College basketball is officially back. Opening weekend never gets people that excited because it consists of big schools paying a bunch of money to smaller schools to blow them out. Unless someone decided to take a risk like Billy Kennedy and the Aggies and open against a top-15 team. But, A&M came out better than most expected and embarrassed West Virginia as if they were a smaller school 88-65 in the Armed Forces Classic in Germany. After eight long months of no collegiate basketball, it finally hits you that it is back the morning of the Champions Classic. Other than the Final Four, this is the most exciting day in college basketball all year. Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, and Michigan State in a battle of the blue bloods to start off the year. The quality of basketball might not be at its best, but that is expected, the season is young, and the players are even younger. But, the talent that graces that floor each year is unbelievable. From Anthony Davis to now Marvin Bagley III, we are spoiled to have this event to open up the year. The contract is renewed through 2019, so don’t take this event for granted. We might only get two more years of Izzo, Self, Coach K, and Cal roaming the sidelines yelling at their 5-stars to get down in a defensive stance. It is the only thing that saves us from that opening weekend of 50-point blowouts.
Player of the Week
Kevin Knox (Kentucky)
Kentucky has had a rough start to the season. Falling behind by 12 to Utah Valley and squeezing out a 3-point victory over Vermont is not how you want to start. But, the past two games against Kansas and Eastern Tennessee State have shown promise. Kentucky usually starts off slow due to the mass amount of young talent they have. This year they are the youngest team in the country, but the talent is off the charts. And the best of the 8-man freshman class is Kevin Knox. Knox is a 6’9 forward whose perimeter game is much more impressive than it should be in this stage of his career. His combination of length, athletic ability, and shooting touch is unrivaled in the college game. During the recruiting circuit he was a fringe top-10 recruit on every major recruiting website and I thought that he was being underrated. It took him a game or two to really figure it out, but the past two games he has shown his potential. In his first big matchup on the college stage, Knox had 20 points on 8-13 from the field, 50% from beyond the arc, to go with 7 boards. And that was in his third collegiate game against the No. 4 ranked team in the country. Against ETSU he had his first double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Most of Cal’s superstar freshman have been big men such as KAT, AD, and Boogie. Or point guards such as John Wall, and De'Aaron Fox. He hasn’t had a prolific scoring small forward, so it will be interesting tracking Knox’s development going forward.
DJ Hogg (Texas A&M)
Last season I was very high on D.J. Hogg coming into the season saying he has the talent to be a middle of the first-round talent. He would show it in flashes, but with no consistency. He displayed his versatility by averaging 12 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.4 assists last season, but did not live up to the standard that most people expected. Through his first two games? Completely different story. Hogg’s 3-point shot has been questioned, and if he found his perimeter shot it would open up the rest of his game because he is an impressive passer that can also get to the room using his length and craftiness. Well, he is shooting just below 70% from three-point range so far this year. Granted, it is still early on, but his stats have jumped to 21.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, and 4.5 APG. His versatility is on full display this year. What really jumped out was how Hogg would struggle against length last year and would easily be rattled by pressure defense which led him to average 2.7 turnovers per game. His first night out he played the best pressing defense in the country in West Virginia and put up 19 points, 7 boards, and 6 dimes. Against UCSB he had another great performance with 24, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists. His shot has improved, but more importantly his shot selection has improved. He is getting after it on the boards, something Billy Kennedy has made a focal point for him because he can run the point. Hogg is one of the players that college coaches describe as a ‘positionless’ player. And he has shown that he is going to be the most important player for the Aggies going forward this season.
PJ Washington (Kentucky)
P.J. Washington has struggled so far this season outside of his performance against Vermont. Against ETSU if you’re going by box score, he had solid numbers with 12 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists to go with a block. But, stats don’t tell the whole story, especially when you just look at those numbers. You never want to blame a loss on one player, but Kentucky’s loss to Kansas could have swayed the other way if they got virtually anything out of Washington. He finished the day with 2 points and 4 turnovers and just looked lost out there. Cal continued to stick with in down the stretch, but he continued to struggle. It is his first four games of his college career, but for a 5-star recruit you just expect more. He has tried to do too much, and it has led to turnovers. Way too many turnovers. In his last two outings, Washington has turned the ball over 10 times. On top of that, when the defense has bailed him out and he has gone to the line he cannot convert. Washington is shooting 40% from the free-throw line, something that is odd for a player that has showed promise with his perimeter shot. We have seen glimpses of what Washington can do, and it is special. He has yet to put it altogether yet, like almost all freshman. But, Kentucky expected, and needs more out of him this season if they are going to live up to expectations and fulfill their potential.
Top 5 Reasons Why Kentucky Won’t Win the SEC:
The Wildcats are the youngest team in the country. They have eight freshmen on their roster. Cal’s best teams have had some experience whether it be Willie Cauley-Stein or Terrence Jones. But, they have proved to be more productive than Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel in their college careers. SKJ has showed promise, so maybe he’ll be the one to bring this team to the next level and provide some veteren leadership.
2.) Point Guard Position
The combination of Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Every Kentucky team needs a player with three names) can be impressive. But, I am not sold yet. Once again, it is still early in the season and they will develop, but I don’t know how special they will be. Don’t expect them to blossom into stars like John Wall and Fox, because those two are a different breed, but they also don’t need to. This team has so much talent they just need to be floor generals and defensive ball hawks like Marquis Teague was for the 2012 championship team. I can see Green fitting into that role, but they have yet to prove much for me to say that.
When reading the subtitle people probably thought that it is embarrassing for Kentucky to not win the SEC. But, it isn’t. The SEC is very talented this year and has plenty of depth. From Michael Porter Jr. to Collin Sexton, Kentucky is going to have a lot of tough games. Keep in mind, they are everyone’s Super Bowl.
Besides Kevin Knox and Quade Green, this team is putrid when it comes to perimeter shooting. They have players who can step out and hit their own shot, but no one is really creating their own shot. When PJ Washington has tried to, he has turned the ball over. Hamidou Diallo relies too much on his athleticism and it frequently leads him to being out of control. They have players who are capable of shooting the ball, but the flow of the offense and chemistry between the young talent has just not develop yet.
The main concern for this team coming into the year was shooting the basketball. And the one sharpshooter Cal recruited late in the process just to help with that was 4-star shooting guard Jemarl Baker. Baker had knee surgery and is now out until at least January. He can be the one to open up the floor and those driving lanes for Diallo and Knox. Also, they are missing a key piece in 5-star recruit Jarred Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt was expected to be out until January, but reports have said he is expected to come back earlier. Cal is very high on him and the versatility he brings to this team. He is the main piece in the press they have installed this season, and is a great passer for a 6’9 forward. Just add more length to a team that has plenty of it. But, his timetable has not been determined. The more time he misses, the less he is able to grow and develop with this young talented Wildcats roster.