- Jay Bilas, College Basketball analyst
Injury woes: The tough breaks suffered by Pittsburgh with the injuries to Mike Cook and Levance Fields are not the only ones suffered this season. They are just the ones that have gotten the most notice because of the timing of the injuries, and how front and center they were.
Other injuries (and major suspensions) that have affected teams and seasons are Alabama's Ronald Steele (do you think the Tide would be better with a true point and senior leader?); Marquette's Trevor Mbakwe (who would have been a frontcourt starter and top rebounder ... not to mention the injuries to Dan Fitzgerald); UCLA's Michael Roll and James Keefe (both would have really helped the Bruins); Syracuse's Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf (with those two, this was a clear NCAA team); Tennessee's Duke Crews (out with a heart condition, and would have added rebounding, toughness and defense); LSU's Tasmin Mitchell (the Tigers miss his all-around play); and Louisville's David Padgett and Juan Palacios (the Cardinals have had no real continuity without them, and it is amazing that Padgett is even trying to play). You have to be lucky, and staying healthy has a lot to do with luck.
Guard play: One of the reasons that Michigan State is playing so well is because of the Spartan guards. Travis Walton, Drew Neitzel and Kalin Lucas are all in the top six in the Big Ten is assists, and all are averaging more than 4.3 assists per game. In addition, each of the three guards is in the top five in the Big Ten in assist-turnover ratio, with Netizel at 4.2-to-1, Walton at 3.1-to-1 and Lucas at 2.4-to-1. That kind of guard efficiency is a good recipe for success on the highest level.
Speaking of guard play: UCLA has, arguably, the best point guard in the nation in Darren Collison. And, the Bruins also have one terrific back-up in Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, an outstanding athlete, is averaging 5.7 assists per game and leading the Pac-10 in that category. When you can lose one of the nation's finest point guards with an injury and his replacement LEADS THE LEAGUE IN ASSISTS, you have a good backcourt. Collison leads the Pac-10 in assist-turnover ratio at 3-to-1, while Westbrook is in the top five in the league at 2.2-to-1.
In the Big East, UConn guard A.J. Price is leading the league in assists with 6.0 per game, and he is also leading the league in assist-turnover ratio at 3.1-to-1. Price has had a long road back after having brain surgery a couple of years ago, and he is doing a good job running the Huskies this season. If some of his teammates were a bit more efficient, Price would have even better numbers.
Iowa returns: With the Iowa Caucus getting underway down the road, there was a great game played at Carver-Hawkeye Arena between Indiana and Iowa. The Hoosiers got terrific performances from Eric Gordon (25 points) and D.J. White (16 points and 15 rebounds), and they had a double-digit lead headed down the stretch but had to overcome the long-range bombs of Iowa's Justin Johnson. The 6-foot-5 senior had 29 points and hit eight threes, including a few deep heaves that really made the game interesting. With about 12 seconds remaining, Johnson hit a long 3 to cut Indiana's lead to four.
The ball was inbounded to White, who clearly and obviously changed pivot feet and traveled under any tortured interpretation of the rules, and the zebras simply missed it. White was then fouled, and the Hoosiers went on to win by a single possession. Given the way the game was going and the reckless abandon with which Iowa was playing, it would have been interesting to see the finish if the proper call had been made. For Iowa, the lesson is clear: If you play with that kind of emotion and urgency against other Big Ten foes, you will win games. If you just do it against Michigan State and Indiana, you will not. That was a really good game.
Free-throw champion: There are a few players out there that are making a living from the free-throw line this season. One is the unquestioned king of free-throw attempts, North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough. The leading candidate for national Player of the Year is 113 of 138 from the free-throw line (81.9 percent) in 14 games. Hansbrough gets to the free-throw line 10 times per game, which is remarkable, and a great tribute to how hard he plays and how he goes after it. He has made more free throws than any other player in the ACC has even attempted. Hansbrough is averaging 22.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and is shooting 58.5 percent from the floor in just 29.6 minutes per game. He is, without question, the Player of the Year to this point.
Other free-throw studs: Indiana's Eric Gordon has made 99 of 115 free-throw attempts in 13 games, an extraordinary number for a guard. There are a lot of good and aggressive guards that would value 115 free-throw attempts during the course of a season. Gordon gets to the line nine times per game, and he is not shy about putting up perimeter shots, either. Gordon is the real deal.
Pac-10 rebounders: The Left Coast has some really good rebounders, and the Pac-10 has three players that are averaging double-figure rebounds (and one nearly there) heading into conference play earlier this week. Washington's Jon Brockman (11.0), Oregon's Maarty Leunen (10.4), UCLA's Kevin Love (10.2) and California's DeVon Hardin (9.9) are the rebounding leaders sitting right at the double-figure mark. Cal's Ryan Anderson is fifth in the league at 9.4 boards per game. No other league boasts such rebounding prowess at the top of the league. Hardin would be leading the ACC in rebounding yet is fourth in the Pac-10.
Big 12 rebounders: Kansas State's Beasley is in a class by himself as a rebounder, leading the nation with 13.5 rebounds per game. It is too bad for Texas sophomore Damion James, who is one of the best rebounders I have seen all season. James is averaging almost 14 points per game, and an astonishing 11 rebounds per game. James is simply a man on the glass, and he is a range rebounder that goes for the ball out of his area. Beasley is a savant on the glass with great hands and presence, but James is a lunch-pail carrying, hard-hat wearing workhorse.
More Anderson: One of the underrated players in the nation is Cal sophomore Anderson. The 6-10 skilled big man averages 21.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and shoots 84.4 percent from the free-throw line. He is fundamentally sound, has a great stroke and good footwork. Anderson leads the Pac-10 in scoring and has seven games of 20 points or more, and five double-doubles. He can stretch a defense with his shooting range, and Anderson will make it difficult this weekend for UCLA to execute its post doubles because of his smarts, shooting and passing ability. Cal was one of the only teams, along with Florida, to handle UCLA's double teams with any success. With Hardin back and healthy, Anderson gets to move back to the forward spot and doesn't have to beat himself up in the paint banging against opposing centers.
Great fan's book: If you haven't read "Destination Basketball" by Andrew Hemminger and Dave Bensch, you should. I had a chance to meet the two recent college graduates during the summer of 2006 when they were just starting to travel the country to interview the best coaches in college basketball for their book project. Hemminger and Bensch traveled over 25,000 miles by car, in which they slept in on most trips, and they spent quality time with the likes of John Wooden, Denny Crum, Gary Williams, Bill Self, Rick Pitino, Ben Howland, John Beilein, Mike Brey, Jamie Dixon, Rick Barnes, Lute Olson, Tom Izzo, Tubby Smith, Jay Wright, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, and Mike Krzyzewski.
Hemminger and Bensch impressed every coach with whom they met with their hunger and passion for the game. If you love college basketball, check it out at destinationbasketball.com. Proceeds from the book go to the Jimmy V Foundation, and you will be as impressed as I have been with the pair's love for the game. If you think you are the biggest college basketball fan, ask yourself if you would go to the lengths that these two did to get their interviews.
Underrated player: UMass swingman Gary Forbes is averaging 20.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and is shooting 75.2 percent from the free-throw line. And Forbes gets to the line almost as often as Eric Gordon (82 of 109 FT). Originally from Panama, Forbes started his career at Virginia, and he is now the Minutemen's best and most aggressive player. He can play in transition and get to the rim. If you saw the FIBA Tournament of Americas this summer, you saw Forbes lay 29 on Argentina as a member of the Panamanian national team, and he showed greater toughness. Forbes is gifted on the offensive end and has the skills to play the point. He is also improved in his defense and intensity level. Forbes is a diabetic, and he has had to learn to deal with the condition while playing and going to school, hardly an easy task. Forbes is a good player and one of the main reasons that UMass is off to such a good start.
Free-throw improvement: One of the reasons that Florida State is looking good for the NCAA Tournament is the Seminoles' ability to make free throws. Florida State has some players struggle from the line over the past few years, but assistant Andy Enfield, who shot better than 90 percent in his college career at Johns Hopkins, took over free-throw shooting and worked with the players to refine their mechanics and get consistent routines.
This season, after working hard on improvement, the Seminoles are shooting an ACC-leading (and national top five) 78.5 percent from the line, and Florida State's top four scorers are shooting better than 80 percent from the line. For many players, if they work on it and get quality instruction, they will get better. Shooting is like the golf swing -- if the shots go in, you don't need to mess with the stroke. If they don't go in, you need to address the mechanics of the shot.
Stevie redux?: One of the best guard rebounders in Syracuse history was Stevie Thompson, the explosive 6-4 jumping jack from Los Angeles' Crenshaw High School. Thompson was not a good college player, he was a great college player.
Well, Paul Harris is in Thompson's class as a rebounder. While Thompson was a better scorer and had a better overall feel for the game (he scored more than 1,900 career points and grabbed more than 600 career rebounds), Harris is a truly outstanding board man that is averaging 9.4 rebounds per game at just 6-4, and his offensive game is coming around. Instead of trying to prove to everyone he can do what they believe he cannot, Harris is just playing his game. And his game is pretty darn good. If he had Devendorf and Rautins healthy, Harris would be even more effective.
Solid player: If you haven't watched Purdue freshman Robbie Hummel, check him out. Hummel is a 6-8, thin, skilled forward that knows how to play. While he is not a scorer or athlete along the lines of Gordon or Beasley, Hummel has a wonderful feel for the game and plays the right way. He is averaging 9.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game, while shooting 50.3 percent from the floor and 83.7 percent from the line. Hummel will not be an early entry candidate into the NBA, and he won't wow you with spectacular plays, but he will win a lot of games for Purdue. He knows how to play.
More solid players: A couple of players I enjoy watching are Texas Tech's Martin Zeno and Alan Voskuil. Zeno is a senior lefthander that can scratch in so many different categories, and Voskuil gets more out of his ability than almost any player in the Big 12.
Zeno is a complete player that is averaging 15.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 52.1 percent from the floor and 71.4 percent from the line.
Voskuil has been Texas Tech's most consistent player in the early season, averaging 13.1 points per game and 2.2 steals while shooting 60 percent from behind the 3-point line. You can tell that Bob Knight values them on the floor, because Voskuil and Zeno average 34 and 33 minutes per game, respectively, and Knight doesn't play people that don't produce. Texas Tech is young in spots and has been inconsistent, but when the team plays hard, smart and together, it can beat people.