Reflecting on the first (half) month of the college basketball season, we look back at some of the bests, worsts, achievements and trends from November:
Best team, best player: Ignore the growling from Tom Izzo, because Michigan State looked sensational all month, even in games when their coach wasn’t happy with them (see: 24-point win over Eastern Michigan). The Spartans are deep, talented, and not bothered by the rule changes in the least. Oh, and Denzel Valentine has been the nation’s best player. It would normally be heresy to compare any player to Magic Johnson, but Valentine (19.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 8.5 assists per game) has been racking up numbers and triple-doubles at a pace worthy of mention with some of the sport’s all-time greats.
Runner-up best team: Kentucky. The names change. The performance does not. Even when it feels like the Wildcats aren’t at their best, they still beat quality teams by double digits.
Runner-up best player: Scoochie Smith, Dayton. We would’ve been glad to put Scoochie at least even with Valentine before the Flyers were smoked by Xavier in the AdvoCare Invitational final. Still, for the first couple weeks there is no player who is helping his team consistently in more different ways than Smith, in ways measurable (12.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.0 steals) and not so easily measured (good defense, setting good screens in the paint for UD’s big guys).
Best game: Hawaii and Nevada traded the lead eight times in the final two minutes, four times in the last 31 seconds and twice in just the game’s final six seconds. Roderick Bobbitt’s coast-to-coast driving layup with 1.4 seconds left gave the Rainbow Warriors a 76-75 win, overcoming a Nevada rally from 16 points down in the second half and 34 points from the Wolf Pack’s Marqueze Coleman. Unfortunately for many (though perhaps fortunate for the college hoops insomniac), the game was played at 4 a.m. Eastern time, though some had a chance to see the ending while waking up for the day.
Runner-up: All kinds of worthy choices here including Vanderbilt/Stony Brook, Michigan State/Kansas, Northern Iowa/North Carolina, Duke/Georgetown, Dayton/Iowa and Dayton/Monmouth, but we’ll go with Maryland’s 75-71 win over Georgetown. The game so many have been waiting for did not fail to disappoint. It was intense, hotly contested, and saw the Terps finish strong by coming back after trailing by seven late. Now we just need for these two teams not to be such strangers.
Most improved from last season: We’re as aware as anyone that it’s early. But South Carolina is off to a 7-0 start and topped some decent (if not overpowering) teams to win the Paradise Jam title. The Gamecocks are pummeling teams on the glass with a +12.4 margin and have five players scoring in double figures, led by Mindaugas Kacinas at 15.4 ppg. In an SEC that still has room for upward mobility, don’t be surprised if Frank Martin’s team is contending for the NCAA Tournament in February.
Runner-up: Arkansas-Little Rock is 5-0, already has won at San Diego State and Tulsa, and ranks No. 1 in the RPI per CBSSports.com data. The win at SDSU in particular is one of the best road wins by any team early this season because the Aztecs are notoriously tough at home. Chris Beard is already making a big impact in his first year as coach with a Trojans team that leads NCAA Division I in scoring defense.
Most improved from beginning of season: In its second game of the year under first-year coach Avery Johnson, Alabama was absolutely undressed by Dayton. The Crimson Tide competed for a while, but then the wheels fell off to the tune of an 80-48 loss. Since then, Bama has defeated Sun Belt Conference favorite Louisiana-Lafayette and added wins over Wichita State and Notre Dame in Orlando. If you watched the Tide in that loss at Dayton, you’d be stunned how far they’ve come in such a short time.
Runner-up: Remember when The Citadel was getting more-than doubled up by Butler 144-71 in its opening game, a score reminiscent of the days when Oklahoma and Billy Tubbs used to put whippings on teams such as U.S. International and Angelo State by scores of 150-95 and the like? The Bulldogs are now 5-2 overall and nearly halfway to their win total of 11 wins all of last year. The competition hasn’t been Butler-level, but a win over Georgia Southern is not bad and the Dogs are doing it just the way coach Duggar Baucom likes to, scoring a nation-leading 97.1 points per game.
Best breakout performance: Admit it, even if you know the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference somewhat, you thought of Monmouth as a nice, plucky, middle-to-upper pack team entering this year, not one that really has a shot against some of college sports’ major brand names away from home, much less beating them consistently. Watching the Hawks on TV in the AdvoCare Invitational, though, there is serious talent here. Five-foot-8 guard Justin Robinson has been electric, as in All-American-level good, Micah Seaborn is one of the better newcomers in the country, and the Hawks have enough size and athleticism to compete with anyone. Monmouth is more than just capable of challenging Iona in the MAAC; the Hawks very well may be the favorite.
Runner-up: Texas-Arlington is right there with Monmouth. Who would’ve thought the Mavericks-picked eighth of 11 teams in the Sun Belt preseason poll-would win at Ohio State and Memphis?
Groundhog Day Award: Miami (Fla.) won an eight-team early season tournament for the second straight year in impressive fashion, hammering Utah and defeating Butler to take the Puerto Rico Tip-Off a year after winning the Charleston Classic. Just like last year, though, the Hurricanes then lost to a lower profile opponent shortly after, this time falling to Northeastern at the buzzer on Quincy Ford’s dagger.
Runner-up: Last year LSU lost to Old Dominion and Clemson early in the season before rallying for an NCAA Tournament bid. This year, the Tigers have already lost to Marquette, Arizona State and now College of Charleston and have a lot of work to do to get back to the NCAAs.
Worst injury luck: Wichita State has been without one of the most valuable players in the country with Fred VanVleet sidelined by a hamstring injury. The results in his absence-three straight defeats in the AdvoCare Invitational-seem to confirm a couple things-that the backcourt of VanVleet and Ron Baker is, if not the very best, on the short list of top backcourts in the country, and that the Shockers’ Sweet 16 performance last year really was amazing given how much the team relied on a few players. On top of that, though, the team is also now without freshman guard Landry Shamet-its third-leading scorer through three games-and most recently lost forward Anton Grady-its top interior scorer early in the season-to that frightening incident in Orlando.
Runner-up: Illinois could certainly rest here because the number of injuries. Besides Wichita State, though, it’s possible no team has been hurt more by a single injury than Central Michigan, which is playing without point guard Chris Fowler, very possibly the top player in the Mid-American Conference. Fowler still has not played in a game this year due to an undisclosed injury that initially was described as day -to-day but now is out for “at least a couple of weeks” according to coach Keno Davis. Without Fowler, the Chippewas went 0-for-the-field at the very balanced Gulf Coast Showcase, losing to Weber State, Western Kentucky and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Along with Fowler being out, CMU had another big problem at the Showcase, as one of the most prolific-and frequent-three-point shooting teams in the country last year made just 26.2% from three-point range over the three games.
As much as the injuries are hurting Wichita State-and they hurt a whole lot-it’s still way, wayyyyy too early to be declaring night watch on the Shockers’ NCAA Tournament chances. For one, it’s early in the season, and if WSU rips off, say, 20 wins in 22 games, it will be fine. For another, the selection committee is supposed to take injuries into account, right? An injury so obviously affecting a team as VanVleet’s certainly must be weighed heavily, even while those losses cannot-and should not-be completely wiped away. Furthermore, to assume Wichita State is dead even before conference play suggests a serious misunderstanding of the Missouri Valley Conference. Besides the Shockers, the Valley should have at least one at-large-level contender in Northern Iowa, and quite possibly two if Evansville can win 20+ games. With Loyola struggling and Illinois State close-but-no-cigar in so many whacks against stellar competition, the conference is not as strong as it could’ve been entering the season but still should hang around that 8-12 range nationally in conference RPI. As such, if Wichita State wins the league, it will be fine.
All that said about Wichita State and injuries, it must also be noted that USC’s win over the Shockers should not be discredited in any way. Without a doubt, it is the biggest win in Andy Enfield’s two-plus years at the helm of the Trojans, and suppose Southern Cal finishes 10-8 or so in the Pac-12 and has wins over Arizona, UCLA, Monmouth and Wichita State on its resume at the end of the year. If injuries are taken into consideration as the selection committee is known to do, however that benefits the losing team hampered by the injury should not come at a cost to the team that won the game.
We’re as guilty as anyone of pumping up expectations for Alabama-Birmingham after the Blazers returned so many from last year’s team that surprised to win the Conference USA title and then stunned Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament. UAB’s 3-3 start, though, has included a surprisingly decisive loss to Illinois and now a loss in overtime to the same Virginia Tech team that lost at home to Alabama State. Clearly, the Blazers are still meshing with a few newcomers joining an experienced cast, and some of the returnees also will need to pick up the pace. Chris Cokley is one of the best sixth men in the country (15.2 points, 8.5 rebounds per game) but talented William Lee has averaged just 5.5 points, and Robert Brown (10.7 ppg) is three points per game off his pace from a year ago. UAB also is struggling with turnovers (14.0 per game) and is shooting just 27.8% from three-point range.
Murray State lost four starters (plus its coach) from last year’s should’ve-been-NCAA-tourney team, but as so often happens, the Racers have reloaded once again. Of course, the most notable loss was NBA first round pick Cameron Payne, but also important was the departure of both of the teams’ main frontcourt players, constant double-double threat Jarvis Williams and regular single-double threat Jonathan Fairell, who scored little but rebounded a lot. The Racers seemed to have little frontcourt firepower returning, but it turns out they had a respectable replacement on hand all along. Wayne Langston averaged just 2.5 points and 3.2 rebounds last year, but the senior has stepped up his game and is averaging 13.9 points while shooting 66.9% from the field. Langston has good size, a nice low post game and stood his ground against Pepperdine star Stacy Davis in MSU’s narrow semifinal win over the Waves in the semifinals of the Gulf Coast Showcase last week. Replacing Payne and T.J. Sapp’s outside shooting has been more of a challenge for the Racers, who are 5-2 but are averaging 68.6 points per game, a measly number by recent Murray State standards, and are shooting just 30.2% from three-point range, well off last year’s 38.7% rate from deep.
Michigan State’s Izzo is the first coach with a national platform to heartily pan this year’s new rules in the sport, doing so after the Spartans defeated Providence in the Wooden Legacy final. Mainly, Izzo does not like the emphasis on freedom of movement, believing it has been taken too far to include too much light contact on the perimeter. Much of the irritation from him and from others stems from the fact star players Denzel Valentine and Kris Dunn spent much of the game in foul trouble.
The problem is, fouls on the perimeter are the result of the game so many coaches and media want. We’re told the sport needs more “attacking” and “driving” and “athletic wings,” yet it also needs “freedom of movement.” Well, throw those ingredients together, mix it up in a beaker and one of the byproducts it will spit out is fouls. No one is mandated to play off the dribble so much offensively, although many of the rule changes this year fall into the category of heavily encouraging teams to do so. If people want basketball to be as dribble-reliant as it is right now but also want to see defense even attempted to be played, they’re going to have live with the consequences, and sometimes those consequences will be foul trouble. Otherwise, perhaps it’s time for less dribbling and more passing and cutting.