It’s early going, but this season is shaping up to be one of the most even college basketball season in recent memory. There is no dominant team right now. Oklahoma, Kansas, Virginia, Maryland, and a healthy Michigan State team are probably the best teams in the country, but the teams at 6-15 can all conceivably defeat this quintet on the right day. Teams like Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Iowa are all right there, giving us a landscape of parity that was unseen during Kentucky’s undefeated run from last season.
The opening week of conference play saw some excellent games, and the first part of this column, which I have labeled “The Fastbreak” will be devoted to working through the highlights. The second part of the column will be a power ranking of the top 15 teams in the country.
Oklahoma survives to stay undefeated, for now
Oklahoma stayed undefeated with a huge comeback win against Iowa State at home on Saturday in the most entertaining game of the weekend. This game was really well played from both teams. Both teams combined to shoot 50 percent from the floor and Georges Niang spectacularly carved up Oklahoma’s usually great defense with ease. In the second half, there was an amazing five-minute stretch in which both teams combined for thirty points in an end-to-end contest that defied belief. You will not see college basketball at a much higher offensive level or entertainment level than what Oklahoma and Iowa State showed on Saturday. The NCAAB rules committee must have been salivating.
While Oklahoma played very well down the stretch and pulled out the win at home, these last few games have been quite worrying for the Sooners. The team’s second Hawaii non-conference tourney trip was ultimately victorious, but the Sooners were given a tough test in a difficult road environment against Hawaii in which they failed to make a field goal in the last 8 minutes of the game. Okay, playing on the road against Hawaii is tough, but Oklahoma were also down at halftime to Harvard in the final, which is not what you’d expect from a top-caliber team.
Oklahoma has had some stretches where they look average, and some stretches where they look like the best team in the country. Against Iowa State, they missed a bevy of threes in the first half but were able to claw back thanks to Spangler and Cousins. While Buddy Hield has been definitively the best player in the country on a good team (sorry Ben Simmons), Jordan Woodard, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler are all very solid two-way players with excellent three-point range. Woodard is shooting 53.1 percent from three and has been outstanding in a complimentary role to Hield. But when the threes and perimeter shots aren’t falling, Hield and the rest of the squad has to work very hard to manufacture points.
However, Oklahoma’s undefeated run may end when Kansas and Oklahoma play tonight in a huge Nos. 1 and 2 matchup at Kansas. Oklahoma has to shore up its defense after getting beat inside against Hawaii and Iowa State, and Kansas will be able to go toe-to-toe with Oklahoma on both sides of the ball. Kansas is still deeper than the Sooners, and it also has the veteran leadership and established team chemistry that has been one of Oklahoma’s biggest advantages thus far. I expect Kansas to win, but the game should be close and entertaining.
Iowa came into the week unranked despite being in the top 20 on KenPom since mid-December, and now they’ll probably be in the Top 15 in the AP poll. That’s what happens when you beat two of the best three teams in the conference in consecutive games. Iowa dominated Michigan State, but the Spartans looked lost without Denzel Valentine and have looked horrendous without its star player. Then Iowa played its worst first half of the season against Purdue and were down 17 points at halftime. Adam Woodbury had the best missed dunk of the season in the opening minutes that turned momentum in Purdue’s favor.
Purdue had a 97 percent chance of winning the game (on KenPom). They hit a barrage of three-pointers in the first half and were in complete control.
But wait, Iowa proceeded to outscore Purdue 50-26 in the second half! Purdue was unable to do anything on offense as Iowa clamped down and the Boilermakers’ cooled off. Iowa was completely dominant on offense and defense. Uthoff was unstoppable in the paint and had five blocks. Like Michigan State, Purdue just had no answer against Iowa. In a weaker Big Ten, Iowa’s first two games have shown it could be a serious contender for the championship. Iowa had the toughest conference schedule of the Big Ten contenders, but with two of its hardest tests already passed, the road ahead gets considerably easier.
The Pac 12 is a bit of a mess, but Arizona will rise soon
Frankly, I’m confused by the Pac 12. The Pac 12 has definitely felt the departure of Delon Wright, Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for the NBA in terms of top-line quality. Arizona is still learning how to play with an entirely new starting lineup, but the team has predictably crushed its easy non-conference schedule. Utah has fallen off significantly after its insane rise last season. Over the weekend, the Utes had a horrendous overtime road loss to Stanford in which they missed four free throws that could have iced the game. Jakob Poeltl will be an NBA center next year, but he hasn’t been the dominant force that some might have expected. Utah could be 0-3 in conference play after next weekend with a tough road game against Colorado.
So what other Pac 12 teams are in the hunt for an at-large bid? Cal looks way better in Cuonzo Martin’s second year and will be the only team that could potentially stop Arizona. Oregon State beat Oregon at home but the Beavers can’t be trusted after being irrelevant for years. USC should also be in the mix, but it just lost on the road to a KenPom 100-range Washington side. UCLA was in the Top 25 heading into this week, but consecutive losses to Washington and Washington State will certainly drop them out of the rankings. Stanford has played a very tough schedule and looked good in its comeback win against Utah, but they just lost at home to Colorado and have had trouble with good teams this season. Oregon does not have the depth to be an elite team right now. Expect more weirdness from the Pac 12 and Arizona to start playing really well in February. Kaleb Tarczewski is coming soon to a Pac 12 arena near you.
Mid-majors to watch: St. Mary’s California (13-1, WCC, 19th in KenPom)
St. Mary’s is getting no respect nationally, but the team has quietly blown out every team it has faced this season other than a tough road loss to Cal. While some regression in shooting will come (St. Mary’s is currently first in the country in effective field goal percentage), St. Mary’s could roll through the every team not named Gonzaga in the WCC. Gonzaga, the traditional WCC powerhouse, has lost Przemek Karnowski for the season and has been beatable this year, including two rare home defeats. Gonzaga nearly lost to lowly San Francisco over the weekend and are completely reliant on Wiltjer and Sabonis.
St. Mary’s has almost no depth, but its starting five can shoot the lights out and score on anybody. The Gaels have embraced three-point shooting and it’s paid off, as they lead the country in three-point percentage and score 37.8 percent of their points from three (21st in the nation). As long as St. Mary’s can hit shots, it can cruise its way to the NCAA Tournament.
“Brevity is the soul of wit” Power Rankings
I hope Edmond Sumner has a speedy recovery.
They’ve played one of the weakest schedules in the country and lost both games they had against quality opponents. At least those games were close. Also, there is just so much controversy around this team right now.
Purdue’s inconsistent offense continues to hold back its defense.
Can Uthoff keep playing out of his mind?
11. North Carolina
Sorry, I can’t put UNC in the top ten when Meeks is out and they needed a huge comeback to beat Georgia Tech.
Singlehandedly keeping the Pac 12 respectable right now.
9. Miami (FL)
Really like this team. Top 21 in offense/defense on KenPom.
Seriously, it’s a tragedy that this team is ineligible for the postseason.
Grayson Allen looks like Ted Cruz. One of the two is really good at basketball.
This team has seven quality players and two elite guys in Hart and Ochefu. Villanova might not lose another game until February.
5. Michigan State
Denzel Valentine is coming back. MSU fans can take a deep breath before continuing to try forgetting about Alabama.
Maryland is underrated by the advanced metrics for some reason, but I watched them beat a decent Northwestern team and they look very solid.
Virginia’s defense is still incredible, and now they have an elite offense with Brogdon and Gill.
Buddy Hield is the player of the year so far.
Kansas absolutely obliterated a pretty good Baylor team. Wayne Selden is shooting 54.2 percent from three.
Shot Chart of the Week – Bryce Alford (UCLA)
Bryce Alford takes 22.7 percent of UCLA’s shots. His eFG% is 45.7 percent. He is also shooting just 41 percent at the rim which is why he’s 295th in efficiency at the rim amongst Power Seven players. These are not very good numbers. However, he is still shooting well from three and from midrange. Ideally, Bryce Alford should be a lights-out spot-up and catch-and-shoot perimeter shooter. He should not be taking 27 percent of his shoots at the rim. Alford is near the bottom in player efficiency thus far, but since his father is the coach, he probably will not be benched even though he can’t finish at the rim efficiently.