Here are the top-10 point guards in the country. Agree? Disagree? Tell us on Twitter by using #Top10Thursday.
1. Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
2. Delon Wright, Utah
3. Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
4. Monte Morris, Iowa State
5. Tyus Jones, Duke
6. T.J. McConnell, Arizona
7. Brett Comer, Florida Gulf Coast
8. Nigel Williams-Goss, Washington
9. Ryan Harrow, Georgia State
10. Shannon Scott, Ohio State
Here's a question: What happens when you mix two teams that average 29 percent shooting from 3 and 46 percent shooting from 2 on offense, both of which play some of the sport's best and most physical defense, both of which rank among the 20 slowest teams in the country?
Wednesday night, we got something like the best-case scenario -- and an optimistic sign for Cincinnati moving forward.
The Bearcats' 71-62 overtime win against San Diego State was never going to be an aesthetic marvel, not with these two teams. It was always going to be decided by defense, by strength, by weak-side rotations and boxouts and long-armed players doing athletic things around the rim.
And so it was: San Diego State shot 5-of-25 from 3, and was 2-of-17 before a late, ahem, flurry. Cincinnati went 4-of-11 from long range. Both teams were held well under a point per possession for much of the game; it wasn't until overtime, and a parade of free throws (another flurry!) that the Aztecs inched over the efficiency benchmark. Together, on 49 made field goals, the two squads combined for just 21 assists. Fluid offense, this was not.
Much of this would have been true last season, too, when the Bearcats had Sean Kilpatrick and the Aztecs had Xavier Thames, two of the best and most important guards in the country. This time around, both teams are again playing masterful, ball-killing defense. But both have huge holes where a capable perimeter leader -- a scorer with range and the passing to make teammates better -- so recently stood.
First was the demonstration of the known. Cincinnati went toe-to-toe with a team that is in some ways its mirror image on the defensive end, trailed at various points throughout a tight second half, and pulled in front just enough at the end to require a minor miracle from SDSU.
That late 3-pointer flurry from the Aztecs? That came as they were chasing Cincinnati in the closing minutes, desperately cutting two-possession leads and hoping for missed free throws on the other end. The penultimate play of the game, the one that forced overtime, was courtesy of help from the officials: With three seconds left, Winston Shepard's drive to the left baseline ended in a flail that seemed due less to any contact than Shepard's own lack of control. But the officials whistled it, and Shepard made both free throws. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin went ballistic all the way through his own team's final attempt. He had his reasons. That his team pulled it together so comprehensively in an overtime it probably didn't deserve to deal with was itself a testament to its toughness.
Defense, toughness -- those are the knowns. There were also some hints at the unknown. Coming into Wednesday, just two members of Cincinnati's rotation could be said to be playing efficient offensive basketball. One was freshman Gary Clark, who finished with 10 hard-earned points and five equally hard-earned rebounds. The second was Farad Cobb. Cobb, a junior, is the closest thing Cronin has to a 3-point specialist -- he's shot 37 3s this season (at a 35 percent clip) to just 17 attempts inside the arc. In the first half against San Diego State, he was 0-for-3 with zero points. In the second, he contributed all 12 of his points. His ball handling -- and one especially big shot down the stretch -- were major keys in overcoming one of the nation's least forgiving defenses.
These were not overwhelming statements of purpose. Just hints. But they did point to a reasonably bright immediate future for a Cincinnati team ostensibly decimated by departures -- a team no one talked about as a possible American Athletic Conference title contender this season.
The American looks different now than it did in October. Memphis has fallen flat. SMU is missing Markus Kennedy. UConn lost three games in a row in recent weeks, including a home loss to Yale. Tulsa, a sleeper contender, saw the Huskies' defeat to Yale and raised them a home loss to the Southeast Oklahoma State Savage Storm, which is a (totally real!) Division II program.
But Cincinnati looks different, too. Before Wednesday, it already had a stout defense and a brutal home-court atmosphere, and those might have been enough to push to the top of the American alone. But on Wednesday night, it flashed maturity, toughness, and just enough offensive acumen to look truly intriguing going forward. Is it the prettiest team in America? Not even close. But it might just be the best team in the American.
- So you say you think college basketball players should be paid. Preach! But how much? Using a fair market value metric modeled on the NBA collective bargaining agreement -- wherein players receive at minimum a 49 percent split of all league revenues -- Business Insider found player value ranges from $1.5 million at the high end (Louisville) to about $500,000 per athlete per year at the low end (Northwestern) for the 20 men's basketball programs with the most annual revenue. Four programs break the $1 milliom mark: Louisville, Syracuse, Arizona and Duke. Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio State come in above $800,000 each.
- With almost all of the nonconference schedule finished, MLive.com ponders the quality of Big Ten basketball.
- Speaking of the Big Ten, one of the problems with conference realignment is it runs the risk of creating inbalanced intra-conference schedules. When you have 13 teams in your league, your choice is to either a) hope the league office does a fair job scheduling games several months in advance or b) play 26 conference games. The latter isn't really a choice at all. The Quad City Times, my hometown paper, wonders what will happen when the Big Ten has too many teams and too little time.
- Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Mark Story takes a look at the state of Indiana basketball, mired in a longer "slog through relative mediocrity" than any blueblood program in the country, and asks if Kentucky fans might be able to muster a little sympathy for their northern frenemies. The headline? "C'mon, UK backers, don't you feel a little sorry for Indiana basketball fans?" I'm going to take a wild guess here: No. They don't.
- Our own C.L. Brown's latest Coach Speak column sat down with St. John's coach Steve Lavin, who talked about his program's long road to relevance, Chris Obekpa's short-shorts, and whether he could be convinced to don a Lou Carnesseca sweater: "On the right occasion and if it fit well. I might have to drop 20-25 pounds because at this point, I might look like Winnie the Pooh with this Buddha belly I'm carrying around. If I do some ab work and cut out the carbs and drop 20-25, I'd be willing to put on a Coach Carnesecca sweater to honor the Hall of Famer and everything he represents about basketball and St. John's history in particular." Silly old bear.
Kentucky could be a great team. One of the best in years.
This season’s Wildcats could be a squad we’re referencing decades from now.
It’s too early to know for sure. But they’re one of two teams in NCAA history to feature nine McDonald’s All-Americans. My colleague, Eamonn Brennan, recently noted that this is probably the best defensive unit since the turn of millennium, which is quite confounding when considering that the Anthony Davis-led Wildcats seemed to block and stop everything during their 2011-12 national title run.
Greatness, however, isn’t achieved in a vacuum. The best need good competition.
Leonard needed Hagler. Bird needed Magic. Brandy needed Monica.
On Tuesday night, Alabama nearly ruined Wichita State’s 22-game (now 23-game) home winning streak. Jimmie Taylor was a monster (3 blocks), and Levi Randolph (13 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists) was the best player on the floor for the bulk of the matchup.
But Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker shook off a rough start to lead Wichita State on a late 13-1 run in the final 5:34 that sealed the 53-52 win. Also, Alabama's late-game execution could use some work. Alabama, down one in the final seconds and coming out of a time out, drew up a play for Rodney Cooper, a 45 percent shooter from the arc who had missed his previous two attempts. It didn't fall.
Still, the Crimson Tide showed up on the road in one of the nation’s toughest venues in a game against a top-15 team. Anthony Grant’s crew blew a late lead, but if it plays that way the rest of the season, Bama could finish in the SEC’s top tier.
But what does that even mean? These days, not very much.
ESPN released its initial BPI standings on Tuesday.
Kentucky, as expected, is ranked first.
No other SEC squad cracked the top 20. South Carolina, which has won three in a row, was No. 21. Arkansas and Florida were 30th and 36th, respectively.
There are three more months for teams to emerge, but the initial standings are confirmation that Kentucky is the only SEC team with a bona fide, albeit early, NCAA tourney résumé. The rest of the league has a lot of work to do.
That's why Bama’s loss to Wichita State was significant. Kentucky can’t provide the only quality win in the conference. That’s not going to help the league fulfill Bruce Pearl’s prediction of five SEC teams in the Big Dance. Kentucky could two-step alone in the postseason, especially if it’s the only legit résumé-builder in the conference.
Arkansas and Florida have been respectable and are improving. South Carolina is growing. LSU’s current groove includes a recent win over West Virginia.
Maybe things will get better and Kentucky will find a nemesis. That’d be good the Wildcats, who could use a battle or two before March Madness begins.
Those SEC losses last season helped Kentucky prep for the fights they won during the NCAA tourney. Plus, it’s not fun to see an elite team run through conference play without any drama.
The 2004-05 North Carolina Tar Heels won a title, but lost battles to Chris Paul's Wake Forest team and J.J. Redick's Duke squad along the way. Florida went 10-6 in the SEC before it won the first of back-to-back national titles in 2006. Tom Izzo’s Michigan State squad won the championship in 2000 but only after losing three Big Ten games, including a pair of wars with Indiana and hard-fought battles with Wisconsin.
It’s better that way.
In college basketball, the best teams don’t always win the national championship. Sometimes, it’s just the hottest team.
Conference play is the only true gauntlet in the sport. That’s why Kansas, which has won or shared 10 consecutive Big 12 championships, has earned so much respect despite winning just one national title in that stretch.
Maybe the SEC will surprise us and produce a few teams that can challenge Kentucky, even if it’s just for a night.
That “maybe,” however, seems like a stretch right now.
Kentucky is a stellar representative for the SEC on the national stage. But the Wildcats are standing up there all alone right now.
- A Sea of Blue argues that Kentucky's platoon system won't die thanks to Alex Poythress' injury, even if the injury gives UK coach John Calipari an ostensible excuse to return to a more conventional rotation. On the one hand, Calipari isn't suddenly going to pick five starters and four reserves and divide their minutes hierarchically. Nine guys will play around 20 minutes per game, rather than 10. On the other hand, this argument is kind of moot. The whole notion of a platoon is based on two relatively equal sets of five players rotating en masse. If Calipari is mixing different lineups and substituting one or two players at a time, that's not a "platoon" -- it's just a really balanced, slightly unconventional rotation. At that point, clinging to the p-word is less about description than branding. Who cares what you call it?
- A few weeks ago, I previewed one of Villanova's Big Five matchups with the caveat that while the Wildcats were obviously the better team, the Big Five rivalries had a way of bringing out weird results. Not so much: A year after sweeping its Big Five opponents by a combined 90 points, Jay Wright's team is 3-0 thus far, with a combined margin of victory (over La Salle, Saint Joe's and Temple) of 65 points. Philadelphia Daily News staff writer Mike Kern tallies up just how far ahead of the rest of the city Jay Wright's team really is: "They'll get Penn at the Palestra in mid-January. Their magic number is 26. Which begs the question, is the current separation between the programs really this wide? 'Things are [cyclical],' said Villanova coach Jay Wright. 'We've had older guys the last two years. Other teams are young. It makes a big difference in college basketball.' It's part truth, part diplomacy. …"
- Burnt Orange Nation uses waterfall charts -- a pretty piece of information design bestowed with an even prettier name -- to hammer home just how good the Texas defense has been in 2014-15.
- While you were fretting about Michigan State's year-over-year talent dropoff and/or enjoying the accordion stylings of Tom Izzo, the Spartans were quietly shooting the ball as well as any team in the country: "With nearly a third of the regular season in the books, this Michigan State team is pace to become the most prolific long-range squad in program history. The Spartans shot 58.8 percent from deep, on a 10-for-17 effort Sunday night. That raised their season average to 45.6 percent, the best in the country. Michigan State may not be able to compete with college basketball's best night-in and night-out. Its flaws, from a drop in athleticism compared to last year's team to struggles to get to the hoop, are apparent. But if shooting performances like Sunday are on the table, there could be some fun nights in March."
- Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield is shooting just 36.4 percent to start the season, a significant drop-off from last year's 44.5 percent caused primarily by a 20-of-54 start from inside the 3-point line. (By contrast, Hield shot 51 percent from 2 last season.) What say Sooners coach Lon Kruger? He isn't the least bit worried.
"I heard suggestions for home and home. Here's my suggestion: Morgantown, Charleston. Next year Charleston, Huntington and just keep it that way," he said. "It's good for the state. If they back out now they're afraid of us. We're coming back."
And earn a response he did! On Monday, Huggins opened his call-in coach's show with a glorious 15-minute rant. In the process of pointing out Marshall's lackluster RPI over the past decade ("I don't think it's my job to support them. ...This is the fifth time in 10 years that they've been 160 in the RPI or worse..." ) and calling the idea of playing the Herd twice in a season a "travesty," Huggins pretty much laid waste to everything in his path, from D'Antoni specifically to Marshall generally. Enjoy!
"He can say I'm afraid all he wants," Huggins said. "I've probably coached 1,116 more games than he has. It's ridiculous to say something like that. We're afraid. Yeah, we're really afraid. It's crazy. We've beaten Duke. Mike's a pretty good coach. Was I afraid? I don't think I was afraid playing Duke. Played Boeheim. Used to play him every year. He's a great coach, I wasn't afraid. Why would I be afraid?
"The thing that's most laughable, and I'll get in trouble for saying it I know, but I'm to the point in my life where I really don't care. How about this? 'We're back.' That was their sixth loss [to West Virginia] in a row. 'We're back.' 'We're back' all right. Honestly it's laughable."
There are two pieces of information any attentive reader should take away from this:
- He feels he's just now arrived at the point in his life where he really doesn't care, which is a frightening admission indeed, and ...
- If you come at the Huggy Bear, you best not miss.
So, after a year-plus spent compiling SportVU data, how has the Blue Devils' approach changed?
Statistics acquired through SportVU can be tailored to a team’s needs. In its second year of use at Duke, the staff is still exploring the possibilities. “We’re getting more of an understanding of what we’re seeing,” says [Duke basketball director of information technology Kevin] Cullen, a former team manager who graduated from Duke with a degree in computer science in 2007. “I think we understand better what they’re presenting and how to use it.”
“It’s amplifications of principles that I think are generally true,” Cullen says of SportVU data. “Some of them are surprising. None of them are earth-shattering. None of them are going to win the game.”
Those quotes, given to the Raleigh News & Observor's Barry Jacobs on Monday, should either make Duke opponents very happy, or slightly worried. The right response depends on how coy you think Cullen is being.
On the other hand, this goes beyond a raft of graduate managers tracking between-the-box-score plays on the sidelines, scribbling marks on a clipboard for every missed transition pass or slow close-out. Duke is the only school in the country employing military-grade camera hardware in games and practices. Its staff is the only one in the country able to sort the ream of information those cameras produce with algorithms that stretch far beyond what the human eye can see. This is a competitive advantage. Possibly a major one. And if you were Cullen, and you presided over the lone SportVU implementation in your entire sport, would you be openly share the details of that implementation? No, you wouldn't.
Besides, it's not like the Blue Devils are analytical revanchists. Cullen offered Jacobs one notable example of advanced stats in action. In helping Duke's perimeter players understand the best way to play off center Jahlil Okafor -- who on Monday night became the first freshman in Duke history to put up a 20-point, 20-rebound game -- the Duke staff used shot breakdowns to hammer a simple point home:
“I think coaches for years have always tried to coach good and bad shots by their players. And one of the more simple things is the catch-and-shoot three versus a 3-pointer off the dribble,” Cullen explains.
The Blue Devils made 42 percent of their catch-and-shoot 3-pointers (51-121) in their first seven games, all wins. Given that only 42 long-distance tries were created off the dribble – with 28 percent accuracy – it appears the lesson sank in. “You try to look at where you can be your best,” Cullen says. “That’s one area that we’ve made a conscious effort to improve.”
You don't need missile-systems lenses to tell you this. Synergy scouting breakdowns -- eagerly in use at dozens, if not hundreds, of programs across the country -- would more than suffice. But this one example tells you what you need to know about Duke's philosophy on the topic at large.
Coach K doesn't need numbers to tell him what a good shot is. But if he can back up instruction with tangible numbers, why wouldn't he? If you have the information, why not use it? Cullen might not be making his SportVU work public, but it's a safe bet he's applying it. Meanwhile, the sample set is only getting larger. Day by day, game by game, practice by practice, the information gets more useful.
So, yeah, if you're an ACC coach, go ahead and add "potentially massive data advantage" to your list of Duke-related concerns. Slot it in just behind "loads of NBA talent" and "a coach nine games away from his 1000th career win." As if Duke wasn't scary enough already.
*Update: Louisville basketball has also installed SportVU cameras in its home arena, the Yum! Center, though not in its practice facility.
Tom Izzo plays Jingle Bells on his accordion. https://t.co/fIowVQjik7— Kevin Pauga (@KevinPauga) December 16, 2014
The MSU Basketball players sing Jingle Bells with accordion player Tom Izzo https://t.co/iRtejxhIMz— Kevin Pauga (@KevinPauga) December 16, 2014
MSU Basketball players join Coach Izzo and his accordion with "Up On The Housetop" https://t.co/2f8Ek1ClIO— Kevin Pauga (@KevinPauga) December 16, 2014
Izzo is many things -- a basketball coach with six Final Fours on his resume, a bracingly honest evaluator of his own team's performances, a leading avatar for frustrated middle-managers everywhere. The nation's leading Midnight Madness costume-donner. And, last but not least, a man who knows his way around an accordion.
For the past few years, around the holiday season, Izzo has been treating listeners of his weekly East Lansing coach's show to some celebratory spirit. He brings his accordion, the players sing along, and much mirth is had by all.
This year's edition -- which includes "Jingle Bells" and "Up On The Housetop" -- comes to us via Michigan State director of basketball operations Kevin Pauga. Thanks, Kevin. It's still early, but this is the best present anyone has gotten us yet.
- Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall noticed something amiss in the Shockers' recent home games: The student section wasn't at capacity. Sure, a solid number of kids were showing up for the games, but there were rows of obvious unused space at the top of the student section, made more obvious by its proximity to the WSU student band. The problem may be the way the Shockers distribute tickets: According to the Wichita Eagle's Paul Sullentrop, students are allotted 1,100 free tickets, and individual students can claim tickets weeks ahead of time. “For some reason, they’re picking up tickets with no intention of using them, and I think the reason is we’re giving out tickets three or four games in advance,” Marshall told Sullentrop. “If you’re going to take the ticket, use the ticket. Because then there are other people in line who can’t get a ticket.” Marshall's solution? A personal letter, distributed at Dec. 6's home game against Saint Louis and also via social media, in which the Shockers' coach expresses his disappointment in the empty seats and challenges the students to accept the "responsibility of showing up early, filling those seats beyond capacity, and creating one of the most menacing environments in college basketball." Respectfully demonstrate areas for improvement, create clear goals, challenge with specifics -- it's Coaching 101, really. Now it's up to the students to respond.
- "Catching the ball with two hands, I don't know, I think they teach you that in sixth grade. I'm not sure. Some place. I hope. Before now. Some place. When we're worried as a coaching staff about that, how can we even think about what we're going to run this play or whether we're going to trap? … This team is not anywhere near a good basketball team. Anywhere near. I've never said that since I've been here -- 39 years. Not that they couldn't be. But they're not." Those are just a couple of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's best quotes after Sunday's 71-69 win over Louisiana Tech, a win that (obviously!) did nothing to quell Boeheim's frustration with the Orange.
- On Monday afternoon, ESPN's Andy Katz reported that BYU star Tyler Haws -- who's averaging 23.9 points per game, third most in the country, in his senior campaign -- could be out until at least the Cougars' West Coast Conference opener against Gonzaga Dec. 27 with a bad left ankle sprain he suffered this past Saturday against Weber State. That's good news, in a way; a break would have been far worse than a sprain. Even so, BYU has two challenging games between now and then: Saturday versus Stanford and Tuesday, Dec. 23, against Massachusetts. BYU is already in a tricky place vis a vis its at-large tournament resume. It has no marquee wins and losses to every decent-to-good team (San Diego State, Purdue, Utah) it has played thus far. Haws' injury could end up being a major long-term turning point, which is why BYU -- which wouldn't put a timetable on his return, and has described him as day to day in various reports -- will want to see him back on the court as soon as possible.
- Kentucky remains your unanimous Associated Press No. 1, as we wait for someone to be That Guy (or Gal) and vote for somebody else. It is also one of the last nine remaining unbeaten teams in the country. Last week, there were 12, including Incarnate Word, Seton Hall and Northern Iowa, the last of which fell out of the top 25 after last weekend's loss to VCU. (Three cheers to the Cardinals for making it to mid-December without a loss.)
- You probably weren't watching Connecticut's 106-85 win over Coppin State Sunday, because why would you be? You had fantasy football playoffs to be miserable about. (Or was that just me?) Which means you probably missed the 13-of-13 from the field, 14-of-16 from the free throw line, 40-point, 12-rebound, three-block Bill Walton impression Amidah Brimah unleashed on the lowly Eagles. I'm just going to leave this box score here and let you savor it for the rest of the afternoon.
There's always an invisible line. In every team's season, there comes a time when the optimism must fall away. The time is different every season, and for every team, which makes it hard to precisely pinpoint. But every team has the threshold across which the hopeful "ifs" of the preseason -- if we shoot it better, if Player X guards on the wing, if Player Y gets healthy -- no longer apply. The line says that if those things haven't happened yet, they won't ever happen. Past the line, you are who you are.
On Wednesday night, after an ugly performance that was nonetheless good enough to survive Georgetown on the road, Bill Self indirectly referenced this invisible line. His Jayhawks weren't very good yet, he said, but he was hopeful for the future -- his team is young and figuring it out and still winning these ugly games anyway. In other words, there is a gap between how good his team is right now and how good it might conceivably become.
Three days later, in a 63-60 win over No. 13 Utah, the 10th-ranked Jayhawks displayed how wide that gap really is.
Saturday's first half against Utah was probably Kansas' best half of the season. The Jayhawks were 12-of-20 from the field and 5-of-8 from 3, and it wasn't as simple as making shots -- Kansas was running good offense and creating good, makeable shots in the first place. Defensively, the Jayhawks were as taut as ever, forcing Utah into tough looks, few free throws, and just 21 first-half points.
The second half, or the first 17 or 18 minutes of it, was a reversion to everything the Jayhawks don't do well. Kansas made just six of its 23 field goals and committed seven turnovers, several of which were more or less unforced. Wayne Selden struggled anew. Cliff Alexander was nonexistent. And the Jayhawks' defense was shredded by Utah guard Delon Wright -- who ended the game with 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting, plus four steals and four assists -- as Utah erased a 21-point second-half deficit.
In the end, the Jayhawks made a series of key plays -- a Perry Ellis bucket here, a steal there -- to salvage the win. But the difference between the halves was the real takeaway. In the first, Kansas was everything its deep crop of talent hints at: fluid and versatile offense, ferocious man-to-man defense. In the second, all of the struggles were back on display.
The best news is that Kansas has a long time before it reaches the line -- the point at which it can no longer expect to transform. It's nowhere close to that line yet. Even as the Jayhawks keep winning, there remains a huge gap between what they are and what they might become. Their project over the next month is to erase that gap.