington — but the Cavaliers are going to give Duke a run for their money for the league title. Virginia doesn’t have the same kind of talent that the other ACC contenders have, but they are the most disciplined and detail-oriented defense in the country. There offense isn’t high-powered, but it is efficient and balanced. All Tony Bennett does is win.

2. North Carolina is a step below the top three: Entering the season, the ACC looked like it had a pretty clear-cut top four, but through the first month and a half of the year, it’s become pretty clear that the Tar Heels are a step below Duke, Virginia and Louisville. Part of the issue is that Marcus Paige hasn’t quite found a groove this season — he will eventually — but the other part is that North Carolina just doesn’t have the ideal personnel for Roy Williams’ system. They’re still good, but they’re closer to being a top 20 team than they are a real ACC title contender.

3. There’s a major drop off after the top five: Add Notre Dame into the mix with Duke, UVA, Louisville and UNC and the top five in the ACC are better than the top five in any league in the country. After that? It gets ugly, as there isn’t a single program that looks like a lock to make the NCAA tournament. The best of the bunch is probably Syracuse, and they are in a bit of a rebuilding year this season. Florida State and Pitt lost key players, N.C. State has underperformed, Miami has fallen off a cliff since they’re hot start.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Will Louisville find a third-scorer, and what happens with Chris Jones?: Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell is the best one-two punch in the conference, but the Cardinals have yet to find a consistent third-option offensively. Chris Jones wants to be that guy, but he hasn’t grasped the concept that he’s not Russ Smith yet. There’s an argument to be made that Jones has been to worst offensive player on any top 25 team this season. He was benched in Louisville’s last win and has caused chemistry issues all season long.

2. When will the real Marcus Paige show up?: Marcus Paige is currently averaging 13.6 points and 3.8 assists while shooting 34.4 percent from three. That’s not exactly bad, but when you consider that Paige was showing up on most preseason first-team all-american lists, those numbers are a bit underwhelming. Some of it is that he’s been playing out of position as a pure point guard, but some of it is that Paige is just missing shots he usually makes. The ceiling for this Carolina team changes if he plays like an all-american.

3. Can Syracuse play their way into the Big Dance?: There are all kinds of issues with this Orange team. For starters, they have just one point guard on the roster — freshman Kaleb Joseph — and he’s been up and down in that roll. Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough have been really good up front, but there is no depth behind them. Michael Gbinije has played great of late, but he and Trevor Cooney have had consistency issues throughout their careers. They’ve played much better in recent games, but the lack of a marquee non-conference win could end up being a killer.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Duke takes home the league title: They’re the best team in the conference, they have the best player in the country and they’re the most difficult team in the league to matchup with. The two keys for Duke: Quinn Cook continuing to embrace his role as the off-guard and Justise Winslow’s ability to matchup with power forwards on the defensive end of the floor.

2. Notre Dame’s defensive issues catchup with them: The Irish are one jumper from LaDontae Henton from being undefeated entering ACC play, and they’ve done it while posting the nation’s second-most efficient offense, according to Kenpom. But they are also atrocious on the defensive end of the floor, finding themselves ranked between Akron and New Hampshire at No. 147 nationally. Notre Dame will win their share of games this season, but they need to find a way to tighten things up on that end.

3. The ACC sends two teams to the Final Four: I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s hoping Duke makes it to the Final Four and gets a chance to square off against Kentucky, but if any conference is going to send two teams to the Final Four, the ACC is the safe bet.

HOW THEY FINISH

NCAA: Duke, Louisville, Virginia, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse

NIT/CBI: Pitt, N.C. State, Miami, Florida State, Boston College

NO POSTSEASON: Clemson, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech

American Midseason Catchup: Conference looks to rebound from underwhelming start

1 Comment
source: AP
UConn’s Ryan Boatright (AP Photo)

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the American.

MIDSEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ryan Boatright, UConn

Pretty easy choice at this point in the season. Boatright’s averaging 19.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, and he’s also shooting nearly six percentage points better from the field than he did a season ago (44.9% compared to 39.1%).

THE ALL-AAC FIRST TEAM:

  • Boatright
  • Nic Moore, SMU: Averaging 15.4 points and 4.7 assists per game, the junior point guard is shooting nearly 51 percent from the field.
  • Will Cummings, Temple: Cummings (14.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.9 apg) isn’t shooting the ball particularly well (32.9%), but he leads the Owls in scoring and assists, is second in rebounding and is the heart and soul of that team.
  • Jherrod Stiggers, Houston: Stiggers (17.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.6 apg) leads the American in scoring and made three-pointers (44).
  • Shaquille Harrison, Tulsa: While teammate James Woodard landed on the league’s preseason all-conference list, Harrison (14.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.8 apg) is second on the team in scoring and first in assists.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. UConn’s non-conference games at Florida (January 3) and Stanford (January 17) are of even greater importance due to their lack of a signature win. The Huskies did what they had to do from a scheduling standpoint, putting together one of the tougher non-conference slates around to account for the strength of their league. The problem: they lost the biggest games on said schedule, losing to West Virginia, Texas and Duke (with a last-second loss to Ivy contender Yale to boot). Getting a win at either Florida or Stanford (or better yet, both) will be key for UConn from an NCAA tournament seeding standpoint. And finally being at full strength should help the Huskies as well.

2. Those transfers are paying off for Temple. Fran Dunphy added three quality transfers to the program, with forward Jaylen Bond (Texas) eligible at the start of the season and guards Devin Coleman (Clemson) and Jesse Morgan (UMass) taking the court for the first time in mid-December. They’ve given the Owls much-needed depth, with Bond being one of the best rebounders in the American. Coleman’s been solid, and Morgan is averaging 16 points per game and became Temple’s best three-point shooter the moment he stepped onto the floor. Those two will make life easier for Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey moving forward.

3. As expected, the process of getting their backcourt in order has taken some time at Memphis. The Tigers lost four experienced guards from last season’s NCAA tournament team, so their struggles early in the season weren’t a surprise. But it doesn’t help when a transfer expected to have an impact in Kedren Johnson was essentially playing his way into shape, especially when considering the fact that he had more Division I experience than any guard on Josh Pastner’s roster. The Tigers have played better of late, winning four straight heading into the start of league play, but their best win in that stretch came against USC Upstate. JUCO transfer Trahson Burrell has improved throughout the season, but those guards will need to continue to make strides if Memphis is to contend in the American.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. SMU’s integration of Markus Kennedy into the rotation. Kennedy, who was academically ineligible for the fall semester, undoubtedly makes a difference in the paint for the Mustangs. And while his numbers haven’t approached what they were last season, his return is something opponents have to account for. Yanick Moreira benefits from Kennedy’s presence, as does the versatile Ben Moore. With Nic Moore and Keith Frazier among the contributors on the perimeter SMU has the talent needed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993. How formidable they are once there will depend upon the play of Kennedy.

2. Amida Brimah’s quest for consistency at UConn. One of the most stunning performances of the season was Brimah’s 40-point, 12-rebound outing in a win over a bad Coppin State team. How did he build on that outing? Zero points, one rebound, two blocks and five fouls in UConn’s loss to Duke in East Rutherford. Brimah’s shooting 71 percent from the field but the 4.4 rebounds per game are a bit underwhelming for a player his size. Sure UConn’s guards are going to handle the majority of their scoring, and Boatright and freshman Daniel Hamilton have been the team’s best rebounders. But if UConn is to win the American and make some noise in the NCAA tournament, Brimah has to be a consistent presence in the middle.

3. Who steps forward offensively for Cincinnati. The Bearcats are without head coach Mick Cronin for health reasons, so that issue is the most important one they face entering conference play (and more important than basketball; get well soon, Coach). But on the floor this is a group that needs someone (or better yet, multiple people) to step forward offensively for a team that doesn’t have a player averaging double figures. Guards Troy Caupain and Farad Cobb are the ones who have the ball in their hands in crunch time, and forward Octavius Ellis and Gary Clark Jr. are second and third on the team in scoring, respectively. Can any of those players emerge as a consistent double-digit scorer? The answer will be the difference between going back to the NCAA tournament and winding up in the NIT.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. The regular season title – and conference player of the year- will be determined March 1 at the XL Center in Hartford. SMU, which swept the season series last season, visits UConn on that day. The point guards on display, SMU’s Nic Moore and UConn’s Ryan Boatright, are two of the best in the country and the two best players in the American as well. Look for the winner of this game to win the conference, with its best player taking the American’s highest individual honor as well.

2. The American gets three NCAA tournament bids. While it can be argued that five teams enter conference play with a realistic shot of getting into the Big Dance, the underwhelming performance in non-conference play (things picked up late thanks to SMU’s win at Michigan and Temple blowing out Kansas) will be what hurts come Selection Sunday. Add in the fact that the teams in the bottom half of the American have suffered some bad losses, and it becomes tougher for the conference to earn respect in the room when the bracket gets filled out.

3. Once again there will be clear separation between the top and bottom of the conference. What killed the American in regards to both seeding and selection last season was how weak the bottom of the conference was, and that will once again be the case in 2014-15. USF has a ways to go under first-year head coach Orlando Antigua, and UCF is just as bad as they were last season (and Isaiah Sykes and Tristan Spurlock are gone, too). East Carolina doesn’t do much to move the needle, and the same can be said for a transfer-laden Houston squad that may be good for an upset or two in conference play. Can Tulsa and/or Tulane pick up the slack? If so, that would undoubtedly help the American as a whole, but Tulsa’s been inconsistent and Tulane’s best win to date came against Loyola (IL).

POSTSEASON

  • NCAA: UConn, SMU, Temple
  • NIT: Cincinnati, Memphis
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Tulsa, Tulane, Houston, East Carolina, UCF, USF

Conference Catchup: Revamped Big East looks for more postseason success

1 Comment
source: Getty Images
Getty Images

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Big East.

MIDSEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: D’Angelo Harrison, St. John’s

St. John’s finds themselves in the top 25 and at 11-1 on the season and Harrison, a senior guard, is a huge reason why. The Red Storm will start up to four seniors, but Harrison is the heart-and-soul of the team. The 6-foot-4 Texas native is second in the Big East in scoring (19 points per game), 10th in rebounding (6.5 per game) and sixth in free-throw percentage (83 percent) while shooting respectable percentages from the field (44 percent) and 3-point range (35 percent). Harrison has also been very consistent as a scorer. He’s been held to single digits just once this season and it was nine points in a blowout win over Long Beach State.

THE ALL-BIG EAST FIRST TEAM

  • D’Angelo Harrison, St. John’s
  • Kris Dunn, Providence: Great comeback season for the oft-injured sophomore as he’s averaging 13.3 points, a Big East-leading 7 assists, and 5.2 rebounds per game. Dunn also leads the conference in steals and is shooting 48 percent from the field. If Dunn limits turnovers in conference play, he’ll be even better.
  • Kellen Dunham, Butler: Butler is off to a surprising 10-3 start and the junior is averaging 16.6 points per game on tremendous shooting splits (45% FG, 45% 3PT, 88% FT). On a team desperately lacking floor spacers, Dunham has upped his efficiency numbers and scoring average despite playing four fewer minutes this season.
  • D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown: Field goal percentages have been underwhelming for the junior, but he’s averaging 14.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game and carrying the Hoyas in big games. The Indiana native had 29 points against both Wisconsin and Indiana.
  • LaDontae Henton, Providence: The senior forward came close to winning early Player of the Year honors from D’Angelo Harrison, but Henton hasn’t rebounded as effectively and the Red Storm have been a better overall team. Still, Henton is leading the Big East in scoring at 20 points per game to go along with 5.3 rebounds on 48 percent shooting. He’s been one of the best go-to scorers in the country.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Villanova, once again, is legitimate: People forget that the Wildcats were 29-4 and a No. 2 seed entering the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32 last season, when they ran into the buzz saw known as UConn. Villanova is once again off to a great start and 12-0 this season and they return everyone from last season except for James Bell. Dylan Ennis, Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins are all playing much better this season and this is an unselfish team that shoots 48 percent as a team and better from the perimeter this season. It’s hard to say if they’re Final Four good since they haven’t faced a superpower yet, but they’ve earned some good wins over VCU, Illinois, Syracuse, Temple and Michigan.

2. The Big East, top-to-bottom, is better than preseason expectations indicated: One of the early-season stories we’ve heard around college basketball is how the Big East is back this season. Besides DePaul and Marquette, eight of the teams in the league appear to be at least postseason teams in 2014-15 while the league looks like they’ll surpass last season’s four NCAA Tournament bids. While Villanova is strong once again, St. John’s is a legit top-25 team and teams 3-through-8 in the Big East is significantly improved. Seton Hall, Georgetown and Xavier have some talented freshmen who have played well this season, while Butler and Providence are relying on upperclassmen who have stepped up this season. Creighton was even a top-25 team at one point this season but has fallen back down to Earth at 9-4.

3. The Big East is still a power conference: Many wanted to dismiss the “new” Big East after one season and a mediocre showing, but the league has bounced back nicely this season with a lot of strong teams and higher expectations. The preseason talk that the Big East compared closer to the Atlantic 10 than the ACC, Big Ten and SEC was laughable. The Big East still maintains a national television contract, rising names in head coaching are still taking jobs for millions of dollars (Steve Wojciechowski to Marquette), and five-star recruits are still committing to the league for next season (Jalen Brunson to Villanova, Henry Ellenson to Marquette). The Big East might not be the new ACC — but what is? — and the AAC, Big Ten and SEC are all arguably having worse seasons in terms of top-to-bottom talent. The new Big East is going to be fine.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Does Villanova have what it takes to make a Final Four? The Big East didn’t have any of its four NCAA Tournament teams make the second weekend in 2014, but that should change in 2015. Villanova is even stronger and the rest of the upgraded conference should help them prepare for the tournament even more this season. With tremendous scoring balance and a team full of unselfish players, the Wildcats don’t need to rely on specific players to get by and earn wins. That makes them tough to gameplan for in a tournament setting. As long as they don’t run into the future national champion on the first weekend.

2. After St. John’s, which team emerges as the third threat in the Big East? Villanova and St. John’s, the two top-25 teams in Big East, appear to be the clear-cut favorites in the conference to be No. 1 and 2, but after that, how will the order fall? Seton Hall, Butler, Providence, Xavier, Georgetown and Creighton have all shown positive signs of life this season and it’s nearly impossible to say how those six teams will fair against each other during the Big East conference season. If those teams don’t beat each other up too badly and take care of business against Marquette and DePaul, they should make the postseason.

3. Does Seton Hall make its first NCAA Tournament since 2006 despite the injury to Isaiah Whitehead? One team that the college basketball world will have its eye on these next few weeks is Seton Hall. The Pirates are off to a 10-2 start this season but freshman guard Isaiah Whitehead is out for the next few weeks with a stress fracture in his foot. Without Whitehead, who started all 11 games he played this season, Seton Hall has to open the Big East season with two home games against Villanova and St. John’s. The Pirates really could have used Whitehead for an upset there to propel its early-season momentum, but now they’ll like start the conference season 0-2. How does Seton Hall respond from there and how will Whitehead look when he comes back?

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. The Big East bounces back with five NCAA Tournament bids: In the preseason, three teams seemed like a safe number for Big East NCAA Tournament bids in 2015, but I’m going to be aggressive and go with five bids. This conference is off to a great start this season and the top eight look like they’ll at least make the NIT. I expect a few of the young teams to falter, but Butler and Providence have enough veteran leadership and experience to keep them on-track and Georgetown has shown that they can play with good competition.

2. More experienced teams like St. John’s, Butler and Providence will finish behind Villanova: Seton Hall is going to struggle a bit after losing Isaiah Whitehead and it’s hard to say if Xavier can sustain its hot start with so many young pieces, but it’s easier to imagine St. John’s, Butler, Providence and Georgetown sustaining hot starts because of their veteran all-conference selections.

3. Seton Hall takes a hard fall down the standings

Without Isaiah Whitehead, the Pirates lose another shot creator and that could spell significant trouble for the Pirates. Seton Hall starts the conference season by hosting the two best teams in the league — Villanova and St. John’s — and they only own one legitimate win over George Washington. Sterling Gibbs has that 40-point outing against Illinois State but hasn’t scored above 19 the rest of the season and senior Brandon Mobley is also prone to inconsistent play. With a deeper Big East and an uncertain lineup without Whitehead, that could spell trouble.

HOW THEY FINISH

NCAA: Villanova, St. John’s, Butler, Providence, Georgetown

NIT: Xavier, Seton Hall, Creighton

NO POSTSEASON: Marquette, DePaul

Mountain West Midseason Catchup: No. 24 Colorado State leads what will be an entertaining race

Leave a comment
source:
J.J. Avila and the Rams are off to the best start in school history (Getty Images)

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Mountain West.

MIDSEASON MOUNTAIN WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: J.J. Avila, Colorado State

Avila (14.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.2 apg) currently leads CSU in points and rebounds and is second on the team in assists. He’s ranked in the top ten in the Mountain West in each of those categories while also shooting 54.8% from the field. There have been a lot of good performers in the conference thus far, but his all-around impact wins Avila this designation.

THE ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST FIRST TEAM

  • Avila
  • Derrick Marks, Boise State: Averaging 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, the senior guard is also shooting 52.3% from the field and 58.1% from beyond the arc.
  • Deshawn Delaney, New Mexico: Delaney (14.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg) ranks in the top ten in both scoring and rebounding, and he’s also shooting nearly 54 percent from the field.
  • Christian Wood, UNLV: Vaughn may be the team’s leading scorer, but Wood (14.6 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 3.2 bpg) is the lone player in the Mountain West averaging a double-double.
  • Larry Nance Jr., Wyoming: The preseason pick to win league POY is averaging 14.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent from the field.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Colorado State deserved more preseason respect than they received from many pundits. While some had a good idea of what Larry Eustachy’s transfer-laden group was capable of, they were picked to finish fifth in the preseason media poll (NBCSports.com picked them to finish second). Thus far it’s been thirteen up, thirteen down for the undefeated Rams who are off to the best start in school history. Seniors Daniel Bejarano and J.J. Avila have been good leaders for this group, and newcomers such as Gian Clavell, Stanton Kidd and John Gillon have contributed as well. The question now is whether or not this group can win the program’s first regular season conference title since 1990, and they’ve shown themselves capable of doing so in non-conference play.

2. San Diego State’s still searching for solutions offensively. While the focus of many has been the Aztecs’ struggles shooting the basketball, their issues on the offensive end of the floor begin with the caliber of shots they’re finding. Obviously accounting for the loss of Xavier Thames wasn’t going to be easy, but thus far the pick and roll game that was so successful last season hasn’t been as effective in 2014-15. What also hasn’t helped San Diego State are their health issues, with Dwayne Polee II now out of the lineup indefinitely and Aqeel Quinn, Matt Shrigley and Malik Pope all having missed time themselves (and Zylan Cheatham looking likely to redshirt). The good news for SDSU is that they still defend at a high level, and that will keep them in the Mountain West race.

3. Larry Nance Jr. is back to full strength for an entertaining Wyoming squad. Nance, who tore his ACL in mid-February, was the preseason pick to win Mountain West POY but there were questions as to whether or not he would hit the ground running for the Cowboys. Averaging 14.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game he’s been good and so have the Cowboys, who enter conference play with an 11-2 record. For too often people associate “entertaining” basketball with a high tempo, but Wyoming doesn’t run and with high-flyers Nance and Josh Adams they’re incredibly fun to watch. They’ve been more efficient on both ends of the floor than they were last season, and Wyoming also ranks fourth nationally in two-point field goal percentage (58.4%).

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. The growth of UNLV’s underclassmen. Freshman Rashad Vaughn and sophomore Christian Wood have played well for Dave Rice’s team, with Vaughn leading the Mountain West in scoring (18.1 ppg) and Wood (10.0) being the lone player in the league averaging double-digit rebounds per game. But they aren’t the only youngsters to keep an eye on in conference play, as freshmen Patrick McCaw and Jordan Cornish have also contributed. The growth of these players will determine just how well the Runnin’ Rebels finish in the Mountain West.

2. Anthony Drmic’s back and Derrick Marks’ production at Boise State. Drmic hasn’t played since Boise State’s win over Saint Mary’s on December 6 because of a back injury, but the Broncos are off to a 10-3 start thanks in large part to the play of Marks. Averaging 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, Marks is playing the most consistent (and efficient) basketball of his Boise State career. Both missed Boise State’s 48-45 loss to Loyola (IL) two days before Christmas, with Marks nursing a sprained ankle. When will Drmic return? And can he and Marks lead the way for a group expected to contend once back on the court?

UPDATE: Drmic will undergo season-ending surgery on his ankle according to Dave Southorn of the Idaho Statesman.

3. Will Cullen Neal be able to return for New Mexico? Neal suffered a badly sprained ankle during the Puerto Rico Tipoff in mid-November and hasn’t played since, with head coach Craig Neal (also his father for those who somehow didn’t know) stating that a medical redshirt was possible. Neal’s injury was one of many for the Lobos during non-conference play, but despite those personnel issues they went 8-4 thanks in large part to improved play on the defensive end. If Neal can’t return Hugh Greenwood, who was supposed to spend the majority of his time off the ball this season, runs the show and fellow senior Deshawn Delaney will need to continue to score as he has for most of non-conference play.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Colorado State will win the Mountain West. For as well as the Rams have played offensively, with the newcomers giving Avila and Bejarano the consistent help they didn’t have last season, there’s still room for growth defensively. Look for the Rams to get the job done and win their first regular season conference title in 25 years.

2. Utah State manages to finish .500 (or better) in league play. With Fresno State performing as they have (and Cezar Guerrero proving to be even more valuable than imagined in his absence), there’s room for a team picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference to make a run at a 9-9 (or better) league record. Give me the Aggies, with Jalen Moore (15.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg) being the Mountain West’s most improved player and freshman David Collette (58.8% FG) averaging 14.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.

3. The Mountain West gets three NCAA tournament bids. Colorado State and, offensive struggles aside, San Diego State should hear their names called Selection Sunday. But who else gets in? Boise State, UNLV and Wyoming will all look to strengthen their respective cases in the next two-plus months, and it may come down to which team performs best in the conference tournament in Las Vegas.

POSTSEASON

  • NCAA: Colorado State, San Diego State, Wyoming
  • NIT: UNLV, New Mexico
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Boise State, Utah State, Air Force, Fresno State, Nevada, San Jose State (Spartans are ineligible for postseason play)

Big Ten Midseason Catchup: There is Wisconsin, and then there is everyone else

2 Comments
source: AP
AP

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Big Ten.

MIDSEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

Frank the Tank keeps rolling in his senior season as the center is eighth in the league in scoring (16.5 points per game) and second in rebounding (7.9 rebounds per game). Even more importantly, though, is Kaminsky’s efficiency and improvement on the defensive end. Kaminsky has improved his field goal percentages to 53 percent shooting and 42 percent three-point shooting even though he’s taking more shots. The 7-footer also averages more blocks per game this season and has committed fewer fouls per game even though he’s seen an increase in his minutes. Kaminsky is the most complete big man in college basketball and a big reason why Wisconsin is once again a major threat to make a Final Four run.

THE ALL-BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
  • Rayvonte Rice, Illinois: Rice is tied for fourth in the league in scoring (17.7 points per game), 12th in rebounding (6.5 per game), sixth in steals (1.9 per game) and sixth in 3-point percentage (47 percent). He’s already hit a game-winner against Missouri this season.
  • D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State: The freshman is tied with Rice in scoring at 17.7 per game, but fourth in the league in assists (5.3 per game) — despite being the secondary ball handler to Shannon Scott — ninth in steals (1.8 per game) and seventh in 3-point percentage (46 percent). Cool, calm and collected for a freshman being asked to carry the primary scorer’s role.
  • D.J. Newbill, Penn State: The Big Ten’s leader in points (21.4 per game) and minutes (37.5 per game), Newbill has improved his shooting percentages in his senior season to respectable splits (47% FG, 39% 3PT, 78% FT) while leading the team to a 12-1 start. Also owns a buzzer-beater to win a game this season.
  • Melo Trimble, Maryland: Another freshman who has stepped in and played a huge role while shooting great percentages. The McDonald’s All-American is ninth in scoring (15.8 per game), 15th in assists (3.1 per game) and the best free-throw shooter in the conference at 90 percent. He’s also shot 49 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Wisconsin is worthy again of Final Four discussion: The Badgers didn’t shy away from legitimate competition before jumping into the Big Ten schedule, as they won the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis, played three true road games within its own state and hosted and lost to No. 2 Duke. We know what this team is capable of and it’s another run at a Final Four. By only losing Ben Brust, Wisconsin returns so much experience and this team plays so well together. They move the ball around the perimeter as well as any team in the country and can space at all five positions with legitimate perimeter threats. Bo Ryan’s team loves exploiting mismatches and inverting the floor.

2. The rest of the Big Ten is a question mark (and doesn’t appear very good): Outside of Wisconsin, there isn’t a team in the Big Ten that you can legitimately say would make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament if given the choice today. There probably will be a few when the tournament does commence, but none of these teams are a guarantee. Maryland is off to a great start but still young and unproven in the conference. Ohio State, Penn State and Minnesota have played cupcake schedules and beaten nobody good. Illinois and Iowa have no-showed at too many random times. Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska already own bad home losses to lower conference teams. The race for second place — and all other spots in the league — appears to be incredibly wide open.

3. The league’s guards are superior to the front courts: I was having this discussion with some colleagues the other day and we couldn’t think of many legitimate front courts in the Big Ten outside of Madison. Purdue has the tough-to-defend center combination of A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas, but Hammons is inconsistent. But outside of that, the league doesn’t have many good and deep front-court units. It’s a league dominated by guards and we’ve even seen three freshmen emerge as legitimate all-conference candidates in James Blackmon Jr., D’Angelo Russell and Melo Trimble. Great guard play also might be the biggest way any team can compete with Wisconsin this season, but good luck matching the Badgers up front.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

source: Getty Images
Melo Trimble (Getty Images)

1. Who is the second best team in the Big Ten?: If you had to make a pick today you might say Maryland because of its 12-1 start, even with injuries, but they’ve never played a Big Ten schedule before, so it’s definitely uncertain. Ohio State hasn’t beaten a legitimate team all year. Maybe one of the teams with early-season struggles like Michigan or Nebraska will turn things around during conference play? Who knows? It’s completely wide open and multiple teams own head-scratching losses.

2. How good is Penn State and Minnesota after easy non-conference schedules?: We’ve already read about the uncertainty of the Big Ten outside of Wisconsin. We also know that the Pac-12 outside of Arizona, the SEC outside of Kentucky and the entire AAC looks weaker this season. So there are potential tournament bids to be poached with high win totals and decent conference records if things go correctly for a few teams. That’s where Penn State and Minnesota become interesting. It’s hard to gauge whether either team is a credible Big Ten (or NCAA Tournament) threat, but they each have gaudy records to start the season. The Nittany Lions are 12-1 and D.J. Newbill is having a monster season while the Golden Gophers are quietly 11-2 and playing team-oriented ball. They lead the nation in assists per game (20.2) and have scored 84 or more points in seven straight games — all wins.

3. Will multiple freshmen make the All-Big Ten team?: It’s certainly looking possible. We’ve already talked about D’Angelo Russell and Melo Trimble as early-season all-league selections, but Indiana’s James Blackmon Jr. is actually the conference’s freshman leader in scoring at 17.9 per game. That’s good enough for third in the league and Indiana has a chance to make a run if Blackmon Jr. continues to play well.  These are three special underclass performers that are all stepping up in primary roles for NCAA Tournament contenders.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Wisconsin will win the league but won’t go unbeaten. And again make the Final Four: The Badgers look like the clear-cut favorite to win the Big Ten, but they’ll probably lose at some point during the conference schedule. Wisconsin will have an off-night and some team will get hot at home, especially as pressure might mount for the attention an unbeaten conference season. Closing with two consecutive road games at rival Minnesota and Ohio State might do the trick, if it isn’t done by then. As for the Final Four, this Wisconsin team is a matchup nightmare in a tournament setting because it’s hard to prepare for the Badgers’ ability to stretch the floor. Big Ten opponents who have seen Wisconsin multiple times might have better luck., but the Badgers should be able to get to Indianapolis this March.

2. Maryland will finish second in the Big Ten: There’s just something about the way this Maryland team has been playing. They play with confidence and have a lot of players who can score and they’ve played really well despite losing Dez Wells and Evan Smotrycz to injury at different points this season. When fully healthy, the Terrapins could be pretty deep, with plenty of shooting options. It also doesn’t hurt Maryland that much of the Big Ten has weak front courts as well to test their unproven interior.

3. The Big Ten will get seven teams in the NCAA Tournament: This is more of a testament to how weak the other conference landscapes are then the strength of the Big Ten. Still, half of the league’s membership making the Big Dance would be a solid year, it just doesn’t seem like any other team is a strong Final Four contender outside of Wisconsin. If the Big Ten teams outside the Badgers don’t beat up on each other too badly I can see seven teams safely making the field, with the potential of even more depending on how bad the AAC, SEC and PAC-12 continue to look.

HOW THEY FINISH

NCAA: Wisconsin, Maryland, Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Indiana

NIT: Penn State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Michigan, Purdue

NO POSTSEASON: Northwestern, Rutgers