With all the hand-wringing and excitement about the return of college basketball this week, you might be surprised to learn that just three teams ranked in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 lost.
Two of those losses came in the Champions Classic, as Kentucky and Michigan State fell to the top two teams in this week’s NBC Sports Top 25, Duke and Kansas, respectively. The third? Then-No. 17 West Virginia losing at home to now-No. 25 Buffalo on Friday night.
I say all that to say this: There really isn’t all that much to change about the Top 25 this week. There are really only three questions that need to be answered, so I’ll walk you through my thought process for each one:
Can Kansas fall out of the top spot with a win over a top 15 team?: Hell yes they can. The Jayhawks were the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason based on projections and feelings we had about how good they might end up being. Now we have actual, actionable results to evaluate, and there really should be all that much of a discussion. I’m not even sure there are Kansas fans will sit here and say that, after watching Duke beat Kentucky by 34 points, they believe the Jayhawks are better than the Blue Devils.
How far should Kentucky fall?: I dropped the Wildcats to 18th. I’ve seen other top 25s that have Kentucky at the back-end of the top ten. I don’t think that’s crazy, but I also think that we have much more to worry about with this Wildcat team that those folks realize. Kentucky still has top ten potential, but for my money they are much further from reaching their ceiling than anyone realized. I ended up with them 18th because I couldn’t justify dropping them below LSU or Mississippi State.
What do we do with West Virginia and Buffalo?: I was already lower on West Virginia entering the season than the public, so dropping them out of the top 25 with a loss at home against Buffalo was pretty easy for me to do. I know that loss came as a result of a once-in-a-career blow-up game from C.J. Massinburg and that the Mountaineers didn’t have Beetle Bolden down the stretch as he dealt with cramping issues, but it seemed pretty evident that Press Virginia has some kinks to work out. Buffalo, on the other hand, entered the season as one of the best mid-majors in the country after smoking Arizona in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament. They lived up to that billing, so why not reward them?
There was one headline matchup on Friday night, and that ended up being a dud, the bluest blueblood in action looked pretty bad and we may have seen the single-best individual performance of the season. Here are Friday’s Things To Know:
1. C.J. MASSINBURG PUT ON THE PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON
I’m sure that, at some point over the course of the next five months, we are going to see someone put on a show that was more impressive than what Massinburg did on Friday night in Morgantown, but it is not going to be something that is easy to do. The Buffalo star put up a career-high 43 points, adding 14 boards and three assists while shooting 9-for-15 from three as the Bulls beat No. 13 West Virginia, 99-94 in OT. He had nine points in an 11-3 run in the final three minutes of regulation, including a three with 14 seconds left that forced overtime. He scored nine of Buffalo’s 15 points in overtime.
It was incredible.
And this wasn’t against some run-of-the-mill low-major program that Buffalo was in position to steamroll. This came on the road against a top 15 team in the country in a game where Buffalo trailed by double-digits for most of the second half. This came against Press Virginia, and it gave the Bulls the kind of win that will put their resume in the mix for an at-large bid come Selection Sunday. It puts them in a position where it’s feasible that they might end up with single-digit seed.
Remember, this is the same program that smoked Arizona in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament. Let’s see what happens when they play at Syracuse and at Marquette next month. That should be a lot of fun.
2. No. 11 AUBURN LOOKS LIKE A POWERHOUSE
The Tigers were really impressive in a season-opening win over South Alabama, but that was South Alabama.
On Friday night, the Tigers looked just as impressive, but instead of beating some overmatched in-state mid-major, Bruce Pearl’s club put a hurting on No. 25 Washington, the team many think will win the Pac-12 this season. Chuma Okeke once again led the way for Auburn with 19 points, 10 boards and two blocks while knocking down three more threes. On the season, he’s 6-for-8 from three with five blocks and seven assists in two games.
So he can protect the rim and space the floor while also attack a closeout and find shooters. Anfernee McLemore, who starts alongside Okeke in Auburn’s frontline, led the nation in block percentage a season ago while shooting 39.1 percent from three. So he can protect the rim and space the floor as well. Auburn presses. They play in transition. They have a point guard in Jared Harper who has been dominant and a combo-guard alongside him in Samir Doughty who is living up to the hype. Should I mention their best perimeter scorer, Bryce Brown, at some point, or that they are still waiting to get Danjel Purifoy eligible and Austin Wiley back to 100%?
Auburn, to me, looks like the best team in the SEC this season and possibly a top five team in the country. That also has a lot to do with the fact that …
3. … KENTUCKY JUST IS NOT VERY GOOD RIGHT NOW
The Wildcats knocked off a solid enough Southern Illinois team team on Friday night, winning by 12 points in a game they trailed in the second half. The final score was 71-59, but perhaps the most surprising part about all of this was that Kentucky’s best frontline might actually be Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery. P.J. Washington was bad tonight. Reid Travis was a complete non-factor after putting up 22 points against Duke.
Richards finished with 19 boards (nine offensive) while Montgomery added 10 points and seven boards while not turning the ball over; Washington had five in 20 minutes. The other issue is that Kentucky’s guard rotation is quirky right now. Head coach John Calipari is going to realize pretty quickly that he team cannot function offensively right now unless both Quade Green and Immanuel Quickley are on the floor.
My opinion on Kentucky hasn’t changed much since this podcast was recorded, but it is worrisome that this appears to be an issue with their team, not just a function of playing Duke on Tuesday.
Massinburg scores 43, Buffalo stuns No. 13 WVU 99-94 in OT
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — CJ Massinburg had 43 points and 14 rebounds as Buffalo pulled off another big upset against a power program, stunning No. 13 West Virginia 99-94 in overtime Friday night.
Jeremy Harris added 16 points and nine rebounds for the Bulls in the season opener for both teams. Buffalo grabbed attention last March when the 13th-seeded Bulls blew out No. 4 seed Arizona 89-68 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
This time, the Bulls (1-0) rallied with a late 15-4 surge to force overtime before outscoring the Mountaineers 15-10 in the extra period.
It was the first time West Virginia (0-1) lost its home opener since a 91-84 defeat against Northeastern in 2003.
Jayvon Graves added 14 points for Buffalo, and Nate Perkins scored 10 off the bench.
Lamont West led West Virginia with 22 points and nine rebounds. James “Beetle” Bolden scored a career-high 21.
Buffalo had a 29-14 edge in offensive rebounds.
Buffalo: Hits the road to take on Southern Illinois, which just gave Kentucky a game in Lexington. It was Kentucky that knocked Buffalo out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round last season. The Bulls get more opportunities at major teams with Syracuse and Marquette on the slate for December.
West Virginia: After the Mountaineers dropped their opener against the Bulls, more mid-major powers like Valparaiso, Western Kentucky, Monmouth, UCF and Rhode Island are still on the horizon.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — College basketball’s most electrifying defender was using his feet to change games just a few years ago.
Growing up in Mali, soccer was the game for Sagaba Konate.
“How would you like that guy bearing down on you?” asked West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.
The 6-foot-8, 260-pound Konate doesn’t work much in pursuit these days. Instead, he mostly huddles at the rim, waiting to unleash his game-changing skill.
“I just block shots,” Konate told NBC Sports last month at Big 12 media day. “I just do it. That’s the thing I like to do.”
Konate’s ability to block in the manner and with the frequency he does is a big reason for the belief that 13th-ranked West Virginia’s vaunted press won’t regress without All-American guard Jevon Carter. Instead of having a harassing guard at the tip of the spear, Press Virginia will have a bear trap in the rear.
“We have the best shot blocker in the country in the back of it,” Huggins said, “which helps considerably.”
Konate, who measured a 7-foot wingspan and a 35-inch vertical at the NBA Draft combine, blocked 3.2 shots per game last year, swatting away an astounding 15.6 percent of a team’s shot attempts when he was on the floor. If Konate is in the game, essentially one out of six shots has a zero percent chance of going in.
It’s a weapon nearly no other team in the country has at their disposal, and one that Konate has developed in just a few short years since picking up the sport when he emigrated from Mali to the U.S. midway through high school in 2014.
“It’s kind of natural,” Konate said of his blocking ability. “No one taught me how to block shots.”
There was something that drew him to it, though.
“I just saw it was pretty cool,” Konate said, “and I love doing it. So that’s what I do.”
It’s not simply the volume of shots he turns away that makes Konate such a menace defensively. It’s the substance and situation, too.
Konate has seemingly perfected the volleyball-style block, that keeps the ball in play and can kick-start the break.
“You don’t see people block shots with two hands very often,” Huggins said. “He blocks shots with two hands regularly.”
Maybe the most impressive tool in Konate’s repertoire, though, is his ability to deny dunks. He never concedes a slam, and often wins the aerial confrontation at the rim.
“For me, I really don’t care,” Konate said. “I don’t care if I get dunked on. It’s just fearless. I don’t play scared. I’m going to jump, make a play.
“If he dunks on me, the play goes on, but I’m going to get you.”
Konate’s panache for contesting jams puts him in the same company as the best player Huggins has ever had, Kenyon Martin.
“Kenyon could have,” Huggins said, “but nobody tried. They kind of tried to stay away from him as much as they could. They come at Sags.”
But why would anyone be foolish enough to do that?
“I don’t know,” Huggins said. “The challenge of it, maybe.”
What defines a big man in college basketball these days?
In the NBA, there are clearly defined types of bigs.
There are stretch-fours, stretch-fives, switchable rim-runners, rim-protecters, skilled fives.
And these days, those bigs come in all shapes and sizes, from Draymond Green to Clint Capela, from Joel Embiid to Giannis Antetokuonmpo.
In college, it’s a little bit different.
Since the Golden State Warriors haven’t broken the sport like they have at the highest level, teams can play different styles and have success. Villanova won the 2018 national title by going all in on spacing, shooting and skill while the 2017 national title was played between North Carolina and Gonzaga, two teams that played with massive frontcourts.
Styles can still make fights at this level, which makes the different frontcourts all that much more interesting this season.
So let’s take a look at them.
Here are the best sets of bigs in college basketball.
Players: Reid Travis, P.J. Washington, Nick Richard, E.J. Montgomery
The Wildcats may not match the numbers that some of the other teams on this list have from a depth standpoint, but they certainly hold their own from a talent standpoint. P.J. Washington and Nick Richards are the lone returnees in this quartet, with the former coming off of a freshman season in which he averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 51.9 percent from the field. The transition to college basketball was a bit more difficult for Richards, who despite starting all 37 games struggled some from a consistency standpoint and averaged 5.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
That season of experience should serve both Washington and Richards well, and they’ve got two very talented newcomers to work with in Reid Travis and E.J. Montgomery. Travis is the best grad transfer in college basketball this season, as he’s coming off of a 2017-18 season at Stanford in which he averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on 52.5 percent shooting. Had Travis, who withdrew his name from the NBA draft in the spring, returned to Stanford he very well could have been the preseason Pac-12 Player of the Year. As for Montgomery, the 6-foot-10 five-star recruit earned McDonald’s All-America honors and was Florida’s Player of the Year after averaging 25.6 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game as a high school senior.
Players: Jeremy Jones, Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Killian Tillie, Corey Kispert, Filip Petrusev
The front court at Mark Few’s disposal this season is a big reason why Gonzaga has the appearance of a national title contender. In junior Rui Hachimura the Bulldogs have an All-America candidate who averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, shooting 56.8 percent from the field. He isn’t the only returnee in the Gonzaga front court either, as second team All-WCC big man Killian Tillie returns after averaging 12.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. This duo will lead the way in a rotation that will have to account for the departure of leading scorer and rebounder Johnathan Williams, and they’re joined by two talented newcomers in Brandon Clarke and Filip Petrusev.
Clarke, who sat out last season after transferring from San Jose State, averaged 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in 2016-17. At Gonzaga the 6-foot-8 redshirt junior may not score as much due to the talent he’s playing with, but he’ll certainly be an impact addition. As for Petrusev, the 6-foot-11 freshman from Serbia finished his high school career at Montverde Academy in Florida and was a key contributor on teams that won gold at both the 2017 and 2018 FIBA Europe Under-18 Championships. Sophomore Corey Kispert made seven starts last season, averaging 6.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in just over 19 minutes per game, and former walk-on Jeremy Jones will round out this talented rotation.
Players: Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, Udoka Azubuike, Mitch Lightfoot, Silvio De Sousa*, David McCormack
While Kansas does have some uncertainty to work through at present time due to the status of sophomore power forward Silvo De Sousa, this is still one of college basketball’s most talented front court rotations. A big reason for that is the addition of Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson, a 6-foot-8 forward who averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.1 blocks per game as a sophomore in 2016-17. Also making the move from Memphis was Dedric’s brother K.J., who averaged 12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game during that same season. The third newcomer is 6-foot-10 forward David McCormack, who earned McDonald’s All-America honors and helped lead Oak Hill Academy to a 30-4 record as a senior.
That trio joins three returnees led by junior center Udoka Azubuike, who in 2017-18 averaged 13.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 23.6 minutes per game. Azubuike led the country in field goal percentage, making 77.0 percent of his attempts, and when he gets the ball with two feet in the paint he’s incredibly difficult to stop. Mitch Lightfoot gives Kansas additional depth inside, but the question mark for the Jayhawks is De Sousa.
Joining the program in December, De Sousa averaged 4.0 points and 3.3 rebounds per game in 20 appearances as a freshman. He’s in line to take a significant step forward as a sophomore, provided he be cleared to play as the school is currently looking into his eligibility status in the aftermath of the first round of trials in the FBI’s investigation into bribes paid to influence recruits. The Kansas front court will be good regardless of that outcome, but there’s no denying that De Sousa’s presence would only make this group better.
4. NORTH CAROLINA
Players: Luke Maye, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley, Nassir Little
The Tar Heel front court is led by a player in Maye who ranks among the nation’s best. The 6-foot-8 senior is coming off of a season in which he averaged 16.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, earning first team All-ACC honors and the conference’s Most Improved Player award. In addition to the conference honors, Maye was also named a third-team All-American by multiple outlets at season’s end. At minimum he can be a first-team All-American this season, if not a major factor in the national Player of the Year race.
Another reason why the front court is considered to rate among the nation’s best is the arrival of Nassir Little, a 6-foot-6 McDonald’s All-American who can be used at either the three or the four. Given North Carolina’s numbers on the wings, it’s likely that the talented freshman will see more time at the latter spot. And given his athleticism, look for Little to be one of college basketball’s best freshmen. Sophomores Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley will all factor into Roy Williams’ plans as well, with Brooks (4.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg) having made 16 starts as a freshman and Manley averaging 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds per game off the bench.
5. WEST VIRGINIA
Players: Sagaba Konate, Esa Ahmad, Andrew Gordon, Lamont West, Wesley Harris, Logan Routt, Derek Culver
While “Press Virginia” will have a different look this season due to the departures of guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr., Bob Huggins has a front court that lacks neither depth nor experience. West Virginia’s top three returning scorers are all front court players, led by the nation’s best rim protector in 6-foot-8 junior Sagaba Konate. Last season Konate, who entered the NBA draft before deciding to withdraw his name, averaged 10.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game, ranking second in the country in block percentage (15.6; Texas’ Mo Bamba led in that category). Also back from last year’s Sweet 16 team are senior Esa Ahmad, and juniors Wesley Harris and Lamont West.
Ahmad, who missed West Virginia’s first 16 games of the season, made 16 starts and averaged 10.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game as a junior. West, who Ahmad eventually replaced in the starting lineup, made 20 starts and averaged 9.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. Harris was one of two Mountaineers, Carter being the other, to start all 37 games in 2017-18 and he chipped in with 5.3 points and 3.6 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per game. 6-foot-9 sophomore Andrew Gordon, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, and 6-foot-11 junior Logan Routt give West Virginia additional size inside, and the same can be said of talented 6-foot-10 freshman Derek Culver. Culver was a standout at Brewster Academy last season, earning first team All-NEPSAC Class AAA honors.
Players: Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams, Kyle Alexander, Yves Pons, Derrick Walker Jr., John Fulkerson, D.J. Burns, Zach Kent, Brock Jancek
The Tennessee front court, a big reason why the Volunteers managed to earn a share of the SEC regular season title, is anchored by reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams. As a sophomore Williams averaged 15.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, shooting nearly 48 percent from the field. Also in the rotation is senior Admiral Schofield, who after entering his name into the NBA draft pool decided to return to Knoxville for one last run. The 6-foot-6 Schofield led Tennessee with an average of 6.4 rebounds per game last season while also scoring 13.9 points per game (he shot 39.5 percent from three on 4.6 attempts per game).
Adding depth and experience inside are senior Kyle Alexander and sophomores Yves Pons, John Fulkerson and Derrick Walker Jr., with Alexander (34 starts) having averaged 5.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game. Freshmen D.J. Burns, Brock Jancek and Zach Kent, who played in Tennessee’s first two games before being redshirted last season, will look to crack this experienced rotation. That will be difficult to do, but at the very least competing with the likes of Williams and Schofield should help those three freshmen down the line.
Players: Zion Williamson, Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden, Jack White, Justin Robinson, Antonio Vrankovic
Williamson, one of the nation’s top recruits in the 2018 class, is the headliner for this group. The freshman has a combination of athleticism, raw power and size (6-foot-7, 285 pounds) that has not been seen at this level. Given Williamson’s ability to impact a game, he’s going to be an incredibly difficult matchup for opponents to account for. The remainder of the front court rotation will be asked to provide depth, defense and rebounding in a lineup that projects to be led by four freshmen (Tre Jones, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish on the perimeter with Williamson at the four).
Javin DeLaurier, who averaged 3.4 points and 4.0 rebounds in 12.6 minutes per game as a sophomore, appears to be first in line for that fifth spot in the starting lineup with fellow junior Marques Bolden competing for that designation as well. Junior Jack White appeared in 28 games (5.6 mpg) last season, and Justin Robinson and Antonio Vrankovic will also look to earn increases in playing time in 2018-19.
Players: Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite, De’Andre Hunter, Jay Huff, Francisco Caffaro
Redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter is healthy after his first season on the court came to a premature end due to a thumb injury, and he’s considered by many to be Virginia’s best NBA prospect heading into the 2018-19 campaign. As a redshirt freshman the 6-foot-7 Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, earning ACC Sixth Man of the Year honors. Senior Jack Salt started all 34 games for the Cavaliers, averaging 3.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, and Mamadi Diakite was a valuable reserve with averages of 5.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per contest.
Redshirt sophomore Jay Huff and freshman Francisco Caffaro, a 7-footer who helped lead Argentina to a bronze medal in this summer’s FIBA U18 Americas Championship, will also compete for playing time. Note: We’ve grouped Braxton Key with Virginia’s perimeter players, but he could certainly factor into Tony Bennett’s plans in the front court as well given his size (6-foot-8, 225).
9. KANSAS STATE
Players: Dean Wade, Makol Mawien, Austin Trice, James Love III, Levi Stockard III, Nigel Shadd, Patrick Muldoon
Kansas State managed to reach the Elite Eight last season without Dean Wade, and with the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year healthy the feeling it that the Wildcats can do even more in 2018-19. As a junior Wade led the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding with averages of 16.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while also dishing out 2.7 assists per contest. He’s joined in Kansas State’s interior rotation by fellow senior Makol Mawien, who started all 37 games last season and averaged 6.8 points and 3.4 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per night. If Mawien were to become more consistent in his production, Kansas State could really take off.
Levi Stockard and James Love III will both look to earn increased minutes after being on the periphery of the Kansas State rotation last season, and the same goes for redshirt freshman Nigel Shadd who played in just eight games due to a knee injury. Kansas State has added two transfers to the mix, with junior Austin Trice being a third team NJCAA All-American and Wabash Valley CC last season and Patrick Muldoon walking onto the team after averaging 5.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Eastern Illinois in 2016-17.
While Auburn’s numbers in the front court will be down a bit to start the season as Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy serve the remainder of their NCAA suspensions, the fact that both returned after being sidelined for all of last season is very good news for Bruce Pearl. As a freshman, the 6-foot-11 Wiley averaged 8.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just 18 minutes per game. As for Purifoy, he made 25 starts in 2016-17 and accounted for 11.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per contest. Once those two, who will miss Auburn’s first nine games, are back in the fold Auburn will have a deep rotation that won’t lack for talent.
Returnees Horace Spencer, Anfernee McLemore and Chuma Okeke will also be factors in 2018-19. Okeke was Auburn’s most productive front court reserve, as he averaged 7.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 21.6 minutes per game. Spencer accounted for 4.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game as a key reserve, moving into the starting lineup when Anfernee McLemore went down with a broken leg. McLemore (7.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.7 bpg) was one of the nation’s best shot blockers before the injury, which he suffered in a loss at South Carolina. Getting the 6-foot-7 junior back gives Auburn the rim protector it lacked during last season’s stretch run. Prior to last season Auburn had gone 15 years without an NCAA tournament appearance. This front court is a key reason why the Tigers don’t have to worry about starting a new tournament drought in 2019.
West Virginia pulled in a major commitment on Saturday as five-star 2019 center Oscar Tshiebwe pledged to the Mountaineers.
A late-developing, high-motor big man who ascended into a national recruit this summer, the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Tshiebwe represents an important grab for West Virginia. Tshiebwe represents a potential replacement for Sagaba Konate in the middle as the Mountaineers beat some pretty impressive programs to land him. That includes Baylor and Kentucky.
Tshiebwe is quick off the floor and a good athlete, as he could be a very dangerous player in Bob Huggins’ system because of his brand of basketball. Regarded as the No. 21 overall prospect in the Rivals Class of 2019 national rankings, Tshiebwe also took official visits to Baylor, Illinois and Kentucky during the recruiting process.
Tshiebwe joins three-star guard Miles McBride in West Virginia’s 2019 recruiting haul.