Now that Joe Burrow has his Heisman, his national title and his 60 touchdown passes and LSU is off to celebrate on Bourbon Street for roughly the next 64 hours, it is time for us to get you football fans caught up on the college basketball season.
Here are the 15 things you need to know:
1. THERE IS NO ELITE TEAM IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL THIS SEASON
Chew on this for a second: There have already been six teams that have held the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll this season: Michigan State, then Kentucky, then Duke, then Louisville, then Kansas, then Gonzaga. That list does not include Ohio State, who was on track to become the No. 1 team in the country before randomly losing to Minnesota on a Sunday night in December.
Michigan State, the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country, has had some growing pains that have coincided with Cassius Winston, the preseason National Player of the Year, working through the grief of losing his brother to suicide. Kansas has shown flashes of being really good, but their point guard play has been inconsistent, they don’t really have a four-man and they haven’t been able to put enough shooting around Udoka Azubuike.
Kentucky was a mess early in the year, but they seem to have righted the ship of late. The likes of Louisville, Florida and Memphis, the trendy teams in the preseason, have all had a rough go of it through the first two months. There are some really, really good basketball teams, but no one has really set themselves a part from the rest.
That said …
2. … DUKE MIGHT ACTUALLY BE ELITE
The Blue Devils have a home loss to Stephen F. Austin on their resume, and that is something that is hard for anyone — including myself — to truly look past. But even with that loss to their name, they have started to set themselves a part from the field as Vernon Carey and Tre Jones have both played like All-Americans.
As of today, Duke is the only team ranked in the top five of both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. In fact, they are the only team to be ranked in the top ten of both. There are only three other teams ranked in the top 20 of both metrics — Baylor, Kansas and Louisville.
The key has been that Duke’s wings are starting to figure things out. Cassius Stanley has been a really solid role player for the entire season to date. Matthew Hurt and Joey Baker are starting to hit shots. Jordan Goldwire understands his role and thrives in it. The same can be said for Jack White and Javin DeLaurier.
Think about it like this: The gap between Duke and the No. 2 team in KenPom’s rankings is only slightly less than the difference between Kentucky and Wisconsin, the No. 2 team on KenPom, in the final 2015 ranking.
As odd as this feels to say, with the Blue Devils ranked third, we might actually be undervaluing them on the market. Duke could very well be this year’s elite team …
3. … BUT NORTH CAROLINA AND VIRGINIA ARE, DEFINITIVELY, NOT ELITE
Virginia, coming off of a national title, might actually be the worst offense I’ve ever seen on a college basketball court.
That is, of course, hyperbole, but the ‘Hoos are currently sitting at 229th in adjusted offensive efficiency. They are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country, and I am not sure that there is an end in sight. I guess losing three NBA players hurt to early entry hurt them.
The same can be said about North Carolina, who lost Coby White, Cam Johnson and Nassir Little, not to mention Kenny Williams and Luke Make, this past offseason, and while they did bring in Cole Anthony, he’s been hurt. The result of his absence? Three straight losses at home, the latter of which came against Clemson, who was 0-59 in the 94 seasons that they have played in Chapel Hill.
That’s absolutely brutal, but it’s not all Roy’s fault. And no, he should not be fired.
4. JAMES WISEMAN QUIT, COLE ANTHONY IS HURT AND ANTHONY EDWARDS IS IRRELEVANT
Another reason college basketball is weird this year is that we didn’t get the influx of elite freshmen we usually do. Anthony is one of two extremely-highly touted freshmen that has missed a significant amount of time this year, and he could end up sitting out the rest of the season like James Wiseman, who was suspended for 12 games for what turned into an absolute roller coaster of an NCAA infractions case. Wiseman eventually quit on Memphis midway through a suspension and has since signed with an agent.
Those are two of the guys that were considered must-see TV in this freshmen class. The third, Georgia’s Anthony Edwards, is still living off of that one insane half he had against Michigan State.
When 87 underclassmen declare for the NBA draft in the same season that a down freshmen class has four of their top five players — Wiseman, Anthony, LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton — either not playing or playing outside of the college sports structure, that is going to lead to some weird things happening.
5. THERE ARE GOOD TEAMS FROM OFF THE BEATEN PATH THAT HAVE A CHANCE TO MAKE HISTORY
- BAYLOR: The Bears are very much a national title contender this year as Scott Drew’s masterpiece has come to life. This team is just so balanced and difficult to beat. They have elite guard play — Jared Butler and MaCio Teague, specficially — and shoot as well as anyone. They absolutely pound the offensive glass. They have the size to deal with anyone inside in Freddie Gillespie and a four in Mark Vital that is, at the same time, able to guard bigs and smalls and one of the best offensive rebounders in the country. They’re elite defensively. The Bears are, legitimately, a national title favorite this season.
- BUTLER: LaVall Jordan has certainly proved himself worthy of the Butler job. This is probably the best Bulldog team that we have ever seen, and that includes the teams that reached the national title game. Kamar Baldwin can take over games when they need to be taken over, there is size an versatility up front, they have shot-makers on the wings and Jordan has proven himself to be an elite game-planner that blows up whatever a team tries to run against him. The best team in the Big East.
- DAYTON: I love this Flyers squad. They are loaded with shooters, they play five-out, they have a coach that spent two seasons on Billy Donovan’s staff in the NBA and they have Obi Toppin, who is absolutely the best small-ball five that anyone could ask for at the college level. The Flyers are a fun watch and they have arguably the best player in college basketball.
- SAN DIEGO STATE: It took me a while to come around on the Aztecs, but they’re legit. Malachi Flynn is an All-American at the point, they can really get out and guard and there is enough shooting up and down the roster to create problems for teams like Iowa, Creighton, BYU and Utah. There is a real chance SDSU is undefeated entering the NCAA tournament.
- WEST VIRGINIA: This team is not Press Virginia, but they are very, very good. It starts with a front court of Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver, who make up the best offensive rebounding duo in college basketball. They’ve become the best defensive team in the sport, according to KenPom, and Miles McBride’s development into a go-to scorer has made the Mountaineers a real threat to win the Big 12.
- SETON HALL: Myles Powell’s absence allowed Seton Hall’s supporting cast to gain the confidence they need to make the Pirates a very dangerous team moving forward. They are a top ten defense in America, they have two literal Monstars roaming the paint and there are myriad athletic perimeter players that get out and pressure defensively. They are not fun to play against, and that’s before you factor in that Powell can win a game all by himself.
6. VILLANOVA IS NO LONGER THE CLASS OF THE BIG EAST
Villanova has absolutely dominated the conference over the course of the last six seasons, but they are no longer the best team in the league. That title goes to Butler as of today, and there’s an argument to be made that Seton Hall is better than the Wildcats as well.
And that’s not a shot at Villanova. Jay Wright’s club is still young and still working through a regeneration after losing a couple of guys to the NBA earlier than expected. Collin Gillespie has low-key developed into one of the best point guards in the country, and Saddiq Bey has turned himself into a guy that is going to get plenty of NBA attention. On the nights their threes are falling, Villanova can hang with anyone.
But they are not the best team in their league.
7. THE BIG TEN IS AN ABSOLUTE BLOODBATH
The depth of the Big Ten is absolutely insane this season. As of this moment, 12 of the 14 teams in the conference are rated somewhere between 12th and 41st in the NET. In KenPom, those same teams are ranked between fifth and 38th. Road teams are just 5-32 in the 37 conference games that have been played to date. Ohio State — who ranks 16th in the NET, 17th in KenPom and who was No. 1 in KenPom on Dec. 21st — is currently sitting at 13th in the league standings after losing four straight games because none of those four losses comes even remotely close to being a bad loss.
What this means is that evaluating and differentiating between these teams is going to be a nightmare. They are all good. They are all going to win a lot of home games because winning on the road in league play is something that only elite teams do and there may not be a single elite team in the entire country, let alone in the Big Ten. Think about this: Big Ten road teams are 5-32 in league play this season.
So what you are going to see are a lot of weeks where things like this happen: Minnesota beats Michigan at home after losing at Michigan State, who got blown out in Mackey Arena by Purdue just three days after the Boilermakers lost at Michigan.
If all of these teams defend their home court and avoid too many losses to Nebraska and Northwestern, I don’t think it’s crazy to think that there are 12 Big Ten teams that can get to the NCAA tournament.
8. … BUT THERE MAY NOT BE A NATIONAL TITLE CONTENDER IN THE CONFERENCE
There are so many good big men in the Big Ten that it is astounding.
Xavier Tillman. Luka Garza. Kaleb Wesson. Daniel Oturu. Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers. Kofi Cockburn. Jalen Smith. Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers. Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams. Mike Watkins. Myles Johnson.
That is an insane level of frontcourt talent for one conference. Good luck trying to pick an all-Big Ten team.
But what is equally as insane is the fact that there really isn’t much in the way of elite guard play in the league. Cassius Winston is a beast, we all know this, but he was just put in a straight jacket by Purdue. And beyond him, who scares you? Zavier Simpson is a solid player. Anthony Cowan has some potential, but over the years he’s basically proven that he is what he is. Ayo Dosunmu isn’t really a point guard. Is there anyone else that I’m missing?
This is a big deal because, if you look at all of the teams that won titles in the last decade, only one of them didn’t start two point guards — the 2012 Kentucky team that had the top two picks in the NBA Draft, including Anthony Davis.
Does anyone in the Big Ten have that kind of lead guard play outside of Sparty?
9. THE WEST COAST IS BACK
The last time that a team west of Lawrence, Kansas, won the national title came all the way back in 1997, when Lute Olson and the Arizona Wildcats cut down the nets.
It looks like there are a couple of teams that are going to be able to make runs deep into March.
Let’s start with Oregon, who tops what is a much-improved Pac-12 this season. The Ducks, led by potential National Player of the Year point guard Payton Pritchard, are dangerous even if they are lacking the ideal pieces that Dana Altman would like on his roster. Arizona is probably the most talented team in the conference with three potential lottery picks on the floor in Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji, but they have been inconsistent this season, especially away from home. Colorado is good. Washington was good before they lost their point guard. Even USC and Stanford have enough talent to be relevant.
But here’s the kicker: the two-best teams on the West Coast are not a part of the Pac-12. Gonzaga is currently ranked No. 1 in the country, and deservedly so. Filip Petrusev, Joel Ayayi and Corey Kispert have become one of the best 1-2-3 punches in college hoops, while San Diego State has proven themselves worthy of top two-seed consideration in the NCAA tournament.
I’m not sure any of these teams will win the title, but there are (at least) four programs that are good enough to get to a Final Four.
10. KENTUCKY SHOOK OFF EARLY SEASON STRUGGLES BUT IS NOT THE FAVORITE IN THE SEC
It took a while for us to get to this point, but as Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley continued to turn into Kentucky’s star center and sharpshooter, respectively, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Coach Cal has worked his magic again. With Tyrese Maxey and Ashton Hagans providing the Wildcats with arguably the best backcourt in the country, this is a team that can absolutely get hot in March if, for no other reason, than the fact that they have clearly not his their ceiling yet.
But they are not the best team in the SEC.
Auburn, who is one of just two undefeated teams left in America, is, as Bruce Pearl continues to build the Tigers into a juggernaut. Isaac Okoro has been one of the top five freshmen in college basketball this season, while the likes of J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty have both taken significant steps forward.
11. THE PLAYER OF THE YEAR RACE IS AS WIDE-OPEN AS I’VE EVER SEEN IT
Generally speaking, at this point in the season we tend to know who is going to be the favorite to win the National Player of the Year award and who is going to be the guy that has a shot to chase him down.
Last season, it was Zion. We knew the first game of the season that he would be battling R.J. Barrett for the award, and by the third week of the season, we knew who was going to be winning the award. The year before that, Trae Young established himself as the clear-cut favorite with a torrid November before Jalen Brunson’s play down the stretch earned him the consensus Player of the Year title. In 2017, Frank Mason moved to the front of the line with two terrific performances in the first five days of the season and never relinquished his hold on the award.
And on and on and on.
This year, none of that has happened. We released a preliminary Player of the Year update last week, and it mostly holds true today. Obi Toppin and Payton Pritchard are probably the two leaders as of this moment. Vernon Carey has a chance to win the award because he is the best player on the best team in the country. Markus Howard is putting up insane scoring numbers, but he may not even be the best player in his own league.
Someone is going to have to win the award at the end of the day, and I have feeling that when the time comes to make the decision, it is going to be nowhere near consensus.
12. AND THE COACH OF THE YEAR RACE IS GOING TO BE JUST AS BONKERS
There are so many really, really good candidates for Coach of the Year this year.
Take, for example, Scott Drew, who lost three starters from last year’s team, has yet to get Tristan Clark back to full health and may end up having the best team in college basketball. Bob Huggins has a chance to go from worst to first in the Big 12, and he’s the clear No. 2 in that league’s Coach of the Year pecking order.
Butler’s LaVall Jordan, who was picked eighth in the Big East and is trending towards a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Anthony Grant has done wonders at Dayton, as has Brian Dutcher at San Diego State. Bruce Pearl deserves serious consideration for the award considering what he lost this offseason. Leonard Hamilton has surprised everyone with how good Florida State has been. Mark Few lost four pros from last year’s team and has a chance to win a national title this year.
I cannot remember a season with this many really good Coach of the Year candidates.
13. THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED IN A COLLEGE BASKETBALL GAME
14. THIS DID, TOO
15. THINGS ARE GOING TO GET WEIRD
So buckle up and enjoy the ride.