Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (stock in Virginia sold separately, and cheaper by the game):
RAISE THE TITANIC?
It was a very good weekend in a very bad season for the Battered Blueblood Five. Does a good weekend equate to a saved season? Not so fast. But it could be the start of salvaging a shipwreck of a year. Let’s examine.
Duke (1) has won three straight games, matching its longest winning streak of the season. And as everyone knows, this winning streak coincides with the benching and ultimate opt-out of highly touted freshman Jalen Johnson (2). He played just eight minutes in a rout of North Carolina State, then announced that he was done with college basketball and left the program. Subsequently, the Blue Devils blew out Wake Forest (not hard to do) and then Saturday night defeated Virginia (harder to do).
While Johnson’s departure clearly seems like addition by subtraction for Duke, there’s no need to vilify the teenager in absentia—this may simply have been best for all involved parties. Mike Krzyzewski knows what he’s doing, believe it or not, and this isn’t the first time a Duke player departure that appeared problematic on paper turned out to not be a problem at all. Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed from the team in late January 2015 (completely different circumstances) and the Blue Devils went 18–1 the rest of the way and won the national title.
Is this Duke team going to go win it all now? Uh, not likely. But the Blue Devils have vaulted back into the NCAA tournament bubble conversation—they’re up to No. 56 in the NCAA NET rankings, with a 5–6 record in Quad 1 and 2 games. They’ve also moved up 10 spots in the Pomeroy Ratings, to No. 31. They’re above .500 (10–8, 8–6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) and have winnable home games this week against Syracuse (Monday night) and Louisville (Saturday). Johnson’s departure has further freed up Matthew Hurt (3) to be Duke’s top offensive option: He’s averaged 22.7 points during the winning streak.
Kentucky (4) also has won three straight, with an emphatic beating of Tennessee on Saturday standing out as its best victory of the season. That shot the Wildcats up from No. 62 to 50 in the Pomeroy Ratings. After flailing around in search of the right rotations, John Calipari has finally settled on the seven guys who will decide how this season ends for the Wildcats. Bouncy big man Isaiah Jackson (5) has taken off, averaging 16.3 points, nine rebounds and two blocks during the winning streak.
Unlike Duke, the Wildcats are nowhere near the bubble. Any 8–13, they still need to win the Southeastern Conference tournament to get into the Big Dance. But aside from Alabama, which has handled Kentucky twice, none of the league’s top teams appear to be demonstrably better than UK. Things could be very interesting where the Cats are involved next month in Nashville.
North Carolina (6) slipped in a nonconference game last week against Northeastern and won by 20, then carried that momentum over to a cold-blooded murder of Louisville on Saturday, 99–54. The Tar Heels will play another noncon game Wednesday against Marquette, as Roy Williams opts for more game experience for a young team. It was a particularly good week for freshman big man Day'Ron Sharpe (7), who averaged 18 points and 9.5 rebounds in the two blowout wins.
North Carolina is on the right side of the bubble of most, if not all, mock brackets. But the Tar Heels are still dragging around a brutal 1–6 record in Quad 1 games, which makes the closing stretch of ACC play all the most significant: They host league leader Florida State on Saturday, then travel to Syracuse, then host Duke.
Michigan State (8) won at Indiana on Saturday for the first time since 2018. While the Hoosiers are plenty sketchy in their own right, it was a welcome victory for a team that is barely treading water at 11–9 overall, 5–9 in the vicious Big Ten. Tom Izzo cobbled together a different lineup during that game and it paid dividends—in particular he went with more Gabe Brown (9) and less of the struggling Joey Hauser.
In terms of trying to qualify for a 23rd straight NCAA tourney, Michigan State has both a great opportunity and a terrible draw to finish the regular season. The Spartans need quality wins and will have many chances, but playing Illinois and Ohio State once and Michigan twice, not to mention a trip to Maryland, will be very difficult.
Kansas (10) is a lock to make the NCAAs, and the Jayhawks are improving their seeding down the stretch. They’ve won five straight, most importantly beating Texas Tech on Saturday. Kansas is 15–0 this season when holding opponents to fewer than 70 points, 2–7 when giving up more than 70. This team doesn’t have the offensive firepower to win shootouts.
In summation: Things are looking up at a lot of flagship programs, which will revive interest in some downtrodden fan bases and TV execs who like brand names. But The Minutes will predict that only three of the five make the Big Dance: Kansas, North Carolina and Duke. Kentucky dug too deep a hole, and even with recent improvements this team is unlikely to get a top-four SEC tourney seed and thus would have to win four games in four days. Michigan State is in a meat grinder conference, with a schedule that promises more losses ahead.
IS IT TIME FOR THE BIG TEN TO WIN A TITLE?
Michigan (11) and Ohio State (12) played the best game of the season to date on Sunday. It was a remarkable display of shooting skill (a combined 22 of 45 from three-point range). It was a cleanly played game (just 16 turnovers, and only 21 fouls in the first 36 minutes). It was a fierce imposition of Wolverine will against an undersized bunch of Buckeyes who wouldn’t back down. The battle of top-five teams was impressive enough to double the list of prime national title contenders from two (Gonzaga and Baylor) to four.
Michigan 7-footer Hunter Dickinson (13) is making a case to be national Freshman of the Year (though he has competition from Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham and Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs). Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell (14) could be the nation’s most improved player, raising his production from 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds to 15.9 and 6.8, respectively.
But there is more elite quality within the Big Ten. Illinois (15) is surging, riding a seven-game winning streak. Iowa (16) is the most efficient offensive team in the country, per Ken Pomeroy. The two also have the leading contenders for national Player of the Year in the Illini’s Ayo Dosunmu (17) and Iowa’s Luka Garza (18).
Still, there is more. Purdue, Wisconsin and Rutgers provide a quality second tier. Then Maryland, Indiana and Minnesota are all in various positions on the bubble, battling for bids.
Top to bottom, it’s by far the best conference in the country. And this is one of the strongest editions of the Big Ten in a long time. So is it finally time for the league to win its first national championship since 2000?
Dana O’Neil of The Athletic pondered the league’s two-decade title drought last week, examining areas where the Big Ten has fallen short. (Short answer: recruiting pro-level talent. Which, if you look at most 2021 mock drafts, very much remains an issue in 2021. Very few Big Ten players are being mentioned as draftable players this summer.)
There have been some near misses: Wisconsin 2015, Michigan 2013 and Illinois 2005, most notably. The Badgers might have been the best of the three—they led Duke in the championship game by nine points with 13 minutes to play in ’15, and still led inside the final five minutes, but hit the wall late. An intense semifinal against undefeated Kentucky two days earlier left Wisconsin running on fumes at the end of that title game.
Of the top four teams in the Big Ten, both Iowa and Ohio State must improve at the defensive end to have a chance to win it all. The Hawkeyes, No. 74 defensively per KenPom, have a chronic indifference to stopping people—that’s who they’ve been under Fran McCaffery. It seems unlikely that Iowa could simply score its way to six straight wins. The Buckeyes don’t put much pressure on opposing guards while also lacking the size to shut down the paint. Dickinson wore down Ohio State’s tenacious but undersized big men inside Sunday.
The Wolverines and Illini seemingly have the parts. Michigan’s guards don’t look like much in the layup line—Ivy League transfer Mike Smith is not close to his listed 5' 11"—but they’ve been better than solid when the ball goes up. Dickinson provides a low-post presence that few elite teams can counteract. Illinois has no glaring weaknesses, other than periodic mental lapses—the Illini have been known to let inferior teams hang around, and they sometimes commit turnovers in clusters. They have the necessary talent.
The Big Ten figures to be seeded advantageously enough to have multiple teams make deep runs. The opportunities to at least reach the Final Four will be there. What the league’s teams do with those opportunities will decide whether the title drought is extended or finally broken.
THE BACK-TO-BACK BURDEN
When the two-game Horizon League weekend series between Wright State (19) and Northern Kentucky (20) ended Saturday night, there was a general feeling of satisfied relief. The teams split a pair of close, competitive games, and it marked the end of the regular season. Both coaches hoped they’ll never have to go through a season of back-to-back games against the same opponent again.
“It’s been hard,” said Wright State coach Scott Nagy, whose team captured a share of a third straight regular-season title. “We ended up being 16–4 (in league play), and I didn’t think anybody would win 16 games. I’m super proud of our guys. After every weekend, I’m shot. I’m completely shot by Sunday, and I know our players are. To do it every weekend, it’s an absolute grind.”
There are some early-season tournaments or multiteam events when games are played on back-to-back days. But those are one-time deals. This has been a season-long gantlet in the Horizon: 10 two-game series against the same opponent, starting in mid-December and going for two months.
“With a young team, it’s mentally been hard for these guys to be at a high level the second night, especially with no crowd to get you going,” Northern Kentucky coach Darrin Horn said. “As coaches, you go into it and you’re thinking about first night vs. second night, all the things you might learn on the first night, and you come out doing everything you can to try to win that first one. And then even if there’s some adjustments you want to do, you’re not going to be any good at it because you don’t have time to practice it.”
By the end of the regular season, Horn was practicing his team hard on only Tuesdays and Thursdays. Mondays and Wednesdays were light workouts. Sundays were completely off.
In the end, the Norse gave Wright State its toughest weekend of the season. The Raiders were 7–3 in opening games and 9–1 in the rematch, often beating opponents to a pulp. Their combined margins of victory for the series: 36 in a sweep of Detroit; 29 in a sweep of Green Bay; 29 in a split with Oakland; 36 in a split with Youngstown State; 24 in a split with Cleveland State; 58 in a sweep of IUPUI; 39 in a sweep of Robert Morris; 45 in a sweep of Illinois-Chicago; 21 in a sweep of Milwaukee; and a single point in a split with NKU.
“Of all the wins we had, that was the toughest one we had to fight for,” Nagy said of the Saturday victory.
The other kings of the back-to-back grind: Winthrop (21) went 17–1 in the Big South, with the lone loss by two points in a game the Eagles led by seven points in the final four minutes; Colgate (22) is 11–1 in the Patriot League, also with a single loss by two points; and the Missouri Valley power duo of Loyola Chicago (23) and Drake (24), coming in at 14–2 and 13–2, respectively.
BIG WEEK FOR THE BUBBLE BOYS
Eight teams facing an important week as they try to navigate life on the NCAA tournament bubble:
Indiana (25). This week: at Rutgers, home against Michigan. The Hoosiers (12–10, 7–8 in the Big Ten) will be underdogs in both games but cannot afford to be swept—especially with two more on the road the following week. A sweep of Iowa will only go so far when it’s offset by five home losses, including one to Northwestern. A team with a 3–7 Quad 1 record could use a little more in the win column.The vacillating performances of Archie Miller’s guards have driven Indiana fans to the brink of despair.
Connecticut (26). This week: at Georgetown, home against Marquette. The Huskies (10–6, 7–6 in the Big East) got guard James Bouknight back last week, and the impact was immediate—he averaged 19.5 points and seven rebounds, as UConn beat Providence and challenged Villanova. With Bouknight, Danny Hurley’s team is 6–2; without him it is 4–4. A good closing stretch with him in the lineup would greatly aid UConn’s at-large argument. Two remaining games against improving Georgetown could say a lot about where the Huskies stand heading into their first Big East tourney since 2013.
Stanford (27). This week: home against Oregon and Oregon State. The Cardinal (14–9, 10–7 in the Pac-12) were mere seconds away from escaping the Washington road trip with a sweep, but let it get away at Washington State Saturday. Up three with 10 seconds to play, 79% foul shooter Michael O’Connell missed two and then the Cougars hit a tying three. Stanford ultimately collapsed in triple overtime, sending it back to the thinnest reaches of the bubble. The Cardinal remain a fascinating test case for the selection committee, having not played a game on campus until February. A sweep of the Oregon schools could be enough to clinch a bid; a split is treading water; being swept would be disastrous.
Maryland (28). This week: home against Michigan State. With wins over Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers, you have to like where the Terrapins stand—they’re on a four-game winning streak that brings their Big Ten record up to 8–9. They close with three winnable games, following the Spartans game Sunday with Northwestern and Penn State. There are many losses on the résumé, but no truly bad ones. If they avoid adding one of those in this final regular-season stretch they should feel good about their position.
St. Bonaventure (29) and much of the rest of the Atlantic-10. This week: The A-10 is this pandemic season’s ultimate tub of live bait, with teams varying between 23 games played and 13. Bona is tied for the league lead at 9–3, but has only played 14 games total. Fellow bubble dweller Saint Louis has played 15 games, only seven in the league. Richmond, the third A-10 team in bubble territory, has played 17 and owns wins away from home over Kentucky and Loyola Chicago. Saint Louis has the biggest week, with a game at VCU Tuesday and then home against Richmond Friday and Massachusetts Sunday.
St. John’s (30). This week: at Villanova. The Red Storm have been the ultimate tease: make you believe by winning six straight, four on the road, including upsets of UConn and Villanova; then take bad losses against the bottom two teams in the Big East, Butler and DePaul. It will take some work to counteract the damage of losing those games; a sweep of ‘Nova might do it.
Wichita State (31). This week: home against SMU, then at SMU. After losing by 20 at Memphis a month ago, there didn’t seem to be much intrigue left in this unsettled Shockers season. But they’ve won five straight since then, capped by the mammoth upset of AAC big dog Houston Saturday. That shot the Shockers to the top of the league standings at 9–2, and now the closing stretch becomes much more meaningful.
Utah State (32). This week: home against Nevada twice. Winning these two games wouldn’t necessarily secure the Aggies a spot in the field, but losing one or both could be an at-large eliminator. In a fun four-team battle for the top of the conference, Utah State has lost four of its last six to jeopardize its standing. Sweeping San Diego State was great, but there is no other meat on the bone.
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 their own. In this week’s installment, The Minutes caught up with Baylor’s Scott Drew as his undefeated team returns Tuesday against Iowa State from a three-week COVID-19 pause and a winter storm that wreaked havoc in Texas:
The Minutes: What has February been like for you?
Drew: We’ve dealt with a lot of COVID protocols, and then the snow storm. A lot of our staff was without power for two-t- four days. You know it’s bad when Walgreens is closed (33). We don’t even have snow plows in Texas, so there was no way to do snow removal. … With the COVID pause, we had our first regular practice Sunday.
The Minutes: How did that go?
Drew: (Laughs). I’m glad we didn’t play Sunday (34).
The Minutes: You expected to have a good season, but 17–0 is pretty special. What’s been the best part of it?
Drew: We’re really blessed to have a veteran team, but also to have players who really like being around each other. I think our staff has valued the time with these guys. It’s a joy every day going to practice (35). That’s why it’s tough when you’re off since Feb. 2.
The Minutes: Your offensive efficiency has been improving year over year, but it’s at a whole new level now. (Baylor is the top three-point shooting team in the nation at 43.9%, up from 35.1 last year, and its effective field goal percentage is up nearly 10%.) What’s gone into that jump?
Drew: We have a lot of guys that played together last year, and now have another year together. That familiarity has allowed them to get each other better shots (36). And we had a lot of players who worked hard on their individual games. During the shutdown, they were still finding ways to improve.
The Minutes: You’re an avid bass fisherman, from a family of avid bass fishermen. What’s your biggest catch?
Drew: I got one that was 9 pounds, 5 ounces a few years ago at Falcon Lake. Caught him on a crank bait, deep runner. My brother (Grand Canyon coach Bryce Drew) has one 9 pounds, 2 1/2 ounces in Lake Okeechobee. My dad (former Valparaiso coach Homer Drew) has one 10 pounds. My dad’s the champ right now (37). He caught his on a deep runner as well. My brother’s was on a shiner—that’s live bait, I’m not sure that counts.
And one from Drew: What are they going to do with media at the NCAA tournament? Will you be able to interview players in person?
The Minutes: That doesn’t not appear to be the case. All interviews are probably going to be via zoom call, as they have been in most places this season.
Drew: That’s too bad—part of the experience for student-athletes is having the media to interact with, in the locker room and in the press conferences. To me, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m pushing for it to happen.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Isaac Brown (38), Wichita State. Plugged into a thankless situation after the resignation of program fixture Gregg Marshall two weeks before the season opener, the interim coach has made the most of a difficult task. As noted above, the Shockers have risen to the top of the American Athletic Conference after being picked to finish seventh. The current five-game winning streak is by a total of 22 points, showing that Wichita has found ways to win the close ones. Brown has stated a strong claim for having the interim tag removed and being named the full-time head coach after the season.
COACH WHO SHOULD RIDE THE BUS TO WORK
Chris Mack (39), Louisville. The only undisputed title that has been won thus far this season is Worst COVID-19 Restart Team—that is Mack’s Cardinals, and it isn’t close. Coming back from an 18-day December gap between games, Louisville was annihilated by Wisconsin, 85–48. That was bad, but not as embarrassing as what happened Saturday night after a 19-day break from competition: a 99–54 massacre at North Carolina. Average margin of defeat in restart games: 41 points. At 11–5 overall, 6–4 in the ACC and facing a challenging closing stretch, Louisville could yet play its way out of the tournament.
When hungry and thirsty in the improving Cincinnati satellite city of Covington, Ky., The Minutes recommends dinner at The City Goat (40). It’s a quality gastropub with plenty of TVs for college basketball viewing and a solid menu. Get the wings and a Cincinnati-brewed Rhinegeist Truth and thank The Minutes later.