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 teams that impress. Team statistics are through Jan. 20.
Syracuse, please forgive me. You have my word that from this point forward you will receive my 100-percent absolute undivided attention.
I tossed and turned last week over whether or not to include Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange amongst the five teams I felt at the time were the country’s five best. However, after going on the road and beating top-ranked Louisville on Saturday and then traveling back home to beat a tough-minded Cincinnati squad on Monday — in a contest where they played nowhere near their best — has caused me to open my eyes and reevaluate my stance on the Orange.
|SYRACUSE THIS WEEK|
|Jan. 21: Syracuse 57, Cincinnati 55|
|Jan. 26: Syracuse at Villanova|
|Full Season Schedule|
The 50,000 foot view says, Syracuse has all of the pieces to win the 2012-2013 national championship.
Senior Brandon Triche seems like he’s been wearing the Cuse orange and white for eight years instead of four. Triche, in this day of “one and done,” is a luxury that most big-time college programs just do not possess much of anymore — a four-year starter. Heck, I overheard a sportscaster this weekend refer to “the veteran leadership of Cody Zeller” following Indiana’s loss to Wisconsin. Zeller is a SOPHOMORE for crying out loud. Triche provides Syracuse with much the same presence on the floor, in the locker-room, in meetings, in the weight-room, etc. as Kentucky’s senior guard Darius Miller provided for the Wildcats last season. Triche’s combination of power, savvy, moxie and experience makes Cuse extremely unique.
Did someone say talented? Michael Carter-Williams is a star. In the immortal words of my guy Biggie Smalls, “And if you don’t know, now you know.”
Carter-Williams is a legitimate point guard who continues to get better with each passing game. Credit Boeheim with convincing this young man to wait his turn last season as a freshman — which is certainly no easy task anymore. Carter-Williams trusted Boeheim’s guidance and the collaboration between the two is paying off in spades for the Orange. This dynamic youngster is an awfully fun basketball player to watch. There really is nothing Carter-Williams cannot do. First, he really gets after it defensively. Next, MCW’s vision is terrific, as he leads the country in assists. Carter-Williams scores and controls the tempo for Cuse. The only real knock on MCW’s game right now is that he is still somewhat inconsistent as a jump-shooter. However, like most big-time, big-moment, big-game players, he is clutch — as he proved at the ends of both games this past holiday weekend.
The talent that Jim Boeheim and his staff have assembled at Syracuse is remarkable. Boeheim certainly has a type. A 6-foot-9, athletic, long and rangy. Between the aforementioned Rakim Christmas, C.J. Fair, Dajuan Coleman, Baye Moussa Keita and Jerami Grant (son of my former Washington Bullets teammate Harvey Grant), Boeheim nearly has the market cornered on his type of athlete.
This Syracuse team may have caught me sleeping once. It will not happen again. My eyes are wide open, and I will not be surprised in the least to be seeing them in The ATL come March.
Billy “The Kid” Donovan has this 2012-2013 Florida Gators squad back to playing Billy Ball.
I played against Donovan way back when. There may have been guys as tough as Billy was as a ballplayer. But none were tougher or more competitive. It’s very well chronicled that Billy was an overachieving gym-rat of a basketball player. That’s probably more than a little bit true. But I’ve found over the years that when a team somehow is able to capture the personality of its head coach it usually spells awfully long nights for opponents.
|florida THIS WEEK|
|Jan. 23: Florida at Georgia|
|Jan. 26: Florida at Mississippi State|
|Full Season Schedule|
This Gators squad is as Kid-esque as any Billy Donovan has had in recent memory. Amongst the trademarks of the best Donovan coached basketball teams have always been that Donovan has managed to convince his players that both sharing the ball and trusting teammates are vital components of winning. These are also likely reasons that over the past couple of years we have seen Billy The Kid’s hair growing more and more gray.
Without flat-out saying that Gators fans have watched varying levels of selfish play from the past two teams to take the court down in Gainesville, well, I’ll just say that those teams were a bit sharing-challenged.
The Kid’s Gators this year have made more field goals than any team in the country and are ranked 11th in assists. That’s winning basketball.
Now, the 2012-2013 Florida Gators, by all accounts, are still stingy — but in a good way. This team is the best defensive ball-club in the SEC and could possibly be tops in the country. Anchored by Patric Young (1.9 bpg), teams are finding Florida’s defense to be smothering. Young, along with frontcourt mates Erik Murphy and Will Yeguete give Florida the second best defensive rebounding team in all of college basketball at roughly the mid-way point in the season.
Back for the Gators this year and bringing with him a wealth of experience is guard Kenny Boynton. He is leading a balanced scoring attack for the Gators at 13.3 ppg. Classmate Mike Rosario (12.5 ppg) returns for the Gators also and his game has really matured for Donovan in ’12-’13. Rosario has at times over the years, driven Billy The Kid a bit nuts and left his teammates guessing some of the time with regard to his shot-selection — something in which I am well-versed. Point guard Scottie Wilbekin is running the Gators’ offense efficiently as he is averaging five assists per game and doing a super job of distributing the ball to four Gator starters averaging double figures.
The Kid has his Florida Gators clicking at the moment with a gaudy overall record of 14-2. They have spurted out to a quick 4-0 record in conference play and could prove tough to catch in a very watered-down Southeastern Conference. Billy Ball is back in Gainesville. Unselfish on one end and defensive-minded and tough on the other means that this Florida Gators team could be one of the ones we’re watching play on the final weekend of the season.
I find myself, constantly, confusing Gonzaga and Butler. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s that the school colors are similar. Maybe it’s that both Zags coach Mark Few and Butler coach Brad Stevens are similar in their styles of play and courtside demeanor. Or maybe it’s a combination of both, capped off with the fact that both schools have shed the whole “mid-major” label and become mainstays atop the polls every year now it seems.
I was not confused however, this past Saturday, when Gonzaga and Butler played one another in possibly one of the best contests we’ve had the privilege of watching this year. What I saw was two teams that could very well be major threats deep into the 2012-2013 postseason.
|GONZAGA THIS WEEK|
|Jan. 24: BYU at Gonzaga|
|Jan. 26: San Francisco at Gonzaga|
|Full Season Schedule|
The fact that Gonzaga lost to Butler on Butler’s home floor on Saturday changes nothing for me in how I view Few’s bunch this season. They are a team who is extremely well coached and one who possesses a big-three of sorts, in senior-leader Elias Harris, dead-eye Kevin Pangos and a really good big-man, Kelly Olynyk.
Harris provides the Zags with a veteran very similar to what Brandon Triche gives Syracuse on a nightly basis. Harris is as player who is in his fourth season as a starter in Spokane. His leadership could make all the difference for Gonzaga as the season progresses. Let’s not forget either that Harris is one heck of a basketball player. He has terrific athleticism and bounce which compliments his mid-range game extremely well.
Pangos is a terrific basketball player and competitor. But what separates Pangos from most players in the college game today is his ability to shoot the basketball. Pangos is one of those kids who, when he lets it go, I expect the ball to go in the basket. I’m almost surprised whenever he misses an open look.
But the player who separates Gonzaga from the pack is Olynyk. He is a different kind of player than Mark Few has had during his tenure at Gonzaga. Olynyk is a large man. He is every bit of 7-feet nd 250 pounds, and if you haven’t seen him play yet, do yourself a favor and check out this kid. Olynyk leads the Zags in scoring at just shy of 19 ppg, but his mere presence on the offensive end really opens things up for the cutting Harris and Pangos on the perimeter. Opposing teams must make a decision on whether to double Olynyk inside and allow Pangos open looks or Harris to roam free and find open seems — or play Olynyk straight-up and likely get torched by him in the process. Kelly Olynyk is shooting a surreal 65.6-percent from the field currently. Olynyk, after redshirting last season for the Zags may be the most improved player in the country.
The 2012-2013 Gonzaga Bulldogs are a fun bunch to watch. With Few at the helm and the big Olynyk holding things down in the middle, the Zags are poised once again to make a deep run into the postseason.
Just as losing can become a habit, so can winning, and Brad Stevens’ Butler Bulldogs are becoming one of the toughest teams in the country to beat.
After posting another hard-fought, buzzer-beating slugfest win against Gonzaga this past weekend, and doing so without leading scorer Rotnei Clarke, the Bulldogs have reinforced to the hoops-world that they are once again a force to be dealt with in this 2012-2013 campaign.
|BUTLER THIS WEEK|
|Jan. 23: Butler at La Salle|
|Jan. 26: Temple at Butler|
|Full Season Schedule|
Clarke, a senior transfer from Arkansas has had a huge impact on this Bulldogs team from the get-go this season. His running, off-balance 3-pointer to beat Marquette in the Maui Invitational in week-one of the season set the tone for things to come from this gym-rat. Clarke leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 16 ppg and shoots a whopping 44-percent from beyond the three-point line.
The Bulldogs, however, are not a one-man band. Clarke leads a squad who boasts five players averaging double-figures. Currently Andrew Smith, Kellen Dunham, Khyle Marshall and Roosevelt Jones — the hero of Saturday’s game against Gonzaga, hitting a running, falling, 10-foot, sideway floater at the buzzer to seal the win — all average between 10 and 12 points per game. The Bulldogs share the ball extremely well and are as difficult to defend as any team in the country due to their balance, with each starter capable of going for 25 on any given night.
Nearly an entirely different cast of characters than the ones who helped Butler basketball burst onto the scene with back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2010 and 2011 has led this current Bulldogs squad to a 16-2 record and No. 9 national ranking. Butler has already recorded four signature wins this season, the biggest coming in a heart-stopping OT triumph against then-No. 1 Indiana. The Bulldogs beat the previously mentioned tough Marquette team in addition to then-No. 9 North Carolina.
The names on the backs of their jerseys may have changed, but the biggest common thread connecting the Final Four teams in ’10 and ’11 and the current Butler team is head coach Brad Stevens. What Stevens has done at Butler in just 6-short seasons is fascinating and remarkable. Stevens reminds me of a young Mike Krzyzewski. In fact, I find many similarities in the two programs. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few banners hanging in Cameron Indoor Stadium that might argue otherwise, but the substance that Stevens has brought to the Butler basketball program has provided the school with the opportunity to be mentioned in the same breath with perennial national powers such as Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse, etc. Which is something that could not be stated with any sort of seriousness before Stevens took over.
Keep an eye on these Butler Bulldogs. They won’t wow you with athleticism, size or length, but they may continue to shock in 2012-13 with their nasty little habit of winning.
Having lived in the state of Arizona for the past 16 years, and given the unwavering loyalty I have toward my alma mater, the University of Kentucky, I’ve had a great deal of fun with local friends and neighbors referring to The University of Arizona as the “JV Wildcats.”
There is nothing JV, however, about coach Sean Miller’s Arizona Wildcats basketball team. This team has improved dramatically from where it was a year ago at this time.
|ARIZONA THIS WEEK|
|Jan. 24: UCLA at Arizona|
|Jan. 26: USC at Arizona|
|Full Season Schedule|
Much of U of A’s improvement has been a direct result of fifth-year senior Mark Lyons joining the Wildcats program from Xavier. Last season Arizona struggled, as many young teams do, with closing out games. The team was talented but had very little in the department of leadership. Insert Lyons, who brought with him from XU nearly 100 games of experience in the always rough and tumble Atlantic-10 conference. Lyons’ has given Miller what he desperately needed — a winner who could lead his young and talented Wildcats.
One of those very talented players is guard Nick Johnson. I’ve watched Johnson play since he was seven years old. In fact, Nick and my son Zeke were club-ball teammates (along with Arizona State’s Jahii Carson) and I actually coached these kids one summer before retiring from the coaching ranks for good when the summer ended. Johnson is the son of former ASU star Joey Johnson — whom I saw knock himself out in the Sports Festival years ago when he picked up a ball off of the floor in the paint and jumped to dunk it backwards only to crack his forehead on the rim when he looked up to locate exactly where he was. It was one of the most incredible feats of athleticism I’ve ever witnessed by any individual — ever. Joey’s brother (Nick’s uncle) was the late and great NBA star Dennis Johnson. Nick certainly has some of the best designer genes there are. His athleticism and bounce is tremendous and after talking with Sean Miller last fall I was pleased to hear that Nick had been one of the Wildcats hardest workers. When your most talented guys are your hardest workers it sets a tone for your team.
In addition to Lyons, another senior Solomon Hill has become as rock-solid of a player as there is on the west coast. Hill adds another layer of toughness to this Wildcats squad. Hill is one of those guys who just plays winning basketball. He stuffs the stat-sheet nightly and usually guards the opponent’s top wing-player. Hill is also shooting an incredible 43.5-percent (30-for-69) from the three-point-line. I say incredible in large part because his form is far what what one would consider textbook. Somehow though, Solomon Hill finds a way to slap-in shots night after night for these Wildcats.
At 16-1 and playing in an improved but still weaker Pac-12, Arizona could very easily have one of the best records in the country come Selection Sunday. This is definitely a team improving and gaining more confidence with each passing game. These Wildcats have proven they belong with the big boys.
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