PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Juwan Morgan, Indiana
Indiana’s best player this season put together the best performance of his career on Saturday afternoon.
One year after setting his career-high by scoring 34 points in a win over Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic, Juwan Morgan went out and put 35 points on Butler in this year’s iteration of the same event. He was 12-for-14 from the floor. He made four of Indiana’s nine threes and seven of their eight free throws. He scored 35 of their 71 points in a 71-68 win over Butler, and while Robert Phinisee’s buzzer-beating three is going to be what everyone remembers from this game, the truth is that Morgan is the reason the Hoosiers won this game. He kept them close in a game that Butler more or less controlled from the tip and gave them a shot to win in the final seconds.
And frankly, it’s a microcosm of Indiana’s season to date. The Hoosiers have yet to hit anything close to their stride. The 23 point win over Marquette last month looks better and better, but since that game Indiana has lost twice and struggled in their six wins. It took them longer than it should have to put away UT Arlington and UC Davis. They won one possession games in four straight, over Northwestern, at Penn State, against Louisville and, on Saturday, vs. Butler. They’ve battled injury. They’ve battled depth issues. They have a roster full of underclassmen that are being asked to figure things out on the fly.
Yet, they are currently 9-2 on the season with a number of good wins and nary a bad loss. Getting smacked by Duke in Cameron is going to happen to everyone. Their loss at Arkansas was by one point in a game that Indiana probably should have one.
If there has been one constant for them, it’s Morgan, their ever-underrated star.
If and when Indiana finally gets healthy and starts playing up to their potential, they are going to be in a position to get a pretty good seed in the NCAA tournament. That’s due, in very large part, to the work Morgan has done these first 11 games.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina landed the marquee non-conference win that they’ve been searching for on Saturday.
A loss to Texas in the first round of the Las Vegas Invitational burned their shot at playing Michigan State. The Tar Heels were smoked on the road by Michigan. Kentucky, as of today, doesn’t look like it is going to end up being as good as we thought they would be.
That left Saturday’s home date with then-No. 4 Gonzaga, and North Carolina delivered. Spurred on by hot shooting from Cam Johnson and — finally — Luke Maye to go along with a career-best 14 points from Seventh Woods, the Tar Heels ran away from the Zags late in the first half and coasted to a 103-90 win in Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels are dangerous. They actually matchup well with the likes of Duke, Gonzaga and Tennessee, and given that Nassir Little is still coming off of the bench — we’ll get to that in a bit — they have the kind of depth and lineup versatility that you need. When it comes down to it, getting smoked at Michigan when Zavier Simpson eats up a freshman point guard is not that bad of a loss, and the loss to Texas came on the one day this season where Kerwin Roach decided he wanted to be Russell Westbrook.
I’m still very much in on the Tar Heels.
1. GONZAGA’S DEFENSE WILL COST THEM A FINAL FOUR
We have reached the point in the season where I can comfortably say that Gonzaga’s defense is a major, major problem. As of today, the Zags rank 63rd nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, but considering that KenPom’s algorithm still factors in last season’s data, it stands to reason that the Zags are, truthfully, worse than just 63rd in defensive efficiency. Against North Carolina on Saturday, they gave up 103 points. They allowed 76 in 68 possessions to Tennessee. Washington scored 79 in just 67 possessions. Creighton put up 92 points in 76 possessions. Duke lit up the Zags as well, scoring 48 of their 87 points in the second half.
I did a study on this last season when Duke’s defense was the biggest concern in college basketball. Only one team has won a national title in the KenPom era when they entered the NCAA tournament ranked outside of the top 35 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric — North Carolina in 2009. Only two other teams reached the title game when they entered the tournament ranked outside the top 40 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and reached the national title game: Butler in 2011, the year they beat No. 11 seed VCU in the Final Four, and Trey Burke’s Michigan team in 2013.
The good news for the Zags?
Both Michigan in 2013 and North Carolina in 2009 were one of the top two teams offenses in the country, and that’s precisely where the Zags reside this year.
And it would stand to reason that the return of Killian Tillie will help on the defensive end of the floor.
But it is worth mentioning here that neither Josh Perkins nor Zach Norvell Jr. are considered good defenders, while Rui Hachimura’s biggest issue is being able to stay in front of people on the perimeter. Tillie’s return would likely bump him to the three.
It is too early to start freaking out about this. Remember, we had this same conversation about Duke last season, and they ended up as a top ten defense after switching to zone. We also had this conversation about Duke in 2015, the year they won the title.
But this is something we will need to track all season long.
2. KENTUCKY IS … BACK?
The Wildcats de-pantsed a bad Utah team, which in a vacuum is really nothing to write home about.
Kentucky should be beating teams ranked outside the top 100 on KenPom 88-61 in Rupp Arena.
But the reason this is notable today is because Kentucky hasn’t been doing that this season. They’ve struggled to put away teams that we all thought would be overmatched, and since they have lost the only two games they’ve played outside of Lexington, they are falling out of top 25s all over the place. They were not ranked in the NBC Sports Top 25 last week or this week.
That said, this was a promising performance from Kentucky simply because they finally beat the hell out of someone. We’ve been waiting all season for them to play like the team that whooped up on everyone that crossed their path in the Bahamas, and they did that on Saturday. Utah is going to finish somewhere in the bottom half of the Pac-12 this year, but that is still a high-major basketball team coached by one of the best coaches in the sport.
Maybe all they needed to kickstart their season was a week’s worth of doubters telling the world how losing Quade Green and dropping an overtime game to Seton Hall was the death-knell for the John Calipari era at Kentucky.
3. KANSAS CANNOT REACH THEIR CEILING WITHOUT GETTING QUENTIN GRIMES GOING
The Jayhawks are a two-headed monster at this point in the year. I wrote 1,000 words on Saturday explaining why. The tl;dr version is pretty simple: No Udoka Azubuike means that Dedric Lawson has to play the five. Dedric Lawson at the five means that Kansas doesn’t have anyone capable of scoring that can play the four, and since Bill Self’s freshman backcourt hasn’t looked all that much more effective offensively than Marcus Garrett, there are really only two players that opposing defenses have to worry about.
Lawson and Lagerald Vick.
Some of that gets solved with the return of the big fella.
But there is no doubt that Kansas needs to find a way to get Quentin Grimes going. After looking like the best freshman in the country for the first half of the first game this season, Grimes has been non-existent for the Jayhawks. He’s not making threes. He’s not getting to the rim. He looks like he’s totally lost his confidence. And if he’s not a threat to score, there’s no point in having in on the court, as Garrett is better than Grimes at everything that doesn’t involve putting the ball in the basket.
4. THE NCAA TOURNAMENT SELECTION COMMITTEE MUST REWARD THE MID-MAJORS THIS YEAR
The Pac-12 had a dreadful weekend in what has been a pretty dreadful start to their season. Washington was smoked by No. 13 Virginia Tech. Utah was embarrassed by No. 19 Kentucky. Belmont won at UCLA in a game where UCLA led by 12 in the second half. USC got smoked by Oklahoma. Arizona lost at home to Baylor, who most think will be competing for second-to-last in the Big 12 this season. Oregon State lost at home to a rebuilding Texas A&M. Cal improved to 4-5 on the season, but they needed a jumper with 3.8 seconds left to get past 3-6 Cal Poly.
There’s a very real chance that the Pac-12 is a two-bid conference.
The American looks like it is going to end up being a two-bid league, depending on how things shake out. The Atlantic 10 is going to be a one-bid league. The Mountain West and WCC will likely both end up being one-bid leagues as long as Gonzaga and Nevada are the teams that win their respective automatic bids.
The problem with this, however, is that we are going to need to find a way to get to 36 at-large bids somehow.
I hope this means that the mid-majors that have won big games during non-conference play get rewarded. Belmont has beaten UCLA on the road, Illinois State and swept a Lipscomb team that has won at SMU, at TCU and very nearly pipped a win at Louisville. Buffalo is undefeated with a win at West Virginia and a sweep of Southern Illinois. Furman is undefeated with a win at Villanova and a trip to LSU coming up on Friday.
I know there are more teams that deserve mention here as well that I’m just not remembering off the top of my head.
And I hope that the work these programs have done in the non-conference will get them the attention they deserve and an at-large bid should they end up getting upset in their league tournament.
I also know that probably isn’t going to be how it goes.
We’ll just invite the entire ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 and call it a bracket.
5. CAM JOHNSON IS THE REASON NASSIR LITTLE DOESN’T PLAY 35 MINUTES A NIGHT
Much has been made this season about why Nassir Little, a top five prospect and a potential top three pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, isn’t starting and is only seeing 20 minutes when he’s been so productive in those minutes.
The reason why is very, very simple, and I explained it all right here on Saturday.