UCLA Notches Resume Win in CBS Sports Classic

It’s been a roller coaster season for UCLA, and it’s only December. The Bruins stole headlines right out of the gate on their opening season trip to China, when three of their players were arrested for shoplifting. Weeks later they were back on the front pages when Lavar Ball pulled his son LiAngelo out of school. That headline isn’t necessarily the worst news for Steve Alford. Through all the off the court drama however, the Bruins struggled to find that signature win on the court. Until Saturday, when UCLA beat #7 Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic.

Prior to Saturday’s win, UCLA had been 0-3 in “resume boosting” wins this year. They gave up 100 in a loss to Creighton, blew a 15 point lead at Michigan, and lost by double digits to Cincinnati. UCLA was a game away from going into conference play with their best non conference win coming against South Dakota (12-4). And they only won that game by three, at home.

That changed Saturday. The day after announcing full season suspensions for Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, UCLA came out and played the best game of their season. Aaron Holiday and Kris Wilkes were sensational, and the Bruins put together a complete game to beat Kentucky on a neutral court in New Orleans. Holiday and Wilkes each scored 20, and senior Thomas Welsh also chipped in 13 and 11 rebounds. The win moved UCLA to 9-3 heading into Pac 12 play.

It’s rare that wins in December are called monumental, or significant. However, this UCLA win is definitely important for Steve Alford and company. The Bruins roster is shorter than expected with the suspensions of Riley and Hill, two freshman who were expected to be contributors to a team that lost a bulk of it’s production last season. As a result, UCLA has had to adjust on the fly. This worked against lesser opponents, but against NCAA caliber teams, it was not good enough to win.

This weekend however, UCLA put it all together. Their senior leaders led, their un-suspended freshman shined and the result was a win over the #7 team in the country. The upset showed what UCLA needs this season to compete with the top competition. Their stars need to play at a high level consistently, and role players need to step up. An easy task? No, but it’s doable. The season is still young.

For Kentucky, the loss only add question marks to a team that was filled with them. Will this young team find consistency? Do they have a point guard who can run the show? Can someone make outside shots? They are no doubt a talented and athletic group. They got up and down against UCLA, and Hamidou Diallo excelled. But in tight games, they’ve shown carelessness with the ball and, outside Kevin Knox, an inability to make shots from outside. SEC play will be a test for John Calipari this year.

Conference play starts this week. Both the SEC and Pac 12 are filled with teams that can enhance both teams’ resumes. We learned from Saturday that Kentucky may still have a few question marks heading into SEC play. On the other hand, UCLA may have found momentum as they get ready for Pac 12 action.

 

SEC Basketball 2017-18 Conference Preview

More seasons than not, the SEC is viewed as “Kentucky and then everyone else,” by those unfamiliar to the conference. Even when teams like Florida have been good, or McDonald’s All-Americans like Malik Newman have been in the conference, Kentucky has always been heads above the rest of the conference. That will remain true this season, but on a smaller level. The SEC will be very good this season, and have loads of talent all across the board.

Projected Finishes

  1. Kentucky – This Kentucky team has the talent in the freshman class that rivals Wall/Cousins/Bledsoe, Davis/Kidd-Gilchrist & Towns/Booker/Lyles. The issue is this Kentucky team has ZERO upperclassmen. The Wildcats have one returner who played significant minutes last season. That will cause some growing pains initially. Eventually, I expect the trio of Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and Quade Green to run this team. Calipari is great at getting players to buy into their roles and Kentucky is littered with guys who serve specific roles.
  2. Florida – Nipping on the heels of the young Wildcats will be Mike White’s Florida Gators. The Gators return a back court of KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza, who each serve different purposes on the floor. Allen led the team in scorring, while Chiozza is more defensive minded. The Gators also add two Top 100 recruits to a front court that brings back John Egbunu and Kevarrius Hayes.
  3. Texas A&M – The Aggies have my Player of the Year pick in Robert Williams. Williams impacts the game on both ends of the floor and I think will take a giant step forward this year. A&M gets back most of it’s production from last year. Joining Williams, Tyler Davis, DJ Hogg and Admon Gilder bring back a strong core from last season. Freshman JJ Caldwell and Savion Flagg only add to the depth of this team.
  4. Alabama – Alabama could be the third best team in the SEC, but uncertainty regarding Colin Sexton forces me to put them below A&M. Sexton is a tremendous and exciting player. If deemed eligible, he we be one of the best players in the conference. In addition, Alabama returns basically everyone from last year and is one of the more veteran teams in the conference. Add to the mix another Top 100 player in John Petty and Alabama will be good. A cleared Sexton will make them great.
  5. Missouri – Missouri is one of the most interesting teams in the country, let alone conference. Obviously they have Michael Porter Jr, potential #1 pick and the 1A/1B recruit in the country with Bagley. The challenge will be mixing a strong freshman class, which also includes Jeremiah Tillmon, Blake Harris and Johntay Porter, with returning players like Kevin Puryear and Terrence Phillips. The talent is there for Mizzou to compete, the question is will they?
  6. Arkansas – Arkansas showed everyone last year that they are a tough out. They’re chaotic defense causes fits for opponents, as Seton Hall learned, and UNC was lucky enough to escape. That defense will remain a constant this season. The Razorbacks also have a good tandem in Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford to lead the charge.
  7. Vanderbilt – Vanderbilt was an NCAA Tourny team last year, and should have won their first game if not for some late mishaps. The Commodores bring back a trio set on not making the same mistake twice. Seniors Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis and Jeff Roberson will give Vandy strong leadership to compete in a tough SEC. And with the home court advantage they have, that’s all they can ask for.
  8. Auburn – This is an important year for Bruce Pearl and Auburn. For one, they have the FBI Investigation looming over them. Next, they have multiple players suspended indefinitely to start the season. Third, Auburn has under performed despite strong recruiting classes the past two years. Bruce Pearl has brought in five Top 100 recruits during his time as head coach, and he will bring in two more this season. This should add up to wins eventually, but it hasn’t yet.
  9. Mississippi State – Similar to Bruce Pearl and Auburn, Mississippi State returns a great 2016 recruiting class that featured four Top 100 recruits. Ben Howland has another Top 100 recruit in Nick Weatherspoon coming in. Add to this youthful mix, All-SEC second team Quindarry Weatherspoon and you should expect the Bulldogs to make a jump from last season.
  10. Ole Miss – Andy Kennedy sees his leading scorer return in Deandre Burnett. Burnett will get assistance on offense from Terence Davis, who averaged 15 points a game last year. Those two should be able to handle a the timely baskets, and Memphis transfer Markel Crawford should pitch in as well. Combined, these three should ease the pain of losing Sebastian Saiz.
  11. Georgia – The Bulldogs have one of the best players in the conference in Yante Maten. He’s a SEC Player of the Year candidate despite a Georgia being so lowly ranked. The problem is behind Yaten there isn’t much of anything. JJ Frazier is gone and unless someone else steps up, it’ll be a one man show in Athens.
  12. South Carolina – South Carolina’s run last year was nothing short of incredible. With Frank Martin inspiring on the sidelines, you can expect Carolina to compete on a nightly basis. The issue is the talent. The gamecocks lost a lot from last year’s Final Four club. Chris Silva is their most experienced returner but he was not a go to scorer on offense. There is a lot of opportunity for players to step up this year.
  13. LSU – Will Wade is turning LSU around, but he may need another year to really make an impact. Antonio Blakeney leaving hurts for this year, but LSU does have scorers coming back in Duop Reath and Brandon Sampson. Newcomers Tremont Waters (ESPN #34 recruit) and Randy Onwuasor (So. Utah transfer) will help as well, but LSU is a year away from making a significant jump in the conference.
  14. Tennessee – Tennessee returns two of its top four scorers, but combined they account for 20 points a game. Tennessee lacks size. Their three biggest players are a junior (Kyle Alexander) who averaged 3 points and 4 rebounds last year, and two freshman (Zach Kent and John Fulkerson). Struggle to score and lack of size does not bode well against the Kentuckys, Floridas and Texas A&Ms of the world.

Projected Awards

Player of the Year – Robert Williams (Texas A&M)

Maten and Porter Jr will be names tossed around for this award all year, but I’m going with Williams making a big jump in his second year. He passed on the NBA to return and better his draft stock. Dominating a on both ends in what is a much better SEC Conference will surely do that. His ability to block shots at a high rate, as well as bring in double-doubles nightly make him more than qualified to be POY.

Freshman of the Year –  Michael Porter Jr (Missouri)

Kevin Knox and Colin Sexton are going to be tremendous to watch. They are not Michael Porter Jr. The hybrid 3/4 will be dynamic for Missouri. This Tigers group is in need of a leading scorer, someone who can take over. Porter will be that guy and as the season goes on, he will get more and more sets run for him specifically to break down his defender and score.

Coach of the Year – Mike White (Florida)

Finishing behind Kentucky is no easy task, when A&M and Alabama are as good as they are this year. The difference between one and four is as minimal as its ever been in the SEC. I think White will have his Gator team behind Kentucky all season. I think he’ll cause fits defensively for the conference’s diaper dandies and have Florida marching into the tournament ready to make a run.

Projected All SEC Teams

First Team *

Robert Williams – Texas A&M

Yante Maten – Georgia

Michael Porter Jr – Missouri

Kevin Knox – Kentucky

Quindarry Weatherspoon – Mississippi State

Second Team

Colin Sexton – Alabama

Austin Wiley – Auburn

KeVaughn Allen – Florida

Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky

Matthew Fisher-Davis – Vanderbilt

*Pending Sexton’s eligibility, if cleared sooner than later, he will be First Team All-SEC

5 Intriguing Match Ups During SEC Play

SEC

For the past few years, the SEC has been owned by John Calipari and the revolving door of diaper dandies he brings in. Kentucky will be a major headline in the conference once again, but they will not be the only headline. The conference possesses the potential #1 pick, Michael Porter Jr, as well as South Carolina coming off their miraculous Final Four run. Five teams in conference were ranked in the top 25 recruiting classes for 2017, according to 247Sports. It should be a fun year in the SEC. Let’s look at five games of the most intriguing match-ups in conference play this year.

Kentucky at Missouri – Saturday, February 3rd

Following Missouri’s 2017 campaign where they won just three games against SEC opponents, Cuonzo Martin and his squad are ready to make a full 180 turnaround and compete with the best in the SEC. It is a completely revamped team. Mizzou welcomes the nation’s top recruit, Michael Porter Jr., two other Top 100 recruits, and Porter’s younger brother, Jontay. It’s easy to see why the Tigers believe they have the skill set to compete with anyone in the country. And on Feb. 3, they will have the perfect chance to prove their legitimacy when Kentucky comes to town.

John Calipari’s five SEC championships in the last eight years prove that having a brand new team year in and year out does not affect his success. This season however, might be his toughest rebuild since arriving at Kentucky in 2009. While he brings in another top five recruiting class, there is no veteran leadership that most team’s possessed in the past. With the possibility of seven or maybe even eight freshmen on the floor at the same time, this match-up will undoubtedly provide the electricity college basketball fans crave.

South Carolina at Florida – Tuesday, January 24th

After reaching the Final Four for the first time in school history, Frank Martin and the South Carolina Gamecocks plan to build on last year’s success. However, after losing Sindarius Thornwell, Justin McKie and Duane Notice, South Carolina’s young stars Maik Kotsar and Chris Silva have big shoes to fill. One of the most anticipated SEC games they will play this season is Jan. 24 when they travel to Gainesville to take on Florida. On the other hand, Florida is also considered to be a dangerous team this season, despite losing three key players from their 2016-17 squad. In addition to their top 15 recruiting class, Florida returns a number of players from last year, such as KeVaughn Allen and John Egbunu.

Both teams want to prove to that they can compete with the top of the SEC. Add in the revenge factor Florida will be seeking after falling short to South Carolina in last year’s Elite 8, and we are in for one hell of a game.

Vanderbilt at Florida – Saturday, December 30th

Speaking of revenge, Florida will they will also be seeking some against Vanderbilt when they host the Commodores on Dec. 30. Last season, Florida lost to Vanderbilt all three times they played each other. However, Vanderbilt only beat Florida by a combined 14 points in the three match-ups. Vanderbilt returns most of their team from last year including three major contributors in Matthew Fisher-Davis, Riley LaChance and Jeff Roberson. After losing to Vanderbiltboth times in the 15-16 season, twice in the regular season last year and once in the SEC Tournament, Gator fans are going to pack the house to help their team come out on top and prevent a sixth straight loss.

Kentucky at Arkansas – Tuesday, February 20th

This game is a must watch mainly because of the pure hatred Arkansas fans have for John Calipari and Kentucky. And the hatred only intensified after Malik Monk committed to Kentucky instead of Arkansas in 2016. However, last year, we missed out on a potential game for the ages when the only regular season match-up between the two teams occurred in Lexington instead of Fayetteville. Kentucky steamrolled the Razorbacks 97-71. Despite, Monk’s departure for the NBA, Arkansas fans have not forgotten, nor forgiven Calipari for stealing possibly the best basketball player to ever come out of Arkansas.

In addition, the Razorbacks return two of their best players from 2016 in Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon. They are expected to start an all senior starting lineup as opposed to Kentucky’s possible all freshman starting five. Arkansas will have significantly more experience than the young Wildcats, and the Arkansas crowd will surely not have any mercy on Kentucky’s freshmen. Basketball game aside, this match-up will be worth watching simply because Arkansas fans are absolute maniacs whenever Kentucky comes to town.

Missouri at Alabama – Wednesday, January 31st

Possibly the most interesting match-up in the SEC is when Missouri and Alabama go head to head. Avery Johnson has high expectations for Alabama this year after bringing in one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Highlighting this class is 5-star point guard Collin Sexton accompanied by high school standout, John Petty. An SEC match-up involving multiple 5-star recruits, and neither team being named Kentucky, is something that SEC fans are not used to. However, if both teams live up to their potential this season, this should be a top 25 match-up by the time they play on New Years Eve. It’s one that will at least have the attention of pro scouts.

 

There will undoubtedly be more than five must watch games this season in the SEC. These five just have a little added flare and story to them that adds a little more interest to it. All in all it should be one of the better years the SEC has seen. So buckle up, enjoy the ride, and hope college basketball season gets here soon.

Best Thing All CBB Season: Champions Classic

Marvin Bagley shook up the college basketball world Monday night when he announced his commitment to Duke and reclassification to the Class of 2017. Many put Bagley at the top of the Class now as the most prized recruit, over Michael Porter Jr. The move also gave Duke, who is welcoming in three McDonald’s All-Americans, an absolutely loaded ’17 recruiting class. After the Bagley news settled in, my mind jumped right to the Champions Classic; this year is going to be absolutely loaded with college talent.

While an event that features college basketball blue bloods, and four Hall of Fame coaches is sure to always draw attention, this year is different. Let’s take a look at each team as they head into the 2017-18 season.

Kansas

Kansas may have the least hype heading into the season of this quartet, but don’t be fooled, Bill Self’s team is still the favorite to win the Big 12. Self will return a good core from last year’s Elite Eight team. Yes, Frank Mason and Josh Jackson are gone. A returning cast of DeVonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and LeGerald Vick is a solid group to contend. The Jayhawks will also get back Udoka Azubuike, who missed most of last season with a wrist injury.

New to the Jayhawks will be freshman Billy Preston, a 6-10 forward from Oak Hill University, as well as Malik Newman. Newman was a former five-star recruit who will suit up for his first game action at Kansas after transferring from Mississippi State. If KU can pull a rabbit out of a hat and land five-star recruit Mitchell Robinson-and get him eligible- they will join the conversation as National Championship contender. For now, front court depth will remain a question mark for Rock Chalk.

Kentucky

Spoiler alert: John Calipari has another great recruiting class coming into Kentucky. The Wildcats lose a lot of pieces from last year’s team, but bring in a strong class, featuring 5 five-star recruits. Kentucky’s strengths will be at the wing and in the back court, not to say they are weak in the front court by any means. With Kevin Knox and PJ Washington, Kentucky has two elite wings who can get out on the break and finish everything around the rim. With a back court duo of Hamidou Diallo- who practiced with the team during the second half of last season- and Quade Green, Calipari has a team that will love to get up and down in transition and make highlight reel plays above the rim.

Add Nick Richards, Jarred Vanderbilt and a returning Wenyen Gabriel, and Kentucky has a group of bigs that will mainly be asked to protect that paint and own the glass, things each of them have proven capable of doing. Kentucky may have lost a lot, but in typical John Calipari fashion, he brought in a new wave of future Pros to Lexington. SEC favorites once again.

Michigan State

Similar to Kansas, Tom Izzo does not have a recruiting class coming in that compare to Kentucky and Duke’s. Also like Kansas, he has a very talented group returning with a year of experience under their belt, and a hunger for improvement. The Spartans saw a lot of ups and downs last season, with four freshman playing crucial roles. All four return for their sophomore campaigns including Miles Bridges, who was a lock to be a lottery, and likely even a top 10 pick in last Spring’s NBA draft. Also returning are Cassius Winston and Tum Tum Nairn. These two guards will be crucial for any success next season, as they will be leaned on to control the offense.

Despite the tremendous nucleus returning, Izzo still managed to bring in Jaren Jackson, ESPN’s #8 recruit in the Class of 2017. As a 6’11 stretch forward, Jackson brings versatility to a team that is already versatile. He and Bridges, two assumed lottery picks should they declare for the 2018 Draft, can play multiple spots on the floor. Giving a coach like Tom Izzo so many combinations to run is a dangerous thing come March.

Duke

Last but not least, Duke. As mentioned earlier, the Blue Devils changed the game when they landed Marvin Bagley. Coach K had already inked three of ESPN’s top seven recruits. With Bagley, they now have four of the top eight. Bagley, paired with Wendell Carter, gives Duke two Top 10 recruits joining Marques Bolden in the front court in Cameron. While depth is always a concern, all eyes will be on Bagley to carry the load and solidify their preseason #1 ranking.

The Blue Devils also landed the best possible freshman to replace Frank Jackson and Luke Kennard. Coming to Durham this season is top point guard Trevon Duval and top shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. Duval is an explosive point guard; think Dennis Smith-esque. Trent is one of the best scorers in the class. As ESPN called it, he’s a “bucket getter,” and loves the ball in his hands when his team needs to score. With him and Bagley on the floor, Duke should not have any problem finding ways to score the basketball.

This is a brief overview of four of the top teams in college basketball next season. An in-depth look could go on for pages. The Champions Classic is always stacked with NBA lottery pick talent among four high profile college basketball programs. This year however is a bit different; no team is going to be “down” from last year. When it’s all said and done, this year’s Champions Classic could produce the #1 Overall Draft pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, as well as at least 10 first round picks, most of which will be lottery picks. Get excited, college basketball is almost here.

R.J. Barrett Reclassifies to 2018

rj barrett

R.J. Barrett is looking to get to college, and ultimately the pros, a year sooner. Just days after Marvin Bagley, the #1 player in the Class of 2018, filed papers to re-class into 2017, Barrett followed suit. He announced he would be re-classing from 2019 to 2018. Barrett said the decision came after evaluating his play this summer. The move does not come as a surprise, as anyone who has seen Barrett play knows he is ready for the next level.

If his play this summer was the deciding factor, then I can’t imagine the decision took very long. Barrett was a monster this summer. You probably heard his name mostly during the U19 FIBA Games. Barrett not only dominated Team USA, but took home tournament MVP, while leading Canada to the gold. At only 17 years old, Barrett was outshining players who are signed, and enrolling into colleges in the Fall. Despite the age gap, Barrett was the most outstanding player by far. He has shown he has nothing left to prove at the high school level.

He has been touted by some as the best Canadian prospect ever, as well as the best high school player in the nation as a sophomore. With accolades like that, it is no surprise that Barrett is currently being recruited by all the major powerhouses. Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, Arizona, Oregon and Michigan were all listed as schools working hard for him. Expect Kentucky to make a hard push after John Calipari got a front row seat to Barrett’s torching of theUSA U19 team in Egypt.

The bar has been set high for R.J. Barrett. Playing at a school that has produced lottery picks Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid & D’Angelo Russell, and for a coach who coached Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist prior to joining Montverde, Barrett could be the best of all of them. And we are now a year sooner to finding out.