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March Madness in January

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EAST LANSING, MI - JANUARY 11: Eric Curry #24 of Minnesota Golden Gophers drives tot he basket and draws a fouls from Nick Ward #44 of the Michigan State Spartans in the second half at the Breslin Center on January 11, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

The final seconds of a big Gonzaga win over St. Mary’s officially brought to an end an outstanding Saturday of college basketball. Big teams, big performances, and outstanding battles heated up the hardwood during a cold January weekend.  No matter your team allegiance, Saturday’s slate of games got the momentum going towards the promise of an incredible NCAA tournament in March.

March Madness in January

Golden Gophers Keep Digging Down  

#24 Minnesota is trending in the wrong direction after a 12-1 start to the season.  A 75-74 overtime loss at home to a depleted Michigan State team started a slide that has the Golden Gophers 3-3 in their last six games. In a game where they held a 32-18 first half lead, Minnesota fell on the road at Penn State 52-50.  A three point lead with two minutes left turned into a bad road loss for a Minnesota team that needed a win badly.  Star junior guard Nate Mason who had 31 points in a win at Purdue, managed only seven points against the Nittany Lions. We still don’t know how good Minnesota is, which is concerning after such a strong start to the season.

Gators Keep Chompin’ on SEC Foes

#23 Florida is trending in opposite direction of Minnesota. The Gators continue to get the conference wins they need to help end their two year March Madness drought.  Florida defeated Georgia at home 80-76 in overtime, behind a 27 point performance by senior Canyon Barry. After back to back losses to Duke and Florida State, the 14-3 Gators have won seven straight. Beating the average teams in your respective conference is easier said than done. Florida faces a stiff test on the 18th, when they travel to South Carolina to play a Gamecock team that is undefeated when leading scorer Sindarius Thornwell is on the floor.

Fightin’ Irish Stay True to Their Name

#20 Notre Dame clawed their way to an impressive 76-71 win at Virginia Tech. The Irish moved to 16-2 on the season and an impressive 5-0 in ACC conference play. The Irish have reeled off seven in a row, and got a major contribution from freshman T.J. Gibbs who scored 13 points off the bench. The Irish aren’t big inside, but have a balanced scoring attack with junior Bonzie Colson leading the way at 15.9 ppg. Senior forward Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem are both over 14 ppg, and point guard Matt Farrell is one of the most improved players in the nation. Notre Dame faces another stiff test this Wednesday Night, when they travel to Tallahassee to play #9 Florida State fresh off a home win against Duke.

Clemson’s NCAA Tournament Hopes Starting to Fade

The Tigers came up short in a home game they desperately needed against #19 Virginia. The Tigers fell to the Cavaliers 77-73 thanks to London Perrantes 25 points. Clemson has now lost four consecutive conference games, all of which they led in the second half. The Tigers are 11-6 overall and just 1-4 in the ACC. Senior Jaron Blossomgame continues his tremendous play (18.2 pgg, 6.0 rpg), but has little support. The difficult schedule continues as Clemson travels later this week to #14 Louisville to take on Rick Pitino’s Cardinals.

Butler Defeats Fifth Ranked Team of Season

The Bulldogs continue to navigate a difficult schedule with an 83-78 home win against Xavier. Butler improves to 15-3 on the season and 4-2 in Big East conference play. Freshman guard Kamar Baldwin keeps getting better each week, and led the Bulldogs with a season-high 21 points. Butler has now defeated #8 Arizona, #22 Cincinnati, #9 Indiana, #1 Villanova, and #15 Xavier this season. Their only loss to a ranked opponent was to Creighton, and they get the chance for revenge on January 31st at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Under head coach Chris Holtmann, the Bulldogs are 36-6 at home.

Mountaineers Avoid Letdown

After their incredible 21 point thrashing of #1 Baylor, the Mountaineers avoided a natural letdown with a 74-72 win at Texas. Junior guard Jevon Carter led West Virginia with 17 points. The Mountaineers continued to force turnovers with their press, as they caused 19 by the Longhorns. This gives Bob Huggins’ defense a total of 48 turnovers caused in two games. West Virginia plays Oklahoma and at Kansas State before hosting the Kansas Jayhawks on January 24th in a huge Big 12 matchup.

Tar Heels Keep Runnin’

The high scoring game on Saturday was #11 North Carolina hosting #9 Florida State. An exciting ACC battle ended with the Tar Heels pulling away late for a 96-83 victory. Joel Berry II had his usual 26 point explosion (three of six from behind the arc), and Isaiah Hicks and Justin Jackson chipped in 22 points each. The most promising take from this game was the double-double of junior forward Theo Pinson (12 points and 10 rebounds). Pinson has just returned from a broken foot, and is still only coming off the bench. The Tar Heels outrebounded Florida State 56-34, led by sophomore forward Luke Maye‘s 15 rebounds off the bench. No shame here for the Seminoles, who competed well and kept this game close in Chapel Hill until three minutes left. With Pinson on the floor, North Carolina may be the best team in the country.

Blue Devils in a Free Fall

The Duke Blue Devils dropped to 1-3 since Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s absence due to back surgery.  They lost at #14 Louisville 78-69 and are now 14-4 overall and fell to 2-3 in the ACC. Junior guard Grayson Allen overcame a chorus of boos whenever he touched the ball to lead all scorers with 23 points, which kept Duke close despite only three bench points in the entire game. The absence of senior Amile Jefferson with a bone bruise in his foot severely hurt Duke’s depth. The Blue Devils need to reverse the trend, and upcoming home games against Miami and NC State should provide that opportunity. Louisville improved to 3-2 in conference (15-3 overall), and already owns impressive wins over Kentucky and Purdue.

Gonzaga Whips St. Mary’s

The last undefeated team in the country passed their biggest test with flying colors as #5 Gonzaga cruised to a 79-56 win over #21 St. Mary’s.  Junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss led all scorers with 19 points, as the Bulldogs produced four players with double digit scoring. The normally defensive-minded Gaels could not contain Gonzaga’s high octane offense as the Bulldogs shot an incredible 64.7 percent from the field. Gonzaga shot 53.8 percent from long distance and turned a nine point lead into a second half blowout. The little hope St. Mary’s had to start the game was erased when leading scorer Jock Landale sat for over fourteen minutes with two fouls in the first half. The question now remains, when will Gonzaga lose? Ironically, their next challenge may not come until February 11th, when they visit the Gaels in Moraga.

Bruins Survive and Advance In Utah

If it wasn’t for a Dillon Brooks last second three pointer, the UCLA Bruins would among the undefeated ranks with Gonzaga. The #4 Bruins survived a scare in Utah, overcoming a nine point second half deficit to pull out an 83-82 Pac 12 conference win. Star freshman Lonzo Ball had a great all around game with 17 points, eight assists, and six rebounds. This was a valiant effort by the Utes, as UCLA’s balanced scoring attack again produced five players in double figures. Sophomore reserve guard Aaron Holiday has appeared to break out of a recent scoring slump, with 14 points off the bench. The 18-1 Bruins have tough upcoming conference games at home against #16 Arizona and on the road at #25 USC.

Bears Bounce Back

The formerly undefeated Baylor Bears rebounded in a big way with an impressive 77-68 road win at #25 Kansas State. The Bears overcame the “Octagon of Doom” and major foul trouble issues to stay just one game behind Kansas in the Big 12 race. Point guard Manu Lecomte had a game high 26 points (four of six from three point range) and overcame two quick fouls in the opening three minutes. Baylor outrebounded the Wildcats 37-24 and used ten steals to finish off a late second half comeback. The Bears moved to 16-1 on the season and continue to eye a February 1st battle against to be #1 Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

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2017 NBA Draft: Top Point Guard Prospects

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FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 30: Washington Huskies guard Markelle Fultz (20) drives to the basket during the NCAA Basketball game between the Washington Huskies and TCU Horned Frogs on November 30, 2016, at Ed & Rae Schollmaier Arena in Fort Worth, TX (Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The 2017 NBA draft could potentially field one of the best point guard crop in recent years. It’s five months before the draft but it’s never too early to evaluate talent.

2017 NBA Draft: Top Point Guard Prospects

5. De’Aaron Fox – 6’3″, Kentucky, Freshman

Kentucky’s prized recruit, Fox has shown that he is more than ready for college basketball.

Strengths: The athletic point guard has shown flashes of star potential. He has the type of speed and quickness that can get him to any spot on the floor. He has also shown that his court vision can become a weapon in the pros (6.7 apg). Great body control combined with solid handles allows him to easily break a college press.

Weaknesses: His jumpshot remains a big question mark (.129% from 3pt). Another concern is his frame, at 175 he’ll get bullied physically in the NBA. He also needs to limit his turnovers (2.4 per game) but that will come along if he starts playing under control.

4. Frank Ntilikina – 6’5″, France, 18 years old

The last couple of years have seen a handful of international prospects soaring through the board. And this year one of those prospects could be Ntilikina.

Strengths: Standing at 6’5″ with a 6’11” wingspan, it’s not hard to see why he’s highly touted. He is an excellent passer that works well in the pick and roll. At a young age he can already dictate the pace of the game. He is also a great defender, as his length helps him on that end of the court.

Weaknesses: Like Fox, he needs to add a little more muscle (190 lbs) which can also help finishing around the rim. A good shooter with consistency issues mostly because of his odd release. He is a little too quiet for a point guard and a bit too unselfish at times.

3. Dennis Smith – 6’2″, North Carolina State, Freshman

The Wolfpack star point guard has already shown that he belongs in the NBA. With his skillset he might have an easy time adjusting to the next level.

Strengths: An explosive guard with an elite level of athleticism, Smith has shown that he plays above the rim. Like the other two listed before him, he is more than a willing passer (6.4 apg). His ball handling allows him to get anywhere on the floor. Smith plays well in an isolation situation and is brilliant in the open court. He has a strong body that he skillfully uses to finish with contact.

Weaknesses: Smith is not as dedicated defensively, and he tends to gamble with steals. He is a decent shooter, but needs to be more consistent. His mid-range game tends to rely on his floaters and runners.

2. Lonzo Ball – 6’6″, UCLA, Freshman

Lonzo Ball was one of the well-known freshman entering this year’s college season. An internet sensation along with his brothers at Chino Hills Highschool.

Strengths: Ball has great size and length for a point guard. He is arguably the best passer listed here (8.0 apg). Ball has great court vision and play making ability. He is a great ball handler that thrives in transition. A standout athlete, he adds good shooting range to be a deadly scorer. Ball is a great rebounder on both ends of the floor. He can move his feet well defensively and has great anticipation for blocks and steals.

Weaknesses: While he has shown that he can knock down jumpshots, Ball has an unorthodox shooting form. He will also need to add more muscle if he wants to succeed in the NBA.

  1. Markelle Fultz – 6’4″, Washington, Freshman

Right now Fultz is the consensus number one prospect in the draft. He fits the mold of the modern point guard which is a score first guard that can do a little bit of everything.

Strengths: He is a combo guard with the ideal size and length. His body is already that of an NBA player (6’4″ 190 lbs). He is arguably the best scoring point guard in the college ranks (22.1 ppg). He has a great jumpshot with textbook mechanics (43.5 3pt%). Fultz has great slashing ability and can move well without the ball. He can get anywhere with the ball and can get a shot off the dribble. He doesn’t avoid contact instead he always seeks for one especially in transition (6.1 fta).

Fultz has great body control when finishing above the rim. He is also a good passer with decent court vision (6.4 apg). Fultz has very good rebounding mechanics for a guard (5.9 rpg). He is also a willing defender (1.3 bpg, 1.7 spg) which is a great sign for a young player. Fultz plays with confidence and has a professional demeanor.

Weaknesses: He needs to be more consistent with his jumpshot as he looks shaky at times. He needs to add a move in the lane because athletes in the NBA won’t allow him to easily finish above the rim. Fultz will need to be more vocal as a leader.

 

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A College Basketball Season To Remember

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LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 08: Stanford (10) Michael Humphrey (F) drives around UCLA (22) TJ Leaf (F) during an NCAA basketball game between the Stanford Cardinal and the UCLA Bruins on January 08, 2017, at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rock stars want to be star athletes and star athletes want to be rock stars. It’s a universal truth that has been proven repeatedly. There’s a bond that exists between these high profile professions that pulls one towards the other like the Death Star forcefield captured the Millennium Falcon. Look no further than this piece from the Cauldron’s Jim Cavan on athletes turned musicians.

A College Basketball Season to Remember

What’s the common bond that historically causes this pairing? The strongest one is the similarity between sports, music, and life itself. There exists a natural beginning, end, and a roller coaster of emotions in the middle. Music, like sports, can illicit an internal response of one’s own childhood that is emotional and powerful. More often than not, this feeling is overwhelmingly positive, because happiness is the truly the greatest good.

There is no other sport that provides a better thrill ride than college basketball. The frenetic end of season March Madness hysteria is on par with the Super Bowl and World Cup in terms of the universal appeal to a myriad of fans. While the National Football League owns the annual television ratings crown, the amateurism of the college game provides an innocence that cannot be replicated.

This brings us to the 2016-2017 college basketball season. As we come to the midway point, it is clear fans across the country are about to be treated to one of the greatest overall college basketball seasons we have ever witnessed. The proof lies in four simple ingredients.

Part I: We Were Only Freshmen

In any sport, stars move the needle. Stars get people to watch games and make the fans wonder, “Why will happen next?” In the past decade the NFL and NBA have lived off of the coattails of the transcendent talents. In the NFL, it has been Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. For the NBA it has been LeBron James and Stephen Curry. For college basketball, it’s all about the freshmen.

When the NBA changed the draft entry age from 18 to 19, the “one and done” college basketball player was born. Most college programs looked to separate themselves from a potential “freshman for hire,” yet John Calipari (at the time in Memphis), embraced the opportunity and promoted his players as freshman stars. Since 2006, Calipari has coached over 22% of the one and done freshman that have been drafted. These neophytes have brought a swagger and appeal to the college game that was lacking for many seasons.

This season the freshman have made a profound impact. Calipari has two guarantee lottery picks in his Kentucky backcourt: Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox. Kentucky was ranked number one when they lost at home to UCLA, led by freshman Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has a trio of amazing freshman in Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, and Marques Bolden. The best freshman scorer in the entire country may be Washington’s Markelle Fultz. Lastly, long-time upperclassmen advocate, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, even joined the freshman party with the incredibly versatile Miles Bridges.

The freshmen are precocious and talented.

 

Part II: The Fortified Powerhouses

Parity is good. Too much parity is a virus.

Sports need champions. For a truly exciting season, college basketball needs the historically great teams to be great. Without their success, all we are often left with a collection of mediocrity. In 2016-2017, the college basketball powerhouses have returned in grand fashion. Kentucky, Duke, and UCLA all look the part of a Final Four team. Kansas lost this year to another big name school, Indiana. UCLA beat Kentucky, Kansas beat Duke, and Louisville gave Kentucky its second loss of the season. The aforementioned six teams represent 35 national championships. These teams are filled with great players, legendary coaches, and loyal fan bases. The sport is better when the top teams are stronger, and that has never been more true in recent years than this season.

 

Part III: They Might Be Giants

Some characters are only recognized with their adversary. Tom needs Jerry, the Tortoise needs the Hare, Goliath needs David, and the top teams need the mid majors. Already, the proverbial Giant Killers have reached into their bag, taken a stone and slung it. Northeastern has won at Michigan State, IPFW defeated Indiana, and St. John’s (who lost to 3-11 Delaware State) beat Syracuse in the Carrier Dome by 33 points.

March Madness isn’t the same without the upsets. For this season to be as exciting as possible, the mid major teams need to provide Goliath a challenge. On New Years’ Eve, the top mid major of this season, the Creighton Blue Jays, gave the top ranked Villanova Wildcats all they could handle. Earlier this season, Arkansas State went on the road and defeated Georgetown 78-72. America loves the underdog, and this season has already shown that the mid-majors will provide challenges to the powerhouses all season long.

 

Part IV: The Fantastic Finishes

The great games are etched in our memory forever. The “cherry on top” of a truly remarkable NCAA college basketball season are the last second finishes that can be forever rehashed. The 2016-2017 has already produced some incredible endings.

Look no further than to legendary UCLA Bruins program, who suffered their only loss of the season at the hands of a Dillion Brooks’ three pointer at Oregon on December 29th. The Ducks 89-87 win knocked UCLA out of the No. 1 spot in the polls, and reestablished Oregon as a legitimate Final Four contender. That game, however, paled in comparison to the Kentucky Wildcats 103-100 win which featured a bevy of great shots down the stretch, especially Kentucky freshman Malik Monk’s 3 pointer to give the Wildcats the lead for good en route to a 47 point night.

More recently, Nevada pulled off on of the greatest comebacks you will ever see by erasing a 14 point deficit in the last 74 seconds on the road at New Mexico. There have been plenty of overtime games to provided thrills for fans across the country. The finishes have indeed been fantastic.

All of these ingredients come together for recipe for an amazing college basketball season. The stars, powerhouses, strong mid-majors, and fantastic finishes provide a preview of what lies ahead come in the NCAA tournament.

March is always the venue where the rock stars of tomorrow are truly born.

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Jeff Rutter has solidified his lead in the race for Drake Bulldogs Head Coach

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DES MOINES, IA - DECEMBER 17: Drake Bulldogs Head Coach Jeff Rutter talks with his assistant coaches during an NCAA basketball game between the Iowa State Cyclones and the Drake Bulldogs on December 17, 2016, at Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, IA. (Photo by Merle Laswell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If Drake University and its Athletic Director, Sandy Hatfield Clubb, have not yet strongly considered current interim Jeff Rutter for the head coaching job, Thursday’s win made him the leader in the contest.

Jeff Rutter has solidified his lead in the race for Drake Bulldogs Head Coach

The Bulldogs earned their third win of the season, after taking down the Loyola Ramblers 102-98 at the Knapp Center.

Drake earned its second win under Rutter (2-3 as the head coach), which doubles the amount of wins former Head Coach Ray Giacoletti had in the nine games he coached. The Ramblers were 10-3 on the season coming into the game, proving this win wasn’t a fluke.

Last season under Giacoletti, the team earned only two wins against Missouri Valley Conference opponents.

Rutter’s success seems to rely on the pace of play Drake is playing with. Before Rutter was named the interim head coach, they were averaging 67.9 points per game. Since Rutter took the reins, they have been scoring 84.2 ppg.

He has been encouraging the team this season to score 40 points in each half, and the Bulldogs have been following through. In the ten halves that Rutter has coached, they have only failed to reach the 40-point mark in three of them.
After an opening night conference win, it should be a given that this success has put Rutter in the top spot to be the next Drake Bulldogs Head Coach.

Drake Bulldogs 102, Loyola Ramblers 98

The Bulldogs were led by De’Antae McMurray and Reed Timmer who had 24 and 23 points respectively on Thursday night. Although, the bigger story still remains Billy Wampler, who is remaining red hot for his team.

Wampler , who had 16 points Thursday, has scored in double figures in each of the past eight games.

Drake guard Ore Arougnaded also chipped in a season-high 15 points and six rebounds.

Drake will be back on the court in their first MVC road game of the season against Southern Illinois on New Year’s Day, at 4:00 p.m.

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SEC Basketball Begins: Contenders and Pretenders

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NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15: Kentucky Wildcats guard De'Aaron Fox (0) during the second half of the NCAA basketball game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Michigan State Spartans in the Champions Classic on November 15, 2016, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“It’s Kentucky and everybody else.” This is how the rest of the nation looks at SEC basketball.

Considering all the talent Coach John Calipari has had in his time in Lexington, it is hard not to agree with this statement.  The rest of the South Eastern Conference is trying to catch up and change that perception.  The notion that this is a football conference is correct, but it is also harmful to the way programs other than Kentucky are viewed.

This is most evident in March, were the conference’s perceived weakness is held against the teams on the bubble to get into the NCAA Tournament.  The SEC hired former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese to help build its basketball acumen.  Schools have also made a concerted effort to upgrade their out of conference schedules as well.  SEC schools have also upgraded in the coaching department recently, bringing in big name coaches such as Avery Johnson, Ben Howland, Rick Barnes, and Bruce Pearl, who have all joined the conference in recent years.

The non-conference portion of the season is over for most teams, and SEC play begins this weekend.  The results so far have been mixed at best.  As conference play begins let’s take a look at how the SEC teams stack up against each other.

SEC Basketball Predictions

Contenders

  • Kentucky Wildcats – 10-2

Coach Cal’s young team is once again as talented as any in the country.  They have two losses to two top ten teams in UCLA and Louisville.  The Wildcats also have wins over two top fifteen teams in North Carolina and Michigan State.  DeAndre Fox and Malik Monk make up one of the most explosive backcourts in the country.  While sophomore Isaiah Briscoe and senior Derek Willis account for most of the Wildcat’s experience.

  • Florida Gators – 9-3

After a subpar year, by recent standards, Coach Mike White has the Gators poised to return to March Madness this season.  Point gurad Kasey Hill is playing his best basketball in a Florida uniform this year, averaging just under 10 points and 5 assists per game.  Coach White’s team boasts nine guys who play thirteen or more minutes per game.  As well as being deep, they are balanced with five players scoring between 9 and 14 points per game.

  • South Carolina Gamecocks – 10-2

This team is still fresh off the disappointment of being left on the wrong side of the tournament bubble last year.  Coach Frank Martin bulked up the out of conference schedule this year, and was rewarded with wins over Michigan and Syracuse.  The gamecocks have struggled to find enough offense with senior leader Sindarius Thronwell suspended for the last couple of games, but should be back in time for SEC play.  P.J. Dozier is blossoming into a star, averaging over 20 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals and assists over the last six games.  Senior Duane Notice has struggled of late, and the reigning SEC 6th Man award winner will need to find his form again.  South Carolina is young along the frontline, and will need Maik Kotsar and Chris Silva to stay out of foul trouble.

  • Texas A&M Aggies – 8-3

Billy Kennedy’s Aggies won a share of the SEC regular season title last year.  They have a young group of talented players, but are still learning to adjust to life without four senior starters from last season.  Coach Kennedy has remarked a few times that his team is immature.  This was evident in their ability to hold on to late leads against UCLA and Southern Cal.  Center Tyler Davis is a load in the paint, a true back to the basket player, with size, skill and touch.  He anchors what could be the best frontcourt in the conference, alongside 6’9” wing D.J. Hogg and 6’9” power forward Robert Williams.  Guard play will be key for a team loaded will size.

In the Hunt

 Arkansas Razorbacks – 11-1

Coach Mike Anderson still employs the “40 minutes of hell” in Fayetteville.  The stigma used to be that Arkansas was a terror in Bud Walton Arena, but couldn’t get it done away from home. They have worked towards reversing that trend the last few years, even picking up a road win against Minnesota early in the year.  The victory over the Big Ten’s Gophers is their best out of conference win, in an otherwise unimpressive schedule.  All-SEC forward Moses Kingsley will be counted on to lead the hogs’ attack.  Coach Anderson has four players scoring between nine and fifteen points per game.  Finding the correct balance amongst multiple scorers will be the challenge.

  • Auburn Tigers – 10-2

Bruce Pearl’s squad is peaking right as conference season begins.  They will enter SEC play with four straight victories including wins over Oklahoma and UConn in the last two ball games.  The Tigers are an athletic bunch who play a lot of different guys.  Five star signee Austin Wiley was just made eligible as an early enrollee, and gives coach Pearl a legit big man to anchor his defense.  Auburn boasts three double digit scorers led by Mustapha Heron and his 16 points per game.  This team is young with four freshman playing significant minutes, but how the youngsters will handle the grind of conference play will be something to watch.

Georgia Bulldogs – 8-4

Guard J.J. Frazier is one of only three players in the SEC with over 1000 career points (South Carolina’s Thornwell and Notice are the other two).  Yaten Maten has developed into one of the best post players in the country.  Finding scoring outside of those two will be Coach Mark Fox’s main challenge.  The Bulldogs struggled a bit in nonconference play.  However, they have turned it around in SEC play before.

Looking To Improve

  • LSU Tigers – 8-3The Tigers underperformed last year with star freshman Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney.  Blakeney is back and leading the LSU attack with 16 points per game.  Coach Johnny Jones has a talented group, but they haven’t been able to play up to their potential during his tenure.  Consistent defensive effort will be the telling sign to whether LSU will be successful.
  • Ole Miss Rebels – 9-3

DeAndre Burnett paces the Rebel attack with 19 points per game.  The Miami transfer is the latest in a line of high scoring transfer guards under Coach Andy Kennedy.  Senior Sebastian Saiz averages a double-double to anchor the interior.  Ole Miss is not a very deep team, so staying healthy and out of foul trouble is a necessity.

Mississippi State Bulldogs8-3

Last year, Coach Ben Howland was a huge hire for the Bulldog program.  Unfortunately he still may be another year or two away from digging out of the hole this team was left in.  Quinndary Weatherspoon is a star on a roster still a little short on talent.

Maybe Next Year

  • Alabama Crimson Tide – 6-5

Avery Johnson is still trying to build up the basketball side of Roll tide.  The Crimson Tide are a tough defensive team, and will fight on every possession.  Coach Johnson has a big time recruiting class lined up for next season.  This year however could be a struggle.

  • Tennessee Volunteers – 7-5

Coach Rick Barnes team struggled early in the season, but has looked better as of late.  They won six of eight games, with the only losses coming to a pair of top ten teams in North Carolina and Gonzaga.

  • Vanderbilt Commodores – 6-6

First year coach Bryce Drew has had a rough start to his coaching tenure in Nashville.  The Commodores have struggled despite having a solid nucleus of talent to build around.  They can’t seem to find a winning formula even with proven players like Luke Kornet, Matthew Fisher-Davis and Riley LaChance.

  • Missouri Tigers – 5-6There is not a whole lot to say about Mizzou.  Coach Kim Anderson is doing what he can with the hand he was dealt, but this program is a mess. Unfortunately, this doesn’t look like that is changing anytime soon.

 

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Billy Wampler is streaking for the Bulldogs, just in the nick of time

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The Drake Bulldogs are crawling into Missouri Valley Conference play with an uninspiring 2-10 record. Drake has more 20-loss seasons (9) than 20-win seasons (5) since 1960, and are on pace to surpass the 20 loss marker for the third consecutive season if the team doesn’t turn things around.

However, the turbulent start is not stopping Billy Wampler from playing some of the best basketball of his career.

Wampler’s Wild Ride

The Eau Claire, Wisconsin native scored in double figures in each of the Bulldogs’ previous six games leading up to Thursday’s matchup with Mississippi Valley State.

That’s when the bulldogs finally broke through.

Drake took on the winless Delta Devils on Thursday, seeking their first win since November. They followed through, and then some. Wampler’s career high 27 points lead the team to a 101-69 win, in their non-conference season finale.

“My teammates have set me up to knock down a lot of shots,” Wampler said. “That has given me a lot of confidence to create my own shot as well.”

Wampler credits new head coach Jeff Rutter and the faster pace the team plays with for the recent success.
“We are able to get up more shot attempts,” Wampler said. “Coach Rutter has really emphasized shooting when we’re open.”

The Bulldogs were able to sink a school record 17 three pointers in Rutter’s fourth game at the helm.
“Coach Rutter is hard not to like,” Wampler said. “He has an incredible passion for the game and is really upbeat and positive all of the time.”

Wampler said Rutter emphasizes scoring 40 points per half, and so far the team has come through. Through eight halves of basketball Rutter has been the head coach for, they have reached 40 points in five of them.

A Journey into the Valley

Although Rutter is 1-3 in his first four games, he has the team moving in the right direction leading into Missouri Valley Conference play. They open conference play against Loyola on Thursday, with a 7:30 p.m. tipoff in the Knapp Center.

The Ramblers enter the game with a 10-3 record and feature four players who average double figures in scoring.
The game will be broadcasted on ESPN3.

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Hoops Deep Dive: The Tale of Two Instant Classics

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There are very few things in life that are as good as advertised. Very few. Think of the great television shows in recent memory. Shows like The Sopranos and Seinfeld, left their loyal viewers wanting more. Their final shows precipiated non stop criticism as devout followers felt their finales failed to live up to expectations. In other words? Not as good as advertised.

This can also happen in sports. The unpredictable nature of athletic competition draws many fans to hold hope that the games will be as good as advertised, because it is their outlet and break from reality. In the past week, there have been two college basketball games that were actually better than advertised. The seventh ranked North Carolina Tar Heels played the sixth ranked Kentucky Wildcats in Las Vegas on Saturday night, and last night the Wildcats traveled 70 miles down the road to play archrival and 11th ranked Louisville. The players, the passion of college athletics, the fans, the coaches, the historic programs, and the game flow all combined to produce two fantastic basketball games. Both games provided a window into the strengths and weaknesses of the Kentucky Wildcats. How did Louisville do what North Carolina couldn’t? What adjustments did Louisville coach Rick Pitino make after watching the legendary 103-100 Kentucky win over North Carolina?

The perfect way to examine each game is through the television timeout segments. There are ten segments of each game that provide the lens through which three legendary basketball programs can be closely compare. Each segment will be represented by a “round” similar to a boxing match. Ten rounds of thrilling basketball from each night that will all be summed up in the first “Hoops Deep Dive.”  

Hoops Deep Dive: The Tale of Two Instant Classics

ROUND 1

THEME:  Checking Monk’s Temperature
First Game:  North Carolina 12, Kentucky 10
Second Game:  Kentucky 17, Louisville 14

Summary: It is clear from the start of the game in Las Vegas that Kentucky freshman Malik Monk was going to have a special night. Right from the opening tip against North Carolina, Monk scored on a top of the key jump shot. He followed that with a three pointer from the wing, and a side step three pointer from the top of the key again. Louisville clearly watched the UNC game and tried to prevent Monk from getting hot, but they struggled greatly in transition. Monk has six points in the first segment against Louisville, but missed two threes as well. The biggest difference between the games is that Louisville broke the Kentucky press to set up offense, whereas North Carolina broke the press to attack the basket. This change of style hurt Louisville early, as they gave up three easy baskets to Kentucky in transition. North Carolina had greater success scoring inside as a result of their perfectly executed secondary break post feeds. North Carolina started out much better than Louisville, and was more comfortable against the pressure that Kentucky provided at both ends of the floor.  

ROUND 2

THEME:  Settling In
First Game: Kentucky 21, UNC 19.
Second Game: Louisville 22, Kentucky 20

Summary:  By the time the first game reached the under twelve minute television timeout, Malik Monk already had 15 points. Kentucky used Monk’s scoring to attack North Carolina inside, which is exactly the opposite of what happened against Louisville. Piton made a great adjustment and the Cardinals completely dominated the pace of play in teh second game. North Carolina forward Justin Jackson’s impact (five points in this segment) was mirrored by Louisville sophomore Deng Adel (two threes) and an increased interior defensive presence gave Louisville the lead that North Carolina failed to have at this point. Monk missed his third three point attempt during this period in the Louisville game, which indicated the 47 point magic from the first game was not going to carry over.

ROUND 3

THEME:  The Game Within The Game
First Game: Kentucky 36, UNC 26.
Second Game: Louisville 24, Kentucky 22

ROUND 3:  This round provided the game within the game. Kentucky erupted for 15 points against North Carolina in this round, and just two against Louisville. The Cardinals executed a 10-0 run that ended with a jumper by Kentucky’s Derek Willis. The Wildcats were able to get easy baskets against UNC in the first game, and struggled to score here against Louisville. Credit Pitino for switching defenses brilliantly throughout the entire game. The biggest difference however, was Malik Monk’s second foul at the 8:30 mark against Louisville. That precipitated more jump shots from De’Arron Fox, which is exactly what Louisville schemed to make him do. The feeling in game one was that Kentucky could blow the game open. In game two, this round solidified that the viewers were in store for a great finish.

 

ROUND 4

THEME:  Big Stars Making Big Plays
First Game: Kentucky 47, UNC 41.
Second Game: Louisville 31, Kentucky 31

Summary:  In the first game this was the “Monk vs. Berry” round. Monk was just unconscious and produced a Michael Jordan-like performance. North Carolina’s Joel Berry heated up and kept the Tar Heels within striking distance. In the second game, Louisville got up eight and was on the verge of a major run. However, with Malik Monk sitting on the bench with two fouls, Kentucky righted the ship through De’Aaron Fox. The freshman point guard sparked a Kentucky run to tie the game. Kentucky’s run in the first game was stifled by Berry, and Louisville’s run in the second game was stifled by Fox. Biggest difference? Monk’s presence in game one, and absence in game two during this round. 

ROUND 5

THEME:  Kentucky the Halftime Leader
First Game: Kentucky 56, UNC 51.
Second Game: Kentucky 40, Louisville 39

Summary:   Kentucky leads both incredible games at the half.  Malik Monk with 27 first half points in game one, and North Carolina’s Justin Jackson responded with 20 points. Monk produces the most points in a half by a Kentucky player ever, tying Jamal Murray just a year ago. Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox led all scorers with 14, and Louisville’s Quinton
Snider paced the Cardinals with 13 points. The general feeling was the same from both games:  Kentucky should pull away in the second half. This was especially true in game two, when the Wildcats still held a one point lead despite Monk sitting with foul trouble for over eight minutes. In both cases, that feeling was not correct.  

 

ROUND 6

THEME:  Settling In For Two Classics
First Game: Kentucky 67, UNC 61.
Second Game: Louisville 47, Kentucky 43


Summary:  The strategy changed in both games at the start of the second half. In the first game, North Carolina and Kentucky both pounded the ball inside. Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Briscoe, and Bam Adebayo all got quality shots near the basket. Game two produced something you may never see again all season: a Kentucky shot clock violation. Also, Louisville second leading scorer Donovan Mitchell picked up his third foul right away. This was a critical time for Louisville as Monk started scoring immediately. Fortunately, they Louisville had Quinton Snider, who made a big three point shot right before the television timeout to give him 16 points in the game. The atmosphere in the KFC Yum! Center was electric. 

 

ROUND 7

THEME:  Bam Bam
First Game: Kentucky 74, UNC 72.
Second Game: Louisville 53, Kentucky 53


Summary:  If you missed last night’s game, you missed Kentucky forward Bam Adebayo destroying the rim on two incredible dunks. This was the least exciting segment of the firsy game, and an amazingly exciting part of the second game. Adebayo was the star of this session against Louisville, and huge contrast to his foul trouble in the North Carolina game. Louisville again had trouble defending Kentucky’s fast break, and the Wildcats were able to tie the game because of it. In both games, the reserves played a key role in this round. For North Carolina, sophomore forward Luke Maye provided some key points and rbounds to close the gap for the Tar Heels. In this game, Kentucky senior Mychal Mulder played great for Isaiah Briscoe who picked up his fourth foul. Both games were two point leads or less. Fantastic basketball all around. 

ROUND 8

THEME:  Buckle Up
First Game: Kentucky 84, UNC 77.
Second Game: Kentucky 55, Louisville 53

Summary:  In game one, Malik Monk reaches 36 points with almost 11 minutes left setting an all time Kentucky record for points by a freshman. Kentucky actually got a ten point lead on North Carolina, before Luke Maye made a three pointer to break the run. In game two, the lead story was foul trouble. Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox both had three fouls, and John Calipari actually put Isaiah Briscoe back in the game with almost nine minutes left with four fouls.  Donovan Mitchell returned for Louisville to provide another much needed offensive weapon for Louisville. In both games, it again appeared as if Kentucky had full control and was about to find another gear.  

ROUND 9

THEME:  Down The Stretch
First Game: Kentucky 95, UNC 91.
Second Game: Louisville 65, Kentucky 61

Summary:  Both games produced fantastic finishes that were set up by this key four minute round.  Key shots by underdog kept each game close. For North Carolina, Luke Maye his a three pointer that cut the Kentucky ten point lead to seven. For Louisville, it was a Jaylen Johnson made layup after a Malik Monk basket that put Kentucky up four. Foul trouble played a role in both games Bam Adebayo had foul issues. Against North Carolina he fouled out, and against Louisville he fouled Deng Adel after a rebound that allowed Louisville to tie the game. In the second game, two missed jumpers by Monk opened the door for Louisville to take a four point lead they would never relinquish. By this point, both games were at a feverish pitch. 

 

ROUND 10

THEME:  The Grand Finale
First Game Final: Kentucky 103, UNC 100.
Second Game: Louisville 73, Kentucky 70


Summary:  The endings of these two instant classics did not disappoint. How did Louisville do what North Carolina couldn’t? The answer is defense. The size inside of the Cardinals took away driving lanes and rebound opportunties. Malik Monk’s shots did not fall against Louisville either, which means Kentucky had to make shots and get defensive stops. The margin of error was to small in the second game and Quinton Snider and Donovan Mitchell got key points down the stretch. While North Carolina is a better all around team, the matchup with Louisville is worse for Kentucky. Great win for Kentucky over North Carolina and an equally impressive win for Louisville.

Takeaways  

North Carolina gave Kentucky everything they could handle and almost capped a fantastic comeback victory. The Tar Heels are one of the few teams that can run with Kentucky, and this was in Joel Berry’s first game back from injury. Junior forward Theo Pinson should return soon from a broken bone in his right foot as well. North Carolina is all set for a deep March run in the NCAA tournament.

Louisville got a huge win over their in-state rival, and are just one bad second half against Baylor from being undefeated. This is the biggest team Rick Pitino has ever had at Louisville, and guard Quinton Snider’s performance against Kentucky proves the Cardinals have a big time scorer they can count on. Louisville is a major threat to win the second championship since Pitino’s arrival in 2001.

Kentucky is a phenomenal collection of talent.  They have speed, size, and shooting ability. Playing North Carolina and then at Louisvillle is as difficult a back to back pair of games as anyone will play this season. They played at different paces, both fast with UNC and a much more half court game at Louisville. All Kentucky fans should feel confident and excited about the Wildcats chances for yet another Final Four.

Can you believe it is only December?  An amazing college basketball season is headed our way in 2017.

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North Carolina Receives Third Notice of Allegations

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The University of North Carolina’s ongoing drama involving the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s investigation of improper academic benefits given to students has taken another turn.

North Carolina Receives Third Notice of Allegations

The school’s football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball programs originally came under investigation by the NCAA late in 2014, when it was discovered that thousands of current and former athletes at the school took fake classes and received other academic benefits to keep them eligible to play. The NCAA began an investigation, and in May of 2015 released the original notice of allegations facing the university.

That original NOA included the dreaded “lack of institutional control” charge, which in the past has been grounds for severe penalties for other NCAA-member schools. The allegations included all three of the afore-mentioned Tar Heels programs. Under that NOA, there was a threat that all three programs could see scholarship reductions, postseason bans and the suspensions of coaches. The university could also have faced fines and probationary periods.

The Progression of Amended NOAs

Nearly a year later, the NCAA issued an amended NOA which was far less daunting to North Carolina’s revenue sports. While the lack of institutional control charge was still in the language of the second NOA, the allegations against the Tar Heel football and men’s basketball (which had just came off a Final Four appearance) programs were excluded. The meat of the new allegations focused on the non-revenue women’s basketball program. Additionally, the charge of providing impermissible benefits was lessened to a failure to monitor academic support.

Now just eight months after that second NOA was sent to North Carolina, a third NOA has reportedly been sent to the university. This latest NOA reinstates some of the allegations from the original, including the allegations against the men’s basketball program.

What is certain is that this third NOA creates a new calendar for the resolution of this investigation. North Carolina has 90 days from its official receipt of the third NOA to respond, and then the NCAA has 60 days to respond to the school’s response. It could be May before we know exactly what penalties the Tar Heels are facing, assuming there isn’t a fourth or progressive NOAs issued from this point forward.

What’s less certain is what penalties the NCAA may hand down. Its reputation in sanctioning member institutions is for anything but consistency and predictability. The fact that three different NOAs have been issued thus far only increases the potential for inconsistent and unpredictable results. Fans may be wise to expect more severe penalties for the Tar Heels as compared to what other programs have received in the past because the school hasn’t done put any self-imposed sanctions on its football or men’s basketball programs.

North Carolina still has some time to self-impose some penalties, and the situation may prove that the school’s officials were wise to wait because of the succession of new NOAs. School officials may have been in a similar position as fans over the past two years, waiting in wonder as to what the NCAA is going to do and when whatever that is will actually happen.

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Louisville Upsets No. 10 Kentucky In Bluegrass Battle

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For the first time since 2012, Louisville has beaten Kentucky in men’s basketball.

The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry added a new chapter in the history books as the No.10 Louisville Cardinals upset rival No.6 Kentucky Wildcats Wednesday night in Louisville.

Kentucky had won eight of the last nine meetings between the two programs heading into Wednesday’s Bluegrass Battle, but behind a solid effort from junior point guard Quentin Snider, Louisville outlasted John Calipari’s Wildcats 73-70 in front of a raucous home crowd at the KFC Yum! Center.

Snider provided a game-high 22 points in the victory, as the junior was one of four Cardinals to reach the double figures plateau.

Freshmen guard Donovan Mitchell cashed in on a pair of free throws with eight seconds remaining that pushed the Cardinal’s lead to three. The points from the charity stripe forced Kentucky’s Malik Monk to put up a last-second 3-point attempt that fell short.

Louisville entered the game with the No. 1 defense in the country, and Rick Pitino‘s side proved it on Wednesday. One game after Kentucky’s freshman standout Malik Monk scored 47 points against North Carolina, the Cardinals held him to 16 points and 1-of-9 shooting from three-point range. As a team, Kentucky shot just 39.7 percent from the field.

Louisville benefited from a balanced scoring attack with four starters in double-figures. Led by Quentin Snider (22 points, six rebounds, five assists),  Deng Adel added 18, while Jaylen Johnson had 14, and Donovan Mitchell pitched in 13.

The Wildcats were led by a strong effort from freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox, who had 21 points on 7-of-15 shooting from the field.

Freshmen forward Edrice “Bam” Adebayo finally had his coming out party for Kentucky, as the 240-pound consensus top 10 recruit made his first five shots from the field on his way to 11 points and nine rebounds. This was the freshmen’s first significant contribution of the season.

The win stopped Louisville’s four-game losing streak to Kentucky and marked only the second win by the Cardinals in head-to-head play since John Calipari took over in Lexington.

It’s said that only one game matters all year in the state of Kentucky, and you can bet Pitino and his Cards are sure glad they won this battle.

Louisville moves to 11-1 heading into the start of conference play while Kentucky drops to 10-2.

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Cal State Northridge Penalties Show NCAA Inconsistencies

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California State University at Northridge‘s men’s basketball program has just been hit with sanctions by the National Collegiate Athletic Association for academic fraud. The most interesting part of the story, however, is the penalties that weren’t announced.

Cal State Northridge Penalties Show NCAA Inconsistencies

The sanctions, which were announced Wednesday, came after the NCAA concluded that a staff member completed online coursework for 10 players. While the NCAA report did not name the person involved, the Los Angeles Times named former Director of Basketball Operations Lior Schwatzberg, who is no longer with CSUN in any capacity.

The penalties include a three-year probation, a five-year show-cause order for Schwatzberg, and an order for the team to vacate wins from the seasons in which the associated players competed. An official release by the school’s athletic department makes no mention of an appeal of the sanctions.

Inconsistencies become apparent when this case is compared to a recent similar one, the academic fraud penalties involving the men’s basketball program at Syracuse University.

Just like in the CSUN case, the NCAA found that a Syracuse’s Director of Basketball Operations completed coursework for students. The similarities between the two cases go right down to the accused staff member saving multiple players’ usernames and passwords on his computer, for access at anytime.

While many of the penalties that Syracuse received were much more severe because the infractions were spread over a longer time span and involved more players than the CSUN situation did, the big difference between what the NCAA did in that case and in the CSUN situation was the censure of Orange head coach Jim Boeheim.

Boeheim and Theus Treated Differently by NCAA

Boeheim was hit with a nine-game suspension and had 108 of his coaching wins vacated. Meanwhile, Matadors‘ head coach Reggie Theus received only a “personal admonishment” by CSUN president Dianne F. Harrison. The NCAA report put no blame on Theus.

Therein lies the inconsistency. If Boeheim was ultimately responsible for the conduct of his staff, to the point of having wins stripped and suspension, shouldn’t Theus be held to the same standard? At the very least, the inconsistency throws the door wide open for speculation.

Could Boeheim’s success and Syracuse’s notoriety have actually worked against them? It’s hard not to notice how much more prominent on the national scene that the Orange and Boeheim are in comparison to the Matadors and Theus. That leads to questions about whether Syracuse was used to make an example out of, or if the NCAA feared public perceptions that it wanted to protect one of its most lucrative brands so much that it went to the opposite extreme.

It’s difficult to argue that these sanctions weren’t warranted, in either the CSUN or Syracuse cases. What’s curious is that Boeheim and Theus were treated very differently by the NCAA when the details surrounding the situations were very similar. In that way, the NCAA is being consistent about being inconsistent.

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