- Although teams are just starting to churn through their league schedules, a select few have emerged from the pack. From a clear frontrunner for player of the year, to the most competitive league and a national championship favorite, these four storylines are dominating the conversation.
The first two months of the college basketball season can be misleading. What teams do in November and December against schedules of vastly different strengths often isn’t a reliable indicator of how they’ll perform during conference play. Squads that pile up wins against creampuffs may need to brace for harsh reality checks, while others that challenged themselves against other high-majors may be more formidable than their record indicates. As outfits across the country begin grinding through their league schedules, it’s worth reflecting on what unfolded during the fall. Below are four big-picture takeaways from the non-conference portion of the season.
This is the sixth version of a weekly column analyzing four college hoops topics bound by some underlying narrative thread. If there’s something you’d like to see in this space, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.
The Big 12 is the best conference in the country
Kansas entered the season as the odds-on favorite to win at least a share of its 14th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title, which would break the record UCLA set from 1967-1979. The Jayhawks are not going to have an easy time pulling it off because the league, from top to bottom, is the strongest in Division I, a truth thrown into sharp relief on Tuesday night, when Texas Tech went into Allen Fieldhouse and left with an eight-point win. The Red Raiders have a first-rate playmaker and scorer at point guard in senior Keenan Evans, and their only non-league loss was by 10 points to a team (Seton Hall) with a good shot to finish second in a different high-major league (the Big East).
But it’s not just Texas Tech. West Virginia bounced back from its opening-night loss to Texas A&M in Germany to rip off 11 consecutive wins heading into conference play. Oklahoma is led by the best player in the nation, Trae Young (more on him below). TCU was riding a 17-game winning streak before Young ensured the Sooners snapped it on Saturday in Fort Worth. None of the Big 12’s teams disappointed in a major way during the fall, and various power ratings paint a rosy picture of the state of play in the conference. The Big 12’s lead on the No. 2 league in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency margin, the ACC, is larger than the gap between the ACC and the No. 5 league in that metric, the Big Ten, and only three of the Big 12’s squads, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, ranks outside the top 40 in the country. There’s more than a decade of evidence suggesting that betting against Kansas to hang a league banner is a bad idea, but the Jayhawks are going to face, at minimum, a moderate challenge in every game from here on out, including a Big 12/SEC Challenge meeting with Texas A&M on Jan. 27. One obvious downside to the Big 12’s strength is that intra-league attrition could hurt its chances of placing teams on favorable NCAA tournament seed lines and thus positioning them for deep runs. The conference looks on track to put 70% of its teams in the field, but even the squads jockeying for real estate at the top of the standings are probably going to slip up a few times in January and February.
Villanova is not slowing down
The Wildcats have not been overlooked this season. They received all but two first-place votes in the Big East’s preseason poll, they walked into their opener against Columbia ranked sixth in the AP Top 25 Poll and moved to No. 1 by the middle of December, after stomping Gonzaga in the Jimmy V Classic. But as the Wildcats dive into conference play, it’s worth reflecting on what they’ve accomplished since the Big East’s transformation into the Catholic 7 + Creighton, Butler and Xavier.
In four seasons prior to 2017-18, Villanova claimed four outright conference titles, earned a pair of No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, posted a 129-17 record and won the program’s second national championship. The Wildcats achieved all of that despite losing important contributors every off-season, from James Bell in 2014 to Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston in 2015 to Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu in 2016 to Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins in 2017. One of the two top players on this Villanova squad, wing Mikal Bridges, was an off-the-bench role guy on the Wildcats’ title team who’s since blossomed into a potential NBA draft lottery pick, while the other top player, Jalen Brunson, has built a credible case as the nation’s premier point guard since taking a backseat to Final Four Most Outstanding Player Arcidiacono on that same team. That duo has steered Villanova to a 13-1 start this season, and they’re surrounded by a staggering amount of scoring firepower in a rotation that can shapeshift based on matchups. The Wildcats have shooting at every position—including at center, where redshirt freshman Omari Spellman has knocked down 48.8% of his 41 tries from deep so far—and Bridges is capable of guarding 1 through 4. Saturday’s result at Butler offered a reminder that no Power 5 powerhouse is impervious to ridiculous three-point shooting (in the Bulldogs’ case, 15-for-22) or 30-footers in transition from Paul Jorgensen, but more likely than not, by March that loss will look like a speed bump on a mostly smooth path to a No. 1 seed. It’s too soon to say whether this Wildcats outfit is better than the four that came before it, but arguably no squad looks better suited right now to cut down the nets in San Antonio.
The Big Ten lacks depth
Miles Bridges’s announcement last April that he was returning to school eliminated any doubt over who’d open the season as the frontrunner to win the Big Ten. Not only would the Spartans have Bridges back, but it was reasonable to expect leaps from sophomore classmates Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward; senior Gavin Schilling and graduate transfer Ben Carter would be available after sitting out 2016-17 with knee injuries; and possible one-and-done big man Jaren Jackson Jr. was en route. Michigan State warranted the national title hype it received, and it didn’t have any obvious challengers in the Big Ten. At 15th, Minnesota was the conference’s highest-ranked team after the Spartans in both the preseason AP Top 25 and Coaches Polls, and at 17th, Purdue checked in as the league’s No. 2 team in Sports Illustrated’s preseason projections. The first two months of the season did little to change the perception of the Big Ten as a top-heavy league filled with mostly mediocre teams.
Purdue has held up well on both ends of the floor without National Player of the Year candidate Caleb Swanigan, and it seems to have hit its stride after taking a pair of losses to Tennessee and Western Kentucky in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November, having notched 10 consecutive wins, one of which came over Pac-12 juggernaut Arizona. Yet the Boilermakers and Spartans are the only two Big Ten teams rated in the top 30 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, and five teams fall outside the top 80. By comparison, the 15-team ACC has seven in the top 30 and five outside the top 50. Michigan State’s work in November and December shouldn’t have prompted anyone to hop off the Spartans bandwagon. They ripped through their out-of-league slate with only one loss, to fellow national title contender Duke, but the majority of the rest of the Big Ten’s squads have underwhelmed, none more so than Northwestern, which followed up its tourney breakthrough in 2017 by blowing every one of its big opportunities against non-league competition, including a 36-point drubbing at the hands of Texas Tech on a neutral court, and opened league play 1-2 with a 15-point loss to lowly Nebraska. The conference’s ugly nonconference body of work will serve to drag down the number of quality wins available during the conference season. Based on how things look right now, anything more than five bids to the NCAAs feels like a stretch.
Trae Young stands alone in the National Player of the Year race
The competition for National Player of the Year awards is, at present, nonexistent. Oklahoma freshman Trae Young has pulled so far away from the rest of the pack that the conversation should be limited, for the time being, to what he, and he only, does on a game-by-game basis. There is no recent precedent for Young’s combination of volume and efficiency. According to sports-reference.com, only two qualifying guards since the 2009-10 season have posted an Offensive Rating of at least 128 while using at least 30% of his team’s plays during his time on the floor. Former Weber State and current Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard is one of them, with a 128.4 ORtg on 33% usage. The other is Young, with a 130.2 ORtg on a staggering 37.1% usage. Young is a Nitrous Oxide-powered offensive engine who’s sinking 40.2% of his shots from behind the three-point arc and 55% from inside it, drawing more fouls (8.2) per 40 minutes than any other Big 12 player and assisting on a higher percentage (57.3) of his teammates’ baskets while he’s on the court than anyone else in the nation, according to Kenpom.com.
Young also offers a viscerally thrilling viewing experience. Watching him pull up off the dribble to bury long-range bombs with a defender in his face, it feels like he’s some sort of unsolvable math problem, like he’s pushing the boundaries of what a college player can do to bend a defense to his will. His prodigious production lifted Oklahoma to not-so-neutral neutral-site non-con wins over Oregon (in Portland) and USC (at the Staples Center) plus true road victories over then-No. 3 Wichita State and then-No. 10 TCU. As a result, the Sooners have risen from unranked in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll to No. 7. If Young stays in the statistical vicinity of the numbers he’s put up so far and Oklahoma pushes Kansas, West Virginia, TCU, Texas Tech and whoever else emerges for a finish near the top of the Big 12 standings, there won’t be any intrigue over who’ll take home the NPOY awards. The vast gulf between Young and the rest of the field is less a commentary on the lack of serious competitors than Young’s own brilliance. Don’t miss the opportunity to watch him this season, because it’s looking more and more like it’ll be his last one before heading to the NBA.