This post is the beginning of something greater. A larger project, so to speak.
I’m not the first person to make the following observation, but I am a deep seeded believer in this idea: No one watches as much basketball as they claim to watch. Whether the discussion veers toward NBA League Pass or mid-major college basketball or overseas draft prospects, it always seems as everyone else has an opinion or a take on every single piece of hoops news and action that is happening around the world.
Everyone you follow on Twitter or listen to on a podcast seems to not only have seen every basketball game that you have seen, but they rewatched that game in closer detail, watched every other game that night, keep up to date with every other sport too, binged every “must see” show on Netflix or HBO, saw every movie that comes to theaters, heard every album released this decade, and, somehow, are also in a meaningful relationship or raising children.
As someone who aspires to be very knowledgeable about college basketball (while still being a Sixers fan and enjoying many of the other things in that list above), I am easily frustrated by this concept. There aren’t enough hours in the day to stay ahead and offer new, nuanced, insightful opinions in my writing.
At the same time, because I am aware of this issue, it’s easy to spot those who seem to be exceptions to the rule or those who are the very reason the rule exists. Some, and I’ll avoid naming names, have the expertise and the background knowledge at every turn, proving their level of commitment to the Basketball Gods. Others seem to run dry on what to say or write once the conversation moves beyond their favorite team or the crop of blue bloods we all know and love or hate.
Nothing impresses me and endears me to a writer or broadcaster more than when they show themselves to have a deep breadth of knowledge. Nothing makes me zone out of an article, podcast, or other piece of content quicker than someone who clearly doesn’t know their stuff, beyond a base level of competence.
So, I’d like to set out to be the former and not the latter. We’ll do so this season with a new feature that I’m calling The Full 353.
Over the course of this season, once a week here at Palestra Back, the Full 353 will cover the good, the bad, and the Rutgers of college basketball with one clear and stated goal:
We’re going to try to mention every single men’s Division I basketball team.
This is a lofty goal that I’m certain I will struggle to meet. If we don’t get there by March, we’ll scratch and claw as far as we can. In the end, no matter the final number, I hope that this effort brings you a deeper, more complete, and more enjoyable experience here at the blog. I will still be covering Kansas and Duke and Kentucky, but as we’ve already seen this season, Stephen F. Austin (1) and Evansville (2) deserve a mention too. (Do those count? Can I count those? Yeah, I’m counting those. But we won’t count teams who are only mentioned in passing or as an opponent of another team.)
You Love to See It
These are the teams, players, and concepts that looked good this week.
Penn State (3)
This is a pivotal season for the Penn State program. It’s Patrick Chambers’ ninth season in Happy Valley. In those nine years, the Nittany Lions have not reached the NCAA Tournament and have just two winning seasons (including an NIT championship).
In recent years, there has been talent in State College, yet it has been juggled around in unfortunate ways. Following the NIT title in 2018, Tony Carr turned pro after just two years at Penn State. He was selected with the 51st pick in the NBA Draft, but has never appeared in an NBA game. Last season, freshman point guard Rasir Bolton started nine games and averaged 11.6 points per game for the season. He chose to transfer to Iowa State.
Losing players like Carr and Bolton has made things an uphill climb, yet the recipe for an at-large bid is still being built in Happy Valley. A win over undefeated and top five ranked Maryland on Tuesday night, complete with court storming, should really open some eyes around the college basketball world. While it may seem lucky that the Nittany Lions were the best team Maryland had played and the Terps first true road game, Penn State delivered and took care of business.
With additional wins over Georgetown, Syracuse, Yale, and Wake Forest, there is a legitimate NCAA Tournament case for Penn State. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently slots the Nits as a 9 seed and KenPom’s numbers rank them as the 23rd best team in the nation. Saturday’s date with Alabama should be yet another chance for Chambers and company to show the Big Ten they mean business this season.
Despite the loss at Penn State, Maryland has been a pleasant surprise to date this season. With all of the hub-bub about freshman talent and with bigger name programs soaking up attention, Mark Turgeon’s group in College Park was a bit forgotten coming into the season. Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith chose to return to school after hearing mixed messages about their chances of moving on to the next level. While neither inspired much spark as a draft prospect, they are good enough to be the tent poles of a Sweet Sixteen team at the college level.
Not only is Smith one of the most athletic big men in the nation, he has one of the most fun nicknames in college basketball. Last season, his skinny limbs inspired fans and teammates to call him “Stix”. Over the summer, he bulked up and added more than 10 pounds to his frame. Now his nickname changed.
According to Wikipedia and unfortunately nowhere else, some fans have ditched “Logs” in favor of the much more 2019 choice:
I shouldn’t need to say much about Dayton after the performance the Flyers submitted at the Maui Invitational. This is maybe the best mid-major in college basketball and one of the 12 (or so) best teams in the nation. They have Elite Eight (or better) capabilities.
Following the trip to Maui, the Flyers haven’t cooled off. In a neutral court game in Phoenix, Dayton soundly defeated a good Saint Mary’s team. The Flyers have snatched the role of favorites in the A-10 by playing like one of the best offensive teams in America.
Dayton’s offensive efficiency ranks third in Division I (per KenPom) and it’s easy to see why. The Flyers are unselfish and they work patiently to maximize every possession. Dayton’s top 20 assist rate in the nation is a key reason the Flyers have shot the best effective field goal percentage in college basketball.
In fact, the Flyers offensive success is even simpler. They shoot the highest percentage inside the arc in the nation. That’s not due to some brilliance in the mid-range. No, Dayton is making a high percentage of 2-pointers because they are hunting good looks at the rim. According to the incredibly in-depth numbers at BartTorvik.com, 18 percent of Dayton’s 2-point field goal attempts are dunks. That’s the highest dunk rate in college basketball.
In a time of space and long balls, Anthony Grant has his team forcing the issue. Yes, the analytics say that an open 3-pointer is a great shot. Nothing is better than the automatic (or nearly so) points of a slam dunk. Dayton knows this and wants those easy baskets in transition or in the half court.
Hell, future All-American Dayton star Obi Toppin is so dunk hungry, it’s starting to get a little overboard:
Keep trying, Obi. It’s working.
Iowa State (6) sophomore Tyrese Haliburton
Haliburton had a very promising freshman season in Ames with a lot of talent around him. His role shifted thoughout the season from game-to-game with upper classmen taking precedent in Steve Prohm’s offense. With many of those older teammates graduating or leaving for the pros, Haliburton took the reigns as the leader for the Cyclones’ offense.
He’s hit the ground running as the go-to-guy in 2019-20. The lanky 6-foot-5 guard has more than handled an increased workload. His usage rate has doubled (from 10.1 percent to over 22 percent) , but his counting stats have seen even larger increases. After finishing last season posting 6.8 points per game and 3.6 assists per game, Haliburton is providing Iowa State with 16.2 points per game and 8.2 assists per game, 5th most dimes in college basketball. Despite more than double the amount of field goal attempts, his shooting percentage is nearly identical to last season (51 percent) and his shooting from outside the arc is still over 40 percent. He’s also added an extra steal per game and tripled his trips to the free throw line.
Haliburton has looked like one of the best players in the Big XII so far and should slot into the lottery of every NBA mock draft.
You Hate to See It
This is the section you want to avoid. If you’re in here, you had a rough week.
Michigan State (7)
After starting the season ranked atop the polls, few could have expected Sparty to already have three losses before conference play really kicks into gear. The issue so far hasn’t been super easy to diagnose. Michigan State relies heavily on Cassius Winston, with the ball in his hands constantly in the half court offense.
Opponents have focused heavily on stopping Winston, as a scorer and creator. So far this season, he’s posted by far his lowest assist rate in his college career. This has required other Spartans to step up, with mixed results. Xavier Tillman has struggled offensively, seeing an 8 point drop in his field goal percentage from last season. Aaron Henry has been unreliable, rather than growing into his role as a secondary scorer on the wing. The rest of Tom Izzo’s lineup is freshmen and unproven sophomores.
Someone will need to grow into the kind of playmaker than punishes defenses who heavily focus on Winston’s every move. No one on the Spartans roster has done so yet.
Elsewhere in the category of “National title contenders with three losses”, the Gators have been a mess. On paper, Florida made total sense, with quick penetrating guards working around Kerry Blackshear in the middle.
Instead, Blackshear has clogged the lane when the Gator guards are driving or has been stuck battling for position without receiving a post entry pass. The entire flow of the Florida offense has been off so far this season.
After a break for final exams, the Gators face two intriguing match-ups. Florida will face Providence and Utah State on neutral courts the week before Christmas, offering two real chances to grow and learn to play together. As someone who picked this team to win the national championship, I’ll be keenly watching those games. Stay tuned here for more on the Gators in the future.
St. Joseph’s (9)
After moving on to a new coaching regime following 24 years with Phil Martelli, things on Hawk Hill have been a bit rocky. A 2-1 start, with wins over Bradley and UConn, looked promising early. The Hawks have since lost eight straight games, including clunkers to Towson, Saint Francis, and Lafayette.
Delaware transfer Ryan Daly has attempted the 5th most field goals in college basketball, but has not been scoring efficiently. He’s shooting just 41 percent from the field and only 27 percent from outside the arc, on more than five attempts per game. Daly hasn’t had much help offensively either. No other Hawk averages double-figures and no St. Joe’s player running meaningful minutes is shooting above 50 percent from the field. The offense has been stagnant and sticky, even against lesser competition.
Billy Lange was hired with an expectation of some transition time, but four losses to teams outside the KenPom top 150 before conference play isn’t a good start to a new era.
The Grab Bag
If we’re going to talk about all 353 teams, we need to be forced into a few. I generated three random numbers that corresponded to three teams alphabetically in the list of Division I teams. Let’s look at what these squads are up to (and hope that the computer doesn’t waste this section on a big name or interesting team)
The Quakers were expected to be in the top tier of the Ivy League this season and so far, it’s been a little difficult to nail down what we’ve seen from Penn. Losses to Arizona and Villanova were expected. Wins at Providence and Alabama were not. Neither were losses to Rice or Lafayette. Penn’s performance night to night has widely varied.
The Quakers enter league play among the favorites in the Ivy, roughly even with Harvard and Yale. Luckily for Penn, they don’t face either of those clubs until the last night of January and the next five games on the schedule should be victories. That could give the Quakers a chance to build some momentum and coast into big match-ups with the Crimson and Bulldogs with some confidence.
Oklahoma State (11)
Let’s use this discussion of the Pokes to examine just how brutal the Big XII schedule will be again this season. All ten teams in the Big XII (still dumb that the name hasn’t changed) rank in the top 85 of KenPom’s rankings, with eight of the ten in the top 45. The worst defense in the conference so far this season is Iowa State, who ranks 55th in the nation in defensive efficiency.
Oklahoma State is a perfect example of the league’s depth. The Cowboys should ride in the middle of the pack in the conference this season, yet already have three top 100 wins and a top 20 defense in the nation. Lindy Waters is a great shooter with real heat up potential and Isaac Likekele has bloomed into a playmaker in his sophomore season. Likekele is averaging 13 points and 5 assists per contest, while missing the Cowboys only two losses with an injury.
Add in the usually raucous atmosphere at Gallagher-Iba Arena and it’s easy to see why the Big XII is considered one of the two toughest conferences in college hoops. There are no nights off in the Big XII and every single team has their sights on the NCAA Tournament, including Oklahoma State.
I have not watched Stanford play this season. I could not have told you they only have one loss. Or that the loss came to ranked Butler on a neutral court. Heck, I couldn’t have named Stanford’s head coach. He’s the guy who replaced Johnny Dawkins. Wait this is his fourth season? That’s wild.
Is Stanford good?
They might be. The 332nd ranked strength of schedule doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence, but still, the Cardinal look interesting. I’ll bookmark their December 29th date with Kansas. This is what the Full 353 is all about. Thank you, Random Number Generator. We love you already.
The Fun Stuff
Looking at stats and highlights, this was the goofier or quirkier things we found this week.
- So far this season, only three teams have yet to make a dunk. Idaho (13) has only one dunk attempt in nine games and junior forward Scott Blakney missed it. Abilene Christian (14) has tried two…but missed both. Meanwhile, poor Alabama A&M (15) is the only team left in Division I to not even attempt a slam. Can the Bulldogs dunk? I assume, but the school is located in Normal, Alabama. That’s a scary name for a city. I’m not sure why. There’s gotta be some dark jinx magic there.
- I’ll let the Stat God himself, Ken Pomeroy, elaborate more on this with his recent blog post, but Wyoming (16) is on pace to shatter records for offensive rebounds, on the low side. The Cowboys aren’t actively avoiding grabbing their own misses, but clearly coach Allen Edwards prefers his team get back on defense instead. Wyoming has five or fewer offensive boards in every game but one this season. Against Detroit, the Cowboys didn’t have any offensive rebounds.
- For someone posting eye-popping stats in a positive way, let’s look in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon State (17) sophomore Kylor Kelley is blocking shots at a remarkable rate. He leads the nation with 4.5 blocks per game. In the Beavers’ last four contests, Kelley has 23 blocks, good for a mind-blowing 5.8 per game!
- JJ Culver, younger brother of Minnesota Timberwolf and guard for Wayland Baptist (NAIA, doesn’t count), scored 100 points on Tuesday night. Remarkably, he took 62 field goal attempts and finished with just one assist on the night. His chucker mentality inspired me to search for the most singular focused game on the Division I level this season, and there’s a clear winner. There have been 17 instances so far this season of one player taking 25 or more field goal attempts across Division I. Only one of those players finished that game without an assist and it just so happened to be the player who took the most field goal attempts in a game this season. Iowa (18) big man Luka Garza’s 32 shots against Michigan is the high watermark for field goal attempts in a game so far this year and Garza didn’t record a single assist that night either. He scored 44 points, but the Hawkeyes lost in Ann Arbor.
Final Tally: 18
Season to Date: 18
Ok, only… (opens calculator)…20 more of these to hit the goal this season. Yikes!
This won’t be 3,000 words every week. I got carried away.
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.