By Steve Silverman
Villanova has staked its claim to the top spot in the college basketball rankings, and the Wildcats may just be able to stay on top for quite a while.
Head coach Jay Wright saw his team move into the top spot after Duke lost its first game of the season, dropping an 89-84 decision at Boston College last week.
The Blue Devils had a rather shoddy defensive effort against the Eagles that is atypical of a Mike Krzyzewski-coached team. Boston College connected on 31-of-61 shots overall (50.8 percent) and an amazing 15-of-26 (57.7 percent) from beyond the arc.
The Wildcats are not likely to go undefeated this season, but a look at their schedule reveals they are not likely to get a major test until January 10, when the 10th-ranked Xavier Musketeers come calling.
Villanova’s biggest win to this point was an 88-72 victory over No. 12 Gonzaga earlier this month. The Wildcats have the ability to take apart excellent teams, and there’s a certain level of confidence that goes to a program that has a recent national championship (2016).
Jalen Brunson is averaging 18.5 points per game and connecting on 62.9 percent of his shots from the floor, while Mikal Bridges is right behind Brunson with a 17.1 points per game mark. Three other Wildcats are averaging in double digits.
While the Wildcats moved to the top spot, they jumped over the Michigan State Spartans, the No. 2 team in the nation. Tom Izzo’s team continues to roll with a 9-1 record.
However, the Spartans may have been overlooked for the No. 1 spot because they are in the soft part of their schedule. After that handled North Carolina and Notre Dame with ease at the end of November – both victories were 18-point beat downs – the Spartans are not likely to have another tough game until they host Maryland in early January.
Miles Bridges is Michigan State’s go-to guy and is averaging 15.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per night, while Nick Ward is scoring 13.7 points per game and 64.1 percent.
Wichita State (8-1) is the new No. 3 team, while Duke (11-1) slipped to the fourth spot. Keep your eye on the Arizona State Wildcats (9-0), as they garnered five first-place votes.
College coaches getting ready to take a much-needed stance
The FBI investigation into payoffs in college basketball that led to Rick Pitino’s firing at Louisville before the start of the season is having major ramifications with the sport’s leaders.
College basketball coaches are getting involved in an effort to clean it up.
The National Association of Basketball Coaches has formed a committee that will ultimately make recommendations to the NCAA Commission on College Basketball.
This would not be news if the coaches involved were at small schools with low profiles, but this committee includes Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Michigan State’s Izzo and Villanova’s Wright.
These coaches are not only the heads of their own college programs, they have intimate knowledge of what’s going on throughout the sport. They are in a position to make the best and most important recommendations about stopping — or at least curbing — cheating.
Izzo said the key to the committee’s success is having full and honest discussions and not allowing self-interest on the part of the coaches to determine the course of action that is recommended. Izzo said coaches have to figure out what’s best for the sport and the student-athlete, and act accordingly.
Few said coaches have to take a hard line and speak out about cheaters and rule breakers when they know that major violations have taken place.
The committee is off to a good start in determining what has to be done to clean up the sport. The onus is on the coaches to keep their eyes open and not let hangers-on influence their programs while they look the other way.
That kind of behavior has gone on for decades, and it can no longer be tolerated.
It never should have been in the first place.
Keep your eye on Tennessee and Texas A&M
There are a number of surprising teams thus far in college basketball, and few expected much from the Tennessee Volunteers (7-1) this season.
The No. 20 Vols were predicted to be among the worst teams in the Southeastern Conference, but Tennessee has beaten Purdue and North Carolina State, and played an excellent game against top-rated Villanova before losing.
Tennessee has four players who are averaging in double figures, and the most important may be 6-7 power forward Grant Williams, who is averaging 16.1 points and a hefty 7 .3 rebounds per game. The 245-pound sophomore plays a physical game, and most of the key plays run through him at crucial moments.
The Texas A&M Aggies (8-1) lost 15 games a year ago and seemed to suffer a new injury every week. They have moved into the No. 9 spot in the AP poll because they have pinned double-digit defeats on USC, Oklahoma State and Penn State.
This is a team that plays aggressive defense on an every-night basis by pounding interior scorers and having the quickness to get out and defend three-point shooters.
Junior forward DJ Hogg is scoring 15.7 points per game while bringing down 6.9 rebounds on a nightly basis. Senior guard Duane Wilson makes the offense run and he is handing out 4.1 assists per night while scoring 10.9 points per game.
Leading the way
As we hit the middle of December, statistical achievements are starting to have a lot more meaning than they did early in the season.
We talked about Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young leading the nation in scoring last week. He is still atop that list, averaging 28.8 points per game for the Sooners. Niagara’s Matt Scott is second in scoring with 25.4 points per game.
While Young is a high-profile recruit and a future star, senior guard Erick Neal of Texas-Arlington is not. However, he is worth knowing, because he leads the nation with 9.4 assists per game, and senior guard Emmett Near of St. Mary’s of California second in that category with 9.1 per night.
Powerful junior forward Jordan Murphy of Minnesota and junior center Jessie Govan of Georgetown are the nation’s leading rebounders with 9.4 boards per night, while sophomore guard Cassius Winston of Michigan State has made 25-of-41 three-point attempts and leads the nation by connecting on 61.0 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.