Hoop Thoughts: Dear football fans, welcome to college basketball
Dear Football Fans,
On Sunday night, you were elated. On Monday morning, you were bereft. I get it. The games are over. Your fantasy team fell flat. Now all you have is a wicked hangover, some wonderful memories, and the evil calendar app on your phone reminding you that seven long months must pass before your life has any purpose again.
Don’t despair. College basketball is here to save your soul. And not a moment too soon.
You remember college basketball, don’t you? When you last saw us, we were culminating our season in the most dramatic fashion possible, with a buzzer-beating three-point by Kris Jenkins that delivered Villanova the national championship. It was much like the Super Bowl, only without Lady Gaga.
The tournament is still seven weeks away, but you don’t have to wait seven weeks to fill the gaping hole in your life. You can dive in right now. I can’t promise you that the season will end in quite as exciting a fashion as it did last year, but I can promise that there will lots of shining moments between now and then.
I’m sure you’re curious to know what you’ve missed thus far, so as a public service to you, I am here to present my annual college basketball guide for football fans. Here are 10 things you need to know and do to properly enjoy the season that is just getting ready to go gaga:
1. You’ve really been missing out.
Let’s face it: Aside from the Super Bowl, the AFC championship and the Cowboys-Packers game, playoff games were snoozers. Even with all the hours you devoted to managing your fantasy team, you've still had time to check out a few college hoops games this winter. But you didn’t, because you’ve been fooled by the false narrative that regular season games are not worth watching.
So when you start watching now and wonder whether the entire season has been this good, the answer is a resounding yes. College basketball has never been more entertaining. When the rules committee instituted a set of changes two years ago designed to speed up and clean up the game (shorter shot clock, wider arc, tighter whistles), it could not have imagined the offensive revolution would come this quickly. We’re not even two years in, and teams are scoring an average of six more points per game. Coaches have seen where the game is headed, and they’ve accelerated the push.
Furthermore, the NCAA tournament selection committee’s longtime emphasis on nonconference strength of schedule has loaded November and December with compelling matchups. Now that conference play is in full swing, we’re seeing all kinds of topsy-turvy results. Two weeks ago, seven of the top 11 teams lost to unranked opponents. Three of the top four lost on a single night. On Saturday, while you were out shopping for bean dip for your Super Bowl party, five ranked teams lost to unranked ones, including three at home. Thirteen games went into overtime on that day alone.
This is the new normal in college basketball. From the very first tip-off, the games have been fun, high-scoring and unpredictable. Where you have you been?
2. There is no dominant team
I understand it would be easier for you to lock in on a single team, but this is not the season for that. In fact, most seasons are not the season for that. The occasional Kentucky ’15 or North Carolina ’09 aside, the more common template features a bunch of really good teams at the top, with a second tier of pretty good ones hoping to get hot in March.
The good news is we have a lot of classic brands dominating that first group: Villanova, Gonzaga, Arizona, North Carolina, UCLA, Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova, Baylor, Louisville. Duke, which was the consensus preseason No. 1 team, has not been playing like a top-tier team of late, but it has the potential to become one in the next few weeks. The next group includes teams like Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Oregon, Florida State and Cincinnati. All this means is that you’re going to have to watch more games and study more teams. Lucky you.
3. Don’t diss Gonzaga.
Don’t think I didn’t see you roll your eyes when you spied Gonzaga in that top tier. Every year, the Zags seem to steamroll their way through something called the West Coast Conference, only to get bounced early from the NCAA tournament. Although, to be fair, last year the Zags did reach the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 11 seed, and two years ago they got to the Elite Eight as a No. 2. But while other mid-majors like Butler, VCU, Wichita State and George Mason have broken through and reached the Final Four, the Zags have yet to reach the game’s biggest stage. So your skepticism is not totally unwarranted.
Well, this could be their year. They are undefeated and No. 1 in both polls, which means they are very likely headed for a No. 1 seed. They have legitimate dudes, too. Their best player is Nigel Williams-Goss, a 6' 3″ junior scoring point guard who transferred from Washington and was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school. They have a bona fide back-to-the-basket center in senior Przemek Karnowski, a pair of really good freshman stretch fours, and a slew of wings who can slash, shoot and defend. They’re also No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings. Trust me, that is significant.
Now, I will grant you that Gonzaga’s tournament preparation is hampered by the weakness of its conference. Through Sunday, the Zags have won their league games by an average of 27.1 points. But that means there is a very good chance that Gonzaga will enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. That’s a pretty sexy story, regardless of how it turns out.
4. The Grayson Allen thing is over.
I am sure you know what I’m referring to. When Duke’s preseason All-America guard was suspended indefinitely for kicking an opponent during a game against Elon in December, it was the perfect fodder for our “embrace debate” media culture. Allen ended up sitting out just one game, and when he came back, he was noticeably tentative. He was also subjected to some vicious behavior on the part of opposing fans and players. True, Allen brought this scrutiny on himself, but we in the media have a way of overdoing these things. The story officially jumped the shark on Jan. 23, when ESPN’s Seth Greenberg tweeted that Allen should consider sitting out for the remainder of the season.
It’s a good thing Allen didn’t take that advice, because he is starting to play some pretty good basketball again. During his last three games, he has averaged 20.3 points on 44.8% three-point shooting. I give that kid a ton of credit. He has been slapped in the face, clotheslined to the ground, elbowed in the neck and thrown into an opposing team’s bench and he didn’t his cool. Of course, if Allen commits another transgression then things will stir up anew, but barring that, he has gone back to playing basketball again, and playing pretty well. The story burned brightly and then flamed out, which is usually how these things work.
5. Go hunting for mid-majors
There’s no reason to wait until the NCAA tournament to be charmed by Cinderella. You can see most every team in the country play at least once between now and March. If you get familiar with these teams now, you’ll appreciate them that much more six weeks hence. Who knows? Maybe the extra homework will help you win your bracket pool.
I’ll give you a few to look out for. First and foremost is Middle Tennessee. This is the team that shocked everyone last year by knocking off Michigan State in the first round. The Blue Raiders returned their nucleus (including a guy named Giddy Potts!) and added a 6' 8″ transfer from Arkansas, JaCorey Williams, who is leading the team in scoring at 17.3 ppg. UNC-Wilmington also returned four starters from the team that gave Duke fits in the first round. Kevin Keatts, a Rick Pitino disciple, coaches the Seahawks. You might remember his name, because chances are he’ll be heading to a power conference near you soon.
SMU, you might recall, has a new head coach named Tim Jankovich, who took over after Larry Brown retired suddenly over the summer. The Mustangs have only lost four games and have a huge contest coming up on Sunday against Cincinnati, which is undefeated in the AAC. Monmouth is really good again—at 11–2, the Hawks lead the MAAC by two games—even though their bench is not a “thing” anymore. We have a great race going in the Missouri Valley Conference between Wichita State and Illinois State. And two mid-major programs with Cinderella pasts, Vermont and Belmont, are undefeated in the America East and Ohio Valley conferences, respectively.
6. Kansas is streaking again.
Even if you are a casual college basketball fan, you know that the top programs are beset by underclassman defections to the NBA draft. You may be less aware that transfers have become rampant in the sport the last several years, with upwards of 600 players switching schools each spring. So a program like Kansas is getting squeezed on both ends. The superstars don’t stick around long enough to become great college players, and the bench guys don’t stick around long enough to develop into good ones.
And yet, here we are in early February, and the Jayhawks are in sole possession of first place in the Big 12. If they finish in first place or tied for first, it will be Bill Self’s 13th consecutive conference crown. This has to be one of the most impressive streaks in all of sports. Keep in mind that unlike, say, Kentucky, Kansas plays in a really good basketball league. The Big 12 is also the last power conference that still plays a double round robin schedule.
I will, however, add a caveat. Kansas’s frontcourt has been thin all season because it lost its starting center, 7-foot freshman Udoka Azubuike, to a season-ending wrist injury in December. More recently, the Jayhawks have been without sophomore forward Carlton Bragg, who is suspended indefinitely for an undisclosed violation of team rules—the second time this season Bragg has had to be held out for off-court issues. The team is also dealing with a pair of investigations, one targeted at sophomore guard Lagerald Vick and freshman forward Josh Jackson for vandalism, and another regarding an alleged sexual assault in a campus dormitory. None of the players are suspects in that assault, but several of them live in that dorm and have been questioned as potential witnesses.
That’s a lot for any program to deal with, much less one that operates under a hot spotlight. The Jayhawks recently won a couple of big games at Kentucky and at home against Baylor, but they uncharacteristically blew a 14-point halftime lead on Saturday to lose to Iowa State, just the 10th time in Self’s 15 years that he has lost in Allen Fieldhouse. Yet, the Jayhawks’ two biggest competitors in the conference, Baylor and West Virginia, also lost at home on Saturday to Kansas State and Oklahoma State, respectively. That left KU alone in first place, one game ahead of Baylor and well positioned to keep this amazing streak going.
7. Gorge yourself on the freshmen
Freshmen always bring lots of sizzle to college basketball. They’re shiny and new, and they tend to be the best pro prospects. While not all freshmen classes are equal, this year’s group is superb. Out of the 26 collegians currently projected to be first-round picks by draftexpress.com, 16 are freshmen, including the entire top nine picks.
If you’re just catching up, you should start with the ones who will probably not be in the NCAA tournament. The list starts with Washington guard Markelle Fultz, who would be my choice as the overall No. 1 pick. Beyond him, there’s NC State point guard Dennis Smith, an explosive athlete who can score in bunches; Texas A&M forward Robert Williams, a rebounding and shot-blocking stud; and Texas forward Jarrett Allen, who has quickly evolved into a polished scorer.
A few tourney-bound teams are being boosted by freshmen who don’t typically garner national headlines: Zach Collins, a 7-foot forward at Gonzaga; Justin Patton, a 6' 11″ center at Creighton who received just one scholarship offer out of high school; Justin Jackson, a 6' 8″ forward at Maryland who is versatile and athletic; and Kamar Baldwin, a fearless 6-foot combo guard at Butler who has played his way into the Bulldogs’ starting lineup.
The most improved freshman over the past month has been Josh Jackson at Kansas. He is an otherworldly athlete who has started to make three-pointers with more frequency and is attacking the basket with increasing confidence. You know about the young studs at Kentucky and Duke, but if there is one freshman I’d most encourage you to check out, it’s Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen, a 7-foot center from Finland who is averaging 15.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Markkanen is a futuristic talent who can dominate in the paint and also step behind the three-point line, where he has drilled 55 treys this season. Markkanen has a chance to be one of those “180” players that the old-school guys love to talk about. Those are players who convert at least 50% from the floor, 40% from three and 90% from the foul line. Right now, Markkanen is converting 51.0%, 48.7% and 85.4% in those three areas. Did I mention he is only 19 years old?
8. Don’t miss the Marcus Keene Show.
As long as I’m listing players for you to check out—you do have time to watch all these guys, right?—I would be remiss if I didn’t include my main man crush, Marcus Keene. One of the reasons I like Keene so much is he stands just 5’9”, which means we see eye to eye. The similarities, alas, end there.
Keene is a junior guard for Central Michigan who is currently leading the nation in scoring with a 30.2 average. That has him within reach of becoming the first player in 20 years to average 30 points per game during the course of a season. Check out his percentages, too: 46.3% from the floor, 38.2% from three, and 81.9% from the foul line, where he averages more than eight attempts per game. He is also tallying 5.1 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game. There are not many guards around the country who get that many boards, much less ones who are so diminutive.
Keene has a flair for the dramatic. Just within the last three weeks, he has exploded for 50 points in a win over Miami (Ohio), the first time in nearly four years a player has reached that mark; he scored 41 points in an overtime win over Kent State; and on Friday night he drilled the game-winning three with five seconds remaining to cap off a 35-point performance in a win over Western Michigan. Pretty amazing considering Keene scored just 15 points per game as a sophomore.
The Chippewas are tied for third place in the West division of the MAC with a 5–5 record, so chances are they will not play in the NCAA tournament. Catch Keene if you can, while you can. He is a darn good show.
9. The National Player of the Year race is wide open
There are times when I’ve glanced longingly at the world of college football and been overcome by Heisman Envy. It is unquestionably one of the most prestigious honors in all of sports, but college basketball’s player of the year race is split between a bevy of honorifics—the Wooden Award, the Naismith Award, the Oscar Robertson trophy, the Associated Press player of the year, etc. Yet, even the most ardent football fan would have to concede that this year’s Heisman race was a dud. Lamar Jackson did everything he could down the stretch to give it away, but there was no one who could take it from him.
Not so in hoops. We’ve got a competitive race with lots of really good candidates. It looked at the start like Villanova senior guard Josh Hart was going to run away with it. Hart is probably still the front-runner, ranking in the top 15 in the Big East in points (18.9, first), rebounds (6.6, third), assists (3.4 ninth), steals (1.5, ninth), field goal percentage (51.8%, ninth), three-point percentage (40.3%, 14th) and assist percentage (21.5%, 10th). But Kansas point guard Frank Mason is right on his heels. Mason leads the Big 12 in points (20.4), he’s fourth in assists (5.2) and he’s making a ridiculous 52.5% of his three-point attempts, which ranks third in the country. Then there’s Purdue’s Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan, a 6' 9″ sophomore forward who has had four 20-20 games this season.
Those are the main three candidates, but there are a few who are capable of making a late rush. They include UCLA freshman point guard Lonzo Ball, Duke sophomore forward Luke Kennard, Kentucky freshman guard Malik Monk, Wisconsin sophomore forward Ethan Happ, Gonzaga’s Williams-Goss, and Baylor junior forward Johnathan Motley.
10. Northwestern? Yes, Northwestern.
This is the only power conference school that has never played in the NCAA tournament. Think about that. They’ve been playing the thing since 1939. Heck, the first tournament was held in Northwestern’s own Patten Gymnasium. You’d think at some point over a 78-year period every team from a major conference would accidentally make the tournament at least once. Yet for nearly eight decades Northwestern has been the embodiment of consistent ineptitude.
It looks like that will finally change this season. Under fourth-year coach Chris
Collins, who attended high school just 10 miles from Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, Illinois, the Wildcats appear well on their way to the Big Dance. They are currently in fourth place in the Big Ten with a 7–3 record (18–5 overall), and they are 31st in the RPI. That would have them headed for a 7 or 8 seed. Yes, they could still blow it with a late-season collapse (their leading scorer, Scottie Lindsay, is currently sidelined by an illness, which contributed to their 21-point loss at Purdue on Wednesday). That aside, these Wildcats are ready to make some history, and by a comfortable margin. Pretty cool, huh?
So there you go, football fans. You've got everything you need to dive in and join the hardwood fun. Yes, you missed some good stuff, but Tom Brady and his pals proved on Sunday night that no matter how far behind you get in life, it’s never too late to catch up. Happy hooping.
Five Games I’m Psyched to See This Week
Louisville at Virginia, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN
Some teams are just a tough matchup. Louisville loves to get out and go, but it is impossible to speed up Tony Bennett’s dental chair. The Cardinals have beaten Virginia just once since they joined the ACC in 2014, and they lost by eight points at home back in December. It’s hard to see the outcome being different in Charlottesville, especially considering Louisville is still playing without injured point guard Quentin Snider and Virginia is a much-improved offensive team.
Virginia 68, Louisville 62
Kansas at Kansas State, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN
The Wildcats are still smarting from their loss in Lawrence on the traveling-call-that-wasn’t in early January, but the Jayhawks won’t be in a great mood, either, following their home collapse against Iowa State.
Kansas 79, Kansas State 70
Butler at Marquette, Tuesday, 9 p.m., CBSSN
The Golden Eagles managed to snap their two-game losing streak by winning at DePaul on Saturday, but they are only one game over .500 in the Big East and need more quality wins if they’re going to remain in the NCAA tournament picture. I spy a desperate home team.
Marquette 77, Butler 74
North Carolina at Duke, Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN
The Blue Devils are at home and the wrong team always seems to win in this rivalry, but I’m not taking the bait. Duke is going to need All-America-caliber efforts from Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard to win this game, because it’s going to nearly impossible to keep the Tar Heels off the offensive glass.
North Carolina 79, Duke 77
Oregon at UCLA, Thursday, 10 p.m., ESPN
The Bruins regained their balance by sweeping the Washington schools on the road following their two-game losing streak, but I think Oregon is up to this challenge. The Ducks are one of the few teams in the country that can keep pace with UCLA on offense, but their ability to change up defenses and protect the rim should be decisive.
Oregon 85, UCLA 80
This Week’s AP Ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Villanova (3)
2. Gonzaga (4)
3. Kansas (1)
4. Baylor (5)
5. Louisville (6)
6. Wisconsin (8)
7. Virginia (9)
8. Oregon (16)
9. Arizona (2)
10. UCLA (11)
11. North Carolina (12)
12. West Virginia (10)
13. Cincinnati (13)
14. Florida State (14)
15. Purdue (18)
16. Florida (NR)
17. Maryland (17)
18. Kentucky (7)
19. Duke (NR)
20. Xavier (22)
21. Creighton (21)
22. South Carolina (24)
23. Saint Mary’s (19)
24. Butler (20)
25. SMU (23)
Dropped out: Notre Dame (15), Middle Tennessee (25)
I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute hard-and-fast rule that if a team loses four games in a row that it shouldn’t be ranked; but, well, it shouldn’t be ranked. So Notre Dame loses the number next to its name, even though three of those four losses were to teams that are currently ranked on my ballot. Two of those losses came at home, as well. The Irish are going through a tough time, but any team that can score as well as they can is going to be a threat in the tournament.
I was a little ahead of the curve earlier in the season when it came to ranking Florida, largely because the Gators have been ranked quite highly on kenpom.com since the start of the season. Their overpowering performance against Kentucky was quite the statement. Florida has been a tough defensive team all season, but now they are really learning to push the pace and put up points. So I rewarded them not just for what they did to Kentucky, but because of where I see their long-term trajectory.
No, I still do not have Gonzaga as my No. 1 team, but I suppose it’s just a matter of time. I do think the Zags are legit, but as I’ve said before, I don’t believe a team should automatically be elevated to the top spot for remaining undefeated against a schedule that is clearly not the caliber of the other top-10 teams.
After Kansas lost at home to Iowa State, I was ready to move Arizona to No. 1. I knew it would be tough for the Wildcats to win at Oregon, but I never imagined they would get run out of the gym that way. I mean, the game was never competitive. Just when I think a team is starting to emerge as a prohibitive favorite to win the title, it plays its way back into the pack. That’s the nature of this season, I guess.
It hurt me to drop Middle Tennessee out of the rankings again, but I had to do it after the Blue Raiders lost their first conference game, at UTEP on Saturday. In the past I’ve ranked UNC-Wilmington, but the Seahawks lost at home to College of Charleston on Thursday. I also felt I should reward Duke for having come out of its instability period, so I didn’t have any room to shoehorn in a sentimental favorite. But I still have my eye on Wichita State, which trounced Illinois State on Saturday and is now ranked No. 17 on kenpom.com; Valparaiso, which is still alone in first place in the Horizon League; and New Mexico State, which is undefeated in the WAC and has lost just two games all season.