- After two close games to start the season, what should we expect from the Wildcats this season? Plus more thoughts on the start of college basketball's season.
Over a largely ho-hum, headline-less opening weekend, college basketball had two of those games that inspire those hey-you-might-want-to-check-this-out tweets and texts, the kind that alert the uninitiated that something worthwhile and dramatic might be in development. (“Hey, Peter” games, in other words.) Both teased the same potential cause for excitement: vaunted Kentucky losing at home to a mid-major.
First up on Friday was Utah Valley, coached by former Wildcat Mark Pope—a forward on the ’96 Untouchables national title team—and fresh off a 6–8 finish in the WAC. On the back of a 16–2 run, the Wolverines took a nine-point lead into halftime...only for Kentucky to bury them under a flurry of turnovers and fast breaks, pulling away for a 10-point win.
On Sunday the Wildcats hosted Vermont, the experienced America East favorite who was playing its first game of the season. Kentucky led by 12 at the break but this time saw its lead erode in the final 10 minutes, with the Catamounts eventually getting to within three points with 3:32 to play. The margin was the same entering the game’s last minute, where Vermont actually got two chances to tie it in the final eight seconds, only to miss both, allowing the Wildcats to survive.
So what do we know about Kentucky now? Should struggling against two mid-majors at Rupp be cause for concern? Should ultimately putting them away be seen as encouraging? Are the Wildcats too young? Will their lack of shooters doom them? Are these warning signs? Are they in for a rude awakening on Tuesday against Kansas, or in late December, or in SEC play? Is Kentucky as good as expected, or—gulp—overrated?
The truth is as obvious as it is simple: Who knows?
Sure, if the Wildcats had lost one or both of those games, alarms would have sounded across Big Blue Nation, and cheers of Schadenfreude would have gone up around the country. And there were elements of their wins that seem to offer insight into how this team might excel: the potentially unmatchable explosiveness of its transition game, the effectiveness of its stretches of zone defense. But the clearest takeaway thus far on perhaps the most intriguing and unpredictable high-profile team in the country is that they are just what we expected: a work in progress.
“Part of this early is going to be about survival,” Calipari told reporters on Friday. So far, so good. The other part of it is going to be figuring out just how they play; Calipari has said the goal is to be “random”, and after Sunday’s win, when wondering aloud who his go-to player might be, Calipari said, “If you know, write me a note.”
While Kentucky might be a rather extreme case given its extreme youth (a rotation of six freshmen and two sophomores who were bit players last season) and the rather extreme scrutiny under which it perpetually exists (see: this column), its case can be a helpful reminder that early games offer an idea of starting points, not end points. These are young players growing into their games and teams attempting to congeal on the fly, often with a substantial turnover of personnel. Who we see now might not be who we see in March. It might not even be who we see in December.
Which brings us to Tuesday’s Champions Classic. Kentucky will play Kansas in a meeting of bluebloods currently ranked in the top five in the polls. Here we will find out some things about the Wildcats—glimpses into how their strengths and weaknesses translate to a marquee, neutral-floor matchup with an elite opponent. But with a team so young, with so much left still to learn about itself (did Calipari end up getting that note?), we won’t really be getting answers for a while. At some point, we’ll know whether this weekend’s games were warning signs or opportunities for growth. Until then, we’ll be figuring teams out as they are.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, you likely missed last week’s column or errantly clicked the wrong link. In the case of the former, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s new weekly Monday-morning column on college hoops. It’ll be sort of a grab-bag of news and tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to chat and maybe share a good recipe or two, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
As the scandal turns...
While no new bombshells have been dropped in the ongoing FBI probe into college basketball recruiting, last week did offer a few bits of news that could prove to be a bigger deal down the line. For one, eight of the 10 men arrested in the sting were indicted. There was also the revelation that, according to the federal indictment, now-former Louisville coach Rick Pitino knew about the scheme to pay guard Brian Bowen to play for the Cardinals. USC guard De’Anthony Melton was held out of the team’s opener due to eligibility concerns stemming from the investigation into indicted former Trojans assistant Tony Bland. And the state of Alabama briefly took center stage in the scandal, as Collin Sexton was suspended for one game and ESPN reported that Auburn could fire coach Bruce Pearl for his refusal to cooperate with their internal investigation.
What might be of the greatest import is that two of the men arrested in the probe were not indicted along with the others last week and reportedly are no longer referred to by name in the indictments at all. Those two are Brad Augustine, the former head of the Adidas-backed 1-Family youth basketball program, and financial planner Munish Sood. Reasonable speculation points to those two possibly cooperating with investigators in order to reduce their own punishment. If that includes providing information on further targets of the probe, those who engaged in similar schemes with Augustine and/or Sood are likely sweating right now. And we may soon find out who, if anyone, that is.
On the court, the team most directly impacted by the investigation thus far—Louisville, which fired its coach and suspended a key freshman—needed a late rally to put away George Mason at home in its opener on Sunday. “I was anxious,” David Padgett, Pitino's 32-year-old assistant-turned-replacement, told reporters after. “I think our guys had some nerves too. I’m glad it’s out of the way now.”
If you didn’t catch any college basketball during its opening weekend, you really missed, uh ... well, there were some games. Always nice to have games to watch. Some of them were pretty fun. And if you’re a fan of a certain team, you probably got to see them play, so that’s nice.
Other than that, it was another quiet, under-the-radar opening weekend. There are few deader horses in college hoops circles than decrying the lackluster way the season tips off, but every time it comes around again, barely registering in the larger American sports landscape, it’s hard not to bring it up again. And it may be especially so this year. If you ask the average casual sports fan what’s going on in college basketball, what are the odds they bring up anything to do with the games themselves rather than the FBI investigation and its fallout? And the latter wouldn’t be wrong. It’s easy to see why the off-court issues would be juicier and more intriguing than a forgettable slate of games that will have little impact on anything come March.
The case for a stronger opening weekend is obvious and easy. Who wouldn’t want to see more marquee matchups between ranked teams or ESPN to revive the 24-hour marathon (which died a quiet death this year), or for there to be some high-profile interconference challenge? It’s hard to know how much that would really change things, and how much room there would be within the given sports news cycle—with football dominating Saturday through Monday, and Thursday too—to put on anything better than the existing Champions Classic. But it sure wouldn’t hurt to try.
Each week, we’ll be highlighting five teams on the rise. Here’s who stood out over the opening weekend.
1. Texas A&M: This weekend’s most impressive win came at a military base in Germany, where the shorthanded Aggies—without star forward Robert Williams and point guard J.J. Caldwell—not only survived West Virginia’s press but turned an early 13-point deficit into a 33-point win against the nation’s No. 11 team. Tyler Davis (who shot 10-for-12) and Admon Gilder each scored 23 points. That’s how you kick things off with a statement.
2. Indiana State: Larry Bird did not walk through that door, but the Sycamores handed Indiana its first season-opening loss at Assembly Hall since 1984. Kenpom.com gave Indiana State just a 9% chance of the upset. So how’d they do it? Making 17 of 26 threes sure helped. With the Hoosiers making just four of 18, that meant three-point shooting gave State a 39-point advantage in their 21-point win.
3. Missouri: Fans who tuned in (or packed Mizzou Arena) on Friday night eager to see Michael Porter Jr.’s debut may have been disappointed to see the all-everything freshman on the bench for all but the game’s first two minutes, due to a balky hip. But junior Kevin Puryear’s 17 points and eight rebounds in his stead helped the Tigers earn a quality win even without their star, beginning the Cuonzo Martin era on the right note.
4. UC-Riverside: Coming off an 8–21 season, the Highlanders hadn’t beaten a power-conference team since knocking off Washington State in 2011. While the Cal team they beat on Friday is projected to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12, Riverside’s 74–66 road win will likely be one of the best by a Big West team this year.
5. Georgia Southern: A home loss to a Sun Belt team is not the way Danny Manning wanted to start Year 4 in Winston-Salem. But there were some happy faces in town, as Eagles guard Mike Hughes is a Winston-Salem native and nearly played the hero on a late three-point try that rimmed out. Instead, teammate Ike Smith was fouled on the put-back and sank the winning free throws.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Yuta Watanabe, George Washington guard
The 6' 8" Japan native did a little of everything in the Colonials’ season-opening win over Howard, putting up 19 points (on 72.7% shooting), 11 rebounds, seven (!) blocks and three assists ... all while using just 14.6% of his team’s possessions. Pretty efficient night for a guy who should be using much more in most games.
Junior: Geno Crandall, North Dakota guard
Crandall had just four points at halftime of the Fighting Hawks’ opener, then apparently downed a jug of Michael’s Secret Stuff. He scored 37 points—including 22 in a row—after halftime for a total of 41 (on 78.9% shooting, including 7-for-9 from three) and sealed an 83-80 win over Troy with a trio of free throws in the final seconds.
Sophomore: Jon Axel Gudmundsson, Davidson guard
Gudmundsson narrowly missed what likely would have been the first-ever D-I triple double by a player born in Iceland, registering 24 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in the Wildcats’ blowout win over Charleston Southern.
Freshman: Brandon McCoy, UNLV forward
The Runnin’ Rebels’ most prized recruit didn’t take long to make his impact felt, with game-highs of 25 points and 18 rebounds in UNLV’s 42-point win over Florida A&M. The most impressive part: he did it all in just 23 minutes. It’s early, but the excitement around McCoy looks justified so far.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Arizona guard Allonzo Trier, the Pac-12’s preseason player of the year, who averaged 31.0 points over two wins this weekend. So, Allonzo, tell us about the best...
...place to eat back home. “I’d say Ivar’s. It’s a big-time place. Big on seafood back home. There’s great fish and chips, great clam chowder. It’s a Pacific Northwest thing.”
...show to binge-watch. “Stranger Things is a great one. I haven’t had time to binge-watch the second season, but I did the first one. I finished the first episode [of Season 2] but I’ve been kind of busy with practice and school lately so I haven’t had a chance to get back. Eleven is my favorite [character]. It’s cool what she does for the show, and it’s always kinda scary when she does that thing where her nose starts to bleed. But I think she’s cool, especially when she gets around the boys.”
...month of the year. “For me it would be probably March. You’ve got the Pac-12 tournament, you’re starting the NCAA tournament, wrapping up the season but getting into the best part of the year as a college basketball player. It’s just an exciting time. And it’s starting to get warm again before summer.”
Social Media Post of the Week
Champions Classic, Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Picking between these two games would be difficult and picking any others would be dishonest. First up are Duke and Michigan State. The Blue Devils look scary as advertised so far, with Marvin Bagley III averaging 24.5 points and 10 rebounds through two games and Grayson Allen getting his groove back to the tune of 20.0 points and 10-for-15 three-point shooting. And for the Spartans, freshman Jaren Jackson (13 points, 13 boards vs. North Florida) might open some eyes alongside Miles Bridges Tuesday night.
In the second game, between Kansas and Kentucky, watch to see who establishes control of the game’s rhythm. Bill Self said his team was playing too slowly through their exhibition games, while the Wildcats most excelled this weekend when pushing the ball up the floor. If the Jayhawks want to play fast, Kentucky will likely be happy to oblige.
Before You’re Dismissed...
• According to ESPN’s Arash Markazi, the three UCLA players arrested for shoplifting in China—LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley—are expected to remain in Hangzhou for “a week or two.” For a legal breakdown of the situation, check out this piece from SI’s legal expert Michael McCann.
• Between that and Georgia Tech’s suspension of Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson for accepting impermissible benefits, that UCLA-Tech game in China sure turned out to be quite a showcase for American college hoops.
• Speaking of bad looks, here’s a troubling story on New Mexico coach Paul Weir’s alleged advice to players about reporting potential concussions and head injuries. Weir reportedly told his players that he was going to “fight” the school’s 10-day sit-out policy for players diagnosed with concussions and warned them to consider said policy before reporting concerns to trainers. Weir defended himself to NMFishbowl.com by alleging players had used the policy to avoid conditioning in the past and that he wanted “to remind [players] to think very carefully before they describe their feelings to medical personnel.” That seems to imply a chilling effect was intended. Players shouldn’t be encouraged to second-guess themselves before seeking medical attention.
• He only played 17 minutes, but Wichita State had to like what it saw from sophomore guard Landry Shamet—17 points on 5-of-7 shooting, including 4-of-5 from three—as he works his way back from surgery to repair a broken foot this summer.
• This week’s laughable NCAA ruling comes from Houston, where guard Rob Gray was suspended one game for...playing in a church league game over the summer, for which coach Kelvin Sampson says Gray’s friend paid his $5 entry fee. Thank goodness someone is protecting the sanctity of this sport.
• Rough news for Ivy League contender Yale, who NBC reports will be without guard Makai Mason for up to two months due to a stress fracture in his foot and also lost freshman forward Jordan Bruner for the season to a torn meniscus.
• There’s an ugly situation developing at Creighton, where the Omaha World-Herald reports two employees of the school’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Center were placed “under review” for publicly criticizing basketball coach Greg McDermott for the “selfish and reckless” act of presenting an NCAA tournament ring to former guard Mo Watson and posting photos of him doing so on Twitter. Watson was arrested on charges of first-degree sexual assault for an alleged rape at a party last February; charges were dropped this summer, but Watson plead no contest to misdemeanor assault for touching the inner thigh of another woman at the same party. The two employees, Lauren Ward and Meredith Lierk, published a letter in the school’s online student newspaper admonishing McDermott. A university spokesman told the World-Herald that Ward and Lierk should have approached McDermott directly.
• Arizona fans should check out this roundtable of former Wildcats Steve Kerr, Bruce Fraser, Craig McMillan and Tom Tolbert reminiscing about their time in Tucson. As for the current Wildcats, it looks like the combo of Trier and Deandre Ayton should be as enjoyable to watch as we’d hoped. Check out this Ayton alley-oop to boot.
• Not sure how to end these just yet. But if you’re looking for something to watch besides college basketball this week, go see Lady Bird.