- Welcome to the Midweek Rebound! This week looks at which contenders are about to get their first real test, Kentucky's early turnover issues and more.
Have you heard about Duke? The Blue Devils might be extremely good at basketball. This is obviously not a huge surprise—they do, after all, have the top three projected picks in next year’s NBA draft, plus the 13th- and 37th-ranked freshman recruits in the country. But what set the college basketball world ablaze in the first week was that Duke unleashed its opening-night onslaught against not some fledgling cupcake, but then-No. 2 Kentucky. It was one thing for the hugely talented Blue Devils to look awesome. It was another for them to do it against a team with legitimate Final Four hopes of its own.
Which means that, with the usual caveats about sample size and things changing over time and the potential high-variance of such an extremely young team, it felt like we learned at least something useful about Duke’s season prospects in the past week. But because of the uneven and self-made nature of college basketball teams’ schedules, there are plenty of the country’s top teams about which we are still waiting to learn much of anything of value.
Lucky for us, the tournament-heavy Thanksgiving period ESPN dubs Feast Week is upon us—although this year’s schedule, with the number of intriguing matchups just before and after the holiday weekend, makes it something more like Feast Fortnight. This is the period where many of the season’s narratives begin to form; a year ago at this time, for example, we saw the cracks forming in Arizona’s disappointing season and learned we should start paying attention to an audacious freshman point guard named Trae Young. As we enter this telling stretch of November, which contenders’ schedules offer the most intriguing opportunities for insight? Here are a half-dozen worth keeping tabs on:
Roy Williams didn’t make the first week of the Tar Heels’ season easy, as he took them into two true road games (at Wofford, which beat them in Chapel Hill last season, and at Elon) and hosted a Pac-12 opponent, Stanford, at the Dean Dome. But the schedule is about to ramp up, as North Carolina heads to Las Vegas to face a decent Texas team and either No. 11 Michigan State or No. 20 UCLA. And after that, the Heels will head to Ann Arbor to visit No. 18 Michigan. That makes for three games away from home in seven days, with two of them against ranked teams. The Tar Heels have an interesting mix of seniors (Luke Maye, Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson) and freshmen (Nassir Little and Coby White)—the latter might need to grow up quickly in a stretch that offers little room for lapses.
The defending national champs host Michigan in a rare title game rematch on Wednesday (more on that below), then head to Disney World for a Thanksgiving weekend tournament where they could face No. 14 Florida State or No. 22 LSU on the event’s third day. Both would be intriguing matchups for a Villanova team that lacks its usual veteran-heavy advantage: the Seminoles have size and experience that could prove challenging (just as it did for Florida) and the Tigers, young as they may be, feature a number of blue-chip talents, including underrated sophomore point guard Tremont Waters.
This one requires a little more looking ahead, as the Volunteers will only draw No. 2 Kansas in the NIT Tip-Off if they both win or both lose their semifinal game next Wednesday. Both should be favored, however, with No. 5 Tennessee playing unranked Louisville and the Jayhawks drawing a No. 24 Marquette team that in recent years has been prone to substantial defensive struggles. Should the matchup happen, however, Black Friday in Brooklyn should offer a look at a potential Final Four matchup that could tell us just how realistic the Vols’ dreams of Minneapolis are. Forwards Admiral Schofield (who is 6’ 6”) and Grant Williams (6’ 7”) do much of Tennessee’s damage on the glass, but would have their work cut out for them against 7-footer Udoka Azubuike and 6’ 9” Dedric Lawson.
Auburn and Gonzaga
Yes, Auburn already beat a ranked team when it knocked off preseason No. 25 Washington at home, but given the Huskies’ struggles with San Diego on their own floor their next time out, that may not be the indicator it seemed at the time. If either of these teams win the Maui Invitational, that means they will almost surely have passed not just a test but the test, meaning No. 1 Duke. The Tigers’ path to winning the tournament would likely go through both the Blue Devils and the No. 3 Bulldogs, while Gonzaga—playing without forward Killian Tillie as he recovers from ankle surgery—would meet a hypothetical Auburn/Duke winner only after beating Arizona or Iowa State, assuming it takes care of business against Illinois. Regardless of how the bracket plays out, by the time these teams leave Hawaii, we should have a better idea of where they stand in the top-10 pecking order.
The Cavaliers do not appear to be dealing with much of a post-UMBC hangover; Tony Bennett can even laugh about it now. But after handling Towson and George Washington to begin the season, the Hoos will head to the Bahamas for possible matchups with Butler, Wisconsin and Florida, none of which are currently ranked but all of which look like potential tournament teams. While a Virginia-Wisconsin game might not earn high entertainment grades from neutral parties, running through that slate would do a lot to show that the Cavaliers are indeed back to their usual ways. After that comes an ACC-Big Ten Challenge trip to visit a young but talented Maryland team to close out the month.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Midweek Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Wednesday column on college hoops. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to commiserate about Becky Lynch’s injury, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
The flip side of the praise of Duke following its blowout Champions Classic win was questions of whether the game raised long-term concerns about Kentucky, which only increased after the Wildcats’ struggles against Southern Illinois this past weekend. As I said in this week’s SI staff roundtable, it was the latter game that made me think Kentucky had more work to do than I had believed when I picked them to win it all in my preseason predictions. Yes, the Wildcats actually won that game, and the 34-point Duke loss was the worst of the nine-plus-season John Calipari era. But against the Salukis, Kentucky turned the ball over 19 times at home against a Missouri Valley Conference opponent, which seems more indicative of bigger-picture issues than being the unfortunate first opponent of, at least for one night, a juggernaut loaded with NBA talent.
High turnover rates have been a common thread among Calipari-coached teams that have struggled or disappointed, perhaps to be expected given Kentucky’s perpetual youth. Aside from the current team’s 22.6% mark, among the Wildcats teams who turned the ball over at the highest rate were the 2012–13 team that missed the NCAA tournament (19.4%), last season’s team (18.6%) that struggled early and later lost six out of nine during conference play before reaching the Sweet 16, and the rollercoaster 2013–14 squad (18.1%) that underachieved enough to be a No. 8 seed in March before reaching the national title game; all three of them ranked 138th or worse nationally in turnover rate. Only one other Cal-coached Kentucky team ranked outside the country’s top 50 in that stat: his first, in 2009–10, which at 20.3% ranked 165th, but still managed to earn a No. 1 seed and reach the Elite Eight... then turned the ball over 16 times in a loss to West Virginia.
Obviously it is still far too early to draw any kind of conclusions about how this Kentucky team will be impacted by turnover struggles, or if it is even going to be an issue throughout the season. (Six of them against SIU came in transition, so one area can at least be pinpointed.) But given the way it’s the kind of problem that often holds back young teams—the Wildcats rank 334th in experience, per kenpom.com—despite their talent, it’s worth monitoring.
1. Buffalo: No team more quickly inserted itself into national relevance than the Bulls did when they went into Morgantown and came back from a nine-point deficit with five minutes left to beat a ranked West Virginia team in OT. After following that with a quality win at Southern Illinois, Buffalo has made clear it is not going away.
2. Auburn: One of last season’s surprise teams isn’t catching anyone off guard this time around, but No. 25 Washington wasn’t ready for what the Tigers unleashed last Friday, winning by 22 points behind a double double by sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, who looks ready to break out.
3. Florida State: After wrecking Florida by 21 to open the season, the Seminoles took care of business with an 11-point win at Tulane. Junior guard P.J. Savoy (17.0 ppg, 8-for-13 from three) has taken well to a return to the starting lineup, a good sign as Leonard Hamilton’s team tries to follow up last year’s surprise Elite Eight run.
4. Louisiana Tech: Winning at Wichita State isn’t quite the feat it would have been a few seasons ago, but the Bulldogs’ win there was still the first by a non-conference visitor from a non-power league since Doug McDermott-era Creighton in Dec. 2011, before the Bluejays’ move to the Big East.
5. Furman: The Paladins scored one of the biggest wins in program history at Loyola-Chicago on Friday, when Matt Rafferty (who scored a team-high 18 points) found a cutting Clay Mounce for a game-winning dunk. They needed overtime to narrowly escape Gardner-Webb four days later, but surely their SoCon foes are on notice nonetheless.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Ethan Happ, Wisconsin forward
The Badgers big man was efficiently devastating in Tuesday’s win at Xavier, scoring 30 points on 15-of-23 shooting while adding 13 rebounds and five assists against just two turnovers. Not a bad way to follow up the triple double (plus four blocks) he had in his team’s opener.
Junior: Josh Sharkey, Samford guard
Along with an identical 10 assists in each of the Bulldogs’ last two victories, Sharkey also averaged 17.0 points and 5.5 rebounds over the past week—and nabbed eight steals in Friday’s win over Jacksonville State.
Sophomore: Chuma Okeke, Auburn forward
His 19.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.5 blocks and 2.0 steals per game are impressive in their own right, but doing it on 11 field goal attempts per game (his exact total in each game thus far) is even better. After shooting 39.1% from three as a freshman, the 6’ 8” Okeke has made six of his first eight tries from deep thus far.
Freshman: Zion Williamson, Duke forward
How do you follow the kind of star-making (or perhaps star-burnishing) performance Williamson had in the Champions Classic? By going for 27 points (on 11-of-14 shooting), 16 rebounds, six blocks and four assists against Army.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know one of the country’s best players a little better by asking them what they consider to be the best in various subjects. This week we welcome St. John’s guard Shamorie Ponds, who is averaging 20.5 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 steals for the Red Storm. So, Shamorie, tell us about the best...
...show to binge-watch. “Martin. He’s one of my favorite entertainers. I could watch it over and over, repetitively. I grew up on Martin. My mom watched it, my whole family watched it. I guess it was just passed down to me.”
...nickname you’ve been given. “Slick. That’s what a lot of people call me now. My uncle gave me the name because he felt like that described me on the court. I’m like a sneaky-type player. I’m kind of a slick player, on and off the court. Everybody calls me that—[coach Chris Mullin] calls me it, my high school coach calls me it, my teammates. Pretty much everybody.”
...animal to be reincarnated as. “A monkey. They’re pretty much human. I’m going to get one when I’m able to. That’ll be the first pet I get, for sure. I’ve wanted to have one pretty much since like junior year of high school. [What would you want to name it?] Hmm, I don’t know. Slick Jr., probably.”
Social Media Post of the Week
My only critique watching Zion Williamson highlights in high school was “well, he’s playing against kids.” Now I’m like, “nah, Zion just makes everyone around him look like kids.”— Kazeem Famuyide (@RealLifeKaz) November 11, 2018
One to Watch: Michigan at Villanova, Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. ET on FS1
Not since Duke and Butler met in New Jersey in December 2010 have we seen a national championship game rematch the following season; not since North Carolina hosted Michigan State a year before that has there been one at an on-campus venue. This game—the second at Villanova’s newly revamped but still intimate Finneran Pavilion—won’t necessarily look a lot like April’s title clash, as the Wildcats lost four of their top five scorers and the Wolverines have three new starters of their own. But this should still be a quality matchup in a quality environment (often missing from the best games this time of year) that will serve as the first real test of a Villanova team dealing with more turnover than it has in a long time. One intriguing player to keep an eye on: versatile freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis, Michigan’s somewhat surprising leader in scoring over its first two games.