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UCLA, Duke and More Overreactions From College Basketball’s Opening Week

It’s early, but several men’s teams made marks in their first games that are already altering expectations for the season.

The 2021–22 college basketball season is officially one week old, and those seven days have produced plenty of marquee matchups and some magical moments. And while we know basing opinions off one or two games early in the year can be dangerous (remember when Quentin Grimes was about to be Kansas’s next star after the 2018 Champions Classic?), we certainly did learn a lot from the first week of the season.

Here are five overreactions from the opening week in men’s college hoops.

Marquette coach Shaka Smart, UCLA's Johnny Juzang and Gonzaga's Andrew Nembhard

Marquette coach Shaka Smart, UCLA's Johnny Juzang and Gonzaga's Andrew Nembhard

UCLA’s March Magic hasn’t vanished

The game script of UCLA’s thrilling overtime victory over Villanova Friday night felt very comparable to the team’s March Madness run for the ages last spring. Villanova appeared in full control midway through the second half, getting quality shots against the UCLA defense and leading by 10 with just more than nine minutes to play. But then UCLA clicked into “March mode”—its defense stiffened, Johnny Juzang started hunting midrange buckets and Tyger Campbell made heady play after heady play. Villanova scored just four points in the final eight minutes of regulation, allowing UCLA to complete the comeback, force overtime and eventually win the game.

So much of the talk about this UCLA team entering the season was how it was different from the team that made waves last March, a team that would have more depth and be stingier on defense. In reality, we saw pretty much the same recipe: a tight rotation, a defense that got stops when it mattered and clutch play after clutch play by Juzang, Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr. That recipe was enough to go deep last March, and if Friday’s game was any indication, it will be enough for another deep run in 2022.

The ACC is Duke’s to lose

One of the more remarkable statistics in college basketball is that Duke hasn’t won the ACC regular-season title since sharing it in the 2009–10 season, when the Blue Devils went on to win the national championship. After an impressive performance against Kentucky in the Champions Classic and underwhelming games by much of the rest of the conference, the Blue Devils feel like clear favorites to end that ACC title drought.

Paolo Banchero clearly looked the part in Duke’s season-opening win over Kentucky. But it was the play of fellow freshman Trevor Keels that really popped, taking over the game getting downhill in ball screens and providing Banchero with a more-than-capable Robin to Banchero’s Batman.

Meanwhile, the early returns in the ACC have been far from promising. Virginia’s offensive woes came up early in a buy-game loss against Navy and Florida State’s offense looked like a major work in progress against Florida on Sunday. Louisville lost a buy game against Furman, and while North Carolina won both its buy games, the Tar Heels weren’t exactly impressive in either performance.

Andrew Nembhard is the nation’s best point guard

Drew Timme’s 37 points stole the show in Gonzaga’s wire-to-wire win over Texas, but it was Nembhard’s performance in the win that caught my eye as much as anything. The senior point guard scored only nine points, but the way he managed the game was incredibly impressive. Nembhard is the metronome of this Gonzaga offense, never sped up or slowed down by anything. He was assertive when he needed to be, made sure Timme got his touches and took care of the ball. Mark Few didn’t need Nembhard to score in this game, but he is a more-than-capable outside shooter and a good finisher at the rim when he has to be.

Perhaps most importantly, Nembhard was playing with incredible confidence. That confidence sometimes wavered when he was in the lead guard role at Florida, but he seems to have fully regained it after serving as a key cog in last year’s backcourt rotation with the Zags. Now, there may not be a better floor general in the sport.

Shaka Smart is bringing ‘Havoc’ back at Marquette

Smart made a name for himself in the coaching profession because of his “Havoc” defense at VCU. Smart’s VCU teams were the best in the country at turning teams over in three of his six years in Richmond. But he abandoned that pressing D at Texas, and the results spoke for themselves: Smart never got out of the first round of the NCAA tournament in Austin and his defenses posted a top-100 turnover rate just once in his six seasons.

If Monday night’s game against Illinois is any indication, Smart is bringing “Havoc” back after taking over last spring at Marquette. The Golden Eagles pressed after virtually every made basket and completely disrupted Illinois’s offense, forcing 26 turnovers including a steal in the closing seconds that turned into a game-winning layup by Tyler Kolek. This Marquette team won’t overwhelm anyone with its talent, but that defensive pressure will make the Golden Eagles a pain to play against all season long ... especially on their home court.

Hopes for extra bids from mid-major leagues feel slim

It’s never too early to be thinking about building résumés, particularly for mid-majors that don’t get nearly as many opportunities for needle-mover wins in conference play. It wasn’t a great week for three leagues that have hopes of sending multiple teams to the NCAA tournament: the A-10, Mountain West and the Missouri Valley.

In the A-10, VCU’s offense somehow looked even worse than feared after the team’s backcourt was decimated with injuries this spring. The Rams took an ugly 58–44 loss to Wagner. Dayton’s young team had its own early struggles and had its worst home loss in 20 years to UMass-Lowell. Richmond’s loss on a neutral floor to Utah State was far less catastrophic, but far from ideal for a team that needs to make some headway in the nonconference slate.

Things were particularly bleak for the Missouri Valley. Drake and Loyola Chicago took care of business, but they need the rest of the Valley to have a strong nonconference to provide some decent win opportunities in conference play. The two teams most penciled in as potential postseason teams, Missouri State and Northern Iowa, each took bad losses during opening week, while Valparaiso and Bradley’s early defeats also didn’t help matters.

Meanwhile, a Nevada team that sat right on the NCAA tournament bubble in Sports Illustrated’s preseason bracketology did itself no favors with a home loss to San Diego. The Wolf Pack have a soft nonconference schedule that left them little room for error, which makes an early loss like this all the more painful. 

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