We’re a little less than two months away from Selection Sunday for March Madness, and what have we learned about the college basketball season so far?
Only one thing, really: There is no clear-cut favorite. One could argue there’s an elite group of 5-6 teams, but none of them have really distinguished themselves yet. Baffling losses, lack of a take-over star, untested teams – there’s nothing close to last year’s undefeated Kentucky team. (Or last year’s Wisconsin or Duke teams, either.) Nobody has come close to locking up a #1 seed. The contenders:
North Carolina (17-2) lost to Northern Iowa (point guard Marcus Paige didn’t play) and Texas by a combined six points. But the best team UNC has played? Maryland at home on December 1st. Won by eight. The schedule is back-loaded. The Heels won’t really be tested until 2/1 at Louisville, and then 2.6 at Notre Dame. The Duke games are 2/17 and 3/5. Nobody in the country has the depth (nine players averaging 10+ minutes a night) or balance (six players averaging in double figures in points).
Kansas (15-3) is the second most-balanced team in the country, with four players averaging in double figures, and that’s not including two stud freshman still getting worked into the rotation, and their best 3-point shooter (Brannen Greene). But they lack a great individual player, have been thumped twice in the last 10 days on the road (WVU, Oklahoma State), and still have trips to Iowa State, Oklahoma, plus home games against Kentucky and West Virginia.
Oklahoma (15-2) has the best player in the country in Buddy Hield, has three other players averaging double figures, soundly beat Ken Pom’s #1 team (Villanova) and has played one of the toughest schedules in the country. My big fear with the Sooners is one North Carolina and Kansas don’t have: What happens if Hield has a really poor game? Or the Sooners 3-point shooting (45% on the season, #2 in the country) has an off night? In last year’s Elite 8 loss to Michigan State, the Sooners were 4-of-17 from deep.
Maryland (17-2) was my preseason pick to win it all, but as expected, their coach is holding back a potentially prolific offense. Melo Trimble’s assists are up, but his 3-point shooting and scoring is down – this despite having a legit low-post offensive threat in freshman Diamond Stone. Roster-wise, 1-7, they’re as good as anyone in the country. So why did they need overtime against Northwestern and struggle to put away teams like Rider and Penn State?
Iowa is a surprising 14-3 after its best player last year, Aaron White, graduated. But Jarrod Uthoff is playing like an All-American, and Iowa, after early-season losses to Dayton and Notre Dame, has beaten Michigan State twice by double digits (once the Spartans were without Denzel Valentine), won at Purdue, and thumped Michigan. They’re rated in the Top 15 offensively and defensively per Kem Pom. A big back-to-back looms: vs Purdue 1/24, at Maryland 1/28. Two games left with suddenly-good Indiana. The Hawkeyes are Top 25 in 3-point shooting percentage, block percentage and steal percentage. Why isn’t there more love for them? History. Last time they’ve been beyond the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament? The Dean Oliver/Jess Settles 1999 team that lost in the Sweet 16 to UConn.
Villanova (16-2) still has a major stigma to shake: Since the great Scottie Reynolds run in 2009, the Wildcats have underwhelmed in the NCAA Tournament. Last year we tried to warn you about the Wildcats … and then they gagged against NC State in the 2nd round. The stat guys love Villanova, and freshman Jalen Brunson is a stud, but in their most difficult games – Oklahoma and Virginia – the Wildcats lost. Is beating up on the not-your-older-brother’s-Big East preparing these guys for the tournament? One thing to watch: Currently, nobody is shooting over 35% on 3-pointers; last year they had six players doing so. Is this good news because it means they’re less reliant upon the 3-pointer?
THE NEXT GROUP
West Virginia (15-3) got fat on an early-season schedule and crushed Kansas at home. But they’ve lost two in a row, including a stunner at home against Texas. A further word of caution: Their next six games are against Ken Pom Top 60 teams. Michigan State (16-4) had early-season wins over Kansas and Louisville, then lost Denzel Valentine. He’s back, but they’ve lost three straight, including a perplexing home defeat to Nebraska. As usual, Tom Izzo will be ready for March, but right now, I see the Spartans as more of 3-4 seed. Purdue is 16-3, a contender in the Big 10, but the loss to Illinois last week gave me major pause. No teams can match them inside, but we all know March Madness is a guard’s game. Louisville is 15-3, but its best wins are against teams that may not even be dancing (Wake Forest, NC State, Pittsburgh, Florida State). Wake me when the Cardinals beat a good team in the ACC.
THE 3RD GROUP
Virginia isn’t as sound defensive as it has been the last two years, but is better offensively. Recently lost three of four to non-powers: Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and FSU. Texas A&M has been a pleasant surprise this season, but it’s tough to take anyone from the SEC seriously this season (South Carolina included). The Aggies have a some quality wins – Gonzaga, Texas, LSU, Baylor – but none of those came on the road. I’ll reserve judgement to see how they do in the Iowa State/Vanderbilt back-to-back. Xavier is a surprising 16-2, and early-season wins over Michigan, Dayton and Cincinnati got everyone excited. The Musketeers suffered a surprising setback at home against Georgetown this week, and a Prove It February stretch looms: at Creighton, at Butler, vs Providence, at Georgetown, vs Villanova.
Ratings and interest in college basketball soared last year as Kentucky attempted to become the sport’s 1st undefeated team in over 30 years. Where’s the interest this year? In parity? College Basketball is at its best when a traditional power – Duke, UNC, Kentucky, etc – is the hunted. What happens when there is no one to hunt? March Madness delivers what no other postseason tournament can: Major upsets. The Patriot League over Duke. Cinderella over a powerhouse. What if nothing is really an upset because … nobody’s that good? Here’s hoping UNC and Maryland and Kansas all peel over 15 straight heading into the NCAA Tournament.