Last week, I performed my annual exercise revealing 10 breakout sophomores to watch this season. The biggest challenge is always whittling the list down to just 10. As I point out each year, players typically make the biggest jump of their basketball lives between their freshman and sophomore years of college. So there are lots of candidates to choose from.
It occurred to me that maybe I shouldn't stop at sophomores. After all, no player is a finished product at the age of 19 or 20. Why not put together a list of breakout juniors as well? There should be still plenty to choose from, right?
Actually, no. When it came to the juniors, my challenge wasn't paring down the list so much as filling it out. Still, because I am so dedicated to my Hoop Thinkers, I managed to comprise with a list of eight breakout juniors. Is eight enough? I'll let you decide. Check 'em out and then dive with me into this week's mailbag.
Kelly probably would have made my sophomore list last year if Kyle Singler had gone pro. As you can see, his minutes have not increased all that much, but his scoring average has nearly doubled, and he has really improved his three-point shooting. That is mostly a result of increased confidence. Kelly has the ability to be Duke's best and most important player if he maintains that confidence.
Withey transferred from Arizona during mid-semester of his freshman year. Then he patiently waited two more seasons while the Morris twins did their thing. So far this season, Withey has taken advantage of his chance to shine, becoming an able complement alongside Thomas Robinson in the post. Withey was, however, an offensive no-show against Ohio State last Saturday, when he took just two shots and had two points. If he continues to be that passive, he could see his playing time cut by juco transfer Kevin Young.
Murphy's numbers don't jump out at you, but that's partly because he missed three games with a knee injury. Murphy has a slight build, but he is highly-skilled for his size, much like Chandler Parsons was. The question is whether the Gators -- specifically guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker -- are smart enough to run their offense through Murphy and fellow big man Patric Young instead of launching threes at every opportunity.
Nobody can match Bo Ryan when it comes to recruiting and developing players perfectly suited for his system. Berggren spent his first season in Madison as a redshirt so he could get stronger. His redshirt freshman year was hampered by a shoulder injury that required surgery in the offseason. Last season, he rode the pine while Keaton Nankivil and Jon Leuer ate up all the frontcourt minutes. When his chance came this fall, Berggren was ready. He'll need to continue to develop into a second option who will take some heat off struggling point guard Jordan Taylor.
Thompson provided one of the signature moments of the young season when he buried a three-pointer with 1.8 seconds remaining to give the Hoyas a true road win over then-No. 12 Alabama. With his size, versatility and long-range touch, Thompson is the ideal player for Georgetown's Princeton-style offense. His ability to replace the output that was provided last year by Austin Freeman is a major reason why the Hoyas are one of the biggest surprise teams in the country.
If it was frustrating for Illini fans the last two years to watch big men Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale play underachieving, pillow-soft basketball, imagine how it felt for Griffey. He's the one who had to sit on the bench. Now that Davis and Tisdale are gone, Griffey has brought his versatility and blue-collar hustling attitude to the court where it belongs. Griffey's numbers made a healthy leap from last season, but you have to watch the Illini play to really appreciate the many ways in which he contributes. He may not be as gifted as some other big men, but at least he gets the most out of what he has.
Nix's improvement from his sophomore to junior season should give UCLA fans hope that maybe their own sophomore center, Josh Smith, will be able to make the same jump. Like Smith, Nix has battled weight problems since coming to East Lansing, but he is now in the best shape of his life and able to make solid contributions. Nix already has had more assists and steals than he had all of last season, and though his 50.0 percent foul shooting is putrid, it is still a grand improvement on his 27.1 percent clip as a freshman.
It's hard to tell how much Turner's increase in playing time is attributed to the fact that junior forward Khris Middleton, the Aggies' best player, is just returning from an injury that cost him seven games. Still, I like Turner's game and would be surprised to see him relegated to bit-player status. He is scrappy and efficient around the rim, and he gives the Aggies another steady, experienced pair of hands.
Now on to the Mailbag ...
I could not agree more. I have been arguing for years that schools need to do a better job preventing crowds from storming the floor. Yes, it's fun, and yes, that was a spectacular scene at Assembly Hall. But it is not hard to envision something really ugly happening during one of these things -- either an injury or a fight between fans and an opposing player.
Frankly, I'm surprised that something regrettable (if not tragic) has not already happened. It's only a matter of time. To my knowledge, the SEC is the only league which has a policy in place that mandates hefty fines against a school if it fails to prevent fans from storming the court. I wish every league had that policy, but it is still the schools' responsibility to keep people safe. Here's hoping the folks in charge put the requisite security measures in place before it's too late.
Ermin makes a fair point, albeit one that I'm guessing is not shared by Ohio State fans. Ermin also likes certainty over speculation, so let me give him a few more certainties: Tulane is also undefeated. So is Murray State. So is Illinois, Missouri, Louisville, Indiana, Marquette, Xavier and Baylor. Should I take those nine teams along with Syracuse and call them my top 10?
Of course not. That's because voting is by definition a subjective exercise. That subjectivity is even more liberating considering that -- and this is the important part -- these rankings don't decide anything. We voters take our fun seriously, but that's all it is -- fun.
Jared Sullinger isn't just Ohio State's best player. He is arguably the best player in America. If he were going to be out for an extended period of time, I would not have ranked the Buckeyes number one, but since he is due to return soon my instinct was not to penalize Ohio State for losing at Kansas. If anything, in my view Ohio State strengthened its case by playing the Jayhawks so tough on the road.
Am I right that Ohio State would beat Syracuse on a neutral court? Who knows? Hopefully we'll get to find out. In the meantime, let's all remember that the only certainty in college basketball is uncertainty. And we wouldn't have it any other way.
I got lots of comments on my Twitter feed (
Clancy is great example. I never saw him play in college, but I did watch his son, Sam, play power forward for USC from 1998-2002. Lots of folks also suggest Tony Gonzalez, but as good as Gonzalez was at Cal, he always struck me as a football player playing basketball. Peppers, on the other hand, could have played in the NBA if he wanted to. I have no doubt about that.
Of course, the best modern example of the basketball player-turned-footballer was Kent State's Antonio Gates. I was at the regionals in 2002 when Gates led the Golden Flash to within a game of the Final Four. He was a very effective, undersized post player. I remember reading in Gates's bio that he was a former football player (he originally wanted to attend Michigan State, but Nick Saban insisted he only play football). However, there was no reason to believe at the time that he would turn into one of the best tight ends in NFL history.
If you all have some other examples, both recent and historic, send them my way and I'll revisit this topic in a future mailbag.
I put together my AP ballot on Sunday evenings, and I honestly can't remember if I knew that Taylor had played that game on a torn meniscus. However, I also can't say that it would have made much difference. I know Jayhawks fans are excited about the win -- as they should be -- but because of Sullinger's injury I basically looked at it as a wash. I didn't move Ohio State up as a reward for losing. I moved them up because Kentucky lost to a team with less talent than Kansas has, and while they were at full strength. (Though you could make the case the Wildcats had to play that game without Terrence Jones.)
I frequently get tweets and e-mails from fans who are frustrated that their team has moved down despite not losing, or that a rival school moved up after a loss. A lot of that is dictated by the movement of other teams. That's not hard to understand if you look at the whole ballot instead of just your team, but rabid fans tend to get tunnel vision when it comes to supporting their teams. And I love 'em for it.
I don't do a lot of coach-on-the-hot-seat speculating because it is often baseless, and I'm sensitive to the fact that these are real people whose livelihoods are at stake. But while I hope that Johnson can hang on because I think he is a good coach and a good guy, there is no doubt that his job security is tenuous.
John used the exact right word in his e-mail: fit. Whether a certain coach can succeed in a specific situation depends mostly on how well he fits there. Trent Johnson was born in Berkeley, went to high school in Seattle, played college ball at Boise State and was the head coach at Nevada and Stanford before coming to LSU. He had no ties to the southeast. Not only that, he had just taken Stanford to the Sweet 16. The main reason Johnson bolted for LSU is that the original athletic director who hired him was replaced in 2006 by Bob Bowlsby, and he and Johnson and Bowlsby did not get along. That may have been a good reason to leave Stanford, but it wasn't a good reason to come to LSU.
It also didn't help that Johnson was replacing John Brady, who had taken LSU to the Final Four in 2006. (It shows how badly Brady treated people that despite that incredible accomplishment, LSU fired him just two years later.) If LSU had been simply bad under Johnson that would be troubling enough, but the Tigers have gone 5-27 in the SEC the last two years, and they have already lost this season to Coastal Carolina, Northwestern and South Alabama.
The bottom line is, Johnson has not recruited well enough. Is that because he refuses to cheat? Perhaps. But the bottom line is, a coach is hired to deliver results. I'm hoping like heck that Johnson turns this thing around, but right now there's not much indication that's about to happen.
Heading into the season, I probably would have Ross in Lamb's company, but Langdon raises an interesting question. Even though Ross is shooting a comparable three-point percentage (38.1 percent to Lamb's 37.9 percent) and free throw percentage (84.2 to Lamb's 85.7), I think Lamb is a more natural scorer. On the other hand, Ross is a better, more aggressive athlete, and he's a much stronger finisher on the break. Ross uses his athleticism well, which is why even though Lamb is playing about six more minutes per game, Ross is grabbing 7.0 rebounds per game to Lamb's 4.4.
The question of who will get drafted first depends on the needs of the team that is drafting. The gap between them might have seemed significant six weeks ago, but there is no question that Ross is rising fast.
Finally, as you might imagine I got quite a bit of mail in response to my column about the Xavier-Cincinnati fight (and more specifically Xavier guard Tu Holloway's comments afterward). Here are a few examples:
The last e-mail aside, it seems pretty clear that the consensus of public opinion held that the penalties were too light. Everybody had a different idea of exactly what the penalties should have been, but I still believe they fell considerably short given the transgressions that occurred.
Regarding the question of why Xavier's starters were still in the game during the final minute of a blowout, Xavier coach Chris Mack told me that he regretted leaving them in so late. Mack said he wanted to pull his starters, but the clock wouldn't stop during that last minute, and Mack didn't want to call time out because he feared that might look like he was rubbing it in.
That said, I like the general thrust of these e-mails, which contends that the adults in this situation -- namely, the coaches and the refs -- need to be held more accountable. Frankly, I was shocked that there were no suspensions dealt to the referees. After all, players from both teams had gotten into a heated jawing match on the way to their locker rooms at halftime. Why wasn't anybody teed up then? And why wasn't Tu Holloway immediately teed up for talking trash to the Cincinnati bench before things got out of hand? The refs either missed that, or they saw it and did nothing about it. Either way, it was inexcusable.
I also believe that Mack and Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin should have volunteered to suspend themselves for one game. The fight wasn't necessarily their fault, but it was their responsibility.
If nothing else, I hope this whole ugly episode provokes a much-needed national debate about sportsmanship. (And yes, that includes innocuous but unseemly acts of showmanship like the three goggles.) I understand trash talking has been and will always be a part of the game, but coaches and referees have become way too tolerant of it. It also doesn't help that too many coaches spend too much time complaining to refs instead of coaching their teams.
Those of us who owe our livelihoods to this great game -- coaches, players, referees, sportswriters, etc. -- have a special obligation to serve and protect it as best we can. And the game deserved far better than what Xavier and Cincinnati gave it last Saturday.