Rivals Roundtable: Impressive new coaches; teams with work to do
This week in the Rivals Roundtable, analysts Eric Bossi, Corey Evans and Dan McDonald discuss impressive debuts by coaches at new jobs. Also, what teams need to step things up to avoid missing out on the NCAA Tournament and who else could have been a fit for USA Basketball’s Hoop Summit team.
1. What first-year coach has impressed the most?
Bossi; Give me John Brannen at Cincinnati. After winning at Wichita State on Thursday night, Brannen has the Bearcats atop the American Athletic Conference at 8-2 in league play. I don’t know if they can keep it up, but after a shaky out of conference slate, the work they are doing in the AAC is one of the biggest surprises in the country. Even an NIT appearance would be a solid first year for Brannen but right now they’ve got a legitimate shot at the NCAA Tournament.
Evans: What Buzz Williams has done, to entirely change Texas A&M’s season within recent weeks, has been nothing short of impressive. This is the same team that was practically mercy ruled by Gonzaga, demolished by Temple, and then went on to lose to Fairfield, a team that just won one other game in non-league play.
Sitting above .500 in the SEC with a clean sweep of Missouri and a road victory at Tennessee, I would say the Aggies are a bit ahead of schedule. Things should only improve with a healthy Cassius McNeilly next year, the enrollment of four-star guard Hassan Diarra and the Aggies also sit with the commitment from top-50 junior Jaxson Robinson.
McDonald: I'm going with Williams for the work he's done at Texas A&M this year as well. He didn't inherit a great roster, yet he has the Aggies at 5-4 in the SEC right now. He's also doing a really good job on the recruiting trail. Give it a couple years and Texas A&M will be a force in the SEC just like Virginia Tech was in a tough ACC last year.
2. Which one-time NCAA tournament lock needs to step it up down the stretch?
Bossi: The NCAA is going to have to find 68 teams one way or another so as of today Michigan is probably in. However, after a hot 7-0 start moved them into the top 10 nationally, the Wolverines have been living dangerously going just 6-9 since then. They have a hugely important game against bitter rivals Michigan State on Saturday morning. Win that game and they are back in good shape, lose and things could be getting dicey.
Evans: We all knew that Virginia was going to take a step back, but I am not sure many thought they could miss the tourney altogether. They have begun to turn the tide some thanks to a three-game winning streak which was highlighted by a big W over Florida State, but the next string of games could ultimately determine if UVA will be back in the big dance or not. Shooting has been a big struggle this season. They are making just under 28% of their perimeter attempts and in a down ACC, have failed to win some of the so-called easy ones. Maybe they’re in the middle of their turnaround, this upcoming stretch against Louisville, Notre Dame and North Carolina could determine how hopeful they can be for March.
McDonald: I thought Florida was a potential Final Four team before the season. They have not looked anything close to that so far this season. In fact, they haven't looked like an NCAA Tournament for a good chunk of this season. I think they'll still get in, but they need to pick it up and be more consistent. When they are on like they were while erasing a 22-point second half deficit against Georgia this week, the Gators can play with anybody.
3. Who was snubbed from the Nike Hoop Summit?
Bossi: Having gone to USA Basketball events for years, I know him important it is for them to choose from players that have come up through their system so the roster is always going to miss some highly ranked dudes who may have missed out on some of their camps. With that in mind, the guy that stands out to me is Tennessee-bound Keon Johnson. Maybe he’s not going to be fully recovered from his senior year injury, but if he is I’m pretty surprised he didn’t make it because he was electric on both ends at the last two USA camps. If not Johnson, then another capable shooter like Duke-bound D.J. Steward or Kansas-bound Bryce Thompson would have been a very good fit.
Evans: I mean, you cannot go wrong when the big three of Jalen Green-Cade Cunningham-Evan Mobley as the core of your team. I also like the tough-minded, defensive approach that will be brought by Josh Christopher, Jalen Suggs and Adam Miller.
But, I can’t get over the shot makers, or lack thereof, that the final roster. Sure, Miller can score the ball, as can Caleb Love, Ziaire Williams and Green, but someone like Steward could have been the X-Factor for this squad. Furthermore, this team not possessing the freak athleticism of Greg Brown or a do-it-all wing like B.J. Boston is also a bit perplexing.
McDonald: I probably would have put UCLA signee Daishen Nix on this roster. He's the best passer in this class and makes others around him better. He has good size too and can score it, so he's an easy player to blend into a team.