10 Knee-Jerk Reactions to the Start of the 2013-2014 NCAA Basketball Season
The first week of the college basketball season leads to some knee-jerk reactions, which may or may not turn out to be valid as the season progresses.
First impressions can sometimes create more questions than answers, as we try to draw conclusions based on a small sample of evidence.
It's too early to say much definitively, but the early results provide a framework for the discussions about the players, teams and trends that may develop.
I present 10 knee-jerk reactions.
A Fabulous Freshman Class
The play of three freshman stars in the first week of the season suggests this may be the best freshman class in a long time, perhaps ever. Time will tell whether this group can match the freshman classes of 2007 or 1979.
Jabari Parker of Duke, Julius Randle of Kentucky and Andrew Wiggins of Kansas received instant confirmation of stardom based on performances against elite competition on Nov. 12.
Randle is averaging 24.0 points and 14.0 rebounds through three games, and his 27-point, 13-rebound effort against No. 2 Michigan State suggested he will dominate the paint against all opponents.
Parker is the most versatile of the three. The 6'8" Parker hit 7-of-10 three-point shots in the first two games, including 4-for-7 from beyond the arc while scoring 27 points with nine rebounds against Kansas. He looks ready to step into an NBA lineup at several positions.
Wiggins showed limitations in the half-court against Duke but made big plays down the stretch, especially in transition, while collecting 22 points and eight rebounds in just 25 foul-plagued minutes. He is the best athlete of the trio.
It is probably unfair to draw any conclusions after just a few games, but if we were to rank the three based on their opening week of games, it would go like this: 1. Randle, 2. Parker, 3. Wiggins.
The fourth freshman of note is Arizona's Aaron Gordon, who averaged 13.5 points and 10 rebounds through two games but has yet to show his talents on a national stage against a quality opponent.
These four, plus several others, figure to be around for just one year but look like they may be the top college players this season.
"Six or seven freshmen are going to be taken in the first eight or nine picks," ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said, according to USA Today.
Is this group better than the 2007 class featuring Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon, O.J. Mayo, Michael Beasley and Jerryd Bayless, all of who dominated play as freshmen and were among the top 11 picks in the 2008 NBA draft?
Is it better than the 1979 class, which included Ralph Sampson, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins and James Worthy, all of whom became immediate college stars?
New Rule Will Have a Major Effect
The new rule that virtually eliminates hand-checking has produced two things so far: more scoring and more fouls.
LeBron James checked in on Twitter with his disgust with the new rule and its interruption of the flow of the game: "They call so many fouls in college ball. Let em hoop. Should go to 6 fouls as well."
The intent was to produce easier access to the rim and reduce the importance of physical defensive play. Whether it has the intended effect will be determined as the season goes along and two questions are answered:
1. Will players and coaches adjust, cutting down on fouls and increasing the importance of players who can maneuver to the basket? The ones that do will benefit immensely, and you will see a lot more teams rely on dribble penetration.
2. Will officials continue to call the hand-checking and the touchy fouls on post defense? There's no reason to believe officials will deviate from a directive provided in the new rule.
If teams don't adjust and officials keep calling those fouls, you will have long, high-scoring games with a lot of free throws and a lot of key players in foul trouble.
Two likely outcomes: More zone defenses and a greater importance placed on depth as players get into foul trouble.
Michigan State, considered one of the most physical defensive teams in the country, committed 27 fouls against Kentucky and had four players commit four fouls. But none of those players fouled out, and the Spartans won the game, partly because nine players received playing time.
Louisville and Smith Can Do It Again
Louisville guard Russ Smith is off to a great start, and if he can remain consistently productive, the Cardinals have a chance to repeat as national champs.
Smith is going to shoot a lot. He took 22 shots in 25 minutes in the Cardinals' 97-69 victory over College of Charleston on Nov. 12. He made 12 of them while scoring 30 points. He is averaging 25.5 points on 48.7 percent shooting through two games. If he can keep that up, Louisville is likely to be a Final Four team again, and Smith will be an All-American.
Louisville survived against Michigan in last year's national title game with Smith going 3-for-16 from the field. However, if he duplicates that performance with any regularity or goes into a prolonged shooting slump, both of which are possible, the Cardinals may suffer.
We may not be able to gauge Smith's season until Dec. 28 when Louisville faces Kentucky in its first significant challenge.
Canadian Influence Continues
Even though Canadian stars Anthony Bennett and Kelly Olynyk are gone after being NBA lottery picks, the Canadian influence remains very evident in American college basketball.
Kansas' freshman Andrew Wiggins is the most obvious Canadian addition, but another freshman from Canada, Tyler Ennis, is the starting point guard for No. 9-ranked Syracuse. Ennis missed all six of his shots in the opener against Cornell but played better in the next game against Fordham.
Three players on the preseason Wooden Player of the Year list are from Canada: Wiggins, Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos and Stanford forward Dwight Powell.
Powell is averaging 22.5 points and 9.5 rebounds after two games, and Pangos is averaging 13.5 points and is the floor leader for the No. 15-ranked Bulldogs.
Meanwhile, Brady Heslip is the leading scorer (15 points) for No. 23 Baylor, Nik Stauskas is averaging 16 points for No. 7 Michigan, and Olivier Hanlan scored 23 and 19 points in Boston College's first two games.
Even the absence of Canadian players is making an impact. Florida State was hurt by the fact that incoming freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes is academically ineligible this season, and Iowa State is eagerly awaiting the return of All-Big 12 forward Melvin Ejim, who missed the first two games with a knee injury but is expected back soon.
Canadian players have become a major part of the American college basketball scene.
Youth Makes Predictions Difficult
Because so many of the top teams are depending on new players, it's difficult to determine how things will shake out come March.
Kentucky, the preseason No. 1, has four freshmen in its starting lineup.
No. 5 Kansas has three freshmen starters and six in its rotation.
No. 4 Duke and No. 6 Arizona each have a freshman star and a key transfer in their starting lineups.
No. 9 Syracuse is relying on a freshman point guard (Tyler Ennis) who went 0-for-6 in his debut.
It's difficult to project how those teams will develop as the season goes on.
Kentucky won a national title two years ago with a freshman-laden lineup but had similar expectations last season when it crashed and burned, failing to make the NCAA Tournament with a squad that started three freshmen.
Kentucky, Kansas and Duke look like they will be fine, based on early-season results, while Arizona and Syracuse have yet to face significant tests. But it's too soon to draw conclusions for any of them.
Louisville and Michigan State are the proven commodities.
Scoring Is Soaring
Maybe it's because of the new rule, but whatever the reason, it appears scoring will increase significantly this season.
The new rule forces officials to call fouls on hand-checking when an offensive player drives to the basket and against players getting too physical on post defense. As a result, a lot of free throws are being shot. Going forward, offensive players should get a lot more room to maneuver as teams adjust defensively to the new rule.
The scoring average dropped to 67.5 per team last season, the lowest in the shot-clock era and the lowest since 1952.
That is clearly changing this season. Less than a week into the season, Division I teams have scored 110 points or more in a game 18 times.
Duke scored 83 points against Kansas but still lost by double digits to the Jayhawks, who scored 94.
Stanford scored 103 points in a regulation-time game and still lost to BYU, which put up 112. Four players in that game scored more than 25 points, and two had more than 30: Stanford's Chasson Randle with 33 and BYU's Tyler Haws with 31. Not often can two teammates combine for 61 points and still lose, but Randle and Dwight Powell managed to do just that.
Why so many points in that game? BYU and Stanford combined to shoot 77 free throws, making 54. You can amass a lot of points when 54 of them come when the clock is stopped.
C.J. Fair Is a Factor
Syracuse forward C.J. Fair may be the nation's breakout player, although we may not be sure for a while.
He led the team in scoring last season with a modest 14.5 scoring average. However, the other three Orange players who averaged double figures in scoring last season are gone, leaving Fair with a larger share of the scoring burden. That should result in a higher scoring average.
Fair showed that he can score against elite teams in his 22-point performance in the NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan. He is off to a fast start this season, averaging 22.5 points through two games.
However, the Orange don't play a team that's currently ranked until they face North Carolina on Jan. 11. They don't play a game on their opponent's home court until Jan. 7 against Virginia Tech. Before that the Orange will have played 10 home games, three in Hawaii and one at New York's Madison Square Garden.
If Syracuse is to challenge for a national title, Fair has to produce big numbers everywhere.
Marcus Smart Can Be National Player of the Year Without Scoring Much
Oklahoma State sophomore point guard Marcus Smart was the only unanimous selection to the Associated Press preseason All-America team. But will he score enough to be in contention for the National Player of the Year honors?
Smart scored just 25 points in the Cowboys' first two games combined and had just 11 points while his team racked up 117 points against Mississippi Valley State.
Players who average 12.5 points typically don't get much consideration for national awards. But Kentucky's Anthony Davis changed the landscape two years ago when he was named National Player of the Year while averaging just 14.2 points. Davis was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four that season despite going 1-for-10 from the floor in the championship game.
College basketball gets enough exposure now that observers notice all the things players do to win games. If Oklahoma State remains high in the rankings, Smart will have a shot at the top national award despite modest statistics. Folks recognize that his toughness, strength and ability to perform in the clutch are the reasons Oklahoma State is ranked in the Top 10 and has a chance to end Kansas' streak of nine straight regular-season Big 12 championships.
The 6'4" Smart told USA Today he would love to guard Kansas' 6'8" Andrew Wiggins, the only freshman on the preseason All-America team.
"Definitely," Smart says. "I am not going to back down from any challenge. Like I said, you are going to have to prove to me. I am a fighter; I will keep fighting and will never give up."
Smart averaged just 15.4 points last season when he was named Big 12 player of the year. He would not need to exceed that to earn the top national award if the Cowboys finish ranked among the top teams in the country.
The fact that Smart made 5-of-12 three-pointers and committed just three turnovers in the first two games may be more significant than his point totals. He shot just 29 percent from beyond the arc last season.
Champions Classic Was a PR Bonanza
College basketball typically gets little attention in mid-November, which is the heart of football season and the start of the NBA and NHL seasons.
However, college basketball was a major topic of discussion this week for one reason: the Champions Classic.
That doubleheader in Chicago put four of the top five ranked teams on display on national television on a Tuesday night and produced a pair of high-scoring, close, entertaining games.
More important is that it featured the three freshmen everyone wanted to see against elite competition, with all three coming through with impressive performances.
Nothing sparks interest in sports like emerging stars, and Duke's Jabari Parker, Kentucky's Julius Randle and Kansas' Andrew Wiggins provided discussion fodder for all the sports talk shows. Having Michigan State and Gary Harris along for the ride didn't hurt, but it was the much-hyped freshmen who drew the pregame interest and the postgame plaudits.
One of the few public relations advantages college basketball has over college football is that top basketball teams can schedule games against elite opponents early in the season without jeopardizing postseason possibilities.
The Champions Classic was a perfect example. It made the 2013-2014 college basketball season a topic of discussion in November, and that doesn't happen often.
Hoyas' Smith May Be the Top Transfer, or Maybe Not
The potential that seldom surfaced while Joshua Smith was at UCLA came to the forefront in his debut with Georgetown. It provided a hint that he might have the biggest impact of any of the transfers playing for their new school this season.
Smith scored 25 points on 10-for-13 shooting and was on the floor for 27 minutes before fouling out in the Hoyas' season-opener on Nov. 9. The Hoyas lost the game to No. 19 Oregon 82-75, but the play of Smith was more like what was expected of Smith when he came to UCLA after being a McDonald's All-American.
But when Smith scored just six points in 17 minutes in an 88-70 victory over Wright State in the Hoyas' second game, it suggested Smith might continue to be the erratic performer he was with the Bruins.
His production had declined in each of his three years at UCLA, and he left the Bruins after six games last season, when he averaged 5.2 points and 13.5 minutes.
However, the wide-body, 6'10" Smith clearly has the talent and the body to be a factor. If he can manage 27 minutes a game and produce consistently on offense, he can have a major impact for a Georgetown team that lost All-American Otto Porter Jr. and began this season unranked.
Smith is not the only transfer who had an encouraging start with his new team.
In that same game, Oregon's Mike Moser, who is playing for his third Division I school, had 15 points and seven rebounds against Georgetown.
Duke's Rodney Hood, a transfer from Mississippi State, leads the Blue Devils in playing time and is tied for second in both scoring (16) and rebounding (6) after two games.
Jordan Clarkson averaged 22.5 points in his first two games for Missouri after transferring from Memphis. The Tigers' top three scorers this season all started their college careers at another Division I school.
T.J. McConnell, Arizona's starting point guard after transferring from Duquesne, totaled just eight points in the Wildcats' first two games, going 0-for-5 from the foul line in the process. The Nov. 14 game against San Diego State will tell us more about McConnell's impact.