Lukas Harkins highlights 10 things he noticed during the first week of the 2021-22 college basketball season.
The first week of the 2021-22 college basketball season is now in the rear-view mirror. Before diving into the major takeaways from the first several hundred games, let’s first appreciate that college basketball is back.
Student-athletes can again showcase their skills in front of jam-packed arenas, and it feels like there is a nostalgic feeling in the air compared to last season. This year should be an awesome one for college hoops.
There has been no shortage of high-quality games to tip off the season, either. The Champions Classic started the year, but Villanova-UCLA, Gonzaga-Texas, and the onset of the Gavitt Games (still ongoing) quickly followed.
Additionally, mid-majors have made their mark on the early portion of the year; upsets are running rampant across the sport. There have also been quality matchups such as Belmont-Ohio that warranted significant attention.
The college basketball season is still very young, but let’s dive into a few of the early notes, including top performers across the country and teams blossoming relative to preseason expectations.
Loyola Chicago is flashing firepower
Loyola Chicago shows no signs of a potential down season in the first year under head coach Drew Valentine. The Ramblers’ schedule has been weak to date, but they have been the epitome of efficiency offensively. The most notable adjustment under Coach Valentine thus far has been an increase in offensive tempo. We will see if this continues to be the case against better competition.
The Ramblers ranked in the bottom half of the nation in offensive tempo in each of the first 12 seasons since KenPom started tracking possession speed. Their average ranking in that category was 279.8, and they never averaged possessions shorter than 17.9 seconds. Through three games this season, though, Loyola Chicago is averaging just 15.3 seconds per possession, ranking 49th in the country in tempo.
The shift has only led to improved offensive efficiency so far. Loyola ranks extremely highly nationally in just about every notable offensive category: eighth in effective field-goal percentage (.643), 61st in turnover rate (.154), 134th in offensive rebounding rate (.305), 28th in 3-point percentage (.433), 16th in 2-point percentage (.637), 55th in 3-point attempt rate (.469), and third in assist rate (.731). Good luck to the rest of the Missouri Valley with how well this team is moving the ball and connecting on open looks.
Lucas Williamson is blossoming as Loyola Chicago’s star. Not only is he arguably the nation’s best individual defender, but he has also massively improved as a playmaker, dishing 16 assists to just two turnovers so far this season.
Underclassmen are raising the ceiling in Waco
Adam Flagler, James Akinjo and Matthew Mayer make up a tremendous upperclassmen triumvirate to lead the defending national champions this season. Through the Bears’ first two games of the 2021-22 season, it has become clear that they have an exciting group of youngsters capable of contributing to winning basketball now.
Most notably, 6-8 guard Kendall Brown has been a firecracker to start his career. He scored 13 points in each game and displayed great instincts as a passer and defender; Brown has dished out 11 assists and come away with six “stocks” (steals + blocks). Fellow freshman Jeremy Sochan has also been solid — the 6-9 forward has also reached double figures in each game as an excellent reserve option for head coach Scott Drew.
Sophomore guard LJ Cryer is not a fresh face but shows signs of a potential breakout second year. Cryer is 7-for-13 from distance to begin the season. All in all, Baylor’s future is in sure hands with this group of underclassmen.
Alex Barcello is the most under-appreciated star
Perhaps this take is a bit more evident after BYU dismantled Oregon, but point guard Alex Barcello is a legit All-American candidate. He has been superb ever since transferring to Provo and is off to another phenomenal start. The duo of Barcello and head coach Mark Pope fit together like a glove.
Barcello is the walking epitome of offensive efficiency. He averaged 16.1 points and 4.3 assists per game last season while shooting a ridiculous 55.2 percent on 2-pointers, 47.7 percent from three, and 85.6 percent from the line. Considering he only committed two turnovers per game, he also maintained a stellar assist-to-turnover ratio. The Cougars had other vital pieces last year, but Barcello was the No. 1 reason they ranked 23rd nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency.
Now in his super-senior season, Barcello is picking up right where he left off. He is averaging 20.5 points per game through three contests while shooting a blistering 12-for-14 on 2s, 8-for-13 on 3s, and 18-for-18 at the free-throw line. Barcello’s numbers are not coming against low-level competition: BYU already has impressive wins over Cleveland State, San Diego State and Oregon to leap out to a 3-0 record.
Is Seton Hall’s 3-point advantage sustainable?
Seton Hall has arguably been the most impressive team in the country through the season’s opening week. The Pirates made their mark early with a dominant 36-point win over an excellent Yale team and then upset No. 4-ranked Michigan on the road in the Gavitt Games. Head coach Kevin Willard is proving why he is one of the top leaders in the Big East. Most notably, Seton Hall’s defense has been absurd in the early going, surrendering just .703 points per possession; opponents are posting just a 33.5 effective field-goal percentage.
The Pirates were expected to be a fearsome defensive team this season, but are they this good on that end? I hesitate to believe so, due in large part to their massive 3-point differential. Seton Hall is currently shooting an outstanding 38.5 percent on its 3-point attempts this season while also holding opponents to 13.3-percent shooting on the other end. The Pirates are, on average, outscoring their opponents by 22 points per game (!) from the 3-point line alone so far this season.
Is this incredible 3-point differential sustainable? Probably not. This doesn’t mean that Seton Hall isn’t still going to be a terrific defensive team — it should be — but it is food for thought. Some teams are going to eventually hit a few threes on this defense. Even so, it is hard not to be impressed with how well the Pirates are defending.
Santa Clara showing dark-horse potential
Much of the offseason WCC discourse centered on the logjam of teams projected to finish 3-through-5 in the league: Saint Mary’s, San Francisco and Loyola Marymount. However, Santa Clara has made its frustration known about not being included in that preseason group through the season’s first week. The Broncos are 3-0 with home victories over Stanford (by 16) and Nevada (by 22) already under their belts.
Elite offensive efficiency has led the way for Santa Clara so far this year. The Broncos are moving the ball well, avoiding turnovers, and dominating inside the arc. High-efficiency scoring comes as a product of Santa Clara’s quality shot selection. Through three games, Herb Sendek’s team is posting 47.3 of its 89.3 points per game in the paint and is shooting 64.5 percent on 2-point attempts. Those types of shots are not nearly as susceptible to shooting variance as the teams getting hot from mid-range or three early.
Santa Clara might be here to stay as one of the top teams in the WCC behind Gonzaga and BYU. Its offense looks special behind superb balance, including 6-9 senior Josip Vrankic, who is doing a little bit of everything thus far.
Jason Roche with the green light = bucket
The Citadel has not finished inside the KenPom Top 200 since 2010. Might this be the year for that to change? The Bulldogs are 2-1 in the early going and feature one of the SoCon’s top stars in Hayden Brown. However, perhaps the most significant early development in Charleston is who is emerging as Brown’s running mate: freshman Jason Roche.
The 6-5 guard put on a show in his college debut last week, notching 27 points on 8-for-14 shooting from three in an upset road win over Pittsburgh. He then followed that up with 21 points in a win over Morris in just 28 minutes. Roche struggled in an overtime loss to Presbyterian, but his to-date numbers show his promise. He is averaging 19.3 points and 6.3 rebounds through three contests while shooting 45.2 percent from three on over 10 attempts per game.
Head coach Duggar Baucom runs an up-tempo offense that thrives on 3-point shooting. The defense has been a concern, but Roche is quickly emerging as a potential star.
Mark Sears is the real deal
Ohio brought back a great core from its NCAA Tournament team last season. Ben Vander Plas, Ben Roderick and Lunden McDay were all full-time starters who averaged double-figures points per game. Still, concerns lingered over how the Bobcats would replace star point guard Jason Preston. This offseason, I wrote about the importance of sophomore Mark Sears and his potential breakout season alleviating those post-Preston worries. The 2021-22 campaign is still young, but Sears is looking like the real deal.
Ohio has already jumped out to an impressive 3-0 start with wins over Belmont and Cleveland State. After mostly coming off the bench last season, Sears is blossoming early on as a full-time starter. He is leading the team in scoring with 19.3 points per game while contributing 4.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.7 steals. The small sample size skews his shooting splits, but he is currently slashing .647/.750/.889.
Head coach Jeff Boals has a new star point guard to run his offense through. As such, the Bobcats should be elite offensively once again and are one of the best mid-major units nationwide.
Hofstra could be dangerous with Jalen Ray
Hofstra is 1-2 but there are still many reasons to believe in this team. First and foremost, the Pride have played a daunting schedule to begin the year: at Houston, at Duquesne, and at Iona. This stretch is only the start, though, as head coach Speedy Claxton has his team playing five straight road games to begin the year.
Their home opener is not until the day before Thanksgiving. In the meantime, Hofstra had Houston on the ropes in the opener before falling in overtime. The Pride also played that game without Jalen Ray, who averaged 19.3 points per game last season. Ray returned for Hofstra’s game against Iona and made an immediate impact with 20 points.
The Pride now challenges Maryland and Richmond in their next two games. Ray’s return makes the Pride all the more dangerous, and they should be one of the top contenders in the CAA this season. The team’s performance against Houston without Ray should ignite confidence in the team’s supporting cast. Ray is a legitimate CAA player of the year candidate.
Watch out for the SoCon
The SoCon — somewhat disrespectfully — did not receive a ton of offseason hype heading into the year. The conference is showing out through the opening week of the season, though. The top of the league is already putting together strong performances. Furman and Chattanooga, for instance, have done their parts by knocking off Louisville and Loyola Marymount, respectively, on the road in the early going. Furman also took Belmont to overtime in an away game before an eventual defeat.
The Paladins and Mocs were two of the top preseason favorites to win the SoCon, and they are looking the part so far. Either could be a Cinderella this season behind star players Mike Bothwell and Malachi Smith. The opening week of the NCAA basketball season, though, has shown that there could be a couple of other teams ready to compete near the top of the league.
UNC Greensboro is 3-0 with a road overtime victory over Northern Kentucky. Wofford is a solid 2-1 and gave Clemson a good run. The Citadel knocked off Pittsburgh by 15 — again, on the road — on the season’s inaugural evening. There is a lot to like from the SoCon thus far as the conference is rising up the national ranks. Their top teams have proven capable of competing at a high level and doing so on the road.
Julian Strawther queuing breakout in Spokane
Gonzaga was the easy choice for the preseason No. 1 team in the country. The Bulldogs returned the frontrunner for National Player of the Year in Drew Timme, brought back an elite point guard in Andrew Nembhard, and added a recruiting class featuring Chet Holmgren. The potential emerge of Julian Strawther, though, flew under the radar. There were some offseason rumblings of his development and he is off to a tremendous start to a promising sophomore campaign.
The former top-100 recruit figures to be one of Gonzaga’s top perimeter threats this season in the absence of Corey Kispert. Through three games, Strawther is averaging 13.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in 24.3 minutes per game while shooting 5-for-11 (45.6 percent) from beyond the arc. He is likely to remain a fixture in the starting lineup as long as he consistently buries 3-point jumpers. His floor spacing is essential for a team equipped with many deadly finishers.
Strawther, 6-7, moves well without the ball to create looks for himself. Gonzaga ranked 79th nationally in assist rate last season and Nembhard is back as the primary playmaker. With as much star power on this roster, Strawther should see plenty of offensive opportunities. He is the dark-horse breakout star to raise the Bulldogs’ ceiling.
Header image courtesy of Seton Hall Athletics.