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College Hoops Mailbag: Texas Troubles, the Best Team in the Big Ten and More

Plus, answering your questions on Big 12 surprises, the crowded Big East race and a mid-major star.

Welcome back 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 ...

Matt asks: Besides Texas not being good, what has been your biggest surprise in the Big 12? How many bids can they get to with teams like TCU/OU on the bubble?

Iowa State’s surprising season has been well documented, but I think a tangential point off of ISU’s highly impressive start is that the Big 12 doesn’t have a bad team. In the preseason, I expected a clear bottom three of TCU, Kansas State and Iowa State in some order. I was higher on TCU than most, but still thought it was, at best, an NIT team. Instead, all three of those teams have been competitive, making the gantlet of Big 12 play even harder than normal.

Right now, all 10 Big 12 teams are in the top 62 of KenPom, with TCU the worst at No. 62. In the NET, K-State is the worst at No. 64. That means every single road game in league play is a Quadrant I game. Based on those KenPom rankings, every team in the Big 12 would be a top-half team in both the ACC and Pac-12. It’s a stunningly strong league right now from top to bottom, with only Oklahoma State not in the mix for an NCAA tournament bid (and that’s because the Cowboys are ineligible).

Right now, I’m going with seven bids, with TCU and K-State coming up short. Eight wouldn’t surprise me at all though.

Texas coach Chris Beard

The Longhorns are 13–5 in Chris Beard's first season.

Ariel asks: What does Texas need to do to turn it around?

For a team that I picked No. 2 nationally in the preseason, a lot has gone wrong for Texas. With less than eight weeks to go, its best win right now is a home victory over Oklahoma. That’s a problem, and while the Big 12 will certainly provide the Longhorns more opportunities, they have been a significant disappointment without a doubt.

I think it’s obvious at this point that the chemistry is not great, particularly in the backcourt. Andrew Jones, Courtney Ramey and Marcus Carr have never really seemed to mesh together on the offensive end, and that has created some major problems for the Longhorns. I also think I overrated how much talent this team has—it’s largely a collection of guys who have never won before and don’t do a lot well when they aren’t featured options on offense. Still, even if the roster isn’t as good as I thought it would be, there’s enough here to be better than the Longhorns have been.

I think Texas’s best offensive player is Tre Mitchell. To fix this team, I’d try to play through him as much as possible and surround him with guys who can shoot. Dylan Disu hasn’t been himself since getting cleared midway through the season, but he’d be a big part of my formula as a pure floor spacer.

That said, I think the bigger fix comes in the future, and it comes with Chris Beard taking more “program” guys who are going to be 100% bought into his culture on both ends, like what he had at Texas Tech. The best collection of talent doesn’t win in college basketball—the best teams do. And right now UT feels more like a collection of talent than a team.

Henry asks: Who is the best team in the Big Ten? And why is it Wisconsin?

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I must say, I’ve been more impressed with the Badgers every time I’ve seen them play. I’ve watched Wisconsin in person five times now this season—three times in Las Vegas in November, at Mackey Arena vs. Purdue to open January and earlier this week at Welsh-Ryan Arena against Northwestern. The thing that has jumped out is that Wisconsin’s role players have seemingly gotten better around Johnny Davis every game I have watched. Brad Davison was a known commodity coming into the season, but he has gotten more efficient. Tyler Wahl has become a dependable option on the interior and is one of the most underrated players in the country. Chucky Hepburn had an excellent game on the offensive end against Northwestern. Chris Vogt and Steven Crowl have provided good minutes inside. This is a cohesive bunch fully bought in around Davis, who should be the National Player of the Year.

If your question is who the best team is in the Big Ten, I still think the answer is Purdue. Its offense is explosive, it has more weapons than anyone else and that road win at Illinois assuaged a lot of my concerns about the Boilermakers on the defensive end. That said, with a two-game lead over Purdue and a road win at Mackey already in their pocket, the Badgers should be seen as favorites at this point in the conference.

Purdue's Jaden Ivey shoots past Wisconsin's Johnny Davis

Davis (left) and Jaden Ivey are two of the Big Ten's best guards.

Liam asks: How many teams can feasibly win the Big East? Will we see another 2019–20 situation with a share of the title?

Liam astutely points out the 2019–20 Big East race, which finished in a three-way tie for first place between Creighton, Villanova and Seton Hall, with Providence right behind them in fourth. I don’t necessarily expect another tie like that, but Villanova’s Wednesday home loss to Marquette certainly brings the Wildcats back to the pack in a crowded conference race. The other thing worth considering regarding a potential tie is that there’s no guarantee every team plays 20 league games due to COVID-19 issues. That could certainly complicate things.

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I still think Villanova is the favorite. The Wildcats have struggled with teams that have elite athleticism and length, and Marquette used that to its advantage in what was a huge road win for the Golden Eagles’ Big East hopes. I think Providence, UConn and Marquette all have real chances to win the league. That’s without mentioning Seton Hall or Xavier, which at times have looked like the best teams in the conference but now have uphill battles to win it thanks to Xavier’s 0–2 season series vs. Villanova and Seton Hall dropping some games it probably shouldn’t have when coming off a COVID-19 pause. It’s a rough-and-tumble league right now, and the final six weeks or so of the regular season should be a lot of fun as everyone angles for that top spot.

Brian asks: Can Darius McGhee make an All-America team? What has to happen the rest of the way for him to make the cut?

I’m grateful for this question because it gives me a platform to talk about how ridiculously awesome Darius McGhee has been this season. The Liberty senior guard stands just 5’ 9” but might be the best scorer in men’s college basketball. He’s fourth in the nation in points per game at 23.0 per contest, but that underrates just how explosive a scorer he is because of Liberty’s sluggish offensive tempo. He scores over 44 points per 100 possessions, which tops the nation’s leading scorer Antoine Davis (Detroit) by more than six points per 100. Darius put up 48 of his team’s 78 points in a win (in regulation) over Florida Gulf Coast this past weekend, his second 40-point game of the year. And most impressively, he does so efficiently, shooting 60% from two, 40% from three and 89% from the line.

Liberty is 95–23 in McGhee’s four-year career. He has been a part of the three winningest teams (by percentage) in the program’s history. And he’s the best scorer in the sport. Darius McGhee rules, and we can only hope he earns the recognition he deserves from All-America voters. The good news? McGhee has a great chance to get back to the NCAA tournament one last time and put quite the scare into a high seed come March. 

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