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Hoop Thoughts: Evaluating top teams after a wild opening weekend

How top teams like Duke, Wisconsin, Kentucky, North Carolina and Iowa State performed on opening weekend.

Steve Prohm’s debut as the coach at Iowa State was going along just fine ... until it wasn’t. With a little more than 13 minutes to play in the second half on Friday, the Cyclones’ opponent, Colorado, unspooled 11 unanswered points to cut Iowa State’s lead to 43–40 with 9:48 to play. On the bench, Prohm struck a serene pose, just like his predecessor, Fred Hoiberg, often did. Inside, however, he was dying.

“I kept thinking to myself, man, we’re making this harder than it needs to be,” Prohm told me by telephone on Saturday. “I’ve been thinking about that first game since I took the job. I knew we couldn’t lose or it would have been a rough day today in Ames.”

Fortunately for Prohm, the Cyclones didn’t lose. They relied on their talented veterans, primarily do-everything senior forward Georges Niang, to emerge with a 68–62 win in Sioux Falls, S.D. Prohm admitted that he was more nervous before that game than at any time of his career. “Not only was it my first game here, but it was against a Power 5 team,” he said. “Then you look at all the upsets that happened over the course of the weekend, and you’re glad you won regardless of the score.”

Indeed, hoopheads everywhere are both elated and relieved that the curtain has been raised on a brand new season. It was a sour opening for slew of power programs who fell at home to “lesser” teams—Georgetown (to Radford, 82-80, at home in double overtime), Georgia (to Chattanooga, 92-90, at home in overtime) NC State (to William and Mary, 85-68, at home), UCLA (to Monmouth, 84-81, at home in overtime) and Wisconsin (to Western Illinois, 69-67, at home) among them. But there is plenty of sugar in store. The important thing is that all the preview meshugas is over. Now, finally, we can form impressions based on what we see, not on what we think we’re going to see.

Fortunately for me, I get to see a lot. I do most of my game watching these days via a website that enables me to load videos onto my laptop. So I can spin through a lot more action in a lot less time. After spending much of my weekend going through the videos, I am ready to report my opening impressions on a dozen top teams.

Kentucky (def. Albany, 78–65; def. NJIT, 87–57)

These games were a tale of two Skals. In the opener, the Wildcats’ prized freshman center, Skal Labissiere, seemed tentative and out of sorts. He did not score in the first half and finished with nine points. It was no coincidence that at the start of the second game, John Calipari immediately went to Labissiere time and again. The result was an array of turnaround hook shots and face-up jumpers en route to a 26-point performance on 10-for-12 shooting. If Labissiere continues to be that aggressive offensively, Kentucky will be nearly impossible to guard.

Opening night impressions: Allen shines, Kentucky has growing pains

The perimeter freshmen were a little shaky—Isaiah Briscoe did not play in the opener because of a bruised knee; Jamal Murray missed his first eight shots in Game 2—but that is to be expected early on. The good news for the Wildcats is that two of their veterans appear bound for productive seasons. Junior center Marcus Lee is going to be a worthy complement to Labissiere, especially if that pair can develop their high-low passing game. And 6'9" junior forward Derek Willis was so impressive contributing 14 points off the bench in the opener that Calipari started him against NJIT.

On the other hand, Calipari continues to express frustration with senior forward Alex Poythress’s unwillingness to embrace his role as a high-energy beast off the bench. This team is going to need all the upperclassman toughness and leadership it can get moving forward.

LSU (def. McNeese State, 81-70)

Needless to say, there was a lot of anticipation for Ben Simmons’s collegiate debut, and the 6'10" forward from Melbourne did not disappoint. He had 11 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, including a made-for-Vine behind-the-back bounce pass in the open court in the game’s opening minutes. That pass, incidentally, was thrown with Simmons’ right hand, even though he is a lefty. So we have something special here.

I’ve said that Simmons is the best passing big man to enter the college game since Kevin Love arrived at UCLA in the fall of 2007, but Love’s passes were more conventional for his position. Simmons’s ability to handle the ball in transition and make good decisions is truly sublime. He is also effective in the post passing out of double teams. The biggest concern about Simmons is his reluctance to look for his own offense. That was often the case in high school, but when he was challenged to score, he usually did it in droves. If LSU is going to be a factor in the postseason, it will need Simmons to dominate, not just facilitate.

Simmons is one of three outstanding freshmen in the Tigers' starting lineup. You probably know about Antonio Blakeney, a 6'4" jumping jack who had 22 points and 10 rebounds against the Cowboys, but I was also impressed with 6'6" guard Brandon Sampson, who sank 4-of-6 from three-point range and finished with 18 points. Throw in 6'6" junior Tim Quarterman, and LSU has four players (including Simmons) who can run the offense or score off the ball. That’s a lot of length and versatility on one roster.

Also keep in mind that the Tigers will eventually add three players who weren’t available for this game. Sharp shooting senior guard Keith Hornsby is out until mid-December because of an injury; senior guard Josh Gray was serving a one-game suspension for playing in an unsanctioned summer league game; and 6'9" sophomore forward Craig Victor will be eligible in mid-December after transferring from Arizona. Those guys will add depth, but they will not easily displace the young studs who started this game.

Iowa State (def. Colorado, 68–62)

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At 6'8" and 230 pounds, Georges Niang is not physically overpowering, and he’s nobody’s idea of an athletic freak. He is just efficient, smart and highly skilled. Niang might be the toughest mismatch in college basketball. I can see Prohm using him much like Fred Hoiberg used Royce White a few years back.

When the Buffaloes cut into Iowa State’s lead in the second half, Niang calmly took over, not just with his scoring but also with his passing. He made the game’s most pivotal play by executing a spin dribble into the lane and then lobbing an alley-oop pass to 6'9" senior Jameel McKay, which gave Iowa State a seven-point cushion with a minute to go. Niang also often brought up the ball against Colorado’s fullcourt pressure, initiating a sequence that led to a clinching bucket by 6'6" senior