- Most teams get a brief lull before conference play heats up—these four national title contenders should use the down time to address their critical weaknesses.
This next week of college hoops looks like it could be a quiet one. Until the weekend there’s a dearth of marquee games, and most of the country’s most prominent programs don’t play at all until then or beyond. And honestly, after the kind of week the sport just had, maybe that’s just as well. There were shocking upsets, dramatic game-winners, staggering individual performances, and a significant reshuffling of the national polls. Maybe it’s good if, for the most part, we all take some time to take a breath.
There’s also a more practical and foreseeable reason why college basketball quiets down for a bit this week: A lot of schools are holding their fall semester’s final exam period. With that in mind, let’s check in with four ranked teams who should be using their study hours to prepare themselves for the daunting syllabus of conference play.
Duke: Defense, defense, defense
Mike Krzyzewski put it succinctly after his then-No. 1 Blue Devils’ out-of-nowhere loss to recent ACC doormat Boston College on Saturday: “We’re not a good defensive team.” Duke is supremely talented and its offense can verge on juggernaut status, which can mask its roster’s extreme youth—four freshmen starters are still four freshmen starters—and the deficiencies that can cause on the other end of the floor.
On Saturday, Boston College enjoyed its second most efficient offensive performance of the season (behind only its showing vs. South Carolina State), routinely finding shooters left open by Duke’s slow or forgotten defensive rotations. The Blue Devils have defended slightly better in a zone so far this season, but against the Eagles they allowed points on nine of their 12 zone possessions and shelved the zone completely after halftime. Right now Duke has the best offense in the country but ranks just 69th in defensive efficiency per Kenpom.com. There will likely need to be some significant tightening before a Blue Devils postseason run.
Florida: Finding offense inside the arc
When the Gators’ shots are falling, they can look capable of beating anybody. (Before Saturday, they’d been the closest to downing Duke, in a PK80 game they probably should have won.) Florida’s problem is that it can become over-reliant on outside shooting to the point of settling for iffy three-point tries rather than finding higher-percentage looks inside. It was cold shooting that spelled doom against Florida State (6-for-25 from three, which represented 43.1% of the Gators’ field goal tries) and Loyola Chicago (2-for-19). In both games the Gators struggled to penetrate zone defenses, which may provide a blueprint for how other teams can disrupt their offense going forward. The good news: In Saturday’s win over Cincinnati, they shot well from three (6-for-15) but were not trigger-happy or dependent on the shots for their scoring.
Kansas: Getting to the line
Perhaps the Jayhawks’ biggest issue so far is their lack of depth, as their bench has played just 22.1% of their minutes so far, the seventh-lowest share in the country. But since they can’t really study their way into getting eligibility for big men Billy Preston (held out indefinitely while the finances related to a one-car accident are investigated) and Silvio De Sousa (hoping to enroll for the next semester, pending standardized testing scores), this will have to do.
Kansas is currently getting to the line 19.6 times for every 100 field-goal attempts, which ranks 343rd in the nation and is roughly half of the average rate during coach Bill Self’s tenure. (Last year that number was 36.0, and the previous low from a Self-coached Jayhawks team was 35.3, in 2006.) This is partly a function of the team’s weakness inside, where fouls are more easily drawn, as well as its relative lack of attackers on offense. If Self’s team gets itself right after losing consecutive games for the first time in four years, that number will likely go up.
Kentucky: Taking care of the ball
The Wildcats have lost just once, to Kansas in the Champions Classic, but have played a relatively soft schedule so far while their extremely young team (the least experienced in the nation, in fact) sorts itself out and gets up to speed. One place that youth has shown up is in the turnover column: Kentucky’s turnover rate of 21.4% ranks 276th in the country and would be the worst among John Calipari’s nine teams in Lexington. This was part of their downfall against the Jayhawks in November, but in the Wildcats’ two other most turnover-prone games, against East Tennessee State and Monmouth, they had the sheer talent and physicality to push through whatever issues their turnovers may have otherwise caused. Watching the latter game this weekend, many of Kentucky’s turnovers seemed to stem from a mixture of ambition and carelessness that you might expect from a team collectively getting its feet wet. That won’t fly too often in the SEC. The Wildcats’ final three non-conference games—Virginia Tech and Louisville at home, and UCLA in New Orleans—will give some idea of how much of an issue that might be.
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 a grab -bag of news, 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 perhaps discuss the Fermi paradox, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
Even in a week of significant upsets and a sport of regular surprises, Duke’s loss to Boston College on Saturday is worth singling out. After all, the Blue Devils were the No. 1 team in the country, with two of the best players of the country in senior Grayson Allen and forward Marvin Bagley III; the Eagles had just two ACC wins over the past two years and their most significant victory of this season had been over either La Salle or Colgate.
So if you didn’t catch the game—and we couldn’t blame you for as much, as it wasn’t exactly circled on most viewers’ calendars, and Saturdays are Saturdays—you may be wondering how in the name of Troy Bell that happened. And as much as the takeaway from Saturday’s game was (rightfully) that Duke’s defense needs a lot of work, it should be noted clearly that Boston College played a hell of a game. The Eagles began by making eight of their first 11 three-pointers and finished 15-of-26, so even after their hot start, they made seven out of the subsequent 15. Guards Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson, who (spoiler alert) will each get their own acknowledgements below, played the games of their lives and, along with Jordan Chatman (who made five of nine threes himself), made the Blue Devils pay over and over for their mistakes. And on defense, it wasn’t some odd coincidence that Grayson Allen shot 5-for-20 and Marvin Bagley III only had 11 shot attempts. The Eagles played with an energy that helped them keep up with Coach K’s fleet of future first-rounders, made all the more impressive by the fact that BC’s rotation only went six deep.
Yes, Duke lost, but Boston College won too. Kudos to Jim Christian’s team for giving this season its biggest stunner yet.
As the scandal turns...
This week’s most significant happenings on the FBI investigation front came on the NBA side of things, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that super agent Andy Miller is no longer certified by the NBA Players Association. According to a subsequent Yahoo! report, “the common belief in the NBA agent world is that he’d been pushed out” in the wake of his ties to the probe, in which he has not been directly implicated but one of his former employees, Christian Dawkins, was arrested and indicted. Miller’s computer was seized as part of the probe, and while it’s not known what if any evidence it may have yielded, these further developments suggest it’s at least something to keep in mind when following the situation going forward.
Also worth keeping an eye on: In discussing guard Rawle Alkins returning to the court after offseason foot surgery this week, Arizona coach Sean Miller said he “really can’t comment” on Alkins, prompting Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star to ask if Alkins’s absence was solely related to his injury. Miller nodded, and when Pascoe later asked if all of Miller’s players had been cleared in relation to the investigation—in which one of Miller’s assistants, Emanuel Richardson, was charged—Miller told him “my focus is coaching our team.” Miller would understandably not want to draw too much attention to the investigation, but such obfuscation on those subjects from the coach of an implicated program is worth noting.
Lastly, Rick Pitino’s victimhood campaign has now extended to airing grievances against Papa John, who left the coach feeling “very humiliated, very hurt.” We’ll be tracking who’s been unfair to Pitino all season long.
Each week, we’ll be highlighting five teams on the rise. Here’s who stood out over the past week.
1. Arizona State: Yes, the shine of downing Kansas on Sunday was diminished somewhat by the Jayhawks having lost to Washington earlier in the week. But by having won in Lawrence after waxing Xavier two weeks earlier, the Sun Devils are making their case as perhaps the rising team of the season’s first month.
2. Florida State: A week ago in this space, the Seminoles were cited as an undefeated team that had yet to be really tested. Their first test arrived in Monday night’s trip to Florida and it’s safe to say that, by whooping the Gators 83–66, Florida State passed with flying colors.
3. TCU: While neither was as marquee as the Seminoles’, the undefeated Horned Frogs are also looking increasingly legit after defeating SMU and Nevada. Jamie Dixon’s got a nice cadre of shooters and one of the most efficient offenses in the country.
4. Seton Hall: The Pirates edged Louisville on the road and took care of VCU at home, and senior wing Desi Rodriguez again had himself a nice week: 46 points on 19-of-28 shooting and 15 rebounds over two games.
5. Ball State: What a week for Cardinals guard Tayler Persons, who first hit a game-winning three at No. 9 Notre Dame on Tuesday, then finished off Valparaiso with a Saturday encore. North Florida better hope he cools off in the 10 days before Ball State’s next game.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s center
The big Aussie went for 37 points and 18 rebounds against Sacramento State, then 20 and 10 against Seattle while chipping in three assists.
Junior: Jerome Robinson, Boston College guard
In BC’s lone game this week—perhaps you were aware of it—Robinson shot a perfect 5-for-5 from three and 8-for-11 overall, adding up to 24 points, while chipping in four rebounds.
Sophomore: Ky Bowman, Boston College guard
Yes, another Eagle. Bowman neared a triple double on Saturday, finishing with 30 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists. The 10 rebounds were tied for the second most he’d had in college, and the nine assists matched a career high.
Freshman: DeAndre Ayton, Arizona forward
His 13 points and 10 rebounds in the Wildcats’ get-right win against Texas A&M were nice; his 29 and 18 against Alabama were downright dominant. Arizona may be underachieving so far, but its star freshman isn’t.
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 Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young, a hometown hero who has begun his college career by averaging 28.8 points and 8.8 assists per game, thresholds no player has met simultaneously in more than two decades. So, Trae, tell us about the best...
...fruit. “I’m a fruit guy. That’s tough. I’d probably say oranges. I love oranges. My mom used to always give them to me for a snack. I used to love to eat bad foods, so whenever I got hungry, she just gave me a small orange that I could eat. So I fell in love with those. I still eat them to this day. I have them all the time.”
...cartoon. “Gotta be Spongebob. I still laugh like a little kid. I’m a big Spongebob fan. [My favorite character is] Patrick, for sure. He doesn’t have any common sense. That’s my guy.”
...nickname someone’s given you. “Probably Young Gun, just because my last name’s Young and I shoot. I like that one. My grandfather gave it to me. A lot of my family calls me that since I was four, five years old. I would always shoot on my little goal at my grandparents’ house and they would say, ‘This is gonna be a shooter.’ So they called me Young Gun.”
Social Media Post of the Week
So college basketball will be LaVar Ball free this year? Happy Holidays to one and all.— Dana O'Neil (@DanaONeilWriter) December 4, 2017
Assigned Viewing: North Carolina at Tennessee, Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern on ESPN
The defending champs have played just one true road game thus far, at Stanford on Nov. 20, and in their trip to Knoxville the Tar Heels will be facing the toughest opponent of their non-conference slate outside of Michigan State. The Volunteers knocked off Purdue and lost to Villanova in the Bahamas and can use the test North Carolina will provide before venturing into league play in an SEC that looks stronger overall than it has in years. One thing to watch: Tennessee is not a great defensive rebounding team (Villanova cleaned up on the offensive boards in their meeting) and the Tar Heels collectively crash the glass fairly well. The Volunteers will need to limit their visitors’ second chances.
Before You’re Dismissed...
• If you somehow missed the hubbub and didn’t get Dana O’Neil’s joke posted above, LiAngelo Ball withdrew from UCLA last week. His father, LaVar, has said that LiAngelo and youngest brother LaMelo will be exploring professional options overseas. That means college basketball would be Ball-free forever. React to that however you wish.
• Kenny Jacoby has an interesting look at how phone records suggest Oregon coach Dana Altman may have known more about the rape allegations against Kavell Bigby-Williams than he has said.
• Washington’s win over Kansas in St. Louis (originally scheduled as a would-be homecoming for Michael Porter Jr. when he had committed to the Huskies) is a strong addition to Mike Hopkins’s early head coaching résumé. While yes, the Huskies then went out and got drubbed by Gonzaga, winning a semi-road game against a highly ranked opponent with such a young team should lend some real credibility.
• Just seven undefeated teams remain: Villanova, Miami, TCU, Florida State, Arizona State, Mississippi State and Georgetown. The biggest hurdle for any of them this week will be Mississippi State’s trip to Cincinnati on Tuesday. And when Georgetown hosts Syracuse on Saturday, we might finally get some idea of how good the Hoyas, dominators of the country’s easiest schedule, actually are.
• In a little over a month of play, Arizona State went from being picked sixth in the Pac-12 to (likely) top 10 in the country and potentially the league favorite. They might have to simply out-duel teams some nights, but the Sun Devils aren’t going away.
• Wofford guard Fletcher Magee proved he’s more than just an All-America-level name by stunning Georgia Tech in the final seconds in a shot you should check out.
• Miami is looking like a legit contender, but that 57.1% mark from the free-throw line is gonna haunt them.
• After such a strong start, this was a rough week for Minnesota, which lost at Nebraska and Arkansas. The Golden Gophers have six consecutive home games to get things straightened out.
• I will boop any nose I see on my Instagram feed, and I suggest you should too.