All Aboard the Baylor & Gonzaga Train
By Mark Titus
FOX Sports college basketball analyst
THE OPENING TIP
The halfway point between the start of the college basketball season and Selection Sunday is officially here, and even though this is the kind of thing you’d hear a character say in a horror movie right before everything goes to hell, I’m going to say it anyway: I’m feeling pretty good about our chances of finishing this season. There’s literally nothing that can go wrong.
*Ducks for cover as lightning strikes all around me.*
On Tuesday, the NCAA announced the dates of the preliminary round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament (as well as specifics about which sites will host which games), and though a pessimist might get up in arms about the tournament starting on a Friday instead of a Thursday, as it usually does, I’m focusing on the fact that the ink is drying on the contracts, and the reality is setting in ... this is actually happening. After two long years of waiting, we’re just 75 days away from crowning a new national champion.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I want to use the halfway point as an opportunity to take a big-picture look at a season that six months ago I thought wasn’t going to take place. Obviously, the coronavirus is still in the driver’s seat of this college basketball season, in the sense that it is nearly impossible to discuss anything going on in the sport without tying it back to the pandemic. But if I were to paint a 2020-21 college basketball picture without mentioning COVID-19, I’d do it with these three bullet points:
1. Gonzaga and Baylor are head and shoulders above the rest of the country.
I still think Gonzaga is the better team if for no other reason than that the Zags have more individual talent. But as Baylor continues to pile up big-time wins against the best the Big 12 has to offer, the gap between the two definitely shrinks in my mind. No matter which team you prefer at the top, though, one thing is clear: This season feels a lot like 2005, when North Carolina and Illinois distanced themselves from the pack before meeting in a national title game that just about everyone had in their brackets. But, of course, a lot can change between now and April.
2. Offense wins (halfway-point) championships?
The top four teams in the AP Poll -– Gonzaga, Baylor, Villanova and Iowa -– are also the top four offenses in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency rankings. However, only one of those four (Baylor) has a top-10 defense.
3. Blue bloods
If fans needed any more evidence that this season has been far from normal, look no further than the most recent AP Top 25. For the first time since 1961, Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky are all unranked at the same time. That’s a streak that goes back more than 1,000 polls! Meanwhile, on the day that streak-snapping poll was released, the Kansas team that lost to Texas by 25 at home earlier in the month was manhandled from start to finish at Baylor, giving the Jayhawks back-to-back Big 12 losses for the first time in eight years.
Even if you extend the definition of "blue blood" to get other teams in the mix, things don’t get much better. UCLA is undefeated in the Pac-12 at the moment, but the Bruins also lost their best player (Chris Smith) for the season to an ACL tear. Indiana is 8-6 on the season and just lost at home to rival Purdue for the 700th time in a row (OK, slight exaggeration). Louisville was momentarily in the ACC driver’s seat before back-to-back losses to Miami and Florida State in which the Cards barely showed any signs of life. UConn’s best player is out indefinitely, Michigan State is in 11th place in a conference called the Big Ten, Arizona put itself in NCAA Tournament jail this year, and Syracuse and Georgetown are so irrelevant that there’s a chance I’d believe you if you told me that in December, both programs opted out of the rest of the season.
The reality is Villanova is the only team with even the faintest argument that it belongs in the middle of a Venn diagram consisting of "blue blood" and "national title contender" circles this year. But maybe the most succinct way to summarize the demise of the blue bloods is this: The last time we had two straight Final Fours without Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas or UCLA was in 1960 and 1961. None of those schools made it to Minneapolis in 2019, and the way it stands right now, it’s going to take a minor miracle for any of them to make it to this year’s Final Four.
Maybe the best course of action here is to just hit the reset button on the blue bloods and start from scratch. The way I see it, here are the real blue bloods in college basketball right now.
1. The Barn
Minnesota walloped then-undefeated Michigan on Saturday, 10 days after the Wolverines beat the Gophers by 25 in Ann Arbor. With that win, Minnesota is 11-0 at home, with blowout wins over Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, as well as wins over Iowa and St. Louis. What makes all of this especially interesting is that the Gophers are 0-4 outside of The Barn, with an average margin of defeat of nearly 20 points. I have no idea how it’s happening, but a strong argument is forming that The Barn is the best pandemic-era home-court advantage in college basketball.
2. Bennett ball
A week ago, many considered Clemson the best team in the ACC, featuring what was believed to be one of the best defenses in college basketball. This presumably didn’t sit well with Tony Bennett, as his teams typically have a stronghold on both of those labels. Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers ripped Clemson apart on the Tigers’ home court on Saturday. The Wahoos hit an eye-popping 15 3-pointers en route to an 85-50 win, which would be ridiculous in any context but becomes even more incredible when you remember that Virginia plays at the slowest pace in America. In other words, the Cavaliers' scoring 85 points is like every other team in America scoring 1,000. In fact, here’s a stat for you: The only other time Virginia scored 85-plus against an ACC opponent under Tony Bennett was in 2015, when the squad scored 89 in a win at Miami … in a double overtime.
3. Nate Oats
When Oats’ Buffalo team demolished Arizona in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament -– during a season in which Arizona was led by DeAndre Ayton, and Sean Miller was college basketball’s biggest villain -– he earned my attention. When earlier this season he called out Coach K for wanting to reassess whether college basketball should be played during a pandemic only because his team sucked, he earned my respect. Now, after taking a shot at LSU fans by saying that "home-court advantage for them this year is going to be about the same as it was for them last year" ... I think it’s fair to say the man has my heart.
4. Luka Garza
Garza had one of his worst games of the season in Iowa’s 96-73 victory over Northwestern on Sunday. However, the do-it-all big man still finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and two assists. The dude was historically good a season ago and has been even better this year. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I hope you aren’t taking Garza for granted. Not only is he far and away my National Player of the Year pick at the halfway point of the season, but also I can’t fathom a realistic scenario in which he loses his grip on the award by season’s end.
5. North Carolina fans
The Tar Heels might stink again this season, but Carolina fans can at least take solace in knowing that the FOX Sports Ultimate Fan Bracket billboard has officially been put up in Durham.
I’m convinced that if the prize had been a billboard on the winner’s campus, Carolina fans wouldn’t have cared about this bracket. But the opportunity to troll Duke? I’m not sure there’s a motivating force on earth stronger than that.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Indiana at No. 4 Iowa (9 p.m. ET, FS1)
No. 23 UConn at No. 11 Creighton (12 p.m. ET, FOX)
No. 2 Baylor at Oklahoma State (2 p.m. ET, CBS)
No. 15 Ohio State at No. 10 Wisconsin (4 p.m. ET, CBS)
No. 24 UCLA at Stanford (5 p.m. ET, FOX)
No. 19 Missouri at No. 6 Tennessee (8:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
No. 12 Texas Tech at No. 14 West Virginia (9 p.m. ET, ESPN)
LOVE FOR THE LITTLE GUY
Shoutout to D’Moi Hodge, Deante Johnson and the Cleveland State Vikings for this game-winning sequence at Wright State to stay undefeated in the Horizon League.
And by "stay undefeated," I meant for only 24 hours. The very next night, these two teams played in the same gym, and Wright State got revenge with an emphatic 85-49 beatdown of Cleveland State. Sure, winning by 36 is cool, but is it really worth it if it means you can’t have a sweet, game-winning, crossover/alley-oop highlight?
I say no.
"BIG J" JOURNALISM CORNER
The Best #content of the Week
Oklahoma State walk-on Dee Mitchell has been working 40 hours a week at Walmart to help pay for college while somehow taking a full slate of classes and playing basketball. At long last, his work ethic and determination were rewarded by Mike Boynton, who surprised Mitchell with a scholarship during his Walmart shift on Sunday.
HEADLINE OF THE WEEK
Your Headlines of the Week this week are brought to you by Chicken Little:
From 247sports.com on Jan. 16:
From Syracuse.com on Jan. 16:
Finally, we save the best for last, from The Hoosier Network on Jan. 15:
THIS WEEK IN TITUS & TATE
Tuesday’s podcast was one for the books, as I never thought I’d be talking about a season in which Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina are all unranked. Is UCLA actually the strongest blue blood in the country right now? Tate and I also spent a good chunk of time talking about Luka Garza being a lock for the Player of the Year award, Baylor’s dominant win over Kansas and Juwan Howard as my Good Guy of the Week.
As always, you can listen to every show and subscribe here.
See you next week!