PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Payton Pritchard, Oregon
I’m not sure if Payton Pritchard should be the favorite for National Player of the Year, but at this point, he certainly is a favorite. On Saturday, in a 71-70 overtime win over Michigan in Ann Arbor, Pritchard had 23 points, four assists, three steals and three rebounds, but that doesn’t really do justice to the performance that he had that day.
Pritchard scored the final nine points for Oregon in regulation. He scored six of their eight points in overtime. He did it all while going toe-to-toe with Zavier Simpson, one of the best on-ball defenders in the sport, as Dana Altman opted to turn his offense into the Payton Pritchard Show.
As of today, Pritchard is averaging 19.2 points, 5.9 assists and 4.1 boards while shooting 51.1 percent from the floor and 38.6 percent from three for a top ten team that is going to climb in this week’s poll. That’s the stuff that Players of the Year are made of.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: Memphis Tigers
I think it’s probably hyperbolic to say that Memphis had the most impressive win of the season on Saturday.
Stephen F. Austin won in Cameron Indoor. Evansville won in Rupp. Ohio State won in the Dean Dome by 25 points. There have been some absolutely bonkers things happening in college basketball this season, and included among them have been some truly terrific wins.
What I will say is that there has not been a result that has changed my opinion more about the winning team than the win that No. 13 Memphis just landed in Knoxville on Saturday against No. 19 Tennessee.
The reason I say that is because of everything that went wrong leading up to and during this game.
Let’s start with the obvious. Not only were the Tigers playing without James Wiseman, who might be the best player in the country this year, but they were without another starter – and their best shooter – in Lester Quinones. They started four freshmen playing in a rivalry game on the road for the first time against a top 20 team, and they got sucked into play that team’s pace. They missed 13 of their first 14 shots, trailed by 12 points in the first half and, with nine minutes left before the break, had managed to score all of five points.
Everything about the way this game played out makes me think Memphis should have lost by 20.
And they won.
Maybe these freshmen are better than we thought they would be?
1. GONZAGA’S STATUS AS COLLEGE BASKETBALL ROYALTY SOLIDIFIED BY THIS SEASON
I’ve made this point plenty over the years, but I was reminded of it on Saturday, as Gonzaga went into the McKale Center, knocked off No. 15 Arizona in convincing fashion and put themselves in a position to receive plenty of No. 1 votes in this week’s AP Poll: The proof of Gonzaga’s status as college basketball royalty is their ability to lose players to the NBA earlier than expected and still find a way to manage as a very legitimate contender for a national title.
Last offseason, the Zags lost Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins. That’s four starters, three of whom left early for the NBA draft. At least two, and maybe three, depending on your feelings on Rui, of those early entrants were something of a surprise. And yet, it hasn’t slowed Gonzaga down one bit. Like I said, they very well may be the best team in college basketball this season. This comes just two years after Mark Few pulled off a similar feat, surviving the loss of Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins earlier than expected and still trotting out a team that was a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
This is something that Villanova has struggled with since winning the 2018 national title. This is something that Virginia is struggling with after winning the 2019 national title. Those are two of the most successful and consistent programs we’ve seen this decade.
So while I’m not exactly breaking news here, I think that it is important to point this out.
Gonzaga’s ability to maintain through the talent erosion that permeates college hoops is remarkable.
2. KANSAS IS THE BEST TEAM IN THE SPORT
Having said all that about Gonzaga, I still think that the Jayhawks are the best team in the country.
And I know that the Zags, and arguably Ohio State, still have the better resume. I get that. But if you forced me to pick one of those teams to win on a neutral court, I think that I’m still taking Kansas. The Jayhawks may have the best point guard in college basketball in Devon Dotson. They have arguably the most unstoppable force in the sport in Udoka Azubuike. They have myriad wings – Ochai Agbaji, Marcus Garrett, Tristan Enaruna, Isaiah Moss – and the size to play with two bigs. They can give a two point guard looked with Dotson and Garrett on the floor together.
To be clear, I made this argument on the Monday Overreactions podcast last week as well. I’m in on this Kansas team.
3. THE EWING THEORY SHOULD BE RENAMED THE AKINJO THEORY
Has there been anything more surprising than seeing a Georgetown resurgence come with the departure of James Akinjo, Josh LeBlanc, Myron Gardner and Galen Alexander?
The former two left the program three games ago. The latter left on Friday. In the three games that have elapsed since then, the Hoyas are 3-0 on the season with wins at Oklahoma State, at SMU and over Syracuse at home. Mac McClung is averaging 26.3 points during that stretch and Jim Boeheim is telling everyone that the Hoyas are better now that they got rid of the kid that never passed.
I think there’s a lot of truth to that statement. Akinjo was ball-dominant. From what I’ve been told by sources and people around that program is that Akinjo did not get along all that well with Patrick Ewing or with McClung, and that getting those four out of the locker room has improved the culture and the team environment.
The Hoyas are going to be shorthanded this season. There are just seven scholarship players on the roster, and while the ideal world would be that Akinjo, LeBlanc and the rest of those guys would be able to fit in with that roster – more talent is never a bad thing – I think that losing them might end up being addition by subtraction.
4. WE NEED TO STOP BEING SURPRISED WITH TOP TEAMS LOSE
Look, it is going to happen a lot this season.
That’s just the way that this is going to work. The top teams are not as good as top teams in recent years. This isn’t a perfect gauge, but it does provide some context: Ohio State’s adjusted efficiency margin on KenPom right now is +27.07. There were eight teams last season that had a higher AdjEM, and last year was not exactly considered a great season for college hoops.
Would we have been all that surprised if a top ten-ish team lost on the road in league play last year?
And it’s the way that this is probably going to work more often moving forward. We are getting more conference games earlier in the season, as leagues push to 20 games. We are getting top teams playing tougher schedule. We are seeing a push to get some of the big time matchups on neutral courts.
Better competition earlier in the year means more teams are going to be taking losses early.
That, to be frank, is probably a good thing for the sport, even if it means the undefeated runs we see become less frequent.
5. NORTH CAROLINA IS NOW IN DANGER OF MISSING THE TOURNAMENT
The Tar Heels have now lost three in a row and four of their last five games. They are going to be playing without Cole Anthony for a while, it seems, and they have a pretty tough schedule coming up. They play at Gonzaga on Wednesday, they get UCLA on a neutral on Saturday and then they host Yale next Monday before diving into ACC play.
Without Anthony, this team simply cannot score. They are bad offensively with him. They are, frankly, not that much more talented that a mid-major without him. The win over Oregon on a neutral is going to carry some weight on Selection Sunday, but there is a lot to be worried about with this group.