- We're about to see what these eight teams with spotless records one month into the season are really made of.
There were a number of reasons then-No. 11 Cincinnati lost convincingly to No. 21 Xavier on Saturday. For one, the Musketeers are very good, especially when Trevon Bluiett is in All-America form, and they generally played very well. The Bearcats were also in hostile territory in front of a frothing crowd in a bitter rivalry game (more on that in a second), and they could hardly knock down an outside shot or find any complementary offense outside of their four primary scorers, and they got pushed around on the offensive glass. Basketball games are complicated puzzles with a lot going on. It’s rarely ever just one thing.
But it’s also worth noting that Xavier might have just been more ready, not from a coaching or game-study perspective but when it comes to recent experience. Coaches often describe how non-conference schedules prepare them for league play, or league play prepares them for the postseason, and so on. Looking at the teams’ previous opponents through that prism, a disparity emerges. Undefeated Cincinnati’s only remotely notable wins were against Wyoming and Buffalo in the Cayman Islands. Xavier, meanwhile, was coming off a home win against No. 16 Baylor after a neutral-site loss to surging No. 20 Arizona State, which came a week after a never-a-pleasure trip to Wisconsin. In order words, we knew Xavier’s talent and expected success could be measured within the context of similar-caliber competition. For Cincinnati—a talented team nonetheless—the same could not really be said.
With the ranks of college basketball’s undefeated steadily shrinking (after Syracuse’s loss on Saturday, it now stands at 13), it’s worth examining whether some other lossless teams have yet to be truly tested, and when we can expect them to be. A few candidates are rather easily dismissed: Duke has already beaten Michigan State and Florida, Miami knocked off Minnesota, Arizona State beat Xavier, Texas A&M won at USC and Kansas had to deal with Kentucky (although the Wildcats’ youth and relative struggles may recast that win a bit in time).
That leaves eight teams with perfect marks that we’re looking forward to seeing tested a bit more. Here’s a quick look at each of their early-season resumes and the first game that might offer a better measuring stick:
Best wins: vs. Tennessee and Northern Iowa in the Bahamas
Next test: vs. Gonzaga (in New York), Tuesday
Okay, we’re cheating a little off the bat. Those wins over Thanksgiving weekend are nothing to sneeze at. But a true test for a team this good is probably a step above those. By now we were hoping to have seen the Wildcats play Arizona and/or Purdue, who were both in the same Atlantis tournament bracket but dropped early games to fall out of Villanova’s path. The good news is we won’t have to wait long to see Villanova play another top-notch opponent, as this week it faces a Gonzaga team whose only loss was in double-OT on a neutral floor to Florida, a potential Final Four contender. The Bulldogs just handled Creighton, another strong offense from the Big East, and are among the more proven teams thus far. This one should be fun.
Best wins: vs. Rhode Island (in Brooklyn), vs. Wisconsin
Next test: at West Virginia, Tuesday
Hooray, another short wait. On the same night Villanova meets Gonzaga, Tony Bennett’s pack-lining Cavaliers travel to face Press Virginia. As Bob Huggins’s team has burnished its brand-name-defense credentials, this series has become a fun contrast in styles and tempo, as the Mountaineers’ relentless pressure tries to disrupt the Cavaliers' steady, methodical attack.
How the Cavaliers handle Jevon Carter and company should lend insight into how well their impressive early run will foretell success after the calendar turns.
Best wins: vs. St. Bonaventure (in Florida), vs. Belmont
Next test: vs. SMU, Tuesday
I’m sensing a trend; Tuesday is gonna be a pretty interesting night of basketball, huh? Jamie Dixon has transformed his alma mater into a program worth taking seriously in just his second season, but the Horned Frogs’ best win so far was against an Atlantic 10 team missing its best player. The Mustangs will try to lull them into a lower-possession game than those to which they’ve become accustomed (SMU averages the 10th-longest offensive possessions nationally) and feature the most difficult-to-defend player TCU has seen so far in forward Shake Milton. But the Frogs, so far the nation’s best defensive rebounding team, will have a size advantage that should bode well for 6' 11" forward Vladimir Brodziansky.
Best wins: vs. Rhode Island, vs. Davidson
Next test: at Texas Tech, Tuesday
Listen, if you’ve got plans this Tuesday, cancel them. This whole week is a challenge for the Wolf Pack, which follows its visit to Lubbock with a game against TCU in Los Angeles. No one has any kind of season-long undefeated watch going on for the Mountain West favorites, but regardless of what kind of record Nevada has come next Monday, it will have endured its best preparation yet for the defense of its conference crown. Two things to watch: whether the Wolf Pack can continue to take care of the ball against the turnover-forcing Red Raiders (ninth nationally in steal percentage) and how they fare on the offensive glass against TCU in a matchup of Nevada’s weakness against the Horned Frogs’ strength.
Florida State (6–0)
Best wins: at Rutgers, vs. Colorado State (in Jamaica)
Next test: at Florida, Monday
The Seminoles ended a four-year NCAA tournament drought as a No. 3 seed last season, but their 6-0 start—during which only Rutgers has finished within 17 points —hasn’t come against anybody likely to be playing in the Big Dance come March. The Gators, meanwhile, look like a team that might play deep into that month or beyond, featuring a trio of scoring guards that can give even the best defenses fits. They’ll serve as Florida State’s first taste of what a grueling ACC slate will offer.
Mississippi State (7–0)
Best wins: vs. Dayton, vs. Jacksonville State
Next test: at Cincinnati, Dec. 12
A fairly light early schedule can be a worthwhile confidence-booster for a team as young as Ben Howland’s Bulldogs—according to Kenpom.com, they rank 330th nationally in weighted experience—as it allows players to get up to speed and work out kinks without truly being thrown into the fire. But playing mid-majors (and Dayton, if they’re not quite that) on campus until mid-December and then traveling to Cincinnati might feel like jumping into flames from a swimming pool. With how strong the SEC looks this season, they’ll need it.
Best wins: at Richmond, vs. Mount St. Mary’s
Next test: vs. Syracuse, Dec. 16
Speaking of easing into the college basketball experience, rookie Hoyas coach Patrick Ewing only has his team leaving D.C. once before Big East play and facing just two teams SI projects to be among the country’s top 250 (Syracuse at 65, and Richmond at 145). The game against the Orange will be a fun rivalry game and the only chance Georgetown’s schedule affords to learn how it might fare when conference play starts.
Best wins: vs. Utah State, vs. UNC-Wilmington (in Georgia)
Next test: at Purdue, Thursday
The Crusaders feel like an odd inclusion here. They’re not trying to fool anybody by munching on cupcakes; they’re a good team taking care of business in a fine mid-major non-conference schedule. But among their top Missouri Valley competition, Northern Iowa (vs. UNLV and SMU) and Missouri State (at Western Kentucky and South Dakota State) have already claimed some noteworthy early-season pelts. This week’s trip to Purdue and next week’s to Northwestern will give Valpo a chance to one-up them.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Monday-morning column on college hoops. It’s a sort of 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 exchange orchid care tips, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
Six years ago, the storied Crosstown Shootout rivalry game between Xavier and Cincinnati—schools separated by less than four miles—authored one of its ugliest chapters, when a brawl worthy of its own Wikipedia entry broke out in the final seconds. That prompted the programs to move the game off campus for the next two years in order to de-escalate the hostilities in a more neutral environment. The game returned to campus locations for the 2014–15 season, and the three subsequent on-campus games went off without incident.
Then came Saturday. After the Musketeers beat the Bearcats from start to finish, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin confronted Xavier senior J.P. Macura and had to be restrained and removed from the court. In his postgame press conference, Cronin did not apologize for his actions and explained he’d “never had a kid tell me to ‘F off’ three times before,” adding that the player who did so—assumed to be Macura—“wouldn’t play for me.” In his own words to the media, Xavier coach Chris Mack said there was “a reason [Cincinnati’s] coach was issued a technical in the game” and that there are “two sides” to the story. Mack also said that former Bearcats guard Lance Stephenson had cursed at him during a meeting between the teams when Stephenson played for Cronin, and that after the game he shook his hand.
It’s easy to hold up this incident as evidence of the rivalry’s intensity and entertainment value; it’s also difficult to deny that it illustrates as much, or that the unvarnished hostility adds an element of intrigue for viewers. But when it comes to bad blood there can be a fine line between compelling and eye-roll-inducing theater, and one good indicator of it being crossed is whether an adult on a multi-million dollar salary physically confronts a college kid. Whatever Macura may have said, Cronin has to handle it better than he did, especially as a coach who forced his players to remove their jerseys in the locker room after the 2011 fight because they did not appreciate the status that representing their university conferred them. This year he should direct his reprimands at the mirror.
As the scandal turns...
The Los Angeles Times had an interesting scoop related to the FBI investigation saga this week, as Nathan Fenno reported that hotel security footage disputes some specifics of the government’s criminal complaint involving USC. The footage shows an undercover FBI agent meeting with financial advisor Munish Sood and aspiring agent Christian Dawkins (both arrested in connection with the bribery conspiracy) and “a close family friend” of Trojans guard De’Anthony Melton. As Fenno writes:
“The video and the criminal complaint in the case differ on one main point: The complaint said that the undercover agent provided Dawkins an envelope containing $5,000 to give to the family friend at [USC assistant coach Tony] Bland’s direction, and that the friend received the money. The video—clear, in color, stamped with the Aug. 31 date and time across the top, but without sound—shows Dawkins receiving the money and leaving with it. The complaint also states that the money was provided to Dawkins before the meeting, but the video shows the undercover agent brought an envelope to the meeting.”
Melton has been suspended through the Trojans’ first six games as USC sorts out his eligibility situation, which has included Melton turning over his bank and cell phone records to the school. The video evidence would seem to boost Melton’s chances of being cleared to play, but until USC knows it will not have to forfeit games in which he participates, it’s likely the team errs on the side of caution. In the meantime, the video potentially offers the first hole poked in the government’s case. Considering the skepticism some have of its legal footing to begin with, if there are further such inconsistencies, things may not be as airtight as they were first presented.
Elsewhere in the scandal landscape, SI legal analyst Michael McCann has a detailed examination of former Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s breach of contract lawsuit against the school, which was filed Thursday. “The odds probably weigh against him,” McCann writes.
Each week, we’ll be highlighting five teams on the rise. Here’s who stood out over the past week.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans’ impressive 18-point handling of Notre Dame on Thursday was its second straight win by that margin over a top-10 team—and both of those came with freshman forward and top-10 recruit Jaren Jackson contributing little offensively. As he continues to develop, watch out.
2. Miami: The Hurricanes’ five-point win at Minnesota last week was a high-quality win by any measure, but what was especially encouraging for Miami was the offense emerging sophomore big man Dewan Huell (23 points) provided against the Gophers’ formidable front line.
3. Wichita State: The Shockers knocked off Baylor in Waco, which no one outside the Big 12 had been able to do since Northwestern did it in December 2012. Gregg Marshall’s team gets another test on a Big 12 court this week when it visits Oklahoma State.
4. Purdue: A week after a rough trip to the Bahamas on which they went 1-2, the Boilermakers bounced back with strong wins over Louisville and Maryland. Senior Dakota Mathias has been so good from three that his 7-for-14 shooting week actually lowered his season percentage from deep to 55.1%.
5. Seton Hall: The Pirates dipped out of the AP poll after losing to Rhode Island on Thanksgiving, but beating two ranked teams this week—first Texas Tech at Madison Square Garden, then Louisville on the road—should get them back in the Top 25.
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 Minnesota forward Jordan Murphy, who has posted nine double-doubles in nine games to average 21.0 points and 12.9 rebounds for the 8–1 Golden Gophers. So, Jordan, tell us about the best...
...animal at the zoo. “I would have to say the monkeys. I really find great entertainment in watching monkeys play around and interact with people that come near their exhibit. I’ve been twice to Minnesota’s zoo. I go to the San Antonio Zoo quite often though when I go home. I’m a big chimpanzee fan. I like how intelligent they really are and how they can portray emotion. They smile with you, they do funny stuff. I think that’s pretty cool.”
...way to pass time on road trips. “Read a comic book. I’m a big superhero guy. Spider-Man is my favorite. I just like his charisma. He talks trash while he’s crime-fighting. I think that’s one of the funniest and coolest things. Since I was a little kid I’ve always been fascinated with the movies. I try to read at least a series [of comic books] every road trip, so I’ll probably read like 10 maybe in a month. I really like the Avengers comic books, just the whole group in general. They have some really interesting storylines.”
...decoration in your room. “It’s most definitely my poster of the whole Marvel Universe. It just has a bunch of superheroes on it, as far as the eyes can see. I got it earlier this year. I went to Hobby Lobby and I found it and I just knew I had to get it. I have two posters; I have a Batman and Joker one on the other wall. I’ve only got those two.”
Top of the Classes
Senior: Desi Rodriguez, Seton Hall forward
The Bronx native captained the Pirates’ resurgent week by averaging 26.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists, while adding four steals in Sunday’s narrow win over the Cardinals. Most dramatically, he banked in an off-balance shot that put Seton Hall ahead with eight seconds left.
Junior: Tramaine Isabell, Drexel guard
A 6' 1" transfer from Missouri, Isabell averaged 27.0 points and 10.5 rebounds (10.5 rebounds!) over the Dragons’ wins over Lafayette and Rider last week. His defensive rebounding rate currently ranks 57th nationally, per Kenpom.com. Every player ahead of him as at least three inches taller.
Sophomore: Markus Howard, Marquette guard
One of the nation’s top, ahem, marksmen began the week with a ho-hum 14 points against Eastern Illinois before dropping 33 (on 11-of-15 three-point shooting) on Chicago State and 29 (in 20 minutes) against Georgia.
Freshman: Marvin Bagley III, Duke forward
Like last week, it was nearly impossible to pick between Bagley and Oklahoma’s Trae Young. But this week the nod goes to the guy helping shoulder the load for the country’s best team, who shot 18-of-26 this week while posting double-doubles at Indiana and against South Dakota.
Social Media Post of the Week
LSU had Ben Simmons playing against college basketball players and could not manage to make it to a 68-team postseason tournament. I probably think about this like two or three times a week.— Eamonn Brennan (@eamonnbrennan) November 30, 2017
Assigned Viewing: Villanova vs. Gonzaga, Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Two of the three title-game teams from the last two seasons meet for the first time ever in the first game of this year’s Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. As mentioned above, this will be Villanova’s first shot at another team that looks likely to be around come March’s second weekend. The Bulldogs have handled Texas’s size and Creighton’s offensive fury; now they have to face a smart, balanced team that can go smaller and force teams into uncomfortable spots. The Wildcats don’t get to the line often and Gonzaga doesn’t send teams there, so Villanova will have to get it done from the floor. Mikal Bridges vs. Johnathan Williams will be the matchup to watch.
Before You’re Dismissed...
• They’re a bit dated now, but Molly Geary dropped SI’s first Power Rankings of the season last week. More importantly, check out SI.com this Wednesday for the next edition.
• Two big baskets from this week you shouldn’t miss: Boise State’s half-courter by Lexus Williams to snap Oregon’s home winning streak, and the own-basket that cost Georgia Tech a home game against previously 1–5 Grambling.
• And if you somehow didn’t yet, make sure you see this alley-oop finish by the Kansas guard Lagerald Vick.
• After the success of Thanksgiving weekend’s 16-team, two-bracket, multi-arena PK80 Invitational in Portland, Michigan State AD Mark Hollis told ESPN that he envisions a similar 16-team event in the future, but held in a single venue: Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts and multiple Final Fours. In Hollis’s vision, there would be huge curtains separating adjacent courts where games are played simultaneously, like an AAU tournament on steroids. It seems like something of a stretch logistically, but if it can attract the caliber of programs the PK80 did, it’s certainly worth a shot.
• There was a truly scary situation at Saturday’s game between North Carolina State and South Carolina State when Bulldogs guard Ty Solomon collapsed on the bench and had to be resuscitated by paramedics using CPR. Solomon’s heart reportedly stopped, but he was conscious and stable after the game, which was delayed for an extended period of time before Solomon’s teammates voted to continue playing. WRAL spoke with Solomon from his hospital bed afterward. Here’s wishing Solomon good health going forward.
• Arizona edged UNLV on the road in overtime to avoid yet another loss. Sophomore guard Rawle Alkins has been cleared for full-contact drills as he recovers from a broken foot, so some help should be arriving soon, but it won’t be there in time for Tuesday’s date with Texas A&M.
• As Patrick Stevens initially pointed out on Twitter when he got to .500 earlier in the week, Towson coach Pat Skerry now has a winning record over seven seasons at the school, after beginning his tenure 1–32. This March that long, steady building job could result in the Tigers’ first NCAA tourney appearance since 1991.
• Nice story from The Kansas City Star’s Jesse Newell on 101-year-old Kansas fan Ruby-Doo going to her first Jayhawks game.
• On the same night Howard hit his 11 threes for Marquette—the most by a player in a game this season—William & Mary’s Connor Burchfield made 10 of 12 from deep against Marshall. Nov. 29 was a good shooting day.
• While your mind is beyond the arc, allow Jake Fischer to introduce you to Central Arkansas’s Jordan Howard, a 5' 11" guard whose three-point prowess could take him from the Southland to the pros.
• With a hat tip to The Ringer’s Mark Titus, you should really read this account of the hilariously shoddy Cayman Islands Classic, which OhVarsity!’s Matt Allaire labels “the Fyre Festival of holiday tournaments.”
• This week’s parting recommendation: the two-hour season finale of Nathan For You (titled “Finding Frances”) that aired last month but I just finally watched this weekend. It’s probably best enjoyed if you’re at least familiar with the show beforehand, which you should be because it is brilliant, but I’d think it can also work as a standalone viewing experience. It’s at various times hilarious, poignant, uncomfortable or some mix between, and deeply human throughout.