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College Basketball Mailbag: The ACC’s Tournament Chances, Northwestern’s Future and More

Plus, your questions on Notre Dame, a pair of Big East stars and tourney bids out west.

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 ...

D Brown asks: What is next for Northwestern? With a gutted/new athletic department, is Collins safe for the foreseeable future?

That’s not necessarily my read on the situation. Chris Collins’s biggest defender at Northwestern was always going to be former Wildcats AD Jim Phillips. Phillips came up the ranks in college athletics as an assistant basketball coach, and Collins was his splash hire at NU that brought the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament for the first time. Generally, a new AD (Derrick Gragg, in this case) will want the chance to make a splash of their own. And while Northwestern’s athletic department has undergone a great deal of transition in the last year since Phillips’s departure for the ACC commissioner job, money for a buyout isn’t lacking, evidenced by the school’s recent plans to to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into rebuilding Ryan Field.

Northwestern is a challenging job given its lack of winning history and academic hurdles, but it’s hard not to believe Collins’s seat is hot as a promising season falls by the wayside. Home losses to Penn State and Maryland have left the Wildcats 1–4 in Big Ten play with a grueling schedule ahead that features five straight top-30 KenPom foes, including three on the road. A 1–9 or 2–8 start is far from out of the question, and missing the postseason with this veteran, talented roster that features a likely NBA draft pick in Pete Nance seems likely to spur a move by Gragg.

UNC's Armando Bacot and Caleb Love

UNC's Armando Bacot and Caleb Love.

David asks: Projected top five in the ACC? How many tournament bids?

  1. Duke
  2. North Carolina
  3. Miami
  4. Florida State
  5. Notre Dame

After Duke, this feels like an incredible crapshoot. It certainly feels wrong not to have Virginia in the top five, and Wake Forest has been impressive at times and could belong here as well. The margins between second and probably eighth just simply won’t be that big. I still think North Carolina is the best team in the league not named Duke, despite the Tar Heels’ continued struggles on the defensive end of the floor. Armando Bacot and Caleb Love are too good not to carry the Heels to the NCAA tournament. Miami has a huge leg up on the competition because of its remarkable road win at Cameron Indoor Stadium. That win, assuming the Hurricanes finish in the top five of the ACC, should get them into the NCAA tournament despite a NET ranking that right now looks more like a fringe NIT team. Meanwhile, the Seminoles are starting to find some answers, and I trust Leonard Hamilton more than most of the coaches in this league, while Notre Dame has found its stride behind star freshman Blake Wesley.

Right now, I think the league gets four bids. Going .500 (or close) in ACC play isn’t going to move the needle much this year given how weak the bottom of the conference is, and the middle isn’t as strong as it has been in years past. That said, a team that can go 12–8 or 13–7 in a high-major league and didn’t have a catastrophic nonconference is going to find its way to the NCAA tournament, and I’d expect three non-Duke ACC teams to do just that.

Patrick asks: Will the two big stars for UConn and St. John’s—Sanogo and Champagnie—stay in school next year?

It’s early to speculate on NBA decisions, but these are two big ones looming for Big East programs. Julian Champagnie took all the way to the deadline to make his decision last year before electing to come back to St. John’s and has played extremely well, though the Red Storm haven’t lived up to the lofty expectations in Queens. Champagnie has great size and elite shooting ability, which is his ticket into the NBA. I’m not sure he has much more to prove in the college game, and the conversations about playing more as a true wing haven’t really materialized in 2021–22. He’s an elite college player and a fringe NBA player who SI’s Jeremy Woo currently has at No. 48 in his most recent mock draft. I’d be surprised if Champagnie is back at St. John’s in ’22–’23.

I think UConn’s chances of keeping Adama Sanogo for a third season in Storrs are pretty good. Sanogo has been immensely productive in his sophomore campaign, but as a 6’9” non-shooting big man he has more work to do to improve his stock. I think eventually Sanogo will expand his perimeter game, and he’s a terrific interior defender already. But that, combined with dealing with nagging injuries throughout much of this season so far, makes me think Sanogo will likely be back for one more year.

Jay Jay asks: How sustainable is this Notre Dame win streak?

Notre Dame has won six straight to bounce back nicely from a 4–5 start, giving the Fighting Irish life for a potential NCAA tournament push. How? Blake Wesley continues to play like one of the 10 best first-year players in the sport. During this winning streak, Wesley is averaging 17 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. He was clearly the best player on the floor when I was in South Bend to see the Irish take on North Carolina last week, and his ability to score opens the floor for the Irish’s sharpshooting role players like Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski.

With Wesley and experience around him, the Irish have the components of an NCAA tournament team. That said, I don’t think the team has looked drastically different during the winning streak than it did before. Wesley is playing better as he gets more comfortable, but the underlying team efficiency numbers haven’t radically improved lately. ND has had a favorable schedule so far in conference play, and back-to-back road games at Virginia Tech and Louisville should tell us a lot. A split would go a long way toward getting the Irish onto the right side of the bubble come March.

Erwin asks: How many teams in the Pacific and Mountain time zones get in?

We won’t worry about the one-bid leagues out West for the purposes of this question, but let’s talk about where the Pac-12, WCC and Mountain West stand with about two months to go until Selection Sunday.

In the Pac-12, Arizona, UCLA and USC are complete locks and should each be in good position to compete for top-four seeds. But beyond those three, there are no locks. The next best bet is Oregon, which has new life after the Ducks won on the road at UCLA on Thursday night. Dana Altman teams always improve throughout the season, and the Ducks have only one bad loss on their résumé (at home to Arizona State). I’d bet on them finding a way in. Of the remaining contenders, Washington State has good metrics but a poor résumé, Stanford got a nice win over USC but is lacking elsewhere, and Colorado looks like an NIT team with a young group to me. I’d say four bids right now for the Pac-12.

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In the WCC, Gonzaga will obviously dance. The question is how many of Saint Mary’s, San Francisco and BYU can get at-larges. BYU feels the safest as of now, with a top-30 NET ranking and wins over SDSU, Oregon, Utah, Utah State, Missouri State and Saint Mary’s already and only one bad loss at Utah Valley. Saint Mary’s has a similar résumé, with overlapping wins over Oregon, Utah State and Missouri State, plus a neutral-court win over Notre Dame at the Maui Invitational. It likely won’t be comfortable until Selection Sunday, but I like the Gaels’ odds. San Francisco’s résumé lacks name-brand wins, but neutral-court wins over Davidson and UAB are sneaky-good, and so far the Dons have a clean résumé with no bad losses. If they do some work in the WCC, this league has a great chance for four bids.

And finally, the Mountain West. Colorado State’s 13–1 record has earned CSU plenty of hype, and neutral-court wins over Creighton and Mississippi State should help move the needle. The Rams feel like the safest at-large bet, even after getting trounced by San Diego State last weekend. The Aztecs also have strong at-large odds thanks to a clean résumé and some quality wins. Can a third get in? Metrics love this Boise State team, but an early-season loss to Cal State Bakersfield is an eyesore and none of Boise’s wins jump off the page from a résumé standpoint. There’s a path to an at-large, but it feels narrow. 

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