18 Things We Learned from the First Weekend of Conference Play

Recapping the first weekend of conference play and what it all means for the next two months of college hoops. Plus five teams on the rise, a Q&A with Villanova's Jalen Brunson and more.
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The last weekend of 2017 doubled as one of the regular highlights of the college basketball season: the first weekend with conference play fully in swing, where the stakes get higher and the basketball gets better and everything starts to get turned up toward a level a little closer to March.

If you missed it during the holiday hoopla, well, that’s too bad. But what you missed was about as good a Saturday of college hoops as one could ask for, with three undefeated teams losing, a barnburner at Cameron Indoor, a near-upset at the Dean Dome, and some truly phenomenal individual performances.

As a way to recap things with an eye toward the coming two months, and in spirit of celebrating the dawn of 2018 and sports’ long-running tradition of drawing too-soon conclusions off the first available data, here are 18 things we (maybe) learned from the first real weekend of conference play.

1. Nobody’s perfect. Thanks to losses by TCU, Arizona State, and Villanova, for the first time since 1948, we enter January with no undefeated Division I teams. This never seemed like a season with a juggernaut on top, but it’s unlikely anyone figured everyone would fall by now. Who’s got the best shot at running the table going forward? Put us down for Michigan State, but also for nobody doing so.

2. Arizona might be who we thought they were. The Wildcats ended rival Arizona State’s undefeated run in exciting fashion, with freshman stud Deandre Ayton leading the charge with 23 points and 19 boards. Arizona seems to have shaken off the funk that plagued it during the three-loss trip to the Bahamas, with the defense tightening and Ayton a seemingly unanswerable force. This is the title contender so many expected to see before the season.

3. Arizona State is still for real though. The Sun Devils did not go quietly, rallying back from several double-digit deficits thanks in no small part to relentless senior guard Tra Holder. Considering how good Arizona now looks, taking them to the limit in Tucson is confirmation that the Sun Devils are contenders. Circle that Feb. 15 rematch on your calendars.

4. Not even the Big 12 can bring Trae Young back to Earth. How’s this for a debut in the nation’s toughest conference: 39 points, 14 assists, and a win on the road at the (previously undefeated) No. 10 team in the country. Pretty good.

5. College basketball is lucky to have this freshman class. With all due respect to the trios of freshmen who have been selected at the tops of recent NBA drafts, when’s the last time there were three newbies as night-in, night-out impressive to watch in college as Ayton, Young and Marvin Bagley III have been so far? They’re currently ranked first (Young), fourth (Bagley), and fifth (Ayton) in Kenpom.com’s Player of the Year Standings, and numbers can only capture so much of the appeal.

6. Kentucky is coming along. After throttling Louisville at home on Friday in a rivalry game, the Wildcats turned around and took care of a quality, veteran Georgia team two days later. Freshman wing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had his two best games thus far, totalling 45 points, eight assists, and six steals off the bench. Those are both good signs heading into a tough SEC.

7. Kansas is an outside shooting team now. As the Kansas City Star’s Jesse Newell pointed out, when Kansas played Texas in 2014, the Jayhawks took 21.5% of their shots from beyond the arc. This weekend, 50.7% of their field goals (35 of 69) were threes, which Bill Self said was the plan. That proportion is now 40.7% for the season—up from 35.9% last year and huge departure from the low-30s-to-high-20s range Self’s team usually operates at.

8. North Carolina is looking relatively vulnerable. Ten days after Wofford won in Chapel Hill, visiting Wake Forest—which now stands 7-6, with home losses to Georgia Southern and Liberty—had the Tar Heels on the ropes late as well. Credit UNC for pulling this one out, but the rest of the ACC slate won’t offer as much wiggle room.

9. Texas Tech is looking legit. The Red Raiders beat Baylor halfway back to Waco on Saturday, leading 40-19 at halftime on their way to a 77-54 win that is their most impressive to date. Keenan Evans (16.6 ppg) is one of the best guards you probably don’t hear enough about.

10. Butler isn’t missing a beat. In fact, on Saturday, the Bulldogs were barely missing anything, shooting 68.2% from three while hanging 101 points on then-No. 1 Villanova. The upset is a sign that first-year head coach LaVall Jordan will likely be keeping Butler in its familiar position come March.

11. USC is heading in the wrong direction​. The Trojans’ home loss to a rebuilding Washington team was their second head-scratching loss in two weeks, after a 10-point overtime loss to Princeton on Dec. 19. Much was expected of Andy Enfield’s team this season before guard De’Anthony Melton was sidelined for reasons connected to the FBI investigation that also led to the arrest of assistant coach Tony Bland. The Washington loss was also the fourth time in six games that the Trojans allowed more than 1.2 points per possession.

12. Texas A&M’s toughest opponent might be itself. The Aggies were without their leading scorer for Saturday’s loss to Alabama due to D.J. Hogg’s three-game suspension for violating school policy, which was his second suspension of the season. Guards J.J. Caldwell and T.J. Starks were recently suspended as well, while big man Robert Williams began the season with a two-game suspension of his own. Hogg will also miss Tuesday’s game against Florida. This is a highly talented team capable of winning the SEC, but it needs to get out of its own way first.

13. We’re about to find out who Baylor is. The Bears were without center Jo Lual-Acuil for Saturday’s drubbing in Lubbock, but even with that caveat it’s easy to be concerned about them going forward. They get TCU and Texas at home before traveling to West Virginia—and this might be the most comfortable stretch of their Big 12 schedule.

14. Boston College is looking like a potential spoiler. The Eagles lost by just one point at Virginia on Saturday, a few weeks after beating Duke. It looks like the Blue Devils won’t be their only upset victims. B.C. is an ACC doormat no longer—and could even make a push toward the bubble.

15. Andrew Jones can’t get healthy soon enough. The sophomore guard—and Texas’s second leading scorer—is back after missing four games with a wrist injury, but only played 20 minutes over two games this weekend. The Longhorns’ offense struggled without him and will need his shooting badly throughout Big 12 play.

16. Watch out for Rhode Island. Another key player getting back up to speed: Rams wing E.C. Matthews, who missed six games with a wrist injury and returned Dec. 16 but only really started playing like himself this past week, when he averaged 19.0 points and 5.5 rebounds over two wins. Rhode Island blew out George Mason to begin Atlantic 10 play and should duke it out with St. Bonaventure, which handled UMass, for the league crown.

17. Texas Southern has made it through to the other side. The Tigers are favorites to win the SWAC according to both the league’s preseason poll and Kenpom.com, but until Monday they were 0-13 thanks to a non-conference schedule with zero home games and trips to Kansas, TCU, Gonzaga, and Baylor, among others. Their SWAC opener was a home game against Southern, which the Tigers won 78-66. 2018 should be much kinder to this team than 2017 was.

18. Unfortunately for Georgetown, it has too. A 10-1 start against the country’s softest non-conference schedule gave way to two losses to begin Patrick Ewing’s Big East coaching career. The good news for the Hoyas: they took Butler to two overtimes and were competitive at Marquette. But any win they get the rest of the way will be harder than any they already have.

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If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s weekly usually-Monday-morning-but-it-was-New-Year’s-Day-so-it’s-Tuesday-instead column on college hoops. It’s a sort of a grab-bag of news and tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to share your excitement about Thursday’s Wrestle Kingdom 12, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.

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Since we covered so much actual basketball ground above, here is something tangentially basketball-related that I certainly missed. The new tax code recently passed by Congress includes a pair of clauses that, as The Washington Post’s Will Dobson noted, will substantially impact college sports: “It eliminates the long-running—and much-criticized—deductions boosters have been able to take on donations tied to season tickets and imposes a tax on seven-figure salaries for employees of nonprofits.”

That booster write-off elimination almost surely means less money coming in, and the tax—a 21% rate on employees making over $1 million who are not practicing doctors or veterinarians—will mean more going out. (President Obama had previously tried to get rid of the booster deductions but been rebuffed by Congress.) Surely some creative accountants will find ways to mitigate the impact, but it’s something to keep an eye on in the future.

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As the scandal turns...

The holidays have made for some extended quiet on the FBI investigation fallout front, but SI legal expert Michael McCann weighed in with some typically thorough analysis on the legal question central to the case: Do the NCAA violations uncovered constitute criminal fraud? If you want an idea of what to expect from the legal proceedings, this is a good primer, as McCann examines the government’s interpretation of relevant laws and how the defendants will argue those don’t apply. Looming large is a 1993 precedent from U.S. v. Norby Walters, a case involving corruption in college football that does not bode well for the prosecution.

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High Five

Each week, we’ll be highlighting five teams on the rise. Here’s who stood out over the past week.

1. Butler: As noted on Twitter by NBC’s Rob Dauster, the Bulldogs scorched Villanova so thoroughly that the Wildcats dropped 15 spots in adjusted defensive efficiency. One nice surprise for LaVall Jordan so far: guard Paul Jorgensen, a transfer who has gone from middling George Washington reserve to high-efficiency Big East scorer.

2. Arizona: Somewhat lost in the (warranted) ballyhoo around Deandre Ayton is just how good Allonzo Trier has been. His two-point shooting is up to 63.2% (from 51.4% last season) and his three-point accuracy is up to 42.5% (from 39.1%), and he scored 23 points in 35 turnover-free minutes against Arizona State.

3. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders don’t exactly play fast, ranking 179th in average length of offensive possession (17.2 seconds), but that’s practically blistering compared to Chris Beard’s first two seasons as a head coach, in which his teams ranked 315th and 327th. The uptick in tempo appears to suit them well.

4. Kentucky: Wins over Louisville and Georgia in a three-day span should do well to get the taste of that pre-Christmas loss to UCLA out of the Wildcats’ mouths. Their upcoming trip to Tennessee and home date with Texas A&M should be another good measuring stick of where they’re at.

5. Seton Hall: The Pirates came back from an 11-point deficit against Creighton and took care of business against a St. John’s team missing go-to guard Shamorie Ponds for a nice start to Big East play. This week’s visits to Butler and Marquette won’t make it easy to keep that going.

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Top of the Classes

Senior: Hayden Dalton, Wyoming forward

Against San Diego State and a top-25 defense, Dalton channeled his inner Fennis Dembo by going off for 36 points (on just 17 field-goal attempts), 15 rebounds, and five assists in the Cowboys’ 82-69 win.

Junior: Dean Wade, Kansas State forward

Over the Wildcats’ first two Big 12 games, Wade averaged 25.5 points and 9.0 rebounds while making 18 of 24 shots from the field, including 6-of-8 three-point shooting in Friday’s win at Iowa State.

Sophomore: Kamar Baldwin, Butler guard

After scoring a career-high 31 points to help his Bulldogs fend off Georgetown in two overtimes, Baldwin contributed 19 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists to Butler’s upset of Villanova.

Freshman: Marvin Bagley III, Duke forward

It’s nearly impossible to pick between Bagley (32 points, 21 rebounds vs. Florida State), Deandre Ayton (23 points, 19 rebounds vs. No. 3 Arizona State), and Trae Young (39 points, 14 assists at No. 10 TCU), but we’ll go with the most efficient of the bunch.

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Bests of the Best

Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Villanova guard Jalen Brunson, who is averaging 18.9 points and 5.0 rebounds while posting the second-highest offensive efficiency rating in the country So, Jalen, tell us about the best...

...vegetable. “I like asparagus, honestly. It grew on me, probably during high school. Mom makes it best. She usually sautés it and puts a little salt and pepper on it, maybe a little butter.”

...sport to play besides basketball. “Probably baseball or soccer. You get the most money. I played baseball a little bit for one or two years and soccer for one or two years, but I just couldn’t stay away from basketball. I played first base and the outfield and in soccer I was so young I was all over the place. I stopped around fifth or sixth grade.”

...class you’ve taken in college. “Acting. It was really fun. I took it last semester. My friend’s dad is the professor and I wanted to try something new. It wasn’t my favorite, but the most memorable [assignment] was we had to sing a song in a different genre than it was made in. I forget which song it was, but I had to sing it in the opera genre. He said it went well but I don’t believe it.”

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Social Media Post of the Week

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Assigned Viewing: Texas Tech at Kansas, Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

If Kansas is going to extend its Big 12 title streak to 106 years or whatever it’s at now, it’s going to have to survive one of the league’s most daunting gauntlets in years. Two months ago, few would have imagined the Red Raiders to figure so prominently in that group and be among the most formidable challengers to the Jayhawks’ throne, but here we are. This game pits the Big 12’s most efficient offense to date (Kansas) against its most efficient defense, and one aspect of that matchup that may favor the hosts is that Texas Tech tends to allow a high volume of three-point attempts, on which the Jayhawks have come to rely. The Red Raiders will likely need to clamp down on the arc more than usual to pull off the upset.

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Before You’re Dismissed...

• A small personal gripe: I don’t like when teams finish their home-and-home series with conference foes so early. Oklahoma and TCU will have played both their games by Jan. 13, and the Sooners will also be done with Oklahoma State by Jan. 20. Space these things out.

• Look at Mohamed Bamba’s reach on this dang block. What are opponents supposed to do about that?

• Duke freshman point guard Trevon Duval showed some real mettle on Saturday, scoring or assisting on 13 of the Blue Devils’ final 16 points to pull out a tight win over Florida State, while playing with four fouls. That’s the kind of discipline Duke will need from him to fulfill title hopes.

• One of Duval’s classmates, four-star freshman forward Jordan Tucker, will be transferring from Duke, the school announced. Coming out of high school, Tucker had offers from Arizona, Villanova, and Louisville, among others. He had seen 14 minutes of action over two games for the Blue Devils.

• In other transfer news, former five-star recruit Carlton Bragg is leaving Arizona State. He had transferred to the school in May from Kansas after averaging 5.2 points and 4.1 rebounds for the Jayhawks as a sophomore last season. Bragg had been sitting out this season due to NCAA transfer rules but, according to The Arizona Republic, had “disappeared from the program” the last few months.

• Arkansas might be the most overlooked team in a crowded SEC field. The Razorbacks play fast and are the only team to have knocked off Trae Young and Oklahoma thus far.

• Late to this party, but if you haven’t seen Coco yet, you’re doing yourself a disservice.