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Who’s for Real? Our Early Season College Basketball Reactions

Teams and players on the rise, and other teams that have disappointed so far early this season.

December 11, 2023

We’ve reached a one-month sample of the college basketball season, with a significant amount of the non-conference schedule behind us. With conference play set to begin within the next couple of weeks, now is a good time to check in on what we’ve learned. We’ll highlight some rising and falling programs before shifting our attention to some of the breakout stars that have emerged to this point.

On the Rise

Colorado State

Colorado State have run out to a surprising 9-0 start while ripping off several very impressive wins. That includes victories over major programs such as Boston College, Creighton, Colorado and Washington (who just defeated Gonzaga).

Unfortunately, the Rams have hit recent roadblocks. They dropped a tight matchup against St. Mary’s on Saturday and is dealing with several key injuries. Josiah Strong is sidelined for six weeks due to a wrist injury he suffered in early December. He was a key cog early on, playing nearly 27 minutes while 8.5 points per game.

This is a loaded roster when at full strength.

Shortly after Strong went down, Jalen Lake suffered a finger injury that will keep him out through at least the rest CSU’s non-conference schedule. Prior to the injury, he had served as the sixth man and had poured in nearly eight points per game while hitting 1.3 triples per contest.

Positively, the Rams’ toughest stretch of non-conference matchups is over, so if they can get healthier prior to the Mountain West schedule, they should have the résumé to make a run at an at-large bid if they don’t win the conference tournament. They’ll also still be led by Isaiah Stevens, a fifth-year starter that is scoring 17.5 points per game while also averaging 7.5 dimes. This is a loaded roster when at full strength.

BYU

The former Mountain West team also has had a strong start. The Cougars suffered their first loss last weekend at Utah, but have beaten San Diego State, Arizona State, and North Carolina State.

There is some caution to take from the hot start, however. They’ve played only one true road game (which they lost) and are headed toward the daunting Big 12 Conference schedule. Jaxson Robinson has been a breakout performer and a key to the team’s success early. After serving as a starter last season, Robinson comes off the bench but still plays 23 minutes per game. He leads the team in points (16.9 ppg) and field-goal percentage (48.7 percent).

Clemson

In the ACC, we’ve had a shakeup in conference power dynamics early this season (more on that later). Clemson sits atop the heap at 9-0, including a conference win on the road over Pitt. They’re led by Chase Hunter and PJ Hall, both veterans of the program. However, they’ve benefitted from an infusion of talent from Ian Schieffelin, who is a full-time starter for the first time in his career and is nearly averaging a double-double (8.9 points, 9.7 boards) in 25 minutes per game.

Graduate transfer Joe Girard has also helped immensely, providing excellent spacing in the offense as he’s nailed 3.1 threes per game while also shooting 89.7 percent from the free-throw line. Like BYU, the Tigers’ real test will come in conference play, but they look very likely to go dancing for only the third time in the last decade.

James Madison

It seems that all James Madison can do is win these days. While they’re headed to Armed Forces Bowl on the gridiron (the first bowl game in team history), the Dukes are also delivering on the hardwood.

It seems that all James Madison can do is win these days.

The 20th-ranked Dukes are undefeated and are loaded with experience. Four of their five starters are seniors, and the fifth is a junior. That leads to well-rounded team performances, with any of Michael Green, Noah Freidel, Terence Edwards, Julien Wooden or T.J. Bickerstaff capable of taking the lead on a given night.

This team is favored to win the Sun Belt, but the real question is now how high of a NCAA Tournament seed they can get? They have the looks of a No. 12 seed that could pull off a classic 12-5 upset in the first round.

Honorable Mentions: Washington, Illinois, Oklahoma

More on College Basketball from Tipico:

What Was The Lowest Seed To Ever Win A March Madness?

2023 Tipoff: Five Top Early Season College Hoops Tournaments

How To Navigate College Basketball Betting Systems

Early Disappointments

Texas

Texas was projected to have a high-flying offense, but they’re ranked 64th in the country in points per game. A 7-2 record is fine, but they’ve failed two significant tests. They barely survived a Louisville team that is hardly at the peak of their powers, and then lost to UConn before losing to Marquette by 21.

Most discouraging was the play of two offensive stars. In the loss to Connecticut, Max Abmas and Tyrese Hunter shot a combined 8/27 from the field, and Hunter turned in another lackluster performance against Marquette. They’ll both need to step up in order for the Longhorns to contend in the loaded Big 12.

Duke

Duke began the season with +1100 odds to win the national championship, +200 odds to make the Final Four and +133 to win the ACC. However, things haven’t gone as planned for second-year head coach Jon Scheyer. It was one thing to drop a showdown matchup with Arizona early in the season, but the Blue Devils have since lost to both Arkansas and Georgia Tech. That leaves them in danger of dropping out of the AP Poll all together, and their respective odds in those categories above have dipped to +2000, +400 and +240 respectively.

…there’s still time for Duke to turn things around.

As those odds suggest, there’s still time for Duke to turn things around. In order to do so, Tyrese Proctor will need to make the second-year leap expected of him, as he has struggled in both the team’s high-profile contests (7/21 from the field combined against Michigan State and Arizona) and its loss against Arkansas (3/12). To add injury to insult, he’s currently dealing with a sprained ankle without a timeline to return.

USC

Much like their football program, USC entered the basketball season with high expectations, checking in at No. 21 in the preseason poll. Since starting 2-0, they’ve dropped four of their last seven games, including losses to UC Irvine and Long Beach State. The latter defeat came Sunday, during which the Trojans missed 16 free throws and turned the ball over 19 times.

In positive news, Bronny James made his collegiate debut in the same contest after recovering from suffering from a cardiac arrest in the summer. The Trojans have yet to begin conference play so we can’t write them off yet, but it hasn’t been a promising start to the season.

Saint Mary’s

Saint Mary’s has emerged as a mid-major power alongside Gonzaga for the better part of the last 20 years. This looks to be a down season for the Gaels, however, as they’ve dropped games to major conference opponents such as Xavier and Utah, while also losing to San Diego State and Boise State.

…perhaps this is a team more in neutral than falling.

Until proven otherwise, this team shouldn’t be dismissed in the West Coast Conference, particularly because they scheduled a very difficult non-conference schedule. A win against the aforementioned Colorado State Rams could jumpstart the season, so perhaps this is a team more in neutral than falling.

Honorable Mention: We’ll mention Tennessee due to their 6-3 record, but those losses came against Purdue, Kansas and North Carolina. There’s no reason to panic on the Volunteers. There’s also no reason to panic on Miami yet, but they’re on the watchlist after getting smacked by Colorado in a 90-63 loss over the weekend.

Breakout Players

Quincy Olivari is the leader of the Xavier program after transferring from Rice as a graduate student, but he was a known quantity after three excellent seasons with the Owls. The key for Xavier to emerge out of a mediocre start to the year will be Desmond Claude, who has taken a significant leap from his freshman to sophomore campaign. He’s filled in for a lot of lost experience on the Musketeers roster and is putting his name firmly on the NBA radar.

We’ll head in a different direction with another breakout performer, this time highlighting the more experienced Keshad Johnson. He’s another graduate transfer who left San Diego State to join the Arizona Wildcats and has seen a jump in role with his new team. He has a career-high usage rate (21.6 percent) with a corresponding jump in field-goal attempts (8.5 per game). Johnson has been efficient with his opportunity, maintaining an impressive 64 percent true shooting percentage.

Malike Reneau is very similar to Claude in that he’s made a sophomore leap based on expanded opportunity. He was an ever more touted recruit and has contributed in all areas of the game for Indiana (14.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.1 blocks) this season.

…he’s shooting an insane 59 percent from three-point range…

Reed Sheppard won’t need to wait until his sophomore season to announce his presence on the college basketball landscape. As is typically the case, Kentucky is loaded with talented freshman and underclassmen, but Sheppard was a relatively low-ranked prospect and has immediately stepped into a productive role with the Wildcats. Forget the fact that he comes off the bench — he’s shooting an insane 59 percent from three-point range (4.3 attempts per game) and is also chipping in 3 steals and 0.9 blocks per contest.

Isaac McKneely started his sophomore season slowly with the Virginia Cavaliers, but he’s poured in 22 points in consecutive games while shooting a tidy 16/22 from the field in that span. That’s just in time for the Cavs to get going heading into ACC play.

We’ve mentioned Miami as a potential disappointment, but that won’t be because of the play of Wooga Poplar. He’s playing a massive 29 minutes per game for the Hurricanes and delivering 16.5 points as a sharpshooter from every area of the floor (87 FT%, 53.7 3P%, 53.6 FG%).

Dale Weber
Dale began working at RotoWire in 2017 writing MLB game wraps. He now covers primarily MLB, NFL and racing, but also has experience writing in a wide range of sports, including MMA, golf and soccer.
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