Over the course of this season at Palestra Back, the Full 353 will cover every ounce of college basketball with one clear and stated goal:
We’re going to try to mention every single men’s Division I basketball team.
This is a lofty goal that I’m certain I will struggle to meet. If we don’t get there by March, we’ll scratch and claw as far as we can. In the end, no matter the final number, I hope that this effort brings you a deeper, more complete, and more enjoyable experience here at the blog. We’ll count along in (bold) to track our progress through the season.
This college basketball season is off to a curious start. There are just two unbeaten teams left in Division I. Neither of those two undefeated teams were preseason championship contenders or expected to compete for a top seed in March.
Auburn (19) has been the seemingly more impressive of the two remaining unbeatens, but nearly by default. Auburn’s best win, per KenPom, is 35th ranked NC State. The Tigers won that game at home. Auburn has played only one true road game, a one point win at South Alabama. NC State is the only top 50 team and the only power conference school that Auburn has faced so far this season. KenPom pegs the Tigers schedule as the 140th ranked slate so far in Division I.
We shouldn’t belittle what Auburn has done. This is a good team who has played well to date. The Tigers have controlled the paint offensively, shooting the 8th best 2-point percentage in the nation and posting a top 15 offensive rebounding rate. For a team that lost its three strongest players after last year’s Final Four run, Auburn has bounced back in impressive way. Freshman Isaac Okoro has been an eye-opener and looks to either be a building block for Bruce Pearl’s program or a player that will interest NBA scouts sooner rather than later.
The other remaining undefeated team is San Diego State (20). The Aztecs schedule has been equally questionable, ranked 237th by KenPom. Unlike Auburn, however, San Diego State’s slate has been more boom and bust. The Aztecs have seven wins against sub-200 (or non-DI) competition, but are also 3-0 against the top 50. San Diego State’s resume boasts neutral court victories over Utah, Creighton, and Iowa, plus three true road wins. Winning at Brigham Young was more impressive that anything Auburn has done so far this season.
The Aztecs and Tigers have been good. You don’t enter January undefeated by accident. Yet we’d like to see some more before believing in either of these teams can be a factor in March. Next Saturday presents both teams with a nice conference test. Auburn heads to Mississippi State and SDSU travels to Utah State. If either can return home with a victory, we’ll have another conversation about their Final Four chances.
You Love to See It
These are the teams, players, and concepts that looked good this week.
With no truly great teams in college basketball this season and an ocean of parity at the top of America’s best conferences, there’s a logical outcome for this Gonzaga team.
First, they’ll start to receive a ton of praise and buzz from the national media. The Zags are currently atop the AP Poll and Joe Lunardi places them as the top overall seed in his latest edition of Bracketology.
Those are both totally warranted at this point of the season. The Bulldogs are 4-1 versus the KenPom top 50 and have the best opponent adjusted offensive efficiency in the nation. Mark Few has meshed a team that is mostly first time contributors at Gonzaga into a group that shares the ball and scores nearly at will.
The Zags will face one of the toughest versions of the West Coast Conference that they have seen in their reign as college basketball’s premiere mid-major program. BYU (22) and Saint Mary’s (23) are NCAA Tournament teams and San Francisco (24) is a top 100 team. Gonzaga’s schedule, however, is completely back-loaded. The Zags will play just one of their six games against those three tough opponents before February, a home date with BYU.
They’ll likely coast through January, pounding the Portlands and Pepperdines of the world. They should retain the top spot in the polls for the next month, at which point, the annual host of Gonzaga haters will emerge to attack the Bulldogs’ level of competition.
On cue, the Zags will begin the tough stretch of conference play, with road games at BYU, Saint Mary’s, and San Francisco falling on three consecutive February Saturdays. It’s highly unlikely the Zags will emerge from that stretch unscathed, feeding their doubters the ammunition needed to knock Gonzaga’s chances of reaching the Final Four in April.
In reality, even if Gonzaga does lose several times down the stretch, this Zags team will be the most battle-tested Gonzaga team in many years. They’ll enter the Big Dance with more scar-tissue and high pressure experience than nearly any other team in program history. For a program currently riding a streak of five straight appearances in the tournament’s second weekend, that is a tremendous feather in their cap. Gonzaga is just the fourth school to ever reach five straight Sweet Sixteens, and would join only North Carolina (85-93) and Duke (twice) if they could extend that streak to a sixth straight second weekend appearance.
They’ll be as ready as they have ever been when March rolls around.
Northern Iowa (25)
Welcome to the point of the season in which possible NCAA Tournament Cinderellas begin to truly introduce themselves. Based on their performance in non-conference play, the Northern Iowa Panthers are fully ready to be fitted for a glass slipper.
UNI is 11-1, with the sole loss coming in Mexico against 22nd ranked West Virginia and the Panthers led that game by as many as 15 points in the second half. Elsewhere this season, Northern Iowa boasts wins over South Carolina and at Colorado. The Panthers are led by sophomore guard AJ Green, who is averaging 16 points, 3 assists, and 3 rebounds per game while also providing a go-to-scorer in clutch situations.
UNI’s defense has been a strength so far this season, in an unconventional way. Northern Iowa ranks 339th in block rate and 340th in steal rate. The Panthers don’t have the athletes to sustain a defense built on flash plays. Instead, it’s a collective team effort to defend as a five-man unit every time down the floor. Northern Iowa ranks 3rd in the nation in assist rate allowed this season, a testament to the Panthers ability to rotate and force opposing shooters into isolation situations.
Since the beginning of the 2015-16 season, North Carolina (27) is 60-8 at home.
Each of these teams has won one game at North Carolina in that period: Ohio State, Virginia, Louisville, NC State, and Miami.
Only Wofford has two wins in Chapel Hill in that time period.
Last year’s Wofford team lost only five games all year and was a whisper away from the Sweet Sixteen. This year, Wofford already has five losses under new coach Jay McAuley.
Mike Young and Fletcher Magee’s departures were supposed to be major hits on the Wofford program. The Terriers win over Carolina proves that there’s something to build upon in Spartanburg that can last beyond one player or one coach.
You Hate to See It
This is the section you want to avoid. If you’re in here, you had a rough week.
UCLA’s hiring of Mick Cronin was supposed to be a blessing in disguise for Cincinnati. They were able to move on from a coach who had managed just one Sweet Sixteen in the 13 seasons, in favor of John Brannen, who took Northern Kentucky to the Big Dance in the school’s fifth and seventh seasons at the Division I level. Bearcat boosters must have cried crocodile tears when Cronin took the Bruins offer to head West.
With Jarron Cumberland returning for his senior season, things looked promising for Cincy. Cumberland was already a 1,000 point scorer in his career and posted 18.8 points per game last season.
So far this year, his senior season has been a borderline disaster. Cumberland is down to 13.5 points per game, on just 35 percent shooting from the field and a dismal 27 percent from outside the arc. Even Cumberland’s free throw percentage has dipped by 10 percentage points from last season.
To make matters worse, Cumberland submitted what might end up as the worst play in college basketball this season. In a tie game, with more than five seconds remaining, the senior hoisted a shot from beyond half-court. Colgate nabbed the rebound, was fouled in the process, and defeated the Bearcats on their home floor. It’s a mind-numbingly bad decision that has to be seen to be believed:
I wrote about being disappointed in Wisconsin over at my other gig at Larry Brown Sports earlier this week, but before that piece could even be published, the Badgers bounced back in a big way, beating Tennessee by 20 in Knoxville. It was the Badgers team we’d been expecting to see all year, instead of the previously 6-5 struggling mess that had previously been seen this season.
With six returning contributors, including starters like Brad Davison, D’Mitrik Trice, Nathan Reuvers, and Brevin Priztl, expectations were high in Madison. Five early season losses, before facing the teeth of the upcoming Big Ten schedule, are a bad sign for a team that ranks 21st in Division I in percentage of minutes returned from last season. Ethan Happ was a great player and a big loss, but his graduation should not have altered the program in such a meaningful way.
This season, Wisconsin has relied on its backcourt and its shooting far more than they had during Happ’s career. In the past four seasons, the Badgers ranked outside the top 150 in the nation every year in 3-point shooting rate (the percentage of field goals that came from outside the arc). Last season, Wisconsin was particularly interior focused, taking just 34 percent of their field goals from long range, 281st most in the nation.
This season, that number is up to 44 percent, good for 50th most in Division I. That reliance on the outside shot has made the Badgers more high variance from game to game. When Wisconsin shoots 35 percent or better from outside the arc, the Badgers are 6-0 this season and just 1-5 when shooting below 35 percent from long range.
When the Badgers make 10 or more threes, they are 5-0. When they fail to do so, Wisconsin’s record is just 2-5.
These stats would bear out for many teams in college basketball but should send a loud, strong signal to the rest of the Big Ten: close out on Wisconsin’s shooters and make them make difficult jump shots. If they continue to shoot just a tick above the national average on outside shots, the Badgers will be a bubble team at best.
Seton Hall (30)
There was a ton of preseason hype in North Jersey for a Seton Hall team that, like Wisconsin, returned a huge chunk of its production from last season. Providing an even bigger bump in expectations, Myles Powell was back on campus, with a real chance to lead the nation in scoring and be a candidate for First Team All-America and even National Player of the Year honors.
Instead, the first two months of the season have been a struggle for Kevin Willard’s Pirates. Seton Hall is 8-4 against a brutal non-conference schedule, having missed plenty of opportunities to impress early on. The Pirates are 2-4 against the KenPom top 50, with a harrowing six-game stretch looming over the next three weeks in Big East play.
Making matters worse, Powell has yet to return to the court after suffering a concussion December 14 at Rutgers. In the middle, big man Sandro Mamukelashvili broke his wrist and will not return for several more weeks.
Willard has a tall task in front of him, needing desperately to hold serve over the next month in order to compete for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. That sounds drastic for a team with Big East championship aspirations before the season began, but if the next six games (at DePaul, vs. Georgetown, at Xavier, vs. Marquette, at Butler, at St. John’s) prove too difficult for the banged up Pirates, they’ll be in desperate need of a blazing hot finish to put themselves back in position to have the kind of March success many thought they could achieve this season.
Fans of the Flames may be confused by their inclusion in this section, seeing as Liberty started the season 14-0. While that is impressive and worth recognition, it should be noted that Liberty’s early season success has come versus the 313th toughest schedule in Division I, per KenPom.
The Flames best wins to date have come against a sorry Vanderbilt squad and middling mid-majors like Towson and Akron. In fact, two of Liberty’s wins have come against non-Division I competition, including an 87-28 drubbing of DII Trinity Baptist. Liberty played just two road games in their first 14 contests, a scheduling quirk usually reserved for blue bloods and AP ranked programs.
Because they have played such a disastrously cupcake-laden schedule, along with many of the other much worse things about Liberty University that should be mentioned when discussing the school, we here at Palestra Back were eager to see how the Flames perform in their first real test, at LSU this past Sunday. It did not come as a surprise then that Liberty held just one lead against LSU and lost by 17.
The Flames will play just one team inside the KenPom top 200 the rest of the way, 185th ranked North Florida.
The Grab Bag
If we’re going to talk about all 353 teams, we need to be forced into a few. I generated three random numbers that corresponded to three teams alphabetically in the list of Division I teams. Let’s look at what these squads are up to (and hope that the computer doesn’t waste this section on a big name or interesting team)
In 2016-17, Bryce Aiken and Seth Towns began their careers at Harvard as freshman. Towns played in all 28 games, Aiken missed just two contests, and they combined for 26 points per game. They looked like the future of Harvard basketball, sure to win several league titles and possibly NCAA Tournament games.
In 2017-18, Aiken suffered a knee injury that ended his season after just 14 games. Towns soldiered on alone, winning Ivy League Player of the Year, but the Crimson lost the Ivy League Championship to Penn (at the Palestra) and headed to the NIT.
In 2018-19, Aiken was set to return following surgery, but Towns injured his knee, requiring season-ending surgery. Aiken scored 38 points in the Ivy League Championship, but the Crimson again lost, this time to Yale (at Yale).
This season figured to be the year that both would return to the lineup and finally fulfill the hopes and dreams that had tempted Harvard fans for four years. Aiken and Towns looked to be the senior leaders on a Harvard team with an ungodly amount of talent for an Ivy League team, with the Ivy League Championship finally happening on their home court in Cambridge.
Instead, Aiken has been ailed by a foot injury that has had him in and out of a walking boot and the Crimson lineup. Towns, meanwhile, never even suited up this season, plagued by additional issues in his knee that required another season-ending injury. His Harvard career is likely over, with the chance to transfer or turn pro on the horizon.
Harvard is still the most talented team in the Ivy, yet Penn is very good and Yale is even better. After four straight NCAA Tournament appearances earlier this decade, Tommy Amaker will have gone five seasons without winning the Ivy League if the Crimson come up short this season. A healthy Bryce Aiken is the best player in the conference. Ivy Madness once again promises to be one of the best conference moments of Championship Week.
North Alabama (32)
The Lions have struggled early this season, hurting themselves with unforced errors. North Alabama is 6th in the nation in non-steal turnovers, piling up shot clock violations, travels, offensive fouls, and other mistakes. This makes sense for a team as young as the Lions, who have just two seniors on the roster and are led in minutes by two sophomores and two freshman.
North Alabama is also the 7th smallest team in Division I, compounding their offensive issues. Or maybe that has nothing to do with it. I haven’t seen a North Alabama game this season. Shocking, I know.
It was not long ago that the Mustangs were a relevant program in the national landscape. SMU won 25+ games and was ranked in the AP Top 20 for four straight seasons earlier this decade, but has since leveled off into the middle of the pack in the American Athletic Conference.
This season, the Mustangs are off to a 9-2 start, but have lost to the only two top 100 teams they have played. SMU ranks 343rd in strength of schedule (yuck) and has just one win against the top half of Division I.
With a host of competitive teams ahead of them in the American pecking order, SMU looks poised to battle for 6th place in the conference with little hope for meaningful postseason play.
The Fun Stuff
Looking at stats and highlights, this was the goofier or quirkier things we found this week.
- Arizona State (34) might have played the worst game of any power conference program so far this season, with the Sun Devils getting absolutely trounced by Saint Mary’s in a neutral site game. Arizona State lost 96-56 and created one of the weirdest looking box scores I can remember. Only three Sun Devils scored. They were led by Alonzo Verge, who put up 43 points after coming off the bench. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one player score such a high percentage of his team’s total, especially not after not starting the game. In the end, KenPom’s metrics said Saint Mary’s lowest chance to win the game came during the scoreless tie at tip off. Once the clock started moving, it was all downhill for Arizona State.
- Idaho State’s (35) defense has been bad. At one point last week, the Bengals were allowing the 3rd best 2-point percentage in the nation, with teams shooting over 61 percent against Idaho State inside the arc. Making matters worse, the Bengals can’t even catch a break. Maybe all those made two-point buckets have Idaho State’s opponents feeling confident because the Bengals were also dead last in the nation in “defending” free throws. Of course, there’s no way to defend a free throw and Idaho State is simply unlucky that teams have been nails from the charity stripe in games against the Bengals.
- This season, Idaho State’s collective opponents have made nearly 80 percent from the stripe. Compare that to the opponents of the nation’s luckiest free throw defenders, Dartmouth (36). The Ivy Leaguers have lucked into their opponents barely making half of their foul shots. Regression to the mean is coming for the Big Green. If you’re a Division I coach with Dartmouth on the schedule, put a few more minutes of free throw tune-ups into the practice schedule. Some team is going to post a ridiculous 25-25 night from the foul line versus Dartmouth, and it might be you.
Final Tally: 18
Season to Date: 36
Eighteen new teams each new post is a pretty good pace. Maybe I’ll learn to be brief and not get sidetracked by researching things like every North Carolina home game over the last five years. Probably not!
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.