Inside College Hoops: It’s too early to discount Skal Labissiere’s talent

The Kentucky freshman was celebrated coming out of high school and projected to be a top-three pick in the NBA Draft, perhaps even the first overall selection. But he only scored three points in the second game of the season. And he only got four points in his fourth game. And when the Wildcats played another blue-blood program in December, another school that also has championship banners hanging from the rafters of its home arena, he finished with just two points and two rebounds in 19 minutes on the court.

You probably think I’m writing about Skal Labissiere.

But I’m not.

Those words above are about Karl-Anthony Towns.

So let this serve as a reminder that it’s a long season, and that we’re still not even a quarter-of-the-way through it, and that, with few exceptions, freshmen have their ups and downs and often look completely out of place and, yeah, overrated relative to their draft projections. It was once true with Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, who is now the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year. And last season it was also true with Karl-Anthony Towns, who looked lost at times early, turned-in that two-point, two-rebound effort against North Carolina, and then went on to become the No. 1 pick of the 2015 NBA Draft. He’s now averaging 13.9 points and 9.2 rebounds for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

As for Labissiere, undeniably, he’s struggled the past two games. He only had six points and one rebound in Thursday’s loss at UCLA. He got two points and two rebounds earlier this week against Illinois State. But the 6-foot-11 forward has also scored at least 13 points in half of UK’s contests, and he had a 26-point performance in last month’s win over NJIT.

In other words, chill.

I can’t promise Labissiere is definitely going to break-through, start playing tougher, begin to rebound better and actually become a top-three pick like Wiggins and Towns. But what I can tell you is that it’s too early to speak definitively on the subject, one way or another. That’s something everybody should’ve learned from Wiggins two years ago, then again from Towns last year. And it’s something everybody would be wise to remember now.


BEST GAME OF THE WEEKEND: Longtime rivals Syracuse and Georgetown haven’t played each other since the 2013 Big East Tournament because, after that season, the Orange moved to the ACC (along with Pittsburgh and Notre Dame). But the rivalry renews Saturday at the Verizon Center, where the 14th-ranked Orange will be without Jim Boeheim for just the fourth time since 1976. That’s because the Hall of Fame coach will be serving the first game in his nine-game NCAA-issued suspension. So the man in charge will be longtime assistant — and future Syracuse head coach — Mike Hopkins.

NEXT BEST GAME OF THE WEEKEND: Saturday’s Arizona-Gonzaga matchup looked better on paper in the preseason, back before the Wildcats’ five-star freshman (Ray Smith) and leading returning scorer (Kaleb Tarczewski) suffered injuries. But whatever. It’s still No. 19 Arizona vs. No. 13 Gonzaga. So it’s worth checking. The Kennel should be wild.

INTRIGUING GAME BETWEEN TWO UNRANKED TEAMS: Temple is 3-3. But the Owls’ three losses are to North Carolina, Butler and Utah, each of which is ranked in KenPom’s top 35. So this isn’t a bad team. And the Owls should provide a challenge for Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers Saturday even if the Kohl Center might be too much to overcome.

ONE PLAYER TO KEEP AN EYE ON: I think most realize Jack Gibbs got 41 points earlier this week in Davidson’s win at Charlotte. But did you know he got 35 in a season-opening win over UCF? The 6-foot guard has played four games this season, and he’s scored at least 35 twice. He’s averaging 26.0 points and shooting 55.4 percent from the field. And he’ll have a big stage Sunday when the Wildcats visit ninth-ranked North Carolina.


1. In a perfect, less-injured world, Providence at Rhode Island would give us Kris Dunn. vs. E.C. Matthews. But Matthews is sidelined with a torn ACL. So it’ll be Kris Dunn vs. somebody not named E.C. Matthews, and that’s too bad. Still, it’s an instate-rivalry with a Player of the Year candidate. And the game is at Rhode Island. So don’t be surprised if the unranked and shorthanded Rams catch the 23rd-ranked Friars on Saturday.

2. Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet is expected to play against Saint Louis on Saturday and thus be on the court for the first time since a Nov. 17 loss at Tulsa. The Shockers are 2-4 and dangerously close to putting themselves in a position where they’ll need the MVC’s automatic bid to make the NCAA Tournament. So VanVleet’s return is obviously important.

3. UTEP is 6-1 with a win over Colorado State. But the Miners will play their toughest game Saturday when they host … UT Arlington. Yes, UT Arlington. The Mavericks already own wins at Memphis and Ohio State, and they took Texas to OT. So they look like they might be the favorites in the Sun Belt even though they were picked eighth in the preseason poll.

4. First-year Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley got a nice road win earlier this week at Creighton to push his Sun Devils to 5-2, and on Saturday he’ll have an opportunity to record a victory at home over a nationally ranked opponent, specifically Texas A&M. The 18th-ranked Aggies are 7-1 with a lone loss to Syracuse. They’re led by Danuel House, who is averaging a career-best 16.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists.

5. There will be no shortage of emotions Saturday when Illinois State hosts UAB — the two schools most closely connected to the late Torrey Ward. Ward is a UAB graduate who went on to become the associate head coach at Illinois State before dying in a plane crash last April while returning from the title game of the NCAA Tournament. Illinois State coach Dan Muller told me Friday that Ward will be honored with a video before the game, and that Ward’s family will be in attendance. UAB honored Ward earlier this week with a video during its win over Georgia State. You can watch that video at this link.

FINAL THOUGHT: One of the narratives of this college basketball season is that, unlike last year, there are no obviously elite teams. And it sure looks that way, doesn’t it?

I mean, Michigan State has been impressive in wins over Kansas, Louisville and Providence, and Purdue is smashing everybody. But no team this season is as talented as the best teams were last season, and the results, through the first few weeks, are highlighting that.

The top four teams in this season’s preseason AP poll were North Carolina, Kentucky, Maryland and Kansas. They will enter the weekend with a combined record of 24-4, and two of them (North Carolina and Kentucky) have already lost to unranked opponents. For the purposes of comparison, the top four teams in last season’s preseason AP poll were Kentucky, Arizona, Duke and Wisconsin. They, on this day a year ago, had a combined record of 29-1 with the lone loss being Wisconsin’s loss to Duke, meaning none of them had lost to an unranked opponent or even an opponent ranked outside of the top four.

So you can see the difference, right?

Those teams last season were all great early, and they basically remained great throughout the entire season, proof being how all four made the Elite Eight, three made the Final Four and Duke and Wisconsin played for the national title. Truth be told, I don’t think any team this season is as good as any of those four teams from last season. But the good news is that you don’t have to be as good as those teams to compete for this season’s Final Four.

You don’t play ghosts from the past in this sport. You don’t have to be better than Duke with Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones. You don’t have to beat Wisconsin with Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. You don’t have to top 38-1 Kentucky and all those pros. All anybody has to do this season to win a national title is, you know, beat other teams from this season in this season’s NCAA Tournament. And that reality means the ceilings for schools like Xavier, Purdue and Gonzaga is higher than thehy might otherwise be. Dropped in a different year, a Final Four and/or national title might seem far-fetched. But this season, why not?

UCLA beat Kentucky on Thursday, as the Wildcats didn't show enough fight. (USATSI)
Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere struggled vs. UCLA. But it’d be dumb to question his ability this early. (USATSI)


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