1. Some of our preseason predictions will be right.
Luke Winn and I identified George Mason’s Patrick Holloway as one of this year’s breakout scorers. In fact, we had him as the 46th highest scorer in the country. Through two games he is averaging 20.5 PPG.
One of the predictions that I was the most nervous about was on our Top 50 freshmen scorers’ list. Our model had Montaque Gill-Caeser as the #19 freshman scorer because Missouri needed a shot-taker. But since Gill-Caeser re-classified (meaning he was not originally going to play college basketball this year), I was very nervous whether he was ready to play a big role immediately. Through two games, the prediction is looking good. Gill-Caeser took a team-leading 23 shots and scored 21 points in the opener. And he took a team-leading 13 shots and scored 9 points on Sunday. Missouri also lost the opener in embarrassing fashion to UMKC, and that seems par for the course for a team we pegged near the bottom of the SEC. When a freshman outside the Top 20 is leading your team, this is a rebuilding season.
We also had Rashad Vaughn near the top of the freshmen scoring list and he is averaging 22 PPG through two games. But with Running Rebels winning their opening two games by a combined 3 points, Vaughn is going to need a lot more help.
2. Many of our preseason projections are going to be wrong and I love it.
Of course, the more you project, the more opportunities you have to be wrong. But the beauty of college basketball is the unpredictability, and I love when players surprise us.
Georgetown’s LJ Peak went 9 for 9 from the floor and scored 23 in the opener for the Hoyas. Our preseason projections were based on recruiting data from ESPN, Scout, and Rivals. And based on the recruiting rankings, we liked Georgetown’s Isaac Copeland to be the Hoyas breakout freshman. But Georgetown observers who watched summer league games said that LJ Peak had blown up over the summer, and at least in the opener Peak put on a dominant performance. Perhaps someday summer league stats will be more readily available and we can see how much predictive power they have. But in the meantime, players like Peak remain hidden gems to everyone except the true team insiders.
3. The most important thing in the early games is the surprise roster news.
Jamie Dixon surprised us by announcing that Durand Johnson would not play this year for Pittsburgh. Cameron Wright (injured) and Durand Johnson (suspended) were projected to be Pittsburgh’s top two scorers in August, and the narrow home win against Samford may be a sign that eventually player losses add up, even for a coach as brilliant as Jamie Dixon.
Oklahoma got great news with TaShawn Thomas’s surprise eligibility. I see their offense being about 1.6 points better and their defense being about 1.5 points better with Thomas in the fold, which makes them neck and neck with Wichita St. in my preseason rankings. I’m not quite willing to endorse them as a Top 10 squad because of the defensive concerns. (Not only was Oklahoma terrible defensively last year, but Thomas was only an average defender on a Houston team that struggled to get stops.) But there is no question that having Thomas upgrades Oklahoma’s frontline tremendously.
4. The next most important thing is rotation patterns.
If you can learn something from watching Duke blowout mismatched opponents, then you are a better observer than me. The main thing I watch for in mismatch games is rotation patterns. It looks like North Carolina will play lineups with four forwards (with Theo Pinson, Justin Jackson, or J.P Tokoto at the off-guard slot). That makes a lot of sense because it gets the Tar Heels best players on the floor, but if spacing was a problem last year, the lack of a three point-gunner besides Marcus Paige could hurt the North Carolina offense again.
5. But don’t draw huge conclusions from early games.
Even if I like to study rotation patterns, I don’t want to get too carried away. Kansas’ Kelly Oubre played only 4 minutes in the opening night win. Does that mean the Top 10 recruit is one of the biggest busts in the country? Seton Hall super-freshman Isaiah Whitehead opened the year with a 1-10 night. Was he over-hyped? I’d like to see a lot more games before I draw these types of conclusions.
6. Early games can confirm your suspicions.
Askia Booker has been a high scorer for Colorado, but his lack of efficiency has been a liability. And his 2 of 14 shooting night to open this season looks like more of the same.
If you had concerns about Nebraska’s PGs after last year, it probably wasn’t comforting that Tai Webster and Benny Parker went a combined 3 of 14 in the opener.
Harvard’s guard depth is going to be an issue and they are going to have to play three guards at times this season because of matchups. But Harvard had to stick with Corbin Miller (2 of 8 from the floor), and Siyani Chambers (an uncharacteristic 9 turnovers) in the loss to Holy Cross, because they just don’t have a lot of choices on the perimeter right now.
Meanwhile, St. Joseph’s home loss to Fairleigh Dickinson should not have been a shock. While the preseason polls claimed St. Joe’s would finish in the middle of the A10, that was largely a courtesy vote based on last year. Based on their current roster, I expect this to be a rebuilding year for the Hawks.
(The more interesting story to me is that FDU pulled the upset. FDU has been near the bottom of the Pomeroy rankings the last two years and they won only ten games last year. And yet over the last two years they’ve beaten Seton Hall, Rutgers, and now St. Joe’s. FDU is starting to be the team that no power conference team should schedule.)
Meanwhile, USC, East Carolina, Rutgers, and Boston College may play in major conferences, but we all knew they had flawed rosters. Their early losses weren’t huge surprises.
7. Give teams time to build chemistry.
The big surprise was Ole Miss losing at home to Charleston Southern. I’m willing to give Ole Miss the benefit of the doubt for now. Ole Miss has a number of transfers and they obviously don’t have perfect chemistry yet. If LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love need some time to build chemistry in the NBA, I’m willing to give a bunch of college transfers some time. But the selection committee might not feel the same way. And for a likely bubble team like Ole Miss, the opening loss to a non-Top 100 squad could be costly.
But the Ole Miss situation also illustrates why Houston’s opening win was so impressive. Despite playing with a number of new transfers, despite playing under a new head coach with a new system, and despite playing without lead-guard LJ Rose who is injured and out until at least December, Houston won on the road at a very good Murray St. team. Kelvin Sampson still knows how to coach.
8. Early in the year, things often go wrong.
The start of the college basketball season is relatively quiet, but maybe there is a reason these games are not in the spotlight. I’m guessing Temple (who won 40-37 against American) is happy that not many people watched their opening game. Temple had more turnovers 15 than field goals made 11.
But the players aren’t alone in failing to execute early. In Villanova’s closer than expected win against Lehigh, the possession arrow wasn’t working. The official at the scorers’ table solved the problem by drawing an arrow on a piece of paper. Watching the official manually flip the piece of paper over when the possession arrow changed was priceless.
The shot-clock was also broken early in the VCU/Tennessee game. But as the announcers correctly noted, when VCU is running its HAVOC defense, do you really need a shot clock?
9. Hype doesn’t guarantee a good game.
The Champions Classic may live up to the hype, but the joy of college basketball is the sheer number of games, not the heavily hyped-matchups.
ESPN heavily hyped Richard Pitino vs Rick Pitino, son vs father, in order to promote the Minnesota vs Louisville game on opening night. But what we saw was a painful, whistle-filled game. That’s not to say there weren’t amusing aspects to the game. I’m a huge fan of Minnesota PG Deandre Mathieu, and I was stunned by how well Terry Rozier and Chris Jones’ on-ball pressure shut him down. Louisville’s defense is going to be dominant again. It seemed somehow appropriate that Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear followed up his dominant exhibition performances with a quiet foul-prone game. That’s the story of Blackshear’s career at this point. The recruiting rankings and efficiency stats keep pointing to Blackshear becoming a dominant player, but it is never seems to happen in real games. On the other hand Montrezl Harrell complimented his explosive dunking with a newfound outside shot and looked fantastic. And it is always fun whenever a walk-on gets to play real minutes, as Louisville’s David Levitch did thanks to Shaqquan Aaron’s temporary ineligibility and Louisville’s foul trouble. But while these type of minor nuances can keep me amused during almost any game, I have to assume for any casual fan, Minnesota vs Louisville was just painful.
10. Maryland Terrapins Watch
Last year I thought Harvard was the most interesting story in college basketball so I tried to write about them each weak. This year my plan is to write about Maryland each week. The Terrapins will be playing in a new league, they have a coach on the hot seat, they have some talented veterans, and they have a roster full of talented young freshmen whose development is intriguing. Their journey should be fascinating.
Maryland won their opening game easily and I don’t like to comment on mismatches, but there is something I want to discuss. What does it mean that Charles Mitchell, who transferred from Maryland to Georgia Tech this off-season, had 20 points and 9 rebounds in his opener for his new team? Mitchell dominated a Georgia team that many expect to be on the NCAA tournament bubble. When Mitchell transferred, I was willing to believe it might not be critical, as Mitchell had never been an efficient player. Mitchell had an ORtg of 94 and 95 the last two years and was basically a role player for the Terrapins. But if Mitchell becomes a star at Georgia Tech, that adds more fuel to the critics of head coach Mark Turgeon.