There truly is no better place to watch college basketball than Madison Square Garden. The home to some of the most iconic moments in the sport's history and a place where I learned to love it. In third grade I got to play hooky and go to the Big East Tournament with my Dad. A tradition that still holds up 15 years later. It's pretty cool that now, at 25, I work just a few block from the arena. I will never miss an opportunity to catch a couple games at the Garden and last night was no exception. FAU, Illinois, UNC, and UConn gathered together for the Jimmy V classic. A great slate with 3/4 teams reaching the final four over the last two seasons. It’s always interesting to see how teams grow and identities are formed or changed through the course of season but these out of conference early season match ups can help tell us where teams stand going into the thick of the season. I tried to pick up on what could be some bigger themes for these teams going into 2024 March Madness. These are my takeaways from each team heading into conference play.
The Owls were one of the Cinderella stories last season making it to the Final Four as a 9 seed. I'm here to tell you they are no Cinderella. The mid-major school brought back Johnell Davis and Vlad Goldin who were their leaders on the floor last season. Most importantly, FAU was able to extend head coach Dusty May which is home run considering what we’ve seen from other mid-major schools after great tournament runs.
FAU plays fast, but not reckless. The best thing about them is their shot selection, which usually isn’t the case for faster paced teams. They move off the ball great partly due to 7'1 Goldin who demands attention on the post. The first good shot available is always taken with confidence. Goldin also creates a lot of second chance opportunities with his size and rebounding. A couple times last night they seemed dead but fought back hard each time and just couldn't get over the hump late in the second half. The Owls won't be flying under anyone's radar this year. It's always hard to get back to the Final Four but all the keys pieces are back and they have a smart experienced guard so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it. A game to look out for is when FAU takes on #1 ranked Arizona on December 23rd.
Going into last night I was the lowest on Illinois. Brad Underwood has underperformed in March the last couple seasons with early exits and talented rosters. If you can't get there with Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn I'm not super confident in the future. Illinois proved me wrong last night and it was a two man show. Marcus Domask and Terrance Shannon Jr each scored 30 points. I've seen close to 50 games at MSG and that has never happened. Marcus Domask poured in 25 in the second half and shot 15-21 on the night. The Southern Illinois transfer (shoutout Missouri Valley) has carved himself out a prominent role in the offense.
The Illini also like to play up tempo which helped this game finish 98-89 in regulation. When Domask got hot he was unguardable when everyone in the building knew it was going to him. This type of efficiency is unrealistic but have a guy with ability to go and get a bucket when needed is a huge plus for this Illini squad. In a Big Ten that’s relatively wide open in the middle I can see Illinois taking charge as one of the better teams. Honestly this team was the hardest to get a feel for since we did see a couple career highs. Going to be interesting to see if this team can build momentum after a huge win added to their resume.
Where to start with this team? UNC was leading by double digits in the second half the National Championship two years ago. After losing that game they were pre-season #1 and failed to make the tournament last season. This year, ranked again, I think the AP poll may be too bullish on this Tar Heel squad. Out of all four teams they are the one that desperately needs to find their identity. Their team is centered around Armando Bacot who is a half-court, set up the offense, throw it to the block type player--yet the UNC offense is high paced with a defense that sporadically presses. Given Bacot's conditioning, the style of play is confusing to say the least. He was clearly running out of steam down the stretch and it allowed UConn to pull away. Bacot had 13 points and 12 rebounds but had no meaningful impact throughout 90% of the game.
RJ Davis has confidently taken the role that opened with Caleb Love's departure. A high volume guy who is going to get shots and points in bunches. The offense runs through him and without him stoking the fire the scoring flames out. For UNC to be able to make any sort of deep run this year it will come down to RJ Davis being incredibly efficient. He certainly has the ability to do so but that a lot to ask out of the senior. Another test for the Tar Heels awaits on December 16th as they take on the Kentucky Wildcats. It could have been a bad game from Hubert Davis' squad, but I don't love what I saw.
The best team of the night by far. You may be thinking, of course they're the defending champs, but this team looks totally different than last March. Jordan Hawkins and Adama Sanogo were the heartbeat of the Championship team and they are off to the NBA. However, the one thing that is consistent is their coach, Danny Hurley. Hurley's animation in person is unbelievable. The passion and intensity radiates through the building and his players share a lot of the same characteristics. Emotional, gritty, and fiery while still being composed, smart, and patient.
Cam Spencer and Alex Karaban are some shooters, combining to hoist up 18 three point attempts. 5-18 is not great but they still each managed to shoot 50% from the field. There were technicals exchanged a couple times throughout the night. UConn's seemed to stem from a inner fire while UNC was trying to chase the game and the energy all night long. Clingan's size is going to be a problem for any team who likes to attack the basket. They can shoot, they play tough defense, they attack the basket with purpose and they have a Hurley on the sideline. To me, that’s enough to make another deep run and right, now they have to be one of the favorites to win the Big East.