After a week off, our college basketball stock report returns by checking in on who's hot and who's not around the country.
The Race for No. 1
After the AP No. 1 spot got passed around like a hot potato for the first few weeks of the season due to upset losses, things have settled in a bit. Louisville was named No. 1 on Monday for the third week in a row, but it leads No. 2 Kansas by only 105 points. Then there’s Ohio State, which surged into the top three from No. 6 last week after blowing out both UNC and Penn State. The Buckeyes earned five first-place votes this week and trail the Jayhawks by only 22 points. Undefeated Maryland follows closely at No. 4 after getting usurped by OSU. Ohio State’s early résumé is impressive, with three routs of top-25 KenPom teams, and in less than two weeks, it will play No. 8 Kentucky in Las Vegas. Kansas, meanwhile, has only gained steam since its season-opening loss to Duke, including handling No. 24 Colorado at home on Saturday.
For Maryland to reach its potential this year, one of the things it needs is a big year from Anthony Cowan. The first senior point guard in Mark Turgeon’s nine-year tenure in College Park, Cowan has had about as good a start to his final season as his coach could’ve asked for. He’s playing at an All-American level for the Terps, facilitating the offense and stepping up when needed, including a career-high 30-point outing vs. Temple. As the competition has increased, Cowan has scored at least 20 points in four of Maryland’s last five games, and he’s doing it at a much more efficient level than as a junior.
Cowan’s peak moment so far came late in Saturday’s comeback win over Illinois, as the senior willed the Terps to a one-point victory. With his team down three and 19 seconds to go, Cowan drained a triple from beyond even the NBA line—then got back on defense, helped force a steal and got fouled with 2.1 seconds left after recovering the ball. He made the first free throw, enabling the opportunity to intentionally miss the second and secure a victory.
The Bulldogs continue to trend upward after a down year, which included missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014. While their 8-0 start to the season had been strong, they'd yet to face a top-50 KenPom team—that is, until Florida came to Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. Butler roared back from a slow start to take care of the Gators by 14, impressively putting up 76 points (1.17 per possession) and shooting 57.1% from two and 45% from three. The Bulldogs' offense had been Kamar Baldwin-heavy in its previous two wins (over Stanford and Ole Miss), but the effort against Florida was more balanced, with senior Sean McDermott and junior Aaron Thompson scoring 16 apiece. For the first time in a month, four different Butler players reached double figures.
Let’s preface this with some important context: the Tar Heels faced the two most efficient defenses in the country (per KenPom) this week in Ohio State and Virginia. That’s a bear of a week for anyone, let alone a team with shooting woes—which is exactly what UNC has. Roy Williams’s team ranks 300th nationally in three-point percentage, 274th in two-point percentage and 311th in free-throw percentage, a significant drop-off from typical North Carolina teams. The Tar Heels are still hitting the offensive glass at a high rate, but that’s not as effective when you struggle to put the ball in the basket.
With not enough consistent offense around Cole Anthony, opponents have been able to key in on the point guard, who went a combined 3 for 16 on two-point attempts in the Heels’ pair of losses last week vs. Ohio State and at Virginia. As a team, UNC failed to crack 50 points in either game, scoring 0.75 points per possession against the Buckeyes and 0.76 against the Cavaliers. Freshman center Armando Bacot left the OSU game early with an ankle injury, which certainly impacted the 25-point margin, but even Bacot’s return against UVA couldn’t overcome a 1-for-14 performance from beyond the arc. “I've gotten to be the worst coach I can ever remember,” a frustrated Roy Williams said afterward in Charlottesville.
The number of undefeated teams in the country is shrinking rapidly. Six days ago, 20 teams were still unbeaten. Two days ago, 16 were. Half of those didn’t survive the weekend, and the number is now down to eight: Louisville, Ohio State, Maryland, Butler, Auburn, San Diego State, Liberty and Duquesne. Of those eight, only three don’t face at least one KenPom top-30 team before the end of December: the Tigers (who do host No. 37 NC State), Aztecs and Dukes. Who will be the last undefeated team standing in 2019-20? Stay tuned.
Things could be going better in the SEC, which currently notably lacks the heavyweights of the Big Ten and ACC at the top, and has questionable conference depth. Kentucky hasn’t lost since its upset to Evansville, but the Wildcats’ schedule outside of Michigan State has been weak (338th nationally) and needs some résumé boosting. Florida, expected to be a top-10 team, has disappointed so far, with three losses and a drop from No. 12 to No. 32 on KenPom. LSU has lost to both top-50 teams it’s played, Mississippi State has lost to both top-100 teams it’s played, Alabama already has four losses and Missouri suffered a truly bad defeat to Charleston Southern last week. The only SEC teams that look to be overachieving so far are Auburn, which is 8-0 but has yet to face a top-50 opponent, and Tennessee, which has beat both Washington and VCU.