AAC Basketball resumes Saturday after a five-day holiday break with one the last and the biggest non-conference game for one of its teams: Louisville visits Kentucky in the annual renewal of the sport’s best rivalry. Everyone in the commonwealth has had the date circled since the schedules came out for obvious reasons, but hoops fans everywhere were also eyeing the match-up when both schools started in the preseason top three after splitting the last two national championships. A bit of the shine might be off the game with the two teams entering with four losses between them, but that actually makes it more important; neither has yet notched what would be considered a marquee win, and there are limited opportunities for both going forward. So what we have here are two teams in a must-win game for each; plus it’s the biggest game for both fan bases all year; plus the coaches don’t like each other; plus there will be numerous future NBA players on both sides. Yeah, you probably want to watch this one.
Among the players who will play key roles in deciding Saturday’s Bluegrass Showdown is Mangok Mathiang, Louisville’s Sudanese center and one of a growing contingent of foreign players making their mark in US college basketball. Mathiang replaced fellow African Gorgui Dieng, who helped Louisville hang a banner last year before departing for the NBA. NCAA rule changes have made it easier for foreign-born players to become eligible, and various academies have sprung up to help funnel them to American schools. Louisville has recently embraced this trend; in addition to Mathiang and Dieng, they also have forward Akoy Agau on the roster, also from Sudan, and have signed Norwegian big man Matz Stockman for next year’s freshman class. Head coach Rick Pitino repeatedly praised Dieng’s demeanor and maturity, and said those traits made him want to recruit more overseas players, which he obviously has done. So far, it appears to be bringing success; it’s hard to improve upon a first-round NBA Draft pick who helped your team win a national championship. No pressure, Mangok!
SMU coach Larry Brown is known as basketball’s greatest coaching nomad. He’s been the head coach of three college teams, nine NBA teams and even an ABA team. Now in his second season at SMU at age 73, rumors have raged as to how long he would stay on board. Brown said in a recent interview that he will probably never retire. While it’s clear he’s a basketball lifer, it must be said that he is already exceeding all expectations at SMU. The Mustangs are 10-2 this season, have signed a McDonald’s All-American for the second year in a row, and appear poised to make a strong run toward their first NCAA bid in two decades. Given all of that, it seems like the nomad might have found a home for as long as he wants to stay, but then again, that’s always been the question surrounding Brown.
UConn has one of the nation’s best backcourts, but its glaring weakness has been obvious all season: a shallow and inexperienced frontcourt. How did it get that way? TheUConnBlogtook an in-depth look and identified a few obvious culprits: NCAA problems; the uncertainty over Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun’s future culminating in his retirement; and some misses on the recruiting trial. Perhaps most galling for UConn fans is that former Huskie big man Roscoe Smith, who transferred to UNLV somewhat surprisingly two years ago and now leads the nation in rebounding at 13.8 boards per game, is logging offensive and defensive rebounding percentages in the top 100 among all players nationally. In fact, he averages more boards than UConn’s top two rebounders — Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels — combined. UConn ranks outside the top 200 teams in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, and it is the worst offensive rebounding team in the AAC, a league known for its strong guard play. The team has recently shuffled its starting lineup up front, but it probably lacks the big men necessary to make much noise in the NCAA Tournament.
Wally Judge was a highly-touted recruit out of high school when he debuted at Kansas State in 2009, but he struggled there, eventually transferring to Rutgers, and is now fighting through a trying senior season in New Jersey. He played well on Sunday, with 16 points and seven rebounds in a win over Army, but that followed four losses in five games. He said his various struggles have led to a period of soul-searching. Rutgers better hopes he does; he’s perhaps the most talented player on a 6-7 team, and while the NCAA Tournament is out of reach, improved play by Judge and his teammates in conference play might well be enough to earn them some sort of postseason, and perhaps as importantly, a spot in the conference standings above #10.
Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Sean Moran, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to discussing the recruitments of the top uncommitted players in the country. We also encourage you to check out his contributions at The Intentional Fouldedicated to recruiting coverage and analysis. You can also follow Sean at his Twitter account @Seanmohoops for up-to-date news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Thursday afternoon, five-star small forward Justise Winslow announced his intention to play for Coach K and the Blue Devils. The 6’5” Winslow is currently rated as the No. 10 prospect in the country and No. 4 small forward in the class of 2014. With the commitment, Duke wrapped up an extraordinarily successful seven-day period which started out when the Blue Devils received commitments from the top player in the country in center Jahlil Okafor as well as the No. 2 ranked point guard in Tyus Jones. Winslow is set to join a talented team next year that will have numerous options on the perimeter in juniors Rodney Hood, Rasheed Sulaimon and Alex Murphy along with sophomores Matt Jones and Semi Ojeleye. Playing with talented wing players is nothing new for Winslow who played AAU ball the past two years with two other top 10 talents in Kansas commitment Kelly Oubre and North Carolina commitment Justin Jackson. Just like AAU play, Winslow brings a different skill set to the table when compared to his wing counterparts.
On the offensive end, the Houston native can do a variety of things. With his chiseled frame, he uses his notable strength advantage to crash the glass, score down low and finish with contact. He is tough to guard off the dribble and can often finish with a powerful dunk. Winslow is also fairly adept at handling the ball and using his passing ability to find cutters or shooters on the perimeter. On the defensive end, Winslow can guard numerous positions. He is quick enough to stay in front of most guards and strong enough to battle most big men in the post. This past spring and summer, Winslow’s versatility was on full display as he averaged 14.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and a couple steals per game. The main weakness in his game right now revolves around his outside shooting. Although still a work in progress, he shot just 31 percent from the three-point line in AAU play. Winslow’s weakness will be offset by the numerous Duke players who can already shoot from the outside and his versatility will be used elsewhere. This past summer Winslow played on the U-19 USA World championship team and was one of only two high school players to make the team (along with Okafor). He averaged almost 10 points per game there and the time he spent playing against older players proved that he will be more than ready to contribute next year in Durham.
Rodney Purvis can’t play this year, but he’s still helping the Huskies get off to a hot start. The former highly-touted recruit who transferred to UConn after a year at NC State has been the star member of the scout team, helping one of the nation’s top backcourts prepare for the likes of Dez Wells and Yogi Ferrell. The full year of practice will be crucial for Purvis, who likely will have to step into the sizeable shoes of Shabazz Napier next season. Of course, it may also be playing a pretty big role in Napier’s blazing start, which will have him in consideration for a number of postseason awards if he can maintain it. Based on the early returns, luring Purvis to Storrs looks to be a pretty major win-win for both he and head coach Kevin Ollie.
Sean Kilpatrick was angry when coach Mick Cronin redshirted him due to a crowded backcourt and a mechanical flaw in his jump shot four years ago. Both he and Cronin have to be pretty pleased with how it worked out, though, as Kilpatrick now ranks #13 on the school’s all-time scoring list as a fifth-year senior. If he keeps up his current pace – he’s averaging nearly 20 PPG through five games – he could end up second on the list to some guy named Oscar Robertson. And while Cronin might have had some inkling that the little-recruited guard would help more down the road than right away, he almost certainly couldn’t have understood just how much. Kilpatrick is posting a ridiculously high 155.2 offensive rating through five games, vital for a mediocre offensive squad like the Bearcats. If he can approach that number during a key three-game swing next month – at New Mexico, then neutral court games with Xavier and Pitt – both he and his team will earn some rightful attention.
Kevin Ware‘s eventful year (life?) continued with a plea deal involving a $268 fine, bringing the latest kerfuffle over a speeding ticket and missed court date to a merciful end. This follows Rick Pitino’s rather pointed press conference on the topic last week after he was apparently blindsided by the news. That all followed on the heels of, shall we say, some colorful tweets from Ware’s Twitter account to Anthony Davis, quickly deleted and attributed to hacking. That followed denials from Ware and Pitino of summer “reports” that Ware had been secretly dismissed from the team. All of that, of course, follows the gruesome injury in last season’s NCAA Tournament which catapulted the quiet reserve to national prominence. That followed an indefinite suspension last spring that lasted one game. Even that followed a recruitment which included a commitment to Tennessee, later withdrawn when Bruce Pearl was fired in the face of an NCAA probe, then a commitment to UCF, later withdrawn in the face of an NCAA probe, then a commitment to Louisville, delayed by a semester due to the NCAA probes. Seems like quite a bit of drama for a junior with a career high of 11 points, no? Whew.
When Louisville went way off the board for the fifth member of its signing class last week, no one knew much of anything about Matz Stockman. He wasn’t ranked by any of the major recruiting watchers, nor had his name been tied to the Cardinals publicly before his papers came through the fax machine. Not even Rick Pitino had seen him play. Now that his team has played a few games on American soil, word has started to trickle out. Jerry Meyer of 247Sports says the seven-foot Norwegian will be a three-star recruit, one who has a good scoring touch near the basket but “will likely need a couple years of development before he is ready to compete at a Louisville type level.” A year ago, Louisville’s thin backcourt ended up with a walk-on as its only reserve in the Final Four, so the recruiting class featured three guards. It’s no coincidence that this year’s Cardinal frontcourt, which got exposed by North Carolina on Sunday, has led to Pitino bringing in three recruits 6’9” and taller.
Another night, another couple of blown opportunities for AAC teams to earn a much-needed yet impossible to find quality win. First, Oklahoma State continued its roll through the conference with a 93-67 win at USF. Then Houston gave Stanford a tough test before falling in Brooklyn. And now the AAC nears the end of November with UConn’s two wins over a mediocre Maryland, and a young, inconsistent Indiana, and that’s about it. This is nice for the Huskies, but less great for the other teams that hoped for a few chances for quality wins in conference play to make up for weak non-conference slates. Now those opportunities might not be there, making it tougher to build an NCAA Tournament-worthy resume.
For Cincinnati to be more than just competitive this season, they needed versatile forward Justin Jackson to become an offensive threat, and although the Bearcats’ first four opponents have been exceptionally overmatched, Jackson has answered the bell. His athleticism is unquestioned, but Jackson has always been more athlete than basketball player and his offensive efficiency proved it. After posting an uninspiring 82.5 offensive rating last season, his offensive rating this season is all the way up to 112.0. Part of the reason for the sudden surge is that he is much more involved offensively and is probably the team’s second scoring option behind star Sean Kilpatrick, but he also seems to be using his size and speed to create better shots. The best part is that he is still stuffing the stat sheet and a game-changing defensive player for the Bearcats, so if he can continue his offensive production, the team might make more noise than everyone expected.
Connecticut held on to knock off Boston College by two points in the 2KSports Classic last night and it also received good news off the court right before tip when Sam Cassell Jr. and Daniel Hamiltonsigned agreements to play for the Huskies next season. Cassell and Hamilton aren’t just your run-of-the-mill recruits; Cassell is currently starring at Chipola College in Florida and looks like someone who can come in and contribute right away, while Hamilton is the younger brother of NBA player Jordan Hamilton and his athleticism and versatility have made him one of the most highly regarded high school players in the country. Ollie’s first full recruiting class wasn’t bad – Kentan Facey and Amida Brimah look like multi-year contributors — but this class has the potential to be much better. The obvious critique is to point out that neither of these players are big men, which is what UConn needs the most right now. But if Ollie wants to compete for a national title, he should be recruiting first for talent, not for need.
Speaking of the Huskies, there is only one possible explanation for the play of DeAndre Daniels in the last two games and that is that he knew he had to pick up his game after reading our recent post questioning his play. It makes perfect sense. OK, so maybe we jumped the gun about getting all up in arms about Daniels’ play – after all, it was just three games. While the rest of his team seemingly took the night off against BC, Daniels scored 25 points in a variety of ways and is the primary reason why the Huskies ended up beating the Eagles. Since Daniels seemed to respond well to our criticism last time, we will pick nits again and point out that the Eagles do not have a single player who can even passably match up with him and that the 6’9″ forward still seemed only occasionally interested in crashing the glass. But if Daniels plays like this for the rest of the season, UConn is going to be a lot better than most people expected.
It must be nice to be 7’2″ and 240 pounds like Louisville commitment Matz Stockman. With size like that, Rick Pitino didn’t even need to see Stockman play to offer him a scholarship. Pitino finally got the chance to see his new signee play in New York and who knows whether Stockman impressed his future coach. His numbers weren’t great, but high school seven-footers usually don’t drop 30 and 15 every night, so what really matters is how he moved and what kind of shot-altering defensive presence he was. It’s clear that Stockman is going to be a project, which is familiar territory for Pitino and probably part of the reason why Stockman ultimately picked the Cardinals as his destination. It may be a few years before we get to see what he is made of, though.
In today’s edition of facts you probably didn’t know if you don’t read our blog and we didn’t read other blogs is that Louisville has switched back from introducing the starting lineups with the Chicago Bulls’ theme music to introducing the lineups with Pitbull’s “Hotel Room Service.” As Card Chronicle points out, the Bulls’ theme song “helped” Louisville to back-to-back Final Fours and a national title. The article even includes this sentence, “there’s no question that “Hotel” provides a sensational clapping experience for the home fans.” I am all for fan experience, but didn’t they come to the game to watch the Cardinals win, not to experience a song they can clap to?