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Starting Five: Weekend college hoops observations

Kevin Knox
Kevin Knox

It's late January and the massive high school events of the holiday season have come and gone as teams move into their district and league play and prepare for state playoff runs. On the college front, teams are in the thick of conference play and all of that means we've hit the slowest part of the recruiting calendar.

With a weekend off from the road and little recruiting news trickling in, national basketball analyst Eric Bossi spent his weekend watching a lot of college hoops and has some takes.


Kevin Knox
Kevin Knox

What a tale of two halves it was for a very young (as usual) Kentucky team as they came back from 17 down to beat West Virginia in the SEC/Big 12 challenge.

I'm fully expecting there to be some more ups and downs for John Calipari's team this season, but the Wildcats showed that they have the horses to make a deep March run after appearing to turn the corner on Saturday night.

The most talented of Kentucky's freshmen, Kevin Knox was absolutely spectacular. At times this season he's settled too easily for the deep jumper rather than using his size and length to attack the rim and make himself a matchup issue. On a night when he was scorching hot with his jump shot, I loved seeing Knox shot fake and attack the rim. I also loved seeing the usually stone faced forward play with some emotion.

What I saw in the second half of Kentucky's comeback was a team where guys seemed to be finding their roles. Knox is the go-to scorer, freshman Hamidou Diallo is there to use his athleticism to make plays, Shai Alexander keeps emerging as a potential first round pick and crafty playmaker while Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones provide leadership and energy off the bench and on and on. More importantly, the Wildcats sold out defensively and took terrific care of the ball against West Virginia's vaunted press.

The more I watch this season unfold, the more I feel like Kentucky is figuring things out. If it ends up finishing strong and making a run in the NCAA Tournament, we'll all be looking back at Saturday night as the moment it turned the corner.


Isaac Haas
Isaac Haas (AP)

After winning at Indiana on Sunday, Purdue has moved to 21-2 overall and 10-0 in the Big Ten. Maybe I've missed it, but it seems to me that there hasn't really been enough talk about Matt Painter's squad as a Final Four and title contender.

I get it, Purdue hasn't been to a Final Four since 1980 and they haven't made it as far as the Elite Eight since 2000. But this might be the year that the Boilermakers break through and the makeup of their team has a lot to do with that.

In Isaac Haas -- who they rode hard in Bloomington on Sunday -- they've got a big man with incredible size who they can count on getting a tough basket. Also important to me is that Haas is a reasonably good free throw shooter and how good a job Painter does in managing his minutes and limiting his foul trouble. I know he's not the quickest guy around, but four years deep into this he, his coaches and his team have seen about any style designed to neutralize him and they are seasoned.

Not only is Haas experienced, he's one of four senior starters who is battle tested. Vince Edwards has flourished as combo forward creates matchup probles, Dakota Mathias is a big-time defender on the perimeter who makes deep shots and point guard P.J. Thompson is simply steady on both ends of the floor. Then there's Purdue's best player, sophomore guard Carsen Edwards. Something about that kid makes me believe that when the big moment comes, he'll be ready to step up and take his team to another level. Throw in some solid rotational players off the bench and we are looking at a legitimate contender worthy of a bit more talk.


Jalen Brunson
Jalen Brunson (AP Images)

At the beginning of the season I picked potential All-America candidates and Villanova junior point guard Jalen Brunson was one of the 10 players on my list. That faith in Brunson is looking to have been well-placed as he's pacing the No. 1 ranked Wildcats and was terrific scoring 31 in an 85-82 win at Marquette on Sunday.

With guard Phil Booth out with injury, there's even more pressure on Brunson to score and lead his team and he just keeps stepping up to the meet challenges. He's shooting over 55 percent from the field overall and is just under 50 percent from three. He distributes the ball, he doesn't turn it over often and he leads his team verbally and by action.

Bottom line, Brunson is a stud and deserves more national recognition for what he's doing. I can't imagine there's much left for him to do in a college uniform and I'm looking forward to seeing how far he can lead Villanova in March. I also think we could see Brunson him leaving for the NBA after this season. It certainly explains how hard the Wildcats are trying to get unsigned four-star senior Courtney Ramey of Webster Groves (Mo.) High to come aboard.


Kevin Keatts
Kevin Keatts (AP)

When Kevin Keatts was hired as the head coach of NC State last spring, he was hailed as a recruiting savant. Despite winning the CAA all three years he was at UNC-Wilmington, though, people couldn't resist questioning whether or not he could coach. After Saturday's overtime win, Keatts has State at 15-7 overall, 5-4 in the ACC and squarely in the discussion for an NCAA Tournament bid.

The times I've been able to watch them this year, the 2017-18 Wolfpack have looked much different to me than the last few years under Mark Gottfried. It isn't always pretty, but they play hard, they are learning to play for each other and Keatts' sideline enthusiasm is infectious.

Late in Saturday's game at Chapel Hill, the Pack staff caught on that Carolina's Luke Maye was struggling with switches onto point guard Markell Johnson. Even though senior Allerik Freeman had kept them in the game at that point with his three-point shooting, they switched gears and used Johnson and big man Omer Yurtseven to put Maye into pick-and-roll situations on each trip down the floor. When they needed a basket to get to overtime, they called timeout and set up another P&R situation. That's coaching right there.

I don't know how the rest of the season will turn out in Raleigh, but I'm betting that the Pack will continue to be competitive and that Keatts will continue to impress. With a top 25 recruiting class on the way, a young and enthusiastic staff led by Keatts and an energized fanbase, things are looking pretty promising for NC State basketball.


Devonte' Graham
Devonte' Graham (

Like most people, I'm not betting against Bill Self and Kansas to win the Big 12 Championship. Thirteen straight league titles has earned them that and it's not surprising that they hold a one game lead through eight conference games at 6-2. However, as they chase their 14th title in a row and prepare for a huge road test at Kansas State on Monday, one thing is jumping out to me as potentially concerning for the Jayhawks; senior point guard Devonte' Graham's minutes.

After logging 40 minutes for the fourth game in a row (7th time in 21 games this season) during Saturday's home win over Texas A&M, Graham is now averaging 36.5 minutes per game on the season. During Big 12 play, Graham is playing nearly 39 minutes per game and that's an awful lot to ask. Even from a seasoned veteran like Graham.

Graham has done a great job of running the Kansas offense and is among the best assist men in the country handing out 7.3 assists per game to just 2.8 turnovers. But, watching the last few games it looks like those minutes are impacting his shooting. During the four straight 40 minute games, Graham has made just 14-49 field goals (8-26 3PT) and though he's a near 84% free throw shooter on the season he's made just 14-21 charity shots over the last four.

If anybody can figure it out, it's Bill Self and Devonte' Graham. But for the Jayhawks to have the best shot at winning another Big 12 title, finding a way to steal a few minutes of rest for Graham on a nightly basis is going to be key.