Knee-Jerk Reactions to the Start of the 2017-18 NCAA Basketball Season
Knee-jerk reactions in the opening week of the college basketball season are probably more drastic than in any other sport. After seven months of radio silence in which we come up with expectations based on last year's stats and recruiting rankings, one-half of a game can change everything we thought we knew about a player or team.
Take Duke's Grayson Allen, for instance.
Everyone put the Blue Devils guard in the top 10 of their player rankings just because he plays on the preseason No. 1 team and had a great year two seasons ago. However, everyone was also kind of skeptical about how he would look after last year's drama and whether he would remain one of the go-to guys on this supertalented roster.
Then he scores 37 points in the Champions Classic against No. 2 Michigan State on Tuesday, and he becomes the favorite for the Wooden Award and the MVP for a team that might be unbeatable.
See? Pretty drastic. Almost tore an ACL jerking our knee for that one.
But Duke's sudden surge as the overwhelming favorite to become the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament is just one of our eight knee-jerk reactions to the start of the 2017-18 college hoops season.
Missouri Is Good...Even Without Its Star
On the day before the college basketball regular season begins, I always go through the first three days on the schedule and jot down the must-watch games. Between still being in football-season mode and having accumulated seven months' worth of rust when it comes to trying to keep up with all of the hoops action, it's easy to get overwhelmed by 250 games in one weekend. It's crucial to make a list so you don't miss the important ones.
The Iowa State Cyclones at the Missouri Tigers was near the top of that collection of scribbles. Everyone was excited to find out how quickly Michael Porter Jr. will become a monster at the collegiate level. But the possible No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft only played two minutes because of a leg/hip injury he suffered before the game even began.
As the SEC Network kept showing Porter on the bench in a sleeveless hoodie with a bag of ice on his hip, I can only assume most Missouri fans were feeling like Rob Schneider in The Waterboy: "Oh no! We suck again!"
Here's the thing, though: The Tigers won comfortably without Porter.
Part of that is because Iowa State might be terrible this year—a possibility reinforced by an 18-point home loss to the Milwaukee Panthers on Monday night—but Missouri looked nothing like the disaster that sputtered to an 8-24 record last season.
The top holdovers from 2016-17 (Kevin Puryear and Jordan Barnett) combined for 32 points on just 17 field-goal attempts. Freshman big man Jeremiah Tilmon had 14 points and seven rebounds and was arguably the best player on the floor. It all added up to a 74-59 victory.
The Tigers followed that up with a 99-55 shellacking of the Wagner Seahawks three days later. Porter was still out, but his younger brother Jontay filled up the stat sheet with 11 points, eight rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals. Canisius transfer Kassius Robertson led the way with 23 points on 10 shots, including hitting 5-of-8 from downtown.
The moral of the story is that Missouri is much more than just Michael Porter Jr., and this team is going to be drastically better than last year.
How's this for a turnaround? Mizzou ranked 334th in the nation in effective field-goal percentage in 2016-17. Among major-conference teams, only Rutgers was worse than the 45.2 mark the Tigers set. But through two games this year, they're tied for No. 2 in the nation at 71.4 percent.
Ben Lammers Is a Serious Candidate for ACC Player of the Year
Georgia Tech's record might keep this from becoming a legitimate conversation, but Ben Lammers is going to put up some of the most impressive numbers among ACC players.
On Nov. 2, the Yellow Jackets said they were indefinitely keeping top returning players Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson from playing in games for accepting impermissible benefits until the NCAA made a ruling. Originally, it sounded like no big deal. The school self-reported that each player received less than $800 in benefits each.
Keeping the pair from making the trip to China for the season-opening game against UCLA seemed like more than enough punishment. But a few days later, Ron Bell—former longtime friend of GT head coach Josh Pastner—spoke with Gary Parrish of CBS Sports about how much more money was (allegedly) involved and why he decided to turn on Pastner.
The whole thing is bizarre and was at least partially fueled by Bell's being offended that Pastner didn't call him on his birthday this year. (I guess Pastner missed that Facebook notification while he was most certainly not golfing with any of his assistant coaches.)
Regardless of why this friendship soured, though, the NCAA determined that Okogie will miss six games, and Jackson will miss three, per Ken Sugiura of AJC.com.
Until those guys are back on the floor, it's going to be all Lammers, all the time.
Exhibit A was that first game against the Bruins at Yuanshen Sports Centre Stadium. Lammers led all players in the game with 24 points and 10 rebounds. He scored 18 of Georgia Tech's 32 points in the first half, and he did a ton of his damage in the mid-range game, hitting five jumpers from just a few feet inside the three-point arc. It's fitting that the Yellow Jackets were facing UCLA because Lammers looked a lot like Thomas Welsh in the way that he stretched the floor and patrolled the glass.
And if he could put up 24 and 10 against a UCLA front line of Welsh, Kris Wilkes, G.G. Goloman and Alex Olesinski, get ready to laugh at his absurd numbers in the next three games against Bethune-Cookman, UT Rio Grande Valley and North Texas. He should get a combined total of at least 85 points and 40 rebounds against those hapless foes.
Lammers averaged 14.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game last season, and his primary running mate in the post (Quinton Stephens) graduated. Even before the suspensions, he was always a strong candidate for a big year. And he's still going to be a huge factor when Okogie and Jackson return. It wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see the senior average 20 points and 12 rebounds this season.
Scoring Title Will Be a 2-Horse Race
Pictured above with Illinois in 2016—prior to getting dismissed from the Illini after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge after a domestic violence arrest—Kendrick Nunn is enjoying one heck of an end to his college career at Oakland.
That's no surprise, though. Nunn averaged 15.5 points per game in his final season with Illinois, shooting 39.1 percent from three-point range while attempting nearly seven triples per game. Even though he was a secondary option behind Malcolm Hill, he was always a guy who could put points on the board.
And his move to Oakland was one of the biggest reasons the Golden Grizzlies are the runaway favorite to win the Horizon League—and my preseason pick to be this year's Cinderella team in March.
Nunn scored 36 in Oakland's season opener against the Fort Wayne Mastodons and had another 24 points in Monday night's win over the New Orleans Privateers. He also had six assists in each game, so it's obvious that head coach Greg Kampe is more than content with just putting the ball in his hands and letting him create.
He and 2015 Texas transfer Martez Walker are averaging a combined 52.0 points per game this season, and it's not out of the question to think they could put up more than 45 per game throughout the year.
The preseason favorite to lead the nation in scoring isn't doing too shabby either.
Campbell's Chris Clemons averaged 25.1 points per game last year as a sophomore and is a legitimate threat to finish in the top five on the all-time leaderboard if he sticks around for a fourth season. He scored 39 in the season-opening loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions at the Bryce Jordan Center and had another 27 in a Monday night blowout of Columbia International.
Here's my favorite part: He scored those 66 points in just 57 minutes, so he's averaging 46.3 points per 40 minutes.
Listen, those are Pete Maravich numbers, and it's because he has the same freedom the Pistol had back in the day. Per KenPom, Clemons is leading the nation in both percentage of possessions used and percentage of shots taken while on the floor—this after ranking fourth and first, respectively, last year.
At 33.0 points per game, Clemons remains the early favorite for the national scoring title and a legitimate candidate to best the 30.0 PPG Marcus Keene scored last year with Central Michigan. But Nunn could give him a run for his money.
The Atlantic 10 Will Be a 1-Bid League
You're going to say it's way too early to start thinking about the NCAA tournament, and I'm going to remind you that I do bracketology in July just for fun. It's never to early to talk about March, and the early returns are not great for the Atlantic 10.
At A-10 media day in October, the top three projected finishers in the league were Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure and Saint Joseph's.
It only took four days for all three of those teams to suffer a loss.
Saint Joseph's lost to Toledo in its season opener Saturday and had star guard Lamarr Kimble re-injure the left foot he fractured late last season. They're already playing without Charlie Brown because of a wrist injury. Markell Lodge—who started all 31 games last season—has yet to appear in a game, and there hasn't been any explanation for his absence.
Playing without three of their projected starters, the Hawks needed overtime to survive against the University of Illinois at Chicago in their second game. And those were two of the four easiest opponents on their nonconference schedule.
St. Bonaventure is also dealing with an injury, as an ankle issue forced Jaylen Adams to miss the Bonnies' season opener, resulting in a 77-75 home loss to the Niagara Purple Eagles. If that injury lingers at all, that's a massive problem because Adams entered the year as one of the 25-best players in the country, in my estimation.
Rhode Island's loss—on the road in a competitive game against a talented Nevada Wolf Pack team—was the least damning of the bunch, but it was still a missed opportunity to improve the conference's computer metrics as a whole. And Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports reported the following afternoon that star player E.C. Matthews will miss 4-6 weeks with a broken wrist he suffered in that game.
The A-10 has sent at least three teams to the NCAA tournament in each of the past 10 years, but this is a rather ominous start to a season that was already likely to end that streak.
Kentucky Has a Lot of Maturing to Do
Even by head coach John Calipari's one-and-done standards, this Kentucky team is absurdly young. The Wildcats are starting five freshmen, with two sophomores and a sixth freshman coming off the bench. (Sophomore Tai Wynyard played seven minutes in a loss to Kansas, but he hasn't really been a factor yet.)
Eventually, they should get Jarred Vanderbilt and Jemarl Baker back from injuries, which would make eight freshmen in the rotation.
And through three games, Kentucky's lack of experience is obvious.
Aside from an 18-0 run early in the second half, the Wildcats struggled in the opener against Utah Valley. Two days later against Popcorn State Vermont, they darn near gave away a 14-point lead in the second half. And in the loss to No. 4 Kansas in the Champions Classic, they never got into an offensive rhythm and somehow ended up with a zero in rebounding margin against a team that only really plays one big man.
The raw talent is also readily apparent. As a team, Kentucky is averaging 7.3 blocks and 7.0 steals per game. And when they get out in transition, don't blink. Quade Green can fly, and Hamidou Diallo is a great finisher.
However, the half-court offense is a far cry from championship-level, and for a roster with a clear size advantage over just about every other team in the country, Kentucky has been disappointing on the glass.
Three-point shooting was expected to be a significant concern, but no one thought it would be averaging-fewer-than-four-makes-per-game troublesome. And that's the biggest difference from last year.
The Wildcats certainly weren't elite from the perimeter in 2016-17, but Malik Monk was an ever-present threat to catch fire and turn any game on its head. Even when he wasn't hitting shots, opponents had to respect the fact that he might, and that opened up space for everything else to happen.
Can Diallo or Kevin Knox become that guy on this team? If not, what's the game plan when opponents start hunkering down in a 2-3 zone and daring the Wildcats to beat them from the perimeter? That dribble-drive motion offense doesn't work so well when the lane is more congested than (insert your local interstate) during rush hour.
It's hard to imagine Calipari would ever do this because it's not the best way to prepare guys for the NBA, but wouldn't this roster win at least 30 games by taking a page out of the Bob Huggins playbook and just full-court pressing the daylights out of teams? Short of that philosophical change in coaching or a knockdown shooter suddenly emerging, there are going to be more growing pains before this gets better.
Speaking of Huggins and the Mountaineers...
West Virginia Might Not Be Very Good
On a personal level that no one cares about, this would be infuriating. In each of the previous two offseasons, I looked at the roster turnover at West Virginia and came to the conclusion that this team was a strong candidate for a regressive season.
Instead, the Mountaineers just kept getting better. So, this summer, despite a ton of turnover yet again, I thought, "Screw it. They still have Jevon Carter and Bob Huggins. They'll win 30 games."
And then in the first game of the season, they got their teeth kicked in by a Texas A&M team playing without two of its starters.
Worse yet, one of those missing starters was point guard JJ Caldwell, and teams without a starting point guard might as well have just forfeited when playing Press Virginia over the past three years. Instead, A&M came back from an early 13-point deficit to win by 23.
Parts of the box score looked like a normal Mountaineers affair. Texas A&M committed 18 turnovers. West Virginia had 11 offensive rebounds. And the 'Eers committed a few too many fouls, gifting the Aggies 20 free-throw attempts—16 of which they made.
However, those 11 offensive rebounds only amounted to a 22.9 percent success rate, which is well below their norm. And they attempted 40 three-pointers as a team, which is just outrageous. (In 2015-16, they only had one game with more than 25 attempts.)
Part of that is because A&M's length in the post—even without Robert Williams—would be a considerable problem for any team. Part of it is also because the Mountaineers were trying to come back from their deficit as quickly as possible.
But the cold, hard truth is that this team doesn't have an offensively dominant big man until Esa Ahmad returns from his half-season suspension, so it'll likely continue to let it fly from distance like never before (under Huggins).
Maybe this one game was an anomaly against a good veteran team. Two years ago, Virginia lost an early game to George Washington that left us wondering if we overvalued the Cavaliers. They ended up with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. There's plenty of time to right the ship. But this was arguably the most shocking outcome from the first few days of the 2017-18 season.
West Coast Teams Will Compete for the Title Again
No school west of Kansas has won a college basketball national championship since Arizona in 1997. UCLA was close from 2006-08. Arizona had a good run in 2001. And, of course, Gonzaga made it to the championship game this past season. Yet, the drought is now entering its third decade of existence.
For the second straight year, though, there are a bunch of strong candidates to win it all from out west.
First on that list is Arizona, especially given the way Allonzo Trier has been playing to start the season. Through two blowouts of Northern Arizona and UMBC, the AP first-team All-American is averaging 31.0 points per game. Super frosh Deandre Ayton had at least 19 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in each contest. And when the Wildcats get Rawle Alkins back from offseason foot surgery, they're going to be mighty difficult to beat.
Their top challenger in the Pac-12 hasn't looked quite as dominant, but USC is 2-0 and has gotten great early returns from its big men.
Chimezie Metu has evidently added a three-point stroke to his bag of tricks, and Bennie Boatwright blocked three shots in each of his first two games. Boatwright is already one away from matching his block total from the entire 2016-17 season, so that might be an even more noteworthy development than the expansion of Metu's range. Once the guards get rolling like we know they can, USC will be a serious contender.
And then both of the usual candidates from the West Coast Conference have, at worst, an outside shot at winning six straight in March/April.
A lot of people prematurely wrote off Gonzaga when four of last year's five leading scorers left, but head coach Mark Few still has some serious weapons at his disposal.
2018 NBA draft darling Rui Hachimura has scored in double figures in both games. Freshmen Corey Kispert and Jacob Larsen have been as solid as anyone could have realistically imagined. And there's still a lot of veteran talent to steer this team through the rough patches that will come.
Saint Mary's is also in great shape in its final season with the PG-C duo of Emmett Naar and Jock Landale. Through two games, though, the big story in Moraga, California, is Calvin Hermanson. Also a senior, he is 20-of-27 from the field (10-of-16 from three) with an true-shooting percentage of 94.7.
He flew below the radar last year with everyone obsessing over Landale, but Hermanson was already one of the most efficient scorers in the country as a junior. Don't expect him to continue converting at this unsustainable rate, but he is a big-time factor that not nearly enough people know.
It will be fun to find out which of these teams can remain undefeated the longest, followed by a possible four-way trip to the Sweet 16.
Duke Is the Overwhelming Favorite for the No. 1 Overall Seed
I wouldn't say it's Duke against the field for the national championship, just because of the inherent randomness of the NCAA tournament. But if I could bet on Duke or the field for the No. 1 overall seed in the 2018 NCAA tournament, I would put an irresponsible amount of money on the Blue Devils right now.
The huge difference between this preseason No. 1 team and last year's version that never quite put it all together is that these freshmen are immediately living up to the hype.
Jayson Tatum was outstanding by the end of the year, but he missed the first eight games due to injury and took about two months to really hit his stride. Harry Giles and Marques Bolden were also injured to start the year, but neither one ever figured things out. And Frank Jackson was good, but he wasn't the point guard Duke needed.
Then you have this year's class.
Marvin Bagley III—when he isn't accidentally getting gouged in the eye by a teammate—has been phenomenal, averaging 29.9 points and 14.6 rebounds per 40 minutes. Trevon Duval's jumper is a serious work in progress, but he's averaging 13.3 points, 10.0 assists and 4.0 steals per game. Wendell Carter Jr. is almost averaging a double-double in addition to his elite shot-blocking presence (2.3 per game). And Gary Trent Jr. struggled from the field against Michigan State (3-of-14), but he is going to make an awful lot of three-pointers before this season is over.
And, oh yeah, Grayson Allen is still playing college basketball, which he reminded the world with a career-high 37 points in the 88-81 win over the Spartans on Tuesday. The senior is merely averaging 25.7 points per game and shooting 65.4 percent from three-point range.
If depth is Duke's Achilles' heel, it isn't much of one. Javin DeLaurier has been a major asset off the bench. Jordan Goldwire gave Duke 11 solid minutes against Michigan State. Alex O'Connell was solid in the first two games. And Bolden ought to be a key reserve when he's at full strength. (He missed the opener with strep throat.)
It's about two months too early to start seriously entertaining the notion of a 40-0 season, but—barring injuries—this team is only going to get better as the freshmen become better acquainted with each other. And the Blue Devils just won a neutral-court game against the second-best team in the country.
As a certain loathed rival from roughly eight miles away might say: The ceiling is the roof.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.