So now that we’re through the Challenge, the first month of college basketball is officially in the books. A good opportunity to check in around the league and see where the various teams are.
BETTER THAN EXPECTED:
1. IU – No one in the nation has two better wins than KU and UNC. No one has a more stunning loss than Ft.Wayne. Still, I think it’s fair to say that IU looks better than I’d anticipated, for two reasons…they’re better defensively than I’d figured on and their rebounding has been outstanding. Those two areas are places where previous Tom Crean teams (some in the not-too-distant past) really struggled. I still think their point guard play isn’t great and they’re averaging 18 TOs a game, but they’ve looked impressive thus far.
2. Ohio State – Yes, they blew it at UVa last night, in what would have been the best win for the program in at least 2 years. Still, they’re 6-1 and, collapse aside, the fact that they took it down to the wire on the road against a legitimately good opponent suggest that the Bucks may be able to get on the right side of the bubble this year, or better. As with IU, I think point guard issues are the potential limiter and you saw that late in the game yesterday. Defensively, though, OSU is totally legit.
3. Rutgers – Baby steps. Yes, their 6-1 isn’t exactly filled with a murderer’s row of victims, but the fact that they’ve done that and were able to be at least competitive with Miami on the road (lost by 12) suggests they’re improved from a year ago…and that’s with their best player, Corey Sanders, off to a miserable start. If he can turn it around, they might be good enough to steal 2 or 3 games in league play.
4. Minnesota – Again, this doesn’t mean as much as it might suggest. They’re 6-1 with an 8 point road loss to FSU…but they did beat Arkansas by 14 and a Texas Arlington team by 17 which beat Texas. Little Ricky desperately needs a major step forward to save his job. I’m still not sure he’s going to get that, but they have to be at least a little bit encouraged by the start.
1. MSU – Not necessarily all the twists and turns, but I think the best case scenario would have been 5-3 if they’d beaten Arizona. No bad losses yet and some encouraging moments in the Bahamas and in Durham.
2. Wisconsin – Was surprised UNC handled them so easily in Maui but overall, their 5-2 is more or less reflective of what kind of team I think they are. The whole deal comes down to Nigel Hayes. If he plays smart basketball, focusing on playmaking and post ups as he did against Syracuse, I still think they’re the best team in the conference. If he decides to try to prove that he’s an NBA small forward, they could lose 6 games in the league.
3. Purdue – Two losses which don’t mean much in a negative sense. 1 possession loss to Nova at home and then pulled close to make it respectable at Louisville yesterday. As opposed to continuing questions around Nigel Hayes, I think Caleb Swanigan has done a great job of playing to his strengths. He’s shooting 64% from 3 but the most impressive number is that he only has 11 attempts from out there through 7 games. That’s how he should be playing. He and Haas have been as good as advertised thus far. As a team, they’re at 42% from deep so far. That won’t continue but if they can even stay in the high 30s, it bodes well for them.
4. Michigan – They’re 5-2 with good and bad moments mixed in there, and that’s about what I expected. I do think they’re a little better defensively but that all comes down to DJ Wilson. When he gets taken out of the game with foul trouble as he was last night, they’re right back to the usual Beilein era incompetence at that end. Disappointing contributions from their freshman class so far as well. I’ve seen nothing so far telling me that they won’t be a bubble team again. Not a disaster, but not great.
5. Illinois – Needed a good win over NC State at home the other night to stay out of the “worse than” column. They’re 5-3, and though I think they’re improved on last year’s injury/suspension ravaged team, I haven’t seen anything yet to convince me that a Tournament bid is likely. They have enough to be competitive most of the time but then I expected that…haven’t seen signs indicating a big breakthrough is coming.
6. Northwestern – Wish I could say they were in that first category, because I’d like to see them break the 0 for forever tournament bid streak. However, they let great chances against Butler and Notre Dame slip away. They did beat Texas by 19 but Texas is looking bad right now, so not sure how much that’ll mean down the line. The win over Wake helps a little bit in that it’s another Power 5 victory. The thing is, I thought they’d be right on that borderline and as of now, there’s nothing suggesting they’ve gotten beyond that. The good news is that Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey have taken steps forward but this team needs to prove it can get over the hump in big moments before you can say they’re exceeding expectations.
7. Nebraska – Figured that without Andrew White, this bunch would have a tough time generating enough offense to win consistently and that’s been the case thus far. Tough loss at Clemson but still a loss, and a game in which they could only manage 58 points. They have 3 losses already with games against Creighton and KU still on deck, so it’s going pretty much according to expectations. Figured they’d be a bottom tier team and though they haven’t been worse than I thought, remaining competitive in all three losses, they’re still losing against the legitimate opponents they’ve faced.
WORSE THAN EXPECTED
1. Maryland – This might seem harsh to say about a team that’s 7-1 but honestly, getting run at home by a not-great Pitt team the other night said a lot to me. Melo’s been putting up points but his jumpshooting is again an issue and he’s got more turnovers than assists, as he’s not even primarily running the offense these days. Some of the guys I thought were primed for good seasons, like Dodd and Gill and Nickens, are really struggling right now. I don’t think it’s impossible they rally from here and carve out another tournament bid but ignore the record, this has NOT been a good start to the season in College Park.
2. Penn State – I’ve only got them here marginally…they’re not *that* far off the mark. What put me over the edge was the blowout to Cincy on a neutral court…that shouldn’t have happened. Otherwise, not terrible…new guys Carr, Stevens and Watkins have been more or less as advertised, and they did put up decent wins over GW and Georgia Tech recently. I just have expectations for this group that they can push for a first division finish and so far, I don’t think they’ve shown quite that level of play. Entirely possible that they’re a very different team come February, though, given their youth.
3. Iowa – Easily the most disappointing team in the league so far. Not that I thought they were set to contend but the Hawks have been blown out by UVa, beaten by 14 against Notre Dame, and lost 8 point games to Seton Hall and Memphis. They’re 3-4 with ISU and Northern Iowa still on tap in December. I thought they’d have to fight to earn a Tournament berth but they’re clearly worse than I’d anticipated. Their second leading scorer, freshman Tyler Cook, is out for awhile with injury, so things are heading in the wrong direction even from here. Too often, it’s Peter Jok against the world. He’s going to win the Big Ten scoring crown but I’m wondering if Iowa can win more than 4 or 5 games in the league.