By Matt Craig | @MrMattCraig
Editor in Chief of Chirp City
Host of the Ball Hogs Podcast
Member of Ball State Sports Link
I’m sitting in my dorm room, and it’s snowing outside. Hard. And while it’s beautiful and magical and blah blah blah, I’m having a hard time feeling the warm Christmas fuzzies right now, because we both know what it really means.
We may not be seeing the friendly side of 50 degrees for like five months. I’m shivering just thinking about it.
It’s times like these I am thankful I’m a basketball player and a basketball fan. Dr. James Naismith ain’t no dummy: he decided early on to put the game of basketball indoors. Rain, snow, wind, who cares! It’s always perfect weather in a basketball gymnasium (except for like 70% of the time when it’s way too hot).
But you see my loyal Survivalists, this type of predictive analysis is exactly what we are doing in our pursuit of the American Dream (American Dream=spending way too much time studying a sport in hopes of winning a statistically impossible sweepstakes and accepting a handout from a billionaire).
We are looking at one event, whether it be the first snow of the season or the first mid-major upset of the season, and making a prediction about what it means five months from now.
Since last week’s column, the following ranked teams have all lost: #1 North Carolina, #4 Kansas, #5 Duke, #6 Virginia, #9 Wichita State, #16 Utah, #17 Wisconsin (twice), #20 Baylor, #22 Butler and #25 Michigan. Add that to unranked perenniel powerhouses Oklahoma State, Ohio State, and UCLA.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that until the season starts we really don’t know anything about anything.
Remember, Survivalists, not to judge the actual games at this point in the season. We are here to learn about the teams, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and whether or not they are going to be prepared for the NCAA Tournament.
And so we’ll look at trends, anomalies, and charades, all in the context of the games we’ve watched so far.
So without further ado: TO THE GAMES!!!
They call it, “The Final Four of November.” To which I say, “that’s pretty accurate!” and also, “do you not have anyone that can come up with a catchier nickname?”
Last year’s “Champions Classic” ended up showing off three of the four Final Four teams, so all Survivalists needed to be tuned in to these games. It is the first look of the season for these teams against elite competition, and what does elite competition do? It exposes flaws. So there’s a lot we can learn.
But as an event, the Champions Classic is unnatural. With a huge media contingent and no bands or student sections, at an NBA arena, it feels nothing like a college basketball game. If it makes you feel any better, none of that ticket money or concessions money or merchandise money goes to the athletes everyone came to see.
#2 Kentucky 74, #5 Duke 64
Is it just me, or is this year’s freshmen class just…not good? Ok I mean they are good, but watching this game it became obvious to me the highly touted “one and doners” are not as talented and certainly not nearly as confident out of the gate as the last few classes.
I realize it’s early and teams are still trying to figure everything out, but the last few year’s freshmen have been ready and prepared for the big moments since even before the season started.
I attended last year’s Champions Classic in Indianapolis and the Duke freshmen trio of Jahil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones had 17, 15, and 17 points respectively. They went on to win a National Championship.
We as fans have settled into a routine where the top five to 10 high school prospects come to college basketball, and we see them playing college basketball, but they don’t belong in college basketball. They seem honestly just out of place. Physically they are just dominant, and while their skill sets are sometimes not as polished as their opponents, the raw talent is just unfair.
Instead of a trend, I really just think this year’s class is just an outlier. I don’t need to recap for you the impact of freshmen on the last few years of college basketball, and the 2016 class is the best and deepest high school class in maybe….ever. Duke and Kentucky have been dividing up the pie so far on those studs, and I have a feeling this time next year we are going to be talking about how good those two teams are because of their freshmen.
I’ll tell you what is a trend though. THE KIDS ARE GETTING SKINNIER AND SKINNIER! There are no bigger liars in sports than college strength and conditioning coaches. Take it away Titus!
In a world full of liars/cheats, nobody lies in college sports as much as strength coaches do about their players' weights and lift maxes.
— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) November 18, 2015
Only thing missing is "of muscle" part. That's a strength coach classic move. "He's gained 20 pounds of 100% PURE, LEAN, EXPLOSIVE MUSCLE."
— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) November 18, 2015
Seriously, watch any of these freshman-heavy teams. These boys need a cheeseburger! Being “long” is a way over-rated attribute to have in 2015.
What do these “not so diaper dandies” mean for the tournament? We’re going to have to wait and see. If the freshmen on any of these teams figure it out, obviously their ceilings talent-wise is pretty high. But as of right now I’m favoring any team that has more experience. We’ll keep this on the agenda as the season moves forward.
Now for some team-specific stuff.
Ever since Coach K has transformed his program into Kentucky 2.0, it’s pretty surprising to learn Duke’s best player is a white dude. It’s even more surprising in this game there was some debate over who that white dude is, between Grayson Allen and Marshall Plumlee. Marshall Plumlee!
It’s been eight years since Duke has played a game without one of the Plumlee brothers, which is only like six years less than since Kansas has played a game without Perry Ellis.
I predicted Kentucky would win this game because Duke is hurting from the loss of Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones from last year. But even I didn’t expect how overwhelmed this team is in the backcourt.
Freshmen Derryck Thorton and Luke Kennard don’t look ready for high level competition yet, leaving all the responsibility on Matt Jones and Grayson Allen, who were both afterthoughts on last year’s team. Until the freshmen really come along, Amile Jefferson and Mason Plumlee really are the best and most consistent players on this team. Wow, that sentence just came out of my mouth (errr fingers). Yikes.
Kentucky has the same problem, but the exact opposite (it makes sense if you don’t think about it). Last year’s UK squad had what seemed like a dozen kids who were taller than 6’10. They just had size no one could deal with, and played volleyball at the rim. Funny thing though: all those kids went to go collect big pay checks in the NBA.
Kentucky is looking to put the role of about three of those first round draft picks and combine them and place them on the very slender shoulders of Skal Labissiere. It’s a ridiculous request, even for a guy who’s the projected #2 pick in next summer’s draft.
Labissiere better grow like three more arms and put on about “30 pounds of pure muscle” before the season is over, because there’s shockingly very little behind him.
The ONLY (I repeat ONLY) 7 footer on the roster is 17-year old Isaac
Humphries, who reclassified up a year of high school just to get Calipari some bigs. HE WAS BORN IN 1998!!! Then there’s juniors Marcus Lee and Derek Willis, who at this point have special chairs molded to their rear ends waiting for them at Rupp Arena from all the time they’ve spent on the bench the last two years.
This is not the physically intimidating and dominant Kentucky team from last year. But they do have some really tough guard in Ulis and freshmen Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray. But again, these freshmen aren’t game-breakers, they aren’t diaper dandies. At least not yet.
#13 Michigan State 79, #4 Kansas 73
Despite it’s billing as the lesser of the two match ups, this was a much better basketball game. Both of these teams are pretty experienced, and while on paper they wouldn’t appear as talented as Duke and UK, they sure fooled me.
Quick note on Denzel Valentine. I haven’t seen Providence’s Kris Dunn yet this season (loved him last year), but I find it hard to believe anyone is going to have a better year than Valentine. He has a GREEN light to shoot from deep, he can finish at the rim, and stuffs the stat sheet with rebounds, assists, and steals too.
There was another kid just like this at the same school a few years back, by the name of Draymond Green, who seemingly everyone passed on in the draft. He turned out alright. The same thing is going to happen to Valentine, and every team who is going to choose not to draft this kid is going to regret it. Michigan State kids play extremely tough, and extremely hard. People always say “you can’t teach height,” which is true, but you also can’t teach a high motor, and that attribute may be even more important.
Not much else to say on MSU. They have Izzo as their coach. *mic drop*
If I had to pick a national champion right now, it would actually be Kansas. They have a lot of experienced players, they have a lot of talent, and I like the way they play together. But they lost this game you say? Well the Jayhawks are currently without possibly their most talented player in projected top 10 draft pick Cheick Diallo. We don’t have time to get into his eligibility situation, but NCAA is scrutinizing his 6th grade transcript. Come on, #FreeDiallo !
They have Old Man O’ the Plains, aka Perry Ellis, who’s bald spot is getting
so big it looks like a helipad. Wayne Seldon needs to figure out he’s 6’5 230 pounds, but when he does he could be an unstoppable force. Frank Mason is one of the “Napolean Complex” guys I talked about last year. I’m telling you, Kansas is farther along than what I saw from UK, UNC, and Duke.
If my theory about a weaker freshmen class holds true throughout the year, it’s time to start really considering the veteran teams like Sparty and Rock Chalk come March 2016.
Georgetown 71, #3 Maryland 75,
Georgetown 71, Wisconsin 61,
Georgetown 84, #5 Duke 86
Maryland is an example of a team you can’t over react to despite their slow start. Head coach Mark Turgeon and freshman center Diamond Stone spent all summer with the U-19 National Team, and Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon enrolled in late August. This team didn’t have the summer to play together, and when they get their chemistry together watch out.
Talk about a hangover effect for Wisconsin.
Oh and the fact they lost three starters, two of which were first round draft picks?? They already have two pretty bad losses this year. I have a hard time seeing the Badgers miss out on the dance all together, but they’re looking at the bubble as of now.
That being said, Nigel Hayes has developed into a complete stud. He looked VERY comfortable in Madison Square Garden in this game, if you catch my drift. We should continue to see his stock rise this season as he is showcased, similar to what we saw with Deangelo Russell last year. They just feed him in the ball, and he can isolate from both the wing and the post with his NBA-ready body. Just keep him away from stenographers.
Georgetown is my early surprise sleeper. They play tough, physical defense, and just bully people on offense. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is a legit closer, and made big play after big play against a top 5 team in the country in Maryland. When they beat Wisconsin, they did so because they were the better team. They will probably creep into the top 25 eventually, but if not watch out for the Hoyas this season. They are the best 1-3 team in the country, without a doubt.
All this talk of Georgetown also brings up to today’s COACH DOPPELGANGER!!!!!!
Georgetown’s John Thompson III as…….STEVE HARVEY FROM FAMILY FEUD!
Because let’s be honest, these guys look almost exactly alike. PLUS, the family feud angle plays really well when you think about how John Thompson III got his job (his dad was a legendary Georgetown coach in the ’80s), and how his whole life he’s just tried to live up to his dad’s legacy.
Upsets speed round: there’s just not nearly enough time and space to talk about all the upsets, so here’s one blurb about every other ranked team who has lost!
#1 UNC: “They don’t have Marcus Paige, they don’t have Marcus Paige!!” For how highly they talk about this guy, you’d think he’d be a lot better basketball player than he actually is; you’d think he could at least dribble with both hands (he can’t). The rest of the roster would make one hell of a volleyball team, they are all tall and have pogo-sticks for legs. Remind me of last year’s Kentucky team minus, you know, the skill part.
#6 Virginia: What a difference five seconds can make. The change from a 35 second shot clock to 30 seconds has caused Tony Bennett to play a faster, more offensive style of play. The defense isn’t as good as last year, and their outside shooting is…umm…suspect. So basically all the things that made them elite last year. They’ll be more fun to watch though! Malcolm Brogdon for Naismith!
#9 Wichita State: Not worried about the Shockers at all. Around Van Vleet, Baker, and Wessel, they have a lot of young pieces and they will figure it out. I think their loss speaks more to Tulsa and their ability to be a mid major bracket buster come March.
#16 Utah: Watching this team play against San Diego State and Miami was almost comical. They have one of the best big men in the nation in Jakob Poeltl, and yet they barely ever give him the ball. Who wants to pound the ball with our top 10 draft prospect? Nah that’s too easy, let’s keep throwing up contested threes. Recipe for upset prone unless they change things around.
#20 Baylor: This team plays like an AAU team, which is to say they play extremely hard but incredibly sloppy. Shots will be fired at the first opportunity, from mostly whoever gets the ball in scoring position first. Super fun to watch, not super effective. But hey, if you need some wood chopped or other manly man things accomplished, Rico Gathers is your guy.
#22 Butler: Watching them play always makes me smile, because it’s always so unselfish and smart. However, all the cheers and “atta boys” in the world isn’t going to change the fact no one on the team can create their own shot and Tyler Lewis is having serious issues keeping opposing point guards in front of him. But there’s not another team I’d rather see figure things out!
#25 Michigan: Wow, feel like I called this in my first March Madness Survival Guide (I did). No further questions your honor.
So much college basketball goodness, so little time!!
The upcoming week will teach us a lot more, with most of the top teams playing in varying levels of competitive tournaments.
What we care about most is how teams will perform in THE tournament, so their performances in these tournaments are very important to us!
I’ll leave one final gift for all my Survivalists out there, it’s the funniest moment of the young college basketball season. Bill Walton and Fran Fraschilla playing bongos for some hula dancers in Maui.
Until next week, Survivalists, don’t forget food, water and shelter!
By Matt Craig aka The Redcoat
Please leave any comments/thoughts below!