Kentucky, Duke jump out of the gates, Utah and TCU surprise
Less than a full month into the college basketball season, and we’ve already had a handful of major statements.
Kentucky, Duke and Arizona are as good as advertised. Maybe better. Texas, Louisville and Wisconsin are doing exactly what they should be at this point in the year. Gonzaga is better than many expected. Same with Utah or Butler.
Of course, no one remembers a team for what it did in November or December in college basketball, but these games are important.
If nothing else, they set the tone for the season, establish favorites and put storylines in motion. For a handful of teams, these early games will come in handy for the selection committee. Win a big game in November and perhaps you don’t need to be perfect in February.
Here's what we think are the most important statements as we near the end of the first month of the season.
John Calipari’s blue platoon (the starters) and white platoon (the best group of sixth men in the country) was met with skepticism to start the season, but Kentucky is sticking with it for good reason. Wednesday’s slow start against Columbia notwithstanding, the Wildcats are the best defensive team in the country. The Wildcats won’t keep up their pace in conference play even if the numbers remain staggering: Kentucky has the best adjusted defensive efficiency rating and defensive effective field goal rate going back to 2002 on KenPom.com
This is scary: A group that went into Madison and defeated a veteran Wisconsin team 80-70 is only going to get better. If a freshman-led team can shoot 65 percent at the Kohl Center in only their eighth game, what will these rookies be able to do in March? Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones have all taken their turn as the stars for Duke this season while veterans Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon have settled into their roles.
Gonzaga as a national player
The Bulldogs may have Mark Few’s best team or at least a team that ranks up with the 2013 team that finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country or the 2006 team led by Adam Morrison. Gonzaga lost 66-63 in overtime at Arizona in its biggest game of the year, but there’s no shame in losing to another Final Four contender on the road in a game that came down to free throws (or lack thereof at the end). Gonzaga is one of the most balanced offensive teams in the country with five players averaging double figures and a sixth averaging 8.5. points per game.
Since we mentioned Gonzaga’s hot start, we should mention the team that just defeated the Bulldogs. Arizona, which won the Maui Invitational, clamped down on Gonzaga on the defensive end to erase a six-point deficit in the second half. Four Bulldogs players scored in double figures. But none scored more than 15 and the Zags averaged 0.94 points per possession. The most efficient defense from a year ago might be headed that way again.
Big East depth
Even if the pace of the league has cooled since November, this still looks like a respectable multi-bid league. Villanova is undefeated with wins over VCU, Michigan and Illinois. St. John’s defeated Syracuse for its first win in the Carrier Dome in more than 15 years. Despite an uncertain coaching situation, Butler has defeated North Carolina and Georgetown and has only one loss this season (to Oklahoma on a neutral floor). All hope isn’t lost for Creighton without Doug McDermott as the Bluejays have wins over Oklahoma and Nebraska, the latter on the road. Even DePaul is 6-1 with a win over Stanford.
Utah’s breakout moment
Utah lost seven Pac-12 games by seven points or less last season, including three in overtime. Larry Krystkowiak’s team has been poised for a breakout, and it finally happened late into the night on Dec. 3. Against a Wichita State team that has almost always won the close games in recent years, the Utes got the breaks to defeat the Shockers 69-68 in overtime. Utah could be the No. 2 team in the Pac-12.
The Cavaliers haven’t picked up an eye-popping win. And with a style of play that ranks 330th or worse in possession length on both sides of the court, nothing Virginia does will be eye-popping. Instead, consider what the Cavaliers did in back-to-back true road games against solid Maryland and VCU teams. Virginia held the two teams to a combined 1.02 points per possession, 45 percent shooting from 2-point range and 31 percent from 3.
Jerian Grant’s return
Notre Dame is back in postseason contention with Jerian Grant back in the lineup after missing most of last season following an academic issue. Clearly, the Irish are a different team with their star guard. Grant is averaging 19 points per game during the 9-1 start. In Notre Dame’s best performance of the season, Grant was 9-of-17 with 27 points in an overtime win over Michigan State.
Wichita State hasn’t had a challenger in the Missouri Valley since Creighton left. Northern Iowa hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since reaching the Sweet 16 in 2010. Could both change this season? The Panthers have only two top-100 wins (Stephen F. Austin and Richmond) but Ben Jacobson’s team is 9-0. With a junior- and senior-laden team, Jacobson is ready for another run, but the true tests will come in the next two weeks against VCU and Iowa.
(Note: The initial posting of this piece Thursday morning included Iowa State’s Bryce Dejean-Jones in this spot. He was removed after news broke of his arrest Thursday.)
Ten teams remain undefeated, and one of them went winless in conference play last season. Gary Patterson isn’t the only coach engineering a major turnaround in Fort Worth. TCU is 9-0, meaning that the Horned Frogs’ next win will eclipse last year’s total (9-22). Trent Johnson’s team doesn’t have any great wins — Ole Miss and Mississippi State are the only wins over KenPom top 100 teams — but the Frogs have a chance to be 13-0 when they open Big 12 play at home against West Virginia in Jan. 3.