Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (tourniquets sold separately in West Lafayette, to stop the bleeding):
WHO REALLY WANTS TO BE A NO. 1 SEED?
For weeks, the projected top seed line for the NCAA tournament looked the same: two teams from the Big 12, two teams from the West Coast, everyone else jockeying for position behind them. It may still be the same in many mock brackets Monday morning, but let’s just say that the margins are both increasing and decreasing, depending where on the No. 1 seed line you look.
So the present-day answer to the above question is this: Two teams are close to locking in No. 1 seeds, while two others are close to losing them. For the first time in a long time, there is some drama at the top that will add some spice to the closing stretch.
First, the near-locks:
Kansas (1). The Jayhawks were very impressive in winning the hyped slugfest in Waco on Saturday. It was a close game that went down to the final shot, but Kansas led for the final 37-plus minutes and at times was dominant. The Jayhawks have three elite players—guards Devon Dotson and Marcus Garrett, and big man Udoka Azubuike—and an elite coach. Stretch run: Oklahoma State Monday night, at Kansas State Saturday, TCU at home March 4 and at Texas Tech March 7. The first three of those games should be easy victories. If that comes to pass, losing at Tech and in the first round of the Big 12 tournament wouldn’t be enough to knock KU out of a No. 1 seed.
Baylor (2). The Bears lost for the first time since early November, but it hardly damaged their résumé. After the game, Self said Baylor is, to this point, the best non-Kansas Big 12 team he’s seen in his 17 seasons in the league. He cited the 2004 Oklahoma State and 2019 Texas Tech teams that went to the Final Four as comparable, but said they hadn’t shown what Baylor has shown to this point in the season. That praise should resonate. Stretch run: home against Kansas State Tuesday, at TCU Saturday, home against Texas Tech March 2 and at West Virginia March 7. The Bears will be heavily favored in their next two games, then face stiffer challenges thereafter. They’ve got plenty of cushion to absorb another loss or two without losing their standing.
(Last time the Big 12 had two top NCAA seeds was 2003. Those were Texas, which went to the Final Four, and Oklahoma, which lost in a regional final to eventual champion Syracuse. That’s also the last time the Big 12 had a No. 1 seed that wasn’t Kansas.)
After the Big 12 power couple, teams are giving away chances to solidify a place on the NCAA tournament top seed line. A look at the more slippery half of the No. 1 seed line:
Previously undefeated San Diego State (3) took the gas at home against UNLV—one of the more shocking results of the season. Ken Pomeroy’s projections installed the Aztecs as an 18-point favorite over a Runnin’ Rebels team he ranked No. 114 before the game. That’s a Quad 3 loss in the NCAA NET rubric, something most of the other No. 1 seed contenders don’t have. For a team that already was viewed as the fourth No. 1, that defeat opened the door to a drop—and yet it could be the best thing for the Aztecs. Being a No. 2 seed and staying out West seems preferable to the scenario may bracketologists had constructed: being the No. 1 in the East Region and potentially meeting up with Duke in New York City. While they hated losing an undefeated season, losing a line of seeding wouldn’t be the worst thing. Stretch run: San Diego State finishes up at home Tuesday against Colorado State and then at Nevada Saturday, a pair of opponents from the upper half of the Mountain West.
Later Saturday, Gonzaga (4) was beaten at BYU—a far more predictable outcome. The Cougars are red hot and were playing at home, while the Zags have been a bit vulnerable lately. They trailed San Francisco by nine at halftime last Thursday and were in a 40-minute dogfight with the Dons on Feb. 1. The Cougars controlled the game against Gonzaga to end its 40-game regular-season West Coast Conference winning streak. But the Zags have some leeway in terms of seeding—wins over Oregon and Arizona out of conference, plus earlier blowouts of BYU and Saint Mary’s in a solid WCC. They still look like the No. 1 seed in the West, for now. Stretch run: home against San Diego Thursday and Saint Mary’s Saturday.
Maryland (5) could have overtaken San Diego State as a No,. 1 seed, but the Terrapins lost at Ohio State Sunday. That’s not a bad loss against a quality opponent on the road, but nobody is moving up to the top line after a defeat. Still, if Maryland finishes the regular season with four straight wins at Minnesota Wednesday, home against Michigan State Saturday, at Rutgers on March 3 and home against Michigan on March 8—and takes the Big Ten title, that would be an impressive body of work. Even a 3–1 finish and a Big Ten title would merit consideration.
Then there is the ACC champion. Momentum has been a bit elusive for the top three teams. Just when Florida State (6) looms large, the Seminoles falter at Virginia and Duke. Just when Louisville (7) asserts itself, the Cardinals lose back-to-back to Georgia Tech and Clemson. Just when Duke (8) surges to the front, the Blue Devils get blown out by North Carolina State. The Big Monday showdown between Louisville and Florida State looks like an ACC title elimination game, and likely an NCAA No. 1 seed elimination game. The Cardinals arrive in Tallahassee as the No. 7 team in the NCAA NET rankings, while the Seminoles are No. 12. Duke is No. 6.
(Worth noting that the path to the ACC title still runs through Charlottesville, even if Virginia is unlikely to win its third straight conference crown. Both Duke and Louisville have to play the Cavaliers on their home court.)
The only other strong applicant for a No. 1 seed is Dayton (9), dominant in the Atlantic 10 and now in the NET top four ahead of San Diego State. The Flyers have had a couple close scrapes of late but haven’t lost since before Christmas. They will be prohibitively favored in three of their final four games (at George Mason and home against Davidson and George Washington) with a potential test at Rhode Island March 4.
It took a while, but we finally have some intrigue at the top of the bracket. Watching it play out will be entertaining.
SHOULD THERE BE A .500 MINIMUM?
As power conferences increase the number of league games they play—a move that pleases their broadcast partners while also protecting their own power ratings—the sprawl of mediocrity in the middle increases as well. This has led to a renewed debate about whether the NCAA should legislate a minimum .500 conference record for tournament consideration.
The Minutes is an established basher of the Power 6 cabal and a backer of more bids for mid-majors, but such a rule would inevitably paint the committee into a problematic corner. (Minimize rules, maximize guidelines.) Still, the exceptions to the .500 inclusion rule should be rare and compelling—and if that standard were applied to the current tourney, a bunch of Power 6 teams would be in trouble.
Among those that would be—and should be—in serious jeopardy today:
Arkansas (10). Conference record: 5–9 in the SEC. At least one prominent bracketologist, Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com, still has the Razorbacks in his field as of Monday, despite them flailing in an underwhelming league. Can beating Indiana in Bloomington in December really count for that much? That’s the last time the Razorbacks beat a team that currently figures to be in the field of 68.
Xavier (11). Conference record: 6–8 in the Big East. The Musketeers are in most mocks with room to spare at the moment, despite that league record. The Big East is very tough this season, but finishing 3–1 against DePaul, Georgetown, Providence and Butler shouldn’t be too much to ask of Xavier. The nonconference résumé isn’t great (beat Cincinnati, lost to Wake Forest). A road win over Seton Hall is the signature victory to date.
Butler (12). Conference record: 7–8 in the Big East. The Bulldogs did great work out of conference, with wins over teams from the Big Ten (Minnesota and Purdue), the SEC (Florida, Mississippi and Missouri), and the Pac-12 (Stanford). But in the Big East they’re just 7–8 and on a three-game losing streak. The biggest problems: One of DePaul’s two league wins was against Butler, and there was a home loss to Georgetown.
Georgetown (13). Conference record: 5–9 in the Big East. You would think the Hoyas' losing their last two games (Providence and DePaul) to drop four games below .500 would eliminate them from the bubble conversation. Yet somehow it has not. They do have four big opportunities remaining to right the ship: Marquette, Creighton, Xavier and Villanova. Chances of winning all four (or even half of them) seem remote, but that would be a pathway back into the bracket.
Oklahoma (14). Conference record: 6–8 in the Big 12. The Sooners are still in most brackets, despite a three-game losing streak that most recently included a 17-point loss to Oklahoma State. Oklahoma has lost six straight road games, and at No. 55 in the NET there is not a lot to love. This will be a big week, with games at Texas Tech in Oklahoma City and at West Virginia.
Stanford (15). Conference record: 7–7 in the Pac-12. The Cardinal helped themselves significantly last week with wins at Washington and Washington State, elevating their conference mark to .500. If they want to earn their first bid since 2014, sweeping home games this week against Utah and Colorado would be a great place to start.
Purdue (16). Conference record: 7–10 in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers could be the ultimate test of how low the selection committee is willing to go in terms of win-loss record. They’re 14–14 overall and have lost their last four league games. Yeah, it’s a great conference and Purdue has several good wins within it—but at some point you have to stop losing, don’t you? Purdue seemingly should have to win out in the regular season—home against Indiana, at Iowa, home against Rutgers—to have a chance.
Minnesota (17). Conference record: 7–9 in the Big Ten. See above. Some quality wins, but way too many losses. If the Gophers can win three of their last four—Maryland, at Wisconsin, at Indiana, Nebraska—then we’ll talk.
DANGEROUS OFFENSES THAT CAN FILL IT UP
The old adage (stolen from football) is that offense sells tickets and defense wins championships. But that isn’t ironclad, especially in modern college basketball. Going by Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, the last five national champions all have ranked higher in terms of efficiency on offense than on defense.
The Minutes has located four teams very capable of riding their offense to a deep NCAA tournament run (though they may need to guard a bit better if they want to win it all):
Creighton (18). Pomeroy offensive rank: sixth. Defensive rank: 67th. Not many teams are playing better right now than the Bluejays, who have won five straight and nine of their last 10 while rising within a game of the lead in the Big East. They’ve dropped 57 three-pointers in their last five games, shooting 46% beyond the arc. Guard Marcus Zegarowski was 7-of-7 from deep in a blowout of Butler on Sunday.
BYU (19). Pomeroy offensive rank: fourth. Defensive rank: 79th. The Cougars are on an eight-game winning streak, hitting their stride with the full integration of big man Yoeli Childs into the lineup (28 points, 10 rebounds, three assists against Gonzaga on Saturday). He gives BYU the offensive balance that further opens up the perimeter for a bunch of deadly shooters. The Cougars lead the nation in three-point accuracy at 41.9%.
Oregon (20). Pomeroy offensive rank: seventh. Defensive rank: 72nd. No top team is more reliant offensively on one player than the Ducks are on guard Payton Pritchard, but he’s carrying them well. Pritchard was brilliant in the overtime win at Arizona on Saturday, posting 38 points, six rebounds, four assists and just two turnovers despite having the ball in his hands constantly. Dana Altman also has put an athletic cast around Pritchard that makes Oregon difficult to defend.
Iowa (21). Pomeroy offensive rank: fifth. Defensive rank: 92nd. If anyone is close to Oregon’s reliance on Pritchard, it’s the Hawkeyes’ reliance on Luka Garza (he doesn’t have the ball-handling responsibility of Pritchard). The big man’s improved ability to both shoot from the perimeter (35 made threes this season, after 37 in his first two combined) and get to the foul line (173 free throws) is more than most defenses can contain. But if Iowa doesn’t get sharpshooter C.J. Fredrick back from injury, that changes things.
BACK FROM THE DEAD
Teams The Minutes had given up on at some point in the season that have now revived and improved their tournament stock:
Arizona State (22). Current winning streak: seven games. On Jan. 30, the Sun Devils were 12–8, 3–4 in the Pac-12 and coming off a loss to Washington State. Now they lead the league and are in much better shape for an NCAA bid. What’s changed: The Devils are winning the close ones. Five straight games and eight of their last nine have been decided by five points or less. Arizona State is 8–2 in close games thus far this season.
UCLA (23). Current winning streak: five games. The Bruins were brutal through their first 17 games (8–9 overall, 1–3 in the Pac-12). Since then they have won nine of 11, including triumphs at Arizona and Colorado, but must keep winning to even encroach on the NCAA bubble. Something will have to give when hot UCLA hosts hot Arizona State on Thursday. What’s changed: It took a while, but the Bruins have started to guard like a Mick Cronin team. Forward Chris Smith also has asserted himself over the last month.
Virginia (24). Current winning streak: four games, and seven of the last eight. After looking like they would follow a national title by missing the tournament, the Cavaliers now have played their way up to a 10-seed in many mocks, with additional opportunities to rise. What’s changed: The Cavs are finally making some shots. They’ve connected on 53 of their last 130 from three, a marked increase from their previous scattershot performances.
Michigan (25). Current winning streak: five games, and seven of the last eight. At 11–8 and 2–6 in the Big Ten, the Wolverines looked like they were going to severely test the sub-.500 conference limits of the selection committee. Now they’re 18-9, 9-7 and playing for improved seeding, not a bid. What’s changed: Road wins. After losing their first four true road games of the season by an average margin of 15 points, the Wolverines have won four straight Big Ten roadies for the first time since 2014.
Wisconsin (26). Current winning streak: four games. There was a lot of turmoil through January, with guard Kobe King leaving the team and a strength coach resigning and Brad Davison serving a one-game suspension for a groin shot on an Iowa player. But February has been good—a 5-1 record with big wins over Michigan State and Ohio State. What’s changed: more impact players. A different Badger has led the team in scoring in each of the past five games.
Providence (27). Current winning streak: three games, and five of the last seven. The Friars were brutal through their first 12 games, going 6–6 with losses to Penn, Long Beach State and Charleston. Now they’re 9–6 in the rugged Big East and should be a lock for at least 10 conference victories. They’ve swept Marquette and beaten Seton Hall, Creighton and Butler as well, which could be enough to counterbalance the bad losses. What’s changed: Massachusetts transfer Luwane Pipkins has gotten going. Since returning to the starting lineup Feb. 15 after a six-game stint off the bench, Pipkins has averaged 17.7 points and made 11 of 13 shots inside the arc.
Utah State (28). Current winning streak: five games, and eight of the last nine. As long as the Aggies don’t suffer a bad loss this week (home against San Jose State, at New Mexico), they should feel good about their NCAA at-large standing. The anxious days that accompanied a 3–4 start in Mountain West play are gone now. What’s changed: The Aggies have slowed their tempo and improved their defense. In a five-game stretch from Jan. 1-18, Utah State gave up 76.8 points in games with an average of 71 possessions. Since then: 59.7 points allowed on 65 possession.
Saint Mary’s (29). Current winning streak: three games, and eight of the last 10. After a quadruple OT loss to Pacific Jan. 4 and a home loss to Santa Clara a week later, the Gaels were losing momentum after a quality nonconference run. But since then they’ve won the games they had to win to solidify their tourney standing. What’s changed: Big man Malik Fitts has stepped up his game. He’s averaged 19.4 points over the last seven games, shot better than 50% from three-point range in that time, and made his last 19 free throws.
FIRST-YEAR COACHES DOING GOOD WORK
Juwan Howard (30), Michigan. Yes, he inherited a great situation. But there were doubts about how well Howard would do transitioning to the college game and in his first head-coaching role. The results indicate that he’s not just a celebrity comfort hire. Bringing in veteran Phil Martelli as an assistant has helped, but Howard’s team has displayed a competitive zeal that comes from the head coach.
Mick Cronin (31), UCLA. After the previously mentioned miserable start to the season, the Bruins have their first five-game winning streak since Lonzo Ball was in uniform. They’re also still in the mix for their first Pac-12 regular-season title since 2013.
Steve Alford (32), Nevada. The guy Cronin replaced in Westwood moved back to his comfort zone in the Mountain West Conference. Alford inherited a team with just one significant contributor left over from the 2018–19 squad, and it took a while to put the new pieces together. Now Nevada has won five straight to get to 18–10 overall, 11–5 in the league, and closes the regular season with a big opportunity Saturday against visiting San Diego State.
Mark Pope (33), BYU. Like Howard, Pope stepped into a program in very good shape. But he’s taken it up a notch from the final years under Dave Rose, when the Cougars fell short of the NCAAs four years in a row. This year’s team is a tourney lock and could earn program’s highest seed since the Jimmer Fredette days. Pope might be very happy in Provo, but he’s one good NCAA tourney run from being a very hot commodity on the coaching market.
Dane Fischer (34), William & Mary. The 40-year-old Dave Paulsen protégé replaced longtime coach Tony Shaver and has taken the Tribe to their first 20-win season since 2016, With a victory over Elon Saturday, this would be their first 13-game Colonial Athletic Association regular season since 1997-98. They’re second in the league to Hofstra and will be in good position for the CAA tourney, where William & Mary will shoot for its first-ever NCAA bid.
Shane Burcar (35), Northern Arizona. This is an interesting one. Burcar is the interim coach at NAU, taking over in June after Jack Murphy left the program to become an assistant to Sean Miller at his alma mater, Arizona. The former Mesa (Ariz.) High School coach, who had just one season on his résumé as a Division I assistant, inherited a pretty bad program. NAU was 29-96 the previous four seasons, and now the Lumberjacks are 15-11 overall and 9-8 in the Big Sky. Maybe time to remove the interim tag?
STAT OF THE WEEK
Experience (36) can be a rare and wonderful thing in modern college basketball. Consider the average age of the top five scorers for BYU: 22.6 years old. Guard T.J. Haws is 24 (and looks twice that), Jake Toolson and Dalton Nixon are 23, Yoeli Childs is 22 and Alex Barcello is 21. They are, to use one of the more prominent broadcast clichés of the moment, grown men.
Of course, extreme talent at any age is not a bad thing to have, either. Consider Duke, whose top five scorers average 19 years old. That will bump up slightly on Tuesday, when Vernon Carey turns 19. Happy birthday to him.
UNDER THE RADAR LOVE
Each week The Minutes will highlight a player doing good work outside the sport's mainstream. This week: Terry Taylor (37), Austin Peay. The junior has had six straight double-double games—and one of them was a 20-20 job. At 6' 5", 230 pounds, he’s the classic undersized, hyperproductive frontcourt player.
Taylor is averaging 21.8 points and 10.6 rebounds, and is a big reason why the Governors are tied for first in the Ohio Valley Conference with Murray State and Belmont. In fact, Taylor has been a big part of the program’s resurrection. In his three seasons, Austin Peay is 60-36. In the previous three seasons, the Govs were 37-59.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
John Calipari (38), Kentucky. He went a long way toward clinching a sixth SEC title in 11 seasons last week with a win at LSU and a home victory over Florida. The Wildcats now have a two-game lead over LSU and Auburn with four games to play. Even if the early losses to Evansville and Utah negatively impact NCAA seeding, Kentucky figures to be a difficult draw for anyone. Cal has squeezed a lot of juice out of four quality players—Nick Richards, Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey—and four spare parts.
COACH WHO SHOULD RIDE THE BUS TO WORK
Bob Huggins (39), West Virginia. What had been a good bounce-back season for the Mountaineers is running out of steam. They head into a game at Texas Monday night having lost four of their last five and without a road win since Jan. 6. West Virginia has lost its way offensively, and it might be too late to get back on track.
When hungry and thirsty in Auburn, The Minutes suggests a visit to The Hound (40), which qualifies as the coolest place in town. The building exterior is understated but the interior lives up to the place’s self-proclaimed “hunting lodge” feel. There is a butcher’s diagram of a pig on the wall and, not surprisingly, the menu is bacon-intensive. Try the bacon flight and one of the local beers on tap (Good People, Cahaba, etc.) and thank The Minutes later.