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College Basketball Mailbag: Five-Star Struggles, Unranked Threats and More

Plus, your questions on a trio of Big East team's Big Dance hopes, Western Kentucky's ceiling and more.

Welcome to Sports Illustrated’s weekly college hoops mailbag with Kevin Sweeney. Here, Kevin will field questions submitted via Twitter and email about a variety of topics in the sport. Have a question you’d like answered in a future mailbag? Send it to @CBB_Central on Twitter or (questions around either men’s or women’s basketball are welcome!). Without further ado, let’s get to your questions, which have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity ...

Tristan asks: Excluding Emoni Bates and Patrick Baldwin Jr., which healthy five-star freshman has had the most disappointing start to the season?

This is a tough one, because it is still early and each player is in a very different context. That said, I’ve been pretty underwhelmed by Peyton Watson’s impact (or lack thereof) on UCLA. Watson is an elite athlete who I thought could be a game changer in a 20-ish minute per game role defensively, but his offensive struggles have made it hard to get on the floor. Watson is shooting just 30% from the floor and 10% from three, and he hasn’t made a field goal in any of his last four games. The Bruins have certainly missed big man Cody Riley, but Watson failing to live up to the hype has also hurt UCLA’s ceiling.

UCLA guard Peyton Watson

Watson is averaging just 3.9 points as a freshman.

A few other names I haven’t been overly impressed by:

  • Caleb Houstan at Michigan, who has failed to make an impact except as a spot-up shooter.
  • Daimion Collins at Kentucky, who I actually think deserves more minutes than he has gotten but barely got off the bench in UK’s losses to Notre Dame and Duke.
  • Hunter Sallis at Gonzaga, who has yet to make a three this season and has been relegated to a bench role behind Rasir Bolton and Julian Strawther.

Brian asks: Which team isn’t ranked now that you think will be at the end of the year?

There are a few good answers for this one. My choice? Illinois. I saw the Illini in person last weekend against Arizona, and I came away more impressed with them than I was to start the day despite them losing a tight game to Arizona. This team is far from a finished product yet: Point guard Andre Curbelo has been out since the season’s third week with a neck injury, and so much of Illinois’s offense in the preseason was built around Curbelo playing in ball screens with big man Kofi Cockburn. But veteran guards Trent Frazier and Alfonso Plummer have shot the ball at an extremely high level to keep the Illinois offense afloat in Curbelo’s absence. It may take some time to re-integrate Curbelo once he is healthy given how unique a player he is, but by March I think this Illinois team will be extremely dangerous.

I also think Wisconsin and North Carolina are highly likely to wind up in the top 25 by March.

Brad asks: Between DePaul, Marquette and Creighton, which team is most likely to make the men’s NCAA tournament and how many of the three (if any) make it?

I wish I could wait until the weekend to answer this question since all three teams are set to get résumé-building opportunities on Friday or Saturday, but I unfortunately don’t have that luxury.

Right now, if you asked me who the best team of these three will be on March 1, I think my choice would be Creighton. This is a young group that is loaded with talent still learning to play the college game together. But based on résumés so far, Creighton likely has the worst chance of dancing. We don’t know yet how well the Bluejays’ neutral court win over BYU will age, and the team’s home loss to Arizona State could wind up being something of an eyesore. I’m not betting on this team getting an at-large.

DePaul has the cleanest résumé to date, with a nice road win against Louisville and no bad losses. But as hard as the Blue Demons are playing right now, I’m just not sure they can get over the finish line and be an at-large team. My eyes tell me this is an NIT team right now, and I’m not buying it will finish above .500 in Big East play and get in.

Marquette has the best résumé so far, with a home win over Illinois, neutral-court victories over Ole Miss and West Virginia and a road win at Kansas State. It will be tough to beat on its home court, and you’d expect that its young players (Justin Lewis, Tyler Kolek, Kam Jones and the like) will continue to improve into league play. I would bet on the Golden Eagles finding their way into the field.

So to answer the question, we’re going with one of three teams getting in, and right now my pick is Marquette.

Ross asks: Is WKU’s ceiling with Jamarion Sharp higher than what it was with Charles Bassey?

There’s no doubt that the 7' 5" Sharp has changed the game for Western Kentucky. So far this season, he has posted a 20.4% block rate when on the floor, which per KenPom would be the highest mark by any player in 15 years if he were to maintain it for an entire season. He’s not much of an offensive player yet, but he is shooting 70% from the field so far when he does catch it on the block.

On the question of team ceiling, I do think the idea of surrounding one hawking shot blocker with lots of ball handling and shooting makes for a truly intriguing (and hard-to-guard) offense. That said, I still think if you were offered one of Sharp or Bassey, you have to take Bassey. The current Philadelphia 76er was a very good shot-blocker (he ranked in the top 15 nationally in block rate himself), but was also a very efficient offensive player because he was good in the low post and made his free throws.

Now, if the argument is that WKU reached its ceiling under Bassey (since he’s such a high-usage player) and that surrounding Sharp with better guards could produce better outcomes, I guess I could understand the case. I still would rather take Bassey, but the fact that this is even a conversation says everything about how good Sharp has been for the Hilltoppers.

Rob asks: Who would win in a fight between five Kihei Clark-sized Zach Edey's and two Zach Edey-sized Kihei Clark's?

This question might top last week’s ‘coaches as Seinfeld characters’ one for best of the season, so thank you Rob. (For reference, Clark is Virginia’s 5' 10", 172-pound point guard, while Edey is Purdue’s 7' 4", 295-pound behemoth.)

I’m pretty confident the answer here is two Zach Edey-sized Kihei Clarks. Clark is quick but more importantly scrappy, and giving him the physical tools of Edey would make him pretty unstoppable. Edey’s a bit slow and very mild-mannered; I’m not sure he has the grit in him to win the fight even going five-on-two. Remember, Edey has spent his entire life being, I would imagine, the largest person in any room. Clark has been hardened by years of being the shortest. Give me the two giant Clarks.

And for the record, SI’s own Jeremy Woo agrees with me:

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