We’re almost a week out now. The sun came up – at least that’s what I am told. Football is over for now. But our baby will be back. For now, though, we all need to put our minds elsewhere. Pitchers and catchers report soon. Home stretches of the NBA and NHL season are ahead. But more importantly, we’re just about a month out from the start of NCAA conference tournament season and subsequently the best three weeks of the sports calendar. So it’s time you get a little bit of a crash course on who’s who and some names to familiarize yourself with here in the coming weeks.
By now, unless you live under a rock, you have at least have heard the name Zion Williamson. He of the 6’6 285-pound, rocket pack leaping ability and the strength of the Hulk, is the most imposing player in the country and has become the face of the Duke Blue Devils. Duke, the resounding favorite in March, is spearheaded by a quartet of freshmen – Williamson, fellow potential top-3 pick R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones. Barrett and Williamson are averaging 23.0 and 22.0 points per game respectively, are the likely top-2 picks in June’s NBA draft, and both are damn near unguardable. They haven’t shot well outside, however, that’s where fellow future lottery pick Reddish picks up some of the slack. Duke, unlike recent years, doesn’t rely on the 3-ball, but rather the sheer dominance of Williamson and the silky-smooth scoring ability of Barrett.
Coach K has continued to embrace the one-and-done talents coming out of the high school ranks. Landing the top three recruits nationally has a tendency to do that. However, they are not without warts. For one, experience is always a factor come March. The last team to win it all led mainly led by freshmen was the 2012 Kentucky squad featuring college basketball unicorns Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Even that team though had some high-quality veteran presence with Darius Miller, Doron Lamb, and Terrence Jones. Barrett has never seen a shot he didn’t like (even though I think he’s a future multi-time NBA All-Star). Reddish has been really up and down for most of the year, struggling to find consistency game to game despite his obvious scoring talent. Jones, much like his brother Tyus, is a great leader at the point guard spot, but he isn’t much of a scoring threat and there still are questions as to how healthy his shoulder is.
Zion will get his. He’s a man amongst boys at the college level despite his lack of an outside threat to his game. He’s fascinating to watch with his ability to create a shot and handle the ball for his size. He gets to the rim with the fury of a bull coming out of the gates seeing a stumbling rodeo clown 18 feet away. The Blue Devils rank 4th nationally in defensive efficiency so they don’t get exposed on the other end of the floor. But a cold night from Barrett and Reddish could lead to some real issues against another top tier team in the tournament.
Who could that team be? Well as we saw with UMBC becoming the first 16-seed to topple a one in the tournament, really anything can happen in any given game. The way I see it, Duke is the favorite but there is a slew of other teams that are more than capable of cutting down the nets in Minneapolis.
About the only team with a guy close to physically capable of keeping up with Zion is the Tennessee Volunteers. And they have two – in likely All Americans forward Grant Williams and guard Admiral Schofield. Rick Barnes has the best team he’s fielded since the days of Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin at Texas. The Volunteers are 21-1 on the season and have been steamrolling teams in the much-improved SEC. They still have two key matchups with Kentucky on the horizon which will really shed light on the potential the Vols have in making a deep run in March.
Having a guy like Williams (20.1 ppg/7.4 rpg/3.4 apg) who on any given night can put an entire team on his back will give the Vols an edge over most teams in the country. Paired with the senior Schofield the Vols have the key one-two punch ingredients for a Final Four run. You’d like to see them defend a little better, ranking 47th nationally, but their toughness is nearly unmatched. I’m not a huge fan of Barnes but I think even he will have a difficult time screwing this roster up.
After losing early to Kansas, Tennessee has remained unscathed, but they do have the previously mentioned matchups with Kentucky as well as a trip to Baton Rouge to face a tough LSU squad. We’ll have a really good idea of who the Volunteers truly are by the time the SEC Tournament arrives.
How do you bounce back from being the previously mentioned number one seed to fall to a 16? You bank on the health of a guy like Deandre Hunter. You maintain your standing as the top defensive team in the nation. Mix in Hunter with fellow gunners Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, not only do you have a top-flight defense, but you have absolute assassins from outside. Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers will not lose in the first round this season.
Bennett is one of the better coaches in the country and I am of the mind that last year was a fluke. They were without Hunter due to injury – their top NBA talent in recent years and the guy who has assumed control of the 2019 Virginia squad. They can shoot, they always defend, and they are hungry. You can’t underestimate a team coming of a giant choke job. Or can you?
Poised for a number one seed, Virginia has been in this spot frequently in recent years and continued to collapse earlier than expected. Whether it was Malcolm Brogdon’s, Justin Anderson’s, or London Perrantes’ year to lead, they always seemed to choke. I do think Hunter is the best player they have had in the Bennett era and he has to be chomping at the bit to get to March. If they keep shooting well, there’s no reason they can’t be a threat in Minny.
On the downside, though, Virginia has now lost twice to Duke. Granted, not many teams lose when they hit 13 of 21 threes (61.9%) as Duke just did in their second win over the Cavaliers, but still, can they actually slay that demon? It’s hard to beat a team three times unless that you are just far better than the other team – which may just be the case for the Blue Devils here.
This is a fascinating team to watch. I think John Beilein is unequivocally a top-5 coach in the country. Love him or hate him, eccentric Freshman Iggy Brazdeikis is a freaking animal. He tore up North Carolina at home earlier this season in his first real welcome to the national stage and has not slowed down much since. He’s averaging over 15 ppg and is shooting nearly 40% from the arc. Jordan Poole and Charles Mathews are also double-digit scoring threats for the Wolverines. Currently, at 21-2, they are clearly the best team in the Big 10, especially with the latest injury woes falling on their rival Michigan State in the form of guard Joshua Langford going down for the season. Jon Teske is a more than adequate inside presence defensively and who can make things difficult on smaller teams. 7 footers have a tendency of doing that.
Losses on the road to Wisconsin and Iowa exposed a few flaws in the Wolverines game. The trio of Brazdeikis, Matthews, and Pool combined for 19 points against Wisconsin and a 33% shooting performance from the field against the Hawkeyes. Beilein’s squad goes as those three go, and if one is off, it may be too much to overcome for Michigan. Michigan has size, scoring ability, a few good ball handlers and one of the best coaches in the country. I am not over enamored with the Big Ten this season, but the Wolverines are more than capable of getting back to the Final Four this year.
From a sheer talent standpoint, the Wildcats may have even more than Duke top to bottom. John Calipari has found the recipe for the mashup of former McDonald’s All Americans spanning the last two or three years. Add to that Stanford transfer Reid Travis, Kentucky is absolutely loaded with high end talent. They play defense. Freshman guard Keldon Johnson has gotten better every week of the season and is now leading the team in scoring and shooting 40.8% from three. P.J. Washington combined with Travis give the Cats scoring options inside and Washington’s ability to be a threat outside is creating mismatches against everyone in the SEC. Tyler Herro looked like trash to start the season, but he’s now finding his groove as the outside shooting specialist he was billed as coming out of the state of Wisconsin.
Like most young teams, the Cats Achilles heel this season could be their youth and inexperience. I watched them in person at the United Center methodically dismantle North Carolina in December and since that game Kentucky has looked like a Final Four team. They play defense and Cal seems to have found the right mix with this roster. Kentucky would love nothing more than a shot to redeem their 34-point pummeling at the hands of the Blue Devils to start the season and the team they have been since mid-December is completely capable of doing just that.
They have shown an ability to not collapse in crunch time when tested either. In a game they appeared to be in control of, Kentucky withstood a furious Mississippi State charge Saturday in Starkville and managed to hold on despite losing Washington to his fifth foul late inside five minutes to go. If they can shoot consistently from the foul line, their talent alone is going to carry them past most other contenders. Getting monster production from their frontcourt duo in Travis and Washington along with Johnson being so hard to defend outside, the Cats have the makeup of a team ready to tear through a region in March.
People have a tendency to use the lazy crutch when ripping on college basketball that it’s always the same teams (Duke/Kentucky/UNC/Kansas/etc.) every season that wins. There’s another team who is finding their place in the pantheon of “always there” teams and it’s Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs. They have consistently brought in top tier talent to Spokane for the better part of the last 20 years. They have made Final Fours. They play tough non-conference opponents every season, and this year is no different. They have already shown they can beat Duke, as they did in an 89-87 December matchup. They have also played Tennessee and North Carolina so the claim of playing in the West Coast Conference hurting them bears little weight.
Having Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, and Zach Norvell Jr., all averaging over 15 ppg doesn’t hurt matters either. Another team loaded with veterans, the Bulldogs can score with any of the best teams in the country as evidenced by their number one overall ranking in Offensive Efficiency. However, with the length they have, they can defend well too. They are seventh overall in Defensive Efficiency and have one of the most well-respected head coaches in the game in Few. Their two losses to date are against fellow contenders Tennessee and North Carolina.
Few has had the opportunity to bolt over the years and continues to help steer the most consistent basketball program west of the Mississippi. Losing senior guard Killian Tillie for the season will hurt the depth of the backcourt, but the Bulldogs are so athletic and so strong up front they should be able to chug along fine. They can make a run if they stay healthy from here and don’t get stacked against too heavily in a bracket.
This is where I must give a bit of a fair warning. I am a big Carolina fan. However, I don’t think I am a baby-blue colored lens wearing Carolina fan. I have a tendency to never think they are tough enough to win it all. Frequently I am proven wrong, but I am right at times as well in this aspect.
This year’s version? Toughness isn’t the issue. After watching what freshman point guard Coby White just did in bringing the Heels back from dead against Miami you can comfortably say they have one of the best leaders in the country – freshman or not. The more I watch White play the more I absolutely love his game. White dropped 33 points, hitting six threes in the second half alone to lead the Heels in the home win against a scrappy Canes squad. It further strengthened the resume White is building as a star in the clutch.
Coby White's per-40 clutch stats this season: 45.2 pts, 7.8 reb, 4.7 asst, 0.0 TOs. Not a bad line for a freshman.
— Adrian Atkinson (@FreeportKid) February 9, 2019
In addition to White, Carolina has seniors Luke Maye and Cam Johnson’s ability to score from just about anywhere on the floor. Johnson is shooting over 47% from the arc this season and has made a team-leading 58 threes. Carolina as always flies up and down the court and points are usually easy to come by, even in a down shooting performance as they are one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the country and overall are 5th in total rebound rate. This year they have shooters from the outside though too. They aren’t strictly an inside scoring team with an occasional shooter.
Nassir Little is the most talented player on the team, but the blue-chip freshman has struggled a bit with consistency on the defensive end. What he lacks there he makes up for in explosion, ability to get to the rim from the wing position, and top tier athleticism. He is really starting to show he can score from anywhere inside 15 feet but is also somewhat blocked by Johnson and senior guard Kenny Williams for more minutes. Williams is a decent shooter, consistent defender, and a senior – which usually leads to Roy Williams favoring in terms of a starting spot. Make no mistake though, Little is one of the three best players on the team and any deep run in March will be enhanced with his play.
What may sink the Heels is their lack of consistency in defending the outside shot. It doomed them in the blowout loss to Louisville at home and inexplicably to Texas. They lost at the United Center to Kentucky in a game they were never really a threat to win and got smashed by Michigan in Ann Arbor. But then you look at the Gonzaga game, the shredding of Virginia Tech, and the six times they have scored over 100 on the season and you can see a path to another Final Four for the Heels.
File this one in the “Most Likely to Replicate Kemba Walker and UCONN” category. Carsen Edwards is my favorite player in the country to watch. He has some Allen Iverson to his game. He’s a little undersized. He isn’t surrounded with an ultra-talented squad. But he is so god damn tough and is not afraid to play anyone, anywhere, anytime. He has no issues getting into the paint, drawing a foul, or stepping back and drilling a shot in a defender’s face.
He’s averaging almost 25 points per game and is capable any night of throwing up 40 on any team. Backcourt mate Ryan Cline is a solid player as well and will need to be accounted for. Matt Haarms is about as token Big 10 Center as you can get – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. He’ll get 18 rebounds in a Sweet 16 game against someone and bottle up someone’s best post presence. And he may look a tad clunky while doing it. It’s what makes March great.
The Boilermakers will need to find a way to get some help three or four times for Edwards in order to win a title but having a guy who can go single-handedly beat anyone if he’s on that night for the other wins is a pretty nice advantage for head coach Matt Painter.
You can never count out the defending National Champs. Jay Wright has vaulted Villanova into the rarified air of NCAA basketball programs. Winning two Natty’s in three seasons will do that. Dressing as smoothly and carrying your self with the level of cool as Wright does just spits in the face of the rest of the coaching brethren. But the Wildcats aren’t all just flashy designer suits and big ass championship rings.
Led by Phil Booth and Eric Paschall the Cats have a championship pedigree. As cheesy as that sounds, that stuff matters in college. Margin for error is so small in March with the one-and-done format and being led by guys who have been through the fire is huge. The Cats have been susceptible to having a night off at times – as seen in losses to Fuhrman and Penn, not to mention a 30-point drubbing at the hands of Michigan in the National Title rematch. You can shrug these kinds of things off a bit easier with rings though.
If Nova didn’t have the recent resume I doubt they ‘d be on the list. But if you are any of the teams mentioned above, are you feeling great heading into an Elite Eight game against them?
Others to watch:
Nevada: I LOVED this team going into the season. The Martin twins – Caleb and Cody – along with Jordan Caroline give Nevada a trio better than everyone except Duke. But they lost to New Mexico by 30. When you do that, it brings a whole batch of questions to what happens when the lights start shining really bright and you got Zion and Barrett with a six-point lead in a regional final coming to step on your throat.
Kansas: Kansas was probably considered the best team in the country before games started. Even early on the hype looked worthy for Dedric Lawson and the rest of Bill Self’s squad. Then Udoka Azubuike went down with a season-ending injury. This before the resurgent Lagerald Vick left the team to deal with personal matters for an undetermined amount of time. Oh yeah, and the NCAA ruled Silvio De Sousa ineligible through the 2020 season. Too much drama for Lawson and an untested squad to overcome at this point.
Michigan State: Heading into the season there were justifiable questions as to the state of the Spartans athletic department. Tom Izzo looked understandably out of his league in terms what he was equipped to deal with. On the court, the Spartans brought a talented squad led by Cassius Winston, Nick Ward, and Joshua Langford. Ward still leaves much to be desired at times, especially defensively, and still cannot be depended on to carry a team night in and night out. Add the season-ending injury to Langford and it seems like it may be too much for the uber-talented Winston to do on his own.
Buffalo: OK this is not a pick of a team that can likely beat Duke, but if you want an off the radar team to jump on, consider the Buffalo Bulls. Guard C.J. Massinburg is outstanding. A couple of recent trip-ups in the MAC can be the wake-up call they need to keep the focus required to slay a couple giants in March. Nick Perkins and Jeremy Harris are also guys that can play with any of the Power Five squads.
Follow Matt on Twitter @schools_01