<
>

A look back at November's best and worst

By now, you know the drill. November nonconference results and early-season tournaments are a lot of fun to watch, but thankfully, they won’t make or break your favorite team’s season. They do, however, give us a preview of what we can expect to see as the season unfolds. They’re like movie trailers: You want to save your final judgment until you actually see the film. Too many bad movies have great trailers, and too many good basketball teams have bad Novembers (and vice versa). Just because you nodded at the preview doesn’t mean you’ve seen the movie.

Still, what moviegoer doesn’t like to turn to his buddy in the seats and say something like, “Yep, I’m seeing that”? No different in November basketball. So, in the spirit of trailer-approving tradition, let’s look appoint some superlatives from the 2010-11 season’s first three weeks.

Biggest surprise (team): Connecticut -- Before the season started, the Huskies not only looked like a mediocre team. For the first time in, oh, 15 years, the Huskies looked maybe even like a program in decline. Last season's massively disappointing NIT finish came at the same time as UConn’s coaching staff faced an NCAA investigation into recruiting infractions related to the recruitment of Nate Miles by former team manager Josh Nochimson. Throw in legendary coach Jim Calhoun’s advancing age and recurring health problems, and it wasn’t hard to imagine the glory days at UConn ending sooner rather than later.

That may still be true. Connecticut will no doubt struggle to transition when Calhoun eventually decides to call it quits. But the current Huskies are pushing those questions to the background. That’s because Calhoun has another star in Kemba Walker, and as November performances go, a thoroughly impressive team. Led by Walker’s insane 30 ppg average and a surprising interior presence from sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi, UConn stormed through the Maui Invitational, upsetting No. 2 Michigan State and No. 9 Kentucky in the process. The Huskies might be due for a bit of a comedown -- Walker can’t possibly average 30 points per game this season -- and UConn was tested against New Hampshire Tuesday night. But no team did more in November to exceed their previously mundane expectations.

Also receiving votes: Minnesota (for giving us not one surprise but two), Tennessee, Notre Dame

Biggest disappointment (team): Butler -- This is why November results require a delicate balance of judgment and perspective. For example, last year’s Butler wasn’t exactly at its best in the nonconference schedule either. In 2009, the eventual NCAA tournament runners-up lost to Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown and UAB, and they barely scraped by UCLA and Evansville.

But there’s a major difference between that nonconference résumé and the one the 2010 Bulldogs have already put together. Butler opened the season with a thrashing at the hands of what many expect to be a mediocre Louisville team, and Brad Stevens’ team lost to the Evansville Purple Aces at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse. It’s far too early to close the books on the Bulldogs just yet -- after all, Ronald Nored is still battling back from injury, and this is still a talented team from top to bottom -- but for a squad that returned so much personnel from a near-NCAA title-winning season, this has been a thoroughly disappointing start.

Also receiving votes: North Carolina, Temple, Wisconsin, Gonzaga

Biggest revelation (player): Kemba Walker, Connecticut -- No one man should have all this power. Walker’s brilliance was detailed alongside UConn above, but it’s worth taking stock of just how good he’s been thus far. In his six games, Walker has posted scoring efforts of 18, 42, 31, 30, 29 and 30 points. As detailed in this post by Jeremy Lundblad, he's the only power-6 conference player of the last 15 years to enter December averaging 30-plus points a game.

He hasn’t needed an inefficient number of shots to do so, either. Walker is shooting 52.7 percent from the field and 40.6 percent from beyond the arc. (He’s also been contributing defensively too, averaging 2.2 steals per game.) In the course of one offseason, the UConn point guard has morphed from a quick playmaker with little offensive authority to an all-court threat capable of scoring from anywhere on the hardwood. He’s been unstoppable, and he’s done it against some of the best guard competition (Michigan State, Kentucky) the country has to offer. Much like his team, it wouldn’t be shocking if Walker came back down to Earth in the next few weeks -- one-man efforts are tough to sustain at this rate, and he’s going to need help to keep defenses honest -- but if the season ended on Dec. 1, Walker would be your consensus national player of the year. Who could have seen that coming?

Also receiving votes: Adrian Oliver (San Jose State), Tu Holloway (Xavier), Trevor Mbakwe (Minnesota), Terrence Jennings (Louisville)

Most underrated team: Arizona -- The Wildcats are beginning to get some buzz, but there are signs that buzz needs to get much, much louder. This is forgivable; after all, though Arizona did play neck-and-neck with Kansas for nearly 40 minutes, it’s still looking for its first marquee win of the season. Still, Zona hasn’t tinkered around with inferior opponents: It has, in its five nonconference wins, utterly destroyed them, thanks in large part to the ongoing brilliance of Derrick Williams (more on him in minute) and the No. 5-most efficient offense in the country according to KenPom.com.

The Wildcats are the No. 7 overall team in Pomeroy’s rankings, by far the highest of any team not ranked in the top 25 thus far this season. Arizona received only six top 25 votes in last week’s poll, probably because most voters don’t dig into the tempo-free stats. If they did, they’d see a dangerous-looking team with one of the most potent offenses in college hoops. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Others receiving votes: UNLV, San Diego State, Vanderbilt, Richmond

Most underrated player: Derrick Williams, Arizona -- Most underrated player on the most underrated team? Makes sense, doesn’t it? Williams, much like his team, is starting to earn some of the plaudits he deserves, but he’s been even better than most people realize. For starters, Williams is averaging 21 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Go deeper and you’ll discover that he is only playing 24.5 minutes per game this season; those counting stats could be significantly higher with more playing time.

Throw in some more advanced metrics, and you begin to get a clearer picture of the excellence at work. Williams’ offensive rating of 145.7 is No. 20 in the nation. His offensive rebounding percentage, 18.7, ranks him No. 12 in the country at grabbing his team’s misses. Williams doesn’t miss many shots (70.1 effective field goal percentage), gets to the line often (80.6 percent free throw rate), and makes 10 percent more free throws (78 percent) than he did last year (when he shot around 68 percent). Oh, and there’s this: According to John Hollinger’s PER metric, Williams (with a 45.63 PER) is the best -- yes, the best -- player in college basketball this season. All this from a guy most people outside the Pac-10 probably couldn’t name. Yeah, I’d say he’s underrated.

Others receiving votes: Kevin Anderson (Richmond), Ravern Johnson (Mississippi State), Tyshawn Taylor (Kansas), Mathis Monninghoff (Gonzaga)

Best freshman: Terrence Jones, Kentucky -- When you beat Duke’s Kyrie Irving (who has seamlessly replaced and remade the Blue Devils’ point guard spot) and Jared Sullinger (whose interior offensive efficiency might win Ohio State a national title this year) you know you’re doing something right. Jones is. The Kentucky freshman gets the nod over Irving, Sullinger and a handful of other frosh for not only excelling but doing so without the help of a team full of skilled veterans surrounding him. Jones is averaging 21.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game, and he can do it all: rebound, penetrate, finish at the rim, score from the perimeter, defend in the post. It’s entirely possible Jones is like Lamar Odom, only slightly more athletic. Yes, that’s exactly as scary as it sounds.

Others receiving votes: Kyrie Irving (Duke), Jared Sullinger (Ohio State), Tobias Harris (Tennessee), Tristan Thompson (Texas)

Favorite game to watch: Georgetown 111, Missouri 102 (OT) -- We’ve seen a few close games this season, but none have featured two teams this good, or been as full of twists and turns, as Georgetown’s win Tuesday night. The Hoyas built a big lead early, saw it dwindle as Missouri made its run, looked dead in the water with less than a minute to play, tied the game on a Chris Wright 3, went into overtime, and pulled away from Missouri again. It was technically in Kansas City but should count as a big road win for Georgetown, a heartbreaking loss for Missouri, and an incredibly entertaining affair for everyone else.

Best moment: Chris Wright's last-second 3 -- The best moment of the season came in its best game. With 10 seconds left in regulation Tuesday, and Georgetown trailing by three, forward Hollis Thompson launched a 3 that caromed off the rim. In the ensuing scuffle, Missouri guard Kim English made a cardinal mistake. Instead of letting the ball fall out of bounds, English threw it back at the court, where it eventually landed in the undeterred hands of Georgetown guard Chris Wright. With the seconds ticking away, Wright took his wide-open 3 and cashed it, forcing the most unlikely of overtimes and sending his team to an OT win in hostile territory. It was as thrilling as buzzer-beaters get -- as thrilling as we’ll see all season -- and we didn’t even have to wait until March.

Strangest result/score: We’re going to go all the way down to Division III for this one, where Skidmore defeated Southern Vermont 128-123 in seven -- yes, seven -- overtimes on Nov. 23. It was the longest game in Division III history and tied for the longest in NCAA men’s basketball history. And that’s not even the best stat from the game. Get this: The number of missed field goal attempts (145) just barely exceeded total attendance (142) for that game. Not a bad night to check out Division III hoops, huh?