At this point in a normal season, college basketball fans would be looking ahead with excitement about all the action that will lead up to Selection Sunday. But in this season, staged during a pandemic, most just hope we get to Selection Sunday.
The postponements and cancellations caused by the coronavirus have cast an undeniable shadow over the 2020-21 campaign, yet the action through the first six weeks of the season has still managed to set the stage for an entertaining conference slate, followed by an NCAA tournament planned to be held in the state of Indiana, per the NCAA’s announcement on Monday.
Something to look forward to … albeit cautiously.
As we start to dream of the possibilities for March, it’s time to assess college basketball’s top surprises and disappointments since play tipped off Nov. 25.
The state of Minnesota takes over college basketball
At some point during your first conversation with Minnesotans, they’ll ask you to name your favorite Prince album. (Answer: “Sign o’ the Times.”) This year, they also might ask if you know about the local products who’ve made an impact on the college basketball scene — men’s and women’s — this season. Freshman Paige Bueckers (Hopkins, Minnesota) entered the week averaging 18.0 points per game for an undefeated UConn women’s team. Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs (St. Paul) could become a consensus first-team All-American and a top-five pick in the NBA draft. The No. 1 high school prospect, Chet Holmgren (Minneapolis), is also a Minnesotan. And the Minnesota Golden Gophers have manufactured what has arguably been the most surprising run in men’s college basketball this season.
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino, the subject of perennial hot seat rumors, has led his team to a 10-2 start, with wins over Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State leading to a Top 25 ranking. Marcus Carr (22.1 PPG) is one of four players averaging double figures for the Gophers. All of this comes after the unofficial Big Ten media preseason poll picked Minnesota to finish 11th, one year after star Daniel Oturu turned pro. Hockey? That’s old news. Minnesota looks like a serious threat in the Big Ten title race, and this state is all about Purple Rain and basketball now.
The intrigue of the SEC race
While the focus has been on Kentucky’s challenges, this league could produce the nation’s most fascinating Power 5 race outside the Big Ten. A handful of squads from the SEC have been competitive and added flavor to the league’s title pursuit. Cuonzo Martin and a Missouri squad picked to finish 10th in the SEC preseason poll are 7-1 with wins over Illinois and Oregon. The Tigers have held their opponents under a 45% clip inside the arc. Freshman Moses Moody (16.9 PPG), an NBA prospect, led Arkansas to a 9-0 start prior to a Saturday loss to Missouri, and Alabama just dominated a Tennessee team that’s capable of winning a national championship.
Mark Few’s Gonzaga squad has only looked mortal once, in a five-point win over West Virginia during which Jalen Suggs left early because of an ankle injury before returning to help his team seal the win. The five-star Suggs has been great, but it’s the 6-foot-7 senior Kispert who has blossomed into a surprisingly serious Wooden Award candidate and a first-round NBA prospect. Kispert is averaging 21.6 PPG and has made 76% of his shots inside the arc and 51% of his 3-pointers. Those are Doug McDermott numbers, but McDermott wasn’t sharing the ball with two players (Suggs, Drew Timme) who also are vying for All-America honors. The Corey Kispert Show should go viral soon.
Prior to the season, many wondered if the Texas coach was entering a career-altering campaign, his sixth with a Longhorns program that hasn’t finished higher than third in the Big 12 during his tenure. Smart has answered the questions in surprising fashion, entering the week with a top-five team that just beat the heck out of Kansas 84-59 … even though NBA prospect Greg Brown scored just five points in 16 minutes. Smart handed Bill Self the worst Allen Fieldhouse loss of his career. While securing his first NCAA tournament victory in Austin will still be important, if Smart’s Longhorns can sustain this momentum, they’ll be positioning themselves for far greater things.
Luka Garza’s Wooden Award campaign
Hear me out: Yes, we all knew Garza would enter the season as the favorite to win every national honor, a season after battling lottery pick Obi Toppin for the Wooden Award. But who could have predicted that Garza — already an elite college player — would make the significant improvements we’ve witnessed thus far? He is more accurate from the 3-point line (49% as compared to 36% last season) and charity stripe (74% versus 65%). He has five 30-point games this season, already matching last season’s total. His offensive rebounding rate is up, and his turnover rate is down. Sure, everyone knew Garza would dominate. But he has somehow taken his game to another level.
Clemson … basketball?
Seriously. Brad Brownell went 5-6 in the final 11 games of the 2019-20 season, drumming up the perennial conversation about his job status. But he already is halfway to last season’s win total after an 8-1 start that includes wins over Purdue, Florida State, Maryland and Alabama. The team’s early reward? Clemson was an impressive 15th in the first set of NET rankings released by the NCAA on Monday.
John Calipari and Kentucky
Under Calipari, Kentucky’s young squads have had that just-add-water appeal. No team in America in the one-and-done era has produced more NBA talent. Not a bunch of average NBA contributors, either. John Wall, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, De’Aaron Fox, Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo and Jamal Murray have all come through Lexington over the past decade.
So when a roster led by five-star prospect Brandon Boston Jr. and Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr commenced the season, it was fair to expect great things. Great things haven’t happened, though Kentucky won its second game with a double-overtime victory over Mississippi State on Saturday — a victory secured by redshirt freshman Dontaie Allen’s 23-point performance — snapping the first six-game losing streak for the program in nearly a century.
The win hasn’t stopped the questions of the typically effective Calipari. Did he go too far when he temporarily removed Cam’Ron Fletcher from the team and criticized him on Twitter? Why isn’t Boston (5-for-33 from the 3-point line), who entered the season as a legit top-10 NBA prospect, not improving the way other five-star players at Kentucky have in the past? Can Calipari ever win another national title if he doesn’t join his colleagues and create a modern offense led by more shooters who can spread the floor? (Kentucky is shooting 29% from the 3-point line.)
We’ve watched other lukewarm Kentucky assemblies stumble through November and December before rising in March. Perhaps Saturday’s win will be a catalyst for that in 2021. All we know for now is that for the first time since the 2012-13 NIT season, Calipari is struggling to crack the code in Lexington.
Roy Williams and North Carolina
Last season’s 14-19 record was mostly viewed as an anomaly connected to the youth on the roster as well as injuries. But this Tar Heels group is 6-4 through 10 games — the same record the program had a year ago after its first 10 games. Now this doesn’t mean North Carolina is headed for another disastrous season, but it also doesn’t mean you should bet on UNC imminently getting back to national title contention. Losses to Iowa and Texas are understandable, but you expect the Tar Heels to get past NC State and Georgia Tech, two teams that defeated them last week. A 66-65 nail-biter over Notre Dame on Saturday could have gone either way. It’s easy to dismiss these as early bumps in a weird season, but the young backcourt (Caleb Love, R.J. Davis) has struggled to spark this UNC offense, and that’s ominous: It’s the same issue Williams’ squad had a year ago.
Injuries and unexpected absences
A handful of teams have already been significantly impacted by the unfortunate events that can disrupt a season. It’s great to see Florida’s Keyontae Johnson working as a player-coach on the sideline for the Gators, nearly a month after he collapsed during a game against rival Florida State. But Johnson’s absence from Mike White’s lineup remains a significant loss for the program. Houston announced Sunday that preseason Wooden Award candidate Caleb Mills (9.8 PPG) would step away from the program for personal reasons. West Virginia recently announced that Oscar Tshiebwe (8.5 PPG, 7.8 rebounds per game), another Wooden candidate, had left the team. UCLA’s Mick Cronin just lost standout Chris Smith to a torn ACL in devastating news for the Bruins. That’s a foursome of top-50 types who we might not see on the floor for the rest of the season.
Penny Hardaway and Memphis
The only reason the Tigers aren’t 1-2 in the American Athletic Conference and 5-5 overall is because Memphis guard Lester Quinones hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 68 seconds to play in Saturday’s 58-57 win over South Florida. The Tigers were down by 10 midway through the second half. Hardaway has another Memphis team that can defend (top 10 in efficiency) but can’t consistently score. Ranked 146th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings, Memphis has failed to score 60 or more points in three of its 10 games. Landers Nolley II is one of four players averaging double figures for Memphis, but the team’s struggles with turnovers and a subpar clip from the arc (30%) has created challenges thus far. The Tigers were picked to finish second in the American’s preseason poll, but a top-three finish is no guarantee for this Memphis squad.
The games we didn’t see
The scheduled early December matchup between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor was the perfect opportunity for college basketball to make a national splash. About an hour before tipoff, however, the game was canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests in Gonzaga’s traveling party. Other major matchups have been canceled since. No Michigan State-Virginia. No Duke-Florida State. Villanova has paused team activities for a second time in two weeks. The beauty of this college basketball season is that all signs point to a proper conclusion with the NCAA tournament. The challenges prior to March? We’ll probably miss more key games. Yes, the committee will figure it all out, but fans are missing some of the entertaining matchups that get everyone excited for March and April.