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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | December 8, 2021

5 of the biggest surprises through the first month of the men's basketball season

Andy Katz's biggest surprises in men's college basketball

Thursday, Dec. 9 marks the one-month anniversary of the 2021-22 men's basketball season and with a first-time No. 1 team in the AP poll (Purdue), preseason No. 1 Gonzaga suffering multiple losses already and schools such as Wyoming and Wagner debuting in the top 25 of the NET rankings, there's lots to discuss about the first month of the season.

Here are five of the biggest surprises so far this season.

The stats used in this piece are current through the games played on Dec. 5.

Purdue sent a first-team All-Big Ten performer to the bench ... and now it might be the nation's best team

Let's be clear, Purdue senior forward Trevion Williams, who made the five-man All-Big Ten first team a season ago, is clearly no slouch.

No, far from it. As of Dec. 6, he ranks ninth in kenpom.com's national player of the year standings. Here's the catch, though. Zach Edey, Purdue's 7-foot-4 super sophomore who made the All-Big Ten freshman team last season and the player who took over Williams' spot in the starting lineup this season, ranks fifth in those same national player of the year standings.

Williams started 26 of Purdue's 28 games as a junior, while averaging roughly 25 minutes per game. This season, his minutes-per-game average has dropped by six and he has come off the bench in each of Purdue's first eight games, yet the Boilermakers are rolling.

Williams' minutes-per-game average is slightly more than Edey's – 19.3 to 18.5 – but combined, that's 37.8 minutes, which means Purdue is almost guaranteed to have one of the two players on the floor at all times.

The Boilermakers' average margin of victory this season is nearly 26 points, so the only times when neither Edey nor Williams is on the floor is essentially the final minutes of a 20- or 30- or 40-point blowout.

On Monday, after an 8-0 start to the season, they reached No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time in program history, while also debuting at No. 1 in the first NET rankings of the season.

So, while the season is roughly a month old, multiple metrics or polls say Purdue is the No. 1 team in the country — after they sent an all-conference performer who received honorable mention All-American honors from the AP to the bench.

Despite returning almost its entire rotation from last season — Purdue ranks 23rd nationally with a minutes continuity percentage of 74.5 percent, per kenpom.com — the Boilermakers' effective field goal percentage has climbed 11.2 percentage points, from 51 percent to 62.2 percent, which leads the country. They boast the most efficient offense in the nation after ranking 26th last season with essentially the same group of players.

There are year-to-year shooting improvements across the board. The following table shows Purdue's top 10 players in terms of minutes per game and how their shooting splits compare to last season. The yearly averages are weighted by the number of attempts per player, while the average change is the average of each player's individual change and it's not weighted by attempts.

Improvements are listed in bold font, while declines are listed in red font. Scroll to the right to view the complete table.

player Year '21 2P% '22 2P% Change '21 3P% '22 3P% change
jaden ivey So. .508 .604 +.096 .258 .400 +.142
sasha stefanovic Sr. .472 .357 -.115 .400 .460 +.060
caleb furst Fr. N/A .692 ––– N/A .455 –––
eric hunter Sr. .442 .500 +.058 .272 .250 -.022
isaiah thompson Jr. .444 .500 +.056 .397 .609 +.212
trevion williams Sr. .529 .597 +.068 .000 .500 +.500
zach edey So. .597 .723 +.126 ––– ––– –––
mason gillis So. .600 .750 +.150 .352 .500 +.148
brandon newman So. .419 .364 +.055 .379 .405 +.026
ethan morton So. .167 .364 +.197 .286 .500 +.214
AVERAGE (Yearly averages
weighted by attempts)
  .513 .602 +.077 .340 .444 +.160

On average, the nine returning players from last season — ignoring freshman Caleb Furst — are shooting an average of 7.7 percentage points better from 2-point range this season compared to last. Through eight games, Williams, the reigning Big Ten first-teamer is shooting the same 2-point percentage Edey did last season. That's a 6-foot-10, borderline All-American from a year ago who's now shooting as well as someone who's six inches taller.

Meanwhile, Edey is making almost three out of every four shots he takes.

From behind the arc, the eight returning players who attempted 3-pointers last season (ignoring Edey) are shooting an average of 16 percent better from 3-point range this season. Even if you ignore Williams, who has made one fewer 3-pointer (two) than his number of total 3-point attempts last season (three), the other seven players have an average improvement of 11.1 percent on their 3-point shots.

Through its first eight games, the 2021-22 version of Purdue is what every good, but not great, team that returns most of its core hopes to turn into — one of the nation's elite. The Boilermakers started the season ranked No. 7 in the preseason AP poll, so clearly lots of voters thought Purdue would be quite good. But the almost unanimous across-the-board improvement from virtually all of its rotation players, all while playing its leading scorer and rebounder from last season significantly less is surprising.

Without adding a highly talented freshman or two, or a transfer or two who can fill a specific role, it might be easier said than done to take a team that finished fourth in its conference, earned a No. 4 seed and returned the same players, put that team in the metaphorical microwave for eight months and then, voila, open the door to find a bonafide national championship contender.

But that's what Purdue has done.

USC lost the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft, yet its profile is very similar

Last season, USC freshman Evan Mobley swept the Pac-12's Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year awards, en route to being selected No. 3 overall in the 2021 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers, for whom he's now averaging 14.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.9 blocks per game, through Dec. 5.

Mobley led USC to the Elite Eight, producing coach Andy Enfield's best team, based on its final kenpom.com ranking, by more than 40 spots nationally. (The Trojans finished last season ranked No. 6, besting Enfield's previous best at USC of No. 49 in 2016.)

Well, USC still has a Mobley on its roster — Evan's older brother, Isaiah, who was critical in the Elite Eight run — and the Trojans are statistically a shadow of last season's team. Through their 8-0 start (they started 6-2 last season, for whatever it's worth), the Trojans are 20th in offensive efficiency and 10th in defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, which is just behind last season's rankings of No. 14 and No. 6, respectively. They sit at No. 11 overall, not too far behind last season's final ranking of No. 6.

They debuted at No. 7 in the NET rankings and they're No. 16 in the latest AP poll. Their effective field goal percentage is slightly higher so far this season, 53.6 to 52.7 percent, and just like last season, they rank seventh nationally in defensive effective field goal percentage. However, this year's defense has been stingier against opposing shooters, with a 40.5 effective field goal percentage allowed compared to 44.9 percent.

From a 10,000-foot view, USC is still a team that is shy when it comes to taking threes, it's solid on the offensive glass and in its shooting inside the arc, and poor at free throw shooting and forcing turnovers defensively.

But despite losing one of the top picks in the most recent NBA draft, USC has benefited from the addition of Memphis transfer Boogie Ellis (a team-high 14 points per game on 61-percent 2-point shooting and 40-percent 3-point shooting) and the senior-year breakout of Chevez Goodwin, who's averaging roughly seven more points and 3.5 more rebounds per game from last season at 12.4 points and 7.1 boards per night.

The more valuable of the two Mobleys who played for USC last season is now in the pros, yet the results are remarkably similar.

MORE: Instant reactions to the first NET rankings of the season

Rutgers, which was .500 in the Big Ten in 2021, is now .500 overall

In October, I wrote that Rutgers was among the teams that were in the best position to pick up where they left off last season. Note that the previous sentence was relative to each team listed, so a Rutgers squad that returned 61 percent of its minutes from a 2021 squad that went .500 in a rigorous Big Ten, made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991 and won its first tournament game since '83 seemed like it could produce a team of a similar quality this season.

Despite returning five players who started games last season, including the team's top two players in minutes per game — Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker — Rutgers is 4-4 through eight games, with losses to DePaul (No. 94 in the first NET rankings), Lafayette (No. 308), UMass (No. 125) and Illinois (No. 48), with the loss to Illinois coming by 35 points. The Scarlet Knights also needed overtime to escape Lehigh (No. 326) at home in its season-opener.

With Rutgers' second Big Ten game coming against No. 1 Purdue, followed by a non-conference game at No. 23 Seton Hall, the Scarlet Knights could be treading water near .500 for much of the winter.

Rutgers, which had been down for so long, broke through in the 2020 season, when it went 20-11 and posted a winning record in Big Ten play, then finally cashed in on an NCAA tournament berth in 2021. But now, the Scarlet Knights' once-stingy defense (No. 6 in defensive efficiency in 2020 and No. 16 last season) ranks No. 62 — the second-worst of coach Steve Pikiell's tenure — and its offense barely cracks the top 150.

This was a team with enough returning rotation players to challenge for its first back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances since the 1975 and '76 seasons, but woeful shooting has left the Scarlet Knights potentially staring at a season in which it finishes among the bottom four or five teams in the Big Ten.

Bob Donnan | USA Today Sports Images North Carolina is third nationally in 3-point percentage, as of Dec. 6.

Behold, a North Carolina offense built around playing fast, yes, but 3-point shooting and not offensive rebounding

In the opening stanza of the Hubert Davis era at North Carolina, the Tar Heels' offense ranks No. 9 nationally in offensive efficiency and No. 47 in tempo, according to kenpom.com. Under the previous coach, the Hall of Famer Roy Williams, North Carolina had a top-10 offense nine times in 18 years. It ranked in the top 20 in efficiency 12 times and in the top 25 in tempo in 11 of the last 12.

So in terms of speed and superior efficiency, the Tar Heels have continued big-picture qualities of Williams' tenure. However, Williams was known for playing two traditional big men together, which is why you could annually pencil in the Tar Heels to rank among the top 20, or 10, or even three, teams in the country in terms of offensive rebounding.

In the last decade, North Carolina was often a fairly unremarkable shooting team — even its two teams that played for the national championship in consecutive years — but with an offensive approach that featured the "Carolina Break" and an aggressive attack on the offensive glass, the Tar Heels could be deadly in transition and when they had second-chance scoring opportunities.

Now, under Davis, Carolina has abandoned the traditional big man duo in his lineups, thanks to a pair of transfers in Brady Manek (who previously played at Oklahoma) and Dawson Garcia (Marquette). While Garcia, 6-11, is a solid rebounder, he also averages two 3-point attempts per game, while Manek averages roughly five. Manek was in the same Oklahoma freshman class as Trae Young and he is of the more modern stretch-four mold of forward, and he's a major reason why North Carolina ranks third nationally with a 43-percent 3-point percentage.

Williams' 2005 national championship team shot 40.3 percent from deep but since the 2010 season, only two North Carolina teams shot 36 percent from three or better. The last two shot 31.8 and 30.4 percent, respectively, meaning North Carolina's year-to-year improvement in the offseason has been astronomical.

While compared to the national average, North Carolina is still relatively gun-shy on shooting threes — it ranks 260th nationally in 3-point attempt percent, per kenpom.com — that's still a noticeable increase from many seasons under the previous regime. At North Carolina's most 2-point inclined under Williams, only 21 or 22 percent of the team's shots were threes, and now more than a third are.

North Carolina ranks among the 25 to 30 best teams in the country, depending on which ratings system or poll you ask, and the Tar Heels' offense is uber-efficient, like usual, but the way in which they're getting their points looks very different under their first-year head coach Davis.

Iowa lost national player of the year Luka Garza, yet its projected record is the same this year

That's because Iowa sophomore forward Keegan Murray is in the midst of a potentially all-time great sophomore-year breakout, at least in the modern era of the sport. After all, freshman used to have to redshirt in the days when UCLA challenged for an undefeated season and a national championship on an annual basis.

Murray is averaging 24.6 points (7.2 last season), 8.9 rebounds (5.1), 2.3 blocks (1.3) and 1.6 assists per game (0.5), while shooting 71.6 percent inside the arc and 34.5 percent from behind it. He ranks second on kenpom.com's national player of the year standings and he's essentially the reason why, according to kenpom.com, Iowa is projected to finish the regular season with a 22-9 record — the same exact record the Hawkeyes finished with last season after their second-round exit.

But this team is more than Keegan Murray and Keegan Murray alone. He was unable to play on the road against Purdue, which is now ranked No. 1 in the AP poll, and Iowa only fell by seven, while holding Purdue to a pedestrian-by-their-standards 77 points.

Three other players are averaging double figures in points per game, including coach Fran McCaffery's son Patrick and fifth-year senior Jordan Bohannon. Iowa's offensive efficiency ranks fifth nationally and literally no one takes better care of the ball on a percentage basis, per kenpom.com, so even though the Hawkeyes had two players draft — Garza and Joe Wieskamp — they've maintained a potentially top-25 level of play, although they're now in the midst of the toughest portion of their schedule.

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