PLAYERS OF INTRIGUE – UPDATED
Before the season, The Minutes gave you 25 intriguing players to watch in 2012-13. Most of them have held up pretty well as worthy of paying attention to.
But since nothing ever goes according to script in sports – and that’s a good thing – it’s’ time now to update the list with seven players who have barged their way into the public consciousness. Or at least they should have by now:
Marshall Henderson (1). The Mississippi guard leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring and antagonizing. He is fearless and he is tactless. He is clutch and he is incorrigible.
Henderson averages 19.2 points per game for the Rebels, who at 6-0 are the surprise of the SEC so far. Henderson is sixth nationally in made 3-pointers per game and has cranked up 207 of them in 19 games. He’s made some huge plays to keep Mississippi's unbeaten league run going. He’s also made a target of himself with an on-court demeanor that is a little bit Laettner and a little bit loco.
Most recently, he hit the winning free throws amid a feisty atmosphere at Auburn on Saturday. Henderson was so pleased with the outcome that at the final buzzer he took jersey popping to an obnoxious extreme in front of the home student section.
“I would have preferred him not doing that,” said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy. “But he’s caught up in the emotion of a one-possession game. We’re trying to make sure he channels that toward his team (and away from the opposing fans).”
Kennedy knows that he has something special in Henderson, who played one year at Utah, went to a junior college last season and is in his first year in Oxford. Kennedy is trying to walk the line between stoking the competitive fires and keeping them from raging into a self-immolating disaster.
“We’ve had a number of conversations with Marshall,” Kennedy said. “I think the passion is coming from a good place. … He is about team first. If he didn’t play with that edge, he wouldn’t be the guy who leads the SEC in scoring.”
That edge meets Kentucky’s name brand Tuesday night in a big game for both sides. The Rebels are at home, which should lessen the chance of Henderson histrionics, but you never know.
Victor Oladipo (2). The preseason buzz in Bloomington was all about big man Cody Zeller, and with good reason. He’s a stud. But you can argue that Oladipo has been Indiana’s most complete player and MVP to date.
The junior guard was everywhere Sunday in a wonderful game against Michigan State; he had 21 points, seven rebounds, six steals and three blocks. He’s shooting at an absurd clip, making 69 percent of his two-point shots and 55 percent of his 3-pointers (in his last 11 games, Oladipo is a stunning 15 of 18 from outside the arc). He is relentless defensively and unstoppable in transition.
Oladipo has always had NBA-level athleticism. Now his skill level is catching up, thanks to innumerable hours of work in the gym and watching film.
“He not only works on his offensive game but he spends time studying the opponents,” coach Tom Crean said.
That combination of work ethic and talent has made him one of the best dozen players in the nation this year.
Shane Larkin (3). Nobody has had a better January than Miami, and the sophomore guard has been a huge reason why. The son of former Cincinnati Reds great Barry Larkin has scored less in the last month but has been more well-rounded, averaging 11 points, six rebounds and 4.6 assists in the Hurricanes’ seven-game winning streak.
“He's terrific at everything,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “He's a heck of a defender, he works so hard defensively, comes up with steals. He had ten rebounds and nine rebounds in our last two games, and he's not even six feet tall. He runs the team, he shoots the three, he handles the press, just having an all‑conference caliber year.”
Jeff Withey (4). He’s been overshadowed at Kansas by a succession of stars, from the Morris twins to Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor and now Ben McLemore. But his importance to the 18-1 Jayhawks is undeniable. They lead the nation in two-point field-goal percentage defense and are second in blocks largely because the 7-foot Withey is effectively anchoring the back line of the defense. According to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, he is blocking 15.5 percent of opponents’ two-point shots while on the floor, fourth-highest in the nation.
Tony Woods (5). The former blue-chip recruit has resurrected his career at Oregon, where the Ducks are the Flavor of the Month in the Pac-12. Woods spent two years at Wake Forest before being dismissed after a domestic incident involving the mother of his child. Woods had two charges dismissed in relation to the incident and plead to a misdemeanor assault charge. After being turned away at a few schools, Woods transferred to Oregon in 2011 but last year pretty much blended into the woodwork on a mediocre team. This year, as a fifth-year senior, he’s the Ducks’ No. 3 scorer at 10.9 points per game and leads the team in blocks.
Cleanthony Early (6). This was a guy with virtually no national profile coming into the season as he was a junior-college recruit going to Wichita State. But today he’s the leading scorer and No. 2 rebounder for the 19-2, Missouri Valley-leading Shockers. The 6-foot-8 Early is averaging 15.2 points in only 24.8 minutes per game because he can score in bunches – in a two-game stretch against Bradley and Southern Illinois earlier this month, he scored 63 points in 60 minutes of playing time. Early’s offensive production will likely dip with fellow frontcourt player Carl Hall back from a broken thumb injury and coach Gregg Marshall’s obsession with balanced scoring, but he’s capable of a blazing night at any time.
Roosevelt Jones (7). Four Butler players average more points than Jones, but none of them make more winning plays. At 6-4, he leads the team in rebounding. He also leads the Bulldogs in assists and steals, and is quite comfortable playing point forward. In Butler’s two biggest wins, over Indiana and Gonzaga, he was huge. For a guy who can’t shoot a jump shot, he’s having a tremendous season.
The Minutes hears there is a football game of some importance Sunday. That’s nice. It will serve as a suitable subplot to a very good weekend of college hoops. The great eight games to monitor Saturday and Sunday:
Michigan at Indiana (8). Saturday, 9 ET. First place in Big Ten at stake, and maybe first place in the nation, too. There should be excellent matchups all over the floor. Last year they played twice, with Indiana winning by two and Michigan winning the other meeting by 12.
Mississippi at Florida (9). Saturday, 7 ET. First place in the SEC is at stake – not many people saw that coming before the season. Florida basketball fans are notoriously fickle, but expect them to show up for this one and give a warm Southern welcome to Henderson when he arrives.
Miami at North Carolina State (10). Saturday, 4 ET. The Hurricanes are 6-0 in ACC play but have two on the road this week, at Virginia Tech first and then this trip to Raleigh, which has been a snake pit this year for visitors.
Oklahoma State at Kansas (11). Saturday, 4 ET. This may wind up an easy Jayhawks victory, but it also could be the closest Kansas comes to losing before visiting Stillwater on Feb. 20. The Big 12 has no depth this season, so the challenges for Kansas will be few and far between from now until the NCAA tournament.
Syracuse at Pittsburgh (12). Saturday, noon ET. The Orange have a full week to stew on the loss at Villanova, but if they’re still missing James Southerland then all road games will be dicey. The question is whether Pitt can make enough perimeter shots against the Syracuse zone to keep it close and win it at the end.
Kentucky at Texas A&M (13). Saturday, 6 ET. Great game? No. But the Aggies could be in a position to stick a NIT needle in the defending champion Wildcats if they sweep them on the season. (Then again, a Kentucky win at Ole Miss on Tuesday would help move UK toward the right side of the bubble.) Texas A&M hasn’t won since shocking the 'Cats in Rupp Arena on Jan. 12, and after scoring 40 in that game, Elston Turner has a total of 41 in the four games since.
Ohio at Akron (14). Saturday, 5 ET. Both teams are unbeaten in Mid-American Conference play. If there is any chance for the MAC to be a two-bid league, these are the only potential contenders for an at-large. There is some rivalry here: Ohio snatched the NCAA bid by a point in the MAC tourney final last year and went on to reach the Sweet 16, while the Zips were consigned to the NIT.
Marquette at Louisville (15), Sunday, 2 ET. The Golden Eagles hit the road tied for first in the loss column in the Big East, a testament to another solid coaching job by Buzz Williams. A victory here would allow Marquette to think seriously about winning the league, but they’ve lost five straight to Louisville outside of Milwaukee.
The Cardinals will probably still be short-handed for that game, after beating Pittsburgh on Monday night without two key players. Wayne Blackshear may be back from a shoulder injury, but there’s no telling when defensive stopper Kevin Ware will be seen again. Rick Pitino said he is suspended indefinitely without saying why, but did send a message by voicing complete support for a trio of walk-on guards at the end of his bench. One of those is junior Michael Baffour, who was nicknamed “Dark Slime” by the incomparable Russ Smith. “Slime,” as Pitino referred to him, had played eight garbage-time minutes all season when the coach sent him in during the first half against Pitt. “Scary,” was Pitino’s description. But "Dark Slime" played two serviceable minutes, securing his first career rebound. “It was good to get out and contribute,” Baffour said. Ware figures to be needed come March, but he’s clearly deep in Pitino's doghouse right now.
WE HAVE HIT ROCK BOTTOM
From Abdel Nader (16) to the nadir, we have reached the limits of how bad offense can be in college basketball.
Nader should be the biggest athletic hero on campus at Northern Illinois (17). Yes, bigger than quarterback Jordan Lynch or any other member of the Huskies’ Orange Bowl football team.
[Also: Cal Poly guard has proof his face was stepped on]
It was Nader who made a shot one minute into the game against Eastern Michigan to give NIU its first – and last – field goal of the first half Saturday. Without that shot, the Huskies would be the ultimate sign of hoops futility. With his shot, well, it’s still awful.
The Huskies scored four points in the half and did not make another field goal for the next 24 ½ minutes, on their way to breaking all kinds of records for offensive ineptitude in a 42-25 humiliation. Their four points was an NCAA record low for a half, breaking a mark they set earlier this season by scoring five against Dayton. Their 13.1 percent shooting for the game was an NCAA record low. Their 3.2 percent shooting for the first half was an NCAA record low.
In a remarkable display of optimism, the NIU sports information department labeled the game the Huskies’ “best defensive effort since 2005-06” after holding Eastern Michigan to 42 points. Here in the real world, we can call it what it was: another sign of the advancing offensive apocalypse where slow tempo meets bad shooting and mates into a hideous monster that threatens to devour us all.
Some of the other ugly efforts, by teams far better than Northern Illinois:
Tennessee (18) has failed to score 20 points in the first half four times this season, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The most recent sub-20 effort was Saturday against Alabama, in a game the Volunteers actually won.
New Mexico (19), as a ranked team, put a whopping 34 on the board at San Diego State on Saturday. The Lobos scored 15 points in the final 24 minutes. That came a week after the Aztecs put a smooth nine on the board in the first half at Wyoming, including just six in the first 19 minutes.
Georgetown (20), which can plod with the slowest of them, beat Tennessee 37-36 in late November, beat Towson 46-40 a week later, and then lost to Marquette 49-48 a month after that. The Minutes will bet a Sierra Nevada that there is at least one more sub-50 effort out there from the Hoyas, who are actually a pretty good team.
MAYBE THIS WILL MAKE NIU FANS FEEL BETTER
If you’re tired of seeing teams flail and fail offensively, The Minutes recommends watching an endless loop of the final seconds of the Niagara-Canisius (21) game from Sunday. It was almost the greatest ending ever.
[Breakfast Buffet: Utah hits rock bottom]
With three seconds left Marvin Jordan (22) swished a three-pointer for Niagara off a very poised cross-court pass from Juan’Ya Green. That gave the Purple Eagles a 66-65 lead, but it wasn’t over.
Canisius hustled the ball inbounds, and Billy Baron (23) – son of former Rhode Island coach Jim Baron – sank a flying, twisting three-pointer for what looked like the win … except, upon review, he didn’t quite get it off in time. In degree of difficulty, it was reminiscent of Maryland guard Drew Nicholas’ immortal three to beat UNC-Wilmington in the 2003 NCAA tournament. If only it had beaten the buzzer.
Still, given the inability of some teams to make two deep shots in a half, it was pretty cool to see a game with two deep swishes in the final four seconds.
ANIMALS IN THE ARENA
The Saturday star turn by the Bradley Center Bat (24) during the Marquette-Providence game got The Minutes thinking: what other animals would make the most interesting uninvited guests during a college basketball game?
The possibilities are endless, but here are a few:
An armadillo (25) at TCU. The Horned Frogs are performing about as expected after upgrading from the Mountain West to the Big 12: they’re 0-7 in league play and are probably the worst team in a “big six” conference. They may not win another game. So if anyone’s arena could use a lift from an oddball intruder, it’s TCU’s.
A horse (26) in Rupp Arena. No, not Dan Issel. A real race horse. Lexington bills itself the Thoroughbred Capital of the World, so perhaps the wealthy farm owners who occupy some of the prime seats could bring in four-legged reinforcements for a team that is presently a bit short-handed.
Mike the Tiger (27) at LSU. Anything to enliven the dreary Maravich Assembly Center. His cage is right outside the arena, so it wouldn’t be a tough commute – unless he ate his handlers along the way.
Bo Ryan (28), who might well be a badger, at the Kohl Center.
CAPTIVATING CONFERENCE RACES
Outside the marquee leagues, there figure to be some hot races to the finish. The Minutes gives you five to watch:
Atlantic-10 (29). Newcomers Butler and VCU look like the teams to beat, but a whopping eight teams are within a game of first place and the Sagarin ratings put nine total in the top 90. LaSalle and its four-guard lineup is the hot team after beating the Bulldogs and Rams both last week. Xavier is dangerous. Charlotte is unbeaten at home. And so on. The tourney in Brooklyn could be as wild as the one the Big East stages at the same time in Manhattan.
[Stock watch: La Salle validates self as NCAA tourney contender]
Conference USA (30). The interesting thing here is that it’s not a Memphis walkover for once. Southern Mississippi (17-4, 6-0) is on fire, having won nine straight games under first-year coach Donnie Tyndall. The Golden Eagles host Memphis on Feb. 9 and then visit FedEx Forum two weeks later, so circle those games on the calendar.
MAAC (31). Thanks to the Billy Baron shot that didn’t beat the buzzer, Niagara has a one-game lead in the loss column over Iona, which is a game ahead of Loyola, which is a game ahead of Canisius and Rider. How even are the teams? Five of Niagara’s nine league wins so far have come by four points or less.
Mountain West (32). There may not be a super team, but there are six good ones. Four of them (San Diego State, UNLV, Colorado State and New Mexico) rank in the Sagarin top 40, and rest assured nobody is excited about trips to Wyoming or Boise State. The league could garner a record number of NCAA bids.
West Coast (33). Gonzaga is the king and has played like it this season, with authoritative victories over primary challengers St. Mary’s and BYU. But both those games were in Spokane, and the return trips to Moraga (Feb. 14) and Provo (Feb. 28) will not be easy. The St. Mary’s-Gonzaga rivalry has been red-hot the past few years and should yield at least one really good game this season as well.
MINUTES RANT OF THE WEEK
Can anyone finish at the basket with his off hand? That’s been a Minutes pet peeve for years. There have been countless examples of players making impressive athletic drives from the left side of the court, only to arrive at the basket with the ball right handed and unable to score against awaiting defense.
That's why The Minutes loved what Cody Zeller (34) did to score the biggest basket of Indiana’s victory over Michigan State on Sunday. With the shot clock running down, the Indiana 7-footer drove left-handed from the top of the key and kissed the ball off the backboard and in with his left, giving the Hoosiers a four-point lead with 1:39 left. It was the kind of play that makes NBA scouts swoon, a big man displaying that level of skill.
At the opposite end of the height spectrum is Louisville 6-footer Russ Smith (35). Often, the only way the little man is going to finish his fearless drives to the hoop is by keeping the ball away from tall defenders, and that means a lot of layups with his left hand.
If more players had the ambidexterity of Zeller and Smith, there would be more contested shots made in college basketball.
Travis Bader (36), Oakland. The pre-eminent 3-point gunner in the college game was at his best last week against IUPUI, cashing in 11 threes and scoring 47 points. He followed that up with 26 points in an upset of Western Illinois two days later, and has now made 31 threes in his last five games.
You have to appreciate an old-fashioned chucker, and Bader is that guy. He’s launched 113 shots in the last six games, 80 of them from three-point range. He’s also taken 41 free throws for good measure.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Jay Wright (37), Villanova. Prior to last week, the onetime golden boy had gone 45-38 over the last 2 ½ seasons, just 16-25 in the Big East. But just when you figure he’s lost it, Wright’s Wildcats found themselves and shocked top-five Louisville and Syracuse in successive games. Now Villanova’s NCAA tournament hopes are revived, and nobody in the Big East is circling the Wildcats as an easy “W” anymore.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Trent Johnson (38), TCU. The Minutes likes Johnson (quirky though he may be) but the same cannot be said about his career path the past four years. After the odd lateral move from Stanford (post-Lopez twins) to LSU paid dividends for one season, it’s been downhill from there. Johnson went 40-56 his last three years at LSU and took the escape hatch to TCU last spring, where (as mentioned above) it’s been a grim debut season. The best thing Johnson may have going for him is that TCU doesn’t care much about college hoops, and will presumably give him a chance to try and build something in a tougher league.
When hungry in Tucson, The Minutes strongly recommends Blue Willow (39), a quirky joint where they can put a tasty Mexican spin on just about any breakfast item.
And when thirsty, The Minutes recommends a Mango con Chile cocktail on the ridiculous veranda at the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Resort (40). At the risk of having the man card revoked, The Minutes loved the combination of cucumber-infused tequila, mango puree and a house-made spicy salt on the rim of the glass that defies description. Get secure in your manhood and try one; there will be plenty of time for beer later.
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