Welcome to the newly unveiled Heat Check Herald. Each week I will do my best to recap the previous week of basketball with observations, news and notes. Without laboring on, let’s get into this past week.
Race for National Player of the Year is heating up
Has there been a National Player of the Year race that featured more players making leaps from decent to great? (Obviously, in this evaluation we are not talking about freshmen). At least recently, I can’t remember one. Go down the list and the leaps made by Iowa forward Keegan Murray, Arizona guard Bennedict Mathurin and Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis are unlike anything we’ve ever seen. In fact, in the last decade there has been only one player in college basketball that did not start a game while averaging fewer than 10 points before returning to the same school to become a First Team All-American in the ensuing season.
That player was Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis.
Ulis, a rotation piece on the near-undefeated 2014–15 Wildcats squad, came back to Kentucky after averaging 5.6 points per game as a freshman to team up with Jamal Murray and put up nearly 17 points per game while playing 37 minutes per game.
Only three other players have started fewer than half of the games available to them and averaged single-digits in scoring to return the following year and become a First Team All-American: Kansas forward Thomas Robinson in 2011–12, Gonzaga forward Kelly Olynk in 2012–13, and Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein in 2014–15 (who objectively was one of the worst First Team AA selections in recent memory and largely made it for his defensive prowess.)
So, what Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis is doing is historic. After starting zero games and averaging 7.0 points per game, Davis has made the leap to become the nation’s fifth-leading scorer as we approach the final week of January. Murray has made a similar jump to his Big Ten peer — seeing his role grow with nearly triple his shot attempts and points per game.
Friday night, Wisconsin struggled without junior forward Tyler Wahl and lost at home to Michigan State. While it’s not a bad loss, Wahl’s absence showed the importance of secondary contributors for Wisconsin beyond Davis. Despite the loss, Davis is likely the reason Wisconsin will go from being outside the field of 68 in most season-opening bracket projections to a top-4 seed (I’m probably being conservative with that estimate).
We’re No. 1: Auburn takes control
Last week’s raging debate was over whether Auburn deserved to be the No. 1 ranked team in the AP Poll for the first time in school history. The Tigers received 36 of 25 first-place votes, but were weighed down by the Kansas City Star’s Jesse Newell. I agreed with Newell and based on the advanced metrics believed that a strong case could be made that Auburn on a neutral court would not be favored over the Gonzaga’s and Baylor’s of the world.
That’s an oversimplified reasoning for why a team shouldn’t be ranked No. 1 in the country, but Auburn fans didn’t care. They clowned Newell — literally — in his Twitter mentions all week, proving that they do care about more than just football.
Then, Bruce Pearl and the Tigers beat a short-handed Kentucky team in impressive fashion Saturday. Defeating the Wildcats without freshman guard TyTy Washington, who led them to an early advantage before leaving with a high ankle sprain, will likely earn Auburn its coveted ranking. How long will they hold onto it for? That’s another discussion.
Kansas completes historic comeback
Speaking of historic things, Kansas on Saturday continued its string of tight wins, grabbing a road quad 1 win over Kansas State after trailing by 16 at half and 17 shortly after the break. My good friend and Heat Check co-host Peyton Gallaher has shared the One Time Theory which states that every basketball player gets at least one practice, open run or game period in which they fall into an unconscious offensive zone. That was K-State guard Nijel Pack on Saturday during a performance that saw the sophomore guard go 12 of 18 from the floor and 8 of 12 from 3-point range, scoring 35 points in defeat.
The Jayhawks spurred the largest halftime comeback in program history with incredible effort on the offensive glass. Both senior forward David McCormack and redshirt sophomore forward Jalen Wilson were active on the boards and created plenty of second chance points for KU. Both had double-doubles (Wilson had 16 points and 10 rebounds; McCormack: 11 points and 15 rebounds).
All that hustle set the stage for a National Player of the Year worthy performance from senior guard Ochai Agbaji, who tied his season-high with 29 points, including nine of the final 13 points for KU. Following a midseason second team All-American award from the Sporting News — which junior guard Christian Braun acknowledged was certainly seen by his backcourt mate — Agbaji responded with a week of statement performances to help Kansas win two road games by three points each.
This one certainly meant a little more for the Jayhawks as head coach Bill Self lost his father, Bill Self, Sr., at the age of 82 on Friday. Self told reporters he had only been with the program in a limited capacity during the last week-plus, missing some preparation before games against West Virginia and Oklahoma.
Coming up this week, Kansas gets visits from Texas Tech (Monday) and Kentucky (Saturday) — a chance to bolster its resumé and further solidify its chances of a No. 1 seed when March rolls around. The contest between Kentucky and Kansas sets up as the nation’s leading rebounder (Oscar Tshiebwe) against the nation’s leading offensive rebounder (McCormack). It should be a fascinating battle at Allen Fieldhouse.
Meanwhile, Kansas State remains a quality team and one that could be in the tournament discussion given the right outcomes. So far, they’ve lost four of their five Big 12 games by fewer than three points.
Pay attention to me: Heat Check Mid-Major Player of the Week
Recent play from Missouri State guard Isiaih Mosley has probably gone unnoticed by most of the nation. Mosley though made a statement Saturday with a 40-point performance on the road, where he and the Bears gave №22 Loyola Chicago its first loss in Missouri Valley play.
The Bears’ junior guard put up his 40 points while shooting 63.6 percent. Mosley capped a five-game stretch in which his squad has gone 4–1 while continuing with his efficient scoring mark. In four of the five contests, Mosley has shot over 60 percent from the floor. He’s also been above 42.9 percent from 3-point range as well. Let this serve as notice for when we arrive at Arch Madness in March. Mosley is every bit good enough to carry the Bears to a conference tournament bid steal. Pay attention to him.
My Week 11 Heat Check Poll Ballot + Pac-12 Voting
Each week, I’ll round out this writing section with my top 25 teams in the country (as submitted to the week’s Heat Check Poll). I’ll also share my votes for the Pac-12’s weekly awards as an official voter in that area.
12. Texas Tech
13. Michigan State
24. Saint Mary’s
Pac-12 Player of the Week: Johnny Juzang, UCLA guard
Juzang and the Bruins went on the road and earned tough victories against Utah and Colorado. It’s not the world’s toughest road trips, but during it Juzang began to shoot the ball similar to how he did during the magical tournament run in Indianapolis last season. He and UCLA will take on Arizona in a huge league game (with rare national implications) on Tuesday night.
Pac-12 Freshman of the Week: Harrison Ingram, Stanford forward
The leading scorer on a decent Stanford team, I think a case can be made that Ingram should be an All-League player this season. As someone who predicted that preseason, it would be a nice reward to see for the Dallas, Texas, native.