The college basketball season is a week old. Two of the top four teams in the sport have already lost. Gonzaga is alarmingly similar to an NBA team with even more talent than anybody thought they had, Kentucky is under .500 and the Big Ten might have three of the top five teams in the sport.
Starting now, I’ll be bringing a weekly college basketball column to 110 Sports entitled “Mullenix’s Musings”. It could be three smaller things, it could be one big thing. But it will be something every week to provide analysis, commentary and discussion to the sport. The multi-team events (MTE’s) are over, conference play is right around the corner and the college basketball season is in full swing. Let’s dive right in.
Gonzaga is definitely the best team in the sport.
Gonzaga beat West Virginia 87-82 in Indianapolis on Wednesday night as part of the Jimmy V Classic. To be honest, I was going to write about Gonzaga as the best team in the sport regardless of the outcome. The Mountaineers are a good team and there would have been no shame in a neutral court loss to Bob Huggins’ squad. The Bulldogs have a 102-90 win over the Kansas Jayhawks (one of the 10 best defenses in the country) and a 23-point victory over the Auburn Tigers. They’ve got experience, All-American level talent, depth and maybe the most surprising performer of the young season.
Thankfully, that surprising freshman, Jalen Suggs, didn’t suffer a horrible lower leg injury that was initially feared when he went down in the first half. To be honest, it looked like an achilles tear: non-contact, freak accident and he was moving (or not moving) his foot the way I’ve seen athletes move it after an achilles injury. It wasn’t the worst case scenario and he returned to the floor in the second half.
Suggs has been the most surprising part of Gonzaga’s start. That sounds silly to say the No.11 player in the class of 2020, according to 247 Sports, but it’s true. Nobody was talking about Suggs surrounding the incoming freshman class. It was Cade Cunninghan and Evan Mobley among others like Kentucky’s BJ Boston and Stanford’s Zhaire Williams. That’s not to say Suggs’ talent is worse, but it wasn’t clear what kind of role he would play for Mark Few. The answer is clearly a big role in the starting lineup. Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard will come off the bench as Suggs joins Joel Ayayi in the starting backcourt.
The freshman entered the Jimmy V Classic averaging 18 points, seven assists and four rebounds while shooting 62.5% from the field and 40% from deep. Of course, his numbers probably won’t stay that good, but he’s clearly a Freshman of the Year caliber player who looks poised to be a possible all-american at the end of the season. It wasn’t Corey Kispert or Drew Timme or Ayayi who took over at the end of the game against Kansas (those guys have been awesome as well), it was Suggs. He scored 17 points in the second half and put the finishing touches on Gonzaga’s first test of the season.
Kispert and Timme both adjusted well to the Mountaineers defense and turned in efficient 19 and 17-point performances. However, the depth of Gonzaga’s team was on full display in Indy. With Suggs out, Florida transfer, Andrew Nembhard, had to step in and handle the majority of the point guard role. He passed with flying colors scoring 19 points while dishing out five assists and grabbing six boards. Ayayi added 21 points to lead all scorers as the Bulldogs escaped Indy with a victory.
One thing is for sure, I’m pumped about their upcoming matchup with the Baylor Bears. We’ll get to them in a moment. They are clearly the two best teams in the country and the game should be awesome.
The more experienced team won both Champions Classic games and Kentucky and Duke have questions.
Michigan State and Kansas took care of business the way I expected experienced college teams to do so. Yes, the Jayhawks just narrowly escaped the Wildcats but they shot just 29% from the field and still managed to walk away with a victory. Jalen Wilson looks like the breakout star Kansas needed to find this season scoring 23 points and being the center of the offense in the second half. The Jayhawks were a little banged up as Marcus Garrett dealt with a stomach bug and David McCormack battled a lower body injury, but the Jayhawks found a way to come away with a victory in Indianapolis.
Duke and Kansas are both depending entirely too much on freshmen. Well, at least more than I would be comfortable with. As a result, both teams are learning on the fly and have a lot of work to do. The Blue Devils’ freshmen DJ Steward, Jalen Johnson and Jeremy Roach combined for just 23 points on 6-of-22 shooting in their first real test of the season. Roach and Johnson need to be better in the backcourt against good basketball teams if Duke really is a top 15 team in the country with aspirations of winning the ACC. Jordan Goldwire is the most dependable guard on the roster. No offense to Goldwire, but he’s not good enough to be the best guard on a top 10 team. That responsibility needs to fall on Roach and Steward. Johnson backed up his 19 points and 19 rebounds against Coppin State with just 11 points and four rebounds. They, of course, need time to improve on their first real test as college players, but right now I have concerns about the ceiling of Coach K’s team.
The story with Kentucky is similar. The freshmen are, in my opinion, more encouraging than the Duke newcomers but there is still a lot of room to improve. They need to pass the basketball much better and learn how to share the load offensively. They have just 13 assists in their last two games including zero assists in the second half against Richmond. Shooting is also a real concern, John Calipari’s team is 9-of-47 from beyond the arc in the young season. I don’t need to tell you how bad that is.
What Kentucky does have is a long, athletic defense that really bothered the Jayhawks. Sure, Kansas missed some shots, but Kentucky deserves credit for a lot of the struggles. They were in passing lanes all night and the length really got to the Kansas scorers. Freshman Isaiah Jackson had 12 rebounds and eight blocks. He’s one of the best young defenders in the country. He was everywhere on the floor. He was the highlight of the night as Terrance Clarke and BJ Boston both struggled. The two combined to go just 7-of-24 from the field.
Transfers Jacob Toppin and Davion Mintz both played well as two more experienced college basketball players, I expect to see more of both of them in Calipari’s rotation.
The Jimmy V Classic and Maui Invitational
The Texas Longhorns are off to the hot start that Shaka Smart desperately needed if he fancied keeping his job in Austin. Now, the Longhorns are 3-0 as Matt Coleman knocked down a last second shot to lift Texas over North Carolina in the Maui Invitational. Coleman, along with Courtney Ramey have been phenomenal in the backcourt but the story for the Longhorns is depth.
Nine different players are averaging 12.8 minutes or more per game and only two players are playing more than 30 (Ramey and Coleman). Kai Jones has taken another step forward off the bench after his freshman season and has been the model of efficiency thus far. Greg Brown continues to improve behind the comfort of knowing that Smart depends on his upperclassmen more than his five-star freshman. He will continue to get better and the Longhorns will too. Kansas and Baylor are the clear No. 1 and 2 in the Big 12, but the Longhorns are right there in that conversation with West Virginia and Texas Tech to be the third best team in a stacked conference.
As for the Jimmy V Classic, the Baylor Bears eventually separated themselves from Illinois in a game where a lot of things didn’t go the Illini’s way. Kofi Cockburn was in foul trouble all night and Ayo Dosunmu had a hard time getting it going against Baylor’s elite backcourt. Freshman Adam Miller had his first poor game of the season. With that being said, Brad Underwood should be pretty pleased with how long his team fought despite multiple shortcomings. Lose these games in December and be ready for them when they really matter in March.
The Bears look like the clear cut second best team in the country. Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell are solid as ever and Presbyterian transfer Adam Flagler continues to impress and add even more depth and scoring to the backcourt.
I’m concerned about Baylor’s interior. Illinois’ Giorgi Bezhanishvili had one of the best games of his career and he’s not exactly dominating the college basketball world. This, right now, is the main difference between the Bears and Gonzaga. They don’t have an imposing interior presence and I’m not sure anyone on the roster is capable of being that guy. Mark Vital is awesome and can guard 1 through 5, but he’ll always be undersized against traditional bigs. In the Big 12, I’m not sure who Baylor has to deal with West Virginia’s physical front court, Texas’ Jericho Sims and Greg Brown or Kansas’ David McCormack. We’ll find out just how big of a hole Baylor has in the front court when they take on Gonzaga on Dec. 5.
The CDC adjusted their quarantine guidelines. What does that mean for college basketball?
On Dec. 2, the CDC amended their quarantine recommendations to 10 days of isolation without symptoms or seven days without a negative test. That has been decreased from the previous recommendation of 14 days which makes the logistics of sports scheduling significantly easier than it was. It’s without a doubt a good thing for the completion of the college football season and the relative success of the college basketball season. The start to the season wasn’t flawless in regards to cancellations and teams putting a hold on operations due to positive tests.
To be clear, this doesn’t automatically mean that the policy changes for each conference. Will most conferences change their policy to mirror that of the CDC? Yes, and it’s expected to be done quickly. However, that doesn’t necessarily change the destiny of games that have already been canceled (and it shouldn’t). I expect this to be something that comes into play more heavily once conference play begins rather than trying to squeeze in games that were missed due to positive tests.
For example, the Butler Bulldogs suspended in person basketball operations on Nov. 26 due to a tier one (coaches, student-athletes and select staff) positive COVID test. As a result, multiple games were canceled including Butler’s game against Kansas State scheduled for Dec. 11, one day after the 14-day quarantine period would have ended. In theory, the game could be played if Butler’s basketball operations can resume in person on Dec. 6 and they can prepare for the game. I understand the appeal there as every team tries to play 13 games to be NCAA tournament eligible, but I caution the leaders of the sport to not bite off more than they can chew.
Instead of using the new guidelines to scramble and get games played that were initially postponed, or canceled, use this as an opportunity to appropriately prepare for the remainder of the season and take advantage of a policy change later on down the road in conference play when the games are even closer together. There are 36 teams, according to Jeff Goodman, that are currently shut down due to COVID-19, let’s get those programs squared away before really using the new guidelines to everyone’s advantage. I understand the excitement and it really might be the thing that saves the college basketball season, but let’s not get too carried away.
Photo by: Rp0211 / Wikimedia Commons