The First 68: Kentucky's biggest problem and the rise of Nik Stauskas

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

This week's trip 'round the college hoops globe examines the five most underrated players in the country, Nik Stauskas' biggest area of improvement and the most concerning thing about Kentucky's season so far.

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Few teams in recent memory have come back from the (national championship) dead as resoundingly as Michigan, which has gone from preseason top 10 to 6-4 team out of the top 25 to lone remaining unbeaten in the Big Ten all in the span of three months. After beating rival Michigan State in East Lansing to move to 7-0 in league play, last year's national runners-up again have the look of a team capable of taking the court on the final Monday of the season.

The Wolverines' rise back into the nation's top 10 has been paralleled by star Nik Stauskas' ascension into the national player of the year discussion. Once known strictly as a spot-up shooter, the sophomore guard is now lighting up opponents from all areas of the floor in addition to effectively getting his teammates involved.

We can talk about the scoring average jump (12.4 ppg to 18.5 ppg) and the much-improved assist-to-turnover ratio (2.6), but the biggest evidence of Stauskas evolution is his drastic increase in production from the charity stripe. He was 40-of-48 from the free-throw line through 19 games last season, a solid percentage from a smaller-than-desired sample size. This year he's 88-of-110 from the line, a difference of 48 total points and 2.5 points per game. He is solely responsible for 30.9 percent of Michigan's free-throw percentage, a huge stat considering the departed duo of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. attempted 210 of the team's 450 free-throws last season.

Spartan fans still don't think you're anything to write home about, Nic. Response?


Well put.

3-26

We're at the point in the season where there are at least 10-15 players that even casual college hoops fans can name and tell you a little bit about off the top of their heads. But what about the guys who still aren't getting enough (or any) national love from people who follow the sport closely?

Here are the five most prominent players who fit that description:

1. Bryce Cotton, Providence

One of college basketball's most underrated players for three years now, Cotton might finally start to get his due credit now that Providence is, at long last, a contender in the Big East.

Cotton, who is averaging a career-best 20.3 ppg this season, won the Big East scoring title a season ago and would be the front-runner to do the same in 2013-14 had Doug McDermott and Creighton not made the move from the Missouri Valley. The lone factor keeping Cotton from being one of the better-known named in college hoops has been that he's never played for a Friar team that made the NCAA Tournament or even one that lost fewer than 15 games.

At least the second part of that fact figures to change this season, as last Saturday's win over Xavier assured that Providence will play its final game of January with a 15-5 overall record and a 5-2 mark in league play. Cotton played the unsurprising role of hero against the Musketeers, netting a game-high 25 points to go with 7 assists.

A postseason push by the Friars might go hand-in-hand with an All-American push by their star.

2. Ryan Spangler, Oklahoma

The undersized native of Blanchard, Okla. wasn't good enough to get a scholarship from either Oklahoma or Oklahoma State coming out of high school, but after spending one uneventful season at Gonzaga, Spangler wanted to come home and new Sooners coach Lon Kruger was willing to make that happen.

The move has paid off more than either could have imagined, as Spangler leads the Big 12 in rebounding (10.1 rpg) and Kruger's Sooners are ranked in both national polls for the first time since 2009. Over Oklahoma's last six games (five wins and one loss), Spangler is averaging 13.5 boards to go with 13.2 points. He's posted 15 or more rebounds three times in the month January - against Iowa State, TCU and Oklahoma State - performances which all helped result in Sooner wins.

3. Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara

The talk of under-appreciated West Coast ballers at this time of the year almost always surrounds a shoot-first guard, but Williams is a very notable exception. The 6'8 junior can beat defenders from pretty much any spot on the court, and has spent much of the 2013-14 season ranked in the top five nationally in both scoring (22.6 ppg) and rebounding (10.6 rpg).

Williams has scored in double figures in all 16 games he's played in this season, and has netted at least 20 points in every game but four (somewhat surprisingly, all four games - Troy, CS Northridge, Long Beach State and San Diego - were UCSB victories). If you're able to catch a Gaucho game streaming online - like, say, Thursday night against UC Irvine - Williams alone is worth 15 minute of your time.

4. Jabari Brown, Missouri

The Oregon transfer has made the transition from spot-up shooter to all-around scorer, and has torched each of Missouri's last five opponents to the tune of 22 points or more. Brown will enter the weekend as the SEC's leader in scoring at 19.5 points per game overall and 22.0 per game in conference play.

Brown's increased emphasis on getting to the bucket has also created more space and better shots for him on the perimeter, where he's been more lethal than ever. He leads the SEC field goal percentage (53.9 percent) and 3-point percentage (55.3 percent), and has already made three more shots from beyond the arc this season (59) than he did in all of 2012-13.

Brown has scored exactly 24 points in three of Missouri's last four games - wins over Arkansas, South Carolina and Alabama - and hasn't shot less than 50 percent from the field in a game since a 4-for-13 performance in a narrow win at Auburn on Jan. 11.

5. Kyle Anderson, UCLA

It's odd to think that a former five-star recruit who plays for arguably the most storied program in college basketball could fly under-the-radar, but that's exactly what's happening with Kyle Anderson this season. Steve Alford's first Bruin team isn't particularly special, but they're plenty capable of getting to the NCAA Tournament and winning a couple of games there, and the 6'9 guard/forward is easily the biggest reason why.

Anderson has increased his scoring from 9.7 points to 15.5 as a sophomore, and is shooting 51.4 percent from the field  -- 10 percentage points better than last season. He also averages a team-best 9.0 rebounds and leads the Pac-12 in assists at 6.7 per game.

27-29

I'm unwilling to debate anyone who argues that Sean Harris' ginger flat top isn't the best hairdo we've seen in college basketball over at least the past decade.

The Utah State senior has appeared in just six games this season - he scored a glorious single point against both Western Illinois and San Diego Christian - but that hair alone was almost enough for him to crack into the top five underrated players list.

30-33

Antoine Mason continues to own a relatively sizable lead in this week's national scoring race update:

1. Antoine Mason, Niagara (27.4 ppg)
2. Doug McDermott, Creighton (25.0 ppg)
3. Billy Baron, Canisius (24.2 ppg)
4. Aaric Murray, Texas Southern (23.6 ppg)
4. Tyler Haws, BYU (23.6 ppg)

34-35

Kentucky is still a player in the national title race, I don't think there's any question about that. But at 15-5 heading into February, we are a far cry away from the year of Wildcat domination that some folks both in and outside of Lexington were predicting during the summer.

Some of Kentucky's problems are obvious to anyone who's been watching since the start of the season. They make poor decisions on the break, Julius Randle hasn't really improved at all defensively, and the Harrison twins simply aren't as good as people thought they were going to be this time last year.

But more important than any of that stuff, is this:


That's Dakari Johnson flying over the LSU cheerleaders and onto the ground late in the second half of Kentucky's loss to the Tigers, and that's not a single teammate coming over to help him up or see if he's okay. The "stuff that championship teams do/don't do" conversation is filled with tired clichés, but still, this is one of those all-important little things that makes you wonder if this group of young UK players is capable of doing what the 2012 group of young UK players did.

36-51

The winless in conference watch list features a few surprisingly notable programs, namely the one at the very top:

Statement Win

George Mason, Atlantic 10 (0-6)
TCU, Big 12 (0-7)
Southern Utah, Big Sky, (0-8)
Presbyterian, Big South (0-7)
UNC Wilmington, Colonial (0-6)
East Carolina, Conference USA (0-5)
Illinois-Chicago, Horizon League (0-8)
Central Michigan, MAC (0-7)
Maryland-Eastern Shore, MEAC (0-5)
Delaware State, MEAC (0-6)
San Jose State, Mountain West (0-9)
Lafayette, Patriot League (0-9)
Auburn, SEC (0-6)
Citadel, Southern (0-7)
Grambling State, SWAC (0-7)
IUPUI, Summit League (0-5)

The Ivy League wasn't included here since the teams participating in the 14-game tournament have only played one or two contests, but we're all still judging your zero Division-I wins, Cornell.

52-56

With the Navy basketball team struggling to fill Alumni Hall for weeknight games, the marketing folks at the academy are turning to a time-tested winner: paper-rock-scissors.

Fans attending Navy's Feb. 5 home game against Patriot League front-runner Boston University will have the chance to play the childhood game against Midshipmen mascot Bill the Goat at the door. The fans who beat Bill will receive free admission to that game or a future game, while those who lose will have to pay full price (10 bucks).

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The Midshipmen have lost 10 of their last 12 games and are just 2-7 in league play following Wednesday night's thumping at the hands of league-leading American, so this promotion is coming at the perfect time.

If it's successful at Navy, then I don't see any reason why the paper-rock-scissors method shouldn't be implemented at this year's Final Four. Raise the stakes. Create some sweat. Let's see how people perform under pressure. Frank Martin would throw rock and lose 75 straight times before giving up.

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We broke down Nebraska coach Tim Miles' halftime tweeting and selfie prowess last week, but he's breaking new ground yet again this week by helping a fan propose in perhaps the most awkward manner imaginable.

I would have tossed in an appropriate sex joke for good measure. Nothing over-the-top, just something to lighten the mood and at least make her consider saying no.

In all seriousness, good on coach Miles for taking on yet another social media challenge.

58-62

Your weekly Incarnate Word update features a Cardinal squad which has now won back-to-back conference games after knocking off Sam Houston State and Lamar by 11 points each. I-Dub is now 4-2 in the Southland and 16-3 overall, and will have the chance to make a bit of a national splash (maybe a national water smacking) when they play at Stephen F. Austin (18-2, 7-0) on Saturday.

Even though their schedule featured just one Division-I team (North Texas) before the start of conference play, it's still fairly impressive that The Word ranks in the top 15 in the country in points (84.5), rebounds (41.9) and assists (16.6) per game. Okay it's not that impressive. They played a Texas high school schedule before the calendar flipped to 2014. I should have said cool. It's kind of cool. It's not cool? Well now I have no idea where to go with this.

Help me out by doing something weird, Crean.

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Thanks, bro.

I had no idea that the Subway/Quizno's feud was burning so brightly in Indiana.

64-67

The insane winter weather has made for all sorts of interesting stories this week. There was North Carolina getting stuck in the airport, ESPN not being able to get a crew to Atlanta to broadcast the Tar Heels' game against Georgia Tech and only one member of the Kentucky media being able to get down to Baton Rouge for the Wildcats' game against LSU.

None of those, however, hold a candle to what the South Alabama women's team had to go through in order to get to their planned game against Georgia State. The Jaguars took a bus from Mobile to Atlanta for the game, a trip which was scheduled to take about five hours. It took 24.

"This trip is something you'll remember the rest of your lives and something you will share forever.," South Alabama coach Terry Fowler told AL.com. The story is fairly amazing. The team began to look for lunch spots soon after it left on Tuesday morning; with the impending weather crisis, most were closed. Thankfully, a Chick-fil-A that was just about to close agreed to stay open and feed the team.

"We got back on the bus and started going and I said, 'You know, it's not that bad.' We hit the Georgia state line and we started seeing flurries and things like that,'' Fowler said. "By the time we got to Peachtree, about 40 miles from Atlanta, there's snow on the road. But we're fine and traffic is moving. We get to Atlanta and at 285 things come to a stop. Everybody's sitting on 285 so we say, 'OK, we'll just go on 85.'

The team was unable to get off the proper exit to get them to their hotel, despite the fact they were just a couple of miles away. At this point it was around 8 p.m., per the story, and the team was just sitting in true gridlock, waiting for any sign of an opening. Ambulances were driving to the scene and helpless to go anywhere. The team bus slid across lanes, fortunately dodging cars in the process.

The Jaguars wound up walking the final 25 minutes of their trip to the team hotel, where they arrived at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday. The game, which had been scheduled for Wednesday night, was pushed back to Thursday afternoon.

68

Your creepy mascot photo of the week comes from Syracuse's perpetually creepy Otto, who surprisingly has not been honored in this spot before.

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The wandering eyes are bad enough, but it's the smile that really locks down the creepy.

More from SB Nation College Basketball

Defense and ball control the keys for Arizona

What the addition of Chris Walker means for Florida

Jahlil Okafor, Myles Turner lead 2014 McDonald's All-American rosters

Bracketology: Arizona and Syracuse lead the way

Nik Stauskas or Gary Harris? Both B1G guards shine

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