There have been a lot of great stories in college basketball this year. Kentucky’s undefeated season. Villanova’s Big East domination. Northern Iowa’s rise to the top 10.
But the best storyline – at least for Mateen Cleaves – has been the diaper dandies.
“The thing that I’ve had a lot of fun following is the freshmen this year,” the former Michigan State standout and current college basketball analyst said on CBS Sports Radio’s Gio and Jones. “There’s been some good freshmen. You got Duke’s trio. Jahlil Okafor is probably the best freshman (in the country). Then you got (Justise) Winslow and Tyus Jones. D’Angelo Russell at Ohio State, he’s a big time player. Melo Trimble at Maryland. (Kelly) Oubre Jr., Kansas. Stanley Johnson out in Arizona. There’s been some good freshmen, and it’s fun to watch them – because you come in with a lot of hype, and I think this freshman class has definitely lived up to that hype.”
Indeed, numerous first-year players have been worth the price of admission. But March, as we all know, isn’t about the best players; it’s about the best team – and the best team, without question, is No. 1 Kentucky (31-0, 18-0).
What kind of team can take down the Wildcats?
“A lucky team,” Cleaves said. “It’s going to have to start like that. In an NBA setting, nobody could beat them in a seven-game series in college. But it’s college, so anything can happen. You’re going to have to make a lot of outside shots against Kentucky. Because they do a good job of rim protecting. That front line, the first five along with the second five, it’s hard to get to the basket. They just do a great job. They defend you well. They got great balance on the offensive end.”
Six Wildcats are averaging between 8.3 and 11.2 points per game. Aaron Harrison leads the team in scoring, followed by Devin Booker (10.9) and Karl-Anthony Towns (9.7). Ten Wildcats are averaging at least 10 minutes per game.
Freshman reserve Tyler Ulis is ninth on the team in scoring but second in assists (3.8 per game). He’s about as dangerous as a 5-9, 155-pounder can be.
“Tyler Ulis, I thought, was a great addition coming in because he’s a true point guard,” Cleaves said. “And they got Devin Booker, who can stretch that floor when you got the bigs working on the inside. It’s going to have to be one of them fluke-ish days and fluke-ish nights for somebody to beat Kentucky.”
Asked for a tournament dark horse, Cleaves didn’t hesitate.
“You know who I like is SMU,” he said. “Larry Brown, he gets his teams (ready). They defend you. They got a really good guard in Nic Moore. He can play. And Markus Kennedy is a big.”
Moore is averaging 14.4 points and 5.3 assists for No. 20 SMU (24-6, 15-3), which was shunned on Selection Sunday last year despite being nationally ranked late in the season. Kennedy, a junior forward, is averaging 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds, while senior center Yanick Moreira is averaging 11.3 points and a team-high 6.4 rebounds.
“I think you got to have at least two guys (down low),” Cleaves said. “If you got the inside-outside, you always got a chance. So Nic Moore, he can break you down, and they got a big, Markus Kennedy, that they can throw the ball into – and the boy can get busy down on that block. So I really like SMU for some people that don’t know about them.”