NCAAM Teams
Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer 6d

What's real and what's not a month into the season

Men's College Basketball, Duke Blue Devils, Oregon Ducks, Kansas Jayhawks, Louisville Cardinals, Villanova Wildcats

A month of action has unfolded in college basketball's 2018-19 campaign.

The Champions Classic -- where Kansas beat Michigan State, and Duke handed Kentucky's John Calipari the worst loss of his career -- and the Maui Invitational -- where Gonzaga upset the Blue Devils -- established the preliminary hierarchy.

A collection of upsets and early stalls for teams most viewed as contenders prompted other questions about the current landscape, and surprising starts made us wonder if we'd failed to accurately analyze some teams entering the season.

That's why we're here to help you sort through the wheat and the chaff. What's real and what's fake in the game right now? We'll tell you in our weekly take on college basketball.

What's fake?

Duke is overrated, so let's stop talking about them

Since Mike Krzyzewski's crew lost to Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational last month in the best game of the season thus far, the buzz about the Blue Devils has simmered. It took only one loss for folks to proclaim that the team once presented as a potential challenger to the Cleveland Cavaliers and a candidate for the first undefeated season since Indiana in 1975-76 had lost its edge. How'd we go from "Who can stop Duke?" to "What's wrong with Duke?" after a two-point loss to a Gonzaga team that can win the national title? Welcome to college basketball in early December, when exaggerations aren't just accepted but preferred.

But ignore the smoke. Duke is legit.

Duke entered the week as the only team in KenPom.com's rankings that's in the top five of both adjusted defensive and offensive efficiency. The last three teams that maintained a top-five mark in both categories -- Kansas in 2007-08, Duke in 2009-10 and Villanova in 2015-16 -- all won national titles. Sure, the sample size is small, but the Blue Devils have already faced three top-10 teams.

RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish are averaging a combined 60.2 points per game. We've never had a team with that level of athleticism at three spots in the one-and-done era.

Tre Jones, perhaps America's best point guard, is dropping six dimes per game. Duke averages 131 points per 100 possessions, makes 44 percent of its 3-pointers and rebounds nearly half its missed shots when he's on the floor, per hooplens.com.

Yeah, the Blue Devils are a flawed team. They're not making their free throws. They're up-and-down from the 3-point line. But damn, they're good.

Could they beat the Cavs or the Fab Five? Who knows? And really, who cares? This Duke squad is unlike anything we've witnessed in modern college basketball. Nothing overrated about this team. That's why we're talking about the Blue Devils, and why we'll continue to talk about them.

Louis King will fix everything for Oregon

Against Houston on Saturday, the Ducks committed 16 turnovers in a 65-61 loss. They were down 33-13 in the first half. Yeah, they fought back -- but it was the third loss of the season for a team that was picked to win the Pac-12.

Oregon looks sloppy right now, both offensively and defensively. King, the five-star freshman set to return from a knee injury this month, will help. But he might not fix the bigger issues within this program: Oregon has an "effort" problem, and it's also a turnover machine. The Ducks were listless against Houston before halftime. They got bullied by a determined Houston team the same way they were outplayed by ambitious Texas Southern and Iowa teams.

You can't wait until you're down by 20 points to get serious -- but that's how they approached their deficit against Houston. 

They've surrendered an average of 77.0 PPG in their three losses, one of which came against Texas Southern, a sub-200 team on KenPom.com. You can't give up 89 points to Texas Southern as the favorite to win a Power 5 conference.

Oregon is also making just 34 percent of its 3-pointers. Bol Bol (21.6 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 2.9 BPG, 9-for-18 from the 3-point line) has justified the hype with his performance thus far. But Oregon's offense is average when he's not on the floor. The Ducks manage a paltry 0.91 PPP and commit turnovers on nearly one-quarter of their possessions without him.

Bol (2.0 TPG), Paul White (1.9), and Payton Pritchard (2.7) have all had problems with turnovers this season. 

King, a prolific small forward, should enhance a team that's 2-3 in its past five games. It's unfair to pin this team's burdens on a freshman who is still working to recover from a torn meniscus he suffered in January during his senior season in high school.

King will help. But he won't change everything.

The most recent NET rankings prove the NCAA was right

The most recent NET rankings suggest the initial unveiling of the new metric might have been an anomaly. This week's NET rankings have corrected some of last week's problems, such as Loyola Marymount earning a top-10 ranking and Kentucky securing a spot somewhere in the 60s. This week's ratings resemble the other reliable metrics tracking college basketball.

But this is not the time to say "I told you so" -- which is exactly what the NET supporters are doing right now. It's not wise. First, we still haven't seen the final NET rankings for the 2017-18 season, so it's impossible for anyone to know how reliable they will be once the season ends and if it's a factor on Selection Sunday. And questions remain: It's not clear how the NCAA is compiling these numbers. Why is it tracking efficiency without adjusting the numbers according to the opponent a team played? Why is the cap for scoring margin at 10? Why didn't the NCAA just use a composite of the metrics it already added to the team sheets for selection committee members last season?

Those who were calling out folks for "overreacting" to the initial NET rankings are now leading the cheers for the new system. If last week was too soon to criticize the NCAA for this new system, however, then why is this week an appropriate point to praise it?

Hold off on the praise. We're not sure how these rankings will look when they really matter in March.

What's real?

Kansas has serious competition in the Big 12

The Big 12 lost critical stars from last season. Trae Young left Oklahoma. Jevon Carter graduated from West Virginia and turned pro. Mo Bamba, the former Texas star, was a lottery pick. And Kansas lost the most productive backcourt in the country. But the Jayhawks rebooted with a top-10 recruiting class and the addition of Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson. Lagerald Vick's decision to withdraw from the NBA draft and Bill Self's decision to let him come back were significant choices that have helped this team. Vick is making a ridiculous 59.6 percent of his 3-point attempts.

They're the clear favorites in the Big 12. But the Jayhawks will face legitimate threats in league play.

Iowa State seems to be the most dangerous challenger to Kansas right now. The Cyclones are playing top-20 offense and defense right now. And that's without Lindell Wigginton, who has been sidelined because of a left foot injury after averaging 16.1 points and connecting on 40 percent of his 3-pointers last season. Some NBA scouts believe the Cyclones have four pro prospects (Wigginton, Talen Horton-Tucker, Marial Shayok and Tyrese Haliburton). This is a fascinating, small-ball squad.

Texas Tech lost Zhaire Smith to the NBA, but sophomore wing Jarrett Culver (19.0 PPG, 46 percent from the 3-point line) could join him at the next level soon. Folks aren't talking about Texas Tech, which entered the week playing top-five defense, yet. But the Red Raiders could upset Duke in New York City on Dec. 20.

Kansas State, which lost to Marquette over the weekend, has also started the season with a top-five defensive mark. And Dean Wade, who missed the bulk of the team's Elite Eight run last year because of a foot injury, is averaging 15.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and connecting on 42 percent of his 3-pointers.

The Texas team that beat North Carolina (and not the one that lost to Radford on Friday) can compete in this league, too. The Longhorns made 46 percent of their 3-pointers, held preseason All-American Luke Maye to 11 points and scored 92 points against an ACC contender.

Kansas is the team to beat in the Big 12. We all know that. But the road to that title might present more challenges for the Jayhawks than many presume.

Chris Mack has already changed Louisville

Nearly 15 months ago, Louisville's players wandered the team's practice facility, searching for answers after Rick Pitino had been terminated as a result of the widespread FBI investigation. The team didn't have a coach or any direction. Although David Padgett fulfilled an interim role, Louisville was trying to clean up a flood with a napkin last season.

But the Cardinals are no longer overwhelmed with Mack on the sideline. After a few months with the program, the Cardinals have the stability they lost after Pitino's firing, and they're already showcasing the benefits of the hire.

Last week, Louisville beat Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, a critical win for a squad that lost four starters from last season. The team topped Seton Hall over the weekend.

If Louisville reaches the NCAA tournament, Mack will be a contender for every reputable national coach of the year award. He has assembled a 2019 recruiting class that's ranked second on ESPN.com. It's early, but Mack has already made a tremendous impact on the Cardinals.

Jay Wright might not be able to fix Villanova

When Villanova lost to Furman in overtime last month, most reacted with minimal concern. It's Jay Wright, after all -- he has won two of the past three national championships. He always seems to figure things out.

Two years ago, he lost key players from his 2016 title team, but the Wildcats still managed to win 32 games the following season. The Wildcats started this season as a top-10 team, despite losing three first-round picks and Jalen Brunson, the Wooden Award winner. But Wright's facing a difficult task.

This isn't the 2016-17 team.

That squad had Josh Hart, an All-American and first-round pick, but these Wildcats lack a similar offensive catalyst to bail them out when their offense stalls. They made just 38 percent of their shots inside the arc in a 27-point loss to Michigan. Only one player, Eric Paschall, recorded double figures, and he went 3-for-14 that night. In their overtime loss to Furman, the Wildcats made just 37 percent of their shots inside the arc.

They've also squandered key possessions. They're ranked 250th in turnover rate; they were 14th last season. Last season's team had multiple, reliable ball handlers.

This year, however, five-star freshman Jahvon Quinerly hasn't found a spot in the rotation after committing 10 turnovers in just 61 minutes this season. The team as a whole is committing turnovers about once every four trips up the floor, which hasn't happened at Villanova since the 2012-13 season.

After five consecutive years playing top-15 defense, the Wildcats entered the week hovering around the low 50s. Villanova has been praised for its consistency. Wright is a Hall of Fame coach. But last season's group was special and stacked with NBA talent. Yes, he can still lead this team to a Big East championship. But there are no guarantees: Wright might not be able to fix some of this team's glaring issues as it tries to defend its national title.

^ Back to Top ^