The nonconference portion of the 2022-23 college basketball season is nearing its close. What are some of the biggest takeaways from the opening stretch of games?
The 2022-23 college basketball season is flying by. There have already been three different No. 1-ranked teams in the AP Poll, the preseason No. 1 has fallen out of the rankings altogether, and two teams have climbed from preseason unranked into the top 3. This season has not been short on excitement.
As the nonconference portion of the schedule draws to its close, let’s look at some of the most important storylines of the early season. How are the power conferences performing? Who has been some of the biggest surprises? Is there an early National Player of the Year frontrunner? Which mid-majors are showing at-large potential? This takeaways roundup will look into each of those questions – and more.
UConn might be the best team in the country…
UConn entered this season unranked in the AP Poll. It has already risen to No. 3. Might that still be too low, though? The Huskies look electric to begin the season and filled vital holes. Adama Sanogo looks like an All-American, but he wasn’t even named MVP of the Phil Knight Invitational. Instead, his backup, Donovan Clingan, took home the honors. Clingan, a 7-2 freshman, has instantly provided head coach Dan Hurley what he lacked a year ago: a reliable backup big behind Sanogo. Clingan is more than just reliable, too — the dominant big is averaging 17.5 points, 18.2 rebounds, and 5.5 blocks per 40 minutes.
Additionally, Jordan Hawkins is taking the sophomore leap many predicted. Heralded as an elite shot-maker, Hawkins only slashed .353/.333/.821 as a freshman. Now in a more prominent offensive role, he is thriving. He has upped his scoring average to 14.4 points per game and is hitting 42.6 percent of 7.6 3-point attempts per game. Spacing the floor around a star duo at the five is necessary, and Hawkins does precisely that.
UConn is 11-0. Its average margin of victory in five KenPom top-60 wins? 17.6 points.
UConn has climbed to No. 1 on KenPom and is the only team in the country to rank in the top 10 in adjusted efficiency on both sides of the ball. Pairing Clingan with Sanogo gives UConn one of the country’s best 1-2 punches at center. The Huskies also outscore opponents by 17.5 points off 3-pointers per game and dish 11.5 more assists per game. Their ability to thrive inside and out makes them a matchup nightmare for every opponent.
…but the Big East is down
As strong as UConn has been, the rest of the Big East has lagged. The Huskies are the only team in the league in the KenPom top 25, and the NET is not much kinder. Heading into conference play, UConn is the only team in the NET top 30 — this means that only one home game for the other ten teams will qualify as a Quadrant 1 victory right now. For UConn, it cannot earn a Q1 conference win at home. The Big East has thrice been held to only four NCAA Tournament bids since realignment, and another such season could be on the horizon.
The Big East aims to contend among the best leagues in the country. Through nonconference play, though, the conference’s depth is much closer to the Mountain West than it is to any of the Big 12, Big Ten, and SEC.
UConn, Xavier, St. John’s, Marquette, and Butler are the only Big East teams with Wins Above Bubble (WAB) of zero or better. Creighton and Villanova — two of the preseason favorites — are a combined 11-10. The Big East did not build much goodwill during the nonconference schedule. As such, the battle in the middle of the league will be fierce as teams hope to push for the fourth or fifth bids from the league.
Wisconsin’s “Team Drama” is used to theatrics
Bart Torvik defines “close games” as a margin within six points or overtime. Wisconsin competed in 19 such contests last season – the most in the country – and won 15. This season has featured more of the same. Wisconsin has already played the nation’s second-most close games (7) and is 5-2. The Badgers hold wins over Dayton, USC, Marquette, Maryland, and Iowa by a combined 17 points – and needed overtime to win two of them.
Wisconsin’s last seven games have been decided by five points or fewer.
Team Drama? You bet.
Considering the team’s slow tempo and deliberate style of play, Wisconsin often finds itself in low-scoring, tight battles. The Badgers’ impressive track record in tight games has quickly earned a top 25 ranking in the AP poll, but also ignites some skepticism. Will consistently playing tight games eventually come back to hurt them, or will they continue to thrive in the clutch?
Can anyone stop Zach Edey from winning NPOY?
Seven players recorded over 600 minutes for Purdue last season. Five departed over the offseason, while another has missed three games this season due to injury. That leaves just one of their top seven players from last season having returned and played all 10 games this year.
Yet, Purdue is 10-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country by the AP poll.
If you’re wondering how, the answer is Zach Edey.
Edey has help — don’t get me wrong — but these numbers are off the charts. The 7-4 junior has won KenPom Game MVP in every performance while carrying a hefty load. Even in Purdue’s worst performance this season, Edey dropped 11 points, 17 rebounds, and seven blocks. He is on an entirely different level.
The college basketball season has a long way to go, but everyone else has a long way to go to catch Edey for National Player of the Year.
Assessing the impact of weak nonconference schedules
TCU, Providence, St. John’s, and Missouri hold a combined 35-6 record this season. Hot starts are not the only thing they have in common, though: Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast projects all four programs have a 28 percent chance or lower of earning at-large bids this season.
Why? Building a nonconference resume is about more than just piling up victories. These four teams rank in the bottom 20 of KenPom’s nonconference strength of schedule rating, and their lack of competition is dragging down their NCAA Tournament potential.
This quartet has played 41 total games; 27 were against Quad-4 opponents. TCU gets a bit of a reprieve for having played without Damion Baugh for six games – and holding the only Quad-1 win of the group – but its nonconference strength of schedule is still questionable.
Each of these teams still has a shot at an NCAA Tournament bid, but facing such weak nonconference schedules limits their margin for error moving forward. As mentioned earlier, the Big East is in a down season, which could limit the high-quality opportunities that SJU and Providence might need.
Nick Smith and Cam Whitmore are healthy and contributing
Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson are the 2023 NBA Draft class’s headlining players. Neither is playing college basketball this season, though. When analyzing the potential top draft picks from the college ranks, two players immediately stand out: Arkansas’ Nick Smith Jr. and Villanova’s Cam Whitmore. But for the season’s first several weeks, both players were sidelined with injuries.
Since retaking the court for their respective collegiate debuts, Smith and Whitmore have instantly made an impact.
For Smith, he feels like the missing piece on a national-title-contending Razorbacks squad. The 6-5 guard provides more on-ball creation and a true go-to star who can take over when needed. He only played six minutes in his debut before starting each of Arkansas’ next three games: 19.7 points (.455/.333/.824) and three assists per game.
Whitmore did not step into as easy of a situation. While Arkansas was already 5-1 when Smith debuted, Villanova was just 2-5. The explosive 6-7 wing scored seven points in his opener, then turned in back-to-back KenPom Game MVP performances against Penn and Boston College. He is averaging 15.7 points and 5.3 rebounds over his first three college games. Villanova is facing an uphill battle, but Whitmore provides an engine.
How about the Mountain West?
Utah State, UNLV, and New Mexico are a combined 28-0.
Wait…what? What is going on in the Mountain West?! A lot of good, to be honest. The league earned four NCAA Tournament bids a season ago, and is looking to match – or even exceed – that quantity this season. Three teams hold undefeated records, while San Diego State and Boise State have been quite impressive in their own rights.
All five teams are ranked within the NET top 45 behind an 11-4 combined record in Quadrant 1 and 2 games. A sneaky-good Nevada team slides in at No. 58 in the NET. As a result of their strong nonconference performances, there will be plenty of opportunities for quality wins in MWC play.
The Mountain West has earned five bids only once (2012-13) in 24 years of existence. Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast notes a 27 percent chance of five or more bids – and 74.6 percent chance at four or more – this season.
Kansas State following in Iowa State’s footsteps?
Iowa State was picked to finish dead last in the Big 12 last season. Then, the Cyclones rattled off a 12-0 nonconference record en route to peaking at No. 8 in the AP poll. They stumbled a bit in conference play but earned an NCAA Tournament bid and reached the Sweet 16.
Might Kansas State be looking to do the same this year? First-year head coach Jerome Tang’s team was picked last in the Big 12 but has raced out to a 9-1 record. The Wildcats’ lone loss came on the road against an exceeding-expectations Butler team, while they have already picked up wins over Nevada, LSU and Wichita State.
Keyontae Johnson, after missing two years with a heart condition, is back with a vengeance. The former preseason SEC Player of the Year has found a new home in Manhattan. He is averaging 17.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game to lead the Wildcats. K-State has a star to build around this season, and Markquis Nowell is putting together an outstanding playmaking season: 8.2 assists to only 2.4 turnovers per game.
Kansas State might not climb to the peak that Iowa State reached last season but has already earned votes in the AP poll.
Atlantic 10 is trending toward a one-bid season
The Atlantic 10 has earned at least two NCAA Tournament bids for 17 consecutive seasons. If the conference’s performance during the 2022-23 nonconference schedule is any indication, that streak might end. The Atlantic 10 struggled mightily in nonconference, combining for just a 1-17 record in Quadrant 1 games.
Saint Louis, 7-4, holds the most hope for a potential at-large bid. The Billikens hold wins over Memphis and Providence but have also already suffered four losses. Dayton, which was expected to be the conference’s leader as a preseason top-25 team, is a disappointing 6-5.
Statistics do not paint a pretty picture of the A10’s early postseason outlook. The conference does not feature a single team within the NET Top 75 – barring a change, there will not be a single game that qualifies as Quadrant 1 for any team in league play. That spells trouble for a league that combined for only one Quad-1 win in nonconference.
Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast gives the A10 a 1.61 percent chance of earning an at-large bid.
Mid-majors making early at-large cases
Through the opening stretch of the 2022-23 season, five mid-majors are making early at-large cases:
Florida Atlantic’s at-large percentage is inflated due to a high NET ranking, but the team has performed admirably. FAU is 9-1 with a true road win over Florida. The Owls will need to be hooting on — pun very much intended — the Gators throughout the season. Fellow C-USA member UAB is also in the mix; the Blazers were a preseason mid-major darling that has primarily lived up to the hype. They are 8-2 but lack an elite win. If everything breaks right, FAU and UAB could work in tandem for a two-bid CUSA.
Sam Houston State’s resume is buoyed by two of the best mid-major wins of the season. The Bearkats already hold road wins over Oklahoma and Utah, two KenPom top-40 opponents. Their end-of-season schedule will feature four non-Division I opponents, so they must roll through the WAC to maintain this potential. Iona has suffered two early losses but has five KenPom top 150 wins.
Charleston might have the lowest at-large potential per Bart Torvik, but it is a middie to watch. The Cougars are 11-1 with their lone loss coming to North Carolina. They also already hold impressive victories over Richmond, Colorado State, Virginia Tech and Kent State. Quality metrics like KenPom are holding them back, which could be remedied by a hot start in the CAA.