Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in men’s college basketball (sideline masks sold separately—not that anyone is wearing them right, anyway):
IT’S FEBRUARY, TIME TO PAY ATTENTION
If you set your college basketball alarm clock for the day after the football national championship and then hit the snooze button for three more weeks, welcome. There have been some doings while you slumbered.
The season has been beset by the same complications that football endured, with dozens of postponed or canceled games and some teams disappearing from competition for weeks at a time. The NCAA NET ratings reflect the haphazard nature of the season to date: As of Saturday, Colgate was ranked 60 spots higher than Kentucky. Some teams have played 19 games; American University has played four. Rhode Island has played 11 Atlantic-10 conference games; Saint Louis has played one.
Two teams have risen above everyone else—we’ll get to them. One conference has established superiority—the Big Ten. But the most noteworthy development to date is that almost all the biggest programs in the sport actually stink at the same time.
TIMES ARE TOUGH FOR THE SPORT’S TITANS
This week marks Duke–North Carolina Round One, an event that annually gets everyone hyperventilating—especially the folks at ESPN, who already were promoting the A-list rivalry more than a week ahead of the Feb. 6 meeting. But you’re going to have to search hard for legitimate hype this season, because neither team is very good.
Yet here’s the bigger story: Both the underperforming Tobacco Road titans are still better off than a couple other bluebloods. Michigan State is awful. Kentucky is worse. And now Kansas is reeling. The annual November Champions Classic doubleheader with Duke, Kansas, Michigan State and Kentucky looked like garbage then, and guess what? The teams still look like garbage now.
Maybe this is the GameStopping of college basketball, with the well-heeled elites accustomed to getting their way now having their perfectly capped teeth kicked in.
There are reasons, which we will explore in a minute. But first, the bottom line: We are very realistically looking at an NCAA tournament with no Kentucky, no Duke and no Michigan State. (With North Carolina probably on the right side of the bubble and Kansas safely in. For the moment.) Last time there was a Big Dance without the Wildcats, Blue Devils and Spartans was 1976. Back then the field was 32 teams.
If that comes to pass, keep the CBS and Turner Sports execs in your thoughts and prayers. They’re watching March Madness ratings dwindle in real time.
Here’s a fast break through the royal carnage:
Kentucky (1) is the winningest program of all time and the sorriest of all bluebloods at the current time. The Wildcats are a brutal 5–10, the program’s worst 15-game record since 1926–27, and showing no signs of John Calipari’s patented late-season rise. By every available metric, this team is nowhere near making the NCAA tournament—and the resulting fan dissatisfaction with Calipari is the deepest it’s ever been. The Cats’ only slim chance for an at-large bid is a long late-season winning streak, and the biggest opportunity for a quality win was going to be Texas in Rupp Arena on Saturday. But that game was canceled due to a positive COVID-19 test within the UK program. NCAA NET ranking as of Sunday: 75. Last time it missed the tourney: 2013.
Michigan State (2) has the single worst performance of the season by a blueblood. Rutgers beat Tom Izzo’s team by 30 last Thursday—the Scarlet Knights’ first-ever men’s basketball victory over the Spartans. The 37 points was Sparty’s lowest output since 2008. This was Michigan State’s first game in 20 days after a COVID-19 layoff, so that helps explain the 15–0 hole it dug right off the top. But the second half started nearly as badly, and then it snowballed into a rout. “This is a question of our ticker,” said Spartans junior Aaron Henry, not the appraisal you want to hear from the team captain. Michigan State was better Sunday against Ohio State, but still not nearly good enough to win. Current Big Ten record: 2–6, with a third straight road game coming Tuesday at Iowa. Current NCAA NET ranking: 96. Last time it missed the tourney: 1997.
Duke (3) finally showed a pulse last week, beating Georgia Tech and then crushing Clemson. Before then, there had been exactly two noteworthy segments to its season: the week it took off from competition around the holidays for a COVID-19 mental health break and the three-game January losing streak that culminated in Mike Krzyzewski’s drilling down on a student reporter who asked a completely harmless question. The Blue Devils have maybe one quality win, if you’re feeling generous in your assessment of Georgia Tech. NCAA NET ranking as of Sunday: 62. Last time it missed the tourney: 1995.
North Carolina (4) has won six of its last seven to play itself into the top four in the turbulent ACC and into the NCAA tourney field for the time being. But there are many difficult games to go. The Tar Heels are, at best, 1–3 against likely NCAA tourney teams. They are a bad two-week stretch away from missing the NCAAs for the second straight season, something that hasn’t happened since Matt Doherty was the coach in 2002 and ’03. Or, glass half full, a good two-week stretch away from jumping into ACC regular-season title contention. NCAA NET ranking as of Sunday: 47.
The suffering at Kansas (5) was relatively mild compared with that of the above teams—and then the Jayhawks went and got destroyed at Tennessee on Saturday. That was their fourth loss in five games, and the second time they’ve been blown out (the other was a 25-point punking at home from Texas). They’re still in the running for a top-16 seed and heading into a soft stretch of the schedule, but they almost certainly will not win the Big 12 for the second time in the last three seasons. That’s after winning it for 14 straight years from 2005 to ’18—a streak the fans took inordinate pride in maintaining. NCAA NET ranking as of Sunday: 21. Last time they missed the tourney: 1989.
So what’s going on here?
For one, the teams are by and large very young (6). And while that’s never a good excuse at places that navigate the one-and-done waters, it matters. Kansas is the extreme example: From 2010–19, when Bill Self had a team that ranked in the top 250 nationally in average experience (using KenPom metrics), all six of those teams went to the Sweet 16 or beyond (two to the Final Four). The four teams that were outside the top 250 in experience all lost in the second round. This year’s team is 284th in average experience, younger than all but three of Kansas’s previous 11 teams, so Jayhawks fans are officially invited to get nervous about another second-round punch-out.
The subset of the youth issue is that the bluebloods haven’t cornered the market on the best members of the 2020 class (7). Four of the rivals.com top 20 are plying their trade in the G League, the newest threat to college recruiting hegemony. Of the other 16, only five are at blueblood programs: two at Kentucky (B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke), two at North Carolina (Day’Ron Sharp and Caleb Love), one at Duke (Jalen Johnson). At best, one of the five is having an impressive season to date—that would be Johnson, who has come back from a three-game injury absence to average 15 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals in his last four.
Take young teams not stocked with customary talent, then stir in a pandemic that drastically altered both preseason practices and nonconference schedules, and you have a recipe for lousy offense (8). That’s what we have across the blueblood board. As of Sunday, Kansas’s effective field goal percentage rank on KenPom is 178th nationally, worst in Self’s 18 seasons in Lawrence. Kentucky is 309th in that category, worst for a Calipari team this century by more than 100 spots. Duke is 109th, its worst in the 25-year KenPom ranking era. Roy Williams’s worst offense at North Carolina was last year, when the Heels went 14–19; this year is his second-worst. At 33.7%, this is thus far the worst three-point shooting Michigan State team since 2001.
The one place the freshmen are struggling most: behind the arc. Boston is making 18% of his threes, but it hasn’t stopped him from chucking up 50 of them. Love and Clarke check in at 23%, as does Duke’s Jeremy Roach. Kentucky’s Devin Askew is at 26%, Michigan State’s A.J. Hoggard 30%. The shooting star of the freshman class among the blueblood strugglers is North Carolina’s Kerwin Walton at 42%.
WHO DOESN’T STINK? THAT’S OBVIOUS
If you’re looking for the last time two teams were this far ahead of the rest of the field on Feb. 1, you’d probably have to dial back to 2008—that’s when Kansas and Memphis were on something of a collision course. Or maybe 2005, when North Carolina and Illinois were steamrolling toward each other in the title game. Regardless, the national title favorites are easy to identify at this stage. Things can change or a wise-guy alternative can emerge, but for now, it’s all about these two programs:
Baylor (9). The Bears (16–0) play the way Joe Frazier boxed: hit them in the face 15 times and they won’t even flinch; they’ll just keep coming after you. There is nothing in their makeup that suggests backing down is an option. The closest anyone has come to Baylor is eight points, and the average scoring margin is more than 24 points per game. The balance is impressive, but in the event of a close game they have a star in guard Jared Butler who gets the big buckets. Potential weakness: When Scott Drew plays his best lineup, the Bears aren’t very long and are susceptible to giving up offensive rebounds.
Gonzaga (10). The Zags (17–0) make Baylor’s unbeaten path look arduous. They haven’t perspired in weeks, winning 14 straight by double figures and most of those by more than 20. This is the best offensive team in the country, by far the most successful 2021 practitioner of throwing it inside or driving it there and converting. (If the Zags can maintain their 64.8% shooting from two-point range, it would be the highest in the KenPom era. They were a ridiculous 28 of 34 from inside the arc Saturday against Pepperdine.) Mark Few has so many pieces, and they all complement one another nicely. Potential weakness: Will they react well when they end up in a single-elimination scrap? That’s always been the concern with the kingpin of the West Coast Conference, but this season is even more of a mismatch within the league. What will happen when they face a battle-hardened Big Ten team in a regional final?
A senior who has spent his entire college career at the same school is an increasingly rare commodity. The transfer portal and early entry into the professional ranks have created more roster churn than ever, increasing the transient nature of the sport. But sometimes staying put provides a payoff in the end with a career year. The Minutes examines some four-year, one-school guys who are enjoying breakout seasons:
Herbert Jones (11), Alabama. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas touted Jones as the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year on Saturday, with good reason. He’s doing a little of everything for a team that leads the league by three games. Jones is averaging a career-high 12.6 points per game, up nearly five from last year; he’s shooting 50% from three with 14 made three-pointers, which equals the number he made his first three seasons combined; he’s first on the team in steals and second in assists. When called upon, the 6' 8" Jones can run the point or defend the post. He’s also extremely tough, playing through myriad injuries this season. (Jones is not alone on the Alabama senior roll call; leading scorer John Petty and big man Alex Reese also have been key cogs in the Crimson Tide’s 14–4 start.)
Jay Huff (12), Virginia. This has become the ultimate wait-your-turn program, and Huff is reaping the benefits now of doing exactly that. He’s averaging 13.8 points per game, up from what had been a career-high 8.5 last season. His shooting percentages have all soared since 2019–20, up to 70% from two-point range; 50% from three; and 88% from the foul line. Huff has made six of his last seven threes over the past three games. The 7-footer also is averaging a career-high 2.4 blocks per game.
D’Mitrik Trice (13), Wisconsin. The Badgers have six seniors playing key roles, and none of them has been more impactful than Trice. He’s Wisconsin’s leading scorer at 14.1 points per game and leader in assists at 3.8, while shooting 40% from three, 47% from two and 78% from the line. Only twice in his past 29 games has Trice committed more turnovers than assists. He’s the one guy coach Greg Gard most wants on the floor, having played at least 32 minutes in every Big Ten game thus far.
Jeremiah Tilmon (14), Missouri. The most important statistical improvement Tilmon has made this season is in minutes played: 28.1 per game, which means a chronically foul-prone big man has figured out how to stop hacking and stay on the floor. When he’s out there, the broad-shouldered Tilmon has been a load. He’s averaging career highs in scoring (13.9), rebounds (8.1), blocks (1.4), steals (0.9) and assists (0.9) while shooting a career-best 66% from the field. He kept Missouri in the game against TCU on Saturday until help arrived late, finishing with a career-high 33 points.
Jose Alvarado (15), Georgia Tech. The brassy Brooklyn point guard is playing like he’s seen it all and knows what’s coming a beat before everyone else. He’s started 91 games at Tech and has taken his game to a new level this season, leading the team in scoring (18.3), assists (4.4), steals (2.9) and in all shooting percentages (44% from three, 61% from two, 87% from the line). Senior big man Moses Wright also is having a career year; his 23 points, eight rebounds and six steals were vital in Tech’s big upset of Florida State on Saturday.
Collin Gillespie (16), Villanova. At the time Jay Wright offered Gillespie a scholarship, the competition to sign him was the likes of Fairleigh Dickinson, Hofstra, Albany and Maine. It’s turned out O.K. for the Wildcats, with Gillespie going from presumed bench jockey to nearly 1,200 points and more than 300 assists in a pandemic-condensed career. He’s playing the best ball of his life this season, with career highs of 15.5 points, 4.7 assists, 43% three-point shooting and 88% foul shooting. He had a career-best 11 assists Saturday against Seton Hall and hasn’t missed a free throw since Dec. 11.
McKinley Wright IV (17), Colorado. He’s started 116 out of the 117 games he’s played for the Buffaloes, with production that has been rock-solid for four seasons. He’s the active career assist leader among Power 6 conference players with 604, and is averaging a career-high 5.7 in that category along with a career-high 14.8 points and a career-low two turnovers per game. Wright has Colorado trending toward what could be its highest NCAA tournament seeding ever—the Buffs have never been better than a No. 8. (An upset home loss to Utah on Saturday didn’t help.)
Corey Kispert (18), Gonzaga. If there is a DeVonta Smith comparison in college hoops, it might be Kispert—come back for a senior season, blow up and put yourself in the running for both a national championship and national Player of the Year honors. Kispert has gone from efficient to deadly offensively, cranking up his scoring average from 13.9 to 20.2. His shooting percentages have risen from 44 to 49 from three; from 52 to 67 from two; and from 81 to 90 from the line. Rebounds also are at a career-best 5.1 per game. His 53 made threes is the second-most of any player nationally with greater than 48% accuracy outside the arc. It’s not hard to envision Kispert’s making a Duncan Robinson–esque impact at the next level.
SO, WHERE ARE THE IMPACT FRESHMEN?
The NBA draft could be heavy at the top with guys from the high school graduating class of 2020, but they won’t come from the usual places. As noted above, the blueblood freshmen haven’t yet established themselves, and a couple of top-five picks could come from the group that bypassed college for the G League.
As it stands, two of the four highest-impact freshmen might miss the NCAA tournament: Point guard Sharife Cooper (19) and Auburn are out after self-imposing a postseason ban amid an NCAA investigation, and Cade Cunningham (20) and Oklahoma State are eligible pending the outcome of their appeal of an NCAA postseason ban. (If the appeal is denied sometime between now and Selection Sunday, the Cowboys would be out. Until it’s decided, they’re eligible and have the résumé to earn a bid.)
After sitting out 11 games due to an eligibility investigation, Cooper has flourished as a do-everything point guard in Bruce Pearl’s free-flowing offense. He’s creative and fearless, very much prepared to monopolize the ball from the moment he was cleared to play. Cooper is averaging 21.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 8.1 assists, despite shooting just 39% overall and 19% from three. He’s ahead of his years in terms of drawing fouls by driving into contact and has an advanced degree in throwing his head back or hitting the floor to sell the refs. (Baylor appeared to have figured him out a bit, avoiding fouling him and playing him to pass before shooting.) The Ja Morant comparisons are premature; Cooper has less bounce and doesn’t appear to be his listed 6' 1".
Cunningham could be the top pick in the draft, a smooth 6' 8" player who does everything well. He might not be quite the passer Ben Simmons is, but he can make a jump shot. Cunningham is averaging 18.1 points, second-most among freshmen nationally, in addition to 6.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists. He’s showing increasingly judicious shot selection, making 15 of his last 23 from two-point range and nine of his last 21 from three. The only drawbacks thus far: His turnover rate remains high, and he doesn’t mix it up much on the offensive glass (a total of six offensive boards since Dec. 1).
The best freshmen we are virtually assured of seeing in the Big Dance:
Jalen Suggs (21), Gonzaga. He’s the perfect freshman to plug into an already talented team, willing to be part of the cast and heavily invested in the team’s success. Suggs is an elite athlete who also has a high skill level, which is why he’s a potential top-five pick this summer. He’s fifth on the team in minutes, but third in scoring and rebounding, second in assists and first in steals. If Gonzaga needs tough baskets off the bounce come tournament time, Suggs might be its man.
Evan Mobley (22), USC. Cunningham’s competition to be the No. 1 pick could be Mobley, a lithe and lively 7-footer. He’s not Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he’s very good and should translate well to the NBA style of play. Mobley leads USC (13–3, 7–2 in the Pac-12) in scoring (16.4), rebounding (8.9) and blocks (2.9). And he’s been a consistent performer, with only one dud game (at Utah in early January).
Greg Brown (23), Texas. Another elite athlete with size at 6' 9", Brown has been the key addition the Longhorns needed for their 2020–21 renaissance. He leads the team in rebounds (eight) and blocks (1.3) while chipping in 11.9 points per game. He’s had standout performances against West Virginia (12 points and 14 rebounds) and Oklahoma State (24 and 14), and his perimeter shooting has improved after a 1–15 start from three.
Hunter Dickinson (24), Michigan. The 7-footer had come back down to earth, averaging 6.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4 turnovers in the Wolverines’ last three games before going on COVID-19 pause. But before that he was sensational, starting his college career with 11 straight double-figure scoring games and three double doubles. He’s making 71% of his two-point attempts on the season.
Scottie Barnes (25), Florida State. The 6' 9" point guard has been content to facilitate and let upperclassmen M.J. Walker and RaiQuan Gray take more shots in Leonard Hamilton’s über-balanced offense. Barnes leads the team in assists at 4.1, but you get the feeling his time is coming (or needs to) in terms of his 10.3 points-per-game scoring average.
FEBRUARY GAMES TO WATCH
The must-watch matchups for the month ahead, in chronological order:
Feb. 2: Baylor at Texas (26). These are the top two teams in the Big 12 standings, and, per Ken Pomeroy, this is the Bears’ most likely loss remaining on its regular-season schedule. (Not that it’s actually considered likely; Pomeroy puts Baylor’s percent chance of victory at 68%.) The Longhorns are hoping to have coach Shaka Smart and three players (including two starters) back from COVID-19 protocols. At full strength, Texas’s athletic length could give Baylor some problems.
Feb. 6: UCLA at USC (27). First place could be on the line in the Pac-12. The Bruins (13–3, 9–1 in the league) have been outstanding despite the loss of senior Chris Smith since the calendar flipped to 2021. But they’re also giving up an average of two inches per player to the long Trojans (13–3, 7–2). Andy Enfield won his first two matchups with Mick Cronin since Cronin took over in Westwood.
Feb. 6: Alabama at Missouri (28). The Crimson Tide have dominated the SEC at 9–0, but are only 5–4 outside the league with losses to undermanned Oklahoma, Western Kentucky, Clemson and Stanford. Their high-octane offense has staggered the past couple of games, producing Bama’s two lowest-scoring totals since early December. But the Mizzou defense also has struggled of late. This is a big week for the Tigers, with Kentucky arriving Tuesday (maybe, depending on COVID-19 issues) and then Alabama.
Feb. 11: Illinois at Michigan (29). Should the Wolverines make it out of Washtenaw County COVID-19 purgatory, this could be their first game back—and it would be a big one. Michigan leads the Big Ten at 8–1, with Illinois second at 7–3. The Illini have all the pieces of a Final Four team and might have gotten their spotty season back on track with a big win over Iowa last Friday.
Feb. 13–14: Loyola Chicago at Drake (30). This looks like the marquee mid-major series of the season—a back-to-back showdown in Des Moines of Missouri Valley Conference powers. Cameron Krutwig, starting center on Loyola’s 2018 Final Four team, is still around and plying his crafty, ground-bound low-post game. The undefeated Bulldogs—who barely survived a massive upset bid Sunday from Illinois State—are one of most resourceful teams in the country. This will be fun, if they can both get there without any losses.
Feb. 15: Virginia at Florida State (31). This game lost considerable luster Saturday, when both teams were upset. But it still looms as a matchup of the top two teams in the ACC—and it might not be the grim defensive slog we customarily expect. For the first time since 2013, the Seminoles rank higher offensively than defensively in the Pomeroy ratings. This is just the second time the Cavaliers are higher on offense than defense under Tony Bennett (the last time was the national championship season of 2019).
FIVE QUESTIONS (AND ONE) WITH A COACH
Each week, The Minutes will ask a coach five questions, then give that coach an opportunity to ask a question of his own. First installment: Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. (The interview was done in happier times, before the Spartans lost their last two games.)
Question 1: What was it like going three weeks without a game in January?
Izzo: “We were out of the gym for a few days, but because eight of our guys already had [COVID-19] and I already had it, I was able to do some individual instruction and small-group workouts. But I’ve never been more stressed out as a coach (32). Since I tested positive, I come in everyday thinking, ‘Who’s positive?’ You’ve got to worry about your team and your stuff. But a lot of people have it a lot worse.”
Question 2: You, of all people, must have been going crazy without any games. Were you out chopping wood or what?
Izzo: “We bought a Peloton and I’ve put that thing in the ground (33). That does take away some of the stress, some of the crap.”
Question 3: You knew this season was going to be weird, how did you prepare for it?
Izzo: “I called all my football friends (34) and picked their brains about what it was like going through it. One thing they said, it was consistently inconsistent. I think that’s been true in our sport as well. You see Tennessee losing by 25, and us losing by 20 at Minnesota, it seems like it’s been up and down for almost everyone. It’s been tough on coaches, but for 20-year-olds, I can’t imagine going through it.”
Question 4: The Big Ten is the best league in the country this season. How strong is it compared to normal years?
Izzo: “This is my 37th year in the league, as a head coach and assistant. I don’t think it’s been close to as competitive top to bottom as now (35). … Sometimes our top teams, we have one or two but not four or five. But this is different. You look at Penn State, Rutgers, Maryland in the bottom half of the league—those are damn good teams. I think we’ve beaten the s--- out of each other. But sooner or later we have to win a national championship.”
Question 5: You always seem to relish a crisis. Are you feeling the challenge right now?
Izzo: “I think the last four years have been a crisis, but we’ve won games. But I can see that—if there is no controversy, create some. I think everyone has to be on edge (36), everyone has to have a chip, something more to prove. I do try to have an edge, and I have dealt with controversy in a lot of ways. If you can fight through this, what we’re going through now—this is one of the ultimates. You can be playing damn good and then lose three in a row. I’ve got to do something I’m not real good at, and that’s keeping it in perspective and keep going forward.”
Izzo’s question: How are you guys [sportswriters] getting through this?
Minutes: “Even when there were no games, it was busier than ever dealing with the pace of the news. The games aren’t as much fun without the crowds, and doing interviews via Zoom call is not ideal. But we’re making it. Beer helps.”
STAT OF THE WEEK
Per some number-crunching by stats geek Evan Miyakawa, the expected result is confirmed: The longer time your team is off due to COVID-19 issues, the greater the impact on performance.
Miyakawa tweeted last week that a 14-day pause is worth about a 0.5 point disadvantage. A 21-day is an impact of 2.3 points and a 28-day pause can result in a four-point drop.
There are any number of examples, but last week Saint Louis (37) played after a 33-day layoff and lost at home to Dayton. In a vacuum, the Billikens began the game with an 81% likelihood of winning. The pertinent team to watch this month coming off a pause is Big Ten–leading Michigan.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Mike Young (38), Virginia Tech. He’s the only choice for ACC Coach of the Year at this point, taking a team picked 11th preseason to a current second-place standing behind Virginia, the team the Hokies just spanked Saturday. In his second season since coming into the league from Wofford, Young has quickly showed he belongs by putting together a blend of transfers and holdovers who are playing with tenacity and savvy. Two games remaining with Florida State could well determine whether the Hokies can win their first conference regular-season title of any kind in 61 years.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Will Wade (39), LSU. The Tigers had a seven-point lead on Texas Tech with 65 seconds remaining Saturday … and lost by five. In regulation. LSU’s line in the final minute: missed front-end free throw, turnover, missed jumper, missed three-pointer, foul. Zero points, zero rebounds, zero stops, outscored 12–0 down the stretch. Strong-ass collapse.
When hungry and thirsty in the great basketball city of Charlotte, The Minutes recommends a visit to Mimosa Grill (40) downtown. Try the charcuterie plate and a White Blaze Winter Ale from Triple C Brewing and thank The Minutes later.