- Is it too early to read into Kentucky's slow start? How will new-look Villanova and Michigan fare in a matchup seven months after they played for the title? That and more in this week's staff roundtable.
Welcome back to the Tuesday Shootaround! Every Tuesday during college basketball season, we're holding a roundtable with our writers and editors where we ask the most pressing questions concerning the most recent action and the week ahead. This week's topics include Kentucky's bumpy start to the season, a national championship game rematch, the 2K Classic in New York and a battle of scorers.
After the blowout loss to Duke and a 19-turnover night against Southern Illinois, how concerned about Kentucky are you?
Dan Greene: Moderately, and it's actually more because of the Southern Illinois performance than the one against Duke. The latter was an almost impossibly talented team going off in a way that any team would have had trouble slowing, let alone stopping. But the turnover-pocked win over Southern Illinois came against an opponent that Kentucky should have handled much more easily and suggested two troubling possibilities: that the effects of the Duke loss may linger with this young team, and that it may be plagued by the same Achilles heel (taking care of the ball) that has resulted in recent Kentucky teams underperforming in other seasons. But there is still so much for John Calipari to work with here as the Wildcats head into the softest portion of their schedule, where they should be able to rebuild some of their confidence. In the long run, I still think they'll be one of the country's top teams.
Max Meyer: Mildly concerned. With so many new pieces, in most cases it takes time for everyone to jell together (this year’s Duke team is not most cases). But Kentucky has too much talent to not contend for the SEC title. Not saying the Wildcats will automatically win it (I’d have Auburn as the favorite right now), but they’ll be near the top in one of the most competitive leagues in the country. My mild concern is regarding the team’s perimeter shooting, as Kentucky will have trouble advancing far in the NCAA tournament if it isn’t knocking down shots from the outside. The Wildcats have also been extraordinarily sloppy with the basketball, turning it over 34 times over two games. Despite these early red flags, let’s be a little more patient before pulling the alarm on one of the most loaded rosters in the country.
Jeremy Woo: Not that concerned. Against Duke they ran into a gigantic buzzsaw and that result can essentially be thrown out the window. These are typical growing pains for a team quarterbacked by freshmen guards. I’ll be worried if neither Immanuel Quickley or Ashton Hagans has stepped up in a month or so, but there’s too much talent on the roster for Kentucky to go full bust. Expect John Calipari to play with lineups and eventually shorten the rotation, and then we can revisit how we project this team.
Michael Shapiro: The Wildcats looked light-years behind Duke in their 118–84 loss on opening night, but the more worrisome effort came three days later when Kentucky escaped with a 12-point win over Southern Illinois in a game that was closer than the final score indicated. The Wildcats have shown little three-point shooting outside of guard Tyler Herro, a continuation of last year’s struggles from behind the arc. This Kentucky team feels more vulnerable than previous iterations.
Concerned may be a touch too far, though. John Calipari will have this team playing its best basketball as the calendar turns to March, and there’s no dearth of talent in Lexington. Reid Travis and P.J. Washington could both win SEC Player of the Year, and the experience of this group compared to prior years should serve the Wildcats well. With five-star freshman Keldon Johnson joining Travis and Washington, the talent is there for a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky is still the favorite in the SEC, too. The first two contests were ugly, but I’d wait a few weeks to be concerned about the Wildcats.
Emily Caron: To be blunt, Kentucky looks straight up sloppy so far. But they’re young, so I’m not too worried about it yet. If we’re still seeing the same carelessness in December, that’ll be something to worry about. The Wildcats need to work a few things out (clearly), but give them some time and a little more Calipari crafting and I think we’ll start to see the Kentucky team everyone was expecting. If they can pull things together defensively and protect the ball better, they’ve certainly got the offensive potential to keep up wth the country’s top teams.
Molly Geary: There's fair reason to be at least a bit concerned this early, but the important thing here is that it is, indeed, supremely early. I think part of the narrative around Kentucky is affected by the fact that most expected the Wildcats to have an edge on Duke due to the experience of having three sophomores back plus 22-year-old Reid Travis, and instead the Blue Devils ran them off the court. It remains to be seen whether that result was simply Duke being that much better than everyone or taking advantage of a UK team in early disarray, but the carelessness with the ball displayed too often against Southern Illinois was more discouarging, in my opinion. This team is young and needs time to adjust to each other, but at the same token, fixes aren't guaranteed just because time passes. The 'Cats weak upcoming schedule gives them a great opportunity for a soft reboot to the season.
Wednesday brings a national championship rematch between Villanova and Michigan. What are you expecting or interested to see in that game?
Greene: I'm interested to see Villanova get its first real test. Yes, it's at home and against a Michigan team dealing with its own fair share of turnover. But these Wildcats are dealing with more of that than Jay Wright has faced in a long time: kenpom.com's minutes continuity metric ranks Villanova 247th nationally, easily its worst mark in the 12 seasons the site has tracked the stat. (Last year's team ranked 124th.) The champs took care of business against Morgan State and Quinnipiac, but neither of those teams have near the Wolverines' general levels of talent. Michigan cruised to its own 2–0 record last week over small schools thanks to a typically deliberate pace and tight defense. Villanova's bunch of underclassmen may have their patience tried.
Meyer: I’m interested to see how Jahvon Quinerly performs. The five-star freshman guard has started slow out of the gate, shooting 20% from the field and racking up more turnovers than assists in Villanova’s first two games. The Wildcats still have plenty of guys who can light it up on the offensive end, but a key to their success this season will be how seamless the transition will be at point guard after Jalen Brunson’s NBA departure. This is a big early stage for Quinerly to prove that he is capable of leading this team in this campaign—just like Brunson did in his fifth collegiate game, putting up 18 points in a win over Stanford on a neutral floor.
Woo: I’m looking forward to getting a close look at Eric Paschall, new operating as one of 'Nova’s primary scorers, in a big game. His name has been extremely buzzy with NBA scouts, and a team like Michigan with some size and versatility at the forward spots should allow him to showcase his own array of skills. He’s the sort of tough, productive, inside-out player built for the way the NBA is headed, and 'Nova will have to be able to count on him on a bigger stage.
Shapiro: Villanova didn’t bludgeon Michigan from beyond the arc in last year’s national championship game, but the Wildcats still outpaced the Maize and Blue with seven more made threes to clinch the title. Will Michigan reverse course and clamp down on Villanova’s three-point shooting on Wednesday? This isn’t the same five-out attack the Wildcats had last year, but don’t expect this Villanova team to grind the game into an interior slog. Jay Wright’s crew has made 24 threes through two games, including a 9-for-17 effort from the trio of Phil Booth, Joe Cremo and Collin Gillespie on Saturday. The Wildcats will continue to live by the three this season.
Michigan sports the nation’s No. 3 scoring defense through two games, though its victories have come against Norfolk State and Holy Cross. The latter made just 12 field goals in 40 minutes, likely yearning for the days of Bob Cousy. The Wolverines have been impressive thus far, but I’m skeptical they can keep up with Villanova at The Pavilion.
Caron: I don’t expect this rematch to look anything like last year’s national title game, but I do think this will be the first look into what both teams are capable of this season after significant departures from 2017–18’s squads, and what their ceilings might be without the veteran scorers who clashed in the championship game. We’ll hopefully get a glimpse of what the Wildcats can really do with Phil Booth and Eric Paschall leading the way, but I’m also interested to see how Villanova’s younger guys (re: Jahvon Quinerly, Collin Gillespie) fair against a historically stingy Michigan defense, and if that defense can readily rebound from the Wolverines' first-half close call against Holy Cross.
Geary: This is an intriguing game because it's an almost immediate chance to see 'Nova's new Phil Booth and Eric Paschall-led offense go against what should once again be a legitimate defense in Michigan. That's what I'm most interested to see, especially when you add the Wildcats' new pieces like Joe Cremo, Jahvon Quinerly and Saddiq Bey. I don't expect the Wolverines to have enough offensive firepower right now to win this one, and perhaps not keep it within single digits on the road, but I am eager to see 6' 7" freshman Ignas Brazdeikis and how he does. Michigan will need to shoot the three much better than it has in its first two games (20.0%) to spring an upset in this one.
This week's two-day 2K Classic in New York features Syracuse, UConn, Oregon and Iowa. Who emerges as the champ?
Greene: Cuse. The Orange may be the best team in the field outright, but playing so close to home—in front of a surely supportive crowd, should they move on to face Oregon or Iowa—is what puts them over the edge to me. Sophomore forward Oshae Brissett was the star of Syracuse's opening week, averaging 18.5 points and 10.5 boards in wins over Eastern Washington and Morehead State; in the latter 7' 2" senior Paschal Chukwu swatted six shots. A potential frontcourt matchup with Oregon's Paul White and Bol Bol could be something to look forward to on Friday night.
Meyer: Oregon has insane length and shot-blocking capability, and that makes it a nightmare to attempt shots inside on the Ducks. In the first two games of the season, opponents have shot 31.0% on two-point shots against Oregon, which is the seventh-best mark in the country. In fact, Eastern Washington last game made just two field goals inside the arc for the entire game. The Ducks also have a 24.1 block percentage, which ranks fifth in the country. I don’t think UConn, Iowa or Syracuse has the perimeter firepower needed to beat the Ducks and all their wingspan.
Woo: Syracuse. I’m not sold on UConn, which they’ll play first. Iowa may not have the right personnel to handle the Orange (or Oregon, who they’ll play first). The Ducks should win their first game, but it will take discipline to beat the 2–3 zone, and Syracuse would be their stiffest test of the season. Oregon can either try to push the tempo, play through Bol Bol or both, but I like Syracuse’s experience and stylistic preferences to handle the field, at least on paper.
Shapiro: Give me the Orange in this one. The Syracuse zone stifles even the most seasoned teams in March, and it’s even harder to decipher in the first weeks of the season. Oregon provides the greatest threat, but while Bol Bol is a nightmare matchup for any team, the Orange will throw a string of bodies at the freshman, forcing him to make the right play in a crowd. Syracuse will force enough turnovers and generate enough key buckets from Oshae Brissett and Tyus Battle to take home the tournament crown.
Caron: The 2K Classic will come down to Syracuse and Iowa. If Oregon was at full strength and a little deeper into the season, it might be a different story, but I think the Orange will come out with the win this week. They've got the defense to stop Iowa’s scorers, and the offense to overcome the Hawkeyes terrible defense. If Frank Howard is back in the mix, it’s especially game over for Iowa.
Geary: Even if Frank Howard doesn't play, it's hard to pick against Syracuse heading into this one. For one thing, I think there's a higher chance Iowa upsets Oregon on Thursday than UConn beats the Orange. But even if the Ducks get past the Hawkeyes, I think it will be tough for them to take down a Cuse team that isn't integrating nearly as many new pieces while also going against its famous 2–3 zone. Factor in that five-star recruit Louis King isn't healthy for Oregon yet, and it will be interesting to see how the new-look Ducks (and Bol Bol) perform in their first real tests. It's a big opportunity for Iowa as well, as the Hawkeyes are aiming for a bounce-back year and could make an early case for that with even one win in New York.
Marquette-Indiana features one of the country's most prolific shooters (Markus Howard) and a big-time freshman (Romeo Langford). Which will score more on Wednesday?
Greene: Howard. With all due respect to Langford, it's never wise to pick against a Howard brother in a scoring contest.
Meyer: Marquette was my dark horse Final Four pick, so have to roll with Markus Howard here. Howard averaged 20.4 ppg last season, and has put up 52 points over the first two games of his junior campaign. Give me one of the nation’s best scorers over a very talented freshman playing in his third collegiate game.
Woo: Howard. It’ll be a fun one.
Shapiro: The nod goes to the veteran here, especially after a 37-point eruption on Saturday. Langford is an elite prospect and a good bet to return the Hoosiers to their first NCAA tournament since 2015–16. Yet until he lights it up for the first time on the college stage, Langford can’t earn the nod over the premier scorer in the Big East.
Caron: Markus Howard. He'll do most of the work when it comes to getting on the board for Marquette, while Langford is still coming into his own at Indiana.
Geary: I'll go ahead and be the lone dissenter here to spice things up (and that's not a knock on Howard). Langford has yet to catch on from beyond the arc (1 for 7) or at the free-throw line (6 for 14) through two games, so why not pick him to break out in his first big game at Assembly Hall? Regardless, this game should be a good one.