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. 10.
I‘d love to tell you that watching Wisconsin basketball is always as heart-stopping and absolutely as fantastic as it was this past Saturday when the Badgers outlasted Michigan at home in one of the most exciting college basketball games of the season. I’d like to tell you that running, halfcourt bombs by junior Ben Brust at the end of regulation to tie the game and send it into overtime — where the Badgers would eventually pull off the upset — is the norm for head coach Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin squad. But I try my best to not lie to you, the readers.
While Saturday’s huge home win to an extremely talented and tough Michigan team was as thrilling of a game as there has been this year in college basketball, I feel that I should go ahead and apologize in advance to Badger Nation, as I’m going to go ahead and just put it out there: This Wisconsin squad of may just play the ugliest brand of winning basketball in the entire country. There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about these Badgers. Believe it or not, that description is meant as a compliment.
Keep in mind that the only thing more difficult than watching a team which plays an ugly style and regularly wins playing that ugly style, is playing against that team.
|WISCONSIN THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 14: Wisconsin at Minnesota|
|Feb. 17: Ohio State at Wisconsin|
|Full Season Schedule|
Bo Ryan is a magician. Somehow, with prep, club and AAU basketball continuing to trend toward more athleticism and dribbling/1-on-1, and less fundamentals and passing, Ryan continues to be able to recruit kids who want to play and who fit his style of basketball. In doing so Ryan’s Badgers continue to remain atop the Big Ten standings year in and year out.
Ryan is known for his defensive, methodical, rough, tough, smashmouth approach to the game of basketball. But what I appreciate possibly more than anything about Ryan’s teams is that they execute.
“Execution” is a word we hear all of the time by experts in the sports world. But when did it become optional to execute? I mean, analysts are forever talking about teams “executing” their offenses. It used to be that all teams ran their offenses to precision and implemented their defensive game plans the same way. Well, not anymore. Teams that set picks, use screens well, swing the ball from one side of the floor to the other in order to shift opposing defenses and do all of this with drilled, precision-like timing are few and far between. Wisconsin ranks among the best at executing — on both ends of the court.
Historically, Ryan’s teams will execute opponents to their basketball deaths on most nights, and this 2012-13 team is no exception.
Wisconsin has a solid eight-man rotation this season with senior Jared Berggren leading the way as he averages just a shade less than 12 points and seven rebounds a game to go with his 1.9 blocks (second in the Big Ten). Junior Ryan Evans (10.8 points per game) and the aforementioned Brust (11.2 ppg) both have taken considerably more field-goal attempts than has Berggren. The 6-foot-10 Berggren’s efficiency is off the charts.
While Berggren, Evans, Brust and freshman Sam Dekker shoulder a majority of the scoring load for the Badgers, sophomore guard Traevon Jackson and senior guard/forward Mike Bruesewitz are making plays and running the show for Wisconsin. Both Jackson and Bruesewitz are as tough as can be and both just have a knack for making winning basketball plays down the stretches of ballgames — which is something Wisconsin is doing as well as any teamin the country during the past couple of weeks.
The ’12-13 Wisconsin Badgers may be ugly to watch, but I can’t take my eyes off of their winning ways.
Well, New Mexico head coach Steve Alford and longtime asscociate head coach Craig “Noodles” Neal are at it again in Albuquerque, N.M. The two pals have spread optimism again in the desert for the many Lobos’ faithful in 2012-13. New Mexico has sprinted to a 20-4 record overall and, at 7-2, are currently leading the tough Mountain West Conference by a half game against dramatically improved Colorado State.
Alford and Neal have the Lobos cooking. And while the two haven’t quite supplanted Walter White and Jesse Pinkman as Albuquerque’s favorite sons, they’re not far behind — and I suppose you could say they have this Lobos squad “Fast-Breaking Bad,” couldn’t ya? Yeah, I’d “boo” me, too.
That Alford’s Lobos are currently perched atop the MWC standings is a bit of a puzzle, considering that they are not leading the conference in any statistical category as a team. They are not even second. This leads me to believe that if there was a category for “team chemistry” that New Mexico would be front and center.
|NEW MEXICO THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 13: New Mexico at Fresno State|
|Feb. 16: Boise State at New Mexico|
|Full Season Schedule|
One of the best, if not the best parts of having been fortunate enough to play college basketball, is the relationships built throughout the years. Having known both Alford and Neal since the three of us were teenagers and now watching them build New Mexico basketball into a perennial Top 25 program has been a joy.
Alford has a very balanced team this season. The Lobos possibly have the best true big man in the conference in 7-foot center Alex Kirk, who is averaging 11.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. Kirk, a New Mexico native, is improving rapidly and becoming both an offensive and defensive force (1.5 blocks per game).
Neal and Alford were both great guards back in the day and they have an awfully tough one leading the way for them this season in Aussie point guard Hugh Greenwood. Greenwood may just be the best rebounding guard in the country as he averages 5.3 per game. The Lobos’ other Aussie is 6-foot-9 Cameron Bairstow, who Neal told me “plays extremely hard, a little bit like Mark Madsen.” On one wing for New Mexico is Kendall Williams who has a world of talent and is extremely fast. His handle is very good, which sets up an exemplary dribble-drive game as he has excellent vision and can really pass the basketball. Needless to say, Williams is a must-see player. A guy I’ll pay to watch. On the other wing is 6-foot-8 Tony Snell (11.3 points per game). Snell is a long and lanky athlete who can really shoot the basketball. Something about which Steve Alford knows a bit.
This New Mexico team is flying a little bit under the radar and sitting chilly at No. 19 in this week’s The Associated Press poll (No. 18 in the coaches’ poll). It’s a team which plays the right way and has some key pieces in place. Don’t sleep on the Lobos.
Heach coach John Thompson III may have somewhat differing offensive philosophies than his father, and Hall of Fame head coach, John Thompson II, but JT3′s style of play is getting the same kind of results — winning, and returning the Georgetown Hoyas to prominence.
JT3 employs a Princeton-style offense which, in order to successfully run it, players must be able to read defenses, recognize when teammates are being overplayed and then pass the ball accordingly. Thompson and his staff have done an outstanding job of finding players with high basketball IQ’s who can successfully read and react on the basketball floor. Personally, I appreciate what the Hoyas do and how they do it each and every night in the extremely tough Big East conference, where they are currently 7-3, one game behind co-leaders Syracuse and Marquette.
|GEORGETOWN THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 11: Marquette at Georgetown|
|Feb. 15: Georgetown at Cincinnati|
|Full Season Schedule|
Georgetown is led by Otto Porter Jr., who quickly has become Mr. Everything. Get a load of these per game numbers: 15 points, eight rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks. Porter shoots 51 percent overall from the field and 45 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. Porter is a workhorse; he comes to play every night and is a coach’s dream. Simply, you know what you’re getting from Porter every time he steps on the floor — and he’s just a sophomore.
The Hoyas are far from a one-man show however, as this, as you may expect, is a terrific passing team. Georgetown is currently averaging 15 assists per game. The Hoyas share the basketball as seven players average more than five points per game. Markel Starks is the Hoyas’ second-leading scorer and leads the squad in assists. Starks has turned into one of the top guards in the Big East this season. He handles the ball a majority of the time and is having a super year shooting the basketball. The fact that Starks makes nearly 80 percent of his free throws is a big reason the Hoyas are currently 17-4 and a difficult team to beat. Foul Starks at the end of games and you’ll likely regret it. He has turned into a guy opposing teams and coaches fear late in games.
Georgetown is a team which, for two years in a row, has not been among the Top 25 to begin the season. Both years I’ve been astonished that it’s been given such little respect by the polls. However, Georgetown apparently uses these types of snubs as motivation and lets its play speak for itself. The Hoyas have quietly climbed back into the AP Top 25 and actually sneaked in at No. 15 this week. Georgetown is a team full of heady and tough players and not one I would want to be anywhere near come tournament time.
Head coach Buzz Williams has the Marquette Golden Eagles playing its best basketball of the season. With an overall record of 17-5 and in a tie for first (with Syracuse at 8-2) in the toughest conference in college basketball — the Big-East — Marquette is positioning itself awfully well come selection Sunday.
When Buzz Williams took the reigns of the Golden Eagles’ program in 2008, feeling that he possessed a responsibility much greater than simply teaching the young men on his team what to do on a basketball court, he decided to hold a life lessons class on “Character Revealed” for the youngsters in the MU basketball family. I love this … I just gave Williams the ol’ slow clap. I mean, what a novel idea. Fantastic.
The impact that college basketball coaches have on the young men who are playing for them is immeasurable. What Williams has committed himself to doing by attempting to reach his players on a completely different level than merely playing basketball is, well, it’s something that all college coaches and/or schools should take notice of and try to employ in one form or another.
|MARQUETTE THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 11: Marquette at Georgetown|
|Feb. 16: Pittsburgh at Marquette|
|Full Season Schedule|
You know the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for,” right? Well, “Character Revealed” on the basketball floor may very well be on tap this week for Williams’ Marquette squad as it plays at No. 15 Georgetown on Monday night and then goes home to Milwaukee for what is sure to be a slugfest when the Golden Eagles play No. 16 Pittsburgh this weekend.
This Big East conference is no joke. Six teams are currently in the AP Top 25 and I personally believe that four more — UConn, Cincinnati, St. John’s and Villanova — are Top 25 teams, as well.
Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan — two of my favorite names in college basketball this season — lead the way for this team. The Blue/Cadougan backcourt currently combine for 24 points, six rebounds, six assists and two steals per game. Williams has the luxury of rolling out a legitimate 11-man rotation with all 11 players averaging more than 10 minutes per game, which keeps fresh, active, energetic bodies on the floor at all times. Simply, these Golden Eagles just wear down their opponents.
Marquette is as battle-tested as any team in the country. This is just one more team in the Big East which I wouldn’t want any part of come tourney time.
You are not likely to read, see or hear anything about Notre Dame basketball for the remainder of the 2012-13 season without being reminded of the Fighting Irish’s surreal, five-overtime thriller of a win at home this past Saturday against conference foe and then-No. 11 Louisville. And I must put in my two cents.
Are you kidding me? Of the past six games Notre Dame and Louisville have played against one another, five of them have gone into overtime! That’s just incredible.
Saturday night was a college basketball fan’s dream. A game like that is what we all hope to see every now and then. I’ve had people the past few days who aren’t huge fans of the college game come up to me and say, “How about that Notre Dame-Louisville game the other night?”
|NOTRE DAME THIS WEEK|
|Feb. 13: DePaul at Notre Dame|
|Feb. 16: Notre Dame at Providence|
|Full Season Schedule|
I mean, this really was some kind of game to watch. Those two teams battled one another for 65 minutes. Louisville’s largest lead in the game was eight points and Notre Dame’s greatest cushion, of three points, came at game’s end when the Irish prevailed at 104-101. What a game.
Most important, however, for Notre Dame, is that game may have just stripped them of being the Rodney Dangerfield of the Big East. The Irish this season seemed to have been getting little respect nationally from the basketball world. Head coach Mike Brey’s Irish just barely sneaked into the Top 25 last week, but following the heavyweight bout on Saturday night versus the ‘Ville it appears that the pollsters finally stood up and took notice of this blue-collar, fight and scrap for everything they get-type of basketball team. This week the Irish find themselves ranked No. 21 in the AP poll and provide the Big East Conference with six teams ranked between No. 6 and No. 21. Now that’s big time.
Senior Jack Cooley has turned into an absolute beast for Notre Dame. He is averaging just shy of 15 points and a team- and league-leading 11.3 rebounds per game. A workhorse.
Jerian Grant, the son of my former Washington Bullets teammate and NBA great, Harvey Grant, is putting up career-best numbers this season, as well, for the Irish at 13 points and 5.6 assists to go along with 1.2 steals per game. Grant and Eric Atkins provide Brey with a heady and steady backcourt which gives the Fighting Irish a chance every night simply due to such terrific guard play. But the guy who continues to impress me for Notre Dame, and who made several huge plays down the stretch of the Louisville game, is senior Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman. This guy is a clever player. Sherman has only averaged about 15 minutes per game throughout the season but I won’t be surprised to see his playing time escalate as we head toward the home stretch of the season.
Notre Dame finally has gotten some respect and now it will go from the hunter to the hunted. The Irish’s schedule is a bit friendlier this week as they play host to DePaul on Wednesday and play at Providence on Satirday, but lookout after that. Brey’s squad had better be on high alert as it finishes Big East play with Pitt, Cincinnati, Marquette, St. John’s and, in the regular-season finale, a rematch at Louisville. I’m calling it: Overtime.
Again, the Big East is no joke.
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