Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (special shoutout to Duquesne (1) for not going Donner Party while stuck in the blizzard over the weekend):
STATE OF THE GAME: IMPROVING
There was a lot of lamentation about the quality and vitality of college hoops in the last couple of years, and in 2015 the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee took action to do something about it. A shorter shot clock and a renewed emphasis on actually calling fouls were the primary initiatives designed to speed up games and free up offensive players from defensive assault and battery.
Results to date show that it’s been a major success.
The Minutes spoke Monday with Oklahoma athletic director and men’s basketball committee chair Joe Castiglione (2), NCAA men’s basketball vice president Dan Gavitt (3) and NCAA director of media coordination and statistics Dave Worlock (4). Among some of the key points of the discussion:
After reaching historic lows last year, scoring is up by eight percent in games played through Sunday. Possessions per game are up six percent. On this date in 2015, 37 teams were averaging 75 points per game; this year the number is 147.
“It’s encouraging,” Castiglione said. “The statistical data is trending in a positive direction. But we knew this is going to be a years-long process.”
It seems clear that the 30-second shot clock is working (5), despite the protestations from some Cassandras that speeding up the offense will only result in even worse shot selection. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Not only are more shots going up, a slightly higher percentage of them are going in (44.1 percent, up .62 percent over last year at this time).
“I think this begins to debunk that theory,” Castiglione said.
Less effective thus far are attempts to clean up the sport via calling games more tightly (6). Fouls per game are up only 1.3 over last year at this time, and that small increase is virtually negated by the increased number of possessions per game.
“We thought the increase would be more drastic,” Gavitt said. “There’s maybe a little concern that we’re not quite as far along with the officiating directive.”
However, complaints from some coaches – hello, John Calipari (7), after Kentucky lost to Auburn – that officials are once again swallowing their whistles in league play is unfounded. Fouls per game have stayed almost exactly the same since conference play started, decreasing just .03 per game.
“The data does not support that there’s been any backslide,” Gavitt said.
Other items of interest from the interview:
• Basketball people were toying with the idea of copying some elements of the College Football Playoff, specifically in terms of publicity. The idea of a basketball version of the CFP’s weekly rankings release/TV show was discussed. Ultimately, it hasn’t gained enough traction to happen anytime soon. Selection Sunday will remain the Big Reveal for now (8).
“We feel like the process we have in place is best for college basketball,” Castiglione said.
“I think there’s a recognition that the two sports and two championships are distinct,” Gavitt said. “There’s something really special about unwrapping a gift on Christmas morning. But at the same time, we’re looking at ways to shake the package a little bit beforehand.”
Among those ways is moving the selection show from Indianapolis to New York, the nation’s media mecca and also home base for NCAA tournament broadcast partners CBS and Turner. From the sound of things, there may be additional prerelease wrinkles in the works that the NCAA isn’t ready to divulge yet.
• Castiglione acknowledged that the selection committee’s job could be among the hardest ever this year (9). The teams that will occupy the top tier of the bracket have not yet distanced themselves from the pack.
“We publicly acknowledged last year that eight teams were clearly battling for the top two seed lines,” Castiglione said. “But this year is a little different. We recognize the value of many more exciting teams to consider. That’s a good thing.”
Last year at this time, Kentucky and Virginia were undefeated and Gonzaga had just one loss, while seven more teams had two losses. This season only four teams eligible for the postseason have two losses, and none has fewer than two.
• Castiglione could spend a lot of time outside the selection committee war room during conference championship week.
As the athletic director of the current No. 1 team in America, he will have to recuse himself from all discussions regarding the Sooners. Given the amount of time spent identifying the top seeds – especially this year – that means Castiglione could find himself watching a lot of league tourneys on TV while the rest of the committee weighs the merits of the Sooners. Worlock said there was a similar situation in 2010 and ’11, when Ohio State’s Gene Smith (10) was the committee chair and the Buckeyes were a No. 1 seed (2010) and a No. 2 (’11).
MORE PROGRESS: INTER-LEAGUE GAMES IN JANUARY
In a smart acquiescence to King Football, the Big 12-SEC Challenge was moved from before January to a time when fans in those grid-centric conferences are actually watching basketball. Not that every coach is thrilled about interrupting the rhythm of conference competition, of course.
“I don’t necessarily like it at all,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I don’t like the disruption to league play. But for a league, I think it’s a great exposure day. I think the bonuses outweigh the negatives, but I know the coaches don’t like it.”
The inter-league games will be played Saturday, and there are some good ones. The three best:
Oklahoma at LSU (11). The nation’s No. 1 team, led by the nation’s No. 1 scorer, travels to face the nation’s No. 1 draft pick. The Sooners put on a passing/shooting tour de force in ripping Baylor on Saturday, which should concern a Tigers team that is not exactly barbed wire defensively. This is a huge résumé opportunity for LSU, which is playing better in January but still trying to negate five losses to teams outside the RPI Top 50.
Kentucky at Kansas (12). OK, this game could be played anytime in football season and these two fans bases would still be all-in – but it does provide an intriguing matchup of talent-laden bluebloods that have wobbled at times this year. Kentucky has four losses to teams that likely are outside the NCAA tournament, while the Jayhawks have lost their past three road games. It’s also another matchup between Calipari and Bill Self, who met in the 2008 and ’12 national title games – the first won by Self, the second by Calipari.
Iowa State at Texas A&M (13). Two of the most experienced teams in the country – the Cyclones are almost exclusively playing juniors and seniors, and the Aggies start four seniors. It’s working for them. Texas A&M is the lone SEC unbeaten in league play, and Iowa State has taken down Oklahoma and Kansas on the past two Mondays in Ames. The game also pits two former Murray State coaches against each other: Billy Kennedy, who left Murray for A&M and passed along the job to assistant Steve Prohm, now in his first year at Iowa State.
Last year was dominated in many ways by star freshmen: Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones, D’Angelo Russell, Stanley Johnson and so forth. This year, not so much (see below). Instead, there has been an upperclassman uprising.
The U.S. Basketball Writers Association revealed its updated Player of the Year watch list Monday. Of the 20 names on the list, just one is a freshman. Eleven are seniors and five are juniors.
The biggest senior movers in terms of upgrading their game this season:
Jarrod Uthoff (14), Iowa. Might be the breakthrough player of the year. Uthoff’s scoring has jumped from 12.4 to 18.9 points per game, and his accuracy from both 3-point range and the foul line has improved more than 10 percent. He’s also blocking three shots per game, up from 1.6 last year. No wonder the Hawkeyes have shot up to No. 3 in the nation.
Jalen Jones (15), Texas A&M. Has increased his efficiency this season, playing a career-low minutes (27.1) and scoring a career-high points (17.5). Jones has expanded his range, having already made more 3-pointers this season (16) than all of last season (12). Jones also leads the team in rebounds at 6.8 per game.
Denzel Valentine (16), Michigan State. Needed to do more this year to keep the Spartans among the national elite, and he has. Leads the team in scoring (18.4 per game, up from 14.5), rebounding (up to 7.9 from 6.3), assists (6.6, up from 4.3) and steals (1.1, up from 0.9). That’s a big load to shoulder; let's see how long he can keep it up.
Brice Johnson (17), North Carolina. Another guy who has had an across-the-board increase in production. He’s always been talented, but the focus and intensity had been known to wander until this season. He’s had some monster double-doubles this month: 39 points and 23 rebounds at Florida State; 27 points and 11 rebounds against Wake Forest; 19 points and 17 rebounds at Virginia Tech. If he keeps playing this way, the Tar Heels are The Minutes’ national title favorite.
Buddy Hield (18), Oklahoma. His shooting percentages have skyrocketed, in part because he’s harder to guard as a more versatile offensive player. Hield has gone from taking 54 percent of his shots outside the 3-point arc the previous two seasons to 49 percent, improving his ability to drive and score off the dribble. In the process his 3-point accuracy has ballooned from 36 percent to 52 percent. The nation’s leading scorer also is shooting 91 percent from the foul line while increasing his free-throw attempts by 30 percent per game.
Yogi Ferrell (19), Indiana. The long wait for Ferrell to become a leader appears to finally be paying off. He’s shooting the highest percentages of his career from the field (.479) and the 3-point line (.447) while significantly upping his rebounds (4.3), assists (a Big Ten-leading 6.1 per game) and steals (1.3). But the intangibles coming out during the Hoosiers’ current winning streak might be his greatest improvement.
Basically, the 2015-16 college basketball freshman class is Ben Simmons (20) and everyone else. And even Simmons’ transformative powers have been somewhat limited at LSU. It has otherwise been an undistinguished group. The Minutes takes stock of where the rookies stand, some 20 games into their college careers.
Five who are struggling:
Cheick Diallo (21), Kansas. Rivals.com class rank: No. 5. If you thought Cliff Alexander was a disappointment as the Jayhawks’ Five-Star Freshman Big Man last year, he was polished compared to Diallo. He started out behind the curve due to an eligibility inquiry that kept him out of Kansas’ first five games, and after some early flourishes against outmanned competition (Loyola Maryland and Holy Cross), he has almost disappeared. Diallo didn’t get off the bench Saturday against Texas and played just four minutes against Iowa State Monday. He’s simply not a major part of Self’s plans at the moment.
Skal Labissiere (22), Kentucky. Rivals.com class rank: No. 1. Nothing brings out the bug-eyed lunatic in Calipari more than a soft big man, and that’s what Labissiere has been so far. Cal has downgraded Skal’s role and slashed his minutes in recent weeks, bringing him off the bench and hoping that he’ll eventually grow into a tougher interior presence. A step forward at Arkansas (11 points and three blocks in 20 minutes) was followed by a near-no show against Vanderbilt (no points, no rebounds and two fouls in four minutes). Long way to go.
Derryck Thornton (23), Duke. Rivals.com class rank: No. 14. In November and December he averaged 28 minutes, 10 points and 3 assists per game. In January those numbers have dropped to 21.5 minutes, 5.6 points and two assists. Simply put, Thornton hasn’t yet been the answer Duke desperately needs at point guard.
Malik Newman (24), Mississippi State. Rivals.com class rank: No. 8. He certainly hasn’t been bad, ranking second on the team in scoring (13.4) after dropping 25 on rival Mississippi Saturday in a potential breakout game. But to date Newman hasn’t been the program-elevator he was billed to be when he and Ben Howland arrived in tandem. The Bulldogs are in their customary position: tied for last in the SEC with a 1-5 league mark and an 8-10 overall record.
Antonio Blakeney (25), LSU. Rivals.com class rank: No. 13. Simmons wasn’t the only blue-chip Johnny Jones brought onboard this year – Blakeney arrived with a big rep of his own. But he’s shooting just 30 percent from 3-point range despite fairly avid gunning (85 attempts) and has generally been overmatched against top competition. As LSU got its full roster back intact, Blakeney’s role has been reduced and the team has improved.
Five more freshmen who are figuring it out (non-Simmons Division):
Brandon Ingram (26), Duke. Rivals.com class rank: No. 4. Duke has been bad of late, but Ingram has been really good. After an inconsistent first month, the scrawny wing player has become indispensible for the Blue Devils. Since December he’s averaged 20.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. He even played as the 6-foot-9 top of Duke’s (not terribly effective) 1-3-1 zone defense part of the game against Miami on Monday night. Not much he cannot do.
Henry Ellenson (27), Marquette. Rivals.com class rank: No. 11. Leads the team in minutes, points and rebounds, and has compiled 11 double-doubles in 20 games – most recently a 16-point, 18-rebound effort to help Marquette beat St. John’s on Sunday. Only quibble is that the 6-foot-10 Ellenson is shooting too many threes (65 of them) for a guy who is only making 25 percent outside the arc.
Diamond Stone (28), Maryland. Rivals.com class rank: No. 6. For a guy who is playing just 21 minutes per game, Stone has been quite productive. He’s averaging 13.2 points and 5.5 rebounds, and prior to a quiet six-point night at Michigan State on Saturday, he had 12 straight double-figure scoring games. Stone is a true low-post hoss who knows where his future paycheck will be earned: He has attempted zero 3-pointers and 90 free throws this season.
Jamal Murray (29), Kentucky. Rivals.com class rank: No. 9. Murray comes into the gym firing – his 278 field-goal attempts are 76 more than the Wildcats’ second-most avid shooter, Tyler Ulis. But on a team with an offensive deficit inside, Murray’s brash confidence is needed. When he gets on a roll, he’s one of the toughest covers in the game. He’s scored at least 18 points in every SEC game.
California duo (30) of Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown. Rivals.com class rank: No. 7 for Rabb and No. 3 for Brown. Cuonzo Martin’s huge recruiting coups are growing up, combining to average 29 points and 13 rebounds in Pac-12 play. They’re still wild with the ball at times – 98 turnovers, 60 assists – and foul-prone, but the upside is considerable in a league with vacancies at the top.
CONFERENCE ASSESSMENT: THE BIG EAST
The 2013-14 remodeling of the Big East as a basketball-first conference was a successful act of survival in a changing landscape. The 10-member league has been fun, deep and nationally competitive – to a point. (See below.) Despite a lack of football revenue, the Big East has outperformed several larger and more powerful leagues in terms of overall strength. It has been in the national top five in conference power ratings the past two seasons, and is again this year.
A brief Minutes overview of the 2015-16 Big East as it stands today:
NCAA bids: Probably four right now (Villanova, Xavier, Providence, Butler) with three lurking (Seton Hall, Creighton, Georgetown).
Possible top 16 seeds: Two. Villanova and Xavier.
Recent history: The successes in pre-conference play have not carried over to when it matters most – the new Big East has not been a good NCAA tournament league. It was 5-6 as a conference last year, with only Xavier exceeding expectations by making the Sweet 16 and three teams underachieving according to seed. In 2014 the league was 2-4 in the Big Dance, with nobody making the Sweet 16.
The primary problem is the annual March futility of Villanova (31), which cannot get out of the first weekend despite excellent seeding. As a No. 1 seed last year, the Wildcats fell in the second round. As a No. 2 seed in 2014, the Wildcats fell in the second round. With a current RPI of 2, a Sagarin rating of 3 and a Ken Pomeroy rating of 4, Villanova is good enough to score a high seed despite doubts about its tournament staying power.
At 17-2, Xavier (32) is an intriguing team, with several non-conference victories that will boost its seeding (Michigan, USC, Dayton, Cincinnati). The tough, balanced Musketeers have a challenge at Providence on Tuesday night and then three highly winnable games before a tough closing seven-game gauntlet. This has become a consistent high-level program, and many think this is the squad capable of reaching the school’s first Final Four.
Providence (33) has star power in point guard Kris Dunn, but that’s not all. Forward Ben Bentil has averaged 24 points and 9.7 rebounds the Friars’ past three games. Butler (34) started hot but has lost five of seven league games – largely attributable to playing four games against Villanova, Xavier and Providence already.
THE ETERNAL DUMPSTER-FIRE FLAME
If you thought Rutgers (35) was only a dumpster fire during football season, we bring you this four-alarm update: The basketball program is worse. (Minus the off-field scandal. At least since Mike Rice went away and Eddie Jordan earned a degree.)
The Scarlet Knights are 6-14 overall, with the closest thing to a quality win probably being an 82-70 triumph over Howard on Nov. 15. Howard is No. 267 in the Pomeroy Ratings, but Rutgers is No. 278 – lowest of any Power 5 program, by 27 spots – so that was big. They are 0-7 in road/neutral games. They are 0-7 in the Big Ten, with an average losing margin of 25.6 points. And this week they are at Michigan on Wednesday and Michigan State on Saturday.
Good luck, Knights.
NIGHTMARE SCHEDULE OF THE YEAR
The Minutes understands perfectly well that the smallest schools in Division I must submit to cruel scheduling indignities to fund their programs. But what Mississippi Valley State (36) has done to its basketball team this season is barbaric.
The Delta Devils have played 18 road games and three at home – and the first home date came on Jan. 4. They began the season with 14 straight on the road, wandering from Lincoln, Neb.; to Colorado Springs, Colo.; to Las Cruces, N.M.; to Phoenix; to Provo, Utah; to Cookeville, Tenn. for two games; to Pittsburgh; to Raleigh; to Seattle; to Evansville, Ind.; to Evanston, Ill.; to DeSoto, Texas; to at least a deserving ending in Honolulu.
The predictable result: an 0-14 record.
Between Tuesday, Dec. 1 and Sunday, Dec. 6, MVSU played at Duquesne, at North Carolina Central and at Seattle. That’s an awful travel week – and you know the Delta Devils weren’t flying charter.
This suicide scheduling is nothing new for MVSU, but at least last year they squeezed in a game in nearby Clarksdale, Miss., in December against North Carolina Central. In 2013-14 there were two non-conference home games and one in Clarksdale. Playing 14 straight on the road is a brutal thing to do to a team.
UNDER THE RADAR LOVE
Egidijus Mockevicius (37), Evansville. The 6-foot-10 Lithuanian is one of the most impactful players on the defensive end in America, blocking 2.7 shots and collecting a whopping 11.7 defensive rebounds per game. The senior had back-to-back 20-rebound games last week, and has averaged 15.7 boards in January. If you want the biggest reason why the Purple Aces are 17-4 and a factor in the Missouri Valley Conference race, he’s it.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Tom Crean (38), Indiana. Remember when everyone wanted to give up on Crean on Dec. 2, after a lopsided loss to Duke dropped the Hoosiers to 5-3? After that game the coach noted the date, pointing out that it was ridiculously early to hit the panic button. Since then, Indiana is 12-0, including a 7-0 start to Big Ten play – all the league wins coming without injured guard James Blackmon Jr. Yes, the schedule will get much harder in February, but give Crean credit for keeping calm and carrying on and making his team better. This is a formidable offensive team and an improving defensive squad, even with (and perhaps because of) the loss of Blackmon.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Chris Mullin (39), St. John’s. No, he did not inherit a flush hand, but this has gotten a bit ridiculous. Since beating Syracuse on Dec. 13 and giving rise to at least faint hopes of a revival, the Red Storm has lost 10 straight. They wasted no time killing off the Syracuse momentum by incomprehensibly losing by 22 to Incarnate Word next time out. That was followed by a loss to NJIT, then a loss to South Carolina, and now an 0-7 start to Big East play. Mullin was a weird hire to begin with – a nostalgia grab for a guy who was a great player but had zero coaching experience. So far it’s working out every bit as well as Clyde Drexler did at Houston (19-39 in two largely uninterested seasons).
When hungry in Dallas, The Minutes recommends a visit to AllGood Cafe (40). It has a decidedly un-Dallas funk to it, hence the slogan: “It’s like going to Austin without having to pass through Waco.” The Travel Channel touts AllGood’s bacon as among the best in America – and if for some reason that isn’t enough of a reason to go, try the grilled cheese with green chiles and thank The Minutes later.
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