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#pounditSunday, September 27, 2020

10 most interesting early-season developments in college basketball

College basketball’s first semester has come to a close. For the casual fan, this means the season has barely begun, but for the diehard followers, so much has already taken place. Top teams have crumbled, surprising contenders have emerged, and star players have made their mark on the landscape. Despite the best efforts of all parties involved, the college basketball schedule early on fails to really attract attention.

Now as the calendar turns, teams are sliding into conference play with more on the line. Beyond bragging rights, tournament bids and seeds are there for the taking. Teams, both good and bad, are now required to step out of their comfort zone and play true road games in front of packed crowds. This is where the season truly begins to get chaotic. Before that happens though, it’s crucial to look back at what has already occurred and what events will set the stage for the rest of the season.

10. LiAngelo Ball’s departure from UCLA

The middle brother of the most boastful family in basketball was never going to make an impact at UCLA this season. He was given a scholarship mostly as part of the Bruins’ recruiting of his older brother Lonzo, who is now with the Los Angeles Lakers. LiAngelo entered his freshman season as an undersized forward with few skills other than an outside jumpshot. In the span of a four-year career, he may have developed into a contributor.

A player of his caliber being mentioned on this list is no easy feat. For the college basketball world to care about LiAngelo Ball, he had to become part of an international incident, reportedly involving two of the world’s most powerful figures, when he and two teammates were arrested in China for shoplifting. After a few presidential tweets and a flight home, the Ball family chose to pull LiAngelo from college. Fans of the collegiate version of basketball let out a collective sigh of relief as LaVar Ball became someone else’s problem.

9. Fletcher Magee on historic pace

During Finals Week on campus, with many students departing for break and holidays on the brains of many fans, big name teams often can get caught sleeping. Wofford took advantage this week, topping North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The Terriers were led, as they have been all season, by junior sharp-shooter Fletcher Magee. The marksman posted 27 points against the Tar Heels, including 6 three-pointers. Early this season, he dropped 40 points, including 8 threes and the game-winner, against Georgia Tech.

Magee is firing 8.5 three-point attempts per game and making 55 percent of those shots. No player in the last 25 seasons has posted a true shooting percentage over 70 while taking more than 8 threes per game like Magee has to date this season. Every player in that time frame who has made more than 4.5 threes per game has needed double-digit attempts to do so, unlike Magee. Playing in the Southern Conference will give this shooter plenty of opportunities to keep this pace up.

8. Arizona State is red hot

Bobby Hurley has the Sun Devils climbing the polls with an undefeated record so far this season. Arizona State has played the toughest schedule of any of the remaining undefeated teams so far this season, per KenPom. The beatdown the Sun Devils laid on a good Xavier team, including racking up 102 points, was one of the most impressive performances of the season. Arizona State didn’t stop there, traveling to Kansas and winning fairly easy at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. Led by hot shooting guards, Arizona State looks to be a real contender to knock off in-state rival Arizona as kings of the Pac-12. The two schools face off for the first time on Dec. 30 in Tucson.

7. Marvin Bagley is dominating college basketball

Duke won a huge recruiting battle when it not only received a commitment from Marvin Bagley III, but also had him re-classify to start playing this season. Bagley finished his high school requirements and began practicing with the Blue Devils soon after. He was clearly ready for college basketball, since he’s been one of the most productive players in the country. Bagley is averaging a double-double, with 21.1 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. His size and athleticism in the post have proved too potent for most defenders.

Once considered the top NBA prospect in the upcoming class, Bagley’s stock in that regard has actually slipped to a degree. At Duke he’s using his superior physical tools to dominate around the basket, but not showing the kind of positionless success that sets apart top NBA players in today’s game. Keep an eye on Bagley’s defensive ability and what he’s able to provide on the perimeter offensively the rest of this season.

6. Luke Maye is making a leap

For the better part of last season, North Carolina’s Luke Maye was an also-ran role player. He was a glue-guy who pitched in a few buckets and rebounds, while setting screens and playing solid defense. In the NCAA Tournament, he unexpectedly found himself with the ball in his hands and nailed a game-winner to knock off Kentucky.

That shot must have inspired something inside Maye, because this season he’s playing at an All-American level. Maye is averaging 19.3 points and 10.6 rebounds, while serving as a primary scoring option for North Carolina. He’s already made as many threes this season as he did last year. With a wave of production leaving after the championship this season, Maye has stepped up to keep Carolina relevant this year.

5. Kansas’ streak in jeopardy

No team in college basketball has dominated its conference for as long as Kansas has owned the Big XII. The Jayhawks have won or shared the conference crown every season since 2005, with solo title 8 of the past 9 years. Few expected Kansas to relinquish its grasp on the conference this season, with a ton of talent on Bill Self’s team. Things have not gone completely according to plan, however. Freshman forward Billy Preston has not played this season, after a single-car accident revealed some questions about the vehicle’s ownership in the wake of the FBI scandal rocking college basketball.

Without Preston, Self has been playing four guard lineups that have failed to deliver. No team in all of Division I has scored a fewer percentage of its points at the foul line than this perimeter-shooting Jayhawk team. Only one team in the nation has posted a lower free throw rate than Kansas. The Jayhawks have shot well enough from outside the arc to start 9-2, but any off shooting night could bury this team and open the door for a Big XII coup.

4. A surprising start from TCU

With Kansas looking vulnerable, one Big XII team looks eager to pounce. Jamie Dixon has his alma mater off to a fiery start. The Horned Frogs are 11-0 with a top-15 offense in the nation and all five starters averaging double-figure scoring. TCU is shooting better than 42 percent from outside the arc, led by Desmond Bane and his lights out 54 percent outside shooting.

If the Horned Frogs can continue to take advantage of scoring opportunities like they have, they represent the most obvious threat to Kansas in the conference. We’ll see the two teams battle in Lawrence on January 6. A road team victory in that building is rare, but would give TCU a majoy leg up in the early race for the league title.

3. Trae Young is playing the best basketball in the country

The Oklahoma Sooners knew they were bringing in a special player with Trae Young, but no one could have expected him to have such an electric start to his career. Young leads the nation in scoring at 28.5 points per game andis lapping the field in that category, with no other player in Division I currently averaging more than 24.1 points per night. On top of his scoring, Young has been the best passer in the nation as well. He averages a nation leading 10.2 assists per game, dropping a dime on 54.7 percent of his teammate’s baskets, which is also the best mark in the country. Young has the ability to pull up and shoot from anywhere, unseen in college basketball since the days of Stephen Curry or Jimmer Fredette. He has been the most exciting player in the country, demanding your attention each time he steps on the floor.

2. Collin Sexton has the Tide rolling

Speaking of freshmen guards with immense talent, Collin Sexton has already had some magical moments in his young career at Alabama. The lightning quick guard has proved himself nearly impossible to cover for players at the college level. He’s drawing the most fouls per 40 minutes in the country, at over nine per game. No other player 6-foot-3 or shorter ranks in the top 15 of that big man dominated statistic. Sexton uses his quickness to get into the lane and to the foul line, posting 21.7 points per game.

His skills were on prime display when a fist-fight, an injury, and a foul out left the Crimson Tide to playing 5-on-3 versus Minnesota. Sexton thrived, scoring 40 points against a defense with two extra pairs of eyes on him. Teams across the SEC are about to experience the best of Collin Sexton, whether they are ready or not.

1. Villanova setting itself apart

It’s hard not to argue that Jay Wright has built the nation’s best program over the past five seasons. His Wildcats haven’t missed a beat this year, starting 11-0. Villanova swept the Philadelphia round-robin series known as the Big 5 again this year and haven’t lost to a city rival since 2013.

Jalen Brunson is one of America’s best point guards. Phil Booth, returning after a season lost to injury, is reminding fans how vital he was for the Villanova team that won it all two years ago. Omari Spellman, also sidelined last season, has been a force in the paint. Capping things off, Mikal Bridges has made a real leap, looking like a first team All-American and surefire NBA Draft lottery pick. This team could stay undefeated for a while, with trips to top conference opponents Xavier, Seton Hall, and Creighton all not scheduled until after Valentine’s Day.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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