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Hoop Thoughts: The Wonderer ponders college basketball's burning questions

Is Gonzaga good enough to win it all? Will Duke ever put it all together? Is the Big East overrated? These are critical questions as the season comes to a close.

You’ve heard of the wanderer? Well I’m The Wonderer. I wonder round and round and round and round and round.

The Wonderer wonders . . .

. . . whether we’re all sleeping on Gonzaga

You might be surprised I am wondering this considering I am one of just six AP voters who did not have Gonzaga as my No. 1 team last week. But there are different questions to be addressed. There’s the question of whether the Zags should be No. 1 in the polls. Then there’s the separate question of whether they deserve a No. 1 seed, and potentially the No. 1 overall seed, in the NCAA tournament.

Then, there’s the only question that matters to The Wonderer: Can they win the whole thing?

Most people are saying yes to the first two questions yet giving a resounding no on the third. I am of the opposing view. No, I don’t have the Zags at the top of my ballot, but I am increasingly convinced that Gonzaga is a short-list favorite to win the national championship.

No, the Zags have never made the Final Four, but that means nothing. They have bona fide NBA talent, not just in junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss and senior center Przemek Karnowski, but also with backup center, freshman Zach Collins. This is the only team in the country that checks all the boxes: They have a stud point guard (check), a bevy of three-point shooters (check), a classic back-to-the-basket five man (check), and a couple of stretch fours (check). They’re athletic (check), committed defensively (check), have a great coach (check) and oodles of experience (check).

The main reason to denigrate their chances at a title is their conference. I think this is a fair concern, not because it means they are fraudulent but because I worry that this league will not properly prepare the Zags for the mental stress of March.

Still, every team has concerns. If Gonzaga were in the ACC or the Big 12, would they be undefeated right now? Doubtful. Yet, I also doubt there are many teams who would be undefeated to this point while playing Gonzaga’s schedule. Even the metrics confirm this: Gonzaga is ranked No. 1 on kenpom.com, No. 4 on KPISports.net and No. 5 in the RPI. Rank them or seed them wherever you want. But I would warn you not to bet too much against them come tourney time.

. . . whether Villanova and Kansas are destined to run out of gas

Two things can hurt a team’s physical and emotional stamina: lack of size and lack of depth. So even though Villanova and Kansas were the top overall seeds when the selection committee revealed its midseason bracket on Saturday, The Wonderer wonders whether those teams have the legs to get across the finish line.

Both teams lost young big men who were supposed to shore up their frontcourts. Villanova’s top recruit, 6' 9" forward Omari Spellman, was ruled academically ineligible before the season started. Kansas freshman Udoka Azubuike broke his wrist and was lost for the season. The Jayhawks have been further saddled by the disappointing season that 6' 10" sophomore Carlton Bragg is having, both on and off the court.

Whether it’s the second week of the tournament or the Final Four, the NCAA tournament requires teams to win two very difficult games in three days, something they almost never have to do during the regular season. They need to be able to survive foul trouble, fatigue and occasional poor shooting to win the championship. I wonder if they can.

. . . whether Wisconsin’s season will end at the free throw line

I love that the Badgers’ starting center and power forward, Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes, are ranked 1–2 on the team in assists. I don’t love that those two guys are making a combined 57.3% from the foul line. That’s especially problematic considering they also account for 54.0% of Wisconsin’s free throw attempts. The Wonderer wonders if the Badgers’ season is going to end a little earlier than it should because it got outscored at the free throw line. Hope those guys are getting plenty of reps.

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. . . whether Markelle Fultz is getting unfairly penalized

The awards season has always struck me as silly, but I would submit that Washington’s star freshman guard deserves every consideration for national player of the year. It is not hard to make the case that Fultz is the best player in college basketball. He is averaging 23.2 points (which ranks fourth in the country), 6.0 assists (second in the Pac-12), 6.0 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He’s even ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in blocks at 1.3 per game. Meanwhile, Fultz is making 47.9% from the floor, 42.1% from three, and 64.4% from the foul line. He is the odds-on favorite to be the top pick in the NBA draft.

So why isn’t he in the POY convo? The answer his simple: He plays on a bad team. However, unlike the case last year with LSU, where Ben Simmons had some good talent around him, Washington is losing despite Fultz, not because of him. POY and All-America are supposed to be individual awards, not team awards. I challenge you to find five individuals who are having better seasons than Markelle Fultz. Actually, don’t bother, because you can’t.

. . . whether Duke’s whole will ever be greater than the sum of its parts

As impressive as Duke’s win over North Carolina was last Thursday, it was just as impressive that the Blue Devils were able to escape Clemson less than 48 hours later when they were emotionally spent. Still, I am not yet ready to pronounce this team all the way back. The Blue Devils lost valuable development time while they went through their rash of injuries, the suspension to Grayson Allen and the four-week absence of Mike Krzyzewski.

One thing I do like is that freshman Jayson Tatum has emerged as the third leg of the stool. Senior Amile Jefferson is good, but if Duke is reliant on him to score a lot of points, then that is a problem. One thing I still don’t like is the lack of a true point guard on this team, but that can certainly be overcome, as the 2010 Blue Devils, who won the NCAA tournament, demonstrated. However, that will be harder to do if Krzyzewski falls back on the habit of running an offense based around isolation drives as opposed to his more standard motion game where the ball moves quickly, creating driving lanes and three-point looks. That takes time to develop because it requires everyone to be in sync. Is the iso offense a concession on Coach K’s part that there is not enough time left in the season to create a more traditional offense? The Wonderer wonders.

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. . . whether Bill Walton is the most interesting man in the world

I don’t get people who don’t get this guy. He is an absolute original. He knows the game and does his homework, but his telecasts are a long, strange trip through his colorful, plentiful mind. We’ve got enough guys who deliver us X’s and O’s. What the world needs now is more Bill Walton.

. . . whether people are making too big of a deal about the RPI

When the NCAA announced it was going to host a nerdapalooza of metrics mavens, many people celebrated the demise of the RPI. That may have been a bit premature. I spoke about this over the weekend with committee chair Mark Hollis, and it sounds to me that the committee is determined to stay out of the predictive business. That means shying away from models that give weight to things other than pure results. The RPI is the only metric that does this.

Look, there’s no doubt the RPI needs to be freshened. It was, after all, crafted in 1981. But I don’t envision a lot of wholesale changes. The committee members look at all the other metrics anyway. When they see an outlier, they dig in to find out the causes, and adjust their votes accordingly. The RPI has always been made out to be more important than it really is. So it’s fitting that the changes made to it will be less than many people expect.

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. . . whether Marcus Keene knows he’s my man crush

At least once a week, I head to Synergy to check out the latest videos of Central Michigan’s diminutive dynamo. He may be a volume shooter, but he is also a volume maker, and he remains within reach of being the first player in 20 years to average 30 points per game. As of today, his average is 29.9. I wouldn’t flat out tell Chippewas coach Keno Davis to make sure Keene eclipses this mark, but if he wants to call a few extra plays for my man crush these last few games, I’m not going to talk him out of it.

. . . whether Leonard Hamilton needs to shorten his rotation

Allow myself to contradict . . . myself. While The Wonderer wonders whether Kansas and Villanova could use one more big body, he also wonders whether Florida State has too many. Ten Seminoles average at least 10 minutes per game, and three others tend to get significant playing time. That would make sense if this team played a frenetic, end-to-end pressing style, but it doesn’t.

Most coaches I’ve spoken to over the years believe firmly that as long as you’re healthy and not overcome by foul trouble, seven or eight is the perfect number for a rotation. I do like that Hamilton still finds heavy minutes for his top scorers and rotates everyone else through the fifth spot, but my unsolicited advice to him is to tighten things up as we head towards the postseason. Most of the time, when a coach tries to make everybody happy, no one’s happy.

. . . whether the Big East is overrated

When the Big East is going well, we all get nostalgic. It’s also good to see a league outside the so-called Power 5 kicking butt. But The Wonderer wonders if this league is going irretrievably in the wrong direction.

Outside of Villanova, do you see a second weekend team here? That would have been the case with Creighton, but when the Blujays lost Maurice Watson, Jr., that took away their tourney potency. Meanwhile, Xavier also lost its starting point guard, Edmond Sumner, to an ACL tear. Butler has lost three of its last four games, including at home to Georgetown. Marquette and Seton Hall, meanwhile, are fighting just to get a tourney bid. My guess is one or the other will get in, but not both.

. . . whether any of the top mid-majors will get an at-large bid

During our midseason bracket preview show on CBS over the weekend, I asked RPI guru Jerry Palm if he thought Middle Tennessee would be able to get an at-large if it doesn’t win the Conference USA tournament. I assumed they would because he assigned the Blue Raiders a No. 11 seed, but he was pretty emphatic that the answer was no. His logic was also sound. Middle Tennessee may be 21–4, but its only top-50 win came on a neutral court against UNC-Wilmington, and it has three losses to teams ranked below 100 in the RPI—including a loss at No. 301 UTEP on Feb. 4. Any loss the Blue Raiders suffer in the conference tournament would be another bad loss. That will not stack up well against other at-large candidates.