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Bracketology: The top seeds remain in place

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Here is the latest NCAA tournament bracketology projection.

It’s been a while since we could say this:  All four No. 1 seeds remained in place between bracket updates: Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas and San Diego State.

Elsewhere, more than a handful of teams still have significant resume questions.  And several current bubble teams have important showdowns this weekend – including key matchups in the Big 12 / SEC Challenge.

On a closing note … remember that the Selection Committee evaluates a team’s entire profile, from beginning to end.  How a team performed in its last ten games is no longer an official criteria (although each Committee member may have his or her own perspective on its importance).  So while Ohio State and Michigan, as examples, have both struggled of late, each team’s early wins remain relevant considerations with regard to team sheet evaluation.

The latest look at where our NCAA tournament bracketology projection stands …

UPDATED: January 24, 2020

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION Oklahoma vs. VCU
MIDWEST REGION Minnesota vs. Texas Tech
SOUTH REGION  PR VIEW AM vs. NORFOLK ST
WEST REGION MONMOUTH vs. ROBERT MORRIS

SOUTH Houston                  WEST – Los Angeles 
Omaha Spokane
1) BAYLOR 1) GONZAGA
16) PV-AM / NORFOLK ST 16) MONMOUTH / ROB MORRIS
8) USC 8) Wichita State
9) Michigan 9) Arkansas
St. Louis Sacramento
5) Butler 5) Arizona
12) EAST TENNESSEE ST 12) AKRON
4) Maryland 4) Iowa
13) S.F. AUSTIN 13) NEW MEXICO ST
Albany Greensboro
6) Wisconsin 6) Marquette
11) Virginia Tech 11) NC State
3) Villanova 3) West Virginia
14) COLGATE 14) LITTLE ROCK
Tampa Spokane
7) Rutgers 7) Indiana
10) Memphis 10) BYU
2) Florida State 2) Oregon
15) AUSTIN PEAY 15) UC-IRVINE
EAST – New York MIDWEST – Indianapolis
Sacramento Omaha
1) SAN DIEGO STATE 1) Kansas
16) WINTHROP 16) MONTANA
8) STANFORD 8) HOUSTON
9) Florida 9) Ohio State
Tampa Cleveland
5) Penn State 5) Creighton
12) LIBERTY 12) YALE
4) Kentucky 4) DAYTON
13) VERMONT 13) NORTH TEXAS
Greensboro St. Louis
6) Auburn 6) Colorado
11) Oklahoma / VCU 11) Minnesota / Texas Tech
3) Duke 3) LOUISVILLE
14) WRIGHT STATE 14) LOYOLA-CHICAGO
Albany Cleveland
7) Illinois 7) LSU
10) Saint Mary’s 10) DePaul
2) SETON HALL 2) MICHIGAN STATE
15) WILLIAM & MARY 15) SOUTH DAKOTA ST

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
Saint Mary’s Oklahoma Xavier Arizona State
DePaul Minnesota Richmond Alabama
Virginia Tech Texas Tech Georgetown Mississippi State
NC State VCU Rhode Island Tennessee

Top Seed Line
Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas, San Diego State
Seed List

Breakdown by Conference …
Big Ten (11)
Big East (6)
ACC (5)
SEC (5)

Big 12 (5)
Pac 12 (5)
American (3)

West Coast (3)
Atlantic 10 (2)
Mountain West (1)

College Basketball Top 25 Power Rankings: Baylor and Gonzaga lead the way

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A new college basketball top 25 is now live.

Baylor is not the No. 1 team in my poll, and I suspect that they are going to be the No. 1 team in the country when the AP poll is released on Monday morning. The only reason they weren’t No. 1 last week is because four people (like me) had Duke at No. 1, stealing votes from the Bears. That … did not go well, so here we are.

I also want to talk through something else: Last week, I wrote extensively about why I think that it’s foolish to allow the result of one possession games to have a significant impact on the way that you view a team. One shot in a 70 possession game that is just one of more than 30 games that will be played this season is insignificant when determining the quality of a team, and I truly believe that.

But I also think it is important to consider how and why teams are winning close games, not just games that are one-possession games.

So let’s use Duke and Baylor for this example once again.

One thing that the Bears have proven over and over this season — at Texas Tech, at Kansas, at Oklahoma State — is the ability to close out a tough game, particularly on the road. That’s because they have a number of players on the roster that are capable of taking and making clutch shots. Against Tech, it was Jared Butler. Against Oklahoma State, it was Devonte Bandoo. The Bears may not look as good in the metrics because they haven’t obliterated the mediocre teams they have played, but they are 15-1 because they come through in the clutch.

Now, some of that may eventually regress. I believe in the clutch gene because I think life — not just sports, but everything every human being does — is confidence. Baylor has confidence in clutch situations, as much as anyone in the country. They do not get rattled by the moment, and they have a number of different options they can go to down the stretch.

Duke, on the other hand, does not. Their three losses this season have all been close games where the Blue Devils have struggled to find an outlet for offense in the final minutes. Maybe that will come with more experience — Duke is loaded with freshmen, Baylor is as old as anyone in the country — but as it stands, that’s the difference between these two teams.

Baylor won their close games.

Duke did not.

And I don’t think that’s a fluke.


The other thing that I want to discuss in this space is where I have San Diego State and Dayton ranked in the college basketball top 25. They are currently sitting and eighth and ninth in my poll, exactly where they have been for a couple of weeks now. And that is where they are going to stay for the foreseeable future.

The reasoning for me is simple: I don’t want to fall into the trap where I’m bumping a team up in the rankings simply because they keep winning in a league that is not as tough as the leagues where the rest of the teams in consideration for the top ten are playing, and losing.

I’m sure there are going to be people in San Diego and Dayton that call me a hater for this, and that’s fine. Maybe I am being a hater.

But the truth is this: I love both of these teams. SDSU is so tough defensively and Malachi Flynn has proven himself to be a flat-out winner at the point, while Dayton runs a pro-style, aesthetically-pleasing offense heavy on three-balls and Obi Toppin.

I just don’t believe they are one of the top six or seven teams in the country, and beating the likes of Nevada and Saint Louis is not going to change my mind.

Anyway, here is the rest of the NBC Sports college basketball top 25.



1. BAYLOR (15-1, Last Week: 2)
2. GONZAGA (20-1, 3)
3. KANSAS (14-3, 6)
4. FLORIDA STATE (16-2, 12)
5. LOUISVILLE (15-3, 13)
6. SETON HALL (14-4, 15)
7. DUKE (15-3, 1)
8. SAN DIEGO STATE (19-0, 8)
9. DAYTON (16-2, 9)
10. MICHIGAN STATE (14-4, 7)
11. BUTLER (15-3, 4)
12. AUBURN (15-2, 5)
13. OREGON (15-4, 10)
14. KENTUCKY (13-4, 11)
15. WEST VIRGINIA (14-3, 14)
16. TEXAS TECH (12-5, 17)
17. VILLANOVA (14-3, 18)
18. IOWA (13-5, 22)
19. ARIZONA (13-5, NR)
20. HOUSTON (14-4, NR)
21. MEMPHIS (14-3, 25)
22. MICHIGAN (11-6, 20)
23. MARYLAND (14-4, 21)
24. ILLINOIS (13-5, 24)
25. CREIGHTON (14-5, 23)

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 19 Arizona, No. 20 Houston
DROPPED OUT: No. 16 Ohio State, No. 19 Wichita State

College Basketball’s Most Improved Players: Part II

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Before the season, we took a look at the players that we thought had a chance to be breakout stars this season.

We’re now halfway through the year, which means that it is time to take a look at the guys that actually did breakout.

Here is the second installment college basketball’s Ten Most Improved Players. The first can be found here:



JOEL AYAYI, Gonzaga

Last Year: 1.7 ppg, 5.6 mpg
This Year: 10.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.2 spg, 35% 3PT

I’ll be honest: I expected next to nothing out of Joel Ayayi this season.

Part of that is because he did next to nothing as a redshirt freshman for the Zags. Part of that is because Ayayi is somewhere between a lead guard and a combo-guard, and Gonzaga went out and recruited two grad transfers — Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge — as well as freshman Brock Ravet to play in their backcourt.

When redshirt freshmen that average 5.6 minutes are getting recruited over, that usually is not a sign that the coaching staff trusts that player.

But Ayayi has not only been playing for the Zags, he has been one of the keys to their season.

“He’s made a huge jump,” head coach Mark Few said. “His confidence increased and he has become a way better shooter.”

As Few said, one of the biggest areas of improvement for Ayayi has been his shooting. He’s knocking down 35 percent of his threes this season, and he certainly did not enter the program known as a shooter. For a team that is built around pounding the ball into the big fellas in the paint, having guards that can space the floor is a necessity.

But that’s not the only part of his game that has improved.

To hear Ayayi tell it, the biggest change in how he plays has been his ability to read the game. He spent the offseason focused on drilling down his ball-screen reads by playing 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 in very specific situations.

“It’s all about making the right read,” he told me. “The more you know how to read those situations, the better. All those 2-on-2 reps help you see those situations more often. If you’ve never seen the read you can’t make the read.”

Ayayi has also been helped by, you know, actually playing. It’s one thing to work on things during the offseason. It’s another to actually get on the court during 5-on-5 action and execute those things you’ve been working on. Ayayi was arguably France’s best player at the U19 World Cup — he scored 33 points against Lithuania in the third-place game and averaged 20.9 points and 3.4 assists at the event — and was able to crack Gonzaga’s rotation early in the season. He never left.

“It’s just about playing more and more games,” he said. “All those first games I felt like a freshman, playing meaningful minutes this year. I have the coaches’ confidence, and I have confidence in myself.”

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YVES PONS, Tennessee

Last Year: 2.2 ppg, 1.8 rpg
This Year: 11.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.6 bpg, 33.3% 3PT

“He’s as hard a worker as we’ve had.”

That’s a quote from Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes referring to Yves Pons, Tennessee’s starting power forward. That is tremendously high praise coming from a coach that just saw two guys from his team, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, get drafted after being after thoughts on the recruiting trail.

Put another way, Tennessee’s culture is built on hard work and player development, and everyone you talk to in Knoxville will say the same thing: Yves Pons is the hardest worker.

And what he’s done is turn himself from being college basketball’s apex athletic freak into a very legitimate NBA prospect. He’s one of the best defenders that you’ll find in the collegiate ranks. He’s built like D.K. Metcalf, he can move like a ballet dancer and he has the vertical of someone that can win an NBA dunk contest. Players like that don’t come around too often. He can guard 1-5 at the college level. He’s top 15 nationally in block percentage. He’s a 6-foot-6 wing.

Like I said, freak.

But where he’s grown this season is offensively. He’s now able to make threes, and a large part of that has to do with his confidence — as one person close to the program said, “confidence is huge with him” — but there is more to it than that. He’s playing the four this year instead of being thrust into a spot at the two or the three. That means instead of having to run off of pindowns in order to get shots, he’s able to catch-and-shoot while facing the basket.

Put another way, shooting step-in threes from the top of the key as a trail-man is far easier than being a back-to-the-basket shooter that runs off screens like Rip Hamilton or J.J. Redick.

Yves can do the former. He’s not so good at the latter.

And the former is what he would be asked to do in the NBA.

If Trevor Booker can play eight years in the NBA, Yves Pons has a shot.

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LUKA GARZA, Iowa

Last Year: 13.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 0.5 bpg
This Year: 22.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 35.6% 3PT

If there is one word that I would use to describe Luka Garza, it is unrelenting.

His motor is unrelenting. He effort is unrelenting. His wind is unrelenting.

He’s a 6-foot-11, 260 pound center with bushy eyebrows, a mop of brown hair that is permanently sweat through and a gait that screams old-man game. He will never be known for his athleticism, or his speed, or his leaping ability.

What he’s known for is the fact that, unlike just about every other human being on the planet, Garza does not actually get tired. He can play every second of an overtime game, and on that final possession, he will be running just as hard as on the first possession.

“He’s just such a relentless player,” Northwestern Coach Chris Collins said after Garza scored 27 points in 24 foul-plagued minutes against his team. “I admire how he plays. He’s just a relentless competitor. He just plays and plays and plays. When you get a little tired, that’s when he really kicks in. He’s arguably been the best player in the conference to this point.”

Guys like that, you hate to play against them and  love to have them on your team … until you have to guard him in practice.

The big question with Garza moving forward is on the defensive side of the floor.

Effort can only get you so far when you are asked to get out on the perimeter and guard in space, as bigs are forced to do in the modern era of basketball. It’s not for a lack of trying, but at some point 260 pound men are going to have a difficult time moving their feet quick enough to stay in front of Big Ten point guards, and that is very much true with Garza.

“Teams consistently pull him away from the basket in pick-and-roll when they’re in man, knowing that he can’t guard away from the basket,” said Sam Vecenie, the Athletic’s NBA Draft guru. “That leads Iowa to playing a pretty real amount of zone, which they aren’t all that good at.

“He’s gotten better as an interior defender, but the problems away from the hoop lead to more problems than his taking up space inside solves.”

Those issues existed last season as well, and one only needs to see that Iowa — who ranks fourth in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric — has improved from 111th to 73rd this year in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Garza may still be a liability defensively, but he’s at least trending in the right direction. That’s enough to earn him a spot on this list when he is the only player in college basketball putting up 20 and 10 every single night.

Iowa was always going to be a team that needed to be elite offensively to win, and Garza is the biggest reason there are that.

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CHARLIE MOORE, DePaul

Last Year: 2.9 ppg, 1.3 apg, 28.6 FG%
This Year: 16.5 ppg, 6.7 apg, 2.0 spg

Now, this one may be cheating.

Last year, Charlie Moore was in a different place. Literally. He was a redshirt sophomore playing at Kansas behind Devon Dotson, and he wasn’t playing all that well or all that often. So Moore — who’s from Chicago and who started his college career at Cal — transferred home. He wasn’t supposed to play this season, but he received a waiver from the NCAA to make him eligible, and while Paul Reed is the guy getting the attention and the NBA plaudits, Moore has been the engine that makes this DePaul team run.

Remember, he averaged 12.2 points and 3.5 assists as a freshman. He put in a redshirt season developing his game at Kansas. No one at DePaul is surprised to see him play as well as he has played this year. He was recruited over, and the guy Kansas got looks like a first-team All-American this season.

Good for Kansas.

And, frankly, good for DePaul.

We saw why on Tuesday night, as he posted 29 points and six assists as the Blue Demons forced Villanova to overtime before losing on the road.

And unfortunately, that has been the story of DePaul’s Big East season. They are off to an 0-4 start with those four losses coming by an average of 5.0 points. They’re one of those teams that are better than their record, the biggest victim of the Big East’s level of talent and balance this season.

It’s possible, but it will be rough-sledding to earn an NCAA tournament bid this season. That said, the Blue Demons are certainly good enough to do it.

And Moore’s play this season is the biggest reason why.

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AARON NESMITH, Vanderbilt

Last Year: 11.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.4 apg, 33.7% 3PT
This Year: 23.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 0.9 apg, 52.2% 3PT, 8.2 3PAs

There is not a player in the country that improved his shooting this offseason as much as Aaron Nesmith has.

As a freshman, he shot just 33.7 percent from beyond the arc. As a sophomore, that number has ballooned to an absurd 52.2 percent, and given that Nesmith is getting more than eight threes up per game, there is an argument to be made that the kid averaging 23 points is not only the best shooter in the SEC, but the best shooter in college basketball.

“Nesmith could be the Player of the Year in our league,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said before their teams faced off last week. “He is a definite pro and I don’t throw those terms out lightly. I’m just really impressed with him. Great shooter, quick release, makes tough shots, does a lot of other things as well. Great size, prototypical NBA scoring guard. He’s dangerous.”

The problem?

He’s also injured.

Nesmith suffered a foot injury that is expected to keep him out for the remainder of the season.

That’s a shame. It would have been fun to see him square off with the likes of Tyrese Maxey, Isaiah Joe, Anthony Edwards and Isaac Okoro (again).

Click here for No. 1-5 of our list of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

College Basketball’s Most Improved Players: Part I

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Before the season, we took a look at the players that we thought had a chance to be breakout stars this season.

We’re now halfway through the year, which means that it is time to take a look at the guys that actually did breakout.

Here are the first five in our list of college basketball’s Ten Most Improved Players. The second five can be found here:



OBI TOPPIN, Dayton

Last Year: 14.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.9 apg, 0.8 bpg, 0.6 spg
This Year: 19.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.3 bpg, 1.3 spg

Toppin is the most interesting name on this list because I think there is an argument to be made that, as a player, Toppin hasn’t really gotten all that much better since last season. His efficiency levels are more or less the same as they were during his redshirt freshman season, and while the counting stats are up, some of that can be attributed to Toppin playing more minutes in a larger offensive role for a team that’s playing at a faster pace than they did a season ago.

As one NBA front office member told me, “he was already good,” noting that he had gotten better — consistently dominant, a better rebounder, more confident — “but he’s largely the same guy.”

So how did Toppin go from being a guy that started the season as “well, maybe he can beat out Marcus Evans for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year” to a legitimate candidate to win National Player of the Year?

This is the narrative portion of the program.

I think this season has been a perfect storm for Toppin. He’s putting up big numbers on a really good-not-great Dayton team in a year where all of the best teams fall into that good-not-great category and, for the first time in a decade, there is no obvious frontrunner for NPOY. Combine that with the fact that he has had some viral highlights and that the Flyers went to the Maui Invitational and showed out in one of the most-watched early-season college basketball events, and this is what you get.

I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve all of the attention he’s getting — he does, unquestionably — I’m just trying to put that attention into context.

Breaking him down as a player is almost as nuanced.

He has certainly improved in some areas. I don’t think there is any doubt that he is a better, more confident shooter this season than he was last season. He’s nearly doubled the number of threes he shot as a freshman and we’re only 17 games into the year. He’s only making them at a 33.3 percent clip right now, but Dayton coach Anthony Grant would not allow him to shoot that many threes unless he believed in the work Toppin put in developing his shot. His handle is getting better. His body continued to develop; Grant told NBC Sports in October that Toppin enrolled with the Flyers at 6-foot-7 and 185 pounds. He’s now 6-foot-9, 220.

But that development also needs to be taken into context.

Dayton is a significantly better basketball team this season than they were a season ago. They are a lethal three-point shooting team that is as old as anyone in the country. They put four shooters on the floor at all times around Toppin, and more often than not, allow him to roam as a small-ball five. He’s a threat to pick-and-pop because of his shooting, he’s a lob target as a roll-man due to his length and athleticism, and his physical tools make near impossible for opposing bigs to keep out of the paint. Combine all of those things with the fact that defenses are so spread out because of the rest of the shooters on the floor, and what you get is the nation’s No. 3 offense, according to KenPom. Toppin is probably the most important piece in that offense.

Toppin is also a terrific defensive piece because he can protect the rim, guard bigs and switch onto smaller players.

I say all that to say this: The biggest reason why Toppin is thriving this season is that the pieces around him and Dayton’s style of play allow the things he does best to shine. Whether or not he is actually a better basketball player is largely irrelevant in this conversation, because he is, unquestionably, a more effective basketball player now than he was a year ago.

And the result is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime season for the Flyers and a spot in the lottery of the 2020 NBA Draft.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

NICK RICHARDS, Kentucky

Last Year: 4.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.3, bpg, 59.8% FG
This Year: 13.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.3 bpg, 66.9% FG

It took two and a half years for us to get here, but I think that we have finally reached a point where Nick Richards is the guy we thought he would be when he enrolled at Kentucky as a McDonald’s All-American.

Over the course of the last four games, Richards is averaging 16.0 points, 10.0 boards and 2.5 blocks. But it’s more than just the numbers. Richards is finally posting games like this against high-major competition, something that he hasn’t done before. It should come as no surprise to anyone that those four games have changed the course of Kentucky’s season. They finally look like the team that entered the season in the top five of every preseason poll.

“He’s getting better,” head coach John Calipari said last week. “He started playing basketball when he was 14, so it’s taken him more time. But who cares how long it takes? It’s, can I get to the point where I’m a significant player? And he is now.”

The genesis of the change is simple, according to a person close to the Kentucky program: Richards believes in himself now.

“You can’t coach a kid’s confidence,” he said. “He has to build it himself.”

With Richards, building his confidence came with actually seeing his work turn into success in the actual games. He needed to see the ball go through the basket. He needed to actually take a game over before it really clicked for him that he can take games over if he played a certain way.

“Some kids you say don’t read your press clippings,” the source said. “With this kid, it helps him. ‘You think I’m good? OK, I need to turn up.'”

And with Richards, the way that confidence has manifested is that he wants the rock. He’s no longer scared when a play is called for him. He posts harder. He runs the floor in transition harder. He’s calling for lobs. He’s ready when tough passes are thrown to him, and, in turn, is catching more of those passes than he had in the pass. All of this leads to guards that are now more willing to give him the ball. They’re not worried that a Nick Richards post touch will lead directly to a turnover anymore.

As a result, Kentucky once again looks like a title contender.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

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DANIEL OTURU, Minnesota

Last Year: 10.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg
This Year: 19.9 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 2.9 bpg, 34.6% 3PT

Minnesota knew that they had a player when they landed Daniel Oturu as an in-state, top 100 prospect two years ago, but they did not realize that they were bringing in a kid that had a chance to be a first round pick.

Oturu didn’t realize it, either.

He does now.

“I could tell Daniel to ignore the NBA Draft boards but Daniel knows that right now he is picked 10th on NBADraft.net,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “He knows teams reach out to me. I tell him.”

With some players, this could be a bad thing. You don’t want that going to their head. You don’t want them checking out of a season at the start of league play just because they happened to see their name on a mock draft on the internet. But with Oturu, the simple fact that he has a chance to play in the NBA has been the best thing for him.

“He was immature even for a freshman, but he’s shown maturity [this year],” one source close to the program told me. “He’s got a chance to be a pro now. It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another thing to be on draft boards. He’s seeing that. His focus level has changed. He’s staying after practice, taking extra shots, working on his game.”

And it hasn’t hurt him that Jordan Murphy has graduated. Now, he’s getting the post touches. He’s getting the isolation at the elbows. He’s the guy that the offense is being built around, and there’s more space for him to operate.

“He makes it look so easy,” one Big Ten assistant coach said. “You know how guards look at bigs like, ‘why can’t you make layups?’ Not him. He just makes the game look so easy, so effortlessly.”

The key now is going to be ensuring that Oturu stays focused on the task at hand. His name is on draft boards right now because he’s turned into a worker. He has to avoid letting the thought get into his head that he’s made it because he was on a mock draft.

“They don’t draft in early January,” Pitino said.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

AMES, IA – DECEMBER 12: Tyrese Haliburton #22 of the Iowa State Cyclones drives the ball in the first half of play against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Hilton Coliseum on December 12, 2019 in Ames, Iowa. The Iowa Hawkeyes won 84-68 over the Iowa State Cyclones. (Photo by David K Purdy/Getty Images)

TYRESE HALIBURTON, Iowa State

Last Year: 6.8 ppg, 3.6 apg, 3.4 rpg, 1.5 spg, 43.4% 3PT
This Year: 16.6 ppg, 7.7 apg, 5.9 rpg, 2.6 spg, 41.7% 3PT

There is not a single person on the planet that watched an Iowa State game last season that thought Tyrese Haliburton was going to be anything other than great.

Part of it is the size. Part of it is the shooting, even if his release makes Shawn Marion look like J.J. Redick. Part of it was the passing ability and basketball IQ. The reason we only saw it in flashes last season was because Iowa State had more talent on their roster than they knew what to do with. It’s why they looked so good when they played well, and it’s why so many people got frustrated when they didn’t.

And Haliburton?

He was fine playing the background.

“If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re making a big change in your life, there are situations where you just try to fit in,” head coach Steven Prohm said earlier this season. “Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes it can take away a little bit of who you are. It didn’t take away who he was as a person or his spirit, but he tried to just fit in playing-wise. It helped that team.”

“I had a role last year, and I had to buy into that,” Haliburton said.

The Iowa State staff knew he was going to be special this year when he went to Greece and starred on the gold medal-winning U19 team. He had the ball in his hands on a roster with a bunch of other future first round picks. Nothing about this season has surprised anyone in Ames.

“I know what I’m capable of,” he said.

And that’s because he’s put in the work.

One of the things that impress people around the Iowa State program is the way Haliburton works. He practices the passes that he’ll make out of ball-screens. With his left hand, with his right hand, baseline drifts, pocket passes, finding shooters in the weakside corner. He does all of that on his own, and it’s paying off.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

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MARCUS ZEGAROWSKI, Creighton

Last Year: 10.4 ppg, 3.4 apg, 3.2 rpg
This Year: 17.1 ppg, 4.8 apg, 3.8 rpg

The most important part of Marcus Zegarowski’s development from a guy in Creighton’s backcourt to the guy in Creighton’s backcourt has been, quite simply, his health.

As a freshman, Zegarowski dealt with a hip injury that required offseason surgery. He also missed three games after breaking a bone in his hand. He was all kinds of banged up, and while he hardly had a bad freshman season, there was a level that he couldn’t get to. Part of that was because he was, physically, limited. Part of it was because the injury sapped some of the belief he had in himself, not only to be able to make certain plays, but to be the voice that he needed to be on the floor.

“There’s a confidence level that has developed,” head coach Greg McDermott said. “His leadership has gone to another level. As a freshman, he was a little hesitant to step on toes and let his voice be heard.”

Not anymore.

Not only is a healthy Zegarowski now playing the best basketball of his life, he’s doing so as the leader on a team that has cracked the top 25.

“It happened faster than I anticipated,” McDermott said. “I couldn’t imagine a better fit for how we want to play.”

“I think they are best when they have a guy who is a passer and a playmaker,” a Big East coach told me, “and he fits their system perfectly. He’s always been that type of player, and I think he’s just improved his game. He’s been very effective.”

One thing that I have noticed about Zegarowski from watching Creighton play this year is that he always looks angry, like someone used his airpods and gave them back without charging them. I asked McDermott about this, and he said, chuckling: “He doesn’t change that expression much. He’s really hard on himself and doesn’t celebrate as much as he should. He’s a perfectionist from a basketball family, but I think a really important part of a point guard’s job is to be the same person. You know what you’re going to get day in and day out. He’s really dependable.”

Click here for No. 6-10 of our list of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

Wednesday’s Things To Know: Auburn, Duke, Kansas all win

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Wednesday was a night full of close calls, as No. 2 Duke, No. 5 Auburn and No. 10 Florida State were all tested.

All three ended up winning, which feels more notable that an upset based on the way this season has gone.

Here are the three things you need to know after Friday’s college hoops action.

1. AUBURN, SAN DIEGO STATE REMAIN UNDEFEATED

There are still two undefeated teams left in college basketball as No. 5 Auburn and No. 7 San Diego State both won.

It was smooth sailing for the Aztecs, who went into Laramie and knocked off Wyoming, 72-52, despite playing shorthanded yet again. Malachi Flynn led the way for Brian Dutcher’s club, finishing with 19 points and four assists, while Yanni Wetzell added 17 points while shooting 7-for-7 from the floor.

Auburn’s win was not quite as easy. The Tigers held a double-digit lead in the second half and were in control for much of the game before Vandy made a run. They tied the game at 79 in the final minute, and if it wasn’t for a couple of missed layups and a turnover from Ejike Obinna on the final possessions, Auburn might have taken their first loss.

Oh, and Isaac Okoro might have committed a homicide:

2. KANSAS ROLLED IOWA STATE ON THE ROAD

No. 3 Kansas ensured that there would be no Hilton Magic this season.

The Jayhawks went into Ames, a place they have struggled over the years, and blew out the Cyclones, 79-53, behind 20 points, six assists and five boards from Devon Dotson. David McCormack added 16 points in 18 minutes while Ochai Agbaji chipped in with 16 points of his own.

Perhaps more impressive was the fact that Kansas held Tyrese Haliburton to just five points on 2-for-7 shooting.

This win sets up a showdown in Lawrence on Saturday afternoon, as No. 4 Baylor pays a visit to the Phog to take on the Jayhawks in what should be one of the games of the season.

3. DUKE CONTINUES TO WIN, UNC CONTINUES TO LOSE

The Blue Devils, the NBC Sports No. 1 team in the country, went down to Atlanta on Wednesday night and did not have the easiest go of it against a Georgia Tech team that has proven to be better with the return of Jose Alvarado and Jordan Usher getting eligible.

Duke was up 11 at halftime. They trailed with five minutes left.

Like I said, it wasn’t easy, but they got the job done.

That’s what elite teams do.

And it is a perfect contrast for that other team on Tobacco Road right now.

Because North Carolina, coming off of an embarrassing home loss to those very same Yellow Jackets and having heard half a week filled with shots raining down from their head coach, jumped out to a double-digit lead on Pitt at home only to see the Panthers come roaring back and win.

The Tar Heels are in very real danger of missing the NCAA tournament.

Dotson scores 20 points, No. 3 Kansas routs Iowa State 79-53

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AMES, Iowa — Devon Dotson had 20 points and six assists, David McCormack added 16 points and seven rebounds and No. 3 Kansas routed Iowa State 79-53 on Wednesday night.

The Jayhawks (12-2, 2-0 Big 12) closed the first half with a 21-3 run to take a 20-point lead. Kansas shot 52% from the field while limiting the Cyclones (7-7, 0-2) to 34%.

Ochai Agbaji added 16 points for the Jayhawks. They handed Iowa State its most-lopsided loss in the series since an 89-66 setback Feb. 12, 2011, in Lawrence.

The Jayhawks made 10 of 19 3-pointers, with Agbaji hitting 4 of 5.

Kansas held star Iowa State guard Tyrese Haliburton to five points — 12 below his average. Rasir Bolton led the Cyclones with 12 points.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The Jayhawks clamped down for the second straight conference game. They limited West Virginia to 32.2% shooting in the conference opener, then held the Cyclones 27 points below their league-leading scoring average.

Iowa State: The Cyclones were coming off a pair of two-point losses in their past two games — including an 81-79 setback in overtime at TCU. They dropped their third game at home this season and shot just 29 percent from three-point range.

UP NEXT

Kansas: Hosts Baylor on Saturday.

Iowa State: Hosts to Oklahoma on Saturday.