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Friday, December 14, 2018

10 college basketball teams off to surprising starts

Jay Wright

The basketball season is still very young, with most teams playing five or fewer games so far. Right now, teams are jockeying for position like horses out of the starting gate before the first turn. The top teams are looking to keep pace with their fellow thoroughbreds. Teams on the fringes are trying to earn respect and build a resume for March. There are also a number of plucky future Cinderellas stealing wins on the road and sneaking into the national conversation.

As the college basketball landscape takes shape, there have been a number of teams who have exceeded and failed to meet preseason expectations. These ten stand out among that group.

Villanova

It’s impossible to start anywhere besides the main line, where the defending National Champions have stumbled out of the gates. Villanova lost four key cogs from the team that cut down the nets last April to the NBA, leaving behind a mish-mash of returnees and newcomers. The Wildcats have now played three games in the shiny new Finneran Pavilion on campus, but have won just once (against lowly Morgan State).

Against Michigan in a title game rematch, the Wildcats looked utterly lost and outmatched. The game was never close and Villanova did next to nothing successfully. A blowout like that can seem like a bump in the road, especially against a talented team like the Wolverines, led by one of college basketball’s best coaches.

Any notion of that game being a one-time worry was erased when Villanova dropped its next game to Furman. The Paladins have been surprisingly good this season (more on that in a moment), yet have nowhere near the talent of Villanova.

The trouble early on for Jay Wright and the gang has been figuring out how to use that talent. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall have both been role players on great teams, yet neither appears ready to make the leap to stardom. Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree were young last year, yet are being asked to contribute at a higher level than they are capable of providing. Finally, the biggest disappointment to date has been highly heralded recruit Jahvon Quinerly. The five-star prospect is shooting 25 percent from the floor and has posted more turnovers than assists. His minutes have been extraordinarily limited, and Quinerly never saw the floor at all in the Furman game

It’s clear that Jay Wright is concerned with what Quinerly has shown in limited playing time or behind closed doors in practice. Unfair or not, Villanova fans were relying on Quinerly to make an immediate impact in helping fill the shoes of Jalen Brunson. Until he’s ready to contribute, expectations have to be shifted for the defending champs.

Furman

While Villanova losing to Furman at home was a shock, maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised. The Paladins are now 6-0. Three of those wins have come in drubbings of non-Division I competition, yet Furman has also topped two teams that played in last year’s Final Four. Before dispatching Villanova in overtime, Furman squeaked out a two-point win at Loyola-Chicago. The Ramblers have returned a solid group from last year’s Cinderella run, but looked flat-footed against Furman.

This Furman team had two of the country’s best wins prior to Thanksgiving, yet also needed overtime to top Gardner Webb. The Paladins have been an absolute enigma really, though they have one sure thing going for them: Junior guard Jordan Lyons can score when he’s hot.

Lyons dropped 54 points against Division II North Greenville, shooting 15 of 34 (!!) from outside the arc. He shot 34 threes in one game! On the season, he’s averaging 14 attempts from long range and sinking 40 percent of them. A player with that kind of greenlight makes Furman a dangerous opponent for anyone in college basketball.

The Paladins are among the favorites in the Southern Conference and could be a scary out in March if they earn a bid to the Big Dance.

West Virginia

The country roads have been a bumpy ride so far for Bob Huggins’ club. Two early seasons losses to mid-majors is not what West Virginia needed with a daunting schedule ahead of it. Upcoming games against Florida, Pitt, and Rhode Island will be no cakewalk before a Big XII slate that features home-and-home matchups with nine teams ranked in the top 65 of KenPom’s rankings.

So far, West Virginia has clearly missed Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles. Those two now departed Mountaineers manned Huggins’ backcourt for nearly half a decade, perfecting the pressure defense he preaches.

In their absence, younger players have been unavailable or less than satisfying. Beatle Bolden has been dogged by injuries and the other West Virginia guards just haven’t shown the defensive intensity we’ve seen in years past. The Mountaineers rank 291st in turnover rate defensively so far this year, after four straight years where West Virginia finished either 1st or 2nd in the nation in forcing turnovers.

West Virginia had allowed opponents to score 90 or more points just three times since 2010-2011, but has done so twice already this season. If Huggins can’t tighten the screws on his team’s defense, they will have serious problems when conference play begins.

Buffalo

The most surprising team to sneak into the back of the AP Poll, the Buffalo Bulls, did so by beating West Virginia at home in overtime. The Bulls shocked the world last year in the NCAA Tournament by not just upsetting Arizona, but dismantling the Wildcats. Buffalo picked up right where it left off, stealing the win in Morgantown and starting off 3-0, with all three wins coming against KenPom top 200 teams.

CJ Massinburg drives everything Buffalo does offensively, and he put on a show against West Virginia. The senior guard sank 9 threes and dropped 43 points, leading his team to the upset win. Massinburg leads a high-tempo attack offensively, on a team that returns a higher percentage of its minutes played from last season than all but five teams nationally.

The Bulls have earned legitimate buzz about an at-large bid in March, but have work to do. A three-game stretch against Southern Illinois (whom the Bulls have already beaten this season), Syracuse, and Marquette provides three shots at resume building wins. Stealing two of those three puts the Bulls on the minds of every Bracketologist.

Ohio State

There’s no surprise that a historically good program like the one at Ohio State has built a strong team this season, but early on the Buckeyes have looked even better than expected. Chris Holtman brought back little from last year’s team, including the loss of Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop.

With a host of underclassmen in the lineup, Holtman’s Buckeyes have impressed early on, with road wins at Creighton and Cincinnati already on their resume. Ohio State has won games this season on the defensive end of the court, forcing opponents into tough shots and avoiding silly fouls. Playing at a slower tempo than most, the Buckeyes are converting stops on one end into scoring chances on the other. Buckeye foes are averaging under 60 points per game so far and shooting under 36 percent from the field.

Arizona State

The Sun Devils faced a similar predicament as Ohio State, losing their senior leader from a year ago. With point guard Tra Holder gone, Bobby Hurley is now integrating his returning players with high-profile freshman Luguentz Dort. The Canadian combo guard has been fantastic to date, averaging 20 points and 8 rebounds per contest. Add in 2.3 steals per game and 40 percent shooting from outside, and Dort has been one of the most impressive freshmen in the country.

While the big-time recruiting class at Duke has sapped up tons of national attention, Dort has led the Sun Devils to an undefeated record and scored in double-figures every game to date. Hurley preaches for his guards to penetrate and attack the paint, perfectly fitting with Dort’s style.

There were question marks about Arizona State preseason, but now they look like real contenders in the Pac-12.

Texas A&M

Billy Kennedy returned a young team to College Station and, unlike most high-major programs, did not stack the top of schedule with cupcake wins. Instead, the Aggies have played four of their five games against teams ranked in the KenPom top 75, losing all four of those contests. Losing at Gonzaga is expected. Losing at UC Irvine and to Washington and Minnesota on neutral courts is not.

There is relative good news for Texas A&M, though. The next leg of the Aggies’ schedule should include some confidence-building wins. More important, some of the issues A&M has faced should be solvable. The Aggies are shooting just 23 percent from outside the arc, among the ten worst marks in Division I. That number should bounce toward the mean as the Aggies continue to shoot throughout the season. Only seven teams in the nation shot below 30 percent from long range last season.

If Texas A&M doesn’t start to look more pulled together in upcoming games versus Boston College, Oregon State, and Marshall, they’ll start to look like the cellar dwellers in the SEC.

Penn

When the Quakers lost Ryan Betley to injury, expectations for Penn’s success this season changed. Betley led Penn in scoring last season before suffering a ruptured patella in the first game this season. Many expected the Quakers to be less competitive, at least while figuring out how to operate without their go-to scorer.

Instead, Penn hasn’t missed a beat. The Quakers have quality wins over George Mason and Northern Iowa. The Ivy League braniacs are playing high-level defense, with the analytics to back it up. No team is allowing a higher percentage of points scored via two-point baskets. It’s a trade off Penn will allow, keeping teams off the free throw line and inside the arc leads to less valuable looks.

We’ll see if Penn’s defense continues to hold up through Ivy League play and in quality match-ups as part of Philadelphia’s Big 5 play.

SMU

Losing junior guard Shake Milton to the NBA was unexpected for SMU coach Tim Jankovich, but an early-season schedule appeared to make the transition easier for the Mustangs. SMU is just past the halfway mark of nine straight games against teams outside the KenPom top 100 to start the season.

Despite a somewhat easy slate, SMU sits under .500 at just 2-3 so far this season. The Mustangs have lost already to Southern Miss, Lipscomb, and Bradley. Despite playing a relatively slow pace, SMU is shooting a ton of threes and making under 35 percent of them. If those shots don’t start to fall, the Mustangs defense will need to elevate for them to be a factor in the American Athletic Conference.

Wichita St

Elsewhere in that conference, Wichita State has been a roller coaster early in the season. The Shockers collected a big win versus Providence, but lost to Louisiana Tech, Davidson, and Alabama already this season.

Gregg Marshall’s team has had issues on both ends of the floor early on this season. The Shockers have attempted fewer free throws than their opponent in all five of their match-ups so far this year. Wichita State is trying to slow teams down, but has been gifting opponents with trips to the free throw line.

On offense, the Shockers are struggling to get shots they can consistently convert. In Wichita State’s three losses, the Shockers have shot 21 for 70 from outside the arc and posted their three lowest assist totals on the season. Markis McDuffie is a capable scorer, but has needed to force things early in the season to give Wichita State a chance to keep pace on the scoreboard.

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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