Saturday November 29th, 2014

The college basketball season is only two weeks old, meaning it is far too early to offer any sweeping judgments. But now that most teams are at least five games in, some early patterns and questions have emerged. Here are some quick thoughts on some of the best teams in action on Friday night, presented in order of their AP ranking entering the game.

No. 2 Wisconsin

What We Know So Far: The Badgers, to no one’s surprise, have been extremely efficient offensively, shooting over 50 percent from the floor en route to a 7-0 start while averaging barely more than nine turnovers per game. Much of that is due to a veteran roster that includes two fifth-year seniors in Duje Dukan and Josh Gasser, two seniors in Frank Kaminsky and Traveon Jackson and junior Sam Dekker.

The biggest surprise, then, might be the strong play of sophomore forward Nigel Hayes, who is averaging 13.6 points per game, a big jump from the 7.7 he put up a year ago. Hayes has even added an outside shot this season, making 5-of-11 from 3-point range after not even attempting a three in 38 games last season.

We’ll Know More When: The Badgers play Duke at the Kohl Center on Wednesday night. That will be billed as Kaminsky vs. super freshman Jahlil Okafor, but it will be interesting to see if Wisconsin’s balance and experience offsets the talent and youth for the Blue Devils. In fact, that might be the last time the Badgers get a true test for a long time – their next scheduled game against a currently ranked opponent doesn’t come until a Jan. 24 visit to Michigan

No. 5 North Carolina

What We Know So Far: Given that they gave up 29 offensive boards in Wednesday’s loss to unranked Butler, it would be ironic to note that the Tar Heels rebounded in fine fashion to pick up comfortable wins over a pair of ranked foes in their two subsequent games, but that’s just what North Carolina did. After routing No. 22 UCLA by 22 on Thursday, the Heels dominated No. 18 Florida on Friday, winning 75-64 in a game in which they bolted to a 12-0 lead.

Despite those easy wins and despite the fact that his team ranks in the top 15 in the nation in rebounds per game, board work is still a concern for Roy Williams. North Carolina was outrebounded by the Bruins and only outrebounded the Gators by two while surrendering 19 offensive boards. With a frontline that goes two-deep at every spot and features 6-8 Justin Jackson at small forward, 6-9 Brice Johnson at power forward and 6-9, 270-pound Kennedy Meeks at center, the Heels should be able to use their size and athleticism to own the backboards. They’ll have to, because Williams’ up-tempo offense is predicated on dominating the glass to start fast-break opportunities.

We’ll Know More When:  Carolina should be able to handle Iowa at home in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge next week, so its next real test will come with a visit to Rupp Arena on Dec. 13 and a matchup with Kentucky. The Wildcats have been overpowering for most of this season and that will likely continue, even against the talented Tar Heels. A better gauge for UNC, then, might come the following week on a neutral court against No. 16 Ohio State.

No. 10 Gonzaga

What We Know So Far: Kyle Wiltjer is as good as you thought he was. The 6-10 junior forward had an uneven two years at Kentucky, helping the Wildcats win the 2012 national title as a freshmen reserve but failing to get them back to the NCAA tournament the next season in a much larger role. This year, he leads his new team in scoring at 16.8 points per game, a number enhanced by his 32-point outburst against Georgia in Wednesday’s NIT Season Tip-off semifinals, though he put up just eight in Friday’s win over St. John’s on the Red Storm’s de-facto home court.

Senior point guard Kevin Pangos is Gonzaga’s most important player. Freshman forward Domantas Sabonis -- who comes off the bench to start but is always on the floor at the end – might be its most talented. But Wiltjer, a career 39 percent 3-point shooter, is providing another elite talent that could stretch defenses and make the difference in finally getting the Bulldogs to a place he’s already been: the Final Four.

We’ll Know More When: Every year, it seems, Gonzaga is forced to play a somewhat backward schedule. Its competition in the West Coast Conference tends to be so inferior that the Bulldogs are forced to give themselves their toughest tests in non-conference play. To that end, St. John’s will contend all season for a spot in the NCAA tournament, as will an SMU team that the Zags already beat, and that might be two more foes that can say that than Gonzaga will face in conference play.

Two of its next four opponents should have no trouble reaching the Field of 68: No. 3 Arizona and No. 22 UCLA. The Dec. 6 matchup in Tuscon with the Wildcats will be as revealing a contest as the Zags will play all year. Sabonis and 7-1 center Przemek Karnowski will have to be able to compete on the glass with Arizona’s skilled frontline that includes Brandon Ashley, Stanley Johnson and Kaleb Tarczewski if the Zags are to have any shot. A loss there would do little to harm Gonzaga, but a win would serve notice that they just might be the best in the West.

No. 11 Kansas

What We Know So Far: The Jayhawks did in fact survive the epic beatdown Kentucky handed them in the Champions Classic, a 32-point annihilation that might have severely damaged another team’s confidence. To its credit, Kansas has recovered to reel off three wins in a row, including an 82-67 victory over Tennessee on Friday in which junior forward Perry Ellis had 24 points and 13 rebounds.

The more important stat line, however, may have come from freshman forward Cliff Alexander. The consensus No. 4 recruit in the nation entering this season had, until Friday, scored only 36 points in his first four games combined, but he broke out for 16 against the Volunteers. Alexander has been expected to help fill the void left by the departures of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, and he showed his first meaningful glimpse of being able to do so on Friday.

We’ll Know More When: The Jayhawks continue a grueling stretch that has them playing four likely NCAA tournament teams over the next two weeks, starting with a showdown on Sunday in the Orlando Classic final against No. 20 Michigan State. From there, Kansas hosts Florida next, plays at Georgetown on Dec. 10 and then faces Utah on Kansas City on Dec. 13. That’s four games in 15 days against top-25-level teams with no cupcakes anywhere in sight, a gauntlet as difficult as any elite team will face out of conference all season long.

No. 16 Ohio State

What We Know: Honestly, not much. The Buckeyes are scoring more than 90 points per game and entered Friday’s home game with James Madison leading the nation in shooting at better than 60 percent. They didn’t come close to either of those numbers in their 17-point win, scoring 73 points and shooting just 41.6 percent. Still, that’s as close as Ohio State has come to a challenging game.

Despite the overmatched competition, the early-season signs have been encouraging for a Buckeyes team that lost its only two players to average in double figures – (LaQuinton Ross, 15.2; and Lenzelle Smith Jr., 11.0) – plus its third-leading scorer and top defender, Aaron Craft (9.8 ppg).

Freshman point guard D’Angelo Russell has stepped into Craft’s place and provided the badly-needed scoring, averaging 18 points per game. Of course, he – or anyone for that matter – will have a tough time replacing the tenacious defense displayed by Craft, who made the Big Ten All-Defensive team four times and was a two-time league Defensive Player of the Year.

We’ll Know More When: Ohio State’s first test of the year is a sizable one: a road game at No. 6 Louisville on Tuesday. Then come four more tune-ups before a neutral court battle with North Carolina on Dec. 20.  

No. 18 Florida

What We Know: This is not a top 25 team – for now. The Gators are almost certain to fall out of the rankings after dropping two of three in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, including the aforementioned 75-64 loss to North Carolina on Friday. Florida also lost by one point in overtime to Georgetown and beat UAB, but given its home loss to then-unranked Miami and the fact that it needed overtime to beat Louisiana-Monroe, also at home, it’s clear that the Gators’ preseason top 10 ranking was premature. Their three losses in six games this year match the three they had in 39 games a year ago.

Florida’s defense is still solid, ranking 15th in the nation in adjusted efficiency according to But its offense struggles, ranking 54th overall. The Gators have been especially woeful from outside, making less than 30 percent from the three-point line despite taking more than one-third of its shots from out there. Some dropoff was expected after they lost four senior starters from the nation’s best team a year ago, but it seems clear that roles are still being sorted out and identities have yet to be established (and the sooner sophomore forward Chris Walker -- who is averaging a mere 5.0 points and 4.5 rebounds -- plays like the NBA prospect he was hyped to be coming out of high school, the better).

We’ll Know More When: Given head coach Billy Donovan’s track record – including four Final Fours and two national titles – and the overall talent level in Gainesville, it seems likely that this is merely a rough patch and not a sign that the Gators are in for an excruciating season. That said, things are likely to get worse before they get better. A visit to Allen Fieldhouse for a matchup with No. 11 Kansas is up next, which could drop Florida below .500 and leave it without a signature non-conference win to boost its tournament profile.

As usual, there don’t figure to be a lot of stern tests in SEC play, so Donovan’s club should at least be able to get some confidence-boosting, if not resume-boosting wins, after that. Despite having games with ACC foes Wake Forest and Florida State next month, the Gators’ last, best chance for a notable win before the start of SEC play – or even in the first month of SEC play -- comes against Connecticut on Jan. 3 in their first game of the new year. That will also be a chance for revenge, given that the Huskies handed Florida two of its three losses last year, one on a buzzer-beater at Gampel Pavilion in November and the other at the Final Four in April.

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