Hoop Thoughts: Evaluating top teams after a wild opening weekend
Steve Prohm’s debut as the coach at Iowa State was going along just fine ... until it wasn’t. With a little more than 13 minutes to play in the second half on Friday, the Cyclones’ opponent, Colorado, unspooled 11 unanswered points to cut Iowa State’s lead to 43–40 with 9:48 to play. On the bench, Prohm struck a serene pose, just like his predecessor, Fred Hoiberg, often did. Inside, however, he was dying.
“I kept thinking to myself, man, we’re making this harder than it needs to be,” Prohm told me by telephone on Saturday. “I’ve been thinking about that first game since I took the job. I knew we couldn’t lose or it would have been a rough day today in Ames.”
Fortunately for Prohm, the Cyclones didn’t lose. They relied on their talented veterans, primarily do-everything senior forward Georges Niang, to emerge with a 68–62 win in Sioux Falls, S.D. Prohm admitted that he was more nervous before that game than at any time of his career. “Not only was it my first game here, but it was against a Power 5 team,” he said. “Then you look at all the upsets that happened over the course of the weekend, and you’re glad you won regardless of the score.”
Indeed, hoopheads everywhere are both elated and relieved that the curtain has been raised on a brand new season. It was a sour opening for slew of power programs who fell at home to “lesser” teams—Georgetown (to Radford, 82-80, at home in double overtime), Georgia (to Chattanooga, 92-90, at home in overtime) NC State (to William and Mary, 85-68, at home), UCLA (to Monmouth, 84-81, at home in overtime) and Wisconsin (to Western Illinois, 69-67, at home) among them. But there is plenty of sugar in store. The important thing is that all the preview meshugas is over. Now, finally, we can form impressions based on what we see, not on what we think we’re going to see.
Fortunately for me, I get to see a lot. I do most of my game watching these days via a website that enables me to load videos onto my laptop. So I can spin through a lot more action in a lot less time. After spending much of my weekend going through the videos, I am ready to report my opening impressions on a dozen top teams.
These games were a tale of two Skals. In the opener, the Wildcats’ prized freshman center, Skal Labissiere, seemed tentative and out of sorts. He did not score in the first half and finished with nine points. It was no coincidence that at the start of the second game, John Calipari immediately went to Labissiere time and again. The result was an array of turnaround hook shots and face-up jumpers en route to a 26-point performance on 10-for-12 shooting. If Labissiere continues to be that aggressive offensively, Kentucky will be nearly impossible to guard.
The perimeter freshmen were a little shaky—Isaiah Briscoe did not play in the opener because of a bruised knee; Jamal Murray missed his first eight shots in Game 2—but that is to be expected early on. The good news for the Wildcats is that two of their veterans appear bound for productive seasons. Junior center Marcus Lee is going to be a worthy complement to Labissiere, especially if that pair can develop their high-low passing game. And 6'9" junior forward Derek Willis was so impressive contributing 14 points off the bench in the opener that Calipari started him against NJIT.
On the other hand, Calipari continues to express frustration with senior forward Alex Poythress’s unwillingness to embrace his role as a high-energy beast off the bench. This team is going to need all the upperclassman toughness and leadership it can get moving forward.
Needless to say, there was a lot of anticipation for Ben Simmons’s collegiate debut, and the 6'10" forward from Melbourne did not disappoint. He had 11 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, including a made-for-Vine behind-the-back bounce pass in the open court in the game’s opening minutes. That pass, incidentally, was thrown with Simmons’ right hand, even though he is a lefty. So we have something special here.
I’ve said that Simmons is the best passing big man to enter the college game since Kevin Love arrived at UCLA in the fall of 2007, but Love’s passes were more conventional for his position. Simmons’s ability to handle the ball in transition and make good decisions is truly sublime. He is also effective in the post passing out of double teams. The biggest concern about Simmons is his reluctance to look for his own offense. That was often the case in high school, but when he was challenged to score, he usually did it in droves. If LSU is going to be a factor in the postseason, it will need Simmons to dominate, not just facilitate.
Simmons is one of three outstanding freshmen in the Tigers' starting lineup. You probably know about Antonio Blakeney, a 6'4" jumping jack who had 22 points and 10 rebounds against the Cowboys, but I was also impressed with 6'6" guard Brandon Sampson, who sank 4-of-6 from three-point range and finished with 18 points. Throw in 6'6" junior Tim Quarterman, and LSU has four players (including Simmons) who can run the offense or score off the ball. That’s a lot of length and versatility on one roster.
Also keep in mind that the Tigers will eventually add three players who weren’t available for this game. Sharp shooting senior guard Keith Hornsby is out until mid-December because of an injury; senior guard Josh Gray was serving a one-game suspension for playing in an unsanctioned summer league game; and 6'9" sophomore forward Craig Victor will be eligible in mid-December after transferring from Arizona. Those guys will add depth, but they will not easily displace the young studs who started this game.
Iowa State (def. Colorado, 68–62)
At 6'8" and 230 pounds, Georges Niang is not physically overpowering, and he’s nobody’s idea of an athletic freak. He is just efficient, smart and highly skilled. Niang might be the toughest mismatch in college basketball. I can see Prohm using him much like Fred Hoiberg used Royce White a few years back.
When the Buffaloes cut into Iowa State’s lead in the second half, Niang calmly took over, not just with his scoring but also with his passing. He made the game’s most pivotal play by executing a spin dribble into the lane and then lobbing an alley-oop pass to 6'9" senior Jameel McKay, which gave Iowa State a seven-point cushion with a minute to go. Niang also often brought up the ball against Colorado’s fullcourt pressure, initiating a sequence that led to a clinching bucket by 6'6" senior Abdel Nader with 40 seconds left. Niang, a business marketing major, is an excellent student, and he and Prohm speak frequently to discuss what is happening with the team. Prohm relies on Niang’s intellect as much as his physical talent—which tells me Prohm is a pretty smart guy as well.
Nader is the other player who stood out to me in this game. He is in the best shape of his career after dropping about 15 pounds in the offseason, and he scored all of his 14 points in the second half in a variety of ways. Even though point guard Monte Morris is the king of the assist-to-turnover ratio, he is not a natural scorer in the halfcourt, so the Cyclones are going to have to get creative in order to put points on the board. Depth will also be a concern until mid-December, when 6'4" Marquette transfer Deonte Burton becomes eligible.
This game illustrates the value of watching a game as opposed to just reading the box score. If you went by the numbers, you wouldn’t notice Daniel Hamilton. He was the only UConn starter who failed to reach double figures (seven points, 3-for-7 from the field). But watching how he runs the Huskies’ offense from the small forward position led me to believe he could be headed for an AAC POY-caliber season. Hamilton finished with nine assists to go along with his nine rebounds. He showed poise, confidence and a high basketball IQ. No wonder he is widely considered to be the best NBA prospect on this team.
Amidah Brimah is not a traditional post scorer, but he plays with great energy. He finished with 18 points, many of which came off lob feeds and offensive putbacks. UConn is also going to depend on generating points from the foul line, so the fact that it shot 32 free throws (making 23) is encouraging. Both graduate transfers, Sterling Gibbs and Shonn Miller, did damage in the second half, but the game was well out of hand by that point.
Miller is intriguing—he’s an undersized power forward, but he is strong and a lot more athletic than I anticipated. Gibbs looked out of sync in the first half, as if he were trying too hard. But he eventually settled down, got fouled repeatedly on drives to the rim and finished with a game-high 20 points. Kevin Ollie will be able to use his bench a lot more than he did last season, although it looks like there will be a pretty significant dropoff in production when he does.
Villanova (def. Farleigh Dickinson, 91–54)
I laugh when I hear people wonder how Jay Wright is going to figure out how to use two scoring point guards at the same time. Well, here’s one way: Have one of those guards, 6'3" senior Ryan Arcidiacano, show off his post moves. A few minutes into the game, Arcidiacano sealed his defender on the block, caught the ball and executed a perfect drop-step bucket. It looked like he had been a back-to-the-basket guy all his life.
The possibilities on this team appear endless. Highly touted freshman point guard Jalen Brunson looks like a 30-year-old man out there because he is so under control all the time. There are plenty of other wing options on this team, as well. Remember the name Mikal Bridges. He is a graceful, swooping 6'7" freshman who is going to be an invaluable asset at the top of Villanova’s 1-2-1-1 fullcourt press. If he ever develops an outside touch (he was 0-for-5 from three last Friday), Bridges could be a star.
And yet, the most valuable player on this team is Daniel Ochefu, the 6'11" senior center from Baltimore. Ochefu isn’t going to remind anyone of Hakeem Olajuwon, but during his four years on the Main Line, he has developed into a legit scoring center. Many teams in college basketball can’t even throw it into the post with regularity, much less score when they do. Villanova can do that with Ochefu. His footwork has improved to the point where he is effective on the pick-and-roll. He plays with great energy and attacks the offensive glass.
I realize the recent early flameouts in the NCAA tournament have cast a bit of a pall over this program, but from what I can gather at this early stage, all the pieces are in place to give it another try in March.
Most college basketball teams don’t have a skilled 7-footer on the roster. Vanderbilt has three. The most prominent of those, junior center Damian Jones, was barely a factor in this game because of foul trouble. (This has been a problem for Jones in the past. Defensively, the game is still a little too quick for him.) In his place, 7'1" junior Luke Kornet took center stage. This was, well, a big problem for Austin Peay because the Governors don’t have much size and they played a lot of zone. Kornet was an effective weapon scoring and passing out of the high post. And when Jones went to the bench, Vandy coach Kevin Stallings called on 7-foot senior center Josh Henderson, who had five points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench.
So Vanderbilt certainly looks different than any other team I saw over the weekend. Visually, it seems like the Commodores should be suspect defensively, but Austin Peay scored just 15 points in the first half and shot 21.9% overall. Still, you have to wonder whether that part of Vanderbilt’s game will get exposed when it faces teams with competitive size and superior athleticism.
I like this team’s guards, but I wouldn’t say they are dynamic. The sophomore starters, Riley LaChance and Wade Baldwin IV, grew up fast during the second half of last season, and I think they are a solid duo. But are they going to really strike fear in the hearts of high-level opponents? For all their size advantage against a clearly overmatched opponent, Vanderbilt attempted just 15 free throws, making eight. Jones attempted 12 field goals but not a single free throw. Three-pointers are nice, and this team will make more than its fair share. But for the Commodores to challenge Kentucky in the SEC, they are going to have to be tougher at the rim, both offensively and defensively. With this roster, that shouldn’t be such a tall order.
Maryland (def. Mount St. Mary’s, 80–56)
When people talk about the nation’s top frontcourts, they usually start with Gonzaga and North Carolina, but we’d better start throwing Maryland into the mix—which is impressive considering the Terps’ point guard, Melo Trimble, is the Big Ten’s preseason player of the year.
For all the hype surrounding 6'11" freshman center Diamond Stone—and I watched him play some on the high school summer circuit—he was better than I expected in his college debut. He was certainly more offensive-minded. Stone repeatedly bullied his way to the basket and proved he can finish with both hands. He and 6'9" junior forward Robert Carter, a classic stretch four, are going to be work beautifully together, especially if teams are foolish enough to play zone.
Moreover, Jake Layman is a 6'9" swingman who played power forward all last year, so he can do damage in the paint as well. And coach Mark Turgeon can bring two other bigs, 6'11" junior Damonte Dodd and 7'1" sophomore Michal Cekovsky, off the bench. Turgeon told me on Sunday that because of the season-ending knee injury to 6'4" sophomore backup guard Dion Wiley, he plans to go with a bigger lineup more often.
Meanwhile, Trimble looked fabulous, scoring 14 points even though he only attempted two free throws. (With the new rules in place, Trimble should make his living at the foul line this year.) Rasheed Sulaimon, the transfer from Duke, made a couple of shots early on, but then he stopped looking. I love that Trimble can get his own bucket when the shot clock is running out, but Maryland’s halfcourt offense looked out of sync. Turgeon, for one, was not surprised. Between his coaching Team USA at the Pan Am Games, Stone playing for another USA Basketball team and Sulaimon not arriving until late August because he was finishing his degree at Duke, this group had less time together over the summer than a lot of other teams. “We’ve been working on putting our toughness and defense in place, so we haven’t really practiced much offense,” Turgeon said. “So we’re definitely a work in progress.”
This was the most impressive win of the weekend. The Lumberjacks returned four starters from an NCAA tournament team, and word has it that they handled Texas pretty well during a preseason scrimmage. Baylor scored every which way possible—10 players scored, six in double figures—but the real story was the Bears’ 2-3 zone. They stayed in that defense wire to wire, and though Stephen F. Austin is as efficient and experienced an offensive team as you’ll find at the mid-mjaor level, it was totally stumped. “We’ll mix in some man-to-man with our zone this season, but it was working so well I figured we should stay with it,” Baylor coach Scott Drew told me on Sunday.
I’ll venture that the Bears will play more zone this season than Drew anticipates. They have lots of long-armed athletes who can cover ground quickly, and they are obviously quite comfortable in a zone. Offensively, the scoring was balanced in this game, and Baylor did a remarkable job sharing the ball and getting good shots. (The Bears had 31 assists on 36 made baskets and shot 64.3% from the field.) But on those nights where the offense isn’t clicking, a great zone D can bail them out.
The other good sign for Baylor was the play of 5’10” senior Lester Medford, who is taking over the point guard duties full time for the graduated Kenny Chery. Drew reminded me that when Chery got hurt for the first four games last season, Medford filled in ably. Medford was the model of efficiency against Stephen F. Austin, shooting 5-of-7 to finish with 13 points and nine assists. If that’s a true indicator of how he is going to play this season, then the 20th-ranked Bears are going to be in the rankings for a while.
It was a little disorienting to see Louisville’s starting five come on the screen at the start of the telecast. Who are these guys? They are either new to the program or new to their prominence, or both. The Cardinals certainly looked good while whooping up on an undermanned opponent, but it will be a while before we know whether they have staying power.
The main thing that jumped out at me is the improvement of 6'10" sophomore center Chinanu Onuaku. Whether it’s because he wasn’t ready last season or because he was stuck in a complementary role alongside Montrezl Harrell (or both), Onuaku is clearly prepared to be Louisville’s offensive anchor this season. He made an elbow jumper early on and otherwise operated impressively out of the high post against Samford’s zone. (Rick Pitino says Onuaku is one of the smartest players he has ever coached.) Onuaku has always had a big body, but now he looks like he is in more control of it. And the best of part of all is that he shoots free throws underhanded. That’s right: underhanded! He started doing this at the suggestion of Pitino, who showed him video of Hall of Famer Rick Barry shooting that way in hopes it would fix Onuaku’s paltry 46.7% clip as a freshman. Against Samford, he only shot one free throw, but he looked like he knew what he was doing and made it. That will be fun to watch all season.
In the backcourt, it’s easy to envision the two graduate transfers, Damion Lee (from Drexel) and Trey Lewis (Cleveland State) evolving into a classic Pitino dual combo guard backcourt. (Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, anyone?) These guys may not be future pros, but at least they have lots of experience.
These games had similar patterns. The Tar Heels, who were playing without injured point guard Marcus Paige, were never in danger of losing, but they didn’t put away their opponents until about midway through the second half. In each case, they pulled away in surgical fashion rather than via an explosive spurt. Their offensive efficiency down the stretch was the difference.
There are a lot of good things to choose from, but I have to start with 6'9" junior forward Kennedy Meeks. He may end up being my favorite player in college basketball this season. I can’t remember a young man who has done a better job improving his body over a long period of time. Meeks has battled weight issues in public fashion ever since he came to Chapel Hill, but he is now listed at 260 pounds and is as lean as can be. Though Meeks is an undersized, under-the-rim post player, he makes up for those deficiencies with exquisite footwork and touch. He is even running the floor like a thoroughbred. That type of physical improvement requires not just discipline but persistent discipline.
Meeks and much-improved 6'9" senior forward Brice Johnson give the Heels an effective 1-2 punch in the post. That means defenses have to double them, which leaves North Carolina’s three-point shooters wide open. Those shooters converted well against Temple (7-for-12), and less well against Fairfield (8-for-23). But they were open—a lot.
Still, there are two glaring concerns. The first is on defense. Their numbers weren’t bad—the Owls and Stags combined for 37% shooting—but I’m wondering if it will become a problem that North Carolina doesn’t have a signature rim protector. The larger concern was free throw shooting. In the two games, the Heels were a combined 34-for-49 (61.8%) from the line. Things will get better when Paige is in the fold—at 86.5%, he’s one of the best free throw shooters in ACC history—but that’s the kind of weakness that could cause a team to lose a close game in late March or early April. Just sayin’.
I don’t think I’ve heard anyone suggest that Grayson Allen’s performance in the second half of the NCAA championship game was a fluke. But certainly no one, least of all me, predicted that he would score 54 points in his first two games as a sophomore. Even against inferior competition, that’s a lot of buckets.
Or rather, a lot of free throws. Allen was a combined 17-for-18 in the two wins. He is a terrific three-point shooter (5-for-12) with a super-quick first step, and he knows how to, shall we say, accentuate the appearance of contact after he leaves his feet. Given the stringent officiating rules in place this season, Allen is going to butter his bread from the line as much as any player in college basketball. Might as well get used to it.
For all the talk about Duke’s freshmen, the starting lineups included just one—6'9" small forward Brandon Ingram. Though he shot the ball atrociously in the opener (1-for-9 from three), Ingram showed off an array of offensive moves, many coming in the open floor and off the dribble. He and Allen are both capable of creating their own offense in late shot clock situations, which is an invaluable asset during the grind of March.
It would be nice if freshman point guard Derryck Thornton were ready to take the reins, but clearly he is not. Even though the Devils scored a ton of points, Thornton only had six assists in 49 minutes, and he shot a combined 3-for-17 from the floor (1-for-6 from three). He has plenty of room for improvement—he reclassified from the high school class of 2016 to the class of 2015 before committing to the Blue Devils last spring—but Tyus Jones he’s not.
Duke’s bigs look like they are going to be serviceable—Amile Jefferson is clearly angling to be the captain of my All-Glue team—but I don’t like that neither he nor Marshall Plumlee is capable of drawing defensive attention in the post. They did a good job fighting for offensive rebounds and kicking the ball out to the three-point shooters, but that will be harder to do against bigger competition. So coach Mike Krzyzewski is going to have to get creative with this bunch, but then again, that is what he does best. Only a fool would count him out.
Speaking of which, I noticed on a few possessions in the Siena game that Duke played some 1-3-1 zone defense. Add that to the list of things I never thought I’d see.
Wisconsin (lost to Western Illinois, 69–67; def. Siena, 92–65)
The Badgers’ loss in the home opener was one of the big stories of the weekend. I never considered ranking Wisconsin in my preseason top 25, but I certainly did not see that coming. Even watching the first half of their victory over Siena two days later did not convince me that good things were in store for this team.
The main question is whether junior point guard Bronson Koenig and junior forward Nigel Hayes—and to a lesser extent junior forward Vitto Brown—are ready to move to the top of opponents’ scouting reports. With Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Traevon Jackson gone, those guys are going to have to carry a heavier load. Koenig has the ball in his hands, so he has the easiest adjustment. Hayes was O.K. (he averaged 15.5 points on 9-for-19 shooting). Brown was awful the first game and pretty good in the second. Supposedly, he’s been working on his outside shooting, but it’s unclear how far he has come.
What was most shocking about watching the Badgers was how many quality minutes were accorded to freshmen. In Bo Ryan’s program, players usually develop over several years. (Remember, Kaminsky only averaged 10 minutes per game as a sophomore.) Yet in the first two games, Ryan started one redshirt freshman (6’9” forward Ethan Happ) and brought three others (6'8" forward Charlie Thomas, 6'5" guard Khalil Iverson and 6'9" forward Alex Illikainen) off the bench for significant minutes. This is not normally how Ryan likes to do things, but as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention.
I’m guessing Wisconsin would have beaten Siena no matter what given that it was coming off a loss, but it’s worth noting that the Saints had just played at Duke two days before. They were clearly out of gas in the second half. Remember, in Ryan’s 17 years at Wisconsin, the Badgers have never failed to reach the NCAA tournament. It’s way too early to write them off, but this is going to be a major story in college basketball this season. I have a feeling it’s going to go down to the wire.
Five games I’m psyched to see this week
The Aztecs are breaking in freshman point guard Jeremy Hemsley, who scored 20 points in the opening win over Illinois State Friday night. Asking him to pilot his team to a road win against a ranked team, however, is a bit much.
Utah 68, SDSU 60
Baylor at Oregon, Monday, 11:30 p.m., ESPN2
I picked the Bears to lose to Stephen F. Austin, so I might as well double down. I look forward to watching Oregon stud frosh Tyler Dorsey, who scored a team-high 20 points against Jackson State, going up against that 2-3 zone.
Oregon 78, Baylor 73
Kentucky vs. Duke, Chicago, ESPN, 7:30 p.m.
It will be a great environment for the Champions Classic, and I expect a close game. I’m concerned about Duke’s lack of a true point guard, and I also think the Blude Devils' bigs will have a hard time scoring in the paint against Labissiere and Lee.
Kentucky 80, Duke 75
Georgetown at Maryland, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2
As a D.C. area native, I have been pining for this game for a long, long time. Don’t let the Hoyas’ loss at home to Radford fool you. They will rebound with a better performance, and the last thing a team wants to do is defend a Princeton offense this early in the season. The Terps will win, but they’ll have to work for it.
Maryland 69, Georgetown 66
Get used to hearing me say this, even though it sounds like a backhanded compliment: This is the most aesthetically pleasing team Tom Izzo has ever coached at Michigan State. A crisp-passing, sweet-shooting, bona fide threat to win the whole shebang, I say.
Michigan State 76, Kansas 68
Miami vs. Mississippi State, Puerto Rico, Thursday, 5 p.m., ESPN2
Hopefully, Bulldogs freshman Malik Newman will be available for this one. He was held out of the season opener because of turf toe. The Hurricanes have an intriguing player in much-improved 6'10" senior forward Ivan Cruz-Uceda, who dropped 30 pounds and shot 4-for-7 from three-point range in the season opener.
Mississippi State 68, Miami 65
This week’s AP ballot
2. North Carolina
8. Wichita State
10. Iowa State
16. Michigan State
In the future, I will include my previous week’s rankings, but since so little changed from the preseason, I felt it wasn’t worth it. The only change I made from my first ballot was sliding in Baylor, which I did not rank last week, and dropping Iona, which I ranked No. 25 but which lost at Valparaiso by (cough) 25 points.
I feel pretty good about my choice of Maryland as No. 1. There is no dominant team in college basketball this year, but no team better checks off all the boxes than the Terps. Let’s see how they handle the pressure of playing Georgetown this week. Should be interesting.
Other schools I considered ranking were Valparaiso, which has one of the top midmajor players in America in 6'9" junior forward Alec Peters; Cincinnati, which romped over Western Carolina and Robert Morris during the opening weekend (106 points in the second game! Hallelujah!); Louisville, which doesn’t have a difficult test until it plays at Michigan State on Dec. 2; and Notre Dame, which got a career-high 27 points from junior point guard Demetrius Jackson in its win over St. Francis (Pa.).