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The first 68: Illinois' surprising start, the new Peter Dill and the worst free-throw ever

SB Nation college basketball editor Mike Rutherford's weekly walk around the college basketball world focuses in on Illinois' surprising 11-0 start and America's new favorite "end of the bench" player.

Joe Robbins


We are only a few months removed from "worst hire of the offseason" being a title that was freely attributed to Illinois' John Groce. The Illini fan base was underwhelmed, the kinder members of the local media labeled his signing as "not a horrible hire" and key area basketball figures said they'd never heard of him.

"I got two words - good luck," said Mike Irvin, the head coach of the elite Mac Irvin Fire AAU program. "I don't know him. I've never met him. I don't know who he is. Really the past 4-5 years, we've had high-major players in our program, so we never crossed paths with him."

Mike Oliver, head coach of Chicago power Curie High, wasn't any more complimentary.

"I never heard of him in my life," Oliver said. "I don't know who he was. I understand he's the head coach of Ohio. I think it's very disappointing. Personally, I don't know his background. I don't think that's a big upgrade with what we had. I think we're back in the same situation or worse than when we had coach (Bruce) Weber."

It might be time for a follow up story.

Illinois is the talk of college basketball after an 11-0 start that has them ranked in the nation's top 10 for the first time since March of 2006. The Illini were the clearly superior team during last Saturday's battle of undefeateds against Gonzaga, a game which saw them walk out of one of the toughest places to play in the country with an 11-point win.

Much of the credit for Illinois' fast start should be aimed in the direction of Brandon Paul, who has emerged as one of the early national Player of the Year favorites. The senior guard is averaging a career-best 19.5 ppg and providing the leadership necessary for a team that needs its key veteran to mesh with its first-year head coach in order to be successful.

And then there's Groce, the man who has now won 16 of the last 17 games he's coached in. The only loss over that span is an overtime heartbreaker at the hands of top-seeded North Carolina in last year's Sweet 16. Had Groce's Ohio team won that game, he would have become the first coach ever to take a team seeded worse than 12th to a regional final.

Groce didn't have to wait too much longer to make history, though, as he's now the first Illinois coach in over a century to win his first 11 games at the school. That should help with the name recognition issue.


After dropping 23 points in a 70-49 win over MVSU on Monday, Erick Green is the first Virginia Tech player to score 20 or more points in the team's first nine games since Bimbo Coles achieved the feat at the start of the 1989-90 season. Green, who's averaging 24.6 ppg, is the biggest reason the Hokies and first-year head coach James Johnson are off to an 8-1 start.


A year ago around this time, Peter Dill of Seton Hall became a national phenomenon because of his bench reactions during the Pirates' upset of Connecticut.

I have seen the next Peter Dill, and his name is Rem Bakamus.


Just another reason to pick the 11 p.m. Gonzaga game over an extra two hours of sleep this winter.


Tubby Smith became just the 19th active Division I coach to win 500 games when Minnesota knocked off USC 71-57 last Saturday. While Smith could retire today and be recognized by most thinking folks as one of the best coaches of his era, there are few members of the 500 club who have been more scrutinized.

Fairly or unfairly, Smith's run at Kentucky is still going to be remembered by many for its tumultuous ending more than its glorious start. If you've read this far, you've likely heard "won with Pitino's players" enough times for me not to have to go into any additional detail. At Minnesota, Smith has been highly criticized for his inability to get into the NCAA Tournament (just two appearances in six seasons) and his lack of success in years when the Gophers have made the big dance (he's 0-2).

Smith has appeared more relaxed this year, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that he has a team that hasn't been plagued by injuries or any other significant off-the-court issues. A month into the season, Minnesota's lone loss remains a neutral court defeat at the hands of No. 2 Duke Still, we've seen the start fast/crash late act more than once from the Gophers in recent years. These next three months could go a log way when it comes to defining the latter stages of Smith's coaching career.


National scoring leader race update:

1. C.J. McCollum, Lehigh - 24.9
2. Erick Green, Virginia Tech - 24.4
3. Kyle Vinales, Central Connecticut State - 23.5
4. James Kinney, San Jose State - 23.0
5. Doug McDermott, Creighton - 22.7


This was supposed to be a bit of a down year for the Big East, but victories by Rutgers and Villanova on Tuesday night have pushed the league's winning streak to 19 games, easily the best of any league this year. That mark will be put to the test on Wednesday when DePaul travels to face once-beaten Arizona State.


Speaking of Villanova's win on Tuesday, our poor sport of the week award (it's a thing) goes to Halil Kanacevic of Saint Joseph's, who flipped off the Wildcat student section after hitting a three in the second half. Not a smart thing to do during any sporting event, but especially dumb when the game is being broadcast nationally on ESPNU.

Kanacevic would go on to miss two crucial free-throws and commit a backbreaking turnover in the game's final minute.


Despite their team's lofty preseason rankings, Louisville players weren't tabbed for many individual preseason accolades and honors in the months leading up to the 2012-13 season. When you did see a Cardinal's name in print this summer or fall, it was Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng, Chane Behanan or Wayne Blackshear.

Overlooked in all the preseason hubbub was Russ Smith, the feast-or-famine junior guard who played a surprisingly major role in Louisville's equally surprising run to the 2012 Final Four. It's pretty hard to overlook him now, as Smith is averaging 20.3 ppg and ranks fifth in the nation in steals. He scored a career-high 31 points in U of L's win over UMKC last Saturday and is on track to become the first Cardinal to average 20 points or more since Reece Gaines accomplished the feat during Rick Pitino's debut season of 2001-02.

There are no shortage of Russ Smith stories floating around the Internet, but one of the more well-known includes Smith shamelessly complimenting himself ("Nice pass, Russ") during a pickup game before last season. The story is so popular in Louisville that the Cardinal pep band has taken to putting its instruments down and shouting "nice pass, Russ" in unison every time Smith records an assist.


This was supposed to be a banner season for the Atlantic 10, but the conference has been largely underwhelming through the first month. The most recent blow was previously unbeaten Temple being humiliated by Duke on its own floor in a 90-67 beatdown that really wasn't even as close as the final score indcates. Adding insult to injury for the league is the fact that the league's only remaining undefeated squad, surprising Charlotte, is off to Conference USA after this season.

Picking up the slack for the A-10 has been the Mountain West, which boasts two of the country's 14 remaining unbeatens (New Mexico and Wyoming), and is the only conference other than the Big East that can say all of its members have a winning record.

It's not that the Mountain West hasn't been good in recent years, it's just been a little top heavy with UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico running the show. The bottom half of the league finally appears ready to pull its weight, as Boise State, which was picked to finish next-to-last in the league before the season, has arguably he conference's best win with a 93-80 shocker at No. 15 Creighton.


We just passed the one year anniversary of Christian Watford's buzzer-beater against Kentucky, a shot which handed the Wildcats their only regular season loss and officially ushered in the return of Indiana as a national power. The shot was seen ad nauseum in commercials over the next three months, proving once and for all that if you want to be featured in a March Madness commercial, you better make a big play before marketing departments have their pre-holdiay meetings.

Seeing the shot 58,000 times last March wasn't enough for one Hoosier fan, who decided to sync up his Christmas lights to the audio call of the final sequence.

You'd definitely have to be able to hear the recording to understand what's going on there. Still, I hope for the sanity of everyone involved that it isn't playing on a loop...or at least that it isn't always audible.


It's been a bed few months for the Colonial Athletic Association, which has been hurt by realignment about as badly as any conference in America. First there was perennial powerhouse VCU bolting for the A-10 (a spot fellow power George Mason also wanted), then there was Georgia State going to the Sun Belt, and finally Old Dominion bouncing for C-USA.

To make matters worse, the league is off to an abysmal start in 2012-13 with all but three teams owning losing records and preseason favorite Drexel sitting at an astonishing 3-6.

A league that was widely (and rightfully) considered to be the best of the mid-major ranks just a couple of years ago suddenly looks like it will be a one bid league for the foreseeable future.


Brian Gregory and Georgia Tech are off to a solid 6-2 start that includes no bad losses and a nice resume win over Saint Mary's. They might also be getting a nice boost for the second half of the season as elite recruit Solomon Poole has graduated high school early and will reportedly suit up for the Yellow Jackets whenever he is cleared by the NCAA.


Eight years ago, the college basketball world would not stop buzzing (or making bad jokes) about the fact that the Big East was expanding into 16-team league. When news broke earlier this week that the A-10 might be interested in adding the seven disgruntled Big East Catholic schools - DePaul, Marquette, Georgetown, Villanova, St. John's, Seton Hall and Providence - and ballooning to 21 teams, it was met with more of a "meh" reaction than anyone could have ever imagined a decade ago.

Shocking how nothing shocks anymore.


For our tweet of the week (also a thing), we head to Miami.

Can only assume the question was about getting Reggie Johnson the ball more.


Winless watch list:

Northern Kentucky (0-6)
Maryland-Eastern Shore (0-9)
St. Francis (PA) (0-8)
Jackson State (0-6)
Mississippi Valley State (0-6)
Alabama State (0-7)
Grambling State (0-7)

The last four of those teams play in the SWAC, which also includes 1-8 Arkansas Pine-Bluff and Texas State. They're making a serious run at worst conference in history.


The biggest turnaround story in college basketball might be happening at Santa Clara, where the Broncos are off to a 7-2 start just a year after finishing 0-16 in the West Coast Conference. They're actually just two shots away from being 9-0, as both of their losses (80-78 to Utah State and 83-80 to UC-Santa Barbara) came in overtime.

Much of the reason for the Broncs success lies with senior guard Kevin Foster, who is averaging 20.1 points and 4.7 assists after being suspended for the final 12 games of last season. Santa Clara is also thriving thanks to the return of Marc Trasolini (14.2 ppg/7.4 rpg), who missed all of last year with an ACL tear.


The video of reserve Appalachian State center Brian Okam attempting(?) a free-throw against Western Carolina might be the most discussed item in college basketball this week.

The junior, who began his career at Rutgers, is 2-of-5 from the stripe this season and actually made a free-throw in this game. He was also a perfect 1-for-1 earlier in the year against Duquesne.


Among the nation's top ten in average margin of victory, only No. 4 Ole Miss (25.1 ppg) and No. 7 Pittsburgh (22.3 ppg) find themselves unranked in the lastet top 25 polls. The Rebels' recent loss to Middle Tennessee State certainly didn't help their cause.

Top-ranked Indiana leads the nation in beating up on opponents, by the way, with an average margin of victory of 31.7.


One of the most underrated statistics in the game is that New Mexico hasn't lost at home in December since Chris Paul and No. 5 Wake Forest accomplished the feat on Dec. 22, 2004. New Mexico State (12/15) and South Dakota State (12/22) are the only teams left with a chance to change that stat.


The fact that we're now more than a month into the season and still don't know anything about the eligibility of Texas' Myck Kabongo is beyond absurd. I can't think of a better example of the need for serious reform in these matters.


With all the shady dealings and closed door talk that has been inherent in this conference realignment madness, it was refreshing to hear Marquette AD Larry Williams speak candidly on ESPN 540 in Milwaukee on Tuesday.

"I was not pleased that we issued an invitation to Tulane without any diligence to what effect that would have on our basketball product, the draw on our RPI and other such things. I was disappointed that I wasn't able to participate as a member of the conference in the deliberation that went into adding that. There might be well articulated and very deep reasons why you would do it otherwise. But dog-gone-it, I'm not concerned about that. I'm concerned about making sure that Marquette is in a position that it can take advantage of the great investment it's made in being successful in basketball."

A Tulane invitation has never pleased anyone, Larry. Your candidness is appreciated.


Video of the week (thing): Taylor University and its annual "Silent Night Game."


Say what you will about billionaire T. Boone Pickens, but buying 4,000 tickets to Oklahoma State's New Year's Eve showdown with Gonzaga and giving them away for free is pretty cool.

"I thought long and hard about what gift I could give my fellow OSU Cowboys this year," Pickens said in a release. "I couldn't find enough basketballs, but I did find enough basketball tickets. Let's put them to good use, pack Gallagher-Iba for the Gonzaga game, and put a great exclamation point on a promising OSU basketball season."


Illinois-Chicago, which hasn't won double digit games since a 16-15 campaign in 2008-09, is off to an 8-1 start that includes wins over Colorado State and Northwestern. The Flames' only loss came at the hands of unbeaten New Mexico.

Yahoo's Jeff Eisenberg has a great profile of the man behind the turnaround, Howard Moore.


We end this week with our creepy mascot photo of the week winner: Iona.


The Gaels lost this game to Rutgers, 81-73.