We’re one month into the men’s college basketball season, and plenty has already evolved since preseason expectations. We’ve seen a changing of the guard at No. 1, we’ve seen upsets and buzzer beaters and we’ve seen disastrous starts for proud programs. Three of Sports Illustrated’s college basketball writers joined up virtually to discuss the sport’s top story lines and what stood out to them.
What’s surprised you the most through the first month?
Kevin Sweeney: North Carolina going from No. 1 in my rankings to unranked in December’s first AP poll is rather stunning, especially because the issues the Tar Heels have faced haven’t been the ones you might have expected. Pete Nance has been productive at the four replacing Brady Manek, and the defense, while not great, has been better than it was at times last season. The fact that a team with this much experience seems to play with so little cohesiveness is noteworthy, and the struggles of Caleb Love and RJ Davis (who most pegged as two of the nation’s best guards) have plagued the Heels.
Molly Geary: I’ve been a bit skeptical of UNC (at least, as a best-in-the-country-level team) since the offseason. I understand the argument out there that their improvement last season started earlier than March, but the ACC wasn’t exactly murderers’ row, regardless of its overperformance in the dance. On the topic of preseason rankings though, I’ve been pretty surprised at how quickly the whole top 10 has been reshaped. The Heels certainly aren’t the only supposed elite team that has already shown warts—we’re in Week 5, yet Houston, Kansas and Arkansas are the only preseason AP top 10 teams still in it. The dust is still settling, obviously, and we have a few more weeks to go before league play begins in earnest. But it feels right now like a lot of offseason expectations haven’t quite panned out yet. Is that because too many teams—such as Purdue, Virginia and UConn—were underestimated, or is it more of an indictment of those off to sluggish starts?
Jeremy Woo: I’m pretty impressed with how well Kansas has sustained its quality after last year’s title—I think Bill Self is an excellent coach, but I anticipated more of a drop-off just considering the principal contributors the Jayhawks lost. Jalen Wilson’s shooting volume is pretty wild right now but he’s impressed me with his aggressiveness and his work on the glass. Kevin McCullar Jr. seems to be enjoying his change of scenery, and Gradey Dick has been quite good in his role. The Jayhawks guard well as a group and have scored efficiently. I still question whether the guard play (more specifically, the backcourt scoring contributions) will be strong enough for this team to have a true championship ceiling, but on the other hand, Dajuan Harris Jr. did it for Kansas last year. In other words … wow, I can’t believe I’m backhandedly bemoaning the absence of Remy Martin.
What’s the most impressive win anyone has right now?
Geary: I want to say Utah beating—nay, pummeling—an Arizona team that had recently won the Maui Invitational. Not sure anyone saw that one coming, given the Utes are coming off an 11–20 season and were picked 10th in the Pac-12 preseason media poll. Utah didn’t just defeat the Wildcats, it led wire to wire and was up by as many as 20. Craig Smith’s off to a good start in Year 2 in Salt Lake City, particularly in Pac-12 play.
Sweeney: The Utes are clearly improved, but certainly part of that result can be attributed to a post-Maui hangover for the Wildcats. To me, Purdue blowing out Gonzaga and Duke on neutral courts less than 48 hours apart stands alone. Neither the Bulldogs nor Blue Devils may be truly elite teams, but the Boilermakers just looked overwhelming in both games and were clinical in closing out those wins despite having young guards.
Geary: That’s fair—if we’re comboing, I definitely agree no one has a better back-to-back pair on its résumé than Purdue right now.
Who do you believe are the top five teams in the country right now? Not based on potential; imagine if everyone met this week on a neutral court.
Sweeney: I’ve got Houston, UConn, Purdue, Tennessee and Texas. Houston’s defense and rebounding give Kelvin Sampson’s team the highest floor in the country, UConn is the nation’s most complete team, Purdue has the best player, Tennessee has looked overwhelming outside of a fluky performance in the first week against Colorado and Texas has a great combination of experience, top-end talent and terrific point guard play from Tyrese Hunter.
Woo: Without thinking very hard about this … Houston, Purdue, UConn, Kansas and Virginia. Other than Houston (which will play Alabama and Virginia in the next 10 days but has just been smacking the daylights out of everyone), those teams all own high-quality wins and seem to have an early, well-established sense of identity. That’s something that stems from their coaching and continuity. There are teams with more individual talent that are going to factor into this conversation, but if we played the Sweet 16 tomorrow, these are teams I’d feel good about winning a game or two, at minimum.
Geary: I’m going to second Sweeney. There haven’t been a ton of no-doubt standouts through the season’s first few weeks, and, based on on-the-court play, those five feel like they’ve earned their standing right now.
Kevin, you ranked all 363 teams before the season. Which one has you most going “Oof, that was clearly a miss” so far?
Sweeney: I don’t think anyone thought Louisville would be this bad, but I was actually relatively optimistic about the Cardinals relative to national consensus. I had Louisville ninth in the ACC and 79th nationally, believing new energy around the program with Kenny Payne would lift a team of former top-150 recruits to some early success. Instead, it’s been a complete debacle, as the team’s lack of guard depth has been even more disastrous for its offense than expected. I had the chance to sell all my Louisville stock after the loss to Division II Lenoir-Rhyne in the preseason and didn’t—a choice I obviously regret now.
Woo: Kevin is a fraud.
Geary: Those preseason exhibition results can be funny. A lot of people say to pay no attention to them, and they’re usually right (see: Syracuse losing to D-II Le Moyne in 2009 and then going 30–5), but sometimes they can indeed be a warning sign.
Who’s most overrated right now based on the first month’s results?
Sweeney: I’m not sure I’m buying the top-five love for Virginia. The Cavaliers have improved and might even be the ACC’s best team, but it feels like we might be overreacting a bit based on one explosive 32–5 run against Baylor. UVA made eight threes in eight minutes early in the second half and hasn’t made more than five in an entire game since. Virginia’s not going to shoot upward of 40% from three on the season, and some regression from deep might bring this team back down to Earth.
Geary: That’s a fair point on Virginia. T-Rank agrees with you, for what it’s worth—the Cavs are only 23rd nationally there if you filter things to take only this season’s games (meaning no preseason or historical expectations) into account.
Woo: I realize Nick Smith Jr. just came back and Arkansas’s only loss is to Creighton by three points, but I just want to point out that it hasn’t beaten anyone of significant high-major substance yet (apologies to San Diego State, which is solid). The Razorbacks are still so young and new as a group that I don’t think we’ll really know who they are until the thick of conference play. The AP poll seems a tad generous.
On the other hand, who took some early losses and now isn’t getting enough credit?
Geary: I really like Illinois (I actually wrote this before it went out and beat Texas on Tuesday night), and think it’s a group that will be top 10—at least—when March rolls around. Coleman Hawkins looks like he’s made the leap, Terrence Shannon Jr. fits the alpha role and the young talent is going to grow. The Illini are 304th in D-I experience and 344th in minutes continuity from last season. They need some time to jell, but the ceiling here feels pretty high.
Sweeney: I’m also a big believer in Illinois. I picked them to win the Big Ten in the preseason, and they’ve looked even better than I had hoped. The league looks better than it did on paper, though. I also think Marquette is getting forgotten about. Its early losses by five at Purdue and by three on a neutral court against Mississippi State look impressive in retrospect, and the Golden Eagles blew out Baylor last week. Sophomore guard Kam Jones has made a major jump and is one of the most efficient scorers in the Big East. They might be the Big East’s third-best team.
Woo: I was honestly pretty impressed with Xavier at the PK85, and I think that group can be good enough to be a factor in the Big East despite the three early losses. Colby Jones isn’t individually dominant enough to take over a high-level game alone, but Xavier has size and pretty decent guards, and I think there’s enough here for the Musketeers to slug their way into the top 25. They have yet to be truly outclassed by anyone, and their three losses have come against Indiana, Duke and Gonzaga.
If there were a National Player of the Month, who would get the first honor?
Geary: Obvious answer, but I’ll go with Purdue’s Zach Edey. He’s taken on the full-time center role for the Boilermakers, shifting his percentage of minutes played from 46.9% last season to 75.6% right now (per KenPom), and is acing the test. Averaging 23.3 points and 12.8 rebounds on 60.9% shooting, there’s no doubt the junior can shoulder the load as Purdue’s new star.