The 2016-17 college basketball sample size is still small, but some noteworthy trends are beginning to pop up across the country.
These patterns are important. They can greatly affect an individual player, which can change the course of a team. Last season, Kris Jenkins’ early emergence as a stretch-four added an element to the Villanova offense it hadn’t boasted in years. Suffice it to say, that made a big difference in early April.
Lonzo Ball is more substance than style
We knew Ball would frequent the highlight reels, set up his teammates for success and make plays that would challenge conventional basketball wisdom. What we didn’t know was if those skills would translate into an effective, efficient college basketball player.
Ball has checked every box in the early going. The glitzy passing and ball-handling has been evident, but Ball has dominated in every aspect of the game. For all of the questions about Ball’s stroke coming into college, he looks very comfortable from behind the 3-point line – the freshman Bruin is shooting 43.8 percent from distance on a healthy four attempts per game.
He’s been even better on the inside. Ball is shooting an eye-popping 61.1 percent from the floor in his first four games; the UCLA point guard has the jets to get to the goal at will, and when he arrives, he unleashes an impressive array of contorted layups, scoop finishes and floaters.
And as predicted, he might just be the best passer in college basketball. Ball is averaging nine dimes per game with two 11-assist nights already under his belt. He assists on 31.4 percent of his team’s field goals when he’s on the floor – an absolutely silly number – and it’s clear who’s the man in this Bruin offense.
Ball’s probably going to average close to 10 helpers per game this season; the question is whether or not he can maintain this level of efficiency. Given Arizona’s lack of depth and Oregon’s early struggles, if Ball can do so, UCLA has a shot to capture the Pac-12 crown.
Duke is without three blue-chippers, but it’s still leading the country in offensive efficiency
Seriously? Seriously. Obviously, the No. 1 team in the country never wants to drop to No. 6, regardless of the circumstances. But after watching Duke in its first five games, you have to feel even more strongly about the notion that the Blue Devils are the best team in America.
Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden haven’t played a second, and yet all Duke has done is post an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 121.8, which leads the country. It’s also worth mentioning that Grayson Allen is far from 100 percent; he’s averaging just 15 points per game on 34.4 percent shooting. As Allen gets healthier, both of those marks will skyrocket.
Grayson Allen won't use it as an excuse, but Coach K said he is about 50 percent. Foot, toe injuries. Not nearly as explosive. Passing more.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) November 20, 2016
So, how exactly does Duke have the best offense in the country through five games? The simple answer: Luke Kennard and Frank Jackson have been outstanding. Going into the season, when rattling off the list of Duke’s best players, these guys wouldn’t appear in the top four.
As of now, Kennard is averaging 18.2 points per game on 55 percent shooting; Jackson is putting up 15.6 points per contest on 47.3 percent from the floor. And it’s not as if Duke has played a bunch of cupcakes. Rhode Island and Penn State were solid wins, and it took Kansas down to the very last second.
When this team gets healthy, look out. The Blue Devils have about seven guys who could serve as No. 1 options on other NCAA tournament-level teams.
Great coach + great point guard = good Oklahoma State team
There hasn’t been a lot to get excited about in Stillwater ever since Marcus Smart left, but Oklahoma State has looked awesome thus far. The Brad Underwood effect is real.
So is the Jawun Evans effect. The Cowboy point guard dropped 35 points against UConn and is averaging 26.6 points per game on the year; he showed flashes of dominance as a freshman, but he’s clearly taken a leap.
Oklahoma State’s skill level isn’t particularly high, but it does have athletes. Brad Underwood knows this, and he’s coaching to his personnel beautifully.
Underwood is leveraging that explosiveness; the Cowboys rank ninth in the country in tempo, using an average of 14.5 seconds per possession before hoisting a shot. Defensively, Oklahoma State is a nuisance in the passing lanes; the Pokes rank sixth in the country in steal percentage. If you can’t score in the half court, get out and run. Underwood deserves major credit for understanding his team’s inherent deficiencies and putting his squad in a position to succeed. The Cowboys have topped 100 points in three of their four outings this season.
Historically, Underwood-coached teams don’t play fast. In fact, often times at Stephen F. Austin, they played at a snail’s pace. Last year, the Lumberjacks ranked 212th in tempo – in the past three years, an Underwood team never cracked the top 100. The rookie OSU coach is tailoring his game plan to his team’s strengths, and clearly, it’s working.
Thomas Bryant is shooting 3s, and Indiana has a legitimate five-out offensive attack
Bryant raised eyebrows around the country when he hit two triples against Kansas on opening night. He only attempted 15 shots from behind the arc last season – he’s already at eight, and he looks like a natural on the perimeter.
This is the reason why Oregon earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament last season. The Ducks utilized a five-out attack; center Chris Boucher was no J.J. Redick from behind the arc, but he was respectable, canning 33.9 percent of his 3’s in 2015-16. Essentially, he hit just enough open shots to the point where if he was standing on the perimeter, he’d suck a defender out of the lane with him. From there, Tyler Dorsey, Dillon Brooks and Elgin Cook would wreak havoc with no rim-protector in sight.
Bryant’s newfound willingness to shoot 3’s will do the same thing for the Hoosiers in 2016-17. The sophomore can serve as an effective post-up option when necessary, but he can also step out and clear driving lanes for willing slashers such as OG Anunoby, James Blackmon and Robert Johnson. Bryant just made any pick-and-roll in which he’s the screener way tougher to guard; he was already one of the best dive men in college basketball, but now, he can do damage in the pick-and-pop game.
Major props go to Bryant for working hard in the offseason at his craft. IU was hard to guard last season; this year, it might be impossible to stop the Hoosiers.
High-level programs lost high-level players, but they’re chugging along with defense
A quick one to end on: Virginia lost Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill from last season’s team; Wichita State is without Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker for the first time in what feels like forever.
It’s too early to cast judgment, but these teams are defending like mad men. Why? Because that’s just what Virginia and Wichita State do. The Cavaliers lead the country in adjusted defensive efficiency; the Shockers rank seventh. Time will tell how far these programs can go in 2016-17 without star power, but they’re living proof that sound defensive infrastructure can win you plenty of college basketball games.