After suffering their worst loss of the season last Tuesday, Colorado enters its two-game road swing through Arizona with a 9-6 overall record (2-1 Pac-12) in need of some positive momentum. Unfortunately for head coach Tad Boyle his team isn’t at full strength ahead of their game at No. 10 Arizona, with juniors Josh Scott (back spasms) and Xavier Johnson (right high ankle sprain) both dealing with health issues.
Scott (13.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.0 bpg) missed Colorado’s conference-opening games against UCLA and USC as a result of the back spasms and was a shell of himself in the Buffaloes’ 74-49 loss at No. 9 Utah last Tuesday, scoring three points and grabbing two rebounds in 28 minutes of action.
Without Scott and Johnson the Buffaloes won’t have much in the way of front court depth against the Wildcats, with second-leading rebounder Wesley Gordon remaining in his starting role and reserves such as Dustin Thomas and Tory Miller now needed to step forward.
Wednesday’s game against No. 9 Utah didn’t come at the best of times for the Colorado Buffaloes, who were looking to move to 3-0 in conference play after taking care of UCLA and USC last weekend. With junior forward Josh Scott missing those two games with back spasms and still at less than full strength, the Buffaloes arrived in Salt Lake City with one important health issue to address.
And early in their 74-49 loss to the Utes, Tad Boyle’s team lost a key piece as junior forward Xavier Johnson suffered a high ankle sprain. Johnson was attempting a layup, and the awkward plant resulted in the Mater Dei HS product injuring his right ankle. Johnson, who’s averaging 12.8 points and 5.4 rebounds on the season, left the game and did not return.
“He twisted his ankle pretty good, and it’s higher, it’s not in the joint it’s higher up,” Boyle said after the game. “High ankle sprains are pretty nasty and we’ll get a better feel for that as it progresses. They’re very painful and they take a little longer than just the normal ankle sprain.
“We have enough guys on this team to overcome but we would certainly like to get him back as soon as possible.”
If there’s a positive to be found in this situation it’s the schedule, with the Buffaloes not having another game until they visit No. 8 Arizona January 15. Will that be enough time for Johnson to heal and remain in the starting lineup? That remains to be seen, and after being outclassed by the Utes next Thursday’s game represents an important opportunity for a team that can use a quality win on its resume.
Prior to the start of conference play Colorado went through a stretch in which they lost four of six games, with the two wins coming at the expense of Northern Colorado and DePaul (which currently sits atop the Big East standings).
After hanging close to Colorado for the entire first half, Auburn was able to trim its deficit to four points (49-45) with 13:13 remaining in the game. Despite not having the services of guard Antoine Mason, who was held out due to an ankle injury suffered in the Tigers’ win over Milwaukee Friday night, Bruce Pearl’s squad was able to hang around thanks in large part to the play of guard K.T. Harrell (20 points) and power forward Cinmeon Bowers.
Unfortunately for Auburn the 13:13 mark was also when Tad Boyle’s Buffaloes began to improve their execution on both ends of the floor, with Colorado going on a 26-1 run that put the game well out of reach. Colorado would go on to win by the final score of 90-59, with their focus on getting the ball inside being the reason why.
Starters Josh Scott (17 points, nine rebounds), Xavier Johnson (17 points, five rebounds) and Wesley Gordon (16 points, 12 rebounds) led the way offensively for the Buffaloes, and after struggling to do so in the first half Colorado took advantage of its edges in both front court size and depth in the second half. Colorado finished the game with 42 points in the paint, with 24 of those coming in the game’s final 20 minutes.
What hurt Colorado in the first half was their “refusal” to consistently work the ball inside, and while they did manage to score 18 points in the paint and shoot 10-for-16 from two the eleven three-point attempts (making four) were too many considering the fact that Auburn didn’t have much bulk in the post outside of the undersized but tough Bowers (11 points, 13 rebounds).
In the second half Colorado attempted just three three-pointers (making one), and they shot 16-for-23 from inside of the arc. And points-wise, 41 of Colorado’s 52 second-half points were scored either in the paint (24) or from the foul line (17; 17-for-20 FT). The Buffaloes have both depth and skill in their front court, and when they work the ball inside consistently this is a tough team to defend.
Because not only can guys like Scott and Johnson convert those opportunities, with Gordon being very good as an offensive rebounder, but it also opens things up on the perimeter. Askia Booker scored all nine of his points in the second half (seven during the decisive run), and reserve guard Jaron Hopkins contributed on both ends of the floor against the Tigers. The addition of Dominique Collier, who sat out the first two games for disciplinary reasons, will help Colorado at the point guard position moving forward.
But regardless of who’s on the perimeter, Colorado will be at its best when there’s a concerted effort to get the ball inside. That occurred in the second half Tuesday morning, resulting in the Buffaloes pulling away from an undermanned (and ultimately overmatched) opponent.
We’ve already gone over the other positional rankings on CBT this week but now we get to the big men. You’ll see a lot of new faces on the list this year, because the incoming group of freshman has a lot of talented McDonald’s All-Americans playing in the post that should contribute right away. But there are plenty of experienced post cogs as well and some that are versatile inside-outside threats with the ability to stretch the floor.
1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke: It’s high praise for a true freshman to be ranked No. 1 on this list, but then again, Okafor isn’t your typical college freshman. Many viewed Okafor as the No. 1 player in the country in the 2014 class and the 6-foot-11 center is patient, skilled and comes from a winning pedigree. Okafor was a major factor for USA Basketball during his high school career and enters Duke as an instant double-team threat whenever he gets his mitts on a post touch. Coach K will ride his new center as far as he can take him.
2. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Now a senior, the 7-foot Kaminsky had a breakout junior season, averaging 13.9 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on 52 percent field-goal shooting, 76 percent free-throw shooting and 37 percent three-point shooting. A rare inside-outside offensive threat at center, Kaminsky can be a nightmare to defend because he can stretch the floor, is a patient passer and doesn’t force too many shots. If the Wisconsin big man has a weakness, it’s on the defensive end, where he’s an average rebounder and positional defender on his own.
3. Karl Towns, Jr., Kentucky: You’ll see plenty of Kentucky big men on this list — and quite fairly, as they’re all McDonald’s All-Americans with a lot of talent — but the 6-foot-11 freshman might be the most talented and productive of them all in 2014-15. Towns was a member of the Dominican Republic’s senior national team as a 16-year-old and has steadily improved his overall game ever since. During the Wildcats’ summer exhibition tour in the Bahamas, Towns, at times, looked like the team’s most talented overall player and he’s more offensively skilled than any other Kentucky center.
4. Georges Niang, Iowa State: Niang will be one of the most intriguing big men in the country this season thanks to his offseason weight loss and increased role. The 6-foot-8 junior averaged 16.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game last season, but when you consider he was often the Cyclones’ third offensive option, that’s impressive. Skilled enough to step out and hit the long ball, if Niang can improve his 32 percent three-point shooting, he could be virtually unstoppable on the offensive end thanks to his off-balance post looks and mid-range game.
5. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: Harrell was one of the top big men in the country last season as the powerful 6-foot-8 junior averaged 14 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1 steal per game for one of the best teams in the country. The high-motor Harrell never seems to take a play off and he’s relentless on the glass and around the rim when hunting for dunks. If Montrezl can improve his mid-range jumper — which looked shaky in August at adidas Nations — he could take another step forward this season.
6. Perry Ellis, Kansas: The 6-foot-8 junior had a breakthrough sophomore season, as the Kansas native averaged 13.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game on 54 percent shooting. Skilled enough to hit jumpers, but tough enough to play on the interior, Ellis shot a respectable 76 percent from the free-throw line and even made 8 of 17 three-pointers last season to help keep the defense honest. Ellis also thrives on doing the little things like setting off-ball screens and sealing opposing defenses so his wings have a free lane to the hoop.
7. Cliff Alexander, Kansas: Alexander comes into his freshman season with a big reputation thanks to his bruising 6-foot-8 frame and a dunk-at-all-costs attitude. Seriously, this dude lives to dunk on people and we’ll probably see Big Cliff deliver some posters throughout the college basketball season. Besides his affinity for dunks, Alexander is a tremendous rebounder and is more skilled with the ball in his hands than people give him credit for. His jumper takes a little bit too long to get out of his hands right now, but it’s workable with the increased reps and practice time Alexander is sure to get in Lawrence.
8. Brandon Ashley, Arizona: After Ashley broke his foot in February of last season, Arizona went from a national championship contender to falling just short of the Final Four. The 6-foot-9 Ashley can do it all for the Wildcats as he averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the field, 75 percent from three-point range and 37 percent from the three-point line. With Ashley back in the lineup, Sean Miller’s offense can spread the floor or attack on the interior by using Ashley in whichever way creates a mismatch.
9. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: It’s really a shame that Cauley-Stein injured his ankle in the Sweet 16 win against Louisville, because it caused the 7-footer to miss the rest of the tournament. But if you’re looking for positives, that injury likely kept the 7-foot junior in school and he returns to Kentucky as one of the best defensive big men in the nation. Cauley-Stein averaged 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game as a sophomore and passed up a guaranteed first-round spot in the NBA Draft to return to Lexington.
10. Trey Lyles, Kentucky: The 6-foot-10 freshman was also a McDonald’s All-American and gives Kentucky a versatile and skilled offensive player. The Indianapolis native can face-up and make plays or score on the block using hooks or short jumpers. Lyles should also be able to rebound well for Kentucky and he’s not afraid to mix it up a bit down low.
THE NEXT TEN
11. Jordan Mickey, LSU: Overlooked by recruiting analysts, the 6-foot-8 Mickey put up great numbers during his freshman season, averaging 12.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game.
12. Jonathan Holmes, Texas: The 6-foot-8 senior increased his shooting percentages (50% FG, 74% FT, 33% 3PT) and his averages (12.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg) across the board in helping Texas get back to the NCAA Tournament last season.
13. Myles Turner, Texas: Another McDonald’s All-American, the 6-foot-11 freshman gives Rick Barnes another shot blocker on the interior, but Turner also has a smooth perimeter stroke.
14. Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara: The pride of the Big West, the 6-foot-8 Williams averaged 21.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game during his junior season.
15. Bobby Portis, Arkansas: An impressive freshman season has NBA people talking highly of the 6-foot-11 sophomore. Portis put up 12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1 steal per game last season.
16. Dakari Johnson, Kentucky: The 7-foot sophomore was the starting center on a team that played in the national championship game and is now considered the fourth best big man on the roster. Johnson did lose 20 pounds this offseason and additional mobility should make him that much better.
17. Josh Scott, Colorado: The 6-foot-10 junior has had two productive seasons for Colorado and averaged 14.1 points, 8.4 rebounds per game last season on 51 percent shooting and 81 percent free-throw shooting.
18. Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina: Incredibly productive in limited minutes as a freshman (7.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg in 16.3 mpg), expectations are high for the 6-foot-9 big man after his offseason weight loss. And keep an eye on Meeks this season as a skilled outlet passer for North Carolina’s transition breaks.
19. Shawn Long, Louisiana-Lafayette: The 6-foot-9 junior has averaged a double-double in each of his first two seasons and averaged 18.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game last season 52 percent field-goal shooting and 42 percent three-point shooting.
20. Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: Much like Meeks, Hayes was very productive in limited minutes last season and should see his role increase this season in Madison. The 6-foot-7 sophomore averaged 7.7 points and 2.8 rebounds per game in 17.4 minutes a game last season.
ALSO CONSIDERED: A.J. Hammons (Purdue), Markus Kennedy (SMU), Justin Sears (Yale), JayVaughn Pinkston (Villanova), Jarell Martin (LSU), Kevon Looney (UCLA), Chris Walker (Florida), Kaleb Tarczewski (Arizona)
Last Season: 23-12, 10-8 Pac-12 (t-3rd), lost in the Round of 64
Key Losses: Spencer Dinwiddie
Key Returnees: Josh Scott (14.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Askia Booker (13.7 ppg, 3.3 apg), Xavier Johnson (12.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Wesley Gordon (5.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Dominique Collier, Tory Miller
Outlook: Colorado had won their first three Pac-12 games and were sitting at 14-2, ranked 15th in the country, when Spencer Dinwiddie tore his ACL last season. They finished the year losing 10 of their final 19 games, losing in the opening round of the NCAA tournament before watching Dinwiddie head off to the NBA. The trio of Josh Scott, Xavier Johnson and Wesley Gordon will give Tad Boyle one of the best front courts out west, but finding a way to fill Dinwiddie’s void will be key. Askia Booker is back and Boyle brings in top 100 recruit Dominique Collier to handle ball handling duties, but the key in the back court may end up being the development of Xavier Talton (who grew three inches this summer), who played well down the stretch last season, and whether Jaron Hopkins or Tre-Shaun Fletcher make the leap as sophomore.
Last Season: 26-11, 10-6 Atlantic 10 (t-5th), lost in the Elite 8
Key Losses: Devin Oliver, Vee Sanford, Khari Price
Key Returnees: Dyshawn Pierre (11.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 40.9% 3PT), Jordan Sibert (12.2 ppg, 42.6% 3PT)
Key Newcomers: Ryan Bass (transfer), Darrell Davis, Detwon Rogers
Outlook: Dayton was as good as any team in the country in February and March of last season, going 9-1 to close out the Atlantic 10 season before making a run to the Elite 8. Losing Devin Oliver will hurt, putting pressure on Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre to take on a bigger role offensively. The combination of Oakland transfer Ryan Bass and sophomore Scoochie Smith will be counted on to take over ballhandling duties. Dayton should compete for top four in the A-10.
Georgia State Panthers
Last Season: 25-9, 17-1 Sun Belt (1st), lost in the first round of the NIT
Key Newcomers: Kevin Ware (transfer), Jalen Brown, Jordan Session, Jeff Thomas, Carter Cagle
Outlook: Ron Hunter will have himself one of the most talented back courts in the country. Former Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow finally found himself last season and Hunter will hope that he can work the same magic with former Louisville guard Kevin Ware. And here’s the scary part: sharpshooter R.J. Hunter is the best player of the three. The Panthers should roll through the Sun Belt again, and should be a trendy cinderella pick if they reach the NCAA tournament. They lost in the Sun Belt title game last season.
Kansas State Wildcats
Last Season: 20-13, 10-8 Big 12 (5th), lost in the Round of 64
Key Losses: Will Spradling, Shane Southwell
Key Returnees: Marcus Foster, Wesley Iwundu, Thomas Gipson
Key Newcomers: Justin Edwards (transfer), Brandon Bolden (transfer), Stephen Hurt, Malek Harris, Tre Harris
Outlook: Kansas State has a chance to be really good this season. Sophomore Marcus Foster has a shot to end up as the best shooting guard in the country this season, while Wesley Iwundu will be a trendy breakout candidate this year. Justin Edwards was a very productive player in his two seasons at Maine and will compete with Malek Harris for minutes on the wing. Stephen Hurt and Brandon Bolden will help add height inside to the muscle-bound duo of Thomas Gipson and D.J. Johnson. The biggest question mark is at the point. Can Jevon Thomas or Nigel Johnson embrace the role?
Last Season: 24-10, 12-6 American (t-3rd), lost in the Round of 32
Key Losses: Joe Jackson, Michael Dixon, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford
Key Returnees: Austin Nichols (9.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg), Shaq Goodwin (11.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Nick King (4.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Kedren Johnson (transfer), Calvin Godfrey (transfer), Dominic Magee, Trahson Burrell, Chris Hawkins, Avery Woodson
Outlook: Last season, Josh Pastner’s team was built around a talented, veteran perimeter attack. This season, all four of those guards are gone, meaning the strength of the Tigers will be their young, talented front line of Austin Nichols, Shaq Goodwin and Nick King. The perimeter is a massive question mark, however. Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson, who sat out the 2013-2014 season, is the only guard on the roster that has played Division I basketball, and it’s still unclear whether he is going to be cleared to play this season. Pookie Powell, Dominic Magee and Markel Crawford, who is coming off of an injury, are expected to see big minutes at the guard spot.
Last Season: 19-13, 11-7 Big Ten (3rd), lost in the Round of 64
Key Newcomers: Jacob Hammond, Tarin Smith, Moses Abraham (transfer)
Outlook: The Huskers were one of the most surprising teams in the country last season, coming out of nowhere to finish fourth in the Big Ten. They return three of their top four scorers — leading scorer Terran Petteway, wing Shavon Shields and stretch four Walter Pitchford — and also get back Tai Webster, a talented guard who played for New Zealand in the FIBA Basketball World Cup. They won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year, but good luck trying to get a win at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Last Season: 25-10, 10-8 Big Ten (5th), lost in the Round of 64
Key Losses: Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Key Returnees: Sam Thompson (7.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg), Shannon Scott (7.5 ppg, 3.4 apg, 2.0 spg), Amir Williams (7.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Anthony Lee (transfer), D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop, Jae’Sean Tate, David Bell, Kam Williams (redshirt)
Outlook: Ohio State is going to be very young as they kick off the post-Aaron Craft era, but there is talent on their roster. Shannon Scott will not replace the intangibles that Craft brought to the floor, but he should be able to replace his ability to be a lock down defender at the point. The addition of Anthony Lee up front will bolster a front line that will include Amir Williams and Marc Loving, who should be in line for a big jump in production, while Sam Thompson will once again provide aerial acrobatics and stalwart perimeter defense. The x-factor is going to be D’Angelo Russell. He’s got a reputation for being a big-time scorer on a team that will be lacking offensive firepower, but it’s not easy being a freshman scorer in a league as good as the Big Ten.
Last Season: 26-10, 11-7 ACC (5th), lost in the Round of 32
Key Newcomers: Sheldon Jeter, Cameron Johnson, Tyrone Haughton, Ryan Luther
Outlook: The Panthers will lose their two best players from last season in Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, but if there is anything that we’ve learned about Jamie Dixon’s team, it’s that they are always ready to call the next man up. With Cameron Wright out for ten weeks with a broken foot Durand Johnson (who’s returning from a torn ACL) will have to carry the offensive load, while James Robinson and rising sophomore Josh Newkirk will give Dixon a solid back court attack. The question mark is going to be in the front court. Michael Young had some promising moments as a freshman and Vanderbilt transfer Sheldon Jeter will be eligible this season. One of the trio of Joseph Uchebo, Tyrone Haughton, and Ryan Luther should be able to be effective in the ACC.
Last Season: 26-5, 14-4 ACC (2nd), lost in the Round of 32
Outlook: For the third straight year, Syracuse will enter the season with just one point guard on the roster, and for the second straight season, that point guard will be a freshman that is getting thrown directly into the fire. Will Kaleb Joseph follow in the footsteps of Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Ennis? That remains to be seen, but what we do know is that he won’t have nearly the experience around him. Trevor Cooney, an inconsistent three-point marksman, is the only one of Jim Boeheim’s four leading scorers from last season that returns, and Rakeem Christmas and Dajuan Coleman won’t exactly provide a pressure release inside. Chris McCullough is a five-star prospect, but he’s more athlete than basketball player at this point. Syracuse is going to need Michael Gbinije, Ron Patterson, B.J. Johnson and Tyler Roberson to make significant improvements if they are going to contend in the ACC this year.
Last Season: 21-12, 9-9 Pac-12 (8th), lost in the NIT 1st round
Key Newcomers: Brekkott Champman, Isaiah Wright, Chris Reyes, Kyle Kuzma
Outlook: I’m quite bullish on the Utes this season. In fact, I think there’s an outside chance that they end up being the second best team in the Pac-12 this season. For starters, the Utes lost so many close games last season thanks to dreadful late-game execution, and that can only get better this year as they essentially return everyone from last season, including one of the nation’s most under-appreciated stars in do-it-all guard Delon Wright. Forward Jordan Loveridge and point guard Brandon Taylor are back as well, and Larry Krystkowiak also adds a pair of talented freshman forwards in Brekkott Chapman and Kyle Kuzma, the latter of which redshirted in Salt Lake City last season. Winning is a skill and I don’t think it was a fluke that Utah consistently lost close games, but if they improve the way I think they can this year, they may not be involved in as many close games.