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.

Congress Approves Anti-BCS Bill

I love sports and I don’t appreciate it when people tell me “it’s just a game” after Michigan loses to Ohio State or the Mets get eliminated from playoff contention. It bothers me even more when people take the time to explain to me that there are so many more important things in life than who wins a basketball game.

Because, uh, no kidding.

Even the most passionate, obsessed, die-hard sports fans realize this. Just because someone gets upset when their favorite team loses doesn’t mean they think it’s more devastating than cancer or war. We sports fans have perspective. We realize that when it comes to sports, like everything in life, “it’s all relative.”

Unfortunately, Congress doesn’t share this belief. At least that’s the message it sent when it approved legislation that prohibits referring to the BCS title game as a national championship game.

It’s beyond egregious that taxpayer money is going towards something so frivolous. Don’t get me wrong, the college football playoff debate is an interesting one, and certainly a worthwhile topic for college football enthusiasts. But for politicians to spend their working hours on this is absurd.

My favorite part of the news articles written about this bill is that many of them mention that President Obama said he is in favor of a playoff. Yes, he did, but that’s only because he was asked. He didn’t say he was going to spend time pushing policy that would eliminate the BCS.

But that’s what an entire Congressional committee will spend its time doing. I could mention all the problems in our country — the economy, healthcare, Wall Street corruption, etc. — and although that does make this news even more unbelievable, something like this shouldn’t be happening even if our country was prospering.

If our elected leaders continue to waste time and money on such insignificant debate, America’s road to recovery might be even longer than anticipated.

BCS Formula Needs to Remove Preseason Poll

Now that it’s official — undefeateds Cincinnati, TCU, and Boise State won’t be playing for the National Championship — fans will start arguing how their school was a victim of a postseason snub.

But they’ll be wrong.

Their favorite teams were slighted before the season even began.

The BCS is far from perfect, but with a contract through 2014, college football would be better off if critics spent their time developing ways to improve the system as opposed to petitioning for a playoff. One fairly simple change is to remove preseason polls.

Let’s take a look at this year’s preseason coaches’ poll (that’s the one that factors into the BCS), which ranked Florida No. 1, to see where the eventual undefeated teams were placed. There’s Texas (2), Alabama (5), Boise (16), TCU (17), and Cincinnati (NR).

Not surprisingly, of these teams, the two ranked highest in the preseason are the two meeting for the title. The voters are, simply put, stubborn. “Not so fast, my friend!” you might say, pointing out the impressive rise of the other three schools, which have all climbed into the top six. Sorry, I don’t see that as those teams moving up — I see it as the losing teams moving down. In other words, you can move up if you win, sure, but only if those above you lose.

The voters of the Harris Poll, another component of the BCS, agree with at least some of my thinking and don’t release their rankings until after week four. I might recommend pushing it back an additional week or two, but at least the voters get to see the teams in action for a few weeks before making their judgments. In their opening poll, they placed Texas and Alabama Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, but had Boise (5), Cincinnati (10), and TCU (11) much higher than the coaches did in their first poll.

Here’s the thing: I’m not arguing that Alabama and Texas shouldn’t be playing for the title. At the same time, if the title game paired any two of the undefeated teams I wouldn’t be complaining. It’s a remarkable feat to go through an entire season unblemished. (And, if you want to look at out of conference games, Boise’s win over Oregon, TCU’s win at Clemson, and Cincy’s win at Oregon State look a lot better than anything Texas did outside of the Big 12; just sayin’…)

What I am arguing for is the tweaking of a system that is giving unfair advantage to certain teams. With no actual results to analyze, a team is placed in the preseason poll based on name brand, where it finished in last year’s final poll, and how many skill position players are returning. The TCU’s and Boise’s aren’t exactly in the forefront of the voters’ minds in August, leaving them in a position where they have to jump more teams than they probably should have to en route to a top ranking.

To be fair, even if there were no preseason rankings, even if the voters, the computers, and everything else that goes into the BCS were not collected until the conference championships were over, it’s possible we’d still have the same title match-up we have now. And that’s fine. But given the apparent unwillingness of voters to be flexible with their ballots, preseason polls must go (and maybe there should be some sort of counseling or something to remind voters that they can change their opinions on teams throughout the season).

The little guys (non BCS-conference schools) have enough hurdles to climb. They can’t do anything, schedule-wise, about the majority of their games — victories against almost all of their conference opponents don’t carry much weight.

If a minor change can help remove one of those obstacles, it should be done. Getting rid of the postseason injustices should start in the preseason.

MAAC Basketball Preview

Conference play in the MAAC began tonight with Marist visiting Fairfield. There are three more games tomorrow night. So I thought it would be worthwhile to review what the MAAC has done so far this young season. I’ll go in reverse order of preseason conference ranking which, along with the three preseason All-Conference teams, was voted on by the coaches.

Marist (10)
The Red Foxes are 0-4. Their average margin of defeat is 17.5 points. They’re probably not going to be all that competitive this year.

Iona (9)
The Gaels (4-2) have been a pleasant surprise, beating Boston University in their opener and playing three competitive games in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, losing by five to Florida State, falling in overtime to Baylor, and beating Creighton. Iona has reached the 80-point mark twice this season, and their deep bench allows them to employ the up-tempo, full-court press attack that coach Kevin Willard prefers. They may be a year away from being a serious competitor in the MAAC, but I think the Gaels have proven they are a dangerous team right now.

Manhattan (8)
The Jaspers are 4-2 but have no quality wins. We’ll know a lot more about Manhattan the next time they return home, which isn’t until Jan. 4 — Friday starts a tough stretch of seven straight road games (which includes four conference games and a trip to Vanderbilt.)

Canisius (7)
Much like Manhattan, Canisius has a winning record (3-2) but hasn’t beaten anyone of note. They open conference play tomorrow at home against Loyola. The Golden Griffins have three players averaging at least 14 points per game.

Loyola (t5)
It’s become a theme: Loyola is 4-2 but doesn’t have any impressive wins. Preseason second-teamer Jamal Barney is averaging 12.3 points and 4.3 rebounds a game for the Greyounds.

Saint Peter’s (t5)
St. Pete’s is the team that played the 6 a.m. game as part of ESPN’s 24 hours of college hoops. They won that game, shaking off a season-opening loss at the buzzer to Seton Hall. Since, they’ve had a couple of bad losses and now sit at 2-3. Second-teamer Wesley Jenkins leads the Peacocks in scoring with 14.4 per game.

Fairfield (4)
Unfortunately for the Stags, they’re probably not going to be as good as their preseason ranking suggests. Much like last year, injuries have taken a toll on Fairfield. Second-team preseason selection Greg Nero, who missed a lot of time last year due to back spasms, has not played yet this season and might miss the entire season after having offseason sinus surgery. Without Nero, the Stags are far less dangerous. They’re 4-2 but lost their only two real tests (against Maryland and Hofstra).

Rider (3)
The Broncs (5-3) got a huge win to start the season, winning at then-No. 19 Mississippi State. They have cooled off a bit since, suffering 30+ point losses at Virginia and Kentucky and then losing to Sam Houston State. They are coming off a win against St. Joe’s, though. Rider has three players on the three preseason teams, including preseason Player of the Year Ryan Thompson, and is considered to be one of the two teams with a chance to dethrone Siena.

Niagara (2)
The Purple Eagles (4-3) lost by four at Auburn to open the season and have been somewhat quiet since. But they certainly have the talent to win the MAAC, and with four straight conference home games to start MAAC play, it’s fair to assume they’ll likely be at the top of the conference standings when they visit Siena Jan. 9.

Siena (1)
The Saints have been a disappointment so far, losing to Temple, St. John’s, and Georgia Tech, essentially eliminating themselves from getting an at-large bid should they fail to repeat as MAAC Tournament champs. First-team selection Edwin Ubiles has been hampered by a knee injury, but Siena has plenty of talent to pick up the slack.

Big Ten-ACC Challenge 2009

The Big Ten/ACC Challenge tips off tomorrow night, and I had intended to write about how this was the year. How after 10 straight losses — the entire history of the Challenge — the Big Ten was finally going to win. Then I looked at the match-ups. I’m no longer very confident.

I’m a fan of Big Ten athletics but I don’t claim it’s the best conference every year, in football or basketball. I did, however, enter this hoops season believing the Big Ten was the best conference in the country. It has a couple of really good teams (Michigan State and Purdue) and aside from its two worst (Indiana and Iowa), is very strong top to bottom. Most of the teams in the consensus three through nine (Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois) are very good.

The ACC, on the other hand, appears to be in a bit of a down year. North Carolina, despite its high preseason ranking, has a ton of young, unproven players. Duke should be strong again, but overall the conference simply doesn’t have the depth of the Big Ten. The Big Ten takes a lot of flack for whatever reason, and its winless streak in the Challenge was not helping matters. Yet it seemed to be in great position to end that streak this year.

So why am I less certain now than I was before I knew the match-ups? Let’s take a look:

Penn State at Virginia
Wake Forest at Purdue
Maryland at Indiana
Northwestern at North Carolina State
Michigan State at North Carolina
Virginia Tech at Iowa
Illinois at Clemson
Boston College at Michigan
Minnesota at Miami
Duke at Wisconsin
Florida State at Ohio State

The Challenge sets up favorably for the ACC. Two teams that are likely going to lose no matter what, Indiana and Iowa, are “wastes” of home teams. In some of the more balanced match-ups, the ACC has home court advantage (North Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina State).

But these just sound like excuses for the Big Ten, which has had 10 previous attempts to win the Challenge and failed each time. So, although I wasn’t as confident as I once was, I’m still going to say that this is the year for the Big Ten. It should certainly grab wins with Ohio State, Michigan, and Purdue. Virginia Tech and Maryland will most likely prevail for the ACC. Other than those, it’s difficult to project winners, but I think the Big Ten will get the requisite six victories to win the Challenge.

Just for the heck of it, here are my projected winners.
Big Ten: Penn State, Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State
ACC: Maryland, Virginia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson

Do you agree that the Big Ten will end its drought or will the ACC win its eleventh straight? Share your opinions in the comments section.

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