Feast Week Monday opened with blowouts that ranged from mildly surprising (Dayton over Georgia) to expected (Kansas over Chaminade), but most of all, the action tipped off with one sizable and potentially important upset: Virginia Tech took down No. 3-ranked Michigan State.
Three things from Monday
Scoring scarce, but opponent 3s have been plentiful for Spartans
Just 20 days ago, Michigan State took the court in the Champions Classic against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden as the No. 1 team in the country. Now, after a masterful 71-66 upset win by Virginia Tech in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, the Spartans are 3-2. If not for a close win at Seton Hall, Tom Izzo’s team would be under .500.
It’s a safe bet that AP voters had no idea the Spartans would struggle as much as they have on offense early in the season. Discounting blowout wins against Binghamton and Charleston Southern, MSU has played 210 possessions against quality opponents: UK, the Pirates and the Hokies. Izzo’s offense has managed to score just 204 points in that span.
Give full credit to Landers Nolley II and to new Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young. The Hokies were the better team at the Lahaina Civic Center, and Nolley in particular was outstanding. The redshirt freshman lit up the Spartan D to the tune of 22 points, thanks to four 3s and perfect 8-of-8 shooting at the line. With a neutral-floor win over Michigan State and an ACC road victory at Clemson now in their pockets, Nolley and Young have put together a profile that has ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi rapidly revising his preseason estimates for Virginia Tech.
As for MSU, seeing Nolley and his teammates drain 10 shots from beyond the arc in a relatively slow-paced (64-possession) contest is getting to be a regular thing. In fact, Seton Hall and the Hokies combined to make 21 treys on 43% shooting against the Spartans. Opponents are likely to cool off from the perimeter eventually, but even when that happens, Izzo will have work to do with this team.
Specifically, Michigan State’s scoring has been a far cry from what we saw from this offense last season, and the individual opportunities for improvement in this rotation are numerous. Cassius Winston is converting just 43% of his 2-point attempts this season (and shooting 31% on 2-point jumpers), Xavier Tillman committed five turnovers against Virginia Tech, and Rocket Watts is 11-of-42 from the floor thus far.
No one’s foolhardy enough to write off Michigan State before Thanksgiving, naturally, but what can be said is that a March run by this team, when it comes, will feature an MSU offense that looks much better than it did in November.
Dayton’s Obi Toppin scores 12 early points in the first half of the Flyers’ game against Georgia.
Obi Toppin is blowing up before our eyes
When a returning sophomore has a conference rookie of the year award to his credit, it’s hardly a risky forecast to say that player could have a breakout sophomore season. Still, even with what we knew coming into this season, you have to be tremendously impressed by what Dayton‘s Obi Toppin has shown us in his first four games.
In the Flyers’ 80-61 win over Georgia in the Maui quarterfinals, the 6-foot-9 sophomore required just 27 minutes and 11 shots to score 25 points. For the season, Toppin is averaging exactly eight made 2s per contest, thanks to 78% shooting inside the arc.
For comparison’s sake, Zion Williamson finished last season averaging 8.2 makes per game from 2-point land while connecting on 75% of those attempts. Not that we can make direct comparisons in November, of course: Toppin has yet to face a tough defense, and he has played just 117 minutes so far this season.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t underrate what we’ve seen from the sophomore. Toppin is giving Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji a run for his money for the title of most impressive interior scorer for 2019-20.
Down 61-59, Mason Jones hits a step-back 3-pointer, and Arkansas tops Georgia Tech 62-61 in overtime.
Mason Jones is clutch
With Arkansas trailing Georgia Tech 61-59 in Atlanta in the final seconds of overtime, Mason Jones banked in a 3 from deep NBA range with just 0.1 remaining on the clock. The shot constituted all of the points the Razorbacks scored in the extra session (and, for their part, the Yellow Jackets managed just two), but it was sufficient to keep Eric Musselman’s team undefeated at 6-0.
That “undefeated” label could stick with the Hogs for a while. Musselman’s men will host Northern Kentucky and Austin Peay in Fayetteville before playing a road game at Western Kentucky. You then have to read all the way down to a road test at Indiana just before the new year to find a truly daunting challenge on the Arkansas schedule.
If it plays out that way and the Razorbacks are sporting an impressive “0” in the loss column next month, remember to credit Jones and his amazing shot against the Ramblin’ Wreck.
Three things for Tuesday
Dayton vs. Virginia Tech is the game you didn’t know you’d be this excited to see
To reference elements of the “From Monday” portion of this piece, Landers Nolley II and Obi Toppin were both outstanding in Maui in the quarterfinals. Seeing them face off against each other in the semis promises to be a must-see event.
In addition to Toppin, Jalen Crutcher was a top performer for the Flyers against Georgia, scoring 20 points powered by 4-of-9 shooting beyond the arc. Toppin and Crutcher are leading what has become a multiseason resurgence in Dayton. UD was a sub-.500 team in Anthony Grant’s first campaign in 2017-18, but the program improved markedly last season. Now the Flyers are looking to push VCU for supremacy in the Atlantic 10 in 2020.
As for Virginia Tech, what a whirlwind eight months it has been in Blacksburg. In March, Buzz Williams’ Hokies took top-seeded Duke to the 40th minute of a Sweet 16 game thanks to stellar offensive rebounding by Kerry Blackshear. Then Virginia Tech lost the game 75-73, Williams left to take the job at Texas A&M, and Blackshear transferred to Florida. Recovering from all of the above was supposed to take time, but Mike Young appears to have accelerated the timetable.
A Butler win could mean a spot in the top 25
On Monday, Butler advanced to the finals of the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City with a 63-52 win over Missouri. The Bulldogs entered the contest perched just outside the AP top 25, and a win Tuesday in the finals against Stanford could be the push LaVall Jordan’s men require to land in the rankings for the first time since 2017.
This marks the third consecutive season in which Kamar Baldwin is functioning as a featured scorer within this offense, and as a senior he’s carrying a heavier workload than ever. Still, Baldwin has help: Bryce Nze has continued the efficient interior scoring he displayed over the course of two seasons at Milwaukee, and though Sean McDermott averages a modest two made 3s a game, he’s shooting 52% on those attempts. A win against the Cardinal (which looked magnificent thrashing Oklahoma 73-54) could result in the AP pollsters affirming what laptops already suspect: Butler is really tough.
An unranked (and possibly undefeated) team is about to come out of Cancun with some buzz
The Cancun Challenge bracket pits Wichita State against South Carolina and Northern Iowa against West Virginia in action starting Tuesday. These four enter the event showing a combined record of 19-1, with WSU, the Panthers and the Mountaineers all being undefeated.
Of the 19 victories recorded by the field, the most impressive of the bunch is perhaps the 15-point win West Virginia posted in a true road game at Pitt. Bob Huggins’ team missed the NCAA tournament in March for the first time since 2014, but the Mountaineers have shown signs of improvement in their first four games. Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe form the backbone of what could be an excellent interior defense, and Jermaine Haley has given hints that his 28-point eruption against Iowa State late last season might have been a sign of things to come.
Then again, perhaps it will be Wichita State’s shot volume (the Shockers take excellent care of the ball), Northern Iowa’s shooting (Austin Phyfe is hitting 70% of his 2s) or South Carolina’s second chances (Frank Martin’s men really crash the offensive glass) that prove unstoppable in Cancun. Whichever team emerges victorious, it appears likely that the group in question will be sporting an impressive record and receiving newfound and deserved attention.