Knee-Jerk Reactions to the Start of the 2022-23 Men's College Basketball Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesFeatured Columnist IVNovember 18, 2022

Knee-Jerk Reactions to the Start of the 2022-23 Men's College Basketball Season

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    Houston's Tramon Mark
    AP Photo/David J. Phillip

    The 2022-23 men's college basketball season is a wee infant, less than two weeks old, but we've seen enough to jump to conclusions that may fly in the face of preseason expectations.

    After months of offseason portal watching, injury-update checking and exhibition-box-score dissecting to concoct a "definitive" ranking of teams heading into the season, most of it goes straight into the trash as we have knee-jerk reactions to early surprises and upsets.

    Is Gonzaga's run of 23 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances in danger of being snapped?

    Is Houston the best team in the nation?

    Will Louisville win a single game?

    Lots of juicy overreactions to talk about.

    One noteworthy knee-jerk reaction we won't make, though: Villanova slander. The post-Jay Wright era in Philadelphia has not gotten out to a great start, featuring a loss to Temple and a too-close-for-comfort game against Delaware State. However, the Wildcats have been playing without a potential top-five pick in the 2023 NBA draft (Cam Whitmore, thumb) as well as their veteran combo guard (Justin Moore, Achilles). We'll wait until those key players return before we consider burying what has been one of the most consistent contenders over the past decade.

    With that note out of the way, let's dive in with a look at how chaotic this season has been.

It Will Be One of the Most Chaotic Seasons Ever

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    Northwestern State delivered the biggest upset of the season thus far, but there have been plenty.
    AP Photo/LM Otero

    Men's college basketball is wildly unpredictable. It's why no one has ever filled out a perfect bracket.

    But early returns on the season are that things will be even nuttier than usual.

    It began on opening night when USC lost at home to Florida Gulf Coast and Florida State fell at home to Stetson. Per, each Power Five team should have won by 21 points, given a 97 percent chance of victory. Instead, they lost by 13 and nine, respectively.

    A few nights later, Vanderbilt suffered a similar fate, expected to beat Southern Miss by 20, only to lose by 12.

    On Sunday, Wyoming lost as a 23-point favorite with a 98 percent win probability. And then Monday, Boston College lost to Maine and TCU went down to Northwestern State with respective 98 and 99 percent chances of victory.

    And those are just the actual losses. AP No. 14 TCU barely survived its opener against KenPom No. 360 Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 73-72, even though the Horned Frogs had a 99.96 percent chance of victory. While BC and TCU went down Monday, Villanova got one heck of a scare from KenPom No. 361 Delaware State. The Wildcats won by 10, but a game they had a 99.9 percent chance of winning was just a two-point contest with less than six minutes remaining.

    Granted, we are talking about probabilities. A 98 percent chance of victory means we should see one upset out of every 50 such games played.

    But we made it almost an entire month into last season before seeing a team lose as a 97 percent favorite. (The season began Nov. 9; Florida lost to Texas Southern as a 98 percent favorite Dec. 6.) For six such losses to transpire within the first eight days of this season is pure madness.

Oscar Tshiebwe Will Repeat as National Player of the Year

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    INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 15: Oscar Tshiebwe #34 of the Kentucky Wildcats takes control of the ball during the first half in the game against the Michigan State Spartans during the Champions Classic at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on November 15, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe missed the first two games of the season after undergoing a minor surgical procedure on his right knee. It wasn't until a few hours before the Champions Classic that we found out he would make his 2022-23 debut in that marquee showdown with Michigan State.

    "Big O" wasted no time in making his presence felt.

    He started the game on the bench but finished the first half with 11 points and seven rebounds. He added another 11 points, eight rebounds and four blocks in the second half and grabbed three more boards in the first overtime before fouling out.

    That's 22 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks for a guy who was questionable to play—against a team with a big man (Mady Sissoko) who has made one heck of an early case for breakout player of the year.

    The rebounds are no surprise. Tshiebwe averaged better than 15 per game last year, reaching 20 boards on five occasions.

    But the field-goal attempts bear mentioning.

    Tshiebwe took 17 shots, a plateau he reached just three times in his National Player of the Year run last season. He didn't even take 15 shots in a game until Kentucky's 15th contest.

    I posited before the season that Tshiebwe would likely need to increase his scoring output to repeat as NPOY. And 17 shots in his first game—16 in regulation, only two of which were putbacks after offensive rebounds—is a big first step in that direction.

Louisville Is Headed for Its Worst Season in 80 Years

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    Louisville's El Ellis
    AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

    It won't be the worst winning percentage in the history of Louisville men's basketball. The Cardinals went 1-18 in 1939-40 and had several other "ancient history" seasons with a winning percentage below .200.

    (And officially, Louisville didn't win any games from 2011 to 2015 after vacating 123 victories.)

    But the worst this program has fared in the past eight decades was a 12-20 mess in 1997-98, and finishing below that .375 winning percentage is absolutely on the table.

    The Cardinals have opened their first season under Kenny Payne with three consecutive one-point losses to Bellarmine, Wright State and Appalachian State—each of which ranked outside the KenPom top 200 on the day of the game.

    In all three, Louisville had a chance late. Against Bellarmine, El Ellis missed the front end of a one-and-one with 45 seconds left in a 67-66 game, and the Cards missed two would-be game-winners in the final 10 seconds. Against Wright State, they led by five with a little over a minute remaining but lost on a buzzer-beater. And against Appalachian State, Ellis' buzzer-beating attempt was waved off for coming a split-second after the horn.

    They've been a bit unlucky, but they were also sloppy, putting themselves in those nail-biters by committing a combined 50 turnovers.

    And if they couldn't beat those teams, things could get really ugly.

    Louisville is on its way to Hawai'i for the Maui Invitational, in which it is clearly the worst team. (No Chaminade in the field this year.) Consecutive losses to Arkansas, Texas Tech and Cincinnati is the most likely outcome.

    After that, it's home games against Maryland and Miami before a road game against Florida State. The Cardinals figure to be underdogs in all three games, which could mean an 0-9 start to the year.

    They'll find some wins. At the very least, the Cardinals should win the home game against Florida A&M on Dec. 17. But finishing the year with a single-digit number in the win column for the first time since 1941-42 is a real possibility.

The Big Ten Is Way Better Than Expected

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    Michigan's Hunter Dickinson
    Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Coming into the season, it felt like the Big Ten might put seven or eight teams into the second round of the NCAA tournament but none in the Elite Eight.

    Translation: A lot of No. 4-9 seed potential with nary a title contender.

    Forty-seven preseason projections in the Bracket Matrix placed Indiana as a consensus No. 4 seed, Illinois as a No. 5 seed, Michigan as a No. 6 seed, Purdue and Michigan State as No. 7 seeds and Iowa and Ohio State as No. 9 seeds.

    And yet, through the first 10 days of the regular season, the Big Ten was 38-2 overall, with one of those losses by one point on an aircraft carrier against the No. 2 team in the nation. (The other loss was Minnesota getting smoked by DePaul.)

    A big reason the Big Ten may have been underestimated was the volume of shifting talent.

    Across the 14 teams, 25 of the 70 starters (35.7 percent) for the first game of the season were not on the roster one year ago, and about two dozen others were not regular starters in 2021-22.

    Ohio State had to replace seven of its eight leading scorers. Illinois had to adjust to life without six of last year's top seven scorers. And those were just the extreme situations. Indiana was the only team that didn't lose multiple players who averaged at least nine points per game last season, which is part of why the Hoosiers were the favorite to win the league.

    There was no way to know how things would pan out beyond All-America candidates Hunter Dickinson at Michigan and Trayce Jackson-Davis at Indiana.

    Early returns have been fantastic, though.

    Michigan State battled Gonzaga tooth and nail and then upset Kentucky in the Champions Classic. Penn State has been lights out from the perimeter. Michigan annihilated Pittsburgh in the Legends Classic. Iowa comfortably handled Seton Hall in New Jersey. Illinois, Ohio State and Indiana have all looked dominant, albeit against nothing-special competition.

    I'm nowhere near ready to declare the Big Ten the best conference in the country, but it has been much better than anticipated.

    (As a reminder, this was written based on what we knew heading into the day on Thursday; before Nebraska got drilled by St. John's and before Michigan no-showed against Arizona State. Even with those results, though, still a strong start for the league as a whole.)

TCU Was Outrageously Overrated in the Preseason

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    TCU's Mike Miles Jr.
    AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez

    As far as preseason rankings/expectations are concerned, TCU was basically "North Carolina Lite."

    Like the No. 1-ranked Tar Heels, the Horned Frogs opened the 2022 NCAA tournament in a No. 8 vs. No. 9 game before going to overtime against a No. 1 seed. Except, instead of winning that second-round game and making it all the way to the national championship game like UNC did, TCU lost to its No. 1 seed (Arizona).

    But TCU brought back pretty much everyone. The only departure was backup shooting guard Francisco Farabello. Thus, the Horned Frogs—who weren't ranked in the 2021-22 campaign and who didn't add much of anything this offseason—opened the year ranked No. 14 in the AP poll...for roster continuity reasons.

    For a group of guys who should be comfortable playing together, though, TCU has looked like a team that doesn't belong in the NCAA tournament, let alone the AP Top 25.

    The Horned Frogs had to overcome a 29-9 deficit to win their opener against Arkansas-Pine Bluff by a one-point margin. They weren't much better in their subsequent game against Lamar, and then they lost a home game to Northwestern State.

    Notably, they have been playing without Damion Baugh, who ranked second on the team in scoring last season and who has been suspended for six games for signing with an NBA agent during the "testing the waters" process last offseason.

    But come on. An alleged Top 15 team should blow out three of the worst D-I teams in the country, even without one of its starters.

    Here's your knee-jerk/hot-take reaction, though: After opening the season ranked 14th, TCU might finish dead last in the Big 12.

Kansas Has the Goods to Repeat as National Champion

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    Kansas' Zuby Ejiofor
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    In what has been dubbed by many as the "Year of the Big Man," Kansas shouldn't be a title contender. In the Champions Classic against Duke, the Jayhawks started 6'8" Jalen Wilson as their de facto center.

    Try that against a team with an experienced, dominant center and they might get destroyed in the paint.

    On that night, though, it worked.

    They shot 3-of-19 from three-point range and finished minus-11 on the glass, but seven Jayhawks combined to block 13 Blue Devils shots in a 69-64 victory.

    Six of those blocks came from freshman bigs Ernest Udeh Jr. (6'11") and Zuby Ejiofor (6'9"), members of a four-man recruiting class in which all four ranked in the top 55 in the nation.

    Though Wilson, Gradey Dick and Dajuan Harris Jr. did most of the heavy lifting against Duke, Kansas' high ceiling would vault to another level if that duo can handle the paint.

    We're not asking Udeh and Ejiofor to become Udoka Azubuike and David McCormack. Not yet, at least, though they both have the talent to become dominant forces down low in due time.

    Rather, what Kansas seems to be aiming for this year is more of a 2015-16 vibe at center, in which Landen Lucas, Hunter Mickelson, Carlton Bragg and Cheick Diallo made their presence felt simply by being big. Kansas didn't have an elite shot-blocker or rim runner in the bunch, but they were collectively impactful. The Jayhawks ended that season at No. 1 in AP poll because those guys handled the dirty work while Perry Ellis and the primary trio of guards (Frank Mason, Wayne Selden and Devonte' Graham) did most of the scoring.

    In just 20 minutes played this season, Ejiofor has 15 rebounds and four blocks. If he continues to provide that type of spark off the bench, we might have our first repeat champion since the 2006-07 Florida Gators.

Gonzaga's Guard Play Is a Serious Problem

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    Gonzaga starting point guard Nolan Hickman has three assists and eight turnovers in his last two games
    AP Photo/Ashley Landis

    With Drew Timme back for a 57th season (it's actually only his fourth, and he could come back in 2023-24 if he chooses), Gonzaga received its customary spot near the top of the AP poll. The Bulldogs weren't No. 1 like they were to start the previous two seasons, but they landed at No. 2, expected to do great things out of the West Coast Conference yet again.

    But the loss of Andrew Nembhard at point guard may have been a bigger deal than folks realized.

    Everything seemed fine in the season-opening, 41-point victory over North Florida, but Gonzaga's backcourt has been a disaster since then.

    I vowed not to jump to sweeping conclusions from a game played on an aircraft carrier, but against Michigan State, Gonzaga had just eight assists against 18 turnovers. The Zags got six steals from Chattanooga import Malachi Smith, but there's little question that MSU's Tyson Walker and A.J. Hoggard outplayed Gonzaga's backcourt. The Zags only won because Timme took over in the second half.

    In the subsequent game against Texas, Gonzaga got destroyed. It had no answer for the Longhorns' backcourt tandem of Tyrese Hunter and Marcus Carr, and it never got into an offensive rhythm. Gonzaga had 10 assists and 20 turnovers in that 19-point loss.

    That makes back-to-back games with 10 or fewer assists and at least 18 turnovers. The last time Gonzaga had one such game (let alone two in a row) was in 2012. These are unusual times for the premier West Coast team over the past decade.

    The Zags could change the narrative in a hurry. They face Kentucky on Sunday, could face Duke in the championship of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament the following weekend and then get Baylor on Dec. 2. Don't look overmatched in the backcourt while winning two of those three games and Gonzaga jumps back into the early mix of candidates to win the national championship.

    On the other hand, things could get "might miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998" ugly (especially against that Baylor defense) if they continue to play like they have over the past two games.

Houston Is the Team to Beat

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    Houston's Marcus Sasser
    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    One of the biggest narratives heading into this season was the lack of a favorite or even an upper echelon of candidates to win the national championship.

    North Carolina opened at No. 1 in the AP poll, but mostly because the Tar Heels brought back four of the five starters from a team that barely made the NCAA tournament. Lackluster showings in the first three home games against UNC-Wilmington, Charleston and Gardner-Webb haven't inspired much confidence in the de facto favorite to win the 2023 NCAA tournament.

    Elsewhere, preseason No. 2 Gonzaga survived against unranked Michigan State before getting smashed by Texas, and No. 4 Kentucky lost to those same Spartans in double overtime.

    While we can agree that we undervalued Michigan State, AP No. 2 and AP No. 4 basically playing to a draw on a neutral court against a Top 20ish team isn't promising. Those are Sweet 16-type games in which a No. 1 seed got all it could handle from a No. 4/5 seed.

    Down in Texas, though, the Houston Cougars have been kicking butt and taking names with their calling card under Kelvin Sampson: offensive rebounds and oppressive defense.

    Houston won its first four games by an average margin of 36.5 points despite playing at a well-below-average tempo and shooting just 29.7 percent from three-point range.

    The Cougars, though, have made life miserable for opposing teams trying to score.

    Teams are shooting 28.4 percent from the field against Houston with just 58 made field goals compared to 68 turnovers. Even 2021 NCAA tournament hero Max Abmas scored a meager three points on 13 field-goal attempts as Houston obliterated Oral Roberts 83-45 on Monday.

    Because they play in the AAC—and because they don't play a nonconference gauntlet on par with Gonzaga's annual November/December slate—the Cougars don't get the national attention that others receive. Thus, they always enter the dance as a bit of a mystery team.

    That might finally change this year because this team could go undefeated if it can stay healthy. That undefeated dream might go up in smoke Sunday at Oregon or Dec. 17 at Virginia, but Houston would be my pick to win it all if the Big Dance started tomorrow.

    (And how awesome would that environment be if the Cougars make it to the Final Four in Houston?)

    All statistics current through the start of play Thursday, Nov. 17.