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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Kevin Sweeney

The Mess at Louisville, Champions Classic Keys and More

Welcome to The College Hoops Rundown! Every week, I’ll give you reporting and analysis on the most interesting storylines in men’s college basketball, as well as thoughts from my journeys watching games across the country.

In our debut column, here are some thoughts on major story lines from the first week of the season, as well as something to watch for each team in Tuesday’s Champions Classic.

What’s wrong with Louisville?

Just two games into his tenure at Louisville, it’s clear Kenny Payne has a mess to clean up.

Lauded as the man who could connect Louisville’s past with its future thanks to his ties to the program and track record in recruiting, Payne was handed the keys to what most would consider one of the 10 best programs in the country for his first head coaching job. And while this season was widely expected to be a rebuilding one, few would have anticipated consecutive losses to open the season against Bellarmine and Wright State, let alone the team’s exhibition defeat to Division II Lenoir-Rhyne. These early-season missteps set the tone for what could be one of the worst Cardinals teams of all time: This year’s group may be on its way to a 20-loss campaign, something that has happened just once in program history.

The Kenny Payne era is off to a rough start at Louisville.

Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY Sports

Payne’s in-game coaching hasn’t been a problem thus far, outside of traditional bumps in the road for a guy in his first month in the head coach’s chair. Louisville’s players seem bought in, have played hard and rallied back in both games thus far. This team is also not devoid of talent: While no one would mistake it for Duke or Kentucky, this is a roster loaded with guys who were ranked in the top-100 nationally out of high school as well as two former top juco recruits. Instead, it’s roster construction that has done the Cardinals in, a mistake that seemed obvious as the team was coming together this summer and looks even more glaring now.

Louisville has one capable ballhandler on the roster in El Ellis. He played all 40 minutes against Bellarmine (perhaps missing a key late free throw because of that workload), then 34 against Wright State, a game in which he turned the ball over eight times. Backup point guard Hercy Miller is a walk-on best known for being the son of rapper Master P, while reclassified freshman PG Fabio Basili hasn’t appeared in a game yet. The rest of the roster is loaded with combo forwards and true big men, which has created major issues for the Cardinals’ offensive flow and been a catalyst for Louisville’s issues with turnovers.

While the recently-resolved NCAA investigation may have made recruiting slightly more tricky, the idea that no capable guards would have jumped at the chance to play for one of college basketball’s most storied programs with a chance for big minutes is outlandish. Payne made a miscalculation, and it means this rebuilding season will be an even tougher watch than it might have already been. And looking ahead, top 2023 recruit D.J. Wagner, a primary Louisville target since Payne got the job, just committed to rival Kentucky, furthering the Cardinals’ need for answers at guard long-term.

Gonzaga’s backcourt questions linger

Is it unfair to make any sweeping declarations from a game that was played outside, while the sun was setting, on an aircraft carrier? Probably, yes. But Gonzaga’s struggles with Michigan State illustrated a problem that also popped up in the team’s charity exhibition against Tennessee: a lack of elite guard play.

From Andrew Nembhard to Jalen Suggs to Josh Perkins and Nigel Williams-Goss, elite Gonzaga teams have always had incredibly high-level point guards. And while sophomore Nolan Hickman clearly has incredible upside, he doesn’t look like a star yet. Hickman had four turnovers and only one assist against Michigan State’s veteran backcourt Friday, shooting just 4-for-11 from the field. He was also rather quiet in the game against Tennessee, putting together a nine-point, four-assist stat line in 26 minutes. Transfer Malachi Smith, who can play on and off the ball, made an impact defensively against the Spartans but tallied just five points and didn’t look overly assertive offensively. These backcourt struggles led the Zags to ditch their ball screen offense in the second half against MSU and rely even more on Drew Timme post-ups.

Any team built around Timme at center is going to have its flaws defensively. The Bulldogs don’t have the hulking defensive presence at center that they’ve had in past years. That makes it all the more important that Gonzaga be not just good, but elite on the offensive end. And as good as Timme is, It’s going to be hard for the Zags to get there if Hickman or Smith can’t provide elite point guard play.

Villanova needs to get healthy quickly

How much should we overreact to Villanova’s opening-week loss to Temple? Not a ton, but it was a clear sign that the Wildcats need Cam Whitmore and eventually Justin Moore back to reach their ceiling.

Like Gonzaga, Villanova is known for its point guards and has question marks at that spot this season. Chris Arcidiacono has won the job early on but is barely a threat offensively, attempting just three shots in 36 minutes Friday night. Freshman Mark Armstrong came in highly touted after playing with USA Basketball this summer, but also struggled in his first test of the season, tallying just two points and failing to accumulate any other stats in 13 minutes. That questionable point guard play disrupted the usually-free-flowing Villanova offense, which took just seven threes (its lowest total in more than a decade) in the loss.

Whitmore’s impending return should help, even if he won’t directly address the point guard woes. A projected top-10 NBA pick, Whitmore might be the best freshman Villanova has had in the one-and-done era and should be a major boost to the offense. But this team might not be a true Big East title contender unless Moore can return from his March Achilles injury in time for conference play and help smooth things out on offense.

Five more bite-sized observations

  • A good sign for San Diego State’s offensive improvement: Transfers Darrion Trammell (Seattle) and Jaedon LeDee (TCU) combined for 44 of the Aztecs’ 82 points against BYU Friday night.
  • The aircraft carrier game got much of the attention among the nontraditional venues, but I loved the “Brew City Battle” game between Stanford and Wisconsin on the field of the Brewers’ stadium in Milwaukee. Great gameday experience, even if shooting numbers were ugly.
  • It was a rough opening week for the Pac-12: USC got beat by double figures at home by Florida Gulf Coast, Oregon got blown out by UC Irvine and Colorado lost at Grambling State. That’s not the best way to earn bids come March, though Colorado’s Sunday win over Tennessee could move the needle.
  • Kudos to Memphis for scheduling tough and not being afraid to go on the road. The Tigers won on the road at Vanderbilt and also have matchups at Saint Louis and at home vs. VCU before Thanksgiving. It certainly helps to have a senior-laden lineup, though.
  • Illinois transfer Brandin Podziemski had quite the first week for Santa Clara, tallying 30 points vs. Eastern Washington and 34 against Georgia Southern. He might be the next star there after the Broncos developed Jalen Williams into a lottery pick.

One thing to watch for each Champions Classic team

Duke: Who’s the go-to guy?

The Blue Devils haven’t played a high-stress minute yet this season in blowout wins over Jacksonville and USC Upstate. For a young team without a true alpha on paper, seeing how they navigate adversity and who they look to when they need a bucket will be very instructive in Jon Scheyer’s first test as coach.

For as talented as this Duke team is, it doesn’t have a go-to offensive option like it did a season ago with Paolo Banchero. Veteran point guard Jeremy Roach made some big plays in March, but he hasn’t proven he’s necessarily the type of dynamic playmaker you give the ball to late in crunch time to go win you a game. Freshman Kyle Filipowski could have a big role given his unique skill set at power forward, and fellow first-year Tyrese Proctor is arguably the most talented player in the program.

Can Roach be a go-to offensive player for Duke?

Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports

Kansas: Small ball

A major hallmark of Bill Self’s Kansas teams has been its physical post presence at center, often relying on post-ups and “post pins” to produce easy offense. David McCormack played that role last season for the Jayhawks and had some huge performances, including in the Final Four win over Villanova.

So far this year, KU has opted for smaller lineups more than 50% of the time, leaning on 6'7" switchable forward KJ Adams Jr. at center over freshman Ernest Udeh Jr., a more traditional center. How will Adams hold up against a Duke team with great size, including a pair of more traditional centers in freshman Dereck Lively II and grad transfer Ryan Young? And on the other side, will Adams’s ability to play on the perimeter pull an elite rim protector in Lively away and open up lanes for the Jayhawks offensively?

Kentucky: Veteran shooters

Kentucky has cruised through two buy games despite Oscar Tshiebwe being sidelined after offseason knee surgery. Tshiebwe’s status for Tuesday’s game is unknown, but a big reason the Wildcats have had few issues without him has been three-point shooting from a pair of transfers in CJ Fredrick (Iowa) and Antonio Reeves (Illinois State). Fredrick, who missed last season with an injury, was one of the best shooters in the country with the Hawkeyes in 2020–21 and is 6–12 from deep thus far. Meanwhile, Reeves was a big-time scorer in the Missouri Valley and has brought some high-level shot-making to Lexington thus far, knocking down 10–18 from beyond the arc.

Kentucky needs Tshiebwe to be 100% healthy to reach its ceiling, but better spacing offensively with Reeves and Fredrick in tow and a better-shooting power forward in Jacob Toppin compared to Keion Brooks Jr. could make guarding Tshiebwe even harder once he does return to action.

Michigan State: All about toughness

Michigan State’s roster doesn’t quite stack up talent-wise with the other three teams in this event, but the Spartans proved that they can hang with the nation’s best Friday in a battle against Gonzaga. There was a swagger and a competitiveness about this MSU team that was palpable, even as the Zags finally broke through late to steal the victory. Mady Sissoko hung in against Timme and brought some serious edge on the glass, while PG A.J. Hoggard remains underappreciated nationally.

The schedule doesn’t get any easier with Kentucky looming Tuesday before hosting Villanova Friday, but seeing a team find its identity early is a great sign moving forward. And if the Gonzaga game is any indication, MSU’s toughness might be its calling card.

Five other games you won’t want to miss this week:

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