College basketball has been running for three weeks at this point, but it didn't feel like the season really started until this past Wednesday. Wisconsin vs. Duke kicked off a week that presented perhaps the best possible case for why you should care about college hoops before March.
Last week had it all: wild upsets like NJIT over Michigan, buzzer-beaters like the one Yale hit to beat UConn and three amazing non-conference matchups that might have featured the six best teams in the country.
Getting to watch Kentucky vs. Texas, Gonzaga vs. Arizona and Wisconsin vs. Duke all in the span of four days is about as good as it gets. Six undefeated teams from six different parts of the country coming from six different conferences, with future NBA players all over the court in every game.
Here are 10 takeaways from the three biggest non-conference games of the season.
1. Duke actually defends this year
I thought this Duke team would be much better than last year's for one simple reason: the Blue Devils didn't play any defense a season ago. With Amile Jefferson forced to play center at 6'9, 210 pounds and Jabari Parker looking lost defensively for most of the season, Duke's lack of interior defense was an obvious warning sign they would be susceptible to an upset.
This year? It's a different story.
It starts in the middle. Jahlil Okafor might not be a great defender just yet, but his sheer size alone is a bigger deterrent at the rim than anything Duke could have come up with last season. No freshman center is going to immediately be able to grasp the nuances protecting the paint, but just putting a 280-pound dude with a 7'6 wingspan in front of the basket is going to cause college teams lots of problems.
After finishing No. 116 in defensive efficiency last season according to KenPom, Duke is at No. 17 right now.
It's not all Okafor, of course. Duke's perimeter defense has turned up the on ball pressure and the result has been felt at both ends of the court. Justice Winslow has lived up to his reputation on the recruiting trail as a great individual defender, and Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook have showcased a willingness to get right up in their man's shirt.
Through eight games, Duke is playing the passing lanes, running opponents off the three-point line and limiting free throws. It's hard to lose two NBA first rounders as talented as Parker and Rodney Hood and be even better the next season, but that's exactly what Coach K is doing right now.
2. Brandon Ashley is Arizona's trump card
Ashley said he would have entered the NBA last season if he didn't suffer a season-ending foot injury. While the injury put a huge dent in Arizona's title chances a year ago, it did open up another championship window for the Wildcats this season.
Ashley is really good. Having a 6'9, 235-pound power forward who can hit three-pointers is a game-changer for Arizona. Whether he's popping or rolling after setting a screen, the opposing defense has to account for him. When you factor in the threat of T.J. McConnell's pull-up jumper, the cutting ability of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and the potential weak side rotation to Stanley Johnson ... you can see why Arizona is one of the best teams in the country.
Ashely didn't make a three-pointer all year before hitting two (in two attempts) against Gonzaga. He also hit some long twos. Overall, he was just too strong and too skilled for Kyle Wiltjer. It's an advantage Arizona is going to have against most teams.
3. Gonzaga needs to get the ball to Przemek Karnowski more often
This is easy: when you have a 7'1, 290-pound center with an impossibly fast release and good passing instincts, you have to play through him. Gonzaga tried to force the ball inside against Arizona at times, but Karnowski still finished fifth on his own team in shot attempts.
Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski is one of the best matchups Karnowski will see this season in terms of size and strength, but Tarczewski still couldn't really slow him down. Karnowski went 5-of-7 from the floor, grabbed four offensive rebounds and generally left little doubt he can be one of the most dominant players in the country this season. The 'Zags just have to get him the ball.
4. Tyler Ulis is the key for Kentucky
On the biggest team in the country, 5'9 (and that might be generous) freshman point guard Tyler Ulis can't help but stick out. He is a midget in the land of giants. He's also arguably the most important player for Kentucky's national title hopes moving forward.
Kentucky is always going to have size. It's always going to have athleticism. It's always going to have insane interior defense. If someone eventually gets the Wildcats, it'll be because Kentucky's guards lack a certain amount of quickness and shot making. That's where Ulis can be a difference maker.
John Calipari broke apart his platoon briefly against Texas to give Ulis the keys to the car. The offense just moves so much faster with him in the game. Defensively, his ball pressure has been incredible. Andrew Harrison has been much better as a sophomore, but Ulis still might be UK's best crunch time option at point guard later this season.
5. Texas is a different team with Isaiah Taylor
Can we replay that Texas-Kentucky game again when Isaiah Taylor recovers from a broken wrist? Maybe in the Elite Eight?
There aren't many players in the country better at breaking down a defense than the Texas sophomore, and the Longhorns really could have used some of that penetration against Kentucky. With big men Jonathan Holmes, Connor Lammert and Myles Turner all more than capable of stepping outside to hit a shot, Taylor's presence allows Texas to invert the court and throw defenses off balance.
Taylor has to play under control and within himself when he comes back for Texas to be a national contender, but there's no denying it just isn't the same team with Javan Felix as Rick Barnes' most capable guard.
6. Arizona needs Stanley Johnson to start cooking
There's a reason the Arizona freshman was the No. 2 player in our preseason top 100. There's a reason everyone assumed he'd bolt to the NBA after this season and become a top five or top 10 pick. There's still plenty of time for all that, but at the moment it's pretty clear Johnson is still adjusting to the college game.
Johnson was supposed to be the Jabari Parker of this season: a massive wing player who could score all over the floor and would give his team a matchup nightmare every game. While Parker started out last season on fire, Johnson has taken more time. He's been good, but not great. For Arizona to compete with the likes of Kentucky, Duke and Wisconsin, Johnson needs to be dominant by March.
Parker was special because he knew how to get off a good look regardless of the situation. Johnson just isn't there quite yet. There were multiple instances against Gonzaga when he bullied his way into the paint but didn't know what to do when he got there. It resulted in a turnover twice during crunch time.
The nice thing for Johnson is that Arizona is so good defensively and has so many other weapons on offense that the team doesn't really need him to be a star just yet. If and when it does happen later this season, though, the Wildcats are going to be even tougher.
7. Tyus Jones is the best freshman point guard since John Wall
It's easy to compare Jones to Tyler Ennis at Syracuse last year, but I'm willing to go a step further: there hasn't been a freshman point guard this good since John Wall was at Kentucky.
With Derrick Rose at Memphis, Mike Conley at Ohio State and Wall at Kentucky, there was a run on dominant freshman point guards a few years back. It's been a little more quiet ever since, in part because Kyrie Irving got hurt for Duke, in part because you just can't expect every graduating high school class to have freak athletes like Rose and Wall.
Jones is far from a freak athlete, but the way he controls the game will remind you of another star point guard in the NBA: Chris Paul. That's not to say Jones will have a pro career as good as Paul's (how could he?), but the speed, shooting ability and advanced understanding of when to change gears gives the Duke freshman a similar impact on the college level.
Duke's freshman trio of Okafor, Winslow and Jones has received plenty of attention, but right now it seems warranted. All three should be future NBA starters.
8. The Badgers need Sam Dekker to finally break out
We've been talking about Sam Dekker taking another step forward for two seasons now. He was great in a complimentary role during Wisconsin's run to the Final Four last season, but he rarely looked dominant. After a 15-point game against Kentucky in the national semifinal, it seemed like Dekker could be unstoppable as a junior. A two-inch growth spurt over the summer to make him a 6'9 small forward didn't hurt, either.
A matchup against Justice Winslow was a great opportunity for Dekker to show his improvement, but his impact ended up being mostly neutralized. He only finished with five points and one assist on 2-of-5 shooting from the field.
It would be nice to see Wisconsin run the offense through Dekker more often. His playmaking ability is lauded by the broadcast crew every game, but he only has three games this season with multiple assists. No one is doubting Dekker's physical ability, but both he and his team might be aided by some additional aggressiveness.
9. Games are so much better at college campuses
I was at the Champions Classic in Indy and the atmosphere was still pretty great for a neutral location. After watching the gyms at Wisconsin, Arizona and Kentucky lose their minds over the last week, though, it feels safe to say nothing beats the energy on campus.
We'll get neutral court games in March. During the regular season, it's more fun when these games have a decided home court advantage.
10. Kentucky has a real shot at entering the tournament undefeated
The Louisville game (which is at Louisville) on Dec. 27 is going to be bonkers. Kentucky also has non-conference games left against UCLA and North Carolina, too. Still, it's difficult to look at the schedule and think Kentucky is ever going to be in jeopardy of losing should Calipari's kids get past that game vs. the archrival Cardinals.
The SEC had a strong showing in the NCAA Tournament last season, but the conference slate looks pretty manageable for Kentucky this season. Florida was a top 15 team to start the year but the Gators are already 3-4. Auburn and Texas A&M are a year away. LSU and Arkansas are going to be Kentucky's biggest competition, but those teams don't seem deep enough to handle what Calipari is going to throw at them.
Wichita State entered the tournament undefeated last season, so we know it's not impossible. If Kentucky defeats Louisville on the road, a spotless regular season record will really be on the table.