- Will these 11 teams that have bounced back from either not being on the national radar in November or playing themselves out of the spotlight keep it up? Our writers weighed in.
More than two months into the season, the early results of November can start to feel like a lightyear away. Remember Duke's opening night rout of Kentucky, or how Ohio State was No. 1 in the first-ever NET ranking? A lot has happened since then, and while a team like the Blue Devils continues to look like one of the nation's very best, others have used the time to grow since November and December slip-ups.
For this week's roundtable, we gave our writers a list of 11 teams that either got off to a rough start or weren't on many people's radars in November and are now enjoying a strong January, and asked each to pick a few that they believe are for real—or not. From defending champ Villanova to Ole Miss, here are their answers.
Why Dan Greene Is Buying In: Yes, this season has been uncharacteristically uneven, and yes, given the Big East's depth, there will surely be a few losses to come. But the Wildcats' offense is coming together nicely (it's been the Big East's most efficient during league play) and they have been getting positive contributions of late from freshman point guard Jahvon Quinerly, who was such a nonfactor early that he's basically like a midseason acquisition. Plus I just trust in Jay Wright. They're still my Big East favorites until proven otherwise.
Why Jake Fischer Remains Skeptical: It's difficult to believe in the defending champs, whose offense is still whirring at the 12th-highest efficiency per kenpom.com this season. The Wildcats just simply can't guard any offensive foe of substance, yielding 98.4 points per 100 possessions. Villanova's lineup has long featured four guards and one big man, but the Wildcats have trended even smaller this season, often playing Eric Paschall at the five in super-switchy lineups. Those units have failed miserably at protecting the rim. Villanova ranks a measly 136th in the nation block rate. And while Omari Spellman wasn't Hasheem Thabeet, it's a marked decline from a year ago. Sure enough, the Wildcats are 5–0 to open Big East play. And aside from human infernos Markus Howard and Shamorie Ponds, the conference doesn't have many threats to the reigning champions. This is by far one of the weaker teams Jay Wright has had in recent memory. Villanova will likely claim its league, but this team is not built for a long postseason run, whether it enters the Big Dance with a conference crown or an at large bid.
Why Greene Is Buying In: Yes, the Terrapins just got shellacked in East Lansing, but that was their first loss by more than four all season and against an elite team. I'm still high on Maryland because a team this young (bottom-five nationally in experience, per kenpom) doesn't go on the kind of seven-game winning streak that the Terps just did if it's some kind of fluke. Bruno Fernando and Anthony Cowan are a legit inside/outside combo and despite turnover issues, Maryland has managed to be solid on both ends, which bodes well for sustainability.
Why Max Meyer Is Buying In: Everyone knows about how lethal Marquette’s offense can be, but the Golden Eagles’ defense is ranked 40th in adjusted defensive efficiency per kenpom.com. Marquette has one of the best scorers in the country in Markus Howard, but the Golden Eagles can also rely upon the Hauser brothers to help carry the load. They’re especially boosted by strong shooting from the outside (38.7% from three, 24th nationally) and the FT line (76.4%, 14th), a huge plus for a team that plays in a good amount of close games.
Why Jeremy Woo Remains Skeptical: I’m into Markus Howard’s game, but as a unit Marquette can be streaky and lacks talent up front. I watched as St John’s bottled up Howard on New Year’s Day and left the Golden Eagles mostly helpless. Since then, they’ve won a few tight games, but I’m not sure they can hold together defensively and score enough when Howard has cooler nights to hang as a top-15 team. To me, they feel as mercurial as anyone.
Why Molly Geary Is Buying In: The Boilermakers became a bit of an afterthought nationally after a 6–5 start, but they’re now 12–6 and all the way up to eighth on kenpom. Their only non-quality loss to date is still Notre Dame on a neutral court, which is far from a bad one. Still, Purdue entered 2019 having work to do, and so far in January it’s earned wins over Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana and Rutgers, three of which it’s directly battling in the Big Ten race. At 5–2 in the conference—with only one game left against a Michigan school—it’s in a good spot, and the recent emergence of freshman center Trevion Williams brings optimism to the Boilermakers finding more consistent scoring outside Carsen Edwards. With a top-10 offense and a dynamic go-to guy in Edwards, Purdue has the kind of profile that could make the Sweet 16 if things break right.
Why Michael Shapiro Remains Skeptical: It’s hard to count out the Boilermakers in any contest with scoring dynamo Carsen Edwards leading the way, but the rest of Purdue’s roster could make it difficult to string together victories in the Big Ten. Matt Painter’s squad doesn’t have the same interior presence as last season with Isaac Haas’s departure, and the easy baskets are few and far between. Consider the Boilermakers a sizable step below Michigan and Michigan State atop the Big Ten.
Why Greene Remains Skeptical: The Hawkeyes have been deadeye shooters of late, putting up a wow-worthy 83.0% effective field goal percentage against Illinois on Sunday, and they get to the line at the third-highest rate in the country, which provides a nice baseline for their offense. But it's the defense that has me wary: it ranks 13th among the Big Ten's 14 teams in conference play, and its two best showings against relevant opponents have been against a fading Ohio State and middling Northwestern. While Iowa will still end up a tournament team, I think the next few weeks in the Big Ten may be a bit cooler.
Why Shapiro Is Buying In: Even if you cast aside Jim Boeheim’s propensity for March magic, Syracuse still has enough talent to position itself well for a run to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. The Orange’s zone has suffocated opponents as usual in 2018–19, ranking No. 12 in the nation in defensive efficiency, per kenpom. Their offense isn’t unwatchable, either. Syracuse scored 95 points in an overtime victory against Duke on Jan. 14, including 32 from leading scorer Tyus Battle. The Orange have won six of their last seven. Expect them to finish closer to the top of the ACC than the conference cellar.
Why Woo Remains Skeptical: Beating Duke was obviously well-earned, but we go through this with Syracuse every year: the zone works in mysterious ways, but at the end of the day, the offense becomes an issue and more talented teams gain an edge. This could look stupid when they get a couple good breaks and end up in the Sweet 16, but I’m skeptical the Orange can be consistent and efficient enough offensively to land in the top third of the ACC.
Why Eric Single Is Buying In: Louisville has scored exactly 43 points in the first half of its past three games, all wins, which is more than a weird pattern: The Cardinals’ rapid return to a top-25 kenpom.com offensive efficiency rating in Chris Mack’s first year has put them in the thick of the ACC race and stressed out teams that that didn’t sign up for a game in the 80s. Louisville is riding sophomore Jordan Nwora’s breakout year (18.5 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game), and the 6’8” forward looks more than comfortable shouldering a massive load. He has taken 100 more shots than anyone else on the team and hasn’t slowed down now that defenses know to give him their full attention, dropping 32 on Boston College and 25 on Georgia Tech last week. Mack’s first squad is going to hang around that logjam atop the ACC.
Why Geary Is Buying In: Someone has to win the Pac-12 … right? On a serious note, at 14–4, the Huskies just might be the best bet to get that automatic bid, or even possibly challenge for an at-large one should they not win the conference tournament. Washington has started Pac-12 play 5–0, though its schedule is about to ramp up considerably. But this is an experienced team (it has the nation’s No. 1 minutes continuity) that took Gonzaga to the wire in Spokane and is strong on the defensive end, where it's anchored by reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Matisse Thybulle. They say defense travels, and the Huskies have some solid offensive weapons as well, like Jaylen Nowell (16.7 points, 39.7% three-point shooting), Noah Dickerson (13.2 points, the nation’s second-best free throw rate) and David Crisp (38.1% three-point shooting).
Why Fischer Is Buying In: After a 5–1 start in conference play, Arizona has returned to its annual perch atop the Pac-12. The Wildcats still trail Washington, and won't see the Huskies until Feb. 7, but Sean Miller's squad has certainly found its footing. Arizona has developed the 22nd-stingiest defense in the country, per kenpom, highlighted by limiting opponents to only 30.4% shooting from three. Chase Jeter has flourished at the center of the Wildcats' attack and defense. But Arizona has won seven of eight contests much in part to the team's top-four scorers all harboring the ability to shoulder an evening's load. That will be a tough combination to defeat in a suddenly lowly conference.
Why Meyer Remains Skeptical: The entire Pac-12 is in sell territory, but I’m not buying the fact that Arizona is a contender to win this downtrodden conference and make the NCAA tournament. This is not an efficient shooting team and the Wildcats don’t have the size they’ve been accustomed to in recent seasons. They really struggle against zone defenses, and a good amount of Pac-12 teams play zone. Arizona has scored fewer than 55 points in home losses to Baylor and Oregon, who both play, you guessed it, zone. My money is on Washington or Oregon State getting the conference’s only NCAA tournament bid.
Why Woo Is Buying In: The case for K-State’s legitimacy is pretty straightforward: their core guys are upperclassmen who went to the Elite Eight last year, they’re still staunch defensively and have been one of the most consistent teams in a brutally tough Big 12. The regular season slog is about consistency, and as long as Barry Brown continues to be a tone-setter, the Wildcats are going to be able to hang around. They may not win the conference, but what they’re doing shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Why Shapiro Remains Skeptical: The Wildcats deserve nothing but praise after four straight victories since Jan. 9, including an upset victory over Iowa State in Ames. Though I’d tap the breaks on Kansas State as contenders for the Big 12 crown. The Wildcats sit 177th in offensive efficiency, per kenpom, lacking significant scoring punch. This is a veteran squad with NCAA tournament pedigree. But a top-three finish in the Big 12 would surprise me.
Why Single Remains Skeptical: We were wrong that the Rebels would be one of the SEC’s worst teams in year one under Kermit Davis, but the back-to-back wins over ranked Auburn and Mississippi State teams that capped their 10-game winning streak (the program’s longest in 11 years) may prove to be this group’s ceiling. The 14-point home loss to a long and athletic LSU team that stopped that streak last week reinforced the importance of sophomore point guard Devontae Shuler, who had been the No. 3 scoring option behind Breein Tyree, and Terence Davis has cooled off while playing through a stress fracture in his foot. Ole Miss has enough winnable games down the stretch—and only one meeting each with Tennessee and Kentucky, both in Oxford—to put it in great position for an NCAA tournament bid, but come March expect the first top-tier team the Rebels cross to expose how far they still have to go.