- We doled out final grades for every power conference team and a host of others to cap the 2018–19 college basketball season. Who passed with flying colors...and who got an F?
Put down your pencils, everyone. The tests are over and our final report card is in, handing out 2018–19 season grades for every Power 5 team, plus the Big East and 16 other notable teams outside those conferences. These grades take into account a number of factors, and each team is weighed relative to its own realistic expectations. For example, a team that had a goal of making the NCAA tournament will be judged differently than one that was predicted to finish in the bottom tier of its league, and a team that had Final Four or national title aspirations won't be viewed the same as one that spent some of the year ranked but likely was never going to contend for a championship. That doesn't mean you get an "A" simply for overachieving—but it does mean a team could miss the tournament and still fare decently here. We also weighed where teams fell in SI's preseason 1–353 rankings and how their November perception changed over the course of the season.
Additionally, both the regular season and postseason were given consideration. Did a team win one of its conference titles? Did it make up for an average regular season with an NCAA tourney run? Did an excellent season turn sour in March? All of these things influence how we ultimately look back on a program's year; though again, different schools started out (or entered the postseason) with different expectations and benchmarks.
Without further ado, here are our final grades for the 2018–19 college basketball season.
Florida State: A-
North Carolina: B
Virginia Tech: B
Boston College: C
NC State: C
Georgia Tech: C-
Wake Forest: D-
Notre Dame: D-
Add a few gold stars to the A-plus that the national champs receive, after Virginia smashed its non-Duke opponents during the regular season and proceeded to draw from an endless well of March magic to win the program’s first national title. The Blue Devils provided the unforgettable show we all expected when it brought in one of the most decorated signing classes ever, but they peaked too early and didn’t play like the No. 1 overall seed during the NCAA tournament. For all the adversity Duke played through during the regular season—from the suffocating media coverage to the injuries that cost three starters (including Zion Williamson) multiple games of action—it showed up in March as healthy as it had been in weeks yet seemed at times like it was starting from scratch. North Carolina showed its ceiling during its regular season sweep of its bitter rival, but the Tar Heels paid for their pace when they were run out of the gym by Auburn’s equally explosive offense in the Sweet 16.
The middle of the conference standings featured a few late fades that piled the late-season pressure on those No. 1 seeds. Louisville and Syracuse proved they could beat anybody, then went one-and-done in the tournament—although the early returns from Chris Mack’s first season indicate the Cardinals have deeper runs in their near future. NC State went from a potential disruptor in the conference race to a listless bubble team, with an inexcusable last-second loss to Georgia Tech in the final week of the regular season (on top of the weakest non-conference schedule in Division I) dooming the Wolfpack’s tournament chances—but not before they beat Clemson in the ACC tournament to ensure the Tigers would finish their slide from the Top 25 to the wrong side of the bubble.
If that last-second tip-in had dropped at Cameron Indoor Stadium to secure what would have been the craziest upset of March, we might be looking back at Wake Forest’s season a little differently. Instead, the Deacs can only hold up that one almost amid a sea of listless blowouts.
Seton Hall: B+
St. John's: C
This bunched-up grade distribution is a fitting tribute to a league where anybody could lose to anybody. Villanova and Marquette took turns trying to give each other the league's top spot during the regular season, then flamed out on the first weekend of the tournament in the presence of superior individual offensive performances on the part of Purdue's Carsen Edwards and Murray State's Ja Morant. The Wildcats had been relying on the frequency of their three-pointers; the Golden Eagles, on the accuracy of them. It was impressive when it was clicking, but that didn't happen as often as anyone hoped.
March sleeper candidates St. John's and Seton Hall burned bright but went one-and-done in the tournament. The Red Storm failed to win three or more games in a row once conference play began.
Now for the good news: Georgetown took an encouraging step forward in year two under Patrick Ewing and entered the Big East tournament with an outside shot of playing its way into the Big Dance. Creighton whiffed on its opportunities for signature wins but won five in a row to end the season. DePaul won more conference games than it has in any single season since its second year in the Big East, 2006–07.
Michigan State: A
Ohio State: B+
Penn State: C+
The Big Ten bounced back in a big way after sending just four of its 14 teams dancing in 2017–18, a feat that was aided by how many teams had pleasantly surprising seasons. Those ranged from Michigan State making the Final Four on the back of an All-America year by Cassius Winston to the likes of Maryland, Iowa and Minnesota rebounding from disappointing 2018s, in addition to Michigan quickly reloading after its national championship game run and Purdue unexpectedly winning a conference title share despite losing four starters. Even Rutgers and Illinois got into the act, improving on their recent perennial doormat status to pull off a number of upsets and put visiting favorites on notice.
It wasn’t all good, though. Indiana squandered its lone season with Romeo Langford and the senior year of Juwan Morgan thanks to a brutal stretch where it dropped 12 of 13 games, while a senior-laden Nebraska team saw its season become a nightmare thanks to a January downturn and the loss of Isaac Copeland. And then there was Northwestern, which followed up a rough season with another one to forget, including losing 12 of 13 to close the year.
Texas Tech: A+
Kansas State: B
Iowa State: B
Oklahoma State: D+
West Virginia: D
The only other A-plus of our report card goes to Texas Tech, which went from being picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 to going all the way to the national championship game in a magical third season under Chris Beard. Meanwhile, Kansas finally saw its conference supremacy end as injuries and underperformance turned a potential dream season into a merely good one, and the Red Raiders and rival Kansas State were ready to pounce, splitting what had for so long been an elusive regular season title for anyone not named the Jayhawks.
In the next tier, Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma all joined the league’s overachieving bandwagon, resulting in NCAA tournament trips for all three. The same can’t be said for West Virginia, which started in the preseason top 15 and never came close to living up to it after losing Press Virginia's heartbeat, Jevon Carter, while Texas and TCU saw their inconsistency cost them a spot in the Big Dance (the Longhorns, however, did go on to capture the NIT title, beating the Horned Frogs along the way).
Arizona State: B
Oregon State: C+
Washington State: D
It was a season to forget for the Pac-12, but there were still some bright spots. Washington won the league and an NCAA tournament game, while Oregon overcame early struggles and the loss of Bol Bol to put together a late-season run that included the Pac-12 tournament crown and a trip to the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed. Arizona State also squeaked into the tourney on the back of its non-conference effort, but the true highlights end there. Only one Pac-12 team, Colorado, made the NIT, while Utah finished third in the league despite the lack of a single impressive win all year.
The rest of the conference ranged from meh to awful, including Arizona’s lowest win total since Sean Miller’s first season and a disappointing showing by a UCLA team that entered the year in the top 25. At the bottom, it was another hapless season for Washington State and Cal. The Golden Bears did end the regular season on a three-game win streak, but failing to improve on 2017–18’s low bar of eight wins earns them an F.
Ole Miss: B+
South Carolina: B
Mississippi State: B-
Texas A&M: D
LSU's regular-season title came with several touch-and-go moments on and off the court, from last-second wins over Tennessee (one of six overtime games the Tigers played against SEC foes, going 5–1) and Kentucky to the suspension of Will Wade in early March. But the Tigers' ability to turn their wealth of talent into some unexpected hardware and a Sweet 16 run left them looking down at the preseason favorites who came up short of their ceilings in March. On top of everything, Wade is now back in the fold after a monthlong standoff with the university.
So much was made of the experience Tennessee and Kentucky brought into this year that for them to let LSU and Auburn do all of the SEC's banner-hanging for 2018–19 is undoubtedly a disappointment. The Vols peaked at No. 1 in the country but stopped dominating people in March, and their suspect three-point defense finally caught up with them in the tournament. Kentucky ended up fatally short on consistent scoring threats outside of sophomore PJ Washington.
The league's four Sweet 16 teams masked the late-season fades of both Mississippi schools and the quiet departures of Alabama and Arkansas from the NCAA tournament bubble, which were both followed by coaching changes. Georgia's punchless showing in Tom Crean's first year would have gotten more attention if Vanderbilt had not undergone an all-systems meltdown that ultimate resulted in the firing of Bryce Drew after five-star freshman point guard Darius Garland's meniscus injury. The Commodores took care not to use Garland's absence as an excuse and played their way into several winnable game situations, but you can't turn in the first winless season of SEC play since Georgia Tech was a member of the league and expect anything better than a failing grade.
Utah State: A-
Murray State: A-
Saint Mary’s: A-
Western Kentucky: C
As a conference, the American had an unexpectedly strong 2018–19, sending four teams to the NCAA tournament. Houston made the biggest waves, losing just four games all season, spending a good chunk of time in the AP top 10 and reaching the Sweet 16, while Cincinnati and UCF enjoyed solid years and Temple sent the retiring Fran Dunphy out with a trip to the dance.
Out west, a talented Gonzaga roster did enough to earn a No. 1 seed (including a memorable win over Duke) but came up short in the Elite Eight, and its loss to Saint Mary’s in the WCC title game gave the league two bids for the second time in three years. In the Mountain West, Nevada never met its preseason top-10 expectations, and Utah State proved to be the conference’s most intriguing narrative with an 11-win turnaround in Craig Smith’s first season.
Elsewhere, Wofford and Buffalo were mid-major darlings, culminating in single-digit seedings and first-round wins in the NCAA tournament (both also saw their coaches get hired away shortly afterward). In the OVC, Ja Morant and Murray State were the talk of the league (and for good reason), but Belmont’s at-large bid gave the conference two teams in the dance for the first time since 1987. On a less happy note, last year’s Final Four surprise, Loyola-Chicago, didn't come close to replicating its success after losing two starters, ending the year with 14 losses.