College basketball: 20 things we have learned so far
A lot can happen in five days. The college basketball season came roaring off the start line like a drag racer. Half the top-10 in the coaches’ poll – Duke, Kansas, Oregon, Wisconsin, Michigan State – were beaten before the season was 120 hours old.
Here, then, are 20 things we learned after the first flurry of games.
No. 1. The freshman class looks every bit as good as advertised, and that’s asking a lot. It’s not just the usual Kentucky wave, with Malik Monk scoring 23 points against Michigan State and De’Aaron Fox’ 12 assists in the opener, the most ever for a Wildcat debut.
Not just Duke’s Frank Jackson averaging 19.5 points and shooting 52 percent after three games, or Kansas’ Josh Jackson helping carry the battle against the Blue Devils in Madison Square Garden. Or Michigan State’s Miles Bridges with 21 points against Arizona, the second most ever for a Spartan freshman in his first game.
But look west, where after two UCLA wins, Lonzo Ball was flirting at the triple-double line, with 16 points, 8.5 rebounds and eight assists a game. And TJ Leaf was adding in 17, 10.5 and four. That’s how the Bruins scored 221 points in two games.
Or Washington, where Markelle Fultz went for 30 in his debut. Or Arizona, where Lauri Markkanen, the 7-foot Finland product, had 13 points against Michigan State, and 26 against CSU Bakersfield. “He’s a monster,” his coach Sean Miller declared. Lots of new monsters out there.
No. 2. Duke’s stay at No. 1 will not last long, with the loss to Kansas. The Blue Devils will be fine, once Mike Krzyzewski gets his three injured freshmen on the court, giving him eight McDonald’s All-Americans to choose from. More than fine.
“Nobody feels sorry for us,” Krzyzewski said of Duke’s injury bug. But he could use Grayson Allen’s shooting percentage to improve from 34.9 percent.
No. 3. The new batch of Kentucky freshmen looks a lot like other batches of Kentucky freshmen in November. Talented, productive, and sometime prone to malfunction. “It’s the same freshmen that played against Canisius and we were down with three minutes to go in the first half,” John Calipari said after the Michigan State win. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
But the defense has already shown its teeth. The Wildcats have 85 points off turnovers after three games.
No. 4. Yes, a senior can still contend for national player of the year in a sea of freshmen prodigies. Throw Frank Mason III’s hat in the ring for Kansas. He scored 30 against Indiana, including the Jayhawks’ last 11 in regulation, then 21 against Duke, including the game-winner at 1.8 seconds. “I think the NBA is missing the boat on him,” Bill Self said. “I think he doesn’t fit the eye test with length and standing height and that kind of stuff, but he’s got some things you can’t teach, and intangibles that are as good as anybody in American probably possesses.”
No. 5. Villanova has gotten its first taste as what it means to be defending national champion on the road, and survived a frenzied crowd at Purdue.
“Last night, we sensed the excitement. We saw everybody lining up. We’ve seen that [before] but it’s different now,” coach Jay Wright said. “We’ve got to know how to handle that every night. That’s a good issue to have, right? I’m glad that’s our issue.”
The Wildcats might not have shown their signature physical toughness against the Boilermakers – “We got beat up pretty good inside,” Wright said. Or the renowned ability to lock down an opponent -- “I still don’t have too much good to say about our defense,” Wright mentioned. But they displayed the mental toughness and poise from such veterans as Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson to hold back every Purdue charge, and showed why they seem perfectly capable of turning the page on last season and mounting a repeat threat. Since last year is over.
“I think the night we knew that [was when] we got our championship rings,” Hart said. “We knew last year was over with before the games ever started.”
This year has started pretty well. Purdue -- with its 7-2, 6-9, 6-8 skyline -- won’t lose many at home. “That’s going to be an important game for us down the road,” Wright said. “This early in the season you either try to be really good at one thing or you try to get everything in. We tried to get everything in, and we’re not really good at anything yet.”
No. 6. The North Carolina offense is humming. The Tar Heels scored 95, 97 and 93 against Tulane, Chattanooga and Long Beach State – the first time they have started a season with three 90-plus games in 22 years. Of their 100 field goals so far, 69 came with an assist.
“I told them last year was the first time that somebody had played for the national championship and only had one guy that made all-conference,” Roy Williams said. “It was the team. I think that we’ve emphasized from day one that this group’s got to be a team now as well.”
No. 7. November might not be much fun for Michigan State. The Spartans have been battered by injuries which didn’t make the 1-2 punch of playing Arizona and Kentucky any easier. They started a former walk-on at forward against Kentucky. And they still have Duke – and possibly Louisville and Baylor in the Bahamas – to come, so who knows what the early record might look like? Tom Izzo has to find some offense. The Spartans did not have a player in double figures against Kentucky, and Bridges found out how fickle life can be for a freshman. He went from 21 points in Michigan State’s opener to nine turnovers against Kentucky.
No. 8. Virginia still knows how to stop opponents. The Cavaliers held UNC Greensboro scoreless for 11 minutes and St. Francis Brooklyn scoreless for 10, while allowing the Terriers only 32 points all game. “Probably the best defense I have ever faced on the basketball floor,” Greensboro coach Wes Miller said.
No. 9. Indiana, with its high octane offense, will be one of the most fun teams in the nation to watch. The Hoosiers buried 15 3-pointers in beating No. 2 Kansas 103-99 in overtime; the highest ranked team they have beaten in an opener in 41 years. The return of James Blackmon Jr. from injury – he had 26 against the Jayhawks – has made Indiana only more explosive. “I’ve missed the game,” he said.
No. 10. They’re excited at Oregon. The Ducks drew 12,364 for their season opener. In the previous five openers at Matthew Knight Arena, the largest crowd was 6,262.
No. 11. The loudest thud of the year so far has been heard from the general direction of Storrs, Connecticut. The UConn Huskies, No. 16 in the coaches’ preseason poll, started 0-2 for the first time in 48 years after losses to Wagner and Northeastern. Shooting has been a factor – they’re 11-for-40 from the 3-point line and at 37.5 percent overall.
“It’s a dark time,” coach Kevin Ollie said. “I know that, I understand that, I understand the expectations of everybody here. But I know I am going to get through it and this team is going to get through it. We will figure this out.”
No. 12. The 69-48 thrashing of San Diego State showed how Gonzaga has reloaded with defense. The Zags lost most of their lineup from last season’s Sweet 16 team, and the top three scorers after two wins are all newcomers; California transfer Jordan Mathews, 7-0 freshman Zach Collins and Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss. San Diego State managed to shoot only 28 percent.
No. 13. Saint Mary’s still knows where the basketball is supposed to go. The team that led the nation in shooting last season opened by hitting 60 percent. That would include 6-11 Jock Landale, who scored 33 points on 15-for-20 shooting, and credited it to losing 20 pounds. “Chocolate, lollies, soft drinks, all that kind of stuff is gone,” he said.
No. 14. Yale still has it. The Ivy League darlings of last season beat Washington in Seattle despite missing top scorer Makai Mason – possibly lost for the year with a broken foot – and getting 15 shots blocked.
No. 15. The upset gods giveth, and they taketh away. One minute, Wagner was taking down Connecticut. “Probably nobody in the world thought we would win the game, except myself, my players and our small, little school up on the hill,” coach Bashir Mason said that night. The next, the Seahawks were losing to UMass Lowell.
No. 16. Syracuse has some offense. Remember when the Orange showed up in the Final Four last April, 246th in the nation in points per game? The scoreboard is busier these days, averaging 86.5 points after two games. A big reason is Andrew White III, a graduate transfer from Nebraska who signed on a day before classes started. He’s gone for 17 and 19. By Syracuse 2015-16 standards, that’s an offensive volcanic eruption.
No. 17. Long Beach State is on a death march. The 49ers gave up 92 points at Wichita State, 93 at North Carolina, and still have stops to make at Louisville, UCLA, Washington, Kansas and Texas.
No. 18. Memo to Big Ten teams: Don’t go to Creighton. Wisconsin’s fall was the eighth loss in a row for a conference team in Omaha. The Bluejays have not lost at home to a Big Ten opponent since 1968.
No. 19. Georgetown still has to learn how to close against good teams. The Hoyas, who lost eight games last season by five or fewer points against the likes of Duke and Villanova, blew a nine-point lead in the last 2½ minutes Tuesday against Maryland.
No. 20. Best start for a new coach? Try Steve Pikiell at Rutgers. Times being what they have been with the Scarlet Knights -- 68 losses in three years -- improvement is a low bar. But in beating Molly and Drexel out of the gate by 29 and 21, it was the first time Rutgers opened the season with consecutive 20-plus wins since 1935.
Good starts, puzzling starts, young phenoms, and already, shuffling at the top. Not a bad first week for college basketball.