College basketball: November chaos offers more questions than answers
The college basketball season was only hours old when the first score came in that suggested what type of November it would be.
Western Illinois had gone 1-26 on the road the past two years and been picked to finish last in the Summit League this season. It seemed easy to guess what would happen when the Leathernecks opened by making the invariably fatal trip to Madison.
Western Illinois 69, Wisconsin 67. So much for staying on script.
There would be more to come. Much more. By the last weekend in November, 18 of the 25 teams in the Associated Press preseason poll had been beaten a combined 26 times. The fickleness of fate, inside and outside the top 25, was on display nearly every night.
Venturing on the road was dangerous. Virginia stopped in at George Washington, and lost. No. 1 North Carolina, without injured star guard Marcus Paige, found out why big-name teams avoid trips to Northern Iowa, as if it was shark-infested waters.
LSU freshman Ben Simmons was everything the Tigers dreamed about, and their opponents feared. His November numbers going into Monday night were 16.2 points, 14.4 rebounds and 6.2 assists a game. His assist-turnover ratio was 31-6, outstanding for any ballhandler, let alone someone 6-10. But that didn’t keep LSU from getting drilled at Charleston Monday night.
Nor was home safe. William & Mary had not beaten North Carolina State since 1952, but led by 20 points in the first half in Raleigh and won by 17. Miami stormed into the rankings with five impressive victories by double digits, including mashing Utah and Butler -- but lost at home to Northeastern, who lost to Miami (Ohio), who lost to Florida Atlantic, who lost to Warner.
Mike Anderson had been 40-1 in non-conference home games at Arkansas . . . but was 40-2 after Akron visited. Thad Matta lost three home games in 12 years against unranked non-conference opponents at Ohio State . . . but two of them just came in five days. ``I think,’’ he said of his Buckeyes, ``this team has to find itself.’’
George Mason could beat Mississippi and Oklahoma State, but not Mercer and Colgate. Radford won against Georgetown, but lost against Siena. Hofstra upset Florida State for its first ACC conquest in nearly two decades.
San Diego State upset California by continuing two of the sport’s more remarkable streaks. The Aztecs made it 43 wins in a row against non-conference opponents from their home state of California, and 149 in a row when leading at the five-minute mark. But they also lost to Arkansas-Little Rock.
Then there were the road warriors of Monmouth. The Hawks will travel 8,681 miles before the first home game on Dec. 13. Their second home contest is not until Jan. 4. But they have been hard tourists to beat, starting with an opening day overtime win at UCLA. Later they enjoyed their first ever victory against a ranked team when they beat Notre Dame and followed it up with Sunday’s conquest of USC. Monmouth is 4-2, thanks partly to outscoring the opposition 145-72 in bench points.
There have been hard times in unusual places.
Wisconsin, the model of consistency for more than a decade, might finally have sprung a leak after losing most of the lineup from last year's national runners-up.
The Badgers lost four games all of last season but dropped three this November. Maybe Bo Ryan really will want to retire. Wisconsin allowed at least 64 points in each of its first seven games. Last year, the Badgers held opponents under 64 points 27 times. ``I’m waiting,’’ Ryan said, ``for some of our guys that are pretty good shooters to show that they can commit to defense.’’
Wichita State had lost only six games the past two years and gone 18-0 the past three Novembers. But now everyone understands just how valuable Fred VanVleet is. Without him and his balky hamstring, the Shockers started 2-4, and just took their first 20-point drubbing in seven years.
Illinois had not started 1-3 since 1965-66 but were taken down by both Chattanooga and North Florida, and they needed to rally to beat Chicago State. The Illini had been 11-0 in that series with the victories coming by an average of 29 points.
Elsewhere were the good, the bad, the odd.
Pittsburgh led Gonzaga 37-35 at halftime in Okinawa, when the game had to be suspended because of moisture on the court. So the Panthers flew 8,000 miles to play one half.
Eastern Washington and Seattle had to postpone a game because of high winds.
A cross-continent game between UC Irvine and University of Central Florida set unofficial stratospheric records by matching two 7-6 players, Mamadou Ndiaye and Tacko Fall. Fall had the better individual numbers – six points, seven rebounds and four blocks, against five points and two rebounds. But Ndiaye hit the winning free throw in a 61-60 overtime win for UC Irvine.
Belmont’s Evan Bradds made 22 shots in a row. By the end of the month, he was hitting 73.8 percent from the floor. Even better at 75.6 percent was Purdue’s 7-2 Isaac Haas, one reason why the Boilermakers were the only 6-0 team in the nation with all six wins by at least 15 points. As Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan struggle with results and questions, Purdue begins to look like a Big Ten heavyweight.
The small were thriving as well as the tall.
Howard’s 5-11 James Daniel led the nation in scoring at 29.5 and had broken 30 four times. That included the 39 against William & Mary, which had a whiz-bang ending. Down 77-76 in the in the final seconds, Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry called for a timeout. Daniel waved him off, kept dribbling, and promptly buried a 3-pointer to win the game. ``That is the type of confidence he has,’’ Nickelberry said.
Monmouth’s grand November was led by 5-8 Justin Robinson, who tormented big names everywhere. He had 22 against Notre Dame, 28 against Dayton, 27 against USC.
Offense? You want offense? Green Bay opened the season by scoring 89 and 90 points, and lost both games. November saw a glut of points, whether because of new officiating guidelines to aid offensive flow, or the 30-second shot clock, or just because. By the end of the second weekend, 100 points had been broken 76 times, and 90 points broken 194. Among the shootouts was Florida Gulf Coast over Youngstown State 104-101 in three overtimes. But the offensive explosion of the month was Butler putting 144 points on The Citadel, including 98 in the paint.
The city of Cincinnati had something to root for besides the Bengals’ 9-2 NFL record. Both Cincinnati and Xavier went 7-0 and won holiday tournaments. Cincinnati had eight players in double figures in one victory, and by the end of November, all 10 scholarship players had scored 10 points in a game at last once. Meanwhile, Xavier rolled over the likes of Michigan by 16 points, Alabama by 19 and Dayton by 29. Five Musketeers average in double figures, and the Xavier rebound differential is a healthy 14.4. ``They’re going to be contenders for a lot of things,’’ Dayton coach Archie Miller said.
By the way, Cincinnati is at Xavier Dec. 12.
Bob McKillop won his 500th game at Davidson, having built a program with considerable class. He was the college coach who first unleashed Stephen Curry on an unsuspecting basketball nation. Texas Tech’s Tubby Smith won 81-68 against Minnesota, the school that fired him. ``Glad that game is over,’’ he said afterward.
Guy Lewis died at 93. Some questioned his coaching at Houston, even with five Final Four trips. But now hear this: The Cougars have not won an NCAA Tournament game since Lewis’ last Final Four, 31 years ago.
Colorado’s Tory Miller got in trouble for biting an Air Force player. ``That’s an interesting cat right there,’’ said Hayden Graham, the bitee.
In beating UCLA, Wake Forest shot 42 free throws. The Bruins had 14. ``We’ve to figure out the new rules,’’ UCLA coach Steve Alford said afterward.
UNLV kept making 3-pointers. The Rebels have had at least one in 948 consecutive games, back to 1986 when the rule was adopted. It’s the longest streak in the nation. Kentucky is next at 945.
Triple doubles might be rare, but Denzel Valentine had two in the first two weeks of the season for Michigan State, a modern day Magic Johnson pushing the Spartans up the rankings.
The kings of teamwork apparently play in Evansville. The 5-1 Aces have had 164 field goals this season, and 132 assists. In three games at the Wooden Legacy, only seven of their 77 baskets did not come with an assist.
Northern Illinois started 6-0 for only the second time since 1944. Three years ago, the Huskies were 5-25.
Duke ran its home winning streak against non-conference opponents to a staggering 120. But there is a genuine threat arriving Wednesday – Indiana's high octane offense. The Hoosiers are trying to recover from a 1-2 flop at Maui.
For a sense of normalcy, there’s always Kentucky, ranked No. 1. ``There’s got to be 20 teams better than us right now,’’ John Calipari said the other day, but few of the victims are buying it.
The Wildcats keep running up showy numbers. It has been 21 months since they lost a regular season game, 37 victories ago. More than 45 percent of their points have come on dunks or layups, including 48 of 74 in the win over Duke in Chicago. That was 11th time, by the way, that Kentucky has beaten a defending national champion.
The new version features a three-headed attack force on the perimeter with Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe combining for 41 points and 10 assists a game. ``I don’t know if I’ve ever competed against a team that plays three point guards at once,’’ Wright State coach Billy Donlon said.
Consider the trouble they caused Duke guard Grayson Allen. He is averaging 24.7 points a game against every opponent not named Kentucky. He had six against the Wildcats.
So November was busy, chaotic, surprising, intriguing, enlightening – and a spark for more questions. Is 6-0 Syracuse this good? What’s up with Indiana? Does Simmons have enough help at LSU? Are Oklahoma and Iowa State, both unbeaten early, the teams to end Kansas’ Big 12 title streak? Or did that hope end when the NCAA nodded yes to the Jayhawks’ Cheick Diallo’s eligibility?
All that, and the season has barely started.