Knee-Jerk Reactions to the Start of the 2021-22 Men's College Basketball Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 15, 2021

Knee-Jerk Reactions to the Start of the 2021-22 Men's College Basketball Season

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    Duke's Trevor Keels
    Duke's Trevor KeelsFrank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The 2021-22 men's college basketball season isn't even a full week old, but we've already jumped to some early conclusions on a bunch of players and teams based on those initial observations.

    These knee-jerk reactions are intended to be a happy medium between red-hot takes and brain-dead observations. We won't be writing off any preseason Top 25 teams as hopeless busts as a result of one loss, but we also won't waste your time with things you already know, such as "Gonzaga is good at basketball."

    More than anything, we're just highlighting some of the most noteworthy developments from the start of the season, such as:

    • Trevion Williams coming off the bench for Purdue.
    • Oscar Tshiebwe trying to annihilate offensive rebounding records for Kentucky.
    • Memphis and UCLA already looking like serious title contenders.
    • Pittsburgh looks like it is mistakenly tanking for draft position.

    And, of course, we have thoughts on the beginning of the end of the Mike Krzyzewski era.

    Reactions are listed in no particular order, though we will begin with thoughts on each of the four teams that competed in the Champions Classic.

New Backcourt, Same Old Issues for Michigan State

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    Michigan State's Tyson Walker (2) and A.J. Hoggard (11)
    Michigan State's Tyson Walker (2) and A.J. Hoggard (11)Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Turnover margin has been a consistent issue for Michigan State throughout Tom Izzo's multidecade run as head coach. Per KenPom.com, the Spartans have ranked in the top 100 in turnover percentage on offense just once in the past 16 years, and they have ranked outside the top 210 in turnover percentage on defense in each of the last 12 seasons.

    Usually, they're proficient enough at basically every other aspect of the game that committing a few more turnovers than they force on a nightly basis hasn't been a debilitating problem. But without a true point guard and with a less formidable rebounding presence than usual, that turnover margin did them no favors last season en route to a 15-13 record.

    So they brought in a veteran point guard from Northeastern who averaged 2.4 steals per game last season (Tyson Walker), but it didn't do them much good in the 87-74 Champions Classic loss to Kansas. Michigan State still finished minus-seven in turnover margin, and Kansas was ahead 16-2 in points off turnovers by the midpoint of the second half.

    Even in the subsequent blowout victory over Western Michigan, the Spartans committed 13 turnovers while only forcing 10.

    In a Big Ten conference with three legitimate threats to win the national championship and half a dozen other tournament-caliber teams, those turnover woes might keep Michigan State on the bubble for a second straight year.

We All Picked the Wrong Kansas Guard in Our Preseason Player Rankings

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    Kansas' Ochai Agbaji
    Kansas' Ochai AgbajiCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Arizona State transfer Remy Martin was widely regarded as the preseason favorite to become Kansas' most valuable player. He averaged 19.1 points in each of the previous two years and was an obvious candidate to step in and immediately lead the Jayhawks in scoring. And because of that, he was pretty much a unanimous top-25 guy in the various preseason national player rankings.

    Thus far, Martin has been fine. The guard had 15 points, six rebounds and two assists against Michigan State, followed by a nearly identical line of 14, six and three, respectively, against Tarleton State. He's clearly going to be a critical piece of the puzzle for Kansas.

    But it's equally clear after two games that Ochai Agbaji is the All-American candidate for the Jayhawks.

    Agbaji was sensational in the Champions Classic victory over Michigan State, scoring 29 points on 17 field-goal attempts. After three seasons as a not-that-physical wing, he had four dunks in the second half and made a career-best eight free-throw attempts.

    Agbaji was also 8-of-9 inside the arc en route to 25 points in the subsequent win over Tarleton State. He matched a career high with six made twos in the season opener and set a new personal best three days later.

    The senior also shot 6-of-13 from distance between those two contests, so it's not like he has abandoned the deep ball in pursuit of higher-percentage buckets. Rather, he has embraced his role as team leader and has expanded his game considerably. And if he continues to play like this, it won't be long before Kansas emerges as the singular favorite to win it all.

Oscar Tshiebwe Is Going to Destroy Offensive Rebounding Records

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    Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe
    Kentucky's Oscar TshiebweJames Crisp/Associated Press

    Sports Reference has only been differentiating between offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds since 2009-10. In that time, only one player has amassed at least 180 offensive rebounds in a single season. That one player was Kenneth Faried, who created 200 second-chance opportunities for Morehead State in 2010-11.

    But through two games, Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe is on pace to enter the SEC tournament with 341 offensive rebounds.

    Obviously, that pace is going to fade to some extent. Eleven offensive rebounds per game is absurd.

    However, it is very much worth pointing out that Tshiebwe led the nation in offensive rebound percentage while with West Virginia in 2019-20, and he had improved that rate from 19.0 to 20.5 before abruptly leaving the Mountaineers 10 games into last season.

    He put up those rebounding numbers while sharing the frontcourt spotlight with Derek Culver, too. Freshman Daimion Collins might eventually be a major factor on the offensive glass for Kentucky, but for now, there's no question that the 6'9", 255-pound Tshiebwe is the Wildcats' main man in the paint.

    Tshiebwe's reputation as a junkyard dog on the glass had already been well established, and it's hardly a new development for Kentucky to thrive in offensive rebounding. The Wildcats have ranked top-12 in the nation in offensive rebound percentage six times since John Calipari's tenure began.

    Tshiebwe is also averaging 15.5 points, 2.5 blocks and 8.5 defensive rebounds per game, so he's making quite the early push for some National Player of the Year awards.

Mike Krzyzewski's Last Team Might Be One of His Best

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    Duke's Paolo Banchero
    Duke's Paolo BancheroBen McKeown/Associated Press

    Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren are going to be awesome at Memphis, but the greatest one-two punch of one-and-done freshmen this season may well be Duke's Trevor Keels and Paolo Banchero.

    Banchero was already a well-known commodity as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft before he stepped foot on campus in Durham, and he has done nothing to detract from that status through his first three games.

    The 6'10", 250-pound forward was sensational in the Champions Classic victory over Kentucky, finishing with 22 points, seven rebounds and a pair of steals. He then went for 18 in back-to-back games against Army and Campbell with a combined 19 rebounds. He has made 83.3 percent of his two-point attempts and 88.2 percent of his free-throw attempts.

    But the bigger story against the Wildcats was Keels going for 25 points, 15 of which came in the second half as he seemed to be the answer every time Kentucky threatened to go on a run.

    Keels was a borderline first-round pick in mock drafts heading into the season, but the 6'4", 221-pound guard impressed the many scouts in Madison Square Garden with his strength and his ability to finish through contact. He also had three steals against Kentucky and got six more in the subsequent game against Army, so his potential as a two-way star is readily apparent.

    Beyond that duo, it's looking like the third year might be the charm for Wendell Moore Jr., who had a triple-double against Army and has scored in double figures in all three games. Moore had flashes of greatness in each of his first two seasons, but the 6'5" forward could never sustain it for more than a week at a time. If he can keep playing at this level, Duke becomes even more difficult to stop.

    And let's not dare forget about AJ Griffin, who suffered a knee injury in early October and has only been able to play 27 minutes thus far. Our Jonathan Wasserman had Griffin projected as the No. 7 overall draft pick one week ago, so Duke could go from very good to elite if and when the 6'6" freshman is ready for a full-time role.

Pittsburgh Might Be the Worst ACC Team in Recent History

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    Pitt head coach Jeff Capel
    Pitt head coach Jeff CapelKeith Srakocic/Associated Press

    There have been a few very bad ACC teams in the two-decade history of KenPom.com.

    In 2010-11, Wake Forest went 8-24 overall and finished in 259th place in those tempo-free metrics. The following year, Boston College went 9-22 and finished in 261st place. BC had another dreadful run four years later, ending up in 225th place with a 7-25 record in 2015-16. And in the second and final year of Kevin Stallings' time with Pittsburgh, the Panthers went 8-24 and finished in 227th place.

    This year's version of Pitt may well be the worst of all, though.

    After losing 10 of their final 12 games last year, the Panthers lost four of their most valuable players, three of whom left the program as transfers. And fourth-year head coach Jeff Capel didn't add anywhere near enough talent to make up for all those departures.

    As a result, Pitt opened the season with an embarrassing 78-63 home loss to The Citadel. And that thing got out of hand in a hurry with the Bulldogs jumping out to a 27-9 lead barely seven minutes into the game.

    The Panthers proceeded to commit 32 turnovers in a 74-59 loss to West Virginia three days later.

    Eventually, they should get Texas Tech transfer Jamarius Burton back from a knee injury. And, eventually, top returning scorer Ithiel Horton might be reinstated from a suspension stemming from a recent arrest after he allegedly hit a police officer. Maybe at full strength, Pitt won't be one of the worst ACC teams of all time.

    Even if we assume those two guys return and no one else gets injured/suspended, though, there's a nonzero chance the Panthers go 0-20 in conference play and finish something like 5-27 overall. And we're talking about an ACC in which we've already seen Virginia lose to Navy, Louisville lose to Furman, Georgia Tech lose to Miami (Ohio) and North Carolina almost lose to Brown. It's not exactly shaping up to be a banner year for the league.

UCLA Is Going to Be Every Bit as Good as Advertised

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    UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) and Johnny Juzang (3)
    UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) and Johnny Juzang (3)Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Big man Cody Riley suffered a sprained MCL four minutes into the season opener against CS Bakersfield, and 5-star freshman Peyton Watson has gotten out to a woefully inefficient start to the year (2-of-12 from the field with three turnovers).

    And yet, UCLA, the AP's No. 2 team, is 2-0 with a marquee win over No. 4 Villanova.

    The Bruins had to erase a 10-point deficit in the final 10 minutes to force overtime to get that big W, but that comeback was a testament to their championship potential. Mick Cronin's team is already quite good, and it might be the best in the country once Riley is healthy and Watson starts living up to the hype.

    Until that time comes, the Bruins still have an impressive amount of veteran leadership to shoulder the load.

    The trio of Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Jules Bernard will handle most of the scoring. They've combined for 114 points through the first two games. Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson has already been a major factor on defense, and the 6'10" center is a much better rebounder than he has shown thus far. And point guard Tyger Campbell is the glue who holds it all together with turnover-averse play, active hands on defense and the occasional clutch three-pointer.

    When that starting rotation blossoms into a full-blown eight-man rotation with no weak links, look out.

    If you weren't able to stay up to watch that late Friday game against Villanova, brew yourself an extra cup of coffee on Nov. 23 and get ready for a 2021 Final Four rematch/2022 Final Four preview when UCLA battles Gonzaga in Las Vegas.

Purdue's Trevion Williams Is Evidently Going to Win Sixth Man of the Year

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    Purdue's Trevion Williams
    Purdue's Trevion WilliamsMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    Over the past three years, few players had been more valuable than Purdue's Trevion Williams.

    Per Sports Reference, he entered this season with a career player efficiency rating of 28.5 and a .202 ratio of win shares per 40 minutes. To help add some perspective to those numbers, two-time consensus All-American Luka Garza finished his college career with marks of 30.5 and .226, respectively.

    Williams also finished 10th in last year's KenPom Player of the Year rankings, and his decision to return for a fourth year was the biggest reason the Boilermakers opened the season in the AP Top 10 for the first time since 2009.

    So color us surprised that the 6'10" forward has been coming off the bench, replaced in the starting lineup by true freshman Caleb Furst.

    Maybe it's just some early lineup experimentation against weaker opponents and it will change by the time Purdue faces North Carolina next weekend. Matt Painter has also been starting the game with guards Brandon Newman and Eric Hunter Jr. on the bench, each of whom started 23 games last year.

    If it's a permanent thing, though, it's not like it has resulted in a decrease in production. Williams still has 15 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and five blocks through 35 minutes, and Purdue is averaging 94.0 points per game.

    Either way, it has been weird to see one of the best players in the country coming off the bench for the first week.

Memphis Is Finally the Real Deal

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    Memphis' Jalen Duren (2) and Emoni Bates (1)
    Memphis' Jalen Duren (2) and Emoni Bates (1)Karen Pulfer Focht/Associated Press

    The first three seasons of Memphis basketball under head coach Penny Hardaway were fun but ultimately disappointing.

    Hardaway inherited a senior-heavy team and won 22 games in his first season, but it wasn't enough for an invitation to the Big Dance. There was no tournament the following year, but after losing James Wiseman just three games into the season, the 21-win Tigers probably weren't getting in anyway. And last year's 20-win team was very good on defense but just didn't have the quality wins because of five painful losses by three points or fewer.

    But with much of last year's roster back and freshman phenoms Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren joining the party, Memphis has the necessary pieces to be some kind of special this year.

    The competition thus farTennessee Tech and North Carolina Central—is hardly a barometer for what the Tigers will face the rest of the way, but they have impressed all the same.

    Bates, a 6'9" forward, scored 17 against the former and 15 against the latter, shooting a combined 6-of-12 from three-point range. Duren, a 6'11" center, had 15 points and five blocks against Tennessee Tech and went for 10 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in just 18 minutes of work against NC Central.

    After leading the team in scoring in 2020-21, forward Landers Nolley II seems to have embraced his role as sixth man, scoring in double figures off the bench in both games. With so much talent on this roster, though, Memphis may well end up with nine players who average 20-25 minutes per game, so the starter/reserve designation shouldn't much matter.

    Memphis does appear to still have considerable turnover issues for a fifth consecutive year, but at least this year's team can shoot it well when it doesn't cough the ball up. That's a nice change of pace for this program.

Barring Injury, Gonzaga Will Finish Top-2 on KenPom for 5th Time in 6 Years

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    Gonzaga's Drew Timme
    Gonzaga's Drew TimmeYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    Gonzaga might not win a national championship, as the best team of the season often fails to win the NCAA tournament.

    Gonzaga also might not carry an undefeated record into the Big Dance for a second consecutive year, considering it still has nonconference games against UCLA, Duke, Alabama and Texas Tech. Even though the Bulldogs are sure to be favored in every game, win probabilities suggest they'll drop at least one somewhere along the way.

    But after just two games, I'm ready to lock in Gonzaga as either the best or second-best team of the 2021-22 season, at least as far as KenPom is concerned.

    The Zags were No. 1 last year, as well as in 2016-17. They also finished at No. 2 in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. And with Drew Timme thriving as the preseason favorite for NPOY and freshman Chet Holmgren already making a massive impact on both ends of the floor, well, let's just say that Texas won't be the last good team made to look helplessly average by Gonzaga.

    Timme had 37 points on just 19 field-goal attempts against the Longhorns. His footwork and his mid-range game were outstanding last year, but he got even better over the summer. At one point in the second half, Texas was basically quadruple-teaming him, because it was the only hope it had of slowing him down.

    Holmgren only had two points and two blocks against Texas, but his presence in the defensive paint forced the Longhorns to settle for deeper shots than usual, and his presence on the offensive half of the court was the biggest reason Timme was repeatedly allowed to go one-on-one with an undersized defender. Against Dixie State, a second-year Division I program, Holmgren's line in the opener (14 points on six shots, 13 rebounds, seven blocks and six assists) was an example of the many different ways in which the 7-footer can take over a game.

    Those two bigs certainly aren't the only key players on the team, but as long as they stay healthy, the sky's the limit for Gonzaga. And it's only going to get better once highly touted freshmen Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman start to thrive.

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