Duke and its fantastic freshmen may not be the beat team in the nation. They aren’t ranked that way. But there is no question which program is the most entertaining, the one that catches everyone’s attention when it steps on the floor.
Ever since Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Co. dismantled Kentucky by 34 points in the Champions Classic on opening night, the second-ranked Blue Devils have been must-see TV. It’s easy to know when they’re in action — just log onto Twitter. You’re certain to see a Williamson highlight go viral. ESPN seems to spend ample time discussing them, even when broadcasting other games. Thursday’s night’s meeting at the Garden against No. 12 Texas Tech has been sold out for weeks.
One-loss Duke may not win it all, or even reach the Final Four, but this loaded group already has the title of most talked about locked up.
Below are four more storylines from the first seven weeks of the college basketball season:
The biggest surprise of the young season is in Ann Arbor, where undefeated and No. 4 Michigan looks even better than the team that reached last year’s national championship game. The Wolverines were ranked 19th in the preseason, which many experts thought was too high after they lost stalwarts Moritz Wagner, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. So far, it seems it was too low.
Canadian import Ignas Brazdeikis, Michigan’s leading scorer, has been a revelation, a 6-foot-7 wing capable of scoring inside and out. And the returnees have all improved, most notably forwards Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers, as Michigan has built on last year’s defensive stinginess by allowing just 55.8 points per game, the third fewest in the country. It’s not just the 11-0 record, but the dominant fashion of those victories, nine of them by double figures, three over quality foes Villanova, Purdue and North Carolina by a combined 63 points.
The dismal football season has carried over to basketball. At least on the gridiron, there weren’t as many non-conference tests that could reveal the league’s inferiority. But that has been obvious on the hardwood so far.
The lone ranked team is No. 18 Arizona State, and the Sun Devils won’t remain in the top 25 barring an upset of top-ranked Kansas on Saturday after falling to Vanderbilt on Monday. Traditional powers Arizona and UCLA are down, with a combined seven losses, preseason favorite Oregon has three setbacks, including a huge upset defeat to Texas Southern, and USC, which was supposed to be a tournament contender, is 5-6 and coming off a loss to Santa Clara in which it was gashed for 102 points.
Based on rankings by the analytic-driven website KenPom.com, the Pac-12 has more sub-200 losses (four) than top-50 wins (three).
Nevada and Gonzaga are mid-major programs in name only, powerhouses that could cut down the nets in Minneapolis in April, both littered with pros that have produced strong non-conference results. Soon though, we’ll mostly forget about them once conference season commences until March, as they beat up on their respective conferences.
Both have done more than enough to have lasting power, though, to where strength of schedule shouldn’t be a factor. Sixth-ranked Nevada defeated USC and Arizona State, while No. 8 Gonzaga is the one team to knock off Duke and has fallen to Tennessee and North Carolina. The Bulldogs also have been without two of their best players, forward Killian Tillie (stress fracture in ankle) all season so far and guard Geno Crandall (fractured right hand) the past six games, further illustrating what a tough out they’ll be in the tournament.
St. John’s and Seton Hall have been making positive headlines. The Johnnies, led by Big East Preseason Player of the Year Shamorie Ponds, are off to their best start since 1982-83, when Chris Mullin was a sophomore, 11-0 thanks in part to a soft schedule. Seton Hall, despite a difficult non-conference slate, is 8-3 with a thrilling overtime victory over ninth-ranked Kentucky. Picked eighth in the Big East after graduating cornerstones Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado, Seton Hall has reloaded behind sharpshooting junior star Myles Powell.
Both programs should be in the NCAA Tournament mix. The last time the Big East programs made the Dance in the same year was 2000. They open the conference schedule against each other on Dec. 29 in Newark, an early showdown that has more juice than any meeting between the teams in recent memory. Another interesting subplot will be the Ponds-Powell matchup. The two are friends and two of the premier scorers in the conference, along with Marquette’s Markus Howard.
The area also had a few high-quality mid-majors that are worth following. Hofstra and Justin Wright-Foreman, the nation’s fourth-leading scorer at 25.7 points per game, are a player in the CAA. Stony Brook, with wins over Rhode Island, South Carolina and George Washington, has outperformed expectations. And NJIT, at 11-2 — three fewer wins than it had all of last year — seems capable of winning the Atlantic Sun.