by John Fanta
NEW YORK- With two weeks in the books in the 2019-20 college basketball season, it’s a time time for overreactions and hot takes. We’ll try to be measured in our approach, with some observations and thoughts from the first two weeks, while setting the table for critical exempt event games.
Seton Hall’s Playing As Advertised: Even after a 1-1 week, the Big East preseason favorite only dropped one spot to No. 13 in Monday’s AP Top 25. That’s because, even in a narrow 76-73 loss to No. 3 Michigan State on Thursday, the Pirates validated their Top-15 status and showed that they deserve a seat at the ‘big boy table’ in college basketball. The Hall entered Sunday in a prime spot for a letdown. Coming off the hard-fought heartbreaker to Michigan State, the Pirates visited an unbeaten Saint Louis team that fed off forcing turnovers, an achilles heel for SHU. The Pirates opened the game with a bang, going on a 10-0 run and never looking back in an 83-66 win. Rather than have a letdown, or even be in a tight game, The Hall left no doubt and looked the part of a Top-15 team. The biggest reason for that? Big East Player of the Week Myles Powell averaged 31.5 points over the two games, and as Billikens head coach Travis Ford said, “there might be somebody just as good but there’s not anybody better” than the Trenton native. If Powell gets just an average amount of assistance from the core around, Seton Hall becomes that much more of a nightmare for opponents. On Sunday, junior forward Sandro Mamukelashvili delivered 17 points and seven rebounds. That was more than enough.
Bryan Antoine Medically Cleared for Villanova: The 15th-ranked prospect in the ESPN 100 recruiting rankings has been cleared to play for the Wildcats after recovering from shoulder surgery, Jay Wright announced on Monday. While it’s expected that Antoine won’t make a major impact right from the getgo due to what comes with learning Jay Wright’s system, this can only benefit the Wildcats. The plan was for Antoine to come in and spearhead the backcourt with junior captain Collin Gillespie. Without the top-tier freshman, the Cats are out to a 2-1 start but were blown away by Ohio State 76-51 last week. One thing Wright may have to contemplate is the flashes Antoine can provide offensively, but whether he can be consistent for Villanova defensively on a team that Wright thinks has a long way to go in that department. Last Wednesday, the Cats allowed Ohio State to shoot 30-for-50. The fact is, Gillespie having to carry the load and be expected to do some scoring for the Wildcats is a large load, and Villanova’s ceiling could become much more of a known without Antoine in the fold. This week provides more measuring stick games for the Cats, who head to the Myrtle Beach Invitational. They open action in the tournament Thursday against Middle Tennessee State before facing Mississippi State (Kenpom: 57) potentially. The 17th-ranked Wildcats could face No. 24 Baylor in the championship game of the event.
Will Georgetown Find Its Way? The Hoyas, who were projected to turn a corner in Patrick Ewing’s third season and potentially make their first NCAA Tournament since 2015, are off to a bit of a rocky start. After an 81-66 loss to Penn State that saw the Hoyas’ defense continue the struggles of 2018-19, all while turning it over 21 times, there was a sense of concern entering Sunday’s game against a Georgia State team that lost to Duke by just 11. The Hoyas overcame a six-point halftime deficit to win 91-83, but the defensive question marks continued. Two positives? Mac McClung broke out of a cold spell with a season-high 25 points, while his sophomore classmate Josh LeBlanc broke out with 12 second-half points.
“He’s the energizer bunny for us,” said Ewing of LeBlanc, who broke out after being held out of the season opener and scoring in single-digits in the ensuing two games.
“That’s my favorite thing, doing the little things,” said LeBlanc. I know a lot of people pride themselves on scoring, or being able to put the ball in the bucket. But I pride myself on being able to pick up others. And, letting my energy feed off the others, so that everybody can be great together.”
While LeBlanc provides Georgetown with a much-needed toughness, the road gets tough this week, and it comes at Madison Square Garden. The Hoyas are in the 2K Classic against #22 Texas on Thursday, and either #1 Duke or California on Friday. As for the first game, the Longhorns are off to a 4-0 start, including a gutsy win over Purdue. The matchup with Texas is a big test for Hoyas sophomore point guard James Akinjo, who meets Longhorns junior Matt Coleman (14.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.3 APG). While the Hoyas’ defensive struggles may be too much to correct at the moment, what must improve is perimeter shooting. Georgetown is currently ninth in the Big East at a 31 percent clip from deep. It will also be interesting to see if Ewing cuts down the rotation at all, as he’s played 11 thus far for the Hoyas.
Xavier is 4-0. And that’s all that matters: Pretty or not, the 18th-ranked Musketeers are off to an unbeaten start and coming off a week that saw an overtime win over Missouri followed by a win that appears better than it might look to the common fan, over MVC favorite Missouri State. While Xavier is averaging just 69.8 points per game, the lowest total in the Big East, the Musketeers have only allowed 58.5 points per contest. This is a carry-over from last year’s performance, as Travis Steele’s team had a Top-25 defense in the final 11 games of the 2018-19 campaign. The concern? The Musketeers are ice cold from the perimeter, with leading scorers Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs shooting just a combined 7-for-38 from three-point land.
This week, Xavier heads to the Charleston Classic, where they could meet future Big East returnee UConn in the second round. The Musketeers could see a Florida team that’s coming off a tough loss to the Huskies in the final.
DePaul’s Strong Start, Behind an NBA Prospect: That’s right. The Blue Demons are 5-0 for the first time since 1986, back when Top Gun was the top movie, The Oprah Show was debuting and the Bears were Super Bowl champions. Good memories for Chicago natives, and while the Blue Demons have only had one major challenge, they handled it with flying colors in a 93-78 rout over Iowa. The biggest problem DePaul can cause for teams is clear – Paul Reed is a handful. The reigning Big East Most Improved Player of the Year had 25 and 12 against the Hawkeyes. With the 6-foot-10 junior drawing attention, that only opens things up for star freshman wing Romeo Weems, who won Big East Freshman of the Week. Michigan’s Mr. Basketball has not disappointed out of New Haven High School, having averaged 9.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.5 blocked shots thus far.
The Blue Demons take their unbeaten record into Conte Forum for a match-up with Boston College on Saturday at high noon ET. The Eagles are coming off a 15-point loss to Belmont, so the door is open for DePaul to make it 6-0. Blue Demons’ upcoming schedule:
Saturday – @ Boston College
Nov. 26 – Central Michigan
Nov. 29 – @ Minnesota
Dec. 4 – No. 12 Texas Tech
Dec. 8 – Buffalo
Follow John Fanta for the latest on college basketball at @John_Fanta on Twitter as well as @NCAAHoopsDigest all season long.