The biggest story in the weekend in college basketball was the bracket reveal where we got a glimpse of the top 16 teams in the selection committee’s eyes. Jeff helps me parse through that as well as Gonzaga’s undefeated run, the Big Ten, the Pac-12 and whether or not Duke is really, actually, for real for real back to being back.
The AP Poll was released on Monday morning and Gonzaga, unsurprisingly, found themselves ranked No. 1 in the country.
The Zags are undefeated on the season and received 60 of an available 65 first-place votes.
Villanova, ranked No. 2 in the country, finished second in the ranks, while Kansas, Baylor and Arizona rounded out the top five. UCLA, Oregon, Louisville, West Virginia and North Carolina filled out the top ten.
Here are the entire rankings:
1. Gonzaga (60 first-place votes)
2. Villanova (5)
9. West Virginia
10. North Carolina
17. Florida State
21. South Carolina
22. Saint Mary’s
25. Notre Dame
1. So UCLA might be able to defend after all?: The knock on the Bruins is a secret to absolutely no one.
They don’t defend, at least not consistently or with the kind of effort needed to be able to beat some of the nation’s elite teams.
Here’s the only stat you need to know in regards to UCLA: They currently rank 126th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and the only team to reach the Final Four with a defensive efficiency that rated that low in the KenPom era – since 2002 – was VCU in 2011.
It’s an issue, but it’s one that the Bruins seemingly found a solution – or, at the very least, a bandaid for – this week.
On Thursday night Oregon came to town fresh off of a 27-point depantsing of then-No. 5 Arizona, and in the first 30-or-so minutes, that Duck offense didn’t slow down in the least. They put up 48 first half points. They were up 64-49 with just under 15 minutes left in the game, and that’s when everything changed. Over the course of the final 14 minutes, according to Kory Alford, a UCLA staffer, the Bruins gave up just 0.65 points-per-possession. They followed that up by allowed just 60 points on 66 possession to Oregon State on Sunday afternoon.
UCLA actually saw their defensive efficiency ranking drop from 115th to 126th after this week, but much of that had to do with the fact that A) they were eviscerated for 25 minutes by Oregon, and B) KenPom’s formula weighs the caliber of opponent, and Oregon State is ranked 281st in the country. What matters, however, is that the Bruins proved that they can defend when they need to, and that’s half of the battle.
The next step?
Make it a consistent thing.
2. Gonzaga is going to go undefeated: At this point, it seems a virtual lock that they are going to finish the regular season with a 30-0 record. I’m not sure how you can predict anything else to happen. The Zags have won every game they’ve played in the WCC by double-figures, and that includes the road trips to BYU and Saint Mary’s, where the hosts had to scrap just to get the final deficit to 10 points.
Three of their last four games are at home, in a building where Gonzaga took down No. 20 Saint Mary’s by 23 points last month.
In fact, I’d be surprised at this point if Gonzaga doesn’t enter the NCAA tournament with an undefeated record, and you should seriously be considering them as a national title contender. (I went in depth on why right here.) And while I do understand if the public-at-large has Gonzaga fatigue – they get hyped every year, and fail to deliver every year – this is a great story line for college basketball. For the third time in the last four seasons, we could end up with a team entering the NCAA tournament with an unblemished record.
As a sports fan, greatness is something you should either root for or enjoy seeing achieved. The Zags have a chance to do just that this season.
3. Duke’s depth is a major, and unforeseen, concern: For a team with half-a-bajillion McDonald’s All-Americans, it seems ridiculous that they need to worry about the amount of depth on their roster, but that’s precisely where we are with this team right now.
Duke wants to play small-ball, which means that Jayson Tatum starts at the four with three of Duke’s four guards – Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen and either Matt Jones or Frank Jackson. Those four guards rotate through and, generally speaking, play the combined-120 minutes at the three perimeter positions. Tatum plays the four, where he is really the only guy suited for the small-ball role; there are not many players that are 6-foot-9 with guards skills and the physicality to hold their own on the defensive glass with natural power forwards, which is what makes him such a useful weapon.
But it also is an easy way to drain the legs of a player at this point in the season. That was evident on Saturday, when Duke played Clemson 39 hours after their emotional win over North Carolina and looked totally drained, almost listless. Tatum was the one that seemed to be dealing with fatigue the most.
The problem is their front court. Chase Jeter is unplayable right now due to some combination of injury and ineffectiveness. Marques Bolden, simply put, is nowhere near where he needs to be on the defensive end of the floor to be able to contribute to this team. Amile Jefferson is playing through pain, but he needs to contribute upwards of 30 foul-free minutes a night because Harry Giles III still isn’t ready to give 20 effective minutes. He shines for a few minutes, but he doesn’t have the stamina, explosion or the strength to handle the workload; it’s hard to come back from two surgeries and 14 months away from the game.
Put another way, this Duke team has roughly six guys that Coach K trusts at this point, and that may be generous considering Jackson’s been somewhat up-and-down this season.
4. Just how much should we respect the Big Ten: The conference, as a whole, could end up getting as many as eight teams into the NCAA tournament, but that has as much to do with the fact that there are very few mid-majors worthy of an at-large bid while leagues like the AAC, the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West do not have the depth that we are used to seeing.
This fact is exacerbated by Northwestern beating Wisconsin on Sunday night. The Badgers, who have been taken to overtime by Nebraska and Rutgers in recent weeks, lost at home to a team that was playing without their leading scorer. They had already been left out of the top 16 in Saturday’s bracket reveal, and that loss certainly isn’t going to help their cause.
At this point, it’s worth asking if the Big Ten will disappear from the NCAA tournament before the Sweet 16.
5. Donte DiVincenzo is going to be a star: The reason that Villanova has not felt any ill-effects from the injury suffered by Phil Booth has been the play of the “Big Ragu”. He’s just a redshirt freshman, but he’s been terrific of late. He’s averaged 17.3 points over his last three games, including a team-high 17 in the win at Xavier, and that doesn’t factor in his game-winning tip-in against Virginia earlier this month. He is going to be the most popular Breakout Star pick next October.
Northwestern is going to the NCAA tournament for the first time in the history of the program.
There are still four weeks left before Selection Sunday and Northwestern has at least seven games to play in that time frame, but I don’t even think Northwestern is capable of Northwesterning this. On Sunday evening, while most were settling in to watch the Grammys, the Wildcats went into Madison and knocked off No. 7 Wisconsin, 66-59, despite playing without their leading scorer, Scottie Lindsey.
Chris Collins’ club now has a trio of top 35 wins, five more top 100 wins and no losses outside the top 70. Four of their top 100 wins are true road wins while a fifth came over Dayton on a neutral court. Four of their last six regular season games come at home, including games against Maryland and Purdue.
At this point, Northwestern would probably have to lose out in order to miss the NCAA tournament, and I just cannot see that being a thing that happens to them.
So congratulations, Wildcats.
For the first time ever, you should be able to celebrate something more than a trip to the NIT on Selection Sunday.
THEY WERE GOOD, TOO
- UCLA: The Bruins overcame a 19-point deficit at home against Oregon on Thursday night, and while it shouldn’t seem that surprising that a team with as much offensive firepower as UCLA has came make a comeback like that, it’s relevant because of the struggles the Bruins have had defensively. They haven’t guarded anyone all year, and they held an Oregon offense that was as hot as anyone over the previous game-and-a-half to 0.65 points-per-possession for the final 14 minutes.
- Duke: Duke kept themselves in the thick of the ACC regular season title race with a pair of wins this week, beating arch-rival North Carolina on Thursday night before turning around 39 hours later and surviving Clemson in a letdown game. Duke has won five straight games, earned a top four seed in Saturday’s selection show bracket reveal and sit just a game out of first place in the league.
- SMU: The Mustangs took over sole possession of first place in the AAC on Sunday evening when they knocked off No. 11 Cincinnati, cementing themselves as a top eight seed in the NCAA tournament and solidifying a résumé that was not as strong as a 22-4 record might indicate.
- Gonzaga: At this point, it’s pretty safe to assume that Gonzaga is going to go undefeated for the regular season after they completed their season sweep of Saint Mary’s by going into Moraga on Gameday on Saturday night and trouncing the Gaels, 74-64. The Zags are now 26-0 and have yet to have a WCC opponent keep a game within single digits.
- Purdue: Going into Assembly Hall and knocking off in-state rival Indiana is good enough. Having that be the game that turns the tides on Indiana’s season – Tom Crean is publicly crushing his player’s for their maturity issues while the Hoosiers sit at 15-11 on the season – makes it feel even better.
This was Notre Dame’s most important week of the season.
They had lost four straight games and five of their last six, falling well off of the ACC title pace and out of the top 25, and Colson was having none of it. On Tuesday, he went for 27 points, 16 boards and five blocks as the Fighting Irish knocked off Wake Forest. On Saturday, in a dominant win over No. 14 Florida State, Colson had a career-high 33 points and 13 boards as he totally dominated Florida State’s big, physical front line.
Colson is the difference-making piece for the Irish. He’s their post presence. He’s a shot-blocker despite standing just 6-foot-5. He can space the floor and he allows them to play small-ball when the timing permits. And he does all of it while being able to hold his own on the glass against players that are five, six, seven inches taller than him.
And he showed up when Notre Dame needed him the most.
His 27 points on Tuesday were a season-high. That record lasted all of four days.
THEY WERE GOOD, TOO
- Josh Jackson, Kansas: The Jayhawks had a pair of road games against potential tournament teams this week and Frank Mason III, their star point guard and a favorite to win National Player of the Year, didn’t play well in either one. The Jayhawks still managed to escape the weekend with a 2-0 record thanks to Jackson, who had 18 points in the win at Kansas State and followed that up with 31 points and 11 boards at Texas Tech.
- Derrick Walton, Michigan: Has any point guard in the country been better than Walton the last three weeks? He’s gotten the Wolverines on the brink of a tournament bid by leading them to four wins in their last six games, including five straight where he’s scored at least 20 points. This week, in wins over Michigan State and at Indiana, he averaged 22.5 points, 6.0 assists and 5.0 boards.
- Semi Ojeleye, SMU: The Mustangs had their best week of the season, scoring 30 points in a midweek win and following that up with a team-high 18 points as SMU landed a critical win over No. 11 Cincinnati to move into first place in the AAC.
- Luke Kennard, Duke: Kennard finished with 20 points as Duke knocked off North Carolina on Thursday night, a win that more or less signified their return to national prominence, while he had 25 points and was the only scorer in double-figures as Duke avoided disaster 39 hours later, beating Clemson.
- Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Thornwell was the only Gamecock that came to play this week. In a four-overtime loss on Wednesday, he had 44 points and 21 boards in a game where SC managed just 86 total points. On Saturday, he spurred a come-from-behind win with 28 points at Mississippi State.
Last Monday, we had to sift through the carnage of a week that saw, roughly, 73 top 25 teams lose.
This week is very different, as the upsets were limited and the big games were won by the teams we expected to win. Duke beat North Carolina at home. UCLA beat Oregon at home. Gonzaga won for the 26th consecutive game.
The result is a top 25 that looks an awful lot like the top 25 we saw last week.
What that means is that on Monday, the biggest talking point is going to be the Selection Committee’s early reveal of the top 16 teams, which didn’t include a single member of the Big Ten – notice where Wisconsin, home losers to Northwestern on Sunday night – and which saw Gonzaga rated as the fourth-best No. 1 seed hours before those same Zags all-but locked up an undefeated regular season with a win at Saint Mary’s.
And to a point, I get it.
Gonzaga is always hyped and never delivers. They play in a conference where the majority of the league is ranked in the triple-digits of every metric and the bottom of the league has multiple teams with crooked numbers in the front. Compare that to the Big East or the Big 12 or the ACC and of course they’re profile is going to look pedestrian. No, Gonzaga is not the only title contender that would run the table in the WCC. Yes, the Zags would have taken a loss or two by now if they played in a high major conference.
But don’t act like Gonzaga isn’t No. 1 in KenPom’s rankings. Don’t ignore the fact that they’re the only team in the country with a top five offense and a top five defense. Don’t pretend that you can’t figure out that this is the best defensive team that Mark Few has ever had by a good amount. And don’t overlook the fact that they’ve beaten Arizona (first place in the Pac-12), Florida (first place in the SEC), Iowa State (won at Kansas), Tennessee (beat Kentucky) and swept No. 20 Saint Mary’s by an average margin of 16.5 points.
So you can ignore them when you fill out your bracket if you’d like.
But do not deny what they’ve done this season.
Because given their circumstance, I’m not sure how much more impressive their run this season could be.
Anyway, here’s the top 25:
1. Gonzaga (26-0, Last Week: No. 1)
2. Villanova (24-2, 2)
3. Kansas (22-3, 3)
4. Louisville (20-5, 4)
5. Baylor (22-3, 5)
6. Oregon (22-4, 6)
7. North Carolina (21-5, 7)
8. Arizona (23-3, 9)
9. UCLA (23-3, 10)
10. West Virginia (20-5, 11)
11. Kentucky (20-5, 12)
12. Duke (20-5, 17)
13. Purdue (20-5, 16)
14. Virginia (18-7, 13)
15. Florida (20-5, 20)
16. Wisconsin (21-5, 8)
17. Florida State (21-5, 14)
18. Cincinnati (22-3, 15)
19. SMU (22-4, 22)
20. Notre Dame (19-7, 23)
21. Saint Mary’s (22-3, 18)
22. South Carolina (20-5, 19)
23. Northwestern (19-6, NR)
24. Xavier (18-7, t25)
25. Creighton (21-4, t25)
DROPPED OUT: No. 21 Maryland, No. 24 Iowa State
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 25 Northwestern