The turbulence of the past week? Well, get used to it. This is college basketball in a pandemic. The cancellations and postponements will likely persist until the NCAA launches its 68-team, one-city tournament in 2021. Until then, we’ll have to take this thing day by day.
But the game is off to an entertaining start with three top-10 teams (Virginia, Villanova and Kentucky) all falling to previously unranked opponents. Elite veterans have joined a strong freshman class in 2020-21. The top 25 is stacked with capable contenders, but we won’t have to wait to get an accurate portrait of where college basketball stands following an abbreviated, and often interrupted, preseason that did not feature any exhibitions.
Tuesday’s Champions Classic (Kentucky vs. Kansas and Michigan State vs. Duke) will precede Wednesday’s Jimmy V Classic (West Virginia vs. Gonzaga and Illinois vs. Baylor) in a helluva second week for the sport’s slate, which will also include a Saturday matchup between Gonzaga and Baylor.
Here we go:
Let’s all overanalyze Kentucky together
It’s an annual tradition on social media. Kentucky plays a handful of games and then college basketball fans make sweeping assessments of what its performances mean for the Wildcats’ future. Twitter erupts into a series of exaggerations, none steeped in facts or data. Only gut feelings.
Just two games into this season for the Wildcats, we’ve witnessed the same theater. Kentucky beats Morehead State by 36 in its season opener? Kentucky is unstoppable! Kentucky loses to a Richmond team that returns every starter from an experienced roster that anchored a 24-win campaign last season? Kentucky is overrated!
Once you get beyond the emotions, however, there are legitimate questions and concerns about Kentucky that John Calipari and his young team must address in the coming weeks.
Can Kentucky win a national title without more accuracy and volume from the 3-point line? Kentucky’s 0-for-10 clip from beyond the arc in the 76-64 loss to Richmond on Sunday seemed to generate the most buzz this weekend. I understand why.
During its national title run in 2011-12, Kentucky made 38% of its 3-pointers. Since then, the team has not duplicated those results, as the Wildcats have hovered between 33% and 36% in the years that have followed. But that doesn’t tell the full story. The Wildcats have long been one of the least prolific teams nationally in 3-point volume (26.5% of their attempts were 3-pointers in 2011-12, per KenPom). Eight years ago, college basketball had not yet witnessed Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors winning three titles in four years or Jay Wright’s sharpshooting Villanova team securing two national championships in three seasons.
In the 2011-12 season, only 37 teams in college basketball could say that at least 40% of their attempts were 3-pointers. Last season? There were 113 teams that reached that threshold. Kentucky however, hasn’t topped the 32.4% mark (2010-11) under Calipari.
Why does that matter? Because college basketball is full of shooters now and Kentucky is still largely counting on five-star talent to possess the athleticism and playmaking ability to score and protect the rim without relying on those shots from beyond the arc. It’s a reasonable gamble that has helped the Wildcats reach the Final Four in four different seasons. But Kentucky hasn’t been to the national semifinals since 2015. This Kentucky team has the tools to challenge any team in the sport. But the inconsistency and limited volume from the perimeter could complicate its ambitions.
Was the Richmond loss a fluke? No way. Don’t act as if Kentucky lost to some squad full of nobodies. Chris Mooney’s team is anchored by upperclassmen who weren’t intimidated by a young Kentucky team. And experience has never been more valuable within the sport. Between quarantines and the limited preseason, Richmond and other squads with veteran leadership have an edge, especially early in the season. Jacob Gilyard, one of Richmond’s top players last season, struggled in the win over Kentucky, plus his team made only 28% of its 3-point attempts and grabbed six offensive rebounds. Richmond is just better than Kentucky right now.
Does Kentucky have a star who can lead the Wildcats deep into the NCAA tournament? Yep. Maybe a few of them. Olivier Sarr, Terrence Clarke and B.J. Boston have all looked like potential stars through two games. Few teams, if any, in college basketball can match that raw talent. The problem is people think Kentucky and assume every “star” is a future NBA standout. That creates impossible expectations. Remember, Calipari’s best teams were led by guys named Anthony Davis, John Wall, Karl-Anthony Towns, De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo, Julius Randle and Devin Booker. Jamal Murray’s squad in 2015-16 didn’t get past the second round. Boston, a projected top-five pick in ESPN’s latest NBA mock draft for 2021, might have the best chance to join the list of elite NBA players under Calipari. Even if this team doesn’t produce an NBA standout, however, it certainly has enough juice to compete with the best teams in America.
What are the chances we’ll be talking about Kentucky as a contender in the coming months? High. Calipari’s teams tend to get off to these ragged starts and the pandemic has created challenges for every team in America. This season’s freshmen must navigate health protocols along with the typical growing pains that come with transitioning to Division I basketball. It will take time. But you should continue to buy stock in Kentucky. There are valid flaws and concerns. But I still expect the Wildcats to enter the final stretch of the season as a team that’s capable of winning a title. That’s different, however, than actually achieving the feat, which hasn’t happened in Lexington in eight years.
Jalen Suggs … Ohio State quarterback?
The Gonzaga guard was the most electric freshman in the country in the first week of the 2020-21 season, connecting on more than 68% of his shots inside the arc and going viral on social media with his above-the-rim finishes and acrobatic layups. Gonzaga has scored 125 points per 100 possessions and made 72.7% of its shots inside the arc with Suggs on the floor, per hooplens.com.
But what if Suggs were playing quarterback for Ohio State right now? Chris Goodwin, head football coach at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, said it was a possibility Ohio State’s staff had discussed with him when it offered Suggs a football scholarship in 2018.
“Ohio State absolutely was serious about it,” he told ESPN.
Last year, Suggs became the first player in Minnesota to win the Mr. Basketball and Mr. Football awards in the same season. He was a dual-threat star at Minnehaha Academy and had offers from multiple Power 5 programs. He averaged 10.0 yards per carry as a senior. He was sacked only five times, Goodwin said, throughout his four-year career. “No one could catch him,” he said. Suggs also occasionally played free safety and wide receiver for Goodwin’s team. He was a force on the football field and his vision and toughness translated to the basketball court, too.
Suggs is a 6-foot-4, 205-pound guard who loves to finish through contact. In Gonzaga’s first two games, he challenged Kansas’ and Auburn’s players with his physicality. Goodwin said he had the same tenacity on the gridiron.
“He’s a huge hitter, a gigantic hitter,” he said. “He would knock guys out.”
But Suggs chose basketball. And now Mark Few has a player unlike any he has ever coached at Gonzaga.
Quick storylines for Champions Classic/Jimmy V Classic matchups
Michigan State–Duke (Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Champions Classic): Joshua Langford is back this season after missing all of the 2019-20 season and Michigan State’s final 18 games in 2018-19 due to injuries. His chemistry with Marquette transfer Joey Hauser and the rest of the rotation will impact MSU’s entire season. And while Suggs and Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham grabbed the spotlight in the season’s opening stretch, Duke’s Jalen Johnson put together a perfect performance (8-for-8, 19 points) in his debut, an 81-71 win over Coppin State on Saturday. The projected lottery pick could turn heads in this game.
Kentucky-Kansas (Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Champions Classic): Kansas was a different team with Udoka Azubuike last season. His departure has created the most pressing void for Bill Self’s team. David McCormack, a former McDonald’s All-American, isn’t Azubuike, but KU will need him to mature into a dependable two-way player in the paint to reach its potential.
— Houston Men’s Hoops 🏀 🐾 (@UHCougarMBK) November 30, 2020
West Virginia-Gonzaga (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN, Jimmy V Classic): We’ve heard a lot about Suggs and Corey Kispert, but Drew Timme is averaging 26.5 PPG while making 72% of his shots inside the arc through two games. West Virginia big man Oscar Tshiebwe has to excel on both ends of the floor to give the Mountaineers a chance.
Illinois–Baylor (Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN, Jimmy V Classic): Expect a lot of 3-pointers in this game. Although the sample size is small, both Illinois and Baylor have been hot in their first two games. Illinois (47%) and Baylor (50%) were two of the top 3-point-shooting teams in America through the season’s first weekend. Ayo Dosunmu and Jared Butler are also two of the top guards in America.
It’s fun to see Quentin Grimes playing well
It took 12 minutes for a ranked Texas Tech team to reach double digits in a 64-53 loss to Houston on Sunday. Grimes, Houston’s former five-star recruit who began his collegiate career at Kansas, led his team to a 27-9 start with 8:08 to play in the first half. Grimes finished with 15 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and a block in the win. He played with patience.
Every five-star recruit at a powerhouse school faces questions about his potential whenever he’s not a clear first-round pick after one season. It’s unfair. Grimes endured that scrutiny after his freshman season at Kansas. But he has found a home with Kelvin Sampson and he’s playing a key role for a team that looks like a dangerous opponent for any team in the country. Sometimes, top prospects need more time to develop. That’s OK. Grimes is proof of that. He left a powerhouse school and now he’s a catalyst for one of the most intriguing and talented teams in America. And he’s having fun.
— Houston Men’s Hoops 🏀 🐾 (@UHCougarMBK) November 30, 2020
Shaka Smart’s hair is something we should all celebrate
As someone who has also let his hair grow out during the pandemic, I am in awe of Texas coach Shaka Smart’s hair transformation from last season. It’s one of the most noticeable changes in college basketball this season.
He has freshman Greg Brown, a projected first-round pick, and a talented team that could secure an NCAA tournament berth, but Smart’s hair was trending on Twitter during his team’s 78-76 win over Davidson in the Maui Invitational on Monday.
The sports world is always searching for something to smile about in these challenging times. Add Smart’s hair to the list.