College basketball season has hummed along through its first three weeks, in the background of the NFL playoff chase, the NBA season’s wild beginning and the college football season rumbling toward conclusion. Many of the familiar names remain at the top of the AP Top 25 poll, with Duke leading the pack, followed by Kansas, Michigan State, Villanova and Notre Dame.
The Blue Devils were voted the unanimous number one team in the country by voters this week, thanks in large part to the play of some very talented freshmen, in particular, forward Marvin Bagley III. Through nine games, Bagley is averaging 22.3 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, leading Duke to a perfect 9-0 record. To better understand what makes Bagley and Duke so good, we caught up with legendary CBS Sports college basketball analyst Bill Raftery to get his thoughts. In addition, Bill broke down what he’s seen from the Indiana Hoosiers and Michigan Wolverines, the two teams he’ll cover this week when they meet in the first game of the year on CBS.
CBS Local Sports: About three weeks into the season, what has stood out to you so far?
Bill Raftery: How scary Duke can be. I know they’ve had a close call here or there, but when these kids get some more game action and the competition level picks up — the size they have, the speed, the quickness — they’re going to be scary. You can always find flaws. They may not be as good of a three-point-shooting team as they were in the past, but they certainly make up for that with the talent that they have up front.
Kansas too, every year they seem to have a star or two. Having Graham back, and if he gets Preston back, the kid who’s sitting out, they’re going to be a factor. He’s (Bill Self) limited in terms of bench strength and things of that nature, but they’re a solid program. Self obviously is an outstanding coach, and they’ve had their way in that conference for 13 straight years. With the addition of Newman to their backcourt, that’s another team that is scary.
CBS Local Sports: You mention Bagley, what allowed him to seemingly make the transition to college so smoothly prior to his injury?
Bill Raftery: It’s just amazing, obviously the talent, but the poise that he has for a guy that size. He’s young too, because he re-classified to get into this year’s class. He doesn’t hurry into things, he started to make some free throws now, he’s mobile. He can just be such a dominant force.
CBS Local Sports: Outside of Bagley, which players have stood out to you the most so far?
Bill Raftery: A lot of the teams that I’ve done games for, I’ve noticed some of their guys the most, obviously. Miles Bridges can just be an incredible force. They (Michigan State) also have Nick Ward on that team [who] had a big game recently.
Ethan Happ, from Wisconsin, is just a steadying influence on his team. He’s a kid who, sort of, plays old, and he really understands positioning and how to score. Jordan Murphy, at Minnesota, is another kid who had a huge game when I watched him. Bonzie Colson, at Notre Dame, I was very impressed with him. And then USC, I saw some of their practice and I loved Bennie Boatwright.
CBS Local Sports: You mentioned two guys there who are a bit of a rarity in college basketball these days in Ethan Happ and Bonzie Colson. Both have been with their programs for four years (Colson a senior, Happ a red-shirt junior). What have you seen from their development that has allowed them to grow into the players they are now?
Bill Raftery: What’s happened with them is that they’ve been around the program and competed at such a high level on a consistent basis that, you get to improve, because you’re generally competing against guys who are a little bigger or a little quicker than you. For Bonzie, most opponents are a little bigger, and Happ, most guys are a little quicker. You just learn how to play.
Bonzie’s been able to expand his game a little bit and get outside and do some damage from the perimeter now. He’s got a “big” game, and he’s exasperating around the rim as well.
Playing a couple of years, if you’ve got talent, it brings the best out of you. You sort of mature under the gun. You understand scouting reports and how important they are. They all add up to you getting better and having a little more understanding of what the coaches want and also what you can get away with.
I didn’t mention Purdue before, but I’m also a big Vince Edwards fan. He’s another kid who’s been there forever. When you say “forever” now, that’s a senior. That’s another kid who really has the goods and is mature.
CBS Local Sports: College basketball on CBS starts Saturday with Indiana taking on Michigan. [It’s the] first year for Archie Miller with the Hoosiers. What’s your impression early in his tenure with the Hoosiers?
Bill Raftery: If Archie wasn’t patient, he’s going to learn how to be patient. I saw them early in the year against Seton Hall, and then I saw them in that Indiana State game that they lost at home, and it was a real struggle for them. He has some talent, but the problem is, these older guys have to play well in order for these other guys to get to the point where they can. Devonte Green is a very talented kid who’s going to be a great contributor as the year goes on. But (Robert) Johnson and (Josh) Newkirk have to play well to help him. Same thing with (Aljami) Durham, who’s a really fine player.
They also started the year without Collin Hartman, who will, at least, step in down the road to make threes. Interestingly enough, the first shot he took when he came back the other night was a three. Those guys have to play well. Davis and Morgan up front have to play well to let the other guys grow. Justin Smith’s a nice-looking prospect also. He (Archie Miller) has really good young kids, but they have to play well every night, and we know that’s not going to happen, so the other guys really have to be steady for him.
CBS Local Sports: On the other side, you have Michigan, John Beilein always puts together solid teams in Ann Arbor. What’s stood out to you about this year’s team?
Bill Raftery: Well, you have to go with Mo, and I’m not talking about sporting goods. (Laughing) Moritz is a bigtime performer who looked at the draft but decided he wasn’t quite ready for it. Along with him, they have some guys who have played before, like Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. He’s a kid who is certainly going to help the cause here, because he’s a great driver, pretty good offensive rebounder, and he’s played a lot of big games. Duncan Robinson is another kid who looks like he’s mixing it up a little bit and not just settling for the three. They have some really outstanding kids. Then, you throw in Matthews, the kid from Kentucky, who’s had some real terrific games. He’s been a great addition to this team.
Just like Beilein’s teams every year, they’re going to get better as this year goes on. He’s playing a lot of kids right now. (Jaaron) Simmons and (Isaiah) Livers, two young kids, are going to get an opportunity to go and play, but they’re not going to be under the gun, because they have other people to help them. They’re going to get better. That’s one of those teams that is a tournament team, it’s just a matter of how much they improve over the course of the year.
CBS Local Sports: Where do these two teams stack up among the Big Ten contenders this season?
Bill Raftery: Michigan State, Purdue, and Minnesota are sort of the foundation this year for the conference, and then Michigan could be in that next tier somewhere. Indiana will be a little bit lower than that, because they just don’t — it’s a new system, it’s a new approach that’s different from what they’re accustomed to. Michigan has more defining pieces that are back too, which enables their younger guys to grow quicker.