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The Watch: The time has come to resolve identity crises

Conference play is here, and with it a chance to get a bead on the fortunes of TCU, Clemson, St. John’s, Minnesota, Georgia and Oregon.

NCAA Basketball: Temple at Georgia
Georgia’s Yante Maten is a known entity. We’re not quite able to say the same about the rest of the Bulldogs.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, we’re a little late.

But college basketball — outside of the Diamond Head Classic — joined us in taking a holiday reprieve. Tonight, though, conference play begins in earnest. (Working alongside Sam Snelling, I’ll carve out a separate piece to reset the SEC race.) The first week isn’t a breaking-in period, either.

While the schedule isn’t lined with blockbusters, contenders in the every power conference draw solid tests, and we’ll see key meetings in the Mountain West Conference, Missouri Valley Conference, West Coast Conference, Horizon League, Southern Conference, and the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

It’s an ideal time, too, to tour the sport’s more uncharted territories and environs. These meetings don’t move the needle nationally, but they’re critically important for one-bid conferences where your seeding for the league tournament can plot a path of least resistance to an automatic bid. Plus, East Tennessee State-Mercer and Iona-Canisius fit nicely into an early Sunday viewing window.

We’re also reaching a point in the season where it’s time to resolve some of our questions about a handful of programs looking to take a step forward this season. And that’s where we train our focus this week: identifying fence-sitters and trying to discern which way they’re tilting.

Big 12: TCU

We’ll deal more with the Horned Frogs below, but Jamie Dixon’s quick rehab of his alma mater appears to be on schedule. Quietly, TCU’s slipped into the top-10 this week, but remaining incognito is largely the byproduct of an underrated non-conference schedule. St. Bonaventure, Belmont, Yale, and Nevada should all contend for their respective conference titles, but they’re not the kind of foes that draw casual eyeballs to watch Dixon’s group.

Kenrich Williams’ development took another step forward. Jaylen Fisher can stretch defenses, and Vladimir Brodziansky remains an underrated post player. Facing Oklahoma, Baylor, Kansas and Texas early in their Big 12 campaign could reveal if the Frogs are a legitimate threat to KU, and for a protected seed, or whether Dixon’s group earns a solid (and projected) seed line.

ACC: Clemson

Tigers coach Brad Brownell was a fixture on preseason Hot Seat lists, the direct result of missing the NCAA tournament six seasons in a row, coming off a 6-12 mark in the ACC and pitiful performances in close games. (The FBI’s investigation of college recruiting, however, shifted the bar.)

Through the season’s first half, however, Brownell is outrunning the reaper. Texas A&M Elijah Williams has—so far—filled the vacancy left by Jaron Blossomgame. Last season’s sixth man, Marcquise Reed has emerged as the Tigers best perimeter threat, a production bump spurred by an improved ability to finish at the rim. Shelton Mitchell still has a balky knee, but he’s found a way to be a contributor offensively. Meanwhile, Gabe DeVoe is the best defender the Tigers put on the floor.

NCAA Basketball: NC-Asheville at Clemson
Clemson coach Brad Brownell’s seat remains warm, but reaching the NCAA tournament and keeping Zion Williamson home could help his future prospects.
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks ago, they rallied past Florida on a semi-neutral floor, using a 14-3 run in the closing minutes to notch a quality win over the slumping Gators. Oh, and Brownell is out on a big game expedition in recruiting, staying in the mix for in-state product Zion Williamson, a commitment that would require Clemson to hold off Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas.

No, Clemson doesn’t have a deep bench. Its best win is over a Florida squad that’s in flux. And it’s unclear whether the nation’s No. 184 schedule prepared them for the gauntlet that is ACC play. Yet the first three weeks of conference play might offer them a chance to find their footing with North Carolina State, Boston College, Louisville and Miami on the menu. A year ago, Clemson started out 1-6, a hole they couldn’t clamber out of. If Brownell can navigate the Tigers to a solid start, maybe momentum carries them onto the bubble.

Big East: St. John’s

Hey, we’ve seen these guys before. Since last month, the Red Storm’s persona hasn’t really morphed. They still feast on takeaways—see the nation’s No. 3 turnover percentage—and rely on Shamorie Ponds as their primary scoring option. What’s changed is the availability of Marcus LoVett, who has been sidelined with a sprained left knee. That’s where having Justin Simon has been a boon. While the Arizona transfer isn’t a scoring threat night in and night out, his defensive prowess still powers Chris Mullin’s transition-based attack. And St. John’s loss to Arizona State has to be viewed through that prism.

Currently, the Red Storm occupies a prime spot on the projected bubble, but Providence and Marquette both have enough flaws to create an avenue for the Red Storm to push into the top half of the Big East. Skepticism about whether Mullin could find success at his alma mater has grown muted, but reaching the NCAA tournament in his third season would certainly silence his critics.

SEC: Georgia

Sam Snelling flat out said in his season preview that we may have seen Mark Fox’s ceiling in Athens: a well-drilled and tactical squad consisting of undervalued players developed to the max. And over the course of non-conference, the Bulldogs have offered us conflicting signals: pick off Saint Mary’s but lose to UMass by 22 points.

Last week, UGA routed Georgia Tech, but how should we read that result, given that Josh Pastner’s Yellow Jackets have lost to Grambling State, Wright State and Wofford? At some point, the transitive property isn’t the best analytical tool in our kit.

Yet Georgia appears to have found some support beams to help Yante Maten. Junior point guard William Jackson II, an Athens, Ga., native and borderline top-150 prospect, is a prime example of Fox’s sculpting. This season, he’s not only averaging 12.1 points and 4.3 assists per game, but his offensive rating is 116.3—roughly a 24-point jump. Jackson’s 43.6-percent clip from the 3-point stripe offsets the poor outside shooting by Juwan Parker. Finally, highly-touted freshman swingman Rayshaun Hammonds is adding 7.8 points and 5.1 rebounds in a hyper-efficient way, posting a 59.7 true-shooting percentage. Toss in Derek Ogbeide as a low-post banger, and Fox has an intriguing core.

We assume seven teams will be in the NCAA tournament mix—Kentucky, Texas A&M, Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri. Auburn has shown signs of stabilization, too. We’ll get a good measure of Georgia after it visits Kentucky, but the rest of its early SEC slate is manageable with Ole Miss, Alabama, Missouri and South Carolina. Maybe UGA isn’t an at-large team, but a .500-level performance is enough to give Fox and Co. a supply of wrenches to toss into the gears.

Big Ten: Minnesota

The Golden Gophers are no stranger to this space. Only a couple weeks ago, a win over Minnesota counted as an upset of a top-15 opponent. Now, Richard Pitino’s team is in the same boat as Arizona, Florida, and USC in running into some early doldrums. Point forward Jordan Murphy remains an all-purpose toolset, but his backcourt mates of Nate Mason and Amir Coffey have wobbled at times. Now, maybe Minnesota has shed its malaise, and a Big Ten stretch of Illinois, Indiana and Northwestern might be a vitamin boost.

Northwestern still seems content with last season’s success, and no one else seems ready to pose a threat to Michigan State and Purdue. If hitting on all cylinders, Minnesota is just that. KenPom has always been less bullish than pollsters on the Gophers, but maybe they find a way to get their groove back.

Pac-12: Oregon

There was an exodus in Eugene last spring after the Final Four. Oregon lost four starters—Dylan Ennis, Tyler Dorsey, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell—and some key reserves in Casey Benson and Kavell Bigby-Williams to transfer.

Only sophomore guard Payton Pritchard returned, and, naturally, expectations were toned down for Dana Altman. If anything, this was a bridge year to a recruiting class in 2018 that’s currently rated No. 2 nationally, which features three top-50 prospects.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Oregon
Sophomore point Payton Pritchard guard is among the last key contributors left from Oregon’s Final Four run last spring.
Joseph Weiser-USA TODAY Sports

Instead, Oregon has spackled together an intriguing mix. Graduate transfer Elijah Brown has brought some scoring punch with him, even if it’s not the most efficient. Freshman Troy Brown arrived as a coveted top-15 recruit and is a legitimate combo forward. Posting 11.8 points and 7.8 rebounds may seem mundane, but for anyone not named Trae Young or Marvin Bagley III, it’s great production. Two other transfers — former Illinois State forward MiKyle McIntosh and Georgetown’s Paul White—have filled out the rotation.

A spackled together mix of freshmen and transfers can make for tricky chemistry, but Oregon has found a way to be solid early. Their KenPom profile won’t knock your socks off, but Altman has enough raw components to shape in to a bubble team. Right now, they tend to wind up on the wrong side of it, but reaching the dance would position the Ducks to be a national title threat next season.


THE CAN'T-MISS

We get it: You may not have the time (or inclination) to load up your schedule with games to watch. That’s why we single out the game you should carve out to time to see each week.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma at Wichita State Kelly Ross-USA TODAY Sports

No. 12 Oklahoma at No. 10 TCU, 1 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPNU

I won’t waste time and space talking about Trae Young.

He is awesome.

And Lon Kruger has built a death machine with his talent.

You probably know less about the breakout of Brady Manek, a borderline top-150 recruit who’s averaged 17.3 points and is shooting 58.7 percent from over the past month. Junior guard Christian James has bounced back after a slight sophomore slump, putting up 13.4 points per night and a ridiculous 64.5 true shooting percentage. And senior big man Khadeem Lattin is back after briefly testing the NBA draft waters last spring and bringing rim protection with him.

The Sooners, who finished ninth last season in the Big 12, have the makings of another team that could contend in March. Which isn’t surprising at all given the presence of Lon Kruger on the sidelines.

At the other end, Jamie Dixon’s handiwork has indicted Pitt—and its fanbase--for thinking it could find greener pastures.

Under his tutelage, Kenrich Williams has become a honed slasher with some bounce, and he’s also one of the Big 12’s best at jumping passing lanes. Down low, Vladimir Brodzianksy has footwork, ball fakes and a soft touch—see his 81.6 percent shooting at the rim—to go with his 8.1 block percentage. Point guard Jaylen Fisher is among the nation’s best assist men and a 40.9 percent shooter from 3-point range.

The bigger deal is Dixon’s embrace of tempo and pairing it with the same four-out offense that attacks the middle and elbow areas and generates quality looks. It’s also what makes this game worth watching. Dixon and Kruger let their teams run, and the structures of their systems create a game the flows freely.

What we haven’t seen is whether TCU, which is just 61st in defensive efficiency, can lock down against opponents like OU, West Virginia or Kansas. If the likes of Wichita State and USC haven’t slowed the prolific Young, it’s worth wondering what chance TCU stands in pulling off the feat.


THE CONFERENCE CALL

The SEC is trying to be better at basketball. Schools are assembling tougher schedules, hiring better coaches and recruiting at a higher level. We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have major implications for the league race.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

No. 5 Texas A&M at Alabama | 5 p.m. Saturday CT, ESPN2

After a 16-point loss to Texas, it’s fair to speculate whether the Crimson Tide will live up to preseason hype.

Avery Johnson’s crew has dropped four of its last seven—three of them coming to KenPom top-50 opponents. The Tide’s best win? Knocking off Atlantic 10 favorite Rhode Island in Tuscaloosa. After that comes a victory over Sun Belt contender UT-Arlington. Projected as a top-25 team, the Tide are now firmly plotted in bubble territory as SEC play arrives.

It’s probably too soon to characterize their meeting against the Aggies as a must-win tilt. Yet the outcome might help us figure out if this is just a lull, or whether Bama ultimately slides to the middle of the SEC pack.

The Tide’s issues are also head-scratching: porous defense, poor rebounding and flaky perimeter shooting.

In all four defeats, Bama allowed opponents to shoot at least 45 percent from the floor—a departure for a team that finished 10th in defensive efficiency last season. Meanwhile, the Tide ranks just 125th nationally in rebounding and 210th, according to KenPom, keeping opponents off the offensive backboards. Their rebound margin against Minnesota, UCF, Arizona, and Texas is minus-4, and they’ve been outscored by nearly five second-chance points in those outings—stats which are frustrating considering Daniel Giddens (6-foot-11), Donta Hall (6-9), Galen Hall (6-9), Alex Reese (6-9) and Herbert Jones (6-7) are on the roster. Finally, Collin Sexton and John Petty haven’t received much in the way of support from behind the arc, with the rest of the Tide shooting just 25 percent in those games.

None of that is a recipe for hanging around against the Aggies, who rank fourth in 3-point defense, eighth in rebound margin and 34th in scoring defense. We all know Sexton is a bonafide star, Petty a multi-dimensional scorer, and Hall one of the better rebounders in the conference. But Dazon Ingram needs to find some consistency, and Giddens must avoid foul trouble to make an impact.

What’s buoyed A&M has been its phenomenal play on the wings. Marquette transfer Duane Wilson’s presence solidified the point guard spot and tightened up perimeter defense. Swingman D.J. Hogg’s improvement as a shooter—he’s hitting 50 percent from the 3-point line—has been a revelation. And Admon Gilder brings efficiency and toughness at combo guard. Paired with big men like Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, the Aggies have the size and offensive diversity to give teams fits.

We’ll see how well the Aggies fare, though, with Hogg sitting as part of a three-game suspension and with Gilder out as he recovers from a knee injury. That puts added pressure young wings like JJ Caldwell, TJ Starks and Savion Flagg.

The Tide’s frontcourt may not be able to shut off the inside game for A&M, but it needs to hold its own down low. Outside, getting contributions from Ingram and Riley Norris would be appreciated. Obviously, the return of Braxton Key from preseason knee surgery helps, but the sophomore has only been back in the fold for a pair of games.


THE DEEP CUT

We at Rock M Nation believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, and those are the wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. So, we will bring you one game that might otherwise be considered off the grid.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri State at Wichita State Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri State at Valparaiso | 3 p.m. Sunday CT, ESPN3

The obstacles are gone.

Creighton? The Big East. Wichita State? Off to the AAC. Northern Iowa? Well, Ben Jacobson program is cyclical in nature—built to peak every four years. Valparaiso? The Crusaders reigned in the Horizon League, but the Drews don’t have any more family members stalking the sidelines.

For Missouri State, inheriting the throne in the Missouri Valley Conference is a claim they could easily claim. Whether the Bears, who have muddled through under Paul Lusk, clasp on to it is another matter. And the next three months could give us a good sense as to whether the former Purdue assistant coach is the right man at the helm.

While spending on basketball never rivaled the largesse lavished on Gregg Marshall’s program, the powers that be in Springfield usually kept the program among the upper half of the conference. JQH Arena, built for $67 million, is barely a decade old. And the local market has shown that it will pack the building for good teams assembled by Charlie Spoonhour, Steve Alford and Cuonzo Martin. As for recruiting, the right coach can mine veins in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Lusk, however, has never gained traction, amassing a .476 win percentage, never finished better than fourth in the Valley and peaked at 86th in Ken Pom. After seven seasons, though, he owns the components for a breakthrough. The Bears are the fifth most-experienced team in the country, a mixture of junior stalwarts in Jarred Dixon and Ryan Kreklow blended with JUCO finds in Ronnie Rousseau III and Jarrid Rhodes.

But the biggest coup is Alize Johnson, who failed to qualify for Division I programs out of high school, became a NJCAA All-American honorable mention and has become the kind chameleon NBA teams are seeking at combo forward. The 6-9, 203-pound senior has already racked up nine double-doubles this season—the kind of production that pings on the radar of outlets like Draft Express:

Johnson is one of the more unique players at the mid-major level. Equipped with a high motor, wing-like fluidity at 6' 9”, tremendous rebounding instincts (sixth in the NCAA in rebounds per 40 minutes) at only 206 pounds, a projectable 3-point stroke (40.8 3P%), and the ability to push the ball and find teammates in transition thanks to his early point guard days, the 20-year-old Johnson has emerged as a name to watch as he wraps up his junior season with the Bears.

Stylistically, the Bears aren’t much to tout. They play a controlled pace, defend consistently and win on the backboards—a template that Lusk’s former colleague and the current head coach in Columbia deployed for much of his career. But in an era when the Valley’s hierarchy is in flux, it might be enough.

Valpo is currently a program in transition as well, loaded up with youth and in a new league. This game is probably heavier on symbolism than on competitiveness, but it’s still worth checking in to see whether Lusk can finally capitalize on an opportunity that’s probably taken longer than some thought to materialize.


THE DOCKET

Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 matchups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and others that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are based on CST.

Wednesday

  • Butler at Georgetown, 5:30 p.m., FS1
  • Florida Gulf Coast at Rhode Island, 6 p.m., ESPNU
  • No. 6 Xavier at Marquette, 7:30 p.m., FS1
  • San Diego State at Wyoming, 8 p.m., ESPN3
  • UCF at SMU, 8 p.m. ESPN2
  • Nevada at Fresno State, 9 p.m., ESPN3

Thursday

  • No. 25 Creighton at No. 23 Seton Hall, 5:30 p.m., FS1
  • Providence at St. John’s, 6 p.m., Fox
  • Oakland at Milwaukee, 7 p.m., ESPN3

Friday

  • Louisville at No. 16 Kentucky, Noon, CBS
  • Rider at Canisius, 3:30 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 7 West Virginia at Oklahoma State, 6 p.m., ESPNU
  • No. 18 Baylor at No. 22 Texas Tech, 7 p.m., Fox College Sports
  • No. 11 Kansas at Texas, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • Georgia Southern at Troy, 7:15 p.m. ESPN3

Saturday

  • No. 8 Wichita State at UConn, 11 a.m., CBS
  • No. 19 Tennessee at Arkansas, Noon, SEC Network
  • No. 24 Florida State at No. 4 Duke, 1 p.m., CBS
  • No. 1 Villanova at Butler, 3 p.m., CBS
  • Saint Mary’s at BYU, 3 p.m., ESPNU
  • Middle Tennessee at UAB, 4 p.m., Stadium
  • Temple at Houston, 5 p.m., ESPNU
  • No. 3 Arizona State vs. No. 17 Arizona, 8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks

Sunday

  • Iona at Canisius, Noon, ESPN3
  • East Tennessee at Mercer, 1 p.m., ESPN3
  • Northern Iowa at Bradley, 1 p.m., ESPN3
  • Providence at No. 25 Creighton, 1:30 p.m., FS1
  • Missouri State at Valparaiso, 3 p.m., ESPN3
  • Georgia State at Troy, 3:15 p.m., ESPN3
  • St. John’s at No. 23 Seton Hall, 4 p.m., FS1
  • Georgia at No. 16 Kentucky, 5 p.m., ESPN

THE REVIEW

Catch up on prior editions of The Watch and look back three months from now to see how foolish all of these ideas actually are!