Wednesday, January 8, 2014

College Basketball in the New Year; What We Know

Back in my season preview, I highlighted a number of things to watch in the world of college basketball this season. As predicted, this season has been exciting, thanks mostly to the huge influx of new talent from one of the most promising freshman classes in years. On the flip side, some teams are clearly still adjusting to the new enforcement of defensive rules, leading to plenty of ugly foul-fests that have resulted in endless trips to the free throw line. Now that everybody has started conference play, let's see how those observations have stacked up so far, as well as check on some other interesting stories to watch.

Rule Changes
As mentioned above, this one has been hit-and-miss, but hopefully everybody is on the same page by March. There have been plenty of head-scratching calls, but on the whole the changes are doing what they were meant to, namely increase scoring and force defenders to find a way to stop people without grabbing and shoving them all over the court. Perhaps no team has adapted better than (shockingly) Wisconsin, who are sitting at 15-0 currently while scoring ten points per game more than a season ago (75.1 vs. 65.0) while allowing less than half that much more on the other end (60.5 vs. 55.9). The boring Badgers are boring no more, thanks to a legit NBA prospect (small forward Sam Dekker) and the emergence of seven-foot sniper Frank Kaminsky (shooting .586/.463/.744 and averaging 13.5 points per game, including a 43-point explosion against North Dakota on November 19th). On the other end of the spectrum you have Duke, which is proving for the first time in the Coach K era that they can't guard anyone, particularly because they lack an interior defender who is either big enough or quick enough to deter easy shots. Regardless, the games have been better to watch, and if the new rule enforcement can even make Wisconsin fun to watch they must be considered a rousing success.

The wealth of talent is still there, but it has become more and more evident that the 2011-12 Wildcats were a special group that meshed with each other perfectly and sublimated their best interests for those of the team. These Wildcats are 10-3 (and would you believe that 40-and-0 is STILL a thing after three losses?), with all of the three coming to respectable teams (Michigan State, Baylor, and North Carolina), so they're not bad. But they have also looked disjointed at times, particularly in the backcourt. Simply put, their perimeter shooting has been an issue, and it's going to be hard for the Harrison twins and James Young to drive to the basket when they need to if nobody respects their outside shots. And when the best shooter thus far (Young) is hitting only 33.7% from deep, opponents are going to be less afraid of doubling and tripling Julius Randle on the block. Which is something that they need to do, because Randle has been a monster inside, averaging over 18 PPG while shooting better than 56% and getting to the line more than nine times a game. Those kinds of numbers (pretty universally against double teams or more - he cannot be stopped with one man) should mean lots of wide-open looks for shooters around him; those shooters need to do a better job capitalizing on their opportunities. Also perplexing is the fact that with all of this offensive talent, Kentucky averages just 12.5 assists a game on more than twice that many made field goals (26.6). That disparity screams out that these guys are hunting for their own shots too often, something that also probably needs to change if UK wants to play deep into March.

Andrew Wiggins
It seems like a lot of fans are disappointed in the Wiggins experience this year, but I don't think that's entirely fair. Remember, Kansas had to replace their entire starting lineup from last season, and only returned two players (Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe) who averaged more than ten minutes a year ago. Plus, only five times in Bill Self's previous ten seasons at the helm has any player averaged even 17 points for the Jayhawks, despite an impressive collection of talent that includes fifteen NBA draft picks and typically features high-scoring units; Self's teams tend to share the ball.* So the fact that Wiggins hasn't averaged Durant-esque numbers shouldn't be that surprising. He has certainly had his moments, notably stifling Jabari Parker in the second half of the Champions Classic in Chicago while leading Kansas to a comeback victory. Don't worry about his stats; Andrew Wiggins is good.

*Those five players? Wayne Simien in 2003-04 (17.8), Simien again in 2004-05 (20.3), Sherron Collins in 2008-09 (18.9), Marcus Morris in 2010-11 (17.2), and Thomas Robinson in 2011-12 (17.7). Tyshawn Taylor in 2011-12 is the only other guy to even average sixteen points during Self's tenure (16.6). Coach Self runs an egalitarian program.

What is surprising is that it's not always clear that Wiggins is even the most talented Jayhawk; seven-foot Cameroonian center Joel Embiid, who has only been playing organized basketball for three years, has looked absolutely awesome for stretches. Embiid is shooting 66% from the floor, runs like a deer, has good footwork for someone so raw, blocks and alters lots of shots, and is an adept passer who limits his turnovers. He's young, but his ceiling is "Hakeem Olajuwon," which is close to as high as ceilings go. Stay tuned.

The new-look Big East
So far, so good! Every team has a winning record, even DePaul (8-7). Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery are calling games together. Villanova looks like it has its swagger back, with a 13-1 record that includes a win over Kansas, and with the one loss at Syracuse's Carrier Dome over Christmas break. Josh Smith evidently hasn't made too many trips to Georgetown Cupcake yet, playing a key role for a 10-3 Georgetown team. Marquette has disappointed, opening 9-6 in a season when many people thought that they were the best team in this league; the Golden Eagles have occasionally struggled to score, most notably in a 52-35 loss to Ohio State back in November. Speaking of scoring, however, the Doug McDermott Express rolls on unabated; Creighton's senior forward is averaging 24.7 points on .491/.427/.900 shooting splits, and needs 438 points to crack 3000, or a little over 23 per game assuming Creighton plays three postseason games (Big East and NCAA tournaments). All in all, while the Big East certainly lost something when Louisville, Syracuse, and UConn left, it's still a quality league.

Bear Down
So far, this Arizona team looks like a well-oiled machine, checking almost all of the boxes on the way to a 15-0 start. I would say that the biggest concerns for the Wildcats right now are their depth (there is a vast gulf after the top seven, so foul trouble could really hurt them) and their outside shooting (the only real perimeter threats are Nick Johnson, who has been outstanding across the board, and Gabe York off the bench). But this team rebounds, plays good defense, has a real point guard in TJ McConnell, good athletes (especially, of course, Aaron Gordon), and a big man who creates matchup problems with lots of opponents. While the lack of manpower off of the bench after Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and York could eventually doom them, this team is clearly a Final Four contender when they're clicking like this.

Strong Mid-Majors
In this Year of the Freshman, there are a LOT of mid-major teams that look very dangerous heading into conference play. Chief among them is last year's Final Four party crasher, Wichita State; Gregg Marshall has had no difficulty replacing Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead, and the Shockers are 15-0 and staring down the barrel of a weaker than usual Missouri Valley slate. Gonzaga keeps marching on after losing Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, off to a 4-0 start and 14-2 overall in the sneaky-good WCC, all of whose teams have at least nine wins and are above .500.** New Mexico State will be interesting to watch in the oft-forgotten WAC, primarily because of their mammoth Indian-Canadian center, Sim Bhullar, who measures out at 7'5", 360 and gives the Aggies 10 and 7 with better than 3 blocks a game.*** The Mountain West has (as usual) a plethora of good teams, highlighted by 12-1 San Diego State. Harvard looks like it might enter March with only an eight-point loss at Colorado and a likely loss at UConn blemishing their otherwise perfect record.

**I have to give a shout-out to my beloved alma mater (Pepperdine), which is 10-6 and won their first three conference games (including a date with BYU!) before falling at San Francisco this past Saturday. UCLA transfer Brendan Lane has been terrific, especially paired with last year's top WCC freshman, Stacy Davis. The last time we got off to a 10-5 start was my junior year. Keep it up, Waves!

***New Mexico State will be even more interesting to watch next year because Bhullar's younger brother Tanveer, a mere 7'3" and 335, will no longer be redshirting. Supposedly they have complementary skill sets. Color me intrigued.

ACC Newcomers
I think everybody knew that Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame would be good teams, and they have certainly been that. The trio has opened 38-5 (four of those losses were by the Irish), and 4-0 in ACC play, including a Duke-Notre Dame game in which the Blue Devils (and star freshman Jabari Parker) were bullied around. Syracuse's C.J. Fair looks like a first-team All-American at this point, and a 14-1 Pitt team means that there is a lot of competition at the top of the league, especially if schizophrenic North Carolina (losses to Belmont and UAB, wins over Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky) finds its identity. Carolina is going to lose a few more games because they have a hard time playing catch-up (Leslie McDonald is second on the squad with 10 three pointers made, and he's only been back for five games), but they can overwhelm smaller teams with big lineups featuring James Michael McAdoo at small forward. Speaking of smaller teams, Duke is scoring more or less at will (they are shooting a shade under 50% from the floor AS A TEAM, and have four rotation players hitting better than 40% from behind the arc), but they are also playing the worst defense seen from a Coach K team in my lifetime, ranking 146th nationally in points allowed (69.6, including giving up 90 at home to Vermont, of all teams). As mentioned up top, the primary culprit is that they're thin up front; Amile Jefferson (6'9", 210) is too skinny to bang with a lot of big men, and Josh Hairston and Marshall Plumlee are too slow. Trust Parker and Rodney Hood to at least make this an entertaining team, sure to play in lots of 85-80 contests because nobody has proven capable of slowing both guys down.

Will the Contenders Please Step Forward?
For all the drama surrounding the recently dismissed Chane Behanan, Louisville has looked really good despite two close losses to Carolina and Kentucky. They'll be around in March. So will Arizona provided none of their top seven get hurt. Wichita State looks, if anything, better than last year. Syracuse could ride Fair and their zone to the Final Four. Michigan State made it through their typically rough non-conference schedule with only a loss to Carolina, and you can bet Adreian Payne and Keith Appling have zero desire to become the first four-year players under Tom Izzo to not make at least one Final Four trip (true story). Kansas and Kentucky have all that talent, and some of it might develop in time for March Madness. Wisconsin looks better than ever. Ohio State and Duke could go on runs if they can patch their gaping holes on offense and defense, respectively. Florida lurks if Chris Walker becomes eligible. Oklahoma State has three major talents and a lot of toughness. And don't sleep on Oregon or Colorado in the Pac-12. This looks like a really wide-open year in college hoops; let's hope that the next two months are as fun as the first two.