It pains me to say this, but our holiday weekend is officially over. It seems only yesterday that we were headed into a blissful, four-day stretch filled with sitting on the couch, gorging on food, watching sports and taking mid-day naps. Only flash-forward and here we are, mid-Monday, with Deb from accounting trying to foist half-eaten, left-over apple pie on you in the break room.
And admit it, you just took a bite, didn’t you? Man, how did the holiday slip by so fast?
It really is wild, and not only did the holiday weekend fly by, but so too did one of the most important weeks on the college basketball calendar: Feast Week. From Monday-Sunday, noon to well after midnight we were engulfed with quality and meaningful basketball, with results that will impact teams from now until Selection Sunday in March.
So what did we learn during Feast Week? Here are a few things:
Yes, Duke is beatable
Admittedly, all the “Duke is destined to go undefeated” talk that popped up after the Kentucky game was a little bit ridiculous, but even if folks were going slightly crazy about Duke, they were the unquestioned best team in the country just a week ago. It doesn’t feel unreasonable to say that while we all knew that Duke could be beaten, none of us were sure exactly how it would happen.
Well, apparently Gonzaga gave us the blueprint: Have a roster full of smart, talented and experienced players. Make big shots, take care of the ball and don’t be afraid of R.J., Zion and the MonStars from Durham. They are beatable. They can be topped. Which is exactly what the Zags proved over the weekend.
In the process, they also shined a bright light on some of the Blue Devils true weaknesses.
For starters, as good as R.J. Barrett is, he was a little too ball-dominant late in that loss in the Maui Invitational final, where he missed six shots – SIX – in the final few minutes of play. That will get better in time, but the bigger concern is that – as I mentioned throughout the preseason – Duke’s bench is still a real concern. Against some teams (like Auburn and San Diego State) they were fine, but I also thought it was telling that against the quicker, more skilled front-line of Gonzaga, Marques Bolden was basically unplayable, and Alex O’Connell only logged six minutes in the final two games of the tournament. I also think it’s a big alarming that Cam Reddish – one of the most gifted scorers in last year’s high school class has already basically become relegated strictly taking three-point shots. He only made five field goal attempts inside the three-point line in his three games in Maui.
Now to be clear, none of this means that Duke is a terrible team. They are still one of the handful of best teams in college basketball, but also a team that has no shortage of flaws to work on.
Just like everyone else in the country.
Gonzaga is the best team in the country… and they’re only going to get better as the season wears on
Hate to brag, but I’ve been telling everyone since the day that last season ended that the Zags were a 2019 title contender, if not the outright favorite. I picked them as my preseason No. 1 the day that last season ended, and only bumped them down to No. 2 after Kentucky enrolled both Reid Travis and Ashton Hagans during the summer. I also picked the Zags to go to the Final Four, and am pretty sure I am the only person in America who had Rui Hachimura as my preseason National Player of the Year.
However, as good as I thought the Zags could be… I had no idea they’d be quite as good as they were in Maui. And the scary part is, they are only going to get better as the season wears on. They aren’t even close to a 100 percent finished product.
First, in terms of the stuff that we knew about the Zags, well, I knew that Hachimura would be a stud and that wing Zach Norvell was a potential All-American type player as well. The two certainly played like it in Maui, where they combined for 38 points in the title game against Duke.
What no one could have predicted however, was how good everyone else looked around them. Point guard Josh Perkins, who has struggled with turnovers in the past, finished with nine points and seven assists in the Duke win. Sophomore Corey Kispert hit some big shots. And transfer Brandon Clarke may have been the unsung hero against the Blue Devils with 17 points, five rebounds and six blocks. Duke only made their run when Clarke went to the bench with four fouls mid-way through the second half.
The scary thing however is that Gonzaga did all that and beat Duke without one of their best players. For those who don’t know, the Zags leading returning scorer and rebounder from last season is a kid named Killian Tillie, who is out right now with an ankle injury. He averaged 12 and six last season and when he comes back will add another NBA caliber player to a lineup that already has no shortage of talent.
Yes, the Zags have some tough games coming up (they play at North Carolina and against Tennessee on a neutral court in the coming weeks). But right now they look like the best team in college basketball – and are only going to get better going forward.
The SEC is no longer the best conference in college basketball
For those of you who are long-time readers of my work, you know that last year I was touting the SEC as the best conference in college basketball. And to this day, I still believe I was right. While there was no truly “great” team in the league last year, it was a dog-fight every single night. Heck, when the last place team in the conference (Ole Miss) beat four SEC teams that went to the NCAA Tournament, you know the league was loaded.
Therefore, I also found it funny this year when all the other national “experts” touted this league as the best. One, they mocked me for making the same claim last year, but two, they were wrong. To anyone paying close attention it was clear that the league wasn’t the same as last year. While it was probably a bit better at the top, there was a major dip in the middle and bottom of this conference.
It was something that reared its ugly head this week.
To be honest, it’s hard to think of one team from the SEC that had a truly great week. For many, it was disastrous. In no particular order here are some of the results:
Mississippi State lost a surprising game to Arizona State. LSU lost twice at the AdvoCare Invitational. Florida lost twice at the Battle 4 Atlantis. Texas A&M lost twice at the Vancouver Showcase (which admittedly would have been a pretty sweet event to attend). Vanderbilt not only lost a stunner at home to Kent State, but lost Darius Garland to a knee injury. Alabama lost a game to Northeastern, a solid mid-major. Still, that’s not a team the Crimson Tide should be losing to.
By the way, did I mention that Tom Crean and Georgia lost twice, including by 24 to… GEORGIA STATE. To quote John Calipari, “Wait, what?!?!?!” Is that even a real school?
And I haven’t even mentioned the teams that were expected to be bad early on and have been. We’re not even into December yet and Ole Miss, Missouri and South Carolina all have at least two losses.
To be blunt, just about the only team you can say has truly exceeded expectations is Arkansas. I would also say that Auburn and Tennessee showed themselves pretty well during Feast Week even if they didn’t win their tournaments. And I do think Kentucky will be fine in the long run.
But for those who were claiming this was the best conference in college basketball? Sorry, not this year my friends.
On the flip side, the Big Ten is loaded!
This is a trend that really started before Feast Week, but has anyone noticed the wins that the Big Ten has piled up? Mercy!!! For those who haven’t been paying attention, here are a few of the big ones: Michigan crushed Villanova at Villanova and also beat Providence College. Indiana beat Marquette. Ohio State has beaten Cincinnati and Creighton, both on the road. Iowa beat UConn and Oregon on a neutral court. Wisconsin won at Xavier, and against Oklahoma in Atlantis.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
You know who was most impressive though? How about Michigan State?
Yes, the Spartans lost on opening night to Kansas at the Champions Classic, but also put together one of the most impressive weeks of anyone during Feast Week. Over the past week they went to Las Vegas and absolutely dominated UCLA, beating them 87-67, before beating Texas in the title game. The Spartans are led by two of the more underrated players in all of college basketball, in point guard Cassius Winston and forward Joshua Langford. Langford finished the Texas game with 29 points (including five three-pointers) and Winston had 20 points and 10 assists in the win.
Which leads me to a simple question: We know that college basketball is a sport that is generally dominated by upperclassmen. Are the Spartans are a team we should watch out for, that could potentially make a deep run in March?
It’s early. But Tom Izzo’s club looks like they have all the pieces.
Speaking of Vegas – it might just be over for UCLA and Steve Alford
Before I get going here, let me do the obligatory pre-statement and say that I like Steve Alford. Having lived in LA the past few years, he and his staff have been very good to me and given me access and interviews and whatever else I’ve needed.
At the same time, the reality is that in a season where Alford entered on the hot seat, he did himself no favors in Las Vegas. The Bruins didn’t just lose twice, but got embarrassed twice, falling to Michigan State 87-67 and then a day later to North Carolina 94-78.
And at the end of the day, there really is no one to blame but Alford.
The bottom-line is that UCLA has enough talent where they are expected to compete with Michigan State and North Carolina – not get embarrassed by them. While the Bruins did lose a couple key players to injury early, the reality is, that they have eight active players who were once Top 100 recruits in their high school class. They have three McDonald’s All-Americans and two players who will probably get drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft this spring in sophomore Kris Wilkes and freshman Moses Brown.
Again, it’s one thing to lose to Michigan State or North Carolina. It’s another to get blown out.
Which is why I really wonder what the shelf-life is for Alford at UCLA. This is a program that has mostly been decent under Alford but only once great, and that was in 2017 when they had Lonzo Ball. And even that season they didn’t win the Pac-12 regular season or conference tournament, nor did they make it past the Sweet 16.
With a good, but not great out of conference schedule remaining (Notre Dame at home, Cincy on the road, Ohio State on a neutral) the Bruins are running out of chances to pick up quality wins, and with the Pac-12 off to another poor start (Washington, Arizona and USC all have multiple losses already) they might not be able to pick up many quality wins in conference.
Add it up and Alford better get moving in Westwood. Before it’s too late.
There is no other way to put it: Louisville got screwed out of a win against Marquette
By now you’ve already seen the video, so it isn’t worth rehashing here.
This shot by Jordan Nwora midway through the second half was ruled a two. Chris Mack: “During the game I thought it was a three. You sort of have to trust in the officials. … The officials missed it.” The Louisville staff was upset with the zebras all night. pic.twitter.com/dcFhW7yKlE
— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) November 24, 2018
But yeah, the Cards got screwed. Bad. And should have won this game.
Talk of Villanova’s demise was greatly exaggerated
After back-to-back losses to Michigan and Furman (woof!) the defending champion Villanova Wildcats were left for dead by just about everyone. Including myself. As I said on my podcast, this feels like a season where the Wildcats might just end up as a 21-10 type team, that gets a nine-seed and loses in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Or maybe not, because after all that angst, Nova went down to the AdvoCare Invitational and took home the whole, damn thing. They beat a surprisingly good Oklahoma State team (that went on to beat LSU the next day) in the semifinal, before beating a really good Florida State team in the final.
In the end, the Wildcats are a work in progress and do have their problems. They’re not shooting the ball nearly as well as last year (they’re shooting just 32 percent this season, compared to 40 percent last year) and star recruit Jahvon Quinerly can’t get off the bench, playing just three minutes total in the final two games. That is something that will become an issue if Jay Wright decides not to play him more.
So yeah, the Wildcats have work to do like everyone.
But they might not be as bad as we expected either.
And there are plenty of other teams that we still have plenty to find out about
As much as I enjoyed Feast Week there are of course plenty of teams that we have yet to learn about. We will find out more about Indiana when they travel to Cameron Indoor Arena this week and No. 5 Nevada will have its toughest test at Loyola-Chicago this week.
Then there are the Kentucky Wildcats, who had a relatively quiet week with two easy wins against Winthrop and Tennessee State. It’s still another few weeks before they hit their gauntlet against North Carolina and Louisville before opening SEC play.
Still is was a fun week, and one where we learned a ton about some of college basketball’s best teams.
Just like the holiday itself, it went by too fast.
But the good news is, there is still plenty of more basketball ahead.