Get your post-Super Bowl college hoops cheat sheet right here
As soon as Peyton starting talking about chugging Budweiser and Cam pouted his way off the podium, I had a nice, warming thought:
Now it’s time for college hoops to step into the spotlight.
Hard-core fans like me (and maybe even you) have been looking at this season’s storylines since even before the first practices in October. We’ve been handicapping the Final Four, talking up the one-and-dones, wondering about the struggling bluebloods, debating which programs have been the most surprising and most disappointing and figuring out whether anyone can stop the force of nature that is Buddy Hield.
But the masses, though, are just tuning in today, now that football is done and March is right around the corner.
If you’re just starting to pay attention, here’s a cheat sheet — 16 sweet things you need to know about this college hoops season (plus a bonus prediction at the end).
1. No team is great. Two Octobers ago, we had a clear top tier entering the season. There was Wisconsin, Duke, Kentucky and Arizona. Three of those teams made the Final Four, and the fourth, Arizona, was screwed by the tournament selection committee by having to meet Wisconsin in the Elite Eight. This season, there truly isn’t a top tier. On Monday, we have our seventh No. 1 team in the AP Poll this season when Villanova grabbed the top spot. That ties the all-time record for the most teams at No. 1 in a season. And we’re still five weeks away from Selection Sunday.
2. A whole bunch of teams are really, really good. Teams that would have been a notch below the top tier a season ago are all gummed together at the top this time around. For the average sports fan who wakes up to college hoops only after the Super Bowl, it’s a pretty confusing season because of the lack of hierarchy and established storylines. But for the hard-core college hoops fans, it’s been glorious — filled with nightly upsets, random schools popping into the Top 25 and parity galore.
3. One-and-dones are the reason for the parity. It’s no secret: We are in the midst of the one-and-done era in college hoops. When John Calipari started three freshmen on a Kentucky team that won the 2012 national title, the fallacy that freshmen-led teams can’t win in March was proven silly. Last season was the pinnacle for the one-and-dones, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Kentucky nearly going undefeated and with Duke’s stellar freshman class winning it all. This year the elite freshmen decided to go to some smaller-name schools — LSU and Mississippi State, Marquette, Cal and Maryland — instead of concentrating themselves at a few bluebloods. What has that brought us? Duke and Kentucky and Kansas teams that are a notch below where they’ve been talent-wise in recent years and senior-led teams dominating the college hoops landscape.
4. We’ll be back to the old one-and-done ways next year. Coach K has the top two recruits in next year’s class in Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, who are both sure-thing studs. Calipari has four guys ranked in the top 15, and he has hinted that this could be his best recruiting class ever. I could fill out the top of my preseason AP ballot right now: 1. Duke. 2. Kentucky. Or the other way around.
5. This is the season of the senior. Pick a team that has a legit shot at winning it all, and I’ll show you a team that has a stud senior leading the way. Oklahoma has Player of the Year favorite Hield. North Carolina has Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige. Kansas has Perry Ellis. Michigan State has Denzel Valentine. Villanova has Ryan Arcidiacono. Iowa has Jarrod Uthoff. Iowa State has Georges Niang. Virginia has Malcolm Brogdon. Maryland’s best players are sophomore Melo Trimble and freshman Diamond Stone, but the Terrapins wouldn’t be Final Four favorites without seniors Rasheed Sulaimon and Jake Layman. It all feels kind of nostalgic, a throwback to the old days when we felt we actually knew the most important college players in any given season.
6. The number next to a team’s name doesn’t mean a thing. What does a No. 1 ranking mean when No. 1-ranked teams have already lost seven times? How do you define “upset” when they’re happening every night? How much does a high seeding in the NCAA Tournament mean when there’s this much parity?
7. That said, Oklahoma is the best team in the country. This doesn’t mean the Sooners will win it all, especially after we just saw them lose on the road to a Kansas State team that likely won’t make the NCAA Tournament. But Oklahoma has a chance to become the Golden State Warriors of college hoops and prove that a team that relies on 3-point shooting can win it all. The Sooners are making 45.3 percent of their 3s, tops in college hoops and not far off from the record Princeton set at 49.2 percent in 1987-88.
8. The Big 12 is the nation’s top conference, again. That’s what I said last year, too — and then the league had a disastrous first weekend of the NCAA Tournament that included two three-seeds, Baylor and Iowa State, losing their first game. Seven of the 10 Big 12 teams made the tournament, but nobody made it past the Sweet 16. This season is different. I count two legit title contenders in the Big 12 with Oklahoma and Kansas. Given the right matchups and some luck, four more Big 12 teams could make a surprise Final Four run: Iowa State, West Virginia, Baylor and Texas.
9. The Pac-12 is the nation’s most interesting conference. It won’t surprise me if the Pac-12 gets as many as eight teams into the NCAA Tournament but zero into the second weekend. It’s similar to last season’s Big 12, with a ton of depth but no single team you’d call elite.
10. The bluebloods are struggling. Kentucky. Duke. UCLA. Indiana. I don’t know if you’d call UConn a blueblood but it’s having trouble, too. Look, it’s not really fair to call it “struggling” — all of these squads could make the NCAA Tournament — but when your goal is a Final Four each and every year and we’re discussing even the possibility of missing the tourney, that’s a sign of trouble. Really the only bluebloods who you’d consider Final Four favorites are UNC and Kansas. (Though I have a theory on Kentucky …)
11. Kentucky is a mess — but fixable. My faith in what Calipari can do in a five-month college basketball season has reached such an irrational point that it won’t surprise me in the least if this struggling team (six losses, including to Tennessee and, yikes, Auburn) makes a run deep into March. I see these Wildcats as similar to the 2013-14 team that made a mad, unexpected dash to the title game, not the 2012-13 team that went to the NIT. The backcourt is great, even if Isaiah Briscoe has been a disastrous shooter. Senior Alex Poythress has been the key; when he plays with energy, Kentucky often looks great. If Calipari starts to get any sort of productivity from struggling freshman Skal Labissiere, the Wildcats go from wildly unpredictable to wild and dangerous.
12. More buckets are a gift from the basketball gods. More specifically, they’re a gift from the NCAA rules committee. A bevy of rule changes this season, notably a change in the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 and an emphasis on calling fouls on physical defense, has made college basketball a much more enjoyable watch. Sure, there have been some clunker games in which there’s a foul called every 30 seconds. There have also been the opposite, where refs seem to have reverted to being OK with the more physical play of years past. But overall the changes have been extraordinarily positive for the game.
13. Ben Simmons is actually that good. It’s unfair to compare anybody to LeBron James. That’s an impossible ceiling. Yet it’s as true for LSU’s superfreshman as its been for any college player in the one-and-done era. It’s not just that he has a chance to be that dominant of a player; it’s that his style of play is in the LeBron/Magic Johnson mold. He’s a big guy who can dominate the game physically but focuses on making his teammates better. He’s the most certain No. 1 overall pick since Anthony Davis.
14. Buddy Hield is even better than Simmons. As a college player, I mean. Part of it is the group Hield is surrounded by. The core four at Oklahoma — Hield, fellow seniors Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler and junior Jordan Woodard — have been playing together three years. That’s almost unheard of in today’s college basketball, and that has helped Hield become the magical college basketball player (and, I believe, future lottery pick) he has turned into. Hield has also been the best player in the country individually — by far. He’s averaging 25.6 points, which ranks second in in the country behind Howard’s James Daniels (27.8), and is one of nine players shooting better than 51 percent from 3-point range — despite the fact that he is topic A, B and C on opponents’ scouting reports.
15. There’s not a single dominant big man in college hoops. Last season was the year of the big man. Kentucky nearly went undefeated with a roster that was taller than that of most NBA teams. Duke won the title with an offense centered around Jahlil Okafor. Frank Kaminsky was one of the most versatile offensive 7-footers we’ve seen in college hoops. Not so this season. Labissiere flopped at Kentucky. Who has been the best big man in college hoops? Utah’s Jakob Poeltl? Marquette’s Henry Ellenson? Providence’s Ben Bentil? Evansville’s Egidijus Mockevicius? All excellent players, but this list doesn’t compare to a season ago.
16. Great point guards, however, are plentiful. From Providence’s Kris Dunn to Michigan State’s Valentine — who I’m going to call a point guard because what else is he, really? — this has been a season with phenomenal point guard play. A few more on this incomplete list: Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis, Iowa State’s Monte Morris, Oakland’s Kay Felder, Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and Maryland’s Trimble.
17. I have no idea who is going to win it all. If anyone says they do, they’re a fraud. This is the most up-in-the-air season in recent memory. I predict a wild March that’ll be filled with even more upsets than usual. So, if you put a gun to my head, who is my title pick as of now? Oklahoma. No — Kansas. No — Villanova. No — Kentucky. No — Maryland. No — Virginia. No — none of these. Or all of these. Or … I give up. I’ll just sit back and enjoy the ride. (But seriously: Gun to head? Oklahoma.)
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.