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Bracketology: Baylor leads, Big Ten reigns

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Here is the latest NCAA tournament bracketology projection.

One bracket decision was easy today: Baylor as the No. 1 overall seed.  The Bears are 5-1 against Quadrant 1 teams, have a win at Kansas, and haven’t lost since dropping a close game to Washington in early November.

Elsewhere, the Big Ten reigns, filling up the field with a dozen teams.  Much of that has to do with the strength and depth of the conference, with quality wins available almost every night and home teams rarely losing.  Another contributing factor is fewer contenders in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big 12, and even the Southeastern Conference (SEC).   Whether those trends continue remains to be seen.  Ultimately, the Big Ten is more likely to end up with nine or ten bids.

In a close call, Butler remains the final No. 1 seed, but loses its Midwest route to Kansas.  The Bulldogs depth of wins against teams in the Field was the difference.  But one could make an equally compelling and accurate case for San Diego State.

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

UPDATED: January 17, 2020

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION Minnesota vs. Virginia Tech
WEST REGION NC State vs. Washington
MIDWEST REGION  ROBERT MORRIS vs. NC A&T
SOUTH REGION PR VIEW AM vs. NO COLORADO

SOUTH Houston WEST – Los Angeles                   
Omaha Spokane
1) BAYLOR 1) GONZAGA
16) PV-AM / NC A&T 16) QUINNIPIAC
8) Illinois 8) Wisconsin
9) Florida 9) Oklahoma
Tampa St. Louis
5) Michigan 5) WICHITA STATE
12) LIBERTY 12) NC State / Washington
4) Auburn 4) Louisville
13) S.F. AUSTIN 13) NEW MEXICO ST
Albany Spokane
6) STANFORD 6) Iowa
11) Saint Mary’s 11) Houston
3) SETON HALL 3) Oregon
14) COLGATE 14) SOUTH DAKOTA ST
Greensboro Sacramento
7) Arkansas 7) Penn State
10) Purdue 10) Texas Tech
2) DUKE 2) SAN DIEGO STATE
15) NORTHERN COLORADO 15) UC-IRVINE
EAST – New York MIDWEST – Indianapolis
St. Louis Omaha
1) Butler 1) Kansas
16) ALBANY / ROB MORRIS 16) RADFORD
8) LSU 8) Marquette
9) Rutgers 9) Indiana
Sacramento Albany
5) Maryland 5) Ohio State
12) EAST TENNESSEE ST 12) AKRON
4) Colorado 4) Villanova
13) YALE 13) GEORGIA STATE
Cleveland Cleveland
6) Kentucky 6) Creighton
11) Minnesota / Virginia Tech 11) NORTHERN IOWA
3) DAYTON 3) MICHIGAN STATE
14) WILLIAM & MARY 14) WRIGHT STATE
Greensboro Tampa
7) Arizona 7) Memphis
10) Georgetown 10) BYU
2) West Virginia 2) Florida State
15) AUSTIN PEAY 15) CHARLOTTE

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
Purdue Minnesota USC St. John’s
Texas Tech Virginia Tech Oregon State Arizona State
Houston NC State VCU Utah
Saint Mary’s Washington Xavier Georgia

Top Seed Line
Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas, Butler
Seed List

Breakdown by Conference …
Big Ten (12)
Big East (6)
ACC (5)
SEC (5)

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

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

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.”

(Getty Images)

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.

(Getty Images)

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.

(Getty Images)

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.

(Getty Images)

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.

College Basketball Top 25 Power Rankings: Duke, Baylor, Gonzaga round out top three

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A new college basketball top 25 is now live.

And in lieu of going through and talking about every single team my college basketball top 25 today, I have something that I want to say about rankings. The genesis of this stems from a conversation that popped up last week. Gary Parrish of CBS Sports and Poll Attacks fame brought to light the fact that the people that produce the AP poll have started releasing the individual ballots of voters on Tuesday morning instead of Monday afternoon, thus eliminating the relevance of the column.

This led to a discussion about whether or not Parrish was right to go after AP voters and eventually brought us to a place where I was having multiple conversations about the process when it comes to voting.

And that is what I want to discuss today.

Full disclosure: I am an AP voter this year. The top 25 that you see in this space is the ballot that I submit every week, and it frustrates me to no end when people don’t vote with the same goal in mind as I do. I’m looking to list out the top 25 teams in college basketball, full stop. Not the top 25 teams with the best wins, not the top 25 resumes. The best 25 teams in college basketball, in order, and for me, the thinking goes like this: The best team in the country is the team that would be favored on a neutral court against every other team in the country. The second best team is the one that would be favored against all but one team in the country, and so on and so forth.

Fundamentally, I do not believe that the outcome of a one possession basketball game should influence how good you think that a basketball team is. There are two prime examples of that this season. The first is Duke. The Blue Devils are sitting at 15-1 on the season, which is really good except for the fact that they lost at home to Stephen F. Austin in what was, at the time, one of the biggest upsets that we have ever seen in the sport. That game was decided by a coast-to-coast layup that was released with 0.1 seconds left on the clock; it had to be reviewed to determine whether or not the shot would count.

Now, the Lumberjacks have proven to be much better than anyone expected in the preseason, but this was still a very disappointing performance from the Blue Devils. Because of that loss, which happened two months ago, Duke could very well end up getting dropped out of the No. 1 spot in this week’s AP poll for Baylor. There is absolutely no chance that would happen if Nathan Bain’s game-winner in Cameron was waved off and Duke won in overtime.

You really think there are people that would be willing to drop one of the three remaining undefeated teams out of the top spot in the poll when they have wins over Kansas and at Michigan State when the gap between them and the No. 2 team in KenPom’s rankings is almost as big as the gap was between Kentucky and the No. 2 team in the country in 2015?

There wouldn’t be.

And the proof is what’s happening with San Diego State.

Back in December, the Aztecs played an absolutely horrid game at home against a San Jose State team that is significantly worse that the SFA team that beat Duke. Malachi Flynn hit a three with less than a second left so that the Aztecs avoided a humiliating loss that would be their only loss of the season. There is no chance that the Aztecs would be inching closer to the top five if they had a home loss to a sub-250 team on their resume. Absolutely none.

The point here is that the perception of just how good teams like Duke and San Diego State are should never, ever be impacted one possession in one 70-possession game when these teams have played 16 games and more than 1,000 possessions this season. Put another way, we knock Duke for losing to a lesser team at home in a game they played like crap but ignore the fact that San Diego State did the exact same thing.

The only difference was the way the last possession played out.

One, single possession.

To me, that is not a sharp way of thinking about the sport of basketball.

Now, there are two things I want to be crystal clear on here:

1. The point of this stream of consciousness is not to say that Baylor doesn’t deserve to be the No. 1 team in the country this week. If that’s the way you feel, you’re not wrong. The Bears have very much earned it. Picking who was No. 1 in my poll was not easy to do, and I think there are valid arguments to make for any one of Duke, Baylor and Gonzaga for the top spot.

The point is to say that if you’re picking Duke, who is the only team on KenPom with a top 10 offense and defense, to drop from the No. 1 spot because they lost on a buzzer-beater in November while keeping San Diego State in the top five because they won on a buzzer-beater in December, you’re being silly.

2. The fact that Duke lost and San Diego State won absolutely should factor into the things that actually matter. You can check the receipts. I was one of the people banging on the loudest about the fact that whatever metric the NCAA developed to replace the RPI must keep some kind of results-based influence in the algorithm. We cannot have the most important metric in our sport be a fully-predictive metric.

The reason for this is simple: What is the point of watching sports if the win doesn’t actually matter? What is the point of getting excited about a buzzer-beater if that buzzer-beater doesn’t have outsized influence on the season at-large? Duke absolutely, 100 percent should have that home loss to Stephen F. Austin ding them as the bracket is put together. And San Diego State should 100 percent be allowed to go up to the Selection Committee and point out how it’s January 12th and they still have not lost a basketball game.

Wins have to matter when seeding teams.

They have to.

But they should not matter in weekly rankings. Those are supposed to determine who are the best teams in the sport at this very moment. By definition, the best team is the one that would be favored to win a game played on a neutral court against every other college basketball team in the country. Anyone with any analytical sense or basketball IQ will understand that the outcome of a game that comes down to a final possession will have a negligible impact on spreads, KenPom projections and the things that are infinitely smarter than some person with an opinion.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite Brad Stevens moments, seen in the clip below. Watch him at the end of this insane finish. As Roosevelt Jones is making the game-winning shot, he’s calmly turning and walking up the floor to shake Mark Few’s hand.

Butler guard Rotnei Clarke was asked about this.

“The outcome is irrelevant if [Stevens] thinks you played as well as you can,” Clarke said.

If you’re not going to listen to me, maybe you’ll listen to him.

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



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

DROPPED OUT: 18. Arizona, 21. Penn State
NEW ADDITIONS: 23. Creighton, 24. Illinois

Vanderbilt’s Aaron Nesmith out with foot injury

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Vanderbilt guard Aaron Nesmith, the SEC’s leading scorer, is expected to miss time with a foot injury, the school announced on Saturday.

Nesmith missed Saturday’s Vanderbilt loss to Texas A&M. Before the game, Nesmith was in a boot as teammates went through warmups. According to the Vanderbilt Hustler, Nesmith sustained a stress fracture in his right foot. That injury could cost Nesmith several weeks — if not the rest of the season.

The 6-foot-6 sophomore flourished under first-year head coach Jerry Stackhouse before the injury. Nesmith produced at a high level, averaging 23.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per contest. Shooting 51 percent from the floor and 52 percent from three-point range, Nesmith became a premier perimeter shooting threat. Nesmith’s strong play has led him to become an NBA Draft prospect as early as this summer.

Injuries have crushed the Commodores over the past two seasons. Senior forward Clevon Brown is already out indefinitely with a knee injury. Vanderbilt lost lottery pick point guard Darius Garland last season just weeks into the season. The team eventually went winless in the SEC and moved on from previous head coach Bryce Drew.

Things were looking positive for Vanderbilt with a five-point loss to unbeaten Auburn earlier this week. But the loss to Texas A&M on Saturday extends an agonizingly long SEC losing streak to 22 games.

Without Nesmith and Brown, Vanderbilt will have to rely on junior guard Saben Lee and freshman guard Scotty Pippen Jr. When Vanderbilt was very depleted last season, Lee played heavy minutes. Pippen, on the other hand, is unproven in league play as a newcomer.

Down to only eight scholarship players, Vanderbilt needs to get healthy sooner than later. Stackhouse will have to handle a depleted roster lacking star power during at least the next several weeks. The goal for the Commodores will be to pick up its first SEC win since 2018.

Okoro, No. 5 Auburn edge Vanderbilt 83-79 to stay perfect

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AUBURN, Ala. — Freshman Isaac Okoro scored 17 of his season-high 23 points in the first half and No. 5 Auburn held off Vanderbilt 83-79 on Wednesday night to remain unbeaten.

Ranked in the Top 5 for the first time in nearly 20 years, the Tigers (14-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) withstood a late challenge by the Commodores (8-6, 0-1) after blowing a 13-point lead.

Auburn and No. 7 San Diego State remain the nation’s last unbeaten teams.

Jordan Wright was fouled to prevent a breakaway basket and made both free throws to tie it for Vandy with 59 seconds remaining.

J’Von McCormick hit two foul shots on the other end and Ejike Obinna missed two shots inside. Okoro made 1 of 2 from the line with 29 seconds left, giving Vandy the ball three points down.

Danjel Purifoy stole the inbounds pass after a Commodores timeout and McCormick made 1 of 2 free throws with 14 seconds left.

Saben Lee scored a career-high 27 points for Vandy, making 10 of 14 shots and all three 3-point attempts. The Commodores failed to win an SEC game last season but flirted with one in their league opener.

Austin Wiley had 13 points and 12 rebounds for the Tigers. He made 9 of 10 free throws.

Anfernee McLemore got all 14 of his points before halftime and Purifoy had 12 in addition to the big steal. Okoro made 10 of 14 free throws.

Aaron Nesmith scored 18 points and made 4 of 5 3-pointers for the Commodores. Jordan Wright added 10 points.

Nesmith, the SEC’s leading scorer, was having an uncharacteristically quiet night until the final minutes. Then he hit back-to-back contested 3-pointers, drawing a foul on one, and Wright drove for a layup to pull Vandy to within 78-77 with 1:15 left.

Purifoy and Okoro both exploded for one-handed dunks as Auburn built its lead to 13 points midway through the second half.

McLemore and Okoro combined for 31 of Auburn’s first 37 points.

BIG PICTURE

Vanderbilt: Has lost seven straight against ranked opponents dating to a win over No. 17 Arizona on Dec. 17, 2018. … Made 10 of 16 3-pointers and shot 52 percent from the field.

Auburn: Rose to the Top 5 this week for the first time since Jan. 17, 2000, and fifth overall. With win No. 88, this senior class became the winningest in program history, breaking a 19-year-old record.

UP NEXT

Vanderbilt: Hosts Texas A&M on Saturday.

Auburn: Hosts Georgia on Saturday.