Lukas Harkins analyzes six storylines worth monitoring after the opening month of the 2021-22 college basketball season.
The opening month of the 2021-22 college basketball season is in the rear-view mirror. Conference play, though, is quickly approaching and there is plenty of season left. Still, does anyone else feel like the opening month flew by after the long offseason?
There is still plenty to be discovered, though, especially from teams that have not tested themselves against difficult schedules, or those dealing with massive injuries, or those young groups that need this early-season seasoning.
This week’s Hark’s Remarks dives into six items that have caught my attention thus far this season. They range from high-major teams with key recent developments to mid-majors experiencing breakouts following scheme adjustments.
Is Michigan State’s shooting going to continue? How much does Caleb Love’s breakout raise UNC’s ceiling? Is South Dakota State a Cinderella to monitor? Let’s dive in.
Let’s talk about the ACC…
The ACC has been the most disappointing conference in the country this season. Of course, there are still some very good teams at the top of the league but there is a major lack of depth. The conference has slipped to the No. 5 ranking on KenPom and only one team is ranked in the Top 25 of the site.
Many ACC teams have suffered head-scratching losses that are going to impact the league when Selection Sunday rolls around. I mean, we couldn’t even fit their losses to non-P6 opponents within Twitter’s character limit:
MSU finding its 3-point rhythm
Michigan State is potentially creeping up on folks this year. Some of Tom Izzo’s best teams have been those with low preseason expectations and that could be the case once again. The Spartans are 7-2 with their losses coming against top-10 teams in Kansas and Baylor – both at neutral sites. They also already boast wins over Butler, Loyola Chicago, UConn and Louisville.
MSU’s emergence as perhaps the second-best team in the Big Ten is thanks in large part to its defense. The Spartans rank third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency thus far. Teams are shooting just 43.9 percent inside the arc and 26.8 percent from three against them. Senior big man Marcus Bingham Jr. is making an excellent case to be the favorite to win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year; he has been a menace while swatting 14.9 percent of shots.
Perhaps the biggest ceiling-raising statistic for the Spartans, though, has been their 3-point shooting. Michigan State began this season shooting 23-for-80 (28.8 percent) from three over its first four games. In the following five contests, they have connected on 38-for-86 (41.9 percent). This includes 22 combined makes in their last two games.
Most notably, Malik Hall and Jaden Akins have been finding their rhythm from three. If Joey Hauser starts to regain some of his shooting prowess — 26.1 percent this season versus a prior career 38.3 percent — that would also help. If the Spartans’ 3-point shooting can continue, it will raise their ceiling.
South Dakota State = offensive juggernaut
South Dakota State boasts the best offense of any mid-major in the country. I’m also not particularly sure that it is close. The Jackrabbits rank 14th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency as they are torching opponents with their scoring ability. Not only do they play at the 14th-fastest offensive tempo in the country, but they rank sixth in effective field-goal percentage.
Freidel and Scheierman make up a duo that should be on every college basketball fan’s radar. They are incredible offensive weapons that ooze efficiency despite their high volume. South Dakota State is 8-2 on the season and these two are combining for 33.8 points, 11.5 points and 5.6 assists per game. They are shooting 57.3 percent on 2-point attempts and 44.8 percent on 3-point attempts as a duo. Douglas Wilson has also added 14.7 points per game.
The Jackrabbits struggle defensively, though. In fact, they are in the bottom half of the country in just about every defensive category (except keeping teams off the foul line). They will need to improve on that end to truly emerge as a top-tier mid-major, but this is an offense that could put a scare in any team in the country.
Al Durham’s impact at Providence
Providence has jumped out to an impressive 9-1 record that is not receiving nearly enough attention, including zero votes in this week’s AP poll. Ed Cooley and Co. already boast wins over Wisconsin, Texas Tech, Northwestern and Rhode Island.
Star big man Nate Watson is at the core of this success, of course, but Indiana transfer Al Durham has proven to be invaluable, coming off a deserving Big East Player of the Week nod. Prior to scoring only nine points in a PC’s most recent win over Vermont, he had reached double figures in every single game. Durham is averaging 14.0 points and 3.8 assists per game for the season.
Providence was expected to be a strong defensive team again this season but there were offensive questions around Watson. While it’s still early in the season, Durham appears to be answering the call as the team’s other scoring weapon. He isn’t even shooting the ball well relative to his prior career averages — 25.0 percent from three this year after back-to-back 38-percent seasons at IU. However, he is getting to the free-throw line at the 13th-best rate in the entire country and connecting on better than 80 percent of those tries.
Durham is raising Providence’s potential this season in a big way. He has been one of the nation’s most impactful transfer additions to date.
North Carolina: I’m “Lovin'” it.
Although the ACC has been disappointing, one team that has been coming on as of late has been North Carolina. The Tar Heels recently notched back-to-back wins over Michigan and Georgia Tech to reclaim their place in the Heat Check CBB Top 25.
Hubert Davis’s team is finding its offensive rhythm and ranks fifth nationally in adjusted efficiency on that end of the floor.
There are plenty of reasons to be encouraged by North Carolina’s recent play, but Caleb Love’s emergence has been huge. The former five-star recruit struggled last season but has regained his confidence in Year 2. He and RJ Davis form one of the more underrated backcourts in the country. They are electric when they get it going.
Caleb Love’s Year 2 improvement
Caleb Love only posted 17-plus points in four games last season. He has already done so five times as a sophomore in eight tries.
Tempo turning the tide at Cornell?
Cornell is yet to post a winning record over a full season under head coach Brian Earl. The Big Red was just 42-73 (21-35 Ivy) overall in his first four years. The 2019-20 campaign was their worst and also their slowest; Cornell ranked 314th in tempo and ran off 18.8 seconds per offensive possession. That was among the 30 slowest rates nationwide.
Now back in action after a one-year hiatus, Cornell looks to be ramping up the pace in a major way. The Big Red is averaging just 14.1 seconds per offensive possession this season, a mark that ranks second-fastest in the country. This move has paid off. Cornell is 8-1 in the early going and has been one of the more surprising mid-major teams. Their lone loss came at Penn State by 11, and it owns a quality win over Colgate already.
Cornell’s up-tempo offense is moving the ball and lighting it up from three. The Big Red is recording assists on 57.9 percent of made baskets, attempting nearly half of its shots from distance, and connecting on 37.3 percent of those threes. Even with the uptick in pace, Earl’s team is taking care of the ball and ranks 16th in effective field-goal percentage.
The defense is a work in progress but it feels like Earl has found a recipe for offensive success.