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Scanning the Nation Notebook : On Kyle Collinsworth, USC, Southern Illinois and more

January 27, 2016 Columns No Comments

If you haven’t seen any BYU games yet this year, you should. In fact, you should see as many of them as possible. The end of Kyle Collinsworth’s college career is near, and when it’s finished college basketball will lose one of the truly unique players it has had in many years. It’s not just the triple-doubles (10 of them, easily an NCAA record now). We’re talking about a player whose game is especially unique in this era of basketball with its share of ball stoppers, serial dribblers and ball-screen specialists who have perhaps never even heard of a V-cut.

Collinsworth can control a game without scoring or dominating the ball. He’s not an outside shooter-just four three-pointers this year. He is an outstanding rebounder at his size and a good defender, but he’s an especially fantastic passer, whether working with his back to the basket posting up a guard or displaying his vision from the perimeter and mid-range.

Collinsworth is a guard, or a forward. He’s reminiscent of what a “3” man used used to be. In some ways, he’s a shorter Ben Simmons, but of course not as athletic, and he’s not being banked on as The Next Young Face of the NBA, so he’s not nearly as hyped by TV networks. What he is, though, is everything that is right about college basketball, a player who has found more than a niche while working in a team setting, has played four years, and has put together one of the truly great all-around careers that we’ve seen in some time…

Staying out west…if you’re sifting through the Pac-12 pack trying to find a team that might emerge, the best bet is still Arizona. But if you need a second pick, try USC. The Trojans opened the conference schedule with five of their first seven on the road, yet still sit just a game out of first at 4-3. Southern Cal now finishes up with seven of its last 11 at home, including its next three. If a young team doesn’t hit a late wall, the Trojans could certainly be up at the top at the end. Few teams have shown more growth this year-or have benefited as much from the changes in the game this year, with more and more coaches willing to loosen up the reins on their offenses…

By the way, watching the Trojans’ loss at Oregon State earlier this week, it’s easy to see just why Chimezie Metu is a tantalizing talent. He’s 6-foot-11, he has that “length” so many love to talk about, and he’s freakishly athletic. Metu converted or nearly some impossible alley-oop passes in that game, and he blocked shots with menace reminiscent of the Ewing/Mourning/Mutombo days at Georgetown. Early in the game, OSU fellow frosh Drew Eubanks backed him down for a layup, but the next time Eubanks did it Metu swatted the shot away with ease. Still a great deal of refinement to do, but most definitely a player to watch.

An overlooked star you haven’t heard much of this year is Jameel Warney at Stony Brook, but he hasn’t gone away. Warney is still averaging 18 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, still ranks among the national leaders in rebounding, double-doubles and blocked shots, and is right on pace to win his third straight America East player of the year award. Warney has his best supporting cast yet, and he and fellow senior Carson Puriefoy are not forced to carry the entire load with fellow double-digit scorers Rayshaun McGrew and Ahmad Walker capable. The Seawolves are 16-4 this year and have won 12 in a row since a 4-4 start, and while getting past Albany in the America East is never easy, coach Steve Pikiell has a team that is capable of not just getting to the NCAA Tournament, but causing serious issues for higher seeds when it’s there…

The Missouri Valley Conference is just better when Southern Illinois is good. It’s been awhile since that was the case, but the Salukis are off to an 18-3 start that makes them one of the very biggest surprises in the country. SIU went 12-21 a year ago and then lost five players from that team to transfer, but coach Barry Hinson-another Valley treasure-has rebuilt quickly around Anthony Beane Jr., a senior who is one of the top players in the MVC. Beane is a terrific scorer averaging nearly 20 points per game, no surprise considering his dad Anthony Sr. (an assistant under Hinson) was a two-time all-Big 8 selection at Kansas State, where he was one of the great money time players of the last 25 years, earning the nickname “Mr. Clutch” for his buzzer-beating heroics.

Hinson also made terrific use of junior college players, as guards Mike Rodriguez and Leo Vincent combine for 19 points per game and shoot better than 47%, and Vincent in particular has picked it up of late with games of 24, 12 and 18 points in three recent SIU wins. The Salukis, along with Evansville and of course league goliath Wichita State, have made the MVC race fun to watch this year even as expected first-division teams Northern Iowa, Illinois State and Loyola (Ill.) have been inconsistent…

Moving upstate in the Land of Lincoln, Northern Illinois has provided a classic example of what can happen when administrators have some patience and resist the urge to pull out the ax. Fifth-year coach Mark Montgomery won just 10 games in his first two years and still had not had a winning record in four years after the Huskies finished 15-17 two years ago and 14-16 last year. A deeper look into last year’s record, though, revealed a team that lost its leading scorer (Dontel Highsmith) to injury before the season, and then the team’s in-season leading scorer and No. 2 rebounder (Darrell Bowie) was injured just before Mid-American Conference play, missing a month and never returning to form. Montgomery returned for a fifth season, and NIU now is 16-4 even after a Tuesday loss to Akron and off to its best start in 25 years, since the 1990-91 team received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The Huskies have done it with a young roster that includes just two seniors plus four freshmen playing significant roles and are still without Bowie (redshirting while still rehabbing his shoulder injury) and Highsmith, who still has yet to play. Northern Illinois is an excellent defensive team, ranking 10th in the country in field goal defense (37.8%), and while not always scoring easily, the team has a true center in sophomore Marin Maric (13.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and a senior in Travon Baker who can get buckets and is playing with urgency-18.4 ppg in conference play, more than six points over his season average. NIU is a serious contender in a very balanced MAC, but even if it doesn’t win the league, the season has already been a success and the future is bright…

Some early bracketology food for thought, for bracketologists or the selection committee…when considering how to make your bracket, remember this: as of today, Monmouth has played five home games this year. Five. (To compare to several other likely bubble teams right now, California has played 13 of its 20 at home, Washington 12 of 19, Stanford 12 of 18, LSU 12 of 20.) That the Hawks have a 15-5 record against any schedule when playing 75% of their games away from home is automatically worthy of consideration for an NCAA tourney at-large bid. That four of those wins are over USC, Notre Dame, UCLA and Georgetown should have Monmouth a mortal lock for a bid if it reaches 24-25 wins, and a few more losses in the MAAC doesn’t change that…

Long Beach State or perhaps even UC Santa Barbara could still have something to say about it, but most likely the Big West is going to come down to UC Irvine and Hawaii. And what a race it should be. The two are a combined 32-7 overall and share the top of the conference standings with undefeated 5-0 marks. The Rainbow Warriors’ only losses were a close one on the road at Texas Tech and a barnburner at home to Oklahoma in the Diamond Head Classic semifinals. Irvine just wasn’t able to capitalize on its biggest non-conference chances, losing to Kansas, Oregon, Boise State, Saint Mary’s and Evansville, but it has beaten everyone else, including a win at Utah State and a convincing victory over Boston College. The teams don’t meet until Feb. 20, and then they will meet twice in six days, with the Anteaters hosting first and the Rainbow Warriors home for the rematch Feb. 26…

More games are on TV and other media sources than ever before, which is good for diehard fans. Whether it serves the overall health of the sport best is another matter-it’s quite possible that so many games on at the same time divides up audiences too much, and the sport could use more national games. Regardless, as the number of games goes up it sure seems the quality of broadcasts has gone down. Of course, there is ESPN’s abhorrent use of studio broadcasts, where announcers are not at a game but are in a sound booth in Bristol, Conn., calling the game. (It’s especially shameful when it is doing this for Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference games sometimes not even 100 miles from the network, such as the Jan. 15 Monmouth/Iona game.) Just the quality of production in-game across the board has diminished as well, though. The lack of information about players in a contest at hand is disappointing. In many cases now, some networks don’t even provide starters before the game, merely giving us numbers and last names of those “on the floor” sometime in the first minute or two after the game.”

Come on. It’s not that much to ask for the lineups before the game, names from broadcasters of new players coming into the game, graphics showing statistics of those shooting free throws, and some good in-game team stats letting us know why the game is developing the way it is-more than just once a half. The campus shots and video inside Joe’s Fish Pub are nice, and we know the networks are going to continue forcing promos of their content no matter how unnecessary it is, but there’s no excuse for the lack of attention paid to the fundamentals of just what a viewer really wants out of watching a game…

Finally, a terrific conference race including some surprising teams is going in the Southland. As expected, Stephen F. Austin is at the top at 7-0. Somewhat unexpected in joining them is Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which is 16-3 overall and where former Rice coach Willis Wilson has done an outstanding job. Completely crashing the party at the top, though, is Houston Baptist, which went 7-11 in the SLC all of last year but is 7-0 this year.

Ron Cottrell is in his 25th year as coach of the Huskies, meaning he’s been there nearly long enough to cover the school’s previous stint in NCAA Division I plus its current one, which began in 2007 after 18 years as an NAIA member. Hoopville this summer picked HBU as a team on the rise in the conference, but few could’ve expected a squad that is now 13-7 and currently on a nine-game winning streak. Houston Baptist gets a test when it hosts fourth-place-and perennial Southland contender-Sam Houston State on Saturday, but that’s just an undercard that day to the season’s first of two meetings between SFA and Corpus Christi, hosted by the Islanders. TAMU-CC was the only SLC team to defeat the Lumberjacks last year and pinned SFA with its lone loss over a nearly four-month span.

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