Thanksgiving is almost two weeks away. That means Selection Sunday is four months away.
There is a lot of time to recover from a bad loss. Even if something looks broken on offense or defense, a team has more than 25 games and oodles of practices to straighten things out. Players are still melding, gelling, and building chemistry. That takes time!
Last season, Kentucky opened the season by losing to Duke by 34 points. They ended the season losing an Elite Eight game in overtime. There may be no better proof that there’s plenty of time to figure out what works.
Despite all that, the teams that are playing right now are the teams that we’ll see months from now in conference play and the Big Dance. First impressions can be improved upon but they do mean something. Even if something can be improved upon, the games this early in the season allow us to see where issues lie and how they could be corrected.
There have already been hundreds of men’s college basketball games this season, but for me, these six losses stand out as offering something definitive to focus on early this year.
(Congratulations are in order for Northwestern, whose bounce-back win over Providence forced me to delete an entire section of this article about the Wildcats’ loss to Merrimack.)
Evansville 67, Kentucky 64
This is the easy place to start, given that the top team in the polls lost at home to a school most people couldn’t locate on a map if you gave them 20 tries. This loss will ultimately not be a death knell or a sign of dark days for this Kentucky team. The Wildcats are young. Even the more experienced players on the team are learning to play alongside their new teammates, both with the freshman class and transfer forward Nick Sestina. That being said, John Calipari deals with that issue each and every year and has never suffered an early season slip-up like this ever before. In fact, this is Kentucky’s first regular season loss to a team ranked outside the KenPom top 130 during Calipari’s reign.
The loss is likely more of a speed bump than a road block, though there are lessons to be learned. Calipari’s biggest challenge this season will be balancing the offensive weight carried by sophomore Ashton Hagans and freshman Tyrese Maxey.
In the Wildcats’ big seasoning opening win over Michigan State, it was Maxey scoring 26 points on just 12 field goal attempts. He forced the issue all night long, shooting ten free throws versus the Spartans. In all three Kentucky games, Hagans has surprisingly taken on a secondary role. After a promising debut season last year, Hagans has taken a clear step back in terms of efficiency and production in the early part of this season.
This was most prominent against Evansville, when Hagans battled foul trouble and a cold shooting night. In only 24 minutes of play, Hagans struggled to get into a rhythm, shooting 1 of 8 from the field for just 3 points. The quick-footed, rim-attacking Hagans only made one trip to the free throw stripe.
Currently, Hagans is in the starting lineup, with Maxey coming off the bench. Calipari’s ability to stagger his two lead guards’ minutes or have them work as complementary pieces on the floor together will define the Wildcats as the season wears on. Hagans and Maxey are good enough to push the Wildcats to great heights this season, but Kentucky will struggle when they are out of sync.
Florida State 63, Florida 51
Elsewhere in the SEC, the Gators looked to be contenders to win both the conference championship and challenge for the national title. With Virginia Tech’s Kerry Blackshear transferring to Gainesville, the puzzle appeared complete. With Blackshear bruising in the middle and a strong crop of perimeter players to build around, Mike White looked to have his best team yet.
The Seminoles then sauntered into Florida’s home gym and defeated the Gators for the sixth straight meeting of the two Sunshine State schools. Leonard Hamilton is a great coach and Florida State retained more talent than you’d have guessed on paper after last year’s Sweet Sixteen team lost three starters to graduation or the NBA.
Yet the story of that game was more about Florida.
The Gators looked stagnant offensively for the entirety of the game, never able to get any consistent offensive action rolling. The Gators relied on isolation too often, forcing bad shots throughout the game. Florida posted 16 turnovers to just 6 assisted baskets, indicative of how little ball movement Mike White’s squad exhibited that day.
Kerry Blackshear’s performance was perhaps the best clue that things weren’t working offensively for Florida. The senior forward finished with 10 points, all from the free throw line. Blackshear shot 0 for 5 from the field, with no easy looks coming around the rim.
The Florida team that many (like me) envisioned reaching the Final Four flowed through point guard Andrew Nembhard and led to Blackshear, with crisp ball movement and smart passing leading to easy buckets in the paint.
It’s far from panic time down in the swamp, yet there are warning signs. We saw that Florida does not have the individual playmakers or the shooters to overcome a stalled offensive performance. When the Gators nearly lost again at home to Towson, the warning signs began to blink even brighter. There is a lot of time for things to straighten out in Gainesville, but for Florida to be on the short-list of teams hunting a top seed and the accolades that come with it, Mike White will need to find some answers.
Winthrop 61, Saint Mary’s 59
This game had less to say about less to say about this specific Saint Mary’s team than it did about the program as a whole. Year after year, the Gaels have a schedule that is far less challenging than a program of Saint Mary’s stature should. This peaked in 2018, when a 28-5 Gaels squad was not invited to the NCAA Tournament. That Saint Mary’s team played 14 games before its first contest outside the state of California, on December 30.
It’s possible that Saint Mary’s learned from their mistakes and made a more conscious effort to test itself early in the non-conference. This year, the Gaels are slated to face six noteworthy challenges before settling into the relative ease of West Coast Conference play.
They tipped off the season by defeating Wisconsin in a semi-road game (in Sioux Falls, SD). That overtime win looked to usher in a new attitude for Saint Mary’s. Future dates with Utah State (at home), Dayton (in Phoenix), Nevada (in San Francisco), Arizona State (in Phoenix, again) and Cal (on the road) looked to provide plenty of resume calories when at-large selection came around in March.
Before we even get to the Gaels home loss, it’s important to note that Randy Bennett has not fully changed his ways. The Gaels schedule features just one non-conference game on an opposing campus (vs. downtrodden Cal). Compare that to other top teams and it pales in comparison. WCC rival Gonzaga has three such games. So do Houston and Seton Hall. Villanova, Cincinnati, and Xavier each have two.
This matters, especially when (and I can’t believe it took this long to get to this part) you lose a home game to Winthrop.
Without as many opportunities to stack quality wins, a damaging loss stands out like a sore thumb. When Saint Mary’s is back on the bubble or fighting for a seed, the Gaels big win to start the year is already almost cancelled out by a home loss to a lesser program. Losing to Winthrop puts extra pressure on the Gaels remaining chances for a quality win, the games I listed above and their two cracks at Gonzaga.
DePaul 93, Iowa 78
I hesitate to include this one for one simple reason:
I’m not sure if this was a bad loss or a good win.
Like a Week 1 or 2 NFL game that causes a wild overreaction, this game could change our perceptions of either team. It could be a red flag for an Iowa team that was teetering between NCAA Tournament consideration and the bottom third of the Big Ten. It could also be the first sign that DePaul…is…good?
DePaul’s returning players have improved and its newcomers, both freshmen and transfers, look like major upgrades in talent compared to past Blue Demon teams. This might have been a strong Big East team getting fired up for a road game, shooting well, and burying Iowa early.
Or things in Iowa City might be more tenuous than we believed.
The Hawkeyes returned four key contributors from last season’s NCAA Tournament team, and added head coach Fran McCaffery’s son Patrick, a top 60 recruit per ESPN. Expectations for this Iowa team dipped when sharpshooter Jordan Bohannon had hip surgery this offseason and was expected to miss much of the 2019-20 season. Those hopes rebounded when Bohannon was ruled healthy enough to not only play this season, but when he participated as early as the season opener. His minutes are down, but Iowa has the luxury of returning a double-digit scorer from last season to the lineup.
Bohannon is joined by a strong stable of shooters and Luka Garza patrolling the paint. This Iowa team makes sense on paper and figured to be a strong competitor in the Big Ten.
Then DePaul strolled into town and scored 29 points in the first 10 minutes against the Hawkeyes. Iowa’s defense was shredded by the Blue Demons, allowing 93 points on over 61 percent shooting from the field. Iowa was slower than and outworked by DePaul at every turn. The Hawkeyes looked fundamentally worse than expected this season.
An Iowa team that doesn’t defend and features a hampered Jordan Bohannon, playing only 17 minutes per game to date, is far worse than a team where Bohannon is an All-Big Ten performer and that competes on both ends of the floor.
Fred Hoiberg was an excellent college basketball coach in his stint at his alma mater, Iowa State, before floundering for a few years with the Chicago Bulls. Following an up and down debut season, his Cyclones were ranked in the top 25 in the nation in offensive efficiency four years in a row. He built a culture and a scheme that led to unselfish play and prioritized smart shots.
When he was poised to return to college basketball, many were excited for him to hit the ground running and return to his winning ways. Well, he has hit the ground, but he sure ain’t running.
Hoiberg’s Nebraska Cornhuskers are 0-2, with consecutive home losses to teams clearly in the bottom half of Division I. In the Huskers opener, they not only lost to UC Riverside, but were soundly pounded by the Highlanders, trailing by 20 in the game’s final minute.
Nebraska’s successes in the game mirrored those of Hoiberg’s Iowa State clubs, assisting on 12 of 16 made baskets. The quantity is the larger issue there. Just 16 made field goals in a game is a real problem. Nebraska struggled to consistently find quality shots, hitting just 29 percent from the field. From beyond the arc, Nebraska was dreadful, sinking 6 of 26 tries. When they were aggressive and reached the free throw line, the Huskers didn’t convert, making only 9 of 19 from the charity stripe.
That could look like a one-off poor shooting night. In today’s world of pace and space, a cold shooting night can make a great team look merely good or a decent team look despicable.
It’s concerning then that the Huskers followed the UC Riverside loss with another dud, falling to Southern Utah in overtime. Again Nebraska attempted 26 threes, making even fewer this game, notching just five made long balls. Before blaming early season shooting woes, keep in mind: Southern Utah shot even worse, hitting just 4 of 23 from outside the arc. The Thunderbirds (yes, the Southern Utah Thunderbirds) dominated the boards, playing with more energy than Nebraska beyond 40 minutes and into overtime.
There is plenty of time for the Huskers to turn things around this season, yet the schedule gets no easier. After Thanksgiving, just 2 of Nebraska’s 24 games come against teams outside the KenPom top 100. I still believe in Hoiberg’s coaching ability, but just a week into this season, it’s easy to see he’ll have an uphill climb with Nebrasketball. Friday offers the Huskers a chance to stop the bleeding, with a match-up against a South Dakota State team that may well be just as good as Nebraska.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.