Player of the Week
Brandon Paul, Illinois
When Paul is hot, you’d better step out and guard him on the perimeter. Previously-unbeaten Gonzaga received a crash course last Saturday as the 6-foot-4 senior went off for 35 points to lead his Illini to an 83-71 road win and to a top-10 national ranking. The Big Ten’s second leading scorer (19.0 ppg) hit 5-of-9 from beyond the arc, including a dagger with just more than a minute left that gave his team its final margin of victory. It was Paul’s highest scoring output since his 43-point game Jan. 10 against Ohio State, and the second time in his career he reached the 30-point plateau.
Paul also showed his defensive presence in Spokane, collecting three steals and two blocks, including one that showcased his ability to sky. He trailed Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos on a fastbreak, letting him go one-on-one against teammate D.J. Richardson before taking off from the other side of the basket and slapping the ball back in Pangos’ face. He also had three assists for the Illini.
"He looked like a high-level NBA guy," Gonzaga coach Mark Few told reporters afterward. "We didn't have a guy who could guard him one-on-one, basically."
Illinois continues firing away from 3-point range, and the Illini’s 10.4 makes per game lead the country. Paul is attempting 1.7 more per game than last season, but also shooting 8 percent better (.413). "I didn't want to rely too much on the 3, but they were giving me open shots," Paul told reporters after the Gonzaga game.
Paul displayed one of the more frustrating aspects of his game Tuesday against Norfolk State, though. He hit three 3-pointers in the first half and finished with 10 points at halftime, but largely disappeared in the second half – he failed to make a field goal – and wasn’t really a factor as the Illini pulled away for a 64-54 win. He finished 3-for-10 from the field but also grabbed eight rebounds, tying a season high. Paul is prone to these inconsistent showings, but they’ll become a lot more noticeable once Big Ten season hits. The Illini, now 11-0, are off to their best start in seven years, but they also started 10-0 last season. They host fellow unbeaten Eastern Kentucky (9-0) on Sunday. The Colonels beat Norfolk State by a more convincing 68-44 score earlier in the season.
Aaron White, Iowa
The Hawkeyes’ versatile sophomore continues to badger defenses – if he’s not throwing down on the fast break, he’s able to get position inside to draw a foul or convert an easy dunk. He’s dunked on 22 of his 42 field goals this season after having just 32 all last season. White put up 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists in Iowa’s 80-71 win over in-state rival Iowa State last Friday night. He has just one turnover in the past four games combined, and has gone 17 for his last 19 at the free-throw line.
Trey Burke, Michigan
Burke just keeps doing his job brilliantly for the Wolverines, mixing scoring with distributing. All of his major stats are up from last season, and he continues to lead the Big Ten in assists at 6.9 per game. He’s fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.0, and does all this while ranking third in the conference in scoring at 17.0 points per game for the 10-0 Wolverines, who beat Arkansas and Binghamton this past week. He had seven assists in an 80-67 win against Arkansas last Saturday and went 8-for-12 from the field Tuesday against Binghamton. Whatever his team needs, Burke provides.
Gary Harris, Michigan State
The Spartans had just one game this past week, a 73-61 win against Loyola (Ill.), but Harris continues to show why he’s considered one of the top freshmen in the country. The 6-4 Fishers, Ind., product was one of the few Spartans to play well, finishing 7-of-11 from the field – including 5 for 7 from the 3-point line – for 20 points. Michigan State trailed 32-30 at the half before Harris hit three 3-pointers during a 22-9 run to start the second half. Harris took off a protective sleeve covering his sprained left shoulder that caused him to miss two games. “I might be fist-fighting the doctors today,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said after the game. “But he has a chance to be a great player."
Oladipo has scored in the teens in four straight games for the Hoosiers – the first time he’s done that since his freshman season. He continues to be one of the conference’s most entertaining players because of the athleticism that allows him to force steals, get out on the break and throw in highlight-reel slams. He threw four down Saturday in a 100-69 win against Central Connecticut State, making 7-of-9 shots overall for 15 points and adding five steals and nine rebounds. He’s averaging 16 points in his last three games, including a 19-point performance against North Carolina. The junior is leading the Big Ten at a 65.2 percent clip from the field (45 of 69) and in steals at 2.6 per game.
Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan
It’s been a tale of two five-game stretches for the Michigan junior. After a torrid start to the year, Hardaway has cooled tremendously. Luckily for Wolverines fans, it hasn’t mattered much as the team is 10-0 and still ranked No. 3 in the country. A look at the stats:
First five games: 18.2 ppg, 34-of-55 (.618) from the field, 10-for-21 (.476) from 3-point range, seven turnovers.
Last five games: 11.4 ppg, 20-of-60 (.333) from the field, 6-for-27 (.222) from 3-point range, 14 turnovers.
For comparison, Hardaway shot just .283 from 3-point range last season and .418 from the field overall. A few positives: Hardaway is averaging 5.3 rebounds per game, which ranks fifth in the Big Ten, and he’s still averaging almost 6 percent better from the field (.470 to .418) and 5 percent better from long range (.333 to .283) than his marks last year.
D.J. Byrd, Purdue
The senior continues to struggle offensively for the Boilermakers, who could use some scoring in a bad way. The 6-8 Byrd went 0-for-5 from the field, all of which came on 3-pointers, in 47-44 loss at Eastern Michigan on Saturday. He fouled out and played just 26 minutes.
Byrd is now just 1-for-20 from the arc since making his first five attempts at Clemson and has more turnovers (five) than points (four) in the past three games combined.
Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Craft is just 4-for-18 from field in the Buckeyes’ last three games, in which he’s averaged just three points. Ohio State can get by with a lack of scoring from Craft, whose real value comes in the assist category and on the defensive end. But he’ll have to pick his shots wisely if they’re not falling. He went scoreless in 85-45 win against Savannah State on Wednesday, including six assists and three turnovers.
Top five in-state products
With the holidays coming up, I thought it would be appropriate to feature the most notable players who won’t have to travel far to spend time with the family (if practice doesn’t get in the way, of course). These are ranked by feel-good stories, not necessarily the most talented players.
Cody Zeller, Indiana
Zeller might have single-handedly revitalized the state of Indiana’s obsession with Hoosiers basketball when he committed in 2010. The Washington, Ind., native and top recruit in the country became the 26th Indiana Mr. Basketball to play for Hoosiers. Zeller was a McDonald’s all-American in 2011 and won three state titles at Washington High School, which sits about an hour southwest of Bloomington. He’s lived up to the hype thus far, helping Indiana rise to No. 1 in the country and becoming an honorable mention all-American his freshman season.
Jordan Hulls, Indiana
Zeller took Indiana to another level, but Bloomington native Hulls was one of Tom Crean’s first solid building blocks. The South High product suffered through a 10-21, 4-14 season his freshman year, then a 12-20, 3-15 sophomore season. But Hulls stuck around and is now starting for the country’s No. 1 team and is one of the top shooters in the country. Hulls turned down an offer from Purdue out of high school to become the 25th Indiana Mr. Basketball to attend Indiana. He led South to a perfect 26-0 record and a state title in 2009. His grandfather, John, was on Bob Knight’s staff at Indiana in the early 1970s.
Keith Appling, Michigan State
Appling, a Detroit Pershing product, was a 2010 McDonald’s All-American. He and current teammate Derrick Nix teamed up to lead Pershing to 2009 state title, scoring title game record 49 points. Appling started for the Spartans from his freshman season on and helped lead the Spartans to their third Big Ten title in four seasons in 2011-12. He’s one of the best all-around guard in the country on both sides of the ball.
Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Craft, a Findlay, Ohio, native, played at Liberty Benton, where he also starred as a football quarterback and safety on defense. He was the school’s valedictorian before heading about an hour and a half south to Columbus. He was AAU teammates with Jared Sullinger, J.D. Weatherspoon and Jordan Sibert. Craft played significant minutes from day one for the Buckeyes and was starting his sophomore year.
Brandon Paul, Illinois
Paul, Illinois Mr. Basketball in 2009, is a Gurnee native who played at Warren High School, near the Wisconsin border and about three hours north of Champaign. He’s flourished with the Illini, becoming one of the top players in the country and a leader in the locker room. Paul played for an AAU team coached by former Chicago Bulls forward Dickey Simpkins.
Honorable mention: Rodney Williams, Minnesota
Williams has developed into one of the top athletes in the country and has adjusted his game to fit the Gophers well as they continue to make a splash in the top 25. He’s a Minneapolis native who attended Robbinsdale Cooper High School, where he’s the all-time leading scorer.