PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky
It is not a coincidence that, in the two biggest wins Kentucky has had this season, Tyrese Maxey was the star. On Saturday, in a 78-70 overtime win over then-No. 3 Louisville, Maxey went off for 27 points on 9-for-14 shooting while hitting 4-for-5 from three. This came after his 26 point outburst on the opening night of the season in a win over Michigan State.
And that right there is what makes the difference for the Wildcats. Nick Richards played the best game of his life Saturday. Ashton Hagans was as solid as always, even if his scoring wasn’t quite there. Immanuel Quickley stepped up and hit some big shots in big moments. But having a go-to guy, a bucket-getter that was create something out of nothing is absolutely enormous for a team that has so many question marks elsewhere on their roster.
We don’t know what Kentucky is going to do at the four. We don’t know if Kahlil Whitney or E.J. Montgomery or Johnny Juzang are going to be able to contribute this season in significant ways. Some of that gets mitigated if Maxey can be the guy that can create offense on the most important possessions of a game.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: West Virginia
There was not a team in college basketball that I was more wrong about being bad than West Virginia. I thought they were going to be the worst team in the Big 12.
Turns out, they are not.
The Mountaineers landed themselves a marquee win on Saturday, beating Ohio State in Cleveland in fairly dominant fashion despite the fact that Oscar Tshiebwe played eight scoreless minutes due to foul trouble. Much of that is the result of Miles McBride, who went for a career-high 21 points, but it also had quite a bit to do with the fact that West Virginia’s defense is suffocating.
They aren’t Press Virginia anymore, but they are one of the 10 best defenses in college hoops.
And now, they are sitting pretty with wins over Ohio State, Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Pitt and Rhode Island. That is a serious resume this early in the season.
1. I FEEL BETTER ABOUT LOUISVILLE NOW THAN I DID BEFORE THE KENTUCKY GAME
The biggest knock of Louisville this season is that they are a team that is forced to ride or die with Jordan Nwora because they don’t have anyone else on the roster that is capable of creating for themselves. This is why they looked so bad offensively against Michigan and Texas Tech, and why they struggled so much in the first half against Kentucky. Through the first 100 minutes that the Cardinals have played against elite defenses this season, they had mustered a total of 139 points in 171 possessions, or 0.813 PPP. For reference, the best defenses in college basketball hover around the 0.850 PPP allowed range.
It’s not a coincidence that, in that same time frame, Jordan Nwora was 14-for-47 from the floor and 3-for-17 from three.
That’s relevant because, in the second half and overtime on Saturday afternoon, Nwora more or less played as a decoy. Kentucky face-guarded him wherever he was on the floor, and he simply got out of the way. That’s when he wasn’t actually on the bench. Louisville erased a 12-point second half deficit against the Wildcats on Saturday, and the run to regain a foothold in the game came when Nwora was out.
Steve Enoch finished with 18 points, knocking down a three and getting his back-to-the-basket game going. Dwayne Sutton had 14 points and 10 boards, making some key defensive plays and picking up a few critical loose balls.
But the most important performance came from Fresh Kimble, a grad transfer point guard from St. Joe’s that currently backs up Darius Perry. He had 12 points and four assists, making some crucial plays in the second half to keep the Cardinals moving in the right direction. Point guard play has been the biggest concern for Louisville this season, and playing arguably the best team in what was definitely the toughest venue they’ve seen this year, Kimble had his best game. Someone needs to be able to make plays to create easy offense for people not named Nwora, and Kimble – along with Sutton, Enoch and even Darius Perry, to a point – were able to do that and bring Louisville back.
That’s big, even if it comes in a loss.
2. SATURDAY SHOWCASED THE BAD SIDE OF OHIO STATE’S POINT GUARD PLAY
After Ohio State’s win over Kentucky, I sang the praises of D.J. Carton and, to a lesser extent, C.J. Walker, as they were instrumental in leading the Buckeyes to a massive win over the Wildcats.
On Sunday, we saw the other side of things. Carton was 1-for-5 from the floor, turned the ball over five times and, in his 22 minutes, looked exactly the way you would expect a raw freshman to look against West Virginia. Walker wasn’t much better, finishing with one assist and four turnovers.
Ohio State does not have all that much offensive firepower. There really aren’t that many guys that can create offense for themselves, so when their point guards aren’t able to initiate offense and can’t create easy points for their teammates, they’re in trouble.
3. SO LET’S TALK ABOUT UCLA AND MICK CRONIN
Over the weekend, Gary Parrish of CBS Sports wrote a
column blog post about UCLA that, in so many words, said that Mick Cronin should not be judged based on this season because he has a roster that lacks anything close to the talent we typically see on a UCLA roster.
It created quite a bit of dialogue, both on twitter and in private conversations, among the people I talk to, so I figured this space was the perfect place to do that after a slow weekend.
If you missed it, UCLA lost to Cal St.-Fullerton on Saturday night, a team that ranks 274th in KenPom and did not have a single win over a top 300 team prior to that game in Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins are now 7-6 on the season, and Mick Cronin is getting more and more frustrated.
Now, I’m going to be talking out of both sides of my mouth here, but there’s a lot to chew on with this discussion.
Cronin knows how to win. He’s one of just six coaches to reach each of the last nine NCAA tournaments, along with Coach K, Bill Self, Tom Izzo, Mark Few and Roy Williams. He did it at Cincinnati with his defense. His teams finished an average of 15th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric over that nine-year run.
But the Cincinnati program has a very different culture and ethos to the one that he walked into in UCLA. That doesn’t change overnight, as evidenced by the fact that a roster loaded with four-star, top 100 talent is currently sitting at 199th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.
It took four years for Cronin to get it rolling at Cincinnati. It’s going to take him some time to get it rolling at UCLA, and he should not be judged on his ability to turn that thing around until he has three or four years under his belt and “his guys” in the program.
That said, what UCLA has done this season is terrible. Think about it like this: Steve Alford was fired right around the New Year last season after a 7-6 start that featured home losses to Belmont and Liberty, two mid-majors that won an NCAA tournament game last season. As the calendar flips this season, UCLA is sitting at … 7-6 with losses to mid-majors Hofstra and Fullerton, neither of whom are as good as Belmont or Liberty was last season.
This summer, I wrote about how much work Cronin has in front of him re-establishing the culture he needs to win. I think there is still the same chance that he can get there as when the season started.
But this season is a mess, and while Alford did not leave Cronin with a roster good enough to get to a Final Four, he certainly left him one that should be good enough to beat Fullerton and Hofstra in their own building.
4. JORDAN BONE WAS THE SINGLE-BIGGEST EARLY ENTRY LOSS IN COLLEGE HOOPS
Losing Jordan Bone was always going to be a major blow for Tennessee. As a junior, Bone was one of the best point guards in the SEC. He averaged 13.5 points and 5.8 assists for the Vols, and if he had returned to school, he might have been a preseason All-American.
And that’s to say nothing of the fact that a perimeter attack that consisted of Bone, Lamonte’ Turner, Josiah-Jordan James and Jordan Bowden would be among the best in the country.
But now that Turner is gone, his loss is magnified even more. Tennessee got absolutely steamrolled on Saturday afternoon, scoring just 48 points in a blowout loss at home against a Wisconsin team that was 0-5 away from the Kohl Center. It was all bad, and it stemmed from the fact that Tennessee does not have a point guard on the roster right now. Having Bone would have made a difference.
The good news is that reinforcements have arrived. Freshman point guard Santiago Vescuvi, a native of Uruguay, enrolled last week and arrived in Knoxville on Saturday morning.
Just in time for league play.
Bueno suerte, hermano.
5. ARKANSAS IS DANGEROUS
Eric Mussleman’s best Nevada teams were known as offensive juggernauts where he let his best players rock out while hoping that they would be able to do just enough defensively to get the wins they needed. He let Caleb Martin, Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline do what they do, and the result was 110 wins over four years, three straight seasons with at least 28 wins, two tournament berths and a trip to the Sweet 16.
At Arkansas, he’s once again letting his guys rock out. Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe are both having terrific individual seasons. The difference is that the Razorbacks are a top 10 defense in college hoops right now, which gives me hope that this 11-1 start to the season isn’t a fluke.
I don’t fully trust this team just yet. Their best win is at Indiana, who may or may not be good themselves, and I cannot get the thought of the overtime period at Georgia Tech out of my head.
But this team has a chance, and in an SEC where we are not sure who is actually good outside of Kentucky and Auburn, that may be enough for a top three finish.