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College basketball: Wisconsin, Michigan are big surprises

We’re just about one month into the college basketball season, and a lot has transpired since an opening night that was marked by Duke’s Champions Classic blowout of Kentucky. There’s still much to learn about this year’s crop of teams, but it’s not too early to look back at our preseason expectations and see which teams are defying—or falling short of—them.

This week’s Tuesday Shootaround roundtable looks at the biggest surprises and disappointments through one month, the factors behind Michigan’s red-hot start and the looming weekend showdown between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 7 Tennessee.

We’ve all seen what Michigan has done (see below), but which other team has been your biggest surprise so far?

Greene: I’ll grant a tie for my biggest surprise to Furman and Texas Tech. I don’t think anybody in the world would have seriously predicted the Paladins to be undefeated and nationally ranked in the first week of December, but Bob Richey’s team is off to a start they’ll remember in Greenville for a long, long time. And I thought the Red Raiders had lost too much from last year’s expectation-defying team to go out and do it again, but here they are with an elite defense (again) and double-digit neutral-site wins over Nebraska and USC. Kudos to Chris Beard for keeping that rising program humming and Jarrett Culver for breaking out into an All-America level player.

Woo: Iowa State. We shouldn’t actually be that surprised given how much talent the Cyclones have, but they’ve jelled quickly and put unproven pieces together faster than expected, and look like a top-three team in the Big 12. I was in Ames Monday night as they blew out North Dakota State, and watching them move the ball unselfishly and have fun in the process was eye opening. If Lindell Wigginton comes back and fits in, look out.

Caron: Biggest surprise has been Wisconsin, as it probably has for most people. Its only loss of the season came against Virginia in the Battle for Atlantis, but it bounced back with wins over NC State and Iowa. The way the Badgers responded to being so shut down in the Bahamas was telling about Greg Gard’s young team. Ethan Happ has exceeded the lofty expectations that were set for the senior going into the season and the sophomore trio of D’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison and Nate Reuvers have all stepped up for Wisconsin as well. They’re working together and they’re doing it seamlessly, which is what makes it all work.

Meyer: I did not think Iowa State would start this strongly out of the gate with all the absences the Cyclones are dealing with. Star guard Lindell Wigginton is out indefinitely with a left foot strain. Cameron Lard and Zoran Talley, a duo that averaged a combined 20.1 PPG last season, were suspended to begin the season up until Monday night’s game against North Dakota State. Big man Solomon Young, who put up 7.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game last season, is out until later this month after undergoing surgery for a groin injury. Those are four key rotation pieces that have missed the majority of the team’s games, yet the Cyclones are 7–1. Freshmen Talen Horton-Tucker and Tyrese Haliburton have really stepped up, while Virginia transfer Marial Shayok has provided this team with strong play and senior leadership. This is the second best team in the Big 12, and it will give Kansas a run for its money.

Shapiro: Wisconsin missed the tournament for the first time since 1998 last season, and after beginning the year unranked, it was fair to be skeptical of the Badgers’ standing in the Big Ten. The two squads in Michigan projected to be head-and-shoulders above Wisconsin, while Purdue snagged a top-25 preseason ranking. Outside of unanimous preseason All-Big Ten forward Ethan Happ, where would the production come from in Madison? Happ has found a partner-and-crime in junior D’Mitrik Trice. The 6’0” point guard has scooted his way to a career-high 17.4 points per game this season, up eight from his 2017–18 average before injury. The Badgers now have a dynamic inside-out duo, and are shooting it well from beyond the arc, too, ranking No. 14 in three-point percentage. Add in the another typically strong defense, and the Badgers look like a second-weekend tournament team.

Single: I’m pleasantly surprised Florida State’s Elite Eight run doesn’t seem to have been a fluke. The Seminoles bounced back from a neutral-site loss to Villanova with what I think will be remembered as a good home win over Purdue that should re-center them for the final few weeks of non-conference play.

Geary: I pegged Iowa State as the most underrated team heading into the season in our first roundtable, but that was before I realized how short-handed the Cyclones would be to start. In addition to forwards Cameron Lard and Zoran Talley missing the first seven games with suspension, star Lindell Wigginton and Solomon Young, both starters last year, have been sidelined with injury. Yet Iowa State has opened the year 7–1 and moved up from No. 24 to No. 16 on’s efficiency ratings, even if it doesn’t have a top-50 win yet (it will get its chance Thursday at rival Iowa). The Cyclones should be at full strength by the start of Big 12 play, if not sooner, and transfers Marial Shayok, Michael Jacobson and freshman Talen Horton-Tucker have helped hold the fort down for now. This team should only get better from here.

Power Rankings: Michigan Continues Its Climb Into the Top Five

Likewise, which team has been your biggest disappointment?

Greene: My biggest disappoint so far is Oregon. Bol Bol has generated the expected buzz while producing good numbers, but the Ducks certainly don’t look like a top 25 team so far, with a defeat to Texas Southern at home and a road loss at Houston. Their only win of note came against a Syracuse team missing its point guard. Fortunately for Oregon, a down-year Pac-12 will still be theirs for the taking.

Woo: Oregon, although a lot of people sort of saw that one coming. The parts don’t quite fit, they don’t play with a ton of urgency, and Bol Bol’s massive numbers haven’t always translated into the win column. I’m still skeptical as to where this is headed.

Caron: Biggest disappointment has been North Carolina, which is having the opposite problem as Wisconsin. Something just isn’t clicking for the Tar Heels—for the second consecutive season. Michigan’s defense is understandably hard to overcome, so I’m not surprised by the loss there, but Carolina’s offense looked downright limp all game. It struggled to get things going against an unranked Texas team as well, which isn’t promising for Williams’s crew as it inches closer to ACC play.

Meyer: Villanova was blown out by Michigan, lost at home to Furman and just squeaked out a win over winless La Salle. The Wildcats had a lot of production to replace, but there are clear problems this team is facing on offense and defense. Prized freshman Jahvon Quinerly’s playing time has dropped—he’s been on the court for a five minutes in Villanova’s last three games against Oklahoma State, Florida State and La Salle. Jay Wright has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt with how he has taken this program to the next level, but it will be a tough task winning the Big East this year.

Shapiro: It hasn’t been a disaster by any means for North Carolina to start the season, but allowing 92 points to an offensively-shaky Texas team before getting smoked by Michigan is concerning. The Tar Heels don’t seem particularly concerned with stopping anyone at the moment, allowing 74.2 points per game, good for No. 237 in the nation. Luke Maye has been a disappointment to start the season. Nassir Little has struggled to integrate himself into the Tar Heels’ attack. There’s a lot of season left, but the gap between Duke and North Carolina looks far greater than many expected in Chapel Hill before the season.

Single: I may be splitting hairs over a couple of close games, but I really expected Clemson to play like a top-10 team and have a shot at running the table out of conference, but recent home losses to Creighton and Nebraska in late November have me adjusting that projection downward, with a couple of tests against Mississippi State and upstart Redford ahead. The defense that was a top-10 unit according to last year has slid back to merely being a top-25 unit, and the Tigers’ senior-laden lineup was supposed to swing the action in crunch time more than it has.

Geary: For my personal expectations so far, I’ll say Washington. The Huskies are 6–2, which is fine, but for a team I tabbed for a breakthrough, they’ve had to eek out wins over San Diego, Texas A&M and UC Santa Barbara by less than five points and lost a winnable one with Minnesota. It feels like they’re playing with fire and they’ve gone backwards on, dropping seven spots to No. 52. UW still needs more on offense outside of Jaylen Nowell and Noah Dickerson, but what it really needs is to find a way to somehow beat either Gonzaga or Virginia Tech over the next 11 days. Without that, the Huskies will enter Pac-12 play with a thin résumé and a lot of pressure to rack up enough wins to make the Big Dance.

Michigan Jon Teske

Now about those Wolverines. Who or what has most impressed you about them on the way to a superb 8–0 start?

Dan Greene: I feel like I’ve brought up Ignas Brazdeikis enough so far this season, so I’ll go with the emergence of Jon Teske. The 7′ 1″ junior was mostly a bit player behind Moe Wagner last year; I don’t think anyone saw him suddenly anchoring the best defense in the country immediately after Wagner’s departure. Teske’s 8.7% block rate ranks sixth among Big Ten players, helped by the five rejections he had in the Wolverines’ domination of North Carolina last week, and according to Synergy Sports he has allowed just 0.2 points per possession when defending post-ups, putting him in the top percentile nationally.

Jeremy Woo: Having seen Michigan live twice (and a third time tonight), the player who’s made the most noticeable improvement is Charles Matthews. He’s become a tone-setter for the Wolverines, particularly on the defensive end, and has improved his own shooting a good deal. I’m giving him a good deal of credit for his leadership as well as his versatility.

Emily Caron: Jon Teske is a completely different player. He’s become a literal game-changer for the Wolverines which is huge for a team who was anticipated to have some early struggles as it adjusted to key losses. Everyone who’s returned for Michigan is much improved this season, but Teske has taken the biggest leap by far. He’s developed into being aggressive when he needs to be but maintains a soft shooting touch at all times, becoming a clear leader on the court in every sense. He’s an all-around player who can take command of the court on both sides of the ball, whether that’s setting big-time screens or doing something like dropping 17 points (which he’s done twice this season so far), and he’s becoming more vocal. He can fire up Michigan’s squad in an instant, with his energy or with a clutch play. That kind of leadership is exactly what the Wolverines needed, but I doubt many people expected it to come from Teske.

Max Meyer: There have been a lot of noteworthy freshmen to step onto the scene in this college basketball campaign, but Ignas Brazdeikis has been among the most impressive. He was 247Sports’s No. 40 ranked recruit, and it looks like Michigan got itself quite a steal on the recruiting trail. The 6’7” forward is shooting 55.1% from the floor and 42.9% from beyond the arc. The Wolverines were expected to take a step back this season after losing floor-spacing big Moritz Wagner to the NBA, but Brazdeikis has been a big matchup problem for opposing fours.

Michael Shapiro: Michigan’s defense was a top-10 unit in last year’s Final Four run, but its been downright dominant in 2018–19, leading the nation with a paltry 51.8 points per game allowed. And the Wolverines haven’t solely been feasting on undermanned squads, either. Michigan held Villanova to 46 points on Nov. 14. Providence scored just 47. Michigan’s season high in points allowed is 67 against North Carolina, and that’s 25.9 less than the Tar Heels’ season average. Center Jon Teske has been a reliable anchor at the tin and Charles Matthew and Zavier Simpson are notable lockdown defenders on the wing. The most pleasant surprise, however, has been Jordan Poole, who’s evolved from a microwave bench presence to a reliable starter on both ends of the floor. The Wolverines haven’t take the step back many expected this season, and they have their defense to thank.

Eric Single: I don’t think anyone was prepared for Ignas Brazdeikis taking Ann Arbor by storm in the first month of his college basketball career, leading the Wolverines with 16.3 points per game and igniting fans with the emotions he wears on his sleeve. The Canadian lefty can finish with both hands and has a creativity that seems to be a positive byproduct of his self-confidence (other positive byproducts include some highlight-reel one-on-one moves and post-make celebrations that the student section has taken to mimicking). He’s not an exact copy of Moritz Wagner, but that same invaluable versatility is there, and he’s shooting it better than Wagner did in his final college season.

Molly Geary: Since so many have mentioned Jon Teske already, I’ll go ahead and cite two stats I’ve been particularly impressed by so far: the Wolverines’ three-point shooting and defensive free-throw rate. A season ago, Michigan shot the Division I average from three, making 35.2% from the perimeter, and dipped to a dismal 28.7% during its NCAA tournament run. It then lost its three best three-point shooters. This year so far, the Wolverines are shooting 37.2% from three, and that’s despite a rough first few games. They’ve already had three games where they hit 50% from beyond the arc on at least 22 attempts (including against Purdue and North Carolina), an encouraging sign even in a small sample size, in an area that was a big question mark entering this season. On defense, Michigan has really kept opponents off the free throw line, currently ranking first in defensive free-throw rate nationally (per The Wolverines are struggling from the charity stripe so far (63.8% as a team) and that was a problem last season as well, so it’s important that they don’t give opponents too many freebies.

FUCHS: Gonzaga, Japan Look on as Rui Hachimura Takes Over

Finally, will Tennessee earn the signature win it couldn’t against Kansas when it faces Gonzaga in Phoenix on Sunday?

Greene: Yes. As much as I like Gonzaga, the Bulldogs will be without a second key player now that guard Geno Crandall is missing time with a broken hand. (They’re already without forward Killian Tillie.) They still had enough to handle Creighton, but Tennessee is a well-rounded, experienced team that will be hungry to make a statement. Plus Gonzaga has to have an off shooting night eventually, right? it would rightly be an upset, but I’ve got a feeling Tennessee can do it.

Woo: Probably not. Gonzaga’s size and depth are going to create problems for the Vols, and its offensive firepower is serious. Tennesse will have to grind it out and get contributions from its role players.

Caron: Gonzaga looks good. Its balance is what will be hard for the Vols to overcome, but it has dipped in defensive efficiency, so if Tennessee’s offense can overwhelm the Bulldogs’ defense, it could potentially secure that signature win. The problem will be containing the Zags’ ultra-effective offense. Gonzaga isn’t going to make it easy, but the matchup offers a few key inconsistencies for Tennessee to exploit.

Meyer: Tennessee won’t win, but it’ll be a close game. The Volunteers’ best chance of scoring the upset is turning this contest into a grinder, which it did successfully against Kansas before falling in overtime. The most physical team Gonzaga has faced thus far this season was Arizona, where the Wildcats actually led at halftime in Maui. The Bulldogs, however, pulled away in the second half because they simply have too much offensive firepower. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gonzaga pulls off another second-half comeback after taking a few early punches in Phoenix.

Shapiro: Gonzaga is an absolute offensive juggernaut and Rui Hachimura will contend for the Naismith award, but this Tennessee squad is as well equipped as anyone to slow down the Bulldogs. The Vols are experienced and tough as nails, returning each of their five starters from 2017–18. Last year’s SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams has hit the ground running with 20.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. Admiral Schofield is one of college basketball’s toughest interior forces, and should keep Hachimura to under 20 points. The Zags are leading the NCAA in field goal percentage at a ludicrous 54.1%. Expect Tennessee to hold Gonzaga under 50%, and earn a signature win in its quest for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Single: No. This is one of the few frontcourts in the country I don’t like the Vols’ chances of out-working. Between Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura (with a dash of Filip Petrusev), the Zags should be able to bother Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield with their size, and Zach Norvell Jr. will be happy to settle things with another neutral-site outside shooting contest down the stretch, as he did against Duke and Creighton.

Geary: The key to this game could be Tennessee’s guards. Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner are going to need to step up offensively while the Vols’ elite frontcourt battles with the Zags’ own talented big men, as well as get in the head of Zach Norvell Jr. and Josh Perkins. Tennessee doesn’t create a lot of steals, which is good news for Perkins (who turned it over seven times against Illinois but was stellar over the weekend with 13 assists and one turnover at Creighton). Ultimately, I don’t think the Vols will do quite enough to win this one unless Gonzaga struggles on its outside shots, but it should be close.

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