Athlon Editors Discuss 5 Burning College Hoops Questions.
1. If the season ended today, who are your five first-team All-Americans?
Mitch: I’ll go with a frontline of Jared Sullinger from Ohio State and Derrick Williams from Arizona and a three-guard look with Jimmer Fredette from BYU, Nolan Smith from Duke and Kemba Walker from Connecticut. The toughest omission is probably Purdue big man JaJuan Johnson.
Nathan: In my opinion, there are four obvious first-teamers — BYU senior Jimmer Fredette, Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger, Duke senior Nolan Smith and UConn junior Kemba Walker. After that, it’s a tough call. I’ll go with Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson, who is averaging 20.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots per game. Johnson has carried the Boilermakers, who are 22–5 (11–3 Big Ten) despite losing Robbie Hummel to a preseason knee injury. Johnson’s production, leadership and heart are first-team All-America quality.
Braden: There are two ways to build an All-America team: Pick the best five players in college hoops, regardless of position, or pick one player at each of the five positions on the court. I went with the latter. Duke‘s Nolan Smith is my point guard. BYU‘s Jimmer Fredette is my shooting guard. Texas’ Jordan Hamilton will play the inside-outside wing. Wisconsin’s Jon Leuer will stretch the defense at the 4-spot. And Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger will bang down low at center. Honorable Mention: Jordan Taylor, Kemba Walker, Kyle Singler, Derrick Williams and Jordan Williams.
2. Which team most needs a big win over the next week?
Mitch: Boston College, with an RPI of 45 and an overall record of 16–10, is playing for its NCAA Tournament life. The Eagles let what would have been a Tournament-clinching road win slip away when Reggie Jackson missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds of a 48–46 loss at North Carolina on Saturday. This week, BC hosts Miami on Wednesday then travels to Virginia on Saturday. Winning both games is essential.
Nathan: Tennessee (16–11, 6–6 SEC) may already be a lost cause, having lost four of its last five games (Alabama, at Kentucky, at Florida and Georgia). But if Bruce Pearl’s Vols have any shot at making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large berth, they need to pull off an upset at Vanderbilt (Feb. 22) and/or against Kentucky (March 6), while also holding serve against Mississippi State (Feb. 26) and at South Carolina (March 3). UT has a decent resume with wins over Villanova, Pitt, Vanderbilt and Memphis, but the bubble will certainly burst if the Vols can’t win three of their last four and put together a respectable showing in the SEC Tourney.
Braden: Michigan State is starting to show signs of life after two home wins over Penn State and Illinois (and a solid road showing against the Buckeyes). But the Spartans are still on life support and are backed into a corner. Purdue, on the other hand, is riding about as high as possible after home wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State. I think MSU can win at home this week over the Boilers and continue its push back into the bracket discussion.
3. Which team has improved the most since the beginning of the season?
Mitch: Anthony Grant’s Alabama Crimson Tide. The same team that went 0–3 in the Paradise Jam with losses to Seton Hall, Iowa and St. Peter’s is 10–2 in the SEC. And yes, I am aware that Alabama plays in the very weak SEC West, but you don’t win 10 of 12 games (with three of those wins vs. the SEC East) in any league unless you are playing very good basketball. JaMychal Green has been remarkably consistent since his return from an early season suspension, point guard Trevor Releford has done a very good job running the team, and underrated forward Tony Mitchell has been a beast in league play, averaging 17.8 point and 6.5 rebounds.
Nathan: North Carolina hit rock bottom with a 78–58 blowout loss at Georgia Tech on Jan. 16 in Atlanta. Since then, however, coach Roy Williams’ team has an 8–1 record — with the lone loss coming on the road at Duke (79–73) in a competitive rivalry game. During this most recent nine-game stretch, Harrison Barnes has averaged 16.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, while showing the killer instinct (game-winning 3-pointer with 6.6 seconds left at Miami) and takeover ability (26 points at BC, 25 points vs. NC State) that made him the first freshman ever preseason first-team All-American. UNC may not be a national title contender, but the Tar Heels are light years ahead of the team they were struggling in the opener against Lipscomb and passively limping to a 4–3 start this year.
Braden: I will go with the Florida Gators simply because a lot of people believed they were overrated early in the season — especially after losses to UCF, Jacksonville and Ohio State. Since the overtime stunner to the Dolphins (yup, that is right), the Gators are 13–2, with road wins at Tennessee, Xavier, Georgia, South Carolina and LSU and home victories over Vandy, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky. The key has been guard play; when Kenny Boynton scores in double-figures in SEC play, Florida is 9-0. When he doesn’t, the Gator are 1–2.
4. Which team from a one-bid league is most likely to win at least one game in the NCAA Tournament?
Mitch: I jumped on the Belmont bandwagon early this season and I see no reason to jump off. The Bruins, currently 17–1 in the A-Sun, have four losses this season — three to SEC schools (Tennessee twice and Vanderbilt) by single digits and one to cross-town rival Lipscomb. Rick Byrd’s team has a ton of depth and can light it up from 3-point range.
Nathan: I’ll stay on the College of Charleston bandwagon. The pride of the Southern Conference has all of the pieces in place. Coach Bobby Cremins has plenty of NCAA Tournament experience (11 trips, five Sweet 16s and 1990 Final Four), senior guard Andrew Goudelock (23.4 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.9 rpg) has proven to be a big-game player against big-time competition this year (31 points in a 91–78 win at Tennessee, 28 points at North Carolina, 27 points and 10 boards at Maryland), and the team has a dangerous inside-out combo — with four players averaging over five rebounds per game (led by 6’8”, 230-pound senior Jeremy Simmons’ 6.2) and three players shooting over 35 percent from downtown (led by Goudelock’s 96 made at a 41.7 percent clip). The Cougars (21–7, 13–2 Southern) are a team that Big Six schools should fear being paired with on Selection Sunday.
Braden: I am not allowed to go with Old Dominion because the Colonial might even get three bids, but ODU leads the nation in rebounding margin and is third in scoring defense. Those stats, along with assist-to-turnover ratio, are important numbers for me when picking my bracket. My next favorite factors are 3-point shooting (the great equalizer) and veteran backcourts. That means Murray State, with its excellent guard duo, has a real chance to make some noise in the tourney — again — as the only OVC team to make the field.
5. What game are you most looking forward to this weekend?
Mitch: Well, the BYU-San Diego State is obviously a huge game, with both teams still in play for a No. 1 seed. But I will go with Purdue’s visit to Michigan State. Purdue enjoyed a magical week, beating Wisconsin and Ohio State at home. Now, the Boilers head out of town to play rival Indiana on Wednesday before Saturday’s trip to East Lansing. Michigan State appears to be getting its act together and solidifying its spot in the NCAA Tournament — thanks in large part to a rejuvenated (and healthier) Kalin Lucas — but Tom Izzo’s club could still use a few more quality wins.
Nathan: Saturday’s triple-header on CBS — Syracuse at Georgetown (CBS, 12 p.m. ET), BYU at San Diego State (CBS, 2 p.m. ET) and Florida at Kentucky (CBS, 4 p.m. ET) — is as good as any pre-NCAA Tournament lineup this season. For my money, Jimmer Fredette’s Cougars and Kawhi Leonard’s Aztecs provide the best matchup. BYU took Round One, 71–58, in Salt Lake City; but Leonard had the flu that night. Round Two of the best in the Mountain West should be a good one.
Braden: Florida at Kentucky. The Wildcats, as I said in last week’s Burning Questions, needed to right the ship, and home tests against Mississippi State and South Carolina were just the recipe. Florida beat the Cats in Gainesville in a game that went down to the final seconds. This one should be another thriller.