- Who's feeling the heat heading into February? Should Kentucky be considered a Final Four contender again? This week's staff roundtable answers those questions and more.
As January comes to a close, teams are gearing up for the critical stretch run of the regular season, and the month that could have the single-biggest impact on whether their fortunes are trending in the right or wrong direction for the postseason. February could make-or-break a season, but not everyone will enter the month feeling the same level of pressure.
For this week's staff roundtable, we picked which teams need to make a statement over the next four weeks, plus took a look at whether Kentucky is a bona-fide Final Four contender again and which three-loss team doesn't fit its record.
Which team has the most to prove in February?
Dan Greene: Kansas. The Jayhawks had been making good on their preseason No. 1 ranking until January, when they fell hard at Iowa State and lost big man Udoka Azubuike in the process. They’re 4–2 since then, but one of those losses was to an otherwise floundering West Virginia team and three of the wins were by five or fewer points. February—when Kansas travels to K-State, TCU, and Texas Tech—should give us a good idea whether this team is going to be recalibrated into a small-ball title contender and whether its forever-long streak of Big 12 titles will be extended once more.
Michael Shapiro: Kansas still has the inside track to win a 15th-straight Big 12 title, but the Jayhawks’ road to the Final Four looks far more precarious than it did in November. Kansas is struggling to find a reliable second scorer next to Dedric Lawson, and the loss of Udoka Azubuike has left the Jayhawks increasingly vulnerable near the tin. More concerning than their interior deficiencies though, is the Jayhawks’ struggles in the backcourt. Freshman guards Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes will need to grow up fast before the NCAA tournament begins. The Jayhawks’ schedule isn’t necessarily daunting in February. Kansas split the season series with Iowa State and a trip to Morgantown is in the rearview mirror. A sweep of Texas Tech could restore order in Lawrence, although even with another Big 12 crown, it’s presently hard to envision Kansas reaching a second-straight Final Four.
Emily Caron: Call me a homer here, but I'm going to say Virginia. The Cavaliers play four ranked opponents this month—one of which is Duke, and the other three are on the road at North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Louisville. If Virginia wants to prove that it could actually make a decent run in March Madness this season, it starts with being able to shoot, which is something it didn't do well against Duke the first time around (and something that got the best of it against UMBC last year). How the Cavaliers hold up offensively against a tough slate this month will say a lot about what this team could truly do in the tourney.
Eric Single: North Carolina. Opinions may differ on where exactly college basketball's elite tier cuts off, but it's definitely somewhere before the No. 9 spot in the AP Top 25, where UNC sits entering the final week of January. After dropping non-conference tests against Texas, Michigan and Kentucky (with an upset of Gonzaga mixed in) and getting run out of the gym by Louisville, the Tar Heels look to have righted the ship, getting a season-high 23 points from befuddling freshman Nassir Little in their rout of Virginia Tech last weekend. Still, with trips to Louisville (this Saturday) and Duke (Feb. 20) and visits from Virginia (Feb. 11) and Florida State (Feb. 23) coming this month, North Carolina is out of tune-up games to get its various weapons in working order. Are the Tar Heels in this thing for the long haul, or are they doomed to beat bad teams, lose to good ones and incite zero optimism about their March prospects?
Molly Geary: For all of the praise it has garnered this season, Auburn has just two kenpom top-50 wins on its résumé right now, and neither are overly impressive: Washington and Murray State. It has gone 2–5 overall against top-50 competition, and also recently loss to South Carolina. With eight opportunities left to pick up top-50 wins on their schedule, five of which are in February, the Tigers are facing a critical stretch. They just dropped out of the AP Top 25 for the first time and are down to a No. 8 seed in SI.com’s latest Bracket Watch—potentially putting them up against a No. 1 seed in the second round. Auburn needs to start picking up quality wins, or else an NCAA tournament trip could be a short one.
Are you ready to declare Kentucky a Final Four contender again?
Greene: Yes. This has been a different team since Ashton Hagans has broken out, taking on the freshman point guard’s edge and energy, and PJ Washington and Reid Travis have begun playing as the imposing frontcourt tandem many were expecting. I don’t see the Wildcats breaking through to the tourney's top seed line, but they’re absolutely in the mix of teams that I think has a real shot of heading to Minneapolis.
Shapiro: Don’t be shocked if we have a pair of SEC teams reach the Final Four for the first time since 2014. After a slate of early-season struggles, Kentucky is right where we expected it to be when the season began. John Calipari’s squad has won nine of its last 10 games, snagging wins over Auburn, Mississippi State and Kansas since Jan. 19. The Wildcats are No. 11 in defensive efficiency, per kenpom. They boast a quartet of quality scoring options, with a pair of relative veterans (at least by Kentucky standards) in the frontcourt to pair with freshman guards Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson. Kentucky isn’t afraid to win ugly, and should be considered a legitimate Final Four contender.
Caron: Not quite. Kentucky has definitely bounced back after losing to Alabama in their conference opener, but I want to see how they hold up against a team like Tennessee. Their rally against Kansas was promising, but Reid Travis was basically their entire team in the first half. Multiple players need to be playing like they did in the second half and contributing for Kentucky much more consistently for me to buy in on a Final Four run.
Single: Yes. At this stage of the John Calipari era, the greater the non-conference angst, the better. At this point, you just have to trust in the "tweak" and accept that Kentucky will show up ready to play in mid-March. The rest of the Wildcats look to have caught up to freshman point guard Ashton Hagans's defensive intensity and senior forward Reid Travis's emotional intensity.
Geary: If I had to choose one way or the other right now I’d say yes, but I do want to pump the breaks slightly. Kentucky is clearly looking good and has put things together nicely, but I don't consider Kansas or Auburn to currently be part of college hoops's elite tier. Essentially, I’m circling the Wildcats’ Feb. 16 and March 2 games against Tennessee as true measuring sticks, though they don’t necessarily have to beat the Vols to prove their Final Four legitimacy. Sometimes there’s a tendency to overreact (for better or for worse) to recent play, and with 12 regular season games left I’d like to see Kentucky (and especially its freshmen) keep things up a bit longer before declaring certainties about this young team.
Which current three-loss team’s record is the most misleading?
Greene: LSU’s, though it’s more the Tigers’ place tied atop the SEC standings at 6–0 that is misleading. I like this team’s talent—I even had LSU as my Final Four dark horse in the preseason!—but the young Tigers are just 2–2 against teams in the kenpom top 40 (which breaks down to 0–2 vs. teams in the top 30 and 2–0 vs. teams 31–40) and have yet to face any of their conference’s five best opponents (Tennessee, Kentucky, Auburn, Mississippi State, and Florida). They’ll face all five of them in a six-game span starting Feb. 6. We’ll find out a lot about where they belong in the SEC pecking order over that stretch.
Shapiro: Virginia Tech can score with the best of them, but can the Hokies generate enough stops to contend for the ACC crown? I remain skeptical. They were thrashed for 103 points by North Carolina on Jan. 21, ranking No. 54 in the nation in defensive efficiency. Virginia Tech has struggled away from Cassell Coliseum, too. The Hokies are 1–3 on the road this season, with matchups at NC State and at Florida State still on the schedule. Add in home battles with Louisville, Virginia and Duke, and the Hokies could very well slide outside the top five of the ACC.
Caron: Michigan State, which has losses to Kansas, Louisville and Purdue. While none of those teams have had flawless seasons by any means, they've all been playing good enough basketball to wind up in the Top 25. The Kansas loss was during the Spartans’ season opener, so we'll cut them some extra slack there. They took the Cardinals into overtime in Louisville and fell to Purdue—probably the best team they've played so far—on the road, after beating them once at home. Michigan State's trio of losses are misleading if you consider the context and the depth of the Big Ten this season. With only one conference loss, it's hard to knock them right now.
Single: Virginia Tech. Since shooting 54.5% from the field in a neutral-site heist at Purdue's expense on Nov. 18, the Hokies have played four potential tournament teams, rolling past Washington and Syracuse but taking the fetal position on the road at Virginia and North Carolina. Half of their next 10 games come against teams ranked No. 32 or better on kenpom.com. Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker can both go nuclear and scare everyone, but if they can't beat three of those five ACC powers, Virginia Tech should enter March on the fringe of the Top 25 at best.
Geary: Quite honestly, I find the fact that Virginia Tech has been in the top 15 (if not top 10) of the AP poll for essentially the entire season a perfect example of how much a team can benefit from its preseason ranking and a subsequent weak non-conference slate. That’s not to say the Hokies can't be a top-15 team, and analytics do view them quite favorably, but considering it’s nearly February, what exactly have they done to merit their current No. 12 ranking? Their Purdue win was significant, but came more than two months ago, before the Boilermakers’ recent improvement. Since then, their best (and only other top-50) wins were Washington (on a neutral court) and Syracuse (at home over the weekend), two teams not even guaranteed to make the tournament. Virginia Tech is 1–3 on the road and was blown out by the two top-tier ACC teams it’s faced so far, and its supposed defensive improvements fell apart against all three of the top-20 offenses it has faced. This team could be for real, but the jury should be out until it proves it on the court.