- This week's Midweek Rebound previews the tasty Maui Invitational final, looks at Furman's big week in the spotlight and more.
The most concerning sight for any prospective Duke opponent during the Blue Devils’ win over No. 8 Auburn on Tuesday was not any of the four vaunted freshmen who have set college basketball ablaze with hype in the season’s first month. Instead it was the team’s lone non-freshman starter, a junior and former five-star recruit himself who has struggled with injuries and never averaged more than four points per game. What Marques Bolden showed in the Maui Invitational semifinals—running the floor and skying on both ends en route to 11 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks—is that there might be still more ways yet for this Duke team to devastate.
This is what awaits No. 3 Gonzaga in Wednesday night’s tournament final, the Bulldogs’ reward for erasing a double-digit deficit against Arizona to win going away: a short-prep date with an already dauntingly loaded No. 1-ranked team whose overlooked fifth starter was just the two-way star of a decisive win over a legitimate power-conference contender. The flip side is that the young and ballyhooed Blue Devils must face their third top-10 opponent in just over two weeks and their second in as many days—not that they have shown any signs they might falter in the face of even these most daunting tests.
There is reason to believe Gonzaga may provide the most challenge among them. Even without dangerous forward Killian Tillie, who is expected to remain sidelined for at least another month while recovering from preseason ankle surgery, the Bulldogs are a mature and well-coached team with size featuring one of the few players—6' 8" junior forward Rui Hachimura, whose talents are piquing the interests of NBA front offices—who might, to whatever extent such a thing is even possible, be able to match up with Zion Williamson, Duke’s 6' 7", 285-pound colossus of a forward.
But most pivotal for Gonzaga might be point guard Josh Perkins, the Bulldogs’ top distributor and playmaker who can also be prone to turnovers. (He had seven against Illinois in Gonzaga’s first game in Maui and has a troubling 21.5% turnover rate through five games.) Not only will he be key to keeping the Bulldogs’ high-caliber offense humming, but he will also be key to preventing Duke’s from doing the same by limiting the live-ball turnovers that the Blue Devils can so reliably and so immediately turn into loud, demoralizing baskets. With four starters—Williamson, point guard Tre Jones, 6' 7" R.J. Barrett and 6' 8" Cam Reddish adept at initiating the break themselves upon securing the ball, there are very few ends to a possession besides a made basket that Duke cannot immediately turn into a near-unguardable scoring opportunity of its own.
Such are the things that may decide what will be, already, the second meeting between two top-four teams this season. In the other, then-No. 4 Duke dismantled second-ranked Kentucky and instantly put the sport on notice. Given Gonzaga’s struggles to stop Arizona for much of Tuesday’s semifinal and the decisiveness, again, of Duke’s win—it was not as close as the six-point final margin suggests, even as the Blue Devils played unevenly in some areas against a top foe—there is a chance Wednesday’s result could belie the closeness of the teams’ rankings as well. But it will be the level of game that college basketball observers can only hope for this time of year, between two teams who could meet again with even higher stakes come spring. Either the juggernaut will take its first tumble and give claim to a new No. 1, or it will add a third top-10 pelt to its collection. On the eve of Thanksgiving, matchups don’t get much tastier.
Power Rankings: Michigan Leads the Big Ten's Big Week
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 mourn Fox’s misguided retirement of the Galloping Gobbler, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
You probably missed that Furman, which went 13–5 in the Southern Conference and nearly upset Tennessee in 2017–18, had a pretty good team last season. With four seniors gone from that team, many expected the Paladins to take a step back this fall. But what you probably haven’t missed is that Furman has instead done anything but: With their upset of defending champion Villanova in overtime on Saturday, the Paladins had knocked off half of last spring’s Final Four teams in an eight-day span. (They had beaten Loyola-Chicago the previous weekend.) For those in a program with just one NCAA tournament win in its history and no tourney appearances in 38 years, the experience has been pretty much beyond words. “There’s really nothing I can tell you right now that can put a good description on it,” second-year Furman coach Bob Richey said in a phone interview this week.
How did this young team—of the nine Paladins who played against Villanova, just two were upperclassmen—from a school with a student body of 2,600 suddenly surge to national relevance? Richey will tell you it wasn’t very sudden at all. Senior forward Matt Rafferty has steadily improved before his star turn this fall, and most of Furman’s players take a redshirt year before seeing game action. “It’s basically a lot of hungry kids that didn’t have a lot of options coming out of high school,” Richey said, “but we identified they were people who wanted to invest in growth in their whole life.” That emphasis on personal development is all-encompassing: the program pairs each player with mentors from the local business community and also teaches them everything from how to dress (including bringing in a tailor for suit fittings) to proper social and business etiquette. “What it does is I think it puts all this basketball stuff in perspective. It’s like, O.K., these guys care about investing in us as people,” said Richey. “I don’t think any of this happens without that.”
The Paladins will have one more shot at a non-conference shocker, traveling to No. 19 LSU on Dec. 21. And they will have plenty of other business to handle before and after—no guarantee given that between their nail-biter upsets they needed overtime to edge Gardner-Webb at home. But Richey hopes the effects of this incredible opening month will be lasting. “Instead of fixating on the next opponent, I think the important part of the message is: figure out why we were able to do that,” he said. “Focus in on those pieces. And let’s use this as motivation to do the next great thing.”
1. Furman: One impressive aspect of the Paladins’ latest upset is that there was no one hot hand carrying things—all five starters scored between 13 and 17 points. But no one came close to matching Rafferty’s 17 rebounds, nor his four blocks.
2. Michigan: The road throttling of Villanova is the headliner on the Wolverines’ résumé, but there’s more to it than that. All five of their wins have come by 19 points or more, and they currently boast the most efficient defense in the country. This team is looking dangerous.
3. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders’ rotation looks a lot different than it did when they reached the Elite Eight last March, which makes their neutral-floor handling of a quality Nebraska team that much more impressive, especially coming off a 15-point win over USC.
4. Iowa: The surprise winners of last week’s 2K Classic in New York beat Oregon and UConn convincingly, with 6' 9" junior forward Tyler Cook showing why he might be the most underrated player in the Big Ten.
5. Virginia Tech: There were expectations that this might be Buzz Williams’s best Hokies team yet, and after strong neutral-floor wins over Northeastern and Purdue, they’re looking justified. Nickeil Alexander-Walker has scored 20-plus points in every game so far.
Roundtable: What's Wrong With Villanova?
Top of the Classes
Senior: Brian Beard, Florida International guard
Over three games in the Johnny Bach Classic, Beard averaged an absurd 28.0 points, 8.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 steals while shooting 62.5% from the field and earning 50 free throws, 35 of which he made.
Junior: Tarkus Ferguson, Illinois-Chicago guard
The Flames’ point man did a little of everything in wins over William & Mary (25 points, eight rebounds, four assists) and Bradley (22 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds, three blocks, two steals).
Sophomore: Bubba Parham, VMI guard
The Keydets fell short in their upset bid against Kentucky, but Parham did his part, scoring 35 points (on 10-of-16 three-point shooting) and chipping in four assists and three rebounds in a 10-point defeat.
Freshman: Antoine Davis, Detroit guard
Completing this section’s mid-major sweep, the 6' 1" Davis put up 42 points, five assists, and two steals in a win over Loyola-Maryland, followed by 32 points, six assists and six boards against Bowling Green.
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 Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ, who is averaging 18.7 points, 12.0 rebounds and 7.7 assists for the Badgers. So, Ethan, tell us about the best...
...Thanksgiving food. “Stuffing. I mean, who says it’s not stuffing? I’ve been eating my aunt’s stuffing for all my life. My cousin J.A. Happ, his parents host Christmas and usually Thanksgiving too. But I haven’t been to Thanksgiving in four years because of our Thanksgiving tournaments.”
...superhero. “That is a tough one. Personality-wise, I would say Deadpool, if you can call him a superhero. But if we’re talking about if I could have their powers, it would probably be Superman. I’d want to keep it low-key enough to where I could still play college basketball and be a really good player, and I’d want to win a national championship. I couldn’t make it too obvious. I’d have to get pushed over now and again and not be super fast on the break.”
...animal to have as a pet. “A dog. I’m a firm believer that dogs are man’s best friend. They’re very loyal and always there for you. Growing up we had a little dog, but I recently just got a dog that splits time with my girlfriend and I. She’s a mini toy poodle and a mini Australian shepherd, so she’s like eight pounds. She’s a couple months away from turning two. Her name is Zoey. She has her own Instagram. You should check her out.”
Social Media Post of the Week
One to Watch: North Carolina vs. Texas, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1
There are a number of intriguing possible tournament matchups this weekend, but without knowing how the brackets will play out, it’s hard to recommend a viewing schedule. But among the games we know we will be seeing, the Thanksgiving evening meeting between the Tar Heels and Longhorns looks particularly good. North Carolina has stormed out of the gate, scoring more than 100 points three times already thanks to the nation’s fourth-most efficient offense operating at the country’s second-fastest pace. That will be tested by Texas’s top-10 defense, which features one of the few lineups that can match the Tar Heels’ size. If they’re going to pull off the upset, though, the Longhorns will likely need to shoot better than their 29.3% mark from three-point range so far this season.