Well kids, welcome to 2019. It’s January 2nd, and with bowl games basically complete and the NFL playoffs about to get underway it also means one thing: We have just about reached the point on the calendar when we turn our undivided attention to college basketball.
While it isn’t fair to say we’ve reached the “halfway point” of the college basketball season just yet (more like the “40 percent of the way there point”) what is fair to say is that this is the time of year where things in college hoops really heat up. Conference play has started in some leagues already and all others will kick-off this weekend. It’s time to separate the boys from the men, hide the small children and really get down to business to find out who are the pretenders and contenders in this sport.
Of course, if you’ve been distracted up until this point and not fully engrossed in college basketball, it’s easy to understand. Again, there has been a lot to distract you – college football, the NFL regular season, the holidays, spending an uncomfortable amount of time with your family etc. – but now it’s time to get back on track.
For those who need a quick recap of what you missed, and what’s to come, here is everything you need to know about college basketball so far:
There is no clear-cut best team in college basketball – but eight or nine who can all beat each other on any given night
If the early season portion of the college hoops season has taught us anything, it’s that the top of the sport is as healthy as ever. There isn’t any one great team, no one that is steamrolling the competition and separating itself from the pack. There are however probably eight or nine teams that are a cut above the rest and all capable of beating just about any of each other on any given night.
As I’ve stated for weeks, I actually think the best team in college basketball is Tennessee. The Vols are currently 11-1 with their only loss coming in overtime, against Kansas when Grant Williams fouled out of the game. Other than that, they have wins over Gonzaga and Louisville, with every victory besides those two coming by double-figures. The Vols can play fast or slow, small or big. They have no obvious weaknesses as best I can tell.
After the Vols, you can go in any particular order you want. Duke has been largely dominant outside their loss to Gonzaga, with (as we all know) wins over Kentucky, Auburn and Texas Tech among others. The Blue Devils still have holes (particularly three-point shooting) but can still flip a switch and dominate when they want to. Same with Virginia, who might actually have enough offense (for once) to make a real run this year, and Michigan is undefeated as well. It is fair to question just how good the Wolverines are however, since their two best wins (blowouts against Villanova and North Carolina) don’t look quite as good as when they happened.
Then there is Gonzaga, a team which I believe might just be the best in college basketball overall. Yes, they have losses to Tennessee and at North Carolina, but they were also down two key players in those games and logged an insane amount of travel in the out of conference portion of play (including 10,000 miles over a three-week stretch). Nevada is undefeated, and I truly believe a national championship threat, and let’s not forget about Kansas. The Jayhawks are 11-1 with probably the best collection of wins in college basketball (Tennessee, Michigan State, Marquette, Villanova) and the crazy part is that they basically only have two guys who are playing well right now (Dedric Lawson and LaGerald Vick). Can you imagine what they might be like if Quentin Grimes starts hitting shots? Or when Udoka Azibuke is back to 100 percent?
Oh, and there’s one team I haven’t mentioned. How about…
Kentucky, which is the total wild card to this entire college basketball season
My oh my how the tides have changed in Lexington huh? A few weeks ago everyone (and I, regrettably, include myself in that group) had given up on the Wildcats and wondered what was wrong with them. Two weeks later they are coming off wins over North Carolina and at Louisville. And once again, idiots like me are left wondering not what’s wrong with the Cats… but what’s wrong with ourselves, for doubting John Calipari?
Yup, I’m that dope and as time goes on, I think two things are clear with Kentucky: One, the trip to the Bahamas set the bar too high, and if anything, probably gave this group a false sense of just how good they are. I’d also add that I think the Duke loss set the bar too low on what realistic expectations are, and that it probably took several weeks for the Wildcats to recover from that. As I said at the time, I truly believed that Duke just might have played their best game of the season that night in Indianapolis, and as the season goes on it’s looking more and more like it.
So that’s the reality, but the good news is that over the last few weeks Kentucky has really hit its stride. Since Quade Green’s departure all the pieces have fit into place, with Ashton Hagans now the leader at point guard, and everyone else falling in line behind him. With Tyler Herro now hitting open shots it adds another element to this team and will make them more deadly going forward. If he (and to a smaller degree, Jemarl Baker) can hit deep three’s regularly it creates more spacing and driving opportunities for the guards on this team.
I’d also add that with those two big wins, everything is still on the table for Kentucky. The SEC is a bit down this year, which means there are more wins to be had (and fewer likely losses as well) and remember, Kentucky still has another major out of conference game when they welcome in Kansas at home. We’ll have to wait and see how the Wildcats fair against Tennessee and Auburn, but if the Wildcats can take down Kansas and show well in the SEC it’s impossible to say just how high their ceiling might be. Yes, that could even include a No. 1 seed in the Louisville region. And if the Wildcats can play the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in Louisville, we all know how much easier the road to the Final Four could be from tehre.
A lot remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: All the goals Kentucky had at the beginning of the season are still ahead of them. Remind me again: Why did we doubt John Calipari?
The Pac-12 could go down as the worst Power 5 in the history of college basketball
This is not hyperbole. This is not me trying to create a storyline. But as things stand, it’s looking more and more likely that the Pac-12 will end up as a one-bid league. No Power 5 conference has ever been a one-bid league in the modern era, which leads me to this: Are we looking at the worst Power 5 conference ever?
It seems so.
And just to back it up, here are some results: UCLA is 7-6, with losses to Liberty and Belmont (which is why Steve Alford is currently unemployed). Oregon has lost to Texas Southern, coached by the man, the myth, the legend, former LSU coach, Johnny Jones. USC is 7-6 with losses to all five Power 5 teams on its schedule and also a loss at Santa Clara. No team enters league play with fewer than three losses, and one of those teams is Colorado. The Buffaloes still haven’t beaten a Power 5 team, and their three losses are to Indiana State, Hawaii and San Diego. Woof.
I could keep going but I’ll stop there. And isn’t an exaggeration to say that the only team that is truly in position to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if they don’t win the conference tournament title is Arizona State (maybe Arizona too). And even Arizona State just took a loss to Princeton at home. Double woof.
Now I know what you’re saying: “Buuuuuut Aaron, what if a team gets hot in league play. If they finish like 13-5 they’d have to get in.” Well here’s the problem with that: One, the committee – more than ever – values scheduling tough in the out of conference and winning. So while schools like USC, UCLA and Arizona would get credit for challenging themselves in the out of conference, they still had to win some of those games. Which for the most part, they didn’t.
More than that though, there really are no quality wins to be had in the conference. Sure, you can go 13-5 in league play, but if none of them are good wins (and pretty much none except for beating Arizona State would be) what’s even the point? Furthermore, considering how inconsistent these teams were in the out of conference, it doesn’t feel like any of those teams will get hot enough to actually get to 13-5 or 12-6 or 14-4 in league play.
Either way, it’s been a tough season in the Pac-12. And it doesn’t appear like it will get better any time soon.
To piggyback on that: I don’t know how we’re going to get to 68 teams period for the NCAA Tournament
Speaking of the Pac-12’s demise, it kind of speaks to a larger trend in college basketball: While the top of the sport is healthy as it’s been in a long time, the middle and bottom is… bleh. And if we’re being perfectly honest, I just have no idea how we get 68 worthy teams in the NCAA Tournament. Looking around the sport there just isn’t a ton of depth anywhere except for a few conferences.
Beyond just the Pac-12’s abysmalness (is that a word?) there are other places where the basketball is bad too. The Atlantic-10, which got three bids last year and is a traditional 2-3 bid league will only get one team. The Mountain West, which at one time was a 3-4 bid league, has Nevada and maaaaaaaybe Utah State. If the Wolf Pack wins the conference tournament, there is a realistic chance that the Mountain West gets just one bid. The SEC, which had a record eight bids last year, is looking more like a five, or maybe six bid league in 2019. And the Big East, which usually gets six or seven bids might be down to three or four this year.
So that’s the bad news. The good news however is that it’s a great year to be a mid-major battling to try to earn a mid-major bid. The MAC for example has four teams that are sitting at either 12-1 or 11-2, including Buffalo which already has wins at West Virginia and Syracuse. The WCC, which is usually “Gonzaga and the eight ugly stepchildren” looks like a league which can get an extra couple bids, with San Francisco and San Diego both making compelling cases in the out of conference.
Again, I’m still not sure how we get to 68 NCAA Tournament teams. But if you’re a fan of the mid-majors getting their shot, this will be an enjoyable NCAA Tournament for you.
Steve Alford was the first big-time head coach to be let go this season
This news hit well after midnight on Sunday and landed on New Year’s Eve day, so it got a bit lost in the shuffle. But Steve Alford is out at UCLA.
And frankly, I’m a bit surprised by some of the reaction to it.
When the news hit I saw a lot of people say “How can you fire him mid-season like that?” Well, the Bruins were 7-6, with losses to Liberty and Belmont. They lost to Cincinnati by 30 points and double-figures to Ohio State, North Carolina and Michigan State. The fans had stopped showing up and the team had clearly stopped playing for him. When people are asking “How did they fire Steve Alford mid-season” I’d almost ask the exact opposite: How could you keep him? If anything, the guy was stealing money from the school.
In terms of what’s next, that’s what is interesting. The reality is that UCLA was already putting together a list of names since before Alford was fired – truthfully, his firing was inevitable once they lost to St. Bonaventure in the “First Four” of the NCAA Tournament last year. Early on, I heard the names to look out for were former UCLA guard and Phoenix Suns coach Earl Watson and Nevada’s Eric Musselman. Although since the firing happened, the name I’ve heard more than any other is former Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.
So per multiple reports, Steve Alford has officially been fired at UCLA. Have heard that UCLA has quietly been putting together a list of candidates for weeks. Names I've heard most are Earl Watson and Eric Musselman. Guy they want with no chance of getting: Billy Donovan
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) December 31, 2018
At the same time, I would add this: It’s hard to know who realistic candidates at UCLA are until we know exactly what the school is willing to do for its next coach. Understand that historically, UCLA has been comically cheap in how they run their athletic department and has almost always taken the attitude “We’re UCLA. People should be HONORED to coach for us.” It’s led to low pay for assistant coaches and skimping on other amenities. The Bruins rarely charter flights (laughable for a program of its stature) and how about this: They just opened a basketball practice facility last year. For comparison’s sake: Grand Canyon University had a basketball practice facility before UCLA. GRAND. FREAKIN. CANYON.
The good news for fans is that things seem to finally be changing. The Bruins spent a crap ton of money to buy out former football coach Jim Mora and Alford, and have put a ton of money into football since Chip Kelly arrived. We’ll find out soon enough whether they’re willing to do the same for basketball. But until we know whether UCLA is willing to pay top dollar not just for the head coach but assistants and provide that coach with what they need to win, it’s impossible to know who the true candidates are for that job.
(By the way, I’ll have more on the UCLA coaching search tomorrow on my podcast. Subscribe here)
One person who is NOT a candidate: Rick Pitino
I’ll be honest, I’m amazed at the number of people who have thrown Pitino’s name out there.
Look, I understand that he is one of the great X’s and O’s coaches of all-time. I understand he would bring a winning culture to UCLA. I understand he’d be a name brand that would pique fan’s interests. But, am I the only one who remembers that he was also part of two of the most scandalous investigations in college basketball history? You know, the whole “hookers in dorm rooms” and “Paying $100,000 for a recruit?”
So when you think about it in that perspective it means two things. First off, the NCAA still hasn’t come close to finishing its investigation into the Brian Bowen deal. And until they do, no school is going to hire Pitino as a head coach. And that’s assuming UCLA would even want to hire him. Which again, considering the standard that they hold themselves to seems unlikely. While UCLA may be delusional in terms of where they stand in the college basketball pecking order, it also means that they aren’t going to hire a coach with as much baggage as Pitino.
I truly believe Pitino will get another opportunity to be a Division I head coach. It only takes one AD willing to take a risk. But it won’t happen at UCLA.
Yes, Nevada can realistically go undefeated
So if you follow me on Twitter or listen to my podcast, you know I’ve been on the Muss Bus for ages now (for the uninformed, the Muss Buss is the bandwagon named after Nevada coach Eric Musselman). When I hopped on in the middle of last season there was plenty of open seats available, comfortable legroom and plenty of storage. Now, the bandwagon has gotten so tight, we’re forced to shove the small children and elderly into the overhead bins.
In all seriousness though, I think there is at least a 50/50 chance that Nevada will finish the regular season undefeated. The bottom-line is that the Wolf Pack have already played the tough portion of their schedule, beating Arizona State on a neutral, with road wins at USC, Utah and Loyola-Chicago. Even if the Pac-12 is down, beating both on the road is a truly impressive feat. Speaking of which, the Wolf Pack are battle-tested overall, with seven wins away from home already. I’m not positive, but I’d guess that’s the most in college basketball. It’s certainly the most of anyone in the Top 25.
And when you add in that the Wolf Pack have real, true talent (I’d guess at least 4-5 of their guys will at least get a spot on an NBA Summer League roster, and 2-3 will find NBA homes) and that the Mountain West is down this season, the chances of the Pack running the table seem high.
Ironically, one of the toughest games left on the schedule is actually tonight, when they host Utah State (probably the second best team in the Mountain West) at home. If you’re willing to stay up, that one tips off at 11 p.m. ET.
Finally, as good as college basketball has been this season – there is so much more to come
At this point I don’t know what to say. We’ve hit on the best teams, we’ve hit on the underdogs, the favorites, undefeateds, you name it.
The only thing left to say is that as good as the college basketball season has been so far, it’s only going to get better. There are still teams that are going to emerge, surprise mid-majors, coaching changes and a million other little things that will pop up as the season wears on. Can Kansas win a billionth straight Big 12 title? Can Nevada finish undefeated? Can the ACC get two No. 1 seeds with Duke and Virginia? How high can this Kentucky team rise? Who else will emerge over the second half of the year?
It’s been fun so far, and the best is yet to come.
Enjoy every minute while you can. We’re already at the “40 percent of the way there point” of the season.
Before you know it, it’ll be April and we’ll be crowning a national champion in Minneapolis.