The end of the semester has arrived. Exams have finished, and so it's time to assess activity from the fall.
College basketball is wrapping up its non-conference schedule. While January will be peppered with the occasional intriguing out-of-league matchup (Kansas at Kentucky in late January is going to be an awesome treat), we're about 90 percent through with the non-league portion of the college hoops slate.
With that in mind, and with Christmas only days away, let's take some time to grade out a number of teams. This won't be straight-A stuff. I'm going to look at more than 15 programs of relevance and intrigue and assess what they've done and what's still left to be discovered. Some teams have so much potential, but they're not showing it in the classroom. (Sound familiar to some of you?) Others are model students. Some are skipping out and smoking behind the bleachers. (We talked about this, Washington.)
What's my criteria? I'm taking into account preseason expectations, injuries, strength of schedule, coaching, player performances, all of it. It's not purely wins and losses.
We'll do this in alphabetical order, like a roll call. Here are first-semester grades for college basketball.
Haven't lost yet and, still, have the best resume in college hoops. Entering the season Baylor was projected as a fringe NCAA Tournament team. Now it looks like Scott Drew's club should get there without any worry. The wins over Oregon, Louisville and Xavier keep looking better. BU has a top-15 offense and defense. It's played a schedule that ranks in the top 85 -- so this hasn't been a cakewalk to 11-0. And not one player on this roster was a five-star recruit. Easy call here, though I'm taking off just a slight point because Baylor's yet to play a game on the road. On the whole, this is shaping up to be the best coaching season of Drew's career.
OK, Chris Holtmann, I'm gonna share with everybody what you told me in Las Vegas in late July. Back then, you said you weren't sure what to expect with this team. You said there were reasons to believe the group was going to need time to work things out, and not to expect this team to be in the top three or four in the Big East. I think you played me, Holtmann. I think you knew. And I think you worked the reverse jinx to perfection. Butler's 10-1 and is coming off an impressive win in Indianapolis against Indiana. The Bulldogs were picked sixth in the Big East in the preseason, which seemed reasonable at the time. Instead, Kelan Martin has been a top-25 player in the sport and Kamar Baldwin has been a top-2o freshman. Another easy call.
Huskies fans have had a stressful five weeks. The team is 5-5 overall, 4-5 against D-I competition. Kevin Ollie's team lost at home to Wagner and Northeastern, marking UConn's first 0-2 start in eons. However, the Huskies did win in ugly fashion, 52-50, over Syracuse at Madison Square Garden two weeks ago. I have no idea if Syracuse is even that good. I won't forget that UConn's now dealing with season-ending injuries for multiple players as well, though those happened after the Wagner and Northeastern losses. The Huskies host Auburn on Friday. That's going to be an interesting test. Remember, this team was picked by many as the best in the AAC. I live in Connecticut; some fans I know have about lost their patience with Ollie.
With Harry Giles' debut coming Monday, Duke is only just now fully healthy for the first time this season. The 11-1 Blue Devils have gotten amazing play out of Luke Kennard (20.3 PPG), who is in the top five for POY conversation. Grayson Allen's been inconsistent (and was hurt) but is still managing 17.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Meanwhile freshman Jayson Tatum has been pretty good after his delayed debut. Another freshman, Frank Jackson, has been good when needed, while Marques Bolden is showing signs he might require another year of college. Amile Jefferson's been downright awesome -- one of the best seniors in America. Duke hasn't played a road game, but it did beat Florida on a neutral. It also lost in the closing seconds at MSG to Kansas. Hey, with all the injuries, things could have been worse. At its absolute peak, Duke promises to be the best team in the sport. They haven't had a game like that just yet.
Mark Few brings in his most transfer-laden roster he's ever had, and it looks like these guys have been playing together since grade school. Undefeated talk hasn't started yet (thankfully!), but if Gonzaga gets to Jan. 15 without a loss (the day after its home game against Saint Mary's), then you're going to hear more about that. In terms of accomplishments, GU has beaten Florida, Iowa State and Arizona. Nigel Williams-Goss (14.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.8 apg) is only going to get better in league play. Sometimes it takes transfers months to get fully acclimated, yet that's not the case here. The learning curve here was short. Very impressed, especially with how senior big man/immovable human Przemek Karnowski has been able to ride through and be the stabilizing force in the middle. Few has never gone undefeated in non-league play; he'll achieve that with a win over South Dakota on Wednesday night.
Interesting assessment here. Got a nice home win against UNC. Also own that season-opening win out in Hawaii against Kansas. The Jayhawks haven't lost since. But IU also went on the "road" (the building was 85 percent IU fans) and lost to Fort Wayne. The Butler loss isn't a bad one, so to speak, but IU didn't show its best self. For a team with really fun offensive potential, the Hoosier don't show up to class some halves. But you can't deny what Tom Crean's been able to do with positionless offense and his coaching of Thomas Bryant, who will transition nicely to the NBA. The defense could use some more urgency. If you told Indiana fans they could start 9-2 or take their chances at a better record, they'd have taken the 9-2.
On a year-in-year-out basis, Bill Self always earns A's. He's got the work ethic of the annoying kid at the front of the class but the social currency of the cool senior who holds court at his locker. The Jayhawks are 10-1 and facing a road game against UNLV on Thursday night. Josh Jackson has been a top-five freshman in terms of production, and Frank Mason (20.3 PPG, 5.6 APG) is a top-five player of value. The only loss came in the opener in overtime to Indiana, a team that might win its league. Kansas is probably going to win its league again; it's done that a dozen years running. The Jayhawks haven't been dominant yet, though, and we're still waiting for the next level. Grading on a curve here. I picked KU to win the national title this season, and so far that team hasn't shown itself.
I know John Calipari brings in NBA talent every season, but let me remind you that a few of those seasons did not go as planned. One year he missed the NCAAs altogether (the year Nerlens Noel got hurt). This season has been a smooth start -- and he hasn't even gotten everything out of his freshman yet. But De'Aaron Fox (15.9 PPG, 7.2 APG, 5.3 RPG) and Malik Monk (21.9 PPG) both have mid-year A grades. Kentucky's performance, as a team, has to be recognized. The resume can get a massive boost with a win at Louisville on Wednesday night. If that happens, Kentucky's a clear-cut A. Given all that Calipari has done with this group, but also taking into consideration his desire to have UK has the No. 1 defensive team in America (it is not that yet, no way), my grade seems fair.
Here's the one team I wish I could wait another day before evaluating. Louisville's home test against Kentucky Wednesday is going to tell us a ton about the Cardinals this season. Louisville's got a good win over Purdue and a nice victory over Wichita State. Plus, winning at Grand Canyon is worth a cookie or two. But Kentucky is another deal. Defensively, this team is the best per possession in America. The offense still needs work, and Donovan Mitchell has to stop relying on his 3-point shot. But again, just get back to me after the Kentucky game. I can't wait for that one.
The injuries aren't going to bail MSU out. The schedule's been tough, the travel's been tougher ... and then MSU lost at home this week to Northeastern. Yuck. If the NCAA Tournament started tomorrow, MSU wouldn't be in the field. Tom Izzo's already apologized for scheduling too tough for his young team. I do think the Spartans will rebound in Big Ten play and wind up making the NCAAs. But there's been too much reliance on (the superb) Miles Bridges, who's out with an ankle injury now -- but should be back very soon. On the whole, this team isn't that good right now but should show big gains by the end of January. I'm tempted to write "INCOMPLETE" but if we're being on the up and up then MSU has been middling in a lot of aspects.
A 10-2 record with those two losses coming on the road to a team that could win its league (Indiana) and on a neutral floor to a team that will definitely win its league (Kentucky). Yeah, and the Kentucky loss was by three in the best game of the year so far and UNC was mostly downed because a guy named Monk put up 47 points, setting some records in the process. Roy Williams' team has age, though, and with age comes a different level of expectation. The Tar Heels have wins over Wisconsin and Oklahoma State -- not bad -- but they also nearly lost at home to Tennessee. At one point this season ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said UNC was the best team in America and looking better than last year's group that lost in the title game to Villanova. I was never that high on UNC, though I haven't forgotten how good the team looked through the first two weeks. That does count for something.
Being on the West Coast will land you way off the radar. Oregon was a preseason top-five team. How have the Ducks been doing? Well, they're 11-2 but don't have a top-70 win to their name. The victims include the likes of UConn, Valparaiso, Alabama, Tennessee and Boise State. A bunch of bread filling, basically. Valpo could be one of the best mid-major teams in the country, but truth is none of those teams are sure-fire hits to play in the Big Dance. Oregon's offense (111.3 points per 100 possessions) hasn't been what it was last season (117.9), and that's surprising given the schedule it's played and the fact so many players are back. This team is obviously missing the dynamics that Elgin Cook brought to the table. I'm still a believer, though. Then again, my preseason pick of Dillon Brooks for player of the year is looking way off. Not totally dead yet, though! Plenty of season to go.
Let me remind you that Jim Boeheim, once upon a time, said this roster was one of the best he's ever had. Well, that's just not true. And Syracuse has its issues. The Orange have lost games to their two most hated rivals, UConn and Georgetown, the latter of which came in Syracuse over the weekend. The Orange are 7-4, failing on the defensive boards and not getting enough out of Tyler Lydon and Andrew White. Lydon's going through some injury concerns right now, and that's something to keep an eye on into next week. SU's best wins are vs. Monmouth and Boston U. For all of its size, the team isn't nearly as good on the interior as it should be, and I think it's relying on 3-point shots too much (41 percent of its attempts come from deep). Maybe things swing in a wild way come ACC play. Boeheim's capable of pulling it off. Harsh grade here given expectations and the coach's own words.
Texas, like Syracuse and UConn, was ranked in the preseason. The Longhorns are young and have been inconsistent. I was as in on Texas as anyone nationally. Have no problem admitting I was wrong. Shaka Smart's team isn't ready to be a top-three group in the Big 12 this season. The Longhorns are 78th in KenPom, have a 5-5 record and are licking their wounds after losing 77-74 to just-OK Arkansas. The offense needs a lot of work, and UT doesn't have a leader at point guard. This team misses Isaiah Taylor. If he returned, I bet UT would have been a preseason top-15 club -- and would still be ranked now. The Horns are assisting on 45 percent of their field goals, which is 308th in the country. They can't shoot 3-pointers (28.7 percent; only Tevin Mack is shooting above 32 percent from beyond the arc).
What's not to love? This is the most entertaining team to watch in the sport (and it's got competition from UNC, Kentucky, Duke and Indiana). The Bruins were sub-.500 last year. Just a disaster of a season. Steve Alford actually gave money back to the university. And now the Bruins are undefeated, have two future lotto picks in Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, and the team's as good as it's been since the Ben Howland Final Four years. Obviously, this is an A. Need more reason? John Calipari's only lost five games at Rupp Arena, and UCLA got him this season. The Bruins 122.1 ORating is tops in the nation. This is the perfect blend of coaching and personnel. National title contender, something nobody was saying in the preseason about the Bruins. The defense is, uh, lacking? Yeah, lacking. But ultimately, how many teams can outscore and outrun UCLA? The list is short.
Win the national title, lose two vital starters, then start the season 11-0, get the No. 1 ranking in the polls, RPI and KenPom. Win on the road against a legit team (Purdue) and knock off another solid team (Notre Dame) in the process. Plenty of pressure, yet your projected league player of the year (Josh Hart) lives up to the assumptions of his game by garnering the program's first triple-double in three decades -- and is leading the National Player of the Year race at the moment. Jay Wright, I couldn't be more impressed. Villanova is so stable and absolutely going to be a top-five team from now until the end of the season, no matter what happens.
To me, still some mystery here. The Badgers have lost to the two best teams they've played, Creighton and UNC. There is a nice road win against rival Marquette, but will MU even be an NCAA Tournament team this season? Most don't think so. Other good wins include Oklahoma, Syracuse and Georgetown -- and none of those teams are looking even B-level at this point. But the Badgers are 10-2. Nigel Hayes seems to be adapting to new roles within the offense every other week. Greg Gard is a terrific tactician, and I think he's going to be at Wisconsin for more than a decade. The defense still needs some improvements, but this is a satisfactory team on the whole at this point.