Freshman debuts, surprising tournament results, and conference shake-ups have made up the first month of the college hoops season
Welcome to the debut of my continuous recap of the week (or, in this case, month) that was in college basketball. As some of you readers might have already surmised from my endless amount of NBA write-ups already available on Place To Be Nation, I am a huge fan of the sport of basketball. The NBA will always be my first love, but college basketball (and the many imperfections that come with it) is a very close second in my household when it comes to watching sports.
As fans clear out the cobwebs from college football and NFL when we approach the new year, I will be here to provide you, the hardcore hoops fan and casual fans looking for something different, with as much knowledge-dropping and fact-providing as I can provide about what is already turning out to be a potentially great college hoops season. Hopefully, by the time we get to January and conference play tips off, I will be doing weekly recaps as March Madness gets closer, but for now, here’s what you need to know so far.
WHERE THE BIG BOYS PLAYED
It has been three weeks past, but college basketball is still basking in the one-night-only glory that was the Champions Classic. In my preview of the event that took place on November 12th, I had a highly optimistic feeling that the two games on the slate (Kentucky vs. Michigan State and Kansas vs. Duke) would be one of the greatest tip-offs in the history of the sport, and that dream came true. The first game was a tale of two halves between young but talented Kentucky Wildcats and the deep, experienced Michigan State Spartans. In the first half, it was all MSU, as they scored the game’s first 10 points and routinely forced turnovers and ran back for easy baskets to build a 12-point halftime lead. Kentucky, however, came roaring back behind the phenomenal talent of freshman forward Julius Randle and tied the game in the closing minutes. Michigan State closed the door thanks to contributions from senior Keith Appling, junior Brandon Dawson, and super soph Gary Harris to wind down a 78-74 victory in which they never trailed. The Spartans have been the #1 team in the country since that game ended.
Next was the battle of the two other freshly minted diaper dandies as Andrew Wiggins and Kansas took on Jabari Parker and Duke. What made this match-up even more delightful was that since they were both small forwards, both players were forced to guard each other numerous times to a variety of results. Parker was scorching to start, finishing with 27 points, 9 rebounds, and an array of eye-popping moves. Wiggins, as he has all year so far, slowly got into the game but impressed many with a critical stretch where he made a step back jumper over Parker, then flushed down a dunk and a foul, which forced Parker to the bench. The sudden explosion by Wiggins was the finishing touch on a great overall performance from Kansas, beating Duke 94-83 to close out the Champions Classic. The two games were well-played, included many highlight plays, and was a perfect blend of college veterans and scintillating debuts.
Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale were borderline giddy by the potential they saw on the court, and ESPN was happy to oblige. Ratings for the doubleheader was up a staggering 50 percent from last year, making it by far the most successful Champions Classic in its three-year history. The Kentucky/Michigan State game set a record as the highest rated non-conference college basketball game in ESPN’s history. The United Center had almost the same attendance as the much-more-spacious Georgia Dome had attracted last year, and it seemed like the lower bowl was littered with NBA scouts and celebrities to see these titans clash. Kentucky and Duke may have lost, but all four of them seem well on their way to possibly meeting again in the NCAA Tournament, maybe all to their own stage.
DON’T YOU… FORGET ABOUT ME
While Wiggins, Parker, and Randle shared a pretty luminous spotlight in Chicago for the Champions Classic, two other underclassmen who had received a generous amount of NBA Draft hype going into the season quietly began their seasons. Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart was a freshman star thanks to his athleticism, uncanny on-ball defense, strength to bully smaller guards, and relentless hustle. The one true weakness for Smart last year, which plagued him in the loss to Oregon in the NCAA Tournament, was his jump shot, where he shot 40 % overall and less than 30 % from the three-point line. Smart was a surefire lottery pick in a weak draft this past summer, but he turned the money down and decided to come back for his sophomore year under Travis Ford, a former point guard himself.
It is still early for Smart, but so far, his second season at Oklahoma State has gotten off without a hitch. The hitch in his jumper might be gone, too, if you saw his show-stopping performance at home against the talented Memphis Tigers: 39 points, 5 steals, and 4 assists, all while unflinchingly sinking three-pointers in transition. He followed that up with an impressive 30-point effort in a win against Purdue in the Old Spice Classic, breaking 30 points twice already this season after not doing it once last season. The only thing that stopped him was a stomach virus, from which he suffered during his team’s rematch with Memphis in the Old Spice Classic finals. Along with 11 other players returning to this team, Smart seems to be reveling in what will be his last year of college with a Cowboys team that will surely contend with Kansas for top billing in the Big XII. And for the NBA guys that think he took a silly risk? There are already rumblings from Chad Ford that Smart might wind up being picked third or higher in next year’s draft anyway.
Meanwhile, the fourth freshman name going into the season that was making noise along with the three aforementioned kings is Aaron Gordon. I saw Gordon and Smart play together and win a gold medal for USA Basketball in the FIBA U-19 Basketball Championships back in July, and I was over the moon by what I saw from the newcomer out of San Jose, CA (The third guy that wowed me at that tournament, high schooler Jahlil Okafor, just recently committed to play for Duke). A 6’8” forward with Blake Griffin-like hops and defensive mobility, Gordon stayed under the radar at first as Arizona played some easy opponents in the first week. Then came a challenging road test against a well-groomed San Diego State team, where Gordon put up a line longer than the ones you see outside of stores on Black Friday: 16 points, 8 boards, 2 assists, 3 steals, and 4 blocks in a nine-point win.
His defensive presence will not make for YouTube-y highlights the next morning, but that is just the way head coach and defensive specialist Sean Miller prefers it, as Arizona faced another stern challenge this past weekend against Duke. In the classic setting of Madison Square Garden, the Wildcats beat the Blue Devils 72-66. Gordon did an admirable job of guarding Parker by limiting him to just 7 made shots and nearly got his fifth double-double of the season in the process. Gordon was almost invisible to the naked eye until a nice alley-oop late in the game, but upon second viewing, you realize how important he is to his team on both sides of the ball. In the picture where Team U.S.A. won the gold medal over the summer, Gordon, who was the tournament’s MVP, is barely visible as he lets his teammates take the best snapshots. That is a perfect summary of how Gordon represents himself this season, working tirelessly in the background while Arizona leads a balanced, two-way attack to an undefeated record and top-three ranking.
TOURNEY-MANIA HAS RUN WILD ALREADY
Outside of some notable performances and ear-perking upsets from ranked teams, the most common trait in the month of November for college basketball is a plethora of early season tournaments featuring schools of all shapes, sizes, and performance levels. Certainly, these sponsor-influenced brackets do not carry the same gravitas as the big one in four months, but there are plenty of good games, crazy moments, and notable upsets to be had in these tournaments. The Champions Classic has already been mentioned, but that is merely in its third year of existence, and they do not have an elimination format.
The most well-known one because of its setting and the fact that it airs around Thanksgiving on ESPN is the Maui Invitational, where the surprise of this year was dressed in the form of the Dayton Flyers out of the Atlantic 10. They beat Georgia Tech to get there, defeated ranked Gonzaga in the quarters, then blew a late lead in the semis to another ranked team in Baylor. Dayton would go on to easily beat Cal in the consolation game. If there is a team in the A-10 that I do not want to play along with UMass right now, it is Dayton, who are coached by Sean Miller’s brother Archie. The tournament finished with Syracuse winning the finals after a 74-67 win over Baylor.
The most entertaining tournament may have been the Puerto Rico Tip-Off last week, where Georgetown lost to Northeastern, Florida State dominated VCU, then Michigan came back from the dead to beat Florida State in overtime. But the tournament belonged to the most unlikely of winners, the Charlotte 49ers. After pulling away from Kansas State, Charlotte beat Northeastern and then took down Michigan in the finals thanks to a tip-in at the buzzer in a thrilling finish to win the title. Hopefully, Alan Major’s team does not lose steam late like many mid-majors do, but with Memphis now gone, Conference USA may have found their go-to team this year. The 2K Sports Classic may not have had the best semifinal games, but the final between UConn and Indiana was quite the show, as Shabazz Napier outdueled another point guard in Yogi Ferrell to win a tight game in the Garden and show that the Huskies are back in the tourney hunt after being ineligible last year. I also enjoyed watching Ole Miss, backed by frustrating star guard Marshall Henderson, eke out a win over a much improved Penn State team in the Barclays Center Classic.
I mentioned two tournaments with some exciting competition, while others were not so desirable. Michigan State easily won the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic against Virginia Tech and Oklahoma, the North Carolina/Louisville finals in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off turned out to be one-sided the other way as the Tar Heels scored 92 points on the Cardinals. The only true drama in the N.I.T. Season Tip Off in New York was in the semi-finals when Arizona had to fight off a huge deficit to a game Drexel team. Then there was the forgettable Cancun Challenge, where Wisconsin fought off Saint Louis, then easily took down West Virginia. Virginia won a nameless Corpus Christi Challenge, Maryland edged Providence in the Paradise Jam, Pitt took out Stanford in the Legends Classic, and Harvard won the Great Alaska Shootout, which didn’t end until 2 in the morning where I live.
The other three notable tourneys that popped up as the weekend closed out were the Old Spice Classic at Disney World (where Memphis got revenge on Oklahoma State), the Wooden Legacy at Fullerton, and the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. It was at the Battle 4 Atlantis where we may have seen the most surprising upset of all, as a deep, defensive-minded Villanova team took down Wiggins and the Kansas Jayhawks thanks to a late three by Ryan Arcidiacono. Many did not actually watch it because it was on the not-so-available NBC Sports Network, but ‘Nova finished their business by beating ranked Iowa in overtime to win in the Bahamas, while Wiggins and Kansas struggled in their consolation win against UTEP. I knew Jay Wright’s team would would grow from their tournament appearance last year, but this Villanova squad is already on their way compared to the last few seasons.
What do all of these tournaments actually mean at the end of the day? Well, it depends on who you talk to. For teams like Charlotte, Drexel, Dayton, Harvard, and UMass (who beat Nebraska, New Mexico, and Clemson in the Charleston Classic), these wins may prove to be pivotal for them in a good way if they wind up on the bubble at season’s end. For big timers who lost like Kansas, Louisville, Duke, and Michigan, they are hurtful only for a fleeting moment before they improve in conference play and get the benefit of the doubt. For not-so-good big conference schools that did not fare well such as Georgetown, Kansas State, Tennessee, Alabama, Xavier, Purdue, and Arizona State, those could be fresh nails that the tournament committee save for March when they seal the coffin. Beware the resume killers in November and December.
THE BEST VERSUS THE BEAST
Along with the sad disintegration of the original Big East also goes with it the conference’s yearly standing as the most dominant one in all of college basketball. Yes, there is still a Big East Conference by name that airs on Fox Sports these days with good programs like Marquette, Villanova, Creighton, Butler, and those dastardly Providence Friars, but with the creation of the American Athletic Conference and defections to the ACC, the thrill of big time hoops is gone. Louisville and Syracuse put a nice finishing touch to the conference by going to the Final Four as the last representatives (with Louisville winning it all), but Syracuse is now in the ACC along with Notre Dame and Pittsburgh.
Louisville will also enter the ACC next year to create what is being touted by many as basketball’s next super conference, an assembly of schools so strong up and down that it is possible to see at least 10 tournament bids out of the new ACC every single season thereafter. However, in the first outing of this so-called “super conference” this past month, the ACC has certainly shown its fair share of warts. Duke has two future pros in Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, but they already lost convincingly to Kansas and Arizona and almost lost at home to Vermont. North Carolina did take down Louisville in Uncasville, but the weekend before, they lost at home to Belmont and on the road to UAB. N.C. State, Miami, Boston College, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest have all stumbled out of the gate. Notre Dame lost to a smaller state school in Indiana State, and Clemson lost in their home state to UMass. Florida State and Virginia have been impressive, but both have already dropped games so far. How ironic is it that the last two unbeatens remaining in the new ACC are two of their Big East imports: Pittsburgh and Syracuse?
But if you look again at Syracuse and Louisville last season, it is a great lead-in to what looks to be the most exciting and loaded installment ever for the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge. While it is not too hard to debate the greatness of the former Big East as the beast of college hoops, the Big Ten rebounded last year and went on to have its best overall season in decades. In the 2012-13 season, Indiana was a preseason #1 and earned a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Four teams finished with 27 wins or more, six out of seven teams won a tournament game, and four out of the seven got to the Sweet 16. We also had the closest chance in years to the Big Ten regaining the national title as Michigan beat Syracuse in the Final Four, but lost at the end to Louisville. Now with the Big East gone, it is now a showdown between the Big Ten and the ACC to see who will wind up ruling this year’s roost when it comes to the conference totem pole. I would be foolish to ignore a resurgent Pac-12 and top-heavy Big XII, but with the depth of these two conferences, it is safe to say that this Big Ten/ACC Challenge will have a lot of merit in which one winds up on top.
The action will be front and center on ESPN’s family of networks starting on Tuesday as we get a Sweet 16 rematch between Indiana and Maui Invitational champion Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. Michigan, who still has talent left from that national runner-up team, will visit Cameron and face a Duke team fresh off a loss to Arizona. The other two games on Tuesday to watch are an improved Penn State team at Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame at Iowa, who came within a made shot of winning the Battle 4 Atlantis. Wednesday’s main event will be North Carolina visiting East Lansing to take on Michigan State in the night-cap. Last year, UNC went to #1 Indiana and got throttled. I like this Tar Heels team a lot more than that one and did beat Louisville, but this spells doom as they play a top-ranked Michigan State team that is clicking on all cylinders. Paradise Jam champion Maryland visits Ohio State while Cancun Challenge champs Wisconsin visit Virginia in what is bound to be a physical affair.
Other matchups include Miami/Nebraska, Boston College/Purdue, Northwestern/N.C. State, Florida State/Minnesota, and Illinois/Georgia Tech. From its inception in 1999 until 2008, the ACC won this challenge every year before the Big Ten won three years in a row. Last year’s was a 6-6 tie after expanding to 12 games, and that could very well happen again this year. It is fun to debate which conference gets bragging rights in this challenge, but when it comes to the finished product, both conferences will be in great shape. The question will be which one comes out the better: The reloaded ACC or the reinvigorated Big Ten?
MY TOP 25 RANKINGS
#1- Michigan State– They did not take it easy when they beat Virginia Tech and Oklahoma in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. It just seemed like they did because they are so good. North Carolina will be a decent challenge.
#2- Arizona– Won at San Diego State then beat Duke on a neutral court with a little bit of everything. Dates with UNLV and Michigan loom near.
#3- Kentucky– Looked a little bit vulnerable against some mid-majors, but Randle is second in the country in rebounds and the defense is improving. They went to Brooklyn and took care of Providence, and they will try to do the same to Baylor at Jerry’s World on 12/6.
#4- Oklahoma State– Most explosive scoring team I have seen so far, which is saying something given how bad they were on offense last year. Their loss to Memphis in Orlando did expose them as a bit of a one-man show, though.
#5- Syracuse– Looked awfully impressive at Maui, and Indiana is a great test at home to attack that 2-3 zone. C.J. Fair got right back to where he left off in the Final Four.
#6- Ohio State– Questions were raised about which Buckeye would fill the scoring void left by Deshaun Thomas. Doesn’t matter when you’re the best defense in the country hands down, does it?
#7- Kansas– A flat showing at the Bahamas will not deter me yet. Wiggins will improve and the depth on their team is frightening. Visits to Colorado and Florida will be next.
#8- Duke– Yes, they are a 2-loss team, but no shame in losing away from home against Kansas and Arizona. Parker is the real deal, but the team’s defense is highly questionable.
#9- Louisville– The loss to North Carolina was reminiscent of their loss to Duke last year in the Battle 4 Atlantis. The team is really good, but their best will come with time.
#10- Wichita State– Took on a scoring machine in BYU and shut them down. Then had a dogfight with Saint Louis and won that one, too. By far the best mid-major out there right now.
#11- Wisconsin– Frank Kaminsky’s 43-point performance lit up social media, but Bo Ryan’s swing offense has benefitted from the new hand checking rules, adding 11 points to their team scoring average.
#12- UConn– Shabazz Napier played the role of the star at the Garden against Indiana, and he definitely won the part. DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright, and Omar Calhoun haven’t missed a beat, either.
#13- Oregon– That win over Georgetown overseas is looking weaker and weaker and have played cupcakes since. But this week brings a trip to Ole Miss, where Joseph Young takes on Marshall Henderson.
#14- Florida– Lost at Madison to Wisconsin, but the suspension to Scottie Wilbekin is over and good timing. Their next three opponents are UConn, Kansas, and Memphis.
#15- Villanova– Jay Wright has the right formula this season. They throw a lot of guys at you, and my favorite is Darrun Hilliard. They played like hell to win the Battle 4 Atlantis.
#16- Iowa State– I love this team. Fred Hoiberg is an NBA philosopher in a college system, and it is working! The state game against Iowa on 12/13 will be a great contest.
#17- Baylor– Scott Drew has a way of finding talent in the least likely of people and getting the minimum out of the most likely of people. Isaiah Austin has underwhelmed, but this team’s got a lot of spunk.
#18- UMass– I saw this team play my LSU Tigers on marathon day and they were terrific. Cady Lalanne is a hoss on the boards, Chaz Williams is a good point guard, and they run a frantic pace. Won the Charleston Classic convincingly.
#19- UCLA– Their scoring numbers under Alford look great, but they have played no one of significance yet. Jordan Adams will play another talented Jordan on 12/7: Jordan Clarkson and the Missouri Tigers.
#20- Memphis– After being humiliated by Oklahoma State at Stillwater, the Tigers turned the tables and got their first win over a ranked opponent under Josh Pastner. Their back court is multi-skilled and their freshmen are contributing immediately. Louisville and UConn better look out.
#21- Oklahoma– You read it here first: This is a dangerous team. I was no more impressed by a losing effort than I was by the Sooners against Michigan State at Brooklyn. Cameron Clark has broken out, Buddy Hield is a jack of all trades, and their guard play is deep.
#22- Iowa– They lost the Battle 4 Atlantis title to Villanova in overtime, but this team can play. They have a very efficient offense (12th in nation), and they do it by committee with TEN players who averaged 5 points or more. Definitely Fran McCaffrey’s best team since he’s been here.
#23- Ole Miss– They lost their top rebounders from last season, but Andy Kennedy has smartly kept Henderson low-key while expanding his teammates’ scoring output. Let’s see how they do against a very good Oregon team.
#24- Boise State– Score, score, and score some more. The Broncos average 97 points per game and have two great guards in Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks. They are my pick to win the Mountain West, and they go to Kentucky on 12/10.
#25- Pittsburgh– A little lower than I expected since they started soft, but Ken Pomeroy loves their efficiency stats and they put a licking on Pac-12 contender Stanford in Brooklyn.
Missed the Cut- North Carolina, Creighton, New Mexico, Gonzaga, Dayton, Virginia, Marquette, Indiana, San Diego State, Harvard, Missouri, Cincinnati