DETROIT METRO AIRPORT — Greetings from the Great Midwest, where I sit, bleary-eyed and coffee-addled, after a fun week of college hoops. On Tuesday night, I was at the United Center to watch Kentucky and Michigan State triumph over Duke and Kansas, respectively. That was followed by back-to-back nights of calling games for Big Ten Network—Indiana’s 86–65 drubbing of Creighton on Thursday and Xavier’s surprisingly comfortable 86–70 win at Michigan on Friday.
Besides the electricity of being in an arena and the excitement of a live broadcast, I enjoy calling games because it gives me deep insights into the teams. After hours of watching video, pouring over stats and articles, speaking to coaches and eyeballing the players at close range, I get a really good handle on what is going on.
So I’ll begin this week’s column breaking down what I learned—good and bad—about the four teams I saw up close. I will be performing the same exercise next week for the eight teams participating in the Battle 4 Atlantis, which I will be covering for AXS TV for the fifth straight year. (Hey, someone’s gotta do it.) Thanksgiving week is here, which means there is lots of hearty hoops about to be served. Allow me to set the table:
The good:Thomas Bryant, Indiana’s 6’10” 245-pound center, is better than I thought. A lot better. I had seen Bryant play some in high school (most recently during college workouts at the adidas Nations camp over the summer), and I watched the Hoosiers’ first two games and exhibition on video. Bryant struck me as a sturdy specimen who could provide Indiana with the interior defense and rebounding it lacked last season, but offensively he seemed limited. Watching him at practice on Wednesday, I thought Bryant didn’t move all that gracefully. When he runs the court, he uses short strides.
My perception changed drastically altered as I watched Bryant go for 17 points, seven rebounds, four blocks and two assists against the Bluejays. He even sank a three-pointer from the right corner midway through the first half. Bryant might not be all that fluid—he reminds me of former Iowa center Acie Earl—but he is in control of his body and has magnificent footwork. He also has a precocious feel for the game. At one point in the second half, he ran the floor to chase down an errant pass. As he was falling out of bounds, he gathered the ball and had the presence of mind to turn and find 6’7” junior swingman Troy Williams for a layup. Bryant has a nice array of post moves and can finish with either hand. He is also making 67% of his free throws.
Best of all, he plays with incredible energy. With a little more than three minutes to go, there was a scramble for a loose ball, and the Hoosiers retained possession. Bryant let out a guttural scream, stomped his feet several times and raised his arms to the crowd. At the time, the Hoosiers were winning by 19 points in the waning minutes of a nonconference game in November. This dude cares. And he can play. The rest of the Big Ten should take note.
The bad: The Hoosiers, which were mediocre defensively last season, did an excellent job guarding Creighton’s perimeter action and locating their shooters in transition. However, when Bryant goes out, there is no serviceable backup. Tom Crean dismissed two possibilities, Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Emmitt Holt, for disciplinary reasons, and Max Bielfeldt, the 6’8” graduate transfer from Michigan, is more comfortable facing up on the perimeter. So if Bryant gets into foul trouble, Indiana will once again play with a big ole hole in the middle.
The larger concern has been the Hoosiers’ inability to get to the foul line. This team should make a killing at the line, yet Indiana has averaged just 14.7 attempts per game. Guards Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon have combined for 10 free throw attempts in three games. Crean told me he intends to emphasize this in the future, but I say there’s no time like the present. Making a ton of jump shots might be enough to beat Creighton at home, but it likely won’t beat good teams in the conference on the road, much less in the later rounds of the NCAA tournament.
The good: The Bluejays trailed Indiana by seven points within the first three minutes and were never close thereafter, so it’s hard to take many positives from the loss. However, I do believe this team is better than it was last year, when it finished in ninth place in the Big East. Greg McDermott has added two quality transfers as well as 6’3” freshman Khyri Thomas, a graceful, long-armed wing who is an excellent driver and finisher. Thomas is from Omaha, so if he blossoms into a great player, he could be a cult hero. Also, the team’s leading scorer, 6’2” junior guard Isaiah Zierden, is back after missing the final 13 games last season with a dislocated kneecap. (His freshman season also ended an MCL injury in the same knee.)
The addition who will make the most impact is Maurice Watson, a 6’3” point guard who transferred from Boston University. In his sophomore season at BU, Watson ranked third in the county in assists (7.1 per game). McDermott was convinced to take him when he saw Watson hold his own against former UConn guard Shabazz Napier. It is nearly impossible for defenders to keep Watson in front of them, especially since he is so adept at splitting traps. Against Indiana, Watson tried to carry more of the scoring load than he is capable of, but if his teammates can do a better job getting open and knocking down shots, Creighton’s offense will really be clicking.
The bad: Creighton’s offense is fast-paced and highly entertaining—as long as its players are not being defended by superior athletes. Against Indiana, the Bluejays were overwhelmed. Cole Huff, the 6’8” junior transfer from Nevada, came into the game as the team’s second-leading scorer, but it was his first road game in a Creighton uniform, and he managed just four points in 21 minutes. The Bluejays are simply not prepared to beat the truly elite teams right now.
The other concern for Creighton is that stylistically it is overly dependent on the three-point shot. In its previous two games, the Bluejays had averaged 98 points. The Hoosiers did a great job staying disciplined while guarding Creighton’s perimeter action, which forced the Bluejays to take shots that were deep and out of rhythm. McDermott was so concerned about Indiana’s transition game that he only sent one player to the glass on missed shots, which predictably yielded just eight offensive boards (despite 33 missed shots). So Creighton had to shoot lights out in order to beat a good team on the road. That’s not going to be a winning formula in the Big East this year.
The good: You can set aside all the numbers and explain the Musketeers’ domination of Michigan in a single word: Toughness. They beasted the Wolverines at all positions and on both ends of the floor. They shot 15-for-17 on free throws to build a nine-point halftime lead, and then they grabbed 12 offensive rebounds in the second half (18 overall) to keep the Wolverines at bay. Jalen Reynolds, a burly, 6’10”, 232-pound junior forward from Detroit, was Xavier’s best player for much of the night, but when he was whistled for his fourth foul with 8:21 to play, 6’10” senior forward James Farr came in and continued to dominate the backboards.
In three games this season, Xavier has made more free throws (73) than its opponents have attempted (69). And it is averaging 16.3 offensive rebounds per game. That’s toughness.
Yes, the Musketeers no longer have graduated center Matt Stainbrook, but as a result they are a much better defensive team. (Stainbrook’s inability to help out on ball screens prompted Chris Mack to play a lot of zone last season.) Moreover, they are a better driving team, not least because they added Edmond Sumner, a 6’3” freshman who redshirted last season because of tendinitis in his knee. Sumner is a wiry playmaker who plays a lot like former Musketeers guard Semaj Christon, but he’s a much better shooter than Christon was at this stage. Xavier has five really good perimeter players who can all drive, pass and make open threes, and they love to share the ball. Pretty solid all around.
The bad: There’s a fine line between emotion and intensity, and too often in his career Reynolds has crossed it. Last season, he was whistled for nine technicals, and his tendency to get frustrated leads to foul trouble. All of that adds up to inconsistency. To wit, he had 16 points and 15 rebounds in the opener against Miami (Ohio), but he went scoreless in game two against Missouri. As good as he was on Friday night, he was close to getting T’d up a couple of times. (He is from Detroit and was obviously motivated to show up Michigan for not recruiting him). After Mack took him out following his fourth foul, Reynolds started jawing with fans behind Xavier’s bench.
With Stainbrook anchoring the frontcourt (and the locker room) last season, the Musketeers could manage with both the good and bad of what Reynolds offers. Now, however, they need him to be more stable. He needs that for his own sake as well, because Farr, who had a 15 points and 14 rebounds (both career highs) in the win over Missouri, has proven to be plenty capable of taking Reynolds’ minutes should his emotions get the better of him.
The good: Though Friday was a tough night, Wolverines fans can take heart that this is not the team they will (hopefully) be seeing come January. Junior guard Zak Irvin (back) and senior point guard Spike Albrecht (hips) are both still working their way back from off-season surgery. Irvin is now available after sitting out the season opener, but because he was totally dormant for three months, it will be some time before his body is back to prime condition. Albrecht, likewise, is only averaging 12 minutes per game as he rebuilds his muscles. Michigan coach John Beilein told me that he is hoping those two will be at full strength by the time Big Ten play begins.
Meanwhile, 6’7” senior forward Caris Levert, who missed the final two months of last season because of a broken foot, is primed to have an All-Big Ten-caliber season. If anything, Levert looked even quicker and more athletic than he did when I saw him a year ago. He did everything but refill the water bucket against Xavier en route to a 29-point, seven-rebound, three-assist, two-steal performance. He singlehandedly kept Michigan within striking distance.
Though junior point guard Derrick Walton Jr., who also missed the last half of last season with a foot injury, played miserably on Friday, I still think he’s headed for a solid season, especially now that he is playing alongside Levert again. (Walton had a career-high 24 points againt Elon on Nov. 16.) The Wolverines also got flashes of promise from two newcomers—Duncan Robinson, the 6’8” transfer from D-III Williams College (7-for-10 from three this season) and 6’10” freshman forward Moritz Wagner, a native of Germany who has the potential to become the team’s best scoring option in the post. I’m not sure how high this team’s ceiling is, but I know there is a lot of room between there and where they are now.
The bad: At the 11:17 mark of the second half, Reynolds committed a hard foul on Levert as he attempted a breakaway layup. Beilein was incensed—not only because there was no flagrant foul called (the refs didn’t even check the monitor), but also because none of Levert’s teammates stuck up for him. Beilein recognizes that this is a potential long-term problem. “The good news is we’ve got a bunch of nice kids off the court,” he told me. “The bad news is we’ve got a bunch of nice kids on the court.”
All night long, Xavier was quicker to the ball and more ferocious on the glass. But they also had more athletic personnel in the frontcourt. Michigan’s two big men, 6’9” sophomores Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle, were not agile enough to keep Reynolds and company off the glass. Robinson is a slender, perimeter-oriented forward, and Wagner is too green to be effective down low just yet. As a result, Xavier outscored Michigan 34–14 in the paint.
I’m sure Beilein will find ways to get his team to improve in these areas, but as the saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone. Michigan is going to have to beat quality opponents from the outside-in this season. That way of playing can be effective, but it comes with much less margin for error.
Early returns on new rules are promising
It’s only three days’ worth of data, but the early signs are clear: The new rules and officiating points of emphasis designed to speed things up and re-establish freedom of movement are having their intended effect—so far. The NCAA put out some numbers crunched by stats maven and Michigan State assistant AD Kevin Pauga. Here is what they showed:
Points per game
Possessions per game
Field goals made per game
Difference: +6.4 %
Free throws made per game
Fouls per game
Field goal percentage
Points per possession
If there is one cause for concern, it’s that the biggest percentage increase has been in the number of fouls, but that number is still pretty much in line with the other increases. You’ll also notice that the pace of play has ticked up nicely. And even though critics of these changes insist that the only reason scoring is up is because of the additional fouls, the actual number of points brought on by those fouls is 1.08 points—or just 22%.
That’s right: Less than a quarter of the scoring increase is attributable to free throws. Absorb it, memorize it, tell all your friends.
Also, the fact that field goal percentage is basically unchanged undercuts one of the arguments against shortening the shot clock, which held that it would lead to more bad shots. The slight increase in points per possession is likewise a good sign.
The last time the NCAA tried to bring tighter officiating into effect was for the 2013–14 season. In that year, scoring went up 3.5 points per game. Made free throws, however, went up 1.96 per game that season, which accounted for 56% of the increase in points. That shows how much better these changes have gone over this season, largely because they are so comprehensive.
It is likely that these numbers will scale down as we move into conference play, but should this hold, it would represent the second-biggest scoring increase in recorded history, and the largest since 1964. If that’s not a win, I don’t know what is.
One final note. I’ve been speaking to a lot of coaches and officials, and I’m convinced that all the efforts over the summer and fall to educate everyone and prepare them for what’s coming have made the transition more seamless. Yes, there is still too much inconsistency and we have had our share of flow-killing whistle fests, but even as the kinks are being worked out, there is a healthy dialogue going on between coaches and refs. As one official told me last week, “It’s new for them, but it’s new for us, too.” As long as everyone keeps talking, there is reason to believe the evolution to a cleaner game will be quicker and smoother than many of us feared.
• Whatever congeniality remained between Kansas and the NCAA with regard to freshman forward Cheick Diallo’s eligiblity is gone. Last week, the school wrote—and subsequently leaked to the media—a scathing critique of the NCAA’s handling of this case. If we take the letter on its face, it looks to be a damning indictment of the way the eligibility center headquartered (which is in Indianapolis under the supervision of Oliver Luck) has handled this matter.
But here’s the problem: We haven’t heard the NCAA’s side. It is hard to imagine a justification for this process taking so long, but one thing everybody should agree on is that this process needs much more transparency. Problem is, the NCAA is handcuffed both by association rules and federal law when it comes to disclosing much of this information.
Therefore, I call on Kansas and Diallo to release the NCAA from its obligations to keep things confidential. Let’s air everything out so the public can make a fair judgment. Because as of now, the NCAA is losing the public relations war by a huge margin. We need a better explanation, but mostly, we need a resolution.
• Kudos to Duke’s Grayson Allen for bouncing back from his tough outing against Kentucky (he scored a combined 62 points in wins over VCU and Georgetown in New York at the 2K Classic), but what the Blue Devils need most is for Brandon Ingram to start becoming a factor. The 6’9” freshman, who is projected on some boards to be a top-five NBA draft pick next June, has averaged 5.7 points and shot 50-for-20 in his last three outings. Just goes to show a) how big a leap it is from high school to college and b) not all national freshman classes are alike.
• North Carolina sophomore forward Justin Jackson’s numbers looked pretty good in the loss to Northern Iowa (25 points and four rebounds on 3-for-7 three-point shooting), but when the Panthers were on a backbreaking 20–4 run, he was nowhere to be found. Yes, UNC was playing without Marcus Paige, but they will be at their best when Jackson is at his most assertive. Physically, he’s high-level; confidence-wise, he’s just not there yet.
• I can officially report that the 1-3-1 zone is making a comeback. This might be the most wonderful trend I’ve seen in a long while. A happy offshoot of the new rules.
• It sounds like Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet will miss at least part of the Shockers’ games at the Advocare Invitational in Orlando this week. He was clearly hobbled by a strained left hamstring in the Shockers’ loss at Tulsa and missed the next game entirely. That is not an injury you want to mess with in November.
• Gonzaga’s Damontas Sabonis is averaging 20.5 points per game while shooting 82.6%. Reads like a typo, doesn’t it?
• Although I’m still not sure about those Zags guards. I’ll get a close look at ’em at the Atlantis and report back to you.
• For the record, I am not in favor of college basketball going to the 24-second clock. I like preserving some distinction from the NBA.
• I learned recently that FIBA’s stat sheets for international games include the number of fouls drawn by each player. Why don’t we do that?
• Notre Dame junior point guard Demetrius Jackson is capable of scoring a ton of points, but the Irish are at their best when he is getting his teammates involved. Teams with scoring balance are tougher to guard.
• Ditto for UCLA’s Bryce Alford.
• I’m not sure if Sean Miller was really taking a shot at UCLA last week when he referenced an unnamed team playing in front of a lot of empty seats, but if he wasn’t, he should have been. Here are UCLA’s attendance numbers from its first three home games: 6,674; 6,595; 6,063. Yes, I realize it’s L.A., and the weather is beautiful and the traffic is terrible, but still. It’s not so much that the fans don’t show up, it’s that they demand Woodenesque results even though they are not willing to do their part. There are a lot of things Steve Alford can sell to recruits about UCLA’s program, but fan dedication isn’t one of them.
• Love that Tom Crean is committing to the no-tie look. Remember, folks, it’s not a trend—it’s a movement. (UConn coach Kevin Ollie and Villanova coach Jay Wright are excused from this. Their gear is always next level.)
• Maryland’s Diamond Stone, Indiana’s Thomas Bryant, Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan. There are seasons where we don’t get three freshman centers this good in all of college basketball, much less in a single league.
• Speaking of Purdue, during Sunday’s impressive win against Florida in Connecticut, the Boilermakers got a career performance from sophomore point guard P.J. Thompson, who came off the bench to have 15 points, five rebounds, four assists, two steals and, best of all, zero turnovers. Pretty amazing considering the kid had never even scored in double digits before. Was this an aberration, or the start of something good? If it’s the latter, it’s a game changer for this team.
• That Maryland-Georgetown game was soooooooo good. There is no excuse for Mark Turgeon and John Thompson III not to make this an annual series. None. Get it done, fellas.
• Louisville’s Chinanu Onuaku is shooting his free throws underhanded this season. I will keep writing, saying and tweeting this until every man, woman and child in America knows it.
• Repeat after me: When you’re home, you can shoot threes. When you’re on the road, you gotta shoot frees.
• In its loss at home to Arkansas-Little Rock, San Diego State had three senior frontcourt players (Winston Shepard, Skylar Spencer, Angelo Chol) go scoreless. Might be a long time before we see something like that again.
• My favorite alltime college basketball cheer could be heard at Austin Peay when James “Fly” Williams played there in the early 1970’s: “The Fly is open ... Let’s go Peay!”
• Been a rough start, to say the least, for Illinois. The Illini are 1–3 with home/neutral losses to North Florida and Chattanooga. (Illinois’s homecourt is being renovated, so the team is playing its first four home games in Springfield.) Moreover, the team is playing without its two best guards, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, for another month or so because of injuries. And senior point guard Tracy Abrams was lost to injury before the season even began. That, combined with the quality of the Big Ten, will make for a long, cold winter in Champaign, I’m afraid.
• Do I detect signs of life at USC in Year 3 of the Enfield Experiment? The Trojans improved to 3–0 courtesy of a 90–82 win at home over a pretty good New Mexico team that also came in 3–0. USC’s guards are balling, but I love the way freshman center Chimezie Metu protects the rim. (He had five blocks in the win.) Funny how much better a team’s defense gets when you add that dimension.
• I generally try to steer away from using words like “underrated” or “unheralded,” but if you’re going to ascribe them to anyone, put them on Cal senior guard Tyrone Wallace. For all the hype about the Bears’ frontcourt freshmen (who are doing their part to live up to that hype, I might add), Wallace leads the Bears in scoring (21.3) and assists (5.3) while making 59.5% of his shots. If he ever learns to knock down three-pointers with consistency (he’s shooting 33.3% this year), it’ll be over with.
• The Gavitt Tipoff Games, featuring Big Ten teams playing Big East teams, were a huge success, and a fitting tribute to one of the real giants of this game. However, they also underscored the need for a national officiating staff. In this event, the road team got to “assign” the refs, so the home team’s coach was naturally suspicious. Why is it we have a system where officials are affiliated with certain leagues? Isn’t this an obvious conflict of interest? I dream of a world where there is no such thing as a “Big East ref” or a “Big Ten ref.” Everybody should work for everybody and be assigned games based purely on merit. We may be a few years away from that happening, but it’s going to happen.
• Utah could turn out to be Exhibit A of why a team will suffer from suspect guard play even if it has high-level post production. That problem got exposed pretty badly in last week’s shellacking at the hands of Miami. Delon Wright did a lot of really important things for Utah last year, and he will be awfully hard to replace.
• Don’t sleep on the Ivy this season. Columbia and Yale fought Northwestern and SMU, respectively, to the wire before losing over the weekend. Yet, Harvard and Princeton are the favorites. And remember, there is no conference tournament in the Ivy, so it should be a wild last couple of weeks in New England.
Five games I'm psyched to see this week
This is going to be a matchup of arguably the top two freshmen in the country. You know about LSU’s Ben Simmons (18.7 ppg, 12.7 rpb, 4.7 apg), but Marquette forward Henry Ellenson is also putting up some big numbers (14 ppg, 9 rpg, 3 apg). The difference is that Simmons is getting a lot more help from his friends.
LSU 77, Marquette 64
UNLV vs. UCLA, Maui Invitational, Monday, 11:30 p.m., ESPN2
UCLA has some pretty good pieces, but they’re not fitting well together. The Bruins committed 23 turnovers in a season-opening loss at home to Monmouth, and in their next outing they struggled to put away Cal Poly before winning by five. UNLV sophomore forward Patrick McCaw is blossoming into a big-time scorer (16.7 ppg, 57.1% from three), but I’m anxious to see if he can do it against better competition.
UNLV 74, UCLA 70
Gonzaga vs. Washington, The Bahamas, Wednesday, noon, ESPN2
These teams used to play each other regularly, but unfortunately that fell by the wayside. The Zags have one of the nation’s top froncourts, so Washington, which has a brand new roster but scored an impressive season-opening win over Texas in China, will try to speed things up and make the game be decided by the guards. Easier said than done.
Gonzaga 84, Washington 74
Cal vs. San Diego State, Thursday, 11:59 p.m., Las Vegas, FS1
I imagine the Aztecs will play better than they did during their loss to Arkansas-Little Rock at home—they can’t play any worse—but they are going up against a team that is better and deeper at every position.
Cal 78, UNLV 67
UConn vs. Michigan, The Bahamas, Wednesday, 9:30 p.m., AXS TV
As I indicated above, it will be several weeks before Michigan is at full strength. The Wolverines will have to contend with UConn shot blocker Amida Brimah, but the matchup between Caris Levert and Daniel Hamilton will be exquisite. (NOTE: I will be calling this game for AX TV, so I will refrain from making a prediction. You’re welcome.)
This week's AP ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Maryland (1)
2. Kentucky (3)
3. Michigan State (16)
4. Kansas (5)
5. Duke (6)
6. Gonzaga (9)
7. North Carolina (2)
8. Indiana (7)
9. Villanova (12)
10. UConn (15)
11. Iowa State (10)
12. California (11)
13. Miami (NR)
14. Arizona (13)
15. Oklahoma (14)
16. Purdue (25)
17. Virginia (4)
18. Wichita State (8)
19. LSU (20)
20. Vanderbilt (21)
21. Xavier (NR)
22. Butler (17)
23. Oregon (NR)
24. SMU (18)
25. Cincinnati (NR)
I thought about dropping the Terps from the top spot because of their spotty performance against Rider, but in the end I figured if you’re No. 1, you should stay there until you lose. Besides, I was impressed by Maryland’s comeback. I realize it was against an inferior team at home, but the Terps showed competitive spirit. I also continue to believe that Diamond Stone is headed for a huge year, and he is just scratching the surface.
It was not easy deciding where to rank North Carolina. Yes, the Heels lost a game they should have won against Northern Iowa, but not many top-ranked team are playing true road games this time of year. And of course, UNC was playing without its best player, Marcus Paige. If Paige were going to be out for a long time, I probably would have dropped the Heels more, but considering he should be back in a couple of weeks, I decided not to over-react. Let’s see if they vindicate me moving forward.
As you can see, I have four new teams in this week, beginning with Miami at No. 13. The Hurricanes obliterated then-No. 16 Utah, and they followed it up by handling a pretty good Butler team on Sunday. The 'Canes pass every eye test. In a season in which qualtity, veteran guard play is at a premium, the Canes’ corps of Sheldon McClellan, Angel Rodriguez and Davon Reed are a dependable group. And that Tonye Jekiri is a load in the middle.
Michigan may have been overrated coming into the season, but having seen Xavier up close and personal, I’m a believer. (For now, anyway.) Oregon deserves to be ranked after beating Baylor and Valparaiso at home despite being short-handed because of injuries.
I might have considered ranking Northern Iowa based on its win over North Carolina, but the Panthers lost their opener at home to Colorado State. Among the others I considered are Louisville, which doesn’t face a difficult test until it plays Dec. 2 at Michigan State; Tulsa, whose 4–0 start includes a win at home over Wichita State; George Washington, which notched a huge upset over Virginia but struggled to beat winless South Florida on the road; Oregon State, which is undefeated and will face a plucky Valparaiso team this week in Corvallis; Dayton, which is 3-0 and plays at Vanderbilt on Dec. 9; and Texas A&M, which will play a huge rivalry game against Texas this week at the Battle 4 Atlantis.