Knee-Jerk Reactions to the Start of the 2019-20 Men's College Basketball Season
The 2019-20 men's college basketball season is barely a week old, but early returns are making us question preseason assumptions.
These aren't intended to be hot takes, but they're much more gut reaction than detailed analysis with so little data available.
Of course, the biggest reaction will be in regard to Kentucky's going from knocking off the No. 1 team in the country to losing a home game against Evansville seven days later.
Kentucky's half-court offense was a calamity. Evansville didn't allow fast-break opportunities, the Wildcats couldn't hit threes, and the contest gradually turned into Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley taking turns driving haphazardly through the lane, trying to draw contact while flipping the ball in the hoop's general direction.
Sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans was supposed to be the team's "veteran" leader and a fringe candidate for National Player of the Year, but foul trouble put him on the bench early in the first half. Neither he nor Kentucky ever got into an offensive rhythm, and we're left to wonder if the Wildcats are any good.
Actually, is anyone good this year?
Cole Anthony is. DePaul might be. But the three-point shooting certainly isn't.
There Are No Dominant Teams This Season
Brace yourself for about one billion uses of the word "parity" during the next four months, because it is abundantly clear that no one is dominant.
Then-No. 4 Duke beat No. 3 Kansas in the Champions Classic mostly because the Jayhawks could not stop turning the ball over. No. 2 Kentucky eked out a win over No. 1 Michigan State in the same event because the Spartans couldn't hit a three to save their lives and because they are still battling the turnover-margin woes that have plagued them for years.
As a result, Kentucky became the near-unanimous No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 almost by default. But less than 48 hours later, the Wildcats suffered one of the most stunning regular-season losses in college basketball history, falling at home to Evansville.
Duke will likely move to No. 1 next Monday, but the Blue Devils could well lose to Texas or Georgetown in the championship game of the Empire Classic on Nov. 22.
If that happens, perhaps Michigan State will move back to No. 1 just in time for the Maui Invitational, which could end with a loss to Kansas.
You get the idea. We've seen the No. 1 team lose in each week, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if that happens at least a dozen more times before Selection Sunday.
Some team or group of teams will eventually emerge as title favorites, but you can just about forget about entertaining the possibility of a 40-0 season. At most, I'd guess there are six undefeated teams on New Year's Day, and they'll each suffer a loss by Jan. 25 anyway. It looks like it will be one of those years when there's little to nothing separating No. 1 from No. 25.
However, the Reigning National Champion Might Be Better Than Last Year
For Tony Bennett's Virginia Cavaliers, it all starts with the pack-line defense. Virginia has consistently been one of the least penetrable teams for the past decade, and after so many years of heartbreaking early exits from the NCAA tournament, it finally rode that defense to a national championship.
And this season, the Cavaliers have been tougher to score against than ever.
Poor Syracuse put up just 34 points at home against Virginia in the season opener. James Madison hit the same low-water mark a few days later, managing just 11 second-half points in a blowout.
Virginia's defense has had plenty of suffocating performances over the years, but it did not hold a single team below 40 points last season. And the last time it limited an opponent to 35 points or fewer was in November 2016. Thus, back-to-back 34-point games is staggering.
It's hardly a surprise, though.
If any team in the country stood to benefit from the decision to extend the three-point arc from 20 feet, 9 inches to 22 feet, 1¾" inches, it was Virginia. The Cavaliers hardly ever foul, fast-break opportunities against them are even rarer, and their defense thrives on forcing ill-advised three-point attempts. Now that the three-pointer is a lower-percentage shot, it will be even tougher than usual to score against Virginia.
The Cavaliers have a lot of work to do on offense after they lost leading scorers Kyle Guy, De'Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome. The starting backcourt of Kihei Clark, Casey Morsell and Kody Stattmann is a combined 5-of-33 from beyond the arc through two games, which, you know, isn't great.
But while they wait for the offense to come together, they'll continue to dominate with defense. Back-to-back early December games against Purdue and North Carolina will give us a better sense of just how seriously we need to take the possibility of a repeat national champion.
Florida Is the Top 15 Team That Will Sink Like a Stone
The preseason AP poll does an impressive job of identifying the best teams.
But there are always a few surprises.
For example, Texas Tech received just six votes in last year's preseason AP poll before earning a No. 3 seed and almost winning the national championship. On the flip side, West Virginia opened the season at No. 13 before ending with a 15-21 record.
The year before that, Minnesota started out at No. 15 and went 15-17. In 2016-17, it was Indiana that debuted at No. 11 before it missed the NCAA tournament with an 18-16 record. And in 2014-15, Florida went from No. 7 to a sub-.500, tournament-missing mess.
And if we had to say after one week which preseason AP Top 15 team is most likely to crash and burn this year, it would be the Gators again.
The 63-51 home loss to Florida State is the biggest cause for concern. The Gators committed 16 turnovers and could not buy a bucket. Keyontae Johnson (19 points on 8-of-12 shooting) did all he could to shoulder the load, but the other four starters shot a combined 4-of-29 from the field, including 1-of-11 from inside the three-point arc.
Shout out to Kerry Blackshear Jr., though, for getting a double-double without making a single field goal. The only other player in the past four seasons to accomplish that feat was Boston College's Steffon Mitchell, and he had to play all 45 minutes of an overtime game to get there.
If that had been Florida's only game of the season—or if it had been impressive in its other games—it wouldn't be that big of a deal. After all, FSU has been a thorn in UF's side, winning the last six games in this rivalry, including three straight by a double-digit margin.
However, Florida didn't exactly dominate the season opener against North Florida, either, shooting 3-of-15 from three-point range. The Gators had faced the Ospreys in each of the previous four seasons, scoring at least 91 points and winning by at least a 29-point margin each time. Compared to that standard, this 74-59 victory was a significant letdown, particularly on offense.
The Gators did lose three of their four leading scorers from last season. Maybe it's just going to take a few more games for them to find their stride. But if they lose the road contest against Connecticut on Sunday and/or suffer a loss in the Charleston Classic the following week, there will be people hitting the panic button.
The New 3-Point Arc Is an Early Problem
I'm a big fan of the decision to extend the three-point arc. I dedicated an entire column to the subject two seasons ago, noting the meteoric rise of reliance on the three-pointer since the start of the 2013-14 season.
But an adjustment period was inevitable, and thus far, it's quite ugly.
Last year, the Division I average for three-point percentage was 34.4 percent, per KenPom.com. That's more or less what the number had been for two decades. It rose as high as 35.1 percent in 2017-18 and dropped as low as 33.9 percent in 2012-13, but the number has been rather stationary since at least the 2001-02 season, which is how far back data goes on KenPom.
Entering play Tuesday, however, we were sitting at 32.4 percent for this season. Worse yet, the reliance on the long ball is still quite high, as 37.4 percent of field-goal attempts are coming from beyond the arc—compared to 32.9 percent as recently as 2013-14.
Those might seem like minor differences, but they aren't, especially considering the uptick in pace of play.
Six seasons ago, the average team would attempt roughly 57 shots per game, 19 of which were threes, 12 of which were misses. Now, the averages are 64.0, 24.0 and 16.2, respectively—an increase of nearly four missed threes per team per game.
If all you've managed to watch was the Champions Classic and you came away from that event thinking college kids can't hit the broad side of a barn anymore, you weren't wrong.
There are exceptions to the rule. Marquette canned 14 of 23 threes in its opener. Delaware's Nate Darling—an obvious early candidate for mid-major "darling" of the year—has made 17 of his 27 attempts through three games. On the major-conference circuit, Baylor's Jared Butler is 12-of-18 after two contests. Some players and teams will still thrive behind the new stripe.
At a national level, though, three-point shooting is worse than it has been in decades. Let's just hope things recalibrate in a hurry, either in the form of players getting better at shooting from beyond 22 feet or learning that it's no longer a reliable part of their offensive skill set.
DePaul is 4-0 in men's basketball.
That alone is an incredible feat for this program.
The last time the Blue Demons opened a season with four consecutive wins was in 2008-09. And if they can take care of business at home against Cornell on Saturday, they will be 5-0 for the first time since 1986-87. For what it's worth, that was also the last time DePaul reached the Sweet 16.
The Blue Demons picked up their fourth win in impressive, convincing fashion, going on the road and smoking Iowa in a 93-78 game that wasn't even that close. DePaul jumped on top 13-0 in the first three minutes and extended that lead to 40-16 late in the first half.
To be fair, we have seen performances like this every once in a while from DePaul in recent years. Last February, there was the rather stunning 74-62 win at Xavier. The year before that, the Blue Demons went on the road and defeated both St. John's and Providence by 17-point margins. And who can forget the 2014-15 season, when DePaul trounced a decent Stanford in November before beginning Big East play with a 5-2 record?
Inevitably, they came crashing back to earth every time.
But at the risk of looking like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, I'm buying what DePaul is selling.
Dave Leitao put together this program's best recruiting class in decades, and 4-star forward Romeo Weems is already looking like a significant factor on both ends of the floor. The Blue Demons also acquired two former 4-star recruits via the transfer market in Jalen Coleman-Lands (Illinois) and Charlie Moore (California and Kansas).
It's a shame Leitao couldn't put together this roster before Max Strus graduated, but it has been a long time since DePaul had this much talent at once.
Whether it'll be enough to reach the NCAA tournament is unknown. With DePaul making its case to emerge from the basement, the Big East is probably the nation's deepest league. The Blue Demons look the part of a mid-tier team in that conference, though.
The National Player of the Year Award Is Cole Anthony's to Lose
It was almost a unanimously held preseason belief that if there was going to be a Trae Young-type of phenom in college basketball this year, it would be Cole Anthony.
Thus far, he has delivered on that potential.
Not only is Anthony immensely talented, but he also waited until late in the recruiting cycle to choose the perfect situation in which to thrive: an uptempo, high-efficiency offense that was replacing so many key players that he was all but guaranteed to get a permanent green light.
In his debut, he lit up Notre Dame for 34 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. He only had 11 of those points when the Tar Heels trailed 37-32 early in the second half, but he took over the game from there, pouring in 23 points in the span of a little over 14 minutes.
During the three-possession stretch midway through the second half in which UNC turned a close game into a rout, Anthony drained an unassisted three, set up Andrew Platek for a triple and then made another three. In case it wasn't already clear that he will carry the Tar Heels to their final destination this season, that sequence made it obvious.
Anthony was significantly less efficient against UNC-Wilmington but no less assertive, attempting 13 two-pointers and 11 three-pointers for the second consecutive game. The 6'3" point guard also pulled down at least 10 rebounds for the second straight time, so he should record a triple-double soon.
North Carolina gets Gardner-Webb on Friday and Elon next Wednesday. Normally, those would be throwaway games of no interest to a national audience, but here's hoping you get the ACC Network so you can watch Anthony try to put up 50 points in a game.
The Pac-12 Is Way Better Than Expected
The highest-ranked Pac-12 team in the preseason was Oregon at No. 15. Arizona (No. 21) was the only other team from the conference in the poll. The general consensus was that no squad from this league would be a threat to reach the Final Four and that there might only be four or five NCAA tournament teams from the group.
But if we were to rank conferences based solely on how they fared in the season's first eight days, the Pac-12 would have a solid case for No. 1.
Those preseason Top 25 teams have more than defended their rankings.
Oregon comfortably beat a pair of decent Mountain West teams (Fresno State and Boise State) before knocking off Memphis in arguably the biggest non-Champions Classic game thus far. New Mexico transfer Anthony Mathis, UNLV transfer Shakur Juiston and JUCO transfer Chris Duarte have done incredible jobs as second fiddles to Payton Pritchard, giving the Ducks the feel of a team that could make a deep run.
Meanwhile, Arizona destroyed what is supposed to be a better-than-usual Illinois. Freshmen Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji combined for 62 points and 13 assists in the 90-69 pummeling of the Illini. Nnaji also had 20 points in the opener against Northern Arizona.
Even with those three first-year stars in the starting lineup, Sean Miller has an impressive blend of youth and experience with three seniors—Chase Jeter, Dylan Smith and Max Hazzard, all transfers at one point, for what it's worth—rounding out the rest of the primary six-man rotation. December games against Baylor and Gonzaga will help us determine how good the Wildcats are, but early returns are promising.
There's also Washington's upset of Baylor and Utah's win at Nevada before it beat Mississippi Valley State by 94 points. USC and Stanford are both sitting at 3-0 with all six wins coming by double-digit margins.
Aside from Colorado's win over Arizona State in the Pac-12's annual China game, Oregon State's victory over Iowa State before it lost a close game against Oklahoma, and Washington State's loss in a road game against West Coast Conference sleeper Santa Clara, the league is undefeated.
It could all go up in smoke in a hurry during "November neutral-site tournaments season," but the Pac-12 has enjoyed a surprisingly strong start for a conference that has been more of a punchline than a contender in recent years.
What Penny Hardaway and Memphis Are Doing with James Wiseman Is Brilliantly Bold
In case you somehow haven't heard, James Wiseman—a 7'1" freshman at Memphis and a strong contender to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft—has been ruled "likely ineligible" by the NCAA because Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway loaned Wiseman's family $11,500 to help them move in 2017.
That news broke last Friday, just a couple of hours before Memphis was set to host Illinois-Chicago. But rather than keep Wiseman out of action while things got sorted, Memphis filed for and was granted a temporary restraining order and opted to play the star.
While the game was being played Friday, the NCAA released an ominous statement that said, "The university ... is ultimately responsible for ensuring its student-athletes are eligible to play." If Wiseman is eventually ruled ineligible, Memphis would be forced to forfeit any games in which he participated and would likely be ineligible for postseason play.
And yet, I love the power move by Hardaway and Co.
We act like getting to the NCAA tournament is the be-all and end-all in college basketball, but it's not. Not for this particular Memphis team, at any rate. Hardaway assembled this recruiting class to do something special: to put Memphis basketball back on the map. And getting a lot of national attention for destroying opponents while risking postseason ineligibility will go a lot further in accomplishing that mission than sneaking into the Dance without Wiseman would.
So if the NCAA bans Memphis from the tournament, big deal. The Tigers haven't danced since 2014 and haven't been to the Sweet 16 since the end of John Calipari's run as head coach there in 2009. Plus, both Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz proved the NBA doesn't much care if your one year in college ends with a trip to the tourney.
If the NCAA effectively blackballs Hardaway by giving him a show-cause penalty after all this, well, there's a good chance that would've happened whether he decided to let Wiseman play or not, so why not take the risk?
If he doesn't get slapped with a show-cause, though, Mr. One Cent is setting quite the precedent and is going to have an unbelievable recruiting pitch for years:
"Listen [insert 5-star recruit's name], you can choose to go with one of the more traditional powerhouses. No doubt, you'll get more national exposure playing for a Kentucky, a Kansas or a Louisville. But if there's any reason the NCAA might try to rule you ineligible, we've got your back and will do whatever it takes to showcase your talents to the NBA. Here's James Wiseman's number. Ask him all about it. And then track down Enes Kanter, Billy Preston or Brian Bowen and ask what it's like to try to play for a school that won't go the whole nine yards for you."
Again, this could all blow up in spectacular fashion. But Memphis wasn't exactly playing it safe when it hired a man with no college coaching experience. No sense starting to play it safe now.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.