Perhaps the problem isn’t Indiana, but us? The Hoosiers have taken some shots early this season after losses to Wake Forest and now a decisive loss at Duke last week, specifically for its defense. The truth is, IU really isn’t playing any differently than it did last year. And this is a surprise…why?
Indiana returned four starters from last year’s team, but that’s the issue. The Hoosiers weren’t good defensively last year-at all. Just watch IU’s NCAA Tournament game against Wichita State, when Fred VanVleet repeatedly diced up Indiana on the ball screen. The scoring is there-it’s always been there-but the defense is not. Unless some of the other freshmen develop as the year goes on, there really was only one impact addition to the team, and expecting Thomas Bryant to change all of that was a major stretch. An assumption was made that IU’s returning players would be considerably better defensively, but that assumption was made either simply on the experience factor or purely on Indiana’s brand name. The Hoosiers still have time to change, but at this point there really isn’t any difference between this year’s IU squad and last year’s.
Many have pontificated on this already, but watching Gonzaga against Arizona again revealed the Bulldogs will need at least moderate guard play to go far this year. The backcourt doesn’t have to be outstanding-not when Kyle Wiltjer is scoring 33 points against a team as good as the Wildcats, even while missing a number of close-in shots late that were part of the Zags’ mystifying offensive shutdown late in that game. Gonzaga’s identity this year is in the frontcourt, and clearly the guards realize that with how they repeatedly fed Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis (18 points) in that game. And there’s nothing wrong with a guy like Kyle Dranginis averaging six points, six rebounds and four assists per game, or Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and Eric McClellan by committee combining for 27 points per game and shooting 43.2%. But when Dranginis goes scoreless and the latter trio scores a combined eight points while shooting 3-for-16? Even a team as talented up front as the Bulldogs will have problems.
It’s almost hard to believe just how much better UNLV looks early this year. To refresh: the Runnin’ Rebels went 18-15 last year and finished seventh in the Mountain West, and that was with an NBA first round draft pick (Rashad Vaughn) and another many were surprised wasn’t drafted (Christian Wood). In all, Vegas lost five of its top six scorers and Head Coach Dave Rice was considered by many on the outside as on the hot seat this year.
So far, the Runnin’ Rebels are off to an impressive 7-1 start heading into a biggie Wednesday night at Wichita State. A number of factors have led to it, including Patrick McCaw’s ascendance (18.4 points per game so far) and touted freshman Stephen Zimmerman delivering on both ends (10.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.3 blocks) without being a ball-stopper (his 53 shot attempts are tied for fourth on the team). The Rebels have also emerged as big winners in college basketball’s annual transfer derby, with three of them delivering much-needed clout in different ways. Former Rutgers point man Jerome Seagears is second in scoring (12.1 ppg) and has a 2.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, Mercer transfer Ike Nwamu is averaging 8.6 points and drilled five three-pointers in UNLV’s convincing win over Oregon last week, and former Oregon Duck Ben Carter is providing interior depth and toughness (8.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg) off the bench. The Runnin’ Rebs defeated Oregon last week without hardly a thing from another excellent freshman in Derrick Jones, who got in early foul trouble and was scoreless in seven minutes, and that’s another sign of a team that is set up to win in a number of ways this year.
The last most remember of Middle Tennessee State is its receiving at at-large bid to the 2013 NCAA Tournament, where the Blue Raiders lost in a play-in game. MTSU is still a solid team that will compete in Conference USA all year, but ultimately its fate will be determined by how much it can score. Sounds simplistic, but it’s true for a team that has few go-to scorers and will again get it done by committee. The Blue Raiders were good enough to win the Great Alaska Shootout over a fair field, defeating Toledo in the final and shooting 49.3% for the event. They’re also not so good to dominate anyone they’ve played. MTSU’s 5-2 record includes four wins by a combined 16 points. The Blue Raiders missed a chance at a nice win at home against VCU, letting a late lead slide away in part because of 35.7% shooting for the game, including making just 4 of 21 from three-point range. Middle Tennessee will always play good defense, including its signature 1-3-1, but lacks a go-to scorer. Giddy Potts (13.8 ppg) has been the closest thing, but he shot just 1-for-9 against the Rams.
All the trashing of San Diego State and Petco Park shouldn’t take away from the importance of San Diego’s 53-48 win over the Aztecs Sunday afternoon. The Toreros have a first-year coach in alum Lamont Smith, who is trying to build a program that has been stuck in the middle of the pack in the West Coast Conference, and he inherited a rather empty cupboard. USD returned just two starters, neither of them star guard Johnny Dee or slick point man Chris Anderson, and no one who averaged more than 6.6 points per game a year ago. It’s going to be a process and improvement is a better measure of the team right now than wins or losses.
Moreover, the Toreros almost didn’t even get another chance at SDSU this year, as it took some time for this year’s meeting to get scheduled and reports are the Aztecs were not interested in continuing the series after the latest contract expired. This city series has typically been a competitive one, albeit one where San Diego State won the previous nine meetings before Sunday. The current contract includes three more games, but undoubtedly San Diego’s win-as ugly as it may have been-is also a win for those who want to see rivalry games played and are tired of schools too focused on the negative and looking for excuses not to play teams, rather than focusing on the benefits of playing games.
In a similar vein of Gonzaga in needing more from its guards is Illinois State, a team that has shown in the first weeks of the season that it has the talent to compete with anybody, but also at this point is a player or two from graduating to the category of a team that can expect to beat anybody. Those players especially could help in the backcourt, where ISU is shooting 29.8% from three-point range, including a cover-your-eyes 24 of 116 (20.7%) in their last five losses. Against a mostly brutal schedule, the Redbirds are off to a 3-6 start that includes a win over NCAA Division II Quincy plus a buzzer-beater over Morehead State. Illinois State has mastered the art of losing by 11-12 points (four of its six losses are by exactly that much), but it gave San Diego State a serious run on the road, led Maryland late before the Terrapins heated up down the stretch and even was more-than respectable in a 12-point loss at Kentucky. It’s a team with the talent to win the Missouri Valley Conference in March, but at this point there is obvious work to do.
George Washington is off to an 8-1 start with only a loss to a tough Cincinnati team and continues to have one of the highest-impact newcomers in the country with Wake Forest transfer Tyler Cavanaugh leading the team in scoring (15.4 ppg) and rebounding (8.0 rpg). The Colonials also have an ace in the hole for the rest of the season with their win over Virginia, but are now entering a stage of their schedule where we may not find out much more about them for another month. GW’s upcoming schedule is very manageable, even with four potentially tricky four road games among their next eight. If the Colonials hold serve at home and can win at DePaul, improving Central Florida, Saint Louis and Massachusetts over that stretch, they could be 16-1 heading into a showdown at Dayton Jan. 15. Then the fun begins, with two games each against Davidson, Richmond and VCU plus especially tough trips to St. Bonaventure and Duquesne over their final 13 regular season games.
Stony Brook’s Jameel Warney is the reigning Division I king of the double-double with 24 of them last year, 43 in his career plus six straight to start this season. This year he is getting an early challenge for that season title, though, as both Charles Mitchell of Georgia Tech and Joel Bolomboy of Weber State are eight-for-eight to begin the year. Mitchell is putting up meaty numbers-14.5 points and 13.0 boards per game-and has been consistent, with between 11 and 15 rebounds in seven of eight games and no more than 21 points in any of the eight contests. Bolomboy, meanwhile, is averaging 16.0 points and 11.9 caroms, and has done so while the focus of every opponents’ interior defense. The 6-foot-9 senior is the only Weber frontcourt player averaging better than 6.1 points or 3.6 rebounds per game. Even so, the athletic forward-along with sharpshooting guard Jeremy Senglin-has the Wildcats off to a 5-3 start that included the Gulf Coast Showcase championship.