March is still a few months away, but one moment is certain to happen to every casual basketball fan when Selection Sunday arrives. It happens every year, as CBS unveils the bracket or as every sports fan in America plops down with a pen to fill out the bracket in hopes of winning the office pool. Scan the 68 schools invited to the dance and you’ll see the usual suspects. The blue blood programs like Duke, Villanova, and Kansas will have a seed near the top. Towards the bottom, you’ll see a ton of teams you know nothing about. Oh hey, there’s the Ivy League school.
And then, without fail, each and every March, a school jumps off the page.
“Wait, THAT school is seeded that highly??”
Sports fans across the country are puzzled as some football powerhouse or perennial sports-doormat is suddenly expected to make a deep run in the tournament. Like I said, this happens every year. But for whatever reason, this season feels like this phenomena has taken center stage. A group of basketball-forgottens have risen into the rankings and built impressive resumes to date. Many are the real deal, but others have coasted through easy schedules to solid records and need a more thorough investigation. Either way, don’t get caught surprised this season. Dive into a little breakdown of these surprisingly early season darlings at the season’s halfway mark.
If the Texas Tech bandwagon was an actual wagon, I’d have a bridle in my mouth and be pulling the train behind me like a beast of burden. The Red Raiders are 7-2 against the KenPom top-100 and find themselves ranked 5th in those rankings right now. Beating West Virginia at home and Kansas on the road has Tech as the frontrunners to win the Big XII, in coach Chris Beard’s second season in Lubbock and only his third season as a Division I head coach.
The Red Raiders feature four of the tell-tale signs of successful NCAA Tournament teams. First up, they defend their butts off. Tech ranks 2nd in the nation in defensive efficiency, thanks to Beard’s high-energy man-to-man system. Raiders opponents have dished the 2nd fewest assists in the country and turn the ball over at the 8th highest rate. That means Texas Tech is forcing bad shots and wasted possessions, leading to more scoring opportunities for the Tech offense.
The Raiders’ second big advantage is depth. Only six coaches in all of Division I feature bench players for a larger percentage of possible minutes than Chris Beard. Even with senior swingman Zach Smith fighting through a nagging injury, Texas Tech has picked up the slack. Beard’s ability to rely on fresh bodies off the bench makes that lockdown defense even more potent and makes the Raiders’ motion offense keep ticking on every possession.
Third, guard play has driven Texas Tech’s success. When the game slows down in crunch time and late in the season, it is critical to have guards who can create with the ball, and Tech has just that. Keenan Evans is one of the most underrated players in college basketball, averaging 17.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game. In five Big XII games this season, Evans is drawing 7.6 fouls per 40 minutes, 2nd best in the conference, and sinking 92 percent of his free throws, also 2nd best in the league. He’s been a reliable playmaker for himself or others, starting the Tech offense or getting to the rim when the shot clock winds down. He’s joined in the backcourt by freshman Zhaire Smith, who may be the most athletic 6-foot-5 point guard in the country. Check out this dunk from the Kansas game:
That athleticism leads to an exciting and unusual game for Smith, who attacks the rim and has recorded the third best offensive rebound rate in the Big XII. As he grows more comfortable in his freshman year, Smith’s playing time has grown. He played just 20 minutes per game in Tech’s first six games, but has averaged more than 27 minutes in the Raiders’ last six contests.
Finally, Texas Tech, unlike some flashes-in-the-pan, has the athleticism to play with anyone in the country. I mentioned Zhaire Smith’s ability, but when healthy, Zach Smith (no relation) is one of the nation’s top run-and-gun leapers. He averaged 1.4 blocks and 7.2 rebounds last season, adding in not just one, but dozens of high-flying dunks.
This team is worth finding next time they are on TV. You won’t want to miss them before they make a run in March.
The Tigers Athletic Department is known much more for their dominant football program than anything they’ve done on the hardwood. Rightfully so, since head coach Brad Brownell hasn’t led Clemson to the Big Dance since his first season with the school in 2011. This season has been a pleasant surprise, as the Tigers have already collected a host of impressive wins on their resume. Clemson has beaten Ohio State, Florida, South Carolina, NC State, Louisville, and Miami already this year, with plenty more opportunities for statement wins on the ACC slate.
The Tigers have been successful thanks to a balanced attack. All five Clemson starters average double-figure scoring on the season, with three of those starters having started their careers at another school. The team Brownell has cobbled together is gelling, particularly on the defensive end. The Tigers are holding teams under 65 points per game, in large part to their ability to defend with their feet and not send teams to the foul line. Clemson’s opponents have attempted the 9th fewest free throws in the nation, and made the 6th fewest of those attempts.
Depth is a concern, with Clemson ranking in the bottom 15 of bench minutes played. We’ll have plenty more chances to see Clemson tested. In just the next seven days the Tigers will play at North Carolina, against Notre Dame, and at Virginia. Surviving that gauntlet would speak volumes about this team.
Texas Tech isn’t even the only football school in its own state climbing the basketball rankings this season, with the Horned Frogs also joining the fun this season. Former Pitt coach Jamie Dixon led his alma mater to a 12-0 start this season. Those wins, including some good ones over SMU, Nevada, and St. Bonaventure, all came in the non-conference schedule. It would seem that Big XII play brought TCU back to Earth, with the Horned Frogs losing four of five to start conference play.
Diving deeper into those losses reveals no reason to hit the panic button. The Horned Frogs lost bye one to Oklahoma and Player of the Year favorite Trae Young. TCU then won at Baylor in overtime before losing to Kansas, in a game in which the Jayhawks made 11 of 20 outside shots. Just four nights later, TCU went to double-overtime in a loss at Texas, in an emotionally charged game coming right after Texas guard Andrew Jones was diagnosed with cancer. After three more days, TCU played Oklahoma again, went to overtime again, and lost again, thanks to 43 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists from Trae Young.
It isn’t the start Dixon hoped for, especially given how many of the losses were close calls. In double-overtime versus Texas, for example, TCU committed a terribly dumb foul and then missed an open layup to win the game. The Big XII is brutal, but the Horned Frogs are due to turn things around in the next few games.
They have the talent to compete with anyone in the conference. Vladimir Brodziansky can score with his back to the basket or stretch the floor with a jump shot. Kenrich Williams is active all over the floor, posting double-doubles with ease. Jaylen Fischer is a smart point guard, helping place TCU in the top 15 in the nation in assist rate as a team. Dixon has plenty of scoring options and a roster of players who look for the best shot available.
Yes, due to what you may have previously believed, they do also play basketball in Tuscaloosa. The Tide are 11-6 this season, with all six losses coming at the hands of top 100 teams. Bama has a few decent wins to date, though they’ll need to collect many more in SEC play to earn the respect of the NCAA Tournament selection committee and the college basketball community.
When Alabama has been successful, it’s been thanks to five-star recruit and future NBA lottery pick Collin Sexton. The lightning quick point guard has been absolutely electric this season. His best game came with Alabama down players due to a fight, an injury, and a foul out, where Sexton finished with 40 points while playing most of the second half 3-on-5. He’s fouled 7.9 times per 40 minutes, good for 9th most in the nation. No one has been able to keep their feet in front of Sexton, who is averaging more than 19 points per game. His ability to knock down an outside shot (37 percent this season) has kept defenders honest and made keeping him out of the paint that much more difficult.
It helps that the Tide are led by a former NBA point guard, Avery Johnson. The former San Antonio Spur player and Dallas Mavericks coach has been a godsend for Sexton, unleashing his star in all the best ways.
Despite the play of Sexton, Alabama is just the second best team in its own state. That title belongs to rival Auburn, who has not lost a game since November 17. The Tigers are now 16-1, ranked 19th in KenPom, and undefeated in conference play. Bruce Pearl has Auburn playing lightning fast, at the fastest pace in the SEC, and also efficiently. The Tigers feature the most efficient offense in the SEC, in part due to the 12th best free throw rate in the nation. Auburn has been aggressive in attacking the rim all season long. Auburn has averaged more than 25 free throw attempts per game this season.
On defense, Auburn is able to rely on an effective backline attack. The Tigers have posted the 5th best rate of blocked shots this season, led by Anfernee McLemore. The 6-foot-7 sophomore’s 3.1 blocks per game rank 8th in the country and he’s 2nd nationally in blocks per possession. That kind of rim protection allows the Auburn perimeter players to take chances and be more aggressive.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, SALTMoney.org, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
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