Hoop Thoughts: Trying to make sense of the season's chaotic start
The nation’s No. 1 team, Kentucky, suffered its first loss of the season Thursday at UCLA. The score was 87–77, a stunning reversal from the meeting between those two schools last season, when Kentucky led by 34 points at halftime en route to an 83–44 win. More important, it was a stark turn for UCLA , which began the season by losing at home to Monmouth, a team that went on to lose at Canisius, which lost on Saturday at home to Quinnipiac, which is currently ranked 299th out of 350 teams in the RPI.
You like that bouncing ball? Let’s follow another. Syracuse rose to No. 14 in the AP poll after beating UConn and Texas A&M in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving. Last week, the Orange lost at home to Wisconsin, which earlier this season lost at home to Western Illinois. Over the weekend, Syracuse lost at Georgetown, which lost at home to Radford, which lost to James Madison, which lost at home to UT-Martin, which is 305th in the RPI.
Texas A&M beat Gonzaga to claim the No. 19 ranking, but on Saturday the Aggies lost at Arizona State, which lost at home to Sacramento State. Miami handily beat two ranked teams, Utah and Butler, and then lost at home to Northeastern, which lost at Miami (Ohio), which lost at IUPUI, which is 274th in the RPI. North Carolina has beaten Maryland but lost at Northern Iowa, albeit without its starting point guard, Marcus Paige. San Diego State beat California but also lost at home to Arkansas-Little Rock. Arizona needed overtime to defeat winless Santa Clara and lost to Providence on a neutral court. On Saturday, the Wildcats won a road game at Gonzaga. And they didn’t have their starting center.
If tracking all these crazy bounces is making you dizzy, you are not alone. Welcome to the 2015–16 college basketball season. The one thing we definitely know is that we don’t know anything. The only certainty is uncertainty.
Is this a good thing? Well, yes and no. Parity can be fun, and it augurs for an exciting NCAA tournament. (Then again, there is no such thing as an unexciting NCAA tournament.) On the other hand, the public loves dynastic powerhouses. Those, alas, are in short supply this season. There are more good teams than ever before, but at the moment there are no great ones.
If you’re worried that this is going to be one of those hifalutin “trend pieces,” fear not. The world moves in cycles, and each season has its own personality. It’s just that season’s personality is quite different from last year’s, when four teams (Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin and Arizona) lorded over the pack pretty much the whole way. So let’s not call this a trend so much as a one-year confluence of factors. Here are the three major forces at play:
1. This year’s freshman class is ... meh.
Yes, Ben Simmons is sublime, but consider that Kentucky center Skal Labissiere, whom many people ranked ahead of Simmons as a high school senior and still project as the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft, has scored a combined eight points and played 16 minutes in each of his last two games. Another consensus top-five freshman, Cal’s Jaylen Brown, is scoring in bursts but his team is struggling. Duke’s top freshman, Brandon Ingram, is just starting to have in impact, while Chase Jeter, whom Rivals.com ranked 16th in the class, can barely get off Mike Krzyzewski’s bench. Kansas made a big stink about getting Cheick Diallo eligible, but the player ranked No. 5 by Rivals apparently will be a rotation player on a veteran team, not a featured star.
Look across the country, and you will find very few freshmen having a major impact. There’s no real reason for it; not all classes are created equal. Since the very top freshmen tend to end up at the powerhouse programs like Duke and Kentucky, they are not providing the same degree of separation than they have in other years. Hence, the crazy bounces.
2. Just about everybody who could turn pro last year did.
We’re used to seeing underclassmen bolt for the NBA at any sign of daylight, but in the spring of 2014 there were an unusual number of players who turned down the chance to be first-round picks. Chief among them were Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Several Kentucky players (Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, the Harrison twins) also bucked the tide and returned to Lexington. Maybe they weren’t slam-dunk pros a year ago, but an awful lot of college players would have been happy to take that chance. That allowed those two teams to spend all season on a collision course that ended at the Final Four. There is no analogous example for 2015–16.
3. The transfer craze has made the world even more flat.
For the last few years, we have seen upwards of 600 players change schools each spring. This is the most significant trend in this sport over the last decade, and I am sensing a cumulative effect take hold.
Time was, the top programs could horde the best players deep on their benches. If they lost guys to the NBA, they had a next man up. Now, all the attrition has put extraordinary pressure on recruiting. So when you have a mediocre freshman class, it hurts their ability to reload. Meanwhile, the quote-unquote lesser schools can get better and stay that way. The ones that benefit the most are the players, who are taking advantage of the movement to find places where they can get minutes. In transferring, unlike recruiting, it’s not just the rich who get richer.
Will any of these factors still be in play next season? We’ll find out soon enough. In the meantime, let’s just sit back and enjoy trying to track that bouncing ball. The madness has gotten started early this year. This season may not be sexy, but it has a great personality.
Other Hoop Thoughts
• Don’t look now, but is Kelvin Sampson starting to build something in just his second season at Houston? The Cougars are 5–0 with a win at home over Murray State. We’ll know whether they’re for real this week after they play at Rhode Island Tuesday and then face LSU at home on Sunday.
• Speaking of LSU, while everyone is going gaga for Simmons, the Tigers have lost three of their last four games, and it’s possible none of the teams they lost to are going to be in the NCAA tournament. Not good. I like Antonio Blakeney, the freshman guard, but he has to learn the difference between an open shot and a good shot.
• I called Ohio State’s win at home over VMI on Saturday for Big Ten Network, and even though the Buckeyes won easily, I must say I’m rather pessimistic about their chances to make the tournament. Besides the obvious problem of their overall youth (seven freshmen and four sophomores), this team has no reliable playmaker. Freshman JaQuan Lyle is running the point, but he is a suspect ball-handler and not a natural floor leader. His backup, A.J. Harris, is also a freshman and stands just 5’9” and 165 pounds. The good news is Thad Matta has ditched his tie for this season, so at least he’ll get plenty of oxygen while his young guys grow up on the fly
• Keep your eye on Bruce Weber’s Kansas State Wildcats. On Friday, they picked up a nice road win at Georgia on Dean Wade’s jumper with four seconds to play. That matches K State’s total number of road wins for all of last season. Remember, this team gave North Carolina all it wanted in Kansas City last week before losing by 10.
• Add this to your rising star watch: Kelan Martin, Butler’s 6'6" sophomore swingman. He had 14 points in the Bulldogs’ thrilling 78–76 road win at Cincinnati last Wednesday, and then followed that up by scoring a career-high 24 points in Saturday’s home win over Indiana State. Butler isn’t big, but this team is so fundamentally sound defensively that all it needs is a couple of timely buckets and it can beat anyone, anywhere. That’s the Butler Way.
• I love bigs who can pass and guards who can rebound.
• I also love when coaches come out of a timeout playing a different defense. Makes the other guy feel he just wasted two minutes in his huddle.
• Remember last week when I wrote that Duke really needed to get Brandon Ingram going? Well, he had 24 and 23 last week against Indiana and Buffalo, respectively. Shot a combined 18-for-30 from the floor and 6-for-10 from three-point range. I’d say he got going.
• Anyone out there come into the season saying UNLV was the team to beat in the Mountain West? Because they are, you know.
• Keep in mind Michigan State is winning without much production from Eron Harris, the heralded 6'3" junior transfer from West Virginia. Harris averaged 17 points per game as a sophomore, but he has been having a hard time earning minutes because a) the Spartans’ other perimeter guys have been on fire, and b) his defense is still not up to Izzo-like standards. But trust me, there will be some pivotal moments in games this season where Harris will make a difference.
• I can’t remember the last time a top-25 team had two seven footers as its leading scorers, but that’s what Purdue has going right now with Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons. Freshman Caleb Swanigan (6'9") is sixth, in case you were wondering.
• Best sixth man? I’ll go with Xavier’s James Farr. The 6'10" senior is averaging 10.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in 19.5 minutes off the bench. Xavier might not be the best team in the country, but it is one of the few that can check every box: point guard play, shooters, athletes, post guys, rebounders, defenders, depth, toughness. Can’t wait for ’em to play Villanova.
• How come college coaches never—and I mean never—try the two-for-one? College coaches love to mimic the NBA (hence the ball screen craze), but for some reason nobody does this. Makes no sense to me.
• I wrote Arizona’s obituary in my Twitterbag column on Thursday, so naturally two days later they beat Gonzaga in Spokane. Me and my big mouth. The Zags did not have Przemek Karnowski (back spasms), but the Wildcats were also without their best big man, Kaleb Tarczewski (foot). This was a good win for Arizona, but it was also a bad loss for Gonzaga, which has yet to show that it has a high-caliber backcourt. The Zags’ rotation of four guards produced a whopping four field goals, and they did a horrendous job guarding Gabe York, who managed to hang 18 points on them despite having a limited offensive arsenal. And with the way the game is being called this season, how does a team shoot just eight free throws in a game of this magnitude?
• Welcome to head coaching, Mike Hopkins. Oy vey.
• I said this about Texas A&M coming out of the Bahamas, and I’ll say it again. It’s O.K. to have one starting guard who basically can’t shoot. When you have two back there, you have a problem. And when a strong athlete like Danuel House is taking 15 of his 21 shots from three-point range as he did in the loss at Arizona State, then it’s time to do some soul searching.
• Don’t you just love these league vs. league challenges? Really spices up November and December. Thank goodness for TV executives and conference commissioners, because believe me, if it were up to the coaches, none of these games would be happening. I heard the Big Ten coaches voted unanimously against the Gavitt Games challenge with the Big East, but it happened anyway because Jim Delaney, who was close friends with Dave Gavitt, wanted it to.
• Maryland has a big problem right now with lack of depth in the backcourt. The Terrapins were counting on help from sophomore Dion Wiley, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury before the first game. You have to wonder whether Melo Trimble’s legs can hold up during the course of a long season.
• The Monmouth bench completes me.
• Anyone else want to vote for Providence’s Ben Bentil for most improved player? The 6'9" sophomore went from averaging 6.4 points and 4.9 rebounds as a freshman to 18.1 and 7.1 this season. He scored 23 points, including the game-winning tip-in, during the Friars scintillating win at Rhode Island on Saturday. Send me other suggestions for most improved. Sounds like a good Twitterbag subject.
• I can’t imagine there are many things more frustrating to a coach than when the opposing team gets an offensive rebound off a missed free throw. Your guys are awarded inside position, yet they still don’t get the ball.
• Rick Pitino is hardly ever described a great Xs and Os coach, but he’s one of the best there ever was. Just making sure you knew.
• I love that NC State point guard Anthony “Cat” Barber averages more than 11 free throw attempts per game. That dude wants to get Capone.
• You think Fran Dunphy overscheduled his Temple Owls a bit? Their four losses have come against North Carolina, Butler, Utah and at Wisconsin. The Owls aren’t very good, but I’m not they’re as bad as they looked in Madison on Saturday.
• Add this name to your list of under-the-radar guys: Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams. He scored 32 points in the Cowboys’ overtime loss at home to California on Saturday and is averaging 22.9 on the season after averaging 12.8 last year. The biggest reason for the jump is his improvement behind the three-point line. Adams converted 32.4% from behind the arc during his first three seasons but is now shooting nearly 40%. Someone spent a lot of lonely hours in the lab this summer.
• I’ll spare you another opus about the new rules and officiating this week. Suffice to say, the whole experiment is working far better than anyone imagined coming into the season. A huge, huge success. Hope it continues. (Please don’t tell Izzo I said that.)
• One note along these lines: The dribbler thrust (back ... and to the left) is the new flop when it comes to tricking the refs into calling fouls.
• Also: The wider lane is coming. Matter of time.
• The National Association of Basketball Coaches has been handing out a national defensive player of the year award since 1987. As far as I can tell, only three players have won that award while also being named the national player of the year. They are Tim Duncan (1997), Shane Battier (2001) and Anthony Davis (2012). I say this because Providence point guard Kris Dunn has a chance to join this list. Not sure he can do it, but it will be fun watching him try.
• It has been a while since I’ve seen a team ravished by injuries the way Illinois has been this season. Yet, John Groce still yanked his best player, Kendrick Nunn, from the starting lineup last weekend because of his subpar defense in last week’s loss to Notre Dame. Nunn responded by coming off the bench to score a career-high 27 points in the Illini’s win over Western Carolina. Way to respond, young fella.
• How about Oklahoma State with back-to-back home losses last week to Tulsa and Missouri State. I realize the Pokes are without Phil Forte, who is out indefinitely with an elbow injury, but still. Forte better get healthy soon, or it’s gonna be a long season in Stillwater.
• Can you believe anyone suggested that a playoff would diminish college football’s regular season? Where are all those folks now? Hiding in plain sight?
• Indiana attempted 36 free throws versus 15 three-pointers in its win on Saturday. I realize the opponent was Morehead State, but it’s a start.
• How’s this for the best mid-major race of the year: Arkansas-Little Rock vs. UT-Arlington in the Sun Belt. UTA, which already had true road wins at Ohio State and Memphis, notched another one on Saturday at UTEP. The Mavericks also took Texas to overtime in Austin before losing by seven. Meanwhile, Arkansas-Little Rock’s 7–0 start includes road wins at San Diego and Tulsa. Those two play on Jan. 23 in Arlington and on Feb. 25 in Little Rock. Mark your calendars!
• I’m sure you’ve noticed that Louisiana Tech is off to a solid 6–1 start under first-year coach Eric Konkol. This supports my argument that a new coach is better off replacing a guy who was hired away because he won a lot (a la Steve Prohm) as opposed to replacing someone who was fired because he lost a lot.
• I don’t know whether Memphis can get to the NCAA tournament, but let me tell you, that Dedric Lawson can play.
• Finally, I have some distressing news to report about Trey Schwab, the former Marquette assistant who suffered from a rare lung disorder and gained attention during the Golden Eagles’ Dwyane Wade-led run to the 2003 Final Four. Schwab underwent a double lung transplant that saved his life, but he emailed friends over the weekend that his body has been rejecting his transplant for over a year, which means he needs to have a re-transplant to survive. While he waits, Trey is hoping people will go to registerme.org and sign up to be organ donors. I hope you’ll consider doing this. You could save someone’s life someday.
Five games I’m psyched to see this week
Oklahoma vs. Villanova at Pearl Harbor, Monday, 7 p.m., FS1
Is this the middle of December or the third week in March? These have been two of the more impressive teams this season, but something has to give. Since it’s on a neutral court, you can basically flip a coin here, but I’ll go with Villanova’s collection of guards over Oklahoma’s superior individual in Buddy Hield.
Villanova 80, Oklahoma 79
West Virginia at Virginia, Madison Square Garden, Tuesday, 7 p.m.
I’m guessing Cavaliers’ guard London Perrantes will not be available for this game considering it will be played just seven days after he had an appendectomy. That will be a problem against a Mountaineers team whose fullcourt press is relentless. West Virginia is ranked seventh nationally in defensive efficiency and is first in steals percentage, turnover percentage and three-point defense.
West Virginia 65, Virginia 61
Florida at Miami, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
The Gators might be 6–1, but most of their wins have come against middling competition. That won’t be the case in Coral Gables, where the Hurricanes will have a decided advantage on the perimeter.
Miami 76, Florida 67
Maryland vs. UConn at Madison Square Garden, Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN
I’ve been driving the UConn bandwagon since the preseason, but I don’t think the Huskies have enough inside force to win this one. Terps forward Robert Carter scored a season-high 20 points in Maryland’s win over St. Francis on Friday.
Maryland 85, UConn 80
Iowa at Iowa State, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2
Iowa State hasn’t lost yet, but it’s a little disappointing the Cyclones haven’t played a tougher schedule. Still, it’s always a pleasure to watch Monte Morris, who owns a 5.13 assist-to-turnover ratio, which ranks 12th in the country.
Iowa State 77, Iowa 65
This week’s AP ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Michigan State (2)
2. Kansas (3)
3. North Carolina (9)
4. Kentucky (1)
5. Maryland (4)
6. Duke (5)
7. Villanova (6)
8. Iowa State (7)
9. Oklahoma (8)
10. Purdue (14)
11. Xavier (16)
12. West Virginia (17)
13. Arizona (NR)
14. Butler (19)
15. Gonzaga (12)
16. UConn (13)
17. Vanderbilt (15)
18. Virginia (18)
19. Miami (21)
20. SMU (22)
21. Louisville (NR)
22. Cincinnati (23)
23. Providence (24)
24. UCLA (NR)
25. Baylor (NR)
Dropped out: Syracuse (10), Texas A&M (11), Oregon (20), Louisiana Tech (25)
We knew we’d have a new No. 1 team, but deciding it was not so obvious. I gave serious thought to putting North Carolina on top given that it beat Maryland and is obviously a much better team with Marcus Paige in the lineup. Still, with all due respect to Northern Iowa, the Tar Heels should have been able to win that game even without their starting point guard, so I left them at No. 3.
Xavier continues its steady rise, not only with some decent wins (in this case, a 31-point drubbing of Western Kentucky), but also by benefiting from other teams’ stumbles. But the Musketeers are about to encounter their toughest stretch of the season. On Saturday, they host Cincinnati in one of the sport’s great rivalry games. After that, three of Xavier’s four games are on the road (at Wake Forest, Villanova and St. John’s), and their home game is against Butler. I think Xavier is really good, but we’ll know a lot more in a couple of weeks.
Arizona definitely has my head on a swivel. I know Gonzaga has issues, but winning up there without Kaleb Tarczewski at least deserves a one-week reward. I am still skeptical of this team’s staying power, but then again, the Pac-12 isn’t exactly a powerhouse this season. I can see Arizona, if it ends up highly seeded in the NCAA tournament, as a popular upset pick—but we are a long ways from that.
Incidentally, Gonzaga’s loss at home not only dropped them, but also UConn, which lost to Gonzaga in the Bahamas. We are quickly getting to the point in the season where it will be hard to maintain the head-to-head sequences like that—especially if UConn manages to knock off Maryland in Madison Square Garden this week.
Louisville looked good enough in its loss at Michigan State that I thought the Cardinals were deserving of a ranking. Unfortunately, they’re back to playing a ludicrously soft schedule for another couple of weeks before the big showdown at Kentucky on Dec. 26. Baylor started the season ranked No. 19 on my preseason ballot, then dropped off following its loss at Oregon, and then re-appeared thanks to his home squeaker over Vanderbilt on Sunday night.
When I put together my ballot of Sunday night and released it over Twitter (troll feeding!), I had UNLV at No. 25 thanks to its impressive win over Oregon last weekend. I then felt compelled to give Baylor that spot after the Bears beat Vandy; but as I mentioned above, I do think the Rebels are the favorite to win the Mountain West. I also considered ranking Georgetown, which handled Syracuse and has now won three in a row; Kansas State, which won at Georgia to improve to 6–1; Louisiana Tech, which is also 6–1 with a win at Ohio State; George Washington, whose 7–1 record indicates that win over Virginia was no fluke; and Dayton, whose only loss this season was to Xavier and plays at Vanderbilt on Saturday. If the Flyers win that game, I can pretty much guarantee they will have a number next to their name next week.