This was the week before THE week. Kentucky and Louisville play next week in one of the best non-conference games of the season. Many people were looking ahead of this week’s games to that game, but one group of people that wasn’t doing that was Kentucky. I tuned in to watch them play UCLA after watching North Carolina beat Ohio State, and the game was over in under five minutes. I have never seen a blowout of that magnitude against a team that may make the tournament. It was just incredible. For the most part that was all the ball I was able to watch this week unfortunately, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention to the rest of the college basketball world. Let’s take a look at what’s been happening.
I have now seen D’Angelo Russell play in two marquee games against Louisville and North Carolina, and I haven’t come away impressed from either of these. Russell was the #13 player in this freshmen class, and chose to attend Ohio State over Louisville and several others. This was surprising because he was from Louisville, and many expected him to stay at home. By choosing Ohio State, he was joining a team in need of a scorer. Shannon Scott is a distributor, Marc Loving can shoot it a little bit, Jae’Sean Tate is an energy guy, Amir Williams is a big body, and Sam Thompson is an athletically gifted player that isn’t capable of being a #1 scoring option. With that lineup Russell has the emerald green light at all times because if he isn’t going to score, there aren’t many secondary options.
Being able to shoot whenever you want may sound like a dream world for a big time incoming freshman, and it has been in plenty of garbage games, but in big time games this is an absolute burden. Russell clearly is allowed to shoot almost at will as he has taken ten or more shots in all but two games while taking at least 20 twice. That is a lot of shots for an incoming freshman that isn’t a future top 5 pick. This gives him plenty of opportunities to come back from misses in all of the blowouts, but when the big games roll around, his teammates are relying on him to continue to take and make shots. In the game against Louisville he went 6-20 from the field and 0-6 from the 3-point line. Against North Carolina he went 4-17 from the field and 3-10 from the 3-point line.
On the season he’s shooting 45% from the field and 41% from the 3-point line, which are solid numbers, but his shooting percentages in big time games are less than stellar. In these games he’s going against better defenses, and he can’t find as many open shots. I have watched him force plenty of shots in those games, and it is hard to watch. Many people are including Russell among the best freshmen in the country simply because of his per game averages. All you have to do is watch him play in a big time game where he can’t get any shot he wants, and you will no longer feel that way. Russell is still a very talented player with a bright future, but he has a lot more work to do than his stats indicate at first glance.
I’m not going to lie. I didn’t watch Michigan State play against Texas Southern yesterday. I haven’t even seen the highlights from the game. I honestly don’t have much insight on the game at all, but when you lose at home to Texas Southern as a ranked team, you deserve to be burned a little bit.
Michigan State was playing without Branden Dawson, who fractured his wrist in their last game, but that doesn’t qualify as an excuse for losing to a team whose only other win on the season was to Lamar. Texas Southern plays in the worst conference in college basketball, and they weren’t projected to finish near the top of the conference either. This loss may be worse than Michigan’s loss to NJIT a couple weeks ago. NJIT at least came into the game with multiple wins with one of them being against a halfway decent team in Duquesne. Texas Southern won’t win another game before SWAC play begins leaving them with only two non-conference wins.
This is a continuing trend for the Big Ten. Almost half of the conference has an embarrassing loss on their resume before Christmas. This may be a sign that the Big Ten is in decline. This is more than just a fluke. Big Ten teams have made it a habit to lose to atrocious teams in non-conference play this season. Even the teams that have avoided the crazy-big-upset bug, like Ohio State, haven’t looked great. Wisconsin may run away with this conference, which would be unique for the Big Ten. Recently there has been a log jam at the top of this conference by season’s end, but with everyone else looking sub-par, I could see the Badgers going 17-1 with a bunch of teams at 12-6, 13-5, and 14-4. If anyone can challenge Wisconsin, I haven’t seen it yet, and after Saturday I don’t think Michigan State can.
The American Athletic Conference has the returning National Champions. That’s about all they have had going for them recently. UConn has four losses already with one of them being at home to Yale. SMU has three losses from earlier in the season, but they have at least looked decent as of late. Cincinnati, too, has three losses with none of them being to top quality opponents. They followed up their big time win over San Diego State this week by getting pounded by VCU at home. Memphis has four losses with one of them being to Stephen F. Austin.
Those are your preseason top 4 teams for this conference, and combined they already have 14 losses. That isn’t what the American was hoping for when this season started. They may have the returning National Champions, but the American is attempting to avoid being considered a mid-major conference on the same level as the Missouri Valley and the Mountain West. They want to be talked about with the the ACC and the Big 12, but they don’t have the depth, and as of now they don’t have the talent at the top of the conference to compete with the power conferences. Not only does this conference not have a ranked team, they don’t even have a team that got a top 25 vote. For comparison the ACC has three of the top six teams in the country.
College basketball is better with more good conferences. I hope the American pulls its act together soon, but it might be too late. If a conference’s teams come into conference play without any recognition, conference play itself won’t get any recognition. The American is in danger of falling into this category of non-recognition, and the only thing that might save it is the 2014 National Championship banner hanging at UConn.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Austin Nelson