- A look at how Louisville basketball is determined to be newsworthy on the court amidst the chaos. Plus the sensational play of Oklahoma's Trae Young, five teams on the rise and a chat with Saint Mary’s senior Jock Landale.
Rarely does a basketball program whose team is unranked feature so prominently in the sport’s news cycle, but what’s been going on with Louisville the past three months is, of course, exceptionally rare: recruit payment revelations from the FBI (on the heels of an escort scandal), the resulting ineligibility of a five-star recruit, the firings of a legendary coach and department-building athletic director, dueling lawsuits between said coach and the school. (More on those in a moment.) Just last week, while the Cardinals were fourth in line among “others receiving votes” in the AP Top 25, ESPN dropped a 4,500-word examination of how the school became a national athletics powerhouse with the help of Adidas. A few days later Yahoo’s Pat Forde declared Louisville 2017’s “College Sports Dumpster Fire of the Year”—one title the school need not worry about vacating.
Of course, as the chaotic news cycle churns around it, Louisville is still out there playing basketball. Despite the significant and sudden coaching change from Rick Pitino to 32-year-old interim coach David Padgett, the Cardinals entered the season No. 16 in the AP poll and No. 9 in SI’s proprietary projections. (With Pitino and freshman Brian Bowen, we would have had them No. 4.) They have fallen out of the rankings thanks to the way their 8–2 record was compiled: their losses to Purdue and Seton Hall represent their only games against top-50 competition, and until Saturday’s win against Memphis in New York, they had played just one game away from home, which was the Purdue loss.
All of which, six weeks into the season, makes Louisville one of the country’s most intriguing teams, as well as one of its most difficult to assess. With a program-rocking scandal hanging over their heads and a novice, throw-in-the-deep-end coach at their helm, the Cardinals have neither excelled nor truly disappointed. They have taken care of business when they should have, and their losses have at least come against high-quality competition. While their four-forward lineup is far from conventional, by many measures they do not look terribly different from Louisville teams we came to know under Pitino in recent years: they pressure opponents, don’t shoot many threes, are better at stifling scoring (15th in defensive efficiency) than doing it themselves (51st on offense), and block a lot of shots (20.9% of opponents’ two-point attempts, most in the country). If the same overall caliber of play is not quite there, it is at least not dramatically different in style.
“We’re getting better,” Padgett said Saturday. “Early in the year, our defense was ahead of our offense. I think our offense is starting to catch up a little bit.” Indeed, the Cardinals’ two wins this past week have been their most efficient offensive showings yet: 1.25 points per possession against Memphis and 1.46 versus Bryant. But that too comes with the caveat that Bryant has been one of the country’s worst defensive teams and that the only teams the Tigers have held under 1.00 PPP have been Albany, New Orleans, Little Rock, and that same Bryant team.
But from his spot in the hurricane’s eye, Padgett is trying to keep his evaluations simple and short-sighted. “We haven’t put expectations on our team at any point this year,” he said. While other aspects of his job remain complicated for reasons beyond his control—asked about recruiting, Padgett said, “I don’t think you’re gonna get a kid in the country to commit to Louisville until they know who the head coach is gonna be moving forward”—his weekly goals are simply to go 2–0, which his Cardinals have done for two weeks now.
Soon we will find out how many more 2–0 weeks remain in their future. After pre-Christmas home dates with Albany and Grand Canyon, Louisville travels to Kentucky on Dec. 29 to face a very talented, extremely young group of Wildcats also in the process of figuring themselves out. An upset in Lexington would go a long way toward signaling the Cardinals may remain competitive when ACC play begins in January—and, in a change that would surely please many Louisville loyalists, make the team newsworthy on the court.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Monday-morning column on college hoops. It’s a sort of a grab-bag of news and tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to chat and reminisce about Mike Francesa’s WFAN career, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene.
Also, a programming note: since the next two Mondays are Christmas and New Year’s Day, this column will be running a day later for the next two weeks, on Tuesdays. Adjust your lives accordingly. Thanks for reading.
In just over a month as a collegian, Trae Young is establishing himself as arguably the nation’s can’t-miss player. In Oklahoma’s upset of No. 3 Wichita State in Kansas on Saturday, the freshman guard scored 16 points in the first nine minutes and added 13 more (for a total of 29, in case your calculator’s broken) to go with 10 assists. And while, rather amazingly, those numbers barely budge his season averages of 28.8 points and 8.9 assists per game, doing it on the road against one of the country’s best teams will, as Young said the win would do for his team, “open a lot of eyes in the college basketball world.” The way in which Young did his damage will do so too:
Of course, the college basketball world’s eyes were already wide open to Young’s sensational play. It’s the sports world at large that is starting to wise up to the most entertaining player in the country. And how’s this for a stat: the last time a player scored 25-plus points and had 10 assists against a top-three team in the AP poll was when Syracuse’s Johnny Flynn did it against UConn in 2009... in six overtimes.
Also, if there’s a game you might regret having missed live, it’s Indiana’s 80–77 upset of Notre Dame in overtime in Saturday’s Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis. The Hoosiers claimed the first big win of the Archie Miller era thanks to the indomitability of junior forward Juwan Morgan and the rebound of Zach McRoberts’s life, which came off Morgan’s missed free throw with 11 seconds left and led to Morgan’s go-ahead dunk—a sequence so exciting Gus Johnson could barely get his call out. His head may have exploded if Irish forward Bonzie Colson’s halfcourt shot at the buzzer, which rattled out, had fallen through.
As the scandal turns...
As alluded to above, a second lawsuit was filed related to the fallout of the FBI’s college basketball recruiting investigation. This time, it was Louisville countersuing Pitino for “wrongful conduct” detrimental to the university. This comes a week after Pitino had sued the school for the $36 million remaining on his contract on the grounds that there was not “just cause” to fire him.
SI legal expert Michael McCann has the requisite breakdown of Louisville’s suit here. One particularly interesting nugget: Louisville cites Pitino telling ESPN’s Jay Bilas in a televised interview that he took “full responsibility” for the staffing decisions that resulted in the program’s violations as an admission of wrongdoing. Either way, McCann writes that both suits represent the parties “jockeying for the most advantageous position to settle the case out of court.”
Each week, we’ll be highlighting five teams on the rise. Here’s who stood out over the past week.
1. Oklahoma: The Sooners had a case to be ranked before Saturday’s win at Wichita State. Now there’s no debate. Lon Kruger’s got more more than one home-grown freshman of note on his roster, as forward Brady Manek (of Harrah, Okla.) scored 21 points against the Shockers, a week after scoring 15 at USC.
2. Rutgers: Steve Pikiell’s first big win with the Scarlet Knights came in Saturday’s home upset of No. 15 Seton Hall, as Rutgers rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit and ultimately held the Pirates to a season-low 0.89 points per possession. Junior guard Corey Sanders led the way with 22 points.
3. Villanova: The Wildcats can’t rise any higher than No. 1, but their 87–67 dismantling of Temple despite Mikal Bridges’s struggles was a reminder that they belong there. Also, a cheap plug: I wrote about the slow build to Bridges’s star turn so far this season.
4. Clemson: The Tigers became the latest team to knock off Florida, this one being in a semi-road game outside Fort Lauderdale. Clemson hasn’t had the most eye-catching non-conference slate—its next best opponents were Temple (neutral-floor loss) and Ohio State (road win)—but beating the Gators helps validate its 9–1 start.
5. Indiana: If nothing else, Saturday’s win over Notre Dame should help push the Hoosiers’ season-opening loss to Indiana State further back in the minds of antsy fans. Indiana has been all over the place so far, but Juwan Morgan is looking like someone it can really count on.
Top of the Classes
Co-Junior* winner: Jalen Brunson, Villanova guard
*In lieu of choosing a senior this week, we picked two juniors instead. Regularly scheduled programming to resume next week.
The son of former Temple great Rick Brunson—and a former Owls commit himself—lit up last Wednesday’s Big 5 clash with 31 points, six rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers. Bridges has been Villanova’s buzzy breakout, but Brunson has been equally stellar.
Junior: Juwan Morgan, Indiana forward
Morgan followed a 17-point, nine-rebound effort at Louisville by keying the Hoosiers’ upset of Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic. Morgan finished with a career-high 34 points—including the game-tying bucket near the end of regulation—and 11 boards.
Sophomore: Roosevelt Smart, North Texas guard
Smart’s career-high 31 points helped the Mean Green knock off Florida Gulf Coast in overtime—and his seventh three-pointer of the game (on 14 attempts) provided the game’s go-ahead basket.
Freshman: Trae Young, Oklahoma guard
What’s left to say? How about this stat tweeted Saturday by Synergy Sports (@SynergySST): Young is “creating, assisting, or scoring 64 points per game so far this season. That's above the scoring average of 16 Division I teams.”
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Saint Mary’s senior Jock Landale, an Australian big man averaging 21.6 points and 9.5 rebounds for the 9-2 Gaels. So, Jock, tell us about the best...
...class you’ve taken. “Meditation, two years ago. Me and two of my teammates thought it would be a laugh and it actually ended up being pretty good. I got to meditate, so it wasn’t too bad. It kind of helps me a little bit with reflecting on myself and trying to be a little bit more enlightened. It taught me to reflect on the games and not get too emotional about it.”
...best thing about going home to Australia. “The food’s pretty good, and just hanging out with my friends and getting up to my farm. We do a bit of everything [on the farm]. We have livestock. I just love getting up there with my mates and heading out on our motorbikes.”
...best heckle you’ve heard from a fan. “I’ve got a couple pretty inappropriate ones that I won’t say. But I was at BYU my freshman year and I was shooting free throws. Back then I had really curly blond hair and they started chanting ‘poodle.’ That was a good one that made me laugh. I shave most of my hair nowadays and don’t let it get too long.”
Social Media Post of the Week
Assigned Viewing: Texas at Alabama, Friday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2
In another quiet week in terms of marquee matchups, it’s worth checking out two unranked power-conference teams who feature exciting, high-impact freshmen seemingly destined for one-and-done status. Big man Mohamed Bamba has helped the Longhorns leap from a dismal 11–22 season to the fringes of the Top 25, ranking in the top 10 nationally in block rate and top 25 in defensive rebounding, per Kenpom.com. (His more traditional stats through his first month-plus of college: 10.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per game.) Similarly, guard Collin Sexton has the Tide looking like a tournament team for the first time in five years, averaging 21.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.3 assists while making 47.1% of his threes. Over at the Crossover’s Front Office, Jeremy Woo has Bamba fourth on his 2018 NBA draft big board, while Sexton is ranked eighth.
As for their teams, both will be looking not only to get back on track after some recent stumbles but also bolster their postseason resumes at the expense of the other. One key factor may be three-point shooting, as Texas struggles from outside (28.4% from three on the season) and Alabama does a good job denying its opponents such opportunities in the first place. If the Longhorns are going to pull off the road win, they’ll need to do a lot of work inside the arc.
Before You’re Dismissed...
• After stomping its way through what had been the country’s weakest non-conference schedule, previously undefeated Georgetown fell in its first true test Saturday, when it hosted Syracuse. The Orange came back from down 11 in the final 10 minutes and won in overtime, but the Hoyas were at least competitive enough that it could be seen as an encouraging sign. They’ve got visits from North Texas and Alabama A&M before beginning their Big East slate. We’ll find out who the Hoyas really are soon enough.
• Speaking of undefeateds falling, Florida State also lost its first one, this one to Oklahoma State on a late tip-in by the Mitchell Solomon. That’s a nice win from an otherwise ho-hum non-conference showing by the Cowboys.
• Charlotte fired head coach Mark Price last week after two-plus seasons, during which the 49ers went 30–42, including a 3–6 record to start this season. Price told the Charlotte Observer he was “stunned” by the decision, which is understandable considering how rarely coaches are fired at this point in the season. The 49ers haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2005. The school will have a head start on the competition in searching for the best coach to get them back there.
• Only tangentially related to basketball, but a full investigation of what Michigan State knew about the actions of gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who plead guilty to seven counts of sexual assault last month, could have significant implications for the school’s athletic department. Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel took a long look at the situation this week.
• Former Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech coach Billy Gillispie, who is now coaching at Ranger College west of Fort Worth, says he needs a kidney transplant “ASAP.”
• Here’s a bizarre clip from this weekend: an emergency fire alarm went off during Ohio State’s win over Appalachian State on Saturday, leading to the teams and fans evacuating the floor and stands. Thankfully, everything turned out to be fine after a 10-minute delay.
• Bill Self told reporters on Monday that “this is the softest team that Kansas has had since I’ve been here.” Yikes. The Jayhawks didn’t exactly dispel the notion in their one-point win at Nebraska this weekend.
• Nice game-winner—and stone-cold reaction—from St. Bonaventure’s Matt Mobley against Vermont.
• Looks like the protective glasses Kentucky’s Quade Green sported after an eye injury may become a permanent look. We’re on board.
• Happy holidays, everybody.