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Five things we learned from college basketball’s opening weekend

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1. THIS CROP OF FRESHMEN BIGS ARE THE REAL DEAL: We, as media, have a tendency to overhype freshmen each and every year in college hoops.

That’s just the way that this works. When there is something new and exciting on the horizon, we gravitate towards it. There’s something about the unknown and untapped potential that gets everyone excited. Sometimes, that hype pays off. Sometimes, it doesn’t. The early returns are in, and while there is still a very long way to go, it looks like this group of freshmen are going to be as good as advertised.

Deandre Ayton was fantastic in two games for Arizona. His size, his length, his presence in the paint reminds me of Greg Oden, and while Ayton is a different player – Oden was a better defender, Ayton is more of a new-age, stretch-five – there seems to be little doubt that he is going to spend this entire season being awesome. The same can be said for Marvin Bagley III, who averaged a cool 24.5 points and 10 boards in two games this weekend. Bagley isn’t the only star freshman big man on that Duke roster, either, as the high-low partnership that he is going to have with Wendell Carter this season has the potential to be game-changing.

Jaren Jackson has been an under-discussed member of this freshmen class, but he fits perfectly at the four in Michigan State’s front line and has a shot to prove to everyone just how talented he is on Tuesday, as the Spartans and the Blue Devils face off in the Champions Classic. UNLV’s Brandon McCoy went for 25 points and 18 boards in their opener. Villanova’s Omari Spellman had a double-double. Iowa’s Luka Garza looked like a steal.

And we haven’t even seen Michael Porter Jr. play yet. as he went out after two minutes in Missouri’s win over Iowa State.

Then there is Mo Bamba …

2. THE TEXAS ADDITION OF DYLAN OSETKOWSKI CHANGES THEIR CEILING: … who was terrific in his own right in the opener against Northwestern State, but who may not even be the most important addition that the Longhorns made this offseason.

Bamba is a defensive menace. He is 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan and will be the single-best rim protector in college basketball this season. He’s Rudy Gobert, only with a last name that makes you want to sing a Ritchie Valens song. He changes what Texas can do defensively. Having him in front of the rim will allow Shaka Smart’s ‘Havoc’ style of play to take more chances knowing that missing on a steal may not actually lead to a layup or a dunk.

The addition of Matt Coleman helps as well. Andrew Jones isn’t exactly a point guard, and playing two lead guards together is the lineup du jour in college basketball.

But if you talk to people around the Texas program, they’ll tell you that Osetkowski is the best basketball player on the team. Not the best talent. Not the best prospect. Not the best playmaker. The best basketball player. He is 6-foot-9, he rebounds the ball, he makes threes, he can score in the post but, perhaps most importantly, he can handle the ball and facilitate offense. He takes the pressure off of the Texas playmakers offensively the same way that Bamba takes the pressure off of Texas perimeter defenders.

There is a different between being a facilitator and being a playmaker. Jones and Coleman are both playmakers. They thrive in transition, they can get an open shot for someone off the dribble or in ball-screen actions. They’re very good Big 12 guards. But they’re not exactly the kind of facilitator that can get Texas into a set or run offense. Osetkowski can do that. He will let Smart run offense through him while getting Coleman and Jones into spots on the floor where they can make a play.

At the risk of overreacting to three days’ worth of games, I think that the Longhorns are the second-best team in the Big 12.

3. BUT LET’S NOT WRITE-OFF WEST VIRGINIA JUST YET: Yes, they were bad. Yes, they got blown out by a team that didn’t have their starting point guard who was a freshmen anyway. Yes, they deserve to drop out of the top 25 for that.

And to a point, I think we may have overrated the Mountaineers entering the season. They lost a number of critical program and system guys this offseason. I actively overlooked that because they’ve lost a number of program and system guys in past seasons and improved. When Jonathan Holton graduated, Nathan Adrian stepped up. When Jaysean Paige graduated, Jevon Carter stepped up.

Maybe that well has run dry. I’ll admit as much. But there are two reasons I’m not ready to waive the white flag yet.

1. West Virginia is a team that thrives on energy, and they played a game in Germany that tipped at midnight local time, which is a nine-hour flight away if you can find something direct. This wasn’t a home environment. This wasn’t a game played in a gym like Hilton Coliseum or Phog Allen Fieldhouse. This was on a German Army Base. I don’t know how much of a role that played, or if jet lag contributed, but I can’t pretend those factors don’t exist.

2. It’s also important to note that so much of what West Virginia does is built on actually being able to score. That sounds simple, but with the way that the Mountaineers play defense – Press Virginia and all – they cannot get into their defense if the ball doesn’t go through the basket. Against the Aggies, they shot 40 threes out of 70 field goal attempts. They only made 12, meaning that they were only able to get into their press on 30 percent of those possessions. They also only grabbed 11 offensive rebounds, posting an offensive rebounding rate of 22.9 percent. They finished no worse than sixth-nationally in offensive rebounding rate the last three years, twice cracking 40 percent.

Not having Esa Ahmad really hurt them. Ahmad is not a great offensive rebounder, but he’s pretty good. He’s not great scoring around the rim, but he’s pretty good. He’s the one guy on the roster that they might be able to look to offensively in the paint. His presence allows them to score on more possessions, and that is what matters for West Virginia.

It’s been proven that shooting threes well is the most efficient form of offense. But for the Mountaineers, the way that they play, it’s more important to score on the highest number of possessions possible, even if they’re scoring in a less-efficient way.

Kevin Knox (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. KENTUCKY HAS A LONG WAY TO GO, BUT WE KNEW THIS: Kentucky is a long, long way from being a finished product.

On Friday night against Utah Valley, the issue they had was on the offensive end of the floor. They just couldn’t find a way to get good shots in the half court. On Sunday, it was defensive that killed them. They looked lost trying to defend Vermont’s ball-screen actions.

They started two different lineups in those two games, and both lineups featured five freshmen.

It showed.

We know the Wildcats were going to take some lumps early on this season. The issue isn’t how they’re playing now. It’s whether or not they get better as the season moves along.

5. TUESDAY NIGHT IS GOING TO BE UNBELIEVABLE: I am more excited for the Champions Classic than I have been for this event in years.

Maybe ever.

It starts with No. 1 Duke taking on No. 2 Michigan State in a battle of front courts that should make every NBA scout – both amateur and professional – get excited. Then there is the battle between point guards that need to prove themselves, and that’s before we talk about how their are two first-team preseason all-americans on the floor in Grayson Allen and Miles Bridges.

And that’s just the opener.

The nightcap will feature a Kentucky team that may end up starting a team with no one shorter than 6-foot-5 against a Kansas team that has been playing small-ball lineups that feature four guards 6-foot-6 and below. This will be the real test for the Wildcats, playing a veteran team that has national title aspirations, but it will be a good gauge game for Kansas as well. Kentucky may not be great yet, but they are big, and if there is any question about these Jayhawks, it’s how they are going to handle size.

College Basketball Power Rankings: Duke to No. 1, Xavier and Minnesota climb

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At this point, there really is no choice but to put Duke at No. 1 in the Power Rankings this week.

That’s what happens when you’re a consensus top three team in the preseason and, five days into the regular season, you pick off another top three team. Hell, we had Michigan State ranked No. 1 in the NBC Sports Power Rankings last week.

At this point, Michigan State is still No. 2 for me. Their one loss this season came on a night where Grayson Allen went crazy and they gave up 25 offensive rebounds and committed 18 turnovers, and they still were in the game down the stretch. Beyond that, the only teams in the top 25 that have lost so far this season are Kentucky, Northwestern and Providence. The Wildcats fell to Kansas while playing their best game of the season, while Northwestern and Providence both dropped out of the top 25.

But the truth is that, as of today, we still don’t really know anything about these teams. Arizona, Villanova and Wichita State didn’t have to play anywhere near their best basketball to start the season 3-0. The same can be said for anyone that is currently sitting at or near the top of these rankings.

This week is when we start to really find out about them. Arizona is playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina and Florida are in the PK80. Wichita State is out in Maui. There are events in New York City all week. UCLA, Creighton, Baylor and Wisconsin are in Kansas City. There are games in Las Vegas and Orlando and California

And while my opinion on the glut of exempt events still stands, I do think that we learn more about, say, Wichita State seeing them play potentially overmatched opponents in Maui over the course of three straight days than we do seeing them beat the brakes off of mid-major competition in Koch Arena.

Anyway, here is the NBC Sports Top 25 in its entirety:

1. Duke, 4-0 (Last Week: No. 2)
2. Michigan State, 3-1 (1)
3. Arizona, 3-0 (3)
4. Kansas, 3-0 (4)
5. Villanova, 3-0 (5)
6. Wichita State, 2-0 (6)
7. Florida, 3-0 (7)
8. Cincinnati, 3-0 (8)
9. USC, 4-0 (9)
10. Miami, 3-0 (10)
11. Xavier, 3-0 (14)
12. Texas A&M, 2-0 (11)
13. Minnesota, 4-0 (19)
14. Louisville, 2-0 (12)
15. Notre Dame, 3-0 (13)
16. Seton Hall, 4-0 (15)
17. Kentucky, 3-1 (16)
18. North Carolina, 2-0 (17)
19. Saint Mary’s, 4-0 (21)
20. Alabama, 3-0 (22)
21. Purdue, 4-0 (24)
22. Gonzaga, 3-0 (23)
23. UCLA, 3-0 (18)
24. Texas, 3-0 (NR)
25. Texas Tech, 4-0 (NR)

NEW ADDITIONS: 24. Texas, 25. Texas Tech
DROPPED OUT: 20. Northwestern, No. 25 Providence

Texas Tech mollywhops No. 21 Northwestern, stakes claim to second-best in Big 12

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No. 21 Northwestern was, technically, never even tied with Texas Tech on Sunday evening.

The Wildcats were given a technical foul at the start of the game because their players were not in the scorebook, which was more than adequate foreshadowing for what was to come. Keenan Evans made a free throw before the ball was tipped, the Red Raiders would then score the next eight points and jump out to a 23-5 lead that Chris Collins’ club never recovered.

Northwestern never was within single-digits again, let alone close enough to make this a game. They lost 85-49, the worst loss for the Northwestern program in nearly a decade, since Nov. 27th, 2007.

I could recite the stats to you, if you’d like. Northwestern shot 26.7 percent from the floor. They were 6-for-23 from three. Texas Tech forced 17 turnovers, and Northwestern had 12 field goals to 11 steals for the Red Raiders.

It was as bad of a beatdown as you’ll see between two teams in the NCAA tournament discussion.

It’s easy to read into this loss, and the loss that Northwestern suffered at home against Creighton on Wednesday, and think that the Wildcats are not yet cut out for being the hunted, and that might be fair. As cliché as it is, there is something to be said for the way an opponent plays when you are the quality win. At some point, Northwestern is going to have to prove they can handle that.

But Sunday was not about Northwestern.

Sunday was about Texas Tech.

It was about Chris Beard putting the Big 12 on notice.

This team is tough and they are old. They have size and athleticism. They have a star in lead guard Keenan Evans and a roster that is more than willing to put in the work on the defensive end of the floor. Most importantly, however, is that Beard has built a team full of guys that all have something to prove. There aren’t any four or five-star freshmen on his roster. The elite recruits that he does have are all transfers, cast-offs from other programs.

That’s just how Beard like it.

Now I don’t think the Red Raiders are going to be winning the Big 12 and ending Kansas’ streak of 14 straight Big 12 titles. But I do think that they’ll be right there in the mix for the title of second-best in the Big 12, and I’m not sure I would have felt that way before the start of the season.

Miles Bridges hurt as No. 2 Michigan State cruises past Stony Brook

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Miles Bridges stayed in school to chase a national championship instead of cashing in on his potential in the NBA.

Three games into his sophomore season, he is hurt.

Bridges scored 20 points before limping off the court after injuring his left ankle, casting a pall over No. 2 Michigan State as it beat Stony Brook 93-71 on Sunday night.

“Thank God it’s not a high-ankle sprain,” coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s just a sprain where he rolled it. He’ll be day to day.”

The Spartans (2-1) bounced back from their loss to top-ranked Duke with a win that will be remembered as being costly if Bridges’ injury lingers.

Bridges was fouled with 8:32 left in the game as he went into the lane with the ball and awkwardly planted his left foot, rolling his ankle. After trying to stay in the game to shoot free throws, the preseason All-America player went back to the bench briefly before walking toward the locker room.

“By Tuesday morning, I’ll know more,” Izzo said. “Miles is tough enough to play through it but we’re not going to take any chances.”

Nick Ward scored a season-high 22 points, Joshua Langford had a career-high 19 points and Cassius Winston scored a season-high 13 points and had six assists for the Spartans.

The Seawolves (0-4) led for much of the first half, holding Bridges to two points as they led 22-15 midway through the first half.

Stony Brook’s Elijah Olaniyi scored 16, Akwasi Yeboah had 15 points, UC Iroegbu scored 12 and Tyrell Sturdivant added 10 points.

“The biggest positive was coming out and competing for 40 minutes,” coach Jeff Boals said. “We kept on fighting. I think we led 12 1/2 minutes in the first half. Our biggest thing was coming out and getting off to a good start, just to build some confidence.”

BIG PICTURE

Stony Brook: The America East Conference team made 13 of 26 3-pointers against one of the top teams in the country. That kind of shooting can help the Seawolves pull off an upset, something they had a chance to do in setbacks against Maryland and Connecticut.

“We’re 0-4 right now and it doesn’t look good on wins and losses, but we’ve competed in every game we’ve played,” Boals said.

Michigan State: Bridges’ health is a key factor for the team, and for himself. Izzo isn’t sure how long Bridges will be out.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Spartans will slip in The Associated Press poll after losing to the top-ranked Blue Devils and perhaps because Bridges is injured.

HUMBLED AT HOME

Michigan State standout freshman Jaren Jackson fouled out in 14 scoreless minutes. He missed his only shot, a 3-pointer, and had a team-high three turnovers.

“This might be the only time in that kid’s career he doesn’t score,” Boals said. “He is an unbelievable talent.”

The 6-foot-11 Jackson, rated as one of the top prospects for the 2018 NBA draft, was averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds.

“Jaren’s a great player, but he is a young player,” Langford said. “He’s way ahead of where I was.”

UP NEXT

Stony Brook: In its home opener on Wednesday night, hosts Brown.

Michigan State: Plays DePaul on Thursday night in Oregon at the Phil Knight Invitational. The Spartans will play the Ducks or Connecticut in the semifinals on Friday and could face No. 9 North Carolina on Sunday.

“It’s not the biggest stage like Duke was, but it’s time to get back to what we lost against Duke,” Langford said.

Donald Trump’s response to LaVar Ball: ‘I should’ve left them in jail!’

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I told you this was going to happen.

After LaVar Ball downplayed Donald Trump’s role in bringing home his son, LiAngelo, and the three other UCLA players that were arrested for shoplifting in China last week, Trump responded by taking to twitter and saying that he should have left American citizens in prison in a non-democratic, authoritarian country because they will not personally acknowledge his efforts enough:

Sigh.

Now we await LaVar’s response.

Five-star 2018 recruit Anfernee Simons could test NBA Draft process

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Five-star Class of 2018 guard Anfernee Simons is interested in potentially entering the 2018 NBA Draft.

According to a report from Jonathan Givony of ESPN, the former Louisville commit will likely be eligible to jump to the NBA straight out of high school since he graduated high school last year while turning 19 next June. The 6-foot-4 Simons, considered the No. 16 overall prospect in the Rivals’ Class of 2018 national rankings, is playing a post-grad season at IMG Academy for 2017-18 after reclassifying as a sophomore.

If Simons opts to go pro than college basketball loses a potential star as he’s been shooting up the national rankings over the past year. Simons was committed to the Cardinals since the beginning of his junior year but he opened things up once former head coach Rick Pitino lost his job in a fallout from the FBI investigation on college basketball.

Simons started his season at the National Prep Showcase this weekend as six NBA teams sent people to watch him play, according to Givony’s report.

It’ll be fascinating to see what happens in this situation as Simons hasn’t done much with the recruiting process over the last several months. Now that NBA teams are already watching him play, Simons could follow in Thon Maker’s footsteps and turn pro right away.