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College Basketball Mailbag: SEC Contenders, ACC's Struggles and More

Plus, thoughts on first-year coaches, Tuesday’s big wins by Seton Hall and BYU, and the frequency of early-season upsets.

Welcome to Sports Illustrated’s new weekly college hoops mailbag with Kevin Sweeney. Here, Kevin will field questions submitted via Twitter and email about a variety of topics in the sport. Have a question you’d like answered in a future mailbag? Send it to @CBB_Central on Twitter or (questions around either men’s or women’s basketball are welcome!). Without further ado, let’s get to your questions, which have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity...

Kristy asks: Regarding how they look early, in order your top six SEC finishers ...

  1. Kentucky
  2. Alabama
  3. Tennessee
  4. Arkansas
  5. Auburn
  6. Florida

I made only one tweak to my preseason rankings, moving Tennessee over Arkansas. Given the teams were just three spots apart nationally in my 1–358 rankings, it didn’t take much for me to make the switch, and I was impressed enough with Kennedy Chandler’s play for the Vols in their two season-opening buy-game wins for me to buy a little UT stock.

I also considered flipping Kentucky and Alabama after the Tide looked better than I expected them to in early-season tests against Louisiana Tech and South Dakota State, but I’m sticking to my UK guns for now. If Alabama does repeat as SEC champs in 2021–22, it will be because of the emergence of Keon Ellis on the wing. Ellis looks like a future NBA player and has exploded in his second year in the Tide system, averaging 17 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting 50% from deep through three games. He’s athletic, defends multiple positions and is a high-level shooter, making this already-talented Alabama backcourt even more dangerous.

Another “no movement, but worth watching” team is Florida, who I was impressed with in a weekend win over Florida State. I think a large part of that victory is FSU’s still being a major work in progress on the offensive end, but the Gators really dominated both ends of the floor. Grad transfer wings Brandon McKissic and Phlandrous Fleming Jr. brought tremendous energy, and big man Colin Castleton may be one of the most underappreciated players in the sport.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett looks on vs. Houston

Tony Bennett's Cavaliers have started 1–2, with losses to Navy and Houston.

Tristan asks: Which conference has been more disappointing so far between the ACC and Atlantic 10?

While the A-10’s bad losses in opening week will be more harmful to its postseason hopes given the smaller margin for error, I think the ACC was the most disappointing perhaps of any conference. Its struggles came both at the top and bottom, which is never ideal.

At the top, a pair of contenders in Virginia and Florida State confirmed some of the fears I had about them in the preseason. Virginia simply doesn’t look talented enough to win at a high level, and Tuesday night’s blowout loss at Houston was as clear a sign of that as the Hoos’ season-opening defeat against Navy. Tony Bennett’s system can do only so much, and right now the personnel is a far cry from the multiple NBA players Bennett had on pretty much every elite team he built in Charlottesville. This team will get better as the year goes on, but right now missing the NCAA tournament is on the table.

Meanwhile, Florida State’s loss may be partially a credit to Florida being better than expected, but the Seminoles also looked lost on offense. Houston transfer Caleb Mills didn’t look like the guard to lead an offense, and neither Malik Osborne nor Anthony Polite is geared to be a first option on an NCAA tournament team.

Add in buy-game losses by Georgia Tech, Louisville and Pitt, and things don’t look great for the league as a whole right now.

Andy asks: Which first-year coach had impressed you the most through the first week?

Among first-time coaches, the performance of George Mason’s Kim English stood out. Yes, the Patriots were favored to win all three games they played. But GMU dismantled three solid mid-major programs in the span of a week by margins not seen in recent years at Mason; all three wins came by 20 or more points. In six seasons under former coach Dave Paulsen, Mason won a total of three buy games by 20 or more. We’ll learn more about the Patriots on Wednesday night against Maryland, but this group looks better than most pegged it in the preseason and has a legitimate star up front in Josh Oduro.

For guys with head-coaching experience taking over at a new job, color me impressed by how bought-in Shaka Smart’s team looks at Marquette. It took one half watching the Golden Eagles in Milwaukee on Monday against Illinois to see something I rarely saw in Smart’s six seasons at Texas: an identity. Smart’s team is completely locked in on the defensive end and forced 26 turnovers in an upset win over the Illini, harkening back memories of his Havoc defense at VCU. Marquette’s path to the NCAA tournament won’t be easy with something of a makeshift roster, but this team will be a tough out on its home court.

Brian asks: Where do you rank Seton Hall and BYU now?

These teams got two of the biggest wins of the young season Tuesday night, so it’s fitting we mention them in this mailbag.

In the preseason, I was higher than most on Seton Hall, ranking the Pirates No. 28 nationally. That still wasn’t high enough. This Seton Hall defense is a monster, with size and physicality at every spot, a great rim protector in Ike Obiagu, and several guys who can guard multiple positions. But I think I underestimated Hall’s offensive firepower. Bryce Aiken, at least for one night against Michigan, looked like the Bryce Aiken who lit up the Ivy League at Harvard. Jared Rhoden has continued to expand his game. Jamir Harris is a microwave scorer off the bench, and forwards Alexis Yetna and Trey Jackson are providing some scoring pop. This team will compete for a Big East title.

And while Seton Hall was winning in Ann Arbor, BYU was dominating Oregon in Portland. The Cougars looked like a machine on both ends, getting Alex Barcello great looks on offense and completely shutting down a dynamic Ducks attack. Mark Pope has finished in the top 20 of KenPom in back-to-back years since taking over in Provo, and we should start thinking about this year’s group in that same vein … if not even better.

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Kevin asks: Why do you think so many high majors have been upset or have played some really tight games with mid- and low-majors? Seems to me like these have been a more regular occurrence this year than I can recall in previous years.

It would be easy to say “it’s the transfer portal” and move on … but I don’t think the portal is the root cause of how many buy games have either been close or won by the mid-major. Partially, that’s because a lot of the mid-major teams that have won these games aren’t transfer-heavy. The Citadel, Dartmouth, UC San Diego … the list goes on of teams that weren’t portal-focused that have won a buy game over a higher-level opponent.

Personally, I think the biggest reason why it’s happening is that there are more good basketball players out there than ever. Hanging around in a buy game requires having one or two talented players who can make great individual plays and the opposing team not hitting shots. For an example from a game I was tracking Tuesday night, Northwestern struggled mightily with New Orleans because UNO’s Derek St. Hilaire went off for 27 points, and the Wildcats were cold from three for much of the game. That’s really all it takes. And while so much talk is about all the roster movement this past offseason, more fifth-year players using the COVID-19 extra year of eligibility means there’s more roster continuity (and older stars) at mid-majors than there has ever been.

So I guess my answer would be that, even in the portal age, there are more St. Hilaires out there who can explode and keep a team in it. 

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