Hello there, casual college basketball fan. It’s OK, the rabid weirdos who follow this sport from Thanksgiving through April won’t bite. We just want to welcome you back to the fun.
Crazy year, huh? (pulls collar) Welp, uh, anyway, it’s good to have you back now that the NFL is coming to a close, college football put its season in the books, and March Madness is on the horizon. It’s February! We’ve got six weeks until Selection Sunday!
You’ve got quite a lot of catching up to do to be ready to fully enjoy the NCAA Tournament, and I’m here to help. Let me whip you around the college basketball landscape and help you cram in time to fill out a bracket. You ask your questions, I’ll answer.
How is college basketball managing through the pandemic?
Fair place to start. I’d say it’s going…about as well as college football went. So, fine? Let’s call it fine. Teams are constantly pausing due to COVID-19 cases in their locker room. Games are cancelled quite frequently. Some teams have played as many as 20 games. Some teams have only successfully played six or seven games. But, there will be an NCAA Tournament in March, so that should be considered a relative success.
How will the NCAA Tournament work? How do you seed teams who have played such radically different schedules?
That’s a good question that doesn’t really have an easy answer. The NCAA requires any tournament participant have played 13 games against Division I opponents. That shouldn’t be a problem for power conference teams, all of whom have already played at least ten times. For mid-majors, that’s not the case. Three-time reigning WAC conference champs New Mexico State have played just six games and spent several weeks unable to play or practice in their home state, relocating to Texas, where restrictions were less limiting. They’ve returned to New Mexico and will play the rest of their home games at a high school gym. That might not concern you, Mr(s). Casual Fan, but the college basketball community at large is struggling a bit with seeing very successful programs (big or small) have those kinds of issues.
The NCAA Tournament will still go forward with 68 teams, on a modified schedule.
All 67 tournament games will take place in and around Indianapolis in a variety of venues. This should give March Madness a bit of a “bubble” effect like the NBA had in Orlando. We hope this gives the event a better chance of success without cancellations.
Conference tournaments are currently under investigation. If you were a team sure to get an at-large bid, would you risk flying to another city to play in a tournament with little payoff that could jeopardize your health for the NCAA Tournament? Many coaches have suggested they would skip the tournament in that case. Some conferences have hinted they may use alternative ways to choose their automatic bid. Bill Self suggested using that week to play all of the necessary make-up games to fill the TV slots, rather than gathering an entire conference in one venue where the potential for virus-spreading would occur. We’ll know how every league is choosing to handle this by the end of this month.
OK, so if there’s going to be an NCAA Tournament, who is going to win the thing?
Right now any list of contenders should only be two, and only two, teams. Gonzaga and Baylor are a step ahead of the rest of the pack, by a considerable margin. Both are undefeated at 17-0 and ranked in the top two of every conceivable poll or metric you can find. They are both excellent on offense and defense.
Yes, Villanova or Michigan or Virginia or dozens of other teams could win the national championship. Though if you’re handicapping those chances right now, it’s the Zags and Bears, and then everyone else.
Gonzaga? Ugh, not them again. They don’t play anyone. They always disappoint!
(swats your nose with a rolled up newspaper)
NO! Bad casual fan! Very bad. Gonzaga has won a tournament game every year since 2008, a feat only matched by Kansas. The Zags have “played out their seed” (by reaching the expected round of the tournament without being upset by a lower seed) in five of the last six NCAA Tournaments, and the year they didn’t resulted in an Elite Eight trip. Take your Gonzaga bias somewhere else.
Not to mention, this team has played quite the schedule. The Zags have played, and won, eight games against the KenPom top 80. Gonzaga has played the 92nd ranked strength of schedule, better than power conference teams like Villanova, UCLA, Arizona, and Miami. If you think things are only going to get easier for the Zags in the West Coast Conference, wrong again. Prediction models expect the Zags strength of schedule ranking to go up over the rest of the season, thanks to road games at BYU and San Francisco and a home date with Saint Mary’s.
And, of course, comparing these Zags to even the very best Gonzaga teams of years past is unfair. This is the best Gonzaga team to ever step on the court. Mark Few has three players who have a legitimate chance to be All-Americans, including two likely lottery picks in the NBA Draft.
Sophomore big man Drew Timme has an old school, back-to-the-basket game, with a bag of post moves and tricks that weighs a metric ton. Freshman Jalen Suggs, once an Ohio State recruit at quarterback, is the most athletic player to ever wear a Gonzaga uniform. He’s being mocked in the top five of the NBA Draft and earning comps like John Wall and Derrick Rose.
Lastly, Corey Kispert is having one of the most impressive college basketball seasons in recent memory. Former ESPN columnist Bill Simmons popularized the concept of a 50/40/90 season, in which a player shoots 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from outside the arc, and 90 percent from the free throw line. It’s become secondhand lingo for an outrageous shooting season. Since 1992, there have been 12 such seasons in college basketball by a player who attempted at least 200 field goals.
Kispert sees your 50/40/90 and kindly raises. He’s flirting with a higher mark. How about 60/50/90? Kispert is currently just a shade below those milestones, shooting 57.7 percent from the field, 48.6 from outside the arc, and 90 percent at the stripe. That’s not a sample size anomaly either – Kispert has taken over 200 field goals, 100 threes, and 50 free throws. No college player since 1992 has posted a 60/50/90 season. Even at his current percentages, Kispert is flirting with uncharted territory. Only Connor Burchfield of William & Mary can boast a 57/48/90 slashline and did so with fewer threes and half as many field goal attempts as Kispert in nearly double the games (plus just 11 free throws all season).
You can shift around those benchmarks a lot, trying to find a season that comes anywhere close to Kispert’s shooting this year. No matter where you try to set the standard, he’s in a stratosphere of his own.
OK, but what about Baylor? They’re in the same class as Gonzaga?
Yes. As crazy as it sounds, Baylor is as good or better than Gonzaga. The Bears currently have an adjusted efficiency, KenPom’s catch all stat for team efficiency, of +35.50. Only two teams in KenPom’s database have finished the season with a metric over 35: the 38-1 Kentucky team from 2015 and the Kansas team that won the national title in 2008. That’s how good Baylor might be.
Baylor returned five of the seven players that played at least a quarter of the Bears’ available minutes last season when Baylor was 26-4. They replaced those two departures with transfers who have filled the holes, and then some.
Adam Flagler scored 15.9 points per game as a freshman at Presbyterian in 2019, highlighted by a 29 point, 7 made 3-pointer, 6 rebound performance on the road against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. Baylor’s lineup, which includes three players on the watch list for National Defensive Player of the Year, slots him in as the instant offense off the bench, a role he is terrifyingly overqualified to do. The other transfer, Johnathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua is a Tasmanian Devil of muscles and energy that Baylor relies on for rebounds, blocks, and other junkyard-doggery.
Those two join a very talented rotation, headlined by Jared Butler. The lead guard for the Bears is averaging 17.0 points, 5.2 assists, and 2.4 steals per game, while shooting 45 percent from outside the arc. He’s flanked by MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell, two of the best two-way guards in college basketball. Mark Vital literally lives up to his last name by being the dictionary definition of a glue guy.
Looking for a weakness in Baylor’s resume is difficult. If anything, the Bears are slightly reliant on the 3-point shot, shooting the long ball at the second highest rate in the Big XII. But Baylor shoots the best 3-point percentage in the nation, so can you blame them?
It is a bit concerning that only twelve teams in college basketball score a lower percentage of their points at the free throw line. An uncharacteristically terrible outside shooting night could doom the Bears in March. On the other hand, there’s a chance that free throw stat is a bit fluky. Baylor is 17-0, but has won 15 of those games by double digits. Once a few more Big XII teams take a swing at the Bears, they should have some more chances to seal games at the free throw line.
This trend isn’t a major red flag, but we’ll monitor it moving forward.
Who is the third best team in college basketball?
Dealer’s choice, my friend. Everyone has their own particularly pick for college basketball’s third wheel.
First, it was Michigan filling that role. The Wolverines are 13-1, with the only loss coming at Minnesota (the Gophers playing at The Barn is a team full of superheroes, for some reason). Michigan vaulted into the coveted bronze medal platform in college basketball with one of the most impressive performances in the sport so far this season in early January. A very good Wisconsin team rolled into Ann Arbor for what should have been a good game. It’s Wisconsin! As every TV broadcast can’t stop telling us, the Badgers’ starting lineup is older than that of the Chicago Bulls. Surely, this would be a great game.
Reader, it was not.
Michigan unleashed a 43-6 run in this game. At the game’s most lopsided point, the Wolverines led 69-29. Michigan quite simply bulldozed Wisconsin in a way that we rarely see among two ranked teams. If that’s the Michigan that makes it to March? Yes, that’s the third best team in the nation.
Certainly, there’s questions if that will happen. The Wolverines haven’t played since January 22, when Michigan shut down all athletics due to the existence of the notably contagious strain of COVID-19 being found in the athletics department. Michigan’s first six games back will come against top 30 teams, including true road games at Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Indiana.
If not Michigan, Villanova emerges as a contender for third fiddle. The Wildcats are 11-2 and have passed nearly every test on their schedule. Their schedule, however, has not been particularly filled with tests. Villanova has played just two top 30 teams, beating Texas in Austin (great win!) and losing to Virginia Tech (not ideal). On Wednesday, Villanova dropped a road game to St. John’s. In a weak Big East, Villanova will need to continue to avoid landmines. There’s work to do here before we pencil the Wildcats as a top tier team. Although if Jay Wright is going to win every other national title, seeing as we skipped last year, it’s his turn again. Don’t discount weird streaks and magic in times like these.
There is probably an argument to be made by the fans of…
- Houston (15-2, defend like hell)
- Alabama (seriously! 14-4, really good)
- Virginia (best team in the ACC, currently doing heaps and heaps of typical Virginia shit)
- Iowa (Don’t buy it. They defend as well as a mask under the nose.)
- Tennessee? Ohio State? Illinois? Texas Tech? Florida State?
Excuse me, sir. You must have forgotten something. You didn’t mention Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, or North Carolina in that list.
No apology required here. Those were all intentional. It’s a dire year for our typical blue bloods. I expounded on four of the teams you mentioned in a piece I wrote elsewhere. Quickly, I’ll just run through what’s going on with those four programs:
- Duke: Truly a mess. Jalen Johnson and Matthew Hurt are trying their best, bless them, but it’s just not enough to spark a team with several non-factors on the offensive end. We had a big Duke write-up recently. They should limp into March Madness off the bubble.
- Kentucky: Even worse offensively than Duke. This chart that shows Kentucky has the worst shooters shooting the worst shots in college basketball basically sums it up.
- Kansas: A top 25 team, but filled with flaws. No offensive playmaker that can make up for a clogged toilet offensive scheme.
- Michigan State: Perhaps the most surprising on this list. Sparty is talented but currently, and excuse my language, straight up stinks. Tom Izzo was relying on big steps from junior Aaron Henry, sophomore Rocket Watts, and Marquette transfer Joey Hauser. Henry is shooting 27 percent from outside and has been extraordinarily ordinary this season. Watts is just 29 percent from long range and has taken just 23 foul shots all season. Hauser’s trying, but stuck playing center, when he’s a stretch four to a tee. It would be surprising to see the Spartans in the NCAA Tournament.
- North Carolina: I am less surprised that this team is mediocre than that a Roy Williams Tar Heel team is extremely boring. UNC somehow plays the fastest pace in the ACC without any juice whatsoever. Carolina is destined to lose a first round game as an 8, 9, or 10 seed.
Which players are the most exciting to watch?
If you’re a frequent visitor to this humble little blog, you already know that I have a torrid love affair with watching Auburn freshman Sharife Cooper. He’s downright Iverson-ian!
Sadly, he won’t be in the tournament due to a self-imposed postseason ban. Catch him and the Tigers while you can.
Cade Cunningham is going to be the first pick in the NBA Draft and is doing really impressive things for a mostly untalented Oklahoma State team. He’s like Jayson Tatum but with elite level passing? Is that fun?
I personally love watching Illinois junior Ayo Dosunmu, who has elevated his game this season which makes him one of the most electric scorers in college basketball. With the game on the line, I’m not sure there’s a player I would rather see with the ball.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention National Player of the Year favorite Luka Garza. The Iowa big man leads the nation in scoring with over 26 points per game. It’s felt like a foregone conclusion that he’ll win every major award, which I would push back on, mostly because he’s a complete negative defensively, but it’s understandable to reward a player whose worst game this season has been an 18 point, 6 rebound night in a win.
Enough with these power conference nerds. Where are the Cinderellas?
Settle down, casual fan. We’re getting there.
It would be impolite to start this discussion with any team other than Drake, currently 17-0 on the season. The Bulldogs have been excellent, leading the Missouri Valley Conference in a host of offensive and defensive categories on both ends of the floor, but have played a very soft schedule. Drake’s four best wins this season came as part of the MVC’s COVID-adjusted schedule, making teams play each other twice on back to back nights. The Bulldogs swept series at Indiana State (#130 KenPom) and Missouri State (#133 KenPom). Not stellar competition. It’s funny that all four of those wins are better than Drake’s win at Kansas State, because K-State has lost eight in a row and is absolutely putrid. Drake should be a fun team to follow this March. Your call if you want your Drake jokes to go Seinfeld (“Love the Drake!”) or the rapper (Soulja Boi: “Drake???”).
Drake, at 17-0, might not even be the best team in the Missouri Valley. In fact, it’s quite likely that distinction belongs to 14-3 Loyola-Chicago. The Ramblers, still just three years out from a miracle Final Four run, boast one of the nation’s best offenses. Head coach Porter Moser is still crafting up wizardry for one of the smartest, sharpest teams in college basketball, led by Cameron Krutwig. You may remember him from the Final Four run. He’s a senior now and doing big boy stuff to any center who tries to stop him. It’s fun.
Loyola and Drake will play twice all season, both in Des Moines (that’s where Drake is) on Valentine’s Day weekend. Tell your significant other you have plans.
Elsewhere in the mid-major ranks, Belmont is 18-1, although none of the wins are particularly notable. Still, the Bruins are playing classic Belmont basketball, built on Princeton offense concepts. Only Gonzaga shoots a better percentage on 2-pointers.
And then there’s Richmond. The Spiders check all of the Cinderella boxes. Four seniors in the starting lineup. Two sub-6-foot guards who are magic with the ball in their hands. A really good player who has a manbun. Just classic March Madness fodder up and down the roster.
At times, Richmond has fit the bill. The Spiders have wins at Kentucky and Vanderbilt and a neutral site victory over Loyola-Chicago. Richmond also lost home games to Hofstra and La Salle. Bracketology is not currently on their side, leaving the Spiders on the wrong side of the bubble, yet if Richmond can secure a bid, the Spiders can absolutely win games in March.
What about teams in the middle – not great, but pretty good and fun to watch?
I’m happy to evangelize about the wonderful good news that is 2020-21 Rutgers men’s basketball. If you’re the kind of basketball fan that complains about the way the game is played and wishes the “Old Big East” was still around, give the Scarlet Knights a watch. I think you’ll enjoy.
Oklahoma’s been hot of late, ripping off three straight wins over Kansas, Texas, and Alabama (who, again, is good now). Lon Kruger has settled in as one of the sport’s most interesting coaches and his this Sooner team hunting and exploiting mismatches all over the offensive end of the floor.
I tend to think Colorado is fun too, mostly because McKinley Wright IV is one of the steadiest, most consistent point guards in the nation.
There’s plenty. Shaka Smart has hair now and Frank Martin doesn’t. Refs are still bad. The coaches don’t wear suits this year (or masks, for the most part).
Ok, well, my teammates are telling me I gotta go. I respect you guys a lot.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, The Action Network, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.