With the college football awards out of the way and the best teams momentarily out of the national spotlight as they prepare for their upcoming bowl games, college basketball takes center stage this weekend.
The Campus Dribble Drive will be in the Barclays Center tomorrow for the CBS Sports Classic featuring three top-ranked teams in the UCLA vs North Carolina and Kentucky vs Ohio State doubleheader. The weekend's other big games include Butler vs Purdue, Arizona vs UNLV, Duke vs Utah and Villanova vs Virginia, among others.
With no overwhelming favorite and clear cut dominant squad this year, college hoops is going to be a compelling battle royal and free-for-all all the way through the national championship chase. This is the type of season that could give us a Final Four of Xavier, Providence, Iowa State and George Washington just as easily as one consisting of the usual suspects like North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and Duke.
There will be 25 or so schools and their giddy fan bases that believe that their squad has a legitimate shot at cutting down the nets in Houston on April 4th as Luther Vandross’ rendition of One Shining Moment blares on our televisions.
I can’t wait for the madness to get here. Until then, as the season begins to heat up, here are a few early season observations.
On the East Coast, we get to see some of the amazing freshmen on a regular basis, like LSU’s Ben Simmons, Duke’s Brandon Ingram, Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe, Skal Labissiere and Jamal Murray, Kansas’ Cheik Diallo, Marquette’s Henry Ellenson, Mississipi State’s Malik Newman, Villanova’s Jalen Brunson, Maryland’s Diamond Stone, Michigan State’s Deyonta Davis and Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon.
Simmons, despite playing on a dreadful Louisiana State squad that has lost to subpar teams like Charleston and Houston, has more than lived up to his surrounding hype. When I first laid eyes on him, he was a sophomore playing with D’Angelo Russell, Kasey Hill and Dakari Johnson for Montverde Academy in the 2013 ESPN RISE High School Invitational national championships at Georgetown Prep in Bethesda, Maryland.
After the first few minutes of me seeing him, I called my mentor Garry Howard, who was the Editor-in-Chief at Sporting News at the time, and said, “I think I just saw the next LeBron James. Kid is from Australia, Ben Simmons. His game is unreal! A Nike rep told me this is his very first game in America and that they’ve been waiting for years to get him here. Remember I told you first. Ben Simmons!!! He’s the next big thing.”
I’m not touting my abilities as a talent evaluator, because Simmons was so good back then that even Stevie Wonder could see it. I’m simply saying that I never doubted that he was the Real Deal like Evander Holyfield. He’s not only lived up to the hype, but LSU’s struggles are somewhat overshadowing how incredible Simmons has been playing.
In terms of his all around game, the young man is doing some Magic Johnson/Larry Bird type stuff on the hardwood, averaging 19 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and three steals per game while shooting over 50%. If you haven’t seen what he did to North Florida, when he collected 43 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and three blocks, like the Korean grocer told Loc Dog in Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, “I feel sorry for your mother.”
I don’t care if LSU is an N.I.T. bubble team, I’m watching them whenever they’re on TV to see Simmons give out that work. After his one-and-done season this year, people will be talking about him alongside Shaq, Pistol Pete Maravich and the artist formerly known as Chris Jackson as the best players to ever play for the university.
Unfortunately, we don’t get many opportunities on the East Coast to see some of the great freshman talent out West on a regular basis. For those who are similarly deprived, here are three guys you need to get up on before March Madness gets here –
JAYLEN BROWN, 6-foot-7 Guard/Forward, Cal – The native of Georgia plays what we call a “Grown Man” style of ball. His ability to out-muscle others while bodying up and finishing through contact is next-level. Brown is very good getting to his spots off the bounce and has an excellent feel for the rhythms of the game. A beast in transition, he can start and finish the break and his defensive hunger is unteachable.
IVAN RABB, 6-foot-11 Forward, Cal – The Oakland native has exceptional lateral quickness and agility. He’s very fluid in the transition game, especially for a big man. Watch how he sees the floor and passes the ball, in addition to the blocked shots. Once he catches the rock in the post, he doesn’t hesitate to initiate his move. I love his speed, soft touch and how quick he’s able to get off his feet .
STEPHEN ZIMMERMAN, 7-Foot Center, UNLV – I’ve been watching Zimm, who stayed home to play at Vegas, for years at the elite AAU events and I’ve always enjoyed his skill set. The lefty is very mobile and plays in the vertical plane. And he has an excellent mid-range repertoire, which is somewhat of a lost art today.
My biggest takeaway from this early stage of the season is how deep the Big 12 is. Kansas is still the big boy on the block, but Kansas State, Oklahoma, Baylor, West Virginia and Iowa State have all looked very good early on.
And don’t sleep on the Big East either. Xavier could easily get to the Final Four, Providence’s Kris Dunn is the most gifted point guard in the country and Butler’s backcourt of Roosevelt Jones and Tyler Lewis can ball with anybody.
And speaking of surprises, how about Monmouth, and the job that head coach and former North Carolina Tar Heel point guard King Rice is doing. The Hawks have beaten Georgetown, UCLA and Notre Dame so far this year.
I’m more hyped up than Buggin' Out organizing a boycott of Sal's Famous to see UCLA, North Carolina, Ohio State and Kentucky, four of the country’s winningest programs, in person at The CBS Sports Classic in Brooklyn tomorrow.
After dusting off Kentucky and Gonzaga, Steve Alford’s Bruins are looking like a contender for the Pac-12 crown, alongside Utah, Arizona and Cal. Bryce Alford, Tony Parker, Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holliday can all score and rebound. They are coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances and have banged out five consecutive victories, the most impressive being a 10-point win against Kentucky.
I’m disappointed that Tar Heels big man Kennedy Meeks is injured, so I won’t see them at full strength. But if their most recent game against Tulane is any indication, they’re still one of the country’s best teams. This squad is expected to get back to the Final Four for the first time since they won it all in 2009. Their best win thus far was the 89-81 victory over a very tough Maryland team in star guard Marcus Paige's first game returning from a hand injury.
Kentucky’s big man Skal Labissierre has struggled thus far, but with John Calipari boasting three NBA point guards in his backcourt in Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray, the freshman big man has enough time to figure out how he can be most effective. It’s pretty evident that he’s not strong enough to play with the premier bigs down low right now. He’ll have to use his speed, length and quickness to offset how teams have been muscling him around.
Coach Cal is in the midst of a mind-boggling run of four Final Fours in five years, which is insane considering how he has to replenish his team every year due to the proliferation of one-and-done's doing their pro hoops internships at Kentucky. I'm looking to see Briscoe get more opportunities initiating the Wildcats offense as a primary ball-handler, which would make them even more formidable in their half court offensive attack.
Should be a great weekend of college hoops. Enjoy!