Articles By Athlon Sports
The field of candidates for one of college football’s most prestigious awards has been narrowed down to five with the announcement of this season’s finalists for The Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. UCLA’s Brett Hundley, USC’s Cody Kessler, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Baylor’s Bryce Petty and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott are the 2014 finalists for the award that’s named after Hall of Fame legend Johnny Unitas, who many refer to as the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.
Here is a closer look at this season’s finalists:
Brett Hundley, UCLA
Through 10 games this season, Hundley has completed 72.1 percent of his passes for 2,547 yards with 17 touchdowns and four interceptions for a QB rating of 158.1. The redshirt junior also has 564 yards rushing and seven touchdowns for the 8-2 Bruins.
Cody Kessler, USC
In his second season as the Trojans’ starting quarterback, Kessler has emerged as one of the nation’s most productive passers. After 10 weeks, the fourth-year junior is fourth in the nation in QB rating (168.2) with a sparkling 25:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He is completing 69.7 percent of his passes and has posted four 300-yard games thus far.
Marcus Mariota, Oregon
One of the nation’s most athletic and dynamic quarterbacks, Mariota is putting together a spectacular junior season for the 9-1 Ducks, who have almost wrapped up another Pac-12 North Division title. The third-year starter is well on his way to establishing career bests across the board, as he leads the nation in QB rating (184.5), has accounted for a total of 37 touchdowns (29 passing, 8 rushing) and 3,304 yards of total offense through 10 games.
Bryce Petty, Baylor
A fifth-year senior in his second season as the starter, Petty is once again posting impressive numbers for Art Briles’ Bears. A back injury cost Petty a game earlier in the season, but he’s still among the nation’s leaders in passer rating (152.2), as he’s thrown 21 touchdown passes and just three interceptions through nine games.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
The redshirt junior has enjoyed a breakthrough season, leading his Bulldogs to a 9-0 record and the No. 1 ranking in the polls. Prescott has been making plays with his arm and legs all season, accounting for 29 total touchdowns (18 passing, 11 rushing). Besides being the nation’s seventh-rated passer (158.5), Prescott also is averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
The five finalists were narrowed down from an original field of 27 candidates. This season’s winner will be announced on Dec. 8. Candidates for the Golden Arm Award, which has been presented annually since 1987, must be college seniors or fourth-year juniors on schedule to graduate with their class. Besides their on-field accomplishments, candidates are judged on their character, citizenship, scholastic achievement and leadership qualities.
Past Golden Arm Award winners include current NFL quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer and Colt McCoy. Last season’s recipient was Alabama’s A.J. McCarron.
The Golden Arm Award is presented by the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation, Inc. and Transamerica. Athlon Sports is proud to be a Golden Arm Award sponsor.
Having a strong starting lineup simply isn’t enough in the NBA. Teams like the Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers prove that, today, a front five with great chemistry and well-defined roles can only get you so far. Both teams fell out of last year’s postseason on the heels of bad scoring margins every time they had to rest their best men.
Not every squad has this problem. The Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Pelicans all bring men off the bench who are every bit as valuable to their culture as many of the players technically ahead of them in depth chart.
Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
Also filed under “would start in almost any other circumstance.” Warriors coach Steve Kerr has opted to make the versatile veteran a bench man simply so he can boost the confidence of third-year forward Harrison Barnes, who has started ahead of Iggy this year. Barnes is a fragile, developing prospect who struggled mightily in 2013-14 after a brilliant rookie season. Iguodala is one the game’s consummate professionals — his acceptance of a role as a reserve proves it.
He’s a former gold-medal winner with Team USA in the 2012 Beijing Olympics, and the game’s foremost analysts see one of basketball’s very best players when Andre takes the floor. He won’t usually fill up the box score, as his strengths lie in perfecting team strings on defense and offense both, and in wearing down the opponent with his relentless, intelligent hustle.
Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls
Taj Gibson, the Chicago Bulls’ lengthy, beefy big man who originally hails from Brooklyn, was one of the best paint defenders in the NBA last year, and his offense saw a big spike, too, as he found more touch with his jumper and backdown game.
In tandem with Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and rookie Nikola Mirotic, Gibson makes Chicago’s front court an entity of extraordinary talent. And when the Bulls inevitably run up against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in their quest for a championship, don’t be surprised if you see Gibson closing tight games and often acting as his contending team’s central star.
Isaiah Thomas, Phoenix Suns
Hardcore NBA fans shook their heads at the Sacramento Kings all summer. Letting the swift, diminutive point guard go for nothing was one of the more puzzling moves of the offseason. The 5’9” Washington product has overshadowed the work of similar former Huskie Nate Robinson. More than just an occasional microwave man and folk hero, Thomas is simply one of the better scorers in the league.
His career 44 percent field goal percentage is exemplary for an undersized perimeter player, and now that he’s in a smarter, faster Phoenix offense, you can expect that number to rise. If the Suns can break through into the prickly Western Conference playoffs this year — after a heartbreaking finish in 2013-14 that saw the team miss the big dance after winning 50 games — it’ll have a lot to do with their adding one of basketball’s elite reserves.
Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers
If, for whatever reason, you can’t remember Crawford’s birth name, just call him “Heat Check.”
When Jamal gets his shot going, there’s arguably no one in the league who’s a scarier sight for defenses, and no spot on the court that doesn’t look like a layup for the 15-year veteran. His possession of obscure statistical crowns like “most four-point plays in league history” shows us how unconscious he can become from beyond the arc:
Last year’s recipient of the Sixth Man of the Year award, Crawford has had a journeyman career that has seen him play for a whopping six teams. But nowhere has he looked more at home than in Lob City.
Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans’ starting front line of Anthony Davis and Omer Asik has led them to the third-best rebounding rate in the league. Both big men are absolute horses on the boards, wearing down the enemy at an impressive rate. And when the Pelicans bring the deep-shooting Anderson off the bench for a new look, Western Conference enemies simply won’t know what to do with New Orleans.
At 6’10” and 240 pounds, Anderson comes in an overwhelmingly sized package in terms of shooters. His ability to stretch the floor was paramount to the Orlando Magic’s offense when he was there with the post-oriented Dwight Howard, and now Anderson is re-establishing that chemistry with Davis, the heir to Howard’s throne as the game’s best big.
— John Wilmes
If the 2014-15 season is anything like the 2013-14 edition, we’re in luck.
Just think of all that transpired a year ago: Wichita State’s run for history, a fantastic freshman class led by Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker, Syracuse’s hot start as an ACC member.
And then think of how all of that was flipped in the NCAA Tournament as Kentucky finally delivered on its title-contending promise only to be stopped by a seventh-seeded UConn team in the championship game.
Say this about 2014-15: There’s more where that came from. Duke, Kentucky and Kansas have superstar freshmen again. The ACC adds another powerhouse program in Louisville. And Wichita State should keep rolling.
The only question is what wild twists and turns this season will take down the stretch. We’re ready.
1. Duke’s Big Three
Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones promised each other (and anybody else who would listen) in the summer before their senior years of high school that they’d take visits together and enroll at the same college. Ultimately, they settled on Duke, then started working on Justise Winslow. And the result is a college-aged “Big Three” that should give Mike Krzyzewski a reasonably good chance to capture his fifth national championship.
“We just wanted the best opportunity to win,” Okafor explains, and there’s no denying that their decisions created an ideal situation for lots and lots of wins.
Okafor, Jones and Winslow are all consensus top-15 national recruits who play different positions. Basically, they represent the nation’s top incoming point guard (Jones), the nation’s top incoming center (Okafor), and one of the nation’s top three incoming wings (Winslow), and they’re the main reasons why Duke should actually be better this season despite losing its best two players — Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood — early to the NBA Draft.
Who’s the best of the group?
That’s Okafor, for sure.
He’s a 6-11, wide-bodied big who makes up for what he lacks in athleticism with a unique skill set and understanding of the game. More than anybody else, he’s likely to go first overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, and it should surprise nobody if Okafor is a first-team All-American during what’s expected to be his lone year in college.
“We consider Jahlil Okafor as good a big man as there is in the country,” Krzyzewski says. “He’s had an amazing amount of experience playing for the United States and for a great high school program.”
And now he’ll play for a great college program.
“The great thing about all of the kids is that they want to share a spotlight and they want to be on a great team,” Krzyzewski adds. “They’re team-first guys — even though they have this excellent amount of individual talent.”
2. Kentucky’s Loaded Frontcourt
Have you counted the bodies yet?
Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee are all back, and they’ll be joined in the frontcourt by freshmen Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns. That’s six future pros who are natural power forwards or centers, and so the obvious question is this: How will Calipari find proper minutes for all of them?
Answer: He won’t. Because it’s impossible. Granted, Poythress will be asked to play some small forward, and it’ll help if he’s successful. But even if he is, and if Lyles and Johnson start at power forward and center, that’ll still leave Cauley-Stein and Towns as big reserves, which would leave Lee, most likely, caught in a numbers game and completely buried on the bench even though he’d be the best and most athletic big at like 90 percent of the nation’s high-major programs.
“For the first time I’ve had players return that had their chance to put their names in the draft, so we’re in a unique situation where we have veterans now,” Calipari says. “I’m excited about it. The returning players and the freshmen are getting along well. So it’s all good.”
All good for now, of course.
But will it be all good when the games start?
That’s the biggest challenge facing Calipari this season.
3. Wichita State, Obviously
Gregg Marshall’s Shockers became the story of last college basketball season — and the nation’s most divisive team — while taking a perfect record into their Round of 32 game against Kentucky. As you know, the Wildcats won on that Sunday afternoon in St. Louis thanks to a flurry of 3-pointers and free throws in the second half. But Wichita State still finished 35–1 overall, and the Shockers are returning enough to roll through the Missouri Valley Conference again.
Fred VanVleet is back. So is Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton.
That means Wichita State returns its starting 1, 2 and 3 from that 35-win team, and now you know why Marshall decided to return for an eighth season at WSU despite the fact that Tennessee, Missouri, Wake Forest, California and basically every other power-conference school with an opening tried, either directly or indirectly, to lure him away from the MVC power he’s built. Put another way, Marshall’s stock won’t slip this season because he’ll win plenty thanks to the presence of VanVleet, Baker and Cotton. They combined to average 35.0 points, 11.7 rebounds and 10.9 assists last season.
Bottom line, pencil the Shockers down for another 30 wins.
Then we’ll see if the school can keep Marshall for a ninth season.
4. KU’s quest for another Big 12 title
Bill Self has developed over the years into one of the surest things in college basketball, if not the surest, proof being that his Jayhawks have won at least a share of 10 consecutive Big 12 titles. So this season’s challenge is trying to win an 11th straight despite losing three starters — including the players who were picked first (Andrew Wiggins) and third (Joel Embiid) overall in the 2014 NBA Draft.
That sounds like a tall task. And it would be for most coaches.
But you’d be silly to bet against Self because A) he’s really, really good, B) he returns Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis, and Frank Mason from a 25-win team, and C) KU is once again enrolling a stellar recruiting class featuring Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre and Devonte’ Graham, the last of whom the Jayhawks added late after the point guard was released from his signed National Letter of Intent with Appalachian State.
“He’s good,” Self says. “He’s a true point guard.”
Assuming that’s true, KU will have something this season that it never had last season— i.e., a true point guard — to help create for Selden, Mason, Oubre and Ellis, and Self will have no shortage of interesting combinations at is disposal.
“We should be good 1 through 4,” Self says. “We have some talented guys.”
The most interesting piece will be in the middle.
He’s a 6-8 forward and physical specimen who projects as a future NBA Lottery pick, but Alexander is unproven defensively and hardly a shot-blocker/shot-alterer like Embiid. And that might be an issue (although Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson should alleviate some of those concerns). Either way, Self has an incredible roster featuring veterans and newcomers and no fewer than four future NBA Draft picks, and that, more than anything else, is the point here — that Kansas will be fantastic again and, probably, Big 12 champions again.
5. Montrezl Harrell’s Breakthrough
Every year, without exception, there are underclassmen who surprise college basketball fans when they announce they’re leaving college early, and then, also every year, also without exception, there are other underclassmen whose decision to remain in college a year longer than most anticipated doubles as a shocking development.
Which brings us to Montrezl Harrell.
“I was shocked that he came back,” says Louisville’s Rick Pitino.
Harrell was a projected Lottery pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. He could be a millionaire right now. Instead, he’s still in Louisville, still enrolled and set to have the type of breakthrough season that could make him a first-team All-American and, perhaps, a top-five pick in next June’s NBA Draft. Physically and athletically, Harrell already checks every box because he’s a 6-8, 235-pound freak. So as long as he expands his offensive game, his decision to delay getting paid NBA money for a year should pay off and, of course, give Louisville a chance to compete at the top of the ACC in its first season in the ACC.
Did you realize that, by the way?
In a move motivated by football (duh!), Louisville has relocated to the Atlantic Coast Conference after spending one season in the American Athletic Conference after spending eight seasons in the Big East that were preceded by a stint in Conference USA. (The Cardinals sure do bounce around a lot, don’t they?) The byproduct from that development is that it’s safe to call the ACC the nation’s best basketball league thanks to the presence of Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia Tech, NC State, Pittsburgh and, yes, Louisville. As for Pitino, well, he’d rather be in the old Big East still, frankly. But he knows those days are gone forever. So now he’s looking forward to coaching in some new spots.
“I’ve never coached at Duke or Virginia,” Pitino says. “So I’m excited about it. I really am.”
6. John Beilein’s Magic
Kentucky’s John Calipari has transitioned more prospects from high school to the NBA than any other college coach in recent years, and he really is on an unprecedented run. It’s amazing. But what’s equally impressive — and perhaps even more impressive — is how John Beilein has taken two prospects ranked outside of the top 75 of their high school classes and turned them into top-10 picks in consecutive years.
One is Trey Burke, who left Michigan after two seasons and was picked ninth in the 2013 NBA Draft. The other is Nik Stauskas, who left Michigan after two seasons and was picked eighth in the 2014 NBA Draft. Both were Big Ten Players of the Year.
So what’s Beilein’s secret?
“We try to project whether a player is on the rise,” Beilein says, “or if he’s already where he’s gonna be (when we sign him).”
Let the record show the Michigan staff is great at those projections. They clearly saw something in Burke and Stauskas that nobody else saw, and the byproduct of that was the Wolverines averaging 27.6 wins per season in the past three years.
So why is this relevant this preseason? Because Beilein has yet another unheralded recruit positioned to possibly be a top-10 pick. His name is Caris LeVert. He’s a 6-7 guard who was ranked 215th in the Class of 2012. Now he’s on every NBA franchise’s radar and projected, by most right now, to be a Lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, provided LeVert makes himself available. Either way, most of the shots Stauskas took last season will be LeVert’s to shoot this season. That means he should average more than 15 points per game for a nationally relevant program and be in contention for All-American honors.
7. The re-emergence of Arkansas
One of the more unbelievable facts about college basketball (given the history of the program and resources available) is that Arkansas hasn’t made a Sweet 16 since 1996. Did you realize that? The Razorbacks won the national title in 1994, lost in the title game in 1995, made the Sweet 16 in 1996, and they really haven’t escaped the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since then.
“I hear it every day, man. Every day — from like the elderly people,” says Bobby Portis, the Hogs’ 6-11 forward. “Because, you know, back in the 90’s, we were a powerhouse. But it’s kinda flipped. So now somebody says something about it every day.”
The good news is that Portis’ decision to return to Arkansas for his sophomore year (rather than declare for the NBA Draft after last season) gives the Razorbacks a legitimate chance to break through and end this streak. Portis averaged 12.3 points and a team-best 6.8 rebounds last season, and his return ensured that coach Mike Anderson would have his top three scorers back. The others are Rashad Madden and Michael Qualls.
That trio doesn’t compare to the top three players at Kentucky, obviously. But they’re talented and good enough to lead Arkansas back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008, and it should surprise nobody if the Hogs escape the opening weekend of that 68-team event for the first time in 19 seasons.
“Every year they talk about Kentucky and Florida and nobody else in the conference,” Portis says. “But maybe we can change that.”
8. North Carolina (on the basketball court)
UNC is one of the best and most accomplished programs in college basketball — proof being the 18 Final Fours and five NCAA Tournament titles. Beyond that, it’s the place Michael Jordan played, and the impact of those three years spent in Chapel Hill will probably last forever. And yet, all that said, the Tar Heels have been in the headlines recently more for off-the-court issues than on-the-court performance.
P.J. Hairston being ruled ineligible because of impermissible benefits dominated talk early last season. Meantime, that academic scandal is the story that keeps on giving, and who knows where that will ultimately lead? But it’s important to remember that the Tar Heels are still, you know, really good at basketball, and this season should serve as a reminder thanks to the return of Marcus Paige and enrollment of another heralded recruiting class featuring five-star prospects Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson.
“We are ecstatic that these three young men … decided to join our basketball family,” Williams says. “Each of them (is) talented, comes from a wonderful family and shares a common trait in that they have a tremendous desire for their teams to do well.”
Yes, that’s probably coach-speak on some level. But there’s no denying that the Tar Heels are equipped to have a team that does well and possibly advances to the Elite Eight for the third time in five seasons, if not farther. Navigating the ACC will be tough as usual thanks to Duke and Virginia — and the additions of Louisville (this year) and Pittsburgh (last year). But Paige, a 6-1 junior who averaged 17.5 points and 4.2 assists last season, could become the 17th consensus first-team All-American in UNC history this season, and, if he does, the guess here is that the discussion surrounding North Carolina will be more about hoops than fraudulent classes.
9. Sean Miller’s Emerging Monster
National championships are hard to come by for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the single-elimination nature of the NCAA Tournament. One bad shooting night, you’re done. One freak injury to a key player, you’re done. One questionable foul, you’re done. So it’s possible to be great and never actually cut nets on the first Monday in April, and there are lots of great coaches who fall into that category.
Which brings us to Sean Miller.
He’s likely the biggest power (at a top-shelf program) working today who hasn’t yet won a national title. In fact, he’s never made a Final Four in 10 years as a head coach. But his time is probably coming — perhaps as soon as this season courtesy of a roster that is loaded to the point where at least two players (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson) project as future Lottery picks in the NBA Draft.
How’d this happen?
Miller has lured commitments from 11 five-star prospects in the past five classes, which is at least four more than every other program not called Kentucky. That’s why Arizona is the clear favorite in the Pac-12 despite the losses of its top two scorers from last season’s 33-win team (Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon), and it’s hard to imagine a scenario (barring injury) where Arizona doesn’t finish first or second in the Pac-12 for the fourth time in five years.
10. The Wide-Open Race to Make an All-America Team
College basketball is a sport where most of the top players turn pro every single year. So nobody was surprised, nor should they have been, when Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, UCLA’s Kyle Anderson and lots more like them exited school after last season. That’s par for the so-called course.
Still, it’s worth noting that not a single first-team Associated Press All-American, second-team Associated Press All-American, or third-team Associated Press All-American is back in college for just the second time since 2003, and that means nobody seems like a sure-bet to collect first team honors at the end of this season. Which is fun, right?
Last year, around this time, pretty much every media outlet (including this magazine) had Marcus Smart, Doug McDermott and Russ Smith listed as preseason first-team All-Americans because they were awesome players who performed brilliantly at the college level in the year prior. But there are no can’t-leave-them-off guys entering this season, really. For instance, a reasonable person could pick Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet as the first-team point guard … or Duke’s Tyus Jones or West Virginia’s Juwan Staten, and it’s like that at every single position.
There’s nothing silly about selecting Marcus Paige (UNC), Ron Baker (Wichita State), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Arizona), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin), Stanley Johnson (Arizona), Montrezl Harrell (Louisville), Georges Niang (Iowa State), Karl-Anthony Towns (Kentucky), Jahlil Okafor (Duke), Cliff Alexander (Kansas), Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin) or any number of players. So, for the first time in a long time, literally every single position on every single postseason All-American team seems to be there for the taking, and it’ll be a blast watching players try to earn those spots.
Perhaps all five will come from the names listed above.
Either way, get ready.
The college basketball season is almost here.
For the first time since Jake Plummer was leading Arizona State to the Rose Bowl, it seems Arizona State is going to be a viable contender in the chase for national supremacy. And it’s not a fluke either.
There may not be many teams that can give up 62 points at home and still be considered a legitimate contender for the College Football Playoff, but Arizona State has managed to rise from the ashes of that awful Thursday night performance against UCLA. Arizona State could have sunk in their malaise after that game, but instead the Sun Devils fired up wins at a ranked USC and returned home to score revenge against Stanford in a Pac-12 Championship Game rematch. Though the Trojans and Cardinal are no longer ranked, at the time it was vital for Arizona State to bounce back against respected opponents. The Stanford win more than anything helped Arizona State put behind them their disappointments over the past year, and they have not let up since.
Arizona State’s road win at Washington was nice, but winning a defensive battle with ranked Utah in overtime at home and following that up with an impressive victory at home against top 10 Notre Dame team has served as a nice statement to the College Football Playoff selection committee. The committee may have been withholding some judgments on Notre Dame the past two weeks, but that should change now. The committee will likely hammer Notre Dame with a second loss against a ranked team, but at the same time the committee may reward Arizona State for their effort. Arizona State started strong and managed to finish strong after losing the momentum. Regardless of what happens to Notre Dame, the selection committee should feel inclined to respect the full performance from Arizona State.
Few teams have shown the kind of balance Arizona State has this season. Despite playing through some quarterback injury concerns for Taylor Kelly, Arizona State has kept a balanced attack with the nation’s 26th best passing offense and the 44th best rushing offense. Maybe those numbers do not impress much, but put them together and that is one dependable and balanced offense that keeps defensive coordinators on their toes. The defense has also been resurgent since seeing UCLA score 62 points in Tempe in late September. Arizona State has held three of its past four opponents to fewer than 20 points, and it was the defense that helped set the tone to a big start against Notre Dame. Arizona State forced five turnovers, including two interceptions returned for a touchdown. This Arizona State team is hot as the sun. Can they keep the focus on the bigger prize at the end of the tunnel?
Arizona State still has a game with Arizona looming at the end of the season, and it is on the road. No game should be taken for granted by Arizona State, especially a rivalry game against the Wildcats. Keeping in mind how dangerous this Arizona team is capable of being, Arizona State will have its work cut out for it the rets of the way if the Sun Devils are intent on staying in the playoff picture. Arizona is the only team to defeat Oregon. If Arizona State can get by Arizona and avoid upset bids by Oregon State and Washington State, the Sun Devils will get their chance to upend the Ducks with a possible playoff spot on the line in addition to the Pac-12 trophy.
- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
Ohio State’s stay in second place in the Big Ten pecking order did not last very long. After being dethroned as the class of the Big Ten in last season’s conference championship game by Michigan State, the Buckeyes had to wait until Nov. 8 to get back on top. Naturally, and perhaps fittingly, that opportunity to jump back on top of the Big Ten came at the expense of Michigan State.
For Urban Meyer, Saturday night’s win against Michigan State was his first against a top-15 team since being hired as Ohio State’s coach in 2012. With that proverbial monkey off the back of Meyer now, the focus shifts to getting to the Big Ten championship game. With a head-to-head tiebreaker against Michigan State, Ohio State is two more wins away from clinching a return trip to Indianapolis as division champion. Ohio State is also now the team to beat in the Big Ten.
The success of Ohio State this season has been overshadowed by a Week 2 loss at home to Virginia Tech, but the Buckeyes have shown they are a far superior team than the one that took the field that night against the upset-minded Hokies. Sure, the Virginia Tech loss is not good, and looks worse as the season unfolds, but it is also important to remember the situation then and it should be put into perspective. J.T. Barrett was making just his second start for Ohio State, and it showed. Barrett had just taken over the starting job weeks before when Braxton Miller underwent season-ending surgery before it ever got started. Watching Barrett against Michigan State, you would have thought you were watching a completely different player. In reality, you were.
Barrett threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns against a Michigan State defense often referred to as the best in the Big Ten. Maybe the Spartans defense is lacking a no-fly zone this season, but to do what Barrett did on the road against Michigan State should open some eyes to what he and everyone else at Ohio State is doing. Ezekiel Elliott was a beast running the football (154 yards, two touchdowns) and Devin Smith showed off some wheels with 129 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Ohio State’s 49-37 victory in East Lansing was exactly the kind of victory the Buckeyes needed to re-enter the College Football Playoff discussion in the coming weeks, although it is still a crowded pool Ohio State is now swimming in with one-loss teams at TCU and Baylor in the Big 12, Oregon and Arizona State in the Pac-12, Alabama generating momentum in the SEC and undefeated teams at Mississippi State and Florida State. There may still be a chance for Ohio State to reach the playoff, but the only thing Urban Meyer’s team can focus on now is winning its first outright Big Ten championship since 2009.
Next up? A road trip to a surprisingly good Minnesota. Can the Buckeyes keep things rolling against a Gophers squad coming off a 51-14 win over Iowa?
-By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
This was a great weekend to have off if you are Nebraska. With Ohio State and Michigan State doing battle in the big Ten East, Minnesota and Iowa colliding in the west and Wisconsin on the road, this was a good weekend to sit back, relax and check out the rest of the conference. A bye week in November is always nice to have, especially when in the midst of a division race that has certainly heated up. For the Huskers, giving Heisman Trophy candidate running back Ameer Abdullah some extra time to heal up could not have come at a better time either.
Abdullah sprained his knee in Nebraska’s last game against Purdue. Bo Pelini said at the time there was no reason to believe he would have to sit his top offensive player for the big game this week against Wisconsin, and that was clearly some good news. Giving Abdullah an extra week not to worry about missing playing time can only help him and Nebraska as the Huskers look to make a run toward a return to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game. Nebraska has had a rash of bad luck in conference championship games under Pelini, but if Abdullah is healthy for the final games of the season this year could be different.
Nebraska’s only loss this season came on the road against Michigan State, but Nebraska has pretty much been a solid from September through mid-November in Big Ten play. The Huskers have won four conference games by double digits, and Abdullah has piled up big numbers to boost his Heisman profile. At 8-1 coming out of the bye week, these Huskers are looking to shrug aside a recent history of reaching nine wins as a ceiling all too often. With Nebraska currently in a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten West, the pressure is officially on for Nebraska to prove capable of reaching double-digit wins and making a case for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Though there is plenty of competition for the four playoff spots, the odds are still pretty decent a one–loss Big Ten champion would at least be in the conversation. Ohio State and Nebraska are the only two one-loss teams in the conference, and if things go well for Nebraska, the Huskers could have a chance to hand Ohio State a second straight conference championship game loss and make a case for the playoff in the process. There are three critical weeks before this can even become a realistic conversation worth having.
Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota are all tied for first place in the division, which makes the next few weeks especially intriguing. Nebraska travels to Wisconsin this week and hosts Minnesota next week before closing out the regular season at Iowa. Nebraska is going to need to be at full strength to go toe-to-toe in Madison against the Badgers in what should be a terrific showdown of the Big Ten’s top two running backs (Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin and Abdullah).
There is no question Nebraska is much more of a threat with Abdullah healthy. The extra week of rest could prove to be extremely valuable.
- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
It goes without saying that Minnesota’s offense starts with running the football. David Cobb has already rushed for 1,200 yards this season and leads the team with eight rushing touchdowns. The Minnesota rushing attack has carried the Gophers to a 7-2 record heading into mid-November. It has been needed because the Minnesota passing game has struggled to take flight this season. The Big Ten’s worst passing offense has averaged just 140.2 yards per game this season, but against Iowa it appeared the Gophers finally found some rhythm throwing the football.
After a couple of struggles throwing the football against Purdue and Illinois, Minnesota was smart and accurate with the football against Iowa. Though still relying on the performance of the running game, Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner completed 10 of his 13 pass attempts against the Hawkeyes for 138 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. Leidner had thrown for six touchdowns all season entering the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale.
In the second quarter, Leidner connected with Donovahn Jones for a 44-yard touchdown strike to break a 7-7 tie. Midway through the quarter, Leidner threw the first of two red zone touchdown passes before halftime and Minnesota was on its way to a rout of visiting Iowa. This was not just Minnesota taking advantage of a poor pass defense either. The Hawkeyes entered the week ranked second in the Big Ten against the pass. Opposing quarterbacks are averaging just over 50 percent in completion percentage this season. Leidner completed 76.9 percent of his attempts, by far his most accurate performance this season.
If nothing else, Minnesota gained some confidence passing the football at just the right time. The final few games for Minnesota are still considered an uphill battle for a Minnesota team that is continuing to develop and mature. Next week Minnesota will host Ohio State, with the Buckeyes coming off a big road win at Michigan State. Ohio State is around the middle of the pack in the Big Ten against the pass. So is Nebraska, also still to come on Minnesota’s schedule. Wisconsin, Minnesota’s final opponent this season, Wisconsin, leads the Big Ten against the pass.
Minnesota is going to need to have a balanced attack in order to make a run in these final three games. If the Gophers can get the running game on track early and often, it will open things up for the passing game as well. With what Minnesota has to work with, that is not a terrible way to go. Mitch Leidner may not be a guy who will throw for 250 or 300 yards, but if he can be put in a situation to make some safe throws, Minnesota’s offense should have enough to make things a little more interesting these next few weeks.
This is Minnesota’s time to prove they belong in the Big Ten race. A superior TCU team humbled the Gophers earlier in the season, but Minnesota has matured a bit since that early season loss. Now lets see if the passing game has found its groove at the right time or if it was just a blip on the radar against Iowa.
- by Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
DraftKings has released their Daily Fantasy college football salaries for the week, and the experts at CollegeFootballGeek.com have hunkered down and scoured all of the data to find the best Value Plays on the docket.
These Value Plays are comprised of players poised to out-produce their DraftKings salaries this week. These are the “diamonds in the rough” that your DFS competitors may overlook. They are the difference-makers you need in your lineup to win one of the big DFS contests!
For your convenience, we have broken the picks down by DraftKings contest game set. Best of luck this week!
(For more detailed Daily Fantasy analysis, picks, player news, player rankings, and stat breakdowns, check out CollegeFootballGeek.com. Learn how to SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE!)
VALUE PLAYS: SATURDAY (EARLY ONLY) GAME SET
1) QB Luke Falk, Washington State vs. Oregon State ($6600)
Falk came in for an injured Connor Halliday last week against USC and looked very good considering the situation. The Cougars offense won’t change and Falk will be throwing the ball all over the field against Oregon State. He looks like a great play this week.
1) RB Synjyn Days, Georgia Tech vs. NC State ($4300)
Days has gone over 100 yards rushing in the last two games and also added two scores last week against Virginia. Look for him to make it three in a row with a suspect NC State on the docket. He appears to be an awesome punt option this week.
2) RB Ryan Jackson, Houston vs. Tulane ($4800)
Jackson is averaging 20.30 DK fantasy points over the last two games and could top that against Tulane this week. The Green Wave run defense comes in ranked 85th in the country and gives up plenty of big plays.
3) RB Tarean Folston, Notre Dame vs. Arizona State ($5400)
Folston is averaging 28.20 DK fantasy points over the past three games and has a nice match up with Arizona State. The Sun Devils are ranked 88th against the run and may have a hard time containing Folston. He looks like a nice value play in Week 11.
1) WR Jamison Crowder, Duke vs. Syracuse ($5900)
Crowder looked unstoppable last week with 165 yards and two scores against Pitt. He appears to finally be in rhythym with Anthony Boone and looks to be way under priced this week. Expect more fantasy goodness out of this Blue Devil.
2) WR Victor Bolden ($4900) & Jordan Villamin ($4700), Oregon State vs. Washington State
Both Bolden and Villamin had big games against Cal last week and could post huge numbers against Washington State. The Cougars pass defense is ranked 119thand is allowing 295 yards per game. Play both of these Beavers.
3) WR Deshon Foxx, UCONN vs. Army ($4100)
Fox had 11 carries for 102 yards and a score last week against Central Florida. He carries big upside this week with the potential for plenty of carries. Foxx may be hard for a bad Army defense to contain.
1) TE Blake Bell, Oklahoma vs. Baylor ($2500)
Bell scored twice last week and somehow his price came down $100. He could find the end zone again in a potential shoot out with Baylor.
VALUE PLAYS: SATURDAY (LATE ONLY) GAME SET
1) QB Connor Cook, Michigan State vs. Ohio State ($5500)
Connor has a difficult match up against Ohio State, but could throw a couple of touchdowns and reach value. Cook seems to save his best games for the biggest games and this certainly qualifies.
1) RB Michael Dyer, Louisville vs. Boston College ($5200)
Dyer ran for 134 yards and three scores against Florida State last week. He is running like the Michael Dyer of old and could tear through the BC defense this week. Put Mr. Dyer in your lineups.
2) RB Jhurell Pressley, New Mexico vs. Boise State ($4900)
Pressley has scored five rushing touchdowns in the last two games and comes in at a solid price this week. He could add to his touchdown total this week and prove to be an excellent punt option.
3) RB Matt Jones ($4800) & Kelvin Taylor ($4600), Florida vs. Vanderbilt
Jones and Taylor went ballistic last week against Georgia with a combined 389 rushing yards and four touchdowns. They both received 25 carries and both look like great plays against a weak Commodores defense.
1) WR Curry Sexton, Kansas State vs. TCU ($5100)
DFS owners may be shocked to learn that Sexton and Tyler Lockett have the same number of receptions on the season (49). He could have a very nice game in what could be a high scoring affair with TCU. Sexton looks like a nice punt option in this BIG 12 showdown.
2) WR Jordan Payton, UCLA vs. Washington ($4800)
Payton’s price makes absolutely no sense this week. He averages 20.3 DK fantasy points on the season and will be facing the 109th ranked pass defense of Washington. He could easily blow out his price this week.
3) WR Tyler Winston, San Jose State vs. Fresno State ($5200)
Winston is the Spartans top receiving target and could blow right past Fresno State this week. The Bulldogs ranked 101st in pass defense and are very suseptable to big plays.
1) TE Steven Scheu, Vanderbilt vs. Florida ($3300)
Scheu has scored double-digit fantasy points in the last two games.
By Todd DeVries & Kevin Mount, CollegeFootballGeek.com
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The Cleveland Cavaliers look rocky right now. But unless the Lord has reached into this roster’s mostly young bodies and snatched the immense talent out of them, LeBron James and Co. won’t appear so fragile later. Despite their surprising 1-3 start, the Cavs are still title contenders and the most likely to emerge from the Eastern Conference. Once they figure out their chemistry woes, we’ll start fearing them again.
The Chicago Bulls, of course, are the greatest potential caveat to this truth. The defense-heavy monsters of the Midwest, led by taskmaster coach Tom Thibodeau, can’t truly challenge the King without their own prodigal son, however, and Derrick Rose’s health continues to be a source of major worry in Chicago, after two seasons of Rose missing all but ten games due to dual knee injuries.
Rose sprained both of his ankles against Cleveland on October 31 — the second game of the season. He subsequently sat as his team took care of two inferior opponents in the Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic. More recently, Rose returned on November 5, and although the Bulls got the win over the Milwaukee Bucks to improve to 4-1 while the point guard put up an efficient, 13-point, seven-assist line, he didn’t look exactly like himself.
Rose moved with hesitation in the contest, clearly not 100 percent on those ankles. He still knows how to utilize his hefty court mythos to beguile defenders and get his way in the halfcourt, but Rose will need need to be nothing short of the lane-penetrating destroyer his city loves if Chicago is going to compete for a championship in earnest.
The heavy question here is whether that’s even possible anymore. Fretful Chicagoans wonder whether Rose’s body can ever withstand the pressure he puts on it with his torque-driven style. And until Rose strings together something like a month or two of unbroken, top-notch play, his health will remain the biggest question mark of the 2014-15 championship outlook.
— John Wilmes
College basketball is down one superstar freshman, but the game, as usual these days, won’t lack for electrifying first-year talent.
Point guard Emmanuel Mudiay opted to play professionally in China rather than navigate the NCAA eligibility waters at SMU. That’s unfortunate for SMU coach Larry Brown, who would have given the Mustangs a rare NBA lottery pick talent to play at that level.
As usual, the bluebloods have their share of stud freshmen. Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, UConn and, of course, Kentucky make the list of impact freshmen, but there are a few appearances by the likes of UNLV and Seton Hall this season.
Cliff Alexander, F, Kansas
Kansas replaces Joel Embiid, the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, with another highly rated big man to team with Perry Ellis. Alexander was the third-ranked prospect in the 247Sports Composite. The 6-8, 240-pound big man will provide KU with a physical presence in the paint.
Daniel Hamilton, G/F, UConn
Shabazz Napier is gone, but hopes are high for Hamilton to be UConn’s next star. He’s a lanky, athletic wing with a multi-faceted game who should give the Huskies a scoring boost.
Justin Jackson, G/F, North Carolina
North Carolina’s signing class contains three top-30 prospects, all at positions where they will have to fight for playing time at point guard (Joel Berry) and small forward (Jackson, Theo Pinson). Jackson is the highest ranked (No. 9) in the 247Sports Composite and may be the best shooter of the group, giving him a leg up on a team that shot 33.6 percent from 3-point range last season.
Stanley Johnson, G/F, Arizona
Arizona trades out one star freshman (Aaron Gordon) for another in Johnson, who was the No. 4 prospect in the 247Sports Composite. Johnson figures to be more of an offensive threat than Gordon. The 6-5, 225-pound swingman will be a threat to score from all over the court.
Kaleb Joseph, G, Syracuse
Joseph will be Syracuse’s fourth point guard in four seasons and its second freshman in a row. Expectations are high after the run of Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Ennis. Joseph, though, won’t have the supporting cast his predecessors enjoyed.
Tyus Jones, G, Duke
The other half of a package deal with Jahlil Okafor, Jones gives Duke a point guard to compete with Quinn Cook. The senior didn’t start the final 10 games of the season, so Jones could play alongside Cook or supplant him at times during the season. Jones is known for his court vision, and he already has chemistry with Duke’s standout freshman center.
Kevon Looney, F, UCLA
UCLA was thin in the frontcourt last season, but that may not be the case anymore with the arrival of Looney, a 6-9, 208-pound power forward. Of course, without Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine, the Bruins will need help everywhere. UCLA is counting on Looney, the No. 11 prospect in the 247Sports Composite, to contribute on the boards and in the post.
Trey Lyles, F, Kentucky
John Calipari may need to get creative to keep Lyles, Karl Towns and the rest of his big men happy. Lyles’ natural position may be power forward, but he can also play small forward. Lyles, though, may be off to a slower start as he missed Kentucky’s tour of the Bahamas in early August while recovering form a procedure on his left leg.
Jahlil Okafor, C, Duke
Duke has not had a ton of great big men in recent years, Mason Plumlee’s senior season notwithstanding. Now, Duke will have not only one of the top freshmen in the country at center, but also an elite player with a skill set that has become increasingly rare. The 6-11, 270-pound freshman from Chicago already has a well-developed post game that could make him one of the top true centers in quite some time.
Kansas figures to have plenty of able bodies at the 2 and 3 in the 2014-15 season, but Oubre should have plenty of opportunity to shine. The 6-7, 190-pound McDonald’s All-American has a varied offensive game. He can hit the 3 and get to the rim. He’ll be an All-Big 12 contender.
Kentucky may have been loaded in the frontcourt even without this freshman class. Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein and Marcus Lee all return, meaning perhaps Towns won’t be quite as prolific as recent Kentucky freshman big men. Still, he’s a 6-11, 250-pound forward who can stretch a defense.
Myles Turner, F, Texas
Texas already returned every key player from one of the surprise teams in the country. The Longhorns bolstered their chances to contend for the Big 12 title by adding the Turner in the spring. He gives the Longhorns a 6-11, 240-pound skilled big man, but more important, the Euless (Texas) Trinity product gives Rick Barnes a sorely needed in-state recruiting victory.
Tyler Ulis, G, Kentucky
With guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison back, Ulis won’t be asked to score from the backcourt. That’s no problem. He’s much better as a distributor, and his vision will be an asset to another loaded Kentucky team.
Rashad Vaughn, G, UNLV
Vaughn, one of the final big-name prospects to sign last year, elected to stay close to where he played in high school at Findlay (Nev.) Prep. He’ll be part of a new starting five at UNLV and will have plenty of opportunities to flourish at the 2 or the 3.
Isaiah Whitehead, G, Seton Hall
Seton Hall’s first McDonald’s All-American since 2000, Whitehead joins a backcourt that already includes Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina. Whitehead, at 6-4 and 210 pounds, should add scoring punch to a team that ranked 123rd nationally in offensive efficiency on KenPom.
Whether it’s football or basketball, recruiting is a wild game. So much so that we wouldn’t mind listening to a basketball assistant and a football assistant swap stories from the road.
Certainly, both would have their share.
By now, many college fans follow the recruiting process in football and basketball to some degree, but how much do you really know.
For one, football and basketball recruiting are two completely different beasts with their own rules, written and unwritten.
If your a basketball fan, here’s what you need to know about how your team landed — or lost — that coveted recruit.
Athlon Sports contributor John Martin is a columnist and host with 92.9 FM covering the University of Memphis and the Memphis Grizzlies. Martin also contributed “13 Things you Need to Know about Football Recruiting” for Athlon Sports’ College Football preview.
1. This isn’t football: A commitment means something
When a prep football player commits to a college, it doesn’t necessarily signal the end of his recruitment. Opposing coaches still call and write and fight to get the prospect on campus. The commitment of a basketball player carries more weight; among the top-100 prospects in the Class of 2014, only seven decommitted from their original choices.
Two of those players — James Blackmon Jr. and Quentin Snider — ended up going back to their first choices. One — Ahmed Hill — changed his mind due to a coaching change. Another yet — Elijah Stewart — had a strong senior year and moved up a level, from Loyola Marymount to USC.
So why does a basketball player’s commitment hold more often? The numbers game, most times, kill off the competition when a player makes his decision.
“It goes like this: We may have only two scholarships. And so if you commit to my scholarship, the other teams — they gotta keep moving,” Wichita State assistant coach Steve Forbes said. “They gotta get somebody. In football, you have so many numbers, you just keep recruiting.”
On the other hand, when a decommit does take place in hoops, it might indicate a deeper issue than just a simple change of heart. And it can even cost an assistant coach his job — like one SEC assistant, who requested anonymity.
“So I’m recruiting a kid. He’s a top-level kid — a top-25 guy,” the assistant said. “I become the point contact on the guy. I’m putting out a whole lot of energy and effort. I’m going to his games, watching him play, I’m communicating with him and his family. I’m going from recruiting to now relationship-building.
“And when you get a commitment in hoops, you don’t keep recruiting the position. It’s in place. I got the one guy. Guy ends up coming in (for a visit), and then he decides he wanted to open it up. I’ve been talking to my boss about the landscape of our program with him in the fold. Then the kid decommits on me, and now I don’t have an explanation for my boss on who’s next. There is no next, because I haven’t done anything with anybody else. That led me to changing jobs. I knew I was expected to deliver, and I didn’t.”
2. Midnight Madness: It’s all about recruiting
In college basketball, there are two types of madness. There’s the one that comes in March, with fairy tale upsets and countless office brackets. And then there’s the madness that comes before the season starts — in the form of a glorified practice.
Schools all over, from Kentucky to Memphis, kick off the college basketball season with a preseason practice in their home venues, giving fans a free and early look at the upcoming season’s team. But Big Blue Madness, Memphis Madness, and events like them aren’t just for fans; typically, that weekend serves as the program’s biggest recruiting event of the year.
Memphis, for example, hosts anywhere from 20 to 25 recruits on both official and unofficial visits every year for Memphis Madness. Which is why Memphis coach Josh Pastner does whatever he can to make sure FedExForum is packed out.
“It’s been a great tool for us,” Pastner says. “It works because of the crowd support we get. The place is sold out. It’s an overflowing crowd. It’s a fire hazard in the FedExForum (because of the crowd). That’s why it works. We’re so fortunate to have that support and passion from the fan base.”
It’s little more than a pep rally, but for recruits visiting that weekend, it’s a perfect window into what he can expect if he enrolls at the school.
3. You can’t pay the recruit ... but you can hire his dad
Stephen Thompson is a former Syracuse basketball player who coached at the Division II level for over a decade. The head coach of Cal State-Los Angeles for nine years, he’d never had a chance to coach at the Division I level — until earlier this summer.
Oregon State hired Thompson as an assistant coach, which, on the surface, seemed random. But it wasn’t at all. Thompson has a son — Stephen Thompson Jr. — who is a top-60 recruit in the Class of 2015.
Indeed, the “package deal” in college basketball is the latest layer in an already complicated recruiting world.
“It’s a reality of the game right now,” Cal assistant coach Yanni Hufnagel says. “I don’t think you’ll see a reversion. If you can make a hire where you get a guy on the court, coaches will do it.”
It happened most recently at Memphis. Keelon Lawson, a high school coach in the Memphis area, made it known that he was interested in coaching at the college level. He wasn’t just any old high school coach, however; he has four sons between ages 10 and 17 who are all considered high-level recruits. Whichever school hired him, despite his lack of college coaching experience, automatically landed his talented sons.
Ultimately, Memphis made the decision to hire him. A week later, Class of 2016 five-star recruit Dedric Lawson made public his commitment to the Tigers.
4. Mid-majors understand their spot on the food chain
Generally, the bluebloods of college basketball have their pick of players. Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina don’t tend to lose out when they zero in on a prospect, most of which is due to tradition and reputation.
But what about the smaller schools? It’s easy for top programs to recruit; just identify the five-star recruits and work your way down. But what about the schools that have to look beyond that pool?
Chattanooga coach Will Wade says he doesn’t necessarily evaluate prospects; he evaluates situations around them when prioritizing who to recruit.
If a player has a scholarship offer from a team within a multiple-bid league, Wade usually doesn’t waste his time.
“If it’s all one-bid leagues recruiting the kid, we’ll take our shot at him,” Wade says. “If it’s a multi-bid league, that’s gonna be really tough for us to beat most of the time. We’d likely just cut bait, move on and go to someone else and rely on our evaluations.”
Wade isn’t naive; he knows that the best players don’t go to Chattanooga. If a good player chooses his program, he likely has what Wade calls “warts.” His job is to determine which warts are worth living with.
“He’s gonna either be too short, too skinny, maybe too fat,” Wade says. “You just have to figure out which one fits your program.”
5. It’s all about AAU
Though the AAU circuit might make your stomach churn, what with its shoe company affiliations and the omnipresence of “handlers,” there’s no denying its influence in recruiting.
Unlike in football, high school coaches — other than in specific cases — have little or no say in the recruitment of basketball players. AAU coaches reign. The reasoning is simple: AAU coaches are with the players in the formative stages of their recruitment. College coaches rarely evaluate prospects during the high school season, simply because they have their current teams to worry about.
The evaluation gets done in the summer on the AAU circuit, which gives AAU coaches a certain level of authority on the kids who play for them.
“A high school coach is going to have relationships with one player,” Missouri associate head coach Tim Fuller says. “An AAU coach is gonna have relationships with 10 or 15 in the course of that year.”
But Fuller said his approach to recruiting, even with the heavy involvement of AAU coaches in recruiting, is slightly different than others’. He said if he were to chart his time spent with the adults around a prospect, 50 percent of his time would be devoted to the player’s family. Thirty percent would go to the AAU coach. The remaining 20 percent of the time goes to the high school coach.
Fuller’s best example was Johnathan Williams III, a sophomore forward from Memphis who led the team in rebounding as a freshman last season. Whenever the recruiting calendar allowed, Fuller shot down to Memphis and joined Williams’ mother for a jog around her local community center’s running track. That extra time paid off, obviously, when Williams chose the Tigers.
“A lot of AAU coaches and high school coaches have relationships (with other coaches) that outdate me,” Fuller says. “When I can get in front of a parent and spend time with a parent, they see the genuine approach with me.”
6. Recruiting never stops
Many moons ago, Josh Pastner’s girlfriend broke up with him because he chose to take a recruiting call during a movie date. On the line was Ndudi Ebi, a stud forward who was at the time considering Arizona. He ultimately committed but never made it on campus, instead opting for the NBA Draft.
It’s a story that perfectly illustrates the non-stop nature of recruiting in 2014, especially with the unlimited text messaging rule. Coaches can begin texting prospects starting June 15 upon the completion of their sophomore years.
“I would say the knot in your stomach never goes away about recruiting,” Hufnagel says. “You’re always connected, always on your phone, always talking to kids. It’s a high-stress game.”
Pastner notoriously has called prospects from the delivery room as his wife was in labor. It’s the most time-consuming and demanding part of the job, but it’s part of the job. And any coach that doesn’t understand that won’t last very long.
Hufnagel, for example, hasn’t turned off his cell phone in a year — other than while being on a flight.
“And even then, you get stressed if the airplane doesn’t have WiFi so that you can check texts,” he says. “It never ends.”
7. Spring Signees are in High Demand
Before the winter of 2004, Tyrese Rice was a little-known, smallish point guard at Bird High School in Richmond, Va. At 6-0, he didn’t possess imposing height, and at 165 pounds, he wasn’t exactly a profile in brute strength.
A lightly recruited prospect, he opted to wait to sign until the late period of his senior year. What did he have to lose? He could go through his senior year, put up big numbers, and hope a bigger school noticed.
That year, as fate would have it, Rice’s high school team was set to play Oak Hill, a powerhouse prep school in Virginia that boasts alumni from Jerry Stackhouse to Carmelo Anthony. In that game, as one coach remembers, the unsigned, barely recruited Rice destroyed North Carolina signee Ty Lawson. College coaches, predictably, noticed, and Rice was soon fielding phone calls from Maryland, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and Boston College. He committed to Boston College and went on to have a prestigious career there.
Rice’s story is the primary piece of evidence for prospects who are considered low- to mid-major to wait out their recruitments. The bigger schools may have a spot come open after a player declares for the NBA Draft. A player may transfer.
In the numbers game that is college basketball recruiting, it makes sense to wait if the situation is right. Sometimes, a prospect can go from having one or two offers to being the most coveted recruit that spring.
“It’s all cyclical,” one SEC assistant coach says. “It’s a domino effect. One thing leads to another. If we have a guy transfer, or declare for the draft, you circle back around. There’s guys you would’ve never recruited that have high-major offers in the spring because you have three guys declare for the draft. In the end, you gotta have bodies.”
8. International players can be tough to scout
Basketball is a global sport in 2014, and there are players everywhere from Montana to Australia. A college coach’s job today is not just to monitor the players that reside in the nearest region or even in the United States; it’s imperative to keep watch internationally.
Under coach Randy Bennett, Saint Mary’s has built a reputation as one school that scours the world for prospects with a concentration on Australia. Bennett’s biggest success internationally was landing Patty Mills, who played a big role on the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs this season.
But it can be a tough task evaluating players across the pond, especially considering that the level of competition overseas is considerably weaker than in America. The players are coached differently, they develop different habits, and the American and European styles of basketball aren’t exactly one in the same.
“It’s all about your contacts,” one American Athletic Conference assistant coach says. “You have to have a network of people who can give you the lead on some kids you may not be aware of. Once you do that, you can look at film and some other things like that.”
In recent years, Canada has become part of the firmament of college basketball. Anthony Bennett, Tyler Ennis, and Andrew Wiggins — three first-round NBA Draft picks — all hail from Toronto. In 2014-15, Canadian-born Trey Lyles figures to play significant minutes for Kentucky.
There’s an undeniable international influence on college basketball today. When deciding which prospects to bring over, however, a coach’s basketball instincts are most important.
“If a guy won’t rebound internationally, he won’t collegiately,” the AAC assistant says. “If he can knock it down from the international 3, he can do it from the collegiate 3. A lot of people make this more than what it is. Yes, there’s an art to it, a science to it, but it just comes down to you have to have a vast knowledge of the game.”
9. Letters of Intent aren’t always binding
A National Letter of Intent is, at its core, supposed to be “binding.” When a prospect signs one, whether in November or April, the idea is that he’s locked into the school and the school is locked into him.
But, in reality, that’s not the case at all.
Any time there’s a coaching change at a school, many signees request to be released from their NLIs, even though they’re intended to be binding. There were more than 10 high-level players in the Class of 2014 who requested and were granted releases from their NLI due to a coaching change, free to attend a new school of their choice. One of these players, point guard Devonte Graham, will play a key role for a team with national title aspirations. Graham originally signed with Appalachian State but ended up signing with Kansas, where he will fill a major need. Shelton Mitchell (from Wake Forest to Vanderbilt), Elijah Stewart (Loyola Marymount to USC) and Malek Harris (Marquette to Kansas State) are three other prominent freshmen who were allowed to “walk” after their original school went through a coaching change.
There is one recent high-profile case, however, in which a prospect was not released from his NLI. Isaac Hamilton was a five-star recruit from California in 2012. He signed with Tim Floyd and UTEP, the first five-star high school recruit to choose the Miners perhaps in their history.
But he had a change of heart at the last minute and decided he wanted to be closer to home. When Hamilton asked for a release, Floyd and UTEP refused. Despite going in front of an appeals committee, Hamilton was denied immediate eligibility and was forced to sit out a year at UCLA.
It’s a complicated issue, with both sides obviously prioritizing their own interests. But the NLI itself, in many cases, seems to be an obsolete system.
“The kids do deserve freedom, if there’s a change of coaching or a change of heart,” national college basketball recruiting analyst Evan Daniels said. “That’s real stuff. The NLI doesn’t make much sense to me. There’s not much benefit for the kid, outside of the school giving away the scholarship (if he doesn’t sign). For these elite-level recruits, it’s not doing much for them.”
10. Grad transfers are the ultimate free agents
If you ask most coaches, there’s no better value on the recruiting market than the graduate transfer.
High school players are necessary to build a program, of course, but once you get outside the top 50, it tends to be a crapshoot. Junior college players are stop-gaps, but they often carry baggage with them, whether it be academically, emotionally, or, in the worst cases, criminally.
Graduate transfers are one-year rentals who have been in a college system for at least three years. Last year, Tarik Black of Kansas and Antonio Barton of Tennessee were two of the most prominent grad transfers, helping their respective teams reach the Sweet 16.
Miami (Fla.) has taken a graduate transfer in consecutive years; Joe Thomas of Niagara this year and Donnavan Kirk of DePaul last year.
“It’s a unique scenario,” Miami assistant Chris Caputo said. “Any opportunity for a program to get a little bit older, to get somebody who’s a known commodity because he does have those stats, good or bad, behind his name, and then also to get the scholarship back after a year — it’s a good thing.”
The perception of graduate transfers has changed in recent years, Caputo says. Yes, there tends to be an open market feel to it all. Yes, the NCAA is looking at a way to govern it. But graduate transfers don’t carry the same stigma they once did. In today’s game, it’s considered a luxury.
“It’s another good avenue to build a program,” Caputo says. “To get (a grad transfer) with any sort of numbers behind him, especially a frontcourt player, you’ll see a recruiting frenzy. In terms of priority, those guys become a very big priority.”
The Philadelphia Eagles were off to their best start in years and sitting atop a surprisingly competitive NFC East when the absolute worst thing happened to them that could happen to a football team. They lost Nick Foles, their starting quarterback, to a broken collarbone for 6-8 weeks.
That is almost always a death blow for teams. There is no more important position in the game — really in all of sports — than the quarterback.
It’s a good thing the Eagles had one of the best backups in the league.
Seriously, say what you want about Mark Sanchez, but few other teams can call on a former starter who twice took a team to a championship game when an emergency arises. A quick look around the NFL shows that most NFL teams employ no-names or has-beens with questionable pedigrees in the backup job. For most teams that doesn’t matter. But when a team looks like a contender and needs a temporary fill in? The backup quarterback suddenly becomes the most important player in the world.
So with that in mind, here’s a quick look at the backup quarterback position on all 32 NFL teams, ranked in order of best to worst …
1. Indianapolis Colts: Matt Hasselbeck — He’s 39 and hasn’t started a game since 2012, but he once led the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl. No other backup QB in football can say they did that.
2. Philadelphia Eagles: Mark Sanchez — He rarely had much talent around him with the Jets, yet he helped them to two AFC championship games. He’s also only 27 with a whole lot to prove.
3. Oakland Raiders: Matt Schaub — The Raiders brought him in to be the starter before they drafted Derek Carr. He’s only two years removed from a pretty good season in Houston.
4. Green Bay Packers: Matt Flynn — Once he was such an accomplished backup he earned a huge contract from the Seahawks. But three teams later, he can’t seem to make it outside of Green Bay.
5. Cincinnati Bengals: Jason Campbell — Only 32, he was once a promising starter in Washington. Then his career died in Oakland. But he has started 79 games.
6. Miami Dolphins: Matt Moore — Had a decent year starting for a bad Dolphins team in 2011, then never really got another chance to start.
7 .Washington Redskins: Colt McCoy/Kirk Cousins — Both briefly looked like the best backups in the NFL, and Cousins can be at times, but both have penchant for big mistakes.
8. Carolina Panthers: Derek Anderson — He had a great season in Cleveland in 2007, which was a long, long time ago.
9. Arizona Cardinals: Drew Stanton — A journeyman who hadn’t thrown a pass since 2010, Stanton filled in nicely when Carson Palmer was out for three games. Cards went 2-1 and Stanton didn’t throw an interception.
10. Seattle Seahawks: Tarvaris Jackson — Went from bad starter in Minnesota to mediocre in Seattle, but has a big arm and experience for spot starts.
11. Jacksonville Jaguars: Chad Henne — Has a history of mediocre performances on bad teams. A perfect hold-the-fort guy for a contender, which the Jags are not.
12. Dallas Cowboys: Brandon Weeden — He’d be considered a former first rounder with tons of potential, if he wasn’t already 31 in just his third NFL season.
13. Buffalo Bills: E.J. Manuel — A deposed starter with a future, but after being benched for Kyle Orton he needs to have his confidence rebuilt.
14. Tennessee Titans: Zach Mettenberger — A sixth-round rookie out of LSU, he’s taken over for the benched and disappointing Jake Locker. Threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns in his first start.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Josh McCown — Threw 13 touchdowns and just one interception in five starts for Chicago last season, but washed out as the Opening Day starter with the Bucs.
16. New Orleans Saints: Luke McCown — A 33-year-old journeyman whose last touchdown pass came in 2007.
17. New York Jets: Geno Smith — Awful as a starter, he lost his job to a shaky Mike Vick, and it’ll be hard for the Jets to go back to him now.
18. St. Louis Rams: Shaun Hill — Their entire quarterback situation is a mess and this 34-year-old career backup doesn’t help.
19. San Diego Chargers: Kellen Clemens — He was once the future of the New York Jets. Now he’s just hanging around at age 31.
20. San Francisco 49ers: Blaine Gabbert — Still only 25 after going bust as Jacksonville’s last franchise quarterback. Trying to revive his career with a better team.
21. Pittsburgh Steelers: Bruce Gradkowski — A backup for almost his entire nine-year career, he’s barely touched the ball in the last four seasons.
22. Minnesota Vikings: Christian Ponder — An awful first-round pick and former starter, he’s just playing out his contract in Minnesota.
23. Atlanta Falcons: T.J. Yates — Played well as a starter for Houston in 2011 until his three-interception playoff meltdown. Hasn’t started a game since.
24. Detroit Lions: Dan Orlovsky — In his ninth NFL season despite only having thrown a pass in four of them.
25. Houston Texans: Ryan Mallett — Acquired from New England in an offseason trade, he’ll make his first start on Sunday. Has completed one pass in four NFL seasons.
26. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel — So much hype and so much potential, but scouts remain split on whether he’s actually got NFL tools. The way Brian Hoyer is playing, we may not find out until next year.
27. New York Giants: Ryan Nassib — Scouts like his arm and IQ, but he’ll never get a shot behind the durable Eli Manning. Couldn’t have landed in a worse spot.
28. New England Patriots: Jimmy Garoppolo — Is the second-round pick from Eastern Illinois the heir-apparent to 37-year-old Tom Brady? Depends on when Brady decides he’s done.
29. Kansas City Chiefs – Chase Daniel — Made his first career start in last year’s season finale. Wasn’t bad in narrow loss to Chagers.
30. Baltimore Ravens: Tyrod Taylor — Former sixth-round pick has stuck around behind Joe Flacco mostly because he doesn’t have to play. When he has played a little, he’s been very mediocre.
31. Denver Broncos: Brock Osweiler — Broncos know they’re done if Peyton Manning gets injured, so the backup doesn’t matter. They just hope the 23-year-old picks up some good tips.
32. Chicago Bears: Jimmy Clausen — Was pretty bad as a rookie starter in Carolina in 2010. No reason to think he’d be any different now.
—By Ralph Vacchiano
It hasn’t been a good start to the most-hyped season of Cleveland Cavaliers history. LeBron James and Co. have won just one game, and lost three. The most recent fall was to one of last season’s worst teams, the Utah Jazz. Forward Gordon Hayward made sure of it with this game-winning shot:
Cleveland’s still got a large mess of issues to resolve before they look like the championship contender everyone anointed them going into the year. Last night’s latest effort at mending their chemistry woes came in the form of a starting lineup change. The much-maligned Dion Waiters was bumped to the bench in favor of veteran wingman Shawn Marion, a one-time champion with the Dallas Mavericks team that thwarted James and the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals.
This loss doesn’t fall on LeBron, though. With 31 points, LeBron put in his team’s second-best performance of the night — only Kyrie Irving bested him, racking up an efficient 34. The startling statistic for the Cavs is their assist total: They collected just six as a team. The young Jazz had 26.
There’s a lot of chemistry to be built in Cleveland. Sharing the ball isn’t easy when you’re playing with new teammates; offensive teamwork relies on being able to know where your partners are going to show up on the floor, and when. It’s too soon for this team to have developed that kind of familiarity — and that shows. There’s a bevy of NBA players who average more assists individually than the Cavs were able to tally as a team in this contest.
The Cavs’ daunting Western Conference road trip continues Friday night in Denver, as Cleveland tries to right the ship in the thin air of the Nuggets’ Pepsi Center altitude. Catch the game at 7:00 PM ET on NBA TV.
— John Wilmes
If you’ve never seen the end of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which nearly all of the characters die at once, here’s DeMarcus Cousins, Kenneth Faried and Rudy Gay performing it for you amidst the Sacramento Kings' 110-105 victory over the Denver Nuggets:
Three men never feigned their fall so hilariously on a basketball court. Well, okay, let’s not forget about Lance Stephenson’s playoff-intensity flop from last spring:
And the trio of Gay, Faried and Cousins even had some competition down south on the same night. Watch Boston Celtics rookie Marcus Smart show his theatrical stuff against the Mavericks in Dallas:
It’s nice to see the NBA’s players are doing everything they can to win games — even if it means delving into a little deception of the referees.
Cousins and Gay, though, haven’t had to resort to too many dirty tactics to collect victories so far in 2014-15. The oft-maligned Kings duo has propelled the team to an unlikely 3-1 start, aided by a surging Darren Collison at point guard, who the Kings enticed to Sacramento after a stellar job backing up Chris Paul with the Los Angeles Clippers last year — a stint that included a heroic, unforgettable performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the postseason.
Collison, like much of his roster, is an afterthought to a lot of the game’s followers. Between his overlooked skills and the frequent character assassinations of Cousins, analytical takedowns of Gay’s inefficient game and the Kings nearly relocating to Seattle a year and a half ago — before a final political push by Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson — this has become a team on a mission to throw success in the faces of their skeptics. And the quest for redemption (coupled with the unstoppable post play of dark horse MVP candidate Cousins) has made them a compelling underdog to watch in this young NBA season.
See if the Kings can keep it up as they host the Nuggets in a rubber match tonight, at 10:00 PM ET in the Sleep Train Arena.
— John Wilmes
Tony Allen is known as many things. A savant defender, “The Grindfather,” Kevin Durant’s worst nightmare and a cornerstone of the Memphis Grizzlies’ lava-speed mentality. But today, he’s looking like a bit of a reckless jerk. Watch as Allen causes this cameraman some grief over a foul call he wasn’t in love with.
The league fined Allen $15,000 for the incident, which happens to be the same amount they just tagged Minnesota Timberwolves guard Kevin Martin with for his “obscene gesture” after making a clutch shot late against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday.
For Allen, this sort of outburst is just part of the process of being one of the most intense basketball players alive. The 32-year-old Chicago native is a relatively diminutive 6’4” — Allen regularly guards players with several inches on him, and up to fifty extra pounds. Like a mongoose trapping a snake, though, there’s nothing surprising about Tony shutting down any star once you’ve become familiar with his scrappy, relentless style.
The Grizzlies ended up winning the contest over the New Orleans Pelicans, 93-81. They’ll need every ounce of insanity they can find from their guard if they’re to find themselves well-positioned in the brutal Western Conference, where 50 victories might not get you into the playoffs. The Monday night contest against New Orleans was arguably one of Memphis’ easier contests of recent days — and it came with the assignment of shutting down burgeoning mega-star Anthony Davis.
Allen and the Grizzlies take on the Phoenix Suns in Arizona tonight, a squad they fought for bottom Western playoff spots until the very end of the 2013-14 season. The Suns added speedy guard Isaiah Thomas this summer, who with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic makes Phoenix one of the faster teams in the league. Catch the epic contrast in the team’s two styles at 9:00 PM ET.
— John Wilmes
Ashburn, VA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Washington Redskins activated wide receiver Leonard Hankerson from the physically unable to perform list Tuesday almost a year after a knee injury ended his season.
Hankerson, 25, has been out since suffering a torn lateral collateral ligament in his left knee during a game in Philadelphia on Nov. 17, 2013.
The former third-round draft pick out of Miami has 81 catches for 1,081 yards and six touchdowns in 30 games since 2011, including 14 starts.
The Redskins waived cornerback Chase Minnifield on Tuesday and released tackle Terren Jones from the practice squad. Minnifield had two tackles in six games this season after spending the first three weeks on the practice squad.
East Rutherford, NJ (SportsNetwork.com) - New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin confirmed Tuesday that cornerback Prince Amukamara will miss the rest of the season due to a torn biceps.
Amukamara suffered the injury in Monday's loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Amukamara had been the Giants' best cornerback this year, recording 45 tackles and three interceptions in eight games.
Coughlin said that the Giants will likely bring in a cornerback this week to go with Chandler Fenner, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Zack Bowman, Jayron Hosley and Mike Harris.
In other injury news, left guard Weston Richburg, who left the game with an ankle injury, was having tests Monday.
The Giants play at Seattle this Sunday.
Pittsburgh, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker Ryan Shazier will miss Sunday's game against the New York Jets.
Both players exited last Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens with injuries. Polamalu has a knee sprain and Shazier is dealing with an ankle injury.
Polamalu has 51 tackles and one forced fumble in nine games this season, while Shazier has 26 tackles in five contests.
The 6-3 Steelers will turn to backups Sean Spence and Will Allen for Shazier and Polamalu, respectively.
Conroe, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson reached a plea agreement in the child abuse case against him on Tuesday.
Peterson was facing felony charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child after he was accused of using a wooden tree branch to hit his 4-year-old son as a disciplinary measure, resulting in visible injuries to the child.
Instead, he pleaded no contest and reached an agreement to a lesser charge of one count of misdemeanor reckless assault and will avoid jail time. He is also expected to get probation, pay a $2,000 fine and serve 80 hours of community service.
"I truly regret this incident," said Peterson outside the courthouse after the agreement was reached. "I take full responsibility for my actions. I love my son more than anyone of you can imagine. I am anxious to continue my relationship with my child. I am glad this over... so me and my family can move forward."
Peterson is currently on the NFL exempt list while the court proceedings continued. It is unclear when or if the star running back will be reinstated.
The Vikings said in a statement Tuesday evening that they were aware of the plea agreement and would have a further comment "at the appropriate time."
Peterson was initially deactivated prior to a Week 2 game against New England after being indicted in September, then was reinstated by the team the following Monday.
However, after backlash from sponsors, fans and the Minnesota government, the Vikings reversed course and placed Peterson on the NFL's exempt/commissioner's permission list. He is being paid despite not playing.
Shabazz Napier called his team the Hungry Huskies during the post-national championship celebration at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in April. They fed off returning to the NCAA Tournament after serving a postseason ban and went on an improbable March Madness run.
But Napier, an All-America guard and inspirational leader, has graduated and moved on to the NBA. DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey, two other key players, also are pursing professional careers.
Only six players, including just one who averaged in double figures, return.
According to coach Kevin Ollie, UConn’s appetite for success remains the same. “Every year is a different year,” Ollie says. “But we’re going to have the same mindset. … It’s a work ethic. It’s to have humility, the understanding that it’s not about you, it’s about our great university. If we can have those things with the talent we have, success is going to follow. I really, really believe that.”
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Ollie is excited about the potential of his maturing frontcourt and hopes to get more production out of the group.
Junior Phil Nolan is battled-test, appearing in 63 games over two seasons, and has added muscle. He’ll look to improve on last year’s numbers (3.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg).
Watch out for sophomore center Amida Brimah. Already a shot-blocking force, averaging a team-best 2.3 per game, he’s working on elevating his offensive game. He spent the offseason recovering from shoulder surgery. “Amida is going to be a force,” Ollie says.
Sophomore Kentan Facey adds a different dynamic off the bench, possessing the ability to attack inside or shoot outside.
Highly touted freshman Daniel Hamilton, an athletic 6-7 wing, has the potential to be a special player. Hamilton averaged 20.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists while leading St. John Bosco to a state title in California last season.
Freshman Rakim Lubin owns the mindset and muscle to be a factor on the glass, one of team’s few weaknesses last season.
UConn Huskies Facts & Figures
Last season: 32-8, 12-6 AAC
Postseason: National champion
Consecutive NCAA appearances: 1
Coach: Kevin Ollie (52-18 at UConn, 22-14 Big East/AAC)
AAC Projection: Second
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 32
Stocked with skilled guards, UConn will continue to be a perimeter-powered team.
Ryan Boatright, the top returning scorer and a defensive pest, steps into the spotlight after residing in Napier’s shadow. Following a terrific postseason, Boatright considered turning pro before deciding to return for his senior season. “He has to take over that leadership role,” Ollie says. “I think Boat is going to do that. I see a lot of great qualities in Ryan. … He has a great competitiveness about him.”
Sophomore Terrence Samuel, who emerged as a valuable contributor off the bench last season, and junior Omar Calhoun are other returning guards. Calhoun is looking to bounce back from a sophomore slump.
Last season, Ollie referred to Rodney Purvis, a transfer from NC State, as his Ferrari in the garage. The explosive Purvis is ready to hit the accelerator and take off. “He can score at a high level,” Ollie says.
Newcomer Sam Cassell Jr., who starred on the junior college level, is a fierce competitor with a high basketball IQ. He gives UConn another playmaker.
Expectations are high for the Huskies, who’ll likely be a top-25 team, an American Athletic Conference title contender and NCAA Tournament team.
Another trip to the Final Four will be difficult to pull off considering that UConn lost four of its top five scorers and top three rebounders. But with a nice blend of promising newcomers, developing underclassmen and proven veterans, the Huskies possess the talent to complete a quality makeover. They’ll rely on scoring by committee and look to push the pace to utilize their team speed and versatile roster.
Ollie, who received a new five-year, $15 million contract in May, will stick to his winning formula — play team basketball and tenacious defense, limit turnovers and convert from the foul line, where UConn shot 77.7 percent last season.
With the roster changes, UConn needs time to become a cohesive unit.
“We’ve got some talent,” Ollie says. “We’ve got to pull it together. We’ve got to get in (the gym) and work hard. But all the guys have great attitudes. That’s the one thing that I pride myself on — having a great attitude and being a great teammate. I think all of our guys have that.”
Rakim Lubin, a rugged forward, will provide a much-needed physical presence and rebounder. Sam Cassell Jr., son of the former NBA guard, averaged 18.7 points in junior college. He’ll add valuable depth and experience in the backcourt. Daniel Hamilton, a multi-talented wing, is considered one of the top scorers at his position in his recruiting class. A gifted guard, Rodney Purvis averaged 8.3 points as a freshman at NC State.
For one, the AAC is the home of the defending national champion that loses star Shabazz Napier but returns coach Kevin Ollie and guard Ryan Boatright while adding NC State transfer Rodney Purvis and highly regarded freshman Daniel Hamilton.
The Huskies, though, may have trouble making a run at the AAC title thanks to upstart SMU. Even without freshman Emmanuel Mudiay, the top point guard prospect in the NBA draft who will be playing in Europe, the Mustangs have enough talent and experience returning to make a historic run for the program.
With the arrival of Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson, Memphis may be able to make the AAC a three-team race. Cincinnati and league newcomer Tulsa, the latter under first-year coach Frank Haith, will try to maintain momentum after NCAA runs a year ago.
After those top teams, though, watch out. The AAC had five teams in the top 40 on Kenpom.com last season (including Louisville). The other five teams were ranked 125th or worse. That trend may continue in a league that adds Conference USA also-rans East Carolina and Tulane this season.
Previews of every American team and more are available in the 2014-15 Athlon Sports College Basketball Preview.
2014-15 American Athletic Conference Predictions
1. SMU (team preview)
The turnaround under Larry Brown has been very impressive. Emmanuel Mudiay’s decision to play overseas hurts, but the Mustangs are still talented.
2. Connecticut (team preview)
The defending national champs bid farewell to Shabazz Napier, but bring in Rodney Purvis and Daniel Hamilton — and kept Kevin Ollie.
3. Memphis (team preview)
The immediate eligibility of Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson gives the guard-starved Tigers a major boost.
4. Cincinnati (team preview)
Without Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson, Mick Cronin loses his leaders. Can Shaquille Thomas take the next step?
Postseason projection: NIT
After reaching the NCAA Tournament last season, the Golden Hurricane will look to get back as Frank Haith replaces Danny Manning.
The Green Wave could be a sleeper. Louis Dabney and Jonathan Stark should form one of the best duos in the league.
7. East Carolina
Leading scorer Akeem Richmond is gone, but Jeff Lebo brings back several key pieces — and adds transfer Terry Whisnant.
The Owls took a major step back last season, going from 24 wins to nine wins. Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey do return.
Stan Heath is gone and former Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua is in. Anthony Collins needs a bounce-back season at the point.
Kelvin Sampson has already added talent to the roster, including transfers Torian Graham and Devonta Pollard.
The Knights were next-to-last in the conference last season, and lose their top three scorers. Donnie Jones’ star has dimmed.
2014-15 American Athletic Conference Superlatives
Player of the Year: Nic Moore, SMU
The absence of Emmanuel Mudiay will put more pressure on Moore, but he may be up to the task. He averaged 13.6 points and 4.9 rebounds last season and contributed clutch play during SMU’s run to the NIT championship game.
Best Defensive Player: Amida Brimah, Connecticut
The shot-blocking extraordinaire averaged 2.3 blocks per game in just 16.2 minutes and 17 starts.
Most Underrated Player: James Woodard, Tulsa
The 6-3, 183-pound guard averaged 15.5 points and 5.9 rebounds for the Conference USA champions last season. Now he gets to shine on a bigger stage.
Newcomer of the Year: Daniel Hamilton, Connecticut
UConn will hope this high-scoring wing will help offset the losses of Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels.
Top coach: Larry Brown, SMU (complete AAC coach rankings)
G Nic Moore, SMU
G Ryan Boatright, Connecticut
G James Woodard, Tulsa
F Shaq Goodwin, Memphis
F Markus Kennedy, SMU
G Will Cummings, Temple
G Jonathan Stark, Tulane
G Rodney Purvis, Connecticut
F Daniel Hamilton, Connecticut
F Austin Nichols, Memphis
G Anthony Collins, USF
G Louis Dabney, Tulane
G Quenton DeCosey, Temple
F Justin Martin, SMU
F Shaquille Thomas, Cincinnati
The obvious issue for Cincinnati in 2014-15 is how to replace first-team All-America guard Sean Kilpatrick, who finished his career as the second-leading scorer in school history behind the legendary Oscar Robertson.
But that’s not how coach Mick Cronin sees his challenge as he begins his ninth year at his alma mater armed with a new seven-year contract extension.
“We quickly have to realize it’s a new day,” Cronin says. “That’s my message to the guys. It’s your team. We don’t have to replace nobody. We have to become the 2014-15 version of the Bearcats.”
Cincinnati will have seven new players and no double-figure scorers returning from the 2013-14 team that shared the inaugural American Athletic Conference title with Louisville and lost to Harvard in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament.
The Bearcats won’t have much experience, but they will have plenty of size on the front line, which is a major departure from last season.
“We’ll be a couple inches bigger and a lot stronger on the front line and deeper on the front line,” Cronin says. “With Shaq Thomas, you talk about six guys that are 6-7 or bigger and either really athletic or 265 or 270 pounds. We have a chance to be a great rebounding team.”
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The Bearcats were looking forward to seeing how much top-25 recruit Jermaine Lawrence had improved after his disappointing freshman year in 2013-14, but Lawrence transferred to Manhattan because he wanted to be closer to his home in New York after he learned that his father had been diagnosed with cancer.
Thomas, a 6-7 junior forward, is Cincinnati’s leading returning scorer after averaging 6.8 points last season, but he still has not reached the potential the coaching staff sees in him. Thomas scored in double figures only once in the final 12 games of the season.
The Bearcats are hoping for immediate help from 6-10, 270-pound junior college transfer Coreontae DeBerry and 6-10 junior college transfer Octavius Ellis. The 6-10, 220-pound Ellis is the most intriguing of the newcomers because he began his career at Cincinnati in 2010, but was asked to leave after his involvement in a nightclub incident. He returns after earning All-America honors at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College, where he averaged 14.8 points and 9.7 rebounds last year. Ellis is one of four Cincinnati players who were suspended after the infamous fight against cross-town rival Xavier three years ago.
Jamaree Strickland, at 6-10, 270 pounds, will make his debut after being forced to sit out last year because the NCAA would not accept all of his high school courses.
Gary Clark, a 6-7 freshman, was a prolific scorer in high school, and 6-8, 230-pound forward Quadri Moore provides another physical player on the front line. Jermaine Sanders, a valuable player at times off the bench last year, is back for his senior year.
Cincinnati Bearcats Facts & Figures
Last season: 27-7, 15-3 AAC
Postseason: NCAA round of 64
Consecutive NCAA appearances: 4
Coach: Mick Cronin (162-107 at Cincinnati, 72-70 Big East/AAC)
AAC Projection: Fourth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
Ge’Lawn Guyn returns at point guard, but he’ll be pressed by sophomore Troy Caupain, who has better all-around skills and is more of a scoring threat. Deshaun Morman will make his debut after being redshirted last year due to a broken foot.
Sophomore Kevin Johnson hit some big shots in a reserve role as a freshman and could blossom into a consistent perimeter scoring threat. The Bearcats were not a great 3-point shooting team last year even with Kilpatrick in the backcourt, so they signed junior college transfer Farad Cobb, who averaged 15.1 points and shot 46.3 percent from beyond the arc last year at Northwest Florida Community College. Cobb began his career at Chattanooga.
Cincinnati has been on a nice run with four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and a 101–39 record during that span, but the Bearcats will have a much different look this year with a roster heavy on strong physical players on the front line.
If the Bearcats are going to make a fifth straight NCAA appearance, they’ll need a big boost from Caupain and incoming guard Cobb and hope that the front-line players blossom quickly.
With no proven returning scorer and so many untested players on their roster, it’s a stretch to predict that the Bearcats will win their second straight AAC title.
Guard Farad Cobb is being counted on to provide 3-point shooting. Deshaun Morman, who redshirted last year, will provide depth in the backcourt. Forward Coreontae DeBerry is a strong, physical player who should help right away. Center Octavius Ellis has two years of junior college experience and one year in the Cincinnati program. Jamaree Strickland is an unknown commodity after sitting out last year. Forward Gary Clark is a potential big-time scorer, and forward Quadri Moore will provide a physical presence up front.
Larry Brown was already ahead of schedule at SMU, taking only two seasons to transform the moribund program. Twenty years removed from their last postseason appearance, the Mustangs last season won 27 games and advanced to the NIT title game.
So, Moody Madness had returned to the Hilltop before Mudiay Madness culminated in the loss of Brown’s most prized prospect. Emmanuel Mudiay, the nation’s No. 1 ranked point guard, announced in July that he would play professionally overseas.
With Mudiay, many early projections had the Mustangs in the top 10. Without him, they may still be the best team in the American Athletic Conference. They return most of the key players who posted four wins over ranked opponents, including a sweep of eventual national champion UConn.
Big man Markus Kennedy and point guard Nic Moore were among the best at their positions in the American. And transfers Justin Martin from Xavier and Jordan Tolbert from Texas Tech, both three-year players at their respective schools, figure to make a significant impact. They join a deep group of young players fighting for minutes.
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The Mustangs are a difficult team to play because they have a Hall of Fame coach who stresses defense. Turnovers set up fast breaks, and their halfcourt offense thrives on working the ball inside for high percentage shots. They are relentless on the boards, outrebounding all but 10 of their opponents. They look even stronger underneath with center Yanick Moreira healthy and the addition of established forwards Martin and Tolbert.
Kennedy’s confidence is high after averaging 12.4 points and 7.1 rebounds and notching a team-high 44 blocked shots in his first season at SMU. He plays much larger than his 6-9 frame.
Moreira, the former junior college All-American, led the team in scoring, rebounding and minutes early last season but never returned to top form after having arthroscopic knee surgery. Unhappy with reduced minutes, he has plenty of motivation to display his shot-blocking and rebounding potential.
Senior post Cannen Cunningham’s playing time declined with Kennedy’s emergence, but Brown is determined to use Cunningham’s shooting and rebounding skills. Ben Moore was one of the team’s biggest surprises as a freshman, averaging 6.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in 14.8 minutes. The 6-8 forward has the athleticism to play virtually any position.
SMU Mustangs Facts & Figures
Last season: 27-10, 12-6 AAC
Last NCAA appearance: 1993
Coach: Larry Brown (42-27 at SMU, 17-17 CUSA/AAC)
AAC Projection: First
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 32
SMU led the conference in field goal percentage (48.3), but that figure was bolstered by second-chance points. Although the Mustangs shot 37.9 percent from beyond the arc, they lacked a pure outside shooter.
That role usually went to Moore, who kept the Ponies rolling in the NIT with game-winning baskets. Moore earned All-AAC first team honors, but he has no true point guard behind him. That’s one reason Mudiay would have been a great fit.
Thus, the pressure is on sophomore Keith Frazier to display the outside shooting that made him the first McDonald’s All-American SMU ever signed. With the loss of departing senior Nick Russell and Mudiay no longer in the picture, Frazier should improve with more minutes. He averaged 5.4 points in 14.8 minutes as a freshman.
Sterling Brown, the brother of NBA player Shannon Brown, and Ryan Manuel are diverse role players who can drive for layups, create scoring chances and draw fouls.
Although SMU’s Q-rating may suffer without Mudiay, Brown made the Mustangs relevant with their plus-12 turnaround in wins from 2012-13.
They are coming off a season in which they were ranked for the first time since 1985, posted the second-most wins in program history and set attendance records that included nine sellouts in renovated Moody Coliseum.
After finishing tied for third in the inaugural American Athletic Conference season, SMU will be shooting for a league title. It doesn’t hurt that Louisville has left for the ACC, and UConn and Cincinnati have big holes to fill.
Poised to make the NCAA Tournament, the Mustangs have last season’s snub to use as motivation. More important, they have even more depth than last year, when they averaged 25.6 points off the bench. They have eight players who averaged at least 12.9 minutes last season and two transfers who are potential starters.
Anything shy of a top two or three finish in the league and a trip to the
NCAA Tournament would be a disappointment.
Justin Martin, who played three seasons at Xavier, averaged 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds last season — second on the team in both categories. Jordan Tolbert played three seasons at Texas Tech, averaging 10.7 points and 5.7 rebounds while starting 91 games.
This time last year Josh Pastner had a backcourt some were describing as college basketball’s best thanks to the presence of four senior guards, all of whom had previously averaged double-figures in points at the Division I level. He was going to press and run and overwhelm opponents with talented veterans. And though Memphis did remain in the Associated Press Top 25 poll every week of the regular season, the truth is that none of the senior guards had what anybody would describe as a terrific season, and the Tigers failed to advance out of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year.
Those four senior guards are now gone.
The situation in the Memphis backcourt won’t be as dire as it could have been. The eligibility of Kedren Johnson, who transferred from Vanderbilt, gives Pastner one guard who has played at the Division I level. The news came only weeks before the first practice of the season. Johnson, who led the Commodores in scoring two seasons ago, was suspended for the 2013-14 season at Vanderbilt but received received a wavier to play this season after transferring to Memphis. His arrival can’t be understated as Memphis now has an experienced point guard to go with a solid frontcourt.
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What Memphis lacks in backcourt experience it makes up for in frountcourt experience (and talent) thanks to the return of Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols, a pair of forwards who both started a year ago. Goodwin, a junior, averaged 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds last season. Nichols, a sophomore, averaged 9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds last season.
“We’re gonna play through them,” Pastner says. “They have to produce.”
Nick King will be given every opportunity to start at small forward. Is he a natural wing? No. But he’s just too talented to bury on the bench, and the only thing that’ll keep the 6-7 sophomore from playing 20-plus minutes per game is an inability to guard the position. Aware of this, King has been taking yoga classes to improve his flexibility and footwork in an attempt to improve his perimeter defense.
Memphis Tigers Facts & Figures
Last season: 24-10, 64-18 CUSA/AAC
Postseason: NCAA round of 32
Consecutive NCAA appearances: 4
Coach: Josh Pastner (130-44 at Memphis, 64-18 CUSA/AAC)
AAC Projection: Third
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
Before Johnson’s arrival, Memphis lacked any guard with experience on the Division I level. More than that, the Tigers lacked a natural point guard. The Vanderbilt transfer fills both of those gaps. Johnson led the Commodores in scoring 13.5 in 2012-13 before serving a year-long suspension for a “non-academic university policy.”
The rest of the backcourt may be a hodgepodge. Markel Crawford, Pookie Powell, Dominic Magee, Chris Hawkins and Avery Woodson are all talented in their own ways. But, again, none of them is experienced, none of them is a natural point guard, and Crawford and Powell haven’t played competitive basketball in two years. Crawford redshirted last season as he recovered from a torn ACL while Powell missed last season for academic reasons.
“There’s gonna be some mistakes made because they haven’t been in game situations,” Pastner says. “But I also think that we have guys who can do things with the ball and who are talented. So you don’t wanna box them in, either. You wanna allow them to have some creativity and make plays.”
Emmanuel Mudiay’s decision to sign a contract in China rather than play at SMU combined with significant personnel losses at UConn and Cincinnati combined with Louisville’s departure to the ACC gives Memphis a shot to compete at the top of the league again.
But it’s rare for an inexperienced backcourt to lead a team to the NCAA Tournament. So Memphis fans still holding on to the final five years of the John Calipari era would probably be wise to lower expectations, just a little. The future is still bright for the Tigers, undeniably. But this particular season could turn into a learning experience for all.
“We might have one or two plays and that’s it (at the start of the season),” Pastner says. “We just have to be as basic, as fundamental, as defensive-minded as possible, so that we can get things accomplished. We can’t get to step C if we haven’t accomplished step A, and we’ve gotta get to step B before we get to step C.”
Pookie Powell and Markel Crawford both essentially redshirted last season and project as possible starters in the backcourt while junior college transfers Trahson Burrell, Chris Hawkins and Avery Woodson are all capable of cracking the rotation. Dominic Magee is the only true freshman on scholarship. He’s a 6-3 guard who averaged 22.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.0 steals last season in high school.
In case you had any lingering doubts about whether Jason Kidd’s exit from his post as coach of the Brooklyn Nets was amicable, erase them: It wasn’t. Nets owner and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov made that clear when he shared these words Monday:
The largely mysterious man, recently rumored to be shopping his NBA team around, made a rare appearance before the media before his team’s nice 116-85 home victory against the undermanned Oklahoma City Thunder. Prokhorov also said that his team losing $144 million last season is “no big deal.”
Prokhorov said, despite recent talks, that he’s not giving up majority control of his team. That probably has a lot to do with the league’s new TV $24 billion deal, which ensures that an NBA team is just about the soundest, most lucrative investment a man of Prokhorov’s funds can buy or hold onto these days.
For now, these Nets likely remain a bit hamstrung in the Eastern Conference standings, as some irrational exuberance on Prokhorov’s and general manager Billy King’s part has sunk them into a hole of repeater tax salary cap penalties. Those snags might not make much difference in Prokhorov’s bottom business line, but they do kill the market flexibility required to make the shift into a true contender. The Nets will have to wait a while before making real improvements to their roster.
Quotable as he is, Nets fans better hope their owner is also measured and patient enough to let the long, complex process of team-building take place.
— John Wilmes