Lukas Harkins spotlights seven items that have caught his attention in the early portion of the 2021-22 college basketball season.
The Champions Classic might signify the start of the college basketball season, but nothing epitomizes nonconference play quite like Feast Week. Afternoon games take center stage at some of the most exciting events in the country, including the Battle 4 Atlantis and the Maui — err, Vegas — Invitational.
There is no shortage of basketball, and Feast Week feels like the closest thing to conference tournaments and the Big Dance until March hits.
As Feast Week continues, we welcome another edition of Hark’s Remarks. I got married this weekend, so there has been less available time to watch college basketball as other weeks, but we’ll still dive into seven noteworthy items over the past few days.
Let’s discuss whether Gonzaga is in a tier by itself, a mid-major freshman star shining early, and how Alabama could still find improvement in the coming weeks.
Who is this season’s Baylor?
Gonzaga and Baylor were on a tier by themselves last season, and their meeting in the NCAA Tournament title game was practically a certainty. Baylor was a bad matchup for Gonzaga and dominated early to cut down the final nets.
The Bulldogs entered this year as the preseason No. 1 and has already quickly dispatched UCLA and Texas. It is painfully evident that they are once again a clear-cut top title contender. But is there a team — a la Baylor last season — that could potentially reach their level? It doesn’t look like it so far, as Gonzaga should be the overwhelming favorite to win it all, which wasn’t quite the case last year.
Purdue and Duke are two teams to watch as potentially reaching Gonzaga’s level this season. The Boilermakers boast arguably the only frontcourt duo in the country that can rival Gonzaga. Zach Edey and Trevion Williams form a tremendous platoon. They also feature a dynamic guard in Jaden Ivey who should develop throughout the year. Duke has a combo of size and athleticism to threaten the Zags — Paolo Banchero is huge in determining its ceiling.
For now, though, Gonzaga is alone at the top.
Remember the name Taran Armstrong
Taran Armstrong deserves to be on far more “freshmen to watch” lists. The Australian native has been superb for Cal Baptist this season while stuffing the stat sheet. He is a unique guard with excellent size at 6-5 and instinctive playmaking ability. Armstrong was incredible in the Basketball Australia U20 National Championships and has shown no signs of slowing down since.
Cal Baptist is 5-0 and Armstrong has played a substantial role, averaging 14.8 points, 9.2 assists, and 6.8 rebounds per game this season on impressive shooting splits. Armstrong is finishing on 60 percent of his shots inside the arc while canning 46.2 percent of his 3-pointers. Patrick Baldwin Jr. was widely expected to be the most entertaining mid-major freshman in the country this season but Armstrong is providing legit competition.
Armstrong plays with impressive pace and is Harry Potter with the ball in his hands. Live-dribble, cross-court, whip passes into a shooting pocket like this one are exceedingly rare in college basketball, let alone from a freshman:
Cal Baptist head coach Rick Croy has a special player in his hands. Armstrong is one of the top mid-major players to watch as he should continue to blossom into the national spotlight.
Let’s talk about the WCC
Gonzaga’s dominance is well-documented. The Bulldogs are the best team in the WCC, but they do not appear to be alone in the tournament picture this season. Following back-to-back victories over San Diego State and Oregon, BYU propelled into our Heat Check CBB top 10. The WCC also features three more undefeateds in San Francisco, Saint Mary’s, and Santa Clara. In total, the conference’s top five teams are a combined 27-0 with several superb wins.
The WCC has taken the following opponents as its victims this season:
- Gonzaga defeated UCLA (No. 9 KenPom) by 20
- Gonzaga defeated Texas (No. 15) by 12
- Saint Mary’s defeated Notre Dame (No. 39) by 3
- BYU defeated San Diego State (No. 40) by 6
- BYU defeated Oregon (No. 45) by 32
- Saint Mary’s defeated Oregon (No. 45) by 12
- Santa Clara defeated Nevada (No. 78) by 22
- San Francisco defeated Nevada (No. 78) by 3
- Santa Clara defeated TCU (No. 79) by 19
- San Francisco defeated Davidson (No. 82) by 5
- Santa Clara defeated Stanford (No. 90) by 16
This is quite the list of impressive victories by the top of the WCC. Even Loyola Marymount and San Diego have a top-100 KenPom win to their credit as well. The league is quickly rising up the national ranks this season and appears poised to send multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament. It’s still early, but watch for the WCC to feature several squads near the top of the initial NET rankings release. With five of the 10 teams in the league already boasting big wins, there is more potential to bolster resumes in conference play.
Johnny Davis is special
Wisconsin’s NCAA Tournament potential entering this season rested firmly on the shoulders of Johnny Davis. The rising sophomore was set to be tasked as the team’s “star” in the absence of several graduating seniors, and he has done exactly that so far this season. Of course, it helps that the Badgers’ patented defense has been steady, but the offense has flowed through Davis.
Wisconsin is 4-1 on the young season with wins over Texas A&M and Houston. Davis scored 51 of the Badgers’ 134 points in those victories, shooting 13-for-24 on 2-pointers, 5-for-12 from deep, and a perfect 10-for-10 at the charity stripe. He also added six total steals and two blocks. He is a menace on both ends of the floor and looks the part of a two-way killer.
Davis is averaging 20.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2.3 steals per game through four games. He was also named the KenPom Game MVP in three of Wisconsin’s four wins. Whether or not he can maintain this hot start remains to be seen, but it appears as though his career at Wisconsin might not last all that long. His game screams NBA.
Wyoming looks like a sneaky MWC contender
Wyoming has been one of the quietest undefeated teams in the nation so far this season. Sure, the Cowboys haven’t added a signature win in the early going, but road victories over Washington and Grand Canyon are worth noting. Head coach Jeff Linder’s group is defending extremely well while leaping out to a 4-0 record.
If the Cowboys hold to KenPom projections, they will be an undefeated 8-0 when they travel to face Arizona on the road on Dec. 8. That sets up a huge opportunity for a dark-horse team.
Wyoming currently ranks second in the entire nation in effective field-goal defense (35.4 percent). Opponents are shooting just 36.6 percent on 2-pointers and 22.4 percent on 3-pointers this season. Additionally, opponents are only recording assists on just over one-third of their possessions. This hot start is eye-opening because Wyoming was abysmal defensively last season, ranking 301st in adjusted defensive efficiency.
The Cowboys have played well despite not receiving a ton of production out of Xavier DuSell. The sophomore sharpshooter is 7-for-21 from three after hitting 45.6 percent a season ago. Hunter Maldonado (19.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists) and Graham Ike (20.5 points, 7.3 rebounds) have been the stars. Wyoming ranks ninth nationally in average height, and this group could be a real problem in the MWC.
St. Thomas has been on the mark
St. Thomas is in its first season in D-1 this season. And while the Tommies entered the year without any expectations, they are quickly making a bit of a splash. Head coach Johnny Tauer is leading perhaps the most impressive 3-point shooting group in the country. St. Thomas is currently the only team that ranks in the top 30 nationally in both 3-point attempt rate and 3-point percentage. The Tommies are shooting 40.6 percent from three, while over half of their total shot attempts are from beyond the line.
They have utilized this high-volume, high-efficiency shooting attack to already notch three wins. Their lead man in this department has been Riley Miller, a 6-3 senior torching the nets to the tune of a nation-leading 30-for-66 (45.5 percent) from 3-point range. He has only attempted nine shots inside the arc. After struggling in a season-opening loss to Chicago State, Miller has found his range, hitting at least five 3-pointers in each of his last five games.
St. Thomas is he nation’s worst defensive group as far as efficiency metrics. At the very least, though, the Tommies’ 3-point shooting makes them a fun team to watch, and they could potentially surprise some teams in the Summit League. The 3-pointer is the great equalizer, and the Tommies let it fly.
Once Alabama finds its 3-point stroke…
Alabama entered the season with high expectations and has leaped out to a 4-0 record. This undefeated start includes a few underrated victories over Louisiana Tech, South Dakota State and Oakland. Head coach Nate Oats did a great job scheduling tough mid-major opponents to prepare for facing the likes of Gonzaga, Houston, Memphis and Colorado State in December. As was the case last season, the Crimson Tide are playing at a frenetic pace offensively, shooting a ton of threes, and dominating the paint.
Three-point efficiency, though, is potentially holding the Tide back from leaping into the nation’s top 5. Alabama is shooting only 31.6 percent from distance, a mark that ranks 213th in the country. Considering they attempt the 23rd-most 3-pointers per possession, they need to do a better job of capitalizing on those early looks.
Jahvon Quinerly and Noah Gurley, most notably, have both struggled from three relative to their prior career averages so far this season. Quinerly is at 8-for-30 (26.7 percent) after shooting 43.3 percent from distance a season ago. Gurley is similarly only 3-for-15 (20.0 percent) after hitting 36.6 percent while at Furman last season. As these two starters find their respective rhythms, we might see Alabama take another leap up the rankings.