One thing we’ve learned about preseason rankings in college basketball: They don’t mean a thing.
Early-season tournaments have created opportunities for teams from the periphery to emerge, and they have. Expect plenty of different programs to take turns in the spotlight from now until Selection Sunday.
What We Learned
Juwan Howard has dispelled any questions about his ability to run a college program. Despite no prior head coaching experience, Howard, a former Wolverine, has fit in seamlessly as Michigan’s coach. Howard’s confidence, poise and temperament were on full display last week as Michigan won games over Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga en route to winning the prestigious Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. No team in college basketball has a better résumé than the Wolverines right now.
Obi Toppin is a potential all-American. Toppin, Dayton’s 6-foot-9 superstar, broke out last week at the Maui Invitational. Through six games, he is averaging 23 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. “He’s going to be a problem for a lot of people,” Coach Anthony Grant said. “He can hurt you either inside or outside. He’s really versatile.” Toppin is shooting an impressive 50 percent from 3-point range. Dayton’s top six scorers are all shooting better than 34 percent from long distance. “We’ve got a lot of different guys that can open things up,” Grant said. “It gives us great spacing and that opens things up for Obi in the middle of the floor.”
Aaron Wiggins is Maryland’s long-term X Factor. The Terps have everything else, as shown by their 84-63 win over Marquette on Sunday in the final of the Orlando Invitational. If the 6-6 Wiggins can become a major scoring threat alongside Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith, then this could be a season to remember in College Park.
“We don’t want him passing up open looks,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said of Wiggins, who had 15 points on Sunday against Marquette. “We need him to be a big part of what we do. The great thing about Aaron is even when he’s not making shots, he’s doing everything else right.” Maryland is built to match up with any team in college basketball. “I think they’re a team that can win a national championship,” Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski said.
Coming This Week
Michigan will travel to Louisville on Tuesday. The Wolverines’ 7-0 start has featured many impressive wins, but beating the Cardinals on their home floor will be even tougher. Coach Chris Mack has a team built to be the Atlantic Coast Conference’s best this season, led by the junior Jordan Nwora. A 6-7 wing, Nwora is averaging 21.9 points a game.
Duke and Michigan State go head-to-head on Tuesday in East Lansing. The Blue Devils lost a nonconference home game last week for the first time since 2000 when they fell to Stephen F. Austin at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Spartans were upset in the first round of the Maui Invitational by Virginia Tech. Both teams still have what it takes to be major factors at the tournament. It will be the first game for Duke without the freshman Cassius Stanley, who is out indefinitely with a hamstring injury.
Ohio State’s first major road test will occur on Wednesday at North Carolina. The Buckeyes (7-0) have been as impressive as any team in college basketball in the first month of the season, but have yet to play a game outside Columbus. “You never really know just how good your team is until you play a game away from home,” Coach Chris Holtmann said. “We’ve still got the youngest team we’ve ever had and we’re going to be playing freshmen and sophomores on the road at North Carolina.”
More to Consider
Kansas center Udoka Azubuike was a combined 24 for 29 from the field in three games last week at the Maui Invitational. There’s no way that Texas Tech and Kansas State would have split the Big 12 regular-season title last season ahead of the Jayhawks if Azubuike had not been sidelined with a torn ligament in his hand. A 7-footer, he is currently leading all of college basketball in field-goal percentage at 79.7 percent.
Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl deserves the same credit that Virginia Coach Tony Bennett is getting for his team’s play over the first month of the season. Like Bennett, Pearl lost significant production from last season’s team that reached the Final Four, but still managed to go undefeated in November. “I like the fact that we’re playing with force,” Pearl said. The Tigers are 7-0 and have four players averaging in double figures.
The Memphis freshman Precious Achiuwa is thriving without James Wiseman in the lineup. In the four games played since Wiseman’s suspension began, the 6-9 Achiuwa is averaging 19 points and 10.5 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Oklahoma State’s performance at the Preseason N.I.T. sent a message to the rest of the Big 12. The Cowboys beat Syracuse and Ole Miss back-to-back last week by an average of 27.5 points. Oklahoma State’s next four games will be arduous. The Cowboys host Georgetown and Wichita State in Stillwater, travel to Houston and play Minnesota on a neutral floor.
Indiana is about to step up in class. The Hoosiers’ 7-0 start didn’t feature a single game against a team from a power conference. That will change on Tuesday in Bloomington against Florida State in the A.C.C./Big Ten Challenge. Every remaining game on Indiana’s schedule will be against a high-major opponent.
DePaul’s Charlie Moore is quietly playing like one of the best point guards in the country. In his last three games, Moore, a 5-11 floor general, is averaging 21 points and 11 assists. “He’s doing a great job of balancing both scoring and distributing,” DePaul Coach Dave Leitao said. “When he can do both, it changes everything.” The Blue Demons are 8-0 and will next host Texas Tech on Wednesday.
Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton is significantly better offensively. Through seven games as a sophomore, Haliburton, a 6-5 point guard, is averaging 15.7 points after averaging only 6.8 points last season as a freshman.
San Diego State has put itself in position to be a national factor. The Aztecs are 8-0 after back-to-back wins over Creighton and Iowa at the Las Vegas Invitational. “This is the deepest team we’ve had at San Diego State,” Coach Brian Dutcher said. “I’m playing 10 guys every single game.”
Providence had a terrible November. The Friars have already lost games to Northwestern, Penn, Long Beach State and Charleston. Key games in December include Rhode Island, Florida and Texas. Coach Ed Cooley has cemented himself as one of the Big East’s top tacticians over the past few seasons, but he has an awful lot of work ahead if Providence is going to earn a bid to the tournament.
Games to Watch
All times are Eastern.
TUESDAY Michigan at Louisville (7:30 p.m., ESPN), Florida State at Indiana (9 p.m., ESPN2), Duke at Michigan State (9:30 p.m., ESPN)
WEDNESDAY Penn at Villanova (6:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1), Virginia at Purdue (7:15 p.m., ESPN2), Notre Dame at Maryland (7:30 p.m., ESPN), Texas Tech at DePaul (8:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1), Ohio State at North Carolina (9:30 p.m., ESPN)
FRIDAY Iowa at Michigan (6:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1), Duke at Virginia Tech (7 p.m., ACC Network), Providence at Rhode Island (7 p.m., ESPN2), Pitt at Louisville (9 p.m., ACC Network).
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