Today is Thursday, December 6th, which means that – as hard as it is to believe – we have reached the one-month point since the start of college hoops season. It really is incredible to think about how much has changed since that first night of the season in Indianapolis, when Kansas beat Michigan State and… well, actually, as best I can remember that happened in Indy that night.
Like Urban Meyer, I must be suffering a bit of memory loss.
Regardless, it’s incredible to sit here one month into the season and think about how much things have changed in the weeks since that opening night. Contenders that weren’t contenders a month ago have emerged, other teams have fallen, and Duke has gone from “print up the undefeated t-shirts” good, to just another really solid college hoops team at the top of the sport.
So one month into the season, what have we learned? Here are 10 things:
There are no great teams, but a whole lot of good ones
It’s pretty clear that five weeks into the season, there is no team like the 2014-2015 Kentucky Wildcats, a club that is overwhelmingly better than everyone else in the sport. But in their place however are a lot of really good teams, and a couple that more closely resemble Villanova last year, a 30-4 club in the regular season that rode upperclassmen and a handful of good-but-not-elite NBA Draft prospects to the national title. There really are about seven or eight teams that feel a cut above the rest to me.
Right now Gonzaga is No. 1, and with good reason. To me, they most closely resemble the Villanova team from last year. If you’ll remember, Villanova had a bunch of pros masquerading as college players and Gonzaga does too, with four veterans on their roster (Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Killian Tillie and Zach Norvell) who could all hear their names called on draft night. They also have the wins to back it up. That victory over Duke in Maui will likely only get better as the season wears on, and they also have wins over Arizona, Creighton and a last-second victory over Washington on their resume as well. The crazy part is, the Zags aren’t even at full-strength yet with Tillie and Geno Crandall currently sidelined with injuries.
Behind them are a bunch of other teams that feel capable of having what it takes to win the title in March. Kansas is deep and talented (insert your own Adidas/T.J. Gassanola joke here) but still a work in progress. Michigan picked up right where they left off last year (more on them coming), and as much as I’ve been critical of Virginia in the past, they’ve been phenomenal early on. Nevada is undefeated, and yes, good enough to win a title. Duke of course has the two most talented players in college basketball, even if they haven’t been the same since that opening night win against Kentucky.
I’d throw in a few more names behind those teams as well. Tennessee looked REALLY good against Kansas (they controlled that game for about 32 minutes) and although I was critical of them in the preseason, I could see them taking home a title. Auburn can get hot from behind the three-point arc which is all you need to make a deep tourney run. And I haven’t given up on Kentucky and their depth yet either (although obviously the defense needs to improve).
Point being, it’s a wide-open season, where it feels like there is no real separation between the top 8-10 teams in the sport. Which should make for a compelling regular season, and even better basketball once we get to tournament time.
If you did tell me to pick the “best” team in the country right now, I’d give you a surprising answer
While Gonzaga, Kansas, Virginia and probably even Duke all have a legitimate claim for the No. 1 spot in the polls, if you asked me to pick a “best” team right now, I’d give you a surprising answer. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the Michigan Wolverines are the best team I’ve seen so far this season.
To me, it sounds crazy that we’re even considering Michigan. Incredibly, I didn’t even have them ranked period in my preseason poll after they lost three of their top four scorers, including first round pick Mo Wagner. And while I assumed they’d round into form by mid-season, I could have never imagined in my wildest dreams that they’d be this good, this early. Right now the Wolverines have arguably the most impressive pair of victories in all of college basketball right now with a 27-point win at Villanova and a 17-point victory over North Carolina that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated. Again, it really is surreal to watch this team not just pick-up from where they left off a season ago. But to be even better.
In terms of the “why” they’re so good, well, it’s quintessential John Beilein stuff. They play elite defense (they ranked second nationally in field goal percentage defense and points allowed) and have again developed their stars, ranging from veterans Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole, to freshman Iggy Bradzeikis, who has been the single biggest revelation to me in all of college hoops. Bradzeikis is the team’s leading scorer at nearly 18 points per game, and also may be the single swagiest player in college hoops. Seriously, the guy has the body of a tight end and the hair of a washed up adult film star, yet plays with the flair and confidence of a fourth-year senior.
Iggy is averaging a team best 17.7 points per game and is shooting up draft boards as we speak. He’s also the biggest reason that to right now, the Wolverines are the best team in college basketball.
One team that I don’t buy as a legitimate threat to No. 1 is Kansas
The Jayhawks are currently sitting undefeated, at No. 2 in the polls and with a pair of wins that can match just about anyone (including Michigan), as they’ve beaten both Michigan State and Tennessee on neutral courts. At the same time, if you watch Kansas something just… isn’t right. The Jayhawks might have a resume befitting of the No. 1 team in the country. But they aren’t playing like it right now.
Simply looking beyond Kansas’ results and digging into the box scores backs it up. The Jayhawks were down double-digits at halftime to Marquette before rallying to win, got outplayed by Tennessee for about 32-or-so minutes before grabbing a victory in overtime, and needed another overtime to beat Stanford at home this past weekend. To their credit, the Jayhawks found a way to win those games. But if they keep playing like this, it will eventually catch-up with them.
And you could argue that Kansas actually would have 2-3 losses if not for…
LaGerald Vick, who might be the single most surprising storyline of the college hoops season, and he’d be my pick for National Player of the Year at this point
So I’ve been watching college hoops for a really long time. Like so long ago that when I started watching, John Calipari was at UMass, had a full head of dark black hair and was a thorn in the side of Kentucky, rather than the man who ran the entire program. So yeah, it’s been a while. And in that nearly three decades of watching this sport, I can’t really remember a story quite like Vick’s at Kansas.
For those of you who don’t know, here is the quick synopsis: Vick was a good, but not great player over the last couple seasons, who appeared to have worn out his welcome in Lawrence by the end of last year. Even during Kansas’ run to the Final Four last March there was buzz that – although Vick wasn’t a real NBA draft prospect – he was going to turn pro once the season ended. Patience was wearing thin, and the word was that it was time for both parties to move on. He did leave and declared for the draft – only to get minimal interest and go undrafted.
Because he never signed with an agent, Vick was eligible to come back, but even that came with a catch. He basically had to beg Bill Self to take him back onto the team, and after some serious debate, Self allowed Vick back on the roster at the end of June.
So take a guy who was basically kicked off the team, welcome him back under inauspicious terms and add him to the deepest team in college basketball, and you’ve got to assume that he’s going to have next to no influence on this team, right?
Wrong. He has somehow evolved into a National Player of the Year candidate.
Huh!?!??! That is what pretty much everyone who covers college basketball is asking right now, yet it’s true.
Just one season after averaging around 13 points per game and only nine points per game once Big 12 play started, Vick is now averaging 18 a night, and shooting an absurd 57 percent from behind the three-point line. More importantly, Vick has been the Jayhawks’ best player in their biggest games. He hit a couple massive threes to swing the momentum against Tennessee. He hit the game-tying three against Stanford to force overtime, and then scored the first eight points in the extra session to seal the win. He also has dropped 30 or more twice this season, including 32-point performance against Vermont, in which he buried eight three-pointers.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the Jayhawks might have 2-3 losses were it not for Vick. That’s why – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – he’d be my National Player of the Year pick right now.
It isn’t too early to start talking about Nevada going undefeated
So shout out to me and Nick Coffey, because this was a topic that he and I actually hit on my podcast last week. Then Nevada went to USC this weekend, absolutely blew the brakes off of USC and the rest of the national media caught up and “Will Nevada go undefeated” became a cool talking point.
As always, the point being: If you want to know what’s going to happen in college basketball before it happens, subscribe to my podcast which you can do by clicking here (today’s guest: Verne Lundquist!)
Ok, I’ve officially dismounted from my high-horse, but here is the deal: I don’t think Nevada will go undefeated. It’s just too hard and they will get everyone’s best shot. My guess is that they finish the regular season around 32-2 and are in contention for a really high seed come Selection Sunday.
But while I don’t think Nevada will go undefeated, the elements are there for it to potentially happen.
One, they have the talent. Seriously, if you just watch these guys, they are just simply better than the teams they play. I truly believe they have five guys on their roster that will get a shot to make it in the NBA, and even against good teams (like USC) they can simply overwhelm with their size, length and athleticism. They also have experience. Incredibly, in the USC game, all five of their starters were fifth year seniors.
Most importantly, they have the schedule to do it. They play Arizona State this Friday night (in a game I’ll be at). Arizona State is a good team, currently sitting at 7-0 and ranked No. 20 in the country, but Nevada should still be favored – and after that, should be comfortably favored in every game they play the rest of the season. They’ll face just one Power 5 team after this weekend (Utah) and the Mountain West doesn’t have an obvious challenger to their throne, with Utah State and San Diego State looking like the toughest competition. Again, I don’t think Nevada will go undefeated. But I do think it’s conceivable.
One thing I will say however is that they’re going to pose a headache for the Selection Committee on Selection Sunday. Let’s say they finish the regular season at 33-1 or 32-2, but have no great wins? Can you justify giving that team a No. 1 seed over say, a 28-6 ACC, SEC or Big Ten champ?
Admittedly, these are first world problems for Nevada, but they are still problems none the less.
And it will be fascinating to see how it all unfolds.
The SEC is NOT who we thought they were
As all of you know, last year I banged the drum as the SEC being the best conference in college basketball and was largely mocked by my peers in the national media (in the end, I think I was wrong and they were right). That’s why it was so funny to see the same media trumpet SEC basketball this off-season. It’s especially funny because I said that I expected this league to be down this season.
Still, even though I expected the league to slip, I had no idea it would be this bad. In a season where some (though not me) thought the SEC could once again flirt with eight bids, it’s looking like they’ll be lucky to get six. Five might be the ceiling.
In the end, Kentucky, Auburn and Tennessee are going to fine, and all three could mess around and end up as Top 3 seeds by Selection Sunday. Mississippi State should be fine, but we’ll learn plenty about them the next two weeks when they play Clemson and Cincinnati. LSU should also be fine too – yes, they’re 6-2 with losses to the two best teams on their schedule. But the Tigers have too much talent and should be able to figure it out.
My concern is that the teams behind them that we expected big things from are struggling. Alabama – which lost Collin Sexton but returned nine of its Top 11 scorers – is sitting at 5-3 right now after losing to Georgia State on Tuesday night. That’s in addition to losses to Northeastern and Central Florida. Woof. Florida picked up a nice win against West Virginia on Tuesday night but already has three losses on their resume. And Vanderbilt simply isn’t a tourney team without Darius Garland. Frankly, I’m not sure any of those three will make the Big Dance.
On a positive note, the Arkansas Razorbacks have absolutely exceeded expectations. Shout out to Mike Anderson, because after losing six seniors off last year’s team this year’s Hogs might actually be better. Yes, they have Daniel Gafford, but they also have a lot of talent around him. Freshman Isaiah Joe is coming off a 34-point performance over the weekend which earned him SEC Player of the Week honors, and point guard Jalen Harris is a playmaker who dropped 12 assists against Colorado State on Wednesday night.
With the middle and bottom of the SEC playing terribly right now, if the Hogs just win the games they’re supposed to, they will once again be a tournament team.
As bad as the SEC has been… the Pac-12 has been much, much, MUCH worse
The good news for the SEC is that as bad as the league has been, it’s been largely overshadowed by the Pac-12, which is basically a “Power Conference” in name only at this point.
Seriously, it’s embarrassing. Here are some of the results you need to know about: UCLA got smoked by Michigan State and North Carolina in Vegas (two teams they’re supposed to be competing with, not getting run out of the gym by). USC has lost to the three best teams on its schedule. Washington played Gonzaga tough on Wednesday night and might be slowly emerging. But they’re still just 6-3 at this point in the season.
Oh, and then there’s preseason favorite Oregon. You know, that school with Bol Bol. Yeah, they already have three losses, including at Houston last weekend and one to… Texas Southern. TEXAS SOUTHERN. Do you know who coaches Texas Southern? Johnny Freaking Jones. Honestly, the Ducks should consider disbanding their program as this point.
Right now, just about the only thing Pac-12 team you can safely say has exceeded expectations in this conference is Arizona State, which is 7-0 and has a solid win on their resume against a good Mississippi State team. I’d also argue that Arizona is a deceptively good 6-2 right now, with their only two losses coming to Gonzaga and Auburn in Maui. After seeing them in person against UConn last week, I can tell you that the Wildcats a tourney team and probably – at least in my mind – the favorite to win the Pac-12 right now.
So yeah, I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the Pac-12 is once again really bad this year. Which brings me to…
It’s a good year to be a mid-major trying to steal an NCAA Tournament bid
It’s always funny when I hear certain fans, coaches and media members asking for an expanded NCAA Tournament. The reality of the situation is that most years we can’t even find 68 worthy teams – and people want to add more?
Sadly, this is definitely one of those years. To be blunt, I just don’t know where we’re going to find 68 NCAA Tournament teams.
As I mentioned, the Pac-12 is abysmal right now. If I’m being gracious, it looks like that in a perfect world, where all the stars align, this league may be looking at four bids. And considering that right now, Washington, UCLA and USC have absolutely zero quality out of conference wins on their resume that feels like its pushing it.
As mentioned, the SEC, which looked like it might get eight bids in the preseason will be lucky to get six. The Big East, which got seven bids last year is way down and will probably get closer to three or four. The A-10, which got three bids last year will be a one-bid league, and the AAC, which also got three bids last year probably won’t get more than one or two.
So why do I bring that up? It’s a good year to be a mid-major team. and if there’s ever a year where some super-obscure league is going to get an extra team or two, this feels like it. It also feels like a year where as long as schools like Nevada and Buffalo don’t implode in conference they will earn at-large bids if they don’t win their conferences outright.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Kentucky Wildcats
The bottom-line is I know that I’ve largely glossed over Kentucky here and with sort of good reason: I think it’s way too early to make any passing judgements on the Wildcats. No, they haven’t looked great for big chunks of the season. But in crushing Monmouth and pulling away from a good UNC-Greensboro team, I do think they’re starting to show positive signs moving forward. I also think we’ll learn a lot about them over the next four games when they play Seton Hall, Utah, North Carolina and Louisville.
More importantly, you know why else I’m not really worried? This happens every year with Kentucky. It really is the gift and the curse of having a completely new roster every season: It takes time to develop. Remember, the year that John Wall was on campus Kentucky needed a buzzer beater to take down Miami (OH). The same with 2011 and 2016 when the team struggled early only to get hot mid-season and win the SEC Tournament title. Heck, even last year the Wildcats didn’t look like all that much at this point in the season. Four months later they were SEC Tournament champs and a couple missed foul shots away from playing Loyola (IL) to go to the Final Four.
Now, do I think Kentucky has things they need to get better at? Absolutely. They need to play better defense, specifically on the perimeter. They need more consistency from some of their vets, most notably P.J. Washington. Clearly they are not a finished product. And clearly I will be more willing to hit the panic button if they struggle again against Seton Hall this weekend.
But at this particular moment, is there anything that makes me think that by the end of the season, Kentucky be peaking and able to compete with anyone – from Kansas to Michigan, Gonzaga, you name it? Honestly, history tells me that they’ll be able to.
Like everyone else in college hoops it will be fascinating to watch the Huskies evolve all season into March. And I’m excited to see where they’ll be at by the end of the season.