After a raucous week 1 in college basketball, some of the top teams out west have already secured huge wins — and disappointing losses.
College basketball is now in full swing, and we are less than a week away from the start of many nonconference MTEs that will take place over the Thanksgiving holiday. While some teams have only played a few “warmup” games, others have taken on tough foes and scored big wins.
The way the NCAA Tournament selection process works, these early-season games take on extra weight for some teams. For example, UC Santa Barbara is 0-2 without star guard Ajay Mitchell, with losses to two teams just outside the Top 150 in KenPom. But the Gauchos were likely always in an auto-bid-or-bust situation, so these results may not have much effect on UCSB’s postseason hopes. Conversely, fellow Big West member UC San Diego has looked much better than expected. However, they are still in the transition phase to Division I, so they are not eligible for the postseason.
For high-majors, however, wins in November and December often mean just as much as they do during conference, and several have already had resume-altering games. Others have had season-altering injuries or, more optimistically, have just looked much better than expected through three games.
For our first West Coast Wednesday of the 2023-24 season, we look at the biggest winners and losers through Week 1 of the college basketball season.
Winner: Arizona Wildcats
As of this moment, Arizona has the best win in the country — and I am not sure it is all that close. In their road victory over then-No. 2 Duke, the Wildcats answered any questions about the efficiency of their backcourt and the depth in their frontcourt. Keshad Johnson has been an elite two-way player after transferring in from San Diego State, Kylan Boswell is the point guard Arizona needed last season, and Caleb Love has filled his role about as well as anyone could hope. If they keep playing this way, Arizona will be the clear favorite to win the conference heading into Pac-12 play.
Loser: San Diego State Aztecs
After making a run to the 2023 national championship game, the Aztecs came into this season with huge expectations. Those expectations are still there, but it has been a rocky start, to say the least. Playing BYU in the Marriott Center is always tough, but you would expect a team with Final Four goals to win that game. In the first two games of the season, San Diego State has played one inspiring half of basketball — the second half of the opening night win over Cal State Fullerton. The scoring woes have not disappeared, and the Aztecs need Darrion Trammell to get back to the level he was playing at last season if they are to meet their lofty goals.
Winner: Santa Clara Broncos
For most high-major programs, a win over Stanford would be just another day in the office. For the Broncos, beating their crosstown opponent on the road is a necessity. Santa Clara win by a comfortable 12-point margin behind 60 combined points from Carlos Marshall Jr., Adama Bal and Johnny O’Neil. Herb Sendek’s squad still has a long way to go to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament conversation, but the Broncos are playing about as well as any mid-major in the country. They have an average margin of victory of 14.3 points through their first three games.
Loser: Saint Mary’s
Saint Mary’s is still likely a tournament team that will flirt with the Top 25 throughout the season, but an eight-minute scoring slump against Weber State led to a major blemish on the resume. The Gaels looked elite against another NCAA Tournament hopeful when they beat New Mexico by 14 — so following that up by collapsing against the Wildcats is a bit of a head-scratcher. Aiden Mahaney and Alex Ducas have been decent from deep, but the Gaels’ other players need to start hitting their jumpers to avoid further slumps this season.
Winner: Colorado State Rams
Last year was a disaster for Niko Medved’s squad after losing star forward David Roddy to the NBA. So far this year, it appears the Rams have bounced back in a big way, due in large part to the play of star Isaiah Stevens. The fifth-year point guard has averaged 20.3 points and 9.3 assists on a scorching .618/.583/.923 shooting split. The Rams have five players shooting over 55 percent from the floor on at least two shots per game — meanwhile, Patrick Cartier is shooting a comparatively putrid 53.6 percent. This scoring efficiency is unlikely to continue at the same pace, but it is clear that Colorado State looks like a Mountain West contender, especially if San Diego State can’t fix its issues.
Winner/Loser: Gonzaga Bulldogs
Gonzaga lost before even playing a game, losing sharp-shooting transfer Steele Venters to a season-ending injury before the opening tip. Venters was going to play a big role for the Zags, and he was their most proven shooter from deep. The Zags’ offense, however, has not missed a beat, averaging 104.5 points through two games. That includes an 86-point performance against the Ivy League favorite Yale Bulldogs. Braden Huff is the team’s leading scorer off the bench with 21 points per game, and transfers Ryan Nembhard and Graham Ike have also impressed in their first two games with the program. Meanwhile, Nolan Hickman and Anton Watson look comfortable in their expanded roles. The biggest concern is how the Zags will handle the wing rotation against tournament-caliber teams in Venters’ absence, with multiple freshmen playing bigger minutes than expected.
Pending: USC Trojans
It is still early in the season, but Boogie Ellis, Isaiah Collier and Kobe Johnson might be the best backcourt in the country when they are all healthy. And Bronny James will only add to this strength when he is cleared to play after his offseason health scare. Nevertheless, both Ellis and Johnson missed the team’s game against UC Irvine with their current injuries, contributing to a surprising loss to the Anteaters. Still, the Trojans are 2-1 with a convincing win over Kansas State in Las Vegas. In that game, USC’s backcourt trio combined for 58 points, 19 rebounds, 12 assists and seven steals.