The prelims are behind us and Illinois and UCLA are on the horizon. It's time to go around the nation.
Of Brown and Braggin'
Jabari Brown looks the part, that's for sure. He's strong and athletic. He can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. And at one point on Monday night in his Missouri debut, he moved into space, stopped and popped a midrange jumper that looked a little like Anthony Peeler if caught in a certain light. But he was also 1-for-7 from three-point range. A small sample size, no doubt, but it adds to a similar small sample size from his brief tenure at Oregon.
The recruiting-service descriptions of Brown's gifts as a shooter - extended range, extreme accuracy - call to mind those that came to Columbia with former Tiger Glen Dandridge. The problem was that no matter how many shots Dandridge was reputed to have made from the parking lot, he failed to make many on the basketball court. For whatever reason, what happened in AAU ball and in practice didn't translate into games.
That's not to say that the same fate will befall Brown. But it might. And if it does, it will be interesting to see how this team reacts. In today's college basketball, it's hard to be a national contender without a consistent three-point threat. And if Brown isn't one, Missouri doesn't have one.
In that case, Mizzou may play corner-kick offense, with everyone going hard to the goal at all times. The Tigers certainly have the personnel to do that with their small army of active big bodies and drive-first perimeter players, but what a difference from a season ago.
In the short term, this sets up a fascinating contrast in styles in Saturday's Braggin' Rights game against Illinois. To date, just 29.3% of Missouri's field goal attempts have been from three-point range, and the Tigers have made them at a paltry 33.1% clip. Illinois, on the other hand, takes a staggering 43.6% of its shots from behind the arc and makes them at an impressive 38.6% rate. The Illini's power forward, 6-9 senior Tyler Griffey, takes almost half of his shots from long distance, and senior guard Brandon Paul (who looks like an All-American through twelve games) is a high-volume shooter who has made 39.8% of his trey attempts.
While Illinois enjoys a decisive perimeter advantage, the Tigers own an equally decided edge around the rim. The Illini rebound by committee, with seven players averaging at least 3.5 boards per game, but none more than 5.1 (Paul, at 6-4, is the team's leading rebounder). In contrast, the Tigers have four players who grab at least five boards per game, including Alex Oriakhi, who leads the team at 8.6. Missouri ranks first in the nation in rebounds, with 46.1 per game. Illinois is tied for 135th at 36.6.
The key for Missouri on Saturday will be to find a way to contain Paul, who leads Illinois not just in scoring and rebounding, but also in assists at 3.5 per game. The Tigers are likely to throw a number of defensive looks at him, and should try to guard him with several different players, from small and quick Phil Pressey to long and rangy Negus Webster-Chan. But the primary responsibility is likely to fall on Keion Bell, whose size and athleticism make for the best matchup. Frank Haith has hinted that Bell may be this team's defensive stopper. We find out on Saturday.
On a different note, for old-school fans like me, this is the game of the year. I like college sports. I like that they are different from the pros. I like the intensity, the rivalry, the geography. And while there is much to like about the move to the SEC, there is also much lost. I've felt adrift all year long, trying to make sense of relationships with Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Illinois makes sense. It's painful for me to turn on a Kansas game and consider that the Tigers won't get two shots at the Jayhawks this year. For those of us looking for something familiar in a brave new world, Braggin' Rights is as good as it gets.
Once Upon a Beast
For those same reasons, I'm heartened by this week's announcement that the seven Catholic, non-football-playing schools in the Big East will be leaving the league to form their own conference. As a guy who loves college hoops, it has been tiresome to watch as football programs drag universities around by the nose, fracturing ancient rivalries in favor of geographic absurdities (Nebraska, meet Rutgers; Boise State, do you know Temple?) and forcefully demonstrating that the game now exists, first and foremost, to produce television content for national networks. It's the pro sports model, and pro sports are popular, but something is lost.
As a kid who gained consciousness in the 1980s, the Big East was the badass behemoth that rose up to challenge the ACC and its refined manner. I hadn't been to New York or Philly or D.C. then, but I could feel the character of those cities through their teams. Big East basketball was towering skyscrapers and gritty streets. It had its own élan, as warring neighbors battled in a new style of full-contact hoops. It was Patrick Ewing and Derrick Coleman. It was John Thompson and Lou Carnesecca. It was Villanova's impossible title.
There's probably nothing particularly noble about the seven schools' lock-step defection, but it feels right. Big East football is a lost cause as a major national player. Anyone who wants in gets in. Anyone who can get out wants out. And in an effort to give Connecticut and South Florida someone to play, the league was set to force the traditional basketball schools to face a schedule spiked with the likes of Tulane and SMU, which are neither big nor east. Finally, Georgetown, St. John's, Seton Hall, Villanova, Providence, Marquette and DePaul collected the remnants of their dignity and said enough. We not going to have our fates determined by a sport we don't even play.
What emerges is a group of like-minded schools, Catholic programs in major cities, that can form a geographically-logical new league if they poach the right schools from other conferences (I didn't say it was all nice and noble). There has been talk of pursuing the likes of Xavier, Dayton, Saint Louis, Butler and Creighton to get to twelve teams. Put those dozen schools on a map, and it looks like a real league with lots of potential rivalries (it looks even better if you drop Creighton and replace it with another eastern school like St. Joseph's to get two six-team divisions, one on the east coast and one in the traditional Big Ten footprint). There's also virtually no risk of any of them leaving for a better situation in the foreseeable future. There has even been talk of adding Gonzaga, though having a school in the Pacific Northwest would be every bit as absurd as even the strangest thing wrought by conference realignment to date. Take the Zags out, and you're left with a dozen compatible schools that fit together.
One of the biggest winners in this shuffle would be Butler's Brad Stevens, who, after rejecting offers to move to a major conference, may see a major conference move to him. Another is Saint Louis, which could parlay its Jesuit affiliation and large-market locale into a quantum leap in status way out of proportion to its recent basketball success.
On the other hand, three losers stand heads and shoulders above the rest. After trying desperately to talk its way into the ACC or Big Ten over the past couple of years, Connecticut stands as the only charter member of the league remaining, the sore thumb in what has become a sun-belt league. The Huskies rose to national prominence playing against Georgetown and Syracuse in Madison Square Garden, but those days are over. In the wake of Jim Calhoun's retirement, they risk becoming another UMass, an eastern basketball program that enjoyed a rise to power before falling back into obscurity. Cincinnati, another proud basketball school that chased a football dream, finds itself in a similar spot, a seemingly attractive school without any suitors. And Memphis, after feverishly working to find a major-conference home in recent years, watches as its league collapses before it even officially joins. Those three schools, along with Temple, could be one-half of a really good basketball conference. Unfortunately, no one is clamoring for one-half of a good league.
While SEC football may be the undisputed king of the college game, SEC basketball is something else entirely. At the moment, the league ranks eighth in conference RPI, behind the other five power leagues, plus the Atlantic-10 and Mountain West. Through Tuesday, SEC teams stood an abysmal 11-28 against teams from the other five power conferences.
For Missouri, the good news is that there are wins to be had in league play. The bad news is that those wins might not do as much for the team's RPI as they would in other years. Since we're still getting to know our conference brethren, here's a quick trip around the league, with team records through Tuesday's games.
Florida (7-1) is the clear class of the SEC to date, with dominating wins against Marquette, Wisconsin and Florida State. The Gators should be undefeated. They gave one away on Saturday night at then eighth-ranked Arizona, as they were outscored 7-0 in the final minute of a 65-64 loss. Rarely has a team moved the ball as well by the dribble. Florida drives and dishes, drives and dishes, drives and dishes, and then scores. The team features balanced scoring but is led by senior guard Kenny Boynton. Boynton isn't shooting a high percentage so far, but he takes good care of the ball and knocks down free throws. The Gators are a real national title contender.
Ole Miss (7-1) doesn't have a marquee win yet this season. The biggest name the Rebels have beaten is Rutgers and the highest RPI among those they have defeated belongs to McNeese State, currently ranked 46. And their one loss, to Middle Tennessee, is a red flag. Still, the computers like them, especially Ken Pomeroy's numbers (he has them ranked 19). The Rebels boast the SEC's top scorer in Marshall Henderson (17.8 ppg) and top rebounder in Murphy Holloway (10.0 rpg). Missouri travels to Oxford on January 12 for a game that could help to set the league's pecking order.
LSU (6-1) has a similar resume, with one win over a major conference foe (Seton Hall) and one over a top-50 RPI opponent (like Ole Miss, it's McNeese State), plus a lopsided loss at Boise State. LSU has the computers confused (RPI 37, Pomeroy 109), but the Bengals have one more shot to make a non-conference statement when they travel to Marquette on Saturday. Junior small forward Shavon Coleman is the team's leading scorer (14.9 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (8.0), though he shoots better from the field (52.7%) than the free throw line (51.6%).
Texas A&M (8-2) is off to a fair start, though the Aggies lack an attention-grabbing win (Stephen F. Austin currently sits at 14 in the RPI; we can safely call that an aberration) and both losses (to Oklahoma and Saint Louis) have come by double-digits on a neutral floor. Senior guard Elston Turner leads the team with 16.1 points per game and has been an excellent three-point shooter, knocking down three treys per game and shooting at a 46.9% clip. The computers again have a split opinion on the Aggies. RPI has them at 26. Pomeroy at 102.
Kentucky (7-3) is your reigning national champ, but the Wildcats have few familiar faces. Though freshmen Nerlens Noel and Alex Pothyress got most of the preseason attention, fellow frosh Archie Goodwin (15.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.4 apg) has been the team's most productive player. The team lacks a signature win so far (the best came against Maryland) and its 64-55 home loss to Baylor raised concerns. Still, if this freshman class isn't as talented as the group that led UK to the title last year, it's still awfully good. A team that should be much better in March than it is now.
Alabama (6-3) lacks a single win against RPI top-100 teams, but the Pomeroy Ratings still put the Tide at 42, thanks in part to a schedule that has included, to date, Cincinnati, Dayton and VCU (all three losses, but two of them close). As expected, junior guard Trevor Releford (from Kansas City, MO) has been Bama's top scorer, averaging 15.9 points per game.
Tennessee (6-3) has a modest record, but with a win over Wichita State and losses (all away from home) to Oklahoma State, Georgetown and Virginia, the Vols have a resume that puts them in the top half of the league. Junior guard Trae Golden (13.6 ppg, 5.0 apg) and 6-8 sophomore Jarnell Stokes (11.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg) lead the way.
South Carolina (6-3) has losses to St. John's, Clemson and Elon, no quality wins, and computer rankings (RPI 203, Pomeroy 199) that give a good indication of the current quality of the program. And though coach Frank Martin proved to be Mizzou kryptonite during his time at Kansas State, the Tigers need to beat the Gamecocks twice this season to be in contention for the SEC title. Junior guard Brenton Williams (13.2 ppg) is USC's leading scorer.
Vanderbilt (5-4) has one good win (66-64 at Xavier) and one shocking loss (50-33 on a neutral floor against Marist). Sophomore guard Kedren Johnson has made a big leap for the Commodores, going from 3.1 points per game as a freshman to 17.0 to date this season. This is a less experienced and less talented team than the very good Vandy squads of recent years. Finishing anywhere in the top half of the league would be a positive result.
Arkansas (5-4) remains a maddening team in Mike Anderson's second season in Fayetteville. The Hogs have just one win against top-200 RPI competition (Oklahoma), and losses against every other legitimate opponent (Michigan, Syracuse, Arizona State, Wisconsin), and they continue to exhibit an almost complete inability to win away from home (in two seasons, Anderson has only one road/neutral victory, a six-point win at Auburn this past February). Marshawn Powell (16.6 ppg) and B.J. Young (16.4 ppg) are the leading scorers on an underachieving team.
Auburn (5-5) has one win against the RPI top 100 (number 99 Charleston). The Tigers' next best win is against number 268 Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne. Most of their losses have been close (one point to Boston College, four to DePaul), but this looks to be another long season. Senior guard Frankie Sullivan (16.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.5 apg) is the team's most productive player, but he shoots a low percentage and turns the ball over more than three times per game.
Mississippi State (3-6) has an RPI ranking of 238 and sits at 224 in Pomeroy's calculus. The Bulldogs' best win is against Alcorn State (RPI 248). Sophomore guard Roquez Johnson (13.3 ppg) is the best scorer on a bad, bad team.
Georgia (3-7) currently has the lowliest record in the league. These Bulldogs' worst loss is to Youngstown State (RPI 223). Their best win is over Mercer (RPI 227). Lord, have mercy. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a 6-5 sophomore guard, is the team's leading scorer at 17.4 points per game, more than ten points per game more than the team's second-leading scorer. The entire team averages just 59.0 points per game, behind 311 other Division I programs.
Anything worse than a 13-5 record in league play for Missouri would be terribly disappointing.
Happy Holidays to you and yours! Hoop M Nation will be back in two weeks.
Michael Atchison's novel XL is available at Amazon, iTunes, Smashwords and other fine retailers.