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 11.
Ryan Kelly has turned himself into one heck of a college basketball player and a player who will have a long and prosperous professional playing career once his days as a Duke Blue Devil have finished.
Kelly’s return from a foot injury recently, an injury which robbed him of 13 games this year, has completely altered Duke’s outlook for the 2012-13 season — and for the better. With Kelly back on the floor for an already very talented Duke team, there may not be a better college basketball squad in the country. As recently as two weeks ago it appeared that Blue Devils center Mason Plumlee and shooting guard Seth Curry –- Duke’s two biggest guns — appeared a bit leg weary. But with the return of Kelly, both Plumlee and Curry seem almost rejuvenated. It’s amazing the difference one player can make –- albeit one super player.
Ryan Kelly is a senior forward who grew up right in Duke’s backyard where he played his high school ball at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, N.C. Much has been made of Kelly’s return recently after missing nearly two months of the ACC season, but I’m not sure that quite enough has been made of it. What Kelly did in his first game back from injury is truly what every player who’s ever been out with an injury dreams his return would be like. No, I take that back. Kelly’s return against Miami on March 2 was so abnormally good that injured players never dare to dream of a return to action as magnificent as the one Kelly put on the Canes. After missing 13 consecutive contests, Kelly returned to action and dropped 36 points on 10-for-14 shooting (7-for-9 from 3-point range) and added seven rebounds in 32 minutes. Now that’s a return.
Kelly has a terrific size-to-skill ratio. At 6-foot-11, he runs the floor extremely well and can shoot the ball with any player in the country. He is a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches and teams. Do you cover him with a big man? With most bigs Kelly will just take them out on the floor and either shoot his jumper or drive by his defender. If you put a smaller player on him, Kelly is capable of posting up and shooting over shorter opponents.
With Kelly back in the lineup Duke is back in business. In fact, the Blue Devils have proven to be unbeatable this season with Kelly on the floor (18-0). Look out for Coach K’s kids. They kept the ship afloat until their all important third scorer returned to action. With Kelly healthy again, it appears as though the Blue Devils may just be prepared to set sail for Atlanta.
Oklahoma State’s Le’Bryan Nash is one of the more physically gifted players in all of college basketball. I first saw Nash play as a 10th-grader and couldn’t believe the youngster wasn’t 21 years old. At 6-7 and with 230 pounds of pure muscle, the Okie State forward is steadily becoming the kind of college player so many people believed he would be when he signed with the Cowboys in 2011.
Nash has been one of head coach Travis Ford’s most consistent player on the hardwood this season following a roller coaster freshman year. A physical player with great hands, Nash is a bit of a “tweener” as a player. And for Ford’s Cowboys, he is a bit of a hybrid forward/center as the man-child plays a little bit of everywhere on both ends of the court.
One of the drawbacks to being so much stronger and physically more mature than players you play against in high school is that it can lull you into a false sense of security –- one that tells you playing the game will always be as easy as it had been against fellow prepsters. When Nash arrived in Stillwater, Okla., a year and a half ago, much of the talk surrounding him was that he would be a “one-and-done” guy. Nash, as many highly touted high-school players do, had little clue just how hard he was going to have to work to become a great college basketball player — much less a pro. But unlike so many highly touted incoming freshmen and to Nash’s credit, he has paid attention and bought what Ford and the Cowboys’ staff has been selling. And because Nash has bought in, the young man is becoming a quality basketball player. He’s hung around the college game and has been taught how to play the game with intensity on every possession –- something Nash never did as a high-school player.
Nash is having a super year this season for Okie State, averaging 14.2 points as the Cowboys’ third option (behind Markel Brown and Marcus Smart). I’ve been saying all season long that Oklahoma State has been underrated. This is a team I feel has a legitimate shot to make a Final Four run and, if so, Nash will be a big reason why.
After failing to score a bucket the previous night, Western Kentucky’s George Fant put the Hilltoppers on his broad shoulders Monday night and carried them to a second consecutive Sun Belt Conference tournament title.
A year ago, one could argue that Western Kentucky had a guy who was possibly the best-kept coaching secret in NCAA basketball, by way of head coach Ray Harper. The only way I could accept Harper being considered any kind of secret by someone at this point would be if the person saying such had been living under a rock for the past year. The Hilltopers’ head man has won four national titles — yes four. Harper won two titles at NAIA Oklahoma City and two more at DII perennial powerhouse Kentucky Wesleyan. And now, in less than a year and a half at the helm of the proud Western Kentucky program, Harper has the ‘Toppers dancing in back-to-back years. The man can flat coach.
Of course coaching becomes a tad bit easier when you have players the likes of George Fant, a 6-foot-6 wide-body with broad shoulders and great hands who Harper describes as, “A warrior. Plain and simple.” Fant, the cousin of former WKU three-time All-American Jim McDaniels, went scoreless from the field against Arkansas State on Sunday evening, but the Hilltopers escaped to five Fant the opportunity to show up in a big way in Monday’s Sun Belt finals.
Harper’s Hilltopper’s faced off against Richard Pitino’s upstart Florida International Golden Panthers in the title game. But FIU had no answer for the big space-eater Fant, who scored 17 points, grabbed 13 boards and blocked four shots en route to a 65-63 victory to secure the Sun Belt’s automatic bid.
After enduring a year decimated by injuries, the Hilltopers’ run this season to the big dance may be even more improbable than the one they made last year when Harper was named interim coach midway through the season. WKU entered the NCAA tournament in 2011-12 with a 16-18 record. This season the Toppers began the year 8-2 with their only two losses coming to Southern Miss in OT and Iowa — two teams that have had terrific years. Nearly all at once, however, the injury bug bit Harper’s team. Five different injuries — all to his backcourt players. The one constant through all the injuries has been the consistently splendid play of Fant, who averages 12.7 points on 48 percent from the field to go with his 6.6 rebounds per contest.
Slowly, players began to get healthy and round back into form. WKU, with Fant as its anchor, managed to persevere as the Hilltoppers won seven of its past eight games to become the first team in Sun Belt history to win four games in four days in back-to-back seasons. With a healthy Jamal Cook (11.7 points) back in the lineup, he and Fant can play off leading scorer T.J. Price (15.9 points) as the Hilltoppers’ second and third options.
With Fant, Price and Crook, Western Kentucky, in my opinion, has a super shot of upsetting the apple cart a bit on next week’s national stage.
Travis Releford seems like he’s been playing for head coach Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks for ten years, doesn’t he? Well, he hasn’t — he’s only been in Lawrence, Kan., for half of that amount — five years.
Releford came to the Jayhawks’ program in 2008 as a highly regarded two-time All-America high-school player. After playing 32 games as a freshman, the KU guard utilized a redshirt year and resumed his Jayhawks career on the floor in 2010-11. Combine his redshirt year with the fact that we’ve become so accustomed to seeing our really good college ballplayers leave the amateur ranks after a season or two and you can understand why it seems as though a player of Releford’s caliber seems to have been playing at Kansas forever.
Every successful team needs that all-important third option of the offensive end. Show me a team with just one or two scoring options and I’ll likely show you a team not bulit to advance very far. While all-world freshman Ben McLemore and 7-0 shot-blocking extraordinaire Jeff Withey garner most of the headlines, Releford just goes about his business of quietly defending the best opposing perimeter player every night and chipping in his nearly 12 points per game.
This Kansas squad hit a bit of a speed bump at the beginning of February as they lost three consecutive games to Oklahoma State, TCU and Oklahoma. Releford himself wasn’t up to par in those games, either, as he went 2-for-5, 0-1 and 3-7 in all three of those contests. But just as quickly as T-Rel and his Jayhawks stumbled — they rebounded. In the five contests that ensued Releford notched games of 10, 15, 18, 12 and 19 points — all wins.
When the ball is moving and not sticking in point guard Elijah Johnson’s hands and Releford is getting quality looks at the basket, the Jayhawks are a tough team to beat. But as evidenced on Sunday in a loss to Baylor, the offensive end of the court can become a bit puzzling at times for Kansas. Releford went 1-for-6 from the floor for two points while Johnson was going 3-for-13 with two assists and three turnovers.
Kansas is a legitimate threat to make a run to this year’s Final Four. There is little question that the Jayhawks have the ability, the depth, the coaching and the toughness to win the whole thing. But if KU is actually going to win a national championship this season, then keeping Releford involved on the offensive end is a must.
I‘ve always marveled at guys such as Michigan State’s Adreian Payne. The size, the length and the athleticism of guys such as Payne just blow me away. At 6-10 and 240 pounds, Payne is capable of playing much further above the rim than most everyone he ever faces. The terms “jumping jack,” “pogo stick” or “high-flyer” come to mind whenever I have the opportunity of watching MSU and Payne play these days.
With a 7-1 wingspan, Payne can be a defensive force for head coach Tom Izzo’s Spartans. With 36 blocks on the season, he already has moved into the top 10 in blocks at MSU. But on the offensive end of the court is where Payne has really improved his game — and in the process really helped Sparty become a legitimate title contender in 2012-13.
After a freshman year in which Payne averaged just 2.5 ppoints and a sophomore season when he improved to 7.0, this season the MSU big man has begun to really fulfill the potential he had coming out of high school as the Ohio Player of the Year. As a junior, Payne is averaging 10.1 points and shooting nearly 57 percent from the field. He’s blocking a solid 1.2 shots per contest, as well.
On paper it may appear that Michigan State has stumbled somewhat down the home stretch of the Big Ten season, losing three of its past five games. But look closer and you’ll see that those three losses — all in a row — were against No. 1-ranked Indiana, at No.18 Ohio State and at No. 4 Michigan. Sparty lost those three games by four points, eight points and one point, respectively. Izzo’s club rebounded to beat No. 22 Wisconsin at home and Northwestern to finish the year ranked No. 10 with a record of 24-7 overall and 13-5 in the Big Ten.
I don’t believe the Spartans stumbled at all. Their late-season schedule was a monster. Michigan State has a quality roster led by junior Keith Appling and freshman Gary Harris. But with the emergence of Payne as a legitimate third option on the offensive end, this is a team I will not be surprised to be watching play for all the marbles here in a few weeks.
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