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Scanning the Nation: Notes from the opening weekend

November 13, 2017 Columns No Comments

The first three days of the college basketball season have been largely uneventful, not surprising when schedules are littered with endless guarantee games and schools seemingly have little interest in even playing at all so early in November. Here are some quick-hit notes looking around the country after the first weekend of regular season hoops:

  • Kentucky has individual talent, as always, but it’s going to take time for the Wildcats to look more like a cohesive collegiate team and less like an AAU all-star team cobbled together, as was evidenced in escapes against Utah Valley and Vermont. Clearly there is a lot of definition of roles to take place, as well as understanding of how hard players need to play regularly at the college level on the defensive end. One thing that looked clear to us: Hamidou Diallo is the player most suited to take on a Malik Monk-type role of sniper.

  • As others have noted, interesting to watch about Missouri this year will be how a hotshot freshman class meshes with a number of returnees. The returns from the 74-59 win over Iowa State were thoroughly positive, a game the Tigers controlled throughout even with Michael Porter only playing two minutes. What impressed us most was how cohesive Mizzou looked offensively for all but a stretch early in the second half. The Tigers cut and moved, passed well and shared the ball, with four players scoring in double figures and the team posting 17 assists on 27 made hoops. Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter particularly impressed us, and of all the returnees and frosh, a player to watch is Canisius grad transfer Kassius Robertson, who played 34 minutes-most of any Mizzou player-and could be the type of steady hand the team will need, though that would likely involve less than the 12 shots he attempted in the opener.
  • Iowa State, on the other hand, is clearly not nearly as talented offensively as it has been in the past. The Cyclones against Missouri looked like a team in search of some alpha dogs. Freshman Lindell Wigginton might be that player soon, and guard Donovan Jackson is going to be counted on for a lot more than his 2-for-9 shooting in the opener. But in its opener, it looked like a vastly different ISU team than we’ve come to know. The Cyclones will still defend under Steve Prohm, but that may not be enough for the type of success we’ve come to expect in Ames.
  • Cincinnati guard Justin Jenifer looks like he was working out with Ed Hochuli this offseason. Jenifer was a favorite of ours last year, a reserve guard who didn’t play a ton but provided some energy and boost when he did, and he looks ready for a bigger role this year. And not just physically-he had 15 points and five assists in the Bearcats’ 107-77 run-and-gun game with Savannah State, and also totaled nine assists in an exhibition win over Embry-Riddle (Fla.).
  • By the way, for those who will inevitably be surprised when they see the Northern Kentucky Norse logo at midcourt of Cincy’s home games this year, the Bearcats are playing their home games this season at Northern Kentucky, which sounds a long way away but is actually just across the Ohio River, about 10 miles from Cincinnati’s regular Fifth-Third Arena homecourt, which is being renovated. And don’t be misled by UNK’s Horizon League, middle-of-the-landscape conference home-it’s a nice arena, too. BB&T Arena seats 10,000, and should be a good spot for the Bearcats this year.
  • Surprise, in a good way: Arkansas hanging blowout wins on Samford and Bucknell teams expected to be at or near the top of their conferences was attention-grabbing. For some perspective, the Bulldogs-one of the favorites in the Southern Conference this year- lost by just eight against a wildly athletic Florida State team last year and were never blown out all year even in posting a 20-16 record. Yet they were never close in a 95-56 loss Friday night. Bucknell, meanwhile, lost by just six in the NCAA Tournament against frenetic West Virginia in March, but the Bison simply couldn’t keep up. The Hogs shot 55.2% over their first two games, and backcourt mates Jaylen Barford and Darryl Macon looked unstoppable in both.
  • Surprise, in a bad way: Samford not even being close against the Razorbacks was a stunner to us.
  • Not surprising, to us anyway: College of Charleston needed overtime to win its opener at home against a young Siena team 68-60. While the Cougars’ experience makes them a worthy favorite in the CAA, it’s also still a team that struggled to score last year, when it shot 43.2% from the field and wasn’t particularly strong from three-point range, either, and also wasn’t good on the glass. The Cougars shot 32.9% against Siena and also were out-rebounded by 11, and only 24 Saints’ turnovers saved them from a disappointing opening loss. Defense and not making mistakes offensively is Charleston’s calling card, and it’s possible those may have to carry this team a long way if it wants to win the CAA.
  • Old Dominion’s 57-54 win over Towson was a classic bruiser, two slower-paced, excellent defensive teams having it out. The Tigers lost a tough one on the road, but they should take comfort in a plus-15 rebounding advantage against an ODU team that normally is one of the nation’s best on the glass.
  • In one of the first games Friday, Stetson barely hung on to beat Webber International 98-89. The Hatters demonstrated something we’d advise about early season games: if a school is looking for nothing more than a sure W against a non-Division I opponent, be careful when picking NAIA schools. NAIA programs are allowed scholarships, just like NCAA Division II, and NAIA members also are allowed to start their seasons much earlier than NCAA Division II or III schools. In fact Webber-which is located in Florida just over two hours from Stetson-already had two regular season games under its belt before playing the Hatters.
  • We’re thinking more and more schools in the middle and lower end of Division I’s talent chain are going to have to give pause to the type of offenses they run, if they intend to compete with the top programs in an era where the 30-second shot clock continues to NBA-ize the game, just as TV analysts so badly wanted it to do. It seems more and more teams want to run and run, and that’s great to sell recruits. It doesn’t work so well when playing the top schools playing the same style. It’s long held true in this sport: when two teams play similar styles, the team with the better athletes usually wins. There are times when slowing the game down is advised, and while that may not be fun to sell recruits, winning is.
  • Akolda Manyang is a huge addition for Utah Valley, the type that is allowing the Wolverines to compete with teams like Kentucky and Duke. The 7-foot Oklahoma transfer gives even more size to a team that already had a good share of it, and he stood out in both contests. He’s also a good passer-six assists vs. Duke.
  • Geno Crandall had a monster opener for North Dakota, with 41 points-including an incredible 37 in the second half-in an 83-80 win over Troy in a matchup of two NCAA Tournament teams last year. Crandall is poised for a big year as he’ll now shoulder a bigger load with star Quinton Hooker plus several other veterans graduated. He also scored 21 as UND nearly came all the way back from a 22-point deficit before falling 81-78 at Hawaii on Sunday, and the junior guard is now 11-for-14 from three-point range through two games.
  • Road wins are road wins, so on that account give a call to Miami (Ohio)-55-54 winners at Fordham-Eastern Kentucky (73-72 victors over Rice) and Northeastern, which nipped Boston University 65-59 in yet another close one between the two city rivals. Also, don’t discount Long Beach State earning an 83-71 victory at San Francisco, even as the Dons missed key guard Charles Minlend. That’s a good start for the 49ers, who got an unlikely 20 points from Barry Ogalue.
  • The Big West had a surprisingly good first weekend, winning seven of 11 games, including encouraging road wins for Long Beach State, UC Riverside (at California) and UC Irvine (at Denver). It must be noted, UC Riverside’s win wasn’t a case of a league’s top team beating a name opponent-the Highlanders finished eighth in the conference last year. Cal Poly also nearly knocked off Cal and Irvine held South Dakota State scoring machine Mike Daum to 12 points despite falling to the Jackrabbits. UC Santa Barbara also handled perennial Summit League contender North Dakota State, a good sign for the Gauchos coming off a 6-22 mark last year.
  • The same goes for the Missouri Valley, whose teams won six of their first eight contests, including three early road wins. Indiana State notably drilled Indiana at Assembly Hall, Missouri State won at Western Kentucky and injury-depleted Southern Illinois scored a surprisingly decisive win at defending Big South champion Winthrop. Add in convincing home wins for Evansville (over Arkansas State) and Bradley (IUPUI) plus Loyola holding off stubborn Wright State, and the Valley couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start.
  • The Atlantic 10, on the other hand, went 10-6 for the weekend, but that was still at least three more losses than most would’ve expected. Besides Fordham’s ‘L’, St. Bonaventure (missing injured star guard Jaylen Adams) fell at home against Western New York rival Niagara, but even more concerning may have been Richmond, which trailed Delaware at home by 29 at halftime of an eventual 76-63 loss. The Blue Hens shot 75% in the first half. The league’s weekend would’ve been even worse if not for Dayton beating Ball State 78-77 at the buzzer and George Mason and Massachusetts sweating out close wins over Lafayette and Massachusetts-Lowell, respectively.
  • Bucknell is off to a not-completely unexpected 0-2 start after road losses to Monmouth and Arkansas. The key for the Bison is going to be not getting too affected if a season with high expectations does start off 0-4, as is very possible now with trips to North Carolina and Maryland coming up. The Bison lost to Monmouth by a point on Friday before an underwhelming performance at red-hot Arkansas on Sunday, and a brutal non-conference schedule with nine of 12 games on the road could wind up with at least 8-9 losses by the end of December if they lose confidence.
  • Tulsa lost to Jacksonville State in its opener at home last year, and the Golden Hurricane was handled by Lamar 74-67 at home in its opener this season. The Cardinals can only hope their season ends where JSU’s did: in the NCAA Tournament. And there’s a real possibility it could-Lamar is a good team very capable of winning the Southland.
  • Florida Gulf Coast’s 98-87 win over Illinois State was one of the most entertaining games of the weekend. A stat that stood out to us: the Eagles’ pounded the Redbirds on the glass to the tune of 48-24. That’s a bad sign for ISU-which stayed in the game with Keyshawn Evans going wild for 28 points including seven three-pointers, plus Phil Fayne stepping up with 24-but encouraging for FGCU as it later faces teams like Middle Tennessee State, Texas-Arlington, Wichita State and Rhode Island.
  • Belmont and Texas Southern will rue missed chances in the state of Washington. The Bruins led Washington virtually the entire game, but the Huskies rallied in the final minutes for an 86-82 victory. Freshman Jaylen Nowell scored 32 in the debut as coach for Mike Hopkins, who has UW off to a 2-0 start now after topping Eastern Washington at home Sunday. Meanwhile, Wazzu came back from a 22-point deficit to top TSU 86-84 in overtime. While both regularly play tough (in the Tigers’ case, some might say obscene) non-conference schedules, to be so close to name-brand wins on the road are the type of golden opportunities that don’t come around often for programs like Belmont and Texas Southern. At least the Bruins get a rare chance to make amends at home-they host Nashville city foe Vanderbilt Monday night.


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