Buzzer Mailbag: Nonconference winners and losers, Bubble Watch thoughts, Reed Sheppard needs to play, and much more
College hoops is about to hit its stride. Let's talk about it at length!
No time for preamble today: We’re back from holiday break, all of the emails and personal logistics I said I would “circle back to” until after the new year have been crashing down around me for the past 24 hours, conference play is now fully upon us, the season is already racing by, and so it’s time to try to understand what 2023-24 has been and what it is going to be.
What better way to do that then a 5,000-word subscriber question-fueled mailbag? Exactly, dude. I had the exact same thought. Let’s dive in, with questions on early Bubble Watch musings, Georgetown’s disappointing start under Cooley, the ACC’s strength, the Big Ten’s lack thereof, the Missouri Valley, and why I would personally play Reed Sheppard 40 minutes a game.
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Nonconference play has pretty much come to a close, and so I want to scratch your ear for who you think the biggest winners and losers of the noncon (or, more loosely, pre-2024) slate overall were? — Quinn
Thank you Quinn. Fantastic question, and a great way to take stock in the first week of January, which was really the whole point of lighting the mailbag beacons in the first place. (A post-holiday Eamonn calls for aid!)
Fully acknowledging I’ll probably miss a few obvious candidates on both sides of the aisle, and that I’ll let you guys toss out some more names at me in the comments, let’s run through the more notable movers and shakers of the season up to and including Dec. 31 (which means it also includes those early outlier league games, too):
BYU: What do we make of BYU? It’s one of the great questions of the 2023 portion of the 2023-24 season. The Cougars began the year ranked 36th in KenPom.com’s preseason rankings, only to find themselves now ranked third (as of this writing), the product of pretty unimpeachable pure efficiency performances against an objectively bad 13-game schedule. The only true road game came at Utah, where Mark Pope’s team narrowly lost (to a fully revitalized Utah program under Craig Smith, it should be noted); the only good win came over San Diego State at home. And yet to watch BYU is to watch beautiful basketball in action, to watch a team you almost want to be as good as their numbers say they are, just so you can prove that this sort of stuff is viable long-term. We’ll find out in the Big 12 soon enough, anyway. But for now, whatever you think of their prospects, there’s no denying BYU had a spectacular start to the season.
Arizona: So, sure, a bit of the shine of Arizona’s nonconference start was buffed out New Year’s Eve, when the Wildcats gave up 100 points in 75 possessions (!!) in an 18-point loss at 6-6 Stanford. A profoundly strange result, and maybe one indicative of some defensive frailties, but also: such is life in conference play. Weird stuff happens, especially on the road. We can look past it for now, because the rest of Arizona’s noncon was brilliant. The Wildcats won at Cameron Indoor Stadium, beat Michigan State and Wisconsin, went toe-to-toe with Purdue in Indy, beat Alabama handily, and only lost to Florida Atlantic after a double-overtime epic in which FAU raised its level as high as it ever has — and it just went to the Final Four. In the broad sense, in the process of playing a brutal non-league schedule, Tommy Lloyd established his team as one of a few genuinely equipped to contend at Final Four/national title levels this season. That’s better than almost anyone would have expected in October.
JMU: James Madison athletics is on an absolute tear. It wasn’t so long ago that it opened its brand new arena, the Atlantic Union Bank Center, into an ongoing pandemic, after a Louis Rowe tenure that usually had JMU mired among the worst teams in the Colonial. It would have been fair for outsiders to wonder if some sort of financial disaster awaited. Folks on campus and in the surrounding area would have recognized then what is obvious now: JMU is a massive school with a huge alumni base (particularly situated in Northern Virginia) and a chance to attract top talent to any of its athletics programs. Mark Byington has done that, largely through the transfer portal, and much like JMU football the Dukes are playing top-level hoops from an ostensibly mid-major position. Yes, they won at Michigan State Nov. 6, but they also haven’t lost since. This is one of the best non-power-league teams in the country.
Houston: Full disclosure — this spot was going to go to Providence, but there’s a good Providence question further down in the mailbag, and we can discuss them in more depth there. In the meantime, let’s tip the cap to another buzzsaw of a Houston outfit, another edition in Kelvin Sampson’s indefatigable image. When the Cougars struggled offensively at Xavier, I wondered if they had the level of pure shooting/scoring talent they’ve sprinkled in during recent seasons, and it may simply be the case that they don’t. And this schedule hasn’t exactly been punishing. Still, when you play defense like this — and you rebound your own (considerable) misses this consistently — you have the formula for another elite team. Standard Houston behavior.
Indiana State and Saint Joseph’s: A dual honorable mention for two programs with long histories and proud fans simultaneously having their best seasons in forever. Saint Joe’s went to Rupp and nearly knocked off Kentucky; their narrow miss there was ameliorated by a Big Five win over Villanova and a home victory over a quality Princeton team (one not missing Tosan Evbuomwan nearly as much as I thought they would). Indiana State, meanwhile, has only lost to Alabama and Michigan State, and put up a real fight in Breslin against the latter last week. Robbie Avila is a wide-bodied, goggles-wearing, slick-passing, wheelin’-dealin’ 6-foot-10 son of a gun (WOOO!) and he plays in the middle of the nation’s hottest-shooting offense.
The Mountain West: About which more below.
UCLA: This is going to be a very interesting season for Mick Cronin, a coach who sometimes gets an unfair rap. Sideline impressions stick, and Cronin is a maniac on the sideline, whose coaching style often seems to involve the kind of bug-eyed impatient needling that visibly verges on bullying. Most of his players don’t respond to him this way. They seem to love him and take him as he is, at the press conference podium and off it. Most of all, his guys always play hard. But this is the first year a Cronin-coached Bruins team hasn’t had either of Jaime Jacquez (one of the best rookies in the NBA this year, by the way) or Tyger Campbell; this is the first season of Cronin’s UCLA tenure that feels like a total rebuild. It has not gone well. UCLA looked good against Marquette and Gonzaga in Maui but didn’t win either of those games, and now UCLA has fallen to 6-5, including home losses to Cal St. Northridge and Maryland. Cronin’s stay in Westwood has been nothing but upward motion. Last season’s team was his best, and was undone by injuries. With the Louisville job rumors out there and the Big Ten move impending, will Cronin have the patience to fully start from scratch?
Gonzaga: And just like that, Gonzaga is a bubble team. It’s been a while since this was the case. It was 2015-16, in fact, nearly a decade ago, when the Zags were undoubtedly better than their seed but had to live with an 11 as the cost of doing business in the West Coast Conference. In the intervening years, Mark Few (with Tommy Lloyd at his side until three seasons ago) built a juggernaut, the program of Chet Holmgren and Jalen Suggs, a program that had a chance to win a national title win an undefeated record, a program routinely recruited, retained, and portaled some of the best talents in the country. This is no longer the situation in Spokane. Ryan Nebmhard is a good guard, and Anton Watson is a solidly underrated veteran big, but whether it’s a temporary blip or a sign of what’s to come, these Zags are clearly not the dominant force we have come to expect. They might not even make the tournament.
Virginia: Maybe it’s harsh when one post-finals-break trap game defeat makes you entirely rethink a team’s potential, but some losses really are that bad. Did you guys see Virginia at Notre Dame last week? Woof. The Irish — still ranked 173rd in adjusted efficiency after their triumph over UVa — were coming in having scored 45 points in 67 trips in a home defeat to Citadel 11 days prior. Not only was it another off night for an offense that can occasionally go missing (as against Wisconsin and Memphis, albeit two vastly superior teams), but most concerning was how disconnected Virginia suddenly looked defensively. Now: Was it a one-off? Maybe. If so, Virginia fans never need to speak of it again. Let’s see. But in the meantime it did bump UVa down to 55th in the NET heading into an ACC that could prove treacherous in resume terms. It was a loss so bad as to re-contextualize an otherwise interesting, maybe even promising, start to UVa’s season.
Indiana: On the one hand, Indiana went 10-3 in its first 13 games despite missing star senior guard Xavier Johnson for almost the duration. They also went to toe-to-toe with Kansas in Bloomington, which showed they can match up with a really top team. Not bad! On the other hand, Indiana got blown out by UConn and Auburn, and most of all did almost nothing to help itself with the 10 games it did win. Indeed, the Hoosiers put on a clinic in how not to optimize your victories over various heavy underdogs, instead narrowly scraping by almost all of them. The result is a team with a ton of obvious talent still saddled in January with a triple-digit NET number (100, as of Tuesday), a team needing an above-par run through the Big Ten to ensure it ends up in the NCAA Tournament. Blowing out the likes of Army and Wright State and Morehead State (and maybe giving up, like, 77 points to Kennesaw instead of 87? I dunno, just a thought) may not seem like the biggest deal in the world if you’re just looking at wins and losses. But this stuff matters, for better and worse, and Indiana will be fighting uphill the rest of the year.
Maryland: As the kids say, I have to hold the L on this one. In the offseason, I wrote about my bullishness on Maryland. (So bullish was I that my take was picked up by content-hungry Maryland sites excitedly gathering predictions and analyses for the upcoming season. I was a little surprised by this, but it was nice to know people are still seeing the newsletter.) It has not gone well. Instead, the Terps lost three of their first four games, scoring 40 points in a blowout at Villanova and drearily losing on a quiet neutral court to both Davidson and UAB. They were easily handled by Indiana in Bloomington, in one of the all-time bad body language performances by basically everybody involved. To their credit, things have turned around a bit since, including a win at scuffling UCLA Dec. 22, but the fact remains that a team that started the campaign 23rd in adjusted efficiency now ranks 74th. Disappointing.
Not a comprehensive list, for all our sakes (especially yours), but which teams already stand out to you as being on the bubble? I know that there is still a lot of basketball to be played. But I’m curious, are there any you look forward to covering on the much-anticipated Bubble Watch and any that you dread covering? — Shane Hart