The Cincinnati Bearcats don't play this weekend. It's part of the long, dark 9 days without Cincinnati basketball that we are going through. We have to use the rest of the Big East and the rest of the nation to get our college basketball fix. If you haven't been keeping up with the rest of the country, only follow UC or are completely new to college basketball, I have just what you need.
Today, I talk to my good friend (on twitter anyway) Raphielle Johnson. He is part of the great team at College Basketball Talk. That is a must read site every day. If you've seen the Q&As I've had with Raph before, you know I ask him a lot of questions. I did the same today. Along with being a great writer, Raphielle is very generous with his time.
We talk about Cincinnati, the Big East race, who the surprises and disappointments of the league are, the best conference, the most entertaining conference, the best teams, the most overrated teams, the best players you haven't heard of and pretty much anything you could ask someone about college basketball. We ran the gamut.
Questions in bold.
Since you are a national voice and don't have a rooting interest, what do you think about the Bearcats this season?
RJ: They've been solid for much of the season, and it's good that Cincinnati dodged a major bullet with Cashmere Wright's knee injury. The back court ranks among the best in the country with Wright, JaQuon Parker and Sean Kilpatrick (shout out to those who thought I was crazy to suggest that Kilpatrick could earn national honors during the preseason…but that was balanced out by picking Stanford to finish 2nd in the Pac-12), and Titus Rubles has improved by the week it seems. The key down the line will be the bigs and how well they can perform in their roles.
The Big East standings are a jumbled mess except for Syracuse and Marquette at the top with 0 and 1 loss respectively. Most seem to think Marquette will come back to earth. Do you think Syracuse will run away with the league?
I don't think they run away with the league because of what it is: essentially two prohibitive favorites (Syracuse and yes, Louisville) and a bunch of teams capable of beating anyone on any given night. And we still don't know how long James Southerland will be out of the lineup due to his academic situation. Without him the Orange, while still potent, aren't the juggernaut that ran away with the conference title last year before Fab Melo was ruled ineligible.
I was high on Notre Dame until halftime of the St John's game, when it was clear they play no defense at all. They are reeling and they lost Scott Martin for the time being, albeit in a lull in their schedule. Is this a tournament team to you?
They'll get to the tournament, provided Cam Biedscheid and Pat Connaughton become consistent perimeter shot-makers. Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant are tough match ups on the perimeter and Jack Cooley is one of the best big men in the Big East. The defense is a concern, especially given the number of possessions that Notre Dame tends to play, but they'll do enough to get into the field of 68.
Who has stood out in the Big East in a good way? Who has stood out in a bad way?
Good: Marquette. A lot of fans said that things would change when Todd Mayo returned to the floor and they've been right. Junior Cadougan, after being the quiet type during his first three years, has emerged as a team leader that Buzz Williams really needed with DJO and Jae Crowder moving on to the NBA and Vander Blue has been solid as well. They've got skill on the perimeter and big men Chris Otule and Davante Gardner are both healthy (unlike last year), and Marquette is the kind of program that will fight you every possession.
As for the bad, have to go with DePaul. I was originally of the thought that with Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin the Blue Demons could become a more competitive outfit but for whatever reason it hasn't happened. Will it ever? And you can probably put USF in this category as well.
Branching out nationally, do you think there is actually a top team, or are there a handful of teams that could be the best at any given time?
No there isn't a clear top team, more a group of maybe 10-12 who are capable of being the best depending on the night. I like Michigan's work, especially on the offensive end, but Kansas could very well be that team. Louisville was my pick to win it all and I'll stick with that, but at this point every season should begin with Kansas' name being engraved on the Big 12 trophy.
Florida has been killing the SEC. Are they actually great or are they just very, very good and the league is very, very down?
Very good in a down league. They host Ole Miss in early February in the lone meeting between the two, and at this rate that could very well determine who wins the league. Florida's got weapons and with Scottie Wilbekin's finger healed there isn't as much concern about what can happen when Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton are asked to handle the bulk of the ball-handling chores (see what happened at Arizona). If Erik Murphy and Casey Prather can return to full strength by March Billy Donovan can get Florida back to the Final Four.
Is there a top 25 team, or unranked team with a gaudy record, right now that you think is going to have the wheels fall off in the next few weeks?
Well Houston started Conference USA play 12-2 and have already plummeted downhill so we'll leave them out (they played a very poor non-conference slate as well). But after their fifth straight loss at Northwestern I'll vote for Minnesota here. They played a tough non-conference schedule and do have the win over Michigan State to their credit in league play, but a big part of their success has been predicated on their ability to hit the offensive glass. If that's available then missing shots isn't exactly a killer, but more teams as the season wears on will be better at keeping Trevor Mbakwe and company from getting those second-chance opportunities. They're 15-4 now, and with three straight losses heading into a game at Wisconsin this tough stretch could do some serious damage.
The Big 10 seems like the best conference in the nation. They have 6 of the top 16 on Ken Pom. A couple of questions. Do you think this is the best league? Who do you think is going to finish the year on top?
Yes and yes. And if not for key injuries at Penn State (Tim Frazier) and Nebraska (Brandon Ubel's been out with a fractured elbow) the bottom of that league could be even stronger. The Big Ten is the best conference in the country.
The Mountain West has 6 teams with 4 or fewer losses, including New Mexico who beat Cincinnati. I think this has been the most enjoyable league to watch so far. What has been yours?
Yeah I'd go with the Mountain West because of the depth. You never really know what can happen on any given night in any league, but with some of the home courts and the talented players in the league the Mountain West has been outstanding. And the fact that there's just one team ranked (UNM) goes to show the humor that can be derived from national polls.
Not counting Gonzaga or Creighton or the A-10 schools, who's the best non-BCS team?
New Mexico. Kendall Williams, Tony Snell and Hugh Greenwood are an outstanding perimeter trio and Alex Kirk has played better than most envisioned after he missed last season due to a back injury. (ED: probably should have not counted New Mexico either.)
Could you give a quick 5 unheralded players that fans should try to catch this season?
F John Brown (High Point) Not on TV much but 17.9 ppg and 6.7 rpg as a redshirt freshman
F Erik Etherly (Loyola MD) Interested to see what happens now that PG R.J. Williams is back but Etherly is one of the best forwards in the MAAC
G Ramon Galloway (La Salle) Attention shouldn't be an issue following the win over No. 9 Butler but Galloway's an outstanding player, as is teammate Tyreek Duren
F James Ennis (Long Beach State) Getting Tony Freeland on the court moves Ennis back to his natural small forward slot, and he's one of the game's best leapers
Oregon Picking a team here because the team atop the Pac-12 standings doesn't have a "star" but they're getting it done with balance and solid defense. Dana Altman's got himself a good team
A huge, huge, huge thanks to Raphielle Johnson. He is the man. Click on his name to follow his moves all week on twitter. It's pretty awesome when people you read and respect take the time to do something like this.