Who's behind sneaky starts by Louisville, Texas A&M? - NBC Sports

Who's behind sneaky starts by Louisville, Texas A&M?
Chris Smith key for No. 19 Cards, while Middleton thriving with No. 11 Aggies
Without Chris Smith, Rick Pitino says Louisville would be in a heap of trouble.
January 18, 2011, 9:01 pm

Walker floated a shot toward the basket, it swished through, and UConn had won an extremely important Big East Conference game. They will be talking about this one in Storrs for a long time. But sitting there as the crowd celebrated, I started thinking about how we define the element of surprise in college basketball.

We expect Walker to make these plays. Back in November, when Walker started utilizing his magic in Maui, it caught the nation off guard. We thought Walker was good, but not this good. Now he's the frontrunner for national player of the year honors. We thought UConn would finish around 10th in the Big East. Now the Huskies are No. 8 in the nation.

"I think they do a great job of using him," Villanova coach Jay Wright said of Walker. "That's not easy. To have one guy that good - and everybody knows is that good - and to incorporate everybody else around him. I think they do a great job with that."

Walker and the Huskies reached out early to grab that "Biggest Surprise of Season" label. But they aren't alone. Peruse this week's Associated Press top 25 and you will find others. They've just taken a more methodical approach, slowly climbing up the standings and rankings to get our attention.

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Turgeon and Pitino might have considered that possible back in October. But they didn't have a lot of company. I can tell you for a fact that Pitino isn't shocked by his team's 14-3 overall record or the 3-1 start in Big East play.

"We know we're rebuilding somewhat," Pitino told me in early September. "I think when you're at this level, you hope it's rebuilding by February and not the following year."

So, maybe he's a little ahead of schedule - but not much. The Big East coaches didn't give the Cardinals much more of a chance than UConn. The coaches picked Louisville to tie for eighth with Marquette. Pitino knew he had to work around the departure of power forward Samardo Samuels, who entered the NBA draft against the recommendation of his coach. But he had no idea a former high school teammate of Samuels' would help alleviate some of Louisville's problems.

Junior guard Chris Smith is Louisville's third leading scorer (9.5 ppg) behind Preston Knowles and Peyton Siva. Smith also leads the Cardinals in three-point shooting (48.6 percent). But Pitino didn't even know Smith, the brother of Denver Nugget J.R. Smith, was coming to Louisville. Assistant coach Steve Masiello mentioned Smith was considering a transfer from Manhattan - but Pitino never gave it another thought.

"In August he was out there shooting with Samardo," Pitino said last week. "I really just thought it was Samardo's friend and I didn't even introduce myself to him."

When Masiello asked if Pitino had said hello to Chris Smith, Pitino replied, "Who's Chris Smith?" Pitino quickly realized the error of his ways and went back to the court to greet his new player.

Just as Texas A&M would likely be struggling a bit without swingman Khris Middleton, the Aggies' leading scorer with a 15.8 average. Turgeon entered the season without a clear-cut go-to guy to replace the scoring leadership of Donald Sloan, who led the Aggies with a 17.8 average last season. But now Texas A&M (16-1, 3-0 Big 12) heads into Wednesday's huge game against Texas with a 13-game winning streak, thanks in large part to Middleton's leadership.

"We have a go-to guy," Nathan Walkup told the Columbia Tribune after A&M's 91-89 overtime victory over Missouri Saturday. "When we need a bucket, we've got people who can do it, but Khris is our main option going down the stretch."

Middleton, a sophomore, had 28 points in that victory, including 11 in overtime. Turgeon told him to take over the game in OT - and Middleton did.

And here's the surprising part. Turgeon, the first coach in Big 12 history to win at least 24 games in each of his first three seasons, brought Middleton to College Station without personally scouting him. All it took was a little film review. That was it. Turgeon liked what he saw, so he simply offered Middleton a scholarship over the phone.

"We got really lucky," Turgeon told The Kansas City Star.

He can say that again. Luck never hurts in college basketball. And when you are charmed just enough, it can turn out to be downright surprising.

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