NCAA Basketball: Takeaways & Top 25

Gaels Blow Over the Bulldogs

Statement made.

Back in the preseason, many picked St. Mary’s to finally release the stranglehold Gonzaga has on the West Coast Conference.   The Bulldogs have won five straight conference championships (one of them was a shared title with St. Mary’s in 2016, a year in which Gonzaga defeated St. Mary’s in the conference tournament title game.   St. Mary’s not only lost the title game, they weren’t even invited to the NCAA Tournament)

That was before the Gaels lost two neutral court non-conference games (by five to Washington State and by two to Georgia in overtime).  They lost their spot in the rankings after those back-to-back defeats, and were essentially pushed to the side by the entire country.   Despite winning 12 straight games after that Georgia loss, they weren’t able to sneak their way back into the Top 25 in the AP Poll (they have been steadily climbing in my rankings!)   The 13th straight win over Gonzaga figures to change that, especially with so much chaos going on around the country.

St. Mary’s has been a frequent mid-major presence in the NCAA Tournament, making it into the field six times over the last 13 seasons (they made it to the tournament twice in school history prior to that).   Despite some gaudy win totals, they have only managed a Sweet 16 appearance once in school history (2010).  This is a school that wins a lot in the regular season and has firmly placed themselves on the list of the best mid-major programs.  They simply haven’t been able to get over the hump to get to the next level like Gonzaga, Wichita State, Butler, and VCU were able to accomplish.

Much of the success of the program can be tied back to the hiring of Randy Bennett back in 2001.  In Bennett’s first season, the Gael’s went 9-20.   They went 15-15 a year later, and haven’t had a record at or below .500 since.   Barring one of the biggest collapses in Division I basketball history, he is on the verge of his 11th straight 20+ win year.  When a coach can consistently put up results like that with the constant roster turnover in college basketball, you know he must be one of the best in the country.

Is this team any different from the teams that have come before it?  Good question.   The first thing that jumps out at me is the experience on this roster.  Australian guard Emmett Naar is a redshirt senior who leads the nation with a 9.3 assists per game average.  He also chips in 10.9 points per game.   Fellow Australian Jock Landale has grown tremendously as a basketball player in his four years with the Gaels, and is averaging a double-double this season (22 points per game/10.4 rebounds per game).  His 62.7% career field goal percentage is the best in the history of the West Coast Conference, and 10th best in the entire history of college basketball.    The team scores, they defend, and they hit their free throws (76.8%).    They are an experienced team that will not often beat themselves.  They won 58 games over the past two seasons leading into this one, and are on pace for another gaudy win total.   It is easy to dismiss them based on their not-so-great tournament results, but I wouldn’t be too hasty to cross them off your list as a team that can make a run in March.    A lot will depend on just how much they can improve their seeding.

As for Gonzaga, most thought this season could be a down year for the program (relatively speaking).   They are still the same legitimate Sweet 16 threat they always are, but tempering expectations is wise this year after their big run to the title game last season.

Kansas Back Where They Belong

We are all waiting for that day when we can write the obituary.  The day that Kansas basketball falls from the top of the Big 12 standings.

This looked like a good year for it.  West Virginia was playing at a high level.  Oklahoma’s all-world freshman Trae Young was carrying them to heights that nobody saw coming.   TCU’s run through the NIT last season spilled over into this season.  The experienced Texas Tech squad took a giant leap forward.  The Big 12 was hot, and was so strong that it appeared that there was a threat to Kansas’ supremacy.  That threat still exists, but the Jayhawks have once again ascended to the top of the conference.

I haven’t even mentioned that while Trae Young is throwing down 40-point games as routinely as Kobe Bryant did in his NBA career, prized recruit Billy Preston didn’t suit up once for Kansas all season.   Caught up in an investigation on how he obtained a car he had an accident in before the season, Preston finally gave up on a resolution coming any time soon.   He officially signed with an overseas professional team, and will never put on a Kansas uniform.

If you are someone praying for the day that Kansas no longer is printed at the top of the Big 12 standings, reasons for hope still exist:  They are not winning games by big margins (their win at home over unranked Baylor on Saturday was by three points, and they have defeated teams by a combined 18 points during their five-game winning streak, with three of those wins coming at home against teams who were not in the Top 25).   The conference is beating up on each other, and that may eventually wear down the Jayhawks.  Only seven players have played in all 18 games this season, and only six players average 20+ minutes per game.    You don’t need depth to put wins on the board, but when you are winning by such small margins, it gives Bill Self little room to rest his regulars for even a few minutes per game.  It is easy to imagine the conference wearing the squad down.

This is not the most talented or deep squad in Kansas history, but the Jayhawks have fallen short of the crown many times with stacked rosters.  Maybe this year, they will sneak up on some people to make a run towards a Final Four.  I don’t personally think they will, but they are winning consistently right now.  Not many other teams can make that claim.

Top 25:

  1.  Villanova (18-1) (1) – Like many, I thought this was going to be a season where the Wildcats would be challenged at the top of the conference.  While Xavier, Seton Hall, Creighton, Providence, Butler, and Marquette are beating up on each other, Villanova is just cruising along at the top.   Providence is next, followed by a road trip to Marquette.
  2. Virginia (18-1) (2) –  In their 7 games in ACC play (all wins), they have allowed over 60 points only once, in a 68-61 win over Syracuse.  Pretty wins, these are not – but they are wins.   A big showdown with Duke looms on Saturday.
  3. Purdue (19-2) (3) – After beating Michigan on the road by a point, their last three wins have come by 34, 28, and 23.  While none of those games were against top competition, two of them were road affairs.  Up next is a home game against Michigan, the only team that has really come close to knocking them off lately.  (By the way, Western Kentucky has risen to the top of Conference USA – if they enter the Conference USA tournament as a top seed with a gaudy record, that win over Purdue may just get them on the bubble if they were to lose in the league tournament)
  4.  Duke (17-2) (4) –  Huge win on the road over Miami.  The Blue Devils have been a tad wobbly as of late, so winning a game in a hostile environment should ease a few fears.   They go to Wake Forest in advance of their big showdown with Virginia.
  5. Michigan State (17-3) (10) – That game at home against Purdue is getting closer and closer (2/10).  In the meantime, they need to build on the beating they dished out on Indiana this week.
  6. Kansas (16-3) (12) –  They lack the ability, it appears, to blow out even mediocre competition when it presents itself.   But while other teams around them are flailing away, Kansas continues to put wins on the board, including a huge one at West Virginia.  A date at Oklahoma looms next.
  7. Xavier (18-3) (11) – Huge road win over Seton Hall on Saturday, as they have emerged as the biggest threat to Villanova’s supremacy in the conference.  They will need to beat the Wildcats at home to have any shot at the conference crown, but many potential roadblocks between that confrontation on 2/17.
  8. Cincinnati (17-2) (9) – This was supposed to be Wichita State’s conference.   Nobody told that to the Bearcats, who are now 6-0 in conference play.   One of those wins will likely go down as one of the ugliest in college basketball history, including the time period before the introduction of the shot clock:  A 49-38 win over Central Florida.   Cincinnati’s “ability” to put up clunkers like that will probably doom them again at some point, but for now, they are beating up on the not-so-great part of their schedule.
  9. West Virginia (16-3) (7) – Their losses to Texas Tech and Kansas weren’t by wide margins, which is encouraging.  They took out their frustrations by demolishing Texas by 35.
  10. Arizona (16-4) (21) – The rest of the country opened the door for someone to take a huge leap forward, and that someone ends up being Arizona, who hasn’t necessarily been dominant during their 4-game winning streak over less-than-great teams.    Some of this big jump is due to other teams struggling lately, and some of it is due to the talent this team possesses on top of their winning streak.   They get a chance to avenge their road loss to Colorado next.
  11. Oklahoma (14-4) (5) – Losing road games is so common now that it hardly makes a dent in my brain when I see that a highly ranked squad lost two straight road games against unranked teams.   Is Trae Young’s excellence distracting the team as a whole?  I don’t think so.  I just think the team as a whole overachieved a bit early, and may be running out of steam.   A huge home game awaits against Kansas.
  12. Texas Tech (15-4) (6) –  Like Oklahoma, they have lost two straight road games against unranked opponents.  How much of this is teams settling into who they really are vs. the strength of the conference as a whole wearing teams down a bit?   Iowa State is one of the weaker schools in the league, so it is a bit tougher to forgive an 18-point loss, even if it was a road game.  A home game with Oklahoma State is next.
  13. North Carolina (16-4) (22) –  Four straight wins, including one at home against Clemson.  This is a team I had unranked not many weeks ago, so you can see how quickly they have climbed as other teams have fallen on hard times.  They go to Virginia Tech next.
  14. Ohio State (17-4) (23) – The Big Ten may be down this year, but the Buckeyes are now 8-0 in conference, as they continue to be one of the nation’s biggest surprise stories.   Three of their four losses were by hefty margins to Gonzaga, North Carolina, and Clemson, so I do have to factor that in.    Nebraska is next, and while the Cornhuskers are a tricky opponent, the Buckeyes get them at home.
  15. Clemson (16-3) (13) – Hung tough at North Carolina, which shows me this team is not a fluke.  Followed that up with a nice home win against Notre Dame.  Now, they get to go the road Tuesday night to face Virginia.  Good luck!
  16. Wichita State (15-4) (8) –  They destroyed Houston at home earlier in the year.  Houston returned that favor with a 14-point win over the Shockers.  That is not the reason for this huge fall, however, as they lost a HOME game against SMU earlier in the week.  This team is supremely talented, but something appears to be lacking.  They will try to right the ship with a home game against a middling Central Florida squad.
  17. St. Mary’s (19-2) (19) –  Went on the road to beat a Gonzaga squad that rarely losses in the conference or on their home gym.   St. Mary’s has positioned themselves in the driver’s seat (especially since they also have a road win at BYU).    They get BYU again in a home game next.
  18. Auburn (17-2) (15) – Rivalry game on the road against a solid Alabama squad didn’t go their way, which is fine.   They didn’t let it destroy their confidence, as they beat up on Georgia in a home game to follow-up that loss.   A tough game awaits at Missouri.
  19. Gonzaga (17-4) (16) –  There doesn’t appear to be many obstacles on the nearby horizon.  San Diego is a pretty good team, but Gonzaga gets them at home.   They are circling the 2/10 date with St. Mary’s, hoping they don’t stumble before then.
  20. Rhode Island (15-3) (NR) – Winning streak has reached ten, as they defeated Dayton on the road by 14 (in other years, this would be extremely impressive.  This season?  Dayton is 9-10, and only 3-4 in conference).   Cellar dweller Fordham is next, with a game against Duquesne after that.  Duquesne is currently 5-2 in conference play, so Rhode Island can’t let their guard down there.
  21. Louisville (15-4) (NR) –  Nice road wins against Florida State and Notre Dame, as this controversial, yet talented, program tries to rise from the ashes.   A focused Cardinals’ team is not one I would want to see in March.  They next play at Miami, giving them a shot at a third impressive road win in a short time period.
  22. Arizona State (15-4) (17) – Those days of being one of the final unbeatens seem to be so long ago.   They are 3-4 since that 12-0 start, and only one of those games was against a Top 25 program.  They have an array of impressive wins going back to the beginning of the season, but their inability to keep other teams from scoring has caught up to them.
  23. Nevada (18-3) (NR) – The Nevada-Boise State showdown was the Mountain West version of Gonzaga-St. Mary’s, and Nevada was able to hold off the Broncos to keep their undefeated conference record alive.   Earlier in the season, they lost by 6 to Texas Tech and 4 to TCU, so this is not a squad building up a resume by beating up on teams in a conference that is down a bit since their heyday.   A trip to Wyoming is up next.
  24. Tennessee (13-5) (NR) – When you are looking at a dozen or so teams and don’t know what to do, take the team that has played the toughest schedule to get where they are at.   Losing at Missouri by four is far from terrible, and they followed it up by beating South Carolina on the road by seven.  The Gamecocks are not the team they were last year, but they did beat Kentucky before succumbing to Tennessee.
  25. Miami (14-4) (18) – Losses to Clemson and Duke hurt, as they were potential statement games for a school that needs a few more statements this year.  Nice win in a tough environment Sunday against North Carolina State.

Dropped Out:

Seton Hall (15-5) (14) – Their road losses have been ugly enough.  They needed to hold down home court against Xavier, and lost by nine.  I have been bullish on Seton Hall all season long, but they are making it tough on me to remain that way.

Kentucky (14-5) (20) – Losses at South Carolina and at home against Florida are further proof that perhaps Calipari’s squad just doesn’t have the horses to fight through their lack of experience.   For as much flack as Kentucky has received for their “one-and-done” philosophy, they always had a veteran presence around.  That isn’t the case this year, and it is showing.

TCU (14-5) (24) – All five of their losses have come in their last seven games.   It has not been an easy schedule, and every one of those losses could have easily been wins.   A team with their overall resume is still looking at a good NCAA Tournament seed, but they do have to avoid a meltdown.

Michigan (17-5) (25) – Big comeback effort against Maryland was followed up with a big dud at Nebraska.   Losing at Nebraska is not a killer, but it is the WAY they lost (20 points, never really competitive) that stands out.  The Cornhuskers beat Illinois, 0-10 in conference play, by one point at home, after all.

Just Missed:

New Mexico State (17-3) – I had the “New” written in on the 25 line, but changed my mind to Tennessee.   The Aggies have won six straight to establish themselves as the class of the WAC, and own a non-conference win over Miami on a neutral court.   Can they earn at-large with a huge conference season, followed by a loss in the finals of the conference tournament?   Maybe.

Florida (14-5) – Their season has been a series of ups and downs, and they now find themselves on the top of the SEC.   They are on the cusp, and have two home games this week to solidify their spot at the top (South Carolina and a non-conference tilt with Baylor).

Houston (15-4) – Knocking off Wichita State was nice, but they lost at Tulane just one game before that.  They need to show some consistency.  They are off until the 28th (South Florida).  After that, a chance to show how good they might be with a road tilt at Cincinnati.

 

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