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  • It's early, but for varying reasons, these six teams have us extra curious now that the first three weeks of the 2018–19 season are in the books. Plus, a chat with Grant Williams and more in the Midweek Rebound.
By Dan Greene
November 28, 2018

For a sport that often struggles to stage marquee early-season matchups in abundance, college basketball’s opening month has been a good one. Beginning with the Champions Classic that headlined the season’s first night with then-No. 4 Duke trouncing then-No. 2 Kentucky, this young season has already seen three matchups between a pair of top-five teams (including Duke-Gonzaga last week in Maui and Kansas-Tennessee in Brooklyn) and a good number of other clashes between ranked contenders, among them Duke-Auburn, Michigan-Villanova, Kansas-Michigan State, Purdue-Virginia Tech, and Virginia-Wisconsin.

What this means, beyond college hoops fans getting a compelling slate of games to watch, is that we have a better sense than usual at this time of year about where various contenders stand. There are no questions whether Gonzaga can beat the big boys or play like an elite team without injured forward Killian Tillie; we’ve seen the shorthanded Bulldogs beat Duke. We don’t have to guess how those same Blue Devils’ wunderkinder will fare against another blend of former five-star recruits or against a more experienced power-conference foe; we’ve seen them handle Kentucky and Auburn. And there’s no need to guess whether it is reasonable to expect Kansas, reliant as it is on new pieces, to maintain its astounding run atop the Big 12; we’ve seen the Jayhawks dispatch Michigan State, Marquette, and Tennessee on neutral floors, the latter two in a three-night span—as good a litmus test for the coming conference gantlet as one could ask for.

Of course, it remains too early to draw any real conclusions about the above teams—college basketball teams, as much or more than those in any sport, are growing, evolving things that often begin the season far different than (and ideally inferior to) their final forms. But if you are trying to make sense of the college hoops pecking order, this season’s opening three weeks have provided a good chunk of early data.

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That said, there are still a number of teams—some largely untested, some playing under extenuating circumstances—about which we are still waiting to learn much of value. So as November winds down, here is a list of a half-dozen teams about which I remain particularly curious:

Nevada

The Wolf Pack, currently No. 5 in the AP poll, entered this season with lofty expectations and have done nothing to disappoint them, winning all six of their games so far by double figures and performing as the country’s most efficient offense to date. But until beating Loyola Chicago on Tuesday, they had done so while facing just one opponent ranked in the top 125 nationally in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency ratings: 63rd-ranked BYU, which was playing without suspended starter Nick Emery and lost its only other game against a top-125 team (Houston, which is 37th) by 14. To get an idea of whether Nevada might fulfill the implied expectation that it could reach the NCAA tournament’s final weekend, we will need to see how it handles playing at USC and a neutral-site date with Arizona State over the next two weeks.

Syracuse

The Orange tumbled out of the national rankings after being swept out of the 2K Classic by UConn and Oregon, an inauspicious start for a team returning all its starters from a Sweet 16 run. But there is an important asterisk on that last part: all of Cuse’s starters had not yet returned, since point guard Frank Howard was inactive due to injury, forcing freshman Jalen Carey to handle point duties. Howard returned to the lineup last Wednesday in a win over Colgate, but played just 19 minutes—less than half of the 38.4 he averaged last season. Until Howard gets up to speed, will won't get a true glimpse at the Orange we can expect to see in ACC play and March.

Iowa State

The Cyclones have not exactly struggled out of the gate, going 6–1 with a close loss to Arizona, which has to be encouraging for coach Steve Prohm because they have not been playing at close to full strength. Like Syracuse, Iowa State has been without its starting point guard—sophomore Lindell Wigginton, who has been out since the season opener with a foot injury—but it has also had to deal with the absence of starting forward Solomon Young, who underwent groin surgery in October... and the suspensions of forwards Cameron Lard and Zoran Talley, who both started more than 10 games last season. Lard and Talley will be eligible to return the first week of December, while Young and Wigginton’s timetables are less certain. This team could be an interesting one to watch come together.

Kansas State

The strength of the Wildcats again looks to be their defense, which currently ranks fifth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, up from 21st a year ago and 33rd the year before that. If they can defend that well, they should be able to make up for what looks to be a middle-of-the-road Big 12 offense. But Kansas State has reached that efficiency level without playing an offense ranked higher nationally than Missouri’s 125th—and those Tigers fared even worse offensively against Kennesaw State than they did against the Wildcats. We should get some indication about K-State’s D this Saturday when it visits Marquette, which can score in bunches.

St. John’s

The Red Storm are creeping closer to a top-25 ranking (they received enough votes this week to basically be 34th, if you look at it that way) and with a remaining non-conference slate consisting of six home games against mid-majors and a date with Georgia Tech in Miami, they could remain undefeated for a good while, rising in the polls accordingly. The strength of this team—its talented backcourt of returnee Shamorie Ponds and Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron—has yielded good returns so far, often with one picking up the slack when the other has had an off game. But as two guards who excel with the ball in their hands, their partnership will be an ongoing experiment and has yet to face the caliber of test that will make or break the Red Storm’s season in Big East play.

Kentucky

Last but not least, what to make of the Wildcats? There has been little in-between about Kentucky’s schedule so far: it was run off the floor by a loaded Duke team in Indianapolis, then has spent the ensuing six games hosting smaller-conference schools. Were the Wildcats just caught flat-footed against a Duke team loaded with top-of-the-draft talent on opening night, or was it a sign of weaknesses (offensive turnover rate, so-so outside shooting) that will hold them back against high-caliber competition? November didn’t offer many opportunities to find out. With December will come trips outside of Lexington to play Seton Hall, North Carolina, and Louisville, and with them the beginnings of some answers.

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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 yell at me about my picks in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.


ICYMI

Reports of Villanova’s death may have been greatly exaggerated. The Wildcats’ follow-up to their second national title in three years got off to a rough start when they were drilled by Michigan at home and then lost to Furman in OT a few days later. A step back was to be expected given Villanova’s unusually high roster turnover, but that combo of losses—one a blowout and the other against a team it was paying to play the game—on its own floor, not to mention how uncharacteristically out of sorts the Wildcats seemed in the process, suggested to many that they may be in for a long season on the Main Line.

All of which meant the holiday weekend that Villanova had was that much more encouraging for its season’s prospects. Playing in the AdvoCare Invitational at Walt Disney World in Florida, the Wildcats took care of Canisius then beat Oklahoma State by 19 and then-No. 14 Florida State by six. Even better, it wasn’t just established returnees Phil Booth and Eric Paschall completely carrying the team: Freshman forward Saddiq Bey, newly installed as a starter, had 13 points and nine rebounds against the Cowboys, and sophomores Collin Gillespie (a game-high 17 points) and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (11 points, 5-for-5 shooting, eight rebounds, two blocks, two steals) were pivotal in prevailing over the Seminoles. It may not have been enough to erase memories of that brutal week at Finneran Pavilion, but it was a good indication that Villanova’s season is not chartered for disaster. Even if it may be a more uneven process than we have grown accustomed to seeing from Jay Wright’s teams, these Wildcats could still jell into contenders.


High Five

1. Gonzaga: It doesn’t get much better than knocking off the country’s No. 1 team and replacing it atop the polls—but coming from behind against Arizona to win going away was nice too. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, while they wait for Killian Tillie to return, they must also weather the temporary loss of Geno Crandall to a broken hand.

2. Kansas: The poor Jayhawks just keep taking care of business and getting leapfrogged in the polls. The neutral-site wins over Marquette and Tennessee in Brooklyn last week, paired with the opening-night win over Michigan State in Indy, give Kansas as good a November résumé as you’ll find.

3. Virginia: It may not have lit up the scoreboard, but the Cavs’ 53–46 win over Wisconsin in the Battle 4 Atlantis final was still more proof that there is no post-UMBC hangover for Tony Bennett’s team. De’Andre Hunter, who missed that historic upset last March, is looking like a star.

4. Texas Tech: So much for the Red Raiders falling off after losing so much of their Elite Eight squad. Chris Beard has this team again playing stifling defense and guard Jarrett Culver has taken nicely to a featured role as a sophomore. No opponent, including USC and Nebraska, has finished within 15 points of Tech so far.

5. Bradley: The Braves had to have enjoyed their trip to Mexico, where they knocked off SMU and Penn State on consecutive nights, during which sophomore forward Elijah Childs scored a total of 39 points. Bradley looks ready to make a push for the Missouri Valley crown.


Top of the Classes

Senior: Chris Clemons, Campbell guard

The Camels came up short in their upset bid at Georgetown, but the 5’ 9” Clemons more than carried his weight, scoring 45 points and grabbing eight rebounds—impressively, both one shy of career highs.

Junior: Dedric Lawson, Kansas forward

Averaging 25.0 points, 12.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and a blocked shot against two NCAA tournament teams is a good way to boost an All-America campaign.

Sophomore: Ty-Shon Alexander, Creighton guard

The 6’ 4” Charlotte native picked a good night to nearly double his career high with 36 points, including 7-of-12 three-point shooting and 11-of-11 shooting from the line, as his efforts helped the Bluejays knock off a ranked Clemson team in the Cayman Islands.

Freshman: Zion Williamson, Duke forward

Over a seven-day span that included the Blue Devils’ first loss, Williamson averaged 23.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 3.0 blocks, and 2.0 steals and kept on doing Zion Williamson things.


Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

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 Tennessee forward and last season’s SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, who is averaging 21.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 4.2 assists for the Volunteers. So, Grant, tell us about the best...

...movie you’ve seen this year. “Definitely Avengers: Infinity War. It just got put on Netflix, so I’m very excited. I’m a big superhero/supernatural guy. I love shows like Gotham, Arrow, Flash and movies of that nature as well. I’ve liked every Marvel movie I think I’ve seen, like Black Panther, Iron Man—any movie they’re making. I’ll go see Captain Marvel when it comes out. I’m excited for it.”

...class you’ve taken in college. “The most interesting was probably Spanish 300. It was more culturally based and I also learned how to type papers in Spanish, which was way more difficult than I thought it would be. Imagine having to learn punctuation and sentence structure and use accents on a word. And then it was big for me being able to use the language when we traveled to Spain and to Ecuador this past summer. I was basically one of our translators most of the time.”

...place to eat back home. “I love this place called Genghis Grill. It’s a Mongolian stir-fry bar. You just go get your meats, your seasonings, your sauces, and then they cook it and bring it out to you. It’s probably my favorite place ever. I always make the same exact bowl every single time: I mix beef, sausage, and ham and then the vegetables are baby corn and string beans with some egg and different seasonings like cayenne, cajun, dragon salt. You can put as much in that bowl as you can fit.”


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One to Watch: North Carolina at Michigan, Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN

The main event of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge shouldn’t disappoint. The nation’s fourth-most efficient offense visits its stingiest defense, a matchup that brings with it a stark clash in tempo as well (North Carolina ranks 11th, Michigan 327th). Lithuanian-Canadian freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis has been a revelation for the Wolverines so far, averaging 15.7 points and 5.8 boards, and the Tar Heels’ talented collection of forwards will be tasked with slowing him down. It was one of those forwards, Luke Maye, who starred in North Carolina’s win over Michigan a year ago, scoring 27 points on 16 shots, but it’s been Cam Johnson and freshman guard Coby White pacing the team in scoring thus far. Any of the aforementioned four, or Michigan wing Charles Matthews, could be the star this time around.

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