Hoop Thoughts: What we learned from an exciting slate of games on opening weekend
After months of speculating, prognosticating and procrastinating, we finally had some actual college basketball games to watch last weekend. While the players played and the fans soaked it in, your resident Hoop Thinker hunkered down and got to work. That is, if you can call watching games and writing about them "work."
Anywho, I have various ways of watching games during the season, including access to a website where I can download videos onto my computer. I scanned a few dozen games this weekend, but for the purposes of this exercise I homed in on 11 of them and assessed the nitty-gritty. Here is what I came up with.
No. 11 Indiana 103, No. 3 Kansas 99 (OT)
What an amazing way to start the season. Two class programs who haven't played each other in more than 20 years, engaged in a taut, up-tempo, bucket-palooza that wasn't decided until the final minute of overtime. That the game was being played in Honolulu in honor of Pearl Harbor for Veterans Day made it all the more special. The Jayhawks had the word "Honor" on the backs of their jerseys; the Hoosiers had "Courage." It was a lovely touch.
The game was so good, in fact, that I will overlook the 63 fouls that were called between the two teams. Sixty-three! Let's hope that is not an indication of the season ahead. Kansas did a slightly better job cashing in—particularly senior point guard Frank Mason, who was 13 for 15 from the stripe en route to a game-high 30 points—but KU could not overcome poor three-point shooting (7 for 23) or losing the boards by 11.
If you tuned in to see a time-capsule performance from KU freshman Josh Jackson, you were probably disappointed. The 6' 8" forward was limited to 27 minutes because of foul trouble. He seemed out of rhythm all night, which, combined with poor shot selection, led him to shoot just 3 for 11 from the floor. Still, he hung in there, playing solid D and converting an important put-back dunk with 34.8 seconds remaining in overtime to cut Indiana's lead to two. It's only a matter of time before Jackson goes off, but the game underscored why he benefits from playing for an elite program like Kansas. Jackson will have every opportunity to play a leading role, but the team is not totally dependent on him to win.
As it turns out, Indiana has some pretty good freshmen, too—most notably 6' 4" guard Curtis Jones, who scored seven of the team's final nine points to seal the win. Another IU frosh, 6' 10" forward De'Ron Davis, also added a key bucket in OT. But for me, the major revelation for Indiana was the play of 6' 4" junior guard James Blackmon Jr. This was his first regular season game after missing the final 21 games last season because of an ACL injury. All he did on this stage against this opponent was turn in the best performance of his career, a dazzling 26-point effort (4 for 8 from three) to go along with six rebounds and two assists. Obviously Blackmon isn't going to keep that up, but if Friday night is any indication of the type of season he's going to have, then the Hoosiers will be very much in the mix for another Big Ten title.
When the game ended, ESPN's Dan Shulman made the comment that it was a shame either team had to lose. I get his point, but I don't quite agree. The great thing about college basketball is that this game was a showcase, not an eliminator. Both of these teams have deficiencies to work on, but they also came away confident that will be on a short list of teams that can reasonably set their mindset as Final Four or Bust. Thanks for the show, guys.
No. 10 Arizona 65, No. 12 Michigan State 63
Talk about a wild game. The Spartans sprinted out to a 17–2 lead in the first six minutes, only to cough it up just as quickly and fall behind over the next nine minutes. You obviously have to give the Wildcats a ton of credit for hanging in there and eventually winning the game, but they had a lot of help from the Spartans' woeful offense. Michigan State ended up with 18 turnovers (to Arizona's 14), but some of those should have counted double.
Both of these teams have been decimated by injuries, and Arizona is facing the ongoing question of when (or whether) sophomore guard Allonzo Trier will be able to play. Michigan State, meanwhile, lost its two biggest players during the preseason in 6' 9" seniors Gavin Schilling (knee) and Ben Carter (knee). This creates rebounding and defensive challenges, but it also stagnates the offense because the Spartans have a hard time throwing it to the post. Tom Izzo has said he hopes Schilling will return sometime during Big Ten play, but Carter is on a longer timetable.
Fortunately, Michigan State has a truly sublime talent in freshman forward Miles Bridges, who showed off his acumen and versatility while putting up 21 points, seven rebounds and two assists. (Alas, his shooting touch failed him, draining just one of his six three-point attempts.) I worry about Michigan State relying too much on Bridges moving forward. Arizona, meanwhile, has terrific freshmen as well. Kobi Simmons, a 6' 5" guard, scored a team-high 18 points off the bench, and 7-foot Finnish native Lauri Markkanen showed off an array of offensive skills, scoring 13 points, including 2 for 3 shooting from three-point range. Normally, you'd wonder if a college basketball team can function with two seven footers in the lineup (Dusan Ristic is the other), but Markkanen's perimeter skills open up the space nicely. He didn't get quite the hype as some other freshmen, but Sean Miller has been praising him for weeks, and I can see why.
The second half was tons of fun. I'm sure Izzo was royally pissed at the way his guys allowed Arizona's Kadeem Allen to dribble the entire length of the floor unmolested and sink the game-winning bucket, but that's to be expected when you are a young team playing the first game of the season. This is going to be an unconventional Michigan State team—Arizona outscored the Spartans 20 to 5 from the free throw line—but there are some nice pieces here. Arizona has nice pieces, too, but what the Wildcats really demonstrated was a mental toughness that belies their youth. That is a terrific sign for them moving forward.
No. 21 Texas 78, Incarnate Word 73
It's not surprising that Texas would struggle given that two of its top players—starting point guard Kerwin Davis and key reserve Tevn Mack, both sophomores—were sitting out because of a violation of team rules. (Both are expected to return for Monday's game against Louisiana-Monroe.) Still, it was disconcerting to watch the Longhorns blow a 15-point lead early in the second half and then hang on to survive. The combination of foul trouble, fatigue (physical and mental) and Incarnate Words' 2–3 zone slowly eroded that advantage. To beat a zone, a team needs mature ball movement, quality guard play and deft outside shooting. Those things were in short supply for Texas on Friday night.
The main thing I was curious to see was how Texas's prized 6' 11" freshman Jarrett Allen looked. Allen is slender and smooth, and though sometimes it looks like he is playing in slow motion, that comes with a poised, patient mind. He put up solid numbers (16 points, 12 rebounds) and made some nice decisions with the ball when he was being double teamed in the post. The problem is that Texas does not have a true point guard to lead the offense and grab the wheel when the opponent makes a run like Incarnate Word did in the second half. Roach is that designated guy, but he does not have a lot of experience at the position. As a team, Texas had just nine assists on 27 made field goals. That's not going to cut it when the Longhorns get into the teeth of their conference schedule.
Defensively, Shaka Smart's trademark fullcourt pressing "havoc" was nowhere to be seen, which was the case last season as well. He actually mixed in some 1–3–1 and 2–3 zones, though it's unclear if that will change once Roach and Mack return. Texas got some nice contribution from their other freshmen—6' 10" forward James Banks had five blocks in 24 minutes—but not much from its two seniors, 6' 3" guard Kendal Yancy (four turnovers) and 6' 8" forward Shaquille Cleare (five fouls in 11 minutes). So all in all, this was not a pretty game, and this team has a lot of growing up to do. But it managed to pull out the win, and on Friday that was all that mattered.
Wagner 67, No. 18 UConn 58
This was not a matter of the favored team blowing a lead. The Seahawks led this one wire to wire. UConn closed to within one with six minutes to play but couldn't close the deal, even though Wagner lost its leading scorer to a leg injury with 11 minutes to play. The result was the first season opening loss at Gampel Pavilion since the place opened in 1990.
To be sure, Wagner is a good, veteran team that should contend for a Northeast Conference title, but for UConn, this game was ugly on both ends of the floor. The Huskies had absolutely no energy on defense. Wagner repeatedly kept getting open looks, which led to the constant pictures of Kevin Ollie with his trademark look of incredulity on the bench. Senior center Amida Brimah might be a good rim protector, but he has never shaken his maddening tendency to have potential rebounds knocked out of his hands. That's a big reason why UConn got out-rebounded by four. (Brimah also still has no offensive game. He had four points and did not attempt a free throw.) One thing we know is this team is not good enough to depend on talent. These Huskies need a lot more junkyard dog if they are going to defend effectively.
After the game, Ollie said the two toughest players were freshmen Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital. That is another troubling sign. UConn's upperclassmen were awful, particularly the starting backcourt of Rodney Purvis and Jalen Adams. They combined to shoot 6 for 22 from the floor. That ain't gonna get Capone.
I'll be honest—I am particularly concerned about Adams. He was pretty well regarded as a high school recruit, but during his freshman season he was unable to take over as a fulltime point guard. With Sterling Gibbs gone, Adams is being pressed into that role, and though one game is not nearly enough of a sample to judge, the signs Friday night were not encouraging. His shot selection was poor, and though he only had one turnover (to five assists), he was unable to provide a spark when the offense truly needed one. Don't be surprised if Gilbert overtakes him on the depth chart at some point.
The most encouraging sign for UConn was the play of 6' 8" sophomore forward Terry Larrier, who finished with 19 points (3 for 7 three-point shooting) and seven rebounds. Larrier, who transferred from VCU, looks like a potential future pro. He displayed a tendency to rush his shot, although that could be a case of opening-night nerves. If he settles in and gains confidence, then UConn could have the kind of player who can carry a team far. But right now he is not that guy, and these Huskies have a long way to go.
No. 7 Xavier 84, Lehigh 81
This game was touch-and-go the whole way. Xavier led the entire second half, most of the time by double digits, and yet it needed Lehigh to miss two potential game-tying three-pointers in the final 20 seconds. Based on that information, you might think this means Xavier played poorly. But if you watch the game, you'll see that the Musketeers beat a very good team in a game they could easily have lost.
To be sure, there are some concerns. First and foremost was the Musketeers' sloppiness with the ball. Xavier committed 17 turnovers, and it's not like the Mountain Hawks' are a running, pressing team. In fact, for much of the game Lehigh packed in a 2–3 zone. Xavier's 6' 6" sophomore point guard Edmond Sumner committed six of those turnovers. Now, Xavier would not have won without Sumner's career-high 24 points, but he has always struck me as more of a lead guard than a traditional playmaker. You rarely seem Sumner make a classic "point guard" play where, say, he beats his man with a hard dribble, pulls up under control and drops a deft pass for a layup. Still, he had six assists in this game, and he is such a good scorer that it's doubtful he will (or should) ever look like a pass-first point guard.
Xavier lost two of its top players from last year's team in Jalen Reynolds and James Farr, and while this group does not have the same quality inside play, it does have a big perimeter trio in Sumner, 6' 6" junior Trevon Bluiett and 6' 5" junior J.P. Macura. (Miles Davis, a 6' 2" senior, is suspended indefinitely as he faced misdemeanor charges related to incidents with a former girlfriend. Davis pled guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct last week.) Bluiett in particular blew me away. I had heard he lost a lot of weight in the off-season, and you could tell how much more confident he feels with his body. Yes, he scored a career-high 25 points, but I loved the way he attacked the rim both with and without the ball. He added 11 rebounds and three assists and was 5 for 5 from the foul line. That's winning basketball.
The attrition from last year combined with Davis's suspension has left Xavier coach Chris Mack with a thin bench. Still, I liked the bend-but-not-break moxie. And be sure to keep your eye on this Lehigh team. There's no C.J. McCollum here, but in 6' 1" senior forward Tim Kempton, the Mountain Hawks have a legit pro prospect with decent shooting range (he had 25 points in the loss), and they return three other starters from the group that narrowly lost in the Patriot League tournament final last March. They showed in this game that they will not be intimidated no matter who they are playing and where. Those qualities should come in handy about four months hence.
No. 14 Gonzaga 92, Utah Valley 69
This game was a blowout from the get-go, so we have to be careful about drawing conclusions. But because the Zags have so many new faces, I was anxious to take a gander at them. The first is their new point guard, Nigel Williams-Goss, a former McDonald's All-American who transferred from Washington. Williams-Goss looked good physically and showed a little more offensive versatility than he did at Washington. In particular, he is going to be a very effective weapon scoring in the post. But although Willams-Goss was credited with six assists, all of them came within the flow of the offense. Like Xavier's Edmund Sumner, Williams-Goss is not what you would call a "playmaker." So while I don't expect him to carry this team by any stretch, he is an older vet who runs the show with aplomb.
I can also see why Mark Few has been raving about Silas Melson, his 6' 3" junior guard. Melson was the WCC's defensive player of the year last season, but if this game is any real indication, then it's apparent he is much improved offensively. He was 0 for 3 from three-point range, but instead of settling for jumpers as he has in the past, Melson found different ways to score to finish with 17 points. You can tell he is brimming with confidence.
I was also interested to see how 7' 1" senior center Przemek Karnowski looked after missing most of last season with a back injury. It was about what I expected: Karnowski moves ever so slowly when he is changing ends, but once he is established on the block, he is an unmovable force. Few told me by phone on Sunday that because Karnowski was just cleared to play in September, he is only about 60–70% in terms of his conditioning and rhythm. If Karnowski avoids any more setbacks, Few expects he will be at full strength and sharpness in early January.
Few told me he has high hopes for 7-foot freshman center Zach Collins, who had nine points and four rebounds, but for me the big revelation in this game was Killian Tillie, the 6' 10" freshman forward from France. He scored nine points in 20 minutes off the bench. I had heard Tillie was very skilled for his size, and he showed that by draining a three-pointer in the first half. But I was equally impressed with a physicality that belies his frame. He seemed to enjoy trying to score with contact inside, and he grabbed eight of his nine rebounds in the first half. Tillie didn't get much attention in the preseason, but I suggest you keep an eye on him. If he continues to provide this kind of pop off the bench, Gonzaga will be even better than we thought.
Between this game and the two exhibitions, Gonzaga has now played in three highly up-tempo contests. Tonight, however, they will host San Diego State and try to win in Steve Fisher's meat grinder. Few told me his team's halfcourt offensive execution needs to improve. Well, here's their chance to do just that. Should be fun.
Marquette 95, Vanderbilt 71
Lots of people expressed surprise when Kevin Stallings left Vanderbilt for Pittsburgh last spring. Turns out Stallings knew something they didn't know. With the Commodores having lost two first-rounders to the NBA in Wade Baldwin (pick No. 17) and Damian Jones (No. 30), Stallings must have known this team was poised to struggle. That is especially glaring at the point guard position, where 6' 2" junior Riley LaChance looked overmatched, particularly during a second half in which the Commodores were out-scored by 25 points. It's dangerous to make bold predictions on day one, but I think it's safe to say that Vanderbilt is going to have a hard time making the NCAA tournament under first-year coach Bryce Drew.
The Golden Eagles, of course, had their own first-round pick to replace in Henry Ellenson, but the last thing Steve Wojciechowski has to be concerned about is finding enough bodies. He played nine players double-digit minutes in the win and has 11 guys total whom he believes can give him serviceable minutes. I worry a little bit about the Golden Eagles being too dependent on the three-point shot (they attempted 31 threes to just five free throws), because they're not always going to shoot 42% like they did Friday night. Senior guard Jajuan Johnson, who averaged 10 points last season, was drained three three-pointers en route to scoring 21 points.
I was especially interested to see how 6' 6" senior Katin Reinhardt would look in his Marquette debut. Reinhardt played one season at UNLV, transferred to USC for two seasons and came to Marquette as a graduate transfer. Seeing a player switch schools twice during his career is usually a red flag for me, and Reinhardt has a long-held tendency to be a volume shooter. That was the case in this game as he shot 4 for 14 (1 for 6 from three) and did not attempt a free throw. If he is not more efficient moving forward, I'd expect his minutes could dwindle.
I'm always on the lookout for promising freshmen, and Wojciechowski definitely has one in 6' 7" forward Sam Hauser, who had 14 points and made four of his seven three-point attempts. Hauser is agile and skilled, which makes him really effective in pick-and-roll situations.
With this kind of depth, Marquette can turn up the defensive pressure and try to wear teams down in the second half the way they did against Vanderbilt. That is a pretty good template moving forward. Again, it's early, early, early, but on first glance, this looks like a tourney team to me.
No. 25 Maryland 62, American 56
Take a team that is heavily dependent on freshmen, put it in a season opener against a team that runs the Princeton offense, and you get the makings of a close-shave, throat-closing win. Give the Terps credit for pulling out a game they easily could have lost, but they only managed to do so because of their size advantage at all five positions. If they didn't out-rebound the Eagles 44–22 (with 19 of those offensive rebounds coming at the offensive end), then Mark Turgeon would have had a much different feeling when he woke up Saturday morning.
Maryland lost four starters from last year's Sweet 16 team, so it's understandable the Terps would look shaky. The lone returning starter is 6' 3" junior point guard Melo Trimble, but while Trimble did have 22 points and four assists in the win, it does not look to me like he corrected the outside shooting woes that plagued him last season. Trimble missed all four of his three-point attempts, but the greater concern is the number open threes he turned down, choosing instead to lower his shoulder and try to bulldog his way to the rim. If a shooter does not have confidence, then it makes no different what his technique is. Trimble doesn't need to be a prolific outside shooter, but if he isn't good enough to keep defenses honest, then that is going to be a major weakness by the time Big Ten play rolls around.
The win would have been more comfortable if Maryland's experienced players came to play, but that was not the case Friday night. Two starters, 6' 7" junior Jared Nickens and 6' 11" senior Damonte Dodd, combined for three points. Sophomore guard Dion Wiley, a reserve who missed all of last season with a knee injury, was 1 for 6 from the floor. Senior forward L.G. Gill is a much better offensive player in the post than Dodd, and he showed it with 11 points off the bench.
But really, the story for Maryland in this game was the play of the four freshmen. You wouldn't glean that from the box score, but in watching the game I saw each of them make plays that provide hope for the future. Kevin Huerter, a 6' 7" forward, only had six points, but both of his three-pointers came in the second half, including the biggest shot of the game with three minutes to play that gave Maryland the cushion it needed. (Think of him as a better version of Jake Layman.) Justin Jackson, a 6' 7" power forward, made a steal way in his backcourt, dribbled the entire length of the floor, changed directions and got fouled attempting a layup. That raised my eyebrows. Point guard Anthony Cowan committed a couple of careless turnovers but acquitted himself well by scoring 12 points in 27 minutes. All three of those guys were on the floor in the game's final minutes. Normally, a coach does that to prepare his young bucks for the future, but at Maryland, for one night anyway, the future is now.
No. 6 North Carolina 95, Tulane 75; North Carolina 97, Chattanooga 57
O.K., so the Heels crushed a Tulane squad was picked to finish at or near the bottom of the American Athletic Conference, and they caught a pretty good Chattanooga team at just the right time, two days after the Mocs scored an impressive win at Tennessee. That said, there were some very real signs from North Carolina that the drop-off from the team that came within a whisker of winning the national championship last year might not be as far as some of us thought. There is no doubt there are good players on this roster. The only question is how much the returnees improved from the end of last season.
The answer is, apparently, quite a bit—and that doesn't include 6' 6" junior forward Theo Pinson, who is out another couple of months because of a fractured right foot. Start with 6' 8" junior forward Justin Jackson. For two years, we have been waiting for him to show consistency and a well-rounded game, and he did just that over the weekend. In scoring a combined 37 points and making 6 of his 10 three-point shot attempts, Jackson looked comfortable catching and shooting as well as taking guys off the bounce. He looks like he is ready to assume the role of primary offensive option.
Ditto for 6' 9" senior forward Isaiah Hicks. Again, he's not anyone's second coming of Brice Johnson, but in the past Hicks has been a glue-guy spark off the bench. In the first two games, however, he showed newfound assertiveness in the paint while scoring 13 and 16 points, respectively. Also, I know that Marcus Paige gave this program four good years, but his shooting was very undependable at times. Now I like the backcourt combo of Nate Britt and Joel Berry. They appear to have really good chemistry and confidence. Britt is a natural point guard while Berry is a natural scorer, yet they are interchangeable depending on the circumstances.
Finally, while Roy Williams has not been able to recruit at the level of Duke, Kansas or Kentucky the last few years because of the school's ongoing NCAA investigation, he will bring three pretty good freshmen off the bench right. The best of the bunch is 6' 10" Florida native Tony Bradley. He had 22 points and 13 rebounds in the two games and shot 9 for 14 from the field. Bradley's offensive game is limited to around the rim, but it's not hard to see him as the potential next great frontcourt scorer at North Carolina. In the meantime, Bradley can bide his time and offer quality minutes when he has the chance. This team doesn't have overwhelming talent, but it has balance, depth and skill. Those things very much on display during these two easy wins.
No. 22 Creighton 89, UMKC 82
I went back and watched the second half of this game knowing nothing about it except the final score. I kept wondering if maybe I had that score wrong, because the Bluejays spent most of the second half riding a 20-plus-points advantage. Sure enough, their sloppiness with the ball, combined with the Kangaroos' feistiness and three-point touch, made things interesting over the final five minutes.
In this case, the man I wanted to see most was Marcus Foster, who transferred from Kansas State two years ago. Foster was pretty solid while scoring 19 points, although he has a little more paunch around the waist than I recalled. I was also wondering if 6' 3" sophomore Khyri Thomas might show improvement after a promising if inconsistent freshman season. He wasn't bad: 16 points on 5 for 7 shooting. Point guard Maurice Watson Jr., also had turnover issues last season so it was not entirely surprising to see him cough it up seven times. Overall, the Bluejays committed 17 turnovers. They clearly lost their concentration after building that huge lead, which could signal a lack of mental toughness.
However, while my interest was in the Bluejays' guards, I came away quite taken with the potential of their frontcourt tandem of Cole Huff and Justin Patton. Huff is a 6' 8" senior who played last season after transferring from Nevada. He is a strong inside player, but he also made 62 three-pointers. He only played 15 minutes against UMKC, but his ability to step away from the basket opens up a lot of space for Patton, a former five-star recruit out of high school who redshirted last season to build up his strength. He had 12 points, eight rebounds and two assists in his collegiate debut.
We'll know a lot more about Creighton after they host Wisconsin Monday night in Omaha. We know the Bluejays have a lot of skill and can score a lot of points. If they are really going to give Villanova and Xavier a run in the Big East, however, they are going to have to integrate some more toughness and defense into their DNA.