Brian Rauf reveals his biggest takeaways from the opening week in college basketball, including in-depth looks at Duke, Ohio State and more.
The new college basketball season got off to the biggest start in the sport’s history this week. A whopping 120 games were played on opening night, the most ever, giving us a look at over two thirds in the country in one night.
That said, it’s no secret or surprise that the two games making up the Champions Classic dominated the proceedings. Kansas looked very much like the national title contender they are against Michigan State as they pulled away from the Spartans in the second half behind a career night from Ochai Agbaji. It helped that Remy Martin actually shot the ball in the second half, too.
Duke vs. Kentucky was the headliner as the only matchup of the day between top-10 teams. Though the final score was relatively close, it was not an accurate reflection of how much the Blue Devils controlled the game.
Freshman Paolo Banchero, a projected top two pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, was as special as advertised. He was very clearly the most talented player on a court full of pros and displayed the kind of versatile skill set we simply don’t see in players who are 6-10 and 250 pounds. However, fellow freshman Trevor Keels was the surprising star of the night with 25 points. He was so dominant that he’s now a projected lottery pick. Not bad for one night of work, huh?
Wednesday and Thursday had much smaller slates as we awaited this weekend’s UCLA-Villanova and Gonzaga-Texas slugfests, but we got our first pair of epic buzzer beaters courtesy of UC Riverside and San Jose State!
Here are my biggest takeaways from college basketball’s opening week, starting with a look at what will be the driving force behind Duke’s season.
Duke’s defense can be elite
While Banchero and Keels stole the headlines, Duke’s defense was the primary reason it controlled the game from start to finish.
The Blue Devils limited Kentucky to 37.7-percent shooting and forced 13 turnovers thanks to the success they had defending the perimeter. UK’s starting trio of Kellan Grady, TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler combined to shoot just 12-of-37 from the field.
The individual defending of both Keels really stood out, too. Keels was the primary defender on Washington and hounded the projected first-round pick all night, holding him to 3-of-12 shooting and no made threes — the strength of Washington’s game.
However, the biggest thing that stood out was how big and quick Duke is as a team on that end.
The Blue Devils used their length on the perimeter to force a good-shooting Kentucky team off the 3-point line, as less than a quarter of UK’s shot attempts came from deep. For reference, the Wildcats were a bad 3-point shooting team a year ago and still took over 34 percent of their shots from deep. John Calipari had placed an emphasis on becoming more perimeter-oriented and Duke’s defense stymied that entirely.
And once Kentucky was inside the arc, Duke’s height — the 37th tallest team in the country — made things difficult. Of the 240 teams that played on opening night, the Blue Devils were top 25 in interior defense despite the fact they gave up 12 offensive rebounds to Oscar Tshiebwe.
In fact, it was two huge blocks by Mark Williams that thwarted Kentucky’s final surge and allowed Duke to put the game away.
Williams is an elite rim protector and had a block rate that would’ve ranked in the top 30 last season had he qualified. Of course, he and Marquette transfer Theo John rotated in the middle, and John posted a top-40 block rate in two of his final three seasons in Milwaukee.
Duke’s strategy appears to be to use its perimeter length to pressure opponents and funnel them inside to Williams and John, giving the Blue Devils maximum coverage in the two most important areas in today’s game — at the three-point line and at the rim.
Duke is always going to have the best player on the court when Banchero is healthy. Unfortunately, shooting looks like it will be a constant concern as well (1-of-13 from three). But the suffocating defense they displayed against a very good Kentucky team was extremely promising, and it should only get better on that end as this group gets more experience together.
Virginia has some very non-Virginia problems
Virginia has owned the ACC for much of the past decade, taking over the mantle from Duke. It might be going back to Durham this season (or at least to Tobacco Road) only partially because of Duke’s potential.
The other part is how downright bad Virginia looked against Navy.
Traditionally, when Virginia struggles, it’s because its offense is bad. That issue reared its ugly head again as it went over eight minutes down the stretch without scoring a single point. The Wahoos shot 41.2 percent from the field, 25 percent from three, and had more turnovers (14) than assists (11).
That’s not a winning recipe but, then again, Virginia’s offense has never really been all that pretty. That’s where its elite defense comes in, except UVA wasn’t elite on that end, and it wasn’t last season, either.
That is the much bigger problem facing this group right now.
The Cavaliers had a top seven defense, according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, in seven straight seasons from 2013-14 through 2019-20. They had a top two defense four times in that span. They were elite, often to the chagrin of all college basketball fans outside of Charlottesville.
It’s the program’s identity, yet it’s an area Virginia has been uncharacteristically struggling for a year and a half.
Virginia ranked 36th in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, the program’s lowest mark since Bennett’s second season at the helm. The lack of dominance on that end played a major role in its first round exit and kept them from beating a KenPom top-30 team.
Those defensive struggles continued against Navy as the Midshipmen shot 45.3 percent from the field, made 11 of their 21 3-point attempts and out-rebounded UVA 35-30.
Does Virginia need to get better offensively? Yes, absolutely. But that could’ve been said about any one of Virginia’s successful teams under Bennett and they still found ways to win ACC titles because of their defense. This roster also doesn’t have that much potential offensive firepower, either. The ceiling is low on that end.
That’s typically fine with the Cavaliers because the ceiling is always high defensively and this group has a number of very capable individual defenders.
This is the area that can be improved and needs to be improved if Virginia is going to meet its preseason Top 25 expectations. There is no one you’d rather have coaching defense than Bennett, but UVA’s improvement — or lack thereof — on that end will determine this team’s ceiling more than its offense.
Ohio State’s backcourt is a major concern
E.J. Liddell‘s return to Ohio State kept the Buckeyes in the preseason top 20, but expectations for this season dropped when star guard Duane Washington Jr. announced he wasn’t doing the same and stayed in the NBA Draft. His departure left a gaping hole on the perimeter without an obvious replacement ready to step in.
Tuesday’s last-second 67-66 win over Akron showed that is still Ohio State’s biggest problem.
Washington was the source of nearly all Ohio State’s perimeter pop a year ago. He shot the ball on nearly 30 percent of all possessions when he was on the court, ranking in the top 100 nationally in that category, along with leading the team in shot attempts (417) by a wide margin. With CJ Walker now playing professionally as well and Musa Jallow transferring to Charlotte, Ohio State’s backcourt returned just 73 total 3-point shot attempts.
Aside from landing Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler, Chris Holtmann’s squad didn’t make any huge additions to their backcourt. The Buckeyes opted to bet on who was already in the building.
Through one game, the results were less than stellar.
Ohio State’s guards scored 15 combined points on 4-of-7 shooting against Akron. That’s not good!
Wheeler saw the most playing time, as expected, yet ended with just two points on 0-of-3 shooting in 29 minutes. Meechie Johnson, the other starter, also went 0-for-3 and finished with four points. To make matters worse, the duo combined for more turnovers (two) than assists (one).
The good news is that Holtmann may have found a reliable guard in Malachi Branham. The freshman played 24 minutes off the bench and finished with seven points, six rebounds and a team-high three assists. One of those assists was on Zed Key‘s game-winning bucket:
That capped an important three-possession stretch for both Branham and Ohio State. Obviously, the Buckeyes got the win, but Branham was the one with the ball in his hands on each of those three possessions. Those resulted in a layup to give OSU a lead, a Key putback off a missed Branham layup, and the game-winner.
Liddell is clearly Ohio State’s best player and Key is the clear second option, especially with Kyle Young still out. All its top options are in the frontcourt. However, late in close games, guards are almost always the ones with the ball in their hands needing to make a play.
Washington had been that guy throughout his collegiate career. Holtmann’s willingness to give Branham the ball is both a good and bad thing — good in that a freshman came through in his first game; bad in that he was the only productive option.
Unless he emerges as a star, the Buckeyes could struggle a lot more than expected.
Beware the MAC
Akron’s performance was one of the highlights from the conference that has impressed me the most through the first three days of the season: the MAC.
We suspected this conference would be strong, particularly at the top with Buffalo and Ohio, and those two have certainly looked the part.
The Bobcats dominated a very good Belmont team in their opener as they led by as many as 18 points in a 92-80 win. Any questions about how Ohio would look without Jason Preston were answered emphatically. Mark Sears is now the star of the show and he played like it, putting up 27 points (on 10-of-11 shooting!) with six rebounds and four assists.
*Feeling really good early about my Sears-for-MAC-Player-of-the-Year prediction, by the way.*
Buffalo didn’t get the win against Michigan — it probably would’ve led this column if it did — but the Bulls really tested the Wolverines in a way that was uncomfortable for the Ann Arbor faithful. Juwan Howard‘s squad ended up pulling away, but Buffalo trailed by five points with six minutes to play.
Akron, of course, also really tested a Big Ten team. Eastern Michigan did, too, only losing to Indiana by six.
Those results alone would’ve made it a statement weekend for the conference — but we’re not done!
Miami (OH) went on the road and knocked off Georgia Tech — the reigning ACC Tournament champs — in Atlanta while Northern Illinois upset Washington as a 19.5-point underdog.
The MAC has made a strong early case to be one of the nation’s top mid-major conferences. We’ll see if it can maintain this level and play at the level of others like the A10, Mountain West and WCC, but the conference looks incredibly strong so far.
Don’t expect much noise from Oral Roberts
Let’s stay in the mid-major ranks to close this out, shall we?
Last season’s Cinderella garnered some national attention this offseason for good reason. Max Abmas, the nation’s leading scorer from a year ago, is back after testing NBA Draft waters, and that gave Oral Roberts some hope to maintain momentum from their Sweet 16 appearance.
Don’t expect that to be the case.
The Golden Eagles were blasted 109-80 by Colorado State in its season opener. ORU shot worse than 40 percent from the floor while allowing the Rams to shoot nearly 59 percent, including 45.8 percent from deep. Abmas was limited to 20 points on 8-of-22 shooting.
The fact Oral Roberts struggled defensively is not a surprise: It was 219th in defensive efficiency last season and won’t be great on that end again.
This game should mostly serve as a reminder that the Golden Eagles will miss Kevin Obanor a lot. The star big man transferred to Texas Tech this offseason after his stellar postseason and leaves Abmas without a real running mate.
Remember, most of ORU’s success in the NCAA Tournament came off Abmas-Obanor pick-and-pop sets, which forced opposing defenses to either focus on Abmas and leave Obanor (a 45.3-percent 3-point shooter) open from deep, or linger on Obanor and give the nation’s leading scorer an advantage.
Oral Roberts looked pedestrian without that wrinkle to their attack. It appeared more like the team that finished in 4th in the Summit League rather than the team that made it to the Sweet 16.
I fully expect Abmas will continue putting up numbers, but this is a team that will struggle more than last season.