Updating College Basketball A Month Before The Madness
Saturday, one day after Maryland came back to beat Illinois and take over sole possession of first place in the Big Ten, marked a key point in the 2019-20 college basketball season. Duke AD Kevin White, the chair of the NCAA tournament selection committee revealed the committee’s top 16 seeds up to that point in the season, with Baylor, Kansas, Gonzaga and San Diego State sitting on the top line. Scott Drew’s Bears, who lead the Big 12 by a game in the loss column, haven’t dropped a game since November 8 against Washington. And given how the Huskies have turned out, currently sitting dead last in the Pac-12, that may be one of the more puzzling results of the season when we take a look back in April.
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There really weren’t any complaints with the top line, with the comparative strength of the Big 12 (and Kansas leading the country in Quad 1 wins) putting the Bears and Jayhawks at the front of the line. Gonzaga and San Diego State, who hold commanding leads in their respective conferences, will be an interesting race to watch over the next month. On the line is likely the top seed in the West, which would afford one of those two teams the opportunity to make their run to Atlanta closer to home in each of the first two weekends of the NCAA tournament. Gonzaga was the pick during the top-16 reveal, with San Diego State getting the top seed in the East.
While the first weekend operates on the pod system, allowing higher-seeded teams to play as close to home as possible, that second weekend at Madison Square Garden would set up to be a tough ask for either the Bulldogs or Aztecs. Getting assigned to that region could mean a potential matchup with a team like Duke, Seton Hall or even Maryland, teams whose fan bases would have little trouble making the trek north. But matchups are of far greater importance than location when it comes to the bracket, and this is a situation (meaning the potential of Gonzaga or SDSU having to play a virtual road game the second weekend) that isn’t worth discussing with a great amount of detail right now.
Below is how I’d have the top-16 teams in the country as of right now, and this isn’t a bracket projection kind of deal. That is followed by my “early” picks for national Coach and Player of the Year honors.
1) Baylor: The Bears have now won 21 straight games, most recently shutting down Texas Monday night in Austin. Guards Jared Butler and MaCio Teague lead the way offensively for the Big 12 leaders, and Baylor does a considerable amount of work on the offensive glass. They currently rank fifth nationally in offensive rebound percentage, which has helped make up for the fact that the Bears aren’t the best two-point shooting team (47.3%). Where this team shines is on the defensive end of the floor, where they defend in a way similar to that of Texas Tech’s national runner-up squad of a season ago. Baylor doesn’t give up the middle of the floor, and they rank in the top-10 nationally in both effective field goal percentage and two-point percentage defense. They’ve already won at Kansas, and the return meeting in Waco February 22 looms large both within the Big 12 and nationally.
2) Gonzaga: Mark Few presides of the nation’s best offense, which is quite the achievement given who the Bulldogs lost at the end of last season. Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Zach Norvell Jr. are all in the NBA, and Josh Perkins is plying his trade in the G-League. Add in the fact that Killian Tillie has continued to struggle with injuries, and it appeared as if BYU and/or Saint Mary’s could challenge Gonzaga in the WCC. Nope. as the Bulldogs have already blown out both teams (BYU at home, Saint Mary’s on the road) and hold a three-game lead in the conference standings. Seven players average at least 10.3 points per game, led by sophomore forward Filip Petrusev, and in addition to being very proficient shooters Gonzaga also takes care of the basketball (ninth in turnover percentage). Going eight deep doesn’t give Gonzaga the largest margin for error, especially when considering Tillie’s injury history, but they’ve got enough talent to make the program’s second Final Four appearance.
3) Kansas: The brawl at the end of the Jayhawks’ win over Kansas State on January 21 would have derailed many other teams, as Silvio De Sousa and David McCormack were both handed multi-game suspensions (De Sousa 10 games and McCormack two) in the aftermath. But Bill Self’s team took care of Tennessee four days later, and the team’s win streak hit nine Monday night when they held TCU to 46 points. Sophomore point guard Devon Dotson and senior center Udoka Azubuike have led the way offensively, with sophomore Ochai Agbaji and grad transfer Isaiah Moss providing much-needed perimeter shooting. And Baylor isn’t the only elite defensive team in the Big 12, as Kansas currently leads the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. Kansas leads the nation with 10 Quad 1 victories, and all three of their losses have come in Quad 1 games. Provided the Jayhawks don’t fall off of a cliff down the stretch, they’ll be on the 1-line come Selection Sunday.
4) San Diego State: Brian Dutcher’s Aztecs reman the nation’s lone undefeated team, and of the 1-seeds SDSU is the closest to ranking in the top-10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency (9th offensive, 11th defensive). Two transfers, Malachi Flynn and KJ Feagin, have been critical contributors with the former playing at an All-American level. Add in experienced returnees such as Yanni Wetzell and Matt Mitchell, and San Diego State could have its best team since Kawhi Leonard and company reached the Sweet 16 in 2011. The race with Gonzaga for the top seed in the West is interesting, in that the Bulldogs have 18 wins against Quad 3/4 opposition to San Diego State’s 15. But the Bulldogs also have one more Quad 1 victory (5 to SDSU’s 4), which factored into the committee’s decision. San Diego State leads the Mountain West by four games, and due to their play on both ends of the floor this is a group capable of getting to the Final Four.
5) Dayton: Anthony Grant’s Flyers have been one of the best offensive teams in the country this season, ranking second in adjusted offensive efficiency and first in both effective and two-point field goal percentage. Two big reasons why are the team’s willingness to share the basketball, and a phalanx of capable shooters surrounding athletic sophomore forward Obi Toppin. Toppin is flat-out explosive, and the attention devoted to keeping him away from the rim opens things up for the likes of senior Trey Landers and juniors Jalen Crutcher and Rodney Chatman. Dayton hosts Rhode Island Tuesday night in a huge Atlantic 10 battle, with the Rams being the biggest threat to the Flyers in the conference title race.
6) Louisville: The Cardinals have won their last 10 games, most recently scoring 80 points in a seven-point home win over Virginia. Jordan Nwora is the headliner, as he’s averaging 19.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. But the junior wing isn’t doing the heavy lifting by himself, as senior center Steven Enoch is also averaging double figures. Beyond those two it’s been all about balance offensively, as three Cardinals are averaging between 8.1 and 8.8 points per game. Louisville is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, and they’re also solid when it comes to rebounding their own missed shots. While Chris Mack’s team can stand to get a little better on the defensive glass, this is the ACC’s best team at present time (they’ve already won at Duke).
7) Duke: The Blue Devils are young, as they have tended to be in recent years, but they don’t lack for talent either. Sophomore point guard Tre Jones serves as the leader, with freshman Vernon Carey Jr. being the team’s most tantalizing prospect. In total four Blue Devils are averaging at least 10.5 points per game, with freshmen Cassius Stanley and Matthew Hurt joining Carey and Jones. Things haven’t always been pretty for Duke on the offensive end, but they still rank eighth in adjusted offensive efficiency, and this is also one of the top defensive teams in college basketball. The ACC isn’t as strong as it was a season ago, and while games against NC State, Virginia (both on the road) set up to be difficult ones the schedule sets up well for the Blue Devils. Should either Gonzaga or San Diego State slip up, Duke is well-positioned to hop onto the 1-line.
8) Maryland: The Big Ten may not have an “elite” team, but it has a lot of good ones. Leading the way is Maryland, which holds a one-game lead on Penn State and Illinois heading into Tuesday’s game against Nebraska. Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith continue to lead the way offensively, while the defense has been excellent throughout. If there’s a concern it’s the struggles of Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins, with the latter appearing to take a step in the right direction during Friday’s win over Illinois. If those two can get going that would be big when it comes to making sure that Cowan and Smith are supported offensively. Darryl Morsell’s versatility as a defender has been a key for the Terps, who are ranked in the top-10 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Maryland isn’t the deepest team, but Mark Turgeon has enough to work with.
9) Seton Hall: If anything was learned by those who aren’t too familiar with the Pirates from Saturday’s win at Villanova, the program’s first since 1994, it is that this isn’t a one-man show. Myles Powell went to the bench after picking up his fourth foul during the second half, and many other teams would have cracked. Not Kevin Willard’s bunch, as players such as Quincy McKnight, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Romaro Gill and Shavar Reynolds all stepped up to make big plays down the stretch. As a result Seton Hall holds a three-game lead in the Big East, and they’ve yet to lose a conference road game (6-0 with Villanova and Butler out of the way). They’re stingy defensively, with bigs such as Gill and Ike Obiagu backing up the perimeter defenders with very good rim protection. Powell is the unquestioned leader of this group, not only as a scorer but also in the intangibles department. This has the look of a team that feels empowered from the top on down, which is why they can make some serious noise come March.
10) Florida State: Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles dropped a close one at Cameron Monday night, and they now trail Louisville by two games in the ACC standings. But Florida State will be fine, as once again this is a team that doesn’t lack for depth, talent, athleticism or depth. Guards Devin Vassell, Trent Forrest and M.J. Walker have led the way offensively for Florida State, but where this group can be a handful is on the defensive end. Florida State ranks in the top-10 nationally in turnover percentage, block percentage and steal percentage, leading the country in the second statistical category. A staggering 17.3% of Florida State’s opponents field goal attempts have been rejected. The Seminoles are good on offense, but the active defense is this team’s calling card.
11) Kentucky: John Calipari’s teams tend to get better as the season wears on, which has come to be expected given how young the Wildcats have been during his tenure. Kentucky’s best teams during the Calipari era have managed to mix in some experience with the projected lottery picks, with junior big man Nick Richards and sophomores Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans and EJ Montgomery being the “wise old veterans.” Richards has been one of the most improved players in college basketball, developing from a minor role player into a matchup that opponents have to account for every night. Freshman Tyrese Maxey has been the most productive of the newcomers, while grad transfer Nate Sestina provides additional experience. The loss of Kahlil Whitney hasn’t impacted Kentucky in the slightest, as they sit tied atop the SEC standings with Auburn and LSU.
12) Penn State: Patrick Chambers has his best team since arriving in Happy Valley, and the Nittany Lions have realistic hopes of winning the program’s first Big Ten title. Led by senior forward Lamar Stevens, Penn State has won six straight and sits a game out of first place. And it’s worth noting that the Nittany Lions hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with Maryland, by virtue of their win back on December 10. Sophomore guards Myreon Jones, Izaiah Brockington and Myles Dread provide the scoring on the perimeter, while senior center Mike Watkins serves as the rim protector on the other end. Penn State isn’t the best perimeter shooting time, and the foul line has been a bit of a struggle as well, but they defend and take care of the basketball. More often than not that combination, with some timely scoring added in, will put you in the winner’s circle.
13) Auburn: Much has been made of Auburn’s schedule with regard to the team’s national ranking, as 10 of the team’s 21 wins have come against Quad 3/4 opposition and the best non-conference wins came against teams that may not even make the NCAA tournament (NC State, Richmond and Furman). But give Bruce Pearl’s credit for taking care of their business, as both of the team’s losses have come in Quad 1 games (at Auburn and at Florida). They’ve won six straight, with three of the last four requiring overtime. Senior guard Samir Doughty leads the way offensively, with the athletic freshman Isaac Okoro and senior guard J’Von McCormick also averaging double figures. In the post the Tigers can attack opponents in multiple ways, either with a face-up four such as Anfernee McLemore or with 6-foot-11 banger Austin Wiley. After reaching the Final Four for the first time in program history last season, Auburn has the potential to make another run this spring.
14) Colorado: The Pac-12’s lack of an “elite” team has opened the door for Gonzaga and San Diego State with regard to the top seed in the West, but it’s possible that whichever team wins out will have to deal with Tad Boyle’s Buffaloes. Led by junior point guard McKinley Wright IV, Colorado has won three straight and five of its last six games heading into this week’s visit to the Oregon schools. The Buffs are quite balanced offensively, with juniors Tyler Bey and D’Shawn Schwartz joining Wright in double figures and bigs Evan Battey and Lucas Siewert averaging 9.2 and 8.3 points per game, respectively. If there’s a concern for Colorado it’s the turnover department, as this team currently ranks 203rd in turnover percentage. But guard play tends to win you big games, and in Wright the Buffs have one of the better lead guards in college basketball.
15) Marquette: Villanova has an argument to be on this list, but with the Wildcats having lost three in a row the Golden Eagles are the pick. Prolific scorer Markus Howard is the headliner for Steve Wojciechowski’s group, but it’s worth noting that after he scored 32 points or more in each of Marquette’s wins over Xavier, Georgetown and St. John’s he hasn’t been scoring at that level during the team’s current three-game win streak. Other players are stepping up most notably junior Koby McEwen, who scored 18 in the January 29 double overtime win over Xavier and 16 in the February 9 blowout of Butler. Similar to Seton Hall with Myles Powell, Marquette will need Howard’s supporting cast to continue to grow with regard to both production and confidence. The Golden Eagles may not be as far along as the Pirates are in that process, but they have made strides and that should be recognized.
16) West Virginia: “Press Virginia” is no longer with us, but the Mountaineers have been extremely tough for opposing offenses to crack. West Virginia can still force turnovers but Bob Huggins’ team has done the majority of its work in the half-court, ranking in the top-10 in adjusted defensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and two-point field goal percentage. The opponents’ free throw rate is still a bit too high, but that’s going to happen when you defend as aggressively as the Mountaineers do. That and offensive production, especially when opposing teams keep Oscar Tshiebwe, Derek Culver and Jermaine Haley off the offensive glass, are concerns with regard to this team’s viability as a Final Four threat. But when you lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, as West Virginia has corralled 40.4% of its misses, accomplishing that task is easier said than done.
Coach of the Year thus far: Scott Drew, Baylor
San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher also merits serious consideration here, but I’m going with Drew. Baylor has already won games at Texas Tech and Kansas, and the Bears have 14 Quad 1/2 wins to the Aztecs’ eight.
Player of the Year thus far: Obi Toppin, Dayton
This choice was much tougher than national Coach of the Year, as players such as Howard, Powell, Dotson and Iowa’s Luka Garza deserve mention as well. Toppin’s the choice here not only because of his team’s success but also his production despite being the first page of opponents’ scouting reports, nevermind the first line. He’s shooting 70% inside of the arc while posting averages of 19.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.1. steals and 1.4 blocks per game.
Raphielle’s been writing about college sports for more than a decade, making the move to college basketball alone in 2013. Beginning his work with the former website CollegeHoops.net in 2003, Raphielle spent 3 years writing for NBCSports.com beginning 2013, covering CBB and the Olympics. In 2016, Raphielle joined Heavy.com. If there’s a game on, there’s a strong likelihood that he’s watching it.