In the weeks leading up to the 2023-24 men’s college basketball season — and especially when the ball finally tipped off last Monday — there was a flurry of complaints about the season opener, with people calling for more marquee matches. While there’s probably some merit to those arguments (who doesn’t want to see big games?), here’s a look at what we’ve seen in the first few days of this new campaign:
- A top-five team (Michigan State) loses at home to a Sun Belt favourite (James Madison) in overtime.
- A matchup between two top-12 teams (Duke and Arizona), the game came down to the final seconds
- A battle between a top 25 team (Baylor) and a team on the edge of the top 25 (Auburn) that came down to the last minute.
- The NBA’s best college basketball prospect (USC’s Isaiah Collier) takes on an Elite Eight team (Kansas State) from last season in Las Vegas
- Fifteen Power Conference teams lost to a team outside of the power conferences
Were there top ten games every night? No. But that doesn’t happen in college football either — again, call us biased, but the first week of college hoops is defter than “Week 0” on the gridiron! Still, there was plenty of action to discuss in the first week of the college basketball season.
As for those marquee matchups? Two big ones coming up on Tuesday.
In this week’s awards and rankings…
KJ Lewis punctuates Arizona’s win with a last-second slam
Arizona steals a Duke pass inbounds and ends the game with a big jam by KJ Lewis.
Tommy Lloyd had a great start to his head coaching career, winning 61 games and earning a 1 seed and a 2 seed in the NCAA tournament in his first two seasons. But the Wildcats didn’t have the postseason success to back up those wins, getting knocked out of the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed in 2022 and losing to No. 15 seed Princeton in the first round in March. So Lloyd took a different approach to his lineup this season, looking for more flexibility, strength and durability in the portal.
It certainly looked that way on Friday at Cameron Indoor Stadium against No. 2 Duke. The Wildcats just looked like an older, tougher, more experienced team in the 78-73 victory. They dominated Duke on the glass and two of their transfer additions — Caleb Love and Keshad Johnson — looked fully bought into Lloyd’s system. Love, who transferred from North Carolina, didn’t shoot well in his return to his former rival, but he defended and hit clutch free throws when it mattered. Johnson was good on both ends, finishing with clutch baskets inside.
Arizona looks different this season, but the Wildcats should once again be in the finfinal-fournversation.
As the weekend ended Sunday night, Weber State made headlines in the west. The Wildcats erased a 16-point halftime deficit to defeat No. 23 Saint Mary’s 61-57. It was the third loss in the last 39 home games for the Gaels.
At its heart was Jones, a Weber State star playing on NBA radars. Jones finished with 29 points and 10 rebounds, playing every second of the game. He kept the Wildcats alive in the first half, then scored seven consecutive points late in the second to give his team a lead they would never relinquish. (This, after scoring 26 points and 14 boards in Weber State’s season-opening win over Benedictine Mesa.)
A few other highlights worth noting: Dalton Knecht’s 24-point finish in Tennessee’s win over Wisconsin; Baylor freshman Ja’Kobe Walter with 28 points in his debut against Auburn; and special mention to George Washington freshman Garrett Johnson, who scored 21 points in his college debut, six months after completing his ninth round of chemotherapy to treat a rare hip tumor.
I finished my 9th round of chemotherapy 6 months ago, and played in my first college basketball game last night. Don’t ever give up on your dreams🙏🏼🙏🏼❤️ pic.twitter.com/8ssFQ1aniJ
– Garrett Johnson (@gjohnson_3) November 7, 2023
James Madison was named the favorite in the Sun Belt this season after going 12-6 in its first season in the conference last year. Michigan State was ranked No. 4 overall in the preseason, was returning one of the most experienced starters in the country and was playing in East Lansing.
Still, JMU jumped out to a 13-point lead in the first half and took every possession Michigan State had in the second half. The Spartans took a six-point lead with 8:35 left and looked like they might pull away, but JMU continued to hang in the game. The Dukes finally sent it into overtime on a TJ Bickerstaff basket with 30 seconds left. After Tyson Walker scored the first two points of OT, Terrence Edwards — who finished with 24 points — hit five straight, and James Madison never trailed. A Raekwon Horton 3-pointer with 10 seconds left put the Dukes up four and the win.
JMU finished with one of the best weeks in all of college basketball, following this performance with a double overtime win at Kent State and a blowout home victory over Howard.
Coach of the Week: Mitch Henderson, Princeton Tigers
How would Princeton follow up its incredible Sweet 16 as a 15 seed in the 2023 NCAA Tournament? Especially without first-team All-Ivy selection Tosan Evbuomwan, starting guard Ryan Langborg, who transferred to Northwestern, and starter Keeshawn Kellman?
Henderson moved three rotation pieces from last season — Xaivian Lee, Blake Peters and Zach Martini — into the starting lineup and, so far, has focused heavily on the team’s perimeter play.
The Tigers opened the season with a 68-61 victory over Rutgers in Trenton, New Jersey, which gave them their first edge in the title of the best team in New Jersey. They backed that up by going to Long Island and beating Hofstra, last season’s CAA champion. In the two games, 44.4% of the team’s points came from 3s, including 12 made 3s against Hofstra. Henderson is without Evbuomwan on this year’s team, but has retooled the team to make a run at the NCAA tournament.
Three groups have questions
More places to stay in Maryland: Behind Purdue and Michigan State, there was room for the team to establish itself as the third best in the Big Ten entering the season. With three returning starters and a handful of freshmen, the Terps were in the mix. And then they went to Asheville and lost to Davidson and UAB, shooting 11-for-46 from 3-point range in both games.
DePaul Blue Demons: A home loss to Purdue Fort Wayne to open the season might have been enough to earn DePaul a spot in the division on its own, but the Blue Demons dropped a game at home to Long Beach State — after trailing by 22. score in the first half.
Vanderbilt Commodores: There was some tough competition in this area (Georgetown lost to Holy Cross, West Virginia lost to Monmouth, Louisville lost to Chattanooga, Oklahoma State lost to Abilene Christian, LSU lost to Nicholls, etc.) — but Vanderbilt’s home loss to Presbyterian may have been the team’s worst. The Blue Hose won three Division I games last season and went 1-17 in Big South play. Not a good start for Jerry Stackhouse.
Dickinson, McCullar covers the first half of Kansas
Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar Jr. channeling the inner Splash Brothers, as they dropped 32 points in the first half on the Jayhawks.
1. Kansas Jayhawks (2-0)
Pre-season rankings: 1
This week: vs. Kentucky at Chicago (Tuesday)
It doesn’t seem like Hunter Dickinson is having much difficulty adjusting to life in Lawrence. He scored 15 points in the first seven-plus minutes of the season against North Carolina Central and averaged 19.5 points and 8.0 rebounds in the Jayhawks’ easy season-opening win. One thing to watch: Dajuan Harris Jr., who has scored in double figures in nine of his last 13 games in 2022-23, attempted just four shots and scored two points last week.
2. Purdue Boilermakers (2-0)
Pre-season rankings: 3
This week: vs. Xavier (Monday)
Matt Painter made two big changes to his starting lineup after last season, inserting Trey Kaufman-Renn in the frontcourt next to Zach Edey and adding transfer guard Lance Jones for more pop at the position. Jones dished out three assists in each of the Boilermakers’ first games while averaging 10.5 points, while Kaufman-Renn had 14 points in 34 combined minutes.
Kylan Boswell’s acrobatic bucket adds to Arizona’s lead
Kylan Boswell’s unusual hook goes some way in Arizona
3. Arizona Wildcats (2-0)
Pre-season rankings: 12
This week: vs. Southern (Monday), vs. Belmont (Friday)
Kylan Boswell was arguably the best guard on the floor during the Wildcats’ win over Duke on Friday. He played with intensity and confidence and showed consistent ability to play without bounce. The sophomore guard finished with 12 points, eight boards and five assists, after scoring 18 in the opener against Morgan State. Boswell is a very different point guard than Kerr Kriisa, but there doesn’t appear to be any regression in Tucson after Kriisa’s departure.
4. Conn Huskies (2-0)
Pre-season rankings: 5
This week: vs. Mississippi Valley State (Tuesday), vs. Indiana at New York City (Sunday)
Donovan Clingan’s breakout this season is inevitable, but keep an eye on Samson Johnson. The 6-foot-10 junior has been making a lot of noise early in the season but playing behind Clingan and Alex Karaban, it wasn’t clear how quickly he would produce. It didn’t take long. He had 11 points, five rebounds and three blocks in the Huskies’ opener and followed that up with eight points against Stonehill.
Dalton Knecht scored late to give Tennessee the win
Dalton Knecht scored late to give Tennessee the win
5. Tennessee Volunteers (2-0)
Pre-season rankings: 8
This week: vs. Wofford (Tuesday)
An elite defense for the past three seasons, Rick Barnes knew his team had to improve offensively in order to have more success come March. Eighty points in each of the Volunteers’ first games? He will take it. More importantly, when things got tough for Wisconsin late in the game, Barnes had players to go for a basket or a shot. Dalton Knecht has been the best, but Jordan Gainey’s shooting ability also gives Tennessee another level.
Emanuel Sharp shows swagger with a deep 3-pointer
Emanuel Sharp shows swagger with a deep 3-pointer
6. Houston Cougars (2-0)
Pre-season rankings: 6
This week: vs. Stetson (Monday), Charleston Classic (Thursday)
Could Emanuel Sharp be the best wing for Kelvin Sampson’s team? The expectation was that Terrance Arceneaux would be that guy, but Sharp looks the part early on. He started both games for the Cougars, scoring 20 points in the opener and 11 against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Sharp already proved himself to be a capable shooter last season, and is off to a 6-for-13 start from behind the arc in 2023-24.
7. Marquette Golden Eagles (2-0)
Pre-season rankings: 7
This week: Illinois (Tuesday)
Kam Jones’ breakout season came last year, when his numbers jumped from 7.4 PPG to 15.1 PPG, but NBA scouts think another step will come this season. And they might be right. Through two games, Jones is averaging 21.5 points — 20-plus points in both games — while dishing out four assists in both games and shooting 8-for-16 from behind the arc. He and Tyler Kolek form an elite backfield. As for Kolek, keep an eye on his ankle. He left Marquette’s win over Rider with an ankle injury and his status for this week is up in the air.
8. Creighton Bluejays (2-0)
Pre-season rankings: 9
This week: vs. Iowa (Tuesday), vs. Texas Southern (Saturday)
One of the biggest questions for Creighton entering this season is whether Trey Alexander can go from being a regular fixture for the Bluejays to someone who can take over the game. He showed flashes last season, especially on the floor, and has continued in the new campaign so far. Alexander had 20 points and five assists in the opener and 21 points and four assists against North Dakota State.
9. Duke Blue Devils (1-1)
Pre-season rankings: 2
This week: vs. Michigan State at Chicago (Tuesday), vs. Bucknell (Friday)
Friday’s loss to Arizona was a good test of how young Duke’s team has grown and improved over the summer. And besides Kyle Filipowski, most of the team is still a work in progress. The Blue Devils need Tyrese Proctor — a projected lottery pick — to take that next step. He struggled against Arizona’s guards, shooting 3-for-9 from the field and rarely getting to the line. If he can be the go-to guy with the ball in his hands, Duke could live up to his preseason preaching.
Tom Izzo isn’t afraid to change the starting lineup after falling to James Madison
Tom Izzo talks about what changes need to be made after Michigan State was upset at home by James Madison.
10. Michigan State Spartans (1-1)
Pre-season rankings: 4
This week: vs. Duke at Chicago (Tuesday), vs. Butler (Friday)
A preseason Final Four pick for many, Michigan State suffered a surprising opening week loss — as mentioned above. The Spartans’ biggest problem in the opening week? Perimeter shooting. They made just one of 20 3-point attempts in a loss to James Madison, then followed that up with 1-of-11 shooting in a win over Southern Indiana. This is the team that ranked third in the nation in 3 percent last season.
11. Gonzaga Bulldogs (1-0)
Pre-season rankings: 10
This week: vs. Eastern Oregon (Tuesday)
Steele Venters’ season-ending injury will hurt Gonzaga because of his ability to shoot from near the perimeter and give Mark Few a proven college scorer. Who will step up? Freshman Dusty Stromer will have to step up quickly — and he’s a long-range shooter to get the job done — but redshirt freshman Braden Huff tallied 19 points and nine boards in just 20 minutes off the bench against Yale.
12. Florida Barn Owls (1-0)
Pre-season rankings: 11
This week: vs. Eastern Michigan (Tuesday), vs. Bryant (Saturday)
Big man Vladislav Goldin had a very impressive stat line for the first week: 19 points, 10 rebounds, two assists, five blocks and four steals. Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin will draw most of the headlines from Boca Raton, but Goldin gives the Owls a chance to face a tougher schedule than last season. At 7-1 with the ability to touch the game on both ends, he ensures that FAU will not be outdone in the paint.
Yves Missi with big things on the edge
13. Baylor Bears (3-0)
Pre-season rankings: 17
This week: vs. Kansas City (Tuesday)
Ja’Kobe Walter had the best college debut of any freshman in the country this season, finishing with 28 points and six rebounds in a win over Auburn. But it was another Yves Missi who raised eyebrows in his first week. The 7-footer was a sensation during the preseason, with one source telling ESPN that he had days where he looked like a first-round pick. He also posted double figures in scoring in all three games while tallying 10 blocks.
14. Villanova Wildcats (2-0)
Pre-season rankings: 13
This week: at Penn (Monday), vs. Maryland (Friday)
While the return of Justin Moore and Eric Dixon and the influx of transfers got a lot of attention on the Main Line, sophomore guard Mark Armstrong taking a step forward was perhaps the biggest key to Villanova’s season. He is a true player who can create for others, and so far he is doing his job. In two wins over America and Le Moyne, he had five assists and zero turnovers.
Armando Bacot would score 25 and 13 in UNC’s win vs. Radford
Armando Bacot had a big double-double for North Carolina as the Tar Heels pulled away from Radford in the second half.
15. North Carolina Tar Heels (2-0)
Pre-season rankings: 14
This week: vs. UC Riverside (Friday)
It will take some incredibly impressive numbers to topple Zach Edey in the Wooden Award race this season, but Bacot is off to a good start. He had 25 points and 13 rebounds in a season-opening win over Radford, and 22 and 20 against Lehigh. The Tar Heels’ program will end up being strong, but Bacot should be one of the unstoppable forces in men’s college basketball this season.
16. Arkansas Razorbacks (2-0)
Pre-season rankings: 16
This week: vs. Old Dominion (Monday), vs. UNC Greensboro (Friday)
Khalif Battle’s scoring ability was never in doubt at Temple — but he was lucky at times. We may see streakiness play itself out in Fayetteville, but Battle’s Arkansas career is off to a good start. Coming off the bench in both games this past week, Battle scored 21 points in each win, shooting 6-of-10 from 3 and 16-for-19 from the free throw line. Eric Musselman has always craved a microwave-type scorer off the bench and Battle looks to be that guy this season.
Out: Kentucky Wildcats (Preseason No. 15)
In the waiting room
Kentucky Wildcats: The Wildcats are out of the Power Rankings through no fault of their own (the Baylor Bears just had to move up). An early return to the DJ Wagner-Rob Dillingham backcourt is good. They combined for 30 points, seven assists and one turnover in the opener with 23 points, seven assists and two turnovers against Texas A&M-Commerce.
Miami Hurricanes: It’s not often that preseason hype pays off so quickly, but it did for Wooga Poplar. Jim Larrañaga said last month that he was playing like an NBA first-roundernd through two games, Poplar is averaging 22.0 points and shooting 10 of 14 from 3.
Texas A&M Aggies: The Aggies will get more experience and continuity than most opponents this season — and they’re leaning on that against Ohio State. Wade Taylor IV, Tyrece Radford and Henry Coleman III combined for 62 of the team’s 73 points.