McGruder carrying K-State
Notre Dame's Cooley, Louisville's Smith among others Rex likes
Rex Chapman, an All-SEC player at Kentucky in 1986-87 and ’87-88 and an NABC All-American in 1988, gives his opinion each week on five players that impress. Player statistics are through March 4.
Many things have changed in the Big 12 in the past few years. Super players have come and gone, but one of the few constants in the ever-changing league is Kansas State senior guard Rodney McGruder.
The more I watch McGruder play, the more I believe he has a career as a pro ball player in his future. He's tough, defends, is a GREAT rebounding guard, can flat shoot the ball and he's clutch -- evidenced once again this past weekend as his last-second dagger pierced the hearts of Baylor fans everywhere. McGruder is a clutch player who never shies away from big moments in ballgames.
Rod-Mac is putting up big numbers for Bruce Weber's ninth-ranked Wildcats. Wait, think about that for a second -- Kansas State is ranked NINTH in the country with one week to play in the regulars season. K-State has not been a program in recent years who has been a national power. This should tell you that A) Weber and his staff have done a super job since taking over in Manhattan, and B) the team's senior leader, Rodney McGruder, is one heck of a basketball player. McGruder is averaging just shy of 15 points per game to go with 5.3 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.5 steals per contest.
Weber's K-State bunch appears poised to possibly do some big things this post-season. Rodney McGruder's leadership is a big reason why.
There usually is no middle-ground in the college basketball world when it comes to Louisville guard Russ Smith. Most folks either love him or loathe him. I love the guy.
Sure, Rick Pitino's junior guard out of Brooklyn takes the occasional bad shot. Sure, "Russdiculous" -- as many Cardinal faithful affectionately refer to him -- makes a questionable decision here or there. But come on, this young man lays it out there for U of L each and every night he steps on the floor. Smith is leading the Cardinals in scoring with 18.4 points per game and for a youngster who barely stands 6-foot, he's averaging nearly 4 rebounds a game. While passing is certainly not what Russ Smith is known for he second on the Cards roster, he still dishes out 3 assists per contest.
The thing I'm always amazed with when I watch Russdiculous play is that he never seems to become fatigued. The guy gets after it defensively and is currently third in the Big East in steals, checking in with 2.1 each night.
I go way back with Cards coach Rick Pitino. I know that Russ Smith's play at times can be a bit maddening, but the one thing I've come to really appreciate about this 2012-13 U of L squad is that Pitino knows Smith is one of only a couple of players on his roster who can get his own shot anytime, anywhere and in any scenario. Therefore Pitino's junior lightening-rod, Smith, is given a bit longer rope on the offensive end much of the time.
Russ Smith can shoot you into games and shoot you out of them at times. But at 24-5 and ranked seventh in the country, I'm not sure there are many players in the college game today who suit Pitino and this Louisville Cardinal's squad any better than Russ Smith.
There are many reasons why Mark Few's Gonzaga Bulldogs are the No. 1 ranked team in college basketball this week. We've heard and read all season long about Kelly Olynyk likely being the most improved player in the country and no story about the Zags season can be told without mentioning one of the most beloved players in the school's history -- German born and raised Elias Harris. But both Olynyk and Harris do most of their damage inside. One of the guys who spaces the floor and creates room for the two Gonzaga bigs to go to work in the paint night after night is Zags sophomore shooting guard Kevin Pangos.
Pangos, a native of Newmarket, Ontario is without a doubt one of the best shooters in college basketball. Pangos isn't just a shooter, however, as he averages 3.3 assists and grabs 2.6 rebounds per game to go along with his 11.7 points per game -- good for third-best on Few's roster. In addition, Pangos is a deceptive defender who anticipates very well, evidenced by his 1.4 steals each game.
But where Pangos makes his presence felt the most for the Zags is on the offensive end of the floor. This youngster is one of those guys who, when they let it fly, I'm surprised when the ball doesn't go in the basket. Pangos has a very repeatable jumper, or one which looks exactly the same every time he releases the ball. He jumps the same height on every shot and has an extremely quick release.
Every good team needs a guy who is that dependable, consistent third-scorer, and Kevin Pangos provides the top-ranked team in the country with exactly that player. The Zags are a serious team this year and if in fact Few's squad does happen to make a deep run in the postseason, no role on the Zags roster will be any more important than the one played by sharpshooter Kevin Pangos.
Jack Cooley is the kind of player every coach in America wishes he had on his team. Fortunately for Mike Brey and Notre Dame, they are the ones who get to watch this young man play for their team nightly in the Big East.
Coming off of a 2011-12 season when Cooley was named Big East Most Improved player and Second Team All Big East, the Irish senior big man obviously did not rest on his laurels. Cooley has put up career numbers in his senior season and in doing so, has helped Notre Dame to one of its best seasons in recent years. The Fighting Irish are currently ranked No. 24 and have been part of some of the more thrilling college basketball games of the 2012-13 season -- the five-overtime thriller against Louisville.
Cooley, a tri-captain for Brey's Irish this season is a big reason why no team wants to be in a close game with Notre Dame. The Irish have played eight games this season which have been decided by six-points or less. Cooley and Co. have won six of those contests. Notre Dame has also played four overtime games this season -- they've won three of the four.
Big Cool is a throwback of sorts. The big man just does what is asked of him. No beating his chest or saying "look at me." He's a team guy who is averaging just under 14 points per game to go along with his Big East best 10.6 rebounds per game. Combine Cooley's scoring and rebounding numbers with the fact that the big man from Glenview, Ill. shoots a whopping 58.7-percent from the floor and, well, you've got a guy on your roster who is as dependable as they come. Simply, Jack Cooley is a coach's and teammate's dream.
Many times when a team has rolled along like the Indiana Hoosiers have done this season, the "stars" on the team or the team's top couple of scorers receive the lion's share of credit for their team's successes. However, when the team stubs its toe occasionally and turns in a sub-par performance or loses, those top players also receive most of the blame as well. But those of us who follow the college game so closely do so because we love the team aspect of this great game. The Indiana Hoosiers are far from a one or two-man squad, and Christian Watford has played as big of a role in IU's resurrection the past two seasons as have likely first-team All-American selections Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo.
Think about it: take Christian Watford, a 6-foot-9, 232 pound small forward who is averaging 12.7 points per game (on only 8.3 shots per game) and 6.4 rebounds and put him on most any other team in the country and I believe at a minimum you're talking a first-team all-league player. My point is that without Watford's size/skill ratio -- without his senior leadership -- without his ability to spread the court out to 28-feet, the Hoosiers would not have that gaudy 25-4 record overall or 13-3 conference mark. "C-Wat" is likely one of the more undervalued, underrated players in America.
I, like most fellow Kentucky faithful, can see Watford's shot in Bloomington to beat our Wildcats last year in my sleep. But I must admit, that the play is one of the best and most timely plays in the past 25 years in college basketball. Sure, I was a bit disappointed that the team I was rooting for lost the game that afternoon, but I was personally also very happy for Tom Crean, his players and IU's fans because college basketball needs Indiana Basketball -- and Christian Watford's shot not only won the game for the Hoosier's that day, it made a statement. It said, "Indiana basketball ... we're Baaaaaack!"
Much like Gonzaga and Kevin Pangos as that third scorer, IU has Christian Watford. And the Hoosiers with Watford, appear poised to make a serious run at hanging the school's first championship banner since Steve Alford and the great Bobby Knight did so in 1987.
Rex Chapman played at Kentucky from 1986-88. He was a two-time All-SEC selection as well as an NABC All-American in 1988 before opting for the NBA Draft. He was the No. 1 choice — eighth overall — of Charlotte and played for the Hornets (1988-92), Washington Bullets (1992-95), Miami Heat (1995-96) and Phoenix Suns (1996-2000). Follow Rex on Twitter @rexchapman