The latest Rauf Report details the biggest takeaways from the first few days of college basketball, including a look at James Madison’s hot start.
It’s so nice to have college basketball back, isn’t it?
The first four days of official games lacked the kind of high-end matchups that will fill up the next week, but that’s OK! For all the discourse about the perceived slow start to the season, there was plenty of intrigue. We had preseason No. 4 Michigan State falling to an unranked mid-major, James Madison, on opening night. That stunning upset was followed by a high-quality game between Auburn and Baylor the next night. Not only was it an entertaining game between big-name programs — it was also a coming-out party for one of the sport’s new stars.
And anyway, it’s not like every other sport starts with a bang! College football’s Week Zero only saw two ranked teams take the field, and neither of those games were competitive. The NBA and NFL are different animals because there are significantly fewer teams.
There has been plenty of enjoyable action to go around. And now when things start to pick up this weekend and early next week with the Champions Classic and Gavitt Games, the excitement will build even more.
But let’s kick off this Rauf Report with a look at what’s already happened. Here’s what matters from the first week of games so far, starting with the only team that makes sense: James Madison.
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JMU’s hot start is legitimate
The Dukes are easily the team of the week. They started off the season with that upset win over Michigan State, marking the program’s first-ever win against an AP top-5 team. It was also the first time an AP top-5 team had lost its season opener at home to an unranked team in over two decades.
JMU then followed that up with another road game against MAC favorite Kent State, which ended up being the wildest game of the season so far. The Dukes erased a five-point deficit with 3.8 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. They went on to win in double overtime, capping off a 2-0 start that has quickly become the sport’s most interesting headline.
‘We go hard’
That incredible comeback, along with the win over the Spartans, has some calling this JMU squad a “team of destiny” already. However, this isn’t just some random fluke — the Dukes are legitimately good.
The first thing that stuck out to me in the first few minutes against Michigan State was that James Madison had the size to match up with the Spartans. The Dukes were the more physical team. They played with more energy, and they were not outclassed by Michigan State’s size or its athleticism.
“We’re not scared of names,” forward TJ Bickerstaff told reporters after the win. “We go hard.”
“That’s kind of our trademark,” head coach Mark Byington added later.
Size and athleticism are both areas in which mid-major teams can falter against power conference foes. High-major teams are generally able to land the bigger, more athletic players out of high school or via the portal. However, JMU can match anyone in that category (except maybe Purdue), which helped them win the rebounding battle against both Michigan State and Kent State. The Dukes’ defense has been superb, limiting the Spartans to 1-of-20 shooting from 3-point range and forcing 16 turnovers against the Golden Flashes.
Terrence Edwards gives the Dukes a legitimate star on the offensive end, and the preseason first-team All-Sun Belt selection is averaging 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists through two games. Depth is there, too: Six different players have already scored in double figures this season. A number of players have stepped up and made huge plays late in games. Raekwon Horton and Michael Green III have both made game-icing shots, and we saw above what Noah Freidel did to force OT on Thursday night.
Yes, the Dukes have played in two incredibly fun, incredibly close games that could’ve easily gone the other way. And yes, there’s obviously some luck involved, especially with the Kent State win. But James Madison has been able to capitalize on both situations. Now, the Dukes are 2-0 and own the best win of anyone in the country, plus another road victory that will look good on Selection Sunday.
James Madison is not just a flash in the pan. The performances it put forth this week show the Dukes are for real. It’s time to get on the bandwagon.
Ja’Kobe Walter and Baylor have arrived
In the biggest opening-week game, Baylor came back to beat Auburn. In doing so, this Bears team showed exactly why it has the potential to be extremely dangerous.
It starts with star freshman Ja’Kobe Walter, who scored 28 points in the win. Walter looked every bit capable of being a dependable go-to scorer right away. The 6-5, 195-pounder was efficient (53.8 percent shooting) and showed elite range (four made 3-pointers). He also demonstrated the ability to score in catch-and-shoot situations or off the bounce from all three levels.
Walter’s debut was an important showing because Baylor is counting on him to be that reliable first option to replace Keyonte George. Yet, the promise shown by the Bears goes beyond just him.
Dennis, Missi show out
Toledo transfer RayJ Dennis was shaky for a bit against Auburn. Still, he has been the player Scott Drew was hoping he would be. He’s averaging 15.5 points, 5.0 assists and 4.0 steals through two games and made a number of key plays late in the comeback against the Tigers. Jalen Bridges, Langston Love and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua have played their roles well as dependable veterans.
However, freshman big man Yves Missi looks like the X-factor that can help take Baylor to another level. The 7-footer has scored in double figures and recorded multiple blocks and steals in both games. He also put up one of the best dunks of the season so far:
The preseason questions surrounding Baylor centered around its youth and questionable depth, particularly in the frontcourt, as well as who its top-end players would be. Well, that youth looks ready to contribute at an elite level right away, and the depth has been there. It also seems that Missi has been that missing piece in the middle.
If all of that continues to hold up, the Bears might be the biggest threat to Kansas in the Big 12.
Olivier Nkamhoua & Dug McDaniel are an elite duo
Michigan is another team that made a very real statement in its opener. The Wolverines faced UNC Asheville, the reigning Big South champions who returned a lot of key pieces, including star big man Drew Pember. Many had Michigan on upset alert given its rocky offseason and tough first opponent.
Instead, the Wolverines controlled the game from start to finish. They led by as many as 29 points, largely thanks to the play of sophomore guard Dug McDaniel and Tennessee transfer Olivier Nkamhoua.
McDaniel was in line for a breakout season after closing his freshman campaign strong. He looked the part of a do-everything point guard against Asheville. He scored 22 points himself, including four 3-pointers, and dished out eight assists for good measure.
A number of those went to Nkamhoua, who left Tennessee in hopes of getting a bigger role. He showed flashes of dominance with the Vols — see his five 20-point games last season, including 27 against Duke in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan was able to give him that role more consistently, though. The 6-9, 235-pounder looks ready to thrive in it, too, scoring 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting.
The Wolverines were picked to finish 11th in the preseason Big Ten media poll, behind the likes of Rutgers, Iowa and Northwestern. It was in large part because of the lack of top-end talent — which, it seems, actually might be a strength for this group. We need to readjust our expectations for Michigan given what McDaniel and Nkamhoua appear capable of doing.
Isaiah Collier is the real deal
USC’s star freshman Isaiah Collier was the top-ranked recruit in the country. Yet, the hype around his debut against Kansas State was somewhat muted.
Expectations for the Trojans dropped after both Bronny James and sophomore big man Vincent Iwuchukwu were ruled out for at least the start of the season due to heart issues. This freshman class was also thought of as being weaker than normal, leading to questions about how good Collier really was.
Well, we got our answer in the opener. Collier was absolutely superb with 18 points and six assists, completely controlling the game and showing the complete offensive repertoire that makes him a nightmare to defend.
He followed that up with another stellar 19-point, five-assist outing against CSU Bakersfield. His play suggests this is the baseline for him, too. That is to say, this production is both repeatable and sustainable.
Speaking of duos, Collier and Boogie Ellis look like one of the most dynamic backcourts in the country. They will give the Trojans on any given night. If Andy Enfield’s squad ever gets its full complement of players available, this team can do a lot of good things. Collier is showing he’s capable of leading them there.
Steele Venters’ injury is a problem for Gonzaga
A number of significant injuries unfortunately came down over the last week, but perhaps none more significant than Steele Venters. The Eastern Washington transfer and reigning Big Sky Player of the Year injured his knee in practice this week and will miss the season.
Venters was set to start on the wing for Gonzaga and provide critical scoring and shooting on the perimeter. He wasn’t expected to be the top option, but Mark Few’s squad is now incredibly thin on the wing. Really, the Zags are thin overall — they now have just nine scholarship players available.
Four-star freshman Dusty Stromer is the only true wing in the projected rotation, and it remains to be seen what impact he can have right away. He has the talent to be a quality player, but it’s unfair to ask him to avoid the inconsistencies that most freshmen endure. However, the Zags can hardly withstand that because their entire bench is in a similar boat, too.
I already had some questions about this Gonzaga team before Venters’ injury. Those are now louder because they extend to every single spot with this team. How will Creighton transfer Ryan Nembhard adjust in his first season with the program? Can Wyoming transfer Graham Ike return to his pre-injury form? Can Nolan Hickman have the breakout he didn’t have last season? Will Anton Watson become a star with a larger role? Will the bench be dependable?
Replacing Drew Timme’s production will be tough enough, and Venters was going to shoulder a decent amount of that load. That now falls on more unproven players.
Few is one of the few coaches who can make something resembling lemonade with the proverbial lemons he has been dealt. Still, there’s a real possibility this season will go south in Spokane.