How men's college basketball looks after one month of play

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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

A month into the 2023-24 men's college hoops season, nothing decisive has unfolded. Yet. And, if we're being honest, we have more questions than answers at this point. Best team in America? Well, it's probably Arizona. But the Wildcats have not definitively separated themselves from Houston, UConn, Purdue, Kansas and Baylor.

Was the block/charge change good for the game? Of course. But here's a question: Why wait this long to make the switch? We've watched some of the best basketball in years as a result of the rule change.

Who are the stars thus far? Depends on how you define "stars." The men's game doesn't have a player like Anthony Davis, Trae Young or Zion Williamson. But Zach Edey is making the case, for a second year in a row, that he's America's best player.

The next NBA stars? Just follow Kentucky, which has four projected first-round picks in ESPN's latest mock draft. And USC's Isaiah Collier -- despite his issues with turnovers -- is destined to be one of America's favorite players by January.

You can't make any grand proclamations a month into any sports season. But's Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway, Joe Lunardi and Myron Medcalf take a look back at their 2023-24 preseason predictionsand have some thoughts on what we've seen four weeks later.

What has been the biggest surprise (good or bad) of the season so far for you?

John Gasaway: The new block/charge rule works! Scoring is up, turnovers are down and offenses are more efficient. (What's this? Scoring is up even though accuracy from the field is almost exactly where it was last season? Feel the shot volume.) Attempts to draw absurd charge calls 40 to 90 feet from the basket have declined dramatically. Well done, NCAA!

Myron Medcalf: Reed Sheppard. Yes, the Kentucky standout was the most popular addition to a high-profile 2023 recruiting class, but he didn't have the same accolades or NBA buzz as his peers -- Justin Edwards, Aaron Bradshaw, D.J. Wagner and Rob Dillingham -- when the season began. Sheppard is clearly, however, one of Kentucky's best players and now, per ESPN's prognosticators, he's also a projected first-round pick in next summer's NBA draft. You have to appreciate the storyline that the son of a former Kentucky women's star (Stacey Sheppard) and a player who won a national title with Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith in the 1990s (Jeff Sheppard) might be the key to John Calipari's future with the Wildcats.

Joe Lunardi: I was very concerned about BYU's transition to the Big 12. The Cougars had a losing record (7-9) in their final West Coast Conference season and could have been looking at an ugly few years in their new home. Instead, Mark Pope hit the portal smartly and -- with top-15 efficiencies both offensively and defensively -- BYU will have high hopes for an NCAA bid when Big 12 play begins in January. It also helps to never play a road game (wink, wink).

Jeff Borzello: Arizona. I actually thought the Wildcats were a little undervalued entering the season, but No. 1 in the country after a month? Not a chance. They had the first signature win of the season, beating Duke on the road, then backed it up with a neutral-court win over Michigan State. Tommy Lloyd has a solid, balanced eight-man rotation and he struck gold in the portal with San Diego State transfer Keshad Johnson. This team has the athleticism and defensive toughness that the past two iterations of the Wildcats lacked. They can win it all.

Which national championship contender do you no longer believe in?

Lunardi: I'm just not seeing it for Michigan State right now. Losses to Duke and Arizona (and even James Madison) aren't necessarily bad at this point, but can the Spartans score enough to really contend in the Big Ten and beyond? Point guard play is again an issue and, worse, the Spartans are among the bottom 30 3-point shooting teams in the country (26.9%). Tom Izzo's teams will always defend like crazy, but eventually the ball has to go in the basket.

Borzello: I'm with Joe on Michigan State. I think the Spartans will ultimately figure some things out -- and they still might be the second-best team in the Big Ten at the end of the day -- but veterans like A.J. Hoggard and Malik Hall haven't quite taken the expected steps forward and there are massive issues from a shooting and spacing perspective. Maybe it all clicks late in the season like we've seen from Izzo-coached teams before, but it's hard to picture these Spartans cutting down the nets.

Medcalf: I don't think it's over for its national title hopes, but I do think Tennessee has to find an offensive stride that just hasn't been there against elite competition. Most of America would lose three in a row against Purdue, Kansas and North Carolina outside their home floors. In losses to the Boilermakers and Jayhawks in the Maui Invitational, however, the Vols registered just 87 points per 100 possessions; their second-half comeback against North Carolina last week was impressive but also followed a lukewarm first half. Dalton Knecht (20.3), who is injured right now, is the only real scorer.

Gasaway: It's only December and I'm keeping an open mind, but preseason No. 2 Duke has not looked like the fearsome juggernaut many anticipated. At 5-3, the Blue Devils are yet to find their identity. Players not named Jeremy Roach or Jared McCain are shooting 29% on their 3s. Duke's past two opponents (Arkansas and Georgia Tech) combined to connect on 61% of their 2s.

Which national championship contender are you now more all-in on?

Borzello: UConn. I thought the Huskies were the Big East favorite entering the season and a legitimate Final Four contender, but they might be better than expected. Tristen Newton is playing like an All-American, Alex Karaban has developed into a legitimate NBA prospect, Donovan Clingan is a potential lottery pick, Cam Spencer brings shooting and experience -- and they've played only three games with top-10 prospect and projected top-10 pick Stephon Castle. When this team is fully healthy, I could see the reigning national champions making another deep run.

Gasaway: Houston. The Cougars' amazing December stats come with a large grain of salt because opponents are missing all of their 3s. That won't last. Still, this is not Kelvin Sampson's first rodeo, this offense is better than expected after Marcus Sasser's departure and I cannot wait to see them compete in the deep, brutal and glorious Big 12.

Medcalf: Kansas. I think you need three reliable stars to win a national title. We all knew about Hunter Dickinson, and Kevin McCullar Jr. is a veteran who has averaged double digits for the past three seasons between Kansas and Texas Tech. I figured they'd be good. But K.J. Adams Jr. (11.8 PPG, 72% clip inside the 3-point line), who is dealing with the death of his mother, has been another strong contributor for the program. He's the third star Bill Self will need -- just check last week's UConn game for proof -- to win a second national title in three years.

Lunardi: It doesn't bother me one bit that Purdue lost its Big Ten opener at Northwestern. The Boilermakers have all the pieces, especially with the addition of transfer Lance Jones. Their young guards are a year older and we saw at the Maui Invitational they are genuinely ready for prime time. And did we mention the best player in the country? Yeah, that Zach Edey guy is still pretty good. Purdue isn't making an early NCAA exit this season.

Which conference race are you most looking forward to, and why?

Medcalf: It's the Big 12 for me. When the NET rankings were released Monday, Houston and BYU were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Baylor, Iowa State, Cincinnati and Kansas, in that order, are all in the top 15. Three more Big 12 teams are ranked in the top 60. The battle at the top of the heap could be a fight between a collection of future Final Four teams.

Borzello: The Big 12 has three of the top six teams in my Power Rankings right now, with Kansas, Houston and Baylor. The Jayhawks are still the favorites, but Baylor looks like maybe the best offensive team in the country, and Houston is arguably the best defensive team in the country. This is going to be fun.

Gasaway: The Big East. Who knows, we might look back and say Marquette, Creighton and, oh by the way, defending national champion UConn were the strongest top three the league has seen in a very long time. Any or all of the above can reach the Final Four.

Lunardi: It's going to be a titanic battle between Princeton and Yale at the top of the Ivy League. While that's true, my colleagues hit the obvious answers by naming the Big East and Big 12. I'll lean in the Big East's favor as the last major conference that's still playing a true round-robin. Thus, its regular-season champion is indeed a true winner. Bring it on!

What storyline has yet to be addressed that you're waiting to see?

Gasaway: Will the controversy over the selection process for the College Football Playoff act as the catalyst for finally bringing NCAA tournament selection out of the Stone Age? Why do we still do this by having people go into a room in March, shut the door and fill out a bracket like it's 1964 and not (soon) 2024? Why not use a simple win proxy and produce a real-time bracket every day from November to March? Do better, NCAA!

Lunardi: What controversy? Let's get everyone their own NIL ophthalmology deal and go strictly by eye test. (Not!) In other news, is anyone paying attention to the ACC's real problem (hint: it's not Florida State football)? With Duke struggling out of the gate, the league is on course to go five straight years without a No. 1 seed. It had never gone more than two without one in this century. Folks, the greatest college basketball conference of all time is diminishing right before our eyes.

Borzello: It's been partially addressed, but the fact that we're sitting here a full month into the season and the NCAA is still working through eligibility cases and waiver requests is ridiculous. Efton Reid III had his waiver approved to suit up immediately for Wake Forest on Tuesday evening. Utah's Deivon Smith had his rejected on Monday night. There are still appeals outstanding. Lawyers are involved, attorneys general have made statements. I get there's a large docket of these cases, but teams should receive word, one way or the other, before the season -- or at least before December!

Medcalf: A few weeks ago Dan Gavitt told ESPN that the committee currently studying potential NCAA tournament expansion has to be "forward-looking" as the college basketball world continues to evolve. The NCAA has already shifted NIT rules to include more Power 5 teams. The committee working on tournament expansion ideas could also offer a decision soon that could give us insight about the future of the NCAA tournament and the number of teams that will be involved. That will impact this sport if it happens.

Is Zach Edey still the best player in the country right now?

Lunardi: Yes, and it's not especially close, although it was fun last week watching Hunter Dickinson and Tristen Newton do their thing.

Borzello: Yes, and the gap between Edey and everyone else in the Wooden Award race is wider than it was last season. He's more efficient than last season, better at rim protection than last season and he seems more comfortable when Purdue is trying to push the ball in transition than last season. He averaged 25.3 points and 13.0 rebounds in three days at the Maui Invitational, against a gauntlet of a schedule, and it felt like par for the course for Edey. That's special.

Medcalf: Yes. Dickinson is good -- one coach who faced him this season said he's just an impossible force to deal with in the paint. And, there are other preseason All-Americans who have started strong. But Edey is in his own category right now. He's averaging 23.7 PPG, 11.2 RPG and 2.9 BPG. I think we're looking at the second two-time Wooden Award winner.

Gasaway: Edey is the nation's best player, thanks in part to exertions not easily captured by clips or breakdowns of X's and O's. His offensive rebound percentage is better than those of 15 entire Division I teams. He draws a truly ridiculous 11 fouls per 40 minutes and thus destroys opponents with slightly above-average shooting at the line. Edey is tops by a mile.

If you could have one preseason prediction do-over, what would it be?

Gasaway: Backed by data on hundreds of past players spanning multiple decades, I confidently asserted Kyle Filipowski would start hitting 3s this season. That forecast is ... not looking so perspicacious. Filipowski is shooting 27% from beyond the arc thus far, more or less what we saw from him last season. Stupid data.

Medcalf: I had Kyle Filipowski as the Wooden Award winner in my preseason picks. I guess I went with history and the difficulty of winning the award twice (only Ralph Sampson Jr. has done that). Tyler Hansbrough returned for North Carolina in 2008-09. He didn't win it again. Oscar Tshiebwe returned for Kentucky last season after winning it. He didn't get another one, either. So I figured this season would follow that trend. And it looks like I was wrong. Filipowski is a great player who will make a lot of NBA money soon. But Zach Edey is the best college basketball player in America. There is no debate. He should win a second Wooden.

Borzello: I wouldn't rank Duke as the preseason No. 2 again, mostly because I was wrong about Tyrese Proctor becoming one of the premier guards in the country. The Blue Devils are young, so they could still figure things out, but they have some real issues, especially if Proctor's injury keeps him out for a stretch of time. Teams have figured out they don't really need to guard Mark Mitchell or whoever is playing next to Filipowski, and before his injury Proctor was struggling to get to the rim or make shots from the perimeter.

Lunardi: Saint Mary's might be taking a year off from its perch as America's best true mid-major program. Back-to-back-to-back No. 5 seeds don't seem to be in the cards for the Gaels, so we might have to throw our Cinderella chips at the likes of Princeton, Indiana State, McNeese, James Madison, Appalachian State and Grand Canyon.

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