Doug McDermott leads undervalued seniors; more Hoop Thoughts

Monday December 23rd, 2013

Senior Doug McDermott is having yet another magnificent season leading Creighton.
Eric Francis/Getty Images

I get it. Really, I do.

It's human nature to get excited about what's next. We treasure our first glimpses of young, transcendent athletes, just as we get a thrill discovering a new band or an up-and-coming movie star. I also understand that some of the people who tune into college basketball are NBA fans looking for a sneak peek at next year's crop of newcomers. The NBA draft is a veritable industry in itself, and college basketball is its primary feeder system.

And yes, I readily concede that we at Sports Illustrated have contributed to (and benefited from) this zeitgeist. Within a 17-month span, we put two players on our magazine cover that had yet to play a college game. On this website, like all the others that cover sports, you will find mock drafts and loads of analysis breaking down the pro prospects of just about every player in a college uniform.

But I am also here to say: Enough. It's time for the pendulum to swing back. Remember that old Saturday Night Live skit where Faux Jan Brady complains that all she hears about is "Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!" That's how I feel about the coverage of college basketball right now. Everything is "Freshmen! Freshmen! Freshmen!"

Every game broadcast includes a graphic listing their names and stats. Every website and highlight show features a "Freshman Watch." Even beyond the freshmen, we are obsessed with everyone's pro prospects. Their "draft stock" is charted not just week to week, but game to game, maybe even half to half. Every article, podcast and tweet seems to weigh in on the players' pro potential. How about we discuss their college potential first?

By promulgating this dialogue, I honestly believe those of us who cover the sport are doing a great disservice to hard-core college basketball fans, who still make up the vast majority of our readership, viewership and listeners. I don't believe real college basketball fans care all that much whether Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randle will be the number one pick in next year's NBA draft. I believe they're more curious as to whether they will lead Duke, Kansas and Kentucky to the Final Four. The NCAA tournament is at least as popular as the NBA Finals, probably even more so.

And so, as a service to my fellow Hoop Thinkers, I hereby introduce the Hoop Thoughts Senior Watch. I will update these rankings every Monday from now until the end of the season. This is not just a sentimental journey. If it's one thing we've learned in the first two months of this season, it's that seniority still matters. Yes, we have some exciting young stars in our game, but the more experienced teams have been playing better ball, and I expect that will continue over the next three-and-a-half months.

Here, then, is my first lineup of college basketball's senior citizens -- not based on their pro potential, but their current abilities. If you want to read about who's got next, read it elsewhere. I prefer to talk about who's got now.

Hoop Thoughts Senior Watch

1. Doug McDermott, 6-8 forward, Creighton

Last week: 25 points (13-13 FT), 9 rebounds vs Arkansas-Pine Bluff; 20 points, 11 rebounds vs. Cal

The Dougie's three-point shooting is a little down from last season (44.1 percent compared to 49 as a junior), but he is still the most lethal offensive player in the country. Because his supporting cast isn't quite as good, McDermott is facing even more defensive attention as a senior. I can't wait to watch him take Creighton through its first season in the newfangled Big East.

2. Adreian Payne, 6-10 forward, Michigan State

Last week: 19 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals vs. North Florida; 33 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists vs. Texas

Payne has been dealing with plantar fasciitis in his foot that has limited his ability to practice, but he showed his value to the Spartans with his career-high scoring performance in the win at Texas on Saturday. For a guy his size, Payne is a terrific three-point shooter (he has made nearly 46 percent from behind the arc this season), but he is at his most effective when he is attacking the rim. He went 11-for-12 from the foul line against the Longhorns.

3. Aaron Craft, 6-2 point guard, Ohio State

Last week: 12 points, 2 assists, 4 steals vs. Delaware; 10 points, 3 assists, 3 steals vs. Notre Dame

Craft is the poster child for why a Senior Watch is necessary. I don't care one iota if he never takes a dribble in the NBA. Craft is arguably the best perimeter defenders to play college basketball in last decade, and he showed his value on both ends of the floor while spearheading the Buckeyes' dramatic comeback win over Notre Dame last Saturday in Madison Square Garden.

4. C.J. Fair, 6-8 forward, Syracuse

Last week: 15 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals vs. High Point

The smooth lefty got off to a slow start before capturing the MVP of the Maui Invitational. He is averaging a career-high 17.8 points per game. Although he has not shot the ball well from three (28.1 percent, down from 46.9 as a junior), I expect it's just a matter of time before he finds his groove.

5. Melvin Ejim, 6-6 forward, Iowa State

Last week: 14 points, 11 rebounds vs. George Mason

Ejim was a member of my All-Glue team last year, but he has graduated from role player to featured performer. He is still a beast on the glass (7.7 rebounds per game) but his scoring average has gone from 11.3 as a junior to 18.7 this season. I also love that he is converting a career-best 78.3 percent from the foul line.

6. Chaz Williams, 5-9 guard, UMass

Last week: 11 points, 11 assists vs. Ohio; 10 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists vs. Florida State

If you haven't seen this little dude in action, do it soon. Williams has incredible quickness and a wonderful long-range touch (41.5 percent from three), but the best thing about him is his feel for the game. He knows how to change speeds, manage the offense and set up his teammates. The only reason I have him this low is because he did not have a good week.

7. Casey Prather, 6-6 forward, Florida

Last week: 22 points, 4 rebounds vs. Memphis; 16 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists vs. Fresno State

It's not often a player makes a huge improvement between his junior and senior seasons, but Prather has done just that. He went from averaging 6.2 points in 17.1 minutes last season to 18.5 points in 30.3 minutes so far this year. He shot 8-for-13 from the floor in the Gators' big win over Memphis last week.

8. Shabazz Napier, 6-1 guard, Connecticut

Last week: 12 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds vs. Stanford; 20 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assists vs. Washington

Napier might be ranked higher if not for his subpar peformance (4-for-13 from the floor) in the loss to Stanford. But he had been spectacular up to that point. My main concern about Napier is that he has to do so much in order for his team to win that I wonder if he's going to mentally wear down at some point.

9. Russ Smith, 6-0 guard, Louisville

Last week: 11 points, 8 assists vs. Missouri State; 18 points, 3 assists vs. FIU

Smith has been quiet this season largely because Louisville has played such a weird schedule, but no Senior Watch would be complete without him. His scoring average of 16.8 is slightly off last year's 18.7 pace, but his field goal and three-point percentages are slightly improved.

10. Cameron Bairstow, 6-9 forward, New Mexico

Last week: 25 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals vs. New Mexico State; 20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists vs. Marquette

The big Aussie is one of the nation's most improved players. He went from averaging 9.7 points on 45.6 percent shooting as a junior to 20.6 points on 55.1 percent shooting this season. He is also adding 7.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.

Also considered: James Bell, 6-6 forward, Villanova; Mike Moser, 6-8 forward, Oregon; Xavier Thames, 6-3 guard, San Diego State; Roy Devyn Marble, 6-6 guard, Iowa; Jerrelle Benimon, 6-8 forward, Towson; Cory Jefferson, 6-9 forward, Baylor; Markel Brown, 6-3 guard, Oklahoma State; Maurice Creek, 6-5 guard, George Washington

Other Hoop Thoughts

  • How bad was Notre Dame's weekend? The Irish blew an eight-point lead in the last 90 seconds against Ohio State, and that wasn't the worst thing that happened to them. On Sunday, the school announced that 6-5 senior point guard Jerian Grant, who was leading the team in scoring (19.0 ppg) and assists (6.2), was ruled academically ineligible for the rest of the season. Grant redshirted his first season in South Bend, so he still has a year of eligiblity left, and he said that he intends to use it. In the meantime, I wonder if this will prompt coach Mike Brey to play Cameron Biedscheid. The 6-7 sophomore forward showed some promise last season, but Brey decided to redshirt Biedscheid so he could add some strength.
  • Nice win for Michigan State at Texas, but the Spartans need to get Keith Appling back on track. He is 4-for-19 from the floor (and 0-for-7 from three) in his last two games. I wonder if that hip contusion he suffered against North Carolina is lingering.
  • People always say there's no such thing as moral victories. I disagree. I mean, they're better than immoral victories, right?
  • Looks like another slow start for Louisville guard Luke Hancock, whose shooting percentages are way down due partly to a sore Achilles tendon. For what it's worth, he also started slow last season. If memory serves, he finished pretty well.
  • Oklahoma State guard Markel Brown's situation reminds me of Delonte West's. Nobody realized how good West was while he was at Saint Joseph's because he played next to Jameer Nelson. Brown is experiencing the same thing while teaming with Marcus Smart.
  • Although at some point, Oklahoma State is going to have to get some kind of scoring in the post, right?
  • I'm telling you, it's not going to be so easy for Oregon's Dominic Artis to wrestle that starting point guard job away from Johnathan Loyd. Even though Loyd did not make a field goal during the overtime win over BYU, he was on the floor -- and making winning plays -- at crunch time. Artis, playing in his second game since returning from an NCAA suspension, only played 11 minutes off the bench and did not score.
  • I know you are what your stats say you are, but I believe Memphis point guard Joe Jackson is a better three-point shooter than he's showing. Jackson has made just 5-of-24 from behind the arc, but he is an 88 percent free throw shooter and made 45 percent from three last season. He's just going to have to shoot himself out of this.
  • Kudos for Kansas State for getting a signature win on Saturday against Gonzaga. A lot of us gave up on this team when it lost at home to Northern Colorado in the opener, but 6-7 junior forward Thomas Gipson, the Wildcats' leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, did not play in that game because of an undisclosed injury.
  • I'm a big fan of Missouri guard Jabari Brown, but he has a maddening tendency to settle for jump shots. He took seven three-pointers against Illinois but only attempted two free throws. No way that should ever happen for a shooting guard who stands 6-5, weighs 214 pounds and has a quick first step. Brown needs to play all the time like he did against UCLA, when he went 10-for-10 from the foul line.
  • As for Illinois, I know that John Groce says he needs a lot of depth to execute his up-tempo style, but it looks like he's going to have to deal with a short bench. Six guys played double-digit minutes against Mizzou.
  • I usually caution against overreacting to one bad game, but Tennessee's loss at home to N.C. State was as bad as they come. First of all, how can a point guard (Memphis transfer Antonio Barton) play 21 minutes, miss all eight shots and not record a single assist? That can't happen, ever. And Jordan McRae (6-for-22) needs to recognize when his shot isn't falling and find other ways to help his team win. Lotta kinks to work out before the start of conference play.
  • We talk plenty about calls that referees make, but we should talk more about the calls they don't make. Often times, the best call is a no-call.
  • If people are upset that Assembly Hall is being named after somebody other than Bob Knight, then they need to talk to Bob Knight. Indiana has tried for many years to find a way to mend that fence, but Knight has refused. Sure hope he changes his mind someday.
  • I like seeing these non-conference games being played in NBA arenas, but the downside is that the players frequently get confused by the extra three-point line. I've seen a lot of them take ill-advised shots because they didn't realize they were standing four or five feet behind the college line.
  • Joe Harris is quietly having a disappointing season at Virginia. He is scoring about five fewer points per game than he did as a junior, and he is 2-for-15 from three in his last three games. I wonder if he's still having nightmares over what Josh Gasser did to him in that Wisconsin game.
  • So now people are going to start talking about Wichita State possibly going undefeated? Puh-leeze.
  • Incidentally, I don't blame Bill Self one bit for not wanting to schedule an annual series with Wichita State. There is absolutely no upside for Kansas to do that. And you can't say that Self schedules soft, either. He just schedules smart.
  • It was very discouraging to see Mitch McGary in street clothes during Michigan's close win over Stanford. McGary struggled with a bad back during the preseason, and John Beilein says he is currently suffering from a variety of ailments that is limiting his practice availability. It's not McGary's health that concerns me most, it's his conditioning. He's a great player, but right now he's a long way away from where he needs to be.
  • I guess Maryland's final season in the ACC isn't going to be so memorable. The Terps lost at home to Boston U on Saturday to fall to 7-5. Mark Turgeon told me that starting point guard Seth Allen, who hasn't played all season because of a broken foot, is getting X-rayed on Thursday. That will let us know whether he will be back in early January as initially projected.
  • As I wrote last week, I don't like the whole what's-the-best-conference debate, but you've got to be impressed with what the Pac-12 has been doing. Utah's win over BYU and Stanford's win at UConn (and its near-win against Michigan in New York) were noteworthy for a league that has been so maligned the last several years.
  • Harvard is off to a 10-1 start, but the Crimson are still without two injured starters: junior center Kenyatta Smith, who has yet to play a game because of a foot injury, and senior guard Brandyn Curry, who has missed all but two games with an Achilles strain. Smith's injury is the more serious of the two, but it's not clear when either will return. I still say that at full strength, Harvard is as talented as almost any team in the country.
  • When I'm czar of college basketball -- which let's be honest, is inevitable and can't happen soon enough -- I am going to require the teams that get the last four at-large bids into the NCAA tournament play true road games the following year against the top four teams that got left out. Sound good to you?
  • Love the Pitino v. Pitino matchup (Minnesota v. Louisville) for next year's Armed Forces Classic. I mean, why not, right?
  • I'm still pretty bullish on St. John's, but I can't shake the feeling that the Red Storm is one solid wing scorer away from being a really good team. Sounds like a job for the Jigsaw Man.
  • You all probably know that there are four mandatory television time outs per half -- after the 16-minute mark, the 12-minute mark, the eight-minute mark and the four-minute mark. But if a coach calls a time out at those junctures and the network broadcasting the game goes to a commercial, that does not count as a television time out. So when the next whistle occurs, the game stops again. Now, as a guy who works in TV, believe me I'm all for commercials, but I'd still like to see college hoops go to the NBA rule where the coach's time out is considered the TV time out in those situations. I see no need for back-to-back commercials.
  • Still think Kentucky has the best recruiting class of all time?
  • Every time I hear Steve Alford talk about how young his team is, my head gets a nasty itch. His starting lineup for the Duke game included two fifth-year seniors, a junior, and two sophomores who combined for 61 starts last year. That's ancient by today's standards.
  • Among the many things working in Wisconsin's favor is the unbalanced Big Ten schedule. The Badgers only have to play Ohio State and Michigan State once each, and both games are in Madison.
  • Allow me to clear up the confusion regarding the ending to the South Florida-Florida Gulf Coast last week. By rule, if there are 0.3 seconds or fewer on the clock, a player cannot gain possession of the ball on an inbounds pass. He can only tip it. That's why Chase Fieler's apparent game-winner for FGCU was disallowed by referee Mike Sanzere, even though it appeared that Fieler beat the buzzer on his attempt. The rule is in place to eliminate the specter of the tardy clock operator (remember, most of the time that person works for the home team's school) and relieve refs of the burden of having to watch the clock. I'm all for re-examining whether the rule should be tweaked (perhaps it could be whittled to the NBA's version, where 0.2 seconds is the barometer), but generally speaking I think the logic is sound.
  • Here's something you don't see every day: VCU scored 31 -- yes, 31 -- unanswered points during the first half of its 82-52 win over Virginia Tech. Guess that whole let's-fire-Seth-Greenberg thing hasn't worked out so well for the Hokies. Whatever happened to that guy, anyway?
  • Love this stat: Syracuse sophomore center Dajuan Coleman is ranked eighth on the team in average minutes. But he's first in total offensive rebounds.
  • Finally, college basketball was treated to a poignant moment last week when Tom Izzo took the microphone towards the end of the Michigan State-North Florida game to salute retiring referee Ed Hightower, who was working his final game in East Lansing. Izzo was visibly emotional afterward as he took his seat on the bench. Here's the YouTube clip if you missed it, and I also recommend this column by Yahoo's Dan Wetzel about it.

Read More: Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson speaks out; Top 25 ballot

Barry Hinson made national headlines last week for a bizarre postgame press conference.
Eric Francis/Getty Images

A Few Minutes With... Southern Illinois Coach Barry Hinson By now we've all seen the clip of your "rant" after the loss to Murray State. When you walked out of that press conference, did you have any idea the entire country would be talking about it by morning?

Hinson: No idea whatsoever. You haven't been to very many of my press conferences, but that's just me. Well, I'm sorry. I'm a leopard, and I can't change my spots. I've done something like that a lot, maybe not quite to that degree of length, but I've exploded and I've said things. So when did you realize it had become a big deal?

Hinson: I got a text at six o'clock the next morning from my athletic director. He said it's gone viral. I'm old school -- I thought he was on the way to the hospital. I had no idea what he meant by viral. How did the discussions go over how you were going to address the fallout?

Hinson: He offered to handle it for me, but I said nobody's going to handle anything. I'll handle every bit of it. I don't need anybody doing a press statement or telling me what to say. That's a very sore spot with me, when people hind behind statements. I'm talking coaches, government officials, bosses, CEOs, whatever. I tell my players all the time, "You gotta buck up and bow your neck. Stand on what you believe." Do you regret it?

Hinson: The only thing I regret is singling out an individual player publicly. I deserve every bit of criticism for that, but I will not apologize for having passion and wanting our guys to do better than they think they can do. The most memorable part of your press conference was when you shouted how your wife could shoot better because she knew how to shot fake. What was Angie Hinson's reaction to that?

Hinson: We listened to it twice and I always ask her what she thinks. She said, "You shouldn't have mentioned Marcus. That's absolutely wrong." Then she looked at me and said, "But I think I could have gone 4-for-11." It was light-hearted, but I felt bad. What was the one thing said about you this week that bothered you the most?

Hinson: I went on Dan Patrick's radio show, and he had alluded to this as some kind of bullying thing. I speak all across the country to high schools about bullying. I just spoke two weeks ago at a high school where a kid had just committed suicide because of bullying. I told Dan I disagreed with him about that. What was the coolest thing that happened?

Hinson: We were at practice Friday afternoon. One of our guards drove into the paint and got his shot blocked. I said, "Son, dadgummit, get in there and shot fake." And then Marcus said, "Coach is right. Angie would have done that." The whole place erupted. I thought it was hilarious. That's when you know your kids know that you love 'em and you respect 'em and care for 'em. Is it safe to say you're going to be tied to this for a long time?

Hinson: Until I die. I go back to what Colin Powell wrote: "The price of leadership is criticism." I acknowledged my mistake, but I stood by what I said, and I still do.

This Week's AP Ballot

*Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses

1. Arizona (1)
2. Syracuse (2)
3. Ohio State (3)
4. Michigan State (4)
5. Duke (5)
6. Louisville (6)
7. Wisconsin (7)
8. Florida (8)
9. Wichita State (9)
10. Oklahoma State (10)
11. Memphis (11)
12. Iowa State (13)
13. Villanova (14)
14. Baylor (15)
15. Kansas (17)
16. Colorado (18)
17. Iowa (19)
18. Oregon (20)
19. UConn (12)
20. North Carolina (16)
21. Kentucky (21)
22. San Diego State (23)
23. UMass (22)
24. Texas (NR)
25. George Washington (NR)

Dropped out: Missouri (24), Gonzaga (25)

It was another quiet week and this week will be even quieter, so don't expect much movement until the start of conference play. The biggest drop was UConn's because of its loss at home to Stanford. The Huskies have a slew of trap games coming up (at Houston, at SMU, home versus Harvard and UCF) before they play at Memphis on Jan. 16. UMass also lost to Florida State on a neutral site (in Florida), but given how well the Minutemen have been playing, it would not have been fair to drop them out altogether for losing one lousy game -- on the road by a close margin, no less.

The losses by Gonzaga and Missouri opened up two spots. I would like Texas to have finished stronger against Michigan State, but a 10-2 record with a road win at North Carolina should count for something.

As for that coveted final spot, there were a lot of really good candidates. I went with George Washington partly for sentimental reasons -- it has been a long time since the Colonials were relevant on a national stage -- but mainly because of all the teams I looked at, GW had the most impressive wins (Rutgers at home, Maryland and Creighton on a neutral court).

As for the teams I left out, Toledo is still undefeated with an 11-0 record, but ranking the Rockets would feel a little too much like charity. There's just no win among those 11 that makes you sit up and believe this is truly one of the 25 best teams in the country. Utah has a better case. The Utes' only loss came by two points at Boise State, and last week they waxed a good BYU team by 17 points. Ditto for Saint Mary's, which has beaten Murray State (home) and Boise State (neutral) this season.

Illinois warranted consideration after its win over Missouri in the Braggin' Rights game, but that was not quite enough to eradicate a road loss at Georgia Tech. Four of the Illini's first six Big Ten games are in Champaign, so they will have ample opportunity to make a good impression.

Believe it or not, I was tempted to add Notre Dame despite its meltdown against Ohio State. I decided against it even before I learned that Jerian Grant is academically ineligible for the rest of the season, but that news made it easy. It's going to be awfully hard for this team to recover.

I also took a closer look at SMU this week. Larry Brown's Mustangs are off to a 10-2 start, but they lost the only tough games they played (at Arkansas and neutral court vs. Virginia). We're about to find out just how good this team is. Look at its next four games: at Wyoming, at Cincinnati, home vs. UConn, at Louisville.

Oklahoma is 11-1 with the lone defeat coming against Michigan State in Brooklyn, but I couldn't rank a team that has yet to play a true road game.

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