Thus far this season, I’ve seen a total of 31 games in-person involving 30 men’s programs and a pair of the top women’s teams in the country. I’ve watched 15 of the 25 teams currently ranked in the AP Poll.
Here is a key observation about each team I’ve watched.
Listed in Top 25 order, then by KenPom ranking
TEXAS (#2) – A year ago, it was a new coach who threw together a new team. Now Chris Beard has been back in Austin for a year and holdovers Andrew Jones, Courtney Ramey and Jase Febres are gone, while transfers Tre Mitchell and Devin Askew didn’t work out. Beard now has a true point guard in Tyrese Hunter so that Marcus Carr can play most of his time off the ball and focus on scoring — which is what he does best. Carr shot 39 percent from the field a year ago, and is shooting 47 percent this season. Hunter and freshman Dillon Mitchell are the difference-makers, as both are terrific defenders and also team guys. This Texas team has the right blend to make a run come March.
VIRGINIA (#3) – Tony Bennett’s team couldn’t shoot the ball from the perimeter last season and it resulted in an NIT appearance. As a result, Bennett added Ohio transfer Ben Vander Plas and also a freshman class that includes skilled guard Isaac McKneely. The result? Vander Plas is shooting 50 percent from deep, while McKneely has made 47 percent of his threes. Yes, I know it’s a small sample size, but Armaan Franklin also looks more like the guy who made 42 percent of his trifectas as a sophomore at Indiana than the guy who couldn’t make a shot from deep last season. He’s made 11-of-28 shots from long distance this season, and that’s helped make Virginia one of the best shooting teams in the country.
PURDUE (#5) – I broke my rule and didn’t place a Matt Painter-coached team in my preseason top 25 rankings. I was just concerned about the Boilermakers’ point guard play, because a year ago, it was just okay. Coming into this season, too, Painter needed to rely on a freshman floor leader who battled injuries the last couple of years and wasn’t able to practice with the team until late in the summer. But Braden Smith is a game-changer, and he’s exactly what Painter needed: A tough, hard-nosed, pass-first point guard who makes quality decisions. He’s averaging 9.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists thus far while shooting 44 percent from three. He — along with much-improved big man Zach Edey — makes Purdue Final Four contenders.
BAYLOR (#6) – There’s no better perimeter shooting duo in the country than LJ Cryer and Adam Flagler, while freshman Keyonte George will only improve in this area. The Bears can get away with having offensively challenged big men Flo Thamba and Joshua Ojianwuna as long as Scott Drew gets something from Caleb Lohner and Jalen Bridges. Lohner was solid in Las Vegas against Virginia and UCLA, but Bridges scored two points and grabbed just two rebounds in 22 minutes in the loss to Virginia and was scoreless with three boards in 16 minutes in the win over UCLA. Baylor also got pounded at Marquette and still has a ways to go. But I trust Drew to figure it out.
UCONN (#8) – Dan Hurley and his staff have added the right pieces next to Adama Sanogo and Jordan Hawkins. That duo combined for six points in the win over Iowa State, and it was ECU transfer Tristen Newton, San Diego transfer Joey Calcaterra and a couple of frosh in redshirt freshman Alex Karaban and true freshman 7-footer Donovan Clingan that really picked up the slack. Clingan is a guy with a rep of being overweight, but he shed about 30 pounds prior to the season and has learned to play hard on every possession while going against Sanogo in practice. I still want to see more from UConn before they are a legit Final Four contender.
KANSAS (#9) – Jalen Wilson has become “a guy” — someone that can be in the convo for National Player of the Year. That’s the good news for Bill Self, along with the fact that freshman Gradey Dick is a more-than-capable No. 2 option. Kevin McCullar needs to step up on the offensive end, and the Jayhawks will need someone on the frontline to contribute. KJ Adams is undersized and more of a 4-man, while Ernest Udeh Jr. can provide some rim protection, but not much in terms of scoring. That’s why it’s even more imperative that McCullar and Dajuan Harris, two guys known more for their defense and passing, have to look for their own with more regularity.
ALABAMA (#11) – Jahvon Quinerly is the key to this team. While Brandon Miller is the most talented guy on the roster, it’s clear that Quinerly will be the guy with the ball in his hands while the game’s on the line. Against UNC, he scored 21 points, had eight assists and six boards while playing 44 minutes just a couple of weeks after being cleared to play (Quinerly suffered a torn ACL in the NCAA tourney last season). Nate Oats has a bunch of talented frontline guys, and don’t forget that Mark Sears can shoot it. But this team needs a “quarterback,” and Quinerly has the experience and the ability to be just that.
GONZAGA (#14) – This schedule has been insane for the Zags: Michigan State on the ship, at Texas, Kentucky at home, and then three games at the PK85 against Portland State, Purdue and Xavier. Zags fans may want more, but a 5-2 mark is solid based on that slate. And it’s not over, as Gonzaga plays Baylor Friday in Sioux Falls and has Kent State, Washington and Alabama before league play begins. Drew Timme is still Drew Timme, but Julian Strawther has to be more assertive. He’s averaging 14.1 points and 8.4 boards, but he’s only taking 10 shots per game.
ILLINOIS (#16) – Can Terrence Shannon Jr. become a consistent go-to guy? Shannon had an incredible 29-point, 10-rebound, 8-of-9-from-three performance to beat UCLA, but followed it up with a rough outing in a loss to Virginia in which he managed just nine points and had six turnovers. Shannon is probably somewhere in-between, but what he can’t do is have games like the one against Virginia. He has to be steady.
DUKE (#17) – I’ve already seen Jon Scheyer and the Blue Devils four times in person, and I expect this team to look completely different come February. Here’s the most surprising aspect of this Duke team: Scheyer is doing it his way, no matter how unconventional it may appear. He had top recruits Dereck Lively, Dariq Whitehead and Mark Mitchell on the bench in the closing minutes of the win against Xavier, instead rolling with his veterans on the court. While Kyle Filipowski has been much better (and tougher) than most anticipated out of the gates, the key for the Blue Devils will be the development of Whitehead. Duke desperately needs a playmaker on the perimeter, and Jeremy Roach isn’t that guy. It needs to be Whitehead.
NORTH CAROLINA (#18) – I understand that the Tar Heels need Caleb Love to score, but Hubert Davis needs to hold the veteran guard accountable for his questionable decision-making — especially at the end of games. There were too many times when Love took low-percentage shots with the game on the line against Alabama. I was also shocked by how Davis ran the offense through Love, not RJ Davis, in the first two overtimes. Armando Bacot needs to do more, Davis needs to play his bench, and the defense needs to improve, but the ultimate key to success is for Love to improve his consistency.
KENTUCKY (#19) – Oscar Tshiebwe is averaging 14.4 points and 13.4 boards after missing a month due to a knee injury. Jacob Toppin has been solid, while freshman Cason Wallace has been very good on both ends of the court. The issue has been that the two shooters on the team in CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves went a combined 5-for-22 from deep in the two losses to Gonzaga and Michigan State. Fredrick shot 47 percent in his first two seasons at Iowa while Reeves is a little more unproven, shooting 39 percent last season at Illinois State after making 31 percent of his threes his first two years in the Missouri Valley. I expect these guys to fare much better from long range in upcoming contests.
MICHIGAN STATE (#20) – Tom Izzo’s team nearly beat Gonzaga in San Diego, and then knocked off Kentucky in Indy. But those results gave people a false sense of Sparty. This is a good team, but Mady Sissoko has come down to earth after averaging 15 points and 8.5 boards in wins over Drew Timme and Oscar Tshiebwe. While the Spartans lost to Alabama and nearly went down against Portland, both of those games were without Malik Hall and Jaden Akins. This is a team that will win because of the sum of its parts, and Izzo desperately needs Hall and Akins.
UCLA (#21) – My daughter learned a few new words, courtesy of Mick Cronin, standing outside the Bruins locker room at the T-Mobile Arena. UCLA lost to both Baylor and Illinois in Vegas, and Cronin was not happy with his team. Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell are the ultimate veterans, but they didn’t play like vets in Vegas, and the Bruins desperately need a third scoring option. They could also use depth, and for freshman big man Adem Bona to learn how to stay out of foul trouble.
IOWA STATE (#23) – T.J. Otzelberger used an undefeated non-conference campaign to get into the NCAA tourney and ultimately reach an improbable Sweet 16 last year. This team has gotten off to another quality start at 5-1 after wins over Villanova and UNC. This is an experienced group that got an incredible performance from Caleb Grill (31 points, 7-11 from three) against UNC. If the Cyclones can get back to the NCAA tourney, it’s a hell of an accomplishment, because this team lacks a star and scoring.
WEST VIRGINIA (KenPom: #28) – It’ll be interesting to see if Hall of Famer Bob Huggins can get this team into the NCAA tourney after a miserable season last year in which the Mountaineers won just four league games. This team is filled with well-traveled, older guys. WVU is led by former Wichita State, Washington and South Carolina guard Erik Stevenson, also has ex-UMass and Texas big man Tre Mitchell and even welcomes Emmitt Matthews back after he left for a season at Washington. I’m thinking NIT, especially in a loaded Big 12.
XAVIER (KenPom: #32) – Sean Miller and the Musketeers were a basket away from beating Indiana, and battled with both Duke and Gonzaga. They have five guys all averaging double-digit scoring, but what Miller truly needs is a go-to guy, and that should be Colby Jones. Jones hasn’t been 100 percent and is putting up 15.7 points per game, but he needs to be “The Guy” for X instead of just one of the guys.
VILLANOVA (KenPom: #55) – Kyle Neptune walked into an unenviable situation by replacing Jay Wright, and he’s doing so without top returning player Justin Moore and talented frosh Cam Whitmore, both of whom haven’t played a game yet. Neptune is also missing a high-level point guard, as Chris Arcidiacono isn’t that guy while freshman Mark Armstrong isn’t ready. ‘Nova went 0-3 out at the PK85 and things probably won’t get much better this season for Neptune & Co.
FLORIDA (KenPom: #59) – Colin Castleton needs more help. New coach Todd Golden brought in a bunch of transfers, but the only one who’s really shown signs of being a No. 2 guy alongside Castleton is former Belmont guard Will Richard. Kyle Lofton (St. Bonaventure) has been steady, Alex Fudge (LSU) is still a high-upside guy who hasn’t produced enough yet, and Trey Bonham (VMI) has come on after a slow start.
PROVIDENCE (KenPom: #75) – Ed Cooley hit the jackpot in the transfer portal the last few years, but there was a little luck involved. Nate Watson, Al Durham, Noah Horchler and Justin Minaya helped take the Friars to the Sweet 16 last season. This transfer crew isn’t at the same level, and that puts too much pressure on Jared Bynum, although Bryce Hopkins is going to be an all-league player in time.
TOWSON (KenPom: #93) – I saw Pat Skerry’s team beat UMass in Amherst, and Nicolas Timberlake was terrific. Timberlake has made strides each of the last few years, and become a three-level scorer who leads the team in scoring (15.4 ppg) and gets help from tough, versatile guard Cam Holden (15.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 4.6 apg). I love the toughness of this group, which is now 7-1 with the lone loss coming to Fairfield in Savannah.
PORTLAND (KenPom: #105) – I watched them nearly knock off North Carolina, then saw them beat Villanova before the Pilots nearly took down Tom Izzo and Michigan State. Shantay Legans deserves a ton of credit for what he’s done with changing this program in such a short period of time. Aussie Tyler Robertson brings so much versatility to the court, and forward Moses Wood was 7-of-13 from three in the games against UNC and ‘Nova. This is a team that was 1-42 in WCC play from 2018-2021, and Legans has them where they should be competitive for a top-three spot in the league this season.
UMASS (KenPom: #129) – Frank Martin’s team struggled against an older Towson group, but Martin wasn’t down on his squad at all after the game. In fact, he told me that his backcourt in Amherst is the most talented he’s had since his Final Four team at South Carolina. Noah Fernandes bounced back from a poor showing against Towson and has been terrific in the last four games. Matt Cross has found a home, RJ Luis is a talented freshman and Martin is reinvigorated with his new job.
URI (KenPom: #169) – This is a major rebuilding job, and that was clear when I saw Archie Miller’s team in practice a few weeks back. The good news is that Brayon Freeman — who had a bad game in the loss to Texas State and even worse body language on the bench — has bought in after a one-game suspension from Miller. The transfer is talented, and he’s averaging 20 points and shooting 44 percent from the field in the last three games. If Miller wins more than a dozen games, it’ll be an accomplishment in Year 1.
TEXAS STATE (KenPom: #179) – I fell in love with 145-pound senior guard Mason Harrell and his toughness. I’d watched him before on TV, but to see how hard he competes — as well as his basketball IQ — in person was impressive. Harrell had 26 points in the win at URI, but he’s fearless and plays much bigger than he is. He just finds a way. It was also fun to watch coach Terrence Johnson in person. TJ is 43-18 since taking over as head coach after Danny Kaspar resigned.
FAIRFIELD (KenPom: #217) – I just caught Fairfield on a bad day, because they struggled to stop an UNH team that hasn’t been able to make shots since Nov. 11. Bowling Green transfer Caleb Fields was one of the lone bright spots for Jay Young. The Stags didn’t get much from standout big man Supreme Cook, who had seven points and three boards in 28 minutes and has struggled out of the gates this season. Cook will need to step up his game for Fairfield to be a factor in the MAAC.
PORTLAND STATE (KenPom: #239) – I’m not gonna lie. I didn’t see a ton of Jase Coburn’s Vikings, but they did wind up beating Oregon State in the seventh-place game in the Phil Knight Legacy Tournament, which was also their second victory against Oregon State this season. UTEP transfer Jorell Saterfield and Portland native Cameron Parker were both impressive.
OREGON STATE (KenPom: #241) – Wayne Tinkle’s team almost pulled the upset against Duke, and then lost to Florida and Portland State. I watched the Duke game, and absolutely loved their toughness and the play of freshman Jordan Pope. Tinkle had a brutal season last year, going 3-28, but he revamped the roster. The Beavers will be better, but I’m not sure how much better — even in a weak Pac-12.
NORTHEASTERN (KenPom: #266) – I was at the Bill Coen vs. Ed Cooley matchup, a showdown between the two guys who helped make BC relevant under Al Skinner. Northeastern hung in there for a while at Providence before the Friars pulled away. The Huskies may struggle this season, especially if Jahmyl Telfort has an off night, but Coen has six freshmen all in the rotation, and I’d bet this team will peak come February and be a tough out for anyone in the CAA down the stretch.
NEW HAMPSHIRE (KenPom: #329) – I saw Bill Herrion’s team, normally known for its tough-nosed defensive style, go for 83 points and shoot 13-of-24 from three in a home matinee win over Fairfield. This might have been an offensive outlier as the Wildcats have averaged 57.3 points in the three games since. But Clarence Daniels looked like a guy with all-league potential against Fairfield, and Seattle transfer Kyree Brown was terrific. It’ll be interesting to see what these guys do in league play.
UCONN WOMEN (#3) – Azzi Fudd is so much fun to watch. The sophomore guard went for 24 points and was sensational in the second half in the win over Iowa. But she had a ton of help from Aaliyah Edwards (20 points, 13 boards), who was dominant in the post. Can Geno Auriemma win his 12th national championship, and his first since 2016? Fudd is certainly good enough to give the Huskies a chance.
IOWA WOMEN (#10) – I’ve seen Caitlin Clark on TV, but it doesn’t do her justice. She truly does everything on the court. Clark didn’t shoot it well from deep, but she is the ultimate versatile guard. Clark makes her teammates better, she can get to the basket, she rebounds and she leads. She just didn’t have enough help against UConn.