Here are seven schools that are better than we thought coming into the year.
The Wolverines were ranked 19th in the preseason AP poll and are up to seventh as of this writing. There were fair questions about Michigan’s offense without Mo Wagner. The irony, though? The Wolverines haven’t really answered them. But the defense has been so good that it hasn’t mattered.
Michigan leads the country in defensive efficiency and hasn’t allowed an opponent to score more than 61 points. The Wolverines have held foes to 55 or fewer in every other game. The advanced numbers are just as ridiculous: teams are shooting 35 percent from 2-point range against Michigan, tops in the nation by a healthy margin. A lot of defenses would be fine if opponents hit 35 percent of their 3s against them.
To be fair, Michigan had an elite defense last year, finishing third on that end. But it was fair to wonder if that was a fluke considering John Beilein’s track record as an offensive coach. Turns out, the Wolverines didn’t just sustain their tremendous defense. They improved it.
Buffalo is looking like the team that did this to Arizona in last year’s NCAA tournament:
The Bulls upset West Virginia in the first week of the season and are ranked 21st in the AP Poll. March Madness Cinderellas don’t always carry their performance over to the following year; just ask UMBC and Loyola Chicago. But Buffalo looks like it could have a fantastic season.
The Bulls are winning emphatically. They’ve beaten their last two opponents by a combined 66 points, and Buffalo’s up-tempo style is baffling teams. Their average possession length is just 14 seconds, which ranks sixth in the country. Guard CJ Massinburg has been outstanding, averaging 20.5 points on 52 percent shooting.
But the advanced numbers are even higher on Massinburg. Buffalo scores 110.2 points per 100 possessions as a team. With Massinburg in the game, that figure spikes to 148.3. That would easily be the best offense in the country. Massinburg is one of the top offensive players in the game, regardless of conference.
Buffalo has noteworthy tests coming up in Syracuse and Marquette. Keep an eye on the Bulls.
Chris Holtmann has done it again. The Buckeyes lost most key pieces from last year’s team and weren’t expected to do a whole lot in 2018-19. Fast-forward to now: Ohio State is 6-0 with two big road wins over Cincinnati and Creighton.
Nothing stands out about Ohio State when you watch them; the Buckeyes are just competent in every area, and that will win you a lot of games. No player averages more than 15 points per game, but five guys are above eight. Freshmen guards Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington have both been better expected. Kaleb Wesson and C.J. Jackson got noticeably better in the offseason, and are the first and second options after serving as role players in 2017-18.
Ohio State is holding foes to an effective field goal percentage of 40.7, which ranks seventh in the country. Holtmann is an expert at assembling stout defenses with a bunch of moving parts. Ohio State will be in contention to win the Big Ten.
We knew the Hokies would be solid. They were ranked 15th in the preseason AP poll. But we probably underrated their ceiling a bit.
Virginia Tech checks in at No. 13 in the most recent AP poll, which is only a marginal improvement. But they’ve passed the eye test. Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a stud, averaging 19.6 points on 40 percent 3-point shooting. The Hokies have the No. 7 offense in the country and are absolutely lethal from distance; they’re making 41.4 percent of their 3s.
Buzz Williams has the Hokies playing such a fun style. They bomb a lot of 3s, but they also force a bunch of turnovers on defense. Virginia Tech is taking the ball away on 28.2 percent of opponents’ possessions, which ranks second in the nation. They are also prone to giving up easy buckets; their defense is mediocre overall, and when it doesn’t force a turnover, Tech is vulnerable.
But this team can beat anyone. It still likely won’t challenge for the ACC crown, but on any given night, it can do serious damage.
Chris Beard is another coach who deserves the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. The Red Raiders lost Zhaire Smith, Keenan Evans and several other key pieces, but are 6-0 and currently ranked 20th in the AP poll. The computers like Tech even more; it’s ranked 11th at KenPom.
Most of the teams on this list have something in common: they are awesome defensively. And that makes sense. When we evaluate teams going into the season, we usually look at their rosters and measure things like returning scorers. It’s harder to predict defense. Texas Tech is ranked third on that end right now, and has done enough offensively to win games.
Jarrett Culver is the driving force behind the offense. The sophomore needed to make a leap, and he has; Culver is averaging 18.8 points and 4.2 assists. The Red Raiders have a nice formula going: a supreme shot-creator in Culver combined with an elite defense.
Once again, the Big 12 is looking strong.
Another reason why the Big 12 is looking so good. Texas is off to a nice 5-1 start, including a 92-89 win over North Carolina. The most encouraging thing about the Longhorns’ season thus far has been Kerwin Roach’s star turn.
Roach always had ridiculous athleticism and a nice-looking stroke. But he’s been inconsistent throughout his college career; he often took bad shots early on, and the production didn’t match the talent. It is now. Roach dropped 32 on the Tar Heels and is averaging 18.6 points. He’s a menace defensively, a perfect fit for Shaka Smart’s system. Roach is averaging 2.6 steals per game.
This group resembles Smart’s VCU teams more than any other he’s had at Texas. The Longhorns are forcing turnovers on 25 percent of opponent possessions, a top-15 mark. They rank 230th in opposing 3-point field goal percentage, but they take the ball away so often that they can still be formidable on that end.
Dylan Osetkowski, haircut and all, has upped in game in the wake of Mo Bamba’s departure. Kansas may win the Big 12 again, but the Jayhawks won’t waltz to the title.
The Nebraska-Clemson game didn’t get a lot of hype, but it was crucial for both teams, and the Cornhuskers prevailed. Nebraska has a good chance to be ranked in next week’s AP poll after a 6-1 start. The Huskers, ranked 24th in KenPom, have only lost to Texas Tech.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Nebraska is doing this with defense. Teams are shooting an abysmal 23.5 percent from 3 against the Huskers (sixth) and 39 percent from 2-point range (fourth). Nebraska hasn’t allowed more than 70 points in a game all season.
There are a lot of reasons to like the Huskers, but perhaps the biggest is experience. Their three leading scorers are seniors in James Palmer, Isaac Copeland and Glynn Watson Jr. This has been a huge year for head coach Tim Miles. The Big Ten is deep.