College Basketball Nation: Cleanthony Early

So, now that we're a week away from the Wooden Award luncheon in Dallas, how does the Los Angeles Athletic Club and its Wooden Award advisory board actually go about deciding this thing? Helpful explanation from the club itself is provided here:

Voting is opened to the national voting panel prior to the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. Voters may vote via an online system that allows them to evaluate players up until just after the Third Round of the NCAA Tournament. The official accounting firm of the John R. Wooden Award, Deloitte, tabulates all votes.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesCollege basketball had to say goodbye to Doug McDermott after Creighton's early exit from the NCAA tournament.

In other words, the votes are already in, but that doesn't mean voters can't take the NCAA tournament into account. Do they? Hard to say. Should they? Your mileage might vary. Either way, let's take a quick look at how the Wooden candidates might -- or might not -- be affected by their tournament performances.

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Cue up Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday" for this one. Last week, McDermott finished his college career with 3,150 points, fifth all time on the scoring list, but his team played -- and shot -- its worst game of the season against Baylor's long, tricky zone and couldn't press effectively to try to get back in the game when it was over. The result was an 85-55 blowout, and a tearful McDermott exited to a standing ovation. The only thing more of a bummer than the way McDermott ended his career was that he had to end it at all. We'd happily sign up for another year. In any case, he's still your runaway Wooden Award favorite.

2. Russ Smith, Louisville: Smith hasn't played particularly well in the NCAA tournament thus far, which is just like him. As much as Smith has frustrated coach Rick Pitino in his mostly brilliant Louisville career, he is just as frustrating for pundits who go all-in on praise, because he usually follows that praise with a quirky off night under the bright lights. For most of this season, though, he's been brilliant. How he plays in the Cardinals' Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky could define his legacy.

3. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Speaking of legacies, how about the one Napier is putting together at Connecticut? In last week's upset of No. 2-seed Villanova, Napier was lights out before bruising his shin. He left the game in "excruciating" pain. He later reentered, finished a couple of insane drives that only he can make and led UConn to a victory after all. What a player.

4. Jabari Parker, Duke: Parker's freshman season, and almost certainly his college career, ended with a whimper. That was true of his team, which made 15 of 37 shots from 3 and still lost to 14-seed Mercer, and Parker himself, who scored 14 points on 14 shots. That finale might hurt him in the final awards voting, to say nothing of his defensive issues, but overall? As single seasons go, Parker's was pretty great.

5. Nick Johnson, Arizona: It has taken most of the country a few months to figure out why Aaron Gordon is so valuable to the Wildcats (because he is a complete athletic freak who can guard every position on the court for the best defense in the country, naturally). But Johnson has kept showing why he's so important, too: Not only is he Arizona's most reliable and versatile scorer, he's a crucial perimeter defender in his own right. Arizona is still in the title hunt as well.

6. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: When was the last time a player on a No. 1 seed saw his draft stock leap this much in a loss? Early was legendary in Wichita State's loss to Kentucky last weekend. His cool, comprehensive, 31-point performance wasn't enough to get the Shockers past soaring UK, but it was enough to simultaneously validate his team's season and his own individual primacy even though Fred Van Vleet 's shot missed right.

7. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: It's a safe bet that much of the country's casual college hoops fandom had no idea who Thames was before the tournament. They figured it out pretty quickly. Thames was great in the first weekend and arguably even better in SDSU's back-and-forth rumble with Arizona on Thursday night.

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Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsShabazz Napier won't win the Wooden Award, but he's putting quite the finish on his UConn career.

8. Casey Prather, Florida: Florida is so deep and talented that when Prather and forward Patric Young sat on the bench with four fouls apiece late in Thursday night's win over UCLA (and Scottie Wilbekin was struggling through one of his worst games of the season), no one in Memphis, Tenn., actually thought the Gators were going to lose. That depth has overshadowed Prather's contributions at times -- Wilbekin, after all, was the SEC player of the year. But from November until now, Prather has been the best and most important player on the best team in the country. Without him, Florida wouldn't be Florida.

9. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: Kilpatrick and Cincinnati had a rough go in their only NCAA tournament game, falling victim to Harvard and the strange curse of the No. 5 seed. (Seriously, why do so many No. 5s lose to No. 12s? Doesn't that mean the teams are improperly seeded? Something doesn't compute here.) But, as with Creighton, the Bearcats' early end shouldn't overshadow the magnificent season their star player had in the three dozen games that preceded it.

10. Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle has been Kentucky's consistent force all season long. That hasn't changed. He's still beasting the glass on both ends of the court. What has changed are the conditions around him -- better, headier play from the Harrison twins, smart shot selection from James Young, increased energy from Alex Poythress and great defensive contributions from centers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein. For much of the season, Randle's remarkable frontcourt work was Kentucky's best and only option. Now, it's just the tip of the sword.

Honorable mentions: Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Aaron Gordon (Arizona), Scottie Wilbekin (Florida) Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Marcus Paige (North Carolina), Bryce Cotton (Providence)



ST. LOUIS -- It couldn’t really happen.

The billing for Kentucky and Wichita State on Sunday called for a battle of talent versus experience, potential versus accomplishment, the perennial front-runner that underachieved versus the underdog on a magical ride.

They were on a collision course here, primed to meet in a moment that tested wills on both sides: a classic confrontation with all the storylines in place.

It wouldn’t happen, right?

It happened.

Kentucky outlasted No. 1 seed Wichita State 78-76 in a heavyweight rumble fit for a later round of the NCAA tournament. UK ended the Shockers’ season, perfect at 35-0 until Sunday, by playing like it hadn’t played all year.

With a team of future pros, the Wildcats -- attacked all season, according to coach John Calipari, bludgeoned even -- finally clicked.

And still, the Shockers came up just one shot short as Fred VanVleet’s 3-pointer from the top of the key clanked the rim and bounced away at the Scottrade Center, leaving a crowd of 19,676 to ponder what it had seen.

“You all understand,” Calipari said, “this was an Elite Eight game. The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four.”

It was a round-of-32 gem, one of those unforgettable, back-and-forth tournament games that may mark a coming-of-age moment for Calipari’s young group, which advances to the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis this week to face nemesis Louisville.

“We don’t worry about that,” Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. “I’m just really trying to enjoy the moment right now.”

What’s that, a Kentucky player refusing to look at the next game, just days away, against Louisville?

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Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesKentucky's Aaron Harrison looked to pass against pressure from Wichita State's Fred VanVleet.
The UK fans ought to try that. Well, on Sunday night they could, because this victory over Wichita State was something to savor.

“A lot of people were down on us all year,” senior guard Jarrod Polson said. “We’re just trying to make this run and prove everybody wrong.”

The Wildcats’ run, which started as the preseason No. 1, continues. For Wichita State, it ends prematurely. The Shockers got a raw deal, matched against the size and athletic prowess of Kentucky at this stage. At every position, the Wildcats were bigger, starting with twin guards freshmen Andrew and Aaron Harrison.

Wichita State, of course, did not back down. Its sophomore backcourt duo of VanVleet and Ron Baker matched the Harrisons, big moment for big moment.

“You go through some humps in your life, kind of like this one,” Baker said. “It’s tough to see us go out like this. We all wanted more, and at the end of the day, you know, somebody’s got to go home.

“I thought we had a great year, and it’s just unfortunate we won’t be back playing next week.”

In the hallway outside the Wichita State locker room, officials from the Missouri Valley Conference -- the Shockers’ league and host to this event -- wore long faces. One breathed a deep sigh of apparent regret as the doors opened to unveil the Wichita State players, silent and still on the benches inside.

Gregg Marshall had left. The time between coach and players after the game, he said, turned emotional. It was raw. But now, they stared ahead with blank looks. A few of the Shockers toyed with their cell phones. Others tried to answer questions.

But really, they had no answers.

“They made plays,” senior forward Chadrack Lufile said. “They capitalized.”

Wichita State made plays, too. Plenty of them, primarily by Baker and senior Cleanthony Early, who arguably outplayed all of the Kentucky hotshots -- even freshman Julius Randle, a physical force who took over the action for a few minutes early in the second half.

Early, an elite pro prospect himself, scored 31 points on an array of perimeter shots and slicing moves to the rim. His dunk in transition over the 7-foot Cauley-Stein late in the first half left all in attendance to wonder which of these teams, in fact, was stacked with talent.

Baker was just as good at times. When Kentucky, which trailed by six at halftime, went ahead for the first time in the second half at 41-40, Baker rushed down the floor to score and draw a foul. After another Kentucky bucket to tie it at 43, Baker drilled a 3.

Seemingly, the Shockers would not be denied. Until, at the end, the final shot sailed off target.

“It’s hard,” Marshall said, “the finality of it. We won’t be able to coach these seniors anymore. But it’s been such a fun, enjoyable season, magical season. I mean, it’s literally been a magic carpet ride. And to have it end is going to be something that we have to get used to.

“But I still think, in retrospect, we will look back and just be so proud.”

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Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsThe Wildcats celebrated reaching the Sweet 16 and a date against Louisville.
Kentucky, meanwhile, looks ahead. Louisville, which it beat back in December, awaits after a crazy week back home. If the Wildcats survive, perhaps they get Michigan, who lost to Louisville last year in the national title game.

Calipari, nursing a sore hip of late, said he was “whistling and skipping” in the hallway outside the UK locker room, though not because he felt relieved.

“If wins are relief,” he said, “it’s time for me to retire. This was great joy in seeing a group of young men come together and start figuring this out. It took longer than I’d hoped.”

The coach said he failed to define roles adequately among the young Wildcats early in the season. Now, they’re starting to lose themselves within the team. They’re growing as a unit, not lurching forward and backward as individuals. It was evident on the court against Wichita State.

“I just wish we had another month of the season,” Calipari said, “because we’re getting better every day.”

He won’t get a month, but Calipari could get two weeks. It’s a scary thought for the remaining teams in the tournament, because Kentucky, as a No. 8 seed at not even close to its best, takes a backseat to no opponent.

Still, just how close were the Wildcats to a sour finish on Sunday?

Consider this: Andrew Harrison, who runs the point among the 6-foot-6 twins, hurt his right elbow in a collision with Kansas State’s Wesley Iwundu on Friday. Calipari said on Saturday that the Wildcats were ready to play without Harrison.

Trainer Chris Simmons spent the night before this game in Harrison’s hotel room, keeping ice on the injured elbow as Harrison slept.

Harrison played well. He made 6-of-9 from the field and scored a team-high 20 points.

Score one for the trainer.

“Without him, obviously you know now, it would have been a different game,” Calipari said. “We couldn’t have won the game.”

That Wichita State had one shot to win, with three seconds on the clock and the ball past half court, speaks to the Shockers’ resolve and their own level of play.

“That’s how good they are,” Calipari said, “and how good we’re playing right now.”

Good enough to make for a classic.

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week17

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
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1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: On Nov. 21, 2013, the first 2013-14 Wooden Watch column went live. The No. 1 player? Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart. Heady days, right? Smart held on to the top spot for two more weeks before yielding it to UConn's Shabazz Napier. Napier kept it for one week before we pivoted to Aaron Gordon, back when we couldn't decide which Arizona player was most valuable. In Week 6, Jabari Parker assumed the top spot. In Week 8, McDermott rose to No. 1. This is what I wrote at the time:

"As we’ve discussed ad nauseam, the POY award is often about (A) being really good at basketball and (B) building so much perceptual momentum that your honor starts feeling inevitable. Both players have done just that so far. Parker is the insanely gifted freshman; McDermott might finish his career with 3,000 points. If this is a two-man race for the next three months, don’t say you weren’t warned."

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AP Photo/Nati HarnikDoug McDermott has made what was once a captivating race for the Wooden Award into one big victory lap.
Actually, you weren't warned. I was wrong. This hasn't been a two-man race. It's been a joyous, weekly, one-man exhibition.

Were you to scroll through four months of Wooden Watches, you'd notice McDermott's name atop the list in every week since Week 8. But even if you don't read a word, you'll feel his case building. Every week, McDermott's blurb got a little bit longer. Every week, the rest of the list got smaller. Every week, the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker (ACMcDAT) crammed more and more data into bulleted points. In Week 16, after McDermott became the first player since Lionel Simmons to post three straight seasons with 750 or more points, I was almost numb to the numbers. Exhausted, even. He was so good we ran out of ways to say it.

On Saturday, McDermott ended his regular-season career with 45 points on 25 shots in a Senior Night blowout of Providence -- and, in the process, passed the career 3,000-point mark (3,011) with plenty of postseason to spare. The crowd in Omaha, Neb., gave him a stirring ovation. His dad, Creighton coach Greg McDermott, gave him a hug and a slap on the head. In a few weeks, the Associated Press will give him his third straight first-team All-American honor, and make him the first player since Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale to do so. At the Final Four, the Los Angeles Athletic Club will give him the John R. Wooden National Player of the Year Award.

For four years -- and especially the last four months -- McDermott gave us more beautiful basketball than any player in decades. The awards will be the least we can do to say thanks.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Parker might not have come close to making this a two-man race, but that shouldn't obscure the excellent season he's had. While using 31.4 percent of his team's possessions and taking 31.8 percent of its shots, Parker has posted a 113.3 offensive rating. He's also rebounded 24.0 percent of opponents' available misses -- he might not be a great defender, but he's been Duke's anchor on the defensive glass all season. (He's also blocked 4.3 percent of available shots, which tends to get overlooked.) Without him, the Blue Devils would be a good offense and an irredeemable defense. With him, they're great on offense and so-so defensively. His value has been immense.

3. Russ Smith, Louisville: All season, we've been worried that Smith would end up overlooked again. Louisville had a bad nonconference schedule and some stumbles here and there; the Chane Behanan dismissal could have derailed its entire season. And so, despite having the most efficient season of his career -- a year after being the best two-way play in the country, no less -- Smith could have gone overlooked.

We seem to have avoided that fate. Both the USBWA and Sporting News gave Smith first-team All-American honors this week; the Associated Press is likely to follow suit. Meanwhile, Louisville has won nine of its last 10 and is arguably playing the best all-around basketball in the country right now. If Smith's efficient scoring and passing and general Russ Smith-ness haven't impressed you yet, you have ample opportunity to catch up in the weeks to come.

4. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The only time I've ever felt the urge to give a college basketball player a hug came was Jan. 9, 2012. The post-Kemba Walker UConn Huskies were sloughing their way through Jim Calhoun's final season as coach, and Calhoun was desperately searching for some self-leadership. Napier, then a sophomore, cast himself in the role. His teammates had other ideas:
"I try to tell the guys, I feel as if I’m their best leader. Sometimes they give me a chance, sometimes they don’t," Napier said then. "That’s just how it is. It’s just basketball, I guess. ... I try my best to be a leader, even though guys don’t give me a chance to be that person. It shows in the game, I can’t lie. When we have a tipped ball and big guys get the ball and I’m yelling for the ball back out, we’ve got a new shot clock and they go back up ... that shows I’m not that much of a leader. When a play starts breaking down and I’m yelling, ‘Bring it out, bring it out,’ and Boat or Jeremy takes a shot, that just shows that I’m not a leader. It sucks, because we lose games like that. But I try my best. I’m just a human being, I try to do my best in helping my teammates out."

Two years later, Napier is as respected a player as there is in the college game, both by his teammates and by opponents. It helps that he's as good a guard as there is in the college game, too -- a scorer/distributor/defender capable of bending entire halves to his will. Watching him go from disrespected sophomore to beloved senior has been a treat four years in the making.

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AP Photo/Al BehrmanSean Kilpatrick has been the focal point of Cincinnati's run to an American Athletic Conference co-championship.
5. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): Cincinnati's 97-84 win over Memphis on March 6 could fool the casual observer into thinking Kilpatrick is merely the chief among a score of Bearcats offensive options. Not true: For most of the season, he's been the Bearcats' only offensive option. But the March 6 win was a pretty good primer: Kilpatrick finished with 34 points on 11-of-18 from the field and 10-of-11 from the free throw line with zero turnovers. The Bearcats are usually not that fluid on offense; most of the time, they wear teams out on the defensive end and let Kilpatrick do most of the creation on offense. The formula has worked, because Kilpatrick is just that good.

6. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Johnson's season was not without its bumps, the most notable of which came immediately after forward Brandon Ashley was lost for the season to an foot injury. But Johnson has rebounded -- literally and metaphorically -- in the weeks since. He hasn't put up huge offensive numbers, but like Smith, Napier and Kilpatrick, he's one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, and maybe the most versatile. Arizona's offense might have taken a post-Ashley hit, but its defense is still the best in the country. Johnson has played a major role in that.

7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: It's hard not to give this spot to point guard Fred VanVleet. VanVleet was, after all, the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year, and fairly so: he posted a 131.5 offensive rating with a 33.2 percent assist rate and a tiny 13.8 percent turnover percentage, what my Insider colleague John Gasaway called "a near-perfect season for a pass-first point guard."

So why stick with Early? Because he's the sun around which Wichita State revolves. The Shockers are an ensemble production, sure, but Early is the only player to use more than 22 percent of the team's offensive possessions, using 26.5 percent -- and takes 28 percent of their shots to boot. Tekele Cotton might be the team's best defender, Ron Baker its best shooter, VanVleet its best passer. But Early does all of those things very well almost all of the time.

8. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: Thames struggled a bit down the stretch, including one 10-for-50 span that looked like it might knock him out of any and all postseason award consideration. And it did, kind of: Thames wasn't on the Wooden Committee's final ballot. That's a mistake. Thames got back on track in his final three games, including a 23-point, five-steal effort in the Aztecs' grinding regular-season title clincher against New Mexico Saturday, and finished with a 119.1 offensive rating on nearly 28 percent usage (in addition to a 3.4 percent steal rate, a 22.1 assist rate, 38 percent from 3, etc.). The Aztecs finished the regular season 27-3 because they were a) a great defensive team and b) a great defensive team with a reliable star scorer. Thames belongs on one of the All-American teams at the very least.

9. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: On Saturday, Wiggins scored 41 points on 18 shots with eight rebounds, five steals and four blocks. And Kansas lost. Those two sentences don't compute, but if anything, Wiggins' blowout regular-season finale gave us a chance to point out how solid he's been for pretty much all of his freshman season. He's scored reliably, he's rebounded, he's played lockdown inside-out defense -- he's been really good. He hasn't been the second coming. Sometimes, he's been too passive. But many coaches would kill for his baseline production, let alone the possibility he might go off for 41 on 18 at any given time. If he is 75 percent as good in the postseason, look out.

10. T.J. Warren, NC State: For better or worse, the player of the year award is about the value a player contributes to his team's success. You'll notice there aren't too many players on this list whose teams aren't going to make the NCAA tournament. That should let you know just how good Warren was individually for the probably-NIT-bound Wolfpack in 2013-14: He posted a 115.2 percent offensive rating on a McDermott-ian 37 percent of his team's shots; he averaged 24.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and shot 53.2 percent from the field. He finished the season with back-to-back 41- and 42-point efforts (on 17 and 21 field goal attempts to boot) against Pitt and Boston College, respectively.

Warren did all of this despite facing constant double and triple teams for a team that finished eighth in the ACC in points allowed per possession. If the Wolfpack had guarded better, we'd get to see this dude try to singlehandedly take over the NCAA tournament, and the tournament would be better for it. But they didn't, and so, barring an ACC tourney miracle, we won't. Shame.

Honorable mentions: Casey Prather (Florida), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Julius Randle (Kentucky), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Joel Embiid (Kansas), Marcus Paige (North Carolina).
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ST. LOUIS -- The commemorative T-shirts Wichita State received for winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament Sunday were far from perfect. The back of the shirt contained the tournament bracket, and it had Indiana State listed as the winner.

“That’s crazy, right?” Shockers senior forward Cleanthony Early said. “I guess they predicted that we were going to lose.”

[+] EnlargeFred VanVleet
Scott Kane/USA TODAY SportsFred VanVleet scored 20 points in the Shockers' win over Indiana State.
The mix-up was the result of an error by the T-shirt printer, one which conference officials didn’t catch before handing out the shirts. Yet you didn’t exactly need to be a true detective to recognize the yellow king of Arch Madness.

The Shockers turned back Indiana State 83-69 at the Scottrade Center to keep their loss column a flat circle and capture their first conference tournament title in 27 years. By doing so, they joined the 1990-91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels as the only Division I teams ever to start a season 34-0. No other team has entered the NCAA tournament with 34 victories, as Wichita State will do next week, with a chance to set the record for perfection against a No. 16 seed.

So the Shockers weren’t about to lose here this weekend, not even against a sturdy and determined Indiana State squad fighting for its own NCAA bid. The crowd that suggested Wichita State would have been better off losing before the real madness begins overlooked this program’s hunger for an MVC tournament title after many disappointments in this city.

“Now that it’s all said and done,” guard Ron Baker said, “it’s a big relief. There was quite a bit of pressure on us, because it hasn’t happened in so many years.”

Relatively speaking, Indiana State put as much pressure on Wichita State as anyone had in a few weeks. After winning their first two tournament games by a combined 47 points, the Shockers found themselves clinging to a four-point lead with a little more than 13 minutes left.

But as they’ve done so often, they answered every thrust with a rally. Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton sank back-to-back 3-pointers to push the advantage back to double digits. The Sycamores pulled back within five points a few minutes later, but then Wichita State ripped off a 13-0 spurt to go up 68-50, and that was pretty much that.

“I didn’t have enough timeouts to stop their runs, but that’s what they do,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “If you turn it over, have any quick shot or lose it at one end, they put it in the basket at the other end. That’s why they’re undefeated. That’s why they’re hoisting the trophy.”

Even with leading scorer Early disappearing offensively in the second half and Baker uncharacteristically struggling with his shot (3-for-11 from the field, 0-for-6 on 3s), the Shockers didn't need to sweat. Point guard VanVleet, who focused mostly on distributing the ball during his first two tournament games, scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half to tie a career high. Cotton, the Valley’s defensive player of the year whom opponents used to sag off, had 20 points and went 4-for-6 behind the arc en route to tourney MVP honors.

“People kind of sleep on that part of my game,” Cotton said of his improved jumper. “But my whole team and my coaches give me confidence to overcome that.”

Nobody will ride into the NCAA tournament with more momentum than these Shockers. For the first time in a while, they actually had to execute down the stretch Sunday to secure a victory. But, as VanVleet noted, “It shows how far you’ve come when somebody being within four or five points is a heck of a test for you.”

They will have nearly two weeks now to rest up, savor the accomplishment of going 34-0 and get ready for the next assignment. The odds are good that they will be back in St. Louis as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region. Good thing they exorcised some demons in this city.

“It would be something that we're comfortable with,” coach Gregg Marshall said. “There would not be any ‘Ooh, aah’ moments. I think we'd actually be staying, if we get the right seed, in the same hotel, which we're very comfortable with. We know the routine there. The breakfasts are very good.”

Going 34-0 brings certain expectations for the rest of the way, especially for a team whose schedule and conference have constantly been knocked. Wichita State got to the Final Four last season. Would anything less than 40-0 now qualify as a disappointment?

“I don’t think we have to win it all,” Early said. “But we want to win it all. We understand that a 34-0 season is just as rare as a Final Four, and what we’ve accomplished as a group is very special.

“Some people might say if we don’t win it all now it’s a failure. But those are people who can’t get past their own simple minds.”

Know this: Until the Shockers actually lose a game, it’s probably wise to hold off on printing any more completed brackets without them.
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ST. LOUIS -- The best and maybe only chance of someone knocking off Wichita State in the early rounds of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament would have involved the Shockers seizing up from the pressure of remaining undefeated.

So, yeah, about that ...

Wichita State hasn't shrunk from the moment one iota. In fact, it somehow appears to have grown even stronger. The Shockers blew the doors off Missouri State 67-42 in Saturday’s semifinals at the Scottrade Center. In their first two tournament games here, they've won by a total of 47 points.

[+] EnlargeCleanthony Early
Scott Kane/USA TODAY SportsAt 33-0 on the season, Cleanthony Early and the Shockers will be a "very, very tough out" in the NCAA tournament, according to coach Gregg Marshall.
On Saturday, they led by as many as 38 in the second half before coach Gregg Marshall emptied his bench. For a team whose motto is “Play Angry,” Wichita State sure had fun posing after dunks and chest-bumping one another.

“That was one of our better-played games of the year,” sophomore guard Ron Baker said. “I’d say our excitement out on the court was the best it’s been all year. We’re just playing relaxed and trying to have fun.”

Basketball is pretty fun when you never lose. Wichita State became just the third Division I team in history to win its first 33 games in a season, tying Larry Bird’s 1978-79 Indiana State Sycamores for the second-best start of all time. Coincidentally, the Shockers will face Indiana State, the No. 2 seed in this event, on Sunday for the MVC tournament title and a chance to join 1990-91 UNLV as the only teams to start 34-0.

Some of their spurts against Missouri State would have made those old Runnin’ Rebels proud. Wichita State went on a 17-0 run during the first half and then eclipsed that with a 24-0 blitzkrieg during a nine-minute second-half span.

“We've had a lot of good runs this year, but I feel like that was one of the best,” senior forward Chadrack Lufile said. “It was special to see us really execute, really play defense and dive for the ball regardless how much we were up. We’re still hungry. I feel like that’s our mentality.”

This was the same Missouri State team that gave the Shockers their biggest scare of the conference season, taking a 19-point lead on Jan. 11 in Springfield before eventually falling in overtime. But Wichita State beat the Bears by 23 points at home in the regular-season finale a week ago and delivered an even worse beating in the third meeting.

The Shockers are very nearly upset-proof because of their consistent defensive and rebounding effort. Or as Missouri State’s Christian Kirk put it, “It’s hard to catch them off their guard because they’re always on their guard.”

They also share the ball and work for good shots on offense, and on Saturday they made eight of 10 3-pointers in the first half, with the only two misses coming on desperate heaves to beat the shot clock. Cleanthony Early, the team’s best post presence, and Tekele Cotton, known mostly as a defensive stopper, each hit three shots from behind the arc. Wichita State was shooting close to 70 percent in the second half before finishing on a cold spell with its subs on the floor.

“If we can shoot it like this for as long as we can continue playing, we’ll be a very, very tough out,” Marshall said.

Marshall calmly sipped from a water cup most of the second half, needing to offer his team little in the way of guidance. He never called a timeout.

“It’s a fun team to watch,” he said. “It’s a fun team to coach. It’s a fun team to be around. Who can find fault with 33-0?”

Marshall has instructed his team to view this tournament weekend as a three-game season and not to think about the undefeated streak. His team likely secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament simply by getting to Sunday at Arch Madness. But the Shockers really want to cut the nets down here; the program hasn't won the MVC tourney since 1987, despite being the first or second seed seven times since 2005.

“Our fans deserve it,” Baker said. “They've waited a long time.”

The pressure of that drought and the streak will be in play Sunday. But don't expect that to affect this bunch.

“We want to go out there and make history,” Lufile said. “Every game is history right now, I feel like. And there’s no stopping us now.”
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ST. LOUIS -- Make it 32-0.

No. 2 Wichita State continued its flawless record into the postseason on Friday afternoon, rolling past Evansville 80-58 in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament quarterfinals at the Scottrade Center.

The Shockers are now one of only five teams in Division I history to start a season 32-0 or better, although right now they're more interested in winning their first MVC tournament title since 1987. Here are five things to know from the start of their Arch Madness run:

1. New season, same result: Wichita State players insisted during Thursday's interview sessions that they’re viewing this tournament as a new season and that their perfect regular season no longer matters. Evansville (14-19), the No. 9 seed in the field playing with nothing to lose, took a 20-19 lead in the first half. Pressure? Nah. The Shockers answered with a quick 11-3 run triggered by Cleanthony Early's four-point play. They led by 10 at halftime and methodically pulled away in the second half, much as they have all season. The Aces lost by 16 and 14 points in the two regular-season meetings between these teams. Wichita State has won its past seven games by double-digit margins.

2. Shockers put on the second-half squeeze: Gregg Marshall couldn't have been real happy with his team's defense at halftime. Evansville shot 48.1 percent in the first half, and MVC leading scorer D.J. Balentine drilled four 3s on his way to a 17-point half. The Shockers looked more like their normal selves on defense after intermission, forcing the Aces to miss 16 of their first 20 shots and limiting them to 26.7 percent for the half. Balentine sank some long-range jumpers late to finish with 31 points. The defensive play of the game actually came just before halftime, as Early chased down Evansville's Blake Simmons from behind on a fast break and swatted his layup attempt into a row of cheerleaders. Wichita State's hustle stats included nine steals and 11 blocks.

3. Does size matter? One of the major concerns for Wichita State heading into the NCAA tournament is matching up against size and length, as Marshall's team does not start a player taller than 6-foot-9. Evansville's 6-10 Egidijus Mockevicius gave the Shockers a little trouble inside on Friday. Although the Lithuanian had trouble finishing in the post, the Valley's leading rebounder pulled down a game-high 11 boards and had some good looks in the paint. Evansville battled Wichita State to a draw in the rebounding battle, only the sixth time all season the Shockers haven't outrebounded their opponent.

4. Keeping their balance: The Shockers are hard to guard because they're so balanced offensively. Four Wichita State players scored in double figures Friday, and conference player of the year Fred VanVleet added nine points. Early and Ron Baker each scored 17 as the Shockers shot 50 percent from the floor in both halves.

5. Feels like home: As if the Shockers don’t have enough advantages coming into this tournament, they should enjoy something resembling a home-court advantage in St. Louis. Nearly three-quarters of the crowd that turned out for Friday’s early session at the Scottrade Center wore yellow and black, and Wichita State fans are clogging the downtown streets and restaurants. All other fans likely will coalesce around whatever underdog the Shockers face going forward, but they still might be outnumbered in the stands.

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Tuesday night wasn't exactly Creighton's best showing. The Bluejays were outplayed for pretty much all 40 minutes at Georgetown, as the Hoyas' seniors -- especially Markel Starks -- fought desperately to improve their bubble lot. It was bad on both sides of the floor for Creighton. There were uncharacteristic offensive struggles: Grant Gibbs turning the ball over, Ethan Wragge going 1-for-6 from 3, Jahenns Manigat made a nonfactor through foul trouble, and so on. Worse, the Bluejays reverted to the liability-level defense that held them back in past years: Georgetown shot 65 percent from 2 and scored 1.23 points per trip. A lot of those looks were open.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsHow good has Doug McDermott been? He scored 22 points and had 12 boards against Georgetown and it was considered a bad game.
Two McDermott possessions cemented the off night. The first, in the first half, was a relatively open 3 that missed the rim by a wider distance than maybe any McDermott miss ever. The second, in the second half, was a baseline drive in which McDermott -- who was guarded well by Jabril Trawick for most of the game -- got the matchup he wanted against Nate Lubick, and pivoted past him to the baseline, and then just plum missed a wide-open layin. McDermott finished with 12 rebounds, but just 22 points on 23 shots, and he needed a late batch of last-ditch 3s to get there. It was a rough night for the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker.

And you know what? It doesn't matter. McDermott has had this award sewn up for weeks. We're just going through the motions. When 22 points and 12 rebounds is considered a so-so game -- or, say, when those 22 points make you the first person since Lionel Simmons (1987-88, 1988-89, 1989-90) to score 750 in three straight seasons -- your Wooden Award isn't going to be threatened by a late-season loss to a desperate bubble team.

In any case, here's the mother of all ACMcDAT sirens: Creighton's final home game of the season, the last of McDermott's career, comes Saturday against Providence. McDermott needs 34 points to reach 3,000 for his career.

On Tuesday, a reporter asked his father and coach, Greg McDermott, if he would let his son go for the record if he was close with enough time on the clock.

"If his mother has anything to say about it, probably,” McDermott said.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Like McDermott, Parker saw his team lose a road game in the final week of conference play, an 82-72 loss Wednesday at Wake Forest. The Blue Devils allowed 46 points in the second half at Wake, which likewise hints at some of the defensive issues they (like Creighton) have had at various points with this configuration. And like McDermott, Parker still had a pretty solid outing relative to just about any player in the country -- 19 points, 11 rebounds, 7-of-11 shooting. McDermott has been our obvious No. 1 for a while, and remains so this week. Parker is a similarly codified consensus No. 2. Also, he makes a mean dessert bar.

3. Russ Smith, Louisville: The Cardinals unleashed perhaps their best performance of the season Wednesday night at SMU, and got arguably the best of Smith's season, too. Russdiculous' line -- 26 points on 15 shots, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals -- was a perfect microcosm of what he's done all season, and what makes him so valuable: efficient scoring, timely distributing, unyielding perimeter defense.

4. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Napier was an early front-runner for the Wooden Award this season before a couple of bad early conference losses knocked him off our radar. UConn has had its blips, but Napier has been steadily great, averaging 17.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game as the Huskies' anchor.

5. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): Kilpatrick is having his worst mini-stretch of the season these past two weeks, including a 3-for-14 3-point performance in a close loss to Louisville and Saturday's 2-for-8, seven-turnover struggle in 37 minutes at UConn. But Kilpatrick did still have 28 points in that loss to Louisville -- 28 of his team's 57, no less -- and even when he's not scoring, he's still one of the best guard-defenders in the country.

[+] EnlargeNick Johnson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNick Johnson has been a force on both ends of the floor, and a big reason why Arizona's defense is among the nation's best.
6. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Our ability to track defensive metrics at a glance still lags way behind our ability to track offense, which is why it can be difficult to factor defense into national player of the year and All-American award discussions. But many of the players in this top 10 are here because they excel on both ends of the floor, and Johnson is a key example. Arizona's defense still allows the fewest points per trip of any team in the country, even without Brandon Ashley, and not all of that is due to Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon in the lane. Johnson is a fantastic gap defender in Sean Miller's pack-line hybrid defense, and a major factor in for the post-Ashley Wildcats.

7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Missouri Valley Conference voters awarded Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet with the league's POY trophy this week, and it's hard to argue with the reasoning. VanVleet has been great. So has guard Ron Baker. And Darius Carter. And Tekele Cotton. When you go 31-0, you tend to get a lot of really great individual performances. We'll still take Early, Wichita State's most-used player by a fair margin and its most important all-around offensive and defensive contributor.

8. Casey Prather, Florida: It's hard to believe Florida's last loss came all the way back on Dec. 2, but it's true. That game, at UConn, took place when the Gators had, like, six available players, back when Prather was still surprising us with his sudden scoring turn as a senior. Prather's usage has dropped as the Gators have gotten healthy (Kasey Hill) and eligible (Chris Walker), but his efficiency has held firm, and more than any other Florida player he's the reason why Billy Donovan's team managed to overcome so much personnel drama in the first place. The breadth of his season deserves honorifics.

9. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: We thought about dropping Thames from the list after a brutal 10-for-50 slump bracketed the Aztecs' losses to Wyoming and New Mexico. But Thames got back on track against Fresno State Saturday and kept it going Wednesday when his 19-point effort keyed a comeback win at UNLV. Like Prather (and not unlike Kilpatrick), his whole-season contributions to an SDSU team without another consistent offensive option are too great, in aggregate, to overlook.

10. Kyle Anderson, UCLA: "Slo-mo" has numbers that are kind of crazy. He's averaging 14.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and from 3. That is exactly the kind of game the 6-foot-8 Anderson's unique skill set promised when he entered college a year ago. It took him a little bit, but he got there this season. He does it all.

Honorable mentions: Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Julius Randle (Kentucky), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), T.J. Warren (NC State), Bryce Cotton (Providence), Billy Baron (Rhode Island Canisius)
videoWICHITA, Kan. -- The first time Gregg Marshall coached Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, he didn’t get to coach for very long.

Marshall was ejected in the opener before Indiana State ejected the Shockers from the tournament.

“I had a lot of time to myself in the locker room,” Marshall said. “I was trying to do something to kill the time, so I wouldn’t break anything.”

Waiting for the game to end, Marshall flipped through a media guide. And then, he discovered just how disastrous the Valley tournament had been for the Shockers.

Saturday, Wichita State completed its magical run through the regular season, topping Missouri State to move to 31-0 and become the first team in 10 years to go into college basketball’s postseason undefeated.

But if the Shockers are to assure themselves of that coveted No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, they first must accomplish a feat that has escaped them since 1987.

Win the Valley tournament.

“The only thing left to do is win it,” Marshall said.

[+] EnlargeFred VanVleet
Peter Aiken/Getty ImagesPoint guard Fred VanVleet said he and his teammates know there is little time to celebrate the regular season.
The goal of winning the Valley tournament has eluded the Shockers, even since the resurgence of the program under Marshall.

Before he arrived for the 2007-08 season, Wichita State had never even reached the Valley tournament championship game since it had moved to St. Louis in 1991.

After a rough exit in Marshall’s inaugural trip, Wichita State finally got to the championship game in 2010 but fell to Northern Iowa. The Shockers returned to the tile game last season but lost to Creighton after missing a potential tying 3-pointer at the buzzer.

“We’ve been to the championship game now,” Marshall said. “But now we need to win it.”

That could also be the difference in securing a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament and slipping to a No. 2.

Saint Joseph’s, the last team to go through the regular season unbeaten, lost in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament, yet was still handed a top seed in 2004.

After Saturday’s win, Marshall avoided politicking for similar treatment.

“They’re not going to ask me. You can ask me, but my opinion doesn’t mean anything,” he said when asked if the Shockers deserved a No. 1 seed regardless of the Valley tournament outcome. “I think so. But I don’t get a vote. I’m not going to be in that room. I’m going to be very excited wherever they place us, wherever they seed us. I think if we play well, we have a chance to play with and beat anybody in the country.”

But this Missouri Valley is not that Atlantic 10, which put three teams other than Saint Joseph’s into the NCAA tournament. At the moment, Wichita State looks like the only Missouri Valley team in line for an at-large bid. As a result, despite being second in the polls, the Shockers’ RPI is just eighth. Their strength of schedule is only 112th.

Which is why conference pride won’t be the only thing on the line in the Valley tournament.

“That’s the bad part about the world we live in," point guard Fred VanVleet said. “We can’t even celebrate this great accomplishment we just had. We’ve just got to keep focusing and look ahead to what’s in front of us.”

Other than history, there’s no reason to believe the Shockers won’t win their first Valley tournament in 27 years.

Wichita State dominated conference play, with only three teams playing the Shockers to within double digits. Missouri State came the closest to pulling the upset, holding a 19-point second-half lead that Wichita State quickly erased before prevailing in overtime. Saturday, the Shockers jumped to an 18-6 lead in a return game against Missouri State by the second media timeout and led by double digits the rest of the game.

Indiana State was the last Missouri Valley team to go through the season undefeated. And that team not only won the Valley tournament but advanced to the national championship game.

These Shockers don’t have a star like the Sycamores did in Larry Bird. But they have the requisite pieces to make another deep run into the tournament a year after advancing to the Final Four.

VanVleet has proven he can control a game with his vigilant ballhandling and pinpoint passing. He ranks among the nation’s leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. Cleanthony Early is a versatile scorer who can post up a defender one possession then knock down a 3-pointer the next. Ron Baker is a steady perimeter scorer. And the bench is deep, with nine players logging at least 12 minutes a game.

“This [NCAA] tournament is wide open,” Marshall said. “There’s probably at least two handfuls of teams that could win the whole thing this year, and I think we’re in that conversation.”

Of course, that path would be made easier with a No. 1 seed. But to secure it, the Shockers might have to go through another, lesser tournament that hasn’t been so kind.

“That’s the challenge that this team has now,” Marshall said. “Anything short of that would be a disappointment.”

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week 15

February, 27, 2014
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1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: What should have been a mundane home win turned dramatic for Creighton on Sunday. The Bluejays' defense gave up 71 points in 60 possessions to Seton Hall, and the game was tight late mostly because Creighton did something it very rarely does: miss free throws. The Bluejays would end up winning anyway, 72-71, "in kind of an ugly way," as McDermott described it, but the missed free throws inadvertently gave us another remarkable statistic to add to the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker. From the Associated Press:
With 21 seconds left and Creighton leading 72-69, McDermott, an 89 percent foul shooter, missed two in a row during the same trip to the line for the first time since the 2012 Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

Sometimes, the best ACMcDAT stats come from the most unlikely places.

Anyway, McDermott finished Sunday's game with 29 points on 14 shots. In doing so, he edged his way past Alfredrick Hughes into the all-time college scoring top-10. The question now is not whether he will win the Wooden Award, or whether he will get to 3,000 points (he's on pace to do so during the Big East tournament), but whether McDermott can pump up his pace high enough to reach that magic milestone by Saturday, March 8 -- the final home game of his career. He needs to average 28 over the next three games; he's at 26 ppg currently. In the immortal words of Jurassic Park chief engineer Ray Arnold: Hold on to your butts.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: The emergence of Marshall Plumlee as a capable offensive rebounder who follows those rebounds with quick kickouts to the perimeter -- like a miniature version of Brian Zoubek -- is huge for Duke generally and Parker specifically.

For most of the season, Parker was Duke's best defensive rebounder, with Amile Jefferson as a close second. But Parker's game didn't always lend itself to the offensive glass, and so Duke was, for most of the season, a mediocre offensive rebounding team. That could change with Plumlee around; let's get a larger sample than three games before we decide one way or the other. But Plumlee's presence should allow Duke to feel more comfortable with Parker playing inside and out, where he is devastatingly effective. And in general, Plumlee's ability to pick up minutes (and if, necessary, fouls) means less punishment and less foul trouble for the Blue Devils' overworked star player. Parker has used 31.8 percent of his team's offensive possessions this season, and been asked to guard up on the other end, too. The Blue Devils' new look should change that.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsRuss Smith's last-second shot to beat Cincinnati on Saturday was the latest in a superb senior season for the Louisville guard.
3. Russ Smith, Louisville: Smith's game-winning shot at Cincinnati Saturday provides a tidy excuse for us to move him up the list. But we don't really need one, for reasons that should be apparent if you've been following along all season. Little has changed in Smith's output from November to now. He's still playing the best, smartest, most efficient offense of his life (51.2 percent from 2, 37.4 percent from 3, 30.6 percent assist rate) on huge usage (31.3 percent) and shot rates (30.0 percent) while maintaining his trademark brand of infuriatingly pesky perimeter and press defense. Last year, Smith was arguably the most valuable two-way player in the country, and he's better -- not to mention more important to his team -- in almost every way this season.

4. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): Cincinnati's own two-way anchor rode a hot-shooting high into Saturday's huge American clash against Louisville ... when he promptly shot 3-of-14 from 3. Ouch, right? Yet Kilpatrick still finished with 28 of his team's 57 points, which is a handy counterintuitive reminder of just how important he is to the Bearcats' composition. Usually, he's much more efficient; usually, Cincinnati wins. But without him, Mick Cronin's team would be lost.

5. Nick Johnson, Arizona: For a minute there, it looked like Johnson would be the player most affected by Brandon Ashley's injury. Johnson started shooting the ball really poorly, in part because the Wildcats' floor-spacing took a hit without Ashley, and in part because ... well, because he couldn't make any shots. From Feb. 1 (the Cal loss) to Feb. 19 (a solid road win at Utah) Johnson shot 19-of-70 from the field and 2-of-20 (!) from 3. If you wrote Johnson's candidacy off, you had reason. But he and the Wildcats have since bounced back with two ultra-impressive blowout wins. Johnson had 20-6-5 on Saturday in an 88-61 win at Colorado. On Wednesday night, he had 22-7-5-1-1 with zero turnovers in an 87-59 home win over Cal. Both he and his team appear to be recovering quite nicely, thank you very much.

6. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Things started a little rocky for Napier and UConn at South Florida Wednesday night, and for a while it looked like the Huskies were going to take a damaging late-season loss to a team with just three American wins. But nope: Napier led an 18-0 second-half run and finished with 17 points, seven assists, four rebounds and two steals. That line is emblematic of his senior season: Efficient scoring, tidy passing, high-leverage shotmaking, and great defense.

[+] EnlargeWichita State Shockers
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesCleanthony Early is the focal point of a Wichita State team that made history on Tuesday night.
7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: The Shockers' win at Bradley Tuesday night made them the first team ever to make it to 30-0 in the regular season, a feat that is both impressive in a vacuum and the subject of a revealing, instructive debate. Early's individual merits are a little like that: If Wichita State wasn't unbeaten, Early might not be a surefire All-American candidate (He still might not be). But like the Shockers in general, (who are, just a reminder, ranked in the top-15 in adjusted efficiency on both offense and defense, the only other team besides Florida to be so) he is very, very good no matter the competition. His bedrock production is a big reason why we can have this whole debate in the first place.

8. Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle's offensive numbers -- 8 points, 3-of-8 shooting -- from Kentucky's big overtime win over LSU Saturday don't look like much. But Randle was easily UK's most important player. He brilliantly checked LSU center Johnny O'Bryant (who destroyed the Wildcats in Baton Rouge a month ago), and grabbed 15 rebounds, seven of them offensive, to go along with two big blocks. When UK's offense struggled, Randle was there to muscle home interior buckets. As UK has become more fluid, Randle's contributions on the glass on both ends of the floor make him John Calipari's most essential piece.

9. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: Syracuse has not had its best stretch: After last Wednesday's home OT loss to Boston College -- a 62-points-in-63-possessions effort against (to that point) the worst major-conference defense in the country -- the Orange went to Duke Saturday. There was the C.J. Fair charge call and the Jim Boeheim blow-up, of course, but before the game-deciding play (and ejection) there was a lot more stagnant, struggling offensive play. On Monday, the Orange barely escaped with 57 points in 64 possessions at Maryland, the ACC's seventh-best defense. All of which says that Syracuse is having a tough time on the offensive end. What does that mean for its players' POY chances? For now, we're kicking Fair down to the honorable mentions and keeping Ennis, mostly because we think that's how voters would weigh the two if the award voting took place today. This could be temporary; let's see how Saturday at Virginia -- maybe the best defensive team in the country -- goes.

10. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: Thames has had a brutal few weeks. Since Feb. 11's loss at Wyoming, the San Diego State star is 12-56 from the field. In the Aztecs' loss at New Mexico Saturday, he shot 3-of-15 and didn't get to the free throw line once. He has 19 combined points in his last three games. We're not inclined to punish players who mix in a week or two of struggles with an otherwise peerless resume, but this is above and beyond. Whether this is just a slump or something deeper will determine whether Thames stays on this list in the weeks to come. It will also determine how and when the Aztecs end their surprisingly successful campaign, which is slightly more important.

Honorable mentions: C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Casey Prather (Florida), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Lamar Patterson (Pittsburgh), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), T.J. Warren (NC State), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Bryce Cotton (Providence).

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week 14

February, 20, 2014
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1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: At this point, it's getting hard to come up with material for the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker. Well, OK, that's not exactly true. McDermott is doing plenty of awesome things. But it's just like, come on guys, do I really need to recap the statistics and individual milestones this week? Do we have to go through this whole process every time? You're on board by now, right?

This week, McDermott scored 39 points on 13-of-17 shooting in Creighton's 101-80 rout of Villanova, and afterward, Wildcats coach Jay Wright, honorary member of ACDMcAT Nation, said this:

“I think he’s as complete a player -- and I do not use that term loosely -- with size, as I’ve ever seen. With 6-8, 6-9, there’s nothing he can’t do. He can take you off the dribble. He guards, he’s tough as hell guarding. He defends. He rebounds. He moves without the ball. He seals. He’s the best post player that we’ve played against and he’s the best perimeter player, and maybe one of the best passers, and he’s 6-8, 6-9. I think he’s as good a basketball player as I’ve seen.”

I'd say that just about sums it up.

[+] EnlargeJabari Parker
Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY SportsAll eyes will be on Jabari Parker's performance at North Carolina tonight.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Now that the weather has cleared and friend of the Watch Dickie V isn't looking quite so bummed out on Instagram, we can finally get back to the business of Parker’s first and likely only trip to the Dean E. Smith Center, which, as you might have heard, happens tonight. If there was some possible way McDermott could have lost the POY award, eight days ago I would’ve said this was the chance for Parker to put on a case-bolstering show with all eyes watching. But that window is now closed, so instead, you'll have to settle for watching one of the most gifted offensive players in years -- and still a crucial anchor for the Blue Devils on the defensive glass -- play on the road in the best rivalry in the sport. So there's that.

3. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): So Cincinnati beat the daylights out of Houston and UCF this week, and Kilpatrick jumps from No. 10 to No. 3? What gives, Brennan? What gives is that Kilpatrick's sensational play in both games (9-of-16 from 2, 8-of-18 from 3, 51 points, seven assists, six rebounds, one turnover, 146 offensive rating, need I go on?) was indicative of his immense individual season writ large. Among players who use more than 28 percent of their team's possessions, only two -- McDermott and Canisius' Billy Baron -- are more efficient offensively. Neither plays the kind of defense Kilpatrick plays. It's high time we put him near the top of this list. He's been great.

4. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: This wasn't Thames' greatest week, but whatever: He's still using 28.1 percent of his team's possessions and putting up a 120.1 offensive rating, which is positively McDermottian (or Kilpatrickian). He creates assists, he doesn't turn the ball over, he plays great defense, and all of the above is utterly priceless to a San Diego State team that still doesn't have another reliable offensive weapon. Where would the Aztecs be without him?

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsIs Louisville's Russ Smith under the radar? Not in this blog post.

5. Russ Smith, Louisville: Can y'all just let the Based King live?

"I have two Final Fours, I have Big East championships, a national championship. I have all the accolades. Now they're saying I'm under the radar. If you want me to get 30 and 40, I can do that. But I don't need to do that. Now I'm getting my teammates involved, I'm being solid, I'm being efficient. Now everybody thinks Russ is bad now.

"I'm efficient, I'm getting guys the ball, I'm averaging five assists, having the best assist-to-turnover ratio of my life. I'm good. I could care less about who they think is better than me. Guys have to do more on other teams, I have to do less. All I have to do [is] put guys in the position to do good, and that's what I'm doing."

You know what? In his own way, Smith is exactly right! He's having the best and most efficient statistical season of his life, and he was already way better last season than most people gave him credit for. Russ, you're not under the radar here, man. Also, stop reading Twitter. Your coach doesn't like that.

6a. C.J. Fair, Syracuse
6b. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse

We're going to stick to our corner-cutting guns, and include Fair and Ennis as a tandem, for at least one more week. Maybe we'll have to decide between one of the two eventually, but that process didn't get any easier even as Syracuse barely survived NC State and then fell at home to Boston College on Wednesday night. The Orange are still 25-1, and Fair is still Fair, and Ennis is still Ennis, and the workhorse-finisher combo should still hold the Orange in good stead in the weeks to come.

7. Shabazz Napier (Connecticut): How did Shabazz fare this week? Um, well: He made five 3s and went 10-for-21 from the field for 34 points in 37 minutes (with five assists, four rebounds and four steals) in a huge UConn home win over Memphis. Find a replay of that game if you can. It was a lot of fun.

8. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Would Early be on this list if Wichita State weren't undefeated? That's a good question. I'm not sure. He'd be really close either way, of course, but his individual numbers don't quite stack up with a handful of players here. You could argue that has more to do with the Shockers' balance than anything else -- you might also take Ron Baker or Fred VanVleet here -- and that's kind of my point: Wichita State is undefeated, and minimizing that fact or Early's contributions to it would be a mistake.

9. Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle is ho-humming his way through some typically dominant interior performances, but his best contribution this week was whatever explanation he offered John Calipari that led to one of the greatest college basketball gifs of all time. May we cherish it forever.

10. Nick Johnson, Arizona: It's probably time to downgrade Nick Johnson a bit, if not take him off the list, after Friday's 5-of-20, three-turnover performance in Arizona's loss at Arizona State. It's not like Johnson doesn't deserve to be here. Let's not get crazy. But he hasn't been a top-five player in the country lately.

Honorable mentions: Casey Prather (Florida), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Lamar Patterson (Pittsburgh), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Gary Harris (Michigan State), T.J. Warren (NC State), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Jabari Brown (Missouri)


CHICAGO -- Here's the thing about these Wichita State Shockers, the boy wonders-turned-bullies who absorbed yet another hard right Wednesday from their latest Missouri Valley Conference victim: They have stared down this remarkable unbeaten run and welcomed it like a sun-soaked day in the midst of this miserable Midwest winter, tempting fate seemingly every step of the way -- from assigning pregame jersey numbers matching their win streak to bickering over who gets to pose for magazine covers.

It's 28 games and counting now for Wichita State after an 88-74 win over Loyola of Chicago, a victory with a storyline that took a backseat to what went down earlier in the evening some 700 miles away in Central New York.

The zeroes had barely settled onto the Gentile Center scoreboards here by the time Shockers coach Gregg Marshall was over by the broadcast table, pre-empting a post-game interview by asking: "Syracuse lose? Really?"

Yes, really. Not that Marshall and his band mind the extra attention.

"It just goes to show you that you can lose to anybody any night in college basketball, home, away," Marshall said. "The other team has a coach – [I'm] assuming he has a decent salary -- and they've got 13 scholarship players, and when that ball is tossed up, they want to win."

That's all his Shockers have done since their Final Four loss to Louisville a year ago, running roughshod over any and all comers through this season's first three months.

Loyola became another two-time knockout, a human canvass for the visitors to go all Adrian Peterson (No. 28) on before they began their search for casualty (and athlete) No. 29.

"I haven't thought about that; I'm going to enjoy this one," Marshall said. "Adrian, I did a little research, and his nickname as a youngster was All Day, because he ran all day. He stuck with that nickname as an adult because he saw some tragedy in his life. He's persevered. He's overcome. His younger brother died. His father was arrested. And he said, 'All Day. I'm gonna run as hard as I can all day, because I wanna bring the pain on every play.' And that was our slogan today."

Opposing gyms are growing louder now, with fans of the Ramblers, an MVC newcomer, swelling this arena's stands beyond capacity. They tried everything from mocking Ron Baker's hair to harassing homecoming king Fred VanVleet, who excelled playing before roughly 40 familiar faces who made the two-hour trek from Rockford, Ill.

Yes, the unbeaten guests took note. And no, they weren't exactly rattled.

[+] EnlargeWichita State Hoops
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast Fred VanVleet scores despite pressure from Loyola of Chicago defenders.
VanVleet gave his pocket of supporters plenty to cheer about with 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists. He made all six of his shots, all 10 of his free throws and turned the ball over just once. Darius Carter, the sixth man against Loyola, keyed an underneath attack that helped Wichita State win the battle of the boards 41-24, as it broke the game open early in the second half after entering intermission with a seven-point lead.

"Actually that helps us some, because we come out, the crowd's booing us and stuff, and that motivates us to want to shut them up," Carter said. "We go out there and play harder when they do that, so I like when the crowd sells out."

Carter finished with 13 points and five rebounds, capping a day that began with him as the odd man out on a Sports Illustrated cover that was unveiled with the headline: "Go Ahead, Try To Jinx Us."

How did he get snubbed in favor of Cleanthony Early and Chadrack Lufile, two-thirds of what his coach calls his three-headed monster?

"We had to draw straws," Marshall said.

Luck and history are working against these Shockers now, the Orange falling to Boston College and the nation's attention falling on a program seeking unprecedented heights.

Well, almost unprecedented.

This team has been playing one-and-done ball for 10 months now, Marshall reasoned. Each plateau -- be it reaching double-digit wins or setting league milestones -- has brought on new accolades that his guys keep eating up.

"Unfortunately we lost that Louisville game," he said of last year's national semifinal. "We'd be playing for the national championship."

That's one blemish this run still hasn't allowed them to shake. Another surfaced late Wednesday when VanVleet eyed his box score.

"I think the turnover they gave me was a blocked shot," the point guard corrected at the podium.

Marshall's reaction -- "Recount!"-- suggests these Shockers will get over that one just fine.

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week13

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
11:00
AM ET

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: The Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker will be shorter than usual this week, and not just because we here at ACMcDAT Industries are wary of repeating the same mind-bending statistics week in and week out. But there are a few nuggets worth passing along:

  • Last Friday, McDermott scored 32 points at DePaul. Two days later, he dropped 25 on 10-of-18 shooting at St. John’s. The Bluejays lost that game -- you may light your standard-issue ACMcDat Vigil Candles now -- but that two-day stretch of work made McDermott the first player in more than two decades to score more than 1,000 field goals in a career. He’s at 1,011 and counting.
  • Here’s a good bit of context on McDermott’s insane combination of efficiency and usage from SI.com’s Luke Winn: “In the past 10 seasons, in the major conferences and Mountain West, only six players have attempted more than 36 percent of their team's shots. Creighton's Doug McDermott is one of those players. And he's the most efficient one of those players, by a good margin. Are you at all surprised?” McDermott averages 37.9 percent of his team’s shots, third-most in the country.
  • And finally, from Creighton SID Rob Anderson: “Doug McDermott’s been Big East Player of the Week six times already this year, tying a conference mark first set by John Wallace and Troy Murphy. He’s been named MVC Newcomer of the Week (7), MVC Player of the Week (13) or Big East Player of the Week (6) a combined 26 times in his 62-week in-season career.” That’s pretty good, we guess.

One last thing: Thursday night, Creighton plays at Butler. The Bulldogs aren’t very good this season, but I don’t care: If you live in the Indianapolis area and don’t plan to go see McDermott’s one and only trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse, you are not a very good basketball fan. That is all.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Does the weather know no bounds? Does it, at long last, have no decency? I’m pretty sure Dick Vitale has never been photographed not smiling in his life, and now look, weather! Look what you did! Look at how filtered and sad this Instagram photo is! On Wednesday night, decidedly gross road conditions throughout the Southeast postponed Duke’s trip to North Carolina. Not only did this weather delay Parker’s first and likely only trip to the Dean Dome, it turned Dickie V’s Instagram into a Bill Callahan album cover. Stupid weather, ruining everything.

3. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Arizona’s first two games in the post-Brandon Ashley era did nothing to hurt Johnson’s player of the year stock: He averaged 14 points in each and played 39 minutes (and made 8 of 11 from the free throw line) in Thursday’s tight win over Oregon. It’s going to be interesting to see what Arizona looks like without Ashley, how Sean Miller tweaks his previously dominant group. But whatever he does, Johnson will have to be a major part of it -- perhaps even more so than before -- for the Wildcats to maintain their national title aspirations.

[+] EnlargeTyler Ennis
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsThe latest example of Tyler Ennis' knack for clutch play makes it impossible to leave him out of the Watch.
4a. C.J. Fair, Syracuse

4b. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse

In the early weeks of Wooden Watch, Fair earned Syracuse’s POY place. Then, as Ennis emerged as one of the best players in the country, he took the spot. For the past few weeks, Fair has reclaimed the throne and held firm, and for good reason: He plays 93 percent of Syracuse’s available minutes, is integral to what the Orange do on both sides of the ball and was unstoppable in that 91-89 OT win over Duke. Plus, Jim Boeheim called him the best player on his team, and I am not in the business of arguing with Boeheim.

Now, barely 12 hours after the 35-foot 3-pointer Ennis hit to sink Pittsburgh at the Pete, the Watch has made an executive decision: Why not both?

Fair might be the wire-to-wire workhorse, but the numbers Ennis has put up (121.0 offensive rating, 32.3 percent assist rate, 13.3 turnover rate, 4.1 steals percentage, etc.) are (A) great in their own general right, and (B) utterly insane in crunch time. Per ESPN Stats and Info: "In one-possession games (when the score is within three points) in the final five minutes of the second half and overtime this season, Ennis is now 8-of-9 from the field, including the game-winning 3-point field goal as time expired against Pittsburgh, and 14-of-14 from the free throw line.” Not only did Ennis make the game-winning 3 Wednesday, he also coolly sank the go-ahead free throws with 14 seconds left. He is Syracuse’s closer, and the Orange are 24-0. I say we shouldn’t have to choose between Ennis and Fair. They both belong.

5. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: San Diego State suffered its first loss since Nov. 14 on Tuesday night, falling 68-62 at Wyoming. Laramie, Wyo., is a tough place to play, and the Aztecs were bound to lose eventually. No big deal.

6. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: How great is Gregg Marshall? The Wichita State coach was a special guest on ESPN’s studio coverage during Syracuse-Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, and not only did he reject the kind-of-silly notion that his unbeaten Shockers “need” to lose before they get to the NCAA tournament, he also openly rooted against Syracuse. The man wants to be undefeated. He invites the pressure of it all. He knows his players -- Early chief among them -- are more than capable of handling it.

7. Russ Smith, Louisville: Nothing has changed since November: Smith is still one of the best players in the country on both offense and defense. He’s still having the best season of his career by a wide margin. And thanks to some circumstances outside his control (such as Louisville not being best team in the country) and some inside of it (his unique ability to draw Rick Pitino’s vocal postgame frustration), he's still not getting the wide-ranging national player of the year love he deserves. Such is the curse of Russdiculous.

[+] EnlargeJulius Randle
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT/Getty ImagesJulius Randle has been so consistent for Kentucky that it's easy to take him for granted. Don't make that mistake.
8. Julius Randle, Kentucky: What was that about nothing changing? Randle has, save a few blips here and there, been his same dominant, interior self from the get-go. Saturday’s visit from Florida should help us freshen our copy a bit. It’s getting really hard to overanalyze the Wildcats at this point. Quick, Coach Calipari, say something crazy!

9. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The Watch left Napier in its honorable mentions field last week, drawing the ire of Connecticut fans and bearded hoops correspondents alike. The Watch would like to go on record saying that you guys did not influence the process, because sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hu... OK, fine, you were right. With rare exceptions -- such as last week’s loss to Cincinnati -- Napier’s individual season has been uncommonly good, even as the Huskies have occasionally dipped their toes into mediocre waters. But how blah would they be without him? He absolutely belongs here.

10. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: Cincinnati took one on the chin at SMU on Saturday, which makes this a slightly awkward time for Kilpatrick to leapfrog Lamar Patterson, Joel Embiid, Nik Stauskas et al, but oh well. SMU is really good, and anyway, Kilpatrick is a lot like Thames: not only an elite defender, but a super-efficient offensive option on a team that desperately needs him to be both.

Honorable mentions: Lamar Patterson (Pittsburgh), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Joel Embiid (Kansas), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Casey Prather (Florida), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Alan Williams (UC-Santa Barbara at Pomeroy)

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week12

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
11:00
AM ET


1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: We are in the midst of the longest break of the Creighton Bluejays’ season: Their last fixture was all the way back on Jan. 28, when McDermott splashed that 39 and a game winner on the Red Storm's unsuspecting heads. You'd think, then, that this would be a light week for the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker (ACMcDAT) -- the statistical equivalent of a walk-through. You’d think wrong.

McDermott is still averaging 25.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field, 43.9 percent from 3, and 89.3 percent from the free throw line. His offensive rating (121.5), true shooting (62.5), usage (33 percent) and shot rate (37 percent) is all still what it was last week. He’s still closing in on Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson on the all-time scoring list.

[+] EnlargeMcDermott
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SportsDoug McDermott is on the verge of being the first player in 21 years to eclipse the 1,000-field goal mark.
But, thanks to a hot ESPN Stats & Info collabo, the ACMcDAT is pleased to add these fresh knowledge patties to your brain grill:

  • McDermott needs eight field goals to reach 1,000 in his career. The last time any player reached 1,000 career field goals in a season was 1992-93, when Calbert Cheaney and Alphonso Ford both surpassed that mark.
  • McDermott led the nation in field goals in each of the past two seasons. He is on pace to do so again in 2013-14. If he does, he will be the first player since Wayman Tisdale in 1983-85 to accomplish that feat.
  • Fittingly, Tisdale and his contemporary, some guy named Patrick Ewing, were the last players to earn three straight first-team All-American selections. McDermott will do the same this season.

A week off? The ACMcDAT doesn’t take weeks off, and neither do the crazy things you can find to say about Doug McDermott’s career.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Remember when Parker was in a slump? It isn’t much of a slump anymore. Since Parker got back on track against NC State on Jan. 18 he’s posted offensive ratings of 141, 104, 104, 105, 93, and 153 while averaging 18.5 points per game. That 93 came against Syracuse, by the way, when he finished with 15 points on 15 shots in just 26 foul-pocked minutes. The Syracuse interior was too much for Duke on a systemic level. But Parker’s scoring was noticeable when he was on the floor, and he followed that up with Tuesday’s near-perfect 21-point, 8-of-10, 8-rebound, 2-block, 2-steal night in a 20-point win over Wake Forest. When he’s scoring like that, he’s capital-G great. When he’s not, he’s still Duke’s second-best rebounder. In any case, the Blue Devils aren’t close to the nation’s most efficient offense without him.

3. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Saturday was a tough night for Arizona generally, and for Nick Johnson specifically. The Wildcats scored 58 points in 66 possessions -- and shot 2-of-11 from 3 and 18-of-51 from 2 (!) -- in their first loss of the season. Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending injury. And Johnson finished with the worst line of his career: 4 points, 1-of-14 from the field, 5 turnovers, 27 ORtg. Just … blech. Worse yet, his last miss of the game was a good look Johnson earned from 14 feet or so, one that just didn’t fall -- and opened the window for California’s Justin Cobbs to make the game winner on the other end.

And so what? Rough nights happen. Shots don’t go in. You lose conference games on the road. Do not reappraise Johnson’s player of the year candidacy based on the biggest outlier that ever out … lied? Laid? Lay?

4. C.J. Fair, Syracuse: So C.J. Fair kind of had a rough night of his own Monday night. Did you notice? Trevor Cooney scored 33 and Syracuse won, so it was all good. But Fair did play probably his worst game of the season. File this under the Nick Johnson "So what?" file: On Saturday night Fair unleashed one of the most beautiful, brilliant individual scoring performances I’ve seen a long time. His Saturday against Duke was the fully realized C.J. Fair, the Fair that Jim Boeheim has seen in his mind’s eye for years, the one who had Duke fans pleading for mercy -- the Fair who went so far above and beyond his "reliable workhorse" baseline that he was bound to suffer a slight hangover come Monday night. Well-earned.

5. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: Thames is so good. I understand this is not an especially interesting thing to write about a basketball player. But really: What can you say?

By now, you should know how San Diego State’s formula works: The Aztecs play insanely good defense on one end of the floor and then rely on Thames for a huge share of their offense on the other end. Thames is so good, he makes this formula work. Wednesday night’s come-from-behind 67-65 win at Boise State -- a ruthless, ice-cold dagger delivered through the Broncos' collective sternum -- was maybe the best example yet.

[+] EnlargeXavier Thames
Kent C. Horner/Getty ImagesXavier Thames makes San Diego State go, as he showed once again Wednesday night.
After an uncharacteristically lenient first half, Steve Fisher's team clamped down on the defensive end in the second, which is when Thames went to work: At the 5:50 mark, his 3 cut Boise’s lead to 2. On the next possession, he tied it. Then he made the go-ahead bucket at 4:05 to give San Diego State its first lead since Thames' first 3 in the first 26 seconds of the game. With 58 seconds left, he swiped a steal from Boise star Derrick Marks, got to the free throw line, and made both. Then, on the decisive possession, he drew every defender in the incorporated western territories before deciding to pass to Dwayne Polee II, who made a wide-open 3.

Thames finished with 23 points in 27 minutes on 5-of-7 from the field (3-of-4 from 3) and 10-of-11 from the free throw line, and the Aztecs still haven’t lost since Arizona on Nov. 14. Seriously, dude is good.

6. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Early was a charter member of the honorable mentions (this would have been a great band name in 1993) pretty much since the start of the season. It’s about time we involved him more fully in this discussion, because there isn’t much he isn’t good at. He rebounds the ball, especially on the defensive end. He shoots efficient percentages from everywhere (55.0/35.7/83.8). He blocks shots. He gets to the free throw line. And, oh by the way, he does all of it for a team that after Wednesday night’s win at Indiana State (their toughest regular-season game to date, and remaining) now has, per KenPom.com, a 55.6 percent chance of ending the season unbeaten. (The BPI roughly concurs.) The mutual excellence of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet had something to do with why Early wasn’t on this list … previously. But it's time to choose sides now, and he's the Shockers' easy choice.

7. Russ Smith, Louisville: If we’ve said it once, we’ve said a hundred times: Smith is having the best season of his career -- scoring, passing, defending, the works. That he occasionally drives his coach crazy, and that his team isn’t quite as good as last year's national title contender, need not be held against him.

8. Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh: Patterson still wasn’t his typically hyper-efficient self at Miami Wednesday, but he finished with 25 points, and the Panthers escaped Coral Gables, Fla., with a win. After two squandered chances to beat good teams at home (Duke, Virginia) with a six-day rest between them, Pitt’s season -- and Patterson's All-American candidacy -- couldn’t have afforded a loss to the 11-11 Hurricanes.

9. Julius Randle, Kentucky: The bona fide star of the Most Analyzed Team in Sports History" has recovered from that ugly 3-for-11 at LSU quite nicely: He was solid in Tuesday’s win over Ole Miss and imperious in the second half against Missouri, making one big shot after another as Kentucky held off a super-hot Tigers team for a huge road win. UK’s offense has gone back and forth between gorgeous and grinding, but its baseline operates as a function of what Randle does, and the attention defenses must pay him.

10. Joel Embiid (Kansas): It wasn't that Kansas' loss to Texas Saturday was all that surprising: The Longhorns have been playing better-than-you-think ball for most of the season. But the details were stunning. The Jayhawks' steamroller of an offense was held to just 69 points in 69 trips thanks largely to the fact that Texas was bigger, stronger, and tougher on the inside. To wit, Rick Barnes' team blocked 12 KU attempts, or 23.5 percent of their shots. Kansas blocked only four. It is fair to bump Andrew Wiggins off this list (he was No. 10 last week, and he submitted a 7-point, 1-for-10 stinker), but Embiid deserves to stay, for now.

Honorable mentions: Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Shabazz Napier (Connecticut), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati), Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Keith Appling (Michigan State), Casey Prather (Florida), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico)


It continues.

The streak. The unblemished campaign. The possibility of perfection.

The idea that 24-0, still-playing-angry Wichita State will finish the 2013-14 regular season without a loss becomes less incredulous by the day.

A snowstorm created travel problems for the fourth-ranked Shockers, who didn’t reach Terre Haute until Wednesday morning. But it didn’t seem to impact the team during its 65-58 win at Indiana State.

It wasn’t easy, though. Per ESPN Stats & Information data, Wichita State lost the rebounding battle for only the second time this season, and its nine forced turnovers was its second-lowest tally of the year.

Indiana State's Manny Arop hit a deep jumper at the buzzer before the break, when Wichita State had just a one-point lead despite maintaining a nine-point advantage earlier in the half.

In the second half, Ron Baker helped Wichita State quiet Arop, who had 13 points in the first half and just three points after halftime. With 10 minutes to play, the Shockers had a comfortable double-digit lead, but the Sycamores didn’t break.

[+] EnlargeCleanthony Early
AP Photo/AJ MastCleanthony Early showed again Wednesday that he's Wichita State's rock and its ace in the hole as the Shockers prep for another tournament run.
The game wasn’t sealed until Cleanthony Early (19 points, five rebounds) finished a three-point play with 1:03 to go. Early, a member of the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25, drove from the top of the arc, drawing a foul as he scored. The free throw gave Wichita State a five-point cushion.

Chadrack Lufile made four of six free throws in the final 43 seconds. Game: over. Spotless record: preserved.

Ken Pomeroy gives Wichita State a 78 percent chance of defeating Northern Iowa on the road on Saturday. He gives the Shockers more than a 90 percent shot at defeating their final six Missouri Valley opponents after that. Even if that happens, the Shockers will still endure criticism.

Until its postseason journey begins, Wichita State will be scrutinized. If the Shockers lose in conference play, the naysayers will call them frauds. If the Shockers enter the postseason without a loss, those same people will put an asterisk next to their noteworthy accomplishment.

Not that the Shockers worry about negative opinions regarding their accomplishments thus far -- they weren’t exactly favored to make the Final Four last season after finishing second to Creighton in the MVC -- but that’s not something that they’ll overcome until the NCAA tournament arrives.

But they have Early now. And if he’s on the floor, Wichita State can play with anyone.

He scored 15 points in the second half Wednesday night. In a contentious game that included a quiet outing by the typically sound Fred VanVleet (2-for-5 shooting, two turnovers, six points) and foul trouble for Baker (eight points), Early gave the Shockers a much-needed boost.

The Shockers can finish the regular season with a perfect record. And they can make a return trip to the Final Four because Early can guide them there. But not by himself.

Baker, VanVleet, Tekele Cotton (14 points), Early and a fleet of capable reserves are all valuable to this program. But Early can be a closer when the Shockers need one, whether they’re playing MVC competition in the coming weeks or high majors in the Big Dance.

Early had 24 points, 10 rebounds and a block against eventual national champion Louisville in the Final Four last season. He was an honorable mention on the Associated Press preseason All-American squad this year. He has the highest offensive rating in the MVC (114.9) among players who’ve participated in a minimum of 25 percent of their team’s possessions, per Ken Pomeroy data.

Early is capable of doing what he did on Wednesday against top-25 teams. He has already proven that.

That’s significant in this polarizing discussion about Wichita State, a team that’s clearly equipped with individual playmakers who aren’t simply products of Gregg Marshall's system. You don’t tussle with Louisville and dismiss Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State because you’re lucky or just abiding by a system.

You do it because you have the athletes to compete at that level.

Early and his teammates can play with anyone. He’s more than a great tale -- he arrived in Wichita after a stint at a low-level junior college. He’s the next-level competitor who will lift the Shockers in the tough matchups they’ll encounter the rest of the way.

If you don’t believe in Wichita State’s defense (ninth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy data) ...

If you don’t believe the Shockers have faced adequate competition (won at Atlantic 10-leading Saint Louis) ...

If you don’t believe VanVleet will maintain his poise against elite guards (he entered Wednesday’s game ranked third nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio) ...

Then believe this: Early would be a star on any level, in any league, against any opponent. And the players around him anchor a squad that can clearly compete with the best.

Don’t believe it?

Let’s see how you feel when Early & Co. end up in your favorite team’s region on Selection Sunday. Maybe you’ll change your mind.

The year of the Shockers is upon us.

In 2011-12, Gregg Marshall coached the most tragically underappreciated team of his career. It was also the best -- emphasis on "was."

The Shockers' starting lineup that season was a coach’s dream, comprised of four seniors and one junior. Just two freshmen saw playing time that season; everyone else was a junior or senior. Garrett Stutz was a commanding 7-foot center. Guard Joe Ragland was arguably the best all-around shooter in the country. Creighton's Doug McDermott was a star being born, but by the end of the season the Shockers seemed vastly ahead of the Bluejays where it mattered -- rebounding, defense, philosophical cohesion -- and demonstrated as much in an 89-68 win in Omaha. If any Shockers team was built to make a Final Four run, that was it.

What happened next is almost funny in retrospect: The selection committee relegated Ragland and Co. to a lowly No. 5 seed. They drew No. 12 VCU, lost 62-59 and went home on the first day of the tournament.

[+] EnlargeCleanthony Early
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsCleanthony Early leads a powerful Wichita State team that could be undefeated for quite a while.

It wasn't until a year later with a completely revamped and far less dominant regular-season team -- a No. 9-seeded team at that -- that Marshall's team made the deep tournament run that put the Shockers on the map. You saw them, you remember: upending Gonzaga in a blaze of outside shooting glory; outworking Ohio State; taking Louisville to the wire in the Georgia Dome.

Now you are fully aware of Wichita State, and just in time. With a Final Four in their rearview and an undefeated nonconference slate all but wrapped up, there is no chance you will be able to miss the 2013-14 Shockers. Marshall's program is officially mainstream.

And it's not just because this team is better than any he has coached before, though that appears to be very much the case. The Shockers have a senior forward, Cleanthony Early, who rivals any in the country for sheer breadth of skill They have a guard, Ron Baker, who is preternaturally efficient both while shooting and ballhandling; and they have, as usual, a host of complementary players who do everything Marshall asks: get to the rim, don't turn the ball over and rebound, rebound, rebound.

But it's not just that the Shockers are good. It’s that, after Tuesday night's 72-67 escape against Alabama, they find themselves in a sudden, unique position: They’ll be favored for the rest of the season until the NCAA tournament, usually heavily.

With BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee and now the Crimson Tide out of the way, the Shockers have vanquished every significant nonconference test on their schedule. What remains are two home games against NC Central and Davidson. Those are not bad teams -- but they are also not likely to beat Wichita State in the Koch Center.

From there, it's on to the Missouri Valley Conference. Creighton, since moved to the Big East, is no longer around to challenge the Shockers for supremacy. Based on early returns, Indiana State looks like the next best thing -- the Sycamores are 7-2 with a win at Notre Dame and entered Tuesday ranked No. 66 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. Northern Iowa and Drake are interesting, particularly in their own buildings. Illinois State has gone way up-tempo. But let's be clear: None of these teams comes close to where Wichita State is on both sides of the ball right now. They won't be by the end of the season, either.

Oh, and let's be clear about another thing: This is not a prediction of an undefeated season. (It is not even a column asking why such predictions are so quickly shouted down, lest it be routinely confused for said prediction.) Wichita State will lose a game or two or more on its way to March, sooner or later.

If it is later, though, expect the ruckus to come with it. The hint of an undefeated season at an Ohio Valley Conference school (Murray State) got everyone excited two years ago; imagine what happens if/when a school with Wichita State's name recognition stretches its record to 20-0, or 25-0. "Unbeaten watch" chyrons will flood your TV screens. Live look-ins on close games will become routine. Statistical probabilities will be argued. Courts will be convened, spoils will be enjoyed, etc.

And, finally, a program that should have been a household name just a couple years ago -- a program that lost a swath of seniors from one of its best teams ever, replaced them with a group good enough to get to a Final Four the next season, with a coach that still had to explain to reporters the obvious reasons why he wanted to stay in his current job -- will earn that status once and for all. If there is anything worth predicting here, that is probably it.

Wichita State has been a model of success under Marshall -- quietly so. Marshall had to explain his good life for a reason, after all.

Now things are about to get loud.

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