There was a great slate of college basketball games on last night: Duke/Michigan State, Marquette/Illinois, and Kentucky/Kansas were just a few I got eyes on. For those that didn't, Duke, Marquette, and Kansas emerged as victors. And while all three teams were impressive, it was interesting to see what these teams are just three games into the season.
Let's take a look at the key takeaways, starting with Duke.
Duke is loaded with talent. Let's just start there. But we all know that.
Kyle Filipowski leads this team, and there are no doubts about it. Need a bucket, go inside.
What impressed me about Duke is their offensive efficiency. They shot 44.9% from the field last night, which is a good for a college team. Probably most importantly, their players have a good understanding of what a "good shot" is based on their skill sets. They played together, moved the ball, got paint touches, and still managed to win despite shooting 27.3% from the three-point line.
Without a true center, they also managed to out rebound Michigan State, which is a stat that Tom Izzo-led teams pride themselves on. Duke was perceived as soft following last year's manhandling by Tennessee in the tournament and rightfully so. You can bet that was a key teaching point for Jon Scheyer in the offseason.
My number one concern for Duke is their lack of depth. 7 guys played meaningful minutes last night, and one of their starting guards didn't score. Like many teams, Duke will need their two lottery picks, Filipowski and Tyrese Proctor, to stay healthy.
Tyler Kolek played a hell of a game last night, and on a bad ankle to boot. Despite what seemed like a thrashing on the glass, MU was only -2 in the rebounding department.
As an MU alum, I'm biased here, but I love the way Marquette plays. The ball moves, all 5 players are aggressive, and they do a great job of spacing the floor. I'm not going to play the "less talented" card here because Marquette has plenty of talent, and most importantly, plays extremely well together as a team.
The Golden Eagles had some lapses last night, when it seemed like they took their foot off the gas a bit. You could say that will happen time to time with a perimeter-based team. At the same time, their veterans seemed to know when it was "winning time," and the last several minutes never seemed like the game was in jeopardy.
Marquette will need to continue to team rebound because they're a bit undersized, but they faced the same challenge last year and won the Big East. Oso Ighodaro appeared to injure his shoulder late in the game (but did remain the game). Like Filipowski, his presence (and health) is the linchpin to this team.
Kansas had 22 assists last night (Marquette and Illinois combined for only 15). At first glance, you're like "Wow, that's really good." A good chunk of these go to Hunter Dickinson, positioned at or near the rim. So, while I'd like to say Kansas is the best passing team in this group, the stats don't tell the story here.
Kansas was lucky to win last night. There was a stretch at the start of the second half where both teams looked like they were playing noon pick-up at Lifetime Fitness. Deep threes and 1 on 1, isolation basketball led to some ugly sequences.
Kansas, like Duke, is incredibly talented. Unlike Duke, they have older players. On one hand, you say, "These guys are veterans and will figure it out." On the other, "These guys have played a lot of games and shouldn't look so sloppy."
Speaking of sloppy, I think John Calipari is a tremendous coach, I really do. But, Kentucky's discipline on both sides of the ball in the second half last night was atrocious. If there was a nationwide 1 on 1 college basketball tournament, I'd actually pick several Kentucky players. But, when you're in a tight game, shooting deep step back threes with zero passes is a bad shot for pretty much anyone besides Steph Curry. Kentucky's upside is so high, maybe the highest in the country because they have so many natural shot makers. But, and like many seasons, Cal is going to have his work cut out for him to get these guys to play together.
One of the key takeaways from the games overall was this:
Passing is one of the most undeveloped skills in the college game. In many ways, the transition from AAU basketball to Division One is like a good college quarterback transitioning to the NFL. Players are used to throwing the ball all over without a huge amount of pressure.
At the higher levels, passing windows get tighter, angles matter, and the pressure gets cranked up. Good passers throw the ball with their hands, but they really pass the ball with their eyes. They're able to read what's happening around them and understand what a +6 wingspan means to passing angles.
Good passers understand floor spacing, and good receivers understand how to initiate contact to create space. Passing, then, is a team competency, something that improves with the collective spacing and awareness of the group.
Which leads me then to efficiency. The best teams in any sport understand that to win championships, you have to be efficient. And efficiency goes beyond the stat sheet. Efficient teams play to their strengths and minimize what the opponent is trying to do. San Diego State was a good example of this last year: shrink the floor on defense and limit teams to one shot. Then, work the shot clock and get high percentage shots on the other end. A game outside of this formula was simply a losing proposition for the Aztecs.
And to do this, it requires not only total buy-in, but an honest look in the mirror for every guy on a team.
"What am I good at? What am I not so good at? What do I do that contributes most to winning, and how does that fit into this team?"
Can non-efficient teams win? Of course they can. But I'd like to think that a coach's ultimate impact is measured here.
John Willkom is the author of Amazon best-selling basketball books: Walk-On Warrior and No Fear In The Arena. John is an avid reader, sports fan, and father to two incredible little girls.
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