- After an entertaining Jimmy V Classic, it's clear the event's four participants—Villanova, Gonzaga, Syracuse and UConn—stand at dramatically different places one month into the season.
NEW YORK — The best non-conference tournaments took place during Feast Week. The PK80, Battle 4 Atlantis and other events pitted national championship contenders on neutral courts and offered fans in food-coma recovery mode an early look at some of the top players in the country. The Jimmy V Classic is not staged in a tropical locale and coaches didn’t go full-on Mike Brey with their sideline attire, but it nonetheless did convene four big-name programs in an iconic venue for an entertaining night of basketball. In a doubleheader on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, Villanova beat Gonzaga 88–72 before Syracuse toppled Connecticut 72–63. Sports Illustrated was on hand to observe those four teams and assess their outlooks for the rest of the season. This is the third version of a weekly column analyzing four college hoops topics bound by some underlying narrative thread. If there’s something you’d like to see in this space, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.
Best win: Oregon
By April, four years will have passed since UConn cut down the nets at AT&T Stadium after beating Kentucky in the national championship game. Since then, the Huskies have recorded only one NCAA tournament victory, and last season they both failed to qualify for the Big Dance and, with a 16–17 record, finished below .500 for the first time since 1986–87, Jim Calhoun’s first year as coach. UConn looks better than it did in early in 2016–17, when it opened with back-to-back home losses to Wagner and Northeastern, but a tourney bid feels like a long shot.
The Huskies’ most important nonconference event this season, the PK80, started off in promising fashion, with an eight-point win over Oregon in which UConn limited the Ducks to only 0.86 points per possession. Then things got ugly. In two subsequent games in Portland, against Michigan State and Arkansas, the Huskies were outscored 179–124, including a 102–67 beatdown at the hands of a Razorbacks team media members voted sixth in the SEC in the preseason. (Even the Oregon victory has lost some luster, with the Ducks also falling recently to Oklahoma and Boise State.)
UConn followed that up by being taken to overtime at home by low-majors Columbia and Monmouth. The Huskies will need to clean things up on both ends of the court to get themselves within shouting distance of an at-large bid, but one obvious issue is their inability to consistently score the ball at an efficient clip. The Huskies have sank only 47.3% of their two-point shots and 31% from beyond the arc, and they currently rank 260th in Division I in points scored per 100 possessions.
Tuesday night’s Old Big East tilt with Syracuse didn’t put to rest UConn’s shooting concerns. It turned the ball over on a fourth of its trips down the floor and managed only 0.93 PPP against the Orange’s zone, and it couldn’t keep them off the offensive glass: Syracuse snared 42.4% of its missed shots.
UConn will have an opportunity in late January to bolster its CV against another one of the teams that played here on Tuesday night, Villanova. The Huskies also have upcoming trips to Arizona and Auburn, plus ample chances to prove themselves in the American Athletic Conference. The addition of Wichita State will help in that regard. But a handful of other teams in the league are more compelling bets to challenge the Shockers and Cincinnati for real estate near the top of the standings, regardless of how much time redshirt freshman guard Alterique Gilbert misses with a shoulder injury. (He hasn’t appeared in UConn’s last three games.)
The Huskies’ talented perimeter corps is cause for optimism, especially sophomore Christian Vital’s early scoring uptick, as is the return of 6'8" redshirt junior forward Terry Larrier after he missed almost all of last season with a torn ACL. But getting buckets this season against the Shockers and the Bearcats, likely the two best wins available in the AAC, is going to be a chore for high-powered offenses with high-percentage interior finishers and perimeter snipers. UConn’s falls well short of that.
Best win: Texas
Few elite teams were expected to suffer a larger fall from last season to this one than Gonzaga. After winning 37 games and coming up six points short against North Carolina in the program’s first national championship game, the Zags lost three of their top five scorers, including one who was named the West Coast Conference’s Player of the Year (point guard Nigel Williams-Goss) and another (center Zach Collins) who was picked in the lottery of the NBA draft last July.
Gonzaga opened the season at No. 18 in the AP Top 25 Poll, and coaches picked Saint Mary’s to win the WCC in the preseason. That may turn out to be the right choice, but the Zags look better equipped to withstand their personnel churn than it appeared before the season began. Prior to Tuesday, head coach Mark Few’s bunch had picked up wins over Ohio State, Texas and Creighton, and it gave SEC challenger Florida everything it could handle before falling by six points in double overtime.
Tuesday night’s matchup with Villanova was a step up, and Gonzaga wasn’t ready to make it. “When you schedule like this and play games like this,” Few said afterward. “I mean, you, for lack of a better term, expose your—you’re putting your team out there.” Few’s right. The loss was revealing in that it indicated the Zags probably don’t belong in the same tier as a legitimate title contender like Villanova, but they’re also unlikely to face a team this good at any point the rest of this season.
One double-digit defeat to an outfit that’s tracking toward a No. 1 seed on a not-that-neutral neutral court shouldn’t obscure how well Gonzaga has reloaded. Few has stocked his roster with talented youngsters to complement junior Josh Perkins and seniors Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson. Sophomore Killian Tillie, a 6'10" forward from Paris, has increased his scoring on a per-40-minute basis, thanks in large part to improved two-point shooting accuracy, and he’s playing about twice as much as he did last season. Tillie’s also an agile, switchable defender who can offer some rim protection. He posted a career-high 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting against Creighton last Friday. “When he’s out there, usually we flow better,” Few said of Tillie. “And good things happen.”
Freshmen Corey Kispert and Zach Norvell and sophomore Rui Hachimura are three other underclassmen who’ve solidified the Zags’ rotation during a challenging non-conference schedule. (Although Kispert, a four-star recruit from Seattle, is dealing with an ankle injury that caused him to sit out Tuesday night against the Wildcats, as well as the matchup with the Bluejays.) All told, with Gonzaga playing four freshmen or sophomores at least 18 minutes per game, it ranks 250th in Division I in Ken Pomeroy’s Experience metric.
The Zags are hitting a remarkably high percentage of their shots from inside the arc, ranking 12th nationally in 2PFG%, and Tuesday night’s 6-of-22 showing from behind it was an outlier from their otherwise high-level deep marksmanship. And Gonzaga’s defense should improve as opponents cool off from downtown. (They’ve made 39.5% of their threes against Gonzaga, with Villanova, alone, going 10-of-21 from distance.) The Zags have thrown into doubt Saint Mary’s status as the WCC frontrunner. This team almost certainly won’t make it back to the title game, but that wasn’t a realistic expectation before the season.
Best win: Maryland
When word dropped this summer that Taurean Thompson had withdrawn from Syracuse and was enrolling at Seton Hall, it felt like another damaging defection for a roster that couldn’t afford it, having already lost three starters from a team that failed to qualify for the NCAAs last season. After the news broke, longtime Orange reporter Mike Waters penned an article asking the question, “Is Taurean Thompson the most impactful transfer ever for Syracuse basketball?”
If he is, that hasn’t been apparent so far. Tuesday’s win moved the Orange to 7–1, and their only loss came last Saturday against Final Four threat Kansas. (Yes, the Jayhawks still deserve that description even after losing to Washington on Wednesday.) Syracuse’s non-league slate is thin on quality opponents, though it did beat Maryland at home in late November. In any case, the Orange should open ACC play in decent position to get in the conversation for an at-large bid. That didn’t seem likely before the season, when Sports Illustrated projected them as the league’s No. 9 team.
In his lone season at Syracuse, Thompson was an effective offensive rebounder and shot-blocker, but the combined efforts of freshmen Oshae Brissett, Bourama Sidibe and Marek Dolezaj, sophomore Matthew Moyer and junior Paschal Chukwu have enabled the Orange to hold up really well in both of those areas without Thompson. They’ve grabbed 42.4% of their misses to date, good for second in the country, and they’re swatting 21.6% of teams’ two-point attempts, which ranks first.
Top-level rim defense and second-chance creation will go a long way for Syracuse in the ACC, but it’s difficult to put too much faith in a team with such a shaky backcourt. The recent announcement that South Florida graduate transfer Geno Thorpe had departed the program for personal reasons leaves Syracuse with only three scholarship guards: junior Frank Howard, sophomore Tyus Battle and freshman Howard Washington, who has yet to play more than 10 minutes in a game this season.
Simply playing Washington more often would help—although he’s logged only nine minutes combined in two games since Thorpe left, including just one on Tuesday against the Huskies—and Battle, Brissett and Moyer can be moved up or down the lineup to accommodate whoever else is on the floor. Syracuse can use the five upcoming games against mostly manageable competition to sort out its perimeter rotation before beginning its conference slate with a home matchup against Virginia Tech on New Year’s Eve.
Best win: Gonzaga
The book on the Big East is the same as it’s been since the conference morphed into its Catholic Seven plus Butler, Creighton, Xavier iteration. The Wildcats have since won four consecutive regular-season league championships and they were picked to do that again in 2017–18 in a preseason poll even though they lost three senior starters (Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds), including one who drew deserved National Player of the Year buzz and went on to become a first-round draft pick (Hart), during the offseason.
The preseason optimism on Villanova was warranted. Through nine games, point guard Jalen Brunson is scoring at a far more efficient clip than he did as a freshman and sophomore, and he’s also managed to slash his turnover rate while upping his assists on a per-40-minute basis. Brunson almost definitely won’t keep making 51.7% of his three-point shots, but while he’s not getting the same mock draft love as PGs like Alabama’s Collin Sexton, Duke’s Trevon Duval or Oklahoma’s Trae Young, it would be hard to come up with another college floor general you’d rather have running your offense right now.
Then there’s Mikal Bridges, who looks ready to play his way to a lottery selection on draft night this summer. The junior wing is shouldering a bigger offensive workload so far this season, but that hasn’t depressed his efficiency: His offensive rating is about nine points higher than it was last season, when it ranked 22nd in Division I, according to Kenpom.com. Bridges can be just as valuable on defense because of his activity as a shot-blocker/ball-stealer and ability to switch assignments.
On Tuesday, he went off for a game-high 28 points on 8-of-14 shooting, and with just over eight minutes remaining in the second half, he submitted a strong early nomination for dunk-and-swat sequence of the year. After rising for a one-handed slam over 6'11" Gonzaga redshirt freshman Jacob Larsen, Bridges scampered down the court to get in position to reject Bulldogs junior Josh Perkins’s layup attempt. “He’s playing with a lot more freedom, a lot more aggressiveness,” head coach Jay Wright said of Bridges afterward. Wright added, “He just knows it’s his turn, and he’s ready for it.”
The Wildcats don’t have a lot of size in their rotation, but with the exception of Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado, there aren’t many Big East big men capable of punishing them because of it. That said, Villanova will need Omari Spellman—who sat out last season as an academic redshirt—to supply reliable inside scoring. He’s connected on only 37.7% of his shots from two-point range and 41.4% at the rim this season, according to hoop-math.com. (Spellman has hit 45.5% of his 22 three-point attempts so far.)
There are only two teams that look like credible challengers to Villanova in the Big East: Seton Hall and Xavier. Both squads notched a pair of big-time wins in succession over the last 10 days (the Pirates over Texas Tech and Louisville, the Musketeers over Baylor and Cincinnati), while the Wildcats, through no fault of their own, didn’t come away from the Battle 4 Atlantis last month with any signature victories. Villanova got one Tuesday that will glow in March, and it still holds pole position in the chase for the conference crown.