Championship Week is here, and while some bids have already been punched, the majority of conference tournament action takes place in the next five days. As we enter this critical week, the final installment of this season’s Stars of the Week highlights five teams playing their best basketball at the right time.
San Diego State
The Aztecs have quietly been one of the nation’s best teams in the last six weeks. Since getting swept by Utah State in mid-January and throwing themselves onto the bubble, SDSU has gone a perfect 11–0 to climb back into the AP Top 25 and claim a second consecutive Mountain West title. In that stretch almost no one in the country has played as well as the Aztecs. Per T-Rank, Brian Dutcher’s team has been the fifth-best team in the U.S. since Jan. 21, trailing just Gonzaga, Houston, Michigan and Illinois.
Maintaining an elite-level mid-major after losing an NBA player in Malachi Flynn and another critical piece in big man Yanni Wetzell says a lot about the job that Dutcher has done with this program. Senior wing Matt Mitchell has stepped up into a lead scoring role, and fellow senior Jordan Schakel is one of the nation’s best three-point shooters. Add in an elite defense that has allowed 70 or more points just three times all season, and you have a mid-major capable of making a lot of noise in March. This week’s Mountain West tournament will be a good test against multiple other potential NCAA tournament teams.
The Boilermakers have been overshadowed all season by the four elite teams at the top of the Big Ten, but Matt Painter’s team has looked as good as anyone lately. Purdue enters the Big Ten tournament having won five in a row, a late-season surge that earned it a double-bye in the conference tournament. That means it will only need to win three games to cut down the nets in Indianapolis.
Perhaps the scariest part: Boilermakers star Trevion Williams had arguably his worst stretch of the season during that winning streak. Williams scored fewer than 10 points in three of the five games and topped 12 just once. Instead, it has been freshmen who have stepped up and led the way during the win streak. Talented young guard Jaden Ivey is averaging 15 points, four rebounds and two assists per game in his last five contests, while gigantic freshman big Zach Edey had consecutive 20-plus point outbursts to close the regular season. Coaches often quip that freshmen become sophomores in March, and this young Boilermaker team is finding its stride at the right time.
After dealing with injuries and COVID-19-related disruptions throughout the first half of the season, the Ducks have really clicked into gear in February and are playing their best basketball at the right time. Dana Altman’s team enters its conference tournament winners of five straight and 10 of 11, a run that allowed the Ducks to secure the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 tournament after starting just 4–3 in conference play.
With an All-America in the backcourt in Chris Duarte, another high-level shooter and ballhandler in Will Richardson, and two versatile forwards in Eugene Omoruyi and LJ Figueroa, Oregon has elite talent. Duarte has been in takeover mode in recent weeks, establishing himself as one of the nation’s best guards thanks to his efficient scoring and high-level shooting ability combined with strong defensive instincts. He’s the type of player that can win you multiple games in the NCAA tournament.
Since the return of James Bouknight in mid-February, few teams have looked as good as the Huskies. UConn has been the seventh-best team in the country since Bouknight’s return on Feb. 16, per T-Rank, rattling off five wins in the team’s final six regular season games to solidify its place in the NCAA tournament later this month. What’s more: All five of those wins have been by double figures.
With Bouknight back, this UConn club is as complete as any in the Big East and a serious contender for a deep NCAA tournament run. The Huskies are loaded with physical, athletic players who really get into you defensively, and getting Bouknight back in the lineup makes their offense dynamic as well. Bouknight is one of college basketball’s best scorers, averaging more than 20 points per game. He has scored 15 or more points in all but one game this season, and the lone outlier was the game he suffered an elbow injury that eventually required surgery. UConn will almost assuredly be a better team than its NCAA tournament seed might dictate.
Eric Konkol’s team has used an elite defense to vault up the Conference USA standings in recent weeks. The Bulldogs have won nine of 10 entering their conference tournament this weekend, including a sweep of fellow C-USA contender UAB in mid-February. And while a talented Western Kentucky team has earned most of the headlines ahead of the tournament in Frisco, no team in the league is playing better basketball than LA Tech right now.
The core of this team is its defense—the Bulldogs are No. 35 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 15 in effective field goal percentage defense per KenPom. Conference USA Freshman of the Year Kenneth Lofton Jr. provides a bruising presence on the interior, while versatile wing Isaiah Crawford has made major strides as a sophomore and leads Louisiana Tech in scoring. The Bulldogs need to win the C-USA tournament to go dancing for the first time in the Konkol era, but if they can get into the field they will be a dangerous mid-major to watch.