Football is finally over.
It took two weeks for the Super Bowl to get here, and after a defensive snooze-fest that made UConn’s 53-41 title game win over Butler in 2011 seem like a thriller, it’s time for basketball to take centerstage.
In between the massive trade, petty squabbles and reality television drama that is the NBA these days, we have a college basketball season to play out and the Madness of March to look forward to.
Here is everything you need to know about college basketball if today is the day that you are getting caught up on everything.
1. DUKE IS LIVING UP TO THE HYPE
Prior to the season, all anyone could talk about was just how good Duke had a chance to be. They were bringing in three of the top five prospects in the class and, potentially, had the top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft on their roster.
Of course we were going to go overboard with the hype train.
And you know what?
It’s worth it. Zion Williamson has proven to be an absolute revelation, becoming a lock to the the National Player of the Year and a near-lock as the first pick in June. R.J. Barrett has had his ups-and-downs, but at the end of the day he is a lethal scoring that leads the nation’s No. 2 team in scoring. Tre Jones has emerged as a star as a floor leader and a potential lottery pick himself, and all of this is happening as Cam Reddish is still fluctuating between a slump and trying to figure out how to thrive in his role.
Love them or hate them, the incessant hype that Duke is getting this year is, unlike years past, earned.
2. ZION IS NOT THE ONLY MUST-SEE ATHLETE
Zion is the headliner when it comes to highlights, and that’s because the things that he does on a nightly basis are just absurd.
But he’s not the only must-see athlete in college basketball this season.
Let’s start with Murray State’s point guard Ja Morant, a 6-foot-3 lead guard averaging 24.1 points, 10.3 assists and 5.6 boards. He could end up being the No. 2 pick in the draft, and not just because he can do this:
And then there is Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke, who is responsible for the best block that I think I have ever seen:
SPEAKING OF BRANDON CLARKE, GONZAGA IS LEGIT
Here is the scary thing about the Zags: We learned how good they can be in November, when they beat Duke in the title game of the Maui Invitational. They’ve lost to North Carolina and Tennessee since then, but no one that watched that performance against the Blue Devils will forget it.
The reason that’s scary is because the Zags played the entirety of their non-conference schedule without Killian Tillie, who is such an important piece for them given his ability to pass the ball and the fact that he’s a 6-foot-10 shot-blocker than can make threes. He’ll bring a different dimension to this team, and while there will be tape of him playing available, only Mark Few is going to know how Tillie will be used against elite competition. Can you say x-factor?
SPEAKING OF JA MORANT, HE’S NOT THE ONLY SUPERSTAR MID-MAJOR PLAYER
There are always fun player in the mid-major ranks, but I think this year there is a particularly high number of stars at smaller schools. Campbell’s Chris Clemons is going to end up as one of college basketball’s all-time great scorers and is coming off a week where he went for 39 points twice. Detroit’s Antoine Davis is a freshman and averaging 27.1 points for Detroit. Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman is the nation’s third-leading scorer and has led the Pride to a two-month winning streak. Wofford’s Fletcher Magee. Buffalo’s C.J. Massinburg. South Dakota State’s Mike Daum.
We need these guys in the NCAA tournament.
SPEAKING OF SUPERSTARS, MARQUETTE’S MARKUS HOWARD
Howard leads all of the high-major programs in the country in scoring, and it’s his ability to take over a game that has turned the Golden Eagles into a top ten basketball team. He had 53 points in a game earlier this year. He has gone for 45 points twice. The only player on the planet that is more dangerous as a step-back three-point shooter is James Harden. He’s lethal — and absolutely enthralling to watch — when he gets into a rhythm. It’s why the Golden Eagles have a very real shot to win the Big East.
SPEAKING OF THE BIG EAST, VILLANOVA’S BACK
If all you know about Villanova is that they were embarrassed by Michigan (and Furman, and Penn) early on this season, you haven’t been paying attention of late. As veterans Phil Booth and Eric Paschall have started playing like all-americans in recent weeks, the Wildcats have turned back into the favorite to win the league. They are undefeated in conference play through the first half of the season, and once against look like a threat to get to the Final Four.
3. THE BIG 12 TITLE IS TOTALLY UP FOR GRABS
Kansas has some real problems that they are working through that stem from the fact that seven-foot center Udoka Azubuike is injured and his backup, Silvio De Sousa, was ruled ineligible to play this season by the NCAA.
That’s created a situation where the Big 12 is the weirdest conference in college basketball. The two teams currently in first place in the league are Baylor and Kansas State, the former who lost to Texas Southern and Stephen F. Austin in November and the latter who spent the first two months of the season totally incapable of scoring. Kansas and Iowa State who might be the two best teams in the league, are both a game out of first place in the loss column. Texas Tech, who might be the third-best team in the league, is two games back in fifth place.
I have no idea.
But seeing this thing play out is going to be fun.
4. TENNESSEE IS THE SEC’S BEST
The Vols are the best team in the SEC. They might be the best team in college basketball — they are, after all, ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll. Grant Williams is a legit superstar at the college level, while Admiral Scholfield is one of a handful of Tennessee players that could end up having an NBA future.
Tennessee is one of college basketball’s elite offensive teams, and with the way that this group of tough, physical veterans can defend when they want to, the idea that this could be a national title-winning team is very real.
BUT KENTUCKY IS BACK AFTER BEING EMBARRASSED
The first time we saw Kentucky play this season, they lost by 34 points to Duke on a night where they gave up 118 points.
Since then, things have changed. Quade Green transferred out of the program, Ashton Hagans took over as the starting point guard, P.J. Washington has turned into a legitimate all-american candidate and Reid Travis seems to finally have a feel for what his job is on this team. They’ve turned into one of college basketball’s elite defensive teams, and with the way their bigs can overpower opposing frontlines, I feel very comfortable saying the Wildcats are back as one of the five-best teams in college basketball.
5. THE PAC-12 SUCKS
The Pac-12 sucks.
6. VIRGINIA IS BETTER THAN THEY WERE LAST YEAR
As it stands, the Cavaliers are sitting in sole possession of first place in the ACC and are proud owners of the No. 1 ranking in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin, the NET and Torvik’s efficiency rankings.
But more importantly, I think the difference with the Wahoos this season is their versatility. They can play big. They can play small. They can play with three guards. They can play with two combo-forwards and a five-man that can switch onto anyone. They are as good defensively as they’ve always been, and this year they are shooting the cover off the ball.
They are better than they were last season, and this is going to be the year they finally get to the Final Four. Can you think of a better story than that?
BUT THE ACC IS LOADED
Duke is awesome.
We all know that.
But North Carolina, while having their moments of insanity, has turned out to be really, really good, especially on the nights when Coby White gets it going and despite the fact Roy Williams is still trying to find the best way to work in Nassir Little. Virginia Tech has been arguably the nation’s most dangerous three-point shooting team, and as long as Justin Robinson’s health isn’t a major concern, the Hokies have one of the best backcourts in the country. Syracuse is figuring out how to score. Louisville has been drastically better than anyone expected.
There are legitimately six Final Four contenders in the ACC.
That is tough.
7. THE BIG TEN MAKES NO SENSE, BUT IT SURE IS A ROLLER COASTER RIDE
The two favorites in the league are the Michigan schools, which is not exactly unexpected.
What we didn’t necessarily expect was Purdue developing into a team that, entering February, who be keeping pace with Michigan and Michigan State atop the league. We didn’t expect Iowa to be 17-5 and coming off of a 15 point beatdown of the Wolverines. And we certainly did not see Indiana taking a nosedive, losing seven straight games and then going into East Lansing without one of their best players and beating Michigan State.
And I haven’t even gotten to Wisconsin and Maryland playing well or Ohio State and Nebraska falling off cliffs.
What a wild league.
8. KEEP AN EYE ON HOUSTON
We all know about Nevada and how good they can be this year, but Houston is in the same boat. They were the first team to 20 wins this season, they have super-talented guards and a coach in Kelvin Sampson that has proven over and over again to be one of the best in college basketball. They are legit.