Which SEC team will emerge as a top contender? What will Trae Young do in March? Which mid-major team is capable of scoring a big upset? These questions will shape the rest of the college basketball season.
The college basketball regular season is nearing its closing stretch. Teams have played about half of their conference schedules, and Thursday marks the first day of the final month before the one that has become synonymous with the sport’s gloriously unpredictable single-elimination tournament. At this point, we have a pretty good feel for which squads are good, which ones are not so good, and which ones are so inconsistent that they don’t fall into either category. The second half of league play will provide more answers, but for now, here are four questions to think about as the postseason approaches.
This is the 10th 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.
Which team outside the Power 5/Big East should your team be scared of in the tourney?
To avoid any confusion over the contemporary meaning of the term mid-major, it’s best to lay out which leagues are under consideration here: Every one of them other than the football Power 5 (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) and the Big East. There was on obvious choice at the outset of the season, when Wichita State claimed the No. 7 and No. 8 spots in the AP Top 25 and Coaches Polls and had a higher chance to reach the national title game than any other team in Division I, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. But it’s no longer clear that the Shockers are the best squad outside of that group of six leagues, or even their own league, the American Athletic Conference. Wichita State’s defense has fallen well short of the stingy coverage that fueled its rise into a Missouri Valley Conference juggernaut under head coach Gregg Marshall. The Shockers are allowing opponents to convert a higher percentage of their two-point field goal attempts than in any season since 2009-10, and this week they slipped outside the top 70 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency. By contrast, only one D-I team has held opponents to a lower shooting percentage inside the three-point arc than fellow AAC member Cincinnati, and the Bearcats have not lost since a two-game skid in early December against Xavier and Florida, whereas the Shockers are 2-2 over their last four conference tilts.
Stepping outside of the AAC, Rhode Island has separated itself from the rest of the Atlantic 10 by forcing turnovers on nearly a fourth of opponents’ possessions, taking good care of the ball and letting senior guard Jared Terrell cook. Out West, Saint Mary’s is 10-0 against (admittedly weak) West Coast Conference competition, and Gonzaga’s only in-league loss to date came against the Gaels. That result notwithstanding, and making due allowance for the possibility of Saint Mary’s big man Jock Landale feasting on front court defenders unfamiliar with his advanced inside scoring arsenal, the Zags could be a better bet to get to the second weekend on account of their stouter defense. Two more teams from this area of the country that shouldn’t be overlooked are Nevada, which has collectively drained more than 40% of its 23.4 three-point attempts per game, and Mountain West competitor Boise State, which is led by a potential first-round draft pick, senior wing Chandler Hutchinson.
What should we expect from Trae Young?
There was a time, not that long ago, when the Trae Young story was simple and straightforward. For much of the first two months of the season, Young looked like the best player in the country because he was either scoring or passing to teammates who scored, pretty much whenever he wanted, wherever on the court he wanted. During an eight-game stretch between a Nov. 23 meeting with Arkansas at the PK80 tournament and Oklahoma’s Dec. 30 conference-play opener at TCU, Young averaged 31.4 points and 10.8 assists while making about half of his shot attempts, including more than 40% of his threes, in 33 minutes per game. But as the Sooners began taking on water during the early part of conference play, a certain strain of the Young discussion centered on his inefficiency and the detrimental effect it seemed to be having on his team’s performance. Young was posting big numbers, but he was also turning the ball over a lot and jacking up shots without much apparent restraint, including when he let fly 39 times in an overtime loss at Oklahoma State on Jan. 20. Three days later, Young slashed his FGA total by 30 in a massive win over Kansas and, on Tuesday, he provided a glimpse of the version of himself we saw back in the fall by delivering one of his best efforts of the season: 44 points, 11-of-20 from the field and nine assists in a two-point victory over Baylor in Norman.
When Young scores in volume while making more of his shots than he misses, like he did in vanquishing the Bears, there is very little to say about him that is not unreservedly laudatory. Chances are Young will not be able to pull that off in remaining games against teams with firmer defenses, starting with Saturday’s trip to face a Texas squad anchored by maybe this draft class’s top prospect on that end of the floor, 6'11" freshman Mohamed Bamba. If Young’s buckets aren’t coming as easily as they did against Baylor, he may just keep firing away, shooting percentages be damned, or he could dial it back and focus on creating good looks for his teammates. Either way, and even though it feels like he’s nearing lock status on a sweep of the National Player of the Year awards, Young will remain the most compelling player in the country.
Who rules the SEC?
The moment the SEC officially got weird was the conclusion of a game that involved only one SEC team. On Saturday night, an inexperienced Kentucky squad with a propensity for turning the ball over went into WVU Coliseum to beat a West Virginia outfit with no Power 5 equal when it comes to recording takeaways. That victory, which should age well despite the Mountaineers’ poor form of late, didn’t affect the Wildcats’ conference win-loss ledger, but it did help them overcome a shaky opening stretch in the SEC that at the very least raised the possibility that Kentucky was headed for a spot on the bubble. (Tuesday’s close call with Vanderbilt showed the Wildcats are still a work in progress.) About an hour before the game in Morgantown tipped off, Auburn commenced a 25-point smackdown of LSU that pushed the Tigers’ conference record to 7-1, in advance of Tuesday’s win at Ole Miss.
Auburn has improbably emerged from a cloud of scandal and the related absences of two key players (sophomore center Austin Wiley and sophomore forward Daniel Purifoy) to deliver the program’s best season since Bruce Pearl took over as head coach in 2014. The Tigers have one of the league’s most potent perimeter scoring threats in 6'3" junior Bryce Brown, and opponents have to contend with one of the nation’s most prolific shot swatters in 6'7" sophomore Anfernee McLemore. It would be easier to evaluate Auburn had it already faced Kentucky and Florida, the latter of which looked Final Four-good after beating Stanford and Gonzaga and pushing Duke in a three-point loss over a four-day span at the PK80 tournament in Portland in November. But the Gators followed that up by falling in three of their next four games, including a six-point defeat to MVC foe Loyola Chicago in Gainesville. Florida is similar to Kentucky in that it has hinted at having a higher ceiling than anyone else in the SEC but has also proven vulnerable to being upended by inferior league competition, while Tennessee, the winner in seven of its last eight games, has vastly outstripped preseason projections. The SEC is not lacking quality teams, but it’s difficult to tell whether one will ascend above the others.
Has any team (or teams) separated itself from the rest of the pack?
Back in December, before the start of conference play, it felt like one of the main themes of discussion about this season would be its dearth of “great teams.” For the first time since 1948-49, according to ESPN Stats & Information, No D-I squad made it to New Year’s Day without a loss and none had plainly distinguished itself as a cut above the competition—not like, say, the Kentucky group that took a 38-0 record into its Final Four meeting with Wisconsin in 2015. There may not be a 2017-18 analogue of those Wildcats, but perhaps it’s worth reassessing the view that this season is completely devoid of superpowers.
Villanova, for one, is sporting a 20-1 record and looks set to cruise to its fifth consecutive Big East title. The Wildcats lead D-I in effective field goal percentage (which adjusts for the added value of the three-point shot), they have the nation’s best point guard (junior Jalen Brunson) running the show and a future first-round pick who’s taken his game to another level (junior Mikal Bridges), and their only defeat this season came when Butler drained 15 of its 22 three-point attempts against them in Hinkle Fieldhouse in late December. If, for whatever reason, you don’t have faith in Villanova, Purdue is working on an 18-game winning streak, it’s making a higher percentage of its three-point shots than any other squad in the country and it has a well-fitting cast of veterans surrounding a breakout sophomore (point guard Carsen Edwards). Virginia is not as imposing on both ends of the court as Purdue is, but its defense has a chance to be one of the best since the turn of the century, it takes really good care of the ball and it has one of this season’s most impressive victories on its résumé, a two-point triumph over Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday. Those three squads are sitting in the top three spots of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, with adjusted efficiency margins of +32.50 (Villanova), +31.97 (Virginia) and +31.03 (Purdue). No other team’s margin is higher than +28.45 (Duke). The Wildcats, Boilermakers and Cavaliers could well stumble one or more times before entering the tourney, but for now, they may belong in their own, elite tier.