College hoops is essentially taking a few days off for Christmas, but after a number of close games and exciting finishes on Thursday night, I am almost as excited for conference play to begin as my four-year-old is for Christmas. I say “almost” because there’s pretty much no way I will ever be as excited about anything as she is right now.
Some teams are entering league play brimming with confidence based on their recent performances while others are trying to prevent things from snowballing in the wake of a few losses. Here’s my weekly look at college basketball’s risers and fallers.
The Bottoms Line: Stock Up
In the spirit of the holiday season, I thought I’d actually say something positive about the Pac-12. The Bears just beat a solid UC Santa Barbara team by 20 points without starters Jorge Gutierrez and Richard Solomon. Gutierrez was ill and should return for a road test against UNLV on Friday, but Solomon is expected to miss at least a month due to a foot injury.
The Bears don’t have a ton of depth, particularly inside, but David Kravish has been able to help on the glass. Allen Crabbe is one of the more underrated players in college basketball and may well make a run at Pac-12 Player of the Year. Along with Gutierrez and Justin Cobbs, who scored 25 against UCSB, Crabbe gives Cal a solid backcourt to go with Harper Kamp up front. Someone has to win this conference, and the Bears are looking like the favorite right now.
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The Wildcats won their first game of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii to move to 8-1 on the season, with their lone loss coming in double overtime to West Virginia. Frank Martin’s squad has a solid road win at Virginia Tech and beat Alabama by 13 last Saturday. K-State should definitely make the finals in Hawaii where they will face either Auburn or Long Beach State.
It’s been a team effort to replace the scoring of Jacob Pullen, but the Wildcats have four players averaging at least 11 points and eight guys scoring at least five points per contest. Jamar Samuels leads the team at 12.4 points per game and has done a great job getting to the line in their most recent victories, while freshman Thomas Gipson has been a pleasant surprise, particularly on the glass.
As we have come to expect from Martin’s teams, the Wildcats are tough to score on and have allowed just one opponent to score over 0.90 points per possession. They are also among the Top 25 in defensive effective field goal percentage. I wouldn’t put them in the same class as Baylor and Missouri in the Big 12, but I do think they can be in the mix to finish third.
After winning at Charlotte on Thursday, the Canes are now just 7-4, but they added a couple key players over the past week. First, big man Reggie Johnson returned from an offseason knee injury. For someone who had battled weight issues in his career, conditioning was a question mark, but Johnson logged 36 minutes in his first game back. He has 26 points and 16 boards over his first two games, and along with Kenny Kadji, who has apparently become a 6-foot-10 sharpshooter, Miami has a serviceable front line.
The backcourt is already strong with Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott, but getting DeQuan Jones back on the wing gives them for firepower on offense. Jones was implicated in the Nevin Shapiro saga but recently (and rather unexpectedly) had his suspension lifted. He returned to post seven points and six boards in his first game back. The Canes won’t challenge UNC or Duke for ACC supremacy, but a third place finish is not out of the question.
The Bobcats beat a tough Northern Iowa team by 17 points on the road this week and now sit at 10-1. Their only loss was by five points at Louisville, and they have also won at Marshall, who is looking like the favorite in Conference USA.
Four players are averaging at least 10 points and four rebounds for OU, led by D.J. Cooper, who is also dishing out 6.4 assists per game. The team could stand to get to the line more and foul less, but they are forcing a lot of turnovers and doing a nice job of defending the three-point line. After Kent State lost to Texas-Arlington and Utah State this week, the Bobcats now appear to be the MAC favorite.
The Bottoms Line: Stock Down
First, the Noles lost Terrance Shannon for the season due to a shoulder injury that requires surgery. Then, they lost convincingly to Florida on the road. While there’s no shame in losing to the Gators, Florida State is now assured of finishing their non-conference schedule without a win over a team ranked in Pomeroy’s Top 100. Given the lack of depth in the ACC behind Duke and North Carolina, the lack of marquee non-conference wins may come back to bite them.
The Noles continue to do a terrific job on the defensive end of the floor and are allowing just 0.85 points per possession. Unfortunately, they are inept on offense. Their turnover rate is among the worst in the nation, and they don’t really have any reliable outside shooters. After missing the first semester to get his academics in order, guard Ian Miller returned against the Gators, but I’m not sure he solves either of those issues.
The Illini dropped their first game of the season last Saturday, losing by 16 to UNLV on a “neutral” floor in Chicago. They followed that up with a lackluster performance against Cornell before losing to Missouri. I was most impressed with them against the undefeated Tigers, because on a couple occasions the game seemed to be getting away from them but they battled back and eventually took a one-point lead with about two minutes left.
The other big takeaway from that game was a breakout performance from Joseph Bertrand, who scored 19 points off the bench against Mizzou. That is absolutely critical given the complete lack of bench contributions the Illini had received over the last few games. Still, they have just one win against Pomeroy’s Top 90 and don’t have particularly reassuring efficiency numbers on offense.
Even before they lost to Rice, I had the Aggies in this category, but that definitely solidified it. A&M is now 8-3, but just one of those wins came against a team in Pomeroy’s Top 200.
The team is really struggling offensively. They are shooting just over 30 percent from three-point range, have a high turnover rate, and rarely get to the line (where they don’t shoot well anyway). Khris Middleton has only been back for four games, but he doesn’t cure all of this team’s ailments. We’ll find out a lot about this team when they open Big 12 play at Baylor on January 2nd.
While you can certainly blame Xavier’s losses to Oral Roberts and Long Beach State on the fact that they were forced to play short-handed due to the suspensions from the Crosstown Brawl, those wounds were self-inflicted, so my sympathy is minimal at best. It’s tough to know how the selection committee will view these defeats in March, but the loss to the 49ers will keep them from playing Kansas State in the Diamond Head Classic, which would have given them a chance for another solid non-conference win.
In the end, this is still a really good basketball team that can make a run at the Final Four. However, while these recent losses have their stock down on the court, their actions during and after the Cincinnati game have done some damage to the program’s reputation off of it as well.