USC travels far from home on Sunday, to play a true road game at Vanderbilt. It's one of just two games this entire weekend featuring teams that both made the 2017 NCAA tournament (I see you, Bucknell at Maryland), and it promises to tell us a good deal about Andy Enfield's team.
After all, you might have heard that this, finally, is USC's time.
The Trojans entered 2017-18 ranked in the top 10 of the AP preseason poll for the first time in 43 years. Meaning the last time Southern California started a season with such high expectations, John Wooden was still the head coach of the crosstown rival school. It has been a while.
Now, Enfield's roster is No. 1 in major-conference basketball in terms of experience returning from last season. Or is it?
That distinction was based on the assumption that everyone would be back from last season with the exception of Charles Buggs (who was a senior). Sure enough, everyone's back, but not everyone is in uniform.
For the time being, sophomore guard De'Anthony Melton remains a spectator. Melton's eligibility is in question after Trojans associate head coach Tony Bland was indicted on charges including facilitating payments of $4,000 and $5,000 to the relatives and/or associates of two USC players.
Melton's status might be in limbo, but Enfield still has his big three: Bennie Boatwright, Chimezie Metu and Jordan McLaughlin. Boatwright, in particular, has been impressive at both ends of the floor in home wins against Cal State Fullerton and North Dakota State, averaging better than 20 points a game and defending the rim with tenacity.
Maybe the 6-foot-10 junior is making up for lost time. Boatwright missed 17 games last season thanks to a one-two combination that began with back spasms and ended with a knee injury. Now, at last, he's healthy, and his return is one factor that has the Trojans being spoken of in some quarters as a trendy Final Four pick.
Is such talk too much, too soon? More like let's wait and see. For instance, one place where USC can show it's for real in 2017-18 is the defensive glass. Enfield's team was vulnerable there last season, and while that might not be a deal-breaker against a perimeter-oriented opponent such as Vanderbilt, it definitely will be something to track in a Pac-12 co-headlined by Arizona and its 7-foot-1 freshman, Deandre Ayton.
Enfield was hired in 2013 to resuscitate a program that, on paper, has all the advantages. The Trojans are blessed with beautiful weather in the heart of a marquee metropolis that appeals to the college-aged and the college-aged at heart the world over. More to the point, USC finds itself nestled amid some of the nation's finest high school basketball talent year in and year out.
Still, all of the above has been true for a really long time now, yet somehow no one has been able to make a go of it over the long haul at USC. Not Henry Bibby (who was 71-83 in conference play with the Trojans), not Tim Floyd (38-33) and, most recently, not Kevin O'Neill (21-37).
Enfield is 24-48 in Pac-12 play after four seasons, but that mark includes a 5-31 hit of the programmatic reset button in his first two seasons. He's 19-17 since then, and this season holds the promise of an honest to goodness Pac-12 title race with the aforementioned Wildcats.
If that promise is going to be realized, one way we'll know it, early, is if USC can win a game on the home floor of a worthy but not necessarily unbeatable major-conference opponent two time zones away and 2,000 miles from the Galen Center. Is this USC's moment?
The answers are about to start coming in.
Texas Tech vs. Boston College, Saturday, noon ET
The only other game of the weekend besides USC-Vanderbilt that will feature two major-conference teams, this will also be a battle of the undefeateds. Fine, the Red Raiders and the Eagles are a combined 5-0. Still, both programs hope they're on the rise. Chris Beard has started five seniors in each of Texas Tech's first two games, so it's fair to call Tommy Hamilton, Keenan Evans and the Raiders the polar demographic opposites of Kentucky. As for BC, fourth-year coach Jim Christian has what is likely a much-improved team compared with last season's. The question will be whether the improvement is so vast that it can make itself felt in a rugged and deep ACC.
La Salle vs. Northwestern, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET
The Wildcats are coming off a 92-88 loss at "home" to Creighton. "Home" is in quotation marks because Chris Collins' team is hosting opponents at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, while its true home, Welsh-Ryan Arena, undergoes renovation. In the loss to the Bluejays, Northwestern allowed 6-3 Khyri Thomas to score 24 points, a figure that included eight makes inside the arc. Now the Wildcats will face 6-7 B.J. Johnson and the Explorers at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off in Uncasville, Connecticut.
Princeton at Saint Joseph's, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET
Princeton went after a challenging nonconference schedule, and look what it got the Tigers. Mitch Henderson's team is 0-2 after losses on the road to Butler (by 10) and at home to BYU (by nine). Things got so heated in that second contest that Henderson was actually ejected from the game for the first time in his seven-year career. Here's hoping the Princeton coach can keep a lid on his (now) legendary tempestuousness because he'll want to see this one. The Tigers could still win the Ivy, and host Saint Joe's might still contend for the Atlantic 10 title. I say “might” because it's hard to tell when you start the season with true road games at Toledo (11-point loss) and Illinois-Chicago (four-point victory in overtime). Freshman Taylor Funk has been filling it up for the Hawks.
MADSION, Wis. -- Trevon Bluiett took some time to thaw on a chilly night at Wisconsin’s Kohl Center, which gave his No. 15 Xavier team some space Thursday to show it has the veteran poise and the requisite accessories to stoke some serious optimism this season.
It took 24 minutes for Bluiett to bury his first field goal of the game, but once he found his rhythm, the Badgers were in trouble. He ended with a game-high 25 points, including two 3-pointers in the space of 40 seconds to break a late tie and suck the life from an arena that felt like it had skipped a few pages on the calendar.
“He’s one of the best players in the country, so if he comes out to a not so hot start I have extreme confidence that he’s going to heat up,” fellow senior guard J.P. Macura said after Xavier's 80-70 victory. “And he usually does.”
Macura, who has started 40 consecutive games for the Musketeers, carried a good chunk of the weight before his teammates got comfortable. He found a litany of creative ways to get to the basket against a defense Wisconsin coach Greg Gard deemed “too porous” at times. Macura (20 points, 8 rebounds) had plenty to do with opening those pores.
Xavier’s big men had success in the paint early as well. Kaiser Gates knocked down a pair of important shots from behind the arc in the first half to give his team its first significant breathing room. Four Musketeers players came into Thursday night’s game averaging double-digit points per game, and four of them hit that mark against Wisconsin, easily the stiffest defensive test Xavier has faced on its way to 3-0.
Depth and versatility, along with a couple free throws late in the first half, gave Bluiett all he needed to settle into the game without pressing as his early shots failed to fall.
“I don’t really stress over my production level because I know we’re a pretty deep team,” he said. “I know when it’s not my night somebody else is going to pick up my slack.”
All-America candidate Ethan Happ provided the spark that kept Wisconsin (2-1) on the verge of a major early-season victory in the second half. After not getting a call he wanted under the hoop with about six minutes to play, he went on a tear.
Happ knocked down two baskets (the second of which put him over the 1,000-point mark for his college career), forced a turnover and then found Aleem Ford alone outside the 3-point line for one of his eight assists on a bucket that tied the game at 64.
Happ, too, had some help. He watched from the bench as a lineup of four underclassmen and a role-playing junior closed out the first half on a 9-0 run that should help an inexperienced Badgers team build some confidence.
Afterward, Happ said he felt like a coach when mentioning how proud he was of his cubs. The Badgers' actual coach would have preferred a victory, but knows there are positives to take away from Thursday's game.
“This is good for our guys. This is a great experience, what they do with it will show how fast we can grow,” said Gard, who has to get his team ready for another visit from a ranked opponent when Baylor comes to town Monday (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Xavier coach Chris Mack credited his team’s wealth of experience in close games with being the difference-maker against Wisconsin and what Macura deemed the loudest arena he can remember. Macura and many of his teammates were on the squad that saw its 2015-16 season end against Wisconsin a win short of the Sweet 16, on a Bronson Koenig buzzer-beater. That provided a little extra juice to this meeting, but having played in games like this one helped provide a little extra poise down the stretch.
Wisconsin will likely reap the benefits of Thursday's experience down the road. Xavier showed it already knows how to win such taut games, even when its star isn’t at his best, which bodes well for playing in more of them as the season unfolds.
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DeAndre Ayton's arrival at Arizona made Sean Miller's first trip to the Final Four seem possible and perhaps likely come April. Grayson Allen and Miles Bridges had returned to torch the field anew. Kansas and Villanova entered the season stacked with the talent to reach the last weekend again.
But where was the perennial, they-could-win-it-all buzz for the Kentucky Wildcats?
John Calipari had assembled another flock of five-stars -- per the norm -- but Kevin Knox and P.J. Washington hadn't been welcomed by the masses with the adoration that typically accompanies Kentucky freshman classes.
Tuesday's Champions Classic offered the Wildcats a chance to prove they can dance with the best, even though they lack showstoppers like De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, last season's phone-a-friend heroes who always seemed to bail the squad out.
Instead, the Wildcats emerged as a young team with potential but no proven catalyst. No John Wall or Karl-Anthony Towns or Devin Booker. No give-him-the-ball-and-we're-good player they could find in a tight game.
Kentucky's 65-61 loss to Kansas featured a 3-for-13 effort from the 3-point line, a 12-for-18 clip from the free throw line and 18 turnovers.
This is probably not the 2012-13 Kentucky team that stumbled into the NIT and lost in the first round. But keep dreaming if you think this is anything close to the 2014-15 team that won 38 of 39 games.
Kentucky might navigate the season like the turbulent 2013-14 squad that had a roller-coaster experience and still managed to reach the Final Four. But that's far from a certainty.
The Wildcats looked lost throughout Tuesday's game.
Kentucky will stay tight with most opponents this season because of its size. Few teams can handle a backcourt with 6-foot-5 Hamidou Diallo and 6-6 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And the big men all play with fire and above the rim. Six players on the roster stand 6-9 or taller.
It's not clear what plays the Wildcats ran, however, or which defensive principles they applied Tuesday because the bulk of the game they just flew around the court and at the rim and across the floor, willing themselves into points through sloppy shooting and limited execution.
Down 51-47 late in the game, Kentucky was shooting 3-for-11 from the 3-point line. The Wildcats, always fierce in the paint, had snatched only six of a possible 23 offensive rebounds (26 percent) at that point.
Yet the Wildcats also had managed to defend and throw enough of their length at the Jayhawks to prompt a 3-for-13 start for Devonte' Graham, a 6-for-14 start for Svi Mykhailiuk and a 3-for-13 start for Malik Newman.
A Kansas backcourt widely regarded as one of America's best couldn't score against the athletic, lengthy Wildcats.
Even if the Wildcats fail to find a go-to scorer or a better offensive game plan than one-dribble isolation plays, they'll give any opponent hell with their size on defense. And perhaps that's their greatest asset, maybe the only strength that will help them compete for the SEC title and more once the postseason arrives.
In the final seconds, Knox drove to the right side of the rim and threw up an errant floater that his teammates grabbed. But Kentucky couldn't score on the putback.
And that was the tale of the game -- and maybe of the entire 2017-18 season for Kentucky.
The Wildcats possess future NBA draft picks. Their roster is full of kids who had offers from every major program in the country. But that alone won't help Kentucky thrive in SEC play and stay alive in March.
The Wildcats needed a hero against the experienced Jayhawks on Tuesday. And most years, Kentucky has one. Or three.
Tuesday's loss proved, however, the Wildcats might be searching all season for someone to save them.
It was supposed to be an opportunity for college hoops fans to get their first true taste of Duke's much-heralded freshman class, the one that featured possible No. 1 pick Marvin Bagley III, and a few more potential first-rounders in Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr.
Instead, it was the guy who wasn't supposed to be still calling Durham home, a player who has faced as much scrutiny as any that has hit a college campus in recent years for a trio of tripping incidents.
The kid everyone loves to hate.
"If he plays like that this season, you can lock him back in as a first-round pick, maybe a lottery pick," one NBA general manager told ESPN. "And I'm not sure how he isn't back in the mix as the best player in college basketball."
With Bagley clinging to the bench -- his right eye nearly swollen shut -- and Duke's other trio of freshmen unable to make perimeter shots, Allen was sensational, finishing with 37 points and knocking down a pair of 3-pointers late to seal an 88-81 win over Michigan State.
But this wasn't the same old Allen, the guy who plays with reckless abandon -- throwing his body into the lane with his arms flailing to pick up a call. Instead, it was more of the high school version -- knocking down 7-of-11 shots from beyond the arc.
"He's a great shooter, not a good shooter," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the victory.
Allen had turned into more of a driver during his sophomore and junior seasons, and the wear and tear affected his body a year ago. Then the tripping incident against Elon toyed with his mind.
So far this season, Allen has played with a free mind and a healthy body. He's still effective penetrating the lane, but he has been lights-out from deep -- converting an insane 17-of-26 from 3-point range.
Allen, who told ESPN before the season that he needed to harness his emotions and earn the respect of a talented freshman class ranked No. 1 in the country, did that and far more. He played all 40 minutes, was 11-of-20 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line as the No. 1 Blue Devils knocked off No. 2 Michigan State in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night.
"I felt like I was coaching [J.J.] Redick," Krzyzewski said after the game with a smile.
Allen started slow, and it was Bagley and Michigan State freshman big man Jaren Jackson Jr., who made their presence felt early.
However, with Duke leading 19-12 at the 10:09 mark, Bagley was inadvertently hit in the eye by teammate Javin DeLaurier and the Blue Devils appeared to lose momentum along with their most talented player. Bagley had been imposing his will, scoring four points and grabbing six rebounds in 10 minutes. He fell to the court for several minutes before being taken to the locker room. He didn't return until the second half -- when he sat on the bench for the final 20 minutes and watched with one eye open and the other nearly closed shut as Allen dominated the game.
Allen got help in the second half from Duval, who struggled with a questionable perimeter shot -- but was able to utilize his speed and quickness to get into the lane and also for easy buckets out in transition.
But this was all about Allen's presence and Bagley's absence.
This wasn't Elon or Utah Valley, the Blue Devils' first two victims. This was a much-older Michigan State squad coached by a Hall of Famer in Tom Izzo and featuring preseason national player of the year Miles Bridges and Jackson -- one of the promising young big men in the country. Bridges finished with 19 points, but just two of his seven field goals came within the arc. Michigan State is known for its toughness, but the Spartans were pounded on the glass, 46-34 -- including allowing a staggering 25 offensive boards to a young Duke team.
But at the end, the spotlight didn't shine on Bridges or Bagley. It was on the kid who still calls Durham home, the one who could have left and didn't, the one who returned in hopes of adding another championship ring on his hand.
"It felt good," Allen admitted as he flashed a wide smile in the hallway at the United Center after the game.
It was much needed. For Allen -- and college basketball.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The first game of David Padgett's coaching career was less than 24 hours away, but the interim Louisville head coach wasn't tied up in scouting reports or pacing around his house with nerves.
Like most sports fans, he was watching Saturday's loaded college football slate.
"I got wrapped up in a couple of those football games," Padgett said. "That Alabama game was something else."
Padgett and Louisville didn't need last-minute heroics like DeVonta Smith's touchdown for Alabama, but the Cardinals erased a second-half deficit to beat George Mason 72-61 on Sunday.
The margin of victory gives some extra credit to Louisville, which struggled offensively for most of the game and allowed George Mason to consistently get open shots at the other end. The Cardinals were 1-for-10 from 3-point range in the first half and needed a spark from freshmen Darius Perry (17 points, three assists) and Jordan Nwora (10 points, three second-half 3-pointers) to pull away from the Patriots in the final minutes.
"It's almost like, not the weight of the world off our shoulders, but just the relief," Padgett said after the game. "Some of us have a little bit of nerves, but now we can just get in the routine of games moving forward."
It's going to take some time for Louisville to find its identity this season and Sunday showed that. There's plenty of experience in the starting lineup, with four upperclassmen and sophomore V.J. King rounding out the five. Despite that, the Cardinals' bench is going to be almost entirely made up of newcomers. There's Perry and Nwora, but freshman forward Malik Williams saw a handful of minutes and UNC-Asheville transfer Dwayne Sutton also played.
But the bigger factor is going to be Padgett and getting out of the shadow of Rick Pitino. Pitino's ousting is still the biggest storyline surrounding the Louisville basketball program.
You can still see some Pitino staples when Louisville is on the court. The Cardinals' active half-court defense, the two-point guard setup late in the game with Snider and Perry, the fact all the players were recruited under Pitino -- and a couple of Pitino-esque foot stomps by Padgett.
"I guess old habits die hard," Padgett said.
There are going to be questions asked of Padgett, maybe not in news conferences and certainly not after an 11-point win, but they are going to come. And it's not hard to imagine the thought could cross Padgett's brain at some point. Would Pitino have done anything differently? Would he have made an adjustment or a substitution? Questions like that. Padgett played under Pitino for three seasons, then coached under him the past three seasons. The hallmarks of Pitino's program aren't going away.
Padgett hasn't developed his own identity yet, and that's understandable. He's not Pitino; he's not going to scream and yell for 40 minutes. He's far more relaxed, especially on the officials. He's slowly adapting to his new role, though, and not worrying about what outsiders think -- or see.
Because Padgett is 6-foot-11, he gets in the way of the viewing angles of some fans. In the exhibition games, he was conscious of that.
"I've got to coach my team," Padgett joked. "The only person I really block most times is [sports information director Kenny Klein] and I don't care if he sees anyway."
Despite the drama of the past six weeks, despite the nerves leading up to the game, despite the halftime deficit, Padgett and the players pushed aside the noise and Pitino's shadow to get a win.
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The 2017-18 college basketball season officially got underway on Friday. Time for preseason narratives to play out, go wild with overreactions and ... well, a lot of guys didn't play.
Over the past six weeks, the biggest story in college basketball has been the federal investigation into corruption and bribery in the sport. Despite games getting underway, Friday was no different -- and it wasn't just because of the scandal.
We already knew Auburn's Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy and Louisville's Brian Bowen wouldn't be playing. Oklahoma State and USC added to the list, with the Cowboys holding out star senior Jeffrey Carroll and the Trojans sitting De’Anthony Melton. Bowen is the outlier, but the other four players have no timetable for a return and it's essentially a game-by-game, wait-and-see situation. Is there a chance they return next week? Is there a chance they miss the entire season? The answer to both could be yes. No one really knows.
The scandal-plagued programs weren’t the only ones missing players on Friday.
Arizona announced Friday afternoon that assistant coach Mark Phelps and senior forward Keanu Pinder were suspended for the Wildcats' game against Northern Arizona. Phelps will also miss Sunday’s game against UMBC. Kansas freshman Billy Preston sat out on Friday after missing class and curfew. Alabama freshman Collin Sexton was suspended for Friday's game, and the Crimson Tide were also missing three other key players due to injury. Texas A&M was without starting point guard J.J. Caldwell and lottery pick Robert Williams against West Virginia, which will miss Esa Ahmad for the first semester. Kezie Okpala, a top-50 incoming recruit, is out indefinitely due to academics. BYU guard Nick Emery withdrew from school and will miss the entire year. Houston star guard Rob Gray was suspended for Friday’s game. Clemson forward David Skara was suspended nine games. Arizona State suspended Romello White due to a team rules violation, and Kimani Lawrence suffered an ankle injury on Thursday. Oh, and UCLA was also missing three freshmen -- including LiAngelo Ball -- for its game in China against Georgia Tech, which is withholding Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson for improper benefits.
And perhaps the most noteworthy potential absence to keep an eye on? Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr., one of the early candidates for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft. He played just two minutes against Iowa State due to a hip injury, with Cuonzo Martin telling ESPN’s Myron Medcalf it was a "precaution" to hold him out.
Missouri needs Porter to return soon -- and with all the other stars missing in action, so does college basketball.
The big boys looked good (even if Kentucky took awhile to get there)
Friday wasn't the night if you were looking for big-time upsets. Each of the top-10 teams in the preseason AP poll won by double figures, with six of them winning by at least 25 points.
Duke rolled over Elon, led by Marvin Bagley, whom we'll get to more in a minute. The best sign for the Blue Devils? Trevon Duval had eight assists and zero turnovers. Michigan State had five guys in double figures -- including player of the year favorite Miles Bridges with 20 and 10 -- against North Florida, while Allonzo Trier’s 32 points led Arizona against Northern Arizona. Kansas beat Tennessee State by 36 and Wichita State took down UMKC by 52. Landry Shamet scoring 17 points after missing most of the offseason with an injury was key for the Shockers.
Kentucky started awfully slow against Utah Valley, and was down by nine at halftime before scoring 48 points in the second half en route to a 73-63 win. That shouldn't come as a huge surprise, as John Calipari spoke all preseason about how this team was a work in progress, especially defensively. The Wildcats will have to be much better against Kansas on Tuesday. But two things to note: Kentucky played a lot of zone on Friday and with its length, that could be an option for Calipari moving forward; also, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played 36 minutes and seems to have beaten out five-star recruit Quade Green for the point guard job.
Welcome to college basketball
The top of the incoming freshman class is elite, and Friday did nothing to disprove that notion.
Duke's Bagley went for 25 points and 10 rebounds in his debut, setting a Duke record for points by a freshman in the season opener. It was also the most points by a No. 1 overall recruit in his first career game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Arizona's DeAndre Ayton had 20 points and 10 rebounds to start his career, throwing in two blocks on the defensive end, while Texas center Mohamed Bamba finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and four blocks.
Throw in a healthy Porter, and that's going to be a terrific four-way battle all season.
The sleeper for NBA scouts is Michigan State's Jaren Jackson, and he went for 13 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and four blocks on Friday -- despite making just two shots from the field.
Texas A&M makes statement against West Virginia
The marquee game on Friday, and the lone game between Top 25 teams, was West Virginia's battle against Texas A&M. After West Virginia opened up a 13-point first-half lead, it was all Texas A&M, as the Aggies ended up cruising to an 88-65 win.
Remember, Texas A&M's likely starting point guard, J.J. Caldwell, is suspended for five games, and projected lottery pick Robert Williams is out for three games. No one would have been surprised if the Aggies were run ragged by Press Virginia. But T.J. Starks and Duane Wilson filled in admirably at the point guard spot, while veterans Tyler Davis, Admon Gilder and D.J. Hogg led the way.
But the performance was concerning for West Virginia. The Mountaineers simply couldn’t score once A&M figured out how to beat their pressure. It’s not the first time West Virginia has had that problem, as the Mountaineers have consistently been at their best when dominating the offensive glass or creating offense with their press. But Davis helped limit West Virginia to just 12 second-chance points, and the Mountaineers had only 17 points off turnovers. Outside of a West Virginia flurry at the start of both halves, A&M had success beating the press. Esa Ahmad is out the entire first semester, and the Mountaineers will have to find the half-court scorers to step up in his place. Fortunately, they have several games to figure it out, as they don’t play Virginia until Dec. 5.
- Prediction: Duke
- Confidence level: 60 percent
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