Knee-Jerk Reactions to the Start of the 2018-19 NCAA Basketball Season
The 2018-19 men's college basketball season is barely a week old, but early returns are already making us question things we thought to be true in the preseason.
These aren't intended to be hot takes, but it's much more gut reaction than detailed analysis with so little data available.
There haven't been many major upsets thus far. West Virginia was the only ranked team to lose to an unranked team in the season's first seven days—and that result bumped Buffalo into the AP Top 25.
There have been significant developments, though, such as Duke's annihilation of Kentucky in the Champions Classic, Auburn playing like one of the four best teams in the entire country and Michigan looking like it couldn't hit water in the ocean with its jump shots.
Also, the AAC is awful, but maybe we should've known that a week ago.
Let's start these knee-jerk reactions with the title contender not a lot of people were talking about two weeks ago.
Auburn Is the Best Team in the SEC
Auburn won a share of the SEC regular-season title last year and opened this season at No. 11 in the AP poll. It's not a blistering hot take to say this team is good.
But Kentucky was No. 2 in the preseason poll and Tennessee was No. 6, so it is surprising that it already feels like Auburn is the team to beat in this league.
Part of that is due to Kentucky's early struggles. The Wildcats got trounced by Duke and never looked great in their home opener against Southern Illinois. They have five easy home games over the course of the next two-plus weeks to figure out their roles and rotations and become a title contender, but it has been an inauspicious start for Big Blue Nation.
The bigger factor, though, is Auburn's early dominance. The Tigers obliterated South Alabama by a 43-point margin before putting an 88-66 hurting on a solid Washington team that was ranked No. 25 in the AP poll.
Auburn has a lethal combination of perimeter shooting, crashing the glass and turnover-forcing defense. Through those first two games, the Tigers made 30 triples, grabbed 36 offensive rebounds and forced 40 turnovers.
How is anyone supposed to compete with that?
And the scary part is this team isn't even at full health. Austin Wiley—a high 4-star recruit in 2016—didn't play against South Alabama and was limited against Washington because of a foot injury. Danjel Purifoy—a top-75 recruit in 2015—has not played because he is suspended for the first nine games of the season. Yet, the Tigers are going nine-deep without any drop-off in potency.
If you're not buying Auburn as a title contender just yet, give it another week. In the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, they'll open with Xavier before a likely semifinal game against Duke and a potential championship game against Gonzaga.
Michigan Has a Lot of Work to Do on Offense
John Beilein might be the best coach in the nation as far as in-season improvement is concerned. Michigan suffered at least one loss in its first five games in 10 of his 11 full seasons in Ann Arbor—and there's a good chance that stretches to 11 of 12 in Wednesday's road game against Villanova. But the Wolverines always seem to be much better in February than they are in November.
So, we're not too worried about them just yet, but this team cannot shoot.
Michigan scored 63 against Norfolk State, followed by 56 against Holy Cross. Both of those teams ranked roughly 250th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency last year, so those low point totals weren't the product of impenetrable defenses.
Rather, it's apparent (and none too surprising) that this offense misses Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson.
Point guard Zavier Simpson has never been much of a shooter—neither in terms of volume nor efficiency—and he's barely even looking to create his own shot. Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers both shot sparingly last season, and they have both been just OK in their increased roles. And Jordan Poole has been a nightmare through two games, shooting 1-of-10 from the field with five turnovers.
Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis has been a pleasant surprise, scoring in double figures in both games. But aside from him, the offense has been Charles Matthews or bust. Considering he has never been a particularly efficient scorer, that's a scary proposition.
The good news is this defense is ridiculously good. The Wolverines held their first two opponents to a Virginia-like 81 total points on 132 possessions. They don't foul, they crash the defensive glass and Teske is going to be a shot-blocking headache for a lot of opponents. Don't be surprised if Michigan ranks third in the nation in defensive efficiency for the second straight season.
Until the offense shows something, though, it's hard to buy stock in this team as the top challenger to Michigan State in the Big Ten.
The AAC Might Be a One-Bid League
There's no surefire NCAA tournament team in the AAC.
This isn't so much a knee-jerk reaction as it is a reinforcement of something that seemed plausible before the season began.
Wichita State lost eight of its 10 leading scorers and is bound to have a rebuilding year. Connecticut and Memphis both have decent talent, but they might need a year to break in their new coaches (and to wash off the stink from the past few seasons). Cincinnati lost its three best players in Jacob Evans, Gary Clark and Kyle Washington. Houston isn't much better off after losing Rob Gray and Devin Davis.
UCF was the one team that seemed to have legitimate AP Top 25 potential—if it could stay healthy for a change. But the Knights lost a home game to lowly Florida Atlantic. As a matter of fact, Conference USA is chopping the entire AAC down to size, as Wichita State lost to Louisiana Tech and SMU lost to Southern Miss.
Those three outcomes would've been almost incomprehensible a year ago. But now, they serve as a testament to how down on its luck the AAC is.
Eventually, one team will likely rise from the ashes and get into solid position for an at-large bid. (Let's go with Memphis if I have to call my shot on that.) But if that team also wins the AAC tournament, it doesn't leave much hope for multiple teams to go dancing.
The good news is a down year in the AAC (as well as the A-10) should mean multiple bids for the likes of the Missouri Valley, Mountain West and West Coast. Those leagues have each had just one at-large bid over the last three seasons, but they each have multiple teams capable of doing damage in March.
West Virginia's Defensive Dynasty Is Dead
Buffalo is an excellent mid-major team, and it deserves its spot at No. 25 in the new AP poll. By no means should this be viewed as an attempt to disparage its quality road win over West Virginia—one that could be massive come Selection Sunday.
But from a national perspective, the bigger story coming out of that 99-94 overtime affair is that the Mountaineers aren't the defensive juggernaut we're used to seeing.
Buffalo committed just 11 turnovers in the entire game, four of which were steals by West Virginia. Every once in a while, a Big 12 team will hold its own against the full-court press it has seen so often, but the last time "Press Virginia" had four or fewer steals against a nonconference opponent was in the 78-39 loss to then-undefeated Kentucky in the 2015 NCAA tournament.
That was the only nonconference game in the college careers of Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles with defensive numbers that unimpressive. And therein lies the problem.
Carter was the heart and soul of this team, and Miles was a darn fine sidekick. WVU had 301 steals as a team last year, but Carter (112) and Miles (47) accounted for more than half of them. James "Beetle" Bolden will likely become the team's top perimeter defender, but he's nowhere near the ball hawk that Carter was. (No offense to Bolden. Only a handful of players have recorded more steals in a career than Carter's mark of 330.)
Without lockdown defense, what becomes of this team?
The Mountaineers still have Sagaba Konate to erase shots at the rim and own the offensive glass. Maybe without hunting steals on every possession, they won't commit so many fouls. But this is just an average shooting team that has struggled to defend the three-point arc for the majority of the past six years. Carter and Miles were also the leading scorers, so they have questions to answer on both ends of the floor.
West Virginia should still make the NCAA tournament, but its run of three straight years in the KenPom top 12 seems destined to come to an end.
Villanova Could Win a Third National Championship in Four Years
Villanova is not the favorite to win it all. The Wildcats probably don't even belong in the top five on that list. But in the first two games without Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges and Omari Spellman, they at least looked the part of a team that could get the job done for the third time in four years.
That wasn't a sure thing before the season began. Villanova opened at No. 9 in the AP poll, but it felt like the Wildcats were the buffer between the serious threats to win it all and the rest of the country hoping the randomness of the NCAA tournament would work in their favor. But now, I'm a believer.
Feel free to point out that blowing out Morgan State and Quinnipiac doesn't mean much of anything. After all, these were easily the two worst opponents the Wildcats will face all season. But there are still impressive takeaways from those games.
First and foremost, Jay Wright still has quite the arsenal of three-point shooters. Eight different Wildcats attempted at least five triples. As a team, they took more shots from beyond the arc (69) than inside it (66).
We already knew Collin Gillespie (5-of-11) and Phil Booth (4-of-12) could stroke it and that Eric Paschall (1-5) isn't shy about trying. We also knew to expect big things from Albany transfer Joe Cremo (5-of-10), who shot 45.8 percent last season. But the pleasant surprises are that Jermaine Samuels (3-of-9) has already made as many three-pointers as he did last season, and 6'8", 220-pound freshman power forward Saddiq Bey (4-of-6) is the most accurate shooter thus far.
Villanova lost a combined total of 340 made triples when Brunson, Bridges, DiVincenzo and Spellman left for the NBA draft, but the Wildcats are still averaging 12 makes per game. And that's with 5-star PG Jahvon Quinerly barely doing anything.
But the most important player on the roster might not attempt a three-pointer all season. That would be Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who blocked three shots in each game and should give Villanova a Daniel Ochefu-like post presence. Cosby-Roundtree wasn't able to carve out much of a role on last year's roster, but now he's the primary 5 and the anchor of a defense that was just OK at protecting the paint over the past two seasons.
Defense Will Keep Duke from Winning National Championship
You probably expected the Duke rapid reaction to be: "OH MY GOD! WHO CAN POSSIBLY BEAT THIS TEAM?" That was certainly everyone's initial response after the Blue Devils mauled Kentucky in the Champions Classic.
But the actual knee-jerk reaction is to Duke's play against Army this past Sunday.
Duke's Big Four was incredible once again. Zion Williamson led the way with a highlight-reel-heavy line of 27 points, 16 rebounds, six blocks and four assists. He did his best Manute Bol impression by getting three of those blocks on one possession. He damn near cracked his head on the rim in the block pictured above.
RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish also pitched in 48 points, shooting a combined 10-of-22 from three-point range. And Tre Jones played his role admirably, taking just four shots and finishing with eight points and seven assists.
In spite of those heroics by the freshmen, the Blue Devils only led Army, 67-61, at the under-12 media timeout. After that timeout, they ripped off an 8-0 run in just over a minute and put the game out of reach in a hurry. But Army—which ranked 259th in adjusted offensive efficiency last year and didn't exactly set the nets ablaze in its season opener against Marist—had 61 points on its first 57 possessions.
Duke also gave up 84 points to Kentucky, even though the Wildcats shot 4-of-17 from deep.
The defense isn't quite as bad as these other teams, but is anyone else getting a UCLA with Lonzo Ball or Oklahoma with Trae Young type of vibe here?
Duke has the one dude who is going to dominate the SportsCenter Top 10 from now through March, and it is probably going to breeze through the first two months of the season without much resistance. But if this uber-talented, freshman-loaded team doesn't figure things out on the defensive end of the floor, it will eventually run into some trouble.
There's no question Williamson has a better supporting cast than Ball or Young did. Because of that, the Blue Devils deserve to be the favorite to win it all right now. But it's a little ludicrous that their odds are so far ahead of the rest of the field.
Let's see how the defense fares in the Maui Invitational and the ACC-B1G Challenge game against Indiana before we go anointing the 2018-19 champs.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.