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  • Whether it's freshmen who captured the country's attention or preseason title contenders that fell short of expectations, we have our picks for the biggest winners and losers of the regular season.
By The SI Staff
March 10, 2019

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The college basketball regular season is over, having wrapped up with Wisconsin's 73–67 win over Ohio State on Sunday evening to cap an important final weekend. And while there’s tons of intrigue still to settle in the next week between conference tournaments, NCAA tournament seeding and battles on the bubble, we’re at the point where we can look back at what’s happened through four months of the season and make some judgments.

Postseason performance, of course, can make a world of difference when it comes to how a team’s season is eventually looked back on, so there’s still time for schools, players and coaches to change their narrative—whether for better or worse. But before final grades are in, we can make some preliminary calls, based on regular-season performance only.

Winners:

Zion Williamson: See here. And here. And here. And here. —Tristan Jung

The Big Ten: After two years of being labelled the worst power conference east of the Rocky Mountains, the Big Ten is currently rated the best conference in the land by KenPom. It boasts two national title contenders, another couple Final Four candidates and could place as many as eight teams in the NCAA tournament after sending just four last year. —Joe Wilkinson

Ja Morant: Morant wasn’t even the OVC Freshman of the Year in 2017–18 (that honor went to Austin Peay’s Terry Taylor). Now, after he was the first player since assists were first tracked in the 1983–84 season to average 20 points and 10 assists per game, he’s expected to be a top-five pick in the 2019 NBA draft. But you’re just here for some cool Ja Morant highlights. —JW

Virginia: The success of the Cavaliers’ season is going to come down to their NCAA tournament performance after last year’s unseemly exit, but there’s no doubting that they responded in the regular season almost as well as you could’ve asked. Virginia beat everyone but Duke—which it lost to twice—and won the ACC title for the second year in a row. De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome all made leaps forward on offense, and the Pack-Line defense remains as tough a nut to crack as ever.

UNC: Coby White has made it easy to forget that being a freshman point guard at a top program is supposed to come with growing pains and a steep learning curve (see: Ashton Hagans at Kentucky, Jahvon Quinerly at Villanova). While fellow highly touted freshman Nassir Little has dealt with more traditional struggles, White, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams have led the Tar Heels to a possible No. 1 seed and, most importantly, two wins over Duke. —JW

Michigan State and Purdue: It wasn’t perfect, but this might be Tom Izzo’s best-ever coaching job at Michigan State. This team seems to be a title contender out of sheer belief. It is liable to lose to collections of better talent (hello, Indiana, twice) and has inexplicably bad losses (hello, Illinois), but still earned a share of the Big Ten regular season title. The same could be said of Matt Painter at Purdue. —TJ

Texas Tech/Chris Beard: The Red Raiders lost their best player from 2017–18 (Keenan Evans) and still managed to be essentially the same exact team. It’s a credit to Beard’s ability to build fearsome defenses (the only time Texas Tech allowed 80 points this year was when it took Oklahoma overtime to get there, and Tech is one of two teams to hold Duke under 70 points). But let’s not forget Jarrett Culver, who has seamlessly transitioned from second fiddle to Evans into a likely lottery pick and Big 12 Player of the Year candidate. —JW

Houston/the AAC: Perennially overlooked, the AAC once again has one of the best teams in the country. After Cincinnati played that role last season, Kelvin Sampson’s crew has taken over in 2018–19, losing only two games and cruising to the conference regular-season title. Corey Davis is vastly underrated as the Cougars' best player (best offensive rating in the conference among players who are used on 20% of their team’s possessions, third in the AAC at 38.7% three-point shooting), while point guard Galen Robinson is tied for the conference lead in assists and Armoni Brooks rains threes on anyone who’s a half-step late on a closeout. Elsewhere in this expansive conference, UCF and Cincinnati aren’t the most fun teams to watch (unless you justifiably love Tacko Fall), but no one will want to see their grueling defenses in March. —JW

Rutgers and Illinois: The 13th- and 14th-place teams in the Big Ten in 2018, both Rutgers and Illinois began the slow climb from the ashes. The Fighting Gettys, who had won only nine Big Ten games in four years entering this season, racked up seven(!) in 2018–19. It got to the point that it was no longer worth texting friends alerting them to a rare win for Steve Pikiell’s team. The Fighting Illini, meanwhile, started the year 4–12 on the back of comically bad late-game execution and luck that is common to young teams (six of those 12 losses came by fewer than 10 points, and they still rank a despairing 323rd in luck on KenPom). But Brad Underwood’s squad has pulled things together in 2019 and notched impressive wins over Maryland and Michigan State. —JW

Wofford and Buffalo making waves: When Buffalo knocked off West Virginia in the season’s opening week, it was labeled an upset. Now, it would only be considered an upset if the reverse happened. Nate Oats’s crew have hung in the top 25 since the second week of the season thanks to consistent excellence from CJ Massinburg, Nick Perkins and Jeremy Harris. Wofford’s entry to the top 25 came much later in the year, and the Terriers don’t have a signature win over a power conference team. They are, however, one of two teams to go undefeated in conference play (along with Gonzaga). Fletcher Magee will likely surpass the all-time NCAA record for made threes in a career this upcoming week. —TJ

Ole Miss/Kermit Davis: Anyone who’s watched an Ole Miss broadcast this year knows the color guy’s favorite fact: Ole Miss was picked to finish last in the SEC in the preseason media poll. Kermit Davis, in his first year after taking over for Andy Kennedy (who’s hilariously been that color guy a few times in 2018–19), has instead steered the Rebels to the NCAA tournament on the backs of guards Breein Tyree and Terence Davis. The two upperclassmen both rank in the top 10 in the SEC in points per game and in offensive efficiency among players who are used on 24% of their team’s possessions. —JW

Players who came back for sophomore year and improved draft stock (Jarrett Culver, PJ Washington, Bruno Fernando, De'Andre Hunter): Recent years have been littered with players who returned to school only to see their games picked apart and their draft stocks decline (Melo Trimble, Marcus Smart, James Michael McAdoo, Perry Jones, and Jared Sullinger come to mind.) For these four, however, their returns couldn’t have gone much better. Culver, Fernando and Hunter have all soared up draft boards and are now potential lottery picks, while Washington has established himself as the best player on Kentucky. —JW

Detroit freshman Antoine Davis: Everyone who knows about him loves Chris Clemons, the 5'9", 3,000-point scoring senior guard at Campbell. Davis is well on his way to being the next Clemons, except he’s a bit taller at 6'1". Davis led the country in shot attempts, was second behind Clemons in three-point attempts (and broke a record set by Steph Curry!) and is set to finish third in the nation in points per game. And there’s more good news: this was just his freshman year. —TJ

The SEC's trio of Final Four contenders: The SEC is often criticized for being Kentucky and nobody else, but that was far from the case this season. After that disastrous season-opening blowout loss to Duke, the Wildcats have turned things around and are deserved title contenders, and they’re joined at the top by Tennessee. The teams split the season series, with each dominating at home, and a rematch in the SEC tournament semifinals would be must-see TV. Of course, that matchup would occur in the semifinals because Will Wade’s LSU Tigers won the conference regular-season championship outright. Tremont Waters and Naz Reid ran the show, while Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart fit perfectly around them. —TJ

Losers:

The Pac-12: Just two years ago, the Pac-12 included three national title contenders in Lonzo Ball’s UCLA, Lauri Markkanen’s Arizona and Dillon Brooks’s Oregon (which fell just short of the title game). Now, its best team (Washington) could land the same NCAA tournament seed as the SoCon’s best team (Wofford). Its third-best team (take your pick) has no shot at an at-large bid, and its worst team (Cal) allows the fifth-worst eFG% in the country and still managed to rip off a three-game win streak to close out conference play. —JW

Nevada: The Wolfpack entered the season with national title aspirations, but something will certainly have to change if they hope to achieve them. Far from cruising through the Mountain West, Eric Musselman’s group split the regular-season title with Utah State. Nevada also came up way short in bizarre losses to New Mexico and San Diego State before (perhaps justifiably, depending on your view of things) melting down after losing in Logan. —TJ

Nebraska: Things looked so promising for Nebraska as recently as mid-January. Their Achilles' heel had been a lack of depth, but the six players they actually played were so talented that the Cornhuskers were reasonably expected to cruise to a spot in the NCAA tournament. Then, Isaac Copeland tore his ACL against Ohio State and Tim Miles & Co. quickly learned that five good players didn’t go nearly as far as six, especially with their improved, grinding Big Ten schedule. Copeland’s injury occurred in the middle of what would become a seven-game losing streak. Nebraska lost 11 of its final 14 regular-season games and will be watching March Madness from home unless it somehow storms through the Big Ten tournament. —JW

Indiana: Expectations for 2018–19 Indiana were high. The Hoosiers returned the core of the 2017–18 team and added five-star guard Romeo Langford. It was easy to forget, however, that the core wasn’t very good; the Hoosiers finished 9–9 in a mediocre Big Ten and lost in the first round of the conference tournament to Rutgers. The Big Ten got better, Indiana didn’t improve enough and Langford struggled through a hand injury, an offense-carrying burden and poor shooting. And yet it still may sneak into the NCAA tournament thanks to two wins over Michigan State and a season-ending four-game win streak. —JW

Kansas: It seems unfair to toss a 23–8 team on the same list the Pac-12 is on, but that’s the type of treatment 14 straight Big 12 titles will earn you. Once the Jayhawks lost Udoka Azubuike to injury and Lagerald Vick to a leave of absence, this team never regained the appearance of a typical Bill Self squad. The Jayhawks got run out of the building in Lubbock, and that wasn’t nearly as bad as the Jayhawks’ loss to West Virginia. Even taking all of Kansas’s circumstances into consideration, if we are holding this Kansas team to the Jayhawk standard, it is considered a loser for the first time in a decade and a half. —Alex Briseño

Sean Miller: We could take this several different directions. If the NCAA investigation isn’t enough (it is) to land Miller on this list, the Wildcats’ season in general surely is. Arizona found itself listed as one of the several programs in a recruitment scandal which has led to a federal investigation. In a year where a 17–14 season takes a backseat to the off-the-court issues, it goes without saying Miller’s future at Arizona is more than complicated. Miller and LSU's Wade have reportedly been subpoenaed to testify in a federal court trial in April. —AB

Northwestern: After making the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2017, the Wildcats looked poised to begin a new era of competitiveness under Chris Collins. The final season for Dererk Pardon and Vic Law went very, very poorly. Now, the Wildcats are the worst team in the Big Ten. One could argue this is a return to the team’s roots, but two years of bad basketball have dampened any upward momentum for the program. —TJ

Wichita State: It turns out, building a mid-major program that is so consistently good that it makes the NCAA tournament every year is really hard. While Gonzaga will make it for the 21st straight year, the Shockers’ seven-year streak will come to an end barring an unlikely AAC tournament run. People take Gonzaga for granted, but this year’s disappointing performance from the Shockers is a perfect example of why they shouldn’t. Sometimes, it just doesn’t come together. —JW

Vanderbilt: Expectations were high for Bryce Drew’s Commodores when five-star guard Darius Garland committed back in November 2017. That train, however, was entirely derailed just over a year later when Garland tore his ACL. Now, the Commodores ended the regular season as one of just four teams in Division I to finish without a conference win, placing them in esteemed company with Portland, Tulane and Chicago State. They’ll always have that near upset of then-No. 1 Tennessee, though. —JW

West Virginia: Jevon Carter finally graduated and all hell broke out in Morgantown. It’s tough to see a Bob Huggins team struggle to scrape up 12 wins after four straight 20-plus-win seasons. This team won’t make a Sweet 16 appearance as it has done in recent years. In fact, the Mountaineers never even got a sniff of the NCAA tournament. —AB

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish finished the season as a sub-.500 team for only the second time of the 19-year Mike Brey era—that’s how poorly the season went in South Bend. To make matters worse, Notre Dame’s 13 wins is the lowest total since 1997 and if that’s not enough, this 13–18 season marks the lowest win percentage since 1995. —AB

Nike: Zion’s sneaker-snapping moment in front of President Obama was bad enough to be considered a PR nightmare. —AB

Will Wade: Wade was on the winners list for the majority of the season, up until last week. The LSU Tigers won their first SEC title in a decade, but there was no sign of the mastermind behind the crown when the Tigers clinched the title in Baton Rouge on Saturday. LSU suspended Wade indefinitely on Friday after Yahoo! Sports’s report regarding the FBI-intercepted phone call, which catches Wade saying he threw a “strong-a— offer” at a recruit. Assistant coach Tony Benford will take over as interim head coach while LSU conducts an internal investigation of the men’s basketball program. —AB

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