The flipping of the calendar from October to November is a changing of the guard in many ways in the American sports landscape. The last remaining vestige of summer comes to an end with the champagne showers had by MLB’s World Series champions. The NFL enters the midway point for their season and jockeying for playoff spots begins in earnest. College football provides us with arguments of who should and who will inevitably join Alabama and Clemson in the four-team NCAA football playoff. And the NBA and NHL starts to take shape a month or so into their respective seasons.
There is one thing though that happens in early November each year that occupies a large piece of my life. The road to March begins in early November. Early season tournaments taking place in locales such as the Bahamas, Maui, New York, and my personal favorite American city Charleston, SC give college basketball heads a chance to see some incredible games and get the first look at the guys who will grip the nation for three weeks in March. Even more so though, there will likely be a team that wins or loses a key game in November that causes the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to grant or rip away a spot in the greatest tournament in sports.
A common refrain I hear from people is “I only watch college basketball in March.” I can’t scream enough at how blind that thought is. College teams play less than half the amount of games of their NBA counterparts. Every game is important whether it be for tournament bids or tournament seeding placement. I am not one of those psychos that say college basketball is superior to watch than the NBA or that it’s a better brand of basketball or anything of that ilk. Those are patently false statements. But the storylines, the rivalries, the history, the culture, and yes, the tournament make college basketball the most unique major sport in our country. And all of that stuff – call me a meathead if you want – is why I’m addicted to it.
However, I am also a man of the people and understand that not everyone is like me in that regard. My goal here at The Loop Sports is to give those that check out until March a way to stay in the LOOP (see what I did there) each week. You don’t have to pick a game each night to watch or do a cram session to fill out your bracket on Selection Sunday. I want to provide a recap each week of what went on, who beat who, provide a few games for the upcoming week that should catch your attention, make you chuckle a bit, introduce you to some of the players that will captivate you in March, and even give you a local game in the Chicagoland area to check out (or maybe a little further out of the area depending on the schedule).
I am also going to try to not bore you to death with a long diatribe every week so thanks for indulging me this time. Anyway…onto week one.
Most of the last year and a half of NCAA Men’s basketball has been spent under the cloud of FBI investigation into the handling of the recruitment of Brian Bowen II among others and the usage of shoe companies to steer recruits to certain colleges. It’s no secret that major college sports isn’t the cleanest environment in terms of the off-the court/field stuff. But there are plenty of other writers out there to get you the details on that stuff – I’ll try to stick mainly to the action on the floor most weeks. However there are a few other developments worth mentioning.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller and his Creighton counterpart Greg McDermott were recently linked to Bowen II’s handler Christian Dawkins who was just convicted (along with two others) of wire fraud amidst a plot designed to steer payments and extra benefits to recruits and their inner circles in exchange for commitments to Adidas sponsored schools.
High profile schools in Louisville, Michigan State, USC, and Texas have also been mentioned as part of the case along with other players and coaches linked to Dawkins and other faux agents as a wider part of the scandal. Oregon, a bit of a Nike school you could say, was also connected to Bowen II’s recruitment. Mix that with Miller (erroneously?) also being accused of helping fund the recruitment of the eventual first pick in the NBA Draft in DeAndre Ayton and you have a helluva a story worth keeping an eye on.
Bill Self, the head coach of Kansas, who happens to top the AP’s Preseason Top 25 has had his named mentioned throughout much of the federal investigation as well. Allegations have been made tying Self to the alleged request of over $100K in cash and other benefits for top recruit and eventual Duke signee, Zion Williamson. Further, sophomore Silvio De Sousa is currently being held out of play by Kansas officials while the NCAA investigates an accusation that he allegedly received $20K from Adidas rep at direction of Self. While this situation probably brings a smile to many Illinois fans faces, it’s worth noting that Self has his work cut out for him leading his talented squad with a potentially devastating cloud lingering above. It’s also fun pondering if in fact Williamson had these demands for his services, how Duke was able to land such a talent…for nothing…hmmm.
There was also some big recruiting news last week. D.J. Jeffries, a blue chip 6’7″ forward from Memphis stayed home giving Penny Hardaway his first five star recruit as the head man at Memphis. It wasn’t overly shocking that he wanted to play for Hardaway as Penny was his AAU coach. Maybe the most surprising factor was that he decommitted from Kentucky and coach John Calipari who has been hitting on nearly all of the top talents he recruits to Lexington.
Note: I am often reminded I’m the old guy at The Loop Sports. So I’m going to do old guy things and put this here for the people that don’t know how ridiculous Penny Hardaway was before his body broke down.
Game(s) of The Week
The NCAA and ESPN have gotten wise to starting off the season with a bang the last few years. Whether it was games on an aircraft carrier or starting the trend off with top teams squaring off, this year is no different.
Tuesday night, you can look no further than the State Farm Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indy. We get a pair of games featuring some of the best talent in the country. The first game of the night gives us #1 Kansas, who adds brothers – Dedric and K.J. Lawson transferring in from Memphis, along with blue chip freshmen guards Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes to the mix of returnees Udoka Azubuike, Lagerald Vick, and possibly the aforementioned De Sousa making Kansas the preseason favorite to cut down the nets in Minneapolis. The have bigs, they have guards, inside-outside threats, and frankly, they have talent everywhere on their roster. They go to battle with coach Tom Izzo and #10 Michigan State led by juniors Nick Ward, Joshua Langford, and Cassius Winston. Each of them coming off seasons scoring double figures, Izzo leads a veteran-laden team which usually spells disaster for Big Ten teams. Losing guys like Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson can be devastating, but Sparty is banking on their junior core leading them back to another Final Four.
In game two of the evening fans get the pleasure of watching a battle of the one and done masters who landed the top two recruiting classes from the class of 2018, #2 Kentucky taking on the #4 Duke Blue Devils. Kentucky is actually carrying much more depth than normal this season due to holdovers P.J. Washington and Quade Green. Mixing in Stanford transfer and preseason AP Third Team All American Reid Travis with another of Calipari’s loaded freshman classes led by blue chippers E.J. Montgomery, Kelvin Johnson, Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans, and Tyler Herro gives Kentucky a roster primed for a run to Minneapolis for another Final Four birth for #BBN.
Duke is led by arguably the top three players from this years freshman class – R.J. Barrett, YouTube sensation Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish. They have the all-time winningest coach in NCAA Men’s Basketball history in Mike Krzyzewski. Just like their last title team, they have another freshmen Jones to help run the point in Tre Jones – former NCAA Champion and current Minnesota Timberwolves guard Tyus Jones’ younger brother. No Duke team would be complete without a hateable guard that drills threes, and this year is no different as Alex O’Connell is a prime fit to carry that torch.
Full disclosure, I’m a born and raised die-hard North Carolina fan. I don’t hate anything more in sports than I do Duke Basketball. Saying anything positive about that team without adding something to balance it out is something I am physically unable to do. Sue me.
In all, 20 ranked teams kick off their seasons on Tuesday. Florida meets up with in-state rival #17 Florida State. BYU heads to Reno to take on the team I am most excited to see play this year, the Nevada Wolf Pack led by twin brothers Caleb and Cody Martin.
Friday night gives us a juicy matchup between #25 Washington and the 11th ranked Auburn Tigers. Villanova begins their title defense with a gauntlet, facing Morgan State on Tuesday and Qunnipiac on Saturday.
A possible upset to keep an eye on? I’m going with the Buffalo Bulls. West Virginia is going to be really good again. But losing point guard Jevon Carter is a hit to that program. He was outstanding for Huggins for four years and guys like that are missed at the college level. He brought an energy to their defense that made every night a battle with West Virginia. The scoring prowess for Buffalo will give fits to a West Virginia team looking to find it’s way defensively early on in the season.
Player to watch
I mentioned the team I am looking forward to getting a first look at this season is Nevada, but the player I am picking as my National Player of the the Year is Purdue junior guard Carsen Edwards. Barely six-foot tall, Edwards is a tough as nails leader capable of willing the Boilermakers to a Big Ten title this season. I’m a huge fan of teams led by upperclassmen guards and he fits the lead guard mold to a T. He averaged over 18 points per game and is pegged as a First Team All American by most publications. Edwards dropped 30 points in their loss to Texas Tech in last years Sweet 16, so you know he’s not afraid of doing it on the big stage. He’s going to put up monster scoring numbers this year as the primary focus for Purdue’s offensive attack and more nights like he had against Illinois when he dropped 40 on the Illini will happen.
Mid-Major Team of the Week
I am going to highlight a mid-major team each week for various reasons. First off I’m a MAC alum (shout out Western Michigan). Secondly, everyone loves to have their dark-horse mid-major picked out to make a deep tournament run. And last, there is a ton of talent all over the country now.
A true mid-major team, the Buffalo Bulls, are one many are picking to get back to the NCAA Tournament and destroy the MAC. They return five of their top six scorers, led by seniors guards C.J. Massinburg (17 ppg, 7.3 reb), Jeremy Harris (15.5 ppg), and 6-8 forward Nick Perkins (16.2 ppg) back from a team who took out Arizona in the tournament last season. They can shoot, they can score, and they aren’t afraid to go after teams. The MAC should be solid this year, giving them a good test to catapult themselves to a deep tournament run in March. As I mentioned earlier, they will hit the road to Morgantown, West Virginia for a great measuring stick game against Bob Huggins’ West Virginia Mountaineers on Friday. It’s a great way to see where you stand with the big dogs for a team like Buffalo who has high hopes entering the season.
A couple games to look forward to next week:
Monday – November 12th
Stanford @ #8 North Carolina
Wednesday – November 14th
#19 Michigan @ #9 Villanova
One potentially fantastic matchup in the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden (assuming each win their opening games on Thursday) is #16 Syracuse and #14 Oregon. Seeing what 7’3″ freshman sensation Bol Bol, son of the late great Manute Bol does in the Garden against National Player of the Year Candidate Tyus Battle will be worth the price of admission.
Game of the Week to Attend
The game of the week for Loop Sports readers to check out live is also on Tuesday at the Gentille Center. Fresh off their Cinderella Final Four run, Loyola hosts the University of Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos. Clayton Custer and Marques Townes return for coach Porter Moser after becoming household names last March. Poised for a Missouri Valley Conference championship and another bid to the Dance, the Ramblers are now armed with experience to go with the talent they bring back to make another deep run in March.
Follow Matt on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Missy Minear/KANSAN