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 Feb. 3.
In January of 1987 senior Mark Gottfried introduced me to SEC basketball in my freshman year at Kentucky.
Gottfried and Alabama classmate/teammate Jim Farmer, welcomed me with open forearms, hip-checks, hand-checks and a general toughness I hadn’t yet seen in my young college basketball career to date.
|NC STATE THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 7: NC State at Duke|
|Feb. 10: NC State at Clemson|
|Full Season Schedule|
I strolled out for the opening-tip of this game at Alabama, my tenth collegiate game, and went to shake hands with this little guy — a senior — some guy I’d never heard of named Mark Gottfried. Mark didn’t look at me and slapped my hand hard. Too hard. Sending-the-stupid-freshman-a-message-hard. Gottfied and backcourt-mate Jim Farner proceeded to show me that night a level of competition I did not know existed. Alabama beat us like a drum and the Mark-Jim combo did the same to me personally. I left Tuscaloosa that night bruised, a bit shell-shocked and went 3-for-11 from the field. I scored the toughest nine points of my life to date in that defeat. I’ve never thanked Mark for that whippin’, and need to do so, because it made me a better player almost immediately. Consider this my “thank you,” MG.
This Wolfpack squad is led by 6-foot-9 long, lanky, jumping-jack C.J. Leslie. He is Mr. Wolfpack — averaging 15.7 ppg and 7.5 rpg. He was also named the preseason ACC POY. Leslie is a terrific post-player who can also square you up, straight-line drive you or shoot the mid-range jumper. The two areas which are still a work in progress from Leslie are two biggies. Leslie turns the ball over an average of three times per game which means he’s not real-adept at recognizing when he’s being double-teamed — or, when he does, he is not delivering precise passes out of those double-teams. The other area of concern in Leslie’s game is that right now is that he is still silly-foul prone. For a team that really only goes about six-deep on most nights THIS is a big deal. Leslie must figure out a way to stay on the court for the Wolfpack to be a legit threat this season.
Lorenzo Brown and freshman Rodney Purvis man the backcourt for NC State, and then there is Scott Wood who shoots nearly 43-percent from three. Purvis, who has a chance to be any kind of ACC scorer before his days at NC State are over, shoots the rock nearly as well from deep at 42-percent.
What do coach Tom Izzo and LL Cool J have in common? Well of course — they’re both hard as hell.
Izzo is as hard and he’s tough, and if you’re a young man being recruited by Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans and you’re not thick-skinned, my advice would be to not make your college home in East Lansing, Mich. Izzo is as tough of a coach to play for as there is in the country. And when I say this, I say it as affectionately as possible. I mean it absolutely as a compliment. If you’re a kid who has spent four years — check that — if you’re a youngster who has played one year for Tom Izzo, I believe you’re better off for having done so. I’m a bit old school I suppose in that I have believed for as long as I can remember that — you cannot become a great player without taking an butt-kicking from time to time.
|MICHIGAN STATE THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 6: Minnesota at Michigan State|
|Feb. 9: Michigan State at Purdue|
|Full Season Schedule|
There’s a reason Izzo and the Spartans are mainstays in the top 25 year-in and year-out. That reason is because of Izzo. It’s the job that he and his staff do recruiting, because not everyone can play for them.
I had just retired from playing and had begun doing some scouting for the Phoenix Suns. One of the first trips I took was to East Lansing to see five kids on the Spartans squad who, at the time, were pro prospects.
I sat watching all of these young players. All had very different games, different skill sets. But there was one common thread connecting each and every one of these Spartans. That thread was that Tom Izzo coached all of them exactly the same way. He coached them how I’ve always felt is most effective — Izzo coached ‘em-up HARD. If the kids did well they were praised a bit. If they messed up they all heard about it. Izzo doesn’t hide his emotions very well.
I walked away that night making notes next to all of the MSU players I came to watch. But next to three of the five I jotted down: “Tough kids. Takes whatever Izzo dishes. Becoming a man.” That’s not to say the others weren’t. The other two seemed to be bothered more by Izzo’s words and appeared to possibly take it a bit personally when Izzo was trying to teach them at times. The three players who appeared to handle Izzo’s brand of coaching like water off of a duck’s back went on to have NBA careers lasting longer than four years. One of those is still playing today.
That said, Tom Izzo has another Spartans team in 2012-13 that is as tough as an old boot. Sparty is led by Keith Appling who is tops on the team in both scoring and assists. Freshman Gary Harris has caught on to Izzo’s way very quickly as he’s putting up nearly 13 ppg and shooting better than 40-percent from beyond the arc. Branden Dawson, the high-flying and extremely athletic Adreian Payne as well as Derrick Nix round out the Spartans starting lineup.
I’m not sure how far this team can advance in the Big Dance come March, but I feel confident that there isn’t a team in the country who wants to play Michigan State this postseason.
Kansas State coach Bruce Weber and his Wildcats are quietly having a super season in 2012-13.
K-State, currently ranked No. 13 this week by the Associated Press, has run its season record to 17-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big 12. They’ve done so with a balanced scoring attack, most notably by sharing the basketball. The Wildcats are 22nd in the country in assists per contest as they have five players averaging two or more per game.
These Cats are a difficult team to cover given that Weber chooses to go with three guards much of the time. This offense is paying big dividends for K-State.
|KANSAS STATE THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 5: Kansas State at Texas Tech|
|Feb. 9: Iowa State at Kansas State|
|Full Season Schedule|
Kansas State shoots the ball from the perimeter very well and they are led by Rodney McGruder who is a terrific college scorer. McGruder is averaging 14.5 ppg and can score in a variety of ways. When he gets it going at times he can kick it in. McGruder is also a terrific rebounding guard who is nearly leading the Cats in boards at 5.2 per game.
Angel Rodriguez has really improved his decision-making this year. He’s putting up nearly 10 ppg and five asists per game, but is turning the ball over less than twice per contest. In the backcourt with Rodriguez and McGruder is Will Spradling. Spradling and McGruder are fun kids to watch play the game of basketball. They play the right way — hard and smart. Both can really shoot it and all three of the guards in this three-guard lineup make it awfully tough on opposing teams late in games as they all are money from the charity-stripe.
After losing a heart-breaker to Kansas at home on Jan. 22, the Wildcats stubbed their toe a bit on the road in another close game at Iowa State four days later. These are their only two conference losses and the only back-to-back losses they’ve had this season. K-State righted the ship last week with two wins — Texas at home and a two-point win in Norman against Oklahoma.
Kansas State is a scary team. Playing three guards, with bigs who are not necessarily scorers, lends itself to many close ballgames — evidenced by five of the Wildcats eight conference games being decided by six points or less. This squad will likely prove to be a downer for the opponent unlucky enough to draw them on Selection Sunday.
Thad Matta, much like Tom Izzo, always seems to have the same basketball team. The Buckeyes are once again off to a solid start, going 17-4 overall and 7-2 in Big Ten conference play.
All four of OSU’s losses have come against ranked opponents and the Buckeyes have not lost consecutive games during the campaign either. This is a sign of a very resilient basketball team.
|OHIO STATE THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 5: Ohio State at Michigan|
|Feb. 10: Ohio State at Indiana|
|Full Season Schedule|
I’m not sure that any team with Aaron Craft as your point guard could be anything but tough and resilient. This youngster could play for me any day. Since arriving two years ago to play for Thad Matta, Craft has been rock solid. And Craft is a perfect example of a kid who’s improving right before our eyes, as well as someone who obviously is spending countless hours in the gym to become the best basketball player he can be. In nearly every statistical category he’s improved year by year. I love it when kids do this.
The most gifted player on Matta’s current team is undoubtedly Deshaun Thomas. He is currently averaging a whopping 20 points per game to go along with just over six rebounds. Thomas is a silky smooth and bit unorthodox lefty who is extremely slippery around the bucket.
He’s a handful for any Buckeye opponent as evidenced by his double-figure scoring in every ballgame this season. But Thomas can step out and shoot the three-ball as well, making him one of the more unique players in America.
Thad Matta shuffles fresh players in and out of the game and currently has eight players playing more than 16 minutes per game. Sophomore LaQuinton Ross is starting to find his rhythm a bit for Ohio State after sitting for much of his freshman season while working on some NCAA requirements. He got his feet wet a bit as a freshman but over the past few weeks has begun to find his niche for Matta and the Buckeyes.
Craft and Thomas are two extremely tough college basketball players and Ohio State’s chances for the rest of the season rest squarely on their broad shoulders. OSU is another team in the Big Ten that plays a rough and tumble style of basketball. Opponents had better bring their hard hat and lunch pail to play against these Buckeyes.
Beware of the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Coach Travis Ford has Okie State playing its best basketball of the season — evidenced by their thrilling win in Lawrence, Kan. this past weekend against then-ranked No. 2 Kansas. The win for OSU was the Cowboys’ first in Lawrence since 1989 and its’ first against a top-five team on the road since 1958.
Ford was a high school freshman in Madisonville, Ky. when I was a senior in Owensboro, Ky. His father, Eddie Ford, has been a huge influence in many young players basketball careers in the state of Kentucky for the past 30 years or so — mine included. I remember young Travis following myself and a bumch of teammates around Europe when Travis was an eighth grader and was just headed into my senior season as Ford’s father Eddie took an all-star team of high school Juniors from around the state to tour Europe and play a handful of exhibition games while doing so. It was one of the great experiences of my young life. But little, scrawny Travis was like a fly on the wall during that trip. He tried practicing with us all of the time, getting beat up on regularly — but always coming back for more. Quitting is something I know Travis Ford will never do.
|OKLAHOMA STATE THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 6: Baylor at Oklahoma State|
|Feb. 9: Oklahoma State at Texas|
|Full Season Schedule|
He of course went on to have a stellar freshman season at Missouri before transferring to Kentucky, where he helped rebuild a struggling Wildcats program just beginning to pick itself up under the guidance of Rick Pitino.
Just as Travis learned to play point guard under Pitino, Ford today is doing the same thing with his freshman standout Marcus Smart.
Smart is some kind of basketball player. The more I watch this kid play the more enamored with the kid I become. Smart not only stuffs a stat-sheet much like my former teammate and great friend Jason Kidd has done for the past what seems like 50 years — but also like J-Kidd, Smart is a WINNER. Check out Smart’s line from Saturday in Lawrence:
38 minutes, 25 points , 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 5 steals, 9-of-11 from the free-throw line. Keep an eye on Smart. He’s a special kind of player.
Markel Brown leads the Cowboys balanced attack with 14.9 ppg. Smart and Le’Bryan Nash are chipping-in with 14 and 13 ppg respectively and the unsung hero of this Cowboys team is sophomore guard Phil Forte. He’s averaging just shy of 12 ppg. Forte is a player much in the mold of his head coach Travis Ford. At 5-foot-11 and very much an overachiever. And man, is this kid one tough dude. Forte is not only tough, but as one of my favorite coaches and people of all-time, John Thompson would say, “Phil Forte has STOMACH.” Evidenced by his game-cinching free-throws with mere seconds left, up-one, on the road against the No. 2 team in the country, in a building your team has left with its tail placed squarely between its legs each and every time it has played there. Forte has stomach for sure — along with being a 90-percent free-throw shooter.
I think that I may have liked most about OSU’s win on Saturday against Kansas was that after Forte made his two freebies to put the Cowboys’ up by three with 7.9 seconds remaining, Kansas inbounded the ball to the player they wanted — Elijah Johnson, and as he dribbled past mid-court and went to free himself off the dribble before attempting a game-tying 3-pointer — Marcus Smart stuck his hand squarely between the legs of Johnson as he attempted a crossover and picked the Jayhawks’ PG as cleanly as he could have possibly done so. Ball game. THOSE are the kinds of things I watched Jason Kidd do time and time again as his backcourt mate for five seasons. I mean, come on, the other team doesn’t even get a look at the basket to attempt to tie-up the game? Come on — those types of things are big-time.
Don’t sleep on these Cowboys. Travis Ford has become one of the young best young coaches in the country — and he may just have the best young point guard in the country this side of Trey Burke.
This Okie State team will be an awfully dangerous team come March.
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