Hoop Thoughts: Pressing reset on the season before conference play begins
After all the cacophony of the first two months, college basketball enjoyed a quiet week and especially a quiet weekend. Which is good because it gave your resident Hoop Thinker a few minutes to put up his feet, sip on a warm liquid, watch his favorite old-school Christmas movie (Atta boy, Clarence!), and apply some order to what has become quite the disorderly sport.
Don’t worry, Hoopheads, I’ve done all the work for you. All you have to do is read and enjoy. So here is my Five-Minute Guide to the start of the college basketball season. And remember, every time a Glue Guy takes a charge, an angel gets his wings.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans’ undefeated record includes wins over Kansas (neutral) and Louisville (home). The win over Providence looks even better now than it did on Nov. 29. However, they might not be undefeated for long because their best player is hurt and four of their first six Big Ten games are on the road.
2. North Carolina: UNC’s two losses came on the road, at Northern Iowa (without injured Marcus Paige) and at the buzzer at Texas. Toughness is still a concern, but when the Heels are at their best, no team is better.
3. Maryland: The Terps haven’t always looked great while winning, but their only loss came on the road against a healthy North Carolina. I picked Maryland as my preseason No. 1, and I still believe it is capable of winning it all.
4. Kansas: A six-point loss to Michigan State in Chicago in the season’s second game is the only blemish on the Jayhawks’ resume. And they are dominating without much help from young players who are bound to get better.
5. Oklahoma: The Sooners needed overtime to beat Hawaii, but they sure looked amazing while disemboweling Villanova. They begin Big 12 play with Iowa State at home and Kansas on the road, so we’ll know a lot more about this team in a couple of weeks.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
2. Kris Dunn, Providence: No player has a greater impact at both ends of the floor.
3. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: The Bahamas native was always a volume shooter. Now he’s a volume maker (24 PPG, 52.3% from three-point range).
4. Melo Trimble, Maryland: Highly gifted shooter and playmaker is scoring less than he did last season, but he is more efficient—and his team is winning. He also is as good as any guard in the country at getting to the foul line.
1. Xavier: No Matt Stainbrook? No problem. The Musketeers still have uber talent (see what I did there?), a rising star in redshirt freshman point guard Edmond Sumner, and a culture of toughness that plays well in March.
2. Butler: Winning is in the bricks at Butler. This program has burned through several coaches, yet it keeps succeeding at a remarkable level. This group lacks size, but it has terrific cohesion.
4. Providence: Dunn is a stud, but the Friars are not a one-man show. Can’t wait to see them take on Butler in Hinkle on New Year’s Eve.
5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks haven’t played a tough schedule, but to be undefeated at this point bodes well for Frank Martin’s fourth year in Columbia.
1. Syracuse: Dealing with Jim Boeheim’s suspension is difficult, but that is no reason for the Orange to lose to an awful team like St. John’s. A lack of reliable reserves is a long-term problem, to say the least.
2. Georgetown: Losing to Monmouth is the new little black dress, so we can forgive the Hoyas that hiccup. But those home losses to Radford and UNC Asheville are tough to take.
3. San Diego State: We are used to seeing Steve Fisher’s Aztecs set up camp in the rankings, but this year’s crew has already lost to Grand Canyon and Little Rock at home, and to San Diego on a neutral court. Kawhi Leonard is not coming through that door.
4. California: All those stud freshmen made the Bears a preseason favorite to compete for the Pac-12 title, but neutral court losses to San Diego State and Richmond diminished that hope. Cal also had a chance to steal a win at Virginia but coughed up a nine-point second-half lead.
5. Wisconsin: We knew the Badgers would be in rebuildling mode, but it was hard to anticipate things being this bad. They have home losses to Western Illinois, Milwaukee and Marquette, their neutral court loss to Georgetown looks even worse now than it did in November, and they’ll spend the rest of the season with a new head coach, as Greg Gard took the reins in mid-December on the heels of longtime coach Bo Ryan’s retirement.
INJURIES THAT HURT
2. Amile Jefferson, Duke: The Blue Devils are going to be smaller and thinner without their heart and soul in the lineup. The team hopes to have Jefferson back at some point this season, but foot injuries can be tricky.
4. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: The Spartans were fortunate to beat Oakland in overtime without Valentine, who missed the game because of a bruised knee. Fortunately, he shouldn't be gone too long.
5. Naz Mitrou-Long, Iowa State: The Cyclones’ 6'4" senior guard is taking a medical redshirt because of hip injuries. Even before losing him, this team was suffering from a lack of depth.
1. Rapheal Davis, 6'5" senior, Purdue: The Big Ten’s reigning defensive player of the year still draws the toughest assignment every game. His intellect and leadership is invaluable on a team that does not have a lot of perimeter pop. And by the way, it’s pronounced “RAY-fell.” Please make a note of it.
2. Roosevelt Jones, 6'4" senior, Butler: He still has the ugliest shooting form on the planet, but Jones gives his team big contributions from a variety of areas. He is currently averaging 13.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game.
3. Alex Poythress, 6'8" senior, Kentucky: It looks like Poythress is finally getting his explosiveness back after tearing his ACL a year ago. He’s also embracing his role as an energizer/glass eater/senior leader.
4. James Farr, 6'10" senior, Xavier: He is the Musketeers’ sixth man, and he might be their most valuable. Few teams have a starting center who can rebound like Farr, much less a backup center.
5. Frank Mason III, 5'11" junior, Kansas: I usually don’t highlight guards as Glue Guys, but Mason’s toughness sets the tone for a gritty team that for once is dominated by upperclassmen.
COACH OF THE FIRST TWO MONTHS
1. Tom Izzo, Michigan State: Who says we’re in the era of the one-and-done? Izzo is winning with play-and-stay. And he’s heading to the Hall of Fame.
2. Tony Bennett, Virginia: I’ll say it again: He is the new Brad Stevens.
3. Chris Mack, Xavier: Much like Butler, Xavier is a wonderful program with a winning culture. Mack is keeping that tradition going.
4. Chris Holtmann, Butler: He took over the team in very trying circumstances last season, but his Bulldogs are thriving. This team’s whole adds up to a lot more than the sum of its parts.
5. Jim Larranaga, Miami: The Hurricanes, who were unranked in each of the national preseason polls, are a one-point loss at home to Northeastern from being undefeated.
1. Wayne Selden Jr., Kansas: The 6'5" junior guard has always shown flashes, but now he is finally putting everything together. He leads the team in scoring at 15.5 PPG while converting 56.3% of his shots (55.4% from three).
3. Ben Bentil, Providence: The 6'9" sophomore is playing a worthy Robin to Kris Dunn’s Batman. Bentil is averaging 18.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game after posting 6.4 and 4.9 as a freshman.
4. Brice Johnson, North Carolina: Maybe this is overreacting to a recent hot stretch, but in the three games UNC has played without Kennedy Meeks, Johnson has averaged 24.7 PPG on 76% shooting. He won’t be able to keep up that pace, but he won’t fall off by much.
5. Sheldon McClellan, Miami: McClellan, a 6'5" senior guard, is scoring about the same number of points as he did last season (16.3), but he is doing it much more efficiently. He has a chance to be a 50-40-90 guy (field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage), and he also has a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
1. UCLA 87, Kentucky 77: The Bruins looked like a high school JV team last year against the Wildcats. That made this victory sweet, especially since UCLA had also stubbed its toe against Monmouth and Wake Forest earlier in the season.
2. Texas 84, North Carolina 82: The Longhorns have not inspired much confidence at the dawn of the Shaka Smart era, but this was the type of accomplishment the program can build upon.
3. Utah 77, Duke 75: Sure, the Blue Devils were shorthanded without Amile Jefferson, but the Utes had been embarrassed earlier this season by Miami and Wichita State. This was what’s called a program win.
4. Iowa State 83, Iowa 82: The only thing better than beating your in-state rival is to do it after trailing by 20 points.
5. George Washington 73, Virginia 68: This looks even better now than when the Colonials pulled this off on Nov. 16. When you have a chance to beat a top-ranked team from your area on your home floor, you have to close it out.
1. St. John’s 84, Syracuse 72: This came against an old Big East rival, and the Red Storm are really, really bad.
2. Ohio State 74, Kentucky 67: The Wildcats were never really in this one, despite the fact that Ohio State is probably not an NCAA tournament team, having lost to the likes of UT Arlington, Louisiana Tech and Memphis this season.
3. Incarnate Word 73, St. John’s 51: Did we mention the Red Storm are really, really bad?
4. UNC Asheville 79, Georgetown 73: The Hoyas had just lost four days before at home to Monmouth. They should have been primed to rebound.
5. Canisius 96, Monmouth 86: It’s worth remembering the Hawks need to do well in their league, especially if they want to maintain their national respect (i.e., stay alive for an at-large bid should they fail to win the conference tournament). They’ve won enough quality games this season that they should not have overlooked the Golden Griffins, who are ranked 196th in the RPI.
1. Skal Labissiere, 6'11" freshman center, Kentucky: The experts say the Wildcats’ prized recruit may be a top-three pick in the NBA draft, but right now he might be the third-best big man on his own team. It’s unlikely Labissiere will become a polished offensive player sometime this season, but if he concentrates on protecting the rim and attacking the offensive glass, he can help the Cats win.
3. DaJuan Coleman, 6'9" senior center, Syracuse: Coleman has suffered major knee injuries and missed all of last season, but he has yet to recover mentally. He is averaging just 4.8 points in 15.0 minutes per game.
4. Jabari Bird, 6'6" junior guard, Cal: Bird was a potent long-range shooter his first two seasons, but his inability to round out his game has cost him his spot in the starting lineup, for now.
5. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, 6'8" sophomore guard, Kansas: The highly skilled Ukrainian arrived last season amidst much fanfare, but he has yet to have a lasting impact on the Jayhawks’ rotation.
1. Ben Simmons, 6'10" forward, LSU: Simmons has been better than advertised. He even scored 43 points in a game without making a single three-pointer. But if this team doesn’t reverse its fortunes, he’s going to wind up being the best player in the NIT.
2. Henry Ellenson, 6'10" forward, Marquette: As his numbers demonstrate (16.7 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.5 APG), Ellenson is versatile and tough. He’s the kind of player a coach could build a program around if he stayed for more than one season, which at this point seems highly doubtful.
3. Brandon Ingram, 6'9" forward, Duke: It took Ingram all of three weeks to get acclimated, but he has emerged as a devastating scoring threat as well an effective rebounder.
5. Jamal Murray, 6'5" guard, Kentucky: His contributions as an explosive scorer (17.1 PPG on 39% three-point shooting) have carried the Wildcats through some early growing pains.
1. Luke Kennard, 6'5" freshman, Duke, 94.4%.
2. Myles Davis, 6'2" junior, Xavier, 93.9%.
3. Kellen Dunham, 6'6" senior, Butler, 93.2%.
4. Kyle Wiltjer, 6'10" senior, Gonzaga, 93.1%.
5. Buddy Hield, 6'4" senior, Oklahoma. 90.0%.
1. Tonny Trocha-Morelos, 6'10" sophomore, Texas A&M, 31.6%.
2. Isaiah Briscoe, 6'3" freshman, Kentucky, 37.5%.
3. Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr., 5'10" sophomore, Michigan State. 40.0%.
4. Raymond Spalding, 6'10" freshman, Louisville. 42.3 %.
5. Jameel McKay, 6'9" junior, Iowa State. 47.4%.
CIRCLE YOUR CALENDAR
1. Maryland at Michigan State, Jan. 23: The only regular-season meeting between the Big Ten’s top two teams.
2. Duke at North Carolina, Feb. 17: The first Duke-Carolina game always comes a few days after the Super Bowl, which makes it feel like the kickoff for college basketball’s stretch run.
3. Oklahoma at Kansas, Jan. 4: The Jayhawks almost never lose in the Phog, but the Sooners have the chops to pull off the upset.
4. Butler at Xavier, Jan. 2: This comes just two days after the Musketeers play a road game at Villanova. That’s some tough sledding.
5. Little Rock at Texas-Arlington, Jan. 23: The two teams have a combined 19–3 record and have road wins over Power 5 squads. Their meetings should decide who wins the Sun Belt.
1. Monmouth: They’re more than just a bench! The Hawks have some of the best wins in college basketball so far this year.
2. Northern Iowa: Who needs Ali Farokhmanesh? The Panthers beat North Carolina at home and Iowa State on a neutral court.
3. Houston: Kelvin Sampson is up to his old tricks. The Cougars’ 9–2 start includes an overtime win at home over LSU.
1. Tyler Ulis, 5'9" sophomore, Kentucky: He doesn’t have great size and is not a reliable shooter (26.1% from three). But whatever the Wildcats need, Ulis gives it to them when they most need it. He remains the biggest reason UK is favored to win the SEC and has a chance to play deep into March.
3. Kahlil Felder, 5'9" junior, Oakland: He ranks second in the country in points (26.9) and is first in assists (8.9) per game. He also just had 37 points and nine assists in the Golden Grizzlies’ near-upset of Michigan State last week.
4. Justin Robinson, 5'8" junior, Monmouth: The Hawks’ leading scorer (20.3 PPG) has only failed to reach double digits once this season. His shooting percentages are up across the board: 46.4% overall, 42.9% from three and 88.2% from the foul line.
5. Tyler Lewis, 5'11" junior, Butler: Lewis apparently used the year he sat out after transferring from NC State to his advantage. He is the same dependable playmaker (3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio), but he is now a much better outside shooter (34.4% from three, up from 23.4% two years ago).
POWER FIVE SLEEPERS
1. Colorado: With Arizona down from where it has been in the past couple of years, the Pac-12 appears to be wide open. The Buffaloes played Iowa State and SMU close on neutral courts before losing, and if they get 6'7" senior forward Xavier Johnson back from a torn Achilles (he is still contemplating a redshirt), then they will be adding another quality piece.
2. Florida State: In freshmen studs Bacon and Beasley, plus 6'4" sophomore guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, the Seminoles have three players who can go for 30 on any given night.
4. Iowa: The Hawkeyes rebounded nicely from their exhibition loss to Division II Augustana. They have an emerging star in Jarrod Uthoff and beat Marquette on the road, Wichita State on a neutral court and Florida State at home. But not finishing off that game at Iowa State is going to sting for a while.
5. Texas: The Longhorns got a lot of attention for beating North Carolina, but their true road win over Stanford was almost as impressive. They have a home game against UConn coming up this week, and then it’s on to conference play.
STORYLINES TO WATCH
1. The world is flat: We’ve seen some crazy scores during these first two months. Expect to see some more. The first week of the NCAA tournament should be even more wild and wooly than usual.
2. Let’s not get physical: Two years ago, when the rules committee tried to clean up physical play, things reverted once conference play began. Here’s hoping we don’t get a replay.
3. Big Beast: This league doesn’t need the glory days anymore. The Big East might be the best conference in the country, and it is by far the best one outside the Power 5.
4. A storm is brewing: It’s only a matter of time before something bad happens in a court storm. Let’s hope it’s a long time.
5. SMU: The Mustangs are ineligible for the postseason, but they could be headed for the top 10 of the national rankings. They might also be the nation’s last undefeated team. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?