From the top of the bracket to the bottom of the bubble watch, we break down the final push for placement into the 68-team men’s March Madness tournament.
"I will be playing college basketball for the University of Florida," he said. "I will be teaming up with Kasey Hill, and together we will be the best duo in college and we will win a national championship."
Florida basketball fanss cooed and applauded when those confident words spilled from the mouth of high school junior Chris Walker two summers ago as he announced his college choice. They also served to kindle the expectations for what many believed would be a cup of coffee in college basketball for the 6-10 power forward before he became an NBA lottery pick.
Walker’s expresso may have gotten a little colder since the beginning of the season, but the opportunity to follow through on his title declaration is still an attainable one.
As if the 2014 freshman class wasn’t already brimming with estimable talent, the NCAA’s enforcement committee introduced another topflight frosh into the fray. The High School All-American recorded 39 points and 26 boards in one outing, but was sidetracked once the NCAA caught wind of his dealings with a former summer league coach that paid for one of his unofficial visits to another school.
Dear NCAA: Chris Walker and Florida have waited long enough. The DMV now believes you are slow and inefficient.
— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) January 22, 2014
The NCAA took their time, but on Wednesday, the NCAA ruled that that Walker would have to sit 12 games after his enrollment to become eligible for play. Walker enrolled at Florida in December, and will make his debut next Wednesday. In addition, to the 12 game suspension, Walker must repay the $270 in cash and benefits he accepted and serve 80 hours of probation.
When Walker makes his mid-season debut against Missouri, we’ll get a preview as to whether he could be the pillar in the post that
vaults Florida past Arizona and Syracuse as a favorite to march through the 68 man March Madness tourney.
Most of his court value will come in a rim protecting capacity as a pair of fresh legs off the bench for Florida’s frontcourt behind Patric Young and Will Yeguete. Not a single contender’s roster has constantly been in flux as much as Florida’s. I'm not just referring to the McDonalds All-American that they're integrating into the rotation on February 4th.
In December, star Rutgers transfer Eli Carter was forced to redshirt to continue rehabbing a broken leg suffered last February and forward Damontre Harris was dismissed from the team for violating tem rules. Even while Florida surged ahead to first place in the SEC he prolonged absence of Walker began to No. 3 in the Associated Press’ Top 25 polls. The scary thing is that the chips are just now beginning to fall in Florida’s favor.
Courtesy of a defense that ranks 10th in defensive efficiency, they’ve withstood the season-long absences of Harris, Carter, injuries to guards Kasey Hill and Scottie Wilbekin. Florida’s practices have been four on four affairs at times due to the volatility they’ve encountered this season.
Despite their top-three ranking, they’ve gotten lost on the outskirts of SportsCenter highlights and on the fringe of national championship discussions in favor of Wichita State, Syracuse, Arizona, Kansas and Michigan State for the past. Maybe, it’s because they play in the lackluster SEC, but Billy D’s Gators haven’t gotten much shine. This is a talented team with immense depth. The floodgates have opened and the Swamp’s March outlook is looking sunny and bright. Groundhog Day is Sunday, but Walker's appearance signals whether this will be the dwn of spring in Gainesville. The ultimate late bloomers are peaking at just the right time.
CLIMBING THE LADDER – Player of the Year Power Rankings
1. Doug McDermott is showin’ his ass like Beyonce at the Grammys. Not literally, but you’ll get the point. After he and Ethan Wragge shared the spotlight last Tuesday during target practice against Villanova, McDermott snatched the mic back while he splashed treys all over the St. John’s defense. McDermott is separating himself from the rest of the pack for Player of the Year. A 39 point performance capped off with a silky, smooth game-winning, drop the mic, 25 footer was impressive. It’s approaching the time to cancel the rankings and begin pointing out the contenders for another award, like Coach of the Year.
Via ESPN/Creighton SID Rob Anderson:
Since 1997-98, no college player has averaged at least 24.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and shot 43 percent or better from three-point range over the course of an entire season (min. 15 3FG’s). In NBA history, no player has ever averaged 24.5 points, 7.0 or more rebounds and shot 43 percent or better from three-point range (min. 15 3FG’s).
McDermott is Jet Li in The One, averaging 25, 7.1 and 43.9 percent shooting from the field. He's shutting it down.
GAME RECOGNIZE GAME
No. 13 Cincinnati at No. 12 Louisville
Not only is this a showdown for AAC supremacy, but it’s also an opportunity to get a look at the conference’s leading scorer Sean Kilpatrick. Power forward Justin Jackson is on the injury watch list and may not be able to go, however, Louisville is more depleted than MC Vince Hammer Young’s bank account.
The vacuum left behind by Jackson in the scoring department may have to be filled by Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick and Jackson are the only two scorers averaging in double digits, but his absence will be most noticeable on the defensive end. Jackson played just six minutes against 6-13 Temple and the Bearcats defense, which allows the fifth fewest points per game in the nation, gave up a season-high 76 points. Their previous season-high was 62.
Luke Hancock’s scoring input has doubled from 7.8 ppg to15 ppg since Chase Benahan was dismissed at the end of December and the Chris Jones-Russ Smith backcourt is still the conference’s best.
No. 17 Duke at No. 2 Syracuse
Duke already dispatched one ACC trespasser with conference keys when they shocked and awed Pittsburgh into submission. It was assumed beforehand that the Panthers would put their hands on Duke’s foreheads, watch their short arms swing away and dominate the Peter Dinklage-sized Blue Devils on the boards. Oddly enough, Coach K seems to have discovered the solution to Duke’s rebounding woes. However, Syracuse just outrebounded Wake Forest 55-35 on Wednesday night and is the ACC’s best offensive rebounding team. This is going to be a clash to watch.
No. 23 Oklahoma at No. 16 Iowa State
Oklahoma is low-key one of the most exciting teams to watch in the nation. They may approach 90 against an Iowa State defense that gave up 92 to Kansas after surrendering 77 in their first meeting two weeks earlier, 86 to Texas and 87 to these same Sooners on January 11th. The only difference is that this one is on the road. Iowa State has to sense the urgency to steal a win against one of their four straight top 25 foes. If you don’t pay attention or you’ve already stopped reading, you’ll miss the salient point here. Oklahoma is second in line behind the Kansas monarchy for the Big 12 crown.
No. 24 Ohio State at No. 14 Wisconsin
Ohio State and Wisconsin are sliding down an icy precipice. Six days after Ohio State halted the four-game losing streak that began on January 7 when they were fourth in the nation, Penn State dropped them with two seconds left in overtime. Wisconsin also applied the brakes to a three-game losing skid against Purdue, then rolled over in a loss to Northwestern that wasn’t even close. Somebody has to win though.
IN THE BONUS
Looks like Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker finally grew tired of tossing up bricks and decided to crash through the freshman wall they’d appear to have run smack into.
Wiggins is a personality that requires the proper motivation to shed his passiveness and start ripping through defenses like a chainsaw-wielding ball handler. Last week, I compared his three-point Baylor game to Paul George’s career-altering 0fer against Golden State on December 1, 2012 that preceded his evolution into the MVP candidate we see today.
Since that three-point performance Wiggins has averaged 24.3 points per game, shot 58 percent from the field and converted 85 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe. At least it appears he won’t be the next Harrison Barnes anymore. After the game, Wiggins explained the game was finally beginning to slow down for him.
Parker has also been revitalized and not coincidentally, Duke has re-emerged from their nadir with its top 25 ranking and ACC title regular season aspirations intact.
His scoring and shooting percentage are way down, but Parker is crashing the boards and averaging a little more than 13 rebounds per game in the last week, including 10 offensive boards against Florida State on Sunday.
Against ranked opponents, Wiggins is actually faring better than Parker in various efficiency stats. On the flip side, Parker’s usage rates are higher. Suddenly, Parker and Wiggins’ roles have been flipped on their respective teams which has given them an opportunity to flash another level of versatility. Parker is suddenly, the reliable body boxing out underneath the basket instead of aggressively looking for his own show while Wiggins has embraced a No. 1 scoring role for Kansas.
Wednesday’s performance was a reminder for scouts that Chris Walker miscalculated. The best duo in college hoops is the one down in Lawrence, Kansas.