Newsflash: There's a freshman guard out there who is putting up huge numbers for a top-five team. He has a great chance to lead his school, which is steeped in basketball tradition, to a national championship before becoming a lottery pick next spring.
And his name isn't John Wall.
True college hoops fans know all about Xavier Henry, the 6-foot-6 freshman at top-ranked Kansas who is averaging 18 points and 4.1 rebounds per game while posting stratospheric shooting percentages: 55.6 percent from the floor, 53.3 percent from three-point range, 82.4 percent from the foul line. Alas, the sports mediasphere only contains so much oxygen, and right now Wall is sucking all of it up in Lexington. While the world was still going gaga over his scintillating 25-point, six-steal performance in Kentucky's win over UConn last Wednesday, Henry, a native of Oklahoma City, was quietly hanging a season-high 31 points on LaSalle (shooting 10-for-15) while enabling KU to coast to a 25-point win.
Henry and Wall are great players with differing styles. If Wall is a souped-up Ferrari who dashes from baseline to baseline in a blur, Henry is the sleek Cadillac with jazz blaring from the speakers, elegantly and efficiently slashing from the wing. He is a big, powerful, athletic lefty, and unlike Wall he has the luxury of playing with experienced teammates like senior point guard Sherron Collins and junior center Cole Aldrich. Henry has not played as many games on a big stage against top competition as Wall, but that will change soon enough.
Henry is the first to recognize that Wall has earned every bit of his publicity, but he will not concede that Wall is the better player. Henry also confesses that Wall's hot start has provided him with extra incentive. "It does kind of motivate me that he plays like that and gets all this attention, so if I play just as well then I should get the same," Henry told me in a telephone interview. "Just don't sleep on me. That's all I've got to say."
Nobody would call Henry a sleeper; Rivals.com ranked him No. 8 in the Class of 2009 and Scout.com had him 7th. But his seamless transition to the college game has surprised even his coach, Bill Self. "He's better than I thought," Self said. "The dude can get the ball in the basket. He scored a lot in high school and AAU ball, but he was a volume shooter. Now he's taking great shots, and he's really conscientious about doing everything the way we want it done."
Henry has what is often referred to as the "full package." He's a mega talent who's also a top-flight student. (He graduated high school with a 3.5 GPA and will finish his first semester with all A's and B's.) He's also a charming, unfailingly polite young man. Even so, Henry caused some consternation in Lawrence last summer when, instead of enrolling in summer school and bonding with his future teammates, he stayed home in Oklahoma City and worked out privately with his older brother, C.J., who is also a member of the Jayhawks. It didn't help matters when Henry's father, Carl, popped off to a local paper with boasts that Xavier would turn pro after his freshman year.
Xavier told me he stayed home in Oklahoma City largely because he had to undergo massive dental work. His orthodontist removed his braces, gave him four root canals and pulled four wisdom teeth. Even so, Self thought Henry should have been in Lawrence and was concerned with how his absence would be received by Kansas's returning players. "He did have some mouth issues, yet with that being said he could have been here, and I told him I was disappointed he wasn't," Self said. "I talked to our guys about it, and they all said it's all right, he seems like a great kid. They also said they couldn't wait for him to get here so they could guard him in pickup games."
If Henry proved to be unguardable, at least he has also been likable -- so much so that Self has had to caution him against being too deferential to his older teammates. Furthermore, Henry is that rare player whose book smarts translate to a high basketball I.Q. His high field goal percentages are as much a reflection of intelligent shot selection as they are his shooting ability. "He has been like a sponge," Self said. "You don't have to repeat things with him all the time. Once he gets it, it's done, and for the most part he gets it pretty quick."
Henry attributes his early success to his ability to process the reams of information being thrown at him. "I can memorize things real quickly," he said. "From a mental standpoint, nothing really comes hard for me."
As for his doppelgänger in Lexington, Henry told me that while he and Wall became friendly while playing on the AAU and high school all-star circuit, they haven't spoken in several months. (Here's a scary thought: For a time, it looked like they might play together in college. Henry signed a letter of intent to play at Memphis, but the school released him when John Calipari left for Kentucky. Wall had strongly considered playing for Memphis before deciding to follow Calipari to UK.) Henry is no overt publicity seeker, but he knows if he is going to overtake Wall in the public's imagination, he is going to have to do it face-to-face. "I just want to play him at least one time this year," Henry said.
Since their teams are not scheduled to play each other this season, that meeting would probably have to take place at the Final Four in Indianapolis. When I pointed that out to Henry, he let out a chuckle. "That would be nice," he said. "That would be a real good game."
• Georgetown sophomore center Greg Monroe has had his share of doubters since he was in high school, but I have never been one of them. He had 24 points and 15 boards against Butler, and all I heard (especially from my friends at draftexpress.com) were questions about why he doesn't do that every game. People always seem to want more from Monroe, but he is what he is. He will never be a high-motor guy. At the end of the day, he is a probable lottery pick who will have a long and lucrative NBA career. If that's a disappointment, a lot of players would be happy with that tag.
• I know a lot of Purdue fans are counting down the days until sophomore point guard Lewis Jackson returns from foot surgery, but coach Matt Painter told me this weekend that it's still possible Jackson could be done for the season. Jackson is due to be reexamined by his doctor next week, so we should know more then, but it's not overstating things that Purdue's Final Four prospects could hang in the balance.
• I spoke with Jim Calhoun after UConn's loss to Kentucky about Ater Majok, the 6-11 freshman who will become eligible for the Huskies' game against Central Florida on Dec. 20. Sounds like Majok will definitely help but he is not a savior. He'll bolster UConn's frontline defense and allow Stanley Robinson to play small forward, but there are only so many minutes to be had, especially with Gavin Edwards playing so well.
• When teams are down by three or four points with under 30 seconds to play, I think they go for the three-pointer way too often. Even when there are only 10 to 15 seconds left, I think it's better to drive to the rim for the quick two points (and quickly foul on the ensuing possession) because defenses will usually let you do that, as they don't want to give up the three. It's just a smarter way to stretch the game.
• Wall may hold the keys to Kentucky's offense, but Patrick Patterson is the engine. When the Cats are running their half-court offense, Patterson needs to spend more time playing in the post with his back to the basket and less time facing up from 18 feet.
• The thing I love about Tom Crean's rebuilding job at Indiana is that he is being patient (and the school is letting him be patient) so he can do it the right way. No quick fixes, no cutting corners, no mass influx of juco transfers with sketchy backgrounds. Crean got rid of a lot of deadweight when he first got to Bloomington, which set the timetable back even further. Hoosier fans need to realize it will be at least another two or three years before this is one of the elite programs in America, but by bringing in talented youngsters like freshman guard Maurice Creek, who had a career-high 30 points in Saturday's loss to Kentucky and looks like a four-year player, Crean is laying a foundation for long-term success. These things take time, but if they're done right it's worth the wait.
• Syracuse's Andy Rautins is second in the nation in steals with a 3.75 game. Just so you know.
• When is the last time a player from a major conference finished the season as a single-digit free throw shooter? Through 10 games, Michigan State freshman forward Derrick Nix is 2 for 23 from the line. That's 8.7 percent.
• I've said it before and I'll say it lots more: No guard in the country is better at getting to the foul line than Villanova's Scottie Reynolds. He took a season-high 14 foul shots (making 12) in Nova's win over Saint Joseph's last Wednesday. That's five more free throws than Dan Werner, who starts at forward for Florida, has taken all season.
• Having said that (thank you, Larry David), if I had asked you before the Temple-Villanova game Sunday night who was going to be the best guard on the floor, I'm guessing you would not have answered Juan Fernandez. The Owls' 6-4 sophomore was terrific, finishing with a career-high 33 points on 7-for-9 shooting from three-point range. I could see the Atlantic 10 getting four teams into the NCAA tournament: Dayton, Xavier, Temple and Richmond.
• Lance Stephenson's crossover is so good, it hurts my ankles just to watch it.
• Memphis guard Elliott Williams has been remarkably consistent this season. In all eight of the Tigers' games, he has scored between 19 and 23 points. I still say Williams, and not Tulsa's Jerome Jordan, will be Conference USA's POY.
• Brendan F. Quinn reported in Basketball Times Online this week that Herb Sendek, who is all of 46 years old, has more former assistants working as Division I head coaches than anyone else in college hoops. Who'da thunk it?
• I hope you all are not sleeping on Omar Samhan. The 6-11 senior center is averaging 19.9 points, 11.9 rebounds and one block for Saint Mary's, which won at Oregon on Saturday to improve to 7-1. Samhan has had five games where he grabbed 15 or more boards.
• It's odd that Butler sophomore center Matt Howard has fouled out in six of the Bulldogs' first 10 games when he was DQ'd just three times all of last season.
• One more tidbit on Kansas: Cole Aldrich has not been scoring much (he's averaging 12 points a game, down from 14.9 last year), but Self told me that should change once junior guard Brady Morningstar returns this week from suspension following his drunk driving arrest. "Brady's a ball mover. He can really feed the post," Self said. "Watch Cole's points go up when he comes back."
• Xavier guard Jordan Crawford is one of those players who will shoot his team in and out of a lot of games. It took him 16 shots to score 16 points in the Musketeers' double-overtime win over Cincy Sunday night. He has also attempted 15 more three-pointers than foul shots this season.
• Roy Williams will never be confused for a Zen master, but even by his standards it was rather extreme to ask security to remove a Presbyterian fan from the Dean Dome Saturday night just because the guy shouted "Deon, don't miss it!" as Deon Thompson was attempting a free throw. The real question is, why does a coach even have the authority even to remove a fan in the first place?
• Quincy Pondexter is having a solid year for Washington, and it's great that he brings a lot of energy and confidence to a game. But he also woofs too much and pounds his chest for making pedestrian plays. Considering the Huskies have lost the only two tough games on their schedule (at Texas Tech and vs. Georgetown in Anaheim), perhaps Mr. Pondexter should let his actions speak for themselves for the foreseeable future.
• John Wall's success masks the fact that overall, this is a pretty mediocre freshman class. You get past Wall, Henry, Stephenson, Derrick Favors, Kenny Boynton, Elias Harris (who is not your typical freshman at 20 years old) and the guys at Texas, and the pickings are pretty slim.
• The problem the teams in the Pac-10 are going to have is that they won't be able to improve their RPI rankings after league play begins because of their poor showings in nonconference games. The over/under for NCAA bids from this league is two.
• I'm a little perplexed that Michigan senior forward DeShawn Sims seems to have regressed from last season. His scoring average is down slightly to 14.6 points per game from 15.4 as a junior, but his field goal percentage has plummeted from 50.5 to 42.9 percent. John Beilein's offense is predicated on making three-pointers while giving up rebounds, but that is a hard formula for success on the road. Hence Michigan's 16-point loss at Utah, when they shot 7-for-22 from behind the arc and got outrebounded by 13.
• Derrick Caracter had two points and three fouls in 12 minutes in his season debut during UTEP's loss at home to New Mexico State Sunday night. There are some people who have high expectations for Caracter, but I'm not one of them. I still remember interviewing him for the first time the summer before his freshman year of high school. When I asked Caracter if he wanted to play in the NBA, he told me he did not. He wanted to be a veterinarian.
(Last week's ranking on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kansas (1)2. Texas (2)3. Kentucky (4)4. Purdue (5)5. West Virginia (6)6. Syracuse (7)7. Villanova (3)8. Tennessee (8)9. Duke (9)10. Connecticut (10)11. North Carolina (11)12. Michigan State (12)13. Florida (14)14. Georgetown (23)15. Gonzaga (15)16. Kansas State (17)17. Ole Miss (16)18. Dayton (18)19. Temple (NR)20. Georgia Tech (19)21. Minnesota (21)22. New Mexico (NR)23. Texas A&M (20)24. Cincinnati (25)25. Butler (NR)
Dropped from my ballot: Ohio State (13), UNLV (22), Wisconsin (24).
Skinny: I am expecting that one of the big stories to come out of this week's poll is the entrance of Kansas State into the rankings following the Wildcats' 15-point-and-it-wasn't-that-close win at UNLV Saturday night. But regular readers of my columns and followers of my Tweets know that I have been on the K-State bandwagon for weeks now. I voted them 17th last week so I pretty much left them where they were. My lofty assessment of K-State also explains why I have Ole Miss ranked so high, since the Rebels handed the Wildcats their only loss last month in Puerto Rico.
The highly subjective nature of poll rankings means that you have to be inconsistent almost by definition. I try to give heavy consideration to head-to-head results, especially on neutral courts. That's why I have kept Minnesota ahead of Butler, who the Gophers beat by nine points in Anaheim. Yet, I have left Michigan State one spot ahead of Florida, even though the Gators beat the Spartans in Atlantic City. Why? Probably because I was at the game, saw Michigan State commit 22 turnovers and only lose by three, and I still feel they are the better team. That's my prerogative as a voter. If you don't like it, you'll need to get your own ballot.
I do not like to punish teams too badly for road losses to quality opponents. That's why I only dropped Villanova four spots after losing at Temple, and it's why Cincinnati moved up to No. 24 (by attrition) despite falling in double overtime at Xavier. The exception here is Ohio State. Yes, the Buckeyes lost a true road game at Butler, but without Evan Turner I just do not think this is a top-25 team. I'll be happy to put them back on my ballot when and if they prove me wrong.
Incidentally, not only did Temple beat Villanova, but the Owls only lost to Georgetown by one point, and they also handed a pretty good Virginia Tech team its only loss. Hence their introduction to my ballot at No. 19. In hindsight, I punished Georgetown too much for only beating Temple by one point. After a terrific week in which they throttled Butler and Washington, the Hoyas are back to their rightful status.
As for my also-rans, I am not quite ready to bite on Texas Tech, despite its undefeated record. The Red Raiders have played a very weak schedule outside its win at home over a Washington team which I am also not ranking. (That's zero Pac-10 teams on my ballot if you're scoring at home.) I know 8-2 Clemson is getting some love from my fellow voters, but the Tigers' best win of the season is a one-point victory over Butler, and I cannot shake the image of this team blowing a 23-point lead to Illinois at home.