Over the last couple weeks, I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails asking when I’d start writing about college basketball a little more. Well, what can I say, I’ve been busy!
Ok, that’s a lie, but still. Really, I just wanted to get a few more games under my belt and watch every team once or twice more before spitting out my opinions. The last thing I'd want to do is look like an idiot. Well, anymore than I usually do anyway.
So with that, here is my College Basketball Midseason Report Card. Understand that the grades are only based on how teams have looked so far, and not how good they could be, or what they might project to down the road. I tried to cover every relevant team, and share every relevant opinion I have on them. Of course as time goes on, some of this will be proven incorrect, and in some cases irrelevant all together. But I figure this at least a nice jumping off point. And as always, I encourage you to share your opinions in the comments section below or by e-mailing. Whether you agree or not.
Also, one final note before we get to the Report Card. Because of travel, this will be my last article of the week, so with that, I tried to put a lot in here, give you something to browse over the next few days. Honestly, if I had to do it again, I’d probably have just broken it into two parts. Still, just approach this like a fine bottle of wine: Open this article up, take it in, let it sit for awhile, come back to it, and of course if you don’t like it, spit it back in my face.
Now, let's get to the grades.
Duke (A): I mean duh, right? The Blue Devils are 13-0, a unanimous No. 1 in both polls and won’t face a team that’s currently ranked for the rest of the regular season. Good God.
But really, here’s the scary thing about the Blue Devils though: As I watched on Sunday night against Miami, I couldn’t help but think, “Even without Kyrie Irving, is this the best team in the country?” That might sound crazy, but I don’t think it’s that far off.
Granted, they’re not unbeatable without Irving, but still pretty darn good. Forget about Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith for a second (which isn’t easy, since you know, they both could end up as All-Americans.). What about the fact that both Mason and Miles Plumlee have emerged as true low post defensive terrors, with Mason in specific capable of getting 20 points if needed? What about the fact that Andre Dawkins could very well be their fourth best guard, and is still averaging double figures? What about the fact that despite having to handle the ball now, Nolan Smith still dropped 28 points the other night. How exactly are you supposed to beat these guys?
Now I’m not saying that this team will go undefeated, because they won’t. They’ll slip up somewhere. But even if Irving doesn’t play another minute the rest of the year, I’d be shocked if they entered the NCAA Tournament with more than two losses.
Ohio State (A): As much as I love Kemba Walker (And believe me I do. Don’t be surprised if there’s a Kemba Torres tearing up YMCA games in your neighborhood sometime around 2020), if I had a vote for National Player of the Year, I’d give it to Jared Sullinger.
That’s not a knock on Walker, it’s just that, well, despite losing the best player in college basketball last year, Ohio State is somehow better this year with Sullinger. And that’s despite the fact that for whatever reason, Jon Diebler and William Buford aren’t playing at the level they did a season ago (Something tells me that might have something to do with Evan Turner being gone. Just a hunch). Those two are still good, but not playing at the overall level I expected them to.
Also, moving away from Sullinger, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention David Lighty. He’s probably my favorite fill-in-the-blanks guy in college basketball right now, someone who just does whatever it takes to help his team get the win. Need a big three-pointer? Lighty’s your guy. Need a spot ball-handler? You know who to go to. Need a guy to kidnap the other team’s best player the night before a big game?
Ok, maybe that last one is an exaggeration. You get the point.
(Random Note That Has Nothing To Do With Anything: Want a fun fact on Lighty? Well too bad, I’m going to give you one anyway.
Lighty came to Ohio State back in the fall of 2006, in the fabled recruiting class with Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook that everyone called the “Thad Five” (Remember that? Clever, huh?). Since then, he’s also played alongside a number of other pretty darn good players, including Kosta Koufos, Byron (Don’t call me B.J. Mullens), Turner and now Sullinger this year.
Meaning, that if Sullinger ends up going pro after this season, in his five years at Ohio State (the extra year because of injury), Lighty will have played with six one-and-done guys, plus Turner, totaling seven early entrants to the NBA Draft.
Does that mean anything? Not really. I still thought it was interesting though. Also, if you were short on cash, would there be a better rolodex to have than Lighty’s. Can a guy get a loan?)
Kansas (A-): Honestly, I’ve got mixed feelings on KU. They’re undefeated. They’ve taken care of business against everyone they’ve needed to. But if the USC game a few weeks ago taught us anything, it’s that it seems like under the right circumstances, even an average team can beat them. I don’t feel the same way about Duke or Ohio State, which is why their grades are higher.
On a different note, here’s one more thing to chew on. Does anyone else get the feeling that this Kansas team is a lot like Memphis in 2008? That it’s a solid, veteran group that might get put over the top by a freshman guard? Understand, I’m not saying that Josh Selby and Derrick Rose are similar basketball players. Just that they could end up having similar impact on their team.
I guess we’ll have to just wait and see, but it’s something to think about.
Villanova (A-): This is going to sound bad of me, but at this point, I just don’t have a great feel for what the Wildcats are doing right now. But considering they’re 12-1, whatever it is that they are doing, seems to be working just fine.
One more point I’ll add on this team: Mophtaou Yarou is a completely different player from last year. Which believe me, is a good thing.
Now I know that Yarou missed a lot of time last year after he was diagnosed with Hepatitis, which is honestly no joke. But when he did come back, I always felt like Jay Wright played Yarou more because he felt obligated to, than because it gave ‘Nova the best chance to win. Which granted, is commendable. That doesn’t make it right though.
Well this year, Yarou has earned it, and seems to actually fit in with the pieces around him nicely. He’s rebounding well, and has developed a nice, soft touch around the basket, one that I didn’t necessarily see coming.
Somebody asked me the other day who I thought the best team in the Big East was. Honestly, I think it might be these guys.
Pittsburgh (B+): Like Villanova, Pitt’s only loss was to Tennessee. Since there’s was at home, I had to bump the Panthers down at least a little bit, right?
Either way, I like ‘Nova just a littttle bit more than these guys. It’s nothing personal. Just that while Pitt may have the edge with experience, from a raw skill standpoint, I like ‘Nova better. To put it a different way, with a gun to my head, if I had to pick one of these two teams to win on a neutral court, I think I’d shy away from Pitt.
Still, to their credit, the Panthers wins over Texas, Maryland and UConn are all better, or at least on par with anything ‘Nova has done this year.
Needless to say, this isn’t a team I’d want to play at any point in the season if I didn’t have to.
Kentucky (B+): Credit John Calipari. After watching Big Blue in Maui, I just didn’t see it. I thought they were good, but hardly great, and that a Sweet 16 berth might be the ceiling for this team, not a start on a bigger run. And as usual, I’m an idiot.
Obviously, it all starts with Terrence Jones. He’s going to be the best player on the court no matter who Kentucky plays. But what I didn’t expect was that when teams said, “We’re going to double you, and make someone else beat up,” that T Jones would turn into the best passer on the court. Honestly, I think that might his greatest skill, considering that he set up Josh Harrelsson with so many easy dunks the other day against Louisville, Jones should’ve charged him a service fee.
Also, sticking with the positives, I’ve got to mention the defense. I already think this team is better than last year’s. Maybe not more physically gifted. But definitely fundamentally sound.
Truthfully though, the one guy that I can’t quite put my finger on is Brandon Knight. I was pretty apathetic to him at the beginning of the year, but I’ve got to admit he’s grown on me. You know how sometimes your wife tries a new recipe out of her cookbook, and the first bite doesn’t go down smooth, you take a few more and five minutes later you’re going up for seconds? That’s how I feel about Knight. Didn’t like my first taste, but he seems to get better with every bite.
Either way, this team seems like it is getting better every time it hits the court (minus the first half of the Penn game, which I think everyone in Lexington agrees never happened) and as crazy as it sounds, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if they ended up with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
That might not look right on paper, but who exactly in the SEC is beating them? Florida is like Jim Carrey in Me, Myself and Irene, they’ve got a different personality every night. Tennessee is going to be without their coach for the next month. And the entire West is a mess, considering, you know, that the best team in the division had two guys attack each other a week ago.
So why not Kentucky?
Louisville (B+): Yes, despite getting run out of the gym by the Wildcats last Friday, Louisville still gets the same grade as them. Why? Because coming into the year I thought this might be a .500 team. Yet within the blink of the eye (Or a sexual encounter with Rick Pitino for that matter), they beat Butler, and were relevant again nationally. Who saw that coming?
Anyway, I’ve been saying it all season, but this group reminds me a lot of Syracuse from last year. Not in their personnel, or the way they play so much. Just in how they lost a bunch of talented guys off last year’s roster, we all left them for dead, only somehow they’re actually better this year. For whatever reason, these guys just seem to enjoy playing with each other. They make the extra pass. Wave towels from the bench. Honestly, they’re like a Disney movie come to life.
Of course we also saw when they played Kentucky, that the Cardinals are susceptible to the worst kinds of teams: Good ones. It’s one thing to get easy buckets against Western Kentucky or FIU. It’s quite another to do it against a team as good as the Wildcats.
Still, I think this team finishes somewhere in the 5-6 range in the Big East, which should get them comfortably into the NCAA Tournament, probably right around a No. 6 seed. Name me one Louisville fan that wouldn’t have gladly taken that at the beginning of the year?
Purdue (B+): Like a lot of you, I wasn’t quite sure what would happen to Purdue without Robbie Hummel this year. Truth be told, I figured that if they were going to stay relevant in the Big Ten, the Boilers need E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson to not only be better than they were last year, but way better.
Well guess what? That’s exactly what they are. As far as I’m concerned they’re the second best team in this conference behind Ohio State.
Texas (B+): To me, this is the team that nobody should want to play in the Big XII. They’ve got talent everywhere, play hard, and unlike last year’s Texas team, seem to actually like each other. What a novel concept, huh?
And honestly, that’s the biggest surprise to me, that the pieces actually fit, and everyone compliments each other. Jordan Hamilton is their scorer. Tristan Thompson is their low post stud. Gary Johnson is their “fill-in-the-blanks,” big guy. The guards rotate in and out like a pair of tag of team wrestlers, with Dogus Balbay starting, but J’Covan Brown playing more minutes off the bench. And somehow, in the end, Cory Joseph usually takes and makes the big shots, and nobody has a problem with it.
This team seems to be getting better every game. I wouldn’t want to play them tomorrow, let alone in March.
Syracuse (B): I saw the ‘Cuse in person against Michigan State, and loved what I saw defensively. When the Orange are at their best, that zone is humming like a German sports car. And nobody is scoring much on them
With that said, I need to see these guys against some more real competition before I move them up any higher. From what I’ve seen, Syracuse doesn’t get a ton of easy baskets against good teams, and don’t seem to shoot all that well from the perimeter. Of course in the Orange’s defense, they haven’t had to with the way Rick Jackson has played. No joke, Jackson might be the best big guy in the Big East this year.
So in the end, understand Syracuse fans, I’m not saying I don’t believe in your team. I just need a bigger sample size to work with.
Notre Dame (B): Here’s the thing with Notre Dame. As Big East play wears on, you’re going to hear all the clichéd terms thrown around about them. That they’re a “smart,” team. A “veteran,” team. A “savvy,” one. Which is really just a nice way of saying, “They’re slow and not athletic, and we don’t really think they can beat good teams.” And I’m telling you, don’t believe it for a second.
Watching them against UConn on Tuesday night, I couldn’t have been more impressed by the Irish. Every player seemed to be able to get where he needed to on the court. They always had the inside position on rebounds. When they ran half-court sets, they always seemed to get the shot they wanted.
Yes that makes them a real “smart,” team, but smarts only get you so far. They’ve got skill too.
North Carolina (B): I never bought UNC as a preseason Top 10 team, but I do buy them as what they are now: A Top 20 team, that’s probably the second best in the ACC.
And to me the biggest difference has been Tyler Zeller. Not so much in his skills, because those have always been there. But in his leadership ability. I distinctly remember watching the Tar Heels play Illinois in November, and when something went wrong, everybody seemed to be looking to someone else to pick them up. Well a few weeks later against Kentucky that someone was Zeller. He was barking at guys, getting them together in the huddle and keeping everyone in line. Even though North Carolina has since lost to Texas, I think their win over Kentucky was a turning point for this team. I just don’t see too many teams beating them from here on out. Especially as bad as the ACC is this year.
Also how could I not mention John Henson? Coming into the year, I was honestly unsure of the guy. How was he going to defend when a strong wind knocks him over?
Well guess what? As usual, I was wrong. And if you don’t agree with me, just ask Terrence Jones. Nobody played him tougher this year than Henson did.
So what’s the ceiling on this team? I’m still not sure. But a No. 3 or 4 seed come tourney time seems about right.
Memphis (B): Having talked to a few Memphis fans, I know they’re a little frustrated with this team, especially after they almost lost to Tennessee State the other night. Still, when it’s time for NCAA Tournament seeding, nobody is going to remember how they beat Tennessee State, just that they did it.
Going forward, this team will definitely be interesting though. When I watch them, they look like exactly what they are: young. They play like it. They act like. Physically they resemble it.
Which is why I’ll be curious going forward. They’ve been fine so far when basically every game has been at the Pyramid. What happens when they have to hit the road every other game? Honestly, I’m not sure.
UConn (B-): There are so many different directions I could go right now, so let me start by saying this: Do I think UConn is a Top 10 team? No. But had you told me on October 1 that on this date, given the schedule, they’d be 11-2, not only would I be happy, I might be crying tears of joy. Ok that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.
Still, UConn lost for the second time in three Big East games on Tuesday night, which means there is still a lot to work on. Let’s go ahead and look at this from both angles, starting with the good:
Kemba Walker is the best player on the court always, no matter who UConn plays. He’s master a 15-foot pull up jumper, which means his patented “put my head down and drive into three of the other team’s defenders” move from last year is for the most part, a thing of the past (Although, he does occasionally still break it out, I guess for nostalgic purposes). And even though UConn got schooled on the road by Pitt last week, they learned some lessons, and played infinitely better Tuesday night. Notre Dame isn’t an easy place to play, and UConn did enough to win last night. At least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself.
Staying with the positives, Shabazz Napier is absolutely fearless. He does dumb stuff every once in awhile, but is the one guy on this team other than Walker that I know is confident in himself to take, and make the big shot (Which is a good thing about 89 percent of the time). Also, it’s impossible not to love Roscoe Smith. He’s hysterical. Anytime he does anything at all from making a free throw to blocking a shot, he pounds his chest like he just hit a buzzer-beater in the NCAA Tournament. I’m pretty sure he even pounds his chest after he gets off the toilet in the morning.
Of course there are negatives. And don’t buy what the media is saying, mainly that the reason UConn is struggling is because teams are making someone besides Walker beat them. That’s only a part of the problem.
The bigger problem is that Alex Oriahki just isn’t the same player since UConn left Maui. He doesn’t look as confident. He doesn’t play as confident. And what’s more concerning is that this team was already one big man short to begin with, and when Oriahki has nights like he did Tuesday (fouled out, no points), it’s almost impossible for UConn to win. The Huskies can afford off nights from Kemba, but they can’t from Oriahki.
Keeping Oriahki on the court, and engaged will be the most important thing this team needs to figure out going forward.
Minnesota (B-): Remember how I mentioned before that Texas is a team I just wouldn’t want to play going forward? Well in the Big Ten, I present you Minnesota.
I like everything about them (well except maybe those hideous brown and yellow uniforms!). I like Al Nolen at point guard. I like that they’re one of the few teams that have multiple big guys that are productive. And I love Trevor Mbakwe. The dude is a freak. Watching him try to harness his athleticism on a regulation basketball court is like watching a puppy try to harness all their energy in the park. Mbakwe may be my favorite random player in college basketball this season.
On a completely different note, how fun would it be to see Minnesota, and Tubby Smith face off with Kentucky at some point in the NCAA Tournament?
Michigan State (B-): Their 10-4 record means nothing to me right now. The Spartans are like one of those NBA teams that uses the regular season almost as an extended preseason, to get themselves ready for the postseason.
Honestly, I might not even watch these guys until March. And honestly, it might not matter.
Georgetown (C+): Since this is starting to run long, let me start wrapping up with the Hoyas, and saythat this is one weird team. Coming into the year, we all thought that interior scoring would be the problem, yet lately Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims have been just fine. It’s the guards that have been a tad big disappointing.
Big picture, I think this team will be fine. But they simply need more balance if they’re going to beat good teams.
Tennessee (C): I’ve got to ask, what’s the proper ranking for these guys? They’re the only team to beat Pitt and Villanova, yet lost four games at home, three of them to teams they’re far better than. Still, I suppose they should get a little pass, since two of those losses were by one point. So where does that leave us?
Really, the biggest thing is, I just don’t see the leadership right now that they had last year with Wayne Chism. The guy was a rock. Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris might be skilled, but neither seems to be stepping up when the team needs them. Which can’t be a good thing, with Bruce Pearl taking his “sabbatical,” from coaching for the next several games.
Kansas State (D+): I know, I know, it’s blasphemous to have K-State at D+, considering they’re 12-3 and ranked No. 17 in the country, right? Well let me explain.
On the court, they probably grade out a little higher. Sure they were No. 3 in the country coming into the season, but at the very least, all their losses so far this season are explainable. Against Duke on a neutral court? Absolutely. Florida in Florida? I guess. UNLV without the suspended Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly? Totally logical.
More concerning, and more on point with the grade I gave this team, is those suspensions I mentioned. I mean, honestly, how does that happen? Kelly and Pullen are both seniors. They both know better. And they still took free stuff? And I’m supposed to believe they’re going to be leaders on a team that makes a deep NCAA Tournament run? Really?
Here are a few other teams that I won’t grade just yet, because I haven’t seen enough of them.
San Diego State; BYU; UNLV: I’ve seen a lot of UNLV, and think they’re really good. But everyone keeps telling me BYU and SDSU are the teams to beat in the Mountain West. I guess we’ll start to find out soon.
Gonzaga: They seem to have turned a corner. “Seem,” being the operative word.
Missouri: Sadly, I just have no feel for them at all. I know they’re good, but I need to see them against some of the better teams in the Big XII before I’m comfortable grading them.
Baylor: They’ve got the athletes to beat anyone, but seem worse since LaceDarius Dunn came back from suspension. If he’s taking the right amount of shots, he’s a weapon. Right now he’s just a ball-stopper.
How Scott Drew gets everyone going is one of the things I’m most intrigued by the second half of the year.