We’re less than a month into college basketball season, but reality is already starting to deviate from what we expected in many cases. You can crunch numbers, break down rosters and analyze coach interviews for months but have all that insight changed immediately once the ball is tipped in November.
As the saying goes, “ball don’t lie,” and the ball has been telling some interesting stories early this season. Arizona looks incredible despite losing three NBA Draft picks, North Carolina looks vulnerable despite returning four of five starters from a team that reached the national title game. Kentucky is off to a slow start, and so is Villanova. Meanwhile, Virginia has burst onto the scene following an NIT appearance last season to look like an ACC and national title contender. In the Big 12, are we sure Texas won’t be a threat to Baylor and Kansas atop the conference?
The sample size is small, but it’s expanding by the day, and we’re ready for a few mulligans. For months leading up to the season, we wrote on this website and talked on the Eye on College Basketball podcast — and other platforms — about our predictions for what would happen this season. Now, for this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, we are each taking the chance to walk back one of those predictions based off what we’ve seen so far.
Louisville finishing regular season 14-17
Back in August, during an episode of the Eye On College Basketball Podcast focused on Louisville, I predicted the Cardinals would go 14-17 in the regular season. Turns out, I was too optimistic. So I’d like to have that prediction back, please. Because Year 1 of the Kenny Payne era is an unmitigated disaster.
The Cardinals are now 0-5 with losses at home to Bellarmine, Wright State and Appalachian State. More recently, they lost to Arkansas by 26 points and to Texas Tech by 32 points in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. They’ve gone from 91st at KenPom to 154th at KenPom in a span of 14 days while also losing DJ Wagner– the top recruiting priority and grandson of Louisville staffer Milt Wagner — to Kentucky.
Honest question: Has a head-coaching career at a high-profile school ever started this poorly?
Obviously, it’s still early. Anything is possible, I guess. But the truth is that Louisville will be lucky to win 10 games this season, and it feels reasonable for fans of that proud program to start asking big questions about the direction of things. If Payne can dramatically upgrade the roster in advance of next season, perhaps he’ll get this turned around. But the early returns, both on and off the court, are undeniably discouraging and have zapped all of the enthusiasm that existed on the day he was hired. — Gary Parrish
We’re not even three weeks in, so I’m actually mostly OK with all of my preseason prognostications. (That said, come find me in about two weeks and I guarantee you I’ll have some regrets.) But if there’s one where I think I’m already wrong and probably destined to stay wrong, it’s ranking Michigan State 32nd in my preseason Top 100 And 1 list of the best teams in college hoops. Sparty is 3-1 with a one-point neutral-ship loss to Gonzaga, a neutral-court win over Kentucky and a home-court win over a shorthanded Villanova team. I’ll get an up-close look this weekend at MSU as I’ll be on hand for the PK85 event in Portland, Oregon. Tom Izzo scheduled arguably the toughest non-con slate in the country this season, so more losses are on the way, but given the way A.J. Hoggard, Mady Sissoko and Tyson Walker have improved, it’s fair now to say MSU should be considered as viable a Big Ten contender as any other team in what could be the best conference (at least 1 thru 10) in the country. — Matt Norlander
Kentucky to the Final Four
I planted my flag on a lot of preseason takes that thus far have held up fairly well, I feel, but my preseason infatuation with Kentucky in which I predicted it would be a No. 1 seed and advance to the Final Four is the one I’m least confident in a few weeks into the season. Kentucky has the talent to eventually get to the first Monday in April, no doubt, and I darn sure ain’t ditching my prediction there because I still feel like UK has as much potential as any team in the sport. But Oscar Tshiebwe’s still working his way back from injury, the offense has at times looked stagnant and, in general, it seems John Calipari is still toying with how all his new pieces will fit. At 3-2 on the season, the start isn’t ideal, so maybe I’d like to have that prediction back. But the underlying metrics, Cal’s coaching and the talent he’s working with makes me think I still have a chance to come out looking like a genius on my preseason UK love in a few months. — Kyle Boone
UCLA as national champion
My pick for UCLA as national champion didn’t seem all that far-fetched when I submitted it considering the Bruins’ combination of returning and incoming talent. But after watching UCLA struggle to defend on the perimeter during an 0-2 run at the Main Event, it’s apparent I overlooked a glaring weakness in the makeup of this UCLA team. First, Illinois wing Terrence Shannon torched UCLA for 29 points on 8-of-9 shooting from 3-point range in the Illini’s 79-70 win over the Bruins. Then, LJ Cryer and Adam Flagler combined for 50 points on 8-of-16 shooting from 3-point range as Baylor beat UCLA 80-75.
Fourth-year UCLA coach Mick Cronin always has the Bruins playing their best late in the season, but this team’s defensive limitations on the perimeter could be too great a hurdle to overcome when it comes to the Bruins’ championship aspirations. Tyger Campbell, Amari Bailey, Jaylen Clark and Dylan Andrews are each on the slender side, and David Singleton is more of a 3-point specialist than a two-way player.
Even beyond the national title pick, if we recast our Pac-12 title ballots today, Arizona would likely jump the Bruins for first place. The Wildcats have been spectacular thus far, and it’s easy to see hanging 80 or more points on this UCLA team this season unless the Bruins show dramatic defensive improvement. — David Cobb