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Nonconference Superlatives: The Best and Worst of College Hoops So Far

Which players, games and moments stood out in men's basketball over the first two months?

With the new year comes the advent of conference play! And while teams still have plenty of time to build their résumés before March, the end of traditional nonconference play is a good time to look back at what we’ve seen so far in men’s college basketball. Who came away with the best win? The worst loss? And who deserves player of the year honors? Sports Illustrated answered those questions and more in ints nonconference superlatives.

Best game: Duke vs. Gonzaga

The phrase “felt like March” is overused in college hoops discourse, but this game actually did feel like an Elite Eight or Final Four showdown. Played in front of the largest crowd for a basketball game in Nevada history, this matchup lived up to the hype and more. Coming in, Gonzaga felt almost unbeatable after blowing out UCLA earlier that week. But Paolo Banchero’s first-half scoring explosion dealt the Zags an early blow, and Duke veterans Wendell Moore Jr. and Mark Williams made huge plays in the second half to carry the Blue Devils across the finish line. Each team had multiple future NBA players on the floor and Hall of Fame coaches on their sidelines. It was everything you could ever want in a nonconference game.

Duke's Paolo Banchero, Minnesota's Ben Johnson and Memphis's Emoni Bates

Duke's Banchero, Minnesota's Ben Johnson and Memphis's Emoni Bates

Best win: Alabama over Gonzaga

The revolving door at the top of the AP poll this season has largely been due to elite teams’ inability to win on the road. Duke lost at Ohio State on the heels of beating Gonzaga and Purdue lost at Rutgers days after earning its first-ever No. 1 ranking. But no team has a better road (or semi-road) win than Alabama’s victory against Gonzaga in Seattle. While Seattle is across the state from Gonzaga’s campus in Spokane, the Zags certainly had home-court advantage both in terms of travel and fans in this one. Yet the Crimson Tide exploded from deep, drilling 13 triples in a stunning win to open this two-year series between the clubs. With wins over Gonzaga and Houston in the nonconference and an early SEC victory over Tennessee, the Tide have one of the best résumés in the sport entering the new year.

Worst loss: Washington to Northern Illinois

Expectations weren’t high in Seattle entering what many believe to be a make-or-break year for Mike Hopkins at UW, but this opening-night, 71–64 clunker was particularly embarrassing. An Northern Illinois team that went 3–16 last season and finished No. 337 in KenPom came into Seattle and knocked off the Huskies, helped by the fact that Washington shot a measly 27% from the field and missed 15 free throws. NIU’s two other wins this season? Victories over KenPom No. 349 Eastern Illinois and No. 354 Chicago State. Not exactly the best company for a high-major like Washington to be keeping.

Best moment: Mustapha Amzil’s buzzer beater against Kansas

This moment had it all. A near-impossible buzzer beater with a miraculous bounce to complete a remarkable upset, all with Dickie V on the call?

The moment when the ball bounces up off the rim and the crowd goes quiet for a split second before it drops through the net is incredible. I can watch that shot all day long.

Best single-game performance: Johnny Davis’s 30 points vs. Houston

I had a front-row seat for this amazing shot-making display in what became a coming-out party of sorts for Davis and this young Badgers team. The sophomore sensation took over the game in the first half to help Wisconsin to a commanding early lead, then made huge shots down the stretch to help hold off the hard-charging Cougars in the closing moments. To hang 30 on one of the nation’s best defenses remains perhaps the most impressive thing I’ve seen all year in college hoops, and it was his explosion in Las Vegas that catapulted him up NBA big boards into a potential lottery pick.

Most surprising team: Iowa State

Iowa State won two games last year. Both of those games were against SWAC teams. And while the Cyclones’ undefeated season came to an end Saturday against Baylor, that doesn’t change how impressive ISU’s start has been. Using a ragtag bunch of transfers and one elite freshman in Tyrese Hunter, T.J. Otzelberger pieced together a roster talented enough to compete in the Big 12 and with a big enough chip on its collective shoulder to win some games it shouldn’t have. I have my doubts that the Cyclones will stay in the top 15 all season, but the fact that this is a clear NCAA tournament team in Year 1 is great news for the future and a strong case for Otzelberger as a National Coach of the Year candidate.

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Most disappointing team: Memphis

Oregon is also in the conversation for this one, but the hype about Memphis in the preseason was simply on a different level. But despite all the talent on this Tigers roster, Penny Hardaway’s team is off to a middling 7–5 start that has included some harmful résumé losses to Georgia, Ole Miss and Murray State before losing its conference opener to Tulane. The Tigers have had significant chemistry issues, their offense has been dysfunctional and they missed out on a huge résumé-building opportunity against Tennessee before Christmas because not enough of the team was vaccinated against COVID-19. There’s still time for Memphis to turn it around, but the path to an at-large bid is getting narrower and narrower with each passing loss.

Best player: E.J. Liddell, Ohio State

Liddell has been nothing short of a monster this season for the Buckeyes. The junior has expanded his game every season of his career and came back to school in 2021–22 a better shooter and shot-blocker than he was a season ago. Injuries and NBA defections have left Liddell with less help around him than he had last year, but it hasn’t mattered: Liddell still has the 9–2 Buckeyes rolling. He’s highly efficient, can create for others and has become a big-time defender as well.

Best newcomer: Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky

Those who were familiar with Tshiebwe’s game from his prep and AAU careers knew that leading the country in rebounding was well within Tshiebwe’s capabilities. But John Calipari has gotten the most out of his hulking transfer from West Virginia, getting Tshiebwe to play with maximum effort on both ends and turning him into one of the best centers in college basketball. Tshiebwe’s combination of elite physical tools and high motor make him a menace on the interior, and his 28-rebound explosion against Western Kentucky remains one of the more impressive performances of the season.

To put it simply, Oscar makes watching rebounds fun … unless you’re a fan of the opposing team.

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Best coach: Ben Johnson, Minnesota

I expected nothing from Minnesota in Year 1 under Johnson, who surprisingly got the head job at his alma mater directly from being an assistant at Xavier. Handing a first-time head coach the least talented roster in the Big Ten felt like a recipe for disaster. Instead, Johnson has done a remarkable job getting the most out of a roster with clear limitations. The Golden Gophers have little to no depth, lack size up front and didn’t have a proven starting-caliber Big Ten player on their roster in the preseason. What he has gotten out of transfers Payton Willis (College of Charleston) and Jamison Battle (George Washington) has been incredibly impressive, and Johnson has done a great job game-planning around his team’s limitations to put a disciplined group that never beats itself on the floor.

In the preseason, I would have been slightly surprised if Minnesota won 10 games all season. For it to have 10 wins before Christmas and be in position to go dancing? That’s Coach of the Year material. 

More College Basketball Coverage:

• Auburn Rises in Men's AP Top 25
• Nicki Collen Following Her Own Path at Baylor
• NCAA: Tournaments to Go on as Planned

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