O26 Early Impressions: Takeaways From First 10 DaysPosted by Tommy Lemoine on November 21st, 2016
With Feast Week now upon us and two weekends of college hoops in the books, let’s take a step back and reflect on what we’ve learned, which teams have impressed, and why Florida Gulf Coast’s loss at Michigan State was unforgettable… for all the wrong reasons.
The West Coast Conference looks even better than expected. We ranked Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s #1 and #2 in our preseason Power 13, respectively, with Brigham Young also cracking the list. Each has lived up to—perhaps even exceeded—expectations in the early going. In their first major test, the Zags crushed San Diego State by 21 points, holding the Aztecs to 0.69 points per possession and receiving major contributions from freshman big man Zach Collins (16 points on 6-for-7 FG). The Gaels, to their credit, blitzed a talented Nevada team in their opener before earning a huge, resume-bolstering road win at Dayton two games later. The Cougars began their season with a double-digit victory over Ivy League favorite Princeton. As for potential WCC Player of the Year candidates? There may wind up being too many to count. Along with Gonzaga’s cast of contenders, BYU forward Eric Mika (21.0 PPG, 11.0 RPG), back from his two year LDS mission, has looked downright dominant on both ends of the floor through three games. Likewise, Saint Mary’s center Jock Landale (20.0 PPG, 10.0 RPG)—who averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game in 2015-16—has been an offensive revelation for Randy Bennett, in addition to hyper-efficient point guard Emmett Naar (9.0 PPG, 9.7 APG). Strap in for a heavyweight battle atop the WCC.
Rhode Island is the real deal. Sure, the Rams (4-1) lost handily to #1 Duke in Sunday’s Hall of Fame Tip-Off championship game, but they looked like they belonged, and they only got there by grinding out a 76-71 victory over #24 Cincinnati one day earlier. E.C. Matthews (19.5 PPG) appears to be his old self after missing last season with a knee injury, while forward Hassan Martin (4.3 BPG)—who blocked seven shots against Duke—looks well on his way to repeating as Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year. Rhode Island has the grit, the talent, and (finally) the offensive punch to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 1999. The season’s first 10 days have only reaffirmed that.
Yale might contend, even without Makai Mason. When all-Ivy guard Makai Mason suffered a season-ending foot injury earlier this month, many thought Yale’s hopes for a repeat conference championship had all but disappeared. Perhaps that assumption was premature. Since the injury, the Elis have gone on to beat Washington on the road, edge Patriot League-favorite Lehigh at home, and hang around with #8 Virginia for a good 25 minutes in Charlottesville (not an easy task). Make no mistake—Princeton and Harvard still remain the Ivy League front-runners, but if James Jones can discover some depth (super-frosh Jordan Bruner will help), early indications suggest that Yale can still make it a three-team race.
Early-season knee injuries are taking their toll. Again. Last season, it was Harvard’s Siyani Chambers and Rhode Island’s E.C. Matthews, among others. This season (so far), it’s Dayton’s Josh Cunningham—a Bradley transfer expected to be a frontcourt centerpiece for the Flyers—and UAB’s Nick Norton (5.1 APG), one of the best true point guards in Conference USA. For all the excitement and hype leading up to college basketball season—especially for NCAA Tournament contenders like Dayton and UAB—it remains a sobering reality that one wrong twist or one hard fall can immediately change the dynamic of a program’s season (and, even more unfortunately, a player’s career).
Wichita State and Northern Iowa haven’t missed a beat. Both teams were painfully close to reaching the Sweet Sixteen last March, and each lost several program-defining players to graduation after the season. And yet, neither has looked worse for wear. Wichita State is 4-0—including wins over Long Beach State and Tulsa—with an average margin of victory of 36.7 points. In part because they’ve blown teams out but also because they feature one of the deepest frontcourts in college hoops, the Shockers currently lead the country in bench minutes. Northern Iowa, despite losing to #11 Xavier in the Tire Pros Invitational final on Sunday, looked mighty impressive in the lead-up, crushing Arizona State by 19 before knocking off Oklahoma in the semifinal. Jeremy Morgan (13.0 PPG, 4.0 SPG) and Klint Carlson (13.7 PPG), who combined for 53 of Northern Iowa’s 88 points in last year’s collapse against Texas A&M, have both responded nicely to increased usage. The Panthers’ team defense has also been rock-solid for the better part of four games. Ben Jacobson’s club will get another shot at the Musketeers this Saturday. Don’t be surprised if they make the most of it.
How about Arkansas State? The Red Wolves were picked 10th in the preseason Sun Belt poll, and barely cracked the KenPom top-300. But rankings and polls be damned, the Red Wolves (4-1) went ahead and pulled off a stunning, against-all-odds upset at Georgetown on Thursday before unexpectedly handling SoCon powerhouse Chattanooga over the weekend. Former Baylor assistant Grant McCasland has worked wonders so far in his first year as a Division I head coach, seamlessly working in a cast of newcomers alongside backcourt veterans Devin Carter (14.3 PPG) and Donte Thomas (7.0 APG). If McCasland has anything close to Chris Beard-level success this year, it’ll go down as one of the better coaching jobs in America.
Florida Gulf Coast was robbed, and we won’t forget it. The Eagles lost to Michigan State on Sunday in one of the more controversial—nay, unacceptable—endings you will ever see. Watch for yourself.