- Matt Cox
Ahhh, yes - it’s officially that time of the year…
With the calendar now flipped to 2019, the college football season will soon be sealed shut and buried 10 feet under. If only we could expedite this process for the NFL playoffs as well (sorry NFL fans, I no longer have a team to root for thanks to Roger Goodell and Stan Kroenke’s perfectly executed hijacking of MY St. Louis Rams). Regardless, all that matters is that the sports media spotlight is finally beginning to shift to the hardwood.
This weekend marked the unofficial kick-off of conference play for all 32 leagues, evidenced by the ginormous Saturday slab of games. To help you avoid drinking from a firehose by having to sift through summaries of every game, we felt it was our duty to simplify the weekend’s happenings into a much more digestible synopsis.
Below, we start with some reactions to the Power 5 leagues and then hit on a few of our favorite storylines that stood out from the mid-major landscape.
The Big Boys
Let’s get the obligatory Duke plug out of the way…
First of all, Zion, you dirty devil you. Wasn’t punking your home state school to play for the ACC’s Satanic blue blood program in the final hour evil enough? Did you really need to twist the knife further into the hearts of Clemson fans by going scorched Earth against the orange Tigers?
College basketball’s human highlight reel laid waste to Clemson Saturday night in typical Zion fashion. Putting up 20+ points and 10+ rebounds on a nightly basis is no longer impressive – it’s just what we expect from the 18-year old cyborg.
I mean, when you have the ability to do this, what chance does the rest of the country have…
It’s such a travesty that we won’t get to see Zion take a trip to Clemson this season. Curse these unbalanced schedules.
For those of you who don’t live on kenpom.com like I do, please take note of the fact that Duke is currently leading the country in steal percentage and ranks second in block percentage. Interestingly enough, Auburn holds the inverse of those ranks, sporting the nation’s top block rate and second highest steal rate behind the Blue Devils.
This event-driven type of defense is what makes Duke and Auburn’s transition game so lethal. It’s nearly impossible to control the tempo and limit their fast break opportunities because they are ELITE at creating those opportunities on their own. Don’t look now, but Duke has climbed to the number 2 spot in both kenpom’s offensive and defensive efficiency rankings. It’s frightening to think that the Devils are far from a finished product, especially given how poorly Cam Reddish has played over the last month.
Don’t let the 13-point margin of victory fool you – Virginia’s 65-52 pounding of Florida State was an offensive and defensive clinic.
The snail-paced Hoos toyed with the hyper-athletic Noles in the first half on Saturday and entered the break with a comfortable 19 point lead, a cushion they would never surrender.
So, what was Virginia’s key to success you might ask? Well, it was exactly that…
After a rocky start to his new home in Virginia, Braxton Key seems to have finally found his footing. The former Alabama transfer has willingly adapted to his role as an off-the-bench swiss army knife and Tony Bennett has rewarded him with more burn over the last few games. Key’s contributions on Saturday – 20 points, 6 boards in 26 minutes – were only outshined by Kyle Guy’s deep daggers from downtown, but don’t discount how impactful Key could be for the Cavs down the stretch. With Bennett essentially trimming the rotation to 7 guys, Key will be called upon often throughout ACC play to fulfill a number of matchup needs. He’s versatile enough to play on the wing when Bennett wants to go with a twin tower lineup of Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite, but he also has the size / length to slide up to the 4 when one of the two UVA bigs come off the floor for a breather.
Do you believe in [Hilton] maaaagic?!
Yes, Lovin’ Spoonful, we do believe in the magical, anti-Kansas voodoo powers of Hilton Coliseum. Iowa State dismantled the Udoka Azubuike-less Jayhawks Saturday afternoon, thanks to the red-hot shooting of Marial Shayok and Tyrese Haliburton, who combined to hit 9 of 10 from behind the stripe.
On the other end of the floor, Kansas struggled to find any sort of offensive rhythm without their big beast in the middle. Even with ‘Doke’ sidelined, Bill Self remained dead set on throwing the ball inside, which resulted in far too many turnovers off forced entry passes from the young KU guards.
As my colleague Jim mentioned yesterday, the devastating news of Doke being done for the year now puts Self at a crossroads: Does he keep pounding the rock inside and continue running the offense primarily through the paint? Or, does he run it back to last year’s 4-guard spread offense, which terrorized opposing defenses with an abundance of speed and shooting?
While the latter would require Self to sacrifice some size defensively - this did not bode well last season, for the record - the defensive versatility of Dedric Lawson and Quentin Grimes make that a viable option, especially when factoring in how unguardable a 1) Lawson 2) Grimes 3) Lagerald Vick 4) Devon Dotson 5) Charlie Moore or Marcus Garrett lineup could be on offense.
So, is it time to cue the ‘is THIS the year KU FINALLY surrenders the Big-12 title belt’ narrative?!?!
Well, at least not yet…”
The Big Ten conference title quest looks like a two-horse race between Michigan and Michigan State.
That said, after watching Sparty carve up Ohio State in the 2nd half Saturday in Columbus, I remain convinced that Michigan State is still the best team in the Big Ten by the SLIMMEST of margins. Unfortunately, the way the schedule shook out this year, we won’t see Michigan and Michgan State do battle until February 24th before meeting again just two weeks later on the last day of the regular season.
Both squads are well-balanced and well-coached, but when push comes to shove, I tend to favor offensive-minded teams over defensive-minded teams (if you believe in the ‘defense wins championships’ mantra, I urge you to reconsider that outdated stance). While Michigan’s offense did rip Indiana to shreds yesterday, the Wolverines have not been immune to scoring droughts over their last five games. Minor cracks shined through in less than stellar performances at home against Western Michigan (up 2 at half), Air Force (up 7 at half), Binghamton (up 5 with 10 minutes to play) and Penn State (up 5 with 25 points at half).
This is no doubt a nit pick, but these brief spells of scoring absences could be a recipe for an untimely upset given how slow Michigan plays offensively. Virginia can attest to the dangers of getting into a slow-paced crawl with inferior opponents, which can be disastrous when shots aren’t falling in a low possession game. However, if Jordan Poole can stay on his current growth trajectory, there’s also a scenario where Michigan winds up with one of the most prolific offenses in the league. If this comes to fruition, I fear for the rest of the league…
Shifting back to the Spartans, Cassius Winston has hushed all of his critics - including myself - who questioned how high this team’s ceiling could be with Winston as the offensive alpha. Izzo has challenged Winston time and time again this year, and the junior point guard has consistently answered the bell. The advanced individual statistics prove just how efficient he’s been as the go-to-guy offensively and the impending return of Josh Langford will only make his life easier.
While most of the AP top-25 took care of business, Kentucky and Nevada were reminded just how unforgiving life on the road can be in conference.
Naturally, just one day after I raved about the Wolfpack on our most recent podcast, Nevada responded by taking a big fat dump at New Mexico. After a near flawless performance at home against Utah State to open MWC play, the Pack ran into the ultimate trap – that is, going on the road to face a young, talented and hungry New Mexico team that presents a tricky stylistic matchup. The Lobos’ defensive pressure confounded the Martin twins, who combined to convert just 4 of their 21 attempts from the floor.
In the big picture, this should not dramatically influence your opinion of this Nevada team. Sure, they can go through brief stretches of shaky shot-selection and questionable defensive engagement. But this roster is still loaded with weapons at all five positions and the age / experience factor will pay big dividends down the stretch as the grind of conference play begins to take its toll on younger teams.
That same ‘do not panic’ narrative also applies to Kentucky, which was reaffirmed in my eyes after observing their showdown with Alabama Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa. UK looked like the better team from start to finish in my opinion, but the Tide were able to maintain separation at home thanks to an out of body experience from Tevin Mack. The former Texas transfer rained in 6 triples in the first half, while wingmate Herb Jones chipped in 10 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists of his own.
The Best of the Rest
A new year, a clean slate…
Along with the aforementioned New Mexico, who improved to 2-0 in MWC play after stumbling over themselves in the non-conference, there’s a slew of teams that now look rejuvenated and refocused with conference action in full swing:
Loyola – Hey Sister Jean, is there any room left on the bandwagon? Or am I too late to the soiree?...
Last week, Porter Moser’s postgame comments after the Ramblers demolished Indiana State reeled me all the way back in to the Loyola fan club. In almost a duplicitous plot to last year, the ‘Blers are playing their best basketball when it matters most. With the big-3 of Clayton Custer, Cam Krutwig and Marques Townes firing on all cylinders, along with the newcomers beginning to grasp how to play in Moser’s system, Loyola looks poised to run away with the Valley for the second year in a row. Moser has raved about his team’s effort on the defensive side of the ball – the bedrock of last season’s success – and with MVC contenders Southern Illinois and Drake both suffering major injuries last week, it looks as if the bi-polar Illinois State Redbirds might be Loyola’s only worthy adversary this season.
Iona – After trashing Rider, Iona and the rest of the MAAAAAAC on our most recent podcast, the Gaels have jumped out to a quick 2-0 start in league play. Most prognosticators (including us) penciled in Rider as the clear-cut MAAC favorite, but Tim Cluess’ bunch has looked like the Iona of old in their first two conference games (omitting that disastrous 1st half against Fairfield on Saturday). Despite the sluggish start in non-conference (and outrageous locker room incident that resulted in Roland Griffin being kicked off the team), this team is still dripping with talent and possesses the offensive firepower that can light up the scoreboard in a hurry. With how poorly the MAAC performed in the non-conference, the MAAC tournament champion will almost certainly be penciled in as a 16-seed in the NCAA tournament, which could make the Gaels a nightmare opening round matchup for any one of the top-seeds.
Utah – Up until about a week ago, it looked like Larry Krystkowiak was headed for his worst season at Utah since arriving in Salt Lake City back in 2011. The young, inexperienced Utes have looked completely out of sorts on the defensive side of the ball this season, a rarity for a Krystkowiak-coached basketball team. Those defensive deficiencies were masked by a Golden State-esque avalanche of 3s this weekend as the Utes came out gunning against the Pac-12’s top two contenders. Utah splashed in 27 of 51 3s against Arizona and Arizona State and came just three points shy (in overtime) of escaping with a 2-0 record in league play. Sedrick Barefield’s evolution into a human flamethrower fueled the Utes scoring explosion, but he’ll have to sustain that shooting precision for the next month to help cover up so many uncharacteristic defensive flaws.
UAB – The Blazers improved to 2-0 in the C-USA standings with an impressive 20-point shellacking of a sneaky talented FIU team. I was bearish on UAB before the season began, mostly due a major depletion of talent (Nick Norton, William Lee and Chris Cokley), despite the return of sophomore star Zack Bryant. Bryant has been a menace defensively, while veterans Jalen Perry and Lewis Sullivan have asserted themselves as legitimate complementary scoring threats.
The Oregon and Florida Conundrum
The Gators and Ducks each suffered bad home losses over the weekend, with in-state rival Oregon State knocking off Oregon on their home floor, while Florida was outscored 24-11 over the final 10 minutes by South Carolina in Gainesville. Oregon’s depth grows thinner by the day with Bol Bol confirmed out for the season, Kenny Wooten out indefinitely with a broken jaw and Abu Kigab opting to transfer mid-season. The Ducks are now down to 8 scholarship players and, per a local report from the Register Guard, are in the midst of a severe identity crisis. Without a pair of shot-blocking savants anchoring the back end of the defense, it sounds like Dana Altman is eyeing a drastic shift in style to maximize the strengths of the remaining roster. There’s certainly some intriguing pieces to the puzzle for Altman to tinker with, but shifting to a pressure-focused defensive scheme will be a tall task with his bench depth becoming obsolete.
Unlike the dumpster fire that is the Pac-12, the SEC gauntlet offers seemingly no chances for the league’s top teams to rack up easy victories. South Carolina is currently the lowest ranked SEC team on kenpom, which implies Florida’s debacle at home on Saturday should’ve been the easiest conference game of the year. I still remain cautiously optimistic on the Gators’ prognosis going forward, but the offensive roller coaster needs to flatten out quickly. Even with Mike White making the bold move of relegating Jalen Hudson to an off-the-bench microwave role, Florida still relies far too much on high-level shot making to put points on the board. Andrew Nembhard is a coach’s dream as a floor general / offensive initiator and Noah Locke is automatic from distance, but the rest of the supporting cast needs to chip in more consistently.
Assuming Hudson is what he is at this point - his confidence and shot-selection are both in the gutter right now - KeVaughn Allen and Deaundrae Ballard are the best candidates to restore some stability to Florida’s offense. Both are gifted athletes and capable scorers, but their game-to-game unpredictability must be corrected. Ballard essentially skipped the blowout against Butler (0 points in 11 minutes), and Allen still goes through weird stretches where he is essentially invisible on offense.
The Pride of the Colonial
Most preseason prognosticators tagged Bill Coen’s Northeastern Huskies as the favorite to win the Colonial this year, but no one saw this Hofstra buzzsaw coming. The two CAA titans were trending in polar opposite directions when they clashed Saturday in Hempstead - Hofstra was riding a 9-game winning streak, while Northeastern was fresh off a devastating overtime loss to Delaware at home.
The Huskies scratched and clawed their way to a 9-point lead late in the 2nd half, before an untimely offensive pause opened the door for Justin Wright-Foreman’s late game heroics:
When the spread on this game initially opened at -8, we couldn’t call our bookie fast enough to drop duffle bags of cash on Northeastern +8. While that turned out to be the right side, it was a wake up call to appreciate just how surgical the Pride’s offense has been thus far this season. Propelled by the individual brilliance of Wright-Foreman - aka the ‘Hyphenated Hero’ - and a perfectly constructed supporting cast of characters, Hofstra has repeatedly blitzed opponents from the opening tip. The Pride gave Maryland all they could handle in College Park back in November, and actually entered the halfway point up 6 before the Terps punched back hard over the final 20 minutes. Since then, an overtime loss at VCU is the only blemish that’s scarred the Pride’s resume.
From a gambling perspective, do not be sucked into blindly fading the Pride when Vegas releases what feels like hyper-inflated lines. For context, here are some of the gargantuan leads Hofstra has built over the last month of the season:
Up 80-41 vs. Manhattan with 2:00 remaining
Up 44-31 vs. Stony Brook with 16:45 remaining
Up 48-18 vs. Delaware at the half
Up 61-39 vs. Drexel with 15:33 remaining
While Wright-Foreman has hogged most of the headlines, Purdue transfer Jacquil Taylor has been just what the doctor ordered for head coach Joe Mihalich. With Rokas Gustys departing this summer, Taylor has been the perfect plug to that giant-sized hole in the middle. Gustys was an elite two-way rebounder, but Taylor’s been far more disruptive as a rim protector and help side defender, a key reason why the Pride’s defense is leaps and bounds better than last season.
The Greeeeeen is Meeeeeeaaaaaaan
Everything Grant McCasland touches seems to turn to gold. It took just months for McCasland to transform Arkansas State into a Sun Belt contender back in 2016-17, so we couldn’t be less surprised with how quickly he’s turned around North Texas. Keep in mind that the Mean Green finished 2-16 in the C-USA just two years ago, but now find themselves in sole possession of 1st place this season at 3-0. With perennial power Middle Tennessee in the midst of a major rebuild, there appears to be a small window of opportunity cracked open for the Mean Green to seize the conference title belt this season. Western Kentucky is still my pick to win the league, but some unexpected roster turbulence has made Hilltoppers far more vulnerable than they looked on paper to start the year. Old Dominion’s institutional success and Marshall’s explosive backcourt should not be glossed over either, but no one in the C-USA can match the robust guard depth at McCasland’s disposal (with sincerest apologies to Louisiana Tech). Just wait until Roosevelt Smart and Ryan Woolridge, the twin cylinder engine that drives the Mean Green offense, start rounding into peak form.
There’s no more fly, but let’s still go Peay!
If you’re not paying attention to what Matt Figger is building in Clarksville, it’s time to take notice. A former disciple of Frank Martin, Figger was tasked with replacing a local legend, Dave Loos, who turned Austin Peay into one of the premier mid-major programs in the country. In just his 2nd season at the helm, Figger has the Governors playing as well as anyone in the OVC right now. Murray State and Belmont are still the hunted, but Peay and Jacksonville State are slowly closing the gap and are both overqualified to play spoiler in the always entertaining OVC tournament looming in March.