MAAC Basketball Midseason Report

February is almost here, we’re past the halfway point in the conference season, and there have been enough games played for us to get a good look at all 10 MAAC teams. So it’s time for some midseason awards. Which team has been the biggest surprise? Who is the front-runner for player of the year? Which teams are heading towards the postseason? Here are my thoughts on the key story lines so far this season…

The Surprises

Siena’s non-conference slip-ups
The Saints are sitting pretty at 10-0 in the MAAC. They have looked fairly dominant this season and are certainly the favorites to repeat as conference champions. But should they fall in the conference tournament, they’re in big trouble.

Siena dropped the ball in the non-conference, losing to Temple, St. John’s, Georgia Tech, and Northern Iowa. The Saints did beat Northeastern, who sits atop the CAA. But the resume lacks that “signature win” the selection committee likes to see.

Iona’s impressive start

In just the third year under head coach Kevin Willard, the Gaels are in second place in the MAAC with a 7-3 record. They’ve won six straight and have become “road warriors,” winning seven of nine true road games this season, the biggest of which was a victory at Providence. “We played 18 road games last year,” Willard said after a win at Manhattan last week. “They understand what it takes to win on the road. You’ve got to play defense.”

After some early season inconsistency, Willard has Iona playing its best basketball of late. The Gaels have won six in a row and are 15-6 overall. In case you’re not impressed with all of this, consider: Iona was picked ninth in the conference preseason coaches’ poll.

Fairfield’s similar (and nearly as impressive) start
Hats off to Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley, also in his third year. Like Iona, the Stags are 7-3 in conference. However, they did lose to the Gaels on Sunday. Even so, they are 14-6 overall, an impressive feat considering the injury bug that continues to bite this team.

After learning that star player Greg Nero’s season was over before it began after, of all things, off-season sinus surgery, it meant that Fairfield would be without four of its top five scorers from last season. The answer? Freshman point guard Derek Needham, sixth in the MAAC in scoring (averaging 15.7 points in MAAC games) and third in assists, who’s running away with the freshman of the year award.

The Stags were picked fourth in the preseason poll but that was before the coaches knew that Nero would be out. Fairfield lacks a big-time conference win but still has a few opportunities to get one.

The Awards

Best Game: This was a tough one, but I’m going with the Jan. 16th contest between Canisius and Manhattan. Canisius won an overtime thriller on the road, 63-61, on a Julius Coles three with five seconds left. Manhattan’s shot as time expired hit the rim. Honorable mention goes to yesterday’s Rider-Niagara game, won by the Broncs on a tip in with five ticks left.

Best Individual Performance: Nick Leon vs. Niagara. The junior guard hit 11-of-12 free throws en route to 29 points, tied for the most in a MAAC game this season. The difference between Leon’s effort and Rico Pickett’s 29 against Fairfield was that Leon’s came in a win, a 90-86 overtime victory for the Purple Eagles.

Tough Luck Team: Manhattan — no doubt about it. The Jaspers are 2-8 in the MAAC, but consider: four of their losses were by three points or fewer. One more basket (or one more stop) in just a handful of games and Barry Rohrssen’s club could be at .500. “We’ve been fighting; we’ve been scrapping,” Rohrssen said after a three-point loss to Iona last week. “We are right there. And we’ve got to make some plays to put things away in our favor.”

All-MAAC Team: I went for some balance as far as positions and teams. Also keep in mind that because of Iona’s schedule so far I haven’t seen all these players in person yet. But here we go: Edwin Ubiles (f, Siena), Anthony Johnson (f, Fairfield), Ryan Rossiter (f, Siena), Frank Turner (g, Canisius), Tyrone Lews (g, Niagara). I’d give the player of the year to Ubiles, as he is the most talented player I’ve seen thus far.
Honorable Mention: A lot of guys are worthy, but I’ll mention some, such as Wesley Jenkins (St. Peter’s), Alex Franklin (Siena), Rico Pickett (Manhattan), Ronald Moore (Siena), Derek Needham (Fairfield), Bilal Benn (Niagara), and the underrated Scott Machado (Iona).

What does the second half of the MAAC season have in store? Will Siena run the table in conference? Will overachieving Iona remain near the top of the standings? Is one of the bottom-half teams capable of making a late-season run? Find out the answers to these questions tomorrow in my MAAC edition of “Who’s Real, Who’s Fake?”

Michigan Beats Indiana; Is NCAA Tournament Bid Still Possible?

In 2008, the year after the Notre Dame football team went 3-9, the Michigan football team did the same. Now, a year after a preseason top-15 Irish basketball squad failed to make the NCAA Tournament, it looks like the Wolverines could be headed down the same path.

Believe me, it hurts me to make that comparison.

I can’t believe Michigan is only 9-7 (3-2 in the Big Ten). A few weeks ago I was concerned that a Tourney bid was slipping away. Now? It’s out of reach, and John Beilein’s boys have a big hill to climb just to get back into the conversation.

Not everyone was as surprised by this as I was. AnnArbor.com Michigan beat writer Mike Rothstein made the connection between these two teams back in November, before the season tipped off, stating in an interview with MGoBlog.com that he feared Michigan could miss the Tournament just like the Irish did in 2009. He covered Notre Dame last season for The Journal Gazette, and heading into his first season in Ann Arbor, he noticed the similarities.

Though I did find it interesting, the comparison didn’t really concern me at the time. Although I wasn’t surprised that the Wolverines were considered a top-tier Big Ten team, I was surprised to see them ranked so high (No. 15) in the preseason poll. And even after the season started collapsing, I didn’t think to myself, “I should have seen this coming!” Just because Michigan’s make-up, on paper, is similar to Notre Dame’s, doesn’t mean it should suffer the same fate. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

“What gave me a feeling this might happen — and I had it the second I watched this team in Orlando against any real competition — was the lack of a reliable third scorer and a leadership void,” Rothstein said via e-mail on Thursday, before Michigan beat Indiana 69-45 at Crisler Arena. “Despite a killer schedule, what did Notre Dame in a season ago was missing the little things/stability guy in Rob Kurz. This year the biggest issue for Michigan is all about personnel. People may talk about shooting and defense and yes, those are important, but the focus and intensity C.J. Lee and David Merritt brought to the Wolverines kept everyone else in line on every possession.”

Even with minor personnel changes, it’s hard to argue that the loaded Big East didn’t contribute significantly to ND’s demise. ND didn’t have the most difficult non-conference schedule in the country last year, but they did head into Big East play with a 9-2 record, including a win over then-No. 7 (and eventual NCAA Tourney team Texas). So the theory that the Irish got swallowed up by a brutal conference slate certainly makes sense.

But what about Michigan? The Big Ten has been just as good as expected, but that’s irrelevant as far as the Wolverines are concerned. Their troubles started before Big Ten play began, as they dropped games to Marquette, Alabama, Boston College (in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge), Utah, and Kansas, while failing to beat any team of note. How do you explain that?

Rothstein’s reference to the seniors of last year’s Michigan team, Merritt and Lee, seems more than plausible. They didn’t fill up the box score, nor did they necessarily catch your eye with spectacular play. But they were fifth-year seniors who had been through some tough times.

“The leadership void is a big issue and that hole helped lead to some ill-advised shots in the offense,” Rothstein said in the e-mail. “With this team, bad offense leads to poor defense and this is how the cycle is going to go.”

Much like that Notre Dame team from a year ago, Michigan relies heavily on the outside shot and has been playing poor defense. When they’re not hitting from deep, as has been the case for much of the season, and they’re not getting enough stops on the defensive end, well, that’s not exactly a formula for success.

So did Michigan buy into its own hype after receiving the high preseason ranking?

“While I don’t think they thought they’d coast to a NCAA Tournament bid…I think they felt they were better than they were,” Rothstein wrote. “At the time, that was bad. Now, I think they still believe the same thing and that is good for them because it keeps confidence. This stretch could be the rejuvenation point or the breaking point.”

The stretch Rothstein referred to started with last night’s game, which was a must win for the Wolverines. Now the real brutal slate begins — No. 15 UConn on Sunday, followed by road games at No. 16 Wisconsin and No. 6 Purdue, and finishing with a home game vs. No. 8 Michigan State on Jan. 26.

If the Wolverines want to dance, they’re first going to have to fight.

Green Bay Packers Charles Woodson Named Defensive Player of the Year; Darrelle Revis Snubbed?

Charles Woodson, defensive back for the Green Bay Packers, has been named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, and deservedly so…sort of.

Woodson deserved the award — his interceptions (9) and touchdowns (3) were tied for the league lead — but perhaps Darrelle Revis, the New York Jets cornerback, deserved it more. (By the way, I am a Jets fan and an alum of the same school at which Woodson won the Heisman trophy, so I’ve got reason to like both guys.)

Revis became well known this season for his ability to shut down the league’s best receivers. If you’ve watched a Jets game the past few weeks, you’ve seen the graphic: the one that shows how Revis has held the likes of Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, and Chad Ochocinco to minuscule numbers. If you’re looking for a better shut-down corner than Revis, you’ve got a greater chance finding the Kiffin family vacationing in Knoxville.

Although I haven’t seen the Packers nearly as much, I know that Woodson is more of a “do it all” corner. His versatility is evidenced by the interceptions (including the aforementioned three that he took to the house) and the four forced fumbles. He recorded 20 more tackles than Revis and notched two sacks as well. Woodson is still a great athlete and a true playmaker, even if he doesn’t quite compare to Revis when it comes to locking up a wideout.

I’ve read some profiles on both Woodson and Revis recently and, not surprisingly, they have a lot in common. They both seem to understand the value of film study, impressing their respective coaches with their attention to detail. Knowing your opponents’ tendencies is critical to a defensive back’s success, and these two stars understand that.

So, was Revis robbed? Even though I was pulling for him, I can’t honestly say he was. He would have received my vote — in addition to Revis’ personal accomplishments, the Jets had the best defense in the league, allowing the fewest yards, points, and passing yards — but to say Woodson wasn’t a worthy candidate is ridiculous. I was surprised by Woodson’s margin of victory — he received twice as many votes as Revis. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, I just feel like this could have gone either way and the voting doesn’t seem to reflect that.

Woodson’s win, in a way, makes Colt McCoy’s failure to win this year’s Heisman Trophy even more surprising. These awards, unfortunately, can sometimes become “lifetime achievement” trophies. Sophomore Mark Ingram beat out McCoy, who had just as impressive a season as Ingram and was the senior with the remarkable career. While voters ignored McCoy’s complete body of work (as they should), perhaps Woodson got extra votes because of his long, successful NFL career. While Woodson just finished his 13th season, Revis is only in his third.

The consolation prize for Revis? His season is still going.

An Interview with ESPN College Basketball Analyst Jay Bilas

With college basketball conference play underway, I caught up with ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas to ask him a couple of questions about this season, as well as a few others on a variety of topics. We talked about John Wall, NCAA Tournament expansion, and whether college athletes should be able to sign endorsement deals, among other things.

I talked to Mr. Bilas on the phone last Tuesday, December 29th. Here is a transcript of our conversation.

Kahn: Is John Wall the best freshman you’ve ever seen?

Bilas: I’m not sure I’d go that far. He’s spectacular and he may wind up at the end of the year being the best freshman I can recall, but Carmelo Anthony was unbelievably good. He’s the best freshman this year and I think he’s one of the best point guards I’ve seen in a long time in college, but I would hesitate to go quite that far this early.

Kahn: Did you like watching Carmelo play as much as you’ve liked watching Wall play?

Bilas: Yes, just in a different way. The game has changed even in the last six years. That was back when high schools players could come out so we’re looking at a landscape that’s a little bit different right now. This year there are some very capable freshmen; there have been over the last half a dozen years, more so than maybe even in the period where high school players could go out. (Wall’s) every bit as good as Derrick Rose was and maybe even a little bit more advanced.

Kahn: Do you think the NCAA Tournament will ever expand, beyond maybe a few more play-in games for 16 seeds? If so, what effect do you think it would have on what is viewed by many as the greatest sporting event in the country?

Bilas: That’s a good question, Andrew. I don’t pretend to have the answer to this. I have a gut feeling that expansion to 96 teams, or doubling the field, would be a mistake. I’m sure people said that when it was 32 — that if you doubled it it might be a mistake. But what you’ve got now is you’ve got a six-game tournament to win a championship. If you double it, you’re asking the best teams to win seven games. And what you start doing is a few things: One, you devalue the regular season even more and you devalue the results of conference tournaments. Making the NCAA Tournament is no longer as special as it was. You’re going to invite even more teams into Division I, which is too big already. There are 347 Division I teams in college basketball; that’s absurd. Frankly, it’s laughable.

I think you’re also going to start rewarding, frankly, mediocrity. I’m not sure that it would help anyone or anything in the game. It would feel more populist, but it would just devalue the whole thing. And it would add a layer of difficulty for your best teams. There are those that consider just making the NCAA Tournament the thing, and then there are those who look at it like I do, that the NCAA tournament is the national championship event — that’s how we crown a champion. So for the sake of making the 50th best team in the country feel better, I don’t think we should be making it more difficult for our best teams to compete for the national championship — that doesn’t seem like the right thing to do to me. Why would we expand it? What are we worried about, that it’s not fair to the 65th team? Well, so what? I played in the tournament, it’s a great thing, I want everybody to have that feeling. But at the same time you go, “wait a minute now,” this whole thing wasn’t designed to make everybody feel good, it was designed to crown a champion. We’re getting away from that main point which is this is for the national championship.

Kahn: I agree. I’d like to ask some of these coaches who’d like to expand it if they realize that just making the Tournament wouldn’t be enough. If it’s expanded, then fans and boosters are just going to want a win or two in the Tournament.

Bilas: I agree with that. People are always going to — I’ll use a football metaphor — people are always going to move the goalposts. When 20 wins used to be the thing, now it’s not anymore. It used to be that having a winning season was important, now you have to make the NCAA Tournament — that’s become the be all and end all. But you’re right, I don’t think the NCAA tournament will be as big of a deal. It will be “now you have to make it to the second weekend.”

The first question I would ask is when they say, “Well, let’s expand the tournament.” And I’d go, “OK, why?” It’s a pretty simple question. The answer’s all over the map. Why would you expand the NCAA Tournament? When it expanded early on, when it was basically a regional tournament, and you had to win your league’s bid to get in, and I think there were 16 teams way back when, I understood that. The answer was: We’re expanding it because you could have the top three teams in the country in the same league and only one could come out of that league and we’re not having a fair competition for the national championship. That’s fine; that makes perfect sense. But when you ask that now — why? — well what’s the answer? I’m not sure what it is. I think you might get 64 different answers.

Kahn: I just hope one of the answers isn’t about money. It would not improve the quality of the tournament as far as its goal to crown a champion, but I hope they don’t think they can make a few extra bucks on it and then do it because of that.

Bilas: And that’s another really good point. I think it’s really smart of them to look at it and I think it’s a healthy debate to have. We seem to agree, but our position isn’t necessarily the right one. I readily admit, I don’t know the right answer, but I feel pretty strongly about the way I look at it. When I ask the question “why expand it?” I’m open to the answer. So far I haven’t heard a good one. If they could make enough money where they could fund other sports and do some really good things with that money and that was the only thing standing in the way of gymnastics programs staying in or scholarships being funded, or something like that, then fine, that’s a good enough reason. But that’s not what’s going to happen. It’s not going to work that way, so I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to do it.

Kahn: Completely switching gears here. When you were hired by ESPN, did you know that you’d be writing for their website in addition to providing analysis for TV? How do you approach writing for the web versus TV analysis?

Bilas: The short answer is no. When I first started working for ESPN it was 1995 and there was no internet presence then. I don’t think I’m wrong in this — I think I was the first guy to write for ESPN.com on the basketball page. It started around the time I had first started with the company. If I wasn’t the first I was one of the first. I look at it all as part of the same thing. I’m a basketball analyst; I can analyze it in writing, on the radio, on television, wherever they want. I don’t look at it as anything additional or different from what I do on television. Writing just gives me a little bit more space, honestly, to say what I may have to say.

I’m a trial lawyer so I’ve had some experience writing and I don’t have a problem with it. I’m not one of those guys that has to dictate my column to somebody. I write it myself on my computer, I send it in by e-mail, and magically it appears. I go through the same editing process that everybody else does. I’m fortunate that other than spell check, which keeps me from any major errors, the rest of it is just about exactly how I write it.

Kahn: You were a player at a big-time school, then a coach, before becoming an analyst. Most networks prefer to hire former players and coaches. Do you think it’s a requirement that someone speaking about a sport should have played it at some point? Many writers never played — at least not past the high school — yet they have no problem sharing their opinions on the game.

Bilas: Another really good question. The answer is, I don’t think you had to have played or coached. I think it is helpful. I think what people want is someone who has studied the game and has as extensive a knowledge of the game as possible. I’m a big baseball and football fan and when I watch a baseball game or a football game, I tend to learn more from the people who are the most knowledgeable about it. That doesn’t mean I don’t like hearing stories to take me inside of the players or coaches who play and coach the game. But if I want to hear the ins and outs of the game itself…You watch games for the competition. If I wanted just to know about the players, I’d just read stories.

There are so many aspects of a game and of a sport. There are the background stories of the people who play it which are always revealing and really interesting. There’s the competition itself and the ins and outs of it, and the x’s and o’s sometimes, and the raw drama of competition. And then there are the investigative stories about the way the sport works, or what’s behind the game. Like we’re talking about the NCAA Tournament, or NCAA rules, or recruiting, or things like that. There are so many aspects of it. Nobody’s cornered the market on knowledge of the game. We all have our own expertise and our own backgrounds of the game. There is plenty of room for everybody.

Kahn: Before this season you wrote that college athletes should be able to get paid for endorsing products. Can you expand on that? Do you think that might help make the game more ethical? In other words, maybe players wouldn’t have to accept illegal funds if they knew they could legally make money once they started playing college ball?

Bilas: Last part first. I don’t know that providing players with the ability to capitalize on their names and likenesses is going to keep them from violating any other sort of rules. When people said — players used to get laundry money — we ought to go back to that, when players got a stipend, it might eliminate some of the cheating that goes on. And my response to that was always, “No it won’t.” If you want to expand the scholarship because it’s the right thing to do for the players, then do it. But if you’re trying to stop players from violating other rules, that’s not going to stop them. If you give a player two hundred bucks a month and somebody offers them additional money on top of that, they’re still going to take it. If they were predisposed to take it without the stipend, they’re going to take it with it, because that’s more. So I’ve never understood that logic.

I don’t feel like schools should pay the players. The idea that somehow these players deserve workers’ comp and should be paid a salary, I don’t necessarily agree with that. But I don’t think they should be handcuffed from taking advantage of their outside opportunities the way they are. I have a hard time reconciling the fact that a college basketball player can make a million dollars a year playing professional baseball but still be an amateur basketball player, but there’s a skier at the University of Colorado, who was a professional skier and they make their money off of endorsements, so he endorsed products skiing, and they wouldn’t let him play college football, because he traded on his name and likeness as an athlete. I thought, “that’s absurd.” Why shouldn’t a player be able to capitalize on it?

And there are lawsuits right now over it. The lawsuits right now that have to do with video games — the names and likenesses of players — is exactly what I’m talking about. The NCAA and the schools are making money off of the names and likenesses of the players, and the players are being cut totally out of it. To me it’s pretty simple analysis. If you look at these games, there is no question that the names and likenesses of the players are being used — none. They can say they have the right to do it, I’m not arguing whether they are right or wrong, but they are certainly doing it. I don’t know if you’ve noticed they don’t do it to the coaches. Do you ever notice the coaches aren’t in those games at all?

Kahn: I don’t really play video games too much. My brother would know.

Bilas: Ask him. I’m sure the lawyers that are dealing with these cases have looked at that. It’s pretty stark that the players, who aren’t allowed to make a nickel out of this, their names and likenesses are being used, but the coaches, who the makers of these games know they can’t violate their names and likenesses, they can’t violate trademark copyright laws, intellectual property laws, they don’t have the coaches in there. If the games are going to be totally realistic why wouldn’t they have the coaches? The answer is, because they can’t do it. And they know they can’t. But the players, they know they can, and they do. And I don’t think that’s right.

I don’t think high school players should be paid just because their high school charges admission to the game and they sell popcorn and all that stuff. I’m not suggesting that the University of North Carolina has to pay Deon Thompson. But if Deon Thompson, or whoever the player is at a particular school, if a local car company wants to give the kid a car and he does a commercial, why should anybody care? It doesn’t make him a pro. If it doesn’t make him a pro if the NCAA does it, I don’t see how it makes him a pro if the kid himself does it.

Kahn: That’s a good point.  I know when I played in some golf tournaments when I was younger and there were holes were you could win a car if you got a hole-in-one, and if you accepted it you would lose your amateur status, which I always thought was ridiculous. I think that happened to a college basketball player a few years ago.

Bilas: That’s another good point. You can get your amateur status back in golf. You can’t get it back in basketball. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Do I think it should be looked at? Absolutely. Do I think there are areas in which we can take the handcuffs off of players, and make things easier on them, and not compromise the quote unquote integrity of the game — I think there’s a feeling in college athletics that if somehow a kid were to make a nickel off of being a player, that all of the sudden the innocence of the game is gone, and I don’t believe that. Because nobody seems to be bothered by the fact that there are kids playing college basketball right now that are also professional baseball players. And nobody cares. It’s happened for a long time. You can go all the way back to Danny Ainge. Danny Ainge was a professional baseball player when he was in college. And Trajan Langdon at Duke was a professional baseball player when he was in college. He was an amateur basketball player and a professional baseball player. Those things for me are kind of hard to reconcile with how draconian the NCAA rules can be.

Kahn: My final question is one I’m particularly interested in since I went to Michigan. You did the Kansas-Michigan game and during the broadcast you seemed confident about Michigan getting a Tourney bid. In your most recent blog entry, you appeared to pull back on those statements a little bit. Michigan has a home game with UConn — do you think they’ll win that and then go a few games over .500 in the Big Ten? Or do you think they can suddenly turn it around come conference play?

Bilas: I believed what I said in the Kansas game, that I think that’s an NCAA Tourney-worthy team. Or it least it should be. But when you really look at their body of work to this point — they’ve played 10 games; they’re 6-5. Northern Michigan is a Division II team, so that game doesn’t count. They’ll put it in their record but the committee’s not even going to consider that game. So they’re 5-5, they have not beaten a team ranked in the top half of Division I yet. Their best win was against Creighton and that was in overtime on a neutral floor, and Creighton is a .500 team. Their best win was against Detroit, and Detroit’s ranked ahead of them.

It’s way too early for this kind of thing, but Michigan’s ranked 189th in the last RPI I looked at. While that’s not a true indicator, because I think you have to get to February to where that’s really accurate and somewhat reliable. But heck, it’s an indicator, and it’s not a good one for them. They have not played as well as I expected. I ranked them in the top 15 to start the year. I really thought they would be much better. They’ve got two pros on that team, and they’ve not played near their capabilities, and it’s been surprising. Are they close? I think people spend way too much time talking about, “Well, if we had just hit a couple of shots here or there.” Their defense has not been very good against good teams. Against the top five teams they’ve played, they’re allowing those top five teams to shoot over 50 percent from the field. That’s a pretty big deal. If Michigan plays well in the Big Ten…if they win 10 out of their 18 games, I think they should make it.

Kahn: You can compare them to the football team in a way. You started saying, “Well, if they just stop with all these turnovers and the defense stops making all these crippling mistakes, then they’ll start winning.” But after three or four games of it you start to realize, “OK, well maybe this is just what they do.” Same with basketball — people keep waiting for them to shoot better and stop the opponent from easy dribble penetration, but after a certain number of games you start to think that maybe this is just what they are. 

Bilas: Andrew, you’re right. I think Michigan has clearly dug a little bit of a hole. I kind of look at it as opportunities lost. I don’t think somehow they’ve got to make up for the games that they’ve lost, because you really can’t do that. For me at least, and I may look at it a little bit differently than some other people, but the teams that Michigan will be competing with to get into the Tournament — assuming they don’t win the automatic bid by winning the Big Ten Tournament — are all going to have lost a fair amount of games. They’ll all have that in common — they will have lost a lot of games. The issue is going to be: Who have you beaten? Last year at this time, Michigan had beaten UCLA and Duke. This year, they haven’t beaten anybody. They’ve got to go out and find some quality wins for people to say, “Look who they’ve beat. Look who they’ve proven they can beat.” That’s the main difference between this year and last year. Last year they already had a couple of scalps and this year they don’t.

Butler Basketball: Gordon Hayward an All-America Candidate

I’ve already raved about John Wall. Evan Turner is out due to an injury, but when healthy he is one of the most complete players in the country. Luke Harangody is putting up monster numbers and Wesley Johnson is wowing NBA scouts. But if I were filling out my All-America ballot today I’d certainly have to include Butler’s Gordon Hayward.

The 6’8, 200 lb. sophomore is averaging 17.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Bulldogs. Hayward is an extremely versatile player who can take his man off the dribble and shoot the three effectively (he’s 11-of-22 his last three games; he shot 44% from deep last season). He’s a good passer and can defend multiple positions.

Last season, as a freshman, Hayward was at his best against the best. Here is his point production in the following nationally-televised games: 25 at No. 21 Ohio State; 19 at No. 12 Xavier; 27 at Davidson; 12 vs. No. 20 LSU. That’s an average of 20.5 points per game, well above his season average of 13.1. Butler went 2-2 in those games, losing to OSU and LSU by three and four points, respectively.

It’s been more of the same this year for Hayward. Butler struggled early on against a brutal schedule, but not because of their star small forward. He kept them in the game against No. 15 Georgetown, scoring 24 in a five-point defeat, Butler’s third straight loss to a ranked team. Perhaps sensing his team needed him more than ever, Hayward delivered his second 24-point output in as many games, this time in a Butler win against No. 15 Ohio State.  He followed that up with 22 and a career-high 14 boards, including a clutch rebound and the game-winning buzzer beater in a wild win against Xavier on Saturday.

His impressive marks of 20.2 and 10.4 against top competition (the ranked teams, plus Xavier) are starting to resemble his overall season averages — in other words, Hayward is becoming a consistently productive star. Once the Horizon League’s best kept secret — it was Hayward’s teammate, junior Matt Howard, who was winning all the awards — the college basketball world is starting to become more familiar with the lanky kid from Brownsburg, Indiana. Hayward was on the preseason watch list for both the Naismith Trophy and the Wooden Award. The United States Basketball Writers Association (of which I am a member) gave him the Player of the Week award last week. In other words, the secret is out.

Hayward doesn’t jump out of the gym, lacks elite quickness, and doesn’t play with a lot of flash. But he does have a nose for the basketball and great court awareness. These qualities are obviously starting to get noticed by NBA GMs. On ESPN.com, Hayward is listed as the 18th best pro prospect.

Hayward strikes me as a four-year college player. He could still develop more physically, and mid-majors aren’t known for players leaving early. If he does stay in school and continues to develop, Hayward could someday win one of those awards for which he is a preseason nominee. If he keeps up his play of late, he could win some serious hardware this season.

John Wall: The Best Freshman in College Basketball History?

It is perhaps the ultimate compliment to say that an athlete is “worth the price of admission.” It can get thrown around too often, but with certain players it is true: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Johan Santana, Adrian Peterson. There are others, of course; they are usually professional athletes. John Wall, however, is a 19-year-old college freshman. But if you don’t think Wall’s worth the price of admission, you haven’t seen him play.

Simply put, Wall is too good for college basketball. He knew it, NBA scouts knew it, and John Calipari knew it when he offered him a scholarship, first at Memphis and then once he was hired at Kentucky. But the NBA’s age requirement prevented Wall from making the leap from high school to the pros that James, Bryant, and so many others have done. Folks, we are seeing what LeBron James would have been like in college.

Despite his ball-handling, passing, and shooting skills, James has the body of a power forward, which allows him to dominate the game in an unprecedented way. But offensively, Wall can take over just the same, even though he is only 6’4 and 195 pounds. His speed with the ball in his hands has drawn comparisons to Ty Lawson, yet Wall has five inches on the former North Carolina point guard.

Wall hasn’t even played 10 college games yet, but is it wrong to say he’s the best freshman in the last 20 years? Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant were both spectacular in their one (and only) year in college, no question. Perhaps the player most similar to Wall is Derrick Rose, who also played for Calipari just two seasons ago. Rose was selected first overall in last year’s NBA draft and won the Rookie of the Year award.

Dan Wolken is in his third year covering Memphis basketball for The Commercial Appeal, so he witnessed Rose’s lone college season up close. He also saw Wall play several times in the AAU circuit two summers ago. “My basic impression of (Wall) at that time was that he had the chance to be better than Rose because he’s bigger and is probably quicker end-to-end,” Wolken wrote in an e-mail last week. “The only question was the intangibles. Rose’s teams always won, and Wall didn’t have that same kind of success in AAU or in high school. But Wall has pretty quickly answered the questions about his intangibles, so there’s no reason he can’t be better in college.”

Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader has covered Kentucky basketball for nearly 30 years, so it means something when he declares, “I can’t think of another college basketball player to get off to the start John Wall has,” as he did via e-mail last week. I found it a bit surprising that he made such strong comparisons to a Kentucky player who spent two seasons with the Wildcats before leaving in 2006: Rajon Rondo. I guess Tipton saw what many NBA scouts didn’t: Rondo was a great talent who deserved to be selected higher than 21st in the draft.

Tipton reminds us of the time when freshmen were ineligible, so dominant forces like Lew Alcindor (as he was known then) didn’t get a chance to showcase their skills right away. While Tipton would not say Wall is the greatest freshman of all time — he’d have a hard time overlooking Anthony, Shaquille O’Neal, and Chris Jackson, among others — just considering a player only nine games into his career speaks to Wall’s impact. “If Wall keeps making pull-up jump shots, he’s unguardable,” wrote Tipton.

Regardless of where you might rank Wall amongst the all-time greats or amongst all freshman, you’d have no chance of convincing me he isn’t the most exciting and entertaining player in college basketball. Nobody is more fun to watch than Wall when he’s got the ball. He is a “don’t blink” guy. He is a “change to the channel he’s on” guy. He’s been hyped up and talked about so much — but he has delivered.

Players like Wall are the reason I’m against the NBA’s age requirement. Sure, for every player like James, Bryant, or Kevin Garnett there are a handful like Lenny Cooke (who?), but I think it’s best to let these players and their families make the decisions. But that is a different argument for another day. For now, I’m just going to sit back and enjoy watching Wall, one of the greatest college players I’ve ever seen.

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Butler Basketball: At-Large Bid Hopes Still Alive

“We’ve got to change everything we’re doing right now. What we’ve been doing the past nine games hasn’t worked, so we have to go back to the drawing board and change it.”

Butler sophomore Gordon Hayward told me that following the Bulldogs’ 72-65 loss to No. 13 Georgetown at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. It struck me as a bit dramatic; after all, Butler was 6-3 and ranked 20th in the country.

But Hayward, despite his 24 points and eight rebounds, was frustrated. His team, ranked No. 10 in the preseason coaches’ poll, failed to win any of its match-ups with other ranked teams, dropping games to Minnesota and Clemson in Anaheim before falling to the Hoyas. The team that exceeded expectations last year en route to a 26-6 record, another Horizon League regular season title, and a berth in the NCAA Tournament, was struggling.

The media was starting to question whether Butler could still earn an at-large bid, as they did a season ago. The Bulldogs’ next two games were certainly going to be important. Yesterday, they took a step in the right direction by beating No. 15 Ohio State 74-66. (Hayward again had 24, and shot much better from the field.)

Skeptics will be quick to point out that it was a Buckeye squad playing without Evan Turner. Does that lessen the quality of the win? Absolutely, but let’s wait and see how Ohio State fares without its star. If the Buckeyes can adjust and start winning some games, Butler’s ‘W’ will look better.

Butler’s next two opponents are Xavier and UAB (it also has a yet-to-be-determined BracketBusters game in late February). Neither is ranked, but they’d still be quality victories. My point is, those who have written off the Bulldogs are making a mistake. The Butler program has earned national respect and should get some leeway come March. I’m not saying a third-place finish in the Horizon League will get them a bid, but the committee won’t overlook the fact that eight of Butler’s 12 nonconference games are away from home.

Here’s head coach Brad Stevens’ take: “I look at every win as really meaningful. I know sometimes the media doesn’t. They just count certain wins as meaningful and others as not.” He noted his squad went to Northwestern and handed the Wildcats their only loss. “We’ll see what’s meaningful at the end of the year,” he added.

The next two games will be very important for Butler. After the loss to Georgetown, many felt those games would be irrelevant.

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