North Carolina Tar Heels: Grant Gibbs

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  • Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn is back with another edition of his enjoyably wonky Power Rankings, where San Diego State checks in as a top-10 team and this week’s Aaron Craft hyperbole proved totally out of whack -- especially in relation to Michigan State guard Gary Harris: “Friend-o'-the-Rankings Chris Mackinder compiled Defensive Score Sheets from the Spartans' overtime win over Ohio State on Tuesday, and his charting suggests that ESPN's lovefest should have been for Gary Harris instead of Craft. Craft's loose-ball dive near the end of regulation was one of the game's signature plays, and he did force four turnovers, but by DSS' standards -- which take into account field goals and free throws allowed, as well as rebounding -- it was not a Craftacular performance. Harris, meanwhile, forced seven (!) turnovers and 4.5 misses while yielding just three points in 42 minutes, which is incredible.”
  • On Wednesday, Creighton guard Grant Gibbs made his blog debut for USA Today’s “For The Win.” His first post is as funny and well-done as you’d expect, though the timing of his injury Sunday (right after he filed this first dispatch) rearranges the perspective just so. Gibbs will blog periodically for FTW, though, when you think about it, what is a blog, really? (Don’t answer that.)
  • CBS analyst Doug Gottlieb picks Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim as his midseason coach of the year, Orange Nation reacts with a resounding “wait … huh?”
  • UNC put all of coach Roy Williams’ post-Miami-loss press conference on YouTube, and the whole thing is worth a watch -- if you’re the kind of person who likes to watch people not having fun, anyway.
  • Via r/CollegeBasketball: Vanderbilt is offering giveaways to fill the student section … for the Kentucky game. Yeah. Yikes. (Good prize, though!)
Unlike shooting or rebounding or point guard play or the variety of other specific basketball skills we’ve been highlighting in our Best of the Best lists throughout this week, the category of “most important” is far trickier to quantify. It depends not only on a player’s contributions, but on the team around him and where the two dynamics meet in the middle. There is also a constant temptation to conflate “most important” with “best” or “most valuable,” and those arguments (hello, baseball) always make my head hurt.

My editors asked me to name the 10 players most important to their teams in the country, and that’s precisely what I’m going to try to do. But I also attempted to avoid the rabbit hole that is individual talent at the mid-major level. Instead, I tried to narrow the criteria down to players most important to their teams’ chances of winning a national title, or making a deep tournament run, or maintaining some level of national relevance. Let’s give it a shot:

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Canaan
AP Photo/Dave Martin, FileWith much of last season's cast gone, Isaiah Canaan is even more key to Murray State this season.
1. Isaiah Canaan, Murray State: Last season, Canaan was hands down the best and most important player on a team that went 31–2, leading his team in minutes, points, assists, offensive rating (122.2), 3-point field goal percentage (45.6) and a wide swath of other statistical categories. He dominated the ball, scored at will and facilitated to boot. He was really, really good.

And that was on a team that included seniors Donte Poole, Ivan Aska and Jewuan Long, on a team that already was beginning to bring along guard Zay Jackson as Canaan’s new backcourt partner. The first three players are gone to graduation; Jackson is missing the entire season after pleading guilty to wanton endangerment for running over two people with his car in a Walmart parking lot. (True story.) So Canaan, already crucial to his team’s success a year ago, becomes the primary returner on a squad that still very much maintains conference-title and NCAA tournament aspirations. No one player in the country will mean more to his team this season.

2. Cody Zeller, Indiana: Zeller, the AP Preseason Player of the Year, obviously is important. He is the unifying force on a team that desperately needed exactly what he provided as a freshman: interior scoring, rebounding, strength, efficiency, you name it. He led the Hoosiers in field goal attempts by a wide margin, and Indiana fans could frequently be heard complaining that Zeller wasn’t getting enough touches. Truth is, they probably were right. Before he arrived, with similar personnel, Indiana won 12 games. Afterward, they went 27–9. He doesn’t get credit for all 15 wins of that improvement -- other players got better, too -- but there’s no question his impact was immense. You know all this already.

Here’s the twist, though: All offseason, we’ve been praising the Hoosiers’ depth, and there’s no question Tom Crean has a wealth of pieces at his disposal. But right now, aside from Zeller, the frontcourt is looking a little slim. Forward Derek Elston (better as a 15-foot jump-shooter anyway) is injured, and the eligibility statuses of freshman Hanner Mosquera-Perea (a wide-shouldered rebounding force) and Peter Jurkin (a 7-foot center) are both up in the air. Zeller already has much riding on his shoulders, and more help was supposed to be on the way. If it isn’t, Zeller’s task becomes even more daunting.

3. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Last season, there were two players in the country who used at least 28 percent of their team’s available possessions and posted offensive ratings (a measure of individual player efficiency) above 120. The first was Damian Lillard, who did this for the Portland Trail Blazers the other night. The other: Doug McDermott. He shot 63.2 percent from inside the arc (on 400 shots) and 48.6 percent outside (on 111), and he rebounded well on both ends for good measure. Creighton has guys who can play. Grant Gibbs is a sublime entry passer, Jahenns Manigat is coming on strong and Ethan Wragge can shoot it. But there’s no getting around the fact that McDermott’s incredible inside-out offensive versatility was the main reason his team boasted the fifth-most efficient offense in the country last season, per KenPom.com. Seeing as Creighton’s defense was so lackluster, the Bluejays very much needed that offense. Even assuming they improve somewhat on the defensive end this season, they’ll still need to score like crazy in 2012-13. That’s where McDermott comes in.

4. Peyton Siva, Louisville: Every time we talk about the huge talents returning at Louisville, we talk about how good the defense is going to be. This is for good reason: It was the best in the country last season, good enough to get the No. 4-seeded Cardinals to the Final Four. It will keep them in excellent shape in the season to come. It’s bankable like that. Then, after we sing the defensive hosannas, we get around to talking about how so-so Louisville’s offense was, and how if the Cardinals are truly a national title contender they have to find ways to score.

Siva is the most crucial piece in this discussion. The UL senior point guard is 5-foot-11 and quick as lightning; the problem is that he just isn’t very efficient. He shot 24.6 percent from 3 in 2011-12. He turned the ball over on nearly a third of his possessions (29.3 percent). According to Synergy scouting data, Louisville uses Siva more frequently than any other player to initiate pick-and-roll sets at the top of the key, a play type it favors as a team, but he is merely average in his execution. Why? Because defenses don’t have to respect his jumper. They play under the screen, the play dies and Louisville goes to Plan B.

To me, if Louisville is going to turn its offense to something more coherent, Siva is the key. Without a more efficient performance at the point guard spot, the Cardinals will still be a brutally tough out. But they won’t reach their full potential.

[+] EnlargeRyan Harrow
Mark Zerof/US PresswireNC State transfer Ryan Harrow takes the reins of a talented, but again young, Kentucky squad.
5. Ryan Harrow, Kentucky: The NC State transfer is getting his moment in the John Calipari point-guard spotlight this season, a vaunted role typically reserved for NBA lottery picks. That spotlight can be harsh -- never more so than from Calipari himself -- but there are good reasons for Calipari’s insistence on point guard excellence. For one, his dribble-drive offensive system (which he has used variously in recent seasons, and might return to more in 2012-13) thrives on point guard play more than most.

The second reason? Harrow, who spent last season on the bench after a freshman campaign in Raleigh, is in many ways a veteran in Kentucky’s latest amalgamation of highly talented but still raw freshmen. His ability to run an effective offense, while dealing with players still getting used to each other and the college level at the same time, will be key to Kentucky’s success this season.

6. Trey Burke, Michigan: Burke has something of a similar challenge to Harrow’s, but one accentuated by what could be a major adjustment at the offensive end. Last season, Burke sprang onto the scene at the helm of an archetypal John Beilein-style "spread the floor and fire away" 3-point-shooting team. The team’s three most efficient shooters are gone, replaced by touted freshmen (Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary) unlike anything Beilein has had the luxury of landing during his tenure in Ann Arbor. Now, Michigan’s best lineup will look more conventional, with big, athletic, bruising players.

This could be a boon on defense, but it will require a shift on offense; it seems almost unfathomable the Wolverines will shoot nearly as many 3s this season. At the middle of it all will be Burke, a preseason All-American who will see his distribution and leadership abilities fully put to the test.

7. Adonis Thomas, Memphis: It was tempting to put point guard Joe Jackson in this spot. The same could be said for center Tarik Black. Jackson has still yet to harness his immense talent in a totally cohesive way; Black can’t seem to stay out of foul trouble. But I decided to go with Thomas. Why? For one, he’ll be stepping into former Tiger Will Barton’s shoes, and there was no mistaking Barton was the best player on a pretty underrated 2011-12 Memphis team. But Thomas could arguably be even better, at least on the offensive end; by all accounts, the 6-6 small forward has been utterly lacing long-range shots all offseason. That versatility would make Thomas, who played power forward until his injury last season, an utter nightmare to guard and could introduce a new dynamism to a Memphis offense that was already pretty good in the first place. I’m really intrigued.

8. Lorenzo Brown, NC State: C.J. Leslie is the obvious pick here, but I think we kind of know what we’re going to get with him. He’s athletic, he’s one of the best in the country at catching on the block or elbow and diving to either side of the rim, and he should be locked in from start to finish this season. Maybe that’s presumptuous, but I’m taking Leslie’s productivity as a given. (OK, it’s definitely presumptuous. Make me look smart, C.J.) Brown, on the other hand, feels more crucial because, like some of the other PGs on this list, it is his job to make the whole Wolfpack thing work. That includes integrating Rodney Purvis; playing better defense at the point of attack; and keeping Leslie involved and finding sharpshooter Scott Wood on the wing. If Brown has a top season, NC State might indeed be worthy of that lofty, tourney-run-infused No. 6 preseason ranking. If not, the “overrated” refrain will ring out early and often.

9. Phil Pressey, Missouri: Senior guard Michael Dixon’s indefinite suspension probably won’t last too long, but that’s hardly the only reason Pressey deserves a nod here. Along with Dixon -- who is more of a catch-and-shoot player than Pressey, a gifted ball handler, penetrator and creator -- Missouri’s backcourt has kind of a crazy/thrilling challenge on its hands in 2012-13. The Tigers have to replace the losses of Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe and Marcus Denmon with four transfers: Keion Bell (from Pepperdine), Jabari Brown (from Oregon), Alex Oriakhi (from Connecticut) and Earnest Ross (from Auburn). Those players have all been on campus for a while, and it’s not exactly like figuring out guys you just picked up in an open run ... but compared to the rest of the country, it’s not all that far off, either.

10. James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina: It will be easy, in the coming months and years, to forget just how good North Carolina’s 2011-12 frontcourt was. That’s what happens when you have gigantic expectations and bow out of the NCAA tournament short of the Final Four. But let it be known: Tyler Zeller and John Henson (and, oh yeah, Harrison Barnes) were really good. Not only did they control the paint and score easily on the offensive end, but they were fast enough to race down the floor in Roy Williams’ up-tempo system, getting easy buckets on offense and turning UNC’s interior defense into its overall team strength.

Given all that, McAdoo has a ton riding on him in 2012-13. He was a highly touted recruit who probably could have been a lottery pick last season, but he chose to avoid that route (word to Marvin Williams) and come back to prove himself on the college stage. Carolina returns some promising wings (P.J. Hairston, Leslie McDonald) and brings in a really interesting frosh at point guard (Iowa native Marcus Paige), but McAdoo will be in charge of the low block. If he lives up to his heady NBA potential, look out. If not, UNC will labor. It’s that simple.
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- A quick look at UNC-Creighton:

Overview: North Carolina’s John Henson returned. Teammate Kendall Marshall kept going.

With the 6-foot-11 forward back in the starting lineup after missing three games with a sprained left wrist, and the not-so-one-dimensional point guard turning in his sixth straight double-digit scoring game, the top-seeded Tar Heels toppled No. 8 seed Creighton 87-73 to advance to their 31st NCAA tournament regional semifinal.

The Tar Heels led by as many as 19 in the second half, but when the Bluejays pulled to within 11 with about five minutes left, UNC's Harrison Barnes buried back-to-back 3-pointers to seal his team's trip to St. Louis.

Creighton's Doug McDermott, Barnes' former high school teammate, finished with 20 points, but the Tar Heels just had too many weapons.

Marshall (18 points, 11 assists) and Henson (13 points, 10 rebounds) finished with double-doubles. Barnes finished with 17 points. Reggie Bullock added 13 points.

Turning point: The score was tied 11-11 in the first half when Henson got the ball and Creighton’s Grant Gibbs slapped down on it, hitting Henson’s wrapped wrist in the process. Henson exchanged words with the guard, earning a technical.

His teammates responded to his anger. After the Bluejays made one of the two technical free throws, UNC pushed on a 28-12 run to take its largest lead of the half (39-24). Marshall scored nine in a row for the Tar Heels at one point during the breakaway, and the baby-blue clad spectators were as loud as any of those at the Smith Center this season.

Key player: Henson, who did all the aforementioned things wearing tape and a molded splint on his left wrist.

Key stat: The Tar Heels recorded only seven blocks in their three games without Henson. Sunday, they had nine.

Miscellaneous: One of the biggest cheers of the game came with about a minute left in the first half at Greensboro Coliseum, when UNC fans applauded Lehigh (which upset rival Duke on Friday) as it entered the building.

What’s next: Top-seeded UNC will play No. 13 seed Ohio on Friday in St. Louis in the Midwest Region semifinals.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Breaking down the Friday afternoon games in Greensboro:

No. 9 seed Alabama (21-11) vs. No. 8 Creighton (28-5), 1:40 p.m. ET

Creighton loves to score in a hurry; the Bluejays averaged 80 points per game and scored 90 or more nine times this season.

Alabama prefers to play at a relative snail’s pace, limiting its opponents to only 58.1 points per game, fewest in the SEC and ninth-fewest in NCAA Division I.

Their contrasting styles will meet in a Midwest Region second-round game at Greensboro Coliseum.

“It’s tough for us to simulate,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “But we’re not going to change anything that we do. We’re going to shoot a bunch of 3s, we’re going to try to jam it inside, we’re going to try to fly it up and down the floor, just like we have played all year. You can’t change anything at this stage of the game.”

Why would the Bluejays change anything now? Creighton has won seven games in a row, including an 83-79 victory in overtime over Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game March 4. The Bluejays rank No. 7 nationally in scoring and they’ve made 42.5 percent of their 3-pointers and 50.9 percent of their shots overall.

Sophomore guard Doug McDermott, the coach’s son, ranks No. 3 nationally in scoring with 23.2 points per game and was No. 2 in the MVC with 8.2 rebounds. He knows he’ll face a stiff challenge from the Crimson Tide, who will be longer and more athletic than most opponents he faced this season.

“I’ve seen a lot of different defenses this year with double teams and guys just being more physical with me,” McDermott said. “But I think that if they’re going to put a lot of attention on me, it’s just going to open up a lot of things for [my teammates].”

The Crimson Tide recovered from a 3-6 stretch in midseason to earn its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2006. Alabama overcame the suspensions of four players and myriad injuries to win five of its final seven games. Tide forward Tony Mitchell, the team’s second-leading scorer with 13.1 points per game, was suspended on Feb. 20 for the rest of the season. Because of the roster upheaval, the Tide used 13 starting lineups and eight in its past 11 games.

“I think that every program at some point during the year, whether it’s injuries or illnesses or something, you go through adversity,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “I think every coach you talk to says your team’s going to face adversity and [it’s about] how you handle that adversity. Sometimes that adversity can come through losing; sometimes it comes through winning. But that’s just a part of the game. Our team’s no different. I think our guys have grown and matured over the course of the season, individually and collectively.”

Who to watch:

Creighton’s McDermott: No player will get as much defensive attention as McDermott, who was named MVC Player of the Year and set a Creighton season record with 765 points. Only two other sophomores in MVC history scored 700 points in a season -- Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson and Indiana State’s Larry Bird. McDermott ranked second in the MVC in 3-point shooting (49.5 percent) and scored 30 points or more in six games.

Creighton’s Gregory Echenique: Creighton’s chances might come down to Echenique’s ability to hold his own against Alabama’s frontcourt of JaMychal Green and Nick Jacobs. Echenique, a junior from Guatire, Venezuela, averaged 9.8 points and 7.4 rebounds and led the MVC in blocked shots in each of the past two seasons.

Alabama’s Green: After returning to the starting lineup against Auburn on Feb. 29, Green recorded double-doubles in three of the Tide’s final four games. He had 22 points and 10 rebounds in the Tide’s 66-63 loss to Florida in the SEC tournament, the 27th double-double of his career. Green, the Tide’s only senior, missed seven games because of injuries and suspensions but still averaged 14 points and 7.4 rebounds.

What to watch: Guard play. The Crimson Tide likes to turn opponents over with a full-court press and half-court traps. The Bluejays turned the ball over 405 times -- 61 more than their opponents had in 33 games -- but senior Antoine Young led the MVC in assist/turnover ratio in each of the past two seasons. Gonzaga transfer Grant Gibbs was also among the MVC leaders with 5.1 assists per game.

No. 16 seed Vermont (24-11) vs. No. 1 North Carolina (29-5), 4:10 p.m. ET

North Carolina probably won’t need forward John Henson to defeat Vermont. After all, No. 1 seeds are 110-0 against No. 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament.

But if the Tar Heels are going to advance beyond the tournament’s opening weekend and perhaps even to the Final Four in New Orleans, they’ll need Henson to return from a left wrist injury that caused him to miss most of the past three games.

Henson, a 6-foot-10 junior from Tampa, Fla., went through about 70 percent of the team’s practice in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Thursday morning and then most of the Tar Heels’ light workout in Greensboro. The two-time reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Henson is averaging 13.8 points and 10.1 rebounds with 94 blocked shots this season.

Henson says he’s ready to play for the first time since injuring his wrist in the early minutes of an 85-69 win over Maryland in the ACC tournament on March 9, but UNC coach Roy Williams isn’t so sure.

“We practiced [Thursday] morning,” Williams said. “John did a little more than he did [Wednesday]. We let him in some live situations. He did not shoot the ball left-handed a single time. He did not block any shots left-handed. So I’m extremely concerned about that part of it, because that’s his dominant hand in a big, big way. He did block one shot, it was right-handed, and he took one jump hook right-handed and it fell about three miles short. But he felt like if the game were to be played today, he felt like he could play. I’m not convinced.”

If Henson can’t go, UNC freshman James Michael McAdoo will probably start his third consecutive game. McAdoo struggled on offense in UNC’s 85-82 loss to Florida State in the ACC final Sunday, scoring four points on 2-for-10 shooting. But he grabbed eight rebounds with one blocked shot and four steals.

“We prepare both ways, prepared for [Henson] to play as well as not play,” UNC senior Tyler Zeller said. “We don’t know yet what’s going to happen with him, so we have had him in for some plays. We have also had James Michael in with the first team playing a lot also. We’re just trying to prepare for whatever we have and make the best of it.”

Henson, who has 272 blocked shots in 106 games at Carolina, would be a big mismatch for the Catamounts, who don’t start a player taller than 6-8.

“I don’t think it’s affecting us,” Zeller said. “We would love to have John play. He’s a fantastic player, a great rebounder, shot blocker, and he can score. So all-around he’s a fantastic player. But we also have confidence in our substitutes, and John Michael especially, we have a lot of confidence in him to be able to step up and fit in the role.”

Who to watch:

North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall: The Tar Heels point guard has 330 assists this season, an UNC and ACC single-season record. Marshall’s assist total is the fifth-highest in NCAA history -- he needs only four more to move into fourth place -- and his 9.71 assists per game were the most by a sophomore in NCAA history.

North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller: The ACC Player of the Year led the conference in field goal percentage (56.9 percent) and offensive rebounds (four per game), was second in rebounds (9.7), third in scoring (18.5 points) and sixth in free throw percentage (83.3 percent).

Vermont’s Four McGlynn: McGlynn’s real name is Patrick McGlynn IV, but he goes by “Four.” McGlynn, a freshman from York, Pa., didn’t start a game all season, but he led the Catamounts with 12 points per game. He shot 39.3 percent on 3-pointers and 88.7 percent on foul shots.

What to watch: Pace of play. The Tar Heels average 82 points per game, which is No. 2 in NCAA Division I. The Catamounts gave up 80 points only one time in 35 games, an 80-75 loss to Long Island, which was No. 3 nationally in scoring with 81.9 points per game. Vermont held 23 of its last 24 opponents to 70 points or fewer in regulation.

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