- With football season over and one month until March Madness, it's time for college basketball to move into the spotlight. Haven't been tuning in? Don't worry—we're here to get you up to speed on chaos that is already underway.
Rarely does a fairly prominent sport’s media contingent explicitly and implicitly work within a framework of the sport being largely ignored for most of its season, but such is the lot for those of us who cover college hoops. You can see it in every clamoring for college basketball to build a better opening day, or the way writers compel Twitter followers to tune in to certain games, or the reliable big-picture articles catching people up on where things stand during a season casual followers are presumed to have been largely ignoring.
Well, welcome to one such piece. With last night’s Super Bowl wrapping up the NFL season and thus flipping the American sporting calendar, it’s a good time to reach out to those who spend the fall and early winter outside the college basketball-scape and welcome them into the fold with a refresher on and/or introduction to the current season. For those of you late to joining us, and here are 10 things you should know to get acclimated.
1. There’s no truly dominant team, but there are some very, very good ones.
While Duke became a heavy preseason favorite once top prospect Marvin Bagley III reclassified to enroll in college this fall and Michigan State and Arizona also entered with understandably lofty expectations, all three have hit bumps of various kinds along the way and slipped a bit in standing. No team in the country even made it to January undefeated and only two still sport just one blemish: Villanova and Virginia. It’s those two teams and Purdue that have, to differing degrees of surprisingness, emerged as the strongest contenders thus far. Villanova has the country’s most efficient offense thus far, but a susceptible defense ranked just 42nd that was positively lit up in the Wildcats’ lone loss, at Butler. Virginia’s imbalance is inverted, as has become customary in the Tony Bennett era, with the Cavaliers’ D ranked No. 1 in efficiency and its offense 33rd, but with such a particularly stout defense, this might be the best such team Bennett has had. And Purdue, which has not lost since Thanksgiving, offers a tantalizing balance (third in offense, 16th in defense) and pairs elite outside shooting (42.8% from three, second nationally, with five players shooting 39.6% or better) with the presence of 7’2” center Isaac Haas. Those three are your current best bets for No. 1 seeds come March.
2. Trae Young is the freshman you may already know—and should.
The 6’2”, 180-pound Oklahoma guard is not only leading the country in both points (29.8) and assists (9.7) per game, but also posting averages that would be among the four best in either category over the last two decades. Though he was a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American, nobody expected Young to so immediately and so thoroughly dominate the college game, drawing earnest Steph Curry comparisons along the way for the audacity and distance of his shots. (Here’s one sampling of highlights from a particularly impressive performance vs. TCU last month.) Young has drawn praise from such luminaries as Curry himself and LeBron James and become such an attraction that ESPN has taken to posting a banner displaying his stats atop the scoreboard during its broadcasts of Sooners games. As for Young’s team, Oklahoma started the season 12-1 and reached as high as No. 4 in the polls but has struggled in Big 12 road games and is now 6-4 in the league and 16-6 overall.
3. As you might imagine, there are other dominant players too.
The state of college hoops being what it is, there’s a strong crop of first-year players that have instantly become key figures in the sport’s landscape. Bagley, a versatile 6’11” forward who is expected to be in contention for the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA Draft, is a likely first-team All-America (21.4 points, 11.2 rebounds per game) who starts for Duke alongside two other potential one-and-done lottery picks in wing Gary Trent Jr. (15.0 points, 44.8% from three) and Wendell Carter Jr. (14.4 points, 9.6 rebounds). Bagley’s biggest competitor for the top draft spot among American prospects is Arizona seven-footer Deandre Ayton, who is averaging 19.7 points and 10.8 rebounds with a well-rounded game and skills beyond his years. Other rookies of particular note include Texas seven-footer and defensive difference-maker Mohamed Bamba, Alabama point guard Collin Sexton, Michigan State forward Jaren Jackson Jr., and a Kentucky crop headlined by versatile scoring forward Kevin Knox. Missing from that group is 6’10” Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr., who had been the Class of 2017’s top recruit but has not played since the opening two minutes of the Tigers’ season after undergoing back surgery. He is not expected to return this season, but has said he has not ruled it out.
4. There have been few new developments in the FBI probe, and the teams implicated have not imploded.
The FBI’s announcement in late September of 10 arrests (including those of four high-major assistant coaches) in relation to a probe into fraud and bribery in college basketball recruiting sent shockwaves through the sport, most notably resulting in the firing of Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Very little new information has been made public since then, however, and the season has regained a feeling approaching the status quo, though there remains a lingering sense that another shoe could drop at any moment. The teams connected to the scandal have generally underachieved but none have been truly sunk. Louisville, under 32-year-old interim coach David Padgett, has chugged along to a 16-7 record that should still earn it a decent NCAA tournament seeding. Arizona, which had an assistant coach (Emanuel Richardson) arrested, has recovered from a disastrous November to enter February leading the Pac-12. One game behind the Wildcats is USC, who also had an assistant coach arrested (Tony Bland) and has recovered from its own early-season losing streak, though it does not resemble the deep-tournament contender it entered the season expected to be. Oklahoma State, which employed arrested assistant coach Lamont Evans, is the mid-level Big 12 team many expected. And Auburn, which not only had an assistant coach (Chuck Person) arrested but also has been missing two key players for their connections to the investigation, has been one of the country’s surprise teams at 21-2 with a two-game lead in the SEC.
5. There are some other surprising power-conference contenders.
As with Auburn, there are several high-major programs that are emerging from their league’s relatively quiet corners to go from annual also-rans to factors on a national level. Under second-year coach Chris Beard, Texas Tech is tied with Kansas for first place in the Big 12 thanks to one of the country’s best defenses and a senior-year leap from guard Keenan Evans, who in any non-Trae Young year would be building his candidacy for conference player of the year. Tennessee is the SEC’s second-place team behind Auburn and pushing for a top-four seed. Clemson is in that same boat and currently in second in the ACC after missing the NCAA tournament the last six seasons. And Ohio State, coming off a chaotic offseason in which it fired Thad Matta in June, has thrived under Chris Holtmann to transform into one of the Big Ten’s best teams. Then there’s Arizona State, which reached as high as No. 3 in the polls in December but has yet to win consecutive games since conference play began.
6. Kentucky is extremely young and all over the place.
This is a long way into a college hoops info session to have barely mentioned Kentucky, so at this point you may be curious how the sport’s most talked-about and Drake-approved program is faring. This year’s Wildcats are young even by John Calipari standards, with their most experienced player being a sophomore who averaged eight minutes per game last season. They’re also not loaded with top-of-the-draft one-and-done prospects, though with six top-30 recruits, they’re not exactly lacking for talent. The Wildcats fell out of the rankings in January, then turned heads with a come-from-behind win at West Virginia at the end of the month... only to struggle against Vanderbilt and lose to Missouri. It’s hard to know what to expect from Kentucky on any given night (outside shooting is also a particular weakness) and it’s looking like a team with a very wide range of realistic outcomes in the postseason.
7. Kansas leads the Big 12, but its streak is in jeopardy...maybe.
The Jayhawks’ ridiculous 12-year streak of Big 12 regular season titles (or at least a share of them) is a reliable source of intrigue. Between Kansas’s obvious vulnerabilities (interior depth) and the way the Big 12 entered January looking like the country’s deepest, most punishing gauntlet, there was widespread buzz about how this might be the year things changed. The league is indeed strong, but health issues and other struggles have somewhat softened its middle and lower tiers and Bill Self has adapted in accordance with his personnel shortcomings. The result is the Jayhawks in a tie with Texas Tech for first place, with (recently floundering) West Virginia and (recently inconsistent) Oklahoma one game back. The good news for Kansas is that most of its remaining road trips are against the bottom of the league. The bad news is that the one exception is a trip to Lubbock.
8. Duke and North Carolina can both bewilder.
These are confusing times on Tobacco Road. The Blue Devils are loaded with talent, but have struggled defensively and within the last month have lost at home to North Carolina State and on the road to a team that is 0-11 in the Big East. (More on that in a second.) North Carolina, though unusually lacking in future pros, doesn’t have any hugely obvious issues, yet recently lost three games in a row and lost in Chapel Hill to Wofford (and nearly to Wake Forest as well). It is much too early to point out that only once in the last 20 years have both of these teams failed to reach the Sweet 16. But both look like high seeds that could be vulnerable to a relatively early exit.
9. The mid-majors to watch are Saint Mary’s, Rhode Island and Nevada.
With Wichita State moving to the American, there’s no real mid-major powerhouse this season, but there are teams that can make some noise into the tournament’s second weekend. Saint Mary’s has a first-team All-American in Australian big man Jock Landale and one of the most efficient offenses in the country, though it is limited by a defense that plays nowhere near that level. Rhode Island is undefeated in a down Atlantic 10 but its brand of experienced and smart small-ball (only one starter is taller than 6’5”) can be a very tough matchup and E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell are a very tough one-two punch. And Nevada is a very interesting team loaded with transfers (remember N.C. State’s Martin twins?) that plays a nearly positionless style under former NBA coach Eric Musselman. The Wolf Pack took Texas Tech to overtime in Lubbock and could make any high seed sweat in the second or third rounds.
10. The tournament could get weird.
It’s never wise to think you’ve got something as inherently chaotic as the NCAA tournament pegged, but things seem to be trending in an overall interesting direction as March approaches. Without any real dominant team and with so many top squads proving vulnerable, we could see plenty of upsets. And with teams as talented as Arizona, Michigan State, and Oklahoma looking like they could be No. 3 or 4 seeds, there could be foreseeable deep runs from spots outside the top two seed lines and realistic Final Fours without a No. 1 seed at all. Then there’s the possibility of the four teams heading to San Antonio being legitimate high-major contenders but relatively fresh faces—based on their seasons so far, it wouldn’t be far-fetched at all to have a Final Four of, say, Virginia, Purdue, Auburn, and Cincinnati. This season started in a strange, disappointing way under the cloud of the FBI’s investigation. Let’s hope it ends up getting weird in the best of ways.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Monday column on college hoops. It’s a sort of a grab-bag of news and tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to exchange favorite passages from The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
The weekend’s most shocking result came Saturday at Madison Square Garden, where then-No. 4 Duke lost to a St. John’s team that had not won a game since five days before Christmas, when it edged Saint Joseph’s at a casino in Connecticut. After the game, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t mince words when assessing his team’s effort—“it was disgusting, really,” was one choice quote—and while the team’s disconnectedness on Saturday was perhaps its own issue, the loss also laid bare so much else that may hold this loaded team back from reaching its full potential. For one, Duke’s defense was again lacking, and not even a temporary switch to a 2-3 zone could give it a jolt; ultimately St. John’s had its most efficient offensive performance since it played NEC straggler Sacred Heart two months ago. And the Blue Devils backcourt was again lackluster, as freshman Trevon Duval and senior Grayson Allen could neither score themselves nor do much to initiate offense elsewhere. The profile of a national title team typically includes both a strong defense and strong guard play, two areas in which Duke is in most need of improvement. “Sometimes you have to look horrible to get better,” Krzyzewski said on Saturday. The Blue Devils had better hope that’s the case.
1. Washington: How about the job Mike Hopkins is doing in Seattle? The Huskies knocked off Arizona State and Arizona in a three-day span this past week to move a half-game behind USC for second place in the Pac-12. Their defense has been the league’s best during conference play.
2. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders moved into a tie atop the Big 12 by beating Texas in overtime at home and then winning at TCU. In the win over the Longhorns, senior guard Keenan Evans set a new career high with 38 points, 18 of which came via free throws. He draws fouls at the Big 12’s second-best rate.
3. Missouri: The Tigers stopped their late-January skid by winning at Alabama and at home against Kentucky by identical 69-60 scores, which is neat. Senior guard Kassius Robertson, a transfer from Canisius, is turning out to be a nice pickup, averaging 19.8 points over his last four games.
4. Cincinnati: The 10-0 Bearcats are now a full three games up in the American standings and, according to KenPom, should be favored in every game the rest of the regular season. Nobody outside of Charlottesville is defending like Mick Cronin’s team and forward Gary Clark is playing with All-America efficiency.
5. Vermont: Not only did the Catamounts move to 9-0 in the America East last week, but they also throttled second-place UMBC by 28 points on the road to make clear they are the class of the conference. This could be the kind of No. 12 or 13 seed that no team wants to draw in March.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s center
The runaway choice for the WCC’s player of the year averaged 30.0 points, 15.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.0 blocks across the Gaels’ wins over San Francisco and San Diego. This Saturday he will push for a regular-season sweep of Gonzaga.
Junior: Mike Daum, South Dakota State forward
The Jackrabbits star followed 35 points and 18 rebounds against Nebraska-Omaha with 31 points and 13 boards against North Dakota State—both wins. He’s got South Dakota State trending toward a second straight NCAA tourney berth.
Sophomore: Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s guard
The Brooklynite lifted the struggling Red Storm to the high point of its season with his 33-point, seven-rebound, four-steal contributions to Saturday’s upset of Duke, four days after scoring 31 on 12-of-20 shooting in a five-point loss to No. 6 Xavier.
Freshman: Desmond Cambridge, Brown guard
Over two overtime road games in as many days—a loss at Penn and a win at Princeton—Cambridge averaged 30.5 points and 6.0 rebounds while making 11 of 16 three-point attempts. He also has the Ivy League’s sixth-best shot-blocking rate; everyone ahead of the 6’4” Cambridge is at least two inches taller.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Ohio State forward Keita Bates-Diop, who is averaging 19.6 points and 8.8 rebounds for the Buckeyes. So, Keita, tell us about the best...
...season of the year. “Summer, definitely. I’m not a big fan of the cold, but I deal with it. I like to go to the pool, just walk around. Sandals or slides or whatever, and shorts and a T-shirt—that’s my normal wear.”
...show to binge-watch. “I got a lot of those. Dexter is pretty good. Just watched The Walking Dead. All those shows everybody talks about, I’ve seen all of them. Breaking Bad—all those. I’ve watched whole seasons before on an off day. I don’t have a favorite. I jump around with a bunch of different shows, cartoons, doesn’t matter. I just started re-watching the old Justice League cartoons. I’m a big Batman fan.”
...secret talent of yours. “I play the piano. I have since I was young. I can’t even remember when I started. I took lessons and then we had one in our house so I had to learn how to play it eventually. It was something they wanted us to know how to do, to play some type of instrument. My younger brother can play the piano too. I can’t find a piano around here.”
Social Media Post of the Week
(Note: After having her unicycle stolen, beloved halftime show legend Red Panda received one as a gift from the Golden State Warriors.)
Assigned Viewing: Duke at North Carolina, Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
Enough Duke in this column yet? Aside from all the usual implications and emotions, both teams enter Thursday’s game looking to get things on track heading into the regular season’s home stretch, as before Saturday’s win over lowly Pittsburgh, North Carolina had dropped three in a row to Virginia Tech, N.C. State, and Clemson. Meanwhile Duke badly needs to wash off the stink of Saturday’s upset and get the top of its offense sorted out. But rather than dampen excitement about this matchup, both team’s recent struggles should inject even more urgency into the game. This rivalry tends to live up to itself and is almost always worth watching. Here’s hoping Thursday is no exception.
Before You’re Dismissed...
• The way Washington knocked off Arizona this weekend is one of the more rollercoaster finishes you’ll see. With the game tied and the clock approaching zero, Huskies guard Jaylen Nowell had his shot swatted by Wildcats big man Deandre Ayton, only for Washington teammate Dominic Green to collect the loose ball on the wing and drain the game winner as the buzzer sounded. Definitely worth checking out.
• Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy was placed on administrative leave as the school conducts an investigation into his conduct. This comes four years after another internal inquiry produced a 90-page report that concluded Eustachy created a “culture of fear and intimidation,” a summary of which can be read here. (Warning: it contains some pretty coarse language.)
• An interesting point in this analysis from SI bracketeer Michael Beller regarding how bracket guidelines could create a headache for the committee if the ACC, Big 12, and SEC each end up with three teams among the top 16 overall seeds.
• Duke-UNC on Thursday wasn’t an easy choice for this week’s assigned viewing. Practically every day of the week features at least one matchup I’d considered. On Monday, West Virginia visits Oklahoma. On Tuesday there is Xavier at Butler and Tennessee at Kentucky. Wednesday brings Ohio State at Purdue. Saturday has Purdue at Michigan State and Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s. That’s a strong week of hoops.
• This from Patricia Lockwood, on the figure skater Jason Brown but also figure skating in general and its connection with its audience, might be my favorite piece of sports writing in months. “There is something particular about where the mind goes when you watch skating. It glides along with the action. The turns happen inside the head, the jumps float right up to the top of the skull.” Looking forward to all the action in my head and in Pyeongchang in the coming weeks.