This week’s Bucket List — 10 observations on the college basketball season:
A sportswriter friend asked which current Big Ten player I’d choose to build a team around. I had a heck of a time deciding on my answer — and not because there are so many great options to choose from.
Ideally, for me, the linchpin of a great team is a player who can dribble through pressure, create shots for himself and others, live at the foul line, score in the clutch and, of course, defend. I suppose I’ve just described a point guard — a pretty perfect one, too — though position definitions really have blurred in recent years.
But back to my linchpin: Does such a player exist in this season’s Big Ten? I thought Maryland’s Melo Trimble would get there at an All-America level, but he hasn’t. Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig, a three-year starter at the point who has been to a pair of Final Fours, is playing the best ball of his career, but where would he be without double-team-drawing Badgers big men Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes?
Iowa’s Peter Jok can score all night, but he isn’t winning — at all — and has issues with his back. Nebraska’s Tai Webster? Michigan State freshman Miles Bridges? Terrific players, but no on both.
The only answer here is, I suppose, Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan, a 6-9, 250-pound sophomore who’s averaging 18.8 points and 12.7 rebounds. A year ago, I thought he took incredibly bad shots. Now, he’s by far the Boilermakers’ best player, mixing in high-efficiency three-point shooting (50 percent on only 42 attempts) and making defenses pay at the foul line (78.9 percent). Pretty complete player, no doubt.
Build around a power forward? In college basketball? Unconventional, to be sure. But what the heck.
My linchpin player in all of college basketball? Kansas senior Frank Mason III, who embodies all the qualities one would hope for from the best point guard in the country. There are a trio of freshmen point men — UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox and Washington’s Markelle Fultz — who eventually will be better than Mason, but that progression will take place in the NBA beginning next season.
What a week it has been. On Tuesday, No. 1 Villanova (at Marquette), No. 2 Kansas (at West Virginia) and No. 4 Kentucky (at Tennessee) all lost — the first time since 1979 that three of the top four teams in the AP poll were beaten on the same day. On Wednesday, No. 6 Florida State was blown out at Georgia Tech and No. 8 UCLA went down convincingly at USC. Everywhere you look, another major upset.
Your next No. 1 team almost surely will be Gonzaga, the only unbeaten left in the country. Are the Zags legit national title contenders? Or are they benefiting from playing in the mid-major West Coast Conference?
The answer is both. Mark Few has a terrific roster, maybe his best yet. My concern with Gonzaga in March will be the same one I always have: Is it battle-tested enough?
5 Is Northwestern’s breakout success sustainable for another month-plus of rugged Big Ten action? Big Ten Network analyst Shon Morris, who was a standout post player in Evanston in the 1980s, says yes. His No. 1 reason: the quality the Wildcats have on the wings with Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law.
“Lindsay and Law are one of the top two or three sets of wings in the league,” Morris said, “and that’s being conservative.”
I’d take it a step further: The perimeter threesome of Lindsey, Law and point guard Bryant McIntosh is as strong as any in the Big Ten.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has eight Big Ten teams in his current NCAA Tournament bracket, released Thursday, with Michigan bringing up the rear as a 12-seed bound for a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio.
Eight? Not going to happen. I’ll believe six before I’ll believe eight.
Remember when Kevin Stallings was considered one of the finest coaches in the profession? His first Pittsburgh team is 1-6 in ACC play and coming off a loss at home to Louisville by — wait for it — 55 points. Stallings has publicly criticized his players, who don’t appear to be especially fond of the man. Heck of a start to this marriage.
See, Illinois fans? Things aren’t so bad with John Groce.
OK, fine, they’re pretty bad.
He isn’t nearly as good as he’s going to become, but Illinois doesn’t have a better pure player on its roster than freshman point guard Te’Jon Lucas. Groce ought to get over himself and play this kid as many minutes as he can handle, game in and game out. No one loves to tinker with lineups more than Groce — OK, maybe Joe Maddon does — but Lucas is the key to the rest of the season for the Illini.
Proof that fans never are truly happy: Twitter came alive this week with calls from fans for Steve Alford’s job. Alford coaches UCLA, which has lost back-to-back games — curses! — yet also is 19-3 and with one of the most fun-to-watch teams anywhere. Sorry, Bruins backers, but John Wooden isn’t coming back.
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