- Ky McKeon
Because jumping to conclusions is fun!
1. Hey, UConn Sucks!
Why I’m Right: The Huskies currently sit at 2-3 with losses to Wagner (yikes), Northeastern (yeesh), and Oklahoma State (ok, not bad). Their two wins are against Loyola Marymount (by 3 points) and Chaminade (not a Division 1 school). For perspective, UConn was selected by most media outlets (including 3MW) to finish 2nd in the American. Wagner was picked 2nd in the NEC (the 3rd worst conference in college basketball) and Northeastern was picked 7th in the Colonial (8th by 3MW). The cause of UConn’s struggles isn’t just one thing; they are getting beat on the glass, they can’t defend the three-point line, and they can’t hit the ocean if they fell out of a boat. Amida Brimah has been poor in the early-going – a non-factor on the offensive end. Terry Larrier and Rodney Purvis have been bricks (30.8% and 22.2% from downtown, respectively). The perimeter is not creating pressure. It ain’t good folks.
Why I need to pump the brakes: Yes, this has been a bad start for Kevin Ollie and Company. But this is a squad still ripe with talent – there’s a reason they were picked to finish second in their conference and as a top 25 team to start the season. Alterique Gilbert, their stud freshman point guard has struggled to stay healthy in the early going; his full return should be instrumental in orchestrating the offensive flow. Purvis is going to find his shot; in his three college basketball seasons, the senior leader has connected on 38.5%, 36%, and 38.5% of his three point attempts. The Huskies still have budding superstar Jalen Adams, talented freshmen role players in Vance Jackson and Christian Vital that will develop significantly as the season progresses, and a coach in Kevin Ollie that has never won less than 20 games in Storrs. If UConn wins two out of their three next big contests against Oregon, Syracuse, and Ohio State, the Huskies are right back into the bubble conversation, and that’s before we get into conference play where the script can totally flip in favor of UConn.
2. Oregon should panic!
Why they should: The Ducks haven’t quite looked like the National Championship contenders most expected them to be this season. While the blowout of Patriot League punching bag Army and a convincing triumph over Valparaiso are nothing to scoff at, Oregon has looked mighty sluggish in their losses to Baylor and Georgetown and narrow win against Tennessee. The Ducks are shooting 27.7% from downtown thus far (302nd nationally) and rank 273rd in turnover rate. Compare those stats to last year’s performance – which featured nearly all the same players – of 34.4% (181st) and 45th ranked TO rate. Dylan Ennis shoulders much of the blame for these early statistical eye sores – his addition has been more of a subtraction with his affinity for coughing up the rock and clanking awful shot attempts off the back iron. The biggest preseason fear for the Ducks (the backcourt is too crowded with me-first guards) looks to be coming to fruition.
Why I should chill the F out: DILLON BROOKS. Brooks is a National Player of the Year candidate and a surefire All-American when healthy. He played only 13 minutes in the Ducks’ loss to Georgetown and showed flashes of brilliance in his 25 minutes versus Tennessee, scoring 17 points and living at the charity stripe. This is a different team with Brooks – he gives Oregon a clear #1 scoring option, assists on the defensive end, and causes matchup nightmares for opposing teams. Overall, Oregon is still playing good defense, its their offense that’s lagging. In my mind, offense is fixable, defense takes a little more overhaul to correct. Plus the emergence of stud JUCO import Kavell Bigby-Williams will soon be upon us – just you wait.
3. Wichita State is BETTER than last year!
Why that’s possible: Despite losing Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, two of the best players in program history, Wichita State looks every bit as dominant as last season and in some ways even more so. The Shockers have won their first four contests by an average of 37 points. 37 POINTS! I don’t care who you play in college basketball, that is absolutely impressive. The key is the stifling Shocker defense, which currently ranks 7th in the nation per KenPom’s early numbers. Wichita State forces turnovers at one of the highest rates in the country, they bother shooters from everywhere on the floor, and they own the glass. The Shockers don’t have a clear go-to player – they play 10-deep and rotate bodies on a perpetual basis. This season’s fast start has proven it was always more about the Gregg Marshall system than the individual talent.
Why I’m a psychopath: Van Vleet and Baker led the Shockers to their best basketball years in their history. Over the two guards’ careers, Wichita State amassed a record of 111-24. They made four straight Tournaments and earned a 1-seed in 2014. And, ah yes, they made a Final Four back in 2013. Last year’s squad struggled in the early going, but finished the year ranked #1 in adjusted defensive efficiency while streaking to a Second Round appearance as an 11-seed in the Dance. As good as this year’s version has been so far on the defensive end, last year’s team was even better (over a greater sample size). The potential for a verdict in favor of the 2016-17 team is possible, but the jury is still in deliberation.
4. Last year’s Big Ten basement (Rutgers & Minnesota) will challenge for Tourney berths!
Why it’s plausible: Both teams are undefeated! Minnesota sits at 5-0 after impressive victories over UT-Arlington, St. John’s, and, most recently, Arkansas in convincing fashion. Rutgers is 4-0 with a pretty good win at DePaul. Seem paltry? Consider, this is Minnesota’s best start since 2013-14 and Rutgers’ best start since going 5-0 back in 2000-2001. The Gopher roster is, frankly, loaded. The frontcourt is stacked with behemoth Reggie Lynch and future NBA flirter Jordan Murphy, the wing is occupied by one of the best freshmen in the country in Amir Coffey, and the backcourt is run by one of the most steady handlers in the Big Ten in Nate Mason. Minny is running and gunning more this season, shooting well, and controlling the paint on both ends of the floor. Rutgers is currently the #1 offensive rebounding team in the country thanks to the efforts of 7-footer CJ Gettys and junior Deshawn Freeman (oh, and also a Downy soft schedule). Corey Sanders looks comfortable in the spotlight and shouldering the load on offense, while Kansas State transfer Nigel Johnson is proving to be one of the best two-way players the Knights have had in years. With down years from Penn State and Nebraska looming and unpredictable play from teams like Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, and Northwestern – who’s to say these two teams can’t compete for a middle-tier conference finish and a bubble conversation?
Why I should be laughed out of town, tarred, and feathered: Ok, the Minnesota thought isn’t crazy, but the Rutgers one might be bat shit insane. This is a program that lost 30 straight conference games before knocking off, ironically, Minnesota, in the last regular season game of the year last season. The Scarlet Knights have played Drexel (244th per KenPom), DePaul (187th), Niagara (316th), and a non-D1 school in their first four games – not exactly premier competition. None of those teams have a frontcourt (with apologies to Drexel’s Rodney Williams), so the rebounding numbers are certainly inflated. Come Big Ten time, we’ll see how “good” the Scarlet Knights really are (by the way, them receiving a vote in the top 25 poll this week is hilarious). I’m not crazy about the Gophers – I don’t care that they won 2 conference games last season and haven’t played a road game yet. This is a talented team that will challenge for a top 8 spot – don’t tar and feather me bro!
5. Frank Mason will win Player of the Year
Why he will: Frank Mason is averaging 22.3ppg, 4.0rpg, 5.5apg, and 1.3spg while shooting a slash of .508/.313/.750 (2P% / 3P% / FT%) and playing 36.3mpg (nearly 90% of Kansas’s total minutes). The counting stats alone should vault Mason into the conversation for POY, and certainly the All-American team, but then you step back and see the opponents he’s been subtly tea-bagging thus far – Indiana, Duke, Siena, and UAB. That’s two top five/ten teams and two other top 100 schools. He is the most important player playing the most important position on perhaps the best team in the country. He is a senior leader that embodies college basketball and what makes the sport so great. I really don’t need to go on.
Why I should check myself before I wreck myself: Mason will no question (in my mind) be on one of the All-American teams at the end of the season (likely the 1st). The only thing holding him back from earning the coveted POY trophy is the stiff competition. The electric Markelle Fultz out of Washington, the stalwart wings Dillon Brooks and Josh Hart, the odds-on pre-season favorite and stupid Dukie Grayson Allen, and several other big-name players will all have legitimate claims to the trophy. If Kansas earns a 1-seed and wins yet another Big 12 regular season title, I vote for rewarding the senior point guard leader, a refreshing rarity in today’s ever-increasingly young one-and-done focused league.