Hoop Thoughts: First five weeks of the season have been amazing

Monday December 19th, 2016

With about nine minutes to go in the second half of an epic, scintillating, head-on-a-swivel, time-capsule, mid-December college basketball game between two bluebloods teeming with elite talent performing at maximum capacity, CBS broadcaster Brad Nessler let loose a quip that beautifully fit the moment:

“If you’re just joining us,” Nessler said, “then shame on you.”

Nessler may have been talking about Kentucky and North Carolina, but he could also have been talking about this college basketball season. For too long, the sport has been saddled by a demeaning narrative that the games don’t matter until March—or at the very least, early January, when conference play gets underway. But Saturday’s remarkable slate of competitive, high-scoring affairs was the rule, not the exception. The first five weeks of the season have been amazing. So sorry if you’re just joining us.

Think about what has transpired. The very first night of games was capped by an incredible overtime win by Indiana over Kansas, played at a military base in Honolulu in honor of Veterans Day. The undercard was an equally bonkers two-point win by Arizona over Michigan State. A few days later, ESPN gave us a 24-hour marathon of hoops capped off by Kansas guard Frank Mason’s last-second bucket to beat Duke in Madison Square Garden.

Later came the conference challenges: The Big East and Big Ten locked horns in the Gavitt Games, highlighted by a dramatic Georgetown-Maryland tilt and a gritty three-point win by Villanova at Purdue. The ACC/Big Ten Challenge gave us three games between ranked teams on successive weekday nights, plus Michigan State losing at Duke. We had wacky upsets (Fort Wayne over Indiana, UT Arlington over Saint Mary’s), taut games played between intra-state rivals (Iowa-Iowa State, Wisconsin-Marquette, Florida-Florida State, Washington-Gonzaga) as well as those between former Big East brethren (Georgetown lost to UConn and won at Syracuse). UCLA gave us three compelling national televised wins over Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio State. And we still haven’t gotten to great games like Kentucky vs. Louisville, Kentucky vs. Kansas, Cincinnati vs. Xavier. And on and on.

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Everywhere you look, the best teams are facing the toughest challenges on the biggest stages. Just on Saturday alone, four Indiana teams—all ranked—gathered in a wonderful facility, Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and staged two terrific battles. Arizona almost coughed up a 22-point lead to Texas A&M in Houston but won. Memphis won a true road game at Oklahoma in a game featuring two long-in-the-tooth journeyman coaches, Lon Kruger and Tubby Smith. Bob Huggins won his 800th career game at West Virginia. Three days earlier Rollie Massimino—yes, that Rollie Massimino—earned his 800th career win, at Keiser University, an NAIA school in West Palm Beach, Fla.

If you’ve been thinking that college basketball is more entertaining than ever, then you are correct. Analytics guru Ken Pomeroy reports that teams playing on Saturday averaged 75.43 points per game. That is the highest single-day average since he began tracking college basketball statistics in the 1999-2000 season. It shattered the previous high for a December day by nearly two points per game.

There's something happening here.

Nobody could have imagined things would improve this quickly two summers ago, when the men’s basketball rules committee issued its most significant set of directives in decades. The changes—which included shortening the shot clock to 30 seconds, widening the arc under the basket, and clamping down on physical defense—have served as a tipping point, which has transformed college hoops from a slow, plodding physical grind to a buckets bonanza. It’s not just the new rules that have made this happen. It is the way that coaches have adapted. We've seen it happening in the NBA for several years, and it is finally coming to the college game. So coaches understand it's better to recruit more shooters and fewer bruisers—and then turn 'em loose.

The game has also benefited from consistent emphasis the men’s basketball committee has placed on nonconference strength of schedules when it comes to selecting and seeding the NCAA tournament. If this amounts to social engineering, then the results justify the means. It’s hard enough for college hoops to grab the public’s attention during football season. It would be next to impossible if the biggest brand names spent the first two months loading up on weak opponents because they knew they could make enough hay during conference play to get into the tournament. That’s why we have so many compelling games this time of year.

And contrary to yet another false narrative, many of the games in November and December have huge consequences for teams that could potentially be on the bubble. For example, Northwestern edged Dayton on Saturday by four points in Chicago. Northwestern, as we know, has never been to the tournament. If the Wildcats are on the bubble, they could find themselves competing for a spot with Dayton, in which case that head-to-head result will loom large. There are dozens such examples taking place this time of year.

People have long bemoaned that this sport needed a commissioner to strengthen the regular season, which always seems overshadowed by the specter of the NCAA tournament. Yet somehow, some way, college basketball has been putting its A game on display and gaining traction in a cluttered market. Whatever you want to say about college basketball, this sport is doing a terrific job of putting its best foot forward from the season's opening tip. The product has never been more watchable. The matchups have never been more compelling.

So don’t feel ashamed if you’re just joining us. Just pull up a chair and enjoy the show. Because I’ve got good news for you: The best is yet to come.

Other Hoop Thoughts

• My favorite stat from that Kentucky-North Carolina game wasn’t 47, which was Malik Monk’s points total. It was 19, which was the number of turnovers those teams committed combined. Amazing considering it was such a fast-paced game featuring a lot of freshmen.

• We talk a lot about UCLA’s freshmen, and we talk a lot about its scoring. We need to talk more about its experience. This is an old, mature team, and it was able to hold a plucky Ohio State team at bay without its starting center, 7’0” junior Thomas Welsh. And I love that sophomore guard Aaron Holiday, who started all last season, has embraced his role as sixth man. These guys went through a disastrous season last year. They’re tired of losing, and it shows.

Rich Barnes/Getty Images

• I’ve been pining for Syracuse to get sophomore forward Tyler Lydon more involved, so I was pleased that he scored a career-high 29 points against Georgetown on Saturday. Yet, Syracuse lost—in the Carrier Dome, no less—because the Hoyas got to the line for 25 free throws, and made 22 of them. They also shot 43 percent. That zone is not working right now, no question.

• I referenced Arizona’s win over Texas A&M above, but I really can’t say enough about the mental toughness of Sean Miller’s team. To go into Houston and knock off a quality Aggies team (remember, Texas A&M played UCLA tough in Anaheim before losing by seven) in a road environment without their starting point guard, and with only seven scholarship players and a freshman-dominated rotation … and still win the game? Sheesh.

• One good thing to come out of Sindarius Thornwell’s absence from the South Carolina lineup (he is indefinitely suspended for a rules violation but should return for league play) is that people are realizing how good P.J. Dozer is. In the three games without Thornwell, Dozier, a 6’6” sophomore guard, has averaged 21 points and shot 63 percent from the field. Last season, Dozier made a total of 10 three-pointers. He already has 14.

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• Pretty healthy stat line for Memphis sophomore forward Dedric Lawson in that win at Oklahoma: 26 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 2 steals. That’s a solid day’s work.

• On the flip side for Memphis, it was a real bummer seeing 6’11” senor forward Chad Rykhoek go down with a nasty dislocated ankle. Rykhoek is a graduate transfer from Baylor who has never played a college game because he had four hip surgeries. There was already talk that he might be able to get a sixth year of eligibility. Sure hope that happens.

• Speaking of Oklahoma, Sooners sophomore guard Christian James fouled out for the third time in just 10 games. Gotta have more discipline on the defensive end than that, young fella.

• Weird that Florida State junior guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes went from being a 77 percent free throw shooter last year to a 59 percent shooter this year. Meanwhile, the team’s 7’1” senior center, Michael Ojo, has gone from making 39 percent from the line as a junior to 75 percent this season. Don’t try to figure this stuff out, you’ll just get a headache.

• Couple of thoughts to pass along about Purdue, a team I’ve been increasingly praising the last couple of years. Besides the obvious—Biggie Swanigan is niiiiice—I loved that Matt Painter did not sit Swanigan for the remainder of the first half after he picked up his second foul with 12:48 left in the first half. Painter subbed Swanigan out but put him back in the game at the 8:26 mark. Notre Dame was threatening to blow the game open at that point, but Swanigan helped stabilize things. Too many coaches have a blanket policy to sit a guy for the half if he gets two fouls. Second, it was a great sign for the Boilermakers that junior forward Vince Edwards finally had a big game with 20 points off the bench. If he ever gets going, the Boilers could win the Big Ten. They’re that good.

• Rough loss for the Irish, but another inspired performance by junior point guard Matt Farrell (22 points, 10 assists, 2 turnovers). This is a great example of what it means to have a winning culture: Farrell sat for two years behind Demetrius Jackson, but he was ready for his opportunity to run the show. Next man up.

• Big week for Duke coming up as it appears freshman forward Harry Giles is finally going to suit up and play. He hasn’t played a competitive game in over a year, and he has had three knee surgeries, so it will be interesting to see what kind of shape he is in. Make no mistake, though, this kid is a major, major talent.

• I’ve been a little higher on Florida than a lot of people, but I’m starting to think that given where the game is headed, this team is not equipped to win big. The Gators can really guard (fifth in the U.S. in defensive efficiency), but they are a horrendous three-point shooting team. That’s a hard road to hoe in this ball screen, small ball, fast-paced age we live in.

• It might not have caught too many people’s attention, but Oklahoma State notched maybe the most impressive road victory of the weekend when it shredded a really good Wichita State defense in Charles Koch Arena. The Cowboys shot 53 percent (14 for 28 from three) and hung 93 points on one of the toughest defenses in the country. First-year coach Brad Underwood has really cranked things up. Oklahoma State plays at a break-neck pace that is perfectly tailored for its best two players, guards Juwan Evans and Jeffrey Carroll.

• By the way, count me among those who think that leaving the Missouri Valley Conference would be a stupid move for Wichita State. Like, New Coke stupid.

• Dunno how closely you followed the Carlton Bragg situation at Kansas, but after being suspended following an incident with a girlfriend, and having his mug shot boomerang all over the Internet, it’s now apparent that Bragg was falsely accused. Bill Self handled it as well as could be expected, and did the right thing by reinstating him. This has been a traumatic event for all involved, but it serves as a healthy reminder that we are supposed to give everyone—everyone—a presumption of innocence in this country. Let’s all try to remember that going forward.

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• We had to hang on until the season’s 10th game to see the debut of N.C. State freshman center Omar Yurtseven, but it was worth the wait. The 7’0” center was ineligible until now because of his contract with his club in his native Turkey, but he was as impressive as advertised. He had 12 points and made his only three-point attempt in 24 minutes during a win over Appalachian State, and he had 12 points, six rebounds and three assists during Sunday’s win over Fairfield. This kid once scored 91 points in a Turkish league game so you know he is capable of filling it up.

• How about Louisville's next four games: Wednesday at home vs. Kentucky, Dec. 28 at home vs. Virginia, New Year’s Eve day against Indiana in Indianapolis, and Jan. 4 at Notre Dame in the ACC opener. We’re about to find out a lot about these Cardinals, one way or the other.

Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

• Wisconsin sophomore forward Ethan Happ, who is in the running for Big Ten player of the year, made the first two buckets outside the paint of his college career last Wednesday in a home win over Green Bay. Just making sure you knew.

• So Northeastern has now won road games at UConn and Michigan State, huh? Might remember that come bracket-filling-out time.

• And it’s safe to say Michigan State can’t get Miles Bridges back fast enough. The stud frosh has missed the last four games with an ankle injury. They’re hoping he’ll get back by early January at the latest.

• There’s nothing better than winning an NCAA championship, but I’d bet for Villanova’s senior trio of Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds, going 16-0 against the Philly Big Five schools the last four years has to be a pretty close second.

• Everybody stop saying this is Mark Few’s best team at Gonzaga. We hear that every year during this time. This is just another really good team in a long line of really good teams at a really good program.

• Better put UT-Arlington on your list of bracket busters as well. The Mavericks have now won eight straight, including road wins at Texas and Saint Mary’s—by 15 points, no less. UTA also won 24 games last season. I’m thinking coach Scott Cross’ phone is gonna be ringing quite a bit next spring.

• Auburn made some rare basketball news last week when it added a highly-regarded high school senior, 6’11” forward Austin Wiley, to its roster. Wiley had already committed to Auburn, but he was able to finish up his coursework at his Florida prep school to be eligible to compete right away. Wiley is a big-time recruit; Rivals.com ranks him No. 16 overall in the Class of 2017. He had nine points and three rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench against Mercer on Sunday.

• Likewise, Utah benefited from two major additions last week when a pair of mid-semester transfers became eligible. Junior forward David Collette, a 6’8” transfer from Utah State, had 11 points and nine rebounds in a win over Prairie View A&M. Sophomore guard Sedrick Barefield, who transferred from SMU, had 18 points off the bench. Pretty nice to add two quality starters in mid-December.

• As for Saint Mary’s, it’s not a huge concern that it lost that game. Stuff happens. But I am a little stumped as to why a team that ranks eighth in the country in offensive efficiency, per KemPom, is also 350th in tempo. If you’re that good at scoring, wouldn’t you want to play at a fast pace?

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• I don’t know about you, but I’m kinda glad the Monmouth bench is no longer a thing.

• Spent some time last week watching video of Cal sophomore forward Ivan Rabb, and I have to say I was underwhelmed. He missed the first two games of the season with a sprained toe and has put up some good numbers against weak competition, but I’m not seeing a whole lot of energy and explosiveness in his game. Nor does it seem like his skills are improved over last season.

·      Here’s something you don’t see every day: West Virginia ranks second in the country in scoring at 90.4 points per game, yet the Mountaineers only have two players averaging in double figures, and none scoring more than 13 points per game.

• Oregon’s Dillon Brooks got his first start of the season on Saturday, and he responded with his best game of the season, scoring 20 points (16 in the second half) in a home win over UNLV. Brooks missed the first three games while he was recovering from off-season foot surgery, and he has not quite regained his All-America form. Brooks got the start because 6’10” senior forward Chris Boucher sat out with a minor ankle injury.

• USC hasn’t played exactly the toughest schedule, but the Trojans are off to their best start since 1971 with a 10-0 record. Remember, they are playing without Bennie Boatright, a 6’10” sophomore forward who has been a regular starter but is out with a sprained knee.

• Northwestern got that big W over Dayton, but man, the Wildcats didn’t make it easy! They almost blew a 40-17 halftime lead before surviving to win by three.

• Missouri has lost at home this season to NC Central and Eastern Illinois. I’ll leave that one there.

• I love that Frank Martin and Orlando Antigua, who represent two-thirds of the Latino coaches in Division I men’s basketball, have set up an annual game against each other. On Saturday, Martin’s South Carolina squad beat Antigua’s South Florida team, 77-66.

• I also appreciate that Baylor coach Scott Drew took his team back to Fort Hood to honor and entertain military personnel as well as family members of troops currently deployed overseas. College basketball has really embraced the whole honor-the-military thing. One of the many reasons this sport is awesome.

Four Games I'm Psyched to See this Week

Creighton at Arizona State, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2

Arizona State is pretty bad, but then again, so is Oral Roberts and the Bluejays were lucky to win that game on Saturday. Plus, this will be their first road game of the season. They had better be ready. Creighton 78, Arizona State 66

Kentucky at Louisville, Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN

On the one hand, I can’t imagine Kentucky has anything left in the tank. On the other hand, I know Louisville likes to play fast, and I can’t imagine the Cardinals scoring enough points to keep up with the Wildcats. Louisville is athletic, but not real skilled, and that flaw will get exposed. Kentucky 90, Louisville 85

Clemson at South Carolina, Wednesday, 9 p.m.

I’m always up for a good in-state rivalry. If this game were in Clemson, I’d go with the Tigers, but it’s not, so I’m not. South Carolina 74, Clemson 67

Virginia at Cal, Wednesday, 10 p.m., ESPN2

Cal had a golden opportunity to win in Charlottesville last year but the Bears blew it down the stretch. They won’t fumble their chance at home. Cal 55, Virginia 51

This Week's AP Ballot

* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)

1.        Villanova (1)
2.        Kansas (2)
3.        Duke (3)
4.        UCLA (4)
5.        Kentucky (6)
6.        North Carolina (5)
7.        Baylor (7)
8.        Gonzaga (8)
9.        Louisville (10)
10.     Purdue (11)
11.     Creighton (12)
12.     Wisconsin (13)
13.     West Virginia (14)
14.     Butler (20)
15.     Indiana (9)
16.     Notre Dame (21)
17.     Xavier (15)
18.     Cincinnati (16)
19.     Virginia (17)
20.     Arizona (18)
21.     Saint Mary’s (23)
22.     Seton Hall (NR)
23.     South Carolina (19)
24.     Oklahoma State (NR)
25.     Valparaiso (22)
Dropped out: Wichita State (24), Florida (25)

It may have felt like a really busy weekend because of the headline games, but if you dig deeper there were actually a lot of mismatches. Most teams preferred to ease their way into finals week. So even though that Kentucky-North Carolina tilt felt like an earthquake, the only ramification on my ballot was my decision to swap them at Nos. 5 and 6. It may be hard to imagine watching that game that there are four teams better than those two, but remember, Kentucky did lose at home to UCLA. And though my fellow AP voters installed Baylor at No. 4 last week, I see the Bears as more of a top-of-the-second-tier type of team. The top six teams are pretty solid in my mind.

Butler was the biggest mover thanks to its win over Indiana. That was the Bulldogs' third quality win of the season—four if you count their two-point squeaker over Northwestern. Not only did the Bulldogs beat the Hoosiers, but also they handled Cincinnati at home pretty well on Wednesday. That validated my decision only to punish them mildly last week following their one-point loss at Indiana State.

South Carolina is not an easy team to rank because it is playing without its leading scorer, Sindarius Thornwell, who should be back pretty soon. My decision to bring Seton Hall back into the poll is as much a reflection of my high opinion of the Pirates. Their two losses came on neutral courts to Florida and Stanford, but they also have a road win at Iowa, a neutral court win over Cal, and a semi-home win over South Carolina. Not bad.

Oklahoma State makes its first appearance on the heels of that decisive win at Wichita State. I came close to installing Oregon as well—the Ducks have won eight in a row against some decent competition—but I just ran out of room. It’s also too bad Middle Tennessee couldn’t pull it out at VCU, because if it had I definitely would have ranked the Blue Raiders. Maybe down the road that will still happen.

Other teams I considered were USC, which opens Pac-12 play in two weeks at Oregon State and Oregon; Virginia Tech, whose only loss came on a neutral court to Texas A&M; Florida State, which has won seven in a row, including that big win last week over Florida in Tallahassee; and Monmouth, whose road win at Memphis looked even better when the Tigers went into Norman and knocked off Oklahoma. Conference play is just around the corner, so there will be no more feasting on home cooking. It’s almost time to find out who’s real and who’s just fronting.

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