With the end of December coming and January about to hit, it means that – as crazy as it sounds – we are almost done with out of conference games in college basketball. That’s right, outside of Louisville-Kentucky this weekend, and the Big 12-SEC showdown in late January, virtually all the big out of conference games have been played.
So long, Maui Invitational. Adios, Champions Classic. League play really is just about upon us. Which is crazy to think.
So with virtually all the big out of conference games behind us, now seems like as good of a time as any to reflect back on the first two months of the season, figure out what we’ve learned, and what it all could mean going forward as we head into 2020 and head towards March.
The Rumors Are True: There is No Great Team in College Basketball This Year
So far this season, the single biggest talking point in the national media is that “there are no great teams in college basketball.” And while sometimes media narratives are overblown, I hate to admit that this one is 100 percent accurate. Also if you want to gift something to your basketball lover friend then you must check out from roadtoreno. They have many great options.
At some point I’ll do a bigger picture article on why that is the case, but the bottom line is that a crazy confluence of things, have led us to this situation.
In no particular order, the reason that college basketball is so bad this year is because:
- A not great freshman class has been ravaged by injuries (Cole Anthony) and defections to the pros (James Wiseman, RJ Hampton).
- Over the last few years, more players have left college early even with an uncertain pro future. For example, think Tennessee could use Jordan Bone this season, or Kentucky Keldon Johnson? Neither of those guys have played a minute in the NBA this season.
- And unlike last year where many of the top freshmen ended up at Duke and Kentucky to form two of the 10 best teams in the sport, the best players are scattered at unusual outposts across the country, including Georgia (Anthony Edwards), Washington (Jaden McDaniels, Isaiah Stewart) and Memphis (Wiseman, Precious Achiuwa).
All of that has led to where we are today. And the results have largely backed up the fact that the top teams just aren’t as good as usual this season.
As has been documented time and time again, it’s led to a season where we’ve had five different teams sit at No. 1 only to lose shortly thereafter. It’s also led to all sorts of weird results including Kentucky losing to Evansville, Duke losing to Stephen F. Austin, and less stunning results that could be just as telling. For example, Louisville has looked bad against the two good teams they’ve played this season (Michigan and Texas Tech). How good are they? Kansas’s best win is against who, Dayton? And that was in overtime. Are we positive the Jayhawks are that good? Same with Michigan State. Who is their best win? A Seton Hall team which has struggled for most of November and December?
Point being, it’s a wide-open season. And one that looks like it will remain as crazy for the next three months as it has been for the last two.
Not Only Is There No Zion Williamson This Season, There’s No Ja Morant Either
Quite a bit has been made over the last few months about the fact that there is “No Zion Williamson in college basketball,” a transcendent freshman talent, like Anthony Davis, John Wall or Kevin Durant in previous years that you needed to tune into watch, regardless of which team you rooted for.
Still, you know what is more shocking to me? For all the talk about there being “No Zion Williamson in college basketball,” there’s “No Ja Morant” either.
What do I mean by that?
It’s that for all the hype about the freshmen in college basketball, it feels like almost always, there are veterans who emerge as stars, and potential lottery picks. Last year, it was Ja Morant, but it was also Jarrett Culver at Texas Tech, Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura at Gonzaga, and PJ Washington, who was just starting to get going at Kentucky around this time last year. Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield also both returned at Tennessee with the label of “good college prospects with limited NBA futures” only to be drastically improved and gain first round buzz by the end of the season. Same at Virginia, where Ty Jerome evolved into a first round pick and DeAndre Hunter one of the best players in college basketball.
But this season? Who are the veterans that have emerged as stars and high NBA Draft picks in the sport? The only one I can think of is Dayton’s Obi Toppin, who is averaging 19 points and eight rebounds for the Flyers this year. Outside of him, maybe Jordan Nwora?
After that, there really is no one.
And more than anything, I think that’s why we see no great teams this year. Understand that it’s one thing to have a Zion Williamson or John Wall to carry your team, but the vast majority of time, it’s improved veterans who help make great teams. They’re the guys who carried Texas Tech and Gonzaga and Tennessee and Virginia last year.
But this year, those guys haven’t emerged. And college basketball has largely suffered because of it.
The Big Ten is Probably the Deepest Conference, the Big East Is the Best Top to Bottom:
Admittedly, this article is feeling a bit “doomy and gloomy” at this point, so let’s turn that frown upside down, and get to some positives. The first is this: The Big Ten is a really, really good conference this season.
Want a wild stat to show just how awesome this league has been? Overall, there have already been 14 Big Ten conference games, and incredibly, the road team is just 1-13 in those games. That’s right. Home teams are 13-1 in Big Ten play so far. Ohio State suffered a loss at Minnesota, Michigan at Illinois and the only road win was Michigan State (maybe the best team in the league) beating Northwestern (maybe the worst team in the league) in Evanston.
I only bring that up to show that night in and night out this league might evolve into the most entertaining to watch this season. Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State are legit Top 15 teams at this point, Maryland is crazy talented, and I actually believe that Iowa (although they lost lead guard Jordan Bohannon for the season a few weeks ago), Indiana and even Rutgers – yes Rutgers – are all pretty good also. You feel like Purdue will eventually turn a corner as well.
As for the best league top to bottom? To me it’s the Big East. Just last week, Villanova beat Kansas, Seton Hall beat Maryland without Myles Powell, St. John’s beat Arizona, Creighton won at Arizona State and Providence crushed Texas.
Truth be told, there are no really bad teams in this league. Which will make it wildly entertaining going forward.
It’s A Banner Year for West Coast Hoops
As many of you know I live on the West Coast, and I’ll be the first to admit, that when people say “there isn’t the same passion for college hoops on the West Coast,” that’s largely true. There are a handful of places that care (Tucson, Arizona and Spokane, Washington come to mind) but there aren’t nearly as many places that care, nearly as much on the East Coast and in the Midwest.
Therefore, I get why this entire region has a bad reputation, but I’d double down by saying that this is a banner year for West Coast hoops.
For starters, Gonzaga is No. 1 in the country, with a legitimate resume that includes wins over Oregon, at Washington, at Arizona and North Carolina. San Diego State is one of only four undefeated teams left and if you haven’t seen them, they are really good, and absolutely capable of making a deep tournament run. In the smaller conferences, Saint Mary’s, BYU and Utah State look good as well (more on them coming in a bit). New Mexico is crazy talented and good enough to make the NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile, for the first time in a long time, the Pac-12 itself looks like it has teams capable of making a real run in March. Oregon has already beaten Memphis, won at Michigan and beaten Seton Hall. Arizona and Washington are young, but crazy talented, Colorado just beat Dayton over the weekend, and USC picked up a nice win against LSU.
All this comes as a best-case scenario for the Pac-12 as well, especially when you consider…
This is the Weakest I Can Ever Remember the ACC
Since the Big East broke up a few years ago, the ACC has emerged as the annual best conference in college basketball. And while all the focus is on the North Carolina’s, Duke’s and Louisville’s, what has made the league so good is its depth. Just last year, Florida State and Virginia Tech (Virginia Tech!) made the Sweet 16. The year before, Clemson did the same, with Florida State advancing to the Elite Eight.
Again, the depth is what makes this league so lethal.
It’s also what has made it kind of incredible to follow this season. Duke and Louisville both appear to be pretty good, and then…
Seriously, think about it. Who is good?
North Carolina is sitting at 7-5, and with Cole Anthony not slated to come back for a few weeks (if at all) you’ve got to wonder just what their ceiling is, or if they’ll even make the NCAA Tournament (if Anthony doesn’t come back soon, my hunch is “no”). Virginia is back to their pre-2019 look, where they can only win games played in the 50’s – basically if you can score more than 60 on them, you have a good chance of winning. Other than that, Florida State appears to be pretty good, but hardly great. And I think NC State is good… but they’ve also lost to the two best teams on their schedule (Memphis and at Auburn).
Point being that a conference that is used to get seven, eight or nine bids looks like one that might only get four or five this year.
It’s the Same with the SEC
As someone who was banging the drum about how improved the SEC was a few years ago, it pains me to say this but… SEC basketball stinks this year. I don’t want to say it’s dipped to pre-2018 levels, but man, look at the standings, woof.
Florida was a preseason Final Four contender that is now 7-4 with losses to basically every good team on its schedule. LSU’s ceiling wasn’t quite as high, but they too are 7-4 with major problems. Alabama was supposed to be a tourney team this year, and instead are barely over .500 at 6-5. Georgia has Anthony Edwards but no signature wins, and we all know that Kentucky hasn’t picked up a signature win since Michigan State.
It also means that through two months of the season, the only two teams that you could say have exceeded expectations so far are Auburn and Arkansas. Yet even those teams have holes. As Bruce Pearl recently mentioned on my podcast (Which you can download here), the Tigers have beaten just one Power 5 team, and that was NC State at home. Same with Arkansas, whose sole Power 5 win was at the buzzer against Georgia Tech.
The good news is that just about every team in this league (certainly including Kentucky) should feel good that they can make a run once they get to league play. The question of course is: Will any of these teams actually pull it off?
Expect Mid-Majors to Get More Bids Than Usual
With the ACC, Big 12 and SEC all down, it means that – in theory – it will be harder than ever to find 68 worthy NCAA Tournament teams. But there is a silver lining: If you’re tired of seeing bad power conference teams get bids (sorry, but a 17-15 team should never be in consideration for an at-large no matter how tough their schedule was), you’re in luck. Because more than I can ever remember before, there are teams from non-Power 6 conferences in line to get at-large bids.
For example, the Atlantic 10 has to feel really good about getting three or potentially more NCAA Tournament bids. Dayton – with wins over Georgia and Virginia Tech – appears to be in pretty good shape heading into league play, and same with Richmond, who has already beaten Wisconsin, Vanderbilt and Boston College. VCU has a couple of big wins (including LSU at home) and so too does Rhode Island (which beat Alabama earlier this season) and Saint Louis (Kansas State and Boston College). George Mason and Duquesne both have one loss and could conceivably get at-large bids as well. All these teams won’t end up in the tournament. But at least a few probably will.
Meanwhile, the AAC is almost always a multi-bid league and should be in good position again this year, with Memphis in the Top 25, Wichita State knocking on the door and Houston again playing well, after beating Washington earlier this week. In the WCC, it would take a monumental collapse for Gonzaga not to make the tourney, and Saint Mary’s (with wins over Wisconsin, Arizona State and Cal) and BYU (UCLA, Houston, Virginia Tech) are in good shape as well. The Mountain West should feel great about getting at least two teams with San Diego State and Utah State in prime position to get bids, with New Mexico knocking on the door too.
Finally, the NCAA Tournament Field Will be as Wide Open as Ever
I just gave you a whole bunch of words on the state of college hoops, but if I can sum it up it’s with this: With no great teams and no great players, it feels like this season is as wide open as any season in recent college basketball history.
Seriously, I know we always say that, but would it surprise you if any of, oh I don’t know, 30 or 40 teams made a real run in the NCAA Tournament season? Like, would it surprise you if a San Diego State or Dayton made a run to the Elite Eight or Final Four, or if a Duke, Louisville or Kansas lost on the first weekend? Would it be stunning if someone like Baylor or Texas Tech or Maryland won the title? The answer to all of the above should be “no.”
Yes, it’s been a tough few months if you enjoy the big brands in college basketball. But it’s setting up for a wild few months, where no team is out of it, and a truly crazy March Madness.
Buckle up. It’s going to be a fun, and wild ride.